When Atlassian co-founder Mike Cannon-Brookes reportedly paid close to $100 million for the Fairfax family home in Point Piper this past week, it helped confirm that housing in Sydney and Melbourne has become seriously expensive.
The world’s longest property upswing (55 years and counting according to the Bank for International Settlements) and a surge of more than 60 per cent in the past five years (notwithstanding a modest downturn in the last 12 months) will do that.
But just how expensive has Australian property become?
One way to look at it is how much buyers have to borrow to be able to afford a home in Australia, and on this front recently-released figures compiled by the International Monetary Fund provide an intriguing insight.
They show that, when it comes to going all-in to buy a house, no-one comes close to Australian borrowers.
In the three months to June, almost two-thirds of all loans (by value) in Australia were mortgages, which is far higher than any other nation for which the IMF has published figures.
Of the 79 other countries, including 23 advanced economies, that provided financial data to the IMF for the June quarter, none had a home-to-total-loan ratio above 46.3 per cent – a figured dwarfed by Australia’s 63.7 per cent.
The huge share of loans that are for mortgages isn’t being driven by more people borrowing. In fact, the number of owner occupiers taking out loans has been remarkably stable over time. In July 2005, there were 55,123 such borrowers. Twelve years later, in July 2017, there were 54,881.
But over that same period, the proportion (by value) of all loans that were for housing jumped from 56.3 to 63.75 per cent. Some of this growth was surely down to more investors getting into the property market. But the biggest driver was likely to be the surge in house prices over that time.
The preparedness of homebuyers to borrow so heavily to buy housing indicates a number of things:
- a belief that a mismatch between supply in demand in key city markets will persist;
- that this mismatch will drive house values up in the longer term;
- that a mixture of fear and greed is at play – fear of being permanently priced out of the property market, and strong desire to grab a share of housing capital growth; and
- that residential property will deliver better returns than other asset classes (noting that many are exposed to the sharemarket through their superannuation accounts).
The heavy borrowing required to compete in the recent property market has, of course, made households heavily indebted.
Household debt as a proportion of gross domestic product was at 104.9 per cent in the middle of the year, according to the IMF (Trading Economics/Bank for International Settlements reported it was 122.2 per cent)
Current low interest rates have until now helped households carry this burden without too much distress, and less than 1 per cent of loans are ‘non-performing’. This is a world away from the situation in European countries hit hardest by the GFC, who are still climbing out from under their debt mountains. In Italy, for instance, more than 14 per cent of loans are still considered non-performing, and in Greece the ratio is a disastrous 45.6 per cent.
But the Reserve Bank of Australia, for one, sees, the level of household debt as a risk for the economy.
As a proportion of disposable income, the central bank warns it is high. The slowdown in wealth accumulation from the cooling property market, along with stagnant wages, has the RBA concerned that household consumption – a key driver of economic growth – could be weaker than it expects.
Moreover, others warn that a significant proportion of borrowers will struggle financially as interest only-loans transition into standard principle-and-interest mortgages in the coming year or so.
Against this, the jobs market is tightening, and there are nascent signs that wages are finally picking up.
The RBA’s core scenario is for above-trend growth driven by solid business investment and a gradual improvement in household consumption, which is underpinned by bigger pay packets, more jobs and low interest rates.
But the not-insignificant risks to this outlook posed by high household debt mean the current period of monetary policy stability – the RBA’s cash rate of 1.5 per cent hasn’t changed in more than two years – is set top continue for a while yet.