I have published a new Issue Analysis with the Centre for Independent Studies, Eight Housing Affordability Myths. In the paper, I show how a number of highly persistent myths about the nature of housing markets, the dynamics of house prices and the drivers of housing affordability condition public policy to focus on excessively on housing demand at the expense of housing supply.
Scapegoating Foreigners for Domestic Policy Failures in Housing
I have an op-ed in the SMH on foreign direct investment in the Australian housing market noting that foreigners are being used as scapegoats for what are really domestic policy failures. The House Economics Committee will now inquire into the issue:
According to committee chair Kelly O’Dwyer, the inquiry will consider whether the current restrictions on foreign investment in residential real estate serve to increase supply, as is their stated intention, or raise prices.
This is rather like asking whether foreign tourists increase the production of goods and services or raise consumer prices. The answer depends on how flexibly Australian producers can accommodate changes in foreign as well as local demand through increased output.
It is pointless blaming foreigners for inflexible elements on the supply-side of the Australian economy. For that, we should blame local politicians.
Ironically, the inquiry could result in a bringing forward of foreign demand in anticipation of increased controls on FDI in residential real estate. The inquiry should recommend the abolition of the existing controls on FDI in real estate. My guess is the Committee will instead recommend extra conditions be attached to FIRB approvals, along with some additional quantitative controls.
I am also quoted in this story in today’s AFR on anti-dumping measures on imported tomatoes.
I will be speaking at a Finsia Industry Lunch Forum on the regulation of foreign direct investment on 28 February. Other speakers include Ian Harper, Anthony Latimer and Tony Mahar. Details and registration here.
UPDATE 28 February: A write up of my presentation by David Uren. Finsia discussion paper here.
How Important is an Australia-China FTA to Kevin Rudd?
I have an op-ed in the Business Spectator noting that the Australia-China free trade deal sought by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd would be best facilitated by Australia giving up its micro-management of Chinese FDI. As noted in the op-ed, this is not something that comes naturally to the Prime Minister. While an agreement could be struck that excludes investment, this would be a wasted opportunity. It would also stand in contrast to the growing likelihood of a US-China investment agreement.
Under current arrangements, very little Chinese FDI in Australia escapes scrutiny because of Canberra’s policy of screening all investment by foreign government-related entities, regardless of transaction size.
Canberra maintains that this policy is applied in a non-discriminatory fashion to all foreign government-related investors. But the rules for these entities were only publicly articulated subsequent to the surge in Chinese investment from 2008 onwards. The Chinese can thank the US Embassy in Canberra and Wikileaks for confirming their suspicions that the policy is unofficially directed at them.
The marked deterioration in Australia-China relations during Kevin Rudd’s previous occupancy of the Lodge was in no small part due to the inability of his government to articulate a coherent policy on FDI from China.
Most Chinese FDI proposals are ultimately approved, which in itself is strong evidence that the current level of regulatory scrutiny at the border is costly and unnecessary.
Chinese direct investment in Australia is subject to the same competition, tax, industrial relations, planning, development and environmental laws that apply to other investors.
The additional layer of regulatory scrutiny Australia imposes at the border adds little to these robust regulatory frameworks behind the border. It serves mainly as a vehicle for political interference in commercial transactions the government does not like.
The rejection or modification of foreign investment proposals has often been explicitly protectionist in intent.
Former Treasurer Wayne Swan rejected Singapore Exchange’s bid for the Australian Securities Exchange in part because it would “risk us losing many of our financial sector jobs”.
Minmetals’ acquisition of OZ Minerals was made subject to conditions that were, to quote the former treasurer again, “designed to protect around 2000 Australian jobs”.
The Australian government has even sought to use the FDI screening process to regulate the level of output and employment in local mining operations.
Such micro-management of FDI trivialises the concept of the ‘national interest’ that is meant to inform the application of the treasurer’s discretion under the Foreign Acquisitions and Takeovers Act.
Foreign Exchange Market Intervention a Risk to Taxpayers
I have an op-ed in the Business Spectator arguing that foreign exchange market intervention is a risk to taxpayers who would be better served if the RBA matched its foreign currency assets and liabilities. I also debunk the notion that Australia is a victim of a ‘currency war’:
It has been argued that Australia is somehow a victim of a ‘currency war’ being waged between foreign central banks engaged in quantitative easing. Yet there is nothing unusual about the effects of quantitative easing on exchange rates.
Quantitative easing is simply a change in the operating instrument of the central bank, from a price variable (the official interest rate) to a quantity variable (base money).
In itself, quantitative easing tell us nothing about whether central bank policy is easy or tight. Low inflation and low interest rates in countries like Japan and the United States imply policy settings are if anything too tight, not too easy.
The exchange rate is just one of the channels through which a change in monetary policy is transmitted to the rest of the economy and quantitative easing does not fundamentally alter this transmission mechanism.
In previous decades, Australians worried about a low exchange rate and capital flight. In the current international environment, foreign capital inflows are an affirmation of our relatively sound economic fundamentals and not a bad problem to have.
A model of inward foreign direct investment for Australia is estimated. Foreign direct investment is found to be positively related to economic and productivity growth and negatively related to foreign portfolio investment, trade openness, the exchange rate and the foreign real interest rate. Foreign direct investment is found to be a substitute for both portfolio investment and trade in goods and services. The exchange rate and the US bond rate affect foreign direct investment through the relative attractiveness of domestic assets. Actual foreign direct investment outperforms a model-derived forecast in recent years, consistent with the liberalisation of foreign investment screening rules following the Australia–US Free Trade Agreement.
We Welcome Foreign Investment, Except When We Don’t
I have an op-ed in today’s Australian arguing the federal coalition had the right policy on foreign direct investment 24 years ago when it was committed to abolishing the Foreign Investment Review Board. The recent debate on this issue within the coalition almost perfectly mirrors a similar debate in the late 1980s, only this time, the National Party seems to be getting its way. Full text below the fold (may differ slightly from published version).
Qantas is lobbying politicians for FDI restrictions to prevent Etihad from acquiring Virgin or to ease the foreign ownership restrictions in the Qantas Sale Act. Australia’s Hansonite political class will likely choose the former over the latter, at least in the short-run. In the long-run, however, the government will probably have to choose between a majority foreign-owned Qantas or taking Qantas back into public ownership as a loss-making ward of the state.
New FIRB chairman Brian Wilson promises greater openness in an interview with Glenda Korporaal:
The former investment banker, who has been on the board of FIRB since 2009 and took over as chairman last month, says FIRB is making a greater effort to communicate the government’s foreign investment policies through its website and in briefing sessions for advisers. “It is important for all our constituencies—the Australian public, Australian business, foreign investors and their governments—to understand that the processes FIRB goes through are sensible and rigorous, and open and consistent,” he says. “Being a little more forthcoming, and having a little more transparency, will actually reduce, for some, the suspicion that we hear or read about from time to time.”
Wilson says FIRB is now putting up a lot more on its website about Australia’s foreign investment policies.
The FIRB has some catching up to do when it comes to posting things on their web site. The fundamental problem with the legislation the FIRB administers remains:
“There is only one test—is the proposal contrary to the national interest? What that may be varies over time depending on economic circumstances, community attitudes, geopolitics, a whole gamut of things.”
Then there is this:
“So, I wouldn’t have thought talking to FIRB about a concept or a possible transaction would tip you over the ASX disclosure threshhold.”
Probably not quite the level of certainty investors are looking for, but perhaps a good quote for the M&A lawyers to file away for future reference.
Some Political Leadership on Foreign Direct Investment
Trade minister Craig Emerson has called for increased foreign direct investment in agriculture, in contrast to the federal Coalition’s calls for increased Foreign Investment Review Board scrutiny of foreign investment in the sector. It is one of the few acts of political leadership in this policy area since the late 1980s.
It is hard to believe now, but in the 1980s there was something of a bidding war between the federal Labor government and the opposition Coalition to liberalise the regulation of FDI. It culminated in then opposition leader John Howard’s undertaking to abolish the FIRB in his 1988 Future Directions manifesto. Both sides of politics recognised that restricting FDI increased foreign debt at the expense of foreign equity. The federal Coalition took a principled stand not to make a political issue of the Hawke-Keating government’s liberalisation measures.
Australia has often relied on external pressure rather than domestic political leadership in liberalising FDI. The 2005 Australia-US Free Trade Agreement resulted in a significant liberalisation of FDI screening thresholds in response to US concerns that would have been unlikely in the absence of the agreement.
The conventional wisdom holds that the existing discretionary regime for the regulation of FDI is as much liberalisation as the Australian political system can sustain. Yet the current system replaced an open-door regime that was in place until the early 1970s, at least if we ignore the statutory restrictions in certain sectors. The Australian political system has historically supported a more liberal FDI regime at times when economic nationalism and xenophobia were even more pronounced than they are today.
The shift to a discretionary regulatory regime from the early 1970s has normalised the idea that foreign direct investment should be regulated at the border rather than in-country on a national treatment basis. It is a legacy of the economic nationalism of Gough Whitlam and Rex Connor that continues to hold Australia back.
FIRB Transparency and the Colmer Doctrine Revisited
Nomura’s head of mergers and acquisitions, Grant Chamberlain, has called for greater transparency in the regulation of foreign direct investment, as reported in The Australian:
There were generally clear guidelines when it came to FIRB policy, but “but when it comes to SOEs, the picture changes”.
He said the only public information recently had been the “Colmer doctrine”, comments made by then FIRB executive director Patrick Colmer at a conference on Australia-China investment in September 2009.
Mr Colmer said the Australian government preferred that foreign investment by state-owned enterprises was kept to less than 50 per cent for greenfields projects and less than 15 per cent for major producers.
Mr Chamberlain said that it was impossible to actually get a copy of Colmer’s comments and that there was confusion about what would be considered as a “major producer”.
In fact, it is possible to get a copy of the speech here, but only due to a Freedom of Information request I made of the FIRB. The saga behind the speech and my efforts to obtain a copy are detailed in this op-ed in The Australian. Chamberlain’s speech proves the point I made in my original FOI application that releasing the speech was in the public interest.
South Africa looks to Australia’s Foreign Investment Review Board as a model:
THE establishment in SA of a body similar to the Australian Foreign Investment Review Board will be vital in regulating the government’s rules on foreign direct investment and removing uncertainty of the kind around this year’s controversial Walmart-Massmart merger.
However, competition experts warn that for the body to function properly, it will have to be independent from the government, will have to be governed by rules that clearly define its role and jurisdiction, and will have to have absolute transparency.
Australia’s FIRB has none of those characteristics.
My review of Paul Cleary’s book ‘Too Much Luck’ is up at The Conversation. The original review included a discussion of the role of the exchange rate which unfortunately hit the cutting room floor, but can be found below the fold. The review draws on a monograph by Robert Carling and I making the case against a sovereign wealth fund for Australia that will be published by CIS in the New Year.
The government looks set to proceed with a media inquiry. Twenty years ago, Kerry Packer demonstrated the right amount of respect and deference to be afforded the parliament in relation to such inquiries. It is still the most colourful defence of the rule of law in relation to cross-border acquisitions ever mounted in Australian public life. I was working in Parliament House at the time and I think it is fair to say that most of the politicians on the print media inquiry felt ashamed of themselves at the end of that hearing.
Data versus Anecdote on Foreign Acquisitions in Agriculture
The debate over foreign acquisitions of both agricultural and urban land has been driven by anecdote rather than data. Some high profile acquisitions have gained considerable media attention, but this has obscured the underlying reality that Australia’s broadacre, dairy and other farms remain overwhelmingly Australian-owned.
The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) and the Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation (RIRDC) have been engaged in a data gathering exercise to measure the level of foreign ownership in Australian agriculture. As of 31 December 2010, the ABS finds that:
99% of agricultural businesses in Australia were entirely Australian owned;
89% of agricultural land was entirely Australian owned; and
91% of water entitlements for agricultural purposes were entirely Australian owned
This helps put the current debate in proper perspective. Foreign investment in agriculture should be welcomed, but agriculture in Australia is likely to remain overwhelmingly Australian-owned.