Rising household debt risks but no timely measure of the effective threat: Westpac's Bill Evans

Rising household debt risks but no timely measure of the effective threat: Westpac's Bill Evans
Rising household debt risks but no timely measure of the effective threat: Westpac's Bill Evans


Given the Reserve Bank’s intense concentration on stability issues, including the introduction of new guidelines from APRA, the April Stability Review is of particular interest.

Our interest is twofold. Firstly to gauge the degree of concern with which the Bank views the current risks and secondly whether it has released any new research which sheds more light on the issues.

Evidence on the first issue confirms the Bank’s concerns. “Risks to household balance sheets and housing markets have increased.” Compare that assessment with the previous Review in October last year, “Risks to financial stability from lending to households have lessened a little over the past 6 months.”

The risk that was emphasised back in October – “risks around the projected large increases in supply in some inner city apartment markets are coming to the fore, especially in Brisbane and Melbourne” - is still seen to be a major consideration - “concerns about an oversupply of apartments in pockets of Melbourne and in parts of Brisbane.”

Current risks around household balance sheets are seen to be macroeconomic in nature rather than direct risks to the stability of financial institutions. The key dynamic is seen to be “a highly indebted household sector is likely to be more sensitive to declines in income and wealth and may respond by reducing consumption sharply”.

Of most interest is the investor. While the Bank recognises that arrears data shows that investors have historically performed better than owner occupiers, this observation has not been tested “in a severe downturn.”

The recent guideline from APRA to limit the interest only component of new lending to 30 percent appears to be aimed at investors. Only around 23 percent of owner occupier loans are interest only whereas 64% of investor loans are interest only. IO loans have a higher average indebtedness over the loan than principal and interest; while after the IO period expires (typically 5-10 years) repayments are considerably higher.

Since the October Review, household indebtedness has increased further primarily due to rising levels of housing debt and weak income growth.

The Bank has emphasised in the past that offset accounts and redraw facilities have increased considerably (at around 17 percent of outstanding balances or around 2.5 years of scheduled repayments at current interest rates).

But around one third of borrowers have either no accrued buffer or a buffer of less than one month’s repayments. For the vulnerable “highly indebted households”, which represent the top 10 percent on the household debt to disposable income ratio measure, only 40 percent hold any kind of buffer.

Presumably as new lending lifts this ratio will continue to rise since minimal buffers are dominated by newer mortgages or lower income or lower wealth households. This ratio strongly debunks the assertion that the “buffer” is an important source of stability.

However, in previous Reviews a much more relaxed Bank has emphasised the point that those borrowers with the high leverage tend to be the high income earners who can best manage debt. The Review takes a revised look at “Highly Indebted Households”.

The aggregate household debt to income ratio has increased further in recent years up to 160 percent, but 30 percent of households have no debt.

In assessing the characteristics of highly indebted households the Bank uses information on the distribution of debt, income, and wealth which is available in the Household, Income, and Labour Dynamics Survey (HILDA). Unfortunately this data is only available to 2014. In fact it is only collected every 4 years with the next survey due for 2018 – an interminable wait for an update to the critical issue of whether debt is accumulating with those borrowers who are the most vulnerable.

The Household Debt to Disposable Income ratio has risen from around 150 percent to over 160 percent (latest available). The Bank defines a “highly indebted” household as one with debt to income ratio in the top 10 percent. Over the 10 years to 2014, households in that group had a debt to income ratio above 550 percent and represented 35-40 percent of total household debt. Around 30 percent of the “highly indebted” households’ debts were investor loans.

Of some concern is that around 25 percent of the highly indebted households are in the bottom two quintiles for income and wealth, although this group only owes 12 percent of the debt owed by the highly indebted households.

These “ratios” confirm the Bank’s previous position that much of the debt held by highly indebted households is owed by households with high income and wealth. However, the lift in household indebtedness since 2014, coupled with the lack on any significant “buffer” for the highly indebted borrower, must be presenting reasons for the Bank and APRA to raise concerns.

The other issue is around the risks of relying on “averages” . Even though the 2014 data indicated that only 12 percent of the debt of highly indebted borrowers is held in the two bottom income quintiles, that still represents nearly 5 percent of total household debt .

The policy challenge for the Bank is clear. It’s most comforting “defence” of the risks associated with Australia’s high household debt is that high debt levels are associated with those in the best position to deal with them – high income / high wealth. But this data is already three years out of date and an update will not be available for another year at least. Household debt to disposable income ratios have lifted from 150 percent to above 160 percent over that time period and appear to be rising further.

Vulnerable borrowers with limited buffers appear to be growing. The higher risk aspects of interest only loans may be exacerbating that issue.

All the Bank can really do is focus on slowing the rise in household debt without really having much comfort about the risks they face.

For our part we remain reasonably relaxed about these risks, not because of the distribution of the debt, but because we see that Australia has sufficient flexibility around policy; its exchange rate and strong banking system to ameliorate the impact of shocks.

BILL EVANS is chief economist of Westpac. 

Reserve Bank Housing Debt

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