“You only find out who is swimming naked when the tide goes out.”

– Warren Buffett, Chairman’s letter 2001.

Negatively geared property investors are exposing themselves, the banks and every Australian citizen to capital destruction, a highly infectious disease that leaves permanent scars.

Negative geared property is the glaring weakness in Australia’s deflating housing market. Even modest falls in house prices will force tax-driven ‘gearers to dump rental properties. Only those who sell now for whatever they can get have any chance of keeping their capital intact.

Australia is just now starting to hear the muffled warnings that it has blown a property bubble of immense proportions.

The ATO says about 1.7 million taxpayers have rental income. Of these, around 1.25 million are negatively geared, generating a net rental loss of $6.5 billion in 2009 to claim against other taxes. 1.19 million own just one investment property, 294,000 have two, while 88,300 have three. 14,100 Australians have six or more investment properties.

The vast majority are middle income earners trying to escape Australia’s punitive PAYE tax system.

Relying on heavy borrowings and deliberate thin equity means their financial position can turn around with surprising speed and force. Negative gearing accelerates gains in a rising market; it erases equity in a falling one. Worse, the assets they bought with borrowed money are both illiquid and lumpy.

Middle income earners typically do not have the asset base or liquidity to promptly top up their equity if prices fall – as their mortgage contract provides.

For twenty years property spruikers have worked to sell the residential real estate dream. And access to easy credit – you should see how much the lender’s mortgage calculators allow negative gearers to borrow! – has created an entire class of landlords that are one pay-packet or half a month’s rental from insolvency.

Further, much of the housing stock sold to this poor rentier class is sub standard, poorly located or in SE Queensland.

The wholesale lenders are already starting to see investor arrears overtake owner occupier arrears.

Unravelling this mess – selling up the properties at a discount, lenders clawing back the capital losses from ’gearers and the widespread wealth destruction resonating through the economy – will drive Australia into a credit-driven recession. This will be an ugly end to the extraordinary twenty years of unbridled growth we have just experienced.

The ‘gearers will have been warned by their accountants of the serious risks they face. But many were seduced by innovative property sales techniques and the siren song of owning a ‘rent roll’.

Skilled investors do not indulge in negative gearing or residential property portfolios. They would never willingly expose themselves to these terrible risks. The maximum borrowing they would tolerate would be where rents are 120 per cent of interest costs. Skilled investors regard residential property as a highly unattractive asset class with poor returns, high maintenance charges and significant vacancy risk.
The ‘gearers were reacting to the serious flaws in our tax system by minimizing their PAYE obligations and maximizing concessionally taxed capital gains.

Australia’s tax base relies very heavily on wage and business imposts. The Henry Review recommended removing 125 stupid, behavior-altering, hard to administer and easily evaded taxes and relying on a few, including Land Value Tax and the Resources Super Profits Tax.

Blame-merchants pointing the finger at ‘gearers for the unfolding economic damage need to put responsibility where it belongs. I say, the tax system made them do it.