Housing Crumbles Under Portugal’s Rent Control Laws

Stigler and Friedman’s only co-authored paper showed the flaws in rent controls. Although excellent, the paper apparently is seldom read in Portugal (or New York City).

(p. B3) LISBON — José Gago da Graça owns a Portuguese real estate company and has two identical apartments in the same building in the heart of Lisbon. One rents for €2,750 a month, the other for almost 40 times less, €75.

The discrepancy is a result of 100-year-old tenancy rules, which have frozen the rent of hundreds of thousands of tenants and protected them against eviction in Portugal. Mr. Gago da Graça has been in a lawsuit for a decade over the €75-a-month apartment, since his tenant died in 2000 and her son took over and refused to alter his mother’s contract, which dates to the 1960s.
“We’re the only country in Europe that doesn’t have a free housing market and that’s just amazing,” Mr. Gago da Graça said.
Rules like these, which economists also blame for contributing to Portugal’s private debt load, help explain why this nation of 11 million has followed Greece and Spain into investors’ line of fire.
. . .
The . . . rules helped protect tenants, but also led to a chronic shortage of rental housing. This, in turn, persuaded a new generation of Portuguese to tap recently into low interest rates and buy instead — often in new suburbs — thereby exacerbating the country’s mortgage debt and leaving Portugal with one of Europe’s lowest savings rates, of 7.5 percent.
“This system of controlled rents is a major problem for the Portuguese economy, but we will probably be waiting for a generational change to have room for institutional reform,” said Cristina Casalinho, chief economist of Banco BPI, a Portuguese bank. Beyond fueling housing credit, she added, the system “basically stops flexibility and mobility in the labor market because you can perhaps find a new job in another city but it will then be very difficult to rent a house there.”
. . .
“Nobody has had the political courage to change something like these rental laws and I don’t see the situation changing in the short term, even if I don’t think the Portuguese tend to react as dramatically as the Greeks,” said Salvador Posser, who runs a family-owned company renting out construction equipment.
Besides distorting pricing in the housing market, the tenancy rules have left physical scars. Portugal’s historic city centers are dotted with abandoned and crumbling houses that are either subject to a court dispute or have rental income that cannot cover repair and maintenance costs.
“This economic crisis is clearly keeping our very slow courts even more occupied because of the amount of conflict that it is creating between landlords and tenants,” said Menezes Leitão, a law professor and president of PLA, a property owners association.
Mr. Posser cited a recent estimate that 8 percent of the buildings in central Lisbon were deserted, in large part because of rent-related obstacles. In Porto, the second-largest city, less than 10 percent of inner-city housing is available for rent, which has helped shrink the population by a third over three decades.
“We’re still losing about 30 inhabitants a day,” said Rui Moreira, president of the Porto Commercial Association.

For the full story, see:
RAPHAEL MINDER. “Like Spain, Portugal Hopes to Make Cuts, but It Is Mired in Structural Weakness.” The New York Times (Fri., May 14, 2010): B3.
(Note: the online version of the article is dated May 13, 2010 and has the title “Portugal Follows Spain on Austerity Cuts.”)
(Note: ellipses added.)

The original source of the Friedman and Stigler article (in pamphlet form) was:
Friedman, Milton, and George J. Stigler. Roofs or Ceilings? The Current Housing Problem. Irvington-on-Hudson, New York: Foundation for Economic Education, 1946.

Rent Control as a Form of “Hatred of the Bourgeois”

New York City is one of the few remaining cities that has rent control laws (aka “rent stabilization”). Economists view such laws as a version of price ceilings, and they generally argue that such laws reduce the incentives to build and maintain housing.
Libertarian philosophers would add that the laws also violate fundamental rights of property.

(p. 25) At its core, the fight involves a law allowing landlords to displace rent-stabilized tenants if the landlords will use the space as their primary residence. The Economakis family has prevailed, thus far, on the principle that the law applies even to a building this large. But the tenants continue to press the notion that given the scope of the proposed home — which calls for seven bathrooms, a gym and a library — the owners are just trying to clear them out so they can sell the building off to become so many market-rate condos.

Mr. Economakis insists his family would never have subjected itself to years of argument — and tens of thousands in legal bills — if they did not want to live there. He acknowledged that it is a lot of space, but said that having the place to themselves is also a matter of privacy. He said that the family long ago offered, as a halfway measure, to let the tenants in the five rear apartments stay, along with a couple on the first floor, and said he would happily sign a promise to turn over the profits to the existing tenants if he sold within 20 years.
“We really believe that, as owners, we have a right to live in the building,” he said.
. . .
Last year, the tenants staged a rally outside the building and some 400 people showed up. Mostly, they lodge their silent protest daily on their doors. Mr. Pultz has his evil eye, while his first-floor neighbor, Laura Zambrano, has one poster giving the dictionary definition of the word hubris and another quoting Flaubert:
“Two things sustain me. Love of literature and hatred of the bourgeois.”

For the full story, see:

MARC SANTORA. “Landlord’s Dream Confronts Rent-Stabilized Lives.” The New York Times, Section 1 (Sun., June 15, 2008): 25.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

Perhaps the most eloquent critique of rent control was penned in the only paper that Chicago Nobel Prize winners Milton Friedman and George Stigler ever wrote together (published as a pamphlet):
Friedman, Milton, and George J. Stigler. “Roofs or Ceilings? The Current Housing Problem.” Irvington-on-Hudson, New York: Foundation for Economic Education, 1946.

The Role of the Irish Potato Famine in the Repeal of the Corn Laws

In one of his more famous, and outrageous, essays, George Stigler argued that economists do not matter, because changes in policy do not arise from changes in ideas, but from changing circumstances and special interests.
One of the cases that he briefly mentions is the repeal of the English Corn Laws that had restricted the importation of wheat (in England “corn” is what we call “wheat) into Britain. The usual account is that the free market arguments of Cobden and Bright made the difference.
The account quoted below, might be taken as support for Stigler’s position. But it might also be evidence for the more optimistic position of Stigler’s buddy, Milton Friedman. Friedman held that on major issues, economists’ policy proposals go ignored until some crisis occurs that sends the politicians looking for policy alternatives. (Friedman thought that this is what occurred in the case of his own proposal for floating exchange rates.)

(p. A23) THE feast of Ireland’s patron saint has always been an occasion for saluting the beautiful land “where the praties grow,” but it’s also a time to look again at the disaster that established around the world the Irish communities that today celebrate St. Patrick’s Day: the Great Potato Famine of 1845-6. In its wake, the Irish left the old country, with more than half a million settling in United States. The famine and the migrations changed Irish and American history, of course, but they drastically changed Britain too.
. . .
The first intimations of Ireland’s looming calamity reached the British government in August 1845. Although Britain was responsible for the social and economic iniquities which had made Ireland so susceptible, the government of the day deserves some credit for its efforts to avert mass starvation. There were political as well as logistical difficulties.
. . .
To Peel it was obvious that the Corn Laws would have to go, but his electorate of large landowners was vehemently opposed to their abolition. The Duke of Wellington, leader of the House of Lords, complained that Ireland’s “rotten potatoes have done it all — they put Peel in his damned fright.” Peel drew heavily on the news from Ireland as he urged Parliament to vote for abolition:
“Are you to hesitate in averting famine which may come, because it possibly may not come? Are you to look to and depend upon chance in such an extremity? Or, good God! are you to sit in cabinet, and consider and calculate how much diarrhea, and bloody flux, and dysentery, a people can bear before it becomes necessary for you to provide them with food?”
The bill abolishing the Corn Laws was passed in May 1846 in the House of Commons, with two-thirds of Peel’s party voting against it and the entire opposition voting in favor. A month later, Peel was out of office.
. . .
. . . Ireland’s famine, by ending the Corn Laws, prompted the beginning of the free trade that established the success of Britain’s industrial economy.

For the full commentary, see the article referenced immediately below, or see his forthcoming book Propitious Esculent: The Potato in World History:

JOHN READER. “The Fungus That Conquered Europe.” The New York Times (Mon., March 17, 2008): A23.

(Note: ellipses added.)

The Stigler essay mentioned above is:
Stigler, George J. “Do Economists Matter?” Southern Economic Journal 42, no. 3 (1976): 347-54.
(I will try to dig out a reference for the Friedman position when I have more time.)

The Importance of the City for Human Progress

I remember Stigler in his history of economic thought class, waxing eloquent about the wondrous idyllic life of the countryside, and then ending with a Stiglerian zinger; something like: ‘and where there is no idea to be found for miles and miles.’ (I believe, in his memoirs, that Stigler mentions that it is good for a great university to be located in a great city.)
Rosenberg and Birdzell attribute even greater importance to urban life:

(p. 78) The merchants were consigned to the towns, and the towns themselves were nonfeudal islands in a feudal world.

Source:
Rosenberg, Nathan, and L.E. Birdzell, Jr. How the West Grew Rich: The Economic Transformation of the Industrial World. New York: Basic Books, 1986.

Great Example of Stigler-Kolko Capture Theory of Regulatory Agencies

George Stigler and Gabriel Kolko are associated with the theory that eventually, govenment regulatory agencies come to be captured by the industry that the agency is charged with regulating.
At the time of the exchange documented below, Wendell Willkie was the head of an electric utility, and Lilienthal was one of the heads of the TVA, which was in the process of taking customers away from Willkie’s utility. Willkie’s argument to Lilienthal is consistent with the capture theory. (But that Lilienthal pushed ahead with his plans, might be seen as inconsistent with the theory.)

(p. 182) Lilienthal set up a meeting in early October 1933 at the Cosmos Club in Washington, the club being, in Lilienthal’s words, “about as neutral a ground as we could think of.”
. . .
(p. 183) Willkie tried yet another tack. No one, he argued to Lilienthal, went into government without the intention of going into the private sector later. The private sector, after all, was where the business lived. If Lilienthal was too nasty, then he was not likely to find work at private utilities companies. Lilienthal was, by his own admission, “pretty badly scared” by the time he left the Cosmos.

Source:
Shlaes, Amity. The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression. New York: HarperCollins, 2007.

Stigler on Berle and Means

I remember George Stigler in class making some reference to a book by Berle and Means, and asking if any of us had ever heard of them. None of us had. My memory is that he looked sort of sadly amused.
At least one of Stigler’s important papers had taken on, and refuted, some of the important claims of the Berle and Means book.
Now, decades later, I recently read a wonderful book on the Great Depression called The Forgotten Man. It turns out that Berle was very important in the growth of government in FDR’s New Deal.
I now realize what I did not realize when I took Stigler’s class—that Stigler had done something significant in refuting errors that supported misguided policies that hurt the economy.
It is a sad fact of life that future generations will not remember, or appreciate, the triumphs of the ‘good guys’ because they do not appreciate the impact of the good guys’ adversaries.
Stigler had beaten Berle so fully that the younger generation did not even recognize Berle’s name. And in not recognizing Berle’s name, or his significance, they could not appreciate the value of what Stigler had accomplished.

Book reference:
Shlaes, Amity. The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression. New York: HarperCollins, 2007.

Michael Powell Provides Support for the Capture Theory of Regulatory Agencies

 

The following brief story would seem highly compatible with the "Capture Theory of Regulatory Agencies" that is associated with the names of economist George Stigler, and historian Gabriel Kolko.  That theory suggests that regulatory agencies are frequently captured by the industries that they are intended to regulate.

One kind of evidence for the theory is that members of regulatory agency boards often are recruited from the industry, and often return to working for the industry after their terms are over.

 

The efforts of federal regulators to curtail cronyism on corporate boards have led to some odd outcomes. The case of Michael K. Powell, a new director of Cisco Systems, is a prime example. 

Mr. Powell, the former chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, happens to be a son of Colin Powell, the former secretary of state. Cisco happens to have paid the senior Mr. Powell more than $100,000 to deliver two speeches in 2005.

Under guidelines established by the Nasdaq stock market, that connection disqualifies the younger Mr. Powell as an independent director, so he cannot sit on the company’s audit, compensation or governance committees. But by the same definition, Richard M. Kovacevich, the chairman of Wells Fargo, is an independent director of Cisco, even though his company has promised to lend Cisco $120 million.

The difference is that Cisco’s line of credit is deemed too small a part of Wells Fargo’s overall business to present a conflict of interest, while the payments to the senior Mr. Powell exceeded the allowable annual limit of $100,000 to any family member of an independent director.

 

Source of story: 

PATRICK McGEEHAN.  "$100,000? Too High. $120 Million? Fine."  The New York Times, SundayBusiness Section (Sun., September 30, 2007):  2.

 

The key Kolko book is: 

Kolko, Gabriel. Railroads and Regulation, 1877-1916.  W. W. Norton & Company, 1970.