In the Perils of snow and stamp duty blog here on the Sloman Economics News site we noted two particular influences that may have contributed to February’s reported fall in UK house prices: the end of the stamp duty holiday and the poor winter weather. Here we ponder a little more on the recent relationship between the economic and house prices cycles and, more generally, on the significance and causes of the recent imbalances between housing demand and supply.
What is particularly interesting about February’s house price fall (the Halifax put the fall at 1½% and the Nationwide at 1%) is that it is happening just after the economy reportedly grew by 0.3% in the last quarter of last year. But, then again, the house price fall is a reversal of an upward trend that started back in the summer of 2009 when the economy was still contracting! One’s gut reaction might be that cycles in house prices and economic growth ought to coincide. One reason for this is that the growth in income of the household sector will reflect the phase of the business cycle that the economy is in. For instance, during the slowdown or recessionary phase, like the period during 2008/9, the household sector’s income is likely to be shrinking and this will impact on housing demand. The magnitude of the effect on demand will depend on the sensitivity of housing demand to changing incomes – something that economists refer to as the income elasticity of demand.
We can, despite what might appear to be the recent puzzling behaviour of UK house prices, apply the concepts of demand and supply to gain some insight into what has been driving house prices. One way of thinking about the concepts of housing demand and supply is to relate them respectively to the number of ‘instructions to buy’ and the number of ‘instructions to sell’ on an estate agent’s book. We can then try and think of factors which might influence, in a given period, the number of instructions to buy and sell.
One possible explanation of the house price growth of last year is that despite the household sector’s shrinking income there were in fact a number of relatively cash-rich households out there, partly because the lowering of interest rates meant that the debt-servicing costs on variable rate mortgages fell. This left some households with more discretionary income to spend or to use to increase their housing investment by trading-up between one housing market and another. The key point here is if there is not a similar increase in the number of instructions to sell then the imbalance between the flow of instructions to buy and instructions to sell results in upward pressure in prices. In those markets where the imbalance between demand and supply is greatest price pressures are most acute. This appears to have been especially true last year in particular markets in the south of England.
So what of February’s fall? Well, again we have to think about the balance between instructions to buy and sell. What appears to have happened is that the demand pressures that built up in some markets lessened. And, as we consider elsewhere on this site, it is perhaps even the case that the wonderful British weather ‘played a hand’ by discouraging some households from looking to buy and adding to our estate agents’ lists of instructions to buy.
UK housing recovery running out of steam CITY A.M., Jessica Mead (5/3/10)
UK house prices ‘lose momentum’, say Nationwide BBC News (26/2/10)
UK house prices see first fall since June, says Halifax BBC News (4/3/10)
Fears grow of double dip for UK housing market The Independent, Sean O’Grady (5/3/10)
- What do economists mean by the income elasticity of demand? How income elastic do you think owner-occupied housing demand is likely to be?
- How important do you think current house prices are likely to be in affecting the number of instructions to buy and instructions to sell in the current period?
- How important do you think expectations of future house prices are in affecting the number of instructions to buy and sell in the current period?
- What role might financial institutions, like banks and building societies, play in affecting UK house price growth in 2010? How might their influence compare with that in the period 2008/9?
- Rather than economic growth affecting house prices, is it possible that house price growth could affect economic growth?