State’s strange move into higher risk, high leverage mortgage lending

First Time buyers accounted for 11,896 transactions in the Irish housing market in the first eleven months of 2017, which is 1700 up on the same period in 2016 but still only around 20% of total turnover. The Government has sought to support that segment of demand via a tax rebate to help those seeking to buy or build a new home (the Help to Buy scheme) and has just announced a fresh initiative, this time in the form of State mortgage lending ( Rebuilding Ireland Home Loan) , although the scheme has a number of odd features and appears a strange step to take.

To qualify, would-be borrowers have to have been rejected by at least two lenders, which immediately implies that the State would be taking on if not sub-prime then certainly higher risk loans. The lending decision will be taken by local authorities, so someone in those authorities will be making credit risk decisions, raising the issue of the criteria that will be used to decide which applicant is successful.

Third, the State is driving a coach and horses through the Central Bank’s mortgage controls and one wonders what the Bank makes of it and whether it was consulted. Lending institutions are required to limit mortgage loans to  a maximum of 3.5 times  the borrowers income , with 20% of lending to FTB’s  per annum allowed above that. The  specific limit  for FTB’s has just been introduced and represents a de facto tightening of standards, as 24% of lending to that segment exceeded the limit in the first half of 2017. Yet the State scheme allows a LTI range from 3.8 to 5.0, which is much higher leverage than deemed acceptable  to private lenders, and therefore higher risk.

The scheme does have a loan to value limit ( 90%) and a maximum property price, so putting a cap  on a given loan, although it does differentiate by location; properties in the major cities and in the counties surrounding Dublin carry a  maximum loan of €288,000 as against €225,000 elsewhere. Over 60% of transactions are in the former areas so the €200m allocated implies that less than 800 loans could be granted in 2018. Total mortgage lending for house purchase this year is likely to be around €8.5bn so the scheme is not material in terms of the overall market.

Finally, we have the issue of funding costs. Successful borrowers will have three options, two fixed rates and one floating, all well below current market rates. For example, a 25-year mortgage would cost 2% fixed, and a fixed rate for that term is not available from Irish banks- in general, banks can’t borrow at that maturity, so 3-5 year fixed  is the most common (although some 10-year is now available). The State can and has borrowed for 25 years and longer, with a bond maturing in 2045 trading at around 1.8%, implying a very small margin if that was tapped to fund this initiative.

Successful borrowers will be getting a cheap loan with the State taking on a level of risk that the private sector is unwilling to bear, at least at that cost, and indeed  what the Central Bank is also unwilling for borrowers or lenders to countenance.

The exchange rate and oil price, not growth, key for ECB QE exit

The consensus was badly wrong on the euro zone last year, significantly underestimating the pace of economic growth and the single currency’s appreciation against the US dollar. This year, growth is expected to remain strong and the euro is generally forecast to appreciate modestly, while many believe the ECB will cease its net asset purchase programme by year-end, with a strong majority of analysts also expecting that to be followed by a rate rise in 2019.

The ECB staff forecast also projects above-trend growth for the next three years, resulting in a steadty decline in the unemployment rate to an average of 7.3% in 2020, from over 9% last year. Yet inflation is still forecast to be below target in 2020, at 1.7%, despite years of QE and negative interest rates. Indeed, the December forecast actually revised down the Bank’s projections for core inflation ( the headline rate excluding food and energy)  by 0.2 percentage points over the next two years.

In fact the ECB has significantly changed its forecast relationship between growth and inflation, as indeed have many Central banks. In their macro models, stronger GDP growth leads to lower unemployment  which in turn boosts wage inflation and ultimately price inflation via higher costs for firms, which are passed on to consumers. But, as is now well recognised,the relationship between unemployment and wage inflation has changed and the ECB is now adjusting its forecasts to reflect that fact. Two years ago, for example, an unemployment rate of 10% was expected to generate a 2.1% rise in wages but in the latest forecast wage inflation in 2019 is projected to be below 2% despite an unemployment rate as low as 7.8%.

So stronger growth. per se, is no longer  a sufficient condition for a meaningful acceleration in price inflation in the Staff forecasts, with the path of inflation strongly influenced by the exchange rate ( with a quick pass through to import prices ) and the oil price ( energy accounts for about 10% of the CPI). Oil prices in the current forecast are expected to decline modestly over the next few years (based on the futures market) to $57 a barrel by 2020, but if they fell further, to say $50, annual inflation would be 0.2% lower in 2019 and 2020. On the exchange rate, the euro/dollar is forecast to be broadly unchanged at $1.17 but if it appreciated to , say,  $1.35 over the next few years it would reduce the forecast CPI  in 2020 by  0.6 percentage points.

The ECB’s forecasts could well be wrong, of course, and  inflation may pick up by more than expected but they highlight the risk of what could be a huge policy dilemma later this year.The Bank probably wants to call a halt to asset purchases for a variety of reasons but what if the euro does indeed appreciate and oil prices decline, so leading to lower forecast inflation? Awkward for a Bank that has argued that QE is crucial in getting inflation back up to target.

Irish real GDP now 50% above pre-crash peak

The volatility in Ireland’s quarterly national accounts has always been a feature and has increased of late, given the scale of the multinational influence on the headline data. The third quarter was no exception; real GDP rose by 4.2%, with the annual change at 10.5%,  leaving the average annual growth rate year to date at 7.4%.  Negative base effects would normally imply a marked deceleration in the final quarter ( the economy grew by 5.8% in q4 last year) and on that basis average growth for 2017 as a whole may well be around 6.5%, although given past experience anything is possible.

The  growth surge in q3 occurred despite a 13% plunge in domestic demand. Consumer spending rose at the strongest pace for some time (1.9%) and government consumption expanded by 0.7% but capital formation fell by 36%, with modest growth in construction ( 2%) dwarfed by a 22% fall in spending on machinery and equipment and a 60% decline in outlays on Intangibles. The latter largely comprises spending by multinationals on R&D and is particularly volatile (a 58% increase in the previous quarter) but is offset in the national accounts by service imports. That largely explains why  total imports  fell by 11% in q3, against a 4% increase in exports. Consequently net exports contributed a massive 16 percentage points to q3 GDP growth, which alongside a big stock build offset the negative contribution from investment.

Total merchandise exports exceeded €49bn in the quarter, against under €28bn recorded in the Irish trade data, highlighted the scale of contract or offshore  manufacturing. That export strength and the fall in imports contributed to a massive €14.5bn Balance of Payments surplus in the quarter, over 18% of GDP, with the surplus year to date at over €22bn.

On the headline data, Ireland’s real GDP in q3 is  now 50% above the pre-crash peak ( recorded in the final quarter of 2007) with exports having doubled. Consumer spending is only modestly higher, however, by 4%, while government consumption is still marginally below that previous high. It used to be argued that GNP provided a better guide to national income in Ireland but that too is 47% above the pre-recession level, with re-domicilled multinationals now impacting the amount of profit outflows. To give a better idea of underlying activity  on a quarterly basis the CSO have developed  a modified domestic demand metric, which seeks to exclude multinational R&D flows and the impact of aircraft leasing. On that measure domestic capital spending actually rose, by 5%, as did domestic demand, by 3%.

Annual growth in modified  final domestic demand  was 5.0% in q3, bringing the average over the first three quarters to 4.9%. which is much closer to the consensus GDP growth forecast for the year as well as being similar to the pace of expansion implied by the employment data. Yet, GDP is the standard measure of economic activity  and  barring a massive fall in q4  Ireland is likely to record a much stronger  growth figure  in 2017 than anyone envisaged.

Irish Central Bank tightens mortgage controls

The Central Bank introduced macroprudential controls on Irish mortgage lending in early 2015 with a focus on Loan to Value (LTV) and Loan to Income (LTI). The controls are subject to annual review and were initially amended  in January 2017 with  another set of ‘refinements’ just announced , to take effect from 2018.The latter includes quite a significant modification to the way the LTI control operates and in our view represents a tightening of credit controls, although one does not get that impression from the Central Bank release.

Currently, 20% of Principal Dwelling House (PDH) lending can exceed the 3.5 LTI limit. Data released by the Central Bank  shows that  PDH lending for the first half of 2017 amounted to €2,770m and that €487m exceeded the limit, or 17.6%, indicating that the limit is being observed, at least for that six month period  (  it  actually applies over a  full year).  Yet the data reveals a marked divergence between FTB’s and other buyers; over 24% of lending to the former was in excess of the 3.5 LTI limit, while for the latter the figure was only 10%.

Clearly the LTI limit is a much bigger issue for FTB’s in an environment of scarce  supply, strong house price inflation and where around half of house sales are going to non-mortgage buyers . As the controls currently stand there is no specific constraint on the amount of  FTB lending in excess of the LTI limit , as long as the overall lending figure is within the 20% exemption.

The Central Bank has responded by amending the LTI exemption. From January the overall 20% limit no longer operates, with  a 20% exemption  limit allocated to FTB lending and 10% to other lending. Had these applied over the first half of the year FTB lending would have been €61bn lower, with no material impact on other lending.

Just over half of PDH lending is currently to FTB’s so the implication is that there is now a 15% overall exemption limit in practice, given a 20% allocation to FTB’s and only 10% to other buyers. The Central Bank argues that FTB lending is less risky than to second or subsequent buyers ( although credit agancies seem to have a different view) , so justifying differential LTV’s and now LTI exemptions, but the changes would appear to mask an effective tightening in overall lending standards. The Bank notes that ‘the refinement is not expected to have a significant impact on the functioning of the market’  but it clearly will limit overall exemptions relative to the  current postion.

The US yield curve and the next recession.

The current US  economic expansion started in July 2009 and is already  much longer than the post-war average, although still  below the 10-year record duration set in the 1990’s, while closing in on the no.2 spot, set at 106 months in the 1960’s. A near term downturn is not inevitable but history suggests is likely at some point over the next few years. Forecasters are  poor at predicting recessions, and so there is interest in other potential signals. Equity markets generally turn down ahead of the real economy but they can and do fall without that precipitating a decline in GDP, so there is a risk of a false signal. The relationship between short term interest rates and long rates  (the yield curve) is another indicator of note, and in the US has proven  remarkably accurate ahead of the last seven downturns. Specifically, a yield curve inversion ( 10 year yields below 2 year yields or as some prefer, 3- month rates) has proven to be an excellent signal of a US recession a year or so ahead.

Why the success as a signal? Longer term  bond yields  carry a risk premium and are therefore generally higher than short rates, and may also be influenced by specific demand/supply factors at different maturities. For example, banks generally buy shorter term bonds, while pension funds seek much longer maturities. Expectations about the path of short term rates over the period are the most important factor, however, which in the US amounts to expectations about the Fed’s monetary policy and inflation. If policy is tightened in response to a booming economy or above target inflation longer term rates tend to rise, albeit by less than the move in short rates (the curve flattens) and may eventually invert if the market believes that  short rates have peaked and will eventually start falling . The inverted yield curve may also help precipitate a downturn because it dampens margins for the banking sector (banks borrow short and lend long)

The US yield curve is not currently  inverted but it has flattened appreciably; the 2-10 year spread has fallen from a peak of 260 basis points in late 2013 to just under 60 now, having started the year at 135.The recent pace of flattening has prompted much market debate  particularly as short rates are still very low by historical standards.

The Fed is  widely forecast to raise short rates again as early as December , and has signalled that it expects to tighten further in 2018, yet  10-year yields have fallen in absolute terms over the past month and are well below the highs in yield recorded earlier in the year.Maturing Treasuries are no longer being fully reinvested and, all things equal, the Fed’s decision to steadily reduce its holdings of bonds might be expected to push yields up. Some argue that issuance is shifting towards  the shorter end of the yield curve, so supporting longer dated paper, which in any case is still in strong demand as a ‘safe’ asset and  such assets are relatively scarce as central banks elsewhere are still buying.

A bigger factor may simply be that the market is convinced, at least for now, that  US inflation will continue to disappoint the Fed and remain below the 2% target, so implying that short rates will not rise to the extent the FOMC expect. The current  core inflation rate is only 1.3% ( the consumption deflator ex food and energy)  and was last (briefly) above 2% in early 2012. Most Fed governors believe that inflation will eventually start to accelerate as wages belatedly respond to the extremely low unemployment rate, but that view is not universally shared. Indeed, the minutes from the most recent FOMC meeting point to growing doubts as to whether sub-target inflation is indeed ‘transitory’.

Yield curve models are currently giving a low probability of recession in 2018 it has to be said ( the New York Fed’s model indicates around 10%) but the yield curve certainly bears watching given the recent trend.


Strong new mortgage lending but cash still king in housing market.

The number of new loans for Irish  house purchase topped 8,000 in the the third quarter , according to new data from the BPFI, the highest quarterly total in nine years, with the value figure of €1.8bn also the strongest since late 2008.The average new loan is now €221,000, which is substantially above the €170,000 cycle low recorded in 2013, albeit still well shy of the pre crash peak in excess of €280,000. In fact new lending is  also finally offsetting debt repayment and net mortgage lending  turned positive in the quarter for the first time since early 2010 according to figures from the Central Bank.

So the current housing cycle has been unusual in that it has occurred against a backdrop of  an overall contraction in  credit. Moreover, new lending for house purchase still appears to be accounting for only  50% of housing transactions; the CSO data base shows around 15,500 transactions (filings) in q3, which is almost double the number of mortgage drawdowns. The year to date figures reveal a similar picture, with 20,716 new loans for house purchase set againt over 43,000 in turnover, implying that over 52% of transactions are either cash buyers or have access to a credit source other than Irish mortgage lenders.

The approvals data also suggests that mortgage buyers are being squeezed in the market; approvals  for house purchase exceeded 20,000 in the six months to end- Sept but less than 15,000 were actually drawn down, an unusually low ratio. So potential buyers may be being outbid by investors amid general excess demand. The CSO’s monthly residential price index would certainly indicate that upward pressures are still very much in evidence; annual  house price inflation nationally accelerated to 12.8% in September and 13.2% excluding Dublin. Price inflation in the capital is re-accelerating again after a softer period last winter and the 12.2% annual increase in September brought the total rise from the cycle low to 87%.

Prices nationally are up some 70% since the low in early 2013 and the average new mortgage  has risen 30% in that period, again implying that credit has not been a significant factor in driving the market. Indeed, it would appear that the Central Bank’s mortgage controls have certainly not had a material impact on house prices overall, given the influence of non-credit factors, although they may well have impacted expectations around the announcement period.As we have argued elsewhere  ( the broader financial backdrop, notably the ECB’s asset purchase programme , has impacted the market by pushing down the rate of return on alternative assets and boosting investor interest in property markets.

Irish Misery Index on rise after all-time low

Irish consumer sentiment, as captured by the KBC/ESRI monthly index, reached a record high early in 2016 before slipping back later that year.It has picked up again in recent months and is now close to the previous peak. Households would therefore seem to feel good about the economy and their own financial situation and an alternative measure, the Misery Index, tells a similar story.

That is simply the sum of the unemployment rate and the inflation rate, two readily available monthly indicators that are likely to have a strong impact on the average household. The index fell to around 6 in 2004, reflecting an unemployment rate of 4.5%, and soared to a high of 18 in 2011 amid a collapse in employment.

The steady fall in unemployment in recent years has been the main driver of the decline in the index, which fell to an all-time low in June of 5.7%, with inflation at -0.4% and unemployment at 6.1%.The latter has fallen further, to 6.0%, but inflation has turned modestly positive so the index is now rising again, albeit still at 6.3%.

The Misery index has probably bottomed in this cycle, however, given the likely trend from here in inflation and unemployment. The latter may find it difficult to fall much further as the recent data implies we are at or near full employment; it has taken five months for the unemployment rate to fall from 6.2% to 6.0%.

Inflation may well see the sharpest change. Falling energy  prices and lower mortgage rates were big factors in dampening the CPI over the past three years but energy costs  have now started to rise again on an annual basis and mortgage costs are now unchanged on a year earlier.  The euro’s appreciation against  Sterling has proved a significant  counterweight over the past year, reducing the price of imported goods, notably food, but that will not be repeated absent another lurch down in the UK exchange rate.

Consequently, we may well have already seem the low of the cycle in the Misery index, although the increase may well be at a modest pace.

What next for the ECB?

The ECB faces some tricky policy decisions  and judging by the minutes of the last meeting the Governing Council has no clear view on how to proceed. The euro zone economy has surprised to the upside this year, bank credit across the zone is  growing again, the redenomination risk in sovereign bond markets has long gone and the unemployment rate has fallen to 9.1% from  a peak of over 12% , all of which  might  argue for a change to policies born in a crisis environment or adopted when deflation was perceived as a real danger.

Yet the ECB”s (self-imposed) goal remains elusive- inflation is not ‘close to but below 2%’ and according to the current staff forecast that will remain the case for some time, with an average of 1.5% projected for 2019. Indeed, according to the minutes, some council members questioned whether the staff had used an appropriate pass-through rate from the euro’s recent appreciation and hence wondered if the inflation forecast was actually too high.

The minutes also revealed ‘discomfort widely expressed’ about the length of time inflation had been and was expected to remain below target, and that ‘a very substantial degree of monetary policy accommodation was still needed for inflation to converge sustainably to levels in line with the Governing Council’s aim’, which would imply that we are unlikely to see a substantial policy shift in the near trem. Indeed, ‘any reassessment of the monetary policy stance should proceed in a very gradual and cautious manner‘.

So what are the options?. Policy as it stands includes the purchase of €60bn assets a month until the end of December this year ‘or beyond, if necessary‘. The minutes would indicate an abrupt halt in  a few months is out of the question but there are logistical issues in a number of countries, given  the current 33% issuer limit on sovereign bonds. Consequently, the market is anticipating some form of ‘tapering’, and the minutes discussed the merits of continuing to buy for  a longer period but at a slower monthly pace against a higher monthly volume over a shorter time frame.

The former is perhaps more likely, as it better ties in with another strand of policy, a commitment to keep interest rates at current levels  for an extended period and ‘well past the horizon of the net asset purchases’. This explicit linking of forward guidance on rates to QE argues for extending the latter for a longer period if the ECB wants to influence rate expectations and that might indeed have an additional impact, this time on the exchange rate. We know the Bank is concerned about the currency’s appreciation, and if one rules out explicitly talking it down one lever left is to convince markets that rates will stay lower for longer.

The ECB will also no doubt emphasise that it intends to keep reinvesting the proceeds of maturing assets but the net asset decision will be key, and lower for longer may well be the mantra that decides the latter.


Population and migration data highlight pressure on resources.

Estimating the Irish population in the years between census counts is tricky. The birth rate is known, as is the death rate, but migration flows are notoriously difficult to measure, so estimates are often revised when the census data is available. That is the case following the 2016 census, with net migration now much lower than previously thought, which also means that the prevailing post-crash narrative has to be revised, along with an acceptance that the economy faces overheating and capacity issues,rather than large scale underutilisation of resources.

That narrative  envisaged very large emigrant flows dwarfing immigration, with a net outflow between 2011 and 2016 of just under 100,000. That figure has been revised down, to 31,000, with net immigration turning positive again in 2015. Immigration estimates for the period have been revised up, by a net 27,000, but the biggest change is on the emigration side, with a downward revision of 40,000.

So fewer people left than generally believed and more entered than initially thought. What about the trend post-census? The CSO estimate that net immigration rose to 20,000 in the year to April 2017, up from 16,000 in 2016, which alongside a natural population increase of 33,000 brought the total numbers in Ireland to 4.79 million. This represents a 1.1% annual increase, following a similar rise the previous year, and on that basis the population will hit 5 million  in another four years, which is  much earlier than the standard official projections.

Pressure on resources has been evident for a number of years now, and these migration and population figures bring some hard evidence on the need for a big increase in Ireland’s economic capacity, in health, education, transport, infrastructure and housing. On the latter, population growth implies the need for a net increase in the housing stock of 22,000 a year, implying a  completions requirement of  32,000 a year ( given obsolesence), just to maintain a constant population/ housing ratio, let alone account for a trend fall in the numbers per household. We are unlikely to hit that annual  figure for another three or four years, implying a very substantial backlog and hence  the need for an overshoot in the annual requirement.




Are Inflation targets too high?

Inflation targeting by policy makers emerged in the early 1990’s and is now part of the standard toolkit for most central banks, with operational independence from government also the norm. The idea is straightforward; if the central bank commits to hitting a specific inflation rate, that rate will impact expectations and eventually will help to anchor price changes. Too high a figure means that purchasing power is eroded at an unacceptably fast pace, while too low risks periods of deflation.

The latter view persuaded central banks to eschew a zero inflation target, and the figure of 2% is very common, although of course it means that prices rise by 22% over a decade and by 50% in a generation.  Hardly stable prices then, although one should remember that such targets  were often set some time ago and at a period when inflation was generally above that figure.In contrast, many central banks have been wrestling with the opposite problem for some time i.e. inflation is persistently below target.

In the US, for example, core inflation ( the CPI excluding food and energy) has been below 2% for almost a decade, while in the euro area the last time core inflation exceeded 2% was back in 2003. This points to structural factors at play, rather than purely cyclical drivers.

Standard inflation models , however, generally posit a cyclical  link between economic activity and inflation, with periods of stronger growth resulting in an acceleration in inflation. The link is often based on the Phillips curve, the idea that falling unemployment will boost wage growth and hence lead to price rises. Consequently, most central banks expected inflation to pick up given falling unemployment, particularly as rates for the latter are now very low by historical standards in some countries, including the US and the UK. Yet wages have not picked up as expected ( the Phillips curve has flattened), reflected a range of factors, many of them structural, including globalisation and free trade, a shift in employment composition to lower productivity jobs, the rise in self employment,  fear of job losses and the decline in trade unions .

There may be other factors directly impacting inflation, such as the greater ease of price discovery in a digital age and the growth of disruptive technology, ( examples might be Amazon and Uber) which are replacing traditional models of distribution. Technology change is general is also shifting the aggregate supply curve rightward, so putting downward pressure on prices.

Yet the Fed and the ECB are still wedded to a 2% inflation target, despite missing it to the downside for a long period. Fed chair Yellen did acknowledge recently  that inflation was not behaving as expected ( calling the recent inflation performance ‘a mystery’) but the FOMC and the ECB are both of the view that cyclical factors will eventually win out, pulling inflation up to target.They may be ultimately proven right, although the recovery is now pretty long in the tooth, particularly in the US, and the Fed has revised down its view of long run potential growth ( now sub 2%) although not of long run inflation, still at 2%.

Does it matter if inflation was to stay in a 1%-1.5% range. It’s obviously better than 2%  for many people in an era of weak wage growth but it does raise a policy issue- if ‘equilibrium inflation’ is now below 2% due to structural changes, then policy will be too loose if it is set to hit 2%. The liquidity currently flooding the world has indeed driven up prices, but equities and property rather than the price of goods and services.