Land Value Issues in Taiwan, Korea, and Japan

Alven Lam, November 1, 1995

Governments have often intervened in land markets in Asian cities, but with limited effects. In recent decades, economic globalization and political democratization have created even stronger demands for more efficient and equitable land use policies. Rapid economic growth in cities with scarce land resources has generated a wave of new thinking on land values and land markets among scholars and policymakers.

The GATT (General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade) negotiations are stimulating new production structures in much of Asia, which consequently shift demand from agriculture into manufacturing and other urban land uses. At the same time, local governments are struggling with more financial autonomy and are becoming dependent on revenues from increased land values to subsidize the costs of development.

Three countries illustrate emerging land and tax policy issues raised by these complex interactions of international and local economies.

In Taiwan, land values for urban and agriculture uses are extremely divergent. The immediate issues are: 1) how to better use the 40,000 hectares of agricultural land that are no longer needed for production as a result of the GATT agreements; and 2) how to distribute the development benefits created by this conversion of agricultural land.

In Korea, the challenge concerns the legality of taxation to capture excessive increases in land value and gains from land speculation. Faced with builders’ pressure to develop greenbelts and open spaces in metropolitan areas and with local politicians’ concerns over fiscal autonomy, the central government is preparing a major tax reform to capture these increments in land value.

In Japan, land values have changed dramatically over the past ten years, but the reasons for these fluctuations are not always clear. Land speculation, unpredictable market forces and government regulation all play a part. Analysis of failed attempts to control land prices will be valuable in developing future policies.

Land Value and Speculation

The perception of land value in Taiwan, Korea, and Japan may not be significantly different from that in other capitalist countries. The problem is in the speculative value, also known as “unearned income” or the “unearned increment” in land value. This value can be so high that it distorts all the legal, administrative, political and social measures designed to manage the use of land. In Japan, for example, land value in major cities tripled from 1983 to 1989. In Korea, land value increased 13 times between 1975 and 1990, while the national income increased only 5 times in the same period. In Taiwan, the value of farm land increased 155 percent from 1986 to 1990, compared to the GDP’s 36 percent growth during the same period.

Policies intended to control land values during periods of high speculation are unlikely to succeed. During the boom times of the 1980s in all three Asian countries, special interest groups and politicians dependent on economic growth failed to anticipate any negative downturn effects. Land policies became disorganized, and conflicts arose among different government departments. For example, some local governments subsidized farmland owners who had already sold their land for conversion to urban uses and had benefited financially from this speculation. Financial institutions provided loans to corporations which depended on land speculation for their corporate earnings. The results were devastating: farmers who wished to farm could not afford to buy farm land; manufacturers could no longer compete when 60 percent of their investments were spent on land costs; and average citizens had an even more difficult time owning a house.

Reevaluating Land and Tax Policy

As land values have dropped in recent years, there is a new opportunity to revise land policies. Special interest groups and land value speculators have softened their opposition to government intervention on land markets. The GATT and WTO (World Trade Organization) negotiations are requiring countries to better coordinate their land policies and general economic policies in the interests of industrial readjustment. Future policies in Taiwan, Korea, and Japan will likely incorporate the following measures:

New regulations will be designed to convert some farmland and environmentally less-sensitive land for housing and mixed-use urban development. The goals are to continue sustainable development and to assist the conversion of the agricultural sector.

Tax reform and exaction-like laws will be introduced to capture the “unearned income” from land speculation. A capital gains tax, land value tax and land value increment tax will be the hallmarks of tax reform. Local government will be given more autonomy to require private developers to share benefits with the community.

Land use planning systems will be coordinated at all levels of government to manage growth. New land use controls will be designed to cope with new economic activities derived from the economic readjustments.

To help advance these land and tax policy reforms, the Lincoln Institute research staff is working with colleagues in each country. The Council of Agriculture in Taiwan, Republic of China, and the Institute are conducting a three-year joint study (1994-97) on land value capture and benefit distribution mechanisms. A team of researchers from the Lincoln Institute and the Korea Tax Institute is researching tax reform for the Korea Ministry of Finance during the 1995-1996 academic year. Both American and Japanese scholars are examining land values in Japan from a macroeconomic perspective.

Alven Lam in a Lincoln Institute fellow whose current research focuses on land value capture and property rights in Asia.

Additional information in the printed newletter.

Chart: Indices of Korea Land Values and Major Economic Indicators: 1980, 1985 and 1990. Land prices, housing prices, national income and wholesale prices are charted. Source: Office of National Statistics, Korea Statistical Yearbook, each year, and Kim, Dai-Young, “Choices for Future Land Policy,” in Land Policy Problems in East Asia, 1994.