Britain faces recession without housing ATM

By J Saft
December 17, 2008

James Saft is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.

james-saft1Even in the good times, many British consumers were borrowing against their houses just to fund routine consumption, indicating a big hit to come for retail sales and for the banks who hold the loans.

With house prices falling rapidly and mortgage debt tougher to get, it is no surprise that homeowners are less able and inclined to borrow against their houses in order to spend.

That will be hitting the High Street now – analysts are expecting a 0.6 percent fall on the month in retail sales for November when data are released later this week. But a rise in unemployment next year could expose a really serious weakness in household finances, as consumers who counted on being able to extract wealth from their houses to smooth consumption in bad times find that, when bad times come, the wealth isn’t there and the banks don’t want to lend anyway.

Researchers at Durham University looking at survey data found that 37 percent of homeowners borrowed against their house between 2002 and 2005, typically realising about 6,000 pounds. That’s a lot people borrowing a lot of money against very illiquid and now hard to realise assets.

Even more interesting is the pattern of what householders were doing with the money and what was happening to them when they decided to borrow. Over time the proportion of people borrowing to re-invest in their houses through improvements fell, while more was finding its way into day-to-day costs, according to Susan J. Smith, a professor at Durham and one of the authors of the study.

This was borne out by a high percentage of equity borrowers who had lost their jobs, become pregnant or had a child in the year they borrowed.

How exactly a borrower who has lost his job gets a bigger mortgage is a puzzle, but one that evidently banks and borrowers in Britain together have somehow managed to solve. The record in the United States shows that the housing boom brought with it a tremendous amount of mortgage fraud, much of it abetted by people within the lending industry.

In short, it seems that even during boom times in Britain people weren’t borrowing against their houses simply to buy BMWs and fund vacations, but often to keep their households ticking over during tough times.

“The rising property market was central to encouraging people to borrow more for non housing expenditure,” said Ross Walker, economist at Royal Bank of Scotland in London.  “And with the housing market now in reverse you would expect to see a retrenchment. It reinforces the potential fault line for the UK household sector: there is a big debt exposure and the real test will come next year as unemployment rises.”

BORROW NOW, DEFAULT LATER
The housing safety net, such as it was, simply won’t be there next year when unemployment vaults higher, which is very likely to exacerbate a spending slowdown which itself will feed unemployment. And remember, these weren’t people who were defaulting on their house loans in order to be able to pay their grocery bills, but people who were in part paying their grocery bills because they could borrow against their houses.

I wouldn’t want to be the bank that made those loans, or the government that insures that bank. It also goes some way, in my view, towards explaining the very precipitous fall in the pound, which is down more than 30 percent on a trade-weighted basis this year.

According to a survey of households just released by the Bank of England, credit is much harder to get as compared with a year ago. A total of 16 percent of households said they had put off spending because they were concerned about access to credit, up by a quarter from a year ago.

Only six percent of mortgage borrowers said they had taken out an additional secured loan, compared with 10 percent last year and 14 percent in 2006. Nearly 40 percent took out these loans to pay down other debts. That points to higher credit card losses and delinquencies next year, as unemployment interacts with an inability to access fresh secured loans.

So 2009 looks like it will feature higher unemployment, much reduced consumer spending, impaired access to credit and a default cycle that will worsen the already difficult capital problems of the banking sector. There has been a lot of effort and exhortation to try and keep banks lending to consumers in Britain, presumably on the view that it’s best to sober up gradually.

That can only work so long, and if it comes at the expense of capital for businesses that make and sell things, especially overseas, it may in prove to be a mistake.

And while big ticket items like automobiles, which are easy to defer, are now suffering, next year may see very tough times on the British high street for more basic items.

(At the time of publication James Saft did not own any direct investments in securities mentioned in this article. He may be an owner indirectly as an investor in a fund.)

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