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.

House prices

House prices keep going up.    In the decade to December 2007 (roughly peak to peak), real house prices in New Zealand rose by about 71 per cent.  In the (just over a) decade since December 2007, they’ve risen by another 34 per cent, bringing the total increase in real house prices in little over two decades to 130 per cent.   Not that it really should be a relevant comparison, but productivity growth (real GDP per hour worked) totalled about 22 per cent over the same period.

In parts of the country, notably Auckland, the housing market has levelled off over the last couple of years.  But on the most recent QV numbers, real house prices across the nation as a whole have risen again in the last year.

There is no good or necessary reason why, on a well-constructed like-for-like index, real house prices should show any particular trend over time.  Of course, as people get wealthier and technology improves people might reasonable demand bigger and/or better-specified houses, and they might be more expensive –  in real terms –  than a typical house from decades earlier.  But what we’ve seen is substantial increases in the real prices of constant-quality houses.   That is mostly down to the active and passive choices of successive people at the top of central and local government.  In a country with abundant land, create artificial scarcity around residential land and (real) prices will rise, a lot (especially if the regulatory scarcity is exacerbated by rapid policy-driven population growth).

In opposition prior to 2008, National sometimes talked a good talk about fixing the situation. In opposition prior to 2017, Labour sometimes talked a good talk about fixing the situation.  A Green Party leader, now long departed, even got herself in trouble by talking about the desirability of big drops in house prices, and the possibility of aligning policy to produce house price to income ratios of perhaps 3 to 4 (in many fast-growing US cities those ratios are under 3.5).   She only said it once.  I’ve been sceptical that her Green colleagues would ever allow the sort of freedom and flexibility that sort of outcome might take,  even if (which seems unclear) they might be sympathetic to the end.

It has been hard to know what to make of the current government as a whole.  Neither Andrew Little nor Jacinda Ardern as Labour leaders has ever openly embraced land use reform.  Instead, we had all sort of policies to distract, or paper over cracks –  foreign buyer bans, ringfencing, bright line tests, KiwiBuild, talk of capital gains taxes etc.    But never getting to the heart of the issue, and never willing to openly embrace a goal of materially lower house prices.

But there was always Phil Twyford.  Sure, he was responsible for KiwiBuild, which was never going to solve any real problem, but he showed signs of understanding the real regulatory issues. In Opposition, and on this specific issue, he’d stood shoulder to shoulder, sharing an op-ed, with the libertarians at the New Zealand Initiative.   And now that he was Minister, he even had access to one or two very good officials.

But the government’s term is now more than half over, and not much action had been seen.  Not even many words really, although there had been this in the Speech from the Throne

This government will remove the Auckland urban growth boundary and free up density controls.

But a couple of weeks ago Twyford was invited to address the New Zealand Initiative members’ retreat, where he gave a meaty speech on fixing the housing market.

The Initiative responded enthusiastically (here is Oliver Hartwich’s brief summary), and I have seen the speech described as “the most coherent and comprehensive political statement on housing we have seen in our lifetimes”.  And, mostly, it does read well –  better than anything we heard from National ministers in government, or from National’s current housing spokesperson.

The bit I liked the most was this

Our aim is to bring down urban land prices by flooding the market with development opportunities.

That doesn’t sound like a minister with a vision of (say) flat nominal house prices, taking 30 or 50 years to get price to income ratios back to where they used to be, and where they should be.  It sounds like someone who is serious.

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.

Of course, this could be one of those issues in which National and Labour got together and pushed through major legislative change.  It could have been so under the previous government, but wasn’t.  Why is a solution like that more likely now?

And sometimes talk of lowering land prices is really just cosmetic.  If you establish a vehicle whereby property owners will have to pay development costs in an annual rate over, say, 30 years, that will –  all else equal –  lower new section prices, but won’t change one iota the cost of housing.  To do that, you have to be committed to removing, or substantially reducing, the artificial scarcity that policymakers themselves created.

And then there is local government, the most immediate source of the problem.  Local governments actually impose the zoning rules.  Local governments set their own (arbitrary) debt ceilings –  and some NZIER work a few years ago highlighted how relatively low those ceilings typically are –  and make their own choices about using (not using, mostly) differential rating schedules, which could help ensure costs of new development are appropriately allocated.  Local governments –  while often talking of ‘debt constraints’ – choose to spend money on vanity projects, or ideological agendas, like (in the Wellington case) cycleways, runway extensions, convention centres, or old Town Halls.   And councils, and councillors, are all too-often champions of the know-it-all shoebox approach (we know what cities should look like, and we want people in high rise apartment blocks on this particular street, and the like).  Also, for all the talk about accommodating growth, actually all any region of New Zealand has managed in recent decades is lots of population growth: large scale new private industries and associated productivity growth (the sort of thing that might really capture the imagination, including of voters) has been scarce to non-existent.

There is quite a bit to like in the speech (as well as some questionable stuff –  including the laughable notion of looking to Australia for a lead on housing, or the wrongheaded notion that somehow too much resource has gone into residential property and not into the “productive economy”).  But for all the fine words, how optimistic should we be?

I’d say not very.  There are those domestic political factors I outlined above; for example, in a multi-party government with little that unites the parties, the only major reforms that get done will be those the Prime Minister fully embraces and champions, and our Prime Minister has shown no sign of embracing this sort of reform (or the implied fall in house prices).

There is the lack of international precedent.  For several years, I’ve been posing the quite genuine question as to whether anyone can point to an example of a country or region that had once messed up its housing and land use law this badly and then fixed the problem at source.  There are places that never got into the mess (including many parts of the US) and Japan is also a tantalising story, but they aren’t answers to my question about fixing a mess once created (and once an increasing share of the population becomes fearful of the personal economic risks of house prices falling –  more and more of them every year).   Perhaps New Zealand really could be first –  single chamber Parliament and all that means far-reaching reform (for good and ill) can be done here.  But aren’t you then back to the point in the previous paragraph: is there really the drive from the top (not just Ardern, but Robertson, Davis, Peters, Shaw) that is going to push through legislation and face down councils (and, in many cases, residents/voters)?

My scepticism doesn’t count for anything much on its own.  But market prices should.  When, for example, there was beginning to be a serious prospect of US company tax cuts a year to two back, you saw the effects straightaway in share prices. That is how markets typically work, looking forward and pricing the prospect (and probability) of change.   The Minister of Housing might be entirely serious, but in this specific sense there is no sign that his words are treated as a credible indication that significant change is actually coming. Were it otherwise, we’d already see urban (and peripheral) land prices falling, a lot.   Sure, some inner-city sites offering better intensification options might hold up, or even rise, in value, but across regions as a whole the thrust of the mooted reform is about markedly easing artificial scarcity.  If it were to happen, as Twyford talks of, median land prices in and around our cities would already be falling quite considerably.    I’m not aware of any such trends (though I’d welcome comments that pointed us in the direction of evidence that it is happening).

Perhaps the market is just wrong and the government will in the end surprise us all.  But there is a certain wisdom of crowds and – even as we might welcome the rhetoric of one minister – it is wise to respect it.  Courageous leaders can up-end conventional wisdom and change reality.  I really hope it happens this time, for the good of the country and (more personally) for the good of my own kids.   But it will take more than a pretty good speech to persuade me it is the most likely outcome.

Spending….just as we have for decades

There was a strange editorial in the Listener this week, lamenting what they see as New Zealanders’ mania for consumption spending.  The editorial starts from the fact that the proportion of New Zealanders reaching age 65 mortgage-free has been in decline, and goes off half-cocked from there.   There is no mention at all, for example, of the other important fact that New Zealand real house prices have risen very sharply and are now, relative to incomes, some of the most expensive in the world.  You would expect that would change the distribution of indebtedness and make it more likely that more old people would still have debt (as well as an artificially more valuable, not very liquid, asset).

But whoever wrote the editorial is convinced that the problem is consumption.

“We’ve felt freer to upgrade the car, have a holiday or renovate using debt rather than savings”

“Loans have seemed so affordable, and consumer goods so increasingly accessible, that the “on-the-house” habit has done further damage to the economy.  It has three highly undesirable featires: low to stalled productivity, very low income growth and consumptive spending bounding ahead.”

“…a more deep-seated problem than our failure to tax capital gains. It’s about how we’re spending –  and perhaps more importanyly, why we’re spending.  The internet has made every product imaginable deliverable to our doors –  amped up by such marketing constructs as Black Friday – and ambient anxiety-fuelling over “not missing out” at Easter, Christmas, Halloween and the like have stoked our spending to ever higher records.”

and so on.

But it is, pretty much, a fact-free zone.

It shouldn’t be surprising that (real) spending is higher than it used to be and that people are buying more stuff.   We have higher incomes than we used to have.  Yes, I bang on more than most about the failure of policy here and weak productivity growth, but real per capita GDP is now about 90 per cent higher than it was in 1970.   All else equal, one might expect the typical New Zealander to be consuming a lot more stuff (goods and services) –  they can afford to.

And how has consumption spending tracked relative to income?   This chart shows all consumption (public and private) as a share of net national income.  Net national income is the measure of how much income residents of New Zealand have available to spend: relative to GDP, it subtracts the bit of New Zealand production that actually accrues to foreigners (well, non-residents), and also subtracts an allowance for depreciation (some of gross earnings needs to be spent on just maintaining/replacing the capital stock that helps generate the income).  To believe the Listener story, the line should be trending upwards, perhaps especially since the financial system was liberalised in the mid 1980s.

consumption to NNI.png

It doesn’t of course.   The trend has been dead-flat for decades now.  There is some cyclical variability –  those last two peaks were the years of serious recessions (March years 1992 and 2009) – since consumption spending tends to be more stable than national income.      Fiscal policy makes a difference too: when governments are running big surpluses (as in the early 00s) the consumption share of income tends to be temporarily subdued.   On the other hand, there is no sign that, in aggregate, financial liberalisation made any material difference.  Markedly higher house prices haven’t either –  which shouldn’t really be surprising, as for every person who feels a bit wealthier, there is another for whom home purchase is that much further off.

And there just is no story, able to be defended from the data, about New Zealanders in aggregate on a consumption splurge.   Sure our savings rates are modest by international standards, but they’ve been so for a long long time.  And, to repeat, consumption is consistently less than income (see chart).  Mr Micawber would approve

“Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen [pounds] nineteen [shillings] and six [pence], result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery.”

That long-term chart used total consumption (public and private).  For many purposes that is the right metric to use: there is a considerable degree of substitutability between government consumption and private consumption. (And if, for example, the government gave you a voucher to pay for your kids’ schooling redeemable only at the local state school, the resulting education services would probably be measured as private consumption rather than –  as at present –  government consumption.  Nothing of substance would have changed, just the labelling).

But there is a breakdown between public and private consumption going back as far as 1987.  Here is that chart, with the components again shown as shares of net national income (March year annual data).

consumption 2

No trend (beyond “almost dead flat”).  For what little it is worth, in the most recent year both public and private consumption spending were a touch below the respective 30 year averages.

The sad truth is that actual consumption in New Zealand is probably quite a bit lower than it should be.     Back in 1970, real GDP per capita in New Zealand was about the same as that in Germany.   These days, average GDP per capita in Germany is about 30 per cent higher than that in New Zealand (and hourly productivity is about 60 per cent higher).  The Germans not only get to consume more stuff but (in economist-speak) to consume more leisure (hours worked per capita are much higher in New Zealand than in Germany).    If we’d managed to match German economic performance, almost certainly the typical New Zealand household would be consuming more, not less.  Quite possibly our average savings rate might be a bit higher too.

I’m a Puritan by upbringing and inclination and so when I read lines like this from the Listener editorial

“Popular TV home-renovation contests and “property porn” create a chronic sense of FOMO, with faddy edicts: one must refit one’s kitchen and bathroom every five years; last year’s wallpaper is now dated.”

I can nod along (even while wondering just how many people actually behave that way).  Being Puritan by background, middle-aged, and male, the idea of “fast fashion” just seems weird. “Black Friday” is an alien import, and I buy books from (among other places) charity shops (rather than providing them –  as the editorial puts it  –  with “unsaleable dumpings from nouveau declutterers”).    But odd as some of these phenomena might be, they really don’t seem to add up to much in the aggregate consumption data.

There are big problems around the housing market, almost entirely the result of central and local government choices.   We should worry –  as the Listener does – about the growing share of people carrying debt into old-age, or never having been able to buy a house in the first place.  But the issues have very little to do with some wholly-mythical national consumption splurge.   And responsibility needs to be sheeted home to central and local governments, not to consumers trying to make the best of their, increasingly constrained, options.