Land Prices, Land Markets, and the Broader Economy

Stephen K. Mayo, Março 1, 1998

The interactions between land and property markets and the broader economy of cities and nations are central to the Lincoln Institute’s concerns. Two key objectives of our work in this area are (1) to raise awareness about the stakes of good land policy for creating well-functioning land and property markets and for improving the performance of financial markets, labor markets, the fiscal affairs of local and national governments, and ultimately the economic health of both cities and countries; and (2) to indicate the need for high quality data and an appropriate analytical framework to aid in understanding the importance of good land policy, monitoring the effects of land policies throughout the economy and facilitating policy reforms. In November 1997, the Lincoln Institute held a conference on the theme of “Land Prices, Information Systems, and the Market for Land Information” to explore these issues.

Land Values and Land Policy

How important are the stakes of good land policy? Hee-Nam Jung of the Korean Research Institute for Human Settlements reported on the importance of land markets in the economies of five countries (see Table 1). The value of land in mature economies such as Canada, France and the United States ranged from about one-third to three-quarters of GNP during the mid-1980s, and represented from 8 to 21 percent of estimated national wealth. In the more rapidly growing economies of Japan and Korea, land values were from three to six times as high as GNP in the 1980s, and represented half or more of estimated national wealth. In the mature economies these figures illustrate the importance of land as a source of wealth, but in rapidly growing economies land has an even more significant role in determining economic welfare and a host of incentives for the performance of the economy.

In Japan, for example, booming land and property values during the 1980s served as collateral to fund credit expansion throughout the economy and, indeed, throughout the world. Land prices in Japan’s six largest cities increased dramatically from 1980 to 1991, at a compound rate of about 12 percent annually (see Figure 1). By 1990, the estimated price of land being developed for residential purposes in Tokyo was estimated to be about $3,000 per square meter, compared to figures of roughly $110 in Toronto and Paris and $70 in Washington, D.C.

Between 1991 and 1996, however, Japanese land prices fell by nearly half, taking down the Japanese economy and a host of financial institutions in its wake. The cumulative losses of the Japanese banking system associated with the collapse of the property market and associated businesses are estimated around $1 trillion, making the U.S. Savings and Loan “crisis” seem comparatively insignificant. Analysis of Japanese land policy suggests some of the causes of the boom and bust cycle in land prices: policies that have severely restricted conversion of agricultural land to urban uses; an especially complex land development system that requires exceptionally long times for approvals; and a fiscal system that places little emphasis on the taxation of land and property values.

Land prices in Korea also rose at a tremendous rate during the 1980s-over 16 percent annually from 1981 to 1991. Remarkably, in most years nominal capital gains on Korean land were greater than Korea’s GNP. Jung explained that these gains had profound implications for the distribution of wealth and income in Korea, and for economic incentives. Not surprisingly, the recent collapse of Korean property markets has had tidal effects throughout the economy. As in the case of Japan, the Korean land policy framework has been seen as highly questionable. Government intervention in land and property markets over the years has been responsible for severely distorted markets that represent a major structural imbalance in the Korean economy.

Using Land Market Data for Policy Analysis

Other speakers at the conference presented information on the importance of land market performance for a variety of stakeholders throughout the economy: consumers and taxpayers; land developers and builders of residential and non-residential properties; banks and financial institutions; and both local and central governments. In the case of Cracow, Poland, Alain Bertaud from the World Bank indicated that policies embodied in master plans and zoning regulations were highly inconsistent with the nominal objectives of the regulations, and would lead to inefficient and costly spatial patterns within the city. His paper illustrated the value of having good data on land prices, regulations and the spatial distribution of the population in order to evaluate the effects of policies involving land use, infrastructure and property taxation.

Paul Cheshire from Oberlin College and Stephen Sheppard from the London School of Economics illustrated how data on land and housing prices, land and housing characteristics, and regulations can be used to evaluate the effects of government policies such as the preservation of urban open space. Jean-Paul Blandinieres of the French Ministry of Equipment, Transportation and Housing discussed an ambitious program of the French government to establish “Urban Observatories” to collect and analyze information on land and property markets and the effects of government policies.

Data Collection on Land and Property Markets

Recognition of the costs of land policy failures or, conversely, of the benefits associated with implementing good policies, has given rise to a number of systematic efforts to collect and analyze high quality data on land and property markets within various institutional settings. Pablo Trivelli discussed land and property information systems in Latin America that serve the needs of public and private stakeholders. Perhaps the most impressive of these is an effort in Brazil called EMBRAESP, which monitors key indicators of urban property market performance along with urban legislation, land regulations and major public works projects that might have an impact on the behavior of property markets. Data and analyses from EMBRAESP are of interest to many institutions throughout Brazil. The distribution of the information is self-sustaining through contracts with major newspaper chains, sales of periodic bulletins, disks containing standard data, and special reports responding to individual demands. Much of this information can also be accessed through the Internet.

Another major data collection and analysis effort was reported by David Dowall from the University of California-Berkeley. He developed the “Land Market Assessment,” a tool for analysis of land and housing markets that has been applied in over 30 developing countries and transitional economies. At comparatively modest cost, data are collected through aerial photos and satellite images, surveys of land brokers, and secondary sources on population, infrastructure and regulatory frameworks. Dowall’s analysis of the experience with these assessments documents a number of generic policy findings, especially concerning the costs of inappropriate land policies. His work also suggests that even more cost-effective versions of the tool can be developed that will illustrate the workings of land markets and beneficial policy reforms.

Romeo Sherko, David Stanfield and Malcolm Childress from the Land Tenure Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, addressed the issue of designing a strategy for the creation and dissemination of land information in transitional economies, where information has historically been tightly held, thus frustrating both the evolution of property markets and opportunities for policy analysis. Their conclusions regarding the role of the public and private sectors, the scope of data collection, and pricing and dissemination strategies help to explain why land market information is often not provided or is poorly provided by either the government or the private sector. On the other hand, their analysis suggests that the benefits of good land market information are considerable. Some of these benefits were illustrated by David Dale-Johnson from the University of Southern California and Jan Brzeski from Jagellonian University, Cracow, who discussed efforts to document rapidly evolving market prices of property in Cracow and to inform property tax reform efforts.

Samu Kurri, Seppo Laakso, and Heikki Loikkanen of the Finnish Government Institute of Economic Research discussed the land price information system in Finland, suggesting that it is only now beginning to catch up with the needs of many different potential users of the data. These users include those concerned with implementation of a new property tax and macro-economic and financial sector policymakers concerned with the interaction of the Finnish property market and national economic performance. Karl (Chip) Case of Wellesley College presented findings from a preliminary analysis of 100 years of land prices in Boston, which was designed, among other things, to highlight some of the methodological difficulties of measuring land prices in a way that facilitates policy analysis and reform.

Stephen K. Mayo is a senior fellow of the Lincoln Institute.