Three people bid for a house, each using a mix of savings and borrowings; the highest bidder wins. Now suppose each had been prepared to spend more, and each bidder’s bank had extended an additional €100,000 of credit. Nothing changes in the aggregate – one house is bought and sold – except that the buyer has an additional €100,000 of debt (and the seller an additional €100,000 of cash.)
How is that a better overall outcome?
When supply is constrained, credit limits are needed (from a central bank, or internally to the banks themselves) to prevent lending driving up house prices and household debt as borrowers compete against one another for a fixed supply of accommodation. Under boom-time conditions, prices rise to levels Ireland saw ten years ago. Any sensible regulator would seek to put a stop to such a spiral, and should expect to receive the support of politicians, the media and a responsible industry.
But the Irish Central Bank’s mortgage lending controls seem to leave it standing almost alone, criticised by the building industry, the banks, politicians and journalists for being – what? – ‘awake at the wheel’? These controls protect buyers from over-paying. Yet the Central Bank is pictured as punishing the consumers it is protecting. (‘Only the rich can now afford housing’ says the newspaper headlines, but without credit limits only the over-indebted could.)
This is remarkable on many counts.
The Crash is not over, but already many seem to have tired of financial regulation. Denounced for failing to act in the boom, the Bank is now denounced for limiting wasteful bidding wars. Meanwhile, largely uncriticised and indeed not much commented on, local authorities construct elaborate and costly planning rules that increase housing costs. That’s without considering what Colm McCarthy calls (in today’s Sunday Indo) the ‘elephant in the room’: the planning and zoning restrictions that create an artificial housing shortage in the first place. Curiously, we criticise regulations that protect us and not the regulations that harm us.
The media present the lending rules as adjustable but house prices as fixed. The opposite should be the goal of policy. If today’s prices and lending limits require a level of savings impossible for most intending house-buyers to achieve, this means house prices are too high not that regulatory rules are too tough. Do we want everything else to be cheap but the most substantial purchase – housing – to be dear? Perhaps we do; Aidan Regan has recently argued on this blog broadly along these lines. When the number of house owners dwarfs the number of marginal buyers, the intergenerational political economy gets very ugly.
To tackle the housing shortage we should leave bank regulators to do their job, and deal with the policy obstacles that cause so few houses to be built. Don’t tackle one problem by creating a second. And don’t fuss over bank regulation to avoid looking at underlying planning, zoning, intergenerational and NIMBY problems.
A scarcity of accommodation is not solved by lending limits. But house prices are lower, mortgages smaller, banks safer, and taxpayers sleep more peacefully; admittedly miscellaneous middlemen may earn lower fees and journalists have to search elsewhere for a story.
Credit limits protect house buyers when there are more buyers than the kinds of houses they want to buy.