You Owe The Bank Nothing

House prices in Ireland as a multiple of average income. (Source: Morgan Kelly, Finfacts)
House prices in Ireland as a multiple of average income. (Source: Morgan Kelly,

Somebody on the radio saying they’re going abroad to declare bankruptcy. A different holiday idea I suppose. Naturally others soon phoned in to object to this “moral hazard“, as the banks would like us to call it. It was wrong they said to walk away from your mortgaged home just because you owed more on it than it was worth.

That got me thinking about what debt actually means. Is there a moral obligation to repay?

Well of course there is. It’s a matter of trust, which is what morality is basically all about. If you’re in a business, you were given materials and help by your workers and suppliers. You are obliged to pay them so they in turn can pay their helpers and suppliers and so on. The wheels of the economy keep turning and everyone gets fed. A financial debt is a promise like any other.

However there is one important qualification. You are only indebted when and if you actually receive something.

The banks will argue of course that they gave you money when you signed that mortgage so you are obviously obliged to repay it, along with the agreed interest. But the thing is, did they actually give you money?

No. They never gave it to you, because they never had it to give to you.

I don’t mean they didn’t have it in their vaults; we all know that’s not how finance works. All loans are borrowed, when it comes down to it, from the future. They’re based on the reasonable prediction that most of the time they will be paid back in full and with interest. But when the banks decided instead to start making ludicrous loans for several times the value of the houses they were raised against, thereby further escalating the price of housing and so allowing them to offer even bigger loans, they knew that ultimately the whole thing had to blow up. The loans were fake. There was no money in the future to borrow from.

When the inevitable crash came the banks of course had a parachute: They were too big to fail – or so at least they managed to convince themselves. And with themselves convinced they had little trouble convincing the political parties they were going out with – who effectively promised that they would make this impossible future money somehow magically become real money.

Or to be precise, they promised that we would.

The money you seemed to get from the bank ultimately came therefore out of your own pocket. You were tricked into lending it to yourself so that they could take a cut. It’s immoral to stop repaying that? It’s probably immoral to keep going.

ESRI public debt
The surprising result of neo-liberal economic policy – massive public debt.

Besides, you will only be a little ahead of the crowd. It should come as no surprise that even with all of us working together we can’t actually afford to turn the banks’ lies into reality. The State itself is going to default at some point. That is as inevitable now as the property crash was. Our public debt is soon going to be 200% of GDP, and the harder we try to pay it the less we will be able to; we are being crushed in fact by the burden of trying. Actual people being crushed, by imagined money.

The sooner we all default the better.

Stimulating The Housing Market Is Economic Madness

A house, earlier today

Hell’s anteaters, but I am tired today. I’ve gotten out of practice at the art of staying out late and expressing emotions.

But I wanted to talk about NAMA‘s new mortgage incentive scheme, and why it’s nuts. For the interested overseas reader I’ll briefly recap: NAMA is a body set up to manage assets, mainly property, of lenders and investors who were bailed out by the State. Put bluntly, it owns a great number of houses that nobody ever needed, or ever will need.

Among them there are some decent saleable properties, they’re just not moving because the property market is moribund. Actually, moribund is a euphemism. The property market is as dead as a dodo with a doornail in it. So NAMA’s idea is to incentivise purchasers with a special mortgage bargain.

They reason that people aren’t buying because they fear house prices have further to fall, trapping them in negative equity. The scheme, which they’ve hammered out with some of our (rescued) lending institutions, is that your repayments will be reduced if the market value of your new house drops. Well, until it drops to 80% of your purchase price; below that the loss is all yours. So it’s sort of an insurance policy against the market falling. A financial derivative, if you will.

But why is NAMA doing this? If the idea is to get the property off state hands because we badly need the money, it’s just robbing Peter to pay Paul. There will be a further drop in house prices – zero doubt about that – and under this scheme the loss is going to be taken by the taxpayer. Again.¹ They say they’re doing it to “kick start” the market, as if the scheme was a sort of financial defibrillator. The image that comes to my mind though is of early electrical experimenters trying to bring corpses back to life.

There is one simple reason why the house market is moribund: The people who need houses can’t afford them. So it’s a market, why don’t prices just come down? Because those who have them, generally speaking, paid far more than they can now get. They’re naturally reluctant to sell at a loss and so hold on to their property in the hope that the market will soon bottom out, maybe even begin rising again.

They are only fooling themselves of course. Prices are still very much higher than pre-boom norms and must come down significantly. The trouble with NAMA’s scheme is that it will only help them fool themselves. If they believe that prices are now only about 20% away from bottoming out, they’re going to sit tight and wait for the rise. That would be the exact opposite of the intended effect.

I think NAMA hope that they’ll fool the buyer more than the seller, encouraging them to believe that we are close to the bottom of the market. That could raise demand to meet prices as they are now, so becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.

And a hugely counterproductive one, because we need to get house prices down to realistic levels before we can (a) actually afford them, and (b) rebuild a stable, reliable economy. Propping them up at or near their current levels is defying the market, trapping a bubble of false value in the economy – one that will threaten to collapse like an old mineshaft running right beneath our feet. We can’t rebuild on such foundations.


  1. Well I say the taxpayer. As taxes probably aren’t going to go up much, it’s public services and those who depend on them that will actually take the brunt of it.

Private Profit, Public Punishment

loan shark... 218365
Image by paloetic via Flickr

Is it true, as Taoiseach Enda Kenny said at Davos, that Ireland went mad with borrowing?

Far from it. We went mad with lending. A very different thing.

No seriously. The Taoiseach’s choice of words suggest that it is right for the public as a whole to have to pick up the tab for this, because we bear a collective moral responsibility for it – by going a bit mad. Whether he intended it or not, this is insulting nonsense. For a start, many were too sensible to borrow more than they could afford. Others were too poor to be lent money at all, even with the lax standards of last decade.

Some of us were both.

People did not suddenly become extra-greedy last decade for no apparent reason. People were always greedy, and until recently banks made their money by exploiting these human desires – but exploiting them sustainably. This changed when they managed to convince themselves that they could turn a profit on less secure lending.

This is not to exonerate people who borrowed recklessly. It’s still foolish behaviour and people should not be rewarded for it. But neither should the rest of society be punished. The idea that this could all have been avoided if the public had, en masse, just budgeted more sensibly is patently ludicrous. It was the lenders who had their hands on the control valves; they precipitated the crisis.

They, and of course the people who encouraged these lending practices by investing in them. Bondholders, as we call them.

How Abject Can We Get?

The Dail Eireann
What is the opposite of social welfare?

A Dáil committee debate; someone yet again makes the point that if we selectively burn lenders now, they will remember it if we ever want to borrow again.

The government’s logic seems to be that the bank debts taken on – but not created – by the State are just like all public borrowing now. But they’re not the same. It was money lent into an overheated credit market by reckless lenders. Just as our banks made loans they should not have, those international institutions lent money they should not have lent to our banks. They took unreasonable risks, they stoked a boom, and they helped collapse the entire Irish banking industry.

We want them to remember not to do that.

The Value Of Nothing

Property prices in Ireland
Property prices in Ireland converted to 2011 currency. The red line shows the pre-boom average. ©

So house prices in Dublin have reached half what they were at the height of the boom. That’s a good sign. If they halve once more they’ll be back to what they were pre-bubble. Look at the graph (ganked from the very interesting if you don’t believe me. Converted to 2011 money, an average house cost about €100,000 for decades. At the height of the boom it peaked at nearly four times that. Well over a third of a million, for an ordinary home.

Just one question springs to mind. What the hell were we thinking? Houses costing the price of a house, plus three other houses? Cars didn’t quadruple in price in just a few years. Food didn’t, even drink and cigarettes didn’t. During boom times, market prices are supposed to fall behind rising incomes. Otherwise they wouldn’t be called boom times, they’d be called mysterious outbreaks of rampant inflation. But during ours the cost of housing left incomes for dead. Clearly, the housing market is a deeply flawed one – almost an object model in fact of how capitalism goes wrong.

In theory the price of something is set by supply and demand, which is both efficient and ethical. Well let’s pretend it is for now, it works well enough for most things. Why does it go wrong here? Because the supply and demand of housing is almost irrelevant to the housing market.

What does a house cost? It’s an interesting question. A house in an appropriate location can be a very important asset, so in general people will spend the absolute maximum on a house they think they can afford. That’s clearly unlike wine or cars or dinners or phones. So in short, the answer to the question “How much does a house cost?” is “Whadya got?”

Or more precisely, what can you raise? If easier money is available therefore, people will borrow more. They’ll pretty much have to, as prices will rise to meet the available credit. Of course they have the option of only borrowing as much as they would have before prices went strange, but if they do they’ll get a much worse house than they could previously have afforded, while those willing to avail of the softer terms will get the shorter commutes, the better school catchment areas, the safer neighbourhoods. Competing for their and their children’s futures, it is hard to blame them for taking all that the banks and other financial institutions offered.

Speculation happens in such runaway markets of course. People will buy houses in the hope of selling them at a profit, just as if they were buying shares or gold or currency. Capitalism teaches that there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. The vast, vast majority however are buying houses because they need a house. And while some postponed purchasing in the hope that prices would come down, far more rushed into buying out of fear that they would not.

There are other factors, but we shouldn’t overemphasise them. People had become better off, yes. But did your income double? Mine sure as **** didn’t. The euro facilitated the boom because such an influx of credit would otherwise have exploded the currency, but it didn’t cause it. Houses were said to be “historically underpriced”, but even if you can bring yourself to believe a thing could be consistently underpriced for decades without anyone noticing, could it seriously be by a factor of two, even four?

And there was net immigration, that could have been expected to fuel the market. After all prices go up when demand outstrips supply. Only… Supply vastly outstripped demand. People were building houses up the sides of cliffs.

There are no two ways about it. We had a housing price bubble because we had an oversupply of credit. The blame rests squarely with the financial institutions that offered these loans. That is, all of them. Major banks should have known better and could have resisted. Had just a couple of lesser institutions been left to their excessive lending the larger banks would have lost custom, yes. But they would have survived. And minor institutions could not by themselves have super-inflated house prices.

But these lending practices were adopted by the whole industry, and quite literally they forced people to pay too much – far, far too much – for houses. There is a clear case for debt forgiveness therefore. There is also a case for punishment – though of the lenders who made the irresponsible loans rather than the borrowers who had little choice except to take them. And by punishment, I seriously mean prison sentences. There must surely be some law against business practices so reckless that they ruin individuals, families, even a whole country.

Isn’t there?