Wednesday, March 21, 2018

How Labor is taking on the greedy elderly

Talk about missing the point. The media spent all last week working themselves into a lather over Labor's newly announced policy to abolish cash refunds for unused dividend imputation credits. (If you have no idea what that means, it probably wouldn't affect you.)

This promise would be terribly unfair to dirt-poor self-funded retirees, we were told. And it was utter stupidity for Bill Shorten to drop such a monumentally unpopular proposal in the last week of the Batman byelection, which he was now safe to lose.

Except, of course, that Labor won comfortably, with little sign the policy had much effect.

The media smarties' greater failure was their inability to see the bigger picture: the next federal election is shaping as a battle between the generations, with Labor championing the put-upon young and the Coalition defending the privileged old.

According to Canberra conventional wisdom, this too is crazy-brave territory for Labor. The ageing of the population means Grey Power is our fastest growing political force.

Those of retirement age (which includes me) have little more pressing to do than to worry incessantly about their finances, and have developed an unshakable sense of entitlement ("I've paid taxes all my life ..."). Any concession they've been granted, no matter how unjustified or unaffordable, can't be taken back, we're assured.

Well, I'm not so sure.

As a political force, Grey Power has one huge weakness: of all the age groups, the over-65s are those least likely to change their vote. The great majority vote for the Coalition, so Labor doesn't have a lot to lose.

It's among the non-aged (sorry) that most swinging voters are found, and it's by picking up enough swingers that a party wins.

Haven't you noticed how, since 2013, the Coalition has been reacting to Labor's pro-younger policies by flying to the defence of the better-off old? The conservatives are allowing themselves to be "wedged" – separated from the majority of voters.

The Canberra smarties also used to believe negative gearing was politically untouchable. But Labor went to the 2016 election promising to curtail it – while the Libs predicted it would send house prices crashing – and came within a whisker of winning. Labor's persisting with the policy.

Labor went to that election with another pro-younger policy: cutting the tax breaks going to exceptionally well-off superannuants (including me). This time, Malcolm Turnbull, needing help to pay for his company tax cuts, produced his own, Treasury-crafted version of Labor's idea.

The issue didn't feature greatly in the election campaign, but after the Coalition had won, the exceptionally well-off superannuants in the Liberal heartland turned on Turnbull. This advantaged Labor by adding to the disunity in the Coalition's ranks. Turnbull modified his super changes, but not greatly.

And now Labor is planning to remove another super tax concession that goes overwhelmingly, but not exclusively, to superannuants with large share portfolios. The Coalition hasn't resisted the temptation to side with its well-off elderly heartland, nor have the media resisted the temptation to promote its (and the super industry's) misrepresentation of the policy as an attack on struggling retirees (who just happen to own a lot of shares).

How is this another of Labor's pro-younger policies? That will be easier seen if, as seems likely, Labor uses the saving to pay for a promise of income tax cuts for people earning less than $87,000 a year – few of which would go to the retired rather than to the workers who pay for the retired's largely income tax-free status.

If you think an election campaign based on conflict between the generations is not a good thing, I agree. Unless what you mean by that is that the better-off aged should be allowed to retain their relatively recently conferred tax advantages, and the taxpaying non-old should continue to lump it.

It's a pity John Howard and Peter Costello (the chap who kept issuing reports warning that population ageing would play merry hell with the budget) didn't worry more about future generational conflict when they spent most of their 11 years in office slipping new benefits for the aged, particularly self-funded retirees, into the budget.

They started with the private health insurance tax rebate (the biggest users of private health insurance services are 60 to 79-year olds) and moved on to giving the alleged self-funded retirees the "seniors and pensioners tax offset", also making it easier for them to get health cards and pay the pensioners' rate for pharmaceuticals.

In 1999, they gave negative gearing a huge boost by introducing a 50 per cent discount on capital gains tax. And they decided that anyone who paid so little income tax they couldn't take full advantage of their dividend imputation credits should be sent a refund for the balance.

On the younger side of the ledger, while they didn't invent HECS debts for university students, they greatly increased them.

Then, in 2007, Costello introduced sweeping super changes, making super payouts completely tax-free for people over 60. He also made a lot of supposedly self-funded people eligible for a part pension.

Since this largesse was quite unaffordable, Labor and Coalition governments have been chipping it back ever since.

Even so, we retain an income tax system where how much you pay sometimes depends on the size of your income, but other times on how old you are. And that's not going to lead to intergenerational conflict?

Monday, March 19, 2018

Immigration the cheap and nasty way to grow the economy

The ABC's temerity in hosting a debate about the merits of high population growth has drawn predictable repostes from the economic establishment. Shades of the legendary note in the margin of a politician's speech: "shout here - argument weak".

There are at least four counts against the advocates of high immigration. First, their refusal to engage with the academic environmentalists arguing that we've exceeded the "carrying capacity" of our old and fragile land. Scientists? What would they know?

Second, they keep asserting high immigration's great economic benefits, blithely ignoring the lack of evidence. Whenever the Productivity Commission has examined the issue carefully it's found only small net effects, one way or the other. Its latest modelling found only a "negligible" overall impact.

Third, the advocates not only decline to admit the high social and economic costs that go with high rates of immigration, they decline to accept their share of the tab, doing all they can to shift it to the young, the poor and those on the geographic outer, including many of the migrants.

You rarely hear pro-immigration economists acknowledging the clearest message economic theory gives us on the topic: more population requires more spending on additional public and private infrastructure if material living conditions aren't to deteriorate.

The more we invest in such "capital widening" to stop the ratio of capital to labour declining, the less scope for investment in "capital deepening" to keep the ratio increasing, and so improving the productivity of our labour.

When we fail to invest sufficiently in capital widening – which we have – the decline in living conditions is manifest in overcrowding, traffic congestion and long commuting times.

Why have we failed to invest sufficiently? Partly because a high proportion of the promoters of high immigration are also promoters of Smaller Government, never acknowledging the two are incompatible.

A bigger population requires a bigger government, with more debt, not less. When you persist with high population growth, but put the clamps on government, you end up with overcrowding, congestion and the rest.

Another truth the high immigration advocates refuse to acknowledge is that a much bigger population must lead to much bigger cities and higher-density living in those cities.

The Reserve Bank's estimates of the huge addition to Melbourne and Sydney house prices caused by state governments' acquiescence to resistance to higher density in inner and middle-ring suburbs, are partly a consequence of successful attempts to shift the spatial cost of high immigration onto the less well-placed.

The fourth criticism of high immigration is that it's the cheapest and nastiest way to pursue economic growth. You get a bigger economy, but not the promised benefits. The studies repeatedly fail to show high immigration leads to a significant increase in real income per person.

Of course, the business lobby has no reason to care whether high immigration yields economy-wide benefits. All they're after is a bigger domestic market, allowing them to sell more widgets, make a higher profit and justify a bigger salary package.

Few economists can see this is a cop-out. An escape hatch. As a way of achieving corporate growth, it's even easier than taking over your competitors. And it sure beats the hard graft of trying to increase profits by being more efficient and contributing to national productivity improvement.

As we've seen, high immigration probably comes at the expense of productivity-enhancing (capital-deepening) business investment and public infrastructure. To the extent that inadequate capital-widening leads to overcrowding and congestion, it worsens productivity.

In principle, one productivity-enhancing effect of high immigration is that you get greater human capital on the cheap by pinching it from other (mainly poor) countries.

After foreign students have come here and paid full freight for Australian qualifications, you let them stay and work. You select permanent immigrants on the basis of their skills, or you let skilled workers on temporary visas stay on.

But as Dr Bob Birrell, of the Australian Population Research Institute, has shown, there's a big gap between the claims made for our skilled migration program and the reality. We let in people whose skills aren't in high demand, and plenty of them end up driving taxis because the local professions' gatekeepers refuse to recognise their qualifications.

So it's not clear the benefits of our skill-pinching program exceed the cost of discouraging businesses from incurring bother and cost training enough of our own young people, when you can always get the government to let you bring in someone ready-trained.

High immigration may suit our rent-seeking business people, but it's a hell of a way to pursue the professed benefits of economic growth.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Why protection from imports isn't smart

With The Donald now busy playing poker with Little Rocket Man, the threat of a trade war has receded. Good. Gives us time to get our thinking straight before the threat returns.

Everyone knows a trade war would be a terrible thing, but most people's reason for thinking so is wrong. This misunderstanding means such a war could happen, even though everyone knows it would be bad.

It seems common sense for a country to want to protect its industry by imposing a tax – known as a tariff or import duty – on imports competing with locally-produced goods. After all, we win and foreigners lose.

The problem arises only if the foreigners retaliate and slap a tariff on our exporters. That's bad for us because it may lead to job losses among those of our workers who earn their living making goods for export.

Is that the way you figure it? Sorry, it may be common sense, but it's wrong. You need to have learnt a bit of economics to see why, because the case against protection is "counterintuitive" – it doesn't seem right, but it is.

The reason people can't see what's wrong with protection is that every baby is born with a disease called mercantilism.

Mercantilism is the belief that exports are good, but imports are bad. Why? Because we – Australia – make money selling exports to foreigners, whereas it costs us money to buy imports, the foreigners' exports.

So mercantilists see Australia as like a company, and our balance of trade as like a company's profit and loss statement. The more you can export and the less you can import – the higher your trade surplus - the richer you become.

What's wrong with that way of thinking? Plenty. For a start, it's the mentality of a miser – someone who loves money for its own sake, not for what it will buy.

Money is just a means to an end, not an end in itself. The economic game is about producing goods and services so we can consume them. Production is the means; consumption is the end. Focus on one at the expense of the other and you've actually done badly in the game.

Similarly, jobs are just a means to an end. Why do people want jobs? So they can earn money and then spend it.

Exports are production, imports are consumption (although much of our imports are of machines we use in the production process). Production without consumption makes sense only to a miser.

Get this: 80 per cent of the way Australia makes its living is by all the workers and businesses and governments producing goods and services and selling them to other Australian workers, businesses and governments, so they can be consumed.

In principle, we could raise the 80 per cent to 100 per cent by only selling to and buying from ourselves. So why do we sell about 20 per cent of the things we produce to foreigners?

Not because it makes us richer, nor because it creates more jobs. It's solely so we can afford to buy some of the goods and services produced by businesses and workers in other countries, when we judge them to be better or cheaper than the stuff made locally.

Exports are good solely because we can use the proceeds to pay for imports – and imports are also good because they raise our material standard of living by giving all of us (workers, would-be workers and dependents) access to goods and services that are better or cheaper than those made in Australia.

If we weren't willing to use the proceeds from our exports to pay for imports from other countries, those countries would refuse to buy our exports.

Refusing to buy our exports would leave those countries worse off (because they'd lose their ability to buy the things we can produce better or cheaper than they can), as well as leaving us worse off because we lost our ability to use our export income to buy their exports.

This, BTW, is why trade wars are mutually self-harming. A group exercise in cutting off your nose to spite your face.

Why wouldn't it be better to be 100 per cent self-sufficient? Because this would limit the benefits to us from "specialisation and exchange". Our domestic economy is organised on the basis that we're all better off if each of us specialises in producing what we're good at, then uses money to exchange what we've produced with what other specialists have produced.

Opening our economy to trade with other countries merely extends this principle, on which we've always run our domestic economy, beyond our borders.

This is why the mercantilists' assumption that trade is a zero-sum game – if you win, I lose – is wrong. Both sides win because both benefit from the "mutual gains from trade".

It follows that the mercantilist notion that foreigners are the only people who lose when we decide to protect some of our industries is wrong. The biggest losers are every other industry and every Australian who loses their access to cheaper or better imported goods and has to pay more for the local version.

That is, tariffs are a tax, not on foreigners, but on Australian producers and consumers. A way of favouring some Australian industries at the expense of all the others. A redistribution of income to favoured industries from those that aren't favoured, and from Australian consumers generally. A form of rent-seeking.

And thus, an attempt to protect some jobs at the expense of all other jobs. Great idea.

Trade wars are destructive not primarily because it's crazy for other countries to retaliate – which it is – but because the country that provokes the retaliation by protecting some favoured industries is damaging itself.

Better to let it stew in its own juice than punish it by harming yourself.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

What's making homes hard to afford and what we could do

There aren't many material aspirations Australians hold dearer than owning their own home - but dear is the word. There are few greater areas of policy failure.

The rate of home ownership, of which we were once so proud, has been falling slowly for decades. And as the last high home-owning generations start popping off, it will fall much faster.

We've been debating this issue for years, while it's just got worse. Yet we have a better handle on the causes of the problem, and what needs to be done, than ever.

Let me see if I can pull a lot of the elements together and give you the big picture.

Don't let anyone tell you the younger generation would be happy to stay renting forever. Nuh.

And while the hurdle of owning a home and a mortgage seems almost insurmountable to the young, jumping it is just the start of our property ambition. Most people want to keep moving up to a bigger and better home. Every promotion we get makes us wonder whether we can afford a better place.

This preoccupation with the quality of our housing is the first part of the reason house prices have risen so high: ever growing demand.

Don't forget that our newly built houses are much grander than they were even 10 years ago. And most older houses have been renovated and extended to make them better.

When two-income families became common people thought "great, now we can afford a bigger mortgage on a better place".

When we got on top of inflation in the early 1990s and interest rates fell so far, people could have paid off their mortgage faster, or bought a boat, but more people said "great, now we can afford a bigger mortgage on a better place".

Trouble is, you can't satisfy increased demand for better houses – particularly better-located houses - by building more places on the outskirts of the city. And when a lot of people decide to move to a better place at the same time, the main thing they do is bid up the prices of existing houses.

One change in recent decades is the growth of the services sector and the knowledge economy (more workers knowing how to do things; fewer workers making things), which means many of the jobs have gravitated to the CBD and nearby suburbs.

So the meaning of "position" has changed from good views to "proximity" to the centre. In theory, the amount of land within 10 kilometres of the GPO is fixed. In practice, factories and warehouses can be moved further out, while detached houses can be replaced by townhouses and low-rise or high-rise units.

Even so, in every city, property prices have risen more the closer homes are to the centre.

Another source of increased demand for housing is our high population growth, caused by our policy of high immigration.

Then there's foreigners' investment in our housing, though this isn't as big a cause of higher prices as many imagine because – in principle but not always practice - foreigners are only supposed to buy newly built or "off-the-plan" homes. That is, create their own supply.

Another source of greater demand is Paul Keating's introduction of capital gains tax in 1985 and John Howard's introduction of a 50 per cent discount on the tax in 1999. This has made owner-occupied homes (which are exempt from the tax) and, thanks to negative gearing, rented-out homes, more attractive as a form of investment, relative to shares.

So house prices are higher partly because we've acquired a second motive for home-ownership: not just the security and freedom of owning the home you live in, but also the prospect of homes becoming much more valuable over time.

Of course, increased demand leads to higher prices only if supply fails to keep up. And that's where our governments – state and federal – have failed us.

It's better now, but for ages state governments failed to do enough to permit the building of more homes on the edge of cities. We got more immigrant families, but not more homes to put them in.

Worse, state governments have allowed people in inner and middle-ring suburbs and their councils to resist the pressure for more medium-density housing – more units – from people wanting to live closer to where the jobs and facilities are.

Just last week the Reserve Bank published estimates that this resistance to higher density had added more than $300,000 to the average Melbourne house price and almost $500,000 to the Sydney price, over the past two decades.

So, who pushed housing prices so high? We did. Who failed to do what was needed to counter the increase? Our governments.

The feds failed to limit the growth in demand (by limiting immigration and fixing the tax system), while the states did too little to increase supply (by discouraging the building of new homes on the outskirts and by permitting a first-in-best-dressed mentality by people in inner and middle-ring suburbs).

Why are they allowing the proportion of home owners to decline? Because most things they could do to genuinely help first home buyers would come at the expense of existing home owners, who have more votes than the youngsters.

If young people and their parents don't like that, the answer's more pressure at the ballot box. Wheels that squeak more.

Monday, March 12, 2018

How we could gang up against a Trump trade war

A possible trade war looms and, as always, an adverse overseas development has caught poor little Oz utterly unprepared. Well, actually, not this time.

Just as Treasury had been war-gaming the next big world recession well before the global financial crisis of late 2008, so the Productivity Commission began thinking about our best response to a trade war soon after the election of Donald Trump.

In July last year it published a research paper, Rising protectionism: challenges, threats and opportunities for Australia, to which Dr Shiro Armstrong, co-director of the Australia-Japan Research Centre, at the Australian National University, made a major contribution. (During a visit to ANU last week I also benefited from discussion with Professor Jenny Corbett.)

Trump's tariffs (import duties) on steel and aluminium were never a great threat to our economy. It'll be only when he decides to take a crack at the Chinese that there'll be a lot to worry about.

But the chest-thumping by our pollies (on both sides) over steel is a demonstration of the way populism can crowd out clear-headed self-interest where protectionism is involved.

Trade wars happen by accident. They start out in a small way, the perceived victims feel their manhood demands they stand up to a bully by retaliating, the bully hits back and pretty soon everyone in the bar is throwing chairs and punches.

As the research paper puts it, "significant worldwide increases in protection would cause a global recession."

Economic modelling by Armstrong estimates that, for every extra dollar by which our revenue from import duties rose, economic activity in Australia would fall by 64¢.

In total, the level of real gross domestic product would be 1 per cent lower each year. This would equate to a loss of about 100,000 jobs. (As with all modelling, take these figures as, at best, roughly indicative.)

A full-blown global trade war would take many months, even years to build up, so how should we respond to the provocative actions of others? What could we do to minimise the damage we'd suffer?

The research paper proposes what economists call a "first-best" response (here I'd call it the What-would-Jesus-do? cheek-turning response): not only should we resist the temptation to retaliate in any way, we should also cut what few remaining protective barriers we have.

If you think that would be plum crazy, you don't know as much about protection as you should. But you've demonstrated why any politician would find such advice almost impossible.

That's why I'm attracted by the paper's second-best suggestion: "working with a coalition of countries to keep their markets open is a strategy that would make it easier for Australia to resist protectionist pressures".

Good thinking. Our leaders want to be seen to be acting to defend our economy, and this response – "let's form our own gang and fight back" - is active rather than passive, and harder to portray as appeasing the bullies.

Oh yeah, what gang? What coalition of countries? That's obvious. We're already a member of a gang that, depending on how you measure it, is bigger than Trump's, or the Europeans'. And our gang's by far the fastest growing.

We do almost three-quarters of our two-way trade (exports plus imports) with Asia – in descending order, China, ASEAN, Japan, South Korea, New Zealand, India, Hong Kong and Taiwan. Europe accounts for only about 15 per cent and Trumpland​ for little more than 10 per cent.

Although it's true Asia needs to trade with North America and Europe, it's also true there's huge trade within our region. Just imagine the damage we'd suffer if we Asians started jacking up tariffs against each other. Or all of us against the rest of the world.

Australia and New Zealand are already members of various Asian trading clubs. And what greater incentive for Asians to pack down more closely than a threat from Trumpland, or from a Europe trying to repel boarders?

Nor is it presumptuous for Oz to take a (quiet) leadership role. Despite all their trade, there's a lot of mistrust between China, Korea, Japan and other countries. China and Japan, for instance, find it easier to work with us than with each other.

After all, we played significant roles in the formation of the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation group and in improving the governance arrangements for China's new Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. We worked behind the scenes with Japan to keep the Trans-Pacific Partnership alive despite Trump's dummy-spit.

And guess what? Malcolm Turnbull will host a summit of the 10 leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in Sydney next weekend.

Saturday, March 10, 2018

The economy is readying for faster growth

The last three months of 2017 were yet another quarter of weak growth in the economy. Fortunately, however, they weren't as weak as we've been led to believe.

According to the national accounts, issued this week by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, real gross domestic product grew by 0.7 per cent in the previous quarter, but slowed to 0.4 per cent in the December quarter.

This caused the annual rate of growth to slump from 2.9 per cent to 2.4 per cent.

Trouble is, the sudden slowdown is largely the product of quarter-to-quarter volatility, caused by one-off factors and unexplained "noise" in the figures – noise that stops you hearing the signal those figures are trying to send.

This is why the bureau also publishes "trend" or smoothed figures, which reduce the noise and make it easier to hear the underlying signal.

The trend figures show the economy growing at a fairly steady rate of 0.6 per cent a quarter, and by 2.6 per cent over the year to December.

This is likely to be closer to the truth, though it's still weaker than we've been hoping for, especially since employment grew by a remarkably strong 3.3 per cent during 2017 – almost 400,000 more souls.

How can the economy's production of goods and services grow by only 2.6 per cent when the number of people employed to produce those goods and services has grown by 3.3 per cent?

Over a period of more than a few years, it can't. But over shorter periods it's surprisingly common for the standard relationships between economic variables not to show up in the figures. Why? In a word: noise. (And noise not even statistical smoothing can penetrate.)

Note, however, that for as long as employment is growing faster than production, the productivity of labour will be falling, just as a matter of arithmetic. If you think employment growth is a good thing, this temporary fall in productivity is nothing to worry about.

To emphasise how weak quarterly growth averaging 0.6 per cent is, consider this. Growth in GDP per person is averaging only about 0.2 per cent a quarter.

This gives annual growth in GDP per person of 1 per cent. (Huh? Four quarters of about 0.2 per cent adds up to 1 per cent? Yes. You can't just add 'em up, you have to allow for compounding - otherwise known as "interest on the interest", as in compound interest.)

To have GDP growth of 2.6 per cent, but growth per person of only 1 per cent, is a reminder of how fast our population is growing, and how much of our growth (almost invariably faster than the growth rates of those rich countries whose populations aren't growing much) comes merely from population growth – a point every economist knows, but few bother pointing out to the uninitiated.

And don't hold your breath waiting for any treasurer to point it out. To those guys, a big number is a big number – and what's more, it's solely the result of our government's wonderful policies.

But back to the reasons this week's news of further weak growth isn't as bad as it sounds.

The first is that annual growth of 2.6 per cent isn't a lot lower that our estimated "potential" (medium-term average) rate of growth of 2¾ per cent.

It's true, however, that we've been growing at below our non-inflationary potential rate for so many years we've acquired such a lot of spare production capacity (including unemployed and under-employed workers) – such a big "output gap", in econospeak - that we could and should be growing a fair bit faster than that medium-term speed limit of 2¾ per cent, until the spare capacity's used up.

Another indication things aren't a bad as they've been painted is Reserve Bank governor Dr Philip Lowe's statement that this week's figures give him no reason to revise down the Reserve's forecast that growth will strengthen to 3 per cent this year and next.

Why so confident? Because when you look into the detail of this week's results, you see more signs of strength than weakness. (From here on I'll switch to quoting the unsmoothed figures favoured by those who prefer the exciting confusion of noise to the boring wisdom of signal.)

First point is that "domestic demand" (gross national expenditure) grew over the year at the healthy rate of 3 per cent, meaning it was a fall in "net external demand" (exports minus imports) that caused growth in aggregate (domestic plus external) demand to be only 2.4 per cent.

The fall in the volume of "net exports" (exports minus imports) was caused mainly by a fall in exports, but there's little reason to believe this was due to anything other than temporary factors.

Turning to the biggest components of domestic demand, we've been worried that consumer spending wasn't growing strongly because of the lack of growth in real wages. But this week's figures show consumer spending growing by 1 per cent during the quarter and a healthy 2.9 per cent over the year.

Quarterly growth of 1 per cent won't be sustained, but an upward revision to the previous quarter's growth adds to confidence that household consumption is stronger than we'd believed.

All the increased employment is boosting household income, even if real wage growth isn't.

Business investment in new equipment and structures fell by 1 per cent in the quarter, but this was explained by another fall in mining investment (which falls are close to ending) concealing stronger than expected growth in non-mining investment (as estimated by Treasury) of 2.1 per cent in the quarter and 12.4 per cent over the year.

As Paul Bloxham, of the HSBC bank, summarises, "the key drivers of domestic demand – household consumption and non-mining business investment – were strong, and should drive a lift in overall growth in 2018".

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Sensible communities set boundaries for business

A highlight of our trip to New York after Christmas was a visit to the Tenement Museum down on the lower east side, where the movie Gangs of New York was set. It was the area where successive waves of Irish, German and Russian immigrants first settled, crowded into tenements.

We were taken around the corner to see inside a tenement building restored to its original condition.

As we climbed the back stairs, we were shown a row of dunnies and a water tap in the backyard. This, we were told, was one of the first tenements required to have outside toilets and running water under a new city ordinance.

Can you imagine any developer today thinking they could get away with building multi-storey units without adequate (indoor) toilets and plumbing? Unthinkable.

But I can imagine the fuss the developers of that time would have made when the city government – no doubt acting under pressure from citizens worried about the spread of disease – was passing the new ordinance.

These excessively luxurious requirements would be hugely expensive and could send some tenement owners bankrupt – owners who had families and elderly parents to support. The additional cost would have to be passed on to tenants, of course, making rents prohibitive. Some families would be forced onto the street.

I bet few of those dire predictions came to pass. Why? Because business people still play this game and once the bitterly opposed legislation goes through and the new status quo is accepted, the exaggerated forebodings are soon forgotten.

Another highlight was a tour of Carnegie Hall. Once, when it fell on hard times, someone acquired it with a view to tearing it down and building high-rise apartments. A public outcry stopped it.

Then, our guide reminded us, there was the time Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis led the fight to stop Grand Central Station being replaced by an office block.

It reminded me of how that ratbag commo Jack Mundey – being quietly urged on by respectable National Trust-types – was frustrating go-ahead developers all over Sydney.

Just think how better off we’d be today had those those pillars of industry not been prevented from doing away with the crumbling old Queen Victoria Building – with its verdigris domes and rickety lifts – and building a shiny new office block.

Gosh, by now we’d be ready to tear it down and build a taller one. And just think how many jobs that would create.

Do you see where this travelogue is heading? I’m an unfailing believer in the capitalist system. We’d all be much poorer than we are were it not for those ambitious, hard-working, enterprising, optimistic souls who set out to make themselves rich by engaging in some business.

But that doesn’t stop them being thoroughly self-interested and often short-sighted. Whatever new project it is they’ve decided will make them more money, they want to get started yesterday and get terribly angry with those who won’t step out of their way and let them get on with it.

My point is, it was ever thus. Market economies work best – and all the people within them do best – when governments act on behalf of the community in setting boundaries within which entrepreneurs are free to be entrepreneurial.

It’s the community’s economy, and it’s the community that decides the rules that ensure businesses make their profits – good luck to them – in ways that do more good than harm to the rest of us.

The huge hurt and cost of the global financial crisis – from which the world is still recovering, 10 years later – is but the latest reminder of something we should have known: how easily an economy can run off the track when we fall for the line that self-interested, short-sighted business people should be free to do as they please.

I remind you of all this because we’re just emerging from a period of more than 30 years in which the Western world flirted with the notion that economies work best when businesses are given as free a hand as possible.

The present royal commission into the misbehaviour of the banks is just one response to the consequences of that ill-considered notion.

You have to be at least in your 50s to remember the world as it was before then, when governments felt free to limit businesses’ freedom of action in respects they judged necessary and to impose obligations on them.

Where do you think the minimum wage, four weeks annual leave, long service leave, sick leave and many other employee benefits came from? Governments decided to impose them on business so as to ensure workers got their share of the benefits of capitalism.

Many of our young people are deeply pessimistic about the working world they’re inheriting – the “gig economy” where most employment is “precarious” – because they’ve grown up in a world where businesses seemed to be free to do whatever suited them.

They think the gig economy would be a terrible world to live in. They’re right, it would. Which is why I’m sure it won’t be allowed to happen. Governments will stop it happening.

Why will they? Because workers have infinitely more votes than business people do. In the end, the economy is moulded to serve the interests of the many, not the few. Governments keep getting thrown out until they get that message.

Monday, March 5, 2018

Retailers affecting the economy in ways we don’t see

As uncomprehending punters complain of the soaring cost of living, and the better-versed ponder the puzzle of exceptionally weak increases in prices and wages, don't forget to allow for the strange things happening in retailing.

It's a point the Reserve Bank's been making for months without it entering our collective consciousness the way it should have.

The debate over the cause of weak price and wage growth has been characterised as a choice between a "cyclical" (temporary) problem as we recover only slowly from the resources boom, and a "structural" (long-lasting) problem caused by the effects of globalisation and industrial relations "reform" that's robbed employees of their power to bargain collectively.

To the annoyance of protagonists on both sides, I've taken a bit-of-both position. But the Reserve has raised a different structural contributor to the problem: the consequences of greatly increased competition in a hugely significant sector of the economy, retailing.

The media have focused on the digital disruption aspect, with the arrival in Oz of the ultimate category killer, Amazon Marketplace.

But that happened only late last year and, although retailers may already have been tightening up on wage increases and other costs in anticipation of greater threat from online competitors, much of those consequences are yet to be felt.

Of greater significance to date is the arrival of new foreign bricks-and-mortar competitors such as Aldi and Costco.

As Dr Luci Ellis, an assistant governor of the Reserve, said last month, "Australia has seen a marked increase in the number of major retail players. Foreign retailers have entered the local market in recent years and continue to do so.

"This has also induced the existing players to reduce their costs to stay competitive, for example by improving inventory management. This has probably been a bit easier for larger or less-diversified retailers than for smaller firms.

"Whether through lower costs, narrower margins or a combination of both, this competitive dynamic has weighed on prices for consumer durables.

"And for staples such as food, competition and related changes in pricing strategies (such as 'everyday low price' strategies) have contributed" to keeping prices low.

If you doubt that adds up to much, try this. According to the consumer price index, prices of food and non-alcoholic beverages (including restaurant and take-away meals) were almost unchanged over 15 months to December, and rose only 3.6 per cent over the previous six and a half years.

Prices of clothing and footwear fell by 3.5 per cent over the 15 months to December, and fell by 4.6 per cent over the previous six and a half years.

Prices of furniture and household equipment fell by 1.5 per cent over the 15 months to December, and rose by just 4.5 per cent over the previous six and a half years.

As Reserve Bank governor Dr Philip Lowe has remarked, this is good news for consumers, although not for some retailers – nor their employees, for that matter.

Sometimes I think everyone would be a lot happier if prices and wages were growing by 4 per cent a year rather than 2 per cent. This would be a delusion, of course, but the beginning of behavioural economic wisdom is to realise that illusions abound in the economy.

Low inflation is not a bad thing to the extent that it's caused by increased competition forcing down businesses' profit margins – and goodness knows the two big supermarket chains have plenty of profitability to cut into.

Indeed, the benefit to consumers – who, remember, include all employees – makes competition-caused low inflation a good thing. (What's not a good thing is low inflation caused by weak demand.)

And particularly where increased competition involves innovation and digital disruption, it usually brings consumers greater choice and convenience, not just lower prices.

The downside of increased competition and digital disruption, however, is the adverse consequences for employees. Some may lose their jobs; many may find pay rises a lot harder to extract from bosses worried about whether their business has a viable future.

Retailing is our second biggest employer, with about 1.2 million full-time and part-time workers. And whereas the overall wage price index rose by 2.1 per cent over the year to December, in retailing it rose by only 1.6 per cent. This was lower than all other industries bar mining, on 1.4 per cent.

It's likely to be some years yet before the disruption of retailing has run its course, and this may mean structural change in the sector acts as a continuing drag on wage growth overall.

Saturday, March 3, 2018

Free-trade agreements aren't about freer trade

You may think spin-doctoring and economics are worlds apart, but they combine in that relatively modern invention the "free-trade agreement" – the granddaddy of which, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, is presently receiving CPR from the lips of our own heroic lifesaver, Malcolm Turnbull.

It's not surprising many punters assume something called a "free-trade agreement" must be a Good Thing. Economists have been preaching the virtues of free trade ever since David Ricardo discovered the magic of "comparative advantage" in 1815.

Nor is it surprising the governments that put much work into negotiating free-trade agreements – and the business lobbyists who use them to win concessions for their industry clients – want us to believe they'll do wonders for "jobs and growth".

What is surprising is that so many economists – even the otherwise-smart The Economist magazine - assume something called a free-trade agreement is a cause they should be supporting.

Why's that surprising? Because you can't make something virtuous just by giving it a holy name. When you look behind the spin doctors' label you find "free trade" is covering up a lot of special deals that may or may not be good for the economy.

This is the conclusion I draw from the paper, What Do Trade Agreements Really Do? by a leading US expert on trade and globalisation, Professor Dani Rodrik, of Harvard, written for America's National Bureau of Economic Research.

Rodrik quotes a survey of 37 leading American economists, in which almost all agreed that freer trade was better than protection against imports, and were in equal agreement that the North American Free-Trade Agreement (NAFTA) to eliminate tariff (import duty) barriers between the United States, Canada and Mexico, begun in 1994, had left US citizens better off on average.

Their strong support for freer trade is no surprise. One of the economics profession's greatest contributions to human wellbeing is its demonstration that protection leaves us worse off, even though common sense tells us the reverse.

And that, just as we all benefit from specialising in a particular occupation we're good at, then exchanging goods and services with people in other specialties, so further "gains from trade" can be reaped by extending specialisation and exchange beyond our borders to producers in other countries.

What surprised and appalled Rodrik was the economists' equal certainty that NAFTA – a 2000-page document with numerous exceptions and qualifications negotiated between three countries and their business lobby groups – had been a great success.

He says recent research suggests the deal "produced minute net efficiency gains for the US economy while severely depressing wages of those groups and communities most directly affected by Mexican competition".

So there's a huge gap between what economic theory tells us about the benefits of free trade and the consequences of highly flawed, politically compromised deals between a few countries.

Rodrik says trade agreements, like free trade itself, create winners and losers. How can economists be so certain the gains to the winners far exceed the losses to the losers - and that the winners have compensated the losers?

He thinks economists automatically support trade agreements because they assume such deals are about reducing protection and making trade freer, which must be a good thing overall.

What many economists don't realise is that the international battle to eliminate tariffs and import quotas has largely been won (though less so for the agricultural products of interest to our farmers).

This means so-called free-trade agreements are much more about issues that aren't the focus of economists' simple trade theory: "regulatory standards, health and safety rules, investment, banking and finance, intellectual property, labour, the environment and many other subjects besides".

International agreements in such new areas produce economic consequences that are far more ambiguous than is the case of lowering traditional border barriers, Rodrik says, naming four components of agreements that are worrying.

First, intellectual property. Since the early 1990s, the US has been pushing for its laws protecting patents, copyrights and trademarks to be copied and policed by other governments (including ours). The US just happens to be a huge exporter of intellectual property – in the form of pharmaceuticals, software, hardware, music, movies and much else.

Tighter policing of US IP monopoly restrictions pits rich countries against poor countries. And though free trade is supposed to benefit both sides, with IP the rich countries' gains are largely the poor countries' losses. (Rich Australia, however, is a huge net importer of IP).

Second, restrictions on a country's ability to manage cross-border capital flows. The US, which has world-dominating financial markets, always pushes for unrestricted inflows and outflows of financial capital, even though a string of financial crises has convinced economists it's a good thing for less-developed economies to retain some controls.

Third, "investor-state dispute settlement procedures". These were first developed to protect US multinationals from having their businesses expropriated by tin-pot governments.

Now, however, they allow foreign investors – but not local investors – to sue host governments in special arbitration tribunals and seek damages for regulatory, tax and other policy changes merely because those changes reduced their profits.

How, exactly, is this good for economic efficiency, jobs and growth?

Finally, harmonisation of regulations. Here the notion is that ensuring countries have the same regulations governing protection of the environment, working conditions, food, health and safety, and so forth makes it easier for foreign investment and trade to grow.

Trouble is, there's no natural benchmark that allows us to judge whether the regulatory standard you're harmonising with – probably America's - is inadequate, excessive or protectionist.

Rodrik concludes that "trade agreements are the result of rent-seeking, self-interested behaviour on the part of politically well-connected firms – international banks, pharmaceutical companies, multinational firms" (not to mention our farm lobby).

They may result in greater mutually beneficial trade, but they're just as likely to redistribute income from the poor to the rich under the guise of "free trade".

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Too many school leavers are off to uni

If you had a youngster leaving school, what would you encourage them to do? Get a job, go to university, or see if there was some trade that might interest them? For a growing number of parents, that's a no-brainer: off to uni with you. But maybe there should be more engaging of brains.

It's widely assumed that, these days, any reasonably secure, decently paid career must start with a university degree.

Don't be so sure. The latest projections by the federal Department of Employment (since renamed by Malcolm Turnbull's spin doctors as the Department of Jobs and Small Business) are for total employment to grow by 950,000 over the five years to 2022.

The department projects that fewer than 100,000 of those extra jobs – less than 10 per cent – will be for people with no post-school qualifications.

More than 410,000 of the jobs – 43 per cent – will be for people with a bachelor degree or higher qualification.

But that leaves more than 440,000 of the jobs – 47 per cent – for people with the diplomas or certificates (particularly the "cert III" going to trades people) that come from TAFE.

Now, even the Department of Jobs possesses no crystal ball. But these educated guesses should be enough to disabuse you of the notion there'll be no decent jobs for people who haven't gone to uni.

But graduate jobs are better paid, right? Yes, but not by as much as you may think.

Figures issued by the Australian Bureau of Statistics on Monday show that, in August last year, the median (middle) pre-tax earnings of employees with a bachelor degree were $1280 a week, whereas for employees with a cert III or IV trade qualification it was $1035 a week.

And my guess is, if we keep stuffing things up the way we have been – taking in too many uni entrants and too few TAFE entrants – that gap will narrow, with certificate-holders' wages growing faster than graduates' wages.

While we were engrossed watching the Barnaby show, Labor's shadow education minister, Tanya Plibersek, was announcing its election policy to conduct a "once-in-a-generation" review of post-school education, with a view to establishing a single, integrated tertiary education system, putting universities and TAFE on an equal footing.

Her announcement was welcomed by the ACTU and the Business Council. Both sides know well how badly we've stuffed up young people's choice between uni and TAFE.

Plibersek was hardly going to admit it, but the problem goes back to missteps by the sainted Julia Gillard when education minister, made worse by state governments of both colours.

In 2010 she replaced the system where the feds set the number of new undergraduate places they were prepared to fund, and the numbers in the various degree categories, introducing a system where uni entry numbers were "demand-driven".

After decades in which their federal funding had been squeezed, the vice-chancellors couldn't believe their luck.

Particularly those at regional and outer suburban unis went crazy, lowering their admission standards and admitting hugely increased numbers. Did they employ a lot more academics to teach this influx of less-qualified students? Not so much.

It's likely many of these extra students will struggle to reach university standards – unless, of course, exams have been made easier to accommodate them.

Those who abandon their studies may find themselves lumbered with HECS-HELP debt without much to show for it. Many would have done better going to TAFE.

Meanwhile, TAFE was being hit by sharp cuts in federal funding (no doubt to help cover the extra money for unis) and subjected to the disastrous VET experiment.

The problem was that parts of the states' union-dominated TAFE systems had become outdated and inflexible, tending to teach what it suited the staff to teach rather than the newer skills employers required and students needed to be attractive to potential employers.

Rather than reform TAFE directly, however, someone who'd read no further than chapter one of an economics textbook got the bright idea of forcing TAFE to shape up by exposing it to cleansing competition from private providers of "vocational education and training".

To attract and accommodate the new, more entrepreneurial for-profit training providers, the feds extended to the VET sector a version of the uni system of deferred loans to cover tuition fees. State governments happily played their part in this cost-saving magic answer to their TAFE problem.

The result was to attract a host of fly-by-night rip-off merchants, tricking naive youngsters into signing up for courses of dubious relevance or even existence, so the supposed trainers could get paid upfront by a federal bureaucracy that took an age to realise it was being done over.

Eventually, however, having finally woken up, the present government overreacted. Now it's much harder to get federal help with TAFE fees than uni fees.

Far too little is being done to get TAFE training properly back in business after most of the for-profit providers have faded into the night.

The Turnbull government surely knows more must be done to ensure all those who should be training for technical careers are able to do so. In last year's budget it established an (inadequate) Skilling Australians Fund, and more recently suspended the demand-driven uni funding system.

It would be better if it joined Labor in supporting a thorough-going review of our malfunctioning post-school education arrangements.