Mortgage subsidies – it’s not the young who win

“It is disappointing that the country cannot liberate itself from the desire to subsidise borrowing to finance house purchases,” complains Martin Wolf in his review of George Osborne’s autumn statement. “Why should the government subsidise people to speculate on property prices?”

Wolf fails to understand the logic of the new policy. It’s not the first time buyer who is really being subsidised by mortgages backed by the British government. They are simply entering an overpriced market, and taking on debt that will strangle some of them in what Wolf expects to be a ‘lost decade’.

Instead, it is those who are exiting the market who will benefit if the Chancellor’s largesse succeeds in propping up prices – that’s the elderly who are dying and passing on the proceeds from a house sale to their children (who tend to be in late middle age), or the baby boomers themselves as they downsize in preparation for retirement.

Any government policy that keeps house prices artificially high benefits the old not the young. Of course, banks will do quite nicely from government-backed 95% mortgages as well – they can relax lending standards and we all know where that leads.

Time to Stop Betting the House

Today, I launch a new paper on risk and resilience in the UK housing market. The report calls for a fundamental shift in the way in which the UK mortgage market is regulated and the how it operates.

The paper is published by the Long Finance Foundation, which is a counter to the short-termism that has brought many first world economies to the brink of penury.

The initiative began with a conundrum – “when would we know our financial system is working?” – and aims to “improve society’s understanding and use of finance over the long-term”. Intent on igniting a global debate on longer-term finance and related issues.

The paper – Time to Stop Betting the House – is being launched at a Long Finance conference on Enduring Value with Brian Eno, Stewart Brand, Faisal Islam, and Avinash Persaud. It argues that:

  • The FSA has failed to understand the scale of challenges facing the British mortgage market, which represents one of the greatest sources of financial risk facing the public.
  • Its regulatory reforms, far from offering the ‘one-off shift’ that Adair Turner has promised, are timorous and unfit for purpose.
  • They leave over-leveraged borrowers highly vulnerable to future economic volatility – with the potential for a second housing crisis to come sooner rather than later.

The paper then sets out two very different visions for a more resilient mortgage market; Edited Choice reduces complexity in the market whilst increasing choice, Melt the Glue creates resilience from the ground up, decreasing the government’s direct involvement during a transitional period where diversity is also reintroduced into the market.

The aim of the report is to catalyse debate on how the financial services industry should be structured in the future – and challenge the thinking of the next government.

You can download the full report here.