Published May 20, 2008


Home rates going back to 2003 levels? Not quite

Falling interbank rates won't automatically mean a throwback to the past


(SINGAPORE) Singapore interbank rates - the prices banks charge each other for short-term funds - are threatening to fall back to record lows.

In fact, many bankers reckoned interest rates after the recent spate of cuts may be headed upwards.

The benchmark three- month rates are now nearing one per cent, down from around 3.5 per cent a year ago and threatening to ease to the record levels around 0.5 per cent in early 2003. Naturally, it should be good news for homeowners as they expect to see their borrowing costs return to the low levels of 2003, when banks were dishing out loans at 50 basis points and below.

Is this on the cards again? Well, it depends on who you talk to. If you call your local bankers, they are likely to tell you that the domestic and global credit situations are quite different from the Sars days when banks had to fight for their home business.

Foreign banks were relying more on the interbank market for their retail funding and when interbank rates fell to near zero, they were able to price their home loans at well below one per cent. Some of the foreign banks had also just gotten their Qualifying Full Bank licences then and were using their home loan platform and price cutting to jump-start their consumer business. Today, they have been allowed to build a wider retail network of branches and ATMs and they depend more on the retail deposits to fund their home loans.

As such, they are not able to use the undercutting strategy too aggressively, having built up some expensive retail deposits. Maybank, for instance, launched a 1.58 per cent package which was limited to a short promotion period. Given the costs of running the retail branches and the limit that deposit rates can be cut, pricing for home loans is also not given much leeway downwards, local bankers argue.

Also, the banks are more disciplined now with their credit pricing, given the global credit crunch and the sub-prime-related problems in the US. Because of their overall tighter credit policy, it is no longer easy for them to build their business based on an underpricing strategy with risks in property loans having gone up worldwide. In the last quarter, banks such as HSBC and Citigroup continued to write off sub- prime and other real estate-related portfolios at alarming levels.

In fact, many bankers reckoned interest rates after the recent spate of cuts may be headed upwards. 'Given that the sub-prime crisis and the subsequent credit turmoil has not abated with the financial markets remaining volatile, the outlook for interest rates is still uncertain at this point in time with upside bias as the longer-term interbank rates have been on the uptrend over the past one month,' said Gregory Chan, head of secured lending, OCBC Bank.

Perhaps the biggest difficulty for the consumer has been the expensive refinancing costs. Banks well aware of the possibility of refinancing in a downward trend market have been clever to price in the higher penalty costs should consumers make their switch. For instance, those who borrowed at around 3.2 per cent last year would have to factor in a 1.5 per cent prepayment charge, repayment of legal subsidies and other administrative charges which may work out to well over 2 per cent of total loan size, making it difficult for them to refinance. As such, some of the banks have actually enjoyed some widening in margins as their deposit rates fell while their home loan rates have not been adjusted down as much.

'Banks still have to make a margin. People forget that at 2-3 per cent, it is historically still very low for home loans, compared to the days of near 10 per cent after the 1997 crisis,' said one banker. The bottom appears to hold around 1.6-1.7 per cent for the first year for the time being but with heavy prepayment penalties priced in.

In any case, observers noted - unlike the sluggish credit market of 2002 - Singapore, underpinned by projects such as the integrated resorts and ongoing massive private and public building, is undergoing quite a boom on the corporate front. Local banks have been able to repark their surplus funds elsewhere in better-yielding corporate loans and papers instead of the falling interbank market.

Building and construction loans continued to absorb some of the surplus funds. Bankers reported the spreads in Asia for good corporates have widened by 100 basis points or more in the last few months and Asian borrowers long spoilt by the massive liquidity are now finally paying the right price for loans.

In fact, some developers suspect the banks are nearing their regulatory limit themselves for property-related loans with the two casinos and the ongoing condo building sucking up much liquidity. Smaller developers are even being avoided or squeezed with some getting quoted up to even 400 basis points above interbank.

Banking analysts, however, present a slightly different picture.

One foreign analyst reckoned foreign banks have not pulled their punches and didn't believe that they have been tied down by other global credit issues.

'Asia has never been more important to the foreigners and they will remain very active in the region,' he argued, adding that mortgage demand seemed to have dried up and most of the activity is now refinancing. He figured the foreign banks have actually won market share from the local banks, seen from Q1 results.

The other change is the emergence of interbank- pegged home packages. One analyst said these are becoming increasing popular and the fall in the interbank market would automatically adjust some of these home rates. But he conceded tighter credit controls and a more disciplined approach will mean - all else being equal - that rates will fall less than they would have in the past when Sibor fell.

Also, the looming global slowdown and property downturn could mean banks may have to drop rates again, analysts say.

One thing is for sure: if rates were really to fall back to the levels of 2003, analysts and bankers reckon it would also mean that while you may save on borrowing costs, you would probably have another property recession and negative equity at hand.

The author is a freelance writer