Private units the main driver of dwelling approval decline: Westpac

Private units the main driver of dwelling approval decline: Westpac
Private units the main driver of dwelling approval decline: Westpac


Dwelling approvals came in slightly below expectations in April with a 5% fall vs consensus forecasts of a 3% decline. Annual growth slowed to 5.2%yr. The detail was mostly on the soft side.

Private detached house approvals were flat in the month but supported by an abnormally large 20% jump in WA which was coming off very weak reads in February-March. We suspect this relates more to processing issues than conditions on the ground which are still not conducive to a pick-up in the west (Perth house prices still declining and rental vacancy rates above 5%). Ex WA, private detached house approvals were much softer, down 6.7%.

Private units were the main driver of the headline decline, posting a sharp 11.5% drop in the April month. Our estimates indicate high rise unit approvals were down over 20%. While extreme volatility makes this sub-segment hard to read, the monthly series looks to be shaping into a second leg lower, as indicated by site purchase data over the past year. That said, it will still take some time to confirm. ‘Medium density’ approvals also declined sharply, by around 6%mth.

By state, the pull back in units was concentrated in Vic (–8.4%mth but still up 25.8%yr). NSW posted a decent 5% gain and Qld nudged up 1.2% but in both cases approvals are still down on a year ago. Approvals have firmed slightly in SA but are showing clear trends lower in both WA (despite this month's jump) and Tasmania.

The value of renovation approvals dipped 0.3% after a 6.5% drop last month. Although approvals are still up 16%yr the monthly trend has swung into a clear decline.

The value of non-res building approvals fell 4%mth to be down nearly 20%yr. The dominant driver continues to be a sharp fall back in the previously very strong office segment with the slowdown concentrated in NSW and Vic.

The latest Foreign Investment Review Board (FIRB) annual report has also been released with data confirming the slump in foreign residential purchases. It shows a dramatic 67% drop in FIRB approvals to just 13.2k in 2016-17 from just over 40k in 2015-16. Note that these counts include purchases of existing properties and developer 'off the plan’ approvals, the latter counting projects with multiple properties as a single approval. Our estimates suggest the underlying number of new properties purchased via FIRB approvals saw an even bigger fall, from 52k in 2015-16 to 13.5k in 2016-17. Note that the full impact on activity may take time to come through as developers may still be selling properties in projects that obtained FIRB approval in previous years. More generally, the wider foreign buyer share of total market activity looks to have shrunk from 10-15% to 3-4%.

Overall the April data-flow is broadly in line with our expectations that approvals are tilting towards taking another leg lower through 2018 with the main impact on new dwelling construction coming in 2019.

Matthew Hassan is senior economist with Westpac.

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