Australia: What housing bubble?

Some interesting comments from economist Saul Eslake regarding the Australian housing bubble:

“Rising house prices are not of themselves a reason for the market to drop. About two thirds of Australia’s household debt is owned by the top 40 per cent of households, by income distribution. There hasn’t been a lot of lending to people on low incomes,” explains Eslake.

Lending to people on small salaries is one of the reasons housing markets in other countries, such as the US in the sub-prime crisis, have come under pressure in the past.

There has also been a decline in the home ownership rate in Australia that also reduced the chance of a housing bubble popping. According to the 2016 census, home ownership is the lowest it has been since the census of 1954…..

Australia also never experienced the same extent of low-doc lending as happened in the US prior to the financial crisis, where “ninja loans” – no income, no job, no assets – were commonplace.

Similarly, very high LVR lending, another problem in the US, did not occur to the same extent in this market.

“In the US people of surprisingly modest means could get loans valued in excess of 100 per cent of the value of the property. But in Australia it’s very difficult to get a mortgage at more than 80 per cent LVR without mortgage insurance,” says Eslake.

…..An excess supply of housing, which impacted the US and Irish markets, is also missing in Australia.

“In countries housing supply ran a long way ahead of underlying demand. Builders kept building in the expectation of future demand. When the cycle changed, forced sales and excess supply crashed the market,” says Eslake.

For the last 15 years Australia has had a housing shortage. While that’s changing given a record numbers of apartments have been built in the last few years, supply has not yet outstripped demand.

While he does mention risks attached to interest-only mortgages, Saul’s view is that “a correction in the domestic residential property market, at this point in the cycle it seems unlikely.”

I believe there are further assumptions that he has not mentioned:

  • That banks continue to provide credit at the same rate as they are at present. A slow-down in new credit, precipitated by rising interest rates or falling prices, could cause a contraction.
  • That the inflow of foreign investment into Australian residential housing continues at the same rate as at present. There are three possible headwinds:
    1. Reluctance on the part of Australian banks to increase exposure to foreign investors.
    2. Tighter monetary policy in China.
    3. And a Chinese crackdown to restrict capital outflows.
  • That current low interest rates continue. Inflationary pressures are low, so this is not unreasonable at present, but circumstances can change. So can LVRs.

I would describe the situation as reasonably stable at present but increasingly precarious in the long-term as the ratio of household debt to disposable income continues to climb.

Source: Opinion: What if the housing market crashed?

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