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Analysts see no property bubble

They’re mum on whether it’s a good time to buy, but agree S’pore fundamentals are pretty robust.

PROPERTY: boom or bust? This was the intriguing question to which a capacity turnout of about 170 investors recently sought answers, at a dinner hosted by financial advisory firm ipac. The good news is that the experts at the evening’s panel do not foresee a bubble in the offing, based on three presentations – albeit with some concern expressed by Jones Lang LaSalle’s head of research, Chua Yang Liang.

The not-so-good news is that the experts shied away from the multi-million-dollar question of whether this was a good time to buy. What is more, over the past weekend, the surprise news of a halt to  the popular deferred payment scheme for uncompleted properties appears to have cast a cloud over residential property’s upward trajectory.

In a deferred payment scheme, developers effectively extend free financing to buyers of uncompleted properties.

Buyers need only pay an initial deposit of 10 to 20 per cent, with the balance due when the property is completed in a couple of years.

Thanks to this form of free credit, a sizeable number of speculators have rushed in to new home launches, as a rising market gives them a window to sell their units at a substantial profit in a short period.

The base case of one panellist, HSBC senior Asian economist Robert Prior-Wandesforde, is that there are few obvious triggers for a sharp deceleration in prices.

‘If we’re in a bubble, we’re in the early stages. The fundamentals are pretty robust. The mass market is just starting to see a recovery and that’s probably the safest area for investment,’ he told the audience. The supportive factors include the expected growth in employment and personal incomes. 

The cost of servicing mortgage debt also remains relatively low at just about 14 per cent of household income, compared to 50 per cent in mature markets like London.

Contacted yesterday, he said: ‘I think the measure (to halt deferred pricing) will take a little bit of froth out of the market, but with employment booming, wages soaring and the real mortgage rate at its lowest level since 1990, the outlook still looks very promising.

‘We should also bear in mind that valuations are still way below the levels of the previous boom. When adjusted for the growth in incomes, the private residential property price index is little more than half of what it was in 1996.’

At the discussion, Dr Chua of JLL expressed concern over the price gap between new and resale homes in the prime districts. The gap has widened sharply this year, reaching a peak of 60 per cent, against a medium to longterm premium gap of 32 to 38 per cent. The resale market, he says, reflects true demand better, as deferred payment schemes in the new home market have inflated prices.

In terms of rental yields, rentals in the luxury prime segment have edged below the 10-year Singapore bond yield.

The clampdown on deferred payment schemes should remove the speculative froth, he says. ‘Generally prices will take a breather in the next two to three years with the sheer volume of (new) stocks coming on stream. We expect some kind of softening, not a correction, but a softening.’

Sing Tien Foo, deputy head of the National University of Singapore’s department of real estate, pointed to property’s ability to help diversify a portfolio, thanks to a low correlation with stocks and bonds.

Prof Sing’s research has shown that property provided a positive hedge against inflation between 1992 and 2007, a period in which stocks and bonds did not provide such a hedge.

While all types of property offered a more-than perfect hedge against inflation, the best hedge was that offered by detached housing, followed by semi-detached homes.

Meanwhile, advisers are sounding caution. Roy Varghese of ipac says: ‘If you’re looking to invest, be very careful.

You need to have an investment objective and that includes looking into the IRR (internal rate of return). You should be able to hold it for seven to 10 years. If you bought your property at a peak, your IRR will be low.’

Joseph Chong of New Independent expects the price gap between new uncompleted homes and resale homes to narrow. ‘The market should see a more moderate ascent in prices – instead of 20 per cent, perhaps 10 per cent in line with nominal GDP.

‘You should see more upside…But if your portfolio is not big enough, I don’t think you should bet on investment property in Singapore.’

Those with modest resources are better off investing in a global property fund or Reit, he adds.

Analysts, however, remained mostly sanguine over the medium-term outlook. Merrill Lynch’s property team wrote in a paper market that sentiment will be weak over one to two months. ‘However, we are of the view that genuine buyers do not buy houses on innovative purchase schemes by developers alone. We believe the more important considerations will be where Singapore is heading, will they be able to keep their jobs or businesses and will their salaries/profits increase.’

The firm’s economics team recently wrote that Asian property prices were not high relative to per-capita income, and advances have been modest compared to those in the UK, the US and Australia. The drivers include low real interest rates and positive demographics.

Citigroup analyst Wendy Koh said that while sentiment will weaken in the short term, residential prices are supported by strong fundamentals. In a note on Friday, she said: ‘We believe the current price increase is well supported by strong fundamentals such as the extremely tight physical supply and economic and wage growth.

‘We maintain our view that rental rates for residential units will continue to climb on the back of the relative net increase in housing stock due to low completion and relatively high demolition due to en blocs. The rise in rental rates will likely continue to support further price appreciation.’

 

Source: Business Times 31 Oct 07

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