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Australia watches debt drive up prices

NEW YORK -- Central banks from Scandinavia to the United Kingdom to New Zealand are sounding the alarm about soaring mortgage debt and trying to curb risky lending.

In Australia, where borrowing is surging, regulators are just watching.

Australian household debt is at a 25-year high, according to statistics bureau figures, and a government inquiry this month found housing to be a significant source of risk to the financial system.

The average mortgage is at least four times household income in almost 80 percent of the country, research by Digital Finance Analytics shows.

While the U.K., Denmark and New Zealand introduce measures including loan limits, caps on interest-only mortgages and repayment tests, the Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA) and the country’s banking regulator are holding their fire, saying risky loans haven’t increased significantly.

The central bank also has said the price gains so far are spurring needed construction, easing housing shortages in some areas.

“If we think there is a need for higher construction, which we do, an environment of declining prices is probably not conducive to that outcome,” RBA Governor Glenn Stevens said on July 3.

“Some pick-up in housing prices as a result of lower interest rates was to be expected.”

Overvalued housing

Australia has the third-most overvalued housing market on a price-to-income basis, after Belgium and Canada, according to the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

The average home price in the nation’s eight major cities rose 16 percent as of June 30 from a May 2012 trough, the RP Data-Rismark Home Value Index showed.

In Sydney, the most populous city, where price growth has been strongest, values soared 15 percent over the past 12 months.

That compares with a 5.4 percent increase in New York City in April from a year earlier and a 26 percent jump in London prices in June quarter from a year ago.

“There’s definitely room for caps on lending,” said Martin North, Sydney-based principal at researcher Digital Finance Analytics.

“Global house price indices are all showing Australia is close to the top, and the RBA has been too myopic in adjusting to what’s been going on in the housing market.”

Australian regulators are hesitant to impose nation-wide rules as only some markets have seen strong price growth, said Kieran Davies, chief economist at Barclays Plc (NYSE: BCS) in Sydney.

Home values in cities including Adelaide, Hobart and Canberra rose less than 3 percent over the year to June 30, and house prices in areas outside the major cities gained less than 4 percent in the 12 months to May, according to RP Data.

The central bank has reduced its benchmark interest rate to a record-low 2.5 percent to aid a recovery in non-mining industries, including residential construction, as the nation’s resources boom slows.

The interest rate cuts and subsequent home price gains have helped building approvals climb 14 percent in May from a year earlier, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics.

Necessary evil

“The RBA’s probably got at the back of its mind that we’re only in the early stages of the adjustment in the mining sector,” Davies said.

“Mining investment still has a long way to fall, and also the job losses to flow from that. So to some extent, the house price growth is a necessary evil.”

The central bank in its quarterly monetary policy update called declining resources investment a “significant headwind,” for the economy.

As prices climb, the value of new mortgages also rose 16 percent in May from a year ago, and overall housing credit increased 6 percent in the quarter ended March 31 from 12 months earlier, statistics bureau data show.

The average new home loan grew 6.7 percent to A$433,960 in June from a year ago, according to broker Australian Finance Group (AFG), which processes about A$4 billion in home loans every month.

The increase in new mortgages, while significant, doesn’t appear “imprudent,” Stevens said. With total credit growth only slightly above the increase in incomes, “it’s hard to mount the soap box to complain about that pace,” he said.

Low rates

Spurring the rise in loans are the lowest mortgage rates in almost five years, after the RBA cut the cash rate by 2.25 percentage points since late 2011.

The average rate on variable mortgages, which about 85 percent of Australians borrowers are on, is 5.95 percent, the lowest since September 2009.

Fixed rates are also on their way down.

Commonwealth Bank of Australia, National Australia Bank Ltd. and Westpac Banking Corp. last week cut their five-year fixed rates to 4.99 percent, a record low for CBA, the least in 20 years for NAB, and a five- year low for Westpac.

Australia and New Zealand Banking Group Ltd. cut its five-year fixed rate by 30 basis points to 5.49 percent.

Rising debt

Stevens this month urged investors in Sydney to be cautious, after loans to buy rental properties in the city’s home state, New South Wales, surged 30 percent to a record A$5.2 billion in May from a year ago, doubling from February 2013, according to statistics bureau data.

He also warned that loans to investors covering more than 80 percent of a property’s value have been climbing.

Australians owed almost 1.8 times their 2013 pretax disposable incomes, higher than Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, U.K. and the United States, the statistics bureau said in a report last month.

Household debt was equivalent to A$79,000 per person at the end of 2013, and has risen at almost double the pace of assets over the past 25 years, it said.

Government inquiry

Since 1997, when Australia held its last major financial system inquiry, household debt has almost doubled as a proportion of income, with more than 90 percent of that due to housing, the government inquiry found. Mortgages make up two-thirds of banks’ loan books, from 47 percent in 1997, it said.

“A large enough disruption to the housing market could have significant implications for household balance sheets, financial stability, economic growth, and the speed of recovery in household spending and broader economic activity following a shock,” the inquiry’s report said.

New Zealand’s central bank last year required loans for more than 80 percent of a property’s value to account for less than 10 percent of a bank’s new lending. In response, home sales fell 11 percent between October and March, the bank said in May.

Global measures

The Bank of England (BOE) last month proposed capping mortgages of 4.5 times a borrower’s income at no more than 15 percent of a lender’s new home loans, and required banks to reject those who fail a new repayment test.

Governor Mark Carney in May called surging home prices the No. 1 risk to the economy, and Deputy Governor Jon Cunliffe this month warned low borrowing costs hide the real extent of Britons’ mortgage burden.

Denmark’s central bank is pushing to require interest-only loans to be no more than 60 percent of a property’s value, from 80 percent.

In Sweden, lenders are in talks to require borrowers to cut mortgage debt to less than 70 percent of home values, and have capped borrowing at five times household income.

Across Australia, the average mortgage is at least four times pretax annual income in more than 2,200 postal codes out of a total 2,800, according to Digital Finance Analytics (DFA).

Loan- to-income ratios are spread between 2.5 times and 8 times, compared with 0 and 6 times in the U.K., the data show.

“So the loan-to-income ratio in Australia is more stretched than in the U.K.,” DFA’s North said.

The RBA, in response to an emailed request for comment, referred to speeches and papers by Head of Financial Stability Luci Ellis.

‘Some skepticism’

“The RBA has expressed some skepticism and is unlikely” to introduce measures similar to other countries in the near term, Glenn Levine and Fred Gibson, economists at Moody’s Analytics, a unit of Moody’s Investors Service, wrote in a report last week.

“Instead, a microprudential approach is preferred whereby the Australian Prudential Regulatory Authority (APRA) engages in closed-door discussions with individual banks to address risks through bespoke rules such as interest-rate buffers.”

APRA, which oversees banks, in May issued draft guidelines urging lenders to conduct mortgage book stress tests, ensure brokers’ compensation doesn’t encourage risky lending and ascertain borrowers can repay loans, especially when rates rise.

“APRA is seeing increasing evidence of lending with higher risk characteristics and it does not want this trend to continue,” the regulator’s former chairman, John Laker, said.

Requests to large lenders’ boards for explanations on how they’re monitoring risk have already led to more prudent standards, APRA Chairman Wayne Byres told a parliamentary hearing on July 18. Andrew McCutcheon, a spokesman for APRA, declined to comment further.

Shifting stance

While regulators haven’t yet introduced firm lending controls, their resistance to such measures has softened.

The RBA’s Ellis in October 2012 said she didn’t see a need for “elaborate” rules, and “a culture of cooperation, dialog and mutual respect” is more important than formal arrangements.

In contrast, Stevens said that the RBA is “quite happy” for limits on lending and capital requirements on banks to be imposed where they make sense.

The RBA and APRA have acknowledged potential benefits of loan limits “but at this stage they don’t believe that this type of policy action is necessary,” said David Ellis, a Sydney-based analyst at Morningstar Inc. (Nasdaq: MORN).

“If the housing market was out of control and if loan growth, particularly investor credit, grew exponentially then it’d be introduced.”

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