Friday, December 29, 2006


Realtors Never Die

The slowdown in the North American housing sector is creating problems for ... Europeans.

If anyone thought that the present sluggishness in many housing markets in North America was going to hurt Realtors the most is better off to think again. It seems that the slowdown in both the new construction and the resale markets and the consequential drop in pricing levels is having reverberations none other than in ... Europe. This is so because we have reached such a high level of economic integration, that it can be safely stated that when we screw up in North America our European friends end up footing the bill.

Globalization is the term commonly used to refer to the growing economic interdependence of countries worldwide through increasing volume and variety of cross-border transactions in goods and services, free international capital flows, and more rapid and widespread diffusion of technology. Clearly the economic interdependence between the United States and Canada on one side, and many members of the Eurozone - especially those belonging originally to the former Western Europe - on the other side has never been more remarked than now. Not only there is a vigorous flow of capitals going both ways, but also the trade of goods is at its apex. And this appears to be the problem.

The European Union has released economic data as to the end of the third quarter, showing a GDP growth of 3.7 percent annualized, its fastest in six years. So fast, in fact, that for the first time ever the Zone has outrun America, Britain and Japan. The engine that has spurred such record-breaking growth, however, was the ever-increasing consumerism mostly on the part of Americans. In essence, Europe has cashed in on the spending power of Americans, which has increased hand-in-hand with the credit that lenders in North America have extended to consumers, secured by their over-valued and over-appreciated real estate equity.

Consumers in North America have had more financial flexibility these past few years than ever before, and for good or bad they have taken full advantage of it. This flexibility has allowed them to choose to carry debt when in the past they may not have had this option. Additionally, it is certainly true that low interest rates have encouraged more borrowing, which in turn has spurred more spending. All the Porsches, BMWs, Volvos and Mercedes that we see on the streets are proof of it.

Now, however, the tide is changing and the American economic powerhouse is slowing down. This fact alone is causing a series of short-term changes that will make life harder for the Euro economies. North-American consumers seem to be more and more reluctant to snap up German cars, French perfumes and Italian vino. The United States, with an annualized GDP growth of 2.5 percent lead the way, and there is a high degree of scepticism among analysts that European consumers alone will be able to fill the 1.2 percent GDP gap so as to keep the Euro GDP high and steady.

Furthermore all this comes at a time when some Euro area countries, most notably Germany and Italy, are due to tighten their budgets. Their public finances need repairing, and they need to act fast. In Germany, the government wants to raise the value-added tax by three percentage points this coming January. Italy's newly elected government, based on a very frail one percent majority of a coalition of center and leftist parties, is not openly talking about any such drastic moves but, nonetheless, has initiated already a series of public spending cuts which have made the Fall labour market exceeding Italy's sweltering mid-August heat by a few degrees. It would appear that the new economic theory of former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi of "lowering taxes and raising pensions" was more palatable to Italians than Romano Prodi's neoclassical approach of "everybody out". Some unions are calling already for a psychiatric evaluation of the new Prime Minister.

Finally, the European Central Bank (ECB) has begun raising interest rates last December and is expected to keep doing so at least until the end of this year. One may wonder why is the ECB poised to increase interest rates at a time when exports are slowing down. The reason lies not with demand but with supply, as unsold inventories are beginning to accumulate, mostly for political reasons. In fact no one dares to lay off workers now, after the civic commotion caused by the recent French rioting.

It turns out, therefore, that real estate agents in North America are not the casualties of the markets taking a breather, at least not the only ones - Europeans stand to lose a lot more.

Luigi Frascati

Real Estate Chronicle


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