How to exit the housing bubble without a bust

OPINION: It was negative equity, not miners and the poll tax that turned Britain off Margaret Thatcher.

A year ago the deputy governor of the Reserve Bank, Grant Spencer, made a speech entitled “Action needed to reduce housing Imbalances.”

In it he said, “while there are difficult issues and trade-offs to consider in this area, the Reserve Bank would like to see fresh consideration of possible policy measures to address the tax-preferred status of housing especially investor related housing.”

At that point, the median house price was already over eight times median earnings.

The 1989 Reserve Bank Act was drafted recognising that, while the bank would be delegated responsibility for delivering the government’s inflation target and protecting the stability of the financial system, the government was expected to play its part with fiscal and other policies that would not frustrate the bank in its roles.

In his speech, Dr Spencer explained what the Reserve Bank was doing within its own mandate while also pointing out where the government had levers to pull to provide monetary policy with mates.

The government responded by placing a capital gains tax on property investments held for two years or less and also requiring overseas investors to provide more disclosure regarding their ownership of property and their tax status.

This appeared to take some pressure off the Auckland house market for a while as the government sought to increase the availability of new sections in Auckland.

Recent data from the Real Estate Institute suggests the price pause is over and double-digit house price increases look to be returning – and not just to Auckland.

Best available investment
It seems  investor expectations are such that investing in Auckland residential real estate is still seen as one of the best investments for capital appreciation available. With interest rates now going negative in some countries, Auckland will remain one of the destinations of choice for yield-hungry investors around the world.

So what more could the government be doing? As Dr Spencer pointed out last year, investor-owned housing is a particularly tax-favoured investment class.

Contrary to popular opinion, the effective capital gains exemption is not the major tax subsidy for rental property investors. The main tax subsidy derives from the full tax deductibility of nominal interest rates paid on geared up investment properties.

The part of nominal interest that compensates for inflation is simply returning the capital of the lender so only the real part of interest (above inflation) should be allowed as a deduction or counted as income.

Two ways to make a difference
Here, two changes would make a difference in the relative attractiveness and thus demand for investment in rental property and reduce the prices that owner-occupiers need to pay:

  • allow only the real component of interest to be deducted on new rental housing investments and phase out the deduction of nominal interest for existing investors over three years so that only the real part of interest becomes deductible; and

  • deem a rental housing investment for which an interest rate deduction is claimed to be a business for which capital gain will be taxable no matter how long it’s held, as is the case for corporate property investors.

These two concessions in revenue foregone to the government are much more expensive than what it spends on social housing and accommodation benefits combined.

In the meantime, the government could also ease back on immigration levels, so that they are more compatible with increases in the housing stock.

The government will also need to accelerate the access to greenfield and brownfield sections for more houses and apartments to be constructed.

Supply-side measures urged
Germany’s finance minister recently called for a phased exit from the low interest rate monetary policy being pursued by the European Central Bank.

The IMF and OECD are both pressing governments to move from relying on inflation targeting using quantitative easing, which is no longer effective, and start switching to using expansionary fiscal policy and supply side measures to stimulate economic growth.

When New Zealand, in line with other countries, sees a normalisation of inflation and interest rates, this will also increase mortgage interest rates and risks creating negative equity for many households.

If mortgage interest rates move back above 6% with a normalisation monetary policy, many householders will not be able to service their mortgages and house prices will fall as they have to sell up.

This is likely to produce negative equity, where the mortgage is worth more than the house. More action to slowly deflate the housing bubble is necessary to prevent this.

It was negative equity rather than the miners and the poll tax that ended middle England’s love affair with Margaret Thatcher. If National wants a fourth term, it may want to restrain a housing bubble from turning into negative equity when interest rates normalise.

Peter Neilson was a minister of revenue in the fourth Labour government and supervised the development of the Reserve Bank Act 1989, which established the framework for an independent central bank. Until recently he was the chief executive of the Financial Services Council. The views expressed are his own and do not represent the views of either the FSC or its members.

Tune into NBR Radio’s Sunday Business with Andrew Patterson on Sunday morning, for analysis and feature-length interviews.

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