How official inflation measures are designed to mislead you

Over the past year or two even the mainstream media seems to have had flickers of realisation about the problems with official inflation measures. Perhaps their journalists wondered how things could be so expensive with recorded inflation so low? I recall even Bloomberg publishing pieces on exactly that looking at problems in the housing situation in Germany which expressed exactly that with those experiencing reality questioning the official numbers and in more than a few cases suggesting they came from a place far,far away.

Yesterday a member of the Executive Board of the ECB expressed his worries about this area, So let us look at what Yves Mersch had to say.

A prolonged loss of trust in the ECB risks undermining the broad public support that is necessary for central bank independence.

I think he is going a bit far with “broad public support” as most people will only have a vague idea about what the ECB does but let us indulge Yves for now. He goes onto ground which is about as near as central bankers get to admitting the amount of mission-creep that has gone on.

This is of particular concern when the range of non-conventional measures brings monetary policy closer to the realm of fiscal policy and the institutional effects of these policies are becoming more pronounced.

House Prices

This follows a section where he points out this.

The risks arising from strong housing price inflation extend beyond financial stability.

Indeed although the Euro area had lots of problems for financial stability as pre credit crunch house prices in Ireland, Spain and the Baltic States boomed and later bust, which also undermined many banks. However in spite of this he confesses that one way of guarding against this happening again has been ignored.

At present, owner-occupied housing costs are not included in the Harmonised Index of Consumer Prices (HICP) that is used to formulate our inflation aim of below, but close to, 2% over the medium term.

I mean why would you put in something which for many is their largest monthly expenditure? The next sentence covers a lot of ground but the latter part is very revealing.

There are a number of technical explanations for this exclusion, but it is clear that households view the cost of housing as an important part of their lifetime expenditure.

“View”?! The truth is that if we switch to describing it as shelter it is a basic human need. Of course central bankers have a track record in downplaying basic human needs in the way that food and energy are left out of so-called core inflation measures, but this takes things a step further as many of the costs of shelter are completely ignored rather than downplayed. As to the “technical explanations” let us just mark them for now as I will cover them later.

Next we get another example of the central banking obsession with rents.

 Rents represent around 6.5% of the basket used for measuring inflation.

Let me explain why. This is because in their Ivory Tower world people consume housing services whatever they do. This works for those who do rent as their (usually) monthly payment fits with that theory. Actually in practice there are more than a few problems with measuring this accurately as I noted earlier in the reference to Bloomberg Germany in particular. Also there are a lot of complaints concerning Ireland too. So even where it should work there are troubles,

But when you apply consumption of housing services to people who buy their own home be it outright or via a mortgage there is trouble. If someone is fortunate enough to buy outright then you have one large payment rather than a stream of services. Even the highest Ivory Tower should be able to spot that this simply does not work. You might think that using mortgages would work much more neatly after all a monthly payment does have some sort of fit with consuming housing services. But for a central bank there is a problem as it is the main player in what the monthly mortgage costs is these days. In the case of the ECB its negative deposit rate of -0.5% and its QE bond buying operations ( currently 20 billion Euros per month) have reduced mortgage rates substantially.

So there is the “rub”. Not only are they reducing the recorded level of inflation with their own policy which is of course trying to raise inflation! But even worse they are raising house prices to do so and thus inflation is in fact higher. It is not the misrepresentation or if you prefer lying that bother them as after all they are practised at that but even they think they may struggle to get away with it. In a way the speech from Yves reflects this because the background to all this is below.

House prices rose by 4.1 % in both the euro area and the EU in the third quarter of 2019 compared with the same quarter of the previous year.

You see why they might want to keep house prices out of the inflation index when we note that the official HICP measure recorded 1% (twice) and 0.8% in that same quarter.

Yves continues the official swerve with this.

Indeed, the United States, Japan, Sweden and Norway already integrate owner-occupied housing into their reference inflation indices.

You see both Japan and the United States use rents as a proxy for owner-occupied housing costs in spite of the fact that no rents are paid. You might think when Yves has noted the influence of house prices he would point that out. After all using fantasy rents to measure actual rises in house prices will only make this worse.

The gap between perceptions and official measures of inflation can complicate the communication of policy decisions. If households believe that inflation is rampant then they will see little justification for unconventional measures, in particular negative interest rates.

There is no little arrogance here in “believe that inflation is rampant” to describe people who have real world experience of higher prices and hence inflation as opposed to sticking your head in the sand for two decades about an important area.


Even Yves is forced to admit that the omission of owner-occupied housing costs has made a material difference to recorded inflation.

If it were to be included in the HICP, it could raise measured inflation rates in the euro area by around 0.2 to 0.5 percentage points in some periods. Taking that into consideration, core inflation would lift from its current 1.3% to its long-run trend, or even higher, thereby having a bearing on the monetary policy stance.

You can bet that the numbers have been absolutely tortured to keep the estimate that low. But this also hides other issues of which Eurostat provides a clear example below.

 the annual growth rate of the EU HPI reached a maximum of 9.8 % in the first quarter of 2007

Pre credit crunch Euro area house prices did post a warning signal but were ignored. After all what could go wrong? But more recently let me remind you that the ECB put the hammer down on monetary policy in 2015.

Then there was a rapid rise in early 2015, since when house prices have increased at a much faster pace than rents.

Or to put it another way the Euro area HICP is full of imagination.

Could it be that it’s just an illusion?
Putting me back in all this confusion?
Could it be that it’s just an illusion now?
Could it be that it’s just an illusion?
Putting me back in all this confusion?
Could it be that it’s just an illusion now?

I promised earlier to deal with the technical issues and could write pages and pages of excuses, but instead let me keep it simple. The consumer in general spends a lot on housing so they switch to consumption where purchase of assets is not included and like a magic trick it disappears. Hey Presto! Meanwhile back in the real world ordinary people have to pay it.

How much has housing benefit inflated UK house prices?

A subject raised by many of you in the comments section has been given something of an airing in The Times newspaper. An article has been written by Paul Johnson of the Institute of Fiscal Studies and I welcome some light being shone in a dark area. However we need to tread carefully as Paul was the author of the 2015 Inflation Report which these days even he is admitting misfired. Here is what Housing Benefit is according to the UK Government website.

Housing Benefit can help you pay your rent if you’re unemployed, on a low-income or claiming benefits.

There is also a savings limit of £16,000. First Paul points out that a lot more interest should be taken in it due to the amount of money involved. Along the way I have highlighted the section which makes me think of the house price boom.

It is a curious omission. The government spends an astonishing £22 billion a year on housing benefit. That dwarfs spending on the police, on overseas aid and the budgets of many entire government departments. Spending on this one benefit has doubled since the early 2000s. More than four million households receive it. All that is true despite repeated cuts in generosity such that for most working-age people it covers a lower proportion of their actual rent than was the case in the past.

Once we get over the size of the intervention there are two main themes here I think. Firstly is the flow of £22 billion into the housing market to support house prices and rents. I am sorry to say that Paul rather fumbles this ball.

 If you’re paying that much money to that many people to cover their rent, you might expect that to push up the market level of rent. I say we don’t know because there isn’t a lot of robust evidence telling us that is definitely happening, and indeed some evidence that it doesn’t happen in the short-term.

I would suggest that when you have evidence that water isn’t wet you have a rethink as a simple process of following the money seems a much better guide to me. Also the second theme is common in the modern era where we are told something if being cut back but more money is spent on it in both nominal and real terms.

The problems

Let us work our way through the problems listed.

First, it is an awful lot of money.

As we have done that one let’s move on.

Second, as a means-tested benefit affecting large numbers of people, housing benefit can have substantial effects on work incentives.

This is a point many of you have made in the comments section and we are in an area I feel strongly about called the “Poverty Trap” where marginal tax rates can be very high and on occasion above 100% ( which in spite of the insanity of it has existed). The idea of those on low incomes paying proportionately as much tax as those on very high incomes is madness but also sadly reality for some. Here I am from February 4th 2010.

1. End the poverty trap that has the highest marginal tax rates for our poorest citizens.

Returning to this list.

Third, this scale of spending is itself a reflection of many of the other problems we face in the housing market.

Agreed and it reminds us yet again of the link here between this and other flows of money into the UK housing market and the level of house prices and rents.

Fourth, spending on this scale could itself be exacerbating some of those problems, potentially pushing up rents and acting as a transfer to landlords.

Amazing how Paul seems so doubtful about £22 billion a year having a material impact. But you see this is an area where he went wrong with his 2015 Inflation Report when he recommended the CPIH inflation measure which uses Imputed Rents via Rental Equivalance for owner-occupiers. If you are thinking that seems silly because owner-occupiers do not pay rent you are correct. But you see that line of thought has led to the use of very low numbers for rent rises in the inflation numbers like the latest one shown below.

Private rental prices paid by tenants in the UK rose by 1.0% in the 12 months to January 2019, unchanged from December 2018.

Yet we need apparently to keep pouring extra money into this area suggesting something is very wrong! Conveniently the official inflation measure is kept low by all of this.

And fifth, cuts in recent years mean that, despite the scale of spending, many families are left struggling to pay their rent and to cover other living expenses.

As there is apparently little or no rental inflation and there have been cuts there must be plenty more people claiming this benefit which begs the question why?

What has caused this?

The main drivers of the increase in spending have been the rapid expansion of the private rented sector alongside increased rents in social housing, in part because cheaper council housing has been in decline.

The shift from social renting to private renting is clear although the article suddenly gets rather economical with the truth.

If you own your own home, you are not eligible for housing benefit, so the collapse in rates of owner-occupation has played an important role.

I was curious about the use of the word collapse in reference to owner-occupation as the House of Commons Library put it like this in June 2017.

The rate of owner-occupation is also slightly lower than it was ten years ago.

Also here is the English Housing Survey from last month.

However, the rate of owner occupation has not changed since 2013-14. The increase from 63% in 2016-17 to 64% in 2017-18 is not statistically significant.

People are now paying higher rents which returning to my point above has been missed by the inflation data as private rents are higher than social or council housing ones. Back to Paul’s article.

Rents in the private sector are much higher than those in the much-diminished local authority sector.

There are issues of luck as to geography as well.

 If you live in Liverpool and have no private income, your housing benefit will still cover your full rent if you live in a property in the lowest 30 per cent of local rents. In Greater Manchester you’ll be left with more than 15 per cent of the rent to pay and in much of London you’ll need to come up with more than a quarter of the rent bill from somewhere.


This is an important issue as we consider this.

In the long run, the solution to these issues can’t come from the housing benefit system itself. The trade-offs are inescapable. It will come from fixing the underlying problems — high rents, high house prices, inadequate social housing.

It can however help as we again mull how rents have got so high with apparently no inflation? Paul continues to have a blind spot here as we have a factor in how people feel they are worse off than the official data tells them.

The idea of a flow of money into the housing sector boosting house prices and rents gets further support from what are substantial sums even after the  cuts.

Even so, if you are entitled to a three-bedroom property, perhaps because you are a couple with two older children, you can easily be entitled to more than £300 a week in London and more than £200 a week in parts of the South East.

Then we finish by mulling the travesty and unfairness of the poverty-trap.

Many people in that position are trapped on benefits. They can’t earn enough to break free of the benefits system and because of the way in which housing benefit is withdrawn at a rate of 65p for every pound as earnings rise, the financial gain from earning more is limited, especially when other benefits and tax credits are also being withdrawn.

Also if we look back in time was the problem even more in the shadows? What I mean by that was there was a form of implicit subsidy in lower council house rents back in the day to the extent that they were below market rents.




For many in the UK there is nothing going on but the rent

The words of Gwen Guthrie’s song are echoing this morning as the BBC seems to have discovered that renting in the UK has become very expensive. In particular it focuses on the impact on your people.

People in their 20s who want to rent a place for themselves face having to pay out an “unaffordable” amount in two-thirds of Britain, BBC research shows.

They face financial strain as average rents for a one-bedroom home eat up more than 30% of their typical salary in 65% of British postcode areas.

Many housing organisations regard spending more than a third of income on rent as unaffordable.

A salary of £51,200 is needed to “afford” to rent a one-bed London home.

How have we got here? There have been two main themes in the credit crunch era driving this of which the first has been the struggles of real wages. If we use the official data we see that setting the index at 100 in 2015 took them back to where they were in the summer of 2005 or a type of lost decade. In spite of the economy growing since then and employment numbers doing well we find that the latest number is a mere 101.7 showing so little growth. Even worse in an irony some of the growth is caused by the fact that our official statisticians use an inflation measure called CPIH which has consistently told us there is no inflation in rents.Oh Dear!

Added to this problem was a further impact on younger people from the credit crunch. We could do with an update but this from a paper by David Blanchflower and Stephen Manchin tells us what was true a few years ago.

The real wages of the typical (median) worker have fallen by around 8–10% – or around 2% a year behind inflation – since 2008. Such falls have occurred across the wage distribution, generating falls in living standards for most people, with the exception of those at the very top.

Some groups have been particularly hard hit, notably the young. Those aged 25 to 29 have seen real wage falls on the order of 12%; for those aged 18 to 24, there have been falls of over 15% (Gregg et al. 2014).

So younger people took a harder hit in real wage terms which will have made the rent squeeze worse. Hopefully recent rises in the minimum wage and looking ahead the planned rise from Amazon will help but overall we have gained little ground back since then.


Here is at least some of the state of play.

In London, a 20-something with a typical average income would spend 55% of their monthly earnings on a mid-range one-bedroom flat. Housing charity Shelter considers any more than 50% as “extremely unaffordable”.

That rises to 156%, so one-and-a-half times a typical salary, in one part of Westminster – the most expensive part of London – where an average one-bedroom home costs £3,500 a month to rent.

In contrast, a tenant aged 22-29 looking for a typical property of this kind in the Scottish district of Argyll and Bute would only have to spend 15% of their income.

Even to a Battersea boy like me that all seems rather London centric. Wasn’t the BBC supposed to have shifted on mass to Manchester? Perhaps it was only the sports section which has quite an obsession with United as otherwise no doubt we would have got an update on Manchester and its surrounds. Still Westminster is eye-watering and no doubt influenced by all MPs wanting somewhere close to Parliament. By contrast renting in Argyll and Bute is very cheap although the number of people there is not that great.

Mind you there is at least an oasis below for those who want a Manchester link.

This all comes at a time when young adults might look back in anger at previous generations

Still I guess they will have to roll with it or try to anesthetise any pain with cigarettes and alcohol.


This provided some food for thought.

The BBC research shows that a private tenant in the UK typically spends more than 30% of their income on rent.

In 1980, UK private renters spent an average of 10% of their income on rent, or 14% in London.

So the amount spent has risen across the board and especially so in London. This however begs a question of our inflation measure which accentuates the use of rents by assuming and fantasising that owner-occupiers pay them. This is around 17% of that index. But contrary to the fact that rents are more expensive they seem to have got there without there being much inflation! As the fantasies are recent we sadly do not have a full data set but the response to a freedom of information enquiry tells us that the index has risen from 89.3 at the beginning of 2005 to 103.8 in early 2017. However they have apparently revised all this in the year or so since and now we are at 103.3 but 2005 is at 77.1. So measuring rents can go firmly in our “You don’t know what you’re doing” category and should be nowhere near any official inflation measure. What could go wrong with fantasies based on something you are unable to measure with any accuracy?

Size issues

This caught my eye as it goes against an assumption we have looked at on here which is that properties have been getting smaller ( as we get larger).

 In the last 10 years, when families have been increasingly likely to rent, owners have seen the average floor space of their homes increase by 7% compared with a 2% rise for tenants. That leaves owners with an average of 30 sq m extra floor space than tenants, which the charity suggests is the equivalent of a master bedroom and a kitchen.

I am not sure how they calculate this issue for renters as back in the day when I was saving up I rented in a shared house. This was pretty much the same house as all the others in what is called Little India in Battersea (because of the names of the streets).

It wasn’t me

This is the response of landlords who presumably need some fast PR. After all longer-term landlords have made extraordinary capital gains on their investments and now seem to have done pretty well out of the income via rent.

Landlords say they face costs, including their mortgages, insurance, maintenance and licensing, that need to be covered from rents.

“These costs are increasing as the government introduces new measures to discourage investment in property, such as the removal of mortgage interest relief and the changes to stamp duty,” said Chris Norris, director of policy at the National Landlords Association.



The underlying theme here is the march of the rentier society. This seems set to affect the younger generations disproportionately especially if the current trend and trajectory of real wages remains as it has been for the last/lost decade. This gives us a “back to the future” style theme as that was the life of my grandparents who owned little but rented a lot. My parents managed to escape that and started by buying a house in Dulwich in the 1970s for £9000 which seems hard to believe now. But were they and I a blip on the long-term chart? It is starting to feel like that and this line of thought is feed by this from the BBC.

The charity estimated that private tenants in England are spending £140 more in housing costs than people with a mortgage.

That has been driven by the extraordinary effort to reduce mortgage rates starting with the cutting of interest-rates to as low as 0.25%, £445 billion of QE and to top it off the credit easing via the Funding for Lending Scheme. No such help was given to renters who of course have not benefited from “Help To Buy” either. Thus renters have a genuine gripe with the Bank of England.

Let me finish on a more hopeful development which is the Amazon news.

1) This is a significant increase. Around 20% above the national living wage and 10% above the real living wage. It amounts to hundreds of £ per worker, and also raises the prospect of other warehouse operators following suit ( Benedict Dellot of the RSA )

Whilst their working conditions may still be a modern version of the dark satanic mills of William Blake at least the wages are a fair bit better.





What is happening in the UK housing market?

There are always a multitude of factors to consider here but one has changed if the “unreliable boyfriend” can finally go steady. That is the Open Mouth Operations from various members of the Bank of England about a Bank Rate ( official interest-rate) increase in November presumably to 0.5%. This would be the first time since the summer of 2013 and the introduction of the Funding for Lending Scheme that there has been upwards pressure on mortgage rates. Indeed the FLS was designed to drive them lower ( albeit being under the smokescreen of improving small business lending) and if we throw in the more recent Term Funding Scheme the band has continued to play to the same beat. From Bank of England data for July.

Effective rates on new individual mortgages has decreased by 10bps from 2.05% to 1.95%, this is the first time the series has fallen below 2%;

The current table only takes us back to August 2015 but it does confirm the theme as back then the rate was 2.57%. Noticeable in the data is the way that fixed-rate mortgages (1.99%) have become closer to variable-rate ones (1.73%) and if we look at the combination it looks as though fixed-rate mortgages have got more popular. That seems sensible to me especially if you are looking beyond the term of office of the “unreliable boyfriend.” From the Resolution Foundation.

The vast majority (88%) of new loans are taken with fixed interest rates, meaning 57% of the stock of loans are now fixed.

Has Forward Guidance had an impact?

That depends where you look but so far the Yorkshire Building Society at least seems rather unimpressed.

0.89% variable (BoE Base rate + -3.85%) variable (YBS Standard Variable Rate -3.85%) fixed until 30/11/2019

There is a large fee ( £1495) and a requirement for 35% of equity but even so this is the lowest mortgage-rate they have even offered. You can get a fixed rate mortgage for the same term for 0.99% with the same fee if you have 40% of equity.

So we see that so far there has not been much of an impact on the Yorkshire Building Society! Perhaps they had a tranche of funding which has not yet run out, or perhaps it has been so long since interest-rates last rose that they have forgotten what happens next? If we move to market interest-rates Governor Carney will be pleased to see that they have taken more notice of him as the 2 year Gilt yield was as low as 0.15% on the 7th of this month and is now 0.45%. The 5 year Gilt yield rose from 0.39% on the 7th to 0.77% now.

Thus there should be upwards pressure on future mortgage rates albeit of course that funding is still available to banks from the Term Funding Scheme at 0.25%. But don’t take my word for it as here are the Bank of England Agents.

competition remained intense, driven by new market entrants and low funding costs

What about valuations?

There have been a lot of anecdotal mentions of surveyors lowering valuations ( which is a forward indicator of lower prices ahead) but this from the Bank of England Agents is the first official note of this.

There were more reports of transactions falling through due to surveyors down-valuing properties, reflecting concerns about falling prices.

This could also be considered a sign of expected trouble as they discuss mortgages.

However, this competition was mainly concentrated on customers with the cleanest credit history.

Affordability and Quality

This issue has also been in the news with the Resolution Foundation telling us this.

While the average family spent just 6 per cent of their income on housing costs in the early 1960s, this has trebled to 18 per cent. Housing costs have taken up a growing proportion of disposable income from each generation to the next. This is true of private and social renters, but mortgage interest costs have come down for recent generations. However, the proportion of income being spent on capital repayments has risen relentlessly from generation to generation thanks to house price growth.

As someone who can recall his maternal grandparents having an outside toilet and paternal grandmother not having central heating I agree with them that quality improved but is it still doing so?

millennial-headed households are more likely than previous generations to live in overcrowded conditions, and when we look at the distribution of square meterage we see today’s under-45s have been net losers in the space stakes

I doubt many are as overcrowded as the one described by getwestlondon below.

A dawn raid on a three-bedroom property in Brentt found 35 men living inside……..The house was packed wall-to-wall with mattresses, which the men living there, all of eastern European origin, had piled into every room except the bathrooms.

But their mere mention of overcrowded raises public health issues surely? As ever the issue is complex as millennials are likely to be thinking also of issues such as Wi-Fi connectivity and so on. Still I guess the era of smartphones and tablets may make this development more palatable albeit at a price.

More recent generations have also had longer commutes on average than previous cohorts, despite spending more on housing.

Recent Data

The news from LSL Acadata this week was as follows.

House price growth fell marginally in August (0.2%), which left the average England and Wales house price at £297,398. This is still 2.1% higher than this time last year, when the average price was £5,982 lower. In terms of transactions, there were an estimated 80,500 sales completed – an increase of 5% compared to July’s total, and up 6% on a seasonally adjusted basis.

Interesting how they describe a monthly fall isn’t it? The leader of that particular pack is below.

House prices in London fell by an average of 1.4% in July, leaving the average price in the capital at £591,459. Over the year, though, prices are still up by £4,134 or 0.7% compared to July 2016. In July, 21 of the 33 London boroughs saw price falls.

An interesting development

Bloomberg has reported this today.

More home buyers are resorting to mortgages to purchase London’s most expensive houses and apartments as rising prices drag them into higher tax brackets.

Seventy-four percent of homes costing 1 million pounds ($1.3 million) or more in the U.K. capital were bought with a mortgage in the three months through July, up from 65 percent a year earlier, according to Hamptons International. The figure was as low as 31 percent during the depths of the financial crisis in 2009.

Perhaps they too think that over time it will be good to lock in what are historically low interest-rates although that comes with the assumption that they are taking a fixed-rate mortgage.


As we look at 2017 so far we see that  rental inflation has both fallen and according to most measures so has house price inflation although the official measure bounced in the spring . We have seen some monthly falls especially in London but so far the various indices continue to report positive inflation for house prices on an annual basis. Putting it another way it has been higher priced houses which have been hit the most ( which is why the official data has higher inflation). In general this has worked out mostly as I expected although I did think we might see negative inflation in house prices. Perhaps if Governor Carney for once backs his words with action we will see that as the year progresses. The increasing evidence of “down valuations” does imply that.

If we look at the overall situation we find ourselves arriving at one of the themes of my work as I am not one of those who would see some house price falls as bad. The rises have shifted wealth towards existing home owners and away from first-time buyers on a large-scale and this represents a factor in my critiques of central bank actions. Yes first time buyers see cheaper current mortgage costs but we do not know what they will be for the full term and they are paying with real wages which have fallen. On the other side of the coin existing home owners especially in London have been given something of a windfall if they sell.

Is housing a better investment than equities?

As you can imagine articles on long-term real interest-rates attract me perhaps like a moth to a flame. Thank you to FT Alphaville for drawing my attention to an NBER paper called The Rate of Return on Everything,but not for the reason they wrote about as you see on the day we get UK Retail Sales data we get a long-term analysis of one of its drivers. This is of course house prices and let us take a look at what their research from 16 countries tells us.

Notably, housing wealth is on average roughly one half of national wealth in a typical economy, and can fluctuate significantly over time (Piketty, 2014). But there is no previous rate of return database which contains any information on housing returns. Here we build on prior work on housing prices (Knoll, Schularick, and Steger, 2016) and new data on rents (Knoll, 2016) to offer an augmented database which can track returns on this important component of national wealth.

They look at a wide range of countries and end up telling us this.

Over the long run of nearly 150 years, we find that advanced economy risky assets have performed strongly. The average total real rate of return is approximately 7% per year for equities and 8% for housing. The average total real rate of return for safe assets has been much lower, 2.5% for bonds and 1% for bills.

If you look at the bit below there may well be food for thought as to why what we might call the bible of equity investment seems to have overlooked this and the emphasis is mine.

These average rates of return are strikingly consistent over different subsamples, and they hold true whether or not one calculates these averages using GDP-weighted portfolios. Housing returns exceed or match equity returns, but with considerably lower volatility—a challenge to the conventional wisdom of investing in equities for the long-run.

Higher returns and safer? That seems to be something of a win-win double to me. Here is more detail from the research paper.

Although returns on housing and equities are similar, the volatility of housing returns is substantially lower, as Table 3 shows. Returns on the two asset classes are in the same ballpark (7.9% for housing and 7.0% for equities), but the standard deviation of housing returns is substantially smaller than that of equities (10% for housing versus 22% for equities). Predictably, with thinner tails, the compounded return (using the geometric average) is vastly better for housing than for equities—7.5% for housing versus 4.7% for equities. This finding appears to contradict one of the basic assumptions of modern valuation models: higher risks should come with higher rewards.

Also if you think that inflation is on the horizon you should switch from equities to housing.

The top-right panel of Figure 6 shows that equity co-moved negatively with inflation in the 1970s, while housing provided a more robust hedge against rising consumer prices. In fact, apart from the interwar period when the world was gripped by a general deflationary bias, equity returns have co-moved negatively with inflation in almost all eras.

A (Space) Oddity

Let me start with something you might confidently expect. We only get figures for five countries where an analysis of investable assets was done at the end of 2015 but guess who led the list? Yes the UK at 27.5% followed by France ( 23.2%), Germany ( 22.2%) the US ( 13.3%) and then Japan ( 10.9%).

I have written before that the French and UK economies are nearer to each other than the conventional view. Also it would be interesting to see Japan at the end of the 1980s as its surge ended and the lost decades began wouldn’t it? Indeed if we are to coin a phrase “Turning Japanese” then this paper saying housing is a great investment could be at something of a peak as we remind ourselves that it is the future we are interested as looking at the past can hinder as well as help.

The oddity is that in pure returns the UK is one of the countries where equities have out performed housing returns. If we look at since 1950 the returns are 9.02% per year and 7.21% respectively. Whereas Norway and France see housing returns some 4% per annum higher than equities. So the cunning plan was to invest in French housing? Maybe but care is needed as one of the factors here is low equity returns in France.

Adjusted Returns

There is better news for UK housing bulls as our researchers try to adjust returns for the risks involved.

However, although aggregate returns on equities exceed aggregate returns on housing for certain countries and time periods, equities do not outperform housing in simple risk-adjusted terms……… Housing provides a higher return per unit of risk in each of the 16 countries in our sample, and almost double that of equities.

Fixed Exchange Rates

We get a sign of the danger of any correlation style analysis from this below as you see this.

Interestingly, the period of high risk premiums coincided with a remarkably low-frequency of systemic banking crises. In fact, not a single such crisis occurred in our advanced-economy sample between 1946 and 1973.

You see those dates leapt of the page at me as being pretty much the period of fixed(ish) exchange-rates of the Bretton Woods period.


There is a whole litany of issues here. Whilst we can look back at real interest-rates it is not far off impossible to say what they are going forwards. After all forecasts of inflation as so often wrong especially the official ones. Even worse the advent of low yields has driven investors into index-linked Gilts in the UK as they do offer more income than their conventional peers and thus they now do not really represent what they say on the tin. Added to this we now know that there is no such thing as a safe asset more a range of risks for all assets. We do however know that the risk is invariably higher around the time there are public proclamations of safety.

Moving onto the conclusion that housing is a better investment than equities then there are plenty of caveats around the data and the assumptions used. What may surprise some is the fact that equities did not win clearly as after all we are told this so often. If your grandmother told you to buy property then it seems she was onto something! As to my home country the UK it seems that the Chinese think the prospects for property are bright. From Simon Ting.

From 2017-5-11 90 days, Chinese buyers (incl HK) spent 3.6 bln GBP in London real estate.
Anyway, Chinese is the #1 London property buyer.

Perhaps the Bitcoin ( US $4456 as I type this) London property spread looks good. Oh and as one of the few people who is on the Imputed Rent trail I noted this in the NBER paper.

Measured as a ratio to GDP, rental income has been growing, as Rognlie (2015) argues.

Meanwhile as in a way appropriately INXS remind us here is the view of equity investors on this.

Mystify me
Mystify me

UK Retail Sales

There is a link between UK house prices and retail sales as we note that both have slowed this year.

The quantity bought increased by 1.3% compared with July 2016; the 51st consecutive year-on-year increase in retail sales since April 2013.





The problem that is Imputed Rent and hence GDP

Over the lifespan of this website I have explained quite a few problems with our main measure of economic well-being and growth called Gross Domestic Product or GDP. This time I will focus on the problems and issues caused by a rarely discussed issue called imputed rent. This concept skulks away in the back ground partly because it is from the income version of GDP and the main figure is the output version. For those who are not aware of the state of play there are 3 ways of measuring GDP which are output, expenditure and income. Output is the most commonly used and if you here GDP mentioned then invariably that is what is meant but not every version is as for example Japan has a more expenditure based calculation.

There have been two roads which have led me to the Income GDP version. They are that the American numbers were a better guide post credit crunch to economic activity than the output version, and my interest in the housing sector reflected in this instance by the rent issue. Sadly such numbers are restricted access in the UK as a problem in particular occurred in the late 1980s under the then Chancellor but now Lord Lawson. In theory the 3 versions are supposed to come to the same answer but back then the variation was wide enough for him to order our statisticians to prioritise the output numbers and “adjust” the other versions. I can give you an example from Portugal of how the 3 numbers can vary as a while ago when I was looking at the data the divergence was 4%. It makes you think about those who discuss 0.1% changes does it not?!

What is Imputed Rent?

The story starts here.

In the national accounts, owner occupiers are deemed to be unincorporated businesses producing housing services, which they then consume.

Are “deemed to be”! So here is the first issue which is that it does not actually exist. After noting that let us press on.

The principle involved is to impute a rental value for an owner-occupied property, which is the same as the rental that would be paid for a similar property in the private rented sector. The imputed rent methodology calculates rent for owner occupiers and rent-free dwellings.

Why is this done. The US Bureau for Economic Analysis explains.

 The largest imputation in the GDP accounts is that made to approximate the value of the services provided by owner-occupied housing.  That imputation is made so that the treatment of owner-occupied housing in the GDP is comparable to that of tenant-occupied housing, which is valued by rent paid.  That practice keeps GDP invariant as to whether a house is owner-occupied or rented.

Their explanation is from 2006 when Imputed Rent was already 6.2% of GDP and the largest imputation which combined were 14.8% of GDP. It then argues this.

Without imputations, the GDP story is incomplete and can be misleading.

The other side of the argument is that including things which do not exist – owner occupiers do not receive Imputed Rent – is misleading.

Measurement of Imputed Rent

As it does not exist it cannot itself be measured and the only route to it is to measure actual rents. This poses its own problems in practical terms as this from the UK ONS demonstrates.

Imputed owner occupier rent is calculated from an average rent per room being multiplied by the total number of rooms in owner-occupied dwellings. Rent per room is calculated from Actual Rental (see section 02.4.1) and number of rooms rented (based on Living Cost and Food survey – LCF).

In the UK they will have some idea of the number of rooms but there will be errors in those numbers. However the main issue is whether we have numbers for rents which are reliable. I am sure that there are issues in every country but the UK has had particular problems and this is linked to my articles on the CPIH measure of inflation which includes rents. My view is that this has been a shambles illustrated by the way that the UK establishment had to abandon its rental estimates because they were in disarray.

You might think that a complete change to the actual rental numbers would have a big impact on Imputed Rent. In fact they seemed to sail through it pretty much unscathed as all sorts of other adjustments were made to provide the same answer. Or as Kylie would put it.

I should be so lucky
Lucky, lucky, lucky

As the luck quotient rose the credibility one fell.

Upwards Revisions

Back in the 2013 Blue Book the UK ONS decided the Imputed Rent numbers had been too low.

There are upward revisions to the level of total annual HHFCE (national concept) in all years from 1997 to 2011. The largest revisions, of just under 2% of total HHFCE, are in 2008 to 2011.

HHFCE is Household consumption and increasing it by 2% is a big deal and it was Imputed Rent that did it. Actually it more than did it as looking at 2010 will explain. UK household consumption and hence GDP rose by £17.1 billion of which the rise in Imputed Rents was £33.6 billion. The difference was a rise in estimates of repairs of £12.7 billion and some smaller items such as smuggling.

The New Economics Foundation weighs in

Just over a year ago the NEF gave an idea of scale.

Inclusion of how much home-owners would pay if they actually rented boosted UK GDP in 2014 by £158bn – a 8.9% share

We also got an idea of the scale of the housing and Imputed Rent boom.

A growing proportion of GDP is nothing more than earnings from property. 12.3%  of the UK’s measured GDP in 2014 was rent and “imputed rent”…….Since 1985, rent and imputed rent have almost doubled as a share of GDP, from 6.2%.


In the last few days and weeks the situation has changed again and let me show how.

these changes will have a substantial impact both on imputed rental itself and on total current price GDP.

Okay how? I summarised it thus on the Royal Statistical Society website.

For those who have not looked at the numbers then nominal UK GDP has been revised up by at least £50 billion in each of the years 1997 to 2006 due to Imputed Rent and then by a declining amount up to 2011. To give an idea of scale VAT fraud is considered a big deal but changes to it top out at £2.1 billion in 2011.

The official view on the changes is as shown below.

Although this improved the series for the most recent period, bringing it in line with the CPIH, it also led to a discontinuity (which has now been removed in the new method).

The discontinuity peaked in 2010 and I would tell you by how much but the link to the numbers on the official ONS site take you to a page which does not exist. Friday’s update tells us this.

In 2014, annual real GDP growth has been revised up by 0.3 percentage points from 2.9% to 3.1%,

Not the strongest grasp of mathematics there I think! Anyway there was yet another change to Imputed Rent as it added 0.1% to economic growth in that year (and in 2012 too).


You are perhaps waiting for an idea of scale so let me help out from the last quarter of 2015 when Imputed Rentals in the UK reached £43.2 billion in current price terms compared to £24 billion a decade before. That is a lot for a number which not only has theoretical issues in terms of its concept but the way we have tried to measure it has been very flawed as otherwise we would be needing all these “improvements” would we?! There was an obvious problem here in a nation the size of the UK.

The LCF data are based on around 400 households’ rental prices per quarter,

So whilst I welcome the efforts to improve the quality of the UK data on rents – which also feeds into the inflation numbers – there is a clear problem with what we have been told in the past. This feeds into less confidence in what we are being told now. At a time of house price booms this poses more than a few questions for the UK economic landscape and as for the Imputed Rent numbers well they continue to sing along with Jeff Lynne and ELO.

You took me, higher and higher
It’s a livin’ thing,
It’s a terrible thing to lose
It’s a given thing
What a terrible thing to lose.

Oh and this whole episode provides another critique to nominal GDP targeting.

What are the economics of Buy To Let and renting in the UK?

There is much to consider in the economics of the Buy To Let industry in the UK which covers those who buy houses to let them out to tenants. Let us get straight to the numbers released this morning by Your Move and ReedRains.

Rental yields are proving resistant to rising purchase prices. The gross yield on a typical rental property in England and Wales (before taking into account factors such as void periods) is steady at 4.8% in February, the same as in January 2016. On an annual basis, this is fractionally lower than the 5.0% gross yield seen a year ago in February 2015.

As mentioned in the piece there is the risk of void periods where you have not tenants and these are gross yields with no allowance for costs. But let me give you a comparison which is that in a low yield world the UK ten-year Gilt will give you 1.46% as I type this which is pretty much the same as the best deposit savings account. If we look back the rental yield has been remarkably stable over the credit crunch period at around 5% which means that it has become ever more attractive as competing yields have fallen.

Thus we note that the business model of a rentier has been a beneficiary of the interest-rate cuts,Quantitative Easing and Funding for Lending Scheme of the Bank of England. Other yields have been pushed lower making it more attractive as it joins shale oil and the economics of the Glazers at Manchester United as unexpected beneficiaries of central banking largesse.

If we continue with the numbers we note that the UK continues to have rising house prices so that there is a gain from this too.

Taking into account both rental income and capital growth, the average landlord in England and Wales has seen total returns of 12.7% over the twelve months to February. This is up from 11.7% in the twelve months to January

Okay and what does that mean in total?

In absolute terms this means that the average landlord in England and Wales has seen a return of £23,227 over the last twelve months, before any deductions such as property maintenance and mortgage payments. Of this, the average capital gain contributed £14,767 while rental income made up £8,460 over the twelve months to February.

Let me reinforce that these are gross numbers which do not allow for costs but as you can see they look very attractive. Now let me throw in the risk element which is supported by the view that it is low risk because economic policy in the UK will always be set for house prices along the lines of Yazz.

The only way is up, baby
For you and me now
The only way is up, baby
For you and me

The Bank of England

This has fed this in various ways and let me illustrate from the Bank of England blog.

The period surrounding the recent Great Recession saw a sharp decline in real house prices in the UK: they fell by about 20% over the period from 2007Q3 to 2009Q2.

Well let me introduce you to the Mervyn King put option for house prices which involved this. Firstly interest-rates were cut to 0.5% in March 2009 which is interesting timing when you look at the above. That same month in 2009 QE began in the UK to reduce bond yields ( think mortgage rates) as monetary policy saw the pedal pushed towards the metal just as the house price fall built up.

You see monetary policy may not be set for house prices but if we raise the level of sophistication central bankers do think this.

the estimation provides strong evidence on the causal link between housing shocks and the macroeconomy during the recent crisis……it is essential to better understand the drivers of the striking comovement between house prices and labour markets in the UK.

It is an oversimplification to say that house prices fix unemployment but you get the idea and this leads us to the view that it will always be official policy to prevent large house price falls. You do not have to believe that the rentiers are protecting themselves although of course it is likely that there are elements of that as in the end they believe it is linked to employment and unemployment to which they will respond.

Also the low risk theme is reinforced by this sort of thing. From Mortgage Strategy.

Tony and Cherie Blair’s property empire is worth £27m, according to research by the Guardian.The couple now own at least 10 houses and 27 flats.

Cherie apparently does not like change which affects her.

Last month Mortgage Strategy reported that Cherie Blair was set to challenge the Government’s buy-to-let tax relief changes in court, arguing it breaches human rights.

A human right to large profits?

Mortgage Rates

The costs of a buy to let have fallen in the credit crunch era as monetary policy has driven them lower. The Council of Mortgage Lenders gave us some insight yesterday.

Our estimate is that gross mortgage lending was £17.6 billion in January, nearly a third higher than a year ago……………The inescapable fact is that part of this recovery in activity and transactions has been down to the strong pick-up in the buy-to-let sector,

From Mortgage Strategy.

Barclays is cutting rates on its residential and buy-to-let product ranges by up to 30 basis points…….Paragon Mortgages now accepts applications for consumer buy-to-let via its sister brand Mortgage Trust.

So yields up and costs are down. Can you think of another business like that in the credit crunch era?

What about those that rent?

The other side of the balance sheet is much less fun and for some must be grim indeed. If we return to the Your Move report we see this.

Rents across England & Wales now stand at £791 per month as of February, 3.3% higher compared to this point last year – or an extra £25 per month for the average tenant.

In real terms this represents quite a rise.

The Consumer Prices Index (CPI) rose by 0.3% in the year to January 2016

But wait Paul Johnson of the Institute of Fiscal Studies and the National Statistician John Pullinger have a solution.

In January 2016, the 12-month rate (the rate at which prices increased between January 2015 and January 2016) for CPIH stood at 0.6%.

Renters will be disappointed with that so shall we move on with those two gentlemen wearing dunces caps as they try on the new suits they have bought in advance of the expected Knighthood ceremony.

Rents are growing faster than wages too.

Average weekly earnings for employees in Great Britain increased by 2.1% including bonuses.

We can look back for some perspective as you see the average rent was £648 per month back in 2009 and is now £791 for an increase of 22%. This made me wonder what wages have done so according to the ONS the average weekly wage was £451 at the end of 2009 and In January was £497 for an increase of 10%. That is quite a gap as Yazz limbers up for another verse.

sure ain’t no fun
but if we should be evicted from our homes
we’ll just move somewhere else
and still carry on
Hold on, Hold on, Hold on


As you can see from the numbers above it has been much more profitable in the credit crunch era to be a rentier than a renter. Please do not misunderstand me on an individual basis buying and letting out a place has been a successful strategy and well done to those who have done it. But as we move to the collective level we see that it distorts the UK economy as good returns can be made for what is perceived to be very low risk. This is reinforced by Bank of England policy such as the Funding for Lending Scheme and by the way that “vigilant” the new buzz word actually means being vigilant for the cakes on its afternoon tea trolley. Meanwhile first-time buyers need ever more “Help” to afford a property as prices go ever higher.

I welcome the tax changes as we will soon see a 3% Stamp Duty surcharge and there are moves afoot to reduce the tax deductability on interest. But on the returns highlighted above is a 3% charge a big deal? Accordingly the situation continues to mimic the message from the Borg in my view.

We are the Borg. Lower your shields and surrender your ships. We will add your biological and technological distinctiveness to our own. Your culture will adapt to service us. Resistance is futile