Data for lending to households and businesses data for December 2018 was released earlier this week.  This data series replaces the old housing finance and lending finance series and includes some different data.  Specifically focusing on lending to households the data shows that the weakening of demand for mortgages has continued.

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As the above chart shows, investor mortgage lending has been weakening for some time however, over recent months there has been a rapid slowdown in lending to owner-occupiers.  Over the month, there was a total of $26.0 billion in mortgage finance to borrowers which was the lowest monthly value since January 2014.  The value of mortgage lending has fallen -5.2% over the month and is -15.2% year-on-year.  Looking at the split between owner-occupier and investor mortgage lending, there was $18.5 billion worth of finance commitments to owner occupiers which was -5.3% lower than the previous month and its lowest value since May 2015.  The remaining $7.5 billion worth of finance to investors was -4.8% lower over the month and the lowest monthly value since April 2013.  While the slowdown in mortgage demand began, and is well entrenched, across the investor segment, owner-occupier mortgage demand is now also falling rapidly.

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Looking a little more granularly at the data, over the month there was $12.5 billion worth of owner-occupier finance commitments excluding refinance, $6.0 billion worth of owner occupier refinance commitments, $4.9 billion worth of non-refinance commitments to investors and $2.6 billion worth of investor refinances.  The chart highlights a weakening of demand across each of these four categories however, refinance demand is generally holding up better than non-refinance.  New lending to owner-occupiers is the lowest it has been since May 2015, owner occupier refinances are the lowest they’ve been since August 2017, investor new lending is at its lowest value since January 2012 and investor refinance lending is the lowest it has been since August 2018. 

The data clearly shows that housing finance commitments are falling the bigger question is what is the actual driver of the falls.  According to recent commentary from the Reserve Bank in their Statement on Monetary Policy, demand is falling because of ‘significantly fewer loan applications over the past year or more.’  Personally, I am not necessarily convinced this is the only reason.

The volumes that eventually make their way to lending teams are likely to be significantly lower but is this actually occurring because of fewer people wanting a mortgage or fewer making it that far?  I suspect that demand has certainly fallen but possibly it has fallen a greater amount because people are talking to the bank lender or mortgage broker and the feedback they are given is that there is no point applying because with current credit conditions this just isn’t going to get approved.

Looking at it another way, credit conditions remain tighter than they have been in many years.  Although the 10% cap on investment credit growth and 30% interest-only origination limit have been removed (largely because they became redundant), both investor and interest-only borrowers continue to be charged a premium compared to owner-occupier mortgages.  Furthermore, lenders are now asking a lot more questions about household expenditure than they have in the past rather than relying on an index of household expenditure.  Although this may be a new normal, in the past, potential borrowers perhaps haven’t had to be so mindful of their expenditure prior to a mortgage application and there will be a period of adjustment to these new conditions.  In the past borrowers have tended to adjust their expenditure appropriately once they have taken on the mortgage rather than now when the adjustment has to be made prior to obtaining approval for the mortgage.  Finally, when applying for a mortgage, borrowers are being assessed on their ability to repay a mortgage at an interest rate above 7% while most lenders will offer a new borrower a discounted variable at around or below 4%.  The current cash rate futures yield curve is now suggesting a reduction in official interest rates is more likely than a hike.  In my mind, 7% mortgage rates are a long way off and we won’t be getting back to those levels absent some decent household income growth.

While in isolation these individual changes to credit policy changes may not remove many potential borrowers, the combination of these changes likely result in far fewer borrowers being considered credit-worthy for a mortgage.  Therefore, while application volumes are likely lower, the blame can’t solely be pointed at fewer applications when the process for applying for a mortgage has changed so dramatically over recent years.