Could the UK target house price inflation and should we?

Yesterday brought news of a policy initiative from the Labour party on a subject close to my heart and was a subject which occupied much of my afternoon and evening. It also reminded me of the way that social media can have more than a few different but similar strands ongoing at the same time. So if I missed anyone out apologies but I did my best and did better at least that the respondent who seemed to think my name was Tom.

Here from The Guardian is the basis of the proposal.

The Bank of England could be set a target for house price inflation under plans being explored by the Labour party, with tougher powers to restrict mortgage lending to close the gap between property prices and average incomes.

The shadow housing secretary, John Healey, is considering whether, under a Labour government, the Bank should be set an explicit target following a decade of runaway growth in the property market, with the aim of tackling the housing crisis.

The author of the idea is Grace Blakeley and I replied to her that there are various problems with this but let us set out her idea properly from her paper for the think tank the IPPR.

This would be equivalent to the remit the Monetary Policy
Committee has to control consumer price inflation. Under such a target the Bank of England should aim to keep nominal house price inflation at (say) zero per cent for an initial period – perhaps five years – to reset expectations,
and allow affordability to improve.

As I replied to Grace I am a fan of that in spirit but there are issues including one from the next sentence which I have just spotted.

It should then be increased to the same
rate as the consumer price inflation target of 2 per cent per year, meaning zero real-terms house price growth.

Er no that is not zero in real terms because if you are aiming for “affordability to improve” your objective must be for wage growth to exceed house price growth yet it does not apparently merit a mention there. If for example both consumer and house price inflation were on this target at 2% per annum you would be losing ground if wage growth was below that level.

How would this be enacted?

The target should be implemented using
macroprudential tools such as capital requirements, loan-to-value, and debt to-income ratios.

The first question is whether you could do this? Mostly a new policy regime could as we already have some moves in this direction from the Bank of England as pointed out in the paper.

The FPC recently implemented a
loan-to-income ratio of 4.5 per cent for 15 per cent of new mortgages,

The two catches as that this area is one where the truth can be and sometimes is hidden as those who recall the  “liar loans” era will know. Next is the concept of shadow banking or if I may be permitted a long word the concept of disintermediation where you restrict the banks so people borrow form elsewhere such as offshore or overseas.

These problems would be especially evident if you tried to implement this.

Since house price inflation is different in parts of the country, the FPC’s guidance should be regionally specific.

That recognition is welcome but the scale of the issue troubles me. Let me give you some examples from right now where house prices are rising in much of the Midlands and Yorkshire as well as Northern Ireland whilst falling in and around London. Also as @HenryPryor pointed what the situation in Northern Ireland is very different to elsewhere.

Confirmation from that despite enjoying robust inflation in recent months, house prices in Northern Ireland remain some 41% 𝐥𝐨𝐰𝐞𝐫 than they were just prior to the start of the financial crisis in 2007.

Perhaps you could define Northern Ireland but is even it homogenous? A clear danger is that you end up with a bureaucratic nightmare with loads of different definitions and all sorts of border issues as well as increasing the likelihood of another form of disintermediation.

The relationship between the Bank of England and the government

A clear issue is that whilst the Bank of England can influence house prices it does not control them and the paper sets out areas where it is not in control.

House prices are also determined by other factors, not least the supply of housing, and therefore adoption of the target would need to be accompanied by a much more active housing policy. This might include public housebuilding, changes to planning policy, and curbs on overseas purchases of UK homes (Ryan-Collins et al 2017). The FPC should be able to request that the government do more with housing policy if it judges that it will be unable to meet its target through macroprudential tools alone.

The supply of housing is something we have discussed on here pretty much since I began writing articles and the theme has been that government’s of many hues have serially disappointed. The Ebbsfleet saga has been the headline in this respect. Also I have to say that the idea of the Financial Planning Committee needing to “request” help from government policy is welcome in one way but problematic in another. First it is a confession that macroprudential policies are far from a holy grail in this area. Second I can see many scenarios of which the main one would be an upcoming election when the government would simply pay lip service or worse ignore the “request”. Thus we would likely find ourselves singing along to Taylor Swift.

I knew you were trouble when you walked in
So shame on me now
Flew me to places I’d never been
Now I’m lying on the cold hard ground
Oh, oh, trouble, trouble, trouble
Oh, oh, trouble, trouble, trouble

I do mostly agree with this part though and so does the Bank of England as otherwise it would not have introduced the Funding for Lending Scheme back in the summer of 2012.

It is also worth noting, however, that recent research has shown that the level of mortgage lending is the primary determinant of house prices (Ryan-Collins et
al 2017).

Comment

There is a lot to consider here and let me again say that as regular readers will be aware I think that economic policy does need to take account of asset price booms and busts. The catch is in the latter part though because the very same Bank of England that you would be asking to reduce house price growth has been explicitly ramping it since the summer of 2012 and implicitly before then with the Bank Rate cuts and QE bond purchases that preceded it. So the current poachers would have to turn into gamekeepers. Would they? I have my doubts because as we look around the world central banks seem to fold like deck chairs when asset prices fall.

Next comes the issue of could this be done? To which the answer is definitely maybe as you could start on this road and at first your theories would apply. But if we look back to the past history of macroprudential policies there was a reason why they were abandoned and it is because they themselves lead to a boom and bust cycle and bringing things up to date I have doubts on these lines as well as I tweeted to Grace.

One of the problems of central banks in the modern era is that they have often ended up operating in a pro-cyclical fashion. How can you be sure with their poor Forward Guidance record that they can be counter cyclical?

It is easy to spot cycles in hindsight but looking ahead it is far harder as otherwise the aphorism that central banks have never predicted a recession would not keep doing the rounds.

Can we fix it? Yes we can make a start as I hinted at here.

Whilst I support the spirit of this in terms of including house prices. I would point out that the UK could change things by simply going back to the Retail Prices Index as an inflation target because it includes house prices.

Personally I would update the RPI ( using the RPIX version to exclude mortgage costs) so that it explicitly has house prices rather than reply on them implicitly via depreciation and as a stop-gap we could drop out fashion clothing to trim the formula effect. So in effect we would be reversing the changes made by Gordon Brown in the early part of the 2000s. Then off we go although something else would have to be changed as well as basically a clear out of current Bank of England policy makers.

you have the issue of it these days also supporting the economy as defined by GDP

Me on The Investing Channel