Edward Chancellor is the author of the classic text on financial manias, Devil Take the Hindmost. In 2005 he wrote Crunch time for credit: An enquiry into the state of the credit system in the United States and Great Britain, in which he correctly predicted the GFC. His recent report for Boston-based GMO outlined ten signs of a mania in progress, and showed that the Chinese economy meets all ten of those signs. He has also written recently about the Australian housing mania.
From the Financial Times:
Between 1996 and 2006, US home prices rose by nearly 90 per cent in real terms. Australian home prices rose by roughly the same amount.
Over this period, the US private sector increased its indebtedness by two-thirds of GDP. Australian private debt increased by a similar magnitude. Over the past three years, US home prices have fallen by 30 per cent, according to the S&P/Case-Shiller Composite Index. American households have started to deleverage. By contrast, Australian home prices have climbed 30 per cent since 2006 and households continue to pile on debt.
There are a number of explanations for this divergence…
While other governments expended their resources on shoring up busted banks, the Australian stimulus went straight to consumers. Fiscal transfers increased personal disposable incomes by 4 per cent, according to Professor Steve Keen of the University of Western Sydney. Canberra also bolstered the housing market, raising the subsidy for first-time home buyers to a maximum of A$21,000 (£12,200, €14,000, $18,600). Rising home prices arrested incipient deleveraging by Australian households. Outstanding mortgage debt has actually grown by 6 per cent of GDP since February 2009.
Australia may have been fortunate. But it is not out of the woods. For a start, the real estate market remains in bubble territory. Australian home prices are currently some 70 per cent above their long-term trend level. A recent survey by Demographia International finds that all of Australia’s major housing markets were valued at more than five times average incomes, and defines them as “severely unaffordable.” Initial mortgage payments for a home in Sydney or Melbourne are likely to exceed half of your disposable income, claims Demographia. The Australian housing market looks vulnerable to further rate rises.
Then there are the waning effects of the government’s stimulus to consider. The extra subsidy for first-time home buyers ended last year. The removal of this grant could have a similar effect on Australian real estate as the UK government’s reduction in mortgage interest relief in 1988, which killed off the frenzied Lawson housing boom. Prof Keen claims the first-homeowner’s grant has sucked people into the housing market who would not otherwise have bought. One report suggests many recent first-time buyers in Australia are already struggling to meet payments. This is eerily reminiscent of early stage delinquencies on subprime loans in the US back in late 2005. Australia is also exposed to the removal of China’s stimulus measures. China’s actions boosted commodity prices and improved Australia’s terms of trade. Now, Beijing appears more concerned about inflation and potential bad loans from uneconomic investments.
Aussie house prices have not fallen since the early 1950s. A certain complacency is therefore understandable. Yet not long ago many Americans also believed that domestic home prices could never fall. So far Australia has avoided its day of reckoning. But how long will the lucky country’s luck last?
Not long at all.
A recent survey of 26,000 mortgage borrowers showed that:
Almost half of first-home buyers lured into the market by the Rudd Government’s $14,000 grant are struggling to meet their mortgage repayments and many are already in arrears on their loans.
Thousands of young home buyers are using credit cards or other loans to meet obligations, while those in “severe stress” are missing payments.
Just weeks after the grant was withdrawn, a survey of more than 26,000 borrowers conducted by Fujitsu Consulting has found 45 per cent of first-home owners who entered the market during the past 18 months are experiencing “mortgage stress” or “severe mortgage stress”.
On Monday, RBA Governor Glenn Stevens appeared on commercial TV – an unprecedented act by an RBA official – to warn the public about the dangers of the property market.
On the same day, I came across the following comment by a reader of The Australian newspaper:
Waiting for the “correction” Posted at 1:22 PM Today
Now here’s something interesting. My “relationship manager” at Westpac says the housing market is heading for a “significant correction” because the major banks are about to insist on much higher deposits because of their alarm at the amount of questionable loans on their books. This guys says the word is that the Commonwealth will soon insist on a 30 per cent deposit for new purchases and then only to existing customers. “When that kind of thing happens, the heat will immediately go out of the market so stay out of it till the dust settles”. This bloke says Westpac is especially worried about the impact of the first home buyers grant and they’re already seeing significant loan defaults as interest rates rise. “These people took their $14-thousand, then got Mum and Dad to throw them the rest of their deposit because they were led to believe they’d miss the boat. Kevin Rudd has used taxpayer funds to entice a whole lot of young people into buying places they couldn’t afford and going bankrupt as interest rates rise”. That’s a direct quote from a guy at Westpac who used to be in the business of throwing money at you. God’s honour. Maybe the South Seas bubble IS about to pop?
To learn more about the dangers of debt, and how it has fueled the Australian housing bubble, visit the website and blog of Professor Steve Keen.
On April 15th through 23rd, I will be joining Professor Keen in his 230km “Keenwalk” from Parliament House to Mount Kosciuszko, in protest against Australia’s property (and debt) mania that has been driven directly by Federal Government and RBA policies.
Please consider joining us, for the whole trek or even just for an afternoon section of the walk.
If you’d care to assist a genuinely worthy cause, then please consider sponsoring Professor Keen, or indeed myself. Funds raised will support the wonderful charity Swags For Homeless.