Irish housing transactions fall in q1 with cash buyers still dominating

The CSO’s Residential Property Price index for March showed prices still accelerating nationally, with the annual change at  12.7% from a downwardly revised 12.5% in February and 12.1% at the end of 2017. Property price inflation in the capital slowed, to 12.1% from 12.6% the previous month, but picked up strongly over the rest of the country, to 13.4% from 12.3% . Prices  were particularly strong in the mid-West (Clare, Limerick and Tipperary), rising by an annual 16.4% but fell for the second consecutive month in the Border counties, reducing the annual gain to 8.8%. Within Dublin, house prices in the city rose by an annual 14.2%, with South Dublin lagging, showing  a rise of 9.6%.

The housing market is generally perceived as characterised by chronic excess demand although the exact amount of new supply (house completions) is subject to some doubt. The number of housing transactions is available though, through the CSO, and the figure for the first quarter is actually down on the previous year, at 13,967 versus 14,500. The decline in turnover was particularly acute in Dublin, with transactions down 10% to 4,500.

The number of mortgages drawn down for house purchase in q1 , at 6,400 , was up by some 10% on the previous year, but that still implies that over half the transactions in the quarter (54%) were financed by non-mortgage buyers, a persistent feature of the market. First time buyers account for more than half of loans but are clearly competing against investors, both corporate and individuals, as well as each other, for the limited supply available.

Moreover, the approvals data, a leading indicator of drawdowns, indicates that lending is actually slowing, and quite sharply; approvals in q1 were  down on the previous year, by 4%, and by 13.7% in March alone. We have noted before that the Central Bank’s latest modifications to their mortgage controls, which took effect this year, was an effective tightening, as only 20% of FTB loans can exceed the 3.5 LTI limit , as opposed to an actual 25% last year. Indeed, new  mortgage lending was offset by redemptions and repayments in the three months to March. In other words net lending was negative and with new lending slowing and accounting for less than half the transactions in the market it is hard to argue that prices are being fuelled by credit. Rental yields in excess of 5% is obviously attracting buyers in a QE driven environment of zero short rates and  10 year bond yields of under 1%.

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.