Matt Nippert is a business investigations reporter.

Missing: 15,000 real estate operators

Business demographic data has shown 15,000 real estate operators have vanished in 2015.
Business demographic data has shown 15,000 real estate operators have vanished in 2015.

A record 15,000 businesses dealing with real estate ceased operations in 12 months, an exodus that has taken the industry by surprise and raised questions about the impact of tax changes.

The turbulence in the way property assets are structured is revealed in a Herald Insights analysis of business demographics data released by Statistics New Zealand. The data records the number of companies being formed and being shut down - business births and deaths - in various sectors.

While most industry sectors show an uptick in activity during the 2005-07 boom, then a flattening following the global financial crisis and a slow - perhaps stalling - recovery since, the sector including "property operators" shows a dramatic recent spike in business closures.

That category includes companies which act as landlords, commercial and residential.
Even taking into account the starting of new real estate businesses, the year to February 2015 showed a much bigger decline than seen even in the worst of the post-GFC doldrums.

The sector shrank by a net 3147 enterprises in 2015, much more than the next-biggest annual decline in the past decade - 547 in 2010.

Statistics NZ said the spike was primarily due to a dramatic increase - from 5000 to 15,000 - in the number of real estate operators ceasing operations between 2014 and 2015.

I don't know what's behind that. It doesn't seem to make sense.
Iain Blakeley, tax partner

Statistics NZ manger 'Ofa Ketuu said the 2015 figures may be the result of lags due to the late filing of annual tax returns. "This can result in fluctuations in the enterprise deaths series for this group, particularly for more recent years," she said.

Operators in the real estate market said the spike in enterprise deaths was not a reflection of economic activity.

Andrew King, head of the Property Federation, said there had not been a related exodus of market participants. "It's not really my area of expertise, however I don't think it is an indication of property investors exiting the market," he said.

King said it was possible smaller operators were being swallowed by larger ones, but evidence of this was anecdotal at best.

Colleen Milne, chief executive of the Real Estate Industry of New Zealand, said the sales part of the sector - which is captured by the Statistic New Zealand data - was "active", with increasing volumes and prices. Milne said the number of registered agents during the period in question increased, belying the reported enterprise deaths.

The Statistic NZ figures pre-date the Government's announcement, and implementation, of the "bright line" test to tax some capital gains, ruling out this policy as an explanation.

Iain Blakeley, a tax partner with professional services firm EY, said he was also mystified by the spike. "I don't know what's behind that. It doesn't seem to make sense," he said.

He was, however, able to point to a possible cause: smaller-scale owners abandoning structures which no longer came with generous tax advantages.

Blakeley works mainly with larger-scale property owners, and said structural changes there had not been widespread.

"I haven't seen clients rushing to deregister these entities. It could be mum and dad investors, but we don't have any visibility over that end of the market," he said.

Blakeley said changes governing Loss Attributing Qualifying Companies (LAQCs), which had allowed losses from operating real estate investments to be deducted from incomes, were the most likely explanation.

The changes came into full effect in March 2013, providing an explanation for such businesses subsequently being wound down.

"This could explain part of it at least. People would then just transfer properties from companies into their personal name as there's pretty much the same tax benefit now when you own them personally," Blakeley said.

- NZ Herald

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