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Skills shortages and rising costs take their toll on buyer interest

By Kirsten Craze
Fri, Dec 2, 2022 9:48amGrey Clock 4 min

 Australia’s love affair with the renovator’s delight could be on the rocks as skyrocketing building costs and the country’s biggest tradie shortage in decades take hold.

Just 12 months ago comparison site Finder conducted a homebuyer survey which revealed four in five purchasers wanted to buy to renovate as housing supply was low and property prices were soaring. But what a difference a year makes.

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Today, building materials are scarce and the most acute shortage of building professionals is for bricklayers, carpenters and roofers. In March, Jobs board Seek tracked the highest number of job advertisements in its 25-year history with the Trades and Services industry driving most of the available jobs. The shortfall may be a result of the Federal Government’s HomeBuilder scheme, which injected more than 130,000 new builds or large renovations into the market, coupled with a drought of foreign skilled workers brought on by two years of closed borders.

So unless buyers have a trade under their own tool belt or a personal pipeline to products then renovating needs to be a long term goal with an elastic budget.

As a result, daggy and dated homes are proving less popular. But for patient purchasers who are happy to put renovations on ice, this changed climate is translating to more bargaining power.

“Good things do come to those who wait and this is probably the most favourable buyer’s market I’ve been in for a few years,” said Sydney-based buyer’s agent Michelle May. “But a lot of buyers are unable to see potential in older homes. “With our clients we sometimes have to convince them to have a look at these places because often they’re not actually that bad.” 

She says many buyers have become accustomed to seeing properties online that look amazing.

“They’re styled to within an inch of their lives, there are gorgeous people with their dogs in the images and you can almost smell the Aesop candles. It’s like you’re flicking through an interiors magazine.”

May explained that anything on the market which hasn’t been styled, is perhaps a deceased estate with a decades-old kitchen or bathroom is being overlooked by many buyers.

“I say to my clients ‘If this had been styled by professionals you’d have wanted to look, whereas you’re quickly dismissing it.’ But maybe it’s actually in a great location and the bones are really good. As long as you’re willing to put up with it for a couple of years and ride out this market recalibration, you could actually do really well.”

Home stager and interior designer Kyara Coakes, founder of The Property Stylist, says selling agents are telling her listings in need of significant work are not attracting much attention, opening the window for savvy buyers looking to negotiate.

“Agents are coming to me because they’re finding almost no one’s even looking at them,” Coakes says. “Some of the agents are saying they’re only getting one or two people per inspection but fully renovated or styled properties are still selling within two weeks, even in a quieter market. It’s like demand has just completely changed.

“For the past 10 years – well before COVID – people were definitely wanting to put their own stamp on a property, but that’s definitely not the case anymore.”

Unsurprisingly, May says the popularity of reality TV shows such as The Block, House Rules and Selling Houses Australia have all contributed to the demand for renovator’s delights over the past decade. Before the construction crisis, she said many renovators who didn’t do their homework found themselves buying a money pit. Now, however, she warns the gamble could be even greater.

“You always get first-home buyers, or inexperienced buyers, who overestimate their own DIY skills and underestimate the cost of trades – even prior to COVID and the import crisis,” May says. “I feel it’s our job to take the rose-tinted glasses off for those clients. 

“We’ve renovated and flipped so many properties and it’s not as easy as it looks on The Block.”

Building woes have even hammered the successful reality show with producers of The Block 2022 struggling to land enough tradespeople and making a last-minute call out via the media to source skilled workers to finish the contestants’ houses.

“People who’ve never renovated before, or have no idea what they’re up against in the first place, don’t really get what this crisis means,” she says. “But people who are in the know, they’re definitely holding off and you see it in the auction results on Saturdays.” 

She says when the market was hot, she was bidding against small-to-medium builders who had the economies of scale and the know-how to renovate well. 

“There’s not the profit for them now so they’re dropping off,” May says. “On the other hand, properties with everything done are still going gangbusters and are exceeding expectations. It’s clear renovator’s delights have come off the boil.”

Ultimately, while there are opportunities out there for buyers who are willing to wait, May said research and due diligence is still key. She stressed the old real estate adage of buying “the worst house in the best street” might be great in theory, but not always in practice if the downsides of the home are beyond renovating.

“There’s sometimes a good reason why it’s the worst house on the best street,” she suggests. “It could be a very skinny terrace, or the bathroom is way in the back of the house which could be extremely costly to move, or the street behind it has a huge apartment building so you have no privacy. 

“Just be mindful that renovating is definitely not for the faint-hearted and in some cases, it should be kept on TV.”


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A new trading year kicked off just weeks ago. Already it bears little resemblance to the carnage of 2022.

After languishing throughout last year, growth stocks have zoomed higher. Tesla Inc. and Nvidia Corp., for example, have jumped more than 30%. The outlook for bonds is brightening after a historic rout. Even bitcoin has rallied, despite ongoing effects from the collapse of the crypto exchange FTX.

The rebound has been driven by renewed optimism about the global economic outlook. Investors have embraced signs that inflation has peaked in the U.S. and abroad. Many are hoping that next week the Federal Reserve will slow its pace of interest-rate increases yet again. China’s lifting of Covid-19 restrictions pleasantly surprised many traders who have welcomed the move as a sign that more growth is ahead.

Still, risks loom large. Many investors aren’t convinced that the rebound is sustainable. Some are worried about stretched stock valuations, or whether corporate earnings will face more pain down the road. Others are fretting that markets aren’t fully pricing in the possibility of a recession, or what might happen if the Fed continues to fight inflation longer than currently anticipated.

We asked five investors to share how they are positioning for that uncertainty and where they think markets could be headed next. Here is what they said:

‘Animal spirits’ could return

Cliff Asness, founder of AQR Capital Management, acknowledges that he wasn’t expecting the run in speculative stocks and digital currencies that has swept markets to kick off 2023.

Bitcoin prices have jumped around 40%. Some of the stocks that are the most heavily bet against on Wall Street are sitting on double-digit gains. Carvana Co. has soared nearly 64%, while MicroStrategy Inc. has surged more than 80%. Cathie Wood‘s ARK Innovation ETF has gained about 29%.

If the past few years have taught Mr. Asness anything, it is to be prepared for such run-ups to last much longer than expected. His lesson from the euphoria regarding risky trades in 2020 and 2021? Don’t count out the chance that the frenzy will return again, he said.

“It could be that there are still these crazy animal spirits out there,” Mr. Asness said.

Still, he said that hasn’t changed his conviction that cheaper stocks in the market, known as value stocks, are bound to keep soaring past their peers. There might be short spurts of outperformance for more-expensive slices of the market, as seen in January. But over the long term, he is sticking to his bet that value stocks will beat growth stocks. He is expecting a volatile, but profitable, stretch for the trade.

“I love the value trade,” Mr. Asness said. “We sing about it to our clients.”

—Gunjan Banerji

Keeping dollar’s moves in focus

For Richard Benson, co-chief investment officer of Millennium Global Investments Ltd., no single trade was more important last year than the blistering rise of the U.S. dollar.

Once a relatively placid area of markets following the 2008 financial crisis, currencies have found renewed focus from Wall Street and Main Street. Last year the dollar’s unrelenting rise dented multinational companies’ profits, exacerbated inflation for countries that import American goods and repeatedly surprised some traders who believed the greenback couldn’t keep rallying so fast.

The factors that spurred the dollar’s rise are now contributing to its fall. Ebbing inflation and expectations of slower interest-rate increases from the Fed have sent the dollar down 1.7% this year, as measured by the WSJ Dollar Index.

Mr. Benson is betting more pain for the dollar is ahead and sees the greenback weakening between 3% and 5% over the next three to six months.

“When the biggest central bank in the world is on the move, look at everything through their lens and don’t get distracted,” said Mr. Benson of the London-based currency fund manager, regarding the Fed.

This year Mr. Benson expects the dollar’s fall to ripple similarly far and wide across global economies and markets.

“I don’t see many people complaining about a weaker dollar” over the next few months, he said. “If the dollar is falling, that economic setup should also mean that tech stocks should do quite well.”

Mr. Benson said he expects the dollar’s fall to brighten the outlook for some emerging- market assets, and he is betting on China’s offshore yuan as the country’s economy reopens. He sees the euro strengthening versus the dollar if the eurozone’s economy continues to fare better than expected.

—Caitlin McCabe

Stocks still appear overvalued

Even after the S&P 500 fell 15% from its record high reached in January 2022, U.S. stocks still look expensive, said Rupal Bhansali, chief investment officer of Ariel Investments, who oversees $6.7 billion in assets.

Of course, the market doesn’t appear as frothy as it did for much of 2020 and 2021, but she said she expects a steeper correction in prices ahead.

The broad stock-market gauge recently traded at 17.9 times its projected earnings over the next 12 months, according to FactSet. That is below the high of around 24 hit in late 2020, but above the historical average over the past 20 years of 15.7, FactSet data show.

“The old habit was buy the dip,” Ms. Bhansali said. “The new habit should be sell the rip.”

One reason Ms. Bhansali said the selloff might not be over yet? The market is still underestimating the Fed.

Investors repeatedly mispriced how fast the Fed would move in 2022, wrongly expecting the central bank to ease up on its rate increases. They were caught off guard by Fed Chair Jerome Powell‘s aggressive messages on interest rates. It stoked steep selloffs in the stock market, leading to the most turbulent year since the 2008 financial crisis. Now investors are making the same mistake again, Ms. Bhansali said.

Current stock valuations don’t reflect the big shift coming in central-bank policy, which she thinks will have to be more aggressive than many expect. Though broader measures of inflation have been falling, some slices, such as services inflation, have proved stickier. Ms. Bhansali is positioning for such areas as healthcare, which she thinks would be more insulated from a recession than the rest of the market, to outperform.

“The Fed is determined to win the war since they lost the battle,” Ms. Bhansali said.

—Gunjan Banerji

A better year for bonds seen

Gone are the days when tumbling bond yields left investors with few alternatives to stocks. Finally, bonds are back, according to Niall O’Sullivan of Neuberger Berman, an investment manager overseeing about $427 billion in client assets at the end of 2022.

After a turbulent year for the fixed-income market in 2022, bonds have kicked off the new year on a more promising note. The Bloomberg U.S. Aggregate Bond Index—composed largely of U.S. Treasurys, highly rated corporate bonds and mortgage-backed securities—climbed 3% so far this year on a total return basis through Thursday’s close. That is the index’s best start to a year since it began in 1989, according to Dow Jones Market Data.

Mr. O’Sullivan, the chief investment officer of multi asset strategies for Europe, the Middle East and Africa at Neuberger Berman, said the single biggest conversation he is currently having with clients is how to increase fixed-income exposure.

“Strategically, the facts have changed. When you look at fixed income as an asset class…they’re now all providing yield, and possibly even more importantly, actual cash coupons of a meaningful size,” he said. “That is a very different world to the one we’ve been in for quite a long time.”

Mr. O’Sullivan said it is important to reconsider how much of an advantage stocks now hold over bonds, given what he believes are looming risks for the stock market. He predicts that inflation will be harder to wrangle than investors currently anticipate and that the Fed will hold its peak interest rate steady for longer than is currently expected. Even more worrying, he said, it will be harder for companies to continue passing on price increases to consumers, which means earnings could see bigger hits in the future.

“That is why we are wary on the equity side,” he said.

Among the products that Mr. O’Sullivan said he favours in the fixed-income space are higher-quality and shorter-term bonds. Still, he added, it is important for investors to find portfolio diversity outside bonds this year. For that, he said he views commodities as attractive, specifically metals such as copper, which could continue to benefit from China’s reopening.

—Caitlin McCabe


Find the fear, and find the value

Ramona Persaud, a portfolio manager at Fidelity Investments, said she can still identify bargains in a pricey market by looking in less-sanguine places. Find the fear, and find the value, she said.

“When fear really rises, you can buy some very well-run businesses,” she said.

Take Taiwan’s semiconductor companies. Concern over global trade and tensions with China have weighed on the shares of chip makers based on the island. But those fears have led many investors to overlook the competitive advantages those companies hold over rivals, she said.

“That is a good setup,” said Ms. Persaud, who considers herself a conservative value investor and manages more than $20 billion across several U.S. and Canadian funds.

The S&P 500 is trading above fair value, she said, which means “there just isn’t widespread opportunity,” and investors might be underestimating some of the risks that lie in waiting.

“That tells me the market is optimistic,” said Ms. Persaud. “That would be OK if the risks were not exogenous.”

Those challenges, whether rising interest rates and Fed policy or Russia’s war in Ukraine and concern over energy-security concerns in Europe, are complicated, and in many cases, interrelated.

It isn’t all bad news, she said. China ended its zero-Covid restrictions. A milder winter in Europe has blunted the effects of the war in Ukraine on energy prices and helped the continent sidestep recession, and inflation is slowing.

“These are reasons the market is so happy,” she said.

—Justin Baer


Rocket, the parent of Quicken Loans, has surged 28% this week.

Becoming Australia’s most expensive property sale of 2021.

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