Saturday, 12 July 2014

A Marriage Made in Hell: Housing and Foreign Demand

In the past couple of years we have seen a surge in the effort to obtain demand from abroad. Current Account negative balances, have provoked many discussions, since in a currency union, in order not to have a Balance of Payments crisis, there is a need for having a stable quantity of money in the economy. The apparent solution of boosting the export sector, as Germany has been doing during the Eurozone crisis, is no solution for the long-run as without strong domestic consumption the country is prone to shifts in foreign demand. Yet, in the short run, this dependence on foreign demand appears to be great if demand keeps going up. 

The problem is that the same principle does not hold for housing. Picture the following scenario: a person from country Y buys a very affordable home in country X. It goes without saying that most probably country Y is richer than country X, or at least house prices in the latter are lower than the former. (The rationale behind this is that it wouldn't be easy for someone to purchase a home in a country where prices are much higher than in his own country - unless he or she is very wealthy which is what has been happening in London nowadays). Now, if the house is really affordable, others will also want a piece of the housing, and from the supply and demand law we know, prices will rise in the country.

Is that necessarily bad? The answer is unfortunately yes, most of the times. If the rise in foreign demand occurs during a relatively short period of time (as it usually manifests), then house prices will rise by much more than national inflation rates. The case of Spain is very enlightening:

Yellow line is the price of housing per square meter while the green one is the inflation rate
The first question which arises is why doesn't the inflation rate rise by as much as foreign demand if that is the main driving force behind the increase. The answer to this is inequality, but not in the Piketty sense: it is not that everyone in Spain benefits from the rise in prices. The "representative" Spanish household has no intention of selling its house and living somewhere else just because prices have gone up (I know that many economists believe that this is what "rational" agents would do, but that is not very realistic). It's the land developers who benefit the most from this expansion of prices, which is followed by an expansion in credit as banks see its profitable to lend to them. Money is still distributed along the economy in the form of credit or increased consumption (the rising trend of inflation in the above graph is indicative of this) but not by as much as the rise in property prices.

The second question is why does it matter that much. What most fail to see at the time is that this expansion in foreign demand hurts the nationals by much more than we believe. If the average price in Spain was around 1000 euros in 1997, and a part of the population could not afford to purchase a house, then who would argue that in 2008, when it nearly tripled many less would really afford it. If someone doubts this then the following graph should remove all doubt:
The increase in wages was less than 70%, when house prices rose by almost 180%. House price in 1997 was approximately 14 times the wage index, while in 2008 it was more than 28 times. Foreign demand for housing has an even nastier side: it assists in the creation of a credit bubble as locals have to borrow more money for property purchasing and land developers borrow more as profit opportunities rise. Spain is again indicative of this behaviour as credit rose by more than 400% since 1998, mostly driven by these developments.

So what makes housing so different?

The simple answer is that housing is immovable. You cannot really take a house or an apartment and leave the country as you can do with other types of goods.That makes all the difference since it means that locals and foreigners compete for the same goods. If a producer can sell a banana at home and the same one abroad, then prices are charged accordingly and, if possible, charges foreigners more, given the extra trouble that is required. In the meantime, the producer cannot really charge the foreign price to the local market because there are many other substitutes: buy from another producer, buy an imported banana or buy some other fruit. In contrast, the house is stuck where it is built and there is no local nor foreign substitute for it. In addition, the developer has a very good alternative for local demand: sell it to a foreigner at an inflated price. Which is more profitable? Obviously the latter, and the locals will just have to meet the price if they want to purchase the property.

Thus, simply put, increased foreign demand for real estate is almost always bad news for the locals. The phenomenon has not just taken place in Spain, housing bubbles have appeared in the Netherlands, Greece, Cyprus and even London as it appears nowadays. So next time you hear about rising foreign demand for real estate in your country be wary, very wary.

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