Why does land have a positive value?
Modern housing economists, following in the footsteps of Ed Glaeser, seem to think that the market price of land should be zero. Land only has a positive value because of artificial scarcity generated by zoning laws.
I am not making this up. This is exactly the theory Glaeser has been pushing for two decades.
According to this view, housing is expensive because of artificial limits on construction created by the regulation of new housing. It argues that there is plenty of land in high-cost areas, and in principle new construction might be able to push the cost of houses down to physical construction costs.
this hypothesis implies that land prices are high, not due to some intrinsic scarcity, but because of man-made regulations.
If the price of housing is only the construction cost, that means that the price of the land (location) for housing is zero. It seems a little crazy when you say it this way. Which is why it is usually said in a more sensible sounding “internal logic of my economic model” kind of way. If the input costs to land are zero, and markets are competitive, then the price will converge to input costs. Add in some hedging words, and you begin to sound profound.
But although the model is internally consistent, it is clearly the wrong model. Why?
Land is not a newly-produced good or service, which is the domain of typical economic models of markets, where prices converge to a point that “clears” markets.
Land is instead a perpetual property right to a long-lived scarce asset that can generate income flows. Just like an ownership share of a company, land represents a share of ownership of the finite three-dimensional space.
No one would argue that because there are no input costs for Apple or BHP shares—creating new shares is a legal manoeuvre with essentially no input costs—that competitive trading of these shares will eventually lead to a zero price.
Yet the same argument is thought to be valid when the asset class is land. Maybe if we had public exchanges for land ownership, people would see the commonalities more than they do.
But why can’t land markets be competitive and converge to a zero price? The reason is that the land titles system creates a monopoly over space.
What is puzzling to me is that this monopoly feature of land markets was widely understood issue in the 19th century. It triggered the invention of the Monopoly board game (originally called the Landlord's Game) which demonstrated the monopoly problems inherent to the land titles system and their distributional effect.
Even now, the issue is clear to many who study it. Here’s an entertaining take on the land titles system, and here’s an academic exposé on the issue.
But it remains hidden in the housing supply debate. It is the dog that does not bark in the mystery of rising home prices.
I want to try a new way to communicate the monopoly characteristic of land. The table below shows two ways in which space can be allocated by property titles—either not carved up, with one lot containing all the dwellings on a region, or carved up so that each dwelling sits on its own lot, representing a share of the space. Call it a lot share.
The table also shows two ways in which a property title (a lot or lot share) can be owned—either by a single person or by many people.
If we have one giant lot that contains all the dwellings in a region, and that lot is owned by a single person, then that clearly makes the land market a monopoly. This is a situation similar to company towns, where a company builds housing on land near a natural resource or mine to provide local accommodation for its workers.
Even if that single large lot was owned by many people, such as through a corporate structure, a co-op, or another legal mechanism, it would still be seen as a monopoly.
Although many people own a share of the total space, the space is only one land lot, one property title, so the number of owners does not matter. All the owners’ interests are the same. The monopoly outcome is expected. Even if there are 100 dwellings, with each occupant owning a one-one-hundredth share in the company, it is still a monopoly.
Now let’s carve up ownership a different way. Rather than owning a one-one-hundredth share of a company that owns the single lot containing all one-hundred dwellings, each household ones a one-one-hundredth share of the lot. Rather than subdivide the company structure, the lot structure is subdivided into lot shares.
Each household still owns a one-one-hundredth share of the space.
Does this change to the legal structure of ownership change the economic outcome? If so, why?
In Ed Glaeser’s model world, switching the ownership structure of this area so that each household went from part-owner of the entity that owns the space to part-owner of the space would immediately crash the price of land to zero.
This is internally consistent with his model—land has a positive value only because of “artificial” monopoly features of the market. Once you “create competition” between landowners, prices fall to input costs, which are zero.
One detail that many people overlook when they make the “many owners = competition” assumption is that it is simple for even large numbers of people to converge to the monopoly outcome. Trial and error gets you there. In fact, it is not clear that there is a mechanism that gets a market like land away from the monopoly price. Who would deviate?
This is why, for thousands of years, property titles systems have been stores of wealth—an asset traded in markets and subject to cycles like any other asset class. Thinking about land as an asset explains housing price patterns observed much more than any plausible supply-side story. But unfortunately, admitting that the land market is a monopoly is problematic for economists as it undermines many theories (especially involving anti-trust). It also demonstrates that much of our macro-economic policy—monetary policy, taxation policy, and banking policy— is having large effects on housing markets.