A housing bubble or the potential for one?

A housing bubble or the potential for one? Why not call it as it is Australia…..

I wrote a few weeks ago about housing bubbles and the misconceptions commonly related to the term.  A bubble is typically an illusion of economic strength which draws buyers in, whilst masking underlying fragilities – and in some areas of Australia, the recent investor lead rally in property prices from an already inflated base is concerning.

However, unlike other economic bubbles, housing markets have plenty of complexities which can delay a severe correction – not least the stimulus of easy monetary policy, incentives, and speculation buoyed on by tax policies that encourage heated investor activity in the established housing terrain around our most desirable capital city locations.

Even in markets where housing has suffered dearly from the 2008 financial crisis, such as the UK, and USA – there is a fragmented nature to the falls dependent on location and the openness to attract foreign speculation.

In the south eastern regions of England for example, where foreign money has propped up London’s prime central market, creating a ripple across the outer lying suburban towns, the falls in capital have been far less severe than the northern districts, where the market has dipped some 20%, and in regional areas, even more.

Not that this has in anyway helped Briton’s younger population who are now commonly termed ‘generation rent,’ with the numbers of unemployed living in the family home almost doubling between 2008 to 2012, and the productive areas of economy failing to pick up fast enough to drive innovation and generate new sources of growth.

Although house prices in the UK have started to rise again with the help of various schemes such as ‘funding for lending,’– other areas of productivity aren’t fairing so well.  As UK regulator Lord Adair Turner pointed out in a recent speech to London’s central bankers and economists, only 15% of total financial flows in the UK have gone toward investment projects, the rest have instead been used to support unsecured personal finance or existing assets – significantly real estate.

However, do we really fair much better in Australia? Our low interest rate environment, coupled with a honeymoon period of ‘post election’ confidence, is predictably forcing investors to seek out any area of imagined opportunity that can provide a better return on their dollar.

This runs the risk of stimulating higher levels of household debt (currently at around 150%) directly tied to speculative behaviour.  And in the Australian culture which veers towards the perceived safety of bricks and mortar, based on the somewhat fool hardy view promoted widely in the industry, that limited supply and rising population growth can forever prevent a sharp correction, you don’t need a second guess as to where a large proportion of undiversified debt is currently being allocated.

Some interesting research was released last week by Jonathan Mott of financial services firm UBS, highlighting the above point aptly;

“If we compare Australia, New Zealand and the UK, all three countries have similar cultures, demographics and home ownership. However, investment property contributes 32% of Australian mortgages, 20% of NZ mortgages and 12% of UK mortgages. ….57% of Australian landlords are leveraged (ATO data suggests this is closer to 81%) compared to 28% in NZ and just 13% in the UK”

This would be less of a concern if effective supply was keeping pace to soak up the overflow of demand, and thereby reduce volatility in values. However, in areas of limited supply, the bubbly nature of the price gains disproportionally advantages those with existing assets, at the expense of those struggling to get a foothold.

When viewed against a less than desirable economic backdrop of rising unemployment, an unwinding mining boom, and weak wage growth, with a rise in the cash rate at some future point inevitable, you’d be foolish to think the current trend can continue without some correction.

Notwithstanding, our politicians continue to miss the point, as Tony Abbot said on 3AW last week;

“Don’t forget … if housing prices go up, sure that makes it harder to get into the market, but it also means that everyone who is in the market has a more valuable asset,”

What a sad world it is, when the most essential item young and old aspire to alike, for both their health and continued well being, gradually becomes less affordable over time, requiring a greater level of debt to be serviced despite the somewhat falsely perceived advantage, that low interest rates somehow make the buying environment and purchase of property easier.

And yet as a direct consequence, we have falling rates of ownership – particularly in the younger generations, an increase in overcrowding of accommodation, rising waiting lists for social housing, and the average age of ownership for those not benefitting from a gifted deposit, pushing closer to 40 years.

The housing market no longer revolves around promoting home ownership for the sake of personal well being, it’s Australia’s largest domestic asset class with an aggregated value of over $4 trillion, and understandably it’s now suggested that ASIC should recognise it as such.

Countless hours can be spent arguing what the term ‘bubble’ actually means – definitions are numerous. Equations are done regularly comparing price to rent, debt to GDP, price to wages (a somewhat skewed calculation due to the inclusion of compulsory super,) however do we really need a meteorologist to tell us what the weather’s like outside?

Whether you call it a bubble matters not, Australian house prices have been pumped up with many ingredients over the decades to get to such elevated levels.  As a result, we have a market that is both over priced and under supplied, with the first-home buyers’ share of new home loans sitting at its lowest point in a decade.

Monetary policy alone is a blunt instrument, and whilst Governments can allocate at their discretion where to spend our tax dollars, they have limited influence on where cheap credit is spent, or for which asset it is lent into the economy.

Nor do they currently have the ability to direct it into areas where it’s needed most – which in terms of housing would principally be construction. Hence why the sector continues to call out desperately for another rate cut.

Instead buyers are punting a lot of unproductive dollars on second hand houses, and the proportion of cheap money finding its way into a limited pool of dwellings, should not be brushed aside as merely part of a typical ‘property cycle,’ when we have a number of economic and social factors combining, which left unregulated, have the potential to create the ‘perfect storm.’

Much commentary has been written on this matter of late, and it’s not isolated to Australia. The Bank of England this week voiced how it was watching the UK market “closely” as price rises in London reached 10% in the year to July, warning “that if risks to the stability of the financial system were to emerge from the housing market, both it and the microprudential regulators had a range of tools available to address those risks.”

However, the RBA continue to sit on their hands, not wanting to pull a regulatory lever, instead taking on a stern expression and wagging a finger at investors whilst pleading with them to employ caution, as if they will all fall into line like a bunch of secondary school kids in a playground.

This idea that investors will employ a sense of rationality is ambitious in a market that has corporate regulator ASIC, once again warning against the propensity of spruikers.

But even without these ‘spruikers’ buyers face difficulties – fed ‘daily’ with house price statistics from RP Data, which could be somewhat relevant if we were monitoring petrol prices. Closely comparable sales data is not readily available – computer generated “estimates” are a guess and more often than not, hopelessly inaccurate.

Furthermore, there are plenty of other variables that need to be assessed prior to investing in any residential listing.  Prospected development projects which may spike the stock being taken to market, thereby diminishing the level of capital growth being ‘assumed’ based on a cursorily look at historical data.

Local vacancy rates, the time on market you can expect your rental property to reasonably sit before finding a tenant, the predominant area demographic any said property will appeal to in order to attract and maintain consistent buyer demand – the list continues.

I mention this, because the broader implication of a large proportion of inexperienced buyers making unwise acquisitions without educated due diligence, is a worry unto itself. However, the number of real estate investors is set to rise. Although presently, only a relatively small proportion of total investment in the property market stems from SMSFs, it’s going to rapidly increase.

As mentioned in the AFR this week, the most mobile pot of cash is in the self-managed super system. About 1/3 of the $500 billion in SMSFs is held in cash, or about $150 billion.

On the back of this, there is a theory that self-managed super will have a mean reversion to normal cash weightings of about 10%. If that proves accurate, about $100 billion in cash will move – leading to the question –‘where will it move?’

As it stands, only 23% of investment into residential property comes from SMSFs, against 77% invested in commercial.  Albeit, when the direction of that percentage is into established areas suffering an elastic band of restricted supply, the recent boom in Sydney for example, against the backdrop of slow credit growth – will have no doubt been exaggerated by SMSF demand.

However, banking regulation aside, our politicians should be moving to restrict policies that encourage disproportionate speculation, such as the tax treatment of negative gearing (which should be phased out) and capital gains, or implementing a transition toward a broad based land tax system which is long over due.

My only comment to those with short-term spectacles on who think the recent ‘boom’ is good news, – enjoy it whilst it lasts, because I suspect it won’t end without unpleasant consequences.

Catherine Cashmore

Since when did the future of the first homebuyer market become ours to erode?

Since when did the future of the first homebuyer market become ours to erode?

I was fortunate enough to attend the SQM seminar last week as Louis Christopher – one of the most well respected voices in the real estate industry for his balanced assessment of market data – presented a state by state rundown of projected activity over 2014 – details of which can be found in the SQM ‘Boom and Bust’ report.

Louis predicts Sydney’s established housing market will see a 15-20% ‘rapid rise’ over the course of 2014, highlighting the middle suburbs in particular to capture the overflow of demand, as inner city development constraints force consumers outwards.

With this in mind, there’s been plenty of talk regarding housing affordability and the very real risk associated with an unsustainable ‘boom’ in values, with some claiming – based in part on our low interest rate environment – that any mention of a concern is a mere ‘myth.’

When asked from an audience member at the seminar if first homebuyers were being crowded out of Sydney, Louis concluded they were – and indeed it would be hard to deny.

Investor activity has dominated the Australian property market over the last 12 months or so.  Banks are bidding for buyers in a highly competitive environment, and the lion’s share of mortgage demand is being eaten up between investors and upgraders.

A third of all new loans are with loan to value ratios of more than 80%, and 40% are on interest only terms.  Clearly investors are speculating on a continued pattern of price gains from an already high plateau – an ambitious projection.

Under the existing financial system, inevitably, it’s none other than rising debt that fuels accelerated growth.  However, since March 2009, whilst the average first homebuyer mortgage has increased by only 1.4%, the mortgage for the market as a whole has grown by 7.9%.

Meanwhile, first-home buyers have seen their savings eroded, and as the latest ABS housing finance data outlines, wishful thinking that rising yields are pushing greater numbers into the market, has had scant effect.

According to research by Rate City “First home buyers now account for just 11% of home loan commitments. This is below the 20 year average of 15% and has not been this low since 2004.” And whilst interest rates on their own can have little impact on price rises or falls in the near term – a long period of low rates and the dependency it invokes, can be dangerous in inelastic areas of limited supply.

Current competition coupled with pent up demand, has done little more than push values further out of reach of a genuine entry buyer demographic.  And as complex as it may be to slowly unpick the current distortions that tie up the established market and hamper construction, the implications of not doing so, are potentially worst over the longer term.

No one should be fooled by the rhetoric from various industry commentators concluding current inflationary gains are of no concern. Hence why we are seeing a conundrum in Central Banks across the globe employing “precautionary policy activism” in an attempt to cool asset inflation without hampering the broader economy by raising rates.

In New Zealand in particular it’s a point of concern and not just a localised issue. House prices currently sit at record highs, with the Government property valuer ‘QV’ residential index showing gains of 8.5% in the 12-month period ending August 30.

As reporter for Real Estate News on Sky Business 602, Iggy Damiani pointed out to me last week – as well as our local market, Australian bank’s ownership of New Zealand’s ‘big four,’ places them in a precarious position – currently having the highest exposure to residential mortgages in the world. Therefore asset gains, which outpace both wage growth and inflation, must be addressed.

Even assuming low rates are assisting first home buyers, saving a deposit and sourcing a suitably affordable property, is no easy task for a demographic who are often burdened with a hangover of student debt, and in many cases can’t conceivably ‘buy in’ until they partner with a second income earner.

With this in mind, it must be pondered what the effect will be when rates do inevitably rise, considering our household debt to income ratio remains stubbornly high, at around 148 per cent.

Property to some extent connects together like a flowchart. Supply is fed in from the bottom to allow those upgrading (and then downsizing) a ready market to sell into in order to make the move.

However, when investors predominantly negatively gear into the asset class most favoured by first-home buyers – inevitably resulting in inflated established property values – and the state government fails to come to the party with feasible affordable alternatives, our property wheel of upgrading and downsizing risks stagnation.

In the near term, heated investor activity may keep everyone dancing, however over the longer term we’re losing a valuable demographic of property buyer, which will no doubt have a flow-on effect across the property chain as a whole.

As these changes push through the generation gap, it’s fair to assess, increasing numbers will retire whist still factoring as short-term renters.

Investors tend to hold property for extended periods of time in order to build equity – many choose to invest as part of their self-managed super funds and subsequently do not sell until retirement. Therefore the ready supply, which usually comes from initial homebuyers selling and upgrading, will start to slow.

Additionally, we have the first world problem of an aging population creating future headwinds across the economy, with Government Intergenerational Reports forecasting the already reducing workforce participation rate, to drop to around 60% by 2050.

Considering the predominant home buying activity takes place within the ages of 22-44, it seems reasonable to assume that there’ll eventually be proportionally greater demand from those downsizing as we progress through these buyer type changes.

However, if the flow-on home buyer effect doesn’t follow through, the mismatch of household size comparable to property type will continue to stagnate our property buying and selling terrain, further tying down supply in the areas most want and need to reside – areas within easy commutable distance to city suburbs, jobs and essential amenities such as schools, hospitals, doctors, public transport systems and so forth.

Therefore, the last thing we should be doing, is advocating the ‘spruik’ that rising property prices are somehow ‘good for the economy’ having a supposed ‘flow on effect’ into retail spending, which in itself is currently not producing the desired result.  First homebuyers may head out to purchase ‘white goods’ and furniture for their new abode, but our investment sector certainly won’t.

Additionally, choices are limited in a market that has been turned into a speculative terrain.

If we were building homes that were viable for first home buyers to gain a foothold which would not only maintain consistent market demand in order to upgrade, but also provide feasible accommodation for this demographic to settle for an adequate period of time, then having an investor-dominated inner-city terrain, could perhaps be balanced somewhat so as not to affect the stagnated flow of the home buyer chain.

However, as we all know, the new home options are either limited to outer-suburban estates lacking in infrastructure, which every Joe on the street recognises is an essential component needed at the start of each project if we’re to lure home buyers outwards, or alternatively, inner-city high-density low grade developments.

Our census data already demonstrates that most lone person households are tottering around in accommodation that’s far too big for their requirements. Building an abundance of one-bedroom apartments therefore won’t suffice; only 14% of the total single person households of all ages opt for one-bedroom units.  We instead need a wider diversity of options, in particular, accommodation suited to families – with the decrease of ownership for this demographic showing a fall from 79.5% in 2006 to 77.2% in 2011.

As I’ve mentioned previously, the percentage of investor-owned apartments in both Darwin and Brisbane falls close to 70% – and in the other capitals, it comes in between 60 and 70%.

And whilst this generation of existing investors may continue to enjoy short-term speculative gains of the oft quoted ‘property cycle,’ since when did the future of the first homebuyer market become ours to erode?

I’ve assisted numerous first homebuyers and renters over the past few years, and it’s no exaggeration many perceive the capital price of property and the risks associated with taking on a greater proportion of debt a potential liability. For those who argue based on textbook analysis that property is not ‘over priced’ I suggest they change their frame of reference. There may be historical logic behind the long-term growth in values, but this doesn’t change the consequence. It is both over priced and under supplied.

Therefore, pressure on the rental market is unlikely to ease in the near to far future, with ABS data showing almost two-thirds of ‘new residents from overseas’ are long-term property renters along with half new residents from ‘within Australia’ who also class themselves within the same bracket.

Furthermore, economic conditions such as wage growth, unemployment, consumer confidence and frequent changes of work placements all reduce the likelihood of a strengthening owner-occupier market over the next decade.

Current policy is built around the general assumption that renting is a ‘step’ on the road to ownership – however it’s fair to suggest, unless the trend takes an about turn, tomorrow’s generation will hold a growing percentage of residents for which renting is ‘for life,’ and as such, we also need to consider their welfare.

Policy should be steered towards the creation of a fairer partnership between owner and renter.  This would include longer terms of tenancy; protection from exorbitant rent rises coupled with enforcement of basic standards of accommodation in both the private and public sector.

As it stands, in the rental market, and the property ‘buying/selling’ market ‘short termism’ dominates.  No surprise, as we’re governed by those who derive personal and political benefit from the existing system, polling for the popular vote from homeowners and investors, pinned to our flawed debt based financial system that relies on an ever inflating future to under-pin existing gains.

Catherine Cashmore

Australia is blinkered when it comes to property

Australia is blinkered when it comes to property

Australia has a completely blindsided view when it comes to property, and never more so than in those sectors that profit from it directly.

The fool hardly assumption that increasing values in the established arena, which outpace both wage growth and inflation over a period of years, is somehow ‘good for the economy,’ as buyers play a generational game of musical chairs for a limited number of second hand dwellings, gives little attention to the broader social and productive economic impact this mindset inspires, as rental affordability worsens, and construction fails to meet the effective rate of demand.

Whilst there is overwhelming advocacy for keeping basic essentials such as food prices low – crunching farmers profits with $1 dollar litres of milk, and shipping cheap materials from markets in Indonesia and china, to fuel a consumer passion for all things at marginal cost. We seem happy to let our established house prices inflate away on the back of unrestrained credit expansion by the “all too willing to lend” private banking sector. Devoid of strong policies to ensure there are feasible and affordable alternatives, for a younger generation of buyers who increasingly have to rely on ‘donations’ from family or friends to assist with a deposit, battle rising yields or harbour student debt, and find themselves part of the ballooning house price story as they compete at an investor dominated price point.

The latest housing finance data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics shows the value of investor finance commitments is currently 30.6 per cent higher than at the same time last year. As a proportion, first home buyers now account for a mere 8.8 per cent of the buying market. This is their lowest proportion of market activity since June 2004 – yet for investors it’s the highest.

As I discussed in my column last week, we have a trend of falling home ownership in Australia which Chief Economist Saul Eslake made note of in his speech at the 122nd annual Henry George commemorative dinner, is further pronounced when you look the  “through” the effects of our aging population.  In other words, an increasing proportion of homeowners are understandably in the older age groups.

And whilst the statistic cited above can be in part attributed to lifestyle factors (labour mobility, getting married later in life etc) thereby producing a downward shift in the measured rate of home ownership—but not in the lifetime rate of home ownership – you cannot take affordability out of the equation.

For example, the increase of cheap credit, deregulation, supply shortages, and duel income households that has over a period of decades, inflated the capital cost of the underlying asset in areas where most owner occupiers need to locate for work purposes, has ensured the level of Australia’s private household debt-to-income ratio remains stubbornly high at 147.3 percent.  And despite low lending rates assisting mortgage serviceability somewhat, this is offset by rising prices – increasing the total debt the buyer has to service, and the liability banks hold.

As Christopher Joye noted in his AFR column last week, relatively sharp increases in median values evidenced in particular in Sydney, coupled with our dependency on a long term low interest rates, is a point of concern.

History attests, when property prices visibly rise, increased confidence from both borrowers and lenders tends create a sense of ‘euphoria’ that the party will ‘forever continue.’ However, there should be a strong warning to purchasers about over stretching against a macro backdrop which presents a number of headwinds.

Not least, the August labour market report reflects ongoing weaknesses, with the largest contraction in monthly trend employment in more than a decade, a fourth consecutive fall in full-time positions, a rise in the unemployment rate, falling participation and a lift in the underutilisation rate to its highest level since February 2002. Therefore, you have to question how long the rally we’re currently seeing in the established sector can reasonably continue before things start to unwind?

Accordingly, APRA has released a report warning the banking sector not to let lending standards slip, noting;

“..almost 15 per cent of all approvals are now for borrowers with deposits of less than 10 per cent.” And; “It’s also noteworthy that a large proportion of the lending would appear to be investors on interest-only terms,” clearly demonstrating the dangerous speculative nature of our current buying market.

New Zealand regulators have already moved to place limits on loan-to-value ratios banks can hold on mortgages – aiming to restrict new loans to an LVR of no more than 80 per cent. However, inevitably the action will place a squeeze on first home buyers, rather than the speculative investment sector that have existing assets to leverage against.

Other areas of the globe are also suffering a similar conundrum. In Sweden, private debt levels have reached record highs and there’s talk of forcing households to start amortizing their mortgages, with Martin Andersson, director-general at the Swedish Financial Supervisory Authority commenting “If household debt accelerates, as we’ve seen before, well, then we must do something.”

This brings me briefly to issues of supply. When the question arises over how we can make housing more affordable, the argument tends to get little further than simply advocating the need for construction of a ‘lot more’ dwellings. However, there are a number of complexities that need to be addressed to ensure the supply built, meets the wants of those who ‘need’ it most.

The reversing decline in the number of individuals per household in census data, showing household size has increased from 2.4 people per dwelling to 2.66 in the five interim, is another cultural shift of which affordability plays its part.

This figure is used to calculate ‘underlying’ housing demand; therefore, even a small change of 0.01 per cent can result in a ‘needed’ reduction of almost 30,000 dwellings, so it’s important we assess the cause of the shift correctly when planning the supply of additional stock.

Indeed, it’s the figure the National Housing Supply Council grapples with yearly, as they try and equate ‘shortage’ of dwellings relative to the ‘underlying’ demand – currently estimated to be of the order of 228,000.

As an offside to this, it is also to be acknowledged we have a widespread under utilisation of our current housing stock – for example, at 44 per cent; the typical Aussie home still has three bedrooms, with the majority only occupied by only one or two residents.

In fact, only 14 per cent of lone-person households live in one-bedroom dwellings, and there’s been a big increase in the number of four-bedroom homes, which now make up almost a third of the housing stock.

I’ve argued before, that increasing supply per-se is not going to assist low-income households if it is not tailored specifically to their needs.  And to date, in a market where developers are pressured to provide 100 per cent debt security, all but guaranteeing they design and sell to an international arena, a proportion of which let the stock sit vacant for extended periods, rather than fulfil the needs of an Australian demographic, we’re not making effective headway. However, this problem is one with multiple layers.

For example, stamp duty stagnates existing housing supply as it imposes a direct transaction cost on top of property prices.  Yet reform to a land tax system as advocated in the Henry Tax Review, would over the long term discourage the hording and land banking of homes that often sit vacant for lengthy periods of time.

A study in this field was most recently taken by AHURI – the Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute – in their evidence review entitled “Why tax policy is housing policy.”

The paper researched the effects of replacing stamp duty with an annual land tax and showed that in doing so, it encouraged a more efficient utilisation of the amenity.  Additionally, the modelling also showed that falls in house prices would exceed the value of land tax payments “leading to more affordable housing for both owner-occupiers, and rental tenants.”

I recommend reading the paper, which answers many of the questions, such as how to transition from our current stamp duty system to a land tax based model.

Notwithstanding, if we could combine this reform with ideas of which economist Leith Van Onselen is at the forefront, when he suggests raising money through bond financing and recouping it from ratepayers over a period of 30 years – or similar initiatives such as those found in Houston Texas, in which a successful expansion of their city boarders is funded with policies such as ‘MUD’ – a ‘deductable’ Municipal Utility District tax – in which a panel of property owners sit on a government appointed board, to oversee utility and infrastructure distribution in the area. We would inevitably create a better mix of housing stock aptly suited to a range of demographics.

For example, most properties built on the fringe are Mac-mansion style ‘house and land’ packages, because it is perceived that families will only move ‘outwards’ if there is due compensation of a ‘shiny’ estate sized home to compensate for the relative commutable distance from city centres.

In these areas, lack of recreational recourses encourages most entertainment to take place within the constraints of the house – and this is what feeds a reputation of Australian’s desire for large dwellings.

However, with decentralisation and an increase of basic area amenity – units along with smaller subdivisions would be in demand, thereby providing a very attractive price point for first homebuyers and renters.

Obviously there is plenty more to discuss when it comes to policy reform – albeit, to sit back and do nothing aside from ‘keep interest rates low and job security high,’ as advocated by our current government In their pre election ‘housing affordability’ spiel – not only indicates a lack vision, coupled with a short term mindset, but ensures we continue to kick the can down the road, snowballing the problem for future generations to come.

As if to demonstrate the foolhardy nature of the oft-quoted phrase by Einstein “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” it’s clear policy reforms to date, have done little to assist the makeup and vision of a country that champions a ‘fair go for all,’ and highly regards the famous speech ‘It’s Time’, which inspirationally points out;

“The land is the basic property of the Australian people. It is the people’s land, and we will fight for the right of all Australian people to have access to it” as words that have subsequently proven to be little more than fancy rhetoric.

Years of failed first home ownership schemes and tax policies that encourage speculation in the established arena, have done nothing to increase long term vacancy rates which consistently sit below 5 per cent – and In some established areas, less than 2 per cent.

The consequence of this has forced a social divide and exacerbates the very real reality that more Australians will reach retirement paying their mortgage or servicing high yields, with whatever superannuation they have used to fund the difference.

It’s time we campaigned for change.

Catherine Cashmore

Is Australia’s housing market ‘unaffordable?’

The debate over the supply of affordable housing and the policies surrounding the framework is a topic that rightly inspires heated emotions – particularly in respect of the lead up we had to Saturday’s Federal election and the  thundering silence from either major political party, outside of a commitment to ‘keep rates low’ and ‘job security’ high.

However, what we really lack in Australia is a realistic vision of how our housing market should appear.

There are too many conflicting voices smothering the debate – from an ingrained cultural mindset looking to profit from rising values in the established sector, hoping to outpace inflation and enable retirement on a pot of ‘property gold,’ to consumer organisations struggling to address the growing need of citizens requiring public housing or rental assistance.

Obviously vested interests across the real estate and finance industry as a whole, mitigates the commentary somewhat, concluding – based on a narrow contextual view of low interest rates alone – that affordability has in no way worsened, but rather improved – whilst at the same time applauding the recent ‘recovery’ in prices.

Sydney, in particular is outperforming other states, and whilst there are differences to the macro back drop compared to 2007, it’s bounded into Spring as the ‘best (and consequently most expensive) performing capital city in Australia,’ – with clearance rates (the curve of which prices typically follow) mirroring ‘boom’ peaks, and AFG (Australia’s largest mortgage broker) reporting an 49.5 per cent unprecedented level of home loans written for investors coupled with the comment;

“This is the highest level of investor activity the company has ever recorded for any state.”

RP-data have Sydney prices up +5.4 per cent for the quarter, and although the information is subject to revision, it leads the annual growth rate to its fastest pace since 2010.

So where do we stand on issues of affordability?

I’ve written previously on the various ‘war’ stories witnessed on the ground, as auction results exceed reserves by some 10/15 per cent – and on occasion, reach a level, which defies all rationality.

In this respect, any benefit derived from lower interest rates is somewhat offset by the inflationary pressure placed on prices.

Indeed – you’d be hard pushed to find a first homebuyer shopping in our largest capital cities, who has not been outbid by an investor through the course of this year. Investors understandably have a stronger financial arm.

Albeit – at least for existing owners – the relative cost of servicing a mortgage has reduced considerably.

This influence is evident in the latest “Housing Occupancy and Costs” survey from the Australian Bureau of Statistics, which calculates affordability to be at the same level it was some 17/18 years ago from the date of which the survey relates.

According to the findings, in 2011-2012 owners with a mortgage and private renters spent roughly the same proportion of income servicing the repayments, as they did back in 1994-1995, despite the fact that the capital price of housing has more than tripled over the corresponding period and the subsequent duration of mortgages lengthened.

Those paying down a home loan were assessed to spend 18 per cent of their income servicing the payments, with private renters just a fraction above this figure, at 20 per cent of income.

It is this, and other indexes such as the Adelaide Bank/REIA housing affordability report, released last week, claiming affordability is at its “best level since 2003,” that encourages commentators to ‘stamp and seal’ further discussion of the issue, with a dismissive waft of the hand to ‘would be buyers,’ accusing them of being both ‘spoilt and picky’ in their expectations, if complaints about the cost of accommodation are voiced, or any suggest that first home buyers are ‘locked out.’

Neither is there any comment on the inevitable future consequence of rate rises.

However, any release of statistical data, always needs to be assessed in context.  A little like median prices, which bear scant relation to individual house prices, and often require an additional understanding of distortions such as ‘stock on market,’ the shadow effect of buyer grants and incentives, and a full appreciation of how the data is stratified prior to making a surface assumption of the material at hand.

As ABC’s Online Business Reporter Michael Janda points out in his own balanced assessment of the ABS release, there are some distinctive trends worthy of appreciation prior to drawing a conclusion that ‘housing has never been more affordable.’

Firstly, home ownership is falling.  In 1994-1995, 71 per cent of Australian’s owned – or were servicing a mortgage – and the proportion of households renting – 18 per cent.

By 2011-2012 the ownership rate had dropped to 67 per cent with a relatively steep rise in the number renting at 25 per cent.

Families with children (one of our biggest demographic of buyers) in particular seem to be suffering.  The decrease of ownership for this demographic has fallen over the latest census period from 79.5 per cent in 2006 to 77.2 per cent in 2011.

There are a number of factors that have played into the percentile changes. Firstly on issues of supply – restrictive growth boundaries, hefty development overlays in new estates, along with a woeful lack of planning for population growth and the consequential reluctance of home buyers to move ‘outwards,’ has produced a downward slide in the number of new dwellings completed per annum, and further inflated the capital price of the stock marketed.

For many first home buyers, the choice, price and location of accommodation offered in these areas, where commute times are inflated as infrastructure development fails to keep pace – gives no incentive to ‘buy in’ outside of various government grants – and based on historical data, it’s fair to conclude if they do purchase a house and land package, the growth of the underlying asset base of their investment in the new estates, will unlikely improve much past the rate of inflation – hamstringing the ability to progress or ‘upgrade’ when desired.

When older generations purchased – the outer suburbs were some 10/15 kilometres from established job and commercial hubs, not the 40 plus kilometres we see today, and financial deregulation, the emergence of duel income households, and the very real realities of our ‘golden decades’ of growth, assisted their steps up the ‘property tree’ to the current environment in which ‘baby boomers’ hold roughly half of Australia’s housing stock – a mix of owner-occupied dwellings and investments – many relying on the value of their properties to fund retirement.

Another direct consequence of our now inflated values, buoyed further by restrictive supply, and policies such as negative gearing – which encourage investors to speculate in the established arena, thereby inflating the value of second hand stock – is a national rise of 49.2 per cent in yields over the five year census period (not accounting subsequent increases) – which outpaced growth in home loan repayments for the same duration.

Other trends indicating affordability pressures – (although agreed cultural tendencies also play a hand) – is between the 2006 census and the 2011 census, the single-person household was no longer the fastest rising demographic.

In the 2011 results, lone-person households dropped from 24.4 per cent to 24.3 per cent – this was the first decrease in this statistic since the census was initially conducted in 1911 – over 100 years – and therefore requires attention.

Against this group households (those sharing accommodation) jumped from 3.9 per cent to 4.1 per cent.

‘Crowded houses’ – with three or more families sharing accommodation, also rose nationally by 64 per cent to 48,499, and other data from the ABS shows that over 40 per cent of renter households receive some form of housing assistance – once again emphasising the growing crisis in this sector of our community.

With the decreasing proportion of first home buyers as a share of the active buying market, commitments of which are down 10.6 per cent year on year, along with reports that significant numbers are now initially entering into their first purchase at the age of post 40 years, you have to question the stubborn refusal from market commentators to recognise ‘we have a problem’ worthy of attention. 

The AFG data I cited above also notes the drop in the proportion of first time buyers, and is no doubt mirrored by other lenders.

According to their figures, the share is down to 11.3 per cent nationally from 15.9 per cent at the same time last year – and although various state grants and incentives play into the peaks and troughs, the percentage drop in New South Wales is appalling – down from 13.1 per cent in August 2012, to 4.3 per cent as recorded last month.

Another mistake made when assessing affordability, is to concentrate only on the principle cost of the home and the percentage of income needed to service the repayments.

However I sometimes think a better assessment would be to take into account what’s left over “post” housing costs, and whether it’s enough to afford the ‘actual’ non Consumer Price Index ‘cost of living.’

It’s not only commodity prices that have spiked, for example gas and electricity, but an overload of other essentials such as insurance premiums, housing maintenance costs or owner corporation fees, school fees and child care for working mothers, medical and dental expenses and so forth – transport costs are substantial for those commuting daily as are the ‘needs’ of a modern generation who enter commission/performance based jobs which expect them to have 24 hour access to mobile phones and email.

A privilege I have in my job, is meeting, assisting and talking to current first home buyers (usually couples – singles are all but priced out) looking to get a foot hold. It’s a pleasurable aspect of my work due to the excitement expressed when a successful purchase is achieved.

Albeit, the conversations I have with both first home buyers and renters, keep my feet firmly on the ground in relation to the difficulties achieving the oft quoted ‘dream’ of ownership – it is also what inflames my anger when I read reports such as that offered by Terry Ryder last week – questioning so called ‘false’ perceptions that Australia’s housing is ‘unaffordable.’

I suspect we see things from a different frame of reference.

For this reason, and others, I attended the 122nd Annual Henry George Commemorative Dinner at The Royal Society of Victoria, Melbourne – to listen to respected economist Saul Eslake give a excellently orated speech, entitled “50 Years of Housing Policy Failure.”

As well as his role as chief economist for Bank of America – Merrill Lynch Australia, Eslake is also Deputy Chair for the National Housing Supply Council – set up by the Australian Government to “improve housing supply and affordability” for both home buyers and renters.

He is therefore suitably qualified to provide a detailed assessment the data which is all but ignored by those mentioned above.

As Eslake comments

“..the decline in home ownership has been even more pronounced when one ‘looks through’ the effects of the ageing of the population, which (among other things) means that an increasing proportion of the population is within age groups where home ownership rates are always (and for obvious reasons) higher than in younger age cohorts.”

The transcript and slides of Eslake’s speech can be found here – an absolute must read.

Our affordability issues cannot be solved over night.  The distortions in the market need to be slowly unpicked and the various suggestions by Eslake regarding supply and tax reform, implemented.

However, as I’ve written previously – the reason we have asset ‘bubbles’ is a direct consequence of our current debt-based monetary system,  and in this respect, I hold the opinion that you cannot tackle the health of the housing market without also addressing the disease that funds it.

Catherine Cashmore