Economic Affairs

Economic growth key to Singapore's property fortunes

There's no denying that private property prices in Singapore are on a downward trend; they have been falling for seven straight quarters.

Last week, the flash estimates for the second quarter were released, showing a 0.9 per cent drop in private home prices.

Invariably, with each quarter's release, the debate gets resurrected to some degree about whether the existing cooling measures have served their purpose and are due for a review.

There are those who think some of the cooling measures - the additional buyer's stamp duty being a prime example - should be rolled back, and others who reckon the time is not right yet.

And, like the Greek referendum, the "yes" and "no" camps can mount compelling arguments.

Those in the "yes" camp point out that the measures are working. Fewer people are buying second properties for investment purposes.

A large proportion of those buying at launches are doing so for their own use and not for investment. A measure of sub-sales - those of sales before the project is complete, a measure of flipping - has declined sharply.

This "yes" camp argues that this means much of the speculative fizz has been taken out of the market.

If cooling measures are not lifted, it could go all wrong in the twinkling of an eye, given that a projected 22,000 units will be completed this year and a further 21,000 next year. It will soon be a confluence of factors that make it a perfect storm, they say.

Then, there are proponents of the "no" vote.

Prices are down about 6.7 per cent from the third quarter of 2013, the first quarter when the total debt servicing ratio took effect.

This group says the cooling measures have achieved a soft landing, which is an ideal situation where the market decline appears sustainable.

And indeed for those who are hoping to get into the market, many think that prices could and should fall further.

While the debate often focuses on these aspects of the cooling measures, the issue merits a wider discussion. It's about the longer-term prospects of the property market.

ALTERNATIVES TO INVESTING IN RESIDENTIAL PROPERTY

The slowdown in the residential property market saw some savvy investors turn to industrial property but, with stricter development guidelines and cooling measures together with a slowing economy and fewer potential tenants, this sector is seeing less investor interest.

Commercial property has been more resilient, with a surge of shophouse transactions, for example, but it remains a niche market and meant for those with ample funds.

Perhaps a more appropriate substitute for residential property would be overseas real estate.

Figures back up the argument that some of the pent-up demand for residential property has been channelled overseas. Such purchases totalled $3 billion in 2013 and eased to $2 billion last year. A CBRE report noted that the number of transactions from Singapore for London property halved last year. CBRE's Asia director of international project marketing, Ms Sarah Nicholson, noted that this could be because many Singaporeans have already invested in Britain.

Another factor is that with the London market still strong, there is less incentive for developers to market their properties overseas, including in Singapore.

One factor that could encourage foreign property purchases is the weakness of certain currencies, such as the Malaysian ringgit and Australian dollar.

But demand has been affected by higher minimum purchase prices of properties bought by foreigners, as well as the threat of oversupply in Johor. Nearly 336,000 private residential units are set to be built in Johor. This number is larger than the number of private homes in Singapore.

Given that investors have had their fling with various other types of property, it is possible that real estate at home could be seen in a more attractive light. The risk would be that if cooling measures were lifted, there might still be pent-up demand exhibited for local real estate.

However, given the various prudential controls, such as the TDSR (total debt servicing ratio) framework which is expected to remain a fixture for the foreseeable future, it is unlikely to spark a commensurate surge in buying.

ALTERNATIVE WAYS TO BUILD NEST EGGS

Many Singaporeans have the funds to invest. With a growing emphasis on retirement planning, many people are searching for more ways to build up their nest eggs.

Physical property here still remains one of the easiest ways of parking one's money. Stocks and shares are risky, require some understanding and research and offer less scope for leverage than with property.

If any of the property curbs were lifted, liquidity might flow again to real estate if there are no appropriate alternative investments. But in the past couple of years, the investment landscape has deepened.

There has been a move to offer investments that are low-cost and easy to understand. Exchange-traded funds are one example.

The Singapore Savings bonds due to be issued later this year will be a case in point, where the principal amount is guaranteed and step-up interest rates can be achieved the longer the bond is held.

Another upcoming investment option will be the retail bonds to be issued by Temasek Holdings that will offer a product that is neither too complex nor too risky.

With these viable alternatives to investing in property, this is yet another reason not to fear a sudden surge in property prices should cooling measures be lifted.

ECONOMIC GROWTH AND ATTRACTION TO FOREIGNERS

Much of the view that property is a sure-fire win, a one-way bet to riches, is based on historical experience: Property prices have risen 75 per cent in the past decade.

Go further back and anecdotally, a house purchased 50 years ago for $50,000 is easily worth about $3 million now, while an HDB flat bought at, say, $70,000 three decades ago can easily fetch something in the region of $800,000 today.

As Singapore has gone from Third World to First, its economic growth and success as a financial centre have formed the basis and foundation for robust property prices. The recent boom may have been fuelled by cheap money, but it is also because Singapore is attractive to foreign investors.

Take a CBRE report issued last October. A comparison of cities around the world shows that, on average, new prime properties in London go for about £2,200 (S$4,600) per sq ft, about £1,950 psf in Hong Kong and £950 psf in Singapore.

The exact numbers may be disputed and there are many factors driving property prices, but the report illustrates the point that prime properties in large cities fetch a premium over those in smaller cities.

Why prime property in Hong Kong and Singapore is able to fetch such lofty prices is because they are financial centres and key hubs in the region. In contrast, Kuala Lumpur's prime residential prices are only around £186 psf, commanding a fifth of what Singapore property can fetch.

And despite Japan still being among the richest nations in the world, the years of non-existent growth have not done its property market any favours. The average price of new prime residential homes in Tokyo comes in at around £815 psf, even below Singapore's.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong recently highlighted the key challenges Singapore will face in the coming decades. These include maintaining economic growth and boosting our total fertility rate. These challenges could well have far-reaching consequences for the property market.

What they highlight is that achieving economic growth at the bottom end of the 2 to 4 per cent forecast target range, let alone the upper end, might be a stretch.

Yet it is robust economic growth that has driven the handsome appreciation that we have seen in prices over the past decades.

Put plainly, if there is no economic growth, there will be little to sustain the property market. Even if some of the cooling measures were tweaked or lifted, it may still not be easy to fill those 20,000-plus condos coming onstream next year if there is no population growth, because there will simply be no demand.

In the longer term, the question of whether the measures should be lifted may well be moot.

The issue that overhangs the property market is a wider one. It is the issue of whether Singapore continues to be relevant - as a trading hub, as a financial centre, as a regional headquarters, as an innovation centre.

Lose that special something and, cooling measures or not, property will no longer be able to lift our fortunes.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 08, 2015, with the headline 'Economic growth key to Singapore's property fortunes'. Print Edition | Subscribe