Quote of the day

October 1, 2015

. . . A strong focus of our policy is to make sure our markets work.

And over the last 30 years New Zealand has done a reasonable job of this.

Over the last seven years our labour market has been tested.

It has accommodated a significant recession in 2008, and a pickup in demand particularly in Christchurch following the earthquakes.

The labour market was able to respond quickly to those shifts in supply and demand conditions.

Today New Zealand’s proportion of the working-age population in employment is among the highest in the OECD.

Another area that is now working well is the energy market.

For a long time, New Zealand energy markets were over-regulated and poorly-regulated.

Extensive government ownership further stunted price signals.

For instance, water management in the hydro-electricity system was, compared to today, very poor.

And advertising campaigns to urge the public to restrict their energy use were more frequent.

In the last few months there have been a number of decisions in the energy industry which indicate a working market.

We’re shutting down excess capacity, and excess capital is being withdrawn and returned to the owners of that capital.

After years of litigation and legal contest over the rules, the energy market is now starting to work.

Which brings me to the housing market.

This is probably the largest market in New Zealand where the rules need to be reshaped.

The most evident indication of a problem is Auckland house prices.

I’m yet to find a housing market anywhere in the world where prices go up at over 20 per cent a year without stopping and then starting to come down again.

It may be that we are unique – but that seems unlikely.

So we’re concerned about the housing market.

Because it’s a large asset on the New Zealand balance sheet, worth around $600 billion.

And because what happens in our housing markets has a profound effect on every household.

I want to go through a number of the reasons why the Government worries about housing, why it matters to the economy, and some of the key issues around the way that market is regulated.

We have a better understanding of the significance of the planning process than we did in the past.

The process probably looks unexciting to most people – something busy-bodies and councils do.

But actually it’s the process by which one of our largest and most significant markets is regulated. And therefore we need to understand it.

As a group of young people, it is critical for you as potential future home buyers that we get this right.

There are three reasons why the Government is focused on planning – and each of these matter for you.

The first is that a housing market that is not properly functioning can have a significant effect on the macro-economy.

Over the last five years, the Auckland housing market has been the single biggest imbalance in our macro-economic system.

It takes around eight years for the housing market to respond to a shock to demand.

In part that is because changes to council plans can take years, in some cases over a decade.

Resource consents on a housing development regularly take 18 months, including pre-application times excluded from the official statistics.

When combined, those very real delays can exceed the length of the house price cycle.

The point is that when the supply of housing is relatively fixed, shocks to demand – like migration flows increasing sharply as they have recently – are absorbed through higher prices rather than the supply of more houses.

Long lead times in the planning process tend to drive prices higher in the upswing of the housing cycle.

And those lead times increase the risk that eight years later, when additional supply arrives, the demand shock that spurred the additional supply has reversed.

The resulting excess supply could produce a price crash.

This has been borne out by extensive studies in the United States following the Global Financial Crisis.

What they’ve found is that, across different markets subject to rules which vary by state, more-intense regulation of urban development is associated with higher house price volatility.

That is, the steepest price increases and the sharpest falls are in areas where regulation is strongest. 

The effects of planning rules can extend to the macro-economy.

Cities are one of the extraordinary inventions of the human race.

Studies have shown that cities are an engine room of growth. Incomes in cities are higher than elsewhere. That is one explanation for high rates of urbanisation.

Research indicates that when planning rules prevent workers shifting to higher-productivity locations, then there is a cost in terms of foregone GDP.

It’s only relatively recently that economists and politicians have understood the scale of those effects.

So when we’re talking about something as apparently dry as the Auckland Unitary Plan, we’re talking about a set of rules that will have a major impact on the city, on current and future residents – but also on the wider economy.

The second reason we focus on planning and its consequences is that poor planning drives inequality.

In my view, poor urban planning is one of the significant drivers of inequality.

Poor regulation of housing has the largest proportionate effect on the lowest quartile of housing costs and rents.

So when we’re having the debate about whether there is sufficient land available, we have to recognise that the people who lose the most from getting that decision wrong – and who stand the most to gain from fixing those decisions – are those on the lowest incomes.

Income inequality in New Zealand has been flat for 20 years, but the gap between incomes measured before housing costs and after housing costs is growing.

Housing costs are becoming a larger proportion of incomes – and that matters the most at the bottom end of incomes among people who have few choices.

And there are other measures of the effects on low-income households.

Twenty-five years ago, around 30 per cent of new homes coming into the market were priced in the lowest quartile. Another 30 per cent of new homes were priced in the upper quartile.

Today, only 5 per cent of new homes are priced in the lowest quartile. Nearly 60 per cent of new homes are priced in the upper quartile.

The new supply of lower-priced, affordable housing has dried up.

There are parts of Auckland where no new houses are entering the market priced at the affordable end of the market.

It is not surprising to see prices and rents rising disproportionately at the bottom end given this lack of supply.

Planning is often seen a public good activity that must address the needs of those who are most-vulnerable and have the lowest income.

In fact there is a strong argument to say it does exactly the opposite.

Poor planning favours “insiders” – homeowners – on high incomes and who have relatively high wealth.

Developers have told me that in Auckland they need to build a house worth $600,000 to make a development commercially viable.

That’s because it is difficult to build cheap housing on expensive land – particularly in view of the planning rules.

Those rules include urban limits, minimum lot sizes which prevent subdivision below a certain size, and maximum site coverage rules which prevent a house covering more than a certain proportion of the lot.

Working in combination, these rules reduce opportunities to develop affordable homes.

Now that planners are recognising these consequences, they are now creating even more rules to offset these effects; for example by requiring some developments to include up to 20 per cent affordable housing.

That is implicit recognition that planning rules have driven the costs up so much that another rule is required to offset it.

The impact of these rules on inequality, and on household incomes, leads to a third reason for why the Government is focused on the housing market.

That is the fiscal cost to Government.

As households have the proportion of their income spent on housing grow, the political pressure goes on governments to fill the gaps.

Today we spend $2 billion each year on accommodation subsidies. 60 per cent of all rentals in New Zealand are subsidised by the Government.

The state owns around $21 billion worth of houses.

One house in every 16 in Auckland is a Housing New Zealand property.

Many of these are three bedroom houses on quarter-acre sections only a few kilometres from the CBD – a massive misuse of scarce land. And all at the taxpayer’s expense.

So these are the reasons why the Government pays attention to the housing market and issues stemming from poor planning. . . 

As we get more information about what actually happens, often we find planning doesn’t achieve what people think it is achieving.

Planners and councils have a very difficult job in planning our urban areas.

Cities are incredibly complex systems. They are the product of millions of individual choices.

The idea that a small group of people could understand what choices we’re making is asking too much of them.

Not because they are in any way incapable. But because the task is overwhelming.

The Auckland Unitary Plan is 3,000 pages long.

It’s trying to regulate everything from the size of bedrooms to biodiversity in the Waitakere Ranges. No one person could possibly understand all the trade-offs in that plan.

Which means many of its effects will be certainly be unintended.

Planners can’t know everything – so of course they can’t be perfect in making trade-offs on our behalf.

Successful planning requires an understanding of its own limitations.

One of the things that needs to change is extra accountability and transparency.

Your prospects of being able to buy a house are directly related to the decisions made by planning officials about the availability of land, the environmental standards they apply to building, and the way infrastructure is allocated.

It’s very difficult to understand how planners do that, even though the consequences for the community and the economy are significant.

Central government has had the opportunity to sit alongside councils to understand how they make their decisions.

Some of those decisions appear quite arbitrary.

They can be driven by the tastes of individuals who have the power to make decisions.

Some decisions are contradictory within one planning system. Decisions might not fit together. Urban designers, for example, don’t always see things the same way as a council’s engineers.

First home buyers will be subject to rules which are not transparent and cannot be known in advance.

One of the areas this is most apparent is infrastructure.

Like central government, councils have historically made decisions on substantial long-term infrastructure projects with a minimal understanding of costs and benefits, and how the infrastructure will be supported over time.

Like central government, councils do not always know a lot about their infrastructure. And therefore they don’t know how to price it.

Pricing infrastructure is difficult. The nature of the asset makes it difficult to price. How do you price a stormwater system?

But that pricing matters. One of the big issues for getting a more-flexible supply of land is connecting the financing of the next piece of infrastructure with the value of the land it services.

Land is made more valuable when it is serviced by infrastructure. Infrastructure financing may sound a rather dry topic – but it is fundamental to allowing a city to grow.

Because if planners believe infrastructure supporting growth is too expensive, they’ll be too reluctant to release land for development – up or out.

That’s not a criticism – it’s an observation.

The funding base for councils is increasingly people on low fixed incomes. That is a product of an ageing population.

So you can understand why councils are under pressure not to expand if they think an expanding city is going to push up rates for existing ratepayers.

Councils need clear funding models so that development worth having can occur and future homeowners and current renters who might want to buy are taken into account.

So that’s a brief overview of how important it is that housing is regulated in a way that enables flexible supply, and I hope some indication of the progress we’re making.

That progress is necessarily slow, because these issues are complex.

If we better understand the economics of what is happening we can make better choices about housing regulation.

And that depends on one of the most important parts of public policy, which is the institutional arrangements by which those decisions are made.

That means looking at the incentives confronting an individual sitting in a council when making a decision about whether to allow a new subdivision.

We need to understand the incentives councils are reacting to. 

Next month the Productivity Commission will produce a further report on the regulation of land supply. It will be another input into further, ongoing improvements in this area.

And we are seeing new thinking on a range of issues affecting housing, including from councils.

Often politicians are accused of being focused on the short term. That’s one of the reasons this issue has never been dealt with properly in the past.

The Government is taking a long term view.

All of the things I’ve talked about today will take 10 to 15 years to sort out.

So it’s important that a broad group of people understand our single-biggest asset class – the most-important asset most of us will own – how is valued, how it is regulated, and how it can contribute to our general welfare.Bill English

Quote of the day

August 5, 2015

New Zealand National Party's photo.

We have always been more ambitious for our youth. Ensuring they have a roof over their heads means we can more effectively dig in and ensure they’re getting access to education, employment and wer are supporting them back to independence. – Paula Bennett

She was announcing more housing support for vulnerable young people.

Quote of the day

July 22, 2015

. . . One of the reasons why you probably haven’t had a significant correction is because over the last 45 years there’s probably been a general view that houses are not overvalued relative to a whole lot of different factors. My point is that the market, in the end, assesses when housing is massively overvalued compared to fundamentals, not politicians.John Key

Racism risks trade backlash

July 16, 2015

BNZ economist Tony Alexander joins the discussion on Auckland housing and the part played by foreign buyers:

. . . So we remain in the dark about the extent to which Auckland’s housing market is truly being driven by offshore buying. But as emphasised previously, there are three key points which I shall keep repeating regarding Auckland housing and house price pressures.

1. The fundamental cause of rising prices in Auckland is a shortage of supply and until that gets addressed prices will stay highly elevated and perhaps keep rising out to late-2017 this cycle.

No matter what tinkering is done to reduce demand by restricting foreign buyers won’t change the fact that there is a shortage of supply.

2. Whatever the true magnitude of Chinese buying has been these past few years it will get much greater. Chinese families are growing wealthier, so naturally they will seek offshore assets. Chinese people wish to get assets off the mainland and this week’s massive intervention in sharemarkets by the Beijing authorities illustrates why people have high distrust of the environment on the mainland in which they would hold assets. And Chinese authorities have yet to relax hefty restrictions on people getting their funds offshore. When they do, well then you will see something entirely new hit the world’s residential property markets.

3. We should as soon as possible adopt Australia’s rules restricting foreign buying of anything other than new housing unless resident for 12 months.

But here is the fourth point which to date I have not emphasised but now will do. Adopting Australia’s rules as they stand won’t be the panacea many are hoping for. In Australia’s case people have been able to get around the restrictions quite easily. The regime is now being enforced more rigorously, but that does not necessarily alter what is being seen as a huge problem – something which people in Hong Kong have been seeing more and more of in recent years.

Many Chinese who buy properties never, or rarely, occupy them. They sit empty. This applies even to newly built apartments sold to Chinese buyers. Chinese simply want an asset away from any control by the CCP. There was an article on this in The Australian newspaper this weekend, page 6.

What this means is the following. As Auckland very slowly goes vertical in areas like New Lynn, developers will find they can very easily get offshore financing for their projects and hefty sales off the plan to Chinese investors (we Kiwis prefer to touch and feel before buying). These investors may never occupy or even rent out their investment. Thus while on the face of it the Aussie rule that a foreigner may only buy a newly built house or apartment sounds like a grand idea, it could leave the housing supply situation unchanged from a no-rule regime.

Thus, were we to adopt the Aussie regime we would need to add in an extra clause along the lines of apartments having to be made available for rent, actually rented, or something like that.

When might we see the adoption of some form of restriction on foreign home buying in New Zealand? Maybe within two or three years. About three years ago I recommended that we adopt the Australian regime. That was/is not because I feel Chinese buying is currently the big buying force people believe it is, but because the buying will grow and the eventual popular backlash against such buying and introduction of legislation in that heated environment would risk a backlash. The Chinese leadership may feel we were targeting them and getting above our station. Trade retaliation would be likely.

That is still the position I hold and the earlier we adopt Australia’s rules with the extra twist noted above, the better for everyone, including exporters to China wanting good access for many years who may feel nothing needs to be done on foreign home buying. You are the ones most at risk should this situation turn bad in 5, 10, 15, or 20 years time.

If there needs to be restrictions on foreign non-resident buyers they must apply to all foreign non-resident buyers.

Over at Kiwiblog, David Farrar points out that Labour’s policy of treating Australians more favourably than Chinese would contravene the free trade deal which that party signed when it was last in government.

Even if it didn’t, putting higher hurdles in the way of those from one or more countries while applying less restrictive rules to others is discriminatory and could lead to tit for tat repercussions which would endanger trade.

That would impact on the whole country when the housing problem is essentially Auckland’s and the solution to it lies not in restricting demand but increasing the supply.



Wasted opportunity

July 15, 2015

In the debate on Labour’s dodgy numbers on the impact of Chinese purchasers on Auckland’s housing market the root cause of the problem has not got the attention it should.

Eric Crampton focuses on that and points out the wasted opportunity:

. . . If Auckland zoning were sane, all of that capital could be helping to build new subdivisions, new apartment buildings, new townhouses, new mid-rises – new housing. There would likely be less of that capital, as expected price increases would be lower, but the capital would be giving us new housing.

Instead, it’s bidding up house prices. That’s not a particular problem, but big price fluctuations that could come from it are a bigger problem than having too much housing built. In the worst case, if the capital were directed to new building and then the flood dried up, the cost of housing would fall – there would be more housing available at lower cost. Just imagine: Auckland would have low rents and a low cost of living with plentiful housing. If “oh nos! They built too much housing with their own money and they lost a pile of their money and now we get to live cheaply!” is somehow a worst case.

What would it take to fix it? Open up zoning to allow new building under very rapid consenting – again, both up and out. To get substantial new greenfield development in the suburbs, you’ll have to ease up on the Overseas Investment Act at the same time so foreign investors can buy tracts of land to put up housing.

Bit depressing that the knee-jerk reaction is to put controls on foreign investment here rather than to fix the darned rules that prevent its being used more productively.

The problem isn’t who is buying houses nor where they come from.

It’s that the demand for Auckland property is greater than the supply.

Restrictions on development are the main cause of that and more overseas investment rather than adding to the shortage could, if allowed, help improve the supply.

Naming, blaming shaming

July 13, 2015

Labour’s housing spokesman Phil Twyford did some numbers on names and leapt to the conclusion that Auckland’s housing woes are caused by Chinese buyers.

(The transcript is here).

Thomas Lumley, Professor of Biostatistics counters his assertion in a post headlined what’s in a name?

. . . So, there is fairly good evidence that people of Chinese ethnicity are buying houses in Auckland at a higher rate than their proportion of the population.

The Labour claim extends this by saying that many of the buyers must be foreign. The data say nothing one way or the other about this, and it’s not obvious that it’s true. More precisely, since the existence of foreign investors is not really in doubt, it’s not obvious how far it’s true. The simple numbers don’t imply much, because relatively few people are housing buyers: for example, house buyers named “Wang” in the data set are less than 4% of Auckland residents named “Wang.” There are at least three other competing explanations, and probably more.

First, recent migrants are more likely to buy houses. I bought a house three years ago. I hadn’t previously bought one in Auckland. I bought it because I had moved to Auckland and I wanted somewhere to live. Consistent with this explanation, people with Korean and Indian names, while not over-represented to the same extent are also more likely to be buying than selling houses, by about the same ratio as Chinese.

Second, it could be that (some subset of) Chinese New Zealanders prefer real estate as an investment to, say, stocks (to an even greater extent than Aucklanders in general).  Third, it could easily be that (some subset of) Chinese New Zealanders have a higher savings rate than other New Zealanders, and so have more money to invest in houses.

Personally, I’d guess that all these explanations are true: that Chinese New Zealanders (on average) buy both homes and investment properties more than other New Zealanders, and that there are foreign property investors of Chinese ethnicity. But that’s a guess: these data don’t tell us — as the Herald explicitly points out.

One of the repeated points I  make on StatsChat is that you need to distinguish between what you measured and what you wanted to measure.  Using ‘Chinese’ as a surrogate for ‘foreign’ will capture many New Zealanders and miss out on many foreigners.

The misclassifications aren’t just unavoidable bad luck, either. If you have a measure of ‘foreign real estate ownership’ that includes my next-door neighbours and excludes James Cameron, you’re doing it wrong, and in a way that has a long and reprehensible political history.

Property Institute of New Zealand Chief Executive, Ashley Church also uses the term  ‘reprehensible’ and calls the claims ‘an exercise in unveiled racism’.

Mr Church describes the data used by Mr Twyford as ‘shonky’ and says ‘it has so many holes in it that it would be marked with an ‘f’ if it was submitted as a High School Economics project’.

“Mr Twyford uses ‘Asian sounding’ surnames as his means to identify which buyers are ‘Asian Investors’ – without any way of knowing whether the buyer is a New Zealand immigrant who lives here, or an investor based in China”.

“On that basis Mr Twyford should be blowing the whistle on Scottish foreign investment in this country – because a large number of kiwi homes are owned by people who have names starting with ‘Mc’ or ‘Mac’”.

“This is the sort of racist sideshow we’d expect from NZ First – not a serious political party with pretensions to hold the reins of power”.

Mr Church says that Mr Twyfords claims that the Auckland property market is being skewed by non-resident investors may prove to be correct – but he says that any action taken should be based on hard data and facts – and that the race of the buyer shouldn’t be a factor.

“We might be surprised to learn who the major investors really are. Work done by the Overseas Investment Office, in 2012, suggested that the biggest buyers were Americans, Brits, Canadians and Aussies – with the Chinese a long way behind”.

Mr Church says the Property Institute supports the recent move, by the Government, to create a foreign buyer register by requiring investors to have a New Zealand tax number.

“This will provide good, accurate, information and it will help us to determine whether we need to be taking steps to ban foreign investment in kiwi homes – or direct it into the construction of new houses, as is the case in Australia”.

If there is an issue with non-resident foreigners buying houses it’s not one of people from any particular country.

But in light of Twyford’s comments, who could blame anyone with a foreign-sounding name if, as Gravedodger suggests, they start buying property under some variation of The Smith Family Trust numbered whatever.

However, let’s not forget the real problem is not who’s buying houses but that there’s not enough of them in some areas nor who’s responsible for the imbalance between supply and demand:

Hugh Pavletich co-author of the Demographia International Housing Affordability Survey says blame the incompetent council:

If Auckland was a normal housing market, like most in North America, house prices would be at or below $300,000 for those on $100,000-a-year household incomes.

Thanks to the incompetent Auckland Council, an Auckland family with a household income of $100,000 is forced to pay $820,000 for a house.

The council is forcing them to pay an extra $520,000 for the house and this new study calling for more apartments in the suburbs is no solution to the crisis.

That money for an Auckland house must come from a grossly excessive mortgage, crippling the city’s residents for the remainder of their working life.

Add the interest over the life of this inflated mortgage and this $100,000-a-year household is forced to pay over $1 million in excessive mortgage costs, and all because the Auckland Council is incompetent.

The council is being deliberately misleading because it has lost control of its costs and has lost the capacity to meet its infrastructure responsibilities to its community

Land supply, infrastructure financing and processing for new housing are issues councils must tackle – and no council more than Auckland needs to deal with this.

Back to Professor Lumley:

But on top of that, if there is substantial foreign investment and if it is driving up prices, that’s only because of the artificial restrictions on the supply of Auckland houses. If Auckland could get its consent and zoning right, so that more money meant more homes, foreign investment wouldn’t be a problem for people trying to find somewhere to live. That’s a real problem, and it’s one that lies within the power of governments to solve.

It’s not difficult for people with a better grasp of statistics and without the political desperation that’s driving  Labour down this divisive path to counter the claims.

But let’s not forget that the naming, blaming and shaming by numbers can hurt people.

I received an email from a Young Nat, Melissa Hu, who wrote:

. . . I was born here, I study here, I work here and I’m a New Zealand citizen but because my last name sounds Chinese I’m apparently a big part of the housing affordability problem – (I’m actually of Mongolian descent but would Labour care about that?

Labour chose to make racially inflammatory comments based on half-baked data from an anonymous real estate agent in Auckland. They chose to say that there are too many Chinese buyers in the Auckland housing market based on whether your last name was Wang, Lee – or even like mine.

 The problem is, this data doesn’t actually prove whether the buyers are foreigners or not. Even NZIER’s Principal Economist said Labour’s comments were “very damaging for a multi-cultural, welcoming place like New Zealand”.

 I’ve lived here all my life, and I’m proud to call myself Kiwi. Young New Zealanders like me are ambitious, excited and open about New Zealand’s future. I don’t think my last name, or yours, has anything to do with trying to buy a house. 

 We need to be encouraging all Kiwis – young, old, European, Maori, Chinese, whatever – to aim high, work hard, create wealth and continue to raise our living standards. We also need the Government to keep taking common sense steps with councils to make more land available for housing. That’s why I support National they know there’s a problem and they have a real plan to fix it.

 We don’t need to start a “pick on the Chinese” attitude which could create more problems than it solves. Auckland’s housing problem is a supply issue – not a Chinese issue. We’re a multicultural, ambitious and prosperous country – I hope we stay that way.

There’s nothing new about this naming, blaming and shaming.

My father-in-law was the butt of some because his name was German, even though he’d though he’d not long returned from serving overseas with the New Zealand army.

How sad that nearly  70 years later it’s still a political tactic.


Quote of the day

June 17, 2015

I would unreservedly support a law change mandating stringent performance standards for rented properties provided that the following section is included in the legislation:

“Nothing in the Law of Supply and Demand nor the Law of Unintended Consequences shall apply to the provisions of this Act.”

This is really important because, unless Parliament can somehow prohibit those other laws from having an effect, extensive housing reform has the potential to make life much harder for many renters. . .

there can be no doubt that the impetus for reform comes from a place of good intentions. By any historical measure, New Zealand is a prosperous country. We should aspire to be a society in which the basic comforts of human existence are universally available – particularly to children, who bear no responsibility for the circumstances in which they are raised.

Nevertheless, it does not follow that we should disregard the known risks of forceful government intervention. At some point, the imposition of requirements on landlords will result in rents being driven up. That could make it difficult for poor families to find any accommodation at all.  – Liam Hehir


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