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Gap between official cash rate and home loans continuing to widen

Gap between official cash rate and home loans continuing to widen
Gap between official cash rate and home loans continuing to widen

The official cash rate set by the Reserve Bank of Australia has been at a historic low of 2.5% since August 2013. In line with that low rate, borrowers are paying less for home mortgages now than they have in over 15 years.

 Gap between official cash rate and home loans continuing to widen 

Source: RBA

Lenders typically cut and lift mortgage interest rates roughly in line with the RBA’s movements, charging a margin over the official cash rates. Since late 2007, the extra amount of interest that consumers pay on a variable rate home loan above the official cash has been increasing.

Finder.com.au money expert Michelle Hutchison says lenders have been moving their rates out of cycle with the RBA and failing to pass on rate cuts in full, so the gap between the official cash rate and home loan rates available to borrowers has widened.

RBA data shows that the difference between the official cash rate and the mortgage managers’ basic variable rate – which approximates the average of interest rate actually available to borrowers – was fairly stable at just below 1 percentage point from September 1998 to September 2007. If that relationship still held true, home mortgages with variable interest rates of 3.5% and lower would be common in the market now.

In fact, RBA data shows that the mortgage managers’ basic variable rate was 5% in February 2014, a full 2.5 percentage points more than the official cash rate. Hutchison says the cheapest basic variable rate loan available is 4.49% for a $150,000 mortgage over 30 years from Loans.com.au.

 Gap between official cash rate and home loans continuing to widen

Source: Reserve Bank of Australia

So, why aren’t headline lending rates lower?

Hutchison says one reason is that borrowers are letting lenders get away with charging more by not shopping around.

“If borrowers are not taking action and doing something about it by comparing home loans and switching to a better, cheaper deal, [lenders are] not going to do anything about it,” she says.

“There are hundreds of home loans on the market and the range of home loan prices is from 4.49% to over 9%. The best thing people can do is keep track of [interest rates]. Don’t sign up to a home loan and forget about it. Review your financial situation every year or two.” 

UBS interest rate strategist Matthew Johnson says few people pay the headline interest rates advertised by lenders. Advertised rates are higher in relation to the cash rate, but lenders have realised that people feel good about getting a discount. Those who are prepared to negotiate can get lower rates than the advertised rate.

Another key reason for the widening gap between the official cash rate and mortgage rates on offer to consumers is that the cost of funding and running a bank has gone up, Johnson says.

Two main sources of funding are available to lenders: financial markets and domestic deposits.

During the financial crisis, lenders found it very difficult and costly to borrow on financial markets as investors lost their appetite for risk. The banks were instead forced to tap local deposits to fund lending, using elevated interest rates on term deposits to lure consumers to save their cash.

As the chart below shows, the amount lenders had to offer on deposits over the cash rate increased dramatically from around 2007. Term deposit interest rates have fallen since mid-2012, but they are still high by historical comparisons. At-call savings account interest rates have remained above average.

Gap between official cash rate and home loans continuing to widen

“Banks have shifted their funding base away from financial markets to domestic deposits. Banks have passed on a part of their increased funding costs to borrowers,” Johnson says.

Banks also consider credit risk associated with loans and the liquidity risk of funding long-term assets with short-term liabilities when setting interest rates, according to a report by the RBA.

“Banks’ growth strategies, competitive pressures and the desire to provide a return to equity holders also affect banks’ lending rates,” the report noted.

“An important element in determining the overall cost of banks’ funding is the level of the cash rate, which acts as an anchor for the broader interest rate structure of the domestic financial system. Nevertheless, changes in the level of compensation demanded by investors to hold bank debt, competitive pressures and non-price factors can exert significant influences on banks’ funding costs.”

Johnson says the trend for lenders to charge a large premium over the cash rate will reverse as financial markets stabilise further and investors in financial instruments regain their appetite for risk.

House prices are rising and banks are well capitalised, easing investor concerns. Fund managers face a shortage of yield-producing assets. Under these conditions, and amid stabilising financial markets, demand will increase for yield-producing assets such as residential mortgage-backed securities (RMBS).

“That will again make securitisation [through RMBS] a viable funding strategy for the mortgage lenders,” Johnson says.

Non-bank lenders that lack the deposit-base of the big banks will be better able to compete as financial market funding costs fall, putting pressure on the banks to reduce their margins over the cash rate. 

But Johnson warns that might not lead to lower interest rates for consumers.

He says the wide margin between the RBA cash rate and mortgage rates is a big part of the story of why official interest rates are as low as they are now. The RBA has been compensating for the lenders’ higher costs, he says.

“If that [gap] goes back to 1%, then the official cash rate could rise,” Johnson says.

The RBA estimates in its report that even though funding costs have reduced over the past year, they are likely to remain close to 130 percentage points higher than they were before the global financial crisis.

Zoe Fielding

Zoe Fielding

I am a freelance journalist and editor with more than 15 years experience specialising in personal finance, property, financial services and financial technology. A skilled writer and researcher, I have extensive experience producing high quality content for corporate and media clients. I am used to working to tight deadlines and tailoring the pieces I produce to suit a variety of audiences and formats.

Tags: 
Interest Rates Rba Rate Decision Home Loans Mortgages cash rate Finance

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