Repost: It Is Dangerous To Blame The Consequences Of A Speculative Mania On One Sector Of Our Community: Let’s Make Sure We Don’t Do That.

[This was originally posted here almost exactly six months ago, VREAA 18 May 2011. Reposted in view of discussion regarding foreign ownership in local press, and in light of upcoming election. – vreaa]

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.
No scapegoating.

– vreaa

41 responses to “Repost: It Is Dangerous To Blame The Consequences Of A Speculative Mania On One Sector Of Our Community: Let’s Make Sure We Don’t Do That.

  1. Jesse and VREAA Host, you wrote in the previous thread:
    “Just thought I’d mention that Peter Ladner has endorsed Garassino, the only one he’s endorsed FTR. vreaa, maybe you should repost the scapegoating link from May, given the Province’s latest column?”

    [Okay, will do. Will headline a repost for ongoing discussion. – vreaa]”

    I agree there should be no scapegoating. Do you want to post a link to the Province’s latest column you refer to? I’m afraid otherwise it may look like Peter Ladner and Sandy Garossino are being scapegoated.

  2. Sandy Garssino has gone out of her way to state that her platform is NOT an immigration/ethnic issue. She seemed very upset at the Province’s comments section. She has also stated that strong immigration and foreign business ties are an important part of what will fuel Vancouver into the future. On Twitter she has stated:

    “Many villains no doubt. Calling for real data. Otherwise we are doing own excess speculation.”

    Calling on all commenters to Province article to stay respectful. I am, btw, VERY STRONGLY pro-immigration & pro-Asia.”

    “Our best future will be as portal city joining N. America /Asia, per excellent exmple of #YVR. Let’s leverage not erect barriers. ”

    “This is not about blame. If you follow my positions have ALWAYS called for more info. In absence of data we are all theorizing.”

    “We are talking about global & external influences, not race. Same issues apply if capital was US in origin.”

    It is one thing to issue conjecture and call for data, quite another to state as fact.

    For the record I am voting at least for Garassino because
    1) She has called for looking at an issue nobody wants to discuss but is pledging to analyze the actual data. If she had instead stated “foreign ownership is a problem and we need to do something about it” she would have not garnered my vote.
    2) She has stated she has specifically turned down donations because of potential conflict of interest.
    3) She is unlikely to vote based on the machinations of a behind-the-scenes party whip.
    4) She actually bothered to answer vreaa’s questions in “policies on housing”.

  3. Who invited Ken to the party?

  4. What is it about the locals that could have caused such a conflaguration? How are Vancouverites different from other Canadians who are decidely more prudent? Are they more greedy? More nihilistic? Less risk averse? Is it a a cultural thing? What is Vancouver’s defining cultural difference vis a vis the rest of the country? Just asking.

  5. Regarding scapegoating, would it be so bad to scapegoat:

    -Cam Good ?
    -Bob Rennie ?
    -federal Conservatives for CMHC and monetary policy?

    • Scapegoating is not the same as apportioning blame.

      In the cases you mention, monetary policy justifiably takes the brunt of the blame; CMHC a close and complicit second.
      Good and Rennie, very distant 3rd and 4th: they are just salesmen doing their jobs.

    • No, foreign money has nothing to do with Vancouver RE prices. It’s just that everyone in Vancouver is a multi-millionaire and there’s no such thing in the US. Yeah, that’s the reason – nothing to do with foreign money. Repeat after me.

  6. I was thinking about this today… Regardless of the bubble – is it not getting to the point where the West Side is no longer a desirable place to live? If someone gave me two million dollars, put a gun to my head, and told me to buy a property in Vancouver, I would stay very far away from the West Side. The death of the community is becoming very apparent. I love Vancouver, but that area no longer embodies the things that made it great.

    Case in point, I had a very telling chat with a student yesterday. He’s here studying from China, and he seems like a nice enough kid (19 ish?). He goes on to tell me that he doesn’t like it here, but that his parents want to immigrate, so they bought him a house on the West Side and sent him over alone. The house? Empty. He lives in a rented apartment closer to school. I asked him if he’s aware that some people here are upset about investors buying property and leaving it empty. He shrugged.

    • So how many Canadian families buy a house in Vancouver Westside for the kids to go to school and if it sits empty while the kids choose to rent an apartment instead – well, no big deal since it’s only a couple of million and the will be a great investment anyway especially when they don’t bother to declare the capital gains when they eventually sell. No, foreign money has nothing to do with the bubble in Vancouver RE.

      • It’s not the major cause, not by a long shot.

      • It’s the single most important factor.

      • We’d beg to disagree.
        If locals had not gone crazy overextending themselves more and more 2003-2011, foreign money alone would barely have budged this market.
        How do you explain parallel run-ups in markets across Canada, even those with little or no foreign buyers?

      • “It’s the single most important factor.”

        vreaa is right, if locals stop paying exorbitant prices region-wide, prices will fall.

      • Royce McCutcheon

        Further to VREAA’s point Airedales, you should consult this:

        Whether or not prices are justified or sustainable, large and concurrent real estate prices have been observed in many other Canadian markets on the exact same timeline as Vancouver’s recent run-up. The rate and duration of these increases don’t much resemble what was seen in any of these markets in the preceding decades. So what’s the mechanism – foreign money as well?

        I don’t think anyone would deny that foreign $ have an impact here. It might go a long ways to explaining why Vancouver prices have typically been much higher that Toronto’s (for example). But this “foreign premium” was in place before the recent run-up. Knowing what we know about what’s happened at the CMHC over the past ~10 years, what we’ve seen with interest rates and national household debt over those same years, and the aforementioned spikes that have been observed in many other Canadian cities on that same timeline (e.g. a 250% increase in Winnipeg real estate prices), I find it hard to ascribe the majority of responsibility for what we are currently seeing to foreign $.

        One days soon I sincere believe we will collectively realize that this was Earth all along. Wearing tattered clothes, we’ll pound the sand at Kits beach and yell: “You Maniacs! You blew it up! Ah, damn you! God damn you all to hell!”

      • “No, foreign money has nothing to do with the bubble in Vancouver RE.”

        That is one anecdote. How about the case of an immigrant family, one of which returns to homeland to occupation? These are astronaut families, and it’s difficult to prevent them from buying.

        Look, there is a hypothetical danger of Vancouver turning into a place where a significant fraction of properties are held without being used. I’ve seen it elsewhere and I would not recommend it. I understand the concern expressed, from a land use point of view, and we have to be cognizant of how Vancouver’s land is being used for the betterment of not only the City but also its residents, the country, and the globe. It’s hard to see how leaving a dwelling vacant is in the best interests of any of this.

        Let’s assume for a moment that the data show that indeed most owners have local presence and cannot be easily discriminated. Then we turn to vacancy. Think about some of the logistics of enforcing vacancy. There are many things that can be done to circumvent this and very difficult and expensive to monitor. But in my view keeping housing vacant is a net harm to the city. This is one outcome, not one that is new by any stretch, and worthy of considering what could be done in this case.

        Florida imposes significantly higher property taxes for non-resident owners. Something to discuss, evidently it hasn’t caused Florida to burn up in a fiery ball of death.

        The other thing I believe is true about imposing restrictions or taxes on foreign ownership is that it is, if nothing else, symbolic. It is obviously popular and some extremely well connected people have likely been starting to put well connected bugs in well connected politicians’ ears. Moira Stillwell, MLA, has endorsed Garassino, I believe. So this may start getting play in Victoria, which I think is the endgame here.

        Sometimes bubbles need a little help from a pin. Given there are, in the extreme, hypothetical risks of net harm from significant and volatile capital flows, it might be worth a try. But don’t confuse the catalyst from the reactants. If prices start dropping a little more than imagined, well, I wonder how much will be focused on foreign ownership then, if we start hearing the “negative equity” stories on Global News at 6. I wonder if foreign ownership will go dodo like it did the early part of last decade, when the Asian financial crisis was just starting to recover and sales were in the pooper. No vitriol then if memory serves!

      • Sorry, I find the arguments against foreign money being the dominant factor in the Vancouver RE market lacking. Compare to other markets:

        1) TO has seen a huge increase in prices as well. From everything I’ve read, there has been a huge amount of foreign investment in TO real estate. The other half of Canada’s immigrants settle in TO.

        2) Over the past 10 years, the best performing RE market in Canada is Regina. You might find that unsual but if interest rates drop from 6% to 2% when the average home price is well under $80K, it’s reasonable that prices will move up considerably given leverage even with 25% down. Pretty easy for people to come up with 20K and carry a 60K – 150K mortgage at 2% for 25 years. Definitely cheaper than renting and no HAM or immigration required.

        3) Vancouver RE prices 10 years ago were still very high for first time buyers. The vast majority of people that I know could not come up with the 25% down payment for a house in Vancouver 10 years ago. Most have bought since but they bought in the burbs. Saving $100K for a downpayment takes time when you are starting out. Now a days these people might be able to barely afford a $500K mortgage but home prices surpassed $600K several years ago (and they are mostly cursing the absense of HAM in their areas). Generally, people like these who buy homes don’t go out of their way to commit financial suicide for their families and, despite cheap money, the banks also don’t generally make a point of lending so much that they are guaranteed to lose money. In other words, these people are not that different than those who choose to rent because it’s financially a better deal for them. So if most people are financially responsible and can’t buy a house for more than $600K, who’s buying in Vancouver now and how? It’s generally someone who can easily put between $500K and a million down. These people aren’t coming just across the Fraser River or moving from Saskatchewan. There’s generally only one part of the Vancouver demographic that is buying houses with that much cash. It’s HAM.

      • i admire the strength of your convictions

        i still think a lot of dumb local FHBs and boomers are out there, underwater. fuck ham.

      • I want to think that everyone else is over-extended, over-leveraged, and close to bankruptcy but it just isn’t the case among all the Vancouver locals that we know (and when you have a large extended family and kids, you get to meet a lot of people and it’s not like people don’t talk about real estate in the GVRD). My experience is that everyone who is not a recent immigrant and has skin in the game purchased well before the massive increase in prices. Some have moved up and taken on a bit more debt but most have stayed put or sold out to rent after the financial crisis. There are very few first time buyers in Vancouver that are not HAM and this is not my own exclusive opinion. It’s based on what I’m told as I don’t work or own in Vancouver. And I see it all around my friends’ and extended family’s homes, everything purchased is knocked down with a new two story being built by HAM. I call it the way I see it and I get both sides of the story in my extended family!

      • @airdales. I think I am one of the people that you are saying don’t exist. I am asian but not HAM as I make my money entirely here. I do not own a house on the west side, but I do own a SFH in another district. I am not overleveraged and can easily afford my mortgage (I have a 25 year mortgage btw). I do save up quite a bit so that I can pay down my mortgage aggressively (I hope to pay out my entire mortgage in 15 years rather than the 25). I don’t feel stretched and even if the interest rates hit 5 something I wouldn’t need to default on my property.

        Many of my coworkers are in similar boats. Most of us bought within the last 2 to 3 years. The trick is that you don’t need to buy on the westside. And you definitely have to look for properties that have not gone up significantly yet. My property for example, went up about 100% over the last 13 years which is much less than most vancouver SFH’s. But I do admit, this one took me a while to find, I had to look through about 300 listings across 5 different cities to comparison shop. And I didn’t want to cross the river to the Surrey side. But opportunities do exist. You just have to be smart to find it.

  7. consequences. that’s the word flashing from the headline. no country has probably become my favorite film of all time. it is such an exact and perfect metaphor for the times. at first i could only appreciate the craft. knew there was something more but unable to understand it. then it occurred to me chigurh is shiva personified, the bringer of consequences. amoral, inflicting collateral damage, principled, methodical, relentless, inevitable. shiva is the day of reckoning, the bear market, the great depression, closing the loop on the cycle. each of us in some way greater or lesser is like one of the characters, llewelyn moss, carson wells, chigurh’s boss, a collateral victim or a near victim. there are consequences for actions taken. once set in motion, the cycle cannot be stopped and it cannot start over until the consequences have resolved. it’s not fate – it is the result of decisions made and acts performed. consequences must complete the cycle so that the next one can begin. is there a why? jobs understood shiva. to paraphrase, he said death is the best invention of life. it is life’s change agent. it clears out the old to make way for the new.

  8. Don’t forget the drug money. We haven’t talked about that in a while but there has been loads of speculation about laundering drug cash through real estate. Vancouver may have seen a perfect storm of sorts with foreign investment, increases in org crime/ money laundering, global financial crisis, record low interest rates… no one thing on its own would have done this damage but all things together… thats what has made Van unique.

    Unfortunately though I have to agree with the declining state of the community in Van West… empty houses and less than friendly people – non-English speaking immigrants, drug dealers and criminal types, stressed homeowners with insane debts – don’t make for good neighbourhoods.

    • ‘Drug money’, like ‘foreign buyers’, has a small direct effect and a large indirect effect.
      The vast, vast majority of sales have been to locals who have uber-overextended themselves into massive debt, to buy properties at prices that just ten years ago were completely unimaginable to them, all because they have convinced themselves that prices will be strong going forward. We call these buyers ‘speculators’ because they are buying based on expectation of price growth, not purely for utility of the domain.
      Stories that locals have used to convince themselves that prices will forever be strong include: Olympics, China, drug money, no land, hyperinflation, safe-haven, BPOEarth, etc.

      • VREAA host, when you say “the vast, vast majority of sales,” I’m not sure your information is up-to-date wtr to certain neighbourhoods. But I think none of us really have all the facts, which is one reason Sandy Garossino is talking about obtaining them.

        Also: we can’t leave out of the equation the fact that some of the local buyers who wanted to buy houses here that may have stretched their budgets *were doing so in order to place their children in neighbourhood schools they valued.* There were at least four families on the block where I used to live who had made this decision. I know technically what you mean by “speculating,” but I also know that all four of these families felt desperate about getting their children into good schools. By no means was it all about the future price growth of their dwellings. They may have made a foolish decision, but greed was not the largest part of it. They wanted opportunities for their children.

        Jesse also had some very good points on a previous thread about “astronaut families” — how many of the fathers couldn’t find work here due to red tape. I worked with a lot of these families and I was extremely impressed by the sacrifices the mothers were willing to make to give their children a Canadian education. Most of the families I worked with I felt very much valued many things Canada had to offer. With one or two exceptions, I didn’t even meet any students from these families I didn’t like. A not insignificant number of the fathers and mothers were very well-qualified professionals who literally couldn’t get jobs here because of red tape. Some of the more notable examples were very well-qualified physicians who couldn’t get licensed to practice here, even when BC was and is facing physician shortages. (One physician father did move here, only to find himself reduced to working in a vitamin store.)

        The issues, as the VREAA has tried to point out, are very complex.

        And it’s also true that yes, people are going to get very angry about houses standing empty near their places of employment. If you search frantically for months for a rental and come across a lot of these situations, when you have worked at your Vancouver job for 20 years and need to stay here, you’re going to feel very frustrated.

      • ” very well-qualified physicians who couldn’t get licensed to practice here”

        Hmmm… now that’s a bit of a pickle isn’t it? Foreign-born physician moves to Vancouver, finds she can make more money elsewhere (even the US as researcher, or in Taiwan), and leaves family in Canada to earn 3-4X more elsewhere. I don’t know anyone… no wait I do know someone like that.

        If Canada and Vancouver accepts someone who’s a foreign-trained specialist, don’t be surprised if they want to keep playing doctor, and can earn decent $ right away, just not in Canada. The alternative is 5-6 years (or more) of low pay and tuition, with no guarantee of a posting in Vancouver, especially these days.

      • “We call these buyers ‘speculators’ because they are buying based on expectation of price growth, not purely for utility of the domain”.

        you’re speculating on the reason. You actually have NFI what motivates buyers

      • “You actually have NFI what motivates buyers”

        We don’t need an FI what “motivates buyers”. All we need is an FI what motivates a strong minority of them.

      • As long as the buyers are humans, we have plenty FI what motivates them.

  9. You need to break it down into areas of Vancouver. In the west side – i agree with Airedale – it has been mostly HAM – how could a local compete? unless it’s drug money. East vancouver may have had more locals – the prices more in line with people who have good jobs and were moving up from a condo etc.

  10. Agreed that there may be some areas of the city where foreign buyers have been a far larger proportion of sales.

    One of the ironies of the mania is that locals pumping up the market relentlessly has itself attracted foreign money, because of the perception that the market here is bullet proof.
    Note how all these factors feed off each other on the way up; the ‘virtuous cycle’; ‘multiplier effects’.
    It all reverses on the way down.

    • end prohibition on plants = huge reduction in profits

      do a vacancy survey and institute all of Jesse’s points re: taxing vacant homeowners

      oh and stop the money laundering out of china into offshore havens and into canada

      and by extension, shut down or severely retard our ‘gaming’ industry

  11. If u don’t address the root cause of credit availability, you can’t fix. Perhaps mitigate to some degree. but who knows what unintended consequences u will introduce? Hypothetical. Ham buys big $ home and leaves vacant. They paid fair for that. It’s their ptty. What right has anyone to say how they must use it? What about the non-ham they got it from? Will you force them to keep their proceeds in van? Ham is putting capital, if it is that, into the community. If the previous owners now take that capital and leave or blow it wastefully, why is it the fault of ham?

  12. app sucks on an iPad. Anyway, these are only attempts to treat the symptoms and they all have side effects, some of which you cannot anticipate. Could make things worse too. Won’t know until after the fact. What if you need to adapt? Can your policies do that and quickly enough? The only for sure winner policy I can think of is educating people on the causes.

  13. @jesse. i shouldn’t try to talk with my mouthful – posts above. you are putting us all to shame. pt is to discourage external capital inflow is net harmful and some of the options you discuss appear to be aimed at doing exactly that. non-residents put savings/gains/capital into the community. this has to be a net +ve. there may be some debate on the extent to which that capital is ultimately levered credit from thin air but just apply simplifying assumption that it is not. the receivers of this (those previous homeowners who sold to non-residents) freely decide how to redeploy the proceeds, the same for the next receivers in line, and so on. this is the critical decision that sets everything else in motion. if the conditions are favorable, they would redeploy into productive local businesses. however, the result instead was this capital got levered up and redeployed locally into housing. if policies should be enacted, they should do so to make investment in productive local business more favorable than other less or non-productive alternatives. this will tip the scale towards sustainable creation of value. however, this is difficult to accomplish through a political process unless enough people understand. so realistically, it is probably best to just get out of the way, do no more harm and let individuals sort it all out among themselves.

  14. chubster:

    Agree most of what you say. But the problem is high rent is killing all businesses. The accounting for Mom/Pop shops is not working out.

    Land is the mother of almost all economic activities, it should be treated differently than all other classes of assets.

    Even in this internet world, Google would be less successful if its HQ were to established first in Vancouver.

    • the horse has already bolted so to speak – meaning housing values ramping so much faster than gdp. precious savings have been wasted. there is only choice of aftermath. if you discourage external inflow of real capital now, you will shoot yourself in the foot. if you can encourage it to come and set up conditions favorable to sustained value creation instead of the alternative, it may help to cushion your fall. capital the world over is fleeing broken down regimes and looking for refuge.

  15. “Ham buys big $ home and leaves vacant. They paid fair for that. It’s their ptty. What right has anyone to say how they must use it”?

    If you permit the purchase you can’t control the use. The policy has to be around foreign purchasing i.e. Australia

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