Shane Oliver of AMP Capital has forecast that the coronavirus pandemic and measures to contain it will see Australia’s unemployment rate surge from 5.1% currently to around 10%. He adds that this could result in capital city house prices falling by about 5% at best and 20% or more in a worst-case scenario:
Auction clearance rates and sales momentum are showing some signs of slowing this month. This may reflect an increasing desire on the part of buyers and sellers to put property transactions on hold to avoid being exposed to the virus unnecessarily. Social distancing policies will only intensify this. On its own this may crash transactions but may just flatten price gains.
Recession is the big threat
However, it’s the likely recession that we have now entered due to coronavirus related shutdowns that imposes the big risk. We expect at least two negative quarters of GDP growth in the March and June quarters with the risk that the September quarter is also negative. And the contraction could be deep because big chunks of the economy will be largely shut – tourism, travel, and entertainment with a severe flow on to parts of retailing. The toilet paper, sanitiser and canned/frozen food boom may help supermarkets for a while – but as Deutsche Bank recently calculated for every $1 spent on such items there is $15 spent on things that are vulnerable to social distancing.
Past large share market falls have seen a mixed impact on property prices. The 1987 50% share market crash actually boosted home prices as investors switched from shares to property. But the key is what happens to unemployment as this often forces sales and crimps demand. Back in 1987 the economy remained strong and unemployment fell but the recessions of the early 1980s and early 1990s saw falls in average national capital city home prices of 8.7% and 6.2% respectively as unemployment rose. The GFC share market fall of 55% also saw a 7.6% home price fall, even though it wasn’t a recession, because unemployment rose from 4% to nearly 6%.
…if the recession turns out to be long – pushing unemployment to say 10% or more – then this risks tripping up the underlying vulnerability of the Australian housing market flowing from high household debt levels and high house prices. The surge in prices relative to incomes (and rents) over the last two decades has gone hand in hand with a surge in household debt relative to income that has taken Australia from the low end of OECD countries to the high end.
This is nothing new and we have long described it as Australia’s Achilles’ heel…
We have always concluded that the combination of high prices and debt on their own won’t trigger a major crash in prices unless there are much higher interest rates or a recession. Unfortunately, we are now facing down the barrel of the latter. A sharp rise in unemployment to say 10% or beyond risks resulting in a spike in debt servicing problems, forced sales and sharply falling prices. This could then feedback to weaken the broader economy as falling home prices lead to less spending and a further rise in unemployment and more defaults and so on. This scenario could see prices fall 20% or so.
Bear in mind though that part of this would just be a reversal of the 9% bounce in average capital city prices seen since mid-last year.
It’s also not our base case but it highlights why governments and the RBA really have to work hard to avoid letting the virus cause a lot of company failures, surging unemployment and household defaults.
A rise in unemployment to 10% seems optimistic, which also means that house prices falls of 20% are lowballing.
A lot will depend on the federal government’s stimulus response. If it provides a backstop to households and small businesses via a temporary universal basic income, then the damage will be limited and there will be far fewer forced sales and defaults.