We need the Chinese. But the growth of the Chinese middle class has been so explosive, and on such a scale, that it has the capacity to affect Australia in ways that will need to be controlled if some trends continue to accelerate. Notably home buying.
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Opening the door to overseas property investment
Reserve Bank governor Glenn Stevens says overseas investment in the residential property market is a parliamentary matter to manage.
There has never been a lower percentage of first-home buyers in the Australian market. They have never had to pay and borrow more to enter the market. Especially in Sydney and Melbourne, where first-home buyers now represent a tiny segment of the market, where traditionally they had been about 20 per cent. This is not culturally healthy.
First-time buyers, young buyers, are now caught in a pincer movement between superannuation and Chinese investment.
On Friday, when the governor of the Reserve Bank, Glenn Stevens, briefed the parliamentary standing committee on economics, most of what he said was unremarkable until he said this: ''Over the past three months, approvals to build private dwellings numbered almost 50,000, an increase of about 27 per cent from a year earlier, the highest three-month total in the 30-year history of this [statistical] series.''
Yet he then described consumer demand as ''skittish'' and business investment, outside of mining, as ''very low indeed''. In the midst of this skittish, sluggish growth, there is an exuberant housing market. It is not just low interest rates.
A survey by HSBC Bank found that more than one-third of affluent Asians own overseas property, and Australia is their number one destination. Of the wealthy mainland Chinese surveyed, 9 per cent owned property in Australia; of those surveyed in Hong Kong, 10 per cent; from Singapore, 18 per cent; and Malaysia, 26 per cent.
Given the size and wealth of the Chinese diaspora, these indicate big numbers which could become much bigger if investors from China continue to kick in and the Australian dollar continues to decline in value.
Friday's South China Morning Post had a story which began: ''Chinese investment in Australian real estate has grown 60 per cent in the past two years with buyers and developers focusing largely on Sydney and inner-city Melbourne. Huge interest from cashed-up Chinese buyers has been a major driver.''
The story then recycled news published in Australia that Juwai.com, an online real estate broker which connects Chinese buyers with overseas properties, estimates there are 63 million Chinese who could afford to buy property overseas, the fastest-growing market was Australia, and the most popular price bracket is $550,000 to $750,000 for houses or apartments.
This is pretty much what first-time property purchasers look to buy. If cashed-up Chinese buyers, and superannuation funds looking for investments, are both driving the market, this becomes a cultural issue if Australia wants to maintain the tradition of having one of the world's highest rates of home ownership.
Vancouver is further down the same road. Vancouver ranks as the second-least affordable housing market, according to the 2014 Demographia International Housing Affordability Survey of 360 housing markets in nine Western countries.
Vancouver is, by far, the least affordable city in Canada for housing. The survey found Hong Kong the most expensive housing market, by far. Sydney and Melbourne rank fourth and sixth on the same list.
A common link in these markets is investment from China and the Chinese diaspora. The weight of investment in housing by the Chinese diaspora comes from multiple channels: direct investment from China and Hong Kong; investment from the Chinese middle class in Singapore and Malaysia; investment from the large Chinese community in Vancouver, and investment by Chinese immigrants who use New Zealand citizenship as the back door to Australian residency.
Hong Kong, acting to keep a lid on prices for its own citizens, has imposed a 15 per cent tax on outsiders, overwhelmingly from mainland China.
Canada has just abruptly shut down its visa scheme for wealthy foreigners, the Immigrant Investor Program, which for years was the express gateway to permanent residency. The scheme had a backlog of 65,000 applicants, most from China, and most of whom intended to live in Vancouver.
In Australia, there are no indications of any official concern at the effects of overseas buyers on prices in the Sydney and Melbourne markets. Stevens gave no indication on Friday that he thought restrictive measures were necessary. The official consensus is that the demand for property from Asia is tightly focused by suburb and in new housing developments, creating a growth in housing investment that might not otherwise exist.
While there is a recognition of the growing displacement effect caused by Australians buying investment properties for their superannuation portfolio, there is no such official concession of a displacement effect caused by blocks of units being built specifically for Asian investors, or suburban clusters favoured by Chinese buyers.
Not yet. Given the size of the Asian middle class, given its continued rapid growth, the indicators in Hong Kong and Vancouver are that curbs on foreign ownership will become an inevitable public debate if a critical mass of locals believe they are being priced out of home ownership in their own cities.