“Pay debt” at a four year high: Commsec's Savanth Sebastian

“Pay debt” at a four year high: Commsec's Savanth Sebastian
“Pay debt” at a four year high: Commsec's Savanth Sebastian

GUEST OBSERVER

The Westpac/Melbourne Institute index of consumer confidence fell by 2.2 per cent in March to 99.1. A reading of 100 is the dividing line separating optimism from pessimism.

Wisest place for savings: “Banks” was the wisest place to put new savings according to the survey.

Overall 27.4 per cent believe the wisest place for savings was in “banks”, up 1.2 percentage points over the quarter.

Next highest was “Pay debt” (24.4 per cent – 4-year high, up 6.6 percentage points), which overtook “real estate” (14.7 per cent, down 8.7pp). A total of 7 per cent of respondents were unsure of what to do with additional savings – the highest reading in records going back over 20 years.

Home loans: The number of loans (commitments) for people who are buying or building homes to live in (owner-occupiers) fell from 7-year highs, down by 3.9 per cent in January. Refinancing of home loans fell from record highs, down by 4.4 per cent in January.

The housing finance data has implications for banks, building material suppliers and retailers. The consumer confidence data is important for retailers and consumer-facing businesses.

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“Pay debt” at a four year high: Commsec's Savanth Sebastian

What does it all mean?

The monthly consumer confidence data is now merely useful as a check against the timelier weekly survey. The ANZ-Roy Morgan survey has the same number of survey respondents as the monthly series, has been running over the same number of years and covers the same questions, but is conducted each week. And what is clear from both surveys is that confidence levels seemingly consolidated over the month.

According to the Westpac/Melbourne Institute survey, consumer sentiment eased marginally in the latest result. The Roy Morgan weekly reading indicated similar volatility over the month with consumer sentiment lifting in the past week. The improvement in the global outlook, stronger domestic economic data and the recent strength in the Australian dollar should support confidence levels over the medium-term.

Where is the wisest place to put new savings?

According to the latest survey it’s in the bank, which strengthened its ascendancy in the latest quarter. Interestingly the major loser in the quarter was “real estate”. This was surpassed by “pay debt” as the second best option for additional savings. It was the first time in 3ó years that “paying down debt had surpassed real estate. In fact only 14.7 per cent of respondents believed real estate was the best option for additional savings – the weakest reading in over four years. It is quite a turnaround for “real estate” given that just six months ago it was considered the most attractive savings option with the highest reading in 12 years.

No doubt the run up in house prices, tighter home lending criteria by the banking sector and recent consolidation in the housing sector are prompting more households to focus on alternative asset classes to property. Interestingly the low interest rates on offer and volatility in stock markets has seen a substantial lift in the number of respondents that do not know what to do with additional savings. A total of 7 per cent of respondents claimed not to know what to do with additional savings – the highest reading in records going back over 20 years.

Despite the recent pullback the home loan market remains in good shape. Especially when you consider that loans to home owners eased from a 7-year high. Where the weakness is more paramount is in investor loans which have fallen substantially over the past six months. The value of investor loans is now down almost 15 per cent on a year ago. The result is a positive for the housing sector given over-lending to the sector last year. More prudent lending policies should ensure that the housing sector continues to remain resilient, contrary to the discussion of a substantial downturn.

The Reserve Bank is comfortably on the interest rate sidelines. Refinancing may have eased in the past month from record highs but the low interest environment is likely to prompt more home owners to shop around for the best home loan rates in coming months.

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“Pay debt” at a four year high: Commsec's Savanth Sebastian

What do the figures show?

Housing finance - number

The number of new owner-occupier housing loans (commitments) fell by 3.9 per cent in January after rising by 2.7 per cent in December. Excluding the refinancing of dwellings, the number of loans was down by 3.6 per cent.

Loans by owner-occupiers for the construction of homes  down by 2.8 per cent in January; loans to buy newlyerected dwellings  fell by 3 per cent; and loans for the purchase of established dwellings  (excluding refinancing) fell by 3.8 per cent. The number of refinancing transactions  fell by 4.4 per cent.

Housing finance - value

The value of new housing commitments (owner occupier and investment) fell by 3.4 per cent in January after a 0.1 per cent fall in December. Owner-occupier loans fell by 4.3 per cent while investment loans fell by 1.6 per cent.

The value of loans by owner-occupiers and investors to build new homes  fell by 0.9 per cent in January after falling by 1.2 per cent in December. The value of loans to build new homes stood at $2.77 billion, weakening further from the record high of $2.93 billion in December 2014.

Consumer sentiment:

The Westpac/Melbourne Institute index of consumer confidence fell by 2.2 per cent in March to 99.1 after lifting by 3.9 per cent in February. The confidence index is down 0.4 per cent on a year ago. The current conditions index fell by 7.3 per cent while the expectations index rose by 1.7 per cent.

Three of the five components of the index fell in March:

The estimate of family finances compared with a year ago was down  by 8.2 per cent;

The estimate of family finances over the next year was up  by 0.2 per cent;

Economic conditions over the next 12 months was up  by 8.2 per cent;

Economic conditions over the next 5 years was down by 2.5 per cent;

 The measure on whether it was a good time to buy a major household item was down by 6.6 per cent.

Gender & demographics: Men (index reading of 104.6, up 2.3 per cent) were more optimistic than Women (94.4, down 6 per cent). The sentiment index for young people fell by 17.1 per cent to 99.9 in March. Across the other demographics: 25-44 years (index 103.1, up by 0.4 per cent); 45 years plus (index 96.3, down 0.7 per cent).

Housing outlook: A good time to buy a dwelling? – Index up 5.5 per cent in the quarter and although still down 13.1 per cent on the year.

Wisest place for savings: “Banks” was the wisest place to put new savings according to the survey. Overall 27.4 per cent believe the wisest place for savings was in “banks”, up 1.2 percentage points over the quarter. Next highest was “pay debt” (24.4 per cent, up 6.6pp), followed by “real estate” (14.7 per cent, down 8.7pp), “shares” (7.6 per cent, down 2.3pp), and “dont know” (7 per cent, up 4.1pp) “superannuation” (4.9 per cent, up 0.4pp).

State sentiment levels: NSW (up 1.6 per cent), Victoria (down 5.3 per cent), Queensland (down 2.6 per cent), Western Australia (up 1.2 per cent) and South Australia (down 10.6 per cent).

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“Pay debt” at a four year high: Commsec's Savanth Sebastian

What is the importance of the economic data?

Housing Finance data is produced monthly by the Bureau of Statistics and shows commitments by lenders, such as banks, to provide finance for housing purposes. The lending figures relate to those looking to buy or build homes to live in as well as those seeking to buy or build homes for investment purposes. Generally people get their finance organised first, so the figures are regarded as a leading indicator on the housing market.

Westpac and the Melbourne Institute release the Index of Consumer Sentiment each month. According to Melbourne Institute: “The survey of consumer sentiment was first undertaken in 1973 and was conducted on a quarterly basis until 1976, a six-weekly basis from 1976 to 1986, and has been conducted monthly ever since.”

Confident consumers may be more inclined to spend, especially on major items.

What are the implications for interest rates and investors?

From a broader sense, confidence levels are OK without being great. Looking forward, a period of calm on share markets and the recent strength in the Australian dollar could be key factors supporting household confidence.

For Aussie consumers, a stronger Aussie dollar means increased purchases on the internet and trips abroad, so the recent strength in the Aussie dollar will support confidence.

The Reserve Bank will be comforted by the more stable conditions in the investor housing market.

CommSec expects no change to interest rate settings for the foreseeable future.

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“Pay debt” at a four year high: Commsec's Savanth Sebastian

Savanth Sebastian is an economist for CommSec

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