The Iron Ore Bust into a Housing Boom

Irony is thick on the ground this morning as we head into a shortened Easter trading week. Just as Sydney property prices go absolutely bonkers, the iron price crashes.

Of course, revenue from the great iron ore boom helped to fuel the housing bonfire, along with regular petrol douses from RBA boss Glenn Stevens. But now, with iron ore crashing, property prices continue to detach from reality. It’s a cheap money driven boom if there ever was one.

In case you missed it, the benchmark iron ore price finished trading on Friday down US$2.22 to US$53.14, a new low. It was another dose of irony that probably knocked the price lower.

Last week, Fortescue Metals [ASX:FMG] Chairman and major stakeholder Andrew Forrest implicitly called on iron ore miners to form a cartel to control the price (and save his company from a slow death). Rio Tinto [ASX:RIO] boss Sam Walsh replied with scorn, which the market interpreted to mean that Rio will continue to dig up as much red dirt as it can. Hence the price crack on Friday.

The comments from Forrest indicate just how much damage the iron ore bear market is having on marginal cost producers. Aussie juniors won’t survive this price rout. It’s just a matter of time before they fold.

Fortescue’s cost curve is a little better than the juniors, but at current prices my guess is the company is barely making a profit. When you have a heavy debt load, that’s a dangerous situation to be in.

If Fortescue isn’t making a profit at these levels (after interest repayments), then it begs the question why it’s equity value is still around $6 billion. Clearly, the market thinks the low iron ore price environment won’t be sustained and that Fortescue will return to profitability.

That’s quite an assumption given the current state of the iron ore market. The biggest, lowest cost producers all have expansion plans in the works over the next few years. This wall of new supply hits at a time of waning demand. As The Australian reports this morning:

The unprecedented growth in Chinese steel production that underpinned Australia’s iron ore boom of the past decade could be over, with early signs this year’s production will fall for the first time in three decades.’

That’s right folks. China’s steel demand is set to fall as its credit bubble unwinds. Who would’ve thought!

Not the iron ore miners. They all consistently said China’s steel output would grow to over 1 billion tonnes per annum by 2030 and plateau at these high levels. Instead, it looks like steel output peaked in 2014 at around 840 million tonnes.

Fortescue CEO Nev Power is still flogging that lame horse — Chinese urbanisation — to talk up the prospects for iron ore demand. He’s at the Boao Forum in China and latched onto comments that there is still another 300 million Chinese awaiting ‘urbanisation’. The Australian quoted Nev as saying:

There’s a massive amount of steel required in the coming decades. I think the only question is how quickly that steel and infrastructure will be built, which will determine the amount of steel per year.

Not quick enough, Nev. Not quick enough…

Iron ore’s renewed woes helped to end the mini-rally that was underway in the Aussie dollar last week. As I mentioned though, much of that rally had to do with ‘short-covering’ (traders buying back positions) following a surprise interest rate announcement from the US Fed. Now reality is coming back into the market…the Aussie is back down to around US$0.775.

Meanwhile, reality is nowhere to be seen in the Sydney property market after another strong weekend of auctions. Dr Andrew Wilson, ‘senior economist’ with the Domain Group (Fairfax’s property listings site), saidthat, ‘This could not have been rationally predicted — the highest clearance rate on the biggest auction day ever. This is the hottest of hot auction markets ever.”

So at a time when the price of Australia’s prime export is imploding, taking national income growth to near zero, speculation in the country’s largest property market detaches from reality. It’s all limbic brain in action…the neocortex isn’t getting a say.

In other words, it’s all getting very emotional. Crazy, almost.

On Friday, Domain published an article by Lindsay David, a noted bear on housing and the Aussie economy. His analysis is mostly driven by the neocortex, the rational/reasoning part of the brain.

He hit the nail on the head in the first paragraph:

By all accounts, Australia is experiencing what is one of the greatest credit-fuelled real estate bubbles in modern times. On the back of a collapsing mining sector, we can thank the RBA, APRA, ASIC and the political elite in Canberra for creating a flawed household wealth-creation strategy that shares all the hallmarks of a predictable economic disaster.’

This is the real nub of the issue. The political and regulatory class have created a flawed household wealth creation strategy that will do untold damage to the Aussie economy in the years ahead.

Higher houses prices — driven by ever increasing amounts of debt — do not create wealth. It creates a redistribution of wealth from non-homeowners to homeowners and from the young who take on debt to the older generation who sell an inflated asset. It’s wealth redistribution, not wealth creation.

Take a recent high profile sale in Sydney. A San Souci red brick waterfront home sold on the weekend for $6 million. Sans Souci is in Southern Sydney. It may be waterfront, but it’s not Sydney Harbour…it’s where the George’s river flows into Botany Bay.

So $6 million is quite of chunk of cash, especially because the house is 73 years old and will likely be knocked down.

Was there wealth created here? There certainly was for the vendor, who no doubt did well out of the sale. But did that wealth come at the expense of the buyer?

The only way to make the purchase an economic one (assuming it’s partially debt funded) is to build a bunch of luxury apartments on the site and sell them or rent them out at a very high price.

More than likely, the rent wouldn’t cover the cost. But that’s okay. Who buys a property for income returns these days? Thanks to negative gearing and concessional capital gains tax treatment, you buy to get a tax break and make a capital gain.

Whether renting or on-selling, both options would involve another round of debt and wealth transfer. In the case of the renters, a large sum of money would go towards housing expenses each week, taking away disposable income that could be spent elsewhere.

As Lindsay points out in his article on the expense of servicing debts now on a median house price in Sydney:

Based on median multiples, new home buyers in Sydney will spend the better part of 6.54 years savings (using 30 per cent of their income) for a 20 per cent deposit to buy a median-priced home.

When it comes to servicing the first 12 months of a 25-year/80 per cent LVR mortgage, it will cost roughly 65 per cent to 70 per cent of household income to service that debt at current record-low mortgage rates. Melbourne is not too far behind.

65-70% of household income to repay housing debt on a median priced house is astonishing. No wonder the rest of the economy is struggling. After debt repayments and essentials, there isn’t anything left to spare.

As my colleague Phil Anderson likes to say, land values capture the wealth created by society. But it also captures the value of the debt that society takes on to speculate in land.

Mistaking this debt capture as wealth is a fatal flaw for any society to make. We’re making it right now. And it will be to our detriment.

Greg Canavan+,
for Markets and Money

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Greg Canavan is a Contributing Editor at Markets & Money and Head of Research at Port Phillip Publishing. He advocates a counter-intuitive investment philosophy based on the old adage that ‘ignorance is bliss’. Greg says that investing in the ‘Information Age’ means you now have all the information you need. But is it really useful? Much of it is noise, and serves to confuse rather than inform investors. And, through the process of confirmation bias, you tend to sift the information that you agree with. As a result, you reinforce your biases. This gives you the impression that you know what is going on. But really, you don’t know. No one does. The world is far too complex to understand. When you accept this, your newfound ignorance becomes a formidable investment weapon. That’s because you’re not a slave to your emotions and biases. Greg puts this philosophy into action as the Editor of Crisis & Opportunity. He sees opportunities in crises. To find the opportunities, he uses a process called the ‘Fusion Method’, which combines charting analysis with more conventional valuation analysis. Charting is important because it contains no opinions or emotions. Combine that with traditional stock analysis, and you have a robust stock selection strategy. With Greg’s help, you can implement a long-term wealth-building strategy into your financial planning, be better prepared for the financial challenges ahead, and stop making the same mistakes that most private investors do every time they buy a stock. To find out more about Greg’s investing style and his financial worldview, take out a free subscription to Markets & Money here. And to discover more about Greg’s ‘ignorance is bliss’ investment strategy and the Fusion Method of investing, take out a 30-day trial to his value investing service Crisis & Opportunity here. Official websites and financial e-letters Greg writes for:

 


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