Showing posts with label wealth. Show all posts
Showing posts with label wealth. Show all posts

Wednesday, September 28, 2022

Great Aussie Pipedream: rising house prices make us feel wealthier

I guess you’ve heard. Isn’t it great? Australians are now the richest people in the world. But if you find that hard to believe, congratulations. Your bulldust detector’s working fine.

According to Credit Suisse’s annual global wealth report, which tracks wealth in 20 countries, last year the typical adult Australian’s wealth – assets minus debts – reached almost $336,000.

Soaring property prices lifted our median wealth by $38,000, enough to put us just ahead of Belgium and New Zealand. Our residential property prices rose by almost 24 per cent during the year.

We had about 2.2 million millionaires – measured in US dollars – up from 1.8 million in 2020.

So, what’s the catch? Well, I’m sure there’s nothing wrong with the bank’s calculations. And there’s no denying we’re a rich country, whether by this you mean our annual income, or the value of the net assets, physical and financial, of our households.

No, the problem is that so much of our wealth comes from the value of our home. Do you believe our homes are so much bigger or better, or better located, than homes in North America or Europe?

I doubt it. If not, then what we’re really saying is that the land on which our homes are built is much better than the land on which the Americans and Germans – and Kiwis – have built their homes.

Really? We have better views? Better soil quality? Less chance of getting flooded or burnt out?

No. If the market price of our residential land is higher than their market price, it’s just because we’ve bid our prices up higher than they have theirs.

And how exactly does doing that make Australians richer than people in other countries? If it does, why don’t we keep bidding our prices up until we’re twice as rich as we are now?

See what I’m saying? It’s not something economists talk about much but, as former Reserve Bank heavy Dr Tony Richards explained in a speech many moons ago, the notion that the high prices we charge and pay each other for our homes makes the nation richer is an illusion.

“The increase in housing prices has been a mixed blessing for Australians. At one level, rising housing prices have made many people feel [note that word] wealthier and have contributed to higher levels of consumer spending than might otherwise have occurred. But they have also resulted in concerns about housing affordability,” he said.

“The difference in views reflects the fact that housing is not just an asset but also a consumption item. When housing is thought of purely as a consumption item, it would seem that in aggregate we would be better off if its price were lower.

“Because we all need to consume some level of housing services, either rented or purchased, a higher level of housing prices and rents allows less spending on other items.”

Get it? It seems that, as a nation, Australians value owning their own home, and making sure it’s a good one, more than the people in many other rich countries do.

In consequence, we devote more of our incomes to housing than they do, meaning we spend a smaller proportion of our incomes on everything else. So, to that extent, home ownership really is the Great Australian Dream.

It’s because, as a nation, we can never spend enough on improving our own housing position – although how much we can pay is held back by how much our income allows us to borrow – that house prices have become so sensitive to the rate of interest on home loans.

When rates come down a bit – even during a pandemic – our ability to borrow more prompts more aggressive bidding against other would-be owners, pushing prices up. When, as now, interest rates start going up again, thus reducing how much we can borrow, house prices fall back a bit.

Although there’ve been times when we’ve let our building of extra homes fall behind the growth in our population, over the longer term we’ve managed to keep the two pretty much in line.

So, house prices aren’t high because we don’t have enough houses to accommodate every household. They’re high because some houses are better than others – bigger, newer, flashier, or better located, nearer the beach, nearer other well-off people, or nearer the centre of the city – and we compete with others to get the best we can (barely) afford. And because many home owners want to own more than one, as an investment.

As well, prices in the most desirable parts of the city are higher because of government restrictions on packing in more households by building up rather than out.

But here’s the punchline. Just because higher house prices don’t make us wealthier as a nation, this doesn’t stop them making some Aussies wealthier than other Aussies. Which, for many of us, is what we’re after. Housing is one of the main things we’ve allowed to widen the gap between rich and poor.

And I thought we were supposed to be proud of our Aussie egalitarianism.

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Friday, September 16, 2022

The housing dream that became a nightmare - and isn't over yet

If you think the rich are getting richer, you’re right – but maybe not for the reason you think. It’s mainly the rising price of housing, which is steadily reshaping our society, and not for the better.

We know how unaffordable home ownership has become, but that’s just the bit you can see, as the Grattan Institute’s Brendan Coates outlined in the annual Henry George lecture this week, “The Great Australian Nightmare”, a magisterial survey of housing and its many implications.

But first, let’s be clear what we mean by “the rich”. Is it those who have the most annual income, or those who have the most wealth – assets less debts and other liabilities? The two are related, but not the same. It’s possible to be “asset rich, but income poor” – particularly if you’re living in your main asset, as many oldies are.

The Productivity Commission argues that the distribution of income hasn’t got much more unequal in the past couple of decades, though Bureau of Statistics’ figures for the growth in household disposable income over the 16 years to 2019-20 seem pretty unequal to me.

They show the real income of the bottom quintile (20 per cent block) grew by 26 per cent, which wasn’t much less than for the middle three quintiles, but a lot less than the 47 per cent growth for the top quintile.

Two points. One, the top one percentile – the chief executive class – probably had increases far greater than 47 per cent, which pushed up the average increase for the next 19 percentiles.

It’s CEO pay rises that get publicised and leave many people convinced the rich are getting richer – which they are.

The other point is Coates’: if you take real household disposable income after allowing for housing costs, you see a much clearer gradient running from the lowest quintile to the highest.

The increase in the bottom quintile’s income drops from 26 per cent to 12 per cent, whereas the top quintile’s growth drops only from 47 per cent to 43 per cent.

Get it? The rising cost of housing – whether mortgage payments or payments of rent – takes a much bigger bite out of low incomes than high incomes.

“People on low incomes – increasingly, renters – are spending more of their income on housing,” Coates says.

But it’s when you turn from income to wealth that you really see the rich getting richer. Whereas the net wealth of the poorest quintile of households rose by less than 10 per cent, the richest quintile rose by almost 60 per cent.

And here’s the kicker: almost all of that huge increase came from rising property values.

Other figures show that, before the pandemic, the total wealth of all Australian households was $14.9 trillion. Within that, the value of housing accounted for nearly $10 trillion.

Over the past 50 years, average full-time wages have doubled in real terms. But house prices have quadrupled – with most of that growth over the past 25 years.

Be clear on this: research confirms that the huge increases in home prices relative to incomes in advanced economies in the post-World War II period has mainly been driven by rising land values, accounting for about 80 per cent of growth since the 1950s, on average, with construction and replacement costs increasing only at the rate of inflation.

Coates reminds us that, within living memory, Australia was a place where housing costs were manageable, and people of all ages and incomes had a reasonable chance to own a home. These days, plenty of people even on middle incomes can’t manage it.

It’s obvious that the better-off can afford bigger and better homes than the rest of us. Many probably also have an investment property or three.

But it’s worse than that. Coates says the growing divide between those who make it to home ownership and those who don’t risks becoming entrenched as wealth is passed on to the next generation.

An increasing share of our wealth is in the hands of the Baby Boomers and older generations. The swelling of our national household wealth to $14.9 trillion – largely concentrated among older groups – means there's an awfully big pot of wealth to be passed on, he says.

“Big inheritances boost the jackpot from the birth lottery. Richer parents tend to have richer children. Among those who received an inheritance over the past decade, the wealthiest 20 per cent received, on average, three times as much as the poorest 20 per cent.”

In fact, one recent study estimates that 10 per cent of all inheritances will account for as much as half the value of bequests from today’s retirees, he says.

“And inheritances are increasingly coming later in life. As the miracles of modern medicine have extended life expectancy, the age at which children inherit has increased.

“The most common age to receive an inheritance is late-50s or early-60s – much later than the money is needed to ease the mid-life squeeze of housing and children.”

Coates says large intergenerational wealth transfers can change the shape of society. They mean that a person’s economic position can relate more to who their parents are than their own talent or hard work.

Coates argues that the ever-growing unaffordability of housing caused by present policies – which politicians on both sides keep promising to fix, but never do – is not just making our society increasingly divided between rich and poor, it’s also making the economy less efficient.

In modern, service-based and information-dependent economies, “economies of agglomeration” – benefits from firms and people living and working close together – mean productivity, innovation and wages are greatest in big cities.

But if we don’t pack in enough housing, and so cause house prices to go sky high, we don’t get all the benefits. Long commutes make it harder for both parents to work. The economy becomes less “dynamic”, and productivity is slow to improve. Not smart.

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Wednesday, August 10, 2022

We've got more than we've ever had, but are we better off?

It probably won’t surprise you that the Productivity Commission is always writing reports about … productivity. Its latest is a glittering advertisement for the manifold benefits of capitalism which, we’re told, holds The Key to Prosperity.

Which is? Glad you asked. Among all the ways to co-ordinate a nation’s economic activity, capitalism – which the commission prefers to call the “market” economy – is by far the best at raising our material standard of living by continuously improving our … productivity.

Productivity is capitalist magic. It means producing more outputs of goods and services with the same or fewer inputs of raw materials, labour and physical capital. This involves not working harder or longer, but working smarter – using new ideas to reduce the cost of the goods and services we produce, to improve their quality and even to invent new goods and services.

Find that hard to believe? Keep watching the ad.

We’re told that sustained productivity improvement has happened only over about the past 200 years, since the Industrial Revolution. Then, 90 per cent of the world’s population lived in extreme poverty, compared with less than 10 per cent today.

Technological developments and inventions – including vaccines, antibiotics and statins – have driven huge increases in the length of our lives and years of good health.

In Australia, output of goods and services per person – a simple measure of prosperity – is about seven times higher than it was 120 years ago at Federation. This means people today have access to an array of goods and services that were unimaginable in the past.

For every 10,000 newborn babies in 1901, more than 1000 died before their first birthday; today it’s just three. For those who survived childbirth, life expectancy was about 60 years, compared with more than 80 today.

During their 60 years, the average Australian worked much longer hours than today, with little paid leave. The 48-hour week wasn’t introduced until 1916 and paid annual leave didn’t become the norm until 1935. Workplaces were far more dangerous.

Most people died before becoming eligible for the age pension (introduced in 1909) and the average wage bought far fewer goods and services, with a steak costing 5 per cent of the weekly wage.

Homes were more crowded – about five people per home, which were much smaller. We had outside toilets until the 1950s and washing machines and dishwashers didn’t become common until at least the 1970s.

By making goods and services cheaper and better, productivity improvement has increased the typical worker’s purchasing power. That is, it has reduced the number of hours of work required to achieve any particular level of material living standards.

For instance, the cost of a double bed, mattress, blanket and pillows has fallen from 185 hours of work in 1901 to 18 hours today. The cost of a loaf of bread has fallen from 18 minutes to four minutes.

More recently, the cost of a new car has fallen from 17 months in 1990 to five. The cost of a smartphone has fallen from 60 hours in 2010 to 16.

End of advertisement.

When you think about it, this is amazing. Objectively, there’s no doubt we’re hugely more prosperous than our forebears. Our lives are longer and healthier, with less pain, less physical exertion, less work per week, bigger and better homes, more education, more comfort, more convenience, more entertainment, more holidays and travel, more ready contact with family and friends, and greater access to the rest of the world.

We’re not just better off than our great-grandparents, we’re clearly better off than we were 20 years ago. Oldies like me can’t begin to tell our offspring how much clunkier the world was before computers and the internet.

And yet … the trouble with the higher material living standard we strive for – and economists devote their careers to helping us achieve – is that we so quickly take it for granted. It’s always the next step on the prosperity ladder that will finally make us happy.

We’re undoubtedly better off in 100 ways, but do we feel much better about it?

I suspect our lives are like a Top 40 chart – when one tune falls back, another always takes its place. There’s always one tune that sold most copies this week – even if this week’s winner sold far fewer than last week’s.

Whether they’re life-threatening or just annoying, there’s always a set of worries that mar our sense of wellbeing. Makes you wonder whether there might be more to life than prosperity. Human relationships, for instance.

Then there’s the possibility – beyond the purview of most economists – that prosperity comes at a price. Maybe the world we’ve created in our pursuit of prosperity comes at the price of more stress, anxiety, depression and loneliness.

And maybe the natural world is about to present us with a belated bill for all our prosperity: more droughts, bushfires, cyclones, flooding and higher sea levels. All of it in a despoiled environment.

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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.

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Monday, April 5, 2021

Wealth and happiness don't give meaning to our lives

Easter Monday’s a good a time to reflect on what we’re doing with our lives and why we’re doing it. I’ve been banging on about all things economic for more than 40 years, but if I’ve left you with the impression economics and economic growth is the be-all and end-all, let me apologise for misleading you.

The more I’ve learnt about economics, the more aware I’ve become of its limitations. Economics is the study of production and consumption, getting and spending. But as someone connected with Easter – not the Easter Bunny – once said, there’s more to life than bread alone.

Unfortunately, the conventional way of thinking about the economy has pretty much taken for granted the natural environment in which our economic activity occurs, and the use of natural resources and ecosystem services on which that activity depends.

We’re learning the hard way that this insouciance can’t continue. We’re damaging our environment in ways that can’t continue. I keep writing about the need for economic growth because, as the economy is presently organised, it’s pretty much the only way to provide sufficient jobs for our growing population.

But that just means we need to redefine economic growth to mean getting better, not bigger (and probably should do more to limit world population growth).

Conventional economics focuses on the material aspects of life: producing and consuming goods and services; buying and selling property. There’s no denying the inescapable importance of the material in our lives – “bread” – but conventional economics encourages our obsession with material accumulation at the expense of other important dimensions of our lives.

Some aspects of economic activity can damage our physical health – smoking, drinking, burning dirty fossil fuels, even eating fast foods – but we need to become more aware of the way the fast pace and competitive pressures of modern life also threaten our mental health. Too many people – particularly the young – suffer chronic stress, anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts.

Too much emphasis on material success can also come at the expense of the social aspect of our lives – our relationships with family, friends and neighbours – which, when we’re thinking straight, we realise give us far more satisfaction than any new car or pay rise. Economists often advocate policies that will increase the efficiency of our use of resources without giving a moment’s thought to their effect on family life.

Nor should we allow our pursuit of material affluence to come at the expense of the moral and spiritual aspects of lives. I’ve just read social commentator Hugh Mackay’s book, Beyond Belief, which has done so much to clarify my thinking about Christianity, religion and spirituality that I’m sorry I didn’t get to it earlier.

Yet another thing that mars conventional economic thinking is its emphasis on the individual as opposed to the community, it’s effective sanctification of self-interest as the economy’s only relevant driving force, and its obsession with competition and neglect of the benefits of co-operation.

Mackay says that, if you ignore the doctrines and dogmas of the church – all the things you’re required to believe in – and focus on the teachings of Jesus, the first thing to strike you is that none of it was about the pursuit of personal happiness.

“The satisfactions offered or implied are all, at best, by-products of the good life,” he says. “The emphasis is on serving others and responding to their needs in the spirit of loving-kindness, the strong implication being that the pursuit of self-serving goals, like wealth or status, will be counterproductive.”

Jesus’ teachings “were all about how best to live: the consistent emphasis was on loving action, not belief. According to Jesus, the life of virtue – the life of goodness – is powered by faith in something greater than ourselves (love, actually), not by dogma.”

Mackay says we should “avoid the deadly trap of regarding faith as a pathway to personal happiness. The idea that you are entitled to happiness, or that the pursuit of personal happiness is a suitable goal for your life, is seriously misguided.

“If we know anything, we know that’s a fruitless, pointless quest – doomed to disappoint – because . . . our deepest satisfactions come from a sense of meaning in our lives, not from experiencing any particular emotional state like happiness or contentment.”

The self-absorbed mind’s entire focus is individualistic. It’s “the polar opposite of the moral mind. Its orientation is towards the self, not others; its currency is competition, not cooperation; it’s all about getting, not giving. Its goal is the feel-good achievement of personal gratification, however that might be achieved and regardless of any impact it might have on the wellbeing of ‘losers’.”

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Saturday, January 26, 2019

You'd be surprised what's propping up our living standard

It’s the last lazy long weekend before the year really gets started, making it a good time to ponder a question that’s trickier than it seems: where has our wealth come from?

The question comes from a reader.

“Australia has been without a recession for 25 or more years, the economy seems booming to me, just by looking around: employment, housing prices, explosive building in major capitals, etc. Where is the wealth coming from? Mining? Other exports? Because the resources have to come from somewhere,” he writes.

That’s the first thing he’s got right: it’s not money that matters (the central bank can create as much of that stuff as it sees fit) it’s what money is used to buy: access to “real resources” – which economists summarise as land (including minerals and other raw materials), labour and (physical) capital.

But here’s the first surprise: of those three, when you trace it right back, probably the most important resource is labour – all the work we do.

The first complication, however, is the word “wealth”, which can mean different things. It’s best used to refer to the value of the community’s assets: its housing, other land and works of art, the equipment, structures and intellectual property owned by businesses (part of which is represented by capitalised value of shares on the stock exchange), plus publicly owned infrastructure (railways, roads, bridges and so forth) and structures.

To get net wealth you subtract any debts or other liabilities acquired in the process of amassing the wealth. In the case of a national economy, the debts we owe each other cancel out, leaving what we owe to foreigners. (According to our national balance sheet, as calculated by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, at June last year our assets totalled $15.4 trillion, less net liabilities to the rest of the world of $3.5 trillion.)

But often the word wealth is used to refer to our annual income, the total value of goods and services produced in the market during a year, as measured by gross domestic product (which in the year to June was $1.8 trillion).

The people in an economy generate income by applying their labour to land and physical capital, to produce myriad goods and services. Most of these they sell to each other, but some of which they sell to foreigners. Why? So they can buy other countries’ exports of goods and services.

Only about 20 per cent of our income comes from selling stuff to foreigners and only 20 per cent or so of the stuff we buy comes from foreigners. This exchange leaves us better off when we sell the stuff we’re better at producing than they are, and buy the stuff they’re better at than we are.

Much of what we sell to foreigners is minerals and energy we pull from the ground and food and fibres we grow in the ground. So it’s true that a fair bit of our wealth is explained by what economists call our “natural endowment”, though it’s also true that we’re much more skilled at doing the mining and farming than most other countries are.

Speaking of skills, the more skilled our workers are – the better educated and trained – the greater our income and wealth. Economists call this “human capital” – and it’s worth big bucks to us.

How do the people in an economy add a bit more to their wealth each year? Mainly by saving some of their income rather than consuming it all. We save not just through bank accounts, but by slowly paying off our mortgages and putting 9.5 per cent of our wages into superannuation.

It’s the role of the financial sector to lend our savings to people wanting to invest in the assets we count as wealth: homes, business structures and equipment and public infrastructure. So if most of our annual income comes from wages, most of our savings come from wage income and our savings finance much of the investment in additional assets.

But because our natural endowment and human capital give us more investment opportunities that can be financed from our savings, we long have called on the savings of foreigners to allow us to invest more in new productive assets each year than we could without their participation.

Some of the foreigners’ savings come as “equity investment” – their ownership of Australian businesses and a bit of our real estate – but much of it is just borrowed. These days, however, our companies’ (and super funds’) ownership of businesses or shares in businesses in other countries is worth roughly as much as foreigners’ equity investments in Oz, meaning all our net liability to the rest of the world is debt.

Naturally, the foreigners have to be rewarded for the savings they’ve sunk into our economy. We pay them about $60 billion a year in interest and dividends, on top of the interest and dividends they pay us.

The main thing we get in return for this foreign investment in our economy is more jobs (and thus wage income) than we’d otherwise have, plus the taxes the foreigners pay.

People worry we can’t go on forever getting wealthy by digging up our minerals and flogging them off to foreigners. It’s true we may one day run out of stuff to sell, but our reserves – proved and yet to be proved – are so huge that day is maybe a century away (and the world will have stopped buying our coal long before we run out).

A bigger worry is the damage we’re doing to our natural environment in the meantime, which should be counted as reducing our wealth, but isn’t.

But mining activity accounts for a smaller part of our high standard of living than most people imagine – only about 8 per cent of our annual income.

Most of our prosperity – our wealth, if you like – derives from the skill, enterprise and technology-enhanced hard work of our people.
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