Governments must stop meddling in property markets – and negative gearing has to go

Governments must stop meddling in property markets – and negative gearing has to go

By Catherine Cashmore
Tuesday, 26 June 2012

Balancing a real estate market is not an easy task.  Too much supply and prices fall – too little and they rise. Over time, various incentives – negative gearing, grants for first-home buyers, reduced stamp duty rates for off-the-plan sales and new homes, have been introduced, changed, and intermittently withdrawn by government “movers and shakers”. All have the effect of falsely influencing consumer demand one way or another.  Sometimes it’s done in favour of the investor, sometimes the home buyer, however in most circumstances it results in price increases rather than the opposite.

As the RBA is well aware, it’s a fine line you tread when it comes to maintaining stability. It takes careful analysis of a broad range of data and an intrinsic understanding of various micro markets before decisions are made.  However when it comes to the property market, state laws seem to dictate their own agenda, not to mention the federal government stirring the pot whenever it’s time to collect more revenue.

For example, when the budget came out, Wayne Swan saw fit to remove the 50% CGT discount – previously available for non-residents who have held property for a 12 month period or more – with no warning and a little addition added to “honour the discount in relation to any existing accrued capital gains ONLY if the non-resident obtained a market valuation for the asset as at May 8, 2012”.

As Michael Matusik correctly pointed out earlier this year, the sudden change will reduce demand from foreign and expat investors.  Considering most offshore purchases of property are new home or off-the-plan sales, it will adversely affect construction resulting in further stagnation of supply concentrating demand on existing dwellings.  GFC aside, metropolitan property prices in Australia are counted amongst the world’s highest. Therefore it’s vital we plan our cities effectively if the aim is to keep real estate affordable and reduce inner-city inflation in the established housing market.  It’s something our governments have yet to achieve – as analysis of boom/bust housing cycles prove.

Encouraging broad-based investment with policies such as negative gearing, which incites investors to enter into the established housing market rather than the “new home” market, do nothing to increase the supply and stimulate the many retail offshoots that benefit from construction. However it’s vital we do so if we value our ethical responsibility to provide enough affordable choices for home buyers and also magnify the supply of rental accommodation.  As the recently released 2011 census data shows, the national median weekly rent has risen 50% since the last census in 2006.  Not surprisingly there’s also an increase in the number of households getting stuck on the rental ladder, with 10% paying in excess of 30% of their income for the privilege.

Those in favour of negative gearing always base their arguments on the historical data, which proved a rise in yields in Sydney and Perth when the policy was withdrawn during the Hawke government in 1986-1988.  There are a few issues with this – firstly, the policy changes were not in effect long enough for a reasonable adjustment of market demand to be established.  For example, due to a very low vacancy rate at the time in both Sydney and Perth, rents naturally rose.  It’s worth noting – as others have done, including Saul Eslake, on numerous occasions – that rents did not rise nationally and in Melbourne, growth actually slowed.  If the market had been allowed to adjust to the changes, the consequence would likely have eventuated in investor demand decreasing in the established market, levelling the playing field somewhat for first-home buyers to gain a foothold.

It’s also worth noting at the same time the policy was withdrawn, the Hawke government encouraged the supply of new housing by the introduction of:

“Accelerated depreciation for new buildings or major renovations in order to create more rental property and more opportunities for renters”. (Keating, 1985).

Unfortunately, two years of changes were not enough to monitor the success or otherwise of the plan.  Lobbying from the real estate industry and investors, who had previously benefitted from the scheme, resulted in political back-pedaling.  All in all, it was badly handled.

No other country has such generous negative gearing policies as Australia when it comes to property investment.  Yet investors don’t leave these markets in droves.  With the policy as it stands, there is no limitation on the number of residential homes a single investor can claim against.  Consequently, we see large property portfolios acquired by a smaller percentage of the population who benefit most from reducing their tax burden and consequently, less supply for the majority market.

We need a phasing back of the current policy while at the same time planning outer-suburban and rural/regional growth with infrastructure – if not already established, then at least approved and funded – to ensure we continue to provide feasible options for home buyers and not just vacant dwellings in paddock lands.

While we will always need property investors to assist the supply of rental accommodation, for those unwilling or unable to purchase, property should not become a speculators’ domain.  Over-investment in property markets drives up demand and consequently prices, resulting in higher rent – not lower.  Rather, property’s prime function as an abode for shelter should be respected in so much as any policy is aimed at making it an achievable option for our growing populous.

However, it’s not just distortion from negative gearing that has negative effects on property prices.  The other initiatives I mentioned at the start of this article, such as the first-home owners’ grant, have done their fair share to ramp up debt in Australia’s residential market.  For example, I was recently asked to negotiate on a property that was purchased late 2009, when the first-home owners’ boost was available.  The one-bedroom unit in question was acquired off the plan, therefore, when reduced stamp duty had been taken into account, along with federal and state incentives, the owner would have benefitted from some $30,000 ‘saving’.  However – even taking into account comparable sales during the same period when purchased – the asking price at the time was easily $30,000 in excess of what it should have been – arguably even $50,000 in excess. Three years later, and the owner of the property in question never moved into the home due to a change in circumstance (boy meets girl).  Consequently – the property is “as new” – never lived in.

The documentation provided in the vendor statement shows the mortgage still owing on the home (in excess of 80%) remains above current market value.  Clearly the grant did little to help this vendor purchase – it simply helped him spend above and beyond what the commodity was worth and landed a first-home buyer – now starting a family – with a debt burden he won’t be able to resolve with a quick sale.  It’s one of the more interesting examples of many similar stories I come across monthly.

Despite the many incentives offered under the guise of “helping affordability”, Australia’s household debt-to-income ratio has accelerated to a little under 150%.  Perhaps it’s time to admit that the intention in the first place was not to assist affordability at all. Rather they were introduced to “prop up” the property market subsequently encouraging a greater debt burden. Considering the tax revenue governments receive from the housing market it’s no surprise there’s a fear of any natural reduction in demand. Stamp duty – taken under the guise of covering “transaction costs” – is without doubt an extortionate tax albeit a major source of revenue.

The question of how/if to replace it has been debated for years, however as Andrew Leigh MP noted in 2009 observations on the “impacts of stamp duty on housing turnover” show a “10% increase in stamp duty lowers turnover by 1-2% in the first year, and by 4-5% if sustained over a three-year period.” The reluctance to sell due to stamp duty charges has the potential of encouraging a “mis-match” between the type of property and family size.  It’s doubtful we’ll see any short-term answer to housing tax reform, therefore other strategies to improve affordability and create a greater supply of residential housing and supporting infrastructure are required.

Despite all the handouts, incentives and abundance of market meddling, we’re no closer to solving Australia’s housing problem than we were decades ago. As the 2011 census shows, Australia’s population has grown by nearly five times over the past 100 years and yet the vacancy rate for the last 30 of those years (the true guide to the housing shortage) has never exceeded 5%.

No one likes the idea of losing equity in their principal place of residence, however there’s a reluctance to accept that the pre-GFC relatively long-lasting boom in house prices is no longer a feature of Australia’s real estate terrain. RBA governor Glenn Steven’s has twice sought reason to warn us about, once in 2010 when he stated:

“I think it is a mistake to assume that a riskless, easy guaranteed way to prosperity is just to be leveraged up into property. It isn’t going to be that easy,”

And more recently in his “Glass Half Full Speech”, when he stated that the return to confidence we don’t need is;

“The kind of confidence based on nothing more than expectations of ever-increasing housing prices, with the associated willingness to continue increasing leverage, on the assumption that this is a sure way to wealth, would not be the right kind.”

The RBA has made it clear it is not in the business of creating boom bust cycles.  However there’s an overall reluctance by state and federal government to take its fingers out the pot and stop feeding a beast that will forever require market meddling to prevent a return to what Glenn Stevens calls “building wealth the old-fashioned way” – careful saving and strategic long-term educative planning.  If it weren’t for the commodity boom propping up weakness in the economy, we’d have suffered the same demise as Europe. In such a case, Prime Minister Julia Gillard wouldn’t have been giving lectures to world leaders at the G20 summit – she would have been receiving them.

Market meddling in the housing industry is based partly on greed and partly on a broad misunderstanding of the policies needed to balance it for all – not just a few. As the 2011 census data has shown, home ownership is reducing, not increasing. We don’t need meddling in the housing market from those sitting behind desks – who don’t work daily with buyers, sellers and renters, and therefore have little understanding of housing market dynamics outside of ‘on paper’ data.

A healthy market is one that is allowed to rise and fall thereby establishing its own long-term trend.  The role of government should be to provide equal opportunity for all and not target policy initiatives on a select few. We need more than a CEO sleep-out, which managed to reach top trending spot on Twitter last week, to raise awareness of the fundamental need for affordable secure shelter.  There’s not a single country that has completely cracked the problem of homelessness, however I have great belief in Australia – one of the pioneers of democratic rights – as a country with abundant potential to do so.

Catherine Cashmore is a market analyst with extensive experience in all aspects relating to property acquisition. 

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