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.

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“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

Land, Governance, and Finance – “Our Distrust Is Very Expensive”

Land, Governance, and Finance – “Our Distrust is Very Expensive.”

By: Catherine Cashmore

In June 2013, as the Senate voted unanimously to hold an inquiry into the corporate watchdog ASIC. Chairman, Greg Medcraft, gave a keynote speech to the ‘Global Investor Education Conference.’

Using the allegory of a stool, Medcraft identified three essential components needed for an “efficient and effective” financial market;

  • A robust regulatory framework that is enforced effectively
  • A competitive financial services industry that offers quality products and services, and finally
  • Investors who feel confident when participating in the market, and are able to make sensible and informed financial decisions.”

Concluding;

“If one of the legs is missing, the stool will fall over.”

However, recent findings from the senate inquiry, along with media reports exposing wide spread corruption, political lobbying, and financial fraud within the banking industry, have proved all three legs of Medcraft’s stool are missing.

The regulator is at best a totally ineffective operator. At worst, allegedly guilty under the Crimes Act for actively concealing information from victims of financial fraud.

Charged with overseeing a sector that is more than 80% owned or tied to the big four banks and AMP , the Government will now cut funding to ASIC by $120.1 million over the next five years, while also watering down recommended reforms from the ‘Future of Financial Advice’ report.

The retrograde changes will allow planners to claim they’re working in the best interests of clients, whilst still collecting ‘targeted’ rewards for pimping their employer’s products – moves that will do little to inspire confidence in the public, or improve the quality of products offered.

When asked about the budget cuts, Medcraft commented;

“What it means is that we do not have the luxury of doing as much proactive surveillance.”

But, ASIC have not been doing ‘proactive surveillance.’

They have been systematically turning away and ignoring consumer concerns, resulting in more than 1100 people losing millions, due to alleged questionable practices by advisers from the CBA and other financial institutions.

It’s hard to conceive how Medcraft concluded we have a ‘competitive financial services industry.’

Together, Australia’s ‘Big Four’ control more than 80% of domestic assets – that is, assets held by any individual, business or organisation resident in the country.

They enjoy 89% of total banking sector profits, 82.5% of the net interest income from ADIs, loans, and advances, and 83.2% of total interest income from residential mortgages.

Moreover, bankers have important privileges.  They hold the keys to the economy. Want a house?  You’ll need a mortgage. Want an education?  You’ll need a student loan.

They have the power to endogenously create (from thin air) and direct the flow of their own, and other people’s money - amplifying the inflationary and deflationary swings of asset cycles – all backed by taxpayer-funded insurance should their plans go awry.

Meanwhile, investors battling an economy tilted toward privilege, that does not allow workers on an average wage to achieve a comfortable retirement through saving alone, are charged with assessing the risks associated with an increasing array of elaborate financial products, which in itself, keeps dependence on industry ‘advice’ from sales agents whose moral judgement is subverted by the fees, commissions, and kickbacks they receive.

The system is pinned on trust and as American lecturer, Ralph Waldo Emerson once commented;

“Our distrust is very expensive.”

When trust breaks down, so do economies. It is therefore no surprise that in the latest annual survey of chief executives, put together by the Financial Services Council – ‘trust’ comes top of the list, followed by regulatory overload and sustainability, as the top three threats to industry profits.

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“Industry leaders recognise there is a need to restore consumer confidence following global events such as the financial crisis.”

The wording in the report is mild, placing both focus and blame on the ‘GFC.’

However, former ASIC employee, lawyer and whistle blower to the recent senate inquiry, James Wheeldon, paints a picture of what is little more than a sales industry, spruiking its goods with glossy prospectuses, celebrity glamour shots, arrows pointing ever skyward, while the serious warnings are wrapped up in incomprehensible language and buried deep within the reports.

He cites the example of financial service provider RAMS, which in 2007 offered shares in its ‘Home Loan Group,’ – gifting both founder and major shareholder, John Kinghorn, $500 million – before collapsing just three weeks later as a result of a ‘major liquidity disruption.’

At the time RAMS claimed it was, ‘the victim of unforeseeable circumstances.’ 

In reality, the ‘major liquidity disruption’ hinted at within the small print of the report, was already underway.

Investors who purchased RAM’s Home Loan shares at the time, did not see the economic collapse coming – much less so those who bought into Real Estate Investment Trust (REITs) during the run up to the peak.

This is because the advisors in the banking industry will never acknowledge how Australia’s rising land values, far from being indication of economic prosperity, bear their consequence in a gradual destabilisation of the economy.

More than half the value of household assets (54%,) is comprised of real estate. While superannuation along with life policies – a significant and rising percentage of which is also invested into property – accounts for a further 25%.

Additionally, property also makes up a large percentage of stock market value, not just in the form of REITs and housing related companies, industry studies indicate that real estate makes up more than 25% of the assets on an average corporate balance sheet.

But, while it is well accepted that a housing bubble yields disastrous consequences and should be avoided at any cost, (although, is in fact promoted at great cost.) There is far less focus on how fluctuations in market prices bear a consequential affect on business activity, which ultimately yields to the same result.

Statistician Victor Niederhoffer and Laurel Kenner, cover the subject briefly in their book; ‘Practical Speculation’ with additional updated research that can be sourced on their website ‘Daily Speculation.’

They make the point that stock market investors can gain valuable insights from studying the land cycle – dispelling the conventional belief that gains in stocks drive up real estate prices because people have more money to invest.

Using a REIT index as a general proxy for values, they note an ‘amazingly’ large correlation between changes in property prices over the course of one quarter, and the S&P 500 index, the next.

Their research demonstrates that quarterly declines in REIT prices, can forecast overall market gains at close to twice the normal rate in the following quarter – yet, when viewed in reverse;

“…the correlation between the change in stocks in one quarter and the change in REIT prices the next quarter however, was close to zero”

The research helped them conclude that it is the housing cycle that ultimately leads the business cycle – not the other way around, as is often assumed.

The authors employed their analysis to successfully predict an imminent decline in real estate values in March 2002 – receiving wide spread criticism from industry advocates who suggested their warnings belonged “in the trash can.

However, as they go on to note;

“The torrent of vituperation is instructive in many ways. As economists who study the subject invariably conclude, contradictions are likely just when developers and banks are most convinced that business conditions warrant expansion.”

The concept, ignored by most real estate advocates is simple enough to understand.

Land is the beginning of all production.

All economic activity needs land – and therefore the value of land has a powerful impact on the activities that take place above.

Lower land prices enable production to expand, assisting small businesses and innovative ‘start ups.’

On the other hand, an excess of rent – the capitalised tradable value that is locked into the price – leads to a decline in business activity, as owners and tenants are required to take on a higher level of debt, to service the associated costs.

For the lender, it’s an extremely profitable exercise.

Banks quite literally ‘mortgage the earth.’

For each new buyer that moves onto a previously paid off plot, a new contract is issued.

Buyers purchase for tomorrow’s capital gains – with rents and company profits used to service the debt rather than expand their core business and the land used as collateral.

“Once upon a time, tenants paid rent for the use of land to landlords. Today, the bulk of those rents are disguised as interest and paid to the financial sector to fund mortgages” (British economist Fred Harrision)

The process is self-feeding – property prices are valued against recent sales. The higher property prices become, the more buyers need to borrow – the more buyers borrow, the more bank created credit is lent into existence against what is now little more than a speculative premium, encouraging vendors to hold out for ever increasing returns.

The rising appraised market value of a banks’ mortgage portfolio coupled with the need to meet shareholder expectations of return, further encourages lending – amplifying the volatility of the cycle, particularly during periods of easy monetary policy.

As the air is sucked out of the productive sectors of the economy, depressing both wages and job growth, increasing the costs of welfare and compromising the ability of monetary policy to stimulate demand.  Assets inflate, while the ‘real economy’ stagnates and the sharp rise in interest rates, that typically comes towards the end of the cycle – when it is noted far too late in the game, that prices have exceeded any thread of rationality – is enough to tip the balance.

In the case of a crash, the last buyer in will be the biggest loser. The banks however, will be ‘saved.’ And with land prices now low enough to attract new investment, the stock market, which prices in recovery ahead of time, will be first to rise from the ashes.

For the elite, this system works perfectly.

It makes those at the top of the pyramid very rich.

Therefore the economic disasters that derive from this process are passed off as unforeseeable ‘Black Swan’ events. Except – they are not – they can be predicted with quite a degree of accuracy.

We have enough reliable public data to trace the land-driven boom bust cycles over hundreds of years.

Some of the older data sets include Homer Hoyt’s classic ‘100 Years of Land Values in Chicago, 1833-1933,’ which details five major crashes that affected not just Chicago, but the whole of the USA.

Real estate analyst Roy Wenzlick, author of the 1936 publication “The Coming Boom in Real Estate” produced similar research, monitoring transaction volumes, rents, values and construction into the early 1900s.

Maastricht Professor, Piet Eichholtz’s index of prices for the Herengracht canal area in Amsterdam, which begins during the 1600s, an era associated with a fall in land values of 50% – and shows a similar pattern of volatility right through to the late 1900s.

A comprehensive history of cyclical research around the globe, can be found in the work of scholars such as Philip J. Anderson, Mason Gaffney, Fred Harrison, and most recently, the publication ‘Bubble Economics,’ by Paul D. Egan and Philip Soos, which records the Australian history of speculative land crashes from the 1800s onwards.

The precursor is always a rapid run up in land price to GDP and consequently bears evidence of a marked increase in consumer debt for the purpose of lending against speculation, rather than investment into productive activities.

This has been the trigger for all of Australia’s recessions. The 1890’s, 1930’s and more recently 1974–1975, 1982–1983, and 1990–1991, and would have additionally been the trigger in 2008, had Kevin Rudd not thrown every last penny of a budget surplus (and then some,) into propping up house prices and preventing any significant private debt de-leveraging.

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(Philip Soos)

Of course, the clear and obvious link between land price volatility and the ongoing negative effects on both society and the economy, should be enough to push ministers to more than just tinker at the edges of both real estate, monetary and regulatory policy.

As former CEO of the Commonwealth Bank and head of the Financial System Inquiry, David Murray, correctly noted last week, distorted asset prices” will eventually “cause a correction” resulting in “political pressure on financial systems.” 

The type of political pressure that will ultimately fall upon the taxpayer to chip in, when the institutions that have monopolised the public rents, need to be bailed out.

The RBA is also not ignorant of these matters – they were covered in detail in their 24th annual conference in 2012, co-hosted with the Bank for International Settlements;

The crisis has challenged the benign neglect approach to real estate (and other asset price) bubbles. That approach was backed by a theoretical framework that saw the structure and behaviour of financial intermediaries largely as macroeconomic-neutral and by the belief that policy was well equipped to deal with the consequences of a bust.”

In it, Glenn Stevens noted that;

Monetary policy cannot surely ignore any incentive it creates for risk-taking behaviour and leverage. Simply expecting to clean up after the credit boom is not sufficient .. the mess might be so large that monetary policy ends up not being able to do the job”

Yet monetary policy does ignore it – as do the regulators.

Following the senate inquiry, in July 2014Greg Medcraft  was interviewed by the ‘Centre for International Finance and Regulation’ as part of a symposium on ‘Market and Regulatory Performance.’

The theme that emerged from the interview and the conference as a whole, was the need for a change of culture within the banking sector.

However when Medcraft was asked if he agreed with Governor of the Bank Of England, Mark Carney, who suggested regulation should play a critical role in changing culture, the response was telling;

“No I don’t think the regulator can change culture… it’s not about complying strictly with the law, but just making sure you pass the perception test… how would it look if this became public”

‘How it would look if this became public’ - was discovered, when Lindsay David, Paul D. Egan, and Philip Soos, published details of the dwelling investments held by our Federal members of parliament – causing outrage on social media toward what is a clear conflict of interest impeding the ability of MPs, to successfully address issues relating to housing affordability, and ultimately head off another financial crisis.

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Yet, despite the social and ethical problems that result from the process, our politicians that own substantial investments in real estate are merely the ‘pin up’ boys and girls for an industry, born of a culture that promotes an unsustainable system of leveraged debt and rising land values as the road to both freedom and riches.

It has driven up the cost of housing – damaging the potential of future generations, with a lifetime worth of debt sold as “forced savings,” whilst the interest is re-packaged an into an array of obscure financial instruments, allowing the country’s wealth to gravitate into an elite nuclei of financially strong hands.

Only by removing the accelerants  that produce this behaviour – contained in our tax, supply and monetary policies – can we start to address the systemic boom and bust cycles that lay us open to financial crises.

 “Freedom to buy into injustice is not justice. The opportunity to invest in feudalism does not end serfdom.”  Adam J. Monroe Jr

Every citizen in Australia would be richer by a significant margin if we collected the economic rents from, land, resources, banking profits, government grated licences and so forth – the ‘commonwealth’ of the country –and used these to fund society’s needs rather than inflicting harsh penalties and impeding economic growth, in the form of dead weight taxes on earnings and productivity, to feed an elevated level of speculative demand.

In addition to this, we must remove all barriers that increase the cost of land at the margin, with an overhaul of supply side policy – ensuring cheap land is available for need, not greed.

It’s impossible to have a trustworthy banking system, until we first create an honest system surrounding the fundamental principles of property rights.

Ultimately, this must come by way of a collective and democratic agreement – ‘a discussion over what belongs to you, me, and critically – us.’

However, until such time, we remain subject to the self-satisfied complacency of our politicians, who continue to undermine the people’s trust.