Households wealth drops $260b in just three months as debt hits a record 200pc of income

| 28.03,19. 08:18 PM |

Households wealth drops $260b in just three months as debt hits a record 200pc of income

Photo: Australians have seen their per capita wealth fall more than $12,000 in the past six months. (ABC News: Patrick Stone)

If you felt a bit poorer at the end of last year, you're not alone — Australian households dropped a lazy quarter of a trillion dollars in wealth in the three months leading up to New Year's Day.

According to Australian Bureau of Statistics data, household wealth fell $257.6 billion in the fourth quarter as the housing and equity markets tanked.

The 2.1 per cent fall in household wealth is the largest since 2011 and follows a 0.1 per cent in the previous quarter.

In real terms, taking into account inflation, the news was even glummer with wealth down more than $310 billion — made of $170 billion in real holding losses on land and dwellings and $140 billion on financial assets.

While eye-watering in size, the losses were not surprising given housing market retreat was accelerating (the fourth quarter house price index dropped 2.4 per cent) and the ASX tumbled around 10 per cent over the quarter.

"Household wealth per capita decreased $10,198.10 to $404,319.80, following a $2,263.70 fall in household wealth in the previous quarter," the ABS said.

"This is the first consecutive decrease in household wealth per capita since the December quarter 2011."

Household debt hits new high

The worrying news out of the figures is while household wealth is falling, the household-debt-to-income ratio hit a new record just shy of 200 per cent.

The figures show not only are households less wealthy, but household disposable incomes are falling too. This so-called "wealth effect" is in turn crunching consumer spending and the retail sector.

"Household gross disposable income fell 2.6 per cent to $312.7b from $321.2b in the previous quarter," the ABS said.

"When other changes in real net wealth, commonly known as the wealth effect, is added to household gross disposable income, household gross disposable income adjusted for other changes in real net wealth fell from $182.1b to $15.8b," the ABS calculated.

UBS economist George Tharenou said even though, "Household liabilities fell over the quarter … income growth collapsed even more."

"[This meant] the household debt-to-income ratio lifted to a record high of 199 per cent in Q4."

Mr Tharenou said while levels of net wealth were historically high, at more than $10 trillion, critically the "household wealth effect" is driven by changes, not the level, of wealth.

"This is consistent with an ongoing drag on consumption ahead as spending slows to weak income growth."

Housing jobs falling

Mr Tharenou said other data released by the ABS pointed to weakness in the jobs market, particularly in the housing sector.

"ABS job vacancies — a key lead indicator the RBA has been focussed on — slowed further in February to … a 2-year low of 9.9 per cent year-on-year.

"This suggests decent, but slowing, employment growth ahead. Indeed, most lead indicators are already weaker."

Employment by industry showed job losses were accelerating in housing, down more than 4 per cent over the year, the worst downturn since 2012.

Real estate and rental services also fell, as did retail and manufacturing jobs.

"More broadly, 'public-dominated' industries boomed [+4.8 per cent], but 'private-dominated' fell to a cycle low [+1.3 per cent]," Mr Tharenou said.

"After construction employment spiked to a roughly 100-year high 10 per cent share of total jobs, it's just starting to fall now, and will likely continue ahead given house prices slumped the most on record.

"With a per-capita recession already, unemployment is likely to rise. "

Mr Tharenou said he was also "calling the end" of the household super leverage cycle", which saw household debt triple since 1994.

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