My Walk to Mt Kosciuszko is no longer a solitary affair: at last count, I will have a dozen companions for the entire distance, and another 16 joining me for at least one day.
One of those coming for the entire trip is the Commentary Editor from Business Spectator, Rob Burgess. Rob will report from and on the Walk on a daily basis, covering it both as a news story, and as the basis for a discussion of the wider issues facing business and economics in the uncharted terrain of the supposedly ‘post-GFC’ world.
The others joining me on the trek are doing so not just for the scenery, but because they too believe that Australia’s economic policy has become beholden to maintaining house prices at unsustainable levels. Despite government rhetoric (and some action) about improving home affordability, the First Home Vendors Boost did far more to make houses more unaffordable than the government’s minor actions in the opposite direction. The other walkers are joining me to bring attention to the absurdity of managing the Australian economy by making it impossible for people to afford houses in their own country.
But though The Walk will have a political protest at its core, it is not party partisan: our call here is “A Plague on Both Your Houses”. Whatever else might change if Tony replaces Kevin, one thing that won’t change is a sky-high house price policy, since both sides of politics in Canberra (not to mention the commercial Banks and their economists) have become convinced that the major reason the GFC occurred was that house prices fell.
This is true in the same sense that jumping off a cliff is painless—it’s hitting the ground at its bottom that hurts. The real cause of the GFC wasn’t falling house prices per se, but the mortgage debt that drove them higher as households took part in a speculative bubble. The rising debt level was, in effect, climbing the mountain in the first place: deleveraging was jumping off it.
The only way to prevent a financial crisis is not to climb the mountain in the first place: to stop debt being taken on for speculative reasons. But instead politicians the world over encouraged households to do precisely that, in the misguided belief that financial engineering was a road to wealth. Instead, it was the road to debt penury.
Once that debt has been accumulated, trying to stop house prices falling is like keeping Wily Coyote stationary in midair after he’s fallen off a cliff with an anvil attached to his legs: he’ll stay there for a moment, but after a while, it’s “Hello Terra Firma”.
House prices rose in America and the rest of the OECD because households took on bucketloads of mortgage debt, and they fell because households stopped taking on more debt. The fall in house prices was a symptom of households ending the leveraging game: it was coincident with the crisis, it made it worse because the collapse in house prices and the rise in insolvencies made banks insolvent, but the real problem was that households had got into too much debt.
So how does Australia keep house prices high? By encouraging households to get into yet more debt. The next chart shows what happened to the household debt ratios (both to disposable income and to GDP) before and after the First Home Vendors Boost.
The rise against GDP is far more dramatic than against household disposable income because other government policies—the stimulus package itself and the RBA’s 4% cut in interest rates—boosted disposable income dramatically last year (but even so, mortgage debt is now a higher proportion of household disposable income than before the GFC). The Boost-inspired house price bubble was financed by households adding another 6% of GDP to their already unprecedented debt burden, when prior to The Boost they were on track to reduce mortgage debt by about 3% of GDP in 2009.
We’ve avoided hitting the ground of deleveraging by climbing to a higher cliff.