RBA wary over cheap credit
The Reserve Bank has sent Australia's banks a blunt message not to lower lending standards, urging the sector to behave cautiously while official interest rates are at their lowest level in more than half a century.
With debate raging over the resurgent housing market, minutes from this month's Reserve Bank board meeting show members discussed the risks posed by very cheap credit before leaving the cash rate unchanged at 2.5 per cent.
The Reserve also revealed it was closely monitoring the growing trend of borrowing to invest in real estate through do-it-yourself retirement funds.
"In the current environment of low interest rates and slow credit growth, members agreed that it was especially important that banks maintained prudent lending standards," said the minutes, published on Tuesday.
The central bank also saw the trend towards geared property investment in the $500 billion self-managed super sector as a potential problem as an area in which "households could be starting to take some risk with their finances; members noted that this development would be closely monitored by bank staff".
While the RBA said Australia's financial system was in good health, the comments are likely to fuel the debate over the housing market.
With Sydney auction clearance rates at their highest in a decade and some analysts predicting house price gains of 10 per cent or more this year, real estate is emerging as a key concern for regulators.
HSBC chief economist Paul Bloxham said the booming housing market was likely to influence the central bank's decisions from now on. "It's going to be one of the possible constraints for the RBA to deliver further rate cuts," he said.
Mr Bloxham, a former RBA economist, predicted continuing house price growth in months ahead as the full effects of record low interest rates were felt.
"We are at the early stages of a housing boom," he said. "I would not be surprised if house prices pick up to double-digit rates into the early stages of next year."
Regulators around the world are debating how best to respond to the financial risks created by very cheap debt, and the RBA minutes showed members were also briefed on New Zealand's move to introduce tougher laws to restrict risky bank lending.
Some overseas commentators have also stepped up warnings over the property exposure of the nation's banks, but most local analysts reject the claim.
Macquarie banking analyst Mike Wiblin said it was "premature" to be talking about bubbles when housing credit was growing at just 4.7 per cent a year.
Bubble debates aside, house price concerns highlight the balancing act facing the Reserve.
Higher prices are probably needed to encourage more housing development, economists say. But too much price growth threatens to stretch household balance sheets and raise risks for banks.
Speaking at an Australian Business Economists lunch in Sydney, ANZ chief economist Warren Hogan said the shift in economic activity from mining to non-mining areas had already begun, and the proof was in rising house prices.
"In terms of the recovery in the non-mining sector, I think it's happening, just look at Sydney house prices," Mr Hogan said. "People are already talking about housing bubbles and so forth, and we're starting to see indications that that's translating to building approvals, so I think that's all starting to happen.
The briefing to RBA board members came from the central bank's half-yearly Financial Stability Review, to be published next week.
Despite the risks of low interest rates, board members were told, many borrowers chose to pay back their mortgages ahead of schedule and business balance sheets were "in good shape overall".