Friday, June 29, 2012

Does Australia have a housing affordability problem?

There are a few key words that get thrown around time and time again when it comes to property in Australia. 

Take "shortage" for example. Someone bearish on Australian property as a whole might argue that with 10% of Australian homes empty (according to the latest Census statistics) we don't have a shortage of property in Australia (this level of empty homes has been relatively consistent for the last several decades). Another person who invests specifically in some Perth or Sydney suburbs where prices are rising sharply might argue that a shortage of homes in this specific area is driving rents and/or prices higher. Both of these individuals might be right (in the context of their own views), but they will probably squabble with each other for hours if you lock them both in the same room and tell them to discuss whether or not we have a shortage of property in Australia.

Another one of these key words is "affordability". It has been a very hot key word as prices rocketed to their peak on a national scale in early 2010 (using the RP Data/Rismark indices) and have slowly deflated since.

Some would go to the dictionary and grab the first definition of the word and throw that into the face of the property detractors who say Australian property isn't affordable:

"Afford: To have the financial means for; bear the cost of."

The "affordability problem" deniers will say things like "If Gen Y stopped spending all their money on iPods, LCD televisions, laptops, overseas holidays and widgets, then they would be able to afford a property" (and sadly this is almost a direct quote of the sort of rhetoric I see get thrown around). 

The "affordability problem" deniers will argue that younger generations are expecting too much for their first home. They will argue that living 40km out from the CBD is a reasonable expectation for First Home Buyers, when outer suburbs at the time they purchased meant 8km out from the CBD instead of 5km. They will argue that First Home Buyers should just buy whatever they can (even if it's a run down 2 bedroom hovel which the buyers will grow out of in a few years) to use it as a stepping stone in order to build equity and buy a larger home later down the track. 

The "affordability problem" deniers will argue black and blue that if a buyer can live off two minute noodles, take a cash handout from the government, leverage their savings (and handout) 20:1 (95% LVR) in an environment where interest rates are near historical lows, to buy the worst house on the worst street in the worst suburb of the city they live in then property is still affordable.

Personally I would use this definition for affordability of housing:

"Afford: To manage or bear without disadvantage or risk to oneself."

Both of the above definitions were from the same dictionary, yet both put a fairly different spin on what affordability means in the context of buying a home.

The first definition suggests that if it is financially possible then it is affordable, the second if you can manage it without putting yourself at risk then it's affordable.

Affordability of Australian property cannot be calculated on a mathematical equation alone. 

Some historical measures of affordability have attempted to formulate an affordability measurement based on the percentage of your income which is taken by housing costs. Typically 30% has been a level to gauge affordability (e.g. if you're having to spend more than 30% of your income on housing then it's not affordable), but the problem with this is spending 30%+ on housing could have a much larger detrimental effect on someone with a low income.

Another issue I see with this type of measurement is that the calculations today are being made in an environment where interest rates are near historical lows and pose a pretty big risk if/when they start to increase again.

Take a mortgage holder in the mid 1990s for example who may have had a mortgage rate of 12%. A 1% increase in rates for this borrower is an 8.3% increase on interest costs for the loan. With current low rates a 1% move higher where the borrower is on 6% is a 16.6% increase in cost of interest. For a new borrower this will increase the repayment by a significant amount and poses a significant risk, especially where they have borrowed with a high LVR.

One of the arguments made by housing commentators such as Chris Joye is that the low interest rate environment has allowed for appreciation of house prices and that the price rise can be justified almost completely by the fall in interest rates. Take for example this quote from an article he posted on Property Observer yesterday:
There is a sound explanation for this innovation: the long-term cost of mortgage debt in Australia declined by north of 40% between 1980 and 1995, and 1995 and today. This was largely a function of the long-term reduction in realised inflation and measured inflation expectations, which in turn allowed Australia’s central bank, the RBA, to permanently lower its cash rate.
The radical reduction in the day-to-day cost of mortgage debt permitted Australian households to significantly increase the amount of debt they were servicing without a noticeable rise in underlying mortgage default rates.
Although this argument holds water on a serviceability level, if we look at the effects that a doubling price and halving interest rates have on a mortgage holder over the term of their loan it's a real eye opener (use this mortgage calculator to run your own scenario):

$300,000 borrowed @ 6%
Repayments of $2000 per month
23 years, 2 months to payoff loan
Total repayments = $555,903

$150,000 borrowed @ 12%
Repayments of $2000 per month
11 years, 7 months to payoff
Total repayments = $278,643

The initial interest costs on a $300k loan at 6% is the same as a $150k loan at 12%, however the smaller loan is repaid at a much faster rate if the borrower has the capacity to repay either loan at the same rate.

So are lower interest rates making property more affordable? Not if prices rise to fill the serviceability gap.

By taking on a larger amount of debt, even if the interest rate is half of some historical levels, borrowers are taking on significantly larger amounts of risk and hence by the second definition perhaps can't be considered as affordable as some would make them out to be.

Many bullish housing commentators have been talking about falling interest rates bringing back buyers to the market, but I think that buyers are starting to smarten up on the whole "lower interest rates makes property affordable" lie. Even following two cuts in late 2011 and two more this year (including a 50 point cut in May) we have buyers sitting on the sidelines waiting for lower prices. As Leith points out on MacroBusiness today:

What is most worrying about this result is that it follows the RBA’s -0.5% cut in official interest rates in early-May. While it is only one-month’s data, these figures imply that this rate cut had absolutely no impact on mortgage demand which, in fact, took another leg down over the month.
Housing credit growth continues to remain at very subdued levels, which ties in with the very low volumes of sale (from RP Data):

It seems that even if buyers could continue to buy prices at current levels, they are choosing not to afford property (given the risks). A wise choice in my opinion as the short term downside is a much greater risk than missing out on upside.

In my opinion the best thing that Government could do to help any perceived affordability problem is to step back and stop meddling with the markets, let them deflate.

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Tuesday, June 5, 2012

AUD Gold Price Exceeds Weekly Aussie Wage

The case is often made that Gold is an inflation hedge. However the volatile and cyclical nature of the metal shows that it doesn't practically work as such unless measuring over a long time frame.

For example suppose an individual had purchased some Gold in January 1980 right at the peak for US$850... did Gold keep up with inflation if this individual needed to sell some in 2001 at Gold's low point (US$250)? Of course not, in fact Gold hasn't even yet reached the inflation adjusted high after rising more than 600% from the lows (inflation adjusted high from 1980 is over US$2000). Gold is not practical as an inflation hedge over short time frames. However over long periods of time Gold does hold value in comparison to fiat currencies which continuously deflate in value as the supply is increased at unhealthily high rates.

There are examples from other commentators and authors showing that Gold has retained similar value over very long time frames (hundreds and even thousands of years) against livestock and against objects such as a fine suit. However the problem with this is you are taking two specific points in time to reach a conclusion that may differ if you varied the time frame selected by as little as a decade.

The reality is that Gold cycles in value against assets from overvalued to undervalued and back again (some would argue that it's other assets which cycle against Gold). Some of these cycles might be short term (such as the Gold/Oil ratio which I covered here) or medium term (such as the Australian property priced in Gold ounces, covered here). There are other (non-tangible) things that Gold cycles in value against as well. One of the most interesting I have covered on the blog before was an average Australian wage (see previous post here).

You can see the previous post for the data sources I have used (have spliced RBA/ABS data for wages). For wages I have taken the printed number from the last quarter in each year (as it's not volatile and generally is consistently rising), for Gold I have averaged monthly prices (AUD price) across the year due to price volatility.

Here is the average weekly wage of an adult Australian plotted against the annual (average) price of Gold in Australian Dollars since 1972:
Click Chart To Enlarge
As you can see on the above chart, the spot price of Gold in Australian Dollars has surpassed the weekly Australian wage for the first time since 1989.

Chart in log form (requested by obakesan):
Click Chart To Enlarge
And if we divide the price of Gold into the weekly wage we are presented with this ratio which shows Gold cycling in value against Australian wages (Gold undervalued as the ratio peaks and overvalued in the troughs):
Click Chart To Enlarge
As I pointed out the last time I calculated this ratio, the weekly wage has cycled between around 1/2 and 2 ounces of Gold for the best part of the last 100 years.

Based on the above figures from the ABS the Wage/Ounce ratio was around .51 ($4.35 wage / $8.50 oz) in 1901. Source
In 1920 the Pound was valued at USD$3.66, so in USD an Australian weekly wage was around $38.43 and bought 1.86 ounces of Gold. Source
If we took the peak monthly price (instead of averaging over the year) the ratio actually dropped to around .37 in January 1980 rather than the .42 by averaging the Gold price over the year. To get back to these ratio levels we would need to see Gold climb to AUD$3750 or AUD$3300 respectively, assuming the average weekly wage remained at $1391 where it is today. In my opinion either of these ratios is possible (I would suggest likely) within the next few years as Gold shoots to overvalued status against Australian wages.

Despite that I blog on a site which might suggest I am a permabull on precious metals, that is certainly not the case and when I believe that the metals have reached a cyclical high against other assets (and other indicators such over valuation against wages) I will be looking to move a majority of my positions from Gold and Silver related assets into income producing/productive assets.

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