Australian borrowers are dumping their banks to get a better interest rate. A record 35 per cent of all housing loans written in 2011-12 saw borrowers refinance existing mortgages with a new lender, rather than buy or build new property.
Bureau of Statistics figures show all the growth in new lending to owner-occupiers in the past year was in refinancing. Every week, the banks and other lenders refinance $1 billion of existing loans at better interest rates, as borrowers freed from exit fees vote with their feet.
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In the year to June, lending to refinance loans swelled by $7.3 billion or 17 per cent from a year ago, and by 30 per cent from two years ago. By contrast, lending to buy existing real estate fell by almost $1 billion, while lending for new construction rose just $24 million.
Australian Prudential Regulation Authority (APRA) data shows the big four banks have been the losers. This year their market share shrank slightly as growth in their stock of home lending was far outpaced by the smaller Australian banks and wholesale lenders.
But the big four remain dominant. At June 30 they held 86 per cent of all the banks' housing loans, up from 75 per cent four years earlier, before they were allowed to swallow their two biggest rivals.
But in the first half of 2012, the smaller banks won 24 per cent of the growth in the stock of home loans. And the banks collectively saw new lending shrink, with all the growth going to non-bank lenders.
The data suggests Treasurer Wayne Swan's campaign to get unhappy borrowers to vote with their feet has been enough to make the big banks take notice.
A spokesman for Mr Swan said the figures show the government's reforms have stirred competition in banking, to the benefit of mortgage holders.
''People are taking advantage of our ban on mortgage exit fees,'' he said. ''This has put more power in the hands of Australian families: they can walk down the street to another lender if their current bank isn't looking after them.''
Victoria, New South Wales and Western Australia have been the main battlegrounds. In Victoria and WA, 37 per cent of home loans in 2011-12 were for refinancing, and in NSW and South Australia, 36 per cent.
The bureau figures report the new loans written each month, and they show all the growth this year has gone to non-bank wholesale lenders. In trend terms, between December and June, monthly lending by banks shrank by $224 million or 2 per cent, but wholesale lenders lifted lending by $69 million or 27 per cent.
Excluding refinancing, seasonally adjusted new lending rose 2 per cent in June, suggesting the Reserve Bank's interest rate cuts have injected life into the market, as intended. The growth went mostly to finance new construction, rather than existing real estate.
The APRA figures show that even though new lending fell in 2011-12, the stock of money we owe the banks in housing loans grew by $83 billion or 8 per cent. Smaller banks gained $10 billion of that, with Macquarie Bank more than doubling its lending to $3.8 billion, and the Bendigo and Adelaide Bank's lending up by $3.4 billion or 16.5 per cent.