Inspired by Robert Shiller’s best seller, Irrational Exuberance, I developed the Jamie Durie Index (JDI) over a decade ago, which represented the number of times the name ‘Jamie Durie’ appeared in newspapers and magazines. Shiller’s book suggested that the media typically play an important role in propagating asset price booms. Jamie Durie -host of top rating TV show, The Block - was the poster boy of Australia’s property market culture and the JDI was designed to measure the media attention and chatter surrounding property. As it happened, the JDI correlated closely with the cycle in house prices, with both peaking in 2003.
At the time, Australian property was booming, stories of house price gains achieved in no time with an assist from plenty of debt dominated dinner party conversation, and Australia was rapidly becoming a nation of home renovators, inspired by Jamie Durie and shows like The Block.
Fast forward to 2015 and The Block has come a long way, having out-lived its original host. In its initial form, it survived only two seasons. After a six year absence, the Nine Network re-introduced the show in 2010, which has been hosted by Scott Cam ever since. Despite the 20% lift in average home values in the past three years, The Block and other home renovation shows – including House Rules and Reno Rumble - haven’t hit the heights of a decade earlier.
The rise and rise of home renovation shows...
The recently appointed Treasury Secretary, Mr John Fraser, has weighed in on the debate about whether there is a bubble in property prices, suggesting that the plethora of home renovation television shows represents compelling evidence of over-investment in housing. While there might be signs of a property market culture re-emerging, we need to tread carefully about drawing strong inferences about a property bubble for a number of reasons.
...but little sign of a speculative frenzy
First, a shift in consumer attitudes and tastes has contributed to the proliferation of home renovation shows. For instance, the growing popularity of cooking shows, including Master Chef and My Kitchen Rules, together with the emergence of the celebrity chef, is largely due to the renewed interest in food and home cooking and a waning interest in processed foods. Is anyone suggesting there is a bubble in home cooked food?
Second, the aggregate data doesn’t point to over-investment in housing, just yet. Private sector dwelling investment has lifted to a little above 5% of GDP, but this remains well below prior peaks of around 6½% (see chart).
Third, despite the growing interest in home renovation shows, this has not yet translated into a lift in the share of their budgets that consumers devote to home renovations. That much is obvious from the fact that the value of renovations declined to 1.8% of GDP in 2014, well below the peak of 2.7% of a decade ago and its lowest level in more than twenty years (see chart). To put this in context, had the value of renovations accounted for 2.7% of GDP in 2014, this would have translated into a dollar value of $43 billion, well above the actual spending on renovations of $30 billion, representing a shortfall of over $10 billion.
The academic literature confirms that the level of home improvement activity provides a valuable insight into home owners' expectations of future price growth. In a paper published in the Journal of Financial Economics, Harrison Hong and other researchers from Princeton show that in the United States, homeowners who are optimistic about future house prices are more likely to speculate on future price growth by renovating.
Fourth, increased liquidity, a pre-requisite for speculative bubbles according to Shiller, has been absent to date. In fact, the annualised turnover rate of the stock of housing has declined to 4%, around half its level from a decade ago (see chart). Normally, turnover rises with house prices because greater home equity encourages home-owners to trade up to more expensive homes and vendors who observe higher turnover infer that demand has picked up and lift their reserves.
The RBA speculates that various factors underpin muted housing turnover: the unusually low participation of owner-occupiers in housing market transactions and growing evidence that homeowners have become more reluctant to borrow against increases in net wealth to trade up homes. Hardly ingredients of a property bubble.
Tipping point for a bubble has not been reached...yet
Despite the proliferation of home renovation shows on Australian television, signs of a re-emerging property market culture, and strong upswing in Sydney and Melbourne property prices, the modest level of renovation activity, low turnover in the housing stock and the fact that private sector dwelling investment is in line with historical norms suggests that the property market does not yet share the speculative elements that prevailed during the boom of the early 2000s.
Back then people renovated to cash in on the soaring equity in their home so they could trade up to bigger places. Now, the reality has set in that the transaction costs of moving are too high and households are more realistic about their expectations of capital growth. If there does exist a tipping point for the emerging property market culture to morph into a speculative frenzy of over-investment, I believe that we are not there yet.