The author has been described by News Ltd as an "iconoclast", "Svengali", a pollie's "economist muse", and "pungently accurate". Fairfax says he is a "Renaissance man" and "one of Australia’s most respected analysts." Stephen Koukoulas concludes that he is "85% right", and "would make a great Opposition leader." Terry McCrann claims the author thinks "‘nuance’ is a trendy village in the south of France", but can be "scintillating" when he thinks "clearly". The ACTU reckons he’s "an enigma wrapped in a Bloomberg terminal, wrapped in some apparently well-honed abs."

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

RBA slams supply-side

The RBA's Phil Lowe has given an excellent speech today that touches on the housing market.

As I first argued in my 2003 report to the Prime Minister, the housing cost problems that Australia faces, which the RBA has recently started turning its mind to, can be resolved mostly by elastifying the supply-side. That is, by building more homes.

This thesis was explicitly rejected by the RBA in 2004, which at the time claimed that supply-side impediments were not driving up the cost of housing in this country. But, of course, they were and have continued to do so.

The RBA's 180 degree turn, which officials privately acknowledge, is a welcome development.

Critically, Lowe did not claim that Australia suffers from a house price 'bubble'. In fact, the RBA has recently gone to great lengths to reject any such terminology. Anyone who uses the bubble moniker is generally doing so because they do not understand the underlying fundamentals.

What Lowe did say is that we should expect house prices to rise in order to 'balance' demand and supply. This is precisely what fully functioning markets are intended to do. Price rises are signals to the supply-side to encourage more investment in new housing. The problem is that housing supply has been sluggish in Australia for many decades now, and may require large price changes to stimulate the allocation of scarce investment to the sector. This is undesireable.

What we and the RBA would like to see is the elimination of as many obstacles as possible to efficient construction. This means relaxed zoning restrictions, speedier approvals processes, and a reduction in local and state government levies on new development. We also have to have concurrent public sector investment in the infrastructure required to enable or liberate new supply.

The RBA is looking to the future. Despite the often misplaced media hyperbole, Australian house prices have only grown by 6.1 per cent per annum over the last five years according to RP Data-Rismark's Capital Cities Dwelling Price Index. What the media never tells us is that disposable household incomes rose by a much greater 7.9 per cent per annum over exactly this same period (per capitao growth was 6.0 per cent per annum). The Governor of the RBA has made this point in speeches of late. Even accounting for the 2009 recovery, Australian house price growth has materially underperformed incomes.

An inconvenient truth.