A couple of cartoons

I mentioned this morning that talk of slow and controlled adjustment down in house prices reminded me of a cartoon from the 1980s, contrasting the Douglas and Anderton approaches to economic reform.    Having dug around in my garage, here is the cartoon.


There are no totally easy or fail-safe ways to unwind the disaster that the New Zealand –  especially Auckland –  housing market has become.  But this is a clear example where the sooner it happens the better.  If house prices rose sharply one day and were reversed the next, almost no one suffers.  If prices rise sharply for six months and then fully reverse, a few people will have difficulty –  but the losses will be isolated and limited, posing no sort of systemic threat.  But if real house prices stay at current levels for the next 20 years, most of the housing stock will have been purchased (and borrowed against to finance) at today’s incredibly high prices.  There will have been a massive real wealth transfer to this generation of sellers (sellers, not owners).  And that transfer itself simply can’t be unwound no matter what happens to house prices.  If house prices were to fall now, there has still been quite a redistribution, but four years of turnover is quite different from 20 years of turnover.

In the Douglas-Anderton debates illustrated in the cartoon there were some real and legitimate choices about timing.  If one is stripping away industry protection, or substantially restructuring government agencies, there are some reasonable questions about how much notice one gives people to reorient their lives, and businesses, and find new options.  The protected industries were mostly pretty static, and a signal that protection would be stripped away over five years would call a halt to most new investment anyway.   The house price situation is different.  Even if prices go no higher from here –  the sort of the thing the government and Labour Party seem to want –  more and more people are getting caught in the web of paying (and borrowing) too much for houses with every passing month, just through normal housing turnover.  For each new borrowing family, that choice will affect their consumption options for the rest of their lives.

But lets take a deliberately extreme contrast: on the one hand, house prices fall 50 per cent tomorrow, and in the alternative scenario they fall 50 per cent steadily over the next five years.   Who would gain from the gradual adjustment?  There is no obvious gains to banks –  the debt is what it is, and at least conceptually they’d want to mark down the value of the collateral straightaway.  There is no obvious gain to existing owner-occupiers.  There is no  obvious gain to the economy as a whole –  indeed, arguably a climate of expected continuing falls in house prices might be worse for activity than a single sharp adjustment. Of course, there would be some winners and some losers –  the losers would be the people who for some reason simply had to buy a house in the next few years (they’d pay more than in the sudden adjustment scenario) and the winners are the few smart or lucky people who manage to offload their properties before the full adjustment occurred.  In fact, what we would see is turnover in the housing market dry up for several years, which would also make it more difficult for those who simply had to transact to do so.  Again, not an obvious social gain.

Sadly, it isn’t going to happen, but given the mess successive governments have created a 50 per cent fall in house prices tomorrow as a result of land use liberalisation would be one of the single best things that could happen –  and much better than the false promise of some sort of controlled gradual fall (such things just don’t happen). Sure, it wouldn’t be easy for some, but the number of people who will be adversely affected if the housing problems are ever really resolved grows by the day.

Changing tack, on the front cover of my cartoon collection I have this cartoon from early 1991.


For some years, I had it pinned to the wall in my office –  the sad procession of successive Ministers of Finance who for decades (this cartoon implies back to the 1950s) had promised that New Zealand’s decline would be reversed (made worse in this case in that Ruth Richardson must have said something along these lines in February 1991, just as the severe recession of that year was taking hold).      Since then, we’ve had Bill Birch, Winston Peters, Bill English, Michael Cullen, and Bill English again, and although we’ve had plenty of cyclical ups and downs, never at any time have we looked like successfully or sustainably reversing our relative economic decline.   It saddens me every time I look at this cartoon –  so many decades, so much failure.

Kudos to the Greens

I’m not usually much inclined to support the Green Party on anything –  their interest in reforming the governance of the Reserve Bank being an admirable exception.  And political courage on doing something about house prices –  and being honest about what making house and urban land more affordable means  – had seemed to be in really short supply from all across the political spectrum.  I’m not sure even the current ACT leader has been willing to openly suggest that if prices in Auckland fell 70 per cent it would only bring them into line with the price to income ratio of around 3 that has been a typical benchmark of affordability (happy to be corrected if I’m wrong on that).

And so I can only commend the Green Party for being willing to say it: house prices should fall, especially those in Auckland, and the fall needs to be large.

On Wednesday Turei, the Greens co-leader, put her neck out politically calling for house prices to be slashed, particularly in Auckland, where the average is knocking on $1 million.

She’s considering policy that house prices drop to about three to four times the median household income.

As the Stuff story puts it

Her party’s approach is not dissimilar from former Reserve Bank chief economist Arthur Grimes and former National and ACT leader Don Brash, who are calling for a 40 per cent drop and as much as a 60 per cent fall respectively.


Don Brash would probably describe himself as being on the right of New Zealand politics, while Grimes has always struck me as being (non-partisan but) a denizen of the mild centre-left.  This isn’t an ideological issue (at least on any traditional left-right spectrum) –  but one about facing facts, and prioritizing people who currently have little hope of ever being able to afford a house.  There is simply no excuse for that sort of systematic exclusion.

Turei says she’s doing work around what a policy would look like but she’s taking a lead from initiatives, such as Auckland Council chief economist Chris Parker’s report picked up by the council to aim for house prices five times the household income by 2030.
“We are saying it like it is. Most people believe house prices are far too high, most people believe house prices need to come down.”
The sad thing is the light that Turei’s comments shed on the leaders of our two largest parties.  We already know that the Prime Minister has dismissed the Grimes call as “crazy” –  not demanding, not uncomfortable for some, just crazy.   And as for the Labour Party.
But Little says the solution is stabilising house prices by cracking down on speculators, building more houses and lifting wages – not crashing the market.
So house prices should stay at these levels and in 40 or 50 years time wages might have caught up –  and our grandchildren might perhaps finally be again able to purchase a house at reasonable multiples to income?
No doubt both sides have been polling furiously on these sorts of issues –  trying to detect whether there is a tipping point in public opinion approaching.  As I’ve said before there is no doubt that sharp falls in prices could be uncomfortable for some.  But the potential unpleasantness is typically much overstated –  at least if a correction were to happen soon.  Most people haven’t entered the house market in the last  four or five years, and many of those who have will have envisaged paying off a mortgage over their working lives.  Our banking system is robust, and there is no chance of some repeat of the US 2008 financial crisis here.  But for some highly-leveraged investor purchasers, a sharp fall could mean a business failure.  That wouldn’t be pleasant for them, but it is in the nature of a market economy –  people take risks, many are rewarded, and others fail.  It is also in  the nature of unwinding distortionary controls that have skewed markets against ordinary people –  whether that is land use restrictions or in years past farm subsidies, import quotas or whatever.
The main point of this post is to praise the Greens.  But having done so, I would add that I’m much less convinced that they have the answers as to how to get prices down again
Turei says addressing the issue involves a capital gains tax, a state house building programme, both state houses being built and a state programme for building houses for sale, the unitary plan and supply.
And I’ve been puzzled for some time as to why a party that is concerned about the impact of people on the environment is so opposed to adjustments in immigration policy being part of the mix.
I also part company from them on timing

Any approach to bringing down house prices needs to be done in a controlled way and over a long period of time, she said.

I think that is exactly the wrong approach –  and the idea of “controlling” the pace of adjustment seems far-fetched.  Turei’s comments remind me of a cartoon –  which I might track down later in the day –  from the 1980s contrasting the Roger Douglas and Jim Anderton approaches to economic reform.  Dressed as surgeons, confronting a gangrenous limb, one advocates lopping off the entire limb in a single blow, while the other advocates removing tissue just a slither at a time.

The sooner house prices come down the easier the adjustment will be –  politically and economically.  The longer the current disaster goes on the larger the proportion of people who will have borrowed and entered the market on the basis of current high prices, and harder it will be, on both political and economic grounds, to secure the support for the necessary adjustments –  the more there will simply be a push to wait out the problems and leave affordable housing as a dream for a couple of generations hence.  That really would be a national failure (well, National and Labour).

A journalist asked me the other day for some comments on the housing market.  They don’t seem to have been used, so I’ll reproduce them here

Do you think the Auckland housing bubble will burst and why/ why not?
The best way to think about Auckland house prices is that they have reached their current outrageous levels because of the interaction of rapid population growth (mostly on account of immigration) and tight land use restrictions.   Whether prices, or price to income ratios, ever fall back very sharply mostly depends on what, if anything, governments do about alleviating those pressures.  Net immigration does ebb and flow, but around a very high annual target for the inflow of non-citizens.  There doesn’t seem to be much political appetite to change that target, and there also seems to be only limited appetite for really freeing up land use restrictions.  Allow any land within 100 kilometres of downtown Auckland to have even two storey houses built on it, and the price of urban land would quickly fall a very long way –  owners of land on the margins of the city will be keen to utilize the land as soon as possible, not as slowly as possible.  But far-reaching reform like that doesn’t seem that likely.  So, sadly, while we might see house prices fall back 10 or even 20 per cent in the next recession –  whenever that is –  it is difficult to be optimistic that price to income ratios will drop back to around 3 (where they should be) any decade soon.
If yes – any idea about when?
Forecasting is a mug’s game.  All that can really be said is “please, as soon as possible”.  The longer the eventual adjustment is delayed the more people –  owner-occupiers and investors –  who will caught having borrowed hugely to pay today’s massively distorted prices.  The longer prices stay at these, or even higher levels, the more difficult the economics and politics of ever making Auckland housing affordable again.
To all of which I’d add that I also have no problem with greater intensification, but these things should be decided by landowners, not by councillors, or hearings panels.  Assign property rights in the existing plan provisions to groups of homeowners –  say 500 house groups –  and let them trade changes in those rights.  Use collective action clauses – as are often used in modern bond contracts –  so that a vote of say 80 per cent of land owners in a neighbourhood would be enough to agree changes for that neighbourhood.  It might sound messy, but compared to the current situation it sounds like a path that would actually generate change –  and ensure that affected parties sort these things out in the market, without anguished arguments on Checkpoint about bureaucrats and judges deciding the fates of Panmure, Mission Bay, or wherever.