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A lawn sign on a property in Buda, Texas.
A lawn sign on a property in Buda, Texas.

What will make the housing boom go bust? 'Greed' Add to ...

So why aren’t prices dropping?

Artificially low interest rates and lower mortgage standards have enabled your bubble to do a head fake and push even higher. The same thing happened in Australia and China. You guys should be further along the road to recovery than us and you’re not. I would chalk that up to your government policy.

Any objective economist should be able to see what’s going on in Toronto and see that it’s a disaster in the making. In the United States, everybody knew that it couldn’t go on forever, but at the root of a mania is the belief that the trees will grow to the sky. In Arizona, for instance, at every level and every step down, people kept saying it couldn’t get any worse – but it did. It was like a bowling ball going down the stairs.

Is the U.S. market close to reaching bottom?

Every time I hear people talk about the housing bubble in the past tense, I cringe. A lot of experts originally said there was no housing bubble. Now, they’ll mention a housing bubble, but those same experts have never really owned up to what it was and when it started. That enables them to say, “Well, we’re back at 2003 prices.”

It’s a disingenuous shrugging-off of what we’re really going through – the largest asset mania on a global scale in history.

What is the so-called shadow inventory?

The shadow inventory is hidden in plain sight: There are millions of empty houses or houses in foreclosure, but the banks and the government aren’t putting them on the market. It’s completely understandable what they’re doing – they’re limiting the supply so they can get a higher price for the stuff they do have on the market.

The end result is that you’ve got people paying more for houses than they’re really worth. You combine that with government efforts to keep interest rates and down payments low, and people are buying into a manipulated market in which prices are artificially high. A lot of the houses that people are buying in 2012 will be in foreclosure in 2016.

So greed, from the top to the bottom, is the underlying theme?

Do you think the Canadians are coming down here because they really like Arizona? Some of them do, but they’re not buying thousands of houses because they feel sorry for us or want to support our market. They’re doing it to make money. There’s nothing wrong with that – I’m a capitalist – but you have to own up to the risks that you’re taking.

If you own a second home, you’re speculating. It’s a lot cheaper to come to Arizona and stay in a resort or a short-term rental than to own the property and come down here one or two months out of the year. It will be interesting to see if we start to hear sob stories about poor Canadians saying they were cheated by the banks and lost their investment properties and their Canadian properties.

What do you make of all the stories about the Chinese speculating with their money by buying Canadian real estate?

I posted the recent story about that Toronto house that sold for $400,000 over asking price. And it was just a bungalow. It really reminds me of 2004 when Californians were spreading across the whole country, buying property left and right, using their equity from the California bubble to create bubbles in other areas, like Las Vegas. We called them “equity nomads.”

China probably has the largest bubble in the world and the fact that they’re using their bubble wealth to drive up prices in Canada is the rolling-bubble phenomenon playing out on a massive scale. If the real-estate market collapses in China, are they going to close on all these condos they’re buying in Toronto? I kind of doubt it.

It’s even more complicated, because the Australians have a pretty big bubble and their resource-based economy is largely dependent upon China. It’s a house of cards: China goes down, Australia goes down and they drag down the market in Vancouver and Toronto, which trickles down to the U.S. That’s the danger people are willing to ignore when things are going up.

But everyone says it’s different here.

Ask yourself, why are the Chinese buying all these properties in Toronto and Vancouver? To make money. Yes, they say they are really nice places, but they say that about every bubble market.

Florida is a really nice place. California has great weather. I don’t think that justifies paying $400,000 over asking. Toronto was a really nice place 20 years ago, but nobody was paying half-a-million dollars for a condo.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

Shelley Youngblut is The Globe and Mail’s Western editor.

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