Government Inaction on Australia’s Housing Affordability Crisis is Indefensible

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Melbourne is a perfect case study for this report.

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

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

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Download Speculative Vacancies 7.

Read past reports

Related media:

(Footnotes)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By: Catherine Cashmore

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

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

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

Concluding;

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

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

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

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

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

When asked about the budget cuts, Medcraft commented;

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Our distrust is very expensive.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

However, as they go on to note;

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

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

Land is the beginning of all production.

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

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

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

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

Banks quite literally ‘mortgage the earth.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For the elite, this system works perfectly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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(Philip Soos)

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

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

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

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

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

In it, Glenn Stevens noted that;

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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)

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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.

 

“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?”

The Tale of One Auction – and its impact on the ‘Welfare State’

The Tale of One Auction – and its impact on the ‘Welfare State’

A few weeks ago, I attended an auction in a popular suburb of Melbourne’s inner east

The home was an attractive four-bedroom townhouse on roughly 260 square metres of land, and initially quoted at $700,000 ‘plus’ – very typical of the type of accommodation featured in the area.

As is commonly the case in Melbourne, the quote was ‘stepped up’ in the final week of the campaign to ‘$750,000 ‘plus’ – albeit, the listing agent informed me more than once he had $800,000 “covered” and a mere blink at recent comparable sales, indicated a price well in excess of $850,000, or even $900,000, considering the level of demand and lack of comparable listings being marketed.

This was confirmed during the auction, when a neighbour I’d casually interacted with, leaned over, and in little more than a whisper, told me “I know the vendor – she wants $1 Million” and considering the property didn’t reach its reserve until $900,000, I suspect she was correct.

With competition from nine bidders, the property sold in front of a crowd of 100 or so for $1,011,000, and the agent, delighted with the result, wasted no time swooping in on the ones who missed out, to share information of ‘similar’ listings currently for sale.

Needless to say, it’s a story that drives many Australian’s irate, with the focus inevitably aimed at the misleading way in which it was quoted – which is an issue I’ll explore further in another column. However, this isn’t what should drive our sense of injustice to kick into gear.

The Undeserving Poor..

Debate is currently rife in Australia surrounding the ‘relentless’ costs of our welfare system, with social services minister Kevin Andrews heralding it ‘unsustainable,’ whilst looking for ways the government can cut entitlements to the ‘undeserving’ poor.

The review has concentrated primarily on disability payments, and Newstart ‘job seekers’ allowance, which keeps the ‘income-less’ in relative poverty.

“Work is the best form of welfare!” was the statement Mr Andrews used, and considering the uptick in unemployment, with industries such as Ford, Alcoa, Qantas, SPC, Sensis, Telstra, Shell and Toyota, moving jobs and business off shore. A fall in the participation rate – due in part, to an asset rich, income poor retiring population – and a rise in part time and casual positions over that of full time, concerns are warranted.

In the 2013-14 Budget, the Government correctly stated that, “Australians value a fair society” and underlined its commitment to a tax system that provides a strong and stable funding stream for important public services such as “health, education and, Disability Care” whilst “rewarding innovation and productivity,” for economic growth.  And on an international scale, our tax-transfer system is perceived as ‘comparatively’ generous.

According to the OECD, Australia’s ‘Robin Hood’ economy redistributes more to the poorest 5% of the population than any other member country, whilst the much-criticised policies of ‘middle class welfare’ are seemingly the lowest.

We’re deemed to have the most “unique” and “target efficient” social security benefits in the OECD, apparently yielding “significant gains” to both the economy and society, and when compared to the USA which has the highest income inequality amongst the ‘rich’ nations by some significant degree, we look comparatively ‘healthy.’

Yet, despite its many reforms, and varying degrees of success, shaped in part by demographic changes (more women entering the labour force for example,) and a small reduction in high end salaries during the GFC – widening disparities between incomes have continued unabated since the mid 1990s, and as the labour market struggles, there’s nothing to suggest the trend will stop.

Mind the Gap..

There are all sorts of reasons to narrow the gap between the rich and poor, and prevent an ever-widening chasm – significantly, the way that income is invested into the economy and the roll over effect to society.

Income inequality and economic growth can only work hand in hand, when individuals are enabled to strive for greater heights from a foundation of equal opportunity – the basis of which is education.

As economist and inequality expert Andrew Leigh commented late last year;

“Education is the greatest force that we’ve developed, not only for boosting productivity, but also for making Australia more equal” ensuring “the circumstances in which you’re born don’t determine the circumstances in which you die.”

Yet our schooling system is becoming increasingly segregated. The correlation between poor performance and social disadvantage are stronger here than any other comparable western nation.  If our tax and transfer system were meant to offset this, you’d have to assess its been an abject failure.

Why?

Australia has enjoyed a period of economic prosperity, which over the last 23 years has been nothing short of remarkable.  According to Credit Suisse ‘Annual Global Wealth Report,’ we’re the “richest people in the world,” with a median wealth ‘each’ of US $219,500.

Over the past year alone, Australia added an estimated 21,000 millionaires to the population. Yet, contrary to what the textbook version of economic theory would have you believe – household savings, reaped from an economy surfing the wave of a commodity boom, have not flowed into business investment, or nurtured productivity and education standards in the young.

As noted in the Credit Suisse assessment, our ‘riches’ are “heavily skewed towards real assets” a manifestation of “high urban real estate prices” acquired and generated through the destructive cyclical impacts of a property market, which, as I emphasised last week, sees the gains from income growth and investment, flow directly back to the land.

Both homeowner and speculator..

Home ownership is seen as one of the great pillars of our collective culture.  It’s assessed to improve health and school performance in children, activate social engagement as well as reduce local crime.

However, the way we go about promoting ownership, is to nurture a system that teaches rising land values – outside of any productive activity such as renovation or effective utilisation of the resource – is due reward for having saved hard and got onto the ‘ladder’ in the first place.

Our tax system is skewed toward ownership, with policies, that according to last year’s Grattan report, provides potential benefits to homeowners worth $36 billion a year, or $6,100 on average per ‘household’ through items such as capital gains and pensioner eligibility test exemptions. Investors (or those choosing to rent and invest) reap $7 billion a year, or $4,500 on average ‘each,’ by way of negative gearing rules and the capital gains discount introduced in 1999. Whilst renters, one in four households, see no gain – unless their income is low enough to require welfare assistance.

In effect, we’re an economy that relies on ever-rising values of irreplaceable fixed assets, to fund the individual wealth of its nation – and this is only achievable if policies are in place to ensure values remain high and climbing, and debt levels ‘affordable.’

Capital growth..

Speculation and investment are two sides of the same coin. When we assess a good business model for example, we speculate that the productive activity that flows from that investment, will build on a growing base of demand, and through competition and diversity, go onto produce a profit.

Yet the ‘Capital Growth’ in land values does not occur by way of some abject force of nature. Everything that makes our cities ‘liveable’ comes from the collective ‘investment’ of our taxpayer dollars – which we ‘grudgingly’ pay in the first place, to provide the social amenities needed to form the base from which we can all progress.

This would include, community services such as, transport, parks, roads, trains, trams, medical facilities, and most importantly, schools.

Yet, it is also these facilities that produce the needed demand for real estate that pushes values upwards.  Not through the efforts of the individual homeowner, but the productive efforts of the taxpayer – renter, homeowner and investor alike.

Housing on its own is worth nothing without the infrastructure that surrounds it and rising land values are ‘reward’ for nothing other than unwontedly buying into a system that – under the current structure – promotes inequality and forces social polarisation.

Unlike our business model above, we can’t ‘make’ more land in a particular location to fulfil the demand produced from the facilities our tax system both funds and maintains.  Therefore effective utilisation of the resource is vital.

However, the speculative process alone, along with the added impact of a tax system that impedes turnover by way of stamp duty at one end, and capital gains at the other, simply feeds a process of hording.

This is because most advantage best from investment into housing through the process of “buy and hold” – leveraging the ‘equity’ to produce needed funds, rather than selling. A system that drives underutilisation and ‘land banking.’

But land is fixed in location; therefore we must always ‘hop’ over it to find the next predicted ‘hot spot’ to raise our families, until this too becomes out of reach through the process described above – like a cruel game of musical chairs.

Back to the beginning. 

Let’s go back to the case study I cited at the start of this article.  The reason the four-bedroom townhouse attracted such strong demand in the first place, is because it’s located in a top government school zone.

Only high-income earners can afford to live in this zone, and no doubt they feel – through their income tax contributions alone – they pay their fair share toward facilitating the opportunity for their children to obtain that higher education. As the OECD said, our tax and transfer system is high progressive – the “rich” pay more.  Or do they?

Allowing for stamp duty, the new owner who purchased the townhouse would have paid $1,066,605 yet despite two years of effectively ‘stagnant’ growth in 2011/2012, the median price in the suburb has escalated close to 60% from $850,000 in December 2009, to $1,355,000, therefore they probably assess it a ‘worthy’ investment.

As for those who arrived early in the process, to paraphrase what one homeowner relayed to me some time back – she has earned more from the ‘capital growth’ of her home over the past 10 years or so, than she has in earnings.

Outside of a ‘crash’ or the demise of the education facilities provided, there is nothing to suggest prices in this school zone will drop. From the tight zoning regulations alone, and rising population of immigrants and local buyers looking to advance their children’s education, the very ingredients to attract a consist source of buyer demand are set in place – and rents will rise accordingly.

The taxpayer continues to subsidise the school, whilst the gains are capitalised in rising land values, which flow directly to the individual homeowner not the school or community, keeping values high and placing further pressure on the public purse to fund additional services, whilst underfunded schools, in the over populated ‘fringe’ suburbs, start to produce an English style education ‘class divide.

Under such a system, we are not subsidising the ‘poor,’ we are ‘paying’ the wealthy.  Yet, it’s clear, if we’re to navigate the structural changes ahead and keep unemployment low, whilst at the same time, reduce the projected burden on the ‘welfare state,’ our economy is reliant on maintaining a highly skilled work force, and for this to occur, an elevated level of tertiary education and business investment is vital.

A better model of ‘Welfare..’

Notwithstanding, the correct way to fund local schools would be via broad based and effectively administered land value taxation, which in its purest form – as advocated by the Classical Economist, Henry George – would result in a single tax on the unimproved value of land to replace all other taxes, which hamper productivity – significantly income tax.

George’s ideas won favour amongst many, including the great economist and author of “Capitalism and Freedom” Milton Friedman as well as other influential figures including Winston Churchill, Adam Smith, and more recently, Chief economics commentator at the ‘Financial Times’ Martin Wolf, and author and economist Fred Harrison – aalthough, notwithstanding, a single tax would be unlikely to hold water in current political circles.

The Henry tax Review commissioned by the Government under Kevin Rudd in 2008 concluded that “economic growth would be higher if governments raised more revenue from land and less revenue from other tax bases” proposing that stamp duty (which is an inconsistent and unequitable source of revenue) be replaced by a broad based land tax, levied on a per-square-metre and per land holding basis, rather than retaining present land tax arrangements.

Whilst arguments over school funding will likely continue, centred in the political battle over funding of the suggested Gonski reforms. Unless we narrow the gap in education, we’ll never narrow the broadening gap in income, and consequently, the growing burden on our welfare state.

Therefore – when times comes that the ‘chatter’ around affordability, finally evolves into ‘real’ action – a broad based LVT should form an important part of both the debate, and solution.

Catherine Cashmore

Regular journalist, blogger, advocate, policy thinker, and well know media commentator for all things property. www.catherinecashmore.com.au, @ccashmore_buyer.

 

Inequality and economic growth…

Inequality and economic growth…

To a limited extent inequality and the ‘rich/poor’ gap is tolerated within society because economists have historically seen it as a necessary platform to stimulate ‘economic progress’ or even activate a sense of competitiveness within individuals in order to elevate themselves up the social ladder

Certainly in the housing market this is evident.  Who hasn’t aspired to their ‘dream’ home – or visualized some improvement similar to that of their neighbours?

It’s what the success of programs such as ‘Grand Designs’ thrive upon – the emotional aspect of ‘wanting’ bigger and better – and a proportion of home owners will stretch their budget in order to achieve their desired property of choice, taking on a larger mortgage to do so.

However, whilst a degree of inequality may be tolerated as an inevitable consequence of the benefits offered in a capitalist society, a widening gap can become disabling to ‘progress,’ or even dangerous, if items of basic need are perceived to be increasingly out of reach.

In their 2012 ‘Global Risks’ annual report, the Word Economic Forum put it like this;

“…when ambitious and industrious young people start to feel that, no matter how hard they work, their prospects are constrained, then feelings of powerlessness, disconnectedness and disengagement can take root. The social unrest that occurred in 2011, from the United States to the Middle East, demonstrated how governments everywhere need to address the causes of discontent before it becomes a violent, destabilizing force.”

The comments build on other research undertaken by Andrew Berg and Jonathon Ostry, two senior staff in the IMF’s Research Department, who found that once a country had entered a period of economic growth, the more equal the distribution of wealth over the ensuing period, the longer it lasted. They conclude  “…sustainable economic reform is possible only when its benefits are widely shared.”

Inequality in Housing

The consequences of inequality in the housing market are painful and slow. The trend is increasingly evidenced over a lengthy period of years – not in the volatility of month-to-month first homebuyer statistics – always marginalizing those at the bottom of the income stream, whilst advantaging those at the top.

Effects include;

  • Social polarization,
  • A decrease in the number of low income buyers obtaining ownership,
  • A drop in the number of affordable rental dwellings with demand outstripping supply,
  • Greater requirements for public housing,
  • A rise in homeless percentages, and those who drift in and out of secure rental accommodation.
  • A rising percentage of long term tenants, and falling percentage of property owners, – across all demographics, – but particularly families with children.
  • Fewer Australians – across all demographics – owning their homes outright.
  • Evidence of severely crowded accommodation…. And so forth.

The list, which names only a few of the prevailing concerns, creates a growing body of evidence that we have more than an affordability issue in Australia, which focuses overwhelmingly on first home buyer figures.

We have a growing structural problem, which, if allowed to continue, with have a societal impact, chipping away at the future growth and stability of the property market, affecting the majority – not just a ‘few.’

Why?

The reason this has occurred is down to our property cycle – or perhaps better-termed a ‘land cycle’ – which has been further accentuated by poor housing policy – restrictive planning conditions and generous tax incentives, which are ultimately destructive.

Rising prices, and the expectation of such are initially seen as a ‘good’ thing, because they drive the economy, increasing consumption (the ‘wealth’ effect,) stimulating economic growth, infrastructure investment, construction activity and demand for ‘durables.’

This in turn flows through to wages – which advantage the workers at the top of the income stream, rather than the labourers at the bottom. (See Andrew Leigh’s, The Story of Inequality in Australia (2013,) which points out, since the mid-1970s, earnings after inflation for the bottom tenth of the population has grown 15%, in comparison to 59% for the top tenth.)

The gains are subsequently capitalised into rising land values, as investors, buoyed on by inflationary expectations, easier lending conditions, and ‘fear of missing out,’ lead a bull market of speculative activity (such as we’re seeing in Sydney) - until reality eventually steps in, and the trend inevitably turns.

In other areas of the economy that suffer from inflation, some form of substitution can typically occur, however land – and the infrastructure that gives it its value – is fixed in supply, an absolute necessity to all business and personal needs, therefore as land values rise, there is an inevitable strain on productivity, affecting job growth, private debt, small business, and unemployment (such as we’re seeing in Australia presently.)

Whilst monetary policy and the interest rate ‘lever’ are employed to moderate the damaging effects of a property cycle – at every step of the process, real estate has been used as collateral for further economic investment, a revenue generating machine for government, and ‘wealth’ fund for retirement, therefore whilst the aim is to prevent a ‘hard’ landing, the motivation is always bent on protecting existing values, rather than letting them fall.

Hence why demand side subsidies are favoured as a ‘band-aid’ to affordability, rather than cure.

The result

Without direct political intervention to rectify the damage, the greater and more destabilising the divide becomes, not only placing pressure on the welfare system, but evidenced ‘vocally,’ as rising numbers enter the housing market later, pay far more over the lifetime of their loan, and risk reaching retirement still servicing household debt – as is the case in Australia.

This was noted back in 2012 in a CPA study entitled ‘Household Savings and Retirement – where has all my super gone?’ And most recently by executive chairman of ‘Yellow Brick Road,’ Mark Bouris, who ‘concerned’ about lump sum superannuation payments being used to pay off mortgages, made a submission to Joe Hockey’s parliamentary financial inquiry, suggesting we can ‘solve’ the above impacts, with additional tax breaks to allow people to pay down their housing debt faster

Needless to say, it doesn’t take much of an economist to understand that subsidies – no matter attractive they may seem – are ultimately capitalised into prices, thereby raising the entry costs for first home ownership further, and increasing the pain for the next generation of aspiring buyers.

But then considering the line of business Mr Bouris represents, I suspect this is isn’t about ‘solving’ the crisis, so much as supporting it.

The self perpetuating cycle..

To some extent, it’s a self perpetuating cycle – after 30 years of mortgage repayments dedicated to paying off their principle place of residence, vendor’s obviously don’t want to see the price of their biggest asset drop.

Investors are similarly motivated, an AHURI study released in December 2013, identified the typical investor, as one who expects their property to ‘double every ten years’ as a strategy to finance retirement.

Incidentally, the same study also noted that three-quarters of the investors surveyed, do not see negative gearing as a reason to purchase – but merely as ‘an added bonus’ – thereby weighing against the myth of an ‘investor lead exodus’ should the policy be scrapped.

However a system that tries to both feed speculation, whist creating unaffordability through supply constraints, is ultimately set to fail, as low-income households are continually forced to the outskirts, whilst the higher income individuals get to purchase the front row seats.

Social polarisation…

This results in social polarisation, which is clearly visible on the Melbourne map below, taken from the REIV, which illustrates the median house price by suburb, relative to the metro median.

REIV social polarisation

The colours coded with the darkest blue indicate house prices more than double the metro median, and orange, house prices that are more than 25% below the metro median.  (The white spaces are areas for which there is insufficient data.)

This aligns very closely to a map constructed using data from the ABS, which ranks geographic areas in terms of their relative socio-economic advantage and disadvantage, highlighting diversities such as incomes, education levels, occupations, rent and mortgage payments, family structure and unemployment.

ABS socio-economic

Once again, the beetroot red and bright orange ‘fringe’ suburbs, sit well away from the affluent dark blue vicinities, which contain the top schools, medical facilities, shopping strips, high paying jobs, train and tram networks, childcare centres, social amenities, and so forth – all of which our tax payer dollars collectively fund – yet under the current structure, only the local home owners get to advantage.

This would include not just the various social benefits offered, but the additional on-flow of capital gains each property attracts from a squeeze of consistent market demand.

To emphasise, top performing government schools in Australia, do not reserve places for those showing merit, rather the families both willing and able to support the 20-50% premium, charged for accommodation in a desirable school’s catchment zone. ‘Fair go Australia.’

In case you need further convincing, you can chart how the trend has evolved using the image below, which is taken from a previous AUHRI investigation, showing how the percentage of affordable dwellings available for low to moderate-income purchasers, has changed in Melbourne, between the years of 1981 and 2006.

AUHRI

The darker areas are the ‘most’ affordable, whilst the white patches are the least.

What of the ‘price’ ripple effect?

Even heading 45km or so away from the CBD, low-income purchasers can only acquire affordable accommodation – in the range of $200,000 – $400,000 – if the lot size is much smaller than 600 square metres, which is still deemed ‘standard’ in many middle suburban regions of Melbourne.

Further more, any hope of ‘backyard cricket’ is unlikely, as the new developments are littered with homes that have a footprint, which extends to the boarders of each block.

The graph below highlights why this is so – it was put together by a colleague, Steven Armstrong – using valuer general statistics, and it charts the extraordinary rise in land values per square metre in Hume City – an outer metropolitan growth zone in north-western Melbourne – between the years 1983 to 2012.

Graph land prices

The remarkable escalation in prices had nothing to do with homeowners wanting the castle, when a modest suburban home would do. Rather the issues I outlined last week in regard to planning restrictions (false scarcity,) tax and infrastructure overlays, land speculation (the underlying cause of ‘all’ bubbles,) that are exasperated further by ineffective supply side policy.

It’s important to make this point, because whilst most people assume the ‘price/ripple’ effect works outwards – under the current system, the causation works both ways.

It’s the marginal price of land at the fringes of our capital cities, that sets the ‘base’ value for the better-located plots further in.

In other words – it’s not supply that ‘solves’ affordability for low-income purchasers, but the cost at which that supply can be delivered to the ‘homebuyer’ (not speculator) market.

Property Overvalued? A bubble? A concern??

In light of the information above, when I was recently asked to make comment on whether Australian real estate was overvalued or not, I sensed the intention was to take the traditional view, and instead of charting ‘why we’re here’ – assess whether job growth, population expansion, demand for credit, housing turnover, wage growth, interest rates, mid term supply and so forth, were supportive of a future sustained increase.

However, whilst the above data will give a mid term indication over whether current process are ‘serviceable’ at existing rates, or if market turnover can maintain pace, it gives little indication as to the long-term effects I’ve highlighted above, which in my mind, present a far greater destabilising force, as we bear witness to a slow generational shift, eating at the edges of home ownership in the months and years ahead.

I’ll leave the reader to come to their own predictions on market movements as we traverse through 2014. Albeit, in light of the Government’s response to previous housing ‘affordability’ enquiries, I think the above concerns will merely worsen rather than improve – and at some point, we’ll all feel the impact.

Catherine Cashmore

 

 

The Question the Government must agree to, before the Senate Enquiry into Housing Affordability can commence.

The Question the Government must agree to, before the Senate Enquiry into Housing Affordability can commence.

As the deadline for the senate enquiry into housing affordability approaches, some notable submissions have thus far been made

  • Saul Eslake, One of Australia’s most respected chief economists, and previous member of the now disbanded ‘National Housing Supply Council,’ has submitted the address he gave last year at the 122nd Annual Henry George Commemorative Dinner, in which he eloquently outlines Australia’s “50 Years of Housing Failure.”  Eslake advocates the need to remove policies that stimulate demand, such as negative gearing, in favour of those that increase supply. ‘Rethinking’ infrastructure financing and removing stamp duty, in favour of a broad based tax system on the unimproved value of land, as was recommended in the 2009 Ken Henry tax review.

Any detail Eslake misses on the supply side, is dutifully covered by Senator Bob Day.

  • Senator for South Australia, a registered builder and founder of major construction companies, such as ‘Homestead Homes and Home Australia,’ Bob Day’s submission, is his May 2013 policy paper – ‘Home Truths Revisited,’ – in which he shares an intricate understanding of the history and complexities of supply side policy, which have seen land prices increase more than ‘tenfold,’ in comparison to the cost of building, which has seen ‘virtually no increase at all.’   Importantly, for my industry colleagues who ‘blog’ that price rises were simply down the increase in demand stimulants, (such as dual income households.) Senator Day notes, “while influential bodies like the Productivity Commission and the Reserve Bank focused their attention on demand drivers, like capital gains tax treatment, negative gearing, interest rates, readily accessible finance, first home buyers’ grants and high immigration rates” … the real culprit, the real source of the problem, was the refusal of state governments and their land management agencies to provide an adequate and affordable supply of land for new housing stock to meet the demand.”
  • Other notable submissions come from ‘Grace Mutual Limited,’  - a not-for-profit entity who “designs investment mechanisms to attract wholesale funding into the social sector” – in particular -“the National Rental Affordability Scheme.”  GML outline the ‘unduly complex’ regulations that have disadvantaged investors, noting; “Large numbers of NRAS incentives (at least 4,000) were awarded for the construction of student housing,” yet “There appears little evidence that this has any positive impact on the middle to low-income families that were the target of the original policy.”
  • And the last two submissions to date (2/2/2014) come from “Home Loan Experts,” who want an abolishment of negative gearing, but predictably think that the first homebuyer grant should stay.  And an anonymous letter, with an overview of the points made by both Saul Eslake and Bob Day, noting as I did back in December 2013 that nothing has been done since the last Senate enquiry.

Rinse and Repeat

To emphasise – The 2008 Senate report, entitled “A good house is hard to find: Housing affordability in Australia”

  • Made the same points regarding Australia’s tax policies, such as capital gains tax and negative gearing, which impact affordability and market activity.
  • It made the same points regarding each states planning laws, overviewing the construction industry’s future skilled labour workforce, the impact of urban boundaries on land prices, and the funding of community infrastructure.
  • It made the same points regarding the need for a diverse range of accommodation suited to both young and old alike, advocating greater competition within the building industry.
  • It made the same points in relation to both the both the public and private sector, addressing tenancy laws, and renters rights.

It was both comprehensive and detailed in content, and yet – 5 years later – at every level – both state and federal government have failed.

Failed to provide a ready surplus of ‘cheap land.’

Failed to overhaul infrastructure funding.

Failed to boost a sluggish construction sector in relation to population growth.

Failed to reign in speculation.

Failed to overhaul a system that results in too few rental properties for low-income households. And;

Failed to reduce the need for social housing or raise standards in the public sector.

Instead – we’re left with a new record median house price, which sits close to $600,000 ($597,556 APM.) – Following the highest quarterly rise for 4 years – built on the back of a diminishing first home buyer sector, which is instead supported by a record number investors, benefitting from a pace of growth in Sydney, which all agree, is ‘unsustainable.’

As far as affordability is concerned, we’re simply sitting on a merry-go-round of repeated mistakes.

Housing affordability a Mystery – too complex?

This is not due to any lack of understanding on the Government’s part. There is no secret or mystery to housing affordability. The solutions are well understood.

  • They were discussed at length in the previous senate enquiry.
  • AHURI has repeatedly tacked both supply and tax  policy.
  • And this senate enquiry will do the same.

The recommendations fall in line with other countries and states that have successfully achieved a consistent correlation between gross median house price and income – and so to some degree of detail or other, share the following two points in common;

1) They have taxation system that discourages speculation, but encourages productivity. The most successful of which is well-administrated broad based land value taxation system, such as that adopted in various cities in the USA – like Pennsylvania for example – where the tax on the unimproved value of land is heavier than that of property –a process of which I explain in full here - or as in Texas, where property is taxed, yet income isn’t, reducing the level of speculative demand.

And;

2) They have created an environment in which liberal supply side policies ensure ‘fringe’ land is sold close to its agricultural value, ensuring zoning laws do not impede development, and there remains strong competition within in the construction sector.

Why we have failed.

Yet, the reason countries like Australia, the UK, certain states in the USA, for example, fail to successfully move away from the boom/bust cycle, which leaves us counting the minutes on the ‘property clock,’ until a major correction is experienced, – which ultimately offers little help to struggling home buyers, small business, or low income earners, due to consequential restrictions in lending.

Was summed up neatly in a 2007 parliamentary report entitled New directions in affordable housing: Addressing the decline in housing affordability for Australian families: executive summary - in which it confidently stated;

“Improving housing affordability does not mean reducing the value of existing homes, which are usually the primary asset of any individual or family.”

It’s a comment that sits right up there along with ‘saving doesn’t mean spending less’ or ‘dieting doesn’t mean reducing calories.’

If only it were so…!

To create a sustainable and affordable housing market, in line with the majority of recommendations put forward in the senate enquiry, would inevitably have a dampening effect on existing house and land values, in particular sites which are banked for ‘idle’ speculation.

Fear over falling prices justified?

The fear is understandable when you consider residential real estate is Australia’s largest domestic asset class, with an estimated aggregate value of over $4 trillion, pinned to a banking sector which has the highest exposure to residential mortgages in the world, in a country in which most Australian’s are home owners.

However, please don’t fall into the trap – once again as many of my industry colleagues do – of thinking just because a large number of homeowners in Australia own their own properties debt free, it prevents a potential ‘crash’ in prices – because the level of commentary on this matter is really very low.

A huge portion of private debt for the appropriation of business and commerce is secured against residential real estate.

A lack of active buyers in the market – (which produces an atmosphere in which price falls are inevitable) – stagnates turnover, prevents those who need to ‘fund’ their retirement through an equity release from doing so. Prevents those that need to move state to find employment else where, from doing so. It locks people into their homes – unable to downsize or upsize – and the effects are felt across all demographics.

Businesses which run into financial trouble are unable to reach into their house ‘ATM” and secure additional funding, and as a result, industries close, lay offs are invoked, investment ceases – the list goes on.

Importantly, it does not prevent a major economic crisis.

It did not prevent it in Ireland, America, or other countries in Europe, which also had a large proportion of owners, who owned outright.

We are not immune from a major downturn – no market, which exhibits land cycles is – and be assured, when it does happen, it won’t matter whether the banking system is ‘wiped out’ or not (as suggested as another reason we cant ‘crash’) – the Government will rush to their assistance – leaving ordinary people to suffer their debt consequences alone. As has been demonstrated repeatedly on an international scale.

Rising house prices or a stable market?

An economy that relies on high and rising house prices is one that’s ultimately set to fail.  It’s a symptom of poor housing policy and can only supported over the longer term, by making debt ‘ever more affordable.’

Therefore the best protection from such, is political reform, which ensures stability across gross price to income ratios – and if managed proficiently in line with the two points outlined above;

  • It would assist productivity,
  • Boost the construction sector,
  • Aid infrastructure financing,
  • Keep prices accessible for new homeowners and business – which need to buy or rent land to compete with established players.
  • Ensure tenants are not subject to ever increasing yields.
  • Weather the unwanted impact of real estate ‘booms and busts.’
  • Protect vendors from plummeting property values during an economic crisis – (whenever that point in Australia’s future is) – and;
  • Reduce inequality between the asset rich and income poor.

Land speculators would not advantage from it – but ordinary taxpayers would love it.

What the Senate & Government must agree to allow, prior to commencing its enquiry.

Thankfully, we don’t need to have an initial debate with the senate, over whether the market is or isn’t affordable – as has been the case with various commentators across the mainstream media.

Instead, we need collaborative assurance from the government, that any outcome from yet another Senate enquiry, will allow land prices to reduce – the process of which would have an gradual roll-on effect across the established real estate sector

Once - and only once, we have an affirmative answer to that question – can we begin the debate over how this can be achieved – and once we do, it must ensure the following.

1)   That fringe land is immediately available for residential development, overriding existing urban boundaries and zoning requirements that render it otherwise, and ensure it remains close to its agricultural value.

2)   Increase competition within the construction sector, simplifying the planning process, and eliminating ‘upfront’ infrastructure costs.  Additionally, a review of the many ‘hidden taxes’ such as development overlays, application fees, stamp duties and so forth, that are charged through the planning and development process, must be reduced to ensure they are ‘fair and transparent’ as advocated by the HIA.

3)   The removal/phasing out of policies such as the first homebuyer grant and tax incentives, that reward speculation into the established sector, and rely on housing inflation to stimulate demand.

4)   Reopen the discussion to abolish stamp duty; moving instead toward a broad based land value taxation system. Following practices across the world where it has been deployed with success, and noting that the ACT is adopting such measures, over a slow transitional 20 year period. And;

5)   Ensure we build for homebuyers, not just investors – paying particular attention to the needs of an ageing population, for which downsizing into apartments is not the preferred, or readily adopted option.

The above recommendations would assist the rental sector, but additionally, the Government should work closely with organisations such as Shelter and the Tenants Union, to satisfy that the quality, provision and standard, of both rental and public housing, is improved and maintained, along with an overhaul of tenancy laws for long-term tenants.

Conclusion.

The details on how to achieve this will be overviewed in another column, however, if both state and federal government refuse to let land prices drop, acting reactively to affordability issues, rather than proactively. I suggest you use whatever vote you have wisely – ignoring both major parties – and instead, place it behind smaller players, who act in the best interests of community, and not their ‘back pockets.’

Catherine Cashmore

Australia Day traditionally flags the end of the real estate ‘vacation’ period – but what of the road ahead…. ?

Australia Day traditionally flags the end of the real estate ‘vacation’ period – but what of the road ahead…. ?

Australia Day traditionally flags the end of the real estate ‘vacation’ period with the long weekend being the last chance most agents have to take a breather before the auctions begin, and weekly clearance rates once again come under intense scrutiny.

Predictions for the remainder of the year are generally undivided. Most conclude the upward trajectory to continue – with particular focus on some of our largest capital cities, Sydney, Melbourne and Perth (with the first and last already past their previous peaks in non-inflationary terms.)

Whilst the pace of growth will differ for each capital with a correction expected in 2015, it’s a conclusion I generally agree with – despite the talk of a sooner than expected rise in rates.

The momentum that has built up throughout 2013 has come primarily from investors, driven in large by local speculation.

In Sydney, where city supply has been hampered by stringent planning requirements, allowing larger developers with a greater financial capacity to hold the upper hand, – the shortage of stock to cater to the needs of a market share of over 50% investors, has resulted in a spike in prices which has diverged considerably from other states, and continues to drive the herd mentality.

Louis Christopher, managing director of ‘SQM Research,’ suggests Sydney will have its strongest start to the year in more than 15 years, and even assuming the prediction is too bullish, it’s unlikely to be far from the mark.

The extra boom of apartment supply will assist in cooling demand and boosting the number of rental dwellings, but it will take more than one interest rate hike before we see the evidence translate into lower median values, hence why the run will last the duration.

Whether you celebrate or commiserate news of a continued increase in house prices will obviously depend on circumstance, – with investors benefitting most. However, the higher entry cost will continue to impede first time buyers and low-income earners, and with no immediate solution by way of a structural reform to housing policy, the debate won’t move far from headlines.

I made clear in my column last week, why we have an affordability problem and how that translates across the different demographics, and see little advantage detailing the evidence once again, which to any reasonable mind should be overwhelmingly obvious.

In our most populous capital cities, house prices have gone from three times median income to nine times, and the impact on low-income families – in particular those renting, or teetering on the edge of ownership due to divorce or job loss – is particularly disturbing. In Melbourne alone, from 1991 to 2011, metropolitan housing CPI rose by 50%, compared to 188% for rents across the LGA.

The swell of concern coming from the ground up is the best chance we have to push significant reform forward, and therefore it’s encouraging to see results from a recent Ipos poll, conclude that most Australian’s disagree that rising prices are a ‘good thing.’

Notwithstanding, a huge portion of private debt for the appropriation of business and commerce is secured against residential real estate. It’s Australia’s largest domestic asset class with an estimated aggregated value of over $4 trillion, pinned to a banking sector, which has the highest exposure to residential mortgages in the world.

From homeowners counting on their principle place of residence to fund retirement, to Governments chasing the popular vote. The sensitivity to maintain high prices is evident not only in the NIMBY style practices that protest at all attempts to either increase density, or assist development, but also in the inability politician’s have to move ahead with structural reform to housing policy.

Consequently, Governments tend to treat affordability issues reactively rather than proactively. Words always mean more than the actions, demand side policies are favoured, and when supply is released, it’s done in such a way that it feeds a monopolist culture – designed to maximise profit over the delivery of land at ‘affordable’ prices.

To illustrate the point – economics ‘101’ suggests the most effective way to reduce prices is to simply increas supply, and in Melbourne, planning minister Matthew Guy was joyful last week, in announcing the city has “decades worth of land” more than “400,000 potential house lots in growth areas” of which 5 new precinct structure plans have been approved for development (amounting to 19,000 ‘potential’ bocks,) and a “potential” 180,000 apartment blocks (more than enough keep all our off-shore investors happy.) Clearly – we’ve got supply in spades!

Furthermore, broadly speaking, population growth in the outer suburbs of Greater Melbourne – predominantly in the newer greenfield developments to the west, north and south-east – continues to be faster, and larger, than anywhere else in the greater Melbourne districts – so demand in theory, should not be lacking.

But what Mr Guy fails to mention, is, in a five-year period from 2006 to 2010, the median land price in outer growth area suburbs jumped from $136,000 to $212,750, a difference of $76,750, according to Oliver Hume Real Estate Group, and with the typical starting price for a house and land package on a compact 450sqm block of land, now transacting for a little over $400,000 – where is this cheap supply?

Of course, it all comes down to the development process. As soon as the urban boundary was implemented speculation began; existing landowners were able demand a premium for land now potentially available for residential purposes. Of those who decided to cash in, hectares were duly auctioned off to the highest bidder – resulting in a massive inflationary boom in values,

Precinct structure plans must be finalised before construction can commence – a process of which takes 2 to 3 years.

Funds for the provision of infrastructure – arterial roads, kindergartens, child health centres and so forth, are passed onto the buyer (initially the developer, who simply factors it into the final cost.)

However, there is no timetable for the construction of this infrastructure. Councils can wait years for the funds to arrive because they are usually only payable upon subdivision, and notably land within PSPs can be held by landowners, who have little incentive to bring it to market unless it’s financially beneficial to do so. The result is homeowners pay for infrastructure, which they may never receive.

Any areas of land a developer unwittingly acquires which is subject to ‘biodiversity conservation’ must be set aside. Ten precent of their land must be donated for ‘community open space.’ Add to this GST, along with sales and marketing, costs – and you begin to get the idea of why supply does not immediately equate to lower prices.

Developers with a desire to maximise profits, time their releases carefully. A process over which the government has no control – in other words, the state has auctioned away any chance of a plentiful supply of cheap fringe dwellings – and in light of the evidence, Mr Guy is unable to claim otherwise.

Meanwhile, whilst inner city development may assist renters, to what extent is debatable. Of the new supply constructed, most is high-density, and there is strong anecdotal evidence from agents that off shore Asian buyers are driving the apartment pre-sale market, with rumors of random Melbourne auctions conducted in Mandarin.

Investors seem undeterred by the higher vacancy rates in Melbourne, which have hovered around 3% for the past 12 months – and we can see from work undertaken by Philip Soos at ‘Prosper Australia’ last year, that a percentage of newer units are allowed to sit vacant for much of the year – unclear whether they are being used for speculation, or as temporary vacation homes.

Building approvals data for apartments do not indicate commencement – the process of approval, to release (off plan pre-sales,) and finally completion, takes a number of years.

Charter Keck Cramer track each project from start to finish – and using the data as a forecasting tool, estimated back in July 2013 that 39,155 apartments will be added to the stock in Melbourne during the three year period of 2013 to 2015 (not including those for which subsequent planning approval has been granted.)

To maximise yield and meet financial requirements, most apartments are small one and two bedroom dwellings (no more than 70sqm in size.) Unsurprisingly, they offer little attraction to the vast majority of local homebuyers – being far more apt to meet the needs of student renters.

All in all, it’s an appalling state of affairs.

Conclusion.

Australia is now entering its 23rd year of continuous GDP growth – the history of which is outlined briefly in HSBC’s recently released global research paper “still in second gear.” And in light of the above, it should come as no surprise that, land is always the eventual beneficiary from the wealth of a burgeoning economy.

As productivity increases, jobs are created, the population grows, infrastructure is built, areas gentrify, land values increase, and owners benefit. The uplift in values finances additional development and so the speculative process continues.

From the trough of 1996 to the peak in 2010 land values have roughly doubled as a percentage of GDP – and the policies we have in place simply fuel the cycle.

There is no secret to why this should occur – in countries that have promoted home ownership both a means of ‘saving’ for retirement and valuable asset to leverage against to accumulate additional assets, along with tax strategies, and inelastic supply side policies that have encouraged speculation in rising land values (with both the monopoly and restriction of the resource stagnating effective and affordable supply) – the eventual consequence is always the same.

Until any sharp ‘correction’ is experienced (and eventually it will be,) the advantage lay with those who hold the appreciating assets above those who don’t – particularly if acquisition was early on in the cycle, as suburbs initially gentrified.

However, whilst gains over the period wax and wane spurred on by low rates or intermittent grants, the party can only continue whilst there is consistent demand at the entry level – hence why so much attention is focused on mortgage ‘serviceability’ rates, rather than the overall level of ‘affordability’ by way of calculating the gross amount borrowed.

It is possible to create a stable housing market that doesn’t subsist on ever rising prices, however, it can only be achieved by significant tax reform moving toward a broad based land tax, as was advocated in the Henry Tax Review – coupled with structural changes to the way we manage supply.

Without such reform, the social cost to our country and welfare system as a whole, will only worsen.

Catherine Cashmore

The debate over whether housing is, or isn’t ‘affordable continues…

I’m know I’m not alone in feeling an immense amount of frustration at the circular debate amongst commentators in the mainstream media, that surrounds our first homebuyer demographic, and the question of ‘affordability.’

Last week, the November 2013 housing finance data was released showing continued strong demand in the mortgage market, with owner-occupier commitments 15.3% higher than they were a year ago – their highest level since December 2009.

Unsurprisingly, demand from investors continues to increase, rising 1.5% in November, and up by 35% over the course of the year – the highest level on record – whilst on the other hand, first homebuyers remain at record lows, with a recorded market share of just 12.3%.

Whichever side of the coin you sit, “first homebuyers” like “housing bubbles” make a good headline, and therefore, instead of productive advocacy into improving the housing market so it’s equitable for all – we’re left once again battling a ‘Looney Tunes’ debate over whether housing is, or isn’t ‘affordable.’

Denalists

For those in denial all sorts of excuses are found – the most common of which is the accusation that first home buyers are just ‘spoilt and picky’ – or as was sent to me in email last week by a fellow contributor on “property Observer” – “you just have to save hard and start with a flat – isn’t that how it’s always been?

Well to some extent ‘yes’ – when there’s a budget, compromises need to be made. But how it’s always been? “No.” It’s not how it’s always been.

  • Whilst in the late 1990’s a typical first homebuyer’s budget would have secured a modest family home, in a reasonably facilitated suburb, for 3 times median income. Today you’d be hard pushed to find accommodation on the fringes of our capital cities for a similar expense.
  • Thirty years ago the land component of a house and land package represented 20% of the total cost – today it is more like 60%.
  • Forty years ago, housing policy ensured land was ‘readily available at fair prices,’ with commonwealth funding provided for essential infrastructure. Today land prices have soared; unduly inflated by constrictive urban zoning policy, with infrastructure prices, loaded onto the upfront cost.

Furthermore, a CIE study commissioned by the HIA, demonstrated how imposed taxes on developments, when added together, come to 39% of the marketed house and land price.

By the time you add “necessary” ‘energy and safety standards,’ coupled with the cost of labour on top of already inflated land values, developers find it increasingly difficult to provide ‘affordable’ accommodation whilst still making a profit.

Glenn Stephens, Governor of the RBA, summed it up best in 2011, when, he addressed a Parliamentary Committee and exclaimed how he could “not understand why a country as big as Australia seemingly had a shortage of land” and could therefore not provide ‘cheap’ housing.

Notwithstanding, ‘we don’t’ have a shortage of land – we have poor housing policy driven by vested interests to keep inner city land prices high.  I cannot find any other reasonable explanation.

Asking first home buyers to purchase into a market where, capital city house prices have been artificially inflated, from three times median income to nine times, should not leave us scratching our heads wondering why they don’t feel ‘OK” about it. It’s perfectly understandable.

Who is a first homebuyer?

According to the ABS, the average age of a first homebuyer is between “31-33 years,” and due to high entry costs, “partnering often precedes home purchase” (the majority of which already have children.)

Therefore unsurprisingly, only a relatively small proportion (19%) make up single households, and outside of those who pit themselves against stronger financial arm of the investment sector, to purchase an apartment, the options we’re currently providing our first homebuyers, fall dismally short of where that main demand centres – demand which often calls for more than tiny apartment which will last no longer than a year or so before an upgrade is necessary.

The data must be wrong…numbers can’t be this low?

Others challenge the data, with various claims that first home buyer numbers are only ‘significantly’ reduced, because a percentage are ‘slipping through the net,’ perhaps entering ownership as ‘investors’ or – due to dated brokering software – not being entered as first timers, unless applying for a state based grant or incentive.

On the latter point, I did speak to the ABS department of financial statistics directly about the notion that ‘significant’ numbers are missing, and further investigation is underway which I’ll follow up at a later date.

Albeit, currently they deny the implication, claiming it doesn’t accord with APRA’s instructions to lenders when collecting statistics – which stresses that a first home buyer, must be one in which ‘none of the borrowing parties has previously borrowed housing finance for owner occupation’ – making no distinction between an investor, or one who does, or does not, apply for the grant.

Therefore, outside of colloquial evidence, the above ABS statistics are the most accurate ‘current’ indicator we have of a downward trend in first homebuyer numbers – and for most ‘reasonable’ minds it should come as no surprise, considering we’re in an environment where the entry cost to obtain ownership is further impeded by rising prices, transaction taxes, and an uptick in unemployment raising concerns over job security.

Housing is ‘affordable’ because mortgage rates say so…

As Michael Janda pointed out in his excellent report last week – housing affordability should not be confused with mortgage serviceability.  

Mortgage rates are set up with different structures, dependant on circumstance, and subject to interest rate changes influenced by the macro environment.

  • They do not take into account the up front cost of a home and expenses incurred from associated utility costs.
  • They do not question rising rental prices, falling vacancy rates, wage growth, unemployment figures, or changes in household demographics and structure.
  • They make no distinction between the cost of building a home and the underlying value of land, or analyse constraints in supply, or make mention of the limited options available for low or single income households and families.

To assume on interest rates alone that housing is ‘affordable’ is lazy reporting and generally only applicable to existing owners

Those who fail to make the above distinction commonly come from the standpoint of vested interest – or entered ownership at the beginning of the lending boom (in the early 2000s or before,) and have benefitted considerably from a rapid period of inflation – which unsurprisingly enough, includes most of our politicians.

Housing is affordable because data from other countries says so…

Neither is it complementary to compare ourselves to international terrains which – having been through somewhat harder lessons than our own – are also battling to induce first home buyers out from underneath their ‘rental’ blankets.

Yet this is what Stephen Koukoulas attempted to do last week in Business Spectator when he ‘favourably’ compared Australia to Norway, Canada, Sweden and New Zealand.

All of these markets have suffered from large increases in levels of private debt whilst at the same time limits were placed on supply.

In Norway, Sweden and New Zealand, central banks have recently employed capital constraints in an effort to moderate demand, and Canada, with a household debt to income ratio of 163.7%, is being watched closely, as investors and economists start to voice alarm.

Letting house prices escalate, funded by a colossal amount of private mortgage debt, can be a dangerous game.

As I pointed out last week – in the USA prior to the sub-prime crisis, the median income in California was not enough to afford the average Californian home, or even a starter home.  Once the financial crisis hit, rapidly falling prices quickly eroded any equity homebuyers had achieved.

Whilst on the other hand, states such as Texas, where house prices did not deviate from three times median income, values fell by only -2.5% (from the peak of 2007 to the trough of 2011,) and the state suffered far fewer foreclosures.

….The renters that Terry Ryder rudely labelled ‘generation whine’

Renters, on the other hand, have not benefited directly from low interest rates. Roughly 33% of Australia’s housing market is made up of tenants and since, 2006, rises in the median cost of rental accommodation has outpaced both wage growth and inflation.

In Sydney, where supply is particularly constrained, APM recorded a 5.4% yearly increase to the median rental price, and according to a new report compiled by the Northern Territory Council of Social Service (NTCOSS,) the average cost of rental housing in Darwin has risen by 7.9%.

Before we get into a further debate over whether or not rents are ‘affordable,’ it’s worth turning to a previous report from the now disbanded ‘National Housing Supply Council’ to highlight the real impact demand side policies like negative gearing have, when coupled with a gradual erosion of supply.

Reports highlight that the increase of rental accommodation in the private sector has not outweighed the decline in social housing – and from the stock added, most have rents outside of the affordable threshold for lower income households.

To assess this, the NHSC broke income groups into deciles, and demonstrated of the ‘affordable’ private accommodation available,’ supply is quickly soaked up, leaving 60% of low income groups, paying more than 30% of their income on rent, and 25% paying more than 50% of their income on rent

In Conclusion

Gains from high land prices, do not trickle down they flow up. This is what the ‘National Housing Supply Council’ was trying to emphasise in their reports, and what I went to great pains to point out last week in trying to answer the questions over what exactly a ‘housing shortage’ means.

Our market is not just about buyers, it’s about renters too – and our Governments are elected to ensure that the price of land is not unduly inflated by either the monopoly of this resource, or undue restrictions placed on its development.

Worrying still – the arguments over affordability encourage us to lose sight of the real issue – which is not localised to the first homebuyer sector, but the general crowding out of low income residents across all demographics – some of which drift in and out of ownership

Reform is never easy, but there is a way to break the cycle and ensure land is fully utilized for the purpose intended, without prices blowing out to levels that can only be sustained through keeping interest rates low, or household debt high.

One way is through freeing the barriers hampering the type and supply of accommodation offered, and the other is through imposing a broad based tax on the underlying value land – of which I went into more detail here.

The focus of attack should be not those individuals who have advantaged from the system, but on the law that allows the system to operate – and in response, the commentary should not focus on defending what is plainly obvious, but advocating the policies we need to fix it, and ensure our house and land market is equitable for all.

Catherine Cashmore