How external factors are affecting the Singapore property market


The recent cooling measures came as a shock, but they aren’t entirely without merit. Even if the link between our economy and the property market aren’t always well defined, there have been reasons for worry. Furthermore, market watchers haven’t been enthusiastic about the economy for a while. Here are three key external factors that are shaping our property market.

Singapore property market fed chief

  1. Interest rates are set to rise significantly

For the past decade, mortgage rates have been at record lows in Singapore. Even today, you can reasonably expect to get a home loan at below 2% per annum or lower. This is cheaper than HDB Concessionary Loans, which have remained at 2.6%.

However, interest rates this low is an abnormal situation. The low rates happened because of the Global Financial Crisis in 2008. In the aftermath of the crisis, the US Federal Reserve (the Fed) set interest rates to zero to speed economic recovery. This caused interest rates in Singapore to plunge as well, making home loans unusually cheap.

However, this period of low interest is now ending. The unemployment rate has fallen to 3.9% in the US, the lowest since 2000. And although wage growth has weakened in the US, there’s still consensus that the US economy has managed an recovery, albeit an uneven one.

As such, the Fed’s chief Jerome Powell is confidently raising interest rates again, with the rate hike on 13 June 2018 bringing interest rates (up 0.25% from March 2018) to 2%. Two more hikes of the same magnitude are expected in 2018.

Singapore’s mortgage rates will rise in tandem when the Fed imposes rate hikes. This was one reason for the government to lower the maximum Loan To Value (LTV) limit by 5% early July 2018, reducing the amount property buyers can borrow for their home purchase. In truth, the government actually began to respond to rising rates as far back as 2014 by imposing the Total Debt Servicing Ratio (TDSR). So, the recent tweak isn’t really a new move, just an ongoing part of our government’s attempts to prevent over-leveraging.  

One point to note: The worry about rising interest rates has also prompted a shift away from home loans pegged to the Singapore Interbank Offered Rate (SIBOR) — the interest rate of reference for local banks lending money to one another by way of unsecured loans. These days, more borrowers are flocking toward Fixed Home Deposit Rate (FHR) loans instead. FHR loans have rates that are pegged to the issuing bank’s fixed deposit rates instead of SIBOR. And while these rates will still go up, they may do so more gradually than SIBOR rates. It’s a change from the property heyday in 2013, when SIBOR loan packages were the norm.

Singapore property market Chinese developers

  1. An aggressive push by Chinese developers may be distorting the local property market, forcing the government’s hand

Chinese developers have been aggressive during Government Land Sales (GLS). By May last year, Cushman & Wakefield reported that developers were paying 29% more for land compared to five years ago. These same developers were the catalyst for the en-bloc fever that momentarily gripped the country in the past year and a half, but now seems finally cooled.

Why do Chinese developers fancy Singapore so much? Well, their aggressive bids were primary fueled by an ongoing situation in China, where Chinese developers are attempting to flee factors such as yuan depreciation and an increasingly tapped out domestic market.

By February 2018, the Singapore government was already making threatening noises. Development Charges for non-landed residential properties were hiked by 22.8% on average, the highest ever rate hike since 2007. While authorities never explicitly said they were targeting developers, the subtext seemed obvious enough.

The large influx of cash during the en-bloc craze was wildly distorting the local property market like an unhinged game of Monopoly. Sky-high bids by developers translate to higher housing prices across the board, pricing out first-time homebuyers and creating a bubble that may ultimately result in a devastating crash that’ll hit the man-on-the-street the hardest.

So, in the latest round of cooling measures, the Singapore government decided to deal developers a crushing blow: a hefty 30% Additional Buyer’s Stamp Duty (ABSD) payable, 5% of which is non-remissible. You can argue that this move even came a little late, as the en-bloc fever was actually starting to cool even before the new cooling measures kicked in; but it’s easy to see what motivates the new ABSD disincentive for developers.

Singapore property market trade war

  1. The escalating trade war between China and the US

The US and China have imposed tariffs on each other, and we’re likely to see the trade war escalate as neither side is expected to back down. In particular, US President Donald Trump was elected on his protectionist stance, which means he can’t stop the trade war without breaking his election promises.

Singapore Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat has already warned that the trade war doesn’t bode well for global financial markets. Singapore is an export driven economy, so we’re unable to isolate ourselves from such problems when they occur.  

As such, the government’s cooling measures are a way to curb property speculation and over-leveraging to prepare for dark times ahead. We’re not likely to see any easing of such measures, despite any complaints from property developers or big investors.

As an aside, such periods of uncertainty send foreign investors scurrying for safe alternatives. It’s quite possible that they’ll see Singapore property as a safe place to park their money, hence the increase of ABSD on foreigners as well. By slowing foreigners who are eager and able to buy, the government is actually preventing these foreigners from pricing locals out of the market. So, while it seems that the Singapore government is being nanny, it’s actually being a far-sighted one at that.

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If you found this article helpful, recommends 9 milestones to hit before you buy your first condo [July 2018 update] and 4 alternatives to a conventional property loan

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