The EU Commission and economic theory – a sad thing

The housing market has never been and could never become a market with perfect competition. No one of the conditions for perfect competition would be attained. So instead of thinking that neo-classical economic theory could give any solutions we have to do empirical research, to look at the facts of the real world.

But the European Commission, at least its Staff, seems to embrace this theory. I will here give an example. In the country report the Commission Staff writes this about Sweden:

“Market inefficiencies are primarily attributed to the high level of rent control. Sweden is characterized by the highest levels of rent control among EU Member States.

Rent levels are negotiated between the Swedish Union of Tenants (Hyresgästföreningen) and the housing companies. Rental prices are based on a rent valuation model based on a set of characteristics defined as the so-called ‘utility value’ of any given dwelling. These characteristics include factors such as the standard, services offered and the condition of the dwelling, but location is only taken into account to a very limited extent.”[1]

As one of the authors of a rent-setting handbook in Sweden (in which location is one of the main factors that will influence the rents according to the residents’ valuation) and researcher of the rental market in Sweden I must correct the Commission about the influence of the location factor. In most major cities in Sweden the location strongly affects the rents. The rents are always higher in attractive areas than in less attractive ones if you compare apartments with the same standard and size. But landlords sometimes argue that it is not enough. What is right or wrong is a matter of opinion. If the parties cannot reach an agreement then the rent tribunal has to decide.

One important feature of the Swedish rent law is security of tenure. That means that shortage of housing is not allowed to lead to rents that jeopardize the security of tenure.[2] So when there is increasing shortage due to too low housing construction, the rents in the existing stock do not increase and are held below the so called market level. But newly built rental dwellings have rents which are the highest that the landlords could charge if they will have new tenants in them (market rents). But many households that want housing cannot afford the rents in newly built dwellings or pay the price for owner-occupied housing. According to surveys it is a large shortage of rented dwellings (in 85 percent of all municipalities) that young households[3] and other low-income households including immigrants can afford. So market rents are not a solution.

In spite of that the same report says:

“The growing difference between actual and market rents triggers excessive demand for rental units and creates a lock-in effect. Existing tenants would not want to give up their favourable conditions for renting the apartment below market prices while new entrants cannot access rental apartments. Students, young and low-income households cannot access cheap, entry-level housing thereby negatively affecting labour mobility, as well as having important social implications.”[4]

The conclusion of the report is that higher rents after deregulation would give easier access to cheap rental dwellings! If the rents rise to the market level where could these households find the cheap apartments?

”Reforming the rent price setting procedure in order to allow wider divergence of rental prices, for instance by considering location and rental prices for private and/or newly built apartment rental prices would allow to close somewhat the gap between market prices and existing rental prices in urban areas and/or could allow cheaper rental prices in less attractive areas.”[5]

If it would be possible to raise the rents more in attractive areas why would the rents decrease in other areas? There is a tremendous shortage of rental dwellings in all metropolitan areas in Sweden. Every apartment is already leased. Why should the landlords then lower their rents anywhere? In fact a deregulation would cause increased rents everywhere, force people to move, increase the demand for housing in less attractive areas because many households then have to move out from their present apartments where the rents will be much higher, and cause growing social problems and even homelessness.

Maybe someone might say that market rents would increase the construction of new rental housing. But it has not happened in countries where they have deregulated the rental market.[6] “A well-regulated rental market can promote the goals of protecting tenants, particularly low income, and encouraging rental housing simultaneously. On the other hand, the elimination of rent controls and the easing of eviction procedures have rarely led to more investment in the rental market but have actually skewed the market in the direction of homeownership.”[7]

The Commission cites a report, with a very theoretical approach:

“Inefficient use of the existing rental units also contribute to the supply side constraints of housing and could result in significant welfare loss primarily in the urban areas and an undersupply of 40 000 rental units has been accumulated in the country – out of which 27 000 in Stockholm.”[8]

A recent study of housing conditions in Stockholm based on data from Statistics Sweden[9] shows that the rate of utilization or housing density (number of inhabitants per apartment of a certain size) is higher in rented apartments than in condominiums (tenant-owned apartments).[10] The rental units are more efficiently used than the other form of tenure with market pricing, which contradicts the thesis from the Commission. The study also showed that the incomes of tenants are much lower than for those in all kinds of owned housing in every part of Stockholm even in the most attractive areas. The outcome is also a sign of the positive effect on economical segregation of the Swedish system.

The alleged welfare loss has no empirical evidence. The shortage of rental dwellings is caused by many factors. To use that kind of neo-classical economic theory for analysis of welfare should be outdated.

In economic works the word demand has a special meaning. But I can need and demand (in ordinary language) a decent dwelling without having any money. And even poor people must have somewhere to live. Demand-driven construction of housing on an unregulated market will not create housing for everyone. The willingness to pay of those who have the ability to pay will be focus for the developers. Welfare analysis must be based on a broader and more adequate social theory.

It seems that the Commission’s main objection towards the Swedish model is that most of the rents are determined after negotiations between tenant unions and landlords, almost in the same way as the wages are determined after negotiations between trade unions and employers on the labour market. [11]

It is a typical neo-classical objection that prices/wages/rents should be a result of a free competition even between tenants or workers. Trade or tenant unions that represent collectives and negotiate and reach agreements on wages or rents disturb this ideal. But it is important for the welfare of the people.

In a critical comment to the EU Commission writings about the Swedish system Housing Europe writes:

“Firstly, it does not recognise the specificity of the Swedish housing system, which is rather different to other countries and has shown itself to work well over different economic cycles. The CRS does not justify its belief that getting rid of the rent setting system will solve any issues with the housing supply or prevent significant additional problems for tenants, including evictions and forms of homelessness.”[12]

And the private housing companies do not suffer. According to IPD (Investment Property Databank) is the annual total return of housing the last ten years until December 31, 2014 higher than9 percent  in Sweden.

An interesting work criticizes the neo-classical approach that still is so common among economists today:

“Economists long have recognized that the prerequisites of perfect competition may never be satisfied, and – most important – that when even one of them is missing, the benefits of perfect competition may not be available. The point has been highlighted by an often-cited, masterful article by Lipsey and Lancaster[13]. They posit that the ability of a market to achieve perfect competition is dependent upon its meeting all of the conditions of the Paretian optimum. And they add: ‘It is well known that the attainment of a Paretian optimum requires the simultaneous fulfilment of the optimum conditions.’[14]

Lipsey and Lancaster also indicate that if one of the conditions cannot be met, ‘the other Paretian conditions, although still attainable, are in general, no longer desirable.’ (Ibid.) A different pattern or model is then necessary. It follows that when an economy moves toward perfect competition, say as a result of the deregulation of one industry, one cannot assume that such a step will yield some of the benefits of perfect competition. Competition is either perfect or is not; like pregnancy, it cannot be had in degrees.”[15]

Housing policy in Sweden during the last eight years is extreme in an international comparison. After 2006 the subsidies to owned housing have increased a lot, and completely disappeared for rental housing. Property tax has been reduced even more in metropolitan areas, which in turn has led to significant price increases. These are important reasons (but not the only) that the differences in rents between newly built and older rental dwellings have increased. Other factors are bad competition among developers, a slow planning process, etc.

Is the housing shortage a situation where people cannot obtain housing that responds to their needs? Or is it the demand, how much people are willing to pay, to be the meter, according to some economists, who dislike the concept of need. It is the households overall willingness to pay that expresses demand and therefore the need. The need no one could pay for does not exist, they say. [16] One easy solution then is to raise the prices and the rents to cut the housing shortage. Higher prices mean less demand.

But revenues are distributed unevenly. People may have a need, but lack the money to match other people’s demand. To avoid to enter on this discussion these economists usually assume that the distribution of resources in society is ”the collectively desired” [17] or politically decided.

Of course the price setting on a market depends on demand and supply in economic terms. Welfare analysis on the other hand must be based on the welfare of households. A distribution of housing, which means that households with large economic resources always can trump households with fewer economic resources, cannot provide maximum welfare.

The economic language is full of concepts that could have other meanings in a daily use. Demand is an example. Description of poor or low-income households as “market failures” is another example. But have they really failed? Or is their economic situation due mainly to a failing policy by the government?

Maybe you might regard this text to be extremely exaggerated that argues against a theory that almost nobody uses. But even clever economists still fall back at least partly on this outdated theory when they try to analyze markets which they do not have a deep knowledge of. The European Commission’s Staff’s critique of the rental market in Sweden is an example.

One can sometimes hear that there is a housing market that is working well and that includes owned housing and condominiums. The rental market has rent-regulation with queues as a result. Rent regulation is seen as the main cause why so few rental properties are constructed. But if the market for condominiums and owner-occupied housing works so well, then it should be able to satisfy the need for housing, especially as the prices of owner-occupied homes and condominiums for many years has increased substantially, which should have stimulated a sharp increase in housing construction according to this economic theory. But it did not happen. Then there must be something wrong about the theory.

Housing and housing markets are very complex issues. There is no quick-fix. Both regulatory and market mechanisms are needed.

[1] European Commission:  Commission staff working document: Country Report Sweden 2015 (COM 2015 final) p.21

[2] In many countries there are regulations of the rents for sitting tenants. See for instance Haffner M., Elsinga  M. and Hoekstra  J (2007)

[3] Boverket: Bostadsmarknaden 2013-2014 pp. 20-22

[4] European Commission. p. 21

[5] Ibid. p. 22

[6] Whitehead, C., Monk, S., Markkanen, S. and Scanlon, K. (2012) , Forsberg F, Åsell M (2000)

Nordgren K, Sergo T (2001) , Raquel Rolnick (2013)

[7] Raguel Rolnik (2013). p. 14

[8] European Commission, p.22

[9] Bergenstråhle S., Palmstierna  P. (2014)

[10] Rental and tenant-owned dwellings are found mainly in multifamily housing and owner-occupied dwellings in single-family homes.

[11] de Boer, R. and R. Bitetti (2014),  p. 22

[12] Pittini A, Ghekière L, Dijol J, Kiss I (2015) The  State of Housing in the EU 2015, Housing Europe, Brussels, p. 95

[13] Lipsey R., Lancaster  K.(1956)  ” pp.11-32

[14] These conditions could be described as follows: The largest firm in any given industry is to make no more     than a small fraction of the industry’s sales (or purchases). The firms are to act independently of one another. Actors have complete knowledge of offers to buy or sell. The commodity (sold and bought in the market) is divisible, and the resources are movable among users.

[15] Etzioni, Amitai (1988) pp. 200-201

[16] See for instance Meyersson P-M, Ståhl I, Wickman K (1990)

[17] See for instance. SPK (1987:2) p… 84

Johan Schück – kolla fakta!

I DN 22 maj skriver Johan Shück att det är dags att ta bort ”den tabubelagda hyresregleringen” med hänvisning till en rapport från EU-kommissionens stab till den svenska regeringen. Så går det till när en okunnig vägleder en annan. EU-rapporten är nämligen full av direkta felaktigheter och brist på fakta.

Jag har själv med hjälp av SCB tagit fram uppgifter om bostadsstorlek, stadsdel, boendetäthet och inkomster för de som bor i hyresrätt, bostadsrätt och äganderätt i Stockholms stadsdelar. Dessa visar att boendetätheten (antal personer per bostad i 5 olika storlekar) är större i hyresrätten och inkomsterna betydligt lägre än i bostadsrätten i såväl ytter- som innerstaden år 2013.

Det vill säga att hyresrätten utnyttjas mer ”effektivt” än den marknadsprissatta bostadsrätten samt att hyreslagstiftningen möjliggör för människor med lägre inkomster än dem i bostadsrätt att bo i attraktiva delar av Stockholm. Bruksvärdesystemet blir på så sätt också ett verktyg mot den ökande ekonomiska segregationen.

I den märkliga rapporten från EU-kommissionen påstås till exempel att det skulle bli lättare för unga och hushåll med låga inkomster att få tag i billiga hyresrätter om hyresmarknaden avreglerades! Det är ju ett rent påhitt. Det är en enorm bostadsbrist i Stockholmsregionen. Det finns inga lediga lägenheter. Skulle man tillåta en friare hyresrättning skulle det vara möjligt för hyresvärdarna att höja hyrorna i stort sett över allt. Och med kraftig höjda hyror i attraktiva områden skulle ett antal människor tvingas flytta och då tvingas söka bostäder i andra områden. Beräkningar som gjorts visar på en betydande förmögenhetsomfördelning från hyresgäster till fastighetsägare samt en betydligt minskad konsumtion.

I likhet med andra neoklassiska ekonomer gilla de som skrivit EU-rapporten inte att hyrorna sätts efter förhandlingar. Det stör den fria prisbildningen i likhet med förhandlingarna på arbetsmarknaden. I EU-rapporten påstås att dessa förhandlingar skapar välfärdsförluster. För min del tror jag att det är precis tvärtom om. Förhandlingssystemet  i kombination med hyreslagstiftningen är väl beprövat och gör det möjligt att ge hyresgästerna besittningsskydd. Dessutom är  det ett skydd mot oskäliga hyror vid stor bostadsbrist.

Jag kan också berätta för Johan Schück att det finns inga exempel från den verkliga världen att det byggts fler hyresrätter efter en avreglering. Tvärtom verkar det snarare medföra att hyresmarknaden minskar i storlek. En väl fungerande och attraktiv hyresmarknad kräver reglering, besittningsskydd och en intressebalans mellan hyresgäst och värd.

“For far too long economists have sought to define themselves in terms of their supposedly scientific methods. In fact those methods rely on an immoderate use of mathematical methods, which are frequently no more than an excuse for occupying the terrain and masking the vacuity of the content. Too much energy has been and still is being wasted on pure theoretical speculation without a clear specification of the economic facts one is trying to explain or the social and political problems one is trying to resolve.”[1]

[1] Piketty T (2014) CAPITAL in the Twenty-First Centruary, p.574