Capital gains tax - taking a bite out of your home

BY ADRIAN CHANG
Last updated 05:00 19/09/2009

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It is the policy former Prime Minister David Lange said you should adopt if you wanted to lose the next election, and the three after that. In the 20 years since he left office, New Zealand is still grappling with the idea of a capital gains tax.

Such a tax could be collected by the Inland Revenue Department either annually, based on changes to the value of your house, a big one-off chunk once you sell it, or anything in between.

So, do Finance Minister Bill English and Inland Revenue want to take a bite out of your home?

They are certainly thinking about it.

Inland Revenue and Treasury are working with the Victoria University Tax Working Group a think tank made up of experts headed by the university's Pro-Vice Chancellor Bob Buckle to consider medium-term policy options.

In their latest meeting, on Wednesday, they considered ways of widening the tax-base taxing things the government could tax that aren't being taxed already. Capital gains, land and a property tax on developed land are some of the options that were considered.

This is not the first tax review to consider capital gains. But the tax has been rejected as government policy every time because it is widely considered to be political suicide given the Kiwi love affair with housing.

Even after the chaos of last year's credit crisis, New Zealand house prices never fell by much more than 10 per cent compared with the 40 per cent or more reported in some places in the US and Britain.

Now, the rapidly rebuilding strength of the housing market has some experts calling for a capital gains tax to take the wind out of what could be another property bubble.

Reserve Bank Governor Alan Bollard noted in last week's official cash rate announcement that he was alert to signs indicating an "unnecessary or unbalanced" housing revival and hinted that appropriate tools to fight overzealous housing investment included taxes on housing speculation.

Then, early this week, Treasury head John Whitehead indicated he was also a fan of the idea. ANZ National chief economist Cameron Bagrie also believes another big rush into housing is something to be concerned about.

If the housing sector leads the economic recovery, New Zealand would be borrowing more from overseas. "At some stage you do end up paying the piper," says Mr Bagrie. "When you go through those adjustments, your living standards end up taking a hit."

He reckons the trick is to make property investment less appealing, which will take some work, considering how well property has performed compared with other investment types.

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According to the Real Estate Institute housing price index, prices have more than tripled since 1992, despite the recent falls since the start of the credit crisis. That represents a return of about 11.8 per cent a year over 17 years, compared with New Zealand shares, which over 20 years returned 7 per cent a year.

Then there are the tax advantages. Generally speaking, any increase in the value of your home is an accumulation of wealth that cannot be taxed. In the case of property investors owning multiple homes, making a loss after rent and interest payments can be used to offset wages, therefore lowering your overall tax burden.

Ernst & Young tax director Aaron Quintal says that despite the general rule, the exceptions that exist capture quite a number of people. However, many people do not realise they have to pay, while others think they can get away with it. By introducing a capital gains tax, the confusion is removed.

Initiatives under consideration by the tax working group could take away the tax incentives from property investment.

This week Prime Minister John Key repeated his stance that he is not in favour of a capital gains tax because it is an inefficient form of taxation and does not achieve a dampening effect on the housing market.

He pointed out that the US, Britain and Australia all have capital gains taxes but also experienced property booms.

He did not say it would never happen, but it would require "meteoric" evidence to change his mind.

Labour leader Phil Goff is on record saying his party would consider supporting a capital gains tax as long as it did not include the family home.

Tax working group member and PricewaterhouseCoopers tax partner John Shewan said a traditional capital gains tax would almost certainly not include owner-occupied housing, because of the economic and political challenges involved. Owner-occupied housing makes up two-thirds of the housing base.

According to a paper by tax academics Leonard Burman and David White, if the family home was exempt from capital gains tax, preliminary calculations of government revenue from the tax would be $1.5 billion a year, compared with $4b if they were not exempt.

Because the tax take would be reduced by excluding two-thirds of homes, and other issues, Mr Shewan is not convinced this type of capital gains tax is worth the trouble.

"[Traditional capital gains tax] starts off as a wonderful peacock that can solve all our tax problems, but once you start modifying it and plucking out feathers here and there, it ends up as a feather duster, and that's what has happened in overseas countries."

However, he is convinced something must be done to wean the country off its reliance on taxes such as income tax, which makes up almost half the tax take and one-third of total revenues. Creating a capital gains tax would mean other taxes could be reduced.

"We have very high rates of labour mobility in New Zealand; 24 per cent of us work overseas apparently and we are very fleet-footed, so if we overtax our labour, our labour will scarper," Mr Shewan says. "Where we're sitting at the moment [tax-wise] is not a long-term, sustainable option, so we have to do something. The only question is what."

As long as the possible answer includes capital gains tax, New Zealanders may find the cure less palatable than the disease.

- The Dominion Post

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