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Henry Thornton - Economics: A discussion of economic, social and political issues Determined to be difficult Date 11/09/2010
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The point of this analysis is not to predict an imminent housing crash. In fact, I am of the view that conditions are not yet ripe for the reckoning of the great Australian housing bubble. It would have happened in 2008 when global markets closed to wholesale Australian bank debt, but was postponed by a strong Federal Budget that supported both the asset and liability side of the banks balance sheets.
By David Llewellyn-Smith Email / Print

Everyone has seen the ads. A sturdy and common sense banker confronts a troupe of American advertising hot shots. The banker responds with steady incredulity to their infantile attempts to modernise his brand. He is the model of prudence, juxtaposed against faddish morons. Strangely, the ads finish the with a line that contradicts the banker’s studied conservatism: he is “determined to be different”. Presumably, the point is he is different to the idiots.


In the real world, Commonwealth Bank (CBA) executives are currently traveling internationally (including to, presumably, America) to do more than dispense with a fictitious advertising agency’s foolish ideas. They have, in the bank’s own words, gone “overseas to meet with some of the Group’s offshore shareholders and other investors interested in Australia and the Australian banking sector.” Though the goals of the trip are no doubt myriad, the press release heralding their departure came complete with 19 pages of argument for why there is no Australian housing bubble. It included directly refuted quotes from such notable housing bears as Morgan Stanley’s Gerard Minack and GMO’s Jeremy Grantham. It appears CBA management set sail on a bubble-busting roadshow.


Given the stake we Australians have in this little exercise, it is fitting that we take a moment to assess how the fundamentals of our housing market are being represented around the world by our biggest bank. Is the presentation likely to reassure footloose global investors, now acutely aware of the damage a housing bust can do to their capital? Perhaps, but only if they are closely related to the dunderheaded Americans that CBA uses so callously in its own ads.


The presentation begins with the argument that “taking into account geographic differences, the ratio of house prices to income in Australia is not that much different to most other comparable countries.” The document provides some nice slides and graphs making the comparisons clear. And they look reasonable enough except the statistics aren’t explained. We don’t know what income measures are being used, nor what median prices.


Worse still, as Money Morning uncovered late Friday, the income multiple statistics are cherry-picked from different sources to ensure the most favorable comparisons.


But the lack detail is quickly forgotten as CBA’s arguments sink into a fallacious morass. According to the bank, “Australia is the 4th least densely settled country in the world - 83% live within 50 kms of the coast. Coastal locations demand a premium – Australia‟s population concentration in capital/coastal cities distorts comparisons to other, more densely settled countries.”


You’ll forgive this writer if he points out that if 83% of Australians live in coastal cities then that surely constitutes 83% of the housing market. There is, therefore, no greater market against which a premium for coastal property can be justified. As opposed to other countries where an even spread of population means there is elevated demand for coastal living as a reward for success. Nor has there has been a great Australian exodus to the coast from the bush in the past fifteen years. We’ve always lived by the seashore.


The CBA argument would still make sense if it were positioning Australian cities in a context of global demand for coastal living but it is clearly not doing so. CBA’s logic is simply that because coastal property everywhere is expensive, and Australia has largely coastal property, then Australian property is expensive. Aristotle would turn in his grave.


CBA’s second argument begins: “population growth has been a key driver of Australian house price appreciation” and offers a series of graphs showing that growth above historic averages as well as falling housing starts since 2005.


This rationale does help account for the 50 per cent or so rise in median house prices from 2005 when the commodity boom prompted skills shortages and immigration rose strongly. I say helps explain it because that is still not enough. It’s a kernel of truth around which an investment fervor gathered pace.


What CBA doesn’t mention nor explain is the prior 8 year burst in prices of approximately 120 per cent, driven largely through rocketing demand for investor mortgages.


To understand that, CBA turns to its third argument, that there are “other drivers of house price appreciation [that] are structural, rather than cyclical in nature”. According to the bank, “Australia‟s low inflation/low interest rate environment has dramatically increased the demand for, and accessibility of credit.” CBA then concludes “On RBA estimates, the reduction in mortgage rates during the 1990’s expanded the potential housing market by 600,000 households. Absent a dramatic response from the supply side, a large part of the lift in valuation ratios is a permanent structural shift.”


Those who interpret Australian house prices as a bubble would hardly disagree that a period of historically easy credit is a major cause of asset-price growth. But that is not the important point. CBA’s main claim is that this is a “permanent structural shift” and it makes it without a jot of evidence. There is no analysis of inflationary dynamics in the Australian economy. No mention of the effect of commodity prices. No breakdown of labor market trends. Nothing about capacity utilisation. Inflation is low ahead simply because inflation has been low[ish] behind.


The failure to address this point with evidence is a key failing in the report given Jeremy Grantham has stated that the Waterloo for the bubble will come with higher interest rates.


The same failing is also especially unfortunate given that this presentation is likely to be aimed in part at the global bondholders who determine the interest rate at which CBA borrows its wholesale dough and, therefore, in part, Australian interest rates. For them, the bank isn’t arguing an objective case for continuing low interest rates, it is assuming those rates will be forthcoming and arguing that that will sustain house prices. Needless to say, this is dangerously circular.


Undeterred, the CBA document ploughs on. Next it claims that “the household debt ratio in Australia is similar to many other developed countries”. Again it offers a pretty graph, this time of Australia’s household debt as a per cent of household disposable income as compared with the UK, NZ, Canada, US, Japan and Germany.


The problem with this item is that Australia is second only to the UK, the other market identified by Jeremy Grantham as having the last of the great housing bubbles. Moreover, it is clear in the graph that Australia is in a much worse situation than US households and almost twice as bad as the situation in Germany. If anything, the graph makes it startlingly clear just how enormous Australia’s housing bubble has become.


At this point, if I’m an international investor, I’m thinking ‘we gotta short these chumps’.


The presentation’s next argument is based upon the demographic distribution of mortgage debt, in particular its concentration in those classes that can most afford it. It is fine as far as it goes.


The final two arguments are about strong economic fundamentals minimising “the downside risk to house prices” and historically low loan-loss rates for Australian banks through various housing cycles since 1988.


Both of these arguments are fair enough but again rely on hidden assumptions. Australian bank’s loan-loss rates are low but the same consistent returns and small losses can equally be explained by other dynamics, which show just this pattern until such a time as the investors cotton on and begin to withdraw funds. At that point the losses rocket.


Now, let’s get real. The point of this analysis is not to predict an imminent housing crash. In fact, I am of the view that conditions are not yet ripe for the reckoning of the great Australian housing bubble. It would have happened in 2008 when global markets closed to wholesale Australian bank debt, but was postponed by a strong Federal Budget that supported both the asset and liability side of the banks balance sheets. The willingness of the Federal government to support the banks means the reckoning can only come when the Budget also finds itself under pressure from a more serious and long-term correction in commodity prices or from a burst of serious inflation.


But in the mean time, we might ask what CBA's misleading presentation says about the current reputation of Australian bank debt abroad.


Proving yet again that great minds think alike, here is The Australian's report of the CBA imbroglio.


David's article later published in The Age.


And here's how it went global.

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