Prepared by Marco Lo Duca, Mara Pirovano, Marek Rusnák and Eugen Tereanu
This article presents the ECB framework for assessing financial stability risks stemming from residential real estate markets and for designing macroprudential policy responses. It reviews recent developments in residential real estate markets and policy initiatives to address risks.
Developments in the residential real estate (RRE) sector can have strong repercussions on financial stability and the real economy. The importance of the residential real estate sector for financial stability stems from its central role in the economy, the large fraction of household wealth invested in real estate assets, the primary role of the financial sector in financing real estate investments and the important collateral role of real estate assets.
The identification and monitoring of RRE market risks to financial stability as well as the design of commensurate macro-prudential policies is a priority for macroprudential authorities, including the ECB. The ECB is a constituent part of the EU institutional framework for macroprudential oversight. Specifically, under Council Regulation (EU) No 1024/2013 (the SSM Regulation), the ECB is responsible for assessing macroprudential measures adopted by national authorities in the countries subject to European banking supervision. The ECB also has the power to apply, if deemed necessary, more stringent measures than those adopted nationally acting on its own initiative or at the request of national authorities. More generally, the ECB has responsibilities for the coordination and co-shaping of macroprudential policies in the euro area.
Given the economic and policy implications of RRE markets, this article discusses the relevant framework for risk and policy analysis applied by the ECB and highlights the key messages of its current RRE risk and policy assessment.
2 Macroprudential risk and policy framework for residential real estate markets
This section briefly presents a framework for macroprudential risk and policy analysis of residential real estate markets. This framework relies on experience gained in cooperation with the ESRB (2016) and current initiatives within the euro area and beyond.
2.1 The framework for risk analysis
The ECB uses a range of indicators to assess residential real estate risks from a macroprudential perspective. Such indicators have been identified as good leading indicators of emerging vulnerabilities preceding residential real estate downturns. Similarly to the ESRB (2016), core indicators are grouped into three main categories (or “stretches”) which capture different sources of residential real estate risks. This core set of indicators is complemented by other information encompassing linkages with the financial sector and structural features of real estate markets which might amplify adverse shocks.
Indicators in the collateral stretch inform risks stemming from unsustainable price developments. “Exuberant” price dynamics and misalignments could signal the formation of price bubbles early on, which could lead to financial instability and deep recessions. Within the collateral stretch the ECB monitors measures of house price dynamics and different valuation measures.
Indicators in the funding stretch help to identify risks stemming from unsustainable lending developments. “Exuberant” lending contributes to real estate price bubbles and makes bubble bursts more costly. Furthermore, the deterioration of credit standards might lead to fragilities in bank balance sheets which could amplify financial instability. Within the funding stretch, the ECB monitors indicators capturing the dynamics of mortgage loans, measures of loan pricing and credit standards.
Indicators in the household stretch help to detect fragilities in household balance sheets. Empirical evidence suggests that when households are highly indebted, housing busts are more likely to be associated with longer and more costly recessions. Indicators monitored by the ECB include the level of household debt in relation to disposable income, household financial assets in relation to debt (a mitigating factor), and the aggregate debt service to income ratio.
Residential real estate scoreboard – an input to the risk identification process
Key indicators for the three stretches are presented in the scoreboard above (see Table 1). The latter consists of a heat map where each indicator is evaluated against a set of thresholds, guided in turn by model-based evidence using the ECB/ESRB crisis database and/or by the cross-time and cross-country distributions of the indicators.
The risk assessment also considers other information on links between real estate markets and the financial sector which could amplify adverse shocks. Additional risk information encompasses indicators related to (a) the size of the RRE market in a country, (b) the exposure of banks to RRE, (c) potential supply shocks (e.g. deleveraging) and (d) the importance of the collateral channel. Furthermore, analysing the exposure of banks to the construction sector is important in order to assess concentration and potential solvency risks as the dynamic of the construction sector is intertwined with that of RRE, particularly during downturns. Finally, household housing wealth is assessed to inform the negative impact on consumer spending following a sudden downturn in house prices.
Country-specific and structural features are also considered in view of the wide heterogeneity of the domestic residential real estate markets across euro area countries. The most important structural and institutional features include RRE market characteristics (home ownership rate, typical maturity and fixation of housing loans), rental market restrictions, tax policy and transaction costs. Further, supply-side characteristics (price elasticity of new housing, regulation and spatial planning) as well as demand-side factors (demographics and changes in household structures) are important drivers of housing markets. Nonetheless, the impact of certain structural features in RRE markets on financial stability is not clear ex-ante.
To facilitate the policy discussion, risk signals from the indicators are distinguished along stock and flow dimensions. For example, stock vulnerabilities signalled by high household indebtedness and/or house price overvaluations indicate the need to increase resilience of lenders. Flow vulnerabilities related to increasing indebtedness and/or deteriorating lending standards associated with excessive credit growth call for the activation of policies to tame the cycle or to contain the accumulation of vulnerabilities.
2.2 The framework for policy analysis
Macroprudential policies to address real estate risks encompass two main categories: capital-based and borrower-based measures. Capital measures require banks to hold more capital against real estate exposures. Borrower-based measures consist of the imposition of limits to the volume of credit a borrower can obtain.
The legal framework for the implementation of capital-based instruments is harmonised across the EU while borrower-based instruments are based on national legislation and are not harmonised across the EU. The framework for capital measures is provided by the Capital Requirements Directive (CRD IV) and the Capital Requirements Regulation (CRR). Examples of capital-based macroprudential instruments to address real-estate-related risks encompass higher risk weights for real estate exposures (Article 124 CRR) and higher floors on banks’ loss-given-default (Article 164 CRR). Additional capital requirements for real estate exposures applying to all or a subset of domestic financial institutions may also be introduced via Article 458 CRR.
The legal basis for the macroprudential mandate of the ECB is provided by Council Regulation (EU) No 1024/2013 (the SSM Regulation). In general, the ECB and national authorities share a macroprudential mandate in that the ECB can top up selected national macroprudential measures, primarily related to capital instruments, while borrower-based instruments are the remit of national authorities. Where applicable, the ECB can act on its own authority as well as at the request of national authorities.
The choice of implementing one or a combination of macroprudential instruments crucially depends on the nature of the identified real estate vulnerabilities and on the specific policy objectives (Table 2). In general, macroprudential policy is used to strengthen the resilience of borrowers and lenders against the consequences of risks materialising as well as to counter the build-up of these risks, thereby lowering the probability of their materialisation. However, due to their characteristics, different instruments are particularly suited to target specific objectives.
Capital-based instruments are most suited to address risks stemming from stock vulnerabilities such as, for instance, high levels of household indebtedness or overvalued real estate prices. By requiring banks to hold more capital against the outstanding stock of real estate exposures, capital-based measures ensure that adequate buffers are in place to absorb losses on banks’ mortgage loan portfolios in case of adverse developments. Furthermore, additional capital requirements help to ensure the smooth provision of credit even during downturns, thereby mitigating the impact of crises on the broader economy.
Borrower-based instruments are best suited to address flow vulnerabilities stemming, for example, from excessive credit growth, deteriorating credit standards and increasing household indebtedness. By curtailing the new loan amount, borrower-based instruments such as limits to LTV, DTI and DSTI ratios restrain the growth of credit and that of household indebtedness, in addition to increasing households’ resilience to adverse income and interest rate shocks. Furthermore, borrower-based instruments improve the quality of banks’ mortgage loan portfolios by encouraging prudent lending standards, which gradually make loan portfolios less risky over time.
Linking macroprudential instruments to vulnerabilities and policy objectives
The design and calibration of macroprudential instruments are crucial to ensure that they achieve the policy objectives. The level at which instruments are calibrated determines the strength of the effect on the key target variables.
Other policies influence the design and calibration of macroprudential instruments to address residential real estate risks. The effects of monetary and fiscal policies on variables representing key macroprudential objectives should be taken into account when deciding to activate macroprudential instruments. Microprudential instruments affecting individual banks may also be used to address institution-specific risks related to real estate exposures. This interaction demands close cooperation between micro- and macroprudential authorities. Finally, other macroprudential instruments designed to counter broader-based vulnerabilities can also impact the real estate sector. Capital-based instruments, such as the Countercyclical Capital Buffer (CCyB) and the Systemic Risk Buffer (SRB) may also help to counter the build-up of real estate vulnerabilities.
3 Current developments in residential real estate markets and policy responses
The residential real estate cycle across the euro area has been gaining momentum in recent years. The acceleration of the growth of residential house prices has been steady since the recovery in euro area housing markets started in mid-2014 (Chart 1). Nominal RRE price annual growth reached 4.3% in 2018 Q3 (2.2% in real terms), which is not far from annual growth rates recorded in the period 2003-2006, before the global financial crisis.
The robust price dynamics are contributing to some signs of overvaluation. The nominal RRE price index is currently 8.7 p.p. higher than the pre-crisis peak in Q3 2008. Prices increased faster than the disposable income, resulting in a slight deviation of the house price to income ratio from its long term average (6 p.p. in Q3 2018). A model based assessment, also points to slight overvaluation (1.2 p.p. in Q3 2018).
Residential real estate annual price growth and valuations for the euro area
Although mortgage loan growth remains moderate, strong loan origination and signs of easing lending standards call for close monitoring of credit developments. Mortgage lending growth remains moderate in nominal and real terms (3.3% and 1.3%, y-o-y growth in Q4 2018, respectively; Chart 3). Nonetheless, these net loan growth figures are dampened by loan repayments resulting from the boom period in mortgage markets before the crisis. In contrast, loan origination (i.e. new bank loans) dynamics appear to be stronger (in line with figures observed in the period 2004 and 2005). Against this background, lending terms should be monitored closely also in view of emerging evidence of a progressive easing of loan lending standards for house purchases since Q1 2017 as indicated by the ECB Bank Lending Survey (BLS).
The trend decline in household indebtedness in the euro area appears to have halted and the debt-to-income ratio is hovering around the still relatively high level of 95% (Chart 3). In addition, households in countries where floating rate contracts are prevalent might be exposed to interest rate risks.
Against the backdrop of the recovery in residential real estate markets gaining momentum, a number of policy recommendations apply across euro area countries. National authorities should closely monitor lending standards on mortgage loans to ensure that banks apply sound lending practices. To this end, it is important that granular data are made available to policy makers in line with the ESRB recommendation 2016/14 on closing real estate data gaps. To prevent the deterioration of lending standards, national authorities could provide guidance to banks on prudent lending practices and require banks to test long-term debt affordability at loan origination with a focus on interest rate risk. This would ensure that loans will continue to perform in a scenario of rising interest rates. Finally, national authorities should stand ready to activate borrower-based measures. To this end, a comprehensive legislative framework for borrower-based measures should be available to policy makers.
Loans to households for house purchase, new loans, and household debt
The aggregate developments in the euro area are underpinned by significant cross country heterogeneity. Stock (overvaluations and indebtedness) and flow vulnerabilities (price increases and lending growth) relevant for macroprudential policy are more evident in a number of euro area countries (Charts 3 and 4).
At least fourteen euro area countries have already adopted targeted macroprudential measures to address residential real estate vulnerabilities (Table 3). These measures include capital measures, in the form of higher risk-weights on mortgage exposures, and diverse mixes of borrower-based measures.
Policies appear commensurate to existing risks in a number of countries but further policy actions may be warranted in others. Whenever possible, the impact of enacted policies should be assessed as a matter of priority. At the same time, the continuation of risk build-up in residential real estate markets in some countries should be carefully monitored as it could require further policy interventions in the near future.
Stock vulnerabilities and capital measures
Flow vulnerabilities and borrower-based measures
Overview of policies to address residential real estate vulnerabilities in the euro area
The strong linkages between residential real estate (RRE), the financial sector and the overall economy have been brought to the fore, in particular since the last global financial crisis. Therefore, an essential component of the financial stability surveillance and macroprudential policy mandate of the ECB is the application of a robust and comprehensive RRE risk detection and policy framework.
This article describes the key features of the ECB framework used to identify vulnerabilities in residential real estate markets and guide the appropriate macroprudential policy response and dialogue. Beyond regular analysis, the framework forms the basis for the macroprudential dialogue with national authorities, thereby facilitating a common understanding of risk developments and a more efficient policy process.
The current analysis indicates that residential real estate vulnerabilities relevant to macroprudential policy are present in a number of euro area countries. In general, the activation over the past years of macroprudential instruments related to residential real estate risks recognises the need for a proactive policy stance to avoid possible negative consequences for the financial sector and the broader economy. However, the continuation of observed trends in residential real estate markets in some countries suggests that further policy actions remain warranted in the near future.
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