Navigating the end of the housing boom: HSBC's Paul Bloxham

Navigating the end of the housing boom: HSBC's Paul Bloxham
Navigating the end of the housing boom: HSBC's Paul Bloxham


Australia's rebalancing act is well underway. Following the end of the mining boom, low interest rates and the lower AUD have supported a housing boom and, more recently, a strong pick-up in exports of tourism and education services. But challenges remain.

The housing boom is now cooling. Housing prices have levelled out over the past six months and building approvals have fallen over the past year. The end of the housing boom is set to weigh on growth, while the lift in housing debt, due to the boom, may increase the risks to financial stability, particularly as there has been a significant boost to housing supply.

We remain cautiously optimistic that the housing market will see a soft landing and that the lift in services exports will continue to create jobs, but there are risks around this central scenario.

Australia's mining investment boom peaked in 2012 and, since then, growth has needed to rebalance to being driven by something else. As regular readers will know, we have long been optimistic that this would occur.

The first stage of this process has been a housing price and construction boom. This has mostly been a positive story. By building more housing we have been working off an accumulated under supply of housing (Australia did not build many houses during the mining boom, which helped to keep wages and inflation contained during that episode).

But, as with all housing booms, they cannot continue indefinitely. If housing prices and construction continued to rise rapidly, there would eventually be a housing oversupply or a price bubble. There are now clear signs that Australia's housing market is cooling. Housing prices have tracked sideways since about October 2015, following previous double-digit growth. Sydney and Melbourne, where the housing boom has been centred, have seen flat housing prices in the past six months, following annual averages of 10 percent and 6 percent in the previous four years. The cooling has been driven by a collection of factors, including tighter prudential settings and the ramp up in new housing supply (which is meeting demand).

Our central case is for a soft landing. We see housing prices rising by 3-4 percent in 2016, following growth of 9 percent in 2015 (see 'Downunder Digest: Australia's housing market cools', 11 December 2015). Housing construction is also expected to slow. Following a 0.5ppt contribution to GDP growth in 2015, housing construction is set to contribute about 0.2ppts to GDP growth in 2016 and to be a small drag on growth by 2017.

However, for the overall economy we expect this drag from housing construction to be offset by two key factors. First, services exports have been ramping up and we expect these to continue to contribute around 0.5ppts to GDP growth (see 'Downunder Digest: Services exports and the AUD', 30 March 2016). Second, mining investment is set to be less of a drag on GDP growth in 2017, as the mining downturn matures. All up, we see the end of the housing boom as manageable, as the next stage of the rebalancing act sees growth transitioning to being led by the services sectors. 

But this is the central case and there are clearly some risks to the 'housing soft landing' central scenario. Here we focus on three. First, stoking a housing boom has driven housing prices higher and led to an increase in the household debt to income ratio from 167 percent to 186 percent over the past four years. Higher debts may have increased the risks to financial stability.

Second, there has also been a substantial ramp up in housing construction, particularly on apartments in the major cities, and there is a risk of over-supply in some of these markets. Third, and importantly, our central case assumes continued household income growth, supported by job creation in the services sectors, which helps to make the higher debts sustainable. A negative shock to income growth, most likely emanating from overseas, is a risk to the central scenario.

For each of the risks, there are also a number of mitigating factors. On the first risk, of higher housing prices and debts, our view remains that it is the allocation of debt that matters, not the absolute levels (see 'Downunder Digest: Australia's household debt: why we are not worried', 21 November 2013). As long as the households that have taken on the debt can continue to service it, the debt is sustainable. In Australia's case, we believe the debt is fairly well allocated. In Australia there are no sub-prime loans, all loans are full-recourse, lending standards have been tightening recently, the bulk of the debt is held by higher income households and the average mortgage is over two years pre-paid, leaving many households with significant equity to withdraw if required.

On the second risk, of housing oversupply, our estimates show that this is not the national story, even though there are some clear pockets of over-building (see 'Downunder Digest: Australia's housing supply ramp up', 9 September 2015).

In Sydney, where housing prices have risen by the most, our estimates suggest that there is still undersupply, which is likely to keep prices from falling.

In Melbourne, the apartment market appears oversupplied, but the detached housing market does not. For apartments, some have also been bought by foreign buyers with the likely intention to hold for a long period, as a store of value, rather than for speculation. In Perth and Brisbane there are some signs of oversupply of apartments, but not of detached dwellings. Neither of these markets has seen much housing price appreciation in recent years, potentially limiting the downside.

The third risk, of a fall in household incomes, is the hardest to guard against. Here, Australia fares comparatively well, but is not in as good shape as it was when the global financial crisis struck in 2008. The RBA still has a cash rate at 2.00 percent, which gives it room to cut further and government net debt is low, at 18 percent of GDP, giving the fiscal authorities more room to move than other countries. However, by comparison, the cash rate was 7.25 percent in mid-2008 and the government had a net asset position of 4 percent of GDP.

Finally, it is worth considering the appropriate policy response to these risks. In terms of financial stability, the prudential regulator is continuing to tighten standards to making the banking system 'unquestionably strong'. This has included raising bank capital requirements. This should help to further protect Australia's financial system.

In terms of protecting against weaker demand, the central bank could still cut its cash rate further (our central case is for a cut in Q2, partly to ensure the AUD remain competitive). A lower AUD (rather than one that is rising, as it has been recently), would also be helpful, as it would help to improve competitiveness and support jobs growth in the export industries.

Fiscal authorities could also help to support growth by further reform to support productivity growth and well-planned infrastructure investment, which would support demand and also improve productivity. We remain optimistic about Australia's growth outlook, but, as always, there remain risks to the central view. 


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