How far will home prices fall? Welcome to the Property Imperative weekly to 3rd March 2018.
Yet another big big week in property and finance for us to review today. Watch the video or read the transcript.
We start with the latest home price data from CoreLogic. Prices continue to soften. On an annual basis, prices are down 0.5% in Sydney, 2.7% in Perth and 7.4% in Darwin. They were higher over the year in Melbourne, up 6.9%, Brisbane 1.8%, Adelaide 2.2% and Hobart a massive 13.1%. But be beware, these are average figures, and there are considerable variations across locations within regions and across property types. The bigger falls are being seen at the top end of the market.
Over the three months to February, Adelaide was up 0.1% and Hobart 3.2%. These were the only capital cities in which values rose. Sydney, which has been the strongest market for value growth over recent years, saw the largest fall in values over the three-month period, down -2.4%. Sydney was followed by Darwin, which has been persistently weak over recent years, and saw values fall by a further -2.0% over the quarter.
Finally, CoreLogic says month-on-month falls were generally mild but broad based. Over the month, values fell across every capital city except Hobart (+0.7%) and Adelaide (steady), with the largest monthly decline recorded across Darwin (-0.9%) and Sydney (-0.6%). Values were lower in Melbourne (-0.1%), Brisbane (-0.1%), Perth (-0.2%), and Canberra (-0.3%).
The reason for the falls are pretty plain to see. Demand is substantially off, especially from investors, as mortgage underwriting standards are tightening. So it was interesting to hear APRA chairman Wayne Byres’s testimony in front of the Senate Economics Legislation Committee. I discussed this with Ross Greenwood on 2GB. During the session he said that the 10% cap on banks’ lending to housing investors imposed in December 2014 was “probably reaching the end of its useful life” as lending standards have improved. Essentially it had become redundant. But the other policy, a limit of more than 30% of lending interest only will stay in place. This more recent additional intervention, dating from March 2017, will stay for now, despite it being a temporary measure. The 30% cap is based on the flow of new lending in a particular quarter, relative to the total flow of new lending in that quarter. This all points to tighter mortgage lending standards ahead, but still does not address the risks in the back book. The mortgage underwriting screws are much tighter now – our surveys show that about a quarter or people seeking a mortgage now cannot get one due to the newly imposed limits on income, expenses and serviceability.
During the sessions, Senator Lee Rhiannon asked APRA about mortgage fraud. This was to my mind the most significant part.
Yet even now, more than 10% of new loans are being funded at a loan to income of more than 6 times. And whilst the volume of interest only loans has fallen to 20% of new loans, well below the 30% limit, it seems small ADI’s are lending faster than the majors. And we know the non-banks are going gang busters.
Now the HIA said their Housing Affordability Index saw a small improvement of 0.2 per cent during the December 2017 quarter indicating that affordability challenges have eased thanks to softer home prices in Sydney where they are now slightly lower than they were a year ago. This makes home purchase a little more accessible, particularly for First Home Buyers they said. But they failed to mention the now tighter lending standards which more than negates any small improvement in their index.
The impact of this tightening came through in the latest data on housing finance from both the RBA and APRA. I made a separate video on this if you want the gory details. The RBA said that in January owner occupied lending rose 0.6%, or 8% over the past year to $1.14 trillion. Investment lending rose 0.2% or 3% over the past year to $587 billion and comprises 34% of all housing lending. They changed the way they report the data this month. It changes the trend reporting significantly. Since mid-2015 the bank has been writing back perceived loan reclassifications which pushed the investor loans higher and the owner occupied loans lower. They have now reversed this policy, so the flow of investment loans is lower (and more in line with the data from APRA on bank portfolios). Investor loans are suddenly 2% lower. Magically! Once again, this highlights the rubbery nature of the data on lending in Australia. What with data problems in the banks, and at the RBA, we really do not have a good chart and compass. It just happens to be the biggest threat to financial stability but never mind.
The latest APRA Monthly Banking Statistics to January 2018 tells an interesting tale. Total loans from ADI’s rose by $6.1 billion in the month, up 0.4%. Within that loans for owner occupation rose 0.57%, up $5.96 billion to $1.05 trillion, while loans for investment purposes rose 0.04% or $210 million. 34.4% of loans in the portfolio are for investment purposes. So the rotation away from investment loans continues, and overall lending momentum is slowing a little (but still represents an annual growth rate of nearly 5%, still well above inflation or income at 1.9%!). Looking at the lender portfolio, we see some significant divergence in strategy. Westpac is still driving investment loans the hardest, while CBA and ANZ portfolios have falling in total value, with lower new acquisitions and switching. Bank of Queensland and Macquarie are also lifting investment lending.
Now searching questions are being asked about Lax Mortgage Lending, and the risks the banks are sitting on at the moment. While better lending controls will help ahead, we have a significant problem now, with many households facing financial difficulty. First there is the issue of basic cash flow, as incomes remain contained, costs of living rise, and mortgage payments still need to be met. We estimate 51,500 households risk default in the year ahead, a small but growing problem. We will release the February mortgage stress data on Monday, so look out for that.
Then there is the question of banks and brokers not doing sufficient due diligence on loan applications. This is something the Royal Commission will be looking at in the next couple of weeks. We worked with the ABC on a story, which aired this week, looking at the issues around poor lending. Its complex of course, because borrowers have to take some responsibility for the applications they made for credit, and need to be truthful. But both brokers and lenders have obligations to make sufficient inquiry into the applicant’s circumstances to ensure the loan is “not unsuitable” – which is nothing to do with the “best” mortgage by the way, it’s a much lower hurdle. But if a loan were deemed to be unsuitable, the courts may change the terms of the loan, or cancel the loan, meaning a borrower could leave a property without debt. An upcoming court case may clarify the law. But in the ABC piece, Brian Johnston, one of the best analysts in the business said this means it moves from being the borrowers problem to being the banks problem!
This also touches on the role of mortgage brokers, and whether their commission based remuneration might influence their loan recommendations, to the detriment of their customers, which is more than half the market. This is something which both ASIC and the Productivity Commission have been highlighting. Speaking at a CEDA event, Productivity Commission chairman Peter Harris said more than $2.4bn is now paid annually for mortgage broker services. The commission’s draft report released in early February says that based on ASIC’s findings, lenders pay brokers an upfront commission of $2,289 (0.62%) and a trail commission of $665 (0.18%) a year on an average new home loan of $369,000. He zeroed in on trailing commissions – which he said are worth $1bn per annum – and questioned their relevance.
The Banking Royal Commission says the first round of public hearings will be held in Melbourne at the Owen Dixon Commonwealth Law Courts Building at 305 William Street from Tuesday 13 March to Friday 23 March. They listed the range of matters they are exploring, from mortgages, brokers, cards, car finance, add-on insurance and account administration, with reference to specific banks, including NAB, CBA, ANZ, Westpac, Aussie, and Citi. Responsible lending is the theme.
Talking of mortgage brokers, another question to consider is the ownership relationship between a broker, their aggregator and the Bank. Not only are many brokers effectively directly employed by the big banks, but more have strong associations, these relationships are not adequately disclosed.
The New Daily did a good piece on showing these linkages, most of which are hard to spot. They said that Fans of Married at First Sight and My Kitchen Rules may have noticed over the past few days that popular property website realestate.com.au has started advertising a new product: home loans. But Realestate.com.au Home Loans is not an independent initiative. Far from it. It is a deal between Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp, which owns 61.6 per cent of realestate.com.au, and big-four bank NAB. Last June REA Group, the company behind the realestate.com.au website, signed what it called a “strategic mortgage broking partnership” with NAB. What REA Group is actually doing is piggy-backing on a mortgage broker called Choice Home Loans. In other words, while the branding may be realestate.com.au, the actual mortgage broking firm is Choice Home Loans. And who owns Choice Home Loans? NAB does. If you get conditional approval through realestate.com.au, it will be provided by NAB. However, getting conditional approval with NAB does not commit you to a NAB home loan. First, you could choose a realestate.com.au ‘white label’ loan. This is a loan that on the face of it looks like it is provided by realestate.com.au. But once again appearances are deceptive. REA Group does not have a mortgage lenders’ licence. So while these loans may be branded realestate.com.au, they are actually provided by a nationwide mortgage lender called Advantedge. And who owns Advantedge? NAB does. If you don’t fancy the realestate.com.au home loan, there are other choices. First, there is a range of NAB mortgages. And then, there is a list of mortgages from other providers – more than 30 of them, including big names like Westpac, ANZ, Commonwealth Bank, Macquarie, ING, ME, UBank – the list goes on. Oh, and by the way, that last bank mentioned – UBank – is also owned by NAB. All this highlights the hidden connections and the market power of the big banks. Like I said, these relationships are hard to spot!
Another little reported issue this week was the financial viability of Lenders Mortgage Insurers in Australia, those specialist insurers who cover mortgages over 80% loan to value. QBE Insurance reported their full year 2017 results today and reported a statutory 2017 net loss after tax of $1,249 million, which compares with a net profit after tax of $844 million in the prior year. This is a diverse and complex group, which is now seeking a path to rationalisation. They declared their Asia Pacific result “unacceptable” and said the strategy was to “narrow the focus and simplify back to core” with a focus on the reduction in poor performing segments. This begs the question. What is the status of their Lenders Mortgage Insurance (LMI) business? They reported a higher combined operating ratio consistent with a cyclical slowdown in the Australian mortgage insurance industry, higher claims and a lower cure rate. Very little detail was included in the results, but this aligns with similar experience at Genworth the listed monoline who reported a 26% drop in profit, and provides greater insight into the mortgage sector. Both LMI’s are experiencing similar stresses, with lower premium income, and higher claims. And this before the property market really slows, or interest rates rise! Begs the question, how secure are the external LMI’s? Another risk to consider.
Last week’s auction preliminary results from Domain said nationally, so far from the 2,627 properties listed for auction, only 1,794 actually went for sale, and 1,325 properties sold. So the real clearance rate against those listed is 50.4%. Domain though calculates the clearance rate on those going to auction, less withdrawn sales over those sold. This give a higher measure of 68.8% nationally, which is still lower than a year ago. But, we ask, which is the real clearance rate?
Finally, there is a rising chorus demanding that APRA loosen their rules for mortgage lending in the face of slipping home prices. This despite the RBA’s recent comments about the risks in the system, especially relating to investor and interest only loans. But this is unlikely, and in fact more tightening, either by a rate rise, or macroprudential will be needed to contain the risks in the system. The latter is more likely. Some of this will come from the lenders directly. For example, last week ANZ said it will be regarding all interest-only loan renewals as credit critical event requiring full income verification from 5 March. If loans failed this assessment these loans would revert to P&I loans (with of course higher repayment terms). We are already seeing a number of forced switches, or forced sales thanks to the tighter IO rules more generally. We will release updated numbers next week. But, as ANZ has pointed out in a separate note from David Plank, Head of Australian Economics at ANZ; household leverage is still increasing, this despite a moderation in housing credit growth over the past year. Household debt continues to grow faster than disposable income. With household debt being close to double disposable income it will actually require the growth in household debt to slow well below that of income in order for the ratio of household debt to income to stabilise, let alone fall. In fact, he questions whether financial stability has really been improved so far, when interest rates are so very low.
So, nothing we have seen this week changes our view of more, and significant falls in property values ahead as mortgage lending is tightened further. This also shows that it is really credit supply and demand, not property supply and demand which is the critical controller of home price movements. Another reason to revisit the question of negative property gearing in my view.