Friday 21 October 2016

Listen - is that the sound of a bubble bursting Down Under?

Published 24/10/2015 | 02:30

Aussies can win on luck as well as talent. Photo: Reuters
Aussies can win on luck as well as talent. Photo: Reuters

In everywhere but Australia, I'm famous for predicting the 2008 crash. In Australia, I'm famous for being wrong about house prices - they rose after the crash, when I expected them to fall. So why should you listen to me about the one thing I got wrong?

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Partly because I got the cause right, but the direction of the cause wrong. As the Irish know only too well, what really causes house prices to rise rapidly is too much mortgage debt, rising too quickly. House prices exploded here in the "Celtic Tiger" days, only to collapse when the mortgage bubble burst - bringing the economy down with it.

Australians avoided this nasty hangover by the classic Antipodean method: they went for the 'Hair of the Dog' cure. Whereas the rest of the world unwound its mortgage debt, Australians piled into it - first in 2008 when the government turbocharged the market by doubling the grant it gave to first-home buyers, and then since 2012 when falling interest rates encouraged Baby Boomers to throw their so-called retirement savings into the housing market casino.

The Australian hangover cure worked, but at the expense of mortgaging Australia to the hilt. When the crisis hit in 2008, Australian mortgage debt was already higher than in the USA: mortgage debt peaked at 72pc of GDP in America then, but Australia's level was 10pc higher again. Today, mortgage debt in the USA has fallen to 53pc of GDP-what wimps! The hard-drinking Australians now have a mortgage debt level of 91pc of GDP and rising.

And therein lies the rub. As any fan of the 'Hair of the Dog' cure knows, it only works if you keep drinking. So can Australians maintain their record for insobriety and keep imbibing from the Bar of the Banks?

Left to their own devices, I have little doubt that my ex-countrymen could keep knocking back the 4X of mortgage debt forever. But as 'Hair of the Dog' devotees also know, one danger of this cure is that the bartender will eventually refuse to serve you. And that seems to be happening in Australia now. Two of the banks have recently put up the interest rate on speculator (sorry, I mean investor) loans, while the policeman (the "Australian Prudential Regulation Authority") has finally awoken from his slumber, and is now insisting on less alcohol in the brew-otherwise known as a lower loan to valuation ratio.

These moves seem to be have blown the froth off the Australian market. In the boom days, more than 80pc of properties were sold at auction, and frequently for well over their reserves. Just in the last few weeks, that rate has fallen below two-thirds, and appears to be heading further south. Prices are still rising, but the rate of price increase has slowed. The bubble peaked at 7pc per annum after inflation in 2014 (yes, typical Aussies here too - exaggerating how big their bubble was; it was really only enormous in Sydney). Now it's about 6pc a year and falling.

That itself is enough to cause panic in the Colonies, and that's the tone of media coverage right now. Is it justified?

If the banks were the only bar in town, then yes it would be. Australia has set itself up for a classic "Marsupial Tiger" crash. As the growth rate of mortgage debt slows, the market will come down and potentially take the economy with it.

But here Australians are relying on their other secret weapon: luck. Chinese buying of Australian real estate-partly as insurance against things going bad in China, partly to buy blue skies, which can't be bought in China for love nor money - has given Australia's debt-booze-addled gamblers a possible way to walk away from it all and appear sober rather than sozzled.

However, China itself is going through its own property market crash, and there's no external force that will rescue its speculators from that fate. So Australians are now gambling on whether the fallout from China's crash will prick their own bubble, or inflate it once more.

As fans of rugby will appreciate, Australians can win on luck as well as talent. But it's only luck now that is keeping Australia from tasting the bitter brew that Ireland was forced to sip when the myth of the Celtic Tiger was exposed as a debt-drunkard's delusion.

Professor Steve Keen is just one of the many big names from the world of economics appearing at Kilkenomics in two weeks' time.

Irish Independent

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