On housing – Gordon Brown, Mervyn King, asleep at the wheel

I gave a talk at Gresham College yesterday, drawing on my paper for the Long Finance Foundation on risk and resilience in the UK housing market.

Also on the panel was Channel 4’s Economics correspondent, Faisal Islam. He had a couple of great quotes. This from Gordon Brown’s first budget speech in 1997 (click through to admire the retro styling of the last 1990s Treasury website):

For most people the acquisition of a house is the biggest single investment they will make. Homeowners rightly expect their investment to be protected by sensible policies pursued by Government.

I am determined that as a country we never return to the instability, speculation, and negative equity that characterised the housing market in the 1980s and 1990s. Volatility is damaging both to the housing market and to the economy as a whole.

So stability will be central to our policy to help homeowners. And we must be prepared to take the action necessary to secure it. I will not allow house prices to get out of control and put at risk the sustainability of the recovery.

When Brown spoke, the average house cost £75k  – about £10k above the early 1990s nadir. A long long boom was just beginning. Prices would peak in February 2008 at an average of… £232k!!!

In other words, Brown promised not to let house prices spiral out of control and then allowed them to treble, during a period when household disposable income increased by only 30% or so.

The second quote is a more recent one – from Mervyn King, the Governor of the Bank of England. Last month, Faisal asked King whether the current re-inflation of the housing bubble was sustainable. Prices are currently only around 7% below their peak and seem overvalued by every measure.  Only cheap money – pumped into the markets by the government – and very low interest rates is keeping the market afloat.

Isn’t the market going to deflate very rapidly once government funding is withdrawn? King’s response:

No one can forecast asset prices, so I don’t think you can predict that asset prices will fall back. I don’t see why that should in and of itself lead to a change in asset prices, because we all know this problem is there and that’s already reflected in to current asset prices.

As Faisal points out, this shows confidence in the efficient market hypothesis that is breathtaking given a global financial crisis that was driven by an asset price bubble. In King’s fantasy world, buyers know that there will be much less credit available in the future – so this concern is already included in current market prices.

King’s insouciance – and Brown’s negligence – both beggar belief.