Wednesday, August 14, 2013

What's next for Adelaide property prices?

Long term readers of the blog would be aware that my opinion of Australian property is that it represents poor value at today's prices (relative to historical norms measured against rent and incomes). My medium term expectations for property led to the sale of my (Adelaide) home in early 2010. The property was purchased with intent to live in it for a few years and then later develop it, but wanting a change of scenery my wife and I were presented with the choice to move and then rent it out (hold for investment / future development) or sell it, we chose the latter and have since rented for the past 3.5 years (with lease recently negotiated through mid 2014). We have no regrets.
Adelaide house prices have been falling since a few months after we sold and are still tracking below their 2010 peak while rental price increases have been minimal. While renting is suitable and preferable in my situation, I would never discourage others who want the stability of ownership and are prepared to treat housing as a consumable (rather than an investment) from buying. If you have a healthy deposit (preferably one that will help you avoid LMI), fixed interest rate (or able to service higher interest rates), protect yourself (income protection, cash buffer, etc) and expect to stay in the property you purchase for the long term (until mortgage paid off), then it shouldn't matter what prices do (rise, fall or stagnate).

Some people are happy to pay a premium for the stability and enjoyment they get from home ownership, perhaps down the track when starting a family my priorities will change and I will make the same decision. For now I will continue renting, it is far cheaper than the interest repayments would be for a mortgage if buying the equivalent, it provides more flexibility and there is a good chance that my housing requirements will change at some point in the next few years (so it's pointless buying now if I will only be looking to upgrade in a few years).

From an investment point of view I think 'buy and hold' property will continue to be a poor investment choice for a majority over the medium term (3-5 years). Of course there will always be cities, suburbs or even specific deals which can buck the trend as the exception and exceptional people who can turn a dollar in the property market no matter what the 'median' is doing. It may not be beneficial for long term investors to sell (given high transaction costs for property), but any investors looking to buy in today's market would do well to ensure they understand the risks that Australia's property market faces as we unwind from the resources boom. It is highly unlikely that the next 15 years will replicate the property price growth we have seen over the last 15.

Last year on the blog I covered the conditions and my expectations for the Melbourne and Perth property markets. 

Melbourne has surprised me having bounced strongly from the mid 2012 lows, still around 4% below the peak, but 8% higher than the lows (as measured by RP Data's daily price index). Many of the data points (high stock on market, poor yields, low number of transfers) that led to my expectation of a further decline in Melbourne prices remain in place. It's my expectation that the Melbourne price rally is a dead cat bounce driven by falling interest rates and that lower prices will be seen in the future (lower nominal prices than the mid 2012 "bottom"). I still think there is a chance of a 30-40% decline in prices in real terms, perhaps it plays out over a long time frame than I expected or perhaps I will be wrong. One thing is for sure, Melbourne property represents very poor value for money if purchasing for yield, but markets can remain irrational for long periods of time, especially when tax laws are favourable for those speculating on higher prices.

Perth has followed my expected trajectory with prices growing strongly (to the surprise of some). Flat prices for 6 years, rents growing strongly, healthy employment statistics and with the added support of falling interest rates resulted in a large push higher for prices over the last 12 months. While I think prices in Perth could continue rising into the end of the year and maybe even into next year, the strong fundamentals are already starting to wane with unemployment rising, rental prices stalling and increasing vacancy rates. The end of the mining capex boom could have implications for Perth property prices, as I wrote in the comments under last years article, "I think there is good potential for prices short term, but with the eventual commodity bust I think we will see prices in Perth reverse again, perhaps even to lower levels than today (e.g. could grow by 15% over 2 years and then fall by 20% following)." In other words I expected strong growth, but think there is a risk this growth reverses as Perth fundamentals turn south with the end of the resources boom.

So that brings me to the question in the title, what do I expect to see from Adelaide prices over the short to medium term?

Here is a quick overview of some data points that may have an effect on the Adelaide housing market...

Stock on market (SQM Research) is still at elevated levels reminiscent of during the GFC, they have remained elevated for the past 3 years, during which time we've seen prices decline. Although the last few months show a reduction in the stock on market, we have seen similar seasonal declines in the middle months of 2011 & 2012 (who wants to venture out to open homes during our cold winters!), which makes me think we could see similar this year with a rise in stock seeming likely into October/November.

Vacancy rates (SQM Research), although not as high as the worst of the GFC, are also elevated around the same levels we've seen over the last 3 years as prices declined:

Yields for Adelaide property remains low (sourced from Residex) with houses at 4.69% (below national average) and 5.19% for units (same as national average). Even with mortgage interest rates coming down these yields don't do much to wet the appetite given the risk of further price falls. Asking rents haven't increased in Adelaide over the last 12 months according to APM's June rental report.

While other states experienced a noticeable pickup in the population growth rate (MacroBusiness) into the end of 2012, Adelaide was the exception, even showing signs of rolling over to the downside (statistics for first half of this year are due late September):

South Australian unemployment (via Mark the Graph) is on the rise with an unusually large spike in the last months data, this may prove to be an anomaly, but the trend from early 2012 is still ugly:

Only Tasmania has a higher unemployment rate than South Australia now:

And with job vacancies back to levels not seen in a decade, it doesn't look like this unemployment rate is about to get better anytime soon (MacroBusiness):

With poor unemployment figures it's not surprising to see that retail appears to be doing poorly in and around Adelaide with the latest report from Herron Todd White discussing Rundle Mall (CBD) vacancies:
"There are still concerns in the Mall with several large tenancies still remaining vacant."
Further on the CBD:
"Few sales have been recorded this year, however we expect yields at best should remain stable given that rents have softened. Capital values within the CBD overall may therefore have weakened during the first half of 2013. It remains to be seen whether once the redevelopment works are completed in 2014 if there will be stronger overall retail activity in the Mall Precinct."
Glenelg (Adelaide's popular beach side suburb) not doing much better:
"While vacancy rates are still low in this precinct they are ever present and increasing with few new leasing’s evident this year. This is far cry from a decade ago where there was virtually full occupancy along Jetty Road."
King William Road and the Parade (located inner suburbs) sound similar:
"Similarly, King William Road is experiencing some weakness in new leasing activity although part of this is due to some speculative developments and part due to the general weakening of retail conditions. The Parade at Norwood retail sector is generally remaining quite strong although there are some signs of weakening conditions and some vacancies."
The report finishes on this sour note:
"The overall outlook for retail is for subdued activity with the possibility of increasing vacancies and softer rentals for many centres. The trading conditions for tenants are heavily dependent on the economy which is showing further signs of deterioration."
Other commercial real estate is also showing weakness with the office vacancy rate having risen from 9.5% to 12.1% over the last 6 months in Adelaide (Property Council of Australia), not really surprising given the rising level of unemployment:

The residential construction sector is also looking unhealthy with dwelling completions having trended lower the past couple of years (MacroBusiness):

And approvals off the lows, but still very subdued (3-month moving average via MacroBusiness):

First Home Buyer finance commitments have ticked up toward the middle of this year (but remain subdued relative to levels seen in the past):

Dwelling approvals and first home buyer commitments have likely seen their small increase in numbers due to the states Housing Construction Grant (which has now been extended through to the end of this year):
CASH payments of $8500 for people building homes will be extended until the end of the year to stimulate the construction industry.

Premier Jay Weatherill will commit $38.7 million in the State Budget to retain the Housing Construction Grant.

It was first announced last October and was due to expire on June 30. Mr Weatherill said offering the grant for longer would help remove barriers to home ownership and stimulate the construction sector.

More than 1100 people have received the grant in the seven months since it was introduced. Adelaide Now
If the Housing Construction Grant (ending December 2013) and First Home Owners Grant for established homes (ending mid 2014) wind up as scheduled, then we could see downward pressure on Adelaide house prices as a result of this stimulus removal.

Weakness in the South Australian economy has not gone unnoticed with a recent article in the AFR highlighting a report from the SA Centre for Economic Studies:
The Economic Briefing Report found real state final demand decreased by 2.6 per cent from the previous year, which was the largest annual SFD fall in the period covered by the modern National Accounts data.

Centre for Economic Studies executive director Michael O’Neil said this “sustained decline” indicated the state was in recession…

The state has come under enormous financial pressure over the last year with the government forced to grapple a bulging public sector wage bill, revenue writedowns and the loss of BHP’s $25 billion Olympic Dam expansion project.

Confidence is also low in the state’s manufacturing sector with the future of car maker Holden’s Elizabeth factory in doubt.
Like most of the country, Adelaide house prices have seen a significant rise over the last couple of decades resulting in prices which are out of reach for many, the following from Bob Beaumont (of Adelaide based Beaumont Tiles):
Australian house prices have increased 150 per cent in a decade, while incomes have grown by just under 60 per cent. In 2013 in Adelaide, the median house price is now more than six times the median income.

Since its inception in 1973, the South Australian Land Commission has watched land prices rise from $15,000 per block (in current dollars) to $160,000 per block. By comparison, the cost of building a 135sq m house increased from $97,000 in current dollars to just $102,000 over the same period. The Australian
However, Adelaide's house price index as measured by the ABS shows a sideways to lower market over the last 3.5 years and in my opinion the poor economic fundamentals for the state as outlined above point to further price weakness ahead:

Both Sydney and Perth have experienced 5-6 year sideways markets (as discussed in my article on Perth) at different times within the last decade and that is the sort of scenario I could see playing out in Adelaide, that would mean little to no price growth over the next 2-3 years.

Adelaide has a history of moderate price changes when compared with the likes of Perth or Melbourne and I think the future will be no different. I don't expect a massive bust in Adelaide real estate, but I think that prices are likely to continue tracking sideways or lower for some years to come, meaning that those saving for a deposit should feel comfortable the market is not likely runaway from them quickly, at least not until we see a significant pickup in the economic fundamentals for the city and state.

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Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Is Germany's Gold Repatriation Causing Lower Prices?

I continue to see articles that speculate the price decline in Gold this year (and concurrent drop in ETF/Comex holdings) is a direct result of Germany's request for a portion of their Gold reserves back from the United States (as they scramble to secure physical Gold to fulfill the request).

This image in particular caught my eye from a recent TTMYGH report:

The event alongside price activity and ETF holdings sure paints a compelling story. Surely we don't need any facts to support the narrative? Grant Williams says the following in the report:
Wanna know what I think, folks? I think the central banks have been leasing their gold out for decades to the bullion banks and now find themselves in the rather precarious position of needing to reclaim that which they are supposed to own before the shortfall is exposed. I think that creates a big problem for both sides of that little scheme.
He later goes on to say:
Now, call me old-fashioned if you will; call me a conspiracy theorist, a goldbug, a wacko - whatever you like - but if you do, will you please give me an explanation as to why this gold is vanishing, where it is going, and who is taking delivery of it? Because, from where I stand, the evidence points to the beginning of the unraveling of the fractional gold lending market, and THAT spells trouble.
In my opinion he answers the question about where the Gold is going in the text leading up to the question:
I also think that retail investors — particularly here in Asia — are, unfortunately, compounding the banks' problems by using the weakness in the paper markets to acquire as much physical metal (or, as it's known in this part of the world, "wealth") as they can.
Not that we can trace the movement of physical Gold to confirm that the metal flowing out of the Comex, GLD and other ETFs is heading to Asia, but I'd imagine some of it is (Shanghai Gold Exchange delivery vs world mining supply, via Koos Jansen):

As for where the rest is going, well it's certainly not 'vanishing' (except into the vaults of those who believe Gold is worth buying at these prices), but there is definitely a lack of transparency in the market which allows commentators to makeup their own narratives.

He provides no real evidence that suggests the price decline and ETF shakeout is the result of central bank leasing activity and in fact once we zoom out on the price / Comex stock chart (courtesy Bullion Vault), it looks quite natural that the inventory should fall with price, just as it increased as the price rose over 2001 to 2011:

To me the charts showing reduction in ETF / Comex holdings look like the capitulation of price speculators in the west after having battled on for the past two years of sideways/lower prices, finally throwing in the towel and selling their holdings (maybe even having been lured into the equities market which has recently appeared 'unstoppable'). The gold appears to be moving from the hands of price speculators in the west to the safes, vaults, necks and wrists of those in the east who understand Gold as wealth (and concerned with buying more at lower prices, rather than selling).

Of course my interpretation of the data can't be proven one way or the other either. I can't prove that the price rout is not a direct result of the bullion banks or central banks trying to shakeout metal from weak hands to cover their obligations after leasing the metal, but I will try and provide some context for my opinion that the repatriation request from Germany is not key to the recent price decline... 

Something that I have voiced in the comments section on various sites, but not yet pointed out on my blog, is that I believe the rate at which they are repatriating the Gold from the US (the point of most speculation) was set by Bundesbank, not the Fed. The rate (circa 50 tonnes per annum over 7 years) is the same recommended by their court the previous year (for testing/examination of their Gold):
The Court had determined the order of the Bundestag that the Bundesbank their gold reserves stored abroad scrutinized. It is disputed whether the years experienced by the Bundesbank practice sufficient to rely only on a written confirmation to the gold bullion by foreign central banks. 
The Court therefore recommends that the Bundesbank to negotiate with the three foreign banks have a right to physical examination of the stocks. With the implementation of this recommendation, the Bundesbank has begun according to the report. They also decided to bring in the next three years of 50 tons each lying at the Fed in New York, gold for Germany in order to undergo a detailed examination here. Spiegel
Presumably this rate of delivery was fixed at 50 tonnes for logistics purposes, this post from Silver Stackers forum member Big A.D. is worth considering (note that the figures include the Gold being repatriated from the US and Paris combined):
Has anyone considered the logistics of actually counting out, transporting, counting in and then testing 674 tonnes of gold? 
Assuming deliveries are evenly spread out, they'll be shifting 1.85 tonnes each and every week for seven years. If the gold is in the form of 400oz LBMA spec bars, each shipment will contain 148 bars. 
At current prices, each weekly shipment will be worth about $100 million in assets which are completely untraceable after being melted down. That is an incredibly tempting target for anyone looking to acquire a large amount of gold without paying for it. It's the kind of target that attracts professionals with military training and experience in special operations. 
Whoever is doing the transporting might well be uncomfortable moving more than $100 million at a time, or rushing delivery to the point where there is a very noticeable stream of armoured cars driving out of the Fed's vaults every day for months at a time. Whoever is insuring the shipments might feel similarly uncomfortable at the prospect of paying out to replace a lost delivery and wants to spread their risk out. The bigger the shipments, the more concentrated the risk. 
Then there is the testing that has to occur at the German end (because checking the gold is all there is half the reason for the exercise to begin with). These are allocated bars (i.e. with serial numbers) and they're Germans so they'll measure it down to the gram. 
Assay and (re)manufacture takes time and effort and a lot of expertise which will probably be contracted out and whoever is doing it will basically be melting down ~150 x 400oz bars each and every week for 7 years, or roughly 30 per working day, or roughly one every 15 minutes. All of them has to be checked, perhaps individually, so that if any tungsten is found - or more likely just some regular, boring impurities - it can be traced bar to an individual bar and that bar's history can be investigated to find out when and where it entered the system and who owes who the difference in weight. 
At current values, the gold in question is worth about $37 billion dollars. We're used to seeing that sort of figure tossed around in discussions about global finance but it's worth remembering that this isn't just fake 1s and 0s money, this is actual, physical real money and there are practical issues in handling it which is why people tend to just leave it sitting in vaults to begin with.
Based on my speculation that it was the Bundesbank and not the Fed that had set the delivery rate, I posed the following questions to Bundesbank via email:

There is a lot of speculation about the slow delivery of Gold from the United States to Germany (300 tonnes being repatriated), are you able to advise whether the rate of transfer (approximately 50 tonnes per year) was requested by Bundesbank or whether the Federal Reserve limited the amount that could be withdrawn each year (i.e. who set the transfer rate)?

Their response (which was really just a cut and paste response from previous communications and press releases):
Thank you for your enquiry.

The Deutsche Bundesbank keeps a part of its gold holdings in its own vaults in Germany, while some of its gold is also stored with the central banks located at major gold trading centres. This has historical and market-related reasons, the gold having been transferred to the Bundesbank at these trading centres. Moreover, the Bundesbank needs to hold gold at the various trading centres in order to conduct its gold activities. It is common practice for central banks to keep part of their gold reserves abroad.

Besides the Deutsche Bundesbank, other central banks and official agencies place gold in the custody of foreign central banks. According to its own data, the  Federal  Reserve  of  New York holds gold stocks for almost 60 different central banks and official agencies.

The Deutsche  Bundesbank can withdraw gold from its holdings with foreign central banks at any time.The Bundesbank's gold is stored in the form of individually identifiable bars.  Gold stocks are subjected to regular audits. Relevant inventory controls are conducted on site.

The Bundesbank applies the principles of safety, cost efficiency and liquidity to the management of foreign reserves in general, and to that of gold reserves (and, in this context, to the question of custody location in particular). As a rule, the physical transfer of gold reserves to another storage location cannot be ruled out.

Deutsche Bundesbank’s new storage plan for Germany’s gold reserves:

By 2020, the Bundesbank intends to store half of Germany’s gold reserves in its own vaults in Germany. The other half will remain in storage at its partner central banks in New York and London. With this new storage plan, the Bundesbank is focusing on the two primary functions of the gold reserves: to build trust and confidence domestically, and the ability to exchange gold for foreign currencies at gold trading centres abroad within a short space of time.

The following table shows the current and the envisaged future allocation of Germany’s gold reserves across the various storage locations:

To this end, the Bundesbank is planning a phased relocation of 300 tonnes of gold from New York to Frankfurt as well as an additional 374 tonnes from Paris to Frankfurt by 2020.

On safety grounds we cannot publish details about the repatriation.
Unfortunately their response didn't directly answer the question regarding who set the rate of delivery, but I did follow up with another question:

Thank you for the detailed reply, I have a follow up question. As is clear from the below email, Germany's physical gold bars are identifiable and audited, is there any circumstances under which the Federal Reserve could hold Germany's physical gold but lease the same gold bars into the market? Is there any way the bars could otherwise be encumbered by another party?

Which received the following response:
Many thanks for your enquiry.

Your question might refer to a recent internet blog on "missing Fed and German gold" (July 2013).

Please consider that this source is not reliable and that the hedge fund manager statements quoted are not truthful.

The Bundesbank has full control over its gold reserves.

Please find below further information on the Bundesbank's gold reserves:
While my questions didn't stem directly from the article to which they referred, I did check up on the article mentioned and appears to be this one from King World News where hedge fund manager William Kaye claims that (leased) central bank gold has been sold into the market and melted down:
Once JP Morgan and Goldman Sachs get the gold they sell it into the market.  So these bullion banks then become net-short gold.  And the Fed says, ‘Well, we still have a contract where in theory we can claim the gold.  So we’re going to report that we still own it in the official documents.’
Kaye concludes with the wildly speculative conclusion that Germany will never receive their Gold back because it no longer exists at the Fed. Yet another story teller taking snippets of information from various sources and adding their own twist. It seems highly unlikely that the Fed or any other central bank would breach the trust of other friendly countries by leasing out their Gold.

So in summary:
- The repatriation rate of 50 tonnes per year is a continuation of arrangement organised in late 2012 (indicating Bundesbank requested this rate, not a limit set by the Fed).
- The logistics of transporting, testing and perhaps recasting the bars will be significant.
- Bundesbank is retaining a large portion (37%) of their Gold reserves with the Fed indicating a strong level of trust.
- Bundesbank says their Gold is allocated with identifiable bars and can be withdrawn at any time.
- Bundesbank refutes the stories of KWN that their metal is leased and not at the Fed.

At the end of the day I have to side with the official story, because other narratives lack the support of more conclusive evidence.

It doesn't take much to get the precious metals rumour mill pumping out propaganda these days, for example the Bank of England recently released an internet and mobile based tour of their Gold vault facility which had text mentioning "over 400,000 gold bars" in the vaults. This ended up being roughly 1300 tonnes short of the audited figure reported earlier in the year, which some concluded meant that it was leased or sold into the market to cause the price decline... 
GoldMoney's Alasdair Macleod says that the Bank of England recently become a prolific supplier of gold – leasing out 1,300 tonnes of the yellow metal in just four months.

In an interview with the Keiser Report on the Russia Today network, the GoldMoney research director told financial pundit Max Keiser what he thinks happened to 100,000 gold bars.

While perusing the BofE's new website application, which allows you to take a virtual tour of the Kingdom's gold vaults, Macleod learned that in June the bank was holding 400,000, 400-ounce gold bars.

As a veteran precious metals adviser, Macleod noticed a discrepancy between this figure and the Bank's year-end accounting from February which reported 505,000 bars in storage.
Thankfully there are sites out there looking for such outrageous claims and the above story was thoroughly debunked by Warren at Screwtape Files (a report which is well worth reading in full).

A point I've seen made elsewhere about the German Gold repatriation story is what would have transpired if Germany had decided to pull the 300 tonnes (or even all of their Gold) out of the US in 2 weeks instead of 7 years? No doubt there would have been articles all over the web claiming Germany is making a rush for the exit with their Gold... there will always be sites and commentators ready to peddle sensational stories, it's up to the individual to decide which ones are plausible and which ones aren't. Perhaps the day will come that the "paper gold" market breaks down and all the Gold markets dirty secrets are revealed (I have no doubt there are some), validating some of the stories that circulate on the internet... that would only ever be the icing on the cake as far as I'm concerned, there are already plenty of reasons to own physical Gold without the need to believe tall tales.

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Monday, August 5, 2013

$250k+ in an Australian bank? Beware the bail-in.

Last week the AFR reported the Rudd government was looking to introduce a deposit levy (tax):
The Rudd government plans to impose an insurance levy on all bank deposits, risking a major fight with one of the best-resourced industries on the eve of the election campaign. 
Senior banking figures indicated on Thursday night they would oppose the move and depict it as a tax on bank depositors. 
The government plans to impose a 0.05 per cent insurance levy on every deposit of up to $250,000 to protect depositors against collapses. 
The banks said they will pass on the impost, which equates to 5¢ for each $100, to customers through reduced interest payments on deposits.
The banks are up in arms over who will foot the bill and there has been a media storm over the tiny fraction of a % that this insurance will cost (for example a bank would need only lower the interest rate paid on a deposit from 3.50% to 3.45% in order to recoup the cost). While the media, banks and politicians get into a scuffle over who will fund the minuscule cost of insuring funds under $250k, there seems to be no investigation or reporting by the media on what might happen to funds over the 'guarantee' limit in the case of a bank failure...

Eric Sprott said the following in a recently released interview:
“The one event in my mind would be when it becomes apparent to everyone that having a deposit in a bank is a very risky situation. We saw that in Cyprus where the depositors got nailed on the bail-in. We’ve seen all these proposals to have bail-ins as the solution to the problem in the US, in Canada, in Britain, in New Zealand and in Europe. All the paperwork has been laid out.”
While Sprott doesn't explicitly list Australia, keen eyed blogger 'Barnaby Is Right' captured these interesting snippets from papers that are flying about between our banks, regulators and the treasury, suggesting not only are Australian banks prepared to bail-in customer funds to get out of trouble, but will do so without any warning or disclosure to the market before such an event:
In a November 2012 Technical Note on the Financial Sector Program Update for Australia, as part of their Financial Safety Net and Crisis Management Framework, the IMF has advised that there is a problem:
[Past simulation exercises revealed the need for legislative changes to prevent premature disclosure of sensitive information. Australia’s securities disclosure regime requires, for the protection of investors, immediate and continuous disclosure of information that could reasonably be expected to have a material effect on the price or value of an ADI’s securities. There is a high probability that any resolution or crisis response measures will impact the price or value of an authorized deposit-taking institution’s (ADI’s) securities.
Poor coordination of compliance with the disclosure requirements, timing of resolution or crisis response actions, and the overall public communication strategy regarding these actions could pose risks to financial stability (e.g., through depositor runs) or thwart resolution actions (e.g., through the stripping of the ADI’s assets by insiders) or cause market disruptions. Legislative changes that reduce tension between investor protection and financial stability should be pursued.]
“Reduce tension” between investor protection and financial stability?!
By making laws to “prevent premature disclosure of sensitive information”?!?!
In order to prevent bank runs, which would happen if investors were to find out that a Cyprus-style “resolution or crisis response measure” is in the offing for the bank that they have their money in?!?!!!!
It's unlikely that an event requiring a bail-in would take effect in the near future without further warning signs, but the high level of exposure that Australian banks have to residential mortgages (as recently reported by Moody's) should be sounding alarm bells for those who have deposits at risk...

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