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Monday, August 15, 2011

Has housing really got less affordable?

In a speech a number of years ago, the head of economic analysis at the RBA looked at the amount of income the representative Australian household had left-over after buying a home--at the median price at that time--and servicing all their interest and principal repayments on a home loan (at prevailing rates). The conclusion was counter-intuitive. The RBA analysis showed that Australian households actually had more income left-over after all housing costs--that is, buying a home and meeting their mortgage repayments--than at any other time in recorded history. (The RBA analysis went back to the early 1980s.) Since this work stopped in June 2007, we recently decided to update it with a few tweaks.

The RBA looked at first time buyers acquiring a home in the thirtieth price percentile (ie, a cheaper than average home). We decided to simply look at the "average household"--calculated by dividing the ABS's quarterly disposable national income estimate by the number of households each quarter--buying the "average dwelling" in Australia, which is defined as the average sales price in a quarter. The income estimates from the ABS are the only regular (or quarterly) income data that are made available by government. The dwelling price data is sourced from RP Data, which captures 100% of all home sales in Australia.

We then assume that the borrower has a 10% deposit and a 30 year standard variable rate home loan, which requires them to repay both interest and principal. Finally, we "inflation-adjust" all the data to make households' positions comparable over time. The results of this work are enclosed in the chart below (click to enlarge).

The key question we are trying to address is this: do households in 2011 have greater or less disposable income after buying a home and paying down the mortgage than their predecessors?

Like the RBA, we find that--contrary to popular myth--today's households actually have more disposable income than at any other point since we began our analysis in 1993.

Of course, there are some good explanations for this. Per capita disposable income has been growing very strongly, and has outpaced house price appreciation, over the last 7-8 years. Over the longer-term, we have had a structural decline in the unemployment rate from the double digit peaks in early 1990s to just 5.1% today. And then we have had the rise of multi-income households care of a secular increase in the female participation rate.

A final crucial difference is the decline in inflation--aka "price stability"--which has permitted lower nominal mortgage rates. As I have argued many times before, the cost of price stability is occasional spikes in interest rates, assuming that the RBA is prepared to do its inflation-targeting job.

Unfortunately, the RBA’s inflation-fighting resolve is becoming an open question with a Board majority-controlled by conflicted business executives. The Bank has thus far ignored the last six months of core inflation data that was 40 per cent above its target, and has yet to respond to its own forecasts for above-target price pressures out to 2013.

The healthy incomes and balance-sheets of Australian households are one reason why house prices are unlikely to fall much, especially if the RBA begins cutting rates in order to appease community demands that it prioritises the maintenance of growth and employment over its once-dominant price stability objective.