Saturday, December 16, 2017

Who's ripping it off? Competition theory and reality

Puzzling over the rich economies' poor productivity improvement and weak wage growth (but healthy profits), American economists are pointing the finger at reduced competition between firms. But can this explain Australia's similar story?

Jim Minifie, of the Grattan Institute, set out to answer this in his report, Competition in Australia.

Economists regard strong competition between businesses as essential to ensuring market economies function well, to the benefit of consumers and workers.

Competition is what economic theory says stops us being ripped off by the capitalists. Firms that overcharge for their products lose business to firms that undercut them.

So competition pushes prices down towards costs (which economists – but not accountants – define as including the "cost of capital", or "normal profit", the minimum rate of profit needed to induce firms to stay in the market).

Competition helps ensure that economic resources - land, labour and (physical) capital – move to the uses most valued by consumers.

Competition also encourages firms to come up with new or better products – or less costly ways of producing a product – in the hope of higher profits. But those that succeed in this soon find their competitors copying their ideas, and bidding down the price to get a bigger slice of the action.

The innovations improve the economy's productivity (output per unit of input), but competition soon takes away the higher profits, delivering them into the hands of consumers, who often get better products for lower prices.

That's the theory. Question is, to what extent does it hold in practice? And does it hold less in recent years than it used to?

The simple theory assumes any market has a large number of sellers, each too small to be able to influence the market price. In practice, however, many of our markets are dominated by two, three or four big firms.

Why? Mainly because of the presence of economies of scale. It's very common that the more you produce of something – up to a point – the less each unit costs.

So, it makes great sense to have a small number of big firms doing much of the production – provided competition ensures most of the cost saving is passed on to customers in lower prices. Which, as a general rule, it has been over the decades.

Trouble is, big firms do have some degree of control over prices. And it's common for the few big firms in an industry to come to an unspoken agreement to compete using advertising or product differentiation, but not price.

Firms can increase their pricing power by taking over their competitors to get a bigger share of the market. It's the role of "competition policy" – run in our case by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission – to prevent overt collusion between firms, and takeovers intended to increase market power. But how well is that working?

"Natural monopolies" – where it simply wouldn't make economic sense for more than one firm to serve a particular market, such as rival sets of power lines running down a street, or two service stations in a small town - are another common departure from the theoretical model.

So, what did Minifie find in his study of competition in practice? He found evidence it had lessened in the United States, but not here.

He found plenty of markets where a few firms did most of the business. But "the market shares of large firms in concentrated sectors are not much higher in Australia than in other countries [of comparable size], and they have not grown much lately," he says.

Nor have their revenues (sales) grown faster than gross domestic product. The profitability of firms – profits relative to funds invested - hasn't risen much since 2000.

Minifie identifies eight industries characterised by natural monopoly (in descending order of size): electricity transmission and distribution, wired telecom, rail freight, airports, toll roads, water transport terminals, ports and pipelines.

Then there are nine industries where large economies of scale mean they're dominated by a few firms: supermarkets, wireless telecom, domestic airlines, then (of roughly equal size) internet service providers, pathology services, newspapers, petrol retailing, liquor retailing and diagnostic imaging.

Next are eight industries subject to heavy regulation by government: banks, residential aged care, general insurance, life insurance, taxis, pharmacies, health insurance and casinos.

(Often, these industries are heavily regulated for sound public policy reasons, but the regulation often acts as a barrier to new firms entering the market, thus allowing them to be dominated by a few firms.)

But note this: by Minifie's calculations, natural monopolies account for only about 3 per cent of "gross value added" (a variant of GDP), while high scale-economies industries account for 5 per cent and heavily regulated industries for 7 per cent.

So that means the parts of the economy where "barriers to entry" limit competitive pressure make up about 15 per cent of the economy. Then there are 29 industries with low barriers to entry making up the rest of the "non-tradables" private sector, and about half the whole economy.

That leaves the tradables sector (export and import-competing industries) accounting for 14 per cent of the economy and the public sector making up the last 20 per cent.

Even so, Minifie confirms that, in industries dominated by a few firms, many firms make "super-normal" profits – those in excess of what's needed to keep them in the industry.

By his estimates, up to half the total profits in the supermarket industry are super-normal. In banking it's about 17 per cent.

Other companies and sectors with substantial super profits include Telstra, some big-city airports, liquor retailers, internet service providers, sports betting agencies and private health insurers.

Comparing this last list with the lists of natural monopolies and heavily regulated industries suggests governments could be doing a much better job of ensuring the regulators haven't been captured by the companies being regulated.
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Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Robots won't reduce the amount of work we need to do

For me, one of the most significant economic developments of this year was realising how pessimistic many of our youth have become about their prospects of ever landing a decent full-time job.

To be sure, some degree of frustration on their part is understandable. Although it's true we avoided a severe recession following the global financial crisis of 2008, it's equally true that, until recently, employment growth has been weaker than usual in the years since then.

And the burden of this weaker growth has fallen disproportionately on young people leaving education to look for their first full-time job.

What's less understandable is the way older, and supposedly more knowledgeable, people have sought to demonstrate how with-it and future-focused they are by spreading wildly exaggerated predictions about how many jobs will be taken by robots, scaring the pants off our youth and convincing them they're doomed to a life of "precarious employment" in the "gig economy".

I'm sorry to say that the otherwise-worthy Committee for Economic Development of Australia was responsible for writing on many young minds the near certitude that 40 per cent of jobs in Australia are likely to be automated in the next 10 to 15 years.

The good news, however, is that, for once, economists were moved by all the amateur analysis they were hearing to join the debate about the future of work. Dr Alexandra Heath, of the Reserve Bank, dug out the hard evidence about how the nature of work is changing and Dr David Gruen, of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, put worries about the shrinking number of jobs into their historical context.

But the charge has been led by Professor Jeff Borland, of the University of Melbourne, one of our top labour-market economists.

With a colleague, Dr Michael Coelli, Borland examined the papers behind the claim of 40 per cent of jobs being lost to robots, and found it built on questionable foundations. In their figuring, the 40 per cent was likely to be nearer 9 per cent.

And last week Gruen rejoined the fray, giving a big speech about it in, of all places, Jakarta.

Predictions about what will happen in the economy can be based on the belief that it will respond to new developments in much the same way it responded in the past to similar developments, or on the belief that "this time is different".

People who know little economic history are always tempted, as many people are now, to assume this time is different.

But economists have learnt the hard way that this time is rarely very different. The fact is, people have been predicting that the latest technology would reduce the number of jobs since the Luddites at the start of the Industrial Revolution.

Gruen reminds us that, in 1953, the great Russian-American economist Wassily Leontief wrote that "labour will become less and less important ... More and more workers will be replaced by machines."

Borland notes that, in the 1960s, Lyndon Johnson established a presidential commission to investigate fears that automation was permanently reducing the amount of work available.

In 1978, Monash University held a symposium on the implications of new technologies, with the convenor predicting that, by 1988, at least a quarter of the Australian workforce would be made redundant by technological change.

Then there was Labor legend Barry Jones' prediction in his best-selling Sleepers Wake! that "in the 1980s, new technologies can decimate labour force in the goods producing sectors of the economy".

Gruen admits that "there is no doubt that, over the past two centuries, waves of technological change have eliminated jobs, and rendered some occupations obsolete.

"But they have also facilitated the creation of new jobs to take their place – either directly, or indirectly as a result of rising standards of living generating new demands."

There are two processes at work, he says. One is that technology takes jobs away – this is the bit we can all see. What we can't see is the second process, the invention of new complex tasks, leading to new jobs.

The history of technological advance over the past 200 years has shown the second process has broadly kept pace with the first.

Computers have been changing the way businesses do their business – and destroying jobs – since the early 1980s. If that's all there was to it, there ought to be far fewer jobs today.

But the number of Australians with jobs has increased by a factor of 2.7 since the mid-1960s, while the average number of hours worked per person has remained broadly stable. Fact.

Like the economists, I find it hard to believe this relationship is about to break down because "this time is different".

What's true is that the nature of work has been changing – slowly – for the past 30 years or so, and this trend is likely to continue. It may accelerate, but it hasn't yet.

Using research by Heath, Gruen says routine cognitive jobs (such as office assistants, sales agents, brokers and drivers) and routine manual jobs (factory workers, construction, mechanics) are in less demand, whereas non-routine manual jobs (nurses, waiters, security staff) and non-routine cognitive jobs (engineers, management, healthcare, designers) are in increasing demand.

It's the changing nature of work, not a fall in the amount of it, we should be preparing for.
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Monday, December 11, 2017

We should rescue economics from the folly of neoliberalism

There's no swear word in politics today worse than "neoliberalism". It's badly on the nose, and the reaction against it has a long way to run. But what is it, exactly? Where does mainstream economics stop and neoliberalism begin?

The term means different things to different people. Professor Dani Rodrik, of Harvard, says in the Boston Review the term is used as a catchall for anything that smacks of deregulation, liberalisation, privatisation or fiscal (budgetary) austerity.

I've always thought of it as a fundamentalist, oversimplified, dogmatic version of conventional economics, one from an elementary textbook, not a third-year text that adds the complications of market power, externalities​ (costs or benefits not captured in market prices), economies of scale, incomplete and asymmetric (lop-sided) information, and irrational behaviour.

Rodrik's conception of the term isn't very different. He thinks mainstream economics needs to be rescued from neoliberalism because, as people heap scorn on it, we risk throwing out some of economics' useful ideas.

Which are? That the efficiency with which an economy's resources are allocated is a critical determinant of its performance. That efficiency, in turn, requires aligning the incentives of households and businesses with "social" costs and benefits (so as to internalise the externalities).


That the incentives faced by entrepreneurs, investors and producers are particularly important when it comes to economic growth. Growth needs a system of property rights and contract enforcement that will ensure those who invest can retain the returns on their investments.

And that the economy must be open to ideas and innovations from the rest of the world. Of course, economies also need the macro-economic stability produced by sound monetary policy (low inflation) and budgetary sustainability (manageable levels of public debt).

Does all that smack more of neoliberalism than mainstream economics to you? If it does it's because mainstream economics shades too easily into ideology, constraining the choices that we appear to have and providing cookie-cutter solutions.

"A proper understanding of the economics that lies behind neoliberalism would allow us to identify – and to reject – ideology when it masquerades as economic science. Most importantly, it would help us develop the institutional imagination we badly need to redesign capitalism for the 21st century."

There's nothing wrong with markets, private entrepreneurship, or incentives, Rodrik says, provided they're deployed appropriately. Their creative use lies behind the most significant economic achievements of our time.

The central conceit and fatal flaw of neoliberalism is "the belief that first-order economic principles map onto a unique set of policies, approximated by a Thatcher-Reagan-style agenda" – also known as the "Washington consensus".

Take intellectual property rights. They're good when they protect innovators from free-riders, but bad when they protect them from competition (as they often do when the US Congress has finished with 'em).

Consider China's phenomenal economic success. It's largely due to its orthodoxy-defying tinkering with economic institutions. "China turned to markets, but did not copy Western practices in property rights. Its reforms produced market-based incentives through a series of unusual institutional arrangements that were better adapted to local context," Rodrik says.

Some may say China's institutional innovations are purely transitional. Soon enough it will have to converge on Western-style institutions if it's to maintain its economic progress. Well, maybe, maybe not.

What neoliberal proponents of the single route to economic prosperity keep forgetting is that none of the economic miracles that preceded China's – in South Korea, Taiwan and Japan – followed the Western formula. And each did it differently.

Even among the rich countries we see much variance from the neoliberal cookie cutter. The size of the public sector, for instance, varies from a third of the economy in Korea, to nearly 60 per cent in Finland.

In Iceland, 86 per cent of workers are in a trade union; in Switzerland it's 16 per cent. In America firms can fire workers almost at will; in France they must jump through many hoops.

Rodrik repeats an old economists' saying, one forgotten by the neoliberal oversimplifiers. "Good economists know that the correct answer to any question in economics is: it depends."

It depends on the particular circumstances, on how well your economic "institutions" (laws, official bodies, norms of behaviour) fit with those the model assumes to exist, on what you're trying to achieve, on your priorities, and on the political constraints you face.

As the Chief Scientist, Dr Alan Finkel, said when asked if he preferred his own emissions intensity scheme to Malcolm Turnbull's national energy guarantee: "There are a lot of ways to skin a cat."

Economics has many useful insights to offer the community. It must be rescued from neoliberalism because neoliberalism is simply bad economics.
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Saturday, December 9, 2017

Mixed news as economy readies for better times

Scott Morrison is right. We're experiencing "solid" growth in the economy – provided you remember that word is econocrats' code for "not bad – but not great".

This week's national accounts from the Australian Bureau of Statistics show real gross domestic product grew by 0.6 per cent in the September quarter. Taking the figures literally, this meant the economy grew by 2.8 per cent over the year to September, way up on the 1.9 per cent by which it grew over the year to June.

But it's often a mistake to take the quarterly national accounts – the first draft of history, so to speak – too literally.

As Dr Shane Oliver, of AMP Capital, reminds us, the annual growth figure is artificially strong because the contraction of 0.3 per cent in the September quarter of last year dropped out of the annual calculation, whereas the 0.9 per cent bounce back in following quarter stayed in.

The bureau's trend (smoothed seasonally adjusted) estimates show growth of 2.4 per cent over the year to September, which is probably closer to the truth.

That compares with the economy's "potential" (maximum average rate of growth over the medium term, without rising inflation pressure) of 2.75 per cent a year. And with the Reserve Bank's forecast that growth over next calendar year will reach 3 per cent.

Since growth has fallen short of its potential rate for so long – creating plenty of spare production capacity – the economy can (and often does) grow faster than its medium-term "speed limit" for a few years without overheating.

And, although the latest reading isn't all that wonderful, there are enough good signs among the bad to leave intact the Reserve's forecast of better times next year.

(Remember, however, that much of the growth in all the figures I've quoted – and will go on to quote – comes from a simple, but often unacknowledged, source: growth in the population. The bureau's trend estimates show real GDP per person of just 0.3 per cent during the quarter and just 0.9 per cent over the year.)

Getting to the detail, we'll start with the bad news. Consumer spending – which accounts for well over half of GDP - grew by a minuscule 0.1 per cent during the quarter, and by a weak 2.2 per cent over the year to September.

Why? Because, despite remarkably strong growth in the number of people earning incomes from jobs, the increase in people's wages is unusually low – as measured by the national accounts, even lower than the 2 per cent registered by the wage price index.

Until now, households have been cutting their rate of saving so as to keep their consumption spending growing faster than their disposable (after-tax) income. They've probably been encouraged in this by the knowledge that the value of their homes has been rising rapidly, thus making them feel wealthier.

Now, however, Melbourne house prices are rising more moderately, while Sydney prices are falling a little. Price rises in other state capitals have long been more modest.

In the latest quarter, households' income rose faster than their consumption spending, meaning they increased their rate of saving. It's possible people have become more conscious of our record level of household (mainly housing) debt – though this is probably taking the (particularly dodgy) quarter-to-quarter changes too literally.

Next bit of bad news is that the boom in home building has finally topped out, with activity falling by 1 per cent in the quarter and by 2.3 per cent over the year.

There are a lot of already-approved apartments yet to be built, however. So, though home building's addition to growth has finished, it's future subtraction from growth shouldn't be great.

Which brings us to the first bit of good news. While investment in new housing has peaked, business investment in equipment and structures in the (huge) non-mining part of the economy is finally getting up steam.

According to estimates from Felicity Emmett, of ANZ bank, non-mining business investment rose by 2.7 per cent in the quarter, and by 14 per cent over the year.

The figures for business investment spending overall are even stronger, meaning spending in mining has been growing somewhat, not continuing to fall.

This doesn't mean mining investment has hit bottom, however. Higher commodity prices are prompting some minor investment, but there's a last minus yet to come from the completion of some big gas projects.

The other really bright spot is strong public sector investment in infrastructure – mainly road and rail projects in NSW and Victoria – which grew by 12.2 per cent over the year to September.

The external sector made no net contribution to growth, despite the volume of exports - minerals, rural, education and tourism - growing by 1.9 per cent in the quarter and by 6.4 per cent over the year.

That's because of a bounce-back in the volume of imports. Why, when consumer spending is weak? Because most investment equipment is imported.

If all these ups and downs are too equivocal to convince you the economy really is gathering strength, I have the killer argument: jobs growth.

As Morrison was proud to boast - apparently, all the new jobs are directly attributable to the government's own plan for Jobson Grothe​ - the increase in employment during the quarter was remarkable.

It rose by more than 90,000, with eight in 10 of those jobs full-time. Over the year to September, total employment rose by 335,000, an amazing increase of 2.8 per cent.

It's true the economy won't be back to its normal healthy self until wages are growing a bit faster than prices, reflecting the improvement in the productivity of labour (running at 1 per cent a year).

But an economy with such strong and sustained growth in full-time jobs simply can't be seen as sickly. And precedent tells us that where employment goes, wages follow.
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Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Latest attack on welfare 'unworthies' is contemptible

Remember the Turnbull government's plans to drug test people on the dole? While you and I are diverted by all the political game-playing in this week's last session of parliament for the year, the government is hoping to slip these and other mean-spirited cuts in social security through the Senate – probably after some deal with the Xenophon-less Xenophones.

You can blame it on my Salvo upbringing – whose influence on my values seems to get stronger the older I become – but I have nothing but contempt for comfortably-off people who try to solve their problems by picking on the down-and-out.

If Australians can't do better than that, what hope is there for us?

The expected savings (which may or may not eventuate) of $478 million over four years are minor in a budget of almost $2 trillion over the same period.

But they'll be coming out of the hides of those most in need, those whose first lack of moral discipline was failing to pick the right parents, those whose luck has been worse than ours, those who've failed to deny themselves and their children the slightest treat at any time, the way we undoubtedly would had we been in their shoes.

They're the cuts a government makes when it wants to be seen to be acting to reduce the budget deficit, but lacks the courage to take on a fight with the medical specialists, drug companies, chemists, mining companies or other powerful interest groups guarding their own, much bigger slice of budget pie.

They're also the cuts you make when you're indulging your well-off supporters' delusion that the "unsustainable" growth in welfare spending is caused by all the cheating by the undeserving poor, not the retirement of the Baby Boomers and their success in getting around the age pension means test.

To be fair, what the Coalition plans is just a step up from the harsh measures imposed by their Labor predecessors. Labor's conscience has returned only now it's back in opposition.

Labor, however, tried harder to disguise its true motive of gratifying the workers' self-righteous envy of those living the cushy life on the dole or sole parent pension.

Labor governments profess to be into tough love. Using carrots and sticks to encourage people of working age off benefits and into a job, which will bring them more money and self-respect.

But I see little of that cant from the present supposed protectors of the disadvantaged, Alan Tudge and his problematically named boss, Christian Porter.

They seem all toughness and no love. They want to be seen as the great punishers and straighteners of the hordes of lazy cheats and bludgers and ne'er-do-wells sucking the blood of all the over-taxed, hard-working upper income-earners whose self-serving interests they were elected to promote.

Consider the plan to drug test people on the dole. It seems an exercise in emotionally gratifying punishment in search of an "evidence base".

According to the Rural Doctors Association, "people who are looking for a job do not generally have any higher incidence of drug use than those in the general population".

In 2013, the government's own Australian National Council on Drugs examined the idea and recommended against it, saying "there is no evidence that drug testing welfare beneficiaries will have any positive effects for those individuals or for society, and some evidence indicating such a practice could have high social and economic costs".

Almost all the doctors and other professionals actually involved in helping drug addicts have opposed the idea. They're particularly insistent that compelling people to undergo treatment doesn't work.

They won't be testing everyone on the dole, however, that would be far too expensive. Just 5000 people. But the amount the government expects to save by denying payments to those who fail the test suggests it doesn't expect the move to have any great deterrence effect. It's just an excuse to cut people off the dole and save money.

Other pettifogging measures in the bills the government hopes to get through this week include freezing benefit rates to wives and widowed pensioners until they're no greater than the "jobseeker payment" (the latest bureaucratic euphemism for the dole), getting rid of the 14-week bereavement allowance, tightening the job search requirement for those aged 55 to 59 (who, as we all know, could find jobs if they tried) and making it easier to suspend their dole, and delaying the start of payments for some welfare recipients.

Another much-needed reform is delaying the start of dole payments until any savings people have are exhausted (then wondering why they can't pay unexpected bills on the single dole of $268 a week).

Other changes would make it easier for Centrelink to "breach" (cut payments to) people judged to have failed to comply with their "mutual obligations". There's more, but you get the idea.

I'm just waiting for the bill that sools Centrelink's robodebt recovery machine on those cabinet ministers and others who breached the Constitution by claiming to be eligible for election when they weren't, but have received months of pay to which they weren't entitled.

Apparently, the rules applying to little guys whose behaviour is less than perfect are a lot tougher than those applying to top guys deciding how tough to be on the little guys. You get the tough, we get the love.
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Monday, December 4, 2017

Politicians should get wings clipped on infrastructure

The more our ever-more "professional" politicians put political tactics ahead of economic strategy – put staying in government ahead of governing well – the more pressure they come under to cede more of their power to independent authorities.

The obvious instance is our move in the mid-1990s to transfer control over interest rates ("monetary policy") from the elected government to the independent central bank.

Shifting interest rates away from those tempted to move rates down before elections and up after them has proved far better for the stability of the economy.

Another issue on which voters don't trust politicians to make good decisions – mainly because of the risk of collusion between them – is their own remuneration.

So, first, responsibility for setting politicians' salaries, and now, their expenses, has been handed over to independent bodies.

Then there was the Gonski report's proposal that responsibility for determining the size of grants to public, Catholic and independent schools be taken away from deal-doing pollies and given to a properly constituted authority, following consistent and transparent criteria.

The idea was rejected by Julia Gillard but, particularly now the amazing variance in the deals Labor did with different school systems has been revealed under the Coalition's version of Gonski, there's still hope we'll end up with an independent, rules-based grants authority.

Some years ago, the Business Council took up a proposal by Dr Nicholas Gruen for the example set by monetary policy to be spread to fiscal (budget) policy. An independent body would set the budget's key parameters – for spending, revenue and budget balance – leaving the government to decide the specific measures to take within those parameters.

The idea didn't gain traction, but it may have boosted the push for independent evaluation of infrastructure projects.

You can see an admission that "something needs to be done" in the establishment of Infrastructure Australia by the Rudd government, and its rejig by the Abbott government, as a supposedly "independent statutory body providing independent research and advice to all levels of government".

Trouble is, the authority has little authority. Its role is to create the illusion of independent evaluation and reformed behaviour, while the reality continues unchanged.

There's no obligation for even the federal government to have all major projects evaluated, for them to be evaluated before a government commits to them and begins work, nor for those evaluations to be made public as soon as they're completed, so voters can debate the merits of particular projects with hard evidence.

Promises to build particular projects in a state, or even an electorate, are a key device all parties use to buy votes in election campaigns.

As Marion Terrill, of the Grattan Institute, has demonstrated, few of the projects promised by the government, opposition and Greens at last year's election had been ticked by Infrastructure Australia, and many of those it had ticked weren't on anyone's list of promises.

Terrill's research has revealed the huge proportion of government spending on capital works that's unlikely to yield much economic or social return to taxpayers.

For some years the Reserve Bank, backed by the International Monetary Fund and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, has argued that fiscal policy should be doing more to help monetary policy get our economy back to trend growth by spending more on worthwhile infrastructure projects. These would add to demand in the short run, and to supply capacity in the medium run by improving private sector productivity.

This changed approach would involve shifting the focus of fiscal policy from the overall budget deficit (including capital works spending) to the more meaningful recurrent or operating deficit.

This year's budget seemingly accepted this proposal, promising to give greater prominence to the NOB – net operating balance – and announcing two huge new infrastructure projects: the second Sydney airport and the Melbourne to Brisbane inland freight railway.

See the problem? Government infrastructure spending does wonders for the economy only if the money's spent on much-needed projects. As a proper evaluation would show, the inland railway is a waste of money (the product of a deal with the Nationals).

So it's little wonder that cities and infrastructure are the third big item, after healthcare and education, on the Productivity Commission's new agenda for micro-economic reform.

It's first recommendation? "It is essential that governments ensure that proposed projects are subject to benefit-cost evaluations and that these, as well as evaluations of alternative proposals for meeting objectives, are available for public scrutiny before decisions are made."

This is something the professed believers in Smaller Government, and those professing to be terribly worried about lifting our productivity, should be making much more noise about.
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Saturday, December 2, 2017

Good could come from bank royal commission

The banks and other opponents of a royal commission into banking told us it would generate a lot of noise and expense without achieving anything of value. They'll probably still be claiming that when the just-announced inquiry has reported.

Well, maybe. By contrast, I think there's a good chance the commission's establishment will be seen as the most visible marker of the time when the two sides of politics turned their backs on the era of bizonomics – the doctrine that what's good for big business is good for the economy and the punters who make it up.

The litany of misconduct by the big four banks – the unscrupulous investment advice given, the mistreatment of people with legitimate life insurance claims, the charges that the bank-bill swap rate was being rigged, and allegations of extensive use of bank facilities for money laundering – has driven the public's growing insistence that the banks be brought to account.

This week Rod Sims, boss of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, confirmed what all of us know, that competition in banking is weak ("not vigorous") leaving the big four with great ability to protect their excessive profits by passing costs on to their customers ("the large banks each have considerable market power").

The arguments of the banks and the Turnbull government that an inquiry must be avoided because it would shake confidence in the integrity and strength of our financial system – including in offshore markets – were just as weak then as they are now when used by the banks and the government to justify holding an inquiry to end the "political uncertainty".

The plain truth is that a rebellion by its own backbenchers has robbed the government of its ability to stop an inquiry going ahead.

This is the best explanation for the banks' sudden reversal from opposing an inquiry to claiming one is now "imperative". Since the revolt makes one inevitable, they'd prefer its establishment to be controlled by their Liberal defenders, not their Nationals, Greens and Labor critics.

They say a smart prime minister never commissions a report unless he knows what it will find and recommend. But that's easier imagined than achieved.

Were the commission's report to be judged by voters as a whitewash, with no significant consequences, this would simply ensure the bad behaviour of the banks remained a hot issue favouring the government's opponents at the next election.

What's just as likely is that royal commissioner Kenneth Hayne will interpret his terms of reference as he sees fit and, in any event, uncover a lot more instances of misconduct.

Broadening the inquiry's scope to cover misconduct in wealth management, superannuation and insurance, as well as in banking proper, is unlikely to leave voters thinking the banks' behaviour hasn't been as bad as they first thought.

Polling shows high public support for a banking royal commission, including among Coalition voters.

But the way the government has been forced by public opinion to abandon its attempt to protect the banks is a sign of much deeper public disaffection with the long-dominant "neoliberal" doctrine – formerly accepted by both sides of politics – that governments should do as little as possible to prevent businesses doing just as they see fit.

That when business mistreats its customers or it employees, there's nothing the government could or would want to do.

That big businesses' generous donations to both sides' coffers mean they have the politicians in their pockets. That the Turnbull government's desire to cut the rate of company tax on foreign multinationals that already avoid paying much is proof the economy's run to please the big boys, not you and me.

I've been writing for months about the breakdown of the "neoliberal consensus". This is evident in the way the Labor side has promised a banking royal commission, opposed big business tax cuts, opposed reductions in penalty rates, and pressed for constraints on negative gearing and the capital gains tax discount.

But set aside his resistance to a banking inquiry and (impotent) advocacy of big business tax cuts, and you see Turnbull's already doing much to respond to voters' rejection of the fruits of neoliberalism – privatisation, the various economic reform stuff-ups – with his new tax on multinational tax avoiders and coercion of particular companies in his struggle to fix the stuffed-up national electricity market and the cornering of the eastern seaboard gas market by three big companies.

Remember too the way, as part of his efforts to stave off a banking inquiry, Turnbull has become ever tougher on the banks, making them pay for more surveillance by the Australian Securities and Investments Commission and imposing a new tax on the five biggest of them.

In his most recent attempt to head off pressure for an inquiry, a proposed arrangement to compensate victims of bank misbehaviour, the banks would have been paying.

When the political smarties look back on this saga, my guess is they'll conclude Turnbull was mad to lose so much political credit in his abortive attempt to protect the banks from the public's disapproval of their greed-driven misbehaviour.

He should have got, much earlier than he did, the message that the era of governments pandering to big business was over, killed off by voters' disaffection with the political mainstream and willingness to flirt with the populist fringe.

I'm not sure Australia's big business has yet got that message, particularly not the big banks – transfixed as they are by their inward-looking contest to increase their profits and chief executive remuneration package by more than their three rivals have.

I support the royal commission because another year or more of public dredging through all the moral (and sometimes legal) shortcuts the banks have taken on their way to higher profits and bonuses may finally get the message through that their way of doing business – and treating their customers – must change.
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Wednesday, November 29, 2017

The real reason you're feeling the pinch

Maybe it's just me, but these days the more politics I hear on TV or radio, the less time it takes for my blood to boil. Just ask my gym buddies. "No point shouting at the radio, Ross, they can't hear you."

Last week, for instance, I heard the erstwhile Queensland leader of One Nation carrying on about what a big election issue the rising cost of living was. There was the cost of electricity ... but he ran out of examples.

High on my list of things I hate about modern pollies is the way they tell us what they think we want to hear, not what we need to know. Then they wonder why voters think they're phoneys.

As someone who's spent his career trying to help people understand what's going on in the economy, it's galling to hear politicians reinforcing the public's most uncomprehending perceptions.

The crazy thing is, the widespread view that our big problem is the rapidly rising cost of living is roughly the opposite of the truth.

It's true the price of electricity has been rising rapidly, lately and for many years, for reasons of political failure. But electricity accounts for just a few per cent of the total cost of the many goods and services we buy.

And the prices of those other things have been rising surprising slowly, with many prices actually falling. You hadn't noticed? Goes to show how wonky your economic antennae have become.

Annual increases in consumer prices have been so low for the past three years that the governor of the Reserve Bank, Dr Philip Lowe, is worried about how he can get inflation up into his target zone of 2 to 3 per cent.

Why would anyone worry that the cost of living isn't rising fast enough? Because, though it's hardly a problem in itself, it's a symptom of a problem buried deeper.

Which is? Weak growth in wages over the past four years. Rising wages are the main cause of rising prices. Price rises have been small because wage rises have been small.

It's the weak growth in wages that's giving people trouble balancing their household budgets – a problem they mistakenly attribute to a fast-rising cost of living.

What they've grown used to over many years is wages rising by a per cent or so each year faster than prices, and they've unconsciously built that expectation into their spending habits. When it doesn't happen, they feel the pinch.

For the past four years, wages have barely kept pace with the weak – about 2 per cent a year – rise in consumer prices.

This absence of "real" wage growth is a problem for age pensioners as well as workers because pensions are indexed to average weekly earnings – meaning they too usually rise each year by a per cent or so faster than prices.

Why would any economist worry that wages weren't growing fast enough? Because, as well as being a cost to business, wages are the greatest source of income for Australia's 9.2 million households.

And when the growth in household income is weak, so is the growth in the greatest contributor to the economy's overall growth: consumer spending.

It might seem good for business profits in the short-term, but weak wage growth eventually is a recipe for weak consumption and weak growth in employment. What sounded like a great idea at first, ends up biting business in the bum.

Weak wage and price growth is a problem in most rich countries at present, meaning it's probably explained by worldwide factors such as globalisation and technological change.

In a speech last week, Lowe opined that a big part of the problem was "perceptions of increased competition" by both workers and businesses.

"Many workers feel there is more competition out there, sometimes from workers and sometimes because of advances in technology" and this, together with changes in the nature of work and bargaining arrangements, "mean that many workers feel like they have less bargaining power than they once did".

"It is likely that there is also something happening on the firms' side as well . . . Businesses are not bidding up wages in the way they might once have. This is partly because business, too, feels the pressure of increased competition."

Lowe says a good example of this process is increased competition in retailing, where competition from new entrants (Aldi, for instance) is putting pressure on margins and forcing existing retailers to find ways to lower their cost structures.

Technology is helping them do this, including by automating processes and streamlining logistics (transport costs). The result is lower prices.

"For some years now, the rate of increase in food prices has been unusually low. A large part of the story here is increased competition. The same story is playing out in other parts of retailing. Over recent times, the prices of many consumer goods – including clothing, furniture and household appliances – have been falling," Lowe says.

"Increased competition and changes in technology are driving down the prices of many of the things we buy. This is making for a tough environment for many in the retail industry, but for consumers, lower prices are good news."

True. Which is why I find it so frustrating when idiot politicians keep telling people the cost of living is soaring.
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Monday, November 27, 2017

Tax cuts: lies, damn lies and bracket creep

If Malcolm Turnbull's promised tax cuts ever eventuate, we can be sure they'll be justified in the name of redressing terrible "bracket creep". But there are few aspects of taxation that involve more deception.

Treasury has been overselling the bracket creep story since the arrival of the Abbott government, while the Turnbull government has been exaggerating how much of it there's likely to be, so as to prop up its claim it's still on track to return the budget to surplus in 2020-21.

Every politician with their head screwed on loves bracket creep. When pressed, however, all profess to think it a bad thing. The punters think they disapprove of it, but their "revealed preference", as economists say (what they do rather than what they say), tells us they prefer it to the alternative.

It's only commentators like me who are free to say openly that, in this imperfect world, bracket creep's a jolly good thing and there ought always to be a fair bit of it.

Bracket creep occurs when a taxpayer's income increases by any amount for any reason. That's because we have a progressive income tax scale – one where successive slices of income are taxed at higher rates in the dollar – that's fixed in nominal terms.

Sometimes the creep happens because the increase in income lifts the last part of someone's income into a higher tax bracket, but it occurs even if this isn't the case. That's because the higher proportion of their income that's taxed at their highest ("marginal") tax rate increases the average rate of tax they're paying on the whole of their income.

If politicians really disapproved of bracket creep they could eliminate it by indexing the tax scale's bracket limits on July 1 each year in line with the rate of inflation in the previous financial year.

If you wanted to allow only for the effect of inflation, you'd index the brackets to the consumer price index. If you were a true believer in Smaller Government, who thought it a crime for a person's rising real income to raise their average rate of tax, you'd index it to average weekly earnings.

That no government has indexed the tax scale in this way since Malcolm Fraser's abortive experiment with it in the late 1970s is all the proof you need that, whatever they say, politicians of both colours quite like bracket creep. Same goes for Treasury.

The pollies' preference is to let it rip, but then make big guys of themselves by giving some of it back about once every three years, just before or just after an election. Only during the first half of the resources boom, when their coffers were (temporarily) overflowing, did John Howard and Peter Costello depart from this approach.

I believe in bracket creep because it's always played a vital role in helping to balance the budget. It's part of the implicit contract between governors and the governed, who want ever-growing government spending, but don't like explicit tax increases, particularly new taxes.

Their unspoken message to governments is: you find a way to pay for the spending we want, just don't wave it in front of our faces. Bracket creep is the tried and true way of squaring this circle, with limited objection from taxpayers.

What few people seem to realise at present, however, is that we've had precious little bracket creep for the past four years because inflation has been unusually low, and wages have barely kept up with it.

Limited bracket creep is the greatest single reason the Coalition government has had so little success in returning the budget to surplus. The government's persistent over-estimation of the bracket creep that will come its way is the main reason it has kept failing to reduce the deficit as forecast.

Yet throughout this government's term, official estimates of the huge extent of future bracket creep have been published, seemingly making the case for big tax cuts. The latest, issued last month by the Parliamentary Budget Office, were reported as though they were established (and scandalous) fact.

In truth, they were mere projections, based on this year's budget projections that wage growth will accelerate to 3.75 per cent a year over the next three years – projections that have been pilloried as wildly optimistic.

I'll let you into a secret unknown to the innumerate end of the media: if your big economic problem is exceptionally weak wage growth, one problem you don't need to worry about is excessive bracket creep. Nor is there any urgent case for tax cuts.
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Saturday, November 25, 2017

Economic garden gets back to normal - very slowly

With the year rapidly drawing to a close, the chief manager of the economy has given us a good summary of where it looks like going next year. The word is: we're getting back to normal, but it's taking a lot longer than expected.

The chief manager of the economy is, of course, Reserve Bank governor Dr Philip Lowe, and he gave a speech this week.

For years Lowe and others have been tell us the economy is making a difficult "transition" from the resources boom to growth driven by all the other industries. But now, he says, it's time to move to a new narrative.

"The wind-down of mining investment is now all but complete, with work soon to be finished on some of the large liquefied natural gas projects," he says.

Mining investment spending rose to a peak of about 9 per cent of gross domestic product in 2013, but is now back to a more normal 2 per cent or so.

This precipitous fall has been a big drag on the economy's overall growth, meaning its cessation will leave the economy growing faster than it has been.

As Lowe puts it, "this transition to lower levels of mining investment was masking an underlying improvement in the Australian economy". The decline in mining investment also generated substantial "negative spillovers" to other industries, particularly in Queensland and Western Australia.

This is a good point: weakness in the mining states has made the figures for the national economy look below par, even though NSW and Victoria have been growing quite strongly.

The good news, however, is that these negative spillovers are now fading. In Queensland, the jobs market began to improve in 2015, and in WA conditions in the jobs market have improved noticeably since late last year.

This is one reason Lowe expects the economy's growth to strengthen next year. Another is the higher volume of resource exports as a result of all the mining investment.

"We expect GDP growth to pick up to average a bit above 3 per cent over 2018 and 2019." This may not sound much, but "if these forecasts are realised, it would represent a better outcome than has been achieved for some years now.

"This more positive outlook is being supported by an improving world economy, low interest rates, strong population growth and increased public spending on infrastructure," he says.

And the outlook for business investment spending has brightened. "For a number of years, we were repeatedly disappointed that non-mining business investment was not picking up . . .

"Now, though, a gentle upswing in business investment does seem to be taking place and the forward indicators [indicators of what's to come] suggest that this will continue.

"It's too early to say that animal spirits have returned with gusto. But more firms are reporting that economic conditions have improved and more are now prepared to take a risk and invest in new assets."

The improvement in the business environment is also reflected in strong employment growth. Business is feeling better than it has for some time and is lifting its capital spending as well as creating more jobs.

Over the past year, the number of people with jobs has increased by about 3 per cent, the fastest rate of increase since the global financial crisis.

The pick-up is evident across the country and has been strongest in the household services (which include healthcare, aged care and education and training) and construction industries.

It's also leading to a pick-up in participation in the labour force, especially by women.

So, everything in the economic garden is back to being lovely?

No, not quite. Consumer spending – by far the biggest component of GDP – "remains fairly soft". It's been weaker than its annual forecast since 2011 and hasn't exceeded 3 per cent for quite a few years.

Why? Because of weak growth in real household income and our very high level of household debt. The weak growth in household income is explained mainly by the weak growth in wages for the past four years, which have barely kept pace with (unusually low) inflation.

Lowe says "an important issue shaping the future is how these cross-cutting themes are resolved: businesses feel better than they have for some time but consumers feel weighed down by weak income growth and high debt levels".

Let me be franker than the governor. The economy won't get back to anything like normal until we get back to the modest rate of real (above inflation) growth in wages we've long been used to.

Just what's causing the weakness in prices as well as wages – which is a problem occurring in most other developed economies – and whether the problem is temporary or lasting, is a question that's hotly debated, with Lowe adding a few pointers of his own.

He thinks it's partly temporary, meaning wage growth will soon pick up from its present (nominal) 2 per cent a year, and partly longer-lasting, meaning it may be a long time before it returns to its usual 3½ to 4 per cent.

"We expect inflation to pick up, but to do so only gradually. By the end of our two-year forecast period, inflation is expected to reach about 2 per cent in underlying terms . . . Underpinning this expected lift in inflation is a gradual increase in wage growth in response to the tighter labour market."

Here's his summing up:

"Our central scenario is that the increased willingness of business to invest and employ people will lead to a gradual increase in growth of consumer spending. As employment increases, so too will household income. Some increase in wage growth will also support household income.

"Given these factors, the central forecast is for consumption growth to pick up to around the 3 per cent mark" – which would still be below what was normal before the GFC.
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