Philip Macalister: Housing bubble caution as flush banks return to lending ways

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Bollard has acknowledged there are house-price pressures in Auckland and Christchurch, because of the lack of houses and the earthquakes, respectively. Photo / Getty Images
Bollard has acknowledged there are house-price pressures in Auckland and Christchurch, because of the lack of houses and the earthquakes, respectively. Photo / Getty Images

One of the more interesting pictures to come out of Reserve Bank governor Alan Bollard's final monetary policy statement was about house-price inflation.

There's talk that there's a bubble brewing and we are going back to the so-called bad old days of five or six years ago.

The Reserve Bank's predictions of house-price inflation are indeed timid. It shows it rising a little bit more from where it is but falling back to zero around 2014.

It reasons that New Zealanders are already highly indebted and that inhibits their ability to borrow. The central bank is also predicting that consumption growth will be modest. Households are also expected to remain cautious in their spending, given their relatively high debt levels and a highly uncertain environment.

The third factor is that the Government aims to reduce its spending in an effort to return the country's books to surplus. While that goal is laudable it clearly does have an impact on economic growth.

At the same time, though, the bank is saying that interest rates are forecast to remain low - indeed, the official cash rate may not rise until 2014.

The banks are flush with money and are getting more aggressive in their desire to lend to homeowners and property investors. It won't be long before we see the return of the banks' traditional "spring campaigns" that have been in hibernation for the past couple of years. This summer we will be urged to borrow more money for house buying.

Adding to that, Bollard has acknowledged there are house-price pressures in Auckland and Christchurch, because of the lack of houses and the earthquakes respectively. These are the biggest cities in the country and if they are facing pressure surely it will impact overall house-price inflation?

Bollard said the one thing he possibly regretted in his reign as governor was not using more tools to prick the previous housing bubble. The bank can't see a bubble occurring like at the peak of the last cycle but I suspect Bollard's successor, Graham Wheeler, may end up reaching for the toolbox.

Philip Macalister is the publisher of the NZ Property Investor Magazine and www.landlords.co.nz.

- Herald on Sunday

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