8 April 2009

Aussie home prices to absolutely crater ~ Keen

The ABS has only maintained a comprehensive index of Australian house prices since mid-1986–a time when the hills were alive to the sound of Alan Bond and Christopher Skase. House prices rose 60% in the first three years of the index, far above the rate of inflation at the time. They then stalled for the next few years before more than tripling over the next 17 years–again, a rate of growth that far exceeded the rate of inflation. This 30-year-plus experience of continuously rising prices has helped shape the belief that house prices “always” rise faster than consumer prices.

But “always” is a much longer time span than a mere 30 years–something Robert Shiller appreciated when he and Karl Case developed the index of US house prices now known as the Case-Shiller Index. The key comparison Shiller makes is between house prices and consumer prices; this is the premiere indicator of the American market, and there it’s clear that the bubble has popped.

If we take a 25 year view, like that which Richards used in his paper, it could be argued that the fall in the index has almost brought the real price of American housing back to the average. Having plateaued at a value of 217 between 2005 and 2007, it has now fallen to 138, which is just 11% above the 85-09 average.

But if we look at the really long term–over the whole data set from 1890 till now–it’s apparent that the American market has some way to fall before it hits the average: even though it has already fallen 30% from its peak, it still has another 46% to go, if the real price of housing is constant over the long term.

That’s an if to which Shiller gives an emphatic “yes” to, based partly on his own data–which shows no trend to rising real house prices prior to the current bubble that clearly began in 1997–and partly on a yet longer term series still: the “Herengracht Index” that shows the real price of housing on a famous canal in Amsterdam over the three and a half centuries from 1628 till 1970. This index has at times risen for extended periods–such as over the 7 decades between 1814 and 1887 when the real price of a house on the Herengracht Canal rose almost fourfold. Anyone born at the beginning of that period could have easily been persuaded that house prices “always” rise faster than consumer prices.

But over the long term, there is no trend. For the next 7 decades, house prices tended down in real terms: the index fell 55% from the 1887 peak to be 40% below the long term average of 198 in 1951, when yet another upward trend occurred.

Could a similar proposition apply to Australia? Dr Nigel Stapledon set out to answer this question in his PhD, where he observed that:

The period since the early 1970s has been one in which house prices have risen quite significantly by any measure with the median capital city house prices in Australia having risen on average 3% per annum in real terms in the period 1970-2006. While the rises in Australia have been above the average for developed countries, the picture is similar in most OECD economies and Australia is by no means unique.

The question that can be asked is whether this period is unique for housing? Eichholtz (1997) has constructed a long term series for Amsterdam in Holland which spans the period 1628-1973. The broad picture that his time series paints is one of prices essentially showing no trend for three centuries, with cycles related to the economic events. Against that long term perspective the post 1970 rise in house prices in Holland stands out. But one city is probably not convincing…” (Stapledon 2007, p. 1)

Stapledon’s key data table gave the median capital city house price in current dollars, 2005 dollars, and 2005 dollars deflated by 0.6% p.a. to reflect increasing house quality. In the following graph I take Stapledon’s CPI and quality deflated index, extended to today using the last 2 years of ABS data deflated by the CPI. I then set the value to 100 in 1890 to enable easy comparison with the Case-Shiller real house price index for the USA.

One inference from this graph is that the recent Australian house price bubble began earlier at much the same time as the USA’s (1997), but began from an already higher base that can be dated back to the 1987 Stock Market Crash.

At that time, the Australian index was only marginally higher than the USA’s–132 for Australia versus 120.5 for the USA, a 10% difference. But the 25% fall in the Australian stock market on Black Tuesday ended the Antipodean flirtation with stocks, and we piled right back into our favourite speculative play: bricks and mortar. Most of the money borrowed by Australian households for speculative purposes then drove up house prices, whereas Americans spread their leveraged dollars between stocks and houses.

As a result, Australian house prices absorbed most of the speculative excess of the last thirty years, driving them to 3.5 times the long term average versus “just” twice the average in the USA.

Of course, it could be true that, as the property lobby keeps asserting, Australia is “different”, and trends that don’t exist elsewhere in the world rule in the land of the marsupials. Especially since virtually everyone now describes this crisis as “the worst since the Great Depression, it would have helped if the RBA had referred to this publicly available data when preparing its own comparison of current house prices to “long term” trends.
The Never-Ending UnderSupply Story

Richards did express some scepticism here on behalf of the RBA that Australia’s undersupply of housing was as marked as some commentators claim, but he still came down on the side of this widely shared belief:

“Whatever the true shortfall of dwellings, we can say with some confidence that our housing market is relatively tight. This can be contrasted with the US market which many observers characterise as having been subject to overbuilding during their housing boom. And the relative tightness of the Australian housing market is one factor that will support home-building in the period ahead.”

Curiously, one group that does not share this belief is Hometrack, the local branch of the UK housing intelligence research group. Just days after Richards’ speech, it released a press release in which it stated that:

the widely quoted views of many property market commentators who believe that Australia’s current building levels are not enough to meet the future demand for housing, may be based on inaccurate data calculations.

“Our analysis indicates Australia may already have an excess of housing. We estimate there are at least 10 million dwellings in Australia compared with ABS data showing occupied dwellings of 8.3 million. The extra one to two million dwellings consists of a mixture of housing awaiting sale or development, vacant dwellings, second homes, and abandoned homes,” he said.

He went on to say that the ABS method for calculating the ratio of people per dwellings is based on ABS census data which in turn is based upon occupied dwellings. However, he said, Hometrack analysis which is based on postal address data indicates that Australia’s current level of housing relative to its population is in line with other Anglo economies.

Following on from this, Darcy said that when looked at in the context of population growth, total residential building approvals have been running above demand.

“This points to a build-up of excess stock of housing over the past six years, despite the gap between building approvals and demand narrowing over recent months,” he said.

“The concern is that business and government decisions regarding the residential housing market in Australia are being made based on demand assumptions that differ from the actual behavior of the housing market. There will always be examples of areas with an undersupply, but it’s not clear from the data that we have an overall shortage relative to future demand.”

One must read Keen's article

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