Search Results for: disposable

RBA’s Outlook for Australia’s Economy

In a speech today, Christopher Kent, Assistant Governor (Economic) outlined the current state of global and local economies, and commented on the outlook.  Significantly he stressed that the RBA was looking for household expenditure to trickle through to stimulate business investment and thus lead to a lift in the labour market. However, noting the fall in average real income, and waning consumer confidence, we think this will take a long time, even at current very low interest rates. In addition, we have very high loan to income ratios, and this is absorbing household wealth significantly. Raises an interesting point, are the underlying economic assumptions valid this time around?

Our expectation is that growth will continue to be a bit below trend for a time, picking up gradually to be a bit above trend pace by 2016. And the unemployment rate is likely to remain elevated for some time.

The near-term weakness reflects a combination of three forces: a sharper decline in mining investment over the coming quarters than seen to date; the effects of the still high level of the exchange rate; and ongoing fiscal consolidation at state and federal levels. In contrast, resource exports are likely to make a further strong contribution to growth, with LNG exports expected to begin ramping up over coming quarters. At the same time, very low interest rates are working to support growth of household expenditure. In time, growth of household demand and the impetus to domestic demand provided by the exchange rate depreciation we have seen since early 2013 are expected to spur non-mining business investment.

Given this outlook, I want to touch on two relevant aspects of the business cycle that are important sources of uncertainty for our forecasts. One is related to household consumption, the other to business investment.

Household consumption

At this phase in the business cycle, it’s natural to worry about the possibility that consumption will be weighed down by slow growth in household incomes, driven in turn by the subdued state of the labour market. It is true that stronger growth of employment and wages would provide more support for consumption. However, that dynamic usually kicks in later in the cycle. In the meantime, it’s reasonable to expect that very low rates of interest will enable and encourage households to shift some expenditure from the future to now, including via higher asset prices. This would see a decline in the share of disposable income that households save (i.e. a lower saving ratio). There are limits to this, and it would be unwise to build a recovery on a foundation of a sharp decline in the saving ratio.

Our latest forecasts, however, suggest that there will be a gradual decline in the saving ratio over the next couple of years, of the same order of magnitude as we’ve already seen over the past couple of years.

A decline in the household saving ratio would be consistent with the tendency for labour market developments to lag developments in economic activity, including consumption, by a few quarters. Consumption and GDP growth tend to pick up ahead of an improvement in employment growth, which would in turn be expected to occur before we see wage growth start to return to more normal levels. This was the case during the recessionary episodes of the early 1990s and following the global financial crisis.


Non-mining business investment

I’ve spoken at length recently about the factors that might have led to subdued non-mining business investment over recent years.

In short, I concluded that this outcome had been consistent with a period of greater uncertainty and below-average confidence. Both of these have changed for the better more recently, yet firms still seem reluctant to take on risks associated with substantial new investment projects. If the appetite of businesses (and shareholders) for risk were to improve, investment could pick up. It’s hard to know when such a turning point in spirits might take place. But it is more likely when the fundamental determinants of investment are in place as they seem to be now. The ready availability of internal and external finance, at very low cost, is one such element of that. Also, there is the stronger growth of demand across the non-mining parts of the economy over the past year or so and measures of capacity utilisation have increased to around long-run average levels. So there is a reasonable prospect of business investment picking up, in time.

Even so, let me note some reasons why the anticipated recovery in non-mining business investment might not be quite as strong as in earlier episodes. But I will stress at the outset that if that comes to pass, it does not mean that growth of activity or of our prosperity need suffer.

One reason why investment in the non-mining sector might be lower than in the past is that service industries account for an increasing share of our economy – rising by about 12 percentage points in terms of the employment share over the past three decades. This is relevant to investment because service industries, on average, have much lower levels of capital relative to labour. So, in an economy in which services account for a higher share of economic activity, other things equal, the optimal (non-mining) capital stock should be lower  than it otherwise would be (as a share of that economy). However, that doesn’t imply that GDP growth will be lower, nor does it suggest that the economy will be a less prosperous one. What matters for these things is whether we are taking advantage of profitable opportunities and using labour and capital in the most productive ways that we can. Also, it is worth emphasising that many services require high levels of human capital – in the form of education and training – which does not get picked up in investment as measured by the national accounts.


Investment today might also be lower (as a share of nominal GDP) than in the past for another reason. Over time there has been a sizeable decline in the price of many types of machinery and equipment (particularly those related to information and communications). So, businesses are able to spend less to obtain a given level of capital services. For example, they can purchase a lot more computing power for a given level of nominal spending. Once again, if this leads to lower investment (as a share of nominal GDP) than in the past it does not imply less output growth or lower prosperity. Indeed, given that Australia imports much of our machinery and equipment, a lower price of that capital is to our benefit.


The major advanced economies are in different stages of the business cycle. The recovery from recession is well established in the United States, but has a long way to go in the euro area. Japan has made some progress in reducing the extent of spare productive capacity, but inflation is still some way from the Bank of Japan’s target. Nevertheless, growth of Australia’s major trading partners has actually been around average for some time now and, as best we can tell, it is likely to remain at that rate in the year ahead.

Australian GDP growth has been a bit below trend pace over the past couple of years, consistent with a gradual rise in the unemployment rate. Much of the growth this past year owed to rising resource exports, although growth outside the mining sector also picked up. However, with mining investment set to fall more sharply over coming quarters, GDP growth is expected to be below trend for a time before gradually picking up to an above-trend pace by 2016.

The very low level of interest rates is supporting, and will continue to support, growth of household expenditure. In time, this is expected to support a recovery in non-mining business investment, and the economy more broadly, including an improvement in conditions in the labour market. If history is any guide, the recovery is likely to proceed in that order, from household expenditure to business investment to labour market conditions. History also suggests that a pick-up in business investment (outside of the resources sector) will come, in time. The fundamental forces are in place to support that recovery. And while I have suggested some reasons why business investment might not be quite as strong as past episodes of recovery might suggest, these don’t imply that the economy overall will be less strong than otherwise, but rather just one element of expenditure that we measure via the national accounts.

Why Mortgage Loans Are Growing Slower Than House Prices

The RBA, in today’s monetary statement discusses the relationship between loan growth and house prices. They conclude that factors including fear of unemployment, low supply, high loan to income ratios and stamp duty are all contributing factors, as well as price hikes themselves.

Indicators of conditions in the established housing market, such as housing prices, housing turnover and new borrowing, are interrelated and often move together quite closely (Graph A1). However, in recent years, housing turnover and loan approvals have risen by less than housing prices when compared with previous cycles in the housing market.


Turnover and loan approvals are closely linked. Each new housing loan represents a new transaction in the housing market (as long as it is not used to refinance an existing property or construct a new dwelling). Hence, the value of new borrowing will grow at about the same rate as the value of turnover as long as the average loan-to-valuation ratio does not change too much. In Australia, it turns out that the relationship between new borrowing and turnover has been quite stable for the past decade or so (Graph A2).


Housing prices and turnover might move together over time for a number of reasons, although the relationship may not be quite as tight as that between turnover and loan approvals (and it is possible for prices to rise with only limited turnover). One strand of research has found that an increase in housing prices causes an increase in turnover because higher housing prices increase the net wealth of homeowners. This allows those owners who did not previously have a large enough deposit to trade up to a more expensive dwelling, thereby increasing turnover. A complementary strand of research has found that the causality can also run in the other direction, from turnover to housing prices.

It suggests that some vendors might discern a rise in housing demand by observing a rise in turnover, thereby encouraging them to raise their reserve prices.

Turnover and housing price growth have moved together over time, although the relationship appears to have weakened somewhat in recent years. The change is most evident in Sydney and Melbourne, where growth in housing prices has been strongest of late (Graph A3). The rate of turnover has remained low in those cities, both in terms of their longer-term averages and relative to growth in housing prices.


It is difficult to know why the turnover rate has remained relatively low compared with its history and compared with prices. There is tentative evidence to suggest that existing homeowners have become more reluctant to borrow against increases in their net wealth to trade up homes. For example, the survey of Household Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) suggests that in 2011 and 2012 (the two most recent survey years) a smaller share of households bought larger homes than in any of the previous nine survey years. Also, there has been unusually low participation of owner-occupiers in housing market transactions recently (Graph A4). The reasons are not clear, although it partly reflects the fact that state government incentives for first home buyers have been redirected away from established dwellings towards new dwellings.


One possibility is that a reluctance to trade up homes reflects households generally becoming less willing to take on additional debt in recent years. Following the increase in leverage over the 1990s and early 2000s, the debt-to-income ratio has been stable at high levels. Although interest rates are currently low, the expected repayment burden on loans is at 10-year average levels, when calculated using a longer term interest rate to account for the expectation that variable interest rates will move up over time. Indeed, in New South Wales and Victoria, which have experienced the greatest disparity between housing prices and turnover relative to historical norms, the share of current income required to service an average loan over the next 10 years is close to historical highs.

Another consideration is that homeowners may be less willing to borrow more because growth in labour income has slowed. Nominal labour income has grown at an average annual rate of 2.7 per cent over the past two years, compared with a decade average of 6.2 per cent. And the widespread expectation is that wage growth will remain subdued for a time. Moreover, the Westpac-Melbourne Institute survey suggests that the share of households expecting more unemployment a year ahead has been at above-average levels since late 2011, which is an unusually long time by the historical standards of the survey.

Repayment obligations, in combination with uncertainty about future labour income, are an important consideration for homeowners. According to liaison with banks, one consequence of this environment is that an increasing share of owner occupiers is opting for interest-only loans to increase repayment flexibility.

A reluctance to trade up homes might also stem from increases in effective stamp duty rates. In some states, including New South Wales and Victoria, the nominal housing price thresholds at which higher rates of stamp duty apply have not changed for a number of years. As housing prices have risen, more buyers have fallen into the higher stamp duty brackets, acting as a disincentive to purchase housing. In New South Wales, for instance, the stamp duty paid on a median-priced home has grown to around 25 per cent of annual disposable income per household, from close to 10 per cent in 1991.

Finally, the relationship between turnover and housing prices can be affected by developments in housing supply. Additions to the housing stock have been relatively low in some states over recent years, which would weigh on the rate of turnover as it is currently measured, while low supply relative to demand would also put upward pressure on prices.


Household Income Trends Show Strongest Growth At The Top

The ABS today released their Distribution of Household Income, Consumption and Wealth data for the years from 2003 to 2012.   According to the ABS, the average gross disposable income of Australian households grew 58 per cent in the period 2003-04 to 2011-12. However, the highest income quintile grew at a rate above average, at 62 per cent. All other income quintiles grew above 50 per cent , but below the average rate of 58 per cent. We see that older Australian’s income has been growing faster than younger ones.

GrossIncomesBy-AgeBandsThe relative share of gross income is gravitating towards older households. This is a function of the growing number of older households, thanks to the demographic shifts, and the fact they hold the lions share of investments yielding income.

RelativeShareGrossIncomesBy-AgeBandsWe can also look across the income quintiles (20% bands). We see stronger income growth in the higher income groups. This is stated in perecentage terms, but in doller terms the relative amounts are significant.

GrossIncomesPCQuintilesWe can see that growth in incomes for the richest quintile is stronger than the lower ones.

GrossIncomesQuintilesThe ABS says growth in wages and salaries was by far the largest contributor to this increase, except for the lowest income quintile, where social assistance benefits were the largest contributor to their income growth.

This is an important data-set and is the first time data for household groups has been released under the framework of the national accounts. We can look at which household groups are driving the growth in income, consumption, savings and wealth in the national accounts.

For example, households with two adults and dependent children were responsible for about one-third of the growth in household gross disposable income.

Households where the reference person was aged 35 to 44 years had an increase in income tax of $9,000 – with their payments going from $17, 000 in 2003-04 to $26,000 in 2011-12 – which was above the average increase of $4,500.

Of course this data stops in 2012, so we cannot yet see the impact of falling incomes in real terms, which we have discussed previously.

RBA On Housing Lending in Financial Stability Review

The RBA just released their Financial Stability Review for September 2014. They made a number of comments on Housing Lending, which I have collated in a more digestible form here.


Household credit growth has picked up, almost entirely driven by investor housing credit, which is growing at its fastest pace since late 2007. The willingness of some households to take on more debt, combined with slower growth in incomes, means that the debt-to-income ratio has picked up a little in the past six months. The increase in household risk appetite is most evident in the continued strength of investor activity in the housing market. The momentum in investor housing activity has been concentrated in Sydney and (to a lesser extent) Melbourne. Investor housing loan approvals are almost 90 per cent higher in New South Wales than they were two years ago and are 50 per cent higher over the same period in Victoria. As a share of approvals, both are back around previous peaks. By contrast, the momentum in the owner-occupier market appears to have slowed over the past six months or so, with loan approvals to owner-occupiers little changed. Some potential first home buyers are likely to have been priced out of parts of the market by investors, who typically have higher incomes and are therefore able to bid up prices. The broad-based reduction in grants to first home buyers for established housing since late 2012 has also contributed to reduced demand from these buyers.

Financial-Stabiliity2-Sept2014Strong investor demand can be a sign of speculative excess, with the risk that additional speculative demand can amplify the cycle in housing prices and increase the potential for prices to fall later. This is particularly the case if that demand is largely based on unrealistic expectations of future price growth, perhaps extrapolated from recent experience. A speculative upswing in demand can also be damaging if it brings forth an increase in construction on a scale that leads to a future overhang of supply. This risk is more likely to arise in particular local markets than at the national level. Nationally, Australia is a long way from an oversupply of housing and some increase in supply is to be expected in response to higher prices, which should also help to temper those rising prices.


Growth in banks’ domestic lending has lifted over the past six months, after a few years of modest growth (Graph 2.5). Housing credit expanded at an annualised rate of around 7 per cent over the six months to July 2014; growth in investor credit continued to strengthen and at nearly 10 per cent reached its fastest pace since 2007, well above the rate for owner-occupiers. Business credit growth also picked up, although it continues to be weighed upon by subdued non-mining business investment. The pick-up in credit growth has been accompanied by stronger price competition in some loan markets. The ongoing improvement in bank funding conditions, including for smaller banks, has aided price competition. It will be important for banks’ own risk management and, in turn, financial stability that they do not respond to revenue pressures by loosening lending standards, or making ill-considered moves into new markets or products. Banks need to ensure that loans originated in the current environment can still be serviced by borrowers in less favourable circumstances – for instance, at higher interest rates or during a period of weaker economic conditions. Furthermore, banks should be cautious in their property valuations, and conscious that extending loans at constant loan-to valuation ratios (LVRs) can be riskier when property prices are rising strongly, as is currently the case in some commercial property and housing markets.




In the residential mortgage market, price competition for new borrowers has intensified. Fixed rates have been lowered in recent months. According to industry liaison, a number of lenders have also extended larger discounts on their advertised variable rates and broadened the range of borrowers that receive these discounts. Banks are offering other incentives to attract new borrowers, including fee waivers, upfront cash bonuses or vouchers. In addition, some banks recently raised their commission rates paid to mortgage brokers. However, reports from banks and other mortgage market participants suggest that, in aggregate, banks’ non-price lending standards, such as loan serviceability and deposit criteria, have remained broadly steady over recent quarters. This seems to be supported by APRA data on the composition of banks’ housing loan approvals, which suggest that the overall risk profile of new housing lending has not increased. It is noteworthy that the industry-wide share of ‘low-doc’ lending continues to represent less than 1 per cent of loan approvals, while the share of loans approved with an LVR greater than 90 per cent has fallen over the past year (see ‘Household and Business Finances’ chapter). That said, strong investor activity in the housing market has meant that the share of investor loans approved with LVRs between 80 per cent and 90 per cent has risen.


The shares of interest-only loans for both investors and owner-occupiers have also drifted higher, and average loan sizes (relative to average income) have increased.  The increase in interest-only share of banks’ new lending, which has continued to increase for both investors and owner-occupiers in 2014, might be indicative of speculative demand motivating a rising share of housing purchases. Consistent with mortgage interest payments being tax-deductible for investors, the interest-only share of approvals to investors remains substantially higher than to owner-occupiers. According to liaison with banks, the trend in interest-only owner-occupier borrowing has been largely because these loans provide increased flexibility to the borrower. It does not necessarily mean that borrowers are taking on debt that they may not be able to service if both interest and principal repayments are made. Rather, some of these borrowers are likely to be building up buffers in offset accounts. In any case, APRA’s draft Prudential Practice Guide emphasises that a prudent authorised deposit taking institution would assess customers’ ability to service principal and interest payments following the expiry of the interest-only period. More broadly, consumer protection regulations require that lenders do not provide credit products and services that are unsuitable because, for example, the consumer does not have the capacity to meet the repayments.

Future housing loan performance is likely to at least partly depend on labour market performance. Although forward-looking indicators of labour demand have generally improved since last year, they remain consistent with only moderate employment growth in the near term.


Although, in aggregate, bank housing lending standards do not appear to have eased lately, a crucial question for both macroeconomic and financial stability is whether lending practices across the banking industry are conservative enough for the current combination of low interest rates, strong housing price growth and higher household indebtedness than in past decades. Moreover, lending to investors is expanding at a fast pace, which could be funding additional speculative activity in the housing market and encourage other (more marginal) borrowers to increase debt. Lending growth is varied across geographical markets and individual lenders, which may suggest a build-up in loan concentrations and therefore correlated risks within the banking industry. The Reserve Bank’s assessment is that the risk from the current strength in housing markets is more likely to be to future household spending than to lenders’ balance sheets. However, the direct risks to banks will rise if current rates of growth in investor lending and housing prices persist, or increase further. In light of the current risks, APRA has increased the focus of its supervision on banks’ housing lending. Specifically, it has:

• begun a regular supervisory survey of a broader range of risk indicators for banks with material housing lending

• released a draft Prudential Practice Guide (PPG) for housing lending that outlined expectations for banks’ risk management frameworks, serviceability assessments, deposit criteria and residential property valuations.1 By way of example, prudent serviceability assessments are seen to involve: an interest rate add-on to the mortgage rate, in conjunction with an interest rate ‘floor’, to ensure the borrower can continue to service the loan if interest rates increase; a buffer above standard measures of household living expenses; and the exclusion, or reduction in value, of uncertain income streams. While much of the guidance in the PPG is already common practice within the industry, it is nonetheless important that practices are not deficient at even a minority of lenders

• written to individual bank boards and chief risk officers asking them to specify how they are monitoring housing loan standards and ensuing risks to the economy

• assessed the resilience of banks’ housing loan (and other) portfolios to large negative macroeconomic shocks, including a severe downturn in the housing market, as part of its regular stress testing of banks’ balance sheets.

In addition, the Reserve Bank is discussing with APRA, and other members of the Council of Financial Regulators (CFR), further steps that might be taken to reinforce sound lending practices, particularly for lending to investors.


The proportion of disposable income required to meet interest payments on household debt has stabilised accordingly, at around 9 per cent. Households continue to take advantage of lower interest rates to pay down their mortgages more quickly than required. The aggregate mortgage buffer – balances in mortgage offset and redraw facilities – has risen to be around 15 per cent of outstanding balances, which is equivalent to more than two years of scheduled repayments at current interest rates. Prepayment rates and the proportion of borrowers ahead of schedule on their mortgage repayments are also high according to liaison with banks. Part of this prepayment behaviour has been due to some banks’ systems not automatically changing customer repayment amounts as interest rates have declined, while in many cases households have not actively sought to reduce their repayments. This might be a sign that household stress is currently limited. The household saving ratio, although trending down a little lately, remains high at just under 10 per cent. Households’ aggregate balance sheet position has continued to improve in recent quarters: real net worth per household is estimated to have increased by 4 per cent over the year to September 2014.


One area of shadow banking activity in Australia that warrants particular attention is non-bank securitisation activity, given strengthening investor risk appetite as well as the connections between this activity, the housing market and the banking system (through the various support facilities provided by banks). As discussed, RMBS issuance has picked up since 2013 and spreads have narrowed, including for non-bank issuers (i.e. mortgage originators). Mortgage originators tend to have riskier loan pools than banks; this is partly because they are the only suppliers of non-conforming residential mortgages, which are typically made to borrowers who do not meet the standard underwriting criteria of banks. These originators currently account for about 2 per cent of the Australian mortgage market (not all of which is non-conforming), and so have limited influence on competition in the mortgage market and the housing price cycle. Even so, it is useful to monitor any signs of greater non-bank activity, as this could signal a broader pick-up in risk appetite for housing.


Lenders mortgage insurers (LMIs) are specialist general insurers that offer protection to banks and other lenders against losses on defaulted mortgages, in return for an insurance premium. LMIs’ profitability improved in the first half of 2014, with the industry posting a return on equity of about 14 per cent, up from an average of around 10 per cent over the preceding few years. The number and average value of claims on LMIs has declined recently in response to the buoyant housing market, as well as previous improvements in underwriting standards. In addition, some LMIs have recently increased their premium rates. In May, the largest LMI, Genworth Australia, successfully listed on the ASX, with around one-third of the company now independently owned. Also, in August QBE announced plans to partially float its subsidiary, which is the other major LMI in Australia. Share market listing will subject the relatively concentrated Australian LMI industry to greater market scrutiny and increase its access to domestic capital markets; such developments could be beneficial to financial stability given the LMI industry’s involvement in the credit creation process and linkages to the banking system.

Household Debt Highest In Past 25 Years – ABS

The Australian Bureau of Statistics released an important summary today on Australian Households debt. “Household debt has increased nearly twice as fast as the value of household assets over the last 25 years”, though growth is slowing now. The data and analysis is presented in a report “Trends in Households Debt“. There are some worrying findings which the RBA would do well to take note of. The ABS data averages across all households, our own analysis at a segment level highlights the fact that for some households, the situation is more extreme.

They make the following observations:

Total household debt stood at $1.84 trillion at the end of 2013, equivalent to $79,000 for every person living in Australia at that time. This was higher than it had been at any time in the previous 25 years, even after making adjustments to remove the effect of general price inflation (thereby giving a ‘real’ comparison).

The rate of increase in real household debt per person has slowed since the onset of the Global Financial Crisis (GFC) in August 2007. After increasing at an average of 10% per year between mid 2001 and mid 2007, real household debt per person rose at the much slower average annual rate of 2% between mid 2007 and the end of 2013. This slowdown may, in part, reflect the tightening in mortgage lending standards after 2008.



Rising household debt has been only partly matched by the increase in the value of household assets. Over the past 25 years, household debt has increased nearly twice as fast as the value of household assets. Expressed as a percentage of the value of household assets, household debt increased from just under 11% at the end of September 1988 to nearly 21% at the end of 2011, before easing a little to below 20% at the end of 2013.



Income is an important consideration when deciding on a household’s capacity to make loan repayments in full and on time. Household debt increased more rapidly than household income from early in 1993 until the middle of 2007. Since mid 2007 (and the GFC), household debt has tended to rise in line with household income. At the end of 2013, the amount that households owed was nearly 1.8 times the amount of disposable income households received during 2013.


2The size of Australia’s household debt compared with its income (household debt to income ratio) is not just high in historical terms, it is also high when compared with the household debt to income ratios of the G7 countries (i.e. Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, UK and USA). For example, in 2012, Australia’s household debt level was equivalent to 1.73 times Australia’s 2012 gross disposable household income, whereas household debt in both Italy and Germany was less than a year’s worth of gross disposable household income (at 82% and 93% respectively).


4 10

Loan repayments usually contain an interest component and an amount that reduces the loan principal. All other factors being equal, the higher the interest component the lesser the opportunity to reduce the loan principal and pay off the debt quickly. When interest payments represent a high proportion of disposable income it may be difficult to reduce debt at all.

For the December quarter 2013, the total amount of interest households paid on money they had borrowed was equal to 7% of the gross disposable income they received during the same quarter (household interest to income ratio). While this is currently higher than it has been during most of the past 50 years, it is clearly lower than what it had been at its highest point in 2008 (12%).



The share of banks’ domestic housing loan portfolios that were either impaired, or at least 90 days overdue but well secured, edged lower over the six months to December 2013, to 0.6%. This percentage has declined from its 21st century peak of 0.9% in mid 2011, aided by low interest rates and generally tighter mortgage lending standards in the period since 2008. The percentage of impaired housing loans has fallen slightly over recent quarters; the rise in housing prices appears to have helped banks deal with their troubled housing assets, with a number of banks reporting a reduction in mortgages-in-possession. The total number of court applications for property possession declined in 2013 in NSW, Vic., Qld and WA.

The total number of non-business related personal bankruptcies, debt agreements and insolvency agreements was also lower across most of Australia in 2013. Non-performance rates on banks’ credit card and other personal lending, which are inherently riskier and less likely to be secured than housing loans, declined slightly over the second half of 2013 to around 2%, following an upward trend over the previous five years.

Products such as home equity loans, redraw facilities and offset accounts are more popular now than in the 1990s. These types of loan products make it easier for households to build mortgage buffers, enhancing their ability to cope with income shocks.

Many households have used lower interest rates to continue paying down their mortgages more quickly than required. As a result, the aggregate mortgage buffer (i.e. balances in mortgage offset and redraw facilities) has risen to almost 15% of outstanding balances, which is equivalent to around 24 months of total scheduled repayments at current interest rates. This suggests that many households have considerable scope to continue to meet their debt obligations, even in the event of a spell of reduced income or unemployment.

Household Incomes and House Prices

The ratio between income and house prices in an important indicator, because if it gets too far out of whack, its a sign of stress in the system. Data is often cited to show that on average, the ratio of debt to disposable income verses house prices track quite closely and so we are not in a house price bubble. So when Christopher Joye wrote in the SMH yesterday about the risk to house prices, and published data to show the average ratio between prices and disposable income was a high 4.4, we were prompted to revisit this issue.

It is relevant because the RBA is talking about a ratio of 5.0 times using the national accounts data which includes a number of items like compulsory superannuation, workcover premiums, and owner-occupied imputed rents, none of which are really discretionary. An article in the AFR at the time, suggested a ratio of 7.0 was nearer the mark.

We already highlighted the risk of taking an average value across all households, and used the NSW data to show relative movements across time by segment. But we have just run some numbers by segments, across states, from our surveys (latest date is 1 week old) and here are the results. No surprise the ratios vary by type of property owner, and also by state. First time buyers are at  7 times in NSW, whereas people refinancing in Tasmania are at 3.5 times.

RatioIn addition, looking at data from the ABS Social Trends Database we see relative household income analysis. We show both the gross household income and disposable income, annualised in the chart below.

IncomeFinally, we referred back to the recent Demographia survey. Their method is based on rating affordability using the “Median Multiple” of house prices and income, which is widely used to evaluate urban markets, and which has been recommended by the World Bank and the United Nations. They do not consider mortgage costs, because interest rates vary, whereas the price for a property is more stable. Severely unaffordable geographies included Australia (6.3), New Zealand (8.0), and Hong Kong (14.9). Sydney (9.0) was the fourth least affordable major market. Highly elevated Median Multiples were also recorded in Melbourne (8.4), Auckland (8.0) and London (7.3).

Afford2It seems to me, on any of these measures, affordability is an issue, and spiraling house prices will probably lead to trouble later, either because they in turn fall, or households will extend themselves too far thanks to lax lending standards, and slip into mortgage stress. We will revisit our stress models shortly.

Bottom line is, which ever method you use to calculate these ratios, if you stick to a consistent method, the trend does not lie. And the trend is up – houses are simply not very affordable for many.

Household Housing Finance Ratios

Yesterday the RBA published its latest chart pack, which provides a range of pictures from their statistics. One of the most telling charts relates to various household ratio trends. Today we look at those relating to housing.

Here is the chart, which we recreated from the underlying RBA data:

RBAHousing1The ratio of housing debt to housing assets is at the top of its range. This is consistent with our earlier analysis showing that households had more debt than ever.

The trend ratio of disposable income to debt is as high as ever it has been. We looked at household disposable income by segment, against house prices recently, and we showed that apart from the most wealthy, income had grown more slowly than house prices, (we used Sydney as an example).

Some have argued recently that house prices have not really grown that much, if you take inflation into account:

“The important thing to keep in mind however is that when you consider inflation, dwelling values remain lower than their previous peaks in every city”.

However, the ratio analysis published by the RBA nicely skirts round this because inflation will be impacting both sides of the calculation, so isolating the results from underlying  inflation. The real-life impact of the current housing market is that households are stretched by high prices and big loans. First time buyers are worst hit, which explains why their mortgage stress levels are higher, and many potential first time buyers are sitting on the sidelines.

Very low interest rates have made larger mortgages more affordable, which is why the ratio of interest payments on housing to disposable income has come off its 2008 highs. The RBA chart shows movements in the average standard variable rate and discount home loan rate, and we overlaid the RBA cash rate. Note the divergence after 2007, the GFC widened spreads and disconnected market rates from the cash rate to some extent, as funding models and costs changed. Spreads remain extended although funding pressures have eased.

RBAHousing2Finally, here is a trend snapshot of average value of new loans.

RBAHousing3Loans are bigger than before the GFC (2007) indicating that the demand for bigger mortgages is being met by banks.

Overall, the housing affordability situation is not pretty, even at these low rates. By international standards we have sky high prices.

Down the track I see an unfortunate contention. If the RBA needs to raise rates to counter inflationary pressures, it may be hampered by the impact on households with high debt levels. Even small rises in interest rates will have a significant dampening effect. Households are more exposed to potential rate movements than ever.

The Truth About Savings – Part 1

There has been much discussion about the savings behaviour of households recently. The starting point is the ABS Savings Ratio Data, which is derived from the national accounts statistics. It shows that after the 2007/2008 GFC hiatus Australian households started to saving, and save hard. The following chart shows the trend from 2000, both in terms of gross disposable income, and the savings ratio, which on average is at over 10%.


There are a series of questions flying about, for example, are the calculations accurate, or should elements like obligatory superannuation contributions be ignored, as they are forced savings? How to account for advanced mortgage repayments? Will the trend continue, or given the low current savings rates, flip to consumers spending more, and saving less, as the RBA seems to want to encourage?

Well, DFA has started to unpick this complex picture. The starting point is to apply segmented analysis to the data. So today, we present some of our segmented findings, using the data from our household survey. At once, we find averages are hiding important differences. So for example, Down Traders, those looking to sell and release capital, and possibly make additional property investments, reveal very significant income growth, and have a savings ratio of about 15%. They are the most cashed up sector of the population, partly in preparation for retirement, and partly thanks to recent property price gains.


Compare this with First Time Buyers. These households have not seen much income growth in recent times, and their net savings ratio has fallen close to zero. As we have highlighted previously, many first time buyers are struggling with rising credit card debts. They have little left in the tank for emergencies, like sudden illness or unemployment.


Our “Want to Buy” segment shows quite similar trends to the First Time Buyer, though with slightly more savings, revealing a savings ratio of 3%, but falling.


We won’t present the analysis of all the segments in our survey, but the data from the Investor segment is enlightening. Here we see quite significant income growth, but savings are falling. This could be because they have been spending hard to grab more property. We need to look at detailed survey responses to check this.


So, the conclusion we have reached is that whilst overall savings may be up, it is split across different household groups, some are savings hard, still, others are seeing the cost of living eat into free cash, so savings are down. The key question for me is, how to encourage down traders to spend more, when they are saving for retirement, turning more of their assets into cash. and building a defence against future uncertainty. In addition, we should not assume that because average savings ratios are high, everything is fine. It’s not, because, again, averages mask important differences.

In part 2 of our analysis, probably the last post before the Christmas break, we will look at where segments are saving, and also examine segmented household plans for saving in 2014. This will help to answer some of the questions raised above.


More Households Excluded From The Property Market

Overnight the AFR released a long interview with Glenn Stevens, including coverage of the property market. He is not that worried about house price growth if it is decoupled from credit growth. However, the DFA Household survey  as published in the “Property Imperative” showed clearly that rising house prices have a damping economic impact as first, more are excluded from the market, and second those who are in the market need to deploy ever more of their disposable income to stay there.

Glenn Stevens quotes are interesting:

“So to that extent I haven’t found it (housing market developments) that troubling or constraining, and I think the other thing to say is the price rises that worry you most are the ones driven by rising leverage”

“I think if we saw a return to the kind of double digit credit growth to households that we saw for so many years in the past, I would have to wonder whether that would be wise given the level of debt from where we start. That would be a different proposition to what we’ve seen lately so thus far, I think it’s okay but obviously, it’s a thing we have to watch.”

“To come to your point about risk, I think the key thing to keep your eye on is the leverage. If we have an asset bubble in some asset class and it isn’t with borrowed money, I’m a lot less worried. You know, if there’s a boom and bust in rare coins or art or something, or even minor segments of property where it’s not – where you haven’t got the banking system geared into it, well, you know, I’m not sure that’s kind of a macroeconomic policy concern. But where you’ve got an asset class with a lot of leverage building up behind it and risks to the lenders, as well as the borrowers, that’s really the issue. So that’s why I say I think it’s important to note that to date we haven’t seen a big rise in leverage in the housing market so far.”

The DFA Household survey includes an examination of households into those which were property inactive, and those who were property active. Property inactive households were defined as those who currently rent, live with parents, or are homeless, with no plans to enter the market. Property active households are those who own, or actively desire to own property, either as an owner occupier, or as an investor, and either own the property outright, have a mortgage or are actively looking.  The analysis shows that about 26 percent of households are Property Inactive, which equates to about 2.3 million households.


Examining prior years data, and applying the same analysis, we discovered that even correcting for population growth and migration, the property inactive proportion of the household population has been steadily increasing.


Finally, we looked across states, noticing some regional variations.


The rise in house prices is the major barrier to people who want to buy but cannot.


We also found that many households in the market were just about managing, despite low interest rates, because of rising costs of living, including power, rates and child care. First time buyers are particularly hard hit.

So, if we are to tackle the current market failures in the property sector, we need to focus on building, more, much more property; removing incentives for leveraged investments; and perhaps the RBA should be taking more notice of absolute house prices, irrespective of credit trends.

To be clear, I am not convinced that the current price levels and trends are doing us much good, (apart from for those on the ladder already, the states harvesting greater stamp duty tax takes, the construction sector, the real estate sector, etc etc). Long term strategies need to be put in place to get the market back into equilibrium, but its not clear to me where responsibility should lay. The complexity of the stakeholders involved makes intervention by any single agency myopic.

The Truth about House Price and Income Growth

Data is often cited to show that on average, the ratio of debt to disposable income verses house prices track quite closely and so we are not in a house price bubble. However, the problem with averaging data is that in can mask important differences. DFA has completed analysis in the NSW market looking directly at the rise over time of house prices and comparing this with average disposable income growth across income bands. The net conclusion is that house prices are rising faster than average incomes. It shows that lower income groups have not enjoyed such strong growth when compared with the higher earning groups. Actually, the average disposable income in NSW since 2008 has only grown a little. This leads to the conclusion that the price income ratio have deteriorated. This in my mind suggests we should be concerned about the current house price momentum.

NSWIncomeandPriceNow, the debate has been on about whether we are in a house price bubble or not. Often a bubble is not recognized until price deflation corrects it. The classic bubble shape of the South Sea Bubble is often cited and is an interesting case study.

South Sea BubbleWe do not have the same rapid rise in house prices, so technically we may not be in a bubble. Actually what we have is worse, as it is long term systematic issue, with property absorbing an ever greater proportion of household income. This is both people saving for property and servicing debt. My earlier posts references the recent ABS study on this.

As the drive to own property in Australia remains strong, households will do what they can to get into the market, and this means directing more income to acquiring property, leaving less for other activities.  High and rising house prices are a bad thing for the broader economy as it blots up otherwise discretionary spending. Retail and other sectors are being negatively impacted by this need to spend.

But my main point is we need to move away from averaging statements, and dive into the detail to see what is really going on.