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Australian housing isn't the one-way road to riches it once was
[SYDNEY] For the past two decades, Australia's housing market has mostly been a one-way bet on rising prices.
Now, with the effects of coronavirus shutdowns reverberating through the economy and the nation set for its worst recession in 90 years, the concept that owning property is a licence to print money is under threat.
While the Covid-19 pandemic has upended property markets from Canada to Singapore, Australia is more vulnerable than most to a housing slump. It has one of the world's highest levels of household debt, the nation's banks are heavily exposed to mortgage lending, and many mom and pop investors rely on income from rental properties, which are also under pressure.
"Australia's had an obsession with residential property for a long time," said Richard Holden, professor of economics at the University of New South Wales. "A lot of people have a lot of their wealth tied up in residential property. I'm pretty worried."
Commonwealth Bank of Australia, the nation's largest home lender, estimates that under a short, sharp economic downturn this year followed by a quick recovery next year, house prices will fall 11 per cent by March 2023. In the worst-case scenario of a prolonged recession, prices could plunge 32 per cent.
That's a marked reversal from before coronavirus hit, when house prices were back near boom-time peaks, having rebounded rapidly since a 21-month slump bottomed out in June. Longer term, home values have tripled since the turn of the century, propelling Sydney and Melbourne into the ranks of the world's least-affordable places to buy.
To help avoid a calamitous decline, banks have rolled out a huge assistance package, with almost 430,000 borrowers given a six-month payment holiday. All up, banks have deferred A$211 billion (S$196.19 billion) of loans, including to businesses. Meantime, more than six million workers are receiving government wage subsidies of A$1,500 every two weeks.
That has helped avoid a flood of forced sales that could drag down the entire market. Property listings in Sydney are down 27 per cent from a year ago, according to data provider CoreLogic.
Along with would-be buyers vying for a smaller number of properties, there's other factors helping prop up the market. Interest rates are at a record low, and most of the hundreds of thousands of jobs lost are concentrated among younger people in low-income work like hospitality and retail, who tend not to be homeowners.
And after a brief pause during the height of social-distancing restrictions, open-house inspections and public auctions have restarted.
"The banks, and by extension the housing market, are fairly well firewalled at present, and it would take a lot to outweigh this," said Tamar Hamlyn, co-founder of fixed-income investor Ardea Investment Management. "The most likely scenario is slowly lower prices in a low-turnover market, as in the absence of any forced selling it's quite likely that the various buffers in place can prevent a shakeout for the time being."
Still, even as Australia starts to emerge from the shutdowns, the after-effects will linger for years. The central bank expects unemployment will peak at 10 per cent this quarter, be at 9 per cent at the end of this year, and hold above 6.5 per cent for the next two years.
And while banks are going all out to support existing borrowers, they are tightening the screws on new customers, placing less weight on variable income like bonuses and overtime when assessing borrowing capacity, and being ultra-cautious about people who work in hard-hit industries.
"Banks aren't going to lend based on a 'future return to normality', they will lend on the now," said Redom Syed, the founder of mortgage broker Confidence Finance. "A major shock to lending markets is coming."
Then there's the sudden drying up of immigration, which has been one of the key drivers of house prices, particularly in Sydney and Melbourne where new arrivals tend to settle.
On a net basis, more than 470,000 immigrants moved to Australia over the past two years. Now, with borders shut and international travel unlikely to resume anytime soon, the government is forecasting immigration will slump 85 per cent in the year starting July 1.
"Migration is going to the biggest feature of what drives housing market dynamics," said Paul Bloxham, chief economist for Australia at HSBC Holdings, and a former central bank official. "We see weaker demand for owner-occupied property, weaker demand for rental property and weaker demand for property for students."
Landlords are also facing an uncertain future. Unlike in the US and Europe where big firms such as Blackstone Group and Vonovia own thousands of apartments, Australia's rental market is largely a cottage industry of mom and pop landlords. For many, the monthly rent doesn't cover their loan payments - and instead they count on tax breaks and price growth to turn a profit.
That leaves them in a precarious position if tenants can't pay rent. While evictions have been suspended for six months, there is no financial support for renters, and instead the government has urged landlords and tenants to negotiate rent breaks themselves.
Meantime, tens of thousands of international students are stranded overseas, leaving their rental apartments empty, while the shuttering of tourism has seen AirBnB units flood back to the market.
"We are well aware of a surge in short-term accommodation now being advertised for long-term leasing," said Louis Christopher, managing director at consultancy SQM Research.
Rents in Sydney have fallen about 6 per cent from a year ago, and will decline further if high vacancy rates are sustained, he said. "That's good news for tenants but a disaster for landlords."
Then there's the question of what happens later this year when the government and banks start to unwind the extraordinary level of support propping up the economy. With a household debt-to-income ratio of 187 per cent, Australia is one of the most indebted countries in the developed world.
"That's the cliff edge," said Sarah Hunter, chief Australia economist at BIS Oxford Economics. "If the economic recovery isn't established by then, there is the risk of a big stumble."