Join the dots

There are some days when political myopia and an inability to join the dots is particularly difficult to accept. This is one.

On the one hand, we have the Simon Community’s latest annual report:

Over 1,400 people are forced to seek shelter in emergency accommodation in Dublin every night, according to the charity [Simon]. It believes there is little hope for these people of moving on to somewhere of their own in the long term, with at least 50% of people now stuck in emergency shelter for more than six months. The problem, it says, lies in the collapse of the private rented and social housing market, with additional housing also slow to come on stream.

On the other hand, we have these decisions from Dublin’s local authorities:

Dublin homeowners, the State’s biggest payers of local property tax, will have their bills cut next year, following the decision of councillors in three local authorities to lower the tax by 15 per cent. Dublin city councillors last night voted for the cut, despite warnings from chief executive Owen Keegan that the decision could hit homeless services.

Dublin’s local authorities are foregoing roughly €40m on an annual basis with these measures. The back of my envelope suggests that this amount, if used as collateral/deposit of one third to borrow the other two thirds, could have perhaps provided for building 1,000 units a year. I suggest bringing this up with your councillor the next time they knock on the door, proclaiming the virtues of knocking €80 off your property tax bill, while also claiming they will take action on homelessness.

There are two additional bitter pills to swallow. Firstly, this tax rebate is probably the most regressive one that could be dreamed up, with Ireland’s wealthiest citizens benefiting the most and the poorest third of society gaining nothing. And secondly, Ireland’s left-of-centre parties (particularly those not in Government) led the charge on this. The mind boggles.

Blame cannot lie entirely with local politicians, it must be said. Narrowly, if central government hadn’t given them a target of 15%, and instead let them do whatever they want with their property tax, but live with the consequences, things might have panned out differently.

More broadly, there will always be a segment of society who cannot afford to cover the costs involved in their accommodation, so there will always be a requirement for social housing. The government has long abdicated its duties in this regard.

 

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.

Property tax – understanding cause and effect

This is my first post on Irisheconomy.ie, 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.

Poll tax to be replaced by property tax

According to this piece in the Irish Times, the Cabinet have copped on that there is little support for a poll tax. Maybe they have realized too that poll taxes are not terribly smart from an economic perspective either.

An expert group will now be established, to report in Spring. As this discussion is not exactly new, our submission is as good as ready. Ronan Lyons’ has made good progress with his, as has Karl Deeter (also on video). Let’s hope the expert group will take this advice to heart.

Last week, though, I got a number of phone calls from journalists about a plan by the chartered surveyors that everyone should get their house valued by them. That would be an unnecessary transfer of money from the general population to a small group of professionals. There are substantial databases on property values already (CSO, revenue, estate agents, etc).

CORRECTION: The chairman of Residential Agency Practice Group of the Society of Chartered Surveyors Ireland points out that they have never called for all properties to be valued. Apologies to all involved.

Property taxes

Last Thursday, Tim Callan and I presented our views on the property tax. This attracted some media attention in the Times, RTE, and Independent (2, 3). The papers are here and here.

Higher taxes are unavoidable. Property taxes are less bad for economic growth than are higher income taxes. It therefore makes sense to replace the stamp duty with a property tax. There are two snags to this.

First, a property tax is regressive. Poorer people would pay a greater share of their income in tax. This can be repaired, either in the design of the property tax itself (e.g., income-dependent exemptions or a non-linear tax) or through changes in income taxes and benefits.

Second, a property tax should be based on the value of a house. The Revenue does not know this value, and building up the required data will take a few years at least. The government may be tempted to introduce a flat tax instead, or use self-assessment. A flat tax is very regressive. Self-assessment without proper sanctions rewards dishonesty. It is feasible, however, to introduce a property tax based on assessed values, and assess the value using simple rules (e.g., county and size).

A property tax would hit people who are income-poor but property-rich. It would act as an incentive to mobilise their wealth.

(family matters delayed this post)

Economic and Social Review: Spring 2010

The latest edition of the Economic and Social Review has been published. The edition contains two policy papers by staff from the ESRI, one by Tim Callan, Claire Keane and John Walsh on property taxes and the other by David Duffy on negative equity. The Irish Independent have “seen Duffy’s report” presumably because they have access to the Internet. Now you can read it too.