Six key Labor financial policy proposals

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In the week of 20-24 August 2018, another round of musical chairs played in Canberra. When the music stopped, the cabinet had changed, and Australia had a new Prime Minister and a new Treasurer. Political pundits picked May 2019 as the most likely date for the next federal election. The Newspoll conducted in late August had Labor as the clear favourite, leading the Coalition in the two-party-preferred measure by 56% to 44%.

With a Labor victory a strong possibility, investors should understand the potential impact on their portfolios.

Labor’s plan to make housing more affordable

Labor’s document “Positive plan to help housing affordability” asserts that:

  • The middle class is being priced out of the housing market.
  • Ownership rates for young people aged 25-34 have spiralled downwards in recent years from 60% to 48%.
  • In all home purchases, first-home buyers make up only 1 out of 7 buyers.

Labor’s response is to reform negative gearing and the capital gains tax discount effective from a yet-to-be-determined date after the next election, a policy which they claim “… will help put the Australian dream of home ownership back within the reach of middle and working class families.

1. Capital gains tax

Capital gains can be offset against previously incurred but unused (carried over) capital losses and against losses incurred that fiscal year.

Currently, individuals and trusts are also entitled to a 50% discount on the capital gain amount providing they have held the asset for more than one year.

Labor proposes to halve that capital gains discount (CGT) for all assets purchased after a yet-to-be-determined date following the next election, if held over a year, to 25%.

The exceptions (for which the current rules will remain as is) are:

  • Investments made before this date
  • Investments made by superannuation funds
  • Assets of small business owners.

2. Negative gearing

Negative gearing is where investment-related expenses (especially borrowing costs on a property) exceed revenue and the loss is claimed as a tax deduction against other income.

Labor proposes to limit negative gearing to ‘new’ housing from a yet-to-be-determined date after the next election. Investments made before this date will be grandfathered from the impact. Losses from new investments in shares and ‘existing’ properties will still be able to offset other taxable income. These losses can also continue to be carried forward to offset the final capital gain on the investment.

One industry reaction came from RiskWise Property Research, who co-authored a report assessing the impact on property markets of the proposals to amend the CGT discount and negative gearing. They asserted that the unintended consequences would result in “some geographical areas especially those with weak or fragile property markets, [being] adversely impacted more than others.” The report also warns of the consequences in the Sydney unit market being the equivalent of a 1.15% increase in interest rates.

3. Private health insurance

In a radio interview in Adelaide on 18 May, Shadow Health Minister Catherine King outlined that, to cap the rising costs of health insurance,

“Labor will cap [rises in] private health insurance premiums at 2% for the next two years. But we also think the Productivity Commission needs to have a good root and branch look at what’s actually happening in this industry across the board.”

The industry reaction was swift. Dr Rachel David, CEO of Private Healthcare Australia, spoke to the likely unanticipated consequences:

“An arbitrary cap could put some of our regional and employee-based funds at risk of becoming insolvent. And what it will do in terms of flow-on effects is some even of the larger funds, to retain their prudential reserves, will need to freeze the payments they’re making for hospitals and for doctors, which could lead to a cap on nursing wages and a cap on the income of the people who work in hospitals. I know it’s only for two years but expenditure in the health sector is very large, we’re paying out record amounts in claims, and the effects will be felt very quickly.”

4. Superannuation: non-concessional limits, catch-ups and tax deductibility

Speaking on behalf of Labor at the Financial Services Council Political Series Breakfast in Sydney, Labor Senator Kristina Keneally outlined that:

“In 2016 we made it clear that we will oppose the government’s measure to allow catch-up concessional contributions and tax deductibility for personal superannuation contributions. We will also lower the annual non-concessional contributions cap to $75,000 and further lower the high-income super contribution threshold to $200,000.”

Asserting that the proposals lacked logic and equity, Noel Whittaker countered that by taking us back to first principles.

“One would think a major goal of all political parties would be to minimise changes to superannuation in the foreseeable future. Hopefully that would restore trust in the system, and encourage people to use superannuation for its original purpose: funding their retirement so as not to be a burden on the welfare system.”

5. Changes to discretionary trust arrangements

In the “A Fairer Tax System for All Australians” speech in July 2017, Bill Shorten announced the minimum 30% tax on distributions from discretionary trusts:

“Under Labor’s policy, individuals and businesses will still be able to use discretionary trusts. However, the new minimum 30% tax rate on distributions will make sure discretionary trusts cannot be used as a vehicle for aggressive tax minimisation.

“Labor’s policy builds on the reforms of former Treasurer John Howard in the early 1980s. Mr Howard cracked down on artificial income splitting to minors by taxing distributions at the top marginal tax rate. Labor’s policy extends this principle to adult beneficiaries, but at a less punitive rate of 30%.”

Writing in Cuffelinks, Matthew Collins considers that since testamentary trusts are to be exempted from the new proposal, “testamentary trusts may become a useful structure for holding investments for the long term,” and that, “in selected circumstances, the following strategy may be useful:

  • Parents lend money to their adult children
  • The children make a contribution to superannuation
  • The loan is ‘paid back’ out of the estate on the death of the parents.”

6. Removal of excess imputation as cash refunds

Labor’s policy is that it will deny cash refunds for excess imputation credits, with some exceptions.

Cuffelinks has run numerous articles on this issue, commenting on its operation and equity as summarised in “Cuffelinks articles on Labor’s franking policy”. Subsequent articles include Olivia Long’s “SMSFs hit by loss of tax-free status and franking refunds” and Geoff Warren’s paper in this week’s edition.

Taking stock

Depending on individual circumstances, one or more of Labor’s proposed policies may cut sharply into financial plans. While it is worthwhile taking stock now, anyone contemplating changes should note that a lot can happen in eight months of politics, and even if Labor wins, the final policy might be modified.

 

Vinay Kolhatkar is Assistant Editor at Cuffelinks. This article is general information only and does not constitute financial or tax advice.

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12 Responses to Six key Labor financial policy proposals

  1. Vinay Kolhatkar September 11, 2018 at 11:06 PM #

    Hi Paul,

    It does not appear that way from their document — See: https://www.alp.org.au/negativegearing

    “Labor will limit negative gearing to new housing from a yet-to-be-determined date after the next election. All investments made before this date will not be affected by this change and will be fully grandfathered. This will mean that taxpayers will continue to be able to deduct net rental losses against their wage income, providing the losses come from newly constructed housing. From a yet-to-be-determined date after the next election losses from new investments in shares and existing properties can still be used to offset investment income tax liabilities. These losses can also continue to be carried forward to offset the final capital gain on the investment.”

    See also – https://theconversation.com/why-its-time-to-quarantine-negative-gearing-24265

    Further, Labor also states — “Labor will consult with industry, relevant stakeholders and State governments on further design and implementation details ahead of the start date for both [negative gearing and CGT these proposals.” It is not unusual for political parties to leave a little wiggle room if there is a backlash.

  2. Paul Garner September 10, 2018 at 3:04 AM #

    Thanks Vinay, so this means that expenses that outweigh income will be quarantined to the income on just that investment?

  3. Vinay Kolhatkar September 7, 2018 at 10:38 AM #

    Ultra-low interest rates push up bond prices, and they also must push up the markets to lower yields to match only the needed differential. That doesn’t just raise share prices, because property yields will also fall to match a needed differential to bonds and bank deposits, ergo, asset values will rise.

    Gearing is risk taking. Tax deductions are not the sole reason people gear up but they matter. Globally low interest rates arguably matter more. Foreign investors matter, too. But eventually if there is excess supply, the market will have a sharp correction or a sustained flatlining. This reality will always assert itself over politics and policies.

  4. Tim September 6, 2018 at 8:24 PM #

    David and Daniel seem to think negative gearing is the reason house prices are so high. I really don’t think it is that simple.

    Have you stopped to think about how interest rates at such a low level factor into that equation?

    People can borrow a heck of a lot more for the same monthly repayment when rates are so low….and if they can borrow more…they will pay more for a property they desire as they are more interested in how much it will cost each month.

    The availability of credit and affordability of monthly repayments has a lot more to do with house prices than negative gearing.

    • David September 7, 2018 at 9:18 AM #

      Tim,

      Not at all. Negative gearing is simply one of the factors which have driven house prices so high. Other factors such as low interest rates; lax bank lending standards; foreign buyers and most recently SMSFs using non-recourse loans have all played a part.

      Tax policy is certainly an area where the Government can influence demand. And restricting negative gearing would certainly be a positive development in terms of bringing a sense of equity to the housing market between those trying to buy a house to live in and investors. At the moment it is heavily tipped in favour of investors. I have a number of friends who negatively gear (including a surgeon with a $3.5M loan) on a coastal investment property and even they say they current tax arrangement is heavily skewed in their favour and too good to last.

  5. David September 6, 2018 at 2:52 PM #

    There is a growing realization amongst Australia’s younger generation who hope to buy their own home (and their parents) that the current investment and tax system is heavily skewed against them and instead favours investors. Effectively they are being hoodwinked by the current system. Whilst figures from the ATO indicate that 5 per cent of Australians are using negative gearing, that would leave the vast majority of the population who are not and who are effectively subsidizing the negative gearers. It is also worth noting that the ATO also estimates the cost of negative gearing in terms of lost tax revenue to be in excess of $3.0 billion per annum.

    The Labor Party has been brave in signalling its policy intentions well ahead to the next Federal election. They could simply turn up and they would win. Their negative gearing and CGT reform proposals will have enormous appeal to younger voters seeking a more affordable housing market. The current Government has done nothing for them in this regard and deserve to be thrown out.

  6. Roger Farquhar September 6, 2018 at 1:03 PM #

    WRT to imputation refunds; the revised ALP policy is to allow that

    “Self-managed Superannuation Funds with at least one pensioner or allowance recipient before 28 March 2018 will be exempt from the changes”

    This will calm some nerves.

    As for negative gearing on property; the industry response is predictable. The question needs to be answered, should taxpayers help fund property investment portfolios?

    • Jack September 6, 2018 at 9:50 PM #

      The pensioner referred to here is an age pensioner NOT a person who receives a pension from a super fund. Anyone who does not receive the age pension or part pension from Centrelink, and presently receives a cash refund for excess franking credits will lose it.

  7. Daniel September 6, 2018 at 11:30 AM #

    Reforms to negative gearing and CGT seem sensible based on how they have distorted behaviour in the property market. Regarding negative gearing (NG), someone needs to provide me with a plausible argument as to why taxpayers (i.e. including myself) should subsidise property speculators to the tune of ~$2bn a year to invest in assets that don’t generate sufficient cashflows to cover their holding costs. The economics are flawed and I fail to see how this kind of decision-making should be rewarded with taxpayer money. The whole concept is perverse and when you try and explain NG to respectable folks from outside Oz, perplexed looks tend to follow. Buying and selling overpriced property off one another does nothing to grow the economic pie other than the illusory ‘wealth effect’ and is more akin to a pyramid scheme.

    What needs to be remembered is that NG is just a means to an end to hopefully generate a discounted capital gain that is greater than the cumulative loss on the asset. If capital gains vanish the strategy becomes less attractive. But that doesn’t mean it should remain as it will fuel the same type of speculation in the next up-cycle. My view is it should be scrapped completely but Labor’s policy seems a fair compromise to allow existing arrangements to be grandfathered. The whole idea of NG when it was first introduced was to foster construction of new housing so this simply resets the policy to its original design.

    The scrapping of refund of franking credits is probably not the best policy option and would probably be better served by just a flat tax rate on pension earnings.

  8. Vinay Kolhatkar September 6, 2018 at 12:20 AM #

    HI Jack,

    Thank you for the comment and the observation about John Hewson’s loss of the “unloseable” election.

    Labor rescinded some of their comments on 29 June. At the time they did say they will oppose the small business tax reduction to 25% (but with an offsetting comment that they will not oppose what was already “factored in”) which is what I believe you are referring to.

    But, even as legislated if the cuts do not take effect till FY26 and FY27, (https://www.ato.gov.au/Rates/Changes-to-company-tax-rates/) then arguably the uncertainy is already far too great. By this time we would have three, not one, federal election/s. Perhaps we should put this in the “too hard to predict” basket.

  9. Frank September 5, 2018 at 10:32 PM #

    It will be interesting to watch Labor win the election ‘making housing more affordable!’ by cutting negative gearing and capital gains tax discounts which will lead to a fall in property prices! Problem is their army of true believers are probably the most highly geared and will be most hurt by their policies.

  10. Jack September 5, 2018 at 7:54 PM #

    Vinay
    You forgot to mention the Labor promise to rescind the cuts to company taxed for small business that have already been legislated. Just another hit to family businesses and middle Australia.

    The last time an opposition went to an election with such a comprehensive set of reforms, the leader, John Hewson, lost the unloseable election. History does not repeat, but it does rhyme

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