The forty year Australian household debt boom is over

The jig is up for Aussie household debt. There is gthering evience that the change is structural and that has huge implications for everything from the economy through politics and society.

Total private sector debt growth has been lower than it is today before:

And it will rebound a little from current levels, all things equal. But credit growth has never been so low during a period of sustained and extreme monetary stimulus. The two previous episodes of deleveraging occurred in the 1991 recession and the GFC, the two greatest periods of economic shock in modern Australia. Today it’s happening as asset prices rip higher and after 27 years of continuous growth.

Ther are three drivers that argue this is structural.

First, income and wages growth is so slow, and has been so for so long, that households are bunkering down for a long slog with huge debts. They have realised that there is no chance of them inflating their way out it. We can see this in cratered inflation expectations.

Second, the Coalition Government is a major flop. Its surplus obsession is startlingly dated and has actually deepened as the need for it to turn towards a new paradigm of fiscal investment has increased. It has literally no reform agenda to lift incomes and is preoccupied exclusively with mortgage debt and house prices, the very revulsion entrenching in households, not least owing to the recent substantial correction.

Third, the imminence of zero interest rate policy has underlined the first two. Households know that there is now NO central bank insurance policy to fall back upon, no RBA ‘put’ to ensure the next downturn lifts income for the majority to help them service the huge debts.

These three factors have combined to acclerate mortgage debt repayments. Households might continue to borrow to invest, but they appear no longer willing to do so to consume, preferring to pay down loans much faster than in the past, a new form of saving. Weak bank mortgage flow is insufficient to keep the debt stock rising at anything above stall speed.

The economic and investment implications of this are large. It means chronically weak consumption and domestic demand, much diminished wealth effects hitherto assumed to boost economic activity, and all kinds of debt deflation taking hold across the consumption ecconomy for the foreseeable future.

That, in turn, means an ongoing weak labour market and even worse wages growth, gathering into an unbreakable feedback loop with weak domestic demand.

It will be made much worse as the terms of trade fall away over the next few years, dragged down by China going ex-growth.

The policy implications are equally big. The correct response is to embark on a wholesale reform project to boost incomes while undetaking major fiscal spending to support demand via infrastructure investment. Ratings agencies should be ignored. If Australia were downgraded, its 10 year yield might only fall to 55bps versus the 50bps that it is presently headed to. It’s absurd worrying about public debt when private has exceeded its tolerances everywhere and the federal government can issue bills at the cheapest prices in 600 years. It can significantly boost productivity with quality investment into the huge infrastructure deficit as well.

Regardless, the RBA will be cutting to 25bps in a jiffy and will be forced into QE before long. This is entirely appropriate if done right, aimed at boosting fiscal spending and lowering the currency which, longer term, is the only way out.

The third lever of Australian macro managemwent, mass immigration, will be a deepening disaster in this scenario. If private sector borrowing growth remains subdued then the housing and consumption spillovers will be curtailed. The extra warm bodies will simply crush per capita incomes ever more.

The political fallout is also big. The Coalition appears oblivious to the earthquake shaking its post-Howard economic assumptions, leaving it unwittingly crashing domestic demand. This opens an enormous opportunity for Labor if it can position itself as the new party of growth. Alas it has so far tacked towards Coalition idiocy but it should not go far that way. It need not overly expose itself to policy ideas in opposition to make the argument for real fiscal spending and reform to boost growth.

For asset markets, this change also represents a seismic shift. Australian banks are verging on univestible. For all intents and purposes they are now zombies. If their mortgage back books can’t grow then profits will structurally decline. For that matter, all Australian stocks exposed to anaemic domestic demand are in the same sinking boat.

Yields in the Australian bond market are yet to bottom. The cash rate at 25bps plus QE sees the 10 year and 15 year bonds at 50bps and probably lower.

The ‘bull trap’ thesis for house prices is strengthening given there will be no econony to support much higher prices. For owner occupiers the case for getting into the market is still reasonable given the emotional price for waiting is very high and the government will always offer support. But for investors it is a case of sell into strength.

The Australian dollar has far yet to fall. Offshore investments therefore present themselves as the local investor’s savior as Australia plods into a second, even worse, lost decade.


David Llewellyn-Smith is Chief Strategist at the MB fund and MB Super which is overweight international shares that will benefit from a falling Australian dollar.

Houses and Holes

David Llewellyn-Smith is Chief Strategist at the MB Fund and MB Super. David is the founding publisher and editor of MacroBusiness and was the founding publisher and global economy editor of The Diplomat, the Asia Pacific’s leading geo-politics and economics portal.

He is also a former gold trader and economic commentator at The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, the ABC and Business Spectator. He is the co-author of The Great Crash of 2008 with Ross Garnaut and was the editor of the second Garnaut Climate Change Review.

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Comments

    • Strange Economics

      But See the next article. Houses up 2 % a month.?
      Where does the money come from if Credit is not available? Cashed up parents?
      From what I hear people saying, banks will lend happily again if you have a salaried job, but not if you are self employed.
      Wasn’t there a Royal Commission about banking a long long time ago…that and the election gave a 3 month hiccup before boom back on…

  1. Buy’n’hold the USD, cash out of the ASX and follow the pips offshore. Pay down your Aussie debt. Go long quality grocery stock only as Cocooning 2.0 comes back…. How many new Home Theatres would save Jerry? Export the cheap labour by cancelling the GenY everything slaves on demand deliveries… Uber Food, Uber Car… Import manufacturing when the AUD finally corrects to .65 USD in 2 years. Hope that the Dumb but Lucky country can weather the storm until we get back to the mean and with luck the drought will break. New power infrastructure anyone with Backbone 3.0 for 21C with m8crogrids, electric cars, batteries and build a lithium battery and he’ll export Hydrogen… #NewProuctDevelopment… Now! Good luck Australia.

    • “Pay down your Aussie debt”
      I’d be doing the opposite ( I have!), drawing down as much debt as anyone will lend me, and sticking it into an Offset Account of some sort – no cost or tax etc.
      Why? Because if it all turns to custard, lenders will not be lending to pretty much anyone. So. Get it while you can; sock it away….and wait to apply it another day, in the future, when in all probability the price of assets will be lower.

      • desmodromicMEMBER

        Yep, I’ve just borrowed as much as the bank will give me at 3.25% for a moderately priced house that is my PPR. Elsewhere, cash, USD, gold and super assets are on the sidelines while we wait for the inevitable.

        • While the legislation may exist the chances of a bail in are remote – remember, every Boomer is up to his/her neck in bank stocks. The higher probability for banks is a bail out – put unborn generations on the hook. They can’t vote and they can’t complain.

      • Even StevenMEMBER

        I don’t quite follow, Janet. Drawing debt means you are paying interest (a cost). Do you mean instead that you are creating extra headroom on your debt facility that can be drawn in future? And you’ve done this through the cheapest debt going around… mortgage debt?

        • Think of it as Janet getting a committed facility.

          In a private setting, a committed facility isn’t really available (I’m sure the bankers wouldn’t even know what it is), so a drawn down debt with funds in offset is a good substitute.

          • This.

            Although I really don’t agree that banks are going to stop lending except to the worst borrowers. If banks stop lending they may as well close shop and go home.

            If you can fog a mirror and have a job you’ll get a loan.

          • HadronCollision

            We’re moving house and considering whether just to swap securities (no need to get re-assessed) and offsetting proceeds or re-loaning for a higher value and parking 50-100k in offset….

            As Janet says. Except she’s talking a lot more $$ IIRC

          • @HC
            The offset is an excellent idea as it gives lots of financial flexibility. However, just be aware that the savings and mortgage accounts are legally distinct, which means if you have more than $250k in the savings account it is at risk. I have discussed this with APRA and they confirmed this.

        • HadronCollision

          Easiest way with loan approval for house

          House/mortgage val, 400k (say).
          Borrow what you can/they let you, let’s say 500k
          Draw down the 400k for house/stamp etc
          Park the 100k in the offset (or against loan but redrawable)

    • Jumping jack flash

      This.

      Government investment into building new industry, and then running those skillfully.

      It is a solution that has been proven to work in these kinds of situations.

      Throwing money at the banks does nothing because banks create debt and debt is negative money so a government could print money for 1000 years and hand it to the banks, and it would never be enough.

      • Not so sure about that. Ask Japan – they’ve been building infrastructure like crazy for decades (stimulus) and all they have to show for it is Debt/GDP at a whopping 250%!!! And an economy that refuses to get off its death bed.

        • Jumping jack flash

          Building infrastructure like roads and bridges and stadiums is absolutely useless, agree.

          It needs to be productive infrastructure, ie, factories and processing plants and farms, and things that actually build stuff to sell to the world and generate new income for the country, not objects that just sit there and suck money out of the economy, like toll roads and bridges and stadiums and more trains and buses. Those things are great of course, and they’re so easy because pollies can just sign the cheque and “set and forget” them while they spout on about how they’ve “made a difference” and they’re “working hard”.

          Government owned infrastructure like a factory or processing plant or a farm would require constant management by the government, and that’s simply something they don’t want to do, nor would the current crop of mouths on legs be capable of doing it, even if they wanted to

          • Yes but if they build a useless building like the Opera House it can generate loads of income via tourism. So not everything has to be exportable. Think of the ROI for the Opera House and Harbour Bridges alone.

          • Jumping jack flash

            another harbour bridge or opera house? Possible but extremely unlikely.
            I see your point though.

            They could throw some money at the big banana I suppose.

          • Rather than generalising regarding whether building roads, bridges etc is a good use of money, surely these things need to be evaluated on a case by case basis. Clearly Japan has gone overboard in doing this, but this does not mean that there isn’t ample opportunity for other countries to do so effectively.

            However, I am saddened by every time I see public roadworks here in Melbourne. Seriously, on average at any given time maybe 20% of the on site people are actually doing anything useful. This leads me to believe that given the high salaries to such people, and their limited productivity, would make it hard for such infrastructure investment to give a positive ROI.

  2. proofreadersMEMBER

    “Regardless, the RBA will be cutting to 25bps in a jiffy and will be forced into QE before long. This is entirely appropriate if done right, …”

    How could you trust the RBA with anything more than the petty cash tin?

  3. Jumping jack flash

    Game, set and match!
    Excellent article!

    We are still living the lie Howard spun, and everyone believed, regarding the role of government and the evils of government debt, because that’s all he had available to attack.

    The only solution is a heap of government investment into building infrastructure that can produce sustained income for the people. This solution has been proved to work.

    Instead they will follow their failed manual and implement QE and the odd “stimulating” infrastructure project which wont work and has never worked to improve anything.

    So I suppose we start preparing for austerity, then?

      • Are you serious. The reduction in so called red tape is only going to lead to more cavalier business models.

        I’d hate to see the same fktqrds be in charge of building infrastructure and public buildings etc that has been rorting the whole residential sector.

        Over the last few years consulting engineering firms have been swamped by inexperienced grads with high percentage of basic English or the inability to work beyond the scope heavily prompted.

        I for one don’t want red tape reduced for public infrastructure projects.

        Wrong kind of road base

      • Jumping jack flash

        Productive infrastructure that creates stuff to sell and earn money for the country while employing thousands of people.

        There’s a lot of debt and it needs to be repaid, how is that going to happen if the current model of using a larger debt pile to repay the previous debt pile isn’t continuing?

        Private sector will not provide solutions because the solutions are “novel” and don’t make sense in the current environment. Only government investment and them getting off their collective arses can save us.

        Government also has a lot more ways to remunerate employees than simply providing money, options that simply aren’t available to the private sector.

    • The solution is simple. Replace the dole and disability pensions with forced labour and make every dole recipient wear a “You work, you eat!” T Shirt. The resulting impetus to find a real job and contribute to the economy along with the stimulus provided by the production of Shame Shirts will have the economy running along at full pace in no time. Someone send this suggestion to Gina so she can save Australia, quick smart!

        • Importing wage slaves has been a big help to the economy, have you seen the gap between growth in wages and corporate profits? Bonanza!

          Unfortunately the wage slaves, marvellous as they are, haven’t done anything to eradicate the issue of labour slack (ie. welfare bludgers) so it’s time for some real stick approach seeing as Centrestink, Robotdebt and Twiggy’s Class Warfare Card are too soft and kind to those undeserving wastes of human life.

          • Jumping jack flash

            I see your point however the statistics are cleverly manipulated so all the hardcore bludgers don’t show up, therefore nobody cares what they do. They don’t spend (much) money, they can’t take on debt. What possible purpose can they have? There’s no danger of the government giving them more money, and every now and again they can stir them up by sending them robo-debt messages, that’s always good for a laugh:

            Scomo: Dutto, I’m bored mate, what’s there to do?
            Dutton: I hear you buddy… ooo.. I know! Let’s send out a heap of random robo-debt messages to some bludgers. I’ll ask Mick to grab the mobile.
            Scomo: You’re a genius, Dutto.

            Its only a problem if the most significant figure in the unemployment number goes from a 5 to a 6 – which would be completely disastrous under the current definitions of course, so its not going to ever go there.

            If the UE rate ever smelt like it was going to go off, then you can bet that they would redefine “employed” as “anyone who thought about working in any fortnight in a 12-month period”, and then the problem would disappear again.

  4. St JacquesMEMBER

    This lie started long before Howard, so there’s a lot of blame to be shared all round, including most notably the Hawke-Keating government, but it was Howard’s goverment that slyly pushed the accelerator to the floor by tax changes and the work visa and immigration flood and asset sales, including housing, to foreign buyers to pump the equity mate bubble-consumption economy. But before we get into “solutions”, the country has to suffer before it understands, thoiugh it’s questionable since the political and business scum who rule will blame everything and everyone but themselves.

    • yes. “the country has to suffer” – yes again, part of our evolution as a nation. Maybe we’ll learn something from it, at least for a decade or two.

      • St JacquesMEMBER

        Two decades? We should be so lucky. edit:actually I don’t think we’ll learn anything at all, it will just be the blame game with the elite using their media power to distract and fool the masses, which is pretty bloody easy.

        • I just remember my dear old Nana preserving eggs and combining the last of the soap bits into a flannel…there was no reason to do so, but she’d lived through the depression and wasn’t going to take any unnecessary risk. That was 4 or 5 decades.

          • @JJF no psychologist but I believe this is a legitimate phenomenon…people who have gone through hard times keep penny pinching even when there is no need. And as @Gav says, looking forward to a society that repairs, reuses and recycles more (hope i got that right Gav).

    • +1 Yeah, Hawke/Keating started the Neoliberal experiment but it was under Howard and Costello that things got quite reckless and the political playbook built around endless “Wealth through property” was written.

      The current mob in Parliament are clearly trying to keep the Howard Dream alive but the supporting economy is crumbling faster than they expected, and the expectation is clearly that the RBA will jump in with QE to the moon.

      “Look! John Howard delivered surpluses. We delivered a surplus. Therefore all is well with the economy.”

        • They have literally nothing else in their playbook besides encouraging housing debt, industrial relations “reform” and allowing mining companies to run riot in the hope that resource booms will last forever.

          Nothing. You vote Coalition that’s what you get as the long-term economic strategy. Unproductive debt, wage crushing and living in eternal hope that more luck will always come our way.

  5. ‘……and the government will always offer support. But for investors it is a case of sell into strength.’

    Doesn’t sound like a compelling case for the ‘buy and hold forever’ infestor brigade.

  6. As discussed many times in the past – sooner or later we will hit our borrowing capacity and this is when music stops. Mass immigration isn’t going to save the day as economy is stalling and shedding jobs so unemployed immigrants only add to the burden rather than masking it.
    Next stage is when we will start to see elevated exodus of professionals, high end engineers etc.. moving to other countries.

    • Amongst people we know, a lot of thirties age highly skilled professionals( their offspring) are selling everything, and leaving , for Europe and the USA.
      They are not aiming to come back here to live.
      Their parents are not retiring yet, but perhaps when the older skilled generation does retire, we could be a little thin on the ground for replacements.

  7. So MB’s prescription when private households are drowning in debt is for the public sector to do likewise? Doesn’t pass the sniff test. The current period of private sector deleveraging is exactly what is needed. A few years of aggressive debt reduction by households will be stronger balance sheets going forward and room to grow anew. We need a few years of anemic growth as the excesses of recent years are digested.

    • What we need is to switch the emphasis from the Private Balance Sheet to the Public one.
      Keep the Gross Debt the same, or even increase it, by all means, but Households need to deleverage and be kept in check, as the Public Balance Sheet does the heavy lifting.

    • Agreed. Excess debt is what got us here. Sure, let’s borrow more, destroy the currency, and sacrifice savers on the debt altar. That sounds like a sound, sustainable plan for ongoing prosperity. And then what?

    • Jumping jack flash

      “We need a few years of anemic growth as the excesses of recent years are digested.”

      Never! Debt will continue to be used to make up the shortfall between fantasy and reality.

      “No recession on my watch” and all that kind of thing. Can you imagine?

      So, in your opinion, which party should draw the short straw to implement “the recession that needs to occur”?

  8. How the hell are house prices rising so much at the moment if credit is not expanding? I always thought that house prices were mainly driven by credit?

    • Owner occupier mortgage lending (excluding refinancing) is rising at a fair clip; aka FHB’s are buying.

      Credit across the rest of the economy is falling.

      It means you have a slowing economy, whilst house prices rise (temporarily) on thin volumes.

    • darklydrawlMEMBER

      They are. I feel it is partly very low volumes with limited good stock (I mean ‘family homes’), partly numberwang on behalf of the agencies, partly animal spirits post election. It’s mostly FHB who see the current dip as a way to avoid the FOMO they have experienced over the last few years. I suspect it won’t last once the FHB are exhausted.

    • Don’t know, but there is a vibrant single mum in my office who is just about to borrow around 700k on some land and build a house on it as an investment. She is borrowing somewhere near 10 times her salary to do this and should be applauded for her contribution to the debt machine.

      • Jumping jack flash

        Indeed!
        Medals are required and maybe some kind of recognition on some kind of TV programme, maybe on breakfast TV or one of those current affairs shows during the week?

    • Rorke's DriftMEMBER

      At an auction on the weekend, the Auctioneer was warming up the crowd (read very small group of onlookers) when he got to “and interest rates are at record lows and the media have bern doing a great job…..” then sort of hesitated for a second and changed tack. As if he caught himself and realised he shouldn’t be crowing about the media spruiking and sucking people in.

  9. SoMPLSBoyMEMBER

    Great read!
    An intimately ‘interested’ foreign country will be be ‘reaching out’ with a ‘helping’ hand to steady our stagger.
    Exhausted, we’ll say ‘thanks mate!”.

  10. “.. Regardless, the RBA will be cutting to 25bps in a jiffy and will be forced into QE before long. This is entirely appropriate if done right, aimed at boosting fiscal spending and lowering the currency which, longer term, is the only way out…”

    Entirely appropriate?

    How will any of this boost fiscal spending? Will the LNP just change their mind?

    Lowering the currency? By blowing the mother of all asset bubbles in a wide range of asset markets? How much more failure of this strategy do we need?

    Much simpler is to directly address the capital flows that are driving the exchange rate, assuming a lower exchange rate is desirable.

    1. Restrict / discourage speculative capital inflows with a small FX transaction tax and direct regulations on local asset purchases by foreigners.

    2. Encourage capital outflows ( there must be a few developing countries actually looking for capital for productive purposes rather than asset price pumping)

    As for draining the household debt swamp the solution is clearly.

    1. Increase the tax free threshold by $20,000 to $38,0000 so every worker gets a tax cut of about $5,000 per year.

    2. Increase the target rate by 1% to send a message to the debt drenched. “Use your tax cut and pay down debt”

    The 60% of the population without mortgage debt will have an extra $5,000 per annum to do with as they choose.

    Simple and does not require massive pointy head fiscal public works that are all about Big Australia.

    • GunnamattaMEMBER

      Some good ideas there old coq.

      I must confess that if you were to wake up next week with a sunglasses and beret wearing heavily moustachio’d chap announcing himself as the new grand high pooh bah of Australia, Emperor Gunnamatta, the first thing which would happen would be the raising of the tax free threshold to 45k, a new 45% rate for income earners over 140k, the advent of a 1% property levy per annum, the end to negative gearing and capital gains tax discounts, and a NOM ceiling of 70k per year.

      I reckon some bottom up is the way to go…

      Though i dont think any of that is going to happen any time soon.

      • Gunna,

        It is obvious that trickle up economics is the sensible solution as all it involves is cutting tax on low levels of incomes. Eventually as the name suggests the wealth will trickle up but that is easily addressed with some modest progressive taxation including some taxation of land etc.

        But we don’t even have a discussion of “trickle up” because the entire debate is framed in terms of:

        1. Privatised public money creation is non- negotiable.

        2. Trickle down nonsense like the “wealth effect” – which ALP lurvvies like the Kouk think is the best thing since sliced cheese.

        3. Most progressives insist that fiscal policy must be controlled by pointy heads who decide what is best for the “little people” i.e. pork barrel infrastructure and pointy head controlled welfare.

        • Jumping jack flash

          We already have “trickle up”, its called wage theft where the freed wage capacity from the introduction of slaves “trickles up” to the upper echelons of businesses because the rich can use the extra wages to take on much more debt than poor people would know how to, or what to do with it.

    • And in case you are wondering how a deficit generated by the increase in the tax free threshold is financed, this will be achieved by the RBA buying bonds directly from the AOFM.

      It will also be an excellent opportunity to allow Australians to operate deposit accounts at the RBA. They will not pay interest on the balances (though they could as they banks are already being paid interest on their RBA account balances) but they will be attractive for those wanting a risk free non bank saving option….especially if the absurd public guarantee on fake deposits (in fact short term unsecured investments) at private banks is wound back and removed.

      But of course none of this is possible because the public private bank monetary cartel is sacred.

        • Yep – the foreign ownership / interests in our privatised system of public money explains just about everything.

          The fact that most people refuse to even talk about our public monetary system in terms of a corrupted privatisation merely indicates how awesome the propaganda has been.

          Why on earth are the public allowed to deal in liabilities of the central banks in the form of notes and coins but absolutely forbidden from operating an account at the RBA denominated in central bank liabilities.

          The only reason is to force them to use the liabilities of the private banks as “savings”.

          It is a complete and outrageous fraud on the public.

    • Raising the tax free threshold considerably has always been my preferred method for tweaking the tax system as everyone gets it and it requires no other changes. But I’d also put an “Emergency Levy” on the highest tax bracket to offset it; let the 1%ers cry poor! Then make said emergency levy permanent.

      We can worry about the hard but necessary simplification of the whole tax ClusterF later on.

  11. The90kwbeastMEMBER

    1. Explain to me how the AUD will fall from here materially if the US is cutting rates again. I can’t see it.
    2. Explain to me why we wouldn’t see growth in mortgage debt in particular given record low interest rates and FHB incentives and a government who has explicitly said they want higher house prices and therefore by implication, more debt?

  12. “Households might continue to borrow to invest (in housing), but they appear no longer willing to do so to consume”. It’s no wonder the government (and the opposition) think of nothing but housing, to quote: ” literally no reform agenda to lift incomes and is preoccupied exclusively with mortgage debt and house prices”. Reform Agenda? The bankers own them and they can’t do anything about industrial relations. Stymied on all fronts. Large scale manufacturing departed a while ago, Australia was too expensive.
    What we’re all looking at now is in fact the approacing nuclear economic shock wave. Decades of entitlement, misallocation of capital and mass immigration finally delivering the bill…
    If you’re young and employable get out now, and don’t forget to sell any assets as they’ll be bringing in a nice fat capital gains tax to screw you as an expat. If you think like an entitled Ausi (“Africa could never happen to us”) think again. The only thing between us and Africa is the iron ore mountain and if Trump goes head to head with China – Oh Dear…

      • there, there, its ok, im sure you’ll be able to buy a house one day….albeit at an even more inflated price

        ….and you’ll probably have to buy out in the sticks….with all the other raggedy, povvo tards

        ahahahahahahahha

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