Sunday, July 26, 2015

Who's to Blame for Australia's Expensive Property?

Picture a science lab with a square metal table in the centre. On top of the table lies an intricate wooden maze. The maze itself is completely enclosed. In the middle of the maze, at the end of the one way walled passage, is a block of cheese. In a small cage not far from the maze is a rat, who hasn't been fed for a day and whose nose is going haywire smelling the nearby cheese. The three researchers (who were responsible for building the maze) are standing nearby, one of them removes the rodent from the cage and places it into the maze, soon after which the rat finds it's way to the cheese and consumes it.

I would liken this scenario to the Australian property market, where the researchers represent the three levels of government (federal, state and local), the maze walls are policies they've introduced, cheese symbolises investment properties and for the purpose of this exercise the rat is us, investors (though it could also represent other home buyers who are also herded by government policy).

Now you may think human investors are smarter than a rat, but history shows us that time and time again we will rush toward the cheese (investment returns) often foregoing rational thought in order to do so. Just take the recent bubble and crash in the Chinese stock market (Shanghai Stock Exchange Composite Index pictured below), which was largely driven by retail investors and fuelled by margin lending.

Shanghai Stock Exchange Composite Index
If you spoke to the rat, told it not to eat the cheese from the maze, you are about as likely to receive a positive response as if you told investors (as a group, there are some investors who do act rationally as individuals) to only bid the price of an asset to a sensible valuation before stopping.

Historically (at least since the 1960's) home ownership rates have been fairly stable at around 70%, but this has since declined slightly to 68% in the 2011 ABS census and recent investor lending statistics indicate that it's probably getting worse with investor finance overtaking that of owner occupiers (lacking the balance of historical ratios).


The argument over whether Australian property is in a bubble is beside the point, as Former Treasury secretary Martin Parkinson said"Do we have a bubble? I think that's the wrong question to be asking. The real question is why are house prices so high?" 

There's no denying that Australian property is expensive, so who do we hold accountable?

I hold no animosity toward investors who buy property. Sure there are landlords who do the wrong thing from time to time, but as a group they are just acting in unison because it makes sense to them, in an effort to better their personal situation and largely due to the policies implemented by government. Blaming them for making home prices expensive is a bit like getting angry at a rat for navigating the maze and eating the cheese. The stage has been set, barriers and incentives have been put in place for investors to take advantage of the situation, why wouldn’t we expect them to do so?

The invisible influence of government policy, at least much less obvious than solid walls, is controlling almost every aspect of the property market, on both the supply and demand sides. 

On the demand side they influence the cost of servicing a mortgage using the Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA) Cash Rate Target, regulate bank lending through the Australian Prudential Regulation Authority (APRA), encourage specific segments of the market to participate in transactions by using incentives (such as the First Home Owners & Downsizing Grants) and set the rules that allow foreign investors to buy our homes.

Tax policy can also contribute to demand, a strong rise in property prices followed the introduction of the 50 per cent capital gains tax discount (having held an asset for 12 months) suggests it was an inflection point for an increase in investor interest in property, also illustrated by the flood of investor finance that followed the change in 2000.


Negative gearing, whilst also available for other assets, further exacerbates demand for property, making it cheaper to service the negative cash flow of a mortgage, allowing investors to pay higher prices, buy sooner than they may have otherwise and carry a larger portfolio of properties.

It’s not only the demand side that government policy affects, supply too is impacted as government controls what land is available to build on, the building types that are allowed on that land, they set the fees and taxes associated with building, as well as on the sale of a newly constructed home and ensure the undertaking meets strict standards and a lengthy application process, all of which can contribute to increasing the cost of and deter bringing new supply to market.

On top of policies they implemented prior, since the Global Finance Crisis (GFC) the government has also intervened at times in ways that have both indirectly and directly boosted the property market. Examples include guarantees that were introduced to protect our banks (e.g. wholesale funding and deposits), the RBA taking on tranches of mortgage backed securities to support lending and the introduction of a temporary First Home Owners Boost which according to Treasury Executive Minutes, “was designed to encourage people who had already been saving for a home to bring forward their purchase and prevent the collapse of the housing market.”

I've seen investors who've benefited from this generous environment complain that no changes should be made to the status quo, the "free market", the suggestion of which is laughable. 

The government can and should act to reduce speculative demand and increase supply (if warranted) in the Australian property market, with a view to lower prices and improving affordability. Even the Liberal Party of Australia's Federal Constitution in Part II (Objectives, section n) says:

"...in which family life is seen as fundamental to the well-being of society, and in which every family is enabled to live in and preferably to own a comfortable home at reasonable cost, and with adequate community amenities."

Not that this objective is embraced by senior members of the Liberal Party such as Prime Minister (Tony Abbott) or Treasurer (Joe Hockey). Joe Hockey recently said “If housing was unaffordable in Sydney no one would be buying it, but people are still purchasing housing,” and Tony Abbott welcomed rising prices, clearly not seeing the contradiction with affordability, "I want housing to be affordable but nevertheless, I also want house prices to be modestly increasing." Neither seem to have a solid grasp of what constitutes 'reasonable cost'.

If you want someone to blame for Australia's expensive property, turn your eye away from the property investor / speculator, they are just another rat in the same maze as the rest of us. It's government policy at fault and that is what needs to change. With change of policy will come a change in investor behaviour.


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