UK housing market ; short term blip or steeper fall in prospect?

The UK economy defied the consensus expectation of a slowdown last year following the Brexit vote, and fears for the housing market were not realised.  The last few months have reignited concerns about both, however, and the news that the Bank of England is  now split on whether to raise interest rates ( a 5-3 vote to maintain the status quo)  won’t help.

House prices have certainly cooled. The Nationwide index for May showed annual house price inflation at 2.1%, the softest pace in four years, with a clear slowing trend; the index has now fallen for three consecutive months, by a total of 0.9%. The picture from the Halifax index is similar, with annual inflation slowing to 3.3% in May, from 6.5% in December. Both indices are based on mortgage lending and the Office for National Statistics (ONS) publishes a broader  but less timely measure, based on Land Registry transactions,  which shows an annual rise of 5.6% for April, albeit also pointing to a slowing trend.  The RICS data, based on a survey of chartered surveyers operating in the residential market.  also reveals a softer market. with a net 17% of respondents in May expecting prices to rise, the weakest reading since the summer of 2016. Buyer and seller inquiries were also seen to have cooled.

Are UK  house prices excessive? The average price in the UK is now £209,000 according to the Nationwide, or 48% above the cycle low in early 2009. Prices are also now well above the previous peak ( £186,000) and are 5.3 times the income of  First Time Buyers (FTB) against  a  long run average of 3.6.  However, interest rates are unusually low; the standard variable rate is over 4% but the effective rate on new mortgages is around 2% according to the BoE, reflecting discounts and lower fixed rates. Consequently , affordability measures do not suggest prices are overvalued; the Nationwide data, for example, shows mortgage payments at 33% of FTB income, bang in line with the long run average. Indeed, for most of the UK regions affordability is much better than the norm, the exception being London, although non-resident purchasers are  more significant in that market.

The supply of housing in the UK is widely thought to be persistently short of the demographic requirement, but completions also fell sharply after the crash, declining to 107,000 in England ( which has the most timely data)  from 170,000 in 2007. Completions have picked up again, in response to higher prices, rising to over 140,000 in England in 2016, and  the  housing starts data points to a higher total again this year. Yet few argue that supply is  still anywhere near demand.

Net mortgage lending  has been growing, in contrast to Ireland, although at a modest pace  relative to historical exerience, but  now also appears to be slowing, with annual growth at 2.8% in April against over 3% for most of the past year. Mortgage approvals for house purchase, a more forward looking indicator,  fell below 65,000 for the first time in six months in April.

This all may relate to uncertainty about Brexit and the short term economic outlook, with the election result also likely to weigh on sentiment. In our view the likelihood  of a more prolonged and sustained period of weakness depends upon the labour market, which to date has held up remarkably well;  the employment ratio is at an all-time high, while unemployment  is still making new cycle lows.  One suspects that UK  lenders and the Government  would only become seriously concerned about the housing market if cracks started to appear in employment.

Housing Market Forecasts for 2017

We do not as yet have full-year data for the Irish housing market in 2016 but the main developments are clear enough. Transactions remain low, with  stamp duty filings some 5% down over the first ten months, implying  an annual outturn below the previous year’s 50,000. The later indicates a turnover rate of just 2.5%, against perhaps 3.5%-4%  in a more normal market.  New mortgage lending did  recover a little in 2016, after a marked slowdown in response to the Central Bank’s controls, but the pick up was modest; total lending  was an estimated €5.4bn with the number of mortgages for house purchase at some 24,500, or less than 1,000 ahead of 2015. Housing supply also picked up, but at an estimated 14,500 is still well below demand projections , while residential property prices showed strong momentum from mid-year and probably rose by 9-10% nationally.  Dublin lagged the rest of the country ,which saw double digit price gains.

Turning to 2017, the market is again likely to be dominated by the shortage of supply relative to demand. Forecasts for the latter had centred around 25,000 a year but are now nearer 30,000, following the release of the 2016 census , showing the return of net immigration. Our supply model is based on lagged registrations ( with some adjustments) and we have pencilled in 17,000 completions for this year, a strong percentage increase on the 2016 figure but clearly still well shy of demand estimates. Moreover, the population is currently rising faster than the housing stock and that will remain the case  for 2017 on our forecasts, and that implied decline in the housing stock per capita also adds to the upward pressure on house prices, which are also being supported by rising household incomes and low mortgage rates. As a result we forecast a 12% rise in prices nationally ( to end-December)  absent any major demand shocks.

House prices are still below equilibrium on our fundamental model and do not look excessive relative to rents, as the latter have been rising at an annual 8-10% for some time now. This would seem to reflect the supply/ demand imbalance noted above but the Government has decided to intervene in the market by directly limiting rent increases to an annual 4% in areas where rental pressures are deemed acute. Standard economic models would suggest that such controls may be ineffective but if significant may dampen price pressures by reducing the return on rental property and hence its attractiveness as an investment.

Mortgage affordability remains extremely supportive on our model. although 2017 may see some modest deterioration, via a combination of higher average mortgages and a mild pick up in mortgage rates, given the recent rise in longer term interest rates. Nevertheless, affordability will still be better than the long run average and we forecast a significant rise in new lending, driven by the increase in house completions.The Central Bank’s surprise decision to ease  mortgage controls in 2017  ( they did not appear to be binding) will also allow increased leverage, and First Time Buyers can also avail of the Help to Buy scheme to bolster the required deposit, so bringing forward housing demand.

In sum, the number of new mortgages for house purchase is projected at 30,000, and a value of €6.4bn, with total new mortgage lending ( i.e. including top ups and re-mortgaging) rising to €7.2bn. That would be the highest figure since 2009, and another step towards what one might call a normally functioning housing market.

Update on the Irish housing market

The Irish housing market has been characterised for some time now by excess demand, rising prices and  a record level in rents, although against a backdrop of contracting mortgage debt . Supply is increasing but  at a pace which is lagging the annual growth in demand, so it is difficult to see any change in the existing pattern, at least in the shorter term.

Indeed, house price inflation is now re-accelerating after a slowdown earlier in the year, according to the CSO’s new index. This is now based on all housing transactions, as opposed to those funded by mortgages alone, and showed a marked softening in the market over the winter months including a modest decline in prices in the three months to March. Momentum picked up again over the summer, however, with a 5.2% increase in prices in the three months to end-August, pulling the annual increase up to 7.2%. The earlier slowdown was most pronounced in Dublin and although prices have picked up again in the capital (the annual increase is now 4.5% from 2.6% in June) the re-acceleration has been clearly driven by developments in the rest of the country: prices ex  Dublin rose by 7.1% in the three months to end-August, taking the annual increase to 11.4%. That 3-month change is the strongest recorded on the index ( which goes back to 2005) and is reminiscent of the kind of price changes seen in the late 1990’s.It now seems likely that by December the annual increase in prices nationally  will be around 10%, which is stronger than many expected and compares with 4.6% in 2015.

Demand for housing would appear to be strengthening: net migration turned positive again  in the year to April, employment is rising by around 50,000 a year and wages are increasing again in the private sector, so helping to boost household income. In addition, mortgage rates are falling and our affordability model indicates that the cost of servicing a new mortgage relative to income is at levels last seen in the late 1990’s. New mortgage lending is indeed picking up, after a softer period post the introdution of the Central Bank’s macroprudential controls, but the increase is modest; some 17,300 loans for house purchase were drawn down in the first nine months of 2016, against 16,900 in the same period of 2015. For this year as a whole we expect a total of around 24,500 or 3% above the previous year. In value terms that equates to €4.8bn, and €5.3bn for total mortgage lending ( which includes top-ups and re-mortaging, with the latter rising rapidly in percentage terms, albeit from a very low base).

New lending is still being offset by debt repayment and this deleveraging has been evident now for six and a half years, although the most recent data does indicate that the pace of credit contraction is slowing. Another unusual feature of the market has been the preponderance of non-mortgage buyers , accounting for 50% or more of transactions. The third quarter data  currently  indicates that mortgage loans accounted for over 56% of transactions as recorded in the Property Price Register, perhaps indicating a slight change, although it is too early to say as the numbers on the Register are continually updated.

Residential rents have been growing at a steady 8%-10% annual pace for some three years now and the latest CSO  data, for September, shows little change, with an annual 9.6% increase  despite the Government’s rent controls.

What about supply, which is universally recognised as inadequate. Completions in the first eight months of the year amounted to just over 9,100, with the full-year figure likely to be around 14,500 or less than 2,000 above the previous year. Forward looking indicators do not signal any dramatic change, with  planning permissions for 6,200 units granted in the first 6 months of 2016.

Housing supply may well respond to higher prices in time but there is no quick fix to the current position of excess demand. In that context the announcement of a Help to Buy scheme in the recent Budget is hard to fathom, as it offers First Time Buyers a tax rebate towards their deposit. so presumably boosting demand further.The Finance Minister suggested that this would help to stimulate new builds  but it’s hard to argue that demand is the issue, rather than supply.












New Mortgage lending in Ireland likely to fall this year

Net mortgage lending in Ireland has been falling for  over six years now, with any new lending offset by debt repayments. The former, having collapsed from 2007, was given a brief fillip by changes to tax relief in 2012 , but only started to gain sustained momentum from 2014; over 20,000 mortgages for house purchase were drawn down that year, from 13,500 in 2013, with 2015 seeing another  advance, to over 24,000. The prospect of further growth this year looks doubtful, however, given the data just released for the first quarter, and we expect new mortgage lending to fall in 2016, in volume and value terms.

Figures on mortgage approvals, available monthly,  are a good leading indicator of actual lending, although the relationship is not exact from quarter to quarter as borrowers may delay drawing down the loan or even change their decision. Approvals started to fall on an annual basis last August, indicating that the Central Bank’s new mortgage controls were beginning to bite, and the pace of decline picked up momentum over the winter months, resulting in a 20% annual fall in the final quarter of 2015. The first quarter of this year has seen a marginal change in momentum, albeit still leaving approvals 17% below the same period a year earlier.

A decline in the actual number of drawdowns for house purchase was therefore likely in Q1 and that duly emerged, with a 9% annual fall to 4,664 . The next few quarters may see even larger percentage declines given the trend in approvals and we now expect a figure of around 20,000 for the year as a whole, or some 4,000 down on 2015.

The value of new lending for house purchase came in at just €900mn in the first quarter, a two-year low, but this was only 1.7% down on the previous year because the average new mortgage rose by 8%, to €193,600, but we suspect that lending will also fall in value terms through the year, with the volume effect offsetting a 5% rise in the average mortgage . Consequently, we forecast that the value of  new mortgage lending for house purchase in 2016 will fall to €3.8bn from €4.5bn last year.   The headline mortgage data also includes top-up loans and re-mortgages, which are both growing at a rapid pace . The  absolute figures are very small, however, and their inclusion increases the forecast  for total mortgage lending only modestly, to €4.4bn from €4.9bn in 2015.

A final point. One curiosity about the housing market in recent years is that the number of loans for house purchase has been remarkably stable relative to transactions, accounting for around 50%. That pattern was actually repeated in the first quarter, as transactions also fell sharply, based on the Property Price Register, such that mortgage  loans equated to 49% of total sales. Credit has certainly not been the main driver of the recovery in residential property prices so the implication is that weaker new lending may not have a huge impact on house prices , although it is clearly bad news for mortgage lenders.

Dublin House Prices: Bubble or not?

The CSO recently released the latest Irish house price data, for October, revealing that residential property prices excluding Dublin  are picking up at an accelerating pace; prices rose by 4.8% over the past three months, bringing the annual increase in October to 8.7%, an inflation rate last seen in early 2007. Yet prices are still only 12% up from the lows recorded eighteen months ago and  so few would consider that the market over the bulk of the country is overheating, particularly as national prices still look far from overvalued relative to affordability, incomes or rent.

The price trend in Dublin is very different. Prices there have risen by 46% from the lows recorded in the summer of 2012 and are now 38% below the levels seen in early 2007, a peak now generally considered the height of a Bubble. That term is now reappearing in the context of commentary on the residential property market in the capital and it does arguably satisfy some of the usual criteria employed to categorise a Bubble. One is rapid price appreciation and that is certainly the case ;  the annual increase in October was 24.2%, a pace rarely seen and then only back in 1997 and 1998, in the run-up to euro membership. Moreover, the pace of price inflation has accelerated this year and  the past three months has seen a 9.3% rise, or over 42% at an annualized rate. Expectations of further price gains is also a common feature of asset Bubbles and that also appears to be present; a recent survey showed respondents expect Dublin prices to rise by an average 12% over the next year, up from 6% twelve  months ago, even though  only 15% believe housing in the Capital is still good value (the  value figure for housing ex Dublin is 50%).

Price expectation is an important determinant of  the actual house price trend , notably in terms of the user cost of housing ( the total cost of buying a home with a mortgage, including the mortgage rate, maintenance, depreciation and any tax breaks). That user cost is now negative, particularly so in Dublin, because the expected capital appreciation from buying a home exceeds the other costs, including the mortgage rate.

Bubbles are also often associated with leverage and Dublin fails the Bubble test on that measure as credit is clearly not a driver, or at least credit from the main Irish mortgage lenders. Data from the Banking and Payments Federation Ireland (formally the IBF) showed that the number of new mortgages for house purchase  in Ireland amounted to 5763 in the third quarter, against total property transactions of 11,257 as reported in the Property Price register, so 51% of transactions were funded by Irish mortgages, a proportion that has risen through the year ( from 46% in q1) but is still well below the 80%-85% one associates with more normal market conditions.

A final Bubble test is whether  asset prices make sense relative to fundamentals and here there is often room for debate (witness the range of views on US equity markets and Euro bond yields). In terms of housing one metric is to compare prices with  private rents , as the latter represents the amount consumers are willing to pay for the utility housing provides . Rents nationally, as reported by the CSO, have been rising now for four years, by a cumulative 21%, and have picked up momentum again in recent months after a sluggish period earlier in the year, increasing by 2.5% in the  three months to October. The CSO does not provide a regional breakdown but does , and their figures broadly track the official data. The website shows  strong double digit growth in Dublin rents (around an annual 15% of late, with growth elsewhere at less than half that pace)  and provides detailed rental figures across housing size and type. For example , a 3-bedroom house  in Dublin currently rents at an average €1,518 per month, or €18,216 a year. In theory, the price of any house, discounted at an appropriate rate, should give a present value equal to the rent. If we use the average new mortgage rate as our discount rate ( 3.25%, as quoted by the Central bank) that  Dublin rent implies a house price of €560,000. The Central bank data has been criticized and is going to be revised so an alternative would be to use the standard variable mortgage rate of around 4.25%. On that basis the house price would be  €430,000.

How much is the average price of a house in Dublin? Our own estimates, based on updating the Irish Permanent index (no longer published) with the CSO index gives an actual  figure around €300,000, which is broadly consistent with the average asking price of €325,000 quoted by The median price of Dublin property transacted  in q3 on the Property Price register was under €280,000 so the implication is that prices in the capital are still not excessive relative to rents, despite the recent pace of price appreciation.The latter reflects ,in part, a recovery from over- sold territory but nonetheless ticks a few Bubble boxes, but not all.

Dublin House price inflation likely to slow this year

Irish residential property prices fell by 4.5% in 2012 according to the CSO index  and by 2.5% in Dublin, and although most commentators expected the market to pick up a little in 2013 few if any envisaged the pace of price appreciation that developed in the capital; Dublin prices rose by 15.7% last year with apartments outstripping houses, appreciating by 20.8% against 15.3% for the latter. Residential prices  in the capital have still fallen by some 49% from the peak but the strength of the recent rally has prompted some to forecast further double digit gains in 2014. That appears unlikely for a number of reasons.

The case for some further price appreciation nationally and in the capital  can certainly be made. A range of studies since 2012, including work from the Irish Central Bank, the IMF and the OECD, have signaled that Irish house prices probably fell too far in relation to housing fundamentals, such as income and rents. The latter has risen strongly now for a few years ( the latest CSO data for November puts the annual increase in national residential rents at 8.5%) and house prices relative to rents are now well below the long term average. That is the equivalent of stating that the average yield on residential property ( i.e the average rent divided by the current price ) is also well above the longer term trend and on my data base is just shy of 6%, the highest in a decade. Affordability is also a plus for the market; a new 25-year mortgage absorbs 24% of income in 2013 which is well below the 29% long term average on my affordability index and back to levels last seen in 1998. Employment is also rising and  price expectations have also probably shifted, with more people expecting prices to rise and hence helping to bring forward purchases. House building is also at record lows ( averaging around 2,000 a quarter in 2013), albeit bottoming out, and the vacancy rate in parts of the capital is low. There would not appear to be a significant supply shortage in apartments, however, yet apartment prices appreciated faster than house prices  last year both nationally and in Dublin, albeit from a lower base, which implies that supply is not the sole explanation for the trend in prices.The vacancy  rate outside the capital is much higher nonetheless, so in theory at least there is  more excess supply to meet the increase in demand, which helps to explain why prices outside Dublin were broadly flat last year, but having fallen by 6.1% in 2012.

Dublin property price inflation may well decelerate this year,  although still rising at a single digit rate. In part this expectation reflects the nature of the market last year, with  cash transactions  probably accounting for slightly over half the total recorded  by the Property Price register ( the IBF data on mortgage drawdowns is not yet available for the full year) although the proportion funded by credit did rise through the year and may have been around 54% in the final quarter. Ultimately housing is largely driven by credit and mortgage lending may well pick up this year but is still likely to be a a level which is not compatible with further price appreciation at the pace seen last year in Dublin. Repossessions are also on the rise which may dampen price pressures somewhat while the trend in the price  index itself  in 2013 is another factor arguing for deceleration; prices rose by 2.4% in the second quarter, by 9.5% in q3 and 3.9% in the final quarter and so  annual property price inflation in Dublin is likely to slow in the second half of 2014 as those base effects kick in.