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The housing boom, central banks and the inflation conundrum

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By Sujata Rao

LONDON (Reuters) -A multi-year boom in global house prices which even a pandemic has failed to halt is forcing central banks around the world to confront a knotty question – what, if anything, should they be doing about it?

The surge in property values from Australia to Sweden is often viewed benignly by governments as creating wealth. But history also shows the risk of de-stabilising bubbles and the high social cost as millions find home ownership unaffordable.

The irony is that while the cheap money created by low or negative interest rates has driven the price rises, they barely figure in central banks’ calculations of inflation, one of the key drivers of their monetary policy.

While housing costs, whether rent or home repairs, are assigned varying weights in inflation indices ranging from 40%-plus in the United States to 6.5% in the euro zone, house prices themselves are left out. As they spiral higher and higher, many argue this is no longer tenable.

“The debate of whether we actually are reflecting inflation properly will come up more and more. House prices will start getting a lot of attention,” said Manoj Pradhan, co-author of a book called The Great Demographic Reversal, which predicts a global inflation resurgence in coming years.

Global residential property prices have risen 60% in the past 10 years, according to a Knight Frank index. In 2020, even as COVID-19 choked the world economy, they climbed an average 5.6%, with 20%-30% jumps in some markets.

While low interest rates have long been the main driver of the rally, existing government subsidies for home ownership and more recently pandemic-era support such as suspending property taxes have been factors too.

Many of these one-off support measures will start to be wound down, but governments often fight shy of politically tricky measures to keep a lid more firmly on prices, such as banning multiple property ownership or easing building regulations.

That raises the question of what central banks can do.

FIRST SALVO

New Zealand’s government fired the first salvo in February when it told its central bank to consider the impact of interest rates on house prices, which soared 23% last year.

Others are considering the question too. European Central Bank President Christine Lagarde said last week that measuring housing’s role in the rising cost of living had emerged as a key point in a strategic policy review due to be unveiled this year.

If real inflation is higher than the official consumer price index is measuring, it could imply that central bank or government policies are more expansionary than they should be.

“If housing does not signal inflation via the CPI, then the economy is more likely to run hot, and what you get over time is generalised inflation pressures,” Pradhan said.

At present rental inflation is subdued due to pandemic hardship, or because low interest rates and remote working are encouraging home-buying.

Morgan Stanley’s chief cross-asset strategist Andrew Sheets said this may be giving a misleading signal. “The rental market will be weak and the housing market will be strong and that (rental weakness) could show up as a disinflationary force.”

There are strong arguments for excluding headline shifts in house prices from inflation indexes. Housing is, for most people a lifetime purchase rather than an ongoing expense, which they are designed to gauge.

Including house prices in the inflation measures central banks use to guide policy is also widely seen as impractical, given their extreme volatility.

More central banks may however consider adapting inflation indices to include a measure of the costs associated with living in one’s own home, such as maintenance and home improvements.

At present, inflation measures used by the Fed, the Bank of Japan, New Zealand and Australia include so-called owner-occupier costs. But the gauge employed by the Bank of England does not, and they are also not factored into the main inflation measure used by the ECB.

The ECB has argued for their inclusion, but collecting timely data from 19 countries and differing home ownership levels across the bloc would complicate the task.

Crucially, economists believe including these costs might have lifted euro zone inflation by 0.2 to 0.3 percentage points, taking the ECB nearer its elusive inflation target of close to 2%.

LONG-DORMANT INFLATION

Ultimately, such policymaking shifts may be risky amid uncertainty created by the pandemic.

Adding property prices to CPI indexes just as long-dormant inflation finally awakes could send readings soaring, heaping pressure on central banks to tighten policy even as economies nurse pandemic-time wounds.

Some analysts, such as at ING Bank, predict that with some exceptions housing rallies may anyway start to cool as support measures introduced during the pandemic are unwound.

Voters’ anger may even goad governments into slugging property investors with higher taxes – as New Zealand did at the end of March.

Those who argue against extending central bank remits further into housing say tighter policy could even exacerbate the problem by crimping property supply.

George Washington University professor Danny Leipziger argues housing markets are more effectively cooled by regulation and measures outside central banks’ scope, such as raising capital gains taxes and increasing the supply of housing.

“I have no problem with the ECB adding rental or home-owners’ costs to its basket,” Leipziger said. “But if I am concerned about house prices in Berlin or Madrid, asking the ECB to deal with it is not the right way.”

(Additional reporting by Dhara Ranasinghe and David Milliken; Editing by Mark John and Jan Harvey)

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Vietnam PM promises economy will rebound from COVID-19 hit | Saltwire – SaltWire Network

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HANOI (Reuters) – Vietnam’s exports are likely to rise 10.7% in 2021, with annual inflation expected below 4%, the prime minister said on Wednesday, promising lawmakers that economic revival lay ahead.

Pham Minh Chinh told the national assembly that Vietnam, consistently one of Asia’s fastest-growing economies, had been badly hit by the coronavirus, which disrupted its supply chains and hit workers in key industries.

Vietnam’s gross domestic product (GDP) contracted 6.17% in the third quarter of 2021 from a year earlier as the containment measures hit, the sharpest quarterly decline on record.

Chinh said he expected GDP to expand 6.0% to 6.5% next year, with the government aiming to cap inflation at 4%.

“Realising 2022 targets is a heavy task, but we definitely will revive our economy,” he said, despite the pandemic having put macroeconomic stability at risk.

“Inflation is facing upward risks and there have been disruptions in the supply chains … workers’ lives have been badly hit.”

Although Vietnam had largely reined in COVID-19 until May, a fast-spreading outbreak of the Delta variant in its economic hub of Ho Chi Minh City led to wide curbs on movement and commerce, hitting key manufacturing provinces nearby.

This month, the government said Vietnam would miss its garment exports target this year, by $5 billion in the worst case, hit by curbs and a shortage of workers.

It expected $34 billion of textile exports, shy of the targeted $39 billion, and a shortage of 35% to 37% of factory workers by year-end, it said.

Ho Chi Minh City has suffered a mass exodus of workers since lockdowns eased last month, on worries they would get stuck again if there was another wave of infections.

(Writing by Martin Petty; Editing by Kim Coghill)

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Opinion | Evergrande Isn’t China’s Only Economic Worry – The New York Times

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Crushed by $300 billion in debt, Evergrande, one of China’s biggest property developers, is sliding toward bankruptcy. This has prompted fears of a wider property crash or even a financial crisis.

But this is hardly the only crisis besieging the government of Xi Jinping. An unexpected electricity shortage threatens to slow down manufacturing. And for the past year, the government has waged a fierce campaign to regulate China’s vibrant internet companies, spurring hundreds of billions of dollars in investor losses.

The common feature of these crises: All were triggered by government policies. In the eyes of Beijing, these policies are meant to fix deep structural problems in the economy and lay more solid foundations for future growth. To many outsiders, they represent a dispiriting retreat from the market-oriented reforms of the past and signal the end of China’s long economic boom. But forecasts of China’s doom are most likely mistaken, as they have so often been.

True, in the latest quarter, economic growth slowed to a crawl, growing by just 0.2 percent compared with the previous quarter. The next several months will be rockier still. Slower growth in China is unwelcome news for a global economy struggling to regain its footing after the disruptions of the Covid-19 pandemic. But over the next few years, China is likely to regain momentum — in part because of the hard work it is doing now.

The biggest immediate worry is the collapse of Evergrande. Like most Chinese property developers, it relies on two key funding sources: deposits paid by home buyers before construction and huge amounts of debt.

Evergrande’s woes result from a government campaign begun last year to force property developers to reduce their liabilities. It is the latest move in a five-year effort to bring the country’s debt under control. According to the Bank for International Settlements, China’s gross debt level, at 290 percent of G.D.P., has doubled since 2008. While that level is comparable with that of rich countries with well-developed financial systems, it is high for a middle-income country. China’s leaders know that to avoid a financial crisis or avoid a repeat of Japan’s stagnation of the 1990s — the aftermath of a big debt-fueled property bubble — growth in the future must be far less reliant on debt than it has been.

Aly Song/Reuters

The problem is that by attacking debt in the property sector, regulators risk shutting off a powerful engine that directly or indirectly affects as much as a quarter of China’s economic growth. Problems are spreading beyond Evergrande. Other developers are having trouble repaying their debts. And the sales and construction of new housing are both falling.

The drive to cut real estate debt will almost certainly depress China’s growth in the coming quarters. But it will not lead to a “Lehman moment,” when the implosion of a single heavily indebted company triggers a broader financial or economic collapse: The country has an enormous pool of savings. And the government is now adept at managing meltdowns of major companies, including the private conglomerates HNA and Anbang, Baoshang Bank and Huarong, a huge state-owned asset manager.

The larger question is whether China can maintain a dynamic economy when its government, under Mr. Xi, seems increasingly intent on meddling in the market. The answer: Despite a desire for more state discipline, China has not rejected markets — dynamism will continue.

Some of this state meddling is prudent. The property crackdown is part of a serious drive to cure the economy’s addiction to debt. Similarly, the power shortages that have plagued much of industrial China are due largely to efforts to slash the country’s reliance on coal. China has said that its carbon emissions should peak by 2030 and then decline, with a goal of reaching carbon neutrality by 2060.

One response to the energy shortage has been a long-overdue deregulation of electricity prices. This has allowed generators to pass on some of the impact of higher coal prices to end users. So it is not true that Mr. Xi’s government is implacably anti-market. Beijing, as it has for decades, will continue relying on a combination of state guidance and market forces: The state sets the direction for investment, with day-to-day outcomes dictated by the market.

A more serious concern is the yearlong offensive against privately owned big tech companies, notably e-commerce and the financial technology giant Alibaba, and the ride-hailing company Didi. It’s unclear whether China can ever become a true leader in innovation if it insists on squashing its most successful entrepreneurial businesses.

Yet even here, the story is not black-and-white. The internet crackdown is not really about crushing private enterprise: Private companies in many sectors, including tech hardware, are doing just fine. Rather, the crackdown addresses — in a very authoritarian way — the same anxieties about big tech that governments around the world are grappling with: unaccountable power, monopolistic practices, shoddy consumer protection and the tendency of a tech-heavy economy to drive income inequality.

One final worry is that these moves toward greater state discipline are driven not by economic motives but by Mr. Xi’s desire to reinforce his power, ahead of a Communist Party conference in late 2022 where he expects to gain a third term as the country’s leader. In the long run there is a risk that overly centralized power could degrade the government’s ability to manage the economy. But Mr. Xi also recognizes that his power will not be worth much unless the economy keeps growing.

China will never run its economy in a way that pleases free-market purists. But it has come up with a mixed model that works. And despite the stresses of the moment, it will keep on working.

Arthur Kroeber is a partner and the head of research at Gavekal Dragonomics, a China-focused economic research firm.

The Times is committed to publishing a diversity of letters to the editor. We’d like to hear what you think about this or any of our articles. Here are some tips. And here’s our email: letters@nytimes.com.

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Britain’s Royal Mint to extract gold from discarded electronics

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Britain’s Royal Mint said on Wednesday it planned to build a plant in  Wales that could reclaim hundreds of kilograms of gold and other precious metals from electronic waste such as mobile phones and laptops.

Gold and silver are highly conductive and small quantities are embedded in circuit boards and other hardware, along with other precious metals.

Most of this material is never recovered, with discarded electronics often dumped in landfill or incinerated.

The more than 1,100-year old mint said it had partnered with a Canadian start-up called Excir which has developed chemical solutions to extract the metals from the circuit boards.

“It’s able to selectively pull out precious metals with a high degree of purity,” said Sean Millard, the mint’s chief growth officer.

He said the mint was currently using the process at small scale while designing a plant that “would look to process hundreds of tonnes of e-waste per annum, generating hundreds of kilograms of precious metals”.

The plant should be up and running “within the next couple of years”, he said, declining to say how much it would cost.

A kilogram of gold is worth around $55,000 at current prices.

 

(Reporting by Peter Hobson; Editing by Jan Harvey)

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