NZ Herald business editor at large

Liam Dann: Home-buying ban runs high risks

Photo / NZ Herald
Photo / NZ Herald

The housing market must be overheating again because those annoying personalised letters from the local real estate agents are piling up in my mailbox.

"Dear Mr Dann, you won't believe what the house down the road sold for and would you like a free valuation, this could be a golden opportunity to cash up."

What? And where will I live? Huntly? This seems like a terrible time to cash up. For that matter where will my kids live? They don't have to worry about it for 20 years but on current trend they'll need to service a mortgage in excess of $1 million - just to live in Huntly.

This time around the booming property market is not just a drag for those trying to buy their first home, it's a drag for the rest of us who can't pretend we don't know that this is a bad thing for New Zealand's future.

Back in 2007 those real estate letters used to make homeowners feel a bit smug. "Ohhh look we're $100,000 richer," we'd think before heading out to buy a new flat screen TV on credit.

Now, one nasty global financial crisis later, we're all too well aware that growing equity in a home you have to live in doesn't make you rich. It's nice to have a buffer between the value of your house and the size of your mortgage but that's all it is, a buffer, a safety net. It's a theoretical figure until you sell. Unless you are trading down, or borrowing more, you can't eat it or fly to the Cook Islands on it, or live on it in any other way.

One positive is there finally seems to be a consensus about this on both sides of the political spectrum.

Unfortunately there is no silver bullet and choosing which ordinary bullets to use is an ideologically charged exercise.

Yesterday Labour leader David Shearer pulled out a bazooka.

Labour says it is prepared to ban foreigners (other than Australians) from buying existing houses in New Zealand - they will be allowed to build new ones.

It's risky policy for a liberal, left-of-centre party because it leaves them open to accusations of xenophobia.

Act leader John Bank hasn't wasted any time accusing Labour of xenophobia and racism.

Shearer is correct when he says the policy is not out of line with similar rules in Australia, China and Singapore. But New Zealand has - since 1984 at least - prided itself on being an open economy with a global outlook. This is new territory for many New Zealanders and the fact it will sit well with NZ First voters means it surely won't sit well with many liberal Labour voters.

Then there's the issue of whether it will work. Even Shearer admits it's not a silver bullet. John Key says it will be marginal and that concern about foreign buyers is down to a failure to understand that most Asian house-hunters are actually residents.

What it will be is a big divisive policy that will get talked about. Shearer needs one of those and he also needs to win the battle to sell it.

He tried the big bold approach with power price regulation and failed. So politically this is a completely understandable move. It might work. Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd's hardline refugee policy seems to be working for Labor across the Tasman. It never hurts a struggling leader to look tough.

National's move to embrace bank lending restrictions was a similarly shrewd piece of politics. It allowed Key to look like he was taking action even though there are few experts who believe the new rules will do much.

Expect to hear plenty more about that in the next few weeks as the Reserve Bank unveils the details.

Both of these policies are "demand side" solutions - those that seek to take buyers out of the market. It seems these are the policies that offer politicians bang for their buck.

But if you look around the world where many of these policies have been put in place they haven't been able to stop the market.

To their credit both parties are also offering up "supply side" solutions in their housing policies. But these policies are less sexy, they will take time to work and they don't grab headlines or the public imagination.

Lowering the cost of building a house in this country, opening up access to land and providing incentives to build low-cost housing are all crucial to solving this problem.

But there is a third dynamic. We could be trumpeting policies to encourage business growth and create more and better-paying jobs.

Both parties pay lip service to this but get distracted, playing for the polls. New Zealand politics (far from uniquely) is cursed with short sight. Transforming an economy to create long-term wealth improvements needs long-term vision.

The problem with house price growth is that it is typically the only thing in the New Zealand economy that is growing. If wage growth was keeping up with our house prices we wouldn't have a problem.

- NZ Herald

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NZ Herald business editor at large

Liam Dann is business editor at large at the New Zealand Herald. He has been a journalist for 20 years, covering business for the last 14 of them. He has also worked in the banking sector in London and travelled extensively. His passion is for Markets and Economics, because they are the engine of the New Zealand economy. He hosts The Economy Hub video show every Thursday.

Read more by Liam Dann

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