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‘Swedes need to save to tackle wealth disparity’

Uneven wealth distribution in Sweden can be put down in part to a lack of safe assets among individual Swedes, says liberal commentator Nima Sanandaji, who argues that politicians should encourage people to engage in investments to fight the disparity.

French economist Thomas Piketty has gained significant attention for his new book Capital In The Twenty-First Century, recently translated into English after its original publication in French last year. The focus of the book is the issue of economic inequality. One of the main points is that wealth tends to be much more unevenly distributed than incomes. 
 
Piketty fears that capital amassed during previous generations will grow faster than the economy as a whole, so that a small handful of families end up owning much of the wealth. If this happens, the French economist argues, "the past devours the future".
 
Much of our knowledge about wealth distribution comes from recent academic studies. And their results are quite shocking. One of the more ambitious studies of wealth distribution has shown that Sweden has the most uneven wealth distribution amongst the seven countries for which data exist. Why is it that Sweden, which has long had an equal distribution of incomes, has an unusually unequal distribution of wealth?
 
The explanation lies in the fact that many Swedish households have limited or no privately held safe nets.
 
A report by the Swedish Taxpayers' Association (Skattebetalarna) from 2009 showed that around 30 percent of Swedish households had negative, or zero, assets. Another roughly 20 percent of households had asset levels that corresponded to around one month's salary for a normal household. The low level of household savings in Sweden has likely resulted from a situation where families have relied on the public sector to provide an all-inclusive safety net. However, it never hurts to have some savings in addition to public insurance systems.
 
Encouraging private savings amongst the broader public is one way to combat inequality. Society can in many ways benefit from a situation where ordinary people control a significant share of the capital. The ability to rely on your own savings, or borrow from friends, for example, increases the possibilities of realizing a business venture. And in the long-run even moderate investments can give a healthy contribution to the family budget.
 
There are ways for politicians to encourage savings among the broader public. Legislation could for example allow young people to deduct taxes from the first nest egg they save for investments in the stock market, in their first home or in their first business. The first step should be to open up a debate about how a more egalitarian capital ownership can be fostered. 
 
After all, much of the rise of income inequality in the world is driven by the fact that those with high incomes invest much of their money, and gain long-term incomes from this investment. Shouldn't a political response be to encourage broader groups to engage in investments?
 
Nima Sanandaji is a regular op-ed contributor to The Local. His latest book is called “Renaissance for Reforms”, co-authored with Stefan Fölster.

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PROPERTY

EXPLAINED: Will Swedish housing prices plummet as interest rates rise?

The Swedish financial supervisory authority warned on Wednesday that rising interest rates could lead to house prices falling "quite sharply". How likely is it that this will happen?

EXPLAINED: Will Swedish housing prices plummet as interest rates rise?

What financial circumstances might make it difficult for borrowers to repay loans?

With an increase in the cost of living, including rising interest rates and rising electricity prices, there are plenty of circumstances that may make it difficult for borrowers – especially those holding large debts in relation to their income – to repay their mortgages.

Households with large debts are therefore more sensitive to an increase in interest rates, according to the Swedish financial supervisory authority, known in Swedish as Finansinspektionen (FI).

The agency published its annual Swedish Mortgage Market report on Wednesday.

“Large debts also mean a higher sensitivity if you were to suffer unemployment during an extensive recession,” said Henrik Braconier, the authority’s chief economist.

Other factors that could stretch borrowers’ finances include rising energy prices, higher food prices, and growing inflation.

“Apples, oranges, tomatoes have gone up by 30 percent,” said Américo Fernández, a household economist at SEB. “Wheat is coming from Ukraine and it’s getting harder and harder to get hold of.”

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Will homeowners become unable to repay their mortgage loans?

Not according to Fernández.

“One of the last things Swedish households will fail to make their payments on is their mortgage and their houses,” he said. “They would rather decrease their spending on vacations abroad, or restaurants.”

The FI report noted that most new mortgages include margins that allow for fluctuations in the borrower’s finances. This means that mortgage holders have a cushion that allows them to handle financial changes.

“Our stress test shows that they can handle increases in the interest rate and also loss of income,” said Magnus Karlsson, FI’s director of macroanalysis. “New mortgages have margins in them calculating discretionary income, and will be able to absorb increases in interest rates and loss of income.”

SEB foresees an interest rise of up to three percent over the next two years, Fernández said,an increase that can be absorbed by most households.

Both Fernández and Karlsson agreed that if homeowners have to cut back on spending, those cuts will not come from debt repayment, but from their disposable income – the money they might ordinarily spend on entertainment, eating out, or travelling.

So while household spending may have to change, financial stability is not at stake for most households.

What’s going on with the housing market?

Right now, a record number of mortgage-holders have loans that are worth more than 4.5 times their income. This year, more than 14 percent of new mortgagors took on such large loans, compared to 6.3 percent last year.

A “low interest rate, increase in housing prices, increase in disposable real income and a housing market that is not functioning well” are all factors in the large debts that homeowners have incurred today, Karlsson argued.

Fernández noted that there is an imbalance between the low supply of housing and the high demand for housing, which is in part responsible for the high housing prices we see today.

He said a decrease in price of a few percentage points would not be surprising: “We’re coming from two years of exaggerated prices.”

Will housing prices begin to decrease after two years of increasing prices?

Calculations for three different scenarios tested by FI show that housing prices will decrease, Karlsson said.

While the agency does not predict housing prices, its report shows that under three different scenarios – the first an increase in mortgage interest rate, the second an increase in energy prices, and the third a combination of the first two with a reversal to pre-pandemic housing preferences – prices will decrease.

The Local Sweden reported last year about increasing housing costs in Sweden, spurred on in part by a desire for bigger homes further away from urban areas during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Fernández called the two years of increasing housing costs “surprising.”

“10-12 percent two years in a row, that’s historical in these uncertain times,” he said, noting that prices were still increasing in figures for March this year.

What sorts of housing will see the largest price decrease?

The FI report also included various scenarios of how the price of different types of housing may fluctuate based on changes in the interest rate.

One scenario assumed a 1 percent increase in interest rates this year and a 0.5 percent increase next year, and predicted that while the price of apartments owned in a cooperative – called bostadsrätter – would fall only slightly, the price of detached houses would fall by 10 percent.

Another calculation that accounted for rising electricity prices and a decline in new housing purchases found that the price of bostadsrätter and detached houses risked falling by an average of 30 percent.

Is there a plan to let borrowers end their mortgage terms early?

“We believe it needs to be simpler and more inexpensive for households to repay their mortgages early,” FI Director General Erik Thedéen is quoted as saying in a press release published by the agency on Wednesday.

To that end, Thedéen said at a press conference that the agency had sent a request to the government to change the calculation model for how banks are compensated when mortgages are terminated early.

“When you terminate a loan agreement and the bank incurs costs, it must be reimbursed,” Thedéen said. “But at present the banks are overcompensated, that is what our calculations show. If the government follows our line and changes the model and follows our line, then the banks must simply adapt.”

When asked about the likelihood of this request being granted, FI recommended reaching out to the Ministry of Justice for comment.

What does this mean for foreigners in Sweden?

If you’re already a mortgage holder, then as Karlsson and Fernández assured, mortgage calculations include a cushion that allow for changes in your financial circumstances.

If homeownership is in your future, housing prices may begin to decrease in the near future, so it’s worth keeping an eye on your local real estate listings.

By Shandana Mufti

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