Housing, wealth, and inequality

House prices in Auckland are high and rising, which is causing concern in many quarters. But do we know what sort of effects high house prices may have on New Zealand society, now and in the future?

Politicians and commentators from all quarters have argued that they are undermining the equity of New Zealand society by making it harder for young people to buy houses and squeezing household budgets. Here, for example, are some recent comments from Finance Minister Bill English:

The Finance Minister agrees rising house prices in Auckland are making inequality worse by shutting low and middle-income earners out of the property market.

Opposition parties say rising inequality is not only hurting those who cannot afford to buy a home, but is also bad for the economy.

Bill English said house prices were making life tougher for low and middle income earners in Auckland and said inequality was a problem.

“We’ve been concerned about that for some time, that there’s parts of Auckland where there’s been really no new supply of lower value houses that low and middle-income families can afford.”

I’ve seen Minister English making similar comments elsewhere – saying that limited housing supply is worsening poverty and inequality. How true is this?

First, here’s a graph showing indexed house prices, rents, and consumer price levels over the last two decades. While housing prices have been rising faster than the CPI throughout this period, house prices have really only taken off dramatically since 2002. Meanwhile, rents have risen at a more consistent pace:

Keep that timing in mind. Most of the increase in Auckland’s house prices has occurred between 2002 and 2008, and again since 2012.

So now, let’s take a look at what’s been happening to inequality over the same time period. Here’s a useful chart from a Stuff article on the topic. It looks at the 80-20 ratio – i.e. the ratio of incomes for a household near the top of the earning distribution (80th percentile) to one near the bottom (20th percentile). While it’s not a perfect measure, as it misses outcomes at the upper and lower tails, it does seem to track with the Gini coefficient, another common measure.

Essentially, what this measure is telling us is that income inequality rose during the late 1980s and early 1990s, during NZ’s painful economic restructuring, flattened, and then trended down slightly since the mid-2000s. Importantly, the same basic trends hold true even after taking housing costs into account, which suggests that rising Auckland house prices haven’t altered the underlying dynamics of income inequality:

NZ income inequality chart

In other words, recent increases in Auckland house prices have not coincided with rising income inequality. Minister English is well aware of this. For example, in May 2014 he answered a few questions on inequality in Parliament:

Hon BILL ENGLISH: Well, the facts as laid out in the annual report issued by the Government agency initiated by the previous Labour Government, and now backed up by the OECD, show that income inequality in New Zealand has been flat to falling in recent years, and, on average, it has remained unchanged for the last 15 years.

This does not necessarily mean that we can be sanguine about the impact of housing costs on New Zealand society. For one thing, statistics published in the Ministry of Social Development’s most recent (2014) Household Incomes in New Zealand report suggest that the share of households paying more than 30% of their income for housing has risen since the early 2000s. These changes seem to have affected households across all five quintiles of income, albeit to varying degrees. However, from an equity perspective they’re dwarfed by the impact of early-1990s changes to social welfare and housing policy:

MSD high housing costs by income quintile chart

Another issue is that rising house prices may be causing inequality of wealth to increase. The distribution of household wealth has received more attention in recent years, e.g. in Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century, which analysed trends in wealth and income distributions over the past two centuries.

There are reasons to believe that higher house prices may increase wealth inequality. For example, 2013 Census data shows that upper-income households are much more likely to own, partly own, or hold in a family trust their primary residence. 80% of households earning over $100,000 per annum own their houses, compared with only 52% of households earning less than $30,000.

However, we simply don’t have enough recent data to form robust conclusions about the impact of rising house prices on wealth inequality. During the 2000s, the Survey of Family, Income, and Employment (SoFIE) did collect some data on household wealth. An analysis of the 2003/2004 data showed that wealth was much more unevenly distributed than income – 51.8% of all net wealth was held by the richest 10% of New Zealanders.

As SoFIE was discontinued in 2010, we have no way of knowing whether or not wealth inequality has increased during the most recent run-up in Auckland house prices. Consequently, I’d say that a hypothesised link between house prices and wealth inequality is potentially concerning, but unproven. If the Finance Minister is concerned about that issue, I’d recommend that he re-start SoFIE so we can get a better idea of whether rising house prices have coincided with rising wealth inequality.

Finally, commentators should note that this post isn’t arguing for or against any particular policy directed at inequality or the housing market. It’s just taking a look at the data (or lack of data) on the topic. With that in mind, what’s your perspective on the link between housing and inequality?

NIMBYism and Ebola

There were a number of interesting comments this week in relation to intensification in Auckland. The first came from the Reserve Bank Governor Graeme Wheeler talking about how Auckland needs to do more to enable intensification in the city and address NIMBYism to address housing shortages.

Wheeler said the Reserve Bank estimated Auckland had a backlog of unbuilt houses of 15,000 to 20,000 and needed to build 10,000 houses a year for the next 30 years to keep up with demand.

“If you look at permits at this point they are running at an annual rate of around 7,500, which is a huge improvement on where they were 2 years ago, but still well short of the 10,000,” Wheeler said.

“I think some very good work has been done on opening up new areas but a major challenge there is getting houses built quickly enough, and a lot of those areas are in the periphery of Auckland where people may decide that the transport costs are less attractive for them, or the infrastructure needs might be considerable,” he said.

“I think work needs to be done in inner Auckland in addressing the height restrictions and the Not-In-My-Backyard syndrome that’s there.”

Wheeler said he welcomed the Government’s commissoning of work by the Productivity Commission on how issues around zoning decisions, regulatory reform and approval processes

“I am very interested to see the outcome of that sort of review. But we see it mainly as a supply side problem,” he said.

We’ve certainly made it easier to develop greenfield land and with the unitary plan it should get even easier with the proposed Rural Urban Boundary (RUB) which is larger and more flexible than the old urban limits. However even that looks set to be watered down to enable more greenfield development.

The independent panel hearing submissions on the Auckland unitary plan has told submitters the council’s proposed provisions for the new rural:urban boundary “may be overly stringent” and that a more flexible boundary would be better.

The panel also said in interim guidance it issued on Monday: “A rural:urban boundary is the most appropriate method to achieve the objective of a quality compact urban city when compared to the principal alternatives of the operative metropolitan urban limit & no boundary.”

The number of dwelling consents issued over the last 12 months is around 7,700 which is up considerably on the low of just over 3,200 in August 2009.

Consents Issued - Jan 15

In response to Wheeler’s comments, Bill English – who has in the past spoken about the NIMBYism issue – has said calls for more densification in Auckland’s housing were “about as popular in parts of Auckland as Ebola” would be. Suggesting that putting a few terraced houses or low rise apartments in an area is provides a similar fear to a deadly disease is probably taking things a bit too far but also highlights why the council need to do a better job of explaining the benefits of more people being in an area – such as that it provides more opportunities for local businesses and amenities such as local cafe’s, shops and more/better parks.

In addition:

Mr English, who spoke today for the seventh year in a row at the annual Auckland Chamber of Commerce and Massey University lunch in Auckland, said the city’s local government had said homeowners couldn’t build up but have now recognised that means there has to be a “build out.”

The government will confirm details in the new few weeks about further decisions on the Tamaki Redevelopment Co, a joint venture between central government and Auckland Council in 2012 to rejuvenate the suburb. The entity is expected to build about 7,500 new houses over the next decade. Once old properties have been removed or demolished, that will increase the area’s housing stock by 5,000, of which 2,800 will be Housing New Zealand-owned.

“We want to accelerate this type of activity, so small and large redevelopments of Housing New Zealand land and properties are completed with more urgency,” English said.

Lastly he had this to say about housing and infrastructure in general:

The minister said the government had learnt a lot over Auckland’s housing issues and that should lead to a more constructive process than previously about the region’s infrastructure needs, including a second harbour crossing.

‘We could do with a common understanding of the strategy. To government, it has looked like a series of projects arriving for political reasons as well as economic ones and we have to have that common view.”

Coming up with a region wide strategy was one of the key reasons behind amalgamating the previous councils into a single region wide council and requiring a 30 year plan (The Auckland Plan). The problem wasn’t the plan but that the government chose to ignore it for ideological reasons and as such kept fighting it. I’d also suggest that unless he’s prepared to fight the NIMBY issue then there’s not much point in even discussing a second harbour crossing as the local board areas on the North Shore have some of the lowest levels of population growth forecast across the region – in part due to much of the area fighting any form of development.

The inflationary impact of road spend-ups

It’s time for a quick round of everyone’s favourite game, Ask An Economist. Today’s question is: What happens when the government decides to spend up large in a growing economy?

If you guessed that the answer is that it will drive up inflation and crowd out private sector spending, congratulations! You win a hug from the invisible hand. You’ve obviously either paid attention to the lessons of history or the words of latter-day popularisers of economic theory such as Bill English, who recently said that:

It was also important for the Government to run a counter-cyclical fiscal policy which, right now, meant running surpluses, paying down debt, and limiting future initiatives in spending and tax cuts to what would not push interest rates higher than they need be.

However, the government is acting as though the normal rules of prudent fiscal management don’t apply to the road budget. Instead of taking a conservative approach to transport spending, and focusing on the projects that offer the best long-term value at a relatively low cost, they’re pushing ahead with plans to build a number of expensive road projects. For example, the 2014 Budget announced another $800m in motorway projects in Auckland, paid for in part by borrowing, along with $212m in regional road projects paid for out asset sale proceeds.

As an economist, I’m nervous that the motorway spend-up will have perverse economic effects, driving up prices and crowding out other activity. When I went to look at the data, I found reasons to worry.

First, I looked at the data on New Zealand’s spending on roads (from OECD.Stat). The following graph shows investment in new or improved roads as a share of GDP. Essentially, New Zealand spent a fairly consistent amount on roads – and much less on public transport! – in the 1990s. In 2004, road spending started to increase rapidly, rising from about 0.3% of GDP to 0.7%. Unfortunately, the OECD’s data doesn’t cover the last few years, but NZTA’s data suggest that road infrastructure spending has risen further.

NZ road spending, 1995-2011

So the government has boosted spending on roads over the last decade. Has this had any impacts on inflation?

I used Statistics NZ data on inflation to examine the effects. The following graph compares the Capital Goods Price Index for civil construction, a measure of construction cost inflation, with the Consumer Price Index, which measures inflation in the general economy. (NZTA uses a slightly different composite measure of road construction prices, but I’ve chosen to look at civil construction prices as they provide a better indication of potential crowding-out effects on private construction.)

As you can see, the CGPI for civil construction tracked closely with CPI from 1995 to 2003, when road spending made up a relatively constant share of GDP. Between 2004, when the road spend-up started, and the Global Financial Crisis in 2008, civil construction prices rose much more rapidly than the CPI. Construction price inflation briefly cooled off in the aftermath of the GFC, due to falling private-sector demand for construction. But over the past two years it has again started rising faster than CPI, as a result of the economic recovery and spending on major road projects such as Waterview.

NZ civil construction inflation, 1995-2014

In short, spending an increasing amount of money building roads has coincided with a big increase in the cost to build roads. This is exactly what most economists, along with the current Finance Minister, would have predicted to happen.

Moreover, this is likely to have a significant negative effect on private construction. If you want to build an apartment building or a warehouse, you’ll have to compete with NZTA for bulldozers, cranes, and construction labour. Expect to pay higher prices as a result. If civil construction prices had continued to rise in line with CPI over the last decade, rather than being bid up by road spending, big construction projects would be almost 20% cheaper than they are now.

To be fair, other factors may have also played a role, such as the run-up in house prices in the 2000s and increased oil prices. But as Bill English says, government spending shouldn’t exacerbate the inflationary pressures that exist in a growing economy.

This is a tricky dilemma for any government. On the one hand, we do need to invest in a transport network that can accommodate future growth in Auckland. On the other hand, it would be better if the government’s spending didn’t create perverse outcomes for the private sector. If it wants to steer clear of the Scylla of underinvestment and the Charybdis of inflation, it would make sense to look at cheaper alternatives – e.g. the Congestion-Free Network.

CFN_4_SMALL

Bill English on Intensification vs Sprawl

Bill English has provided a fairly blunt but accurate explanation of the issues with urban development in Auckland. Interest.co.nz reports

With respect to so-called urban sprawl, I think that’s a nonsense. If you’re against urban sprawl and that means lower to middle income Kiwis can’t buy a house and you can’t build an apartment in the middle of Auckland for less than NZ$600,000, then that’s too high a price to pay. And if it means driving up house prices in a way that wrecks the economy then that’s too high a price to pay,” he said.

“Funnily enough the people who are most worried about urban sprawl live in the middle of the city. They don’t get to see it. How much time to they really spend out the end of the Western motorway or Botany? None actually. They think you should be able to walk to the countryside. Well…welcome to Gore. If you’re really mad, that’s where you should go. But they don’t. They stay in Auckland Central,” he said to laughter from the audience.

“What’s actually happened is that the local authorities were keen for a denser city, but the inhabitants weren’t, so they’ve jettisoned a fair bit of the densification aspect,” he said.

“So if Auckland wants to grow now, it has to grow out because you don’t want it to grow up. Now that’s a fair choice, but please don’t stop it from growing out as well, otherwise we’ll get another few years of 15% house price growth and you get a real mess when it crashes,” he said, adding the special housing areas agreed under the Housing Accord with the Auckland Council “do spread the city because the planning rules don’t let you do anything else.”

“We’re indifferent as a government as to whether you grow up or out. But you said don’t grow up, so we expect to help you grow out.”

I don’t think that all government ministers were indifferent as to whether Auckland develops up or out but from I’ve seen Bill didn’t seem too concerned with either option. As for his other comments though, he is quite correct, if intensification isn’t allowed then the only option would be to sprawl. I think it’s a message that many of those opposing intensification completely ignored.

What I don’t agree with him on is that an apartment can’t be built for less than 600,000. Many of the projects on our development tracker are certainly well under that price.

Don’t forget to make a submission on the Unitary Plan if you haven’t already they close tomorrow afternoon.

Julie Anne Genter and Bill English in Parliament

One of the most frustrating things about the process the CRL has gone through is not that the government is forcing it to go though extremely rigid analysis, but that it doesn’t require other projects to do the same. Bill English was questioned on this today by Julie Anne Genter but never seemed to be able to directly answer the question. I will say one thing though, he at least wasn’t dismissive of the project.

Also in the news about politics and the RoNS. National’s Northland MP, Mike Sabin has come out yesterday extolling the virtues of Puhoi to Wellsford. Yet at the same time he has confirmed some of the voodoo economics that seems to surround this, and many of the RoNS projects. He claims:

“The Greens would scrap this project in favour of Auckland’s rail loop, because they see it has better cost benefits than the Puhoi to Wellsford project, yet NZTA estimates this RoNS will benefit Northland’s economy in order of $35-$45 million a year, giving a cost benefit ratio of 2 to 1.”

Well let’s just look at that a bit closer. $35-$45 million a year seems fairly significant but in the context of this road is nothing. Being generous let’s say that the benefits start coming in as soon as the project starts and we use the normal 30 year assessment period, ‘et’s also ignore any of the benefits being discounted. That would give us benefits in the range of $1.05 billion to $1.35 billion over a 30 year period. Yet the road is expected to cost around $1.6 billion and that was before the recent announcement that the shorter and easier Puhoi to Warkworth section will cost around $1 billion. I don’t know how on earth you can get a BCR of 2 to 1 when the benefits achieved are less than the construction costs but that is why they are called voodoo economics.

Transmission Gully PPP discussed in Parliament

Yesterday in Parliament Julie Anne Genter asked Bill English about the PPP that is going to be used for Transmission Gully. I think the thing I am most concerned about from the answers is just how little he appears to know about the deal, something you would think he would have a good understanding of due to being the minister of finance.

Investing in Public Transport is a Chicken or Egg debate

In New Zealand, the provision of public transport seems to have really gotten into a chicken or egg debate. This is especially so with the current government who are very reluctant to spend any money on improving public transport using the argument that because most people drive, then we should invest in roads. Of course that ignores the point that so many people use roads because that was all we invested in for almost 60 years. An example of what I am talking about, skip to the 10 minute mark in this video

The reality is people aren’t going to magically use PT if is slow, expensive and not very attractive and the recent improvements in PT use have shown that even with some comparatively moderate investment, we seen patronage take off. Further most signs, especially in Auckland point to people wanting much investment in PT and it consistently seems to rate as one of the key things that people want to see improved. So with that in mind the question really becomes whether we should be using current results as the basis for our investment or something else. The council of course has produced its vision for the future as part of the Auckland Plan however transport is one of the key areas that the government disagrees with so perhaps its time the government started actually expressing their own vision for how they see the future. Developing to a vision, what ever it is, is surely going to provide better outcomes than just building more of something just because that is always what you have done. After all isn’t repeating the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result a definition of insanity?

NZTA borrowing discussed further

A lot of discussion in parliament yesterday around the news that NZTA will be able to borrow money to a greater extent than it has been able to previously.

It seems that Brownlee is playing down the impact of the proposed change – saying that it’s not much change from the status quo and perhaps even that the change is only related to changing the mechanism for funding toll roads. I’m not quite sure whether that’s correct.

Reading through comments on the earlier post has been quite educational and I think Stu perhaps put it best by saying the following:

I think we need to split out the issues here. Are the RoNS an appropriate use of public funds? Generally not. Is is in principle a reasonable idea to borrow against future revenue streams so as to fund capital improvements? Probably yes, if the improvements are worthwhile.

If NZTA does have the capacity, through the legislation change, to borrow much much more than it has previously been able to, then I think it puts a greater requirement on ensuring that money gets spent on projects that stack up well. It’s pretty clear that a number of the RoNS projects really don’t fit that criteria. To be fair, until there is a business case for the City Rail Link that finds general agreement on the project’s merit, it probably falls into the same basket. Of course I’m a bit more confident the CRL will meet that grade than projects such as Puhoi-Wellsford and the Wellington Northern Corridor.

RoNS and Treasury Guidelines

There was an intriguing question and answer session in parliament today between the Greens’ Russel Norman and Finance Minister Bill English, around Treasury’s Guidelines for Better Business Cases and the various Roads of National Significance.


The transcript can be read here.

I think Russel Norman did a pretty good job of walking Bill English into sounding like a huge hypocrite – in that supposedly the RoNS projects are the only bits of capital investment (and we’re talking $14 billion here) which don’t need to pass through the better business case guidelines. Most amusingly, it seems that the reason the RoNS projects get to bypass the process is because they were an election promise, even though the very existence of the guidelines is to temper over-enthusiastic promises that haven’t been properly assessed.

The importance of applying the business case guidelines to the RoNS projects becomes clearer when you actually look at Treasury’s process in more detail: most particularly a requirement to assess alternatives, come up with a robust ‘problem definition’, look for small-scale interventions which might delay the need for large-scale spending and largely go about justifying a project in a more robust way. From what we heard after the review of the City Rail Link’s business case last year, this is the exact process the CRL is going through at the moment.

Yet a project like Puhoi to Wellsford avoids having to have alternatives assessed, avoids having to develop a robust ‘problem definition’ (what is the project actually trying to solve) and perhaps most of all, avoids questions such as “what if we bypass Warkworth, how much does that solve the problem and delay the need for a super expensive motorway?”

Talk about a double-standard!

Oil prices and transport priorities

There was an interesting question and answer session in parliament today between the Green Party’s Gareth Hughes and Finance Minister Bill English, over the government’s infrastructure investment priorities and how they may be affected by rising fuel prices:

The full text of the debate can be read here.

If I’m being somewhat generous to Bill English, it seems that he has finally gathered a slightly better understanding of the fact that rising fuel prices may actually impact on things like road use and public transport use. In the past it seemed that many of his responses on this issue amounted to nothing more than “people will drive no matter what the price is”, which is pretty stupid and ignores what’s actually been happening in recent years.

Yet many of his responses still seem somewhat ‘out of touch’. Does he realise how expensive hybrid cars are? Does he realise how far away we are from mass producing fully electric cars at a price affordable to the general public? Could he please explain actually how public transport will benefit from the Roads of National Significance? One of these RoNS, Transmission Gully, is actually quite likely to completely undermine a big section of the Wellington rail network – something that a lot of money has just been spent (and continues to be spent) on significantly upgrading.

Furthermore, while it may be technically true that the government is spending more on public transport than ever before, inflation plus the significantly increasing number of people using PT mean that what really should be of interest is the share of transport funding that is being dedicated to PT. If funding is to follow the mode experiencing growth – which seems like a fairly logical thing to do – then the graph below indicates that PT funding should be increasing significantly and taking a larger slice of the funding pie than before: These figures just cover the Auckland area of course, but Auckland does seem to be the main area of transport debate at the moment.

Instead of responding to this growth rate, a cabinet paper by Steven Joyce noted how proud he was of “capping” public transport funding at 2008 levels, only adjusted for inflation:

I must say it seems kind of weird to boast about capping the funding of public transport services when patronage in your biggest city has increased by over 20% in three years; while you spend billions more on motorways when traffic on them is declining.

Rather weird indeed.