There is no housing bubble, big banks insist

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Rising house prices in Australia’s largest cities doesn’t necessarily indicate the country is in the grip of a housing bubble, said the heads of three of the country’s largest banks.

Testifying before a parliamentary committee, the chief executives of National Australia Bank (NAB), Westpac Banking Corporation, and Commonwealth Bank of Australia (CBA) all said that while they worried about some aspects of the housing market, prices weren’t indicative of a housing bubble.

“I would draw the distinction between a speculative bubble in prices and prices beyond what fundamentals would justify,” Brian Hartzer, CEO of Westpac, told the parliamentary committee in Canberra on Wednesday. A bubble isn’t occurring in Sydney or Melbourne, where house prices have risen the most, he insisted.   

“There are increasing risks, but I still believe the answer is no,” Andrew Thorburn, group CEO of NAB, said when asked if houses in Sydney and Melbourne were overpriced.

Meanwhile, Ian Narev, CEO of CBA, said his bank was lending at levels it was comfortable with.

The parliamentary committee was set up by the government to ward off calls for a more far-reaching inquiry into the financial industry for the second time in six months. The big banks have been under pressure from opposition parties after a series of scandals in their insurance and wealth divisions, as well as concerns they’d failed to pass on the full benefits of central bank interest-rate cuts to borrowers.

Shayne Elliott, CEO of Australia and New Zealand Banking Group (ANZ), wasn’t directly questioned about his views on the housing market when he testified on Tuesday. However, in December he said that while he was cautious, he wasn’t anticipating “a calamity or a disaster.”

The rapid growth of house prices, at a time of negligible pay rises, has made housing affordability a hot-button political issue. Affordability problems, particularly for young people “should be a matter of national concern,” Narev told the parliamentary committee.
 

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