Finance Property ABS housing mix-up highlights much bigger problem

ABS housing mix-up highlights much bigger problem

A small adjustment, but a big issue.
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A data revision at the Australian Bureau of Statistics, and the ensuing media storm, has renewed focus on how hard it is to save for a home.

The ABS reported on Tuesday it had revised down the number of loans (including re-financing) extended monthly for the purpose of first home purchases between July 2016 and October 2012. The correction was noted by News Corp, the ABC and Finder.

The new numbers do paint a bleaker picture. Even fewer Australians are buying their first homes than previously thought, according to the revision, although the ABS said the peaks and troughs were “broadly consistent”.


For example, there were 7121 first home buyer loans in July (13.2 per cent of total housing finance), not the 7586 (14.1 per cent) the Bureau reported originally.

But Professor Tony Dalton at RMIT’s Centre for Urban Research said the overall trend was far more concerning than the adjustment.

“Yes, there’s a statistical revision there, but it’s a relatively small adjustment. The bigger story is the decline of housing affordability. That comes up in a number of indicators, including the number of first home owners,” Prof Dalton said.

The reason for the adjustment is a little complicated. The Bureau originally revised the lending statistics upwards in February 2015 when it discovered some lenders were only reporting first-time buyers who received government grants. But when it replaced these estimates with actual figures, it revised them back down.

Revisions are common. They are a consequence of the government, the public and media wanting quick ‘previews’ of data before all statistics are available.

Holding a Auction Paddle
Young Australians are being priced out, the data suggests. Photo: Getty

This may or may not placate critics. The ABS has suffered a PR nightmare in recent months because of the Census debacle and “unreliable” jobs data.

But as Prof Dalton noted, there is a “bigger” story. As seen in the chart above, the number of first-time buyers spiked in 2008, just before the financial crisis.

This was the result of Rudd government subsidies designed to get young Australians to build new homes, which kicked builders into “overdrive” in outer-suburban areas, Prof Dalton said.

It is important because the trend line is now “significantly lower” than before the government incentives were in place, he said. The clear implication is that, even with record-low interest rates, younger Australians cannot afford to buy.

It’s an inference backed up by the ageing of home owners. The rate of ownership in the 25-34 year age group dropped from 56 per cent in 1982 to 34 per cent in 2011, according to the below table compiled by Profs Gavid Wood and Rachel Ong based on ABS data.

Extra housing supply isn’t enough to fix the affordability crisis (i.e. drop prices), as supply naturally weakens as price growth slows, according to Prof Dalton. We must also constrain negative gearing and invest more public funds in social housing and transport infrastructure, he said.

There is an increased appetite for government action on affordability, a survey conducted by ME bank in June of 1500 Australians found.

An overwhelming majority (81 per cent) supported government action, an increase of 5 percentage points since the previous survey in December 2015.


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