Are you exercising away from a home loan?

To obtain a home loan, many people would know they might have to make some sacrifices – but perhaps they don’t expect their bank to suggest they cut their $15-a-week gym membership.

That’s what happened to Brooke Tassits when she took the plunge into property ownership last year, as her lender demanded to know, in great detail, about her day-to-day living expenses to get the deal through the goal posts.

Brooke Tassits was put through the wringer by her bank.

Photo: Jason South

The 23-year-old marketing professional from Melbourne says her bank wanted to know how often she ate out, went to the movies and topped up her car with fuel.

It questioned her ability to afford her gym membership with a mortgage – so was she going to the gym?

“There was a lot of back and forth, there was a lot of them scrutinising my bank statements and  questioning single items on there and asking what they were,” she says, adding that she did quit the gym.

“I remember I paid one of my grandma’s bills for her one day, and they even questioned that and whether it was a regular occurence.”

At one stage she was tempted just to walk away, because “I felt like I had to prove my entire life to these lenders”, but she was convinced to press ahead by her mother and  ultimately got the loan and bought a unit.

That scrutiny might be surprising to those who have secured loans prior to the credit clamps of recent years but being put under a bank’s microscope is likely to become more common, as the country’s under-siege banks scramble to improve their standards, which they admit became too lax.

After suffering a public pounding for all types of poor behaviour at the royal commission led by former High Court judge Kenneth Hayne, banks say they are going to extra lengths to dot every “i” and cross every “t” in meeting their legal obligations, especially those relating to responsible lending. The squeeze will also likely come on financial planning and business lending to improve standards and reduce conflicts of interest.

Many of us would expect nothing less than this kind of rigour from banks, of course.

But the increasing caution among banks – and the potential for the royal commission to cause “unintended consequences” – is significant nevertheless.

ANZ Bank chief  Shayne Elliott this week said the more risk-averse mood would likely make it more difficult for some consumers to get loans, and Reserve Bank governor Philip Lowe said the RBA was watching the situation “carefully”.

So, what might the ferocious (and justified) scrutiny of banks at the royal commission mean for consumers, if banks try to avoid further damaging revelations by retreating into their shells?

And how could the economy be affected if banks suddenly decide to tighten up their purse-strings?

The Hayne royal commission has only held a month of public hearings, but it is clearly having a powerful impact on the country’s biggest financial institutions. It is only natural there may therefore be flow-on effects for customers: whether they are people taking out loans, businesses  or consumers seeking financial advice.

ANZ’s Elliott this week told investors banks had enjoyed a 20-year golden era, stabilized by strong economic growth and a buoyant housing marketplace, but they now faced a “watershed moment” that would have consequences, including in the $1.6 trillion home loan market.

“People are still going to want to buy and own a home, so it’s not like any of this changes fundamental demand, but it will change the process used and it probably will make it harder for people to be successful in their loan applications,” he said.

Some marginal customers would miss out on loans, Elliott said, while others would need to wait longer and submit more paper work.

While this is not yet apparent in official statistics, there are early indicators of banks becoming more cautious in who they lend money to.

The percentage of people trying to refinance who have been knocked back has doubled to 31 per cent.

Martin North, who runs consultancy Digital Finance Analytics, says monthly surveys he conducts of 1000 people are showing early signs that it’s harder for some clients to get credit. The proportion of people trying to refinance who have been knocked back has doubled to 31 per cent in the past 12 months

“We are seeing evidence that there’s a far higher proportion of people, particularly with higher loan-to-valuation ratios and loan-to-income ratios, who are finding it a lot harder to refinance,” North says.

Mortgage brokers, who arrange more than half of all new home loans, also report banks are taking a much harder look at customers’ living expenses before agreeing to approve a loan.

Australian Banking Association CEO Anna Bligh says tighter government regulations could force effected customers away from the banking sector into the “far riskier world of payday lenders” if it makes credit more expensive, at the AFR B

Otto Dargan, managing director of mortgage broker Home Loan Experts, said in recent months banks had become “extremely conservative” when assessing a customer’s living expenses, as a result of the royal commission.

Home loan affordability indicator – by state

The Home Loan Affordability Indicator is the ratio of median family income to average loan repayments. Higher numbers mean more affordable housing loans.

The Home Loan Affordability Indicator is the ratio of median family income to average loan repayments. Higher numbers mean more affordable housing loans.

Source: Adelaide Bank/Real Estate Institute of Australia Housing Affordability Report September 2017 Quarter

“They are really scrutinising every application at the moment,” he says.  “I can’t remember a deal when we haven’t had a discussion about expenses with a lender.”

Typically, the customers who miss out when banks tighten credit approvals are those with smaller deposits or lower incomes, many of whom are just first home buyers.

But Dargan says the crackdown on expenses is mostly affecting customers with high incomes who also spend large amounts on “discretionary” or non-essential purchases, such as eating out or overseas holidays.

Commission screws cap down further

To be sure, banks were already tightening the screws on borrowers well before the royal commission, in response to regulator fears of a debt-fuelled housing bubble. Since late 2014 there’s been a cap on lending to investors, last year a ceiling was introduced on interest-only loans, and the banking regulator has repeatedly prompted banks to improve loan standards.

But the most recent surge of changes appear to have been triggered by the royal commission, after March hearings raised concern banks were not complying with responsible lending laws, which require them to make “reasonable” enquiries about whether a loan is suitable for the applicant.

The commission has revealed some banks did not actually verify the expenses customers provided in their loan applications, instead relying on statistical indexes such as the Household Expenditure Measure as a proxy for what you need to live on.

Within weeks of the March hearings into consumer lending, Westpac last month started requiring customers to break down their spending into detailed categories including gym memberships, streaming services or pet insurance.

Of course it is prudent for banks to ask questions like this of their applicants.

But as the public pressure on banks shows no signs of abating, some banking veterans and experts believe the change in banks’ behaviour caused by the royal commission could have significant effects on the basic bank business of lending money.

Analysts at investment bank UBS have warned of the risk of a royal commission-induced “credit crunch”, saying that if banks assumed more realistic living expenses, the maximum amount customers would be able to borrow could fall by as much as 30 to 40%

David Murray, chair of the 2014 financial system inquiry and former chief executive of the Commonwealth Bank, says further government intervention in banks’ lending decisions could harm competition and increase prices.

“Tightening of the laws is potentially a bad thing for credit generation in the economy,” Murray tells The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.

David Murray.

Photo: Karen Maley

Further, Murray warns that extending “responsible lending” laws to place further obligations on banks can raise the risk of “moral hazard” – the idea that borrowers might start to assume they have less onerous obligations to pay back their bank. This was one cause of the United States sub-prime debt crisis, where borrowers could effectively walk away from their loans if they were unable to repay their debt, because banks did not have access to other assets.

Final recommendations from Hayne won’t be known until next February, but Murray also fears that the red-hot political environment means the shocking behaviour of rogue bankers being exposed is not being seen in its broader context.

“I think it’s a significant risk, particularly in this political climate but also because of the way the commission has had to do its work,” Murray, who on Friday was announced as AMP’s new chairman, says. “We’ve seen some important cases, but we don’t yet know the actual size of the problem.”

Murray acknowledges there is a need for further policy action in  financial advice, an arena where the commission last month revealed a litany of problems including consumer rip-offs, bad advice and other misbehaviours.

Chief Executive Officer of the Financial Planning Association, Dante De Gori outside the royal commission

Photo: AAP

But even in advice, where most agree there are serious problems, there are no easy fixes.

Westpac chief Brian Hartzer, who previously worked in England, last week stated the introduction of much tougher advice laws there had caused many banks to desert the sector. That resulted in fewer people receiving advice, he said, despite the accepted wisdom that most of us would benefit from receiving advice on issues such as insurance and retirement structures.

Financial Planning Association chief executive Dante De Gori said it was not yet clear what impacts any recommendations from the royal commission might have on the cost of financial advice for consumers, but there definitely would be an impact.

“It’s very difficult to see how it would not impact the cost factor,” he said.

A suggested “structural” change from the royal commission would be to stop advisers’ pay packets being cross-subsidised through the sale of financial products, and this would be a good thing, De Gori adds.

National Australia Bank’s chief executive Andrew Thorburn this week summed up the banks’ overarching concerns by saying the royal commission’s unrelenting focus was causing banks to become more “timid”.

“I think there is a possible trend towards people being more careful … and culturally maybe becoming more meek & mild,” Thorburn said.

“And I think we have to be mindful of that, because the bank needs to make decisions and to take risk in order to help our clients grow.”

Given some of the startling bad conduct exposed by Hayne, many critics would applaud the idea of more “timid” bankers.

NAB chief executive has warned banks could gravitate to becoming meeker.

Photo: Bloomberg

But the banking structure – for all its flaws – plays a critical role in greasing the wheels of capitalism by pumping credit into the economy. So greater timidity will have some consequences.

Thorburn does not say the royal commission will dampen credit growth, but he makes the case that banks are “crucial” for the economy’s outlook, including their role in importing the foreign capital it needs to move ahead with growth.

“We import 30 per cent of capital, fund the Australian economy,” Thorburn says.

Capital Economics economist Paul Dales argues that how much credit gets pumped into the economy – and the effect of the royal commission on banks – is “one of the most important things will happen to the economy over the next several years”.

The real risk is that house prices fall further and faster than the gradual, fairly modest decline we are currently expecting.

Paul Dales

Some of this effect could occur through banks lending to small businesses, he says, but the main impact would be through the mortgage loan market, which would directly impact house prices.

House prices are already falling in Sydney and Melbourne, with the slump blamed on tougher lending rules for property investors, a surge of new housing units coming onto the market and buyer exhaustion after years of strong growth.

Dales doesn’t see a credit “meltdown”. But he points to the possibility that if Labor wins the next election, the property market would face a “double whammy” – tighter lending conditions as well as negative gearing is curbed and capital gains tax concessions are cut back. Interest rates may just also start to rise, further softening prices.

“The actual risk is that house prices fall further and faster than the gradual, fairly modest decline we are currently expecting,” Dales says.

Tim Lawless, chair of research at property data analysts CoreLogic, also says banks’ credit policies and the outcome of the royal commission will be important factors on what happens in the property market, which he thinks will remain weak.

“I think the most likely outcome is what we’ve seen in recent months, which is values drifting lower in Sydney and Melbourne. But we are not expecting a sort of material acceleration in that rate of decline.”

The risks posed by Australia’s record household debt and very high house prices are well known – would it ractually be a problem if all this were to go slower?

Not at all, says respected independent economist Saul Eslake, who has long highlighted the social equity problems created by Australia’s long-running housing boom.

He says it’s “plausible” tighter lending conditions would further drag down the property market, and “it may well mean slower economic growth, all else being equal”. But Eslake says it is simply not sustainable to fuel growth with ever-increasing debt.

For all the warnings from bankers, there could even be a silver lining from the royal commission’s rigid scrutiny.

Professor Kevin Davis, a member of the 2014 financial system inquiry panel, points out that  curbing some of the more marginal lending by banks could eventually be good for the finance industry, by saving our lenders from the sub-prime debt problem they greatly avoided before the global financial crisis.

“To the extent they’ve been slack, then you might say hopefully we have got in early enough before we got to a situation like the US did,” Davis says.

As for Tassits, she has now rejoined her gym. Yes she has her home loan as well.HAPPY ENDING.

Henry Sapiecha

 

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