At the roof: house prices wobble and have a long way to fall RESIDENTIAL PROPERTY: The full extent of the homes slowdown may be hidden and consumer psychology will partly determine the severity of a reversal, write Friederike Tiesenhausen Cave and Chris Giles.
By CHRIS GILES and FRIEDERIKE TIESENHAUSEN CAVE
30 August 2005
© 2005 The Financial Times Limited. All rights reserved
It has been almost a year since the average national house price started to stagnate. Annual growth in prices is on course shortly to hit zero, after 10 years - the entire adult life of a typical first-time buyer trying to get a foothold in the market now - during which double-digit percentage rises came each year.
Almost a generation of young people has grown up with the belief that getting on to the housing ladder is paramount. Any delay meant prices racing further out of reach. With stalling prices, however, houses no longer appear so safe an investment. The next few months could show how consumers react to a changed reality and whether prices will remain stable or fall.
With economic growth already subdued as a result of sluggish household spending, the government and the Bank of England will be worried that falling house prices could unsettle consumers even further. But what is the evidence so far, how can it best be read and what are both current and prospective homeowners likely to make of it?
The slowdown began last summer when the Bank raised its main interest rate for the fifth time in nine months and Mervyn King, the governor, warned in his understated manner that "the chances of falls in house prices were greater than they had been". Whether as a result of his comments or merely because they were feeling the pinch of higher interest rates, house buyers became more careful and turnÃ -over dropped sharply.
Lenders started to report that average mortgage amounts had stopped rising and, eventually, stalling prices showed up in completed transactions. The Nationwide, which takes an early snapshot of property market trends, says prices were only 2.6 per cent higher in July than a year ago, compared with an annual inflation rate of more than 20 per cent in July 2004. The FT House Price Index, which foreshadows completion data from the Land Registry, puts the annual upward change at 4.2 per cent in July. A year earlier it had been 15 per cent.
Until this spring, values in the north of England, Scotland and Wales were still rising strongly while some areas in the south of England saw a drop. The price of a typical London home is 1.45 times the national average, the lowest multiple in eight years and down from the 2001 peak of 1.65 times, government data shows. Latest evidence signals, though, that property markets outside the capital have also come off the boil, while London prices fell for the first time in a decade in the second quarter, according to the Halifax.
Some experts even argue that no measure based on house price transactions captures the real extent of the slowdown. Only particularly attractive houses are selling in the current market, the belief has it, suggesting that a "flight to quality" is hiding the actual fall in house values across the board. Milan Khatri, chief economist of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, says: "Estate agents are telling me that people who are not achieving the price they think they should are just not selling."
Lower-quality homes were therefore not shifting although, since the spring, there have been signs that at least volumes may have stopped falling. Mortgage numbers have returned to their historical average and in some areas, especially in the south where the drop in transactions has been sharpest, estate agents have registered a mild recovery of buyer interest.
But, with the surge in prices clearly over for now, the question nagging away is whether the housing boom will turn to bust. Economists who have a detailed explanation of the likely direction for house prices generally try to address the problem in two parts. They evaluate whether house prices are above a sustainable level and examine how prices move back towards such a level if they have drifted apart.
There is no perfect measure of house prices but the bottom line of nearly every method doing the rounds (see below left) is that the market remains frothy. Property is almost certainly not as overvalued as the raw ratio of house price to income suggests, because lower nominal and real interest rates as well as low and stable inflation have reduced the debt servicing costs of a mortgage. But prices have moved so high that there are almost no measures that leave recent homebuyers with much comfort.
"I've been less gung-ho (about overvaluation) than some of the pessimists," says John Muellbauer of Nuffield College, Oxford, citing low and stable inflation as a reason for people to be happy borrowing more, relative to their income, than in the past. Even so, he thinks the market has become overvalued, simply because people tend to be too slow to adjust downward their expectations of house prices: "People tend to project recent circumstances into the future - they get frustrated and buy just when the bandwagon is about to stop."
From the other perspective, Jonathan Loynes of Capital Economics, a consultancy that has staked its reputation on its prediction of falling house prices, accepts that some of the run-up should be sustainable as a result of improved economic circumstances.
Even if a broad consensus could be reached that house prices were, perhaps, up to 20 per cent too high at the moment, there is no agreement on whether that means prices will fall, or by how much.
On one side are the mortgage lenders, the Bank of England, the Treasury and many economists who believe that stable prices will slowly reduce any overvaluation as income catches up. Mark Richards of Lombard Street Research expects the market to be "pretty boring" for years. But he sees a correction as unnecessary. Demand would be supported by a rising number of two-earner families, while the stable economy would prevent forced sellers from having to drop asking prices.
On the other side are those who believe the overvaluation is greater and that such a market is not a stable or a rational thing. The dispute hinges on the role of price expectations.
Unfortunately, there seems no research into how deeply ingrained price expectations in the UK are. But a study by Robert Schiller of Yale University and others found that, in US states with housing markets similar to the UK, buyers expected prices to rise by 13 per cent every year for the next decade - hard to regard as sustainable.
David Miles of Morgan Stanley argues that if house prices are 10-15 per cent overvalued, yet people think they will go up by another 5-10 per cent, "it would be perfectly rational to buy even if you thought prices were above their long-run sustainable level". But once it is no longer reasonable to expect house prices to rise - arguably now that house price inflation has fallen close to zero - "if prices are overvalued by 10-15 per cent, anybody who can see through all this has no reason to buy at all".
Andrew Farlow of Oriel College, Oxford, uses the same underlying mathematics but looks to psychology rather than rationality in coming to the same conclusion. He concedes that there is little pressure to drop prices, because chains of buyers and sellers are still driven by people keen to get into the market. But he predicts: "There will come a point when people will struggle to make chains work."
"Once prices start to fall in a few major cities by 3-5 per cent, the equations just don't add up any more. The overall rate of return will become negative and housing will be a very bad investment," Mr Farlow adds. "There will be a psychological tipping-point."
Expectations and psychology could also determine the extent of price falls. History suggests that house prices move in long waves, with rises in one month followed by further rises in the next - a feature that has often resulted in prices overshooting their sustainable level. If prices do begin to fall, a serious drop could not be ruled out.
"A crash would always take place over four or five years," says Alan Castle of Lehman Brothers. "That's what happened in the early 1990s too. We think that there will be persistent weakness in house prices rather than a short, sharp adjustment."
The test for the housing market is just around the corner. Faced with vanishing house price increases, consumers are likely to have to shed any remaining expectations of a permanent boom and accept that the recent run-up in prices was, at best, a one-off adjustment to changed economic circumstances. It is what they do next that will matter.