To assess the risks of a further slump, we track two measures of valuation. The first is the price-to-income ratio, a gauge of affordability. The second is the price-to-rent ratio, which is a bit like the price-to-earnings ratio used to value companies. Just as the value of a share should reflect future profits that a company is expected to earn, house prices should reflect the expected benefits from home ownership: namely the rents earned by property investors (or those saved by owner-occupiers). If both of these measures are well above their long-term average, which we have calculated since 1975 for most countries, this could signal that property is overvalued.
Based on the average of the two measures, home prices are overvalued by about 25% or more in Australia, Belgium, Canada, France, New Zealand, Britain, the Netherlands, Spain and Sweden (see table). Indeed, in the first four of those countries housing looks more overvalued than it was in America at the peak of its bubble.
American prices fell sharply, even though homes were less overvalued than they were in many other countries, because high-risk mortgages and a surge in unemployment caused distressed sales. In most other countries, lenders avoided the worst excesses of subprime lending, and unemployment rose by less, so there were fewer forced sales dragging prices down. America is also unusual in having non-recourse mortgages that let borrowers walk away with no liability.In other financial news this week, Jim Flaherty imposed new requirements on the banks, saying it was just prudential and part of a normal review, which caught the banks totally by surprise. "Move to have more power over banks ‘prudential:’ Flaherty": "Under the proposed legislation, any bank or insurance company that increased its consolidated assets by more than 10 per cent through an acquisition outside Canada would need the minister’s approval." "Flaherty sets updates to financial laws": "As well, the government proposes to increase the threshold that requires large banks to be widely held to $12 billion in equity from $8 billion." Pretty big moves for a normal or "prudential" review, no?
An optimist could therefore argue that our gauges overstate the extent to which house prices are overvalued, and that if markets are only a bit too expensive they can adjust gradually without a sharp fall. It is important to remember, however, that lower interest rates and rising populations were used to justify higher prices in America and Ireland before their bubbles burst so spectacularly.
Another concern is that Australia, Britain, Canada, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Spain and Sweden all have even higher household-debt burdens in relation to income than America did at the peak of its bubble. Overvalued prices and large debts leave households vulnerable to a rise in unemployment or higher mortgage rates. A credit crunch or recession could cause house prices to tumble in many more countries.