What will happen if negative gearing is removed?

When a politician says they want ‘more affordable housing’ that’s code for ‘lower prices’.

Running an election on ‘lower house prices’ is political suicide. Running for office on the basis of ‘affordable housing’ is noble.

The ‘more affordable housing’ mantra crosses party lines. The NSW State Liberal Government have overseen the apartment boom in Sydney in the name of extra supply creating ‘more affordable housing’. The Labor Party are contesting the Federal Election on the basis that removing negative gearing will save the tax payer billions and create ‘more affordable housing’.

Labor’s plan is to remove negative gearing (from January 1 2020) on existing dwellings but allow investors to gain negative gearing on brand new dwellings. The policy is designed to drive construction of new dwellings and in turn keep stock levels high and rents down.

Negative gearing was introduced in the 1930s in Australia. That is worth thinking about the next time someone claims negative gearing is a ‘loop hole’. The tax system has been built around it, wrongly or rightly. Previous attempts to remove it have failed as the political and economic impact was too hard to handle.

The main complaint from those opposed to negative gearing is the burden the tax payer wears to the benefit of landlords. It should also be noted that property investors contribute in many ways to the public purse through stamp duty, land tax, council rates, income tax on positively geared investments and capitals gains tax when they sell a profitable investment.

To simply remove one component of this established structure will cause disruption.

In the children’s game of Jenga, a tower of blocks is constructed and the players have to remove blocks from the bottom and place then at the top of the tower, without crashing the tower in the process.

Removing negative gearing is a political game of Jenga.

If Labor can cleanly achieve the removal of negative gearing, spoil to the victors. It will be a tricky path ahead though.

There is much debate on the impact of removing negative gearing from the housing market.

 Historically, small policy changes by Governments have big impacts on markets. The removal of negative gearing is a big policy change likely to have a big impact on the market.

The key to understanding the impact is understanding the dynamic factors at play.

Price bubble in brand new dwellings – Brand new dwellings will still be able to be negatively geared by investors. Foreign investors and first home buyers already receive incentives to purchase brand new over established dwellings. As a result, it can be easily argued that brand new dwellings sell at an unjustified premium to the established market. The muted changes to negative gearing will exacerbate the bubble in the prices of brand new dwellings.

At best you could call it an incentive for investors to buy brand new dwellings, at worst it’s a bribe.

Higher rents in undersupplied markets – Property analysts SQM Research recently released a report that compared global residential property markets – those with and without negative gearing. Globally, housing markets without any negative gearing built into their respective tax system had higher priced rental markets. Here in Australia, markets that are under supplied for dwellings will see a gradual increase on rents as the market recalibrates for the removal of negative gearing.

Markets such as Hobart which is anti development and the Inner city of Sydney which is undersupplied are likely to see tenants paying higher rents over time.

Aussie housing markets which are pro-development will be less impacted by the removal of negative gearing than global peers, due to investors buying brand new dwellings.

Investors continue to feel the squeeze – owning an investment property is nirvana during those rare times that prices are rising and interest rates are falling. The rest of the time, investment properties can be onerous. Maintenance, vacancy, land tax, strata fees and insurances are just some of the many costs landlords incur. The removal of one of the few but true benefits to investors will see many of them opt for alternate investment options. 

Commercial property could be a winner – in Australia, commercial dwellings have always traded with a higher yield than residential. It is the ALP’s hope and expectation that property investors move into buying brand new dwellings to maintain the negative gearing tax break. Investors could well transfer their interest from the low yielding residential to the higher yields on offer in the commercial market.

A big part of the housing boom was undersupply combined with growing populations in Sydney and Melbourne.

Unintended consequences – identifying unintended consequences is difficult but they are outcomes no one expected or anticipated. A major policy change usually brings unintended consequences downstream though. For example, a massive move away from property by investors would see State Governments revenue drop from stamp duty and land tax (particularly if prices fall). State Governments would then be under pressure to plug the gap in their budget through new and/or higher taxes. 

Downward pressure on property prices. The impact cannot be measured scientifically because negative gearing is one of many reasons that buyers purchase a property. You can rest assured this is one more reason that investors will back off. The Liberal Government closed many of the abused aspects of negative gearing in the May 2017 which had an impact on property prices at the time.