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Are Property Taxes a “Wealth Tax” on the (Mostly) Non-Wealthy?

In my recent entry Dear Homeowner: If You’re Paying $260,000 in Property Taxes Over 20 Years, What Exactly Do You “Own”?, I questioned the consequences of high property taxes. Some readers wondered if I was saying all property taxes should be abolished. The short answer is no–what I was questioning is local government reliance on property taxes to the point that owning a home no longer makes financial sense because the property taxes consume any appreciation other than the transitory “wealth” generated by a housing bubble.

In effect, local tax authorities are capturing all future appreciation for themselves. Note that applies to areas with high property taxes–in excess of $10,000 annually, not locales with annual property taxes of $2,000.

State and local taxes–sales, income and property–tax very different events. Sales taxes are based on consumption, and are typically highly regressive, as low-income households pay a higher percentage of their income on sales taxes than higher-income households.

Income taxes are typically progressive, as the higher one’s income, the more income tax one pays.

Property tax is not based on consumption or income, but on the presumed wealth and income of property owners. In effect, property taxes are a wealth tax: if you can afford a house, you can afford property taxes.

The fallacy in this assumption is that homeowners’ incomes do not automatically rise along with housing valuations. Consider the 35% increase in the Case-Shiller 20-City Index since 2012: in a four-year period that officially experienced a mere 4% inflation, housing leaped 35%.

Meanwhile, real median household incomes rose a paltry 5%. Local tax authorities love housing bubbles because rising valuations justify higher property taxes. But the homeowners’ income needed to pay higher property taxes may well have declined during the bubble due to layoffs, shortened hours, medical emergency, reduced bonus, etc.

Real estate professional EB described the consequences of this mismatch of earnings need to pay property taxes and soaring property taxes:

You are correct that property taxes are an oft-forgotten cost of homeownership that many buyers fail to properly evaluate when determining how much house they can afford over the long term.

Perhaps a better way to view property taxes is as an inefficient proxy for income taxes — state and local governments assuming that people who can afford a home of a certain value, must have sufficient income to pay ad valorem taxes and per foot and per parcel charges at a given rate.

In a volatile economy, that assumption is often invalid. When the Fed runs out of monetary games to play, and asset values across the economy normalize, both state and local governments and homeowners will all be in a pinch — governments because the valuation-based portion of the tax base will crash, and homeowners because the fixed charges will no longer fit within their diminished incomes.

This is already occurring in suburban Chicago, where annual property taxes can approach 10% (!) of property values.

In a recession, earnings can decline very quickly indeed. Meanwhile, property taxes are “sticky”: they only decline grudgingly (if ever), and only if homeowners pursue bureaucratic appeals based on the declining value of their home.

Owning your house free and clear (no mortgage) is no guarantee you’ll be able to live there once property taxes are $1,000 per month. One of the emotional triggers of Prop 13 limitations on property tax increases in California was the stories of elderly pensioners having to sell their homes because they could no longer afford the skyrocketing property taxes.

A wealth tax based on housing valuations applies equally to homeowners with diminishing income, i.e. the decidedly non-wealthy.

As pensions dry up and blow away under the relentless erosion of the Federal Reserve’s zero-interest rate policy (ZIRP), unaffordable property taxes may well start evicting homeowners from the “asset” they mistakenly thought they “owned.” If your Social Security pension can barely pay your property tax, never mind your Medicare, healthcare costs, food and other living expenses, then what exactly do you own?

As I noted before, as far as the tax authorities are concerned, all you really own is an obligation to pay property taxes and an option to profit from the next housing bubble. If the bubble pops in a recession that also costs you your job, well tough luck, Bucko–your “asset” reverts to the state/county as payment for property taxes you can’t possibly pay.

If politicos and tax authorities think people will passively watch their neighbors lose their homes to sky-high property taxes, they will soon discover their mistake.

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Dear Homeowner: If You’re Paying $260,000 in Property Taxes Over 20 Years, What Exactly Do You “Own”?

We’re constantly told ours is an ownership society in which owning a home is the foundation of household wealth. The concept of ownership may appear straightforward, but consider these questions:

1. If the house is mortgaged, what does the homeowner “own” when the bank has the senior claim to the property?

2. If the homeowner owes local government $13,000 a year in property taxes, what does the homeowner “own” once they pay $260,000 in property taxes over 20 years?

The answer to the first question: the homeowner only “owns” the homeowners’ equity, the market value of the home minus the the mortgage and closing costs.

In a housing bubble, homeowners’ equity can soar as the skyrocketing value accrues to the homeowner, as the mortgage is fixed (in conventional mortgages).

But when bubbles pop and housing prices return to reality-based valuations, the declines also accrue to the homeowner’s equity. (more…)

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Housing Bubble 2 in One Chart

We know two things about housing bubbles: they always pop, with devastating consequences, and apologists and pundits always deny housing is in a bubble.And so it is no surprise that here we are in Housing Bubble 2, the second housing bubble of the 21st century, and the usual suspects are denying housing is in a bubble.

Courtesy of longtime correspondent B.C., we have a chart that not only identifies housing bubbles but explains why they inevitably collapse.

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Here’s Why Housing Must be Propped Up

The Powers That Be have gone to extraordinary lengths to prop up housing by whatever means are necessary since the collapse of the housing bubble in 2008: the Federal Reserve has pushed mortgages rates down by buying mortgage-backed securities, the federal housing agencies (FHA, VA) have issued millions of low-down payment loans, and the federal government has essentially taken over the mortgage industry, backing 90+% of all mortgage loans.

Why is the status quo so keen on propping up housing?

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China’s Leadership: Brilliant or Clueless?

I am often amused by the Western media’s readiness to attribute godlike powers of long-term planning and Sun-Tzu-like strategic brilliance to China’s leadership. A well-known anecdote illustrates the point.

Zhou Enlai, Premier of China in the Mao era, who when asked by Henry Kissinger about the French Revolution, is reputed to have replied, “It’s too early to say.”

This is generally taken to express the Chinese Long View, i.e. that the events of 1789 are still playing out.

But accounts of those present discount this interpretation. Zhou understood Kissinger’s query as being about the 1968 general strike in France. That social revolution was still actively in play in the early 1970s when Zhou and Kissinger were meeting, so the time frame was definitely present-day, not the 18th century.

China’s dramatic rise since the early 1980s, when Deng Xiaoping’s reforms occurred, has been nothing short of phenomenal. This remarkable success has to be attributed in some measure to the leadership’s policies and decisions of the past three decades.

This economic success is the foundation of those who see China’s leadership as brilliant.

But the policies and decisions that worked so well in the boost phase of growth–what we might call the era of low-hanging fruit–do not necessarily work in the next phase, where growth has matured and all the costs that were ignored in the boost phase must now be addressed and paid.

If we look at the problems in China’s economy, environment and foreign policy, it seems the leadership is making it up as they go along, with the one overriding goal being to maintain the domestic political control of the Communist Party.

On the economic front, China’s leadership has actively pursued policies that expanded the shadow banking system and conventional banking system into a $28 trillion debt bubble. This explosive expansion of credit has fueled a real estate bubble of monumental proportions, and a $10 trillion stock market bubble that is now bursting (as all bubbles eventually do, despite claims that “this time it’s different”).

Rather than being brilliant, this is a disaster, as bubbles don’t dissipate without profound systemic consequences.

rather than deal with the crumbling of the real estate bubble, China’s leaders have inflated a stock bubble that promises to bankrupt the tens of millions of households that placed bets in the casino with borrowed money (margin accounts).

On the foreign policy front, China has accomplished the near-impossible, i.e. driving all its neighbors into a united front, as Vietnam, the Philippines, Korea and Japan are all being forced by Chinese belligerence and over-reaching territorial claims to set aside their differences and strengthen ties with the U.S.

Were someone to craft a foreign policy designed to unite all of China’s potential enemies into a powerful alliance, this would be the top choice.

The Chinese leadership is acting for all the world as if it moves from strength to strength, when the reality is the opposite: the leadership moves from one catastrophically ill-planned misadventure to the next.

It is easy to predict the unraveling of the real estate and stock market bubbles and the subsequent collapse of China’s multi-trillion dollar shadow banking system. Having united all its potential enemies into one camp, China has undone decades of careful diplomacy and boxed itself into a diplomatic corner. Now that it has publicly issued extravagant territorial claims, China cannot back down without losing face; but if it continues to push its claims, it further alienates potential allies and pushes them to strengthen ties with the U.S. and other nations threatened by China’s bellicose claims.

In the Great Game, one should never risk one’s position before one has the means to defend that position. China is aggressively pursuing territorial claims that is cannot defend without isolating itself–a policy that would doom its export-and-resource dependent economy.

There are few if any historical precedents for China’s leaders to follow. the boost phase of plucking low-hanging fruit is the easy part, the fun part, the exciting part.

Dealing with the aftermath of burst credit/asset bubbles, environmental destruction, corruption, wealth inequality, global recession and China’s aggressive claim to territory in the South China Sea is the hard part, the not-fun part, the part rife with the potential for catastrophic errors in policy and judgment.

What worked in the post-global financial meltdown era of 2008-2014 (i.e. inflating a $15 trillion credit bubble) will not work the same magic in the next seven years, but there is little evidence that China’s leadership (or indeed, the leadership of the U.S. Japan and the European Union) have a Plan B that will replace strategies that are yielding diminishing returns and raising the risks of a systemic failure.

Brilliant or clueless? As Zhou observed, it’s too early to tell.

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The Echo Bubble in Housing Is About to Pop

The Federal Reserve-induced Echo Housing Bubble is finally starting to roll over, and the bubble’s pop won’t be pretty. Why is the bubble finally popping now?

All the factors that inflated the Echo Housing bubble are running dry. These include:

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Forget the Fake Statistics: China Is a Tinderbox

When China’s tinderbox economy implodes, who will be left to bid up the world’s surplus commodities and real estate?

After 30 years of torrid expansion, perhaps the single most consequential factor in China’s economy is how much of it is a “black box”: a system with visible inputs and outputs whose internal workings are opaque.

There are number of reasons for this lack of transparency:

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Rent Bubble = Housing Bubble = Rent Bubble

Here is the conventional narrative about rents and housing valuations:

1. Rents have soared because people can’t afford to buy a house and have to rent

2. Based on soaring rents, housing is fairly valued

In other words, rents and housing are tautological: rents are rational because housing values are rational, and housing values are rational because rents are rational.

Nice, but wrong: rents and housing are self-reinforcing bubbles:

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Is the Echo Housing Bubble About to Burst?

Speculative bubbles that burst are often followed by an echo bubble, as many participants continue to believe that the crash was only a temporary setback.

The U.S. housing market is experiencing a classic echo bubble. Exhibit A is the Case-Shiller Housing Index for the San Francisco region, which has surged back to levels reached at the top of the first bubble:

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We Need a Crash to Sort the Wheat from the Chaff

When a speculator bought a new particle-board-and-paint McMansion in the middle of nowhere in 2007 with nothing down and a $500,000 mortgage, the lender and the buyer both considered the house as $500,000 of collateral. The lender counted the house as a $500,000 asset, and the speculator considered it his lottery ticket in the housing bubble sweepstakes: when (not if) the house leaped to $600,000, the speculator could sell, pay the commission and closing costs and skim the balance as low-risk profit.

But was the house really worth $500,000?

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When the Current Housing Bubble Finally Bursts

Bubbles are followed by echo-bubbles, and the bursting of the second bubble ends the speculative cycle.

If we have learned anything in the past 20 years of massive asset bubbles and equally massive declines when the bubbles finally pop, it’s this: those caught up in the expansionary phase of the bubble cannot believe the bubble that’s rewarding them so richly could actually burst.

This psychology of mass delusion now dominates housing, stocks and bonds: not only is this not a bubble, the expansion will continue forever.

History, however, suggests otherwise: all bubbles burst, period.

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The Cruel Injustice of the Fed’s Bubbles in Housing

As the generational war heats up, we should all remember the source of all the bubbles and all the policies that could only result in generational poverty: the Federal Reserve.

Federal Reserve chair Janet Yellen recently treated the nation to an astonishing lecture on the solution to rising wealth inequality–according to Yellen, low-income households should save capital and buy assets such as stocks and housing.

It’s difficult to know which is more insulting: her oily sanctimony or her callous disregard for facts. What Yellen and the rest of the Fed Mafia have done is inflate bubbles in credit and assets that have made housing unaffordable to all but the wealthiest households.

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