Replies to my critique of Economist BTL articleMake Text Bigger
Regular subscribers to this site may have seen my critique of the Economist article on buy-to-let. Click Here to view original article. What follows is my reply to the reply by Tom Wainwright, their Britain Editor. I am still waiting for their next reply. I fear it may never come…
Thanks very much for getting back to me regarding the article below. I am copying in Callum Williams, as he also replied to me.
I have looked at your replies to my points, and make the following comments by way of reply, with your points in bold and mine in bold and underlined. I would reiterate that I would be happy to write an article for the Economist on this or specifically on the Government’s fiscal attack on landlords, which is a key area of interest of mine. I do believe that the Economist needs to publish a more balanced and accurate article to compensate for this flawed article.
- Why was the following point made?
‘The rent from buy-to-let properties, which we estimate at £55bn-65bn ($73bn-87bn) a year, is equivalent to the salary bill for the financial and insurance industries, in which over 1m people work.’
There is no line of causation between these two ‘facts’ or indeed any sense in linking the two.
Your answer was: To give an idea of the scale of the business.
But I would repeat that it makes no sense. It might make more sense to compare rent from buy-to-let with what people spend on mortgages – indeed, this point is often made but is also a false comparison as within rents a lot more expenses are encapsulated than are within mortgages (rents include maintenance costs, buildings insurance, gas safety certificates and so on).
Even better would have been to say how many millions of people are housed for that £55-65bn and how many landlords are able to use the proceeds to live on and pay tax on and how many are able to provide for their pensions from it; also how many trades and professionals are supported by landlords every day of the week (plumbers, electricians, DIY stores, estate agents, letting agents, mortgage brokers, lenders and so on). I believe one estimate of what BTL ‘puts into’ the economy is £30 billion. It might also be mentioned what the tax take is from rented properties, compared to owner-occupied homes, which bring nothing in to the Exchequer except when SDLT is due. Private landlords pay tax – now a higher rate of SDLT, income tax, capital gains tax and now a tax levy on finance costs.
As the statement was written it simply implies that landlords make a lot of money and by comparing it to finance industry salaries, I can only speculate that this implies that landlords are also involved in ‘finance’ and get some kind of ‘unearned income’ as though it is pure investment or that landlords are unproductive (whilst providing an essential service for society and the economy in fact).
- ‘Investing in the housing market has seemed like a one-way bet, with prices trending upwards in real terms for four decades…’
This is very London-centric. In many parts of the country, house prices have not recovered to their 2008 levels. By stating that the housing market ‘seemed like a one-way bet,’ with no qualifying statement after this, it implies it was a one-way bet. It was not. If returns had been guaranteed, everyone who could have would have invested in what is actually a business fraught with risk.
Your answer is: It refers to national averages.
It may refer to national averages, but I would expect a journalist to point out that these camouflage a hugely variable pattern across the country. By stating simply that prices have trended up for four decades the journalist is being London and south-east centric, in particular (although a few other specific cities and areas have seen big increases). If your journal was only concerned with a few specific parts of the country, you might want to point this out and make the whole article just about the specific areas.
- ‘The growth of the rental market is not in itself an unwelcome trend.’
This is a curious statement, as it implies that the consensus is that the growth of the PRS is unwelcome. The author points out the importance of rented housing for workers who need to be mobile and therefore for productivity in the economy, however they could also have pointed out how the sector has stepped in to plug the gap created by millions of council and Housing Association properties being sold off, and also how the sector provides essential housing for students and immigrants. It would be better to have said that this is the second most numerous tenure in the UK after owner-occupation and one which must be protected and advanced.
Your answer is: I don’t think it does. But as you know, you don’t need to look far to find people complaining, erroneously, that the PRS is responsible for the housing shortage.
I’m sorry but the sentence clearly implies the ‘rental market’ is an unwelcome trend – a really ridiculous position, actually, as the PRS houses around 5 million households. If the Government wants to discourage it and the rest of society wants to see private landlords eliminated, then they would have been advised to build the social housing to replace it, before launching a full-scale attack on it. If, as you say in your email, the PRS is not responsible for the housing shortage why didn’t the author write about that and point out the bizarreness of arguing, as many do, that housing providers cause housing shortages.
- ‘Yet the buy-to-let boom also has its downsides. Like the gentry of old, Britain’s new class of landlords is often amateurish. Most operate on a very small scale: six in ten have just one property. And many seem to manage their houses poorly. Almost 30% of private-rented dwellings are officially classed as “non-decent”, meaning that they fail to meet basic standards for things such as heating or their state of repair. (By contrast, 15% of council housing is in such a condition.)’
Asserting that small-scale landlords are ‘amateurish’ is biased and without evidence. It is wrong to assume that larger businesses will necessarily be ‘better.’
There is also no exploration of why private housing might be deemed to be ‘non-decent.’ The ‘non-decent’ definition would apply for example if there were a tiny bit of mould in the utility area (something I have in my privately-owned house). Houses are not ‘perfect’ and the old Victorian stock making up a lot of the PRS has some issues like this which require significant maintenance. The age of the housing stock is not landlords’ fault. Also, contrary to the assertion above, I could say that ‘many’ landlords manage their houses well.
Your answer is: On the contrary, we provide evidence and…. Non-decent is an official classification, which we define in the same sentence. It would not apply to “a tiny bit of mould”
The ‘evidence’ is the statistic of 30% versus 15%. This statistic is misleading as there is no mention of the different types of housing in each and the fact that private housing consists of much older stock in general. Bare statistics are therefore misleading as they are not comparing like with like.
I also find it amazing that in a comparison of housing conditions between the private and social sectors, Grenfell Tower wasn’t mentioned. Such an event in the PRS would have resulted in a huge backlash about ‘evil, greedy’ landlords murdering their tenants. Organisations like Shelter which have ignored the plight of social tenants with problematic housing over many years were suddenly wrong-footed on this and silent for days (complicated by the fact that they had two of their Board members involved with the Tower). They would have been incandescent had this huge loss of life occurred in the PRS and I’m sure it would have been mentioned in the Economist article.
Also, regarding the definition of ‘non-decent’, in fact this is a standard set up to classify social housing and not private housing. In private housing, the Health and Safety Standards for Rented Homes is used, with Category 1 hazards used as an indicator of poor quality. Mould is included as a Category 1 hazard – one, which more often than not is caused by the occupants’ lifestyles. It is wrong to see it automatically as a failing by the landlord or as a sign that the landlord is letting out a non-decent or substandard property.
- ‘The Conservative Party is worried. Over half of private renters voted for Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party at the general election in June, a higher share of private renters than voted for Tony Blair when he won by a landslide in 1997.’
I am not sure of the significance of this point. Many who privately rent now, might if they had still had access to social housing still have voted Labour; also, the number of private renters has gone up so one would expect the number who voted Labour (and maybe Conservative) to have also gone up.
You say: This is why we refer to the proportion, not the absolute number.
Obviously, owner-occupiers are more inclined to vote Conservatives and tenants are more likely to vote Labour, so I think we agree on that point.
- ‘…and in April began tightening the rules on how landlords write off interest costs against income tax. These changes are enough to turn healthy annual profits into losses, especially for investors in higher tax brackets and with large mortgages.
This is inaccurate. There wasn’t a ‘tightening of the rules on how landlords write off interest costs against income tax.’ There was a change in the rules. Tightening the rules suggests that landlords were exploiting loopholes in the rules , but there were no loopholes. They just applied generally accepted accounting principles, like any other enterprise in the country, whereby when a business pays tax it is first allowed to offset the costs of producing the taxable profit. Paul Johnson of the Institute of Fiscal Studies has called the justification of this ‘plain wrong.’ The Institute of Chartered Accountants has further stated:
‘The idea that landlords will be taxed on the profit of their businesses, but not be allowed to offset the costs of creating that taxable profit is absurd, unjust and unsustainable. It overturns a fundamental, centuries-old principle of taxation.’
It is also misleading to say that this applies to landlords with large mortgages; it would be more accurate to say it applies to landlords with significant borrowing costs – as it can equally apply to a portfolio landlord who provides lots of housing to the low-paid true, though as we note earlier, most landlords have only one property – so the mortgages can be quite small, but numerous. Clearly, if landlords catering for the bottom end of the market are driven out of business by what is for many a huge new liability, this will have devastating impacts for the tenants with the lowest incomes. For an indepth analysis of the implications of this iniquitous tax levy, I refer you to my report:
You say: This is not what “tightening the rules” suggests at all.
I stand by my original point. Section 24 of the Finance (no.2) Act 2015 represents a departure from generally accepted accountancy principles. As the Institute of Chartered Accountants of England and Wales has pointed out: ‘It overturns a fundamental, centuries-old principle of taxation.’ That is not a ‘tightening of the rules,’ which is an inaccurate way to describe such a fundamental shift.
With regard to focusing on landlords in high tax brackets being affected, this also misses the point that the number of tenants might be considered to be more relevant. As I pointed out, it is portfolio landlords with a high number of mortgaged properties who will be disproportionately and often more devastatingly affected by a new tax levy which treats finance costs as profit and not costs. In accordance with the Pareto Principle, it is clear that the number of properties owned by a smaller proportion of portfolio landlords is much higher than the total number owned by landlords with only one property. The Treasury has also made this mistake of completely ignoring the impact of this on tenants.
- ‘Roughly 15% of mortgage debt is on buy-to-let properties. The Bank of England has warned of risks associated with this. Property investors buy when prices are rising but sell when they are falling, making house prices more volatile. Buy-to-let landlords are also more likely to default than owner-occupiers.’
There are several issues here. Firstly it was the act of the Treasury – backed by the Bank of England – in launching a fiscal attack on landlords which made it more likely landlords would start selling off in large numbers, potentially causing the very ‘crisis’ the Bank of England should have been seeking to avert. However, the evidence is that landlords do not panic sell in a down turn; considering the 2008 ‘property crash’ didn’t cause landlords to sell, this myth is pretty much busted.
The assertion that landlords default more than owner-occupiers is also false. In fact, according to what was the Council of Mortgage Lenders, buy-to-let has always been significantly safer. For example, a recent review by mortgage providers showed that East Midlands loans were 8 x safer and East of England 6x safer in the hands of BTL landlords, with the whole country averaging 3.25 x safety.
Your answer is: The BoE’s analysis finds otherwise.
The BoE has not produced any definitive study on this, to my knowledge. Instead, there have been no more than a handful of ad hoc comments about it. The first of these was timed to occur a few weeks before George Osborne launched his attack on private landlords. For ease of reference I insert an extract from my report on this, at the end of this email. What is clear is that the relatively few statements predicting the behaviour of private landlords in a downturn which emanated from the BoE are unreliable and counterintuitive. Indeed you may like to look at comparable unreliable statements from the Treasury, with whom the BoE has sometimes had an unhealthily close relationship, which are in fact no more than sophistry. This is explained here, with my response to the Treasury reply in the comments section just below the article:
- ‘All things considered, a smaller buy-to-let sector may come as a relief to regulators.’
It won’t come as a relief though to the increasing numbers of people who cannot or do not want to buy property and who need a good supply of rented housing. Rented property is already in short supply and demand is predicted to increase. Assuming, as this article does implicitly, that rented housing is a bad thing, is simple bias.
You say: We do make this point earlier.
The point made earlier is that private landlords fulfill some role by housing workers. You don’t make a general positive statement about the essential role of private landlords in housing 5 million households. Also, why would a smaller buy-to-let sector cause regulators (whoever they are) to feel relief? Local councils – who are key regulators – won’t feel relief as they already are facing desperate shortages in rented housing and many are begging landlords to take on their difficult-to-place clients.
- ‘Buy-to-letters sometimes compete with first-time buyers for property—and they often win, since they tend to have bigger incomes.‘
In fact, it would have again been more accurate and less biased to frame this as landlords and first time buyers mostly not competing for the same houses. This was the finding of the independent research from the London School of Economics and is also common sense to landlords. First time buyers don’t want our houses of multiple occupation and they don’t want the little terraces in grubby streets known for drug-taking and/or areas full of benefit claimants. Conversely, speaking personally, I have never wanted the new-builds which are promoted to first time buyers, as the rent is often not sufficient to cover the mortgage and other costs of the business.
You say: Hence “sometimes”
But it is misleading to focus on the ‘sometimes’ and to then say landlords ‘often win.’ It would be better to focus on the ‘mostly they don’t compete.’ I would also like to know the statistical source of the statement that when they are competing landlords often win. Where does this competition occur and where is the evidence of the outcome?
It is also counter-intuitive to suggest landlords would bid up prices. Landlords are not emotionally attached to homes they purchase for rental; they do not ‘fall in love’ with properties and have to have them at any cost. The only research I am aware of on this, suggests that putative owner-occupiers on average pay 1% more than landlords for equivalent properties. More buyers in the market serves to bid up prices whether those buyers “fall in love” with properties or not.
- ‘One study suggested that more than ten percentage points of the 150% rise in real house prices between 1996 and 2007 was caused by increased lending to landlords.
This is an inaccurate statement. The study it refers to which was published by the National Housing and Planning Unit in 2007 found that only 7% out of the 150% rise in property prices between 1996 and 2007 was due to increased lending to landlords.
You say: I’m afraid I don’t have the source to hand but I assume we are referring to different studies
I think you would find it difficult to find another study published in 2007 which also focused on this exact same subject, but came up with the 10% instead of 7% statistic. I am very familiar with work on this and am sure that the author is referring to the same study, but perhaps didn’t know the source and therefore exaggerated the findings. As I said, this can only be done in order to over-play landlords’ role in pushing up house prices (when their actual impact may even have been the other way, keeping house prices down, compared to what they would have been if landlords had not brought huge investment of their own money into improving and increasing housing supply). Indeed the report concerned was basically making an educated guess using an experimental mathematical formula and its authors suggested it was likely to be over-stating the impact of BTL on house prices, with 7% being in the ‘upper band’.
The rise in prices was presumably caused by increased demand for housing of all kinds coupled with a chronic under-supply of new dwellings, which would have been greater without BTL. What would prices and rents have be now if landlords had not contributed greatly to the housing stock? Considering there would have been a worse shortage than we currently have without landlords commissioning new-builds, bringing decrepit housing back into use, converting commercial premises for residential use and converting larger properties into houses of multiple occupation (housing large numbers of young workers very effectively), it is likely landlords have brought prices down more than they have increased them.
By exaggerating and focusing on the statistic of 10% (which should have been 7%), the author fails to account for or even refer to the other 93% of the rise in house prices. There can only be one explanation for why it is presented in this way; to falsely lay blame at the door of landlords for house price rises.
You say: This is not in doubt, with regard to housing supply being insufficient…We publish a lot of stories about the housing market looking at the other factors behind rises in prices. This story was about BTL, hence the focus on BTL.
But focusing on minor factors impacting house prices is misleading.
- ‘As the buy-to-let market has turned, house-price growth has weakened. In July to September the number of mortgages granted to first-time buyers hit its highest level since 2007.’
Correlation does not equal causation. There are many factors why first time buyers have been purchasing more in recent years and the increase in their numbers predates the fiscal attack on landlords.
You say: Absolutely. We do not claim otherwise.
You imply it though by juxtaposing the two points.
- ‘Institutional investors are moving on to buy-to-letters’ turf, hoping to benefit from their economies of scale to offer better housing to tenants. It was good while it lasted, but the golden age of the amateur landlord may be over.
In fact, institutions have only really moved into the student market in any significant numbers. It is not in their interests to move into the huge ‘social’ type sector within the PRS. They don’t want to invest in terraces in Merthyr Tydfil; they specialise in the more lucrative niche market of city flats and studios Right. This is the turf they are moving on to. As for them benefitting from economies of scale, what they are really now benefitting from is a preferential tax treatment compared to traditional private landlords purely by dint of having ‘inc’ at the end of their name. This is because they are still allowed to offset their finance costs when calculating profit which gives them a huge advantage over private landlords, many of whom are now faced with tax bills levied on fictitious income.
What is also more to the point for poor cash-strapped students is the much higher rents institutions invariably charge.
Using the pejorative term ‘amateur landlord’ just about sums up the inherently biased approach taken in this article. In fact, whether a landlord is an institution or an individual has very little bearing on their ‘professionalism.’ Many private landlords run businesses comprised of hundreds of properties. They are no less professional than institutions; but they are certainly better value for money.
The ‘golden age’ of the private landlord is certainly not over, moreover, as they will be needed for many decades to come by the 5 million households they currently serve and according to projections, by millions more in the future.
Finally, on a more general point, I would like to say that I was until recently a subscriber to the Economist and assumed that when I read articles on specialised subjects, that these were accurate, independent and unbiased. The fact that as an expert in the field of the private rented sector I can see all the flaws in the above article, calls into question the probity of all of the articles in the Economist about subjects on which I have no expertise.
I would very much like you to get back to me with your thoughts and those of the journalist concerned, on my critique. I would also be happy to write an article for you on this or related matters if you would like; it would be especially advisable for the Economist to publish an article on the new tax levy on landlords and I would happy to write that for you.
Dr Rosalind Beck
Extract from my report into Section 24, regarding the Bank of England’s involvement:
‘10.2. The Chancellor was able to use one source of ‘expert’ opinion, however: The Bank of England. It was the Governor of the Bank, Mark Carney, who helped lay the foundations for the fiscal attack against landlords with his statement made shortly before the Budget, when he suggested BTL could pose a threat to the economy. The Bank’s report on this ended with the statement:
‘Buy-to-let lending could pose a risk to financial stability. The actions of buy-to-let investors affect the broader housing and mortgage markets as individuals compete to buy the same pool of properties… And in a downswing, investors selling buy-to-let properties into an illiquid market could amplify falls in house prices, potentially raising losses given default for all mortgages.”
10.3. There are at least two things wrong with the report. Firstly, it is largely not the case that ‘individuals compete to buy the same pool of properties.’ There is some overlap, but relatively few owner-occupiers buy derelict buildings and rehabilitate them, or buy houses that are too big for families and turn them into HMOs, or buy off-plan and wait a year or two for the property to be built. Secondly, the statement: ‘in a downswing, investors selling buy-to-let properties into an illiquid market could amplify falls in house prices, potentially raising losses given default for all mortgages’ is partial and weak. Experience after the credit crunch in 2007 showed that landlords did not choose to do this. They would not sell at a loss. If the market was illiquid, there would be no finance for a buyer. If prices were falling, aspiring buyers would not buy something that would lose value. This appears to be nothing more than ‘scaremongering’ by the Bank with no basis in fact to the statements; statements which were then utilised by the Chancellor to justify the measure.
10.4. The fact that there was no evidence for the scaremongering can be seen in the last paragraph: ‘HM Treasury will consult on tools for the FPC [Financial Policy Committee] related to buy-to-let lending later in 2015, with a view to building an in-depth evidence base on how the operation of the UK buy-to-let housing market may carry risks to financial stability. The FPC will continue to monitor this sector closely.’
This shows that the Treasury had no evidence as to how Buy to Let might have posed a risk at all at the point of announcing the policy (and that it was ignoring the evidence to the contrary).
10.5. One might add that even if the future growth of BTL mortgages did pose a risk, that is no justification for bankrupting people who bought property in previous years or decades by introducing a tax with retroactive effect. If George Osborne really wanted to influence future behaviour he should have made the change apply to future purchases only. This is the normal procedure for tax changes. Furthermore: ‘A common accusation levelled at the buy-to-let market before the financial crisis was that it was untested in recessionary conditions. After the worst economic environment for nearly 60 years, buy-to-let has been severely stress-tested and has proved its resilience.’
10.6. So, the attack on BTL, on the basis that it is ‘risky’ is not evidence-based; the comments by the Bank of England suggesting otherwise were also not evidence-based, despite Mark Carney’s public statements that the Bank works on this basis. In the words of Lord Flight: The tax changes “risk the very crisis in the buy-to-let housing and lending markets of which the Bank of England has recently warned”.
10.7. Unfortunately, the Bank of England did not act in the even-handed way we would expect of it. For example, the Bank has said that BTL is a problem because it had £15.6 billion in new loans in 2014-15; it did not mention that £47 billion went to far riskier first time buyers. As first time buyers put down much smaller deposits – even as low as 5% – whilst landlords cannot get reasonable deals now for over 75% loan to value, in any downturn, it will be first time buyers who run the risk of moving into negative equity, not landlords.
10.8. The bank has further asserted that BTL is the most risky sector for mortgage lending by taking the ‘second-charge’ owner-occupier loans – which are the most risky by far – and the Bank has lumped BTL in with them. The Bank can then claim that BTL is the most risky! One could argue that this is unscientific at best, and dishonest at worst.
10.9. In another context, during the EU referendum campaign, George Osborne also used the Bank and specifically the Governor to support Government policy. Mark Carney was taken to task for this by Jacob Rees-Mogg, MP and also the journalist Peter Oborne who quoted Nigel Lawson calling Carney’s behaviour disgraceful; they both called for his resignation over this.
Further comment about Mark Carney’s role: ‘He was also the personal appointment of Chancellor George Osborne. This was troubling because the Bank of England is constitutionally meant to be independent of political control… This meant that right from the start there was a giant question mark about where Mark Carney’s loyalty lay. Was he looking after the long-term economic future of Britain? Serving the short-term ambitions of George Osborne? Or simply his own interests, given that he is rumoured to have ambitions to become prime minister of his native Canada?’
‘There is, however, very troubling evidence indeed that Mr Carney makes his errors in part because he is placed under political pressure. This became obvious during the EU referendum campaign. He turned the Bank into a leading activist for the Remain campaign by providing important support for George Osborne’s unscrupulous ‘Project Fear’. As a result, Mr Carney, 51, has cemented his reputation as a man who does not simply get his predictions wrong, but reliably wrong.’
As landlord, Jamie Fraser argues: ‘This raises the question as to whether the illogical, scaremongering propaganda about BTL in July 2015 was because Carney was Osborne’s creature, or because Carney is consistently wrong.’
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