Sunday, March 11, 2007

Alberta Prosperity and Real Estate-Tail wagging the dog?

In the last two years, the number of luxury cars you see in downtown Edmonton or Calgary has gone through the roof. Almost all the restaurants worth anything are completely packed in downtown Edmonton even on a weekday.
Some clear signs of Alberta prosperity right. Yes, but what is the source of this prosperity? Stupid question some would say. It's obviously oil sands and natural gas wealth.
I wouldn't quite agree. I don't really have any numbers to prove my hypothesis, but I'll write it nevertheless.
I think most of the conspicuous prosperity in Alberta is not due to the commodity boom but due to real estate boom. And by conspicuous prosperity, I don't mean trades jobs or McJobs, but the $50k cars, $5k plasma TVs, $200-300 dinners and the stuff. Or perhaps the $400k cars.
I think the average Albertan who is not in business for herself/himself or does not (did not) receive a huge oil/gas bonus would not have become richer but for dramatic rise in real estate. Most Albertans have been touched by this boom, but primarily in terms of expensive real estate. I have not heard of very many stories where any one's wages increased by even 10% over the last few years. No doubt at the lower end, minimum wage climbed from $7 to $12, but someone making $30 didn't suddenly start making $45. And most newcomers struggle with housing and other necessities and would not be creating the conspicuous boom, other than helping boost province's red hot real estate.
As I mentioned in one of my earlier posts, every mania is based on a 'story' and in this case, the Alberta real estate market is based on the oil sands story. It is a plausible story and most average Janes and Joes have bought the story wholeheartedly.
And why not? If the story made them richer by $150k (average increase in their home values), why should they dispute it? Especially when they didn't have to work for an hour to do so. It's free lunch.
So while everyone is talking about Alberta's prosperity being rooted in the oil boom, it is possible that its conspicuous prosperity for average Albertan is actually rooted in real estate.
People are feeling richer not because of the $400 cheques they received a year ago but because of the tremendous increase in real estate. And I don't have any numbers again, but I am pretty sure Albertans are feeling confident because their net worth has gone up quite a bit in the last 2 years. And they must be withdrawing from their 'home ATMs' , as they are so found of saying down in the US, and keeping the Touareg's on street and the restaurants busy.
What will be the impact of this on the Alberta economy when real estate market fizzles? Will it be business as usual if we see moderating/stabilizing oil prices and a declining real estate? In my opinion this is a fairly plausible scenario in the coming months.

Thanks everyone for a wonderful week of discussion.
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