Social & economic polarisation in the UK & London’s role as collateral store-of-wealth & world financial hub

by Mark S Brown (first written in Autumn 2006, updated Autumn 2007 & again in Oct 2013)

The economic divide between the beneficiaries of the financial property bubble and non-homeowners continues to widen in the UK, with upward pressure on land values and affluence-driven development. The cost of housing has now risen in real terms hundreds of percent in the last two decades, and now for the first time, household expenditure on housing has overtaken that on food and leisure as the biggest item in the weekly expenditure (the sale of houses in UK in 2002 reached the staggering total of £184 billion). In 1995 the average UK house price was £50,930. By the end of 2007 they had more than trebled to more than £170,000, an increase of more than 200%.* During this time average wages have failed to keep pace rising only 54% leaving house prices more unaffordable than they have ever been. After a slight dip in house prices with the global downturn after a peak of £172,415 in June 2008, average house prices recovered to £172,127 by October 2013.

[*All data sourced from Nationwide Building Society]

It is the primary indication of ever-widening wealth disparity; young families are increasingly priced out of the market with even key-worker housing schemes showing very low take-up rates because they are still unaffordable, particularly in London. Government targets for “affordable housing” become meaningless in a massively appreciating market. Many social housing schemes for subsidised ‘low-cost’ rent-and-buy housing require applicants to have a minimum annual income (in some cases this is as much as £28,758). Under these conditions the very definition of affordable housing needs to be brought into question.

SPECULATION

Speculation on housing in general is having a destabilising effect on house prices ‘crowding out’ low income groups. In the wake of the property/developer gold rush is the social fallout from rising rents, tenancies becoming less secure, and less social housing provision. Rising prosperity within the property bubble belies the reality of increasing economic inequality, and social disenfranchisement particularly of younger generations with limited scope to step onto the property ladder in a vastly inflating property market. The 18 to 35 age bracket are particularly caught in a highly-inflated private rented sector, unable to afford to get onto the property ladder within a market where house prices are completely out of their reach. Particularly in the UK, inflated property values have become the collateral investment stores of wealth for a financial hub in the City of London which is recycling economic proceeds from investments across the world, with the proceeds shared through big bonuses and share dividend payouts creating an elite section of the property-ownership class. Much of “wealth creation” today originates from the financial services industry in the City of London and Canary Wharf. In 2007, at least 42 of the 54 billionaires with UK status protected the majority of their wealth through utilising overseas tax-havens either through ‘non-domicile’ status, or ‘non-residence’ status. The majority of the rich have also seen the proportion of their income paid in tax in per-capita terms within the UK drastically reduce over the last 20 years. Meanwhile, the growing underclass in sink-estate Britain continues to get further economically marginalised, whilst for the public sector working population, pay awards for productivity gains are frozen.

RIGHT TO BUY – RIGHT TO SELL

From the early 1980s onwards, the reduction in the amount of council housing stock came about because of the drive towards right-to-buy under Margaret Thatcher, with the offer of the sale of council houses at huge discounts to sitting tenants. Money realised on sale was not ploughed back into social housing, and, because of absurd rules on the use of capital receipts and the less-than-value sales, councils were prevented from building new homes to replace those sold. Through this process ‘housing’ became only ‘property’ and Government policy ever since the early 1980s has been destroying the stranglehold large municipal authorities have on housing and reconfiguring basic needs as demand in a privatised market.

The legacy has been record high waiting lists, record low new tenancies, and the run-down condition of council stock due to years of inadequate council financing. Across Britain, the reality is that council housing was deliberately run down into a state of dereliction beyond councils’ financial capability to deal with it, to then be used to justify the wholesale transfer of council housing stock to the private sector. The accusation is that Housing Associations are now little more than property development companies, criticised for being deliberately complex structures, set up that way to both avoid tax (through their charitable arm) and accountability. For many housing associations or ‘social landlords’, the company structure is ‘Sui Generis’. There are no shareholders, and they are instead managed by a board, usually comprised of roughly one-third councillors, one-third tenants (usually selected by the Housing Association), and one-third outside business interests, which immediately means the tenants are a minority voice. Tenants rights are frequently undermined, with tenants’ rights for legal redress seemingly rendered unobtainable through systematic cuts to legal aid. Housing Associations receive state support and accumulate vast revenue streams, protecting part of their asset base from tax through their charitable status whilst tenant’s rights are eroded as dubious management practices are executed and rents rise in real terms over time. This is exemplified by one of the main housing associations – Notting Hill Housing Trust, also known through other shadow identities as Notting Hill Housing, Grove Lettings and others. Housing Associations benefit from legal and fiscal exemptions which even Rachman didn’t enjoy.

 

BANKING ON HOUSING

The underlying process of wealth accumulation through property and rising rental values, have served to make the local retail environment in many areas of urban and rural Britain in different ways economically out of reach of lower income people, such as the non-property owning sector of society. As with everywhere else, developers are only too keen to cash in on a rising property market and sell-off to the highest bidder. However, the extent of this rising property market and it’s socially-divisive ramifications is entirely due to excessive lending of the banking sector since the 1980s. Former Governor of the Bank of England – Eddie George, who headed the Bank for a decade from 1993, admitted to MPs on the Treasury Select Committee in 2007 that this relaxation of bank lending policy was deliberate government policy at the start of the 1990s, admitting that he knew the approach was not sustainable: ‘In the environment of global economic weakness at the beginning of this decade, we only had two alternative ways of sustaining demand and keeping the economy moving forward – one was public spending and the other was consumption through extending credit for increased high street spending.’ (evidence to the Treasury Select Committee, 20th March 2007). In May 1997 Gordon Brown told the government of the Bank of England to use consumer spending to stimulate the wider economy. This to be achieved by increasing credit and debt. Therefore a credit boom was underwritten by a flow of mortgage finance, leading to an unlimited amount of money chasing a finite housing stock, pushing house price inflation above 25% at one point and high street spending growth to its highest since the late-Eighties boom. Rising house prices are central to this policy. UK house prices have risen by over 100% since 1999 (according to the DCLG mix-adjusted house price index – Ref:  http://www.houseprices.uk.net/articles/odpm_regional/ ).

Against the rising value of their house, owners borrow £264billon per annum. This represents £564 billion to the banks when mortgages are repaid with interest. This large sum dwarfs the Government PSBR which was £43billion in 2006/2007 financial year, as well as the social housing grant £2bn, the cost of building new houses £20bn, and the value of all houses existing and new purchased in a year at £200 billion. Consumer debt has reached £1.3 trillion in 2007 according to the Bank of England. The UK mirrors the credit spiral in the US. The housing market price-spiral bubble is similar to the gigantic pyramid of inflated credit. When ‘bust’ follows boom, the financial institutions are best placed to benefit. They hold the title deeds and those suffering negative equity lose their homes and their savings.

As early as 2006, the ECB (Euro Central Bank) underwrote the banking system to bailout hedge funds who were in crisis as the financial markets panicked, pulling something like 95 billion Euro out of their magic hat like a white rabbit – a measure of the banking system’s ability create money out of nothing and it’s ability to appease the shortfall of capitalists to secure their speculative venture capital. In truth, as with the worldwide financial bailouts of 2008, it is a fait-accompli to oil the engine-pistons of the world economy suffering a sudden shortage of liquidity without which like-it-or not, the engine of global capitalism would grind to a halt – a fait-accompli because the prospect of global depression is too horrific to contemplate.

The effects of a relative rising cost of living and the squeezing of council finances, is a process related to the underlying privatisation of the money system, i.e. the crowding-out of public money by swelling of private credit. Local government services are cut and Public-Finance Initiatives are justified, whilst hedge funds get access to massive credit to help shore up their ability to profit. The proportion of public credit (money created by government*) has fallen from around 50% of the total money supply in 1948, to 16% in 1976, to less than 3% today, whilst indicating the rise of economic wealth, may be evidence that can be cross-referenced with this spectacular availability of credit for speculation and the explosion in property prices as the private banking sector through the loan-spiral process has ever-expanded with the relaxation of banking regulations.  [*Note that local authorities used to provide mortgages up until the 1960s]. The lending of money in August 2007 by the ECB served to bail-out a financial system that has over-extended itself. On 31st August 2007, Barclays borrowed £1.6bn from the Bank of England through the emergency lending fund to bankroll Barclay’s investments after a sudden shortfall in it’s exchanges on the open market. It was back in 2001 that a shaky equities market post September 11th drew pension funds and institutional investors away from the stock market and back to property, with a notable surge in investment of real estate investment trusts (REITs). A process that started around after 11 September because the stock market was too risky has recently started to be replicated again with the August 2007 sub-prime crash in the US, together with the biggest cash injection (3 trillions) in the stock market since the 11th of September 2001.

For more explanation of how the sub-prime crisis led to a worldwide near-financial collapse and subsequent bailout to a global downturn, read: ‘The dollar empire & world financial system – a giant ponzi scheme akin to a pyramidal stack of cards’

MEET THE NEW LANDLORD – REITS: WHAT ARE THEY?
Real Estate Investment Trusts – a tool of asset accumulation as an escalation of the division of wealth and class separation in Britain and across the world:

REITs are trusts that buy commercial properties, such as apartments, office buildings, and shopping centres which produce income. When a person buys shares in a REIT, they become a part owner in all of the property holdings of the REIT. REITs are traded like stocks on the major stock exchanges, so they provide the liquidity of stocks with the diversification and income of commercial real estate. REITs first appeared in the US, after being approved by Congress in 1960 to offer small investors a chance to participate in the commercial real estate market. There are now more than 200 REITs available on the major stock exchanges, including about 150 REITs on the New York Stock Exchange, and dozens more on the American Stock Exchange and NASDAQ market.

AGAINST REAL ESTATE INVESTMENT TRUSTS (REITs):

Throughout the world, Real Estate Investment Trust (REITs) are playing a rapidly increasing role in organising private financial investments in housing and cities. Real Estate Investments Trusts (REITs) are joint stock companies that primarily derive their income from real estate. They are free from corporate tax and they are legally forced to pay out high parts of their profits.

After a longer period of development in Northern America disastrous consequences on social housing are evident:

– Buying out of social, public and low-cost housing

– Rent increase and increase of heating costs, service charges etc.

– Demolishing of affordable complexes and replacement by more profitable buildings

– Disinvestments, neglect of/worse maintenance of the housing stock

– Pressure to leave on financially disfavoured tenants, replacements by wealthy residents

– the ending of social neighbourhoods programmes, participation process etc

– Construction on public spaces, privatization of public spaces

– Lobbying governments for weakening legal standards

– Exit to private funds

The large U.S. REIT AIMCO gave a shocking example how these investors

treat tenants.

* Video on forced evictions by AIMCO at Lincoln Place

Although negative consequences in the USA, Canada and elsewhere are obvious, the introduction of REITs in most of the countries took place without protests and even without critical debate. They just happened in the extra-democratic spaces where financial lobbyists make their deals with governments.

HOW DO REITS WORK?

Lots of small investors can take part by owning shares in the Trust which owns the buildings. This means they can buy or sell their shares in the trust easily whenever they like exposing homes to the volatility of speculative markets. No tax is paid by the Trust; tax is only paid by the shareholder, with their dividend income return added to their annual taxable income. If the shareholder is a charity (such as a housing association which has a charitable arm), the shareholder may be exempt from paying any tax at all.

‘In the United States and France, REITs have lead to higher rents and to asset stripping; where the most profitable housing has been enhanced at increased rents, whilst the rest has been left to decay or emptied for redevelopment or demolition.’ From London Tenants.org

There are several different types of REITs available on the market:

[1] Equity REITs own and operate income producing real estate, such as apartments, warehouses, office buildings, hotels, and shopping centres.

[2] Specialized REITs focus on a particular type of property, such as shopping centres or health care facilities.

[3] Geographically-focused REITs specialize in a single region or metropolitan area, while others try to acquire properties throughout the country. Mortgage REITs lend money to real estate owners and operators, and raise income from the interest payments on the mortgages.

4] Hybrid REITs own properties and provide loans to real estate owners.

FINANCIAL MARKETS: ASYLUM FOR CAPITAL

Taken from FROM CRISIS TO CRASH

Ref: www.beigewum.at

The financial markets prove to be an ideal place of refuge for anxious owners of capital. They are flexible and global. An IBM stock can be exchanged in a few moments for a Yen credit or a government bond. For big customers, the expenses are trifling. State incursions like taxes and restrictions tend to zero.

Profits were and are now gained from shares (dividend distributions based on business profits), national debts (compound interest financed by taxes), credits (interest payments from private or state debtors), organisation of firm takeovers or the purchase and sale of securities at the right moment. The latter is a very popular option since it requires the least waiting-time. Through deregulation and internationalisation, getting into and out of investments as fast as lightning is increasingly possible.

With this flexibility, pressure is exerted on everything that does not bow to the desires of investors. This structure is the central lever for the restructuring and realisation of better profit conditions for capital in general, not only the much reviled ‘speculators’.