Why stamp-duty tax cuts may hurt homebuyers
“TODAY I'm cutting stamp duty for millions of homebuyers,” crowed George Osborne, the chancellor of the exchequer, on December 3rd when announcing reforms to stamp duty, a tax on buying property. Yet hidden in the forecasts of the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) is an assumption that implies most homebuyers will be made worse off by the tax cut. For every one percentage-point reduction in the tax, the OBR assumes that house prices will rise by 1.4%, leaving buyers with a bigger overall bill.
At first sight, this seems odd. Economics suggests that the sensitivity of buyers and sellers to changes in the price—“price elasticity”, in the jargon—influences who ends up paying most for “transaction taxes” like stamp duty. Housing supply is not very responsive to price: it is hard to build homes quickly to take advantage of a price spike. That means, according to economic reasoning, that, if stamp duty is cut, you would expect prices to rise and sellers to benefit more than buyers.
What economists would not expect, though, is that buyers would end up absolutely worse off. So why are buyers left with a bigger overall bill? Mortgages are key to solving the mystery. Most buyers are what economists call “credit-constrained”. What they can splash out on a new place is limited by what they can borrow. And the amount they can borrow depends in part on how much cash they can put down as a deposit.
Stamp duty—a bill which must be paid immediately on buying property—drains that cash. When it is cut, buyers can put down higher deposits and borrow more. As a result, demand rises, pushing up the price enough to more than offset the benefit of the tax cut.
If the OBR is right, buyers of a property that cost ￡300,000 before the change in stamp duty now face ￡4,000 less tax but a price ￡5,600 higher. Buyers who were not previously in the market but can now afford a deposit will benefit, but this group is small. The main winners are homeowners, who benefit from higher house prices.
There is a parallel with the government's flagship intervention in the housing market: Help to Buy. That scheme aims to assist buyers who cannot afford deposits by providing them with government loans. But its biggest effect is to boost demand and hence prices. Homeowners keep winning from government policy.
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