Australia’s Empty Houses…

By – Catherine Cashmore

“The home, built in 1857, had been unoccupied for years” said the report of a dilapidated Victorian-era mansion in Sydney’s Balmain East.

Balmain East

Situated in an exclusive residential pocket next door to Balmain East ferry wharf and sporting bayside views of Sydney’s Harbour Bridge, the 457 square metre block of land attracted 200 people to the auction, 18 registrations to bid, and sold $830,000 above the reserve to a local home buyer for $2.68 million.

According to Property Observer, the site had been acquired in 1973 for $33,500 by the notable gay right’s activist and historian, Alexander ‘Lex’ Watson – president of The Pride History Group, and lecturer in Australian Politics at Sydney University, who sadly passed away earlier this year after a long battle with Cancer.

$33,500 in 1973 dollars would be $289,724 in real terms today – making the selling price of $2.68 million, a value almost ten times as great.

The location was the key of course, with planned upgrades to Balmain East ferry wharf, which will now receive services from the Parramatta River along with extra ferries to McMahons and Milsons Point, further enhancing its value.

Had the home been only a few kilometres away, a few hundred thousand could have been wiped off the price tag and the media sensation may not have been so great, even so, it is not the only dilapidated property to make the press of late.

Opportunistic buyers caught up in Sydney and Melbourne’s property boom, have snapped up a string of empty homes, selling under stiff competition while exceeding all expectations of price.

An empty hat factory on Wilson Street, Newtown, also vacant for years, sold earlier this month for $1.725 million.

A dilapidated home on 360 square metres of land in Thornley St, Leichhardt, vacant for more than 30 years, sold a few weeks ago for $1.4 million at auction.

A home in total disrepair at 19 Durham St, Stanmore, situated on 172 square metres of land, vacant for years and sold for $923,000.

And not to leave Melbourne out, an unliveable Richmond property on 726 square metres of land, also vacant for years, sold for $2.544 million – $900,000 above the price it achieved only two years ago.

Screen Shot 2014-09-30 at 2.50.03 pm The list goes on…..

Barring the last example that came with plans and permits for two town houses, these properties transacted for nothing more than their land value.  However, while the buyers purchased a location, they did not pay for the services that rendered that location valuable or, in the case of the first example, compensate the local residents for suppressing access to some of the best views in town.

Instead, reinforced by inelastic zoning constraints, generous tax treatment, and unrestrained speculative growth in dwelling finance commitments, they unwittingly rewarded the sellers with a substantial unearned gain for withholding valuable land from use and depleting the nation’s housing supply.

This means of ‘creating wealth’ common in most western nations, sits at the root of many of our economic and social problems today. It has both a debilitating and destabilising effect on the economy, evidenced clearly in a painful and rising trend of  income and housing inequality that burdens the capacity of the ‘welfare state’ to compensate.

Interestingly, Lex Watson, the prior owner of the Balmain East property cited above, was purportedly greatly influenced by the writings of John Stewart Mill whose work was said to be: “the touchstone of his life and later activism.”

Born in London in 1806, John Stewart Mill is remembered as: “the most influential English-speaking philosopher of the nineteenth century.”

Inspired by his father James Mill, who tutored his nine children with daily lessons in Latin, Greek, French, history, philosophy, and politics, John Stewart Mill was a leading economist – a prolific logician, who dedicated his life to championing the causes of liberty and equality, while advocating ‘radical’ ideas, such as the abolishment of slavery and equal rights for women.

In 1848 he published the most prominent textbook on economics in the 19th century: Principles of Political Economy – critiquing systems such as communism and socialism and cementing Mill’s reputation as a leading public intellectual.

Extending on the ideas set out by Adam Smith and David Ricardo, Mill employed concepts that that have been written out of today’s economic narrative, that conflate land and capital – virtual opposites – while failing to distinguish between income that is ‘earned’ and the economic surplus that disproportionately flows to those that “love to reap where they never sowed.” A process best set out in Mason Gaffney’s book, “The Corruption of Economics.”

Writing on the moralities of taxation in Book V, Chapter II of ‘Principles of a Political Economy’ Mill commented:

The ordinary progress of a society, which increases in wealth, is at all times tending to augment the incomes of landlords; to give them both a greater amount and a greater proportion of the wealth of the community, independently of any trouble or outlay incurred by themselves. They grow richer, as it were in their sleep, without working, risking, or economizing.”

From this Mill concluded that the government should collect society’s economic rents in lieu of taxes that impede productive labour and industry, including taxes on the improvement and the transfer of property, (stamp duty) which he said, should rather be: “distributed over the land generally, in the form of a land-tax.”

He was not the first or last to do so.

He followed a long line of influential activists, from Thomas Paine, who in his 1797 publication Agrarian Justice stressed:

“Men did not make the earth…. It is the value of the improvement only, and not the earth itself, that is individual property…. Every proprietor owes to the community a ground rent for the land, which he holds.

To most recently, Dr Ken Henry, who chaired Australia’s ‘Future Tax System Review’ and noted: “… economic growth would be higher if governments raised more revenue from land and less revenue from other tax bases.”

The classical economists recognised that unless profits from the ‘enclosure of the commons’ – land, water rights, minerals, and so forth – were effectively collected and shared for the benefit of the community, all productive gains, every improvement in society and the economy, would be capitalised into rising locational land values, enriching those that owned the assets but more so, those who created the credit and traded on the debt.

This is equally applicable to reductions in the cost of construction.

For example, news that high-density apartment towers close to public transport in Sydney, will no longer require parking facilities, delivering an estimated saving of $50,000 – $70,000 in development costs, will do little to ease affordability.  Rather it will simply leave more funds available to bid up the price of land and this is precisely what we are seeing in Australia – sky rocketing land prices requiring ‘super tall’ structures to provide a viable return on investment.

While the small one and two bedroom units may be spruiked as affordable, when calculated by cost or rental value per square metre of floor space, they are remarkably expensive.

Mason Gaffney expanded on the theory, coining the acronym ATCOR – “All Taxes Come Out of Rent.” Showing that whether renting or buying, total tax liabilities from whatever area carried by the consumer, deduct from the cost of a site to the extent they limit the amount a buyer is both prepared and able to pay.

It follows that the removal of all taxes would naturally wash up into higher prices for real estate, which in theory leaves the resulting rise in the economic rent of land ‘just’ enough to replace the forgone revenue. (For more, see Fitzgerald (2013) “Resource Rents Of Australia”)

When that liability falls on productive industry, deadweight losses occur. For example, 90% of our taxes are distortionary, adding 23% to prices of goods and services.

However, when the burden falls on land and monopoly rents – minerals, fuels, the broadcasting and communications spectrum, patents etc. The reverse is the case.

In respect of land, a higher tax rate levied on the unimproved value would discourage leaving dilapidated homes vacant for years while we struggle with an assumed housing shortage – suppressing the speculative element that adds to the volatility of the market cycle.

Furthermore, when the gain is collected and used to fund the expansion of infrastructure in order to service a growing population, the tax base is expanded without a subsequent lift in rates.

In the 19th century, nature’s ‘free lunch’ was largely limited to the aristocracy of the great landed estates, today monopoly profits are absorbed by the financial sector which wields significant political leverage from lending ‘endogenously’ created credit against real estate collateral, with the compounding interest disproportionately increasing levels of household debt. As I pointed out previously – Australia will increasingly feel the effect of this as we move into 2019.

Our current tax system is crooked. It allows large companies to jump through loop holes in legislation and ‘cook the books,’ shipping profits offshore, leading to an estimated $1.6 billion in tax revenue forgone, while land on the other hand, is used by investors as an effective tax haven.

In a recent post by Dr Gavin R. Putland of the Land Values Research Group, he notes:

“No matter how high your gross income may be, you can make your taxable income as low as you like, simply by buying enough negatively-geared properties. Such artificially reduced taxable incomes are used in ATO statistics on negative gearing, which are then trotted out by the property lobby as “proof” that most negative gearers aren’t rich — as exposed, for example, in Michael Janda’s article “The myth of ‘mum and dad’ property investors” (The Drum, 24 September 2014).”

Enlightening the disparity of our tax laws further, Putland includes a citation to a series of exchanges posted in the comments section of Michael Janda’s article in The Drum:

“AE:

… Deductions for expenses incurred are a fundamental of our and every other economy. Show me one society where you cannot deduct expenses incurred.

Gavin R. Putland:

How about *our* society? The cost of commuting to work is manifestly a cost incurred for the purpose of earning your wage or salary, but you can’t deduct it against your wage or salary (or anything else) for tax purposes. QED.

Mitor the Bold:

That’s an ATO commandment, but theoretically you should be able to.

Overit:

Actually, Mitor, it predates the ATO by about 200 years, and is derived from a pre-industrial-revolution House of Lords ruling which said that if tradespeople choose not to live in or over their business premises, then they should not be able to deduct the cost of travelling to their work.

However, I agree that theoretically you should be able to. Which is why the novated vehicle lease business has grown so rapidly, because that effectively enables people to deduct the cost of travelling to their chosen place of work. Bad luck for all of us who travel by public transport.

JoeBloggs:

The cost of travelling from your home to work is not a work related cost. It is the cost relating to your choice where you live, a personal aspect of your life. No worker, contractor or business can claim as a deduction ‘personal’ costs. QED.”

As Putland points out:

“So there you have it, proles: The industrial revolution never happened. You always have the option of living at your place of work. If your place of residence is somewhere else, that is a “personal” choice on your part, and the cost of travel between the two is a ”personal” expense, not a work-related expense. If you want a big deduction against the wages of your labour, you’ll have to gear up and speculate on assets.”

Australia’s economic narrative is more concerned with suppressing wages than high land values.

Joe Hockey has unashamedly stated that any rise to the minimum wage “will cost jobs” and “reduce competition,” while remaining notably silent on the average CEO pay, which sits at an estimated 63 times average earnings (as at 2013,) as well as showing scant regard for rising land values which increase the associated costs of running a business, while discouraging growth in productive industry.

It uncovers a damaging Neo-Liberal agenda, which will do nothing to raise the living standards of Australians struggling to make ends meet.

Meanwhile in Germany, the house price-to-income ratio has fallen by almost a third nationally since the early 1990s, yet residents enjoy low unemployment and some of the highest wages per capita in the world – including the highest minimum wage in the world. Germany weathered the 2008 depression better than any other country in Europe by maintaining its focus on value adding growth.

(The Economist – German house price to average income.)

Screen Shot 2014-09-30 at 5.37.01 pm

130508_-_Wages_and_salaries_growth_rates_in_Germany__total_economy

The public needs to recapture the debate and push for a better set of democratic tools, that let the people decide directly on the benefits that can aid their communities, rather than the current state of affairs which is coloured with vested interest, polarising voters with false promises and flawed economic thinking.

The rise of citizen’s juries, where a diverse and representative group of people are randomly selected and given the information and training needed to deliberate together on matters of policy – for the benefit of all, not just a few –  limiting the power of corrupt government officials, may take us one step closer to achieving this.

Top of the agenda should be every citizen’s right to affordable access to land and shelter.

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A Political Game of Smoke And Mirrors – Supply Verses Demand

By Catherine Cashmore

(Written for Property Observer – September 2014)

The only explanation offered to Australia’s low-income residents over the past few weeks, expected to take on a colossal amount of private debt just to put a roof overhead in our rentier economy, is that Australia is suffering from a ‘housing shortage.’

Speaking at the 2014 Bloomberg Economic Summit in Sydney, where the investor share of the market is close to 50 per cent and finance commitments have sky rocketed some 44 per cent higher than July 2013. Treasurer Joe Hockey, denied that prices were ‘credit fuelled’ because:

“….fundamentally we don’t have enough supply to meet demand (and) that doesn’t suggest a bubble.”

His views were supported by David Cannington, senior property analyst at Australia & New Zealand Banking Group Ltd (ANZ), who referenced an apparent shortage of ‘300,000 homes,’ while at the same time welcoming an elevated level of foreign speculation: “as adding about $4.5 billion every quarter to total dwelling construction.”

The shortage Cannington refers to, is derived in part from research put together by the National Housing Supply Council (NHSC) established in May of 2008, just prior to the last Senate inquiry into housing affordability, yet promptly disbanded by the incoming Abbott Government who are now only too willing to use its findings to support their populist view.

Using ABS data, the NHSC assessed what is known as ‘underlying demand’ – that is, the amount of extra housing needed per annum over the last decade for all residents in Australia (not just active buyers,) ‘IF’ we had continued to produce enough homes for an increasing population based on existing household composition figures.

The supply side findings of the report were hotly debated and justifiably so.

Planning for population growth is not an easy task, it is predictive in nature and makes many assumptions and revisions along the way.

However, this was not the NHSC’s only role.

It was also commissioned to produce a comprehensive evaluation of Australia’s affordability problems, which included the status of those impacted most – homeless, renters, first homebuyers, low wage families, and tenants in the public and social housing system, which helped clarify its findings.

The NHSC reports showed utility costs such as electricity, gas, water, and sewerage, have been increasing at more than 10 per cent per annum – yet they are not typically calculated as part of current assessments of housing affordability which tend to concentrate on mortgage serviceability rates alone.

They gave a good statistical overview to show a dramatic shortfall in affordable rental accommodation for low-income families. And clear evidence that our housing crisis is not that we do not produce enough homes ‘per se’ – but that we do not produce enough affordable and feasible options across the sector as a whole – in both the public and private sphere.

For example – the NHSC reports noted a “shortage of housing for lower-income people (specifically families) that results from a mismatch of housing prices relative to income.”

It made a point of stressing that Australia’s supply challenges cannot be met by ‘simply adding to the housing stock.’ And further elaborated on the inability of apartment construction to meet both need and price for the majority of family residents – the value of the land and associated costs being too high, and the size of apartments being too small to adequately fulfil the task.

This places Cannington’s second comment – regarding the level of foreign investment pushing an unprecedented inner city boom in apartment construction, into context.

For individual renters, students and a small percentage of couples living downtown, the increase in high-density accommodation will assist in placing downward pressure on rents.

It cannot however assist in addressing Australia’s real housing shortage (that of affordability) or accommodating the growing number of family and low-to-middle income residents, that want to buy – not just rent – and in the face of declining wages, find it increasingly difficult to do so.

This is not because we have booming population growth and a shortage of roof space, as our ministers are fond of sermonizing. But because our tax policies work directly against it, subverting supply side policy and negatively affecting wage growth by pushing up the price of land and the associated costs of doing business

They encourage a system of false scarcity, in which land and dilapidated housing is hoarded and not effectively utilised, forcing a process of social polarisation, as low income residents are forced to ‘hop’ the middle and outer rings, in search of cheaper options further afield.

They distort the use of the nation’s savings, encouraging speculation on rising land values, negatively affecting the financing of new supply, as investors chase the capital gains associated with established stock, over and above rental income.

investor loans

The behavioural impacts are profound, amplifying the boom and bust swings of the market cycle.

The financial sector accommodates, with property prices dependent on how much ‘endogenously’ created credit a bank chooses lend, subject once again, to our dysfunctional tax system and absence of macro prudential regulation in our lending institutions.

Negative gearing, depreciation and lower land taxes, leave more economic rent available to be pledged to the banks in the form of higher prices, producing a rentier economy which prioritises ‘creating wealth’ through asset inflation and rising levels of private debt – rather than improving living standards by supporting tangible investment into value adding activities.

NEG GEARING LOSS

The distortion that inflated values have on the economy acts to subvert housing policy as any danger of a marked decline in prices places risks financial stability.

Affluent neighbourhoods are protected from ‘over development,’ while inelastic responses to market conditions, coupled with restrictive planning laws that are often overly sensitive to neighbourhood complaints, allow professional land-bankers to squat on sites at low cost and secure windfall gains when they are later rezoned for residential development.

Stamp duty adds to the equation, placing a fine on labour mobility and the regular turnover of housing stock.

The resulting effect is illustrated on the maps below that show where affordable options were located in 2001 for low-to-middle income buyers, compared to 2011, in all of our major capitals.

The yellow patches being affordable, and blue patches unaffordable.

Screen Shot 2014-09-30 at 5.55.55 pm

(NATSEM Income and Wealth Report Issue 29 – The Great Australian Dream – Just a Dream?)

Prior to the 1970’s, infrastructure financing was funded in part, through the capture of economic rent from the land that directly benefitted from the accompanying improvements. The process had no negative effect on productivity, yet reduced the amount of rent available to be capitalised into the prices.

Now, infrastructure costs are financed through deadweight taxes on residents who derive no benefit in their own local neighbourhood, or loaded onto the upfront cost of new dwellings in fringe localities and promptly passed to the buyer.

The banking lobby loves minsters like Joe Hockey that offer no threat to their profits and instead, waft away any necessary concern over rising prices with simplified responses that fail to identify the root cause.

It has driven up the cost of housing – damaging the potential of future generations, with a lifetime worth of debt sold as “forced savings,” while 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.

Notwithstanding, all the above points were highlighted in the last Senate inquiry into housing affordability, as well as being set out clearly in the Henry Tax review. Yet studiously ignored in a budget that surgically set about reducing the living standards of Australia’s low to middle-income earners, the most productive sectors of our economy, rather than collecting the tax revenues from resource rents and monopoly profits.

Joe Hockey has reaped substantial unearned gains from an impressive portfolio of property investments – reportedly, picking up his Canberra home “for a song” in 1997 at $320,000, and watched that land value more than triple in nominal terms to an estimated $1.5 million today.

In light of the above evidence, it can only be assumed that Hockey’s comments are based on a vested interest to protect his own back pocket and seat in power, rather than the urgent need to invest in Australia’s future by eliminating the losses inflicted by our current system of taxation, that force up the cost of land and levels of private debt.

Skyscraper Hubris – Pride Before A Fall

By – Catherine Cashmore

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Few raised concerns however.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

W&A hotel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He took over the project with clear intentions.

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

garg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

40 wall st

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

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

chrysler

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ESB

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

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

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

The pattern is easy to follow:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In a subsequent publication he goes one-step further.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pride comes before a fall.