Property prices have been surging across major cities in advanced economies. In Australia, a parliamentary inquiry has recently investigated housing affordability, and it handed down a report with some compelling policy recommendations in March 2022. Our guest in Economics Explored episode 134 provided an influential submission to that inquiry. His name is Peter Tulip, and he’s the Chief Economist at the Centre for Independent Studies, a leading Australian think tank. Peter explains how town planning and zoning rules can substantially increase the cost of housing.
You can listen to the conversation using the embedded player below or via Google Podcasts, Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and Stitcher, among other podcast apps.
About this episode’s guest – Peter Tulip
Peter Tulip is the Chief Economist at the Centre for Independent Studies, a leading Australian think tank. Peter has previously worked in the Research Department of the Reserve Bank of Australia and, before that, at the US Federal Reserve Board of Governors. He has a PhD from the University of Pennsylvania.
Links relevant to the conversation
Inquiry into housing affordability and supply in Australia
CIS Submission to the Inquiry into Housing Affordability and Supply in Australia
Gene’s article Untangling the Debate over Negative Gearing
Missing Middle Housing podcast chat with Natalie Rayment of Wolter Consulting
A Model of the Australian Housing Market by Trent Saunders and Peter Tulip
Transcript of EP134 – The high cost of housing and what to do about it w/ Peter Tulip, CIS
N.B. This is a lightly edited version of a transcript originally created using the AI application otter.ai. 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 00:01
Coming up on Economics Explored,
Peter Tulip 00:04
We know that zoning creates a huge barrier to supply. And it’s not clear that there are any other barriers that can account for distortions of this magnitude.
Gene Tunny 00:17
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 based in Brisbane, Australia and I’m a former Australian Treasury official. This is Episode 134 on the high cost of housing. Property prices have been surging across major cities in developed economies. In Australia, a parliamentary inquiry has recently investigated housing affordability, and had handed down a report with some interesting policy recommendations in March 2022. My guest this episode provided an influential submission to that inquiry. His name is Peter Tulip. And he’s the chief economist at the Centre for Independent Studies, a leading Australian think tank, which I’ve had a little bit to do with myself, over the years. Peter has previously worked in the research department of the Reserve Bank of Australia, and before that, at the US Federal Reserve Board of Governors. He has a PhD from the University of Pennsylvania.
Incidentally, here in Australia, we had a federal government budget handed down in late March 2022. But it didn’t take up any of the proposals in the housing inquiry report that Peter and I discuss this episode. The budget extended an existing housing guarantee scheme, which helps a limited number of first-time buyers avoid mortgage insurance. But the budget didn’t really do anything substantial to improve housing affordability. So we are still waiting for improved policy settings here in Australia, which would make housing more affordable. In my view, such policy settings would not include some more radical ideas that have been injected into the policy debate, such as the government itself becoming a large-scale property developer. That would be too interventionist and too costly policy for me to support. In contrast, what Peter is suggesting in this episode is a very sensible and well thought out set of measures that deserves serious consideration from decision makers.
Okay, please check out the show notes for links to materials mentioned in this episode, and for any clarifications. Also, check out our website, economicsexplored.com. If you sign up as an email subscriber, you can download my e-book, Top 10 Insights from Economics, so please consider getting on the mailing list. If you have any thoughts on what Peter or I have to say about housing affordability in this episode, then please let me know. You can either record a voice message via SpeakPipe, see the link in the show notes, or you can email me via firstname.lastname@example.org. I’d love to hear from you. Righto, now for my conversation with Peter Tulip on the high cost of housing. Thanks to my audio engineer Josh Crotts for his assistance in producing this episode. I hope you enjoy it. Dr. Peter Tulip, chief economist at the Centre for Independent Studies, welcome to the programme.
Peter Tulip 03:10
Hi, Gene. Glad to be here.
Gene Tunny 03:12
Excellent, Peter. Peter, I’m pleased to have you on the programme. So earlier this month, an Australian parliamentary inquiry chaired by one of the MPs, one of the members of parliament, Jason Falinski, released a report on housing in Australia. And it quoted you among other economists, and I was very pleased that you actually referred to a paper that I wrote a few years ago on a housing issue here in Australia. And that was in your submission. And yes, you got quite a few mentions in this report, which was titled The Australian Dream: Inquiring into Housing Affordability and Supply in Australia. Now, Peter, would you be able to tell us why is this such an important inquiry, please, and what motivated you to make a submission to the inquiry, please?
Peter Tulip 04:20
Sure. So the report’s huge. It’s 200 pages long. They had hearings for several months. And I think about 200 people or more made submissions to the inquiry. So there’s an enormous amount of information. And it’s motivated by these huge increases in house prices, that the cost of housing has gone up 20% this year, on the back of similar increases in previous years. So you go back a decade or two and the price of housing has tripled. And that’s having all sorts of huge effects throughout Australian society. It’s making housing unaffordable. And that’s reflected in homeowners can’t get into the market, because deposits are incredibly high, renters suffering a lot of stress. There’s an increase in homelessness. Because housing is one of the largest components of spending, the huge increase in housing costs is having a huge effect on household budgets, changing the way we live. 30-year-olds are living with their parents. Tenants are living with flat mates they don’t like. People are having to suffer three-hour commutes to work. Housing affordability is a real problem in Australia.
Oh, sorry. The other huge issue is that inequality dimension is enormous. So society is increasingly divided up into wealthy homeowners who are having very comfortable lives, and renters and future homeowners who are really struggling. And that’s becoming hereditary, because it’s very difficult to get into homeownership without parental assistance. The Bank of Mum and Dad, it’s often called. And so it’s the children of the wealthy that get a ticket, these enormous capital gains. And people without and less privileged, they’re really suffering.
Gene Tunny 06:38
Yeah. Now, you mentioned the big increases in house prices we’ve had in Australia so over 20%, or whatever, since the recovery for the –
Peter Tulip 06:48
Just this year.
Gene Tunny 06:49
Yes, yes. But we’ve seen big increases around the world and in capital cities around the Western world, from what I’ve seen. The Financial Times had a good report on that last year. Was it the case that our house prices were high relative to benchmark? If you look at things like house prices relevant relative to median income, they were high prior to the pandemic. There’s been this big surge since the pandemic with all the monetary policy response. Is that the case that they were already high and they’ve got worse?
Peter Tulip 07:28
Yeah. And there are a lot of different benchmarks. And the benchmark partly depends on the question you’re asking. But Australian house prices are high in international standards. So for example, one think tank, Demographia, put out a league table of housing affordability. And they looked at, what is it, something like, it’s 100 or 200 big international cities around the world. And Australian capital cities have 5 of the top 25 cities in terms of expense, in terms of price-to-income ratios. So that’s one of many possible benchmarks you can use. And by that benchmark, Australian cities have very expensive housing.
Gene Tunny 08:24
Yeah, yeah, exactly. Okay. Now I just want to talk about the inquiry and how it went about its job. I found the preface to it or the foreword written by, I think it was must have been by Jason Falinski, quite fascinating. He talked about two different tribes of people in the housing policy arena in Australia. The first tribe consists mainly of planners and academics who believe that the problem is the tax system, which has turned housing into a speculative asset, thereby leading to price increases. Okay. And then he talks about how the second tribe believes that planning, the administration of the planning system, and government intervention have materially damaged homeownership in Australia. I think I know the answer to this, Peter, but it’d be good if you could tell us which tribe do you fall into? Do you feel fall neatly into one of those tribes?
Peter Tulip 09:30
Yes, I’m in the second tribe, and as in fact, are almost all economists. I mean, this is one of those issues where you get a real division of opinion between economists and non-economists. And a lot of the most vocal of those non-economists are probably town planners. So there have been a lot of economic studies of the effect of planning restrictions on housing prices. And they find very big effects using a whole lot of different approaches. And that’s a result that’s been replicated in city after city around the world there, and dozens and dozens of papers, economics papers showing planning restrictions are a very big factor, explaining why housing is so unaffordable. And town planners don’t like that and complain and they don’t believe that supply and demand is relevant for prices. They will say that in varying degrees of explicitness. The general public doesn’t like to admit that result. They don’t take part in the academic debates.
Gene Tunny 11:04
So we’re talking about restrictions on what you can build in particular areas. So in Brisbane, for example, where I am, we have restrictions on to what extent you can redevelop these old character houses. A lot of these old character houses, these old Queenslanders, the tin and timber houses, they’re protected in the inner-city neighbourhoods. In other state capitals, you have similar restrictions for different types of properties. And so it ends up distorting the development that you see. In Brisbane, we end up with these horrible, tall apartment towers in just small pockets of where there’s some activity allowed because it was formally allied industrial or commercial area. But yeah, it seems logical to me that we are restricting the supply, because if we had fewer restrictions, presumably we’d see more medium density development, or at least that’s what I think. It doesn’t seem controversial to me that supply restrictions would lead to an increase in prices.
Peter Tulip 12:17
Oh, well Gene, now you’re sounding like an economist.
Gene Tunny 12:20
Well, I mean, I read Ed Glaeser’s recent – I think it’s Ed Glaeser.
Peter Tulip 12:25
He’s done a lot of stuff on the issue. In fact, he may be the leading expert in the world on this topic.
Gene Tunny 12:31
Yeah, yeah. He’s very confident in this impact. Now, you’ve done research on this, haven’t you, Peter? You did research at the Reserve Bank.
Peter Tulip 12:43
Before we get to that, Gene, just a comment on what you just said. There are lots of planning restrictions. They come in dozens of different variations. But there are two of them that are especially important, one of which is zoning as it’s strictly and conventionally defined, which is separation of different uses. Most of Australia’s cities, as in fact is the case for a lot of cities around the world, most of our cities are reserved for low-density housing. That’s single-family detached houses. And in most of Australia’s cities, as cities around the world, apartments, townhouses, terraces are prohibited. Where medium or higher density housing is permitted, there are height limits. And so even if flats and apartments were permitted at your local train station, there’ll be a limit on how high that building can go. Brisbane actually, what you mentioned, is not a very bad offender in this, and so particularly around the river in Brisbane, there’s been a lot of tall apartment buildings, and partly reflecting that, apartment prices in Brisbane are pretty moderate. But in Sydney and Melbourne, the height restrictions are really severe. And so as a result, apartment prices are much, much higher.
Gene Tunny 14:28
Yeah, yeah, absolutely. Okay, so you did research a few years ago, didn’t you, when you were at the Reserve Bank, on the magnitude of the impacts? Now these impacts could be even larger now, given prices have increased so much, but do you recall what sort of magnitudes of impacts you were getting, Peter, from these types of restrictions?
Peter Tulip 14:49
Yes, so the effects are huge. The way we looked at it was to compare the price of housing relative to the cost of supply. And in a well-functioning market, the price will equal the cost of supply. But planning operates as a supply restriction, sort of just in the same way as a quota or a licence to supply will. A lot of cities have taxi licences, and it’s the same thing, that you have a restriction on output, so the price goes much higher than the cost of supply.
And we found when you look at detached houses, the effects are huge in Australia’s big capital cities, I think 70%. Around 70% in Sydney, about 60% in Melbourne, was also very large in Brisbane and Perth. I can get into the details of how we actually estimate that. The more important figure for policy is for apartments, because that’s where the real demand for extra housing is. That’s where the big policy debates are. If we do want more dense housing, it will have to come in the form of urban infill. And again, we find very big effects there, especially for Sydney. I think the effect was about 60%, or a bit higher, it raises the cost of housing. In Melbourne, it was moderate, about 20%. And in Brisbane, actually, we didn’t find much of an effect. It was fairly small, just a few percentage points. But as you say, prices have risen very substantially in the, what is it, four years since our data was put together. So those effects will presumably be bigger.
Gene Tunny 16:52
Okay, we’ll take a short break here for a word from our sponsor.
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Gene Tunny 17:26
Now back to the show. Okay, so we’ve talked about the views of one of the tribes, the tribe that you’re a member of. There’s another tribe, which it’s arguing, oh, it’s all to do with tax policy settings. And, look, we’ve got some quirky tax rules here in Australia. Well, to an extent they’re logical, and which is one of the arguments I made, but they’re different from what happens in some other countries. We’ve got this thing called negative gearing whereby if you lose money on your rental property, taking into account your interest costs and depreciation and the whole range of expenses that are eligible, then you can use that to reduce your taxable income. That reduces the amount of tax you have to pay. And that’s outraged many people in the… There are a lot of people who don’t like that as a policy and think that’s a big problem and leading to higher prices. And there’s also rules around capital gains, concessional taxation of capital gains.
Peter Tulip 18:48
So the whole tax of housing is one of the more controversial parts of this. So can we talk about that?
Gene Tunny 18:55
Yeah, go ahead. Yeah. I’m interested in your thoughts. Yeah.
Peter Tulip 18:59
In fact, you’re the expert on this. In fact, as you mentioned earlier, a lot of what I’ve learned on this topic comes from a paper you wrote in 2018, which was published by the Centre for Independent Studies. It might be easier if you give a quick rundown on what the key issues are. Actually, before that your professional background is probably really relevant here. So in the interest of disclosure, do you want to tell the listeners where you learned about all of this and your experience?
Gene Tunny 19:35
I was in the Treasury, so tax was one of the issues we looked at, but the main research I did on this issue, on the issue of negative gearing and capital gains tax, came from a consulting project I did for a financial advisory firm here in Brisbane, Walshs. Walshs, they clients who are – they have investment properties. And so they were very interested in what the potential impacts of the federal opposition’s policies regarding negative gearing, so changes to that. So basically limiting it and not only allowing it on new houses, if I remember correctly, newly bought properties. And they were concerned about what that would mean for their clients and then what it would mean for the market.
So certainly, negative gearing does make investing in a rental property more attractive. It does two things. So it does lead to more rental properties, and it does push down rents. And it also increases the price of houses to an extent because it does increase that demand. So look, there’s no doubt that it is impacting on prices, but it doesn’t seem to be a huge effect. I got something like 4%. Grattan when they looked at it got 2%. Some other market commentators, I think SQM Research, Louis Christopher thinks it could be 10 to 15%. It’s hard to know, It’s not a huge impact. So you’re not going to solve housing affordability by getting rid of negative gearing. At the same time, there are logical reasons why you’d have it.
Peter Tulip 21:43
Can I just butt in there, Gene? You’re underselling your research. What you said is all right. Everything there is correct. But, in fact, since your study, there have been a whole bunch of further empirical studies and academic studies on the effect of negative gearing, and, and they essentially get the same result as you, that these effects are tiny. So there was a bunch of Melbourne University academics. There was a study by Deloitte and a few others. They use actually different approaches. So the Melbourne Uni study is the big structural model micro-founded in assumptions about preferences and technology. And so we now have a range of different studies, all using different approaches. And they’re all finding the results, the effect on housing prices comes in between about 1% and 4%. So I think we can be more confident than you were suggesting about this result. It’s a big important controversial issue. So we need to talk about it. Listeners need to be aware that it just doesn’t actually matter for anything.
Gene Tunny 23:15
Yeah. So I think one of the main points that’s important, I think, in that whole negative gearing debate is that it is quite a logical feature of the tax system, and as the Treasury explained in one of their white papers, on tax issues, it’s important for having the same treatment of debt and equity if you’re buying an investment property. So I thought that made sense. So there’s some logic to it, and it certainly does improve the rental market. Now, look, there was a huge debate. It was all very political. I thought, well, certainly it would impact house prices. And then that ended up becoming a big story. And there was a lot of discussion about that and just what could the impact on the market be.
Peter Tulip 24:15
Is the problem negative gearing or the discount for capital gains tax? Because they interact.
Gene Tunny 24:21
Yeah, I think that’s part of it. But I think there is a logical reason to have concessional treatment of capital gains, particularly if –
Peter Tulip 24:33
Concessional taxation of real capital gains?
Gene Tunny 24:37
We don’t adjust them for inflation.
Peter Tulip 24:41
We do it both ways. My sense is you can argue that there is distortion, that an investor can put, I don’t know, $10,000 into a property improvement and write that off against tax with depreciation. But then that will increase the value of the property, presumably by about $10,000. And though they get the full deduction, they only have to pay tax on half the benefit. So there is an incentive towards excessive investment in housing for that reason.
Gene Tunny 25:30
Look, potentially, I think you could argue about those capital gains tax settings. Yeah, certainly, I think that was one of the things I acknowledged in the report, if I remember correctly. So yeah, I guess the overall conclusion is that I didn’t think negative gearing was the villain that it was being portrayed as, and if you did make changes to it along the lines suggested you could end up having some adverse impacts. If you look at what estimate I made of the potential impact on house prices, and you look at how much house prices have increased in recent years, you think, well, who cares?
Peter Tulip 26:15
It’s one week’s increase. I think you’re exactly right. And while I say I think there is an argument that it creates distortions, if you fix that up, you then create distortions elsewhere, as you said, between debt and equity, and there are distortions between investors and owner occupiers. And given that so many different aspects of housing are taxed differently, it’s impossible to remove all the distortions. You remove them somewhere, then create them somewhere else. And the bottom line is that this doesn’t really matter, the housing affordability. The effects on prices are small and positive. And there are offsetting effects on renters, which I think are often neglected. Negative gearing promotes investment in housing and is good for landlords. And because it’s a competitive market, the free entry, that gets passed on in lower rents.
Gene Tunny 27:21
Yeah, yeah, exactly. So I’ll put a link to that paper in the show notes. So if you’re listening in the audience, and you’d like to check that out, you can read it. Bear in mind it’s now over. It’s four years since I wrote that, and probably six years since I did that report for Walshs. I think the logic is all correct. And I think the analysis still makes sense because it was a static model in a way. Yes. It was a static model. I was just looking at how much does a change in tax policy settings affect the rate of return for an investment property? So you could argue it’s still relevant in that regard. But the whole political sort of imperative, it’s not as big, it doesn’t figure as much in the political debate now, of course, because the opposition has dropped it as a policy, because I think they’ve recognised that, look, it is unpopular, because there are a lot of people – there have been in the past – fewer people now with low interest rates, but there have been a lot of people in the past who have been negative gearing. So I think they accept that it’s probably not a policy that is popular with the public.
Peter Tulip 28:35
But also, it’s just a non-issue. It wasn’t going to deliver benefits in terms of housing affordability. So I think one of the reasons I dropped it, or at least the reason I would have told them to drop it, was it was just a red herring.
Gene Tunny 28:50
Yeah, yeah, I think that’s correct. That’s how I would how I would see it. Okay, we might go back to the Falinski report. I know it does deal with this issue in the… It is part of the conversation for sure. Where did the Falinski report come down on deciding which of these two tribes is correct? Did it make a judgement on that or did it –
Peter Tulip 29:17
It’s strongly on the side of economists, of those who argue that planning restrictions have large effects on house prices. The commission discussed it in a lot of detail. It’s all of Chapter Three, I think of the report. It’s the first substantive policy-oriented chapter of the report. It’s some of their lead recommendations. And they note that there were… I think they described it as the most controversial issue they dealt with, with very lengthy submissions on both sides.
Their assessment was that the weight of evidence is not balanced. It’s overwhelmingly on the side of those who think planning restrictions have big effects on prices. In fact, they cited our submission, which said there have been a lot of literature surveys of this research. I think we cite six of them by different authors, a lot of them very big names in the policy world. And all of those surveys conclude that planning restrictions have big effects on prices. And the commission recognise that even though it’s hard to tell in the noise on social media, if you look at the serious research, the weight of evidence very clearly goes one way.
Gene Tunny 31:01
Okay. What does that evidence consist of, Peter? You’ve done your own study. Was your study similar to what others have done around the world? And broadly, what type of empirical technique do you use?
Peter Tulip 31:17
So in fact, there have been dozens and dozens or more years of studies on this question, both in Australia and in other countries. The approach we used is… The reason we used it was we thought it was the best and most prominent approach to answer these questions. And it’s been successfully used with essentially the same results in a lot of cities in the United States, some focusing particularly on coastal cities, some on California, some on Florida. There’s a big study for the United Kingdom and a lot of European cities, another study in Zurich in Switzerland, studies in New Zealand, all using essentially our approach of comparing prices with the cost of supply. And they all come up similar results.
Other people have looked at planning restrictions more directly. So for example, we know that planning restrictions are very tight in California and very loose in a lot of Southern and Midwestern cities in the United States. And there, you get a very strong correlation with prices. California is incredibly expensive. Houston, Atlanta, places with relaxed zoning are relatively inexpensive.
Gene Tunny 32:46
So is there a regression model, where you’re relating the price of housing to cost of supply, and then you’ve got some… Do you have an indicator variable or a dummy variable in for planning restrictions? Is that what you do?
Peter Tulip 33:05
So there are lots of different ways of doing it. Yes, people have constructed indexes of the severity of planning restrictions. That’s one way of doing it. The most famous of these is what’s called a Wharton Index, put together by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania, in fact, my old alma mater. Our approach doesn’t actually – and this is a criticism that some people make of it – it doesn’t actually use direct estimates of zoning restrictions, because they’re just very difficult to measure. But when you have prices substantially exceeding costs, you need to find some barrier to entry. And just as a process of elimination, we know that zoning creates a huge barrier to supply. And it’s not clear that there are any other barriers that can account for distortions of this magnitude.
Gene Tunny 34:10
Right, okay. I better have another look at your study, Peter, because I’m just trying to figure out how did you work out what’s the cost of supply? You looked at what an area of land would cost, where it is readily available, say on the outskirts of a city, and then you looked at what it would cost to build a unit on that or a house on that site?
Peter Tulip 34:38
So where it’s simplest is for apartments, because there you don’t need to worry about land costs, and which is a big, complicated issue. But you can supply apartments just by going up. And so we have estimates of construction costs from the Bureau statistics, to which we add on a return on investment, interest charges, a few tax charges, developer charges, marketing costs. There are various estimates of those other things around, and they tend not to be that important. And the difficult thing is getting an estimate of the cost of going up, because as you increase building height, average costs increase. You need stronger foundations, better materials, extra safety requirements, like sprinklers and so on. You need more lift space. So a lot of it involves a discussion of the engineering literature in housing, where we can get estimates of things like that. And they exist both in Australia and in other countries, where the other people that did that. And that’s how we get our estimate of the supply cost.
Gene Tunny 35:59
Okay. That makes sense now.
Peter Tulip 36:03
That’s one way of doing it. There are other ways of doing it. So you can assume that’s the cost of going up. We can also do the cost of apartments by going out. And there you just make an assumption that it’s the average cost of land in that suburb or on that street or in that city, is the land cost. And then you get a cost of going out, which in some cases is a bit higher, some cases a bit lower.
Gene Tunny 36:33
Yeah, yeah. Okay. That makes sense to me. Can I ask you about the recommendations of the Falinski report? It looks like it’s come down. It supports the view that, yep, supply is a big issue. And also, there’s this issue of now we’ve got this issue of young people having this deposit gap, haven’t we, that it’s difficult to save up for a deposit? So that’s another issue. And I think it’s made recommendations that may help with that. I don’t know. But would you be able to tell us what you think the most interesting and the most important recommendations are of that inquiry, please, Peter?
Peter Tulip 37:13
So I think the most important recommendations go to the issues we were just talking about, the planning restrictions. A difficulty with that is that this was a federal government inquiry. But responsibility for planning regulations rests in state and local governments. And so there’s not a lot that the Commonwealth government can do, other than shine a very big spotlight on the issue, which I think it has done. It’s helped clarify a lot of the issues. And it’s putting more pressure on state and local governments to liberalise their restrictions. But I think the most important recommendations is it wants to couple that with financial grants, and in particular, provide grants to state and local governments in proportion to their building activity, so that neighbourhoods that are building a lot of housing get more support from the Commonwealth Government than neighbourhoods that are refusing to build anything at all.
his should help allay some of the local opposition. We get to housing developments, that a lot of neighbours and local residents understandably complain if new housing is going in, in their neighbourhood, without extra infrastructure, without transport, parks, sewerage, and so on. And what the Falinski report says is we’ll help with that, that we don’t want local neighbourhoods to bear the burden of increased population growth, it’s a national responsibility, and so the Commonwealth will help. So I think that will be the most important recommendation, that should improve incentives to local and state governments to improve housing. Want to go to some of the other recommendations that I think are interesting?
Gene Tunny 39:34
Yeah, I was just thinking about that one. They obviously haven’t put a cost estimate in the inquiry report. So they’ve just said, oh, this could be a good idea. But then we’d have to think about what this ultimately would end up costing.
Peter Tulip 39:47
So our submission put dollar figures on it, even though Jason Falinsky didn’t want to sign on to actual numbers. These conditional grants in terms of housing, good housing policies, could be in place of current Commonwealth programmes that are of less value. And one that’s just been in the news a lot the last few weeks is, I think it’s called the Urban Congestion Fund, which is essentially something like a slush fund that the government uses to channel money towards marginal seats. That’s about $5 billion the Commonwealth uses at the moment.
We could remove that invitation to corruption, and at the same time, solve some of our housing problems by instead, by making that conditional on housing approvals. And if you use that $5 billion, divide that by the, what is it, 200,000 building dwellings that get built in Australia every year, that works out at something like $25,000 per new dwelling. A grant like that will provide a lot of local infrastructure. It’ll give you a new bus route, it’ll give you a new park, it’ll give you some new shops. It’ll fix up the local traffic roundabout, and so on. You could do even more than that, if you start looking at state grants and other grants that are currently on an unconditional basis.
Gene Tunny 41:38
Right. So was the origin of this recommendation, was it from your submission, was it, Peter, the CIS submission?
Peter Tulip 41:44
In fact, a lot of people have been recommending a policy, something like this. We talked about it maybe a bit more detail. But the Property Council of Australia actually wrote a paper on this a few years ago, sorry, commissioned a paper by Deloitte, which discusses some of these issues. But in fact, it’s been proposed in a lot of other countries around the world. And so the original Build Back Better proposal from the Biden administration had substantial grants from the US government to local governments along these lines, and that’s been cut back a little bit in their negotiations. They’re still talking about substantial grants from the federal government, to local counties that are improving their housing policies.
Gene Tunny 42:43
Right. Okay. That’s fascinating. Now, I have to have a closer look at that. Yeah. On its face, it sounds yep, that could be a good idea. As the ex-Treasury man, I’d be concerned about the cost of it to the federal government, but you’re saying we’ve wasted all this money on various pork barreling projects anyway, we could redirect that to something more valuable.
Peter Tulip 43:13
And if you want to talk about really big money, you could change grant commission procedures, so that if housing were regarded as a disability, in the formula for dividing up, the GST, the fiscal equalisation payments with the states, then states that are growing quickly and providing a lot of housing should be able to claim money for the extra infrastructure charges that requires. I think that’s consistent with the logic of the Grants Commission processes. And they currently already do this, but something like this to transport. So there is a precedent, and that would substantially improve incentives for state governments to encourage extra housing.
Gene Tunny 44:08
Yeah, yeah. Okay. Just with the supplier restrictions, am I right, did they make a recommendation along the lines that local councils and state governments, they should look at existing restrictions with a view to easing those restrictions? Did they say something along those lines?
Peter Tulip 44:26
It’s not a formal recommendation, but that’s emphasised in several places in the report, and I think it might be… I can’t remember the exact wording. Recommendation one certainly discusses that issue.
Gene Tunny 44:43
Right. Okay. I should be able to pull that up pretty quickly.
Peter Tulip 44:49
It’s not something the Commonwealth can do something directing it. So the wording is a bit vague. That’s clearly the thrust of the report. Yes.
Gene Tunny 45:03
Right. Yep. So the committee recommends that state and local governments should increase urban density in appropriate locations, using an empowered community framework as currently being trialled in Europe. I’m gonna have to look at what an empowered power community framework is sometimes. I haven’t heard that before. I had Natalie Raymond on. She’s a planner here in Brisbane. And she got an organisation called YIMB, Yes In My Backyard. So I’ve chatted with her about some of these issues before, but I can’t remember hearing about this empowered community framework. Have you come across that concept at all, Peter?
Peter Tulip 45:45
It’s something that the report is very vague about.
Gene Tunny 45:50
Peter Tulip 45:52
No, I’m not sure what that means either.
Gene Tunny 45:55
I’ll have to look it up.
Peter Tulip 45:57
Should we talk about some of the other recommendations?
Gene Tunny 45:59
Oh yes, please. Yeah, keen to chat, particularly about this idea of tapping into, well, they didn’t recommend allowing people to withdraw money for housing, for a deposit for a house. But they made some recommendation around superannuation. Would you be able to explain what that is, please, Peter?
Peter Tulip 46:19
This, I think, is one of the most interesting recommendations. And it wasn’t explicitly discussed in detail in any submissions they received. But it’s something that I and the CIS have been talking about in the past, so we were delighted to see it get up.
The argument is that people should be able to use their superannuation balances. But people outside Australia, that would be equivalent to something like a 401K or Social Security in the United States, or Social Security contributions in several European countries. People should be able to use those balances as security or collateral for the deposit for their house. And so lenders would reduce deposits, presumably by the amount of the collateral, by the amount of the superannuation balance.
The committee argued that the main obstacle towards homeownership in Australia is getting the deposit together. And this recommendation is directly aimed at making that easier, and it does it in a way that doesn’t cost the taxpayer anything. And it doesn’t jeopardise the retirement income objectives that superannuation is set up to solve.
So there have in the past been proposals that people should withdraw their money from their superannuation to pay their deposit. And the objection to that is that will just undermine retirement income objectives. And in particular, the compulsory superannuation system is set up on the assumption that people are short-sighted and will tend to fritter away their assets if they’re made too liquid. This objective, allowing withdrawals from superannuation is directly applicable to that argument.
But using superannuation as collateral doesn’t is not subject to that argument, that the superannuation balance will only be touched in the very rare and the unexpected event of foreclosure. Historically, that’s a fraction of a percent houses ever go into foreclosure. So it would be extremely unlikely to affect retirement incomes. But at the same time, people have saved this money, it’s their asset. So they should be allowed to use it in ways they want, that don’t jeopardise their retirement income. And using it as security helps in that.
Gene Tunny 49:35
Yeah. Do you have any sense of how the banks will react to this, how lenders will actually react to this? Is this something that will be attractive to them? Has anyone made any announcements along those lines?
Peter Tulip 49:51
Not that I’ve seen. You would hope and expect that if the policy is put together well, that deposits would be reduced by something like the order of the superannuation balance. And it could be a bit more or a bit less. It may be a bit less because the superannuation balances are risky. It may be a bit more because they’ll be growing over time with. We don’t know exactly how those things will factor in. You would hope and expect that deposits would be reduced by about the amount of the superannuation balance.
Gene Tunny 50:34
An interesting recommendation. I was wondering just how much of an impact it could have. But then the way you explained it, I think it makes it a bit clearer to me how this could potentially have some benefit. Yeah.
Peter Tulip 50:54
It’s not huge. The people that most want this are going to be young, first home buyers having difficulty. People having difficulty getting a deposit tend not to have huge superannuation balances. And there are a few numbers floating around. The average super balance of say, a 30-year-old tends to be, I think there was one estimate I saw, it’s about a quarter of the average deposit on a house for a first home buyer. So it doesn’t get you all the way there. It does get you a sizable bit of the way there so that instead of it taking eight years to save for a house, it’ll only take six years. And you use the super for those other two years. That doesn’t solve the problem. But I’m sure there are lots of first home buyers that will appreciate getting into their home two years earlier than would have otherwise been the case.
Maybe the other point to make in this is that I think superannuation is unpopular, particularly amongst young people, because it is an obstacle to homeownership, that people would like to be saving, but instead 10% of their income has gone off to this account that they wont see for 50 years.
Gene Tunny 52:22
Do we think they would be saving, Peter? I wonder. That was the reason we introduced the super system in the first place.
Peter Tulip 52:28
Exactly. Well, there are some people that would like to be saving for a house. Yeah, superannuation definitely makes that harder. And as a result, superannuation is unpopular. The effect of this policy is it changed it from being an obstacle to being a vehicle towards homeownership. And so I think it makes the superannuation policy more popular.
Gene Tunny 52:51
Yeah, yeah, absolutely. Okay, so I’ve got in my notes, and I must confess, I’ve forgotten what your paper… You wrote a paper with Trent Saunders in 2019. What was that about, Peter?
Peter Tulip 53:06
So that’s a big one in the housing area. We did a lot of empirical modelling of the Australian housing market, and trying to put together how the prices and interest rates affect housing construction, nd then how does housing construction feed back under prices and quantities. So there have been a lot of studies of individual relationships in the housing market. But there’s feedback between construction and other variables. So it was always difficult seeing what the full effect was, without allowing for that feedback. And the big result from that paper that got all the headlines was on the importance of interest rates. So partly interest rates are very important for construction. But even more surprisingly, they’re very important for housing prices. And in particular, the big decline in real mortgage rates that we’ve seen over the past 30 years or so, accounts for a very large part of the run-up in house prices over that period.
Gene Tunny 54:20
So with the cash rate, the RBA policy interest rate, it’s expected to go up, and then borrowing rates will go up. And there are some economists and market commentators speculating this could lead to falls in house prices, some double-digit falls, if I remember correctly, in some capital cities. So there’s that issue. I’m keen for your thoughts on that. Also immigration. If we reopen Australia as we are and we have net overseas migration running at 250 to 300,000 or whatever it was before we had COVID, what will that do for house prices?
Peter Tulip 55:09
Our paper tries to estimate. In fact, a big point of the paper is exactly to answer and quantify those questions. House prices are an interaction between supply and demand. And in the short run, the bigger effect on demand is interest rates. And that, for example, is why, we talked earlier, house prices have risen over 20% just in this past year. That was essentially a response to the record low interest rates that the RBA implemented just prior to the prices taking off. And you’re right, our model suggests that that’s going to go into reverse over the next few years as interest rates increase. Interest rates go up and down. And in the long run, you would expect them not to trend so they don’t explain trend changes in prices. The big trend increase in demand in Australia has been immigration. Our population doubles or so every generation or two. And so that creates an ever increasing demand for housing that we need to supply.
I don’t know if you’re about to ask this, but I’ll ask the question. How does this relate to our earlier stuff on zoning? Essentially, they’re asking different questions. Zoning is asking the question, how do we change process in future, how do we adjust policy? The previous paper is empirical. Policy is given, and asks, what explains changes in the past? And they’re slightly different questions. The effect of zoning is to make supply inelastic, like just a vertical supply curve. I’m sorry, I’m waving my arms around, and people listening on a podcast aren’t going to know what I’m doing. But the changes in interest rates and immigration increase the demand curve, shift the demand curve out to the right. And so it’s the interaction of supply and demand that drives house prices. So it’s a combination of rising demand and inelastic supply.
If we fixed up, if we had a better planning regime, that instead of being inelastic, the supply curve would be flatter, would be closer to horizontal. And then these big increases from immigration and low interest rates would result in extra construction instead of extra prices.
Gene Tunny 58:05
Yeah, yeah. Okay. So I’ll put a link to that paper in the show notes. I just realised Trent Saunders, he’s in Queensland now.
Peter Tulip 58:10
He’s at QTC.
Gene Tunny 58:11
Queensland Treasury Corporation, yep. He’s been doing some good stuff. So that’s terrific. Okay. Peter Tulip, chief economist at the Centre for Independent Studies. Thanks so much for the for your time today. That was great. I think we went over a lot of the economics. I’ll put plenty of links in the show notes for people because some of these studies, they’re fascinating studies and also, it’d be good to just… You may be interested in the empirical techniques and in more of the details. So Peter, again, really appreciate your time. Thanks so much.
Peter Tulip 58:56
Thanks, Gene. It was great to talk.
Gene Tunny 58:59
Okay, that’s the end of this episode of Economics Explored. I hope you enjoyed it. If so, please tell your family and friends and leave a comment or give us a rating on your podcast app. If you have any comments, questions, suggestions, you can feel free to send them to email@example.com and we’ll aim to address them in a future episode. Thanks for listening. Until next week, goodbye.
Big thanks to EP134 guest Peter Tulip and to the show’s audio engineer Josh Crotts for his assistance in producing the episode.
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