Racing China: The Australia Housing Bubble

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"The writing is on the wall for the Australian dream," according to Professor Joe Flood at the Flinders University Institute for Housing, Urban and Regional Research. That was before recent predictions that Australia's overheated housing market may be headed for even higher prices. Real estate experts have recently predicted a doubling of house prices in all five of the largest metropolitan areas over the next decade.

Sydney, the largest metropolitan area, according to Australian Property Monitors (APM), can be expected by 2019 to experience a median house price increase to $1.124 million in 2019. This would double the 2009 figure of $569,000 (Note). Sydney is already the second most unaffordable metropolitan area in the English speaking world , according to our Demographia International Housing Affordability Survey, with a Median Multiple (median house price divided by median household income) of 9.1, trailing only Vancouver. Sydney's higher priced housing has been blamed for stunting economic growth and job creation and appears to be a major factor in the continuing migration out of the state of New South Wales. One of Australia's leading demographers, Bernard Salt, has projected that Sydney could fall to second largest in the nation, behind Melbourne in less than 20 years.

Melbourne median house prices are also expected to rise above $1.1 million according to projections by property expert Michael Yardney. This would represent more than twice the $480,000 price in 2009.

Brisbane, which has generally been less unaffordable than Sydney, would have a median house price equal to that of Sydney by 2019. This is more than double the 2009 price of $430,000.

Perth would experience the greatest house price inflation, also rising to above $1 million, compared to the 2009 figure of $460,000.

Adelaide would also see house prices rise to more than $1.2 million, according to APM. In 2009, the median house price in Adelaide was $370,000.

Australia's Race with China: Recent data indicates that prices are rising furiously toward the doubling the experts have projected. The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) House Price Index indicates that prices have risen 20% over the past year. This is more than 1.5 times the 12% annual rate posted in China's house price bubble that has its government and so many of the world's leading economists so concerned.

As of the 1st quarter, the greatest annual price inflation was in Melbourne, at 28%, a rate that would place it 3rd out of 70 metropolitan areas if it were in China. Prices in Sydney were up 21% from a year ago, which would also rank it 3rd out of 70 in China. At this rate, Sydney could become less affordable than Vancouver within six months and could even surpass high-priced Hong Kong. Brisbane, Adelaide and Perth all experienced price increases between 10% and 15%, and would all place in the top 20 out of 70 Chinese metropolitan areas.

ABS indicated that the house prices increased more than in any other annual period in the 8 year history of its House Price Index. According to the Wall Street Journal's Marketwatch, Economist Glenn Maguire of SocGen Asia Pacific in Hong Kong said "These are bubble like numbers ... It's the type of return that basically encourages speculation." Marketwatch also predicted, on the basis of the house price trend, that the Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA) would raise interest rates, which it did a day later.

Working for the Mortgage: Meanwhile, because variable rate mortgage loans predominate in Australia, the interest rate increase places an immediate burden on thousands of Australian households. The Housing Industry Association indicates that interest rate increases over the past six months will result in a first-home buyer mortgage payment increase of more than $300 per month.

This is not good news for the large numbers of households already in mortgage stress, defined by the government when 35% or more of the budget goes to housing expenses. Just six months ago, a median income household purchasing the median income house in Sydney or Melbourne would have had mortgage payments that consumed 50% to 57% of their gross income. Now, the figure would be 60% to 67%. Needless to say, the median priced house is well beyond the means of the median income household. By contrast, if Melbourne and Sydney had the same housing affordability as faster growing Atlanta and Dallas-Fort Worth, the median income household would pay at least $25,000 less in annual mortgage payments for the median priced house.

Rigging the Market: The housing affordability crisis is the direct result of excessive land use regulations that have artificially limited the supply of land, driving up house prices and fostering speculation. Before these regulations (called "urban consolidation" or "smart growth") were adopted, housing was as affordable in Australia as in Atlanta or Dallas-Fort Worth. Median Multiples across the nation were 3.0 or below. Now the Median Multiple is between 6.7 and 9.1 in the five largest metropolitan areas. Analysts often suggest that Australia's population growth rate is driving up prices. While Australia is growing, it grew faster over the 20 years following World War II, and still accommodated a quickly increasing home ownership share. Further, much faster population growth in Dallas-Fort Worth and Atlanta has not driven prices up. Since 2000, these two American metropolitan areas added 40% more population than the five largest Australian metropolitan regions, despite having a smaller combined population.

This also impacts the other side of the housing equation, the ability of consumers to afford mortgages. The Urban Task Force says that Sydney's especially onerous regulations have driven up the price of consumer goods while dampening income and employment growth. Australian Property Monitors economist Matthew Bell says that the answer to the housing affordability problem is to increase the supply of housing, a view shared by the Reserve Bank of Australia. The political reality, however, suggests that "The shortages are going to get much, much worse in Sydney" as Jason Anderson, a senior economist with BIS Shrapnel told Agence France-Presse.

Professor Flood noted that "The country that promised limitless land, cheap housing and near universal home ownership to all comers now has the most expensive housing in the world amid very tight housing and land markets and little prospect of restoring the balance." Flood's research indicates a dramatic decrease in home ownership among younger households over the past 20 years.

Alternate Futures

Not everyone thinks that house prices can continue their stratospheric rise. US investment expert Edward Chancellor believes that the housing market is overdue for a price collapse, noting that house prices are well above historic measures. Chancellor won the George Polk award for his 2007 article Ponzi Nation, which warned of the housing collapse in the United States and the international damage that could follow. Of course, a housing collapse in Australia would have much less impact on international markets than the one that rocked the much larger US economy, but could do great damage at home.

The good news is that house prices could be brought under control if there was a change in policy. The state government of Victoria (Melbourne is the capital) is about to significantly expand its "urban growth boundary, allowing more house construction and lower new house prices. Policies such as these could provide a preferable soft landing for the housing market. But this would require state and local governments finally to turn their backs on 20 years of devastating social engineering.


Note: The Australian dollar is currently worth about US$0.90. The latest (2008) data indicates that Australia had a gross domestic product of $37,400 per capita (purchasing power parity), which compares to $46,500 in the United States, according to the OECD.

Wendell Cox is a Visiting Professor, Conservatoire National des Arts et Metiers, Paris. He was born in Los Angeles and was appointed to three terms on the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission by Mayor Tom Bradley. He is the author of "War on the Dream: How Anti-Sprawl Policy Threatens the Quality of Life.

Photograph: Detached housing conforming to plan in suburban Perth



















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