Like millions of Australians, I am an owner-occupier with a mortgage debt several multiples of our family’s annual household income. Having bought in the last five years, I am on several Estate Agent’s email lists. This week past, I was accordingly surprised to receive an email from one of these Agents. The email concerned negative gearing, in 2016 a live election issue. It advocated against changing the existing policy, accordingly a vote for the incumbent government.
Australia is a democracy, and it is a privilege individuals and groups enjoy to be able to advocate for what policies they please. We are also a market economy, in which private interests are encouraged to pursue their private good within the limits of the Law.
Nevertheless, such direct advocacy by an Industry to its clients and everyone who will listen of one of the two major Parties’ platforms is still novel or unusual. A precedent was set by the Mining Industry’s $22 million opposition to the Superprofit’s Tax.
Wise policy-making in a democracy or “common-wealth” should consider all the different interest groups affected, and different voices in the mix. It should orient itself towards a balanced, inclusive assessment of the general, as well as particular—and the medium and long-term, as well as short-term—good.
So let me put some considerations the email did not raise.
Some things the email did and did not raise
This email’s positive argument was familiar to anyone who follows the news cycle in Australia. Negative Gearing is the ability of investors to claim any moneys lost on an investment property as reduced taxable income.
This effective subsidization of property investment may or may not have artificially inflated property prices by artificially boosting demand. This wasn’t mentioned.
Negative gearing may or may not place first home buyers aiming to own and occupy their little piece of Australia, against investors or consortiums buying 2nd, 3rd, or 4th properties, with much greater acquired wealth, economic capacity and even—with Negative Gearing—an artificial incentive to take on greater mortgages, but no intention to live on the property. This also was passed over.
But negative gearing stimulates property investment. And more investment properties means more rental properties. This keeps rental prices down. The beneficiaries of negative gearing are thus not only wealthy investors or developers, despite first appearances. The policy also benefits the (growing) 30 percent or so of Australians who presently rent: mostly the younger and least wealthy. It is an exercise in “equity”, as well as wealth creation.
Higher property prices also bring higher commission yields to Real Estate Agents. This was also not mentioned in my email.
The house prices (and unprecedented household debt) in the room
Also unmentioned were several relevant, larger pieces of economic information which affect how we should assess the wisdom of negative gearing, reintroduced by the ALP under Hawke-Keating in 1987.
By any accepted measure, the period of negative gearing in Australia has coincided with extraordinary rises in property prices. They have risen at disproportionate rates relative to the consumer price index. They have risen disproportionately relative to the median income.
In the year 1975 in which I, a Gen-Xer, was born, the average house price in Sydney was $28000. To put things in perspective, the average Australian earned something just shy of $8000 in that turbulent year.
By early 2015, the median Australian income had become $72000, something like a tenfold increase, reasonably closely tracking the increase in the prices of most consumer goods.
House prices have however multiplied by something around thirty times in Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide and Perth, and over twenty times in the other capitals.
In February of 2015, the average house price in Sydney came in at around $850000, well over ten times median annual income; Melbourne’s median house price (where we earn a bit less, to be fair) was about $615000.
As of August last year, Australian homes rated the third-least affordable of OECD countries. Only New Zealand, our neighbours across the ditch, and Canada, our commonwealth cousins North of our closest allies, have a higher house-price-to-income ratio.
The US itself suffered a grave financial crisis in 2007-2008 initially triggered by large numbers of defaults on household mortgages.
As of the turn of this year, some authorities suggest we have the second least affordable homes anywhere, following only Hong Kong.
So Australia is not alone in enjoying a property boom of historic proportions. Other countries have experienced broadly comparable rises in the price of property as against income and other consumer items.
Nevertheless, the rise of capital city house prices in the last four decades, as of last year, pushed Australia past Denmark as the most privately indebted nation, with a ratio of 123.08% debt to GDP. The International Monetary Fund (IMF), hardly crusted-on Labor voters anywhere, sent an economic team to Australia to examine “the risks posed by property speculation and record-high household debt as part of a broad health check-up of the sagging domestic economy.”
We Australians love a winner, and it is an Olympic year. But we should take no pride in the fact that, reaching the podium for a bronze in income-house-price ratios, we presently take the gold in private household debt.
X’s, Y’s, booms and boomers
Public debate around elections turns largely around budgets—what the government does with the money we provide the state in taxation, and who, how and what the government taxes or subsidizes. Less debate has turned over several recent elections on how Australia is now, after two decades of celebrated economic growth—and after a decade of being the economic envy of many another country globally—the most “negatively geared” population in the world.
But perhaps, since the ALP, Mr Turnbull and the Real Estate industry have made negative gearing an issue of public debate, now is the time we should be talking more—if not for our own sakes, then for those of the next generations. For the distribution of the household debt burden between different age and income groups is also not cause for celebration, alongside extant intergenerational data concerning who owns what in the lucky country.
Let me explain what I mean.
Since owning property requires greater wealth, everywhere the young and the less wealthy own less and, if this is possible (it hasn’t always been), lend more. The young have not had the time to accumulate wealth; the poor have had the time, but not the ability, opportunity or fortune.
There is nevertheless something historically exceptional about the present Australian situation. Anyone my age or younger, particularly those of us who teach and talk with Yers and “Nexters”, will know the frank resignation many young Australians feel about ever being able to own their own cut of the pie, except through aid from their parents.
As a Gen-Xer, I belong to the most indebted generation (35 to 44 year olds), when it comes to mortgages ($140000 average, as of 2011-12, including the growing proportions of us who do not own a house to be paying back). But my generation is followed by the Gen-Yers, 25 to 34 years (c$110000 average, for the same period). The Nexters must wait their turn.
In 1981, more than 60 per cent of 25 to 34 year olds owned their own home in this country. By contrast, by 2011, only 48 per cent did so. The decline over the same period was 10 percentage points for those aged 35 to 44, from 75% to around 65%.
Home ownership rates stayed relatively stable only for Australians over 55 (born before 1960) in the decade of 2003-2013. In contrast to their children and grandchildren, the baby boomers remain the principal beneficiaries of the property boom.
We’re all in this together
Negative gearing is not solely responsible for this growing gap between income and house prices, Australia’s global leadership in household debt, and as such, the growing intergenerational wealth gap. The increased availability of credit, continually low interest rates, continuing population growth, and other factors have also contributed.
Illustrating all the old gags, economists disagree as to the effects of ending the regime of negative gearing in Australia. There will foreseeably be some decline in property investment, relative to other possible markets for capital. This may, in the shorter term, affect the availability of said properties to renters. Thus rental price increases are likely, at least in the short term.
But how steep the investment decline and how high the rental rise is debatable, should negative gearing be rolled back. Also debatable is how long these effects would last before the interconnected rental and ownership markets rebalance themselves.
Any such negative effects, that is, should be balanced against the effects removing negative gearing would have in moderating the rise and rise of Australian house prices relative to income. These are effects which will be relevant not only to Mr Turnbull’s “largest asset class”, in whose name he has called down havoc on Mr Shorten’s “reckless and dangerous experiment”. They will also have impacts for the next generations, increasingly a class or classes with a longer future and fewer assets.
Most Australian parents I wager would prefer that the around $100-200,000 their child will spend in renting in a capital city throughout their twenties would go to paying down a mortgage of their own in the suburbs, rather than paying down the mortgage on someone else’s investment—particularly an investment whose losses (above what their child’s rental outlays pay down) are deducted from the investor’s taxable income.
They would also rather that when their child and her/his partner wishes to bid at auction for their own small place in the housing market, they were not competing with investors who already have theirs; who have no intention of living in this new property; and who, to boot, intend to claim any costs unmet by rental income as the means to minimize their tax share.
So boomers too, who are also parents and grandparents, have compelling reasons to listen to more voices on this issue than the Real Estate lobby.
One of the stronger criticisms of electoral democracy is that, by focusing politicians on winning the next three-four year term, it blinds deliberation to longer term trends and problems. In complex economies like Australia’s, increasingly intertwined with global economic forces, many trends that shape the way we live, the prices of our goods and availability of our services develop over decades.
The property boom, relative to income, and accompanied by unprecedented private Australian debt, is not the product of Mr Turnbull’s term in government, nor of Mr Abbott’s, nor Rudd-Gillard-Rudd’s, or even Mr Howard’s economic miracles.
It takes courage to challenge such a three-decade policy with so many beneficiaries. “Whatsoever is new is unlooked for; and ever it mends some, and [im]pairs others”, someone said. For “what is settled by custom, though it be not good, yet at least it is fit.” But just as the institution of negative gearing has aided some, it has impaired the young, and solely-wage-earning Australians who typically earn less than others, but must be taxed on it all.
Just so, by scrapping negative gearing, we shall be impairing investors and Real Estate agents, but aiding the next generations of Australians. At worse, if rental prices do rise, this will provide an incentive for the young to enter the property market earlier, bucking existing inequitable trends.
Scrapping negative gearing may help avoid a more damaging “correction” in property prices that more bearish commentators have long been prophesying, and the IMF felt concerned enough about to come visiting down under.
For by scrapping negative gearing, make no mistake about it, any new government shall be making a small step towards reducing Australian house prices. This, and its effects on their commissions, is the red raw motive behind the Real Estate lobby’s wounded advocacy.
But looking forwards, at some point Australia is going to have to confront the growing wealth disparity between the generations, and the gap between what people earn and what they owe. While it is just that older people be rewarded for their labours, this consideration needs to be balanced against the right of younger generations to feel like they can and do own a stake in the commonwealth, rather than facing longer and longer periods of paying down others’ mortgages or world-leading mortgages of their own.
So a vote against negative gearing, no matter which Party proposes it, is a vote to minimize the increasingly huge debt burden the younger generations need to take on to own, if not their quarter-acre block, then a quarter of the land most middle-class Australians could comfortably afford two generations ago.
Just as the email said, this is urgently important.