Friday, October 2, 2015

Defining a Housing Bubble

When the prices of securities or other assets rise so sharply and at such a sustained rate that they exceed valuations justified by fundamentals, making a sudden collapse likely - at which point the bubble "bursts". Financial Times
A spike in asset values within a particular industry, commodity, or asset class. A speculative bubble is usually caused by exaggerated expectations of future growth, price appreciation, or other events that could cause an increase in asset values. This drives trading volumes higher, and as more investors rally around the heightened expectation, buyers outnumber sellers, pushing prices beyond what an objective analysis of intrinsic value would suggest. The bubble is not completed until prices fall back down to normalized levels; this usually involves a period of steep decline in price during which most investors panic and sell out of their investments. - Investopedia
A bubble is an upward price movement over an extended period of fifteen to forty months that then implodes. - Charles Kindleberger

A lot of people have been using the term ‘bubble’ to describe the Australian housing market, others say we don’t have one and Former Treasury secretary Martin Parkinson recently suggested it was the wrong question to be asking (i.e. do we have a bubble?), a comment I recently agreed with.

The problem with debating whether or not we have a bubble is that, like the term affordability, it’s definition is subjective.

I provided a few definitions of an 'asset bubble' above, one thing they all have in common is the need for the eventual ‘pop’. So analysts, economists, bloggers, property commentators and perma-bears can rave on all they like about a housing bubble in Australia, but the proof of having had one will be when and if it bursts.

That leaves us with a question though, what size and speed of decline do we need to see in order to confirm the bubble? The above definitions use terms that indicate a quick outcome, 'sudden collapse', 'steep decline', 'panic' and 'implodes', these all indicate a fast and substantial decline. I think anyone arguing that the 'Australian housing bubble' will burst by a slow paced, long term decline in price (real or nominal) is not really describing the bursting of a bubble at all, but rather a slow revaluation of the asset based on the deteriorating fundamentals.

Here is a chart I posted on Twitter over the weekend (click to enlarge):


I would suggest one of these cities had an obviously bubble (Las Vegas) which was confirmed by the bursting price, but what of the other two cities? In my opinion Boston's price decline was not a bursting housing bubble (it's decline was not steep and sudden as it was in Las Vegas), but rather was impacted by the conditions caused by the GFC and credit conditions resulting form the bursting of housing bubbles elsewhere in the United States and was probably overdue some sort of correction. That might also be the case for Adelaide (included on the above chart) and some other Australian cities which aren't experiencing strong price growth.

At it's peak the United States had a bifurcated housing market just as we have in Australia now with unsustainable rates of annual price growth in Sydney and Melbourne, but only moderate growth (at best, if not negative) in most other locations. Cameron Kusher posted a great chart on Twitter recently which highlights differences in price growth since the GFC.

Capital city home value growth since GFC - Dec-08 to Sep-15

Is 10-15% growth over (almost) 7 years the sort of price increase you'd expect to see in an 'asset bubble'?

Now I'm not arguing that Australian property (anywhere) is cheap or affordable (see the first few charts in this post), there is no doubt in my mind that it's historically and globally expensive, but that doesn't mean that every Australian capital city is in a bubble (and going to pop), nor that the Australian housing market should be considered a bubble as a whole.

There's a good chance it will be years before we can confirm whether any Australian capitals are in a property bubble right now or simply expensive/somewhat overvalued. My best guess is that Sydney and Melbourne could be in bubbles and peak this year experiencing a steep decline in price over the years ahead, but some other Australian cities like Adelaide and Brisbane I expect may only experience modest declines. For example if Adelaide saw a 10% nominal decline into 2017 (which I think is a possibility given weak economic factors), then it would result in growth having been 0% over the previous 9 years.

Whatever lies ahead I wish more commentators would define what they consider a bubble to be, because it's become clear to me that some individuals have a completely different opinion of what the term means.
If you have a view on what differentiates expensive or overvalued property to an actual property bubble and what we will need to see from Australian property prices (or in one of the capitals) to confirm we've had one here then I'd be interested to hear your opinion in the comments below...

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Wednesday, August 26, 2015

The Religion of Gold Hating

A lot of finance commentators have poked fun at those who own Gold (aka 'Gold Bugs') over the years, likening them to members of a cult or religious group.

Articles such as '5 more reasons why investors shouldn’t worship gold right now' and 'Let’s Be Honest About Gold: It’s a Pet Rock' where the author concludes that owning Gold is "an act of faith", are recent examples of authors trying to portray Gold owners as devotees of the metal. This is nothing new though, one well known Gold hater, Joe Weisenthal, even wrote a post half a decade ago titled '9 Ways That Gold Is A Religion Masquerading As An Asset Class'.

One amusing aspect of all this Gold hating is that (when aggregated) much of it ironically resembles the same culture they are criticising. It has the same comradery, the same obsessiveness and the same unwavering faith (just in the opposite of what Gold stands for: fiat currencies, sensible government or other financial assets, with no allocation to those which are tangible).

Many Gold haters spend a great deal of time trying to convince anyone who will listen not to own Gold. They ridicule those who do own it and usually make no differentiation between those who allocate a small or large portion of their portfolio to Gold. They try and mold any argument for or against Gold to their own nonobjective viewpoint while claiming to be "asset agnostic" as if their view doesn't suffer from the same subjectivity as the rest of us.

Here are some recent examples of Gold hating from one of their favourite pulpits (Twitter).

Cullen Roche (speaks for itself):



Joe Weisenthal (retweeted this link to an August 6th article on the Gold crash costing Russia and China $5.4 Billion, when the price had already rebounded to around the pre-crash level.):


John Aziz (suggesting a price drop in Gold should result in investors who own the metal "rethinking the world", does that mean those who don't own Gold should have been rethinking the world when it was at US$1900?):


Stephen Koukoulas (whose Gold commentary over the years has lacked sense, see here and here):


Barry Ritholtz, is another prolific Gold hater who I've written about recently (here and here).

A lot of the Gold hating is less obvious than this (i.e. snarky tweets on Gold, that most would brush off as attempted humour, but a pattern can be identified when watching over time), but evidence of it exists across the feeds of many Twitter finance 'elites'. It also flooded the mainstream media over July and early August (marking a significant bottom?) until the price started to rise again.

I agree Gold is like a religion to some owners (but not all of them as the Gold haters would have you believe), but even though that's the case, wouldn't it be rational for investors (who recognise this fanatical group of Gold owners and buyers) to hold a position in the metal knowing of this devout participation in the market? Wouldn't it also be rational to own Gold knowing there are billions of people living in a society with deep cultural ties (many based around religion) to the metal and who are likely to be the same people whose wealth is set to increase the most over coming decades?

For me owning Gold is more of an atheistic position (for the most part, among other reasons). Disbelief (or lack of faith) in governments being capable of navigating the excessive debt that's built up in the financial system today to a growth model moving forward without a significant reset, mass default, global crash to restore some resemblance of sustainability. I think Gold will be one of few assets to benefit from such an event or environment so a healthy allocation is warranted.

Gold Bless,
Bullion Baron.

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Thursday, August 6, 2015

Is Property More Affordable Today Than 30 Years Ago?

This is a continuation (that I have written) of a conversation written by fellow Adelaidean Peter Koulizos, see here for the prologue.
 
[Son enters room]
 
Son: Hey dad, I just heard you spinning a whole lot of nonsense to sis about housing affordability.
 
Dad: What do you mean son? I was just telling her how it was back in my day.
 
Son: Well you know finance and history aren’t her strong points…
 
Dad: Speak nicely of your sister please.
 
Son: Ok, as I was saying, you claimed that it took mum and you longer to save a deposit, because a 25 per cent deposit was required to buy, but isn’t it true that some building societies loaned up to 95 per cent, meaning similar loan to value ratios were available even 30 years ago?
 
Dad: Well, yes, but the interest rates were often higher than the major banks...
 
Son: But isn’t it also typical today for the lenders offering the easiest credit conditions to have higher interest rates?
 
Dad: You have me there son.
 
Son: And isn’t it true that in the early to mid-1980s that the First Home Owners Scheme was far more generous paying up to $7000 in benefits, equalling more than 10% of the purchase price you mentioned?
 
Dad: That is true. Your mum and I took full advantage of that and the First Home Owners Grant isn’t nearly as generous today.
 
Son: You did pay 17% interest rates for a short period of time, but isn’t it true that the higher level of inflation at the time reduced the real value of the loan rather quickly with wages rising faster than they are today?
 
Dad: Yes, but it was tough for the first few years…
 
Son: Didn’t you brag to me one time that you paid off your first home in less than 10 years because interest rates fell in the years after you purchased allowing you to pay off the mortgage much faster? Do you think that it will be made so easy for sis who would be borrowing at historically low interest rates with rate rises more likely in the future?
 
Dad: I hadn’t considered that.
 
Son: You mentioned her trip to Bali, but you know she got those tickets for only $300 return and the accommodation, food and entertainment over there is far cheaper than in Australia. In real terms wouldn’t her week in Bali be cheaper than the long weekend holiday you told us you took to the Gold Coast in the early 1980s while saving for your first home?
 
Dad: You are probably right.
 
Son: It’s also the case that a median house in Adelaide today will be on a far smaller block than you got in 1985. In fact if I recall correctly you said your first home was on a subdivisible block once the council changed the zoning, do you think sis will be able to do that with the typical 375sqm blocks of today?
 
Dad: No, I suppose not.
 
Son: Look, I know you think you had it tough with the mortgage and for the first couple of years that may have been the case, but if sis takes a larger mortgage today, to buy a smaller block, in a lower wage growth environment, with the possibility that interest rates may rise making it difficult to make the repayments in the future, isn’t she taking a greater amount of risk?
 
Dad: If you look at it that way...
 
Son: And shouldn't being able to afford something take into account the level of risk associated with doing so?
 
Dad: I’ve had enough of this, I am going to watch some TV in the lounge.
 
Son: Weren’t you going to have some dessert?
 
Dad: I’m going to put it aside until your sister returns from her friends place so we can sit down and eat it together while I explain that I wasn’t as right as I thought.
 
Son: You don’t say.
 
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Thursday, July 30, 2015

Martin Armstrong: New Supply Could "Crush Gold"

I read Martin Armstrong's blog on a near daily basis (I have his site bookmarked in my Feedly reading list). Sometimes he has interesting predictions and theories to share, sometimes he adds some historical perspective, other times he pumps out some absolute garbage. Here is one example of the latter:
"Well, when it rains it pours. A new discovery of gold has been made and the quantity expected is up to 46,000 tons of gold, whose market value is estimated to 298 billion US dollars if the market stays the same. The entire USA gold reserve is 8,000 tons. So we are talking about a sizable discovery in the Sudan. From a supply-demand perspective, this could crush gold." - Martin Armstrong
Armstrong's source? Sputnik News, the BuzzFeed of Russian propaganda. Here are some key points from the Sputnik article and a couple more sites I found carrying the news (none of which I would have any confidence in).

- Feb 2014 Sudan grants 9 Russian companies permission to explore for minerals.
- Sudan's total Gold production during first half of this year reached 43 tons.
- Russian company Siberian for Mining discovers Gold reserves of 46,000 tonnes.
- The market value of this gold is U.S. $298 billion.
- Zhukov (CEO), plant will be €240M and have production capacity of 50t/pa.

A few things I see wrong with this picture.

It would not be possible to firm up 46,000 tonnes of (proven) Gold reserves in 18 months. The mobilisation of drill rigs, geological expertise and utilisation of laboratories for testing would have been breathtaking, like no other mining and exploration venture you had seen before. After all, 46,000 tonnes of Gold is roughly 25% of estimated above ground Gold that we've mined through all history and would almost double the proven Gold reserves we already have waiting to be extracted. Exploration for Gold reserves is an expensive and time consuming process, Gold mining and exploration companies often take years to firm up a 1-2 million ounce (30-60 tonnes) deposit, let alone something of this scale.

Furthermore 46,000 tonnes of Gold (in above ground form) is worth far more than US$298 billion at market value. Try $1.6 Trillion.

My initial though was that perhaps the 46,000 tonnes was a reference to the total volume of dirt containing the $298B in Gold, but that still doesn't make sense as Gold content of the earth would be way too high... maybe the figure was supposed to be $298M (not billion) worth of Gold, but even that by my calculation would have required Gold content of around 200g/t (not a chance, most miners these days operate on mining ore around 1-2g/t).

If anyone else can make sense of the figures or find another source with better information about the find, I'd welcome your input in the comments below.

But just for a moment lets imagine that Martin Armstrong wasn't spreading nonsense that has no basis in reality and that this company had proven up 46,000 of actual reserves ready to mine and "crush Gold" as Armstrong so eloquently puts it... I have had other commentators say "what if" about a massive Gold find in the past.

This company is spending €240M (US$263M) on a Gold plant with production capacity of 50t/pa. How fast are they going to bring that 46,000 tonnes of Gold to the surface and what would the cost be to do so? Even if they spent billions of dollars building new massive plants with the intention of bringing 1,000 tonnes of Gold to the surface each year from this one find (increasing current annual mine supply by around 35%) and assuming global Gold infrastructure expanded to process this additional capacity, it would only add a little over 0.5% to total above ground supply each year.

Meanwhile, global debt has increased by an astounding 40% since 2007, despite having a Global Financial Crisis during the same period.


Somehow I don't think Gold has much to worry about from the discovery of a massive new deposit. Of more concern is the supply / demand of and for existing above ground Gold.


[postscript]

Martin Armstrong has since edited his article. Google cache had most of that I quoted above so took a screenshot comparing old with new (though the old version I found was still missing some paragraphs from the end, so presumably has been edited a couple of times over the last day or two).


So it appears that Sudan will be mining only an additional 20 tonnes of Gold in 2016 (100 tonnes, versus 80 tonnes in 2015). Will that be enough to crush Gold (or "crush gold psychologically" as Armstrong rewrote)? Probably not if sold as mined, although Bron notes in a recent article that it only took 22 tonnes on the Futures market to knock $48 off spot price in the recent price smash.


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Sunday, July 26, 2015

Who's to Blame for Australia's Expensive Property?

Picture a science lab with a square metal table in the centre. On top of the table lies an intricate wooden maze. The maze itself is completely enclosed. In the middle of the maze, at the end of the one way walled passage, is a block of cheese. In a small cage not far from the maze is a rat, who hasn't been fed for a day and whose nose is going haywire smelling the nearby cheese. The three researchers (who were responsible for building the maze) are standing nearby, one of them removes the rodent from the cage and places it into the maze, soon after which the rat finds it's way to the cheese and consumes it.

I would liken this scenario to the Australian property market, where the researchers represent the three levels of government (federal, state and local), the maze walls are policies they've introduced, cheese symbolises investment properties and for the purpose of this exercise the rat is us, investors (though it could also represent other home buyers who are also herded by government policy).

Now you may think human investors are smarter than a rat, but history shows us that time and time again we will rush toward the cheese (investment returns) often foregoing rational thought in order to do so. Just take the recent bubble and crash in the Chinese stock market (Shanghai Stock Exchange Composite Index pictured below), which was largely driven by retail investors and fuelled by margin lending.

Shanghai Stock Exchange Composite Index
If you spoke to the rat, told it not to eat the cheese from the maze, you are about as likely to receive a positive response as if you told investors (as a group, there are some investors who do act rationally as individuals) to only bid the price of an asset to a sensible valuation before stopping.

Historically (at least since the 1960's) home ownership rates have been fairly stable at around 70%, but this has since declined slightly to 68% in the 2011 ABS census and recent investor lending statistics indicate that it's probably getting worse with investor finance overtaking that of owner occupiers (lacking the balance of historical ratios).


The argument over whether Australian property is in a bubble is beside the point, as Former Treasury secretary Martin Parkinson said"Do we have a bubble? I think that's the wrong question to be asking. The real question is why are house prices so high?" 

There's no denying that Australian property is expensive, so who do we hold accountable?

I hold no animosity toward investors who buy property. Sure there are landlords who do the wrong thing from time to time, but as a group they are just acting in unison because it makes sense to them, in an effort to better their personal situation and largely due to the policies implemented by government. Blaming them for making home prices expensive is a bit like getting angry at a rat for navigating the maze and eating the cheese. The stage has been set, barriers and incentives have been put in place for investors to take advantage of the situation, why wouldn’t we expect them to do so?

The invisible influence of government policy, at least much less obvious than solid walls, is controlling almost every aspect of the property market, on both the supply and demand sides. 

On the demand side they influence the cost of servicing a mortgage using the Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA) Cash Rate Target, regulate bank lending through the Australian Prudential Regulation Authority (APRA), encourage specific segments of the market to participate in transactions by using incentives (such as the First Home Owners & Downsizing Grants) and set the rules that allow foreign investors to buy our homes.

Tax policy can also contribute to demand, a strong rise in property prices followed the introduction of the 50 per cent capital gains tax discount (having held an asset for 12 months) suggests it was an inflection point for an increase in investor interest in property, also illustrated by the flood of investor finance that followed the change in 2000.


Negative gearing, whilst also available for other assets, further exacerbates demand for property, making it cheaper to service the negative cash flow of a mortgage, allowing investors to pay higher prices, buy sooner than they may have otherwise and carry a larger portfolio of properties.

It’s not only the demand side that government policy affects, supply too is impacted as government controls what land is available to build on, the building types that are allowed on that land, they set the fees and taxes associated with building, as well as on the sale of a newly constructed home and ensure the undertaking meets strict standards and a lengthy application process, all of which can contribute to increasing the cost of and deter bringing new supply to market.

On top of policies they implemented prior, since the Global Finance Crisis (GFC) the government has also intervened at times in ways that have both indirectly and directly boosted the property market. Examples include guarantees that were introduced to protect our banks (e.g. wholesale funding and deposits), the RBA taking on tranches of mortgage backed securities to support lending and the introduction of a temporary First Home Owners Boost which according to Treasury Executive Minutes, “was designed to encourage people who had already been saving for a home to bring forward their purchase and prevent the collapse of the housing market.”

I've seen investors who've benefited from this generous environment complain that no changes should be made to the status quo, the "free market", the suggestion of which is laughable. 

The government can and should act to reduce speculative demand and increase supply (if warranted) in the Australian property market, with a view to lower prices and improving affordability. Even the Liberal Party of Australia's Federal Constitution in Part II (Objectives, section n) says:

"...in which family life is seen as fundamental to the well-being of society, and in which every family is enabled to live in and preferably to own a comfortable home at reasonable cost, and with adequate community amenities."

Not that this objective is embraced by senior members of the Liberal Party such as Prime Minister (Tony Abbott) or Treasurer (Joe Hockey). Joe Hockey recently said “If housing was unaffordable in Sydney no one would be buying it, but people are still purchasing housing,” and Tony Abbott welcomed rising prices, clearly not seeing the contradiction with affordability, "I want housing to be affordable but nevertheless, I also want house prices to be modestly increasing." Neither seem to have a solid grasp of what constitutes 'reasonable cost'.

If you want someone to blame for Australia's expensive property, turn your eye away from the property investor / speculator, they are just another rat in the same maze as the rest of us. It's government policy at fault and that is what needs to change. With change of policy will come a change in investor behaviour.


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Thursday, July 23, 2015

How About Fair GST Treatment For Bullion?

In an article I was reading yesterday about the GST-free threshold for imported goods, which postured support for a lowering the cap from $1000 to $20, there was a video containing this message from Craig James (CommSec's Chief Economist):
"Certainly we believe this is a fair tax because if it is the case that people are traveling overseas and over the net to buy goods, bypassing Australian goods. Well really the same goods should be charged the same price whether you're buying overseas or getting it domestically."
There has also been recent talk of raising the GST in Australia from 10 to 15%.

As a proponent for small(er) government and less taxes I'm not particularly fond of the latter suggestion, but I do concur with James' view that a fair tax should see comparable goods charged the same amount of tax. Not only for consumer goods, but also for investment assets. This is one area that bullion (as an investment asset) is short changed.

A guide I wrote on buying Gold and Silver in Australia describes when bullion is GST free:
GST (Goods & Services Tax): Investment grade Gold (99.5%+ fine) and Silver (99.9%+ fine) bullion is not subject to GST. Bullion products of a lesser grade (for example 22k Gold coins like Sovereigns & Krugerrands or 92.5% sterling Silver coins) do attract GST when sold by a bullion dealer.
That results in some of the most commonly purchased bullion investment coins being burdened with GST as they don't meet the minimum finesse (Gold sovereigns and the 1966 Australian fifty-cent piece are just two examples).

1966 Australian fifty-cent pieces, only have 80% Silver content
This unfair addition of GST to an investment asset is something I would like to see changed as I wrote  2 years ago:
Increase the scope of the definitions "precious metal" & "investment grade bullion" for taxation purposes to include coins containing Gold, Silver, Platinum or Palladium (any finesse) which are now or once were legal tender of Australia or any other nation and which trade as a function of the spot price.

Precious metals are often traded in widely recognised investment forms which don't meet the strict scope defined by the Australian Taxation Office. Investment grade bullion below 99% for Platinum, 99.5% for Gold and 99.9% for Silver is subject to Goods and Services Tax (GST). This means dealers are required to charge GST on coins which many hold for investment purposes, but aren't exempt from GST, for example American Gold Eagles (91.6% Gold), Gold Sovereigns (91.6% Gold) and Round Australian 1966 50 Cent Pieces (80% Silver). Such legal tender coins which trade as a function of spot price (consistently trade at spot + x% premium) would be made exempt from GST.
I was also recently made aware (thanks Bron!) that there are other limitations to the GST free status of bullion (that I wasn't familiar with), such as a requirement for the metal to have been refined by a refiner:
"To have this GST-free status one of the requirements is that the metal has been refined by a refiner of precious metal. To be a refiner of precious metal, an entity has to satisfy the Commissioner that the entity regularly converts or refines precious metal in carrying on its enterprise." ATO (What is 'precious metal' for the purposes of GST?)
That means despite the hallmarking of these hand poured Silver bars I recently purchased, if they'd been sold in Australia by a dealer they may have needed GST applied (I bought them direct from the overseas producer in a package that was lower than the current $1000 GST-free threshold).

Home Made Redwood Poured Silver Bars
I think it would be fair to see GST removed from all bullion that is bought for the purpose of investment and where it trades as a function of spot price as I wrote last year:
Perhaps the exemption could be expanded to cover any precious metal which trades as a function of spot price, so that tax fraud is no longer as simple as defacing investment grade bullion, changing it into a form which can suddenly benefit from input tax credits.
That would put the precious metal asset class on a level playing field with others (such as shares), surely that's something that even Craig James could get behind!

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Monday, June 29, 2015

Rising Prices Aren't Always Good For Home Owners

Contrary to popular belief that all home owners benefit from rising prices, that is not always the case.

Younger generations who are yet to buy a long term home, who may have purchased a smaller property that suits them for the short term or just to get themselves onto the “property ladder”, may be disadvantaged if they intend to upgrade in the future.

Take the case of a Sydney family who bought a $400k 2 bedroom apartment to tide them over for a few years. They had a 75% LVR to begin with, putting in a 25% deposit, but lower interest rates have assisted them in paying down the principal aggressively and as it stands have an LVR of 60% on purchase price ($240k mortgage). They’ve outgrown the apartment with a new addition to the family and want to now purchase a 3 bedroom house. Let’s look at three scenarios in which they sell their apartment and buy back into the same market.

Inputs:
Original value of 2 bedroom apartment: $400k
Original value of 3 bedroom house: $550k
Sale fee (real estate agency to sell apartment): 1.5%
Stamp duty (to buy house): Calculated on NSW rates

Scenario 1: No Price Change. ($400k apartment, $550k house)
Stamp duty: $20,500
Sale fee: $6000
Cash left for new purchase: $133,500
That’s a 24% deposit leaving a $416,500 mortgage on the new home.

Scenario 2: Prices Rise by 10%. ($440k apartment, $605k house)
Stamp duty: $23,000
Sale fee: $6600
Cash left for new purchase: $170,400
That’s a 28% deposit leaving a $434,600 mortgage on the new home.

Scenario 3: Prices Fall by 10%. ($360k apartment, $495k house)
Stamp duty: $18,000
Sale fee: $5400
Cash left for new purchase: $96,600
That’s a 19.5% deposit leaving a $398,400 mortgage on the new home.

So in the three scenarios above, while the steady or rising prices result in a larger deposit for the new home, allowing a lower LVR, it also sticks the owner with a larger mortgage.

Which of the above 3 mortgages would you prefer to have for the same 3 bedroom house (all else being equal)?

Of course not every situation is the same, a larger fall than 10% may result in Lenders Mortgage Insurance being payable or result in the apartment owner being underwater (mortgage exceeds value of home or is high enough that selling won't leave a large enough deposit) and locked into their unsuitable abode.

The point of this short post was just to highlight the furphy that many spread to suggest that all homeowners benefit from rising prices, when the reality is that it often just means a larger mortgage when they upgrade to their next home.


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Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Adam Carr Wrong on Australia's Housing Affordability

Adam Carr had this to say on housing affordability in Australia (via Business Spectator)...
"...housing is still actually very affordable."
Carr was prepared to dive head first into showing how an $800,000 property is affordable on a $100,000 salary.
"A household on $150,000 could afford a $1 million-plus house -- no dramas. Someone on $100,000 could afford anything in the vicinity of $650,000 to $800,000. A lot depends on the loan-to-value ratio they’re taking -- I’ve used 70 per cent -- but it can be done."
Ok, let's break this down. $100,000 would be roughly $73,000 net, $1403/week. Carr is working from a position that they've saved a 30% (+ costs) deposit. Using $32,000 for stamp duty and fees (I went with NSW figures) and ignoring any other transaction costs (such as legals)... that's $272,000 required in savings (the deposit) before we can even start checking the affordability of the remaining mortgage. Based on a savings rate of 30% of net income ($21,900 per year, very generous if you ask me), it has potentially taken this buyer more than 12 years to save the deposit that Carr says they have on hand. That should already be raising alarm bells on this so called "very affordable" property market we have.

Now we could make any number of assumptions about this buyer, maybe he/she had property that appreciated in value before buying this one, maybe they have bank of mum and dad chipping in, maybe they're a gun investor who has turned a little savings into a lot of capital to fund the deposit... but these would be unfair presumptions to make. We could scale back the price and incomes at a comparable ratio and it would still look awful... e.g. someone on $50,000 buying a $400,000 property (for their first home) and using a $135,000 deposit will have to save for 10+ years using the same measure.

The mortgage repayments (on the remaining $560,000 loan) work out to $655 weekly (at 4.5% interest over 30 years). That's over 46% of net pay (34% of gross) and doesn't take into consideration the extra costs of ownership such as council rates, maintenance, insurance and more. It also doesn't take into consideration the possibility of interest rates rising, if they normalised to 7% the repayments would rise to $860 per week (61% of net income, 44% of gross).

Call me mad, but I don't consider Carr's examples to show affordable property any way you cut it (at least not in the way I think the word should be used)...



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Thursday, May 28, 2015

Rent vs Buy: An Adelaide "Cost Comparison" Revisted

One of the very early articles I wrote on this site compared the cost of buying a home with renting one in Adelaide (Rent vs Buy: An Australian "Cost Comparison"). Earlier that year I'd sold a property I owned in Adelaide (returned to renting), I put my money where my mouth is and at the time it made more sense from a financial (and personal) perspective to forgo the security of owning (or more accurately "paying off") my own home.

Almost 5 years later I am still renting the same property, the lower cost of which (less than the mortgage I had) has been an enabler to put away some extra savings and investment. In the meantime property prices have basically gone nowhere (fell around 8-10% over 2010 to 2012 and have since rebounded back to 2010 levels) and interest rates have dropped.

The comparison I did previously using figures in Adelaide, at the time most other Australian capitals were quite comparable (i.e. yields around 4-4.5% for houses), but today Sydney and Melbourne are in a league of their own. The figures I lay out below make owning look quite attractive, but that same argument probably doesn't hold true in Sydney and Melbourne where prices have gone gangbusters and yields are woeful.

I have revisited the figures from the original article and compared them with today.

Rent vs Buy - The Figures

Property: $500k House

Rent (2010): $25,000pa / 52 = $480pw
Rent (2015): $26,520pa / 52 = $510pw

(Residex shows yields have slightly improved for Adelaide over the past 5 years)

Buy (2010):
$500k + $24,000 (stamp duty and transfer fee#) x 7.25% = $37,990
1% of property value for maintenance and insurance = $5000
Council and water rates = $2000
Total = $44,990 / 52 = $865pw (interest only)

Buy (2015):
$500k + $25,000 (stamp duty and transfer fee#) x 4.15% (3 years fixed) = $21,787
1% of property value for maintenance and insurance = $5000
Council and water rates = $2200
Total = $28,987 / 52 = $557pw (interest only)

# Adelaide based figures, this would differ between states

As I pointed out last time, this still doesn't account for all costs of ownership (or for that matter renting), but you can see that there has been a squeeze in the gap between the two. In 2010 the cost difference was $385 per week, in 2015 that has narrowed to $47 per week, mainly as a result of falling interest rates and a small increase in rents. The above example shows a 6.25% jump in rents, in my personal situation I have seen a 13% rise in 5 years (which reflects the local market, different areas in Adelaide may have seen higher or lower). Over the last 5 years I have also seen my income rise which would make servicing the gap easier.

In Adelaide a $500,000 house would actually buy you something quite nice, a modern 3 bedroom house around 10km from the city, maybe even closer or a small house in the city if that is a preference. If you are prepared to look at modest homes you can buy something more dated, 15-20km out from the city, for around $300,000. Assuming a 10% (+ costs) deposit (leaving a $270,000 loan) and 3 year fixed interest rate of 4.15%, the principal and interest repayments would be around $300 per week. Rent for the same house might set you back $320-340 per week. Suddenly a home in Adelaide is looking quite obtainable, maybe even for a household on a single income.

Now I'm not saying Adelaide is cheap, it's still expensive on a global or historical comparison (if we look back at the property to income ratios of the mid 1990s), but it is definitely obtainable for those who've had the capacity to save a reasonable deposit (circa 10-20%).

There are still some risks to the Adelaide property market, as I outlined a couple of years ago (What's next for Adelaide property prices?) the economic conditions are not positive in the state, we already have one of the highest unemployment rates in the country and things may be set to get worse before they get better as the car manufacturing industry shutters. Further to this Adelaide property is at risk of being affected by recent changes to investor lending (that is likely to tighten further), falling wage growth and a crackdown on foreign investment (some of which was well described in a recent article by Callam Pickering). These factors are likely to continue weighing on Adelaide prices, but in my view with prices being the same level as they were 5 years ago, the risk of a substantial correction (i.e. 15%+ nominal) is unlikely barring a complete meltdown of our banking system or huge spike in interest rates (neither of which I consider to be likely).

FT describes an asset bubble like this:
When the prices of securities or other assets rise so sharply and at such a sustained rate that they exceed valuations justified by fundamentals, making a sudden collapse likely - at which point the bubble "bursts".
Those referring to all Australian cities as being in a bubble (I do agree Sydney and Melbourne potentially are) are either wrong or have come up with their own definition of the term. Perhaps they think it's likely we see a return to the historical price to income values we had in the mid 1990s (or earlier) and that we've been in a long lasting bubble since that time. I think that is an unlikely scenario (returning to ratios from 20+ years ago) given the political and financial system we have today.

On a personal note I recently started looking at property in Adelaide (to buy) for the first time in 5 years (looking at PPOR and/or investment) and I expect to purchase (perhaps more than once) in the next 12 to 24 months. Price growth may be slow to begin with and won't rule out some negative growth (what a term! e.g. falling prices) in the short term, but there are some reasonable yields out there now and the time to buy will be while sentiment remains poor.

And if GFC 2.0 comes knocking on Australia's door and smashes the price of all Australian property in half... well at least I'll still have my Gold ;)



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Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Martin Armstrong on Australia's Bank Deposit Tax

Yesterday I spotted an article by Martin Armstrong (Australia First to Introduce a Compulsory Tax on Money Itself) that I think is misleading (no surprise that Zero Hedge was quick to republish it).

Before delving into Armstrong's claims, let us take a look at what he is presumably talking about (I say presumably because his article rant is light on facts & details about the subject at hand).

From the AFR, a tax on bank deposits:
"The federal government is planning a tax on bank deposits at the May budget in a move that will raise about $500 million a year but which bankers warn could be passed on to customers.
Sources have told AFR Weekend that the government is set to proceed with the bank deposits insurance levy, first proposed by the former Labor government, to shore up revenue and to act as an alternative to forcing banks to hold extra capital as insurance against collapse."
What does that mean in practice?
"The money would be put in a Financial Stability Fund and be used to protect depositors against the highly unlikely event of a bank collapse. In the meantime, the fund would also be used to offset gross debt. If the Coalition adopts the same model as Labor and if banks pass the levy on to customers, it would mean a term deposit currently paying 2.6 per cent would pay 2.55 per cent."
So to correctly frame the situation we need to define what this tax is, is it a tax on money (as per the headline) or a tax on savings as Armstrong suggests in his article?
"The new compulsory control is provided in the 2015 Australian budget, so that everyone who has any savings must pay taxes on their savings. The measure is expected to serve as a global test balloon for Europe and North America, who will watch for the outcome in Australia. If there is no massive resistance of Australian savers, the rest of the world should expect this outright confiscation very rapidly."
In my opinion framing it as a tax on money or savings is implying (wrongly) that bank balances will be reduced in order to fund it. Really it's a tax on deposits and it's levied on the banks, not customer balances. Of course any cost to the bank will likely be passed on in the form of higher fees or lower interest rates, but very unlikely to touch balances (i.e. it's not outright confiscation).

The original Labor proposal was for the levy to apply on deposits under $250,000. Why that amount? Probably because that is the deposit size per customer, per Authorised Deposit-taking Institution (ADI), that the government guarantees. Is it fair that depositors insured by the government (taxpayers really) fund the cost of their own bailout should it be needed? I think so (but welcome opposing views in the comments below).

I wrote about Labor's proposal back in 2013 ($250k+ in an Australian bank? Beware the bail-in.):

"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..."

I'm no fan of 'Too Big To Fail' banking institutions and don't pretend to have all the answers on the best way forward from the position we're in. Ideologically I think banks should be allowed to fail and individuals could organise their own insurance against such events, but would it be responsible of the government to just implement a change like this and pull all guarantees in one swoop?

Armstrong continues:
"Take your money and buy tangible assets, even gold, but you just cannot store it in a bank. Movable assets will be the key and buying equities in the USA may be the only real game in town to protect money."
Now anyone reading this blog for some time (or even if you are looking at it for the first time) should be able to deduct that I'm an advocate for Gold ownership, but that doesn't mean I think you should take out all your savings and buy Gold. Also I think keeping your Gold stored in a safe deposit box with a bank is probably just as safe as any private facility (in Australia) as I concluded in a recent article focusing on this very topic (Storing Gold & Silver: Safe Deposit Box In Australia):

"Bank SDB facilities get characterised as unsafe due to their connection to the banking system, but in my opinion there are some pros and some cons that result from this association and on the whole I don't see bank SDBs as less safe than their private counterparts."

Armstrong concludes on this note:
"The introduction of this tax on money in Australia led by Tony Abbott is the trial balloon for the global economy. The IMF’s Christine Lagarde has led the battle to impose French socialism/communism upon the entire world. I have warned that she is the most dangerous woman on the planet. Do not forget, it was the French elite who sold the idea of communism to Marx – not the other way around. Now the French elite have control of the IMF and they have persuaded all other global financial institutions to also require such a compulsory levy for several years because they see it as the only way to resolve the debt crisis – just confiscate the people’s money."
We've already identified that this isn't really a confiscation of people's money, but rather a levy on the banks to fund a Financial Stability Fund in order to support depositors in event of a bank failure. Is Australia really the first country to implement such a scheme as suggested by Armstrong in the paragraph above and even his article's title (Australia First to Introduce a Compulsory Tax on Money Itself)? No. Perhaps Armstrong should take a look at the history of the FDIC, which could be seen as an equivalent to this fund, guarantee & levy, it looks to me as if the US has had something similar implemented for almost 100 years or more (from: A Brief History of Deposit Insurance in the United States):
Assessments on participating banks. All of the insurance programs derived the bulk of their income from assessments. Both regular and special assessments were based on total deposits. The  assessments levied ranged from an amount equivalent to an average annual rate of about one-eighth of 1 percent in Kansas to about two-thirds of 1 percent in Texas.
Australia's 0.05% levy looks rather small in comparison. And from the FDIC's website:
"The FDIC receives no Congressional appropriations - it is funded by premiums that banks and thrift institutions pay for deposit insurance coverage and from earnings on investments in U.S. Treasury securities. The FDIC insures approximately $9 trillion of deposits in U.S. banks and thrifts - deposits in virtually every bank and thrift in the country."
Australia is hardly the first country to implement such a scheme and we won't be the last.

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