Mortgage Stress Continues On a High Plateau In November

Digital Finance Analytics has released the November mortgage stress and default analysis update. Across Australia, more than 913,000 households are estimated to be now in mortgage stress (last month 910,000) and more than 21,000 of these in severe stress, the same as last month. Stress is sitting on a high plateau. This equates to 29.4% of households. We see continued default pressure building in Western Australia, as well as among more affluent household, beyond the traditional mortgage belts across the country. Stress eased a little in Queensland, thanks to better employment prospects.

We estimate that more than 52,000 households risk 30-day default in the next 12 months, similar to last month. We expect bank portfolio losses to be around 2.8 basis points, though with losses in WA rising to 4.9 basis points.

We discuss the findings from our analysis and count down the top 10 post codes, to identify the most highly stressed post code currently in the country.

As continued pressure from low wage growth and rising costs bites, those with larger mortgages are having more difficulty balancing the family budget. As a result, risks in the system continue to rise, and while recent strengthening of lending standards will help protect new borrowers, there are many households currently holding loans which would not now be approved. These stressed households are less likely to spend at the shops, which will act as a further drag anchor on future growth, one reason why retail spending is muted. The number of households impacted are economically significant, especially as household debt continues to climb to new record levels. Mortgage lending is still growing at three times income. This is not sustainable. The latest household debt to income ratio is now at a record 193.7.[1]

Our analysis uses the DFA core market model which combines information from our 52,000 household surveys, public data from the RBA, ABS and APRA; and private data from lenders and aggregators. The data is current to end November 2017. We analyse household cash flow based on real incomes, outgoings and mortgage repayments, rather than using an arbitrary 30% of income.

Households are defined as “stressed” when net income (or cash flow) does not cover ongoing costs. Households in mild stress have little leeway in their cash flows, whereas those in severe stress are unable to meet repayments from current income. In both cases, households manage this deficit by cutting back on spending, putting more on credit cards and seeking to refinance, restructure or sell their home.  Those in severe stress are more likely to be seeking hardship assistance and are often forced to sell.

The forces which are lifting mortgage stress levels remain largely the same. In cash flow terms, we see households having to cope with rising living costs whilst real incomes continue to fall and underemployment remains high. Households have larger mortgages, thanks to the strong rise in home prices, especially in the main eastern state centres. While mortgage rates remain quite low for owner occupied borrowers, those with interest only loans or investment loans have seen significant rises.  We expect some upward pressure on real mortgage rates in the next year as international funding pressures mount, a potential for local rate rises and margin pressure on the banks. We revised our expectation of potential interest rate rises, given the stronger data on the global economy and the recently announced Finance Sector  Royal Commission.

Probability of default extends our mortgage stress analysis by overlaying economic indicators such as employment, future wage growth and cpi changes.  We have also extended our Core Market Model to examine the potential of portfolio risk of loss in basis point and value terms. Losses are likely to be higher among more affluent households.

Gill North, Joint DFA Principal and Professorial Research Fellow in the law school at Deakin University, said “the numbers of households in mortgage and financial stress in Australia are at record levels and the consequential risks and likely adverse impacts are difficult to overstate. When external events and or the personal circumstances of these highly indebted households deteriorate, the number of people who cannot afford to rent or purchase a home is likely to increase exponentially, leaving many more households without adequate accommodation. In extreme instances, other households may lose the residential property they presently live in due to rental defaults or a forced sale or foreclosure.”

While there have been numerous inquiries into housing affordability and homelessness in Australia, the issues involved are complex, and real progress has been limited (at best). For policy options to make any meaningful difference to the nature and scale of housing affordability and homelessness, policy makers and others need to acknowledge the sheer magnitude of the problem, and respond accordingly.

One of the options that policy makers have considered to address affordable housing issues and to provide housing for the most vulnerable sections of the community is the use of social impact investment.  Gill North was part of a team that reviewed the potential for impact investment models to provide housing for the vulnerable and reported to the Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute (AHURI). The report on “Supporting Vulnerable Households To Achieve Their Housing Goals: The Role Of Impact Investment” is available from The report authors acknowledge and thank AHURI for the funding that allowed this important research”.

By the Numbers

Regional analysis shows that NSW has 251,576 households in stress (242,399 last month), VIC 253,248 (250,259 last month), QLD 157,019 (162,726 last month) and WA 123,849 (121,393 last month). The probability of default rose, with around 9,800 in WA, around 9,600 in QLD, 13,000 in VIC and 13,900 in NSW.

The largest financial losses relating to bank write-offs reside in NSW ($1.3 billion from Owner Occupied borrowers) and VIC ($870 million from Owner Occupied Borrowers, which equates to 2.1 and 2.7 basis points respectively. Losses are likely to be highest in WA at 4.9 basis points, which equates to $682 million from Owner Occupied borrowers and $108 million from Property Investors over the next 12 months.

You can request our media release. Note this will NOT automatically send you our research updates, for that register here.

Note that the detailed results from our surveys and analysis are made available to our paying clients.

[1] RBA E2 Household Finances – Selected Ratios June 2017

BIS Special Feature On Household Debt

The Bank for International Settlements has featured the issues arising from high household debt in its December 2017 Quarterly Review. They call out the risks from high mortgage lending, high debt servicing ratios, and the risks to financial stability and economic growth.  All themes we have already explored on the DFA Blog, but it is a well argued summary. Also note Australia figures as a higher risk case study.  Here is a summary of their analysis.

Central banks are increasingly concerned that high household debt may pose a threat to macroeconomic and financial stability.  This special feature seeks to highlight some of the mechanisms through which household debt may threaten both macroeconomic and financial stability.

Australia is put in the “High and rising” category.  The debt ratio now exceeds 120% in both Australia and Switzerland.  Mortgages make up the lion’s share of debt (between 62 and 97%).  In Australia mortgage debt has risen from 86% of household debt in 2007 to 92% in 2017.

High household debt can make the economy more vulnerable to disruptions, potentially harming growth. As aggregate consumption and output shrink, the likelihood of systemic banking distress could increase, since banks hold both direct and indirect credit risk exposures to the household sector.

They say  the size of household debt burdens matters too. This is best measured by the ratio of interest payments and amortisation to income – the debt service ratio (DSR).   They say that rising household debt can reflect either stronger credit demand or an increased supply of credit from lenders, or some combination of the two. In Australia, for instance, heightened
competition among lenders seems to have resulted in a relaxation of lending standards.  In addition, the interest rate sensitivity of a household’s debt service burden is likely to matter. High debt (relative to assets) can make a household less mobile, and hence less able to adjust by finding a new or better job in another town or region. Homeowners may be tied down by mortgages on properties that have depreciated in value, especially those that are underwater (ie worth less than the loan balance).

These household-level observations have implications for aggregate demand and aggregate supply. From an aggregate demand perspective, the distribution of debt across households can amplify any drop in  consumption. Notable examples include high debt concentration among households with limited access to credit (ie close to borrowing constraints) or less scope for self-insurance (ie low liquid balances).

Since poorer households are more likely to face these credit and liquidity
constraints, an economy’s vulnerability to amplification can be assessed by looking at the distribution of debt by income and wealth.  In Australia, households in the top income brackets tend to have substantially higher debt ratios than those at the bottom of the distribution (eg in 2014, the top two quintiles had debt ratios of about 200%, while the bottom two had ratios of about 50%. [Note this is based on OLD 2014 HILDA data, and debt to higher income households has risen further since then!]

In countries where household debt has risen rapidly since the crisis, and where the majority of mortgages are adjustable rate, DSRs are already above their historical average, and would be pushed yet further away by higher interest rates.

From an aggregate supply perspective, an economy’s ability to adjust via labour reallocation across different regions can weaken if household leverage grows over time. In such an economy, a fall in house prices – as may be associated with interest rate hikes – would saddle a number of households with mortgages worth less than the underlying property. A share of these “underwater” homeowners might also lose their jobs in the ensuing contraction. In turn, their unwillingness to realise losses by selling their property at depressed prices may prolong their spell of unemployment by preventing them from taking jobs in locations that would require a house move.

Elevated levels of household debt could pose a threat to financial stability, defined here as distress among financial institutions. These exposures relate not only to direct and indirect credit risks, but also to funding risks. There is some evidence that this may be occurring in Australia, where high-DSR households are more likely to miss mortgage payments.

The indirect exposure to household debt arises from any increase in credit risk linked to households’ expenditure cuts. These are bound to have a broader impact on output and hence on credit risk more generally. Deleveraging by highly indebted households could induce a recession so that banks’ non-household loan assets are likely to suffer. Financial stability may also be threatened by funding risks . The network of counterparty relationships could become a channel for the transmission of stress, as any decline in the value of one bank’s cover pool could rapidly affect that of all the others.

They conclude:

Central banks and other authorities need to monitor developments in household debt. Several features of household indebtedness help to shape the behaviour of aggregate expenditure, especially after economic shocks. The level of debt and its duration – as well as whether debt has financed the acquisition of illiquid assets such as housing – all play a role in determining how far an individual household will cut back its consumption. Aggregating up, the distribution of debt across households can amplify these  adjustments. In turn, such amplification is more likely if debt is concentrated among households with limited access to credit or less scope for selfinsurance. Since these households are also likely to be poorer households, keeping track of the distribution of debt by income and wealth can help indicate an economy’s vulnerability to amplification.

What The Royal Commission Means For Home Prices – The Property Imperative Weekly 2nd December 2017

The Banking Royal Commission is on, Housing credit is still growing strongly, and home prices in Sydney are slipping. So plenty to discuss in this week’s Property Imperative weekly to 2nd December 2017.

Watch the video, or read the transcript.

In this week’s review of finance and property news we start with the announced $75 million Royal Commission into Financial Services, which after lots of wrangling was announced this week. I will leave the politics alone, but as Fitch Ratings said, the inquiry into alleged misconduct adds challenges to the financial system and the findings could weaken the reputation of individual players, or possibly expose wider structural weaknesses.

So we think uncertainty about whether there will be an inquiry, and what scope it would cover, has been replaced by potential uncertainty of outcome. OK, the scope has been crafted to include a wide gamut of players, from banks, insurers and superannuation funds, but it is narrow because it will only look at misconduct against community expectations. It will touch on culture and governance (and this poses the question of the relationship between misconduct and culture) and it is tasked to make recommendations (but steering around other parallel work including the vertical integration which the Productivity Commission is looking at, and ACCC’s work on pricing).  So it will likely focus on the well-trod paths of poor financial advice, bad insurance policy outcomes and inappropriate handling of SME’s when they get into financial difficulty. We hope the inquiry will specifically look at the various conflicts of interest which currently exist across the sector.

Credit and lending policies appear to be in scope, but we will have to wait and see whether they are explored, along with the role of financial advisers and mortgage brokers.  The scope does not touch on broader policy or regulatory issues (such as macroprudential) but could conceivably cover lending standards and “liar loans”. One potential outcome could be to lift the lid on “not unsuitable” lending.  It will not consider the disruptive intrusion from digital or Fintech.

What we can say is the banks and the Government clearly decided to cut their losses in the light of a potentially broader and more detailed scope which was being discussed on the back bench. This way they are controlling the agenda, at least to some extent. An interim report is expected next September.

Lots of economic news came out this week. The ABS Dwelling approvals for October were stronger than expected, reaching more than 19,000, the highest since August 2016. Growth in Victoria drove approvals higher up 3.8% – whilst there was a fall in New South Wales, down 0.3%.  We are still seeing the strongest demand for property in VIC, thanks to strong migration, though supply and demand is patchy as the recent ANU study highlighted. Overall this suggest more property will continue to come on the market for sale, putting further downward pressure on prices.

The RBA’s Credit Data for October showed that lending for housing rose 0.5% in the month, and 6.5% for the past year (three times inflation!).  Lending to business rose 0.3% to 4% over the past year and personal credit was flat, and fell 0.9% over the past year. Another $1.2 billion of housing loans were reclassified in the month, making $60 billion in total, this is more than 10% of the total investment loan book! The proportion of investor loans fell slightly again, down to 34.2% of portfolio. Total mortgage lending is now above $1.7 trillion, with owner occupied loans up 0.6% or $6.6 billion to $1.12 trillion, and investor loans up 0.2% or $1.2 billion to $584 billion. Comparing this with the APRA data, we see continued relative growth in the non-bank sector.

The parallel ADI data from APRA to end October 2017 shows that banks continue to lend strongly to households. The overall value of their mortgage portfolios grew 0.5% in the month to $1.57 trillion, up $7.3 billion. Owner occupied loans grew 0.6% to $1.03 trillion, up $6.4 billion and investment loans rose 0.15% to $816 million. The proportion of investment loans continues to drift lower, but is still at 34.8% of all lending (too high!!). CBA reduced their investment portfolio this month, whilst Westpac grew theirs. Investor lending market growth is sitting at around 3% over the past year, though some smaller lenders are well above the APRA 10% speed limit.

There is simply no excuse to allow home lending to be running at more than three times inflation or wage growth at the current dizzy price and leverage levels. There is still too much focus on home lending and not enough on productive growth enabling business lending. This is something which the Royal Commission is unlikely to touch, as it is a policy, not a behavioural issue.

The OECD report on Australia said things are looking better. As a result, they recommend rate hikes next year to help cool the housing market. But they call out a number of risks to economic growth and says macro-prudential measures should be maintained. Also their growth rates are lower than latest from the RBA! They also said Australia is vulnerable to “too big to fail” risks, due to its highly concentrated banking sector.

The Reserve Bank NZ has been more proactive on managing risks in the housing sector. They announced a slight reduction in tight loan to value lending controls, in response to slowing housing demand and new Government policies.  The loan-to-value ratio (LVR) policy was first introduced in October 2013, with progressively tighter restrictions for investors introduced in November 2015 and October 2016. From 1 January 2018, the LVR restrictions will require that:

  • No more than 15 percent (currently 10 percent) of each bank’s new mortgage lending to owner occupiers can be at LVRs of more than 80 percent.
  • No more than 5 percent of each bank’s new mortgage lending to residential property investors can be at LVRs of more than 65 percent (currently 60 percent).

They had previously parked their Loan to Income initiative, in the light of easing momentum.

The Gratton Institute published a report which showed rising housing costs are hurting low-income Australians the most. Those at the bottom end of the income spectrum are much less likely to own their own home than in the past, are often spending more of their income on rent, and are more likely to be living a long way from where most jobs are being created. in 1981 home ownership rates were pretty similar among 25-34 year old’s no matter what their income. Since then, home ownership rates for the poorest 20% have fallen from 63% to 23%. Home ownership rates also declined more for poorer households among older age groups. Home ownership now depends on income much more than in the past.

They say that reducing demand – such as by cutting the capital gains tax discount and abolishing negative gearing – would reduce prices a little. But in the long term, boosting the supply of housing will have the biggest impact on affordability. To achieve this, state governments need to change planning rules to allow more housing to be built in inner and middle-ring suburbs.

So now to home prices. According to ME Bank, in a study of 1500 Australian adults, 43% of respondents said they were reliant on future house prices to achieve future life / financial goals, with 10% completely reliant. But it’s a tug-of-war as to which way we want prices to go: 38% want prices to increase while 37% want them to fall. Where you sit largely comes down to your property ownership status: 39% of those who own the home they live in and 47% who own an investment property indicated they are ‘reliant’ on future prices, presumably increasing, while 48% of those who don’t own a property also say they are reliant, presumably wanting prices to fall. Most tellingly, the survey indicates more Australians would benefit from property prices falling than rising, with only 28% indicating they’d benefit by selling if prices continued to rise compared to 47% who said they’d benefit by buying in if property prices fell.

But then again, according to CANSTAR nearly four out of five Australians don’t see house prices falling in their state over the next two years. CANSTAR surveyed 2,026 consumers on their views on property prices and home buying. Nationally, 47% of respondents expected steady growth in house prices, with a further 8% predicting prices would ‘skyrocket at some point’. Just 11% of respondents thought prices could fall in the next two years. Sydney was the most pessimistic city, with 16% predicting values would fall.

CoreLogic’s home price index reported a 0.1% fall nationally in November, with Sydney recording a 0.7% falls, along with falls across Darwin and regional Northern Territory, down 0.4% over the month. For the remaining broad regions of Australia, dwelling values were relatively steady, or experienced a subtle rise, over the month. However, the averages hide significant variations, with for example more expensive homes sliding further relative to cheaper ones.  National dwelling values tracked 0.2% higher over the past three months and have increased 5.2% over the twelve months ending November. The national annual growth rate has now halved since reaching a recent peak in May 2017, when dwelling values rose 10.4%.

CoreLogic also says there were 3,409 homes taken to auction across the combined capital cities last week, returning a preliminary auction clearance rate of 66.9 per cent, overtaking the previous week as the third busiest for auctions so far this year. Last week, based on final results, 60.9 per cent of the 3,390 auctions held recorded a successful result, the lowest clearance rate since late 2015/early 2016.

But auction clearance rates may be lower than the CoreLogic figures suggest according to John Cunningham, president of the REINSW. Cunningham said that 40 per cent of results have not been reported, and if those results represent a no sale, then the clearance rate for Sydney could be a lot lower than the 66 per cent being reported by CoreLogic. With an initial clearance rate again in the mid 60 per cent range, the lack of clear data from the 40 per cent of unreported results fails to provide us with the real picture of the market,” he said.

More evidence of tighter lending standards, with CBA revealing a raft of changes including LVR caps and restrictions to rental income for serviceability that will impact mortgage brokers and their clients from next week. CBA will be introducing a new Home Loan Written Assessment document called the Credit Assessment Summary (CAS) for all owner occupied and investment home loan and line of credit applications solely involving personal borrowers. Meanwhile, CBA confirmed that it will introduce credit policy changes for certain property types in selected postcodes from Monday 4 December. They will reduce the maximum LVR without LMI from 80 per cent to 70 per cent, reducing the amount of rental income and negative gearing eligible for servicing and changing eligibility for LMI waivers including all Professional Packages and LMI offers for customers financing security types in some postcodes. “We continue to lend in all postcodes across Australia,” CBA said.

More rate cuts were announced this week, with Heritage Bank cutting the rate on new owner occupied loans by up to 50 basis points, and 30 basis points on new investment loans.  They want to build and keep attracting new customers to the bank as part of a nationwide growth strategy. This will put more pressure on margins.

KPMG released their 2017 Mutuals Industry Review. Under the hood, the sector is under pressure, despite asset growth. COBA said they welcome the backing from KPMG, which highlighted strong financial performance. We are not so sure.  Sure, assets are growing, but at what cost? KPMG says: profits before tax declined by 4.3 percent to $605.7 million. This compares to the major banks which saw profits grow by 7.6 percent. The net interest margin (NIM) continued to tighten and decreased to 2.03 percent, down 11 basis points.  The increasing pressures on net interest margin is a result of historically low interest rates and increasing competition in the marketplace. Mutuals have sacrificed margins to maintain and grow the membership base. The average capital adequacy ratio dropped 30 basis points to 17.2 percent in 2017, representing a decline in capital levels for the fourth consecutive year. This reflects the increasing prioritisation of effective capital use by mutuals. As limited equity funding is inherent within the mutuals’ current business model and capital growth through new profits have been constrained this year, mutuals have looked to existing capital bases to fund balance sheet growth.

We think the Royal Commission will tend to drive international funding costs higher (they were already going higher), and as banks have around 30% of their books funded offshore, this will put more pressure on margins and local mortgage rates. In addition, we are still forecasting a cash rate hike next year, so more pressure on mortgage rates there. At the same time lending standards continue to be tightened, so borrowers will need a larger deposit especially in some higher risk areas. Mortgages are set to become more expensive and harder to get. Also, more new property is set to come onto the market, and as home price momentum eases, this will tend to push prices lower.  So we can suggest several reasons why prices will go lower, but non to make them rise. So on that basis, the 80% of households expecting prices to keep rising are in for a rude awakening.

And that’s the Property Imperative weekly to 2nd December 2017. If you found this useful, do leave a comment or subscribe to receive future updates. Check back next week for our latest update, which will include November Mortgage Stress results. Many thanks for taking the time to watch.

Many Households Think Property Values SHOULD Fall

According to ME Bank, in a study of 1500 Australian adults, 43% of respondents said they were reliant on future house prices to achieve future life / financial goals, with 10% completely reliant.

But it’s a tug-of-war as to which way we want prices to go: 38% want prices to increase while 37% want them to fall.

Where you sit largely comes down to your property ownership status: 39% of those who own the home they live in and 47% who own an investment property indicated they are ‘reliant’ on future prices, presumably increasing, while 48% of those who don’t own a property also say they are reliant, presumably wanting prices to fall.

Younger respondents indicated they are more reliant on future house prices than older: 51% of Millennials (25 to 39 year olds) said they are reliant compared to 30% of Baby Boomers (55-74 year olds).

Most tellingly, the survey indicates more Australians would benefit from property prices falling than rising, with only 28% indicating they’d benefit by selling if prices continued to rise compared to 47% who said they’d benefit by buying in if property prices fell.

A quarter of home owners happy to see house prices to fall

ME home loan expert, Patrick Nolan, said he was surprised to find 37% of respondents want property prices to fall, including 24% of those who own a home and even 20% of those with an investment property, compared to 38% of who want prices to continue rising 38%.

“Traditionally Australians fall into two camps when it comes to property prices: owners, who want them to rise, and non-owners, who want them to fall.

“But with high prices disrupting the dream of home ownership and the benefits that brings, views are changing.”

“That property owners were willing to see asset values fall is a sure sign house prices had reached heights many think are unfair,” Nolan said.

When asked why they want prices to fall, the overwhelming reason given was to help address the housing affordability issue (57%), a sentiment expressed by 97% of those with property.

The bulk of those wanting house prices to continue rising are property owners: 49% of home owners and 55% of investors.

Chinese Homebuilder Outlook Stable, but Market to Cool

China’s housing market is likely to continue to cool in 2018, with sales growth set to slow across most of the country and house prices likely to stay relatively flat, says Fitch Ratings.

However, the authorities have considerable policy flexibility to support housing demand, which limits the risk of a market downturn. We therefore maintain a stable sector outlook for Chinese homebuilders.

The Chinese government has imposed tougher rules on home purchases and minimum loan deposits in higher-tier cities since October 2016 to dampen speculation. We do not expect further tightening in 2018, except perhaps in some lower-tier cities in strong economic regions that could see price increases. Most of the existing restrictions are likely to remain in place, but policies could be adjusted to encourage homeownership for first-time homebuyers or to attract skilled labour migration in some cities where house prices have stabilised.

The curbs have had a clear impact on the market, reining in house price inflation, tempering home sales growth and encouraging destocking. We expect them to limit any gains in house prices in 2018. Contracted sales growth is likely to slow for most homebuilders, and we forecast that overall housing sales will decelerate to 5%, from 10.9% yoy on a trailing 12-months contracted sales at end-October 2017. The destocking cycle could, however, begin to reverse, as some companies now only have land bank reserves for two to three years of development.

A major house price correction is unlikely, given that the authorities directly control many aspects of the housing and mortgage markets. Moreover, the restrictions in higher-tier cities, which have seen the strongest price gains in recent years, have led to considerable pent-up demand that could be released if policy is relaxed.

Homebuilders’ EBITDA margins could begin to narrow in 2018 and 2019 as homebuilders start to work through their higher-cost inventory in a market where prices are under pressure from government controls. Leverage is likely to remain relatively stable over the next two years, with net debt/adjusted inventory averaging 40%-43% among Fitch-rated homebuilders. Cash flow generation is also likely to remain strong.

We maintain a stable sector outlook on commercial property. Mall traffic in higher-tier cities is suffering from strong saturation and competition from e-commerce, with only mature malls in prime locations performing well. We believe these first-tier city malls will achieve low single-digit yoy rental growth in 2018, similar to 2017. However, malls of established operators in less-saturated lower-tier cities are seeing strong traffic growth.

Grade A office space in most first-tier cities is likely to remain broadly stable, and we expect the vacancy rate to stay below 15%. However, office assets in Guangzhou and Shenzen, as well as in lower-tier cities, have higher vacancy rates and could be affected by an increase in supply in 2018.

The Other Side of Digital

A report, commissioned by TSA Limited (TSA), a not-for-profit industry funded organisation developing sales and marketing campaigns to promote the paper and print industries, makes some interesting comments on the down side to digital.

According to The Australian Bureau of Statistics, 87% of Australians access the internet daily with an average of 10 hours a day spent on an internet connected device. With many of our daily tasks now being carried out digitally, consumers are becoming increasingly aware of how much time they are staring at screens.

Findings from a 2017 Toluna survey, a study into Australian consumer preferences, trust and attitudes towards print and paper in a digital world, indicate that Aussies do know when enough is enough with many choosing to disconnect from the online world and get back in touch with print to reduce the digital overload.

Specifically, the findings showed that 48% agree they spend too much time on electronic devices, with 34% saying they are suffering from digital overload. In addition to this, 52% are concerned the overuse of electronic devices could be damaging to their health, including symptoms of eyestrain, sleep deprivation and headaches.

The report highlights the differences between consumer segments, and their preferences.

When the data was broken down into age demographics by channel, reading preference remains relatively the same across all channels for each age group. For example, Generation X recorded a consistent preference for print across newspapers/news (41%), magazines (42%), books (43%) and product catalogues (42%) showing only a 2% difference across all four of the channels. At the same time, analysis of the data shows there are large preference discrepancies between age groups. For example, Millennials represent 60% of the 11% of those who prefer to read their newspaper/news on mobile, whereas Baby Boomers only represent 7% of them.

When looking at how consumers prefer to receive information from service providers, results indicate consumers prefer to receive information in print, with the highest being from council or doctors. However, if we combine the two computer channels (laptop/desktop) a preference trend line can be drawn in favour of digital for utility and telecommunications. Tablets are the least preferred for receiving information from service providers.

Interestingly, preference for mobile phone bills and statements via mobile sees the highest preference at 15% for mobile compared to other service providers. Mobile service providers are evidently utilising their channel well, as otherwise, mobile sits second lowest in preference next to tablets.

The advancements of digital technologies enabling everything from communicating globally to fighting disease are irreplaceable – however, our desire to engage with them 24/7 seems to be waining.

The Toluna study found that consumers prefer print for leisure and for consuming news media, reporting that 72% prefer to read books and magazines in print, and 56% prefer to read newspapers in print. To combat digital overload, and align with consumer’s preferences for paper and print, it seems analogue methods are making a comeback.

Similar to the resurgence of vinyl and old school photography, stationary and physical daily planners are flying out the door and companies like kikki.K and Typo among others, are reaping the benefits. What was accused of being dead is coming back and we are seeing more and more consumers turning to print and other analogue channels with 66% believing it is important to “switch off”.

Poorer Australians Bearing the Brunt of Rising Housing Costs

From The Conversation.

Rising housing costs are hurting low-income Australians the most. Those at the bottom end of the income spectrum are much less likely to own their own home than in the past, are often spending more of their income on rent, and are more likely to be living a long way from where most jobs are being created.

Low-income households have always had lower home ownership rates than wealthier households, but the gap has widened in the past decade. The dream of owning a home is fast slipping away for most younger, poorer Australians.

As you can see in the following chart, in 1981 home ownership rates were pretty similar among 25-34 year olds no matter what their income. Since then, home ownership rates for the poorest 20% have fallen from 63% to 23%.

Home ownership rates also declined more for poorer households among older age groups. Home ownership now depends on income much more than in the past.

Lower home ownership rates mean more low-income households are renting, and for longer. But renting is relatively unattractive for many families. It is generally much less secure and many tenants are restrained from making their house into a home.

For poorer Australians who do manage to purchase a home, many will buy on the edges of the major cities where housing is cheaper. But because jobs are becoming more concentrated in our city centres, people living on the fringe have access to fewer jobs and face longer commutes, damaging their family and social life.

Prices for low-cost housing have increased the fastest

The next chart shows that the price for cheaper homes has grown much faster than for more expensive homes over the past decade. This has made it much harder for low-income earners to buy a home.

If we group the housing market into ten categories (deciles), we can see the price of a home in the lowest (first and second) deciles more than doubled between 2003-04 and 2015-16. By contrast, the price of a home in the fifth, sixth and seventh deciles only increased by about 70%.

Tax incentives for investors may explain why the price of low-value homes increased faster. Negative gearing remains a popular investment strategy; about 1.3 million landlords reported collective losses of A$11 billion in 2014-15.

Many investors prefer low-value properties because they pay less land tax as a proportion of the investment. For example, an investor who buys a Sydney property on land worth A$550,000 pays no land tax, whereas the same investor would pay about A$9,000 each year on a property on land worth A$1.1 million.

Rising housing costs also hurt low-income renters

As this last chart shows, more low-income households (the bottom 40% of income earners) are spending more than 30% of their income on rent (often referred to as “rental stress”), particularly in our capital cities. In comparison, only about 20% of middle-income households who rent are spending more than 30% of their income on rent.

Why are more low-income renters under rental stress?

First, Commonwealth Rent Assistance, which provides financial support to low-income renters, is indexed to the consumer price index and so it fell behind private market rents which rose roughly in line with wages.

Secondly, rents for cheaper dwellings have grown slightly faster than rents for more expensive dwellings. Finally, the stock of social housing – currently around 400,000 dwellings – has barely grown in 20 years, while the population has increased by 33%.

As a result, many low-income earners who would once have been in social housing are now in the private rental market.

What can be done about it?

Increasing the social housing stock would improve affordability for low-income earners. But the public subsidies required to make a real difference would be very large – roughly A$12 billion a year – to return the affordable housing stock to its historical share of all housing.

In addition, the existing social housing stock is not well managed. Homes are often not allocated to people who most need them, and quality of housing is often poor. Increased financial assistance by boosting Commonwealth Rent Assistance may be a better way to help low-income renters meet their housing costs

Boosting Rent Assistance for aged pensioners by A$500 a year, and A$500 a year for working-age welfare recipients would cost A$250 million and A$450 million a year respectively.

Commonwealth and state governments should also act to improve housing affordability more generally. This will require policies affecting both demand and supply.

Reducing demand – such as by cutting the capital gains tax discount and abolishing negative gearing – would reduce prices a little. But in the long term, boosting the supply of housing will have the biggest impact on affordability. To achieve this, state governments need to change planning rules to allow more housing to be built in inner and middle-ring suburbs.

Unless governments tackle the housing affordability crisis, the poorest Australians will fall further behind.

Authors: John Daley, Chief Executive Officer, Grattan Institute;
Brendan Coates, Fellow, Grattan Institute; Trent Wiltshire, Associate, Grattan Institute

Distracted: Is Digital To Blame For Low Productivity?

From Bank Underground.

Smartphone apps and newsfeeds are designed to constantly grab our attention. And research suggests we’re distracted nearly 50% of the time. Could this be weighing down on productivity? And why is the crisis of attention particularly concerning in the context of the rise of AI and the need, therefore, to cultivate distinctively human qualities?

Are we losing our attention?

In a world of information overload, what do we pay attention to?

This question has become increasingly relevant in the digital age. With the rise of smartphones in particular, the amount of stimuli competing for our attention throughout the day has exploded. A survey from 2013 found that we check our phones 150 times per day, or roughly once every 6½ mins; a more recent study found that the average smartphone user spends around 2½ hours each day on his or her phone, spread across 76 sessions.

In the context of this huge cultural shift, our attention emerges as a scarce and valuable resource and the ‘attention economy’ has become a growing area of study. Some models seek to explain how we allocate our attention online. The theory of rational inattention, meanwhile, starts with the assumption that information is costly to acquire, hence decision-makers may rationally take decisions based on incomplete information.

Another line of enquiry, and the focus for this post, stems from the claim that we are more distracted than ever as a result of the battle for our attention. One study, for example, finds that we are distracted nearly 50% of the time. This ‘crisis of attention’ is seen as one of the greatest problems of our time: after all, as the American philosopher William James noted, our life experience ultimately amounts to whatever we had paid attention to.

Might the crisis of attention be affecting the economy? The most obvious place to look would be in productivity growth, which has been persistently weak across advanced economies over the past decade (during which time, as it happens, global shipments of smartphones have risen roughly ten-fold).

How might distractions be weighing down on productivity?

The intuition is simple enough: our minds comprise the bulk of our human capital and what we direct our attention towards is integral to the ‘output’ of our mental activity. You would therefore expect the ability to pay attention to be a key input into productivity.

In the vast literature on the determinants of strong performance in the workplace, some studies consider the role of attention. But there is little linking these to productivity in the economy as a whole. Partly this is because observing inner states (attention) and mapping these to outcomes (productivity), taking account of other relevant factors, is inherently tricky.

Yet there is mounting research that can help us start to address this question. My aim here, rather than giving a definitive answer, is to set out a framework for thinking about this issue. My contention is that distractions at work – whether from work emails, smartphone notifications or office noise – might cause weaker productivity via two main channels.

Channel 1: The direct impact of distractions on the amount of effective time spent working

Surveys offer estimates of the time workers spend ‘cyberslacking’ – using the Internet and mobile technology during work hours for personal purposes. The US Chamber of Commerce Foundation finds that people typically spend one hour of their workday on social media – rising to 1.8 hours for millennials. Another survey, meanwhile, found that traffic to shopping sites surged between 2pm to 6pm on weekday afternoons.

The total lost time will likely be greater than the time spent slacking off, however, since office workers typically take around 25 minutes to recover from interruptions before returning to their original task. What’s more, distractions can directly reduce the quality of our work . An influx of emails and phone calls, for example, is estimated to reduce workers’ IQ by 10 points – equivalent to losing a night’s sleep.

Channel 2: Persistently lower productivity caused by habitually distracted minds

The idea here is that frequent distractions might lead to a persistently lower capacity to work, over and above the direct effects. What is the argument for this being the case?

First, there’s habit formation. As James Williams notes, distracted moments can quickly lead to distracted days. And our habits are shaped by the way that consumer technologies, such as smartphone apps, are designed to be as addictive as possible – to ‘hijack the mind’, as Tristan Harris puts it. Harris gives examples like the bottomless scrolling newsfeed, which is designed to make you want to scroll further in case something good turns up. The psychological mechanism at play here – “intermittent variable rewards” – is the same as the one that gets people hooked on slot machines.

In the workplace, there’s some evidence that distractions cause more distractions. Mark (2015) finds that workers who get interrupted by external stimuli (eg message notifications) are significantly more likely to later go on to ‘self-interrupt’ – stop what they’re doing and switch to something else before reaching a break point. In other words, if you keep getting distracted by external stimuli, your mind’s more likely to wander off on its own accord.

Second, the more we have different sources of notifications in the workplace competing for our attention, the more we’ll constantly scan different channels in an attempt to stay on top of things. The problem is that this mode of working – termed “continuous partial attention” – serves to fragment our attention, reducing our focus on the task at hand. In effect, this is a variation on multitasking – which is widely discredited as an effective mode of working. Cal Newport goes so far as saying that media like email, far from enhancing our productivity, serve to ultimately deskill the labour force.

How should we respond to the crisis of attention?

Individuals and organisations are exploring ways to counter the fall in attention spans. Some companies embrace single-tasking as a mode of working. Some experiment with doing away with email all together. Others help staff to train the mind, for instance offering courses in mindfulness, the practise of paying attention to the present moment, which has been shown to improve people’s focus.

In terms of avenues for future research, further empirical work could shed light on the size of the channels mentioned above to get an estimate of the drag on productivity. Ideally we would want to observe directly how ‘attention capital’ and productivity vary across firms and over time (and how this affects wages). Failing that, perhaps datasets exist that allow us measure the gains to productivity of firms that make use of strategies to enhance employees’ attention, compared to other firms in the same industry that don’t?

Note that the focus here is on understanding the link from attention to productivity. This may include noting the role that (the design of) digital technologies play in causing shrinking attention spans. But of course the overall impact of digital technologies on productivity is a much wider issue (they will likely boost productivity, for instance, by reducing search costs).

Deeper issues: attention, choice and artificial intelligence

The crisis of attention also poses some deeper problems for society. To conclude this post, I note two of these because they have profound implications for the economy (and economics), even if they fall into the domains of political economy, philosophy and sociology.

The first issue is that the more our attention is ‘captured’ by the algorithms that underpin consumer technologies, the less our decisions – what to click on, what to buy – can be said to reveal our true, underlying preferences. Of course, adverts have been around for a long time but the argument is that the use of Big Data to exploit psychological vulnerabilities in a targeted way, using the latest insights from neuroscience, changes the game: it prevents us from “wanting what we want to want”. This should concern economists because models of consumer behaviour rest largely on the assumption of ‘revealed preferences’.

The second concerns the rise of artificial intelligence and machines that will be capable of an increasingly wide set of tasks. Views differ on what this will mean for future unemployment (see eg here and here). But most agree on the need to cultivate our distinctively human skills in order to differentiate ourselves from machines. And the human ability to empathise – central to the work of social workers, performers and nurses, among others – is cited in this regard by the likes of Klaus Schwab, Andy Haldane and Jim Kim.

How is the crisis of attention relevant here? Being able to pay attention (to tasks, to people) is a crucial input in the cultivation of empathy. Studies on mindfulness are instructive here: mindfulness practise gives explicit focus to cultivating attention, but research suggests that it also boosts individuals’ empathy – making it a potentially important part of a response to the impending wave of technological change.


Bank Underground is a blog for Bank of England staff to share views that challenge – or support – prevailing policy orthodoxies. The views expressed here are those of the authors, and are not necessarily those of the Bank of England, or its policy committees.

People with disability at risk of financial and digital exclusion – ANZ

People living with disability are at particular risk of exploitation and financial abuse, and financial education may be a key to addressing the issue, a new ANZ study released today has found.

The ANZ-commissioned 2017 MoneyMinded Impact Report from RMIT University is one of the first in Australia to explore the issues related to financial wellbeing for people with disability and their carers.

The report found people with disability may miss out on opportunities to develop their financial capability and wellbeing because of lower levels of digital inclusion, lower participation rates in education and the workforce, and lower levels of socialisation.

It also highlighted a concern that people living with disability may face additional financial challenges under the National Insurance Disability Scheme (NDIS), including a potentially higher risk of financial exploitation by unscrupulous service providers.

Commenting on the findings in the report, ANZ Chief Executive Officer Shayne Elliott said: “This is an important study that helps us understand the nature and scale of the challenges some people with disability face in our community.

“Through community programs like MoneyMinded we can help provide access to financial education so people with disability and their carers can make better financial decisions and have confidence with everyday transactions that many of us take for granted

“We will continue to invest in improving the financial literacy of communities in which we operate; in 2017 we’re happy to have reached more than 76,000 people in Australia, New Zealand, Asia and the Pacific with MoneyMinded,” Mr Elliott said.

ANZ also supported a companion study from RMIT University and Autism CRC that provided additional focus on issues for autistic individuals who account for 29 per cent of current NDIS clients.

Principal Research Fellow at RMIT Professor Roslyn Russell said the financial capabilities and education needs of people with disability were varied and diverse, depending on the nature and extent of their disability.

“Those with cognitive and intellectual difficulties may have more complex challenges in using and understanding money. But everyone, regardless of their ability, should be given support to learn and participate in financial decisions that are appropriate to their goals,” Professor Russell said.

CEO of Autism CRC Andrew Davis said the companion report built on understanding of the financial experiences, attitudes, behaviours and needs of autistic adults, about which there is currently little knowledge.

“We need to have a stronger understanding of the financial barriers faced by autistic individuals, including how neurodiversity affects their financial wellbeing,” said Mr Davis.

“What we do know is that if autistic individuals are not given the opportunity to develop their financial skills and confidence, they are less likely to be able to live as independent consumers and develop the capability to identify financial opportunities and risks.”


Bank of Mum and Dad Also Funding Kids’ Businesses Too

We have  highlighted the fact that Young Home Buyers have been turning to the Bank of Mum and Dad to fund their transaction, on average to the tune of more than $85,000; despite the risks of eroding their parent’s retirement savings.

Now the Australian Small Business and Family Enterprise Ombudsman has released a study into factors impacting small to medium enterprise investment. And the Bank of Mum and Dad figures again; another sign of inter-generational wealth shifting and the two tier “have and have nots”.

Speaking at the Institute of Public Accountants national conference on the Gold Coast, Ombudsman Kate Carnell said barriers to investment included access to capital, red tape and energy prices.

Ms Carnell said removing barriers to investment would give small businesses confidence to grow and boost jobs.

Despite recent claims by bank executives that lending to small firms is booming, Ms Carnell said this wasn’t the case for borrowers who don’t have equity in property.

“Traditional bank loans are backed by real property mortgages and although alternatives are emerging, they are not currently mature and affordable,” she said.

“Young aspiring small business operators are particularly disadvantaged and increasingly rely on their parents to provide seed finance.”

Ms Carnell said this meant the “Bank of Mum and Dad” was often called on to help young entrepreneurs.

“This offers convenience and flexibility, but it puts people’s retirement savings at risk,” she said.

“It also raises social equity issues in that the children of affluent parents have greater opportunities to buy and grow businesses.”

Ms Carnell said a government-backed guarantee scheme could be the answer, similar to the British Business Bank.

The Ombudsman’s study also takes aim at red tape, saying past reduction efforts have largely been “window dressing”.

Ms Carnell said a successful pilot in Parramatta to make compliance requirements seamless should be extended to other areas.

“It was found there were more than 50 pieces of regulation which applied to setting up a hospitality business in Parramatta and that the regulation meant it took up to 18 months to commence trading,” she said.

“Regulation wasn’t removed, but was instead sped up and made invisible. Information provided once was used to automatically complete forms in other areas of bureaucracy.

“This is a smart way of using systems and technology to relieve regulatory burdens on business.”