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How to be a residential property economist

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John Loos, FNB’s poster boy for residential property economics, pictured himself as a criminal lawyer when he was a youngster – something he attributes to watching too much LA Law. He never saw himself as an economist, let alone a property economist – a job description he developed a taste for while working for Absa and from time to time refining as and when he was given residential property work to do.

Though Loos says he has always loved being analytical and informally analysing the world, it wasn’t until he was set to go to university that he leaned about economics as a study path and career choice. In his postgraduate studies he developed a keen interest in environmental economics, with specific curiosity in environmental taxes and subsidies.

“But I guess that was a bit ahead of its time in South Africa,” he says, noting that career prospects in that field at the time were limited at best.

John Loos, household and property sector strategist at FNB Home Loans.

John Loos, household and property sector strategist at FNB Home Loans.

And thank goodness for this because, like macaroni and cheese seem to have been made for each other, John Loos and property economics are inseparable.

How long have you been working as a property economist?

My interest in property market analysis was developed in my pre-2006 Absa days. Although I was a macroeconomist at the time, being the country’s largest home loans bank back then there was the odd bit of ad hoc residential property work to be done. It was the era of South Africa’s greatest property bubble on record, and it was that huge excitement, over-exuberance and irrational behaviours surrounding the bubble at the time that really got my attention. Late in 2005 I caught wind of a position at FNB for a property economist and moved to FNB to do it full time from the beginning of 2006 – just more than 10 years ago.

What are the most challenging and most rewarding aspects of your job?

The most challenging aspect has been to manufacture housing market-related data and a top-down econometric model for the market, which didn’t exist here when I started 10 years ago. This is the fun part about analysing certain sectors: The official stats providers don’t always cover it. So we’ve had to mine masses of internal FNB data as well as raw data from external sources such as the deeds office. It has been great to play a key role in greatly expanding the available housing market information and analysis that is available today. Some 15 years or so ago, Absa housing market data was just about the only source. There was precious little else. We’ve come a long way in housing market analytics in SA.

Where do you think your industry is heading? Compliance? Qualification requirements? Standards?

To date, I am not aware of any attempts to put in place some form of “standardised minimum” qualification requirements for the profession of economists, such as a board exam, and I suspect it will be some time before we get there. But that almost makes things tougher, because unlike CAs, where a board exam carries a great deal of weight, in economics it is the work that you have done that builds your reputation…or doesn’t. Not having a set standard can thus make things more competitive. That’s great, but for those focused on qualifications as the end goal it may be disappointing because they don’t really count for that much. It’s what you do in your work that counts for everything.

What experience or qualification do you believe helped you most in getting to this position?

There is no specific qualification for a property economist in South Africa that I am aware of. But a general economics qualification is more than adequate. I think it was extremely useful for me to do some time as a macroeconomist, because one needs that broad picture of how the different aspects of the economy fit together. After all, it is the economy that drives property to a large extent.cookie-cutter-houses

What school subjects do you need to be an economist and for how long did you have to study?

Looking back, I think strong a mathematics focus is essential, while being able to mine and work with data may be greatly enhanced through any programming-related subjects. I did a general Honours and Masters degree in economics, which is five years’ worth of studying.

What advice do you have for a young person thinking of becoming a property economist?

The field of property housing market analytics/economics has significant opportunities. The group of people called “property economists” is a small bunch. But in bank home loans divisions, for instance, awesome analysis gets done on the credit risk side, and such places may be a good start. I regard this as a form of economics too, just under a different name.


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What is the best professional advice you’ve ever received and who gave it to you?

I’m not sure where it came from, but I believe that the best advice was to follow a passion rather than a pay cheque. There are of course limits to that philosophy as the bills have to be paid, but ultimately, if you cannot develop a passion for the work that you do, it is unlikely that you will achieve excellence. And I can’t imagine that you could be very happy either. I love what I do.

Did you have a mentor supporting you in your early career?

No, I didn’t have a specific mentor but did benefit from knowing many knowledgeable people. My experience, unfortunately, is that people who deliberately go out and look for somebody to mentor them very often have the wrong attitude. Firstly, many of them I find don’t understand that acquiring help from people is a two-way process. If you want someone to help you, you have to be able to add value to their lives, too. Why should someone be expected to mentor you for nothing in return? If I look at the successful people I know, their general approach is to mix with other ambitious, success-minded or knowledgeable people. In these relationships, all parties bring something of value to the table, and it is an “exchange” of ideas or deeds. These people lift up each other, be it through ideas, knowledge or just inspiring and motivating each other. If you have no knowledge to bring to the party, then you have to offer hard work in return at least. Besides this, having a single mentor is limiting, because no one person has all the knowledge. Work on your social/professional circle of associates/friends, give a lot to them, and benefit from all of their various strong points.

Any career move or mistake you wouldn’t make again? What was the impact of it on your career?

I’m not in the movie of regrets. Obviously there are many things that we all could have done a lot better, but it has been fun and that’s what matters most.

david.steynberg@gmail.com

David A Steynberg, managing editor and director of HomeTimes, has more than 10 years of experience as both a journalist and editor, having headed up Business Day’s HomeFront supplement, SAPOA’s range of four printed titles, digimags Asset in Africa and the South African Planning Institute’s official title, Planning Africa, as well as B2B titles, Building Africa and Water, Sewage & Effluent magazines. He began his career at Farmer’s Weekly magazine before moving on to People Magazine where he was awarded two Excellence Awards for Best Real Life feature as well as Writer of the Year runner-up. He is also a past fellow of the International Women’s Media Foundation.

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