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from Breakingviews:

How China is stoking London’s housing bubble

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By George Hay

The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.

It takes a long trip on the London underground to get to the Aura housing development. From Waterloo Station, 42 minutes tick by until you pull into Edgware, the stop nearest to the half-completed apartment blocks being built on land formerly occupied by a now-bankrupt football club. Attempt the journey at the weekend, when large swathes of the tube are typically shut, and you must make a detour to nearby Canon’s Park station. From there, you face a 15-minute trek taking in a boarded-up pub, a Lidl supermarket and a municipal office block with smashed ground-floor windows. In every sense, you are a long way from what estate agents like to call “prime central London.”

Yet projects like Aura say a lot about how London’s property bubble is changing. Six thousand miles away, on the thirteenth floor of Hong Kong’s Mandarin Oriental hotel, a host of investors cluster around a scale model of this latest addition to northwest London’s housing stock. Some are affluent middle-class Hong Kong couples looking to invest a couple of hundred thousand pounds for the long term. Others are looking for a quick flip. They plan to put down 10 percent of the purchase price now, wait for values to rise, and sell for a tidy profit before the development opens to residents next year.

There’s nothing new about foreign investment in London property. Since UK residential property prices bottomed in March 2009, intense overseas interest has pushed up average values in Kensington & Chelsea – the hub of prime central London – by 75 percent, according to Land Registry data. In Harrow, where Aura is located, prices have risen by just 24 percent.

from Breakingviews:

How to avoid another second-class UK privatisation

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By Robert Cole

The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.

Britain has ways to avoid another second-class privatisation. Royal Mail’s IPO looks awfully cheap in hindsight: shares leapt 38 percent on day one and trade at a 70 percent premium six months later. So an official post-mortem from the National Audit Office embarrasses politicians and bankers alike. Still, there are lessons for future selloffs. Sell down slowly, be more flexible in book-building, and handle retail offers carefully.

from Hugo Dixon:

Don’t bet on EU treaty change

Both continental European euro-enthusiasts and British Conservatives received a boost last week when the German and UK finance ministers called for a rewrite of the European Union’s treaties. The goal, outlined by Wolfgang Schaeuble and George Osborne, is to kill two birds with one stone: shore up the euro zone and keep Britain in the EU.

The entente is significant. German-UK relations have certainly warmed since December 2011, when London tried to block one of Berlin’s pet projects – a treaty that restricted borrowing by euro zone countries – unless it was given guarantees to protect the City of London.

from Edward Hadas:

In defence of financial coercion

Last week the British government gave a new freedom to its citizens, or at least to a relatively privileged group of them. No longer will pensioners with defined contribution retirement plans be forced to invest their accumulated funds in an annuity. The old requirement was a form of financial coercion: government rules which influence behaviour.

For the pensioners in question, the new arrangement may feel like liberation. They will no longer be enslaved to a product which offers meagre yields. For the rest of Britain, though, financial freedom has probably been reduced. All taxpayers will end up paying more for the medical bills of some pensioners, those who would have had an annuity income but who might now be forced to turn to the state if they run out of money when they need expensive care.

from Breakingviews:

Berlin’s housing boom has lessons for London

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By Olaf Storbeck

The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.

Berlin is becoming a bit more Londonesque. While the buses in Germany’s capital are still yellow, not red, and the locals remain grumpy, the behaviour of housing prices has a British accent. According to property website ImmoWelt.de, asking prices for one-bedroom flats have risen 53 percent in three years. The Bundesbank has warned that property prices are roughly a quarter higher than fundamentals justify. But Berlin’s boom is much less likely to last than London’s.

from Breakingviews:

UK’s political budget transfers from young to old

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By Ian Campbell

The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.

George Osborne claimed to have a big white rabbit up his sleeve. It turned out the UK chancellor had hidden a cuddly toy for pensioners. Osborne is running the budget for both the economy and the election.

from Hugo Dixon:

Cameron lowers Brexit risk

Angela Merkel’s visit to the UK last month seems to have worked wonders. Within three weeks of the German chancellor’s speech to the House of Commons and her private meetings with political leaders, the two most risky “Brexit” scenarios are now less likely.

First, the Labour opposition has virtually ruled out holding a referendum on Britain’s European Union membership if it wins power in 2015. Such a plebiscite might well have led to an Out vote given that, in such a scenario, the Tory party and press could have formed a united front opposing membership.

from Hugo Dixon:

Labour has just shrunk Brexit risks

The risks of a Brexit have just shrunk a lot. Ed Miliband, the UK’s leader of the opposition, has virtually ruled out a referendum on Britain’s European Union membership if he becomes prime minister in 2015. David Cameron’s Conservatives will need to win an overall majority in the next general election and then lose an In/Out vote to allow the UK to quit before 2020.

This is good news for business: a plebiscite, coming after a populist campaign, might easily produce the “wrong” result. An Out vote would put Britain at risk of losing full access to the EU’s single market, with which it conducts almost half its trade. It would also unleash a long period of uncertainty. Whoever is prime minister then will have to resign, likely to be replaced by a staunch eurosceptic who will then engage in acrimonious divorce talks with the rest of the EU. In the meantime, business would sit on its hands, and the economy suffer.

from Hugo Dixon:

How Britain could win EU reform

Angela Merkel’s visit to London last week has been viewed by many as a snub to David Cameron’s aim to reform the European Union. But it all depends on what one means by reform.

The British prime minister last year promised a referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU by the end of 2017. He vowed to renegotiate Britain’s relationship with Europe in the meantime – the idea being that, on the back of such reforms, he would be able to persuade a sceptical electorate to vote to stay in.

from Edward Hadas:

How hunger and obesity go together

Global hunger is shrinking. Yet each winter operators of food banks in rich countries like the United States and Britain speak movingly of the plight of those who must choose between heating and eating. The desperation seen by Feeding America and the British Trussell Trust is real enough, but this is not a massive economic failure. The weakness is predominantly social.

When people do not have enough to eat, there are three possible causes: an inadequate food production system, a bad political choice or poor personal arrangements. Through most of history, the first problem was the most important cause of hunger. However, as the economist Amartya Sen pointed out three decades ago, food shortages can no longer be acts of nature.

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