There are many things to accuse the big banks of. But pushing Australians into buying residential property isn’t exactly up there in the long list of their sins, despite last night’s Four Corners expose of the “powder keg” that apparently is the Australian property market.
Such stories, which are normally to be found near the top of the SMH site because they represent the ideal Sydney combination of talking about property prices and speculating about disaster, normally require at least one of two things. They need a foreign investment analyst who, from a comfortable office in London, or ensconced in a Manhattan skyscraper, declares that the Australian property market is wildly overpriced compared to other countries and is a bubble that will burst any moment. Alternatively, they need a perma-bear economist who has predicted 20 of the last three recessions and is happy to continue to insist economic disaster is just around the corner no matter how silly they look.
Steve Keen being, presumably, unavailable, Gerard Minack filled in that role last night for the ABC and gave them the “powder keg” line. Minack loves a good doomsday prediction. Back in 2014, he warned that the fall in mining investment was going to inflict a calamitous cut in growth in Australia. “‘We’re not forecasting a recession, but we’re saying here’s some evidence that the chance of a precipitous fall may be larger than people think,” Minack said back then. In early 2015, Minack said there was a one-third chance of recession that year or shortly after. Early in 2016, Minack claimed a global recession was coming. And in April this year, possibly to celebrate the second anniversary of his prediction of a one-in-three chance of a recession, Minack said there was — guess what — a one-in-three chance of recession this year.
And, of course, Minack will one day be right. After all, Access Economics eventually got it right after predicting the end of the mining boom for much of the 2000s.
A gentleman called Jonathan Tepper filled in the role of the foreign investment analyst for the ABC, predicting from London that we’ll all be rooned. Tepper hasn’t been in the doomsday game quite as long but has been claiming the imminent end of the property bubble since the start of 2016, when he graced a 60 Minutes program on the looming property disaster.
Much of Four Corners focused on mortgage stress and the harrowing stories of households struggling to meet mortgage repayments with stagnant incomes. There was also a heavy focus on Perth, presumably because, due to the end of the mining boom there, property prices have fallen in Western Australia. But the problem with mortgage stress is that there’s no evidence it’s getting any worse while interest rates remain at record lows. According to Roy Morgan polling, mortgage stress is currently close to its lowest levels since 2006. And earlier this year, economist Rod Mattock noted that Australians now have greater equity in their properties. “The proportion of people who have very high exposure to a fall in house prices — those with loan-to-valuation ratios above 90% — has been declining over time,” he concluded. “Once again, the basic picture is one of prudent households, rather than a community of people gambling on house price rises.”
And as the debate around tax concessions for negative gearing and capital gains, land supply and infrastructure provision suggests, the real issue in housing is the way taxpayers are subsidising investors to compete against young people and low-income earners for an overly limited supply of property — a supply that is now being expanded in Sydney and Melbourne courtesy of low interest rates and a massive increase in apartment building. In case you didn’t notice, no one’s been too focused on banks trying to push young people and low-income earners into the property market — they’re quite keen enough by themselves.
Blame the banks for all sorts of things, yes. It’s entirely deserved in areas like financial advice, insurance, retail superannuation and money laundering. But pinning a non-existent property bubble on them doesn’t wash.