Imagine you own a beach house in a resort area and you decide, at the end of a beautiful summer, to revive the memories of your youth by organizing a BBQ and bonfire on the beach in front of your home. You invite all your local friends, you organize the food, and you ask everybody to bring along their families, their friends, and their own booze. With plans for a whopping big bonfire, you also ask them to bring wood. Everybody complies, similarly eager for a beach bash. One of your buddies, Ken, has access to some really good firewood, so he brings a trunk-load of the stuff. The BBQ goes well, drink and chat flows, you and your buddies start to build the bonfire. Everybody is in a disinhibited party mood, and you all somewhat unwisely start constructing the bonfire a little too close to the house. A couple of people mention this but, the wind is blowing in the safe direction, it’s an arguably fair distance from the house anyway, and, besides, there is a fire extinguisher in the kitchen, right? Consensus is that the fire site is fine, and a really seriously large pile of wood accumulates.
So, the bonfire is lit, it looks glorious, and, in the fading light, everybody has a great time… marshmallows, jokes, dancing, singing. Everybody piles on the wood they’ve brought; everybody is particularly grateful to Ken, as his supply burns extremely well, it gives off a wonderful aroma, and it warms everybody very nicely.
You can see where this is going: The wind changes, the fire roars, the fire extinguisher is woefully inadequate, the house burns down, neighbouring houses catch sparks, the whole beachfront is destroyed, and everybody blames Ken.
Did I mention that Ken is from mainland China?
The speculative mania in Vancouver RE had its roots in the early part of last decade. Vancouver housing was already pricey by Canadian standards, the good-weather premium was baked in. Things really took off after 2003, when very low interest rates allowed home prices to divorce themselves from fundamentals such as local incomes. This effect occurred in all major Canadian centres, it was a monetary and not a local effect. Through 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, local Vancouver speculators threw themselves onto the fire, borrowing large amounts to buy primary-residences and ‘investment’ properties at prices that were only justifiable if you thought that prices would continue up forever. People told themselves all the necessary stories to reassure each other that prices could, indeed, only go up: Best Place On Earth; Running Out Of Land; Olympics; and, yes, Limitless Demand From China. Under ‘normal’ circumstances, 2008 might have marked a top, but we all know that little about Vancouver RE is ‘normal’. Prices started dropping from the summer of 2008. Perversely, shortly thereafter, the world financial system imploded and interest rates, already at low levels, dropped to essentially zero. Vancouver RE didn’t need a bail-out, but it got one anyway. Prices had only been able to drop 15% before being re-ignited, taking out prior highs, and blazing on to their current dizzy heights. Now, with Australia finally pulling back, our real estate is arguably the most overpriced in the entire world. We are the last remaining pristine and unimploded RE bubble.
The most important fuel for this market fire, by a very, very long way, was and is local speculation. Local buyers, through all of these years, have continued to mercilessly overextend themselves to purchase property at prices that they would never dream of paying if they foresaw a significant risk of price downside. This applies to primary residences as much as it does to ‘investment’ properties. If locals had not speculated, or had speculated less, prices would not have gotten so very far divorced from fundamentals. Yes, there is a direct influence of foreign buyers on the market, more so in some areas of the city. But these buyers still participate in less than 5% of all property transactions. In the part of the city most affected by this phenomenon (the high end of the westside), realtors report that 50% of sales are to this group. That means, of course, that the other 50% of sales are to locals, overbidding on properties by arguably a factor of two or three times fundamental value. Our speculative mania has attracted non-local momentum players, and, yes, there may be a need for some consideration of specific limits on their activity; but let’s be very clear that these players are only a small part of the entire phenomenon.
There is no easy way out. That is the nature of speculative manias, they harm many on the way up, and a lot more on the way down. There is no way of ‘landing’ them ‘softly’. By their nature, they run out of fuel and implode. We have built and ignited a bonfire here that was long ago completely out of control and destined to raze the whole block. It would be very unfair and disingenuous to blame the outcome on our buddy Ken, who we invited to the party, who only brought wood with our encouragement, and whose fuel we appreciated while all seemed okay.
We are very concerned, however, that our city is setting up for such a scapegoating. Canada’s policies of multiculturalism encourage people to celebrate their differences. This is hunky-dory when everybody is rich and has adequate resources; it is easy to celebrate your neighbour’s good fortune when you are experiencing similar luck. But, if you put the economic screws on a society that has been encouraged to emphasize difference, it is probably more prone to developing ethnic fault-lines than a society that puts more effort into celebrating similarities.
There has been more and more media prominence given to foreign buyers recently. Local politicians such as Peter Ladner are pointing to this group as the cause of our lofty prices. We are concerned that many are going to be getting their wires crossed by associating foreign buyers with the existence of the bubble. There is a very real subsequent risk that many of those who suffer the consequences of the imploding Vancouver RE bubble will mistakenly blame foreign buyers and, by extension, specific ethnic groups, for the whole phenomenon, and for the inevitably devastating outcome.
As we said in our end-of-2009 predictions for the coming decade: ‘A Real Estate Bear Market Will Be Vancouver’s Defining Social And Economic Event.’ We hope that, as a society, we will be able to successfully navigate the substantial challenges of that event in a mature and wise fashion.
It is dangerous to blame a speculative mania on one small sub-sector of our community.
Vancouverites built this bonfire, and Vancouverites need to take responsibility for its consequences.