Wednesday, January 31, 2007
The Dangers Of Overvaluing Real Estate
When short of listings, the Realtor goes out and ‘buys' one. The process of buying a listing is as old as Real Estate itself. The agent shows up at someone's doorsteps and inflates the value of the property by more than $30,000, $40,000 or even $50,000 over and above the actual market value. I know of agents who have actually listed properties for $200,000 more than what those properties were in fact worth. The owner happily signs the listing agreement with those dollar signs sparking right in the eyes, and the Realtor happily sticks up a sign right in the front lawn. Of course the house subsequently does not sell because it is overpriced, but it doesn't really matter.
Or does it?
All the way back in 1988, in a legal case entitled Basic Inc. v. Levinson, the United States Supreme Court endorsed a theory known as ‘fraud on the market', which in turn relies on another theory known in Economics as the Efficient Market Hypothesis. The Efficient Market Hypothesis postulates that prices of traded assets like stocks, bonds, or real property, already reflect all known information and therefore are unbiased in the sense that they reflect the collective beliefs of all investors about the value of the underlying asset and enable investors, therefore, to assess future prospects.
In essence the Efficient Market Hypothesis, which was developed in the 1950's and 1960's, states that subject to certain conditions the market price of a traded asset fully and accurately reflects all the available information relevant to its value. Under this Hypothesis, in an efficient market the only reason as to why a price changes is that new information comes to light.
Because market prices reflect all available information about an asset, reasoned the Supreme Court, misleading statements as to the integrity of price will affect and negatively impact the decision-making process of investors, who rely on those statements as the primary guide to finalize a purchase. Which is tantamount to ‘intentional deceit', more vulgarly known as ... fraud.
That ruling has proven a goldmine for American trial lawyers, who have won fortunes by suing firms for damages when new financial information, often in practice a restatement of their balance sheets, is followed by a sharp fall in stock prices of the same firms. The fall is treated as proof of overvaluation due to the initial, wrong statements.
This decision of America's highest Court has now crossed the border with Canada and has spilled into Real Estate. A case involving a Seller, a Buyer and a Real Estate Agent acting in a position of dual agency is now pending in front of the Supreme Court of Ontario. The Agent first grossly overvalued the subject property at the time he took the listing, then actually found a Purchaser ready, willing and able to buy at a price close the grossly inflated asking price. As the transaction was being financed through an institutional lender, the underlying case initially also involved an appraisal firm, which subsequently has settled out of Court with the disgruntled Purchaser.
The decision of the Supreme Court will have an enormous impact on how real estate is practiced in Ontario and possibly throughout the whole country, and it will be interesting to see what the outcome will be. The Buyer bases his case on the Efficient Market Hypothesis arguing that he reached the decision to purchase on the integrity of the asking price and claims, furthermore, that the dual Agent knew or should have know that the asking price was grossly over and above the market value of the subject property. The Buyer is claiming damages both as against the Agent and the Seller.
The line of defence is that the true meaningful value of an interest in land is given by its ‘objective value', defined as the price that the property will fetch in an open and fair market, given sufficient time to find a Purchaser, the amount of advertising involved in the marketing of the property, the relationship between the parties and the terms of financing. The additional argument of the defence is that the truthfulness of the Efficient Market Hypothesis is actually being disputed by Economists even in its original field of application: the Stock Market. More specifically, the defence argues that even highly developed financial markets such as the New York Stock Exchange are not efficient enough to allow Courts to calculate the financial damages caused by fraud, and that estimates of damages based on the Hypothesis will be necessarily overstated.
The Realtor in particular contends, furthermore, that at no time the thought of earning a double commission ever crossed his innocent mind (he was walking the dog one day and ...).
All of which goes to prove once again the point I have been making for years - that is sellers, buyers, realtors, lawyers and judges invariably make an explosive mix.
Labels: REAL ESTATE
Friday, January 26, 2007
Soft But Not Dead
Housing markets do not look nearly as bad as anticipated by some.
Looking back to these past few months we get a general picture of falling housing prices, suggesting once more that Newton's Law of Universal Gravitation, encapsulated in the dictum "Everything that goes up must come down" is absolutely true and that, furthermore, it applies even to Real Estate. But when it comes to housing prices the real question becomes:"Come down from where?"
According to the Office of Federal Housing Enterprise Oversight (http://www.ofheo.gov/) the average price of a house rose by only 1.2 percent in the Third Quarter, the smallest gain since 1999 - but a gain nonetheless. OFHEO reports, furthermore, that the past year has seen the sharpest slowdown in the rate of growth since the Office began to keep track of the housing price index all the way back in 1975. Even so, average prices are still up by 10.1 percent compared to a year ago.
This is much stronger than the index published by the National Association of Realtors (http://www.realtor.org/), which showed a rise of only 0.9 percent in the year to September. Economic analysts generally speaking prefer the OFHEO index, since it is thought to be more reliable because it tracks price changes in successive sales of the same houses over time and therefore, unlike the NAR index, is not distorted by a shift in the mix of sales to cheaper homes.
All of which, then, brings up to mind the fact that it is not only the foresaid Newton's Law that applies to Real Estate, but also another very important scientific theory as well - Einstein's Theory of General Relativity, which can be encapsulated in the dictum "Everything is relative".
‘Stickiness' is a noun used in Economics to describe a situation in which a variable is resistant to change. Price stickiness, therefore, reflects the fact that asking prices of interests in land remain high and even increase at a time when demand lowers. For example, nominal asking prices are often said to be sticky. Market forces may reduce the real value of interests in land, but prices will tend to remain at previous levels. Stickiness normally applies in one direction, which means that a variable that is "sticky downward" will be reluctant to drop even if market conditions dictate that it should.
Price stickiness, in any market, is responsible for and reflects some confusion that exists between nominal and real values and gives rise, moreover, to a particular phenomenon known as the ‘Money Illusion'. Money illusion refers to the tendency of people to think of prices in nominal, rather than real, terms. The term was coined by John Maynard Keynes in the early Twentieth century.
Money illusion does influence people perceptions of outcomes. Experiments have shown that people generally perceive a 2 percent cut in nominal income as unfair, but see a 2 percent rise in nominal income where there is 4 percent inflation as fair, despite the fact that the two situations are almost rational equivalents. The same happens in Real Estate, where the trend is for asking prices to remain high or even increase when selling prices are dropping.
Furthermore, money illusion means nominal changes in price can influence demand even if real prices have remained constant, thus causing what it is normally referred to as ‘market disequilibrium'. Adam Smith maintained that the free market would tend towards economic equilibrium through the price mechanism, that is any excess inventory will lead to price cuts which will decrease the quantity supplied and increase the quantity demanded.
There are, however, exceptions to the rule. One such exception is the situation wherein market participants are always trying to take advantage of the pricing system, thus infusing some dynamism in the market. This situation arises in markets that are ‘imperfect', such as Real Estate, where information about goods is not shared equally and evenly by market participants.
This explains, therefore, the OFHEO price index as above and its increase of 10.1 percent compared to one year ago, which increase is by no means unique to the United States. A similar study conducted by the Office of Federal Housing Enterprise Oversight to compare markets outside the United States with the domestic ones has found that prices in Canada are up 10.8 percent to a year ago. Denmark tops the list with a staggering 23.6 percent increase, while the lowest index goes to Japan, where housing prices have actually decreased to the tune of - 3.9 percent over the last twelve months.
Real Estate Chronicle
Labels: REAL ESTATE
Tuesday, January 23, 2007
Outsourcing And Domestic Demand: The Case For Real Estate Capital Growth
When people acquire income they tend to invest it, and the more people that acquire income the more people that tend to invest it. Therefore, there is a correlation between capital and employment in real estate or, if you will, between income and labour. An increase in levels of consumption sets forth an increase in prices caused by a corresponding increase in demand, in itself generated by a commensurate increase in the income-employment factor.
It follows, therefore, that growth is derived by the equilibrium of capital and investment with labour and employment. And since, furthermore, production is in direct function of consumers spending which increases as unemployment falls, it follows that capital accumulation increases as employment rises and capital accumulation decreases as employment falls. Which fact, therefore, brings up to light the importance of the conditions of domestic job markets for real estate. All the more so at a time when - due to an ever more efficient process of economic globalization - we are witnessing a constant migration of jobs from North America to emerging economies abroad.
Globalization and outsourcing were, in fact, the focus of the annual symposium held by the Federal Reserve Bank in Kansas City. The topic being floored and examined by the top minds of the economic world was how the rise of China, India and other countries is reshaping employment and wages within the North American economy.
It is commonly believed that wages of workers in rich countries are being depressed by the shift of jobs to low-wage countries, but the debate undertaken at the symposium has offered a much rosier view, with economists arguing that off-shoring can actually increase the wages of domestic workers. The general feeling was that outsourcing boosts firms' productivity and profits, thereby enabling them to expand and, consequently, to take on more workers at home to perform jobs that cannot be easily moved abroad. In essence a line is being drawn between low-paying, unskilled jobs that can be transferred to emerging economies like those of China, India and, to a lesser extent, Russia vis-à-vis higher-paying, skilled jobs that remain in North America.
Clearly, whereas low-paying, unskilled jobs have a minimal to zero effect on the consumption of domestic real estate products, the scenario changes drastically with higher-paying jobs.
Outsourcing and jobs migration is a topic that has just as many political connotations as it has economic reverberations. Critics of outsourcing are quick to point out that between 1997 through 2004 the streamlining of companies through off-shoring was not enough to create sufficient higher-paying jobs at home to offset the outflow of low-paying jobs abroad. And that evidence does exist, furthermore, to the extent that in America, the Euro Zone and Japan total wages have actually fallen, in real terms, to their lowest shares of national income whereas the share of corporate profits has surged. An obvious indication that many ‘leaner' firms have opted for retaining their earnings as opposed to re-investing them in the domestic work pool.
Specifically because of this, Prof. Ben Bernanke, the Chairman of the Federal Reserve System, has argued at the symposium that the scale and pace of globalization is unprecedented and that the overall gains will be huge. But he has also warned that there is a risk of social and political opposition as some workers lose their jobs. The Chairman has urged policymakers, therefore, to ensure that the benefits of global integration are sufficiently widely shared through the echelons of the economy, so as to maintain support for free trade and enhance the democratization of wealth.
Real Estate stands to gain the most by a more evenly shared distribution of wealth in North America, both from the standpoint of increased demand and of increased inventory production and supply, for when people feel rich they spend - a psychological effect known in Economics as "The Wealth Effect". Despite the near-term moderation in the number of existing home sales, the housing market can all but continue to benefit from expected positive long-term economic fundamentals including expansion of gross domestic product generated by job creation and investments, coupled by a monetary policy of continued moderate interest rates.
Friday, January 19, 2007
Real Estate Leveraging
Is it for you? Find out.
Leveraging is a technical term meaning borrowing to invest. More specifically, financial leverage takes the form of a loan reinvested with the hope to earn a greater rate of return than the cost of interest. For years leveraging was mainly used in the Stock Market for brokerage margin accounts, that is arrangements in which investors bought stocks ‘on margin', putting up only a percentage of the total cost. The brokerage firm effectively provided a loan for the balance. With the appearance on the financial scene of home equity lines of credit in the 1990's, leveraging was adopted by investors and speculators in Real Estate as well.
Home equity lines of credit meant that ordinary people who had benefited from the big run-up in housing values during the 1970's and 1980's suddenly had access to large amounts of cash. In most cases, these were not sophisticated investors - in fact many of them knew very little of real estate investing. But they had home equity and could suddenly tap into it. The same phenomenon has happened in the early years of the millennium with a new generation of real estate investors, who have used their equities to purchase and add up inventory, thus contributing to the price increases of these past few years.
The math of leveraging has always been very seductive, both as it applies to the Stock Market and in Real Estate. All the more so at the time when markets were soaring. With leveraging, one uses other people's money to enhance his own profits by acquiring additional interests in land. This enhancement process takes the form either of added equity, which is realized at the time the real estate asset is sold, or as additional cash-flow, as in the case of rental properties. Either way, it was easy to make a compelling case for borrowing against home equity to invest.
There are, however, pitfalls in leveraging that must be brought forth to the uninitiated investor. For one thing, while leverage allows greater potential return to the investor than otherwise would have been available, the potential for loss is greater because if the investment loses value not only is a portion of that money lost, but the loan still needs to be repaid in its entirety.
Secondly, the problem with leveraging in Real Estate does not relate to its potential value as an investment tool but, rather, to the emotion that invariably is involved in any real estate transaction. People tend to be persuaded to borrow against the value of their homes without truly understanding the risks involved and the potential distress that losses may cause, especially when the market is in retreat and prices are dropping. This is the reason why a small but increasing number of investors find themselves into the predicament wherein they have saved and scrimped all those years to pay off their mortgages and are now right back where they started.
Leveraging is a suitable strategy only for investors who are experienced and knowledgeable. Unless one is prepared both financially and psychologically to deal with what could be severe short-term losses and stick with the investment for the medium to long term, one is not a good candidate for leveraging. And even then, when the investor has the know-how and the stomach for leveraging, certain rules of thumb are always helpful:
[ ] Invest when prices are low, not high.
This sounds obvious, but unfortunately there is a natural tendency to shy away from real estate when markets have peaked and prices are falling. Conversely, when property values go through the roof everyone wants a slice of the pie. This is specifically the reason why it is so easy to convince people to use leveraging when everything is on the rise, and almost impossible to get anyone to listen when markets are in deflation.
But it is exactly during falling markets that leveraging offers the best capital returns in the medium to long haul. Interest rates are low, so the cost of borrowing is minimized. Financial institutions are looking for customers and it is easier to cut a better deal or get incentives from them than would be the case otherwise. Sellers too are more motivated and more flexible on prices and terms of contract.
[ ] Be selective in what you buy.
Go for the quality of the real capital asset. A house, or multi-family dwelling that is well maintained and well kept will hold up value better in the long run, and will save the investor money in upkeeping as well. In the case of rental properties, it will be easier to find tenants willing to pay more to relocate into a nice-looking property.
[ ] Take the profits and pay down the debt.
Greed is always dangerous in any market, and this is where most people fall. Do not keep reinvesting the profits. That is like betting all winnings on every new roll of the roulette wheel. By doing so, investors expose themselves to new risks every time they use leveraging to reinvest, and sooner or later they will lose because they do not stand on solid financial foundations. The best and safest strategy is to use cash-flow to pay down the loan, or to wait for prices to increase and then sell for a profit.
[ ] Pay the lowest possible interest.
Even though the interest is tax deductible, investors have still to pay some of it out of their own pockets. If the loan is substantial, that could amount to several thousand dollars every year. So therefore it is always advisable to shop for the best deal available, using the services of a good mortgage broker.
Real Estate Chronicle
Labels: REAL ESTATE ECONOMICS
Tuesday, January 16, 2007
Housing Prices And North-American Wealth
House prices to median income now equals 3.8 pretty much in both the United States and Canada, which means that the median price of an interest in land is now getting out of reach of the average North-American household. This measure is the primary catalyst to what economists refer to as ‘The Affordability Crisis', and is becoming more and more a concern. The Affordability Crisis is a very serious matter indeed. It has economic, political, social and demographic reverberations and repercussions.
The hot local real estate markets of recent times have driven prices literally through the roof and since home-ownership is the single most important element in the democratization of prosperity, un-affordability becomes a social problem just as much as an economic one. It impacts the very essence of North American wealth reserves and distribution, because home-ownership is the element of social stability and cohesion and, therefore, an important pillar of a sustainable modern economic capitalistic growth.
The second measure, the ratio of rental income to house prices is too low to offer property owners and investors a decent return, suggesting again that houses are badly overpriced. At 0.5 percent, rental income over house prices indicates that investors will think twice before purchasing rental properties, since they have investment alternatives. For instance, here in Downtown Vancouver it used to be, only a couple of years ago, that purchasing an apartment unit and then rent it out would net a yearly return of over 8 percent. But since rental rates have not followed at par with real capital appreciation, taking into account increased property tax the yield is nowadays less than 5 percent.
Nearly everyone now expects prices to level off for a bit and slow the economy down, but in ultimate analysis the foregoing valuation measures are less worrisome than one might think at first.
The high ratio of house prices to income is less alarming because low mortgage rates in both the United States and Canada have held down the real, effective cost of owning a home. This cost has not changed much despite an upward shift in interest rates, which in turn has increased volatility in real estate markets. North-American homeowners, especially in the United States, remain exposed to a sharp rise in long-term interest rates if, say, foreign investors in the American Treasury were to start selling bonds and put their money elsewhere. But this does not seem to be the case for the time being, as confidence in American financial stability is at an all-time high.
Furthermore, although it is true that rents have failed to keep pace with the rising prices of interests in land, that comparison partly reflects a failure to adjust for the growing quality of the homes Americans and Canadians have been buying. This, coupled by the fact that demand for rents is now beginning to move up, would suggest that rising rents could raise the threshold and set the ratio on a more balanced footing - so long as incomes keep growing.
An additional reason for optimism is that prices of real estate in Britain and Australia, two other countries that bubble-watchers have been fingering as examples of the impending and devastating real estate bubbles in North America, have proven much less damaging than many expected. Their respective economies have performed so well after real estate markets peaked, that their central banks found it necessary to raise interest rates again afterwards.
For all the foregoing reasons many economic forecaster and analysts here do not believe that a recession is around the corner merely because of the slowdown in real estate. And I am one of them.
Labels: REAL ESTATE ECONOMICS
Saturday, January 13, 2007
Why Does The Real Estate Chronicle Cover Also Topics Of A Political And Economic Nature?
I would suggest to all those readers who believe that sometimes I go ‘all over the board’ that the acquisition and sale of real estate capital assets involves but one of the goods contained in what Economists refer to as the ‘economic basket of goods and services’, that is the pool of goods, commodities and services around which the capital flow of money revolves.
Specifically as it relates to North America, furthermore, the exchange of real ownership titles for money is one of the primary and most important goods contained in the foresaid economic basket - certainly the most important one for the vast majority of us.
As the economies of both Canada and the United States are continuously affected, influenced and manipulated, for good of bad, by the judgment of our politicians – or the lack thereof, rather than concentrating on the typical approach used, abused and misused by other real estate bloggers of letting people know that it is, for example, very important that properties be as clean as possible during showings or that, by way of another example, it makes little sense to sell when the market is in recession, I’d much rather try to offer the overall picture in a more encompassing fashion.
In doing so, I must sometimes discuss topics not immediately pertinent to my profession, but always with the underlying understanding that these topics have an influence, albeit indirectly, on the decision-making process of real estate consumers and, thus, on the overall expansion or recession of the real estate markets here in North America, as the case may be.
The ‘real estate market’ per se is a theoretical visualization that covers the sum of all decisions taken by consumers at any given time and in any given city in North America as they relate to the exchange of real estate capital assets. But it must be borne in mind that these consumers reach their respective decisions of purchasing and selling real estate, as the case may be, by perusing a number of factors – many of them relating to the expectations of future general economic and political performance both on a national and international level.
Thus the extended coverage of this blog.
Wednesday, January 10, 2007
The ABC Of Condo Renting
Lawmakers in Victoria have confused things so much, that now not only nobody knows who's under a rental restriction bylaw - nobody even knows when the right to pass any such bylaw exists. So therefore, time has come to clear up things a little bit. Who knows, if I'm lucky perhaps they are going to offer me a job as the official interpreter of the legal mambo-jumbo lawmakers typically seem to be so fond of dishing out to the rest of us.
Under the old Condominium Act if a Strata Corporation passed a bylaw prohibiting rentals or restricting the number of strata lots that could be rented out, the developer could continue to rent the number of strata lots shown on the Rental Disclosure Statement. A First Buyer, that is someone who was buying the strata lot from the developer, could also rent for the period of time that the developer intended to rent. It was unclear, in the Condominium Act, whether second or subsequent Buyers could also rely on the Rental Disclosure Statement. Transitional relief for this clarification brought forth in the new Strata Property Act ,which was legislated in 2000, provided that second Purchasers had a reprieve from a Rental Restriction bylaw until January 1, 2006. Therefore also a second Purchaser could rent a strata lot for the period of time the developer intended to rent according to the Rental Disclosure Statement, or until January 1, 2006.
January 1, 2006 - The Change
A change has taken place effective January 1, 2006 in that as of this date only First Purchasers from a developer are exempt from a ental restriction or prohibition bylaw. More specifically, s.17.15 of the Strata Property Regulations reads as follows:
"Despite section 143 (2) of the Act, but subject to section 143 (1) of the Act, if a strata lot is conveyed by the first purchaser of the strata lot, and the strata lot was designated as a rental strata lot on a rental disclosure statement in the prescribed form under section 31 of the Condominium Act and all the requirements of section 31 of the Condominium Act were met, a bylaw that prohibits or limits rentals does not apply to that strata lot until the earlier of: (a) the date the rental period expires, as disclosed in the statement; (b) January 1, 2006."
The effect of s.17.15 is limited only to those circumstances where a Strata Corporation has passed a rental restriction or prohibition bylaw, and Buyers who have not purchased directly from the developer (second Buyers on) have been exempted from the bylaw. As of January 1, 2006 developers and first Buyers continue to be exempt from a rental restriction bylaw if a valid Rental Disclosure Statement has been filed with the Superintendent of Real Estate.
It is important to understand that under the Strata Property Act a Strata Corporation may restrict or prohibit rentals by passing a rental restriction or prohibition bylaw. It is also important to realize that if a Strata Corporation passes a bylaw that restricts or prohibits rentals, every strata lot in the development will eventually be subjected to the rental restriction or prohibition unless the strata lot is protected by a Rental Disclosure Statement (RDS).
If the RDS has been filed under the Strata Property Act , a rental restriction or prohibition bylaw does not apply to a strata lot that has been included in the RDS until the earlier of a conveyance by the First Purchaser or the expiry of the RDS. At the time the First Purchaser sells the strata lot, even though the RDS has not expired, the protection provided by the RDS terminates. This means that all subsequent Purchasers will be subjected to a rental restriction or rental prohibition bylaw.
If the RDS was filed under the former Condominium Act, the new Strata Property Act mandates that a bylaw restricting or prohibiting rentals does not apply until the earlier of the expiry of the RDS, a conveyance by the First Purchaser or January 1, 2006 if the strata lot has been conveyed by the First Purchaser. Essentially, this provision was intended to protect developers and First Purchasers until the expiry of the RDS, and subsequent purchasers until January 1, 2006.
To determine the expiry date of the RDS, one must first obtain it. The Rental Disclosure Statement for a development offered for sale is included as an exhibit to the developer's Disclosure Statement. Thus, when a Buyer is purchasing from the developer, the Buyer is entitled at law to receive a copy of the RDS as part of the Disclosure Statement package. In the extreme (and unlawful) case that no such exhibit is included in the package, a copy can be obtained from the Office Of The Superintendent of Real Estate.
Finally, a word of advice. Many Buyers look at the bylaws to determine whether there is a rental restriction or prohibition bylaw in place. If there are no such bylaws, the Buyer may be under the impression that the property he is setting about to purchase is appropriate as an investment property. Buyers must clearly understand, that restriction or prohibition bylaws can be passed by the Owners of the Strata Corporation (not by Strata Council) at the Annual General Meeting or any Special General Meeting. Bylaws of this nature need to be approved by a 75 percent majority (3/4 vote) of the people present at the Meeting and entitled to vote, or their proxies.
On occasion, Buyers take comfort from the fact that a number of strata lots are owned by investors, and as a result believe that there is little likelihood of a rental restriction or prohibition bylaw being approved. This provides fleeting comfort, at best. If a number of investors sell their strata lots, the make-up of the Owners could change very quickly so that a rental bylaw could be passed. In all cases where Buyers are not protected by the RDS, even though there is no bylaw that limits or eliminates rentals, Buyers must be aware of the possibility that such rental bylaw may be enacted in the future.
There it is. I can hardly imagine anything more transparent and crystal clear than this Article. Whoever said that Real Estate is rocket science?
Labels: REAL ESTATE
Thursday, January 04, 2007
Honey, I’m Home!
Housing prices and The Great North-American Spending Addiction
The housing boom has been the main engine of America's economic growth in recent years, and second to energy in Canada. Indeed, the housing boom is the main reason why the North-American economy held up better than expected, after the Stock Market bubble burst at the start of the Millennium. Since 2000 the real wages of most North-American workers, measured in terms of disposable income, have barely budged, yet surging house prices have allowed consumers to keep spending - on credit.
Over the past five years, according to the National Association of Realtors, the cumulative total market value of American homes has increased by more than USD 9 trillion to reach a record-shattering USD 22 trillion. These gains have helped to offset both the slide in stock prices as well as the feeble wage growth. In real terms, home prices have risen at least three times as much as in any previous housing boom. Not too long ago, in the Fall of 2005 to be exact, appreciation of housing value was a hefty 15 percent annualized and most analysts thought that average prices were unlikely to fall across the nation.
Readers of my articles on Real Estate Economics know that I was one of the few lonely voices anticipating a drop in pricing levels and a slowdown in real capital appreciation which, far from being the beginning of the dreaded bubble burst that many were so fond of predicting, would have instead the beneficial effect of consolidating market wealth achieved thus far. Allowing the economy to get an even footing through a slowdown of real capital appreciation and, at the same time, allowing real wages to catch up - I reasoned - was exactly the tonic needed for a healthy foundation.
America's housing boom, though as impressive as it has been, looks far more modest than booms elsewhere. Since 2000, in fact, average selling prices in the United States and Canada have almost doubled but all this is dwarfed, for example, by the gain of almost 180 percent in Britain throughout the same period.
The real estate boom has lifted the economy in three major ways:
[ ] it has boosted residential construction and, as a direct and proximate result, it has benefited also all related fields such as banking, brokerage and insurance;
[ ] it has made people feel wealthier and has encouraged them to spend more;
[ ] it has allowed homeowners to use their real properties as a gigantic cash machine, taking out money by borrowing against their capital gains.
Merrill Lynch estimates that the three foregoing factors, taken together, accounted for more than half of America's GDP growth in 2005. Counting construction, banking and real estate agency firms, the housing boom has also been responsible for one-third of all jobs created since 2001.
Fuelling consumerism is both good and bad. Consumerism is good for the economy, as it promotes trade and the exchange of money. It is also bad, as it fuels inflation. Particularly when spurred by investment stimulated by a property boom, there is very little base to boost long-term growth. In the overall national flow of capital, expensive houses merely redistribute wealth to homeowners from non-homeowners. Worse still, exaggerated real capital appreciation and the rush on the part of everybody to invest so as not to miss the boat has diverted resources away from productive sectors, thereby causing households to save even less and thus exacerbating America' economic imbalances.
Additionally, too much consumerism is bad in trade and finance as it creates too much dependence on imports and thus generates large trade imbalances. The flip side of these imbalances has been a sharp rise in the net foreign liability position of the United States and a massive accumulation of foreign exchange reserves especially by Asian countries such as China and India. China has amassed reportedly more than USD 450 billion of reserves. India too has seen a marked rise in international reserves, to roughly USD 150 billion. Even more striking, as of the end of 2004, all of Asia (including Japan) had accumulated USD 2.1 trillion in foreign exchange reserves. Subtracting this quantity of dollars from the economic monetary cycles forces the U.S. Government to borrow more and the Federal Reserve System to print and lend more money, with the deleterious effect of diminishing the purchasing power by weakening the strength of the currency.
For all these reasons, therefore, it is sure better for Americans in particular, but also for Canadians to a lesser extent, to start saving in the old-fashioned way, that is by spending less of their real income rather than relying on rising asset prices. This will lift inflationary pressure on prices and will help stabilize US monetary policy by allowing the Federal Reserve to slash interest rates. Which, in ultimate analysis, will not only save the economy from a recession, but will also contribute to the consolidation of real estate market wealth I was referring to a few months ago.
Luigi FrascatiReal Estate Chronicle
Labels: REAL ESTATE ECONOMICS
Monday, January 01, 2007
Capitalism Under Attack: Petrodollars, Petroeuros and the Iranian Oil Bourse
Who would have ever imagined it?
Forget about the Prophet Mohammed, Islam, the Koran, President Ahmadinejad and his nuclear program, Islamofascism and all the umpah-pah. The Mullahs do not like American Dollars anymore. As reported by Reuters UK (http://rtv.rtrlondon.co.uk/2006-12-18/3e56a070.html) Iran announced that it has ordered its Central Bank to start using Euros for foreign transactions, and to transform the nation's Dollar-denominated assets held abroad into the single European currency. "The government has ordered the Central Bank to replace the Dollar with the Euro to limit the problems of the executive organs in commercial transactions," government spokesman Gholam Hossein Elham told reporters.
Coming from OPEC's fourth oil producer, this is a move that will undoubtedly have both deep economic reverberations and grave political consequences worldwide. It would certainly appear that rather than ‘wiping out Israel' from the face of the planet, Iran is setting the tempo to wipe out American capitalism and influence everywhere. To understand the implications of such a move in financial affairs, one has to first revert to the importance of money in our economic systems and the effects that the ravages of inflation have over it.
Money is one of man's most amazing inventions. Imagine the difficulty of our daily lives without those metal coins and coloured pieces of paper. To make any kind of transaction - from shopping for groceries to purchasing a real estate asset - you would have to find someone who had what you want and who wanted what you have, and then the two of you could barter. In a world with thousands of products, one would spend most of the time looking for trading partners and devoting very little time to actually earn an income. The alternative to avoid having to find trading partners would be for each and everyone of us to do a little bit of everything by ourselves.
But with money on the scene everything becomes more straightforward, simple and less time-consuming, and all of us can increase our productivity by and through specialization - that is doing what we do best, and then trade with our partners. As a direct and proximate consequence of our increased productivity, each of us can therefore become richer. It is easy to lose sight of the very basic economic point that we all owe a large part of our high living standards to the existence of money, its possession and the spending power that stems out of it.
But there is a catch: money works best when its value is stable over time. And this is nowhere more true than in international trade.
Economically speaking, the power of the American Dollar and its influence in economic and financial affairs worldwide was born during the United Nations Monetary and Financial Conference held at Bretton Wood, New Hampshire in July 1944. The Conference was attended by the delegates of all 45 allied nations directly and indirectly involved in the fight against the powers of the Axis - Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan and Fascist Italy, and their socio-economic doctrines. As a result of the Bretton Woods Conference, a system of exchange rate among different currencies was set up anchored on the American Dollar, which was made convertible to gold - the common denominator and measure of wealth worldwide. Thus, the American Dollar became de facto the reserve currency of the world, accepted and traded everywhere. This system remained in place until the early 1970's and it allowed countries to accumulate reserves in American Dollars, as opposed to gold.
When in 1970-1971 an economically resurgent Western Europe began demanding payment for their US Dollars, as it became clear that the American Government did not have enough gold reserves to buy back all those Dollars, the US Treasury under the Nixon Administration rather than defaulting on its payment ‘de-anchored' the Greenback - that is it severed the link between the Dollar and gold. To avoid an international collapse of the American currency in world markets, however, the US treasury had to substitute gold with another valuable commodity so as to entice foreign countries to keep their foreign reserves in Dollars and to continue accepting the American currency.
Thus in 1972-73 an iron-clad arrangement was made with Saudi Arabia to support the power of the House of Saud in exchange for accepting only U.S. Dollars for its oil. The rest of OPEC was to follow suit and also accept only American Dollars. Because the world had to buy oil from the Arab oil-producing countries, it now had the reason to hold Dollars as payment for oil. Because the world needed ever increasing quantities of oil at ever increasing oil prices, the world's demand for Dollars could only increase. Even though Dollars could no longer be exchanged for gold, they were now exchangeable for oil. The Petrodollar was born.
In 2000, the first man who actually began demanding Euros for his oil was none other than Saddam Hussein of Iraq - and we all know what has happened to him. To be more specific, in fact, Saddam Hussein Abd al-Majid al-Tikriti (1937-2006), former President of Iraq, made two strategic mistakes, the second one of which would ultimately cost him his neck - literally.
Firstly, on August 2, 1990 he invaded Kuwait, a country very friendly with both the United Kingdom and the United States, and holding approximately ten percent of the world's oil reserves. Saddam, furthermore, became a real threat to Saudi Arabia as well. By invading Kuwait and threatening Saudi Arabia, Saddam breached the Carter Doctrine postulated by President Jimmy Carter in 1980, which states that "[...] an attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America, and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force." The Carter Doctrine was later on upheld by President George H.W. Bush in 1989 with National Security Directive 26, which declares that "Access to Persian Gulf oil and the security of key friendly states in the area are vital to U.S. national security [...]." The Gulf War ensued in January 1991.
The second mistake of Saddam was to start demanding payment for his oil in Euros. At first, his demand was met with ridicule, later with neglect, but as it became clearer that he meant business the need arose to make an example of anyone who demanded payment in currencies other than U.S. Dollars. The punishment came with the worsening of the geo-political situation after the 9/11 attacks on the Twin Towers and an increased perception and worry about Saddam's weapons of mass destruction - which he had used extensively against the Kurds and his own citizens. President Bush's Shock-and-Awe intervention in Iraq followed, which ultimately brought about the demise of the Iraqi dictator.
Contemporary warfare has traditionally involved underlying conflicts regarding economics and resources. Today these intertwined conflicts also involve international currencies, and thus increased complexity. Current geopolitical tensions between the United States and Iran extend beyond the publicly stated concerns regarding Iran's nuclear intentions, and likely include a proposed Iranian "petroeuro" system for oil trade - the Iranian Oil Bourse ('Bourse' is the French word for Stock Exchange). The proposed Iranian Oil Bourse signifies that without some sort of US intervention, the Euro is going to establish a firm foothold in the international oil trade.
This is so, because the Europeans would no longer have to buy and hold Dollars in order to secure their payment for oil, but would instead pay with their own currency. The adoption of the Euro for oil transactions would provide the European currency with a reserve status that would benefit the European at the expenses of the Americans. Given U.S. foreign debt levels and trade deficit, Tehran's objective constitutes an obvious encroachment on the Dollar supremacy in the crucial international oil markets, and America can hardly afford that to happen. It is really a case of lethal economic terrorism and financial warfare, a matter of life and death.
And speaking of economic terrorism and financial warfare, it is very interesting and worth mentioning the link between oil and Euros on one side and Iran's nuclear programme on the other side that Gholam Hossein Elham has made during the foresaid announcement. He has stated: "They (the Westerners) should put an end to their hostilities towards our nation and should also be aware that we are capable of achieving nuclear technology through very transparent and legal methods - something that they must respect. They must not waste their time with venting hostility against this nation, otherwise they will be harmed, more so than us."
If Iran follows up with the intention to charge Euros for its oil, the upcoming Iranian Bourse will introduce Petroeuros currency hedging in direct competition with traditional Petrodollars. More than that, in political terms, it will pit America, Israel and Sunni Islam against Iran, Syria and Shiite Islam and will fundamentally create new dynamics and competition into the biggest markets in the world - those of global oil and gas trade. One of the Federal Reserve's nightmares may well begin to unfold if it appears that international buyers will have a choice of buying a barrel of oil for USD 60 on the NYMEX and IPE - or purchase a barrel of oil for €45 - €50 through the Iranian Bourse. In essence, America would no longer be able to expand effortlessly its debt-financing with the issuance of US Treasury bills, and the international demand and liquidity of the American Dollar would fall. This is a very good reason to go to war.
Welcome to 2007.
Real Estate Chronicle
Labels: POLITICAL ECONOMICS