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Australia struggling to cool rising property prices

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SYDNEY: In their struggle to cool red-hot property prices in Australia's big cities, the authorities are ratcheting up measures that could dent the whole market but avoiding more targeted steps that have had some success in New Zealand and China.

Australian regulators first focused on reining in investment loans nationally in 2015, by imposing an annual limit of 10 per cent on how much banks could expand their investor loan book.

Those steps worked for a while, but the heat is on again in Sydney, where prices are rising almost 20 per cent a year, having more than doubled since 2008, and Melbourne, where the pace is over 15 per cent, according to property consultant CoreLogic.

That and all-time high household debt prompted the Australian Prudential Regulatory Authority to move again last Friday.

It has asked banks to limit new interest-only loans to 30 per cent of total new mortgage lending, from 40 per cent now, and promising a lot of "monitoring", "scrutinising" and "observing".

Industry players doubt that will do the trick.

"I personally don't think this will have a material impact," said Mr Simon Orbell, director at Sydney-based mortgage broker Smartmove, as prices kept rising even though it was already a tough lending market.

Behind-the-scenes pressure has already led major banks to raise rates on investment loans, particularly for interest-only products favoured by speculators, according to sources with knowledge of the situation.

Variable interest rates on investor loans from Commonwealth Bank of Australia - the country's top mortgage lender - are as high as 5.94 per cent, compared with 5.25 per cent for owner occupiers and an official cash rate of 1.5 per cent.

The uneven nature of the market means such measures, even if they cool the hot spots, can cause collateral damage elsewhere.

"There is no one national housing market in Australia. So, what may impact in Sydney in one way can impact exactly the reverse in Perth," explained Treasurer Scott Morrison.

"So the use of big-stick, sledgehammer-type changes, one must be very cautious of those, because they can have quite negative impacts in markets."

Neighbouring New Zealand had been grappling with a similar problem in Auckland until its central bank asked lenders to seek a greater deposit for home loans just in that city.

The tactic seems to have worked. The explosive Auckland market has cooled since last September, with sales volumes at their lowest levels in at least five years.

Regulators in Australia are also worried about the risks from a slowdown.

According to official estimates, every A$1 (S$1.07) spent on residential construction generates A$1.31 worth of spending elsewhere in the economy, and every A$1 million creates 17 full-time jobs.- REUTERS