Can Britain cope with a fall in house prices?

Uhoh: a man browses in an estate agent window. Image: Getty.

Britain is locked in a seemingly constant battle with the burden of its overheated housing market. Theresa May has announced measures at the Conservative Party conference designed, at the very least, to dampen criticism over a lack of housing and ever-increasing prices.

It is unclear for now just what impact May’s announcement for land releases and an extra £2bnn for affordable housing may have. After all, the UK’s housing stock is valued at close to £7trn. But her announcement comes after London real estate prices registered their biggest fall in a decade, stoking expectations for further drops in real estate prices.

So what would falling house prices mean for Britain? How might it affect employment, household consumption, investment, the government deficit and, critically, the UK current account – the net measure of cash flows in and out of the economy.

The greater fool

Brexit and associated uncertainty about the future of the UK financial sector are making real estate investors, home buyers and households more cautious. One of the things that has fuelled London real-estate prices over the years is the “greater fool” mechanism. Buyers knew that a property was expensive, and perhaps ridiculously expensive, but they counted on the fact that they could sell it later to a “greater fool” at an even higher price, for a handsome profit.

That phenomenon was perhaps best displayed in the first recorded crisis in free markets. Tulip mania in 17th century Holland built to a crescendo which saw single, rare tulip bulbs change hands for extraordinary sums. Historian Mike Dash has described it as enough to “purchase one of the grandest homes on the most fashionable canal in Amsterdam for cash, complete with a coach house and an 80 foot garden”.

As tulip mania went on to show, however, if prices show indications of a fall, the upward trend reverses violently. If property investors become skittish, they will try to sell before prices fall further, and all of them at the same time. Property values built over decades could collapse within months: the expectation of falling prices causes the falling prices.

This mechanism is a real danger in London which relies heavily on local and international investors who view properties not as a home but as a commodity, readily sold to maximise profit. In 2013 alone, international investors accounted for 82 per cent of London property activity.

Falling for it

However, most properties in the UK still belong to households. Families, by and large, don’t need to sell. So what would falling property prices mean for them?

First, many pension funds and investment bonds rely on UK property to generate income for their beneficiaries. Second, we have what economists call the Wealth Effect.

Economists have long associated consumers’ perceived real estate wealth with spending behaviour: if you believe your house is worth a lot, you feel financially secure. And then you allow yourself to save less and spend more. Just consider the rising number of people who plan to subsidise their retirement with wealth generated by their homes.

If their assumed valuations start to look shaky, these people will spend less to build up their savings. The pain would be felt by many: about 64 per cent of households in England are owner-occupiers.

The Wealth Effect is important in most developed economies but even more so in the UK which relies on ever-rising levels of consumer spending for its growth. A 10 per cent fall in the value of dwellings in the UK would correspond to a loss of wealth equivalent to more than the value of all the cars exported from the UK in a decade.


Ripple effects

The climate of economic uncertainty, reduced consumption and falling real estate values brings an additional problem for the UK. Britain has long had a trade deficit, but it has also benefited from positive foreign direct investment.

The Current Account itself has been in the red for nearly 20 years now but the hundreds of billions of inward foreign investment channelled to UK property over the same period meant that this deficit remained manageable – just about.

According to the Bank of England, overseas companies have accounted for roughly half of all UK commercial real estate transactions since 2013. If international investors expect prices to fall in any sustained way, the inflow of money would stop and many would sell up. Why buy or hold an asset just at the start of what might be a long decline?

This would not only put pressure on real estate prices but would affect UK GDP, reduce government revenues and worsen the UK Current Account position. The credit rating of the UK would come under more pressure, and trillions of UK government debt would cost more to refinance. Then the UK government deficit would deteriorate further, taxes might rise to cover for this and the domino effect would be in full cry, spreading to all sectors of the economy, similar to events in Greece.

Policy plays

Real estate values are critical to the UK’s prosperity. Households, pension funds and businesses have invested heavily; most of the country has, in one way or another, skin in this game. Britain may need to wean itself of its property addiction, but it also needs to sustain confidence in the single asset class that counts for almost two thirds of its wealth.

It is deeply difficult politically to sell that story, however, when the understandable clamour is to make housing more affordable. In a move designed to win over younger voters, May has imposed punitive taxation on landlords, cutting one of the life-lines of UK real estate and driving many out of the market. The new measures announced at the Conservative party conference apply further pressure.

May is desperate for a positive message but the implications of targetting the real estate market right now are huge. Britain’s Brexit fumbling is already failing to inspire confidence. The fear has always been that Brexit would spark a period of stagnation, but the danger of deeper, more accelerated damage now seems real, and the potential effect on property values and the economy stark.

The ConversationThe UK government should act decisively. This would require the continuation of loose monetary policy, a reinstatement of tax incentives for real estate investment and, of course, a real plan for Brexit and the future of London’s financial services industry.

Alexander Tziamalis is a senior lecturer and associate professor in economics at Sheffield Hallam University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

Everything you ever wanted to know about the Seoul Metro System but were too afraid to ask

Gwanghwamoon subway station on line 5 in Seoul, 2010. Image: Getty.

Seoul’s metro system carries 7m passengers a day across 1,000 miles of track. The system is as much a regional commuter railway as an urban subway system. Without technically leaving the network, one can travel from Asan over 50 miles to the south of central Seoul, all the way up to the North Korean border 20 miles north of the city.

Fares are incredibly low for a developed country. A basic fare of 1,250 won (about £1) will allow you to travel 10km; it’s only an extra 100 won (about 7p) to travel every additional 5km on most lines.

The trains are reasonably quick: maximum speeds of 62mph and average operating speeds of around 20mph make them comparable to London Underground. But the trains are much more spacious, air conditioned and have wi-fi access. Every station also has protective fences, between platform and track, to prevent suicides and accidents.

The network

The  service has a complex system of ownership and operation. The Seoul Metro Company (owned by Seoul City council) operates lines 5-8 on its own, but lines 1-4 are operated jointly with Korail, the state-owned national rail company. Meanwhile, Line 9 is operated jointly between Trans-Dev (a French company which operates many buses in northern England) and RATP (The Parisian version of TfL).

Then there’s Neotrans, owned by the Korean conglomerate Doosan, which owns and operates the driverless Sinbundang line. The Incheon city government, which borders Seoul to the west, owns and operates Incheon Line 1 and Line 2.

The Airport Express was originally built and owned by a corporation jointly owned by 11 large Korean firms, but is now mostly owned by Korail. The Uijeongbu light railway is currently being taken over by the Uijeongbu city council (that one’s north of Seoul) after the operating company went bankrupt. And the Everline people mover is operated by a joint venture owned by Bombardier and a variety of Korean companies.

Seoul’s subway map. Click to expand. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

The rest of the lines are operated by the national rail operator Korail. The fare structure is either identical or very similar for all of these lines. All buses and trains in the region are accessible with a T-money card, similar to London’s Oyster card. Fares are collected centrally and then distributed back to operators based on levels of usage.

Funding

The Korean government spends around £27bn on transport every year: that works out at 10 per cent more per person than the British government spends.  The Seoul subway’s annual loss of around £200m is covered by this budget.

The main reason the loss is much lower than TfL’s £458m is that, despite Seoul’s lower fares, it also has much lower maintenance costs. The oldest line, Line 1 is only 44 years old.


Higher levels of automation and lower crime rates also mean there are fewer staff. Workers pay is also lower: a newly qualified driver will be paid around £27,000 a year compared to £49,000 in London.

New infrastructure is paid for by central government. However, investment in the capital does not cause the same regional rivalries as it does in the UK for a variety of reasons. Firstly, investment is not so heavily concentrated in the capital. Five other cities have subways; the second city of Busan has an extensive five-line network.

What’s more, while investment is still skewed towards Seoul, it’s a much bigger city than London, and South Korea is physically a much smaller country than the UK (about the size of Scotland and Wales combined). Some 40 per cent of the national population lives on the Seoul network – and everyone else who lives on the mainland can be in Seoul within 3 hours.

Finally, politically the biggest divide in South Korea is between the south-west and the south-east (the recently ousted President Park Geun-Hye won just 11 per cent of the vote in the south west, while winning 69 per cent in the south-east). Seoul is seen as neutral territory.  

Problems

A driverless train on the Shinbundang Line. Image: Wikicommons.

The system is far from perfect. Seoul’s network is highly radial. It’s incredibly cheap and easy to travel from outer lying areas to the centre, and around the centre itself. But travelling from one of Seoul’s satellite cities to another by public transport is often difficult. A journey from central Goyang (population: 1m) to central Incheon (population: 3m) is around 30 minutes by car. By public transport, it takes around 2 hours. There is no real equivalent of the London Overground.

There is also a lack of fast commuter services. The four-track Seoul Line 1 offers express services to Incheon and Cheonan, and some commuter towns south of the city are covered by intercity services. But most large cities of hundreds of thousands of people within commuting distance (places comparable to Reading or Milton Keynes) are reliant on the subway network, and do not have a fast rail link that takes commuters directly to the city centre.

This is changing however with the construction of a system modelled on the Paris RER and London’s Crossrail. The GTX will operate at maximum speed of 110Mph. The first line (of three planned) is scheduled to open in 2023, and will extend from the new town of Ilsan on the North Korean border to the new town of Dongtan about 25km south of the city centre.

The system will stop much less regularly than Crossrail or the RER resulting in drastic cuts in journey times. For example, the time from llsan to Gangnam (of Gangnam Style fame) will be cut from around 1hr30 to just 17 minutes. When the three-line network is complete most of the major cities in the region will have a direct fast link to Seoul Station, the focal point of the GTX as well as the national rail network. A very good public transport network is going to get even better.