Wednesday, August 26, 2009

A chronic housing shortage: Myth or reality?

What I really want for me and my young family is a nice big house, well located, with a shed, in a quiet street, with shops close by, and parks all around. Damn the housing shortage!

But let us be serious for a minute. If you are going to claim a housing shortage, a chronic one at that, you will need some pretty solid economic justification.

This article is targeted squarely at the claims of protagonists Christopher Joye and Jason Anderson. I do this not to provoke, but to share ideas and present some theoretical arguments. I read Joye’s columns in Business Spectator, and am a fan of his general rigour and respect for evidence. But for some reason, he repeatedly claims that Australia suffers a chronic housing shortage. Maybe it is just his enthusiasm coming through, but surely to make such a claim he would need to define both chronic and shortage. Setting the definition of shortage aside for a moment, I think we can first ignore the use of the term chronic, as it implies long-lasting and ongoing. Maybe this term is used to make the point that Joye foresees the scale of future housing shortages to be quite severe.

Anderson makes these same claims, and challenges those who deny a housing shortage to explain to me why it is that in the 2008 calendar year we had the strongest rental growth in nominal terms for more than 20 years and in real terms for more than 30 years. He further claims his analysis revealed a housing shortage in 2006, and proposed that this would result in large increases in rent. While the rent rises did in fact happen, Joye’s own RP Data-Rismark Hedonic Index shows that house prices in capital cities have only just recovered their losses to return to the levels of early 2008. Are we to believe that a chronic housing shortage resulted in a decline in prices of 4%? If we adjust this index into real terms, that is a significant reduction (although I’m not certain whether this is already factored into the index). In any case the house price index in the figure below has grown at an average rate of 5.6% pa since Jan 2007. Over the period, the weighted average inflation in capital cities was 3.4% for 2007/08 and 3.1% for 2008/09.

Joye also makes the following claims as he tries to make the case for a chronic housing shortage, and I quote:
1. House prices have only just recovered their 2008 losses.
2. The rate of house price growth is not accelerating – in fact, it is decelerating. 3. Australia has had very low rates of appreciation –currently and since 2003.
4. Indeed, Australian house price growth since the end of 2003 has been well below household disposable income growth and nominal GDP.

I still can’t see the chronic housing shortage.

This article is also aimed at the antagonist Kris Sayce, who wrote an interesting piece that attempted to challenge the claims of Joye, Anderson and others. One of his key foci is the research that quantifies the shortfall of dwellings, which to me misses the point entirely. Dwelling counting, like job counting, is meaningless to an economist without regard to the profile of demand and supply and subsequently the price. These figures, as far as I am concerned, are a communication tool for planners and politicians; for those who get lost in more abstract economic concepts.

But Sayce does finally focus on the issue at hand – supply, demand, and price. He makes the poignant point that house prices during a bubble (if you want to call it that, however mild) begin to carry a growth premium. People begin paying a premium on the price for the expected future capital growth. The elimination of this growth premium may explain the decline in prices observed over 2008.

But this article is not about discrediting the two main protagonists, nor is it about supporting Sayce and the pool of antagonists, of which Steve Keen is probably the most extreme. In the end, I think we all agree (apart from Steve) that an upswing in residential property prices is certain, but I think we disagree on the timing and the severity of the boom.

Let us turn then to the details, which I believe get lost or forgotten in discussions of this nature. First, we need to define shortage in some meaningful way. Second, we need to examine the reason for the disconnection between rents and prices to answer Anderson’s question. And third, we need to consider the role of expectations and behaviour in response to broader economic circumstances.

First, shortage, or scarcity, of resources is THE economic problem. Most economists believe that prices are the best way for resources to be rationed amongst competing demands. In the residential property market, prices really do reflect a point where the supply and demand curves meet at a given point in time. Either the term shortage is used as a proxy for high prices relative to some subjective normal price level, or there must be some barrier that is stopping the market from functioning; some barrier that makes buyers unable to participate even though they have the financial means.

I await a meaningful definition of housing shortage from Messrs Joye and Anderson.

Second, the response to Jason Anderson’s challenge of explaining the dramatic rental increases in 2008 is deceptively simply. Any individual, family or other residing group, face two options for housing: renting or buying. The trend observed over the past 7 years or so has been an early rise in house prices, with a less substantial increases in rent, and a late fall, or plateau, in house prices, and an increase in rents. Buying and renting each have their benefits. If on aggregate, people tended to see buying as preferable in the early part of the decade, having seen significant price increases, and factoring in this growth premium to their decision, we would get the pattern observed. If in recent years, that growth premium has been lost, and job uncertainty has increased, people may feel like renting is relatively more attractive. Hence, we have seen significant rental gains since the end of 2007, but flat or decreasing house prices. At some point, rents will increase to the point where buying seems an attractive option again.

To clarify, the demand for housing is the sum of the demand for rental accommodation and owner-occupied accommodation.

Third, there is plenty going on in the economy more broadly that will impact the housing situation; lingering uncertainty (about a W-shaped recovery), expected interest rate rises, and a new generation entering housing with different attitudes.

Uncertainty is, in my opinion, going to hold back price growth for residential dwellings for some time yet. While there is much media attention to those who claim the end of the recession, but there are still warnings about a W-shaped recovery. Too much exuberance too early in global stock markets could be a big mistake, and another big fall would postpone a sound recovery. While this may make residential property appear a more stable investment, I suspect the net effect will still be a reduction in demand from both investors and owner-occupiers.

More closely related to the residential property market, the likelihood of interest rate rises next year will be holding back many moves from the rental to the buying market. Coupling this with a potential W-shaped recovery, and the potential for greater job disruptions should that occur, I would hesitate to call a house price boom until after 2010.

Taking the focus back to the home seeking individual or family, how do these uncertainties change their accommodation decision? For starters, it delays the decision to go from renter to owner. It also delays the decision to even become a renter. Young adults will choose to stay much longer with their folks. Importantly, and this is often overlooked, it may increase the occupancy rates in an effort to consolidate space and increase savings. For example, Grandma may move in with her children’s family and rent her own house. Or families may take boarders in their spare rooms, and group households may decide that rents can be shared better by having someone occupy the spare room. All of these points describe my network of young professional friends – the next generation of home buyers.

This brings me to my final point. The next generation of home buyers have different values to the Baby Boomers, or even Generation X. Generation Y travels, they see a mortgage as a burden, and the opportunity costs of homeownership to be very high. In my own case, the difference in costs for me to own the house I currently occupy, or to rent, are about $20,000 per year. The Generation Y attitude is to see the choices as
a. Buy a house and commit to continuous work for a lengthy period of time with little opportunity for saving or an extravagant lifestyle, or
b. Rent, stay mobile, and use the $20,000 difference on a year long trip to South East Asia, or a spend 6 months motorcycling through South America, Che Guevera style. And do this year in, year out.

My own prediction is that the housing market, in terms of prices, will remain fairly stable for the next year, while rents may continue rising at a slower pace. Should a second economic slump occur next year, governments of all levels have incentive to prop up prices temporarily, prolonging the plateau. It is likely to be another year until increasing rents and prices combine to provide the incentive, and the certainty, for developers to bring housing stock to the market. The recent population growth also points to the fact that housing will remain a reliable investment in the medium term, as the current ‘baby bonus children’ grow out of their bassinets.

I often wonder where the incentives lie for making such dramatic claims about the housing market. The obvious reason is that making claims that hit the middle ground are not particularly newsworthy. A second obvious reason is that maintaining confidence in the market is very important, and claims such as this do dilute the uncertainties discussed above. But really, developers are savvy operators, and many have large financial and land reserves, leaving them ready to build and profit when the market is ready. There is no need for alarm.


  1. ok so here's the go - your underlying point of housing prices currently being a function of consumer preferences which are dictating that a house and land is preferable to an apartment is a sound one.

    However (here we go), stopping there and saying that nothing should be done to fix it is maybe a little short-sighted. What are the deadweight losses to society from credit being vacuumed up by domestic housing investment instead of other types of investment? America sings a very sad song with regards to that.

    Consumer preferences matter - they underpin the very existence of the market and the so-called non-existent shortage (I like that name), in this instance. So what you should really be saying is that yes there is a distortion in prices brought about by consumer preferences - all other things equal, this is the same as a shift in the supply curve therefore we experience the effects of a de facto shortage. The question to ask now is: what set of rational consumer preferences could exist that would solve the housing affordability problem?

  2. Hey Muz,

    I stumbled across your blog so thought I should drop a comment!

    Didn't get time to read much of your stuff, but will come back to it.

    Interestingly, I am in the middle or reading black swan at the moment. Given that backdrop, I am surprised you are willing to put predictions out in the public sphere!

    Ross Franklin

  3. Thanks for the comment Ross. I wrote an entry about Nassim Taleb in May after reading the book, so that might interest you.

    Prediction is hard, especially about the future, but here's my selfish reason for doing so. In the likely event I am wrong, I can simply claim that some other unknown factor was at play, and that without said factor, my prediction would have been accurate.

    In the unlikely event my predictions are correct, I will gain significant credibility as a market analyst.

    All upside, no downside.

    If you know of anyone else who may be interested in the blog, please pass along a link and encourage comments.

    Thanks mate.