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Tidal wave: Interest rate rises could drown Australia

Agent Select / Property News / Tidal wave: Interest rate rises could drown Australia

HAVE you ever been caught in an incoming tide? 

One minute you’re blissfully staring into some rock pools, admiring the miraculous diversity of aquatic life. The next minute, swirling water is rising round your ankles and you realise getting back to the beach will be difficult indeed.

The first wave of an incoming tide normally doesn’t look like much. And last week’s interest rate rise from Westpac looks like a tiddler. They lifted rates by .03 per cent per year for owner-occupiers. It adds $90 to the interest payment a $300,000 mortgage over the year. Stuff all really.

NAB’s rate rise was a little bigger — they lifted rates for owner occupiers by .08 per cent. (Rate rises for investors with interest-only loans were much higher, but more on that later.)

Just yesterday ANZ followed suit, raising interest rates for investors by 0.25 per cent and the Commonwealth Bank followed shortly after, increasing rates for owner-occupiers by three basis points to 5.25 per cent per annum and increasing investor loans by 24 basis points to 5.80 per cent.

Other banks are expected to follow.

We should pay very close attention. The tide of interest rates is turning and if we’re not careful, a lot of Aussies could find themselves out at sea, out of their depth, gasping for air.


Tides are caused by gravity as the moon draws the ocean to and fro. Interest rates are also caused by a kind of gravity: Low growth pulls interest rates down and high growth pulls them back up.

It is the slow grind of the global economy back into growth mode that is moving interest rates. America has had several years of strong growth now and its central bank has raised official interest rates twice. Europe is also past the worst. Around the world, rates are responding.

One part of the Australian economy has been very cautious about the rising tide of interest rates. Business didn’t borrow a lot in the bad times. But households did. It is likely to be households that get caught when the tide comes in.

Household debt is through the roof, although interest payments on that debt are currently very manageable.

As rates rise, interest payments will force households to change things up. One of the first things they might do is sell their investment properties.

Many houses are owned by investors. And saying they are “owned” is something of an exaggeration. More than 50 per cent of investor loans are interest only. That means the owner never actually pays off the house. The investors hold a mortgage and the bank owns the place, while they just pay the interest cost. (it’s a great way to get the maximum return from negative gearing).

That kind of investment only makes sense when the price of the house is rising. If you get rising interest rates and falling property prices at the same time, housing investors with interest only loans will start to sell their houses so fast you can barely blink. That, of course, would accelerate any property price fall.

Banks may be trying to head this problem off. According to a Westpac spokesperson, the bank is encouraging customers making interest-only repayments to move to a principal and interest loan with a lower interest rate. “We believe that while interest rates remain low it is a good time for homeowners to reduce their mortgage,” the spokesperson said.

Of course, a bank cranking up your interest rate and trying to make you own more of the asset might just make some investors nervous enough to sell.

Everyone who lives in Australia needs to keep an eye on the tides.

Jason Murphy is an economist. He publishes the blog Thomas The Thinkengine. Follow Jason on Twitter @Jasemurphy

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