Australia’s economy may have achieved a remarkable winning streak, avoiding a recession for 25 years, but there are now clear signs that the consumers who have driven much of the growth are running out of puff. With cash interest rates at a record low and house prices near record highs, the nation’s household debt-to-income ratio has climbed to an all-time peak of 189 percent, according to the Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA).
Australia’s household debt-to-income ratio has climbed to an all-time peak of 189 percent, according to the Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA). – Reuters
That means there are an increasing number of people who have little cash for discretionary spending – on everything from cars to electrical appliances and new clothes – as their pay packets get consumed by large mortgages and high rental payments in the country’s red-hot property market.
And it’s not as if a sudden plunge in home prices would help – it might well expose and exacerbate the problem, at least in the short run, squeezing many who have bought into the frothy market with high mortgage repayments and little equity in their homes.
“We are seeing a considerable spike in stress even in more affluent households. Large mortgages, big commitments but no income growth,” said Digital Finance Analytics (DFA) Principal Martin North. “Stressed households are less likely to spend at the shops, which acts as a drag anchor on future growth.”
North estimates a record 52,000 households risk default in the next 12 months and that 23.4 percent of Australian families are under mortgage stress, meaning their income does not cover ongoing costs. That compares with about 19 percent a year ago.
“People are up to their ears in mortgages,” said Brad Smith, a car sales consultant at MotorPoint Sydney which has seen a stark slowdown in sales in the past six months. “They are all on a budget. Everyone’s got all their money in houses, that’s how it is.”
Australians are also facing a cash crunch because price inflation in essential items such as food, electricity and insurance is accelerating at a 3.4 percent annual rate at a time when Australian wages are rising at their slowest pace on record, just 1.9 percent in the year to March.
Meanwhile, growth in retail sales, personal loans and luxury car sales are all at multi-year lows, suggesting the household sector – nearly 60 percent of Australia’s A$1.7 trillion ($1.3 trillion) economy – is under severe strain.
Weak consumer spending is proving a huge drag on retailers’ performance, with shares in furniture and appliance chain Harvey Norman and electronics shop JB Hi-Fi both trading near one-year lows.
Retail sales have hardly grown in the past few months. Even online sales have slowed, with all major categories including homeware, games and toys, daily deals and takeaway food shrinking in April, according to the NAB Online Retail Sales Index.
Car sales have flattened this year after solid growth in 2016 while sales of luxury cars and sports utility vehicles are at a four-year low.
For consumers such as Sydney resident Marie-Aimee Guillermin, there’s little ‘play money’ left after stepping into Sydney’s housing market with a A$1.4 million 3-bedroom house last month.
“We thought once we had the house we could take our foot off the brake a little bit but now that we have it I feel even less certain in terms of stability and financial security,” she told Reuters.
“So whether we’ll end up spending a bit more on clothes and restaurants and going out and what have you I don’t see that happening.”
(Source: Fashion Network)