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Risk on? Australian banks skirt unofficial home lending limits

Prior to the global financial crisis, 100% loans were commonplace in Australia. Casey Konstantin/Flickr

Australian banks are much more heavily exposed to mortgage lending than banks in most parts of the world, which is why the latest publication of APRA data on home lending has set the hares running.

The data showed 14% of the recent mortgage lending by banks has been for loans which exceed 90% of the relevant property valuation.

The IMF has also been in Australia on its annual review and commented on the risk to the banking sector from its exposure to mortgages. It often does.

This is a well-worn theme. The IMF’s last review (p7) expressed the risk in these terms:

“Domestically, despite a recovery in the household savings rate and a recent softening of house prices, high household debt coupled with elevated house prices remains a vulnerability”.

It is an important issue, particularly in Australia. Kevin Davis has pointed out the unusually high levels of exposure of Australian banks to residential real estate. He suggested that some 59% of the total loans of Australian banks in 2009 were for this purpose compared with the US 38%, Canada 32%, Germany 17% and the UK 15%.

Australian banks are more exposed to mortgage lending than international banks. AAP

In essence there are two areas of major risk in the Australian financial system.

Australian banks are heavily exposed to domestic mortgages and they are still very reliant on borrowing from foreign wholesale markets to fund their lending.

The banks have worked hard to manage the funding risk in recent years by increasing their use of local deposits and to ensure that their offshore borrowing is more long term and hence more stable. We can worry less on that score than we did once.

Bank lending for mortgages also looks quite stable. Most borrowers have a lot of equity in their houses so that even a big price fall would not mean their loans were worth more than their houses, and most have made extra payments so they have a buffer against unemployment.

Less than 2% of loans are low-doc, potentially the highest risk category. The local banks also normally require borrowers take out insurance when they are borrowing more than 90% of the value of the loan.

We can see the impact of these factors in NAB’s recent results. The bank’s average mortgage borrower is eight months ahead of the required payments, and two-thirds of customers are at least one month ahead, the average loan to valuation ratio on its books is 48%, and some 15% of the book is insured. The consequence is that the bank’s loss rate on mortgage lending is 0.04%. Clearly there are still risks, for example if a mortgage insurer were to collapse, but it looks quite safe.

Nevertheless most analysts, investors and parties which lend wholesale funds to the Australian banks, pay close attention to their housing exposures.

Particularly in an environment where credit growth is quite slow, one way in which banks can increase their returns is to take on more risk. Hence the interest in the APRA data published this week. Are the banks moving up the risk curve?

Even there it is not clear that there are particular concerns (see chart below). The recent proportion of loans at high LVRs shows no clear trend over the last two years. Looking back earlier we see similar numbers for the period in the mid-2000s.

Percentage of loans above 90% of property valuation (High LVRs) APRA

Just eyeballing the data suggests that APRA might well have had some conversations with the banks requesting them to keep the proportion of high LVR loans in their portfolios to below 15%.

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