Sunday MoneyComment - April 1, 2012

Posted by Jill Kerby on April 01 2012 @ 07:00

Negative Equity Mortgage?  No thank you.


The property market is doing as Professor Morgan Kelly predicted it would: it is taking back between 75%-80% of the spectacular prices it achieved at the peak of the bubble.

Just on cue, the government and banking industry that did everything it could to inflate that bubble, is still trying to manipulate the correction, in an effort – they say - to ‘break the logjam’ of sales.  This time it will permit heavily indebted owners in negative equity to carry their debt with them to yet another property, which will also continue to fall in price until the correction is over.

The problem is well documented: tens of thousands of mostly younger buyers purchased overvalued houses with artificially low credit. Their affordability levels - their income – was grossly overestimated if property prices fell, interest rates went up or their incomes dropped.

All three happened. The economic collapse revealed how uncompetitive the country had become and how necessary it was to freeze or reduce income (but paradoxically increase taxation to protect ‘key’ spending levels by the state - its own paybill and politically sensitive social welfare payments.)

The mother and father of all negative equity conditions now exist in this country – and will get much, much worse if and when interest rates go up.  Yet the government think letting heavily indebted owners trade up (or ideally, down) while the conditions that created the negative equity and the rising arrears risk still exist – is some kind of solution.

It is not.

The tens of thousands of first time buyers (in particular) caught by the boom need an immediate and fulsome recovery of the economy and a surge in their incomes…or they need substantial debt forgiveness.

Instead, they’re being offered another debt cul-de-sac that will give the perception that the property market can be stimulated back to life.

It can’t.

The property market will recover – naturally - when normal lending is resumed; when interest rates are not being so grossly manipulated by central banks; when the overhang of empty properties is cleared (which is happening in Dublin but not the rest of the country) and unemployment starts reversing.

Those neg-equity mortgage holders who are facilitated to abandon their distant suburbs for the homes they had wanted to buy that were closer to their jobs and parents in the city, will now end up even more indebted as the new property they buy also falls in value.

Good luck to them.

Meanwhile, the suburbs they leave will be even less attractive to live in than they are right now.

God help the poor sods they leave behind and strike up another victory for witless politicians and their creatures in central banks who endlessly subscribe to the Law of Unintended Consequences.


Misery loves company: Financial companies to be ‘named and shamed’

The decision to introduce legislation that will allow the Office of the Financial Services Ombudsman to name and shame financial institutions that it finds against has taken 20 years longer than it should have.

Better late than never.

When the first ombudsman’s offices were set up back in the early 1990s by the banking and life assurance industries, there was never any question that their members would be named and shamed.

Everyone maintained that the ombudsmen would be wholly independent of their paymasters, but there were just too many categories of complaints that were excluded or beyond their remit. The penalties were not onerous or high enough.

That isn’t to say that a good job wasn’t done within those limitations. 

Many complainants, in the years before the statutory IFSRA (Irish Financial Services Regulatory Authority) ombudsmen were set up in the early 2000s told me they were very satisfied with the investigation and settlement of their complaints and the published judgments appeared to be measured and fair.

But everyone also knew (the way everyone ‘knew’ that Charlie Haughey was on the take) that there were certain institutions – usually banks and their life assurance subsidiaries – that were chronic abusers of their own industry’s voluntary codes of conduct. But self-regulation has a funny habit of stacking the deck in favour of those who are being regulated, no matter how honourable and hard-working the ombudsmen and their staff doing the investigating.

When you pay that piper, he plays your tune.

All the same mealy-mouthed excuses were used by the State authorities when the two financial ombudsmen’s offices were taken over by the new Financial Regulator (now the Central Bank) a decade ago: that the complainants would also have to be named (to what purpose?); the firms would resist cooperating with the inspectors if there was a chance they’d see their names in lights or, worse still, as a case-study in the Ombudsman’s quarterly report (all the more reason!).

It hasn’t been determined how far the new legislation will go in the naming and shaming process, but no one gives a toss about the sensibilities of financial services companies anymore.  

The previous regulatory regime was incompetent and clearly in awe of the industry and allowed them too much influence in setting the rules and limitations of the ombudsman’s offices, especially regarding the historic mis-selling of investment products, which still needs to be addressed.

Banks, life assurance companies, insurers AND their agents always knew that ordinary folk and especially the vulnerable (like the elderly who are sold long term stock market investments) needed more protection than they ever got.

The Central Bank has been slowly but surely working its way through the banking mire that was left behind by the previous bunch, but now it is coming under scrutiny for its handling – mishandling? – of Custom House Capital. The mostly pension investors, who have lost €90 million, continued to be at risk even after the regulator discovered evidence of malpractice in 2009.

They say that misery likes company. 

The banks and insurance industry better get used to owning up to their own malfeasance, accept that the old days when they could keep repeating the same infractions year after year is finally be coming to an end, and accept that what’s left of their reputations will be lost forever, if they keep screwing their customers.

Having their ‘good’ names dragged through the mud might be just what they need to clean up their collective acts.

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