Speaking at the Governance Institute of Australia’s Governance and Risk Management Forum in Sydney on Tuesday (18 June), HSBC chief economist Paul Bloxham said that, contrary to alarmist commentary, Australia’s recent housing downturn has been “orderly”, especially given the substantial run-up in house prices from 2012 to 2017.
“National house prices rose by 50 per cent between the middle of 2012 and the middle of 2017 – and they’ve now fallen by 10 per cent at a national level. If you want to take that to a city level, in Sydney, [prices] rose by 75 per cent.. and then [fell] by 15 per cent. In Melbourne, they rose by 60 per cent… and they’ve now fallen by 11 per cent,” he told attendees.
As such, Mr Bloxham said that before seeking an explanation for the recent decline in house prices in 2018 and onwards, the question that should be asked is: Why did they go up by 50 per cent?
The simplified explanation is that demand for housing was strong in 2012 and supply was scarce.
The HSBC chief economist explained that there were multiple concurrent factors that drove up demand, which include: the “accumulation of strong population growth”, foreign interest in housing, and investors looking to capitalise on the rise in house prices.
Home loan interest rates also began coming down at the time, Mr Bloxham noted.
“Why did interest rates start to come down in 2012? Well, we had [an] exceptionally large mining investment boom… and it peaked in 2012. At the time, the RBA was holding very, very high interest rates to slow down all the other sectors of the economy to make way for the mining boom,” he explained.
“Then in 2011, they started cutting their cash rate… to try and stimulate growth in all the other sectors of the economy to rebalance it from the mining sector towards the other sectors.
“One of those things that it did, of course, was drive stronger demand for housing. That was part of the intention.”
The chief economist additionally noted that there was a greater focus on building mines than houses at the time.
“So housing demand was running well ahead of housing supply,” Mr Bloxham said.
Furthermore, he said global interest rates were “phenomenally low”, which led to a strong boost in housing investment by foreign investors, particularly from China.
Why did the housing boom end?
All of these “forces” that drove up house prices in Australia also began to dissipate, according to Mr Bloxham.
“We saw a tightening of prudential settings. The authorities had gotten worried that the investor was overly involved in the housing market. So they gradually and incrementally tightened up the lending rules from late-2014 onwards,” he said.
“Then we had the banking royal commission… and that tightened up the settings.”
Foreign demand also “dried up”, the HSBC chief economist noted, due to China putting in place capital controls in late 2016.
“[There was] constrained capital coming out of China, partly because the domestic banks stopped lending to anyone who couldn’t demonstrate a domestic income,” Mr Bloxham said.
Further, housing supply has “finally caught up to demand”.
“All these various forces came into play to cool the housing market,” the chief economist said.
An ‘orderly’ cool-down
Contrary to the “hyperbolic” rhetoric around falling house prices, Mr Bloxham said the decline has been “orderly”, rather than concerning.
“If you had said to me or [other] economists and observers three years ago that ‘house prices are going to fall 10 per cent’... We would have been a lot more worried about financial stability than we’ve been. As it turns out, it’s been a very orderly correction,” he said.
He added that the cool-down is “exactly the right solution” for improving housing affordability.
“There’s only two ways to do it: house prices need to come down or income growth needs to pick up,” the chief economist said.
While the labour market has been “holding up pretty well”, there have been signs of weakness lately, which, among other concerns such as low inflation growth, prompted the RBA to cut the official cash rate to the new record low of 1.25 per cent.
“The RBA, up until very recently, was very reluctant to cut its cash rate any further, thinking there’s not much more that can be achieved,” Mr Bloxham noted.
“We’ve had a fall in job advertisements; we’ve had a pullback in hiring intentions in business surveys, not dramatically, but certainly enough to see that the momentum in the labor market is likely to ease in the second half of this year; and the unemployment rate itself has lifted from 4.9 per cent to 5.2 per cent over the past three months.
“I think that’s the thing that’s changed the RBA’s perspective.”
Looking forward, the HSBC chief economist said the Coalition government’s proposed personal income tax cuts, which is yet to pass the Senate, will allow the RBA to “sit still in the second half of this year”.
However, as predicted by many other economists, Mr Bloxham said there could be another cash rate cut this year.
“The thing to keep in mind is that the RBA has got capacity to cut further… they’ve got capacity to do other things as well. Other central banks around the world had to deliver unconventional things like quantitative easing,” he said.
The chief economist added that the government is “more cashed up” that it has been in a while, so if there is a serious threat to the economy, the government can intervene where necessary.
“At a fundamental level, we’ve got a budget surplus for the first time in 10 years; they are more cashed up than they’ve been for quite some time; we’ve got low levels of government debt; we have fiscal capacity; the government has capacity to deliver more support for growth if they need to,” Mr Bloxham.
He believes Australia’s economic health depends on international movements.
“It really depends on: 1) how much the trade policy tensions continue to ratchet up; 2) what effect it has on China and on China’s trade; and 3) how much capacity the Chinese have to continue to stimulate their domestic economy. [Australia is] fundamentally tied into exporting commodities to China,” Mr Bloxham said.
“Our house view is China has got the capacity and the levers to be able to pull and continue to maintain the sort of growth rates we’ve seen in recent times. And that their drive to do that is very strong.”
Tas Bindi is the features editor on the mortgage titles and writes about the mortgage industry, macroeconomics, fintech, financial regulation, and market trends.
Prior to joining Momentum Media, Tas wrote for business and technology titles such as ZDNet, TechRepublic, Startup Daily, and Dynamic Business.