Martin Bregozzo | 24 February 2013

Only a tenuous link between RBA rate cuts and house prices: Martin Bregozzo

Accepted economic theory suggests that cuts to interest rates stimulate housing markets and the economy, since lower mortgage payments open up the housing market to a larger pool of purchasers. The theory suggests that with more money in their pockets, consumers will either spend or invest. Housing serves two masters — arguably poorly — as an investment (a store of value) and a necessity (shelter).

As the number of commercial exchanges increase, opportunities emerge which drive the economy. Additional staff are hired as new businesses open and existing ones expand, which in turn creates further demand and spending — hopefully within Australia rather than as leakages to imports, travel or internet retail. Business funding costs are lower, which should benefit the whole economy, especially the credit-hungry construction sector, setting in train a strong multiplier, estimated at around 2.8 for NSW — i.e. for every $1 spent in residential construction another $2.80 is generated and spent elsewhere in the economy. Growth begets growth as the economy beats a path to its natural constraints. Or else inflation sets in. Or the RBA put up interest rates. Or there’s an election.

An initial boost to housing affordability occurs, as lower mortgage costs attract a larger pool of potential buyers — raising a paradox in Sydney, as affordability without additional supply is the last thing the city needs. Since housing supply is finite and slow to respond — i.e. increase — in the short term, this reduces the effectiveness of the “cheap money” as purchasers are crowded out of the market and prices are driven up. But, in an appreciating market, project feasibilities “stack up”, encouraging construction and new housing supply is (eventually) delivered. Anyone who has witnessed the glacial progress of a DA through council will note the overlap between the short and the medium term stories, which I hope I’ll be forgiven for.

Sound as this line of thinking may well be, we just haven’t seen the expected result in housing markets (or the economy for that matter) as median prices have generally tracked sideways despite successive RBA rate cuts. Why? Well, the short answer; “it’s the economy…” or more specifically, the rate cuts have mostly quelled vendor discounting, but have done little to exorcise our collective fears and pessimisms. Consumer confidence fits hand in glove with an appreciating housing market.

Put simply, the non-mining part of the economy — i.e. most of the rest of us — has been living in a phantom recession; while the economy in the macro sense has been spared widespread unemployment, some sectors (particularly currency sensitive ones) have contracted, while old economy retail is doing it very hard and confidence is at a low point. Under such a dark and heavy cloud, investors are unwilling to speculate (oops, invest) and their focus is on paying down debt — and specifically, shoring-up equity in the family nest egg by selling-off holiday houses, online discounted shopping, and so forth. Similarly, banks have reigned in risk, drip feeding token portions of the RBA rate cuts to existing borrowers while scrutinising every new loan application and strangling the economy of credit. And this is what is meant by low consumer confidence — a self-fulfilling Mayan prophecy of doom and gloom.

The current economic norm is an emerging cautious conservatism as the weight of funds shifts to wealth preservation mode with an aging population is likely to reiterate this. After the debt-fuelled orgy of the early noughties, borrowers are building buffers into their loans to uphold the one non-malleable constant of Australian investors — you don’t lose the family home. The RBA reports that some 15% of borrowers are ahead in their repayments by two or more years while 40% are ahead. The data indicates that borrowers who are ahead in their payments tend to be older and have higher incomes. This is consistent with where they are up to in their life’s journey — having had more time and/or income to accumulate such buffers and potentially fewer/diminished commitments (e.g. adult children). This is the Baby Boomer generation getting their pre-retirement house in order. Literally. The effects of this are visible in discretionary housing markets as holiday houses and hobby farms were jettisoned.

Returning to the interest rate story, there is a tenuous — at best — correlation between interest rates and house prices. The following chart examines the relationship between the change to interest rates and the change to the nominal median Australian house price — taken as the weighted average of the six capital cities. Quite an abstraction, to be sure, especially when the median house is the one you’ll never buy. Prices naturally fluctuate from month to month because of seasonality and other factors. Median nominal prices are a relatively crude instrument, because they aren't adjusted for inflation, they lump numerous local markets into broad geographical areas, and they don't account for variations in the mix of homes sold, a weakness that can tilt the median up or down. Nonetheless, median prices often are looked to as a broad measurement of housing market trends.

Click to enlarge

For the past 32 years to 2012, the annual change to nominal house prices may be explained by changes to interest rates for some 37.8% of the time. But, the story doesn’t end here, what’s really interesting is that for part of the time the correlation is negative — when rates go down, prices go up and vice versa — while for part, a positive correlation, and for part of the time there is no correlation. And when the data is examined on a quarterly basis, the “relationship” becomes even more tenuous 12% correlation. Further, when comparing of the annual change to interest rates and real house prices the correlation is 20.7%.

Catherine Cashmore  rightly noted the low correlation between property prices and interest rates; surprising to many, but actually the topic of a number of academic papers. What needs to be recalled here is the statistics dictum, that: correlation does not imply causality. While interest rates have some impact on house prices, both are responding to (and participating in) something else—the economic cycle.

I think a more interesting discussion is around how the specifics of locality and population interact with the economic cycle as these are key drivers of price to a local level. So, should interest rates as a measure of the housing markets be thrown out the window? Well, not entirely, for there are (at least) two notable areas where they are still useful — the building cycle and housing affordability. There is a strong connection between rate cuts and the building cycle as interest rates are a short term driver of the construction cycles. And the connection between the cost of money, the supply of housing, prices and rents neatly returns us to the beginning of this article. Thanks for reading. 

Martin Bregozzo is a property economist with BIS Shrapnel.

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