Thursday, July 30, 2009
Lets roll those loaded dice
There is something deeply disturbing about this chart. It shows that mortgage approvals have picked up over the last four months. While lending activity hasn't yet reached the levels seen during the bubble, there is no doubt that banks are returning to the housing market.
This chart is disturbing because mortgage lending is the only credit market that has seen a pick up in activity. Credit to the corporate sector is contracting. Firms are, on a net basis, actually paying loans back. Things aren't much better for consumers. Interest rate spreads on credit cards have actually increased, and consumer credit growth is close to zero.
So why are banks ready to return to the housing market and at the same time abandon other credit activities? Well, I have my answer. This is a classic case of moral hazard.
Regardless of what the government said in public, the recent bailout had only one objective in mind - put a floor under house prices. The liquidity support and the guarantees were all aimed at stabilizing the housing market. In effect, the government offered to insure banks and their property speculating clientele. The message from Brown and Darling is clear - "we will support house prices no matter how much it will cost".
Banks have picked up on this commitment. Bankers understand all too clearly that the government didn't offer any real support to corporate or consumer lending. Only property matters. Therefore, it is rational for banks to return to mortgage lending while at the same time, cut back on other credit activities.
With this huge de facto insurance contract in their back pocket, banks are cranking up another housing bubble, and it is happening with the financial support of the taxpayer. Moreover, as recent RICS data suggests, there is army of potential house buyers out there ready to dive in and speculate again on property prices.
It is the rational response. After all, we have a government that is ready to guarantee that no one will lose if they speculate on housing. If there are any losses, the government will ensure that the hapless taxpayer will pick up the bill.