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11 June 2008

Supply - not Demand

Australia's housing afford-ability

OK. So what's obvious is that the current housing afford-ability problem, in Australia, is a basic Supply/Demand problem.

What's also obvious is that any attempts that try to fix the problem by giving people money only supports the demand side of that equation and completely fails to deal with the problem from a supply side - which, in effect, only makes the problem worse.

So giving people a "first home owners grant" only raises the cost of housing, on average, by the amount of the grant - it might make it slightly cheaper for first home owners and slightly more expensive for anyone not buying a first home. But on average, the market simply corrects. There's still a lack of supply, and raising demand simply raises the equilibrium point.

And in the face of the, more recent, rental squeeze in Australia's urban centres, giving people rent assistance only pushes the price of rental properties up even further - for exactly the same reason.

What we need is more houses. More houses means greater supply - greater supply means cheaper sales and rent. Simple, isn't it? Obvious!...

What is not so obvious, however, is how the current tax incentives for investors effects the afford-ability problem.

The current housing tax regime, in Australia, was originally designed to help afford-ability by encouraging people to invest in housing, therefore encouraging investment in building houses, therefore raising supply, therefore reducing prices and rent...

There are a number of "but"s here:
  1. Much of the tax relief goes to people investing in pre-owned houses - making the expenditure inefficient. Why are we helping people invest in and make money out of 100 year old houses... we need new houses, not more investors in old ones.
  2. The tax incentives only work as planned when the market is going up.
    1. They encourage extra investment when investment is a good idea anyway, by increasing profits... but they are of little help when the market is going down. At end of the day, if the capital value of houses is going backward, it doesn't matter how much money you refund on the costs of running the house, it's still a bad investment, and needs to be sold.
    2. By encouraging over investment on the way up, they encourage a greater boom and bust throughout the housing price cycle.
So, if cash payouts don't do any good and tax incentives for investors cause extreme markets... what's the answer?

Well, actually, it's really not that complicated.

If you wanted to reduce the cost of cars, you wouldn't start by making investing in cars cheaper, you'd start by making the manufacturing of cars cheaper.

In the same way, in order to make houses cheaper... forget the tax incentives for investors... give tax benefits to builders.
  • Reduce company tax for companies that make building materials - bricks, building timber etc. Tax return incentives for investment in certain areas of business have precedent and are not that new.
  • Give tax reductions to companies that build houses - developers etc.
  • Create subsidies for companies that sell housing products to individual builders and contractors
  • Give tax credits or bonuses (think "the baby bonus") to individuals who build their own houses.
It's a simple equation:
  1. make building a new house cheaper
  2. increases the number of competitors and competition in the market
  3. makes the final sale price of each house lower
  4. drives down prices for currently standing houses (people who can pay less for new houses won't pay as much for similar non-new houses)
Where does the money come from to pay for all these tax incentives?

In past versions of this plan, I outlined ideas like reducing the current 100% tax benefit for investors by 5% a year, and putting the money saved towards tax benefits for builders... but, quite frankly, with the kind of surpluses we've been seeing in the budget recently, we can simply afford these tax breaks... we don't need to "find" the money. We've got it already.

By keeping the current tax incentives for investors, the combined effect will continue to have downward pressure on rents by encouraging investment... however, over time, the idea of reducing tax benefits for investors could/should be looked at in order to encourage people to buy their (now cheaper) houses, and discourage the low owner-occupier / high-investor model we're currently locked in.

On top of that, by my readings, it's not a particularly inflationary tax-cut. It's upshot is to reduce the cost of building new houses, which immediately takes the pressure off wages by reducing mortgage stress and rental stress.

There don't seem a lot of down-sides to the plan in general - the details, of course, will need to be fought over.

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