Friday, February 3, 2023

Why the customer doesn't always come first

The world is a complicated place. I have no doubt that the capitalist, market-based way of running an economy delivers the best results for workers and consumers. But that doesn’t mean companies never do bad things, nor that every business always does the right thing by its customers.

The father of modern economics, Adam Smith, famously said that “it is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest”.

But, he argued, the “invisible hand” of “market forces” – the interaction of demand and supply in moving prices up and down – takes all the self-interest of businesses and the self-interest of consumers and turns them into businesses getting adequately rewarded for delivering just the right combination of goods and services to all the people in the economy.

There’s a huge amount of truth to that simple – if hard to believe – proposition. But it’s not the whole truth. One way to think of it is that, as Winston Churchill said of democracy, it’s the worst way of doing it – except for all the other ways. In this case, except for leaving all the decisions about what and how much to produce to the government.

So, to say capitalism is the best way of organising an economy isn’t to say it’s without fault. That it never does things badly.

In a speech this week, Rod Sims, the former chairman of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, but now a professor at the Australian National University, said that although companies regularly proclaim that they put their customers first, “companies clearly do not always have the interests of their customers in mind”.

So what are the reasons that, almost 250 years after Smith’s discovery, capitalism doesn’t always give consumers a good deal.

Sims can think of six reasons market forces don’t live up to their billing.

For a start, meeting customer needs may not be the main way companies increase their profits. Businesses are motivated to make profits and to increase those profits. But being the best at meeting the needs of customers isn’t the only way, or even the dominant way, firms succeed, Sims says.

For a firm to stay ahead of its rivals by continually improving its products and services is difficult. And eventually another firm works out how to do things better and cheaper than you.

“Commercial strategy therefore is largely about building defences against the forces of competition. To make it more difficult for other firms to develop a better product. Or, if they do, to limit their access to customers,” he says.

Another reason is that company executives are under considerable sharemarket pressure to increase short-term profits. Companies strive to grow because this attracts investors, the value of their shares rises and their top executives get bigger bonuses.

Sims says many companies set high growth targets to meet the expectations of the sharemarket. Often these targets are higher than the economy’s growth, meaning not all firms can meet or exceed market expectations.

So, in some cases, company executives see no alternative but to push the boundaries to achieve the targets they’ve been set.

That’s bad, but it becomes worse if the poor behaviour of a few causes normal competitive pressure to keep getting better than the others to reverse and become a race to the bottom.

Sims says that in well-functioning markets firms compete on their merits. Firms that offer what consumers value, displace firms that don’t. But the opposite can occur if poor behaviour goes undetected and unpunished, so it gives bad players a competitive edge.

“Firms can win customers through misrepresenting their offers and employing high-pressure selling tactics,” he says. As well as hurting consumers, such behaviour hurts rival firms, tempting them to protect their market share by employing the same questionable tactics.

Yet another problem occurs when firms see nothing wrong with what they’re doing, but their customers do. They (and economists) see nothing wrong with offering a better price – or interest rate – to new customers than they’re charging their existing customers.

But those older customers commonly react with outrage when they discover they’ve gone for years paying more than they needed to. They feel their loyalty has been abused.

Speaking of loyalty, Sims’ final explanation of why customers may be treated badly is that executives may feel their obligations to their company compel them to pursue profit to the maximum, even if their behaviour pushes too close to the boundaries of the law and isn’t the behaviour they would engage in privately.

So, what should be done about all these instances of “market failure” – where markets don’t deliver the wonderful benefits advertised by economists?

Sims has two remedies. First, as he argued strongly while boss of the competition and consumer commission, it needs stronger merger laws to help it prevent anti-competitive mergers. The courts require evidence about what will happen after a merger has occurred, but it’s hard for the commission to prove what hasn’t yet happened.

“The courts seem largely unwilling to accept commercial logic; that if you have market power you will use it. The courts can sometimes seem naive,” he says.

Second, we need a law against unfair practices, as they have in the United States, Britain and most of Europe.

“Our current laws are poorly suited to stopping behaviour ranging from online manipulation of consumers, to processors saying they will reject farm goods unless the prices agreed before the goods were shipped are now lowered.”

In the end, it’s simple. All the claims that capitalism will deliver a great deal for consumers are based on the assumption that businesses face stiff competition from other businesses to keep them in line.

But when too many markets are dominated by a few huge companies, service goes down and prices go up by more than they should.

Read more >>

Wednesday, February 1, 2023

Labor's new plan to reduce our emissions is riddled with loopholes

While I was on holiday, I noticed a tweet that left me in no doubt about the subject of my first column back. It said: “I genuinely think the next generation will not forgive us for what we have done to them and the world they will have to live in.”

I, too, fear they won’t. I don’t know whether our political leaders ever think such thoughts, but it fills me with dread. Maybe the pollies think what I reluctantly think: With any luck, I’ll be dead before the next generation realises the full extent of the hell our selfish short-sightedness has left them in.

But the climate seems to be deteriorating so rapidly I’m not sure I’ll get off that easily. I love my five grandkids, but I’m not looking forward to the day they’re old enough to quiz me on “what I did in the war”. What was I saying and doing while our leaders were going for decades kicking the problem down the road as the easiest way to get re-elected?

“Well, I was very busy writing about the shocking cost of living – oh, and rising interest rates.” Really? Is that the best excuse you can offer, Grandad?

We elected a bloke called Albo who promised to try a lot harder than his predecessors to reduce our emissions of greenhouse gases. He said he’d cut them by 43 per cent by 2030. He was quick to put that target into law, and his people worked through the Christmas holidays to outline the “safeguard mechanism” he’d use as his main measure to achieve the reduction.

While the rest of us were at the beach, Climate Change Minister Chris Bowen announced a few weeks ago that Australia’s 215 biggest industrial polluters – running coal mines, gas plants, smelters and steelworks – will have their emissions capped, with the caps lowered progressively by 30 per cent come 2030.

Businesses whose emissions exceed their cap will face heavy fines. To the extent they can’t use cleaner production processes to reduce their emissions, they’ll be allowed to buy “carbon credits” from other heavy polluters who’ve been able to reduce their emissions by more than required, or from farmers who’ve planted more trees.

Trouble is, it wasn’t long before the experts started pointing to all the holes in the scheme. For a start, the combined emissions of these biggest polluters account for only 28 per cent of Australia’s total emissions.

For another thing, the notion that, as well as reducing the carbon we’re adding to the atmosphere, we should find ways to remove some of the carbon that’s already there is a good one in principle, but riddled with practical problems.

Whereas the carbon we emit may stay in the atmosphere for 100 years or more, the carbon sequestered by a new tree will start returning to the atmosphere as soon as it dies or is cut down. It’s hard to measure the amount of carbon that tree-growing and other agricultural activities remove, which makes such schemes particularly easy to rort.

In his recent report into expert criticism of our carbon credits scheme, Professor Ian Chubb sat on the fence. While judging the scheme to be “well designed”, he identified various dubious practices that should be outlawed. And he stressed that big polluters must not rely on buying carbon credits to the extent that they’re able to avoid reducing their emissions in absolute terms.

A further weakness in the government’s scheme comes from its refusal to prohibit any new coal mines and gas plants, despite the International Energy Agency and other international agencies saying the world won’t have any chance of avoiding dangerous climate change if it’s relying on new gas or coal projects.

So, the scheme involves leaning on our existing 215 biggest polluters to reduce their emissions by 30 per cent, while allowing a bunch of new big emitters to set up, provided they then start cutting those emissions back.

Really? This is how we’re going to cut our total emissions by 2030? Seriously?

Last year a reader rebuked me for failing to make it clear that nothing Australia does to reduce its own emissions can, by itself, have any effect on our climate. Why not? Because climate is global, and we’re not big enough to have a significant effect on total world emissions.

The best we can do is set a good example, then pressure the bigger boys to do likewise. So far, we’ve been setting them a bad example.

It’s the global scale of the problem that makes our efforts actually to increase our exports of coal and gas so irresponsible – and, to our offspring, unforgivable. We’re the world’s third-largest exporter of fossil fuels, after Saudi Arabia and Russia.

Australia’s emissions within our borders are dwarfed by the emissions from the coal and gas we export. But never mind about that. Let’s just extract a few more shekels before the balloon goes up.

Read more >>

Monday, December 26, 2022

Never ask an economist to tell you a story

Tell me, are you planning to read any good books over the break? Maybe go to the movies? Certainly, watch a fair bit of streaming video? I bet you are. And I bet most of what you read or watch will be fiction.

If it’s non-fiction, it’s most likely to be a biography – the story of someone’s life.

How can I be so sure? Because, though it’s taken economists far longer than anyone else to realise – and many of them still haven’t read the memo – humans are a story-telling animal.

It’s something psychologists and other social scientists have long understood – although, being academics, they prefer to use the more high-sounding “narratives”.

Humans have been telling themselves stories since we lived in caves and sat around campfires. The eminent American biologist, E.O. Wilson, said storytelling was a fundamental human instinct. Evolution has wired our brains for storytelling.

Jonathan Gottschall, author of The Storytelling Animal, says we are, as a species, addicted to stories.

“Even when the body goes to sleep, the mind stays up all night telling itself stories,” he says.

You can say we like telling and listening to stories because we enjoy them and find them entertaining. Sure. But why has our evolution programmed us to enjoy stories so much?

Because stories add to our “fitness” to survive and prosper as a species. Because stories are the way humans make meaning out of the seeming chaos of life.

Gottschall says storytelling “allows us to experience our lives as coherent, orderly and meaningful”. Another author, Peter Guber, says stories have helped us share information long before we had a written language.

We turn facts we want to remember into stories, and we remember facts embedded in stories better than facts that aren’t.

Stories engage our emotions, not just our intellect, which is what makes them so powerful. We don’t remember much of the key figures and facts summarising the seriousness of the latest famine in Africa, but we do remember the story about a little girl, all skin and bones.

So, what have stories got to do with economics, especially when economics is more about impersonal concepts than about particular people? More than many economists want to admit.

Just as stories are our way of making meaning out of the seeming chaos of life, so the economists’ “models” – whether the ones they carry in their heads or the sets of equations they program into a computer – aren’t as scientific as economists like to think.

Models are an economist’s way of making sense of the seeming chaos of the economy, which makes them just another (less entertaining) form of story. As their name implies, models aren’t the economy, they’re just models of the economy, which don’t reproduce all the complexity of the actual economy.

Modellers select just a few of the economy’s moving parts – the ones they believe do most to drive the economy – and ignore the many hundreds of parts that usually don’t play a big part in moving the economy along.

Models that don’t simplify the story of how the economy works are of no use to anyone because they don’t reduce the seeming chaos.

All of which is true of the stories we tell each other of what motivates people to behave the way they do in particular circumstances, and of what are the main things that matter in our efforts to get rich or have a successful marriage or live a satisfying life. Like models, our stories cut to the chase.

Nobel laureate Robert Shiller, a pioneering behavioural economist, was among the first to explain “how stories go viral and drive major economic events” in his book, Narrative Economics.

He shows how simple economic stories, when widely believed, can shape economic policy decisions, as politicians and their advisers face pressure to act according to the public narrative.

Whether the results are good or bad depends on whether the narrative is true. His insights are particularly relevant to explaining financial crises, housing cycles and sharemarket bubbles.

If you haven’t decided what you think about globalisation and the latest push to roll it back, a good book to read is Six Faces of Globalisation, by Anthea Roberts, of the Australian National University, and Nicolas Lamp, of Queen’s University in Ontario.

One review says it’s not just a book about globalisation, but also “the power and importance of narrative: how it is constructed and how it can contribute to a far more nuanced and complex understanding of the forces of change”.

What the authors did is take all the conflicting arguments for and against globalisation and boil them down to six contesting “narratives”. Why? To make it easier for us to understand the debate and the differing perspectives.

Read more >>

Friday, December 23, 2022

RBA warning: our supply-side problems have only just begun

In one of his last speeches for the year, Reserve Bank governor Dr Philip Lowe has issued a sobering warning. Even when we’ve got on top of the present inflation outbreak, the disruptions to supply we’ve struggled with this year are likely to be a recurring problem in the years ahead.

Economists think of the economy as having two sides. The supply side refers to our production of goods and services, whereas the demand side refers to our spending on those goods and services, partly for investment in new production capacity, but mainly for consumption by households.

Lowe notes that, until inflation raised its ugly head, the world had enjoyed about three decades in which there were few major “shocks” (sudden big disruptions) to the continuing production and supply of goods and services.

When something happens that disrupts supply, so that it can’t keep up with demand, prices jump – as we’ve seen this year with disruptions caused by the pandemic and its lockdowns, and with Russia’s attack on Ukraine.

What changes occurred over the three decades were mainly favourable: they involved increased supply of manufactured goods, in particular, which put gentle downward pressure on prices.

This made life easier for the world’s central banks. With the supply side behaving itself, they were able to keep their economies growing fairly steadily by using interest rates to manage demand. Put rates up to restrain spending and inflation; put rates down to encourage spending and employment.

The central banks were looking good because the one tool they have for influencing the economy – interest rates – was good for managing demand. Trouble is – and as we saw this year – managing demand is the only thing central banks and their interest rates can do.

When prices jump because of disruptions to supply, there’s nothing they can do to fix those disruptions and get supply back to keeping up with demand. All they can do is strangle demand until prices come down.

So, what’s got Lowe worried is his realisation that a lot of the problems headed our way will be shocks to supply.

“Looking forward, the supply side looks more challenging than it has been for many years” and is likely to have a bigger effect on inflation, making it jump more often.

Lowe sees four factors leading to more supply shocks. The first is “the reversal of globalisation”.

Over recent decades, international trade increased significantly relative to the size of the global economy, he says.

Production became increasingly integrated across borders, and this lowered costs and made supply very flexible. Australia was among the major beneficiaries of this.

Now, however, international trade is no longer growing faster than the global economy. “Trading blocs are emerging and there is a step back from closer integration,” he says. “Unfortunately, today barriers to trade and investment are more likely to be increased than removed.”

This will inevitably affect both the rise in standards of living and the prices of goods and services in global markets.

The second factor affecting the supply side is demographics. Until relatively recently, the working-age population of the advanced economies was steadily increasing. This was also true for China and Eastern Europe – both of which were being integrated into the global economy.

And the participation of women in the paid labour force was also rising rapidly. “The result was a substantial increase in the number of workers engaged in the global economy, and advances in technology made it easier to tap into this global labour force,” Lowe says.

So, there was a great increase in global supply. But this trend has turned and the working-age population is now declining, with the decline projected to accelerate. The proportion of the population who are either too young or too old to work is rising, meaning the supply of workers available to meet the demand for goods and services has diminished.

The third factor affecting the supply side is climate change. Over the past 20 years, the number of major floods across the world has doubled and the frequency of heatwaves and droughts has also increased.

This will keep getting worse.These extreme weather events disrupt production and so affect prices – as we know all too well in Australia. But as well as lifting fruit and vegetable prices (and meat prices after droughts break and herd rebuilding begins), extreme weather can disrupt mining production and transport and distribution.

The fourth factor affecting the supply side is related: the transition from fossil fuels to renewables. This involves junking our investment in coal mines, gas plants and power stations, and new investment in solar farms, wind farms, batteries and rooftop solar, as well as extensively rejigging the electricity network.

It’s not just that the required new capital investment will be huge, but that the transition from the old system to the new won’t happen without disruptions.

So, energy prices will be higher (to pay for the new capital investment) and more volatile when fossil-fuel supply stops before renewables supply is ready to fill the gap.

Lowe foresees the inflation rate becoming more unstable through two channels. First, shocks to supply that cause large and rapid changes in prices.

Second, the global supply curve becoming less “elastic” (less able to respond to increases in demand by quickly increasing supply) than it has been in the past decade.

Lowe says bravely that none of these developments would undermine the central banks’ ability to achieve their inflation target “on average” - that is, over a few years – though they would make the bankers’ job more complicated.

Well, maybe. As he reminds us, adverse supply shocks can have conflicting effects, increasing inflation while reducing output and employment. The Reserve can’t increase interest rates and reduce them at the same time.

As Lowe further observes, supply shocks “also have implications for other areas of economic policy”. Yes, competition policy, for instance.

My conclusion is that managing the economy can no longer be left largely to the central bankers.

Read more >>

Wednesday, December 21, 2022

Yes, money does buy happiness* *terms and conditions apply

 Years ago, when our kids were young, we used to stay at a guesthouse in the mountains in the same week of January every year, as did various other families. When we met up with people we knew quite well, but hadn’t seen for 12 months, the greeting was always the same: D’ya have a good year?

So, has 2022 been a good year for you? Something similar is asked by the Australian Unity Wellbeing Index. Each year since 2001, researchers from Deakin University ask 2000 people how they’re doing. Are they satisfied with their standard of living, their relationships, purpose in life, community connectedness, safety, health and future security?

The index combines the answers to those questions into a single rating of our “subjective wellbeing”, somewhere between zero and 100. It’s too soon to have results for this year, of course, but the researchers do have them for the first two years of the pandemic – “the worst economic crisis in a generation, and the worst health crisis in a century”.

Guess what? The index actually rose from a low of 74.4 in 2019 to a high of 76.4 in 2020, before falling back a bit to 75.7 in 2021.

But don’t take those tiny changes literally. Allow for sampling error and the best conclusion is: no change. Indeed, in the survey’s 20 years, there’s been only minor variance around an average of about 75.4.

So I can tell you now that our wellbeing in 2022 will have been much the same as it always is, just as almost everyone at the guesthouse gave the same answer every year: “Not bad, not bad”.

The index’s stability from year to year – which is true of similar indexes in other rich countries – confirms a point its founder, Professor Bob Cummins, has been trying to convince me of since I first took an interest in the study of happiness.

Measures of satisfaction with life reflect both biological factors and situational factors. At the biological level, it seems humans have evolved to maintain a relatively optimistic and happy mood. This is controlled by “homeostatic” mechanisms similar to the one that keeps our body temperature stable – unless some situation (such as getting COVID) causes it to go off range.

The researchers say the situational factors most likely to adversely affect a person’s wellbeing equilibrium are insufficient levels of three key resources: money, connection with others, and sense of purpose.

A nationwide average bundles together those people whose wellbeing is reduced by such deficits with a greater number of people who are doing well.

So nothing in this finding denies that many people did it tough during the pandemic, whether monetarily or in their physical or mental health. It’s just that more of us stayed happy enough.

Remember, too, that the media almost always tells us about people with problems, not those doing OK. Similarly, medicos rightly focus on the unwell, not the well. But if you’re not careful, you can get an exaggerated impression of the world’s problems.

And when you look further than the average, you do see the pandemic making its presence felt. The index always shows people living alone, those in share houses and single parents having the least satisfaction with their lot.

But get this: those living alone and single parents enjoyed a big increase in perceived wellbeing. Why? Keep reading.

When the survey divides people according to their work status – unemployed, home duties, study, employed or retired – it always finds the unemployed far less satisfied than everyone else.

In the first year of the pandemic, however, the satisfaction of the unemployed leapt by 9 percentage points. Why? Maybe because the composition of the unemployed had changed a lot. Or maybe because, with many more people becoming unemployed, the stigma of being without a job was reduced.

But a much more obvious explanation is that, early in the pandemic, the rate of the JobSeeker unemployment benefit was temporarily doubled. Suddenly, it went from being below the poverty line to well above it. And wellbeing went up.

Trouble is, when the payment was cut back heavily in the second year, the satisfaction of the unemployed fell below what it was in the first place.

This supports a finding of “behavioural” economics: people suffer from “loss aversion” – we feel losses more deeply than we enjoy gains of the same size.

And it’s borne out by the survey’s finding that the satisfaction of all those people whose household income had fallen was more than 3 percentage points lower than that of those whose income was unchanged.

But. The satisfaction of those people whose income had risen was no higher than that of those whose income didn’t change.

The survey shows that people on the lowest incomes were much less satisfied than those on the next rung up. But it also confirms economists’ belief in “diminishing marginal returns”. The higher incomes rise, the smaller the increase in people’s satisfaction with their lives.

So, unless you’re really poor, don’t kid yourself that more money will make you a lot happier.

Read more >>

Sunday, December 18, 2022

Hey RBA boomer, things have changed a lot since the 1970s

Sorry, but Reserve Bank governor Dr Philip Lowe’s call for ordinary Australians to make further sacrifice next year in his unfinished fight against “the scourge of inflation” doesn’t hold water. His crusade to save us all from a wage-price spiral is like Don Quixote tilting at windmills only he can see.

In one of his last speeches for the year, Lowe “highlighted the possibility of a wage-price spiral” in Australia. A lesson from the high inflation we experienced in the 1970s and ’80s is that “bringing inflation back down again after it becomes ingrained in people’s expectations is very costly and almost certainly involves a recession”.

He noted that this was a real risk in “a number of other advanced economies [which] are experiencing much faster rates of wages growth”.

But not to worry. “This is an area we are watching carefully.” The Reserve Bank board is “resolute in its determination to return inflation to target, and we will do what is necessary to achieve that”.

Oh. Really? Like the smartest of the business economists, I’ve been thinking that having raised the official interest rate by 3 percentage points in eight months, Lowe may have decided he’s done enough. But this tough-guy talk hints at more to come – maybe a lot more.

One thing I am pretty sure of, however. After the caning Lowe’s been given for saying repeatedly that he didn’t expect to be raising interest rates until 2024, when he does decide he has done enough, he won’t be saying so.

To leave his options open – and pacify the urgers in the financial markets who want him to do a lot more – he’ll say it’s just a pause to see how the medicine’s going down. And add something like “the board expects to increase interest rates further over the period ahead, but it is not on a pre-set course”.

One reason Lowe doesn’t have to raise rates as far as many overpaid money-market people imagine is that with real wages having fallen in recent years, and expected to keep falling, the nation’s employers are doing his job for him.

Raise mortgage interest rates or cut real wages – whichever way you do it, the result is to put the squeeze on households, to stop them spending as much (on the things the people who cut their wages are hoping to sell them – no, doesn’t make sense to me, either).

So, we’re back to Lowe’s professed fear of a wage-price spiral. The entire under-50 population must be wondering what such a thing could be. Lowe spelt it out while answering questions after his speech.

“The issue that many central banks have been worried about – and I include us in this – is [that] this period of high inflation will lead the workforce to say: ‘Well, inflation is high, I need compensation for that’.”

“And let’s say we all accepted the idea, which [has] a natural appeal: ‘inflation is 7 per cent, I should be compensated for that in my wages’. If that were to happen, what do you think inflation would be next year? Seven per cent, plus or minus.

“And then we’ve got to get compensated for that 7 per cent, and 7 per cent. . . This is what happened in the ’70s and ’80s and ... that turned out to be a disaster,” Lowe said.

“So I know it’s very difficult for people to accept the idea that wages don’t rise with inflation. And people are experiencing a decline in real wages. That’s tough. The alternative, though, is more difficult,” he added.

This is a reasonable description of how the wage-price spiral worked in the olden days. But as a plausible risk for today, it has two glaring weaknesses.

First, it assumes that if workers decide they want a 7 per cent pay rise, bosses have no choice but to hand it over. This is fantasy land.

The plain truth is that these days, workers lack the industrial muscle to force big pay rises on employers. The best-placed workers on enterprise agreements are getting rises of 3 to 4 per cent, but some are still getting rises in the twos.

The lowest-paid quarter of workers, dependent on award wage minimums, get their rises determined annually by the Fair Work Commission – but these are granted in retrospect, not prospect. This July, a handful of them got a rise of 5.2 per cent, but most got 4.6 per cent.

The bargaining power workers had in the ’70s has been reduced by more than four decades of globalisation, technological change and wage-fixing “reform”. In 1976, 52 per cent of workers were members of a union. Now it’s down to just 12.5 per cent.

Yet another reason a wage-price spiral couldn’t happen today is that most enterprise agreements run for three years. The system prohibits me from striking for a pay rise this year higher than the one I already agreed to two years ago.

The second respect in which Lowe’s fear of a wage-price spiral rising from the dead is silly is the assumption that if workers get a 7 per cent pay rise, businesses will automatically and easily put their prices up by 7 per cent. This makes sense arithmetically only if you think that wage costs constitute the whole of businesses’ costs. In truth, the Bureau of Statistics’ input-output tables say that economy-wide, wages account for only about a quarter of total input costs.

So, on average, a 7 per cent wage rise justifies a price rise of less than 2 per cent. Since business competitors would be paying much the same, you might think any firm that turned a 2 per cent cost increase into a 7 per cent price rise would be asking to be undercut by its competitors and lose its share of the market.

Of course, such an outrageous assault on the pockets of the industry’s customers would be possible if the industry was dominated by just a few big firms. They could – and have, and do – reach an unspoken agreement to each put their prices up by the same excessive amount.

It’s clear that Lowe knows a lot about how financial markets work, but not much about labour markets. But I find it hard to believe he could be so ill-informed as not to see the weaknesses in his wage-price spiral boogeyman.

The other possibility is that what’s really worrying him is a mass outbreak of oligopolistic pricing power. Getting that back under control really could take a recession.

Monetary policy (manipulating interest rates) is no cure for market power. The only answer is stronger competition policy and tougher policing by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission. But neither the Reserve Bank nor Treasury has had much enthusiasm for this.

Much less controversial to blame inflation on greedy workers and tell the mums and dads it’s their duty to the nation to tighten their belts and lose their jobs until the problem’s solved.

Read more >>

Friday, December 16, 2022

Weakening competition is adding to our inflation woes

We’ve worried a lot about inflation and its causes this year, but in one important respect the economy’s managers have yet to join the dots. The most basic economics tells us that what stops prices rising more than they should is strong competition between firms. If competition has weakened, that will be part of our inflation problem.

But is there evidence that competition is less intense than it was? Yes, lots. It was outlined by Assistant Treasurer Dr Andrew Leigh in a recent speech.

The basic model of how markets work – the one lodged in the head of almost every economist – assumes “perfect competition”.

Markets are supposed to consist of a huge number of consumers and many producers, each of them too small to have any ability to influence the price of the products they’re selling. So the price is determined purely by the interaction of producers’ supply and consumers’ demand.

Competition between these small firms is so intense that, should any one of them be so foolish as to raise their price above what all the other firms are charging, consumers would immediately cease buying their product, and they’d go out backwards.

I doubt if that was ever an accurate description of any real-world market. But even if it approximated the truth at the time economists got it so firmly fixed in their minds – the late 19th century – all the years since then have seen firms getting bigger and bigger.

So much so that many key industries today have just a handful of firms – often no more than four – accounting for well over half the industry’s sales.

This has happened thanks to a century or two of firms using improvements in technology to pursue “economies of scale”. Up to a point, the more widgets you can produce from the same factory, the lower their average cost of production.

Firms do this in the hope of increasing their profits. But the magic of markets – when they’re working properly – is that your competitors also use the new technology to cut their production costs, then undercut your price to pinch some of your share of the market.

This is the competitive process by which the benefits of scale-economies end up mainly in the hands of consumers, in the form of lower prices. This is a big part of the reason we’re all so much richer than our great-grandparents were.

The digital revolution has moved scale-economies to a new stratosphere. It costs a lot to develop a new GPS navigation program, for instance, but once you’ve done it, you can produce a million or two million copies at negligible extra cost.

So, fundamentally, the move to fewer but much bigger firms is a good thing. Except for this: the bigger a firm’s share of the market, the greater its ability to influence the prices it charges. This is a key motivation for big firms to keep taking over smaller firms.

And when markets are dominated by three or four big firms, it’s easy for them to reach an unspoken agreement to use advertising, marketing and superficial product differentiation to compete with their rivals, while avoiding undermining existing prices and profit margins by starting a price war.

Similarly, when all the big firms in an industry are hit by similar big increases the costs of their imported inputs – caused, say, by pandemic or war-related shortages of supply – it’s easy for them to reach an unspoken understanding that they will use this opportunity to fatten their profit margins by raising their prices by more than the rise in input costs justifies.

Which is just what seems to have been contributing to the huge rise in consumer prices this year – though it’s far too soon for economic researchers to have hard evidence this is happening.

What we do have, according to Leigh, is a “growing body of evidence that suggests excessive market concentration can lead to economic problems”.

“Dominant firms in a market may have less incentive to carry out research and development. They may have less incentive to produce new products. And in some cases, they may have less incentive to pay their employees fairly.

“As you can imagine, the drag on the economy only becomes stronger and deeper with each and every concentrated market,” Leigh says.

In the past decade, there has been a huge increase in the number of studies – covering the US and many other countries – confirming that markets have become more concentrated. That is, a higher share of the market held by a few big firms.

But, Leigh says, “mark-ups” – the gap between firms’ costs of production and their selling prices – are one of the most reliable indicators of “market power”. That is, power to raise their prices by more than is justified by their increased costs of production.

Australian research led by Treasury’s Jonathan Hambur finds that industry average mark-ups increased by about 6 percentage points between 2003 and 2016. This fits with figures for the advanced economies estimated in a study by the International Monetary Fund over the same period.

Hambur finds that mark-ups for the most digitally intensive firms increased by 12 percentage points, compared with 4 percentage points for all other firms.

And also that industries experiencing greater annual increase in concentration had greater annual increases in their mark-ups.

Of course, none of this should come as a great surprise to those few economists who specialise in the study of IO – industrial organisation – the way the real-world behaviour of monopolies and oligopolies differs from the way simple textbook models of perfect competition would lead us to expect.

Institutionally, the responsibility for seeking to ensure “effective competition” in our highly oligopolised economy rests with the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission. But its efforts to tighten scrutiny of company takeovers and other ways of increasing a firm’s market power have met stiff resistance from the big business lobby.

This new evidence of increasing mark-ups suggests the econocrats responsible for limiting inflation should be giving the ACCC more support.

Read more >>

Wednesday, December 14, 2022

2022: The year our trust was abused to breaking point

As the summer break draws near, many will be glad to see the back of 2022. But there’s something important to be remembered about this year before we bid it good riddance. Much more than most years, it’s reminded us of something we know, but keep forgetting: the central importance of trust – and the consternation when we discover it’s been abused.

Every aspect of our lives depends on trust. Spouses must be able to trust each other. Children need parents they can trust and, when the children become teenagers, parents need to be able to trust them. Friendships rely on mutual trust.

Trust is just as important to the smooth functioning of the economy. Bosses need to be able to trust their workers; workers need bosses they can trust. The banking system runs on trust because the banks lend out the money we deposit with them; should all the depositors demand their money back at the same time, the bank risks collapse.

Just buying stuff in a shop involves trust that you won’t be taken down. Buying stuff on the internet requires much more trust. Tradies call on our trust when they demand payment before they start the job.

Our democracy runs on trust. We trust the leaders we elect to act in our best interests, not their own. Our country’s co-operation with other countries rests on trust. Of late, our relations with China, our major trading partner, have become mutually distrustful.

The trouble with trust, however, is that it can make us susceptible. And, as Melbourne University’s Tony Ward reminds us, it can be just too tempting to the less scrupulous to take advantage of our trusting nature.

They can get away with a lot before we wake up. But when we do, there are serious repercussions. Much worse, the loss of trust – some of it warranted; much of it not - makes our lives run a lot less smoothly.

The truth is that, as a nation, we’ve slowly become less trusting of those around us. But this year is notable for events where trust – or the lack of it – was central.

It’s widely agreed that the main reason the federal Coalition government was tossed out in May was the unpopularity of Scott Morrison. The Australian National University’s Australian Election Study has found that the two most important factors influencing political leaders’ popularity are perceived honesty and trustworthiness.

Its polling showed Morrison 29 percentage points behind Anthony Albanese on honesty, and 28 points behind on trustworthiness.

By contrast, many were expecting Daniel Andrews to be punished at the recent Victorian election for the harsh measures he insisted on during the pandemic. It didn’t happen. We don’t have fancy studies to prove it, but my guess is he retained the trust of the majority of voters.

The ANU study always asks questions about trust in government. This year it found 70 per cent of respondents agreeing that “people in government look after themselves” and only 30 per cent agreeing that “people in government can be trusted to do the right thing”.

This helps explain why the federal election was no triumph for Labor. The combined primary vote for the major parties fell to 68 per cent, the lowest since the 1930s. Labor’s own election report explains this as “part of a long-term trend driven by declining trust in government, politics and politicians”.

But don’t put all the blame on the pollies. This year opened our eyes to the risk we run of the businesses we deal with allowing our identification details and other private information to be stolen by hackers and made public.

Customers of Optus, Medibank and some other firms have learnt the hard way that the businesses who demand so much identification from us can’t be trusted to keep that information secure.

It’s been a wake-up call not only for those big businesses and others, but also for the new federal government. If businesses can’t be trusted to do the right thing, they must be required to do so by tighter regulation.

Oh no, not more red tape? Yes, and that’s my point. There’s nothing that generates extra expense and slows things down more than not being able to trust the people you must deal with.

Ward reminds us of the benefits of a high level of trust. It reduces “transaction costs” – the cost of doing business. “Profits and investments are higher if you don’t have to spend lots of time and money checking whether other parties are honest or not,” he says.

“People invest more in their own education if they believe a fair system will reward their efforts. If you think the system is rigged, why bother?”

Comparing countries, economists have found strong links between more social trust and higher levels of income. Trust is one of the top determinants of long-term economic growth.

And high-trust societies, with less distrust of science, had better outcomes in tackling COVID. That’s one respect in which we didn’t do too badly this year.

Read more >>

Monday, December 12, 2022

Who knew? The price of better government is higher taxes

Have you noticed? Since the change of government, the politicians have become a lot franker about the budgetary facts of life. And now the Parliamentary Budget Office has spelt it out: it’s likely that taxes will just keep rising over the next 10 years.

The great temptation for politicians of all colours is to make sure we don’t join the budgetary dots. On one hand, they’re going to improve childcare and health and education, do a better job on aged care and various other things. On the other, they’ll cut taxes.

In short, they’ve discovered a way to make two and two add to three.

The attraction of that relatively new institution, the Parliamentary Budget Office, is that it reports to the Parliament, meaning it’s independent of the elected government. Each year, sometime after the government has produced its budget, the office takes the decisions and figurings and examines whether they are sustainable over the “medium term” – an econocrats’ term for the next 10 years.

They do this by accepting the government’s present policies and mechanically projecting them forward for a further six years beyond the budget’s published figures for the budget year and the following three financial years of “forward estimates”.

Note that these mechanical projections are just projections – just arithmetic. They’re not forecasts of what will happen. No one but God knows what will happen to the economy over the next year, let alone the next 10.

No one putting together the Morrison government’s pre-election budget of April 2019 – the one saying the budget would soon be “back in black” – foresaw that the arrival of a pandemic 11 months later would knock it out of the ballpark, for instance.

Projections don’t attempt to forecast what will happen. Rather, they move the budget figures forward based on plausible assumptions about what the key economic variables – population growth, inflation, for instance – may average over the projection period.

So, projections are not what will happen, but what might happen if the government left its present policies unchanged for 10 years. They give us an idea of what changes in policy are likely to be needed.

Media reporting of the budget office’s latest medium-term projections focused on its finding that, if there are no further tax cuts beyond the stage three cuts legislated for July 2024, the government’s collections of personal income tax may have risen 76 per cent by 2032-33.

The average rate of income tax paid by all taxpayers is projected to reach 25.5 cents in the dollar before the stage three tax cut drops it to 24.1 cents. But then it could have risen to 26.4 cents by 2032-33 – which would be an all-time high.

Why? Bracket creep. Income is taxed in slices, with the slices taxed at progressively higher rates. So, as income rises over time, a higher proportion of it is taxed at higher rates, thus pushing up the average rate of tax on all the slices.

Like the sound of that? No. Which is why the media gave it so much prominence. But there’s much more to be understood about that prospect before you start writing angry letters to your MP.

The first is that, according to the projections, even with such unrestrained growth in income tax collections, the rise in total government revenue wouldn’t be sufficient to stop the budget deficit growing a bit, year after year.

Why not? Because of the strong projected growth in government spending. That’s the first thing to register: the reason tax collections are likely to rise so strongly is that government spending is expected to rise so strongly.

Why? Because that’s what we want. The pollies know we want more and better government services – which is why no election passes without both sides promising to increase spending on this bauble and that.

What neither side ever does in an election campaign is present the bill: “we’re happy to spend more on your favourite causes but, naturally, you’ll have to pay more tax to cover it”. Indeed, they often rustle up a small tax cut to give you the opposite impression: that taxes can go down while spending goes up.

The budget office’s projections suggest that total government spending will rise from 26.2 per cent of gross domestic product in the present financial year to 27.3 per cent in 2032-33. This may not seem much, but it’s huge.

Nominal GDP – the dollar value of the nation’s total production of goods and services, and hence, the nation’s income – grows each year in line with population growth, inflation and any real increase in our average standard of living. So, for government spending to rise relative to GDP, it must be growing faster even than the economy is growing.

Briefly, the spending growth is explained by continuing strong growth in spending on the National Disability Insurance Scheme, the growing interest bill on the government’s debt, and the rising cost of aged care.

This being so, there seems little doubt we’ll be paying a bit more tax – a higher proportion of our income – most years over the coming 10, and probably long after that.

But that’s not to say things will pan out in the way described by the budget office and as trumpeted by the media. For a start, it’s unlikely any government would go for six years without a tax cut.

It’s true that governments of both colours rely heavily on bracket creep – aka “the secret tax of inflation” – to square the circles they describe during election campaigns; to ensure two and two still add up to four.

But they’re not so stupid as never to show themselves going through the motions of awarding a modest tax cut every so often – confident in the knowledge that continuing bracket creep will claw it back soon enough.

The next point is that the overall average tax rates the budget office quotes are potentially misleading. Every individual taxpayer has their own average rate of tax, with high income-earners having a much higher average than people with low incomes.

But when the budget office works out the average for all taxpayers – the average of all the averages, so to speak – you get a number that accurately described the position of surprisingly few people. It’s like the joke about the statistician who, with his head in the oven and his feet in the fridge, said that, on average, he was perfectly comfortable.

There are plenty of things a government could do to reduce the tax concessions for high income-earners (like me) and to slant any tax cuts in favour of people in the bottom half, which would allow it to raise much the same revenue as the budget office envisages without raising the average tax rate paid by the average (that is, the median) individual taxpayer by nearly as much as the budget office’s figures suggest.

Fearless prediction: just such thinking will be what leads the Albanese government to make a start next year by rejigging the size and shape of the stage three tax cuts.

Read more >>

Friday, December 9, 2022

Weak starting point for next year’s threats to the economy

It’s clear the economy’s started slowing, with the strong bounceback from the lockdowns nearing its end. That’s before we’ve felt much drag from the big rise in interest rates. Or the bigger economies pulling us lower, which is in store for next year.

To be sure, the economy’s closer to full employment than we’ve been half a century. But limiting the decline from here on will be a tricky task for Anthony Albanese and, more particularly, Reserve Bank governor Philip Lowe.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics’ “national accounts” for the three months to the end of September, published this week, showed real gross domestic product – the nation’s total production of goods and services – growing by just 0.6 per cent during the quarter, and by 5.9 per cent over the year to September.

Focus on the 0.6 per cent, not the 5.9 per cent – it’s ancient history. Most of it comes from huge growth of 3.8 per cent in the December quarter of last year, which was the biggest part of the bounceback following the end of the second lockdown of NSW, the ACT and Victoria.

Since then, we’ve had quarterly growth of 0.4 per cent, 0.9 per cent and now 0.6 per cent. That’s the slowing. Quarterly growth of 0.6 per cent equals annualised growth of about 2.5 per cent. That’s about the speed the economy was growing at before the pandemic, which we knew was on the weak side.

Dig deeper into the figures, and you see more evidence of slowing. Strong spending by consumers was pretty much the only thing keeping the economy expanding last quarter. Consumption grew by a seemingly healthy 1.1 per cent, which accounted for all the growth in GDP overall of 0.6 per cent. The various other potential contributors to growth – business investment spending, new home building, exports and so forth – cancelled each other out.

But get this: that growth of 1.1 per cent was half what it was in the previous quarter. And what were the main categories of strong spending by consumers? Spending in hotels, cafes and restaurants was up by 5.5 per cent in the quarter.

Spending on “transport services” – mainly domestic and overseas travel – was up almost 14 per cent. And purchase of cars was up 10 per cent.

Anything strike you about that list? It’s consumers still catching up after the end of the lockdowns, when most people were still earning income, but were prevented from spending it. We couldn’t go out to hotels, cafes and restaurants, interstate travel was restricted, and overseas holidays were verboten.

As for buying a new car, an earlier global shortage of silicon chips and container shipping mean few were coming into the country.

Get it? Much of the strong consumer spending that kept the economy moving last quarter was driven by life getting back to normal after the lockdowns and the easing of pandemic-caused supply shortages. It’s a temporary catch-up, that won’t continue for long.

Now let’s look at what the quarterly accounts tell us about the state of households’ finances. Despite their strong consumer spending, their real disposable income actually fell a fraction during the quarter, taking the total fall over the year to September to 2.6 per cent.

Why did households’ income fall? Because prices rose faster than wages did. How did households increase their spending while their income was falling? By cutting the proportion of their incomes they’d been saving rather than spending.

After the first lockdown in 2020, the household saving rate leapt to more than 19 per cent of disposable income. Why? Because people had lots of income they simply couldn’t spend.

But the rate of saving has fallen sharply since then. And in the September quarter it fell from 8.3 per cent of income to 6.9 per cent – almost back to where it was before the pandemic.

As Callam Pickering, of the Indeed jobs site, explains, “households have been relying on their savings, accrued during the pandemic, to maintain their spending in recent quarters”. Lately, however, they’ve “been hit from all angles, with high inflation, falling [house] prices and mortgage repayments all weighing heavily on household budgets”.

“As household saving continues to ease, the ability of households to absorb the impact of higher prices and rising interest rates will also diminish,” he says.

By the end of September, the hit from higher interest rates was just getting started. Of the 3 percentage-point increase in the official interest rate we know has happened, only 0.75 percentage points had yet reached home borrowers.

So, the hit to growth from government monetary policy is only starting. As for the other policy arm, fiscal policy, we know from the October budget it won’t be helping push the economy along. And in the September quarter, falling spending on infrastructure caused total public sector spending to subtract a little from overall growth in GDP.

A similar subtraction came from net exports. Although the volume of exports rose by 2.7 per cent during the quarter, the volume of imports rose by more – 3.9 per cent. A big part of this net subtraction came from the reopening of our international borders. Our earnings from incoming travellers rose by 18.6 per cent, whereas the cost of our own overseas travel jumped by 58 per cent.

Finally, self-righteous business people are always telling us that if we want to real wages to rise rather than fall, there’s an obvious answer: we’ll have to raise our productivity.

Sorry, not so simple, preacher-man. The accounts show that real labour costs to employers per unit of output fell by 2.6 per cent over the year to September.

Meaning that after allowing for the productivity improvement the nation’s employers gained, the increase in wages and other labour costs were a lot less than the increase in the prices they charged.

This suggests business profits are much better placed to weather next year’s hard times than their workers’ and customers’ pockets are. Not a good omen.

Read more >>

Wednesday, December 7, 2022

Both sides exaggerate significance of wage bargaining changes

Do you realise, in just the six months it’s been in office, the Albanese government has passed 61 bills, covering most of what it promised to do at the May election?

Just last week it passed the National Anti-Corruption Commission Bill and the controversial Secure Jobs, Better Pay bill. According to Anthony Albanese, the latter involved “the biggest workplace reforms since the 1970s” and its passing made last Friday “a huge day for working Australians”.

Sorry, this government’s degree of effort and expedition far exceeds anything achieved by its predecessor and some of its measures are truly memorable, but its industrial relations changes are nothing like that monumental.

For one thing, Albanese has yet to act on his promises to regulate the gig economy, act decisively to reduce wage theft and reduce the use of casuals and labour-hire companies.

But it’s not just Albanese who’s been laying it on too thick. Indeed, the prize for the biggest storm-in-a-teacup of the year must surely go to the Secure Jobs, Better Pay bill. Its passing was certainly “controversial” – the enormous fuss made by the various employer groups made sure of that – but the degree of controversy generated is an unreliable guide to the likely threat – or promise – from the changes made.

Two fearless predictions. First, the changes won’t be nearly as bad as the lobbyists’ scaremongering claimed. But equally, they won’t have nearly as much effect on the jobs and pay of “working Australians” as the government wants us to believe.

The employer groups’ repeated claims that the government’s efforts to increase the scope for “multi-employer bargaining” would lead to widespread strikes and job losses seems intended to bamboozle those not old enough to remember industrial relations when they really were red in tooth and claw.

Strike action peaked in the 1970s, when the number of strikes averaged 2370 a year, with total days of work lost averaging 3.1 million a year, and days lost per 1000 workers averaging 540. As in all the rich countries, strike action has declined markedly since then, with the 2010s seeing only 200 strikes per year, costing 145,000 days lost, or 14 days per 1000 workers.

The notion that Albanese’s modest changes will return us to anything remotely approaching the 1970s is risible.

In those days, when inflation was far higher than it is now, our long-gone system of compulsory arbitration had the perverse effect of encouraging many quite short strikes. These days, old IR hands know that if a strike lasts more than a day or two it’s a sign the union has lost. It will then take years for whatever small pay rise the workers end up getting to make up for the many days’ pay they lost.

Ask yourself this: how are widespread strikes supposed to lead directly to widespread job losses? They don’t. They lead to some workers losing their jobs only because the majority who don’t lose their jobs are getting wage rises so big that employers genuinely can’t afford them. It’s not a reasoned argument, it’s an attempt to frighten the unthinking.

What employers really fear is a move from bargaining at the level of the individual business or enterprise to bargaining at an industry-wide level, which would make it easier for the unions to achieve pay rises in businesses with few union members.

Although industry-wide bargaining remains outlawed by the Fair Work Act, the employer groups have chosen to pretend that the government’s cautious extension of access to multi-enterprise bargaining is pretty much the same thing.

Nonsense. As Adelaide University’s Professor Andrew Stewart explains, the new provision for “single- (or common-) interest” multi-employer bargaining is hedged about with limitations and protections. Unions will not be able to rope in small businesses employing fewer than 20 workers. Larger employers can only be included without their consent if a majority of their workers wants to bargain.

Access to this form of bargaining must be approved by the Fair Work Commission, which will permit employers to participate only if they are sufficiently “comparable” to the other employers. An employer with an existing single-enterprise agreement won’t be able to switch to a multi-employer agreement.

But those employers included in such bargaining will be required to bargain in “good faith” – be genuinely committed to reaching an agreement, and unions will be permitted to strike – provided this is approved by a secret ballot of employees.

A significant change is that, when either single- or multi-enterprise bargaining becomes intractable, the commission will resolve the dispute by arbitration.

The other new provision for “supported bargaining” of multi-employer agreements is aimed at helping low-paid workers in strongly female industries such as childcare and aged care. This is likely to produce some significant pay rises. Why? Because the “support” will come from the third party that will end up covering the cost of the pay rise – the federal government.

Apart from that, the low union membership in most of the relevant enterprises says there’ll be few strikes and few big pay rises.

Read more >>

Monday, November 14, 2022

Treasury's advice now back in favour with the government

The Coalition’s practice of sacking a bunch of government department heads whenever it gets back to office is clearly calculated to discourage bureaucrats from giving frank advice. Fortunately for us, the Albanese government is not as arrogant.

In my experience, weak managers surround themselves with yes-persons, so their brains – and, as they see it, their authority – aren’t challenged.

Strong managers want frank advice from their experts, so they’re less likely to stuff up. They’re confident of their ability to sift through conflicting advice and pick the best way forward.

This Liberal policy of frightening bureaucrats into keeping their opinions to themselves began when they returned to power in 1996 under John Howard. It was repeated when Tony Abbott got back in 2013, sacking then Treasury secretary Dr Martin Parkinson and various other Treasury-related department heads (narrowly missing Treasury’s incumbent, Dr Steven Kennedy).

Their crime, it seemed, was that they actually believed in the Rudd-Gillard government’s policy of using an emissions trading scheme to limit carbon emissions. Guilty as charged. Like almost all economists, Treasury accepted the scientists’ advice on the science, and believed the best tools for fighting climate change were economic instruments such as “putting a price on carbon”. Labor’s Department of Climate Change was staffed manly by Treasury people.

But the Libs’ peak disdain for the public service came under Scott Morrison who, upon attaining the top job, told the bureaucrats he wanted no advice from them, just diligent implementation of the policy decisions made by Cabinet.

What gave this bunch of not-so-super men (and the odd woman) the arrogance to believe they could govern wisely without the bureaucrats’ policy advice? Mainly, their ability to fall back on the small army of taxpayer-funded, but unaccountable ministerial staffers, mainly youngsters with political ambitions and the willingness to interpose themselves between the minister and the department.

These young punks, who think they outrank the most senior public servants, are generally big on politics, but weak on policy. Which, you’d have to say, was the Coalition cabinet’s “revealed preference”.

The apotheosis of this decadence was revealed in evidence to the robo-debt royal commission last week. Advice sought from an outside law firm, which found that the government’s cost-cutting scheme was unlawful, was paid for but not passed up the line to the minister – presumably because the bureaucrats judged it would not be welcome.

But in a little-noticed part of a recent speech by Treasurer Jim Chalmers, he left no doubt that, under Labor, Treasury’s advice would be sought, and used to improve the government’s decisions. What’s more, Treasury’s ability to convey its views to the public would be enhanced.

Chalmers noted that, even after the government had dealt with the inflation challenge, “we will have to manage a budget weighed down by persistent structural spending pressures”. Doing this required new thinking and deeper thinking, he said.

“It requires us rebuilding the evidence base for policymaking. Because, to get better, more-forward-looking economic policies, we need better, more-forward-looking policy foundations.”

Chalmers revealed six ways in which he will be “rebuilding the evidence base for policymaking”. One was “putting Treasury back at the centre of climate modelling again”, to build on “the new approach to climate risks, costs and opportunities” revealed in last month’s budget papers.

Second, Treasury’s annual statement on “tax expenditures” would be made “more accessible, more useful analysis of what tax concessions are costing the budget” and their effect on the distribution of income between high and low earners.

Economists have long believed that such “tax expenditures” are equivalent to actual government spending in their effect on the budget balance, and should be subject to just as much critical reassessment as actual spending.

But the Libs didn’t agree. Since taxes are evil, anything you do to reduce them must be a good thing, even if the concessions go to some (usually higher-earning) taxpayers and not others. They sought to play down the tax expenditure statement – which hugely annoys the interest groups receiving concessions on such things as superannuation savings, and the 50 per cent discount on taxing capital gains – by renaming it the “tax benchmark and variations statement”. Not anymore.

The third, even more significant change will be the appointment of an “evaluator-general” to regularly and publicly examine the effectiveness of government spending programs. Many programs don’t do much to achieve their stated objectives, but ministers and their department heads are notoriously reluctant to have them rigorously examined, for fear of embarrassment.

But, as first proposed by economist Dr Nicholas Gruen, such a person and their agency would have similar powers and independence to those of the much-feared Auditor-General. This should work, provided governments couldn’t do what Morrison did to the Auditor-General: cut his funding.

The appointment of an evaluator-general is official Labor policy, and has been championed by the assistant assistant treasurer, Dr Andrew Leigh, whose outstanding economic expertise is negated by his failure to align with any Labor faction.

No doubt Leigh will be keen for the evaluator to make use of the latest in evidence-based decision-making, randomised controlled trials.

The point is that one thing Treasury (and the Finance department) should be hugely knowledgeable about – but aren’t – is what policies work, and what policies don’t. An evaluator-general will fill this vacuum.

Fourth, Treasury will work with Finance Minister and Minister for Women Katy Gallagher to “ensure gender considerations are at the core of our work”, building on last month’s “gender-responsive budgeting”.

Fifth, Treasury will produce Australia’s first “national wellbeing statement” next year, which will be “a hard-headed way to gauge progress by recognising that a robust and resilient economy relies on robust and resilient people and communities”.

And finally, Chalmers will step up production of the Intergenerational Report from five-yearly to three-yearly, in the middle year of each parliamentary term. He promises the document will be “depoliticised”.

It’s true that former treasurer Joe Hockey trashed this exercise by turning it into a blatant attack on his Labor predecessors. It was hard to take subsequent reports seriously, especially when they imposed an artificial cap on tax collections over the next 40 years, while letting government spending run wild.

We need the report to be a much more balanced assessment of future budgetary challenges, not just a Treasury tract on the supposed evils of runaway government spending. We need more acknowledgement of the possible effects of climate change on the budget over the next 40 years – a start to which was made in last month’s budget.

And it would be nice if the report lived up to its name by having much more to say about intergenerational equity issues and trends, such as the effect of ever-rising house prices, and the longer-term consequences of the way the Howard government kept stacking the odds in favour of the old at the expense of the young, particularly favouring the self-proclaimed “self-funded retirees” (who never mention the huge superannuation tax concessions they’ve been given, nor that many of them also get a part-pension).

So, well done, Jim. With better advice and a better “evidence base”, now all Labor needs is the courage to stand up to a few powerful interest groups, including those industries that get the relevant union to plead their case in the new-look Canberra.

Read more >>

Friday, November 11, 2022

Treasury thinks the unthinkable: yes, intervene in the gas market

If you think economists say crazy things, you’re not alone. Speaking about our soaring cost of living this week, Treasury Secretary Dr Steven Kennedy told a Senate committee that “the solution to high prices is high prices”. But then he said this didn’t apply to the prices of coal and gas.

How could anyone smart enough to get a PhD say such nonsense? He even said – in a speech actually read out by one of his deputies – that this piece of crazy-speak was something economists were “fond of saying”.

It’s true, they are. If they were children, we’d call it attention-seeking behaviour. But when you unpick their little riddle, you learn a lot about why economists are in love with markets and “market forces”, why they’re always banging on about supply and demand, and why (as I’ve said once or twice before) if economists wore T-shirts, what they’d say is “Prices make the world go round”.

At the heart of conventional economics – aka the “neo-classical model” – lies the “price mechanism”. Understand this, and you understand why the thinking of early economists such as Adam Smith and Alfred Marshall is still influential a century or two after their death, and why, of all the people seeking the ears of our politicians, economists get more notice taken of their advice than other professions do.

The secret sauce economists sell is their understanding of how a lot of seemingly big problems go away if you just give the price mechanism time to solve them.

A market is a place or a shop or cyberspace where people come to sell things to other people. The sellers are supplying the item; the buyers are demanding it. The seller sets the price; the buyer accepts it – or sometimes they haggle or hold an auction.

If the price of some item rises, this draws a response from the price mechanism, which is driven by market forces – the interaction of supply on one side and demand on the other.

The price rise sends a signal to buyers and a signal to sellers. The message buyers get is: this stuff’s more expensive, so make sure you’re not wasting any of it.

And see if you can find a substitute for it that’s almost as good but doesn’t cost as much. If you’ve been buying the deluxe, big-brand version, try the house brand.

On the other side, the message to sellers is: since people are paying more for this stuff, produce more of it. “I’m not in this business, but maybe now the price is higher, I should be.” If the price has risen because the firm’s costs have risen, maybe we could find a way to cut those costs, not put our price up and so pinch customers from our competitors.

See where this is going? If customers react to the higher price by buying less, while sellers react by producing more, what’s likely to happen to the price?

If demand for the item falls, and the supply of the item increases, the higher price should come back down.

Saying the solution to high prices is high prices is a tricky way of saying market forces will react to the price rise in a way that, after a while, brings it back down again.

When demand and supply get out of balance, market forces adjust the price up or down until demand and supply are back in balance. The price mechanism has fixed the problem, returning the market to “equilibrium”.

This is the origin of the old economists’ motto: laissez-faire. Leave things alone. Don’t interfere. Interfering with the mechanism will stop it working properly and probably make things worse rather than better.

There’s a huge degree of truth to this simple analysis. At this moment there are thousands of firms and millions of consumers reacting to price changes in the way I’ve just described.

Kennedy admits that “there are many conditions that underpin” this do-nothing policy, but “in most circumstances Treasury would support such an approach”.

There certainly are many simplifying assumptions behind that oversimplified theory. It assumes all buyers and sellers are so small they have no power by themselves to influence the price.

It assumes all buyers and all sellers know all they need to know about the characteristics of the product and the prices at which it’s available. It assumes competition in the market is fierce. And that’s just for openers.

However, Kennedy said, the circumstances of the price shocks caused by the Ukraine war are “different and outside the frame” of Treasury’s usual approach. Such shocks bring government intervention in the coal and gas markets “into scope”. That is, just do it.

“The current gas and thermal coal price increases are leading to unusually high prices and profits for some companies,” he said. “Prices and profits well beyond the usual bounds of investment and profit cycles.

“The same price increases are leading to a reduction in the real incomes of many people, with the most severely affected being lower-income working households.

“The energy price increases are also significantly reducing the profits of many [energy-using] businesses and raising questions about their viability.”

In summary, Kennedy said, the effects of the Ukraine war are leading to a redistribution of income and wealth, and disrupting markets. “The national-interest case for this redistribution is weak, and it is not likely to lead to a more efficient allocation of resources in the longer term,” he said.

(The efficient allocation of resources – land, labour and capital – is the main reason economists usually oppose government intervention in the price mechanism. Markets usually allocate resources most efficiently.)

The government’s policy response to the problem could take many forms, Kennedy said, but with inflation already so high, policymakers “need to be mindful of not contributing further to inflation”.

This suggests that intervening to directly reduce coal and gas prices is more likely to be the best way to go, he concluded.

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Wednesday, November 9, 2022

One small step for the wellbeing budget, giant leap yet to come

Hey, wasn’t this budget supposed to be Australia’s first “wellbeing” budget? Whatever happened to that? Well, it happened – sort of – but it turned out to be ... underwhelming. Didn’t arouse much interest from the media.

It met the expectations of neither the sceptics nor the true believers. Treasurer Jim Chalmers began talking it up long before he got the job. The treasurer at the time, Josh Frydenberg, thought it was a great joke.

He pictured Chalmers “fresh from his ashram deep in the Himalayas, barefoot, robes flowing, incense burning, beads in one hand, wellbeing budget in the other”.

No robes on budget night. But nor did we see Chalmers make a ringing denunciation of the great god GDP.

No quoting of Bobby Kennedy’s famous words that such measures count “air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage ... special locks for our doors and the jails for the people who break them [and] the destruction of the redwood and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl”.

In short, Kennedy said, “It measures everything except that which makes life worthwhile.”

No, none of that. Nor any condemnation of economic growth or attack on the materialism of our age.

What we got was what Chalmers promised on the day he became treasurer: “It is really important that we measure what matters in our economy in addition to all of the traditional measures. Not instead of, but in addition to. I do want to have better ways to measure progress, and to measure the intergenerational consequences of our policies.”

What we got on budget night was a start to just that. Not a wellbeing budget, but a normal budget with a chapter headed Measuring What Matters.

It kicked off with some stirring rhetoric about how traditional macroeconomic indicators don’t provide a “complete or holistic view of the community’s wellbeing. A broader range of social and environmental factors need to be considered to broaden the conversation about quality of life.”

Then followed a lot of earnest discussion of “frameworks” and other high-level stuff that’s deeply meaningful to bureaucrats, but not the rest of us. It’s not a long chapter, but I had trouble keeping awake – though I may just have been tired at the time.

But don’t get me wrong. Though none of this stuff gets the blood racing, Chalmers is on the right track. It’s just that he’s got a lot further to go before we see anything likely to make much difference.

Let’s start with GDP – gross domestic product. Everything Kennedy said about it is true. Those who say it’s a bad measure of progress or prosperity or wellbeing are right.

But, as every economist will tell you, it was never intended to be. It’s a measure of the value of all the goods and services produced and consumed in Australia over a period, which means it’s also a measure of the total income Australians earn from producing those goods and services.

It counts the cost of the ambulances and tow trucks that attend road accidents, not because accidents are a good thing, but because all the workers involved earn their income by turning up and helping.

If you’d like everyone who wants a job to be able to get one – meaning unemployment is kept low – the managers of the economy need to know what’s happening to GDP to help them achieve that goal.

GDP doesn’t count “the health of our children or the joy of their play” because, apart from the doctors and nurses, the income we earn from that is “psychic”, not something you can bank or spend.

What economists are more reluctant to admit is that their obsession with the ups and downs of GDP – with the purely material aspect of our lives; with getting and spending – has led them to revere GDP as though it measured our wellbeing.

The rest of us have caught the bug from them. This suits the rich and powerful, whose main objective is to get richer and more powerful. They are focused on the purely material, and it makes it easier for them if the rest of us are too.

It doesn’t suit them to have us asking awkward questions about what economic activity is doing to the natural environment – or the climate – why it’s better for so many jobs to be insecure and badly paid, and whether the pace of economic life is extracting an (unmeasured) price from us in stress, anxiety and depression.

So, Chalmers is right. There’s much more to life – to our wellbeing - than just working and spending. If that’s all governments are doing for us, they’re not doing nearly enough.

We put much effort into measuring and thinking about GDP, but need to put a lot more effort into measuring all the other things that affect our lives and how much joy we’re getting.

Business people say that what gets measured gets managed. True – provided politicians take account of those numbers in the decisions they make. Chalmers’ wellbeing budget is still a long way off.

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Monday, November 7, 2022

The cost of living isn't as high as we've been told

So, as we learnt the day after the budget, the cost of living leapt by 7.3 per cent over the past year, right? Wrong. Last week we were told it’s gone up no more than 6.7 per cent for employees, and 6.4 per cent for pensioners and others on benefits.

The 7.3 per cent came from the Australian Bureau of Statistics, and was the rise in the consumer price index over the year to the end of September. The other figures also came from the bureau, and were for the rise in the “living cost index” over the same period for certain types of households.

Why weren’t you told about the second lot? Because the media wanted to avoid confusing you – and because they were better news rather than worse.

Huh? What’s going on? We’re used to using the consumer price index (CPI) as a measure of the cost of living. But the bureau knows it’s not. So, a week later, it always issues its living-cost indexes for key household types – which the media always ignore.

Usually, the differences from the CPI aren’t big enough to worry about. But now they are. Why? Because mortgage interest rates are increasing rapidly. And mortgage interest charges are the main difference between the two measures.

Before late-1998, the CPI measured the housing costs of owner-occupiers according to the interest they paid on their mortgages. But this was changed at the behest of the Reserve Bank, which didn’t want its measure of inflation to go up every time it raised interest rates to get inflation down.

So, since then, the bureau has measured owner-occupiers’ housing costs by taking the price of building a new house or unit. This doesn’t make much sense, since not many people buy a newly built home each quarter. Many of us have never bought a newly built home.

This is why the bureau also calculates separate cost of living indexes, using the same prices as the CPI, but restoring mortgage interest charges, as well as giving the prices different weights to take account of the differing spending patterns of particular household types, such as age pensioners.

New dwelling prices rose by almost 21 per cent over the year to September, meaning they accounted for a quarter of the 7.3 per cent rise in the CPI. By contrast, the mortgage interest charges paid by employee households rose by more than 23 per cent, but contributed only 12 per cent (0.8 percentage points) of the 6.7 per cent rise in their total costs.

Get it? Since mortgage interest charges are a more accurate guide to the costs of owner-occupiers than new-home prices are, the CPI is significantly overstating the rise in the living costs of everyone, from employees to people on social security (and the self-proclaimed “self-funded” retirees, for that matter).

This is a sliver of good news about the extent of cost-of-living pressure on households. It’s better news for people on indexed pensions and benefits: they’ll get what amounts to a small real increase.

But it raises an obvious question: why on earth has the cost of newly built homes shot up by 21 per cent over the past year? After all, this has added hugely to the Reserve Bank’s need to fight inflation by raising interest rates, to the tune of 2.75 percentage points so far.

It’s true the pandemic has caused shortages of imported building materials, but the real blame is down to the economic mangers’ appalling own goal in using grants, tax breaks and cuts in interest rates to rev up the home building industry far beyond its capacity to expand.

It got a huge pipeline of unfilled orders and whacked up its prices, adding no less than a quarter to our soaring inflation rate. Well done, guys.

This raises a less obvious question: federal and state governments were spending unprecedented billions to hold the economy together during the pandemic and its lockdowns. With the official interest rate already down to 0.75 per cent without doing much good, was it really necessary to cut the rate to 0.1 per cent and engage in all that unconventional money creation?

It makes a good case for the new view that, while monetary policy works well when you want to slow demand, it doesn’t work well when you wish to speed it up. Especially when rates are already so low and households already so heavily indebted.

This is something those reviewing the Reserve Bank should be considering.

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Friday, November 4, 2022

Labor will struggle with deficit and debt until it raises taxes

There’s something strange about last week’s federal budget. It reveals remarkably quick progress in getting the budget deficit down to nearly nothing. But then it sees the deficit going back up again. Which shows that, as my former fellow economics editor Tim Colebatch has put it, Rome wasn’t built in one budget.

Let’s look at the figures before explaining how they came about. The previous, Coalition government finally got the budget back to balance in the last full financial year before the arrival of the pandemic, 2018-19.

The government’s big spending and tax breaks in response to COVID’s arrival in the second half of the following year, 2019-20, saw the budget back in deficit to the tune of $85 billion. Next year’s deficit was even higher at $134 billion.

But in the year that ended soon after the change of government in May, 2021-22, the deficit fell to just $32 billion. And in last week’s second go at the budget for this year, 2022-23, the deficit is expected to be little changed at $37 billion – which would be $41 billion less than what Scott Morrison was expecting at the time of the election six months ago.

But the changes in these dollar figures don’t tell us much as comparing the size of the deficit with the size of the economy (nominal gross domestic product) in the same year. Judging it this way allows for the effect of inflation and for growth in the population.

So, relative to GDP, the budget deficit has gone from zero in 2018-19, to 4.3 per cent, then a peak of 6.5 per cent in 2020-21, then crashed down to just 1.4 per cent last financial year. This year’s deficit is now expected to be little changed at 1.5 per cent.

We all know why the deficit blew out the way it did, but why did it come back down so quickly?

Three main reasons. The biggest is that it happened by design. All the pandemic-related measures were temporary. As soon as possible, they were ended.

But also: the rise in world fossil fuel prices caused by the war in Europe produced a huge surge tax collections from our mining companies. Last week’s budget announced the new government’s decision to use almost all of this windfall to reduce the deficit.

And last week we learnt the government had also decided to keep a very tight rein on government spending. It introduced all the new spending programs it promised at the election, but cut back the previous government’s programs to largely cover the cost of the new ones.

Its frugality had one objective: to help the Reserve Bank reduce inflation by first using higher interest rates to reduce people’s demand for goods and services.

Keeping the deficit low for another year has, Treasurer Jim Chalmers said this week, changed the “stance” of fiscal (budgetary) policy to “broadly neutral” - neither expansionary nor contractionary. Which, he’s sure to be hoping, will mean the Reserve has to raise interest rates by less than would have.

Another benefit of his decision not to spend the tax windfall, Chalmers said this week, is that by June next year, the government’s gross debt will be $50 billion lower than it would have been. And, according to Treasury’s calculations, this reduction means a saving of $47 billion on interest payments over the decade to 2033.

Great. Wonderful. Except for the strange bit: two years after this financial year, the budget deficit is expected to have gone back up to $51 billion, or 2 per cent of GDP.

What’s more, the budget’s “medium-term projections” foresee the deficit stuck at about 2 per cent each year – or $50 billion in today’s dollars – for the following eight years to 2032-33.

In the first budget for this year, just before the election, the deficit was projected to have fallen slowly to 0.7 per cent of GDP by 2033. Now, no progress is expected. Which means, of course, that the amount of public debt we end up with will be higher than expected during the election campaign.

The gross public debt is now not expected to reach a plateau, of about 47 per cent of GDP, until the first few years of the 2030s.

So, if the budget deficits last year and this are so much better than we were expecting just seven months ago, why on earth are the last eight years of the medium term now expected to be significantly worse?

Three main reasons. First, because a new actuarial assessment of the future cost of the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) shows the cost growing much faster than previously thought.

Second, because, with world interest rates having risen so much this year, the interest bill on the public debt is now projected to be much bigger over the coming decade.

Third, because the previous government based its projections on the assumption that the productivity of labour would improve at the quite unrealistic average rate of 1.5 per cent a year, but Chalmers has cut this to a more realistic 1.2 per cent. This change reduces government revenue by more than it reduces government spending.

What this exercise reveals is that the “persistent structural deficit” earlier projections told us to expect, will actually be worse than we were told. The deficit won’t go away but, on present policies, will stay too high every year for as far as the eye can see.

Fortunately, Chalmers freely admits that present policies will have to be changed. “While this budget has begun the critical task of budget repair, further work will be required in future budgets to rebuild fiscal buffers [ready for the next recession] and manage growing cost pressures”.

He repeated this week his view that, as a country, we need to “have a conversation about what we can afford and what we can’t” - his way of breaking it gently that, if the structural deficit is to be removed, taxes will have to rise.

Read more >>

Wednesday, November 2, 2022

If only Labor's wage changes were as bad as the bosses claim

Have you ever wondered why capitalism has survived for several centuries in the advanced economies? How a relative handful of rich families and company executives have been getting richer and more powerful for so long in countries where everyone gets a vote and could, if they chose, insist on something different?

It’s because the capitalists, counselled and coerced by politicians anxious to keep the peace, have made sure that the plebs, punters and ordinary working families have been given enough of the spoils to keep them reasonably content.

I remind you of this because, for 30 or 40 years in America, and now about a decade in Australia, the capitalist system – economists prefer calling it the market system – hasn’t been giving ordinary workers enough to keep them getting better off, while the few people at the top of the tree have been doing better, year after year.

If you wonder why so many Americans voted for a man like Donald Trump, and now delude themselves that he didn’t lose the last election, why the Yanks seem to be rapidly dismantling their democracy, a big part of their discontent is their loss of faith that the economic system is giving them a fair shake.

Fortunately, it’s nothing like that bad in Australia. Not yet, anyway. What’s true is that the average standard of living in Australia today is no better than it was a decade ago – something that hasn’t happened before in the more than 75 years since World War II.

Over the eight years before the pandemic, wages rose barely faster than inflation. We’ve had wage stagnation, now made a lot worse by the supply-chain disruptions of the pandemic, soaring electricity and gas prices caused by Russia’s war, and by the way floods keep wiping out our fruit and vegetable crops.

When Labor went to this year’s federal election promising to “get wages moving”, I think it struck a chord with many voters.

After we ended centralised wage-fixing by the Industrial Relations Commission in the early 1990s, we moved to collective bargaining at the level of the individual enterprise. Workers’ right to strike was hedged about with many requirements and limits.

At the beginning, more than 40 per cent of workers were covered by enterprise agreements. By now, however, some academic experts calculate that the proportion of workers covered by active agreements is down to about 15 per cent.

At the jobs and skills summit in September, all sides agreed that the enterprise bargaining system had broken down. Last week the government introduced its answer to wage stagnation, the Secure Jobs, Better Pay bill.

It would make a host of changes, many of which strengthen existing provisions of the Fair Work Act, and most of which the industrial parties agree would be improvements. It makes job security and gender pay equity explicit goals of the act, prohibits sexual harassment and requirements that workers keep their pay secret, and strengthens the right of workers with family responsibilities to request flexible working hours. More debatably, it abolishes the Australian Building and Construction Commission.

To repair enterprise bargaining, it clarifies the BOOT – better off overall test – requiring that agreements leave no worker worse off. This was the Business Council’s greatest complaint against enterprise agreements.

One reason such agreements now cover so few workers is that they’re expensive and complex for small and middle-size employers to organise. Hence, the proposal to widen the existing provision for “multi-employer bargaining”: workers in similar enterprises allowed to bargain collectively with a number of employers.

This would widen access to enterprise bargaining. It’s aimed particularly at strengthening the bargaining position of women in low-paid jobs in the aged care, childcare and disability care sector.

Ambit claims and exaggerated rhetoric are standard fare in industrial relations, but the cries of fear and outrage coming from the various employer groups are over the top.

It would “create more complexity, more strikes and higher unemployment,” said one. It was “so fatally flawed” it would “emasculate enterprise bargaining”, according to another outfit. It was “seismic” in its impact, claimed a third.

Methinks they doth … I’d be amazed if they actually believe that stuff. They’re probably still adjusting to the shock of having the unions back in the government tent. They know they won’t be able to stop the bill being passed, so they want at least to be seen opposing it with all their voice.

What changing the law won’t change is that the proportion of workers in a union has fallen from 50 per cent to 14 per cent. The small and middle-size businesses we’re talking about have even fewer union members than that.

No union members, no strike. No strike, no big pay rise. In any case, really powerful unions get big pay rises without needing to strike.

This is an attempt to make bargaining provisions that didn’t work last time, work this time. I doubt if these modest changes will do much to “get wages moving” again. More’s the pity. If I’m right, Australia’s capitalism will remain broken.

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Monday, October 31, 2022

Memo RBA board: Time to stop digging in deeper on interest rates

If, as seems likely, the combined might of the advanced economies’ central banks pushes the world into recession, the biggest risk isn’t that they’ll drag us down too, but that our Reserve Bank will raise our own interest rates too far.

That’s the message to us – and everyone else – from the International Monetary Fund’s repeated warnings about the unexpected consequences of “synchronised tighten” by the big economies – America, Europe and, in its own way, China, all jamming on the brakes at the same time.

Synchronised macro-policy shifts are a relatively new problem in our more globalised world economy. Until the global financial crisis of 2008, world recessions tended to roll from one country to the next. Since then, everyone tends to start contracting – or stimulating – at the same time.

When you were stimulating while your trading partners weren’t, much of your stimulus would “leak” to their economies, via your higher imports. But, as we learnt in the fight to counter the Great Recession, when everyone’s stimulating together, your leakage to them is offset by their leakage to you, thus making your stimulus stronger than you were expecting.

The fund’s warning is that we’re now about to learn that the same thing happens in reverse when everyone’s hitting the brakes – budgetary as well as monetary – together. Synchronisation will make your efforts to restrain demand (spending on goods and services) more potent than you were expecting.

So the fund’s message to us is: when you’re judging how high interest rates have to go to get inflation heading back down to the target, err on of side to doing too little.

But there are four other factors saying the Reserve should be wary of pushing rates higher. The first is Treasurer Jim Chalmers’ confirmation in last week’s budget that the “stance” of his fiscal policy has also switched from expansionary to restrictive, and so is now adding to the restraint coming from tighter monetary policy.

Chalmers has cut back the Coalition’s spending programs to make room for Labor’s new spending plans, while “banking” the temporary surge in tax revenue arising from the war-caused jump in world energy prices, and the success of the Coalition’s efforts to return us to full employment.

As a result, the budget deficit has fallen from a peak of $134 billion (equivalent to 6.5 per cent of gross domestic product) in 2020-21, to $32 billion (1.4 per cent) in the year to this June. The present financial year should see that progress largely retained, with the deficit rising only a little.

What’s more, the government’s already acting on its intention to force our greedy gas producers to raise their prices by a lot less than has been assumed in the budget’s inflation forecasts.

Second, the Reserve’s efforts to reduce aggregate (total) demand by using the higher cost of borrowing to reduce domestic demand, will be added to by the other central banks’ efforts to reduce our “net external demand” (exports minus imports).

What’s more, the expected further big fall in house prices will help reduce domestic demand by making home owners feel a lot less well-off than they were (the “wealth effect”).

Third – and this is a big point – the restrictive effect of the Reserve’s higher interest rates will be massively reinforced by the “cost-of-living squeeze” (aka the huge fall in real wages). Comparing the wage price index with the consumer price index, real wages fell by 2 per cent over the year to June 2021, and by an unbelievable 3.5 per cent to June this year.

Now the budget’s predicting a further fall of 2 per cent to June next year, with only the tiniest gain by June 2024.

This is an unprecedented blow to households’ income. It just about guarantees an imminent return to weak consumer spending. And it’s a much bigger blow than the big advanced economies have suffered, suggesting our central bank should be going easier on rate rises than theirs.

The final factor saying the Reserve should be wary of pushing rates higher is “lags”. As top international economist Olivier Blanchard reminded us in a recent Twitter thread, monetary policy affects the inflation rate with a variable delay of maybe six to 18 months.

This says you should stop tightening about a year before you see any hard evidence that inflation has peaked and started falling. Wait for that evidence, and you’re certain to have hit the economy too hard, causing the recession we didn’t have to have.

But to stop tightening before the money market know-alls think you should takes great courage.

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