7 Sep 2015, 4:07pm
housing rant:
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  • house prices – finance grabs punters by the balls with the invisible hand of the free market

    Housing is the third rail of British investment classes, and I don’t usually go there for the simple reason that I don’t invest in it.

    However, I never really spent much time working out exactly why this asset class is so heady and dangerous. I spent a lot of time looking in the rear-view mirrror working out how it hurt me, examining how, after 20 years of actually paying down the mortgage I had just about broken even relative to the estimated cost of renting, and how terribly front-loaded the risk was – I got away with it because I stayed in the same job for 24 years and bought that house six months into that job.

    Even Monevator declared the asset class overvalued and he’s not a fellow who likes to let on that crystal balls have their place at very rare times 🙂 Although I am still chortling about this –

    by the 1980s they could begin amassing the property wealth they have today – aided enormously by the right-to-buy and buy-to-let booms that the current Government is only just applying the brakes to.

    Not me, mate, I took the sucker punch here and I’ve read the early 1990s news reports that predate the Web where 3 million of my compatriots were in negative equity. The specifically housing part of my networth is probably less than a tenth of the total, and I own half the equity in the house outright (Mrs Ermine owns the other half, not a bank 🙂 ). I do own land elsewhere that roughly doubles that, arguably my property asset class worth is about a suburban semi . Before Londoners start to spit bricks and think the Ermine is on the Sunday Times Rich List, remember that house prices in the provinces are much lower than in London.

    As an aside, I’m intrigued by the result of 80 years of peace in Europe leading to the nonchalance of

    it could eventually be the country I live in. The gulf between what you can buy in the UK and in the great livable cities of Europe is staggering.

    The ermine is a jittery fellow, and even if we discount Brexit, I hear the distant drumbeats of serious social unrest in Europe. Sometimes it takes an outsider to clarify the matter

    At different times and for different reasons, all of the large European states—the United Kingdom, France, Italy, Germany—have blocked attempts to create a common foreign and defense policy, and as a result they have no diplomatic or political clout.

    They haven’t wanted European leadership, and most of them wouldn’t have wanted American leadership either, even if any had been on offer. The richest economy in the world has a power vacuum at its heart and no army. Now the consequences are literally washing up on Europe’s shores.

    But that’s not the point of this post. It is the discovery of the cogent rant linked to here in the comments of Monevator’s Yes, we do have a house price problem article. Unfortunately it’s far too long, so my service here is to summarise some of the observations in a post that is too long but a hundredth of the size:

    In an industrial consumer society, shelter is the one basic Maslow need most people buy on credit

    1402_Maslow's_Hierarchy_of_Needs.svgTake a look at the bottom two layers, which are basic and fundamental needs. Most of us don’t buy food on credit – cash is king here, from income. If you do buy love you probably use cash too 😉 Unlike in the US, healthcare is free in the UK. Although I am sure that there are many who would like to try, we don’t currently charge for air, and most people pay for water as they go along too.

    Unfortunately there’s one big item that addresses homeostasis, sleep, security of body etc, and that is shelter from the rain and other hazards, in short, housing. A hairless mammal in a Northern European climate needs a home. The vast majority of people, on leaving the parental home, are not rich enough to buy a house outright. They need to borrow most of the price.

    The free market fails dismally where everyone buys an essential product with credit

    If I want to buy a pound of apples, or a car, markets work well, because what is called market substitution happens if suppliers price-gouge. I switch to oranges if apples are too dear, I use public transport or a bicycle if cars are too dear. In this way the balance of power is matched – if the buyers are too tight the product is withdrawn from sale because producers don’t find it worth their while, if the producers want all the money the buyers disappear. Adam Smith’s Invisible Hand does its job well when everybody can walk away and do without. When you can’t, the Invisible Hand grabs you by the balls and your heart usually follows. Nowhere is this clearer than with housing.

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