Why Aussie banks are weakening

Australian banks are breaking primary support levels. There are two major reasons for this. One is the precarious level of household debt as a result of the housing bubble. The first graph below shows how housing prices have more than doubled compared to disposable incomes (after tax but before interest payments) over the past 30 years. And how household debt has risen, not as a result of, but as the underlying cause of, the housing bubble. Without rising debt there would be no bubble.

Australian House Prices and Household Debt to Disposable Income

Growth in Australian housing prices is now slowing, prompting fears of a correction.

Australian House Price Growth

The second reason is falling returns on equity. Banking regulators have increased pressure on major banks to improve lending standards and increase capital backing for their lending exposure. For decades banks were given free rein to increase lending without commensurate increases in capital, to the extent that the majors hold only $4 to $5 of common equity for every $100 of lending exposure. Low interest rates, increases in capital and slowing credit growth have all contributed to the decline in bank equity returns to the low teens.

Australian Banks Return on Equity

ASX 200 faces resistance at 6000

The ASX 200 faces resistance at the key 6000 level. Money Flow is forming troughs above zero, indicating buying pressure. Recovery above 6000 would signal another advance. Failure of support at 5900 is less likely but would warn of a strong correction.

ASX 200

Iron ore prices are strengthening and likely to test the descending trendline at 70. Breakout above 80 would signal reversal to a primary up-trend but that still seems a long way off.

Iron Ore

Miners responded with another rally, the ASX 300 Metals & Mining Index respecting support at 3300.

ASX 300 Metals & Mining

So why the hesitancy? Banks are the largest sector in the ASX 200, with Financials representing 37.2% of the broad index. The ASX 300 Banks index is retreating and expected to test the band of support between 8000 and 8100. Trend Index peaks below zero warn of long-term selling pressure.

ASX 300 Banks

The outlook for banks is not that rosy. Household debt is growing faster than disposable incomes, placing finances in an increasingly precarious position. Interest payments are still manageable at 8% of disposable income but that could change if interest rates rise.

Australia: Household Debt/Disposable Income

The housing cycle appears to have peaked, with growth now falling. A function of tighter controls by APRA over investor lending and a Chinese crackdown on capital outflows.

Australia: House Prices

Building approvals for detached houses remain steady but approvals for higher-density housing are falling.

Australia: Building Approvals

A boom in construction of high-density housing has provided a strong tailwind to the economy over recent years, illustrated by the sharp spike in total residential construction compared to new houses in the chart below.

Australia: Value of Work Done

But the downturn in apartment prices and falling building approvals is likely to turn that tailwind into a headwind as apartment construction falls. This would affect not only the construction sector but the entire economy.

Political uncertainty over the continuation of favorable tax treatment for housing investors could also impact on new housing investment and strengthen the headwinds facing the economy.

The truth about our debt

Stephen Koukoulas says Australians have little to worry about high household debt:

….According to the latest data complied by the RBA, household assets are growing very strongly, aided by a building up in savings, unrelenting growth in superannuation holdings, growth in bank deposits and of course, from rising house prices.

While household debt is indeed just under 200 per cent of disposable income, household holdings of financial assets, which includes superannuation, direct share holdings and deposits, is now over 400 per cent of income…..

….The total value of housing in Australia is …. over 500 per cent of disposable income.

…. for every $1 of debt that the house sectors has, they have $5 of assets, which is a loan to value ratio of 20 per cent.

…..while the asset side of the household balance sheet remains healthy, the debt side will remain a non-problem.

That’s the problem with averages, they conceal a multitude of sins. Many Australians own houses without a mortgage. Probably the same group own most of Australia’s financial assets. They are financially secure, no doubt, and help to make the averages look reasonable.

But there are vast numbers of Australians in the mortgage belt with low financial assets and high loan-to-value ratios (LVRs) on their household mortgage. Any rise in interest rates would cause them financial stress and the impact of this would flow through the entire economy.

From Elizabeth Tilley at the Courier Mail:

Almost 50,000 households are at risk of defaulting on their home loans in the next 12 months and nearly a third of homeowners are in mortgage stress, new figures show.

The latest mortgage stress and default modelling from Digital Finance Analytics for the month of September reveals more than 905,000 households are estimated to be in mortgage stress — 45,000 more than there were the month prior.

….Of those households, 18,000 are in severe stress, which means they are unable to meet home loan repayments with their current income.

Not quite as rosy as the averages may seem.

Source: The truth about our debt

Hat tip to Macrobusiness.

Australia: Housing bubbles and declining business investment

The Australian housing bubble is alive and kicking, with house prices growing at close to 10% per year.

House Prices

Loan approvals are climbing, especially for owner-occupiers. Fueled by record low interest rates.

Loan Approvals

Causing household debt to soar relative to disposable income.

Loan Approvals

Business Investment

Nominal GDP growth of 6.34% for the 2017 FY is a rough measure of the average return on capital investment.

Australia Nominal GDP

With a mean of close to 5% over the last two decades, it is little wonder that business investment is falling. Not only in mining-related engineering but in machinery and equipment.

Australia Business Investment

Capital Misallocation

More capital is being allocated to housing than to business investment.

Australia Credit Growth

Returns on housing are largely speculative, premised on further house price growth, and do little to boost GDP growth and productivity.

The result of soaring house prices and household debt is therefore lower business investment and lower GDP and wages growth.

Australia Wages Growth

You don’t have to be the sharpest tool in the shed to recognize that soaring household debt and shrinking wage growth is likely to end badly.

More evidence of a bull market, except in Australia

One of my favorite indicators of financial market stress is Corporate bond spreads. The premium charged on the lowest level of investment-grade corporate bonds, over the equivalent 10-year Treasury yield, is a great measure of the level of financial market stress.

Moodys 10-year BAA minus Treasury yields

Levels below 2 percent — not seen since 2004 – 2007 and 1994 – 1998 before that — are indicative of a raging bull market. The current level of 2.24 percent is slightly higher, reflecting some caution, but way below elevated levels around 3 percent.

The Financial Stress Index from St Louis Fed measures the degree of stress in financial markets. Constructed from 18 weekly data series: seven interest rate series, six yield spreads and five other indicators. The average value of the index is designed to be zero (representing normal market conditions); values below zero suggest low financial stress, while values above zero suggest high market stress.

St Louis Financial Stress Index

Current levels, below -1, also indicate unusually low levels of financial market stress.

Leading Index

The Leading Index from the Philadelphia Fed has declined slightly in recent years but remains healthy, at above 1 percent.

Philadelphia Fed Leading Index

Currency in Circulation

Most recessions are preceded by growth in currency in circulation falling below 5 percent, warning that the economy is contracting.

Currency in Circulation

Current levels, above 5 percent, reflect healthy financial markets.


On the other side of the Pacific, currency growth is shrinking, below 5 percent for the first time in 7 years. A sustained fall would warn that the economy is contracting.

Australia: Money Supply

Further rate cuts, to stimulate the economy, are unlikely. The ratio of Household Debt to Disposable Income is climbing and the RBA would be reluctant to add more fuel to the bonfire.

Australia: Household Debt

There is no immediate pressure on the RBA to raise interest rates, but when the time comes the impact on the housing market could be devastating.

BIS: High household debt kills growth | Macrobusiness

From Leith van Onselen, reproduced with kind permission from Macrobusiness:

Last month I showed how Australia’s ratio of household debt to GDP had hit 123% of GDP – the third highest in the world – according to data released by the Bank for International Settlements (BIS):

ScreenHunter_16670 Dec. 13 07.13

Martin North also compiled separate data from the BIS, which showed that Australia’s household debt servicing ratio (DSR) is also the third highest in the world:

Despite record low mortgage rates, Australia’s mortgage slaves are still sacrificing a far higher share of their income to pay mortgage interest (let alone principal) than when mortgage rates peaked in 1989-90:

ScreenHunter_16672 Dec. 13 11.05

Now the BIS has released a working paper, entitled “The real effects of household debt in the short and long run”, which shows that high household debt (as measured by debt to GDP) has a significant negative long-term impact on consumption and growth. Below are the key findings:

A 1 percentage point increase in the household debt-to-GDP ratio tends to lower growth in the long run by 0.1 percentage point. Our results suggest that the negative long-run effects on consumption tend to intensify as the household debt-to-GDP ratio exceeds 60%. For GDP growth, that intensification seems to occur when the ratio exceeds 80%.

Moreover, the negative correlation between household debt and consumption actually strengthens over time, following a surge in household borrowing. What is striking is that the negative correlation coefficient nearly doubles between the first and the fifth year following the increase in household debt.

As shown in the table above, Australia’s household debt-to-GDP ratio was 123% as at June 2016 (higher now) – way above the BIS’ 80% threshold by which GDP growth is adversely impacted.

According to Martin North:

This is explained by massive amounts of borrowing for housing (both owner occupied and investment) whilst unsecured personal debt is not growing. Such high household debt, even with low interest rates sucks spending from the economy, and is a brake on growth. The swelling value of home prices, and paper wealth (as well as growing bank balance sheets) do not really provide the right foundation for long term real sustainable growth.

Another obvious extrapolation is that there could be carnage when mortgage rates eventually rise from current historical lows.

Why Australian Consumers Are Happy With Their Finances But Aren’t Spending | Business Insider

From Greg McKenna:

There is a lot of focus on the wealth of Australians through property and super but many Australian households and Australian households in aggregate are still carrying a large amount of debt. A stock of debt which must be repaid with a flow of earnings no matter how wealthy they might be on paper.

So consumers are more confident about their finances and their financial future but they aren’t spending — yet.

Something that puzzles me is why household debt as a percentage of disposable income is constant. If consumers have accelerated their credit card and mortgage debt repayments, surely this figure should be falling.

Read more at Here's The Best Explanation Of Why Australian Consumers Are Happy With Their Finances But Aren't Spending | Business Insider.

Platinum founder warns on property “act of faith”

ScreenHunter_3505 Jul. 29 08.50

By Leith van Onselen

The founder of Platinum Asset Management, billionaire investor Kerr Neilson, has released an interesting report warning about Australia’s frothy house price valuations and the risks of a correction once “conditions change, [and] a lot of the assumptions are found wanting”.

The report highlights four “facts” about Australian housing:

1. Returns from housing investment are often exaggerated and flattered by inflation.
2. Holding costs of rates, local taxes and repairs are estimated to absorb about half of current rental yields.
3. Long-term values are determined by affordability (wages + interest rates).
4. To be optimistic about residential property prices rising in general much faster than inflation is a supreme act of faith.

It then goes on to examine each of these facts.

On returns, the report notes that “the rise in the price of an average home in Australia…[has] been about 7% a year since 1986. In dollar terms, the average existing house has risen in value by 6.3 times over the last 27 years. No wonder most people love the housing market!”

But rental returns have gotten progressively poor:

…we earn a starting yield of say 4% on a rented-out home or if you live in it, the equivalent to what you do not have to pay in rent. But again, looking at the Bureau of Statistics numbers, they calculate that your annual outgoings on a property are around 2%. This takes the shape of repairs and maintenance, rates and taxes, and other fees. This therefore reduces your rental return to 2%, and what if it is vacant from time to time?

And the prospect for future solid capital growth is low due to poor affordability:

…the last 20 or so years has been exceptional. Australian wages have grown pretty consistently at just under 3% a year since 1994 – that is an increase of about 1% a year in real terms.

Affordability is what sets house prices and this has two components: what you earn and the cost of the monthly mortgage payment (interest rates).

…even though interest rates have progressively dropped, interest payments today absorb 9% of the average income, having earlier been only 6% of disposable income.

ScreenHunter_3506 Jul. 29 09.21

Today, houses cost over four times the average household’s yearly disposable income. At the beginning of the 1990s, this ratio was only about three times household incomes. As the chart over shows, this looks like the peak.

ScreenHunter_3507 Jul. 29 09.22

Finally, the report argues that for Australian home prices to significantly outpace inflation over the next ten years, as they have in the past, “would require a remarkable set of circumstances”, namely a combination of:

1. Continuing low or lower interest rates.
2. Willingness to live with more debt.
3. Household income being bolstered by greater participation in the income earning workforce.
4. Average wages growing faster than the CPI.

The last point is improbable seeing that wages and the CPI have a very stable relationship, while the other points are not very likely.

Reproduced with kind permission from Macrobusiness.

Deflating Australia’s land bubble

ScreenHunter_18 Jul. 05 10.22

Great post by Leith van Onselen
Reproduced with kind permission from Macrobusiness.com.au

Prosper Australia has provided a submission to the Senate Inquiry into Housing Affordability, which is well worth a look. The submission first provides nine metrics illustrating Australia’s residential property bubble, which include the following:

ScreenHunter_1461 Mar. 03 14.43

It took forty years from 1950 to 1990 for housing prices to double, but only fifteen years between 1996 and 2010 to double again. The surge in housing prices is driven by the tremendous growth in household debt, as owner-occupiers and investors take out ever larger mortgages to speculate on housing. The household debt to GDP ratio reached a record high of 98 per cent in 2010, the same year real housing prices peaked. In 2013, the mortgage and personal debt ratios were 86 and 9 per cent, respectively, for a combined household debt ratio of 95 per cent.

ScreenHunter_1462 Mar. 03 14.45

As mortgage debt escalated, investors’ net rental losses increased rapidly from 2001 onwards. In that year, net rental income losses were just over $1 billion, rising to $9.7 billion in 2008 as the cash rate peaked at 7.2 per cent. By 2010, when mortgage debt reached its historical peak relative to GDP, investor losses eased to $5.1 billion as the cash rate fell to a then historic low of 3 per cent in 2009 following the global financial crisis (GFC). The latest data shows income losses rose to $8.2 billion in 2011, the second largest absolute loss on record…

The housing market meets economist Hyman Minsky’s definition of a Ponzi scheme, as gross rental incomes minus expenses are clearly insufficient to meet principal and interest repayments. As 67 per cent of property investors are negatively-geared as of 2011, investment decisions are predicated upon expected rises in land values, not rents. This strategy will inevitably fail, as the escalation in real housing prices can only be sustained by a continual acceleration or exponential rise in mortgage debt.

The price to income (P/I) ratio, otherwise known as the median multiple, is another measure of residential property valuation…

ScreenHunter_1463 Mar. 03 14.49

From the mid-1990s onwards, housing prices outpaced household incomes, and the P/I ratio increased from 4 to 7 nationwide. It is impossible for household incomes to match the rise in housing prices during the boom phase of a property bubble, as wages grow more slowly, usually just above the rate of inflation…

Land is the largest tangible market in Australia… Our housing bubble is actually a residential land bubble, as the total land values to GDP ratio doubled between 1996 and 2010, when it reached a record high of 298 per cent ($4.1 trillion). In real terms, residential land values rose from $895 billion in 1996 to a peak of $3.2 trillion in 2010, a relative increase of 262 per cent. This ratio is closely matched by a similar rise in the value of the residential housing stock. The rise in residential land values, rather than structures, is responsible for almost all of the increase in the value of the housing stock…

ScreenHunter_1464 Mar. 03 14.51

Prosper then places the blame for Australia’s expensive housing on convergence of factors, with Australia’s inefficient tax system front-and-centre:

A convergence of factors are responsible: a large cohort of irrational investors gambling on housing prices, a FIRE sector willing and able to facilitate a credit boom, and low property and land taxes attracting speculators to this asset class…

A positive feedback loop has emerged between housing prices and mortgage debt, with rising prices prompting the take-up of more debt in an upwards spiral…

An inefficient taxation system, comprised of low property and land taxes, allows landowners to expropriate ‘geo-rent’ (economic rent derived from land) by capturing the uplift in land values generated by taxpayer-funded infrastructure and rising economic productivity… Government willingness to tax wages and business ahead of land has elevated its privileged status, resulting in larger capital sums being paid by owner-occupiers and investors.

It also advocates land tax reform, which it claims would significantly improve incomes, affordability, and productivity:

Counter-intuitively, reducing wage and business taxation and increasing land tax would not necessarily lower fundamental land prices, given the offsetting boost to disposable wages, profits and hence rents, but it would certainly lower bubble-inflated land prices. Land tax reform – urged on government by every independent tax review in living memory – would firmly correct the price to rent and income ratios. If Australia wishes to escape or ameliorate the profound financial destruction of a bursting land bubble, the solution lies in this equation…

Prosper also slams housing-related tax expenditures, which undermine the integrity of the tax system:

The generous scope of tax expenditures relating to the housing market has served to further increase prices. Tax expenditures are defined as a deviation from the commonly accepted tax structure, whether it is a tax exemption, concession, deduction, preferential rate, allowance, rebate, offset, credit or deferral. Australia has the highest rate of tax expenditures among our OECD peers, at more than 8 per cent of GDP. Tax expenditures are vulnerable to lobbying, and often compromise the fairness and efficiency of the tax system. Lavish tax expenditures for both owner-occupied and investment property has significantly worsened housing affordability because they allow landowners to capture greater amounts of geo-rent and prioritise unearned wealth and income over what is earned. Existing home owners capture the most benefit, ahead of first home buyers, investors and tenants.

ScreenHunter_1465 Mar. 03 15.09

These tax expenditures provide a strong incentive to speculate on housing prices, and are reinforced by already low property taxes. Investors perceive rental income as secondary to expected rises in capital prices, while first home buyers over-leverage themselves to enter a bubble-inflated market…

Tax expenditures, combined with the ongoing deregulation of the banking and financial system, has transformed the housing market into a casino. Residential property is commonly viewed as a speculative asset to flip, rather than shelter to raise a family in…

Finally, Prosper provides two recommendations to the Senate Inquiry:

Recommendation 1: Reform Land Value Tax. The ideal tool to moderate land bubbles and properly fund infrastructure already exists in the hands of state and territory governments: state land tax (SLT). Unfortunately, this tax has been so riddled with exemptions and concessional treatments it must be considered dormant…

We suggest the current government introduce a nationwide one per cent federal land tax (FLT) – fully rebatable on SLT paid – to oblige the states and territories to use their taxing powers properly. State governments could adjust their tax rules and keep every dollar the FLT raises, to the benefit of all Australians. The Commonwealth Parliament would be entitled to argue this intervention is for sound economic reasons and dissipate the political fallout. Placing state and territory finances on sound bases would vastly improve the federal system mandated by Australia’s Constitution. Transitional arrangements would need to be considered. Rebating all stamp duty paid against a hypothetical past SLT obligation would address concerns of fairness and equity…

Recommendation 2: Macroprudential Regulation. A range of macro-prudential tools are needed to moderate housing price inflation and subdue credit growth in a pro-cyclical financial system, such as those affecting the loan to value, (LVR), debt servicing (DSR) and debt servicing to income (DSTI) ratios.26 Quantitative restrictions should be placed on the share of new mortgages with moderately high LVRs…

To reduce systemic risk, a large rise in capital and liquidity ratios (buffers) is required to ensure banks can withstand a future economic downturn, bank run or large fall in the value of collateral. Research suggests the probability of a banking crisis can be reduced to a 1 in 100 year event by raising core equity (Tier 1) capital ratios to 11 per cent in isolation or raising core equity to 10 per cent with an addition rise in liquid assets of 12.5 per cent (the rise in liquid assets over total assets). For the Big Four banks, this would represent a rise of around 3 per cent in core equity…

The full submission is available here.

Household debt indicates confidence improving

Good news for the US economy is that household credit has started to grow, recovering above zero after a protracted contraction. Not only does this indicate a recovery in consumer confidence, but it will fuel additional expenditure and stimulate income growth.

US Household Credit Growth

The ratio of household debt to personal disposable income continues to contract, indicating that debt is growing at a slower rate than disposable income. This is likely to continue for some time as households recover from the credit binge leading up to the GFC, but is a healthy sign provided credit growth remains positive.

Household Debt over Disposable Personal Income

Declining corporate bond spreads and historically low readings on the CBOE Volatility Index (VIX) suggest a healthy bull market ahead.

CBOE Volatility Index


Australian household debt remains elevated at 150% of disposable income, almost 50% higher than US levels.

Australian Household Debt to Disposable Personal Income

While household debt levels will need to be addressed in the long-term, declining corporate bond spreads indicate there is no immediate cause for alarm.

Australian Bond Spreads

All who are able, may gain virtue by study and care, for it is better to be happy by the action of nature than by chance. To entrust to chance what is most important would be defective reasoning.
~ Aristotle

Is the market in a bubble?

As global growth recovers we expect equity markets to be buoyed by improvements in both earnings and dividends, with strong momentum over the quarter. There is much discussion in the media as to whether various markets are in a “bubble”. Little attention is devoted to the fact that bubbles can last for several years, and sometimes even decades. The main driver of both stock market bubbles and real estate bubbles is debt. Anna Schwartz, co-author with Milton Friedman of A Monetary History of the United States (1963) described the relationship to the Wall Street Journal:

If you investigate individually the manias that the market has so dubbed over the years, in every case, it was expansive monetary policy that generated the boom in an asset. The particular asset varied from one boom to another. But the basic underlying propagator was too-easy monetary policy and too-low interest rates …..

Currently, there is evidence of expansive monetary policy from the Fed, but the overall impact on the financial markets is muted. Most of the QE bond purchases are being parked by banks in interest-bearing, excess reserve deposits at the Fed. The chart below compares Fed balance sheet expansion (QE) to the increase in excess reserve deposits at the Fed.

US Household Debt

A classic placebo effect, the Fed is well aware that the major benefit of their quantitative easing program is psychological: there is little monetary impact on the markets.

Corporate debt (green line below) is expanding rapidly as corporations take advantage of the opportunity to issue new debt at low interest rates, but household debt (red) is still shrinking.

US Household Debt

There are pockets of concern, like the rapid recovery in NYSE margin debt, but risk of a Dotcom-style stock market bubble or a 2002/2007 housing bubble is low while household debt contracts.


Australian personal debt (included with household debt in the US chart) and corporate debt growth are both close to zero. Household debt, while also low, appears to have bottomed. Resurgence above 10% would be cause for concern.

RBA Household Debt

Household Debt to Income ratio

Barry Ritholz highlights the alarming debt to income ratio for Canada compared to the USA:
Household Debt to Income ratio

How does Australia compare?
Australian Household Debt to Income ratio
Australian household debt to income is similar to Canada’s. There has been discussion recently about whether Australia is in a housing bubble. As Anna Schwartz (joint author of A Monetary History of the United States, 1867-1960 with Milton Friedman) pointed out: there is only one kind of bubble and that is a debt bubble. It may manifest through rising real estate, stock or other asset prices, but the underlying driver is the same: a rapid expansion of the money supply through easy credit.

Crawling, not walking, to non-mining led growth | MacroBusiness

Leith van Onselen quotes the latest JP Morgan report on the Australian economy:

…risk of a recession is “inevitably higher now than usual; the economy has built up vulnerabilities over time that have been masked by the continued growth in output and national income… the downside of avoiding recession is that Australia has carried these excesses through a succession of growth cycles”.

Households are particularly at risk from expensive house prices and high levels of household debt. Which brings me back to the unnecessary risks bank regulators are taking by condoning low bank capital ratios of between 4.0% and 4.5% of total credit exposure. Risk-weighting of bank assets provided a smokescreen, inflating perceived ratios to around 10%, while encouraging over-exposure to (low risk-weighted) residential mortgages.

Read more at Crawling, not walking, to non-mining led growth | | MacroBusiness.

Canadian housing bubble looks ripe for popping | Toronto Star

Adam Peterson writes the Canadian housing bubble is headed for a “slow-motion” crash:

My gravest concern is that Canada is fast approaching a 5:1 home-price-to-income ratio, a benchmark achieved by the U.S. at the peak in 2006. Since the correction, the U.S. ratio now hovers at approximately 3:1.

To compound the problem, household debt in Canada has breached 150 per cent of income and continues in the wrong direction; households are not cushioned against a blow.

Australian household debt is also hovering around 150% of disposable income.

Australian household debt to disposable income

While the price-to-income ratio varies between 4 and more than 6 depending on whether you use national averages or median data.
Australian house price-to-income ratio

Read more at Canadian housing bubble looks ripe for popping | Toronto Star.

Expanding debt: Dousing the flames with gasoline

We are now in the fifth year of recovery from the worst financial crisis in 50 years — fueled by expanding household debt, rising from 50% of GDP in the 1980s to close to 100% in 2008. Contraction since the GFC has brought US household debt back to 80% of GDP…

Household Debt as % of GDP

But a worrying sign is that consumer debt has started to rise
Consumer Debt as a % of Disposable Income

And Steve Keen points out that margin debt is also rising, fueling the latest stock market rally.

Yahoo: Steve Keen Interview
[click on the image to view the video in a separate window]

Holding interest rates at artificially low levels for an extended period risks fueling another credit bubble. The Fed/central bank needs to react quickly to expanding credit in any area of the economy. We all hope for a recovery, but it must be sustainable — with consumption fueled by rising employment rather than rising debt — and not another debt-fueled boom-then-bust.

Australia: Household debt crisis

A few days ago I mentioned that Australia is in a housing bubble. The easiest way to gauge this is to compare Australian household debt/disposable income (DPI) to the US peak before the global financial crisis. After all, household debt is the fuel for a housing bubble.

Housing Finances

Australia’s current ratio of 150% (or 1.5 times DPI) is higher than the US peak of 1.3 times DPI during the housing bubble. And far higher than the current US ratio of 1.1 times DPI.

Credit Growth by Sector

No time to be complacent.

US public debt growing at unsustainable rate

We often blame Fed monetary policy for the GFC, with interest rates at exceptionally low levels leading to “Greenspan’s bubble.” Treasury was just as culpable, however, with the massive 2004-2005 surge in public debt flooding the market with liquidity. The repeat in 2008-2011 was more justifiable: the spike in public debt was necessary to offset the sharp decline in private (non-financial) debt which would have caused a deflationary spiral. The effect was to smooth out the fall in total domestic debt (public and private) and create a relatively “soft” landing for the economy.

Government, Domestic and Private (Non-Financial) Debt Growth

Quick Glossary

  • Domestic debt is all local debt, both government and private sector
  • Non-financial excludes the financial sector from debt calculations as it largely acts as a conduit for other sectors.
  • Government debt includes federal, state and local government borrowing
  • Private debt is all Domestic debt other than Government. It includes both Corporate and Household debt.
  • Household debt is all debt owed by private households, as opposed to the corporate sector.
  • GDP is the market value of all final (excludes intermediate) goods and services produced within a country in a given year/quarter.
  • Nominal means before adjustment for inflation.

Government and Domestic Debt Growth compared to GDP

Public debt growth is slowing but needs to fall further in order to keep the economy on a sustainable path. A rough rule of thumb is that public debt should grow no faster than GDP — so that it does not outgrow the nation’s ability to repay. With public debt growing at 8.6% and GDP at a nominal rate of 4.1%, Treasury’s ability to repay — and its credit rating — is deteriorating. Reduction of public debt growth to a rate of no higher than 4.1% is necessary. Increases in tax collections as a percentage of GDP would alter this basic equation, but are highly unpopular and act as a disincentive to further GDP growth.

It should be evident from the above chart that GDP contracts when the rate of domestic debt growth slows. If domestic debt ever had to contract (below zero growth), you can imagine the impact that it would have on GDP. That is a debt-deflation spiral and should be avoided at all costs. So, although we would all like to see a sharp reduction in debt levels, there are limitations on how quickly this can be achieved — without smashing the economy into a brick wall.

We can also see that GDP growth for the past decade has been largely debt-fueled. Only recently has GDP growth surged above the growth rate of domestic debt, reflecting an increase in productivity. That is what we (not just the US) have to strive for: to widen the positive gap between GDP and domestic debt growth, while bringing public debt growth below the nominal rate of growth in GDP.

Reducing the rate of growth in public debt will not be easy, however, with private debt growing at a miserly 0.8% compared to domestic debt at 3.0%. The difference is made up by government debt, growing at a whopping 8.6%. Private capital expenditure, however, has in many cases been brought-forward to take advantage of accelerated tax write-offs and is likely to slow in the months ahead. Even worse is household debt which is contracting at an annual rate of 0.9%. So the medium-term outlook for private debt may be near-zero growth. And further slowing of public debt growth would court another recession.

Domestic, Household and Private (Non-Financial) Debt Growth