From prosperity to austerity – book launch

Later this month sees the launch of “From Prosperity to Austerity: A socio-cultural critique of the Celtic Tiger and its Aftermath”, a book on the Irish economy and society edited by Eamon Maher (IT Tallaght) and Eugene O’Brien and published by Manchester University Press.

The launch take places 6pm, Thursday September 25 in Hodges Figgis on Dawson Street. Brian Lucey (TCD) will giving an address at the launch – and if that weren’t incentive enough to head along, there will also be refreshments!

Thomas Piketty and the subsidy of leverage

Over the weekend, the Irish Times led with eye-catching headline “Piketty says [Ireland’s] property tax unfair and should be altered“. The juxtaposition of Piketty, arguably the world’s most talked about economist in 2014, and Ireland’s property tax, possibly the smallest property tax of any developed country, is due to Piketty’s presence in Dublin this Friday to talk at TASC’s annual conference.

Piketty’s point is that property tax – a tax on the most prevalent form of wealth – takes no account of debt, mortgages being the most prevalent form of debt. In his own words:

“I think if you have a house that’s worth €400,000 but you have a mortgage of €390,000, you know you’re not really rich. Your net wealth is €10,000 and you are paying back in interest payments as much as a tenant will pay in rent. So there’s no reason why you should pay as much property tax as someone who inherited his €400,000 house or who has finished reimbursing his mortgage 20 years ago.”

I have to admit that I cannot agree. My problem with this line of argument is that it is effectively a subsidy of leverage. This is something Ireland is consciously moving away from (for obvious reasons), in particular with the end of Mortgage Interest Relief.

Not that there is no debate to be had. Net wealth and gross wealth are separate concepts and it is certainly possible to consider which we might want to tax and why. However, taxes change behaviour and if you say to an economy “we will give you a tax rebate for every euro of debt you take on”, then if Ireland has €350bn in residential real estate, we should not be surprised if as a society that becomes our target for mortgage debt. While Thomas is correct to point out that net wealth is different to gross wealth, we should not forget that ignoring gross amounts and balance sheets is a large part of what got us (for us, read Ireland or world economy, as you choose) into this mess in the first place.

Perhaps more importantly, we tax property for a reason. That reason is that society is trying to recapture some of the wealth that it has created for private individuals, which is reflected in land values. (I am side-stepping one important issue for the moment, the property tax vs. land tax argument – as William Vickrey, 1996 Nobel Prize laureate in economics, noted: “The property tax is, economically speaking, a combination of one of the worst taxes, the part that is assessed on real estate improvements and one of the best taxes, the tax on land or site value.”)

So, the taxation of built capital aside, the taxation of land values is not just an arbitrary additional means of generating revenue. It is unique, in not affecting our behaviour, and in capturing pure economic rent. In the words of another Nobel Laureate, James Mirrlees:

Taxing land ownership is equivalent to taxing an economic rent – to do so does not discourage any desirable activity. Land is not a produced input; its supply is fixed and cannot be affected by the introduction of a tax. With the same amount of land available, people would not be willing to pay any more for it than before, so (the present value of) a land value tax would be reflected one-for-one in a lower price of land: the classic example of tax capitalisation.

If you alter that, by saying “you can borrow to buy land and not have to pay tax”, unsurprisingly you no longer have a uniquely beneficial tax. Clearly, we are far from land value tax in Ireland but the principle remains.

Even if one does not accept the argument that property tax is a charge on services provided by the state, there is a fundamental difference between a renter and a mortgage-holder: only the latter is buying a ticket to future wealth (in net terms, you already have it gross terms). At least two effects occur when you give debt-rebates for property tax. The first is increased leverage, as mentioned above.

The second is distributional and thus perhaps of even greater interest for Friday’s TASC conference. For example, in the case of Ireland, there are (very roughly) a third of households owning without a mortgage (the richest third), another third with mortgages and the final third living in rented accommodation (by and large the poorest third).

If you give a tax rebate to the middle group – who, remember, have wealth that the poorest third do not have – then by definition the other two groups have to pay more in tax to compensate (assuming that there is some fixed target for government revenues).

This doesn’t mean that I am unsympathetic to Ireland’s negative equity generation. Indeed, in the report I prepared on introducing Land Value Tax in Ireland in early 2012, I outlined precisely how one might take account of legacy negative equity in the new property tax system. But good policy should be future-proof – and can then be tweaked to take account of current circumstances. And given that it should be a major goal of policy to prevent huge negative equity from ever happening again, it seems odd that we would institutionalise this feature.

They say the best tax is an old tax. Failing that, the best tax is probably a simple one. Taxing the value of property (or ideally the value of land) is simple. Introducing tax rebates for debt – however well-intentioned – turns it into a game where everyone wants to minimise their tax liability (in this case by increasing their debt liabilities). For me, that’s not the way to go.

P.S. As is now customary for blogging economists (and perhaps soon mandatory), I feel I should reveal whether or not I’ve read Piketty’s book! It’s my book-of-the-month for June and I’m about 1/3 of the way through.

Albert Saiz presentation in TCD, June 9th

Albert Saiz, a leading urban economist based at MIT, will be giving a special seminar next Monday (June 9th) at 3.30pm, hosted by the Department of Economics at TCD. The talk, which will take place in the IIIS Seminar Room, top floor of the Arts Building in Trinity College Dublin, is entitled: “Immigrant Locations and Native Residential Preferences in Spain: New Ghettos?” An abstract is given below.

Albert is also giving the keynote the following morning (Tuesday 10th) at a workshop hosted by the Policy Institute at TCD on the latest Irish housing market crisis, this time the lack of supply. The event is aimed at policy-makers and other decision-makers in the housing sector. As capacity is limited, if you’re interested in attending, please send me an email (

Immigrant Locations and Native Residential Preferences in Spain: New Ghettos?

Abstract: In research we are studying the impact of immigration on native residential mobility in a European context. Before the economic crisis, Spain received an inflow of immigrants roughly equivalent to ten percent of the population in only ten years. We have obtained a massive data-set from the national registry, or Padron – everyone is required by law to register their address after moving to new dwellings. Importantly, all immigrants in Spain need to be inscribed in this municipal registry in order to be eligible for visas, and illegal immigrants can also register. We can identify the exact geo-location of the place of residence for each individual registered in the country – about 45 million- from 1999 to 2008. With this information, we study the residential responses of natives at the very micro level –including across buildings. We are finding fascinating patterns that suggest that immigration and the consequent white-flight that engendered in central cities greatly spurred suburbanization in the larger metropolises.

Long-run perspectives on crime and conflict

More news from Queens – their Centre for Economic History (QUCEH) is hosting an interdisciplinary workshop on the economics and history of crime and conflict. The workshop will take place in Belfast on Friday 12 September 2014 and they are currently inviting submissions (with a deadline of Friday 18 July 2014). A key motivation of the workshop is to encourage economists and social science historians of crime and conflict to network and collaborate on future research.

Full details here.

Fully-funded Economics PhDs at QUB

Fellow economic historian Chris Colvin has brought my attention to the fact that the Management School at Queen’s University Belfast has three fully-funded scholarships for full-time PhD students in Economics, starting October 2014. In terms of thesis topics, they will consider all areas of economics, finance or management but they are particularly keen to recruit  students in the following areas:

  • game theory and mechanism design with some emphasis on the economics of networks and institutions;
  • economic history, including business and financial history; anthropometrics and demography; health, wealth and inequality over the long run; politics, democracy and growth; the economic history of partition in Ireland;
  • health economics, labour economics, and the economics of education;
  • long-term development and the economics of crime;
  • behavioural/experimental economics with some emphasis on social learning.

(As someone working on wealth and inequality over the long run and increasingly interested in the economics of partition, I’d particularly encourage applications in those two areas!)

The good news for successful applicants is that the studentships, which each last for 3 years, include both university fees and annual stipend of £13,863 per annum. The closing date for applications is Friday 20 June 2014 – full details are here.

Housing supply and demand

There is quite a bit of momentum currently – and thankfully, given the severity of the housing crisis – in the whole area of housing, rising prices and rents, and the lack of supply in Ireland’s urban centres. I had thought pretty much everyone involved was agreed that a lack of supply was indeed the root cause of rapidly rising rents and prices.

Hence my despair at reading this article in today’s Irish independent: Easy mortgages for first-time buyers are on the way. Shifting out demand to encourage supply seems to me to be like adding fuel to the fire in the hope that the fire brigade are more likely to turn up. The losers will be the very people the policy aims to help, first-time buyers who will be given more credit to bid against each other.

What is particularly disheartening is that it comes so soon after Ireland tried this before and it went so spectacularly wrong – while house price growth from 1995-2001 was driven by a combination of factors (including incomes growing faster than supply), house price growth 2001-2007 was driven almost exclusively by easy credit and that was where the damage was done.

As per last night’s Prime Time, if you want housing to be affordable, increase supply – it’s no more complicated than that. If supply is not forthcoming, we need to understand why, rather than push the price of housing further up. My suspicion is the current lack of supply is down to a complicated and overly prescriptive system of planning and building controls, coupled with an array of developer contributions and levies which shift the burden from existing to new residents. This could be replaced with a unified land use policy and a simple land value tax.

As for policy in relation to loan-to-value, pick a number (like 80%) as the maximum loan-to-value for anyone and stick with it. That way at least, policy won’t be responsible for turning a house price upswing into another bubble.

University rankings, 2014

Always a controversial topic, the latest university rankings by QS have been published. More details here. The aim is to identify the top 200, meaning something of an abrupt stop once they get to 200. (I feel the need to put a disclaimer here that I post this not because I stand over the ranking’s exact methodology, but rather rankings such as these are used by both prospective students and policymakers, hence they are important.)

Of interest to this readership, the ranking of Economics Departments in Europe is here. Trinity features in the 51-100 cohort and UCD in the 100-150. (Digression: nice to see a popular ranking recognise the bounds of uncertainty, although this may not be the best way to do it.) Six of the top seven Economics departments in Europe are British, with one each from Italy, Sweden, the Netherlands, Spain, Switzerland and France also in the top dozen.

9th-level Ireland has a handy table of Ireland’s top ranking departments across all disciplines from 2011 to 2014. Four departments (all in TCD) are in the top 50 in their discipline. A further 18 are in the 51-100 group (including three law departments).

House prices: bubbles versus booms

The end of one quarter and the start of another sees the usual slew of economic reports and the start of Q4 is no exception. Today sees the launch of the Q3 Report. In line with other reports in the last week or so, and indeed with the last few Reports, there is evidence of strong price rises in certain Dublin segments. What is new this quarter is the clarity of the divide between Dublin and elsewhere: all six Dublin regions analysed show year-on-year gains in asking prices (from 1.4% in North County Dublin to 12.7% in South County Dublin), while every other region analysed (29 in total) continues to show year-on-year falls (from 3.1% in Galway city to 19.5% in Laois).

The substantial increases in South Dublin over the last 12 months have led to talk of “yet another bubble” emerging, with internet forums awash with sentiment such as “Not again!” and “Will we never learn?”. To me, this is largely misplaced, mistaking a house price boom for a house price bubble. Let me explain.

Firstly, I should state that, unlike “recession” which is taken to mean two consecutive quarters of negative growth, there is no agreement among economists on what exactly constitutes a bubble, in house prices or in other assets, but the general rule is that prices have to detach from “fundamentals”. For example, the Congressional Budget Office defines an asset bubble as an economic development where the price of an asset class “rises to a level that appears to be unsustainable and well above the assets’ value as determined by economic fundamentals”. Charles Kindleberger wrote the book on bubbles and his take on it is that almost always credit is at the heart of bubbles: it’s hard for prices to detach from fundamentals if people only have their current income to squander. If you give them access to their future income also, through credit, that’s when prices can really detach.

Continue reading “House prices: bubbles versus booms”

We’re different, roysh? The decoupling of the Dublin property market

Today sees the launch of the fiftieth Daft Report, with a commentary by yours truly. To mark the occasion, and to mark five years of Ireland’s property market crash, and the All-Island Research Observatory at NUI Maynooth, have launched a property value heatmap tool. In a companion post to this one, I outline the tool, how it works and what it tells us about Ireland’s property market crash.

In this post, though, I’d like to highlight what’s in the report itself. The principal finding from Q2 was that conditions in the Dublin market do indeed look to have improved considerably since the start of the year. This has happened at a time when conditions elsewhere in the country are pretty much unchanged. It seems the decoupling of the Dublin property market from the rest of the country has already begun.

Continue reading “We’re different, roysh? The decoupling of the Dublin property market”

Get them while they’re hot (or cold): Heatmaps of property values in Ireland now available

As I note in the companion post to this one, today sees the launch of the fiftieth Daft Report, with a commentary by yours truly. To mark the occasion, and to mark five years of Ireland’s property market crash, and the All-Island Research Observatory at NUI Maynooth, have launched a property value heatmap tool. In this post, I’ll give an outline of what the tool is and does, and what we can learn from it.

Continue reading “Get them while they’re hot (or cold): Heatmaps of property values in Ireland now available”

Austerity games

Kevin and Philip have been keeping readers of this site up-to-date with economic analysis of Grexit, problems with EMU and other big picture items over the last few days.

If I may, I’d like to bring things back down to the level of Ireland and the upcoming referendum on the Fiscal Compact. To my mind, a few important concepts have gone out the window as the debate in Ireland about the referendum on the Fiscal Compact has descended into political games. Perhaps the first victim was cause-and-effect, with the mere correlation of banking debts and government deficits being translated by many into iron-cast causation.

A close second in the casualty list was the concept of opportunity cost: in other words, there’s not really much point focusing on how bad or economically illiterate the Fiscal Compact is in and of itself. We need to ask how attractive it is relative to the other options. As of now, the most important attribute of the Fiscal Compact is its ability to get Ireland the funding that it otherwise would not be able to get, to allow the country to gradually close the deficit. By 2020, that may be completely unimportant and we may want to ditch the Compact. But we are voting in 2012, not 2020.

With that in mind, I’ve developed “Austerity Games”, as a basic guide to voters on deficits, debt, fiscal policy and the EU’s Fiscal Compact (below, click to enlarge). Hopefully it’s useful to some readers.

choices for Irish voters
Austerity Games: choices for Irish voters

For a fuller exposition on why the IMF will not be a panacea, Karl Whelan has an excellent blog post here.

Property tax – understanding cause and effect

This is my first post on, having served my time as apprentice in the Keyboard Warrior army with my own blog, so hopefully it’s useful to set out how I envisage using this site. My research interests are urban economics (including property markets) and economic history. When it comes to the Irish economy, my interests are probably best categorised as follows (in no particular order):

  • Irish government finances
  • the property market
  • Ireland’s international competitiveness

I had thought that maybe my best option to open my account on this site would be to do a post on each and start a conversation. Fortunately, the Irish policy debate is far too exciting and so this morning we have a story (see for example Charlie Weston’s article in the Independent) that covers all three areas: the property tax.