There is a common argument that Australia has a housing shortage because prices are rising. The flawed reasoning goes like this: “Under the ‘irrefutable’ law of demand and supply, if prices rise, it must be due to demand outstripping supply i.e. shortage situation.”
This flawed reasoning has its roots in the mainstream Neo-Classical school of economic thought. Under this school, the market is assumed to be in equilibrium. As we wrote in Soft landing hope built on faulty framework assumptions
But this is a very erroneous assumption built into the framework of mainstream neo-classical economic thinking. Does the economy always have to return to equilibrium the way an elastic band spring back into its previous relaxed state? Can there be other forces that can pull the economy further and further out of equilibrium until a breakdown occurs?
In Neo-Classical reasoning, equilibrium is when the supply curve meets the demand curve. If prices go up, and the market has to be in equilibrium as assumed, then it has to imply that the supply curve had shifted left and/or demand curve had shifted right. Subsequently, prices had to rise to ease the demand-supply imbalance. With rising prices, many of these housing ‘experts’ then go hunting for reasons (that suits their vested interest) to explain the ‘shortages.’
In the real world, the market need not necessarily be in equilibrium. In fact, it can go out of equilibrium and remain so for an extended period of time, independent of the housing shortage/surplus situation. In Australia’s housing market, we have identified two major factors:
Price rise expectation
The first factor is price inflation expectation. As we quoted Ludwig von Mises in What is a crack-up boom?
He who believes that the prices of the goods in which he takes an interest will rise, buys more of them than he would have bought in the absence of this belief: accordingly he restricts his cash holding. He who believes that prices will drop, restricts his purchases and thus enlarges his cash holding.
This observation is true for generic commodities that can be purchased with cash alone- in contrast, houses are almost always purchased with debt. The belief that prices will always go up forever and ever can create its own artificial demand. The insidious thing with this belief is that it is a self-fulfilling prophecy- belief leads to increased ‘demand,’ which in turn leads to higher prices, which reinforced the belief, which in turn leads to increased ‘demand’ and so on and so forth. When this happens, higher prices lead to even higher ‘demand.’ Such artificial demand can act as a sink-hole for whatever quantity of supply until money runs out in the financial system (which is not possible under today’s a fiat credit system). The Dutch Tulip Mania (which burst in 1637) is an example of the power of belief. Indeed, there must a ‘shortage’ of tulips at that time, according to Neo-Classical supply-demand ‘fundamentals.’
This is the same dynamic working in hyperinflation, where everything (not just houses) rises in prices. It was just last year that there’s talk of food shortages (see Who is to blame for surging food and oil prices?). Today, we hardly hear of food ‘shortages’ after deflationary Panic of 2008.
Availability of credit
As we all know, almost everyone borrow money to buy houses. Very few buy them with cash. What if banks decide to withdraw all credit in the economy? Obviously, people’s purchasing power of houses will fall as they can only rely on their cash savings to buy houses. Consequently, the ‘demand’ for housing will collapse immediately. As we said before in Another faulty analysis: BIS Shrapnel on house prices,
Where is the housing ‘demand’ going to come from as credit becomes more expensive? The only way for most people to buy a property is to borrow money. If credit becomes more expensive (i.e. harder to borrow money), obviously the ‘demand’ for properties will fall as well.
Conversely, when there’s more and more easy credit are available, more and more borrowed money can be used to bid up house prices. This can go on until the debt servicing burden becomes too big to bear.
How the two factors interact with each other
People’s expectation that prices will rise (abetted by belief that there’s a housing ‘shortage’) will lead to higher prices. Unlike the Dutch Tulip Mania of the 17th century, today’s financial system can spew out more and more credit continuously (see Marc Faber vs Steve Keen in inflation/deflation debate- Part 1: Steve Keen’s model). This means that self-reinforcing artificial demand can be fuelled by more and more credit, which helps prices to rise.
Then, through the principle of imputed valuation, increase in house prices at the margins will result in every other house to be re-valued upwards. As we said before in Spectre of deflation,
One thing many people fail to understand is that values of financial assets can vanish as easily as they are created in the first place. It is a fallacy to believe that just because money has to move somewhere from one asset class to another, the overall valuation in the financial system cannot contract. The very fact that all the money in the world cannot buy up all capitalisation is proof of that fact. This leads us to the next question: how do financial assets derive their value?
As we mentioned in The Bubble Economy, we have to understand the principle of imputed valuation. Suppose you have a house which you bought for $100,000. What happens if one day, your neighbour decide to sell his house (which is similar to yours) for $120,000? When that happens, your house would have to be re-valued upwards to $120,000 even though you had done absolutely nothing. The same goes for stocks. All it needs for a stock to increase in value is for a pair of buyer and seller to transact at a higher price. As long as the other shareholders do absolutely nothing, that higher price will be imputed into the values of the rest of the stocks. Thus, when asset values rise, all it takes is a handful of them to trade at higher prices in order for the rest to be re-valued upwards. If assets can ?increase? in value that way, it can ‘decrease’ in value that way too.
What is more worrying is that assets of such imputed values are used as collaterals for further borrowing, which becomes the borrower’s liability.
When the values of the houses sold at the margins are imputed to the rest of the houses, it result in higher valued collateral for more granting of even more credit. More credit adds another round of self-reinforcing feedback loop.
Pre-requisites for a substantial house price fall in Australia
All we need for house price to fall substantially in Australia is (1) a reversal of house price rise expectation and/or (2) tighter credit and/or critical mass of debt servicing failure (which can be caused by rising unemployment- see RBA committing logical errors regarding Australian household finance). When that happens, the self-reinforcing feedback loop for higher prices will become a self-reinforcing feedback loop for lower prices.
Look at UK…
There are many ‘experts’ who argued that house prices are falling in the US due to ‘over-supply’ and that Australia’s housing ‘shortage’ will prevent a house price fall. These experts conveniently failed to look at the UK. Just do a Google search on “housing shortage” site:uk and you will find many reports of a housing ‘shortage’ in the UK too.
We all know what happened to the UK housing market.