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Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Done right, negative gearing can work

Spot the odd one out:  the treasury's tax discussion paper, the Murray report into the financial system, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development and the Reserve Bank have all come out in favour of a re-examination of negative gearing or the capital gains tax concession that underpins it

It's only the government that is holding back. "We're not going to fiddle with negative gearing because the last time a Labor government fiddled with negative gearing, it destroyed the rental market in most of our major cities", a defiant prime minister told a Liberal state council meeting last week.

Never mind that he's wrong. Readily available graphs show that rent increases slowed in more cities than they rose when Labor temporarily wound back negative gearing in the mid 1980s. Never mind that in every city rents have increased faster since the reinstatement of negative gearing than they did in the years when it was wound back. Never mind that the explosion in negative gearing since the turn of the century has helped push house prices beyond the reach of genuine buyers.

Negative gearing and the associated capital gains tax concession aren't the only reason houses prices are soaring. But they are part of the problem, a part that can easily be dealt with without hurting renters or anyone else (including investors presently negatively gearing).

Tony Abbott's stand is more about differentiating himself from Labor than it is about getting people into houses. It's about rhetoric rather than results.

In order to examine why house prices are soaring beyond the reach of ordinary Australians it's necessary to first establish that they are. After all, didn't research conducted within the Reserve Bank unveiled this month conclude that house prices were actually undervalued?

Last week's Reserve Bank submission to the parliament's home ownership inquiry shows typical homes now cost more of the typical wage than ever before – in excess of five times the average disposable income. Back in 1990 they cost three times the average disposable income. Before negative gearing took off at the turn of the century they cost four times the disposable income.

But the RBA says that doesn't necessarily mean houses are less affordable...

Record low mortgage rates have pushed down the cost of repayments to well below their decade long average. Compared to renting, buying is exceptionally cheap according to the preliminary research. Taking into account the high likelihood of continuing low rates the research finds that, compared to renting, paying off a home is cheaper than it's been in three decades.

Except that that's not the end of it. Cheap repayments aren't much help if you can't afford the deposit.

The RBA's submission shows that the typical cost of a deposit is higher than it has ever been, around 100 per cent of average disposable income – or it would be, were it not for the fact that many lenders have relaxed their standards.

But it says even taking into account of relaxed standards, deposits are more expensive than they used to be, forcing Australians without very good access to cash to either postpone or forget about buying a house. Typically these people are young, and without well-off parents to help them out. High prices are entrenching inequality.

A frightening graph in the Reserve Bank's submission shows the home ownership rate among middle-income Australians has slid since the turn of the century while the rate among high-income Australians has held up.

The turn of the century is when prices took off, climbing faster and for longer than ever before. A few months earlier in September 1999 the Howard government excluded from tax half of every capital gain, making negative gearing suddenly much more attractive (for shares as well as property). Until then, if you used losses to cut your taxable income you still had to face tax when you eventually sold. Afterwards you could deduct 100 per cent of your annual losses but be taxed on only 50 per cent of your eventual profits.

An extraordinary one in 10 Australian taxpayers became negative gearers. In order to get the properties they had to push up prices and elbow out would be owner-occupiers. Sure, they could have built new homes rather than buy existing ones, but they lacked the patience. Fourteen out of every 15 dollars borrowed for investment housing is spent on existing homes.

Labor is considering a proposal to put negative gearing to work. It would allow existing negative gearers to keep doing what they are doing. No-one would be rushed into selling anything. Anyone who wanted a new negatively geared property would have to build it. It's the same rule we apply to foreign investors. They are allowed to build but not to buy. The Melbourne-based McKell Institute reckons it would boost the supply of new houses by 10 per cent while boosting the annual tax take by $1 billion.

Labor ought to be able to sell it. It can rely on the treasury, the Reserve Bank, the OECD and the financial system inquiry for tacit support. Only the government is out of step. Labor can position itself as the party of more affordable housing.

In The Age and Sydney Morning Herald