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.

RBA stuck

Great slide from the NAB budget presentation:

RBA Interest Rates in a Cleft Stick

The RBA is in a cleft stick:

  • Raising interest rates would increase mortgage stress and threaten stability of the banking system.
  • Lowering interest rates would aggravate the housing bubble, creating a bigger threat in years to come.

The underlying problem is record high household debt to income levels. Housing affordability is merely a symptom.

There are only two possible solutions:

  1. Raise incomes; or
  2. Reduce debt levels.

Both have negative consequences.

Raising incomes would primarily take place through higher inflation. This would generate more demand for debt to buy inflation-hedge assets, so would have to be linked to strong macroprudential (e.g. lower maximum LVRs for housing) to prevent this. A positive offshoot would be a weaker Dollar, strengthening local industry. The big negative would be the restrictive monetary policy needed to slow inflation when the job is done, with a likely recession.

Shrinking debt levels without raising interest rates is difficult but macroprudential policies would help. Also policies that penalize banks for offshore borrowings. The big negative would be falling housing prices as investors try to liquidate some of their investments and the consequent threat to banking stability. The slow-down in new construction would also threaten an economy-wide down-turn.

Of the two, I would favor the former option as having less risk. But there is a third option: wait in the hope that something will turn up. That is the line of least resistance and therefore the most likely course government will take.