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Australia’s Economy is a House of Cards: Part 2

By Matt Barrie & Craig Tindale

Our “economic miracle” of 104 quarters of GDP growth without a recession today doesn’t come from digging rocks out of the ground, shipping the by-products of dead fossils and selling stuff we grow any more. Mining, which used to be 19% of GDP, is now 6.8% and falling. Mining has fallen to the sixth largest industry in the country. Even combined with agriculture the total is now only 10% of GDP.

Operating profit before tax by Australian Industry- the entire small and medium mining industry collectively has been loss making from 2014-16 on an operating basis. Source: Australian Bureau of Statistics

Mineral production in regional Western Australia, where 99% of Australia’s iron ore is mined, contributed only 6.5 percent to Australia’s GDP growth in 2016. 

To make matters worse, in 2017 there has been a sharp downturn in Chinese credit impulse (rate of change), which is combined with a negative, and falling global credit impulse. According to PIMCO’s Gene Fried “the question now is not if China slows, but rather how fast”. This will cause even more problems for Australia’s flagging resources sector.

China’s contribution to the global credit impulse (market GDP weighted). Source: PIMCO

The “economic miracle” of GDP growth is also certainly not from manufacturing, which has collapsed in the last decade from 10.8% to 6.6% of Gross Value Add, and has grown by… negative 275,000 jobs since the 1990s.

Industry share of Gross Value Add 2005-6 versus 2015-6. Source: Australian Bureau of Statistics

This is even before the exit of Australia’s last two remaining car manufacturers, Toyota and Holden, who both shut up shop in 2017. Ford closed last year.

Australian Manufacturing Employment and Hours Worked. Source: AI Group

In the 1970s, Australia was ranked 10th in the world for motor vehicle manufacturing. No other industry has replaced it. Today, the entire output of manufacturing as a share of GDP in Australia is half of the levels where they called it “hollowed out” in the U.S. and U.K.

In Australia in 2017, manufacturing as a share of GDP is on par with a financial haven like Luxembourg. Australia doesn’t make anything anymore.

Manufacturing value add (% of GDP) for Australia. Source: World Bank & OECD

With an economy that is 68% services, as I believe John Hewson put it, the entire country is basically sitting around serving each other cups of coffee or, as the Chief Scientist of Australia would prefer, smashed avocado.

David Llewellyn-Smith recently wrote that this is unsurprising as “the Australian economy is now structurally uncompetitive as capital inflows persistently keep its currency too high, usually chasing land prices that ensure input costs are amazingly inflated as well. 

Wider tradables sectors have been hit hard as well and Australian exports are now a lousy 20% of GDP despite the largest mining boom in history.

The other major economic casualty has been multifactor productivity (the measure of economic performance that compares the amount of goods and services produced to the amount of combined inputs used to produce those goods and services). It has been virtually zero for fifteen years as capital has been consistently and massively mis-allocated into unproductive assets. To grow at all today, the nation now runs chronic twin deficits with the current account (value of imports to exports) at -2.7% and a Budget deficit of -2.4% of GDP.”

The Reserve Bank of Australia has cut interest rates by 325 basis points since the end of 2011, in order to stimulate the economy, but I can’t for the life of me see how that will affect the fundamental problem of gyrating commodity prices where we are a price taker, not a price maker, into an oversupplied market in China. 

This leads me to my next question- where has this growth come from?

Successive Australian governments have achieved economic growth by blowing a property bubble on a scale like no other.

A bubble that has lasted for 55 years and seen prices increase 6556% since 1961, making this the longest running property bubble in the world (on average, “upswings” last 13 years).

In 2016, 67% of Australia’s GDP growth came from the cities of Sydney and Melbourne where both State and Federal governments have done everything they can to fuel a runaway housing market. The small area from the Sydney CBD to Macquarie Park is in the middle of an apartment building frenzy, alone contributing 24% of the country’s entire GDP growth for 2016, according to SGS Economics & Planning.

According to the Rider Levett Bucknall Crane Index, in Q4 2017 between Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane, there are now 586 cranes in operation, with a total of 685 across all capital cities, 80% of which are focused on building apartments. There are 350 cranes in Sydney alone. 

Crane Activity – Australia by Key Cities & Sector. Source: RLB

By comparison, there are currently 28 cranes in New York, 24 in San Francisco and 40 in Los Angeles. There are more cranes in Sydney than Los Angeles (40), Washington DC (29), New York (28), Chicago (26), San Francisco (24), Portland (22), Denver (21), Boston (14) and Honolulu (13) combined. Rider Levett Bucknall counts less than 175 cranes working on residential buildings across the 14 major North American markets that it tracked in 3Q17, which is half of the number of cranes in Sydney alone.

According to UBS, around one third of these cranes in Australian cities are in postcodes with ‘restricted lending’, because the inhabitants have bad credit ratings. 

This can only be described as completely “insane”.

That was the exact word used by Jonathan Tepper, one of the world’s top experts in housing bubbles, to describe “one of the biggest housing bubbles in history”. “Australia”, he added, “is the only country we know of where middle-class houses are auctioned like paintings”.

An Auctioneer yells out bids in the middle class suburb of Cammeray. Source: Reuters

Our Federal government has worked really hard to get us to this point.

Many other parts of the world can thank the Global Financial Crisis for popping their real estate bubbles. From 2000 to 2008, driven in part by the First Home Buyer Grant, Australian house prices had already doubled. Rather than let the GFC take the heat out of the market, the Australian Government doubled the bonus. Treasury notes recorded at the time say that it wasn’t launched to make housing more affordable, but to prevent the collapse of the housing market.

Treasury Executive Minutes. Source: Treasury, The First Home Owner’s Boost

Already at the time of the GFC, Australian households were at 190% debt to net disposable income, 50% more indebted than American households, but then things really went crazy. 

The government decided to further fuel the fire by “streamlining” the administrative requirements for the Foreign Investment Review Board so that temporary residents could purchase real estate in Australia without having to report or gain approval.  

It may be a stretch, but one could possibly argue that this move was cunningly calculated, as what could possibly be wrong in selling overpriced Australian houses to the Chinese? 

I am not sure who is getting the last laugh here, because as we subsequently found out, many of those Chinese borrowed the money to buy these houses from Australian banks, using fake statements of foreign income. Indeed, according to the AFR, this was not sophisticated documentation – Australian banks were being tricked with photoshopped bank statements that can be bought online for as little as $20.  

UBS estimates that $500 billion worth of “not completely factually accurate” mortgages now sit on major bank balance sheets. How much of that will go sour is anyone’s guess.

Llewellyn-Smith writes, “Five prime ministers in [seven] years have come and gone as standards of living fall in part owing to massive immigration inappropriate to economic circumstances and other property-friendly policies. The most recent national election boiled down to a virtual referendum on real estate taxation subsidies. The victor, the conservative Coalition party, betrayed every market principle it possesses by mounting an extreme fear campaign against the Labor party’s proposal to remove negative gearing. This tax policy allows more than one million Australians to engage in a negative carry into property in the hope of capital gains. In a nation of just 24 million, 1.3 million Australians lose an average of $9,000 per annum on this strategy thanks to the tax break.”

The astronomical rise in house prices certainly isn’t supported by employment data. Wage growth is at a record low of just 1.9% year on year in 2Q17, the lowest figure since 1988. The average Australian weekly income has gone up $27 to $1,009 since 2008, that’s about $3 a year. 

Private sector wage price index (annual percentage). Source: SMH, Australian Bureau of Statistics

Household income growth has collapsed since 2008 from over 11% to just 3% in 2015, 2016 and 2017. This is one sixth the rate that houses went up in Sydney in the last year. 

Employment growth is at an anaemic 1% year on year in 4Q16, and the unemployment rate has been trending up over the last decade to 5.6%.

Unemployment rate and Employment growth. Source: ABS, RBA, UBS

Foreign buying driving up housing prices has been a major factor in Australian housing affordability, or rather unaffordability.

Urban planners say that a median house price to household income ratio of 3.0 or under is “affordable”, 3.1 to 4.0 is “moderately unaffordable”, 4.1 to 5.0 is “seriously unaffordable” and 5.1 or over “severely unaffordable”.

Demographia International Housing Affordability Survey. Source: Demographia

At the end of July 2017, according to Domain Group, the median house price in Sydney was $1,178,417 and the Australian Bureau of Statistics has the latest average pre-tax wage at $80,277.60 and average household income of $91,000 for this city. This makes the median house price to household income ratio for Sydney 13x, or over 2.6 times the threshold of “severely unaffordable”. Melbourne is 9.6x. 

Sydney House values by Suburb. Source: Core Logic

This is before tax, and before any basic expenses. The average person takes home $61,034.60 per annum, and so to buy the average house they would have to save for 19.3 years- but only if they decided to forgo the basics such as, eating. This is neglecting any interest costs if one were to borrow the money, which at current rates would approximately double the total purchase cost and blow out the time to repay to around 40 years.

Ex-deputy leader of the Liberal Party, Barnaby Joyce, recently said to ABC Radio, “Houses will always be incredibly expensive if you can see the Opera House and the Sydney Harbour Bridge, just accept that. What people have got to realise is that houses are much cheaper in Tamworth, houses are much cheaper in Armidale, houses are much cheaper in Toowoomba”. Fairfax, the owner of Domain, or more accurately, Domain, the owner of Fairfax, also agrees that “There is no housing bubble, unless you are in Sydney or Melbourne”. 

Now probably unbeknownst to Barnaby, who might be more familiar with the New Zealand housing market, in the Demographia International Housing Affordability survey for 2017 Tamworth ranked as the 78th most unaffordable housing marketing in the world. No, you’re not mistaken, this is Tamworth, New South Wales, a regional centre of 42,000 best known as the ‘Country Music Capital of Australia’ and for the ‘Big Golden Guitar’. 

According the Australian Bureau of Statistics, the average income in Tamworth is $42,900, the average household income $61,204 but the average house price is $375,000, giving a price to household income ratio of 6.1x, making housing in Tamworth less affordable than Tokyo, Singapore, Dublin or Chicago. 

If you used the current Homesales.com.au data, which has the average house price at $394,212, or 6.6x, Tamworth would be in the top 40 most unaffordable housing markets in the world. Yes, Tamworth. Yes, in the world. Unfortunately for Barnaby, Armidale and Toowoomba don’t fare much better.

Tamworth, which at current prices would be in the top 40 most unaffordable housing markets tracked by Demographia in the world. Really? Source: GP Synergy

Out of a total of 406 housing markets tracked globally by Demographia, eight (or 40%) of the twenty least affordable housing markets in the world were in Australia, including in addition to Sydney and Melbourne such exotic places as Wingcaribbee, Tweed Heads, the Sunshine Coast, Port Macquarie, the Gold Coast, and Wollongong. Looking at all regional Australian housing markets, they found 33 of 54 markets “severely unaffordable”.

The 20 most unaffordable housing markets in the world. Source: Demographia, 13th Annual Demographic International Housing Affordability Survey:2017

If you borrowed the whole amount to buy a house in Sydney, with a Commonwealth Bank Standard Variable Rate Home Loan currently showing a 5.36% comparison rate (as of 7th October 2017), your repayments would be $6,486 a month, every month, for 30 years. The monthly post tax income for the average wage in Sydney ($80,277.60) is only $5,081.80 a month. 

Commonwealth Bank Standard Variable Rate Home Loan for the average house. Source: CBA as of 7th October 2017

In fact, on this average Sydney salary of $80,277.60, the Commonwealth Bank’s “How much can I borrow?” calculator will only lend you $463,000, and this amount has been dropping in the last year I have been looking at it. So good luck to the average person buying anything anywhere near Sydney.

Federal MP Michael Sukkar, Assistant Minister to the Treasurer, says surprisingly that getting a “highly paid job” is the “first step” to owning a home. Perhaps Mr Sukkar is talking about his job, which pays a base salary of $199,040 a year. On this salary, the Commonwealth Bank would allow you to just borrow enough- $1,282,000 to be precise- to buy the average home, but only provided that you have no expenses on a regular basis, such as food. So the Assistant Minister to the Treasurer can’t really afford to buy the average house, unless he tells a porky on his loan application form.

The average Australian is much more likely to be employed as a tradesperson, school teacher, postman or policeman. According to the NSW Police Force’s recruitment website, the average starting salary for a Probationary Constable is $65,000 which rises to $73,651 over five years. On these salaries the Commonwealth Bank will lend you between $375,200 and $419,200 (again provided you don’t eat), which won’t let you buy a house really anywhere.

Unsurprisingly, the CEOs of the Big Four banks in Australia think that these prices are “justified by the fundamentals”. More likely because the Big Four, who issue over 80% of residential mortgages in the country, are more exposed as a percentage of loans than any other banks in the world, over double that of the U.S. and triple that of the U.K., and remarkably quadruple that of Hong Kong, which is the least affordable place in the world for real estate. Today, over 60% of the Australian banks’ loan books are residential mortgages. Houston, we have a problem.

Residential Mortgages as a percentage of total loans. Source: IMF (2015)

It’s actually worse in regional areas where Bendigo Bank and the Bank of Queensland are holding huge portfolios of mortgages between 700 to 900% of their market capitalisation, because there’s no other meaningful businesses to lend to.

Australian banks’ mortgage exposure as a percentage of market capitalisation. Source: Roger Montgomery, Company data

I’m not sure how the fundamentals can possibly be justified when the average person in Sydney can’t actually afford to buy the average house in Sydney, no matter how many decades they try to push the loan out.

Mortgage Stress Trends to Oct 2017. Source: Digital Finance Analytics

Indeed Digital Finance Analytics estimated in a October 2017 report that 910,000 households are now estimated to be in mortgage stress where net income does not covering ongoing costs. This has skyrocketed up 50% in less than a year and now represents 29.2% of all households in Australia. Things are about to get real.

Probability of default in 30, 90 days across Australian demographics in October 2017. Source: Digital Finance Analytics

It’s well known that high levels of household debt are negative for economic growth, in fact economists have found a strong link between high levels of household debt and economic crises. 

This is not good debt, this is bad debt. It’s not debt being used by businesses to fund capital purchases and increase productivity. This is not debt that is being used to produce, it is debt being used to consume. If debt is being used to produce, there is a means to repay the loan. If a business borrows money to buy some equipment that increases the productivity of their workers, then the increased productivity leads to increased profits, which can be used to service the debt, and the borrower is better off. The lender is also better off, because they also get interest on their loan. This is a smart use of debt. Consumer debt generates very little income for the consumer themselves. If consumers borrow to buy a new TV or go on a holiday, that doesn’t create any cash flow. To repay the debt, the consumer generally has to consume less in the future. Further, it is well known that consumption is correlated to demographics, young people buy things to grow their families and old people consolidate, downsize and consume less over time. As the ageing demographic wave unfolds across the next decade there will be significantly less consumers and significantly more savers. This is worsened as the new generations will carry the debt burden of student loans, further reducing consumption. 

Parody of Sydney real estate, or is it?

Click here to read Part 3

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