Mad Mortgage Rules – and Miles Brignall

Jay Rayner’s review of the Eastside Inn in today’s Observer magazine includes an unforgettable comment about its owner, “chef Bjorn van der Horst, who has the name of a porn star and the palate of an angel.” My partner wondered how Rayner comes up with something like that. I suspect it’s not that difficult – though it is a very good line – if all you have to do for a living is stuff your face and write about it.

Because clearly the restaurant reviewer has not been keeping up with the London Evening Standard newspaper (“the ES”). Rayner expresses surprise that fewer London restaurants have not “gone to the wall”. He goes on: “according to Harden’s, a fine restaurant guide in so many ways, London closures have actually been slightly down over the past year, at just 64 – the lowest rate since 2000. Openings are up 9%.” But a few weeks ago the ES revealed that because so many of the sorts of people who patronise upmarket eateries have had a mortgage windfall, takings have survived the downturn.

The point is that many mortgages have reverted (from a fixed rate) to banks’ standard variable rates (SVRs) which in many cases are tied to the Bank of England’s base rate. Tracker mortgages are again tied to the base rate.

Presumably the Guardian’s Miles Brignall is either not a gastronome or is simply insufferably smug, so has not accompanied Jay Rayner on any of his restaurant trips. If he had, Jay would be well aware of how Brignall has an interest-only mortgage, for which the monthly payments have decreased from almost £900 to £150.

In what must rank as one of the most irresponsible pieces of financial journalism I’ve ever seen, the Guardian ran a short piece by Brignall in Saturday’s Money section, perhaps to provide “balance” to a report on the FSA’s proposals to discourage interest-only mortgages.

Journalists often introduce “balance” when in fact there is no widely-held alternative position. The classic example is climate change. Approximately 999 out of 1,000 scientists working in the field broadly accepts the consensus view of the warming effects of human greenhouse gas emissions. But the crackpot 1000th all too often gets a platform. Result: the public believes there is a fundamental debate when in fact there is no such thing.

The FSA pointed out that (1) if someone takes out an interest-only mortgage when they could not afford a repayment mortgage for the same amount then they are likely to have a problem paying the principal at the end of the term of the mortgage and (2) it would be a good idea for people taking on interest-only mortgages to demonstrate that they have an investment vehicle for paying off the principal, e.g. an endowment policy. Such endowments were of course very popular back in the 1980s.

What the FSA says is very sensible.

But Miles Brignall appears to have committed both the cardinal sins. He writes that:

“By going interest-only, nice houses with gardens (well, vegetable-growing area) suddenly became affordable – all for the same monthly repayment had we gone for a smaller home, with a tiny garden – but funded with a repayment mortgage.”

And Brignall’s scheme for paying back his mortgage? Arbitrage:

“The pay rate on our mortgage is 1.24% – courtesy of the Bank of England – and yet I’m getting 3.01% on my Manchester Building Society Isa. You don’t need to be Mervyn King to know that that’s a good state of affairs.”

This is absolutely nuts. It is a pure cock-up that mortgage rates are lower than the rates paid on consumer deposits. The banks simply did not expect the Bank of England’s base rate to go down to 0.5%. Stupid. What the banks should have done, and will do in future is tie all mortgages to LIBOR – the cost of money in the interbank market – so this situation will not recur.

In bailing out mortgagees and other borrowers in general, by reducing interest rates dramatically, the Bank (the Bank with a capital “B” refers to the Bank of England) has, likely unintentionally, given a massive windfall to hundreds of thousands of borrowers with these daft mortgages for which the payments can drop to virtually nothing. A lot of them are spending their fortunate gains in restaurants, so we haven’t had a shake-out to separate the decent restaurants from the salmonella-factories.

From the Bank’s pov (point of view) reducing the rate so low doesn’r make sense in the long-term. Since in future fewer commercial rates will refer to the base rate, the Bank has got its powder wet.

The other recommendation by the FSA is less sensible. They want to ban self-certification mortgages. These have pretty much disappeared already, but the FSA seems to be keen to lock the self-employed and those with irregular income out of the mortgage market altogether.

All this will do is move the problem. Those unable to pay a mortgage would be unable to pay private rent either, so landlords would find themselves in difficulty.

This observation set me thinking. Here’s my suggestion. Mortgages should simply be provided to those who, regardless of their employment situation, can demonstrate that they have been able to pay a comparable private rent. This wouldn’t apply to everyone – some may live with their parents or pay a very low rent in a shared house while saving a deposit, for example – but would help a lot of people get on the housing ladder. Some legislation would be required – but the private rented sector is under review anyway – to require landlords to provide receipts for all rent paid in full. This would be good news for landlords as the need to collect such receipts would give a further incentive for tenants to keep up with the rent. Certified receipts would likely prove more useful than references for tenants seeking to move to new rented accommodation, but they would also demonstrate that a potential mortgagee can afford a certain level of mortgage payments. This would translate to a given size of mortgage. Mortgage lenders would require proof of rent payment for a number of years (at least 2 or 3) – this might vary for different offerings (e.g. depending on the deposit the buyer is able to put down). Some slack would be required. There are a few extra costs (e.g. maintenance and insurance) which property owners have to pay but tenants don’t. The big problem, though, is that interest rates can increase (and mortgages may be at “teaser” rates, liable to revert in the future to a higher rate, such as the lender’s SVR), causing difficulties for mortgage holders, so the government (or perhaps an independent regulator) would have to advise the rate for which affordable payments should be calculated, which may be somewhat above the market rate at any particular time.

An example is in order. Let’s say someone has been paying £1200pcm in rent for a few years. A lender might then assume they could pay a mortgage of £1050 a month to allow for other homeowner expenses. They may also allow for future interest rate rises, so accept the application only for mortgages requiring monthly repayments of £900. Got it?

What we’re trying to do is establish what outgoings a mortgagee can afford, so it is much more logical to establish what outgoings they have been able to afford in the past than to simply examine their income.

Postscript: Miles Brignall’s mortgage

Miles lets on that he’s paying 1.24% interest at the moment and that this works out at £150 pcm, or 12*150 = £1800 pa. Therefore on a house he tells us is worth £390K (or is that what he paid for it?) the mortgage is (100/1.24)*£1800 = ~£145,000. From a lender’s pov, £245K equity (reasonably plausible if, say, they bought their previous flat in the mid 1990s – they might have taken out a mortgage back then of well under £100K, with even less than that outstanding 3 years ago) is reasonable security, so they’re not the ones likely to get their fingers burnt.

Miles was paying “almost” £900 pcm before rates started tumbling or 6 times as much as at present. He may have paid off some of the mortgage, but at £250 a month for at most 3 years, not very much (no more than £9,000). This means his rate was getting on for 6*1.24 or over 7% (check: 900*12/154,000 = ~7%. Quite expensive, it seems to me.

How the rate has dropped by ~5.75% is difficult to explain, as base rates haven’t fallen that much (they were 4.75% in late 2006, rising to 5.75% in late 2007). Maybe the “almost £900” was a reasonable bit less and the £150 is rounded up (or perhaps includes a fixed amount – e.g. insurance of some kind) or maybe he’s paid off a bit more than I’ve reckoned.

Anyway, most worryingly, Miles says he is only putting £250 a month into a savings account, so he’s getting used to having £400 extra to spend each month (£400 comes from the £900 mortgage payments less £150 he’s paying now, less the £250). I hope Mrs B doesn’t get too used to all those meals out!

Be very clear: the reason Brignall was able to obtain a mortgage on a £390K property was not because of the affordability of the monthly payments – it was because he had so much equity the lender didn’t consider him much of a risk. It’s the same as the logic behind sub-prime lending when banks thought they couldn’t make a loss because the value of the property would rise. Miles can presumably afford even £900 a month, but, in fact, he’s described exactly the sort of lending which concerns the FSA because it is in the interest (no pun intended!) of the lenders and not necessarily of the borrowers.

Someone with an interest-only mortgage like Brignall’s who couldn’t afford £900 each month could easily find their debts gradually increasing over time, as they were forced to put other spending on credit cards or take out personal loans.