Australian housing bubble thread

Discussion in 'Economics' started by m22au, May 21, 2010.

  1. m22au


    Following the publication of this article

    by Steve Keen on 21 May, I'm starting this thread to record thoughts regarding a (potential) housing bubble in Australia.

    For what it's worth here are my thoughts:

    Australian housing prices are high and in bubble territory. However we know from previous bubbles (eg. Nasdaq late 1990s) that the mere existence of a bubble is not sufficient for prices to (1) stop rising and (2) start falling.

    Keen recently lost a very public bet with a Macquarie Bank economist regarding the movement of Aussie house prices. My view is that Keen is right, just very early.

    While I agree that Aussie house prices are high by a variety of measures, one thing that may provide *some* kind of floor under the housing market is the tax treatment of investment properties in Australia.

    Specifically, it is possible to make a tax-deductible loss on the operating costs of housing investment (eg. rent received less interest paid on loans less maintenance expenses), in the hope of making a capital gain.

    Furthermore, long-term capital gains (holding period 1 year or more) are taxed at 50% of the normal marginal tax rate. For a taxpayer on the highest bracket, long-term capital gains will be taxed at 22.50% and not the usual 45%.

    So let's assume that the RBA cuts interest rates to 0.25%. In this situation there will still be demand for housing (and those who won't sell) given this generous tax treatment.

    Since 2000, the Aussie government has had a history of providing grants to first home buyers. Given that the Aussie govt debt / GBP ratio is lower than that of many countries, especially PIIGS nations, it is possible that if Aussie house prices experienced a significant decline (10% ? 20% ?) then these grants could be increased. This is particularly true given that a Federal election is expected before the end of 2010, and that many swinging voters look to move up the socio-economic ladder by "investing" in property.


    * House prices in bubble, but waiting for confirmation of bubble popping before considering trades to capitalise on the bubble deflating. Such trades include buying Aussie govt bonds, shorting AUD/USD, shorting Aussie banks (CBA, WBC, NAB, ANZ, BEN, BOQ),,,,,

    * Some government policies (negative gearing; capital gains discount) will provide a floor under house prices, so that declines may not be as big as some house price bears expect.

    * Low government debt to GDP ratio provides room for the Federal Government to increase existing home buyer grants without the bond market vigilantes punishing such a move

    * Wildcards include the deflationary clouds hovering in Europe, negative wealth effect of a declining stockmarket and an economic contraction in China. If one or more of these factors hit the Aussie economy, then a housing decline could be deeper than if these factors were not present.
  2. Sounds plausible, but it's wrong, at least it has been wrong in every single bubble and crash I have traded and studied. In fact, distortions like these are often what *inflates* the bubble even further before it finally crashes i.e. they make the crash more likely and more severe, not less. Things like this are always trotted out as rationalisations of bubbles, and are always cited as reasons why a crash can't happen, or why it will be small if it does happen. Remember how California and Florida real estate couldn't go down because of migration to those states? Remember how Hong Kong property couldn't go down because of the crowding and low taxes there?

    Capital gains in the UK were cut a couple of years ago, from 40% to 18%. The housing market crashed shortly afterwards. So tax rates do not in any way stop a housing crash. The UK also used to have tax write-offs on investment property, yet still had housing crashes. In fact, in the late 80s the government eventually abolished this write-off, helping to precipitate another crash. With tax revenues in danger, and the left-wing Australian government announcing capricious new taxes (e.g. on the mining sector), I would say that both capital gains tax AND the favourable tax treatment of investment properties are in danger. Neither make any sense - income should not be taxed at double the capital gains rate, it's grossly unfair to wage earners, and subsidizing property speculators is also politically untenable in the long-run. These two tax breaks are thus arguably *strong bear points*, not bull points. At best, they are neutral, just as similar things were neutral in the past great post-bubble crashes.

    As for cutting rates to 0.25%, in the UK the BoE cut rates from over 5% to 0.5% in under 2 years. The housing market still fell 25% on average, and the more speculative areas such as provincial new builds and 3rd tier locations fell up to 50%. The Fed slashed rates similarly, down to 0.25% - Miami still fell 50%+, Vegas still got annihilated. So cutting rates won't stop a crash either.

    There will always be people who won't sell. But they don't set prices, any more than people who never buy would set prices. Prices are set by the marginal buyer and seller. If the marginal seller goes from patient seller (relocations, divorces, deaths etc) to bank foreclosure, and the marginal buyer goes from wealth confident property investor or desperate family buyer in a tight market, to beady-eyed bargain-hunting distress investor and scared witless first-time buyers who can't get mortgages with less than 30% deposits, have a guess what that will do to prices at the margin.

    Typical turnover in the property market is 2-4% per annum. So a mere 1% of homeowners needing to sell in a hurry means that 25-50% of the market each year is now being liquidated by desperate price-slashing sellers. At the same time, a mere 3-4% of the population getting scared about investing in houses means that almost 100% of the annual demand will shift to significantly lower prices. Look at the ratio of foreclosure sales as a % of total houses for sale in prior bubble areas of the USA, it is gigantic, and totally swamps the average buyer or seller. On a street of 100 houses, if only 3 are for sale, and 2 are defaulting sellers/bank foreclosures, then the entire street is worth maybe 15-25% less than if there's just one patient seller who is in a comfortable situation, and multiple desperate/confident buyers.

    I recommend you look back at the posts on the US/UK housing market on ET in 2005-2007. There was vigorous debate between bulls and bears as to whether there was a bubble, how big it was, would it crash, would "demographics" and other factors stop a crash. Many experienced real estate investors there, not just clueless noob johnny come lately property pikers, were totally blindsided because they focused on things like relative valuation/comps, ignoring outright valuation measures like rental yields and price to income ratios. Even quite a few bears lacked conviction because of these factors. Yet the crash came and it was gigantic. Focusing on patterns and lessons from prior bubbles was what let the bears spot the bubble and the inevitability of the subsequent crash.

    I agree 100% that the timing and execution of bubble trades is very important. Choice of trading vehicles is also critical - as John Paulson showed, it can make a giant difference to returns. Last but not least, having a strategy for hanging on, and how to handle the numerous large bear market rallies, is also critical. Many US housing bears got out too early, or got stopped out by the huge bear market rallies in 2008, before things hit bottom.
  3. jem


    Great analysis.

    Particularly the part about the market distorting tax treatments part of the catalyst.

    Yeah I was one of the bears who lacked conviction... got back in and got smacked.

    My lesson.... when the government or the Fed is distorting the market don't over leverage.
  4. ditto for the analysis.

    I would like to add, that the current China RE bubble is and will be playing a significant role in defining the correct timing of the bursts at either side.

    First-home buyers quit Perth housing market

    * Nicolas Perpitch
    * From: The Australian
    * May 20, 2010 12:00AM

    WESTERN Australia's first-home buyers market has collapsed because of continued interest rate hikes and the end of the first-home owners grant, the state's real estate institute says.

    Figures from the Office of State Revenue show there were 988 first-home buyers last month, compared with 2322 in April last year. This is the lowest level in 10 years, along with a point in mid-2007 just before the state government announced it was raising the stamp duty threshold to $500,000.

    The figures reflect yesterday's Westpac Melbourne Institute consumer sentiment index survey showing a fall in consumer confidence from 116.1 points to 108 points, largely attributed to rising mortgage rates.

    In the northern Perth suburb of Ellenbrook, which last year had one of the highest rates of home purchases in the state, estate agents said sales had been "running riot" but were now a trickle.

    Christian Smith, principal at Century 21, said sales had fallen by 60 per cent on last year, with virtually no first-home buyers.

    "We've got houses on the market for $320,000 to $360,000 with minimal inquiries, whereas you go back 12 months and you couldn't get enough stock."

    Real Estate Institute of Western Australia research director Stewart Darby pointed to the six interest rate rises in eight months and the end of the first-home owners grant of up to $7000 on December 31.

    "The FHOG boost was great," he said. "It soaked up a lot of excess housing. But the major point is it operated in both established and new home markets, and it really pulled a lot buyers forward.

    "You wonder if there are still any first-home buyers around."

    Institute figures show a 15 per cent drop in Perth home sales last month, and a rise in unsold properties from 12,700 at the end of March to 13,400 now.

    Property market cools as buyers stay home

    May 22, 2010

    Sydney's property market has suddenly caught a cold.

    Auction clearance rates in the past two weeks have been down and agents report fewer visitors to open houses.

    Properties were being passed in because buyers were reluctant to commit, said Paul Lowe, of Ray White Double Bay.
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    ''The last interest rate rise has put some uncertainty in the minds of most buyers,'' he said.

    Most inner-west agents detect a cool wind blowing through their recently booming market.

    ''None of the vendors are happy,'' a Newtown agent, Ee Poh Ling, said. ''I've seen it before, in October 2003. It was hot as crazy. the following week I stood at an open and I said, 'Did I forget to put an ad in, where are my buyers?' ''

    Sharlene Purser, an agent in Marrickville, is blunt: ''It's died in the arse.'':p

    Faced with fewer buyers, many agents are encouraging vendors to sell before auction. Colin Hills, from Forsyth Willoughby, recently sold 3 Milton Street, Frenchs Forest, for $830,000 before auction.

    Mr Hills said he had 40 groups through the home and they had given a price indication of just under $800,000. The successful buyer pushed the boundaries, he said, and the vendor accepted.

    Despite the sudden chill in the property market, no one is predicting that prices are about to plummet. After a year in which median prices jumped 20 per cent, the senior economist at BIS Shrapnel, Jason Anderson, is instead forecasting a quarter of no growth, either in the June or September quarters.

    ''For some people, I suppose that will be a cold shower,'' Mr Anderson said. The slowing of the market could then encourage more first-time buyers.
  7. Edward Chancellor (I believe he is from Jeremy Grantham's shop), who spent the previous decade warning of the credit and housing bubbles in the US and UK weighs in on Oz

    Housing market will implode, warns Edward Chancellor

    * By Katherine Jimenez
    * From: The Australian
    * May 03, 2010 6:06AM

    * Prices "once in 40-year event"
    * Should fall by more than a third
    * Economy yet to emerge from GFC
    * Open houses a secret

    AUSTRALIA is in the midst of an unsustainable housing bubble that could burst at any time, warns the man who predicted the global credit bust of 2007.

    Edward Chancellor, of US investment management firm GMO, says the Australian economy is yet to emerge from the global financial crisis, despite the widespread belief it has escaped the worst of it ahead of the rest of the world.

    Mr Chancellor, whose Crunch Time for Credit? was published in 2005, estimates Australian house prices are more than 50 per cent above their fair value - a once in 40-year event. "

    If house prices were to revert to their historic long-term average (ratio of average price to average income) they would fall quite considerably," he told The Australian.

    He said prices would have to fall by more than a third to reach fair value - although some of this fall would be cushioned by income growth.

    He described Australia's banking system as a "cartel" and said luck rather than skill had allowed the Australian economy to fare better in the global financial crisis than other developed economies.

    He attributed Australia's "luck" to a comparative lack of competition among local banks, enabling them to avoid much of the reckless lending that occurred in the US, as well as the commodities recovery led by China.

    "My view is Australia had a private sector credit boom just like the US and the UK and it had a real estate boom," he said.

    "Those are the facts and you can't paper over them.

    "In this environment, house prices rose last year and that seems to me to actually have exacerbated the problem.

    "The problem is the bubble and that hasn't gone away."

    A key area of concern for Mr Chancellor was first-home buyers. As interest rates rose, the ratio of their mortgage repayments to their income would rise to very high levels, he said.

    "It's the rising interest rates, particularly with real estate bubbles, that tend to generate the collapse," he said.

    Another potential trigger was China, particularly if the demand for iron ore, coal and liquefied natural gas were to collapse.

    "We would see the Chinese demand for Australian commodities as being potentially vulnerable," Mr Chancellor said.

    He said he expected the negative news in Australia to come from "the housing market falling under . . . the sheer weight of its overvaluation and lack of affordablity" and a "terms of trade shock".

    Everyone referred to Australia as the lucky country, he said. "I think that's pretty apt."

    However, "given the great growth in private sector credit and the vulnerability of the housing market, . . . Australia is not out of the woods. It hasn't even entered the woods."
  8. m22au


    Thanks for your response GoC. I agree that the generous tax treatment of housing has helped to inflate the bubble.

    Your points about why this generous tax treatment won't help on the way down are well-argued.

    I suppose that the point that I forgot to recognise is that a big factor is investors' psychology. Aussie property "investors" are buoyed by the strong performance of Aussie property since 1990, and I have plenty of anecdotal evidence that Australians expect (1) an average 10% return on property and (2) that property will never have an extended decline.

    Furthermore, the experience in Japan (and maybe the USA and UK now?) is that once property experiences a significant decline, marginal buyers are much less aggressive with their bids, because recent history is of price declines.

    So even if the generous tax treatment exists, marginal buyers may not care if they are scared away from the "buy button" by falling prices.


    Things to look for to confirm that there has been a peak in Aussie property prices?

    1. Property price data

    I think this is published monthly in Australia, so it should be fairly easy to see if and when a 5% decline has taken place. Articles about this data are usually published in the SMH ( and The Age (

    2. Bank performance

    Looking at the share prices of Aussie banks (link in first post), and also going through the half-year report of the banks (usually in February and August; NAB in May and November).

    3. Performance of AUD/USD and Aussie interest rates

    Also would be worthwhile to watch EUR/AUD and GBP/AUD, as an indicator of AUD weakness, as opposed to mere USD relative strength.
  9. Having looked at some of the macro components of these bubbles they have alot of similarities whether its stocks in late 90's or housing of several years ago in the US. I say that because there is alot of criticism of subprime lending, and yes it was a problem, but Ireland and Spain had neither and both of their markets crashed. So one has to take a look at the % in increase MOM, YOY and other.s Look at Gold recently talk about bubble. All the commercials telling ppl. to buy at 1250 they are out with this last drop below 1180.
  10. m22au


    #10     May 26, 2010