A marginal fall in housing prices would not have any particular significance in ordinary circumstances but if it’s part of a sustained pattern of stalling prices, it’s a different matter.
The 0.2 per cent drop in the mainland state capitals reported by CoreLogic on Monday meant prices were right in line with their level five weeks earlier.
In the same five-week stretch last year, prices rose 1.3 per cent, while in that period for both 2013 and 2014, the market rose by around two per cent.
That means Monday’s figures matter, because the market is highly seasonal.
Usually, it’s about this time of the year that the number of homes coming onto the market rises enough to quell the spring pickup in prices, which then typically begin to ease into Christmas.
But something has already put a lid on prices, and it’s not a flood of homes coming onto the market.
The CoreLogic figures show there were 2,405 auctions over the week to Sunday, nearly 16 per cent down from the 2,858 counted in the same week of last year.
There’s no lack of enthusiasm from buyers: Corelogic’s figures show 77.9 per cent of auctions ended with a sale last week, compared with 67.4 per cent in the same week of last year.
It was the highest auction clearance rate in the capital cities since May last year.
But even allowing for the higher clearance rate, the lower numbers being auctioned meant completed sales are down by about three per cent.
Looking beyond the auction market, the number of homes currently listed for sale is up by five per cent from a year ago.
But within that total, the number of newly listed homes for sale is down by four per cent.
It’s the same story being told by the narrower auction market: at current prices, demand is not quite meeting the supply of homes coming onto the market, even though that supply is slowing.
This could be related to the finance sector’s new-found aversion to risk.
The Australian authorities have taken a dim view of the risk involved in lending to investors, a point laboured by the Reserve Bank in its Financial Stability Review on Friday.
The RBA noted that the “substantial tightening” that occurred in 2015 and early 2016 has remained in place, “notably the stricter serviceability policies and reduction in the share of riskier lending”.
“Banks also continue to apply tighter lending policies for apartments and to selected suburbs or regions deemed higher risk.”
The RBA said one notable recent change to lending standards is the tighter restrictions by banks on lending to non-residents and those depending on foreign income.
The RBA said the restrictions could affect parts of the market where foreign buyers are most prevalent.
Such a small shift in the flow of finance does not have to be large to affect the market a lot, especially if the borrowers taken out of the equation are the keenest, as anyone who’s been to an auction dominated by one or two ‘motived buyers’ would know.