Today we discuss the Impossible Property Equation.
In this week’s review of property and finance news we start with CoreLogic who reported that last week, the combined capital cities returned a 63.6 per cent final auction clearance rate across 3,026 auctions, down from the 66.8 per cent across 3,313 auctions the week prior. Last year the clearance rate last year was a significantly higher at 74.6 per cent. Last week, Melbourne returned a final auction clearance rate of 66.5 per cent across 1,524 auctions, down from the 70.6 per cent over the week prior. In Sydney, both volumes and clearance rate also fell last week across the city, when 1,088 properties went to market and a 62.4 per cent success rate was recorded, down from 65.1 per cent across 1,259 auctions the week prior. Across the remaining auction markets clearance rates improved in Canberra and Perth, while Adelaide, Brisbane and Tasmania’s clearance rate fell over the week. Auction activity is expected to be somewhat sedate this week, with a long weekend in Melbourne, Canberra, Adelaide and Tasmania. Just 1,526 homes are scheduled for auction, down 50 per cent on last week’s final results.
In terms of prices, Sydney, Australia’s largest market is a bellwether. There, CoreLogic’s dwelling values index fell another 0.13% this week, so values are down 4.0% over the past 26-weeks. Also, Sydney’s annual dwelling value is down 1.04%, the first annual negative number since August 2012. Within that, the monthly tiered index showed that the top third of properties by value in Sydney have fallen hardest – down 3.2% over the February quarter – whereas the lowest third of properties have held up relatively well (i.e. down 0.9% over the quarter), thanks to a 68% rise in first time buyers. My theory is Melbourne is following, but 9-12 months behind.
The RBA published a paper on the Effects of Zoning on Housing Prices. Based on detailed analysis they suggest that development restrictions (interacting with increasing demand) have contributed materially to the significant rise in housing prices in Australia’s largest cities since the late 1990s, pushing prices substantially above the supply costs of their physical inputs. They estimate that zoning restrictions raise detached house prices by 73 per cent of marginal costs in Sydney, 69 per cent in Melbourne, 42 per cent in Brisbane and 54 per cent in Perth. There is also a large gap opening up between apartment sale prices and construction costs over recent years, especially in Sydney. This suggests that zoning constraints are also important in the market for high-density dwellings. They say that policy changes that make zoning restrictions less binding, whether directly (e.g. increasing building height limits) or indirectly, via reducing underlying demand for land in areas where restrictions are binding (e.g. improving transport infrastructure), could reduce this upward pressure on housing prices.
At its February meeting, the RBA Board decided to leave the cash rate unchanged at 1.50 per cent. Their statement was quite positive on employment, but not on wages growth. They are expecting inflation to rise a little ahead, above 2%. They said that the housing markets in Sydney and Melbourne have slowed and that in the eastern capital cities, a considerable additional supply of apartments is scheduled to come on stream over the next couple of years.
The RBA quietly revised down the household debt to income ratio stats contained in E2 statistical releases and their chart pack. It has dropped by 6% from 199.7 down to 188.4, attributing the change to revised data from the ABS. But it is still very high. By the way, Norway, one of the countries mirroring the Australian mortgage debt bubble, at 223 has just taken steps to tighten mortgage lending further. This includes a limit of 5x gross annual income and a 5% interest rate buffer.
We released our February Mortgage Stress data, which showed across Australia, more than 924,500 households are estimated to be now in mortgage stress, up 500 from last month. This equates to 29.8% of households. In addition, more than 21,000 of these are in severe stress, up 1,000 from last month. We estimate that more than 55,000 households risk 30-day default in the next 12 months, up 5,000 from last month. You can watch our separate video on this. Our surveys showed significant refinancing is in train, to try to reduce monthly repayments. We publish our Financial Confidence Indices next week.
The retail sector is still under pressure, as shown in the ABS trend estimates for Australian retail turnover which rose just 0.3 per cent in January 2018 following a similar rise in December. Many households just do not have money to spend. Separately, the number of dwellings approved rose 0.1 per cent in January, driven by a lift in approvals for apartments. Dwelling approvals increased in Victoria, Tasmania, Queensland and Western Australia, but decreased in the Australian Capital Territory, the Northern Territory, South Australia and importantly New South Wales.
The ABS also released the account aggregates to December 2017. Overall the trend data is still pretty weak. GDP has moved up just a tad, but GDP per capita is growing at just 0.9% per annum, and continues to fall. Much of the upside is to do just with population growth. But net per capita disposable income rose at just 0.4% over the past year. Housing business investment and trade were all brakes on the economy. Real remuneration is still growing at below inflation, so incomes remains stalled. More than two in three households have seen no increase. It rose by 0.3% in the December quarter and was up just 1.3% over the year to December 2017, compared with inflation of 1.9%. In fact, households continue to raid their savings to support a small increase in consumption, but this is not sustainable. The household savings ratio recovered slightly to 2.7% from 2.5% in seasonally adjusted terms. Debt remains very high. These are not indicators of an economy in prime health!
Another crack appeared in the property market wall this week when Deposit Power, which provided interim finance to property buyers, closed its doors leaving an estimated 10,000 residential, commercial and property investors in the lurch about the fate of nearly $300 million worth of deposits. This is after the collapse of New Zealand’s CBL’s insurance, which was an issuer and guarantor of deposit bonds. You can watch my separate video on this important and concerning event.
The public hearings which the Productivity Commission has been running in relationship to Competition in Financial Services covered a wide range of issues. One which has surfaced is the Lenders Mortgage Insurance (LMI) sector. With 20% of borrowing households required to take LMI, and just two external providers (Genworth and QBE LMI), the Commission has explored the dynamics of the industry. They called it “an unusual market”, where there is little competitive pricing nor competition in its traditional form. Is the market for LMI functioning they asked? Could consumers effectively be paying twice? On one hand, potential borrowers are required to pay a premium for insurance which protects the bank above a certain loan to value hurdle. That cost is often added to the loan taken, and the prospective borrower has no ability to seek alternatives from a pricing point of view. Banks who use external LMI’s appear not to tender competitively. On the other hand, ANZ, for example has an internal LMI equivalent, and said it would be concerned about the concentration risk of placing insurance with just one of the two external players, as the bank has more ability to spread the risks. The Commission probed into whether pricing of loans might be better in this case, but the bank said there were many other factors driving pricing. All highly relevant given the recent APRA suggestion that IRB banks might get benefit from lower capital for LMI’s loans, whereas today there is little capital benefit. This will be an interesting discussion to watch as it develops towards the release of the final report. They had already noted that consumers should expect to receive a refund on their LMI premium if they repay the loan.
ASIC told the Productivity Commission that there is now “an industry of referrers” who are often being paid the same amount as mortgage brokers despite doing less work. They said – in our work on [broker] commissions, there were a separate category of people who are paid commission who don’t arrange the loan but just refer the borrower to the lender. It seems to be that professionals — lawyers, accountants, financial advisers — are reasonably prominent among people who are acting as referrers and that strangely the commissions they were paid for just a referral was almost as large as that [for a] mortgage broker doing all the extra [work]. More evidence of the complexity of the market, and of the multiple parties clipping the ticket.
The role of mortgage brokers remains in the spotlight, with both the Productivity Commission sessions this week, and the Royal Commission next week focussing in on this area. In draft recommendation 8.1 of its report, the Productivity Commission called for the ASIC to impose a “clear legal duty” on lender-owned aggregators, which should also “apply to mortgage brokers working under them”. ANZ CEO Shayne Elliott said applying best interest obligations to brokers could help preserve the integrity of the third-party channel and that despite the absence of a legal duty of care, consumers may be under the impression that such obligations already exist. He also said there was merit in considering a fixed fee model as opposed to a volume-based commission paid to brokers. The ANZ chief said that there is “absolute merit” in exploring such a model, and he pointed to the use of a fixed fee structure in Europe.
Industry insiders on the other hand argue that a push to argue a switch from mortgage broker commission payments, which normally includes an upfront fee and a trailing payment for the life of the loan paid by the lender to the broker, to a fixed fee for advice would be “anti-competitive. The discussion of trailing commissions centered on whether there was downstream value being added to mortgage broker clients, for example, annual financial reviews, or being the first port of call when the borrower has a mortgage related question. The interesting question is how many broker transactions truly include these services, or is the loan a set and forget, whilst the commissions keep flowing? There is very little data on this. In the UK, mortgage brokers work within a range of payment models. Many mortgage brokers are paid a commission by lenders of around 0.38% of the total transaction and some mortgage brokers also charge a fee to their customers.
Still on, Mortgage Brokers they say they expect to write more non-conforming loans over the next 12 months according to non-Bank Pepper Money. They commissioned a survey of 948 mortgage brokers which showed that 70 per cent expect to write more non-conforming loans in the coming year, while 66 per cent predict a decline in the number of prime loans written. Surveyed respondents expect the demand for non-conforming loans to rise as a result of tighter prime lending criteria (22 per cent), changing customer needs (21 per cent) and changing legislation/regulations (13 per cent). The survey also found that the number of brokers who have yet to write a non-conforming loan has also reduced, falling by 6 per cent from 18 per cent in 2016 to 12 per cent in 2018.
Another non-Bank, Bluestone Mortgages cut its interest rates by 75 to 105 basis points across its Crystal Blue products. The Crystal Blue portfolio includes a range of full and alt doc products that provide lending solutions to established self-employed borrowers (with greater than 24 months trading history), and PAYG borrowers with a clear credit history. The lender expects the rate reduction, coupled with the 85% low doc option, to drive the uptake of the portfolio. The rate cuts come shortly after the company was acquired by private equity firm Cerberus Capital Management. Parent company Bluestone Group UK is fully divesting its interest in Bluestone Mortgages Asia Pacific as part of the acquisition deal.
The ABS released their latest data on the Assets and Liabilities of Australian Securitisers. At 31 December 2017, total assets of Australian securitisers were $132.5b, up $7.3b (5.9%) on 30 September 2017. During the December quarter 2017, the rise in total assets was primarily due to an increase in residential mortgage assets (up $6.0b, 6.0%) and by an increase in other loans assets (up $0.9b, 6.1%). You can see the annual growth rates accelerating towards 13%. This is explained by a rise in securitisation from both the non-bank sector, which is going gangbusters at the moment, and also some mainstream lenders returning to the securitised funding channels, as costs have fallen. There is also a shift towards longer term funding, and a growth is securitised assets held by Australian investors. Asset backed securities issued overseas as a proportion of total liabilities decreased to 2.6%. Finally, at 31 December 2017, asset backed securities issued in Australia as a proportion of total liabilities increased to 89.8%. The non-banks are loosely being supervised by APRA (under their new powers), but are much freer to lend compared with ADI’s. A significant proportion of business will be investment loans.
It’s not just the non-banks cutting mortgage rates to attract new business. The story so far. Banks were lending up to 40%+ of mortgages with interest only loans, some even more. The regulator eventually put a 30% cap on these loans and the volume has fallen well below the limit. Some banks almost stopped writing IO loans. They also repriced their IO book by up to 100 basis points, so creating a windfall profit. This is subject to an ACCC investigation to report soon. The RBA and APRA both warn of the higher risks on IO loans, especially on investment properties, in a down turn. APRA has confirmed the “temporary” 30% cap will stay for now, although the 10% growth cap in investment loans is now redundant, thanks to better underwriting standards. Banks have now started to ramp up their selling of new IO loans, to customers who fit within current underwriting standards and are offering significant discounts. Borrowers will be encouraged to churn to this lower rate. For example, CBA will cut fixed interest rates for property investors across one-, two-, three-, and four-year terms. The cuts, which range from 5 basis points to 50 basis points, apply to both interest-only investor loans and principal-and-interest investor loans. CBA is also cutting some of its fixed rates for owner-occupiers, including a reduction on owner-occupied principal-and-interest fixed-rate loans by 10 basis points over terms of one to two years, landing at 3.89% for borrowers on package deals. Key rival Westpac also unveiled a suite of fixed-rate changes, including some cuts to fixed-rate interest-only mortgages, another area where banks have been forced to apply the brakes. They also hiked rates across various fixed terms for owner-occupiers. So the chase is on for investor loans now, with a focus on acquiring good credit customers from other banks. Other smaller lenders, such as ING, Mortgage House, and Virgin Money have also dropped some interest-only rates.
Finally, The Grattan Institute released some important research on the migration and housing affordability saying Australia’s migration policy is its de-facto population policy. The population is growing by about 350,000 a year. More than half of this is due to immigration. The pick-up in immigration coincides with Australia’s most recent housing price boom. Sydney and Melbourne are taking more migrants than ever. Australian house prices have increased 50% in the past five years, and by 70% in Sydney. Housing demand from immigration shouldn’t lead to higher prices if enough dwellings are built quickly and at low cost. In post-war Australia, record rates of home building matched rapid population growth. House prices barely moved. But over the last decade, home building did not keep pace with increases in demand, and prices rose. Through the 1990s, Australian cities built about 800 new homes for every extra 1,000 people. They built half as many over the past eight years. So there is no point denying that housing affordability is worse because of a combination of rapid immigration and poor planning policy. Rather than tackling these issues, much of the debate has focused on policies that are unlikely to make a real difference. Unless governments own up to the real problems, and start explaining the policy changes that will make a real difference, Australia’s housing affordability woes are likely to get worse.
So the complex equation of supply and demand, loan availability and home prices, will remain unsolved until the focus moves from tactical near term issues to strategy. Meantime, my expectation is that prices will continue south for some time yet, despite all the industry hype.