April 17 2014
New Zealand’s economy has been hailed as one of world’s top safe-haven economies in recent years after it emerged from Global Financial Crisis relatively unscathed. Unfortunately, my research has found that many of today’s so-called safe-havens (such as Singapore) are experiencing economic bubbles that are strikingly similar to those that led to the financial crisis in the first place.
Though I will be writing a lengthy report about New Zealand’s economic bubble in the near future, I wanted to use this column to outline key points that are helpful for those who are looking for a concise explanation of this bubble.
view from mission Bay Auckland New Zealand
View from Mission Bay, Auckland, New Zealand (Photo credit: Jaafar Alnasser Photography)
Here are the reasons why I believe that New Zealand’s economy is heading for a crisis:
1) Interest rates have been at all-time lows for almost a half-decade
Ultra-low interest rate environments are notorious for fueling credit and housing bubbles, which is how the U.S. housing and credit bubble inflated last decade. New Zealand’s interest rates have been at record lows for nearly five years, which is more than enough time for economic bubbles and related imbalances to form.
Here is the chart of New Zealand’s benchmark interest rate:
New Zealand’s three-month interbank rate, base lending rate, and 10 year government bond yield are also at or near all-time lows. Like many countries that are experiencing bubbles in recent years, New Zealand’s low interest rates are a byproduct of global “hot money” flows from the United States and Japan, which have both had zero interest rates and quantitative easing programs to boost their economies after the Global Financial Crisis.
Low interest rates in the U.S. and Japan encouraged capital to flow into higher yielding investments in countries such as New Zealand, which led to reduced bond yields and an 85 percent increase in the value of the New Zealand dollar against the U.S. dollar since 2009. To combat the export-harming currency appreciation and bolster the economy during the financial crisis, New Zealand’s central bank reduced its short-term interest rates to all-time lows.
2) Property prices have doubled since 2004
Following the pattern of many nations outside of the hard-hit U.S., peripheral Europe, and Japan, New Zealand’s housing prices have doubled in the past decade, forming a property bubble:
Source: Global Property Guide
3) New Zealand has the world’s third most overvalued property market
The doubling of New Zealand’s housing prices in the past decade far surpassed household income and rent growth, making the country’s property market the third most overvalued in the world. New Zealand’s home price-to-rent ratio is 77 percent above its historic average and its home price-to-income ratio is 26 percent above its historic average.
4) New Zealand’s mortgage bubble grew by 165% since 2002
New Zealand’s housing bubble is driven by a mortgage bubble that grew from approximately NZD $70 billion in 2002 to NZD $186 billion in 2013 – a 165 percent increase in a little over a decade. New Zealand’s mortgage debt bubble grew at a faster rate than its economy during this time, causing the country’s total outstanding mortgage debt-to-GDP ratio to rise from approximately 57 percent to 85 percent.
5) Nearly half of mortgages have floating interest rates
New Zealand’s ultra-low interest rate environment has encouraged the country’s home buyers to make many of the same mistakes that the American home buyers did during last decade’s bubble. One of the gravest of these mistakes is using adjustable or floating rate mortgages, which will reset at higher interest rates when the low interest rate environment ultimately ends.
Almost half of New Zealand’s outstanding mortgages currently have floating interest rates, which is up significantly in the past decade:
Variable Mortgage Rates
Chart source: MacroBusiness
6) Mortgages account for 60% of banks’ loan portfolios
As if the fact that almost half of New Zealand’s mortgages have floating rates isn’t scary enough, mortgages now account for 60 percent of the country’s banks’ loan portfolios, which means that the financial sector is heavily exposed to the eventual popping of the housing bubble.
7) Finance, not agriculture, is New Zealand’s largest industry
Though New Zealand is commonly thought to be an agriculture-based economy, this couldn’t be further from the truth. Agriculture accounts for only 5.1 percent of New Zealand’s GDP, while the finance, insurance and business services sector is the country’s largest sector, contributing 28.8 percent to the GDP. Furthermore, banks account for 80 percent of the total assets of New Zealand’s financial system. Not only is New Zealand’s banking system dangerously exposed to the country’s property and credit bubble, but so is the entire economy.
8) New Zealand’s banks are exposed to Australia’s bubble
New Zealand’s banking system is dominated by four banks that are Australian-owned subsidiaries, which means that New Zealand’s banking system is exposed to the inevitable popping of Australia’s credit and property bubble. Australia’s household debt-to-income ratio recently rose to 177 percent from approximately 110 percent in the year 2000, while housing prices increased 150 percent in nominal terms and 85 percent in real terms. Australia’s housing market is now the world’s fifth most overvalued housing market.
9) Australian and Chinese buyers are inflating the property bubble
An influx of foreign home buyers in recent years has contributed to the inflation of New Zealand’s housing bubble. Australians and Chinese – who both hail from countries that are experiencing bubbles – account for 42 percent of these foreign buyers, which means that the false prosperity booms in Australia and China are spilling over into New Zealand’s housing market.
Here are a few statistics about China economic bubble:
China’s total domestic credit more than doubled to $23 trillion from $9 trillion in 2008, which is equivalent to adding the entire U.S. commercial banking sector.
Borrowing has risen as a share of China’s national income to more than 200 percent, from 135 percent in 2008.
China’s credit growth rate is now faster than Japan’s before its 1990 bust and America’s before 2008, with half of that growth in the shadow-banking sector.
(Note: Both New Zealand and Australia are also exposed to the coming popping of China’s economic bubble because their economies rely heavily on exports to China.)
10) New Zealand has a household debt problem
New Zealand has the fourth worst household debt-to-GDP ratio among advanced economies, surpassing even the United States:
Source: Reserve Bank of New Zealand
New Zealand’s household debt-to-disposable income ratio soared from 100 percent in the early-2000s to just under 150 percent in recent years thanks in large part to the country’s mortgage bubble. New Zealand’s ultra-low interest rates have prevented its large household debt from becoming an even greater problem, but this situation can change dramatically when interest rates eventually rise again.
11) Government overseas debt has nearly tripled since 2008
New Zealand’s government took advantage of the plunging yields on its bonds (which is courtesy of the global QE and ZIRP-driven bond bubble) after the Global Financial Crisis to nearly triple its overseas borrowing:
Source: Wikipedia; RBNZ
The global bond bubble has provided New Zealand’s government with a low-cost borrowing opportunity that is unlikely to be replicated anytime soon, especially now that the U.S. Federal Reserve is slated to completely taper or end its QE3 bond buying program this year.
12) The New Zealand dollar is overvalued
Hot money inflows (a byproduct of QE and zero interest rate policies) into New Zealand after the financial crisis helped the New Zealand dollar to strengthen by 85 percent against the U.S. dollar:
After its strong appreciation against both the U.S. and Australian dollars over the past decade, the New Zealand dollar is now overvalued by as much as 20 percent according to some estimates. New Zealand’s Finance Minister Bill English stated in February that the overvalued dollar is “a concern” because it risks harming the country’s exporters. If the New Zealand dollar’s overvaluation was to abruptly correct and even overshoot to the downside (a possible result of the Fed’s taper), New Zealand’s central bank may be forced to hike its key interest rate to prevent further declines.
How New Zealand’s Economic Bubble Will Pop
New Zealand’s economic bubble will likely pop as a result of rising interest rates across the yield curve, which would put pressure on the country’s property and credit bubbles. New Zealand’s key interest rate is expected to continue rising after its March hike due to rising domestic inflationary pressures, while longer-term bond yields are likely to rise as a side-effect of the Fed’s taper and eventual Fed Funds rate increase. The popping of Australia and China’s bubbles are two other external factors that have a high probability of contributing to the popping of New Zealand’s bubble.