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Australia’s economy is slowing: what you need to know

From The Conversation.

Australia’s economy grew by just 0.2% in the June quarter, below expectations of 0.4%, largely as a result of reduced mining and construction activity and a decline in exports of 3% during the quarter.

Nominal Gross Domestic Product grew by 1.8% during the year, which the Australian Bureau of Statistics said was “the weakest growth in nominal GDP since 1961-62”. Despite this, Australia has now recorded 24 straight years of growth.

The news has some analysts and economists spooked, and politicians blaming each other for the slowdown.

Treasurer Joe Hockey said:

At a time when other commodity based economies like Canada and Brazil are in recession, the Australian economy is continuing to grow at a rate that meets and sometimes beats our most recent budget forecasts.

He also said it was “factually wrong” to say it was the weakest growth since 1961.

The fact is that the economic growth we had in the last quarter was in line with expectations. Of course it bounces around from quarter to quarter, but it was in line with our overarching expectation to have two and a half per cent growth in the last financial year.

Shadow Treasurer Chris Bowen said:

Growth has flat-lined since the Abbott government’s first damaging budget last year and cost of living pressures are continuing to increase. This is the biggest quarterly decline in living standards since the global financial crisis.

This is a very weak set of figures and for the government to cast around for international comparisons to try and make it sound better is a pretty pathetic excuse.

The Treasurer says Australia is still doing better than Canada, Brazil, the US and New Zealand. How should people view these numbers in a global context? To what extent is the slowing rate of growth due to global economic headwinds, and to what extent is it due to domestic factors?

Griffith Business School Professor Fabrizio Carmignani answers:

In the past, the Australian economy has proved to be quite resilient to global economic shocks. Today we are facing what could be potentially a perfect storm.

For one thing, international commodities prices are very volatile and have resulted in a sharp contraction of Australian’s terms of trade. For another, China is going through a complicated economic phase and it is not, at this moment, the same solid anchor for the Australian economy as it might have been previously. So, it is not surprising to see that on a seasonally adjusted basis, quarterly growth in Australia has been oscillating between 0.2% and 0.3% for the last five quarters.

We owe it to some good old Keynesian stimulus on the demand side (read: government consumption and to a lesser extent public gross fixed capital formation) if we are not entering a technical recession.

The comparison with Canada, on surface, is favourable to Australia. Canada has officially entered a recession after recording two consecutive quarters of negative GDP growth in the first half of 2015. This is essentially due to low oil prices. However, according to media reports, Canada is still committed to achieving a target of annual growth of 2.5% this year, which is exactly what the Treasurer has stated for Australia. So, it seems to me that the difference between Australia and Canada here is thinner that what might appear at first sight. A fraction of a percentage point below or above the zero growth line is not really indicative of substantially different structural positions.

Both Australia and Canada are facing similar challenges in terms of diversification. The current “crisis” to me shows that these challenges are still far from being fully addressed in both countries.

Australia has had 24 years of consistent growth. How much of this can we attribute to the mining boom? And given the cyclical nature of the economy, can we expect a downturn?

Griffith University Professor Tony Makin answers:

Australia has performed relatively well compared to other OECD economies over recent decades, though did actually experience a recession during the GFC according to income and production measures of GDP.

Taking population growth into account, Australia’s economic performance since the global financial crisis has been worse than the raw GDP numbers show. On a per capita basis, national income has grown on average below one per cent per annum, less than half the almost two and a half per cent per head per annum average rate in the decade before the GFC.

The extraordinary boost to the terms of trade from the world commodity price hike, especially between 2005 and 2011, substantially raised Australia’s international purchasing power. However, GDP growth during the mining boom was actually less than during the economic reform era from the mid-1980s through to the end of the 1990s when commodity prices were fairly flat.

The main culprit for Australia’s sub-normal economic growth in recent years has not been falling commodity prices, which have undoubtedly played a role, but Australia’s underlying competitiveness problem, combined with a productivity slowdown that began from the turn of the century.

While the recent depreciation of the dollar will go some way to restoring Australia’s competitiveness and help stave off recession, genuine productivity-enhancing reform focusing on the economy’s supply side remains as important as ever for returning GDP and income per head growth to long-term average rates.

One journalist at Wednesday’s press conference said the new data showed “the weakest growth since 1961”, but the Treasurer said that was factually wrong. Who is right?

UNSW Australia Professor Richard Holden answers:

The statement that it is the slowest growth since 1961 seems, to me, to be false. We have had recessions in the 1990s and 1980s, which is two successive quarters of negative growth. And yesterday we had positive growth, so it was a slowdown but not the worst we have seen since 1961. I think the journalist’s statement doesn’t seem correct to me, on the face of it. I think the Treasurer is right.

It is possible the journalist was referring to the Australian Bureau of Statistics comment yesterday that:

GDP growth for 2014-15 was 2.4%. Nominal GDP growth was 1.8% for the 2014-15 financial year. This is the weakest growth in nominal GDP since 1961-62.

Nominal growth and growth are not quite the same thing. Nominal growth means GDP growth that is not adjusted for inflation.

But yes, yesterday’s numbers are still below projected growth. It is below market expectations. I think the Treasurer saying we have projected 2.5% annual growth this year and this is basically on target is a bit disingenuous. This is slow growth, it’s actually very troubling.

I understand the Treasurer can’t talk down the economy so his comments are understandable and he is in a difficult position. But the low rate of growth is genuine cause for concern.

I have written before about the concept of secular stagnation, which is the idea that growth of advanced economies looks like it has slowed down dramatically. The figures yesterday are further evidence of that theory.

Victoria University Senior Research Fellow Janine Dixon answers:

While it is factually correct that real GDP – the volume of production in the economy – has grown, the low growth in nominal GDP points to an underlying weakness in the economy. This is our exposure to the very large fall in commodity prices. When we translate real GDP into real income, we take into account that fact that the prices of the things we produce for export have fallen relative to the prices of the things we consume, some of which are imported. This has been a very important determinant of real incomes in the last few years.

Real net national disposable income is a better measure of our living standards than GDP. As well as adjusting for prices, we take into account the fact that some of the income generated domestically actually accrues to the rest of the world if the factors of production are foreign owned. We also deduct the value of capital that is “used up” or depreciated during the year.

Real net national disposable income per person has now fallen for 14 quarters in a row. This represents the most sustained fall in standards of living in the last 50 years.

What’s especially interesting about this period is that falling incomes have not been associated with falling output or particularly high unemployment. In the 1990-91 recession (the one we had to have) or the early 1980’s, incomes fell, but the solution to the problem was fairly clear. More than 10% of the workforce was unemployed. Fixing unemployment would boost production, incomes and living standards.

This time around, incomes are falling because commodity prices are falling. Commodity prices, set on world markets, are largely out of our hands. The labour market is much more flexible these days, and unemployment is 6%, not 10%. We are left with just one way to turn things around. In the words of Nobel laureate Paul Krugman, “Productivity isn’t everything, but in the long run it is almost everything”.

Is GDP really in line with expectations, both of the government and the market?

Griffith University Professor Ross Guest answers:

These GDP expectations are continuously being revised down as new information comes to hand.

The projected growth is lower than nearly everybody expected and everybody is having to revise downward their expectation.

What will the slowing annual growth mean for the federal budget, which had forecast growth for 2015-16 of 2.75%?

Ross Guest answers:

If growth were to remain at its current level of 2%, the budget deficit would be A$15 billion larger, in ball park terms, than the government projected. To put that in perspective, the total amount we spend on unemployment benefits is A$10 billion.

Australia living standards and the Australian government budget are being hit by a perfect storm of lower commodity prices and lower productivity growth.

Victoria University Senior Research Fellow Janine Dixon answers:

The GDP growth forecast for 2015-16 is fairly subdued at 2.75% and the budget not overly ambitious – a deficit of 2% of GDP. The trouble lies in 2016/17 and beyond, when annual GDP growth is forecast to be above 3%.

Over the next five years a couple of downside risks exist that will make it unlikely that GDP will grow this strongly, and consequently the budget’s return to surplus will be more difficult to achieve.

If the terms of trade fall further than allowed for in the budget forecasts, and if productivity growth remains weak, as it has been in recent years, real national income could be 3% lower than forecast by 2020. Roughly, this means the tax base for the government will be 3% smaller than expected. Rather than having a balanced budget by 2020, we would still be running a deficit, of around 0.75% of GDP or $12 billion in today’s terms.

The Long-Term Evolution of House Prices: An International Perspective

Excellent speech from Lawrence Schembri, Deputy Governor, Canadian Association for Business Economics on house price trends. The speech, which is worth reading, contains a number of insightful charts. Australian data is included. He looks at both supply and demand issues, and touches on macroprudential.  You can watch the entire speech.

I have highlighted some of the main points:

First, Chart 1 shows indexes of real house prices since 1975 for two sets of advanced economies. Chart 1a shows Canada and a set of comparable small, open economies (Australia, New Zealand, Norway and Sweden) with similar macro policy frameworks and similar experiences during and after the global financial crisis. In particular, they did not have sizable post-crisis corrections in house prices. For comparison purposes, Chart 1b shows a second set of advanced economies that did experience significant and persistent post-crisis declines in house prices.

Real-House-PricesSince 1995, house prices in Canada and the set of comparable countries have increased faster than nominal personal disposable income (Chart 2a). During this period, all of these countries experienced solid income growth, with the strongest growth in Norway and Sweden (Chart 2b).

Price-to-IncomeDuring the global financial crisis, these countries also experienced house price corrections. This caused the ratios of house prices to income to decline temporarily, after which they continued climbing.

One of the factors that has affected population growth rates is migration. Net migration was highest in Australia and Canada over the entire sample. In addition, net migration increased importantly in all five countries in the second half of the sample period (Chart 3b)

population-GrowthIn Australia, Canada and New Zealand, the rate of population growth of the approximate house-owning cohort of those aged 25 to 75 declined in the second part of the sample period. This likely reflects the aging of their populations as the postwar baby boom generation moved from youth into middle age (Chart 4). Nonetheless, the growth rate of this cohort still remains well above 1 per cent for these three countries.

CohortsChart 9 provides some suggestive evidence on the impact of land-use regulations on median price-to-income ratios. Many of the cities with higher ratios also have obvious geographical constraints—Hong Kong and Vancouver are good examples—so the two sources of supply restrictions likely interact to put upward pressure on prices.SupplyWhen we look at the post-crisis experiences of the countries in our comparison group, they have similar levels of household leverage, measured by household debt as a ratio of GDP (Chart 12). Household leverage has risen along with house prices, as households have taken advantage of low post-crisis interest rates. The one exception is New Zealand, where a modest degree of household deleveraging seems to have occurred. For Canada, the ratio of household debt to GDP has risen since 1975, although the growth of this ratio has notably declined since 2010. For Sweden and Norway, the ratio also grew at a modest pace in the post-crisis period. Note Australia has the highest ratios.

LeverageCharts 13a and b draw on recent work by the IMF, which shows that macroprudential policies in the form of maximum loan-to-value (LTV) or debt-to-income (DTI) ratios have tightened across a broad range of countries over the past 10 years. The IMF’s research, as well as that of other economists, has found evidence suggesting that the tightening has helped to: reduce the procyclicality of household credit and bank leverage; moderate credit growth;
improve the creditworthiness of borrowers; and lower the rate of house price growth.

The most effective macroprudential policies to date appear to have been the imposition of maximum LTV and DTI constraints. Increased capital weights on bank holdings of mortgages have also had an impact. While long-term evidence on these instruments is not yet available, permanent measures that address structural regulatory weaknesses and that are relatively straightforward to implement and supervise will likely be the most effective over time.

MacroprudentialInteresting to note that in Canada, they have had four successive rounds of macroprudential tightening, primarily in terms of the rules for insured mortgages. The maximum amortization period for insured loans has been shortened from 40 years to 25. LTV ratios have been lowered to 95 per cent for new mortgages, and 80 per cent for refinancing and investor properties. These latter two changes effectively eliminate new insurance for refinancing and investor properties. Qualification criteria such as limits on the total debt-service ratio and the gross debt-service ratio, as well as requirements for qualifying interest rates, have also been tightened.


Let me conclude with a few key points from the mountain of facts, graphs and analysis that I have reviewed with you today. As I mentioned at the outset, the purpose of my presentation is to help provide more context for an informed discussion about housing and house prices given their importance to the Canadian economy and the financial system.

First, real house prices have been rising relative to income in Canada and other comparable countries for about 20 years. There are many possible explanations, mostly from the demand side, but also from the supply side.

Second, in terms of demand, demographic forces, notably migration and urbanization, have played a role in the evolution of house prices, as have improving credit conditions through lower global real long-term interest rates and financial liberalization and innovation. There are, of course, other demand factors that warrant more data and analysis, including the impacts of foreign investment and possible preference shifts.

Third, in terms of supply, the constraints imposed by geography and regulation have decreased housing supply elasticity, especially in urban areas. This reduced supply elasticity has interacted with demand shifts toward more urbanization to push up house prices in major cities.

Fourth, the credible and effective macro and financial policy frameworks in place in Canada and the other countries considered here have contributed to a high degree of macroeconomic and financial stability. Consequently, in the face of a protracted global recovery, their countercyclical policies successfully underpinned domestic demand in the post-crisis period. The resulting strength in the housing market has increased household imbalances, but the risks stemming from these vulnerabilities have been well managed by complementary macroprudential policies.

The experience in these countries therefore suggests that macroprudential policies that address structural weaknesses in the regulatory framework are best suited for mitigating such financial vulnerabilities. They reduce tail risks to financial stability and enhance the overall resilience of the financial system.

Is Housing Credit That High?

In the RBA’s latest Statement on Monetary Policy, they explore the impact of off-set accounts on the total household debt outstanding.

The increase in housing credit growth over recent years has been accompanied by rapid growth in loan products that provide borrowers with access to offset accounts. Offset accounts are a type of deposit account that are directly linked to a loan, such as a mortgage. Funds deposited into offset accounts effectively reduce the borrower’s net debt position and the interest payable on the loan. Offset account balances currently amount to around $90 billion, equivalent to over 6 per cent of housing loans outstanding. Since offset account balances have been growing by around 30 per cent annually over recent years, annual growth in net housing debt, which takes into account offset accounts, is about 6 per cent. This compares with annual growth in housing credit of around 7 per cent.

The RBA compiles monthly statistics that measure the stock of outstanding credit. Changes in the stock of credit reflect various flows during the month. In the case of housing credit, for example, borrowers are required to make scheduled repayments and often also have the option of making additional repayments, which are referred to here as mortgage prepayments. Mortgage prepayments include those for loans with redraw facilities, which give the borrower the option of withdrawing accumulated
prepaid funds in the future. All mortgage payments, whether scheduled or prepaid, reduce the stock of outstanding credit, thereby reducing the rate of growth of credit. When households choose to pay back their mortgage faster than scheduled by making prepayments, this lowers credit growth.

Offset accounts are an alternative form of mortgage prepayment that are not treated as such when measuring housing credit. An offset account typically acts like an at-call deposit account, with funds in the account netted against the borrower’s outstanding mortgage balance for the purposes of calculating interest on the loan. Because it acts like an at-call deposit account, any accumulated funds are easily available for withdrawal or for purchasing goods and services.  As mentioned above, balances in offset accounts have been increasing rapidly, with growth over recent years around 30 per cent. This growth has the potential to continue as older loans that are less likely to have offset accounts are replaced with new loans, where it is more common to have an offset account. Available redraw balances, at around $120 billion, are larger than offset account balances, but have grown at a pace closer to 10 per cent over recent years.

For a household with a mortgage, mortgage prepayments made using a redraw facility or a deposit into an offset account have a similar economic effect. In both cases, a household’s net housing debt and interest payable are reduced. Thus, while the effect on household balance sheets differs – loans and deposits are higher than they otherwise would be if offset accounts are used – net housing debt is the same. Since offset account balances have been growing much more rapidly than housing credit, net housing debt is growing more slowly than housing credit; over the six months to June, annualised net housing debt growth was around 6 per cent, compared to 7 per cent for housing credit growth (Graph E2). RABE2Aug2015The effect is slightly larger for credit extended to investors than to owner-occupiers, reflecting the fact that investor offset account balances have grown more quickly than balances for owner-occupiers. Offset account balances have also been making a significant contribution to household deposit growth; excluding offset account balances reduces growth in household deposits by around 1 percentage point to 71/2 per cent.

The treatment of offset account balances also has implications for measuring the household debt-to-income ratio. Housing credit is the major component of household debt. Without adjusting the stock of outstanding housing credit for offset account balances, housing debt as a share of household disposable income has been increasing since mid 2012 to be at a historical high of 144 per cent (Graph E3). Adjusting for offset account balances suggests that this ratio has been rising at a slower pace, and has only just surpassed its most recent peak in late 2010.




Is 50% of all income tax in Australia paid by 10% of the working population?

From The Conversation Fact Check:

According to the 2015-16 Federal Budget, Australians paid around A$176 billion in personal income taxation in the 2014-15 financial year (Table 5 of Budget Paper 1). The Treasurer, Joe Hockey, claims that around 50% of this taxation is paid by the top 10% of the working age population as ranked by their income.

NATSEM’s STINMOD model of the Australian tax and transfer system can be used to evaluate the accuracy of such a claim.

STINMOD, which stands for Static Incomes Model, is NATSEM’s model of taxation and government benefits. It simulates the taxation and government benefits system and allows us to evaluate current and alternative policies and how they would affect different family types on various income levels.

STINMOD is based on ABS survey data (Survey of Income and Housing) which provides a statistically reliable and representative snapshot of household and personal incomes and demographics.

Since the survey is a few years old, NATSEM adjusts the population in accordance with population and economic changes since the survey.

STINMOD is not publicly available, but as a NATSEM researcher, I was able to use the model to check Hockey’s claim against the evidence. STINMOD is benchmarked to taxable incomes data from the latest Australian Tax Office taxation statistics on the distribution of tax payments by income.

When I restricted the STINMOD base population to the working age population only (aged 18 to 65) and rank these people by their taxable income, I found that the top 10% (those with taxable incomes beyond $102,000 per annum) do pay around 52% of all personal income taxation.


Different measures, similar result

Since high income earners usually have greater scope for minimising tax through deductions, such as negative gearing, we can use an alternative income measure called “total income from all sources” to rank personal incomes. On this ranking, the share of personal income taxation paid by the top 10% drops to 50.5%.

Australia’s personal income taxation system is strongly progressive, with higher income earners paying both a higher marginal tax rate and average tax rate compared to lower income earners. According to STINMOD, the 90th percentile of working age taxable income is $102,000 per year, while the median taxable income is $39,000 per year. The average tax rate of the 90th percentile is 26.7% while that of the median tax payer is less than half that at 12.3%.

This analysis does include a large number of people who are of a working age but not in the labour force – around 21% of this population (2.9 million persons). These people are not in the labour market for a range of reasons such as disabilities, students, young parents or through personal choice or a range of other reasons. Removing these people from the analysis reduces the tax share to 46% paid by the top 10%.


In 2014-15, personal income taxation made up around 47% of all tax received by the federal government. Other taxes are paid to state and local government. While personal income taxation is highly progressive, the incidence of these other taxes tend to be less progressive, or indeed mildly regressive. One example is the GST, which makes up around 14.4% of federal taxation receipts.


The Treasurer’s statement that the top 10% of incomes from working age persons pay 50% of personal income tax is correct. This reflects the progressive nature of Australia’s personal income tax system, which is applied to a society that features significant income inequality.

The progressive nature of income taxation in Australia plays a very significant role in altering the distribution of disposable income (after-tax) and provides Australia with a more equal distribution of disposable income.


The FactCheck seems reasonable and correct. It benchmarks the ABS household income and expenditure survey against the official ATO Taxation Statistics, and then confines to working age (18 to 65), to test the Treasurer’s claim.

There were about 12.8 million individuals filing tax returns in 2012-13. The ATO Statistics in its “100 persons” picture of Australian taxpayers, explains that the top three taxable incomes paid 27% of all net tax and the top nine taxable incomes paid 47% in total – pretty close to the working age estimate.

I agree with the author that the FactCheck demonstrates Australia’s progressive income tax system, which has long been considered fair.

Australia has a high tax-free threshold of $18,200 so many working age low earners pay very little income tax. In contrast, New Zealand taxes from the first dollar of income.

And many working age people pay no tax simply because they are unable to find a job – as Australia has an adjusted 6% unemployment rate.

Household Net Worth now over $8 Trillion, but Savings down

The ABS released the latest national accounts, to March 2015. The Household Finance and Wealth data confirms again what we know, overall household net worth is up (thanks to asset appreciation) but savings are down.

At the end of March quarter 2015, household net worth was $8,090.9b, made up predominantly of $5,451.8b of land and dwelling assets and $4,131.0b of financial assets, less $2,121.6b of household liabilities. During the quarter, household net worth increased by $231.5b, driven mainly by holding gains of $207.0b. Financial assets ($129.0b) and land and dwellings ($79.8b) were the drivers of holding gains this quarter, with financial assets seeing the largest quarterly holding gains on record. The large increase in holding gains from financial assets was driven by net equity in reserves ($90.6b) and equities ($36.2b).

The increase of $17.6b in transactions in net worth was driven by $9.7b increase in net capital formation of land and dwellings; and net financial transactions of $7.3b, of which transactions in financial assets were $30.8b and liabilities were $23.5b. The March quarter 2015 transactions in financial assets were driven by $13.8b of transactions in net equity in reserves of pension funds and $11.2b of transactions in deposits. Transactions in liabilities in March quarter 2015 were driven by transactions of $24.3b in long term loan borrowing.

ABS-HousholdsBoth household assets and liabilities continued to grow over March quarter 2015, resulting in 2.9% growth in household net worth. Net worth has continued to grow over the last eight quarters, passing the $8 trillion mark in March quarter 2015.

ABS Household 1
Household financial assets grew faster than both residential land and dwelling assets and liabilities, growing by 4.0% ($159.8b), 1.9% ($96.1b) and 1.4% ($30.2b) respectively. Insurance technical reserves – superannuation, and shares and other equities were the key drivers of growth in financial assets this quarter. Insurance technical reserves – superannuation grew by 4.8% ($104.9b), recording its highest quarterly percentage growth since the June quarter 2012 growth of 8.4% ($131.4b). Shares and other equity grew 5.7% ($37.1b), recording its highest quarterly percentage growth since the March quarter 2013 growth of 6.1% ($32.4b).

The financial ratios graphs presented here are derived from the household balance sheet, financial account and income account. The interest payable to income ratio represents the proportion of household gross disposable income that is required to meet interest payments. Interest payable in the graph is the “adjusted interest payable”. It includes the financial intermediation services indirectly measured (FISIM) on the dwelling loan plus the dwelling interest payable from the household income account. It therefore represents the total nominal amounts paid as interest by the household sector. The interest payable to income ratio is relatively volatile in the short term, however some long term trends may be observed. After a period of volatility during the Global Financial Crisis, the ratio stabilised from March 2010 onwards, settling into a gradual downward trend. The ratio at March quarter 2015 was 11.1%, an increase of 0.6p.p from the December quarter ratio of 10.5%.

ABS Household 2The mortgage debt to residential land and dwellings ratio shows the extent that household residential real estate assets are geared. The ratio has declined since peaking at 30.6% in September quarter 2012, but has remained unchanged since December 2014 at 29.2%, indicating that household mortgage debt grew at the same rate as residential real estate owned by the household sector for the past two quarters.

The debt to assets ratio gives an indication of the extent that the overall household balance sheet is geared. That is the degree to which assets are dependent on debt. At 31 March 2015, household debt was equal to 20.8% of assets, dropping below 21% for the first time since December quarter 2010.

The debt to liquid assets ratio reflects the ability of the household sector to extinguish debts in a short period of time using their readily available, or liquid, assets. The following are classified as liquid assets: currency and deposits, short and long term debt securities, and equities. The ratio of household debt to liquid assets fell from 134.1% at 31 December 2014 to 131.8% per cent at 31 March 2015, the third consecutive quarter of decline and the lowest ratio since September quarter 2008.

ABS Household 3Household net saving was $16.4b for the quarter, decreasing from $22.8b in the December quarter. Despite the decrease in net saving, household net worth increased by $231.5b to $8,090.9b in March quarter 2015. With the inclusion of real net wealth effects, net saving increased to $215.9b for the quarter. The largest driver of the increase in other changes in real net wealth was real holding gains, which made up $192.2b of the $199.6b increase. Real holding gains for financial assets was $121.4b, which overtook land and dwellings as the biggest driver of real holding gains this quarter, and is the highest recorded holding gain for financial assets in the series.

ABS Household 4

Australians are saving more, but are more comfortable with debt

From The Conversation. Australians know that adequate savings can help provide for a rainy day, help a family put down a deposit on a home, or ensure a comfortable retirement.

Debt also offers a way for households to make purchases that would otherwise be impossible and to achieve a higher current standard of living. Debt invested into an asset that will also grow in real value and is able to be serviced without placing too much financial pressure on a household, is generally considered to be good debt.

The key is balance. Since the 2008 financial crisis, Australians have actually decreased their propensity to take on debt and have increased their savings. But debt rates still remain uncomfortably high and there is evidence that this savings discipline is beginning to fade. Have we grown too comfortable with debt?

Household debt is three times what it was 20 years ago. Image sourced from

Saving more, but more indebted

Bankwest Curtin Economics Centre’s second ‘Focus on the States’ report, Beyond our Means? Household Savings a Debt in Australia finds Australians have more debt and are more comfortable with it.

While household savings portfolios have seen an increase of 54% in real terms since 2005, household debt has risen by 51% in the same period. Many households are able to access and service this debt, with higher debts associated with higher incomes. On average, Australia’s estimated 9.1 million households have savings in the form of financial assets of $340,900 and debts of $148,700.

However, there is a gulf between those at the top of the distribution and those at the bottom. The inequality in the distributions of household savings and debt are considerably worse than the much talked about inequality in incomes.

The average household disposable income of the top 20% of savers is less than four times those in the lowest savings quintile. However, their savings at an average of almost $1.3 million is 200 times the bottom 20%. This top quintile may receive one-third of all income, but they own three quarters of the total value of savings in the form of financial assets.

Average household savings by savings quintile, Australia 2015 (mean $‘000)

The trifecta of debts, low (or no) savings and low incomes presents many low economic resource families with an unenviable challenge to maintain an acceptable quality of life for themselves and their families on a day-to-day basis.

Since the global financial crisis, the household savings rate have risen, with households exhibiting discipline in their expenditure at a time when the economic outlook was uncertain. In an economic downturn income can decline quickly while reining in spending can be more difficult, for both households and governments. Debts can quickly get out of hand and become unmanageable in this situation.

Becoming used to debt

While Australian households have decreased their propensity to take on debt and have increased their savings in the post-GFC period, household debt still remains three times higher now than what it was 20 years ago. Australians are now more comfortable with debt and currently hold debt equal to 1.5 years of income, whereas in the past they had only debt equivalent to six months of annual income.

The share of debt associated with investment property loans has tripled from one-tenth to three-tenths between 1990 and 2015.

Unlike previous generations accustomed to more rigid financial products, current households can access a greater number of financial products, which have arguably become more complex and more flexible.

This flexibility delivers benefits, but with complexity comes risk and it is important to promote good financial decisions and encourage a longer term outlook. Mortgage equity withdrawal has become a popular tool to derive a higher current standard of living by using the family home as collateral.

More households now use these schemes to smooth consumption or relieve short-term financial pressures. But this may have contributed to the average mortgage debt as a proportion of property values almost tripling over the last 25 years, rising from 10% to 28% since 1990.

Ratio of housing debt to housing assets, June 1990 to December 2014

Another issue is the use of superannuation savings to pay down mortgage balances, leading retirees to rely more on the pension.

So are we living beyond our means? With household debt to income ratios three times higher now than a quarter of a century ago, household debt up by over 50% in real terms over the last decade and the debt of those approaching retirement (55-64 year olds) up 64% in real terms, it would seem on the face of it to be true.

However, the reality is more nuanced. Household savings are growing faster than income and 8.5 cents in every dollar is being saved, and there is now $2 trillion tucked away in superannuation, while riskier investments are making way for more a more conservative approach. This is far better than we were 10 years ago, but with a note of caution that savings are again on the decline.

Authors: – Alan Duncan, Director, Bankwest Curtin Economics Centre and Bankwest Research Chair in Economic Policy at Curtin University and Rebecca Cassells, Adjunct Associate Professor, Bankwest Curtin Economics Centre at Curtin University


The Budget is Still Unfair – The Conversation

From The Conversation’s “Looking inside the sausage machine.” NATSEM’s analysis of the 2015-16 federal budget, the same as used by the Howard and Rudd–Gillard governments as a policy tool, has been likened by Treasurer Joe Hockey to a sausage machine.

What makes Hockey’s analogy particularly striking is its applicability to this year’s budget process. While the government threw away the very toughest bits of gristle from last year, a number of the most unpalatable cuts are still in the mince, plus some added sweeteners.

Like last year, we have made some calculations showing the impact of the budget measures on disposable income in July 2017, once most of the proposed indexation pauses have taken effect.

Our assumptions are conservative. We consider as status quo the repeal of changes to income tax rates and the low-income tax offset. Like last year, we do not factor in the abolition of the Schoolkids Bonus, or the Income Support Bonus, because this was not strictly speaking a budget measure.

Restricting eligibility for Family Tax Benefit Part B, or FTB-B, may lead to substantial losses of disposable income for families with school-aged children – even before the Schoolkids Bonus is taken away. Our figures show that a couple with two children aged 11 and 8, where one parent earns A$60,000 per year, would lose A$84.43 per week, or 7.4% of disposable income. A single parent with one child aged 8 and no private income stands to lose A$49.93 per week, or 10.9% of disposable income.

Pausing indexation of all FTB payment rates affects the most vulnerable families. A couple with no private income and one 3-year-old child would lose A$11.24 per week, or 1.8% of disposable income, while a single parent would lose A$8.80 per week, or 1.6% of disposable income.

Working families on modest wages face a double hit if indexation pauses apply both to payment rates and thresholds. A couple with one child aged 3, where one parent earns A$60,000 per year, would lose A$21.86 per week, or 2.1% of disposable income. The same family with two children aged 6 and 3 would have A$27.81 per week less to spend, a loss of 2.4 % of disposable income. The losses for a working single parent are A$20.75, or 2%, and A$26.69, or 2.3% respectively.

Families with teenagers will also forgo indexation and receive no compensation for the wind back of FTB-B. For a single parent with one child aged 14, this means a loss of A$63.70 per week – 13.4% of disposable income if the parent is unemployed and 7.4% on an income of A$40,000. A couple on income of A$60,000 with a 14-year -old could lose up to 79.61 per week, or 7.5%.

These figures represent maximum losses of disposable income. Couples may experience lower losses if both members work. Single parents may also have different outcomes if, for instance, their family tax benefits are subject to the maintenance-income test.

Importantly, we do not include the impact of changes to child care, but if families are not currently using child care and do not use it after the changes, then our figures will be a reasonably accurate guide to the impact on these families (for example, those with school age children not using after-school care).

What NATSEM measured

Our figures broadly agree with the cameo analysis produced by NATSEM, when tax changes and the Schoolkids and Income Support Bonuses are taken into account. The NATSEM microsimulation model comes to the fore, however, in its ability to model the overall impact of complex policy changes such as the Child Care Subsidy, and its estimation of distributional impacts for the whole population – not just selected family types.

The childcare package is the centrepiece of the budget for households. It is estimated to cost A$4.4 billion over 4 years. In isolation, the package appears progressive and increases assistance more for low and middle income families than for higher income families, with the subsidy for childcare costs reducing from 85% to 50% as family incomes rise.

To finance these reforms the government proposes to maintain some initiatives from the 2014-15 budget. These include freezing family tax benefit (FTB) rates for two years, adjusting supplements linked to the benefits and freezing the upper income test threshold so that more people lose payments as their incomes increase, and most significantly to stop paying FTB Part B when the youngest child turns six.

There is uncertainty about the overall size of these savings. Because these changes were factored into last year’s budget they are not identified as new measures in the 2015-16 budget. Just before the budget, the Weekend Australian estimated these changes would cut payments by A$9.4 billion over four years. In addition, the government is proposing new changes to family payments and paid parental leave that would save more than A$1.6 billion over four years.

Clearly, the total volume of assistance for families is going down. To assess the overall household impact of the budget, it is necessary to balance who wins from the generally progressive child care assistance proposals versus who loses from last year’s and the new savings proposals.

The impact

NATSEM analysed the impact of much more than the changes in family assistance and child care and include 25 changes in the first two Abbott government budgets, comparing these with what would have happened if the previous government’s policy parameters had been unchanged. This distributional analysis involves modelling policy changes for some 45,000 real families included in two years of the Australian Bureau of Statistics Survey of Income and Housing.

NATSEM produces distributional impacts for quintiles (20%) of households by family type – couples with and without children, lone parents and single person households. Both couples with children and lone parents lose on average, with the poorest quintile of couples losing just over A$3,000 a year or 7.1% of their disposable income and the poorest quintile of lone parents losing just under A$3,000 a year or around 8% of their disposable income. Most households without children – except the poorest 20% – are estimated to have minor increases in real disposable incomes by 2018-19.

The government in Question Time has emphasised that the NATSEM calculations do not include any “second round” impacts of the budget changes. That is, the policy package put forward by the government makes work more attractive both by reducing the cost of childcare but also by cutting benefits to families, giving them greater “incentive” to increase their hours of work to make up for the loss of FTB-B in particular.

Will the Budget increase workforce participation?

Asked about the modelling during question time, the prime minister said this omission meant the modelling was “a fraudulent misrepresentation” of the government’s budget because returning people to work was “the whole point of the policy measures”.

At one level, this sounds like a reasonable criticism. The explicit aim of the budget changes is to make increased hours of work more attractive to families.

However, Treasurer Joe Hockey has also conceded that “as a rule second-round effects are not taken into account” in any budget. This is because while there are likely to be some behavioural responses to these changes, the size of that response is unclear. A 2007 Treasury Working Paper points out that estimates of labour supply responses to tax and benefit changes can vary widely.

The Productivity Commission in its report on childcare that formed the basis of the proposed childcare changes in the budget was cautious about the size of the labour supply response to its recommendations, arguing that additional workforce participation will occur, but it will be small, and is estimated to increase the number of mothers working by 1.2% (an additional 16,400 mothers).

It is also worth pointing out that the economic parameters underlying the overall budget suggest that employment effects are not likely to be substantial. The labour force participation rate is projected to rise marginally from 64.6% to around 64.75% over the forward estimates, but the unemployment rate is projected to increase from 5.9% to between 6.25% and 6.5%, which implies a small fall in the proportion of the adult population who are actually employed.

Overall, while there will be some second-round positive effects it is highly unlikely that they will offset the losses in disposable income experienced by many families with children.

Governments should welcome the type of evidence-based policy analysis exemplified by NATSEM’s work, and ideally provide it themselves. It focuses the debate on concrete questions of how policy changes affect people’s lives. To criticise the straightforward modelling approach because it yields the “wrong” answer smacks of shooting the messenger. The government should be upfront with the public about exactly what is in the budget sausage.

Australian Mortgage Holders Sensitive to Interest Rate Movements – CoreLogic RP Data

An article by Cameron Kusher, CoreLogic RP Data senior research analyst highlights that according to data from the Reserve Bank the ratio of household debt to disposable income is 153.8% and the ratio of housing deb to disposable income is 140.3% both of which are record highs.

Each quarter the Reserve Bank (RBA) publishes selected household finance ratios which show some key statistics about the level of debt held by Australian households. Although Australia has relatively low levels of public debt, private debt is extremely high and unlike many other countries there hasn’t been a decline in that debt in the aftermath of the financial crisis.

The latest household finances data from the RBA shows that in December 2014, the ratio of household debt to disposable income was 153.8%, its highest level on record. Housing debt accounts for 91% of total household debt and is recorded at a record high ratio of 140.3%. The chart shows that the level of debt has been relatively unchanged since 2005 but is now heading higher.

Focussing on the housing component of this debt, of the 140.3% ratio, 92.2% of that figure was owner occupier housing and 48.0% was investor housing. Once again, both are currently at record high levels. As with total housing debt, both had been relatively unchanged over recent years but have lifted over the past couple of years. It is important to note that the gap between owner occupier debt and investor debt is at near record high levels too.

Although household debt is high, the value of household assets is much higher than the debt. According to the data from the RBA the ratio of household assets to disposable income is 813.8%, much higher than the ratio of household debt at 153.8%. From the housing perspective, the ratio of housing assets to disposable income is recorded at 444.0% compared to a ratio of 140.3% for housing debt to household income. The chart shows that the ratio for both household and housing assets had been higher before the financial crisis however, both are now clearly trending higher again.

The data also shows that the ratio of household debt to household assets is 16.7% while the ratio of housing debt to housing assets is 28%. This highlights that although household and housing debts are high, the value of those assets is substantially higher than the level of debt. While this may be true at a national level it doesn’t mean that everyone is immune from the effects of an economic and/or housing market downturn.

Although these figures would provide some comfort that most households have the ability to sell assets to repay debt if they hit trouble, it is important to remember that it is a national view. There are areas of the country where households are much more susceptible to housing and economic downturns. Some specific areas and household types are recent first home purchasers, areas where there has been very little home value growth in recent years, single industry townships and areas where households have re-drawn a large proportion of their home’s equity.

With regards to the recent increases in household and housing debt, obviously very low interest rates (which have just got lower) are encouraging increased borrowing, particularly for housing. On the other hand, saving is not attractive because there is virtually no returns available. While most households can comfortably meet their mortgage requirements with mortgage rates at these levels, it is important to remember that a mortgage is usually a 25 to 30 year commitment and mortgage rates can fluctuate significantly over that time. The fact that household debt levels merely flat-lined rather than reduced following the financial crisis creates some concerns about what will happen once mortgage rates start to normalise (whenever that may be). Furthermore, the rate cut delivered this week may encourage even further leveraging into the housing market.

These are of course average figures across all household. However, as we have shown already, if you segment the household base, you discover that household debt is concentrated in different segments. Some are well able to cover the debts they owe, even if rates were to rise, but others are, even in the current low rate environment close to the edge, and with incomes static, vulnerable even to small rises in interest rate.

Basel IV – Is More Complexity Better?

In December 2014, The Bank For International Settlements issued proposed Revisions to the Standardised Approach for credit risk for comment. It proposes an additional level of complexity to the capital calculations which are at the heart of international banking supervision.  Comments on the proposals were due by 27 March 2015. These latest proposals, which have unofficially been dubbed “Basel IV”, is a continuation of the refining of the capital adequacy ratios which guide banking supervisors and relate to the standardised approach for credit risk. It forms part of broader work on reducing variability in risk-weighted asset. We want to look in detail at the proposals relating to residential real estate, because if adopted they would change the capital landscape considerably. Note this is separate from the proposal relating to the adjustment of IRB (internal model) banks. Whilst it aspires to simplify, the proposals are, to put it mildly, complex

For the main exposure classes under consideration, the key aspects of the proposals are:

  • Bank exposures would no longer be risk-weighted by reference to the external credit rating of the bank or of its sovereign of incorporation, but they would instead be based on a look-up table where risk weights range from 30% to 300% on the basis of two risk drivers: a capital adequacy ratio and an asset quality ratio.
  • Corporate exposures would no longer be risk-weighted by reference to the external credit rating of the corporate, but they would instead be based on a look-up table where risk weights range from 60% to 300% on the basis of two risk drivers: revenue and leverage. Further, risk sensitivity would be increased by introducing a specific treatment for specialised lending.
  • The retail category would be enhanced by tightening the criteria to qualify for the 75% preferential risk weight, and by introducing a fallback subcategory for exposures that do not meet the criteria.
  • Exposures secured by residential real estate would no longer receive a 35% risk weight. Instead, risk weights would be determined according to a look-up table where risk weights range from 25% to 100% on the basis of two risk drivers: loan-to-value and debt-service coverage ratios.
  • Exposures secured by commercial real estate are subject to further consideration where two options currently envisaged are: (a) treating them as unsecured exposures to the counterparty, with a national discretion for a preferential risk weight under certain conditions; or (b) determining the risk weight according to a look-up table where risk weights range from 75% to 120% on the basis of the loan-to-value ratio.
  • The credit risk mitigation framework would be amended by reducing the number of approaches, recalibrating supervisory haircuts, and updating corporate guarantor eligibility criteria.

Real Estate Capital Calculation Proposals

The recent financial crisis has demonstrated that the current treatment is not sufficiently risk-sensitive and that its calibration is not always prudent. In order to increase the risk sensitivity of real estate exposures, the Committee proposes to introduce two specialised lending categories linked to real estate (under the corporate exposure category) and specific operational requirements for real estate collateral to qualify the exposures for the real estate categories.

Currently the standardised approach contains two exposure categories in which the risk-weight treatment is based on the collateral provided to secure the relevant exposure, rather than on the counterparty of that exposure. These are exposures secured by residential real estate and exposures secured by commercial real estate. Currently, these categories receive risk weights of 35% and 100%, respectively, with a national discretion to allow a preferential risk weight under certain strict conditions in the case of commercial real estate.

Residential Owner Occupied Real Estate

In order to qualify for the risk-weight treatment of a residential real estate exposure, the property securing the mortgage must meet the following operational requirements:

  1. Finished property: the property securing a mortgage must be fully completed. Subject to national discretion, supervisors may apply the risk-weight treatment  for loans to individuals that are secured by an unfinished property, provided the loan is for a one to four family residential housing unit.
  2. Legal enforceability: any claim (including the mortgage, charge or other security interest) on the property taken must be legally enforceable in all relevant jurisdictions. The collateral agreement and the legal process underpinning the collateral must be such that they provide for the bank to realise the value of the collateral within a reasonable time frame.
  3. Prudent value of property: the property must be valued for determining the value in the LTV ratio. Moreover, the value of the property must not be materially dependent on the performance of the borrower. The valuation must be appraised independently using prudently conservative valuation criteria and supported by adequate appraisal documentation.

The current standardised approach applies a 35% risk weight to all exposures secured by mortgage on residential property, regardless of whether the property is owner-occupied, provided that there is a substantial margin of additional security over the amount of the loan based on strict valuation rules. Such an approach lacks risk sensitivity: a 35% risk weight may be too high for some exposures and too low for others. Additionally, there is a lack of comparability across jurisdictions as to how great a margin of additional security is required to achieve the 35% risk weight.

In order to increase risk sensitivity and harmonise global standards in this exposure category, the Committee proposes to introduce a table of risk weights ranging from 25% to 100% based on the loan-to-value (LTV) ratio. The Committee proposes that the risk weights derived from the table be applied to the full exposure amount (ie without tranching the exposure across different LTV buckets).

The Committee believes that the LTV ratio is the most appropriate risk driver in this exposure category as experience has shown that the lower the outstanding loan amount relative to the value of the residential real estate collateral, the lower the loss incurred in the event of a default. Furthermore, data suggest that the lower the outstanding loan amount relative to the value of the residential real estate collateral, the less likely the borrower is to default. For the purposes of calculating capital requirements, the value of the property (ie the denominator of the LTV ratio) should be measured in a prudent way. Further, to dampen the effect of cyclicality in housing values, the Committee is considering requiring the value of the property to be kept constant at the value calculated at origination. Thus, the LTV ratio would be updated only as the loan balance (ie the numerator) changes.

The LTV ratio is defined as the total amount of the loan divided by the value of the property. For regulatory capital purposes, when calculating the LTV ratio, the value of the property will be kept constant at the value measured at origination, unless an extraordinary, idiosyncratic event occurs resulting in a permanent reduction of the property value. Modifications made to the property that unequivocally increase its value could also be considered in the LTV. The total amount of the loan must include the outstanding loan amount and any undrawn committed amount of the mortgage loan. The loan amount must be calculated gross of any provisions and other risk mitigants, and it must include all other loans secured with liens of equal or higher ranking than the bank’s lien securing the loan. If there is insufficient information for ascertaining the ranking of the other liens, the bank should assume that these liens rank pari passu with the lien securing the loan.

In addition, as mortgage loans on residential properties granted to individuals account for a material proportion of banks’ residential real estate portfolios, to further increase the risk sensitivity of the approach, the Committee is considering taking into account the borrower’s ability to service the mortgage, a proxy for which could be the debt service coverage (DSC) ratio. Exposures to individuals could receive preferential risk weights as long as they conform to certain requirement(s), such as a ‘low’ DSC ratio. This ratio could be defined on the basis of available income ‘net’ of taxes. The DSC ratio would be used as a binary indicator of the likelihood of loan repayment, ie loans to individuals with a DSC ratio below a certain threshold would qualify for preferential risk weights. The threshold could be set at 35%, in line with observed common practice in several jurisdictions. Given the difficulty in obtaining updated borrower income information once a loan has been funded, and also given concerns about introducing cyclicality in capital requirements, the Committee is considering whether the DSC ratio should be measured only at loan origination (and not updated) for regulatory capital purposes.

The DSC ratio is defined as the ratio of debt service payments (including principal and interest) relative to the borrower’s total income over a given period (eg on a monthly or yearly basis). The DSC ratio is defined using net income (ie after taxes) in order to focus on freely disposable income. The DSC ratio must be prudently calculated in accordance with the following requirements:

  1.  Debt service amount: the calculation must take into account all of the borrower’s financial obligations that are known to the bank. At loan origination, all known financial obligations must be ascertained, documented and taken into account in calculating the borrower’s debt service amount. In addition to requiring borrowers to declare all such obligations, banks should perform adequate checks and enquiries, including information available from credit bureaus and credit reference agencies.
  2. Total income: income should be ascertained and well documented at loan origination. Total income must be net of taxes and prudently calculated, including a conservative assessment of the borrower’s stable income and without providing any recognition to rental income derived from the property collateral. To ensure the debt service is prudently calculated, the bank should take into account any probable upward adjustment in the debt service payment. For instance, the loan’s interest rate should (for this purpose) be increased by a prudent margin to anticipate future interest rate rises where its current level is significantly below the loan’s long-term level. In addition, any temporary relief on repayment must not be taken into account for purposes of the debt service amount calculation.

Notwithstanding the definitions of the DSC and LTV ratios, banks must, on an ongoing basis, have a comprehensive understanding of the risk characteristics of their residential real estate portfolio.

The risk weight applicable to the full exposure amount will be assigned, as determined by the table below, according to the exposure’s loan-to-value (LTV) ratio, and in the case of exposures to individuals, also taking into account the debt service coverage (DSC) ratio. Banks should not tranche their exposures across different LTV buckets; the applicable risk weight will apply to the full exposure amount. A bank that does not have the necessary LTV information for a given residential real estate exposures must apply a 100% risk weight to such an exposure.

Basel-4-RE-WeightingsSome points to note.

  1. Differences in real estate markets, as well as different underwriting practices and regulations across jurisdictions make it difficult to define thresholds for the proposed risk drivers that are meaningful in all countries.
  2. Another concern is that the proposal uses risk drivers prudently measured at origination. This is mainly to dampen the effect of cyclicality in housing values (in the case of LTV ratios) and to reduce regulatory burden (in the case of DSC ratios). The downside is that both risk drivers can become less meaningful over time, especially in the case of DSC ratios, which can change dramatically after the loan has been granted.
  3. The DSC ratio is defined using net income (ie after taxes) in order to focus on freely disposable income. That said, the Committee recognises that differences in tax regimes and social benefits in different jurisdictions make the concept of ‘available income’ difficult to define and there are concerns that the proposed definition might not be reflective of the borrower’s ability to repay a loan. Further, the level at which the DSC threshold ratio has been set might not be appropriate for all borrowers (eg high income) or types of loans (eg those with short amortisation periods). Therefore the Committee will explore whether using either a different definition of the DSC ratio (eg using gross income, before taxes) or any other indicator, such as a debt-to-income ratio, could better reflect the borrower’s ability to service the mortgage.
  4. There are no specific proposal to treat loans that are past-due for more than 90 days.

 Investment Loans

Bearing in mind that 35% of all loans are for investment purposes in Australia, the proposals relating to loans for investment purposes are important. So how will they be treated under Basel 4?

There are a number of pointers in the proposals, though its not totally clear in our view. First, we think the proposals would apply to separate loans where repayment is predicated on income generated by the property securing the mortgage, i.e. investment loans rather than a normal loans where the mortgage is linked directly to the underlying capacity of the borrower to repay the debt from other sources. Such loans might fall into a special commercial real estate category, specialist lending category, or a fall back to the unsecured category, each with different sets of capital weights.

The Committee proposes that any exposure secured with real estate that exhibits all of the characteristics set out in the specialised lending category should be treated for regulatory capital purposes as income-producing real estate or as land acquisition, development and construction finance as the case may be, rather than as exposures secured by real estate. Any non-specialised lending exposure that is secured by real estate but does not satisfy the operational requirements should be treated for regulatory capital purposes as an unsecured exposure, either as a corporate exposure or other retail exposure, as appropriate.

Specialised lending exposure, would be defined so if all the following characteristics, either in legal form or economic substance were met:

  1. The exposure is typically to an entity (often a special purpose entity (SPE)) that was created specifically to finance and/or operate physical assets;
  2. The borrowing entity has few or no other material assets or activities, and therefore little or no independent capacity to repay the obligation, apart from the income that it receives from the asset(s) being financed;
  3. The terms of the obligation give the lender a substantial degree of control over the asset(s) and the income that it generates; and
  4. As a result of the preceding factors, the primary source of repayment of the obligation is the income generated by the asset(s), rather than the independent capacity of a broader commercial enterprise.

On the other hand, in order to qualify as a commercial real estate exposure, the property securing the mortgage must meet the same operational requirements as for residential real estate. If the loan is a commercial real estate category, the risk weight applicable to the full exposure amount will be assigned according to the exposure’s loan-to-value (LTV) ratio, as determined in the table below. Banks should not tranche their exposures across different LTV buckets; the applicable risk weight will apply to the full exposure amount. A bank that does not have the necessary LTV information for a given commercial real estate exposure must apply a 120% risk weight.
LTVBasel-4-Commercial-LTVNote, if this LTV refers to market value, the threshold should be set at a lower level: eg 50%.

Where the requirements are not met, the exposure will be considered unsecured and treated according to the counterparty, ie as “corporate” exposure or as “other retail”. However, in exceptional circumstances for well developed and long established markets, exposures secured by mortgages on office and/or multipurpose commercial premises and/or multi-tenanted commercial premises may be risk-weighted at [50%] for the tranche of the loan that does not exceed 60% of the loan to value ratio. This exceptional treatment will be subject to very strict conditions, in particular:

  1.  the exposure does not meet the criteria to be considered specialised lending
  2. the risk of loan repayment must not be materially dependent upon the performance of, or income generated by, the property securing the mortgage, but rather on the underlying capacity of the borrower to repay the debt from other sources
  3. the property securing the mortgage must meet the same operational requirements as for residential real estate
  4. two tests must be fulfilled, namely that (i) losses stemming from commercial real estate lending up to the lower of 50% of the market value or 60% of loan-to value (LTV) based on mortgage-lending-value (MLV) must not exceed 0.3% of the outstanding loans in any given year; and that (ii) overall losses stemming from commercial real estate lending must not exceed 0.5% of the outstanding loans in any given year. This is, if either of these tests is not satisfied in a given year, the eligibility to use this treatment will cease and the original eligibility criteria would need to be satisfied again before it could be applied in the future. Countries applying such a treatment must publicly disclose that these and other additional conditions (that are available from the Basel Committee Secretariat) are met. When claims benefiting from such exceptional treatment have fallen past-due, they will be risk-weighted at [100%].

Implications and Consequences

We should make the point, these are proposals, and subject to change. But it would mean that banks using the standard approach to capital could no longer just go with a 35% weighting, rather they will need to segment the book based on LTV and servicability at a loan by loan level. Investment loans may become more complex and demand higher capital weighting. The required data may be available, as part of the loan origination process, but additional processes and costs will be incurred, and it appears net-net capital buffers will be raised for most players. The capital would be determined using two risk drivers: loan-to-value and debt-service coverage ratios with risk weights ranging from 25 percent to 100 percent. Investment loans may require different treatment, (and the RBNZ discussion paper recently issued may be relevant here, where investment loans are handled on a different basis.)

Finally, a word about those banks on IRB. Currently, under their internal models, they are sitting on an average weighting of around 17% (compared with 35% for standard banks). There are proposals to lift the floor to 20% minimum, and the FSI Inquiry recommend higher. Indeed, Murray called for the big banks to lift the average mortgage risk weighting to a range of 25% to 30%. This would bring them closer to the average mortgage risk weighting used by Australia’s regional banks and credit unions, though as described above, these, in turn, may change. Incidentally, the Bank of England thinks 35% is a good target. Basel 4 will also reduce the variance between standardised banks and those using their own models by requiring the internal models not to deviate from the RWA number in the standardised model by a certain amount: the so-called “capital floor”.

Interestingly the US is focussing on an additional measure, The Tier 1 Common measure, which is unweighted assets to capital, and has set a floor of 5%, or more.  The Major Banks in Australia carry real, or non-risk-weighted, equity capital of just 3.7% of assets. Some banks are leveraged over seventy times the equity capital to loans, which is scarily high, but then the RBA (aka the tax payer) would bail them out if they get into trouble, so that’s OK (or not). This means that just $1.70 in assets will now support a $100 loan.

We wonder if the ever more complex models being proposed by Basel are missing the point. Maybe we should be going for something simpler. Many banks of course have invested big in advanced models to squeeze the capital lemon as hard as they can. But stepping back we need approaches which allow greater ability to compare across banks, and more transparent disclosure so we can see where the true risks lay. Certainly capital buffers should be lifted, but we suspect Basel 4, despite the best of intentions,  is going down the wrong alley.

Economic Implications of High and Rising Household Indebtedness

The Reserve Bank of New Zealand just published an interesting report on this important topic. High and rapidly rising levels of household debt can be risky. A high level of debt increases the sensitivity of households to any shock to their income or balance sheet. And during periods of financial stress, highly indebted households tend to cut their spending more than their less-indebted peers. This can amplify a downturn and helps to explain why many advanced economies since the 2008-09 crisis have had subdued recoveries. Financial institutions can suffer direct losses from lending to households, although these losses are rarely enough on their own to cause a systemic banking crisis. The sustainability of household debt can be assessed best by looking at data detailed enough to build a picture of how debt and debt servicing capacity is distributed across different types of borrowers.

Households, either individually, or in aggregate, can ‘over-borrow’, and financial institutions can ‘over-lend’ to them. A high level of household debt can affect both the financial system and the economy in several ways that are explained in this article.

Two sets of comparative data makes interesting reading. First, household debt-to-disposable income ratio – by country. Cross-country comparisons of debt levels need to be treated with caution, given a variety of measurement issues and different institutional features. That said, the rise in household debt in New Zealand over the last cycle was not exceptional compared to other countries, and Australia is higher.RBNZ-Household-RatioSecond, Household debt-to-income ratios – selected countries. The Reserve Bank comments that “in quite a few countries there was no domestic financial crisis and little sustained fall in house prices. Policymakers in several of these economies, including New Zealand, have subsequently become concerned by household sector developments over the past several years – developments underpinned by low interest rates and an easing in lending standards. Household debt levels have started to increase from already high levels, while house prices are growing from a starting point of ‘over-valuation’.

RBNZ-Debt-To-Income The implementation of an LVR speed limit in New Zealand reflected emerging developments in the housing market that if left unchecked, could have threatened future macroeconomic stability. Some other jurisdictions have also used new macro-prudential tools, in combination with improving the existing underlying prudential framework. In addition to LVR restrictions, other measures include: maximum debt servicing-to-income limits, maximum debt to-income limits, higher risk weights on banks’ housing loans and prudent (or responsible) lending guidelines.

They conclude that:

“This article has focused on the various channels through which household debt can affect the financial system and broader economy. In this sense, households can ‘over-borrow’, although this is often not apparent in ‘real time’ and excess debt levels can lead to, or aggravate, economic downturns or periods of financial distress. The relationship between household indebtedness and consumption volatility is important for the macroeconomy, because it means that the behaviour of highly indebted households during periods of financial duress can amplify downturns. While historical evidence suggests losses on household lending are rarely the sole factor in systemic banking crises, housing-related credit booms and busts often occur alongside booms and busts in other sectors such as the (much riskier) construction and commercial property sector. It is also worth noting that, over time, housing loan portfolios have become a larger share of bank lending in many countries, including New Zealand, increasing their potential to play a larger part in future financial crises. Thus household debt is an important area of focus from a financial stability perspective.

Good micro-level household data provide an important window into how debt and debt servicing capacity is distributed across the household sector, and are also helpful for carrying out simple stress-tests of the sector using a range of large, but plausible shocks. New Zealand’s data in this area are improving. Data from the Household Economic Survey show a rise in the proportion of borrowers with a high LVR and high debt-to-income ratio, thereby supporting the view that LVR speed limits have been appropriate to curtail risks to financial stability. The Reserve Bank will continue to develop its framework for analysing household sector risk and vulnerabilities.”