The RBA just doesn’t get the housing market

The Reserve Bank has been giving a rolling seminar on why economists don’t get real estate.

This has taken the form of speeches by the Guv, Glenn Stevens, and press releases on RBA research and opinions.

The RBA view of residential real estate is a bible for economists, containing various commandments with which most economists comply. They include:

  • There is just one property market in Australia;
  • Sydney is Australia;
  • Australians are naughty because they like to invest in real estate;
  • They’re even naughtier when they borrow to do it;
  • When property prices rise we’re all very naughty and deserve a smack;
  • We’re all stupid because we think property prices always rise;
  • Buying a home is, or should be, a financial decision and emotion or culture shouldn’t intrude;
  • Financially it’s smarter to rent so how come we all don’t want to rent; and
  • We’re not building enough houses because that’s what our charts say.

Stevens has been getting out and about delivering his core message, which I suspect he lifted from the pages of Real Estate for Dummies. This is – wait for it, drum roll please -“property prices don’t always go up”!

Many media outlets have breathlessly reported that Stevens “has warned home buyers that people should not assume that prices always rise”. Just in case we haven’t got it, he drives home the message with this thunderbolt of wisdom: “Sometimes they fall!”

This is why Stevens earns the big money. He understands things the masses do not.

Seriously, is there anyone in Australia above the age of 11 who doesn’t know that property prices sometimes fall? Maybe someone who’s been meditating in a cave in the Himalayas might have missed the general decline in prices from 2010 to 2012. In my experience, most Australians have a hyper awareness of the value of their home, especially when it’s in reverse.

These days we have not only quarterly and monthly price monitors, we have attention-seekers claiming they can chart weekly price changes, even daily. Pretty soon we’ll have minute-by-minute price barometers.

And all these sporadic movements in prices, both up and down, have been reported ad nauseum by a gullible media.

According to some sources, prices have dropped three times in the past six or seven months.

Why does Stevens think none of us have noticed? He has intoned the “prices don’t always rise” sermon several times recently. Obviously he doesn’t get the emails I get, from people who bought five years ago on the Gold Coast and watched their investment steadily decline in value. Or from people who own Noosa apartments. Or from people who bought during the Gladstone boom and are now dismayed at the drop in values. Or from those who own real estate in Mackay, Moranbah, the Hunter Valley, Port Hedland, Karratha and Broome.

Or people who own a home in Canberra, where values in some areas are now going south.

Another offering of economist-centric advice from the RBA is that we might all be better off renting than investing. According to an RBA research paper, it’s only if prices rise 2.9% or more annually that it may be worth owning your home.

I wonder why they bothered with this research. Nothing better to do? It’s only when you understand that this is the work of economists that it makes any sort of sense.

This really is at the heart of why economists struggle to understand real estate. They think it’s about economics. They get a tad vexed when it doesn’t behave.

Most households don’t give a damn whether home ownership makes economic sense or not. It’s not about economics. It’s about culture. It’s about how they want to live.

According to the logic of the RBA research, unless values are rising around 3% a year on average it’s not worth owning. On this basis, nobody should own a home in Sydney, because it’s capital growth rate over 10 years has barely managed that level. How have so many people got it so wrong?

The RBA paper speculates that price growth in the future will be less than in the recent past, in which case we ‘d all be better off financially if we rented.

One question: price growth where? Everywhere in Australia? Price growth everywhere will be too low to justify home ownership?

This brings us back to one of my original points – that one of the great weaknesses of the RBA and economists generally is that they see Australia as one homogeneous market. That’s why they’ve looked at the national average price growth figure – not for Australia, mind you, but for the eight capital cities – and concluded that because the city average is 10% Australia has been having a real estate boom, oblivious to the reality – that only one city has had growth that big.

They really don’t get it.

You can contact Terry via  email or on Twitter.

This article first appeared on Property Observer.

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