Tuesday, December 13, 2005


Talk to Australian Business Economists Annual Forecasting Conference, Sydney, December 13, 2005

At last, at last, economists are getting what they’ve longed for: the return of micro
reform. With the Howard Government’s acquisition of a majority in the Senate, the
good times are back. We’ve had completion of the privatisation of Telstra and now
the Holy Grail of economic rationalism, reform of the labour market. What’s more,
and as we shall see, the next cab off the rank looks likely to be that other economists’
chart-topper, tax reform. Yippee! But whether the reform is what economists
imagined it would be is another matter, as is whether what we’re getting will do much
good to the economy.

Take Telstra. I suspect it’s now dawning on some economists that privatising a near
monopoly isn’t such a wonderful thing, and that much turns on the ability of a quite
intrusive regulatory regime to ensure a hugely resourced and political powerful
company doesn’t abuse its market power. It’s clear the natural monopoly element of
Telstra should have separated from the contestable element before privatisation
began, but I don’t recall hearing many economists saying this back in 1996 -
especially those working for outfits hoping to win the contract to organise the float.

The economics of WorkChoices

Similarly, I doubt if many economists now think WorkChoices is all they had in mind
when they dreamt of labour market reform. It certainly can’t be thought of as
deregulation. It’s hugely prescriptive about what unionised workers may and, more
particularly, may not do. I’ve written that only the employers have been deregulated,
but even that may be too generous. Employers will find the new system more
complex and legalistic. The new act is more voluminous and prescriptive, there’ll be
more work for lawyers, no tribunals have been abolished but additional ones created,
and the minister is given greatly increased discretion to intervene in bargaining.
Rather than reduce regulation of the labour market, WorkChoices simply biases it in
favour of employers by doing all it can discourage collective bargaining and shoving
the old system of awards and arbitration into the background. Because economists’
neoclassical model abstracts from the question of relative bargaining power,
WorkChoices assumes (possibly correctly) that economists won’t notice what’s amiss.
Likewise, it picks up the economists’ point that restrictions on the ability to fire end
up being restrictions on the willingness to hire, while ignoring the more subtle point
that workers (including even economists) derive much utility from perceiving that
their job is secure.

If you draw a distinction between trying to swing one to employers and trying to
improve labour market outcomes, it’s hard to see how WorkChoices will do much for
the economy. In the OECD’s rating of different countries’ employment protection, it
gave our unfair dismissal regime quite a good (ie low) score, and when you remember
that getting rid of the unfair dismissal provisions encourages firing as well as hiring,
you wouldn’t expect much net increase in employment.

Most economists’ main hope of employment growth would come from lowering the
minimum wage, but as Mark Wooden of the Melbourne Institute has pointed out, the
Fair Pay Commission’s freedom to lower the minimum in real terms will be greatly
constrained by the indexation of unemployment benefits. The most the commission’s
likely to be able to do is slowly lower the minimum relative to the faster-growing
median wage. And, as Saul Eslake of ANZ has reminded us, this was already
happening under the much-reviled Industrial Relations Commission. Over the eight
years to 2004, the federal minimum wage fell as proportion of median earnings from
60.6 per cent to 58.4 per cent. Without the ability to change tax and transfer policies,
there won’t be a lot Ian Harper can do.

You might hope that less protection of penalty rates would permit greater flexibility in
the deployment of labour, but make sure you get your analysis right. One little
acknowledged point is that, while the penalty payments specified in awards may be
arbitrary, it’s perfectly legitimate for workers to set a higher reservation price for
work at unsociable hours. And when the cost of labour falls simply because of
unequal bargaining power, what results is a transfer of income from workers to
employers without any net gain to the economy.

The politics of WorkChoices

But let’s turn to the political implications of WorkChoices. Reading my various
columns on the subject, one of the young chaps at work concluded that I’d changed
my mind about it. No, I said, it’s just that my views are complicated. I regard
WorkChoices as bad in principle, but not likely to be terribly bad in practice. It’s clear
the public is most disapproving of the changes, and this accounts for John Howard’s
quite serious slump in the polls.

But let me make this fearless prediction: the changes won’t stay a hot topic now
they’re through parliament and I’ll be surprised if they’re a significant issue at the
election in (presumably) October 2007. There are five reasons for thinking this. First,
the changes won’t be as bad as some have painted them. When bush lawyers pore
over new legislation, they have a tendency to see worst-case scenarios and imagine
they’ll be the new norm. They forget that acts are always conferring rights that are
rarely exercised because they’re considered impractical or impolitic. Second, it can
take quite a while for people to change their behaviour in response to changed
legislative opportunity. Much of the fear of WorkChoices rests on the spread of
Australian Workplace Agreements, but these have been available since 1997 and so
far have spread to less than 2.5 per cent of the workforce.

Third, the changes are designed to be slow release, with some taking a year, three
years or even five years to take effect. Fourth, and this is a point for economists to
note, the very nature of decentralised wage fixing means it’s hard for observers to
know what’s going on. Whereas all decisions by the IRC were made public, and the
terms of all collective agreements are on record, the Act goes to much effort to ensure
the terms of AWAs are kept secret. So, in the event of AWAs becoming much more
significant in the wage-fixing process than they are today, it will be hard for the
public to know if a lot of employers are driving hard bargains, it will hard for the
firms and workers in an industry to know what the going wage is (meaning there’s
likely to be a fair bit of variation), and it will be hard for the Statistician and
economists to know what’s happening to wage growth.

But my fifth reason for distinguishing between principle and practice is, to me, the
killer: it won’t be long before the Government’s efforts to shift bargaining power in
favour of employers are overtaken by the marked shift in the balance of supply and
demand for labour brought about by population ageing and the retirement of the baby
boomers. Many people can’t conceive of a time when even the unskilled are in short
supply, but everyone over 50 lived through such a time. People say a recession would
speed up employers’ exploitation of WorkChoices. That’s true, but it would be wrong
to assume the next recession, when it comes, will be as severe as those of the early
1980s and 90s. I think we could be returning to the pre-1974 period where recessions
were much milder because, in an era when shortage of labour was the norm, there was
a lot more labour hoarding. We’ll soon be entering a period where workers have the
upper hand. It may prove that the one great virtue of WorkChoices was to remove
any institutional addition to workers’ bargaining power, thus limiting the extent to
which the economy is dogged by perpetual worries about excessive wage settlements.
This will, to an extent, offset the ill-effects of the Howard Government’s chronic
underinvestment in education, training and skill-formation, which will be coming
home to roost.

What’s next?

Even so, it seems clear Howard will want to find a new, and preferably less
unpopular, reform issue to fill the vacuum left by the IR changes. He’ll want to
change the subject and he’ll want to look busy - whether he’s going or staying. He’ll
want to get the business urgers off his back and he may well want to add to his tally of
economic reforms something that fits with his long-held views about the key reforms
needed. That all points to one thing: more tax reform, this time focusing on personal
income tax and, in particular, the top rate.

But he can’t just cut the top rate. That would be too simple - too little to occupy
people’s attention - and too much like a blatant handout to his rich mates. It would
compound the impression given by the IR changes that he’d switched to doing the
dirty on Howard’s Battlers. It would also be relatively cheap. No, he really needs to
do something where he’s seen to be working on the tax problems of everyone, even if
some people end up with much bigger tax cuts than others.

One of the people leading the campaign for further tax reform has been Malcolm
Turnbull, of course. You can understand why Peter Costello has been trying to hold
back the push for further reform. He knows that his big achievement in this area -
raising the top threshold to $125,000 a year so that only 3 per cent of taxpayers are
still subject to the top rate - hasn’t even taken effect yet, but has already been brushed
aside and threatens to be subsumed by something even bigger. He would have a
Treasurer’s caution about leaping to early conclusions on how big the ‘surplus
surplus’ is likely to be looking in five months’ time. And he would be aware (as most
people have failed to realise) that at present he’s committed to half a tax cut next July
- one for everyone earning more than $63,000 a year - and that he’ll be in trouble
politically if he doesn’t come up with the revenue for the bottom, far more expensive
half. In other words, he knows he’s up for the cost of another expensive tax cut for the
punters, before he worries about making the tax cut for high income earners even
more generous than already planned.

Is his reticence on the question of tax cuts also influenced by rivalry with Turnbull?
Quite likely. It may even be influenced by his preference for making further incometax
reform the first big reform of the Costello Government rather than the last reform
of the Howard Government. But that’s all the more reason why Howard’s likely to
insist the question of further tax reform be explored immediately rather than left for
later. The test of whether this exercise proves to be anything more that a government
with an embarrassingly large surplus finally giving in to pressure from the most well-off
taxpayers in the land is, first, whether anything significant is done about a far
more important problem - the work disincentives facing mothers returning to work
and people moving from welfare to work created by their much higher effective
marginal tax rates - and, second, whether high income earners are required to
contribute to the cost of their tax cuts by way of base-broadening measures.
So tax ‘reform’ presents an opportunity for genuine reform, but it remains to be seen
whether that opportunity is taken. What else is there on the reform agenda? Not much
that I can see. The next item on Howard’s list is media regulation, but he’s made it
clear he won’t proceed with anything unless the two media barons to whom all
politicians are in thrall, Murdoch and Packer, can agree on what they want. I wouldn’t
hold my breath waiting for any competitive opening up in this area. My colleague
Alan Mitchell has argued that, while labour market reform never looks like it adds up
to much, its power comes from the opportunity it provides to firms now facing
increased pressure from reform of their product markets. His line is that, if the
Government wants to maximise the economic gain from WorkChoices, it will need to
come up with a lot more product market reform. Not a bad argument, but I don’t see
the Government obliging.

The Liberal leadership

As soon as I turned my mind to preparing this talk I knew I’d have to say something
about the leadership, whether Howard is going or staying, and I knew an audience
such as this wouldn’t let me get away with any two-handed economist routine. I
wouldn’t be allowed out of the room without making ‘a call’. That’s quite a tall order,
since I doubt if Howard himself yet knows which way he’ll jump. But, just so you’ve
got something to throw in my face if I’m invited back next year, here’s my call: I
think Howard will announce his retirement early in the second half of next year. He’ll
be tempted to stay - he’ll feel fine, and more Liberal members will want him to stay
than want him to go - but in the end he’ll go because he knows he has to go sometime
and now’s a more propitious time than in three years’ time. That’s a point to note:
since he can’t resign too soon after an election and must give his successor at least a
year (and preferably longer) to settle in before the next election, if he hasn’t resigned
before the end of next year, he’ll have to stay on for pretty much another three, by
which time he’ll be 70. Another technical parameter is that he won’t leave before next
March, which is when he’ll have notched up 10 years as PM. The Costello camp had
set March-April as some kind of deadline, but by then it would be too late to hand the
budget to a new boy, so the revised expectation is not long after the budget. Howard
won’t want any appearance that he’s been pushed out, and I think Costello and his
camp have realised that being too overtly pushy could prove counterproductive and
prompt him to dig in his heals. Like Bob Carr, Howard may delay his announcement
for a month or two till people had concluded he was staying, but I’m sure Howard
will want to avoid the unpleasantness and diversion that could arise should Costello
and his troops fear they’d been cheated. Few prime ministers have had the judgment
and self control to quit while they’re on top, but I believe Howard will be one of
them. Should he stay, however, I confidently predict Costello will cop it sweet - he
won’t challenge (he’s way short of the numbers), he won’t go to the backbench and he
won’t resign. Party support for Costello would gather should the Government stay
well behind in the polls, but I’ll be surprised if it does.

Why the rush?

A related question is why we’ve witnessed the unseemly, undemocratic rush of
Howard banging his key legislation on Telstra, terrorism and WorkChoices through
the Senate before Christmas with insufficient time for scrutiny. And this after he’d
promised to use his Senate majority wisely and not provocatively. Could it be he’s
getting these key items on his personal reform agenda on the statute books so he can
retire in triumph as early as he likes next year? It could be. But there are two other,
equally plausible reasons for his haste. One is that both the Telstra privatisation and
the WorkChoices legislation are highly unpopular, and the Government knew it would
bleed for as long as they were in the public eye. It follows that the way to minimise
the bleeding was to get them through parliament as quickly as possible.

The second is interesting: now Howard has a one-seat majority in the Senate, the
opposition seems to have moved inside his own backbench. While Barnaby Joyce is
the only one threatening to cross the floor, there’s been a lot of rumbling on the
backbench and a fair few changes made to accommodate that dissent. It’s as though
there must always be a balance of power, and when it doesn’t reside with the minor
parties it moves to whoever on the government backbench has the courage to exercise
it. Joyce is a bit wet to be a member of the Howard Government, a Catholic social
justice type. He has his populist streak, but he’s smart and knows how far to push it.

He won’t be crossing the floor very often, but he’ll be winning his fair share of
concessions and getting constant publicity. He’s lifted the profile of the Nats in the
bush; done them a favour. He’s not hugely popular with other backbenchers, but
that’s mainly envy of someone with more initiative. Anyhow, my particular point is
that, with a fractious backbench, Howard would believe that the less time he gave his
troops to think about the finer points of his measures, the less trouble he’ll have
getting them through.

The Labor leadership

Things aren’t terribly flash on the Labor side of the aisle. Kim Beazley is competent
and likeable, but not inspiring. Labor may be ahead in the polls thanks to
WorkChoices, but that doesn’t prove much and isn’t likely to last once the fuss dies
down. Don’t forget that Howard has been well behind in the polls in each of his terms,
only to pull back in front when it mattered. As for the boost from IR, Beazley could
easily find himself caught the way he was with the GST before the 2001 election. He
thought the unpopularity of the tax meant he was on a winner, only to find that
everyone had calmed down - and been calmed down by bribes from Howard - by the
time the election arrived.

You don’t get the feeling his troops are terribly happy with his leadership, but there’ll
be no challenge because no one in the shadow cabinet looks a better bet. Remember,
however, that should Howard retire, Beazley will be a much closer match for
Costello. In with a real chance, I would have thought.

Monetary policy

Before we get down to it, there are some housekeeping matters to note. On the
Reserve board, Frank Lowy will need to be replaced after his term expired last week,
and Don McGauchie will be re-appointed when his first term expires at the end of
March. I think we can be confident Lowy’s successor won’t have being a generous
Liberal Party donor as his only qualification. One dud is enough. Ian Macfarlane’s
term ends in mid-September. On past precedent his successor should be announced
about a month before hand. As deputy governor, Glenn Stevens is in poll position but,
though I know of no reason to doubt he’ll get the nod, there are no guarantees.
My text for today is: the Reserve stays quick on its feet, so so should you. Why?
Because Stuff Happens. I think most people have got the right fix on the outlook for
monetary policy in 2006. Growth is expected to be ‘solid’ (code for unspectacular),
though just how solid remains to be seen. But with underlying inflation likely to drift
up towards the top of the target and headline inflation likely to stay at the top of the
target, ‘policy will need to be responsive to any sign that demand and inflation
pressures are stronger than currently expected’. The Reserve keeps hearing from the
firms it speaks to that they’re experiencing cost pressures - that they’re operating
close to full capacity, with shortages of labour - so it’s got its hand on the lever ready
to tighten when it sees things moving out of line. It will be looking not just at wages -
wage pressure is there, though so far it’s coming through pretty gradually - but also
for signs of pricing power, such as too many firms using petrol prices as an excuse for
a disproportionate price rise. So at this stage I won’t be surprised if we see further
tightening next year. If so, the Reserve would do another 25 basis points, then sit back
to see the response, then do a little more if it thought it needed.

The Reserve’s not likely to be inhibited in any needed tightening by worries about the
deflating housing bubble. After two years in which house prices nationwide have been
flat rather than falling, with the misalignment getting smaller, it’s more relaxed. It’s
true that household interest payments are a higher proportion of disposable income
than they were at their peak in 1989, and are still rising, but they’re rising not because
of sharp rises in interest rates, rather because people are still borrowing quite strongly.
From its peak rate of 20 per cent, housing credit is still growing by 11 per cent a year.
That’s hardly a sign of distress. If anything, it’s a sign mortgage rates are still too low
rather than too high and too tight.

The worry has always been that, during this period in which the economy is
vulnerable because households are so laden with debt, we might be hit by some
exogenous shock that caused a downturn in growth and a rise in unemployment. The
knock-on effect from that could be nasty. But shocks are, by definition, unexpected.
And you don’t fail to do what you should do - keep inflation pressure in check - just
because of what might happen. You do what you have to do, then worry about how to
respond to the shock if it happens.

All this implies that, at present, you wouldn’t expect to see rates being cut next year.
If a year from today rates were lower, they would have gone higher in the meantime.
But all I’ve said represents merely how the future looks ‘at present’. The safest
prediction I can make is that, before we’ve got too far into next year, the future will
look quite different from the way it looks now. That’s what I mean about the Reserve
staying quick on its feet. It responds to the incoming data, and is quite prepared to
change its view - and its policy - as the evidence evolves.

I observed at this show some years ago that ex-bank business economists were better
at second-guessing the Reserve than ex-Treasury economists. Peter Horn said to me
later than he thought he knew why that was. The trouble with Treasury is that it has
detailed published forecasts, which it’s only able to revise once in a year. This means
it feels obliged to defend its forecasts until such time as it’s able to revise them. It
faces a temptation to interpret incoming data in the light of its forecast rather than
vice versa. The Reserve, by contrast, doesn’t really publish its detailed forecasts, and
so doesn’t hesitate to revise them as often as the weight of evidence dictates. It
doesn’t have any institutional ego attached to its forecasts. You can see that in the
way Ian Macfarlane explains to the parliamentary hearing why his predictions of six
months earlier didn’t work out. He does it without a hint of embarrassment. I think the
Reserve’s pretty humble about the low probability of getting forecasts right.
So that’s what I mean about it staying quick on its feet. And this year’s been an
instructive year in that respect because the Reserve went through four distinct changes
of view in the space of 10 months.

The first change came at the February meeting and was signalled in the February
SoMP. Everything seemed to be on hold when Glenn Stevens spoke to the ABE
dinner this time last year, but by the February meeting we were quite worried about
inflation with the economy running out of capacity. What had happened in the
interim? The signs of sharply rising costs in the December quarter PPI, I suspect. At
the February meeting it was felt the public needed to be got ready for a tightening,
which came after the March meeting.

Many people would say the second change of view came at the April meeting, when it
was decided not to tighten again. I guess you can blame me for that. But it had never
been intended to do two in row and the decision not to tighten further came actually
came a month or two later.

The third change came in the Big Mac’s appearance before the parliamentary
committee in August. The point he meant to make was just that the Reserve had
abandoned its tightening bias, that in the SoMP released earlier that week ‘we
refrained from making the point we have been making for the past year or so about it
“being unlikely that there would be no further rises in the course of the expansion”.’

In our present estimation, he said, ‘there is no longer a more than 50 per cent
possibility of [a tightening] happening’. But then he went on to say something a bit
different, that ‘when we look further into the future, we no longer see a clear
probability of it moving in one direction rather than the other’. And that’s where he
inadvertently gave people a bum steer. Understandably, many people went away with
the notion of a 50 per cent chance of tightening and a 50 per cent chance of easing. In
truth, the probability scheme in the Reserve head would have been 20 per cent
tightening, 20 per cent easing and 60 per cent no change.

So the fourth change of view for the year came with the November SoMP, when the
Reserve restored its tightening bias. It could have reverted to saying it was unlikely
there would be no further rises in the course of the expansion, but it didn’t - not
because it wasn’t true, but because, as we discussed last year, that formula was
devised to cope with the election campaign, to warn the public that it reserved the
right to raise rates after the election and to discourage the parties from making
promises about stopping rates rising. In that, of course, it was only partially
successful. But though it hasn’t resurrected that formula, be in no doubt that the bias
to tighten is back.

One last point. We began this year with a major change of tune between the
December meeting and the February meeting. If you think back, you realise the same
thing has happened over many Christmas breaks. When the Reserve gets back from
summer holidays towards the end of January and views things with a new eye, it often
doesn’t pick up where it left off. Why does this happen? I can think of two
mechanical reasons to explain why view-changes are more likely over the summer
break than between meetings during the year: there’s double the amount of new data
because of the missed January meeting, and the summer period also includes one of
the year’s four releases of inflation data. I don’t think that’s enough to explain the
phenomenon. Maybe the fresh eyes do make a difference. But my advice to you is
simple: stay quick on your feet and always keep an eye out for another over-
Christmas view-change.