In one of the more remarkable occurrences, residential property, despite macroeconomic indicators to the contrary, has been an incredibly resilient asset class this year. In fact, the “affordable” sector of the property market is trading at record high levels, while auction clearance rates in major cities remain above 70 percent (in Melbourne, the clearance rate is above 80 percent). The use of inverted commas around the word “affordable” is intentional — for many, the “affordable” sector of the housing is perhaps ironically, relatively unaffordable.

To purchase a property within 15 kilometres of a major city, first home owners are required to spend often upwards of six times average incomes, double the amount previous generations would spend on a home. That means one of two things is happening; people really like buying homes these days, or punters are vastly overpaying for residential property, or perhaps a little of both.

Property bulls will no doubt argue that the housing sector in Australia is not really over-priced, but due to the shortage of satisfactory property, the price is at an equilibrium level.

While supply issues no doubt have a short-term effect (Australia still has significant net population growth), in the longer term, the free market requires capacity to increase to match the higher demand. (Australia isn’t Monaco, urban centres take up a mere fraction of total land).

No, the major impetus for the prevailing boom is the continued, boosted first home owner’s grant and the ongoing lax lending standards exhibited by major banks. The FHOG is a dreadful piece of policy which has the unfortunate effect of inflating the cost of homes for young people. Various potential buyers, all with the grant in their back pocket, simply bid up the price of a property to what they could afford, plus the value of the grant, plus the leverage they are able to obtain. (Figures released last week indicated the “first home buyer” sector continues to dominate property prices with data indicating that 29.5 percent of owner-occupied mortgages were to first home buyers. Before the grant was boosted, the figure was around 12 percent).

But even the boosted FHOG (and various stamp duty concessions in certain states) isn’t enough to cause the dead-cat boom in residential property. For that, we can thank the highly concentrated banking sector, especially the major banks, for continuing to lend on loan-to-valuation ratios of upwards of 90 percent.

The apparent generosity of the banks could be stem from their desire to increase market share and earnings. That of course, does not inspire a great deal of confidence given that these are the very same banks which funded Opes Prime, ABC Learning, Centro, MFS, Babcock & Brown and Allco (among others), presumably, also to increase market share and earnings. When it comes to assessing risk, notwithstanding their penalty fee-funded profits, the performance of Australian banks leaves a lot to be desired.

It is also interesting to compare the buoyant Australian banking sector to the flailing US financial institutions. For it seems that Australian banks are following a similar path to that of US lenders earlier this decade. In that regard, we note Bill Bonner, in the Daily Reckoning, who claimed:

In 2007, the banks were so loose their arms practically fell off. If they had been young girls, you would have found short poems about them in the boys’ toilets. They weren’t prudent lenders; they were promiscuous ones. But now house prices are falling and lenders say “no” to everyone. But unfortunately, that won’t undo the mistakes of the past — the mistakes that are deciding the future of the US economy.

There is one other possible explanation for Australian banks’ continued generosity. That is, they are desperately trying to put their collective fingers in many collective holes in a very large dyke.

If all the Australian banks tightened their lending standards, for example, by requiring LVRs of 50 percent (which is the level which they could fund from deposits, without the need to seek overseas finance or issue bonds) there would be an almighty crash in the property market. Instead of using a $40,000 deposit to purchase a $350,000, the young couple would only be able to spend $100,000. Forget a supply-driven boom, the recent spike has been caused by banks unwilling to reign in borrowers to any large degree (banks have only marginally cut back on LVRs and slightly tightened deposit requirements).

Banks are in a Catch-22 of sorts — if they tighten lending not only will their income drop (from writing less loans), but more importantly, the value of collateral underpinning their existing loans will slump; dramatically. This will lead to a surge in bad-debts, much like what happened in the United States, when borrowers had the equity in their homes dwarfed by their mortgage. When homes start getting foreclosed, the value of property falls even more as buyers adjust their expectations (Why buy now when the guy next door will have their house sold in a month’s time for $50,000 less?).

Of course, if the banks continue their generous lending policies, that would add to the boom and cause an even greater problem when eventually unemployment spikes, borrowers start missing payments and banks are forced to foreclose on even higher-priced properties.

The banks are currently choosing the second option — delaying the pain for a few more years (and possibly allowing executives to continue to receive handsome performance bonuses along the way). The victims of this policy will be bank shareholders and home buyers paying far too much for their Australian dream.