Property Investment and the Financialisation of Housing

An important report from the Special Rapporteur to the UN Human Rights Council highlights the “financialization of housing” and its impact on human rights. If you want to understand the rise in property investment in Australia, and the problem of housing affordability, read this! Sydney and Melbourne are “Hedge Cities”.  You cannot fix housing affordability without addressing the investment class.

The financialization of housing has its origins in neo-liberalism, the deregulation of housing markets, and structural adjustment programmes imposed by financial institutions and agreed to by States. It is also tied to the internationalization of trade and investment agreements which, as discussed below, make States’ housing policies accountable to investors rather than to human rights. The financialization of housing is also the result of significant changes in the way credit was provided for housing and more specifically, of the advent of “mortgage-backed securities”.

The amount of money involved in the purchase of housing and real estate is almost impossible to digest. Cushman and Wakefield, an American global real estate services firm engaging in $90 billion worth of real estate sales per year, publishes an annual report entitled “The Great Wall of Money” which includes a calculation of the amount of capital raised each year for trans-border real estate investments. The total in 2015 was a record $443 billion, with residential properties representing the largest single share. The report notes that “cross border flows will continue to transform real estate investment across the globe”

Housing prices in so-called “hedge cities” like Hong Kong, London, Munich, Stockholm, Sydney and Vancouver have all increased by over 50 per cent since 2011, creating vast amounts of increased assets for the wealthy while making housing unaffordable for most households not already invested in the market. Land prices in the 35 largest cities in China have increased almost five-fold in the past decade and prices for urban land in the top 100 cities in China have increased on average by 50 per cent in the past year.

The report examines structural changes that have occurred in recent years whereby massive amounts of global capital have been invested in housing as a commodity, as security for financial instruments that are traded on global markets, and as a means of accumulating wealth. The report assesses the effect of those historic changes on the enjoyment of the right to adequate housing and outlines an appropriate human rights framework for States to address them. The report reviews the role of domestic and international law in that sphere, and considers the application of principles of business and human rights.

The report concludes with a review of States’ policy responses to the financialization of housing and some recommendations for more coherent and effective strategies to ensure that the actions of global financial institutions and actors are consistent with ensuring access to housing for all by 2030. The Special Rapporteur suggests that, as a way forward, States must redefine their relationship with private investors and international financial institutions, and reform the governance of financial markets so that, rather than treating housing as a commodity valued primarily as an asset for the accumulation of wealth they reclaim housing as a social good, and thus ensure the human right to a place to live in security and dignity.

  1. The expanding role and unprecedented dominance of financial markets and corporations in the housing sector is now generally referred to as the “financialization of housing”. The term has a number of meanings. In the present report, the “financialization of housing” refers to structural changes in housing and financial markets and global investment whereby housing is treated as a commodity, a means of accumulating wealth and often as security for financial instruments that are traded and sold on global markets. It refers to the way capital investment in housing increasingly disconnects housing from its social function of providing a place to live in security and dignity and hence undermines the realization of housing as a human right. It refers to the way housing and financial markets are oblivious to people and communities, and the role housing plays in their well-being.
  2. Housing and real estate markets have been transformed by corporate finance, including banks, insurance and pension funds, hedge funds, private equity firms and other kinds of financial intermediaries with massive amounts of capital and excess liquidity. The global financial system has grown exponentially and now far outstrips the so-called real “productive” economy in terms of sheer volumes of wealth, with housing accounting for much of that growth.
  3. Housing and commercial real estate have become the “commodity of choice” for corporate finance and the pace at which financial corporations and funds are taking over housing and real estate in many cities is staggering. The value of global real estate is about US$ 217 trillion, nearly 60 per cent of the value of all global assets, with residential real estate comprising 75 per cent of the total.  In the course of one year, from mid-2013 to mid-2014, corporate buying of larger properties in the top 100 recipient global cities rose from US$ 600 billion to US$ 1 trillion.3 Housing is at the centre of an historic structural transformation in global investment and the economies of the industrialized world with profound consequences for those in need of adequate housing.
  4. In “hedge cities”, prime destinations for global capital seeking safe havens for investments, housing prices have increased to levels that most residents cannot afford, creating huge increases in wealth for property owners in prime locations while excluding moderate- and low-income households from access to homeownership or rentals due to unaffordability. Those households are pushed to peri-urban areas with scant employment and services.
  5. Elsewhere, financialization is linked to expanded credit and debt taken on by individual households made vulnerable to predatory lending practices and the volatility of markets, the result of which is unprecedented housing precarity. Financialized housing markets have caused displacement and evictions at an unparalleled scale: in the United States of America over the course of 5 years, over 13 million foreclosures resulted in more than 9 million households being evicted. In Spain, more than half a million foreclosures between 2008 and 2013 resulted in over 300,000 evictions. There were almost 1 million foreclosures between 2009 and 2012 in Hungary.
  6. In many countries in the global South, where the majority of households are unlikely to have access to formal credit, the impact of financialization is experienced differently, but with a common theme — the subversion of housing and land as social goods in favour of their value as commodities for the accumulation of wealth, resulting in widespread evictions and displacement. Informal settlements are frequently replaced by luxury residential and high-end commercial real estate.
  7. While much has been written about the financialization of housing, it has not often been considered from the standpoint of human rights. Decision-making and assessment of policies relating to housing and finance are devoid of reference to housing as a human right. Issues related to business and human rights have received some attention in recent years. However, the housing and real estate sector — the largest business sector with many of the most serious impacts on human rights — appears to have been mostly ignored.
  8. A report on the topic is timely as States embark on the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals. If the commitment in target 11.1 to ensure access for all to adequate, safe and affordable housing and basic services is to be achieved by 2030, it is essential to consider the role of international finance and financial actors in housing systems. That will help to identify and address more effectively patterns of systemic exclusion, to ensure more meaningful human rights accountability for issues of displacement, evictions, demolitions and homelessness, and the engagement of all relevant actors in the realization of the right to adequate housing.
  9.  Constructing human rights accountability within a complex financial system to which Governments are themselves accountable, involving trillions of dollars in assets, may seem a daunting task. However, the global community cannot afford to be cowered by the complexity of financialization.8 The present report aims to cut through some of the complexity and opaqueness of finance in housing to expose the central relevance and necessity of the human rights paradigm at multiple levels, from the international to the local.
  10. The report builds on important work undertaken by the previous Special Rapporteur on the right to housing. In her 2012 report on the impact of finance policies on the right to housing of those living in poverty (A/67/286), she warned of emerging trends towards the financialization of housing encouraged by States’ abandonment of social housing programmes and increased reliance on private market solutions. She documented attempts by States to rely on the private market and homeownership, which increases inequality and fails to address the housing needs of low-income and marginalized groups. More fundamentally, she called for a paradigm shift through which housing would once again be recognized as a fundamental human right rather than as a commodity. The present report takes up that challenge.

Canada Vs Australia On Housing

The RBA Governor gave a speech comparing aspects of the Australian and Canadian economies. I found the comparisons relating to housing interesting. In summary, high prices, high debt, and high risk.

We have both had strong housing markets over recent years and there are concerns about the level of household indebtedness. There are some similarities in the factors at work.

One is that our populations have been growing quickly for advanced industrialised countries. In Australia, population growth has averaged 1.7 per cent over the past decade, while in Canada it has averaged 1.1 per cent. Over the past couple of years the growth rates have moved closer together.
Graph 4: Population Growth

Another similarity is that there has been strong demand from overseas residents for investments in residential property, particularly in our wonderful Pacific-rim cities. Not only are these cities attractive places to live, but we also offer investors security of property rights and economic and financial stability. Given the strong demand and its impact on prices in some areas, some state and provincial governments have recently levied additional taxes on foreign investors in residential property.

Our housing markets have also been affected by the global monetary environment. We both run independent monetary policies, but the level of our interest rates is influenced by what happens elsewhere in the world. With interest rates so low and our economies being resilient, it is not so surprising that people have found it an attractive time to borrow to buy housing.

Graph 5: Housing Price Growth

Another characteristic that we have in common is that at a time of strong demand from both residents and non-residents, there are challenges on the supply side. I understand that zoning is an issue in Canada, just as in Australia. In some parts of Australia, there has also been underinvestment in transport infrastructure, which has limited the supply of well-located land at a time when demand for such land has been growing quickly. The result is higher prices.

We are also both experiencing large differences across the various sub-markets within our countries. The strength in housing markets in our major cities contrasts with marked weakness in the mining regions following the end of the mining investment boom.

Graph 6: Housing Price Growth by City

The increase in overall housing prices in both our countries has gone hand in hand with a further pick-up in household indebtedness. In both countries the ratio of household debt to income is at a record high, although the low level of interest rates means that the debt-servicing burdens are not that high at the moment.

Graph 7: Household Debt-to-income Ratio

In Australia, the household sector is coping reasonably well with the high levels of debt. But there are some signs that debt levels are affecting household spending. In aggregate, households are carrying more debt than they have before and, at the same time, they are experiencing slower growth in their nominal incomes than they have for some decades. For many, this is a sobering combination.

Reflecting this, our latest forecasts were prepared on the basis that growth in consumption was unlikely to run ahead of growth in household income over the next couple of years; in other words the household saving rate was likely to remain constant. This is a bit different from recent years, over which the saving rate had trended down slowly.

Graph 8: Household Savings Ratio

This interaction between consumption, saving and borrowing for housing is a significant issue and one that I know both central banks are watching carefully. It is one of the key uncertainties around our central scenario for the Australian economy. It was also cited as one of the key risks for the inflation outlook in the Bank of Canada’s latest Monetary Policy Report. We are still learning how households respond to higher debt levels and lower nominal income growth.

 

Do Central Bankers Know a Bubble When They See One?

From Mises Wire.

Between 2000 and 2008, two of the largest financial bubbles in history — in technology stocks and housing, respectively — suffered spectacular collapses. Opinions vary, but some market commentators believe at the peak of the tech bubble, total stock market capitalization exceeded 180% of US GDP. To put this in perspective, the tech stock bubble was over twice the size of the 1920s stock bubble!1 As large as the bubble in tech stocks was, it was child’s play compared to the housing bubble. When the US housing bubble collapsed, the credit losses were so large the entire worldwide banking system was considered to be in mortal danger.

One of the primary justifications behind the 1913 founding of the Fed was to prevent financial crises. Logic then dictates if a major motivation behind forming a central bank is the prevention of a financial crisis, then a financial crisis that breaks out under the nose of a central bank must be due — at least in part — to mistakes of that bank. The Fed’s mistakes and its subsequent leading role in causing the housing bubble will be seen by reviewing speeches given by Alan Greenspan and Ben Bernanke that praised the housing bubble era Fed. In addition, a review of statements made in the wake of the tech bubble’s collapse will reveal senior Fed officials taking positions diametrically opposed to positions Alan Greenspan claimed formed the basis for the Fed’s policy toward bubbles, namely, allowing bubbles to burst and dealing with the consequences later.

From its March 2000 peak to its October 2002 bottom the NASDAQ declined 80%. Throughout the 1990s no one cheered on the “new economy” more than the “maestro,” Alan Greenspan. After the bubble collapsed, Greenspan recognized a need to explain his and the Fed’s actions while the tech bubble grew. In August 2002 Greenspan gave a speech at the Fed’s conference in Jackson Hole. In this speech, which Jim Grant called “self-exculpating revisionism,”2  Greenspan offered this rationale for the Fed’s actions during the late 1990s:

The struggle to understand developments in the economy and financial markets since the mid-1990s has been particularly challenging for monetary policymakers. … We at the Federal Reserve considered a number of issues related to asset bubbles — that is, surges in prices of assets to unsustainable levels. As events evolved, we recognized that, despite our suspicions, it was very difficult to definitively identify a bubble until after the fact — that is, when it’s bursting confirmed its existence.

Less than two years later, in January 2004, Greenspan would congratulate himself on the apparent success of the Fed’s strategy. In doing so he would expose the Fed’s role in creating the far more ruinous housing bubble.

There appears to be enough evidence, at least tentatively, to conclude that our strategy of addressing the bubble’s consequences rather than the bubble itself has been successful. … As I discuss later, much of the ability of the U.S. economy to absorb these sequences of shocks resulted from notably improved structural flexibility. But highly aggressive monetary ease was doubtless also a significant contributor to stability.3

The “monetary ease” — slashing interest rates — Greenspan was taking credit for here was not helping the economy heal. Instead it was fueling an enormous bubble in housing whose negative consequences can best be described as world-altering.

One month later, in February, Greenspan’s partner in criminal economic ignorance, Ben Bernanke, gave a speech titled, “The Great Moderation.” In this speech Bernanke would, unknowingly, provide further evidence of the Fed’s enormous role in fueling the housing bubble. Bernanke claimed the Fed’s monetary policy was a source of stability and helped to reduce variations in economic output. The irony in giving this speechat this time should not be lost. Bernanke’s speech, like Greenspan’s, betrays a total ignorance of the enormous housing bubble that was only a few weeks from peaking. (Homeownership peaked in April 2004!) With just these two speeches, the criminal incompetence of the Greenspan/Bernanke and the leading causal role the Fed played in the housing bubble are demonstrated.

The Fed’s bubble befuddlement was not limited to a few speeches. For years on end Fed officials would take positions in contradiction to those established by Greenspan in his Jackson Hole, Wyoming, speech. For example, in July 2005 and in his capacity as head of the president’s council of economic advisors, Ben Bernanke was asked on CNBC if there was a housing bubble. He does not answer by saying bubbles can’t be seen until after they burst. Instead he says the following:

Well, I guess I don’t buy your premise. It’s a pretty unlikely possibility. We’ve never had a decline in housing prices on a nationwide basis, so what I think is more likely is house prices will slow, maybe stabilize, might slow consumption spending a bit. I don’t think it will drive the economy from its full employment path.

Later in October 2005, other Fed officials would also contradict Greenspan’s Jackson Hole speech. By then, homeownership had already peaked and the bubble had started to collapse. Amazingly,  two Fed economists investigated if there was a housing bubble. They — erroneously, of course — concluded home prices are high but not out of line.4 Obviously, if Fed officials were investigating to see if a housing bubble existed, then they believed it could be observed without first having to collapse.

Often, the most damning indictments of the bubble-era Fed come from other Fed officials. The most loquacious of these officials is current St. Louis Fed president James Bullard. Among the truths Bullard accidently exposed was the one concerning the obvious nature of the recent stock and housing bubbles. In a September 2013 interview Bullard said, The bubbles we had in the past were gigantic and obvious.5 Later, in a November 2013 interview, he said the housing and tech bubbles were blindingly obvious.”6

Amazingly, Alan Greenspan would eventually completely contradict Greenspan! Here is “Mr. Chairman,” as CNBC lovingly refers to him, discussing the Lehman Brothers failure in October 2013, “We missed the timing badly on September 15th, 2008 [the day Lehman Brothers went bankrupt]. All of us knew there was a bubble.”7 So which is it Mr. Chairman? Can bubbles be “obvious” or something “everyone knew” to exist before they pop — as you indicate here — or do you have to wait until after they pop to confirm their existence as you said in Jackson Hole?

Our brief review here demonstrates both the leading role the Fed played in creating the housing bubble — the January and February 2004 speeches — and the many mutually exclusive positions the Fed took on bubbles. In spite of being exposed in what is either a self-exculpating lie (the claim that bubbles can only be seen after they burst) or a sign of gross incompetence (the failure to see two of the largest financial bubbles in history), no Fed official has ever been asked to explain or rationalize the Fed’s contradictory positions on bubbles. Whether anyone from the Fed is ever forced to do so or not, it is obvious the Fed has much to answer for concerning all the economic hardships their bubble befuddlement has caused.

  • 1. Marc Faber, “The Monetization of the American Economy,” DailyReckoning.com, January 16, 2002 https://dailyreckoning.com/the-monetisation-of-the-american-economy/
  • 2. Jim Grant, Mr. Market Miscalculates (Mt. Jackson, Va.: Axios Press, 2008), pp. 241.
  • 3. “Risk and Uncertainty in Monetary Policy”, Remarks by Chairman Alan Greenspan at the Meetings of the American Economic Association, San Diego, California, January 03, 2004.
  • 4. Jonathan McCarthy and Richard W. Peach, “Is there a Bubble in the Housing Market Now?” Federal Reserve Bank of New York, 2005.
  • 5. Steven C. Johnson, “Fed Need Not Rush to Taper While Inflation is Low,” September 20, 2013, CNBC, http://www.cnbc.com/id/101051526/
  • 6. Matthew J. Belvedere, “Fed’s Bullard: $1-trillion a year QE pace torrid,” CNBC, http://www.cnbc.com/id/101166475
  • 7. Matthew J. Belvedere, “Bubbles and leverage cause crisis: Alan Greenspan,” October 23, 2013 CNBC, http://www.cnbc.com/id/101135835