Bronte Capital founder John Hempton. Picture: Sam Mooy
Bronte Capital founder John Hempton. Picture: Sam Mooy

‘House prices could fall 85 per cent’

HOUSE prices in some "non-aspirational" outer suburbs could fall by 85 per cent and there is "no conceivable reason why some don't go to $1", according to a hedge fund boss.

Bronte Capital founder John Hempton, who went undercover with investment expert Jonathan Tepper in 2016 to investigate poor lending standards, says it's "stupid" that a house in Rouse Hill where "it's grass to the Blue Mountains" could be worth $1.4 million.

Speaking to The Jolly Swagmen podcast, the renowned short-seller said the "fantasy was deeper" the further they went from the CBD, with Rouse Hill in the north west the "centre of the Sydney property bubble".

Mr Hempton recalled how he and Mr Tepper, posing as a gay graphic designer couple with "low and variable" income, travelled around Sydney talking to lending officers, mortgage brokers, real estate agents and developers to see how much they could borrow.

"It was pretty clear bad practice was ubiquitous and the further you went from the centre of Sydney the worse it got," he said. "In particular if you went north and west. Norwest Business Park, Kellyville, Rouse Hill, they were surreal, whereas if you went south and west they were just wacky."

Bank underwriting standards limit borrowing to 6.8 times income, but the pair found the real number was more like 7.2 and in some cases up to 10.

"The expression they used, and we kept hearing it again and again and again, is, 'I know a bloke who can get things done'," Mr Hempton said.

"If you wanted to borrow eight or nine times your income they would send you to someone else who knew all the loopholes and was playing fast and loose. The blokes who could 'get things done', there were tricks for doing it, mechanisms for faking. They would tell you where the weaknesses were in banks' monitoring. The most extreme one was fake tax returns, literally software to develop them."

He said it wasn't limited to the brokers, recalling how they visited a major bank branch in Rouse Hill where they spoke to a lending officer.

"She told us we should draw our credit card to the maximum to get the biggest deposit we can so we can buy a house now rather than save for a deposit, (because) house prices go up faster than you can save," he said.

"She sad it will 'go exponential'. She didn't know what exponential meant. She said, 'You should get credit cards against other banks so it doesn't show on our system.' It's pretty astonishing."

Lending standards were "bad everywhere" but "the further we went away from the CBD the more insane the bank branch officers or brokers were".

"It wasn't even a little bit worse, it was a lot worse," he said.

"The fantasy was deeper. People construct fantasies around whatever the asset bubble is. I expected the bubble to be in the inner part where houses are expensive. I completely changed my mind. The bubble is in the outer part. It affects ordinary people."

Mr Hempton said it was a "joke" that the median house price in Mt Druitt was over $1 million while the median household income was about $55,000.

"You walk down a street with about seven or eight pawn shops in Blacktown and the houses just around the corner from the junkies and the pawn shops were $900,000," he said.

 

A house in the outer Newcastle suburb of Fletcher with a price guide of $800,000-$850,000.
A house in the outer Newcastle suburb of Fletcher with a price guide of $800,000-$850,000.

 

 

The further out from the CBD the ‘more insane’ it gets. Picture: Matthew Vasilescu/AAP
The further out from the CBD the ‘more insane’ it gets. Picture: Matthew Vasilescu/AAP

 

‘Nobody grows up desiring to live in Rooty Hill.’
‘Nobody grows up desiring to live in Rooty Hill.’

The question, he said, was "who was buying" all the housing in Mt Druitt and adjoining Rooty Hill, "neither of which is salubrious".

"The answer was people who were eight suburbs back towards the city who were buying because they couldn't afford a house where they wanted to live so they were just leveraging up rental properties in the hope they would get enough money to buy the house they actually wanted," he said.

"What astonishes me is nobody grows up desiring to live in Rooty Hill. You live in Rooty Hill because you can afford it and that's what happens. It's not an aspirational place. In non-aspirational places houses were trading at 17 or 18 times income, and lending officers were telling you to draw your credit card to the max."

He took aim at property investor Nathan Birch, who amassed a portfolio of somewhere near 200 properties after buying the first in his home suburb of Mt Druitt.

"My reaction to this was, (if) I've got 180 properties and the bank owns 150 of them - the market's gone up a long way, you should be in the black - for f**** sake, cash it," Mr Hempton said.

"Because if you own 30 properties unlevered you are set up beyond all measure for the rest of your life. There is absolutely no reason to own 180 properties levered. It's just financial insanity."

The big unanswered question, according to Mr Hempton, is what portion of the banks' loan books were of the poor standard they identified.

"If only 5 per cent of the loan book is lent to those standards there's not really an economic problem, some people are going to lose a lot of money but there's no disaster that's going to befall society," he said.

"But if 40 per cent of the loan book is lent to those standards then you look more like Ireland, all the banks get wiped out. If 50 per cent were at that standard this bubble's going to end with a very, very, very hard landing."

At 25 per cent it will be a "garden-variety recession", something Mr Hempton predicts is a 70 per cent chance in the next two to three years.

"Unemployment peaks out at sevens or eights but not at 14," he said. "If 50 per cent are bad then it's not a garden-variety recession, it looks more like Ireland and unemployment peaks out with a two in front of it."

But he argues that's very unlikely because the Australian dollar has a lot of flexibility to fall even as far as 40-50 US cents without intervention from the RBA, which would kickstart other areas of the economy like tourism and mining.

"At a 40 cent Australian dollar large parts of Australia are just flying," he said. "The slump in western Sydney is ugly but there's a safety valve, big streams of income coming in elsewhere."

While he doesn't have an overall prediction for house price falls, he said areas like northwestern Sydney would be "over 50 per cent".

"In you're in non-aspirational suburbs of Melbourne I'd say 40 per cent, too," he said.

Mr Hempton noted that when you look at all of the cities in the world by house price relative to income, the only ones with a population of less than 200,000 "happen to be in Australia".

"It's just bizarre," he said.

"Some of the less desirable ones (like) outer suburban Newcastle, could drop 85 per cent, because it (the current price) doesn't have a reason to exist. In America some houses dropped 100 per cent. There's no conceivable reason why some of these less desirable places to live don't go to $1."

It comes as the prudential regulator flags an easing in lending standards.

Currently banks are required to assess customers' borrowing capacity if their interest rate increased to at least 7 per cent, but APRA on Tuesday proposed changing that to a 2.5 per cent interest rate buffer.

The official cash rate has remained unchanged at 1.5 per cent since 2016 and the Reserve Bank this week gave its strongest indication yet that it may cut even further at its next meeting on June 4 following an uptick in unemployment.

The Coalition's shock election victory over the weekend has caused some property analysts to revise their predictions now that Labor's proposed scrapping of tax breaks for property investors will not be going ahead.

"That means it is likely the national housing market will record a price fall for this calendar year of between 1-4 per cent," SQM Research founder Louis Christopher said. "This is less than our scenario one forecast which tipped a 3-6 per cent price decline."

House prices in Sydney and Melbourne fell 0.7 per cent and 0.6 per cent in April, according to CoreLogic, bringing their annual declines to 10.9 per cent and 10 per cent respectively.

The NSW and Victorian capitals are now 14.5 per cent per cent and 10.9 per cent down from their respective peaks in July and November 2017, extending their falls further into uncharted territory.


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