House prices are soaring throughout the world, making them unaffordable for many first-time buyers. In the UK, for example, according to the Nationwide, the annual house price increase was 13.4% in 2021 Q2. In the USA, house prices are rising by over 23% per annum.
The reason for this rampant house price inflation is that demand is rising much faster than supply. What is more, with inelastic supply in the short term, a given percentage rise in demand leads to a larger percentage increase in prices.
Reasons for rapidly rising house prices
But why has demand risen so rapidly? One major reason is that central banks have engaged in massive quantitative easing. This has driven down interest rates to historic lows and has led to huge asset purchases. Mortgage lenders, awash with money, have been able to increase the ratio of lending to income. Borrowing by house purchasers, encouraged by low interest rates and easy access to mortgages, has thus increased rapidly.
Another reason for the increased demand is that economies are beginning to recover from the COVID-induced recessions. This makes people more confident about their future financial positions and more willing to take on increased mortgage debt. Another reason is that, with increased working from home, people are looking for larger houses where rooms can be used as studies. Another is that, with less spending during the lockdowns, people have built up savings, which can be used to buy larger homes.
Some countries have deliberately boosted demand by fiscal measures. In the UK, the government introduced a stamp duty ‘holiday’. Previously a 3% ‘stamp duty’ tax was applied to purchases over £125 000. Under the holiday scheme, the rate would only apply to purchases over £500 000 until 30 June 2021 and then to purchases over £250 000 until 30 September 2021. This massively boosted demand, especially as the deadlines approached. In the USA, there are various schemes at federal and state level to support first-time buyers, including low-interest loans and vouchers. Supporting demand is counterproductive if it merely leads to higher prices and thus does not make it easier for people to buy.
Speculation has played a major part too, with many potential purchasers keen to buy before prices rise further. On the supply side, some vendors have held back hoping to get a higher price by waiting. Gazumping has returned. This is where vendors accept a new higher offer even though they have already accepted a previous lower one.
Effects of higher house prices
Higher house prices have had a knock-on effect on rents, which have also soared. This has encouraged house purchases for rent both by individuals and by property investment companies. The effect of rapidly rising house prices and rents has been to increase the divide in society between property owners and those unable to afford to buy and forced to rent.
Increased housing wealth is likely to lead to greater housing equity withdrawal. This is where people draw on some of their equity in order to finance increased consumer spending, thereby boosting aggregate demand and possibly inflation.
Will the house price boom end soon?
One scenario is that there will be a gradual slowdown in house price increases as quantitative easing is tapered off and as support measures, such as the UK’s stamp duty holiday, are unwound.
There is a real possibility, however, that there will be a more severe correction, with house prices actually falling. This could be triggered by central banks raising interest rates in response to higher inflation caused by the recovery and by higher commodity prices. In the UK, labour shortages brought about by Brexit could make the inflationary problem worse. With high levels of mortgage debt, even a half percentage point rise in mortgage interest rates could have a severe effect on demand. Falling house prices will then be compounded by speculation, with buyers holding off and sellers rushing to sell.
- “UK Boom the Biggest in 50 years” thanks to House Prices, but Oxford Economics Warn of Risks
PoundSterling Live, Gary Howes (18/6/21)
- US house prices see biggest rise in 30 YEARS and are outstripping Britain’s pandemic-fuelled boom: Is a global housing market bubble emerging?
This is Money, Helen Crane (1/7/21)
- House prices: urban exodus of upsizers shifts property demand
Business Telegraph (18/4/21)
- House prices rise at fastest pace in 17 years
BBC News (30/6/21)
- Runaway house prices: the ‘winners and losers’ from the pandemic
Financial Times, Delphine Strauss and Colby Smith (25/6/21)
- World’s Bubbliest Housing Markets Flash 2008 Style Warnings
Bloomberg, Enda Curran (15/6/21)
- House prices climb to record levels in US and Europe
Financial Times, Martin Arnold, Colby Smith and Matthew Rocco (22/6/21)
- With house prices through the roof, young buyers’ hopes go out the window
The Observer, Phillip Inman (3/7/21)
- Is the UK housing bubble about to burst? These are the best and worst scenarios
The Guardian, Josh Ryan-Collins (2/7/21)
- House prices: the risks of a fall are higher than most people think
The Conversation, Geoff Meen (28/6/21)
- Use a supply and demand diagram to illustrate what has been happening to house prices. Illustrate the importance of the price elasticity of supply in the process.
- Under what circumstances might tax relief help or not help first-time buyers?
- Use a supply and demand diagram to illustrate the effect of speculation on house prices? Under what circumstances might speculation (a) make the market less stable; (b) help to stabilise the market?
- Explain what is meant by housing equity withdrawal. Using the Bank of England website, find out what has happened to housing equity withdrawal in the UK over the past 15 years. Explain.
- Under what circumstances would a sudden house price correction be more likely?
- Write a critique of housing policy in the light of growing inter-generational inequality of wealth.
I found myself singing this morning which I have to admit is not the most pleasant experience for those in ear-shot. I was singing to the tune of ‘love is all around us’. But rather than the words of the song performed by the Troggs in the late 1960s and by Wet Wet Wet in the 1990s, I found myself singing ‘debt is all around us’. It could easily have been the sub-conscious effect of the headlines relating to government debt (also known as national debt). But, actually it was the effect of having looked at my latest credit card statement and noting the impact that my summer holiday had had on my financial position! Relaxation, so it seems, doesn’t come cheap. With this in mind, I have just taken a look at the latest bank of England figures on British household debt. You can do the same by going to the Bank of England’s statistical release lending to individuals.
The latest figures reveal that at the end of June 2011 households in Britain had a stock of debt of £1.451 trillion. Now this is a big number – not far short of the economy’s annual Gross Domestic Product. But, interestingly, this is its lowest level in three years. Indeed, over the past twelve months the stock of household debt has fallen by £6 billion. This is the result of the sector’s repayment of unsecured debt, such as credit card debt and overdrafts. The stock of unsecured debt has fallen by £8.2 billion or 3.8% over the past year to stand at £209.7 billion.
The remaining £1.241 trillion of household debt is secured debt which is debt secured against property. The stock of secured debt has risen by £2.16 billion over the last 12 months, but this equates to a rise of less than 0.2%. In fact, further evidence from the Bank of England reveals that households are not only looking to reduce their exposure to unsecured debt but to pay off mortgage debt too. You might wonder how this might be occurring given that the stock of mortgage debt has risen, albeit only slightly. The answer lies in the growth of housing investment relative to that of mortgage debt. Housing investment relates, in the main, to the purchase of brand new homes and to major home improvements. As our population grows and the housing stock expands and as we spend money on improving our existing housing stock we acquire more mortgage debt. Bank of England figures show that housing investment has been greater than new secured lending. Consequently, the additions to the stock of lending have been less than housing investment. This gives rise to negative housing equity withdrawal, i.e. negative HEW.
The Bank of England estimates that in Q1 of 2011 there was an increase in housing equity of £5.8 billion. Negative housing equity withdrawal (HEW), an injection of housing equity, has occurred every quarter since Q2 2008. Since then, the UK household sector has injected some £63.7 billion of housing equity. The opportunity cost of this injection is that by increasing equity in property households are using money that could have been used for consumption or for purchasing financial assets. The extent of this negative HEW over the past 12 quarters has been the equivalent to 2.2% of disposable income.
While my credit card may have ballooned this month, it would appear that the household sector is looking to reduce its debt exposure. I will be looking to do likewise!
Housing injection goes on BBC News (4/7/11)
Personal insolvencies rise Independent, Philip Whiterow (5/8/11)
Mortgage boom as homeowners cash in an try reduce debts Independent, Simeon Read (5/7/11)
Homeowners inject £5.8 billion of equity into property in first quarter Telegraph, Emma Rowley (5/7/11)
Housing equity injection continues Guardian, Hilary Osborne (4/7/11)
Lending to individuals statistical release Bank of England
Housing equity withdrawal (HEW) statistical release Bank of England
- Illustrate with examples what is meant by secured and unsecured debt.
- What factors might help to explain the longer-term growth in secured and unsecured debt over recent decades?
- What factors might help to explain the more recent patterns in secured and unsecured debt?
- What do you understand by the term housing equity withdrawal?
- What is meant by negative HEW?
- What factors might help to explain the negative HEW observed for the past twelve quarters?
- What implications might there be for economic growth of negative housing equity withdrawal (HEW)?
We have learnt a lot this week about the appetite of households for spending. And, it appears that they are not particularly hungry. On Monday, the Quarterly National Accounts for Q1 revealed that, in real terms, household sector spending fell by 0.1% in the quarter despite disposable income growing by 2.1%. Today, we have learnt that households have continued to increase the amount of equity in their homes. The Housing Equity Withdrawal (HEW) figures for Q1 show that households increased their stake in housing by some £3.2 billion.
Housing Equity Withdrawal occurs when lending secured on dwellings increases by more than the investment in the housing stock. Housing investment relates largely to the purchase of brand new homes and to major home improvements, but also includes housing moving costs such as legal fees. What the Bank of England does is to compare these levels of housing investment with the amount of additional secured lending. If the Bank of England finds that additional secured lending is equal to the amount of housing investment then HEW is zero. If it is positive, then additional secured lending is greater than the levels of housing investment. This would show that the household sector was extracting equity from the housing stock and using mortgage lending to fund consumption, to purchase financial assets or to pay off unsecured debts, like credit cards.
But, the point here is that HEW is actually negative and has been so since the second quarter of 2008. Negative HEW means that housing investment levels are greater than the levels of new secured borrowing. In other words, household are increasing their housing equity. But, there is a cost to this choice because by doing so households are using money that could otherwise be assigned for spending or purchasing financial assets. One way of measuring the potential extent of foregone consumption is to note that the Bank estimates that the level of equity injected into housing in Q1 was equivalent to 1.3% of disposable income. Since Q2 2008 households have injected equity into housing to the tune of £38.34 billion, which is equivalent to 1.97% of disposable income, some of which might have otherwise been used to fund spending.
The negativity of HEW is not that surprising. In difficult economic times many of us might be tempted, if we can, to reduce our exposure to debt. Low interest rates may also be inducing households to pay off debt either because the interest rates on saving products are low and unattractive or because the size of mortgage payments for those on now lower variable rate mortgages gives them income with which to pay debt off. The bottom line is that after many years happily spending, households appear to be dining off a different menu.
Homeowners raise stakes in homes, says Bank of England BBC News (15/7/10)
Mortgage debt drops £3.2 billion Independent, Nicky Burridge (15/7/10)
Drop in outstanding mortgage debt UK Press Association (15/7/10)
Equity withdrawal still negative Financial Times, Cara Waters (15/7/10)
Saving may cause a double-dip recession Telegraph, Harry Wallop (13/7/10)
Housing equity withdrawal (HEW) statistical releases Bank of England
Quarterly National Accounts, 1st Quarter 2010 ONS
- What do you understand by the term ‘housing equity withdrawal’?
- Compare the possible implications for consumer spending of positive HEW and negative HEW.
- What factors do you think lie behind the eight consecutive quarters of negative HEW?
- Why might a low interest rate environment affect the incentive to withdrawal housing equity? What other variables might also affect levels of HEW?
- How does HEW affect the net worth of households?
Housing Equity Withdrawal, or HEW for short, is new borrowing that is secured against property which is not reinvested in the housing market. In other words, it is borrowed money that is not used by households to purchase property or to undertake major refurbishments, such as extensions to existing residential properties. The latest HEW statistical release from the Bank of England shows that HEW in Q4 2009 was again negative, making it the seventh consecutive quarter of negative HEW. But, what does a negative HEW figure mean?
Negative HEW occurs when the total saving by households in housing (either by paying back mortgages or by purchasing property directly without borrowing) is greater than new borrowing secured against housing. It results in an increase in housing equity held by the household sector. In the fourth quarter of 2009, the Bank’s seasonally-adjusted figures show that negative HEW was just over £4.3 billion, equivalent to 1.6% of disposable income.
But why might the household sector have wanted to save through housing and how might this impact on consumer spending? In truth there is no single reason, but one potentially important reason is likely to be the sector’s desire to rebuild its balance sheets. In times of uncertainty, such as those that we face now, a perfectly understandable response by households is to try to reduce their exposure to debt. During the seven quarters in which HEW has been negative, households have used housing as a vehicle for saving to the tune of £36.5 billion, equivalent to 2.2% of the sector’s disposable income. To some extent the fact that, as a result of the banking crisis, house-buyers have had to put down larger deposits when purchasing housing helps to reduce their exposure to debt. But, the extent of the negativity of HEW means that households more generally have been actively looking to repay some of their outstanding mortgage debt.
So what of the impact of HEW on consumer spending? Negative sums of HEW mean that consumers are either reducing consumer spending, reducing holdings of financial assets, increasing levels of unsecured debt (e.g. personal loans or credit card debt) or, of course, undertaking some combination of these. Given that the stock of unsecured debt has actually declined by £7.9 billion to £224.8 billion in the 12 months to February, the impact would seem to be falling on consumer spending.
Some commentators are pointing to the weakening pace with which households are saving through housing. The current level of saving through housing is, as we said earlier, equivalent to 1.6% of disposable income, down from the 3.0% recorded in both Q4 2008 and Q1 2009. But, this would seem to simply highlight the extent of the precautionary behaviour by households in the midst of the economic downturn. It would be a surprise to see any significant end soon to the UK household sector’s precautionary behaviour.
Britons plough cash into repaying debt The Times, James Charles (6/4/10)
The great mortgage payback Reuters, Harry Wallop (6/4/10)
Home owners’ housing equity still increasing BBC News (6/4/10) )
Brits pay off £4bn of mortgage debt Press Association (6/4/10)
UK Q4 housing injection smallest since Q2 2008 – BOE MarketNews.com (6/4/10)
Housing equity withdrawal (HEW) statistical releases Bank of England
- Explain what are meant by positive and negative values of HEW.
- What implications might additions to housing equity have for consumer spending?
- What factors do you think lie behind the seven consecutive quarters of negative HEW?
- If house price inflation were to start picking up in the near future, would you expect to see positive values of HEW and, if so, how strongly positive?
- Other than through HEW, how might the housing and mortgage markets impact on consumer spending?
Figures released by the Bank of England show that in the third quarter of 2009 UK households increased their housing equity (i.e. repaid mortgage debt) by £4.9 billion, equivalent to 2% of their disposable income. This was the sixth consecutive quarter in which saving in housing exceeded net mortgage lending. Interestingly, during each of these six quarters the UK economy contracted.
Saving in housing (or ‘negative housing equity withdrawal’ (HEW)) will reduce aggregate demand if it is funded out of income that would otherwise have been spent on consumer goods and services. Since the proportion of income saved, as measured by the saving ratio, climbed from an historic low of 0.9% in the third quarter of 2008 to 8.6% in the same quarter of 2009, increased saving in housing equity has been depressing spending levels. Indeed, across the six quarters in which HEW has been negative, households have increased their stock of housing equity by £33.9 billion, equivalent to 2.3% of disposable income – money which could otherwise have been spent.
Increased saving in housing by households is an example of the household sector’s attempt to repair its balance sheets. Another example has been the fall in the sector’s outstanding stock of unsecured debt (e.g. outstanding personal loans and credit-card debt). Elsewhere in the economy, banks too have been looking to repair their badly damaged balance sheets and, of course, there is the considerable interest in how the UK government will reduce its budget deficit. We can expect these repairs to balance sheets to have some impact on the pace of economic recovery. What is less certain is the size and duration of these balance sheet effects.
Home loan repayments ‘a priority’ BBC News (29/12/09)
Homeowners pay off £5bn of mortgage debt Financial Times, Vanessa Houlder (30/12/09)
Homeowners stop cashing in on the value of their homes Telegraph, Myra Butterworth (29/12/09)
Mortgages paid off at the fastest rate for 40 years Guardian, Larry Elliott (30/12/09)
Homeowners rush to repay mortgages thisismoney, Rosamund Urwin (29/12/09)
- What factors might explain why UK households have been increasing their saving in housing equity during 2009?
- Why might increasing amounts of HEW, such as those in the mid 2000s, not necessarily result in higher levels of consumer spending?
- What do you understand by the ‘household balance sheets’? What do you think is likely to be the most significant item on the sector’s balance sheets?