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|Tags:||ECON EFIN EINV SP|
|Redacted:||This cable was not redacted by Wikileaks.|
This record is a partial extract of the original cable. The full text of the original cable is not available.
UNCLAS SECTION 01 OF 03 MADRID 000604 SIPDIS E.O. 12958: DECL: N/A TAGS: ECON, EFIN, EINV, SP SUBJECT: SPANISH HOUSING COSTS: A GROWING ECONOMIC AND POLITICAL CONCERN 1. SUMMARY: Recent public opinion polls show that rising housing prices are a serious concern of the Spanish public. Between 1997 and 2002, housing prices rose 78% in real terms. A hot real estate market based on strong demand and low interest rates has fed the sharp increase. Government regulation, which restricts the development of available land, has also impacted housing prices. The economic consensus is that prices are overvalued. Some conclude that a property bubble has been forming, but government officials and the majority of private sector analysts believe a gradual correction is coming without a "bubble bursting". Still, given the economic implications of a sharp fall in housing prices and public anxiety over affordable housing, the ruling Popular Party (PP) and the opposition Socialist party (PSOE) are both making housing policy a central plank of their economic platforms in the upcoming national elections. END SUMMARY. ----------------------------------- HOUSING COSTS--A BIG ISSUE IN SPAIN ----------------------------------- 2. The price of real estate in Spain has become a key issue in the run up to the March national elections. A survey from the Center of Sociological Studies (CIS) published in December noted that 22% of Spaniards consider rising housing prices a serious personal concern, and 19% of the population considers housing to be one of the nation's most critical problems. Both percentages have risen significantly in recent months. Housing concerns were identified as the third most important personal issue in Spain after unemployment and economic problems, and the fourth most important issue facing the nation. 3. Press coverage has focused on Spaniards' growing debt and the challenge of paying mortgages. In Madrid, the average family requires 70% of its salary (EUR 37,383 per year - USD 47,103 at an exchange rate of EUR 1=USD 1.26) to pay the mortgage over fifteen years at an interest rate of 4.3%. Housing payments vary in other regions: 65% of average salary in Catalonia, 68% in the Basque Country, and on the low end of the spectrum, 39% in Murcia and Galicia. In 2003, Spanish personal debt reached historic levels, and mortgages accounted for four-fifths. ------------------------- THE SPANISH PROPERTY BOOM ------------------------- 4. The average price of new housing has doubled in Spain in the last eight years, rising 78% between 1997 and 2002. The increase in property values in 2003 alone was an estimated 17%. The causes of the boom, according to recent studies by the Spanish Savings Bank Confederation (FUNCAS) and the Bank of Spain, include a scarcity of homes in the housing market, the Spanish preference to buy rather than rent, a poor rental market and a lack of transparency in government real estate regulation. 5. What is clear from the significant rise in housing prices in the past few years is that the supply of housing is lower than existing demand. More buyers are appearing in the Spanish market: single Spaniards, divorced Spaniards, immigrants and foreign retirees. Low interest rates and easy credit make these customers eager to purchase. The resulting construction boom has failed to satiate demand or slow the rise in prices. Spain is currently on track to construct over 500,000 new homes for the fourth consecutive year, a quantity that accounts for 40% of total EU new home construction over that period. Despite additional supply, housing prices have grown three times as fast as salaries over the most recent four-year period. Spain now has a housing price to wage ratio among the highest of EU countries. 6. Spanish investment habits add additional fuel to the property boom. Real estate is the chief form of investment in Spain, even though the Spanish stock market was one of the world's best performing in 2003. According to Miguel Blesa, Chairman of Caja Madrid (Spain's fourth largest bank), 80% of Spaniards put their savings in ladrillo (bricks and mortar) and only 20% in financial assets. This compares to a North American profile of 60% in financial assets and 40% in property. 7. Unlike in many developed countries, Spanish owners often let their investment property go vacant rather than renting it out. Some say the Spanish cultural preference to own rather than rent creates a weak rental market. Others point to Spanish rental law as a disincentive to prospective landlords. As Norman Flynn, retired President of the U.S. National Association of Realtors, pointed out during a recent Madrid visit, it takes two years to evict delinquent renters under current Spanish legislation. 8. Regulation and local government real estate policy also contribute to the rise in Spanish property costs. Local governments control the amount of property available for new housing, creating a patchwork of policies across Spain. Many critics feel that local government decisions, which are often made without public input, are influenced by landowners who want to see their land values rise. Other critics see the scarcity of land zoned for development as designed to maximize the local governments' property tax income by artificially restricting supply. Flynn noted the need for greater flexibility and transparency in Spanish real estate regulation, and he urged the Spanish to work towards a freer property market that can self-regulate. --------------- BUBBLE TROUBLE? --------------- 9. Many economists agree current housing prices are overvalued. The FUNCAS report estimates an overvaluation of up to 28%, while the Bank of Spain's study calculates an overvaluation of 8% to 20%. Antonio Cortina Garcia, Assistant Director of Economic Research at Santander Central Hispano Bank agrees that prices are overvalued between 15% and 20%. Numerous opinion and editorial pieces in the Spanish press have declared the existence of a price bubble that might burst and lead to real price decreases experienced during the 1990s and possibly even nominal price decreases. (Note: Nominal housing prices have never fallen in Spain. End Note.) 10. While most experts agree that market overvaluation exists, Cortina agrees with the position of Bank of Spain Governor Jaime Caruana, who predicted a gentle and progressive correction in the property market. Continuity of current low interest rates will be a key factor. As consumers have acquired 98% of new homes through variable- rate mortgages, an interest rate hike would have significantly negative effects on household wealth and savings, as many pension nest eggs are tied to home value. 11. The current PP government downplays the threat of a real estate crash. At year's end, Spanish First Vice- President and Minister of Economy Rodrigo Rato publicly recognized housing in Spain as expensive, but noted "this does not mean we are standing before a bubble that will involve a sharp price correction." Only a sharp interest rate hike would cause such a change, and Rato believes rates will rise slowly and moderately from the current 2% to 4 or 4.5% over the medium term. Bank of Spain Governor Caruana commented that Spain's financial institutions have "done a good job" of risk and resource management, and would be prepared to weather possible loan defaults resulting from interest rate rises. 12. A minority of analysts asserts that Spanish real estate prices remain completely justified. Angel Berges Lobera, Director General of Financial Analysts International (AFI) and Professor of Finance and Accounting at Madrid's Autonomous University, asserts that fundamentals fully justify current prices. He cites the same inflationary factors as other experts, but does not calculate any overvaluation. Furthermore, household debt levels and housing price-levels are not out of line, and have just recently attained average EU levels. Not surprisingly, Spain's largest construction companies also join in denying any market overvaluation. Fermin Molina, Director General at the Urbis construction company reflected the industry's general position: Spain's housing bubble is fiction "invented by a few journalists." --------------- ELECTORAL ISSUE --------------- 13. The current PP government's denial of a housing bubble has not kept it from addressing housing affordability as a key electoral issue. According to Vicente Martinez- Pujalte, PP Economic Spokesperson in Parliament, housing is the economic issue on which the PP is most vulnerable in the March general elections. PP presidential candidate Mariano Rajoy pledges the construction of 900,000 new government subsidized homes during the next parliamentary term should he be elected. A new type of government housing category will classify 200,000 units as purchasable at a maximum of EUR 165,000 (USD 208,000) with a low interest 30-year loan for those that qualify. He also wants to increase the amount of units available for rent. His plan calls for the creation of a new state agency that would work with regional governments to increase the amount of public land available to build rental units. Rajoy also proposes the movement of delinquent rent cases to courts after 20 days rather than the current 2 years. Finally, to address the difficulties of younger homebuyers, he calls for house purchasing assistance from the government for 200,000 qualified buyers less than 35 years of age. 14. The opposition PSOE has also made the issue a campaign theme. The Socialist party line accuses the Administration of enacting legislation that encourages speculation, failing to recognize that many citizens cannot afford housing, and being content with the situation although Spain is the EU country in which it is most difficult to obtain housing. They also accuse the ruling party of shunning debate by offering hollow responses to worries over increased prices such as "When people buy homes, it is because they have the money to do so." We expect the Socialists to increasingly emphasize this issue as the March election approaches. 15. COMMENT: Though most analysts bet that any housing overvaluation will adjust gradually rather than abruptly, the PP government and the opposition are keenly aware of the political and economic issues surrounding the housing market. On one hand, a large percentage of Spanish society wants housing costs to come down. On the other hand, many Spaniards' nest eggs for retirement are tied up in real estate. With construction driving economic growth in recent years, a steep decline in housing prices, connected with a sharp slowdown in the market, would also drag on economic growth. With interest rate policy outside of its control, the next government will need to carefully manage housing policy to assist those priced out of the market, and to prevent a collapse of a key sector of the Spanish economy. MANZANARES
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