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How the property bubble is making us poorer (you wouldn’t read about it)

Even if you own your home, higher property values just means higher rates and taxes, which means less money in your pocket. The only ones who benefit from the bubble are those in the property industry — and of course, the property press.

housing bubble

As far as conspiracy theories, it’s not exactly a grassy knoll, but the Fairfax mastheads treatment of the residential property boom is convenient. The importance of Fairfax’s Domain property business isn’t surprising — it was responsible for around a sixth of the entire company’s operating earnings — but the calibre of reporting is a far cry from the days of Rags Henderson or Graham Perkin.

The value of the Domain business is even more pronounced when you look at relative growth rates: Domain’s digital operating earnings grew by 49.6% in the first half of the 2014 financial year, compared with 2.3% for the entire Fairfax business. Much of that revenue comes from real estate agents, who happily spend their clients’ money advertising their properties online in the likes of Realestate.com.au and Domain.

But while the Domain website is the key revenue generator, Fairfax still invests in its offline Domain lift-outs, which appear in The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age and Friday’s Australian Financial Review. Aside from the weekly gossip column on Saturday (focusing on C-grade celebrities as well as lawyers and bankers selling their properties), The Sunday Age features a weekly summary/editorial of the performance of the housing market — and the summary tends to be overwhelmingly positive.

Currently written by Chris Tolhurst, the wrap reports the weekly “clearance rate” — that is, the proportion of auctions that result in a sale. Tolhurst rarely bothers to remind readers that the clearance rate is determined by real estate agents providing information — and they tend to be less enthusiastic about reporting “passed in” results, which means the clearance rate is inevitably inflated (and reassessed downwards during the week). Crikey reported on this way back in 2010, but not much has changed since then.

Tolhurst’s bias extends past quoting dubious statistics, though — during Easter, with nary an auction in sight, he noted: 

An increasing number of buyers are paying prices well above what experts consider to be fair value … this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, certainly not for sellers or for anyone keen to see sustained price growth in house prices.

A vendors’ market is good for all property owners and the broader economy. But more competitive market conditions are also pinpointing the frustration of buyers who miss out when properties sell for far more than their advertised estimate.”

On one hand, Tolhurst observes that house prices are well above their “fair value”, but he then says such a trend is actually a good thing for the broader economy.

A study of the United State, Ireland and Japan economic collapses tells quite a different story. High property prices create a significant misallocation of resources to small (highly unproductive) pockets of the economy. It’s no coincidence that most economic slumps are preceded by asset bubbles (be it company or property bubbles).

Australian house prices have been rising for 16 years, partly due to higher incomes and population growth, but also due to a sustained increase in the amount of money Australian banks lend to property purchasers. Australian house prices have considerably outpaced inflation in recent years (traditionally, house price growth would mirror the general level of prices) — this is indicated in academic Philip Soos’ research below. Australia’s mortgage debt as a percentage of GDP is around 90% — higher than the level it was in the US in 2006 …

Is this a good thing? Perhaps, if you own leveraged investment properties. But for everyone else (including those who own their own homes), higher property prices are almost certainly likely to lead to lower living standards. If you own your own home, a higher property price simply means higher stamp duty and rates (eventually, you’d need to purchase a replacement anyway). A higher property price may make you feel richer, but you can’t eat your veranda, or take a holiday in your backyard.

All rising property prices achieve is a wealth transfer from those who don’t own properties to those who own investment properties. It creates no additional economic output and diverts investment away from productive areas of the economy. Instead of creating additional productive capacity, our banks lend money to property speculators, which leads to a higher price for existing assets.

Like any boondoggle, there are a privileged few who benefit from this misallocation of resources. The property industry — including real agents, of course, as well as banks, insurers and hangers-on like lawyers and accountants — benefits. As do newspapers, which reap millions of dollars in revenue from perpetuating the boom.

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  • 1
    JohnB
    Posted Tuesday, 22 April 2014 at 2:43 pm | Permalink

    Spot on, but when and how can this be changed and capital be directed to productive purposes?

  • 2
    Ben Liddicoat
    Posted Tuesday, 22 April 2014 at 3:45 pm | Permalink

    It will likely end only when:
    a)enough of those entering at the top of the market get wiped out - there are quite a few borrowers tapping into super early just to avoid default on the home mortgage right now, although Fairfax would probably leave that story alone until after the bust.
    b)the banks lose faith and the credit dries up to new investors/speculators, and
    c)the powers that be have nothing left in the kitty to prop it up.

    Could/should be sooner that people think, but markets don’t follow logic in the short term.

  • 3
    Catherine Scott
    Posted Tuesday, 22 April 2014 at 5:46 pm | Permalink

    On the purely personal level this article chimes with experience. We’ve been quite happy to move in total five times to take advantage of career opportunities. We had expected we’d move again some time but the sheer cost of stamp duties, legals, agent fees, etc mean we’ve decided to stay put.

  • 4
    David Hand
    Posted Tuesday, 22 April 2014 at 6:19 pm | Permalink

    Amidst all the hype in what passes for journalism in the real estate world these days, I attended an auction in Surry Hills on the “biggest day ever, most properties auctioned, we flew auctioneers into Sydney for the day” Saturday before Easter. Surry Hills was spruiked as a hot area highly desirable location to buy.

    No bids. Nil bids. Property passed in.

    There you go. Real reporting from the front line.

  • 5
    Jimmy James
    Posted Tuesday, 22 April 2014 at 9:26 pm | Permalink

    The absolute only thing keeping this market on it’s legs is the continual lies spewed at us by the MSM. There might be the odd purchase by foreign buyers but this is nothing compared to the continual vested interest MSM megaphone blaring away 24/7. The average person’s cerebel cortex can only take so much…and then it collapses under the weight of misinformation. This is gonna end bad, real bad.

  • 6
    bruce prior
    Posted Wednesday, 23 April 2014 at 9:03 am | Permalink

    This has everything to do with Fractional reserve banking practices. Banks currently “print” money (digitally) and as Sir Mervyn King, Governor of the Bank of England 2003-2013 said:
    “When banks extend loans to their customers, they create money by crediting their customers’ accounts.”
    Caring about shareholder value, what is the logical way to maximise profit create mortgages that are ever increasing via property prices and credit card usage. The organisation positivemoney.org.uk has some very interesting ideas about the solution.

  • 7
    bruce prior
    Posted Wednesday, 23 April 2014 at 9:10 am | Permalink

    Sorry, I did mean to add that the days of the banks “loaning” Aunt Maisiie’s life savings are truly dead.
    Subject to Basel III agreement, banks will only have to carry 6% of monies loaned out. Wish I could print money like that. Even pawn brokers have to have to possess 100% of the money they loan out!!!

  • 8
    Mad Dog Muir
    Posted Wednesday, 23 April 2014 at 10:36 am | Permalink

    I thought Basel 111 agreement was supposed to force the banks to hold more liquidity and higher ratios for lending. 6% is a huge drop. Are you sure that’s correct.

    If it is correct then it’s just another mechanism to speed up an international monetary collapse…I thinks

  • 9
    bruce prior
    Posted Wednesday, 23 April 2014 at 11:41 am | Permalink

    I am NOT an economist, so I may be incorrect but from what I read the level is 4% and B3 says it will go to 6% by 2016.
    I read:
    Regulation Impact Statement: Implementing Basel III capital reforms in Australia: document: OBPR ID: 2012/13813. But I think the 4 - 6 % I read elsewhere.

  • 10
    Brian Williams
    Posted Thursday, 24 April 2014 at 4:03 pm | Permalink

    I think you’ll find that there is another group who will figure prominently in the ‘privileged few’, (and there’s more than a few of them)and that’s the hordes of baby boomers who have ridden the price rise train and who are happy to sell their $1.5 million house and downsize to a $500K one in the outer burbs or the regions. A little stamp duty and a million cash in hand is a win-win for them.

  • 11
    bruce prior
    Posted Thursday, 24 April 2014 at 4:19 pm | Permalink

    Alas they indeed are the last vestige of the egalitarian spread of wealth. Being a B.B. myself and have done reasonably well in property terms (one home and one small investment property). I see it as my duty to ensure that I pass these on to my daughter and grand-daughter…….because sure as hell they cannot and will not be able to afford to buy a home of their own.
    If there is a “mea culpa” for my generation, then the only excuse I make (for me) is that I did not understand the implications of what it was that Maggie & Reagan had cooked up and kicked off (at the urging of the Bankers I am sure).

  • 12
    Ben Liddicoat
    Posted Thursday, 24 April 2014 at 4:57 pm | Permalink

    So a fair amount of the B.B’s offspring are inheriting properties, and the majority of their peers can’t afford to get into the market. What factors would make property rise at the same rate as through their lifetime?

    If interest rates rise (eventually), or average incomes drop in leaner times (recessions always occur eventually), it could lead to a painful experience for those servicing their already enormous debts.

    If speculative capital gains are harder to come by, the negative gearers (or their banks) and a lot of those who inherit property could add a rush of supply to the market all at once? I see a lot of downsizing everywhere I look at the moment.

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