For much of the past two years we have seen a great deal of hand-wringing and uncritical reporting of ABS first homebuyer figures, with countless media articles noting the apparent disappearance of first time buyers due to their being crowded out of the market by greedy Baby Boomer speculators.
It has been a compelling narrative, to be sure, but has been shown either to be a partial misunderstanding of market dynamics by theorists, or a prolonged exercise in confirmation bias.
As documented here and elsewhere many times previously, first time buyers never really disappeared.
What can be said is that over recent times the marginal buyer of property in our largest capital cities has altered significantly.
Anyone who works in the Sydney property market would know that many of those so-termed “speculators” have in fact been first time buyers themselves, oftentimes choosing to buy an investment property as their first step on the housing market ladder.
I cannot realistically speak for the Melbourne market being an infrequent visitor south of the border, but can only imagine that similar trends have been playing out there.
If you want to reduce the argument to semantic debate, you might say that first time investors are not buying “homes”, but, whatever, they never went on strike.
The most populous cities have also being our strongest property markets, so for those listening to the data then the conclusions should have been obvious enough.
Theorists schooled by NAB data
The latest NAB residential property survey for Q1 2015 was released last week.
It confirmed that more than a quarter of established properties continue to be purchased by a combination of first homebuyers (15.8 per cent in Q1 2015, down from 16.1 per cent in Q4 2014) and first time investors (making up 10 per cent of purchases).
Trends in new residential property developments were once again broadly similar, with first timer buyers also accounting for around a quarter of sales.
Even more damningly a recent Domain survey found that 16 per cent of “Gen Y” folk own two or more properties, which is almost as high a share as the “Gen Xs” (17 per cent), or even the Baby Boomer generation who had apparently locked them out of the market (17 per cent).
So much for the greedy old farts “devouring their young”!
It has rather more been a case of dog eat dog, or what is otherwise known as a “market”.
This merely underscores the fallacy of dividing up Australia into convenient generational groups and stereotypes.
In the real world there are at least two score and ten shades of grey, and markets are infinitely more complex and granular.
What this means…consequences?
There was also a theory doing the round some years ago that the disappearance of the first homebuyer could cause the property markets to collapse in upon themselves, as the base of the real estate pyramid dissipated.
This has not proven to be the case – at least, not yet – with many first time investors favouring lower priced property with its more affordable entry points and potentially stronger yields.
However, these shifts being seen in our capital city markets may yet have unforeseen consequences.
First and foremost, the increased roles of the investor and the first-time investor have the potential to amplify the property market cycles, both on the way up and on the way down.
Who and what drives prices?
It has long been argued that unemotional and calculating investors don’t push up property prices, while emotion-driven homebuyers do.
There was probably an element of truth in this in times past.
Certainly it can be said that countries with high home ownership rates have also historically been more prone to boom-bust cycles, for where the status of home ownership is considered to be an essential, would-be buyers can on occasion stretch themselves to extreme lengths.
However, the first hand evidence I have seen tells me that investors today can push home prices higher just as much as homebuyers can.
Why would a rational and calculating investor be prepared to bid high for a property
Simply because within an illiquid market it may be another month or three before they have a further opportunity to buy, and in a hot or rising market environment they may fear paying $5,000 more for the privilege of so doing.
A greater number of investors in the market could amplify the downturn phase of the property cycle too with some investors inclined to dash for the exits when prices are declining.
In reality, trading property frequently as is so often recommended by investment advisers and property writers is highly impractical due to prohibitive transaction costs, and a large number of investors instead look to adopt a long term buy and hold approach.
Greater volatility is most likely to be experienced in smaller property markets where volumes are thin, and indeed we have already seen some extreme examples in certain mining towns.
Experienced housing market economists have long recognised that the larger property markets can often be more stable and far less impacted by increases in supply – even dramatic increases in supply.
The property markets of Melbourne have been an excellent case in point, refusing to crash despite an oversupply of experts insisting that they must, due to overbuilding and an excess of high rise stock.
Another trend which we might expect to see is that of a shorter market cycles, particularly in this modern era of instant gratification.
Perhaps to a certain extent this is already true, with Australia having experienced a number of mini-cycles over the past decade.
That said, this is likely also in part illusory, with the ebbs and flows of property cycles in times past masked by an economy which was off to the inflationary races.
In today’s era of low interest rates and low inflation we should expect to see property prices falling in nominal terms far more frequently than was ever the case in times of higher or even raging inflation.