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Housing shortage threatens to sap resilience of Swedish economy

ZenShui | Alix Minde | PhotoAlto Agency RF Collections | Getty Images

A housing shortage in Sweden is pushing up prices to levels close to those in central London and threatening to undermine one of Europe's most solid economies.

For decades the creation of new homes has lagged Sweden's population growth, crimping labor mobility, raising the cost of housing and pushing up mortgage borrowing to levels that have raised fears of a credit bubble.

"We have built around half of what other countries have over the last 20 years. That shows that we have a long-term problem," Sweden's Minister for Public Administration and Housing, Stefan Attefall told Reuters.

"There is a restrictive effect on the recruitment of labour and a reduction in companies' competitiveness in the long term. So there are big economic consequences for society."

Complex building regulations - planning permission can take 10 years in Sweden, against around two in Germany - and rental market controls are major reasons for the housing shortage.

But radical measures are unlikely before an election due in 2014 and a catch-up in building will probably take years.

The problem is particularly acute in and around Stockholm, a region whose 2 million population is expected to increase by 600,000 by 2030 and where there is already a shortage of around 110,000 homes, according to the Chamber of Commerce.

The Stockholm region is expected to generate almost half the increase in Sweden's gross domestic product up to 2030.

But unless the pace of house building speeds up, Sweden's capital will miss out on around 12.5 billion Swedish crowns ($1.94 billion) a year in potential growth, or around four tenths of a percentage point of 2012 national output, according to a study by the Swedish Property Federation.

While firms like fast-expanding music streaming service Spotify are attractive employers, they often have to help workers - particularly those from abroad - find housing.

"People who start to work for us and don't come from Stockholm have a tough job finding an apartment to rent," Spotify co-founder Martin Lorentzon told Reuters. "Sometimes we help them with guarantees, to find a house in the suburbs which several people can share. But it takes time and resources."

This curb on mobility undermines efforts to get more people into work to support Sweden's cradle-to-grave welfare state.

Roughly a third of Sweden's jobless haven't worked in more than six months. Youth unemployment, at 12.4 percent, is above the euro area average of 9.6 percent - even though Sweden, a European Union member which has kept its own currency, has not been directly affected by the euro debt crisis.

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House prices have nearly tripled in the last 15 years. An average family property cost around 4 million Swedish crowns ($623,000) in Stockholm and its suburbs in the third quarter. That was on a par with 383,000 pounds ($620,000) in Greater London, according to Britain's Centre for Economics and Business Research.

Household debt levels are among the highest in Europe, worrying the International Monetary Fund, the EU and Swedish authorities.

Sweden has been here before, in the early 1990s. Soaring house prices and credit growth triggered a property crash which pushed the economy into a long-lasting recession.

It was a pattern repeated in countries including Spain, Ireland and Denmark during the 2008-9 financial crisis.

The IMF now reckons property in Norway could be as much as 40 percent overvalued. German central bankers have warned about their property market and European Central Bank policymaker Ardo Hansson has warned of a Nordic real estate bubble.

In Sweden, worries about credit growth have led the central bank to all but rule out rate cuts. That will delay recovery from a 2009 downturn when GDP (gross domestic product) shrank around 5 percent. The economy is expected to expand by around 1 percent this year but contracted in the second quarter.

Yet home buyers have not been put off by higher downpayment requirements or threats of tighter mortgage repayment rules.

"No prospective buyer has even mentioned that," said one real estate agent, showing a 139 square metre (1,500 square feet) apartment in the upmarket suburb of Smedslatten.

Around 40 people turned up to see the 5.975 million crown ($930,000) property - in need of serious renovation - in the first 15 minutes of an allotted 45-minute viewing time.

Blue plastic shoe covers, to protect against viewers' muddy footprints, were quickly running out.

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Finance minister Anders Borg has said the government will not tolerate further rises in house prices and has taken steps to cool demand for mortgages and lending by banks.

But analysts say increasing banks' capital requirements and buffers against mortgage defaults and raising the bar for first time property buyers won't solve the fundamental problem.

"Raised capital requirements for banks cannot increase the supply of housing," Swedbank CEO Michael Wolf said.

Sweden needs to deregulate the rental market and simplify planning permission, analysts say. Real estate taxes should be overhauled and planning should be put in the hands of regional bodies to avoid a "not in my back yard" mentality.

But these are divisive issues among Sweden's politicians.

While Sweden's top AAA investment rating has made it a safe haven for financial investors during the last five years of global economic stress, property prices threaten turbulence.

"It is the biggest structural challenge we have in the Swedish economy," said Anna Fellander, Swedbank chief economist.

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