Housing matters a lot in Australia. Having a house on a quarter acre block is part of the “Aussie dream”. Housing is a popular investment destination. And the housing cycle is a key component of the economic cycle and closely connected to interest rate movements. But in the last 15 years or so it has taken on a darker side as a surge in house prices that started in the late 1990s has led to poor affordability and gone hand in hand with surging household debt.
Reflecting this, predictions of an imminent property crash bringing down the Australian economy have been repeated ad nauseam since 2003. This note looks at the risks of a property crash, particularly given the rising supply of units, implications from the property cycle for economic growth and how investors should view it.
The big picture view on Australian residential property is well known. First, Australian housing is expensive. According to the 2016 Demographia Housing Affordability Survey the median multiple of house prices in cities over 1 million people to household income is 6.4 times in Australia versus 3.7 in the US and 4.6 in the UK. In Sydney it’s 12.2 times and in Melbourne it’s 9.7 times. The ratios of house price to incomes & rents are at the high end of OECD countries and have been since 2003.
Second, the surge in home prices has gone hand in hand with a surge in household debt, which has taken Australia’s household debt to income ratio from the low end of OECD countries 25 years ago to now around the top.
While it’s common to look for scapegoats to blame for high home prices and debt, the basic driver looks to be a combination of the shift from high to low interest rates over the last 20-30 years which has boosted borrowing and buying power and the inadequacy of a supply response (thanks to tight development controls, restrictive land release and lagging infrastructure) to suppress the resultant rise in the ratio of prices to incomes.
The surge in prices and debt has led many to conclude a crash is imminent. But we have heard that lots of times over the last 10-15 years. Several considerations suggest a crash is unlikely.
To see a property crash – say a 20% plus average price fall – we probably need to see one or more of the following:
However, the risks on the supply front are clearly rising in relation to apartments where approvals to build more apartments are running at more than double normal levels.
Due to the rising supply of units, vacancy rates are trending up & rents are stalling, making property investment less attractive.
Nationwide price falls are unlikely until the RBA starts to raise interest rates again and this is unlikely before 2018 at which point we are likely to see a 5% or so pullback in property prices as was seen in the 2009 & 2011 down cycles. Anything worse would likely require much higher interest rates, or recession, both of which are unlikely. However, it’s dangerous to generalise:
Slowing momentum in building approvals points to a slowdown in the dwelling construction cycle ahead. While this might be delayed into 2017, as the huge pipeline of work yet to be done is worked through, slowing dwelling investment combined with a slowing wealth affect from rising home prices mean that contribution to growth from the housing sector is likely to slow. However, as this is likely to coincide with a fading in the detraction from growth due to falling mining investment and commodity prices it’s unlikely to drive a slowing in the economy.
However, a likely decline in rents (as the supply of units hits) will constrain inflation helping keep interest rates low for longer.
There are several implications for investors: