Michael Janda, a senior digital business reporter at ABC, has singled out non-productive real-estate speculation as Australia’s “national addiction.”
As addicts tend to come up with all kinds of weird excuses to justify their behaviour, Janda argues that it’s no surprise policy-makers and politicians are coming up with wacky explanations to assuage the public’s fears about housing affordability.
Case in point: last week, Luci Ellis, assistant governor (economic) at the Reserve Bank of Australia, offered a number of reasons why Australians shouldn’t be too concerned about the nation’s insane house prices and high levels of household debt.
House prices relative to incomes are fine
Ellis argued that Australian house prices relative to incomes are pretty much in line with comparable countries.
Janda countered by saying this comparison should worry rather than comfort, as many of the countries we’re being compared to (such as New Zealand and Canada) are widely argued to have housing bubbles of their own.
Australia’s price-to-income ratio is around the level of Spain’s when it experienced a property market crash, according to a graph produced by Ellis. Additionally, “the fact that we are a little short of Ireland's pre-crash peak surely shouldn't offer too much comfort,” Janda said.
Bigger debts are held by higher income households
Ellis further argued that Aussies have nothing to fear because the nation’s bigger debts are held by higher-income households. “Most of the mortgage debt in Australia has been borrowed by those most able to service it,” she said.
While her argument makes sense superficially, it needs to be acknowledged that wealthier households are not immune to potential mortgage stress due to their higher levels of overall debt and greater living expenses. Defaults may result if one or both breadwinners in affluent, dual-income households lose employment.
Janda argued that households with older breadwinners might have paid off more of their mortgage and would probably be okay (also, older age groups are more likely to be in the high-earning category). The same cannot be said for younger, less wealthy property buyers.
“That's not to mention the inequality that Dr Ellis skirts over, trumpeting the fact that most investment property debt is held by higher income households, without joining the dots that this is making lower income families the rental serfs of a landed class,” Janda said.
We need to wean ourselves off real estate
Janda believes the answer to Australia’s unsustainable house prices and household debt is to wean off real estate speculation.
“Instead of finding new and ever more creative ways of boosting demand and further stretching Australians’ already tortured ability to pay for over-priced homes, how about we look at some ways to start kicking our housing habit?” he said.
Some preliminary solutions include capital gains tax discount reduction, negative gearing reform, and a national land tax.
“After all, increasing tobacco taxes has helped Australia in the battle against smoking, so why not raise property taxes in the fight against non-productive land speculation?”
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