Sunday, April 19, 2015

The Politics of Negative Gearing (Australian Property)

Debate over the ability for investors to negatively gear property (claim losses from property against other income) in Australia has been fierce of late.

In a recent article Sinclair Davidson (Professor of Institutional Economics at RMIT University) was reported as describing public debate around negative gearing as “a complete load of rubbish” (sadly his comments were no less bin worthy). Rather than tackle the issue with any seriousness he resorted to ad hominem attacks on those making the case against the tax policy, claiming that "ACOSS and other people who don’t actually pay tax themselves don’t understand much about the tax system". He went on to say that other countries (US, NZ, Japan) allow such deductions (so why shouldn't we) and suggested the campaign against negative gearing is just an attempt to raise more revenue.

Jessica Irvine also suggested negative gearing is a budgetary matter (in an article yesterday), calling negative gearing a "loophole" and suggested it's closure would "raise billions".

The reality is that an end to negative gearing for property wouldn't be a huge budgetary boon (as these commentators have suggested). Most advocating for it's removal suggest a 'grandfathered' approach, which means properties already owned by investors aren't affected (until the asset is sold). Even when investors make a purchase (following negative gearing's removal), any losses which would have previously been deducted in the same financial year against other income could be carried forward to claim against future income or profit from the same asset class (property). While it might delay when deductions are made (and some investors may not make a future profit in property meaning it never is), improving the government budget in the short term, it's long term impact would be negligible.

Furthermore, it's likely that over time investors would adjust their expectations and reasons for investing in property. Currently a large number of investors buy for the tax advantages that negative gearing (and other tax breaks) offers (graphic via Digital Finance Analytics):

It's removal would result in a lower number of investors prepared to speculatively purchase at higher prices knowing that (as it stands now) low yields (& resulting losses) are partially offset by a tax deduction against other income at the end of the financial year (or as they go for those investors using an Income Tax Withholding Variation). Over time this would likely result in a normalisation of rent to price ratios so that fewer investment property purchases would be loss making from the outset.

So why support an end or changes to negative gearing if it's impact on the government budget would be minimal?

Some propose that all investment assets should be treated the same when it comes to taxation (losses from shares or business can also be offset against other income in many cases), but not all assets are equal. Like food and water, shelter is one of life's necessities and although one doesn't need to own the land and home they live in to benefit from it's utility, the increasing cost of housing is having an impact on the ability of Australian families to enjoy a lifestyle we've grown accustomed to.

There will never be a day where every household is able to afford to buy (or have an interest in doing so if the flexibility of renting is preferred), but with a historical home ownership rate of 70%, the figures recently coming out suggest that balance is tipping unreasonably in favour of investors.

Being a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Public Affairs, Davidson would probably be an advocate for a free market approach to the property market and affordability problems that arise, but the Australian property market is far from free with government & public institutions involvement in almost every aspect, including where they will allow new construction and approving or rejecting applications, significant fees and taxes added to the cost of building and selling a new home, setting the cost of money to borrow, regulating lender rules, setting the tax policy which makes it attractive, boosting the ability of buyers to purchase using grants and concessions and guaranteeing the financial institutions who would be destined to fail should the property market ever experience a severe bust. The distorted property market that we have today has come from decades of poor policy decisions, any solution will likely need to come from the same place.

Negative gearing is a tax policy that gives investors an unfair advantage in the bid to secure a property. An investor obtaining rent from a property and the ability to deduct any losses made against other income gives them an ability to carry a higher level of debt than they'd be able to otherwise. One of several government based enablers that are driving the demand side of the market to the point we are seeing a speculative investment frenzy in some cities. It's time to wind back these demand driving policies.

Within the next month we can expect to see the outcomes from the long awaited Senate inquiry into affordable housing. After comments from Nick Xenophon last year in an open letter to Prime Minister Tony Abott, that we should consider tweaking negative gearing to encourage affordable new housing (which I read to suggest quarantining negative gearing to newly constructed homes, a reasonable alternative to dumping it altogether) I was hopeful this inquiry might result in some changes. Recent comments from Abbott suggest that he will not consider such changes.

Despite housing affordability being a hot topic at the last federal election, neither of the major parties had any policy specifically directed at tackling it. Though quarantining negative gearing to new builds or removing it completely would only be one part of a solution to tackle the problem, Abbott has made it quite clear that he's not interested in a sensible debate on the matter. Last month Labor released a discussion paper aimed at informing Labor’s Housing Affordability Strategy (to be taken to the next election). I'd expect that with the right mix of policies directed to tackling housing affordability and the right attitude (knocking back ideas before the results of the Senate inquiry into affordable housing as Abbott has done is one way to show you are not taking the national discussion seriously), Labor might just have an edge that could help them secure a win at the next federal election.

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Sunday, April 12, 2015

Australian Property Market: Secular & Cyclical Trends

Barry Ritholtz recently framed secular markets this way, “The simplest way to think of secular markets is as longer eras driven by overriding dynamics that define the period either positively or negatively”. Wikipedia says a a secular market is a long term trending lasting up to 25 years which consists of a series of primary trends, "A secular bear market consists of smaller bull markets and larger bear markets; a secular bull market consists of larger bull markets and smaller bear markets."

However you want to define it, property in Australia over the last 20-30 years has been in a secular bull trend, not only in nominal prices, but also measured by real increases. Consider the rise in land values compared with GDP (via Prosper, Soos):

A measure of real house prices (via Prosper, Soos):

Or perhaps the most commonly observed, dwelling price to income ratio (via Christopher Joye / UBS):

Some argue that price to income ratios at current levels are not sustainable, but as the chart above shows (at least on a nation-wide basis), the current price to income ratio has levitated within a relatively tight range (4.5-5.5) for well over a decade now.

Price enablers and drivers have included an increase in dual income households, low interest rates, easier lending practices (high LVR loans), tax policies (including the restoration of negative gearing after a brief hiatus, introduction of GST and the Capital Gains Tax discount), strong income growth stemming from a resources boom and mining investment, government incentives (such as the First Home Owners Grant & Boost), supply constraints, strong population growth and more recently investment in residential property by foreign buyers. There is no one cause, but rather the overriding dynamics have resulted in prices in Australia becoming some of the least affordable in the world.

While some of these factors may change (housing affordability is becoming more politicised, especially in Sydney where prices are being driven excessively higher by an influx of investors), some of the changes that have occurred over the decades are unlikely to reverse course and I think those holding out for a significant crash in prices Australia wide (e.g. where we see price to income ratios return to the level seen in the early 1990s) will be disappointed.

It's likely we are nearing the top of the latest growth spurt (at least on a national measure), see this chart from RP Data which visualises the cyclical trend.

But the national rolling annual change doesn't give us a full picture of the performance of all capitals which makeup the series.

I expect that Sydney and Melbourne may be nearing major cyclical peaks (i.e. within the next 12 months). Sydney is showing many signs of rampant speculation that were similarly observable at the 2003 peak (e.g. investor loans reaching record nominal levels and as a % of all lending). Sydney's cyclical peak in 2003 saw prices decline and ultimately 5 years of lower/stagnant prices.

Perth has seen the cyclical climb higher that I predicted from mid 2012 ('Perth Property on Cusp of Price Growth?'), however a sharp drop off in mining investment (the 'capex cliff') and falling commodity prices are likely to take the wind out of the sails going forward (as I speculated might happen).

Adelaide is still playing out as expected with muted price growth given the underwhelming economic conditions ('What's next for Adelaide property prices?'). Despite the recent growth prices in Adelaide (at a capital city level) are only around the same as the last cyclical peak in 2010 and in some suburbs I am watching are similar to those seen in 2008/2009.

I expect growth to rollover to the downside (lower level or negative growth) as reality bites with the closure of the Holden factory, some major infrastructure projects come to an end (such as the new Royal Adelaide Hospital) and with a lack of good economic news in the pipeline. However, I think the next couple of years may provide a buying opportunity in Adelaide, the ability to lock in lower interest rates, with yields at a more reasonable level than the eastern states and prices which will potentially be little higher than they were 6-7 years prior, it's likely to be enough to coax me back into the property market (for the first time since the peak in 2010 when I sold).

That said I will be approaching the market cautiously and looking for opportunities where downside risk is limited if Australia faces recession or continued weak economic conditions.

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