"In some ways the science of evaluating share markets has similarities to property markets. In other ways, they are completely different."
There is no magic formula to understand Australia's property markets
We would all know of Albert Einstein, the German-born physicist who developed the general theory of relativity and is best known for his formula E = mc2. A smaller percentage will know of Ernest Rutherford, the New Zealand-born British chemist who is widely credited with first "splitting the atom" in 1917.
Even fewer people will know the formula of “the long-run average ratio of house prices to disposable income and to rents equals (property) fair value”. And, that by adopting this formula, the Australian property market is 36% above fair value. This is what The Economist is claiming in its August 2012 update of 21 residential-property markets around the world. I must have been truant the day that they taught this theory at property school.
Here’s another formula that those who know me personally will relate best to: “full-time property market student plus outlandish claim from so-called expert equals outburst.” That’s the response which those in earshot of me hear each time some suit in an ivory tower tries to make a name for himself with an attention-seeking headline.
I always find it amusing when people talk about “the Australian property market”, as if every one of the 8.4 million residential properties spread across 15,000 suburbs in this country all move in the same direction.
It is similarly amusing when an economist looks at what occurred to property values in one country, then plays around with a few ratios in a spread sheet, and concludes that she’s unlocked the formula that is going to split the property atom in another country. Economists would have us all think that their reading of the stars in the sky says that the Southern Cross is about to fall apart.
I am sure that fellow property market analysts such as Terry Ryder and Michael Matusik will concur with me that forecasting from one Australian city to the next is a very involved science that even we, as full-time property students, find difficult to keep up with. Add to this the many political, economic, legal and cultural variables across different countries and you have an impossible task.
Australia is nothing like America or Europe. Credit policies adopted by Australia’s (very strong) banks are completely different to the policies during which American banks handed out interest-free loans and a set of keys to unemployed people with no deposit. Australia’s economy (current and forecast) is vastly different to those in the Western world. And, unlike practically every other part of the world, Australians have a deep-seated cultural attachment to bricks and mortar – that Anzac spirit in our DNA means most Aussies, when faced with adversity, will fight hard to retain our family homes.
Economists love two things: data and formulae. The problem is, data is a record of the past, not the future. And, not everything in life can be calculated using some magic formulae. I like data too, however in order to draw any conclusions from data one needs to understand the things that influence it. You can’t just extract some data from a spreadsheet, multiple it by three, divide by the power of five, and end up with the square root of nine. One needs to understand the human behaviours that influence both the supply and demand of that essential commodity called “accommodation”. Most economists are flat-out predicting interest rate fluctuations, let alone reading the dozens of property markets across the country.
In some ways the science of evaluating share markets has similarities to property markets. In other ways, they are completely different. Ratios, for example, are referred to a lot by stock brokers as they dissect company balance sheets. Economists who persist with referring to ratios between median property values and median wages as a formula for our property being overvalued are delusional.
In a former life as bank manager during the 1990s my then employer had a policy that clients couldn’t afford a home loan if their total annual financial commitments were more than 30% of their gross annual income. This formula implied that 70% of a given client’s gross income was needed for taxes and living expenses. This formula was scrapped several years ago after even the conservative credit-Nazis who write polices acknowledged that it was inappropriate to generalise that a household earning (say) $300,000 lived a proportionately more extravagant lifestyle than the household earning $30,000.
“Median value : median wage” in the affordability debate is inappropriate. How do you compare the $250,000 salary of the boiler-maker who just purchased a $900,000 shack in the iron ore belt at Port Hedland to the retail assistant earning $60,000 and living in a nicer home in Port Adelaide?
For the economists out there trying to split the property atom I’ll spare everyone the excruciating pain that you will cause and share the formula with you: Property knowledge equals industry-specific education, plus real life experiences, divide by accountability, to the power of common sense.Simon Pressley is a buyers' agent for Propertyology.