Contractual savings for housing : How suitable are they for transitional economies?
Problems of developing financial services for housing are acute in transitional socialist economies. The authors examine contractual savings for housing (CSH), which are often advocated as a primary solution, especially in Central and Eastern European countries. A CSH instrument links a phase of contractual savings remunerated at below-market rate to the promise of a housing loan at a rate also fixed below market at the time the contract is signed. This contract can contain a variety of options. CSH were used very successfully in Europe after World War II. The issue today is not whether such specialized instruments can work. They clearly can under low inflation. The issue is whether CSH systems are advisable today in latecomer countries with vastly different financial technology and financial policy environments. The authors focus on two influential CSH systems: the"closed"German Bausparsystem and the"open"French epargne-logement. In a"closed"CSH system, access to a housing loan is based on queuing: a loan can be made only if funds are available in the specialist institution. In an"open"system, the saver can legally call his or her loan at contract maturity, regardless of the liquidity conditions in the CSH system. From the perspective of households, CSH contracts facilitate the accumulation of equity and offer the prospect of a low-interest loan. They promote savings discipline and provide a concrete goal that many households find important. But CSH instruments leave the objective of providing a primary loan unmet. In additon, even moderate inflation quickly leads to very low loan-to-value ratios for CSH loans and a large financing gap for housing purchases. From the perspective of financial institutions, CSH can help overcome the severe information asymmetries they face in transitional socialist economies, where there are no retail financial markets, no credit bureaus, problematic income reporting. CSH are very effective in screening, monitoring, and establishing the reputation of steady savers as future borrowers, and they are good at lowering credit risks. With their saving periods of four to five years, CSH also help bridge the gap between long-term loans and short-term deposits. Finally, CSH can be an important commercial tool for developing cross-lending activities. But CSH can be risky. When the interest rate on outstanding contracts is low compared with current market rates, holders of mature contracts will want to call their loans. And new savers will be reluctant to sign on at very low contract rates. Eliminating this liquidity risk with a"closed"CSH system erodes the attractiveness of CSH. From the perspective of government, a CSH instrument can work in a noninflationary environment, yet a CSH system would have no justification in fully developed and competitive financial markets today. CSH instruments can play a useful but not a dominant role in housingfinance. After stabilization, they can overcome information constraints on financial contracts, and contribute to higher financial savings rates. CSH instruments are best used to finance home improvements. They can also be used as part of a social policy to reach targeted social groups.
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