RBA notes larger-than-expected fall in dwelling investment

RBA notes larger-than-expected fall in dwelling investment
RBA notes larger-than-expected fall in dwelling investment

The latest RBA minutes have noted a larger-than-expected fall in dwelling investment.

Dwelling investment appeared to have passed its peak, although there continued to be uncertainty about how quickly dwelling investment might decline over the forecast period, it noted.

Members noted financial market participants' expectations of a rate cut had been brought forward following weaker than expected data, most notably the December quarter national accounts.

It noted financial market pricing implied that the cash rate was expected to be lowered in the second half of 2019 and then again in 2020.

The board "recognised that the effect on the economy of lower interest rates could be expected to be smaller than in the past, given the high level of household debt and the adjustment that was occurring in housing markets."

But members agreed that there was "not a strong case" for a near-term adjustment in monetary policy.

Members recognised that it was not possible to fine-tune outcomes and that holding monetary policy steady would enable the Bank to be "a source of stability and confidence."

It noted in Australia, conditions in the housing market had remained weak.

Housing prices had fallen further in the capital cities and regional areas.

Over the preceding six months, the falls had been largest in Sydney and Melbourne, but prices in these cities had remained more than 40 per cent higher than in 2012.

Falls in housing prices had resulted in some borrowers having negative equity, where the value of their loans exceeded that of their properties. Nationally, just over 2 per cent of borrowers, accounting for less than 3 per cent of housing debt, were estimated to have negative equity. Around 90 per cent of these borrowers were in Queensland, Western Australia and the Northern Territory.

Members observed that negative equity by itself was not a concern for financial stability.

"However, if unemployment were to rise and borrowers were not able to continue to make repayments, then financial institutions would incur increased losses."

Members noted that the decline in high loan-to-valuation ratio (LVR) lending in recent years was expected to lessen any losses for lenders. In recent quarters, almost all loans to investors had LVRs less than 90 per cent. By contrast, a decade earlier only 85 per cent of loans to investors had LVRs less than 90 per cent. The share of owner-occupiers with high LVR loans had also declined.

Members also noted that total household payments on housing debt as a share of income had been broadly stable in recent years.

"Within the total, however, an increase in scheduled principal repayments had roughly offset a fall in unscheduled principal repayments."

Members noted that households' excess payments amounted to about two-and-a-half years' worth of scheduled repayments on average. Housing loan interest payments had increased slightly as housing debt had increased.

Construction of new dwellings had contracted in the second half of 2018; the largest falls in the December quarter had been for apartments in New South Wales and detached housing in Queensland.

Slower housing activity had also weighed on the incomes of some building contractors and property professionals in the December quarter.

There continued to be a large amount of work in the pipeline, which should support a relatively high level of building activity in the near term.

Members noted that there had been a substantial rise in building approvals for high-density residential projects in February, although this series was volatile and in trend terms remained well below earlier peaks.

Members also noted that population growth was expected to continue to support demand for housing over the medium term.

Conditions in the established housing market had remained weak in recent months, the April minutes noted.

"Housing prices had continued to fall in Sydney, Melbourne and Perth, and had declined a little in most other capital cities and regional areas.

"In March, Sydney prices were 13 per cent below their 2017 peak and Melbourne prices were 10 per cent below their peak.

"Although auction clearance rates in Sydney and Melbourne had increased over the first quarter of 2019, they remained at relatively low levels."

Members noted that in Perth, housing prices had declined over the previous year, while the rental vacancy rate had declined sharply and there were signs that newly advertised rents were starting to increase.

By contrast, rental vacancies in Sydney had risen, particularly in suburbs where the supply of new apartments had increased significantly.

Growth in consumption had clearly slowed in the second half of 2018, it noted.

"The weakness had been concentrated in discretionary items, especially those that have historically been most correlated with housing prices and housing turnover, such as motor vehicles and home furnishings.

"Retail sales data and contacts in the Bank's liaison program suggested that growth in housing-related consumption had remained soft in recent months."

Members noted that growth in household disposable income, which is an important driver of consumption growth, had been subdued for a number of years. 

In 2018, labour income growth had been above the very low rates seen in recent years, supported by a pick-up in growth in average hourly earnings and continued employment growth, but non-labour income growth had remained weak.

The RBA members observed that tax payments by households had been growing noticeably faster than income growth in recent years, partly because of efforts to increase tax compliance.

The members discussed scenarios in which a rate cut might be needed.

"Members agreed that inflation was likely to remain low for some time," the minutes noted.

"Members also discussed the scenario where inflation did not move any higher and unemployment trended up, noting that a decrease in the cash rate would likely be appropriate in these circumstances.

"They recognised that the effect on the economy of lower interest rates could be expected to be smaller than in the past, given the high level of household debt and the adjustment that was occurring in housing markets.

"Nevertheless, a lower level of interest rates could still be expected to support the economy through a depreciation of the exchange rate and by reducing required interest payments on borrowing, freeing up cash for other expenditure."

To read the full RBA minutes, click here.

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