Foreign buyers: Don't mix emotional questions of ‘fairness’ without reliable figures

Peter ChittendenDecember 14, 20140 min read

Australia has always relied on overseas immigration to help sustain our population and wealth, however according to figures published by the OECD, our immigration rates have been remarkably stable.

In 1995 non-Australian born residents accounted for 23% of the population and in 2011 that figure had only increased to 26.7%, for comparison in Canada the figure was 20.1%, in the UK 12%, the USA 13% and in New Zealand 23.6%.

At the same time as immigration has been very stable, investment inflows from offshore have been growing but there does not appear to be any direct link with high house prices. According to the OECD real house prices increased by 9.7% in 2010 (the most recent peak in prices) but they went into reverse in 2011 & 2012 by 5.0% and 3.3% to increase by 3.8% in 2013, and in many ways 2014 continues a period of catch up, not withstanding the activities of foreign buyers.

While prices have been increasing over the years 2013-14 and affordability has fallen mainly because of high prices, interest rates have been very low. But it appears many Australians may still be facing a struggle to afford a home. One indicator is that the national savings rate, the percentage of disposable income that is saved has according to the OECD been in a steady decline; in 2011 the figure stood at 11.8% and in 2015 it is expected to be 9.3%.

Outside of the rate of foreign investment into Australia, we do not have to look very far beyond the ever increasing number of free trade agreements, or indeed the very presence of the G20 Leaders meeting in Brisbane to realise that we are very much tied up in the world economy. It is in fact an understatement of the reality.

However to single out foreign investment, which is not a new trend, for special treatment in the current state of the housing market, looks to deny the reality. If Sydney and other centres are to be seen as major players, so called ‘international cities’, then we need to accept that offshore buyers will be attracted to our residential markets. The investment and growth should create a stronger economy and more employment opportunities.

Fears about inflated prices, absentee owners and the creation of ethnic clusters look out of place in today’s world. However this does not mean that offshore buyers should operate outside the law and to date there is little evidence to answer that question one way or the other.

There is little doubt that the report issued recently does make some concrete points, not the least of which is an urgent need to improve reporting and enforcement by the FIRB. The move to civil penalties and fines for third parties, and the sharing of data between the Immigration Department and FIRB may also be well overdue and sensible measures.

However this will remain an emotive topic, and it’s also one where the question of ‘fairness’ surrounding the current rules will continue to come into question for as long as there is an incomplete picture of the market. Why the FIRB should have fallen so far short of the mark, may reflect badly on how different areas of government are being and have been under-resourced. And it is not only the FIRB.

Recently the ABS has come under the same sort of scrutiny, has been found wanting and also in a related area. When releasing the most recent housing finance figures the ABS has drawn attention to the fact that FHB loans may be under reported because not all FHB loans are tied to buyer grants and so some lenders figures may be wrong. While the FIRB recent enforcement might be in the view of the committee and community ‘grossly inadequate’, such failures need to be addressed.

The $70 billion residential construction sector relies on a stable flow of investment. To retain that level of investment we should not mix emotional questions of ‘fairness’ without reliable figures.

In 2012-13 real estate was the biggest sector of foreign investment into Australia, at $51.9 billion however, the majority of that was commercial real estate. We should also keep in mind that while China was the biggest source of investment at $5.9 billion in 2012-13, Canada invested $4.9 billion and the USA $4.4 billion, figures that I think show that we are part of a vibrant international market.

Peter Chittenden

Peter Chittenden is managing director for residential of Colliers International.
Peter Chittenden
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