Most of us know the basic reasons for cooling measures. If the government doesn’t intervene, housing prices will go sky high. Then defaults will ruin our banks, our children will eat their own appendix to save money, and worst of all, foreigners might look down on us. But there are also some less obvious reasons why the government is adamant on cooling measures:
Reason #1: Property might be crowding out other types of investment
Okay, put on your most Singaporean mentality. Now answer this question: between investing in a start-up, and investing in a condo, which would you rather?
If you answered anything other than “a condo”, migrate. Otherwise, you might see the problem – many of us would rather put all our money on real estate, than in riskier ventures like radical start-ups, or even established businesses (many Singaporeans still prefer property over stocks, for example).
On a macroeconomic level, this brings about some serious issues. If everyone only wants to invest in houses, then we won’t have innovation and diversity. How are our young engineers and entrepreneurs going to find their break, when the only thing we’ll invest in is houses?
Even established companies could suffer from this – if everyone wants to invest in property, and no one wants to buy shares or bonds, those companies will struggle to raise capital.
This also causes problems because property ownership doesn’t actually produce things. If Steve Jobs had made his money in property, you might not be reading this on your iThingy right now; and we all lose out in the long run if there’s no investment in biomedical technologies, fintech, automation, etc.
Now there are two ways to deal with that. One way is to tell Singaporeans to risk their money on businesses, instead of buying another condo. That will have the same chance of success as, say, an alcoholics-recovery meeting at Zoukout.
The other way is to subtly discourage property as an investment. For example, by raising additional taxes on property, reducing access to capital-intensive property assets through curbing bank loans, and aggressively raising the supply of housing despite weak rental markets and falling prices.
That situation probably looks familiar to you.
Reason #2: Excessive property investment highlights and enhances wealth inequality
Even if you believe in trickle-down economics (i.e. the theory that rich people create jobs and spend more, thus benefitting people beneath them on the income ladder), it’s pretty obvious that property investments don’t “trickle down” so well.
(For those of you who already don’t believe in trickle-down economics, this point will become more valid in a minute).
When you invest in a business, that business needs to employ staff. It needs to purchase supplies, or pay for things like research and shipping. The money that’s invested in the business gets spread around – other Singaporeans get jobs, and related Singaporean businesses (the suppliers and distributors) make money.
When you invest in a property, the number of people who benefit is much smaller. The long term result is more “sucking up” than “trickling down” – you get rental income, but you don’t provide employment, or a boon to local businesses (apart from the property developer and your agents, that is). In fact, you might actually be a hindrance to them; such as by being a commercial landlord who charges businesses to operate on your property.
If you don’t believe in trickle-down economics, then property will strike you as being practically feudal – it looks a lot like the lord and peasant relationship that existed in the Middle Ages (the peasants paid taxes to work the land for food). This results in the property owner getting richer (and buying up more properties), while the non-property owners stay poor.
On an immediate level, there are also social problems when class divides become obvious. And let’s not kid ourselves; there’s a huge class divide that’s clear from where you live (an HDB flat or a private condo? How about a house on Sentosa Cove?)
Reason #3: The country’s economy needs diversification
Much like your own portfolio, the country’s economy needs to be diversified. When countries focus too much on one particular asset or industry, a downturn can destabilise the whole nation. One recent example would be Venezuela, which was so dependent on oil revenue (more than 90 per cent of their GDP) that the oil price slump from 2014 has their country on the verge of collapse.
Although you have to be a real egghead to know it, this actually happened with the United States and property back in 2008. Their economy became heavily intertwined with Collateralised Debt Obligations (CDOs), which were – in a highly simplified sense – bonds built on risky housing loans.
There was so much money in CDOs (the theory was that all the home owners couldn’t default at once, surely), that when the US property market slumped, major financial institutions went bankrupt.
You’ll notice Singapore derives revenue from a lot of different things – building oil rigs, being a financial hub, a major shipping port, etc. It’s all diversification; so that a slump in one area won’t cause our whole economy to fall apart. And that means avoiding having too much in the way of property investments as well.
Still, that doesn’t mean cooling measures are forever, or that property is the wrong investment for you
Ultimately, we need to look at property investments on an individual basis; we’re not going to save the economy by destroying our retirement portfolio (and if you want to invest in a socially conscious way, there are funds designed for that). Even with the cooling measures, the method remains: find a good location, have holding power, and ditch the properties that become liabilities. Do check out the various search tools on 99.co, you can search by travel time to your frequently commuted places, proximity to schools, and even upcoming MRT stations.
For now however, don’t count on the government dropping cooling measures. And don’t assume their decision is based solely on lowering property prices; there may be other reasons.