Friday, November 18, 2011

Elections and the Unspoken Fear

I have been following local Vancouver City election campaigning of late. I have been particularly interested in looking at the various platforms aimed at combating housing "affordability" and "speculation" in Vancouver. Various parties and candidates offer potential solutions to solving "affordability" and "speculation", ranging from "cutting red tape", adding low-to-medium-income rental housing, changing the housing mix, embedding neighbourhoods in the planning process, to outright curbs on foreign ownership.

I think, though, there is a lack of debate surrounding high prices in general. Most candidates seem to understand that prices are high but few seem convinced, at least publicly, that prices are destined to drop. All debate seems to surround the possibility that high prices are here to stay as Vancouver "graduates" into the ranks of a world city with commensurate high prices. This may simply be that telling homeowners prices -- and their homeowner equity -- are destined to fall is unpopular it wouldn't garner popular support, but after listening to the candidates speak, Tweet, and comment, I come away with the impression that crashing prices experienced by our urban Cascadian neighbours to the south are almost entirely foreign.

Nonetheless the assumption of high prices leaves me feeling raw, first that prices are obviously in a speculative bubble as measured by price-income and price-rent ratios. The evidence supporting prices remaining high is suspect, it relies on a continuous flow of foreign capital and continuously low interest rates. Most purchases of property in the Greater Vancouver area (though perhaps not certain sub-areas) are by locals with locally-derived incomes. By that measure it's a relatively simple exercise to calculate how much foreign investment would be required to keep prices from dropping, and it amounts to something approaching British Columbia's annual GDP.

Given that house prices are on an earnings basis a poor return on investment, we should be asking first whether these poor earnings are in the long-term best interests of Vancouver's economic growth. Second, if we determine that expensive house (actually, land) prices are a net harm to economic output, we should be asking a big question: is it possible and desirable to suppress land prices to enable more stable and diverse economic growth?

Keeping land prices low is not an unheard of concept. Through various schemes surrounding limiting leverage, land use plans, landlord and tenant protection legislation, and taxation various jurisdictions have been more (though arguably not wholly) successful at reducing land speculation. Parts of Texas and Germany have done this.

No easy answers -- and no doubt simplistic suggestions the blogosphere seems to be prone to peddling are riddled with flaws -- nonetheless I dismiss chronic boom-bust cycles that have plagued Vancouver are not controllable using thoughtful and long-term feedback mechanisms.

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Canada and Fiscal Stimulus Update November 2011

Back in a post in September I remarked it was relatively obvious that Europe was going to head into recession and that the Government of Canada was less likely to meet its "balanced budget in 2014" pledge; now Mark Carney is calling for a near certainty of a Eurozone recession and it looks like Canada will suffer lower GDP growth as a result. Recall my predictions of potential areas of stimulus should Canadian GDP growth falter:

Highly probable
  • Accelerating capital cost allowance for businesses
  • Slowing of public sector layoffs
  • Lower corporate taxes
  • Employment insurance hiring incentives
  • R&D tax credits
  • Extending employment insurance benefits
  • Targeted but piecemeal government spending programs, geared towards non-residential infrastructure.
Somewhat probable
  • A second "Canadian Action Plan"
  • Energy efficiency upgrades
  • Reducing Bank of Canada's overnight lending rate
  • Reducing CMHC requirements for loans

Now today a fiscal update from the Department of Finance indicates more stimulus will be needed:
Flaherty also announced Tuesday the government is extending a work-sharing program that lets some employers hang onto skilled workers while they deal with money problems. Under the program, workers can drop to part-time hours and the government will top them up with Employment Insurance... 
Flaherty also cut in half the increase in EI premiums employees and employers are expected to pay starting Jan. 1, 2012. 
EI premiums were set to increase in the new year by up to 10 cents per $100 for employees and 14 cents per $100 for employers. Those increases will now be capped at five cents and seven cents respectively...
Border and trade talks with the U.S. will mean more spending on border infrastructure, Flaherty said after the speech.

So we have: corporate tax reductions (in the form of slowing EI premium increases), extending EI benefits, and non-residential infrastructure spending.

Though it would be unlikely to be announced, I expect there will be a slowing of public sector layoffs going forward. I'll have to wait until the new year to find out for sure about the R&D tax credit and grant prediction but I expect it won't be cut. I'm not sure about the CCA acceleration.

So far no major surprises. I am also anticipating that there may be further mortgage credit tightening announced in January, though I'm not certain if mortgage insurance will be the mode by which the government acts. Speculation has spread to the low-ratio loan market and, ultimately, the Government of Canada will be on the hook for many of these loans should prices retrench -- banks may not be aligning borrowers' ability to pay with longer-term rates in mind. Further curbs to mortgage lending may show up behind-the-scenes through OSFI decrees.

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Greater Vancouver Market Snapshot October 2011

Below are updated sales, inventory and months of inventory graphs for Greater Vancouver to October 2011.
Oh yeah, and the detached benchmark price. Remember: prices lag, sales and inventory lead, so the price chart is put here for posterity, to remind us how significantly prices have changed over the past decade:
Commentary: October 2011, continuing from previous summer months, has produced more tepid sales numbers than years past. A continued trend of higher months of inventory (MOI, the number of months it would take to clear month-end inventory at current monthly sales levels), a key indicator of market liquidity and impending price strength, is typical in the second half. Lest we forget that prices are still high by most validated measures and it will take a prolonged period of MOI well above 6 to bring them down to more historic levels. We are currently at about 6.

Total inventory has likely peaked in October (it peaked mid-month, but not shown due to monthly sample rate); if the market were under significant distress we would expect increased inventory buildup through November, mostly due to lower sales. It looks unlikely to be the case this year, though new listings have been consistently about 20% higher in 2011 than 2010 with sales roughly flat. That indicates a greater percentage of listed properties will be unable to elicit a sale. If past years are a guide many owners will simply choose to rent instead of lower prices due in part to historically low carrying costs -- they don't "need" to sell (and instead take their chances in the "Mines of Landlord").

Below is the predictor of price gains, based on half-over-half price change to months of inventory correlation:
What this shows is the change in prices in a month from 6 months ago based on actual data and “predicting” the price based on months of inventory from that month based on linear regression of half-over-half price change to months of inventory (with 3 month moving average).

In summary October 2011 has mirrored October 2010 closely, with slightly more weakness due to higher inventory levels. I expect November to be a similar trend, with listings elevated and sales roughly flat compared to 2010.