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A look at the Property markets in Europe, with some thoughts on where they are going in 2019

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Looking Ahead to 2019 in the EU -- Part 4

This is the next in my end of year series on prospects for real estate across Europe.
I generally look at simple metrics, such as general economic activity which would support rising wages, because most houses are bought with mortgage funds, and mortgages have to be paid out of wages. If wages are stagnant or sliding then house prices will tend to mirror that situation.
Okay, let's cut to the reality across Europe.
In the UK wages have been slowly rising now for some time which makes paying the mortgage easier. That will at least help to keep house prices reasonably steady.
Things are very different on the continent. We already know that in Greece, Italy, France, Spain and Portugal there is an anti-euro backlash. But what's behind this attitude?
One problem is a strong euro that is wrecking the export markets. The euro remains strong because rather a lot of people need the currency for their daily affairs. If a large proportion of people need the currency, it will generally remain strong. The trouble is, it is far too strong to support local economies, which are struggling. As a communique from the European Commission admits, the euro is "increasing unemployment and social hardship". That wasn't lauded as its original purpose. It is also going to keep house prices subdued at least across most of Europe.
Looking at some stats that I have before me it seems that according to Europa.EU, in 2016, no less than 118 million people in the EU lived in households on the edge of poverty or social exclusion. That figure accounts for just shy of a quarter of the population.
We have recently seen the reaction of the French and the Spanish to the latest economic problems that have swamped Europe.
If we look at Poland and Hungary, both countries appear to be treading the euro-sceptic path, and the Netherlands is not far behind. In short, to put this in the dramatic terms espoused by The European Council on Foreign Relations "Euroscepticism has now spread across the continent like a virus".
But let's start with Greece, which is the country that is the furthest down the road into chaos. The figures in the article I am reading at the moment put things rather starkly:
"Since 2008, the Greek economy has shrunk by a quarter.
More than 400,000 Greeks have emigrated.
House prices are down 43%.
More than £70bn of assets have been destroyed in a €180 billion economy."
Excuse me, but that is crazy. It that had happened in Britain we would feel as if we had been crucified.
Greece's ex-finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis pointed up just such a scenario. It went like this.
“To get a feel for the devastation that ensued, imagine what would have happened in the UK if RBS, Lloyds and the other City banks had been rescued without the help of the Bank of England and solely via foreign loans to the exchequer. All granted on the condition that UK wages would be reduced by 40%, pensions by 45%, the minimum wage by 30%, NHS spending by 32%. The UK would now be the wasteland of Europe, just as Greece is today.”
Let's pause for another 'excuse me'. Was this what joining the EU was supposed to bring about?
Obviously not, and one can legitimately say that Greece should not have fiddled the books in the first place simply to join a union it was not suited for. But it has happened, and there is no way Greece can recover by staying in the union.
What we now have is Italy going the same way, except that Italy represents a rather large economy, and Italy cannot be bullied in the same way Greece was. In fact the Italian president admits that Greece has been "crucified". The deputy prime minister has already stated that Italy "will not suffer the same fate as Greece".
We already have Marine Le Pen and Salvini declaring a joint campaign "fighting the EU to save Europe".
The big question is: what is going to happen in May when the next EU elections come round?
The bottom line is that Europe currently is a mess, and decisions made now by people looking at buying and selling real estate across the zone are not likely to be the most sensible ever taken. You don't make big decisions just before a tsunami.
As one of the articles I read finishes: "If Lehman Brothers' default led to a 38% drop in the UK stock market... how bad will things get when an entire currency union collapses?"
The question also has to be asked: how vulnerable is the UK in all this instability?
I'm afraid my answer is that it is vulnerable, but to what extent I can't possibly work out. I strongly suspect it is far less vulnerable than the southern countries tied to the euro. If (when) they are forced out of today's version of the union, their currencies are likely to crash, probably by as much as 40%.
Those of you who have been with me for the long haul may remember that this was a risk I pointed out back at the beginning of the century.
What we have to try and hold onto is that the whole point of the EU was to try and unite a continent which has had a history of in-fighting going back to the dawn of time. What we are now seeing is a re-emergence of that in-fighting, with Italy bickering with France over the way the latter has been treated over their budget chaos. Poland and Hungary are already complaining. The issue concerning imigration from the Middle East has split the members of the union. Italy has been complaining for some time about immigration from Africa. All these issues remain unresolved, so how far is this squabbling going to spread? And how likely is a collapse? And when would that likely be?
There will be no answers to those questions here, but to say 'All is not well' is a massive understatement.
Using the simple metrics I always use, and which have served me well for a couple of generations, property markets across southern Europe are looking seriously shaky, and the shakiest are in Greece, Italy, France, Spain, and Portugal.

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