NSW budget: new infrastructure but a missed chance to fix stamp duty

NSW Premier Mike Baird applauds Treasurer Gladys Berejiklian – but has her first budget hit the mark? AAP Image/Paul Miller

The NSW government today handed down its first budget after the March state election, promising new infrastructure, jobs, housing developments and four more years of back-to-back budget surpluses.

The budget papers said the NSW government would deliver “an underlying $713 million surplus in 2015-16 and strong surpluses in each of the following three years.”

The budget sets aside $591 million for new schools, hospitals upgrades and light rail projects in Sydney, and $400 million to accelerate land release and housing development.

The transport infrastructure goodies are welcome, and targeted to support commercial and residential development in growth areas like the harbour side Barangaroo precinct and the North West.

Yet, with the booming housing market alone delivering in excess of $5 billion to the state’s revenue in 2014-15, big project spending is easy. Enacting reform that reduces the state’s reliance on property taxes is hard.

Missed opportunity for reform

Gladys Berejiklian’s first budget as NSW Treasurer misses an opportunity to make bold and much needed economic reform in a touchy area: stamp duty.

As I’ve written here previously, killing off stamp duty would be a bold but ultimately good reform.

South Australian Premier Jay Weatherill has shown stamp duty reform is possible. The SA government has moved to abolish stamp duty on commercial property transactions by 2018. It will also immediately stop charging stamp duty on the non-property part of business transfers.

Scrapping stamp duty has subsequently been supported by the Property Council of Australia. But with federal grant money falling and stamp duty receipts growing as a proportion of budget revenue, the NSW government’s addiction to it will continue.

Bad news for prospective homeowners

The planned budget surpluses through to 2019 rely on the hot housing market persisting, with revenue from stamp duty forecast to continue to grow through to 2019. So, unfortunately for current and prospective homeowners in NSW, the budget’s increasing reliance on stamp duty revenue means the government has no interest in reform that will cut off this source of funds through lower property prices.

While there are budget measures that target increasing the total supply of property in NSW and particularly growth centres in and around Sydney, there will be little change to the “effective” supply of property without a reconsideration of property taxes.

Effective supply is the part of the market that is actually available for purchase. All else equal, restricting effective supply drives higher prices.

As a tax charged on every real estate transaction, stamp duty acts as a drag on the real estate market that lowers the effective supply. Notwithstanding the current bubble-like atmosphere, stamp duty discourages housing turnover, reducing the efficiency of the way property assets are distributed, as well as the broader economy by limiting labour force mobility.

Someone selling a house in Sydney at the median price would currently have to pay over $35,000 in stamp duty; enough to dissuade many homeowners looking to move from selling altogether - including those wishing to downsize - and penalising those who need to move, such as for work or because of divorce.

The government has offered an increased commitment to the Housing Acceleration Fund towards the provision of infrastructure and planning to facilitate housing development in target areas and plans for 664,000 new dwellings in greater metropolitan Sydney over next 15 years, but these measures alone will have little impact on prices.

Rethinking stamp duty

A key risk to the state’s forward budget now is the possibility that property prices and turnover go down. It’s hard to remember, but house prices can and do fall.

It would have been refreshing to see the NSW government demonstrate leadership by taking an innovative approach to property taxes that achieves a good outcome for those left behind in the current boom while the opportunity is available.

Rather than abolish stamp duty altogether, the government could consider a “stratified” reform that applies the duty differently depending on an individual’s existing housing investment. Remove it when the homeowner is selling one property to move to another. Apply it when the seller has multiple properties. Scale it to match the size of the property portfolio. Add a premium when the property is vacant. There are many possible permutations – determine the right balance and the revenue source is still there while the efficiency and accessibility of the market for those looking to enter it improves.

As an example, a tiered stamp duty system operates in Singapore. The Singaporean system charges an Additional Buyers Stamp Duty based on the residency status and number of properties owned by the buyer.

State and federal leaders are meeting at a July retreat hosted by Prime Minister Tony Abbott. Perhaps there, NSW Premier Mike Baird will learn from his South Australian counterpart that reforming stamp duty is not the end of the world.