Record residential construction boom: Pete Wargent

Record residential construction boom: Pete Wargent
Record residential construction boom: Pete Wargent
It's mainly a been a week of furious tax debate. Admittedly it's been quite a few years since I was employed in a tax position of any note, and even longer since I sat my tax exams.
No matter, for almost everyone in Australia is a tax expert, and nearly all of us are in agreement that someone needs to pay more tax...just as long as it isn't us!

Higher stamp duty levies, land tax, income tax, capital gains tax, imputed rental charges, corporation taxes, and superannuation taxes are just a handful of the tolls and contributions being demanded by the baying mob. We are suddently all sure loving the idea of higher taxes!

A couple of things I can recall from studying tax, particularly with regards to the interdependent sectors of the housing market, are that firstly it's far easier to tweak tax rates and sections of the tax legislation than it is to rip them up entirely, and secondly most modelling and scenario analysis falls over miserably because it fails to account accurately for behavioural change triggered by new tax legislation. 
To be frank, I'll believe any fundamental changes when I see them. Deductibility of mortgage interest for investors has effectively been a bi-partisan policy for decades, and it's only now in Opposition that the ALP is proposing a second stab at grandfathering negative gearing rules. My guess is that the most likely change to housing market taxes would be caps on deductibility, but that really is just a guess.

Record residential construction boom
Perhaps the most curious part of the entire issue is the timing. A surge of investor lending has seen rental growth careering to 20 year lows, and with the supply response now in full swing a record nadir is almost certainly in the post. In fact, we're already there according to CoreLogic-RP Data's data series.

It's a well worn argument that investors don't add to the dwelling stock, but if you've ever worked in the development space you'll know that developers don't give a care a toss give a fig whether a property is bought by a homeowner or an investor, negatively geared or otherwise.

What creates new supply is declining financing costs, rising demand in aggregate, and thus rising prices, and as this cycle has progressed we have been getting all of these in spades, particularly resulting in a surge of new units, townhouses & apartments, which in turn has already cooled these parts of the housing market naturally.

The strongest prices gains have been seen in Sydney and Melbourne and these cities have played host to the bulk of the supply response, though a combination of rising prices, low interest rates and, let's be blunt about this, a fresh market of Chinese mainland buyers of new apartments, has seen construction activity increase sharply in Brisbane and elsewhere too.

Only a couple of years after the system was apparently busted (which would allegedly march us into a recession) residential construction activity hit its highest ever level. So much for negative gearing restricting the dwelling stock - it's the greatest residential construction boom on record!
Record residential construction boom: Pete Wargent

As for whether falling demand from investors would lead to rents rising, logically the answer is obviously "yes" as rental supply diminishes, for not all renters want to buy, and many could not afford to do so without borrowing the full purchase price and associated closing costs, a dynamic regulators have been nervously edging away from ever since the financial crisis.

Unfortunately I don't have much hard Australian-based evidence upon which to base this assertion, since there have only been two instances where rents have spiked in Australia over the 33 years of available data, but one might reasonably expect that these coincided with downturns in investor activity.
Record residential construction boom: Pete Wargent
Incidentally, another quirky facet to the negative gearing debate has been the so-termed "Fact Check" articles which instruct us that rental growth indices "must" be adjusted for inflation i.e. the price of consumer goods (such as the price of cheese, pork, sewerage costs, goat, and so on). "Must" they, fact checkers? According to whom are these "facts" actually facts?

While there may conceptually be a very loose relationship between inflation and rental price growth, at best it is a link bound by a mile-long rubber band. I've never once come across a landlord adjusting rents for the growth in price of a tub of ice cream, or a dozen eggs, or a packet of smokes, the price of having a root canal, or whatever. It's an absurd notion, really.

Typically rental price growth is simply one function of the wider property market cycle, specifically supply (the number and type of rentals available for lease) and demand (the volume of renters in the market, and the product collectively in demand from them), although household income growth does indirectly play its part.

We can see in the chart below that investor lending more than halved from $0.210 billion in May 1985 to $0.099 billion by early 1986, so evidently the amendments to the tax legislation at that time did change investor behaviour, while dwelling starts also immediately collapsed as charted here previously.

Unfortunately the ABS data on investor loans is sawn off at January 1985, so it's not possible for me to put the drop into a wider context, although if you believe what property-loving folk wrote nearer to that time, investor sentiment fell dramatically, which contributed to rent increases in Sydney and Perth in the short space of time that interest deductibility was quarantined.
Record residential construction boom: Pete Wargent
The inverse link between investor activity and rental price growth in these two charts above could not be any clearer.

Moreover, the property markets of today aren't readily comparable unless population growth is dialled back, since in the major markets of Sydney and Melbourne absolute population growth is much higher. Victoria's population grew by 42,781 in 1985, for example, but has been tracking at around 2.5 times that level recently.

Mostly old ground. But what about more recently when annualised rental growth soared to 8.4 per cent in December 2008? Was there also a dip in investment lending then which led to the rental supply shortage and some wrecthed rent increases in parts of Sydney and elsewhere?

Again, clearly yes, the figures show that investor lending all but halved from $10.1 billion in June 2007 to just $5.1 billion by January 2009, coinciding exactly with the spike in rents as investors deserted the market, spooked by the onset of the global financial crisis and various predictions of a crash by market commentators.

As you can see in the chart below, investor lending rebounded strongly from the month of February 2009, which was the month within which Kevin Rudd announced his famous $42 billion stimulus package, and rental growth quickly cooled again.
Record residential construction boom: Pete Wargent
Overall the figures suggest that sharp rental price increases do follow declines in investor activity, pretty much exactly as you would expect.

Recent pullback

At the end of the above chart, we can see that monthly investor lending has recently fallen from a peak of $15.5 billion in June 2015 to $12.6 billion by December. Despite this pullback, which was driven by APRA's interventionary measures, I actually don't see strong rental growth returning any time soon for a few reasons. 
Firstly because the rate of dwelling construction and work in the pipeline remains at very high levels. Secondly because such a high proportion of new dwellings is presently being bought by foreign buyers (and thus are not captured by this data). And thirdly because I also have a sneaking suspicion that a fair percentage of deemed "owner-occupiers" are magically switching to become investors post-purchase.

There may also be some small impacts from subtle shifts in rental practices such as the growth of Air B&B, although these will surely be less influential than the key trends.
Overall, despite media articles assuring us over and over again that hosing down investor activity would not lead to increasing rents, market experience tells me that in the largest capital cities this is precisely what would play out. 
Changes to tax?
Penultimately, few figures have been tortured more enthusiastically of late than those showing who claims negative gearing benefits or deductions for net rent. Of course, the highest deductions in dollar value terms are claimed by high income earners, since this cohort pays the highest rate of tax - and thus the most tax - and also tends to buy more expensive rental properties, which naturally have a weaker rental return. 
The data presented objectively by Cameron Kusher of CoreLogic-RP Data below show that negative gearing is used right across the spectrum of taxpayers by income bracket, although it is true that you are more likely to claim net rent deductions if you have taxable income of $80,000 or above (25.8 per cent of taxpayers in this cohort) than if you earn $80,000 or below (13 per cent).
Record residential construction boom: Pete Wargent
This rings true. From my own experience, none of my friends owned a rental property when we worked in part time jobs at university or in the years immediately after high school, but a fair few did so over time as they grew older, got full time and better paying jobs, met life partners who were incumbent property owners, and so on.
The figures show that the overwhelming majority of taxpayers with rental properties never own more than one property, and most of the remainder own only two (this can easily happen by default as a couple leave their respective starter home apartments in order to cohabit), while my experience in the market tells me that everyday people in full time employment claim rental deductions just as frequently as CEOs and surgeons. You can see this for yourself every weekend at opens and auctions. 
In this regard, market experience is as instructive as the tortured data. Not dissimilarly it was obvious during the so-called "homebuyers strike" in Sydney that every second person who called me was a first-time buyer, but rightly or wrongly they were buying an investment property as a first step onto the ladder rather than a home (and as such were not being captured or classified as "homebuyers").
There have been calls to halve the capital gains tax discount, but with a Coalition Prime Minister with a net worth of well over $100 million, this seems to me to be a seriously remote prospect.

It's worth noting that the introduction of the capital gains tax discount did not halve tax payable as is frequently implied, rather it replaced the old indexation of the cost base system which ran from 1985 and was not discontinued until 1999, inflicting a searing pain upon tax exam students and preparers of tax returns alike.

Capital gains tax (CGT) is a crappy tax, especially when it does not account for inflation, effectively a punitive double taxation of savings which discourages investment. The optimal rate of CGT is zero. In any case new housing is already one of the most heavily taxed commodities there is.

New builds?

Finally, on paper, Labor's proposal to limit negative gearing deductions to new builds sound plausible, but in practice this would simply replace one market distortion with another. In particular buyers of new-build investment properties benefitting from tax deductions would discover that their resale market had been ripped out from underneath them, effectively leaving them sitting on six-figure paper losses or "negative equity" from the date of settlement.

Indeed this already happens to buyers of new properties today, albeit to a less dramatic extent, which is why in the absence of homebuyer grants for new builds developers often sell to self-managed super funds lured by tax incentives and bad advice from accountants, or to foreign buyers. Chris Bowen's assertion that buying new property is not "in any sense" more risky than buying established is discredited by all available research.

Most of the debate this week has really been about intergenerational equity rather than budget repair, which is sensible, but perhaps overlooks the high level of supply of construction in the pipeline.

In my opinion changing negative gearing rules - which after all, is a timing difference rather than a genuine tax concession - would generate close to zero additional tax revenue after behavioural change, reduced stamp duty excise and soaring public housing costs are accounted for. In any event, net rental losses have declined since even in nominal terms in 2008, while net rental profits have increased by well over 50 percent.

PETE WARGENT is the co-founder of AllenWargent property buyers (London, Sydney) and a best-selling author and blogger.

His latest book is Four Green Houses and a Red Hotel.

Pete Wargent

Pete Wargent

Pete Wargent is the co-founder of, offering affordable homebuying assistance to all Australians, and a best-selling author and blogger.

Investor Lending Residential Construction


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