2008 will be a tough year - but there's a silver lining

The cheap credit that sustained many a bubble is drying up, and that's hitting everything from house prices to private equity. It's going to be a rotten year in general - but not all investments will fall.

This time last year, house prices were still rising fast and estate agents in London were swearing that 40% annual rises were both acceptable and sustainable.

Agents everywhere were boasting that the UK's famous housing shortage would keep prices up for ever. This year things look a tad different. Prices have now been falling for several months.

On Hometrack numbers, they were down another 0.2% in February. Anecdotal evidence suggests that even in London offers - when they come - are 15%-20% below asking prices.

Subscribe to MoneyWeek

Subscribe to MoneyWeek today and get your first six magazine issues absolutely FREE

Get 6 issues free

Sign up to Money Morning

Don't miss the latest investment and personal finances news, market analysis, plus money-saving tips with our free twice-daily newsletter

Don't miss the latest investment and personal finances news, market analysis, plus money-saving tips with our free twice-daily newsletter

Sign up

It turns out prices of houses have been based not on the limited supply of housing at all, but on the excess supply of capital.

Until the end of last year home loans were freely available to every fraudster, low-income earner and desperate first-time buyer, regardless of their ability or willingness to make the payments on their mortgage.

No more. As Hector Sants, the chief executive of the Financial Services Authority, pointed out last week, everything has changed. Not only has the credit crunch made it harder for the banks to get their hands on cash to lend, but they are also suddenly more aware of the risks inherent in lax lending strategies.

The result? No more of those absurd loans where one could borrow 110% or even 125% of the value of a house and use the excess to buy a nice new kitchen with granite worktops just like everybody else's; not many 100% mortgages; and higher prices for all mortgages.

Tracker mortgages that once cost a little less than the Bank of England's base rate now cost a little more. Fixed-rate mortgages that came in at an average of 5% two years ago now cost at least half a percentage point more and come with sign-up fees of £500 to £1,500.

No wonder the mortgage market is slowing. In January, 33% fewer loans were taken out to buy houses than at the same time last year. Faced with such lack of demand, prices are falling, too.

The other big and related change is to consumer spending. This rose a mere 0.2% in the last quarter of 2007 and more people are repaying credit-card debt than taking it out. Overdraft levels are also falling and my phone rings constantly with women's magazine editors asking me to write about how to save money.

Then there is the stock market. The FTSE is down nearly 7% so far this year. The banks have been among the worst hit due to investors finally realising that the profits of the last few years have not been down to sustainable cleverness. It has been because of overlending and financial engineering. They can't do either of those things any more.

The market has also been hit by the end of the private-equity boom. Last year the bulls could point at anything remotely cheap and say that it was worth buying because it would soon be snapped up by private equity at a premium.

They can't say that any more. As my MoneyWeek colleague Simon Nixon - just back from a private-equity conference in Munich rather misleadingly called SuperReturns - points out, the banks that once rushed to lend money to the sector are stuck with more than $200m (£100m) worth of unsold loans on their balance sheets. That prevents them from making new loans. They can't lend more until they've cleared out the ones they already have. It also means they are likely to make terms tougher when private-equity firms come to refinance existing loans.

The private-equity business model has for the past five years or so been almost entirely predicated on the existence of very cheap loans. This throws a real spanner in the works.

This year is going to be "a stinker", said Nixon. One joker in Munich suggested the annual conference should be rebranded "ModestReturns" to reflect the new financial environment. "No Returns At All" might reflect it rather better.

None of this is good news for investors. It is hard to see how a new bull run can really kick off at the moment. With recession looming here and in the US, it is all too easy to see how a proper bear market could get going. When they do, it isn't nice.

The silver lining is that very rarely do all things go down at once ? markets just aren't that black and white. So now, even as most of the market tanks, a few stocks are bucking the trend.

I'm a big believer in the commodities supercycle - the idea that prices will rise for another decade or so thanks to rising demand and shortage of supply.

While I expect hiccups along the way, I'm staying invested there and still looking for ways into the booming agriculture sector.

Prices here have soared. Top-quality wheat prices rose 25% in a day last week. It may be what brokers like to call "overbought", but medium and long-term prospects are excellent.

One way in - and this, by the way, is a punt, not a pension investment - is via Stockholm-listed Black Earth (STO:BEF SDB). It acquires and farms land in fertile regions of Ukraine. The firm is the largest industrial farmer in the country and intends to harvest 150,000 hectares of land this year out of the 300,000 it holds.

The shares don't come without risk. The company is based in Russia for starters and getting going in farming is very capital intensive. However, if the business prospers, shareholders should do well.

First published in The Sunday Times 2/3/08

Merryn Somerset Webb

Merryn Somerset Webb started her career in Tokyo at public broadcaster NHK before becoming a Japanese equity broker at what was then Warburgs. She went on to work at SBC and UBS without moving from her desk in Kamiyacho (it was the age of mergers).

After five years in Japan she returned to work in the UK at Paribas. This soon became BNP Paribas. Again, no desk move was required. On leaving the City, Merryn helped The Week magazine with its City pages before becoming the launch editor of MoneyWeek in 2000 and taking on columns first in the Sunday Times and then in 2009 in the Financial Times

Twenty years on, MoneyWeek is the best-selling financial magazine in the UK. Merryn was its Editor in Chief until 2022. She is now a senior columnist at Bloomberg and host of the Merryn Talks Money podcast -  but still writes for Moneyweek monthly. 

Merryn is also is a non executive director of two investment trusts – BlackRock Throgmorton, and the Murray Income Investment Trust.