Investors main buyers of new houses

Data on most aspects of the Irish housing market are now available for the first quarter of 2017 and  generally supports the conventional view that supply is  below that required to cater for the growing demand, albeit  also implying that policies designed to influence the market may not be working as intended.

Take rents. There is now a 4% annual cap on rents in designated ‘pressure zones’ and rental inflation, as captured monthly in the Consumer Price Index, appears to be slowing, with the annual increase easing to 7.9%, the slowest pace in three and a half years. The CSO data, and that from the Residential Tenancies Board (RTB) , captures actual rents paid and both are closely correlated over time with the rent index published by Daft,ie, which is based on asking rents . The trend is similar on all three indices but the Daft index was weaker that the RTB during the recession, indicating that  landlords were having to offer lower rents to attract new tenants. The reverse is now the case, with Daft’s index rising at a double digit annual pace and therefore outstripping the RTB, implying that new tenants are having to pay a premium relative to those with existing leases.

House prices are still rising at a brisk annual pace, again supporting the excess demand thesis; the March figure for Dublin was 8.2% and for the rest of the country 11.8% . The CSO index is revised, however, and that pace is not as rapid as previously published. Indeed, prices ex Dublin rose by just 0.9% in the first quarter, implying a slowdown , although the March figure may be revised, this time upward.

The Government is seeking to support  the First Time Buyer (FTB) with the Help to Buy Scheme ( a tax rebate for FTBs purchasing a new home) and the Central Bank has eased its mortgage controls to allow greater leverage. Yet the  CSO Filings data on transactions for the first quarter show that  there was just 1445 new homes sold (defined as previously unoccupied) and that FTBs accounted for only 253 purchases or 17% of the total. In Dublin, FTBs secured just 80 of the 779 new homes sold, or 10%. Moreover, it is not Movers dominating this market; Investors ( non-household buyers) bought  two-thirds of new homes sold in Dublin, and 48% of the total nationally.

The mortgage data also indicates that  FTB’s and indeed Movers are finding it difficult to secure properties. Mortgage approvals for house purchase have been averaging over 8,000 in recent quarters yet the drawdown in q1 was only  5,853, an unusually low figure relative to approvals, again suggesting that buyers with mortgage approval may be being outbid by investors.  The ‘risk-free’ rate of return in Ireland,. as proxied by the 10-year Government bond yield, is less than 1% so FTBs are having to compete for a scarce commodity with those attracted by a rental yield in excess of  5.5%.   Total  mortgage drawdowns  appears to account for only 45% of first quarter transactions, so this is not a credit-driven market.

Cyclical Mortgage Controls might be better

The Irish Central Bank surprised many people, not least the Government I suspect,  by announcing changes to their macroprudential mortgage rules. The Bank had called for submissions on the controls , and received a good number, including one from this writer , but the rhetoric from Dame Street did not indicate a great appetite for change. In the event the Governor announced what was termed  ‘refinements to improve effectiveness’. Lenders have been granted  more discretion, in that 20% of total lending to non First Time Buyers (FTB) can be above the 80% Loan to Value (LTV)  ceiling , a change from the previous 15% discretionary figure, while FTB’s can now borrow up to 90% LTV , regardless of the price of the property (that limit was previously capped at €220,000). Moreover, up to 5% of lending to FTB’s can be above 90% LTV.

The Loan to Income (LTI) ceilings were unchanged, at 3.5,  and of course the LTV limits are just that; banks are not compelled to adjust their existing loan standards. Indeed, a recent Central Bank analysis of mortgage lending over the first half of 2016 showed that lenders were not fully utilising their available discretion to exceed either the LTI or LTV rules.

These changes also come in the wake of the Government’s Help to Buy scheme, which allowed FTB’s claim back income tax ( to a maximum of €20,000) to be used towards the deposit on a newly built home. One wonders if that subsidy would have been introduced had the new rules been in existence, as the combination of the two certainly provides a massive boost to FTB’s buying power in the property market. Take a couple with a combined income of €75,000,   borrowing €250,000 . Prior to the new rules they would have had to save €35,000 in order to buy a property worth €285,000,  perhaps taking four or five years. Now they could increase their loan to €256,500 (still inside the LTI limit)  and only have to find €8,500  as a deposit if the property was a new build ( a 10% deposit of €28,500 less the €20,000 from the Help to Buy scheme) implying it would take a far shorter time to amass that sum. Alternatively, all or part of their original savings could now be used to buy a more expensive house. In effect, purchasing power has been brought forward and leverage increased.

Credit appears to be driving only about half of current transactions in residential property but given the existing supply issues the boost to FTB’s buying power may well have some impact on price, although that is the mechanism which will eventually lead to a bigger supply response, albeit with a time lag.

The controls are designed to ‘enhance the resilience of both borrowers and the banking sector’ but are actually pro-cyclical; an 80% LTV still means the average size of a new mortgage will rise at the same pace as house prices ( for example, at a house price of €200,000 the mortgage would be €160,000  but rise to  €240,000 if house prices rose to €300,000). A cyclically adjusted LTV might be more appropriate, as put forward in our submission to the Central Bank. When house prices are low and credit growth weak, for example, the LTV limit might be 85% or 90%, but then decline as prices and credit growth pick up, to perhaps 75% or 70% at the top of the cycle. This would not eliminate cyclicality, but would dampen it, particularly if the LTI limits were also flexible over the cycle.

One obvious issue with this proposal is that the Central Bank would have to decide where we are in the credit and house price cycles. However, they currently have to do that anyway, at least in terms of credit; under new capital rules, some banks have to set aside additional capital ( counter-cyclical buffers) in good times in order to cushion losses in bad, and the Irish Central Bank sets this buffer every quarter, in part dependent on the current credit/GDP ratio relative to the long term trend. The buffer is currently set a  zero, reflecting the fact that credit is still contracting and the ratio to GDP is very low.

In addition, the Bank has a number of models that monitor residential prices relative to fundamentals. Deciding whether house prices are overvalued is not an exact science (  as it happens most models point to undervaluation , if anything, at this time) but if a number of indicators were to flash red the Bank could lower the LTV and LTI limits if a cyclically adjusted regime was in effect.

One final point. Research at the ECB supports the case that a debt service limit is more effective  in protecting borrowers and lenders than other macroprudential controls, as again outlined in our submission, although at the moment the absence of a credit register is a key impediment to implementation.

 

Odd Timing for Proposed Irish Mortage Restrictions

Interest rates are extraordinarily low in many parts of the world; the ECB refinancing rate is 0.05%, in the US the equivalent is less than 0.25% and in the UK the Bank rate is 0.5%.Rates are expected to rise next year in both the UK and the US but the respective central banks have made it clear that any increases are likely to be moderate and that  the cost of borrowing may well settle at levels below previous cyclical highs. In the euro area the economic  outlook is bleaker and most observers expect rates to remain at current levels for a number of years. This low-rate environment carries potential risks for asset bubbles and excessive credit growth so central banks have embraced the idea of macro-prudential tools i.e. measures that can be implemented to protect against systemic financial instability. The housing market is often seen as a specific stability risk and a number of countries have introduced restrictions on mortgage lending, the latest being the UK, where only 15% of new mortgages can be above a Loan to Income (LTI) ratio of 4.5.

The Irish Central bank has now entered  macro-prudential territory with proposals on mortgage lending designed to ‘increase the resilience of the banking and household sectors to financial shocks’ .Like the Bank of England there is a restriction relating to LTI, but in the Irish case the limit is lower , at 3,5, although 20% of lending can be above that limit. In addition, the Bank is also proposing restrictions in terms of loan to value (LTV ) with only 15% of lending allowed above an LTV of 80%. For Buy -to Let loans the LTV limit is 70% with only 10% of lending above that. The LTI restrictions only apply to principal dwelling homes (PDH).

The Bank refers to international evidence supporting the view that LTI restrictions can slow mortgage lending growth and ‘reduce the potential for a housing bubble to emerge‘ although the impact on house prices is less clear, with the Bank of England claiming that there is ‘some evidence of a modest and lagged effect on house price growth’. The latter conclusion is not surprising as credit is only one variable in most house price models, with income, interest rate, the user cost of housing and price expectations also playing important roles. The Central Bank also notes that LTV restrictions are more important after a crash, in limiting losses for the lender.

The proposals have generated debate, of course, with some welcoming the move as important in dampening house price inflation (despite the caveat noted above) while other have argued it will hit  the First Time buyer (FTB) particularly hard and dampen housing supply.Indeed, the LTV limit would appear to be binding now, with 44% of new PDH lending  last year above 80%, while only 7% of lending was above 4.5 LTI, with 77% at 3.5 or below.

Another issue is the timing of the proposals. House prices in Dublin have certainly risen sharply of late and are now over 40% above the cycle low but outside the capital prices have recovered by just 9% and most observers, including the Central Bank and the ESRI, still conclude that prices are not excessive relative to fundamentals such as income or rents. A greater puzzle on timing relates to the credit cycle, given that the restrictions are designed to directly impact lending.The stock of outstanding mortgage debt in Ireland has been falling now for five years and the latest figure, for September, showed a 3.1% annual decline. New mortgage lending for house purchase is picking up but amounted to  just €1.3bn in the first half of 2014 and is still being swamped by redemptions and early repayments. Ireland is therefore hardly swimming in new mortgage lending so restrictions at this time seems premature, particularly as the secondary aim of the moves is to ‘dampen pro-cyclical dynamics between property lending and housing prices’ . That might suggest that restrictions would be better served if actually adjusted for the cycle, with  the LTI limit  reduced if credit growth is deemed too rapid and  the LTV limit reduced if house prices are deemed in excess of fundamentals.

The proposals may indeed dampen  future housing cycles but also have broader societal implications. The Government  was not consulted  and is now reported to be considering some form of mortgage insurance scheme to help FTBs secure a higher LTV.The Governor of the Central Bank in a recent speech also  appeared to be more comfortable  than indicated in the proposal document with the idea of  FTB insurance although with the caveat that who provides the insurance is important. Insurance protects the lender , not the borrower of course, and has to be paid for.A broader conclusion from the Governor’s speech may be that  the proposals will see further modification before implementation, or a longer lead-in time. As it stands the restrictions do have significant implications for  young Irish households, with a longer period of saving in store and therefore a later age for home ownership, at least for some.