Everyone agrees Ireland has a huge housing crisis. The housing “market”, if one can call it that, is completely dysfunctional. There is a massive shortage of supply, particularly in Dublin, and growing demand. Competitive firms are losing mobile workers by the day. Homelessness is on the rise. Rents are sky rocketing. Dublin house prices are back to silly-levels. The price-quality dynamic is totally out of kilter. Yet there is absolutely no reason why housing “supply” should be restricted.
There are literally thousands of empty properties around Dublin, loads of green and brown field sites, and tons of opportunities for housing development. Dublin is not San Francisco, where there is literally no where to build. The problem is that the banks are not lending. The government is intervening in a belated and piecemeal way. The fundamental question, therefore, is why? This is where economics meets politics. Constrained supply means rising prices. Rising prices makes it possible to manage the debt dynamics of the state. Supply is being restricted. It’s not a coincidence. It’s an outcome of incentives.
Yesterday’s “rebuilding Ireland” report is obviously welcome. However, all the policy focus on social housing and homelessness, whilst important, completely misses the core problem, which is that the banks control the market. The banks control the supply of mortgages and the supply of loans for development. In a housing market, if you control mortgages, property and builders, then you control the outcomes. It’s not in their interest to see a rise in supply. A rise in supply would reduce prices and expose the underlying debt dynamics of the bank’s balance sheets.
This is the real structural constraint facing government.
The banks don’t want anyone to sell under the asset (house) price to ensure that they can maintain their debt problem. If they can’t manage their mortgage debts, then the taxpayer has to step in and bail them out again, which clearly the government does not want to do. The structural problem underpinning the housing crisis is the bank-state nexus.
If NAMA or the banks fire sell housing assets to solve the housing crisis, then all those under performing loans/mortgages will be exposed. The debt dynamics of the banks will be exposed. The government will be exposed. Then the ECB is exposed. It’s a house of cards and the only thing holding everything together are rising rental and house prices. Those renting (and those who don’t own mortgages) are ultimately picking up the bill for the last crisis, of which they had no part.
Hence, the structural constraint underpinning the housing crisis is a convergence in the incentive structure to maintain sky-high rents and rising house prices. It’s not in the interest of the Department of Finance, the banks, NAMA, and mortgage holders to see a rise in supply and a potential fall in prices. This is not to suggest that all these actors are sitting around a table conspiring to restrict supply. But all these actors are clearly aware that rising house prices means lower debt and more wealth. The politics of debt is about the politics of housing capital.
The real policy solution is radical intervention to fire sale the assets.
Compel the banks to lend for real development. Compel builders to borrow. The objective should be to bring down rental prices and house prices. Let the banks take the hit, then let them pass it on to the government, then let the government pass it on to the ECB. In the end, Ireland will be back to where it started: in a one-to-one negotiation with the European monetary system. Except this time, the Irish government should say to the ECB, tough shit, you pay. Our public policy priority is ensuring proper housing for our citizens as a social right.
This policy response is obviously dreamland. But you get the point.
This blog entry is based on two research papers I am working on: “Housing Capital is Back” and “House of cards: the real politics of the Irish housing crisis”. Most of the data to empirically corroborate the claims I have made can be found either at the Central Bank (the “Financial Summary” statistics pack), and/or in the Ratings Agencies of the Irish banks.