Lopping the top half off & Ireland’s property market in a global perspective

On Monday the latest daft.ie report came out, showing that asking prices had fallen just over 4% in the first three months of the year. Yesterday, I changed focus on the blog a little, as it was Budget day, and tried instead  to put some numbers on what a potential property tax could raise.

Today, I hope to give a little more detail on the findings from the report itself, in particular regional trends, and then give an international perspective also – or at least start to give one, which I think is always instructive. Below is a graph showing the quarter-on-quarter change in asking prices for the last two quarters, i.e. Q4 2008 and Q1 2009, in each county.  The most obvious finding – probably not a surprise to anyone – is that asking prices fell in almost all counties in both quarters. A second clear finding is that there does not appear to have been one or two counties more affected in the last six months than elsewhere (although one could make the argument that Munster has got off relatively unscathed since September).

Quarter-on-quarter changes in house prices, 2008q4-2008q1

Quarter-on-quarter changes in house prices, 2008q4-2008q1

What also jumps out is that the two quarters saw very different patterns. In the final three months of 2008, a few counties – such as Galway, Westmeath and to a lesser extent Donegal and Leitrim – saw the largest downward adjustments in asking prices. Two counties, Mayo and Tipperary actually saw no fall in their asking prices. This quarter, Mayo and Tipperary actually had slightly larger falls than average – perhaps a sign that sellers there had been holding for the start of the year before acceding to the realities of the market. On the flip side, sellers in Galway and Westmeath believed in Q1 that their large adjustments in late 2008 did not need to be followed up with more adjustments straight away.

Sligo has been the worst hit county in terms of falling house prices, with a fall in the region of 10%in three months alone. (Dublin city centre and Waterford city actually saw bigger falls but they are lessened by other parts of their counties.) Aside from that, it seems that Dublin generally and the counties around it were among those with larger adjustments since the start of the year.

This leads on to perhaps a more interesting question – how have counties fared since their property prices peaked? To do that, I’ve set up another Manyeyes dataset (which anyone can access) with the percentage gap between house prices in a given quarter and the peak, for each county. Where a county is sandy coloured, that means it has peaked. The deeper the blue, the bigger the fall. (One little trick with these figures is that for a county’s earlier “blues”, prices are still going up. By the second row, that’s no longer an issue.)

Change in asking prices from the peak, 2007-2009

Change in asking prices from the peak, 2007-2009

A couple of findings emerge, based interestingly on alternate axes of the country:

  • East peaked before west, on average, and by almost six months. If you draw a line from Cavan down to Wexford, 10 of the 13 counties peaked in the first half of 2008, more than half the country in population terms, including all of Dublin and its offshoots. Cork, Galway, Limerick and a few other counties actually peaked in the second half of 2007, while a couple of stragglers – Tipperary and Westmeath to be precise – only peaked in early 2008. (Interesting to note, in passing, their sellers’ totally different reactions to conditions in late 2008, as per the first chart above.)
  • North is falling faster than south, on average. If you draw a line from Dublin over to Galway, 9 of the 10 worst affected counties so far come from that half of the island. The top half of the property market – literally! – has been lopped off more than the bottom half. This means that the north-east – essentially Dublin-plus – fell first and is falling hardest, while the south-west – Munster – was last to fall and has fallen least so far. It will be interesting to compare these emerging trends, two years into the property crash, with the final statistics on Ireland’s property readjustment/crash/Armageddon/return to sanity/fill in name here.

Speaking of writing the history books, perhaps it’s no harm to have a quick look to our left and our right and see how other property markets are faring. Below is a chart of about 20 countries (with two different measures in there for the US, the first is the OFHEO measure, while US* is the Case-Shiller national index). I’ve based this on data posted on the Economist’s website, but have surreptitiously replaced the 2007/2008 ESRI data, about which there is a lot of scepticism currently, with daft.ie data. The bars show the annual rate of change in house prices, including a 1997-2008 average, and figures for 2007 and 2008. (As per the Economist website, some of the Q4 08 figures are actually Q3 08 while a couple, including Ireland, are Q1 09.)

International comparison of property markets, 1997-2009

International comparison of property markets, 1997-2009

Replacing the ESRI data with the daft.ie had the effect of moving Ireland from the “Club of Moderates” such as Denmark and the Netherlands, to the “Bleeding Edge” group with Hong Kong, the UK and the US (at least one measure for the US at any rate). I will do my best to try and track down the original data for this series so that a change-from-peak measure can be contructed as again that may be more instructive than a year-on-year change, particularly in six months time.

In the meantime, though, I’ll leave this up here and ask for any insights, comments or queries, as per usual! Fire away…

Irish house prices fall 4% since the start of 2009 – latest daft.ie report

Ireland’s property slump marked it second birthday today, with the news from the latest daft.ie report that asking prices for residential property fell 4.2% in the first three months of 2009. This latest drop in prices marks the eight consecutive quarter that prices have fallen.

As the official press release notes, the national average asking price now stands at just over €280,000, meaning that prices have fallen almost €70,000 from the peak in early 2007. What’s interesting to note at this stage is that Dublin was worse hit on average over the first quarter – in particular Dublin city centre, where prices fell by 11%. Other notable falls since the start of the year are Sligo and Waterford city, where prices fell by about 10% in three months.

The fall in the first three months of the year should not be underestimated, particularly as the year-on-year rate of change has now slid to -15.7%. Nonetheless, a graph of the quarterly change in asking prices gives some food for thought. The falls in house prices got worse and worse more or less every quarter from mid-2007 on – until now, as the diagram below shows. How much we can read into this, though, will have to wait until next quarter, when we can see if the trend continues.

Change in national average asking price from quarter before, source: daft.ie

Change in national average asking price from quarter before, source: daft.ie

Commentator for this report is Liam Delaney, a behavioural economics expert. He discusses the importance of psychology – and the value in terms of self-worth of things like owning a house or having a job – in current economic conditions. He draws an important distinction between public and private sector workers (or at least that’s how I interpret it):

This report – combined with the recent labour force figures – indicates considerable hardship for those in once solid middle-class jobs that are now facing a potential double-whammy. People will inevitably feel even worse when they see neighbours and friends who are in better situations. Consider the position of a college graduate who purchased in Dublin in 2006, based on the income from his financial services job (now gone), to the position of his neighbour who secured a public sector position on leaving college and purchased in 2001. While neither is laughing, the latter must at least be considering himself the better off of the two. They are certainly not in the same boat and the widening rift in society being generated by asset price decline and employment uncertainty is the defining theme of our time. As described by John Fitzgerald and others, there are many who are currently better off than last year, as they are facing declining prices and interest rates in the context of stable employment in their sector.

He also describes two scenarios for the future, drawing on Gerard O’Neill‘s own commentary on a previous Daft report, where he suggested that the current economic maelstrom in which Ireland finds itself is probably the only thing that could possibly ever turn Ireland into a nation of renters – the implication being that may just happen. Liam then walks through the implications of these two scenarios:

One version of a national narrative that was articulated in the previous commentary by Gerard O’Neill was the idea that the Irish cultural and psychological need for property may be displaced by a culture where renting is given more credence as part of a normal adult life. Were such a story about the Irish relation to property to take hold, it would clearly have substantial implications for any potential future rebound in property prices. Key players at the moment are those who can afford property but are riding out the current uncertainty by taking advantage of falling rents. If they follow Gerard’s story, they may never come back into the buying market and the next generation may follow them into long term renting.

Yet, we still hear strongly the story that the Irish have always been and will always be wedded to the idea of home ownership as a fundamental part of maturing into adulthood. If such a story about Irishness and adulthood maintains its hold, house prices will eventually settle at a higher level, and changes in the market will depend on macroeconomic conditions, rather than on the type of seismic shift in Irish culture described by Gerard.

I’ll be posting each day this week on different findings from the latest figures, starting tomorrow with a Budget-day special… did someone say an Irish property tax? Later in the week, I’ll also look at the stock of property for sale – which incidentally has now fallen, however slightly, each of the last six months – but before I do, a quick comment on asking prices versus closing prices. Accurate measurement of house prices is a hot topic at the moment – it seems the ptsb closing price index reached a minimum fall in year-on-year terms of 10%, while asking prices haven’t yet found their nadir.

Changes in asking and closing prices, 2007-2009

Changes in asking and closing prices, 2007-2009

The full report is available at www.daft.ie/report and contains, as mentioned above, a commentary by Liam Delaney, Lecturer in Economics with the Geary Institute, UCD, as well a regional and county-by-county analysis of the latest trends in the property market.

Intergenerational outsourcing and the consequences of building 10% too much: A look at Ireland’s property market in 2013

With Davy Stockbrokers predicting a 70% fall in Irish construction activity from its peak over the coming ‘medium term’ (2009-2011 or so), I though it might be timely to review some headline statistics for Ireland’s property overhang.

Recently, I’ve been peddling the idea that between 2004 and 2007, we were building twice as many homes as we needed and building twice as many for 3/4 years implies building half as many as you need for 6/8 years to return to equilibrium. Does that stack up? Or, put another way, if we start in 2002 with Census statistics on the stock of housing, use Dept of Environment statistics for the period 2002-2008 and turn Davy’s figures into ballpark estimates for 2009-2013, how bleak will things look in five years time?

The answer, much to the chagrin of those who loathe two-armed economists, seems to be that it depends – in this instance on what part of the country you’re talking about, but also about what you think is the appropriate long-term need for new houses in this country. If we take 2001 figures (technically March 2002 figures) as our ‘departure from normality’ point, how far off course are we? Between 2002 and 2008, we churned out over half a million properties, off an existing base of just 1.3 million households. Back-of-the-envelope estimates, based on an overview of economists’ figures on this topic, suggests that we should have been building perhaps 300,000 households in that same period. (That’s using an equilibrium figure of 40,000 properties a year, rising temporarily after the accession of new EU member states.) So, enough with all the stats, what’s all this for, you wonder. Well, I was hoping to use all this to answer two key questions:

  • Where suffered worst from Ireland’s properties building bonanza? Where is housing inventory lying around most?
  • How long will we have to sit around building hardly anything until we’re back to some semblance of normality in the property market?

Where did we build our extra properties? By the end of 2008, we were about 5 years ahead of schedule – i.e. we’d built 12 years supply in just 7 years. To give a regional flavour, based on insights gleaned from the property overhang per county figures I calculated in December, I split Ireland into three regions – Dublin, Connacht/Ulster and the rest of the country. (The data allow for a full county-by-county analysis, however time constraints and poor formatting in the various external sources has prevented me from threatening another heatmap!) Over the period in question (2002-2008), more houses were built in Connacht/Ulster than there were in Dublin, which has almost twice the population! As a result, in terms of years of “pre-production”, if you will, while Dublin had under 2 years excess supply by end-2008, Connacht/Ulster had almost 8 years. Once more emphasis: builders managed to produce 15 years output in Connacht/Ulster in just 7 years.

How long will we have to sit around building nothing? It’s all very well for someone to come along after the fact and say “You shouldn’t have done that”. What’s more interesting is to shed some light on where the adjustment will come first and where it will be hardest. One option would be just to close up our construction sector for a few years until inventory shifts sufficiently and prices start to rise. Practically, of course output doesn’t and shouldn’t collapse to zero and, as per Davy’s figures, will be in the range of 10,000 to 25,000 over the coming 5 years.

Therefore, I’ve assumed output of 20k in 2009 (still slowing down), 10k in 2010 (bottom of the market) and then a simplistic 5k increase in output every year after that, rising to 25k in 2013. Let’s call this the ‘post-Section 23′ scenario. This is contrasted with a ’20:20 foresight’ scenario where steady-state output in construction remains 40,000, apart from a minor blip of 35,000 in 2009 due to global economic circumstances. In both scenarios, new houses are allocated according to a region based on its Census weight – crucially, and we can relax this later, even in our post-Section 23 world, output resumes in Connacht/Ulster, not at the distorted rates we saw but in proportion to its size. The result of all this is the chart below. The figures show the excess of properties as a percentage of the total property stock in each of the three regions.

Ireland's excess properties, % of total properties, by region, 2003-2013f

Ireland's excess properties, % of total properties, by region, 2003-2013f

The results are pretty clear:

  • Even with some major internal restructuring of the construction industry (i.e. rebalancing output of houses according to a region’s weight in the economy), Connacht and Ulster will still have a significant property overhang, more than 10% by 2013 – and that itself based on a drastic 70% contraction in building activity from peak levels.
  • For most of the country – and indeed the country on average – the overhang will have halved by 2013 but will still be in the region of 5/6%.
  • In Dublin, shortages in housing may emerge as quickly as 2012.

Objections to the above might include one along the following lines: construction will not only contract 70% but also no-one will be building in Connacht/Ulster for years to come so even the rebalancing of output described above is not an accurate forecast. In that case, the overhang will just take the full 8 years from 2008. Section 23 and the property boom will have taken construction jobs from 2009-2015 and left them in 2002-2008 – a sort of integenerational outsourcing.

Another objection is that the optimistic (if 2012 is optimistic) scenario painted for Dublin hinges on that long-term need of 40,000 units a year (which translates into about 12,000 new units in Dublin annually, based on its Census weight). Significant and persistent net outward migration from Dublin from 2009 on – which incidentally is why I believe that Dublin Bus, so clearly an ‘inferior good’ in the economist’s sense of the word, is losing money when incomes fall – might mean that the demand for housing in the period 2009-2013 may fall to 20,000. Replacing 40,000 with 20,000, from 2009 on suggests that the average percentage overhang for the country stays stuck at 10% and Dublin – while still much lower – remains stuck at 3-4%.

In sum, we are where we are. We’ve more than enough houses everywhere in the country and plenty of houses in places where we won’t need them for another 10 years or so. Therefore, it would be wise for the Government to take this crisi-tunity, as Homer Simpson would say, to harness both supply and demand sides of the market.

  • On supply, it should focus the efforts of the much-trimmed residential construction industry, when that sector starts to medium-term plan in 2010/2011, on Dublin and other areas around the country most likely to show a shortage of property this side of 2015.
  • On demand, the Government should attempt to deliver balanced regional development, taking property overhang as an opportunity for affordable housing to create new centres of employment. Taking this to its most logical conclusion, firms outsource because they want to free up resources to specialize on what they’re good at. Therefore, we must adopt a mentality along the following lines: “Let’s take this opportunity to treat our property boom as intergenerational outsourcing, which has freed us up to focus on what we’re good at.” (Just don’t say all we’re good at is construction!)

Hair of the dog: With rents fallings, ECB cuts the only thing likely to drag yields above borrowing cost

The third and final (for 2008 anyway) instalment in the visualizations of Ireland’s property market takes a different look again to my recent posts on trends in prices and stock. Building on the measure of affordability on page 10 of each daft.ie rental report and a suggestion made on thepropertypin.com, it measures the gap between the expected yield and the cost of borrowing.

The result is here on Manyeyes. Blue means the cost of borrowing is greater than the expected yield, while brown means the opposite. Below, two quarters are shown – 2008 q3 and an estimate for 2009 q2.

The gap between the cost of borrowing and property yields in Ireland, 2008 q3 and an estimate for 2009 q2

The gap between the cost of borrowing and property yields in Ireland, 2008 q3 and an estimate for 2009 q2

What is clear is if that one takes a measure of this gap as a measure of market disequilibrium, the market remains overpriced. (There are of course plenty of reasons why rents as a proportion of house prices may not be the only measure of a housing market in balance, particularly where rental markets are small or negligible, but bearing that in mind, let’s proceed…)

To look ahead and see if this mass of blue is likely to change any time soon, I made some assumptions about interest rates, asking prices and rents, based on what we know now. I assumed that interest rates fall to 1.5% in June 2009, and that house prices and rents both fall 5% quarter-on-quarter in the first six months of next year, as high levels of stock in both segments take their toll. I’ve also assumed landlords will still get 11 months of the 12 in rent and that the rate at which first-time buyers borrow remains about 1.1% above the ECB rate.

I’m sure there are plenty of ways people might disagree with particular aspects of those assumptions, but I think they make, if nothing, else a starting point for discussion. (Take them as a straw man if you don’t like them!) Anyway, if those assumptions were to be borne true over the coming six months, the first thing to note is that yields would be largely unaffected – i.e. not going in the direction they should be, up towards the equilibrium long-term average cost of borrowing somewhere north of 4%. (It should be pointed out at this stage that yields in certain market segments, e.g. West Dublin 1-beds, are already very close to 5%, so averages certainly hide some interesting sub-county variations. For more check out page 10 of the last Daft.ie report.)

However, a collapse in interest rate – albeit gradually – in a steady-as-she-goes ECB version of the Fed’s record peak to trough interest rate journey would have the not unexpected consequence of turning all those blue spots brown. Well, most of them anyway. Once again, the prognosis is not good for Leitrim and Cavan, two of the counties with among the worst stock overhang in the country, on a per capita basis. Even with interest rates collapsing to record lows, that would not be enough to make the rate of return on property greater than the cost of borrowing.

Is the cure the world is adopting a central banker’s version of the hair of the dog that bit you? Or are we entering a phase of the world economy where caution is so predominant that low interest rates are the appropriate response?