Monday, December 3, 2018

Budget Office finds the bigger picture is looking OK

There’s a weakness in the way we think about the government and its effects on the economy that economists and politicians usually don’t see. We draw macro conclusions from micro data because we forget the need for what accountants call “consolidation”.

The problem arises because we keep forgetting that the responsibility for governing Australia is divided between the federal government and eight state and territory governments – not to mention any amount of local councils.

Yet most of us focus only on the federal government’s budget when we want to know what’s happening at the “macro” (national or economy-wide) level, and on our own state government’s budget when we when want to know what’s happening at the “micro” (individual component) level.

Because we think – correctly – that responsibility for managing the macro economy rests with the federal government, and also that the feds’ budget is one of their main instruments for influencing the economy, we study the federal budget in great detail and forget that the eight state budgets also have big economic effects.

It’s when you remember this that you realise the federal budget is micro (part of the total picture) not macro (the whole picture).

We’re bamboozled by the existence of different legal entities, each producing their own accounting statements, even though the economy – a common market between eight states and territories – recognises no legal barriers between its components.

Sometimes this causes us to mislead ourselves, other times it gives the politicians from each level of government much scope for misleading us.

For instance, a federal treasurer bent on showing that our public debt isn’t high by international standards, shows us a graph which compares our federal public debt with other countries’ total public debt.

Similarly, a premier whose state is growing faster than others will claim all the credit. If it’s growing more slowly than the national average, they’ll find some reason to blame it on the feds.

Although it’s true that each state has a different combination of industries, and some states are a bit better governed than others, because Australia is a common market the greatest influence on the economic performance of any state is usually the performance of all the other states.

And, at any point in time, the government whose policies are having the greatest influence on a particular “state economy” is usually the federal government.

It’s partly because we focus on bits of the national economy rather than the whole that politicians – federal and state – put so much effort into shifting costs to the other level of government. (The bigger reason, of course, is that it saves them money.)

Or appears to. A less-remarked flaw in Tony Abbott’s reviled first budget in 2014 was that much of its cost savings involved shifting unchanged costs to other budgets: massive cuts in grants to the states for public schools and hospitals. Abbott’s successors have been backpedalling on those supposed savings ever since.

By contrast, most big listed companies consist of a group of many (mainly wholly-owned) separate legal entities. This is why company law has long required them to publish their financial statements on a “consolidated” basis.


When you combine the accounts of, say, 20 companies into one, you have to eliminate the overlap between them, ensuring nothing’s counted more than once. Money transferred between subsidiaries “washes out”.

The closest we come to a consolidated financial statement for our nine governments – showing us the full picture - is the federal Parliamentary Budget Office’s recent innovation of an annual “national fiscal outlook” using the nine governments’ latest budgets. The report for 2018-19 was published last week.

It’s not a full consolidation because it doesn’t show us total government spending by function. So it doesn’t correct the misperception that spending is dominated by social security payments.

Combine federal and state spending and you see the big ones are health and education.

Because the states use accrual accounting, whereas the feds keep the focus on cash accounting, a federal budget balance can’t be compared with a state budget balance.

Putting them on the same accrual basis (but taking government projections at face value), the consolidated budget balance (the "net operating balance") reached zero last financial year and over this and the next four years is projected to reach a surplus of $46 billion.

Consolidated annual net capital investment is projected to peak at $32 billion this financial year and fall to $28 billion by 2021-22 (though this misses the feds' creative accounting on new airports and inland railways).

Consolidated net public debt is projected to grow by $51 billion to $414 billion in June 2022.

Even so, by then our consolidated net public debt should be about 20 per cent of gross domestic product, compared with Britain’s 75 per cent and America’s 80 per cent.
Read more >>

Saturday, December 1, 2018

Why more expressways don't fix traffic jams

When Marion Terrill, of the Grattan Institute, set out to find out how much commuting times had worsened in Sydney and Melbourne, she discovered something you’ll find very hard to believe. But it would come as no surprise to transport economists around the world.

Everyone is sure traffic congestion has got much worse in recent years. This is only to be expected since Sydney’s population grew at the annual rate of 1.9 per cent, and Melbourne’s rate grew even faster, at 2.3 per cent, between the censuses of 2011 and 2016.

Both cities have grown much faster than the Australian population overall. People are crowding into our big cities, much to the disapproval of many people already living there.

Why are they piling into already-crowded cities? For reasons economic geographers call “economies of agglomeration”. One way for countries to get richer is for their businesses to pursue economies of scale; another way is for businesses and their workers to pursue the gains from agglomeration – a fancy word for piling things together.

There are three kinds of agglomeration economies. They come from matching (in a big city, people are more likely to find a job, while businesses are more likely to find the particular workers they need; there can be greater specialisation), sharing (less idle capacity in, say, car parks, or waiting around for customers), and learning (more workers for you to see and imitate; knowledge and know-how shared face-to-face).

Sharing, matching and learning can occur in two ways. When a lot of firms in the same industry gather in the same city, or just because a lot of people and firms are located together, making the city large enough to justify, for instance, heart and lung transplant centres.

Of course, along with the great benefits of crowding together go the costs of crowding together - such as feeling terribly crowded.

There are more people per square kilometre living in the centres of our big cities than there were five years ago. Sydney’s population density has increased by 23 per cent – and Melbourne’s by a mere 46 per cent.

And surely more crowding means more traffic congestion. But this is where Terrill and the co-author of her report, Hugh Batrouney, found their first strange fact. Between the last three censuses, from 2006 to 2016, there’s been virtually no change in the distance between where people live and where they work, measured as the crow flies.

Next surprise came from the HILDA survey – household income and labour dynamics in Australia – which, among other things, asks people how long they spend commuting.

In the four surveys between 2004 and 2016, for both Sydney and Melbourne there was no change in the fact that a quarter of workers had one-way commutes lasting no longer than 15 minutes. One half of workers had commutes no longer than 30 minutes.

When you take it up to the experience of three-quarters of workers, there was some increase over the years in Sydney, but only a small increase in Melbourne. Other figures, from Transport for Victoria, tell a similar story.

So, we all think the increasing traffic volume is leading to greater delay and, hence, longer commute times, but the best available actual measures of commute times say they’re little changed.

Find that hard to believe? Well, as I say, few transport economists would. Why not? Because it fits well with what they call “Marchetti’s constant”. Marchetti was an Italian physicist credited with discovering the empirical truth that the average time spent by a person on commuting is about an hour a day – 30 minutes each way.

The amazing truth of this “constant” has been shown by many studies of many cities around the world.

And it fits with another empirical regularity known as the “Lewis-Mogridge position”, formulated by those gents in 1990: “traffic expands to meet the available road space”.

The government notices that traffic is particularly congested on a certain road, so it builds a big new expressway. When it opens, the time taken to get from A to B falls dramatically. But when people realise this, more of them stop travelling to work by public transport and start going by car.

So many people do this that the speed gain disappears within months, even weeks. The time taken to get from A to B goes back to about what it was before the expressway was built.


The only change is that a higher proportion of workers are able to go by car. The traffic jam is often just shifted to another place on the road network.

Getting back to road congestion in Sydney and Melbourne, how can the gap between what we think has happened and what actually happened be explained?

One possible part of the explanation is that although the traffic really is heavier, making trips less pleasant, this doesn’t prolong the time of the trip as much as we think it has.

But the main explanation – both in Oz and in other countries – is that commuters adapt to the greater congestion.

They take evasive action by moving to a job that’s closer to home, or moving to a home that’s closer to the job. Or they stop going by car and start using public transport.

One thing that really has changed with our bigger cities is more crowded trains and buses.

It’s as though each of us has our own internal, unconscious regulator that draws the line at 30 minutes and, when that limit is exceeded, prompts us to take steps to get travel times back down to where they should be.

Terrill and Batrouney are clear on this: in neither city was enough new infrastructure built between 2011 and 2016 to explain why the huge population growth didn’t lengthen commute times.

The government didn’t fix it, you and I did. Which says we ought to be wary of thinking the obvious – and only - solution to greater crowding is greater spending on transport infrastructure.
Read more >>

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

The great drawback from 27 years of economic sunshine

Talk about ingratitude. It’s enough to make a grown economist cry. The nation’s dismal scientists labour mightily to produce almost three decades of continuous economic growth, and few people care.

In April this year a venerable crowd called CEDA – the Committee for Economic Development of Australia, the gentlepersonly end of big business – conducted an online survey of almost 3000 people from all states, asking for their thoughts on the economy.

Asked whether they’d gained from 26 years of uninterrupted economic growth – actually, it’s now ticked up to 27 years – only 5 per cent said they’d gained a lot, with 40 per cent admitting they’d gained “a little”.

That left 40 per cent saying they’d gained nothing and 11 per cent who didn’t know. This is deeply shocking for most economists, who hold as their highest article of faith the belief that the public is crying out for unceasing and rapid growth in the size of the economy – by which they mean an ever-rising material living standard.

But if you and I gained little from all the economic growth, who do we think gained a lot? Well, 74 per cent thought large corporations had, but only 8 per cent thought small and medium-sized businesses had.

Just over half of us thought foreign shareholders gained a lot, whereas only 31 per cent thought Australian shareholders did.

Almost three-quarters of us thought senior executives had gained a lot, a third thought white-collar workers did well, and only 12 per cent thought blue-collar workers did.

These answers don’t add up. They reveal that the public’s understanding of how the economy fits together is confused.

While it’s probably true that big businesses are, on average, more profitable than smaller businesses, it’s a mistake to think big business has been coining it over the past three decades, with most of small business struggling. Were that true we’d have heard a lot more howls of complaint.

It’s true that our mining companies did exceptionally well from the resources boom, and that those companies are about 80 per cent foreign owned, but mining accounts for only 6 per cent of the economy. Looking overall, foreign owners would account for more like a third of businesses. And it’s wrong to think foreign shareholders get a better deal than local shareholders.

People often forget that, when you trace it through, the shares in Australia’s big listed companies are owned mainly by Australians with superannuation and other savings for retirement. So, if big companies have done well over recent decades, that means yours and my super balances are a lot higher than they were. This not a gain?

It’s true that the incomes of senior executives have grown a lot faster than the rest of us over recent decades. But with a workforce of 12.6 million, that’s just a relative handful. Say there are 400 big companies. If each of those has 10 people on million-plus salaries, that’s just 4000 of them.

Make it 40,000 and you’re still not talking about many people. Enough to be envious of but, arithmetically, not enough to make a big difference. Were we to take their millions off them, there wouldn’t be enough to give the remaining 12.6 million of us much more than a small pay rise.

In other polling, many people – even many West Australians – say they have nothing to show for the much-trumpeted resources boom. Do you remember the four or five years before 2015 when the dollar was worth a bit less or a bit more than $US1? It was up there because of the resources boom. And, whether or not they realise it or remember it, the many people who took the opportunity to go on an overseas holiday or three were getting their cut from the boom.

What’s the bet all those people with seniors cards, paying only nominal amounts to use public transport, think they’ve gained little over the decades? The aged have done a lot better, mainly because of changes made by the Howard government. And that’s before you count the rising value of their homes and investment properties.

It’s the young who are much more justified in lacking gratitude.

Speaking of which, most people don’t get the point when reminded of our 27 years of uninterrupted economic growth. It doesn’t mean we’ve had twice the growth other countries have had, and so should all be rolling in it. We’ve had more, but not a huge amount more.

No, what it really means is that the others have had three or so severe recessions in that time – including the Great Recession – and we haven’t.

The one great drawback of going for so long without a recession is that so many people have no experience of how much harm and hurt they cause – how depressing they are – while others have forgotten it.

Still, voters have precious little gratitude to give politicians and bureaucrats, and absolutely none for what amounts to the absence of something that would have been terrible. And anything good that happens to us, we soon take for granted.
Read more >>

Monday, November 26, 2018

Boards and managers responsible for reducing banks' value

Too few of us realise it, but we should thank God (and my new best friend, Peter Costello) for our independent central bank. Prime ministers and treasurers seem to say little that’s not point scoring, and Treasury is now highly politicised, but we can always rely on Reserve Bank governors to be frank about what’s happening in the economy and what should be happening.

Last week the latest of our straight-shooting governors, Dr Philip Lowe, offered his conclusions on the shocking revelations of the banking royal commission. His wise words are worth recounting at length, to be sure you don’t miss them.

As Lowe reminds us, finance is all about trust. The first line of the voluntary “banking and finance oath” (which more bankers should now be taking) says “trust is the foundation of my profession”.

Australian banks have a strong record of being worthy of the trust that is placed in them to repay deposits, but in other areas trust has been strained.

The royal commission has highlighted three issues where work is needed to restore the public’s trust. First, Lowe says, “the inadequate way in which banks have dealt with conflict of interest issues”.

Second, “the way that poorly designed incentive systems can distort behaviour – promoting a sales culture at the expense of a service culture, and promoting the short term at the expense of the long term”.

Third, “the fact that the consequences for not doing the right thing have, in some cases, been too light”.

Central to fixing these breaches of trust is creating a strong culture of service within our financial institutions, Lowe says. This starts with correcting the system of internal reward established by the board and management.

“The vast bulk of the people who work for Australia’s financial institutions do want to do the right thing, and they do want to serve their customers as best they can. But, like everybody else, they respond to the incentives they face.

“If they are rewarded on sales or short-term objectives, it should not come as a great surprise that that’s what they prioritise.”

In the minds of economists, incentives can be negative (sticks) as well as positive (carrots). “One of the things that influences incentives is the consequences and penalties that apply when something goes wrong.

“Strong penalties can play an important role in incentivising good behaviour, and this is an area we should be looking it.”

But it’s worth distinguishing between the penalties that apply for poor conduct and those that apply for granting loans that can’t be repaid, Lowe says. “On conduct issues, we should set our expectations and standards high, and if they are not met the penalties should be firm.”

With bank lending, however, it’s trickier. “Even when banks lend responsibly, a percentage of borrowers will end up in financial strife and be unable to meet their obligations.

“We need banks to be prepared to make loans in the full expectation that some borrowers will not be able to pay them back."

Get this: “Banks need to take risk and manage that risk well. If they become afraid to lend simply because of the consequences of making a loan that goes bad, our economy will suffer.”

So it does seem true that Lowe fears the banks will overreact to the punishment and tighter regulation imposed on them following the royal commission’s findings, and that this could lead to them crimping economic growth.

(Just how concerned Lowe is about this is something the media can only speculate about. Top econocrats will always be sotto voce, for fear a loud shout of warning may be self-fulfilling. The media trumpet dire predictions because they don’t imagine anyone will take them seriously.)

Back on the public’s trust, having clear lines of accountability can help. But “we should not lose sight of the fact that it is the banks’ boards and management that are ultimately responsible for the choices that banks make. Creating the right culture is a core responsibility of boards and management.”

One thing that would help, Lowe says, “is for financial institutions to a have a long-term focus and reflect that in their internal incentives. Managing to short-term targets might boost the share price for a while, but this short-termism can weaken the long-term franchise value of the bank.

“I would argue that the franchise value is more likely to be maximised if our financial institutions have a long-term perspective, treat their customers well, reward loyalty rather than take advantage of it, and invest in systems and technology that deliver world-class financial services . . .

“Doing this would not only be good for bank shareholders, but also for the broader community.” Well said.
Read more >>

Saturday, November 24, 2018

How about a Robin Hood carbon tax to combat climate change?

What does a public-spirited citizen do when a government makes a solemn commitment to do something important, but simply can’t come up with a policy measure to keep that commitment? Why, they come up with their own suggestion to fill the vacuum.

If you haven’t guessed, the government in question is Scott Morrison’s. The solemn commitment is our Paris agreement to cut our greenhouse gas emissions by 26 or 28 per cent from 2005 levels by 2030.

As part of his overthrow, the government backbench refused to accept former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull’s NEG – national energy guarantee – policy. But Morrison hasn’t been able to come up with a policy measure to take its place.

The public-spirited citizen – or citizens – are Richard Holden, an economics professor at the University of NSW, and Rosalind Dixon, a professor of law at the same uni (who just happen to be married).

This week the pair launched a proposal for an “Australian climate dividend plan” as part of the uni’s “grand challenge on inequality”.

The plan is for a carbon tax, levied at the rate of $50 per tonne of carbon dioxide emissions, not just from electricity generation, but also from transport fuels, direct combustion, fugitive emissions and industrial production processes.

The pair estimate the tax would raise net revenue of about $21 billion a year – and would, of course, raise the retail prices of electricity, gas, petrol, diesel, cement and various other products subject to the tax.

Not likely to be politically popular? Here’s the trick: the $21 billion would be returned to every Australian citizen of voting age, in the form of a tax-free “dividend” payment of about $1300 per person per year.

Because the amount of tax a person paid would vary with the amount of their consumption of taxable items (which, in turn, would vary roughly in line with the size of their incomes), but everyone’s dividend would be a flat $1300 a year, this would produce net winners and net losers.

Holden and Dixon estimate the average household would be a net $585 a year better off. The poorest 25 per cent of households would be better off by more than double that. The net losers would be people whose high spending on taxed items put them on incomes way above average.

Get it? The tax would be highly “progressive”, taking from the rich and giving to the poor. There need be no concern that low-income families would be adversely affected by the new tax. (This, BTW, is how the plan fits the “grand challenge on inequality”.)

And don’t forget this. Pollution taxes such as a tax on carbon are intended to encourage people to avoid paying them. How? By using or doing less of the undesirable thing that’s being taxed.

There are many ways a family could reduce the carbon tax it pays. Avoid wasting electricity and gas. When replacing household appliances, make the next one more energy efficient. Make your next car more fuel efficient.

And here’s an idea: why not generate your own power by putting solar panels on the roof? The higher cost of electricity from the grid would mean the investment paid for itself all the quicker.

In other words, an individual family could increase its net saving by paying less tax but still getting its $1300 annual dividend.

Of course, if too many people did that, the total amount of tax collected would be a lot lower and so the amount of the dividend would need to be reduced.

And, indeed, since the object of the exercise is to significantly reduce our carbon emissions, the tax’s ideal is that next to no one ends up paying it. The more successful the tax, the less it collects. If so, the dividend would start high, but gradually fall to zero.

Since the higher prices of the taxed products they produced would discourage their customers from buying as much, the carbon tax would also create an incentive for the affected businesses to find ways of reducing the emissions caused by those products.

Innovations that made this possible would be very valuable. One obvious way for electricity retailers to reduce the tax on their product (and hence, its price) would be to buy more renewable energy (whose generation involves few emissions) and less coal-fired energy (whose generation involves heavy emissions).

Underlying the economists’ preoccupation with “putting a price on carbon (dioxide)” is their concern that the greenhouse gases emitted by use of fossil fuels impose a cost on society - global warming – that isn’t reflected in the prices charged by producers of emission-intensive products and paid by their customers.

This means that, left to their own devices, the price mechanism and market forces will do nothing to discourage private sellers and buyers of these products from imposing the “social” cost of global warming on all of us.

In other words, emissions and other forms of pollution are outside the economy’s system of private prices. That’s why economists call them “externalities”. Because they’re a cost to society, they’re a “negative” externality. (An example of a “positive externality” is the small benefit to the rest of us when little Janey takes herself off to uni to get an education, which she does purely for her own (private) benefit.)

In econospeak, the point of “putting a price on carbon” is to “internalise the externality”. To get it into the prices charged and paid by private sellers and buyers. Why? To give them a monetary incentive to find ways to reduce the social cost their polluting activity is imposing on us.

In the absence of a carbon price, polluting coal-fired electricity has an undesirable price advantage over non-polluting renewables electricity. This is the economic justification for government subsidy schemes for renewables electricity and household solar power systems.

But Holden and Dixon remind us that, if we introduced their Robin Hood carbon tax, those subsidies would no longer be needed, saving governments (and often, other power users) about $2.5 billion a year.
Read more >>

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Why Morrison has changed his tune on immigration

Wow. And you thought the punters had no political power. Scott Morrison’s change of tune on population growth – following on the heels of NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian – will please a lot of ordinary voters and enrage big business.

Be clear on this: almost to a man or woman, the nation’s business people, economists, Coalition politicians and Labor politicians have long believed in high rates of immigration, going back to the days of “populate or perish”.

They still do. They’ll have one dismissive, contemptuous word for the Liberal Party’s seeming backflip – “populism”.

By contrast, the public has long had reservations about immigration, going back to Chinese joining the gold rush and, as the movie Ladies in Black reminds us, to post-war resentment of “reffos” (not to mention dagoes and wogs).

It’s quite possible Gladys had a word in the ear of Scott, but I have no doubt both are reacting to results from their party’s private polling and focus groups. (If so, Labor politicians would be getting a similar message.)

That would explain their changed thinking on the topic. Their sudden sensitivity to popular opinion may be explained also by the proximity of elections in Victoria, NSW and federally.

Morrison is nothing if not direct. He’s left no doubt that this is a Sydney and Melbourne special. In the reduction in the size of the annual national permanent migration program he says he expects to emerge from the review, NSW and Victoria may wish to have fewer migrants, while other states may wish to have more.

Whether such picking-and-choosing is practically possible will be a matter for the experts to debate. Sydney and Melbourne are natural entry points of migrants. They have more jobs going, and immigrants are more likely to have relatives, friends and communities already established there. The two big cities’ businesses are likely to want to sponsor more skilled workers.

Before we leave elections, a cautionary tale from the 2010 federal election. Early that year, Kevin Rudd brought forward the next Intergenerational Report, showing the population was projected to reach 36 million by 2050. Rudd proudly proclaimed himself a Big Australia man – which, among other benefits, would give Australia (and him) more clout at international forums.

Then came the backlash. By the time of the election in July, both Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott were loudly proclaiming their opposition to Big Australia.

But here’s the point: after Gillard’s election in 2010 and Abbott’s in 2013, nothing was heard again about the evils of Big Australia. Immigration continued on its merry way.

If the public has always had reservations about immigration, what’s brought matters to a head?

Again, Morrison is direct. Though population growth has played a key role in our economic success, he says, “I also know that Australians in our biggest cities are concerned about population. They are saying: enough, enough, enough.

“The roads are clogged, the buses and trains are full. The schools are taking no more enrolments. I hear what you are saying. I hear you loud and clear.”

So, in a word, resentment over congestion has brought simmering disapproval to a rolling boil.
But I suspect there’s a further factor.

Because the establishment’s enthusiasm for high immigration has always been at odds with the public’s instincts, there was for many years a tacit agreement between both sides of politics not to wake up the question of immigration.

Want to know why this nation of immigrants has never had a formally established population policy? That’s why. (I know because once, during the Fraser government’s time, I wrote in my naivety that we needed a great big debate about immigration and population. The immigration minister immediately slapped me down, almost accusing me of racism.)

That bipartisanship has broken down as politicians realised there were cheap votes to be had by echoing the public’s objection to “too many Asians”. When asylum seekers started arriving by boat, it was on for young and old between the parties.

John Howard allowed very high levels of immigration during his almost 12 years in office – the population was growing by 2 per cent a year at the end of his reign – but the public’s disapproval never boiled over.

Why not? Perhaps because traffic congestion wasn’t as bad as it is today. But my theory is that, while coping with the genuine problem of boat people, Howard also used them to draw the public’s attention away from high levels of conventional immigration. Sometimes you even hear political candidates claiming its boat people who are clogging the roads.

But now there are no boat people arriving – not, we belatedly discover, because none are setting out, but because of our navy’s success in turning them back – this diversionary tactic is no longer available. The voters’ ire turns back to ordinary immigrants.

But what of the much-touted economic benefits of immigration? Business people want a bigger population because having more people to sell to is the easiest way to increase their profits. But that doesn’t necessarily leave you and me better off.

The traditional fear that immigrants take our jobs is wrong – they add about as much to the demand for labour as to its supply.

Immigration does slow down the ageing of our population, but most of the other efforts to show how much benefit it brings the rest of us rest on economic modelling exercises using convenient assumptions. I hae ma doots.
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Monday, November 19, 2018

Benefits from big data at risk from untrustworthy politicians

The digital revolution holds the potential to use mere “data” to improve the budget and the economy, and hence our businesses and our lives. But you have to wonder whether our politicians are up to the challenge.

In a speech last week, the Australian Statistician, boss of the Australian Bureau of Statistics, David Kalisch, said the new statistical frontier is “data integration” – you take two or more separate sets of statistics and put them together in ways that reveal new information. Things you didn’t know about how bits of the world work.

This is just exploring the huge, still largely untapped potential of computers to manipulate a lot of figures and produce useful information about what’s going on in this field or that. But it also involves new statistical techniques for combining data in ways that make sense and don’t mislead.

(This, BTW, raises a bugbear of mine. Digitisation, which allows us to measure any number of aspects of a company’s performance cheaply and easily, has given rise to the enthusiasm for “metrics”. But bosses who allow their metrics to be chosen and presented by people who know a lot about IT but nothing about the science of statistics, or who draw conclusions from those metrics without any knowledge of stats, are asking to be led up the garden path. They never know when the metric is answering a different question to what they imagine.)

Kalisch says data integration is already delivering new insights, such as improved estimates of Indigenous life expectancy, understanding outcomes for successive cohorts of migrants, and the importance of small to medium enterprises for job creation (not as outstanding as the propaganda would lead you to expect).

There’s much more of that kind of thing we could do. But Kalisch points also to the considerable untapped potential to use data integration to assess the performance of government policies and programs, and thus to target budget funding to programs assessed as more likely to be effective.

Kalisch says “Australia does not have a strong tradition of rigorously evaluating outcomes of government programs and policies”. That’s putting it politely. The Americans do (because Congress insists on it) and so do many other countries – even those backward and poverty-stricken Kiwis do.

Why don’t we? Because too many ministers and department heads fear the embarrassment if rigorous assessment showed a program was a waste of money, as many would. And also because Treasury and Finance don’t bother pushing it – perhaps because program evaluation costs money upfront, and only saves money down the track.

But that’s only one reason we risk failing to exploit all the benefits of big data analysis. The biggest is the very real probability bully-boy politicians and over-zealous agency heads try to ram through data aggregation schemes over the worries of people concerned about breaches of their privacy.

Consider the hash they’re making of My Health Record where, among other things, the instigators are relying more on slick ads than honest explanation. Consider the long running attempt by the masterful Alan Tudge, the department and the Centrelink PR man to deny there was any problem with robodebt, until the full extent of the fiasco – and the hurt it caused many innocent victims – could no longer be concealed.

Then consider the way Tudge used the shield of Parliament to reveal very private information about a woman who'd had the temerity to criticise him. And he escaped uncensured.

Such episodes, and many years of spin doctor-led politicians playing the true-but-misleading game, have hugely reduced the public’s trust in politicians and their happy assurances that nothing could possibly go wrong.

We stand on the cusp of reaping huge benefits from data analysis, or stuffing it up so badly the electorate punishes any government that touches it.

Part of this is the risk that government penny-pinching doesn’t give the data gatherers enough funding to install adequate privacy safeguards, or enough resources to respond honestly and adequately to the public’s questioning.

But that’s just part of a bigger money question: data integration isn’t particularly dear relative to the benefits of greater understanding, better public policy and more effective government spending it offers, but that doesn’t mean the pollies have the sense to cough up.

Operational funding of our bureau of statistics has been cut by 30 per cent in real terms over the past decade, by governments of both colours.

An independent benchmarking exercise in 2016 found that our bureau’s funding was about half the funding provided to Statistics Canada for roughly equivalent work. Even New Zealand’s official statistician got more than ours did. Smart thinking.
Read more >>

Saturday, November 17, 2018

How the banks lost our trust - and how they can get it back

Where to now for the big four banks, AMP and some other big businesses? They’ve abused the trust of their customers and the public, and it will be a long time before any side of politics wants to be seen as going easy on them.

Of course, the banking royal commission isn’t over. We’ve yet to see what punishments it recommends be imposed and what tightening of regulation, and then what the next government decides to do in response.

But if the nation’s chief executives have any gumption, they won’t wait for all that before turning their minds to why their customers’ trust was lost, and how they can go about getting it back.

This week the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia held a symposium in Canberra on regenerating integrity and trust in Australian institutions. Professor Leon Mann, a psychologist from the University of Melbourne, and Associate Professor Nicole Gillespie, a management expert from the business school at the University of Queensland, spoke about trust from a business perspective.

Gillespie drew on a major study she conducted with three other academics, Designing Trustworthy Organisations, published by the MIT Sloan Management Review.

Although companies that suffer a loss of trust often blame “rogue employees” or “a few bad apples,” Gillespie and her colleagues’ research shows that major violations of trust are almost never the result of rogue actors.

Rather, they are predictable in organisations that allow dysfunctional, conflicting or incongruent elements of their system to take root. It’s the barrel that’s rotten.

Often the incongruence that led to the loss of trust was the development of a company strategy that favoured the interests of one stakeholder group while betraying those of others.

“This problem has often been defined as letting shareholder profits take precedence over core responsibilities to other stakeholders (such as employees, customers, suppliers or communities),” the study says.

And it’s not just favouring one stakeholder over the others, it’s doing so at the expense of the others, and even causing harm to them.

Bang on. How did those guys know about our banks?

They note that a US Senate committee investigating the global financial crisis was very critical of Goldman Sachs, whose stated values of client focus and integrity were at times overshadowed by a less formal culture that emphasised getting deals done with less than full disclosure (to the mugs on the other end of the deal).

Good point. Trustworthiness has to be embedded into every aspect of the business’s strategy, structure, processes and systems. But there are formal ideals and rules, and then there’s always an informal culture. The two must be “congruent” – they must fit together.

When the rules say one thing, but the pressure from your supervisor says something different, most employees soon realise what the boss, and the boss’s bosses, really want.

“Our research suggests that the key differentiator between companies that violate trust and those that sustain it is integrity and consistency within and across the organisation,” the study says.

So how can a company that’s lost its customers’ trust get it back? The good news is that when years of untrustworthy behaviour reach crisis point, this can create the impetus to really turn things around.

You need to start with a credible, rigorous and independent investigation of the weaknesses in the system that caused the problem.

“Companies are often so concerned with appearance and damage control that they are unwilling to engage in the degree of examination required to root out the entrenched causes of trust violations,” the study says.

For instance, BP allowed its Texas refinery explosion in 2005 to be followed by the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. News Corp had an employee jailed for phone hacking in 2007, but endured another phone-hacking scandal in 2011.

Next, since trust failures are typically systemic, the organisational reforms need to be systemic as well. Structures, systems and processes should be the first point of intervention because they’re relatively easy to design and change.

However, such interventions by themselves are unlikely to produce sustainable change. “The more difficult challenges involve making changes to the organisation’s culture, strategy and leadership and management practice.

“Indeed, adding training in ethical conduct probably won’t affect organisational behaviour in any meaningful way if supervisors, workplace norms and performance management objectives continue to encourage questionable activities,” the study says.

Finally, evaluation. Even when a trust crisis recedes, old habits have a way of returning. Reforms must be evaluated to ensure they are working as intended, and any shortfalls are addressed.

“Because it takes time to change systems and deep change is hard to realise, in some respects the most important part of trust repair is the ongoing assessment, learning and course correction required to build authentic, sustained trustworthiness.”

Wow. How easily Australia’s story fits into the academics’ generalised framework.

I think the main reason our banks ran off the rails is that they got locked into an utterly inward-looking game in which each of the four players competed to see who could raise their profits the most.

To this end, they gave their senior people incentive schemes and their junior people key performance indicators aimed solely at increasing profits. The targets set were so demanding they implicitly encouraged staff to ignore the company’s stated values and bend rules that stood in the way of achieving the target and pleasing the boss.

Bosses can’t have failed to notice the questionable practices this gave rise to, but they looked the other way for fear of falling back in the profits comp.

They attempted to justify this by claiming company law required them to put shareholders’ interests first. They failed to mention that, by exploiting and using up the trust of their customers, they were putting shareholders’ short-term interests ahead of their long-term interests – a short-sightedness company law never required of them.

The price bank shareholders are paying for the mistreatment of bank customers is now apparent.
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Wednesday, November 14, 2018

The price we pay for funding schools based on religion

You can tell we’ve had generational change among our federal leaders when the latest prime minister through the revolving door knows to pronounce the “d” in congratulations. No doubt he’ll have many impordant things to say to us.

So far, the message seems to be that he’s just an ordinary, fair dinkum, baseball cap-wearing, pie-eating, beer-swilling kinda guy. Egalitarianism is back and Jack is as good as his prime minister.

Or maybe not. A great disappointment with the Coalition government is the failure of its attempt to have a second run at the Gonski reforms proposing needs-based, sector-blind funding of schools.

Gonski was our chance to do something other countries did decades ago: remove sectarianism from federal and state funding of schools. To stop determining how much government funding a child receives according to the religious affiliation (or lack of it) of the school attended. Need should be the only criterion, regardless of religion.

Julia Gillard threw a lot of taxpayers’ money at the reform to avoid conflict with non-government schools, but couldn’t pull it off. She ended up doing side deals with the Catholic schools and other groups.

Malcolm Turnbull’s reworking of Gonski seemed to be more principled, but the Catholic hierarchy kept the pressure up – we want to share the money our way, not your way – and the government buckled. The Catholics got their special deal and the (mainly Protestant) independent schools got something similar to stop them kicking up.

What a country we live in. We can happily agree to same-sex marriage, but when Catholics put the frighteners on, politicians on both sides get weak-kneed.

Some relevant information has just arrived from Paris. A report from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development has used its PISA worldwide testing of 15-year-olds on maths, reading and science to assess progress on Equity in Education.

Prime ministers love boasting about our economy’s high standing in the world, so how about this: Australia now has the equal-fourth most socially stratified education system among the OECD’s 35 member-countries.

Only Mexico, Hungary and Chile can claim to have a more social class-segregated school system than ours. For a country that still likes to think of itself as class-free, that’s quite an achievement.

The report classifies students according to their parents’ socio-economic status, taking account of economic, social and cultural factors. Socio-economically disadvantaged students are those in the bottom 25 per cent of students in their country. Socio-economically advantaged students are those in the top 25 per cent.

Similarly, socio-economically disadvantaged schools are those in the bottom 25 per cent of the distribution of schools, based on the average status of their students.

If all schools perfectly reflected the socio-economic composition of the total population, each school would have 25 per cent of students in the disadvantaged category, 25 per cent in the advantaged category and the rest in between.

Of course, no country’s schools are anything like that lacking in social stratification. In Australia, however, the proportion of disadvantaged students attending disadvantaged schools is not 25 per cent, but double that: 51 per cent.

By contrast, the proportion of disadvantaged students attending advantaged schools is not 25 per cent, but 4.6 per cent.

The report also measures the change in the proportion of disadvantaged kids in disadvantaged schools between 2006 and 2015.

On average, it fell a fraction, with 22 countries improving and 13 getting worse. Another international distinction for Morrison to boast about: we won silver with a worsening of 5.2 percentage points. Only the Czechs did worse.

But why does it matter if our schools become more socio-economically stratified?

It matters because, on average, disadvantaged students attending disadvantaged schools don’t do as well as they would if they attended advantaged schools.

Such students face a double disadvantage: one coming from their parents’ circumstances and another from the less conducive learning environment at school.

Trevor Cobbold, of Save Our Schools, says information published by the OECD in June shows disadvantaged schools (95 per cent of which happen to be public schools) have more students per teacher, more teacher shortages, more teacher absenteeism and more poorly qualified teachers.

It matters because it helps show the price we’re paying for decades of funding schools on the basis of religion rather than need. The Kiwis stopped doing that ages ago, and they have the fourth lowest proportion of disadvantaged students at disadvantaged schools.

It matters if you don’t want what we’ve got: a yawning gap between our strongest students and our weakest.

It matters because it has broader implications for society. “Social segregation in schools breeds social intolerance in communities and workplaces and undermines social understanding and cohesion,” Cobbold says.

“Schools segregated by class make it more difficult for children to develop a real understanding of people of different backgrounds and to break down barriers of social intolerance.”

And then we wonder why politics is getting more polarised.

Of course, many factors besides schools are contributing to the growing social stratification of our cities. But schools are something we can influence by adopting better policies.

And if you believe in equality of opportunity, the first thing you fix is schooling. As the OECD says, “children from poor families often have just one chance in life, and that is a good school that gives them an opportunity to develop their potential.

“Those who miss that boat rarely catch up.”
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Monday, November 12, 2018

The G20 is a talkfest we need to keep talking

If it’s 10 years since the global financial crisis, it must be 10 years since the elevation of the Group of 20 to the status of a “leaders’ summit” – the next of which will be in Buenos Aires in two weeks’ time.

You could say the decision to supplant the G7 with the G20 as the premier forum for global economic co-operation is the one good thing to come out of the financial crisis.

The G7, like the various international bodies set up after World War II, is too Western and Eurocentric, being limited to rich North America, Europe and Japan.

The G20, by contrast, adds in the developing countries and all parts of the globe, encompassing the G7, all five permanent members of the UN Security Council and all five emerging-economy BRICS – Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa.

And did I mention it gives Australia a seat at the top table for the first time?

While the G7 accounts for only about 30 per cent of the world economy (measured according to purchasing-power parity), which is projected to have fallen below a quarter by 2040, the G20 accounts for almost 85 per cent of the world economy, which should still be about that in 2040.

The G20 also accounts for 84 per cent of global investment and 63 per cent of the world’s population.

The rich and poor worlds could have spent years arguing over the formation and composition of such a group, but in the heat of the financial crisis, no one doubted that a representative but not unwieldy whole-world body was needed to quickly achieve a co-ordinated response to the threat of a global depression.

The avoidance of such a calamity is all the proof anyone should need that the G20 has justified its existence.

At the time of the crisis, the G20 achieved co-ordinated discretionary fiscal (budgetary) stimulus averaging more than 2 per cent of world GDP in both 2009 and 2010.

It tripled the International Monetary Fund’s lending capacity and facilitated an increase in lending from multilateral development banks of $US 235 billion, at a time when private sector sources of finance were scarce.

Later, it established the Financial Stability Board to tighten up regulation of the world's financial institutions, including banks judged too big to fail.

It’s also working with the OECD to reduce tax avoidance by multinationals, through its BEPS project – base erosion and profit shifting – and having more success than many imagined it could.

But if you want to argue that, in the years since then, the G20 has done a lot of meeting, talking and passing of resolutions without achieving all that much, you wouldn’t be wrong.

You would, however, have missed the point. Do you imagine this was the last economic crisis the world’s leaders will have to cope with? Or that the next crisis is sure to be decades away?

As Scott Morrison’s G20 “sherpa” (every leader ascending summits needs the assistance of a personal sherpa), Dr David Gruen, said in a recent speech, the G20 is best thought of as an institution that comes into its own when it’s most needed - “more a ‘rough weather’ friend than a ‘fair weather' friend".

It is, he says, like a global fire department. It may sit around for days not doing much, but as soon as the need arises it rushes off to put out the conflagration.

What gives the G20 its fire power is its status as a “leaders’ summit” – all G20 leaders attend summit meetings, almost without exception. And when they attend, they talk to each other, just as Donald Trump and Xi Jinping are scheduled to have a meeting on the sidelines at the summit in Argentina, no doubt to chat about their little trade war.

Let me ask you, which would you prefer – world leaders who knew each other and talked regularly, or leaders who didn’t?

The more meeting and chatting they do, the safer the rest of us are.

Gruen reminds us it was the legendary American economist Thomas Schelling who realised international conflicts can arise simply because one side can't understand what’s eating the other side. That messages sent in public may differ from messages sent in private.

A book Schelling wrote led to the installation of the hotline between the White House and the Kremlin. The annual G20 summits are a big step up from that. Nor does it hurt to have the countries’ finance ministers and central bankers meeting regularly.

With Trump’s America behaving so crazily, picking fights with its allies and major trading partners and threatening the rules-based international order the Americans laboured so long to build, we need the G20 to hang together and keep our leaders talking to each other more than ever.
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