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The global recession on the UK housing market

This part of the dissertation seeks to understand and investigate the cause of the current global recession and how it has affected the housing market in the UK.

Housing Market Trends

After the housing markets spectacular collapse in the 1990s, the UK housing market staged a significant revival. According to the HBOS index, the average house price stood at about £163,000 in 2005, approximately double the £82,000 it would have been worth in 2000. Cameron (2005) suggests that house prices surpassed their 1989 peak, relative to average household incomes. The other traditional measure of affordability, the ratio of interest payments to income, is not so overstretched, but only if capital repayments and unsecured debt are ignored.

In addition, the strength of the housing market reflects the exceptional economic performance of the economy in 2005, which in turn is partially due to the sensible independent monetary policies pursued by the Bank of England Cameron (2005). As a result, it is suggested that Britain dealt with the world economic slowdown of 2001-2003 a great deal better than the majority of chief economies, producing six per cent growth.

This vigorous expansion cannot completely describe the strength of the house price boom. Consequently, numerous economists have argued that there is a bubble in the British housing market, in common with a number of other countries, such as Spain, Australia, Canada, Sweden, and parts of the USA.

FIGURE 1

Figure 1 shows the ratio of average house prices to average earnings, a key measure of affordability, for Great Britain and three major regions up to 2004 which is before the economic recession struck.

As is visible, there is a positive contrast of cyclical behaviour in each series, with a surprising rise since 1999. According to the HBOS index, prices rose by only 1.3% over the nine months from July 2004 to April 2005. One of the main causes of this poor rise was due to the fact that many households were affected by the increases of the Bank of England base rate. Moreover, the increasing lack of demand within first time buyers, together with decreased numbers of house sales and low request rates for mortgages, implies that house prices have become separated from their underpinnings.

The Nature of the Housing Market

Housing markets are unusual for a number of reasons

Housing markets are peculiar for a number of reasons. First, houses take time to build, so when demand rises, supply can only respond with a considerable lag. Indeed, to all intents, the short-run supply of housing is fixed. Second, houses are an asset that pays an implicit income (that is, the amount of rent that the owner saves by owning a house), so the value of the house should reflect expectations about future rents. But more importantly, since house-ownership in the UK is so widespread, a house is most households’ most important asset and since prices can go down as well as up, households are thereby exposed to a considerable amount of risk (almost half a million households had their homes repossessed in the 1990s). Unfortunately, it is not really possible to offset this risk since nobody offers insurance against a fall in prices.

The Global economic recession

It seems to have been agreed that the financial crisis which formed the birth of the current global economic recession was formed in the millennia of 2000 as a result of several factors which influenced increased housing sales and increased mortgage lending. [Sakbani (2009), Turalay (2009), Sel (2009)]

One of the main factors which influenced the financial crisis was the boom in the housing market which was the result of increased supply of housing which persuaded financial institutions to increase and extend mortgages at attractive rates which mortgages borrowers could not afford to pay back. At the time of increased mortgage lending, the mortgage lenders had liquid assets that where at a level never seen before and this encouraged them to invest their assets into higher earning assets. This boom gave mortgage lenders an opportunity to double their portfolio of mortgage lending in respect of the past 10 years and mortgages reached some 50 per cent of their total lending assets after 2001 (Sakbani, 2009).

The second factor which influenced housing sales was the record low-interest rates which were put in place by major banks to attract would be house buyers into purchasing mortgages at very low interest rates and other influences was the deregulation of financial institutions, there was a attitude throughout the major central banks of self regulation and with the increased financial innovations, major banks tended to regulate themselves.

The final major factor was the disappearance of inflation fear as banks began to grow and increase portfolios, their self confidence began also to grow and any fears which were previously held started to disappear and this therefore relaxed their customer vigilance (Sakbani, 2008).

As the demand for housing rose in the last decade and a half, this reached a record high in all major countries including the UK and USA. In the USA in particular, housing units sold in 2005 reached a peak of 1,283,000 as compared to an average of 609,000 in 1995-2000. More than 6 million units were sold in the five years up to 2006 (US Economic Forecast, 2009). The affects of this, increased the wealth and amount of disposable income available to households which in turn, increased the growth of the US economy up to 2007. It is recognised however, that this increase in economies and housing sales would not have taken place if there was a reduction in the availability of cheap mortgages being made available in the USA and UK up to 2005 and the substantial increase of low interest rates (IMF, 2008).

The major banks began to operate under reduced regulation and with the global financial markets know in full swing, this increased the housing boom in the UK as some mortgages contained grace periods of up to three years and minimal down payments where required and with the introduction of low-interest rates, only fuelled the housing boom.

Furthermore, these mortgages that where being taken out by borrowers would have originally been considered as non-credit worthy or, at very least, borrowers who incurred debts beyond their capacity to pay back (Ronald, 2008). As the banks began to run these debts, they ensured that the higher the risk, the higher should be the lending rate which therefore gave rise to the subprime mortgage market; this is a market whose borrowers may have difficulty maintaining the repayment schedule.

Proponents of subprime lending maintain that the practice extends credit to people who would otherwise not have access to the credit market. As Professor Rosen of Princeton University explained,

"The main thing that innovations in the mortgage market have done over the past 30 years is to let in the excluded: the young, the discriminated against, the people without a lot of money in the bank to use for a down payment.”

It has now been agreed that this would have only ended in one way, this being collapse of the housing market and financial institutions. As borrowers started to run out of finances to repay their mortgages and defaults began to increase, the rate of increase in housing prices started to fall and could not compete with the rate of debt which therefore meant that borrowers could not refinance their loans or sell their houses at large profits [(The) Economist (2008), Sakbani (2008), Elise (2008)].

One way this could have been prevented is that if banks had extended their mortgage loans under the old conditions of mortgage lending, they would have had to hold them on their books and eventually would have run out of funds. But starting in the late 1980s, financial innovations made it possible for mortgage lenders to unload their loans to pools, which can transform these personalised, non-negotiable obligations into derivative securities guaranteed by the mortgages (Sakbani, 2008).

After the crisis erupted, the International Monetary Fund (IMF, 2008) estimated the size of these securities at more than $945 billion, while Goldman Sachs put them at more than $1.0 trillion. In September 2008, the IMF revised its estimate to $1.4 trillion ((The) Economist, 2008). On January 28, 2009 the IMF once more revised its estimate to $2.2 trillion. All these estimates therefore prove that, nobody had any idea of the amount of the non-performing assets.

Sakbani (2008) tends to suggest that there were many culprits that where directly related to the financial crisis of 2008 which include: the greedy banks and other financial institutions with their irresponsible and uninformed behaviour, the equally greedy borrowers, the absence of regulations covering all the financial institutions involved and not just banks, the lacunae of vigilant supervision at both the states and federal levels, the non-regulated and non-transparent character of the financial innovations, the failure of the rating agencies to do their job and finally the loose monetary policy of the Greenspan era in the years 2001-2004.

Mr Greenspan, testifying on October 23, 2008 before a Congressional Committee, admitted his error in believing that investment managers would exercise prudence in their operations and accepted that the regulatory system was loose and fundamentally obsolete.

Since the beginning of the economic recession, there has been a high reduction in new housing starts after a reduced number of sales. Berkeley Homes for example, reported sales down by 50% in the summer of 2008, also with housebuilders’ shares falling to low levels, there is major financing problems which continue to suffer.

Housing Developments & Policy

Turalay (2008) appears to suggest that at the beginning of the downturn, the position of the UK housing market did not appear to be that bad as it was expected that there would be a gradual slow down in housing sales and then a fairly rapid recovery process which would not adversely affect the economy, however, this did not prove to be the case and no-one could have predicted what actually happened.

Although UK economist Andrew Oswald, famously declared in November 2002;

“I think we are about to go through the great housing crash of 2003 to 2005. . . . I advise you to sell your house, and move into rented accommodation... Panic will then set in...”(Pickard, 2005, p. 9).

When comparing the period of July-October 2007 with July-October 2008, evidence suggests that a fall in average sale prices of around 14 per cent (Land Registry, 2008). It has been noted by Pryce Sprigings (2008) that measuring price change is hampered by the fact that selling times have risen substantially and indices are therefore not comparing like with like – ideally one would like to compare, for example, the acerage price of houses that sold within a month on the market in 2007 with average prices of houses that sold within a month on the market in 2008.

Evidence also suggests that transaction volumes have fallen dramatically from around 111,000 sales per month in England and Wales between July and October 2007 to 45,000 sales per month between July and October 2008, which is a fall of 60 per cent (Land Registry, 2008). Other data sources also reported this fall including Halifax, Nationwide, Land Registry and Council of Mortgage Lenders (CML). Some locations are showing even greater falls, with city centre flat and apartment markets appearing to be particularly vulnerable.

During Oswald’s prediction, real average house prices rose at one of the steepest rates recorded in modern times, by nearly a quarter in real terms, from £140,593 in 2003 quarter 1, to £173,412 in 2006 quarter 1, based on nationwide real mix adjusted house prices - see Figure 1 below, and continued to rise for a further two years until quarter 4 of 2007.

Figure 1

Real House Prices

There appears to have been significant early interventions from the government and the Bank of England to keep both the housing market and the wider economy on course. Consecutive cuts to base rates, addition of £50bn of liquidity into the finance markets by the Bank of England to alleviate the credit crunch, and £2.7bn fiscal improvement to balance low-income households for the withdrawal of the 10p tax rate. It was expected that these would all combine to form an apparently positive reinforcement, however this would prove not to be the case as in March 2008, initial indications emerged of a somewhat more speedy slowdown in the housing sector was about to develop.

The RICS housing market survey of that month specified that surveyor attitude with regard to house prices had weakened to the lowest point since the survey began in 1978 and the ratio of completed sales in the previous three months to the stock of unsold property on the market fell to 0.224, the lowest since September 1996 (RICS UK Economic Brief, 2008).

With mortgage approvals falling by 44 per cent in the same year (2008), this resulted in a significant fall in housing demand which led to banks being unwilling to offer new loans on houses.

Although there is no surprise that the housing market has took a downturn and because this has happened before, there are no unexpected events occurring, Pryce and Sprigings tend to suggest that the speed and severity of the decline has been unusual. They go on to express that this leads us to naturally question whether our policies, our regulatory frameworks, our collective approach to housing and cultural obsession with house prices, have in some way exacerbated this particular manifestation of that cycle by sustaining the upswing well beyond mean trend and perhaps resulting an unnecessarily sever and rapid downturn (Pryce and Sprigings, 2008).

These questions however are not wholly of interest to housing professionals as links between residential property and the broader market as well recognised. An example of this is stated by Goodhart and Hofmann (2008, p.180), where they find;

“a significant multidirectional link between house prices, monetary variables, and the macroeconomy with the effects of money and credit amplified when house prices are booming”.

It is agreed by Maclennan and Pryce that housing impacts on the real economy via the construction, financial, estate agency and legal sector and through housing equity financed consumption, all of which are sensitive to housing market fluctuations, and all have become increasingly inter-linked across nations as a result of the globalisation of capital and labour (Maclennan and Pryce, 1996).

It is also in agreement with numerous authors, Malpass in particular, that housing also impacts on welfare; not only through homelessness caused by repossessions (i.e. owner occupiers and renters affected by landlord default) at a time of crisis, but increasingly through equity release funding of education support (including accommodation) at the start of life and elderly care at the end. (Malpass, 2005).

Another article which backs Malpass’ suggestion is the announcement of the Homes and Communities Agency (HCA) which has confirmed the closing of Local Authority New Build (LANB) as a national programme. This is a result of the Treasury announcing that it was cutting £220 million from HCA’s budget, this follows on from the cut to the May budget of £230 million.

The new builds where seen as a solution to ease the housing crisis of the UK since the recession and to add to Malpass’ argument, Baroness Hanham stated in the House of Lords;

“There will be casualties; I don’t have any doubt that there will be casualties”

Furthermore to this statement, Labours Lord McKenzie warned

“It will force many to move or end up homeless and create ghettos of the poor”.

Unfortunately, the literature and policy debates on the nature and consequences of housing markets have evolved rather dichotomously. As Maclennan (2008, p. 424) observed;

“Many nations are now involved in two housing discussions, namely “homelessness and affordability” and ‘‘house price booms, bubbles and busts’’. The first theme has largely been the domain of social policy ministries, lobbies and researchers (Carter and Polevychok, 2004).The second has absorbed the macroeconomic policy community, including central banks, finance ministries, financial institutions and some academic economists, who are concerned about “stability”. Affordability and stability are often discussed as if they are unrelated, not just in the press, but also within policymaking circles.”

Researchers can now endeavour to bridge this gap in housing discussions. By using the analogy of sowing and reaping, ‘whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap’ (Galations 6:7, King James Version). It can be highlighted how scrupulous aspects of the existing recession should require policy makers and researchers to reflect on the failures of policy that have arisen as a result of the “fragmented nature of housing thinking within modern governments” (Maclennan, 2008).

Pryce and Sprigings propose that the great correction that is currently underway is a consequence, not only of transcendent global forces, but also significantly of UK policy decisions on financial liberalisation and housing. And if we are reaping what we have sown in domestic policy, who are the winners and losers, and what are the implications for how we evaluate UK post-war policy?

It has been made clear that such issues are underpinned by major policy, theoretical, and empirical questions that will most probably be debated at length in the future. What Pryce and Sprigings have done, is highlighted the issues and hope that highlighting these issues will offer some key pointers as to how the future debate should be structured and what might be done to ensure a more integrated approach to modernising UK housing policies.

It is argued that successive governments i.e. Conservative Party and Labour Party have promoted homeownership since the end of the Second World War and its benefits it brings financially to the lease holder if they are the occupier as one of the White Papers show from 1953, which states;

“One object of future housing policy will be to continue to promote, by all possible means, the building of new houses for owner occupation. Of all forms of saving this is one of the best. Of all forms of ownership this is one of the most satisfying to the individual and the most beneficial to the nation” (1953White Paper, Houses: The Next Step).

Gradually homeownership became deeply embedded in the UK psyche as the tenure of aspiration (Ronald, 2008). However, people then become aware that homeownership may not be best suited for everyone and this is a point that is raised by Sprigings (2008) where he identified that by encouraging low-income households into homeownership, we are subjecting them to the worst of its costs and risks while the market may restrict for them the potential of its benefits.

This idea was also backed up by Pickard (2005) where he stated that housing is believed to be a great long-term investment on average, but for the deprived areas, and for the poorest households, homeownership may simply not produce the promised benefits.

Housing developments and the global recession can be seen as interlinked with certain groups of society and those in less secure jobs as people on low income will bear the biggest brunt of the recession as low income workers and people in less secure jobs are more than likely to face financial difficulties when it comes to mortgage repayments as they are likely to lose their jobs or see rising inflation and rising interest rates and therefore low income households are likely to leave homeownership at the worst point because they are facing the biggest impact of the recession and also when the market begins to resume to normality again, low-income households may find it harder to re-enter the housing market when house prices are low because there is a proven correlation between credit being made available and housing prices and low-income households may not be able to obtain credit when house prices are still low therefore not enabling them to enter the housing market when it seems most beneficial.

The CML also back up this idea as figures for October 2008 show that, the value of loans has decreased to 83 per cent of the value of the property therefore, as it has been established that long term dividends on housing can be superior, low-income households will find it difficult to witness these dividends as they will be exiting the housing market when it begins to deteriorate and trying to enter the housing market when it is difficult to obtain credit.

Pryce (2008) seems to perceive that the promotion of homeownership by successive UK governments and therefore the rapid increase of owner occupation may have inadvertently produced a money pump working in the opposite direction. Another theory which Pryce (2008) identifies is the fact that low-income and particularly ethnic groups are less likely to enjoy the benefits of inter-generational housing welfare transfer.

Keister (2003) also backs up the second theory of Pryce (2008) by identifying that children from larger families accumulate less wealth than do those from smaller families and that siblings dilute parents’ finite financial resources and non material resources. Sibship size also reduced that likelihood of receiving a trust account or an inheritance and decreases home and stock ownership.

Buy-to-Let Mortgages

Buy-to-Let mortgages where developed in 1995 and where designed as a new financial product in the UK which enabled individuals to purchase a mortgage on a property for the purpose of letting the property out to future tenants.

The benefits from these mortgages can include a stable income from rental receipts, as well as an accumulation of wealth if house prices go up. However one of the main factors of risk with taking out a buy-to-let mortgage is leverage speculation where the landlord purchases a property expecting to sell the house at a later date for a higher price or that rental income will exceed the repayment amounts of the initial loan.

Buy-to-Let mortgages have became extremely popular with apprentice investors as this type of mortgage attracts middle income people to start to develop into small-scale landlords as a means of investing for their retirement. The volume of these loans grew rapidly in value as shown in Figure 2.

Figure 2

BTL loan

Pryce (2008) expresses concern at the fact that 90 per cent of total BTL advances since 1999 have been taken out during periods of above-trend house prices, and £74 billion of BTL mortgages, which is more than half of the total BTL advances since 1999, were issues at the very peak of the housing boom. This can be seen in Figure 3.

Fig 3

It is therefore in agreement that, a significant proportion of BTL loans are at risk because there is consensus that the value of securities will fall below the outstanding mortgage debts. This consensus is backed-up by the fact that repossessions on BTL properties as a per cent of all BTL mortgages almost doubled in the space of 18 months from the second half of 2005 to the first half of 2007 before the first round of gloomy house price results were released in late 2007. Latest CML data also reinforces this claim as they show a large increase in BTL accounts over three months in arrears at the third quarter of 2008 having trebled in number in 12 months to around 18,000. (Pryce and Sprigings 2008).

If home owners begin to default on their loans then the impact could be significant not only for lenders, but for particular sectors of the housing market as 80 per cent of BTL properties are terraced of flats and these account for almost a third of the entire UK private rented stock (Sprigings, 2008).

One of the key features of the BTL which there is much agreement on is the impact it seems to have had on new housing supply with flats coming to dominate supply, particularly in city markets. (Taylor 2008, Sprigings 2008).

Fig 4

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