"It’s all the small sacrifices and belt-tightening that makes an economy."
Australia escaped the GFC through saving and hard work, not luck
It’s become the norm to read about our great luck as Europe and the United States wrestle with soaring debt and high unemployment, and Australia just sails through. But I’m thinking that Australia’s excellent response to the GFC is as much about individual austerity and sacrifice as it is about exports to China and economic management.
There are a number of factors operating on our economic wellbeing right now that average Australians deserve a pat on the back for. For a start, we are saving again. While the Australian household savings rate fell below zero in 2003, it started rising slowly from there and then made a big comeback after 2008. The current savings rate in this country is around 9.6% – much healthier than the 4.3% in the US and 3.3% in Canada.
Australians deserve praise for responding this way during a crisis.
During the post-GFC fallout, Australian household debt-to-disposable income also reduced slightly from 135.3% to 134.5%. It doesn’t seem that healthy, but it certainly looks healthier than the US and UK, where it’s over 160%, or Canada, where it’s 152%.
“Lucky country” notwithstanding, paying down expensive debt and securing cheap debt is smart, and it’s what Australians have been doing. Credit card spending has slowed since 2008, and at the same time Australians have been shoring up their mortgage positions. Around half of Australian mortgage holders are now ahead on their repayment schedules, and the ratio of mortgagees who are on schedule is well over 80%. It’s a very healthy picture.
In the US, the mortgage delinquency rate is at 7.58% of mortgage holders who are at least 30 days in arrears.
In Australia, the Fitch agency ranks mortgages holders at around 1.5% delinquency.
It’s an enormous difference and is partially underpinned by unemployment numbers: 5.2% in Australia, 8.3% in the US.
But it isn’t just employment. Australian households responded immediately to the GFC by curtailing their spending, and those not pulling back on consumption have been shopping smarter, using the internet and high Aussie dollar to save money.
And although Australians can be thankful that unemployment hasn’t spiked and wages growth has continued during the post-GFC, we haven’t had it all easy. During this time electricity prices have risen markedly and while our current cash rate is very low, Australian home buyers haven’t had the virtually 0% finance enjoyed by other nationalities.
Unfortunately, while Australians have pulled their heads in and have been determined to weather the effects of the GFC, it seems they will be saddled with deflated equities values in their superannuation and flat house values, for at least the medium term.
There isn’t too much to be done about that. For now, we can say we’re saving smarter, spending smarter and borrowing smarter.
It’s all the small sacrifices and belt-tightening that makes an economy. Australians have not only been lucky – they’ve been smart.
Mark Bouris is executive chairman of Yellow Brick Road, a financial services company offering home loans, financial planning, accounting and tax, and insurance.