The Corruption of Economics

The Corruption of Economics Why Most Are Blind to What They Need to See

By Catherine Cashmore (Contributing editor – Cycles Trends & Forecasts)

In the 1880’s Judge James G. Maguire of the Superior Court of the city and county of San Francisco gave a speech to the New York Anti-Poverty Society in the 1880s. He said…

‘I was one day walking along Kearney Street in San Francisco when I noticed a crowd in front of a show window… I took a glance myself, but I saw only a poor picture of an uninteresting landscape.

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Source: henrygeorge.org  

As I was turning away my eye caught these words underneath the picture: ‘Do you see the cat?’ …I spoke to the crowd, “Gentlemen, I do not see a cat in the picture; is there a cat there?” Someone in the crowd replied, “Naw, there ain’t no cat there! Here’s a crank who says he sees a cat in it, but none of the rest of us can…. Then the crank spoke up. “I tell you,” he said, “there IS a cat there. The picture is all cat! …

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…. and then, there it was! Sure enough, just as the crank had said; But now that I saw the cat, I could see nothing else in the picture!…and I was never afterwards able, upon looking at that picture, to see anything in it *but* the cat.”[i]

Maguire’s story was intended as a parable for land’s role in the economy. Like the cat in the picture, it is blindingly obvious once it becomes clear – so obvious in fact, it is hard to see anything *but* the land.

The Man Who Electrified the World

Maguire had been inspired by a passage in the 19th century political treatise ‘Progress and Poverty’ the American journalist Henry George wrote. One of his famous passages was…  ‘That as land is necessary to the exertion of labour in the production of wealth, to command the land which is necessary to labour, is to command all the fruits of labour save enough to enable labour to exist.’[ii]

George had no formal education to speak of. He had left school at the age of 14, drifting in an out of poverty until securing steady employment as a typographer for the newly created San Francisco Times – later going on to edit his own newspapers.

However, George was an avid reader. He had studied the great classical economists such as David Ricardo and Adam Smith. He understood the relationship between the three factors of production – land, labour, and capital – and he used these tools to dissect the system.

He wrote:

Take now… some hard-headed businessman, who has no theories, but knows how to make money. Say to him:

“Here is a little village; in ten years it will be a great city—in ten years the railroad will have taken the place of the stage coach, the electric light of the candle; it will abound with all the machinery and improvements that so enormously multiply the effective power of labour.” “Will in ten years, interest be any higher?”

He will tell you, “No!”

“Will the wages of the common labourer be any higher…?”

He will tell you, “No the wages of common labour will not be any higher…”

“What, then, will be higher?”

“Rent, the value of land!” Go, get yourself a piece of ground, and hold possession!”  And if, under such circumstances, you take his advice, you need do nothing more…’[iii]

The book started as a potential magazine article written to address the paradox of why ‘poverty’ rises in tandem with ‘progress.’ When it was published 17 months later in 1879 during an industrial depression, George’s ideas electrified the world. He had not only identified the underlying cause of the boom and bust cycle, George also provided a practical remedy…

The book was an international bestseller. It was translated into Chinese, Danish, Dutch, French, German, Hebrew, Hungarian, Italian, Norwegian, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish, and Swedish.

At its epoch, it was rumoured to have outsold even the Bible.

Seven years later, Henry George beat Theodor Roosevelt to almost get elected as Mayor of New York City – the financial capital of the nation. Henry George gravesite, Greenwood cemetery, New York.

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Source: PJA 

Chrystia Freeland, a current Canadian Liberal member of parliament, wrote this recently…(iv)

George ran for mayor of New York again in 1897, but died four days before election day. He was given a statesman’s send-off — his coffin lay in state at Grand Central Station, where more than 100,000 people came to pay their respects. It was the largest crowd of mourners since Abraham Lincoln’s funeral in 1865.’

The Corruption of Economics

Henry George didn’t have the modern tools of today’s economists. So why after 135 years don’t economists once again ‘see the cat’?..

(To read more of this post – sign up to Cycles, Trends and Forecasts – Australian economist and market cycle expert Phillip J Anderson) [

i] The Prophet of San Francisco, Chicago, 1904 – Louis F. Post

[ii] Progress and Poverty, 1879 p210 Henry George

[iii] ibid – ch.19 “The Basic Cause of Poverty

[iv] “The Problem Of Plutocrats: What a 19th Century Economist Can Teach Us About Today’s Capitalism”

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.)

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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.

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.

Screen Shot 2014-09-11 at 3.41.05 PM

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.

Screen Shot 2014-09-11 at 1.14.27 PM

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

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

AT

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

Aus108

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

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

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

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

Pride comes before a fall.

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. Screen Shot 2014-08-07 at 3.43.20 AM

(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 see, 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.’

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

Empty words as FHBs sold out on housing policy…

Since I started writing about housing policy and citing the growing concerns many are having with the rising price of accommodation, it’s been somewhat heartening to see a greater array of individuals acknowledge an undeniable widening gap between existing owners, and a growing pool of ‘wannabe” renters.

Most recently, ALP member for McMahon in New South Wales, Chris Bowen, was reported saying “”I can see the difficulties for young and first home buyers of getting into the market,” citing an ‘affordability crisis’ to be a“serious national issue”.

Whilst many parents would recognise the struggle first homebuyers face and wish for an easier path to enable their children, to gain a foothold into what’s too commonly termed the ‘property ladder’ – as if it’s something to be conquered – emphatic remarks such as those offered above are easy to make when decision-making is out of party hands.

Yet, it was only a few months ago, when challenged over affordability on Q&A, and lacking any real policy initiative going into the federal election, that Chris Bowen remarked:

“There (are) two big things that we can do to help with housing affordability. That’s keep unemployment as low as possible. Because you have got a job, that’s the best thing you can do to get into the housing market. And also to keep interest rates low and interest rates are as low as they’ve ever been in Australia”

No one would doubt keeping unemployment numbers low is an important component to a steady housing terrain – however, as for low interest rates, they have done little more than inflate established property prices and speculation on financial markets, which is scant benefit to those facing rising yields, or paying an inflated cost to secure a property at the offset.

On the same program, Joe Hockey’s comments took a similar stance – except he did touch on the issue of supply:

“..the fact is you’ve got to increase the supply. I mean it’s a market. There is plenty of demand and increasing demand but what are we going to do for supply? I have some plans on that which we’ll be talking about before the end of the election.”

When making these comments, it’s unclear whether Joe Hockey had prior awareness of the Coalition’s plan to abolish the National Housing Supply Council, which was established specifically to identify gaps between housing supply and demand.

Apparently, the council’s activities are ‘no longer needed’ and will be ‘absorbed’ into other departments which aren’t entirely transparent, as Scott Ludlum found when questioning as such. Whatever the reason, it’s clear the current government does not hold supply policy high on the priority list.

As it is, saving hard on an average wage is no longer a guaranteed ticket into the breastfed dream of home ownership – especially if you live anywhere close to Sydney.

Martin North Principal of Digital Finance Analytics demonstrated this on a recent blog entitled “The Truth about House Price and Income Growth” charting house prices compared to average disposable income across the NSW market back to 2002.

ScreenHunter_509 Dec. 03 07.20

Whilst the higher quartile’s income has kept pace with house price inflation, the other quartiles have only seen their wage grow marginally, his study clearly demonstrates that prices are now outpacing earnings for the larger proportion of residents and therefore effective solutions need to be found.

Of course, each state faces its own challenges, and some are fairing better than others. But presently first homebuyers are clashing budgets with an equal to larger proportion of investors and downsizers and therefore targeting similar stock against those who have an existing equity stream to tap into.

Unfortunately, aside from some tinkering around the edges of housing policy with schemes such as the NRAS, which quickly became over subscribed and jumped upon by SMSF spruikers, it remains a reality that neither political party has yet seen past burdening new buyers with cheap credit by way of grants, low interest rates and incentives, in a vain effort to mask the rising cost of accommodation under the false premise that they’re doing ‘something.’

And Australia faces challenges ahead – with a falling participation rate due to an aging population, fewer full-time positions coupled with a rise in part-time work inflating the ‘underemployment’ figures – job creation is not keeping pace with increases in our working age population.

This was outlined in the freshly released Productivity Commission paper entitled “An Ageing Australia: Preparing for the Future” which projected:

“Australia would have four million more people aged 75 years or older by 2060, with 25 centenarians for every 100 newborns, compared with one centenarian for every newborn in 2012.”

Not only will aging Australian’s have to work to the age of 70, to bridge a shortfall in savings, but the report suggested retirement should be funded in part through a house value ‘equity release scheme,’ claiming:

“House prices have risen over time in real terms, a trend that is likely to continue. Against this backdrop, even under conservative assumption allowing households aged over 65 years to easily access their home equity to help fund health and aged care costs could have a significant impact on reducing fiscal gaps”.

However, under such schemes, not only do Governments have a vested interest in keeping house prices high and rising, they are pinned to the necessity of such to fund future budgets.

Balancing an economy for an aging demographic is not unique to Australia. However, if house prices weren’t as burdensome, requiring an increasing proportion of savings just to enter ownership, not to mention the longer mortgage terms needed to pay down the loan, it would be possible to invest a greater proportion of the household budget into areas of productivity and small business development, as well as channeling savings elsewhere for retirement without the need to use the principle place of residence as a sole equity fund.

In this respect, Australia differs little from its closest Neighbour, New Zealand, where the costs of rising accommodation also bites a good way into a household’s budget for new buyers.

In an article in the New Zealand Herald concentrating on an increasing difficulty accessing ownership following a sensible requirement on lenders by the RBNZ to maintain an 80% loan to value ratio, a young couple were highlighted as a somewhat typical case study.

Putting aside the additional ‘useful’ tips for saving the $90,000 deposit needed for their $450,000 purchase, such as ‘take a packed lunch to work’, it seems the only way this couple were able to purchase adequate accommodation in the Auckland locality was to tap into the ‘bank’ of their respective parents, who borrowed against the accumulated equity in their own home to shore up their children’s deposit.

The couple’s take home pay is $6000 per month, therefore a weighty 50% will go toward mortgage repayments – yet the price of their accommodation is not out of step with what we expect our own duel income first timers to pay for a modest sized home which will provide adequate facility for more than 2 or 3 years.

New Zealand resident and Co-author of the Annual Demographia International Housing Affordability Survey –Hugh Pavletich – makes some sensible comments in relation to this:

“Within normal housing markets with properly functioning Local Governments that have not lost control of their costs, young Jamie Clark and Jenna Close on their household income of $70,000, should be able to buy a new home for about $210,000 with a sensible mortgage load of $175,000 requiring a deposit of about just $35,000.”

Pavletich’s comments are endorsed by Australian Senator – elect Bob Day who in reply to the comment above stated:

“For more than 100 years the average New Zealand family was able to buy its first home on one wage. As you have frequently reported, the median house price was around three times the median income allowing young homebuyers easy entry into the housing market.

As discussed in your report, the median house price is now, in real terms i.e. relative to income, up to nine times what it was between 1900 and 2000…a family will fork out approximately $500,000 more on mortgage payments than they would have had house prices remained at three times the median income.”

The demographica survey rates 337 different housing markets using a “Median Multiple” (the median house price divided by gross annual median household income) to assess affordability. The methodology is a measure recommended by the United Nations and World Bank Urban Indicators Programs and employed by Harvard University’s Joint Centre for Housing – to name but a few.

An affordable market is therefore deemed to be one with a median multiple of 3.0 or less, and whilst it’s never easy to draw an exact correlation between the complexities of international policies compared to our own, the report does provide a basis for research into precisely how other markets with rising populations and relatively healthy economies, manage to maintain their affordable nature.

Supply

The reports primary focus is on supply – removing barriers such as urban boundaries and tax overlays, and portrays the model employed in Texas, where aside from environmental compliance there are no zoning restrictions outside the city outskirts, and planners see themselves as regulators rather than interested parties in town design.

Texas is also a market, which has successfully financed infrastructure by electing local residents onto boards and providing them with access to tax free bonds, which are subsequently allocated for the provision of essential amenities.

Property rights in Texas are clearly strong in nature with limited regulation, covering little more than the land itself – therefore, housing affordability isn’t a burning concern for Texans, and judging by the number ofAmerican’s moving there, the market is an attractive one.

Tax

Secondly, as I highlighted last week, markets such as Pittsburgh in the USA, which has a median multiple below 3.0, is an example where land value tax has been successfully employed.

When land value tax is implemented – with the burden taken of buildings and their improvements ensuring good quality assessments and sensible zoning laws – it not only assists affordability keeping land values stable, but also benefits local business through infrastructure funding, discourages urban sprawl, incites smart effective development of sites, reduces land banking, and as examples in the USA have demonstrated – assists in weathering the unwanted impacts of real estate booms and busts.

Speculation and strong tenancy laws

Another commonality shared amongst ‘affordable’ markets is the lack of speculation that inspires the ‘get in quick’ feeling for aspiring owners. Germany is one such example where until fairly recent times; real house prices had remained stable since at least the 1970s.

Home ownership in Germany is not embedded in their culture. And as I pointed out a few weeks ago, strong tenancy laws along with liberal supply policies ensures when time does come to purchase, there is plentiful option to do so without breaking the budget.

Australia?

Whether we will ever achieve the significant reform needed to turn Australia’s housing market into an affordable one is debatable. However, with the rise of the internet and the ability of those searching for answers to delve a little deeper than they perhaps would have done before the world became a mirror of reflections, as every action and movement is recorded, posted and photographed in real time, and offered up for an immediate judgement on social media – it can only be hoped, that a majority, not minority, are taking opportunity to look past the frivolity of what I think most would agree, (whether by design or purpose) have to date been fairly meaningless and unsatisfactory open government debates on housing policy.

In the end, it will be up to the growing generation of struggling first timers and priced-out renters to vote for the brave advocates who enter politics with what are currently deemed unpalatable plans for true and meaningful reform.

Property Tax and Housing Affordability

 

Property Taxation and Housing affordability.

There’s been a lot of debate around property taxation in Australia – significantly negative gearing, which allows an investor to use the short fall between interest repayments and other relevant expenditure, to lower their income tax

The policy promotes speculative gain meaning the strategy is only profitable if the acquisition rises in value rather than holding or falling – therefore, in Australia, investor preference is slanted toward the established sector  – the sector that attracts robust demand from all demographics and as such, in premium locations, has historically gained the greatest windfall from capital gains.

Aside from the impact this creates in terms of affordability – pushing up the price of second-hand stock, burdening new buyers with the need to raise a higher and higher deposit just to enter ownership.  It also negatively affects the the new home market, which traditionally struggles to attract consistent activity outside of targeted first homebuyer incentives– albeit, the headwinds resulting from planning constraints and supply side policy should also not be dismissed.

Additionally, Capital Gains Tax and stamp duty have also received much debate. Both are transaction taxes, and therefore have a tendency to stagnate activity, acting as a deterrent to either buying and selling.

Stamp duty as modelled by economist Andrew Leigh, is shown to produce a meaningful impact on housing turnover, leading to a potential mismatch between property size and household type – a deterrent to downsizing and therefore selling

Additionally, it burdens first time buyers by increasing the amount they need to save in order to enter the market, and frequent changes of employment concurrent with a modern day lifestyle, are hampered as owners, unwilling to move any meaningful distance outside their local neighbourhood, search for work in local areas alone.

But, outside of academia and intermittent articles, there is scant debate in Australian mainstream media regarding land value tax and it’s practical impact.

The theory is taken to its extreme, and best advocated by American political economist and author Henry George who wrote his publication ‘Progress and Poverty’ 1879.- an enlightened and impassioned read – and subsequently inspired the economic philosophy that came to be known as ‘Georgism.’

The ideals of Henry George reside in the concept that land is in fixed supply, therefore we can’t all benefit from economic advantage gained from ‘ownership’ of the ‘best’ sites available without effective taxation of the resource.

George advocated a single tax on the unimproved value of land to replace all other taxes – something that would be unlikely to hold water in current political circles, however his ideals won favour amongst many, including the great economist and author of “Capitalism and Freedom” Milton Friedman and other influential capitalists such as Winston Churchill, who gave a powerful speech on land monopoly stressing;

“Unearned increments in land are not the only form of unearned or undeserved profit, but they are the principal form of unearned increment, and they are derived from processes which are not merely not beneficial, but positively detrimental to the general public.”

In essence, raising the percentage of tax that falls on the unimproved value of land has few distortionary or adverse affects.  It creates a steady source of revenue whilst the landowner can make their own assessment regarding the timing and type of property they wish to construct in order to make profit without being penalised for doing so.

However when the larger percentage of tax payable is assessed against the value of buildings and their improvements – through renovation, extension or higher density development for example – not only can those costs be transferred to a tenant, there is less motivation to make effective use of the site – having a flow on effect which can not only exacerbate urban ‘sprawl’, but also increase the propensity to ‘land bank.’

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.

The Australian Housing and Urban Research Group attempted to mimic the proposed changes using their AHURI-3M micro-simulation model in a report entitled The spatial and distributional impacts of the Henry Review recommendations on stamp duty and land tax

And whilst it’s difficult to qualify how purchasers may factor an abolition of stamp duty into their price analysis, perhaps adding the additional saving into their borrowing capacity, and therefore not lowering prices enough to initially assist first homebuyers.  It does demonstrate how over the longer-term falls in house prices have the potential to exceed the value of land tax payments, assisting both owner-occupier and rental tenant as the effects flow through

Additionally, increasing the tax base would provide developers with an incentive to speed up the process and utilise their holding for more effective purposes.

And importantly for Australia, it can provide a reliable provision of revenue to channel into the development of much-needed infrastructure.

The rational for this is coined in the old real estate term ‘location location location.’  Everyone understands that in areas where amenities are plentiful – containing good schools, roads, public transport, bustling shopping strips, parks, theatres, bars, street cafes and so forth – increases demand and therefore land values, invoking a vibrant sense of community which attracts business and benefits the economy.

The idea behind spruiking a ‘hotspot’ – such a common industry obsession – is based on purchasing in an area of limited supply, on the cusp of an infrastructure boom, such as the provision of a new road or train line for example, enabling existing landowners to reap a windfall from capital gains and rental demand for little more effort than the advantage of getting in early and holding tight whilst tax payer dollars across the spectrum fund the work

Should a higher LVT be implemented, the cost and maintenance of community facilities could in part, be captured from the wealth effect advantaging current owners, compensating over time for the initial outlay.  Imagine the advantage this would offer residents in fringe locations who sit and wait for the failed ‘promises’ offered, when they migrated to the outer suburbs initially

Take New York for example – between the years 1921 and 1931 under Governor Al Smith, New York financed what is arguably the world’s best mass transit system, colleges, parks, libraries, schools and social services shifting taxes off buildings and onto land values and channelling those dollars effectively

The policy influenced by Henry George ended soon after Al Smith’s administration, and eventually lead to todays landscape – a city built on a series of islands, with limited room to build ‘out’ facing a chronic affordable housing shortage with the population projected to reach 9.1 million by 2030

More than a third of New Yorkers spend half their paycheque on rent alone yet like London, there is little motivation for developers to build housing to accommodate low-wage workers concentrating instead on the luxury end of market, broadening the gap between rich and poor as land values rise and those priced out, find little option but to re-locate.

New York’s Central Park is the highest generator of real estate wealth.  The most expensive homes in the world surround the park with apartments selling in excess of $20 Million, and newer developments marketed in excess of $100+ million.

Like London it’s a pure speculators paradise – in the ten-year period to 2007, values increased by 73% – owners sit on a pot of growing Gold and there’s little to indicate America’s richest are about to bail out of their New York ‘addiction’ with an expansive list of ‘A’ class celebrities, high net worth individuals, and foreign magnates, owning apartments in the locality.

New Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio who won his seat, based on a promise to narrow the widening inequality gap – preserve 200,000 low and middle income units, and ensure 50,000 affordable homes are constructed over the next decade, will struggle to subsidize plans whist facing a deficit reputed to be as much as $2 billion in the next fiscal year.

Yet economist Michael Hudson has recently assessed land values in New York City alone to exceed that of all of the plant and equipment in the entire country, combined

Currently more than 30 countries around the world have implemented land value taxation – including Australia – with varying degrees of success not only based on the percentage split between land and property, but how those funds are channelled back into the community, and the quality of land assessments in regularly updating and estimating value.

Pennsylvania is one such state in the USA to use a system which taxes land at a greater rate than improvements on property – I think I’m correct in saying nineteen cities in Pennsylvania use land value tax with Altoona being the first municipality in the country to rely on land value tax alone.

Reportedly, 85% of homeowners pay less with the policy than they do with the traditional flat-rate approach. When Mayor of Washington county Anthony Spossey who also served as Treasurer from 2002 to 2006, and under his watch enacted an LVT was interviewed on the changes in 2007, he commented;

“LVT ..helps reduce taxes for our most vulnerable citizens. We have an aging

demographic, like the county, region and the state. Taxpayers everywhere are less able to keep up with taxes, and that hurts revenue. LVT helps us mitigate the impact both to them and the city. It’s a win/win..”

Until fairly recent times, another good example to cite is Pittsburgh. Early in the 1900s the state changed its tax system to fall greater on the unimproved value of land than its construction and improvements.

Pittsburgh’s economic history is a study in itself, and has not been without challenges.  For those wanting to research further, I strongly advocate some of the writings of Dan Sullivan – (former chair of the Libertarian Party of Allegheny County, (Pittsburgh) Pennsylvania) – who is an expert on the economic benefits of LVT and has written extensively on the subject.

Sullivan demonstrates that Pittsburgh not only enjoyed a construction boom whilst avoiding a real estate boom under a broad based LVT system, but also effectively weathered the great depression whilst maintaining affordable and steady land values along the way.

In comparing it to other states struggling to recover from the recent ‘sub-prime crisis’ he points out;

“In 2008, just after the housing bubble broke, Cleveland led the nation in mortgage foreclosures per capita while Pittsburgh’s foreclosure rate remained exceptionally low. Since then, the foreclosure rates in Las Vegas and many Californian cities, none of which collect significant real estate taxes, have passed Cleveland’s foreclosure rate. However, on September 15, 2010, The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported that while at the end of the second quarter of 2010, 21.5% of America’s single-family homes had underwater mortgages (the American term for negative equity), only 5.6% did in Pittsburgh. As a result Pittsburgh was top of a list of the ten markets with the lowest underwater mortgage figures.”

When land value tax is implemented – with the burden taken of buildings and their improvements, ensuring good quality assessments and sensible zoning laws – it not only assists affordability keeping land values stable, but also benefits local business through infrastructure funding, discourages urban sprawl, incites smart effective development of sites, reduces land banking, and as examples in the USA have demonstrated – assists in weathering the unwanted impacts of real estate booms and busts.

Despite the numerous examples across the world where a broad based land value tax has been deployed successfully, changing policy and bringing about reform is never easy and rarely without complication.

Additionally, the implications of a yearly tax on fixed ‘low-income’ retirees must be handled with care and understanding, as there are ways to buffer unwanted effects whilst changes are implemented.

Therefore, the process adopted in the ACT which is abolishing stamp duties over a slow transitional 20 year period to phase in higher taxation of land is not altogether unwise.

With any change to the tax system, the headwinds come convincing the public that it’s a good idea. In this respect balanced debate and conversation is necessary, as questions and concerns are brought to the fore.

The increased tax burden also falls on those who have significant influence across the political spectrum; therefore strong leadership to avoid lobbying from wealthy owners with vested interests is essential.

Albeit, as I said last week, we have a new and growing generation of enlightened voters who are well and truly fed up with battling high real estate prices, inflated rents, and care not whether it’s labelled as a ‘bubble’ – but certainly care about their future and that of their children.

Therefore – I do see a time when all the ‘chatter’ around affordability, will finally evolve into ‘real’ action – and a broad based LVT should form an important part of that debate.

Catherine Cashmore