Government Inaction on Australia’s Housing Affordability Crisis is Indefensible

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Melbourne is a perfect case study for this report.

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

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

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Download Speculative Vacancies 7.

Read past reports

Related media:

(Footnotes)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.”

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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.

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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.

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

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

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

The pattern is easy to follow:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In a subsequent publication he goes one-step further.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pride comes before a fall.

Australia’s City Centric Culture and Failure to Decentralise

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

By Catherine Cashmore

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

City centric culture

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

However, this is not where Australia excels.

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

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

Growth of Finance 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.

Our Interrelated Property Cycles – easy ‘windfall’ gains – but, what’s the Consequence?

Our Interrelated Property Cycles – easy ‘windfall’ gains – but, what’s the Consequence?

Take a cursory look through the international press and reports on housing related matters, and it could be merged it into one text as property cycles become increasingly interrelated and investors search for ‘safe havens’ off-shore.

Overwhelmingly – affordability – bubbles – the rise of Asian investors – and fears over a new breed of non-home owning ‘renters’ dominates, and although headline chasing would place any sensationalist report front of line, the reader comments and related dialogue that follow, present a familiar picture for the ordinary home buyer – no matter what reforms are taken, it never seems to get any easier.

You could be forgiven in thinking it’s by some abject force of nature, bustled in at the time of the ‘big bang’ that property – (or as I pointed out here, ‘land’) – is deemed ‘unaffordable.’ Outpacing wage growth and inflation through the course of a cycle, subject to the whims of a bank’s propensity to lend – burdening buyers with one of the most stressful experiences they’ll go through in life.

Or in the bleak words of the eminent poet Leonard Cohen;

“Everybody knows…. That’s just the way it goes.”

This is what the real estate and finance industry would have you believe as they navigate through the fluctuations of the property cycle with authoritative analysis, on what and where to buy.  And no doubt, it’s been a prosperous affair.

The number of ‘property investment books’ written by the I Did It – And You Can Too! experts, belies belief. And yet, becoming successful in the game isn’t incredibly hard for anyone with an ounce of locational common sense. The authors are simply singing their own interpretation of an age-old song titled ‘Monopoly.’

Over the course of a business cycle, which is both lead by, and correlated to the housing cycle, the gains – more correctly termed economic rent or “earnings from land,” alone – by far and away surpass those that can be gleaned from other more productive investments.

This was stressed in a recent submission by “Earthshare Australia” to the upcoming Senate enquiry into housing affordability

Unearned incomes in land increased a whopping $187 billion in the December 2013 quarter alone (ABS 6416). Total yearly dividends (2013), for investors engaged in risk, was recently reported at $84 billion – $103 billion less for an entire year.”

(Leaving them to question) “Why invest in small business or the ASX when one can earn more for less risk at a lower tax rate as a land speculator?”

These gains occur primarily because we choose to leave the larger proportion of ‘economic rent’ (mistakenly termed, ‘capital growth’ – however in this context, we are talking about the unimproved value of the site) locked in the land, rather than recycled back into community – from where it evolved.

Hence why housing is so expensive – the financial benefit derived from improving the surrounding facilities, is not effectively utilised – and our tax and supply policies do little to assist.

The Henry Tax review was not slow to point this out, when it suggested progressively scrapping a vast array of ‘bad taxes’ (payroll, insurance, vehicle registration, stamp duty, and forth, as well as reducing those that ‘reward’ speculation) and instead, collecting more of the economic rent of natural resources – significantly ‘land.’ (Notwithstanding, it was another Government ‘review’ which fell largely on deaf ears.

Yet, 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.

The tale of a Bridge and our accumulated wealth….

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 collected 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.)

Consequently, the wealth locked in our residential land market, through the process of this accrued speculation – sits at post $4 trillion (add the buildings on top, and it’s an estimated $5.02 Trillion.)

It’s so large a number; it’s almost meaningless in real terms.

Western civilisation has not been around for a trillion seconds – go back a trillion seconds  – (31,688 years) – and you’d see Neanderthals roaming throughout Europe.

Yet our housing market is worth 5 of them.  It’s quite an achievement.

In comparison, the UK housing market is assessed to be $5.2 trillion with a population of around 60 million, so the distribution across a population of 23 million, is telling.

It’s this, that enables publications, such as the ‘‘Global Wealth Report’ produced annually by Credit Suisse, to assess Australian’s to be the ‘richest in the world’ in median terms.

In other words – if you stand everyone in a long line, richest to poorest, the middleman has more ‘asset’ wealth than any other country assessed.

It should therefore come as no surprise that our wealthy know where to ‘bank’ their dollars – and it’s not down the high street

As economist Adair Turner and others have pointed out in response to a recent report by Oxfam, which demonstrates how Britain’s five richest families are wealthier than the poorest 20% of the population.  The riches are only in part derived through productive activity – the vast ‘wealth’ however, has been derived through ‘rents’ (unearned gains) in land.

If you thought wars were about religion – think again.

The compounded rent is effectively what we pay for when acquiring real estate – a calculation that takes into account expectations of future growth, minus expenses for the time held – along with a range of other variables such as wages and borrowing rates.

Yet capturing a greater percentage of annual land values, whilst at the same time reducing those on productivity holds much in its favour.

  • It reduces the propensity of boom/bust housing cycles,
  • Encourages timely construction and effective utilisation (good for both the economy, employment and consequently, our welfare state)
  • Aids infrastructure financing,
  • Supports decentralisation,
  • Assists in keeping the cost of shelter affordable – levelling to some degree, the playing field between non-owners and owners.
  • And importantly, in regions where it’s been implemented with success – Pittsburgh and Pennsylvania being examples -most owners pay less tax when there’s a shift from productivity onto land, than would be the case otherwise

Change ahead?

Of course, to change the mindset of any nation that has been encouraged to use their housing investments as leverage for economic activity, a welfare fund for retirement, collateral for the advancement of business and commerce, and an ATM for family emergencies, is no easy task.

Not to mention the many vested interests in both Government and the property industry, all of which derive their income from the promotion of it.

However, it’s vitally important we do so – because it sits at the very base of every conversation Government is current having regarding the welfare state, cutting pensions, and increasing the working age until retirement.

Even in our technological age of driverless cars, lasers that can change the weather, 3D printers that can produce substitute body parts, and solar farms that can produce enough energy to run a small city, nothing is possible without the land which gives us the food we eat, the water we drink, the air we breathe, and a rich array of commodities to fuel our appetite for ‘growth.’

There is nothing to be gleaned in from the hording of land, and whilst secure private tenure of property is vital in so much as land needs to be cared for, cultivated, and effectively utilised, a proportion of ‘unearned’ economic gains that come from the locational rent of the unimproved value alone – should not be privatised to the extent that prices escalate through the inducement of speculative gain.

Can supply policy solve it alone?

We talk a lot about supply, but whilst the status quo exists – rising land values being used as the primary driver for economic growth – high prices ensure land will only developed for profit, timed to capture the upward wave of a cycle, rather than developed to meet the immediate needs of a home buyer, which does little to deter the wasteful process of land banking.

It is not insignificant that the burdens to supply policy, which we consistently criticise – the structural impediments to development – were implemented along side a gradual shift of the rental capture of land, onto productivity.

As Bob Day asserts in his submission to the Senate debate on Housing affordability, (first published; Home Truths Revisited May 2013)

“The regulatory seeds of the housing affordability crisis were sown in the 1970s. Until then land was abundant and affordable, and the development of new suburbs was largely left to the private sector”

The 1970’s was not only the point at which urban zoning (a process of false scarcity) was imposed by state Governments – it also came at a time at which any hope of tax capturing the fair uplift in land values to keep construction timely and offset soaring costs, had been truly eroded.

This, coupled with a shift in infrastructure financing – as private enterprise played an ever-increasing role and projects were no longer provided with capacity ahead of time, but required to prove revenue – ‘user pays’ whilst homeowner benefits – was the beginning of the end.

A Glance Back At Policy..

Early settlers had rejected the British system of taxing both land and buildings, in favour of the methods advocated by the classical economist Henry George, who had previously presented his ‘single tax’ theory in Australia to thunderous success.

However, over time, the Government’s inept and poor administration in the regularity and standard of valuations, the creeping in of exemptions (including the family home) coupled with lobbying from large landholders – a group which have historically maintained the greatest political clout – significantly eroded the system, and by the 1950s an array of taxes were falling increasingly on productivity, rather than land.

In 1953 when the Menzies Government abolished the Federal Land Tax, rapid ‘post war’ population growth had firmly laid the foundations for a thirst to profit through ‘capital gain’ (mounting land values.)

The then Labour party – which had historically always rallied in favour of raising revenue from the economic rent of land rather than productivity, were up in arms, prompting Arthur Calwell to speak in opposition of the plan, passionately declaring

“…We have always believed in the land tax….The land belongs to the people, and its use must be safeguarded and protected at all times!” ((Hansard, Vol 221, pp 165-170 passim)

However, it was the beginning of the end.  Up until 1961 it was an integral part of the Labour platform.  By 1963 however, the commitment had been omitted all together, apparently, without conference approval. (Cameron Clyde “How Labor Lost Its Way”  “Progress” May-June 2005)

When Whittlam came to power in 1972 (see Bob Day’s comment above) he ignored any call to bring in legislation to collect the economic rent of land, instead of levying heavy direct and indirect taxes on income, and in so doing, a politically fabricated boom in land values was underway.

In the decades that followed, the promotion of negative gearing (1985), halving of the capital gains on investors (1999), onerous levies on development and upfront infrastructure costs passed onto buyers – grants, incentives and so forth, had little to do with the delivery of affordable housing, and everything to do with escalating land prices.

It should come as no surprise then, that large landowners and the commission side of the real estate industry, shy away from any changes to the tax system. The smoke screen debates on affordability and scrapping negative gearing are just that.

So what now?

Due to China-led resilience and economic stimulus Australia, although in no way unscathed, avoided the disastrous consequences of 2008, resulting in thousands of foreclosures across the US and Europe, whilst banks were bailed and families continue to be evicted.

Not so the recession that marked the early 1990s.

Affecting 17 out of 18 comparable OECD countries, high unemployment, a large current account deficit and elevated level of foreign debt left many economists gloomy Australia would ever achieve long lasting economic recovery.

Endless debate was given to the causes and consequence, which left policy makers reassuring the community that lessons’, would be learnt! However, as the then Governor of the RBA, Ian McFarlane, later summed up in his 2006 Boyer lecture;

“Any boom built on rising asset prices financed by increased borrowing has to end.”

And considering the date this lecture was given (2006,) the following comment was insightful;

No-one though has a clear mandate at the moment to deal with the threat of major financial instability associated with an asset price boom and bust.”

It’s unfortunate that “no-one” happens to be our most influential political and economic policy makers – and indeed, we’re not alone.

After every economic crisis, there is always the promise that events will never happen again – safe guards are put in place and eventually the wreckage is cleared, however happen they do, and reforms that promise otherwise, repeatedly fail.

Significantly, globalisation, the interrelating of major economies, is adding to the volatile nature of each economic downturn.  As Wayne Swan asserted in his speech “A Future Of Promise” given at The Sydney institute in 2007;

“It is, truly, the sharpest synchronised global downturn in living memory…And it’s being inflicted on good Australians through no fault of their own.”

No cycle is exactly the same, but whilst history may not exactly mirror the past, patterns do.

There’s only one reason we have devastating house price booms and busts – the pre marker to any recession and economic disaster, and that is speculation induced in this case, through the privatisation of unearned gains.  And whilst some continue to reap a windfall from exploiting the process, we really need to pause and ask – ‘”Who is it really benefitting?”

It’s time for change.

Catherine Cashmore

A Look At The Market Through Foreign Eyes

A Look At The Market Through Foreign Eyes

I had the good fortune to meet two investors from Dallas Texas last week – visiting in part, to survey the Australian real estate terrain and in return, provide a unique opportunity to glimpse the madness of it all through foreign eyes.

A cursory look through the press paints a colourful picture for our visiting observers.  Obviously, the spectacular rise in Sydney’s valuations has come under incredible scrutiny over the past 12 months or so.

Like any upswing in the ‘property cycle,’ it’s been exacerbated by a mix of forces, culminating in a shortage of effective supply against a bull run of speculation, which all agree has an inevitable end-by-date and no doubt subsequent ‘correction’ when the tide changes.  (‘When’ being the operative word.)

The latest stats from RP Data’s capital city ‘Home value Index’ for the first quarter of the 2014 have evidenced “a near record level of growth throughout the month of March” rising in excess of 2% coupled with an “ongoing escalation in housing finance commitments.”

Sydney dwelling values are now reportedly 15.8% higher than their previous peak, some distance from Melbourne, which shows a more ‘subdued’ 4.7% ‘post peak’ increase (movements, which in industry ‘speak’ are neatly termed a ‘recovery.’)

In response, the RBA, are like ‘a read blowing in the wind,’ employing the same old wooden tools they’ve always relied upon as they warn investors in their latest Financial Stability Review, – (like last year’s review, when stating how undesirable” it would be “if households were to exhibit less prudent behaviour than they have over the past few years”) – that the;

..cyclical upswing.. cannot continue indefinitely..” and any ease in lending rates holds the “potential to encourage speculative activity in the housing market….”

Community service groups hurriedly rush to Canberra, flagging a wealth inequality crisis, presenting yet another shandy of submissions to the ‘rinse and repeat’ sequel of the last Senate enquiry into Housing Affordability,

And as Barclay’s Chief Economist Keiran Davies sounds the alarm, reporting household debt to disposable income has hit a record “177% peak,” the public outcry against foreign investment ‘bidding up prices’ has prompted the Coalition’s conservative version – reminiscent of Kevin Rudd’s 2010 ‘1-800-I-SAW-AN-ASIAN-AT-AN-AUCTION’  debacle – to assess “what is happening on the ground” and stave off the growing concerns that seem to indicate rules are not being adhered to.

The analysis my two new friends from Texas would hear from Economists in response to the above backdrop is equally schizophrenic.

Whilst Governor of the RBA’s Glenn Steven’s is telling audiences that a modest overheating in housing markets could have “long-term negative consequences for economic growth.”  AMP’s Chief Economist Dr Shane Oliver is assuring the “normative” response to low interest rates producing a sharp surge in established house (land) prices, is “great news for the economy!”

According to Oliver;

“Housing may show an “overvaluation criteria for a bubble,” but, we’re not in one yet, otherwise “property spruikers [would be] out in a big way” or “buyers rushing in for fear of missing out!”

Obviously Dr Oliver has not been attending many auctions or property seminars of late – otherwise he’d have plenty of evidence of the above practices (at least in the two biggest capitals.)  They’re all but engraved into Australian culture.

Notwithstanding, Christopher Joye is back to the task of boosting his readership figures, evidencing the quite the opposite – warning ‘overvalued prices’ could see “unprecedented 10 to 20 per cent losses across the board” when/if the market ‘normalises.’

Grave concerns indeed, albeit, it whistles the same tune as most industry commentary regarding affordability, with anxieties only going so far as to ensure an already inflated platform can be sustained (through ‘prudent lending,’ of course) without open and strong advocacy into the policies that would stop these cyclical peaks and ‘corrections,’ which result in numerous ‘crash’ predictions, inevitable pain for new home buyers, a real wealth inequality crisis – for what seems to be for no more than generating publicity, whilst maintaining the ‘status quo.’

“Build more houses!”

Unfortunately, the assumption – both here, and overseas – remains, that the only way to make houses more affordable, is to increase the supply of new dwellings.

Building more accommodation seems like an easy prescriptive cure, with supply verses demand being a well-tested economic model – that is, until it comes to the land market.

We can’t seem to deliver this supply at normative prices for the locational price/distance trade off.

Speculative activity, further promoted by a constipated planning system, has resulted in ever increasing land values, on ever decreasing ‘lot’ sizes.

Analysis by RP Data shows vacant land prices over the past 20 years, have lifted from a median rate of $76.47 per square metre, to $507.70 per square metre, as of the end of 2013. Whilst the average ‘lot’ size has dropped from 700 square metres, to 500 square metres – and in some states, less than 400 square metres over the same period.

Obviously reforms to the planning process would greatly assist, however contrary to common belief, it would not alone provide a cure.

To truly restore housing back to ‘fair’ value, we would have to remove the level of speculation manufactured into the structural design of our housing market and this is one side of policy reform Government has repeatedly refused to address.

Speculation

To be clear, an increase in the natural price of land, is an expected result when economies are improving due – for example – to capital investment in infrastructure, as is the case in Australia currently, with Tony Abbot’s desire to be knighted the ‘Infrastructure Prime minister.’

Infrastructure intensifies the use and demand for land as the population grows, assisting job creation and collaboration between individuals.

Therefore, taken alone, rising values should be a ‘good’ thing for our country – (and economy) – or at least they would be, if the gains truly benefitted the community.

Any manufactured improvement to a location’s public amenities, gifts a beneficial trade-off to the owner, who receives a windfall in remuneration as the resulting economic impact boosts productivity.

This increase in values is what economist’s term ‘economic rent,’ although expressed rather misleadingly in popular vocabulary as ‘capital growth.’

To clarify – ‘capital’ infers something that can be reproduced through productive activity, however we know from housing data, that the true gain in “house prices” is really collected in the rising cost of land, which takes up a 4.1 trillion dollar share of our 5.02 trillion dollar housing market.

Land Prices Vs Property

Land cannot be reproduced because it can’t be moved, it’s fixed in supply, and therefore any financial benefit derived from improving the surrounding facilities, is merely soaked into the ground

This is why ‘land banking’ is promoted within the industry as a popular ‘investment strategy’ – although to be clear, it’s not investment at all.

Investment implies the creation of wealth, whereas speculating is a zero-sum game; the wealth is not created, the landowner does nothing – and for the homeowners in Australia, lucky enough to be situated close to the best seats in town, it’s a generous tax-free unearned windfall.

Unwontedly or not, land bankers who hold their under-utilised plot in lieu of ‘capital gains,’ are ‘free loaders’ on the economy, and building activity does not respond to demand, but is only boosted when values are assessed to be on an upward trajectory.

Policies such as negative gearing, depreciation, capital gain exemptions, the encouragement to acquire properties and gear against them in self managed super funds, as well as the use of the family home as a wealth reserve for retirement, enforces speculation into the foundational makeup of our property market.

Land Cycles

But I’m not informing Australian’s of anything they don’t already know.  People have become acclimatised to property being ‘expensive,’ and our housing has become expensive because its value is derived from its accumulated and speculated future ‘capital gains’ – correctly termed economic rent.

According statistics, homebuyers typically move every ten years or so. The price they are prepared to pay, is balanced against the price they expect to achieve, minus expenses – and in all my years assisting buyers, (barring the odd downsizer) I have never met a single one who calculated otherwise.

This is why property ‘cycles’ – this is what promotes speculation.

The banking sector, which has a monopoly on this process (after all, how many can purchase a property without a mortgage?) increases the volatility of this cycle markedly, however banks, lending, money (credit) creation, lack of regulation does not cause the cycle, (or stop the cycle.)  Speculation does.

We had land booms and busts before the evolution of our modern banking system – and without a change to the structural makeup of our housing market, we’ll continue to have them.

Lending restrictions can mitigate risk, but due to the vested interests of banking system, it will not remove it to the degree needed to stop the cyclical impacts.

Easy Earnings..

Notwithstanding, for those homeowners and investors who purchased over the last decade or so, making money through buying, holding and acquiring property (land) has been a far more effective in accumulating ‘wealth’ by way of earning income and channelling it it into productive activities.

The BRW rich list is littered with examples, and for those who are not involved in the business of property, land is where they invest their dollars.

Of course, for the first homebuyer on a single wage ‘priced out’ – the mantra resumes that we just need to build more dwellings, the process of which contains just as much speculative activity in its design (including how we fund for infrastructure) so as to exacerbate the problem.

But how does it look to our Texan friends?

Well let’s just say, they’re not rushing to move here.

Texas is one of the top locations for interstate migration in America.

As with Australia, the economy has been super charged by way of a commodity boom, but unlike Australia, industries such as tech, manufacturing and business services are thriving and hiring in droves.

The expansive list my new Texan friend’s reeled off, highlighting the number companies moving their central operations into the state (rather than ‘offshore’ as they do here) is impressive, and when I asked how much they would spend purchasing a ‘home’ I was told that “3 times annual earnings” would buy the ‘best’ in town, which was summed up by the comment “like the house my parent’s own.”

Most of the units and condos in Texas are rentals – owned by large investment funds for example, and used as a hedge against inflation and source of positive cash flow.

There are less family sized rentals (detached dwellings) albeit, because housing is ‘affordable,’ there is also less demand.

Devoting earnings to building a property investment portfolio isn’t a consideration for most Texan residents.

The state didn’t experience a housing bust, because it didn’t experience a housing boom.

Texas vs Cali

The subprime crisis didn’t hit, because speculation was removed.

This was in part due to liberal and well funded supply policy, which ensures housing is built on demand, and essential infrastructure funded by way of a ‘deductable’ Municipal Utility District tax, administered by residents, funded by a bond, and payed back proportionally over a lengthy period of time.

The additional key however in what’s been termed the “Texas miracle” is low taxes on productivity, lack of state income tax and a good regulatory environment, offset by higher than average property tax.

It’s not perfect – Texas does not remove other taxes, such as sales tax, which has a destructive impact on commerce – and property is taxed as well as land (where as ideally, in a truly productive environment, only the unimproved value of land – the economic rent – should be subject to a tax, which is far easier to accurately assess than the total capital improved value.) However it makes the point.

Whilst Texas boosts and attracts productivity with lower taxes, discouraging speculation in the areas that destroy it, Australia leans to the opposite

We’re not immune to real estate crashes and there is plenty of evidence to prove their increased severity when prices are allowed to escalate. But, the best way to mitigate the risk, and protect against volatility, is to encourage the industries that advantage the working population most (manufacturing for example,) and take the air out of those that advantage land speculators the most.

Catherine Cashmore