The Global House Price Boom Could Haunt The Recovery From Covid-19
Share Button

The Global House Price Boom Could Haunt The Recovery From Covid-19

Decreasing affordability raises both financial and political risks.

By Mike Bird
Mon, May 17, 2021 11:10amGrey Clock 3 min

The year of the pandemic saw the largest increase in global house prices since the U.S. housing boom of the mid-2000s. And there is no sign the rally is coming to an end.

That provides immediate economic support for the global recovery from Covid-19. But a prolonged house price upswing would mean big new problems for both financial stability. And it could result in economic strife if middle-class citizens accustomed to a one-way housing bet suddenly find the rug pulled out from beneath them down the line.

House prices rose by 4.91% across 16 economies monitored by the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas last year, the sharpest increase since 2006. The move was large by the standards of a normal year—but explosive in the context of a global economic contraction of around 3.3%.

And the trend shows little sign of abating. The U.S. housing market is millions of homes short of buyer demand. Prices have climbed in places as varied as the eurozone, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand and Canada.

Booming prices reflect a major difference between the liftoff from the financial crisis of 2008 and the nascent post-pandemic boom. The financial crisis emanated from a fragile, undercapitalized banking sector: The obvious postcrisis response was to lend much more conservatively. But at the beginning of last year, banks were far less overextended and, with greater government support, were much more rapidly able to pass on interest rate cuts to borrowers.

At the same time, banks are far more exposed to housing markets than they once were. Across 18 advanced economies, mortgage lending has grown from around a third of total bank lending in 1960 to very nearly 60%. The financial crisis seems to have only been a brief speed bump in this secular trend.

The experience of countries that didn’t have a major banking crisis in 2008 shows what could happen on a far larger scale now. Most countries with large run-ups in household debt during the last decade—China, South Korea, Thailand, Canada and Sweden—were places where banks didn’t suffer in 2008. And rather than the brief, one-off increase in leverage of the kind many analysts expect following the pandemic today, household borrowing climbed continually over the following decade.

Many such countries have attempted to slow down rapid increases in house prices. The Korean government has enacted dozens of individual tweaks to tax and lending regulations. The latest Canadian federal budget announced a tax on vacant and underused property owned by foreigners, following existing levies in Vancouver and Toronto. So far, few measures have had an impact large enough to stall the boom.

Earlier this year, Swedish central bank governor Stefan Ingves compared the household debt situation to sitting on a volcano. The analogy is apt, given how sensitive the health of economies is to increased leverage among households in particular. Economists Atif Mian, Amir Sufi and Emil Verner have published research demonstrating that burgeoning household debt tends to slow down economic growth.

That’s not to say there’s nothing to be done. There have been a small number of successes in controlling and preventing house price booms to note. They bear much closer examination for policy makers in the rest of the world.

Japan’s case is the most obvious. The country’s lack of zoning restrictions and rent controls are regularly credited with the country’s flat home prices, particularly in Tokyo where the total population is still increasing. All the same, making fair international comparisons is difficult because interest rates have been so much lower than other parts of the world for so much longer, and overall economic growth has been so weak.

According to a study published in the Journal of Housing Economics in 2018, Singapore’s flurry of efforts to cool house prices between 2009 and 2013 also seems to have helped to stall the country’s buoyant house price growth. The measures included higher taxes on home-flipping, higher deposit requirements for second-time buyers, longer residential loan terms, and caps on the amount of a borrower’s income that could be spent on home loan repayments. But Singapore is also an example of how difficult such progress is to defend: Prices jumped to a new record in the first quarter of the year. And Singapore’s market is unique in other respects—the lion’s share of housing is publicly developed for Singaporeans to purchase, and homeownership rates are among the highest in the world.

There are other areas to look at. Outright taxes on the value of houses, the land beneath them, or both are popular with economists but have yet to find their way into public policy in most parts of the world. Even without such radical steps, fixing other positive biases housing receives in tax systems around the world would be a good start.

Dealing with an asset that is a totemic symbol of middle-class security and the main source of household wealth but is also a major financial stability risk is an unenviable task for policy makers.

But with many parts of the world already in the foothills of a new house price boom, it’s an issue that must be considered urgently if they want to avoid the mistakes of the past.

Reprinted by permission of The Wall Street Journal, Copyright 2021 Dow Jones & Company. Inc. All Rights Reserved Worldwide. Original date of publication: May 8, 2021



MOST POPULAR

What a quarter-million dollars gets you in the western capital.

Alexandre de Betak and his wife are focusing on their most personal project yet.

Related Stories
Property
China’s Housing Market Woes Deepen Despite Stimulus
By REBECCA FENG 18/06/2024
Property
I.M. Pei’s Son Speaks of His Father’s Legacy of Creating ‘Places for People’ Ahead of a Retrospective in Hong Kong
By ABBY SCHULTZ 12/06/2024
Property
THE EAST COAST CAPITAL SETTING THE PACE IN THE AUSTRALIAN REAL ESTATE MARKET
By Robyn Willis 06/06/2024

Home prices declined at a faster pace in May in major cities, while other data show a mixed picture for the world’s second-largest economy

By REBECCA FENG
Tue, Jun 18, 2024 3 min

China’s broken housing market isn’t responding to some of the country’s boldest stimulus measures to date—at least not yet.

The Chinese government has been stepping up support for housing and other industries in recent months as it tries to revitalize an economy that has  continued to disappoint  since the early days of the pandemic.

But fresh data for May showed that businesses and consumers remain cautious. Home prices continue to fall at an accelerating rate, and fixed-asset investment and industrial production, while growing, lost some momentum.

“China’s May economic data suggest that policymakers have a lot to do to sustain the fragile recovery,” Yao Wei, chief China economist at Société Générale, wrote in a client note on Monday.

The worst pain is in the property sector, which has been struggling to deal with oversupply and weak buyer sentiment since 2021, when a multiyear  housing boom ended . The market still doesn’t appear to have found a floor, even after Beijing rolled out its most aggressive stimulus measures so far  in mid-May  in hopes of restoring confidence.

In major cities, new-home prices fell 4.3% in May compared with a year earlier, worse than a   3.5% decline in April, according to data released Monday by China’s National Bureau of Statistics. Prices in China’s secondhand home market tumbled 7.5%, compared with a 6.8% drop in April.

Home sales by value tumbled 30.5% in the first five months of this year compared with the same months last year.

“This data was certainly on the disappointing side and may ring some alarm bells, as May’s policy support package has not yet translated to a slower decline of housing prices, let alone a stabilisation,” said Lynn Song, chief China economist at ING.

Economists had also been hoping to see a wider recovery this month after Beijing started  rolling out  a planned issuance of 1 trillion yuan, the equivalent of $138 billion, in ultra-long sovereign bonds in May. The funds are designed to help pay for infrastructure and property projects backed by the authorities. Investors  gobbled up  the first batch of these bonds.

Monday’s bundle of economic data, however, underlined how the country still isn’t firing on all cylinders.

Retail sales, a key metric of consumer spending, rose 3.7% in May from a year earlier, compared with 2.3% in April, according to the National Bureau of Statistics. While the trend is heading in the right direction, it is still a relatively subdued level of growth, and below what most economists believe is needed to kick-start a major revival in consumer spending.

The expansion in industrial production—5.6% in May compared with a year earlier—was down from April’s 6.7% increase. Fixed-asset investment growth, of which 40% came from property and infrastructure sectors, also decelerated, to 3.5% year-over-year growth in May from 3.6% in April.

Key to the sluggish economic activity data in May—and China’s outlook going forward—is the crisis in the property market, which has proven hard for policymakers to address.

The property rescue package in May included letting local governments buy up unsold homes, removing minimum interest rates on mortgages, and reducing payments for potential home buyers. It also included as its centerpiece a $41 billion so-called re-lending program launched by the People’s Bank of China, which would provide funding to Chinese banks to support home purchases by state-owned firms.

The hope was that by stepping in as a buyer of last resort for millions of properties, the government would manage to mop up unsold housing inventory and persuade wary home buyers to re-enter the market. In turn, Chinese consumers, who have  most of their wealth  tied up in real estate, would feel more confident about spending again, thereby lifting the overall economy.

But the size of the re-lending program wasn’t big enough to convince home buyers, said Larry Hu , chief China economist at Macquarie Group. “Meanwhile, their income outlook also stays weak given the current economic condition,” he said.

For the property market to bottom out and reach a new equilibrium, mortgage rates, which stand at around 3-4% in China, need to be as low as rental yields, which are currently below 2% in major cities, said Zhaopeng Xing, a senior China strategist at ANZ. He said that a large mortgage rate cut will need to happen eventually.

The other key part of China’s push to revive growth revolves around the manufacturing sector, with leaders  funnelling more investment  into factories to boost output and reduce the country’s reliance on foreign suppliers of key technologies.

The result has been a surge in production. But with domestic consumption not strong enough to absorb all those goods, many factories have been forced to cut prices and seek out more overseas buyers.

Data released earlier this month showed that  Chinese exports rose  faster in May than the month before.

However, the export push is  butting into resistance  as governments around the world worry about the impact of cheap Chinese competition on domestic jobs and industries. The European Union last week said it would  impose new import tariffs  on Chinese electric vehicles, describing China’s auto industry as heavily subsidised by the government, to the point where other countries’ automakers can’t fairly compete.

The U.S.  has also hit  Chinese cars and some other products with hefty duties, while countries including Brazil, India and Turkey have opened antidumping investigations into Chinese steel, chemicals and other goods.

Beijing says such moves are protectionist and that its industries compete fairly with global rivals.