Housing is subduing inflation: Elliot Clarke

Housing is subduing inflation: Elliot Clarke
Housing is subduing inflation: Elliot Clarke

This week, inflation and the housing market have been in focus for Australia. Offshore, data for the US remained robust, but was less so in Europe and Emerging Asia.

Australian inflation has been an enduring disappointment for the market, with actual outcomes having come in below expectations quarter by quarter for close to two years. The September quarter continued this trend, with headline and the average of the core measures again sub-consensus at 0.4% (market 0.5%) and 0.3% (market 0.4%). More significant for policy, annual headline and core inflation again fell below the 2.0%yr lower bound of the RBA’s inflation range, now 1.9%yr and 1.7%yr.

Within the quarter, there were many opposing influences, but the main theme was the offsetting of petrol and tobacco inflation by disinflation across house purchase costs and rents and the continued absence of pricing power for the retail sector. Though petrol will remain inflationary in coming months, persistent weakness in housing costs will limit the net effect for headline inflation. As the core measure typically omits energy costs, the effect here will be lopsided and result in annual core inflation holding below the RBA’s 2-3%yr target range through the end of 2019. Together with GDP growth tending back to trend in 2019, this trend will see the RBA remain on hold through 2020.

The soft housing inflation pulse is a consequence of declining house prices and rising supply (restricting rental growth). This week, the October CoreLogic house price data showed that this national decline in house prices is continuing. The decline is led by Sydney (-7.4%yr) and the top end of the market (the top 25% of sales by price down 7.7%yr versus -0.9%yr for the bottom 25%). However, we continue to see evidence of the weakness broadening, with 80% of dwellings now having seen price declines over the past six months compared to 60% for the past year. By dwelling type, losses remain largest for houses. This is consistent with the relative outperformance of houses over apartments to the cycle peak, but is also evidence that increasing apartment supply is yet to affect the price trend materially.     

Dwelling approvals data for September was also released this week. While a bounce was seen in the month, approvals are still down 14% over the year. Further, if high-rise approvals in Victoria are omitted, we estimate approvals actually fell 7.5% in September, with the weakness broad-based by state and dwelling type. Given this trend decline in prices and approvals, it is unsurprising that housing credit growth continues to decelerate. In 3-month annualised terms, total housing credit has slowed from 6.8% in May 2017 to 4.7% currently. Though investor credit has been the primary driver of this softening, owner-occupier credit has also slowed, from 8.7% in July 2017 to 6.4% currently.     

Turning to the US, GDP was again strong in the September quarter at 3.5% annualised. Driving the result was a willing consumer, with growth in this sub-sector rising 4.0% annualised – well ahead of the average of the post-GFC period. Elsewhere however, there were a number of signs that higher interest rates are beginning to take effect. This was most obvious in residential construction, now down around 3% annualised over the past nine months. More important for the economy are glimpses of weakness in business investment following a strong start to the year. The latter deceleration fits well with regional business survey detail on investment intentions, hit by trade policy uncertainty, as well as core orders and shipments, which were flat through the September quarter.

For growth to persist at an above-trend pace, consumption must continue to fire. On this front, the upside surprise for the employment cost index in the third quarter, a 0.8% gain for total compensation, was promising. That said, annual income growth still remains relatively modest at 2.8%yr. To sustain the current pace of consumption, quarterly gains nearer 1.0% are consistently needed. We are not convinced this will occur. Instead, together with tighter financial conditions, we foresee a stabilisation in nominal household incomes around 3.5%yr in 2019. Absent dissaving, this would be consistent with real household consumption closer to 2.5-3.0% annualised than the current 4.0% pace. If consumption does slow, then together with a softening pulse for business investment and the loss of extraordinary support from fiscal policy (in late 2019), US growth will slow back to trend during 2019 and result in the FOMC going on hold after three more rate hikes to June 2019.

While debate over the US economy remains focused on whether growth will be at or above trend, for Europe the risk of sub-trend growth is building. From 2.7%yr in 2017, growth slowed to a 1.6% annualised pace in the first half of 2018. And now the first estimate for the September quarter has disappointed, coming in at just 0.8% annualised, below our estimate of trend growth, 1.2%yr. One-off factors were reportedly at play in the most recent three months, so more time is arguably needed to assess the trend. External demand has been the primary reason growth has slowed in 2018, but looking forward, domestic political risks are paramount. In addition to concerns over Italy, this week, the source of uncertainty was in Germany with Chancellor Angela Merkel announcing that she will not contest her CDU Party leadership this December. She intends to remain as Chancellor until the end of the Coalition Government’s term in 2021, but will not stand for re-election.

In the UK, the Brexit deadline grows nearer. With those clouds up ahead, the BoE left rates on hold this week while retaining their gradual tightening bias. The economy is described as “broadly in balance” with the domestic labour market tight and wages growth picking up more than expected. Indeed, if it were not for Brexit uncertainty, the Bank rate would be higher, with the BoE signalling that a smooth Brexit would see a steeper rate path.   

Finally to Asia, there we have seen moderating global growth and US trade policy continue to weigh on the manufacturing sector of China and other east Asian nations. For China in particular, domestic demand remains a positive, aided of late by stabilising business and infrastructure investment. However, going forward, the downtrend in employment growth poses a risk. This highlights why authorities are becoming more active in the management of the domestic economy and US’ tariffs effect on China’s external competitiveness.

ELLIOT CLARKE is a Senior Economist for Westpac

Housing Markets Inflation

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