Government Inaction on Australia’s Housing Affordability Crisis is Indefensible

The fact that Australia has an affordability crisis is not in dispute. Rather, government inaction for more than a decade must be questioned.

Since the early 2000s, there have been three Senate Inquiries to tackle Australia’s escalating land values and declining rates of homeownership, including Australia’s Future Tax System Review that made a number of recommendations on housing reform.

The first inquiry conducted by the Productivity Commission in 2004, determined that prices had surpassed levels explicable by demographic factors and supply constraints alone. They stressed that a large surge in demand had rather been “predicated on unrealistic expectations (in a ‘supportive’ tax environment) of on going capital gains.”

The second inquiry overseen by a Select Senate Committee in 2008, found that the average house price in capital cities had climbed to over seven years of average earnings and once again, they identified inequitable disparities in the overall fairness of the tax system, that had lead to “speculative investment on second and third properties.”

Australia’s Future Tax System’ review conducted in May 2010, stated that tax benefits and exemptions had been capitalised into higher land values, encouraging investors to chase ‘large’ capital gains over rental income and landowners to withhold supply.

The third and last inquiry which is currently being conducted by the Senate Economics References Committee commencing in March 2014, received a key submission from Prosper Australia examining nine chief economic measures of land, debt, and finance – and found all to be at, or close to historic highs.

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“It took forty years from 1950 to 1990 for housing prices to double, but only fifteen years between 1996 and 2010 to double again.” (Soos, Egan 2014).

The submission demonstrated a sharp rise in the nominal house price to inflation, rent and income ratios, driven by a rapid and unsustainable acceleration of mortgage-debt relative to GDP.

The current trend dwarfs the recessionary land bubbles of the 1830s, 1880s, 1920s, mid-1970s and late 1980s that triggered economic havoc, leading Australian households to suffer some of the highest levels of private debt in the developed world.

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Today, the investor share of the market is close to 50 per cent. Investor finance commitments are rising at their fastest pace since 2007. Sixty-five per cent of loans to investors are on interest only terms and 95 per cent of all bank lending is being channelled into real estate – mostly residential.

Yet despite these findings, policy makers and industry advocates repeatedly claim that the primary driver of Australia’s affordability crisis is a lack of supply – and that increasing the stock of housing alone, will reduce prices enough to rectify the problem without the need to address the demand side of the equation through necessary and far-reaching tax reform.

Ultimately, this is not possible because our policies work directly against it.

Investor and housing tax exemptions worth an estimated $36 billion a year, have distorted the Australian dream of owning a home into a vehicle for financial speculation.

Consequently, rising land values that impoverish the most vulnerable sectors of our community are widely celebrated - while Australia’s federal members of parliament in possession of a $300 million personal portfolio of residential dwellings, stand solidly against all recommendations from previous Senate Inquiries for meaningful and equitable tax reform.

Poli investments

“The trends in the data suggest a sizeable majority of federal politicians have a vested interest in maintaining high housing prices, particularly since most have mortgages over their own investments.” (Egan, Soos and Davis)

Under current tax policy, investors that withhold primary land and dilapidated housing out of use are rewarded with substantial unearned incomes due to government failure to collect the economic land rent (the ‘capital gains’) society generates through public investment into social services.

The subsequent uplift in values that comes as the result of neighbourhood upgrades and taxpayer funded facilities – further accelerated by plentiful mortgage debt and restrictive zoning constraints, capitalises into the upfront cost of land by tens of thousands of dollars year on year. Yet rental incomes, at typically no more than $18,000 to $19,000 per annum are a mere trifle in comparison.

In the 12 months to September 2014 alone, Melbourne’s median house price increased by 11.7 per cent – over $60,000. In contrast, gross rental yields at 3.3 per cent are currently the lowest in the country and the lowest on record.

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This broadening divergence between rental income and ‘capital growth’ typifies the commodification of housing used only as a tool for profit-seeking gain.

Indeed, net rental incomes in Australia have been declining since 2001. Growth in both the relative and absolute number of negatively-geared investors between 1994 and 2012 has soared by 153 per cent. In contrast, positively-geared investors have increased by a much lesser 31 per cent.12

Large divergences between rental income and land price inflation thus produce an unhealthy challenge to both housing affordability and economic stability.

They lead to ‘speculative vacancies’ (SVs) – properties that are denied to thousands of tenants and potential owner-occupiers, lowering relative vacancy rates and placing upwards pressure on both rents and prices. The housing supply crisis is therefore greatly obscured by current vacancy measures that cannot identify sites that are withheld from the market for rent-seeking purposes.

The consequential subversion of housing policy is evident when it is considered that since 1996 Australia has built on average one new dwelling for every two new net persons nation wide. Yet over the same period, government legislation, politically manufactured to protect the unearned profits of a large cohort of speculative investors, has resulted in vacant median land prices on the fringes of Australia’s capital cities ballooning from approximately $90 per square metre in 1996, to over $530 per square metre today.

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Indeed, there is no better example of the astonishing escalation of land price inflation than the very recent report of a Melbourne family who purchased a 108 hectare Sunbury ‘hobby farm’ in 1982 for $300,000 and following new residential rezoning, have realised an estimated windfall gain of over $60 million.

This means of ‘creating wealth’ common in most western nations sits at the root of many of our current economic and social problems. Our tax and housing policies shift income to landowners, eroding the living standards of future generations of Australians who are required to shoulder an increasing burden of debt just to secure a foothold on the fabled ‘property ladder’.

The effect is to broaden the intergenerational divide as families are forced to live on the threshold, marginalised into areas lacking essential amenities and jobs, while 92 per cent of speculative investment into real estate pursues the ‘capital gains’ associated with second-hand dwellings, rather than increasing the stock of housing through the purchase of new supply.

Aided by a complicit banking system, Australia’s rising house prices produce wide ranging inefficiencies to the economy. High land prices damage Australia’s competitiveness with higher living costs. The resulting demand on both business and wages channels investment away from genuine value adding activities, leading to a gross and wasteful misallocation of credit to feed an elevated level of speculative rent-seeking demand.

The debilitating and destabilising effect on the economy can be evidenced clearly in a painful and rising trend of income and housing inequality that places an unsustainable strain on the capacity of the welfare state to compensate.

Australian’s like to think of themselves as a ‘fair go society –however, inequitable disparities in our housing, tax and supply policies result in an English-style class divide, evidenced in:

  • Fewer Australians owning their homes outright [i]
  • A rising percentage of long-term tenants renting for a period of 10 years or more[ii]
  • A decrease in the number of low income buyers obtaining ownership, particularly families with children [iii]
  • A drop in the number of affordable rental dwellings with a marked increase in the number of households in rental stress[iv]
  • Greater requirements for public housing.[v]
  • A rise in homeless percentages and those who drift in and out of secure rental accommodation –with ongoing intergenerational effects[vi]
  • An increase in the number of residents living in severely crowded accommodation.[vii]

As many as 105,000 Australians are currently homeless, while between the dates of 1991 and 2011 homeownership among 25-34 year olds has declined from 56 per cent to 47 per cent, among 35-44 year olds from 75 per cent to 64 per cent, and among 45-54 year olds from 81 per cent to 73 per cent.

Homelessness is often blamed on dysfunctional relationships, mental illness, drug abuse, domestic violence, job losses and so forth. But at the root lays an acute lack of affordable accommodation available for the most impoverished members of our community in need of both security and shelter.

‘Speculative Vacancies 7′ gives a unique insight into the impact of current housing policy by highlighting the total number of underutilised and empty residential and commercial properties currently withheld from market.

Melbourne is a perfect case study for this report.

• Its real estate is ranked among the most expensive in the developed world
• It has dominated Australia’s population growth, attracting the largest proportion of overseas immigrants, alongside strong immigration from interstate.

As government and the real estate industry are not sources of impartial information, the report adds a valuable dimension to understanding the divergence between real estate industry short-term vacancy rates (the percentage of properties available for rent as a proportion of the total rental stock) and the number of potentially vacant properties exacerbating Australia’s housing crisis.

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Download Speculative Vacancies 7.

Read past reports

Related media:

(Footnotes)

[i]ABS – In 1996/7, 42% of households owned their home without a mortgage. This proportion is now down to 31%

[ii]ABS  -A third of all private renters are long-term renters (defined as renting for periods of 10 years or more continuously), an increase from just over a quarter in 1994

[iii]ABS  – A drop of 49% to 33% between 1982 and 2008

[iv]ABS  – In 2009–10, 60% of lower-income rental households in Australia were in rental stress.

[v]AHURI 2013 – 28% increased demand for public housing projected by 2023

[vi]ABS  – Between 2006 and 2011 the rate of homelessness increased by 8% from 89,728 to 105,237

[vii]ABS  – The total number of people living in ‘severely’ crowded dwellings jumped 31% (or 9,839 people) to 41,370 from 2006 – 2011

Five years on since the US recession ‘officially’ ended in June 2009…

By – Catherine Cashmore

Five years on since the US recession ‘officially’ ended in June 2009, urban land prices are rising, the pattern of history is repeating, and this time, the players on the chessboard have changed.

But our Governments are turning a blind eye.

They have yet to acknowledge why the crisis happened, or put policies in place to prevent it happening again.

Expensive welfare systems, elaborate tax and transfer policies, and the financial ‘cures’ following the previous land induced crash in the early 1990s, did nothing to prevent the swiftest and sharpest synchronised global downturn in human history.

Taxpayers were punished, bankers got a “get out of jail free” card, and the largest real estate investment trusts spent $50 billion purchasing 386,000 foreclosed homes, to rent out to previous owners who believed and acted on the lie; “there is no bubble.”

The IMF, and policy makers are now twisting themselves in economic knots trying to pin down a ‘cure’ for the dangers of excessive house price inflation, they readily admit lead to most banking crises, with Australia featuring in the top five of each of their highlighted risk assessments.

“……our research indicates that boom-bust patterns in house prices preceded more than two-thirds of the recent 50 systemic banking crises…..” IMF “Era of Benign Neglect of House Price Booms is Over” June 11 2014

The IMF claims the ‘neglect of house price booms is over’ but as the OECD ‘Post Mortem’ of the 2008 crises reveals, these economists can’t see

They ignore the role that rent (unearned income,) debt and the financial sector play in shaping the economy.

They have a colourful history of recurrent boom bust land cycles, all replete with rampant speculation and easy credit, spanning in excess of 300 years from which to study … and yet;

“The macroeconomic models available at the time of the crisis typically ignored the banking system…” (OECD Forecasts During And After The Financial Crisis: A Post Mortem – February 2014)

In other words, based on the aesthetic qualities of their equations, the 2006/7 bubble couldn’t exist. A story we hear repeated every year as prices continue to defy gravity and economist try and explain it away with ‘sound fundamentals.’

Neo-liberal policy made matters worst.

Less government interference protecting labour or redistributing wealth through taxing the rich, deregulation of capital markets, lowering trade barriers, reducing state influence though privatisation and fiscal austerity – was termed by American scholar Robert Waterman McChesney “Capitalism with the gloves off.”

It promised to lead to efficient markets and lower unemployment

But at the onset of the GFC, unemployment in developed nations rose above any previous recession of the past three decades, whilst wages, as a share of GDP plummeted to their lowest point since the Second World War.

GDP+Wages

“This should be a wake-up call…” concluded the UN in their annual Trade and Development report that revealed the findings;

“There must be something fundamentally wrong with an economic theory, that justifies the rise of inequality mainly in terms of the need to tackle persistent unemployment.” Annual report by the UN Conference on Trade and Development 2012, Ch 11. Section C (analysing the effects of “labour market flexibility.”)

In the UK, Bank of England has imposed a 4.5 times loan to income cap on 85% of mortgages, along with various ‘stress tests’ to please the regulators.

But the Council of Mortgage lenders show only 19% of recent London mortgages are at or above this ratio, whilst the national figure is a mere 9%.

By volume, London accounts for around a quarter of loans nationally, (Q1) so the 85% cap will do little to nothing, except perhaps eliminate home ownership for low-income groups.

But stemming inflation or deterring speculative activity is not, and never will be, Central Bank policy;

Carney – “These actions should not restrain current market housing activity … these actions will have minimal impact in the future if the housing market evolves in line with the Bank’s central view,” (i.e. up) Guardian – “Bank of England will not act on house prices yet” 27 June 2014

In the U.S.A just five megabanks and their holding companies control a derivatives market worth hundreds of trillions of dollars, in Australia the ‘Big Four’ command 80% of the market and 88% of residential mortgages.

‘These are the men who have the most economic power in the world’ wrote British philosopher, mathematician and historian, Bertrand Russell, one of the 20th century’s leading logicians; “..and they derive it from land, minerals, and credit, in combination.” 

Russell understood only too well, that all productive gains, every improvement in society and the economy, would be capitalised into rising land values, enriching those who owned the assets but more so, those who created the credit and traded on the debt.

Milton Friedman meanwhile tutored that societies are structured on greed.

But greed means taking something from another, grasping for a larger slice of the pie. (see; pareto efficiency.)

Greed is not a natural feature of a well functioning community; rather it’s a feature of a dysfunctional economy that allows a country’s wealth to gravitate into an elite nucleus of financially strong hands.

It remains that the economy is fuelled by what is termed the FIRE sector – Finance, Insurance, and Real Estate.

The FIRE Economy is dependent on rising asset prices – on you and me buying houses – so it can extract economic rent.

The three sectors work together – they’re intrinsically linked.

The banking sector pumps a colossal amount of credit into the system by way of a home loan. Real estate businesses sell the products – some trading as REITs – insurance companies underwrite the owners debt, property, and income, and as the interest payments compound – doubling and doubling again – the debt is recycled into more lending, more borrowing, higher house prices – making those who trade on the debt in an obscure concentrated market of derivatives, increasingly wealthy.

Bubble FIRE

Bubble Economics: Australian Land Speculation 1830 – 2013, by Paul D. Egan and Philip Soos

The Government, many members of which come directly from the industry itself, receive substantial payments from the FIRE sector.

For example, between 1998 and 2008 the banking industry spent $3.4 billion lobbying the US government.

In Australia, the ICAC investigations into Illegal donations from developers and “wealthy property tycoons” reveal tens of thousands of dollars have been used to influence decisions by local, state and federal governments.

It should therefore be of no surprise that ‘affordable housing policy’ always seems to work in reverse.

Generous subsidies are handed over to investors – all of which are capitalised into land prices.

Restraints on supply are imposed, ‘rich neighbourhoods’ are protected from over development, land on the fringes is no longer dirt cheap, acreages are banked, exempt from State Land Tax until subdivision at the owner’s pleasure.

To survive, the FIRE sector must effectively sell the illusion that the economy can grow on rooftops, that we can all take part in an orgy of economic rent.

“Only the little people pay taxes” (i.e. work for a living) – we can all become wealthy through property investment, dining out and trading on leveraged gains, perhaps donating a little to charity, or taking part in some publicity-generating event to raise funds for homelessness along the way – as our politicians are fond of doing.

Of course, first homebuyers suffering alarm at rapidly escalating costs are necessary oxygen for the system.

So their judgement is manipulated as housing affordability is now reclassified as mortgage serviceability – how far the paycheque can stretch each month rather than highlighting the upfront cost, while young buyers are encouraged to enter the market as speculators, living off their parents, until they gain a ‘foothold’ from leveraging the equity.

Banks assist with an array of financial products – offset accounts, honeymoon rates, shared equity schemes – mortgages treated like credit card payments, where all that’s required is the interest and should the market collapse with money still outstanding, they’ll collect the house too.

The result is land is now used for greed rather than need, pushing city boundaries outwards, requiring an excessive use of durable capital, which eventually leads to a shortage of loanable funds. (Gaffney; Misallocation of Capital)

You will never be told the system can fail.

Instead you will hear that house prices can maintain a ‘high plateau’ – stagnate for a while until we all ‘catch up.’

However, the increase in the annual rate of growth is now part of the income that buyers pay for and lenders rely upon.

This is how real estate is sold – investors gravitate to areas that advertise ‘good capital gains,’ calculating the land’s value based on both the rent a tenant will pay plus the projected annual increase (land rent.)

Buyers live in fear of land values collapsing, yet, while prices trend higher, expectations over shoot the mark by no small degree. Landowners treat their unearned increment as income, raising consumption, lowering saving, putting to upward pressure on inflation, which eventually results in interest rates rising.

Never, throughout the course of history, has such a process been economically sustainable.

At some point the productive capacity of the economy can no longer support the boom – and as Australia’s history of land induced financial crises reveal, the end is not always as kind as experienced in 2008. Bubble Economics: Australian Land Speculation 1830 – 2013, by Paul D. Egan and Philip Soos

“House prices don’t always go up” warned the Governor of the RBA, Glenn Stevens at a recent speech in Hobart, just as he did in March, – a message he has repeatedly reiterated since appearing on Seven Network’s Sunrise in 2010.

But Australian investors aren’t listening to Glenn – they’re reading the media headlines, covering the latest findings in the BRW Rich 200, which shows property to be the ‘single biggest source of wealth,’ and entrepreneurs “piling into property faster than ever.”

Banks remain disturbingly under-capitalised.

“I’ve had land that has doubled in value in the past 12 months,” said Harry Triguboff ……… (BRW Rich 200: Fatter profits for property barons – 27th June 2014)

But while Triguboff paid a lot for his land, but he did not make his cheque payable to the local school, park, rail network, or the array of public and community services that yield his land a healthy source of locational revenue that grants such windfall gains.

His payment went direct to the previous owner of the land, who pocketed the profit, while the funding needed for maintaining the facilities and attracting workers to the city, come from an elaborate network of taxes, which fall primarily on income and productivity – ‘the little people.’

HTR

This is the kind of rent seeking most of us have some experience of, a process that effectively punishes and disheartens the priced out sectors of the community, whilst encouraging the hoarding of land as the road that leads to riches – thereby ignoring the social and ethical problems that result from the process.

The effect is to turn us into a nation of speculators where moral judgement is subverted by the unearned yields one can receive.

Investigate most societal problems, wages, housing, health, poverty, the loss of jobs to off shore markets, and this will be found at the root.

No one is born into poverty or inequality – these things are not by-products of nature – in a modern society the extremes we experience that lead to protests and riots over cuts in expenditure to welfare (a requirement exacerbated by the process outlined above) are due to policy and political ignorance.

When the Henry tax Review in 2008, concluded “economic growth would be higher if governments raised more revenue from land and less revenue from other tax bases”

It was onto something important.

Lifting taxes off labour and restructuring our tax and supply policies is a good start, but alone it won’t do.   Removing the power embedded in the banking industry to create credit based on their own vested interests is equally important, it would free up the creative capacity of the community and move instead toward a society and culture that is able to provide for all.

However it remains, that every effort in history to effect the changes suggested above have been fought by the establishment. In this respect, change can never come from the top down. It requires a system that can return democracy to the people through a slow process of re-education, and it’s a system we need to advocate if social and economic justice is the goal.

But until such a time, it’s business as usual, the cycle will play out the same and we have a way to go yet – but be well aware, the date for the next global financial crisis has been set.

 

(For information on specific timing for the current cycle please contact me direct.)