In Come the Waves

. It’s from June, 2005 (I missed it as I started blogging in July, 2005). It makes all the same points that you have seen here and on other blogs. I highly recommend reading it. I quote a lot of it (too much, really), below.

The worldwide rise in house prices is the biggest bubble in history. Prepare for the economic pain when it pops

NEVER before have real house prices risen so fast, for so long, in so many countries. Property markets have been frothing from America, Britain and Australia to France, Spain and China. Rising property prices helped to prop up the world economy after the stockmarket bubble burst in 2000. What if the housing boom now turns to bust?

According to estimates by The Economist, the total value of residential property in developed economies rose by more than $30 trillion over the past five years, to over $70 trillion, an increase equivalent to 100% of those countries’ combined GDPs. Not only does this dwarf any previous house-price boom, it is larger than the global stockmarket bubble in the late 1990s (an increase over five years of 80% of GDP) or America’s stockmarket bubble in the late 1920s (55% of GDP). In other words, it looks like the biggest bubble in history.

The global boom in house prices has been driven by two common factors: historically low interest rates have encouraged home buyers to borrow more money; and households have lost faith in equities after stockmarkets plunged, making property look attractive. Will prices now fall, or simply flatten off? And in either case, what will be the consequences for economies around the globe? The likely answers to all these questions are not comforting.

…some housing booms have now fizzled out. In Australia, according to official figures, the 12-month rate of increase in house prices slowed sharply to only 0.4% in the first quarter of this year, down from almost 20% in late 2003. Wishful thinkers call this a soft landing…

Britain’s housing market has also cooled rapidly. The Nationwide index, which we use, rose by 5.5% in the year to May, down from 20% growth in July 2004…House-price inflation has also slowed significantly in Ireland, the Netherlands and New Zealand over the past year.

The most compelling evidence that home prices are over-valued in many countries is the diverging relationship between house prices and rents. The ratio of prices to rents is a sort of price/earnings ratio for the housing market. Just as the price of a share should equal the discounted present value of future dividends, so the price of a house should reflect the future benefits of ownership, either as rental income for an investor or the rent saved by an owner-occupier.

Calculations by The Economist show that house prices have hit record levels in relation to rents in America, Britain, Australia, New Zealand, France, Spain, the Netherlands, Ireland and Belgium. This suggests that homes are even more over-valued than at previous peaks, from which prices typically fell in real terms. House prices are also at record levels in relation to incomes in these nine countries.

America’s ratio of prices to rents is 35% above its average level during 1975-2000 (see chart 1)…Rental yields have fallen to well below current mortgage rates, making it impossible for many landlords to make money.

A common objection to this analysis is that low interest rates make buying a home cheaper and so justify higher prices in relation to rents. But this argument is incorrectly based on nominal, not real, interest rates and so ignores the impact of inflation in eroding the real burden of mortgage debt.

America’s housing market heated up later than those in other countries, such as Britain and Australia, but it is now looking more and more similar. Even the Federal Reserve is at last starting to fret about what is happening. Prices are being driven by speculative demand…Investors are prepared to buy houses they will rent out at a loss, just because they think prices will keep rising—the very definition of a financial bubble.

Indeed, a drop in nominal prices is today more likely than after previous booms for three reasons: homes are more overvalued; inflation is much lower; and many more people have been buying houses as an investment…over the next five years, several countries are likely to experience price falls of 20% or more.

…contrary to conventional wisdom, it does not require a trigger, such as a big rise in interest rates or unemployment, for house prices to decline.

British experience also undermines a popular argument in America that house prices must keeping rising because there is a limited supply of land and a growing number of households…Economists at Goldman Sachs point out that residential investment is at a 40-year high in America, yet the number of households is growing at its slowest pace for 40 years. This will create excess supply.

Another mantra of housing bulls in America is that national average house prices have never fallen for a full year since modern statistics began. Yet outside America, many countries have at some time experienced a drop in average house prices, such as Britain and Sweden in the early 1990s and Japan over the past decade. So why should America be immune? Alan Greenspan, chairman of America’s Federal Reserve, accepts that there are some local bubbles, but dismisses the idea of a national housing bubble that could harm the whole economy if it bursts. America has in the past seen sharp regional price declines, for example in Boston, Manhattan and San Francisco in the early 1990s.

The housing market has played such a big role in propping up America’s economy that a sharp slowdown in house prices is likely to have severe consequences. Over the past four years, consumer spending and residential construction have together accounted for 90% of the total growth in GDP. And over two-fifths of all private-sector jobs created since 2001 have been in housing-related sectors, such as construction, real estate and mortgage broking.