By Joe Montero
Fears of an Australian crash in property prices have been around for quite a while. Regardless, property prices have continued to rise.
But in the last month or so, they have stabilised and even gone down a bit in Melbourne and Sydney, the two places that are at the heart of the price bubble. Nevertheless, they are not crashing, as they have in some other countries.
The reason for this is that Australia has some unique factors that makes our housing bubble a special case.
Because of the existence of a generous negative gearing provision, housing stock has been turned into an attractive investment option, not so much for the home buyer, but for the corporate buyer seeking a higher return in a lack lustre investing environment. Consequently, it is not those buying a home to live in that are keeping up the price. It is the corporate investor, able to do this, thanks to the generous handout of taxpayers’ money,on the basis of recompense for loss of potential rental income. This is guaranteed to keep up the price. And it has gone up by 250 percent since the 1990’s (OECD figures)
A second consequence of negative gearing is that for the corporate investor with a large stock, it is more profitable to take the property out of the rental market. This is why Australia’s two biggest cities have about 80,000 vacant residential properties each. This is replicated proportionally around the country, creating an artificial shortage that pushes rents up. This also buoys up property prices.
corporate investors also enjoy write offs on the Capital Gains Tax.
Buying residential property has become an attractive proposition in its own right and it is useful as a means to transfer funds from other business activities to minimise company and personal tax obligations.
A further factor is the nature of Australia’s financial market. It is heavily dependent on investment from overseas. This means that it reacts to changes in the global financial market and the national financial markets from which this investment comes from. The two main ones are the United States and Great Britain.
If the investment climate in these countries worsens, investment funds will turn up in Australia, which tends to run on opposite short and medium term cycles. Some of it turns up in the housing market. The greatest part of corporate investment in Australian housing property comes via companies registered in Singapore, but using funds that traditionally mostly originate from Great Britain. Some up to date research is needed on this. Nevertheless, enough is known to see the pattern.
Investment in assets that come with the guarantee of government payouts is attractive to foreign investors in an uncertain global market and an Australia that for now is relatively stable.
Without these factors coming into play, it is doubtful that property prices would have kept on rising for so long. It still will not last forever, because there is one inescapable fact. Sooner or later, the price becomes too high for too many people to afford and the market will start to cave in. We are close to this point, and this is why it is starting to get a little shaky.
Enough for the ratings agency Standard and Poores to downgrade Australia’s financial sector, because of a belief that “economic imbalances” caused by soaring private-sector debt and property prices, are leading to a potential precipice.
“Consequently, we believe financial institutions operating in Australia now face an increased risk of a sharp correction in property prices and, if that were to occur, a significant rise in credit losses,” the agency wrote.
High housing costs is the major reason why Australia’s personal debt level is the highest in the world. This is not sustainable. The longer the property bubble continues, the large the level of personal debt and this suggests that a crash could be in the making.
The Standard and Poores downgrade follows a March report by OECD warning that soaring house prices and ever-rising household debt had exposed the Australian economy to “extreme vulnerability”.
The rating downgrades applied to 23 financial institutions, including AMP, Bank of Queensland, and the Bendigo and Adelaide Bank.
The notable exceptions were the ‘Big Four’ (AA-) and Macquarie (AA), which kept their ratings, but only because the agency presumed they would be bailed out by the government in the event of any catastrophe.
The financial institutions are on the one hand heavily exposed to risk with the level of debt tied up to housing loans. They are even more exposed with the level of debt owed overseas. The collapse of the real estate bubble could place their ongoing survival at risk.
As defaults multiply, This would mean the spread of the crisis through the whole economy.