Households are responding to economic uncertainty by taking on less debt, with figures for November revealing a record fall in credit card balances as well as an unexpected slide in home loan approvals.
And in a further boost to the case for more interest rate cuts, job advertisements continued to dry up last month and hit their lowest levels since the aftermath of the global financial crisis. Housing finance figures released by the Australian Bureau of Statistics showed a 0.5 per cent fall nationally in November in the number of new loans for owner-occupied homes, despite the Reserve Bank cutting interest rates a month earlier.
There was also a massive drop in the number of loans to first-homebuyers, who made up 15.8 per cent of borrowers, the lowest proportion for 8½ years.
Builders are feeling the pain, with loans to build or buy new homes down 4.8 per cent. Loans to build or buy new homes were down 4.1 per cent in WA but elsewhere the State bucked the national trend. Mortgage approvals were up 1.1 per cent and loans to first-homebuyers jumped 8.1 per cent.
St George Bank economist Janu Chan said the lending figures indicated the housing sector could be losing traction. "Concern about employment prospects and general caution in taking on too much debt may be preventing potential buyers," she said.
Monthly credit card figures released by the Reserve Bank yesterday also point to consumers' reluctance to sink further into debt.
CommSec chief economist Craig James said the average credit card balance in November was $3262.60, down a record 2.3 per cent compared with a year earlier.
He said Commonwealth Bank's research had found 60 per cent of credit card customers now paid their bills in full by the due date to avoid interest charges.
"Consumers are living within their means and prefer to use their own money to make purchases than put it on credit," Mr James said. "It is possible that if interest rates were slashed over 2013 that consumers would become more fearful than confident, perhaps cutting debt by an even greater magnitude."
The monthly ANZ jobs advertisement survey recorded a fall for the 10th month in a row, down 3.8 per cent in December. The number of advertisements is at its lowest level since January 2010.