Earlier this week the Reserve Bank (RBA) released the minutes of the Monetary Policy Meeting for February 2019. One of the things that really stood out for me was the commentary relating to the housing market, specifically relating to the impact of falling prices. The following quote is taken straight from the minutes.
‘From a longer-run perspective, members assessed that, following such large increases in housing prices, the effect of the recent price falls on overall economic activity was expected to be relatively small. However, members observed that if prices were to fall much further, consumption could be weaker than forecast, which would result in lower GDP growth, higher unemployment and lower inflation than forecast. From a financial stability perspective, tighter lending standards, an improving labour market and low interest rates were all likely to support households' capacity to service their debt. Few households were in negative equity positions despite the falls in housing prices, implying that banks' losses would be limited even if household financial stress were to become more widespread.’
While it would be great to know how much further the RBA believes dwelling values would have to fall to start affecting consumption, it is looking inevitable that dwelling values will fall further over the coming months. As the above chart shows, values have now declined from their peak across each of the five largest cities in Australia, values have also recorded a significant decline over recent years in Darwin, and a more recent monthly fall in Hobart. Many other regions, including regional areas of most states and territories have recorded falls in dwelling values, with values in Regional Qld and Regional WA sitting lower than their peak for more than a decade now.
The decline in dwelling values doesn’t appear to be close to finding a floor yet. This is particularly the case in the two largest markets of Sydney in Melbourne. In fact, if anything the rate of decline in both of these cities has been accelerating over recent months.
The concerns about the impact of a declining housing market on household consumption are well founded. Household consumption accounts for more than half of gross domestic product (GDP) so if consumption slows, it is very likely that economic growth will also slow. To-date household consumption has been steady however; consumption isn’t growing as it did before the financial crisis and it has slowed over recent years.
At the same time as consumption has underperformed, the household saving ratio has reduced over recent quarters, highlighting that households are saving less. While the ratio has not fallen to the lows recorded during the 2000s it is clear that households are saving a lot less than they were initial post-GFC and this is despite inflation remaining consistently below 2%. To-date the reduction in saving has not provided a boost to household consumption and in fact, more regularly released retail trade data shows that expenditure at the shops has reduced which doesn’t bode well for consumption figures going forward.
Over the 2018 calendar year, retail trade increased by 2.8%. By comparison, compound annual growth in retail trade over the past decade has been recorded at 3.3%. NSW where dwelling values are recording the greatest declines has seen retail trade increase by 1.7% over the past year, the slowest annual rate of change since March 2012. Not only is NSW the largest and most expensive housing market, it also accounts for almost one-third of national retail trade. If trade continues to slow in the largest state, it is unlikely to bode well for household consumption going forward.
Given the already declining housing market, which looks set to continue, slower household consumption, below target inflation, reduced household savings and slowing retail trade, it looks likely that household consumption growth will slow further over coming quarters. As the RBA states that could lead to slower economic growth and in-turn necessitate an interest rate cut.
The RBA board next meets on the 5th March. Between then and now a raft of additional data will be released including: the CoreLogic Home Value Index, private sector credit data, building approvals data and a range of inputs for the National Accounts. Unfortunately, National Accounts will not be released until the day after the RBA board meeting however, they will have plenty of new information to assess. Will it be weak enough to necessitate a rate cut? Who knows, but with the RBA shifting to a more neutral interest rate outlook, a run of poor data could see the next RBA meeting become ‘live’ for a rate cut despite not having the full data from the National Accounts until the following day. Personally, I don’t think the RBA will be ready to cut official interest rates next month but with each data release I am more convinced a rate cut is looking more likely. In fact, labour force data which has been showing an ongoing decline in the unemployment rate is the only data release which is overly positive at the moment.