High stamp duty lowers house prices

A new paper from IZA confirms: it's sellers who really pay stamp duty.

Stamp duty is one of the most hated taxes in the country. That's partially because it's for large amounts, levied all at once: it hurts a lot more to hand over £8000 in one lump sum than it does to have it taken from you over the course of a year. It's also because it is a tax which is broken at a very fundamental level. Unlike nearly every other tax, stamp duty (technically called Stamp Duty Land Tax, SDLT) is valued at a percentage of the total value of the house, with the percentage increasing as the value increases. That leads to some very strange effects on the housing market as people revalue their houses to avoid hitting the thresholds:

In this chart, from Savills, you can see the effect of the stamp duty thresholds at £125,000, £250,000 and £500,000.

But stamp duty is also hated because it raises the cost of moving house. The tax is payable by the buyer of the property, making it seem particularly painful for first-time buyers, who don't have the cash from selling a previous residence to provide the necessary liquidity.

But, as we know from other debates, who pays a tax isn't always as clear as it seems. The classic example is the employer's contribution to national insurance: they pay tax on 13.8 per cent of their employee's earnings, but there's evidence to suggest that if that tax did not exist, it would lead to higher wages, not higher profits. So is the same true for stamp duty?

Chris Dillow points to a paper published by the Institute for the Study of Labor (IZA – the institute is German) suggests it is. The authors, the IMF's Ian Davidoff and IZA's Andrew Leigh, write that:

The short-term impact of a 10 per cent increase in the stamp duty is to lower house prices by 3 per cent… Since stamp duty averages only 2-4 per cent of the value of the property, these results imply that the economic incidence of the tax is entirely on the seller; that is, prices fall by the full amount of the tax.

The data is for the Australian market, but sits comfortably with snapshots like the Savills graph above, which show that, at least at the thresholds, sellers are extraordinarily sensitive to the cost of stamp duty. There's few for whom that's good news – though if you don't yet own a house and plan to buy one and never sell it, it won't hurt.

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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Theresa May gambles that the EU will blink first

In her Brexit speech, the Prime Minister raised the stakes by declaring that "no deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain". 

It was at Lancaster House in 1988 that Margaret Thatcher delivered a speech heralding British membership of the single market. Twenty eight years later, at the same venue, Theresa May confirmed the UK’s retreat.

As had been clear ever since her Brexit speech in October, May recognises that her primary objective of controlling immigration is incompatible with continued membership. Inside the single market, she noted, the UK would still have to accept free movement and the rulings of the European Court of Justice (ECJ). “It would to all intents and purposes mean not leaving the EU at all,” May surmised.

The Prime Minister also confirmed, as anticipated, that the UK would no longer remain a full member of the Customs Union. “We want to get out into the wider world, to trade and do business all around the globe,” May declared.

But she also recognises that a substantial proportion of this will continue to be with Europe (the destination for half of current UK exports). Her ambition, she declared, was “a new, comprehensive, bold and ambitious Free Trade Agreement”. May added that she wanted either “a completely new customs agreement” or associate membership of the Customs Union.

Though the Prime Minister has long ruled out free movement and the acceptance of ECJ jurisdiction, she has not pledged to end budget contributions. But in her speech she diminished this potential concession, warning that the days when the UK provided “vast” amounts were over.

Having signalled what she wanted to take from the EU, what did May have to give? She struck a notably more conciliatory tone, emphasising that it was “overwhelmingly and compellingly in Britain’s national interest that the EU should succeed”. The day after Donald Trump gleefully predicted the institution’s demise, her words were in marked contrast to those of the president-elect.

In an age of Isis and Russian revanchism, May also emphasised the UK’s “unique intelligence capabilities” which would help to keep “people in Europe safe from terrorism”. She added: “At a time when there is growing concern about European security, Britain’s servicemen and women, based in European countries including Estonia, Poland and Romania, will continue to do their duty. We are leaving the European Union, but we are not leaving Europe.”

The EU’s defining political objective is to ensure that others do not follow the UK out of the club. The rise of nationalists such as Marine Le Pen, Alternative für Deutschland and the Dutch Partij voor de Vrijheid (Party for Freedom) has made Europe less, rather than more, amenable to British demands. In this hazardous climate, the UK cannot be seen to enjoy a cost-free Brexit.

May’s wager is that the price will not be excessive. She warned that a “punitive deal that punishes Britain” would be “an act of calamitous self-harm”. But as Greece can testify, economic self-interest does not always trump politics.

Unlike David Cameron, however, who merely stated that he “ruled nothing out” during his EU renegotiation, May signalled that she was prepared to walk away. “No deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain,” she declared. Such an outcome would prove economically calamitous for the UK, forcing it to accept punitively high tariffs. But in this face-off, May’s gamble is that Brussels will blink first.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.