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Rethinking Real Estate Cycles, Bangkok, 1997-2007
Government Housing Bank, Vol.1, No.1, July-December 2007, p.48-59

Thailand has gained valuable experience dealing with housing-market cycles and bubbles during the past two decades.  Just prior to 1986, a real estate bust devastated the housing market.  The most recent boom period occurred from 1987 to 1996 and was particularly strong from 1987 and 1990.  The most recent bust began in 1997. Although the real estate market recovered in 2001, it declined again from 2005 to 2007. To ensure the real estate market’s sustainable development, lessons must be learned from the calamitous 1997 experiences.  This study is designed to identify and explain cause-and-effect relationships by diagnosing pertinent problems and presenting analytical findings, with a view to strengthening the overall real estate market.

1. Real Estate Markets in Thailand
The Thai real estate markets have experienced numerous booms and busts. The latest one from 1997-2001 is worthwhile reviewing.

A recent AREA study conducted in 2006 (AREA: 2007-1) indicates that housing markets are declining again.  In 2004, the markets appeared quite active.  The following figures show that in 2004 the number of newly-launched units and their value was greater than in 1997 (the beginning of the crisis).  From 2000 to 2004, the number of newly-launched housing units doubled each year. Subsequently,  development values dropped significantly but it was not a bust as in 1997.  The number of units developed remained more or less the same, implying that developers lowered prices per unit to attract buyers to a market that was less active than 2004.

AREA (2007-1) studies indicate that 66,118 units were launched in 2006 and units sold totaled about 70,000, implying that the market was still somewhat healthy. Lower prices attracted more prospective buyers.  At the end of 2006, 92,000 housing units, constituting 2.3% of Bangkok’s total housing stock were still available for sale.  

The most recent survey (first quarter 2007 AREA, 2007-2) shows that approximately 17,000 real estate units were launched; however, most of them (16,000 units) were housing units. Of these, 11,000 were condominiums priced below 2.0 million Baht.  Public companies launched 50 per cent fewer units than in the prior quarter. This implies that many private developers held back their units because of unfavorable political conditions while public companies listed on the stock exchange could not as easily curtail projects, because they needed the revenues for their stock market valuations.

2. Real Estate Cycle
All businesses experience cyclical changes over time.  Real estate cycles are critical for everyone. Investors, developers and even homebuyer should know which part of the cycle they are currently experiencing when they make crucial buying or selling decisions. In general, property and housing markets in particular are rarely in equilibrium (University of South Australia, 2003: 28).  Because of  these market’s imperfections, especially in terms of availability, information time-lags, substantial time delays between the development of surplus demand and the ability to satisfy it through additional supply, these markets swing through market excesses and shortfalls.  These circumstances produce the long- recognized cyclical behavior of these markets and explains why speculation  develops rapidly during certain cycle phases.

Evans (1968: 417) summarized the nature the business cycles as follows:
“... the cycle is sometimes represented as a smooth sine curve taken relative to a trend.  In this case not only are the period of expansion and contraction easily identifiable, but four stages of the cycle can be observed.  The period of expansion below the trend line is know as ‘recovery’, and above the trend line as ‘prosperity’; the period of contraction above the trend line is know as ‘recession’ and below the trend line as ‘depression.”

In reality, many countries throughout the world experience boom and bust real estate markets.  However, little scrutiny has been paid to this phenomena.  The following studies have dealt with the issue.

Yusof (2001:5) reviewed the chronological characteristics of a business cycle based on the findings of MacGregor and Hoesli (1999) as follows:

  • Business upturn and development: an upturn in the business cycle, typically at a time of low real interest rates and high liquidity.  This scenario generates a rise in economic activity and strong user demand.
  • Business downturn and over building: real interest rates rise in response to the boom and the business cycle turns downwards.
  • Adjustment
  • Slump: the growth falls to its lowest level
  • The next cycle: as soon as slump over, a new cycle is generated.  The new cycle will follow the same characteristic as the previous one.  However, cycle lengths differ.

Small (2000: 7) simplified the real estate cycle by examining the effects of real estate debt access.  He hypothesized that:

  • With lower interest rates, general credit increases and available funding increases. This increases demand.
  • Subsequently, prices rise.  This would help increase capital gains.  In turn, yields would be depressed.
  • Property owners are motivated to improve yield; rent is subsequently increased.
Small (2000: 13) also observed that the land price cycle was driven by credit availability, rental yield, and bidder attitude as follows:
  • When funding is available during increases in demand, boom time characterized by increasing turnover and strong price growth.  During boom period, confidence and speculative optimism dominates.
  • Then comes peak - market stalls.  It results from decreasing yields and more expensive credit. Caution then becomes dominant.
  • Price corrections follow. Forced sales and foreclosures dominate the market.
  • The bottom of the cycle arrives when most forced sales are cleared.
  • The recovery period is evident by increasing rents and falling interest rates.
  • Strong yields and increasing credit availability again lead to increasing prices and a new boom.
Fig.2 illustrates this cyclical process.  The first stage is the beginning of the recovery from a previous downturn where excess supply has been absorbed and demand is now increasing. Because of accompanying housing prices increases, confidence begins rising (Point A to B or E to F in Fig.2).  The price rises are caused by four major factors:
  • the market recovers after a bust,
  • infrastructure and services improve in a particular area making it a preferred area for home buyers,
  • an improving economy creates greater affordability and opportunities for people, and
  • availability of properties at distressed prices - attractive to buy for profiteering.

3. Speculation
Speculation can be seen from both negative and positive aspects,  depending on its overall market impact. Speculation is the major driving force behind major boom real estate markets.  Therefore, it is worthwhile to discuss this issue further.  Normally, in boom periods, people are very optimistic and enjoy (over-) investing irrespective of any obvious warning signs. At the same time, when the environment turns negative, people panic and become very pessimistic.  An example was the late 1980’s and early 1990‘s USA real estate bust.  At that time, some prime commercial properties  costing US$ 1,000 per sq foot were sold for US$ 150 per sq ft. Some analysts predicted that the oversupply could last for a hundred years (Pornchokchai, 2001-1: 15).

A speculator is defined as a property buyer whose principal buying motive  buying is reselling the property in the future at a significant capital gain (Ring and Bodkin, 1986: 285; Feagin, 1982: 42, and Haila, 1989: 350)  While explaining the common phenomenon of speculators and their actions, Friedman (1993: 325) defines a speculator as one who invests with the anticipation that an event or a series of events will occur to increase the value of the investment.  For example, if the value of single-family houses has recently appreciated rapidly, speculators purchase several units anticipating that prices will continue rising. The drive behind speculation is securing capital gains from holding and selling properties at higher prices.

Speculation does not result from individual behavior but is a complex and collective phenomenon. (Kinderlerberger (1978, as quoted by Batra, 1987: 121).  Individual buyers, property developers, investors and financiers become obsessed with speculation.  The latter group finance and build additional housing units for speculation.  This phenomenon was observed long ago by Evans (1968: 203) as a macro economic activity prevailing in the housing market.  Roehner (1999: 86) added that the transmission of speculative attitudes played a vital economic role because it triggered price increases even in areas that are not prime locations.

Ordinary people also become obsessed with speculation and blindly follow shrewd speculators and buy properties until the market collapses. Most of them lack market knowledge and are careless in their decision making.  The speculation obsession causes them to ignore obvious warning signals and saps their desire to understand the risks involved.

Speculation can be seen negatively and positively depending on its scope and market impact. Generally, speculation is viewed negatively as unproductive and not helpful to the national economy (Feagin, 1982: 43; and Flint-Hartle & De Bruin, 2000: 14).

During a crisis, properties tend to be priced cheaply so bargains are easily found (Schumacher and Bucy, 1992: 152). Speculation is major reason for purchases.  This paves the way for clearing excess inventory and bringing market equilibrium.  Ho and Kwong (2002: 360) found in their statistical tests that although property price changes lead to speculation, it is not the cause of price increases.  In other words, surging prices cannot be attributed to speculation; hence, anti-speculation measures to curb fast-rising property prices may not be effective. Governments would do better by implementing measures that reduce the effects of speculation rather than by trying to cure it, particularly after the markets reach the mania stage.

At the Agency for Real Estate Affairs 10th anniversary, keynote speaker Woolery (2001: 34) said in his concluding remarks that greed was the crux of speculation. He added that even though speculators may have modern analytical tools, information technology, and adequate time, they can still fail because greed entices people to invest blindly without proper diagnosis and scrutiny.

4. The 1997 Economic and Real Estate Crisis
Thailand’s 1997 economic crisis seriously affected the real estate industry. The real estate industry depends on a healthy growing economy and other global variables. The 1997 financial crisis not only affected real estate projects with low development potential but also wiped-out many good projects already under-construction and where most of the units were already booked.  After the economic crisis, most financial institutions would not lend to developers, including those with good track records.  Many projects were stalled and contractors and other material suppliers also suffered. Last but not least, many homebuyers had to cancel their bookings.  Eventually, most projects were stopped dead in-their-tracks.

Prior to the arrival of the 1997 economic crisis, the Thai economy was still growing in 1996, albeit at a slower pace, when exports began falling. The largest declines were for lower-wage and labour- intensive exports that had been the country’s major export growth source since the Japanese investment influx of the mid 1980’s (Doner and Ramsay: 1999: 176).  The reasons behind the export-growth slowdown varied: a worldwide export downturn (Kittiprapas, 2000: 7), Japanese factors (recession and Yen depreciation of that made exports to Japan, one of Thailand’s largest export destinations, more expensive), US/European trade protectionism, competition with other emerging economies (particularly China), as well as a strong Baht pegged to the US Dollar (Suppakulkittiwattana, 1998: 35).  The weakened economy resulted  in an over valued Baht that was eventually attacked. On July 2, 1997 the Baht was floated and devalued.

Many question whether the economic slump was foreseeable.  The export decline implied a weaker economy and became the crux of the crisis.  Some might say that the crisis was unforeseeable and unexpected.  However, this was not the case. There were many warning signs, particularly rapidly expanding financial sector non-performing loans, (and volatile) short-term capital flows, and the magnitude of external debt (Hill and Arndt: 2000: 8).  Krugman (2003) even questioned the "Asian Miracle" in 1994 when prosperity was prevailing in Asia.  However, few paid serious attention.

The boom also ignited and exacerbated the effects of the subsequent bust. Rapid Thai financial sector liberalization that began in 1992 encouraged further capital inflows and helped create a bubble economy. Liberalization was introduced without adequate preparation and was an important factor that caused the Thai economy to crash (Suppakulkittiwattana, 1998: 28).  Therefore, the crisis was inevitable. Unproductive investment financed by short-term capital flows from abroad ignited the crisis. (Nidhiprabha, 2000: 67).

Another major cause was fundamental banking sector weaknesses (Wong, 1999: 392) and the lack of transparent accounting standards, a factor that was overlooked during the period of prosperity.  Financial institutions also lacked industry-specific expertise.  They only had the will to lend money (Vines and Warr, 2003: 457). This implied that the operated with outdated regulatory rules, lack of supervision, insider lending, lack of disclosure, and unsound practices (Bertrand, 2000: 195). Yap and Kirinpanu (1999: 12) added that close relationships prevailed among commercial banks, private companies, finance companies, real estate developers, and politicians.

After the economy crashed in 1997, local politics exacerbated its effects by delaying appropriate remedies (Jackson, 1999: 11).  In other words, Government’s mismanagement and inefficient supervision were major triggering points for the crisis (Unganjanakul, 1999: 64).  For example, when the crisis came, the authorities raised interest rates and tightened market liquidity.  This exacerbated the situation after the Baht was floated.

All of this does not mean that Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) is bad for Thailand or other developing Asian countries.  FDI transfers not only funds for fixed investment but also technology and managerial know-how (Urata, 2001: 452). Protectionist policies deepened the world depression in the 1930’s.  Therefore, developing countries should encourage more FDI and foreign trade to achieve economic growth by lowering or removing trade barriers (regional liberalization), improving infrastructure (transportation and communication facilities), practicing good public and private governance, and assimilating foreign technology transfers (Urata, 2001: 453-454). FDI in Thailand has mainly been in the manufacturing other productive sectors but not in the real estate sector.

5. Real estate markets and the economy
Japanese FDI not only catapulted the overall economy but also spurred property market and urban development in Bangkok and Thailand in general.  The increased industrial development enhanced urban development, prompting the real estate market to develop  residential, commercial, and service activities (TDRI, 2003).

Many analysts think that ill-conceived real estate projects and other bad investments led to the crisis.  For example, Roehner (1999: 76) believed that the 1997 financial crisis in Thailand was partly triggered by a bursting real estate bubble. This hypothesis must be clarified.  When FDI first began entering the country, some agricultural land was rezoned to manufacturing because development potential was significantly higher.  In Japan, when the Yen’s  doubled  two years after the 1985 Plaza Accord, real estate prices doubled in four years (Miller, 2003). Similarly, when large amounts of FDI money were injected into the Thai economy, real estate prices also rose sharply.

Another reason for leapfrogging real estate development growth was the stilted growth during the bust period prior to 1985 when the Thailand devalued its currency (1983 and 1984). When the economy recovered, a cumulative pent-up demand situation arose.  In 1987, housing supply grew faster than population growth (Planning and Development Collaborative International, 1987: 17).

The bubble in real estate prices should have ended after the 1990 Gulf War.  However, the continuing foreign funds influx caused the real estate market to remain buoyant.  The Bangkok International Banking Facilities (BIBFs) also were another source of cheap loans.  Many developers were encouraged to borrow funds to develop real estate projects. The stock market boom led to irrational exuberance and more people turned to buying real estate..  However, between 1992 and 1996, total land prices rose only by 18% or 4.3% per annum, much less than prevailing deposit interest rates (Agency for Real Estate Affairs, 1999: 163).  This implies that although foreign funds inputs were strong, the output in property prices was not significant.  This was because real estate markets had already bubbled during the 1985-1990 period.

Real estate was not the culprit that caused the 1997 economic crisis.   Actually, major loans were not made for real estate projects but to stock investors who received more than US$ 4.8 billion in loans from finance companies (Blustein, 2001: 56-57).  According to the Bank of Thailand (2000), real estate related loans accounted for only 15% of all non-performing loans.  In addition, only 24% of the impaired assets transferred to the Thai Asset Management Corporation in 1999 were from real estate projects.  The majority came from the manufacturing sector, wholesale and retail trades, service industries and the like.  The "real estate" items were simply collateral for loans made for non real-estate purposes (MacIntire, 2000: 143).  Most bad real estate investments were not general owner-occupied housing developments but luxury residential developments, commercial buildings and recreational properties.  For example, office vacancy rates were almost 30% in 1998 (Jackson: 1999: 11) and only 14% for housing (Agency for Real Estate Affairs, 1999).  Therefore, Thailand’s housing developments were not the trigger for the 1997 economic bust. 

In reality real estate developments, particularly housing, contribute to economic and national development.  A unique feature of housing in Thailand is that almost all housing is provided by the private sector, particularly during boom periods.  The Government did not subsidize housing development.  In Singapore, 85% of all housing units are built and subsidized by the Housing Development Board.  However, the success of subsidies is dubious. For example, subsidies can create more inequality in opportunities for housing.

Prior to the economic crisis, many private housing developers did not understand FDI’s overall economic effect, especially its contribution to a real estate bubble. They were also not prepared for a hard-landing after the real estate bubble burst in 1997.  As a result, they suffered immensely and their experiences should be analyzed so that future developers can learn from their mistakes.

6. Concluding Remarks
Excessive speculation on housing units leads to over-investment by the developers who are responding to unrealistic and unsustainable demand levels and thereby disrupting market equilibrium.  Blind speculation occurs in an environment where there is inadequate market information available to potential buyers.  Financial institutions that provide financing without evaluating the market dynamics, also inadvertently encourage speculation.  If the financial institutions had access to accurate market information and market indicators such as the number of unoccupied housing units as a sign of overproduction, there would not have been such an excessive oversupply of housing units.

Inadequate dissemination of available information and the markets disregard for the value of using real estate data for analyzing investment decision seriously harmed real estate buyers and sellers and financiers during the crisis.  When every investor expects short-term capital gains without using accurate market information, the market will eventually collapse and hurt everyone involved.  This is what has happened to the Bangkok Metropolitan Region’s (BMR) housing market. The major reasons for the BMR market’s failure were because of the lack of accurate information and failure to use relevant data in decision-making. 

Dr.Sopon Pornchokchai has had experience in real estate research and valuation since 1982.  He was a consultant to the ESCAP, UN-Habitat, International Labour Organization and other international organizations.   His research master pieces include the discovery of 1,020 slums (1985), CAMA (computer-assisterd mass appraisal) modeling (1990), forecast of 300,000 unoccupied housing units (1995 and 1998), study for property information centre (2000), and the roadmap for Vietnamese valuation profession (2006).  He can be contacted at sopon@area.co.th

Agency for Real Estate (www.AREA.co.th), Thailand's independent property consultants specialize in international standard valuation, survey, research and information services while refraining from real estate brokerage and self-interest property development to avert a potential conflict of interest, thereby ensuring the integrity of our valuation and research work.

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