Australian dwelling approvals lurch lower: Matthew Hassan

Australian dwelling approvals lurch lower: Matthew Hassan
Australian dwelling approvals lurch lower: Matthew Hassan


Dwelling approvals recorded a sharp 9.7% drop in July coming against expectations that the stabilisation evident in previous months would consolidate. The fall takes approvals to a 6½ year low, down 28% on a year ago. Total approvals are now tracking materially below 'underlying demand' for the first time since 2013.

As is often the case with big monthly moves, the fall was concentrated in unit approvals which posted an 18.4% drop to be down 44.2%yr.

The detail points to similarly-sized monthly falls across both high rise and medium density units with a particularly weak read on high rise approvals in NSW.

The July fall takes high rise approvals to a new low. While this is still broadly consistent with the lead from site purchases, the risk is that continued stress in the sector is leading to more projects being delayed or cancelled and a possible further leg lower in approvals.

Detached house approvals were also weak in the July month, recording a 3.3% fall – a sizeable move for what is normally a more stable component. The state detail shows very mixed results with unusually big falls in Vic (–10.9%mth) and WA (–14.5%) but strong gain in NSW (+10.1%). Some of the weakness in Vic may reflect the transition to a new building permit system and other changes to duties and concessions.

On a combined basis, approvals ex high rise were down about 6%mth nationally, considerably weaker than the stabilising signal from construction-related finance approvals in recent months. Weakness is centred on Vic (–7.2%mth), Qld (–7.6%mth) and WA (–4.4%mth). Approvals ex high rise were up slightly in NSW (+0.3%) and more firmly in SA (+3.9%).

The total value of renovation approvals rose 0.4% in the July month but is about flat in trend terms having declined slightly in the June quarter.

The total value of non res building approvals fell 9.9%, reversing most of a 10.5% jump in July. Looking through the monthly volatility, approvals are showing some signs of flattening out from what has been a reasonably solid rising trend. The detail shows trends continue to vary significantly across, retail, warehouses, hotels and health still showing solid gains on a 6mth basis but education down sharply offices off its most recent peak.

Overall the July update is clearly much weaker than expected and raises the risk that building activity may take another leg lower. As always, we caution about reading too much into one month's data, particularly with volatile high rise approvals, but there is enough here to warrant careful monitoring in coming months.

As noted in our preview, dwelling construction can often be slow to respond to interest rate cuts and with other factors impacting segments likely high rise and the longer lags on these projects actual building looks set to continue declining well into 2020. Stabilising prices may ease some of the housing headwinds to growth but drags from the construction cycle are likely to persist.

Read the full report 'Australian dwelling approvals July' (PDF 327kb).

MATTHEW HASSAN is a Senior Economist at Westpac

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