The wealth effects, the latest evidence: Westpac's Matthew Hassan

The wealth effects, the latest evidence: Westpac's Matthew Hassan
The wealth effects, the latest evidence: Westpac's Matthew Hassan


Westpac expects falling house prices to see a significant ‘wealth effect’ drag on Australian consumer demand this year and next. However, the exact nature and size of this effect remains a major area of uncertainty. What does the latest evidence show?

For a start, the housing correction is starting to have a clearer impact on the household balance sheet. Latest data shows the total value of dwelling assets fell $270bn over 2018, reflecting both lower prices and slower additions to the dwelling stock. The decline amounts to 40% of a year’s income. Relative to income that is about half the size of the peak to trough falls seen in the GFC and 2011-12 correction.

Recall that the ‘signature’ of a wealth effect drag is a fall in net worth accompanied by a rise in the savings rate, the latter meaning that spending is growing at a slower pace than incomes. Also recall that the shock effect should be confined to states experiencing material price declines (NSW, Victoria and WA).

Westpac compiles estimates of household net worth and savings rates by state based on a range of annual and quarterly benchmarks. These ‘indicative’ estimates show, as expected, considerably larger falls in net worth in NSW and Vic with declines closer to 60% of annual income. They also highlight the extent of the prior run up with net worth in both states still well above 2015 levels.

On savings, the estimates point to declines in NSW and Vic consistent with a wealth effect boost to spending rather than a drag. Any hint of a turn in Q1 will be a key pointer to how this effect may play out.

However even before that there are some clues of a shift coming through in the composition of spending. In a detailed article on wealth effects in its March Bulletin, the RBA set out empirical estimates of the size of this effect noting that the effect appeared to be more pronounced for particular spending categories: namely, vehicles, durables and other discretionary items. A composite measure of growth in ‘wealth sensitive’ items already shows a swing to outright declines in per capita spending. While the weakness still looks to be fairly mild to date it is more pronounced in NSW, Vic and WA.

MATTHEW HASSAN is a Senior Economist for Westpac

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