Data Wrap - some positive signs for new housing activity, but retail sales disappoint


In today’s Data Wrap we review several indicators that are relevant to the building sector, including lending activity, building approvals and office vacancy rates, and consider the latest retail sales data.  

Home lending activity continues to expand
Lending activity in respect of the South Australian housing market continued its recovery in December, data released by the ABS today shows. The total value of loans to households for owner-occupier housing, in trend terms, rose by 1.5 per cent in December 2019 to be 3.4 per cent higher compared to a year earlier. In comparison, loans for owner-occupier housing at the national level rose by 2.8 per cent in December and were up 15 per cent through the year.

Loans to owner-occupiers for the construction of homes or purchase of newly erected dwelling, which provide insight into residential building activity, have also shown recovery over recent months for South Australia. The total number of loans for such new home construction in the three months to December 2019 was up 5.4 per cent compared to the corresponding period in 2018. These loan commitments were up even more strongly in value terms (up 18 per cent) between these periods.

Building approvals continue to grow but they remain at a subdued level
South Australian building approvals have also maintained their recent upward trend. The latest ABS data indicates that the total number of dwelling units approved rose by 0.5 per cent in December 2019 in trend terms, which represents the seventh consecutive monthly increase. However, the pace of growth did slow toward the end of the year, from a recent high of 3.1 per cent in September 2019. 

In spite of the recent recovery in building approvals for South Australia, overall approval activity for the 2019 calendar year was weaker compared to previous years. The total number of dwelling units approved was 3.1 per cent lower in 2019 than in 2018, which itself was down 3.3 per cent compared to 2017. 

Nationally, the number of dwelling units approved rose by 2.1 per cent in December. While national approvals grew more strongly in December relative to South Australia, they have fallen to a lower level after being sustained at a quite high level from 2016 to 2018. Total dwellings approved in 2019 were down 18 per cent compared to the previous calendar year.  

Office vacancy rate increases in response to an increase in office supply
The latest Office Market Report from the Property Council of Australia indicates that the office vacancy rate for the Adelaide CBD rose from 12.8 per cent in July 2019 to 14.0 per cent in January 2020. The urban fringe vacancy rate rose from 13.1 to 14.7 per cent over this period.

The rise in the CBD vacancy rate was driven by a large increase in new office space, with net supply in the CBD increasing by approximately 20,000 square metres in the six months to January 2020.

The Adelaide CBD vacancy rate of 14 per cent compares to a national vacancy rate of 8.0 per cent. CBA vacancy rates are currently quite tight in Melbourne (3.2 per cent) and Sydney (3.9 per cent), and relatively high in Perth (17.6 per cent) and Darwin (16.8 per cent).

Retail sales contract for the sixth consecutive quarter
South Australian retail turnover, measured in real trend terms, fell by 0.4 per cent in the December quarter 2019, according to ABS data released late last week. This was the weakest performance of any state or territory, although New South Wales recorded a similar decline (down 0.3 per cent). At the national level retail turnover rose by 0.2 per cent in the December quarter.

In year on year terms retail sales for South Australia were down 1.1 per cent in the recent December quarter, while national sales were up just 0.1 per cent. While national retail sales may not have fallen in aggregate terms, they have declined in per capita terms.

South Australian retail sales have now been stagnant for a couple of years now. The volume of retail turnover in the December quarter of 2019 was the lowest since the June quarter of 2017.

The recent weakness in South Australian retail sales is consistent with a relatively weaker labour market. However, retail sales across the nation have generally been sluggish due to broader factors including subdued wages growth, high debt levels, slow growth in asset prices, and more recently, heightened uncertainty regarding the broader economic outlook. Together these factors have encouraged households to adopt restraint in their discretionary spending.

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