The latest data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics confirms household wealth has fallen, on the back of falling house prices, in the past year.
But it’s not all bad news. There are signs of hope in the portents for the next six months.
During the first quarter of this year, the net worth of all Australian households rose 0.2% to A$10.2 trillion. Total household net worth in March 2019 was 0.7% lower than in March 2018, largely because of steep falls over the final six months of 2018.
The per capita annual decline was larger, falling by about 2.4%, because of population growth. This means the average wealth of Australians dropped by about A$9,500, from A$414,400 to A$404,900.
This household “balance sheet event” – defined as an annual decline in household sector net wealth – is the third in the past 30 years. The other two were through the Global Financial Crisis of 2008 and immediately after.
Housing (land and dwellings) comprises 52% of household-sector assets. Superannuation comprises 24%. Property values fluctuate with real estate prices, while superannuation is highly exposed to volatility within the financial markets.
The next chart highlights the relationship between changes in household net worth and spending on discretionary items and durable goods.
But what is interesting is that consumer sentiment has not been significantly affected.
The following chart shows household net worth vs Westpac’s consumer sentiment data. This is the first major downturn in household net wealth in 30 years that has not coincided with weaker consumer sentiment.
It’s hard to know for certain why consumer confidence has remained relatively steady, but two things stand out.
First, the consumer financial adjustment has been orderly and deliberate as opposed to rapid and forced. It appears people have consciously adjusted spending and savings patterns to achieve long-term savings goals.
Second, there has been ongoing strength in the labour market. Despite falling wealth, people still have jobs and this reinforces confidence.
Shares and housing stocks
It is safe to say consumers will start spending more once they feel their asset position has stabilised.
Strong equity markets have played a big role in shoring up household wealth since the start of this year. As the next chart demonstrates, they could continue to do so over the period ahead.
But the big swing factor is house prices – specifically land values. The Reserve Bank’s interest rate cuts should help stabilise house prices over the second half of 2019.
Our last chart suggests this appears to have started, with auction clearance rates improving in recent months.
This all suggests household wealth could start growing again in the second half of the year. That should go a long way to stabilising the economy.
The second reflects just how severely money markets froze up. Goldman Sachs – Wall Street’s most venerable firm – was largely on the good side of trades on credit default swaps, the instruments behind much of the crisis. Yet its stock price was utterly hammered. It wasn’t until legendary investor Warren Buffett sank US$5 billion into Goldman that confidence was restored.
On one day Goldman stock was down by a staggering nearly 50% in intra-day trading. It very nearly went the way of Lehman – all because of what amounted to a modern-day bank run.
The Obama administration responded with spending (including on tax rebates for households and firms), big interest rate cuts and measures to ensure banks had access to funds. Combined, these helped avoid a repeat of the Great Depression.
When Australia splashed cash
Australia, too, spent big: A$10 billion in October 2008 and a further A$42 billion in February 2009. More than half of the second sum, $A26 billion, went on infrastructure. Another $12.7 billion was spent on cash bonuses, including $900 for every Australian on less than $80,000.
And we cut interest rates, massively, and guaranteed bank deposits.
The International Monetary Fund, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, and most good economists think what we did was essential to ensure Australia avoided a severe downturn.
Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and his treasurer, Wayne Swan, deserve a lot of credit.
Yet there are those on the conservative side of politics who claim the stimulus spending was wasteful, not that helpful, and locked in an era of higher government spending.
Wasteful? Not really
As prime minister in 2016, Malcolm Turnbull encapsulated the view that the spending was a waste when he told the ABC’s Leigh Sales: “I think what shepherded Australia through the GFC successfully was the Chinese stimulus and the large amount of cash that John Howard left in the bank.”
Here’s what I think.
The Chinese stimulus helped, but China didn’t do it to help Australia. It did it to help itself, with a happy byproduct being continued demand for Australian resources.
Does Mr Turnbull really think the Chinese government was either mistaken (because stimulus spending doesn’t help) or benevolent (because it wanted to help Australia)? These are not terms normally associated with Beijing.
The “large amount of cash” left by the Howard government was indeed very important. It allowed the Rudd government to spend big without running up huge government debt. As the noted UC Berkeley economists Christina and David Romer have pointed out, using evidence from 24 advanced economies, fiscal and monetary policy “space” is important in ensuring the stimulus programs work.
So, yes, Howard’s debt-free budget was important, but only because it gave the government room to spend.
There is an important point here. Namely, that prudent fiscal management through ordinary times is essential in order to build up the firepower to respond in extraordinary times.
Australia still enjoys government debt to GDP that is low by OECD standards, but its growth has been very rapid even in post-crisis years because of the structural gap between government revenues and expenditures. Both sides of politics say they are committed to narrowing it. We shall see.
“Space” to act with monetary policy (official interest rates) is also important.
It’s the basis for much of the talk about a “new monetary policy framework” that would lift interest rates from their present lows in Australia and overseas to around 5%. It’s a goal articulately and forcefully argued for by former US Treasury Secretary Larry Summers. Getting there would give central banks the firepower they might need.
These lessons have been learned to varying degrees, but are now thankfully at least part of the mainstream debate.
One thing that everyone should have learned from the financial crisis in general, and Lehman in particular, is the need for effective regulation of financial institutions.
The combination of massive leverage, opaque financial instruments and radical interconnectedness of financial firms in the US was a disaster waiting to happen.
In many ways it still could be.
Republicans in the US want to dramatically roll back the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act introduced by President Obama in response to the financial crisis.
Although far from perfect, it helped de-risk the US financial system.
In Australia the failings of financial regulators play out every day at the Hayne Royal Commission, in excruciating detail.
It entitles us to ask if Australian regulators can’t prevent outright theft by financial institutions, how equipped are they to prevent more complicated transactions that might put the financial system at risk?
The answer is: not very.
We’ve learned some things
A decade after Lehman it’s fair to say we have learned lessons.
We know how to use big and bold fiscal (spending) policy and monetary (interest rate) policy to create a virtuous circle of beliefs that can pull us out of a downturn.
And we know that we need to reload both fiscal and monetary policy in the good times so we are ready for the bad times.
But on financial regulation the US might be about to go backwards, and we never really went forwards.