Bernard Hickey 's Opinion

Bernard is an economics columnist for the NZ Herald

Bernard Hickey: Chilling levels of household debt finally dawns

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In years to come New Zealanders will look back on the winter of 2010 as the moment we finally realised the last decade of growth was a sham.

It will be the moment when it dawns on home owners, small business people, retailers and real estate agents that our household debt has hit saturation point and we just can't swallow any more.

It will be when we realise that without that extra debt our economy doesn't grow much, unless we can produce more useful goods and services for each hour that we work.

Our productivity hasn't grown much in the past decade and now we can't disguise it any more by spending borrowed foreign money.

The giant Ponzi scheme of adding more debt to buy more houses (or spend more on the same houses) then relying on capital gains to make up for it only works as long as some sucker is jumping in at the bottom with yet more debt.

It is now clear that New Zealand has been in a twilight zone since the onset of the global financial crisis two years ago, wondering why everything seemed the same.

Unemployment didn't rise much, house prices dipped and then bounced, and GDP seemed to return mid last year.

But this winter we discovered that the tide was going out, and in the past six weeks we have collectively discovered that the economy is naked without the extra debt.

Here's the latest:

* Mortgage approvals hit a record non-holiday period low last week of 4867, or $601 million. Annual household debt growth has slumped to 2.5 per cent from over 10 per cent two years ago.

* The housing market went deathly quiet in May and June, latest Real Estate Institute figures show. Turnover has dropped about 20 per cent from a year ago. It's not just a winter thing.

* Retail sales in May were again frustratingly weak. Core retail sales fell for the fourth month in six months and supermarket sales fell in May for the first time ever.

* BNZ's confidence survey shows a sharp decline among small business owners in particular as the real estate market goes into the doldrums.

Many small business owners fund themselves from mortgages on their houses and when the values of those properties stop rising it's hard to raise extra finance.

One banker said of the market: "A few loan applications, but 80 per cent rejection generally due to risk too high. Generally small business wanting to borrow have left it too late, with balance sheets in poor state."

Banks are being more cautious as their funding becomes more expensive. Borrowers are more cautious because house prices have stopped rising and they realise interest rates are rising.

The coup de grace was the Reserve Bank's decision on June 10 to put up the OCR.

The tide has gone out and our housing-dominated economy has been caught swimming in the buff. It needs to put on some togs in the form of a vibrant export industry and a productive sector. This will be a long, hard grind without the help of extra debt.

bernard.hickey@interest.co.nz

- Herald on Sunday

Bernard Hickey

Bernard is an economics columnist for the NZ Herald

Bernard Hickey is the publisher of Hive News, a Wellington-based political and economic subscription news email service. He also writes for Interest.co.nz and appears regularly on Radio New Zealand, Radio Live, TVNZ and TV3. He has been a financial journalist for 25 years, having worked for Reuters, the Financial Times Group and Fairfax Media.

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