Just breathing, not blowing bubbles
It seems the world is hitting the panic button that a property bubble is forming that if left to its own devices could wreak devastation on an already fragile global economy.
In Australia the regulators are making headlines with warnings to the banks not to be lax with their lending requirements, along with comments in The Australian Financial Review by former Reserve Bank board member Bob Gregory that a property bubble "just seems to be inevitable".
It is a similar story in Britain with the Bank of England planning to meet as pressure mounts on it to look at what it can do to prevent a housing bubble emerging, and in China, where property prices have been soaring, the Chinese government is clamping down on speculative and investment driven property demand.
Such warnings are necessary in some countries, but Australia isn't there yet and when a few pertinent statistics are put into context then talk of a bubble starts to look sensationalist.
It prompted the Reserve Bank's assistant governor Malcolm Edey to step in and say such talk of bubbles in Australia was "alarmist". He said looking back over the past decade, house prices have risen at a rate "equivalent to or on average less than the growth of household incomes".
While it is true Australia has always been accused of having relatively high residential prices compared with the rest of the world, it is like comparing apples with oranges.
IBISWorld's Phil Ruthven put it well recently when he pointed out that 63 per cent of the nation's household assets, namely property, equipment and household durables, totals $8.4 trillion, and 12 per cent of our income goes to servicing the debt of $1.66 trillion (92 per cent of which is property mortgages). This is equivalent to a gearing of 20 per cent, which would be considered low if we were analysing a company.
It looks even less worrying when some of the statistics compiled by the country's biggest bank, Commonwealth Bank, are digested. In its annual results presentation it says mortgagee in possession represents 8 basis points of its portfolio balances, limited low doc lending is limited to 1.9 per cent of its total portfolio with stringent lending criteria and 80 per cent of customers pay in advance of their required monthly mortgage repayment.
In terms of debt servicing, figures compiled by Goldman Sachs indicate that in 2008, 13 per cent of household income was allocated to servicing mortgages, compared with less than 8 per cent in 2013.
It seems the property bubble that is worrying a number of commentators in Australia is largely isolated to Sydney and Perth's metropolitan areas. It is there that auction clearance rates have been hitting 80 per cent for most of the year, while in Melbourne they recently hit 75 per cent.
If this ends up in a property boom due to low interest rates, then that isn't a bad thing if the debt can be serviced. Indeed, if it spills over into new housing starts, it will help the building and construction sector, which has recently seen a spike in company collapses at the small end of the market.
Figures from the ABS show that the weighted average established house prices across eight capital cities rose 2.4 per cent between the March 2013 and June 2013 quarters and 5.1 per cent between June 2012 and June 2013. In Sydney weighted average house prices rose 2.7 per cent in the quarter, compared with 2.4 per cent for Melbourne, 1.9 per cent for Brisbane, 0.3 per cent for Adelaide and 3.4 per cent for Perth.
But it is the forecasts that are making people nervous. SQM Research predicts "significant" price rises for Sydney of between 15 to 20 per cent.
"Low interest rates and an improvement in sentiment towards the national economy will further drive buyer interest in the national housing market," the research report says. But it says Sydney is a "beast unto itself" and says Canberra will record house price falls of between 1 per cent and 4 per cent, Melbourne will record price rises of between 4 per cent and 7 per cent.
A concern is that the rise in prices is largely investment-driven, with AFG Mortgage Index reporting in August that an unprecedented 49.5 per cent of all home loans processed in NSW were for investors, followed by Victoria at 36.7 per cent, 35.8 per cent in Queensland, 32.9 per cent in South Australia and 28.4 per cent in Western Australia.
With the surge in self-managed super funds to more than $500 billion, corporate regulator ASIC is concerned that some unsuspecting trustees will blow themselves up, given the growing number of property spruikers.
It is true that whenever there is a pot of money, crooks will descend, and retirement savings have always been prey. Self-managed super funds are merely the vehicle. Nevertheless it prompted the Reserve Bank to express concern that households might be building up too much debt by borrowing to buy property through SMSF.
The regulators have the power to crack down on the spruikers. Let's hope they do it soon.