The Broad Mind | The problem with real estate taxation

by S Karthik

I spent a year working in an India-focused high frequency trading hedge fund. I used to trade equities and equity derivatives there. We were primarily an arbitrage hedge fund, and our aim was to make money by trading on assets that were mispriced, in order to make riskless profits. For example, if the price of a certain stock at a certain instant was Rs 100 on the BSE and Rs. 99 on the NSE, we would buy the stock at the NSE and sell it at the BSE, simultaneously, thus making riskless profits. Contrary to what some of the “99%ers” say, we saw social value in what we did. We were making prices fairer for the rest of the market, and removing anomalies.

There was one big problem though, this beast called “securities transaction tax”. Every transaction in securities in India attracts this tax. While it seems to be a fairly small number, when you are trading large volumes and looking to arbitrage out wafer-thin margins, it ends up being significant. This tax, we figured, was a big hindrance in true arbitrage-free pricing of securities in India. The tax meant that assets could be mis-priced up to a certain limit, because wiping out that mispricing through a trade was unprofitable thanks to this tax. This “flow tax”, thus, makes financial markets inefficient.

The problem is bigger when it comes to real estate. Historically, property taxes have been really low, but property transaction taxes have been high. There is a good reason for this. Back in the old days where record-keeping was inefficient and incomplete, it was impossible for the government to map out who owned which piece of land. Instead, they figured that they would have a record on all property transactions, and thus put a tax on that. This is a worldwide phenomenon.

It has led to two big problems in India. First is the market inefficiency that I spoke about with my equities example. High transaction taxes means that property markets are illiquid, and this prevents more people from entering and investing in the market. This also means that any price changes in the broad market are not reflected easily enough across a vast majority of property. Secondly, the high transaction taxes means there is massive under-reporting of the actual prices at which transactions take place. Both the buyer and the seller have an incentive to do so, and deprive the government of tax money. This leads to creation of massive amounts of black money in real estate. The problem is similar to the creation of all those Swiss bank accounts back in the days of 99% marginal tax rates.

There is a side-effect also, one that our current government and the National Advisory Council (NAC) might be sympathetic to. Low reported prices of land transactions also implies lower realization for farmers and other villagers when land is forcibly acquired by the government. Though compensation might be declared as multiples of the “market value”, the true market value in most cases is so depressed that farmers usually get paid a pittance.

That aside, so what prevents us from dismantling these distortionary transaction taxes on property? Firstly, they are a massive source of income to state governments and local bodies, and if they are to be dismantled they need to be replaced with another equivalent tax. Economists usually advocate property holding taxes as a less distortionary and more stable means of funding local governments. Till recently, however, bad record-keeping meant those weren’t enforceable. You already have nominal property taxes that are collected, but reports in newspapers suggests that implementation is lax, and there is significant tax evasion there.

Even if all property records are formalized and computerized, there is another major hurdle in dismantling property transaction taxes and increasing property holding taxes. Higher property holding taxes means that the value of property will see a sudden drop (lower “free cash flow” each year, and all that). Markets might become more efficient and liquid, but real estate companies who have sunk in millions assuming a certain valuation of their properties will see a sudden erosion in that value, and see value in lobbying against this change taking place. In the long run, they will benefit, in terms of greater investment, greater liquidity and faster disposal of the properties they have built. But the initial “shock” in terms of reduced valuations will mean they will lobby against this change.

Thus, unless something drastic happens in terms of reforms, it is likely that we will be stuck in this inefficient regime of high property transaction tax.

Karthik is an independent quant consultant and a researchassociate at Takshashila Institution. He blogs at Pertinent Observations