Wednesday, September 03, 2014

The quantitative mercy is definitely strained

I’m still exercised by the £375 billion the Bank of England conjured out of thin air, called quantitative easing, and used allegedly to prop up our ailing economy after the crash of 2007-8.

This money was supposed to go to British businesses to encourage investment in new ventures. It hasn’t done that. So what has happened to it?
Some went to prop up the balance sheets of our appalling banks, whose bosses should not enjoy multi-million pound bonuses and pay-offs but should instead be in jail.

That may explain away the whole lot. But here’s another answer. A lot of it has gone to blow up a housing bubble which is still inflating.

This is Chancellor George Osborne’s master-plan for winning the next General Election. All home-buyers (mostly Tory voters, after all) like rising house prices.
We can sell at a profit, we can borrow against our rising equity, we love all this unearned wealth sloshing around us, especially if we live in London.

What’s not to like? Well, apart from the fact that every bubble bursts eventually. And rising prices mean young people are condemned to rent for years to come unless they have rich mummies and daddies. And it creates a totally artificial impression of the true state of the economy.

While we are certainly better off than our Eurozone neighbours, manufacturing is now in decline again and exports are stalled – mainly because of the recession in said Eurozone. They will be dumping goods here while we can’t sell anything across the English Channel because no-one apart from the Germans has any money.

QE has been squandered on house price rises because, as houses are classed as assets, they do not count towards the rate of inflation. That means they can inflate away at 25 per cent a year and officially, according to the august experts at the Bank of England, the rate of inflation remains unchanged (apart from some small adjustments).

This is why we had rampant house price inflation, ridiculous lending decisions and low interest rates before the crash. And why they have come back to haunt us, fuelled by the Bank’s artificial, made-up, fictional £375 billion of printed paper.

I have reached this conclusion by looking at the figures for lending put out by the Council of Mortgage Lenders. These show that in the 12 months between July last year and this June, home loans totalled £198,149,000,000 (call it £198 billion).

In the depths of the recession, mortgage lending slumped. In 2007, just before we all fell off the bank-made cliff, loans totalled £362 billion. They were as much as £253 billion the following year.

By 2009 they had slumped to £143 billion and fallen to £135 billion in 2010, when the Coalition Government was first elected.

Since then lending has risen every year: £141 billion in 2011, £145 billion in 2012, £176 billion in 2013.

If we take £135 billion as the base line, it means lending over that figure has risen by £6 billion + £10 billion + £41 billion + (by the end of this year an estimated minimum of) £45 billion. That comes to £102 billion.

At a time when financial institutions are supposedly strapped for cash, where have all these billions come from? The answer has to be QE.

Of course some additional lending would have taken place anyway and it is not running at the kind of level we saw a decade ago. So you could argue this is just the natural pattern for an economic recovery.

That doesn’t seem terribly likely, however. For banks and buyers, house-price rises are still seen as the safe haven and sure bet they were for such a long time before it all went horribly wrong. And it’s true things never went as horribly wrong in Britain as they did in Ireland or the United States, for instance.

But rampant house-price inflation is not an acceptable way to create the illusion of economic recovery. It cannot last unless the Bank of England prints more money for mortgage-lenders to burn.

If the economy were really recovering, the Bank would have increased interest rates by now. That they haven’t done so has little or nothing to do with the official rate of inflation (which itself has no relationship with reality). It’s all about creating an illusion of well-being ahead of the next General Election.

If the bubble doesn’t burst and interest rates don’t rise (or even if they do by a quarter of a per cent or so), George Osborne will get the credit for rescuing the economy and the Tories might actually win the election.

The truth is, as usual, that they are just deferring the evil day when the QE money runs out and house prices have to return to some sort of normality. At which point, no doubt, the Bank will invent a few more tens of billions to keep the whole tottering edifice from crashing down.

• For more on how QE might affect the country, why not check out my novel ‘Murder on the Brussels Express’ where this distinctly unsexy subject plays a significant role in the plot?

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