… As Does Westpac

All the major banks have removed foreign ATM fees. The ABA welcomed the move.

Statement from Anna Bligh, Australian Bankers’ Association Chief Executive:

“The ABA welcomes the announcement from the major banks today to abolish ATM fees.

“It’s a boon for customers and makes banking more affordable for everyday Australians.

“This is the latest in a suite of initiatives by banks to create better products and services for customers and boost customer choice, including reducing interest rates on credit cards and offering fee-free transaction accounts.

“A competitive banking system is good for customers and good for the sector.”

NAB Joins the ATM Fee Cuts

NAB has today announced it will remove ATM withdrawal fees for everyone using any of its NAB ATMs around the country.

Already, NAB customers using NAB ATMs incur no cash withdrawal fee.

“We’re pleased to now extend this so that all Australians, regardless of whether they bank with NAB or not, can use any of our ATMs and not be charged a cash withdrawal fee,” NAB Chief Customer Officer of Consumer Banking and Wealth, Andrew Hagger, said.

“This is a good outcome for customers. We know it has been frustrating for them to be charged to withdraw their own money from an ATM, and the change we are announcing today will benefit millions of Australians.

“At NAB, we’re proud of our track record of making banking fairer over many years, and we will always look at how we can improve the experience and services we provide customers.”

Since 2009, NAB has led the industry by removing many of the fees and charges that annoy customers the most, and NAB remains the only major bank to have a transaction account with no monthly account service fee, saving customers around $5 every month.

“NAB’s commitment is to back our customers by continuing to listen to them, and respond to their concerns and needs so we can be a better bank,” Mr Hagger said.

ANZ Also Will Abolish ATM Fees

ANZ today announced it would remove fees for all non-ANZ customers using its fleet of automatic teller machines anywhere in Australia. The change will impact non-ANZ customers who are currently charged a $2 fee when they use an ANZ ATM.

ANZ customers are not currently charged when they use one of ANZ’s more than 2,300 machines. ANZ Group Executive Fred Ohlsson said: “While we had been actively working on how we provide fee free ATMs for our customers, we have decided to remove these fees all together from October.

“We know ATM fees are one of the most unpopular and while our customers have benefitted from our network of ATMs across the country, this is another example of acting on customer feedback as well as genuine reform from the industry,” Mr Ohlsson said.

The change will be implemented in early October 2017.

CBA Axes “Foreign” ATM Charges

The CBA today (yes on a Sunday!) has announced they are killing the ATM charge incurred by non-CBA customers withdrawing cash from their ATMs.

In a first for an Australian bank, Commonwealth Bank has removed ATM withdrawal fees so all CommBank and non-CommBank customers won’t be charged an ATM withdrawal fee by us when they take cash out at any of our 3,400 ATMs.

RBA data shows that Australians made more than 250 million ATM withdrawals from banks other than their own last year so the move is designed to increase convenience and bring savings.

“Australians have complained for some time about being charged fees for using another bank’s ATM,” Matt Comyn, Group Executive, Retail Banking Services, said today.

“We have been listening to consumer groups and our customers and understand that there’s a need to make changes that benefit all Australians, no matter who they bank with. This is one of the steps we’re taking to make that happen,” Mr Comyn said.

“As Australia’s largest bank, with one of the largest branch and ATM networks, we think this change will benefit many Australians and hopefully demonstrate our willingness to listen and act on customer feedback.”

No ATM withdrawal fee access applies to CommBank-branded ATMs and excludes Bankwest ATMs and customers using overseas cards.

The number of withdrawals from ATMs (and the number of ATMs in use) are falling, as other non-cash payment mechanisms proliferate – such as pay wave, debit cards and mobile payments.  We expect the downward trajectory to accelerate as non-cash alternatives continue to grow. Customers can also get cash out at supermarkets, and this alternative has become popular for those who need to get their hands on real notes.

Under half have a charge attached, those are withdrawals from another bank’s ATMs.

As we said in a recent post there is a generation shift in play as digital natives continue to adopt smartphone based payment options, from Applepay, to NFC transactions in shops, or apps like paypal as well as the move to debt. Even digital migrants are using electronic mechanisms, such as smart phones, internet banking, contactless payments and Bpay is also a popular option.

Data from the RBA shows the volume of ATM cash withdrawal transactions has fallen by 15% over 3 years, whilst the gross value has slipped a little (and fallen in post-inflation adjusted terms). Debit card transactions are more than taking up the slack. But there is also more going on here.

We are approaching a tipping point where the economics of ATMs will not make sense, other than at a few high traffic locations, as there a fixed costs relating to installation and maintenance (including the cash top-up) and income is linked to volumes. There was a proliferation of third party ATMs in for example retail sites in the 1990’s, but these are getting less use too. So we think the number of machines will fall.

Meantime the ubiquitous smart phone is set to become your personal finance assistant, your electronic wallet and electronic credit card. Just do not lose your phone!

As a result, traditional channels such the the branch, ATM and even plastic are all under threat. Cash will become less important in every day life, but it will remain, used perhaps by people less comfortable with the technology, or in the black economy. It would not surprise me if down the track larger bank notes started to disappear under the guise of migration to digitally based more cost-efficient payment solutions, which just happen also to be easier to track.

Meantime, the ATM just got out-evolved by the smartphone.

Around $500 million was charged by banks to customers, and the average fee is $2 per transaction.  CBA has the largest fleet of ATMs across the country, with more than 3,400.

This is a move which was expected, given there are overseas precedents to removing ATM fees, and volumes are falling.  Of the 70,000 ATMs in the UK network, around 16,000 charge users a fee per withdrawal.

CBA will hope to gain a positive reaction, to counter the recent negative publicity surrounding its business.  It will be interesting to see if other banks will follow (some will require IT modifications, so it may take some time), we suspect they might, which would be a small win for consumers.




Auction Results 23 Sep 2017

The preliminary auction results from Domain are in, and Melbourne is still leading Sydney significantly. Sales Volume appear lower compared with last week, and this time last year. We will see where the final counts settle later. This confirms our view that momentum continues to ease.

Brisbane cleared 50% of 94 scheduled auctions, Adelaide 78% of 91 auctions, (above even Melbourne), and Canberra 65% of 65 scheduled.

Going Up? – The Property Imperative Weekly – 23 Sep 2017

We look at another massive week in property and finance, examine the arguments around mortgage rate rises, and consider which households are more likely to buy in the current market.

Welcome to the Property Imperative weekly to 23rd September 2017, our summary of the key events from the past week. Watch the video, or read the transcript.

We start with mortgage arrears. Moody’s said the number of Australian residential mortgages that are more than 30 days in arrears has shot up to a five year high with a 30+ delinquency rate of 1.62% in May this year and with record high rates in Western Australia, the Northern Territory and South Australia. Arrears were also up in Queensland and the Australian Capital Territory while levels decreased in New South Wales, Victoria and Tasmania.

Ratings agency Standard & Poor’s (S&P) Global Ratings also recorded an increase in the number of delinquent housing loans underlying Australian prime residential mortgage-backed securities (RMBS). This rate rose from 1.15% in June to 1.17% in July. Delinquent loans underlying the prime RMBS at the major banks made up almost half of all outstanding loans and increased from 1.08% to 1.11% from June to July. For the regional banks, this level rose from 2.30% to 2.35%.

Fitch says 30+ days arrears were 3 basis points higher compared with last year despite Australia’s improved economic environment and lower standard variable interest rates.  However, default rates on Retail Mortgage Back Securities was 1.17%, 4 basis points better than the previous quarter.  They made the point that losses experienced after the sale of collateral property remained extremely low, with lenders’ mortgage insurance payments and/or excess spread sufficient to cover principal shortfalls in all transactions during the quarter. So, banks are protected in this environment, even if households are not.

Much of the debate this week centred on how well the economy is doing, and what this means for interest rates. Globally, the Fed is maintaining its tightening stance, with the removal of some stimulus and further lifts in their benchmark rate soon. The financial markets reacted by lifting bond yields, and if this continues the cost of overseas funding will rise, making out of cycle mortgage rate hikes more likely here.

The RBA was pretty positive about the outlook for the global economy, as well as conditions locally.  Governor Philip Lowe said to quote “The Next Chapter Is Coming”. In short, the global economy is on the up, central banks are beginning to remove stimulus, and locally, wage growth is low, despite reasonable employment rates. Household debt is extended, but in the current low rates mostly manageable, but the medium term risks are higher.  Business conditions are improving. He then discussed the growth path from here, including the impact of higher debt on household balance sheets. He said we will need to deal with the higher level of household debt and higher housing prices, especially in a world of more normal interest rates. In this environment, a small shock could turn into a more serious correction as households seek to repair their balance sheets.

I debated the trajectory of future interest rates, and the impact on households with Paul Bloxham the Chief Economist HSBC on ABC’s The Business. In essence, will the RBA be able to wait until income growth recovers, thus protecting household balance sheets, or will they move sooner as global rates rise, and put households, some of whom are already under pressure, into more financial stress?

The Government announced late on Friday night (!) before the school holidays, a consultation on the formation of a new entity to help address housing affordability –  The National Housing Finance and Investment Corporation or NHFIC.  It also includes, a $1 billion National Housing Infrastructure Facility (NHIF) which will use tailored financing to partner with local governments in funding infrastructure to unlock new housing supply; and an affordable housing bond aggregator to drive efficiencies and cost savings in the provision of affordable housing by community housing providers.

Actually, this simply extends the “Financialisation of Property” by extending the current market led mechanisms, on the assumption that more is better. Financialisation is, as the recent UN report said:

… structural changes in housing and financial markets and global investment whereby housing is treated as a commodity, a means of accumulating wealth and often as security for financial instruments that are traded and sold on global markets.

So, we are not so sure about these proposals.  Also, we are not convinced housing supply problems have really created the sky-high prices and affordability issues at all.  And, by the way, the UK, on which much of this thinking is based, still has precisely the same issues as we do, too much debt, too high prices, flat incomes, etc. Anyhow, the Treasury consultation is open for a month.

More lenders dropped their mortgage rates to attract new business, including enticing property investors. For example, Virgin Money decreased the principal and interest investment rates by between 5 and 10 basis points, for loans with an LVR of 80% or below.  Westpac cut its two-year fixed rate for owner-occupiers paying principal and interest by 11 basis points to 4.08 per cent (standalone rate) or 5.16 per cent comparison.

Net, net, demand is weakening and the Great Property Rotation is in hand. Lenders are tightening their underwriting standards further. This week NAB said it would apply a loan to income test to interest-only and principal and interest loans.  The new ratio, which aims to determine the “customer’s indebtedness to the loan amount” takes the total limit of the loan and divides it by the customer’s total gross annual income (as disclosed in the application). Ratios greater than eight will be declined, according to the new policy. This is still generous, when you consider the LTI guidance from the Bank of England is 4.5 times. But good to see Loan to Income ratios being brought to bear – as they are by far the best risk metrics, better than loan to value, or debt servicing ratios.

Our latest surveys showed that more first time buyers are looking to purchase now. We see that 27% want to buy to capture future capital growth, the same proportion seeking a place to live! 13% are seeking tax advantage and 8% greater security of tenure. But the most significant change is in access to the First Home Owner Grants (8%), thanks to recent initiatives in NSW and VIC, as well as running programmes across the country. The largest barriers are high home prices (44%), availability of finance (19% – and a growing barrier thanks to tighter underwriting standards), interest rate rises (9%) and costs of living (6%). Finding a place to buy is still an issue, but slightly less so now (18%).

On the other hand, Property Investors, who have been responsible for much of the buoyant tone in the eastern states are less bullish.  For example, in 2015, 77% of portfolio investors were intending to transact, today this is down to 57%, and the trend is down. Solo investors are down from a high of 49% to 31%, and again is trending lower. Turning to the barriers which investors face, the difficulty in getting finance is on the rise (29%), along with concerns about rate rises (12%). Other factors, such as RBA warnings (3%), budget changes (1%) only registered a little but concerns about increased regulation rose (7%). Around one third though already hold investment property (33%) and so will not be buying more in the next year. So, net demand is weakening.

CBA was the latest major bank to jettison lines of business, as banks all seek to return to their core banking business, by announcing the sale of 100% of its life insurance businesses in Australia (“CommInsure Life”) and New Zealand (“Sovereign”) to AIA Group for $3.8 billion. We have been watching the expansion and contraction cycle for many years, as banks sought first to increase their share of wallet by acquiring wealth and insurance businesses, then found that bankassurance, as the model was called, was difficult to manage and less profitable than expected, as well as being capital intensive. Hence the recent sales –  and expect more ahead. We think considerable shareholder value has been destroyed in the process, especially if you also overlay international expansion and then contraction. Now all the Banks are focussing on their “core business” aka mortgages – but at a time when growth here is on the turn. The moves will release capital, and thanks to weaker competition across the local markets, they can boost returns, but at the expense of their customers.

The Productivity Commission Inquiry into Banking Competition is well in hand, with submissions released this week from the Customer Owned Banking Association. They said that we don’t have sustainable banking competition at the moment. A lack of competition can contribute to inappropriate conduct by firms, and insufficient choice, limited access and poor quality products for consumers. The current regulatory framework over time has entrenched the dominant position of the largest banks. Promoting a more competitive banking market does not require any dilution of financial safety or financial system stability. They also showed that borrowers could get better rates from Customer Owned Lenders, compared with the big players. So shop around.

So back to property. The ABS Property Price Index to June 2017 show considerable variations across the states, with Melbourne leading the charge, and Perth and Darwin languishing. Annually, residential property prices rose in Sydney (+13.8%), Melbourne (+13.8%), Hobart (+12.4%), Canberra (+7.9%), Adelaide (+5.0%) and Brisbane (+3.0%) and fell in Darwin (-4.9%) and Perth (-3.1%). The total value of residential dwellings in Australia was $6.7 trillion at the end of the June quarter 2017, rising $146 billion over the quarter.

Auction clearance rates are still quite strong, if off their highs, but we expect loan and transaction volumes to continue to drift lower as we head for summer.

Putting all the available data together we think home prices in the eastern states will still be higher at the end of the year, but as rates rise from this point, price momentum will ease further, that is unless income growth really does start lifting. The current 6% plus growth in mortgage lending, when incomes and inflation are around 2% is a recipe for disaster down the track. Despite all the jawboning about future growth prospects we think the debt burden is going to be a significant drag, and the risks remain elevated.

And that’s the Property Imperative Weekly to 23th September.

Regional banks call for level playing field

Australia’s most recognised regional banks have called on a major competition inquiry to level the playing field and put consumers and the economy first.

In a joint submission lodged with the Productivity Commission, AMP Bank, Bank of Queensland, Bendigo and Adelaide Bank, ME Bank and Suncorp highlighted five key areas that require policy reform to achieve sustainable competition and competitive neutrality:

  1. Further policy reform to reduce the artificial funding cost advantages enjoyed by the major banks. While the new Major Bank Levy has reduced this advantage, it only recoups a small proportion of the overall credit rating uplift enjoyed by the majors;
  2. Further reform of risk weights to address the significant gap that still exists between the capital requirements of the major banks and standardised banks. While there has been some risk weight narrowing following the FSI, the gap remains significant, and is particularly stark for loans with the lowest risk;
  3. A review of macro-prudential rules to better balance macro outcomes such as stability, without undermining banking competition. One option would be for APRA to give greater policy weight to minimum capital requirements. Macroprudential rules set by APRA have effectively ‘locked-in’ market share of loan books at current levels, thus leaving smaller banks with no room to challenge the already dominant position of major banks;
  4. Mortgage aggregators and brokers owned by major banks should publicly report on the proportion of loans they direct to their owners. While we do not suggest that major banks should be banned from owning broker networks, we do believe that where this occurs it should be managed in an open and transparent way to ensure customers are able to make fully informed decisions; and
  5. Before any new regulations are introduced, greater consideration should be given to the impacts on smaller banks. The unprecedented pace and volume of new regulation and compliance has a disproportionate impact on smaller banks which stifles sustainable competition.

The banks also support the ABA’s submission calling for more care and attention into the shadow banking sector, which continues to compete free of many regulations and APRA oversight.

The CEOs said while Australia had been well served by a strong and highly regulated banking sector, it was important that stability did not overshadow competition and good consumer outcomes.

Suncorp Banking & Wealth CEO David Carter said: “We believe there can be a balanced and fair framework allowing banks of all sizes to compete on a level playing field, while still meeting all sound, prudential principles. We would like to see more attention on macro-prudential rules to promote customer choice and competitive pricing, as opposed to maintaining the status quo – which is in effect similar to the ‘yellow flag’ being waved at the Grand Prix, where all drivers are then prohibited from overtaking one another.”

ME CEO Jamie McPhee said: “Regulatory imbalances have allowed a small group of banks to dominate the Australian market. Reform is needed if we want to create a fairer banking system so smaller banks can compete. A more competitive banking system is about improving customer choice and promoting economic growth.”

AMP Bank Group Executive Sally Bruce said: “Access to cheaper funding plus lower capital requirements for like-for-like loans gives the big banks a huge advantage over smaller players. Combined with the blanket approach to compliance and macro-prudential limits, we have a system of issues which impede competition and the best outcomes for customers. We are at risk of keeping big banks big and small banks small unless we address.”

The CEOs said improving competitive neutrality will deliver better customer outcomes and drive greater innovation in the sector.

“A strong banking system is good for all Australians and smaller banks bring vital competition and choice to the market,” they said.

“While the market is competitive today, it is vital this competition is fair, productive and sustainable.

“The bottom-line test must be: what is good for customers is good for the economy.”

Australian 2Q17 Mortgage Arrears Remain Stable

Australia’s mortgage arrears remained stable in 2Q17, with a 4bp decrease to 1.17% from the previous quarter, reflecting Fitch Ratings‘ expected seasonal recovery from Christmas and holiday spending.

The 30+ days arrears were 3bp higher from 2Q16, despite Australia’s improved economic environment and lower standard variable interest rates for owner occupied lending.

Unemployment improved by 20bp and real wage growth was low, but positive. Underemployment also improved by 20bp, reflecting a proportional increase of full-time employment during the quarter.

Repayment rates have decreased as borrowers recover from Christmas and holiday spending. The Dinkum RMBS Index borrower payment rate fell to 21.2% at end-2Q17, from 21.9% in the previous quarter. The conditional prepayment rate also dropped qoq to 19.1%, from 19.8%.

Losses experienced after the sale of collateral property remained extremely low, with lenders’ mortgage insurance payments and/or excess spread sufficient to cover principal shortfalls in all transactions during the quarter.

Fitch’s Dinkum RMBS Index tracks arrears and performance of mortgages underlying Australian residential mortgage-backed securities.

U.S. Home Prices Climb to Pre-Crisis Levels

Home prices in the United States have now climbed to levels last seen a decade ago, though unlike 10 years prior, much of the country’s growth is now sustainable, according to Fitch Ratings in its latest quarterly U.S. RMBS sustainable home price report.

Home prices grew at nearly a 5% annualized rate last quarter and are 36% higher nationally since reaching their low in 2012. As a result they are now slightly above peak levels reached in 2006 – 2007. The difference this time around compared to a decade ago rests with several other notable factors aside from the much talked about low mortgage rates and falling unemployment.

“The U.S. population has increased by more than 30 million people and personal income per capita has increased by more than 30% since 2006,” said Managing Director Grant Bailey. “Both the significantly higher population and income levels provide much greater support for the price levels today.”

That said, growth remains somewhat disjointed in some regions of the US. “Prices in major metro areas of Texas are now more than 50% higher than they were in 2006, while prices in New York, Philadelphia and Washington DC are still 4% – 10% below 2006 levels,” said Bailey. “Elsewhere, home prices in major cities throughout Florida remain more than 15% below 2006 levels.”

The overheated home price pockets remain largely in the Western United States (Texas, Portland, Phoenix and Las Vegas), which Fitch lists at more than 10% overvalued.

The Business Does Rate Rises and Households

A segment from ABC’s The Business, in which I discuss with Paul Bloxham Chief Economist HSBC, the question of when the RBA may lift rates, and the potential impact on households.

In essence, will the RBA be able to wait until income growth recovers, thus protecting household balance sheets, or will they move sooner as global rates rise, and put households, some of whom are already under pressure, into more financial stress?

You can read about the results from our mortgage stress surveys here.