Australian Property Is Starting to Boom Again. That's a Worry

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(Bloomberg) -- Australia is seemingly rushing headlong into another debt-fueled property binge.

Three interest rate cuts that have taken mortgage rates to a record low and a loosening of lending curbs have sent buyers flocking back to the housing market. At current boom-time rates of growth, Sydney home prices could recoup two years of losses and be back at record highs as soon as May.

The sudden turnaround is raising fears of a re-inflated property bubble and risks swelling an already worrisome pile of household debt. It’s also further concentrating banks’ reliance on mortgages for earnings growth and entrenching inequality by making it harder for first-time buyers to get a foot on the property ladder.

“It’s a pretty risky point in time,” said Richard Holden, professor of economics at the University of New South Wales. “We had a price correction on the back of a big credit crunch and there was a real question about whether it was going to get out of control. We seem to have averted disaster, which is good news, and now it seems like we’ve decided to test it again.”

These six charts show the swift turnaround in the market and the risks facing the economy and banks:

Australian Property Is Starting to Boom Again. That's a Worry

In just four months, housing prices in the nation’s two largest cities have executed a swift U-turn. Newspapers are again filled with reports of hotly contested bidding wars driving home prices hundreds of thousands of dollars above their reserve.

Property investors are also back after the surprise re-election of Scott Morrison’s government in May killed off the opposition Labor party’s plans to wind back tax breaks for landlords.

Australian Property Is Starting to Boom Again. That's a Worry

While the property market’s resurgence could provide a short-term sugar hit to the slowing economy, the longer-term legacy could be bloated debt that permanently reduces the economy’s potential.

As borrowers put more of their income toward servicing their mortgage, they are left with less to spend on everything from cars to appliances to clothes, robbing the economy of a key driver of growth.

Australian Property Is Starting to Boom Again. That's a Worry

Consumer confidence has slumped to a four-year low even as rate cuts and tax rebates boost household finances.

While traditionally a buoyant housing market is good news for retailers, the RBA’s move to slash rates to a record low has shaken consumer sentiment by signaling the economy is in trouble. A profit warning from furniture outlet Nick Scali Ltd. earlier this month rippled through the market, sending bigger retailers like Harvey Norman Holdings Ltd. and JB Hi-Fi Ltd. tumbling.

“Sentiment is still shaky,” said Eleanor Creagh, market strategist at Saxo Capital Markets in Sydney. “Surveys and economic data continue to confirm that over-leveraged consumers who have whittled away their savings and are devoid of any material wage growth are choosing to de-leverage rather than increase spending.”

Australian Property Is Starting to Boom Again. That's a Worry

Historically, homebuyers could rely on annual wages growth of 3%-4.5% to reduce the proportion of their salary going to pay their mortgage. Now, with wages growth stuck below 2.5%, that’s no longer happening for people who have bought more recently, compounding the drag on consumer spending.

Australian Property Is Starting to Boom Again. That's a Worry

For the banks, a return to house-price growth is usually good news. People borrow more to buy in a rising market, while existing owners may be encouraged to borrow against the increased value of their home to fund renovations.

Longer-term, though, that could fuel mortgage stress. While less than 1% of mortgages are in arrears, according to the Reserve Bank, the number has risen steadily in recent years.

The big four banks, which control almost 80% of the A$1.7 trillion ($1.16 trillion) mortgage market, are also under political pressure to pass on the RBA cuts in full and lend more to pump up the economy, stoking concern lending standards could decline.

That’s despite the banks still recovering from a bruising misconduct inquiry, where they were lashed for lax lending standards.

Nonetheless, competition is again hotting up. Westpac Banking Corp. is reducing downpayment requirements for investors taking out interest-only loans, while Australia & New Zealand Banking Group Ltd. is trying to grab a bigger slice of the landlord market.

Australian Property Is Starting to Boom Again. That's a Worry

While the property downturn gave first-home buyers a chance to get into the market, that opportunity could already be evaporating. During previous upswings, first-time buyers were gradually squeezed out as home prices rose.

A return to boom-time prices would again slam the door shut on younger buyers, further entrenching generational inequality in Australia.

“The reprieve we’ve had over the last few years could well prove short- lived,” said Brendan Coates, program director at the Grattan Institute. “The biggest impact of rising house prices is to redistribute wealth from those that don’t own housing to those that do.”

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.

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