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AUSTRALIA’S rapid-fire interest-rate increases are sending tremors through the nation’s heavily indebted households and threatening a property downturn on a scale unseen since the eve of the 1991 recession.

The market hardest hit is bellwether Sydney, where home values have dropped almost 5% in the past three months, compared with 2% in the A$9.9 trillion (US$6.8 trillion or RM30.5 trillion) national market. Further falls are inevitable as the Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA), which meets again in just under two weeks, raises borrowing costs at the fastest pace in a generation. Home prices are weakening from Stockholm to San Francisco as central banks scramble to contain the hottest inflation in decades. Rate-hike risks are intensified in Australia by a record debt-to-income ratio of 187.2%.

“Australia is quite an exposed market in the world in the sense that household credit and mortgage debt as a share of gross domestic product (GDP) ranks quite high,” said Louis Kuijs, chief Asia economist for S&P Global Ratings. “There’s a lot of debt out there. The higher the debt-to-GDP, the more the rate channel starts to matter.”

The RBA acknowledges it has only a narrow path to push rates high enough to snuff out excess inflation without driving the economy into recession.

The Bank of Korea is grappling with a similar conundrum as it meets today, while the Federal Reserve has signalled flexibility on future rate moves.

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Global policy makers have learned the lessons from 1970s episodes by raising rates in early, large increments to keep inflation expectations in check.

The RBA has hiked by a half-percentage point at its past three meetings after a surprise quarter-point move in May to take the cash rate to 1.85%. Under a scenario of a three percentage-point increase in the RBA’s cash rate, nationwide house prices would fall by almost a quarter. Real estate advertiser REA Group Ltd says the national market hasn’t dropped by 10% in a 12-month period since 1990.

While Australian property prices are falling, they remain well above pre-pandemic levels, keeping affordability stretched and suggesting ample scope for additional declines.Bloomberg Economics reckons the RBA is unlikely to lift rates to the peak priced in by money markets of 3.8% by April – more than double the current level – as it would trigger a recession. It sees a terminal rate of 2.75% next year, a little over the central bank’s estimate of neutral and opening up the possibility of a soft landing for the economy. Still, it does see a squeeze ahead for households.

“We estimate rate hikes are likely to reduce households’ borrowing capacity by 20% by 1H23, with reduced capacity to pay set to weigh heavily on house prices over coming months,” says economist James McIntyre.

Auction clearance rates in Australia have fallen as borrowing costs have risen, sliding to about 60% from more than 80% during last year’s boom.

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