Rising housing pressures pose risk to stability, Wheeler says

RBNZ governor says the country's financial health is still sound, though growing private sector credit and rising house prices pose a concern.

Increasing pressure in a housing market where supply is failing to meet demand is posing a growing risk to New Zealand's financial stability, according to the Reserve Bank.

In the bank's six-monthly financial stability report, governor Graeme Wheeler says the country's financial health is still sound, though growing private sector credit and rising house prices which are already high pose a concern to the central bank.

The fears have emerged as Auckland and Christchurch stand out as struggling to meet demand for housing and as banks become more tolerant of lending on smaller deposits.

"Further price escalation will worsen the potential damage that could result from a housing downturn following an economic or financial shock," Mr Wheeler says in a statement.

"Housing pressures, arising from pent-up demand, limited supply and the lowest interest rates in 50 years are being felt particularly in Auckland and Christchurch, where supply constraints are greatest."

The housing market has become a growing headache for the central bank, as Auckland sale prices hit new record highs in a rapidly heating market, while at the same time a strong currency has limited the its ability to stoke lending growth with lower rates.

One of the reasons behind the increase in higher loan-to-value ratios being offered was the improvement in bank profitability, with the banking system now earning a return on assets near the pre-global financial crisis level of 1 percent per annum.

Mortgage lending with an LVR of 80 percent of more now accounts for about 20 percent of banks' total residential loan books and has made up about 30 percent of new lending.

"The greater willingness of banks to approve high loan-to-value ratio mortgages has further increased the potential adverse impact of a fall in house prices," the bank's report says.

Because of that increase in high LVR lending, the bank has been looking at lifting capital requirements for housing loans and decided to lift the amount of regulatory capital required for the riskier lending.

Deputy governor Grant Spencer says the increase in weights will apply to all current and new high LVR loans for the major banks, and will result in an average increase of capital held for housing by about 12 percent from the end of September this year.

The bank says annual house price inflation was 9 percent and prices exceed the previous 2007 peak by 5 percent, with an increase in turnover over the past 12 months.

While new supply will take some time to come online, the increased prices pose a risk to the economy if it causes excessive construction, which would ultimately cause a fall in house prices and lead to stress on bank and household balance sheets.

The increase in low equity home lending has also led to household balance sheets becoming more stretched as people take on higher debt relative to their assets and income.

"Signs that the more cautious approach to borrowing observed in recent years is beginning to stall are of concern, given the existing levels of debt and the longer-term downside risks to the housing market," the report says.

The bank has also completed its consultation on a new tool-kit off macro-prudential instruments to cool asset bubbles, which includes the ability to set limits on high LVR lending.

A memorandum of understanding is expected to be signed with Finance Minister Bill English shortly.

"The new framework provides the ability to temporarily tighten prudential settings if house prices and household borrowing continue to be of concern," the report says.


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