Germany Fights Soaring Home Prices With Lending Curbs
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Germany Fights Soaring Home Prices With Lending Curbs

As in the U.S. and other economies, pandemic financial support has sparked a surge in property investment.

By Tom Fairless
Thu, Jan 13, 2022 11:36amGrey Clock 3 min

Frankfurt—Germany’s financial regulator said it would clamp down on mortgage lending, signalling mounting concerns about the risks posed by the nation’s rapidly rising house prices.

Across Germany, house prices have boomed in recent years as some German families overcame their traditional reluctance to own property. The trend has been powered by ultralow borrowing costs from the European Central Bank and low returns on bank deposits, where most Germans stash the bulk of their savings.

Germany’s Federal Financial Supervisory Authority, or BaFin, warned lenders on Wednesday to be conservative in their mortgage lending given the quick rise in prices, and said borrowers should be able to make their monthly mortgage payments even if interest rates rise. It also ordered local banks to hold additional capital against residential mortgages.

“Vulnerabilities to negative economic developments and especially to the residential property market have built up” in Germany’s financial system, the regulator said.

Germany faces a similar predicament to economies around the world, including the U.S., where efforts to support the economy during the pandemic helped spark a surge in property investment. In China, a crackdown on housing speculation amid booming prices is weighing on the nation’s growth prospects.

Housing bubbles have been at the root of many financial crises, including the 2007-08 global financial crisis.

The move to curb access to mortgages amounts to a form of financial-system tightening that targets a specific segment of the economy. The European Central Bank has announced a scaling back of its giant pandemic-era bond-buying programs, but has been less aggressive than the Federal Reserve about raising benchmark interest rates. The Fed is expected to lift rates multiple times this year while the ECB has pledged to keep its deeply negative rates for an extended period.

There is concern that the ECB’s reluctance to raise interest rates is fueling a speculative frenzy among investors in property and other areas. While the ECB oversees monetary policy in the euro area, individual countries have the ability to impose so-called counter cyclical buffers to fine-tune local financial conditions.

German house prices have surged during the pandemic, rising almost 60% above their 2015 levels, according to the federal statistics agency Destatis. Prices jumped by 12% year-over-year in the three months through September, one of the fastest growth rates in Western Europe.

German household debt has also increased sharply, rising to around 58% of gross domestic product in the middle of last year from 53% of GDP in 2019, according to the Bank for International Settlements, a consortium of central banks. That is still lower than the U.S., where household debt was around 79% of GDP last year.

BaFin said it would ask German lenders to set aside a capital buffer worth 2% of the risk-weighted assets on loans secured by residential property, up from zero at present. Banks will also need to set aside 0.75% of the risk-weighted assets on domestic risk positions, also up from zero, it added. The buffers are intended to absorb possible future losses.

The banks will have time to adjust to the new requirements, which take effect early next year, and will preserve around €22 billion, equivalent to $25.02 billion, of core capital in the banking system, BaFin said. Banks will generally be able to meet the new requirements from existing excess capital, although a few institutions will need to raise fresh capital, it said.

The regulator warned that it might issue binding loan restrictions if it judged that lending standards had become too relaxed, including an upper limit for the proportion of debt in residential property financing.

“With these capital buffers, we not only take account of cyclical risks, but also precisely counter the specific financial stability risks on the residential property market, where price and credit growth are currently very strong,” said BaFin President Mark Branson.

German cities were at, or near, the top of an annual real-estate bubble index published by Swiss bank UBS last October, suggesting that property prices there will likely fall in future. Frankfurt topped the list of 25 global cities, while Munich was in fourth place. The most overvalued U.S. city, Miami, was in 12th place.

Reprinted by permission of The Wall Street Journal, Copyright 2021 Dow Jones & Company. Inc. All Rights Reserved Worldwide. Original date of publication January 12, 2022.

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Investor buying of homes tumbled 30% in the third quarter, a sign that the rise in borrowing rates and high home prices that pushed traditional buyers to the sidelines are causing these firms to pull back, too.

Companies bought around 66,000 homes in the 40 markets tracked by real-estate brokerage Redfin during the third quarter, compared with 94,000 homes during the same quarter a year ago. The percentage decline in investor purchases was the largest in a quarter since the subprime crisis, save for the second quarter of 2020 when the pandemic shut down most home buying.

The investor pullback represents a turnaround from months ago when their purchases were still rising fast. These firms bought homes in record numbers last year and earlier this year, helping to supercharge the housing market.

Now, investors are reducing their buying activity in line with the decline in overall home sales, which have slumped with mortgage rates rising fast. But with investors’ large cash positions, and with big firms such as JPMorgan Chase & Co. planning to increase its exposure to the home-buying business, investors are poised to resume more aggressive buying when rates or home prices begin to ease.

These firms have seized on a pandemic-driven rise in demand for houses in suburban areas. These owners rented out the homes and increased rents on homes by double-digit percentages. By the first quarter of 2022, investors accounted for one in every five home purchases nationally.

But ballooning borrowing costs have kept investors from buying as much recently, said John Pawlowski, an analyst at Green Street. Buyers and sellers are also agreeing less often on pricing, stifling sales.

“It leads to a lot of people just putting down the pen,” Mr. Pawlowski said.

Rent growth has also begun to slow. Rents for single-family homes rose 10.1% year over year in September, down from 13.9% in April, according to housing data firm CoreLogic.

That rate of growth is still very high by historical standards, however, and much stronger than in the apartment market. Multifamily rent increases are now much lower by most measures. Near record-high rental prices are failing to attract as many new tenants, and demand in the third quarter fell to its lowest level in 13 years.

Demand for rental houses has held up better, in part because many of these homes are leased to relatively high-earning people who have found the for-sale market too expensive to buy, some analysts say.

That rent growth for single-family owners hasn’t translated into stock-market gains this year. Investors have lumped these owners in with home builders and sold many of them. Shares for the three largest publicly traded owners, Invitation Homes, American Homes 4 Rent and Tricon Residential, are each down more than 25% year to date, underperforming the S&P 500 over that period.

Rental landlords also face headwinds from rising property tax assessments that have come alongside enormous increases in home-price appreciation.

At the same time, large rental landlords are coming under greater scrutiny from federal and local governments. Congressional Democrats have hosted a series of hearings focused on eviction practices and rent increases. Three Congress members from California this month introduced a bill called the “Stop Wall Street Landlords Act,” which proposes levying new taxes on single-family landlords. It would prevent government-sponsored enterprises like Freddie Mac from acquiring and securitising their debt.

Many of the places where investors have eased purchasing are the same cities where they had counted for an outsize share of total sales. That includes Las Vegas and Phoenix, where investor sales dropped more than 44% in the third quarter compared with a year ago.

Fewer purchases by online house-flippers, or iBuyers, may have contributed to those declines, according to Redfin. Redfin decided to close its own home-flipping business, RedfinNow, earlier this month.

Nationally, investors still accounted for 17.5% of all home sales in the third quarter, a higher share than they held at any time before the pandemic, by Redfin’s count.

That share seems likely to rise again. Builders with unsold homes due to widespread cancellations by traditional buyers have been looking to sell in bulk to rental landlords.

Meanwhile, some institutional investors are now readying large funds to snap up homes. J.P. Morgan’s asset-management business said this month it had formed a joint venture with rental landlord Haven Realty Capital to purchase and develop $1 billion in houses. A unit of real-estate firm JLL’s LaSalle Investment Management, in partnership with the landlord Amherst Group, said it plans to buy $500 million of homes over the next two years.

Tricon has nearly $3 billion it plans to tap to buy and build homes. “We will lean in and deploy that capital when the time is right,” Tricon’s Chief Executive Gary Berman said on a November earnings call.

While a recession could bring down borrowing rates, it would likely be accompanied by higher unemployment, making it difficult for traditional buyers to take advantage, said Daryl Fairweather, Redfin’s chief economist. For investors, however, that could offer an opportunity to acquire homes at favourable prices.

“An investor may have more resources to jump in at exactly the moment when rates decline,” Ms. Fairweather said.

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