Different ideas about housing

I talked about change last week and how it is difficult because we cannot imagine what it would look like.  This week I need to talk about one type of debt which needs to be replaced with something else but I cannot imagine what.

I have thought about and come up with ideas of what might replace most kinds of debt in my white paper, but I am stuck with this one – borrowing to buy houses.

And then I began to think about what I said last week.  And maybe we do not need an alternative to debt; maybe we need a completely different way of thinking about it.  I am British and we like to live in our own homes – statistics say anything from 60% to 70% are owner-occupiers – we own the homes we live in.

Not every country is the same – but when I tried to find real numbers, it seems that most of Europe goes for owner-occupation (see European Housing statistics).  So we are all in a similar situation and there is no obvious model to follow for changing anything.  Even comparing houses financed by borrowing, a lot of north European countries (which are generally the wealthier countries) seem to go for this whereas eastern Europe have more properties owned outright.

So whatever answer we could come up with is going to look very different from what we have at present.

Perhaps there is part of the answer in my idea of phasing in changes.  If we set ourselves to change the world over 50 years, all of the current house loans would have been repaid by then, so we would end up with people owning properties outright, rather than property being financed by debt.

Would housing become more affordable?  The answer is almost certainly yes since the housing market (in the UK) depends upon available borrowing to keep values high which in turn encourage lenders to provide funds to buy houses.  If the underpinning of borrowing is taken away, then house prices will be lower.

Would affordable housing be a problem for existing home owners?  This is a more difficult question since we cannot be sure how people would react to the withdrawal of finance for house purchases.  There might be a house price freeze so that property becomes relatively more affordable as a result of inflation but there might also be a fall in house prices (perhaps to below the level of the amounts borrowed) – particularly if (as seems possible if not likely) inflation is closely related to growing debt.

Whilst this sounds like a disaster for existing home owners; it is not necessarily a problem.  Lenders want their money paid back – they only care about the underlying security if and when repayments stop being made.  So for most home-owners who pay off their mortgages, there is no problem.  If personal circumstances change (losing a job through illness or redundancy for example) then there is a problem – but there would be anyway when the main source of income stops.  In these situations state aid may be needed; or alternatively mortgage lenders could end up absorbing the drop in value in the same way they do on mortgage defaults in the current system.

How to make a difference

I guess the hardest thing about looking for a major change is that we cannot imagine what it would be like.  So moving from a world which bases almost all of its commercial transactions on debt to a world without debt is unimaginable.

But it was Einstein who said

Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result

And Henry Ford (founder of one of the biggest car manufacturers in the world) said (possibly quoting someone else)

If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got

Changing the world means doing something that hasn’t been done before.  If it’s been done before it isn’t a change!

It does not mean it is easy or that people will like it.  I don’t understand half of what Einstein said and when Henry Ford offered his Model-T in “any colour as long as it’s black” he may have lost a few customers.

So the question is – should we try?

And my answer is that we have tried the other way over and over and keep on getting the same results – personal, institutional and national debt which has become unmanageable.

So why not try something new and see if we can get a different answer – a world free of debt – economies which do not have built in mechanisms which automatically move from boom to bust – a world free of bankers who are forever trying to lend more money than we can afford – a world free of banking crises.

It’s not just me

It can be difficult deciding what to write next.  Everything seems to have been said already.

And then along comes the weekend newspaper.  The Times Saturday June 27 and Philip Aldrick.  If you have a subscription you can read his article We ought to be scared: too much debt is being combined with too much blind faith.

In simple terms what he was saying was that some important economic indicators are heading the same way they went before the big crash – the  2008 disaster brought about by banks lending too much to people who could not pay them back.

So – money is cheap thanks to Quantitative Easing and very low (or zero) interest rates.

Probably as a result, lots of borrowing has been going on – according to the article $57 trillion in 7 years – which is massively more than the economic growth in the same period.

So debt is now 286% of GDP.  Is this worrying?  Well it was less than that – 269% of GDP – before the crisis.

And where is the money being lent?  “Emerging markets” seems to be the answer – Latin America, the Middle East and Africa are all running deficits borrowing from Western economies.

As I see it, the problem is simply our debt-ridden system.  Because of low interest rates in the Western economies, bankers need to find someone else to lend money to who will pay high rates of interest.  Germany is financing Greek debt at higher interest rates than it can get elsewhere in the EU, but even this is not enough to produce returns for the financial sectors in the West.

As a result money is lent at higher risks to countries which offer a much higher rate of return.  This means money in junk bonds and frontier bonds.  Or put another way in risky companies and risky countries.

Some risky investments will go bad and the question is whether the financial gurus have got it right this time and balanced the risk with the return or whether, as happened before 2008, they went for return at all costs and ended up offloading the risk onto governments who did not dare to let the banking system (and therefore the banks) collapse and so underwrote the debts in massive bailouts.

My answer is simple.  If commercial debt is outlawed, then bankers and other financiers cannot do this to us again.

This is not an easy fix, because we have been brought up on the present system and imagining a different world is difficult.  And bringing in a ban on commercial debt will require considerable planning and ruthless implementation (because any loophole will be exploited because the financial sector is all about exploiting situations – such as different interest rates in different countries – to make a profit).

Is this a crazy idea?  Possibly, but we have tried for years to bring the banking sector under control in the UK and we keep on ending up with scandals – PPI and other misselling scandals, LIBOR and foreign exchange rate fixing, helping launder drug and terrorist money…

So let’s try something new!

Don’t mention the war

Basil Fawlty would have been proud.

A French economist (Thomas Piketty) was interviewed by a German paper (Die Zeit).  This links to an English translation.

An extract gives you a flavour of Piketty’s no-holds-barred approach

Piketty:… After the war ended in 1945, Germany’s debt amounted to over 200% of its GDP. Ten years later, little of that remained: public debt was less than 20% of GDP…. We never would have managed this unbelievably fast reduction in debt through the fiscal discipline that we today recommend to Greece. Instead … our states employed … debt relief…

ZEIT: That happened because people recognised that the high reparations demanded of Germany after World War I were one of the causes of the Second World War. People wanted to forgive Germany’s sins this time!

Piketty: Nonsense! This had nothing to do with moral clarity; it was a rational political and economic decision….

via Thomas Piketty: ‘Germany Has Never Repaid its Debts. It Has No Right to Lecture Greece’ | The Wire.