How the way you feel affects Australia's property market


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And as it turns out, our own attitudes towards the market often surprisingly accurate.

Economists and property market experts look at many different indicators to determine the performance of the real estate market, from auction clearance rates and price data to how many loans are being taken out.

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But there's one particular measure that isn't as regularly discussed: The way you feel.

And as it turns out, our own attitudes towards the market are often surprisingly accurate - at least on some measures.

What is consumer sentiment and how do you measure it?

Consumer sentiment, simply, is how confident the average person is feeling about the state of their financial circumstances.

While this differs from person to person, the idea behind measuring sentiment is that most of us are affected by how well the economy is doing.

Getting a numerical measure of this can be difficult, but the most typical approach is surveying a representative group of people about several different topics.

This usually includes their confidence about employment and comparing their current financial circumstances with those 12 months ago and expectations for the next year.

These figures are then crunched to come up with a final figure.

Among those providing this type of data are the ANZ-Roy Morgan survey, and the Westpac Melbourne Institute, though they are provided at different times.

But other surveys are available, and many break down the index to show confidence about specific topics - including property, such as Westpac-MI's Time to Buy A Dwelling Index.

Another approach is the ANZ/Property Council's survey of 1700 property industry members to get their sentiment for market movements.

Comparing their data with Domain Group's quarterly house price data shows a correlation between the two, with the expectations for market growth recorded in each quarter by the data aligning to actual movements in price growth.

How does sentiment affect the property market?

Clearly, there's a relationship between how people feel about the property market and how it's moving.

And to some extent, this means there's a connection between sentiment surveys - which measure a range of areas of confidence - and the property market.

If you feel confident about your financial circumstances and the future of property, you are more likely to feel confident to spend money on real estate and invest, and vice versa.

But there is still the question of whether sentiment moves as a result of changes in the property market, or whether changes in the property market drive sentiment.

It's here where the experts don't always agree.

"There's certainly a correlation, but it seems to run both ways - when consumer confidence is strong it supports the property market, and when the property market is strong it supports consumer confidence," AMP Capital chief economist Shane Oliver said.

But others, such as Domain Group chief economist Andrew Wilson, consider it to be a "lagging" indicator - meaning it shows what has happened after the fact.

He doesn't believe negative sentiment is what causes prices to drop, instead claiming it's prices falling that increases negative sentiment.

"But the negative mindset does exacerbate the falling house prices, or the increases," Dr Wilson said.

In effect, he thinks it magnifies the way a market is moving - but it doesn't determine the direction.

"Sentiment is a key driver of the cycle, and a market can be pushed ahead by sentiment, but this is usually picked up in the other indicators first."

Among indicators that he sees as a more astute way to read the market are clearance rates and retail spending.

Can consumer sentiment and the property market show opposite results?

In one word: Yes. In the latest property boom cycle, lacklustre consumer sentiment has increasingly been at odds with the soaring property market.

Firstly, it's important to note that consumer sentiment as an overall index isn't solely a measure of the property market.

Compass Economics' Hans Kunnen explains that consumer sentiment frequently lifts when jobs are created, jobs are secure and wages are growing.

"Consumer sentiment can also be positively affected by wealth effects such rising share prices and rising home dwelling prices.

"The property market may dominate BBQ conversations but it doesn't dominate consumer sentiment. But they do fall together when times are bad."

In the last few years, indicators have shown overall consumer sentiment below the '100' level on the index - which is the point considered to be neutral.

Over the same time period, property prices have been higher, the unemployment rate has been relatively stable and there has been jobs growth.

So where is the lack of confidence coming from?

"My suggestion is that debt levels are higher and that wage growth is minimal. There is nothing much to lift our sentiment towards consumption. And that's with historically low interest rates," Mr Kunnen said.

"Clearly the 'wealth effect' of higher property prices is being outweighed by other factors. No pay rise, no improvements in my living standard - therefore consumer sentiment remains fairly static."

It's these same interest rates that could be causing sentiment and the housing market to be out of sync, says SGS Economics' Terry Rawnsley.

"The last couple of years has shown that consumers can be gloomy but housing is still looking up. The ultra-low interest rates would be the main cause."

What is consumer sentiment telling us about the future of property?

Dr Oliver warns it's best not to read into individual announcements about sentiment and instead to look beyond the "noise" to the underlying trends.

"There is a fairly good correlation between economic performance and consumer sentiment ... over the long-term," he said.

While many new results are set to come out in October for consumer sentiment surveys, it's clear some are showing a slump in confidence.

The ANZ-Roy Morgan Australian Consumer Confidence Rating's first result for October showed a slight decline - though noted it remained at long-term averages.

And the Westpac-Melbourne Institute Consumer Sentiment Expectations Index increased to 97.9 - remaining below the neutral 100 mark in September and described as "downbeat".

Their time to buy a dwelling measure also increased, but remained at "very low levels by historical standards".

Whether or not this will translate into a slump in the property market remains to be seen.

The story How the way you feel affects Australia's property market first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.

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