For years we have argued that Australian real estate prices are obscenely high and ultimately unsustainable. Despite our citing of data from such respected institutions and organisations as The Economist, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, it is only now that the message and our warnings seems to be catching up with reality. Are we predicting a massive bursting of an unflatteringly obese bubble? Not entirely, but we maintain that’s somethings – or many things as the case may be – has got to give. Whether that’s Federal and State fiscal policy and management, economic realities, outside forces or consumer sentiment and action, or a combination of all the above, remains to be seen.
A recent feature article by Nick Bryant, the BBC journalist in Australia, sums things up nicely:
For all the talk of the wonder down under and Australia’s almost recession-proof economy, is this country becoming increasingly unaffordable for the people who live here and the migrants who want to make it their home?
Anecdotal evidence abounds of Brits who would dearly love to emigrate, but have been put off by the soaring Aussie dollar and seemingly inexorably rising property prices. The oft-heard cry of visitors, that Australia has become ridiculously expensive, often finds an echo from the people who live here – Aussies and ex-pats alike.
Last month, The Economist came out with a survey showing that Australian property prices are the most overvalued in the world, and by as much as 56%. Most economists here think that is an exaggerated figure, but accept that the ratio between house prices and house rents – the gauge upon which these kind of tables are compiled – is way out of kilter.
Somewhere between 30% and 40% is probably a more realistic figure, but still one which puts the dream of owning property beyond the reach of many Australians, first-time buyers especially. These kind of surveys always spark debate about whether the Australian housing bubble is about to burst.
“We’ve had 20 years where the Australian consumers have been willing to borrow more to buy an asset that they believe always goes up in value,” Gerard Minack of Morgan Stanley recently told ABC’s PM programme: “The classic sign of an asset bubble.” Still, he thinks it would require a major economic shock to send property prices tumbling. A sharp increase in unemployment, say, which does not appear to be on the horizon.
Other economists discount the possibility of a bubble, arguing the property price hikes are in line with increases in disposable income over the past seven or eight years. Christopher Joye, a property market analyst with Rismark International, notes: ” The house price to income ratio is in line with its average over the last decade.”
Then there’s the simple question of demand and supply. Because of the Queensland floods and higher mortgage rates, January saw the biggest slump in home-building approvals in the past eight years. Yet the population is still growing in size, and thus the demand for property.
Australia not only has the highest house prices but the some of the highest household debt levels in the world. They have been called the two Achilles heels of the Australian economy.