Wednesday, December 15, 2021

Inheritance: the major life event no politician wants to mention

When I was growing up, my family didn’t have much. We lived rent-free in a succession of down-at-heel manses (the Salvos called them “quarters”), but my father’s stipend was a small one on which to support four kids.

Mum worried about where my parents would live after they retired but, with much scrimping and saving (including making my sisters hand over almost all their wages), they built and paid off a small cottage at Lake Macquarie, near Newcastle.

After my father died, Mum spent many impatient years in God’s waiting room, longing to be “promoted to Glory” and thus reunited with my Dad.

That was in 2004 but, though all she had was the cottage and a thousand or two in the bank, that was enough for the four of us to receive one or two hundred thousand each. By then, we were middle-aged and well established. It was nice to add it to the pile, but we didn’t desperately need it.

More people are receiving significant inheritances these days. They’re getting bigger and will get bigger still.

We worry that houses are becoming unaffordable, but the other side of ever-rising house prices is that inheritance has become an important event in most people’s lives. Many people look forward to it, and family disputes or unhappiness over wills is not uncommon.

But here’s a funny thing. When was the last time you heard a politician talking about inheritances? You didn’t. They never do. I’m sure they think about their own inheritance, but they never want to mention yours or anyone else’s.

In the 1970s, Australia became one of the few rich countries to abolish death duties (state and federal). People were so happy to see the end of them that death duties have become one of the bogeymen of federal politics.

Want to start a scare campaign? Spread a rumour that the other side has a secret plan to reintroduce death duties. Want to oppose limits on share franking credits? Claim it’s a form of death duties.

This is why, compared with other countries, we have little information – and even less reliable figures – on the size and dispersion of inheritances. The pollies fear that if they let the bureau of statistics ask people questions about their wealth, their opponents would jump to conclusions.

This explains why last week’s report from the Productivity Commission was “the first comprehensive research report on wealth transfers” and was initiated by the commission, not requested by the government.

The report explains that rising house prices are just the main reason inheritances are getting bigger. Another is that, with superannuation having been compulsory for about 30 years, more people are dying with unspent super balances. And, of course, family sizes are getting smaller.

The report finds that each generation has been wealthier than the previous one, though Baby Boomers have done particularly well. It found that $120 billion was transferred in 2018 – 90 per cent as inheritances and 10 per cent as earlier gifts – which was more than double that in 2002.

The average inheritance, we’re told, was $125,000. But that included a few large inheritances plus many much smaller ones. The average inheritance received by the wealthiest 20 per cent of recipients was $121,000, and by the poorest 20 per cent was about $35,000. Or so we’re told.

Not surprisingly, the children of rich parents received much bigger inheritances than the children of poor parents. Nor is it very surprising that the children of rich parents tend also to be rich, while the children of poor parents tend also to be poor.

But this may surprise: if you switch from focusing on absolute dollars to looking at relative size, you find that the smaller inheritances received by people without much wealth increase that wealth by a much higher percentage than the larger inheritances increase the wealth of already-rich recipients. The same thing can be seen in other countries’ figures for wealth transfers.

So, to a small extent, the growing prevalence of inheritance is reducing the gap between rich and poor. And, as the report’s authors stress, inheritance isn’t the main reason the children of the rich are also rich and the children of the poor also poor.

No, monetary inheritances explain only about a third. The rest is explained by “all the other things parents give their children – education, networks, values and other opportunities”. And remember, IQ is mainly genetic. Luck is another factor.

Did you notice how little of the wealth transfers gifts accounted for? The authors say they couldn’t find strong evidence of larger transfers from the Bank of Mum and Dad “despite popular belief”.

Sorry, not convinced. By their own admission, the data they’ve been using are “somewhat limited”. My guess is that more people receive inheritances than their figures show. The size of inherited amounts seems very low. As for parents having to cough up to help their kids buy a home, it’s become a big deal relatively recently.

So if the statisticians can’t find much evidence of it, that’s probably because they haven’t been asking the right questions.