Ken Gibb's 'Brick by Brick'

Housing, academia, the economy, culture and public policy

Month: July, 2016

What do we know about the demand for private renting?

Regular readers will know that I have previously argued that we know surprisingly little about the UK rental market, despite the magnitude of growth in the sector in recent years. Evidence is hard to come by because of the disparate diffuse nature of the sector, which is really a series of well-defined demand segments. But this does not stop many people writing about the sector as if it was homogenous, simple to understand, monitor, evidence and, consequently, intervene in to moderate excesses.

Unfortunately, this over-generalisation has extended to the former Chancellor of the Exchequer who introduced tax changes that will reduce returns and increase borrowing and transactions costs (but without any proper analysis of the impact of these changes). But the sector is not simply an investor question – it is also about who lives in the sector and their aspirations and experiences; and it is all the more important because at the margin it is the sector where the action is because of credit constraints on entering owner occupation and, for others, because of the insufficient level of affordable housing supply of social housing.

It is against this backdrop that a couple of weeks ago the Bank of England’s blog site Bank Underground issued an interesting paper on the drivers of the demand for private renting by Mariana Gimpeliewicz and Tom Stratton. In what follows I will summarise their paper and its findings and then reflect a little on what they say.

Noting the observed growth in the share of total dwellings privately rented since 2002 and the growth since 2008 of buy to let mortgages (BTL) rising at more than 6% per annum (a subset of all private renting), the authors argued that it made sense to try to understand the growth in PRS demand, what its main components are and then divide the analysis between pre-crisis and post-crisis and also make some projections about future demand levels in the sector. The authors note that BTL loans explained about 70% of PRS expansion before the crisis but that tighter underwriting may explain why BTL only supported about a third of the growth after the crisis (most of which came from ‘cash purchasers’).

The main drivers of demand for the PRS are (1) demographic sub-groups i.e. students, in-migrants and younger people, who all have a higher propensity to rent privately; (2) where the provision of social housing falls, households will be funneled to the rental market; and, (3) potential first time buyers who are credit-constrained or face affordability shortcomings will be obliged to either rent or live with parents. In this study, the lack of affordability data means the focus instead under (3) is on credit conditions.

The authors found that pre-crisis, net inward migration was the largest contributor of PRS demand ie about a quarter of all sector growth (2002-07). Additional students helped explain another 12.5% of growth, with slightly less growth due to the reduction in social housing available. Their analysis explained about half of the growth in the sector n this period. Between 2008-13 (the credit crunch period), migration remained an important factor, with a declining role for social housing and student growth. Much more important was tighter credit conditions for first time buyers ie the withdrawal of high LTV loans – they found that this accounted for two thirds of the growth in the private rented sector in this period. Overall, their drivers account for 82% of the growth in the sector and all of the BTL segment’s growth. The authors recognise that affordability may be driving the unexplained growth – in other words that by driving up house prices new BTL supply may be making owning less affordable and hence more are directed towards the rental market (but this is supposition).

Looking ahead, the authors expect demand to grow to 2019 but much less slowly than in recent years. This amounts to as much as a million additional properties in the PRS in this period. The key to how this turns out will turn on the extent to which frustrated home-owners actually manage to purchase their first home. Buy to let growth is forecast to slow.

This paper is on the one hand an interesting thought experiment that allows us to see how the different segments are growing at varying rates and have done in the recent past. It shows also that buy to let is far from all of the story. One just has to look around our University cities, for instance, to see the growth in bespoke purpose-built student accommodation. The split between pre and post crisis is also intrinsically sensible and a useful exercise.

However, despite the value of the disaggregation of the sector, the use of different data and its creative manipulation, it is worth noting that there is not much underlying economics in the construction of these different numbers. So, relative rents and housing costs and income play no direct role in coming up with these numbers. Instead, a series of generally reasonable assumptions, extrapolations and extraneous propensities are adopted. This is reasonable in the absence of the economic data of the right kind but we should be cautious.

We need more work more on these sub-sectors – what are the economic drivers in different segments; how is individual tenure choice governed by things like relative prices, credit availability, income, down-payment constraints and household variables? These models may well fluctuate over the credit and wider business cycle but do they also vary across space in different regional labour markets? What about the industrial economics or theory of the firm of different kinds of landlords – what are their motivations and how responsive are decision makers to changes in financial and economic variables (this latter question is vital to understanding the impact of policy interventions?

 

Brexit: Balancing Scotland, the UK and the EU

 

Yesterday morning I went along to the IPPR-hosted Brexit event featuring a keynote speech from the First Minister. More on that later. First, and to set the scene, it is worth thinking a bit about the options to be negotiated.

The Institute of Government last week published a helpful briefing paper called Negotiating Brexit, by Robyn Munro. The paper, from a wholly UK perspective, does three useful things: it sets out what will be negotiated, considers the options for the ‘terms of the divorce’ and, third, discusses the negotiation over the longer term UK-EU relationship thereafter.

Munro (p.3) identifies three sets of critical longer-term questions post withdrawal that will need to be resolved:

  • What would be the UK’s degree of access to the single market in terms of goods, services and free movement of labour?
  • What, if any, financial requirements would remain in terms of funds going to the EU (in return for different degrees of access), and what would be the extent of adherence to EU laws, and what if any influence would the UK have over EU rules and regulations?
  • To what extent will the UK continue to participate in other beneficial programmes e.g. Horizon 2020, European structural Funding and the European Arrest Warrant?

While it is recognised and indeed perhaps likely (because there is no precedent) that the UK will end up with a bespoke negotiated deal, there are four widely discussed models commonly raised when discussing the UK exit from the EU. These are summarised by Munro (p.4). To paraphrase:

  1. Placing the UK within the European Economic Area (or the Norway model) – this would mean almost complete access to the single market [with restrictions on agriculture and fisheries] but in return free movement of people, budget contributions and acceptance of EU rules and regulations with minimal ability to influence those rules.
  2. The UK as a member of the European Free Trade Area, plus bilateral arrangements relating to specific services (the Swiss model) – this would entail access to single market for all non-agricultural goods, plus bilateral agreements for trade in specific services. The Swiss have also accepted free movement of people, an annual EU budget contribution and adaptation of relevant national legislation to those of the EU (but no influence).
  3. The UK could operate a bilateral free trade agreement with the EU (similar to that proposed for the EU with Canada and Singapore) – when these are ratified they will not involve free movement of people but will offer access to the single market in goods, less so in terms of services. They must follow EU rules and regulations but again cannot influence them.
  4. The UK operating through the World Trade Organisation (the least EU-based solution). This would involve the right to negotiated free trade agreements with other WTO members including the EU but prior to ratification the UK would need to offer favourable conditions to all those it sought to trade with. UK exports would also face the EU external tariff. Completely outside the single market, there would be no free movement of people.

These are all tricky options, even if we consider the UK as a coherent single voice in negotiations. The EU has its own interests and a range of internal voices chipping in to help form their negotiating position e.g. the opposing pressures that on the one hand seek to resolve the main issues quickly to end uncertainty versus specific domestic pressures to take a tough line pour encourager les autres. Second, there is the fundamental difficulty of the multi-dimensional nature of what is at stake – the single market, freedom of movement, the rights of non-members with access to the single market the non-trade aspects, and the procedures for dismantling existing laws, rules and regulations.

The third degree of difficulty is that the UK does not have a single voice, neither within the UK government, or, more to the point, across the UK. Scotland is in the vanguard in this respect, which was why it was so interesting to be at the meeting in Edinburgh and hear the FM’s current thinking.

There is of course actually a fifth model available to discuss once we consider Scotland – the so-called Reverse Greenland. Denmark is a member of the EU but it does not apply membership to its territory of Greenland. Could this principle be reversed with the UK outside of the EU but places like Scotland, Northern Ireland and Gibraltar either wholly within or partially remaining? At first sight, this seems difficult and not symmetric at all in terms of consequences and requirements to make it work.

The First Minister focused on the interests of Scotland – economic (including the demographic necessity of freedom of movement), democratic interests (reflecting the clear position of Scotland on the EU), social protection interests (defending workers’ rights), solidarity interests (global challenges and the necessity of international collaboration) and influencing interests (e.g something we lose if we only have associate access to the single market and the infrastructure of rules and regulations supporting it). These are the tests or areas she hopes to protect in the negotiations, recognising that ‘all options’ including a second independence referendum remain as possible outcomes to the negotiation.  But can we reach a UK-wide agreement on the negotiating position before Article 50 is activated?

I found one of the most interesting things she had to say was the focus on the opportunities created by uncertainty. Apart from a few terse sentences that make up article 50 of the Lisbon treaty – there is really very little known about what might and can potentially happen next. This is why many people are coming up with new ideas and plans – some of which may not pan out or may be undesirable. But this surely is a time to be creative and innovative (and inclusive).

The other interesting thing was the stress on the need to understand why 17 million across the UK and more than one million Scots voted to leave – to understand the lack of trust and confidence in government. While this may be argued to be less of an issue in Scotland where trust seems to be higher than for Westminster government, it is the case that the FM sits at the top of an insurgency movement herself that reflects, in part, far wider forces at play (and not just in Scotland/UK and the EU). Political (and societal) norms appear to be in unprecedented flux.

Opponents argue that this is all about another independence referendum. True or not, a second independence referendum is far from straightforward. A referendum will only be proposed in the best expected circumstances and there is much work to do to overcome weaknesses in the 2014 platform, especially on economic issues; and this will be done in an increasingly hostile, uncertain economic environment. The medium term future looks much less promising if the Scottish Government’s record of economic competency is to be maintained (without at least risking more unpalatable political choices over scarce public resources). Even if new Chancellor Phillip Hammond relaxes the austerity straitjacket, any short run economic slow down or recession matters much more acutely to Scotland’s public finances than was the case before the 2016 Act. Seeking to simply govern well without mishap  through this momentous period may be the best strategy. But who is to say what further bear traps await our politicians in the weeks and months ahead?