FOMO, messy markets, and the future

3:29 pm on 21 November 2017

Analysis - In a paper published earlier this year called 'The mess we're in' - a dive into the Auckland housing market from the construction industry's point of view - AUT Professor John Tookey says one solution to the bubble and market pressures around the country is to get ahead of demand.

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Photo: RNZ

Sounds simple.

"What is politically difficult to accept is simple to state. Improving housing affordability equates to reducing housing values," Professor Tookey says.

By reducing values, he means your house. Not the 10,000 that officially need to be built every year to accommodate a rising population, a rising population that's mostly Kiwis, New Zealanders returning from elsewhere, and some pesky foreigners. (Disclaimer: the writer is a migrant and GFC economic refugee.)

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Photo: RNZ / Diego Opatowski

One of the reasons for the mess is that for years policy-makers passed legislation incentivising property ownership, and ordinary Kiwis with their money locked in the one asset everyone agreed on - property - have been busily selling properties to one another, buying to let, and driving up prices and rents.

Restrictions on lending have been introduced and more changes are on their way under the new government.

But central government and policymakers don't have a complete picture of who owns all the property. Only a rough picture exists. We know who owns the majority - New Zealanders - but once you factor in apartments, buy to rent, family trusts, second homes, baches, businesses, overseas owners and absentee landlords, it gets, well, messy.

In a BNZ analysis, economist Tony Alexander says the big trend in the last year was the flattening Auckland market, less FOMO (fear of missing out) and a slowdown (although he says prices will go up) for the next five years. The rest of the country will follow in fits and starts in the next year, the report says.

Alexander also says anecdotal feedback is that some real estate agents are now standing forlornly in empty houses at weekends waiting for someone to show up, and there's worse to come.

On the flipside, property listings are up on Trade Me, which demonstrates how hard it is to get a clear picture.

"The hype has gone from the housing market in Auckland and the same will occur around the rest of the country. New equilibriums will be established. Before then, look for some panicked selling from a few unsophisticated investors now feeling FOMO in the other direction.

"And a final message to first home buyers - you are being actively chased by the country's banks. You were cannon fodder before, trampled underfoot by foreign buyers and investors. Now you are gold and in their public pronouncements bankers are at pains to emphasise their growth in lending to yourselves," Alexander says.

Next on the horizon is the government's proposal to ban foreigners from buying houses in New Zealand - which made headlines around the world.

In Australia they have a foreign investor review board, a register of foreign-owned agricultural land and state governments have levied stamp duties - although a report by ABC last month said there was some evidence the new levies were not deterring foreign buyers in Australia.

In New Zealand, there just hasn't been the same level of legwork.

Removing foreign buyers here takes out only a small proportion of overall property transactions - how big a share is anyone's guess.

There are a lot of gaps. There doesn't appear to be any data about the foreign owners of apartment complexes - which are classed as commercial property - or businesses with foreign ownership and residential property portfolios.

Around one million New Zealanders live out of the country and, presumably, some of them own property or have a stake in a family trust.

Land Information New Zealand have three years complex tax residence data on foreign buyers, but again that doesn't give us a complete picture.

There is no express right to housing in New Zealand.

What's more, owners, landlords and businesses like to leverage their equity from being a property owner to buy more residential properties. This, as population demographics reach a turning point, leads to a scarcity of supply (or a perceived scarcity of supply) and, in turn, makes more people want to buy. They're also told it's a good investment, hence all those property management companies, adverts, and billboards promising property-owning paradise.

In a review of research into migration and its effects on house prices, University of Waikato researchers Dr Bill Cochrane and Professor Jacques Poot tested several hypotheses in the Auckland market and suggested: returning New Zealanders had a bigger impact on housing markets; five-year migration trends didn't have much effect; investors weren't having a disproportionate impact; and changes to immigration policy won't dampen the housing market.

Professor Poot told RNZ there was no data on "absentee landlords".

Around one-fifth of all the residential buyers and sellers involve companies and, again, we don't know to which extent these companies have foreign owners, he said.

MBIE reports say there is very little research on the country of residence of buyers and sellers from overseas.

And migrant investors, again according to MBIE, tend to put most of their capital into bonds, then follow-on investment in commercial property and some but not much residential property.

The foreign buyer ban's stated aim is to stop speculators cashing in on a rising housing market by buying and flicking properties, rinsing and repeating.

Only a fraction - three percent - of the residential market is officially owned by people with overseas tax residence.

This equates to fewer than 2000 transfers every three months, out of roughly 50,000 property transfers per quarter, according to LINZ.

Whether the ban will have an appreciable effect is anybody's guess because there simply isn't a complete picture of ownership, never mind foreign ownership. The government is talking about transactions numbering in the hundreds - in a market with tens of thousands of transactions every few months.

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