Scandinavia’s biggest bank is telling the people deciding Swedish monetary policy to stop scaring offshore mortgage-bond investors by exaggerating the threat of a housing bubble.
Sweden’s Riksbank should instead look at its own actions and hold off on additional stimulus, which Nordea judges is the biggest culprit in driving up house prices and private debt to record levels, according Andreas Wallstrom, chief analyst at Nordea in Stockholm.
“They’ve stared themselves too blind on this rise of household debt,” Wallstrom said. “There are so many things that are extreme in the other direction, for example household savings, which are record-high, and interest rate expenses as a share of disposable incomes, which are at the lowest level since the 1970s.”
Sweden’s commercial banks and businesses are rebelling against the central bank’s unprecedented stimulus measures, which have included cutting benchmark rates well below zero and buying government bonds. Banks in particular are growing increasingly hostile toward policies that have strained their balance sheets.
The development isn’t without irony after Riksbank Governor Stefan Ingves in recent years was criticized heavily by former members of his own board and even Nobel Laureate Paul Krugman for pursuing policies they said were too tight for Sweden’s economy during Europe’s debt crisis.
The Riksbank last week warned of growing vulnerabilities in the financial system as household debt approaches a record 180 percent of disposable incomes. It played down an almost unchanged debt burden for households with mortgages over the past five years.
The cautious tone accompanied a prediction that rates will remain at crisis lows to help drive inflation closer to the 2 percent target, a level not seen in Sweden for almost half a decade.
After losing a battle to oversee macro-prudential policies to the Financial Supervisory Authority, the Riksbank says it’s urgent that other authorities and lawmakers clamp down on the growing imbalances in Sweden’s housing market.
The warning coincided with the introduction last week of rules that force Swedes taking out new mortgages to pay them down at a faster pace.
Ingves, who has called the requirement “too little, too late,” reiterated that the financial watchdog should also put a cap on how much Swedes can borrow as a share of their incomes. The FSA is reluctant, saying it wants to evaluate the effects of the new rules before doing more.
The Riksbank governor, who is also the head of the Basel Committee on Banking Supervision, has a lot of experience cleaning up the fallout of burst debt bubbles. He was the head of the authority that resurrected Sweden’s banks after the nation’s commercial real estate crash in the early 1990s. The International Monetary Fund also made Ingves their point man to consult during the Asian currency crisis later that decade.
But at Sweden’s FSA, the concern among offshore investors over the state of the country’s mortgage market has also drawn comment.
Those looking at Swedish household debt from the outside seem “very, very, very worried,” but we aren’t because we “know how the Swedish system works,” said Erik Thedeen, who heads the regulator in Stockholm. Even so, he acknowledges that Swedes could be a little “blind” to the risks.
Nordea warns that steps to curb housing demand risk backfiring. Financial Markets Minister Per Bolund, who is working on a bill that will give the regulator more tools, last month said authorities may have underestimated the effect of the amortization rules on the economy. Meanwhile, parliament is working on measures to increase supply and mobility in the property market.
Wallstrom says stricter amortization requirements could ultimately hurt the central bank’s quest for faster inflation by curbing household demand.
“It’s paradoxical that the one in Sweden who talks about these things the most and loudest is the Riksbank, which possesses the most effective tool to slow the debt development, namely the interest rate,” he said.