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Property may be big gainer as real interest rates plunge

Mounting inflation makes it tempting to borrow, but things may change in the long run

(SINGAPORE) Rising inflation may be starting to worry policymakers and the man on the street, but it has had an interesting side effect. It has pushed down the real interest rate dramatically and is expected to drive the property market as buyers and borrowers take on more mortgages, which are costing them very little in real terms.

In fact, real interest rates – which a borrower pays after inflation has been factored in – have fallen sharply as prices climb and could turn negative early next year when inflation is projected to hit a high of 5 per cent, economists said.

Some of the biggest companies – which borrow at wholesale rates – are already enjoying negative interest rates, as inflation since September has risen above the key three-month interbank rate.

Inflation in September was 2.7 per cent but the three-month Sibor or Singapore interbank offer rate was around 2.5 per cent, so real interest rates are in negative territory, according to United Overseas Bank economist Suan Teck Kin.

‘It’s bad for the depositor,’ said Mr Suan.

As OCBC’s Selena Ling put it: ‘There is no free lunch – our savings are also likely fetching a very low if not negative real return currently (calculated by subtracting the inflation rate from the nominal interest rates). The savings rate is about 0.25 per cent, while the 12-month fixed deposit rate is about 0.83 per cent.

But for borrowers, the effect is positive.

‘High inflation is beneficial to the borrower,’ said Standard Chartered Bank economist Alvin Liew. If you borrow $1 now, it will be worth less when you return it in two years.

Inflation jumped to 3.6 per cent in October, the highest since 1991, the Department of Statistics said last week. It is likely that the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) will let the currency appreciate faster to dampen consumer price gains. This, in turn, will lead to more funds flowing to Singapore from investors betting on currency gains, which will keep the pressure on our already low interest rates.

While the three-month interbank rate is expected to remain around 2.5 per cent until the end of this year, some economists expected it to fall to as low as 2.1 per cent early next year before recovering to 2.5 per cent later. Home loan rates typically range from 3 to 4 per cent.

Generally, low interest rates fuel stock market activity. But with people feeling jittery about equities, economists said that many could turn to property to earn higher returns, because putting it on deposit is a ‘losing’ proposition.

Mr Liew pointed out that Singaporeans will have quite a lot of excess cash next year. Recent reports have said that en bloc sales will result in $6 billion swishing around in sellers’ accounts then.

‘One of the key things about high inflation and low interest rates – from an economist’s point of view – is that it will keep the property market robust for the next 12 months,’ he said.

With low interest rates, mortgage credit is cheap and will support the property market, said Citi economist Chua Hak Bin.

Real mortgage rates are probably only slightly positive now, about 0.5-1.0 per cent, compared with about 2-3 per cent three years ago, Dr Chua said. ‘Low real mortgage rates encourage leverage and may drive property prices higher.’

And if the US cuts interest rates aggressively, it may fuel asset inflation, he added.

Citi’s US economics team expects another 100 basis points cut, taking the US federal funds rate down to about 3.5 per cent by the end of Q3 2008, he said.

But all three economists cautioned against over-leveraging given the clouded economic outlook, and they expected inflation to moderate in 2009.

‘Debt servicing/repayment ability as well as degree of leverage of the borrower should be considered together when determining how much one should borrow,’ said Mr Suan. ‘Real interest rate may not be the sole criterion.’

The government is also watching the property market closely, he noted.

DBS Bank spokeswoman Karen Ngui said: ‘Consumers should be mindful that home loans are a long-term commitment and should not just consider the immediate interest rate outlook.’

 

Source: Business Times 26 Nov 07

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