With Korea firmly on the world stage again, Derek Long was interviewed by Asian Property News for his insight into its unique property market.
- After a major dip in the housing market in 2013, have things begun to improve, or have recent problems - presidential corruption, threats from DPRK, a shift in US policy away from Asia - exacerbated the problem?
Housing prices recovered gradually from the 2013 setback, picking up sharply in early 2016. However, growing uncertainty has meant prices have plateaued for the past 6 months. It’s early days, but prices look to be slipping below the decade long trend of 2% annual growth. Certainly, a January survey of consumer opinion suggested almost half believed sale prices will fall this year. All of which points to a familiar upwards pressure on jeonse prices, as would-be owners hedge equity losses by chasing ever scarcer jeonse properties.
- What effect is the glut in the property market caused by the building boom of recent years having on the health of the broader Korean economy (particularly re. household debt and borrowing)
Household Debt-to-GDP ratio has now reached 90% which has surpassed the UK and is heading towards twice the German ratio. Fuelled by a sharp expansion last year, the housing component is particularly worrying. Already 1.5 million (8%) of households are already technically underwater and are paying an eye-watering 40% of their disposable income to service loans. With mortgage rates at their highest for two years and US interest rates likely to rise, the Bank of Korea projects the next 1% increase in base rate would add another 69,000 households. This is not sustainable in the long term.
- With Park's ouster, and the coming Winter Olympics, will investor/consumer confidence be restored, or can we expect things to remain difficult with regards the Korean economy, and the housing market in particular, for some time?
The future trajectory for the Republic’s economy appears uncertain. With President Park’s replacement due to be elected in May, ironically the most important election for the ROK’s future has already taken place. It’s President Trump’s reactions towards North Korea that will be key for investor confidence in the South’s economy for the next four years. The lack of a workable Presidential/Parliamentary majority emerging after May could further fuel uncertainty.
With economic growth fluctuating, the chaebols focussing inwards, growing tensions with China and the trend towards global protectionism, the Central Bank’s 2.6% growth forecast feels a tad optimistic.
In times of uncertainty, speculative money moves into sound asset classes. The past new build glut makes property less likely to be a go to investment. True, Olympics tend to push up property prices above trend and national averages. However, given Pyeongchang’s size, urban form and remoteness, it is doubtful the competition will make a significant impact on anything but some local prices.
Which reminds us of the ROK’s key structural challenge, that regional housing markets are effectively decoupled from the dominant Seoul market. Creating measures that are more sensitive to regional markets may be a second order challenge for government – but will be important for the long term health of the housing market and the economy.