Ronan Lyons | Personal Website
Ronan Lyons | Personal Website

April 2009

How many months supply is sitting on the property market?

The US leads the way for many types of statistics – and in particular for their timeliness. The housing market is no different, with a plethora of measures such as prices and volume of transactions out every month.

In Ireland, though, we have to labour under a dearth of timely statistics on a range of economic indicators – including the housing market. Naturally, the Daft Report tries to make its contribution, publishing one week after quarter’s end so that people have the latest asking price and stock/flow information. One that I’m increasingly asked for is the number of months of supply currently sitting on the property market, a measure that’s well established in the US. It’s probably time we tried to put some numbers on it.

To do that, we need to answer two questions. The first is: what is a normal volume of transactions for the Irish property market? The second is: how many are on the market now?

On the first, the natural way to go about it would be to use the recent level of transactions. The only problem with that, though, is that the number of transactions has fluctuated wildly over the past four years, making that a somewhat erratic measure. To counteract that, the Department of the Environment have a long-run series on loan approvals, which for all intents and purposes tells us how many people are buying property every year. The numbers still vary hugely over the past two decades, in line with the vicissitudes of Ireland’s property market. In 1990, there were just 35,000 transactions – less than 3,000 a month – while in 2005, there were over three times as many transactions, 120,000 in total.

Taking the 2005 figure – or indeed anything since about 2000 – leaves open the accusation that one is deliberately underestimating the problem by overestimating the “typical” month. Then again, anything pre-1999 – and certainly anything close to 1993 – is probably not too appropriate either. To overcome this, one can view the last 15 years of Ireland’s property market as two stylized periods: a (relatively) healthy property market in the 1990s, where monthly transactions averaged 4,400, and a hyperactive property market, 2000-2007, where monthly transactions averaged 7,800.

Using the 2000-2007 figure gives us a lower bound, while using the 1993-2000 gives an upper bound. Given that Ireland is the guts of 700,000 residents bigger now than in 1993 (even allowing for outward migration), it probably makes sense to use the average of the two figures (about 6,000 transactions a month) as some sort of post-2007 reasonable estimate of what one could expect would pass through the market in a healthy post-crunch Ireland.

To answer the second question, how many properties are currently on the market, I’ve taken the daft.ie series of stock of property for sale. An adjustment has been made, given the way new developments are listed on the site, to make sure that vacant new builds are better captured than the raw figures may suggest.

After all those preparations, where are we? The chart below shows the best estimate (orange) of the number of months property sitting on the market from early 2007 to April 2009 – alongside upper (red) and lower (green) bounds, based on whether one believes that the 2000-2007 level of transactions is ‘normal’ or in fact when everything dies down we’ll see a return to much lower 1993-1999 levels of transactions instead.

Estimated number of months supply on Ireland's property market
Estimated number of months supply on Ireland's property market

In a normal property market, one might expect to see three or four months supply sitting on the market – that’s about how long it takes for a property to go through the cycle of litsing, viewing, agreement, closure. The graph above – if you accept the middle ground presented – is that there has been a over a year’s supply of property sitting on the market since this time last year, compared to about 5 months at the start of 2007.

Good news? These days, good news is really just absence of new bad news! The good news is that while there is about three times as much property on the market as normal, this has levelled off – and indeed fallen slightly – in the last six months.

Protectionist backlash or falling consumer demand: Is the world in danger of deglobalization?

What if unemployment in Ireland reaches 25% next year? What if GDP falls a quarter between 2007 and 2012? The spectre of the Great Depression looms over us large at the moment and there has been much commentary of late – see for example Robert Samuelson’s recent blog post – on whether and how our current global recession/depression compares with the last one of similar scale, that of the 1930s.

Is it pointless spooking of the public or is it a relevant comparison worth exploring further? Recently, Kevin O’Rourke and Barry Eichengreen make the case that the comparison is at least worthy of further investigation in an analysis of some key global indicators, including output, stock markets and interest rates, comparing ‘now’ and ‘then’. Their conclusion was that “world industrial production, trade, and stock markets are diving faster now than during 1929-30” – something that previous US-centric comparisons hadn’t concluded. One thing that worried me as a student of the history of globalization was the inclusion of trade in that set of statistics. Here is O’Rourke and Eichengreen’s Figure 3, Trade Then and Now, which worried me so much:

World trade then and now - Source O'Rourke/Eichengreen 2009
World trade then and now - Source: O'Rourke/Eichengreen 2009

Are things that bad? Is the world going to “deglobalize”? Is trade going to collapse and bring us – in a trade-dependent Ireland and a trade-dependent world – unemployment, poverty and misery along similar lines as the world saw in the 1930s?

The first thing to know is whether or not the world is more globalized in trade terms now than it was in the 1920s and 1930s. This may seem like a dumb question at first: just as the world is more urbanized and more industrialized on a totally different scale now compared to a century ago, surely it’s more globalized too, right? But those who research globalization have shown that it’s rowed back and forth over the decades and centuries, whether one looks at trade, migration or capital markets.

For example, as Kevin O’Rourke writes elsewhere with two co-authors, the globalization of international investment was greater in 1914 than it was at any point later until the early 1970s. “Deglobalization” of capital markets meant that while foreign assets accounted for nearly 20% of world GDP during 1900-14, the 1930-1960 figure was just 5-8%, similar to levels in 1870.

A table in the same paper outlines trade and the integration of goods markets in the pre-1914 period. The best estimate for Europe is that the trade-output ratio – how much of what was produced was traded – increased from 30% in 1870 to 37% in 1914. What happened next? In particular, what happened in the Great Depression and how does that compare with now? The graph below shows two lines, the orange line being the world trade-output ratio from 1991 to 2013, as estimated by the IMF’s World Economic Outlook. The blue line is my own estimate, based on Mitchell’s Historical Statistics and research I did while in Trinity, of the global trade-GDP ratio in the 1920s and 1930s, using 25 prominent economies (not dissimilar to a proto-OECD).* The shaded part shows the future, for the orange line – i.e. 2009 on.

Global trade-output ratios across the two Depressions
Global trade-output ratios across the two Depressions

Three things strike me:

  • The first thing to notice is that in 1991, one third of what was produced globally was traded. The world was about as globalized in 1991 as the OECD was in the mid-1920s and as Europe was in 1900. So we certainly not talking exponentially different levels of trade intensity now compared to a century ago – probably just greater geographical spread.
  • Protectionism, deglobalization and the destruction of trade kicked in in the early 1930s. The change was a steady four-year shift to a new lower level of trade intensity. For all intents and purposes, the Great Depression led to a halving of how integrated global trade markets were.
  • The world’s global trade intensity since 1991 has been marked – it has essentially doubled, meaning that almost two thirds of what is produced is now traded. Not only that, unlike in the 1930s when trade intensity almost halved, global integration of trade markets is likely to increase over the coming years of global recession and recovery, if the IMF’s latest statistics are to be believed.

Does this make any sense? How can trade in 2009 be falling faster than it did in 1929 – at the start of a period of dangerous protectionsim – and yet the world is still globalizing? Mathematically, the answer has to be that trade is contracting, but slower than output. Economically, the answer – I think – is that trade is much more integrated into daily life now than then. Or put another way, trade in the 1920s and 1930s was more easily substitutable than now. Globally integrated supply chains and consumer networks mean that when output falls now, trade falls – and vice-versa, as countries are trade-dependent. Just look at Japan’s exports – that to me tells a story of global consumers cutting back on buying new cars, not British or German consumers deciding to buy local rather than buy Japanese cars.

So, having looked at the stats, I’m a little less worried than before. Firstly, politicians seem much more acutely aware of the dangers of protectionism now (… although perhaps a historian can correct me on the political economy of the early 1930s). Secondly, while 1920 and 1990 were not dissimilar starting points, in terms of the level of trade intensity, we have entered our recession at a different level of trade intensity than our forebears 80 years ago. While the 1920s were a stuttering decade for global trade, the nineties and naughties have seen solid expansion of trade networks. The 20-year build-up before recession set in, coupled with the technologically-enabled disaggregation of value chains, has created global trade networks of a much more integrated nature than those of the 1930s. It would be much harder now – even if we all wanted to – to destroy our trading networks, as we’d be trimming our own consumption possibilities far more than consumers had to back in the 1930s. Hopefully, my optimism is not misplaced.

* For those interested in the details, the 25 counties were weighted by their non-agricultural labour force, to strike a balance between GDP and population weightings.

(PS. I still think a comparison of the real economy effects of the financial crisis of the early 1870s is worth a go… Here’s hoping I’ll find the time!)

Tackling the thorny issue of teachers pay

Earlier this year, I calculated average salary estimates for the public and private sectors in Ireland. The answer, that the average worker in the private sector earned €40,000 last year, almost €10,000 less than their public sector counterpart, has proved if not controversial than certainly a starting point for debate. Given some of the comments on that blog post, and the fact that the teachers conferences were being held last week, I decided to look in a little more depth at the education sector. How much do teachers in Ireland earn? How does this compare with other people in Ireland? How do teachers’ salaries in Ireland compare with other eurozone teachers?

Trade unions have been clear on one point since the size of Ireland’s fiscal crisis became clear: those most in a position to pay should bear the brunt. At the same time, teachers unions have said that their pay is not up for discussion. This implies that teachers presume that they are not among those most in a position to pay. How does that stack up with the stats? The chart below shows average earnings in mid-2007, the latest data across all sectors, with public sectors marked in dark blue, private sectors in light blue, and semi-state in mixed blue.

Salaries by sector in Ireland, 2007 (source: cso.ie)
Salaries by sector in Ireland, 2007 (source: cso.ie)

The single most striking thing is that all the best paid sectors in Ireland are either public or semi-state industries. (Those looking for more detail might start with Dept of Education figures out last week showing that primary school teachers earn on average €57,000.) Surely, any objective trade union leader should be arguing that whatever burden workers have to bear, the bulk of it should be borne primarily by the public and semi-state sectors.

There are a few common queries people have with the relevance of these statistics. The first often runs: “Hang on, you’re not comparing like with like. All teachers have a degree, while who knows how many people do in, say, paper and printing.” Ideally, I’d like to have the stats to hand to explore this. Unfortunately I don’t. My only comment before we move on is that if finance and business services had come out as the best paid sectors in Ireland, would the same people have argued that we should wait and see whether their higher wages were justified by qualifications/experience/profit created? Or would people have argued that as they were best paid, they should pay most?

Let’s move on, though. If comparing education with other sectors in Ireland is not fair, let’s compare Irish teachers with their eurozone counterparts? After all, our old trick in situations like this was just to devalue and hope for the best. Now we share a currency with a dozen or so other countries. Are our teachers overpriced?

The graph below uses OECD statistics to examine teachers’ salaries across the eurozone. (I’ll take this chance to recommend the OECD’s Education at a Glance 2008: even if you hate absolutely everything I’m saying here, do take the opportunity to wander around its facts and figures.) In Ireland, a teacher in the job 15 years, single with no kids, earns more after tax than his or her counterparts do BEFORE they’ve been taxed in most other eurozone members. Marry that teacher off and give them two kids and – despite Germany’s best efforts to catch up – Irish teachers are by far the best paid of the ten eurozone countries shown.

Average salaries (gross and net) for teachers in the eurozone, 2007
Average salaries (gross and net) for teachers in the eurozone, 2007

OK, so Irish teachers are well paid relative to other Irish workers – they may just be better qualified. And yes, they’re paid substantially more than their eurozone counterparts. Perhaps price levels are so substantially higher in the rip-off republic that teachers in Ireland need this extra pay just to break even? Unfortunately, eurostat figures on comparative price levels don’t back that assertion up. Whereas prices in Ireland are indeed 15% higher than in France, the single teacher above enjoys 75% more take-home pay. In Finland, prices are just 2% below Irish prices, but an Irish teacher enjoys a wage that is 54% higher than a Finnish counterpart.

If prices don’t explain the international gap, maybe Irish teachers work a longer year than their eurozone counterparts, explaining why they get paid more. Unfortunately again for Irish teachers, the opposite seems to be the case, as the graph below shows. Teachers – particularly secondary school teachers – work less days on average than almost all their eurozone counterparts. This leaves the amount paid for every day spent teaching in Ireland looking pretty unsustainable. Factoring in the pension levy only scratches at the surface of the problem.

Days taught by teachers and earnings per day of teaching
Days taught by teachers and earnings per day of teaching

Ireland is currently grappling with a huge fiscal and economic crisis. The government faces lots of tough choices about what stays and what must go. The fact that they’ve chosen to cut back some education services suggests that they are missing what should be obvious: the more we bring Irish teachers’ salaries back in line with counterparts elsewhere in the eurozone, as well as with other sectors in Ireland, the less we’ll have to cut back on the range of education services we offer.

As teachers of maths should appreciate, the arithmetic is simple. The government needs to make savings across the board in publicly-funded services, including education. To make savings in education, we can either cut back on education services (quantity) or cut back on teachers salaries (price). Teachers have so far been successful in passing those two issues off as one, and thus creating a somewhat bizarre alliance of service providers (teachers) and consumers (parents/children).

Given how Irish teachers’ pay compares domestically and internationally, it’s time we separated out teachers’ pay from education cutbacks and took a long cold look at what our teachers are paid.

A brand new scare graph – Japan’s collapsing exports

I have just discovered a set of global trade statistics updated monthly by the Dutch Bureau for Economic Policy Analysis (CPB). (Incidentally, this is not the first time I’ve come across excellent work by the CPB – their work on administrative burdens imposed by regulation is essentially the international pioneer on the topic and has informed EU thinking on how to cut red tape.)

Rather than hundreds of words of rapier-sharp analysis, I thought I would just post one graph that I thought was the single most shocking thing I’ve seen this recession yet: Japan’s trade figures.

Japan's exports and imports, Jan 2000-Jan 2009
Japan's exports and imports, Jan 2000-Jan 2009

While Japan may have been ‘over-exporting’ – or at least ‘under-importing’ if domestic demand is moribund – the 40% year-on-year collapse in exports cannot be written off as just another statistic. Presumably driven by exports of cars, this has to make for dismal reading. China is not far behind, it seems, with exports down almost 20% year-on-year in late 2008.

As far as I know, even open countries such as Estonia (down 10%), Singapore (down 20%) and Ireland (down just 1%) have seen falls in exports but nothing like 40%. (Interestingly, imports have collapsed in Ireland, down almost 30%, while exports are static – are multinationals just clearing their output?)

For those who think this whole post is just far too optimistic, to REALLY depress yourself, have a look at this global – rather than US – comparison of the 1930s and today, A Tale of Two Depressions, by Kevin O’Rourke and Barry Eichengreen. As they note in their conclusion:

The world is currently undergoing an economic shock every bit as big as the Great Depression shock of 1929-30. Looking just at the US leads one to overlook how alarming the current situation is even in comparison with 1929-30. The good news, of course, is that the policy response is very different. The question now is whether that policy response will work.

The first cut is the deepest – Dublin’s falls and Ireland’s property paradox

This week’s daft.ie report revealed some intriguing findings in relation to the current state and trajectory of Ireland’s property market. As was discussed yesterday, for example, while east peaked earlier than west, north has fallen further than south since the peak. One of the conclusions of both these findings is that Dublin and its commuter counties have experienced falling prices first and deepest.

This goes somewhat counter to conventional wisdom, although conventional wisdom hasn’t done too well in the last couple of years it must be said! Conventional wisdom would suggest that whatever about the Section 23 wastelands and ‘ghost estates’ of Ireland’s mid-West and elsewhere, the capital – as focal point for Ireland’s public and internationally trading sectors and their upstream and downstream employers – would be alright, at least in relative terms. In an Ireland where prices fell 20% in the crash, Dublin might be 15% or so while “somewhere else” would be worst hit.

While easy to mock, there is something in this from a long-term perspective. I have argued before on this blog – in December and again in February – that the ‘overhang’ of property looks a lot worse, even with just approximate calculations, in the mid-West than in the capital or indeed any of Ireland’s five cities. With stock falling slightly in the last six months, no harm revisiting the ‘overhang per county’ chart again, with stock levels taken from today.

Percentage of property for sale by county, Ireland, April 2009

Again, the message is pretty clear – Cavan, Donegal, Leitrim and Roscommon have significant property ‘overhang’ compared to the likes of Monaghan, Kilkenny and Dublin and its commuter counties. The conclusion that I would draw is as follows: as it is home to the vast majority of Ireland’s top earners, to the extent that Dublin’s property market priced in expected future GDP and wage growth – i.e. confidence – it is to be expected that prices will fall most there, as confidence collapses from a high in late 2006 to a low in 2009. (The implication is that prices would be more likely to turn around faster, were confidence to somehow rematerialize.)

Taking a longer term perspective, though, unless prices adjust faster in places like Donegal, they face the prospect of longer peak-to-trough. Indeed already, some on theproperty.com are fretting about the future of places like Roscommon. On a thread entitled “Rents getting very cheap in the west“, mikewest’s message makes glum reading for property holders in Roscommon:

The house prices down here are still utterly crazy because something the developers never noticed is that there is shag all work in Co. Roscommon and if you dont have work then nobody wants to live there. People talk about the ghost estates in Longford and Leitrim but they don’t hold a candle to Roscommon. Every village and town has empty or virtually empty estates and / or apartment blocks…

There is another teeny tiny problem in the west. There are one or two houses too many in some towns right now so asking prices for rents are really more aspirational than actual but not quite as aspirational as asking prices for houses.

Lopping the top half off & Ireland’s property market in a global perspective

On Monday the latest daft.ie report came out, showing that asking prices had fallen just over 4% in the first three months of the year. Yesterday, I changed focus on the blog a little, as it was Budget day, and tried instead  to put some numbers on what a potential property tax could raise.

Today, I hope to give a little more detail on the findings from the report itself, in particular regional trends, and then give an international perspective also – or at least start to give one, which I think is always instructive. Below is a graph showing the quarter-on-quarter change in asking prices for the last two quarters, i.e. Q4 2008 and Q1 2009, in each county.  The most obvious finding – probably not a surprise to anyone – is that asking prices fell in almost all counties in both quarters. A second clear finding is that there does not appear to have been one or two counties more affected in the last six months than elsewhere (although one could make the argument that Munster has got off relatively unscathed since September).

Quarter-on-quarter changes in house prices, 2008q4-2008q1
Quarter-on-quarter changes in house prices, 2008q4-2008q1

What also jumps out is that the two quarters saw very different patterns. In the final three months of 2008, a few counties – such as Galway, Westmeath and to a lesser extent Donegal and Leitrim – saw the largest downward adjustments in asking prices. Two counties, Mayo and Tipperary actually saw no fall in their asking prices. This quarter, Mayo and Tipperary actually had slightly larger falls than average – perhaps a sign that sellers there had been holding for the start of the year before acceding to the realities of the market. On the flip side, sellers in Galway and Westmeath believed in Q1 that their large adjustments in late 2008 did not need to be followed up with more adjustments straight away.

Sligo has been the worst hit county in terms of falling house prices, with a fall in the region of 10%in three months alone. (Dublin city centre and Waterford city actually saw bigger falls but they are lessened by other parts of their counties.) Aside from that, it seems that Dublin generally and the counties around it were among those with larger adjustments since the start of the year.

This leads on to perhaps a more interesting question – how have counties fared since their property prices peaked? To do that, I’ve set up another Manyeyes dataset (which anyone can access) with the percentage gap between house prices in a given quarter and the peak, for each county. Where a county is sandy coloured, that means it has peaked. The deeper the blue, the bigger the fall. (One little trick with these figures is that for a county’s earlier “blues”, prices are still going up. By the second row, that’s no longer an issue.)

Change in asking prices from the peak, 2007-2009
Change in asking prices from the peak, 2007-2009

A couple of findings emerge, based interestingly on alternate axes of the country:

  • East peaked before west, on average, and by almost six months. If you draw a line from Cavan down to Wexford, 10 of the 13 counties peaked in the first half of 2008, more than half the country in population terms, including all of Dublin and its offshoots. Cork, Galway, Limerick and a few other counties actually peaked in the second half of 2007, while a couple of stragglers – Tipperary and Westmeath to be precise – only peaked in early 2008. (Interesting to note, in passing, their sellers’ totally different reactions to conditions in late 2008, as per the first chart above.)
  • North is falling faster than south, on average. If you draw a line from Dublin over to Galway, 9 of the 10 worst affected counties so far come from that half of the island. The top half of the property market – literally! – has been lopped off more than the bottom half. This means that the north-east – essentially Dublin-plus – fell first and is falling hardest, while the south-west – Munster – was last to fall and has fallen least so far. It will be interesting to compare these emerging trends, two years into the property crash, with the final statistics on Ireland’s property readjustment/crash/Armageddon/return to sanity/fill in name here.

Speaking of writing the history books, perhaps it’s no harm to have a quick look to our left and our right and see how other property markets are faring. Below is a chart of about 20 countries (with two different measures in there for the US, the first is the OFHEO measure, while US* is the Case-Shiller national index). I’ve based this on data posted on the Economist’s website, but have surreptitiously replaced the 2007/2008 ESRI data, about which there is a lot of scepticism currently, with daft.ie data. The bars show the annual rate of change in house prices, including a 1997-2008 average, and figures for 2007 and 2008. (As per the Economist website, some of the Q4 08 figures are actually Q3 08 while a couple, including Ireland, are Q1 09.)

International comparison of property markets, 1997-2009
International comparison of property markets, 1997-2009

Replacing the ESRI data with the daft.ie had the effect of moving Ireland from the “Club of Moderates” such as Denmark and the Netherlands, to the “Bleeding Edge” group with Hong Kong, the UK and the US (at least one measure for the US at any rate). I will do my best to try and track down the original data for this series so that a change-from-peak measure can be contructed as again that may be more instructive than a year-on-year change, particularly in six months time.

In the meantime, though, I’ll leave this up here and ask for any insights, comments or queries, as per usual! Fire away…

A €4bn Budget day suggestion – just how much could an Irish property tax raise?

Yesterday, the latest daft.ie report was released. More details here, but the overall gist is that asking prices fell 4.2% in the first few months of the year. Coupled with the falls in 2007 and 2008, this means that asking prices are now down 18% in two years. On the face of it, this may not have much to do the Budget being released today, which has to deal with more pressing issues of the public finances, unemployment and the banking crisis. However, to say that Ireland’s stock of wealth tied up in residential property should have no role in plugging Ireland’s E25bn public finances gap is myopic in the extreme, particularly given Irish wealth-holding tendencies. Even if we rule out a property tax, we should at least know how much we’re throwing away in potential tax revenues, and this blog post hopes to establish approximately this potential is.

No harm, first, to recap the fiscal crisis Ireland faces, outlined in the chart below. In 2007, the Irish government expected that in 2009, tax receipts would be in the region of €56bn. By last week, the expected revenues for the year had slid down to €34bn. This €22bn gaping hole is staggering, as it represents a collapse of 40% in revenues. Any organisation with a 40% collapse in revenues has to re-examine its entire business model and Ireland is no different. Fixing the €20bn-plus gap between income and expenditure will require taking more money in and spending less. My contribution on the debate about spending less is for another day – you can probably get some inkling of what I think here – but on raising more, we have to look again at property. Property taxes in Ireland are based on transactions – we now know, and probably deep down knew all along, that the huge amounts the government was taking in over the past few years were totally unsustainable.

Government estimates of Ireland's 2009 tax take over time
Government estimates of Ireland's 2009 tax take over time

If we don’t tax property transactions, how will we tax property? And what contribution to plugging our €20bn gap can property make? Recent articles by the Sunday Independent and the Irish News of the World have discussed the scale of how much has been wiped off Ireland’s property market, while the combined report by stockbrokers Davy, Goodbody and NCB mentioned the potential revenues that could be earned by introducing a property tax in Ireland. So just how big is Ireland’s property market? The answer is about €460bn, as is shown in the graph below. The graph uses 2006 Census data on the number of households in each county, Dept of the Environment figures on new houses built in each county since 2006 and daft.ie quarterly average house prices by county.

The value of Ireland's residential property, 2007-2009
The value of Ireland's residential property, 2007-2009

The graph also shows that the total value of Ireland’s residential property is about E100bn less than what it would be were no crash to have occurred. A similar amount has also been wiped off Ireland’s stock exchange, which is plotted on the same scale to allow comparison but whose remaining value is €30bn, compared to the €460bn still in Ireland’s homes.

Supposing the housing crash continues so that Ireland’s 1.6 million homes are worth perhaps E400bn by the time they bottom out. While well below the €600bn or so that it “could” have been, this still represents a huge potential stock of wealth that is largely untaxed. Simple maths says that a property tax that averages 1% could raise €4bn per annum. Assuming that the government will be aiming for a three-year correction to 2012 that lifts tax receipts by €10bn a year, while it cuts spending by €10bn a year over the same period, a property tax could solve 40% of Ireland’s tax woes. The average household’s annual tax bill would be less than €3,000 – or about €50 a week.

How would a property tax work? There are of course some significant issues that Ireland would have to iron out first, before a property tax could come in. For example:

  • Politically, older citizens have proved sensitive to the idea that the government might have access to some of the wealth stored in their homes, even if it’s to pay for their healthcare. The illiquidity of houses raises the prospect of retirees having to downsize to avoid tax bills. While this is normal in many places, particularly in the US, it would require a change in mindset here. Put more bluntly, the idea that people should be entitled to have any wealth stored away in property, as opposed to other forms of wealth, untouched by the government is out of date.
  • Recent purchasers would have to be given property tax credits, so that double-taxation through stamp duty and then the property tax would be avoided. Those who made particular purchases based on stamp duty arrangements that existed at the time may also feel hard done by.
  • Measurement of house prices would become even more important, as it would have tax implications. In this day and age, though, accurately measuring house prices should not be an arcane task. Measures such as the daft.ie and ESRI/ptsb series are both based on well established hedonic price methods, which could easily be adapted to official Revenue Commissioners data, if these data were made available as they are in most other countries.
  • An instant extra tax burden is probably not what the economy needs now. Phasing it in gradually over the coming 3/4 years would be advisable as it would allow adjustment to a new system, while also showing medium-term planning on the part of the government.

Nonetheless, there are significant advantages to a property tax:

  • It gives the government a steady generally acyclical revenue stream and has an automatic stabilizer effect – i.e. the tax burden households face goes down when prices slump and more than likely their confidence slumps too.
  • There is lots of potential in a property tax to achieve other goals as well as revenue-raising. (Indeed, for the purists, taxes should only be introduced when other aims will be served.) For example, the average of 1% could hide differences, if the government wanted to incentivize, for example, energy efficiency. Houses achieving carbon neutrality or some top level of energy efficiency could be exempt from property tax, or perhaps pay a minimal rate of 0.25%, while homes that incur a significant burden on the rest of society might have to pay signficantly more. (This would require significantly more planning and guidelines for consistent rating than the recent BER scheme.)

Given that we’re talking billions – perhaps even twice as much as the joint report by the main stockbrokers suggested – this should definitely be explored in more detail over the coming months.

Irish house prices fall 4% since the start of 2009 – latest daft.ie report

Ireland’s property slump marked it second birthday today, with the news from the latest daft.ie report that asking prices for residential property fell 4.2% in the first three months of 2009. This latest drop in prices marks the eight consecutive quarter that prices have fallen.

As the official press release notes, the national average asking price now stands at just over €280,000, meaning that prices have fallen almost €70,000 from the peak in early 2007. What’s interesting to note at this stage is that Dublin was worse hit on average over the first quarter – in particular Dublin city centre, where prices fell by 11%. Other notable falls since the start of the year are Sligo and Waterford city, where prices fell by about 10% in three months.

The fall in the first three months of the year should not be underestimated, particularly as the year-on-year rate of change has now slid to -15.7%. Nonetheless, a graph of the quarterly change in asking prices gives some food for thought. The falls in house prices got worse and worse more or less every quarter from mid-2007 on – until now, as the diagram below shows. How much we can read into this, though, will have to wait until next quarter, when we can see if the trend continues.

Change in national average asking price from quarter before, source: daft.ie
Change in national average asking price from quarter before, source: daft.ie

Commentator for this report is Liam Delaney, a behavioural economics expert. He discusses the importance of psychology – and the value in terms of self-worth of things like owning a house or having a job – in current economic conditions. He draws an important distinction between public and private sector workers (or at least that’s how I interpret it):

This report – combined with the recent labour force figures – indicates considerable hardship for those in once solid middle-class jobs that are now facing a potential double-whammy. People will inevitably feel even worse when they see neighbours and friends who are in better situations. Consider the position of a college graduate who purchased in Dublin in 2006, based on the income from his financial services job (now gone), to the position of his neighbour who secured a public sector position on leaving college and purchased in 2001. While neither is laughing, the latter must at least be considering himself the better off of the two. They are certainly not in the same boat and the widening rift in society being generated by asset price decline and employment uncertainty is the defining theme of our time. As described by John Fitzgerald and others, there are many who are currently better off than last year, as they are facing declining prices and interest rates in the context of stable employment in their sector.

He also describes two scenarios for the future, drawing on Gerard O’Neill‘s own commentary on a previous Daft report, where he suggested that the current economic maelstrom in which Ireland finds itself is probably the only thing that could possibly ever turn Ireland into a nation of renters – the implication being that may just happen. Liam then walks through the implications of these two scenarios:

One version of a national narrative that was articulated in the previous commentary by Gerard O’Neill was the idea that the Irish cultural and psychological need for property may be displaced by a culture where renting is given more credence as part of a normal adult life. Were such a story about the Irish relation to property to take hold, it would clearly have substantial implications for any potential future rebound in property prices. Key players at the moment are those who can afford property but are riding out the current uncertainty by taking advantage of falling rents. If they follow Gerard’s story, they may never come back into the buying market and the next generation may follow them into long term renting.

Yet, we still hear strongly the story that the Irish have always been and will always be wedded to the idea of home ownership as a fundamental part of maturing into adulthood. If such a story about Irishness and adulthood maintains its hold, house prices will eventually settle at a higher level, and changes in the market will depend on macroeconomic conditions, rather than on the type of seismic shift in Irish culture described by Gerard.

I’ll be posting each day this week on different findings from the latest figures, starting tomorrow with a Budget-day special… did someone say an Irish property tax? Later in the week, I’ll also look at the stock of property for sale – which incidentally has now fallen, however slightly, each of the last six months – but before I do, a quick comment on asking prices versus closing prices. Accurate measurement of house prices is a hot topic at the moment – it seems the ptsb closing price index reached a minimum fall in year-on-year terms of 10%, while asking prices haven’t yet found their nadir.

Changes in asking and closing prices, 2007-2009
Changes in asking and closing prices, 2007-2009

The full report is available at www.daft.ie/report and contains, as mentioned above, a commentary by Liam Delaney, Lecturer in Economics with the Geary Institute, UCD, as well a regional and county-by-county analysis of the latest trends in the property market.