Bill Shorten's Opposition makes negatively-geared investors the scapegoats: Terry Ryder

Bill Shorten's Opposition makes negatively-geared investors the scapegoats: Terry Ryder
Bill Shorten's Opposition makes negatively-geared investors the scapegoats: Terry Ryder

Bill Shorten believes there’s an affordability crisis in Australia. He believes he knows how to fix it. But I’m sure he doesn’t believe the tax policy he announced is the solution. What he announced is the smokescreen.

The tragedy for Shorten, the dead man walking of Australian politics, and the Labor Party, is that he is telling Australian households that he is going to force down the value of their homes. And that, in reality, the most likely outcome is that the cost of new housing will rise.

Short-term Shorten and his advisors don’t appear to realise that the high cost of new housing is the key to the affordability situation in Australia. And his policy will probably make it worse.

Firstly, the issue of an affordability crisis. Shorten apparently believes we have one. I believe we don’t.

The Housing Affordability Index shows that national affordability today is considerably better than it was five years ago. Sydney, following three years of big price growth, is the only jurisdiction that doesn’t have a demonstrably better affordability situation that it did in 2010. Everywhere else in Australia does. Even Sydney is marginally better off than in 2010. 

There were improvements in 2015 in many parts of the nation, reinforcing yet again that most of Australia did not have a property boom any time recently.

Jurisdictions which have a better affordability position now than 12 months ago include Perth (11% better than a year ago), Darwin (13.5% better), Hobart (7% better), regional WA (13% better), regional NSW, regional South Australia, regional Tasmania (6% better) and regional NT (10% better).

Affordability is essentially unchanged in Brisbane, regional Queensland and regional Victoria, compared to a year ago.

Sydney’s position is 4.5% less favourable, Melbourne 7.6% less, Canberra’s 9% less and Adelaide 2.6% less. But in each of those locations, affordability remains better than five years ago, even in Sydney (just). 

What we have from Federal Labor is what we got from APRA: over-the-top policy impacting the whole nation to attempt to solve a Sydney problem.

There’s going to be a major backlash against Labor once people realise the essence of Shorten’s proposal on affordability. He’s going into the upcoming federal election telling the electorate that the value of their homes is going to fall.

The essence of the tax policy announced on 12 February is that his proposed changes to negative gearing will somehow make housing more affordable. He’s not proposing to force down interest rates nor to lift average incomes, therefore the only way homes can become more affordable is for home values to fall. This would be seriously unpalatable for voters in the 70% of households that own their homes. It’s the ultimate election loser.

But home-owners need not worry. Shorten’s announced policies won’t cause home values to fall. They won’t make a single home cheaper in Australia because they don’t address the real causes of poor affordability. They have targeted the wrong culprits. 

And I’m quite sure Shorten knows that. Like most politicians, he’s not interested in addressing the real issues. He simply wants to give the appearance that he is. And he has achieved that by taking cheap shots at an easy target.

There are many problems with the announced policy. The first is that it’s based on a false premise - that the 15% or so of property buyers who are negatively-geared investors have a greater influence on property prices than the other 85%. (That 85%, incidentally, includes the biggest and most influential chunk of the buying market – home-buyers other than first-home-buyers – the people who have the numbers, the financial capacity and the motivation to pay high prices for homes).

Shorten says typical houses cost about three times average annual income 30 years ago and now it’s six times. He’s claiming that the small number of buyers who are negatively-geared investors are responsible for that change. He doesn’t provide any evidence to support this outlandish and quite illogical claim. He doesn’t provide it because it doesn’t exist.

He further claims that eliminating the tax claims of 15% of buyers will make housing more affordable. He doesn’t explain how that would happen.

But he is claiming his policy will make prices lower. If he’s right, that would be alarming for most voters. It would be also alarming for the nation, because the family home is the core asset for most Australians and the basis of their ability to provide for their retirement. 

This latter point is crucial. It’s the most important issue in the whole debate about negative gearing but is never mentioned.

Successive governments have told Australians they have to provide for their own retirement, because the Government can’t afford to fund the increasing numbers of retirement age people through pensions. We know that superannuation doesn’t cut it, so Australians need to invest to be self-funded in retirement. Governments need to encourage that. 

Negative gearing is one way to encourage people to invest - keeping in mind that it applies to all forms of investment, not just real estate. 

Eliminating it will stop many from buying real estate. Long-term it will cost the Federal Budget more than it saves - especially as the claimed savings are not great. Shorten’s figures suggest it will save the Budget just $570 million in the first four years, although I doubt he has considered the overall impact through loss of revenue to state and federal budgets – given that people buying investment property pay stamp duty, land tax and capital gains tax.

Shorten thinks that keeping negative gearing on new homes will cause investors to switch to the new product. But many won’t - because new homes are too expensive. On average, they cost $100,000 more than the equivalent existing home. That’s why 90% of investors (and most first-home buyers) buy existing properties rather than new. The negative gearing tax deductions don’t come close to making up for the price differential.

But if he’s right – and investors do switch to buying new homes – it will make new dwellings more expensive. If he’s right that prices are forced up by negatively-geared investors competing with home buyers, then switching all investors to new housing will create massive competition for a finite product and force up prices. Keep in mind that state government grants for first-home buyers are available only to buyers of new homes – and current Federal policy forces foreign investors to buy new properties, not existing.

So, if Shorten succeeds, we will have first-home buyers competing with Australian investors and foreign investors for new properties. Everyone will be trying to buy a finite supply of new homes, given that Australia is in the midst of a period of record creation of new dwellings and doesn’t need more. Shorten’s policy won’t make housing cheaper, it will make it more expensive.

And that brings us to the real issue in the affordability debate - the one that politicians including Short-term Shorten don’t want to talk about: the reality that government taxes and charges are responsible for the high cost of new housing. Multiple research studies have confirmed that more than 40% of the cost of new house-and-land packages are taxes and other government charges. Eliminate those and suddenly new homes are affordable to most buyers. A $400,000 product can be sold for $240,000.

So the real problem is not tax benefits flowing from government to the real estate industry - it’s the money flowing in the opposite direction, the taxes that are ripped out of the real estate industry.

Politicians never discuss this factor. They’re addicted to the massive amount of revenue they rip out of the real estate industry - over $70 billion in a typical year. They would rather blame unpopular minorities - a standard political tactic - than address the real issue.

The Federal Government, after two very long and expensive parliamentary inquiries which achieved little, has decided to make foreign investors the scapegoats. But forcing a small number of foreigners to sell back their mansions won’t make housing cheaper for first-home buyers.

Now the Federal Opposition has decided to make negatively geared Australian investors the scapegoats. It’s dishonest, deceitful and, frankly, disgusting.

Terry Ryder is the founder of hotspotting.com.au. You can email him or follow him on Twitter.

Terry Ryder

Terry Ryder

Terry Ryder is the founder of hotspotting.com.au.

Tags: 
tax Negative gearing

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