Bit early to blame Central Bank for house price fall

The CSO’s  residential property index   for February showed a fall in Dublin prices for the second month in a row, the 0.7% decline bringing the fall over three months to 2.4%. This still left the annual rise at over 21% but the market in the capital has clearly lost some momentum over recent months and some have claimed that the Central Bank’s new macro-prudential controls on mortgage lending are responsible. Prices excluding Dublin were flat in February but also fell on a three month basis, albeit by only 0.3%, so adding to the perception that there is a common factor at work across the country.

The evidence is not persuasive, however, at least not yet. The rules only came into operation in late January , for a start, and there does not appear to have been a significant shift in the recent pattern of mortgage approvals ahead of the decision. Mortgage approvals in the three months to January rose by an annual 55,5%, and as such not materially different from the 56.5% in the three months to December. Housing transactions in January were actually very strong, according to the Property Price Register(PPR), rising by an annual 68% . The available February data does show a marked deceleration in the pace of annual growth in transactions, to 35%, but that figure may be quite different when all the filings are included, which does take time.

The Central Bank’s own research (1) also suggests that the mortgage limits on Loan to Value and Loan to Income will have little impact on prices but a more significant  effect on mortgage lending and on the supply of housing, which they suggest will be some 2-3% lower per annum for a number of years ,resulting in a loss of some  2000  units  after 4 years relative  to an unchanged policy forecast. That  reduction in supply will put upward pressure on prices , so dampening any downward effect from tighter credit standards.

Any such simulation depends on the housing model used of course, and the ESRI (2) has just come out with some findings of its own. These also point to a significant effect from the new mortgage rules on house completions, with a supply fall of some 4%-5%, although they predict a larger effect than the Central Bank on prices, albeit  still a modest 4%-5%.

Another problem inherent in linking recent price trends in residential property to the Central Bank regulations is that not all housing is behaving the same way. Apartment prices nationally rose by 1.9% in February and by 2.5% on a three-month basis. Apartments in the capital also rose strongly on the month, by 2%, and by 1.8% over three months. The price series on apartments is extremely volatile but apartment prices in Dublin have now risen faster than houses over the past year (by 24.5% versus 21.1%).

Perhaps a better explanation for the most recent slowdown in house prices is simply that a market which appears to be primarily  driven by cash buyers is likely to lose momentum. That’s not to suggest that prices are likely to fall sharply but that annual house price growth in excess of 20% is unlikely to be repeated for long in the absence of excessive credit growth. New mortgage lending is picking up , and showing very strong percentage growth given the low base, but it is still accounting for less than 50% of housing transactions. Indeed, the latest PPR figures show transactions of over 15,600 in the final quarter of 2014, with the number of new mortgages drawn down for house purchase amounting to less than 7,000 , or 44% of the total.

(1) ‘Assessing the Impact of macro-prudential measures’ Central Bank of Ireland, Economic Letters , Vol. 2015, No.3

(2) ‘Quarterly Economic Commentary’, Spring 2015, ESRI

Irish Austerity Budgets: why more may be needed

The 2014 Irish Budget was the eighth in succession since 2008 (there were two  in 2009) which cut government spending or raised taxes with the total fiscal adjustment amounting to €30bn, including around €11bn in tax measures. These austerity Budgets were undertaken in order to reduce Ireland’s fiscal deficit and  therefore  comply with strictures under the EU excessive deficit procedure , with the State required to reduce the deficit to under 3% of GDP by  the end of 2015( last year’ it was 7.2%). The Troika may have gone but that requirement remains and Ireland, like others in the same predicament, has to produce a Stability Programme Update (SPU) each April, which sets out medium term forecasts for the economy, the fiscal outlook and the debt situation.

The latest SPU, just published, revealed that the  Government expects this year’s cash deficit to emerge €0.9bn below that initially forecast but that the General Government deficit ( the preferred EU budget measure) will still be about €8bn or 4.8% of forecast GDP, as per the original projection. Real growth in the economy is expected to be marginally stronger than envisaged last October , at 2.1%, although the Department of Finance is now much more upbeat about domestic spending, including a 2% rise in personal consumption and a 15% surge in investment spending, and now expects the external sector to have a negative impact on GDP, with export growth of only 2% offset by over 3% growth in imports.

The main change to the outlook relates to inflation, however, with price pressures across the economy now projected to be much weaker following the trend in 2013. Consequently nominal GDP  is now forecast follow a lower trajectory  in the medium term than previously thought; the 2014 forecast is for GDP of €168.4bn instead of the original €170.6bn , with similar shortfalls over the following few years That  change affects the debt dynamics and although the burden is still expected to fall from last year’s 123.7% of GDP the decline is now slower; the 2014 debt ratio is now forecast at 121.4% instead of the original 120%.

The growth forecast also envisages the economy gathering momentum into 2015 and beyond (although previous projections were too optimistic in that regard) and further strong gains in employment, a combination that might imply less need for further austerity measures. The Minister for Finance has signaled otherwise and to understand  why that may be  the case it is  necessary to delve a little deeper into the SPU document. The Irish economy, according to the EU, is actually operating very close to capacity and to full employment, a view which would surprise many and one that has met with some opposition, most recently from the ESRI in its latest ‘Quarterly Economic Commentary’. That debate may seem arcane but, unfortunately, it has serious implications for Irish households because on the EU view the Irish deficit is virtually all structural and therefore will not disappear with stronger growth. The actual deficit will shrink but if one adjusts for the economic cycle the structural deficit would still remain, requiring policy measures to reduce government spending and/or increase tax revenue. Moreover, Ireland is charged with reducing the structural deficit to zero  by 2019 from last year’s 6.2% of GDP, which implies the post-2015 fiscal landscape will not be as sunlit as some expect. A given economy’s position in the economic cycle is not observable and estimates are just that,so convincing the EU that far more of the  Irish deficit is cyclical would have a big impact on the perceived scale of  the fiscal adjustment required.