New Zealand housing: Why experts think OCR hike won't help first-home buyers

Money experts are warning would-be first-home buyers things are only going to get worse in the coming year - prices are unlikely to fall, interest rates are likely to go up and banks will be more reluctant to lend to people with small deposits.

The Reserve Bank (RBNZ) on Wednesday lifted the official cash rate (OCR) for the first time in seven years, from 0.25 to 0.5 percent. 

"I'll go as far as to say the RBNZ didn't really have any choice," Milford Asset Management analyst Frances Sweetman told The AM Show on Thursday. 

"Its job is to help support the economy by keeping inflation around 2 percent and keeping employment around its maximum sustainable level… they're seeing in the short-term inflation around 4 percent, and we know we've got these wide-scale labour shortages across the economy. So that emergency policy setting of 0.25 percent is just not appropriate anymore when the economy has been running so hot."

The RBNZ dropped the OCR to 0.25 percent in March 2020 to stimulate the economy as COVID-19 spread not just around the world, but in New Zealand. While it helped New Zealand emerge from the initial wave of the pandemic relatively unscathed compared to other nations, it also fuelled a massive rise in house prices - which are now about 30 percent above levels already described as unaffordable.

The ongoing uncertainty has seen the RBNZ leave the OCR at its record-low level - until now, with inflation rising and widespread labour shortages. 

Kelvin Davidson, chief property economist at property market analysts CoreLogic, said while the OCR hike is small, it's proportionately quite large - effectively doubling the cost of borrowing for banks.

"There's still a lot of uncertainty in the economy with COVID that will linger for a while, so I think the gradual approach seems to be pretty sensible and gives people time to adjust... It might not lead to a big rise in mortgage rates but there's more to come."

Economist Shamubeel Eaqub says dirt-cheap mortgage payments are coming to an end, with the banks already starting to price in expected hikes over the coming year. 

"Mortgage rates have already gone back up to the kind of levels we had before the pandemic started," he told The AM Show on Thursday. "A lot of that relief we had seen through the pandemic - those very low, historically low-interest rates - that's pretty much finished."

Davidson sees the OCR rising to 2.5 percent over the next 12 to 18 months.

"It's a slow, gradual process, but... it's almost mortgage rates doubling, really. People need to be prepared for that." 

The Government's apparent abandonment of the elimination strategy for COVID-19 might keep the OCR down, Sweetman said. 

"The risk next year is we have continuous rolling lockdowns if we don't get the vaccination rate high enough, and that the economy could really [fall] back."

If the new approach does manage to keep COVID in check however, she said to expect another 1 percent increase to mortgage interest rates.

"The market's pricing a 90 percent chance of another 25 basis-point rise in November then another four rate rises again next year. The key there will be the pressure on mortgage rates and what that means for disposable income."

Eaqub is a little more sceptical.

"The Reserve Bank has been forecasting interest rates to rise for about 10 years or so, so they've been wrong for 10 years."

Shamubeel Eaqub.
Shamubeel Eaqub. Photo credit: The AM Show

If the OCR remains low, borrowing will remain cheap - perhaps further fuelling the housing market. 

Either way, it's going to remain historically difficult for first-home buyers. From November, the amount of lending banks can do to low-deposit borrowers will halve.

"Certainly it's going to get harder I think, before it gets easier," said Davidson. "Housing affordability is already stretched. While I think the growth in house prices will slow down, I don't think we'll see any significant falls." 

Eaqub said the barrier for homeownership remains the deposit required, not mortgage payments, which he says are often cheaper than rent now.