The Reserve Bank of Australia frequently seeks feedback on the health of the economy. It might want to call the debt counselors soon.
Homeowners, consumers and property investors around Australia are making more calls to financial helplines as three warning signs back up the spike in demand: mortgage arrears are creeping up, lenders’ bad debt provisions have increased and personal insolvencies are near an all-time high.
“Its steadily out of control — I don’t know of too many financial counseling services where demand doesn’t exceed supply,” said Fiona Guthrie, chief executive officer of Financial Counselling Australia, who says the biggest increase in calls is from people suffering mortgage stress. “There are more people who have got mortgages that they can’t afford to pay.”
Australia’s households are among the world’s most indebted after bingeing on more than A$1 trillion ($766 billion) of mortgages amid a housing boom that’s fizzled out in parts of the country, but still roaring in Sydney and Melbourne. While most are capably servicing their debts, a worsening of credit metrics has seen executives and analysts take a more cautious tone. It’s also a key factor in the central bank’s rate decisions this year, as Governor Philip Lowe places financial stability at the forefront of monetary policy.
The concerns are understandable. Australians’ private debt has soared to 187 percent of their income, from around 70 percent in the early 1990s, encouraged by low interest rates. In a November speech, Lowe said that while most households are managing these levels of debt, many feel they are closer to their borrowing capacity than they once were.
The governor noted Australia’s divergent housing market on Tuesday when the RBA left the benchmark cash rate at a record-low 1.5 percent in its first decision of the year, saying conditions “vary considerably” around the country as prices in some markets continue to rise “briskly.”