More evidence the Aussie economy is grinding to a halt: Yesterday, the Australian Bureau of Statistics released Australian housing finance and building approvals data. It wasn't pretty.
Housing finance - the amount of credit provided to the residential housing sector, including refinancing - fell 1.3 per cent in the month of February. Finance provided to owner-occupiers fell a hefty 4 per cent while 'investor' finance increased 4.4 per cent. How anyone thinks housing is a good investment is beyond us...a speculation in the hope of rising prices maybe, but an investment?
Actually, the whole 'housing is a great investment' mindset is alive and well in Australia. Today's Financial Review has a special lift-out on 'Investing in Residential Property'. There are a couple of classic articles you sure won't want to miss. For example:
'For affordability, you can't beat single bedders' and...
'In slow times, shop around and think strategically'
Anyway, our point is you don't see these types of advertisements/special reports at the bottom of the market. They're the type of thing that pops up after a much-loved asset class has a bad year. They tap into the emotion that now must be a good time to buy. Things are slow...it's a buyer's market. And if you can't afford anything useful, you and the family can always get that cheap single bedder.
Owner-occupiers don't seem to be buying the hype though. They're the ones who seem to be doing the sums and working out that renting is actually a cheaper option...and that supposedly 'dead' rent money is, in many cases, less than the dead weight of interest on an exorbitant loan.
In such cases, the only way you can build equity in the asset is by betting on house price appreciation. That's been a safe bet for decades...but is it for the next few? The law of nature, averages and mean reversion would cast doubt on such a bet.
Even more worrying for the Aussie economy was the sharp drop in February building approvals. Seasonally adjusted, total dwellings approved dropped 7.8 per cent month-on-month. Over the past year, approvals are down 15.2 per cent.
Predictably, the release of these dismal figures drew a cry for interest rate cuts...and fast. Today's Fin Review quotes the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry as saying:
'The time has come for Australia's central bank to move decisively to cut rates by a full half a per cent, and for the retail banks to immediately pass it on. There needs to be a significant and unambiguous signal to support activity and lift confidence across the next quarter.'
And how has low and lower interest ratesworked out for the US, Japan, the UK or Europe? The simple fact is, when debt levels become extreme (household debt in Australia is over 100 per cent of GDP) lower interest rates reflect economic malaise, not strength. The evidence is everywhere to see.
We'll come back to that point in a moment. First, let's look at the much more likely reason why Australia is in a home building slump:
They are completely out of control. Over in the property section of the Fin Review, a report by the Centre for International Economics, commissioned by the Housing Industry Association, shows that taxes make up between 36 per cent and 44 per cent of the price of a new home. Seriously.
So there you go. House prices are not unaffordable because interest rates are too high. They are unaffordable because you have leeches at every level of government trying to get their share of blood from the homeowner.
The article cites an example of a young Sydney-based couple with a $612,000 house and a 10 per cent deposit. In such an example, the tax component of the purchase price would consume half their mortgage repayments.
The study points out that nearly all the burden of the taxes fall on the homebuyer. Land bankers, developers and builders only absorbed between 2 per cent and 6 per cent of the tax burden.
There are a few reasons why governments will likely do very little about this massive rort. Firstly, the property gravy train provides them with too much money. A separate report released yesterday revealed the property industry provided the Victorian State government $5.4 billion in taxes in 2009/10. That's nearly 40 per cent of the State's total tax revenue.
And if governments seriously attempted to reform the property tax system, you would see prices drop. Falling house prices and winning elections don't usually mix.
The bottom line is that due to political greed and ineptitude (that includes Labor and Liberal governments at State and Federal level) our housing system is a total mess. And the whole property sector is complicit too. No one cared while easy credit pushed house prices higher, financing exorbitant fees and taxes. But now the industry is in a rut, the fee grabbers are getting testy.
Not that the finance industry is any different. The whole superannuation industry is filled with ticket clippers. But taxes, fees and commissions on super are not quite as exorbitant. And while super is important, we're not talking about the essential service of shelter here.
So we have a major structural problem in house prices. And rather than do anything themselves, governments will call on the RBA and banks to lower interest rates to make houses 'more affordable'.
Meanwhile, those who suffer from lower interest rates - savers or those relying on income to live - get screwed. We're not at the stage of the US just yet, but we're heading there. If you want to know the effect of prolonged low interest rates, just take a look across the vast Pacific Ocean.
John Hussman's latest essay provides the details. It's as good a description you'll read about why central banking is essentially evil. As the saying goes, 'the road to hell is paved with good intentions'.
If you dig into the payroll data, the picture that emerges is breathtaking. Since the recession "ended" in June 2009, total non-farm payrolls in the U.S. have grown by 2.32 million jobs (establishment survey, or 2.03 million using Household survey figures). However, if we look at workers 55 years of age and over, we find that employment in that group has increased by 3.04 million jobs.
In contrast, employment among workers under age 55 has actually contracted by nearly one million jobs, regardless of which survey you use. Even over the past year, the vast majority of job creation has been in the 55-and-over group, while employment has been sluggish for all other workers, and has already turned down.
...while the civilian labor force participation rate has declined significantly for virtually every class of worker since mid-2009, the participation rate for workers over the age of 65 has hit new highs.
Beginning first with Alan Greenspan, and then with Ben Bernanke, the Fed has increasingly pursued policies of suppressing interest rates, even driving real interest rates to negative levels after inflation.
Combine this with the bursting of two Fed-enabled (if not Fed-induced) bubbles - one in stocks and one in housing, and the over-55 cohort has suffered an assault on its financial security: a difficult trifecta that includes the loss of interest income, the loss of portfolio value, and the loss of home equity. All of these have combined to provoke a delay in retirement plans and a need for these individuals to re-enter the labor force.
In short, what we've observed in the employment figures is not recovery, but desperation. Having starved savers of interest income, and having repeatedly subjected investors to Fed-induced financial bubbles that create volatility without durable returns, the Fed has successfully provoked job growth of the obligatory, low-wage variety.
Over the past year, the majority of this growth has been in the 55-and-over cohort, while growth has turned down among other workers. Meanwhile, broad labor force participation continues to fall as discouraged workers leave the labor force entirely, which is the primary reason the unemployment rate has declined. All of this reflects not health, but despair, and helps to explain why real disposable income has grown by only 0.3% over the past year.
for The Daily Reckoning Australia
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Greg Canavan is a feature Editor at the Daily Reckoning Australia and is the foremost authority for retail investors on value investing in Australia. You can subscribe to The Daily Reckoning for free here. He is also the author of Sound Money. Sound Investments (SMSI). An investment publication designed to help investors profit from companies and stocks that are undervalued on the market.