2 Nov 2022

Housing downturn grim, but not another financial crisis - economist

From Checkpoint, 5:17 pm on 2 November 2022

A lot of financial news came out today and the housing market is definitely hurting, but that does not mean the economy is facing another crisis like the 2008 meltdown, KiwiBank's chief economist says.

Today saw news of continued low unemployment data and falling house prices

As interest rates rise, that could push more home owners into negative equity, a risk highlighted in warnings in the Reserve Bank's latest Financial Stability Report released today.

The bank said while NZ's financial system was resilient, some businesses and home owners could feel the squeeze with persistent inflation pressure and the increased cost of servicing debts.

Right now about 2 percent of mortgage holders are in negative equity, where the size of their loan is more than the value of their property.

Depending on how far house prices continue to drop, that could rocket to just under 40 percent, according to estimates.

KiwiBank Chief Economist Jarrod Kerr told Checkpoint the report today was not surprising.

"It's to be expected, we are in a downturn, house prices are falling and some home owners who came in late in 2021 have found themselves in negative equity.

"That's an uncomfortable position to be in, but we're not seeing the more concerning distressed sales yet.

"What we normally need to see is quite a sharp increase in unemployment before that happens."

Today's unemployment data showed jobless numbers holding steady at just 3.3 percent and wages growing, which Kerr said was positive.

"We've got a very strong labour market and there's very good income growth."

At the moment we were nowhere near the conditions that led to the global financial crisis in 2008, Kerr said.

"That was a very different situation. That was a global financial market crisis and banks were under significant stress.

"There is risk that we see something similar but nowhere near as bad as that in the coming year."

Banks had been forced to hold a lot more capital and lending practices were a lot safer than they were a decade ago, Kerr said.

Kiwibank chief executive Jarrod Kerr

KiwiBank's Jarrod Kerr.  Photo: Supplied / Gino Demeer

For those in negative equity it could be hard, but "so long as they've got jobs, they will keep paying off their mortgage".

What would hurt was when mortgages had to be re-fixed under the current rates, Kerr said.

"There are a lot of people, about 45 percent, coming up for re-fixing on their mortgages.

"They've got current rates that they took out last year or the year before that are really attractive, 2, 2.5 percent level, and now they're going on to 6, 7 percent interest rates, which is a massive jump.

"Those households will find themselves with a lot less discretionary income and their ability to spend will be impacted."

While unemployment rates are low, in reality many economists say it needs to be a bit higher to slow down inflation.

"I think the unemployment rate from the Reserve Bank's perspective needs to be closer to 4.5, 5," Kerr said. 

"We need to see the economy slow down, we need to see the demand in the economy better match the supply. 

"We need to alleviate the pressures that are out there generating inflation."

Other tools included increasing immigration and investment in new technology.

Immigration definitely helped to fill a lot of the jobs that were not being filled at the moment, Kerr said, "and also making sure that we're investing in the future".

"This is one sort of bugbear of mine that we don't invest enough in this country on key infrastructure, and using the slowdown as an example not to spend is simply not good enough."