Each quarter the Reserve Bank (RBA) publishes household finances data which look at the ratio of household debts and assets to disposable income. The latest data shows households are becoming more indebted at the same time as the value of their assets are increasing.
According to the RBA, the ratio of household debt to disposable income was recorded at 193.7% at the end of June 2017. The ratio sits at a record high having increased by 2.0% over the quarter and by 3.9% over the year. Unsurprisingly, most of this debt is housing related; the ratio of housing debt to disposable income is recorded at 136.4% having increased by 1.4% over the quarter and 3.9% over the year.
The first chart highlights how much household and housing debt has increased over time relative to disposable incomes. It is also noticeable that since the financial crisis the rate of escalation has slowed. Further data from the RBA reveals that of the 136.4% ratio of housing debt to disposable income, 103.2% is held by owner occupiers with the remaining 33.2% held by investors.
The second chart details the ratio of household and housing assets to disposable income. At the end of June 2017 the ratio of household assets to disposable income was recorded at 935.6% and the ratio of housing assets to disposable income was 516.5%, both of which were record highs. Over the past year household assets and housing assets have increased by 6.6% and 7.8% respectively, well in excess of the increase in household and housing debt.
By comparing the ratios of assets and debt the RBA also produces ratios of household and housing debt to assets. The data reiterates that although debt levels are high, at this stage that debt is well supported by assets which are valued substantially higher. Over recent years the ratios of household and housing debt to assets has actually been falling. In June 2017, the ratio of household debt to assets was recorded at 20.7% and the ratio of housing debt to assets sat at 26.4%.
A big contributor to the declining ratio of debt to assets over recent years has been the ongoing fall in interest rates to their current lows. The RBA publishes ratios of interest payments to disposable income for household and housing debt. The fourth chart highlights that households are paying significantly less interest currently than they were when interest rates were much higher. At the end of June 2017 the ratio of household interest repayments to disposable income was 8.7% and for housing it was 7.1%. Lower interest rates also mean that where there is a debt, debtors have the ability (if they choose) to maintain previous repayments which in turn means additional debt is repaid as interest rates fall.
The data highlights that Australian households are heavily indebted, largely due to housing. While debt levels are high, the value of household and housing assets are, at this stage, considerably greater than the level of debt. Of course, if household and housing asset values begin to fall in the future, the accompanying debt may not fall at the same rate and that remains the main concern with the ongoing increase in household and housing debt. Although Australia survived the financial crisis with much less damage than most other countries, it is noticeable how there was a fairly sharp rise in the ratio of household and housing debts to assets over that period. A more sustained downturn could potentially see a much greater increase in these ratios as asset values fall but the debt against these assets remain.