Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Taiwanese solution to soaring house prices: don't have kids

IN TAIPEI the other day, a crane drove up to the front of the Parliament building. It lowered a man sitting in a plastic container shaped like a house, and suspended him in the air in a protest against the high price of real estate. Through a microphone, he urged onlookers to rise up against high housing prices, declaring: ''People without homes, slaves to property, stand up!''

It is not only in Australia that young people have seen their dreams of home ownership evaporate as house prices boil. Throughout east Asia, a crisis is building as cashed-up investors who fled the sharemarket in 2008 moved their money into real estate, sending prices soaring.

This matters because housing is not just an asset like shares or bonds. It is where we live. It's natural for investors to prefer the security of bricks and mortar. But as governments throughout the region are discovering, it is also natural for people to want to own a home - and to turn against governments that allow prices to soar out of their reach. In Taiwan, the costs have become particularly serious, as we shall see. Their would-be home buyers - ''snails without shells'' as they call themselves - have reacted by scrapping the other big expense facing young couples: children.

At home, the Rudd government last week reversed its 2008 liberalisation of foreign investment rules on real estate, and set up a unit to ensure the rules are obeyed. It also set up a joint working party with the states to ask why housing prices have soared out of reach. But that will work only if it tackles the single biggest cause: the tax-driven growth of rental investors, whose borrowing has grown 30-fold in 20 years, squeezing out home owners.

China, in the midst of a full-scale housing bubble, has now done so. After real estate sales revenue jumped 75 per cent in a year, its state council last week hit investors with tighter rules. Banks are now forbidden to lend investors more than 50 per cent of the sale price (in Australia, 100 per cent is common). Investors must now pay a premium of at least 10 per cent above the normal interest rate, while first home buyers receive a discount. New loans are banned to investors who already have one property. And there is talk of a tax on rental property ownership.

China's goal is to deflate the housing bubble before it bursts, derailing the world's economic locomotive. Wish them luck.

But Chinese buyers are looking abroad, and so are their neighbours. In a bookshop in Taipei a few days ago, amid all the books and journals in Chinese, I spotted an Australian magazine on the shelves: Australian Property Investor. Clearly, people in Taipei are buying Australian real estate.

But Taiwan itself is the best example of what can go wrong if governments let housing investors and market anarchy push prices out of ordinary people's reach, leaving young snails without shells.

Taiwan has become rich very fast, largely by inching its way into a central role in global IT and communications manufacturing. This year, the International Monetary Fund estimates, its GDP per head will overtake that of its one-time colonial master, Japan. Its economy is almost as big as Australia's, and growing twice as fast. Yet its new wealth shows only fleetingly amid the grimy, cramped apartments built in earlier, poorer times.

Taiwan is in the grip of a housing crisis worse than ours. It is a rich country, but wages and most prices are roughly half the levels here - because the government, like China's, holds down the exchange rate to keep its manufacturing globally competitive.

Yet while wages remain low, apartment prices in Taipei are close to those in Melbourne, particularly for anything modern.

Why can't they build more apartments? Because ownership of those grimy old apartment blocks is fragmented among dozens of occupants and investors. To demolish, even to upgrade, a developer must buy them all out, which is prohibitively expensive in time and money. There are classy new apartments on the urban fringe, on greenfields sites, but too few to meet the demand from occupiers and investors. So prices have soared.

So the snails save hard to buy a shell, and do without other things. That means, above all, they do without children, or with just one child. By 2008, Taiwan's fertility rate was the lowest in the world. Its women bear on average just 1.05 children over their lifetimes. The cost of housing is not the only reason, but analysts say it is the main one.

But not having children creates even bigger costs ahead. Right now, Taiwan has 6.8 people of working age for every retiree. But preschools are already closing for lack of children, and the population is set to shrink dramatically. By 2032, demographers project, Taiwan will have just 2.5 potential workers for every retiree - and by 2056, just 1.4. If nothing changes, Taiwan - like China, Japan and Korea - will slowly become economically unviable.

So far, that hasn't happened here. But if governments keep subsidising investors to outbid first home buyers and low income earners, it will. Snails want shells. Taiwan - and soon, possibly China - are showing us what else can go wrong when the price of shells soars out of the snails' reach.