Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Property Chilling Measures

Readers would know that I seldom blog about property (there are only five posts on this in the last four years!), as I am generally not very good in this area and am still experiencing my steep (and extended) learning curve. There are so many aspects to consider when it comes to investment property that it would take many years to really understand how things work, including the witnessing of the entire bull-bear cycle which is far more drawn out as compared to a full stock market cycle. My last post on property in June 2011 centred mainly on expectations and the so-called “Perfect Storm” (record supply of land, falling demand and rising interest rates). Note that about 6 months since then, all these have yet to come to pass, which is why I feel the Government has suddenly introduced another set of harsh (some even say draconian) measures to curb speculative demand once again; with this latest set of measures targeting mainly foreigner demand. Let’s look at the various aspects which I talked about previously to see if they may still constitute the “Perfect Storm”.

Before I go on, the reason for the title is because the phrase “cooling measures” has been rather over-used, and I was just discussing this with a friend the other day on whether the measures are designed to chill and freeze, rather than merely cool. Of course, it remains to be seen if such measures would eventually be effective, but a peek into history and also a review of what experts and analysts are saying may shed some light on what may transpire and also give some insights as to how property may behave. Crystal-ball gazing is not my strong point – therefore readers will have to understand that this commentary is typed out based on my (rather limited) understanding of the property market and perhaps may even make me sound like a “newbie”, but please bear with me as I feel that expressing my views on the subject can enhance my overall learning experience and hopefully hasten the learning curve effects.

A Fifth Round of Chilling Measures

I guess most analysts and even the newspapers would have discussed the latest measures (announced on December 7, 2011 and implemented from December 8) almost to death, but the above table provides a good summary of the effects and is taken courtesy from a DBS Vickers analyst report. To summarize, foreigners and non-individuals (i.e. companies) need to pay an additional buyer’s stamp duty (known affectionately as ABSD) of 10% for all residential property; while for PRs and Singaporeans, they need to pay an additional 3% ABSD for their second property and third property onwards, respectively. Two interesting “exceptions” are offered – citizens from five nations which include America, Switzerland, Liechtenstein (a country located in Western Europe, bordered by Switzerland and Austria), Norway and Iceland would be treated as Singaporeans and would thus be able to avoid paying the 10% ABSD, while for corporations who bought and sold fully-developed properties (including collective sale properties) within 5 years from December 8 would be exempted from paying the 10% ABSD too.

It is immediately clear that the measures are targeted at foreign buyer of residential property, as the proportion of foreigners buying high-end property here has been increasing as more “hot” money has been flowing from countries like USA and China to seek more safe havens. Property curbs in Hong Kong (which has seen property prices fall to a six-month low) and China are also driving more and more wealthy individuals to channel their wealth into properties in Singapore, thus pushing up prices of private properties (and hence HDB resale flats as well). There is, however, a growing debate on whether the latest measures would be effective in bringing prices down, and some have criticized the measures as being too harsh, as the global economy is still reeling from the effects of the Euro Zone debt crisis and economic growth in Singapore is expected to be anaemic. My personal view is that prices may not moderate much, as foreigners may have deep enough pockets to withstand the 10% ABSD, and interest rates still remain at record lows.

Previous Cooling Measures

Looking at the above table (courtesy of OCBC Research), one can trace the history of the last four sets of cooling measures implemented by the Government. The first round can be seen as being relatively mild, with the Govt removing the IAS and the IOL, effectively ensuring that buyers must pay down the principal cum interest and not just servicing the interest alone. Sep 2009 was the first indication of an increase in supply as the Govt reinstated the 1H 2010 confirmed list of GLS sites.

Round Two, implemented just six months later, saw the first sign of some clamping down of speculative fervour, with a SSD implemented for flippers who turned a unit within a year, as well as lowering the LTV ration to 80% (this meant buyers had to cough up more cash – 20%). Another six months later, when prices still went up relentlessly, the Govt introduced SSD for properties sold within three years instead of just one year, while lowering LTV to 70% from 80%. They also raised the household income level for purchase of DBSS, which I think was a wise (though long overdue) move, as it meant more people could afford “public” housing rather than go for overly expensive private condominiums. HDB supply was further ramped up to 22,000 units for 2011, compared with “just” 16,000 units for 2010. Another shrewd move was to disallow HDB owners to concurrently own private property, in order to reduce speculation and “flipping”. When it seemed that all these measures were futile, a fourth round was introduced in Jan 2011, where the LTV was further reduced to just 60% for individuals with more than 1 housing loan, and 50% for corporations. Harsher SSD rates were also introduced and tiered as shown in the above table, but apparently these still did not work well enough as many of the buyers/speculators were cash-rich and remained unruffled by these four rounds of measures.

And so the Government implemented the fifth round, which consists of the ABSD.

Latest Measures on Increasing land Supply

The Government has also released, on December 7, 2011, the 1H 2012 GLS list of sites. On the list are new land sites for 7,020 housing units in the confirmed list and another 7,120 homes, 4,857 hotel rooms and 218 sq km of commercial space on the Reserve List. Although this supply is lower than the 2H 2011 planned new inventory, it is still a relatively high figure and analysts are saying that the market will soon be flooded with ample supply. It is actually arguable whether the Government is finally releasing sufficient land to absorb the huge influx of foreigners in recent years, as well as to cater to the numerous couples aspiring to get married and “own” their first flat. Assuming market prices do fall and people hold back from transacting, this means that there may be more vacant units left over from the recent glut of new private housing released by developers, which would snowball into an even larger looming supply in say two to three years time. Another possibility is that foreigners, spooked by the draconian measures and the economic uncertainty, may leave our shores and create a vacuum in terms of demand, which I feel is unlikely to occur.

Sentiment-Driven “Perfect Storm”

The Singapore Government (like its counterparts in China and Hong Kong) exerts significant control and influence over the property market, as can be seen in the last 2.5 years where five rounds of property curbs were introduced in rapid succession. Thus, investing in property companies which develop residential property makes for a difficult proposition as the industry is continually “rocked” by changes in regulation and laws, not unlike the notoriously tightly-regulated airline industry.

The question now is, of course, whether sentiment will play a bigger role in creating the perfect storm, rather than people actually having no cash to stump up (I tend to believe foreigners and locals are a wealthy bunch of people who will not let a simple ABSD stop them in their tracks). If people feel hesitant, or are certain that prices will drop, then it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy and the vicious cycle of falling asset prices may ensue. When Khaw Boon Wan (Minister for National Development) first mentioned about a Perfect Storm when he took office after the May 2011 Elections, I was wondering if this would really come to pass. A quick check with some older colleagues who remember the dark days of 1996-1997 has led me to the conclusion that once prices fall, they will literally plunge. Crisis can hit us so quickly that volumes almost completely dry up, and knowing how illiquid the property market is (compared to equities), the bid-ask spread may also widen considerably and this is when you read about a lot of “fire-sale” in the newspapers. In short, many people will get severely burnt.

Conclusion – Prudence Wins the Day

I guess I run the risk (again) of sounding like a stuck record when I caution all readers to be prudent and conservative in their finances, and to ensure they have sufficient cash buffer should they choose to leverage to invest in property. Though interest rates may be hovering at record lows, no one knows how the current situation in Europe will pan out and assuming something severe occurs in the global arena which somehow shocks the system, it may lead to some sudden, unexpected and very drastic changes which may leave one with precious little time to react.

If one lives their life in a frugal manner and takes up only very basic (not excessive) debt which is necessary to service their live-in residence, then you would not have much to worry about. But for those who are juggling with three or more mortgages and using one property as collateral of multiple loans, perhaps you should take a step back and ask – even though this may seem safe right now, could it be just a fragile house of cards which may collapse at any moment?

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