The Global Housing Market Crisis of 2023

Sadly, for many people throughout the world, higher interest rates besetting global property markets are diminishing the prospects of home ownership. In 2022 central banks started employing quantitative tightening monetary policy and raising interest rates in their fight against inflation, the resultant shock that rippled through global housing markets gave way to the reality that the real estate boom was at an end, marking a finish to the millions made by people across the globe.

It would appear that higher interest rates are here to stay for a while longer, keeping borrowing costs high, this together with a shortage of homes are keeping prices elevated. This has resulted in those homeowners who have had to reset their loans facing increased financial hardship, whilst in many areas housing is now less affordable. For instance, in the United States the home market is dominated by the 30-year mortgage and today it is effectively frozen, as buyers are being squeezed because those with lower interest rate mortgages are reluctant to sell. 

In each country across there are differing scenarios, but in the end they are all dragging down global economies, as whether they rent or buy, people are using more of their net income for housing. Take for example Canada and New Zealand, where those who bought at the top are now struggling with higher repayments on their loans. Across the world landlords are suffering from distress and in many areas higher interest rates have negatively impacted on the building of homes. 

Experts suggest that the “Golden Age” of single family homes is ancient history with the cost of home loans doubling in some parts of the world. If potential home buyers bought just after the global financial crisis then in most parts of the world owners would now have built up a substantial amount of equity. They predict that the next ten years will be an uphill battle for many new home buyers or even for those looking to trade up. For example, in the United States the current 30-year mortgage is circa 7.4% and over the next decade is expected to be around the 5.5% mark, whereas in the comparable low early part of 2021 it was 2.65%. In 2011 the average 30-year mortgage was circa 3.9% and slowly reduced over the next decade, making it the optimal time to buy.

Interestingly, back in the 1980’s, John Quigley, an economist at the University of California, Berkeley, identified what was to be known as the lock-in effect. Between 1978 and 1981 mortgage rates had doubled from 9% to a staggering 18%, which left millions of households paying well below the market rate for mortgages . Therefore, to purchase a new home meant adding possibly unsustainable costs to the monthly household bills, which was a powerful reason to not to move, hence the lock-in effect.

Economic incentives quite often make people forget lessons learnt in the past, as Quigley’s “lock-in effect” was quietly forgotten as interest rates fell back. However, this all changed when the Covid-19 Pandemic hit. In 2020 the US housing market briefly shut down, then a housing boom exploded (not seen in decades) due to a combination of plummeting borrowing costs and stimulus payments. For the first time in fourteen years existing home sales hit six million annually. The market was seeing house hunters purchasing homes far from the coast (the most popular areas before the pandemic), mainly due to the new remote working policies. Today, the quantitative tightening policies of the Federal Reserve has reduced demand and reduced supply even more due to Quigley’s “Lock-in Effect”

Unfortunately for home buyers, even as inflation begins to recede and central banks reverse their strict monetary policy of interest rate hikes, they have to face the reality that borrowing costs on their mortgages may never return to the lows during the fifteen years seen since the global financial crisis. In the past, if interest rates shot up, consumers were confident that rates would return to what was perceived as normal. They would be able to struggle through the higher rate or take on mortgages with a view to refinancing at a later date when interest rates once again fell. Today, these options will not be available because as previously stated, higher interest rates and costs look like dragging on for quite a number of years. 

Experts in the United States are referring to the housing market as the start of the glacial period due to the collision of the highest mortgage rates in a generation (timeline 20 – 30 years ), a low inventory and rising prices. As a result, recently released data shows sales of previously owned homes having dropped to their lowest level since 2010, with contract closings in October falling by the most in the last twelve months and dropping by 4.1% from September of this year. Further data released from ICE (Intercontinental Exchange Inc) show that the housing market in the United states is the least affordable in forty years. The data further confirmed that circa 40% of average household income is now required to purchase your average home. 

Expert analysts predict that in 2024 the housing market will feel the most severe effects of higher interest rates and sustained higher mortgage rates as they estimate transactions in this market will fall to their lowest levels since the 1990’s. The glacial period that is being deferred on the United States housing market will have many knock-on effects. For instance, families may be forced to live together, and as the elderly age without moving, homes will be kept off the market which could have been made available for purchase by younger buyers. Furthermore, there are a vast number of homeowners who are unaffected by the increase in interest rates (as 30-year mortgages were negotiated when interest rates were low), and they are also sitting on a near-record amount of equity. In other circumstances, there may have been forced sales or foreclosures which would have opened up purchasing opportunities for potential buyers. 

Away from the United States things are just as bad in many housing markets with New Zealand being an extreme case. New Zealand enjoyed possibly one of the largest pandemic booms as in 2021 property prices rose by an incredible 30%, and according to data released by the Reserve Bank, circa 25% of the then current stock of mortgage lending was taken out in 2021 and a fifth were first time buyers. However, mortgages are only fixed for three years or less, and interest rate hikes of 5 ¼% since October 2021 have sent mortgage repayments through the roof. The Reserve Bank has estimated that household disposable income that is used to finance mortgage repayments will be circa 20% by June 2024 up from a low in 2021 of 9%, more than double of what they were paying. However, thanks to strong wage growth many households are just about managing.

In China the property slump is not driven by interest rate hikes, but two years ago a government led clampdown on developers borrowing was the forerunner to a growing crisis. Today, China’s property market, which once accounted for 30% of the economy, is struggling with unresolved debts and slow sales leading to an economic decline. Potential buyers have been reluctant to invest in homes yet to be finished, due to a legal system that is not prepared to restructure debt and spreading defaults by home builders. However, the government has advised that it will target selected developers for financial aid, but insist the funding is to finish housing projects, not to repay debt.

In Canada many citizens profited from the housing boom of the last decade, and by 2020 had come to own more than two homes which, in British Columbia and Ontario, accounted for just under 33% of housing stock. However, data shows the introduction of higher interest rates meant that in a city such as Toronto owning a condo was now yielding only circa 3.5% after mortgage repayments and costs whilst Canadian Government Bonds were paying 5%. The high rates of interest have certainly put a damper on interest in new housing purchases, whilst some with investment properties are facing negative cash flows, forcing owners to sell, if indeed they can find buyers. 

Elsewhere, Europe is facing a housing crisis, as a collapse in home building threatens an increase in shortages over the next five years. Those countries that are hardest hit are among the wealthiest with building permits in France down by over 25% in seven months through to July 2023, and in Germany building permits were down 27% in the first half of 2023. In fact, when Olaf Scholz’s coalition took power in Germany in 2021, the Chancellor’s pledge of adding 400,000 new homes per year was sadly way behind schedule. In fact experts suggest that Germany won’t reach this figure until 2026 at the very earliest.

There is a massive construction crash in Europe with governments reluctant to spend any more funds than are absolutely necessary as they continue the battle against inflation in the post-covid era. Recent data shows that in Sweden in the first ten months of 2023, 1,145 companies within the construction industry filed for bankruptcy, an increase of 32% from 2022. 

Many politicians are advocating more spending on housing, even the Labour party in the United Kingdom (polls suggest a shoo-in at the next general election) are promising to overhaul the planning system and build 1,500,000 over the next term of parliament. However, as in many countries a manifesto promise and reality are often many miles apart. The German government has offered to boost public investment and simplify licensing procedures, but what analysts describe as a tepid response is not expected to make any significant impact. 

Without government investment and private sector investment many citizens across the world  will be unable to buy their own homes destroying the dreams of home ownership. The only winners appear to be those buyers in the United States locked into the 30-year mortgage when interest rates were at their lowest. The rest of the world can only hope that the property market returns to relative normality, but how long that will take is anybody’s guess.