Is Brazil's property bubble about to burst?

Brazil has enjoyed soaring property prices for years - but the bubble may be about to burst.

This time four years ago, I wrote an article here about Brazilian property. I suggested that there was a reasonable chance that it might see the kind of boom that Spain saw back in the 1970s and 1980s.

Brazil was booming. Credit was becoming more freely available and property across the country looked relatively cheap. All the conditions were in place for a boom. No wonder then that Brazil got one.

Since 2008, GDP per head in Brazil has risen by not far off 50%. Wages have risen by roughly the same amount and employment is at record highs. The FT reports that head-hunted executives don't get out of bed for less than a 30-50% increase in pay.

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At the same time, mortgage lending has, in the words of Capital Economics, "exploded", more than doubling as a percentage of GDP since 2005.

Brazil's financial markets have deepened, but things have also been helped along, as is the modern way, by government efforts to increase homeownership among the 'less well off'. The 'Minha Casa Minha Life' scheme provides all manner of familiar-sounding incentives, from 100% loans, very low interest rates, loans for deposits and so on.

The result? Prices in Rio de Janeiroand So Paulo have gone up 140% since 2008, while those in Brazil'sseven most important districts are up around 25% in the last year alone, says Capital.

Rents are up too. In Rio, average rents per square foot are up 35%. Clearly, house-price rises make sense given rising incomes and an expanding money supply. But might Brazil's boom have now gone too far?

Capital thinks so. Look at a price-to-incomes ratio for So Paulo and Rio from 2008 and you will see that "house prices have increased at a far faster pace than incomes in recent years". They have also out run nominal GDP quite substantially (50% vs 140%). "Ominously for Brazil" that was also the case for the UK, the US, Spain and Ireland before their own boom and busts. Moreover, while it is only one city (national data is hard to come by), prices in So Paulo are now above the average of emerging world city prices, while rental yields are below average.

So if it is a bubble, what might make it end? The hope is that it won't have to end nastily that it will deflate slowly via an adjustment in real prices (ie, average prices rise more slowly than nominal prices) as has sort of happened in the UK so far.

However, there is one thing that might make the transition nastier a derailing of the Brazilian economy by a hard landing in China.

Either way, if you didn't buy into Brazil four years ago, I suspect now might not be the time to take the plunge. It is fair to say that Capital Economics (rather like us) is prone to calling the end to bubbles a bit too early Forbes reckons the bubble "has legs" until 2017. But better too early than too late.

Merryn Somerset Webb

Merryn Somerset Webb started her career in Tokyo at public broadcaster NHK before becoming a Japanese equity broker at what was then Warburgs. She went on to work at SBC and UBS without moving from her desk in Kamiyacho (it was the age of mergers).

After five years in Japan she returned to work in the UK at Paribas. This soon became BNP Paribas. Again, no desk move was required. On leaving the City, Merryn helped The Week magazine with its City pages before becoming the launch editor of MoneyWeek in 2000 and taking on columns first in the Sunday Times and then in 2009 in the Financial Times

Twenty years on, MoneyWeek is the best-selling financial magazine in the UK. Merryn was its Editor in Chief until 2022. She is now a senior columnist at Bloomberg and host of the Merryn Talks Money podcast -  but still writes for Moneyweek monthly. 

Merryn is also is a non executive director of two investment trusts – BlackRock Throgmorton, and the Murray Income Investment Trust.