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Growth in 2nd quarter residential building plans passed was still solid, but a slowing growth rate slowly begins to reflect rising inflation and interest rates, and renewed pressures on the economy

19 August 2022 John Loos, Property Sector Strategist at FNB Commercial Property Finance

The release of StatsSA June residential building statistics completes the new residential building picture for the 2nd quarter of 2022. During that quarter, the numbers have held up well considering the mounting economic pressures as inflation and interest rate rise.

Growth in the number of units of residential building plans passed remained positive albeit slowing to 10.6% year-on-year, following a year-on-year growth rate of 17% in the 1st quarter. This is the 4th consecutive quarter of tapering growth in plans passed as the post-lockdown recovery approaches a “levelling out”.

The level and direction of plans passed is typically a leading indicator of the direction of building activity to come in the near term, so we would anticipate a slowdown in the growth rate of residential buildings completed in the not too distant future as well. However, it was probably too early to see slowing growth in completions as at the 2nd quarter of 2022, the number of units completed still growing solidly year-on-year by 18% in that quarter.

We would however expect to see the growth rate in the level of residential units completed begin to slow in this latter half of 2022.

Key drivers of slowing growth, and an expectation of some decline in building planning to come

The residential market is highly credit-dependent and thus interest rate sensitive, and the start of slowing growth in planning activity is reflective of the combination of rising inflation and interest rates, both eating into aspirant home buyer purchasing power growth. In addition, the economy looks to be coming under renewed pressure from global sources as well as the inflation and interest rate rise, and this can dampen household employment and income growth.

Interest rates have risen cumulatively by 200 basis points since late 2021, and the FNB expectation is for a further 125 basis points’ worth of hikes in the near term. Our expectation is therefore that there is likely to be year-on-year decline in the level of residential plans passed later in 2022, following on a good period of post-lockdown growth.

Post-lockdown recovery was reasonable, and Building planning activity above pre-Covid-19 levels, but building completions still below.

Residential building planning has had a reasonably good post-lockdown recovery period, following the relaxation of Covid-19 lockdowns, fuelled by the lagged impact of aggressive interest rate cutting early in 2020 as Covid-19 hit. As at the 2nd quarter of 2022, the number of units plans passed was +25% above the corresponding quarter of 2019.

However, not all of this growth in planning had yet translated into completions, and the number of units completed was still -28.2% below the 2nd quarter of 2019. So the post-lockdown recovery will be shown to be a reasonably good one should most of the planning growth ultimately translate into unit completions with the customary lag.

The most affordable housing category grows best

Examining the categories of building plans passed, it is the most affordable segment, i.e., “dwelling (free standing) houses smaller than 80 square metres” that still grew most significantly by 24.6% in the 2nd quarter, while “dwelling houses larger than 80 square metres” recorded a slower 5.1%, and the “Flats and Townhouses” category 10.9% growth.

Residential plans passed as a leading business cycle indicator

In fact, the SARB uses the total of new plans passed for the latter 2 categories as a component of its leading business cycle indicator (i.e., dwelling houses larger than 80 square metres along with flats and townhouses), so sensitive are these 2 building categories to the economic and interest rate cycle. So it is encouraging to see their combined total still in positive growth territory to the tune of 8.8%, despite significant sources of economic pressure mounting.

However, we would expect their plans passed total to begin to decline later in 2022, in order to increasingly reflect the renewed economic pressures emanating from high global energy and food prices driving broader inflation, rising interest rates and a slowing global economy.

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