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.

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Australia’s City Centric Culture and Failure to Decentralise

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

By Catherine Cashmore

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

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

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

Untitled

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

City centric culture

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

However, this is not where Australia excels.

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

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

Growth of Finance insurance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NEG GEARING LOSS

Supply policy has further assisted.

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

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

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

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

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

The benefits for homeowners can obviously be substantial.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This was in no way detrimental to the property owners.

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

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

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

A similar concept is recognised by owners of apartments.

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

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

A broad based land value tax is essentially no different.

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

Both reforms work hand in hand.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By: Catherine Cashmore

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Source: Philip Soos

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Who are rising property prices good for?”

Capitalism, Democracy and Land

Capitalism, Democracy and Land

By Catherine Cashmore

Protests that continue to erupt across the country against the Federal budget consist of two sectors.

Those who are disadvantaged through cuts to government expenditure – young people, job seekers, groups on low-incomes, the home-less – against political parties who want to exploit the situation to swing the popular vote in their favour.

It comes at a time when many young Australian’s are growing increasingly disillusioned with what politics, in a neo liberal capitalist culture is able to achieve.

The various groups opposing the current budget may not be aware of the full backdrop that sits behind the issues they dispute.

Separating the politics of envy, from the basic principles of equity is not an easy task, not only in the items we consider ‘wealth,’ but also in judging whether income is a true representation of skill and effort, or granted disproportionately at the expense of others.

Most however recognise a process that favours the rich – one where politicians subject themselves to the interests of lobbyists and promise what they need to gain a seat in power.

We’ve seen this most recently with the ICAC investigations. Tens of thousands of dollars pouring into the major party coffers from property developers all claiming to be ‘legitimate’ – yet, as we know, you don’t hand over cash without expecting special favours in return.

It would be nice to think that democracy alone could remedy this, but democracy unless underpinned by good policy, has a fatal flaw – that of short termism.

While voters will champion the environmental crisis of climate change and affordable accommodation, they will recoil at the thought of living near a wind-farm or high-rise block.

Public housing and commission homes are fine in theory, but not in the local neighbourhood, or indeed, anywhere in view.

We’ll welcome the stranger and rally in defence of the asylum seeker, but only on the condition they don’t take away our jobs or price the locals out of housing. In other words, you can come in, but just don’t join in.

No one cheers at the thought of saddling our younger population with student debt – however, when it comes to the cost of shelter, a different attitude arises. Generation Whine are instead told to shut up and save up.

While we desire a country built on the pillars of community, equity, and economic justice, it’s simply not possible in country that is pinned to the foundation of rising land values, as a necessity to fund retirement and most other lifestyle and business needs.

The social consequence that arises from this costs us millions in welfare payments throughout the year. Yet it is still advertised and promoted as the road to riches, creating a “FIRE” economy (finance, insurance and real estate) – disproportionally inflating land costs without due acknowledgement of the consequence.

Unfortunately, the web of confusion that surrounds the subject has put capitalist democracy, which has managed to free so many from the dominance of politically oppressive and controlling regimes, under attack.

Yet, capitalism, which in its truest form is simply a free market system of competing goods and services, is not what we have presently.

Today, faulty economic thinking has allowed items that are not made, or earned and by nature cannot compete; to be traded and profited from as if they were created capital. This has corrupted what should be a very good and fair system.

It’s important therefore to understand what wealth and capital is exactly.

Wealth is not the paper and numbers in our bank account. Money is simply a measurement of the resources we need, to produce the goods and services we consume (capital) for both business and pleasure.

In simplest terms – a person’s wealth is made through his/her own enterprise; whilst a country’s wealth consists of its land and natural resources.

When we earn money in exchange for our skills and labour it can’t be considered unjust or unfair.

However, when it comes though a government legislated process, of allowing some to profit at the expense of others, by trading items that are not capital or derived from any physical effort, this yields a special kind of unearned income, which in classical economics is termed “rent.”

Rent seeking can take on many forms – such as patents and government licences for example, which cripple competition from smaller industries and produce an unfair advantage.

The ‘Uber’ and ‘Lyft’ revolution is one such example.

It threatens to undermine the cartel of the Taxi industry’s ‘licensing’ monopoly, which gleans an economic rent from purposely-limiting the number granted.

‘Uber’ and ‘Lyft’ offer a cheap and reportedly safe ‘match-making’ alternative for consumers; however their progress has been repeatedly stifled by government intervention, determined to protect a monopoly and a culture of regulation evidently fearing a cut to revenue.

The most damaging of rent seeking behaviour however, and the one that yields the most gains, is trading the economic rent of land.

An increase in the market price of land is an expected result when economies are improving along with capital investment in infrastructure. Therefore, of all rent seeking behaviour, owning a plot of land in path of this progress yields not only the greatest windfall of passive gains, but is also used as a significant source of territorial and political power.

This is not surprising when you consider all the goods we consume come from it. Our oil, natural gas, timber, coal, and water reserves are the product of it.

We travel on it, work on it, party on it, sleep on it, and bury our dead in it.

Wi-fi, airplanes, all forms of technology need it. We evolved from it and progress on it.

Try and think of an activity, or item, that does not include land, and you will come up short.

However, the flow of income that comes from owning land over and above the value of building on it, when capitalised into the price, leads to a monopolist culture that feeds speculation, attracting a cabal of banking and finance interests and concentrating the vast proportion of a country’s wealth in the hands of a few, above the very real needs of many.

Rupert Murdoch ironically coined it best when, in his 1994 John Bonython lecture The Century of Networking he said;

Because capitalists are always trying to stab each other in the back, free markets do not lead to monopolies.  Monopolies can only exist when governments protect them.”

This is in essence what the Arab Spring was all about.

Many mistook it as a grasp for democracy – however it wasn’t. It was a grasp for true capitalism – the freedom to prosper unimpeded by onerous regulation or rent seeking behaviour. At its essence was a desire for economic justice, equal access to opportunity – matters we look to Government to provide.

Since politician and driving force behind the early settlement of South Australia,  Edward Gibbon Wakefield (1796-1862), devised his grand plan of “systematic colonisation” – making land just so ‘sufficiently’ unaffordable as to create a willing workforce of labourers. Economists and politicians have done everything possible to distract public attention from what is nothing more than a modern day game of feudalism.

They do this by allowing people to play a dangerous game of leverage, gambling on land price inflation by borrowing as much debt as possible to maximise their ‘capital gains,’ without acknowledging what is given with one hand, is taken with the other – or more accurately, from another.

This is clearly highlighted in the response to the budget.

Whilst rich land-‘lords’ and mining magnets grow wealthy, collecting their unearned windfall in economic rent – they ironically tell the young tenant saddled with student debt “so you think the world owes you a living?” while government stretches out its hand to the low waged worker commanding they “pull their weight.”

Screen Shot 2014-06-07 at 1.38.02 AM

 Ken Henry tax review “The current charging arrangements distort investment and production decisions….. they fail to collect a sufficient return for the community because they are unresponsive to changes in profits”

It is no coincidence that whilst far from a perfect system of equitable land reform, the greatest equaliser in Australia and the one that had the most profound social and economic effect on reducing inequality, was the Mabo Judgement over land rights for the Aboriginal people.

The monopolists in the mining industry stringently and shamefully lobbied against it, as they did most recently with at mention of a resource tax, turning it into a national crisis.

This is essentially why Clive Palmer entered politics.

Each year Ernst & Young produce a business report for the mining and metals industry, highlighting the top ten risks that can affect fat cat profits, along with tips on how to avoid them.

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Featured prominently is “Resource nationalism” (sharing the gains) with the comment;

“ Miners have had to become more politically savvy” “the most successful are building strong relationships with Government” to…”educate on tax reform”

It is against this backdrop, that he ‘loveable’ founder of “PUP,” which claims to “Unite All Australian’s” has bought himself a seat in power by promising ‘peace, prosperity and goodwill’ to all men, alongside a raft of economic ‘goodies.’

When Clive comes to town, Christmas does too, “lower income tax, free education, higher pensions,’ you name it, Clive will promise it.

His policies are overwhelming ‘wishy-washy’ with no detailed assessment as to how they’ll be funded – but that doesn’t matter. Economic analysis is not the ‘PUP’ agenda.

Instead, it will act in the best interests of its leader ensuring the abolishment of any mining and carbon tax, whilst driving the cost of land higher with incentives for homebuyers.

However, the corruption of politics to favour the vested interests of leaders is nothing new.

It is no coincidence that just about every housing policy designed to increase affordability, results in quite the reverse.

This can be witnessed in any country that allows the economic rent of land to capitalise into the price, thereby becoming a tradable asset to gamble on.

All tax incentives such as negative gearing for example, simply inflate costs rather than reduce them.

Zoning policies create false scarcity by protecting affluent neighbourhoods from ‘over development’, restricting the use of fringe land with urban boundaries and onerous regulation, and advantaging existing owners by pushing up the price of marginal land – which buttresses the price of all land.

The evidence shows, the richer vendors become, the more energetic they are to restrict development near their own land holdings – unless it acts to inflate values.

Many Melbournian’s will be familiar with the historical figure of Thomas Bent for example, who became the 22nd premier of Victoria.

His corrupt dealings are well documented, not least, using his political clout to extend the railway line from Caulfield to Cheltenham, thus enormously increasing the value of his own property developments, which just so happened to fall alongside the proposed route.

A more recent example is being alleged in New Zealand.

The country is undergoing a crisis of housing affordability and has been termed the world’s ‘most over priced.’

Policy makers are tying themselves in economic knots to uncover solutions, with the central bank employing strict lending regulations to prevent exuberant speculation, while ‘up-zoning’ to increase supply is underway.

However, these ‘up zonings’ miss Auckland mayor Len Brown’s spacious lifestyle block, which conveniently falls outside the Metropolitan Urban Limit (MUL).

Mayor Len Brown who has recently purchased an American V8, whilst sporting the public face of being very ‘pro public transport,’ has uncharacteristically ‘infuriated’ his council’s transport leader, by rallying in defence of significant road projects which are reputed to have a beneficial and value enhancing effect on his own estate.

There are numerous academic studies world wide, which outline housing affordability problems, yet fail to identify the root cause and therefore effective solutions.

Economist Michael Hudson points out in USA studies, how the magnitude of land-price gains are brushed under the carpet to hide the massive unearned profits reaped by those who hoard it.

The same phenomenon is happening in Australia, not only with the ‘soft closure’ of the Australian Valuation Office and ‘rubbing out’ of First Home Buyer statistics from the RBA chart pack, but through budgetary cuts to ABS funding, which threaten to end the official “House Price Index” (considered the most reliable market indicator) in favour of private unaudited data providers, whose transparency and reliability are consistently questioned.

When you appreciate how lucrative rent-seeking is to those in power, it is very easy to see how democracy fails us – working tirelessly to silence voices by politically reinforcing faulty economic theories, while strenuously working against efforts to liberalise them.

 

The Budget – The Consequence – The Housing Market & The Next Generation

The Budget – The Consequence

rich paying the middle class..

Last week, Joe Hockey stood up in front of Parliament and on behalf of the Abbott administration, announced;

”The age of entitlement is over. It has to be replaced, not with the age of austerity, but with an age of opportunity!”

The former multi millionaire banking and finance lawyer, husband to an investment banker, and owner of several premium land holdings, (including a 200-hectare cattle farm in Malanda and mansions in Sydney.) Whose own ‘entitlements’ and that of his colleagues, remain largely untouched, went on to address

  • The single mother set to lose more than $3000 per year,
  • The newly unemployed university graduate and retrenched worker, who must live with no income for 6 months (poverty) before claiming Newstart (forgone benefits of more than $7000) – yet still have to service their rent or mortgage.
  • The low wage family with kids, who will lose $6000 a year once all changes are factored in,
  • The Hospitals and Schools – vital pillars of our society – who lose their projected funding (on the rationale that they are state responsibilities, forcing an increase to GST – a regressive tax.)
  • The bottom one-fifth of earners who will lose around 5% of their disposable income, compared to the top one-fifth, who will lose only 0.3% (modelling undertaken by NATSEM who point out the burden of this budget, overwhelmingly falls upon people in the most precarious position;)

..by telling Australian public, that they are not “to be alarmed,” because – it’s all;

“In the national interest.”

“The National Interest” what an outrageous statement.

The “national interest” is an interesting term to use for a budget, that has set about ‘plucking the feathers’ of the poor – the low and middle-income earners, the numerous small businesses, the main productive sectors of our economy – whist avoiding any direct action to the assessed $484bn total increase over 12 months in unearned capital gains (more correctly termed “economic rent”) stored in land holdings (ABS.

Or laying a finger on the licensed resource monopolies, the mineral wealth of which increased by $56bn in 2012-13 alone.

Does this sound fair to you?

The country we want..

 “It’s about the sort of country that we want to be, in the years and decades ahead. It’s about the value we impart.”

Continued Hockey – who has requested that all complaints be directed to ‘the former government’– adopting the age-old habit of passing the buck. Yet, warnings were given well in advance of this “budget emergency,” and the sensible and equitable reforms needed, laid our in the Henry tax review – which they ignored – all of them.

The ‘sort of country we want to live in the years and decades ahead’ – is an apt question to ask – albeit, it should be directed at our children.

After all, it’s our children who are set to inherit this land and it’s their future the Government is shaping. More importantly, it’s not one the Liberal administration should be dictating on our behalf, following the usual stream of failed ‘promises’ we are familiar with on all sides of politics.

a fair go

No doubt, job security and housing affordability would come top of the list – both are interdependent and serve our most basic needs.

Without land, or the ability to use it, rent it, or buy it, we’re unable to do, or produce anything.  We are by definition “poor.” 

The accumulation of all our ‘stuff’ is due to the natural resources land bestows.

It is therefore no coincidence that in both religious and ancient mythology, the first job of man was to ‘tend’ the land.

Our relationship with land is truly unique.

The quality of its location and care of its produce is foundational to our most basic human and consumer needs.

Destroy the land, or prevent ready and affordable access to it, and you destroy a population.

The consequence is as black and white as that – “Pay the rent or leave.”

And it is no surprise, that this budget ignored the role of land in its economic modelling – they have been ignoring it for years.

It’s not included in the Consumer Price Index for example – the tool the RBA use to measure inflation and reflect the cost of living, despite land prices and the size of the loans needed to service them, having an uncanny consistency of exceeding wage growth through the course of each cycle – at least for that of the average household and income earner.

And it’s easy to lay the blame of inequality or the reduction of it, on income distribution alone, either that, or confuse it with other items of ‘wealth’ – as is the case in Thomas Piketty’s book “Capital in the 21st Century

(a subject I explored in part last week.)

These are items that are easy to ‘hide’ in tax havens. You can’t do that with land.

But importantly, whilst the politicians who delivered the budget and the other “twenty percenters,” will only feel a modest loss to their disposable income with the newly imposed ‘wage levy.’ They will claw far more back in the increased value of their land holdings – particularly as we progress through the next phase of our cycle.

The Cause of Wealth inequality – the extreme of which is “poverty”

This is the cause of wealth inequality – a lopsided economy, built on a $5.1 trillion housing market (over $4.1 trillion of which is land.)

land house gdp ratio

(Source)

It’s a subject overwhelmingly ignored, and yet shapes every other area of housing policy – due in part to the vested interests of wealthy property tycoons who lobby our politicians to maintain the status quo. As well as politicians who don’t want to see their “investments” affected in anyway.

The “corruption of economics,” however, is not unique to Australia. It began soon after Henry George, in 1879, took the world by storm, when he successfully communicated the root and leading indicator of the massive boom/bust cycles (although he was not the first to do so,) – that being land.

His farsighted solution, whilst understanding the importance of private ownership, clearly demonstrated that recessions/depressions on a large scale, could be avoided (not by banking reform alone) but if the natural revenue from the economic rent was recycled, to provide and fund community facilities – along with the other government services we require.

This is because, it removes excessive and unwanted speculation from the market, assists home buyers, utilises land effectively, improves productivity with lower land prices, and can assist in increasing wages – which would help the workers – not the land hoarders.

He influenced the likes of;

  • David Lloyd George in England,
  • Leo Tolstoy,
  • Billy Hughes in Australia,
  • Rolland O’Regan in New Zealand,
  • Chaim Weizmann in Israel,
  • Francisco Madero in Mexico, and many others including,
  • Winston Churchill,
  • Milton Friedman and
  • Albert Einstein (to name but a very few.)

He quite simply took the political world by storm.

The people it didn’t impress however, were the large landowners and financiers, the political lobbyists, who set about a on a well-constructed and amply funded mission, to change the course of economic education – to one that moved away from the classical models which recognised the role of land and were advocating Henry George’s policies.

“The Corruption of Economics”

Mason Gaffney and Fred Harrison chart the full story in their book; “The Corruption of Economics.”

They show how the three elements of production—land (and the resources it bestows,) labour, and capital (that of the ‘industrial’ kind) were gradually reduced to two. Labour and Capital – land being “lumped in” with the latter

Capital was now no longer ‘man made’ the result of hard work and genuine innovation.

Instead, it included the stuff of nature – the very elements we need to live – allowing the increasing gains from any natural appreciation of land value (the expected result of every collective improvement we make to society) to be ‘pocketed,’ rather than shared through a proportional system of ‘land rent’ on the unimproved value alone.

It simply implied that the home-owner pay directly for the facilities they use – the amenities that give their land its value – which in the main, removes the need for other taxes which are easy to avoid – like income tax for example.

That sounds fair doesn’t it?

‘All taxation is at the expense of Rent’

As the classical economists David Ricardo and Adam Smith proved, ‘all taxation is at the expense of Rent.’

house tax

(Source)

In other words, any tax withholdings or exemptions given to land holders, result in an increase of “economic rent” available to be capitalised (at the current interest rate) into the price.

This raises the cost of land – yet does little to address the needs of our children, who must take on an every greater proportion of private debt to ‘join in.’

Consequences

The consequence results in what the current budget suggests. Collecting taxes to offset the items we require from other areas – wages, and productivity – the burden of which falls overwhelmingly on the poor – yet advantages those at the top, who see their landholdings increase, way in excess of any taxation.

Is this fair?

Well this is what the current (and previous) administrations have been enforcing and advocating for years.

Promoted widely by our nice ‘balanced’ property commentators – who teach how to get rich on ‘capital gains’ (as if it’s hard) – without stressing the consequence and burden to society and the economy as a whole.

Think about that when you’re browsing the ‘property investment’ isle in your local bookshop.

Think about it.

Who benefits??

The progress of genuine innovation

Thankfully with the birth of genuine innovation – the internet – we finally have the beginnings of a global revolt against mainstream economic teachings which cannot identify boom/bust cycles and crashes, because they refuses to see ‘land.

Not to mention their completely false understanding of money creation and debt and its role in banking – highlighted consistently by Steve Keen who is about to head the first “progressive” department of economic teaching at Kingston University in London. Our loss.

Importantly, economic students are starting to recognise their degrees are hardly worth the paper they’re written on – as the various protests show.

(Something else to ponder when you read the many “market updates” from our mainstream economists.)

Change

Changing the system is not easy when we have built a society dependent on housing wealth to fund retirement.

It requires a slow transition (such as that set out in the Henry Tax review) to gradually phase out tax subsidies such as negative gearing – offset by the supply reforms Leith Van Onselen, Hugh Pavletich, Senator Bob Day and many others have been advocating for years.

But if you want a “fair go” country, one that avoids volatile boom/bust cycles, and instead of promoting wealth inequality, provides economic prosperity along with the best we can leave to our children. Then change we must.

And it starts with ‘us.’

Catherine Cashmore