In the recent piece about the Australian economy we touched on the issue of the bubble in Australian house prices. Over the weekend, Saul Eslake, Chief Economist at Bank of America Merrill Lynch and one of Australia’s most respected economists, added his thoughts to the debate. A lot of his concern is around the longer term affects on people who are locked out of the housing market:

“I would say [rising house prices] are causing social harm because they are widening the gap between those who have houses and those who don’t, and freezing younger generations out of home ownership,”

In a country like Australia where, much like the US, owning your house is seen as a noble goal that everyone should be able to achieve, this could signal a cultural change. Home ownership in Australia is at its lowest level since 1950 as investors increasingly snap up properties, not for the rent/income they will generate, but for the assumed capital gains. In recently released data from the Australian Taxation Office (ATO) for the 2012-13 financial year, 1,967,260 (or just over 15% of all taxpayers) claimed rental income. Of those, 64% declared a net loss (i.e. they claimed deductions for negative gearing). Think about that for a second – almost 2 out of every 3 people with an investment property in Australia are actively losing money on that investment. What do these investors do if their expectation of further capital gains changes?

“2 out of every 3 people with an investment property in Australia are actively losing money on that investment.”

With all these statistics, why is there still an argument about whether a housing bubble exists? A big part of the problem is that there is no qualitative measure of a bubble. In hindsight they tend to be blindingly obvious, but one of the reasons bubbles occur at all is that most people don’t notice them as they are inflating. Adding to the problem is the reluctancy of politicians and commentators to call out bubbles or even use the word ‘bubble’ because of the negative connotations – bubbles tend to burst. The following was the response of Australian Assistant Treasurer Josh Frydenberg when asked about the possibility of a housing bubble on the ABC Insiders program on Sunday morning:

“I don’t think there is a housing bubble… In the early 2000s housing prices increased by 20 per cent for three years in a row and then were steady for a decade. And there wasn’t a bubble that led to a major correction.”

However, as the situation becomes more extreme, more and more respected commentators are starting to sound the alarm on this issue, even if they avoid calling it a bubble. Saul Eslake again:

“What I do say, without any hesitation at all, is that Australian prices of housing in most Australian cities, and particularly in Sydney, are, as [Reserve Bank governor] Glenn Stevens called them in September last year, ‘elevated’,”

So, leaving aside talk of bubbles, what are the facts?

  1. Australians have record levels of housing debt as a percentage of income
  2. Almost 2 out of 3 property investors are losing money on their properties
  3. The median house price in Sydney is now over AU$900,000
  4. Rates of home ownership are at their lowest levels in over 60 years

Whether or not you want to call it a bubble, that seems unsustainable to me.