Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Most popular posts of 2015

Blog posts were not as frequent as I would have liked this year. But I did gain a much wider audience with some of the more popular posts that were widely cited. I'm proud of them. I hope my readers found some valuable insights in there somewhere. 

If you want to indulge your economic curiosity over the holiday period, here are the top ten posts of the year for your reading pleasure.

1. Improving 'Neoclassical man' with a gaze heuristic

2. Macroeconomics = Fallacy of Composition

3. Back-scratching: Do what's best for your mates and screw the rest

4. Adam Smith’s Pin Factory: Capital vs division of labour

5. The confused economic orthodoxy

6. Uncertainty and morality in a dynamic economics

7. More unpopular economic opinions

8. Unpopular economic opinions

9. Dodgy rezoning, a summary

10. How to analyse housing markets

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Humans vs Houses: Australia's perverse tax system

Investment property income beats working
I often joke that my investment property earns more than I do. Thinking more about this lead me to the realisation that my investment property has an privileged position in the tax system when compared to a measly old human.

Below I summarise some of the main tax considerations from the perspective of being a human making wages, or from the perspective of being an investment property (the property owner).

After making this comparison, our current system appears to be designed exclusively for the betterment of the property community, rather than the people community. It’s unreal. The whole thing is back to front, with all that green showing investment property to be a clear tax winner.


Let us take a closer look at the marginal effects of a dollar increase in income for a one-income family, with two school-age children earning $100,000. They are an above-median household, and a prime candidate property investor. You know. To secure the children’s future. We’ll call them the ‘Battler’ family, because in Australia if you aren’t on the property ladder, making money is a battle.

An extra dollar in wage income for the Battler family over a year attracts income tax, along with a loss of family tax and medicare benefits that together account for 60c of that extra dollar. So 40c in the pocket. The graph below, from David Plunkett, shows the effective marginal tax rates (EMTR) for this family currently in Australia.


Let us examine the case when the Battler family instead makes their extra dollar from capital gains on their investment property. Using round numbers, they buy a $500,000 home with an annual rental income of $20,000, and annual rates, maintenance and other costs of $6,000. They finance this purchase with an interest only loan attracting a $25,000 annual interest bill.

They make a loss of $11,000 over the year they own the property. Of that loss they are out of pocket only $4,400, because they have reduced their taxable income and avoided $4,000 in tax, and gained $2,200 in family tax and medicare benefits.

After one year they sell with a price after selling costs of $511,001, making $1 net over the year from the property investment project.

It’s a risky way to make $1, compared to getting a rounding-error sized pay rise. But we want to compare dollar-for-dollar the tax incentives for earning wages or earning capital gains though property speculation.

So what did the battlers get out of their $1 gain from property investment? First we factor in the 50% capital gains tax discount because they owned the property for more than a year. So they only need add $6,500.50 of the capital gains to their taxable income. With a 60% EMTR that means they keep $9,100.20 in the hand (the tax-free $6,500.50 half, plus 40% of the remaining $6,500.50).

Subtracting last year’s net loss of $4,400 gives a total net gain of $4,700.20. I summarise how this arises from the benefits tax treatment of both the losses and the gains from investment property in the table below.



With these types of advantages to making your money from lazy capital gains on investment property, rather than working for a living, it is no surprise that we have become a nation of property speculators.

We can also work backwards to see in this example case how much of a loss on property the advantageous tax treatment will cover. To break even after tax all the Battler family need to do is make $4,400 after tax on the sale, which would be situation if the capital gains were $6,286, or a sale price after selling costs of $506,286. Under this situation the property investment has made a loss of $4,714 over the year (an $11,000 income loss and a $6,286 capital gain after 12 months), yet the tax system has bailed out that loss for the family through negative gearing and the capital gains tax exemption. Add another 57c or so to the project income - so it makes a $4,713.43 loss - and you are back to the same net outcome as making an extra dollar through wage income; a 40c gain.

Policy for an even playing field
We can use this example to also see the immediate impact from tax policy changes targeting investment property. If we eliminate the capital gains tax discount and quarantine losses against property incomes, we get a different story, which is in the table below.


Here the $11,000 loss rolls over to be deducted from the future income of the property, in this case the capital gains on sale, making the net capital gain of $1. Because none of this gain is subject to the CGT discount, it all adds to personal income and is taxed at the marginal rate, along with the losses in other welfare benefits. After tax both the $1 from investment property and the $1 from the wage income now provide the same benefit.

It is certainly now time for the government to end these tax concessions for investment property. Raising the GST, the current government’s preferred tax policy, is probably the worst choice in terms of both equity and efficiency compared to the low-hating fruit of removing these property tax advantages which currently cost the budget about $11billion a year. Obviously removing them would change incentives, reduce prices, and so forth, meaning that actual budget gains from their removal will be lower. But even so, the shift of incentives across the economy would be hugely advantageous in terms of both efficiency, and equity, as these tax incentives primarily benefit the wealthy.

Update:
Because many claim that negative gearing is a ‘natural result of the tax system’*, we can leave this alone and simply concentrate on the capital gains tax discount.

In this case, the table below shows how the tax benefits from negative gearing remain, yet the capital gains taxes completely offset the tax benefits from the losses made, resulting in the same net outcome. What this means essentially is that this small part of the tax code provides very perverse incentives for investors to speculate on property, than to earn income from wages.


* To the extent that any tax system is ‘natural’. My view is that you use the system to create incentives for productive activity, whether they appear natural or not.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Brisbane's Queens Wharf is a gift to casino owners

Let's bet on when the consortium entering a deal to build a new casino in Brisbane will go bust.

I will bet straight after the company has paid their well-connected senior staff handsome bonuses, and right before being bailed out (probably implicitly) by the Queensland government. As the project progresses the government will bail out the consortium either voluntarily, because the Ministers and staff involved want to build trust with the consortium, or under duress, because the consortium is going bankrupt with a half-finished major project in the CBD.  

The bailout could be in the form of cash payments. But it could also be hidden in the form of an amended scope of works. Promised investment in new public spaces around the casino will mysteriously shrink as the consortium pleas that these were never part of the deal to be delivered by them. The government will be on the hook for hundreds of millions of dollars right at a time when the budget will be drying up from the downturn of the resources and property boom.

I make this bet because I have looked that the fancy images produced to sell the project to the public, and drawing on my experience in costing large construction projects, I can assure you that adding the costs of all the public works in these images cannot be justified by the casino and hotel returns alone. It just doesn't stack up.

This quote worries me 
The Queensland Government in partnership with the Destination Brisbane Consortium will deliver… 
Public-private partnerships. Notice they didn't say those words explicitly. Because they are dirty words these days as we have come to realise that the public sector simply does not have the skills or the courage to be an equal partner. Such partnerships these days mean that all risk passes to the State while all benefits flow to the private sector partner. 

I remember sitting in a meeting with Queensland Treasury in 2009 where they were trying to get rid of these arrangements from government because they always end up tilting risk towards the government and benefits towards the private sector partners. 

But no worries. Happy to do it for a casino.

If you look at the picture below it’s almost like the government wants to get a casino as close as possible to their offices; to align themselves through proximity to the interests of the casino owners. 


I can’t think of a better way to hand money from the public to selected rich, politically-connected casino owners than this. 

For those still thinking about all the external benefits from a new casino (which is adjacent to an existing casino mind you) maybe think a little harder about the international market for high-rollers. You’ve got all of Asia to choose from. The major cities of the world. Will Brisbane now all of a sudden pop onto your radar because there is a new casino next door to the old one? A very marginal proposition at best.

Crucially, watch as the funding mechanism to capture the value uplift on the site is ignored. Gains in land value will be given away to the consortium from the inevitable government investment in public spaces and access to the area.

This will happen because the rules about paying for infrastructure are especially grey in the case of such major projects (see here, Section 6.0)
Infrastructure delivered in the PDA shall generally be funded from infrastructure charges levied on development within the PDA.
Infrastructure charges will be based on Brisbane City Council's applicable infrastructure charging document for the area or an Infrastructure Agreement.
Infrastructure delivered as part of the development may be eligible for an offset against the infrastructure charges that would otherwise apply.
The last point here is important. What it means in practice is that there is plenty of scope to negotiate that publicly accessible spaces in the casino area count towards public infrastructure, and that these might even be used to offset the standard infrastructure charge obligations under the Brisbane City Council’s plan. We have seen wiggle room like this used successfully before to get out of obligations to contribute to the public realm, with private driveways and car parks being counted as public space contributions in complete contradiction to the planning intention of these requirements. 

Essentially, the government is walking into a deal taking on a huge amount of downside risk and absolutely none of the upside. It is guaranteeing profits to wealthy casino owners in a way that is primarily a transfer to them from the rest of society. This is at a time when government revenues will begin falling, and when the city is already committing to costly projects with little to no return, such as the Kingsford Smith Drive project, where costs are likely to exceed benefits by about $200million.

But it remains possible that when the reality of the construction costs becomes apparent, the whole project might simply be canned come late 2016. 

I have no problem with government investing in public infrastructure and improvements in general, but not with the obvious intention of benefiting a select few at a cost to the rest of us. There are so many public projects out there with high benefit cost ratios waiting to be built in the city, from rail, cycle, pedestrian upgrades to improve connectivity, to the basics like stormwater and flood prevention upgrades, and so forth.

Read all about the agreement here.

UPDATE: Read all about the dodgy dealings at the blog It's Not Normal