The mother of all dwelling booms? A short term rally? A bubble or recovery?

The jury’s out on whether Australia is entering the ‘mother of all dwelling booms’ as Robert Gottliebsen took note to warn in Business Spectator last week.

And whilst the construction sector continues to fall short of expectation, the established housing market, most notably in Sydney although also reflected in other states – has moved.

’War stories’ are emerging from buying and selling agents of auctions attended where the prices have exceeded the reserve by 10-20 per cent.  In turn, vendors are reassessing their expectation of value based on neighbouring results – and with more talk of prospected drops to the cash rate, purchasers are shopping lenders to see how far their budget will stretch.

When prices start to rise – in some areas quite dramatically so – there is always heated debate over whether it’s a bubble.  The term itself is somewhat over used perhaps because of the image it invokes.

A bubble gives the impression the market is a flimsy airless balloon which – like a row of standing dominoes – will quite suddenly, irreversibly and dramatically ‘pop’ falling into an endless abyss.  For some commentators – the very fact that this hasn’t yet occurred in Australia is enough to demonstrate the theory incorrect. In other words, you can only define a true bubble whilst viewing the devastating aftermath.

However, a bubble or the recognition thereof does not have to fall into the definition posed above. They are not always easily deflated, and there are plenty of different particularities between the policies and lending requirements that have played into the house price ‘corrections’ other countries have already experienced post GFC, that differ from those we have in Australia.

Furthermore, in economies highly exposed to the residential sector, where central banks and governments have the ability to manipulate policy and the amount of cheap credit that flows into mortgage lending, it’s possible to ‘prop’ and temporarily prevent falling house prices that would otherwise occur in line with a challenging macro outlook.

In Australia this would include, rising unemployment, lower prospects for wage growth, an aging headwind of retirees lowering the participation rate, and the gradual winding down in the mining sector – to name but a few.  And whilst this will bear relevance in moderating the level of price appreciation long term, there are plenty of ingredients in the pot to ignite the current environment which is causing a range of voices to warn of bubble like conditions in fragmented areas of our established capital city terrains.

The main force behind the buying market is a mix of investors and up-graders who – in turn are boosting the premium housing sector using funds from the sale of lower priced properties to leverage up which coupled with lower rates reduces the size of their loan – distorting the forward analysis of the lending data in relation to price growth somewhat.

In contrast demand from first home buyers has weakened significantly – waxing and waning only on the back of various grants and incentives.

Each are buying for different reasons, and as we know, in this sense, the environment has been nicely manipulated by supply side constraints which keep Australia in a donut like geographical outlook.

However, as Robert Gottliebsen points out in his column, and as I mentioned last week – a very low interest rate environment is once such condition that encourages investors to pull back on saving in favour of a spend/borrow mentality.  And in our property obsessed culture – following years of woeful planning for population growth, most of this pent up demand is being fed into the second hand housing sector.

Price rises are more often than not fuelled by speculation that the next generation will pay double for the second hand house in – how does it go – eight or so years time? And whilst population growth can push demand – as I’ve commented previously – actual house price appreciation more directly stems from a higher proportion of mortgage holders, not necessarily home buyers, shopping within an area of limited supply.

In this respect, the money Governments have donated through tax breaks alone to encourage investment into the established residential real estate sector, with policies such as negative gearing which has disproportionately inflated existing property values and created a growing gap between rental yield – rises of which cannot keep pace – is another area of significance which has propped up the prices. It’s also one of many policy measures that should be addressed if affordability were really an issue of concern for our competing political parties.

And whilst there may be heated debate over the recognition of a bubble, in every instance speculation is a significant driving force in the pace of any said increases – which rings nicely with US economist Robert Shiller’s analysis when in his book “Irrational Exuberance” he defined a bubble as;

“a situation in which news of price increases spurs investor enthusiasm – spreading by psychological contagion from person to person, in the process amplifying stories that might justify the price increase attracting a larger and larger class of investors, who, despite doubts about the real value of the investment, are drawn to it partly through envy of others’ successes and partly through a gambler’s excitement.”

This mentality is evident when we enter what is so often termed the ‘recovery’ phase of our market cycle – usually after a period in which home values have declined in real terms.

It’s an interesting turn of phrase, giving the impression to the uninitiated that prices have dropped so low they needed to ‘heal’ like a sick patient – however seeing prices overshoot the mark as greed along with expectation of another boom inevitably takes a force on investor mentality, is a common feature of this part of the cyclic psychology.

The effects are often amplified in areas where auctions sales predominate.  When buyers see properties openly selling above their pre-conceived perception of ‘market value’ (something that generally doesn’t happen when the sale is conducted via ‘private’ negotiation) it provides very visible reality that the market’s ‘appreciating’ and the effects on the mindset act like a kind of contagion.

Interestingly enough, the reverse is the case when a larger proportion of properties pass in at auction – leaving buyers with the worrying impression the market’s ‘tanking.’

During a competitive auction buyers spend far less time thinking about exceeding budget constraints than they do when – in a rational ‘pre auction’ moment, they take time to discuss (usually with their partner) where to draw a sensible limit for the property in question.

In truth, when the market is buoyant, and competition evident, buyers don’t bid for the property – they simply bid to ‘win’ – something I witness weekly.

And of course, whenever rising prices openly occur, stock inevitably reduces. After-all, who wants to sell an asset that’s increasing in value, when the observation prevails that a vendor can get ‘more’ if they hold and wait for further gains to come?  Especially as additional rate cuts are still widely predicted.

The other issue which Robert Gottliebsen touches upon is foreign acquisition. The falling Aussie dollar has given Asian property investors an opening to look favourably once again upon dwelling investment in our capital city markets.

As reported in the Australian Financial Review last week “A Sydney Property developer sold 90 off-the-plan apartments at the opening of a new tower in Bondi Junction in 5 hours” and whilst a large proportion of funds will be fed into off-the-plan construction, assisting developers in the approval process somewhat, it’s arguable as to how many of these new apartments will actually make it onto the rental market.  With limited options for investment, real estate acts like a magnate for Chinese buyers – who are not averse to purchasing speculatively whilst leaving apartments sitting empty.

There will be plenty of argument yet to come as to the level of the current ‘boom’ and its longevity. But what cannot be argued is the conditions that took values to their 2010 peak following our ‘golden decades’ of growth, will not be replicated as we enter a very different and challenging macro environment than previously experienced – hence why I hold the opinion that we’ll see shorter durations to the traditional boom and bust “market cycle.”

Furthermore – whilst rising established house prices may be perceived as ‘positive’ – particularly for those who want to downsize or ‘tap’ into the equity – is worth remembering that it’s doing little for the productive areas of our economy such as manufacturing, small business or job creation.

The oft quoted perception that the ‘feel good’ factor from rising house prices stimulates consumption has been disputed in several studies – the most recent of which can be found here.

And whilst those who purchased early in the 2000’s have seen their assets ‘boom’ the consequences have forced a social divide as purchasers priced out are forced into areas where schools, transport and local amenities have not been funded to keep up with the flood of lower and middle income households in search of affordable options.

Rising yields ensure renters find it particularly hard to locate close to work hubs (not to mention the pressure it puts on students battling for a university qualification) – and unless we face up to the ‘non voter friendly’ challenges that prevent sustainable solutions and reduce unwarranted inflation in the established sector at the expense of construction, nothing will change.

New Zealand – which is experiencing its own property boom principally in Auckland – has released details of plans to moderate mortgage demand through ‘speed limits’ on high loan to value lending. However, it’s widely acknowledged that without effective polices to enable home building over a wider footprint of land, first home buyers will suffer inevitable pain, and debate circulates as to whether it will lower prices in the long term or just produce a blip on the radar.

Even if it were possible to effectively implement and audit similar restrictions – thereby tapering the flow of money into mortgage debt, it won’t necessarily stimulate lending for productive purposes.

Furthermore, although in real terms, values remain below peak, the property market chills at the thought of prices adjusting downward materially – yet not at the bank controlled credit creation process that inflated the huge increase in the first place, in so much as banks create money every time they make a loan, and then decide where the bulk of lending is directed – building up the price of their preferred assets at their own discretion.

In this respect, it’s not the health of the housing market that needs to be tacked, it’s the disease.

Lastly on interest rates – since November 2011 we’ve been on a downward rate cycle – some of which was only passed on ‘in part’ by the banks. Yet it took until mid 2012 for any marginal improvement in median values to emerge (boosted by consumer confidence,) and only fairly recently have we seen a significant uptick.

Despite it all the building industry is not picking up enough pace to compensate for the tapering of construction in the mining cycle, and we’re a long way from a point at which the RBA can start raising rates to offset any unwelcome boom in established asset prices.

For the time being, existing owners and investors will continue to fuel demand, and despite loan service affordability costs improving – those looking to enter the housing market, will continue to compete with a challenging heated environment.

Catherine Cashmore

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