Chief economist update: As safe as Australian houses?

Christian Szell: Is it safe?

Babe: Yes, it's safe, it's very safe, it's so safe you wouldn't believe it.

Christian Szell: Is it safe?

Babe: No. It's not safe, it's... very dangerous, be careful.

This is that immortal dialogue from the classic film, 'Marathon Man', released in movie houses in 1976.

Babe: I don't know what you mean. I can't tell you something's safe or not, unless I know specifically what you're talking about.

If the "it" was about housing, then "Yes, it's safe." After all, that's the genesis of the phrase "as safe as houses" which Collins English dictionary says "if you say that something or someone is as safe as houses, you mean that they are completely safe."

If the "it" was about the current state of the Australian housing market, then "No. It's not safe, it's ... very dangerous, be careful."

This is because Australian property prices are on the down low. The Australian Bureau of Statistics' (ABS) 'Residential Property Price Index' report showed the weighted average of eight capital cities house prices fell by 0.6% in the year to the June quarter (latest available) after growing 2% in the previous quarter.

More up-to-date figures show home values continue to cheapen. CoreLogic RP Data's '5 capital city aggregate' home value index for all dwellings - houses and units - declined by 4.9% in the year to October, led by 7.4% dropped in Sydney and a 4.7% fall In Melbourne.

There's more coming if AiG's latest survey on Australia's construction industry is any guide. The AiG Performance of Manufacturing Index fell by 2.9 points to a reading of 46.4 in October - the second consecutive month of contraction in this sector.

More to the point, house building activity declined to 44.8 in October - the third month of contraction (below a reading of 50).

According to AiG: "House building respondents to the Australian PCI linked slower activity in October to tighter lending conditions, falling house prices and generally weaker home buyer sentiment. Apartment builders indicated that activity continued to decline from recent peaks in response to falling investor demand, falling prices and excess supply in some markets."

This is supported by ABS data showing the accelerating decline in the number of housing finance commitments - down by 10.2% in the year to August from -6.4% in July and -4.2% in June. The same trend is evident with building approvals - down 14.1% in the year to September from -12.6% in August and -6.5% in July.

So far so good. The correction in the housing market remains orderly but it also raises doubt with regards to the Reserve Bank of Australia's (RBA) statement that the next move in interest rates will likely be up.

Although that's still within the realms of the possible given the continued strength in the economy and falling unemployment, the housing sector's large multiplier effect on the economy threatens to reverse these improving fundamentals.

This brings back the words of my driving instructor, when it's safe to do so ... turn right.

Read more: Christian SzellReserve Bank of AustraliaAiG Performance of Manufacturing IndexABS - Australian Bureau of StatisticsCoreLogic RP DataMarathon ManResidential Property Price Index
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