A National Party campaign slogan.
A National Party campaign slogan.

OpinionApril 26, 2016

A land tax just for foreigners? Come on John, you’re better than this

A National Party campaign slogan.
A National Party campaign slogan.

Land tax is a good idea. But the proposal to lump it on non-residents alone just invites go-betweens to take advantage. Time for a properly coherent tax policy, argues Gareth Morgan.

John Key has floated the idea of an annual land tax on foreign buyers of residential real estate as one response to the influx of money into the Auckland market particularly.

Land tax is part of one of the biggest holes in our income tax regime so in principle I agree. For years now I’ve advocated taxing all effective income from capital. Currently New Zealand doesn’t do this and it’s an insult to fairness.

An old election
An ambiguous election slogan

However, the prime minister is looking at a land tax only rather than a tax on effective income from all capital  – and he’s only looking to tax foreigners. That’s the sort of tax incoherence that Muldoon championed and the Rogernomics revolution got rid of, so I can’t agree with him, just as respectable economists couldn’t agree with Muldoon’s livestock incentive scheme or his crazy wage and price freezes. Arbitrary and selective reactionary taxation is the epitome of policy naivety. One would have hoped John Key wouldn’t take us back into that black hole.

If you are going to tax land, why not tax the houses that stand on them also? Both give untaxed benefits to the owner. Or in the case of farming – a sector that consistently operates for tax-free capital gain, what about other capital improvements? What about the scores of lifestyle businesses that are over-capitalised compared to the returns they create, a clear sign that they are being used as a tax write-off by their owners?

But of course desperate times and prolonged indolence always lead to desperate measures. There is little doubt that New Zealand’s ever-rising appeal as a safe bolt-hole for capital fleeing authoritarian regimes, combined with the massive tax and credit breaks we afford property, is about as toxic a potion for property hyper-inflation as one could engineer. So of course the PM wants to deal to it – there’s fewer and fewer votes in sending house prices beyond the gambit of ordinary New Zealanders, despite the capital gains windfalls that National’s traditional core of property-centric wealthy might enjoy.

So the PM is looking at a land tax for foreigners. If that were to eventuate, I smell an even greater profit opportunity personally than just accumulating empty houses. To become the go-between that the Chinese or other foreigners needing to effectively own more and more of New Zealand’s housing stock looks enticing. I’d simply use a blind trust or nominee company to do the buying for them – for a small share of the capital gain of course. And if that were too hard, I’d raise funds in China to establish a company to do the same.

Come on JK, you are better than this. Look at the core problem here. By not taxing the effective income every owner-occupier enjoys from owning property we have created the biggest tax loophole available. This enables New Zealanders to get rich from the flood of buyers into that market – no matter whether they’re foreign or local. If you really want to keep the price of property within reach of everyday New Zealanders you need to actually close the loophole. Just barring foreigners from playing this game simply opens up great arbitrage opportunities for some of us to exploit.

Think again, think less reactively and try to think beyond pleasing just the property-owning class that always vote National.

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