Global property hot spots renew bubble fears fuelled by easy money

Warning signals are flashing amber in several countries as central banks keep pumping out cash to support economic growth

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 06 November, 2013, 5:10am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 06 November, 2013, 5:10am

From China to Canada and London, fast-rising property markets are haunting the global economy again, five years after the US subprime mortgage bubble burst and triggered the worst financial crisis since the 1930s.

For now, house price inflation is neither as high nor as widespread as it was in the middle of the last decade. Except in a few cases, the warning signals are flashing amber, not red, and several countries have acted to cool overheating markets.

But the confidence of policymakers that they can avoid another generalised boom and bust could be tested if central banks keep pumping out nearly free money to support economic growth by encouraging investment in riskier assets such as equities and property.

Plentiful cheap credit is just one more inducement to home buyers who, in many countries, can deduct mortgage interest from their taxable income or are exempted from capital gains tax when they sell their house, said Andrew Oswald, a professor of economics at Warwick University in Britain.

"We're stoking up a huge bubble. It's quite extraordinary. We virtually ruined the Western world by having high house price inflation and now we're determined to do it again," he said.

On the face of it, the reacceleration in US house prices spells trouble.

According to the National Association of Realtors, the national median home value at the height of the bubble, in July 2006, was US$230,400. In July 2011, the median price was 25.7 per cent below that peak. By July this year, it had climbed back to within 7.3 per cent of the high water mark.

Yet some of the engines of the price recovery are spluttering. Most importantly, mortgage rates have risen as markets anticipate an end to the Federal Reserve's bond buying.

Robert Shiller, the co-creator of the S&P/Case-Shiller Home Price Index, said higher borrowing costs could limit US house price gains next year to roughly 6 per cent. The index rose 12.8 per cent in the 12 months to August.

"The US market might be cooling," Shiller said. "I think prices will keep going up for a while. There is still momentum, but it may fade and turn down in the next year or two."

In Las Vegas, prices have rebounded 29.2 per cent in the past year, but Gregory Smith, a local property agent, said the market was now cooling off.

"More families are starting to get their offers accepted, as the investors retreat. These are real buyers who intend to stay in the homes long-term. We are in a flattening-out phase," he said.

To assess property market risk, house prices need to be gauged in relation to income.

Whereas the US price-toincome ratio at the end of 2012 stood at 84.3, measured against a rolling long-run average of 100, the ratio in Canada was at a 10-year high of 131.7, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

Moreover, Canada's debt-to-income ratio reached a record high of 163.4 per cent in the second quarter.

"Debt is at record levels, and we know consumers are biting off more than they can chew financially, so does this lead to more problems down the road?" asked Laurie Campbell, chief executive at Credit Canada, a credit counselling agency.

The same question is being asked across Asia. As mortgage rates return to pre-crisis averages, monthly housing payments in most Asian countries will rise by 15 to 25 per cent, according to David Carbon, an analyst with DBS, a Singapore bank.

But he said Asia's housing debt as a percentage of GDP remained much lower than in America. And home prices in Asia are now 22 per cent lower, relative to incomes, than in 2000.

"By this gauge, Asia has little to fear on the property front - homes are becoming more affordable, not more expensive," Carbon wrote in a recent report.

Even on mainland China, prices are 40 per cent more affordable on average than in 2000, according to DBS.

But the average masks vast discrepancies on the mainland, where the government is concerned about a bubble and the potential for social unrest as inequality over access to housing grows. Prices nationwide rose on average by 9.1 per cent in the year to September but surged 16 per cent in Beijing and 17 per cent in Shanghai.

"There are overheating signs in Tier 1 cities. The central government should take some measures, at least including stricter implementation of existing measures," said Wang Juelin, a former senior housing ministry researcher.

Demand by mainland buyers has helped boost Hong Kong prices by 120 per cent since 2008.

Hong Kong responded last October with a 15 per cent tax on overseas buyers and in February imposed higher stamp duties and home loan curbs.

As a result, the premiums for new homes over existing homes that developers seek has shrunk to about 20 per cent from 50 to 80 per cent, according to Thomas Lam, head of research for Greater China at real estate firm Knight Frank.

Singapore has also increased stamp duties and capped how much people can borrow relative to their income. New Zealand has clamped down on mortgage lending.

In Australia, house prices rose 5.8 per cent in the year to mid-September, but Phil Chronican, ANZ Bank's local chief executive, said concern about a bubble was overstated, partly because the market had been subdued for so long.

"To stop this demand exacerbating the rising price trends, though, we need to see a supply response," he said. "We need more houses and apartments."