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Australia faces housing hangover twice size of US subprime era

[SYDNEY] The party is finally winding down for Australia's housing market. How severe the hangover is will determine the economy's fate for years to come.

After five years of surging prices, the market value of the nation's homes has ballooned to A$7.3 trillion (S$7.5 trillion) - or more than four times gross domestic product. Not even the US and UK markets achieved such heights at their peaks a decade ago before prices spiraled lower and dragged their economies with them.

Australia's obsession with property is firmly entrenched in the nation's economy and psyche, fueled by record-low interest rates, generous tax breaks, banks hooked on mortgage lending, and prime-time TV shows where home renovators are lauded like sporting heroes. For many, homes morphed into cash machines to finance loans for boats, cars and investment properties. The upshot: households are now twice as indebted as China's.

So far, the Reserve Bank of Australia has relied on banking regulators to apply the brakes with lending curbs. It reckons the financial system is well-placed to withstand any shocks, but isn't so confident on consumers. That puts it out of step with developed-world peers that are incrementally tightening policy, with Governor Philip Lowe this week making clear local interest rates aren't going anywhere soon.

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To be sure, there are key dynamics that differentiate Australia's housing boom with those that soured in recent years around the world. Aussie banks can claim against other income and assets or chase individuals into bankruptcy if borrowers default. Tax deductions for interest paid on investment loans also support demand, as does a rich pipeline of demand from Asian buyers, especially Chinese.

But with prices in major cities like Sydney finally leveling off and a wave of new apartments about to hit markets in Brisbane and Melbourne, it's worth taking a look at housing's out-sized influence on Australia's economy.