Tuesday, June 15, 2010

15/06/2010: Negative equity 1

Yesterday, I gave a speech at the Infinity Conference in TCD on the issue of negative equity (see newspaper report here). The following three posts (for the reasons of readers' sanity) reproduce the full speech.

What effects can negative equity have in the case of Ireland?

I did a troll of the literature on negative equity and below I summarize the main findings, relating some to the case of Ireland.

Broadly-speaking there are three dimensions through which negative equity can have an effect on Irish economy:

  1. Macroeconomic channels via negative equity impact on aggregate supply and demand;
  2. Monetary channels which lead to negative equity impacting adversely banks balance sheets and increasing the cost of default and probability of default for mortgage holders; and
  3. Growth channels, which relate to the adverse effects of current negative equity on future demand and investment, and directly on growth.

Here are more detailed explanations of these channels.

Why the problem of negative equity is likely to be greater in Ireland than in the UK

A forthcoming paper “House Price Shocks and Household Indebtedness in the United Kingdom” by Richard F. Disney (University of Nottingham), Sarah Bridges (University of Nottingham) and John Gathergood (affiliation unknown), to be published in Economica, Vol. 77, Issue 307, pp. 472-496, July 2010, used UK household panel data to explore the link between changes in house prices and household indebtedness. The study showed that borrowing-constrained by a lack of housing equity households make greater use of higher cost, higher risk unsecured debt (e.g. credit cards or personal loans). Crucially, when house prices revert to growth, “such households are more likely to refinance and to increase their indebtedness relative to unconstrained households”.

These effects – present in the case of the UK – are likely to be more pronounced in the case of Ireland, because Irish households which find themselves in negative equity today experience much severe deterioration in their net worth base due to the following factors:

  • Majority of Irish households have been forced to front-load property taxes into their purchase costs and often mortgages. Thus average LTVs are more likely to be higher here in Ireland, for more recent mortgages vintages, than they were in the UK.
  • Ireland has experienced a much more severe contraction in house values than the UK to date.
  • Because of significantly higher entry-level taxes, younger buyers in Ireland had to be subsidized more heavily by their parents than their UK counterparts, implying that once true levels of indebtedness are factored in, real mortgages and debts held against a given property of more recent purchase vintage might be higher than those recorded on the official mortgage books.
In many cases – we do not know how many, but anecdotal evidence suggests quite a few – credit unions and building societies, as well as non-mortgage banks were engaged as sources of top up loans to younger buyers, implying that once again the true extent of house purchase-related debt in Ireland, for younger households, might be higher than official records on mortgages suggest.

Another recent study, titled “The Economics and Estimation of Negative Equity” by Tomas Hellebrandt, Sandhya Kawar and Matt Waldron (all Bank of England) published in Bank of England Quarterly Bulletin 2009 Q2 looked at the effects and extent of negative equity between Autumn of 2007 and the Spring of 2009. Over that period of time, nominal house prices fell by around 20% in the UK, suggesting that negative equity impacted around 7%-11% of UK owner-occupier mortgage holders by the Spring of 2009.

By now, in Ireland:

  • house prices fell down ca50% already (accounting for the swings in terms of premium to discount on asking prices – by closer to 55%),
  • vintage of many purchases was much closer to the peak valuations, so
for Ireland, estimated negative equity impact is now around 35-40% of the mortgage holders.

Extent of negative equity here is compounded by:

  1. High entry costs into the homeownership (100+% mortgages due to stamp duty costs and poor quality of real estate stock);
  2. Lax lending – cross-lending by banks and credit unions and building societies;
  3. Hidden nature of some of borrowing – parents’ top ups etc;
  4. Coincident borrowing – with younger households being more likely to engage in borrowing for a mortgage, while borrowing for car purchase etc.
BofI, which holds ca 25% of all mortgages in the country (about 190,000) has reported that of these, more than 20% were already in negative equity (over 40,000) around the beginning of 2010.

The aforementioned Bank of England paper provides a good starting point for outlining the set of adverse impacts that negative equity can have on the Irish economy.

Negative equity can have implications for monetary policy:

A rising incidence of negative equity is often associated with weak aggregate demand as households in negative equity are more likely to cut their expenditures across two channels:
  • due to reduced marginal propensity to consume out of wealth; and
  • due to increased marginal propensity to save.

The direction of causation is not always obvious, implying a possibility of feedback loops – as households experience (or even anticipate) negative equity, they start reducing their borrowing against depreciating assets, the effect of which is amplified by the banks reduced willingness to lend against such assets. In addition, households rationally interpret these declines in today’s wealth as declines in future wealth, implying greater exposure to pensions under-provision in the future, plus greater exposure to the risk of sudden collapse in earnings (due to, say, unemployment or long term illness). As the result, these households tend to reduce their consumption today and in the future.

The reduced consumption leads to a loss of revenue to the exchequer and thus to additional pressures on future public pensions and benefits provision. This, in turn, leads households to further tighten their belts and attempt to compensate for the risk of reduced future benefits by lowering consumption exposures today.

Negative equity tends to become more prevalent when house prices fall, which usually reflects weak demand for housing, since housing supply is fixed in the short term. In the case of Ireland, this is compounded by the fact that we have severe oversupply of properties in the market. Demand effect, therefore, reinforces supply effect. Once again, in Ireland there is one more additional channel of induced market uncertainty due to Nama operations.

Weak housing demand often coincides with weak consumer demand in general, due to
  1. reduced availability of credit to consumers and potential home buyers; and
  2. precautionary savings as households respond to decline in their nominal wealth.

If negative equity leads to a further contraction in the availability of credit to both households and firms, as in Ireland – exacerbated in the case of Ireland by Nama – second order effects reinforce first order effects.

Lastly, as negative equity in Ireland is coincident with construction sector bust, we have twin effects of decreased households’ mobility and increased unemployment. This once more reinforces the uncertainty levels in the markets for housing, implying that risk-adjusted negative equity becomes even more pronounced here.

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