Opinion David McWilliams

Tuesday 16 July 2019

Japan's housing slump was scary, and ours could be too

This chart records the traumatic property experience of Japan. A monumental boom in the late 1980s and early 1990s reversed dramatically and house prices fell by 76.4pc from the peak.

This happened, not in a corrupt, tin-pot dictatorship, dependent on commodities for its sole exports, but in the world's most sophisticated economy, with the most dynamic financial sector and a history as the world's pre-eminent innovator.

Could it happen here? Will Irish house prices fall back to levels seen in 2000/2001 or even to levels seen last century? Will our house prices drop by 70pc before they stabilise? These numbers need to be considered because there are plenty of reasons to be fearful.

The similarities between both Ireland and Japan are striking; the main difference is that the Japanese controlled their own interest rates and thus were able to cut them to soften the blow. As EU inflation topped 4pc this week, it looks likely that we will be facing higher not lower rates for the foreseeable future. Not good.

One similarity is the capacity for self-delusion and failure to face up to the magnitude of our crisis. It was the same in Japan 20 years ago. I remember the Japanese mania even reached Irish shores in the grim late 1980s.

When I was in college, a particularly ambitious set of business students who used to wear suits to lectures (a true sign of recession) began taking private Japanese lessons. If you didn't have a grasp of Japanese, or at least a smattering, their view was you might as well quit now and not even bother turning up for final year interviews.

We sat there, petrified, as professor after professor told us about the threat of Japan to our careers (not that the class of 1988 appeared to have a particularly stellar future ahead of them in the first place).

Every airport waiting lounge was stuffed with hardback tomes heralding the rise and rise of Japan and no economics exam was complete without the question: "Explain the fundamental economic reasons behind Japanese world economic domination".

Japan of the late 1980s was experiencing a huge asset-price boom and stocks were going through the roof, allowing Japanese companies to buy trophy assets abroad such as the Rockefeller Centre and MGM.

Bulging Japanese banks dwarfed their European and US counterparts and threatened to dominate the City and Wall Street. Most spectacular of all was the Tokyo property market. In 1990, the land upon which the imperial palace in Tokyo was built was valued at more than the entire real estate of Canada, the second largest country in the world.

When I read the silly valuations in the 'Irish Times' property section, particularly the "Take 5 at €400,000" section, I am reminded of the Japanese Imperial Palace delusion. Clearly a two up, two down in Rialto is not worth the same as a seven-bedroomed house in the Dordogne. Now that prices are falling rapidly, the idea that pokey Irish houses are worth more than French chateaux will look increasingly daft.

The other problem for Ireland is the sheer extremity of the housing boom. Irish house prices have risen 380pc since 1996, compared with 260pc in the UK -- the next frothiest market. House prices fell in Germany and of course Japan in the same period. While in Switzerland -- Europe's technically most sophisticated economy -- house prices only rose by 5pc in the 12 years since 1996.

As a result of this binge, Ireland is the most indebted nation in Europe. Outstanding residential mortgage debt now amounts to 192pc of our total GNP! This is truly shocking and depressing when you consider that in Germany, outstanding mortgage debt only amounts to 3pc of GNP.

Even in the US -- where many disingenuous Irish commentators are suggesting this crisis originated -- outstanding mortgage debt only accounts for 44pc of GNP. We are way out of whack with the rest of the world and our dilemma is very much of our own making. Think about the chart again. Have a long look and consider that in the past 10 years residential loans per capita in Ireland increased by 552pc. This is miring us in an ocean of debt. We got into debt five times faster than the average profligate American and, extraordinarily, 50 times faster than the parsimonious Germans.

With our British neighbours, we managed to lose the run of ourselves completely. In the UK, where billions of Irish euros were spent in the past five years, there is carnage on the high street. According to the estate agents Allsops, the real weakness is being seen in the thousands of new docklands-style developments which mushroomed all over British cities.

Many of these investors were Irish and most apartments are now trading at a 30pc to 40pc discount to prices originally paid in 2005. The British have the comfort of a falling exchange rate determined in London, we on the other hand are stuck to the Germans.

This is why the personal debt comparisons with Germany are so instructive. The German has no property-related debt to speak of. This means that the average Gunter doesn't really mind if European interest rates rise, as it will make no difference at all to his budget at the end of the month.

In contrast, the average Paddy, who has seen his personal property indebtedness rise by over 500pc since the late 1990s, will be roasted by a rise in rates.

So will Irish house prices follow the Japanese model and fall by 70pc from the peak? Maybe. Who knows? However, the similarities are too striking to be ignored.

It is clear the Japanese market didn't freeze, as during the slump there were still distressed sellers and opportunistic buyers who thought they had bought at rock bottom, only to see prices fall again.

Overall, however, in the 13-year slump there was not one period of six months when any sustained rally was recorded.The lesson being, when things start falling, they drop like a stone.

Take a look at the chart again. Not a pretty sight.

Dmcwilliams@independent.ie

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