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13/09/2013

Australia is blinkered when it comes to property


Australia is blinkered when it comes to property

Australia has a completely blindsided view when it comes to property, and never more so than in those sectors that profit from it directly.

The fool hardly assumption that increasing values in the established arena, which outpace both wage growth and inflation over a period of years, is somehow ‘good for the economy,’ as buyers play a generational game of musical chairs for a limited number of second hand dwellings, gives little attention to the broader social and productive economic impact this mindset inspires, as rental affordability worsens, and construction fails to meet the effective rate of demand.

Whilst there is overwhelming advocacy for keeping basic essentials such as food prices low – crunching farmers profits with $1 dollar litres of milk, and shipping cheap materials from markets in Indonesia and china, to fuel a consumer passion for all things at marginal cost. We seem happy to let our established house prices inflate away on the back of unrestrained credit expansion by the “all too willing to lend” private banking sector. Devoid of strong policies to ensure there are feasible and affordable alternatives, for a younger generation of buyers who increasingly have to rely on ‘donations’ from family or friends to assist with a deposit, battle rising yields or harbour student debt, and find themselves part of the ballooning house price story as they compete at an investor dominated price point.

The latest housing finance data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics shows the value of investor finance commitments is currently 30.6 per cent higher than at the same time last year. As a proportion, first home buyers now account for a mere 8.8 per cent of the buying market. This is their lowest proportion of market activity since June 2004 – yet for investors it’s the highest.

As I discussed in my column last week, we have a trend of falling home ownership in Australia which Chief Economist Saul Eslake made note of in his speech at the 122nd annual Henry George commemorative dinner, is further pronounced when you look the  “through” the effects of our aging population.  In other words, an increasing proportion of homeowners are understandably in the older age groups.

And whilst the statistic cited above can be in part attributed to lifestyle factors (labour mobility, getting married later in life etc) thereby producing a downward shift in the measured rate of home ownership—but not in the lifetime rate of home ownership – you cannot take affordability out of the equation.

For example, the increase of cheap credit, deregulation, supply shortages, and duel income households that has over a period of decades, inflated the capital cost of the underlying asset in areas where most owner occupiers need to locate for work purposes, has ensured the level of Australia’s private household debt-to-income ratio remains stubbornly high at 147.3 percent.  And despite low lending rates assisting mortgage serviceability somewhat, this is offset by rising prices – increasing the total debt the buyer has to service, and the liability banks hold.

As Christopher Joye noted in his AFR column last week, relatively sharp increases in median values evidenced in particular in Sydney, coupled with our dependency on a long term low interest rates, is a point of concern.

History attests, when property prices visibly rise, increased confidence from both borrowers and lenders tends create a sense of ‘euphoria’ that the party will ‘forever continue.’ However, there should be a strong warning to purchasers about over stretching against a macro backdrop which presents a number of headwinds.

Not least, the August labour market report reflects ongoing weaknesses, with the largest contraction in monthly trend employment in more than a decade, a fourth consecutive fall in full-time positions, a rise in the unemployment rate, falling participation and a lift in the underutilisation rate to its highest level since February 2002. Therefore, you have to question how long the rally we’re currently seeing in the established sector can reasonably continue before things start to unwind?

Accordingly, APRA has released a report warning the banking sector not to let lending standards slip, noting;

“..almost 15 per cent of all approvals are now for borrowers with deposits of less than 10 per cent.” And; “It’s also noteworthy that a large proportion of the lending would appear to be investors on interest-only terms,” clearly demonstrating the dangerous speculative nature of our current buying market.

New Zealand regulators have already moved to place limits on loan-to-value ratios banks can hold on mortgages – aiming to restrict new loans to an LVR of no more than 80 per cent. However, inevitably the action will place a squeeze on first home buyers, rather than the speculative investment sector that have existing assets to leverage against.

Other areas of the globe are also suffering a similar conundrum. In Sweden, private debt levels have reached record highs and there’s talk of forcing households to start amortizing their mortgages, with Martin Andersson, director-general at the Swedish Financial Supervisory Authority commenting “If household debt accelerates, as we’ve seen before, well, then we must do something.”

This brings me briefly to issues of supply. When the question arises over how we can make housing more affordable, the argument tends to get little further than simply advocating the need for construction of a ‘lot more’ dwellings. However, there are a number of complexities that need to be addressed to ensure the supply built, meets the wants of those who ‘need’ it most.

The reversing decline in the number of individuals per household in census data, showing household size has increased from 2.4 people per dwelling to 2.66 in the five interim, is another cultural shift of which affordability plays its part.

This figure is used to calculate ‘underlying’ housing demand; therefore, even a small change of 0.01 per cent can result in a ‘needed’ reduction of almost 30,000 dwellings, so it’s important we assess the cause of the shift correctly when planning the supply of additional stock.

Indeed, it’s the figure the National Housing Supply Council grapples with yearly, as they try and equate ‘shortage’ of dwellings relative to the ‘underlying’ demand – currently estimated to be of the order of 228,000.

As an offside to this, it is also to be acknowledged we have a widespread under utilisation of our current housing stock – for example, at 44 per cent; the typical Aussie home still has three bedrooms, with the majority only occupied by only one or two residents.

In fact, only 14 per cent of lone-person households live in one-bedroom dwellings, and there’s been a big increase in the number of four-bedroom homes, which now make up almost a third of the housing stock.

I’ve argued before, that increasing supply per-se is not going to assist low-income households if it is not tailored specifically to their needs.  And to date, in a market where developers are pressured to provide 100 per cent debt security, all but guaranteeing they design and sell to an international arena, a proportion of which let the stock sit vacant for extended periods, rather than fulfil the needs of an Australian demographic, we’re not making effective headway. However, this problem is one with multiple layers.

For example, stamp duty stagnates existing housing supply as it imposes a direct transaction cost on top of property prices.  Yet reform to a land tax system as advocated in the Henry Tax Review, would over the long term discourage the hording and land banking of homes that often sit vacant for lengthy periods of time.

A study in this field was most recently taken by AHURI - the Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute - in their evidence review entitled “Why tax policy is housing policy.”

The paper researched the effects of replacing stamp duty with an annual land tax and showed that in doing so, it encouraged a more efficient utilisation of the amenity.  Additionally, the modelling also showed that falls in house prices would exceed the value of land tax payments “leading to more affordable housing for both owner-occupiers, and rental tenants.”

I recommend reading the paper, which answers many of the questions, such as how to transition from our current stamp duty system to a land tax based model.

Notwithstanding, if we could combine this reform with ideas of which economist Leith Van Onselen is at the forefront, when he suggests raising money through bond financing and recouping it from ratepayers over a period of 30 years - or similar initiatives such as those found in Houston Texas, in which a successful expansion of their city boarders is funded with policies such as ‘MUD’ – a ‘deductable’ Municipal Utility District tax – in which a panel of property owners sit on a government appointed board, to oversee utility and infrastructure distribution in the area. We would inevitably create a better mix of housing stock aptly suited to a range of demographics.

For example, most properties built on the fringe are Mac-mansion style ‘house and land’ packages, because it is perceived that families will only move ‘outwards’ if there is due compensation of a ‘shiny’ estate sized home to compensate for the relative commutable distance from city centres.

In these areas, lack of recreational recourses encourages most entertainment to take place within the constraints of the house – and this is what feeds a reputation of Australian’s desire for large dwellings.

However, with decentralisation and an increase of basic area amenity – units along with smaller subdivisions would be in demand, thereby providing a very attractive price point for first homebuyers and renters.

Obviously there is plenty more to discuss when it comes to policy reform – albeit, to sit back and do nothing aside from ‘keep interest rates low and job security high,’ as advocated by our current government In their pre election ‘housing affordability’ spiel – not only indicates a lack vision, coupled with a short term mindset, but ensures we continue to kick the can down the road, snowballing the problem for future generations to come.

As if to demonstrate the foolhardy nature of the oft-quoted phrase by Einstein “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” it’s clear policy reforms to date, have done little to assist the makeup and vision of a country that champions a ‘fair go for all,’ and highly regards the famous speech ‘It’s Time’, which inspirationally points out;

“The land is the basic property of the Australian people. It is the people's land, and we will fight for the right of all Australian people to have access to it” as words that have subsequently proven to be little more than fancy rhetoric.

Years of failed first home ownership schemes and tax policies that encourage speculation in the established arena, have done nothing to increase long term vacancy rates which consistently sit below 5 per cent – and In some established areas, less than 2 per cent.

The consequence of this has forced a social divide and exacerbates the very real reality that more Australians will reach retirement paying their mortgage or servicing high yields, with whatever superannuation they have used to fund the difference.

It’s time we campaigned for change.

Catherine Cashmore

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