Falling House Prices? Not if Boris Johnson Can Help it

House prices are defying economic gravity in much of the world. Central banks have cut interest rates and governments have turned on the spending taps to keep people in their jobs — and their homes. The U.K. cranked things up even more by temporarily cutting home-purchase taxes, known as stamp duty. After lockdown, a bigger home and garden is a priority for many of us.

There’s a problem, though. First-time buyers are locked out of the U.K. market because they can’t afford a mortgage. Lenders withdrew high loan-to-value deals when the pandemic began, forcing borrowers to find much larger deposits. That may be impossible unless parents can help. This exacerbates an already cavernous divide between the young, stuck in crummy rental accommodation, and the old, who are often their landlords. 

Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s solution, announced this week, is to offer “young first-time buyers the chance to take out a long-term fixed-rate mortgage of up to 95% of the value of the home, vastly reducing the size of the deposit.”

The proposal addresses a peculiarity in U.K. housing. Traditionally Brits haven’t embraced long, fixed-rate mortgages. If there’s ever a time to change that mindset, it’s now. It’s tempting to take advantage of rock-bottom interest rates to help the young, and to get banks to play their part.

Unfortunately, there’s a strong chance that Johnson’s proposal will simply blow more air into Britain’s house price bubble, while piling risk onto the finance industry. Conservative-led governments have long propped up housing demand without creating enough supply, making values outlandishly disconnected to most people’s salaries.

The U.K. already has home-purchase subsidies, known as Help to Buy (which should really be called “Help for Homebuilders”). Coupled with stamp-duty cuts, expanding credit to would-be homeowners will surely just make prices soar again, putting the ownership dream further out of reach. And why does Johnson think lending to more to cash-poor buyers is a sound financial idea? Mortgage lenders tend to have a better grasp of risk versus reward, and no one knows how bad the pandemic recession is going to be.

Buyers who put down only a small deposit risk being trapped in negative equity if house prices decline. That’s precisely what banks fear will happen when the government winds down Covid-19 support measures. Johnson hasn’t spelled out details such as the precise duration of the new mortgages or whether the taxpayer will be on the hook for any loan losses.

Banks are already struggling to make money because of low interest rates and they’re facing pandemic-induced corporate loan losses. The last thing they need is a wave of mortgage defaults to add to their woes. 

It’s especially confusing to be told to lend more when regulators, including the Bank of England, want lenders to do the opposite.

At least borrowers wouldn’t have to worry about interest rates rising if they locked in to a long fixed-rate mortgage. Negative equity isn’t such a worry if you don’t have to repay for another 25 years. Yet

Read more