Are Land Investments Affected by the Libor Rate-Fixing Scandal?

How does the Libor rate-fixing scandal affect capital growth investments such as land?

Stringent lending practices by banks are blamed for the housing shortage in the UK. Might the LIBOR scandal, uncovered in 2012, play a role in this?

While residential real estate prices in London remain high and climbing, most other parts of the UK have seen a significant drop in home values since the financial crisis of 2008. Economists and pundits alike have pegged this to many factors in the economy, but since the Libor (London Interbank Offered Rate) rate fixing scandal came to light in 2012, some voices are questioning the degree to which this may have then, and since, affected home buyers. Of course by extension, the ability to purchase homes affects the fortunes of strategic land investors and developers.

A Fortune magazine senior editor wrote in late 2012 that because the housing market crash was due to many homeowners being unable to pay their mortgages, that Libor manipulations “added to the borrowers’ hardships,” making it at least a contributing factor.

Other voices argue that the damage of Libor manipulations benefited just as many people as it may have hurt. As much as rates were artificially inflated, just a bit, so too were they pushed down (driven by the bankers found to be responsible for their own reasons). It should not go without notice that about 45 percent of adjustable-rate prime mortgages and 80 percent of adjustable subprime mortgages are set according to the Libor rate. Student and auto loan rates are hitched to Libor as well.

But if there is one outcome of the scandal, it may have been the undermining of trust in the system overall. It certainly shakes investor confidence in the financial markets.

Billion-pound-plus settlements have been reached by those banks found responsible (Barclays, UBS, Royal Bank of Scotland. American banks including Citigroup, JPMorgan Chase and Bank of America have not faced charges). And new regulations in the aftermath are predicted, with some variation between countries and their respective regulatory systems. In the UK, that may follow the Vickers proposals, which the International Center for Financial Regulation says will put ringfences around all UK-based retail and investment banking services.

While the punitive settlements reached between UK regulators and the banks sound hefty, relatively speaking they pale in comparison to the costs borne by borrowers since the fraudulent practices began in the early 1990s. According to the website, small businesses’ and households’ annual mortgages were affected by hundreds of pounds each year due these transgressions. Consider how, says the site, Libor and therefore mortgage rates soared in the lead up to the 2008 financial crisis, particularly its climb around August 2007.

The credit crunch and housing price crash since has slowed investments of all kinds, not the least of which has been home building in England and Wales – despite a continued population increase and pronounced shortage of housing. Would-be new homeowners have difficulty meeting tighter lending standards, which has dulled the interests of most developers in building new homes.

As confidence builds again in the banks, and as lending loosens up, there is growing interest in the pent-up demand for housing that has occurred. In the meantime, to-let housing is becoming more common in the UK and elsewhere, particularly with new construction. The dynamics of banking and business, and the population increase, all suggest that home building has to increase in the future – perhaps this time, with fairer, less-manipulated lending rates. When that does, capital growth for landowners, land investors, and existing built-property owners should benefit as well. On the receiving end, more young people and families will be able to find a place to live – and pensioner parents will reclaim their homes for themselves once again.

For all considered, all market factors must be taken into account. The smart investor will always consult with a qualified personal financial planner to ensure the risk profile of an investment is tolerable and complementary to other assets in his or her portfolio.

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