As we enter 2017, housing bubbles are showing signs of bursting all over the world. I know I've been promising I would lay out the economic headwinds for 2017, but 2017's headwinds are building so fast and furious that I'm having to break that promised article out into several articles, as I'm accumulating material faster than I have time to cover.
I'm going to start with the housing bubbles that are now extremely evident in the US, Canada and Australia, noting that housing is also insane in its own weird way in China again and in many other parts of the world. The point I want to make is that, with housing bubbles now at the peak of popping in several parts of the world, this coming housing market collapse could make the US housing market crash of 2007-2009 look like the warm-up act, and housing is just one area of the global economy that is showing signs of high peril.
A 2017 housing bubble collapse in the US may be in the cards
As I wrote in "The Inevitability of Economic Collapse," the whole US economy is a house of cards, but particularly the US housing economy where we have done everything we possibly can to pile up a potential housing collapse as precariously as we did last time around just so we can watch it all fall down again.
The hard push to get back to where we were in 2006 has been on for about seven years. In the past few months, housing has been on its fastest tear in the US with the number of new permits being issued for construction in 2017 particularly leaping up like a spring lamb, and that's with prices that are now generally higher than they were at their peak in 2006. We are showing all the same evidence of an irrational market that we showed going into the Great Recession:
That peak was only attained because of lax credit, which made an expanding number of purchases possible after prices went beyond what people could afford. Since wages in real terms (having only recently started to rise in a few industries) are not any better than they were back in the housing crash of '07-'09 , today's higher prices are actually less sustainable without dangerously lax loan terms than they were back then.
That's why we have again begun to relax loan terms for individuals buying a house. For the last eleven quarters, more lenders have relaxed mortgage standards than have tightened them. ("Minimum credit scores have dropped. Self-employment documentation has reduced. Maximum loan-to-values have been increased.") On top of what banks are doing to relax their own self-imposed standards, Trump has ordered a review of Dodd-Frank with the hope of stripping it back in order to get banks to issue more loans in order to juice the economy (and to make things better for his real estate industry). We learn nothing.
Cohn said Friday on Fox Business that the executive orders are intended to relieve restrictions and scrutiny that post-crisis regulations have put on banks.... Trump promised to do "a big number" on the Dodd-Frank Act. ~ Bloomberg
What could be better than a return to the exuberant days of banking deregulation? A Republican article of faith says that banks and the economy can always benefit from further deregulation. Dodd-Frank will be stripped down before it fully goes into practice. The unstated goal here is to fatten up some more bankers and further inflate the housing bubble because we are so incapable of thinking outside of a housing-based economic model.
The fact is that bank loans to businesses have never been higher (in total value of loans issued), so there is no problem, as Trump claims there is, of banks not issuing enough loans to businesses. The value of bank loans issued was not even this high just before the Great Recession. Likewise, the total value of bank loans for commercial real estate has never been anywhere near as high as it is right now. So, most likely those who are not being given loans (like perhaps the King of Bankruptcy) probably don't deserve them.
For now, the race to the top in housing is still on, but there are signs that a peak is being reached. I' referring to signs other than just the fact that we've passed the previous peak's prices. January purchases of existing homes picked up to a pace not seen since 2007. The number of new-home sales jumped 3.7% in one month (in terms of number of units sold). That is in spite of the fact that the median price of a US home has risen 7.1% since the same time last year.
One caveat about this rise (until we see where it goes in the next couple of months) is that some of this activity since December's rate hike may be due to people rushing to buy before interest rates rise even more, now that rate increases by the Federal Reserve are looking certain.
With houses in the US now remaining on the market for only fifty days, averaged across the nation (less than a month on the west coast), the market is feeling as searingly hot as it did in 2006 just before prices started to fall. So, that's one indicator a top may be near.
Because of a shortage of inventory (the lowest number of houses on the market since 1999), bidding wars are starting again in cities like Seattle and San Francisco where houses again regularly sell for more than their list price. That kind of bubbling-over race to higher prices ran for a few years in the highest-priced markets before the last housing crash, but it is the kind of frenzy that defines "irrational exuberance" in a housing market. When people scurry to say, "I want to pay you more than you're asking for" in a market already priced higher than ever before, you're witnessing the kind of mania that precedes a crash. So, that's another indicator that a top may be near.
One more kind of action that has risen back to pre-Great-Recession levels is house flipping. Foreclosures are being snapped up by mom-and-pop fixer-uppers at a level matching the superheated speculation of the last housing bubble.
Some US housing bubbles appear to be popping already. Prices on expensive homes in some places, such as Miami, are now falling quickly. Since early 2016, condo speculators in Miami (who buy condos pre-construction, hoping to sell them for a better price as soon as they are completed) have been pummeled into accepting losses. Inventory is growing in Miami; sales volume is shrinking; and total volume of sales in dollars is declining.
Same kind thing is happening in Manhattan where luxury co-op apartment contracts have collapsed 25%. Closings on high-end sales in Manhattan (number of units sold) had fallen 18.6% year on year back in October. Inventory of units in new developments was backed up at that point an additional 27.2% YoY.
Barry Sternlich, CEO of the Starwood Property Trust, which finances real estate development, calls Manhattan's luxury condo situation "a catastrophe" that "will get worse." Since homes in this segment of the market are typically bought by those people who make a lot of money by working on Wall Street, one has to wonder what this says about the real situation in the world of stocks and finance.
From 2017 on, the US housing market will face different kind of bubble bust than it has ever faced before. The baby-boom bubble is now moving out of the housing market. For the next two decades, the fastest rising segment of the population will be those who are seventy or more years old, while those who range from twenty to sixty nine (where homes are still being bought) will shrink in total numbers.
Seventy-plussers, whose total population is projected to quadruple during that time, buy the lowest number of homes of any age group (only about seven percent of the market). Not only do they have less need of a new home, there aren't many banks that want to issue a thirty-year mortgage to someone who will be a hundred years old by the house it gets paid off. So, ask yourself who is going to buy up all the houses that the baby boomers evacuate when they move into retirement facilities? (The growth in nursing facilities, may keep construction going, but it isn't going to help banks with huge numbers of home loans on their books, and boomers trying to sell in that market will be hurt badly by falling values, making it also hard to buy into retirement facilities.)
Why the real-estate mogul president of the US may cause the housing bubble to collapse in 2017
It seems counter-intuitive that a real-estate development tycoon would cause a housing bubble collapse, as there is nothing he would hate more, but consider the following:
While high-priced homes (prices and numbers of sales) are already starting to slide in some major metropolitan areas, Trump's immigration restrictions are likely to impact the lower and mid segments of the housing market, pushing them over the cliff, too -- particularly the multiple-family housing market and to some extent single-family housing. (I'm for many of his immigration reforms, but the math doesn't care how you feel about immigration. Math is math.)
The secondary reason -- second only to having a cheap-labor pool -- that businesses and government want as much immigration as possible is that high immigration forces expansion of our housing-based economy. And housing expansion seems to be the only sure way of growing an economy we know about -- sure, that is, until it isn't.
Housing markets with the highest risk of an immigration-based collapse in 2017 include Los Angeles, San Francisco, Miami, Silicon Valley and New York, which have the largest populations of foreign renters and buyers. Since some of those areas are already hurting on the top end of the market, they are going to really feel the squeeze.
Consider a simple reality of the deportation threat: even those who are not deported are likely to back off from their purchasing plans. More will stay for now with renting in fear that they may be deported. Overnight, millions of people are becoming reluctant to enter long-term residential plans.
Not only do millions of families deported mean a loss in demand; they also mean millions of homes and apartments going on the market. It's a price hit from both demand and supply sides of the market at the same time. In the old days, that was a recipe for a ghost town where people simply walked away.
The possibility of deportation also makes lenders nervous and less willing to make loans to undocumented immigrants. (Some lenders actually specialize in making mortgages to "undocumented immigrants.") For the bank's view, people leaving the market and selling their homes in large numbers means oversupply, which predicts falling prices, which predicts mortgages going underwater. If those underwater mortgages are adjustable-rate mortgages they cannot be refinanced when the interest increase comes. So, defaults will rise for immigration reasons just as housing prices are exceeding the peek they hit before the last major housing crisis. Smart bankers are getting nervous, but that means loan tightening will exacerbate the problem.
Then you have to factor in the millions of immigrants who won't be coming even if deportation doesn't happen quickly. That influx is already down because people know the risk of deportation is far more likely under Trump than it was under Obama. (Obama practically advertised for illegal immigration by letting the world know that children would not be deported, which translated to "send them quickly while you can get them in and can know they will be allowed to stay.")
The factor here is that a third of the real-estate industry's estimated new growth is based on new immigrants adding to demand. Whether they live in apartments, houses or condos doesn't matter. All of that is new construction for a planned influx of new people who are no longer coming. That is going to start taking some plans off the table. Many of those permits that have been applied for may never be exercised.
While Trump's massive immigration changes (and the fears caused by the knowledge that change is coming) are likely to effect the lower end of the market the most, they will effect mid levels as well. Immigrants with specialized skills, who are here with green cards to do specialized jobs, are becoming more skittish, too, being uncertain of how Trump's immigration plans will effect them. Even some green-card holders who are already far along in the process of getting citizenship legally are becoming apprehensive about purchasing a home because they are concerned that the immigration issue could become more aggressive.
So, we have a rather large trigger that is already moving, which could cause a 2017 housing bubble c0llapse.
Canada's housing bubble is more precarious and is already falling in 2017
From Miami, Florida, to Vancouver, B.C., housing is tumbling at the top. Vancouver's housing market decapitation is partially intentional, created in part by a 15% foreign-investment tax that the city started at the end of summer in 2016. They implemented the tax because prices at the top were going insane due to Chinese investors, and that was pricing Canadians out of their own market; but that pushes somewhat wealthy Canadians down to high mid-level homes, raising prices there, which pushes mid-level buyers down and so forth.
The 15% tax hits mansions the most because that is where foreign money was percolating prices into the stratosphere (due to Chinese investors looking for ways to store their wealth outside of badly failing China). However, the price drop in top-tier housing is not entirely due to the foreign-investor tax because sales started to fall sharply (by about half the number of units sold in a month, year on year) for two months before the new tax was voted into place. (Maybe just in anticipation?) In fact, the average home price in Vancouver has fallen almost every month since March, 2016, though most of the deflation has been at the top. (So, maybe a top is in anyway.)
At the same time, the number of empty houses (including derelict mansions) in the greater Vancouver area had more than doubled from what it was back in 2001 even though prices since 2001 had risen 450%. So many empty houses means there is a lot of reason to believe prices will keep falling, especially now that the foreign investors are being driven away. Have incomes risen 450% to keep up with that? Don't think so.
Because mansions in the best neighborhoods (where the median home price is about $5 million Canadian) were oddly being left unoccupied and deteriorating, Vancouver also imposed a one-percent surcharge on property taxes for houses that are not primary residences or are not rented out for half of the year in hopes of getting people to do something with those home in order to thin out the decay.
(The result of all this has been to push Chinese investment down to Seattle, Washington, causing the high-end home market along the US west coast to improve.)
Toronto, Canada, is as much a bubble as Vancouver. Doug Porter, the chief economist for the Bank of Montreal, told investors this past week, "Let's drop the pretense. The Toronto housing market and the many cities surrounding it are in a housing bubble."
Prices in that region have risen an average of 22% in just the last year. This is the fastest increase since the late eighties, which almost everyone in Canada will agree was another bubble, and it comes on top of pervious years of double-digit gains.
This is insanely bubblicious activity. Did incomes rise 22% last year? Do the math: When the cost of housing rises 22% in one year, and wages rise 2% and when the 22% is on a starting number that is maybe four times higher than the average annual wage that only rose 2%, clearly there is no more room for housing prices to rise ... other than by foreign investment (now being curtailed) or further relaxation of credit terms. (Lest you think the latter is a realistic possibility, think how much you'd have to slacken credit terms in just one year to make the next year's mortgages affordable.)
The housing bubble down under is probably going under in 2017, too
Australia appears to be trying to push its bubble higher in all the same ways the US tried leading into the Great Recession. Why? Because the Australian housing bubble is coming to an end, and what one does when that happens is loosen the strings on the net to cast a wider net. Thus, one member of parliament is now asking for banks to start giving zer0-downpayment loans. Been there, done that in the US; and the housing market collapse came shortly after.
When you have nothing down and little to lose, you walk away from your loan quite easily if housing prices fall. So, the end of the bubble comes surprisingly fast at the point.
The Australian housing bubble percolated along nicely all the way through 2016 with housing prices in Sydney and Melbourne rising fifteen and thirteen percent respectively in one year. Canberra and Hobart saw about 10% growth in prices. In Brisbane, however, where construction was soaring, growth has almost stalled. Vacancy rates have now doubled. Project approvals are dropping, so construction will begin to go down. Perth was the first major city to shift into reverse as it saw property prices slide downhill four percent last year. Smaller cities where the big money was coming from mining of resources sold to China are seeing even faster declines. They are not ghost towns, but it is the same dynamic.
One of the things the US experienced in its infamous housing bubble collapse was a lot of dishonesty in the loan approval process and the loan repackaging process that became necessary to expand the net after all possibilities of legally relaxing standards were exhausted. Now Australia is in the same place:
UBS Securities Australia reported today that about 28% of Australian mortgages issued in 2015 and 2016 are what we in the US have come to call "liar loans," which played a big role in the housing boom and the collapse and subsequent bailout of the global financial system.
The last phase of a housing bubble needs liar loans to keep going because buyers have to reach beyond their limits, and the only way to do this is lie now, or miss out forever on buying a house to live in or get rich with quick as investor.... US-style mortgage fraud would be a "Nuclear Bomb" to Australia's banks. ~ Wolf Street
Much of this fraud has come from Chinese investors who falsely stated their income. With the Chinese running double books in China as well-known standard operating procedure, who would have thought they might have provided false data to Ausie banks? Increasingly, Australian banks are afraid to lend to them, so Chinese investment is falling off sharply.
Shanghai-based financiers claim their Chinese clients' funding from Australian banks has been frozen and they face foreclosure – or usurious interest rates – from private financiers.... "All the deals have been frozen," said Mark Yin, an agent with Shanghai-based Home Tree Group, about his Shanghai clients' funding with Australian banks. "We are now looking for finance all over the world...." Billions of dollars has been invested in tens-of-thousands of high-rise apartments that are reshaping the skylines of the nation's major capitals, particularly Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane. Most have been sold off-the-plan, which means purchasers buy off the blueprint with a deposit and complete when it is built, which requires a second valuation and financing commitment by the lender.... Lenders, which initially fell over themselves to finance overseas' buyers, slammed on the breaks when spot checks on the loan applications detected widespread fraud. The main problem is mainland Chinese buyers, which account for about half of the deals. That means many local lenders that agreed to provide funding when buyers made deposits, will not recommit upon completion. Nervous local lenders fear that a sharp downturn, or change of sentiment, could result in foreclosures with overseas borrowers they have little chance of locating. ~ Financial Review
According to UBS, misrepresentation is systemic, and according to The Guardian, the housing bubble in some parts of Australia is "ready to hit the skids." With things falling apart, the Reserve Bank of Australia started trying to make Donald Trump the scapegoat for the failure of its own cheap-money policies ... before he was even inaugurated. (Don't they have their own notoriously irascible PM they could blame?)
Trump's policies may be inflationary, they whine. Wasn't Australia's central bank, like the rest of the civilized world, trying for the past several years to create a little inflation? Now their failures are because Trump is creating inflation?
The problem is that Trump's talk of infrasture spending raised bond rates in Australia, too, which bleeds into mortgage rates. Interest rates are now rising outside the central bank's control, just as they are here in the US, sending housing expansion into reverse. Market forces are wresting control over interest from central banks, so CB decisions to raise target rates at this point don't amount to much more than catching up in order to maintain the illusion that they are still in control.
UBS also ranks Sydney as the fourth-most likely city in the world to experience the implosion of a housing bubble. (Vancouver tops the list.) Property prices there have grown almost fifty percent since 2012, while wages have stagnated. That assures it is a credit-fueled housing bubble, not a rise born of spreading prosperity.
How bad is it?
This Sydney house with its tiny sliver of land in a residential neighborhood
sold for nearly $1 million in 2014.
Jonathan Tepper -- a US hedge-fund consultant who predicted the mortgage crises in the US, Spain and Ireland -- claimed Sydney's housing bubble was ready to burst in 2016 with a correction that could be as much as a fifty percent plunge. Stated Tepper, "Australia now has one of the biggest housing bubbles in history." Was he wrong entirely about an Australian housing bubble crash or just a little premature on the timing?
Some developers (with their own interests to promote) say Sydney cannot crash because Australia's population is still growing rapidly and will for another twenty year, but Sydney could still crash if the rise in values has more to do with years of speculation than with population growth, as rental rates would indicate. Prices will revert to what people can actually afford when speculation can't go higher.
We know what happens as soon as speculative housing bubbles stop rising because they can't find enough qualified fools (or enough cheap credit). Like all Ponzi schemes, the game is over immediately upon reaching the last tier of willing or able players. Where wages have stagnated for years, that happens as soon a speculators can no longer count on a profiting from reselling to other anxious speculators.
Higher interest disqualifies more participants. As in the US, Australian households are again already struggling under a huge debt load of $2 trillion Ausie bucks. That means a little rise in interest should shut the game down pretty quickly. That crane count over the skyline of Australian cities, which has outnumbered major cities in the US and UK, may start to look a little derelict in the years ahead, as rusting cables sway in the wind over half-finished, vacant monuments.
Stop! Don't worry about that scenario right now. Individual banks in Australia have found a way to keep the investor pool growing even as central-bank cheap money has topped out -- mortgage fraud. According to a report last spring, which was tabled by the Australian senate, many banks are falsifying applicant information in order to make applicants look more capable of paying than they really are. So, Australia is not just experience mortgage fraud from applicants, but also mortgage fraud from the banks making the loans.
You have to appreciate how much the Ausies learned from the United States' play book where many banks in Florida ran the same game in the run-up to the Great Recession. Australia should be safe, though, because, according to the report, this is happening "with the full knowledge of Australian Securities and Investments Commission, the Australian Prudential Regulation Authority and the Reserve Bank of Australia." (One has to wonder why they became so concerned about Chinese falsification, when others are going out of their way to create false applications; but such is the bizarre world of housing bubbles, especially when they reach their popping point and things get desperate.)
Philip Lowe, the Reserve Bank of Australia's governor, tried last fall to blame skyrocketing home prices on a shortage of houses, rather than on the loosey-goosey interest rates of the national bank. Sorry, Pip, but if that were the case, rents would have risen parallel with housing prices; but rents have barely nudged upward for years. If there is a shortage of inventory, it's only because you're in a feeding frenzy of flippers, not because people can't find enough shelter. It's a speculative bubble, with everyone snapping up anything that flashes in the pond. Bite first, decide if its food-worthy later.
The last person we would expect to understand housing bubbles is a banker. Stay with the bubbles in your champagne flute, Phil. They're the only ones you're familiar with. The real problem is that years of cheap loans have enticed your people to amass the highest levels of household debt in the world! Do I hear a flush coming? But, hey, at least the RBA has set aside $300 billion dollars for its next bailout. So, you're good, Australia ... until round two. All bets are on the house in this casino.
Even ol' Pip recognizes that one of the major reasons governments want immigrants is to keep pumping up the housing bubble. Lowe stooped to his name's own level when he lamented last week that "the insidious" resentment that Ausies have toward immigrants, such resentment being caused by the overcrowding of Australia's major cities. This could doom the land down under's housing-based economy if people there start rejecting a major source of demand as is happening in the US. You see, the eternal expansion of overpopulation is essential when the only way to grow a housing economy is to grow population.
The solution, according to Lowe, is for the government to build more transportation infrastructure so the influx of people can spread out more. (Hmm, you mean take out more bonds, which will cause interest rates to rise just as happened because of Trump's infrastructure plans? I guess Lowe likes the idea if it happens in Australia, just not when it happens to Australia.)
Hopefully, someday Australia will be one big city from coast to coast. Then they can start building islands (think how much infrastructure spending that will cause) to house more people in order to keep that real-estate-driven economy ever on the rise. (I ask the question, "Why do economies need to grow? What's wrong with just sustaining nicely? Well, of course, they need to grow so that people can get filthy rich.)
How long can the game go on? According to The Sydney Morning Herald
The forecasters are now saying 2017 will be the year that the housing headwinds could get stronger.
But The Herald also states that none of this points to Australia's housing bubble bursting, but just to a little letting of the air out of the market. Ah, the perfect world where the air hisses out like a lazy snake. The problem with Ponzi schemes, though, is that as soon as the air starts coming out, the snake bites, and the whole scheme collapses. In housing that plays out as flippers stopping their investment because they get scary-close to not making money anymore. Some even start to lose money. Demand plunges as soon as the flippers stop flipping, so housing prices fall. That means mortgages go underwater.
All of that becomes a catastrophe when a nation has issued a huge number of variable-interest loans -- as Australia has. When interest rise just as housing prices go down, owners cannot sell their way out of trouble as an escape hatch if they got in over their heads. The only way out is default.
Even worse are interest-only loans where speculators qualify for much more than they can actually pay for with loans that require interest payments only until a set date when a balloon payment is due. The flipper plans to sell the house into a rising market and see a big profit before that impossible event hits. The home owner who plans to stay counts on being able to refi at a more attractive interest rate once he or she has built up equity due to rising values. If they can't? Australia has half a trillion dollars worth of these loans outstanding, comprising more than fifty percent of residential term loans.
Prices could just settle out if this wasn't a speculative bubble of people buying and selling homes to make a quick buck in a rising market. But when prices have reached lofty heights largely because of rampant speculation, housing is likely to slide off a cliff when speculation stops and prices revert to what people can actually afford without all the baloney that pumped up the market.
Housing bubbles ready to burst all over the world in 2017
The countries I've covered here are no different than many others. I could as easily write about the UK housing bubble, which began to unwind last year. Barclay's is now offering 100% loan-to-value mortgages -- an obvious latch-ditch kind of effort to prop things along to anyone who has seen these things fall apart in the past. As with Vancouver, Manhattan, and Miami, London's pricier neighborhoods have seen a decline of ten percent in value in the past year.
The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development said at the start of this year that it now sees dangerous property bubbles in several of the world's largest economies that risk a "massive" price collapse. It notes that New Zealand and Sweden are perched at even more precarious heights than the UK, Australia, Canada and the US.
All of this accelerating insanity has to be a top coming in. One can hope all these bubbles deflate slowly, but our experience with major bubbles says they don't just fade. As soon as there is no greater fool qualified to enter the market, housing balloons in the US, Canada and Australia will likely implode. Likewise, elsewhere.
We have rebuilt almost exactly the same potential panic-inducing crisis that was just starting to show in 2006; only this collapse is likely to be global ... all at the same time -- probably starting this year and really falling apart next as contagion moves from nation to nation.
To keep qualified investors coming into this Ponzi scheme for now, nations have reverted to relaxing credit standards and the US back to deregulating banks because that's the only way to expand to the next larger tier of fools. Same old story as last time. We're doing this because we are so addicted to the idea of a housing-based economy as the only way to go that we bullheadedly keep thinking it has no top limit to its expansion.
We do this even though we have already experienced how quickly things go bad -- very bad -- when you reduce mortgage standards so much in order to rope the final round of people in. People go mad in herds, but only recover their senses one at a time, while voices of sanity pretty much talk to themselves.
For right now, the stampede in stocks and housing is still on; so don't worry: a collapse is nowhere in site. We are no closer to a meltdown in either market than Fukushima was after a thousand earthquakes and a tsunami. If you don't believe me, ask a banker.