Tuesday, 16 July 2013

Housing daily: LVR, NIMBYs, and congestion charging

The RBNZ will soon announce its Loan-to-Value rules. Matt Nolan makes a few reasonable points (all my paraphrasing):
  • If the policy is targeted at financial stability, then it has to bite on high-leverage first home loans as those are the most likely to wind up in positions of default. 
    • I'm still a bit sceptical here as the OBR rules mean that the banks have to burn their equity holders and unsecured creditors before touching depositors if they make a bunch of really risky loans: I'm just not convinced that the banks here are really imposing systematic risk by allowing highly leveraged loans. But maybe the RBNZ has insider information suggesting that the government is way more likely than anybody thinks to start stomping on Councils' NIMBY regs currently preventing new building and so property prices are set for an unexpected fall.
    • Further, the choice of "speed limit" will matter. Suppose we've had a road with no speed limit and we're promised one will soon be implemented to stop speeding-related risks. If they then announce a highway speed limit of 100 or 110 kph, that's all fine. If they announce a highway speed limit of 25 kph, not so much. I don't know what fraction of normal-conditions first home loans would be blocked under the new rules, so I don't know whether we're setting a 100 or 25 kph speed limit.
  • Politicians mucking about with what the RBNZ is proposing risks undermining the whole purpose of the thing.
    • I expect here that Matt's alluding to some of John Key's comments suggesting that first-home buyers be exempted.
  • Politicians seem to see LVR as a way of fixing housing affordability; it's not well-suited to that end. 
    At the moment political parties want to loosen financial conditions for home owners, and introduce all sorts of schemes that will get capitalised into house prices.  Instead, the politicians should be looking at it as a distributional issue – it isn’t about giving young households cheap large houses that only exist in fantasy, it is about being realistic about any intergenerational distribution issues that we believe exist due to the inherent “cause” of the current “bubble” or a broader “misalignment” – this has to be relative to what we think is “fair” around the distribution of lifetime resources.  We can’t just “pop” a bubble, but if we understand the causes we can deal with the distributional issues associated with it.  Looking at supply side constraints (which both parties are) makes sense – good to see that.
    But what about the near term?  Worst case scenario, one-off tax all property, given money to group who is “hard done by” – if you aren’t willing to do that, you are faking your belief in a distribution issue. 
  • Matt's sick of Gen X / Gen Y whinging about house prices and wanting transfers. 
I agree with Matt that most of the demand side schemes are horribly misguided. But current housing policy prevents substantial expansion of current supply, inducing large regulatory transfers to those who bought houses when supply was less constrained. In a world where supply could expand (both with increased density and expansion in the suburbs), we wouldn't get the kinds of price run-ups now being experienced in Auckland. Matt's right that more people, and especially young mobile people, should rent rather than buy.

What we really need to figure out are policies that pay off the losers while expanding supply. We have something of a transitional gains trap in housing policy. Current homeowners do get some direct benefits from regulations preventing both them and their neighbours from developing: NIMBY is NIMBY for a reason. But another large effect is that the NIMBY regs keep up house prices as a whole. Sufficiently expansionary housing policy would impose capital losses on homeowners. And we tend not to have easy ways of implementing those kinds of policy changes without compensating those adversely affected so that we can move towards the more efficient equilibrium.

And so I was really disappointed to hear Gerry Brownlee on the radio this morning. One thing that could help Auckland move toward expanding on the fringes would be allowing the use of congestion charging to both internalise the consequent externalities and to help defray the costs of any new roading necessary to service the new communities. It's the kind of policy that compensates the losers (at the margin) while taxing the winners (at the margin). Gerry Brownlee on Radio New Zealand this morning suggested that Auckland wouldn't be allowed to implement congestion charging. Gerry should remember that it's socialists, not free-marketers, that usually recommend that scarce resources be allocated by queuing rather than by prices. If Auckland's willing to move toward sensible road pricing, and they're blocked by central government, we're in rather a bad spot.

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