SYDNEY, April 4 (Reuters) - Australian regulators stand ready to take tougher action against runaway home prices although addressing supply-side issues would go a long way in cooling the market, the head of the central bank said on Tuesday.
Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA) Governor Philip Lowe said recent measures to curb lending to property investors should help the whole system “pull back to a more sustainable position”.
His comments came hours after an RBA policy meeting where the official cash rate was held at a record low 1.5 percent for an eighth straight month.
Australia’s housing market is sizzling. In Sydney, prices are rising almost 20 percent a year, having more than doubled since 2008, and in Melbourne, the pace is over 15 percent, according to property consultant Core Logic.
In recent weeks, financial regulators have tightened the screws on mortgage lending, while Australia’s biggest banks have even raised interest rates for homebuyers. The measures highlight the pressure that authorities are under to douse the housing fire as record low official cash rates have led households into a debt binge.
“The Council of Financial Regulators will continue to assess how the system responds to the various measures so far. It would consider further measures if needed,” Lowe said in a speech at an RBA Board dinner in Melbourne.
“In the end, addressing the supply side of the housing market is likely to prove a more durable way of dealing with the concerns that people have about debt and housing prices than detailed supervisory guidance,” Lowe added.
The value of housing-related debt outstanding climbed 6.5 percent over the past year compared with a 3 percent gain in average household income. That pushed the ratio of household debt-to-disposable income to a record 180 percent.
Lowe said the Council of Financial Regulators, which he chairs, was concerned about the risks to the future health of Australia’s A$1.7 trillion economy from stretched household balance sheets, especially when the market turns down.
Boosting transport links and infrastructure would help in addressing some of the supply concerns, he added.
“Underinvestment in this area is one of the factors that has pushed housing prices up,” the governor said.
Another worry for the central banker is softness in the domestic labour market. The jobless rate is at a 13-month peak while employment has been skewed toward part-time work over the past year.
Earlier, the RBA held rates steady at a record low 1.5 percent for an eighth straight month. In a statement, it cited rising unemployment as among its concerns.
“We will want to see an improvement here before we can be confident that growth in the overall economy is strengthening,” Lowe said in his speech.
He welcomed a return of some vigour to the global economy that has pushed up commodity prices, in particular coal and iron ore - Australia’s top export earners.
That has significantly boosted Australia’s national income. Data on Tuesday showed the trade surplus ballooned in February, nudging Australia nearer to its first current account surplus since the mid-1970s. ($1 = 1.3219 Australian dollars) (Reporting by Swati Pandey; Editing by Richard Borsuk)