Equity Release sector hiding huge losses from under-valued guarantees

New report from the Adam Smith Institute reveals a major scandal in the Equity Release sector due to firms under-valuing their No-Negative Equity Guarantees

  • Under-valuation of guarantees in Equity Release Mortgages is a ticking time bomb
  • The Prudential Regulation Authority made half-hearted attempts to address these undervaluations, but permitted them anyway
  • The recent Treasury Committee report into the UK life industry missed a chance to scrutinise the sector and instead suggested that the Equity Release sector was one to be promoted
  • The UK’s Equity Release market nearly trebled in size between 2012 and 2017 and was forecast to grow a further 40% by 2020
  • PRA stress tests in 2017 indicated that a 30% house price fall could lead to losses of between £2 billion and £3 billion
  • The industry had snowballed the Treasury Committee and the Committee’s recent report reflected industry spin
  • This scandal highlights serious failings on the part of Equity Release firms, their regulator and the actuarial profession

A new report released this morning from the free-market Adam Smith Institute suggests that the UK’s Equity Release sector is in deep trouble, with the regulator having missed opportunities to effectively manage the risks in the sector.

Asleep at the Wheel: The Prudential Regulation Authority and the Equity Release Sector” reveals that firms are greatly under-valuing their No Negative Equity Guarantees – guarantees that ensure that borrowers’ debt can never exceed the value of the mortgaged property.

These problems have been well-known to the regulator, the Prudential Regulation Authority, for years and the report argues that the regulator has knowingly allowed firms to use valuation methods that are unfit for the task.

“Nearly two decades and one Global Financial Crisis later it seems like history is repeating itself,” says report author Kevin Dowd.

Not pulling any punches, Professor Dowd says that the Equity Release fiasco is yet another case of incompetent management, undervalued long-term guarantees and regulators who are not up to their jobs.

The UK’s Equity Release market had nearly trebled in size between 2012 and 2017 and had been forecast to grow a further 40% by 2020. PRA stress tests in 2017 indicated that a 30% house price fall could lead to losses of between £2 billion and £3 billion, with the exposures skewed towards firms with larger house price or ERM exposure.

The Prudential Regulatory Authority is confused about the capital requirements it imposes upon the industry, the report argues. When asked at a parliamentary Committee in 2017 about the size of these capital requirements, Deputy Bank Governor Sam Woods suggested the requirement was £126bn, while moments later his colleague David Belsham suggested it was just £80bn.

The Treasury Committee is accused by Professor Dowd of botching its scrutiny of the impact of Solvency II on insurance companies, and having been captured by corporate lobbyists.

The regulator, the Prudential Regulation Authority, has itself made half-hearted efforts to address this under-valuation problem. Yet for years the PRA failed to rein in firms that continued to use inadequate valuation methods for their No Negative Equity Guarantees.

In most financial regulatory scandals the regulators are caught off-guard and never see the problem coming. In this case, not only did the regulator identify the problem of poor NNEG valuation practices years ago, but the PRA allowed them anyway.

Questions must now arise about the Prudential Regulation Authority’s capacity to regulate the industry competently.

The report’s author Kevin Dowd, professor of finance and economics at Durham University, said:

"We never seem to learn. Equitable Life hit the rocks two decades ago because it under-valued its long-term guarantees. Now the Equity Release sector is in deep trouble for the same reason. In both cases, the firms involved got into difficulties because they were using voodoo valuation methods that had no scientific validation. Same causes, same results.

In the aftermath of the Equitable Life fiasco we were assured that lessons had been learned and the vastly expensive Solvency II regulatory regime was installed to ensure there would never be a similar disaster in the future.

The PRA and Solvency II have failed spectacularly.

“The most astonishing thing about this scandal is that the PRA knew about these poor valuation practices but permitted them anyway. It would be interesting to know why.”

The Dowd report follows a joint investigation with BBC business journalist Howard Mustoe.

BBC Radio 4 will broadcast a programme on the Equity Release story, The Equity Release Trap, this evening at 8pm. 

Notes to editors:
For further comments or to arrange an interview, contact Matt Kilcoyne, Head of Communications, at matt@adamsmith.org | 07584 778207.

The Adam Smith Institute is a free market, libertarian think tank based in London. It advocates classically liberal public policies to create a richer, freer world.