Shunned Chinese buyers turn to Australia
Canada's government recently made an abrupt decision that could have repercussions for Australia's already overvalued residential property market.
Canadian Finance Minister Jim Flaherty on February 11 announced that a 28-year-old visa scheme designed to attract wealthy foreigners to the country would be axed, effective immediately.
Under the now defunct Immigrant Investor Program, as long as you had a cool C$1.6 million ($1.7 million) in net assets, then all you needed to do was lend the Canadian government C$800,000 for five years on an interest-free basis and you were assured permanent residency for you and your family and a fast-track to citizenship.
The decision raised some eyebrows, not least because preceding the decision there had been growing chatter that the country's already expensive housing market was being inflated even further by a wave of wealthy Chinese entrants into the country, and in Vancouver in particular.
At the time the immigration scheme was axed, there was a backlog of 65,000 applicants, of which 45,500 were mainland Chinese - and 80 per cent of those were bound for the province of British Columbia, according to analysis by the South China Morning Post.
Indeed, The Economist rates Canada's residential property market as one of the world's most expensive. The magazine's analysts say housing is 76 per cent overvalued against long-term averages on a rental basis - the highest among the 23-country league table - and 31 per cent against disposable incomes.
The ratio of Canadian household debt to GDP has risen to almost 100 per cent, and has grown at the fastest rate in the world since 2006, according to the World Bank. In April 2012, the former governor of the Bank of Canada, Mark Carney - now the head of the Bank of England - warned of the risks of foreign capital inflating the housing market.
More buyers to look in Australia
Canada may seem like a long way away but any move by Canadian authorities to reduce the risk of a potential bubble and subsequent burst should be welcomed by Australian investors, says Tyndall Asset Management's head of fixed income, Roger Bridges.
The country's housing market is one on a list of "low probability, high impact" events the bond strategist is keeping an eye on.
That's because while local lenders have little direct exposure to Canadian banks, the similarity between the two economies could cause a fresh wave of risk aversion among global investors, many of whom already believe our property market is a bubble ready to pop.
Of course, rich foreigners can only push up prices at the margin, and usually only in specific areas; low interest rates have helped fuel Canadian demand for mortgages, against the background of an economy that avoided a GFC-inspired recession thanks to its heavy emphasis on commodity exports.
All this might be sounding familiar to Australians, particularly those who have been house hunting in Sydney, where anecdotal evidence suggests auctions in some areas have been heavily attended by wealthy Chinese buyers willing to pay lofty premiums.
And the decision by Canada to restrict access to such rich individuals can only boost interest in our market.
Research by HSBC Bank suggests more than one-third of affluent Asians own overseas property, and that the Australian market is the number one destination for further investment. Of the wealthy mainland Chinese surveyed by HSBC, 9 per cent owned property in Australia, while of the respondents from Hong Kong, 10 per cent did.
Of the rich Indians surveyed, 18 per cent owned Australian property, as did 19 per cent of Indonesians and Singaporeans, 26 per cent of Malaysians, and 5 per cent of wealthy Taiwanese.
But while home buyers may complain, it's great news for local property developers, such as the listed Australand.
It revealed in its annual results on February 17 that it sold about 15 per cent of its residential developments to offshore investors in 2013, primarily mainland Chinese, almost double the historical average of 8 per cent.
The sales were made through its Hong Kong office, which Australand opened some 10 years ago. The company said it expected demand from that segment to remain at the same level in 2014.
But on the evidence of growing overseas interest in grabbing a slice of the Australian dream, that may be a conservative view.
Sydney Morning Herald