PHOTO: ELIZA OWEN is the Head of Research Australia at CoreLogic
2020 has been a devastating year for many households and small businesses. As Australia moves through its first recession in over 28 years, ABS payroll data suggests wages are down 4.3% between Australia’s 100th case of COVID-19 on March 14, and October 31 . In the same period, payroll jobs decreased 3.0%.
At the onset of the pandemic, consensus seemed to be building that the national decline in property values could reach 10%, with worst-case scenarios suggesting prices could fall by as much as a third.
But between March and October, Australian home values have fallen just 1.7%. In fact, October marked a 0.4% increase in values, with the trend over November suggesting a further acceleration in growth.
Although housing values are once again rising, it’s important to highlight that Melbourne housing values remain around 5.4% below their recent high, and Sydney housing values are still 4.8% below their 2017 peak. Values in Perth and Darwin are more than 20% below their 2014 peaks, while the remaining capital cities have seen housing values move to new record highs through the COVID period.
As Australia enters the start of a gradual recovery from the largest economic downturn since the 1930’s, how can this be reconciled with such a mild downturn in property values? A few factors that may explain the relative stability in housing, at a high level, are put forward below.
The cost of borrowing money is probably one of the most important factors influencing property values. Over 2020, the RBA have reduced the official cash rate target (which influences lending rates) by 65 basis points, to 0.1%.
In a bid to stimulate economic activity, the reduced cash rate has lowered bank funding costs, leading to record low mortgage rates. This relationship has held up historically, with RBA research previously suggesting that a 100 basis point reduction in the cash rate can lead to an 8% increase in property values over the following two years.
In fact, it is not uncommon for housing markets to increase in value during negative economic shocks, or periods of rising unemployment. This is because the monetary response to rising unemployment and falling consumption, is often to lower the price of debt. Those that still have a secure income during these shocks may be more inclined to borrow and buy as a result.
MORTGAGE REPAYMENT DEFERRALS
The Australian household debt to income ratio is an eye-watering 185%. This high level of debt is a vulnerability amid severe economic contractions, because sudden job loss reduces the ability of households to service this debt. In the April Financial Stability Review, the RBA highlighted that each 100 basis point increase in the unemployment rate could lead to an 80 basis point increase in the portion of mortgages in arrears.
In the case of large-scale mortgage debt, ongoing arrears can lead to forced sales, which in turn fuel risks associated with higher supply in the housing market, lowers values, and higher rates of negative equity, where the borrower sells their property for less than what they owe the bank.
Mortgage repayment deferrals have acted as a temporary stopper on this vicious cycle. Those that did not want to sell amid economic uncertainty due to an inability to repay their mortgage, did not have to. This may have contributed to very low levels of stock throughout 2020, which only reduced further amid stage 2 restrictions from March. The low level of stock on market likely helped to insulate dwelling values during this time.