Welcome to the Property Imperative Weekly to 07 April 2018.
Watch the video, or read the transcript.
In this week’s digest of finance and property news, we start with Paul Keating’s (he of the recession we had to have fame), comment that the housing boom is really over at the recent AFR conference.
He said that the banks were facing tighter controls as a result of the Basel rules on capital adequacy, while financial regulators had had a “gutful” of them. This was likely to lead to changes that would restrict the banks’ ability to lend. He cited APRA’s recent interventions in interest only loans as one example, as they restrict their growth. Keating also said the royal commission into misconduct in the banking and financial services sector would also “make life harder” for the banks and pointed out that banks did not really want to lend to business these days and would “rather just do housing loans”. Finally, he spoke of the “misincentives” within the big banks to grow their business by writing new mortgages, including having a high proportion of interest-only lending.
Anna Bligh speaking at the AFR event, marked last Tuesday her first year as CEO of the Australian Banking Association (ABA) – but said she feels “like 500 years” have already passed. Commenting on the Royal Commission she warned that credit could become tighter ahead. The was she said an opportunity for a major reset, not only in how we do banking but how we think about it, its place in our lives, its role in our economy and, most of all, it’s trustworthiness”.
At the same conference, Rod Simms the Chair of the ACCC speech “Synchronised swimming versus competition in banking” He discussed the results of their recent investigation into mortgage pricing, and also discussed the broader issues of competition versus financial stability in banking. He warned that the industry should be aware of, and respond to, the fact that the drive for consumers to get a better deal out of banking is shared by many beyond the ACCC. Every household in Australia is watching. You can watch our video blog on this for more details.
He specifically called out a lack of vigorous mortgage price competition between the five big Banks, hence “synchronised swimming”. Indeed, he says discounting is not synonymous with vigorous price competition. They saw evidence of communications “referring to the need to avoid disrupting mutually beneficial pricing outcomes”.
He also said residential mortgages and personal banking more generally make one of the strongest cases for data portability and data access by customers to overcome the inertia of changing lenders.
Finally, on competition. he says if we continue to insulate our major banks from the consequences of their poor decisions, we risk stifling the cultural change many say is needed within our major banks to put the needs of their customers first. Vigorous competition is a powerful mechanism for driving improved efficiency, and also for driving improved price and service offerings to customers. It can in fact lead to better stability outcomes.
This puts the ACCC at odds with APRA who recent again stated their preference for financial stability over competition – yet in fact these two elements are not necessarily polar opposites!
Then there was the report from the good people at UBS has published further analysis of the mortgage market, arguing that the Royal Commission outcomes are likely to drive a further material tightening in mortgage underwriting. As a result, they think households “borrowing power” could drop by ~35%, mainly thanks to changes to analysis of expenses, as the HEM benchmark, so much critised in the Inquiry, is revised. Their starting point assumes a family of four has living expenses equal to the HEM ‘Basic’ benchmark of $32,400 p.a. (ie less than the Old Age Pension). This is broadly consistent with the Major banks’ lending practices through 2017. As a result, the borrowing limits provided by the banks’ home loan calculators fell by ~35% (Loan-to-Income ratio fell from ~5-6x to ~3-4x). This leads to a reduction in housing credit and a further potential fall in home prices.
Our latest mortgage stress data, which was picked by Channel Nine and 2GB, thanks to Ross Greenwood, Across Australia, more than 956,000 households are estimated to be now in mortgage stress (last month 924,500). This equates to 30.0% of households. In addition, more than 21,000 of these are in severe stress, no change from last month. We estimate that more than 55,000 households risk 30-day default in the next 12 months. We expect bank portfolio losses to be around 2.8 basis points, though with losses in WA are higher at 4.9 basis points. Flat wages growth, rising living costs and higher real mortgage rates are all adding to the burden. This is not sustainable and we are expecting lending growth to continue to moderate in the months ahead as underwriting standards are tightened and home prices fall further”. The latest household debt to income ratio is now at a record 188.6. You can watch our separate video blog on this important topic.
ABS data this week showed The number of dwellings approved in Australia fell for the fifth straight month in February 2018 in trend terms with a 0.1 per cent decline. Approvals for private sector houses have remained stable at around 10,000 for a number of months. But unit approvals have fallen for five months. Overall, building activity continues to slow from its record high in 2016. And the sizeable fall in the number of apartments and high density dwellings being approved comes at a time when a near record volume are currently under construction. If you assume 18-24 months between approval and completion, then we still have 150,000 or more units, mainly in the eastern urban centres to come on stream. More downward pressure on home prices. This helps to explain the rise in 100% loans on offer via some developers plus additional incentives to try to shift already built, or under construction property.
CoreLogic reported last week’s Easter period slowdown saw 670 homes taken to auction across the combined capital cities, down significantly on the week prior when a record number of auctions were held (3,990). The lower volumes last week returned a higher final clearance rate, with 64.8 per cent of homes selling, increasing on the 62.7 per cent the previous week. Both clearance rate and auctions volumes fell across Melbourne last week, with only 152 held and 65.5 per cent clearing, down on the week prior when 2,071 auctions were held across the city returning a slightly higher 65.8 per cent success rate.
Sydney had the highest volume of auctions of all the capital city auction markets last week, with 394 held and a clearance rate of 67.9 per cent, increasing on the previous week’s 61.1 per cent across a higher 1,383 auctions.
Across the smaller capital cities, clearance rates improved week-on-week in Canberra, Perth and Tasmania; however, volumes were significantly lower across each market last week compared to the week prior.
Across the non-capital city auction markets, the Geelong region recorded the strongest clearance rate last week with 100 per cent of the 20 auction results reporting as successful.
The number of homes scheduled to go to auction this week will increase across the combined capital cities with 1,679 currently being tracked by CoreLogic, up from last week when only 670 auctions were held over the Easter period slowdown.
Melbourne is expected to see the most significant increase in volumes this, with 669 properties scheduled for auction, up from 152 auctions held last week. In Sydney, 725 homes are set to go to auction this week, increasing on the 394 held last week.
Outside of Sydney and Melbourne, each of the remaining capital cities will see a higher number of auctions this week compared to last week.
Overall auction activity is set to be lower than one year ago, when 3,517 were held over what was the pre-Easter week last year.
Finally, with local news all looking quite negative, let’s look across to the USA as the most powerful banker in the world, JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon, just released his annual letter to shareholders. Given his bank’s massive size (it earned $24.4 billion on $103.6 billion in revenue last year) and reach (it’s a giant in consumer/commercial banking, investment banking and wealth management), Dimon has his figure on the financial pulse.
He says that’s while the US economy seems healthy today and he’s bullish for the “next year or so” he admits that the US is facing some serious economic headwinds.
For one, he’s concerned the unwinding of quantitative easing (QE) could have unintended consequences. Remember- QE is just a fancy name for the trillions of dollars that the Federal Reserve conjured out of thin air.
He said – Since QE has never been done on this scale and we don’t completely know the myriad effects it has had on asset prices, confidence, capital expenditures and other factors, we cannot possibly know all of the effects of its reversal.
We have to deal with the possibility that at one point, the Federal Reserve and other central banks may have to take more drastic action than they currently anticipate – reacting to the markets, not guiding the markets.
And of course the DOW finished the week on a down trend, down 2.34%, and wiping out all the value gained this year, and volatility is way up. Here is a plot of the DOW.
This extreme volatility does suggest the bull market is nearing its end… if it hasn’t ended already. Dimon seems pretty sure we’re in for more volatility and higher interest rates. One scenario that would require higher rates from the Fed is higher inflation:
If growth in America is accelerating, which it seems to be, and any remaining slack in the labor markets is disappearing – and wages start going up, as do commodity prices – then it is not an unreasonable possibility that inflation could go higher than people might expect.
As a result, the Federal Reserve will also need to raise rates faster and higher than people might expect. In this case, markets will get more volatile as all asset prices adjust to a new and maybe not-so-positive environment.
Now– here’s the important part. For the past ten years, the largest buyer of US government debt was the Federal Reserve. But now that QE has ended, the US government just lost its biggest lender.
Dimon thinks other major buyers, including foreign central banks, the Chinese, etc. could also reduce their purchases of US government debt. That, coupled with the US government’s ongoing trade deficits (which will be funded by issuing debt), could also lead to higher rates…
So we could be going into a situation where the Fed will have to raise rates faster and/ or sell more securities, which certainly could lead to more uncertainty and market volatility. Whether this would lead to a recession or not, we don’t know.
We’ll leave you with one final point from Jamie Dimon. He acknowledges markets have a mind of their own, regardless of what the fundamentals say. And he sees a real risk “that volatile and declining markets can lead to a market panic.”
Financial markets have a life of their own and are sometimes barely connected to the real economy (most people don’t pay much attention to the financial markets nor do the markets affect them very much). Volatile markets and/or declining markets generally have been a reaction to the economic environment. Most of the major downturns in the market since the Great Depression reflect negative future expectations due to a potential or real recession. In almost all of these cases, stock markets fell, credit losses increased and credit spreads rose, among other disruptions. The biggest negative effect of volatile markets is that it can create market panic, which could start to slow the growth of the real economy. Because the experience of 2009 is so recent, there is always a chance that people may overreact.
Dimon cautioned investors that interest rates could rise much sooner than they expect. If inflation suddenly comes roaring back. Indeed, it’s entirely possible the 10-year could break above 4% in the near future as inflation returns to 2% and the Fed shrinks its balance sheet.
Dimon also cast a wary eye toward exchange-traded funds, which have seen their popularity multiply since the financial crisis. There are now many ETF products that are considerably more liquid than their underlying assets. In fact far more money than before (about $9 trillion of assets, which represents about 30% of total mutual fund long-term assets) is managed passively in index funds or ETFs (both of which are very easy to get out of). Some of these funds provide far more liquidity to the customer than the underlying assets in the fund, and it is reasonable to worry about what would happen if these funds went into large liquidation.
And Finally America’s net debt currently stands at 77% of GDP (this is already historically high but not unprecedented). The chart below also shows the Congressional Budget Oﬃce’s estimate of the total U.S. debt to GDP, assuming a 2% real GDP growth rate. Hopefully, with the right policies they can grow faster than 2%. But more debt does seem on the cards.
And to add to that perspective, we spoke about the recent Brookings report which highlighted the rise in non conforming housing debt in the USA. debt as lending standards are once again being loosened, and risks to mortgage services are rising.
The authors quote former Ginnie Mae president Ted Tozer concerning the stress between Ginnie Mae and their nonbank counterparties.
… Today almost two thirds of Ginnie Mae guaranteed securities are issued by independent mortgage banks. And independent mortgage bankers are using some of the most sophisticated financial engineering that this industry has ever seen. We are also seeing greater dependence on credit lines, securitization involving multiple players, and more frequent trading of servicing rights and all of these things have created a new and challenging environment for Ginnie Mae. . . . In other words, the risk is a lot higher and business models of our issuers are a lot more complex. Add in sharply higher annual volumes, and these risks are amplified many times over. . . . Also, we have depended on sheer luck. Luck that the economy does not fall into recession and increase mortgage delinquencies. Luck that our independent mortgage bankers remain able to access their lines of credit. And luck that nothing critical falls through the cracks…
They say that goldfish have the shortest memory in the Animal Kingdom… something like 3-seconds. But not even a decade after these loans nearly brought down the entire global economy, SUBPRIME IS BACK. In fact it’s one of the fastest growing investments among banks in the United States. Over the last twelve months the subprime volume among US banks doubled, and it’s already on pace to double again this year.
What could possibly go wrong?