By Michael Baxter
The latest data from the Nationwide, Hometrack and Halifax on UK house prices was out last week. And for the second time in three months they were unanimous. They all had month on month house prices falling: Hometrack by 0.1 per cent, Nationwide by 0.4 per cent, and the Halifax index recorded a 0.4 per cent drop in September. It has been frustrating over the last couple of years observing these housing surveys. Each month they have seemed to contradict each other. But all three reported falls in July, and in August two of the three reported falls (Nationwide had prices rising), and in September this rare agreement thing has happened again.
Perhaps more to the point, on an annual basis all three had prices falling too: Hometrack by 0.5 per cent, Nationwide by 1.4 per cent and Halifax by 1.2 per cent.
Mind you, they might have prices falling but house prices are not exactly crashing.
Meanwhile, politicians are busy trying to dream up ideas to try to get prices up. Nick Clegg wants to use money sitting in pension schemes to fund deposits, while Ed Balls has mooted the idea of using income from licensing 4G to fund a cut in stamp duty.
But, as is their wont, while on one hand the government is trying to dream up ideas to kick start the property market –such as funding for lending – is the other hand is also busy coming up with ideas to derail the market. According to analysis from Morgan Stanley, banks could be forced to find an extra £22bn in capital to fund changes to the way in which mortgages are risk weighted. The issue is complicated.
Under the Basel rules, banks are required to hold a certain amount of capital. And under impending changes they will need to maintain 10 per cent capital ratios – other than mortgages, that is. Mortgages are seen as different, and carry a much lower risk rating than other asset classes. And who chooses this risk rating? Why the banks themselves, of course. It turns out that some banks have put such a low risk rating on their mortgage assets that, in fact, they can achieve leverage of near 100 to one – or one per cent capital.
It is not difficult to understand why the regulator is worried about this. This may seem like a radical concept, but some might say that it should not be down to the banks to risk assess their own assets.
So far then it all makes sense. Banks should not be allowed to risk assess their assets, and should not be allowed leverage of around 100:1 on some mortgage debt. It is just that if the regulators’ perfectly reasonable reservations were taken into account, bank mortgage lending might crash faster than you can say ‘property snakes and ladders’.
And that brings us to the baby boomers – you know those people who are due to swell the ranks of the retired to record levels. According to research from Lloyds Bank, just over half (51 per cent) of potential home movers are looking to ‘downsize’ within the next three years, compared to just a fifth (22 per cent) looking to trade up to a larger property. It is not that rare for home owners reaching retirement to downsize. The Lloyds TSB report, however, found that the reasons for downsizing have broadened in these tough economic times. Whilst 59 per cent want to move to a smaller property that is better suited to their circumstances, a third of potential downsizers would like to move to a smaller property to help reduce bills. Almost two fifths would like to free up equity in the property, and almost one in three said they want to downsize to help support retirement plans. A fifth of those considering downsizing are looking to trade down earlier than expected, with the majority citing financial concerns as the key driver.
So there you have it. The government can try to nudge us all into saving more, but as the UK enters the demographic moment of dread – the retirement of baby boomers – we are set to see a rush of people downsizing, creating an influx of supply onto the property market.
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