Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Monday 21 April 2014

House prices and secular stagnation

This post starts off talking about the UK, but then goes global

We are all used to seeing graphs of house price to income ratios. Here is Nationwide’s first time buyer house price to earnings ratio for the UK and London.

UK First time buyer house prices relative to earnings: source Nationwide

Housing is becoming more and more unaffordable for first time buyers. Yet prices are currently booming (at least in London), and demand is so high estate agents are apparently now holding mass viewings to cope. In the UK the media now routinely call this a bubble, and the term ‘super bubble’ is now being used. London may be a bit unusual (see this extraordinary research), but it can also be a leading indicator for UK prices in general.

Bubbles are where prices move further and further away from their fundamental value, simply because everyone expects prices to continue to rise. One of the earliest and most famous bubbles involved tulip bulbs in the Netherlands in 1637. Yet that bubble lasted less than a year. The dot-com bubble lasted two or three years. If you think there should be some underlying constant value for the house price to income ratio, then this UK housing bubble has been going on for much longer than that. Instead of being pricked by the 2009 recession, it merely seems to have paused for breath. 

Yet does it make sense to compare house prices (the price of an asset) to average earnings or incomes? A more natural ratio would be the ratio of rents (the price of consuming housing) to earnings, and this has been relatively stable over this period. Or to put the same point another way, the ratio of house prices to rents has shown a similar pattern to the ratio of house prices to incomes shown above. (The Economist has a nice resource which shows this, and covers all the major countries besides the UK.)

If we think of housing as an asset, then the total return to this asset if you held it forever is the weighted sum of all future rents, where you value rents today more than rents in the future. Economists call this the discounted sum of rents. (If you are a homeowner, it is the rent that you are avoiding paying.) So why would house prices go up, if rents were roughly constant and were expected to remain so? The answer is that prices would go up if the rate at which you discounted the future fell. The relevant discount rate here is the real interest rate on alternative assets. That interest rate has indeed fallen over much the same time period as house prices have increased, as Chapter 3 of the IMF’s World Economic Outlook for March 2014 documents.

Think of it this way. You believe that the return you get from owning a house (the rent you get or save paying) will be roughly constant in real terms. However the return you get on other assets, measured by the real interest rate, is falling. So housing becomes more attractive as an asset. So more people buy houses, and arbitrage will mean its price will rise until the rate of return on housing assets adjusts down towards the lower rate of return on other assets. As Steve Nickell pointed out in 2004, if the expected risk free real interest rate permanently fell from, say, 4% to 2%, this could raise real house prices by 67%.

It is the expected return on other assets that matters here. The fact that actual real interest rates have fallen in the past would not matter much if they were expected to recover quickly. A key idea behind today’s discussion of secular stagnation is that real interest rates might stay pretty low for a long period of time. That in turn implies that house prices will be much higher relative to incomes than they were when real interest rates were higher.

So what appears to be a bubble may instead be a symptom of secular stagnation. We can make the same point by looking at another measure of affordability, again provided by Nationwide.

UK First time buyer mortgage payments as a percentage of mean disposable income: source Nationwide

First time buyers are able to afford elevated house prices, because interest rates on mortgages are so low. Of course raising the deposit is a problem, but the government’s Help to Buy scheme has come to the rescue by effectively restoring the 95% mortgage that disappeared in the recession.

Secular stagnation is a global idea, so if this story is right then we should see similar patterns abroad. Using the Economist as a guide, I think we can split countries into three groups. The first group is the UK, France (which looks very much like the UK!), Belgium, Italy, Sweden, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. There the house price to income ratio rose sharply in the 2000s, and has stayed high. The second group is the US, Denmark, Ireland, Netherlands and Spain, which also show large increases in the 2000s, but where post-recession declines have been so large as to actually wipe out (or come close to wiping out) these gains. For these countries it could be a bubble, or it could be an underlying rise temporarily offset by the impact of the recession. The third group is Germany and Switzerland (and maybe Austria), where the ratio has been falling over time, but has picked up over the last five years. There is one outlier, Japan, where the ratio has been falling since 1990. In a nutshell, the data is not clearly consistent with the secular stagnation story but does not clearly reject it either (ever thus!)

Does this mean we should stop calling what is happening in the UK a bubble? The first point is that secular stagnation is just an idea, and it may prove wrong, and if it does house prices may come tumbling down. Second, even if it is not wrong, it is still possible to have a bubble on top of the increase implied by lower interest rates. Indeed one of the concerns about the lower real interest rates associated with secular stagnation is that, by raising asset prices not just in housing but elsewhere, it may encourage bubbles to develop on top. So all we can say with certainty, for the UK at least, is that the Financial Policy Committee will have their work cut out when they next meet in June.   


  1. The FPC are doing a wonderful job. Once you realise that a Central Bank is only there to make money for banks regardless of what it does to the economy, it all makes sense.

    The more they blow up house prices then the more debt people have to take on to buy one. The more debt they take on then the more lenders profit. One feature of the UK's Bank of England stoked new housing bubble on top of their previous housing bubble is the increase in the length of mortgage terms. The average mortgage term length is going up all the time. This to make initial mortgage payments look cheaper, while making the overall mortgage interest cost a lot more over the extended mortgage term.

    The FPC are also doing a great job turning a blind eye to mortgages of ever increasing multiples of household earnings. Affordability used to be 3 times main income but now banks lend over 4 times joint incomes. You have the reason for your housing bubbles right there, just do the maths.

    Low interest rates force older people to work more hours due to less interest income from their lifetime savings.

    The only way to measure a Central Bank's success is by how many hours labour it captures from workers to service increasing debt. The Bank of England are the star of Central Banks. Though they obviously have the advantage of a media captured by government. A media which promotes rising house prices and so the loss of disposable income as good news. Obviously the higher house prices are then the more hours people must work to buy one, so the more labour banks capture and the more hours people work, then the more income tax is generated for the government. Hence Schemes such as Help to Buy, portrayed as "helping" FTBs but all it does is push prices up and lock the buyers in more debt.

    1. I have to say that both Simon's analysis of the phenomenon, linking house prices to long-term expected real interest rates (if I may make such an over-simplification) and Anonymous' analysis of the reasons behind the approach are both worth thinking about.

      House price movements have always been seen as an insider-outsider issue, with owners benefiting, but as we all start as outsiders, and once insiders we will eventually die off, the suggestion that the whole complex is about (in some sense - I'm not sure anyone has deliberately plotted it) increasing returns to capital or in other words benefiting the rich seems quite seductive.

    2. Quite right, Anon. But your points raise the question as to why governments are following the crack-pot policies you refer to. I suggest the basic reason is economic illiteracy amongst so called “professional” economists, in particular those advising politicians. That is, they haven’t got the point that it’s perfectly possible to effect stimulus without raising the debt, thus they resort to getting private banks to effect stimulus which raises PRIVATE debts.

      Positive Money has a better grasp of what to do that most economics professors. Indeed Victoria Chick gave other members of her profession a good drubbing at a recent Positive Money meeting.

    3. I answered the question you said I had raised:

      "Obviously the higher house prices are then the more hours people must work to buy one, so the more labour banks capture and the more hours people work, then the more income tax is generated for the government"

      The government deliberately raises our main living cost i.e. shelter, so that we have to work more hours to be able to afford it. When we work more hours we pay more income tax.

      This is why council housing i.e. cheap rents are being sold off. This raises the market rent overall - so again forces people to work more hours to pay more for rented shelter.

      Plus as property prices rise it traps more people into higher stamp duty land tax, capital gains for second homes & inheritance tax.

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  3. The question of whether we have a house price bubble (and subsequent slump) would, of course, never arise, if house prices were part of the inflation index. We would not have had the Eurocrisis, or the sub-prime crisis before that. So if it is that simple - where are the economists asking for inclusion of property prices in the inflation index???

    If the UK inflation rate monitored by the Bank of England was made up of 1/3 house prices (+9%) and 2/3 consumer prices (1.6%) the inflation rate would now be around 4%, well above the 4% target. (Over a life-time our expenditure on houses is probably about 1/3 of all our total expenditure.)

    But, no surprise, the inflation rate has been decided upon by the "rich" people who make the rules. For them it is better to exclude property prices, as otherwise they cannot grow exorbitantly rich without any work! Any subsequent crisis and slump will help them become even richer - see buying up of property at post slump prices (hedgefunds buying sub-prime properties in US, and increased buy-to-let market in UK).

    It is time to include property prices in the inflation rate to prevent that redistribution from poor (rent payer) to wealthy (rent seeker) over time!

  4. Thank you for this intriguing post. However, could elevated house prices also be a cause as well as a consequence of secular stagnation, as if in a sort of economic doom-loop? If an increasing quantity of capital is absorbed by a non-productive asset class at a time when there is little growth in the productive sections of the economy, and when technological innovations in IT, say, are becoming much more capital intensive, does that mean that the rate of growth in the productive economy will tend to flatten rather more than it might if some of the capital going into residential property were to fund investment in productive capacity?

    My concern about the argument that you advance is that it will be (mis)used by those with an interest in house price inflation as an intellectual justification for that inflation, rather than treating it for what it might also be, namely a function of the exorbitant privilege enjoyed by owner occupiers under the tax system since Schedule A of the Income Tax was phased out after 1963, together with the complete deregulation of credit.

    A renewed and seemingly indefinite increase in the cost of shelter poses an almost existential threat to the economy and to the welfare of rising generations. I cannot help but recall Joan Robinson's oft-repeated words (albeit put in a slightly different context):

    "If they [the funds lent by creditors] merely permit an excess of consumption over production, the economy is on the road to ruin."

  5. «You believe that the return you get from owning a house (the rent you get or save paying) will be roughly constant in real terms. However the return you get on other assets, measured by the real interest rate, is falling. So housing becomes more attractive as an asset.»

    Indeed, low interest rates should be boosting all asset classes, if only because buying on margin would be cheaper.

    But the crucial hypothesis above is that «the return you get from owning a house (the rent you get or save paying) will be roughly constant in real terms».

    That hypothesis embodies two highly questionable assumptions:

    #1 That the *only* «return you get from owning a house» is rent. But the return includes both rent and expected capital gains. A bubble happens when expected capital gains are the main reason why someone speculates on assets... Assuming that away is begging the questions of whether there is a bubble.

    #2 That rent «will be roughly constant in real terms» even if because of «secular stagnation is that real interest rates might stay pretty low for a long period of time». How can economic activity be so depressed that real interest rates stay low for a long time? It must be because rates of profit or wages are low, but then how at the same time rents remain constant in real terms? If that happene then houses indeed have much higher "productivity" than any other capital good or labour, but houses produce nothing. Except arguably shltering services, but how can the profit on sheltering services be the only one that does not participate in the general stagnation?

    I think that we can look at experience:

    * Current experience seems to be that #1 is what is happening now and in the South East.

    * Historical experience is that when «secular stagnation» hit the North real rents collapsed.

    In particular very low real interest rates are doing next to nothing for house related capital gains outside the South East.

    Part of the reason is that in the South East the debt-collateral spiral is also powering immigration, as spending on remortgaging, for consumption and home improvements or simply on estarte agent and mortgage commissions drives job creation.

    But it is a spiral that could unwind terribly at any time, because it is powered only by ever increasing debit "validated" only by ever increasing collateral values.

    When a few years ago collateral values paused the a very large part of the UK financial sector ended up on welfare, and still is on welfare, and a lot of people that were employed (thanks to growing debt validated by growing collateral valuation) in finance and construction lost their jobs in the South East.

  6. «but houses produce nothing. Except arguably shltering services, [ ... ] when «secular stagnation» hit the North real rents collapsed.»

    There an implicit detail here that seems not widely known...

    Sheltering services should be in general proportional to somewhat more than the depreciation on the house (or more widely, the depreciation on the houses in an area).

    But houses are cheap: the typical suburban two-up-two-down in the South East that currently has a valuation of around £250,000 can be rebuilt for around £70,000.

    The difference is of course location, location, location, and that by and large means access to job opportunities, and currently job opportunities in the South East are driven in significant part by the very debt-collateral spiral that drives location prices up...

  7. BTW as to «expected capital gains are the main reason why someone speculates» I found just today an interesting argument by a Georgist:

    The basic thesis is that there is indeed a Minsky cycle and it is driven by land speculation.

    Interestingly Hyman Minsky is not mentioned, but the cycle is described as being based on a similar concept by Homer Hoyt.

  8. the same is happening to stockmarkets, in search of yield because of non existent returns in fixed income, investors accept lower returns on riskier investments like stocks, as increasing valuations show (in particular in US). Makes me wonder if the ''cure'' of low interest isn't worse than the disease, it certainly seems to create a trap: any increases in interest rates now risk assets prices to tumble hurting the economy.
    Japan is one step ahead of us with trying to inflate away the debt, so far with limited success. And we can't all devaluate our currencies like Japan. If that plan also fails, what's next?Interesting times.

  9. «the same is happening to stockmarkets»

    Indeed, but houses have some more advantages than stock market speculation:

    * A margin account called "mortgage" is available nearly to anybody, with leverage ratios of 4x or even 20x with "Help to Buy", and is sold by several shops in most high streets. This can turn a yearly rental yield on the property of 5% into a yearly gross return on capital invested of 20% or even 100%. More as the house appreciates and the rent goes up.

    * Not only the 4x or 20x leverage can boost *rental* ROI by as much, but for the main dwelling there are no capital gains taxes at all, and capital gains of 5-10% per year can double or quadruple the gross rental yield of 5%, and rather more than that after tax and expenses.

    * The margin account called "mortgage" has no margin calls on the borrower after she pays the initial deposit.

    * Offering a margin debt is quite safe for the lender too, even without margin calls on the borrower, because if the collateral goes down in valuation the *government* will provide extra margin to the lender in the form of extremely generous bailouts; plus the borrowers vote and the government will have a strong incentive to boost up again the collateral valuation, or change accounting rule to let lenders value the collateral to fantasy.

    Think of how wonderful it would be if the City or Wall Street lobbied their governments to give the same "wealth-creating" :-) advantages to every small saver's share saving account...

  10. It won't be higher interest rates that pop housing bubbles around the world. It will be peak credit, or a growing fear of an upcoming crash (which can then be blamed on hedge fund speculators who piled on).

    The reality is, household incomes are not likely to surpass what the baby boomers were able to achieve during the last 35 years of credit expansion and globalization. So, the long-term trend for housing has to be lower just because more money will be needed in government hands to provide for retired baby boomers and the infrastructure programs that are going to be implemented to provide a cushion when the next wave of the financial crisis hits (the strongest wave will come from the implosion of the Chinese housing bubble).

    Whatever! The government fuelled a credit/housing bubble to get done what needed to get done, and that was to keep people working until the baby boomers came a lot closer to retirement age (may get by from the loss of a job through a disability claim), AND houses that otherwise would not have been built, got built. And that is a huge plus. Government did not have the mandate for social housing, so the housing bubble has been a covert means of accomplishing the same ends.

    Make hay while the hegemony shines!

    1. One more thing, shelter costs as a percentage of household income will also have to drop as other costs continue to rise. Eventually, people will start to double-up (move back home) if they cannot make ends meet, and rising vacancies for "investment" properties will see a price war to attract tenants.

      There is going to come a time when anyone who wants to immigrate to a developed nation is going to have to pay a "cover charge" to get in. That will mean needing to buy a NEW home and the need to bring in sufficient cash to show that you will be self-sufficient. Then, over time, the developed nations' economies will get all the benefits of the wealth this individual brings with them. At the same time, when globalization is no longer a win-win (coming sooner than most people think), the nations where the wealth resides will do everything in their power to make sure that it does not leak out of their country (capital controls).

      Higher oil prices may be offset by choosing other modes of transportation (which would be a huge reduction in annual costs). People will justify this loss of birthright/convenience by convincing themselves that they are doing what is best for the environment. They are, but it is not because they want to, but rather because they can no longer afford the luxury of driving. And because driving will be seen as a luxury, those that can afford to drive will pay a heavy price for the privilege. These higher fuel taxes will go a long way towards alternative energy development and installation.

      But, the cost of everything imported is going to continue to increase while wages remain relatively stagnant.

      It will be interesting to see if this is somewhat offset by a fall in the price of domestic goods and services, especially services. We are in a world where the economics of scarcity no longer apply (especially in North America). So, the world going forward is going to be a lot different than what most might expect. Will prices for domestic labour for non-essential services remain sticky (with the providers of these services just being less busy), or will prices collapse in a battle for market share?

      There are going to be a lot of challenges (and violence) in developing (and over-populated) nations.

  11. Suprised the politics/ideology of housing hasn't been commented on. First, help to buy comes across as more than a bit Keynesian. Second, its very targeted at a specific part if the electorate - building more social housing/guaranteeing more housing association borrowing would also haveimproved fhe supply of housing/potentially pushed down on private rents, but housing association tenants tend not to vote Tory. Funny dat.

  12. «politics/ideology of housing hasn't been commented on»
    «but housing association tenants tend not to vote Tory»

    Well, in previous comments here and elsewhere I have made the appropriate political/ideology comment, which is that the situation is far more interesting than what you describe here.

    In the late 1970s a conservative think tank (and I can't remember which one) published a study that set the political agenda since then.

    The study proved conclusively that even given the same income, education, occupation ("class") people who own houses, stocks or cars vote far more frequently for right wing parties than people who rent, have pension accounts or use public transport.

    Not only that, but that people who having been tenants, had pension accounts, used public transport, would often switch their votes to right wing parties if they acquired a house, a car or a stock account.

    That study has been confirmed many times, and has become the core policy of most centre and right wing parties across anglo-american countries.

    So it is not as simple as "people who are public housing tenants don't vote tory" but "people who buy a house become tories".

    This is also described very well in an article in the Spectator about being a heir of Thatcher:
    «His Chancellor and chief political strategist, George Osborne, is constantly looking for new ways to create Tory voters.»

    The legendary Grover Norquist in the USA has described this very well, in one of my usual quotes:
    «The growth of the investor class--those 70 per cent of voters who own stock and are more opposed to taxes and regulations on business as a result -- is strengthening the conservative movement. More gun owners, fewer labor union members, more homeschoolers, more property owners and a dwindling number of FDR-era Democrats all strengthen the conservative movement versus the Democrats.»
    «But going into November, what actually saved it for the Republicans was the investor vote, which went heavily R. Why? One, they didn't blame Bush for the collapse of the bubble. They were mad at having lower stock prices and 401(k)s, but they didn't say Bush did this and that caused this. Secondly, the Democratic solution was to sic the trial lawyers on Enron and finish it off. No no no no no. We want our market caps to go back up, not low.
    The 1930s rhetoric was bash business -- only a handful of bankers thought that meant them. Now if you say we're going to smash the big corporations, 60-plus percent of voters say "That's my retirement you're messing with. I don't appreciate that". And the Democrats have spent 50 years explaining that Republicans will pollute the earth and kill baby seals to get market caps higher. And in 2002, voters said, “We're sorry about the seals and everything but we really got to get the stock market up.»

  13. Professor Wren-Lewis,

    I do not fully understand the point you made pertaining to secular stagnation ...

    If expected real interest rates go down, this can have two reasons:
    1. a decline in the expected long run rate of economic growth or
    2. an increase in the rate of time preference

    Since preferences are more or less stable over time, we can reasonably assume a (possible) decline of the expected real interest rates to be the result of a decline in the expected long run rate of economic growth (rather than of an increase in the rate of time preference).
    ... But if this is the case, the present value of future discounted rents (= house price ) should stay constant because both the denominator (expected real interest rates) and the numerator (expected rents) will decline
    ... If you now include secular stagnation in the Krugmanite sense of frequent or even permanent liquidity traps, the effect on house prices should ven be negative, shouldn't it? Reason: as a result of the zero lower bound the real interest rate cannot decline as would be implied by the reduction in the long run real growth rate ... As a result, the present value of future expected rents (= the house price) should decline (since the numerator is reduced by more than the denominator.)

    I would be very thankful, if you could clarify why secular stagnation would reult in a rise rather than a decline in house prices.

    With kind regards

    1. For a model of how the real interest rate can decline without either 1 or 2, see the paper discussed in this post: More generally, the idea that r=theta+g results from a particular model, and not necessarily the real world.

  14. Where you go wrong in your model (that houseprices are a pure reflection of interest rates) is the fact that there are other marketforces some of which can be very potent.
    Main one being the relation between a crap economy and housing prices. In a 'normal' crap economy houseprices go down (even though interest goes down as well as well as supply), mainly for uncertainty reasons.
    RE however works slow sometimes you see delays of several years. Why you can somewhat manage unbubbling the RE market as opposed to some others.

    What we have now is artificially low interestrates created by all sorts of monetaryexperiments. The big question is will the interest be artificially down for the period people use in their implicit or explicit calculations when they buy houses. It basically would mean CBs having overblown BS for decades and likely even mean pumping them up even further. I at least simply donot see that as sustainable.
    You either end up with a perpetual crap economy (bad for house prices as such and in the UK it will drop immigration with it increased demand on top of that) or with higher interest rates.

    So imho now we see bubbleblowing. If the economy picks up it might be deflated via growth (the soft way). If not it will run into the wall sometime.
    Problem is that at some point people are going to price in things and at that point things get nasty. And btw markets are not great in predicting future trends in prices.
    Anyway in your own models at one point probably interest should go up again and much faster than wages which would create a bubble (just compare behaviour of interest vs average wages growth).

    I was a big supporter of the policies in the UK to avoid a collapse of the RE market. Would have created an unbelievablke mess of debt problems with people personal and with the banks. But this is doing the same all over again. Probably as a political tool (what you always like to assume, but in this case I can fully agree with).
    Same as with equity at the moment. Way too high obo fundamentals. At one point it will be priced in that a lot of future gains are already taken and then the thing goes down (we look close to that btw). Difference with RE is that RE markets react slowly, stockmarkets sometimes can react in hours.

  15. London is a different kettle of fish. It basically is extra foreign demand (and local demand driven by that extra foreign demand). Plus the fact of course that it is one of the regions that simply does best.
    Seen however that 'normal' persons now are unable to buy the foreign factor seems the strongest. Foreign demand is historially seen never very stable.
    One can ask how sustainable this trend is. I can remember in the early 90s I think that I had to liquidate a few Bn London RE that had just dropped 50% in price (some even more).
    So for London it might be sustainable. But it is risky for other than pure (interest) bubble reasons (as well, probably part is bubbling along with the rest of the UK). Foreign investors might turn their back for one reason or another.
    However when it starts to behave like a bubble it will be an Uberbubble. The size is gigantic and the speed of deflating will be much higher than a local RE bubble. And there is always a lot of local fall out, losses are nor only taken in Kazackstan. So imho risky stuff should preferably by better controlled.
    You have to look at the financing. When a lot of loans are involved it becomes very risky. Foreign investors generally easier drop things. The loan part makes up most of the bubble risk (via debt it goes all through the system and becomes very difficult to oversee and therefor to control.

    As you know imho an exploding RE bubble is much worse for economic recovery than simply being in a normal cycledip. Reason I am not for deflating them in time of crisis when reasonable avoided (so no eg Spanish stuff at hand, where it was simply too big). But I think it is simply plain stupid to inflate new ones, what is happening now.

    I see also a low rise in Western wages which is another part of the affordability equation. Simply for international competition reasons. Reasons why cheaper labor does better in the recovery. In the US older workers (which are not necessary more expensive there but are often better skilled (but not better educated, but who cares for that) and women. Same or better quality for less wages.
    UK/Eur similar things older (and there more expensive) workers are replaced by cheaper ones. Well educated immigrants, women, younger (here), part-time, temporary.
    Looking at the equation a lot of things can go wrong with the affordability longer term. And with that prices and the mortgage debt relating to those prices (where it gets into the financial system).

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