Today, Macro Man has a story to tell. It is the story of a nation that is a consumption based society. The country routinely runs current account deficits in the mid-single digits as a percentage of GDP. It is a country where housing is no longer affordable to the common man; the latest Demographia survey of Anglo-Saxon housing markets reckons that this country is the most unaffordable in the survey. It is a country that is in the midst of a bust in housing activity, and that has sustained a significant deleterious impact from changing weather patterns in recent years. For some reason, however, the central bank in this country has insisted on putting up rates this year, despite all of the above factors clearly signaling that recession is around the corner. Yet somehow, the stock market in this country has rallied 14% in 2006- clearly a sign of either paramount foolishness or blatant market manipulation. Surely it will all end in tears! The name of the country is, of course...
As the chart below demonstrates, building approvals have fallen more than 25% over the last three and a half years; surely the type of long, drawn-out retrenchment in building activity that the entire world fears for the US.
Sure enough, Australian consumption did sag in 2004-05, enough to put the RBA on hold but not enough to foster a rate cut. Over the past year and a half, however, consumption growth has picked up smartly, despite the lack of rebounding in building activity. Indeed, the economy has recovered to the degree that the RBA has hiked rates 0.75% this year, despite a horrific drought that is taking nearly a percent off of annualized GDP growth over the next several quarters.
As the chart below suggests, the Demographia survey suggests that Australia is THE most unaffordable Anglo-Saxon housing market (the rating represents the cost of a home as a multiple of median income.) The US, while clearly expensive in aggregate, is the second most affordable country in the survey, behind Canada.
What this masks, of course, is the dichotomy between the coast (the most expensive markets in the entire study) and the interior (the most affordable markets in the entire survey, and affordable in an absolute sense.) A clearer sign that there is no unified “US housing market” would be difficult to find.
Does all of this mean that the US is guaranteed to avoid recession, or that Australia is guaranteed to slide into one? Of course not. Macro Man brings up the parallels simply to suggest that the US housing story is not, after all unique (other than the fact that most mortgages are fixed rather than floating rate), and that a period of subtrend growth resulting from a housing market adjustment does not necessarily produce either recession or even rate cuts.