Falling population shares: a highly-productive big city

Writing about Wales the other day I included this chart

wales 1

The comparable chart for Scotland is even more stark (16 per cent of the Great Britain population in 1801 and just over 8 per cent now).

But what really caught my eye when pulling together the numbers was this chart.

london 19.png

I guess part of my brain knew that greater London’s population had fallen for several decades, but that bit never quite connected with the bits thinking about world cities, agglomeration and so on and so forth.  London is one of the great world cities, a key financial centre in an age when capital is more mobile than it was for decades after the war.  There is no other really great city in the UK, the UK’s population hasn’t increased that rapidly by New World standards, and yet the share of the UK population resident in greater London is less now than it was for decades prior to World War Two (true even using the orange dot –  for which there is no time series – the estimate of the population of the (defined by contiguity of population rather than local authority boundaries) of the greater London urban area.

(As it happens, on checking one finds that the New York metropolitan area population is also lower now, as a percentage of the total US population, than it was several decades ago – I could only see data back to 1950.  But the US is different  –  there are multiple very large cities and the spread of air-conditioning greatly affected the liveability of many of those places.)

As you may recall from Saturday’s post, estimated GDP per capita in London is 188 per cent of that of the EU as a whole (and about 180 per cent of the UK as a whole).  The only other (Eurostat-defined) region that comes even close to London is (close to London) “Berkshire, Buckinghamshire, and Oxfordshire” (at 151 per cent of EU as a whole).

These have the feel of places where if more people were able to live there more people would be better off.  The whole of the UK might even be better off on average (a larger proportion of the population able to do more highly-productive jobs), even if the London premium over the rest of the country narrowed somewhat.

And yet, of course, as everyone knows London house prices are really expensive –  price to income ratios similar to those in Auckland (with incomes higher), typically for small houses and small sections.  You can tell similar stories about San Francisco/San Jose or New York (where GDP per capita are well above those of the US as a whole).   Rigged housing and land markets really seem to have visible consequences in pricing people out of working in highly productive cities.

Where the story is much less compelling is in Auckland (or Sydney or Melbourne). I wish it were otherwise –  I’m a strong supporter of land use liberalisation –  but

(a) on the one hand, the populations of those cities (urban areas) have actually increased very substantially as a share of national population (especially Auckland: 8.5 per cent of the population in 1901, and about 33.5 per cent now), and

(b) in none of the Australasian cities do the estimates for GDP per capita show up with any very substantial margin over the rest of the country (see, by contrast, London above).  People who just don’t earn that much (or produce that much) have found a way to live in those cities anyway.

Fixing the New Zealand urban housing markets is, or should be, a matter of dealing to one of the grosser injustices in our economic system, but it is far from obvious that there is a compelling case in issues around productivity and wider economic performance.  If anything, there are probably already more people in Auckland – and perhaps Sydney/Melbourne –  that there really are highly-productive opportunities that are either waiting for them now or would spring up were housing once again as affordable as it should be.

 

Rents should have been falling

Statistics New Zealand this morning released its monthly residential rentals series. I don’t usually pay any attention to these data but since I’d been thinking about the very low level of real interest rates, I decided to take a quick look for once.

The series goes back to November 2006.   They have both stock and flow-based measures, the latter being available on a regional basis.   Nominal rents have risen by about 50 per cent since 2006, and these are the changes in real (CPI-adjusted) rentals on each of these measures over that period.

rents

Something like a 15-20 per cent increase (depending whether you prefer the stock or flow measure) over 13 years might not seem too bad.  That’s a rate of increase of about 1 per cent per annum.

But that really is the wrong way to look at the issue.  After all, renting a house/flat involves paying for the use of a long-lived asset.    And the key influence that should influence any change in the supply price of such assets is changes in the cost of finance, returns to alternative uses of money etc.

In November 2006 the real 10 year government bond rates was about 3.25 per cent (roughly so whether one uses the one indexed bond then on issue or takes a nominal bond yield and subtracts surveyed medium-term inflation expectations).  The real 10 year bond rate is now about 0.15 per cent.   What about the risk premium?  The Treasury guidance to government agencies suggests using an equity risk premium of 7 per cent.  One could play around with different estimates, and with assumptions about how much diversification housing might add to a portfolio.  But it doesn’t seem unreasonable to work with a rough estimate that the required rate of return should have fallen by perhaps a third since 2006.    All else equal, in a well-functioning market, we might reasonably have expected to have seen a significant fall in real rentals over that period.

Of course the standard counter is “oh but falling interest rates raise the price of fixed assets”.  Often enough that isn’t even true for assets in genuinely fixed supply –  since long-term real interest rates rise and fall for reasons that often have something to do with the expected future returns in the wider economy –  but even to the extent it is true, in a well-functioning housing market the only component of a “house plus land” bundle that is in genuinely fixed supply is unimproved land itself.    The supply of anything else can be augmented, and in a well-functioning market almost without effective limit.

In a free market, in a country with as much land and as few people as New Zealand, most unimproved land isn’t very valuable at all.  Just suppose it was worth $50000 a hectare (and actual New Zealand farmland traded at a median of just under $25000 a hectare most recently) and that you could get 7 houses to a hectare (a decent sized section and the associated roads and footpaths), the value of the unimproved land under a standalone house would be worth less than $10000.   As something like a perpetuity, the lower interest rates might have raised that value by a third, an amount that –  relative to New Zealand median residential prices –  is really almost lost in the rounding.

The substantial reduction in real interest rates shouldn’t dramatically affect the supply price of new building.   Raw materials prices –  timber, cement, fittings etc –  should not be affected.  Nor, really, should the price of labour: perhaps interest rates are low partly because productivity growth is low but, broadly speaking, any such weakness will be matched over time by lower growth in real wages.    If anything, there is an in-principle argument that much lower interest rates may have lowered the supply price of new developments, because there is often quite a lag between acquiring land for development and being able to put the finished product on the market (inevitable market delays and regulatory delays),  Lower interest rates mean lower costs of financing those lags.

In a well-functioning market it might not have been unreasonable to have expected, say, no change in nominal rents nationwide over the 13 years, not a 50 per cent increase.

But, of course, we don’t have a well-functioning market at all.  We have one consistently and systematically rigged against competition and development by local councils and their central government enablers.   There is no scarcity of unimproved land in New Zealand. But councils –  councillors and staff planners – combine to create an artificial scarcity of developable land, such that in the face of one of the largest falls in real interest rates in history, to unprecedentedly low levels, rental housing is not abundant and cheap (as readily reproducible longlived assets should be in this climate) but scarce and expensive.  Utter government failure if ever I saw one.

Bits of both arms of government occasionally talk a good game about freeing up land supply, but it is central government that is currently consulting on making less peripheral land available.  It is a senior member of the Labour Party council –  a Wellington city councillor –  who when she rang me on a canvassing call a few weeks ago offered the unprompted observation (when I asked about fixing housing) that she didn’t want any more of that “sprawl” –  this in a city with abundant, if often undulating, land.    In many cases, their vision is to have us packed in like sardines –  more “efficient” like that, supposedly –  and they feed that personal preference, or sense of inevitability, by making land so expensive that many people feel they no longer have that historic New World option of space –  in cities that, by global standards, remain pretty small.

When people complain about rents, and particularly the plight of people at the bottom with few choices but to rent, they need to sheet home responsibility to our governors –  central and local.  Perhaps a future National government would be different, but they too talked a good talk when they were last in Opposition and did nothing then.  There isn’t yet much reason to think they’d be different next time.

Whatever the other risks, downsides, and complications of exceptionally low interest rates, the market has delivered a climate in which the real cost of decent housing should never have been cheaper.  It takes governments –  central and local, left and right ( in this area a distinction without a difference as they all enable planners) –  to have produced rising real rents in a decade like this.

 

Reforming housing/land, and compensating some losers

There seem to have been more than a few people on the left pretty deeply disillusioned with the Prime Minister after she walked away from the possibility of a capital gains tax, not just now (when the parliamentary votes for it probably couldn’t be found) but at any future time while she is Labour leader.    Some parallels are drawn with John Key ruling out doing anything about raising the age for New Zealand Superannuation while he was leader –  an important difference perhaps being that Key had never evinced any enthusiasm for such a policy, only to recant, let alone been the leader who put the issue back on the table.     Perhaps something closer was Key’s refusal to use whatever “political capital” he had to do anything much useful around economic reform.  But, again, despite occasional encouraging rhetoric while in Opposition, no one ever really thought Key was someone who would rock the boat, or was that bothered about doing useful longer-term stuff, as opposed to holding office and managing events as they arose).  Some, perhaps, thought Ardern was different.

But in the wake of the Prime Minister’s abandonment of the possibility of a CGT –  and whatever (quite diverse apparently) hopes people pinned to that quite slender reed – there is the growing question of what, if anything, the government might actually do. It is, after all, in their phraseology, supposed to be the year of delivery.

In his Political Roundup column yesterday, Bryce Edwards posed the question as “What will Labour do about inequality now?”.   There is a lot of talk about different possible tax reforms –  I might even come back and look at a couple in later post – and some reference to the forthcoming “wellbeing budget” (which can surely only disappoint, given the self-imposed fiscal constraints).   But there was nothing about the option most directly under government control which would probably make the biggest tangible difference to the most people, with clear efficiency gains not losses, and with the possibility of a considerable degree of across-Parliament support: fixing the housing and urban land market at source.

As a reminder of the symptoms of the problem, I ran this chart in my post earlier in the week. It is Australian data, but the picture seems unlikely to be much different in New Zealand.

aus 1

The young and the poor (especially the young poor, and probably especially the Maori and Pacific young poor) are increasingly squeezed out of the possibility of home ownership, for decades or at all.   There is no good economic or social case for tolerating this systematic penalisation of the more marginal groups in our society.

But there are obstacles to reform, including the economic interests of those who could suffer quite seriously –  through no real fault of their own –  if the situation was fixed.

Some elements of the government –  well, really only one, the Minister of Housing –  talks a good talk.  In a recent speech he talked up the prospect of reforms that the “flood the market” with development opportunities and thus lower, presumably quite considerably (when you use a strong word like “flood”), urban land prices.   It warmed the hearts of many (mostly rather geeky) readers, including me.   And yet I’m very sceptical that it will come to much. As I noted in a post shortly after the speech

And yet, I remain sceptical.  Perhaps Phil Twyford’s heart is really in this.

But is the Prime Minister’s?  Even though housing was a significant campaign issue, even though she has been in office for 18 months now, we’ve never heard her putting her authority behind fixing the housing disaster at source, let alone substantially lowering house prices.

And is the Green Party on board?  Quintessentially the party of well-paid inner-city urban liberals, are they really on board with bigger (physical footprint) cities, or with encouraging intense competition among landowners for their land to be developed next.  Some of them seem to believe that it would somehow be morally virtuous –  and “solve” the affordability issues –  if people lived instead in today’s equivalent of shoeboxes.

The approach of the Wellington City Council –  led by one of Labour’s rising figures –  just reinforced my doubts.

There are various practical issues to be worked through in any serious reform effort.  But one consideration that always seems to play on the minds of politicians (understandably enough I guess) is that lower house prices means lower house prices: in other words, people who currently own a house will find their asset worth a lot less than it was.     For those of us without a mortgage on our primary residence or with only a modest remaining mortgage, such a fall wouldn’t matter at all.   Our natural position is to own one house, and we intend to own one house (perhaps a different one) well into our dotage.  The label (the estimated value) attached to that property doesn’t really matter.  And for our kids hoping to enter the market in the next decade or two it is pure gain.

But it, understandably, feels quite different if you are one of the growing number of people who have taken out a very large mortgage (perhaps 80 per cent or more LVR) to get into a house.   If someone talks of halving house prices, that can sound pretty threatening.  As a result, very few politicians ever do (I recall Metiria Turei doing it, but only once, and……).    Banks have the legal right to call in their loan if the value of the collateral (the house) drops below the outstanding value of the loan, and although they probably wouldn’t do so in normal times –  when the labour market was okay –  it leaves people feeling quite vulnerable, and also quite trapped (hard to move cities if selling would immediately crystallise a large loss).

When house prices first shoot up there aren’t many people affected that way.  The longer they stay high –  five or six years now of the latest surge up –  the more people have taken out mortgages based on the high house and land prices.  Most of the owner-occupiers among them aren’t business operators or “speculators”, just people at a stage of life where they want to settle and to be secure in a place of their own.   And they –  and their parents – vote.

Of course, there is a whole other class of people who would lose from house and land prices coming down.  But mostly they are a less sympathetic group.   There are the “landbankers” –  people who responded to government-created incentives –  to sit on potentially developable and let the artificial scarcity push up the price of their asset.   That’s a business operation, and in business you win some and you lose some.   Risk is at the heart of business, and that means the possibility of real and substantial losses.  And there are those in the residential rental business, many of them (especially recent entrants) quite highly leveraged.  Halve the price of city properties –  and that is what re-establishing sensible price/income multiples would imply –  and many of those owners would be either wiped out, or see their real wealth (real purchasing power for things other than houses) very dramatically reduced.  But, again, it is a business, and business implies the possibility of gains and losses (one reason I was always at best ambivalent about a CGT was that no real world CGT really treated gains and losses symmetrically).

Of course, these business owners vote too, and will lobby intensively.  But (a) there are fewer of them than mortgaged owner-occupiers,(let alone unmortgaged renters, hoping to be mortgaged owner occupiers) and (b) they just don’t command the same public sympathy (and rightly so) –  we might sympathise with any business owner whose operation falls in hard times, but we know that is the nature of business.

Back when Jacinda Ardern first became leader of the Labour Party I did a post on what a radical reform package, that might really make a difference to our economic woes (housing and productivity), might look like.   Buried in that post was a suggestion for a partial compensation scheme for mortgaged owner-occupiers that might help smooth the way towards overdue structural reform.  I noted then the desirability of getting house prices down a long way.

No one will much care about rental property owners who might lose in this transition –  they bought a business, took a risk, and it didn’t pay off.  That is what happens when regulated industries are reformed and freed up.    It isn’t credible –  and arguably isn’t fair –  that existing owner-occupiers (especially those who just happened to buy in the last five years) should bear all the losses.   Compensation isn’t ideal but even the libertarians at the New Zealand Initiative recognise that sometimes it can be the path to enabling vital reforms to occur.  So promise a scheme in which, say, owner-occupiers selling within 10 years of purchase at less than, say, 75 per cent of what they paid for a house, could claim half of any additional losses back from the government (up to a maximum of say $100000).  It would be expensive but (a) the costs would spread over multiple years, and (b) who wants to pretend that the current disastrous housing market isn’t costly in all sorts of fiscal (accommodation supplements) and non-fiscal ways.

If I recall rightly, I came up with the rough suggested parameters as I was typing, but a couple of years on it still looks like the sort of thing that might be worth considering, perhaps with a larger cap on the maximum payout and a restriction to a first (owner-occupied) home.   The expected cost will have escalated since 2017, because we have had another couple of years of people taking our large mortgages on properties with values inflated by government-controlled regulation in the face of trend increases in demand), but so has the number of people unable to do what they would otherwise “naturally” do; purchase a first house in their mid to late 20s.

This is a sketch outline of a scheme, and like all such government schemes would need lots of detail to limit abuses.  But what are some of the features of the scheme:

  • you only get to lodge a claim if you sell your house (someone who is going to stay in the same house for 50 years doesn’t need any explicit compensation, even if they are left with a heavier servicing burden than might otherwise have been possible if they’d waited to buy).  Of course, some people will choose to sell and buy somewhere different just to crystallise the right to make a claim, but selling a house – a genuine arms-length transaction –  and moving isn’t cheap.
  • the nominal price has to have fallen more than 25 per cent to be able to make a claim at all.  For the last few years LVR restrictions have meant that most owner-occupiers have been borrowing only 80 per cent of less at purchase, and there will have been some principal repayments since then.      Relatively few people would be in a negative equity position if their house price fell by 25 per cent, and even fewer would be facing immediate pressure from their lender.  Owning an asset has to mean some exposure to reasonable swings in price.
  • beyond a 25 per cent fall, you could claim back up to half of subsequent losses from the government.  Thus, if you had bought an $800000 first house and the price halved, you would be eligible to claim $100000 back from the government (half of the difference between $800000 and $400000.   On reflection, and with such a large deductible (the owner takes the first 25 per cent loss) it might be more appropriate for a compensation scheme to cover 75 per cent of subsequent losses (in this example $150000).
  • any such scheme should have a maximum payout capped.  There is no obvious justice in paying out large amounts to a couple who happened to buy a $4 million house which then halved in price (there was a similar issue when the government bailed out AMI).

I don’t have a good sense of how large the cost might be (but it would be in the billions, spread over at least a decade).  Unfortunately, I’m not one of those who believes that fixing the housing market would produce significant productivity gains for New Zealand –  so it isn’t by any means a free economic lunch –  but the sheer injustice of what successive central and local governments have done to our young and poor cries out for action, and sometimes it is worth offering compensation to help pave the way for the sort of thoroughgoing reform that is desperately needed.

Fixing the housing/land market at source would be a huge step to improving the economic and social wellbeing of so many.  Compensating some of the more sympathetic of the losers from such a reform –  most of whom won’t be in an overly strong financial position themselves –  shouldn’t offend too many canons of justice. In an ideal world, one might seek to finance such a scheme from those who benefited greatly from the previous (well, current) rigged market – but that would be hard to do.  In the real world, we are fortunate that the government has fiscal surpluses and very low net debt (especially including the politically managed money pools in NZSF).

I’m not optimistic the government (Prime Minister) really has much interest in addressing the housing/land problems at source.  But if she is ever is tempted to take seriously Phil Twyford’s rhetoric, a compensation scheme of some sort might be an option to consider, to help dull the inevitable opposition in some quarters (some purely from business interests who would have misjudged, but some from people who through little fault of their own became trapped by these longrunning government policy distortions, that generated the scandal of the New Zealand housing market).

 

 

Housing policy failures bear heavily on the poor

Last week a reader sent me the right hand part of this set of charts

aus housing 1

The data are for Australia, but it is hard to believe that, if we had up-to-date census data, the pictures now would be much different for New Zealand.

I’ve seen charts like the left hand one for New Zealand, but what I found sobering –  and frankly scandalous –  were the results for lowest and second lowest quintiles in the right hand chart.

A decent society has to be judged, in considerable part, by how it treats the poorest and most vulnerable among us.    People can run all the clever lines they like about how many of the people in those bottom quintiles have things now that comparable people in 1981 didn’t have.  But it is doesn’t excuse the entirely manmade disaster of the housing markets in New Zealand and Australia (and various other places).

In 1981, when our societies as whole were substantially materially poorer than they are now, (Australia’s real GDP per capita was about 80 per cent higher in 2016 than in 1981), young people at the lower end of the income distribution was just as likely to own their own home as those at the upper end of the income distribution.  But now people at the bottom are less than half as likely to own their own place.  In a well-functioning market that simply wouldn’t have happened. But we –  and Australia –  having housing and urban land markets rigged by central and local government politicians and their officials, and the people at the bottom are the ones who how most severely and adversely affected.

Sometimes people will try to tell you that preferences have changed, such that young(ish) people no longer want to own their own place to the same extent.    But look at how little the home ownership rates for the upper quintiles have changed.  That alone suggests that people are being forced to adjust to new affordability constraints, not that a whole generation of young people – given the opportunity –  no longer prefer to own their own place.

The chart is taken from a pretty substantial report by the Grattan Institute, a centre-left think-tank in Australia.   Flicking through some of the report, I found a couple of other charts.

One of the ways of adjusting to new, artificial, affordability constraints is simply to stay living at home for longer.

aus housing 2

Another is to get financial support from family.

aus housing 3

Back when real incomes were half what they are now (1970s), most people (in all quintiles) buying a first house by the time they were 34.  Now only about 35 per cent of lower income people are buying a first house by the time they are 44, and a much increased share of the (reduced percentage) buying a first home at all are needing financial help from family (presumably mostly) to do so.

There is simply no need for any of this –  the more so in a decade in which interest rates (and thus mortgage servicing costs) are lower than they been for generations.  It is what our governments have done to us, most notably to the poor among us.   It is shameful.

There are no excuses.  One day, those responsible (from both sides of politics) will face the judgement of history for their active complicitly, or quiet indifference.

And no, a capital gains tax would have made no material difference to any of these outcomes –  these are, recall, Australia data, and Australia had no CGT in 1981 but does now.  But perhaps some of the passion that fired those now so upset with the Prime Minister did reflect a sense of the failure of leadership in addressing this fundamental, longrunning, failure of policy around housing and urban land.  There is a real opportunity for the Prime Minister –  or for the Opposition –  to take a decisive policy lead, and actually make a change for the good, for the poor in particular.

Entry level house prices in US cities

A few days ago an email turned up from the US think tank, the American Enterprise Institute, touting a new set of data.

Housing markets are inherently local, making them notoriously difficult to analyze due to the lack of reliable data at the local level. A new dataset from the AEI Housing Center, the first in a series of quarterly reports, aims to fill this void by analyzing housing market data for the 60 largest US metropolitan areas, as well as for the nation as a whole. The current dataset looks at housing data from 2018:Q4.

And so I clicked the link.  This was the summary national data

US national housing

US$197000 for an “average entry-level sale price” caught my eye (that is about NZ$292000 at the current market exchange rate, and of course Americans are –  on average – earning more than New Zealanders).  And of course that is a nationwide number, including the fruit of such dreadful housing markets as those in and around San Francisco.

So I started checking out some of the data for some of the cities (metropolitan statistical areas).

Here were the most expensive ones (in USD terms)

San Jose 511000
San Francisco 485000
Los Angeles 427000
San Diego 419000

At current market exchange rates, I guess those might be roughly comparable to prices in Auckland and Wellington.

But here is a chart of a group of cities (non-exhaustive) I found with prices of $NZ300000 or under.

US housing 2

Remember that these aren’t tiny places.  The whole dataset is for the 60 largest metropolitan areas.   Some of these places are smaller than Auckland, but I couldn’t see any smaller than about a million people.   A couple of the places on the chart are among the largest ten US cities.

Now perhaps, like me, you think New Zealand’s exchange rate is materially overvalued.   But even if you thought that a long-term structural fair value exchange rate was more like 0.5 (as distinct from the current market rate of .67) the median of the cities in the chart would still have average entry-level homes (new and existing) selling for not much over NZ$300000.

How do the AEI researchers derive their numbers?

The study tracks housing activity both for the entire market and for entry-level and move-up buyer segments. We only focus on institutionally financed sales (meaning we exclude cash sales or sales with seller financing.) We define entry-level as all sales below the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) 80th percentile price in a metro and quarter. The rational for a dynamic price cut-off at the metro level is that the share of entry-level buyers varies across the country. According to FHA’s Production Report, around 80% of FHA’s purchase loans go to first-time buyers, who mostly compete with other first-time buyers from other agencies for entry-level housing. The 80th percentile price cut-off, therefore, captures this market segment reasonably well. This is confirmed by the data. Across the nation, the entry-level segment consists largely of first-time buyers, while the move-up segment consists mostly of repeat buyers.

That looks plausible.  Perhaps people who know the data better will be able to pick holes in what they’ve done but –  especially given the pervasive role of federal agencies in the US housing finance market – the numbers are unlikely to be off by enough to materially affect the contrast between the government-induced scandal that is the New Zealand housing market.

Not happening (at least under this government)

I’ve had a couple of posts (here and here) this week prompted by Phil Twyford’s generally encouraging recent speech about fixing the market in urban land, in ways that might –  in his own words –  flood the market with development opportunities, and thus materially lower land prices in and around our cities.

My bottom line: I see no reason to believe that far-reaching reform –  in ways that might make a real difference, as distinct perhaps from just some rewritten laws – is actually likely to be implemented under this government.   We have a weak government, united on relatively little, and there is no sign that serious reform in this area is a prime ministerial priority.  A mere fifteeen months from now the election campaign will be in full swing.

More importantly, market prices suggest that people transacting in the urban land market don’t believe it either.

There was another excellent illustration in this morning Dominion-Post as to why one would be foolish to put a high probability on such reform happening.   It appeared in the form of two articles, one with the (hard copy) headline of “Where will Wellington grow?”  and the other with the hard copy headline “Tough Choices”.  I’ll set to on side for now the point that with a sensible immigration policy, the abolition of corporate welfare and longstanding New Zealand birth rates the city probably wouldn’t be growing at all –  as I pointed out recently, it is not as if stellar productivity growth is some irresistible lure.     Wellington City Council can’t be held responsible for New Zealand population growth, so lets grant for the sake of argument that the population probably will keep on rising.

There are Labour mayors in all three of our largest cities. But it is worth recalling that the Wellington City Council is one the most woke-lefty outfits in the country –  if any council is well-aligned with the government it must be them.  It has a Labour mayor who surely has national political ambitions, several Green councillors, and deputy mayor who if she had her way would strip out all reminders of the Anglo heritage and culture of the bulk of the population, and even the councillors who are not from Labour or the Greens are mostly only a softer shade of pinky-green.  The same issue of the newspaper reports council officers questioning the “appropriateness and relevance” of street names in my own suburb, mostly named for various British and European rivers.  As I’ve noted previously, it must stick in the craw of councillors and their staff to have their offices on (Edward Gibbon) Wakefield St and (Queen) Victoria St and their (well, our) city named for the Duke of Wellington.

This is the opening of the article

City councillors are bracing themselves for a “nimby” backlash as a major plan to find space for 80,000 more Wellingtonians to live goes out for public consultation.

Councillors voted unanimously this week for their spatial plan to go out for feedback.

and goes on to note

The council’s spatial plan posits four scenarios that people will be able to provide feedback on: one centred on high-rises in the CBD, another focused on building upward in suburban townships, a third creating a new suburb in Ohariu Valley and a fourth scenario extending developments at some existing greenfield sites.

No sense anywhere of letting the market work, in response to the revealed preferences of prospective purchasers. No sense of getting the pricing right (for infrastructure connections etc) and then letting things develop in an evolutionary way. No, it is all a matter for councillors to choose, for councillors to “make space”.   And, of course, all led by the Council’s (Australian) Chief Planner.

One councillor notes that

councils were required by law to have a plan for expected growth and Wellington had “no choice” but to come up with a plan to accommodate the extra 80,000 people expected in the city over the next 30 years.

Perhaps, but why couldn’t that plan be, we will get the pricing right, we will allow for appropriate differential rating, we will build (or allow to be built) connections pretty much as required, we will facilitate intensification where local property owners are agreeable, and then let people and the market take it from there?  An abundance of competitive development opportunities – a superfluity –  is what keeps prices down.

That sort of approach might look something like the fine words from Phil Twyford. But not a single comment, from councillors or council staff, in the article suggests anything like that sort of mindset.

If the government were really serious about thoroughgoing reform, wouldn’t it have been an ideal opportunity to have sought to work with their ideological allies on the Wellington City Council to make it happen here – to actually lead the way and bring land prices back to something more like the value in the best alternative use?

Instead, we have the right-on Labour mayor, emphasising not choice, not facilitation, but his own ideological preferences, all supported by the bizarre rhetoric of having to “squeeze people in”, when Wellington City (let alone the greater Wellington region has abundant land).

When mayor Justin Lester is asked for the scenario he wants he just points up

As I understand it, he himself lives in a low-rise family home in a quiet suburb.  But apparently he thinks it is up to him to determine that many fewer of the next generation would have that opportunity.  His Chief Planner is clearly right behind him –  his distaste for a physical expansion of the city seeps through in almost every comment in the article.

It is a democracy, and too much power in such matters rests with councillors and their staff.  My point here isn’t so much to champion an alternative model –  much as I would support one –  as to make the point that anyone who doubts the government is serious about thoroughgoing reforms and significantly reducing land prices in and around our cities, need only look to the lead being provided by the government’s close ideological allies at the Wellington City Council.

As the Dominion-Post articles suggest, there is likely to be lots of blowback against the options preferred by the council (intensification and more intensification) and so in the end whatever gets approved will be some sort of lowest common denominator.  There will be more houses built over time –  as there have been in fast-growing cities around the country in the last 30 years –  but never enough land-liberalisation to ever create a sustainable rational expectation that future land prices in and around our cities will be materially lower than they are today.

Perhaps one day reform will really happen, and prices really will sustainably adjust.  But, as yet, there is nothing in the wind –  whether from the Prime Minister, or Labour mayors or Labour/Greens councils – to suggest it will occur on this government’s watch.  And the young and the poor  (especially the young poor) will be the ones who pay the price, in lost opportunities.

Three totally unrelated items

Rather than clutter in-boxes with three separate shortish emails.

First, a follow-on from yesterday’s post about house prices. I noted that the absence of any real sign of falling land prices in and around our cities suggests that the (admirable) words around possible reform from the Minister of Housing are not being treated as credible. Asset markets typically incorporate expectations about future changes in factors that might affect prices in the relevant market.

I had a brief exchange in the comments to that post with Eric Crampton of the New Zealand Initiative, and I see that Eric has now set out comments along those lines in a post on his own blog.

Eric’s key point is that it is hard to short houses. That is quite true, but not (I reckon) determinative. There is no traded derivatives market (eg a futures contract on the QV index, whether nationally or regionally), and although someone who would naturally own one house can sell that house and rent for a few years, it isn’t easy or cheap to do so (actual transactions costs are non-trivial, it is often hard to get a secure long-term rentals, many people have ties to specific neighbourhoods etc). Of course, many holders in other markets are pretty passive too – you can short US equities (say) but a huge proportion of holders are either in passive index-following funds, or in funds that allow only small deviations from benchmark.

But, to get back to the land (and housing) market in New Zealand. If hardly any suburban owner-occupiers (like Eric or me) are going to sell and rent, even if we believed – as Eric seems to – that substantial reform really is coming, there are plenty of other market participants, and it is the marginal choice that will drive the price. Young people starting out can make a choice to hold off buying for a few more years (they are already renting, so have no new transactions costs). Older people looking at trading down can bring forward that move by a year or two. And probably more importantly still, marginal players often aren’t owner-occupiers (actual or potential at all).

If, as someone owning rental properties, you believe the government is really serious, and change is really coming (in fact, even if you only believe it with a 50 per cent probability), you face a high chance of a large fall in the price of your asset over the next few years. A rational response to that expectation would be to sell now – to get out while the going is still good. If you had a bought a few sections in the outer suburbs thinking you might develop them a few years from now, if you believe the government is serious and change is coming, you would want to offload your land exposure now. And – for the really serious players – if you hold pockets of land, large or small, on the periphery of major cities, and have seen the value of that land sky-rocket as population growth and regulatory scarcity rewarded you, any serious prospect of a change in regime, in which peripheral land might once again go for something like its best alternative (farming) use, would surely see you reassessing now.

None of these effects are as instantaneous as (say) the fx market’s response to a Reserve Bank OCR announcement, or even the stock market’s response to possible corporate tax cuts, but they are real and efficacious mechanisms which we should expect to see already at work if the Minister’s plans are likely to be the real deal. Sure, if his speech to the New Zealand Initiative two weeks ago changed expectations – and it certainly impressed some people, including me – we won’t yet see the results in the data (house price data is at best available monthly, and decent land price data is even harder to come by). But that won’t be a credible story as the months roll by.

Of course, in any such experiments with non-instantaneous effects, it is hard to untangle precisely what part of any price movement is due to the specific factor one is trying to isolate. But if these reforms are really the big event the Minister suggests (recall that the aim was to “flood” the urban land market), the effects should be pretty apparent pretty soon (especially with a slowing economy, easing migration, extended brightline tests, ringfencing, talk of CGTs, tighter credit conditions and so on). I remain pretty sceptical, less (as I noted yesterday) because I doubt Phil Twyford’s intentions, than because I doubt the commitment of the government as a whole (the PM in particular), or its interest in actually seeing land and house prices fall materially.

My second item related to the Reserve Bank.  Yesterday, there were two emails from the Bank.

The first was this press release

pac c banksThis from an organisation that claims it is underfunded.  “Fostering investment in green technology” simply is no part of the Reserve Bank of New Zealand’s mandate.  Nor, to be blunt, does the Reserve Bank have any obvious expertise.

Perhaps I should be encouraged to learn that the Governor is going to focus on lowering the cost of capital in New Zealand (bearing in mind that our real risk-free interest rates have long averaged the highest in the advanced world), but I don’t suppose that is what he meant.

And the second email from the Reserve Bank was this

capital

I guess it is better than not publishing the material at all, but this new 65 page document is finally released more than 3.5 months since the consultation document, setting out the Governor’s plans, was published, and with only a month until submissions close.  I haven’t yet read it, but someone who has tells me that it still doesn’t deliver a proper cost-benefit analysis, and only promises that they will do one one day –  probably after the final decision has been taken, to provide support for whatever the Governor settles on.

This is no way to make policy on serious matters.  Meanwhile the Governor cavorts with his tree gods and dabbles in things –  green technology just the most recent example –  that are no responsibility of his.

Thirdly, and finally, why is the case of Shane Jones (Associate Minister of Transport), the Northland trucking company (owner by a donor and distant relative), the NZTA, and the prosecution, not leading all media outlets?  Why is the Prime Minister not fronting up and facing hard questions about acceptable conduct in her Cabinet?   Appearances of impropriety should not be tolerated, let alone substance.

Matthew Hooton’s tweet seemed apt

Reminding ourselves that Transparency International is itself largely government-funded.