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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