Monday, April 11, 2016

Is Australian housing more than 40% over-valued?

Source: Australian Bureau of Statistics

A recent article in The Economist suggests that “housing appears to be more than 40% overvalued in Australia, Britain and Canada” (“Hot in the city”, April 2, 2016 - possibly gated). This claim is based on the extent that the ratios of prices to disposable incomes and prices to rents are above their long term averages in those countries. By contrast, according to The Economist, housing prices in the United States are currently at “fair value” because those indicators are close to their long run average.

When they talk about “fair value” I guess what the authors of The Economist article have in mind is an equilibrium price that may differ from current market prices.  That raises some thorny conceptual issues, but I am prepared to accept that markets are sometimes affected by the irrational exuberance or pessimism of large numbers of investors.

The Economist has been using the same methodology for quite a few years now to suggest that housing prices are overvalued in countries in which they have risen strongly since the GFC.

When I wrote in 2011 about a previous article in The Economist using this methodology I pointed out that it was unrealistic to expect average rental yields (the inverse of the house price to rent ratio) in Australia to return to its long term average over the period since 1975 because over the first half of that period high nominal interest rates were suppressing demand for housing. As inflation rates and interest rates came down, housing affordability improved markedly during the 1990s, but this led to increased demand for housing, a sharp rise in house prices and a decline in rental yields. What we were seeing was a return to normality rather than the emergence of a house price bubble.

The Economist has published an infographic (ungated) which neatly illustrates how the ratios of prices to disposable incomes and prices to rents are currently above their long term averages in Australia, Britain and Canada. However, their infographic also illustrates the potential for large errors to be made by assuming that long term averages of house price to rent and house price to income ratios represent equilibrium prices. If you look at movements in the ratios of prices to disposable incomes and prices to rents over the whole period 1970 to 2016, you will notice that those ratios for Australia and Canada were well below the corresponding ratios for the US in the 1970s and ‘80’s. The same was true for Britain in the ‘90s. Even if actual price to income and price to rent ratios were currently the same in all four countries, the ratios for Australia, Canada and Britain could still be expected to be above their long run averages.

So, what does a comparison of actual ratios for Australia, Canada, Britain and the United States show? I haven’t attempted a complete assessment, but the latest data from Global Property Guide (GPG) on gross rental yields suggests yields of 4.4% for Australia (Sydney), 4.4% for Canada (Toronto), 3.2% for the UK (London) and 3.9% for the US (New York). The GPG data for the US relates to Manhattan which might be perceived by investors to offer better prospects for capital gains than most other localities in the US. The Economist’s data on price to rent ratio’s for the US implies a much higher gross rental yield for New York (about 7%) and even a somewhat higher yield for San Francisco (about 5%).

Given current and prospective interest rate levels, those comparisons do not seem to provide much evidence of irrationality in housing prices in any of those countries. It seems to me that there is no more reason to think housing investors in Australia, Canada and Britain have been irrationally exuberant in recent years than to think those in the United States have been irrationally pessimistic.  

Thursday, March 10, 2016

What is the objective of superannuation?

This post is prompted by the Australian government’s discussion paper entitled “Objective of Superannuation” released yesterday. The government is raising the matters as part of a consultation process prior to introducing legislation to specify the objective of superannuation in legislation. The discussion paper uses the word “enshrine”, rather than “specify”, but that seems inappropriate.

Unfortunately, the paper fails to point out that in specifying the objective of super the government is (or should be) focused on public policy, rather than the wide range of different objectives of different individuals and firms with an interest in super. Some people use super to build wealth to pass to their children. Some people use it to save for retirement. I expect that many people don’t have a clear objective in mind, but view super as a useful savings mechanism. Employers may view super as a way of attracting staff or ensuring that valued staff are able to live comfortably after retirement. The financial institutions that provide superannuation products have different objectives again.

The question the legislation should be trying to clarify is:  What is the objective of government legislation with respect to superannuation?  If we have an answer to that question we may be in a better position to consider questions such as whether there might be a case for individuals to continue to be encouraged, nudged or even compelled (as at present) to save via superannuation .

The government proposes to legislate the objective recommended by the Financial System Inquiry:
“To provide income in retirement to substitute or supplement the Age Pension”.

In my view that is a sensible public policy objective. The government should be encouraging people to become more self-reliant rather than expecting taxpayers to support them in their old age. This is particularly important given the projected increases in the government spending on pensions in coming decades and the many other burdens being placed on taxpayers.

The subsidiary objectives raised for discussion tend to cloud the issues. For example, “facilitating consumption smoothing over the course of an individual’s life” is presumably also an objective of the age pension, unemployment benefits and other welfare payments. Some other suggested subsidiary objectives relate to prudential regulation and fiscal policy.

A potential problem I see with the proposed clarification of the objective is that pursuit of that objective in isolation could result in a less efficient tax system than we currently have. 

Even though they do not do as much as they should to substitute or supplement the aged pension, the current tax concessions for super do reduce the bias against savings and investment under the income tax system. The concessions reduce the extent that individuals who save, and re-invest income from their savings, pay a higher lifetime tax bill than people with similar earnings who choose to save less. The bias against savings and investment will be exacerbated if super tax concessions are reduced without more fundamental reforms being taken to improve incentives for savings and investment.

I was also concerned about this when writing about the potential for tax reform on this blog in April last year. Whilst suggesting that it made sense to include reductions in super tax concessions as part of a tax reform package, I hoped that the government did not forget to obtain a substantial reduction in tax on capital incomes as a quid pro quo.

It will be interesting to see whether specifying a sensible objective for superannuation policy helps to achieve a better overall tax policy outcome.

Monday, March 7, 2016

Was the great tax debate worth having?

The great tax debate began about a year ago when Joe Hockey, the former Treasurer, released a discussion paper prepared by Treasury. Rather than suggesting a small range of options for consideration, the discussion paper put 66 questions on the table.

The answer that the authors were hoping to be given to some questions was, nevertheless, fairly obvious. For example, when they asked how important is it to reform taxes to boost economic growth, it was fairly obvious that the authors were hoping to told it was important. When they asked how should Australia respond to the global trend toward reduced corporate tax rates, they were probably hoping to be told that Australia should seek to have a tax system that would not deter foreign investment. Information provided in the report implied fairly clearly that there could be economic gains from relying less heavily on company taxes and stamp duties levied by State governments and more heavily on GST and taxes on labour income.

However, the debate had hardly begun before Tony Abbott, the former prime minister, began taking options off the table. He might have had good reasons for that, but he kept them to himself. So, by the time Malcolm Turnbull took over as prime minister, the great tax debate was becoming a fiasco.

Not long after prime minister Turnbull declared that all options were back on the table, the Labor opposition began to claim that the government was intending to raise and/or broaden the GST. The pressure became so intense that the government announced a decision on the matter prior to announcing the tax policy reform proposals it plans to take to the next election. The PM stated:
"After you take into account all of the compensation that you would need to ensure the change was equitable, it simply is not justified in economic terms."

That has elicited a range of responses from economic commentators. The most general response seems to have been that if a GST increase is ruled out, that removes the potential for the government to go to the election with a major tax reform program that would encourage economic growth. Some commentators have suggested that such an outcome was predictable in any case, so there was no point in having the great tax debate.

I don't think either of those responses is appropriate. 

Time will tell whether the government is able to come up with a credible tax reform package that will encourage economic growth. There is potential to do so, but it will require the Commonwealth to transfer back to the States the responsibility for raising more of the revenue required to pay for schools and hospitals. The politics of the federation probably require the Commonwealth to take a leading role in the tax reforms required at state level to enable that to happen. The potential exists for the Commonwealth to play a leading role because the payroll tax was once a Commonwealth tax before being given to the States, in the forlorn hope that they would use it as a growing source of revenue and become less dependent on Commonwealth grants.

Even if the conclusion of the great tax debate is that there are no easy tax switch options to encourage economic growth, that doesn’t mean that the debate was not worth having. If enough people had read and understood the stuff I was writing on this blog (here and here) around this time last year, they might have concluded at that point that there are  no costless taxes and that the focus of the debate should be on how to reduce government spending. Other people were writing similar things - more people probably read and understood some of their contributions - but they still had a negligible impact on understanding of the issues by the general public.

The great tax debate was worth having as a public education exercise. In order for people to persuade themselves to think seriously about ways to reduce government spending they need to bring themselves to understand that there are no costless ways to raise additional government revenue. 

When I wrote this a couple of days ago I had assumed that after the government rejected their proposal to increase GST in order to reduce the company tax rate the Business Council of Australia (BCA) had probably picked up its bat and ball and gone home to sulk for another decade or so . Yesterday, however, they have come back into the game stronger than before. The BCA has now proposed a tax reform agenda that will be difficult for this government to sweep off the table. It is well worth taking a look

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Could Larry Summers be half-right about secular stagnation?

When I read ‘The age of secular stagnation’ by Lawrence H Summers (published in Foreign Affairs (March/April 2016) I was pleasantly surprised to find that I agreed with part of his analysis.

I agree that economic growth has been relatively weak in most developed countries in recent years because levels of investment have been low, despite high levels of saving and low real interest rates. That is not quite how Summers puts it; he talks about “excess savings”. He might have reasons for that, but it makes his argument seem convoluted.

I tend to agree with Summers when he writes:
“Absent many good new investment opportunities, savings have tended to flow into existing assets, causing asset price inflation”.
My agreement is qualified because I think the absence of investment opportunities is more about perception than reality. Why I think that will become clearer later.

The solution Summers offers to the problem of low investment is an expansionary fiscal policy pursued through public investment. Writing about the United States he argues:
“A time of low real interest rates, low materials prices, and high construction unemployment is the ideal moment for a large public investment program. It is tragic … that net government investment is lower than at any time in nearly six decades”.

It is obviously problematic to be proposing an expansion in public investment at a time when rising government debt has been imposing a significant burden on later generations. But there may be ways around such concerns. In its article, ‘Fighting the next recession’ The Economist (Feb. 20) gave some prominence to the New South Wales Government model of privatising assets such as ports to fund public investment. I had not previously thought of the efforts of the NSW government to raise some cash for infrastructure spending as a model that might have wider application.

However, there are limits to the extent that additional public sector investment is likely to stimulate further private investment. Additional public investment in most economic sectors competes with private investment. If governments confine their investments to sectors where public investment might have a comparative advantage, they will, before long, end up investing in projects that have no hope of yielding even a modest return on investment. Such misallocations seem more likely to add to secular stagnation than to help overcome it. Japan’s efforts to stimulate economic growth by building roads to nowhere may be a good example of such counterproductive public investment.

Before proposing solutions to the problem of secular under-investment it would be a good idea to try to understand why it is occurring. In his recent article, ‘U.S. secular stagnation?’ Steve Hanke pointed to Robert Higgs’ concept of “regime uncertainty” as a possible explanation of the long term downward trend in net private domestic business investment as a percentage of GDP since the beginning of the 1970s. An index of economic policy uncertainty developed by Scott Baker, Nicholas Bloom and Steven Davis suggests that economic policy uncertainty is currently very high - at similar levels to the 1930s, and much higher than in the 50s and 60s.

An increase in policy uncertainty is also consistent with the observation by Kevin Lane and Tom Rosewall (RBA Bulletin 2015) that the hurdle rates of return that firms use to evaluate investment projects has not declined along with declines in interest rates that have occurred since the 1980s. This implies that profitable investment opportunities are being foregone because of greater uncertainty about future after-tax returns and costs. OECD researchers suggest that policy uncertainty (concerning regulation, macro policy and taxation policy) is one factor causing the hurdle rate that companies apply to capital spending to be higher than that applied by financial investors (Business and Financial Outlook 2015, p 60).

My conclusion is that Larry Summers might be about half right in his observations about secular stagnation. Investment has been too low, but the long-run solution can't lie in increased public investment. Governments should be thinking about how they can make businesses feel confident that regulatory and tax burdens are not likely to be further increased over the lifetime of new investments.