Investing in Real Estate

In Monday’s update, we compared investing in stocks to investing in financial securities and concluded that stocks offer better long-term performance. Today, we use long-term data series for US and Australian real estate to evaluate their comparative performance.

US real estate data was sourced from Prof Robert Shiller, who created the Case-Shiller Index series. The chart below shows that US home prices from 1933 to 2023, a period of ninety years, appreciated to 69.5 times their original value.

Home Price Index

Adjusting for inflation, we get real appreciation of 2.9 times.

Again, CPI seems to understate inflation. Comparing the home price index to Gold, rather than CPI, provides a more accurate measure of appreciation in real terms. Gold appreciated 94.5 times over the same period, so the home price index actually lost value.

Calculation: 69.5/94.5 = 0.735 (i.e. a 26.5% loss of value)

Comparing data sources

A second source of home price data compares median prices, based on sales of existing homes, from 1953 to 2023. That shows growth of 22 times over the past seventy years, which is close to the Home Price Index appreciation of 21.25 over the same period.

Median Home Prices, Existing Homes


Australian housing data is harder to come by but we found an excellent source of long-term median house price data in the 2007 UNSW thesis of Dr Nigel David Stapledon. Using data from within the thesis, we were able to adjust nominal house prices to reflect constant quality (house values with no improvements) below.

Median Home Prices, Existing Homes, Constant Quality

Australian house prices appreciated 191.4 times between 1933 and 2006.

Unfortunately the data ends there, so we had to calculate a weighted average of median houses for 2007 to the present.

CoreLogic kindly provided us with values for their hedonic Home Value Index (for 5 Capital Cities) which also adjusts for quality:

Property Type	31/01/2007	31/07/2023
Houses		$399,182	$891,747

The gain of 2.23 is slightly higher than the 2.14 calculated from weighted average data for the 8 capital cities provided by the ABS.

Median Home Prices, Weighted Average of 8 Capital Cities

We opted for the higher figure from CoreLogic as likely to be more in line with the earlier Stapledon data. That gives a total nominal gain, adjusted for quality, of 426.8 for the ninety years from 1933 to 2023.

The price of Gold fines was fixed at £6-3/9 per troy ounce fine according to the Sydney Morning Herald on 2 January 1933, that converts to 12.375 Australian Dollars. Total gain for Gold in Australian Dollars over the past ninety years is therefore 232.9 times (A$2881.90/12.375).

We calculate the real gain for Australian house prices as 1.83 times over the past ninety years (426.8/232.9).


The US Home Price Index lost 26.5% in real terms, over the past ninety years (1933 – 2023), when compared to Gold.

The S&P 500 appreciated 6.8 times over the past ninety years when measured against Gold, and 9.7 times compared to US real estate (Home Price Index).

Using Gold as the benchmark, we conclude that Australian real estate prices appreciated faster than US real estate over the past ninety years, growing 1.83 times in real terms, whereas the US depreciated to 0.735 of its original real value.

We suspect the difference is largely due to the substantial fall in US real estate values after the 2008 sub-prime crisis, whereas Australian home prices continued to grow. We expect that performance of the two will converge in the long-term.

Lastly, when measured against Gold, US stocks outperformed Australian real estate. The S&P 500 grew 3.7 times against Australian home prices, in real terms, over the past ninety years.

This does not mean that we should ignore real estate as an investment medium. But a portfolio concentrated in real estate, without diversification into stocks and precious metals, could underperform in the long-term.


Why invest in stocks?

Some clients are understandably nervous about investing in stocks because of the volatility. Invest at the wrong time and you can experience a draw-down that takes years to recover. Many shy away, preferring the security of term deposits or the bricks and mortar of real estate investments.

The best argument for investing in stocks is two of the most enduring long-term trends in finance.

First, the secular down-trend in purchasing power of the Dollar.

Dollar Purchasing Power

Inflation has been eating away at investors’ capital for more than ninety years. Purchasing power of the Dollar declined from 794 in 1933 to 33 today — a loss of almost 96%. That means $24 today can only buy what one Dollar bought in 1933.

The second trend, by no coincidence, is the appreciation of real asset prices over the same time period.

The S&P 500 grew from 7.03 at the start of 1933 to 4546 in June 2023 — 649 times the original investment.

S&P 500 Index

Gold data is only available since 1959. In April 1933, President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 6102, forbidding “the hoarding of Gold Coin, Gold Bullion, and Gold Certificates” by US citizens. Americans were required to hand in their gold by May 1st in return for compensation at $20.67 per ounce. Since then, Gold has appreciated 94.5 times its 1933 exchange value in Dollar terms.

Spot Gold Prices

Over time, investing in real assets has protected investors’ capital from the ravages of inflation, while financial assets have for long periods failed to adequately compensate investors in real terms (after inflation). The chart below compares the yield on Moody’s Aaa corporate bonds to CPI inflation.

Moody's Aaa Corporate Bond Yield & CPI


Purchasing power of the Dollar depreciated by 24 times over the past ninety years due to inflation. Adjusting for inflation, the S&P 500 has grown to 27 times its original Dollar value in 1933, while Gold gained 3.9 times in real terms.

We would argue that the consumer price index understates inflation. Gold does not grow in value — it is constant in real terms.

If we take Gold as our benchmark of real value, then the S&P 500 has grown 6.8 times in real terms — a far more believable performance.

Stocks are a great hedge against inflation provided the investor can tolerate volatility in their portfolio. How to manage volatility will be the subject of discussion in a further update.



Long-term trends: Battery electric versus hydrogen

Scania EV

The shift towards sustainable transport systems is growing, with progress being made in electric vehicles and hydrogen fuel cells as alternatives to carbon fuels.

Heavy Transport

The major obstacle with heavy transport has been low battery range and lengthy charging times for electric vehicles (EV), leaving hydrogen fuel cells as the obvious choice.

Now, Sweden’s Scania AB, one of the world’s largest truck and bus manufacturers, is shifting emphasis to EV. Citing progress in battery technology — energy storage capacity per kg, charging times, charging cycles and economics per kg — Scania expects electrified vehicles to account for around 10 percent of their total vehicle sales volumes in Europe by 2025. And as high as 50 percent by 2030.

Hydrogen Fuel Cells

“Scania has invested in hydrogen technologies and is currently the only heavy-duty vehicle manufacturer with vehicles in operations with customers. The engineers have gained valuable insights from these early tests and efforts will continue. However, going forward the use of hydrogen for such applications will be limited since three times as much renewable electricity is needed to power a hydrogen truck compared to a battery electric truck. A great deal of energy is namely lost in the production, distribution, and conversion back to electricity.

Repair and maintenance also need to be considered. The cost for a hydrogen vehicle will be higher than for a battery electric vehicle as its systems are more complex, such as an extensive air- and cooling system. Furthermore, hydrogen is a volatile gas which requires more maintenance to ensure safety.” (Scania, January 19, 2021)

The Volkswagen AG-owned heavy vehicle manufacturer does, however, note that stationary fuel cells will still play an important part in electric charging systems. Especially in areas with abundant renewable energy, and in rural areas off the main electricity grid.


Electric vehicle technology has progressed much faster than hydrogen fuel cells and is the clear leader in the race for sustainable transport systems.

Just when you thought Hydrogen was dead and buried

Irina Slav at describes how surplus energy from solar and wind farms could be stored as hydrogen as an alternative to batteries.

….in Europe, renewable power is becoming so abundant that it could be used to produce cheap hydrogen without the need for any scientific breakthroughs. Last month Euractiv cited a report from a German analytical firm, Energy Brainpool, that said surplus electricity from solar and wind farms can be used to convert water into hydrogen through hydrolysis. Hydrogen is relatively easy to store and use when needed or fed into the hydrogen fueling station network, which, truth be told, is a very sparse network.

According to Energy Brainpool, using surplus electricity for hydrogen production can become cheaper with time as the efficiency levels of solar and wind installations rise and maintenance costs decline further. In fact, at some point in the future, hydrogen could become cheaper than natural gas, which would naturally have major implications for its adoption. Again, this is only a theory because power-to-gas facilities in some countries in Europe are subject to high feed-in tariffs and grid charges that make them uneconomical in the application outlined by Energy Brainpool.

Conversion of electricity to hydrogen through electrolysis is cheap but it’s not easy to store because of its low density. Liquid hydrogen requires temperatures of -253°C. One of the more promising options is to store vast quantities in underground caverns. ICI having been doing this in the UK for many years without any difficulties [Wikipedia].

It is also expensive to convert hydrogen back into energy. Costs of fuel cells are prohibitive. Scalability for smaller applications (e.g. motor vehicles) remains a problem.

Structural Trends and Affected Industries

Discussion of major structural trends in the global economy and the impact they have on specific sectors or industries. A full list of identified trends is available at Structural Trends. I will focus each month on changes to existing trends, the latest statistics, and their impact on sectors or industries.

Cyber Security

Rapid growth of the Internet and online services has spawned a whole new array of threats to governments, corporations and private individuals. Data breaches and identity theft are growing.

Statistic: Annual number of data breaches and exposed records in the United States from 2005 to 2016 (in millions) | Statista

The type of cyber attacks has evolved from early blunt instrument, denial-of-service attacks — where co-opted servers are used to overload the target with bogus traffic — or destructive viruses, to more sophisticated penetration of security networks using phishing, worms and trojans.

Statistic: Types of cyber attacks experienced by companies in the United States as of August 2015 | Statista


Growth of cyber attacks and data breaches has established a niche for specialized security software and consultancies to protect client networks from external threats. First Trust have a Cybersecurity ETF (CIBR) that illustrates sector performance. Their top 10 holdings are not a comprehensive list of companies in the industry but offer a good start.


All industries are vulnerable but Trend Micro identifies the most targeted industries as:

  • Health Care
  • Education
  • Government
  • Retail
  • Financial

Serious security breaches are capable of destroying shareholder value as with the September 2017 Equifax (EFX) announcement of a major data breach. The credit reporting specialist recorded a 37% fall in stock value.

Equifax (EFX)

But at this stage security breaches are considered unlikely to blight an entire industry.

Social Media

Social media giant Facebook (FB) dominates social networks with three of the top five networks ranked by number of users: Facebook, WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger. The other two are Youtube (Google) and China’s WeChat (Tencent).

Statistic: Most famous social network sites worldwide as of August 2017, ranked by number of active users (in millions) | Statista

Social media is dominated by mobile users. Approximately 90% of active users connect via mobile, according to We Are Social global stats for January 2017, and mobile social network users grew 30% over the previous 12 months.


Statistic: Number of monthly active Facebook users worldwide as of 2nd quarter 2017 (in millions) | Statista

Social media growth is expected to continue over the next three years but is then expected to slow as saturation increases. Mobile usage growth has already slowed to 5% (Asia-Pacific: 4%) and should act as a constraint on long-term social media growth.

Statistic: Annual social network user growth worldwide from 2014 to 2020 | Statista


Proliferation of fake news and misinformation threatens the industry.  The motto of early Internet adopters was “Information is free” according to Mike Elgan at Computerworld, but it has now become “Information is fake”.

He explains:

The rise of false information online is caused by five factors:

1. The Internet allows anyone anywhere to publish anything everywhere.

2. Digital content is easy to counterfeit or modify.

3. Many people have powerful incentives to spread false information.

4. It’s easier for social network algorithms to favor emotionally reactive content than true content.

5. The public increasingly relies upon digital internet content for “knowledge.”

Facebook, Twitter and Google claim that they’re taking active measures against the rise of fake information. But previous efforts have failed.

Reaction from major advertisers and governments is likely to impose greater responsibility on online media to restrict publication of misleading information on their platforms, or face onerous penalties.

Online Retail

E-Commerce retail sales are growing rapidly and now exceed 9% of total retail sales or $110 billion on a quarterly basis.

Online as a percentage of Total Retail Sales

US online retail giant Amazon has announced plans to open its first major Australian warehouse in suburban Melbourne, according to ABC News.

Australian Retailers Association, Russell Zimmerman, played down the threat (to Wesfarmers and Woolworths) saying traders had been planning for Amazon’s arrival.

But Amazon operates on a lower cost structure than traditional bricks-and-mortar retailers and their margins are bound to come under pressure.


Online retail is expected to grow significantly as a percentage of total retail sales over the next few decades.


Medium-term: Bricks-and-mortar retail margins are likely to shrink.
Medium-term: Shopping center vacancies are expected to rise.

Electric Motor Vehicles

Adoption of electric battery-powered vehicles is accelerating in Europe, with several countries targeting zero sales of internal combustion engines in the next decade.


Huge amounts of money are being poured into battery research and development but there are no clear winners as yet. The rewards will be massive.


Australia lags far behind in the adoption of electric vehicles but the long-term threat to automotive groups is diminishing revenue. Not only from new vehicle sales, with manufacturers like Tesla selling direct to the consumer, but also falling service revenue as electric vehicles have far lower service requirements.


The telecommunications industry typically requires massive capital investment to deliver low marginal costs, whether that be for mobile phone calls or Internet connections. It is dominated by a few large players, whose size delivers cost advantages over competitors.


In Australia, the natural order has been disrupted by the government-funded National Broadband Network (NBN) which delivers fiber-to-the-home in some areas of the country and fiber-to-the-node to the rest where fixed line copper or co-axial cable (Foxtel) is used to bridge the last 500 meters to the home. The NBN supplies broadband Internet connections at the same basic cost to large and small telcos alike, allowing smaller players to undercut large competitors such as Telstra, who have traditionally dominated fixed line and broadband, eroding industry profit margins.


Growth in numbers of broadband subscribers has slowed but download volumes are growing exponentially.

ABS broadband usage

Already there are complaints of slow download speeds on NBN as telcos overload purchased bandwidth to compensate for narrow margins.

Telstra and Optus have announced plans to commence the roll-out of 5G mobile broadband in 2018. At 10 Gigabits per second, speeds are expected to be up to 100 times faster than the existing 4G network and 10 times quicker than the fastest NBN plans.


Growth in the number of mobile handset subscribers (26.3 million) in Australia has slowed, to 3.4% for the six months to June 2017. But download volumes increased 44.5% for the year ended 30 June 2017.

Threat & Opportunity

The telecommunication industry faces a profit squeeze in the medium-term (say 3 to 5 years) as the NBN disrupts profit margins but the long-term future looks bright as data downloads in both broadband and mobile are expected to grow exponentially.