Thursday, May 29, 2003

House of cards - The Economist

In many countries the stockmarket bubble has been replaced by a property-price bubble. Sooner or later it will burst, says Pam Woodall, our economics editor.

“BUYING property is by far the safest investment you can make. House prices will never fall like share prices.” This is the advice offered by countless estate agents around the globe. In the absence of attractive investment opportunities elsewhere, home buyers have needed little encouragement: from London to Madrid and from Washington to Sydney, rising house prices have been the hot topic of conversation at dinner parties. Over the past seven years, house prices in many countries have risen at their fastest rate ever in real terms. And now institutional investors are also eagerly shifting money from equities into commercial property. Many property analysts scoff at the suggestion that another bubble is in the making. House prices may have fallen after previous booms, but “this time is different”, they insist. That is precisely what equity analysts said when share prices soared in the late 1990s. They were proved wrong. Will the property experts suffer the same fate?

This survey will conclude that the latest housing boom has inflated bubbles in several countries, notably America, Australia, Britain, Ireland, the Netherlands and Spain. Within the next year or so those bubbles are likely to burst, leading to falls in average real house prices of 15-20% in America and 30% or more elsewhere over the next few years, in line with average price declines during past housing-market busts. This time, however, with inflation so low, house prices will fall more sharply in money terms than they did in the past. In Britain as a whole, for example, average nominal house prices are likely to drop by 20-25%, and in London by much more. Significant numbers of owners may be left with homes worth less than their mortgages—especially as the proportion of owner-occupiers with mortgages exceeding 80% of the value of their homes is higher now than it was in the previous bust in the early 1990s.

There are already signs in some cities, such as London, New York and Amsterdam, that the housing market is cooling fast, but estate agents still insist that prices are unlikely to fall by much. Tell that to the couple who bought a four-bedroom house in San Francisco for $2.1m in 2000, then divorced and had to sell the house only two years later for $1.45m.

House of cards - The Economist

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