Host Gene Tunny and Simon Cowan from the Centre for Independent Studies discuss housing affordability and greedflation in the CIS’s Sydney HQ. They delve into recent articles written by Simon on these topics and explore the factors contributing to unaffordable housing (e.g. zoning and other supply restrictions) and why the greedflation thesis is wrong.
About this episode’s guest: Simon Cowan
Simon Cowan is Research Director at the CIS. He is a leading commentator on policy and politics, with a regular column in the Canberra Times newspaper, frequent interviews on Sky and the ABC, and multiple appearances before parliamentary committees discussing the budget, citizenship, taxation and health policy. He has written extensively on government spending and fiscal policy, with a specific focus on welfare and superannuation policy. He earlier work focused on government industry policy, defence and regulation.
His latest work includes Attitudes to a post-Covid Australia and Millennials and Super: the case for voluntary superannuation. Some of his other works include a co-authored report on pensions, a deep dive into the Universal Basic Income, and a 2012 piece arguing that Australia should acquire nuclear submarines from the Americans.
What’s covered in EP203
- The problem with housing affordability. (4:56)
- High property prices and housing affordability. (10:02)
- Should we cap migration to improve housing affordability? (14:24)
- The role of public/social housing. (19:12)
- Shared equity schemes. (24:15)
- Home ownership as a key milestone on the way to retirement. (29:09)
- Local government regulations and housing affordability. (35:06)
- The Greedflation hypothesis and why it’s wrong. (39:04)
Links relevant to the conversation
Simon’s Canberra Times articles on housing affordability and greedflation:
Images from the Bill Leak room including a poem from Sir Les Patterson (i.e. Barry Humphries):
Past Economics Explored episode discussing wage-price spiral mentioned by Gene:
Transcript of Q&A session following Phil Lowe’s speech in Brisbane in July 2023 during which Gene asked the RBA Governor about Greedflation:
Transcript: How to improve housing affordability and why the Greedflation thesis is wrong w/ Simon Cowan, CIS – EP203
N.B. This is a lightly edited version of a transcript originally created using the AI application otter.ai. This was then looked at by a human, Tim Hughes from Adept Economics, to pick up the bits otters might have misheard. It may not be 100 percent accurate, but should be pretty close. If you’d like to quote from it, please check the quoted segment in the recording.
Gene Tunny 00:06
Welcome to the Economics Explored podcast, a frank and fearless exploration of important economic issues. I’m your host Gene Tunny. I’m a professional economist and former Australian Treasury official. The aim of this show is to help you better understand the big economic issues affecting all our lives. We do this by considering the theory, evidence and by hearing a wide range of views. I’m delighted that you can join me for this episode, please check out the show notes for relevant information. Now on to the show.
Thanks for tuning into the show. Today, I have the pleasure of catching up with my colleague at the Centre for Independent Studies, Simon Cowan. We’re in the CIS offices on Macquarie Street in Sydney. And we’re going to be chatting about some recent work that Simon’s done on housing affordability and greedflation, Simon, so good to catch up with you.
Simon Cowan 01:06
Yeah. Welcome to the Bill Leak Room here at the CIS, our little office here in Macquarie Street. It’s fantastic to have you here in our facilities with our totally real plants and our wall of photos.
Gene Tunny 01:19
Yeah, well, it’s great this room. So Bill Leak was a famous Australian cartoonist, and there’s a there’s actually a poem about Bill Leak from Les Patterson, one of Barry Humphries characters. Yeah, just it’s terrific. So I might put a link in the show notes. I’ll make sure I take a photo of that before I go. But yes, Simon, you’ve written some great pieces recently, they were both published in Canberra Times on housing affordability and greedflation both topical issues and I thought I’d be good if we could chat about those.
Simon Cowan 01:40
Yeah, for sure.
Gene Tunny 01:43
Your piece on housing affordability was in the Canberra Times on third of July 2023. “The Coalition can create generational voting change by tackling housing affordability.” I’d like to start off by asking you about the context of that piece because CIS Centre for Independent Studies, it’s a non-partisan Think Tank. The way it’s pitched, it’s pitched as how the Coalition can create generational voting change. Now I know this is this relates to some recent research. Could you tell us a bit about the context of that piece, please?
Simon Cowan 02:29
Yeah, sure. So one of my other colleagues, a man by the name of Matt Taylor who’s actually working out of our Canberra facilities, we’re stretching our tentacles across the country with Brisbane and Canberra and Sydney. He did some work that looked at the prevalence of centre right voting patterns amongst younger people, in particular, millennials and Gen Z. And right. And now in Australian politics, the Coalition vote is a proxy for for the centre right. And, you know, to the extent that the Coalition embodies what you might describe as classical Liberal values and policies, then they’re, you know a proxy of some sorts for classical Liberal voting patterns amongst younger people. And the concern that we had as an organisation and I think it’s been heightened by Matt’s research, is that it’s not just that we’re seeing, you know, that traditional voting pattern of younger voters voting left and older voters voting, right, but that each generation that comes into the electorate is more likely to vote for left wing parties, so not just Labour, but increasingly, the Greens. And for Gen Z, in particular, what we’re seeing is, they’re actually moving further left, compared to the average voter as they get older, which is an unusual pattern, both in Australia and globally. So millennials are moving to the right, they’re doing so at a much slower rate than previous generations. They’re starting from further left, Gen Z started from way further left than the millennials and are becoming more left wing. So the end result of this is that we’re seeing a roughly 65% of that younger cohort is voting for left wing parties, roughly equally Labour and the Greens and that the centre right is attracting for Gen Z in particular, as little as sort of 10% of the vote. Now, our issue isn’t so much for the Coalition’s political fortunes, I’m sure that that’s a concern for them. But for us, it’s to the extent that the Coalition is more likely to implement classical Liberal reforms than the Labour Party, which I think is a reasonable deduction. To the extent that’s true. The fact that young people have no interest in centre right politics and therefore classical Liberal ideas is a real concern of ours.
Gene Tunny 04:56
Okay. So is part of the reason that Gen Z has these left wing views to the extent they do, is that related in part to this issue of housing affordability, the fact that younger people aren’t able to purchase their own homes, to the same extent that previous generations, particularly baby boomers, and to a lesser extent, Gen. Gen X, were able to, is that part of the story?
Simon Cowan 05:24
I think that’s a very big part of the story and Matt’s now working on some more research that will look into that issue more, more specifically around what the actual triggers of that, that are. But I think there’s definitely a problem with millennials and Gen Z, in particular, around housing affordability. The issue isn’t just, and this is, it’s a very important issue. It’s not just that they can’t afford to buy a home, it’s that the prospects of them ever being able to afford to buy a home, and ever being able to move out of that cycle that that sort of rental cycles seems very remote to them. So, you know, they’re not just moving into the market later than their parents, for example, there’s a real fear amongst Gen Z in particular, that they won’t ever get into that point, that they’ll be basically trapped as renters for the rest of their lives. And a number of people have sort of made this observation in the past. If you’ve got nothing to conserve, there’s no reason to vote conservative.
Gene Tunny 06:19
Yeah. And what do you think of that concern Simon, do you think that’s a legitimate concern on their part?
Simon Cowan 06:23
I think in part, it certainly is. There are some people who will be rentals forever, probably more so than was true in previous generations. I mean, if you look at the sort of Baby Boomer and then the previous generation to them as well, almost 95% of that generation ended up buying home at some point during their their lifecycle, once you get into retirement, you see that almost everyone, there’s sort of a core of 10 to 15% of people who who don’t own a home, in retirement, most of the current cycle of retirees own their home, the vast majority of them own it without a mortgage. So far the trend is increasingly people coming into retirement with mortgages, rather than having paid off that during their working life, I think we’ll also see, though, a generation of people, a larger percentage of them will be renting for far longer. And the issue there is, at least in part around the enormous difficulty of saving enough money to get into that first rung of the housing market. And also, you know, those affordable entry level houses are now, so much further away from the CBD of the city, that if you’re someone who works in, you know, if you’re working in the city, it’s very difficult for you to have a young family and commute from two and a half hours away each day. And that option, like if you’re gonna buy a home, you have to, you know, you’re now looking at that two hour commute each way, that becomes a very difficult prospect for a lot of people.
Gene Tunny 07:53
So you’re talking about in Sydney, there’ll be people who are doing that in Sydney.
Simon Cowan 07:57
Yeah, absolutely, so if you go back a couple generations a long commute was was sort of from what is now the sort of almost not necessarily the inner ring of suburbs, but there was a sort of middle density ring of suburbs around, you know, the Canterburys, the Bankstowns, etc, that were all, you know, still 30 or 40 minutes commute from the city, but the prices in those suburbs are now well beyond the entry level, you’ve got to go another 20 kilometres from the CBD before you start to get to places where people can afford to buy houses in that entry level of, you know, even as far as sort of Blacktown and places like that you’re seeing median house price is well over a million dollars. So that becomes very difficult and you end up with a situation like we’ve seen in London, for example and other places, too, as far as I’m aware, people who do essential jobs that are not particularly well paid, you know, your teachers and your nurses in inner city areas can’t afford to live within commuting distance of the places where they work. And that then becomes a real problem for society. If you can’t get teachers for your school, because they can’t live within two hours of your school, you’ve got no teachers.
Gene Tunny 09:10
Yeah, this is the key worker problem isn’t it that they talk about, you know, the key workers can’t find affordable places to live…
Simon Cowan 09:18
There’s always a slight risk that some of this is overstated, right? It’s not it’s not an absolute catastrophe. But things have changed enough that it’s having a significant impact on voting patterns and that’s probably where we’re at now. If things continue to get worse, if the trends that we’re seeing of you know, systemic underdevelopment, particularly in the parts of Sydney where people want to live. If those trends continue, then things will definitely get far worse. Right now we’ve got a problem, not a catastrophe. But there’s a real problem and it’s not yet clear to me that particularly the centre right, there’s been a sufficient level of engagement with this problem, that they’re willing to look at solutions that might actually work.
Gene Tunny 10:02
Okay, okay. Australia does have high property prices relative to median income, we must be one of the highest in the world are we are, you know, particularly for Sydney and Melbourne that I’ve seen some of those ratios, I might dig them up and put them in the show notes. But yeah…
Simon Cowan 10:19
Yeah we’re top, so regularly, so Sydney, Melbourne in particular have been regularly in the top 10 least affordable cities in the world, at various points other Australian cities have snuck in there. So I think at one point, Perth managed to make its way in at the height of the mining boom that it was, you know, one of the most unaffordable cities, so New Zealand has a similar problem, as well, around that, that issue of affordability comparable to us. And then I mean, you’ve got a lot of American cities, and then your Tokyos and Londons as well.
Gene Tunny 10:49
Yeah. But what’s extraordinary is like, based on what you were just saying then, it’s not just, you know, there are some exclusive suburbs in Sydney here say out at Double Bay or out in the Eastern suburbs, and you’ve got places worth 10s of millions of dollars, but this is, you’re paying a lot of money just for property in, in what was traditionally a working class area. I mean, over a million dollars, whatever your…
Simon Cowan 11:12
Yeah, absolutely and places like you know, the Northern Beaches, suburbs, which are a fair way from Sydney. And, and we’re never I mean, they’re not they weren’t poor areas, by any means, right. But they weren’t, they weren’t the areas that the elite and rich of Sydney lived in. But now, many of the homes in that area are way outside the price range for a young family, particularly if you’re in a situation where one of your partners isn’t able to work full time. Or if someone’s in a job where you know, they’re not in a professional capacity and being paid six figure salary, it’s really hard for them. And the thing that becomes even harder, it’s largely about getting over that that initial hurdle of having to save, you know, you need 20% deposit for a million dollar home, you got to save $200,000 of after tax income. When you know we’ve got cost of living spiralling out of control at the moment, we’ve got, you know, 11% of your income’s being diverted into retirement savings. And you’ve got to somehow find $200,000 plus of post tax income. It’s yeah, I mean, it’s a real challenge.
Gene Tunny 12:13
Yeah, yeah. And what do you think’s caused this housing affordability problem we have in Australia Simon?
Simon Cowan 12:19
So the evidence on this is actually really clear, despite the fact that a lot of people really didn’t want to accept that this was true. It is abundantly clear from the work that my colleague Peter Tulip, and others have done that the issue is overwhelmingly restrictions on supply. So people want to say that it’s about demand, it’s about immigrants, it’s about negative gearing, capital gains, they have very minor impacts on price what’s having by far the biggest impact on price is the restrictions on bringing new properties to market, on redeveloping existing properties, it’s zoning and taxes and government restrictions that are aimed to stop people developing, and in Sydney, in particular, and a number of suburbs around the city. But also on the major arterial train lines, you’ve got councils that are simply refusing to allow development. And my colleague has highlighted some of them have massively undershot housing targets. But we see time and time again, things like heritage restrictions and zoning restrictions. And, and you know, even you can’t build high density housing around train lines. If you can’t build high density train on train lines, where are you going to build it? And the answer is, well, for them, at least build it way out in Western Sydney, don’t put it anywhere near where I live. And that attitude is pervasive in the eastern suburbs, in inner West and where I’m currently based in the North Shore, some of the councils out there are actively and very hostile to development of any kind.
Gene Tunny 13:52
Right. Okay. On immigration, do you think that what doesn’t have a major impact on housing affordability? Because that’s one of the things that people are concerned about, because we’ve had a record level of net overseas migration in Australia of 400,000. And there are concerns that, like, it’s just, we should be slowing that down while we let the housing stock catch up, on infrastructure catch up. Do you have any thoughts on that level of immigration we have at the moment?
Simon Cowan 14:24
Yes so my take on this, and I’ll be the first to admit there is, there are differing views on classical liberal amounts of immigration, but for me, personally, I would have almost uncapped skilled migration, I would be happy to take as many skilled migrants as we can get, because I think the economic benefits of skilled migration outweigh the costs. Now, the flip side of that is that we have to provide sufficient infrastructure and build sufficient houses to have those people, give those people somewhere to live. But I think you go, you’ve got it completely backwards if your approach is we’re going to stop migration because we can’t build fast enough when we could build faster, the roadblock, the handbrake on house prices is coming from that refusal to allow development, trying to take some of the pressure off so that councils don’t have to fix their obvious contribution to this seems like just the wrong way to go about it to me, I’d rather have more great migrants and way more housing, and I think you can do it that way. And the economic benefits of doing that way outweigh the costs of it. One of my other colleagues a few years ago, did some work around the sort of, what are the outcomes for skilled migrants in Australia? On average skilled migrants are they earn a slightly higher income, they pay higher taxes, they’re more likely to own a home, they’re more likely to be married, they’re more likely to have kids than the average person. So there’s a there’s a benefit to society beyond just the economic benefit of having more skilled migrants. There’s an issue around housing supply, I would fix the issue around housing supply rather than trying to create alternatives to remove some of that pressure.
Gene Tunny 16:02
Yeah, gotcha. Okay. In your article in the Canberra Times, you wrote that Labour’s signature housing affordability policies have huge problems. So Labour being the federal Labour government led by Anthony Albanese, the Prime Minister, first locking future generations into renting their homes from union-controlled super funds. What’s going on there, Simon? What’s, how to, how would the labour government’s policies lead to that outcome? And what’s the, what’s your concern there?
Simon Cowan 16:40
Yeah, so for long time, Labour was convinced that the issue was, was greedy landlords and negative gearing and capital gains. And Gene, you did some fantastic work for us on that issue, in fact, I think you did a an analysis, not necessarily for CIS, but previously that looked at the impact that those capital gains and negative gearing policies had on housing affordability and found it was what like 4%, almost nothing. Yeah. So for a long time, Labour believed that that was the issue, and then started to come around to thinking about this as a supply side problem. But the solutions that they have, they have two main supply side initiatives. And there’s been some more movement more recently. So this is at least as positive, but their main initiatives were: one they were going to encourage institutional superannuation investors to build residential properties for rent. So that meant in practice, I think it meant that they would incentivize the large super funds, which are overwhelmingly controlled, they’re overwhelmingly industry super funds, which have a 50% union 50% Business control. But overwhelmingly, those funds would be then encouraged, incentivized, to invest in and build rental properties for lease. And the other policy was around building a whole bunch more public and social housing. So rather than allowing, having, they’ve identified the right market block, but instead of removing that block and allowing the market to function, their solution is how do we use government incentives and government money to build additional supply? It just seems extraordinary to me that you would create a situation where individuals couldn’t use their own superannuation money to build their own home, but their super fund could use their super money to build a home for them to rent. And that just I mean, one of the reasons why this policy, I think, has been dis-emphasised by Labour is that there’s almost no one who actually wants that outcome. Super funds don’t want to do it, because they’re seeing the the noises around rent controls and increasing tenant rights and think this is a bad investment for my Super fund. And people are like, well why would I want to rent from my super fund with my money? Why can’t I just use my money to buy my own home? So I think that that policy has just got so many flaws to it, that even Labour’s now started to sort of move away from that.
Gene Tunny 19:07
Ok so they’ve moved away from that, but they’ve, they’re investing more in social housing and it sounds like well, reading your article, you’ve got concerns about social housing as the solution, would you be able to go into that please?
Simon Cowan 19:21
Yeah, you’re gonna get me started on talking about social housing. So look, there is a role for public and social housing, but it’s not the role that the government keeps pushing for it, right. So social housing is very important for people who are temporarily homeless, particularly people say who are fleeing domestic violence, they need emergency accommodation in the short term, and they don’t necessarily have access to funds that would allow them to rent a property go through, you know, the hoops that you need to go through to get a rental property. So you’ve got, you know, people who are in, fleeing violence you’ve got people say, who have, you know, sort of sickness or mental illness issues that need accommodation, you’ve got disability support accommodation, those, those are completely appropriate uses of social and public housing. Now, the difference between social and public housing, public housing is government funded social housing is funded by not for profits. What the government is talking about, though, is providing long term government funded accommodation to people. Basically, along the sort of a line you’re seeing in Britain, where you have a council house for decades, and that’s your home and you don’t own it, you are given it by the government. The problem with that is that it’s a terribly inefficient way of providing support for people who need rental accommodation and are on low income. So when you compare, providing a government house to providing, say, rent assistance through Social Security, it’s way more efficient to provide social security. And it’s way more equitable. Because what you have with government housing, as we have here, there’s a 10 year waiting list. And often, people don’t move on that waiting list at all. So you have people who get they spend years on a waiting list, waiting for free housing, they’re disincentivized to take actions that would get them off that list, especially if they’ve got to the top because if they go back on the list, they go at the bottom, you have people who are living in these public houses who are disincentivized, from getting out of public housing, because if they again, if they you know, they take a job that makes them eligible for public housing, and they lose that job in six months, they go to the bottom of the 10 year waiting list. So and then you also have the the way that rent is structured in public housing, where it’s a percentage of income rather than a fixed amount. So the more money you earn, it’s an effective marginal tax rate of 25%, you lose 25 cents of each dollar extra dollar you earn to your public house rent, rather than the rent being a certain fixed amount a month.
Gene Tunny 21:59
I did not know that. Is that how they do it in New South Wales?
Simon Cowan 22:02
Yeah, yeah, well look I…
Gene Tunny 22:03
I’ll have to check what they do in Queensland, other states…
Simon Cowan 22:06
Social housing again I mean it’s all different, but one of our recommendations, we looked at this when they were putting up the last sort of big round of public housing. And one of the things is that, and it’s designed to make it more affordable, it’s 20% of whatever 25% of whatever your income is. So if you’re on, you know, if you’re on Newstart, then 25% of that’s very low. But the problem is when you then start working and earning money, you’ve got an another marginal tax rate from your accommodation.
Gene Tunny 22:32
Yeah. And without, I don’t want to stig, stigmatise or be critical of anyone who’s who’s living in social housing, but because, you know, obviously, there are people are doing it tough and they’re trying to do the best they can. There are a lot of social problems with social housing is that right?
Simon Cowan 22:49
Yeah especially in the, and again, this has experienced the United Kingdom in particular, that social housing estates, particularly where a lot of public housing is clustered together, you tend to find a lot of antisocial behaviour, you find a lot of other problems, there’s a higher rate of crime. And so what you have is a situation where it’s not particularly pleasant for, for people living in social housing but it’s also, you know, a big disincentive for people to live near social housing. And then you have the effect where if there is a cluster of public housing in a particular place that affects property values that people who live around that by so no one wants, public housing, especially not clusters of public housing, anywhere in their suburb. Yet again, you know, we have this disincentive for development, people want the public housing somewhere else. And then in Sydney, we had a particular issue where, and this is largely a legacy issue, we had public housing that was worth just an extraordinary amount of money by virtue of where it was, you know, in The Rocks, which it’s in the, right in the centre of Sydney with views of the harbour. There’s public housing that had been there for 100 and something years, and each of those houses was worth millions of dollars. So you know, you had this this issue of well, do we, we’re giving away this public housing to someone for basically no money, why don’t we sell their public housing and build, you know, a lot more with with the money that it came from? So you’ve got a whole bunch of problems. I mean, fundamentally, I think the issue with this is if, if the issue that you’re looking at is housing affordability, rather than the need for temporary accommodation or something else, if the issue is housing affordability, you’re always going to be better off allowing the market to develop property than trying to do it by government. And there’s, and there’s a filtering effect of adding supply at any point in the market reduces prices of at every point in the market. Because if you think about this logically, even if you put the supply right at the very top end, the people who are buying those $10 million apartments are selling their $8 million apartments and the the effect of that sort of filters down all the way through the market, so adding supply anywhere, increases supply everywhere.
Gene Tunny 25:06
Okay, we’ll take a short break here for a word from our sponsor.
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Gene Tunny 25:41
Now back to the show.
And what about this this idea of Shared Equity? Labour or the government has a scheme a Shared Equity scheme, there’s concerns about how wide a coverage it is? I mean, it seems like small numbers relative to the total, total need out there. But what do you think of these Shared Equity schemes where the government effectively owns part of your property don’t they? Would you be able to take us through that, please?
Simon Cowan 26:09
Yeah so, there’s a I mean, so part of the problem with a lot of these schemes is that they’re designed to be so small, they can’t have an impact in the sort of aggregate level, because the number of caps are limited. And whenever you see a government policy like this, and it’s, it’s limited to a small number of people, you know, that it’s not a good deal for the taxpayers as a general rule. But so you do have that situation where the government would, in some instances, it’d be providing a portion of the deposit. So that the individual who meets a certain criteria jumps through the right hoops in order to be eligible for the scheme can can apply for a loan and basically buy a property with as little as sort of 5% equity. Shared Equity schemes don’t have a fantastic hit track record in Australia. And it’s not so much around the issue of the deposits. But one of the things that we looked at at the other end of the market was was how you could get into equity release schemes for pensioners. So you’ve got an issue with a percentage about sort of one in five people in the age pension are very, very cash poor and very, very asset rich, and most of them, the main asset they have is property. So when we looked at this 5% or so of people who were on the full rate of the aged pension had more than one and a half million dollars in home equity. But what they didn’t have was an ability to release any of that equity in order to fund their lifestyle. So my interest in in Shared Equity comes much more. And again, there’s, there’s a much bigger tradition of this in the UK, where banks and financial institutions will take over a portion of equity for your home and use that to provide an income or a lump sum to people. So it’s not that Shared Equity itself is a bad idea, where it becomes a bad idea where you’ve got government effectively taking the risk for marginal borrowers. And, you know, people who can’t actually afford to borrow the loans that they’re taking, not just they can’t afford the deposit, but they can’t actually afford the loan. And what we saw in America in the lead up to the financial crisis was exactly these sorts of schemes, schemes where the government tried to manipulate the criteria for eligibility for home loans to effectively give a certain group of people a greater chance of buying a home. And the end result of any of that sort of manipulation around loans was the potential for government to bear, the government to bear losses in relation to home equity. So, you know, it’s a small scheme, it won’t have a big impact for that reason, but it does expose the government to risk of default, which seems like a bad way of doing things.
Gene Tunny 28:52
One thing I should ask Simon is, we’re presuming that the ideal is that people end up in their own home by the time that they’ve retired, would you be able to expand on why that is such an important thing? Or why that’s such a desirable policy goal, please?
Simon Cowan 29:09
Yeah, sure. I’d bring it forward in time. I actually think that, you know, there’s some sort of key milestones in people’s lives, you get married, and then you have kids and buying a home’s one of those milestones and ideally, you know, the ideal situation, I think, is you want to be having that in the middle of those two things. So you know, you you get married and you buy a home together and you have kids and you raise kids in your own home. And that’s sort of the sort of model of of family life that was exceptionally prevalent in Australia and I think it’s, it’s one of those sort of, again, you know, talk about conservatives and for a second, but you know, when you’re, you’re married with kids in your own home, you’ve got something to conserve, you’ve got a stake in society, you’ve got, you know, roots and values there. From a retirement perspective, though, it’s, it’s even more important because Australia’s retirements system was built around a couple of specific ideas. And so one of those is voluntary savings, which is or involuntary savings, superannuation, but another, another one is the age pension, obviously government funded income. But the biggest one in Australia in particular was around the idea that you would own your own home. So the Australian retirement system is actually modelled around people owning a home in retirement without a mortgage. And that takes care of a lot of their basic needs. And what we’ve seen consistently and you know, what we see now in particular, the group of people who are struggling the most in retirement, are overwhelmingly people who don’t have voluntary savings, they don’t have any superannuation left, but they also don’t own their home. And they’re the people who are most risk of genuine poverty in retirement, it’s if you don’t own your home, and you’re dependent on the age pension, and you’re renting in old age, overwhelmingly, that’s a group of people who are right at the bottom in terms of income and living standards. And so, you know, whatever our retirement system is built around this idea that you’re going to own your own home in retirement and own it without a mortgage, then the system has to actually facilitate people being able to do that. And right now we’re starting to see that disconnect happening. More and more people are entering retirement with mortgages. Over time, you’ll see more and more people entering retirement who don’t have a home at all.
Gene Tunny 31:22
Yeah. And what’s really worrying is you’ve got all of these people who are then at risk of homelessness. And you know, people living living in cars or worst case…
Simon Cowan 31:34
Yeah, so one of the biggest, one of the biggest demographics of homelessness, and aside from, and this is sort of the broader definition of homelessness, right like because the the you think traditionally people who live on the streets, are far more likely to be sort of middle aged men, but one of the biggest groups of the biggest demographics of homelessness is actually older single women. And overwhelmingly, that’s the issue. It’s really, you know, they’re dependent on unemployment benefits or pensions, but they don’t own a home. They may have been married, their husbands died, they don’t own their home, they’ve got no income. That’s the group that’s most at risk of poverty and homelessness, was one of them at least. And it’s a big issue.
Gene Tunny 32:12
Yeah, yeah. Okay. What about tapping into your own Super? I think you were alluding to this before. What are your thoughts on that, Simon?
Simon Cowan 32:21
So one of my colleagues that sort of looks at that issue, and his view is that what you should use super for is guaranteeing a loan, rather than necessarily being able to tap into it. One of the issues with allowing people to take money from Super is that it is effectively just increasing demand. So you do have a, you do have a slight demographic shift, in terms of who is able to buy properties, if you can, you know, you can withdraw from Super to buy your own home, but you can’t withdraw from Super for an investment property, you do slightly shift who owns property at that point, just in terms of the simple should you be able to take money on your super to buy own home? Yes, because it’s your money. It’s your money, it’s your savings, you’d be better off in retirement, if you could do it, will it solve the problem that it’s trying to solve? Probably not without something else attached to it. And that really has to be around sort of that supply side reform. And, and it doesn’t have to be, I mean talk about supply side reform, it doesn’t have to be the cratering of house prices, what it needs to be is more flexibility in what people can do with their own property. And when you increase flexibility for owners, and you increase flexibility for people who want to buy, you have a more dynamic and more effective and more efficient market, and that’s better for everyone. It’s not just the case that one group has to win and one group has to lose.
Gene Tunny 33:43
Yeah. Now with, with what the federal government is proposing to do is one positive thing that they’re proposing around targets for, or they’re trying to incentivize the states to encourage development, is that, am I geting that right?
Simon Cowan 33:59
Yes, so this is one of our recommendations, it’s been picked up. And it’s it’s got a, you know, it’s a policy tradition that’s been around for a long time, which is the federal government has all the money, but not necessarily all the levers. So they incentivize states to make good policy by, you know, giving them either withholding grants from them, if they don’t do the right thing, or giving them extra money, if they do, and in this instance, they’re talking about, you know, states that meet housing targets should be able to access additional government money. And that makes sense, right? If you’re building more houses, more money for infrastructure is probably right. But if there’s a challenge, it’s that a lot of the levers and the need for incentive isn’t even necessarily at the state government level. It’s actually the local government level. And so, you know, we’ve seen a number of states, I think, both in Victoria and New South Wales that appreciate the issue around supply and housing affordability, but they’ve been unwilling to impose the requirements on local government level, where all the incentives work the other way. So, we think it’s a good policy. We think it’s something that we’ve recommended, but it won’t be as straightforward perhaps as it seems.
Gene Tunny 35:06
Yeah, you’re right about that. I mean, a lot of the problems are at that local government level. So in Queensland where I’m from, some of the places where we’ve been able to get the high density, where we’ve been able to get more people in, it’s, it’s areas that the state government zone priority development areas, so formerly light industrial areas around West End or, or Newstead so the state government’s been trying to do its best but the Brisbane City Council goes and bans town, townhouses in you know, a lot of suburbs, there’s all these character, all these character protection, and anytime someone…
Simon Cowan 35:39
Yeah, well heritage is increasingly become, basically an anti development scam, unfortunately. And you can look on Twitter and you can find fantastic examples of things that are heritage listed. Like there was a, there’s a heritage listed electrical substations and heritage listed broken fences, and it’s like, rusting machinery, heritage listed car parks, I mean, there’s not actually any historical value in a lot of this stuff. What it is, though, it’s a valuable as a foil or as a stop to development.
Gene Tunny 36:11
And it seems to be a lot of grounds for people to oppose developments, whether it’s, ah there’s, there won’t be enough car parking, there won’t, you know, it’ll affect local traffic and there’s all sorts of grounds for objection. So yeah, absolutely. agree there.
Simon Cowan 36:24
I tell you what’s interesting, just to leave this point, I think is in New Zealand, what we saw was that they basically changed the zoning rules that allowed you to have medium density as a right, so that you didn’t actually need Council permission to go up to sort of three or four storeys from, from a freestanding dwelling. And that resulted in a massive increase in, in the sort of developments that would be allowed that council used to say no to, and a reduction in relative prices in Auckland compared to Christchurch and elsewhere. I am reliably informed, however, that, that initiatives towards housing affordability in New Zealand are now trending in the other way, in the same way they are here, unfortunately. But it was a really good example of a sort of natural experiment. What happens if you change the zoning rules? So it turns out more supply, lower prices.
Gene Tunny 37:11
Okay, yeah. But I’d be mean to have a closer look at that. Because I know there are some, there’s a bit of debate about those data, but I’m just not familiar with them enough. But I want to come back to that. I’ve read about that in the past and mentioned it. I just know that the like everything there ends up being a debate on it. But I agree. I think that would be what I expected. If they did that. I would expect to see that. And if it didn’t happen, then something else must have happened to have stopped that. I guess Simon I think we’ve had a great chat about your article on housing affordability. Was there anything else in that article or any other thoughts you had on housing affordable?
Simon Cowan 37:49
I’ve got a lot of thoughts on housing affordability, but, but I have a lot of thoughts on a lot of things.
Gene Tunny 37:54
Okay, well, maybe I’ll ask you, in the last 10 minutes or so about greedflation.
So yeah, this became, you know, this has been topical because of our friends at The Australia Institute have been very prominent promoting this view that inflation is due to greedy corporations. And I ended up asking Phil Lowe, about this, I asked our Reserve Bank governor about this at the lunch he he spoke at in Brisbane, and I asked, well, what’s your, what are your thoughts on this? And, and Phil Lowe said, well we looked at it and we don’t really think it’s a it’s really a reasonable hypothesis. And you’ve written something similar, or two, on greedflation, you’ve, you’ve said if, well, this is in an article in Canberra Times 12th of August 2023, “Greedflation myth hides real causes of inflation.” So Simon, could I ask you, what are those real causes and why do you think this greedflation hypothesis, it’s a myth?
Simon Cowan 39:00
Yeah sure, so let’s, let’s start with what greedflation is. Greedflation is the idea that the cause of our current cost of living crisis across the western world, is that corporations, collectively, and spontaneously decided to increase profit margins, and take additional money from, from consumers somehow. You know, the best explanation that I’ve seen for this, the best explanation, the only actual causality that I’ve ever seen someone try and say is, oh, there was supply side shocks as a result of the pandemic and that gave companies the ability to change the prices and so they push the prices up massively. Now, internally, I don’t think that’s actually consistent as an argument because if, support, if the cost of supply went up, then profit margins would go down, not up. But I don’t think any of this is actually about what causes inflation because what caused the bout of inflation is actually really clear. During the pandemic, particularly during 2021, across the western world, governments and central banks massively over stimulated the economy. In Australia, we saw an enormous increase in government spending in the tune of hundreds of billions of dollars, we saw a massive stimulus from the RBI in terms of basically creating money, we saw that across the western world, huge deficits, massive stimulus. Now, in 2020, you could argue that that stimulus was needed. And there was this significant shock as a result of the pandemic and significant uncertainty. By the second half of 2021, though, we had most of those variables under control, and governments kept spending and Reserve Banks kept printing money. And the result of that, as it has been, every time this has happened across history, was a massive surge in demand and as a result of that a surge in inflation. Now, the idea of greedflation, greedflation is actually measuring a real thing, there was an uptick in corporate profits, that came from, it wasn’t the cause of, it came from that stimulus, that massive increase in demand. It’s a simple supply and demand issue. There was a massive stimulus in demand, supply is limited to a certain extent, maximum capacity of the economy is certain amount once you go past that, it’s inflation, and that’s what happened. That’s what happened in Australia and Britain and America and Europe, over that period of time, massive increase in demand. And the reason why, you know it’s an increase in demand, and not an increase in costs of supply, is the corporate profits went up. And what we’ve seen in recent times is corporate profits have gone down, as inflation has come down. Why? Because across the western world, governments have been tightening budgets and reserve banks have been increasing interest rates, in other words, reducing demand.
Gene Tunny 41:58
Yeah, yeah. I think that’s, that’s, yeah that’s good. Simon. I mean, I, I largely agree. And I think when I looked at this in a previous episode, I, I talked about a study from Chris Murphy. So Chris, has done modelling of this and he came to that view that it’s because of the huge stimulus…
Simon Cowan 42:18
Yeah I think he predicted it was sort of six or 7% inflation and got pretty close to where it actually landed in Australia for that survey looked pretty good. But I mean, the bigger picture issue here, there’s two really important points coming from this greedflation thing. One of the reasons why the greedflation hypothesis is is so popular or being pushed so hard, is connected to this idea of of wages, and who should be responsible for paying for the cost of bringing inflation under control. So if you can argue truthfully, or realistically or correctly or not, that it’s not workers, and it’s not, you know, ordinary people who are responsible for inflation, therefore, you can’t restrict wages, and your government should be providing cost of living support through their budgets, what you’re trying to do is actually shift the incidence of who has to pay for the cost of getting inflation under control. But it’s such a dangerous thing to do. Because what we know is that the thing that will make inflation enduring, and the thing that will cause the biggest problems if inflation is translated into wage expectations, it creates a cycle that makes it exceptionally hard to break. And the unions and to an extent the government are trying as hard as they can to put in put forward this idea that wages should at a minimum keep pace with inflation. And ultimately, that’s a very dangerous sentiment, in my view.
Gene Tunny 43:49
This is the concern about the wage price spiral. So yeah, yeah, I’ve looked at that in a previous episode. So I might, I might link to that. Yes. So you’ve written in your article on greedflation. “The dissidents seek to de emphasise monetary policy, especially the role of monetary of managing inflation in favour of a greater role for fiscal policy and an equal focus on maintaining full employment.” So you, you see this, this greedflation view, you’re, you’re worried about it because it could lead to really bad policy outcomes in your view?
Simon Cowan 44:31
Yeah I think we’re seeing a shift already. And it’s been coming for a little while, I think, you know, we had a period of time where there was a fairly clear settlement, particularly Australia and macro economic management stability issues were almost exclusively a domain of of monetary policy, and then micro-economic efficiency issues and supply side concerns were the domain of fiscal policy. And the problem with that is that that doesn’t really allow a progressive government that wants to, to, you know, put its finger on the scales in various places to use macro economic measures as a rationale for changing government spending priorities. And so there’s this shift. You can see in America, it’s not just, just here, but away from monetary policy being mechanism for micro, macro economic stability towards fiscal policy being responsible for for huge components of economic well being. And it fits very clearly, I think into what the treasurer has been saying about the role or the return of government to more central position in in determining the direction of economic forces and so greedflation, if you take it away from that over stimulus point and bring it back towards a discussion about employment and wages. It allows you to centralise government in that decision making process again. And it was so hard for us to get past that first time.
Gene Tunny 45:58
Yeah. What are the greedflation, people arguing for greedflation, what are they actually, what would they be suggesting price controls or something? Who really…
Simon Cowan 46:07
Yeah, price controls and tax increases and ,there’s a was a retribution component in some respects. But it’s also this idea that, you know, workers weren’t responsible for this. Therefore, they shouldn’t have to bear the costs of it. And I mean, from a, from a moral perspective, that that sounds right. I mean, it’s not it’s not instinctively wrong, the problem is from an economic perspective, the argument they’re basing that on doesn’t make any sense.
Gene Tunny 46:37
Yeah. Yeah. And particularly, and this is the point Phil Lowe made in response to my question, I might, I’ll put a link in the show notes regarding that, because I had a look at some of the data he was talking about. You don’t see this big spike in the profit share of national income other than in mining, you see it in mining because they’ve had a big terms of trade boom. But you don’t really see it elsewhere in the economy. There’s a little bit but it’s not huge. So it’s hard to see how it supports his greedflation hypothesis. I think that’s a fair point. And I like your point about the lack of a causal mechanism, because, you know, people like the Australian Institute people, what they’ve done is that they’ve shown or they can demonstrate they do some decomposition of the GDP deflator. And they argue that it’s largely associated with, with profits rather than wages. Now, that’s a nice statistical calculation, but it’s just they’re showing a correlation. They’re not necessarily proving any causation, which I think’s your point. Yeah,
Simon Cowan 47:40
Yeah, cool, but far more fundamentally, right? What is inflation? Inflation is an increase in prices. If, and it can only come from from two places, right? It either comes from an increase in costs, or it comes from an increase in in profit share. Now, either it’s come from an increase in costs. That’s a supply side driven inflation. And we’ve seen some of that during the pandemic, particularly around the energy costs. But what they’ve effectively triumphantly discovered is that inflation is an increase in prices, doesn’t say anything about what causes that increase in prices. And you often see, I mean, because unions, I think, unions think this way, because this is how unions work in the sense that everyone gets together and they make a sort of centralised decision. And that then flows outwards, they assume that their opposition works the same way. There is no business or collective sort of companies that can decide what the profit level is like they can’t, there is no mechanism by which you can actually do that. So what we’re seeing is that that sort of accumulation of literally 10s of 1000s of individual decisions in individual markets by individual companies, there’s no, there’s no overarching sort of business sector that makes decisions. It’s just a reflection of what’s happening in the market. And that’s why I mean, it’s the biggest reason why this doesn’t work. Like if, if you wanted companies to reduce profits to cut inflation. How would you actually go about doing that?
Gene Tunny 49:15
Yeah, I largely agree. Now, you’re not saying that, I mean, would you recognise that there are some areas of the economy where there may be excessive concentration or or we do need to be conscious of abuses of market power. Do you have any thoughts on that? Like so…
Simon Cowan 49:31
Yeah, I mean, I have some thoughts on that. I do have a lot of fairly uncharitable thoughts about competition policy for what that’s worth. I do think there are issues around efficiency within markets, and that is a problem. But it’s not at all clear to me that any of the people who are pushing the greedflation agenda, have any idea how to make markets more efficient. And none of their solutions would make markets more efficient or resolve any of those issues. So I I’m less convinced that that’s a solution to this problem. But what we have seen, I think, is over the last sort of 30 or 40 years, as you know, international trade has increased enormously as the sort of tyranny of distance, you know, internet, the ability of markets to sort of reflect international trends, competition has become enormously increased in a number of different markets. So the fact that it’s not immediately visible in Australia, because you can only see the Australian companies doesn’t mean that there’s not a whole bunch of potential competition that could arise there. So, but I mean, I think competition is important, and it’s not as efficient as it could be. But and I’d be very much in favour of making it more efficient. But I don’t know you make competition better or more efficient with more government?
Gene Tunny 50:47
Yeah. Oh, yeah. Yeah, we might have to come back to that in a future episode. I just thought of it because I know there’s a lot of talk lately about Qantas. And how close Qantas is to the government. And the government is making decisions in favour of Qantas like not letting Qatar Airways take a route into Australia. And at the same time, we’ve got Qantas coming out in favour of a policy position advanced by the government on the Voice, and it’s given Anthony Albanese, some chairmanship lounge membership.
Simon Cowan 51:17
Yeah well so I actually looked at this issue in the past too, and this is a really important thing, it’s what it comes down to is what the future direction of the economy is. So there’s, there’s a view where you say, you know, it’s big business and big union and big government, they all get together, and they do what they think is in the best interest of the country. Or there’s a model where you say, consumers should be sovereign, and they should make choices and the market reflects whatever people decide to buy with their money. And what we’re seeing is so many more people coming out in favour of that first view, the idea that, you know, the benevolent elites will come and decide what’s best for everyone and that Qantas and, you know, the ACTU and Jim Chalmers can get together in a room and decide what the priorities for the economy should be. And I mean, I fundamentally reject that view. But I think more importantly, my vision is not a business-centric one, it’s a consumer-centric one. Markets are consumer democracy. It’s not about what’s best for business. It’s what about what’s best for people and consumers?
Gene Tunny 52:17
Absolutely. I fully agree. Simon Cowan it’s been terrific. I’m so glad to have caught up with you here in Sydney at CIS’s offices. So thanks again for your thoughts and for your hospitality today.
Simon Cowan 52:30
Appreciate it. Thanks for your time.
Gene Tunny 52:33
Righto, thanks for listening to this episode of Economics Explored. If you have any questions, comments or suggestions, please get in touch. I’d love to hear from you. You can send me an email via firstname.lastname@example.org or a voicemail via SpeakPipe. You can find the link in the show notes. If you’ve enjoyed the show, I’d be grateful if you could tell anyone you think would be interested about it. Word of mouth is one of the main ways that people learn about the show. Finally, if your podcasting app lets you then please write a review and leave a rating. Thanks for listening. I hope you can join me again next week.
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