‘Speculative Vacancies’ – The Empty Properties Ignored By Statistics

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By Catherine Cashmore

There have been four housing affordability inquiries since the early 2000s.

The “First Home Ownership” inquiry by the Productivity Commission (2004). The Senate Select Committee inquiry into housing affordability (2008). The inquiry into affordable housing by the Senate Economics References Committee (2014), and the current Inquiry into home ownership by the Standing Committee on Economics (2015).

The central recommendation of each inquiry has been to increase the supply of affordable housing.

However, missing from the analysis is any mention of the number of long-term vacant dwellings held for speculative gain across Australia’s major capital cities – not for sale, and not for rent.

Because they are not publicly advertised, these properties are overlooked by current short-term vacancy statistics based on reporting by real estate firms.

Prosper Australia’s annual Speculative Vacancies report uncovers these latent holdings. Using water data as a proxy, we provide a unique insight into the number and ratio of long-term vacancies withheld from the market for a full 12-month period in Melbourne.

Stratified by postcode, the report provides a detailed study to enlighten government on sound policy recommendations to drive prosperity and assist housing affordability.

We cannot have a serious conversation about Australia’s housing supply ‘crisis’ without addressing the fundamental drivers that permit – no-less encourage – owners to lay a significant proportion of prime urban land to waste.

There are many diverse motivating factors prompting owners to leave buildings idle. Some may be undergoing renovation or awaiting demolition. Others may be derelict and in need of substantial and costly repairs.

However, the notable trend underlying the data is the large divergence between residential real estate prices and rental incomes – including both actual and imputed rents on owner-occupation.

During the 2014/2015 financial year alone, Melbourne’s median capital city land price accelerated over 14 per cent.

At just over $700,000, Melbourne’s median house price is 8.8 times median income. Yet, at just 3 per cent, gross rental yields in Melbourne are at their lowest on record.

Real net rental incomes across Australia have been declining since 2001. Between 1994 and 2013, the number of negatively geared investors dependent on rising prices to profit escalated 152 per cent. In contrast, positively geared investors have increased by a much lesser 47 per cent.

The overwhelming majority of negatively geared investors (95 per cent) chase the capital gains associated with existing stock, rather than investing into new residential construction. Australia’s housing stock has been turned into little more than a vehicle for financial speculation, placing increasing pressure on prices.

To evidence further, since 1997, the share of loans for housing has increased from 47 per cent to 66 per cent. Only approximately 10 per cent of the flow of housing finance has been for the construction of new dwellings. Meanwhile, the ratio of business credit to total credit has been declining since the late 1980s.

Credit extended for enterprise is proven to be positively associated with economic growth and faster reductions in income inequality. Household credit (principally mortgage debt) provides no such benefit. Rather, it leads to a misallocation of credit, to feed an elevated level of speculative rent-seeking demand.

It is important to note that increasing land values are not borne from any productive activity undertaken by the owner who (as the classical economist John Stewart Mill termed it) “grows rich in their sleep without working, risking or economising.”

Rather, the value of land reflects its surrounds, growing primarily through increased demand generated by government-funded infrastructure.

Rising land-values yield a special type of unearned income known as “economic rent.”

As a broad measure, land prices can be calculated by multiplying current rents by 20 years. This is known as the capitalisation rate.

It is speculation induced by the capitalisation of the rental value of land into a tradable commodity that drives the boom-bust volatility of the real estate cycle.

Withholding prime locations from the market in an unused state generates artificial scarcity, raising prices and accelerating mortgage debt.

It underpins our cultural obsession of betting on bourgeoning land-price gains and using leverage to climb the mythological property ladder.

The consequential subversion to policy reform is inevitable, as the benefits of government-funded infrastructure flow disproportionately to landowners in the form of unearned windfall gains.

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

They lead to ‘speculative vacancies.’

These are properties that are denied to thousands of tenants and potential owner-occupiers by landowners that have no motivation to generate any rental income. The result is a lowering of publicised vacancy rates, and increased land prices.

The regulatory environment provides a prime motivator for property speculation.

Landowners betting on a continuation of past high rates of appreciation are advantaged by preferential tax exemptions worth an estimated $36 billion a year.

Negative gearing coupled with the 50 per cent capital gains tax (CGT) discount for property held in excess of 12 months, have ensured high-income individuals are the main beneficiaries of rising land values. The top 40 per cent of income earners hold nearly 80 per cent of all investor mortgage debt.

First home buyer grants and other state incentives such as stamp duty waivers, owner-occupier exemptions from CGT and state land tax (SLT), changes to the superannuation laws enabling leverage into real estate (2007) – typify the commodification of property as a tool for profit seeking gain, advantaging existing owners vis-à-vis the young and the poor.

These incentives strip away any hope of a market aspiring to house people, rather than encouraging speculative greed. Policies that foster land price inflation and reward rent-seeking behaviour cannot deliver positive economic outcomes.

The IMF finds more than two-thirds of the world’s recent 50 systemic banking crises were caused by patterns of accelerating real estate prices relative to GDP.

A comprehensive analysis of historical data demonstrates a clear pattern of repeating real estate and construction cycles topping-out some 24-48 months prior to the world’s major economic downturns.

This cyclical top has been a precursor to all of Australia’s economic recessions.

Yet, it is not the recession that damages the economy. The damage arises from mounting levels of leveraged debt extended for the purpose of land speculation.

In a little over two decades, the share of investment property loans as a proportion of total debt has tripled from one-tenth to three-tenths.

Investors now account for 40 per cent of total housing loans outstanding.19 Australia is the third most indebted household sector relative to GDP in the OECD.

At just over $2 trillion,21 the unconsolidated household debt to GDP ratio sits at an eye-watering 121.5 per cent.

The burden of diverting an ever-increasing proportion of incomes to debt-servicing by both business and buyers has progressively undermined the health and competitiveness of the Australian economy.

The long-term risks to our financial system are precarious. The economic impacts for low- to middle-income Australian’s are disastrous.

Ownership for 15-34 year olds has been in a downward trend since the mid 1970s. For 35-44 year olds, since the mid 1980s.

Even those able to step onto the fabled property ladder, long-term security of tenure is not guaranteed. Significant numbers are ‘churning’ on the edges of owner occupation.

Between 2001 and 2010, one in five homeowners (22 per cent) dropped out of home ownership – for 9 per cent, this move was enduring.

For those that do purchase, there is a spike in the chances of a termination back into rental housing after just one year.

Importantly, the trend is accompanied with episodes of poor health, unemployment and financial stress.

After exiting homeownership, 34 per cent of Australian ex-home owners require access to housing assistance. Additionally, one in 10 Australians has been homeless at least once in their lives.

The incidence of housing stress for owner-occupiers declines with age, however, for long-term tenants and those under 35 years, it remains stubbornly high.

Current policy cements this demographic at the bottom of the pile.

Ineffective use of residential and commercial sites further stimulates the volatility and inequity of the real estate cycle. Land’s locational supply cannot be increased to accommodate rising demand. Buildings banked and withheld from use exacerbate this disparity.

As such, the SV rate can be likened to the unemployment rate for land.

It results in the productive capacity of the economy being ruthlessly compromised as citizens and businesses are forced to pay higher prices and commute greater distances for employment and lifestyle needs.

Prosper Australia’s Speculative Vacancies report gives a unique insight into the impact of current housing policy.

The report identifies 82,724 residential dwellings and 30,085 commercial properties in Greater Melbourne likely vacant for a period of 12-months or more.

As government and real estate industry vacancy statistics are neither impartial nor comprehensive, this 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.

We advocate these figures should correlated along side our Speculative Vacancy findings to produce the widest and clearest measure of vacant housing supply to guide policy makers.

Read the report

… extract from Executive Summary:

....If just those residential properties consuming 0LpD were placed onto the market for rent, this would increase Melbourne’s actual vacancy rate to 8.3 per cent. If 82,724 properties using under 50LpD were advertised for rent, the vacancy rate could rise to an alarming 18.9%. (1)

Further examination of 130,610 non-residential properties across 254 postcodes over the same period identifies 7,941 or 6.1 per cent of Melbourne’s commercial stock was also vacant over 2014, i.e. having consumed 0LpD.

Government failure to address Australia’s housing affordability crisis is indefensible. Access to affordable shelter is a basic human right and underlies national prosperity.

Vacant properties impose a needless economic burden. Residents and businesses are forced to leapfrog vacancies to lesser sites at great cost, increasing commuting times and placing upward pressure on prices.

Latent supply is usually not visible without a significant downturn in economic activity. If withheld stock were put to use, it would reduce cost-of-living pressures for tens of thousands of low and middle-income families and businesses marginalised by the cost of land.

This report recommends fundamental reforms to reduce the propensity for volatile boom-bust land cycles fuelled by speculation and unsustainable levels of household debt.

Current property taxes discourage investment into new housing, inflate the cost of land, stagnate housing turnover and hinder putting property to its highest and best use.

The report advocates that profound inefficiencies could be significantly alleviated if current transaction taxes were phased out and replaced with a holding tax levied on the unimproved value of land, alongside enhanced infrastructure financing methods for new developments.

Policy makers have thus far ignored Melbourne’s speculative vacancies and their effect on property prices.

With some 4.8 per cent of Melbourne’s houses showing severe under-utilisation, there is no housing supply crisis. Rather, rising prices indicate significant distortions created by policies supporting rent-seeking behaviour.

Government and statistical bodies need to recognise this disparity and employ a more comprehensive data analysis of vacant housing stock.

Read the report

Footnotes:

[1] Residential per capita consumption in Melbourne is currently 183 LpD.

http://www.afr.com/real-estate/leaky-data-water-use-shines-a-light-on-occupancy-20151207-glhewz

http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2015-12-08/nobody-s-home-australian-boom-leaves-swathe-of-empty-properties

http://www.news.com.au/finance/real-estate/shocking-number-of-melbourne-properties-left-vacant-despite-huge-housing-demand/news-story/4dc12b7033d1e43e91458b673fdabf79

http://www.domain.com.au/news/nearly-20-per-cent-of-melbournes-investorowned-homes-empty-20151209-glixgs/

http://www.businessspectator.com.au/news/2015/12/9/property/vacant-properties-soar-victoria

http://www.macrobusiness.com.au/2015/12/the-melbourne-ghost-city-revealed-2/

Also covered by “Friendly Jordies

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=clC_vIlbtME

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

Skyscraper Hubris – Pride Before A Fall

By – Catherine Cashmore

“Bill, how high can you make it so that it won’t fall down?” reportedly asked financier John J. Raskob, as he pulled out a thick pencil from his drawer, and held it up to William F. Lamb, the architect he had employed to design and construct The Empire State Building.

It was the ‘race to the sky’ and it marked the peak of the roaring Twenties. Capturing what is perhaps one of the most exciting periods in New York’s history.

“Never before have such fortunes been made overnight by so many people,” said American journalist and Statesman Edwin LeFevre (1871–1943)

While areas of the economy such as agriculture and farming, were still struggling to gain ground from the post WWI depression, and a large proportion of the population continued to live in relative poverty. Advances in technology, rapid urbanisation and mass advertising accelerating consumer demand, produced an era of such sustained economic prosperity, it led Irving Fischer one of America’s ‘greatest mathematical economists’ to famously conclude that:

“Stock prices have reached what looks like a permanently high plateau.”

“Only the hardiest spoilsports rose to protest that the wild and unchecked speculative fever might be bad for the country.” Wrote historian Paul Sann, in his publication, ‘The Lawless decade.’

“The money lay in stacks in Wall Street, waiting to be picked up. You had to be an awful deadhead not to go get some.”

Land values of course captured the gains, and between 1921 and 1929 lending on real estate increased by 179%, and urban prices more than doubled.

According to research collated by Professor Tom Nicholas and Anna Scherbina at the Harvard Business School in Boston, by 1930 values in Manhattan, including the total value of building plans, contained “only slightly less than 10% of the total for 310 United States cities (Manhattan included) during the same period.”

A staggering figure considering Manhattan at the time, contained only 1.5% of the US population.

Few raised concerns however.

It was believed the Federal Reserve Act, created in 1913 “to furnish an elastic currency” would tame the business cycle and – as the First Chairman of the Federal Reserve Charles S Hamlin put it:

“..relegate to its proper place, the museum of antiquities – the panic generated by distrust in our banking system..”

The National bank runs of the past had been exacerbated because there was ‘no stretch’ in times of crisis, or moderation in the rates of interest.

However, the bulk of lending against real estate over this period was not limited to New York, or to institutions that were members of the Federal Reserve.

Thousands of new banks were setting themselves up in outlying areas and as noted by Elmus Wicker, author of ‘The Banking Panics of the Great Depression

“..(they) were either operated by real estate promoters or exhibited excess enthusiasm to finance a local real estate boom”

It brought with it a period of high inflation, and coupled with speculation in real estate securities, produced an explosion in the value of construction that would not be equalled until the boom and bust era of the late 1980s.

NY construction(Tom Nicholas and Anna Scherbina – Real Estate Prices During the Roaring Twenties and the Great Depression)

By 1925 real estate bond issues accounted for almost one quarter of all the corporate debt supplied – and between 1925 and 1929 alone, a quarter of New York’s financial district was rebuilt and 17,000,000 square feet of new office-space added.

This, prompted the owners of the grand Waldorf-Astoria Hotel at 34th Street and Fifth Avenue to sell.

Arising from a family feud between two competing cousins, the iconic guesthouse had been built at the top of a preceding boom and bust land cycle in the early 1890’s, and as ‘the most luxurious hotel in the world’ stood 17 stories high towering above the surrounding residences.

W&A hotel

By the late 1920s however, the décor had become dated and the social elite had centred themselves much further north.

The owner’s decision to upgrade into the Park Avenue district, and build what was then, ‘the tallest hotel in the world’ allowed John J. Raskob to acquire the site for The Empire State Building for the not so small sum of $16 million.

Raskob needed a further $50 million for construction, which he achieved by way of a $27.5 million dollar mortgage, as well as engaging with a limited number of substantial backers.

“If the amounts seem considerable the backers knew that this was a money maker. The building would be the greatest showcase in the city filled with them.  And tenants would line up to print “Empire State Building” on their letterhead….” wrote Robert A. Slayton author of Empire Statesman: The Rise and Redemption of Al Smith

The location was later criticised for being too far from public transport, but no such concerns were raised at the time.

New York office leases began on May 1st – the sooner the building was completed, the sooner it would bring in an income and notwithstanding, Raskob’s two main competitors also in the race for height supremacy – auto industry giant Walter Chrysler and investment banker George Ohrstrom – had already commenced.

Chrysler had seized his opportunity when gratuitous plans for an opulent office block designed by architect William Van Alen had fallen through due to financing.

He took over the project with clear intentions.

Adjusting the tower’s ascetics to reflect the company’s triumphs, with gargoyles, eagles and corner ornaments made to look like the brand’s 1929 radiator caps. Chrysler instructed the builders to make sure his toilet was ‘the highest in Manhattan’ so he could look down and as one observer put it, “shit on Henry Ford and the rest of the world.”

garg

Around the same time, George Ohrstrom, also determined to set the record, purchased the site that was to become the headquarters of The Bank of Manhattan at 40 Wall St (now the Trump Tower.)

Ohrstrom’s architect was H. Craig Severance, former partner and competitor to Walter Chrysler’s designer, Van Alen – and the bitter rivalry between the two added considerably to the dynamic.

Construction for 40 Wall St start started in May 1929 and no less than one month later, in April of the same year, fearing the competition Chrysler reportedly called his architect in frustration exclaiming:

“Van, you’ve just got to get up and do something. It looks as if we’re not going to be the highest after all. Think up something! Your valves need grinding. There’s a knock in you somewhere. Speed up your carburettor. Go to it!”  Higher: A Historic Race to the Sky and the Making of a City Neal Bascomb

Van Alen subsequently increased the height of the Chrysler tower to 925-feet and added more stories – 72 in total.

Not to be outdone however, Severance added 4 extra floors to his own design, extending the building’s height to 927-feet – only marginally taller than Van Alen’s efforts, but by this stage the steel frame for the Chrysler building had already been completed and in Ohrstrom’s mind, he had already won.

The Bank of Manhattan was finished at record speed, taking just 93 days in total – meeting the May 1st deadline and setting the record for skyscraper construction.

40 wall st

It opened with great celebration – with Ohrstrom boastfully laying claim to the title of “the world’s tallest,” while in blissful ignorance of the final trick Chrysler had yet to pull from his sleeve.

Replacing the original plans of a dome shaped roof, Van Alen enhanced the design with the addition of a 186 foot iconic spire, which was hoisted to the top of the structure in secret and assembled in a mere 90 minutes.

chrysler

This raised the building’s height to 1,046 feet, a total of 77 floors – allowing Chrysler, less than one month later to trump Ohrstrom’s record.

The battle continued long after both blocks were completed, with the consulting architects of 40 Wall Street, Shreve & Lamb, writing a newspaper article claiming that their building contained the highest useable floor and was therefore more deserving of the title.

The Empire State Building however, was to settle the matter.

Hamilton Weber the original rental manager, takes up the story.

“We thought we would be the tallest at 80 stories. Then the Chrysler went higher, so we lifted the Empire State to 85 stories, but only four feet taller than the Chrysler. Raskob was worried that Walter Chrysler would pull a trick – like hiding a rod in the spire and then sticking it up at the last minute” The Empire State Building Book by Jonathan Goldman

The solution to Raskob’s worries was to add what he quaintly termed “a hat!” – marketed as a mooring mast for dirigibles – although never utilised due to the strong winds and updrafts that circulated at the top.

This raised the building’s height to 1,250 feet, easily outstripping both Chrysler’s and Ohrstrom’s efforts, allowing Raskob to scoop the title.

Taking just 13 months to complete, 58 tons of steel, 60 miles of water pipe, 17 million feet of telephone cable and appliances to burn enough electricity to power the New York city of Albany. The Empire State building with 2.1 million square feet of rentable space opened on May 1st 1931 empty – just as the country was entering one of the worst economic depressions in recorded history.

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Dubbed ‘The Empty State Building’ – it did not turn over a profit until 1950 putting Raskob who, in 1929 had penned the famous article ‘Everybody Ought to be Rich‘ by investing in “America’s booming corporate economy,” deep in the red.

The history of this era is a fascinating study.  However as entertaining as the story is, it does not stand in isolation.

From long before the Empire State Building was completed, to the most recent example – the Burj Khalifa in Dubai – mankind’s quest to reach the heavens and demonstrate power through the imposing dominance of boasting ‘the world’s tallest’ structure has – with no notable exception – commenced at the peak of each real estate cycle and opened its doors during the bust.

The pattern is easy to follow:

Improvements in the economy are first reflected in rents, which adjust quicker to market conditions than associated expenses – insurance and utility rates for example – which are subject to contract and therefore typically rise out of step.

This in turn attracts speculative investment, pushing prices upwards beyond the cost of replacement, fuelling a cyclical rise in construction – usually for the purpose of speculation, rather than genuine homebuyer demand.

The steeper land values become, the higher the building must be in order to achieve a profitable return, this in turn increases demand to concentrate both labour and capital around what is usually a centralised core.

There is however a lag in the time it takes for high-density construction to reach the market – usually a number of years – before the extra supply can drive down both rents and values, resulting in the building boom outlasting the boom in prices, and an overhang of vacancies when the fervour dissipates.

Notwithstanding, there are limits to how high you can extend before the whole project becomes unprofitable.

William Mitchell, dean of the School of Architecture and Planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, makes the following point in his 2005 publication ‘Placing Words Symbols, Space, and the City.’

… floor and wind loads, people, water and supplies must be transferred to and from the ground, so the higher you go, the more of the floor area must be occupied by structural supports, elevators and service ducts.  At some point it becomes uneconomical to add additional floors, the diminishing increment of useable floor area, does not justify the additional cost.”

In a subsequent publication he goes one-step further.

“I suspect you would find that going for the title of ‘tallest’ is a pretty good indicator of CEO and corporate hubris. I would look not only at ‘tallest in the world,’ but also more locally—tallest in the nation, the state, or the city. And I’d also watch out for conspicuously tall buildings in locations where the densities and land values do not justify it”  ‘Practical Speculation’ By Victor Niederhoffer and Laurel, Kenner

Mitchell’s warning to look for the “tallest” is not to be taken lightly.

The New York Tribune Building for example, one of the world’s first skyscrapers boasting to be “the highest building on Manhattan Island” – opened in 1874 and coincided with the 1873 financial crisis in both Europe and North America.

The Manhattan Building in Chicago Illinois and the Pulitzer Building in New York, boasting the title of “the world’s tallest” – opened between 1890 and 1891 and coincided with one of the worst economic depressions of that time (particularly in Australia.)

The Singer Building and The Metropolitan Life Insurance Company Tower in New York, boasting the title of “the world’s tallest”  - opened in 1908 and 1909 respectively and coincided with stock market panic of 1907 (the Knickerbocker Crisis.)

The World Trade Centre in New York, boasting the title of “the tallest twin towers in the world” – opened in 1973 and coincided with the 1973-75 economic recession.

The Sears (or Willis) Tower, boasting the title of ’the world’s tallest” opened in May 1973, coinciding once again, with the 1973-75 recession.

The Petronas Towers in Malay – surpassing The World Trade Centre as “the tallest twin towers in the world” – opened its doors to tenants in 1997, coinciding with the Asian financial crisis.

The Taipai 101 in China, the first to exceed half a kilometre, boasting the title of “the world’s tallest” - opened in the early 2000s, coinciding with the ‘Dot.com’ bubble and burst.

And most recently, the Borj Khlifa in Dubai, the current ‘tallest in the world’ -, opened in 2009, coinciding the sub-prime crisis, estimated to be the worst economic disasters to date.

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There are numerous examples, and rarely do these structures go up alone.

As we are seeing currently both here and abroad, the rate of high-rise construction globally, stands at unprecedented levels – funded by low interest rates and a wash of easy credit.

Matthew Guy, Minister for Planning in Victoria, has been a staunch supporter of higher density dwellings, but the risks surrounding a boom on the scale we are witnessing presently, cannot be diminished.

The small one and two bedroom apartments, funded in main by offshore speculation, are poorly designed, lack natural light, do not offer value for money, and lay out the reach of most first home buyers who face tighter lending restrictions for dwellings of this type

Notwithstanding, Prosper Australia’s Speculative Vacancies report for Melbourne in 2013, revealed many of these properties sit empty – up to 22% in the Southbank and docklands area – a figure that could well be higher today, considering the rate of what can only be termed, ‘bubble’ construction.

And to make matters worst, there is growing evidence the approved sites for skyscraper construction are being ‘flipped’ prior to commencement, with new owners reapplying to have height limits extended still further.

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(Developers ‘flipping’ projects for huge profits – The AGE September 1, 2014)

The next ‘world’s tallest’ will be the proposed Azerbaijan Tower in Baku, due for completion in 2019 – and projected to be 1km high.

AT

It coincides nicely with the completion of ‘the tallest’ residential tower in the Southern Hemisphere – Australia 108 in Melbourne – which at 319 metres, will exceed the height of the current record holder – the Eureka Tower – and unless we see changes to current policy – will mark another period of financial instability.

Aus108

Only by removing the accelerants that produce this behaviour – contained in our tax, supply, regulatory and monetary policies – can we start to address the boom and bust cycles that lay us open to economic instability, fuelling the boastful passions of financiers at the expense of the rest of the population.

It is these policies that keep us locked around a centralised core, increasing the cost of land at the margin and resulting in decades of dead weight taxes on every worker in the country being clawed back by way of preferential tax treatment for those that speculate on the rising value of land.

Every citizen in Australia would be richer by a significant margin if we collected instead, the economic rent from land, resources, banking profits, government granted licences and so forth, and used these to fund society’s needs rather than progressively taxing productivity to feed an elevated level of rent seeking behaviour.

But until such a time there is only one moral to this story.

Pride comes before a fall.

 

 

 

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.

trust fsc

“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.

Soos GDP Land

(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.

Poli investments

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.

Nick Xenophon “Home affordability: a Super idea” – Really?

Nick Xenophon “Home affordability: a Super idea” – Really?

By Catherine Cashmore

Nick Xenophon (along with other groups, such as the REIA,) is advocating a policy that will be responsible for making housing affordability worst.

He is using the Canadian “Home Buyer Plan” as an example to promote a similar idea in Australia. That is – allowing first homebuyers to raid their Superannuation account – ‘sold’ under the pretext of ‘helping them get onto the property ladder.’

The theory goes that to “progress” up this mythological ladder, buyers must bet their income and in this case, future savings, on a speculative process that translates into higher house prices, without thought for the next generation of required ‘property ladder’ participants, who will no doubt fall dependant on similar schemes, to keep the tide rising.

The procedure in Canada allows eligible buyers to withdraw up to C$25,000 tax-free from their retirement fund, on the condition that they pay it back over a 15-year period.

If they fail to do this, the amount withdrawn will be taxed as per the income earner’s tax bracket. Currently, 35 per cent of Canadians fall into this category however, according to the CRA, roughly one out of two – that is, 47 per cent – contributed less than the required repayment amount over the 2011 tax year.

These means, while the Government picks up the added income revenue windfall, buyers, buoyed on by a rent seeking culture that fools the public into believing such policies are designed to be ‘helpful,’ over stretch their budget, and in weak economic conditions, are left to carry the can.

In short - you borrow money from yourself at 0 per cent interest and in doing so; lose 15 years of compounding ‘tax free’ interest with average returns in the order of 7 per cent.

It’s notable that many low to middle-income individuals have inadequate funds to draw upon, therefore even assuming the scheme were to be effective, it’s limited in the difference it can make.

But the real ‘nub’ of the issue, which Nick Xenophon has failed to acknowledge, is that the Canadian Home Buyer Plan was never intended to aid affordability.

It was promoted by the real estate industry as a temporary measure, following the recession in the late 1980’s, to stimulate land values and benefit the FIRE sector, along with it’s economic offshoots – renovations, furniture, appliances, moving costs, tax revenue to government and so forth.

The FIRE sector has lobbied to keep in place ever since and also pushed for the threshold to be raised.

This is because most Western economies have constructed their tax and supply policies, to reward real estate speculation over and above productive enterprise.

The process is assisted and abetted by a banking industry that seeks to lend against land as collateral, favouring the extraction of economic rent, over and above extending loans for the purpose of productive enterprise

canada

Canadian residential real estate tripled from an estimated C$1.3 Trillion in 2000 to C$3.8 trillion in 2014, however, only C$550 billion of this was for renovation projects or new home building – the rest was pure inflation.

By the end of 2011, the Home Buyer plan had been used 2.6 million times, with total withdrawals adding up to around $27.9-billion – that’s $27.9 billion of additional credit, feeding into existing house prices.

Between 2005 and 2011, Canadian house prices rose 58 per cent, while average income for 25-34 year olds, increased by just 6 per cent.

The Royal Bank of Canada reports that detached housing now requires more than 80 per cent of the median household income for mortgage payments in some of the country’s major cities.

Household debt to disposable income in Canada is currently 163.2 per cent, up from 129 per cent at the peak of the boom in 2006 and sitting only a few degrees lower than the recorded level in Australia.

SIZE OF HOUSEHOLD DEBT COMPARED WITH ANNUAL INCOME in Australia, Canada, France and Italy. (ABS)

aus canada

Mainstream economists like to focus on Government debt as a barometer of the heath of the economy. However, high and rising levels of private debt, as a consequence of such policies, constrain demand and eventually exceed the income and economic activity they helped create.

Nick Xenophon cites the Demographica Housing Affordability Report in his press release, however it’s clear he has not read it.

If he had, he would know that like Australia, Canada’s largest major markets are also rated as “severely unaffordable” – and by studying the ‘affordable markets’ such as Texas, or areas of Pittsburgh for example, Mr Xenophon would have a better understanding why these states avoided the harsh consequence of the GFC, and continue to generate healthy levels of economic growth.

Significantly, both cities have land tax and liberal supply policies that deter speculation – helping to keep real estate affordable, while investment is channelled into other areas of the local economy.

While, Australia rewards speculation, allowing the geo-rent (the unearned gains) from rising land values to capitalise into the land price, year upon year, taxing income earners, instead of resource rents, which by design, distorts economic activity, housing supply policy, and subverts social justice.

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(Ninety per cent of taxation revenue has distortionary effects, pushing up prices 23% higher than need be, while economic rents from land and natural resources have no such deadweight loss.)

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

At some point the productive capacity of the economy can no longer support the boom and the consequence, particularly for first homebuyers, can be particularly severe, as Australia’s history of land induced financial crises reveal.

However, when you appreciate how lucrative and wide spread this activity can be, it is very easy to see how policy fails us, and it’s additionally easy to assess why a country with a plentiful supply of land like Australia, submits its younger generation to a life time worth of debt slavery, just to get onto the ‘property ladder.’

 

 

Australia’s City Centric Culture and Failure to Decentralise

What Did The Recent Grattan Review “Mapping Australia’s Economy” Really Reveal?

By Catherine Cashmore

“Too many workers live too far away to fulfil our cities’ economic potential”

- is the conclusion of a recently published study by the Grattan institute.

The report maps the dollar value of goods and services produced by workers within a particular area of Australia’s biggest cities. Demonstrating a disproportionate 80% is created on just 0.2% of the nation’s land mass.

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It mirrors findings highlighted in a recent speech by Luci Ellis – Head of Financial Stability at the RBA, who collected the addresses of people’s work places from the 2011 Census, to construct a picture that is particularly striking if directly contrasted with where employees actually live.

Job to worker ratio

 “Inner areas have become even greater job magnets in recent years; some middle and outer areas added people, but not so many jobs, so their job-to-worker ratios actually declined.” 

Places with ratios well above 1 are employment centres. They pull in commuters across the city even from outside its borders.

While the very pale fringe areas, attracting the largest population growth due to pressures of affordability, are the ‘commuter districts,’ dormitory suburbs, where jobs and community infrastructure have failed to follow through.

The picture is one of increased social polarisation – fringe localities; tend to face higher crime rates, elevated levels of unemployment, along with reports of depression and mental illness,

Poor supply policy and delays zoning pockets within the urban boundaries for residential development, means a typical house and land package on a compact 450sqm site, transacts for no less than $400,000.

Instead of a sensible system of bond financing, where residents pay back proportionally over a lengthy period of time, or a broad based land value tax to replace other taxes as advocated in the Henry Tax Review, funds for the provision of essential infrastructure are loaded onto the upfront cost of housing and promptly passed to the buyer.

Yet Councils can wait years for the finances to arrive. The funds are only payable upon subdivision and with no control over the development or release of newly zoned land; buyers can often pay for services they may never receive.

The Grattan report is subtitled “Cities as Engines of Prosperity” and charts Australia’s evolution from a country that “made things,” into one that is now reliant on centrally clustered “knowledge-intensive and specialised services.”

City centric culture

 

Together, the cities above, account for 15% of Australia’s economic activity but despite declining job-to-worker ratios in the outer suburbs, along with increases in the price-to-distance trade off for home buyers, only 8% of Australia’s employed population actually work in the central hubs of each major capital.

In Melbourne for example, over 50% of jobs in are located more than 13km from the inner core, with fewer that 20% of jobs in the CBD itself.

These are not high paying jobs however, which leads the authors to imply we need to move closer in and -“Minimise barriers to highly productive activity in CBDs and inner city areas”

They suggest this would provide industries with a “wider range of potential workers to choose from.”

“Australia’s cities are the backbone of our economy, with CBDs and inner city areas critically important to the nation’s prosperity….The more highly skilled and specialised a job, the greater the need to find the best person to fill it.”

Knowledge based and specialised services cover a diverse area, including industries such as, finance, insurance, real estate, and business services, as well as cultural, media, communication, and education facilities for example.

They are gaining predominance across the globe, due to a technological boom that is powering us forward in an expansion not unlike the industrial revolution.

3-D printing is lowering the cost and logistics of production. Advances in the research of solar and renewable energy have paved the way for homeowners to store electricity overnight and possibly disconnect from the grid completely.

Companies such as ‘Uber’ and ‘Lyft’ have created innovative ‘apps’ to provide cheaper transport options for consumers and ironically, changes in the way we interact and communicate have allowed people and jobs to disperse over a broader footprint and successfully collaborate across international borders

However, this is not where Australia excels.

Moves to take advantage of the innovation revolution have been continually hampered by Government intervention, winding back tariffs and scaling down their 2020 Renewable Energy Target, acting to protect the cartel of the Taxi industry’s ‘licensing’ monopoly, and cutting funding to organisations such as the CSIRO.

No – the predominant sector that yields the most “knowledge intensive” gains in Australia comes from the FIRE industry (finance, insurance, and real estate)– which has its infrastructure webbed like a parasite on the back of the great Australian housing boom.

Growth of Finance insuranceAt a global banking conference in 2013, the question was asked ‘Why the hell are Australian Banks performing so well!?’ – it was in response to a chart showing a decade rise in market capitalisation on the global banking index, from 2 – 14%.

The answer was obvious; the banking sector makes its money by creating debt – mostly mortgage debt and our highly leveraged ‘too big to fail four’ are the world’s most heavily exposed to residential and commercial real estate, capturing 88% of the mortgage market alone.

To be clear, the FIRE Economy is not a value adding economy; it profits by extracting economic rent from the debt on rising land values, impeding areas of productive enterprise, and trading the interest in a multi trillion-dollar derivatives market to advantage those sitting at the top of the financial pyramid.

To survive, the FIRE sector must sell the illusion that the economy and its participants can achieve economic prosperity through speculation on rising property values.

This has been assisted by tax, housing, and monetary policy, resulting in Australian’s holding some of the highest levels of private debt in the developed world.

Tax withholdings or exemptions given to land holders for example, result in an increase of unearned monetary gains (economic rent) available to be capitalised at the current interest rate into the upfront cost of land.

This was aptly demonstrated in a recent release by Moodys’ Analytics, estimating how the tax policy of negative gearing, has acted to inflate Australian house prices by no small degree.

NEG GEARING LOSS Supply policy has further assisted

Inelastic responses to market conditions have allowed professional land-bankers to squat on sites at low cost and secure windfall gains when the sites are later rezoned for residential development.

Allowing the uplift of land values to capitalise year upon year into the cost of housing, may be gift-wrapped with corporate spin, to suggest it somehow benefits the community, when a cursory analysis reveals the exact opposite to be true.

It raises the cost of living for every single household, increasing welfare costs, and leaving less to invest in sustainable industries that contribute to the county’s real ‘value adding’ economy.

As demonstrated by the British economist and historian Fred Harrison in his book “The Great Tax Clawback Scam.”

The pull of the centralised core, where property values and wages are highest, results in decades of progressive taxes on every worker in the state being clawed back by a few, as inner city land values benefit from higher incomes, increased demand and improvements to social infrastructure and transport arterials to do precisely as the Grattan review suggests – and keep us locked and reliant on a small pocket of land for our economic gains.

The benefits for homeowners can obviously be substantial.

It brings with it the theory of urban consolation – reduce sprawl and force residents into apartments, however doing so can have the adverse effect of increasing sprawl, as lesser industries ‘hop’ the middle ring, in search of cheaper options, and their employees move out further still.

If we were living in ancient Rome where walking was the general mode of transport, you could understand the need to stay centrally located, however we are not.

We’re in an age of mobility where global research is being poured into innovative modes of transportation such as solar roads and electric cars.

If a buyer is able to travel to the supermarket, park and any other amenity on the priority list within a 30 or 40-minute period, the distance from the CBD is not an imposing factor.

The decider is the time it takes to drop the kids off to school in one direction, and travel to work in the other.

Since the 1970’s, successive governments have poured millions into incentives to try and decentralise and boost regional localities. However, all attempts have failed, because the both the funding and supply mechanisms are flawed.

Decentralisation requires affordable land for both business and buyer, which is not unduly inflated due to policies that promote speculation, as well as growth enhancing infrastructure and flexible supply policy that responds in a timely manner to homebuyer (not speculator) demand.

The Henry Tax review was not slow to point this out, when it suggested slowly phasing out a vast array of ‘bad taxes’ (deadweight taxes) that impede productivity and reduce mobility (stamp duty, payroll, insurance, vehicle registration, and so forth, as well as phasing out those that ‘reward’ speculation) and instead, collecting more of the economic rent from a broad based tax on the unimproved value of land and natural resources.

According to research undertaken by Paul D Egan and Philip Soos, in 2013 we lost a staggering $73 billion of output stemming from deadweight losses of taxation, yet, economic rents, which exhibit no deadweight loss, are a significant component of the Australian economy, comprising 23.6% of GDP.

When extensive research was carried out by ‘Prosper Australia’ on the “Total Resource Rents Of Australia,” it was recognised that almost half of all government revenues could be delivered by channelling the property boom to more productive purposes.

However, while the example is useful for policy reform – even a small shift in the tax base to provide a steady source of revenue in lieu of stamp duty, would assist in reducing speculation and aiding mobility (As economist Leith Van Onselen has repeatedly demonstrated.)

With less reliance on income tax, land value taxation would also act to shift economic power back to state and local government, thereby giving them more control over spending and in a very minimal way, it may also act as a natural countercyclical force

For example, when land values depress due to a drop in consumer confidence, buyers would have less tax to pay, and therefore more discretionary income to spend into other areas of the economy – Government would reap any fall in revenue back when the reverse is the case. (Albeit, there are many variables that could affect this and other points to discuss.)

Historically, the capture of economic rent (through land tax and to some extent ‘betterment’ taxes) financed some of the most remarkable infrastructure we have. Sydney Harbour Bridge being a case in point.

It was acknowledged at the time, that residents on the north shore would benefit significantly from an increase in their property values as a result of this essential piece of infrastructure.  Therefore, a framework was set in place to capture a proportion of the uplift – approximately one third – to assist with funding.

This was in no way detrimental to the property owners.

The increased advantage of economic activity coupled with the rise in prices resulting from the enterprise, more than compensated. A win-win if you like – and readily accepted by the public as ‘fair.’

Over time, changes in the way both state and federal government collect tax moved focus away from land values, onto productivity, effectively, placing a fine on labour and doing a good job of keeping us asset rich and income poor.

It’s great for the haves – but not the ‘have-nots’ (our growing pool of tenants.)

A similar concept is recognised by owners of apartments.

When buyers purchase a unit, they expect to pay a yearly corporation fee for maintenance and improvement of community services.

In doing so, it reduces the up front cost consumers are willing to pay as they configure the fee into their budget, yet it is also recognised as an investment, as the benefits and any subsequent improvements help attract future purchasers.

A broad based land value tax is essentially no different.

In markets that have similar policies – a change in the tax mix, with higher taxation on land in lieu of those on productivity in order to fund related infrastructure, coupled with good supply policy, enables a process of decentralisation and increased affordability to follow through.

Both reforms work hand in hand.

The prosperous economy of Texas in the USA is a good example of this.

Since June 2009, about 48% of all jobs created in America have been in the state

It has booming population growth, high levels of disposable income, low house prices and has been termed “The Texas Miracle.”

This is because with no income tax employees get to keep more of their earnings while higher property taxes used to fund community infrastructure and stem speculative inflation, along with good supply policy, help create a truly decentralised city, with only 7% of jobs located ‘downtown.’

Importantly, when the locational value of land is allowed to capitalise into the price, there is every reason for homeowners and investors to object to an increase in supply.

When this gain is partially taxed away, offset by higher earnings due to lower income tax (as it is the case in Texas,) vested interests diminish and neighbourhood development may even be encouraged in response to population growth as it spreads the burden of taxation and acts to reduce the level payable for the individual owner.

We do not have to mirror another country’s policies, but it does prove the ability to create a system that provides a fairer regime for the funding of infrastructure, stops runaway land price gains as well as assisting households and commerce to move outwards

However, in an economy that is dominated by the financial sector, and reports such as the latest Grattan review celebrating Australia’s city-centric culture, efforts to decentralise and produce a fairer system for all Australian’s are deteriorating in favour of policies that are there to benefit the rent-seeker, at the expense of the labourer.

 

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.)

 

 

 

 

 

“By hoarding housing, the rich pay less, while the poor pay more”

By: Catherine Cashmore

(Short article written for Property Observer – covering items made in detail else where on this blog.)

I was contacted twice last week to comment on news stories that featured young Australians building their way to retirement, through debt, leverage and speculation, on the back of rising property prices.

Described as ‘an entrepreneur,’ another a ‘wonder kid,’ both stories told a similar tale.

A gift from mum and dad had helped with the deposit – living in the family home had enabled investment into areas that may not have suited their ‘home’ buying requirements.

Rising property prices had enabled equity to leverage into the second acquisition – it was not reinventing the wheel, rather a repeat of an all too familiar theme.

One had managed to reach his sixth investment by the age of 26 (having started at only 19) – both were on their way to becoming property investment advisors – wanting to help others achieve real estate riches too.

“Young buyers are entering the property market as investors” prompted one reporter – which is no more obvious than saying “circles are round”.

Everyone who enters the property market is an investor, I responded.

There would be few in the industry working on the buying side of the equation who had not been involved in what I often term ‘the capital gain game’ – where every option suggested is followed by the question “but which will get the best growth?”

Australia has a lopsided neoliberal economy founded on the back of a 5.1 trillion dollar housing market, over 4.1 trillion dollars of which is irreplaceable land.

We’re slaves to a system where the retirement wealth egg is the family home – our personal economic leverage for all lifestyle and business needs – something that is only achievable if policies are manufactured to ensure values remain high (and climbing), whilst debt levels remain ever affordable.

Click image to open in a new window

Source: Philip Soos

It used to be called ‘Monopoly’. Today its termed: ‘getting onto the property ladder’.

Retire as a renter or find a way to ‘work the system,’ playing a dangerous game of debt and leverage, and hoping when the wind finally blows, you’re not left holding the house of cards.

For those unable to afford current high prices, they will see no tax benefit – unless their income is low enough to require welfare assistance.

Rather they will be at the mercy of rising rents with an uncanny tendency to outpace inflation, tight vacancy rates and few low budget options.

If, as above, they are the ‘lucky’ beneficiaries of family assistance to enable their step onto the first rung of the ladder, they’ll enter a tax system skewed toward ownership, the benefits of which are capitalised into the price, pushing values higher.

Source: Bubble Economics by Paul D. Egan and Philip Soos

Under such a system, the final consequences are set in stone.

On a global scale, the land bubble induced financial crisis of 2008 left millions suffering fatal burns.

Tough austerity measures that followed destroyed the hopes and dreams of thousands of Europe’s youth.

For those just entering retirement, savings were wiped away, along with any chance of employment in later years.

Australia escaped relatively unscathed, but this isn’t because we’ve solved the boom/bust cycle.

Our policies differ little from the affected countries that promote ownership with similar inflationary measures.

First time buyers have no memory of a recession and understandably want their share of the pie.

However our history is littered with recurrent patterns of boom-bust credit and asset bubbles, commonly triggered by high land prices.

They all heralded financial instability and dreadful social consequences – a study of which should perhaps feature higher on the school curriculum.

We’ve just entered into another cycle and already prices have exceeded previous peaks.

Housing cycles are long-term affairs, however unless we begin to studiously take measures to change our tax and supply policies, when the clock ticks round again – as it inevitably will – our house of cards will blow over like the rest.

Many applauded Malcolm Turnbull as he made the most of his share of publicity during the CEO sleep out last week, to raise money for the homeless.

However, Turnbull is part and parcel of a budget and government that exacerbates housing affordability, and by consequence, the very problems he endured a cold night to help ‘solve’.

This is because the government has structured the tax burden to fall predominantly on wages and productivity – which advantages those at the top, who see their landholdings increase way in excess of any taxation or earned income through no individual effort of their own, rather the collective efforts of community investment (items of which I’ve detailed previously) – whilst the productive earners at the bottom of the pile, struggle to make ends meet.

In other words, by hoarding housing, the rich pay less – the poor pay more.

Unless we restructure our tax and supply policies to address this and reduce land prices, encouraging instead, individual investment into productivity rather than speculation on rising land values. Welfare measures to help the homeless are merely a Band-Aid to capture the increasing number falling foul of the system and never a cure.

Which brings me back to the one question both reporters failed to asked,

“Who are rising property prices good for?”

Our Interrelated Property Cycles – easy ‘windfall’ gains – but, what’s the Consequence?

Our Interrelated Property Cycles – easy ‘windfall’ gains – but, what’s the Consequence?

Take a cursory look through the international press and reports on housing related matters, and it could be merged it into one text as property cycles become increasingly interrelated and investors search for ‘safe havens’ off-shore.

Overwhelmingly – affordability – bubbles – the rise of Asian investors – and fears over a new breed of non-home owning ‘renters’ dominates, and although headline chasing would place any sensationalist report front of line, the reader comments and related dialogue that follow, present a familiar picture for the ordinary home buyer – no matter what reforms are taken, it never seems to get any easier.

You could be forgiven in thinking it’s by some abject force of nature, bustled in at the time of the ‘big bang’ that property – (or as I pointed out here, ‘land’) – is deemed ‘unaffordable.’ Outpacing wage growth and inflation through the course of a cycle, subject to the whims of a bank’s propensity to lend – burdening buyers with one of the most stressful experiences they’ll go through in life.

Or in the bleak words of the eminent poet Leonard Cohen;

“Everybody knows…. That’s just the way it goes.”

This is what the real estate and finance industry would have you believe as they navigate through the fluctuations of the property cycle with authoritative analysis, on what and where to buy.  And no doubt, it’s been a prosperous affair.

The number of ‘property investment books’ written by the I Did It – And You Can Too! experts, belies belief. And yet, becoming successful in the game isn’t incredibly hard for anyone with an ounce of locational common sense. The authors are simply singing their own interpretation of an age-old song titled ‘Monopoly.’

Over the course of a business cycle, which is both lead by, and correlated to the housing cycle, the gains – more correctly termed economic rent or “earnings from land,” alone – by far and away surpass those that can be gleaned from other more productive investments.

This was stressed in a recent submission by “Earthshare Australia” to the upcoming Senate enquiry into housing affordability

Unearned incomes in land increased a whopping $187 billion in the December 2013 quarter alone (ABS 6416). Total yearly dividends (2013), for investors engaged in risk, was recently reported at $84 billion – $103 billion less for an entire year.”

(Leaving them to question) “Why invest in small business or the ASX when one can earn more for less risk at a lower tax rate as a land speculator?”

These gains occur primarily because we choose to leave the larger proportion of ‘economic rent’ (mistakenly termed, ‘capital growth’ – however in this context, we are talking about the unimproved value of the site) locked in the land, rather than recycled back into community – from where it evolved.

Hence why housing is so expensive – the financial benefit derived from improving the surrounding facilities, is not effectively utilised – and our tax and supply policies do little to assist.

The Henry Tax review was not slow to point this out, when it suggested progressively scrapping a vast array of ‘bad taxes’ (payroll, insurance, vehicle registration, stamp duty, and forth, as well as reducing those that ‘reward’ speculation) and instead, collecting more of the economic rent of natural resources – significantly ‘land.’ (Notwithstanding, it was another Government ‘review’ which fell largely on deaf ears.

Yet, historically, the capture of economic rent (through land tax and to some extent ‘betterment’ taxes) financed some of the most remarkable infrastructure we have. Sydney Harbour Bridge being a case in point.

The tale of a Bridge and our accumulated wealth….

It was acknowledged at the time, that residents on the north shore would benefit significantly from an increase in their property values as a result of this essential piece of infrastructure.  Therefore, a framework was set in place to capture a proportion of the uplift – approximately one third – to assist with funding.

This was in no way detrimental to the property owners.

The increased advantage of economic activity coupled with the rise in prices resulting from the enterprise, more than compensated. A win-win if you like – and readily accepted by the public as ‘fair.’

Over time, changes in the way both state and federal government collected tax moved focus away from land values, onto productivity, effectively, placing a fine on labour and doing a good job of keeping us asset rich and income poor.

It’s great for the haves – but not the ‘have-nots’ (our growing pool of tenants.)

Consequently, the wealth locked in our residential land market, through the process of this accrued speculation – sits at post $4 trillion (add the buildings on top, and it’s an estimated $5.02 Trillion.)

It’s so large a number; it’s almost meaningless in real terms.

Western civilisation has not been around for a trillion seconds – go back a trillion seconds  – (31,688 years) – and you’d see Neanderthals roaming throughout Europe.

Yet our housing market is worth 5 of them.  It’s quite an achievement.

In comparison, the UK housing market is assessed to be $5.2 trillion with a population of around 60 million, so the distribution across a population of 23 million, is telling.

It’s this, that enables publications, such as the ‘‘Global Wealth Report’ produced annually by Credit Suisse, to assess Australian’s to be the ‘richest in the world’ in median terms.

In other words – if you stand everyone in a long line, richest to poorest, the middleman has more ‘asset’ wealth than any other country assessed.

It should therefore come as no surprise that our wealthy know where to ‘bank’ their dollars – and it’s not down the high street

As economist Adair Turner and others have pointed out in response to a recent report by Oxfam, which demonstrates how Britain’s five richest families are wealthier than the poorest 20% of the population.  The riches are only in part derived through productive activity – the vast ‘wealth’ however, has been derived through ‘rents’ (unearned gains) in land.

If you thought wars were about religion – think again.

The compounded rent is effectively what we pay for when acquiring real estate – a calculation that takes into account expectations of future growth, minus expenses for the time held – along with a range of other variables such as wages and borrowing rates.

Yet capturing a greater percentage of annual land values, whilst at the same time reducing those on productivity holds much in its favour.

  • It reduces the propensity of boom/bust housing cycles,
  • Encourages timely construction and effective utilisation (good for both the economy, employment and consequently, our welfare state)
  • Aids infrastructure financing,
  • Supports decentralisation,
  • Assists in keeping the cost of shelter affordable – levelling to some degree, the playing field between non-owners and owners.
  • And importantly, in regions where it’s been implemented with success – Pittsburgh and Pennsylvania being examples -most owners pay less tax when there’s a shift from productivity onto land, than would be the case otherwise

Change ahead?

Of course, to change the mindset of any nation that has been encouraged to use their housing investments as leverage for economic activity, a welfare fund for retirement, collateral for the advancement of business and commerce, and an ATM for family emergencies, is no easy task.

Not to mention the many vested interests in both Government and the property industry, all of which derive their income from the promotion of it.

However, it’s vitally important we do so – because it sits at the very base of every conversation Government is current having regarding the welfare state, cutting pensions, and increasing the working age until retirement.

Even in our technological age of driverless cars, lasers that can change the weather, 3D printers that can produce substitute body parts, and solar farms that can produce enough energy to run a small city, nothing is possible without the land which gives us the food we eat, the water we drink, the air we breathe, and a rich array of commodities to fuel our appetite for ‘growth.’

There is nothing to be gleaned in from the hording of land, and whilst secure private tenure of property is vital in so much as land needs to be cared for, cultivated, and effectively utilised, a proportion of ‘unearned’ economic gains that come from the locational rent of the unimproved value alone – should not be privatised to the extent that prices escalate through the inducement of speculative gain.

Can supply policy solve it alone?

We talk a lot about supply, but whilst the status quo exists – rising land values being used as the primary driver for economic growth – high prices ensure land will only developed for profit, timed to capture the upward wave of a cycle, rather than developed to meet the immediate needs of a home buyer, which does little to deter the wasteful process of land banking.

It is not insignificant that the burdens to supply policy, which we consistently criticise – the structural impediments to development – were implemented along side a gradual shift of the rental capture of land, onto productivity.

As Bob Day asserts in his submission to the Senate debate on Housing affordability, (first published; Home Truths Revisited May 2013)

“The regulatory seeds of the housing affordability crisis were sown in the 1970s. Until then land was abundant and affordable, and the development of new suburbs was largely left to the private sector”

The 1970’s was not only the point at which urban zoning (a process of false scarcity) was imposed by state Governments – it also came at a time at which any hope of tax capturing the fair uplift in land values to keep construction timely and offset soaring costs, had been truly eroded.

This, coupled with a shift in infrastructure financing – as private enterprise played an ever-increasing role and projects were no longer provided with capacity ahead of time, but required to prove revenue – ‘user pays’ whilst homeowner benefits – was the beginning of the end.

A Glance Back At Policy..

Early settlers had rejected the British system of taxing both land and buildings, in favour of the methods advocated by the classical economist Henry George, who had previously presented his ‘single tax’ theory in Australia to thunderous success.

However, over time, the Government’s inept and poor administration in the regularity and standard of valuations, the creeping in of exemptions (including the family home) coupled with lobbying from large landholders – a group which have historically maintained the greatest political clout – significantly eroded the system, and by the 1950s an array of taxes were falling increasingly on productivity, rather than land.

In 1953 when the Menzies Government abolished the Federal Land Tax, rapid ‘post war’ population growth had firmly laid the foundations for a thirst to profit through ‘capital gain’ (mounting land values.)

The then Labour party – which had historically always rallied in favour of raising revenue from the economic rent of land rather than productivity, were up in arms, prompting Arthur Calwell to speak in opposition of the plan, passionately declaring

“…We have always believed in the land tax….The land belongs to the people, and its use must be safeguarded and protected at all times!” ((Hansard, Vol 221, pp 165-170 passim)

However, it was the beginning of the end.  Up until 1961 it was an integral part of the Labour platform.  By 1963 however, the commitment had been omitted all together, apparently, without conference approval. (Cameron Clyde “How Labor Lost Its Way”  “Progress” May-June 2005)

When Whittlam came to power in 1972 (see Bob Day’s comment above) he ignored any call to bring in legislation to collect the economic rent of land, instead of levying heavy direct and indirect taxes on income, and in so doing, a politically fabricated boom in land values was underway.

In the decades that followed, the promotion of negative gearing (1985), halving of the capital gains on investors (1999), onerous levies on development and upfront infrastructure costs passed onto buyers – grants, incentives and so forth, had little to do with the delivery of affordable housing, and everything to do with escalating land prices.

It should come as no surprise then, that large landowners and the commission side of the real estate industry, shy away from any changes to the tax system. The smoke screen debates on affordability and scrapping negative gearing are just that.

So what now?

Due to China-led resilience and economic stimulus Australia, although in no way unscathed, avoided the disastrous consequences of 2008, resulting in thousands of foreclosures across the US and Europe, whilst banks were bailed and families continue to be evicted.

Not so the recession that marked the early 1990s.

Affecting 17 out of 18 comparable OECD countries, high unemployment, a large current account deficit and elevated level of foreign debt left many economists gloomy Australia would ever achieve long lasting economic recovery.

Endless debate was given to the causes and consequence, which left policy makers reassuring the community that lessons’, would be learnt! However, as the then Governor of the RBA, Ian McFarlane, later summed up in his 2006 Boyer lecture;

“Any boom built on rising asset prices financed by increased borrowing has to end.”

And considering the date this lecture was given (2006,) the following comment was insightful;

No-one though has a clear mandate at the moment to deal with the threat of major financial instability associated with an asset price boom and bust.”

It’s unfortunate that “no-one” happens to be our most influential political and economic policy makers – and indeed, we’re not alone.

After every economic crisis, there is always the promise that events will never happen again – safe guards are put in place and eventually the wreckage is cleared, however happen they do, and reforms that promise otherwise, repeatedly fail.

Significantly, globalisation, the interrelating of major economies, is adding to the volatile nature of each economic downturn.  As Wayne Swan asserted in his speech “A Future Of Promise” given at The Sydney institute in 2007;

“It is, truly, the sharpest synchronised global downturn in living memory…And it’s being inflicted on good Australians through no fault of their own.”

No cycle is exactly the same, but whilst history may not exactly mirror the past, patterns do.

There’s only one reason we have devastating house price booms and busts – the pre marker to any recession and economic disaster, and that is speculation induced in this case, through the privatisation of unearned gains.  And whilst some continue to reap a windfall from exploiting the process, we really need to pause and ask – ‘”Who is it really benefitting?”

It’s time for change.

Catherine Cashmore

 

A Look At The Market Through Foreign Eyes

A Look At The Market Through Foreign Eyes

I had the good fortune to meet two investors from Dallas Texas last week – visiting in part, to survey the Australian real estate terrain and in return, provide a unique opportunity to glimpse the madness of it all through foreign eyes.

A cursory look through the press paints a colourful picture for our visiting observers.  Obviously, the spectacular rise in Sydney’s valuations has come under incredible scrutiny over the past 12 months or so.

Like any upswing in the ‘property cycle,’ it’s been exacerbated by a mix of forces, culminating in a shortage of effective supply against a bull run of speculation, which all agree has an inevitable end-by-date and no doubt subsequent ‘correction’ when the tide changes.  (‘When’ being the operative word.)

The latest stats from RP Data’s capital city ‘Home value Index’ for the first quarter of the 2014 have evidenced “a near record level of growth throughout the month of March” rising in excess of 2% coupled with an “ongoing escalation in housing finance commitments.”

Sydney dwelling values are now reportedly 15.8% higher than their previous peak, some distance from Melbourne, which shows a more ‘subdued’ 4.7% ‘post peak’ increase (movements, which in industry ‘speak’ are neatly termed a ‘recovery.’)

In response, the RBA, are like ‘a read blowing in the wind,’ employing the same old wooden tools they’ve always relied upon as they warn investors in their latest Financial Stability Review, – (like last year’s review, when stating how undesirable” it would be “if households were to exhibit less prudent behaviour than they have over the past few years”) – that the;

..cyclical upswing.. cannot continue indefinitely..” and any ease in lending rates holds the “potential to encourage speculative activity in the housing market….”

Community service groups hurriedly rush to Canberra, flagging a wealth inequality crisis, presenting yet another shandy of submissions to the ‘rinse and repeat’ sequel of the last Senate enquiry into Housing Affordability,

And as Barclay’s Chief Economist Keiran Davies sounds the alarm, reporting household debt to disposable income has hit a record “177% peak,” the public outcry against foreign investment ‘bidding up prices’ has prompted the Coalition’s conservative version – reminiscent of Kevin Rudd’s 2010 ‘1-800-I-SAW-AN-ASIAN-AT-AN-AUCTION’  debacle – to assess “what is happening on the ground” and stave off the growing concerns that seem to indicate rules are not being adhered to.

The analysis my two new friends from Texas would hear from Economists in response to the above backdrop is equally schizophrenic.

Whilst Governor of the RBA’s Glenn Steven’s is telling audiences that a modest overheating in housing markets could have “long-term negative consequences for economic growth.”  AMP’s Chief Economist Dr Shane Oliver is assuring the “normative” response to low interest rates producing a sharp surge in established house (land) prices, is “great news for the economy!”

According to Oliver;

“Housing may show an “overvaluation criteria for a bubble,” but, we’re not in one yet, otherwise “property spruikers [would be] out in a big way” or “buyers rushing in for fear of missing out!”

Obviously Dr Oliver has not been attending many auctions or property seminars of late – otherwise he’d have plenty of evidence of the above practices (at least in the two biggest capitals.)  They’re all but engraved into Australian culture.

Notwithstanding, Christopher Joye is back to the task of boosting his readership figures, evidencing the quite the opposite – warning ‘overvalued prices’ could see “unprecedented 10 to 20 per cent losses across the board” when/if the market ‘normalises.’

Grave concerns indeed, albeit, it whistles the same tune as most industry commentary regarding affordability, with anxieties only going so far as to ensure an already inflated platform can be sustained (through ‘prudent lending,’ of course) without open and strong advocacy into the policies that would stop these cyclical peaks and ‘corrections,’ which result in numerous ‘crash’ predictions, inevitable pain for new home buyers, a real wealth inequality crisis – for what seems to be for no more than generating publicity, whilst maintaining the ‘status quo.’

“Build more houses!”

Unfortunately, the assumption – both here, and overseas – remains, that the only way to make houses more affordable, is to increase the supply of new dwellings.

Building more accommodation seems like an easy prescriptive cure, with supply verses demand being a well-tested economic model – that is, until it comes to the land market.

We can’t seem to deliver this supply at normative prices for the locational price/distance trade off.

Speculative activity, further promoted by a constipated planning system, has resulted in ever increasing land values, on ever decreasing ‘lot’ sizes.

Analysis by RP Data shows vacant land prices over the past 20 years, have lifted from a median rate of $76.47 per square metre, to $507.70 per square metre, as of the end of 2013. Whilst the average ‘lot’ size has dropped from 700 square metres, to 500 square metres – and in some states, less than 400 square metres over the same period.

Obviously reforms to the planning process would greatly assist, however contrary to common belief, it would not alone provide a cure.

To truly restore housing back to ‘fair’ value, we would have to remove the level of speculation manufactured into the structural design of our housing market and this is one side of policy reform Government has repeatedly refused to address.

Speculation

To be clear, an increase in the natural price of land, is an expected result when economies are improving due – for example – to capital investment in infrastructure, as is the case in Australia currently, with Tony Abbot’s desire to be knighted the ‘Infrastructure Prime minister.’

Infrastructure intensifies the use and demand for land as the population grows, assisting job creation and collaboration between individuals.

Therefore, taken alone, rising values should be a ‘good’ thing for our country – (and economy) – or at least they would be, if the gains truly benefitted the community.

Any manufactured improvement to a location’s public amenities, gifts a beneficial trade-off to the owner, who receives a windfall in remuneration as the resulting economic impact boosts productivity.

This increase in values is what economist’s term ‘economic rent,’ although expressed rather misleadingly in popular vocabulary as ‘capital growth.’

To clarify – ‘capital’ infers something that can be reproduced through productive activity, however we know from housing data, that the true gain in “house prices” is really collected in the rising cost of land, which takes up a 4.1 trillion dollar share of our 5.02 trillion dollar housing market.

Land Prices Vs Property

Land cannot be reproduced because it can’t be moved, it’s fixed in supply, and therefore any financial benefit derived from improving the surrounding facilities, is merely soaked into the ground

This is why ‘land banking’ is promoted within the industry as a popular ‘investment strategy’ – although to be clear, it’s not investment at all.

Investment implies the creation of wealth, whereas speculating is a zero-sum game; the wealth is not created, the landowner does nothing – and for the homeowners in Australia, lucky enough to be situated close to the best seats in town, it’s a generous tax-free unearned windfall.

Unwontedly or not, land bankers who hold their under-utilised plot in lieu of ‘capital gains,’ are ‘free loaders’ on the economy, and building activity does not respond to demand, but is only boosted when values are assessed to be on an upward trajectory.

Policies such as negative gearing, depreciation, capital gain exemptions, the encouragement to acquire properties and gear against them in self managed super funds, as well as the use of the family home as a wealth reserve for retirement, enforces speculation into the foundational makeup of our property market.

Land Cycles

But I’m not informing Australian’s of anything they don’t already know.  People have become acclimatised to property being ‘expensive,’ and our housing has become expensive because its value is derived from its accumulated and speculated future ‘capital gains’ – correctly termed economic rent.

According statistics, homebuyers typically move every ten years or so. The price they are prepared to pay, is balanced against the price they expect to achieve, minus expenses – and in all my years assisting buyers, (barring the odd downsizer) I have never met a single one who calculated otherwise.

This is why property ‘cycles’ – this is what promotes speculation.

The banking sector, which has a monopoly on this process (after all, how many can purchase a property without a mortgage?) increases the volatility of this cycle markedly, however banks, lending, money (credit) creation, lack of regulation does not cause the cycle, (or stop the cycle.)  Speculation does.

We had land booms and busts before the evolution of our modern banking system – and without a change to the structural makeup of our housing market, we’ll continue to have them.

Lending restrictions can mitigate risk, but due to the vested interests of banking system, it will not remove it to the degree needed to stop the cyclical impacts.

Easy Earnings..

Notwithstanding, for those homeowners and investors who purchased over the last decade or so, making money through buying, holding and acquiring property (land) has been a far more effective in accumulating ‘wealth’ by way of earning income and channelling it it into productive activities.

The BRW rich list is littered with examples, and for those who are not involved in the business of property, land is where they invest their dollars.

Of course, for the first homebuyer on a single wage ‘priced out’ – the mantra resumes that we just need to build more dwellings, the process of which contains just as much speculative activity in its design (including how we fund for infrastructure) so as to exacerbate the problem.

But how does it look to our Texan friends?

Well let’s just say, they’re not rushing to move here.

Texas is one of the top locations for interstate migration in America.

As with Australia, the economy has been super charged by way of a commodity boom, but unlike Australia, industries such as tech, manufacturing and business services are thriving and hiring in droves.

The expansive list my new Texan friend’s reeled off, highlighting the number companies moving their central operations into the state (rather than ‘offshore’ as they do here) is impressive, and when I asked how much they would spend purchasing a ‘home’ I was told that “3 times annual earnings” would buy the ‘best’ in town, which was summed up by the comment “like the house my parent’s own.”

Most of the units and condos in Texas are rentals – owned by large investment funds for example, and used as a hedge against inflation and source of positive cash flow.

There are less family sized rentals (detached dwellings) albeit, because housing is ‘affordable,’ there is also less demand.

Devoting earnings to building a property investment portfolio isn’t a consideration for most Texan residents.

The state didn’t experience a housing bust, because it didn’t experience a housing boom.

Texas vs Cali

The subprime crisis didn’t hit, because speculation was removed.

This was in part due to liberal and well funded supply policy, which ensures housing is built on demand, and essential infrastructure funded by way of a ‘deductable’ Municipal Utility District tax, administered by residents, funded by a bond, and payed back proportionally over a lengthy period of time.

The additional key however in what’s been termed the “Texas miracle” is low taxes on productivity, lack of state income tax and a good regulatory environment, offset by higher than average property tax.

It’s not perfect – Texas does not remove other taxes, such as sales tax, which has a destructive impact on commerce – and property is taxed as well as land (where as ideally, in a truly productive environment, only the unimproved value of land – the economic rent – should be subject to a tax, which is far easier to accurately assess than the total capital improved value.) However it makes the point.

Whilst Texas boosts and attracts productivity with lower taxes, discouraging speculation in the areas that destroy it, Australia leans to the opposite

We’re not immune to real estate crashes and there is plenty of evidence to prove their increased severity when prices are allowed to escalate. But, the best way to mitigate the risk, and protect against volatility, is to encourage the industries that advantage the working population most (manufacturing for example,) and take the air out of those that advantage land speculators the most.

Catherine Cashmore