Housing data and the illusion of recovery

That great barometer of UK consumer confidence, house prices, seems to be moving up. A glance at some of the British tabloids today shows that the combination of a very slight rise in house prices and a fourth consecutive monthly rise  in the number of people managing to buy their own home is front page news.

Why so?

Housing data has long been seen as a bellwether for economic confidence. When prices rise, consumers feel wealthy and spend more. When they shrink, people somehow feel worse off. It’s not that they would sell their houses and embark on a spending spree. Rather, that a diminution in the value of their assets just makes them feel poorer.

Home ownership is the aim of many British families reflecting the fact that UK house prices  have risen several fold over the past 40 years, in fact nearly doubling in the years between 2000-2010. This makes property an incredible long-term (and, at times, short-term) investment for those able to buy. In Germany and elsewhere, property prices have been static or, in parts, risen just modestly.

More people therefore buy houses than rent in Britain, a trend that sets the UK apart from a number of other European countries where renting is considered perfectly acceptable.

The number of young people buying for the first time in 2012 was the highest since 2008 when the global financial crisis really hit. This has, however, less to do with a sense that the economy is improving and more to do with the growing availability of mortgage finance.

After the ‘credit crunch’ of 2008-9 when many UK banks went under and had to be bailed out by the taxpayer, the finance tap was effectively turned off. Last year, the British government introduced a Funding for Lending scheme, making billions of pounds available to banks on condition they lent more to businesses and individuals.

The Council for Mortgage Lenders said the scheme is making an impact in that it’s enabling lenders to provide more competitive deals to house buyers.

So it’s a pretty illusory recovery – it’s taking taxpayer money to make the market move. In these grey economic days, however, anything that cheers up the consumer is taken at face value – hence the newspaper headlines.