Data shows rising interest rates do not necessarily spell doom for the equity and real estate markets.
Mon, Dec 20, 2010
The Business Times
By Teh Hooi Ling
I HAD lunch with a friend yesterday. He's someone whom I knew of more than a decade ago as an analyst, and a friend's colleague. We recently reconnected at another friend's housewarming. Before yesterday's lunch, I only knew him as a really smart and, yes, 'cocky' guy who made enough to retire at 32 so that he could lead the life he always wanted. He wanted a life which could give him the luxury of time - to read up on or research on anything he wanted, and to be around his family and watch the kids grow up.
And he's been doing that for 10 years now. All this while, he's been managing his own portfolio and just as in his career, he has done exceeding well at it. He said he learnt his lesson during the Asian financial crisis when his portfolio plunged to zero as he had concentrated his bets on three Thai stocks which were subsequently delisted.
Seeing the tell-tale signs of another crisis coming, in 2007-2008 at the onset of the global financial crisis, he had about 60 per cent of his portfolio in cash and gold. At the worst point of the market panic, his equities portion dwindled to just 10 per cent of his portfolio.
But he reckoned the only country which could ring-fence itself from the global crisis was China. He kept his powder dry until the Chinese government announced its massive fiscal stimulus plans. Then he bet big on the emerging giant by buying up A-shares and H-shares and exchange-traded funds. He pledged some of his holdings so as to buy more. As a result, he emerged from the crisis with an even higher net worth than before.
Still keeping to the discipline of putting down his thoughts on 'paper' as per his days as an analyst, this friend will circulate some of his views among his friends as and when he observes something interesting in the market.
During lunch yesterday, he said that this time last year, one of the major concerns in the market was: 'When will interest rates go up?' But as he put it, he hasn't been hearing a lot of chatter about interest rates of late when in fact interest rates are already ticking up. 'The markets are terribly complacent about the possibility of rising interest rates.'
He pointed out that the yields on 10-year and 30-year US Treasuries have been rising in the past three months. Meanwhile, the short-term rate perked up in the last three weeks. Even in Japan, the 10-year government bond yields are on the rise in the last three months. 'Only in Singapore is interest rate showing no signs of escaping the force of gravity! But ask yourself for how long?' he wrote in his report which he sent me later in the day. 'Rising interest rates is one enormous fat-tail risk that nobody seems to be talking about.'
The three-month borrowing rate of the Vietnamese dong is now 12.6 per cent, he noted. 'Try to imagine what this would do to your portfolio if this occurred all over the world? Instead of thinking about how much more money to shovel into emerging market assets, start thinking about protecting yourself from such a possibility,' he warned.
You can see the 10-year yield for US Treasuries and three-month borrowing costs in Shanghai rising in the first chart. Singapore's interbank rate, however, is still flat.
But does rising interest rate necessarily spell doom for the equity and property markets?
Not really. In early 1988, the one-year Singapore interbank rate rose from 3.8 per cent to 7.8 per cent by June 1990. During that time, the Straits Times Index (STI) climbed by about 60 per cent.
In 1994-95, and during the Asian financial crisis, rates climbed and stock prices fell. But in the early 2000, both rates and stock prices fell in tandem. And they climbed in tandem between 2003 and 2006. The global financial crisis brought both stock prices and interest rates down. And in the last two years, while rates have stayed low, stock prices have rebounded strongly.
So if interest rates are firming because economies are growing, then it may not be all that bad for stocks.
Similarly for properties in Singapore. From late 1987 until 1990, rising interest rate did not deter private property prices from appreciating. The pattern is similar to stocks - after all, stocks are supposed to be a leading indicator for the property market.
Interest rates, of course, are the rates with which future cash flows of companies are discounted at to arrive at its value today. The higher the rate, the lower today's value should be - unless, of course, the future cash flows are expected to rise faster.
In the property markets, meanwhile, a higher interest rate would hit property owners immediately in terms of the monthly mortgage payments if the loan package is a floating rate one.
In my next few charts, I've updated the state of the Singapore property market now in terms of rental yield and returns from a residential investment property.
The gross rental yield, that is before all the related expenses such as maintenance and property taxes that a property owner has to pay, of a private non-landed property is just over 4 per cent. This is based on the third-quarter numbers from the Urban Redevelopment Authority of Singapore. That's still quite a bit of buffer compared with the interbank rates now.
Indeed, based on current market rates, the monthly rental from a typical non-landed private residential property is more than enough to cover the monthly mortgage payment. This assumes an 80 per cent loan quantum and loan tenure of 30 years. It also assumes that the rate is 1.5 percentage points above the one-year interbank rates.
But that buffer will disappear if interest rates rise by more than 50 basis points.
According to data from Bloomberg, the one-year interbank rate in Singapore is currently 0.85 per cent. The Economist Intelligence Unit is forecasting that Singapore's money market rates would rise to 1.3 per cent next year, 2 per cent in 2012 and 2 per cent in 2013.
So property investors should prepare for the day when rental may not entirely cover their mortgage payments.
How about return on equity (ROE) for a property investor? Based on today's prices and rentals rates, there is still a decent return of 7 per cent on the investor's equity of 20 per cent of the value of the property.
Again, this assumes 80 per cent loan. But the rental has been net of maintenance charges and the 10 per cent property tax. The ROE will be reduced to zero when Sibor hits 2.6 per cent. But then again, in the third quarter of 2006, ROE for holding a non-landed private property was negative. The following 11/2 years, however, saw a sharp jump in property prices in Singapore.
Ultimately for properties, it comes down to supply and demand. Yes, we will see a rather large amount of supply coming on to the market in the coming few years. But counter that with the draw of Asia as the fastest-growing region in the world and it is not hard to see why some of the richest people would want to park some of their money here. Meanwhile, the government's commitment to raise the median income of Singapore residents in the coming few years will further enhance the affordability of private properties to local residents.
As long as interest rates don't spike up to ridiculous levels, as my astute friend puts it, there continues to be upward pressure on property prices in the next few years.
The writer is a CFA charterholder
This article was first published in The Business Times.