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Hugh Pavletich: NZ’s bubble economy is vulnerable

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(In this opinion piece, Hugh Pavletich of Performance Urban Planning (Christchurch, New Zealand) agrees with Jesse Colombo who argued in Forbes that New Zealand’s economic bubble with end in a disaster.)

The recent Forbes e-edition article by Jesse Colombo assesses the New Zealand economy “12 Reasons Why New Zealand’s Economic Bubble Will End In Disaster”, seems to have created quite a stir, creatingextensive media coverage in New Zealand.

The major Fairfax article by Michael Field “NZ bubble ‘going to burst’ “ stimulated a remarkable 500+ comments.

It didn’t take too long for the politicians to react, with Acting Finance Minister Steven Joyce downplaying it, unhelpfully personally attacking Mr Colombo, with Labours David Cunliffe and David Parker largely agreeing with Mr Colombo’s assessment.

Mr Colombo’s initial assessment (a comprehensive report is to follow) was from a financial experts perspective.

Let’s consider whether Mr Colombo is correct from a structural perspective.

January every year the Annual Demographia International Housing Affordability Survey is released, with the 10th Annual Edition released 20 January this year.Normal (and therefore affordable) housing markets do not exceed 3.0 times gross annual household income (Median Multiple), requiring mortgage loads of about 2.5 times.

A clear structural definition of an affordable housing market is …

“For metropolitan areas to rate as ‘affordable’ and ensure that housing bubbles are not triggered, housing prices should not exceed three times gross annual household earnings. To allow this to occur, new starter housing of an acceptable quality to the purchasers, with associated commercial and industrial development, must be allowed to be provided on the urban fringes at 2.5 times the gross annual median household income of that urban market (refer Demographia Survey Schedules for guidance).”

“The critically important Development Ratios for this new fringe starter housing, should be 17 – 23% serviced lot / section cost – the balance the actual housing construction.”

“Ideally through a normal building cycle, the Median Multiple should move from a Floor Multiple of 2.3, through a Swing Multiple of 2.5 to a Ceiling Multiple of 2.7 – to ensure maximum stability and optimal medium and long term performance of the residential construction sector.”

Since the creation of the housing production industry by Bill and Alfred Levitt following World War 11 , when new starter suburban housing was put in place for about $US100 per square metre all up (serviced section and house construction … 80 square metre units on 700 square metre lots for $US8,000), there has been no mystery (other than for politicians and bureaucrats who find truth “inconvenient”) about how to supply affordable housing.

Starter housing on the fringes of the affordable North American metros costs all up about $US700 per square metre … refer Andrew Atkin’s superb … THE REAL DEAL POSTER ..

What is required to restore housing affordability is outlined within Section 4 of Christchurch: The Way Forward. It is simply about ALLOWING affordable land to be supplied and financing infrastructure properly.

Recently Australian Federal Senator – elect Bob Day (major Australian production house-builder and former President of the Housing Industry Association of Australia) explained the issue most eloquently, within a video interview with Business Spectator … Bob Day on affordable housing and jobs for young people … Business Spectator .

As explained recently within “China: Big Bubble Trouble”, new starter semi-detached housing was being supplied pre World War 11 in London for slightly over 2.0 times annual household incomes. They were building way more new housing on a population basis through the Depression years in the United Kingdom than they are today.

Through these eras too, it was normal for households to have just one income earner, as the male was seen as a “loser” if he was unable to financially provide for his family. The social pressures were quite significant.

As eminent Hoover Institution economist Thomas Sowell said “We have spent the past few decades replacing what works with what feels good”. In a 2009 interview (video) Mr Sowell described the causes of the 2007 Global Financial Crisis … Thomas Sowell on the Housing Boom and Bust – YouTube .

During early 2009 this writer explained why economists have such a poor understanding of housing bubbles with … Housing Bubbles And Market Sense . Most wouldn’t know a house market from a horse market internationally … although thankfully … Australian and New Zealand economists are generally now well informed. Importantly, they are constructive contributors to politically progressing this serious issue.

So what did this year’s Demographia Survey (data 3rd Qtr 2013) find with respect to New Zealand’s major urban markets ?

Auckland housing at 8.0 times annual household incomes; Tauranga 6.6; Christchurch near 6.0; Wellington 5.5; Napier-Hastings 5.4; Dunedin 5.2; Hamilton 4.8 and Palmeston North 4.5.

Another useful measure of housing affordability is the relationship between Total Housing Stock Value and Gross Domestic / State / Metropolitan Product, which should not exceed at “tops” 1.5 times … ideally 1.2 times.

September last year James Gruber writing for Forbes “3 Warning Signs Of A Bloodbath Ahead” , incorporated a graph (requires updating) illustrating the ratios of Total Housing Stock Value to GDP for Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, Canada and the United States …

Not surprisingly, it mirrors the Demographia Survey.

As a further check, Greater Houston with its population of about 6.1 million has a Gross Metropolitan Product of near $500 billion (in contrast to New Zealand with a population of 4.5 million and a GDP PPP of about a paltry $US140 billion … some $NZ210 billion ).

In relative terms, this is due to a history of poor quality public policy and a seriously degenerate public service culture at central and local level (a further recent example of gross incompetence … Error Prone Bureaucracy ). Little wonder then, that New Zealanders had the highest GDP per capita in the world in 1920 (refer Angus Maddison Historical GDP Per Capita Tables ), but today, ranks about 46 … between Italy and Slovenia .

Because of its degenerate public service, not surprisingly, New Zealand has the worst traffic congestion problems in the developed world too .. New Zealand Has Worst Traffic: International Data | Wendell Cox |

Rather amusingly, at current exchange rates in $US terms, New Zealand’s generally poor quality housing stock is “worth” more than the stock of Greater Houston !

New Zealand is a country that has been bureaucratically buggered. A textbook case of “institutional failure” at central and local level. The “rock-star” label is clearly nonsense.

New Zealand’s current economic activity is being “juiced up” due to a China Bubble Boom and the excessive costs of the Christchurch earthquake recovery. Bureaucratic incompetence has meant this painfully long recovery will be a $NZ40 billion exercise, when it should have been in the order of $NZ15 billion.

Sadly it would appear, The Broken Window Fallacy is not understood by economic commentators, in that the Christchurch earthquake recovery (with some flooding problems due to Council incompetence with poorly maintained drainage infrastructure … in the main) is simply the replacement of the capital stock.

The latest figures from the Reserve Bank of New Zealand indicate the New Zealand housing stock has a “value” of some $NZ716 billion … roughly 3.4 times its GDP. It should not exceed 1.5 times ($NZ315 billion … ideally 1.2 times ($NZ252 billion). This suggests there is something in the order of $NZ401 and $NZ461 billions of bubble value in New Zealand housing. It takes about 25% of mortgages incorporated within this bubble value to fuel it … some$NZ100 billion through $NZ115 billion of at risk bubble mortgage value.

The problem is the New Zealand Banks only have a capital base of about $NZ29 billion (RBNZ figures).

Currently, the major international concern is China … and its transitioning from a panicked and manic investment frenzy following the 2007 Global Financial Crisis (triggered by the North American urban planners … no doubt the Chinese Communists are not grateful). China is slowing, as explained within a recent Financial Times article Do Chinas Qtr1 GDP Numbers Gloss Reality? .

Information from the Chinese National Statistics Bureau (comment on article thread) illustrate the extent of the massive residential overbuilding and abrupt falloff in sales and new construction so far this year …

” “In the first three months, the floor space under construction by the real estate development enterprises accounted for 5,470.30 million square meters, up by 14.2 percent year-on-year, decreased 2.1 percentage points over the first two months. Of which, the floor space of residential building construction area was 3,932.06 million square meters, up by 11.4 percent. The floor space started this year was 290.90 millions square meters, down by 25.2 percent, and the pace of decline narrowed 2.2 percentage points. Specifically, the floor space of residential buildings started in the year amounted to 212.38 million square meters, down by 27.2 percent. The floor space of buildings completed stood at 185.20 million square meters, went down by 4.9 percent, and the pace of decline narrowed 3.3 percentage points, of which, the floor space completed of residential buildings stood at 139.10 million square meters, went down by 7.3 percent.”
>Does it say ‘it has bottomed out’? Is this a soft landing? -25%(prior -27,4%)”

At say 60 to 80 square metres each (plus common area), in number of unit terms, how many have been put in place in China over recent years ? What is the build rate per 1,000 population per annum for the Chinese metros ?

It would appear China could be described as Ireland by 300 … or even 500 times … with much greater “multiple stretch” in the former. And that’s without considering the commercial and infrastructure over-spend and mal-investment.

The Irish bubble collapsed at much lower Median Multiples than those currently prevailing in China, New Zealand and Australia.

Ireland is no doubt an excellent “case study” for Australian and New Zealand policy makers, as they are assessing the consequences of the bubbles collapsing in their own countries. They will be well aware that there has been no sustainable bubble in history.

Mr Colombo assessed the New Zealand economy from a financial perspective. This “structural check” indicates Mr Colombo is correct.

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