Tuesday, November 30, 2010


ACTU Whitlam Lecture, Melbourne, Tuesday, November 30, 2010

In writing and talking about equality and inequality, I always feel myself at a disadvantage.

Everyone thinks they know more about it than I think I know. Just about everyone has it firmly fixed in their mind that the gap between rich and poor is growing - the rich are getting richer and the poor getting poorer. This trend, they know, has been running for decades, perhaps forever. My disadvantage is that when you express your opinions in a respectable newspaper rather than the pub, you’re supposed to base them on actual evidence. And when I recount the evidence, it’s never as bad as everyone knows to be the case.

Even so, let me try to summarise the evidence about the distribution of income....

Is Australia the Land of the Fair Go

Monday, November 29, 2010

Professed reformers spin lazy line on cost of living

Julia Gillard and her ministers are expressing their undying commitment to the economy and economic reform, but the way they pander to and even incite the punters' irrational whingeing about the cost of living gives the lie to their profession of economic faith.

For obvious reasons, the government has been saying a lot lately about Labor's values and vision for Australia. According to Gillard: "A strong economy - and opportunity for all. That's really it in a nutshell."

Wayne Swan said last week the Labor Party's "core purpose" had always started with two words: "prosperity and opportunity". (The more he said the clearer it became that, to him, Labor's reason for existence is solely materialistic: every worker should have the opportunity to own a Beemer.)

Penny Wong was a little broader in her view of what Labor stands for: "A fair go, a just society, a strong economy." (Note that none of the three saw fit to mention reconciling the economy with the environment as a priority.)

Get the message? Labor = a strong economy. So does this mean they're all economists or economic rationalists? No, it means they're politicians who've concluded that only good economic managers get to stay in office (and whose secret fear is that they aren't good economic managers).

They're pollies who've learnt to mind their economic P's and Q's - they know not to promise to control prices or re-regulate interest rates - but they haven't internalised "the economic way of thinking".

How can I be sure? Because of the way the politician in them leads them to pander to the public's complaints about the rising cost of living. And because anyone who thought like an economist wouldn't be able to resist the desire to explain to the whingers a few facts of life.

The punters are complaining about big rises in water and electricity prices. Do the pollies explain why these rises are occurring and why they're justified? Not that I've noticed. They just keep saying "I feel your pain".

Do they explain that, though water and power prices have increased a lot, other prices haven't risen much and some have actually fallen, meaning the overall cost of living hasn't been rising all that rapidly? Hell no.

The consumer price index rose by 2.8 per cent over the year to September. Over the previous year it rose by 1.3 per cent.

Behavioural economists understand how people develop exaggerated perceptions of what's happening to their cost of living. It's because people don't weight price rises according to the item's share in the basket of goods and services they buy.

Big price rises stick in their minds (with no allowance made for any improvement in the quality of the item), whereas small price falls are soon forgotten and items whose prices don't change get a weight of zero.

If economics is to be useful it should help people overcome their irrational misperceptions. But our self-proclaimed economic-reform obsessed leaders don't see a need to educate the electorate.

The obvious fact is the cost of living is always rising. That's not news. What matters is whether people's incomes are at least keeping up with the cost of living. And they are - easily. While consumer prices rose by 2.8 per cent over the year to September, the wage cost index rose by 3.6 per cent.

While prices rose by 1.3 per cent over the previous year, wages rose by 3.1 per cent. Over the five years to September, prices rose by 15.7 per cent, while wages rose by 20.8 per cent. So real wages have been rising by about 1 per cent a year.

It's because the cost of living is always rising that pensions are always being increased. They're actually indexed not to prices but to average income, meaning they grow in real terms. And last year the government gave pensioners (but not people on the dole) a big one-off increase.

So the rising cost of living is being outstripped by the rising standard of living. But still they whinge. And what do our piss-weak pollies say? "I feel your pain."

A pollie ought to understand that, because the cost of living is always rising, people complain about the cost of living when they haven't got anything more serious to complain about.

And what cause for complaint is there? Inflation is under control, employment has been growing very strongly, unemployment is a lot lower than we got used to, real wages are growing and the dollar's at parity with the greenback.

Do our pollies ever say any of this? Gosh no. Wouldn't dare.

Of course, interest rates are rising. And though far more people benefit from this than the one-third of households that have mortgages (many of them longstanding and thus quite small), the pollies compete to carry on about how iniquitous it is.

The government must think itself smart to have transferred the punters' ire from itself to the banks (aided by the carry-on of Joe Hockey). It knows the banks' double-dipping merely means one less official rate rise, but does it calm the punters with this news? Wouldn't dare.

When it comes to rate rises the government doesn't just feel your pain, it incites you to imagine it's the end of the world. This is smart? It's storing up trouble for the future.

Rate rises are the primary instrument we use to limit inflation pressure when the economy booms. And we're about to enter a mining construction boom that could run for a decade or more.

Do you reckon the strong-economy brigade has any notion of how many more rate rises we're likely to see before the next election?


Saturday, November 27, 2010

We're all paying a high price for hiding our debt

IT DOESN'T seem to have occurred to Julia Gillard that her resolve to make this the "decade of infrastructure" - with a gold-plated national broadband network as its centrepiece - doesn't fit with her core promise to return the budget to surplus in 2012-13 and eliminate government debt ASAP.

Indeed, the two policies laugh at each other. Both Gillard and Kevin Rudd succumbed to Costelloism - a brand of fiscal populism holding that all government debt is bad - as did various state Labor governments.

The upside of this abhorrence of budget deficits and obsession with the elimination of debt is it left the Rudd government perfectly placed when it needed to spend big to counter the impact of the global financial crisis.

The downside is it led to more than a decade of inadequate spending on infrastructure. Labor made much of the neglect of infrastructure while in opposition and this explains its resolve to give it a high priority. But Labor has also embraced the very mentality that caused the problem.

As Dr Nicholas Gruen, of Lateral Economics, has written in a report for Western Sydney councils, the obsession with debt may have got rid of the budget deficit, but it exchanged it for an infrastructure deficit. In truth, only some government debt is bad. It's not bad when it arises from deficits incurred during recessions. And it isn't bad when it arises from capital spending - provided those capital works are worthwhile. It is bad when it arises from the failure of governments to ensure their recurrent spending is covered by revenue during normal years.

I'm a great believer in the (Peter Costello-introduced) "medium-term fiscal strategy": to "maintain budget balance, on average, over the course of the economic cycle".

You'd never know it from the way Costello and his successors carry on, but that strategy is carefully worded to permit the budget's "automatic stabilisers" to push the budget into deficit during major downturns and also permit governments to use the budget to stimulate the economy during recessions.

So the addition of the words "on average over the cycle" makes the strategy - shock, horror - a Keynesian formulation. (Clearly, it was crafted by someone a lot wiser than Costello.) But the words "on average" make it a strictly symmetrical Keynesianism: once the recession passes you have to get the budget back to surplus and keep it there until the next recession.

There's just one weakness in this enlightened strategy: its failure to distinguish between capital and recurrent spending - that is, its failure to permit the federal government to borrow to fund infrastructure.

If Labor had a deeper understanding of economics and genuine belief in it, rather than a mere desire to portray itself as a "fiscal conservative", it would have had the courage to add that qualification to the strategy.

So how does Gillard expect to square the circle of tackling the infrastructure backlog without being able to borrow? I bet I know. She intends to use "public-private partnerships" to get the borrowing done by the private sector. Hey presto! Problem solved.

But hey presto is right. This is just creative accounting. The government initiates the need to borrow - and, directly or indirectly, guarantees the borrowing - but gets the debt put on someone else's balance sheet.

Unfortunately, the drawbacks of PPPs - which so far have been used mainly by state governments for all manner of infrastructure assets, from highways and railway stations to hospitals and desalination plants - are much greater than this.

As Gruen explains, these assets have been built at a higher cost to the public than would have been the case had they been built the way they used to be, as government-owned assets funded by borrowing.

The first cause of increased cost is the "artifice" needed to get private investors interested. They have to be reassured that some future action by the government - say, the building of a competing road or hospital - won't leave their asset stranded.

So the government has to tie its hands, promising not to do certain things and cutting off options for the future that may have been in the public's interest. And we've all seen how governments shore up private toll roads by "traffic calming" (making it harder for motorists to avoid the toll road).

But the bigger reason PPPs are so much more expensive is that government - being the government and thus having the power to raise taxes to cover its debts - can borrow a lot more cheaply than private businesses can. This is true even after you allow for the risks involved in specific infrastructure projects.

To illustrate the extra costs involved in PPPs, Gruen calculates that, had the NSW government chosen to fund the toll roads that now encircle Sydney, the state would have acquired ownership of a stream of revenue with a net present value of about $12.8 billion, at the cost of increasing its borrowings by $7 billion.

In other words, by taking on a little more risk, the state would have increased its net worth by about $5.8 billion. After allowing for that extra risk, its net worth would still be $4.6 billion higher.

By today, more than 60 per cent of the original borrowing would have been paid off, leaving a net cash flow to the budget of $380 million a year, after allowing for the interest payments on the extra debt and even after providing for further repayments of principal. And get this: in the unlikely event of the government's taking on of the extra debt prompting the ratings agencies to downgrade the state's AAA credit rating - which would increase the interest rates it had to pay on its borrowings - the budget would still be ahead on the deal.

Bottom line: the public is paying dearly for the efforts of governments to hide the debt they're responsible for.

Although we're not paying as much public debt interest as we would have been, we're paying inflated tolls on roads (as Gruen's calculations show). We're also paying heavy repayments on our mortgages partly because of governments' failure to release sufficient land and their loading of up-front infrastructure charges on the land they do release.

And we're paying with our time as we wait at peak hour in traffic that has slowed to a crawl or crowd into late trains and buses. All thanks to the demonising of government debt.


Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Punters well aware of economic case against more immigration

The Big Australia issue has gone quiet since the election but it hasn't gone away. It can't go away because it's too central to our future and, despite Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott's rare agreement to eschew rapid population growth, the issue remains unresolved.

This year Rebecca Huntley of Ipsos, a global market research firm, and Bernard Salt of KPMG, a financial services firm, conducted interviews with business people and discussions with 13 groups of consumers, showing them two markedly different scenarios of what Australia could look like in 2020.

In the "measured Australia" scenario, governments limited population growth, focused on making our activities more environmentally sustainable and limited our economic links with the rest of the world.

In the "global Australia" scenario, governments set aside concerns about the environment, promoted rapid economic and population growth, and made Australia ever more a part of Asia.

Not surprisingly, the business people hated measured Australia and loved global Australia. But even though global Australia was described in glowing terms - ignoring the environment apparently had no adverse effects - ordinary people rejected it. And although measured Australia was painted in negative terms - all downside and no upside - there were aspects of it people quite liked.

The message I draw is that if governments keep pursuing rapid growth to please business they'll encounter increasing resentment and resistance from voters.

Considering the human animal's deep-seated fear of foreigners, it's not surprising resentment has focused on immigration. It's clear from the way in the election campaign both sides purported to have set their face against high migration that they're starting to get the message.

But at the moment they're promising to restrict immigration with one hand while encouraging a decade-long, labour-consuming boom in the construction of mines and gas facilities with the other. And this will be happening at a time when the economy is already close to full employment and baby boomers retire as the population ages.

Their two approaches don't fit together. And unless our leaders find a way to resolve the contradiction there's trouble ahead.

Business people support rapid population growth, which really means high immigration; there's little governments can do to influence the birth rate, because they know a bigger population means a bigger economy. And in a bigger economy they can increase their sales and profits.

That's fine for them, but it doesn't necessarily follow that a bigger economy is better for you and me. Only if the extra people add more to national income than their own share of that income will the average incomes of the rest of us be increased. And that's not to say any gain in material standard of living isn't offset by a decline in our quality of life, which goes unmeasured by gross domestic product.

The most recent study by the Productivity Commission, in 2006, found that even extra skilled migration did little or nothing to raise the average incomes of the existing population, with the migrants themselves the only beneficiaries.

This may explain why, this time, economists are approaching the question from the other end: we're getting the future economic growth from the desire of the world's mining companies to greatly expand Australia's capacity to export coal, iron ore and natural gas, but we don't have sufficient skilled labour to meet that need and unless we bring in a lot more labour this episode will end in soaring wages and inflation.

Peter McDonald, a leading demographer at the Australian National University, argues that governments don't determine the level of net migration, the economy does. When our economy's in recession, few immigrants come and more Aussies leave; when the economy's booming, more immigrants come and fewer Aussies leave. Governments could try to resist this increase, but so far they've opted to get out of the way.

To most business people, economists and demographers, the answer to our present problem is obvious: since economic growth must go ahead, the two sides of politics should stop their populist pandering to the punters' resentment of foreigners.

But it seems clear from the Ipsos discussion groups that people's resistance to high immigration focuses on their concerns about the present inadequacy of public infrastructure: roads, transport, water and energy. We're not coping now, what would it be like with more people?

And the punters have a point. In their instinctive reaction to the idea of more foreigners they've put their finger on the great weakness in the economic case for immigration.

As economists know - but don't like to talk or even think about - the reason immigration adds little or nothing to the material living standards of the existing population is that each extra person coming to Australia - the workers and their families - has to be provided with extra capital equipment: a home to live in, machines to use at work and a host of public infrastructure such as roads, public transport, schools, hospitals, libraries, police stations and much else.

The cost of that extra capital has to be set against the benefit from the extra labour. If the extra capital isn't forthcoming, living standards - and, no doubt, quality of life - decline.

If we don't build the extra homes - as we haven't been doing for some years - rents and house prices keep rising, making home ownership less affordable. To build the extra public facilities, governments have to raise taxes and borrow money. But they hate raising taxes and both sides of federal politics have sworn to eliminate government debt.

The interviews and discussion groups revealed both business people and consumers to be highly doubtful about the ability of governments - particularly state governments - to provide the infrastructure we need. As well they might be.

At present, our leaders on both sides are heading towards a future that doesn't add up.


Monday, November 22, 2010

NBN plan has the signs of a historic stuff-up

I am starting to get a really bad feeling about Labor's plan for a national broadband network. The more it resists subjecting the plan to scrutiny, the more you suspect it has something to hide.

I fear Julia Gillard is digging herself in deeper on a characteristically grandiose scheme her swaggering predecessor announced without thought to its daunting implications, when she should be looking for ways to scale the project down without too much loss of face.

Advertisement: Story continues below
The obvious way to start that process would have been to accede to calls for the Productivity Commission to conduct a cost-benefit analysis. The determination of governments to keep their schemes away from the commission is always prima facie evidence they know the scheme's dodgy.

But as each day passes the issue is becoming more politicised, with too much of the government's ego riding on pretending the plan is without blemish. Part of the problem is the role the plan played in winning the support of the country independents.

The independents and Greens are doing the government no favours in using their votes to allow the plan to escape scrutiny. Are they, too, afraid it wouldn't withstand scrutiny?

This is not to support the inane demands from the opposition and the media for the government to release its ''business case'' immediately rather than in a week or two's time. Mere impatience is no virtue in the eternal quest for good policy.

But by the same token, the government's implication that we can't delay the broadband rollout by pausing to check whether it's a good idea, or is being done as cost effectively as possible, is insupportable. If it's a flawed idea, better to know now rather than after the money's spent.

It's no doubt true the Liberals are being quite hypocritical in demanding the release of a government report when the Howard government refused to release so many reports, and in demanding a cost-benefit analysis when John Howard never bothered with them.

But such objections make sense only to those more interested in party-political point scoring than achieving good policy.

The case for a thorough cost-benefit analysis needs no stronger argument than that, at $43 billion, this is the most expensive piece of infrastructure this country has seen.

It's true the plan has a lot of attractions. Top of the list is the structural separation of Telstra's network from its retail business so its retail competitors get fair access to the network. This is something the Howard government should have seen to before it privatised Telstra.

I accept that, if city people are going to continue cross-subsidising the bush - as they will; it's clearly the electorate's ''revealed preference'' - there's no more sensible way to do it than ensuring the bush has access to high-quality telecommunications, thereby doing what we can to reduce the tyranny of distance.

I don't have an in-principle objection to a network with natural-monopoly characteristics being owned publicly rather than privately, provided governments don't use their powers to shore up or abuse that monopoly in a way any private owner would and should be prevented doing.

And I admire the government's consciousness of the need for us to be ready to adopt and exploit the opportunities for benefit that future technological advance will make possible.

The Productivity Commission could be required to ensure its cost-benefit analysis ranged far more widely than a mere commercial evaluation, taking account of present and potential ''social'' benefits (''positive externalities'') and acknowledging those whose value it can't quantify.

But there are three aspects of the plan that worry me. They're things economists are trained to see but to which non-economists are often oblivious.

The first is the mentality that says we've got a lot of messy and inadequate telecom arrangements at present, so let's scrap 'em all and start afresh. Copper wire to the home - make Telstra turn it off. Telstra and Optus's existing rival optical fibre-coaxial cables to many capital-city homes - close 'em down.

This Ruddish approach would be fine if resources were infinite, or if getting a brand spanking new broadband network was the Australian public's only desire.

But resources are finite, both sides of politics have sworn to eliminate all government debt and we have an infrastructure backlog as long as your arm. In two words: opportunity cost.

Second is the idea of building a gold-plated broadband network up to eight times faster than any present application needs, so we're ready for anything that may come along some time in the future.

If you think that shows vision and foresight, you're innocent of ''the time value of money''. Every dollar you spend now rather than later comes at an extra cost: the interest you have to pay between now and when you start using the idle capacity.

True, it's false economy to build something today without allowing for reasonable growth in your use of the item. But there comes a point where allowing for more growth than you're likely to see in ages becomes a waste of money.

Private businesses that do this - such as home owners who overcapitalise their properties - do their dough. Government businesses survive either by overcharging their customers or falling back on the taxpayer.

The final worry is the way that - notwithstanding the break-up of Telstra - the plan involves deliberately reducing competition from other networks in the telecommunications market. Why's that a good idea?

And why would the government plan to do it? Because it knows its network will be hugely over-engineered and the only way of charging consumers the high prices needed to recoup that excess cost is to turn broadband into a monopoly.

If Gillard had any sense of self-preservation she'd be using the Productivity Commission to get herself off a nasty hook.


Saturday, November 20, 2010

At your service, our economy's a work in progress

THE structure of our economy is set to change over the 2010s, creating winners and losers and plenty of complaints. So it's worth remembering the economy's structure has been changing continuously since the gold rush.

An article by Ellis Connolly and Christine Lewis of the Reserve Bank reminds us that, over the past 80 years or so, the economy has been transformed from one centred on the production of primary products to an urbanised economy mainly producing services.

In the 19th century, agriculture accounted for about a third of our total output of goods and services (gross domestic product), but from about the 1930s its share started declining and today is down to a mere 3 per cent.

Why? Well, not because we're producing less agricultural stuff. We're producing more than ever. No, it's just because other parts of the economy have grown a lot faster than agriculture, thus reducing its share of the total.

While we've been producing more rural stuff we've been doing it using progressively more machinery, with fewer, bigger farms to capture the machines' potential economies of scale. So agriculture has become steadily more "capital intensive", releasing workers, who've moved to the city.

As agriculture's share started to decline, the manufacturing industry's started to increase. At the beginning of last century it accounted for roughly 15 per cent of total output, but by the 1960s it had reached a peak of 25 per cent.

From that point its share began to decline, halving to about 12 per cent today, even though it too is producing more than ever. And it, too, has become more capital intensive and less labour-intensive over the years.

This brings us to the sector that was growing much faster than agriculture and manufacturing and thus reducing their shares of the economy: services. Even in the 19th century, service industries accounted for about half the economy. By the 1960s the services sector accounted for 60 per cent of output and today it's up to 80 per cent.

I have to say that, particularly among older Australians, the growing share of the services sector - something that's happened in every country - is a bit of a worry. Agriculture and manufacturing produce physical goods - goods that can be exported or used to replace imports. Can Australians really make a living performing services for each other?

Yes we can - and we do. Quite a good living. "Services" may sound ephemeral, even servile, but they're not. Do you regard the work of doctors, nurses, carpenters, plumbers, journalists and TV stars, truck drivers, bank managers, firemen, teachers, professors and prime ministers as insubstantial or inconsequential?

A lot of people aren't quite sure what "services" includes, so let me give you the list (deep breath): construction; distribution services and utilities (electricity, gas and water, wholesale and retail trade, transport, postal and warehousing, information media and telecommunications); business services (financial and insurance, rental, hiring and real estate, professional, scientific and technical, administrative); social services (public administration and safety, education and training, health care and social assistance); and personal services (accommodation and food, arts and recreation).

By their nature, service industries are generally labour-intensive rather than capital-intensive, meaning they account for a larger share of total employment - 85 per cent -

than of output.

All these are old trends. The big news is the mining industry's growing share of output: it has gone from 2 per cent in the 1960s to 8 per cent today. And since mining's share of business investment spending has shot up to 19 per cent, we can be sure its output share will go higher.

Mining is the ultimate capital-intensive industry, so its share of total employment is just 1 per cent. But if it creates so few jobs, what's the point of it? It earns lots of income, and when that income is spent, jobs are created. Where? Mainly in service industries.

Another thing that has changed with the structure of industry is the composition of our exports. In the 1960s, agriculture accounted for 62 per cent of total exports of goods and services. Today it's 18 per cent.

Then, mining's share was 15 per cent; today it's 42 per cent - meaning primary commodities account for 60 per cent of our exports. We're a commodity-exporting economy and there's no getting round it. Always have been; probably always will be.

Manufacturing's share of total exports has increased by 8 percentage points to 17 per cent and services' share has gone from 14 per cent to 23 per cent. What services do we send abroad? We don't, really. Foreigners come here to buy tourism and education.

Why does the structure of the economy keep evolving? Connolly and Lewis identify four main drivers. First is the rising demand for services. As our real incomes grow over time there's a limit to how much more we can eat, wear, drive and watch - our demand for goods, in other words.

But there's no limit on the services we demand. We're spending ever more on health, education, recreation and financial services. Since 1960, the proportion of consumer spending going on services has increased from 40 per cent to more than 60 per cent.

Second is the industrialisation of east Asia. Over the past 50 years, Asia has exploited its low cost of labour to become a big global producer and exporter of manufactures (with the main location of that production slowly migrating from Japan to South Korea and Taiwan to China, as labour costs have risen with economic success).

The Asians have needed primary commodities as raw materials for their manufacturing, and we've been nearby. Their "comparative advantage" and ours have been a great fit.

Third is economic reform.

Reductions in trade protection of manufacturing contributed to its declining share, whereas deregulation has help to increase the share of various service industries, particularly banking and finance.

The final driver of structural change is technological advance. Computerisation has made primary and secondary industries more capital-intensive while increasing the size of computer-related service industries.

Improvements in business practices (including just-in-time production and out-sourcing) have contributed to the service industries' rising share of total output and employment.

The main thing to remember is that 200 years of efforts to increase productivity by means of "labour-saving" technology haven't led to ever-rising unemployment, as people always fear it will.

That's because higher productivity leads to increased real income and as that income is spent new jobs are created elsewhere in the (services) economy.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Others doing more than us to cut emissions

To adapt an old saying, bad news is halfway round the world before good news has got its boot on. The media love bad news because they know their customers find it more interesting. But when the news is mixed, ignoring the good bits can leave you with a false impression of reality.

You already know the latest bad news on action to limit climate change: the loss of a Democrat majority in the House of Representatives has obliged Barack

Obama to abandon his efforts to get an emissions trading scheme through Congress.

Many have taken this as further evidence - on top of our own Senate's refusal to pass a trading scheme and the failure of countries at the Copenhagen conference to agree to binding emissions-reduction targets - that action on global warming is getting ever less likely.

The sceptics keep pointing out that, since greenhouse gas emissions are a global problem, if all the major countries can't agree on action it's pointless for any individual country to bother doing anything. That's true even for the United States or China, let alone a small country like Australia, which is responsible for just 1.2 per cent of the world's emissions.

To this we get the familiar refrain from the small-minded: why should we be the first to do the right thing? Why not let someone else make the sacrifice this time?

So what's the good news? There's a weakness in the logic that, unless we all agree, it's not worth anyone doing anything. We don't actually have to reach an explicit agreement.

There's nothing to stop each of the major emitting countries from acting unilaterally in the hope that, this way, a tacit agreement to act could be formalised later. Perhaps this was always the smartest way to achieve an agreement.

Wishful thinking? Don't be so sure. Contrary to popular impression, Copenhagen wasn't a total failure. The countries did reach an accord and one thing they agreed on was to each submit a pledge of the targets they were prepared to agree to.

Dr Frank Jotzo, director of the Centre for Climate Economics and Policy at the Australian National University, has studied those pledges and been encouraged by what he found.

He looked at 13 major countries that between them account for about two-thirds of global emissions. Among the developed countries he took the US (accounting for 14 per cent of global emissions), the European Union (11 per cent), Russia (4 per cent), Japan (3 per cent), Canada (2 per cent) and Australia.

Among the developing countries he looked at China (15 per cent), Brazil (6 per cent), Indonesia (4 per cent), India (4 per cent) and Mexico, South Korea and South Africa (each with 1 per cent).

All the targets to which the countries committed themselves were for their emissions in 2020. On the face of it, they varied greatly. The developed countries pledged to reduce their emissions by some absolute amount relative to their emissions in an earlier base year, whether 1990, 2000 or 2005.

China and India pledged to reduce their "emissions intensity" by a certain percentage - that is, the amount of emissions per dollar of their gross domestic product. The other developing countries pledged to reduce their emissions by a certain percentage below what they would otherwise have been in 2020.

What Jotzo did was to put all the targets onto various comparable bases, using certain assumptions. When compared in terms of absolute reductions in emissions the pledges varied widely, with emissions by China and India continuing to grow - but reductions in all other countries, developed and developing, bar Russia.

When compared on the basis of emissions intensity, however, remarkable similar percentage reductions were pledged, with the developing countries targeting bigger reductions than the rich countries. China, for instance, is targeting a reduction of 40 to 45 per cent over 15 years.

And when compared on the basis of reductions from what emissions would otherwise have been, the targets reveal a similar degree of effort.

Because we haven't done much - and because Obama's promise to continue working to achieve emissions reductions by other means received little attention - we happily assume other countries haven't done much.

Not true - especially not for China. It is actively pursuing the target it reported to Copenhagen. It has ordered the shutdown of inefficient and high-emitting coal-fired power stations and their replacement with high-efficiency coal-fired generators. It has imposed energy performance standards for emissions-intensive industries and vehicle emission standards, is offering various incentives for clean energy and is spending bucketloads on developing renewable energy.

You can use trading schemes or a carbon tax to impose an explicit price on emissions of carbon dioxide. That's the best way to do it. But government subsidies and other measures can do the same thing indirectly.

A study sponsored by Australia's Climate Institute has sought to measure the implicit carbon price in various countries. It's $29 a tonne in Britain because its participation in the European trading scheme is backed up by various domestic measures.

It's $14 a tonne in China thanks to the measures I've mentioned and it's even $5 a tonne in the US because of federal subsidies to clean energy sources and state renewable energy targets.

And what do our bits and pieces add up to? A princely $1.70 a tonne.

Two conclusions. All the key countries - even the US - have pledged their willingness to take significant action and some, including the biggest single emitter, China, are getting on with it. As other countries see this, they'll become more active themselves.

Far from being the country that's leading the way and making sacrifices while others hang back and marvel at our naivety, Australia - a country with more to lose than most - is dragging the chain.


Monday, November 15, 2010

Canberra's delusion: the budget is the economy

Notice anything strange about the release of the midyear budget update last week? Just about all the talking was done by politicians and political commentators, not economists and economic commentators.

Why? Because from an economic perspective the update isn't such a big deal. It is just a six-monthly update. Treasury revises its economic forecasts, but the changes usually aren't big and they're always old news because they're never very different from the Reserve Bank's forecasts, which are revised quarterly.

The revisions to the budget estimates cover the present financial year plus the next three years, but no one with any sense takes much notice of the last three. Why not? Because, with forecasting being so inaccurate, how could you take seriously mechanical "projections" about the state of the economy and the budget balance up to 3 years hence?

But if the update is of little economic significance, why did the political types get so excited? Although the midyear update is rarely used to announce new measures, this one was sharply criticised for its failure to include "deeper cuts to government spending".

So why? At the most obvious level, because some bright spark in the government had told the press gallery to expect such cuts. Robbed of this much bigger story, the media wrote it up as yet another failure of will from a weak government, whereas spin doctor incompetence is a more likely explanation.

But I think the explanation runs deeper. The denizens of the House with a Flag on Top have never really accepted that, at least since the the Reserve was made independent in the 1990s, the macro economy is no longer managed from Canberra.

Monetary policy - the manipulation of interest rates - has long been the main instrument for the management of demand, with the budget playing a much lesser role. It does get wheeled out to stimulate the economy during recessions but is then reeled back in during the recovery.

The main responsibility of the elected government and its Treasury is for micro-economic policy: combating climate change, water policy, education and training, tax reform, making particular markets more competitive and much else.

It's a vitally important role - carrying more than enough challenge for the Rudd/Gillard government to cope with - but still everyone in Canberra yearns to be back in the centre of the daily macro-management limelight.

The treasurer and Treasury want to be seen at the economy's helm. The press gallery wants in on the always prominent economy story. And there's no joy for the opposition in criticising the Reserve governor; it wants to blame every economic problem on the government.

So how does Canberra cope with its relevance deprivation syndrome? By exaggerating the economic significance of the budget. This is apparent when you see non-economists referring to the budget balance as "the economy's deficit". Whoops.

Essential to exaggerating the significance of the budget is exaggerating its relevance to the Reserve Bank's decisions about interest rates.

Since movements in the budget balance are one of many factors affecting the strength of demand, and since the strength of demand is the main factor influencing the Reserve's decisions about rates, there is a link between the two but it's much weaker and more attenuated than many in the political debate imagine.

For the opposition to blame every rate rise on the government rather than the unelected Reserve, it has to demonise rate rises as unnatural and excruciating, ignoring the millions of Australians who benefit from higher rates.

It also has to pretend that the multibillion-dollar-a-year cuts in government spending required to be sure of removing the need for just one 0.25 percentage-point rate rise could be easily and painlessly achieved, with no adverse economic consequences.

The other truth the fuss over the midyear update demonstrates is the full extent to which the government has lost control of the economic debate. Its success in limiting the effect of the global recession is the envy of governments around the world, yet the opposition has succeeded in portraying its performance as disastrous.

Even the press gallery is buying the Libs' propaganda about excessive, wasteful spending and the need for swingeing spending cuts to get the budget back on the rails. Nonsense. The real story is how amazingly responsible the government's been.

Every government spends big during recessions, but this is the first to force itself to make every spending measure temporary. In consequence, its task in returning the budget to surplus is much easier than in past recoveries. For instance, real government spending is set to fall by 1.1 per cent next financial year as the stimulus spending ends.

From the start, the government adopted a "deficit exit strategy" to bank all revenue growth and limit real spending growth to 2 per cent a year until the budget was back in surplus. No government has ever voluntarily donned such a chastity belt.

Yet it tightened the belt in last year's budget. And in the election campaign raised the status of the return to surplus in 2012-13 from a projection to a promise.

There's no reason to doubt Julia Gillard's resolve to keep that promise.

It requires a turnaround in the budget balance over three years of 4.5 per cent of gross domestic product - equivalent to about $63 billion a year - "the fastest budget turnaround on record". D'ya reckon that might have a helpful effect on interest rates?

And yet the political cognoscenti have been convinced the government is a profligate spender that isn't really trying to pull in its belt and is leaving home buyers to be tortured by central bankers.

It's not policy that's the problem, it's Labor's amateurish exposition of that policy.


Saturday, November 13, 2010

How economists forgot much of what they knew

When I started as an economics writer in the mid-1970s, the Keynesian ideas that had guided macro-economic policy through the postwar Golden Age were judged a failure and economics was in crisis.

But now, as Professor John Quiggin of the University of Queensland reminds us in his new book, Zombie Economics, the global financial crisis and the Great Recession have revealed the ideas that replaced simple Keynesianism as failures that plunged economics back into crisis.

The end of the Golden Age and the loss of faith in Keynesianism were brought about by the advent of "stagflation" - high inflation despite a stagnant economy. Keynesian theory said you could have high unemployment or high inflation but not at the same time. It could fix one or the other but not both together.

There aren't many new ideas in economics, just old ideas tarted up. Keynes's ideas were new, however. The "neo-classical" orthodoxy of his day said recessions couldn't happen, so it couldn't explain the Great Depression of the 1930s and had no policies to end it.

Keynes identified various market "imperfections" that explained the economy's malfunctioning and advocated government spending to stimulate the economy and get it growing again. When economists lost faith in Keynesianism they turned back to the discredited neo-classical orthodoxy. Milton Friedman's "monetarism", for instance, was based on the old "quantity theory of money".

Government policymakers soon gave up on monetarism's targeting of growth in the supply of money - it didn't work - but a lasting consequence of that episode was to switch the primacy in macro-management from fiscal policy (the budget) to monetary policy (interest rates).

Keynesianism was criticised because its approach at the macro (top-down) level didn't fit with the bottom-up approach of micro-economics. Its conclusions about how the whole economy worked didn't fit with the standard conclusions about how individual markets worked.

Building models of the macro economy based on neo-classical micro-economic foundations had various attractions. Giving up Keynesianism's more realistic assumptions about how the world worked made the models more rigorously logical and amenable to mathematics.

Assuming everyone was rational and in possession of perfect information got economics back to its libertarian roots, creating a presumption against government intervention in markets and favouring small government and lower taxes.

One development on the old neo-classical foundation was the "efficient market hypothesis", which Quiggin says is the central theoretical doctrine of the "market liberalism" that replaced Keynesianism.

It says financial markets are the best possible guide to the value of economic assets and therefore to decisions about investment and production. And coming after the collapse of the Keynesian Bretton Woods system of fixed exchange rates, it provided a rationale for the era of finance-driven capitalism that's ended so badly.

In its "weak form", the hypothesis says movements in the prices of assets such as shares can't be predicted from their past movements as claimed by "technical analysts". Like a drunk, share prices move in a "random walk" in reaction to whatever good or bad news next comes along.

In its "strong form", the hypothesis says the market price of an asset is the best possible estimate of its value, incorporating all the available information.

If this is true, bubbles can't develop in asset markets, causing them to crash when finally the bubble bursts.

You can see how this faith - an amazing triumph of hope over centuries of experience - encouraged the excessive deregulation of banks and the financial system, which had formerly been heavily regulated in response to the banks' key role in the Depression.

At the level of macro-economic theory, monetarism was soon superseded by "new classical" economics, incorporating mathematically (and ideologically) convenient propositions such as "rational expectations" and "Ricardian equivalence".

Rational expectations assumes people's expectations about future events will always be right; everyone has the same views about how the economy works as the economics professors who built the model.

Ricardian equivalence - named after David Ricardo, the classical economist who first thought of the idea, then dismissed it - assumes that when governments engage in deficit spending during recessions this has no stimulatory effect on the economy because everyone knows taxes will eventually have to rise to pay off the debt, so they start saving.

Between them, these ideas rendered ineffective government efforts to manage the macro economy. In practice, the academics were less damning of monetary policy. Predictably, new classical economics was never popular with politicians and treasuries, but it fed the general mood that the less governments intervened in the economy the better.

These "new classical" academics developed "real business cycle" theory to explain why economies move in cycles of boom and bust, even though simple neo-classical theory says they don't and many conservative economists had argued that all unemployment was voluntary. Under this theory all fluctuations in economic activity are caused by "exogenous shocks" (developments outside the economic system) such as changes in technology, the terms of trade or workers' preferences for leisure.

Eventually academics - including those in the "new Keynesian" school, which retained remnants of the old Keynesianism - coalesced around the "dynamic stochastic general equilibrium" model. This did allow for the possibility that wages and prices might be slow to adjust, and for imbalances between supply and demand, but moved the model only a short way towards the real world.

The fact that, following the malfunctioning of the 1970s, the main economies seemed to settle down after 1985 - with inflation back under control and unemployment lower - led many economists to conclude this Great Moderation proved economics was now on the right track and the business cycle had been tamed.

Famous last words. The US housing boom proved to be a giant bubble that eventually burst, we realised what crazy games the global financial markets had been playing, the sharemarket crashed, the banking system tottered on its foundations and the developed world entered by far the worst recession since the Depression, which looks likely to linger for the rest of the decade.

And the people whose unrealistic theories helped to bring the calamity about had no idea it was coming because they were playing "rigorous" mathematical games at the time.

I haven't done justice to Quiggin's book, so if you're interested in a readable exposition of the exploits of academic economists over the past 35 years I recommend it highly. It's the story of how economists forgot much of what they knew. Please, guys, don't do that again.


Wednesday, November 10, 2010


Talk to Watermark’s CEO lunch, Sydney
November 10, 2010

The immediate outlook for our economy is for strengthening growth. Our economy’s trend or ‘potential’ rate of growth is about 3.25 per cent a year, but the Reserve Bank is forecasting growth of 3.5 per cent this calendar year, rising to 3.75 per cent next year and 4 per cent in 2012. At present most of the growth is coming from the high prices we’re receiving for our exports of coal and iron ore. Australia’s terms of trade are the best they’ve been at least since Federation, excluding the two-quarter spike in wool prices during the Korean war. Those high prices are likely to fall back somewhat over the next year or two, but by then the stimulus to growth is likely to be coming from an unprecedented program of investment in mining and natural gas production capacity.

If you find it hard to believe the economy is travelling so well it’s probably because some parts of the economy aren’t doing all that well. Retailing is doing it tough because, though households have growing incomes, they’re saving a higher proportion of that income and tending to pay down their debts rather than add to them. This position probably won’t last long, but the longer it does the better. Why would I say that? Because the looming massive boom in business investment - mainly mining investment - will be more than enough to keep the economy growing strongly, and if we add a consumption boom on the top of that the Reserve Bank will have no choice but to limit inflation pressure by pushing interest rates up even further than it would already have had to.

If you’re still not convinced the economy is travelling so well at present you have to explain why the labour market is so strong. Employment grew by almost 340,000 over the year to September - up more than 3 per cent - and unemployment is down to 5.1 per cent. Even in what many regard as the basket-case economy of NSW, employment has grown by 2.5 per cent and the unemployment rate is down to 5.2 per cent.

That last comparison leads me to the next point I want to make: don’t overdo the two-speed economy stuff. It is true the resources boom is concentrated in Queensland and Western Australia, but the links between the state economies are strong and income flows very readily across state borders. The federal government’s taxing and spending helps to bring that about, as does the way the Grants Commission divides up the GST revenue between the states. But the states also trade with each other so money that’s earned in one state often gets spent in another. Another point to note is that Queensland’s economy isn’t travelling all that well at present, mainly because its tourist industry has been hard hit by the high dollar.

But the main thing I want to say is this: although the major developed economies are likely to experience very weak growth over the rest of the decade, we look like having a decade-long mining investment boom. It’s possible, of course, that the Chinese economy could fall over and leave us in the lurch, but I don’t think it’s very likely. I’ll worry about that if it happens. So, on the face of it, we look like having a great time while most of our rich mates do it tough. But here’s the trick: for a lot of people - a lot of industries - the great boom of the 2010s isn’t likely to be much fun. Why not? Because we’re re-entering the resources boom with the economy already close to full capacity, which means the Reserve will be eternally worried about inflation and will never have its hand far from the interest rate lever. Economists regard full employment as an unemployment rate of about 4.75 per cent. If it goes much lower than that you get growing shortages of skilled labour and upward pressure on wages, which flows through to the prices of goods and services. Just last week the Reserve made the first 0.25 percentage-point move from a neutral stance of monetary policy to a restrictive stance. It has a long way further to go as it seeks to keep inflation within it 2 to 3 per cent target range over the rest of the decade.

The high interest rates are likely to be accompanied by a high exchange rate. It will be high not so much because interest rates are high as because export prices are high, because money is pouring into Australia to finance the mining investment boom and because the prospects for our economy will be so much more attractive than for the other developed economies.

This high exchange rate means our non-mining export and import-competing industries - farming, manufacturing, tourism and education - are likely to be continuously under the gun. Life’s going to be very tough for them for a protracted period. There won’t be a lot governments can do to ease the pressure on them, and there won’t be a lot their econocrats want them to do. There is some scope for big increases in the budget surplus to limit the upward pressure on interest rates, but this is easily exaggerated. From an economist’s perspective, the pressure the high exchange rate imposes on the non-mining tradeables industries isn’t a bad thing, it’s a good thing. It’s part of the way a floating exchange rate helps to limit inflation during a protracted resources boom. With the economy already at full employment, the problem is finding the additional labour and capital needed by the expanding resources sector. But the high exchange rate causes the non-mining tradeables industries to contract, thus releasing resources to flow to the resources sector. Immigration is another source of skilled labour, of course.

The other way to think of it is that we’re likely to be entering a protracted period of a perpetually tight labour market. Combine the long boom with the ageing of the population and employers will really know they’re alive. It will be a period where they’re always on the lookout for more skilled staff, where they’re trying to accommodate baby boomers rather than have them retire and trying to encourage staff loyalty. Those with more sense will be focusing on training and internal promotion rather than poaching the staff of other firms.

Turning to the political outlook, the dust is settling after the extraordinary events of this year and a few things are becoming clearer. First point is to abandon any expectation that the minority Gillard government could fall at any moment. The independents whose votes would be needed to bring about the government’s defeat have as great a motive for not doing that as the government has for wanting to survive. In any case, we’ve had plenty of experience of minority governments at the state level and we know they tend to be long-lasting. Similarly, I wouldn’t assume that, just because the Libs came so close to winning this time, they’re dead set to win the next election whenever it’s held. If Gillard survives for the best part of three years it’s anyone’s guess as to the relative standing of the two parties at that time. Gillard may have found respect and affection in the heart of the electorate by then - she’ll certainly be trying to - or Abbott may have revealed the more erratic and manic side of his character that led so many people to write him off. Three years of unrelenting opposition to everything - punch, punch, punch - could wear very thin with an electorate that gets terribly tired of seeing politicians perpetually arguing with each other. Or Abbott may grow in stature in the job, as may Gillard. The big question is whether Gillard has a learning curve. I think Rudd had no such learning curve, but there’s little doubt this Labor government has a lot to learn about governing. Labor has proved to be remarkably amateurish, even in the matter of political spin. It thought the game was about spin; it turned out to be about communicating to the electorate your vision, determination, diligence and competence.

In contrast to Rudd - and notwithstanding pink batts and the BER - Gillard is a highly competent administrator, she listens, consults and carries people with her - her own side, the bureaucrats and even the interest groups. She’s a highly experienced and skilful negotiator. What she’s not is a person of great conviction and charisma. With the retirement of Lindsay Tanner, this government is down to just one economic rationalist, Craig Emerson - that is, just one person with a deep understanding of how markets work and a commitment to making them work well. The rest of the government just pretends to be rational reformers because they feel that, politically, they have no choice. Labor has an inferiority complex in the area of budgeting, and is very conscious of the fact that it continues in office with the consent of business - particularly big business; it is constantly seeking the approval of business and is wary of doing anything that might seriously annoy business.

Many people have been expecting this minority government to be a weak government: a government that doesn’t have much direction and doesn’t get much done because it can’t get the numbers on anything. Maybe a government that’s obliged to do stupid, wasteful things to keep in with the motley collection of independents on whose support it depends. We haven’t seen much sign of this yet - perhaps it’s too early - and I’m not sure this will end up being a major issue. From my perspective, this is likely to be a weak government more because it doesn’t believe in anything much and its lack of conviction robs it of the courage to do anything very unpopular.

In a speech she gave last night, Gillard spelt out her core beliefs - the things that drive her politically: hard work, education, respect. Hard work means being self-reliant. Education as the main way people get a chance to better themselves. Respect - some people aren’t better than others because of their title, occupation or background.

She also spelt out her government’s vision for Australia: a strong economy, and opportunity for all. More jobs, more opportunity, better life chances. For all, not some.

Finally, she left us with a clear idea of her agenda: a price on carbon, a decision on water and getting the budget back into surplus by 2012-13. No doubt you could add pressing on with the NBN, bedding down the mining tax, finding a regional solution to asylum seekers and a few other things - but an old agenda (no addition of major new items) and a modest agenda, one with about as much challenge as she feels able to cope with.


Demand a better deal and stop moaning about banks

Forgive me if I'm less than impressed by the tirade of righteous indignation being unleashed against the banks. It's self-serving, selective and uninformed.

I guess when you get angry you forget to check things out and think them through. The media and the politicians on both sides are whipping up indignation, rather than conveying information and fostering understanding.

Much of the indignation has assumed that if the Commonwealth Bank has raised its mortgage interest rate by 0.2 percentage points more than the 0.25 percentage-point increase in the official interest rate, the other three big banks are sure to follow suit.

But so far they haven't. And I think it's unlikely they will. My bet is that some will raise their rates by more than the official increase, but by less than the Commonwealth. And at least one of them won't exceed the official increase. If that bank is National Australia Bank, its rate will be 0.32 percentage points lower than the Commonwealth's.

If I'm on the right track, the oft-repeated claim that there's no competition between the banks will be seen as false.

But let's say I'm quite wrong and all the banks do as the cynics expect and follow the Commonwealth's lead in raising their mortgage rates by almost double the official increase. In that event home buyers won't end up being any worse off.

Why not? Because the Reserve Bank has left little doubt it expects to announce further rate rises in the months ahead. With the economy back in a resources boom, it will be raising rates to discourage borrowing and spending and thus limit inflation pressure.

And here's the trick none of the rabble-rousers bothered to tell the punters: the Reserve long ago made it clear that the interest rates it cares about are those actually paid by households and businesses, not its own official rate. So if the banks get ahead of the game and raise their rates by twice the increase in the official rate, that just means we'll end up with one less increase in the official rate than we would have. It will all come out in the wash.

Another unwarranted assumption by the indignation merchants is that all of us are borrowers from the banks and none of us are lenders to the banks. Nonsense. Many people - including those in or approaching retirement, those who rent and those saving for a home deposit - have savings deposited with banks.

And those people have benefited from the same process people with home loans have been complaining about. The banks have justified their various rate rises in excess of official increases by saying the cost to them of the funds they borrow for lending to home buyers and businesses has risen by more than the increase in the official rate. This isn't always true, but it does contain a significant element of truth. And one respect in which it's true is that the banks are now paying much higher interest rates on deposits, particularly term deposits.

Before the global financial crisis, the rates the banks paid on term deposits were below the official interest rate. Now, however, they're well above it. Although the official rate is now 4.75 per cent, it's easy to get better than 6 per cent on a six-month deposit.

(And don't forget that every home buyer with money parked in a "redraw" account is a lender as well as a borrower. Most of these people would, in effect, be earning an interest rate on their savings equal to the rate they pay on their loan.)

In the aftermath of the crisis, the banks decided they'd be better off getting more of their funds from retail depositors and less from wholesale money markets here and overseas. But as they battled for more deposits, they bid up the rates on those deposits to unheard of levels - further proof that competition between the big four isn't dead.

Another sign of competition between the banks that the rabble-rousers haven't seen fit to remind us of is the way NAB has led the way in cutting its fees and charges, including unreasonable charges on credit cards.

Everyone imagines the greedy banks love picking on helpless home buyers when they're trying to protect their profit margins by passing on their higher costs of borrowing. Don't kid yourself. They hate it because they know home buyers are protected by the fuss-making media and politicians.

So what do they do? They push more of their higher costs off onto business - particularly small business - and less onto home buyers. This gives them less grief from the noise-makers while imposing a hidden cost on the economy's ability to create jobs.

We're suckers for illusions.

The media always quote the banks' announced "indicator" rates on home loans. Before the latest rise in the official rate, the average indicator for standard variable mortgages from banks was 7.4 per cent. But whereas small businesses often pay more than their indicator rate, home buyers usually pay less. The actual rate paid by people with mortgages averaged 6.75 per cent - a discount of 0.65 percentage points.

Why do bank managers charge less than the announced price? Because they're afraid of losing business to their competitors. But guess what? The biggest discounts go to those who bargain - those who look around at what others are offering and threaten to move unless their existing lender offers a better deal.

The trouble with all the media and political fuss about rates is it reinforces the impression "competition" is something the banks - or the government - should deliver to us on a plate.

Sorry, whingeing lazybones, markets don't work like that. Those who say competition between the banks is inadequate are right. But they should be looking in the mirror as they say it.


Monday, November 8, 2010

Labor's bluff called on bank competition

There are no good guys in the fuss over "unofficial" rises in mortgage interest rates. Each of the players is on the make: the greedy banks, the self-pitying punters, the commercially driven media and the insincere pollies.

The banks have happily used the global financial crisis to gain advantage over their non-bank competitors and enhance their pricing power - though we've yet to discover the extent to which the big four exploit that power in this episode.

It is, of course, "rational" for the banks to want to stamp out competition and to exploit whatever special advantages they gain from the government's need to protect the public from instability in the banking system. But that doesn't mean we have to condone or put up with such behaviour.

The media, as usual, are bringing far more heat than light to the affair. They're playing it for all it's worth, fanning the punters' uncomprehending self-pity for commercial advantage without any real desire to help them understand the wider issues or even help them deal with their problem.

And it's hard to feel any sympathy for Wayne Swan and the Rudd/Gillard government. It's been facing the issue of unofficial rate rises virtually since its election in November 2007, but it still hasn't reached an effective strategy for dealing with it.

Throughout its life the government has exhibited three related deficiencies: a lack of values, a lack of courage and a lack of skill in managing its relations with the electorate.

Labor's approach to unofficial rate rises - like its approach to executive salaries and "the cost of living" - has been dominated by focus group-driven insincerity. There's been a lot of "I feel your pain" and "I share your outrage" rhetoric without any great intention to take effective action.

What Labor has yet to realise is that this is a good tactic for oppositions - just ask Joe Hockey - but a bad one for governments. Pretty soon the punters say the obvious: if you're so concerned, what are you doing about it? When you've been in power for three years, they say what have you done about it?

Answer: nothing that's made any difference. There are two reasons for the lack of effective action on unofficial rate rises (and executive pay and the cost of living): you don't want to do the obvious and intervene directly because you know the side-effects might be worse than the decease, and you lack the courage to do anything - sensible or otherwise - that might annoy powerful interests involved.

A big part of Labor amateurism in media management - spin, if you like - is the way so much of what it says in the media is directed at attacking the opposition. A more experienced leadership would understand that the best way to neutralise your opponents is to ignore them.

The government's unceasing response to whatever the opposition is saying gives those opinions legitimacy and more media attention than they'd otherwise get. When Swan and Julia Gillard falsely accuse the Libs of wanting to re-regulate interest rates and refix the exchange rate, they richly deserve what they've ended up with: Hockey looking like the only person with a sensible policy.

Arguing the toss with the opposition not only fails to convince the punters, it also crowds out what the government should be doing: educating the public on the complexities of the issue and on individuals' responsibility for fixing their own problems (as does all the fake I-feel-your-pain/outrage rhetoric).

All this reinforces the mistaken notion that every problem can be and should be solved by the government. At least Penny Wong has had the gumption to tell whingeing punters they should bargain with their bank manager.

One small problem with the I-share-your-outrage approach is that, thanks to the global financial crisis, at various points the banks have been justified in varying their mortgage rates differently from the official interest rate.

So the government's been right to focus its policy response on acting to enhance competition between the banks by reducing the barriers facing people wanting to move their deposit accounts or mortgages.

The problem has been the utter ineffectiveness of these efforts to date, which demonstrates the government's insincerity, its lack of genuine belief in market forces and its fear of offending the powerful banking interests.

If Labor was genuine in its economic rationalism - instead of just pretending because it's a politically convenient position for a supposedly left-of-centre government - it would have the courage to make pro-competitive interventions despite the banks' objections.

That's what we need: imposition of measures - maybe portable bank account numbers - to facilitate account-switching and legislative restrictions on unreasonable exit fees, an end to St George-like takeovers, proper pricing of government guarantees and probably restrictions on the banks' overseas adventurism (which has almost always ended in tears).

If Labor really understood and believed in market forces, it would understand that banking is (necessarily) far from a free market and that the government's extensive protection of the banks both justifies and necessitates carefully considered countervailing interventions to enhance competition and also limit the banks' moral-hazard temptation to have Australian taxpayers indirectly underwrite their foreign adventures.

After years of Labor faking it, the punters and the rabid end of the media have called its bluff: do something effective to curb the banks' market power or be judged a waste of space. We'll see if it can summon the courage.


Saturday, November 6, 2010

Use your brain before joining the bank lynch mob

When the punters, the pollies and the media all get their knickers in a twist over rising mortgage interest rates, any argument - no matter how misconceived - is fair game.

We're being assured that the banks' huge and growing profits are obvious evidence of "gouging". And any increase in mortgage rates in excess of the rise in the official interest rate is obviously immoral and probably should be made illegal.

Sorry, but no matter how unlovely the banks are - and I'm no admirer or defender of them - those propositions don't make sense.

With Westpac this week being the last of the big four banks to announce its annual profit, much has been made of the 26 per cent increase in its underlying (or "cash") profit to $5.9 billion. Surely this is proof of profiteering?

Well, no, not when you look at it.

Turns out the main cause of the increase was not a rise in the bank's net interest income but a big fall in the amount of its annual provision for bad and doubtful debts.

The next supposed evidence that the big four banks are gouging is just the huge amount of their combined profits: $21.4 billion, as we were told many times this week.

But anyone who knows the first thing about business knows you can't tell much about how well a business is doing just by the size of its profit. You have to compare the size of the profit with the size of the business. A profit of $1 billion would be fantastic for a corner store, but pathetically poor for Telstra, for instance.

In other words, what matters is not the absolute size of the profit but the degree of profit-ability - profit as a proportion of the size the business, measured by the amount of its assets or the amount of its "equity" (the money invested by the owners of the business).

Our banks are very big - among the biggest companies in the country - so it's not surprising their profits seem huge. The big four earn a return on assets of a bit under 1 per cent a year, and that hasn't changed much. Their return on equity, however, is usually up at 16 or 17 per cent a year. (It's a lot higher than the return on assets because the banks are highly "geared" or "leveraged" - they have a high ratio of borrowed funds to shareholders' equity.

How does this return on equity compare? Right now it's high by the standards of banks in the United States and Europe - but that's because those banks have screwed up so badly. Compared with the banks in Canada - a country that, like us, escaped most of the conflagration - ours are in the same ballpark.

Compared with other industries, however, these rates of return are high. Most businesses would be delighted to earn as much. Of course, rates of return need to take account of the riskiness of the business you're in - the chances of making losses if difficulties arise.

In theory, banking is a fairly risky business, thus justifying higher rates of return than for less risky businesses. The idea is you need to do better in the good years to cover the one or two years every decade when you do really badly.

In practice, however, banking isn't all that risky because - as we were reminded during the global crisis - it's effectively guaranteed by the government. What's more, our banks haven't had a bad year since the early 1990s.

So our banks are doing very nicely. I regard their rates of return as higher than they need to be (as is probably also the case in Canada) and thus a sign that price competition among the banks, and between the banks and other lenders, is less vigorous than it should be.

Turning to the notion that there's something immoral or illegitimate about rises in mortgage interest rates in excess of rises in the official interest rate, it has no basis in law or economics.

Banks borrow on one hand and lend on the other. They are justified in raising the interest rates they charge if they suffer an increase in the cost of the funds they borrow. By far the biggest single influence over the banks' cost of funds is the official interest rate - the cost to the banks of borrowing "cash" from each other overnight.

But it's not the only influence over the banks' cost of funds. These days they get about half their funds from retail depositors, less than a fifth from the short-term wholesale market (bank bills) and about a quarter from the long-term wholesale market (three- to five-year corporate bonds issued by the banks), with most of the rest provided by the banks' shareholders ("equity"). More than half the wholesale funding comes from overseas.

The point is that each of these sources yields funds priced at some margin above the official cash rate. Provided those margins stay fairly steady in absolute size, movements in the cash rate will accurately reflect movements in the banks' cost of funds.

This was the position for some years before the global financial crisis and it explains why the public gained the impression that mortgage interest rates always do and should move in lock step with the official cash rate.

But that happy state was disrupted by the crisis, which caused many of those margins above the cash rate to blow out, thus justifying changes in mortgage rates different from changes in the cash rate. Most of those margins have fallen back a long way as the crisis has abated. But now the banks are under pressure to change the mix of their funding, getting more from retail and less from wholesale, as well as more long-term and less short-term.

Trouble is, the newly preferred sources have higher margins above the cash rate. It thus becomes an empirical question whether the banks are justified in raising their mortgage rates by more than the rise in the cash rate. And the judgment of the econocrats is that, as a group, the banks aren't justified, though the Commonwealth may have a better case than the others.

So if too many of the other banks use the cover of the Commonwealth's increase of 0.20 percentage points in excess of the rise in the cash rate to raise their own mortgage rates by more we can take this as a sign they're happily exploiting the inadequate competition in lending.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

A sustainable Australia?

Clancy Auditorium, UNSW
Thursday, November 4, 2010

My strongest reason for opposing continuing high levels of net migration is my scepticism about the airy assurances from economists and others that continued population growth is compatible with an ecologically sustainable Australia. Economists offer these assurances not because they’ve thought deeply about Australia’s ecological carrying capacity - it’s not a subject they know much about - but because they’re used to thinking about the economy in isolation from the environment and because they have a suspiciously convenient faith in the ability of technological advance to solve environmental problems and faith in the ability of increases in man-made capital to substitute for the depletion of non-renewable resources, the over-exploitation of renewable resources, the degradation of waterways and soil, the destruction of species and the damage to ecosystem services (such as carbon sinks).

But since I’m no expert on ecology either, I’ll stick to something I know a bit about. It’s to warn non-economists that the contribution of immigration to increased material prosperity isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. There’s no doubt that net migration causes the economy to grow - to be bigger because it has more people in it. Businesses want a bigger economy because it gives them more people to sell to and profit from. From their self-interested perspective, that’s quite rational. But for economists and politicians it’s not good enough to assume that bigger is better, to believe in growth for the sake of growth. No, according to their narrow, materialist perspective, growth is only a good thing if it makes us better off, if it raises our material standard of living, if it increases real income per person.

Now here’s the thing: although economists don’t like to talk about it - don’t like to think about it - plenty of studies have shown that immigration does little or nothing to raise real income per person. What little gain there is goes to the immigrants themselves, not the pre-existing population that invited them in. This conventional but little-trumpeted finding is confirmed by the most recent study, undertaken by the Productivity Commission in 2006.

So why is it that adding extra workers tends not to raise the average standard of living? Well, it’s well understood by economists: it’s because all those extra people require additional spending on capital - ‘capital broadening’ as economists call it - if the average amount of capital per person isn’t to fall. The extra people need to be supported by additional capital in their private lives - more housing - additional capital equipment in the firms where they work, and additional public infrastructure: more roads, more public transport, schools, hospitals, power and water. Thus the economic benefit of having more workers is essentially cancelled out by the cost of providing the extra capital that needs to go with them and their families (most of which has to be borrowed from foreigners).

The fashion among economists at present is to ignore this glaring drawback and focus on more seemingly appealing arguments, such as that high immigration will reduce our problem with ageing (true but exaggerated) and Professor Peter McDonald’s argument that politicians don’t determine the size of our immigration, the needs of the economy do. There’s some truth to this, but then economists point to the resources boom and the massive increase in construction activity it involves and conclude we must open the immigration flood gates to avoid skilled-labour shortages and wage inflation. Actually, we only surrender our control over immigration to the economy when we proceed from the assumption that economic growth is pretty much the only thing that matters and that the role of the natural environment can be left out of the model.


Wednesday, November 3, 2010

There are lies, damned lies and vested interests' reports

What's the world coming to? The latest is that Australia has become a net importer of food. Last financial year our imports of food and groceries exceeded exports by $1.8 billion, a dramatic turnaround from our $4.5 billion surplus five years earlier. This alarming news comes from a report by the accounting firm KPMG for the Australian Food and Grocery Council.

The council's chief executive, Kate Carnell, said the industry "is still a major exporter but imports are rising fast, eroding the trade surplus historically enjoyed by the industry".

"I don't think Australians really understand what we're facing at the moment," she said. "We really are facing a scenario where Australia really won't manufacture much at all in this space. The majority of products will come from overseas.

"The ... costs of power, costs of staff, costs of transport, costs of government regulation, costs of the drought in the food space [have] really put pressure on costs for Australian manufacturers.

"To protect Australia's food supply and overcome this challenge, there must be a 'whole-of-government' national strategy to ensure food and grocery manufacturing's long-term growth, increase export earnings and boost competitiveness. Proposed water allocation cuts for food production in the Murray-Darling Basin will also threaten the future viability of numerous food manufacturers in the basin ... and making it harder for locally produced goods to compete with imports."

There's just one problem. This is all nonsense. Australia? A net importer of food? Yeah, sure. If you fell for it, your bulldust detector has seriously failed you in the media space.

And in these days of he-said-she-said journalism, you need your detector working as never before. Increasingly, the media are used by interest groups - whether governments, oppositions, businesses or lobby groups - to push their own barrows. And increasingly the media suspend disbelief and happily pass on the most dubious claims, provided they're sufficiently novel, alarming or combative.

Often the vested interests are waving some "modelling" or "independent report" they've bought from some seemingly reputable source. Only if you find the report and read its fine print do you discover the reputable source covering its backside with disclaimers.

Consider this from KPMG's report for the food and grocery council: "no opinions or conclusions intended to convey assurance have been expressed. The report has been prepared for general guidance on matters of interest only, and does not constitute professional advice.

"You should not act upon the information contained in this report without obtaining specific professional advice. No representation or warranty (express or implied) is given as to the accuracy or completeness of the information contained in this report ..."

Translation: if your bulldust detector isn't working that's your look-out.

According to figures compiled by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, in calendar 2009 we had total food exports of $25.4 billion and imports of $11 billion, leaving us with a surplus of $14.4 billion. Even if we ignore unprocessed and look only at processed food, we still had a trade surplus of $5.8 billion.

So how did the food and grocery council get exports of $21.5 billion and imports of $23.3 billion for 2009-10, giving that deficit of $1.8 billion? By using its own definition of "food and groceries". We're not talking about farmers here but the people who take what the farmers produce and process it for presentation in supermarkets.

So the council's figures exclude unprocessed food exports, including wheat (worth $4.8 billion in 2009), other grains and live animals. They include "grocery manufacturing products", such as medicines and pharmaceuticals, plastic bags and film, paper products and soap and other detergents.

That's food? It turns out our exports of "groceries" totalled $4.9 billion in 2009-10, whereas our imports totalled $12.9 billion, leaving us a "grocery" trade deficit of $8 billion. This is hardly surprising. Since when was Australia big in the manufacture of medicines? (And since when were they a major part of the Murray-Darling Basin economy?)

If you leave out groceries, the report's figures show we had exports of processed food and beverages worth $15.9 billion compared with imports of $9.9 billion, plus exports of fresh produce worth $700 million against imports of less than $500 million. That leaves us with a trade surplus of $6.2 billion for fresh and processed food and beverages. Don't be conned.

It is true, of course, that agriculture has been hard hit by the drought and by our very high exchange rate. And the international price competitiveness of manufacturing - whether of food, "groceries" or anything else - has been, and will continue to be, harmed by the high dollar.

The food and grocery council claims to represent about a quarter of Australian manufacturing industry. Rest assured, for as long as the resources boom keeps our exchange rate uncomfortably high - which might be for a decade or more - we'll be hearing complaints from manufacturers and demands that the government do something. The rest of them won't be hiding behind farmers, however.

Just to prepare you for the onslaught: Australia has long had, and always will have, a positively huge deficit on trade in manufactures and it's almost certain to get worse. None of this is a worry because you can't be good at everything.

Australia has long been a major world exporter of agricultural, mineral and energy commodities. Being a net importer of manufactures goes with that territory. Live with it.

Now we're being paid a fortune for our coal and iron ore and we're engaged in a decade-long period of investment for a huge increase in export capacity. The dark side of this is a high exchange rate and pressure on our farmers, manufacturers, tourism operators and education providers. You can't have everything.