Housing reform needed urgently to get Australia building

November 27, 2012, 11:00 am Michael Pascoe Yahoo7

With home prices bottoming, is Australia building enough new homes to ensure we don’t return to another crazy property price surge in the near future?

After decades of concern about housing bubbles, it seems a little weird that the Reserve Bank of Australia now is hoping the housing industry will take off and take off soon. The sustainability of Australia’s record run of unbroken economic growth is depending on it.

Just as weird is that Australia’s investment in housing has been flat or worse for so long now. The federal government is betting its economic growth forecasts for the next financial year on that changing, but RBA governor Glenn Stevens last week admitted that the reason for our lack of building is a bit of a mystery.

In a speech worth reading for its overall perspective of the economy, Stevens held out the hope that, as the mining boom matures, dwelling construction was an area of stronger potential demand “which has been unusually weak”.

“It is not clear, actually, that the degree of weakness has been adequately explained,” Stevens said.

“Various explanations have been offered – interest rates too high, housing prices falling, zoning restrictions, planning delays, construction costs, lack of ‘confidence’, all have featured. At present, at least some of the preconditions one might expect to be needed for higher construction seem to be coming into place. Interest rates have declined, dwelling prices seem to have stopped falling, rental yields have risen, and the availability of tradespeople is assessed as having improved. We have, moreover, seen a rise in approvals to build. So there is some evidence of a turning point, albeit a belated one.”

Of course the RBA doesn’t want housing prices to soar – that would bring out the interest rate cudgel again - but it would be quite happy to see them ticking up by the inflation rate or a little more to put some confidence back in the market and provide the incentive for builders to get a-building and buyers a-buying.

I’ve never been a fan of the real estate spruikers when it comes to talking up housing investment properties – most Australians already have a major investment in residential real estate (their home) and would do well to diversify into solid, dividend-paying shares – but it does alter the game a little when our official inflation watchdog effectively announces it wants more housing built and it wants it now. For a start, it reinforces the view that interest rates certainly aren’t rising any time soon and will probably ease another notch.

Governor Stevens summarises the main obstacles and encouraging signs well in that single paragraph quoted above. It does in a few words what a Council of Australian Governments study on housing supply and affordability took 41 pages to achieve after two years’ work, but I think he underplays in passing the importance of the market coming to the conclusion that the housing market has bottomed.

It’s not just a matter of “housing prices falling” that has the industry weak, as, by itself, it follows that at some point they fall far enough to look cheap and encourage a whole pile of buying – that’s the whole point of the market mechanism. I think it’s a bit bigger and more complex than that.

We have been in recovery mode for some years from an extremely strong rise in housing prices. The peak happened in different markets (both by geography and price range) at different times and a few areas (e.g. the Gold Coast) had crazy speculative bubbles to make it worse.

On the way up, both of the fundamental motives of fear and greed were working to push housing ever higher: greed in that “you couldn’t go wrong” buying bricks and mortar and it seemed so easy to make money; and fear that if you didn’t jump into the market and buy something, you might never be able to.

Once prices stopped rising, both the fear and greed factors evaporated. With prices coming off a bit, they started working in reverse.

As usual, we tend to lose perspective about the housing correction. Some suburban markets are off about 10 per cent from their peak – but they had been up by 100 per cent over the few years leading to the peak. It was that crazy rise, not the correction, that was dangerous.

That’s no comfort for those who bought at the top of the market – someone always does in every market. There should be some comfort for them now though with the RBA governor part of the housing cheer squad instead of warning about its dangers, as he did on Sunrise two-and-a-half years ago. The consensus is building that prices for all but the luxury end have indeed bottomed.

There is more to it though than sniffing out some price rises. To help make the housing industry recovery work, much remains to be done, especially in the areas of planning and taxation. The COAG study explains most of the problems, but went rather gently on the perpetrators as they are the federal, state and local governments. It’s becoming too important to be stymied by weak-willed politicians.

More from Michael Pascoe:
Forget Europe and the US, start worrying about Japan
Australia's stronger immigration - the other inflation dampener
States and retailers fooling themselves over GST

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