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."

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Housing at crucial cross-roads

There is mounting evidence to suggest that Australia’s housing market rests at a critical juncture. The first two charts below show the evolution of Australian dwelling values since 2000 and 2006, respectively. You can clearly see the latest innovation in the housing cycle, wherein overall Australian home values (blue line) have tapered by a modest 2.3%. The question on everyone’s lips is, What lies in wait?

Before I address this, it is interesting to inspect the charts more carefully. Observe, in particular, how Sydney dwelling values have massively underperformed the rest of the Australian market over the last circa 11 years (black line, first chart). It is also fascinating to note that notwithstanding the Perth and Brisbane housing markets have suffered 7.5% and 5.9% declines in the past year, they have actually been our two best performing conurbations over the last 11 years.

In my opinion, the near-term destiny of Australia’s housing market very much depends on next week’s second quarter inflation numbers. If inflation is low, the RBA will likely be on the sidelines for the rest of the year. It can argue that it was vindicated for not responding to the very high first quarter results, and will in any event be downgrading its economic growth forecasts for 2011, which were always on the high side.

Talk in the media will galvanize more firmly around rate cuts. Consumers will start to scale back their still-extraordinarily-hawkish interest rate views (see chart below), with 84% anticipating rate hikes. Given the average Australian thinks they will be hit by two or more rate hikes in the next 12 months, it is no surprise that underlying economic conditions have been so soft.

In this low inflation scenario with no future hikes and the prospect of cuts, our forecasting models predict that Australia’s housing market has the ability to start grinding out very modest capital growth, which, of course, should be complemented by healthy rental returns (see next chart).

In the less favourable alternative, where inflation next week prints high—at say 0.8% for the quarter or more—it saddens me to say that our beloved central bank will be very much on the interest rate warpath. That means the likelihood of a rate hike, or hikes, before the year is out. And the half-nelson that the RBA currently has Australia’s housing market in will only tighten.

These cross-roads are best illustrated by the divergence of beliefs between economists and the financial markets. The following chart shows ANZ’s interest rate forecasts contrasted against the futures market’s expectations. Whereas the futures market is predicting rate cuts, ANZ thinks we will get hikes.

Who is right? We cannot tell at this point. It all depends on inflation. So, if you are looking to buy, but have not found a place yet, I would be hoping for a high inflation outcome, which will inevitably result in persistent, interest rate-induced pressure on prices. If, on the other hand, you are looking to sell, you should be praying for a low number next week.