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Expectations for Singapore property market may not be moored to reality

Manu Bhaskaran
Manu Bhaskaran5/22/2017 10:00 AM GMT+08  • 9 min read
Expectations for Singapore property market may not be moored to reality
SINGAPORE (May 22): After languishing for many years because of cooling measures enforced by the government, transaction volumes are rising and property prices are stabilising, encouraging hopes for a property market revival. The government’s tweaks to
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SINGAPORE (May 22): After languishing for many years because of cooling measures enforced by the government, transaction volumes are rising and property prices are stabilising, encouraging hopes for a property market revival. The government’s tweaks to some of the macroprudential cooling measures have added to these hopes. But are they realistic?

The context: the insidious impact of property prices

First, because of the high level of home ownership in Singapore and the relatively large share of real estate-related services in the economy, property prices influence a whole range of factors that determine the welfare of the average Singaporean.

  • Fluctuations in property prices can affect macroeconomic stability because a large proportion of bank lending is related to mortgages or loans to developers and because a very high share of household wealth is tied up in property assets;
  • The level of property prices also affects Singapore’s competitiveness. When property prices are at elevated levels, the cost structure of the economy insidiously creeps upward as workers demand higher salaries to make ends meet in an increasingly expensive society. Also, since landlords usually have a yield objective when they invest in property, higher housing prices will tend to push up rental costs;
  • Higher home prices also put a strain on affordability, especially for young couples looking to buy their first home, and lower the consumption of other items that could have added to consumer welfare;
  • Elevated property prices can exacerbate wealth inequality in society as existing homeowners, particularly those who are well off enough to own two or more properties, benefit disproportionately compared with younger people, who could be priced out of the housing market altogether; and
  • Most critically, remember that a substantial — perhaps even excessive — proportion of retirement savings is allocated to housing. So, property price corrections could undermine retirement adequacy. Last year, property assets made up 44.8% of total household assets while mortgage loans comprised 75% of total liabilities. This also means that the wealth effect — the propensity to spend and consume more when asset prices are rising and vice versa — is pronounced and significant.

Second, the historical trends in the property market have had a strong impact on how Singaporeans look at property prices. Many assume that, since property prices have trended up inexorably through the years, with downturns quickly reversing into yet another upcycle, it is virtually a sure bet that residential property prices will increase with time. Private residential property prices soared by a multiple of 14.4 times from March 1975 to March 2017, or a compound annual growth rate of 6.9% over 42 years.

But trends change and people’s expectations do not adjust quickly. The growth in property prices was the fastest in the early years of independence (1975 to 1980) when breakneck economic progress allowed low-hanging economic fruits to be harvested rapidly. As the years went by, the rate of price appreciation had decelerated and become subject to wider fluctuations. Over the past decade, property prices actually declined from 2011 to 2016, owing to more desultory global and local economic growth; a slower pace of immigration; and macroprudential curbs to rein in an overheating housing market.

A short-term rebound in property prices is possible — in the right circumstances

  • First, the government’s cooling measures need to be eased further. In March, the government reduced the seller’s stamp duty by four percentage points for each applicable tier and also shortened the window from four years to three. It also removed the total debt servicing ratio framework on mortgage equity withdrawal loans with loan-to-value ratios of 50% and below. This has led to optimism among homeowners, investors and speculators that the cooling measures, which have brought down property prices by around 12% since the peak in 3Q2013, might soon be lifted. But this expectation underplays the fact that the broad framework of cooling measures — the additional buyer’s stamp duty, TDSR and LTV limits — remains in place; and
  • Second, the economy should perform much more strongly. This is likely, at least for the remainder of the year. Global demand is reviving, giving the Singapore economy a welcome boost after a difficult 2015 and 2016, when trade flows were moribund. Exports have picked up momentum since end-2016, and growth should exceed 2% this year. As the benefits of a stronger trade sector feed into the labour market, activity in the property market could begin to pick up further.

But the longer-term fundamentals are weaker than many people think

  • First, economic growth, a key foundation for ever-rising property prices, will slow down structurally and permanently. Singapore will find it hard to outperform its peers as before. Given its weak population growth and even making generous assumptions about productivity, Singapore will be lucky if it grows by 3% a year over the next decade. And, what is more, getting to this 3% will necessarily entail some hard work — restructuring to reduce Singapore’s high cost structure and downsizing existing activities so as to move workers and capital into new and more risky areas of growth. This is not really an environment in which one gets a house price boom;
  • Second, after almost 10 years of near-zero interest rates and extraordinary levels of quantitative easing by central banks all over the world, the next few years will see rising interest rates and tightening liquidity. This monetary scenario is not a friendly one for property prices: Asset prices, including housing, which have soared, will recalibrate downward in this new environment of normalising interest rates and a reduced quantity of money;
  • Third, it is a stretch to think that the government will allow immigration flows on the scale that boosted the property market prior to 2011. The new economic strategy is focused on reducing our reliance on foreign workers and boosting productivity while policymakers are sensitive to voters’ reluctance to see another surge in the foreigner population. This removes a pillar of demand from the property market;
  • Fourth, what about the effects on property prices of an ageing household portfolio? Singaporeans will increasingly realise that they own a 99-year lease on their flats whose value will go to zero within the lifetimes of their children. It will also become more evident that it will not be possible to top up these leases at preferential rates and that the selective en bloc redevelopment that many had banked on to facilitate renewal of their leases will be available only to a limited extent. A “cliff” may form for 99-year leasehold properties that are relatively older as buyers become reluctant to pay good money for an uncertain outcome. As Singapore society ages, the need to liquidate assets in the savings portfolio to fund retirement becomes more acute. As housing is a large proportion of this savings portfolio, the consequences must be substantial and negative; and
  • Fifth, what will be the impact of increasing integration with Johor? If access to Iskandar Malaysia becomes more seamless over time — as seems likely — more Singaporeans could opt to live in more affordable housing developments in Iskandar Malaysia while commuting to Singapore for work. Iskandar Malaysia’s attractiveness could grow in the near future as development continues — it is assembling more of a diversified economy, including manufacturing, transportation, logistics, education and medical services.

Much hinges on government policy

  • First, the macroprudential measures imposed on the property market will probably remain in place for some time yet, with occasional tweaks. Substantial easing will come only if property prices fall sharply;
  • Second, the government’s immigration policy will play an important role on the demand side. The most likely scenario is that immigration will be at a much slower pace than in the 2000s as societal strains stemming from stretched public infrastructure, including housing and public transportation, spill over into political pressures; and
  • Third, long-term economic policies for the Singapore economy will hold the crux to the sustained prosperity of the city state. Singapore needs to stay special to preserve its role as a pre-eminent global hub. This means it needs to play host to new and rising industries while reining in the cost of doing business, so that this city state remains an attractive location for business and investment, as well as to live, play and work in. Maintaining the Singapore “premium” means that infrastructure, efficiency and expertise must be top-notch. If we are able to do so, this “premium” will feed into a “premium” in the housing market too.

The bottom line

That said, it would be prudent to remember that gravity exists: Without sound macroeconomic drivers supporting the recovery, the cyclical upturn in private property prices might be short-lived before reverting to a more subdued path. This is likely to be the long-run scenario that we envision, given that economic growth in Singapore would be structurally lower as we grapple with demographic changes and structural constraints.

Manu Bhaskaran is a partner and head of economic research at Centennial Group Inc, an economics consultancy

This article appears this week's Issue 780 (May 22) of The Edge Singapore.

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