The housing market and foreign buyers: A blame game

Peter ChittendenDecember 8, 20140 min read

Recently, the House of Representatives Economic Committee Report on Foreign Investment in Residential Real Estate was released.

The report made 12 key recommendations, one of which was better funding of the Foreign Investment Review Board (FIRB), because currently there is a complete lack of creditable information on the true extent and nature of foreign investment into residential property. As might be expected the report has received a mixed response. It has not been welcomed by the majority of public comments posted on various news websites.

Let’s examine some of the background that led to the committee looking at this area of policy. In a recent post I noted that the local housing construction industry was worth almost $70 billion, employing some 1,037,412 people in 2014. When talking about foreign buyers and residential property I use these figures as a starting point to help illustrate how important this sector is as a driver of our economy, and it’s a point that was repeated in Friday’s report.

The role of foreign investment in our market can be an emotional subject, and it remains so. It is also a very complex issue for a country with a growing population and a somewhat mixed economic outlook.

The Plight of First Time Buyers

There has been clear evidence for some months now that first time buyers are being squeezed out of the housing market. Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) finance statistics show that in September 2009 first time buyer finance stood at 26.1%, by September 2010 that figure had fallen to 15.5%. In the most recent ABS figures there was a slight increase but the figure is now down to 12.0%, and the average loan has increased to $326,500, which in the Sydney market would not stretch that far.

Also, in the most recent ABS figures, investment finance for the month grew by 1.7% and owner occupier finance only grew by 0.1%, and this continues a long-term trend. The reasons for these trends are very complex, but on the surface, they do create an emotional picture of the plight of some sections of the housing market.

The emotion is partly illustrated by a current online petition posted on change.org. The petition started in response to the Economics Committee’s review which called on the Federal Government to "toughen the regulations for Foreign Investment in Australia". It attracted some 32,300 supporters (signatures) and a wide variety of mainly sympathetic followers. A key element of the petition was the fact that only 33 of the reported 5000 sales of established homes to foreign buyers over recent years have been investigated by the FIRB.

That’s a very small number and so, understandably, it makes the FIRB rules an easy target. However figures from the FIRB show that in the first nine months of the last financial year foreign residential property investment was $24.8 billion – a 44% increase over the amount approved for the whole of the 2012-13 financial year, which only further points to the fact that the FIRB may be under-resourced.

In the report the committee also made reference to these figures and agreed the FIRB was not doing an acceptable job, which it recommends be fixed.

The petition and the concerns of its sponsor (Simon Hosking) had been brought to the attention of Kelly O’Dwyer, Federal Member for Higgins and Committee Chair of the Parliamentary Business Committee’s House Economics Foreign Investment in real estate. In part of her response, published on the petition’s website and issued ahead of the main report, O'Dwyer states:

“… The Committee is taking a holistic approach to examine whether the current policy settings are delivering the best outcomes for the Australian economy and increasing housing availability, as they are designed to do. Australia’s foreign investment policy, as it applies to residential property, is intended to boost the supply of new housing and thus provide both economic and social benefits. The policy seeks to channel foreign investment in the housing sector into activity that directly increases the supply of new housing (such as new developments of house and land, home units and townhouses) and brings benefits to the local building industry and its suppliers…”


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Blame game or market reality

The debate around foreign investment in residential property comes at a time when prices and demand have both been increasing, a very obvious trend in Sydney and Melbourne and to a lesser extent in Brisbane and other centres. These cities are also attracting the bulk of foreign buyers and foreign development capital and investment.

In part, the trend is being ‘blamed’ for higher prices and at one end of the market. That blame extends to the trend locking first time buyers out of the market.

Again, ahead of the main report, here’s what Committee Chair Kelly O’Dwyer said in response to the Simon Hosking petition. The  same views were reinforced in the main report:

“…Consistent with this principle, foreign investors are able to seek approval to purchase new dwellings and vacant land for residential development. Foreign investors cannot generally buy established dwellings as investment properties or homes; however, temporary residents can apply to purchase one established dwelling to use as their residence while in Australia. The acquisition of residential real estate by foreign investors is regulated by the Foreign Investment Review Board (FIRB). It has become clear from evidence presented to the Committee that FIRB has not prosecuted a single case since 2006. It is also clear that there are problems with processes at FIRB, resources and the penalty regime. The Committee is due to report later in the year…”

However only last week ahead of Friday’s report, this same committee knocked back a proposal that foreign property buyers be levied an extra stamp duty as a possible way of helping to fix the housing affordability crisis, and dampen offshore demand.

There seems to be a fairly entrenched ‘hands-off’ approach being adopted, although a purchase application fee of $1500, that would raise $158.7 million over four years, appears to have general support. Such a fee would by no means act as a penalty.

Returning to the idea that foreign investment is somehow having a negative impact on the market (by forcing up prices), I think we should also look at how different the Australian economy has become over the past two decades.

Because the housing market is part of a big picture and it has to be seen in the wider context. The importance of direct foreign investment across our economy is illustrated by the fact that in 1990 Direct Inward Investment Stocks was US$80,333 million, however, in 2012 that figure had grown to US$604,257 million. Over the same period Australia’s outward flow of Direct Investment Stocks has grown from US$37,491 million to US$424,489 million. I quote the figures to illustrate the fact that the international flow of investment funds is a fundamental to any economy.

The rush to secure Free Trade Agreements is further evidence of this fact. Last week Australia and China signed an FTA, and it is yet to been seen if this will have any impact on the flow of funds into residential property both buying existing projects and for new developments, and if this will be a positive or not for the market.

On first reading of the China/Australia Free Trade Agreement, because of the freeing up of many of the service sectors, this may well be a positive for Sydney and Melbourne, because these two cities are so closely aligned to the professional services. Law, finance, education, tourism, health, engineering and manufacturing are all seen as having potential benefits and growth in these areas plus other key areas should create more demand for commercial and residential accommodation in Sydney and other cities.

However, again illustrating how emotional this topic has become, there are suggestions that the various free trade agreements will further harm the prospects of ‘local’ would be home-buyers. But I do not see any foundation for this assumption.

Peter Chittenden

Peter Chittenden is managing director for residential of Colliers International.
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