But what of other markets? The Czech property market is booming because of economic reforms, a huge influx of tourists. And I dare say its the same in many of these countries. My guess is that neighbouring Europeans (seeking a cheap holiday house) or ex-pats Czechs living in western markets are reinvesting in their home market boom.
We have seen property booms in Thailand and China....but I can`t say I`m familiar with other Asian markets except the Philippines and Japan, so I will comment on those markets.
The problem in Japan is that suffering is a virtue. And people are likely to suffer longer because they have low expectations of what constitutes the good life, not to mention a fairly narrow concept of what constitutes `their` responsibility. They are functional people, but its a narrowly defined identity, much like you have `worker ants` and `soldier ants` in your typical ant hill. Those Japanese that have retired are on a much better deal and I guess they can help their children to some extent - if they are still living with them. The whole system is geared to keep companies profitable, and those levers are wearing this, not because Japanese companies are not profitable, but because they are not profitable manufacturing in their home markets. Japanese job growth is flat - and service orientated. There is not the income growth to justify higher levels of spending or a property boom. They are increasingly having to move their manufacturing offshore, where the high tech robots can`t compete. That paradigm still works in Japan. But with so many developing countries opening up, such opportunities are less common.
One might be hoping that the Japanese consumer might relax - overcome their stress about the economy - and just start spending, but the consumer knows that something is amiss. There are few Japanese who are prepared to take things easy....except retirees. This is just not a culture where you can enjoy yourself without being sossed. Consider that the demand for holiday houses was huge back in the 1980s when you could buy a basic Swiss-style chalet in the mountains, with onsen (hot spring), next to a golf course for Y25million ($US250,000. Today, 20 years later that same holiday house is not used, overgrown by shrubs, and selling for Y1million. I looked at one such foreclosed property in the mountains, just 4km from a train station and the coast and 2hrs from Tokyo.
I was thinking Japan might once again regain a better balance between work & play, but this seems less likely, at least for the Japanese. Fortunately, I'm not Japanese, so there are no such expectations on me. For the Japanese, there is just too much virtue in suffering, and there are just too many inefficiencies in the market to permit the high levels of productivity growth required to get this economy back on the rails. The `sufferance` virtue stems back to their childhood education, and its deeply entrenched. Those that would reflect tragically on it will leave the country, substitute it with a feeble `national pride` or decline into a state of cynicism, saying things like `shouganai` (It can`t be helped` or `that`s life`).
That`s not to say there are not opportunities in Japan. I am less positive about a great change in lifestyle which might result in a huge demand for holiday houses, but consider the following opportunities:
- Growth propositions: There are just a few prefectures and metropolitan areas in Japan which are growing in population - Tokyo, Kanagawa, Saitama, Nagoya, Osaka and Okinawa. The reason is that this is where the jobs, convenience and income growth is, but it will remain feeble income growth as long as there is no substantiative reform of this highly regulated economy. On a promising note, historically when Japan has changed, it has changed a great deal. But Koizumi, despite being enormously popular, has not achieved anything, except improved his dance steps with Richard Gere and restyled his hair.
- Lifestyle propositions: For those with money, or care little for it, this creates a great `lifestyle opportunity` in the houses vacated in rural cities. eg. Sendai, Fukushima, Niigata. The more remote - the cheaper the house. Mind you some of these cities are buried in snow during winter, so choose wisely (east coast). Many Australians have bought houses in the northern island of Hokkaido because its close to an international airport and its skifields are empty, and its complimentary to their skiing interests, and its great snow. The benefit is that rural population has fallen, so the quality of infrastructure remains good. The hospitals, shopping centres, etc are still there. And the internet may just allow those salarymen to return.....if they dislike the `buzz` of Tokyo. The lifestyle alternative seems to make sense to retirees, but Japanese are shy and value friends and family, so they are more inclined to move into a new apartment close to services. Poorer elderly will tend to patch up their existing 40yr home and hope they aren`t engulfed in fire and collapsing debris in the next earthquake. The other alternative is:
- Combo lifestyle: There are opportunities for a combination of city and rural life. Wealthy Japanese can live in the rural fringes of Tokyo and commute on the `very fast` shinkansen train service to Tokyo at 32okmph. Tickets are about Y2800 ($US35 each way), but there are monthly discounts. Some have the good fortune to be able to live & work in these fringe areas of Tokyo, whether on the very average beaches or enjoying the harmony with mountain streams. Areas around West Tokyo like Hanno, Ome, Takou are very close to the West Tokyo satellite cities of Hachioji, Tokorazawa, and to the north there is Kawagoe and Kumagaya, though further away from Tokyo. West Tokyo has the better train services, but they are crowded, and can feel crowded even if you have a seat.
- Lifestyle change: Eventually the internet will bring considerable changes in our lifestyles. No longer will people have to concentrate themselves in cities. Already there are certain jobs where you can work from home, eg. graphic designers, computer programmers, traders, writers. The list is slowly expanding, but these people will still want services/infrastructure, and will want proximity to Tokyo. There are considerable benefits for businesses to contract employees to work from home in terms of lower overheads. The problem is getting Japanese motivated to work from overseas. They are not self-directed people, so a cultural change would be required. Another approach by some businessmen is to buy a very small (15-18m2) apartment in Tokyo for overnight stays.
Yields on property in Japan are very good because of the dfeflationary 1990s. That trend appears to be turning, though there are still alot of costs that are inflated, eg. utilities, food. These are not dollar inflated, but plausible structurally inflated costs which can offer future productivity benefits. The higher yields are in the countryside, but the population growth is in the city centre, but I wonder for how much longer. I think Hanno/Ome offers a rare lifestyle combination which is reflected slightly in the higher property values there. Might its values be the cause of its own destruction (ie. over-population?).
The best opportunity to buy property in Japan is in the distressed (foreclosed) property market, as properties are sold at deep discounts compared to foreign markets. There is a suspicion that the yakuza (Japanese mafia) control the sales, but in fact the process is strictly controlled by the Japanese local governments through the courts. My girfriend and I have bought to properties at near minimum bids on the fringes of Tokyo where the market is less liquid. Its important to seek strategic opportunities as the 'conventional' properties in the city are well bid.
The Philippines property market has long been recognised as a great story, but maybe always will. Its a beautiful tropical island paradise. Populated by litter and fumes in the city, that is not the case in the countryside. Unfortunately foreigners are only allowed to own condos there, but they are cheap at $40-200,000. I steared away from the Philippines because it seemed too risky to undertake any of the adventure activities I like doing. Didn't want to risk encountering bad people in remote areas.
Since foreigners are generally not able to raise finance domestically, and interest rates are very high at 19-29%pa (bank to vendor finance), cash is king, but its not alot of cash. Despite the high interest rates the property market is doing very well. Most popular of all are semi-rural estates, condos and shopping malls. The industry is supported by expat Filipinos and those at the top of the pecking order - making alot of money at others expense, because the Philippines is not yet making much money. Terrorists have suppressed tourism and dubious mining law has undermined investment, but that is changing. There are 3 sectors which will help the Philippines:
- Mining - rural based
- Tourism - rural & city based
- Property - rural 6 city based
There is a pro-reform agenda now in the Philippines with talk of constitutional reform. But is changing the constitution enough? Is it a distraction? Certainly President Arroyo has recognised the path of thailand, and is keen to follow it. Will the vested interests gathering against her - share it. Its a market to watch over the next few years. Little Indonesia - it could be another growth story. But it might take a little time yet. They are really quite rapaciously immoral people. Blatant hypocrites really!