Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Tiny tax cut a blessing for battlers

Forgive me, but I'm tickled by the latest joke: the good thing about having a woman as prime minister is we don't have to pay her as much. Actually, the amount the prime minister gets paid is just one of the many things that won't be changed by Labor's leadership switch.

A new face, a new atmosphere, a new attitude towards the government for many people, but surprisingly little change in policy.

Take, for instance, the tax cut we get from tomorrow. Its arrival has been forgotten in all the excitement, but it's still coming. It's the third of the three annual tax cuts Kevin Rudd promised and, though our budgetary circumstances have changed markedly since then, there was never much doubt it would be delivered.

Even so, the government has waxed hot and cold on the promised cuts. This time last year it didn't want to draw attention to them, perhaps because it might have seemed profligate adding a tax cut to all the cash it had been splashing around.

This year it's happy to have us noticing the cut because people have begun complaining again about "cost of living pressures". So, we're told - conveniently - the cut is intended to help.

But that's not all.

It's remarkable the things politicians think our forgetfulness will allow them to get away with saying. Wayne Swan claimed recently, "the Rudd government designed these tax cuts to boost incentives for labour force participation..." blah, blah, blah.

In truth, the cuts were designed by Peter Costello. Rudd simply pinched them from John Howard during the election campaign. The cut we get from tomorrow, the first day of the new financial year, will be the eighth we've had in a row, surely a record.

And next year? Next year we'll get nothing. Indeed, unless a change of government brings a change of policy, we're unlikely to see another tax cut for four years, maybe longer. That's because Labor has vowed not to cut taxes again until the budget is back in surplus and the surplus is equivalent to at least 1 per cent of gross domestic product (by then, about $17 billion).

So it's good to take note of tomorrow's cut, even if for most people it isn't all that generous. People with part-time jobs, or full-timers close to the minimum wage, earning between $16,000 and $37,000 a year will save a princely $2.90 a week. Those earning between $37,000 and $67,000 will save $8.65 a week.

From there up to $80,000 a year, the saving drops to $5.80 a week. But from there on it starts rising, to reach a peak of $25 a week for those battlers on $180,000 a year or more.

The higher dollar savings going to people on very high incomes shouldn't surprise you and, since those people pay a much higher proportion of their income in tax, this doesn't prove the tax cuts are biased in favour of the well-off.

By the same token, however, the government's trick of showing us the percentage decline in the amount of tax paid at each level of income is another unreliable guide to who benefits most.

This will always show those on the lowest incomes - and thus paying the lowest amounts of tax - make the biggest proportional savings.

If, for instance, I was formerly paying just $1 a week in taxation and the tax cut relieved me of this, the government could claim it had given me a saving of 100 per cent. But that would hardly leave me much better off. No, the tax economists will tell you the right way to determine the fairness of a tax cut is to look at the change in the proportion of people's total income they lose in tax - that is, their "average tax rate".

Judged this way, it turns out the maximum saving of about 1¢ in every dollar of income goes to people earning between $37,000 and $50,000 a year - quite modest incomes, well below the average full-time earnings of about $67,000 a year.

The workers who do best from this tax cut are those earning up to $30,000 a year less than average earnings. But, surprisingly, those who do worst are those earning up to almost $30,000 a year more than average earnings.

People earning incomes a bit below or above $180,000 a year save only about 0.7¢ in every dollar of income. Someone on $300,000 a year saves just 0.4¢ in the dollar.

Tax cuts can be expensive from the taxman's point of view. Just how expensive they are turns not on how much you give the high-income-earners (there aren't enough of them to make a big difference) but on how much you give those on incomes around the middle.

That's because such a high proportion of incomes are clustered around the middle. But the middle (or median) income is actually lower than average (or mean) full-time earnings of $67,000 a year. And since there are a lot more people on incomes a bit below the mean than a bit above it, this seemingly modest tax cut is actually quite an expensive one, coming at a cost to revenue of $3.8 billion a year.

So, largely by chance, these tax cuts really will do a bit to help a lot of genuine battlers cope with the rising cost of living.

Will it satisfy them? I very much doubt it. Because wages - and age pensions - rise faster than the cost of living, complaints about the rising cost of living are actually a cover for worries about the success of our efforts to keep up with our peers' ever-rising standard of living.

Most of us are pounding away on this hedonic treadmill, as psychologists call it, and all our economists and politicians can think to do is help us run faster.


Monday, June 28, 2010

Gillard has little room for compromise on tax

Ending the fight over the resource super profits tax may be at the top of Julia Gillard's to-do list, but she has no scope to drop the tax and little scope to reduce it.

Surprisingly to some, the reason the new Prime Minister can't drop the tax is not because it would leave a hole in the budget. Arithmetically, the tax could be dropped without affecting the government's commitment (repeated by Gillard) to have the budget back in surplus in 2012-13.

Why? Because, as Wayne Swan repeated on Friday, the resource tax is part of a package of tax changes. That package is essentially revenue-neutral and thus detachable from the budget.

Virtually all the proceeds of the tax would be used to pay for the other alleged reforms in the package: the cut in the rate of company tax, the instant asset write-off for small business, the various superannuation concessions, the resource exploration rebate, the standard tax deduction, the discount on tax on interest income and contributions to the planned state infrastructure fund.

Since the resource tax isn't due to start until July 2012, all the measures it pays for will be phased in from that date, a further indication it's part of a package.

Thus dropping the tax wouldn't leave a hole in the budget, but it would mean dropping all the political goodies it would have paid for.

So that's the first reason Gillard can't just drop the resource tax. It would rob the government of all its election promises and much of its second-term agenda; its rationale for seeking re-election.

But there's a deeper reason. Kevin Rudd, and now Gillard, have repeatedly insisted the miners pay the owners of the resources they mine a "fairer share" of the proceeds. Simply walking away from the tax because it had proved unpopular with the miners would be seen as a repeat of Rudd's decision to walk away from the emissions trading scheme (something he now says Gillard and Swan urged him to do).

And just as even people who were relieved to see the back of the trading scheme still concluded Rudd lacked convictions and the courage of them, so people with doubts about the wisdom of the resource tax would nonetheless conclude Gillard was equally lacking in convictions - an impression that would be reinforced by the motivation behind her brutal installation as leader.

If anything's crystal clear from Rudd's remarkable decline in public esteem following his cowardly abandonment of the emissions trading scheme, it's that voters expect their leaders to stand for something. Show them your sole motive is clinging to office and you're dead meat.

Combine the voters' desire for strength of character with the budgetary arithmetic and you see why Gillard has little scope to reduce the revenue raised by the resource tax. Cut too much from expected collections and you look weak in the face of powerful vested interests and you have to cut back your promised tax goodies to fit.

Considering the way business people have either stood silent or actively sympathised with the miners' resistance to paying more tax, it would serve them right if the net cost of reducing the tax was covered by reducing the planned 2 percentage point cut in the company tax rate.

Gillard will need to distinguish between changing those features of the resource tax the miners find most objectionable and simply reducing the burden of the tax. The former is a lot easier to concede than the latter.

Resource rent taxes come in different models. Ken Henry's version is theoretically superior to the present petroleum resource rent tax, with the latter's less generous treatment of losses but its threshold for the tax set at the long-term government bond rate plus 5 percentage points.

But it seems the miners were expecting the extension of the petroleum tax. They've been hugely critical of the Henry tax's guaranteed 40 per cent rebate on losses in place of the extra 5 percentage points on the threshold.

Gillard could accommodate them on this, and probably also exclude various lower value resources from the tax regime, at no great net cost to revenue - particularly if the planned move to a rebate (rather than a deduction) for exploration expenses was also abandoned.

This would probably make a lot of the smaller miners less unhappy and it would also yield modest savings to the big miners. Would it be sufficient to satisfy the big boys? I doubt it.

Here's where the "negotiations" (why an elected government should negotiate with unelected vested interests I don't know) get hard. The big boys' demand that the tax not apply to existing projects is simply impossible to accede to.

Why? Because, leaving aside the weakness of the argument that they should be excluded, it's clear existing projects would account for all the revenue. Indeed, it's a safe bet the reason BHP Billiton, Rio Tinto and Xstrata are carrying on so much is they'll be paying the lion's share of the $9 billion a year in revenue.

That leaves the possibility of cutting the 40 per cent rate of the resource tax. But this would be hugely expensive. Independent modelling I have commissioned (using a pocket calculator and the back of an envelope) suggests cutting the rate just to 35 per cent would cost about $1.1 billion a year.

It's therefore possible no compromise Gillard could come up with would satisfy the big miners now they've had the taste of blood.

But whether they go quietly or keep fighting turns on Gillard's skills as a conciliator and whether she can use a combination of offered concessions and argument to convince most voters that the miners' objection to giving the community a greater share of their windfall gains is unreasonable.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Model way of conning us all

A new prime minister but the same old problem: the mining industry claims the resource super-profits tax would damage it and the economy, whereas the government claims it would be great for the industry and the economy.

And both sides have "independent modelling" to support their claims.

If that doesn't make you sceptical about the use of modelling in the political debate, it should. But if you need more, try this: the two seemingly diametrically opposed modelling exercises were undertaken by the same commercial firm, KPMG.

It's taking people - even those close to the political action - a long time to wake up to the truth that the use of modelling in political arguments is just a way of conning the electorate. The less you know about economic models and how they work, the more impressed you are by their seemingly authoritative results.

The economy is a highly complex mechanism, which economists don't understand all that well. When you construct a mathematical model of the economy, you end up with a hugely oversimplified version of the real thing.

Often you can't test what you'd like to test - and what the punters assume you tested - because the model isn't sophisticated enough or because the data series you'd need don't exist. You end up with a model full of "proxies" (the best substitutes you can find). You can't model shades of grey, so you make do with black and white.

In other words, you have to make lots of assumptions. Economists don't know how the economy works; they just have rival theories about how it works. So their models are based on one theory or another.

The results thrown up by models are based heavily on the assumptions used. Use this set of assumptions, get that result. Use a different set, get a different result. Tell them what results you'd like and competent modellers can find the assumptions that produce what you want.

Economists don't accept the results of someone else's modelling until they know what assumptions were used and decide whether they consider them realistic or consistent with their own prior beliefs. Ideally, they want to determine which particular assumptions are driving the results.

Honest use of modelling results highlights the key assumptions used. But that is never the way modelling results are used in the political debate. Rather, the people who paid for the modelling quote a version of the results as impressive as possible and quite unqualified. The assumptions on which the results are based are never mentioned. They're trying to con the uninitiated.

The government paid KPMG Econtech to model the long-run effects on the economy of the resource super-profits tax and the cut in the rate of company tax. The government says the results were a "reform dividend" of a 0.7 per cent increase in long-run gross domestic product and a long-run increase in real average after-tax wages of 1.1 per cent.

If the long run is 15 or 20 or 30 years (we're not told), that's a pretty modest dividend. And the key assumption? Apparently, that the changes would make the tax system more economically efficient (because economic theory says they would).

Get it? If you thought the modelling was testing whether the changes would be good for the economy, you were conned. All the modelling tells us is by how much the changes would benefit the economy if they're economically efficient as assumed ... given all the other assumptions.

The modelling KPMG prepared for the industry lobby group, the Minerals Council of Australia, was begun in September last year - so much for the claim the industry was "ambushed" by the government.

It found that the impact of a higher effective tax rate and funding costs above the long-term government bond rate would be to reduce the net present value of new mining projects under evaluation. "This is likely to result in mining companies deferring or cancelling Australian mining projects in the short to medium term."

But what were the key assumptions used to achieve this result? I can tell you thanks to an evaluation of the study by Professor Paul Frijters, of the University of Queensland, found on the blog site.

He says that, rather than looking at what the new tax would do to all possible future projects, the report looks at the "second quartile" of all projects. That is, not the 25 per cent of most profitable projects but the 25 per cent after those.

"This is, of course, because the first quartile will go ahead anyway and the third quartile will probably see increases in net present value due to the cost-sharing in the resource super-profits tax. It loads the dice towards the negative to focus on only 25 per cent of all considered future projects," Frijters says.

Even so, Frijters says the study relies on two tricks to get its low net present values. In four out of six cases it assumes new projects have to obtain their equity capital at a cost of 15 per cent a year. And it assumes all projects last 30 years, even those that soon fail.

The 15 per cent required return is based on actual returns to equity over the past 30 years (including capital gains) which are unlikely to be repeated in the coming 30 years (you can't go on growing by 15 per cent a year forever), rather than the cost of obtaining capital.

Frijters says huge mining companies should be able to use corporate bonds to borrow capital for about 8 per cent. Clearly, inflating the assumed cost of capital makes projects appear less profitable.

Given this inflated cost of capital, the assumption that even failed projects last 30 years hugely reduces the value of the new tax's guarantee of a 40 per cent rebate on all losses, because firms have to wait up to 30 years to receive their rebate, with the value of that rebate indexed by only the long-term government bond rate.

I noted, too, the assumption that the guaranteed 40 per cent rebate on losses doesn't affect the cost of equity capital, the cost of borrowed capital or the proportions of each that are used.

So a key attraction of the proposed tax is effectively ignored as, remarkably, these economists assume businesses don't respond to incentives.

Frijters concludes that, in his mind, the report carries a big sticker saying "some poor competent modeller was told to make up a set of assumptions that would help the cause of a rich client".

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Our media roasts old chestnuts

If a genie appeared from a bottle and offered me one wish, I'd choose to be a columnist on a major newspaper. So I guess you could say I love my job. But there are times when I feel compelled to warn people to be careful about what they read, hear and see in the media.

Many people assume the media give them a representative picture of what's going on in the world beyond their own experience. But this is a misunderstanding of the role of the news media and the nature of "news".

The media select from all the things happening in the world only those things they consider "newsworthy" and thus worth drawing to our attention. What is newsworthy? Anything the media believe their audience will find interesting and nothing they fear the audience will find boring.

What's interesting? Anything unusual. But also anything threatening. It's perfectly clear that people find bad news more interesting than good news, which is why the media give prominence to things that are going wrong and say little about things that are going well.

Most of what's happening in the world is highly predictable and terribly ordinary. This means much news is selected because it's unrepresentative. So there's a high risk it will leave people with a mistaken impression of what's happening in the world.

Journalists like to believe everything they report is new. In truth, it's often just a new example of a familiar story, one the journos know the audience loves to hear again. Sometimes a new, offbeat angle is ignored so the story can be forced to fit a tried-and-true formula.

A lot of news is selected because it will appeal to the audience's prejudices or stir people's emotions in the way they like to be stirred. Consider some recent examples from my field of economic news.

There has been much indignation over the Keneally government's decision to change the tax on poker machines in hotels, with suggestions of undue influence by the Australian Hotels Association. About 60 per cent of hotels with pokies - those that don't make much out of them - will now pay less tax or even no tax.

You have to read the reports carefully to discover the changes are actually "revenue neutral", meaning the savings to the 60 per cent of hotels will be exactly offset by the higher tax paid by the remaining 40 per cent, leaving the government's total revenue unaffected.

Rather deflating of the righteous indignation, don't you think?

The media make no pretence of being bound by the scientific method. Economists are always being reminded not to draw general conclusions from anecdotal evidence rather than economy-wide statistics.

But the media are tellers of stories. They're the industrialised equivalent of cavemen sitting around the fire at night swapping yarns. The telling of stories about other people meets one of our most primitive human needs.

What it doesn't do, however, is give us an accurate picture of what's happening in the world. Take all the stories we're hearing about waste in the Rudd government's program to stimulate the economy by constructing a new building at every primary school.

News gathering is selective. People with complaints of waste - justified or otherwise - have had no trouble getting publicity. People without complaints don't bother approaching the media. And where reporters have encountered people saying everything was fine, these facts would have been ignored as "not news".

There have been enough anecdotes to convince me waste has been a significant problem. The real question is: how significant? What proportion of schools has experienced wastefulness? What proportion of the government's spending has been wasted?

No number of examples of alleged waste can answer these questions. What they can do is cause people who don't understand the biases involved in news gathering to gain the impression "the waste has been huge" or even "all that money has been wasted".

The one thorough report we've seen so far came from the federal Auditor-General. It was critical, but far from damning. One of his findings was that 95 per cent of school principals agreed they were confident the funds "will provide an improvement to my school, which will be of ongoing value to my school and school community".

Every year since 1997 the Reserve Bank has published an annual survey of the fees banks charge to their business and household customers. And every year the media turn the survey results into the same much-loved story: huge increase in the fees banks rip from you and me.

This year, however, the story tended to be relegated to the business section, though the same formula was used: huge increase in the fees banks charge businesses.

You had to read the reports carefully to get the real story: last financial year the fees the banks charged households grew by 3 per cent (the lowest increase since the survey began and far less than the 8 per cent increases in the two previous years), whereas fees charged to business leapt by 13 per cent (far more than in the two previous years).

Most of the growth in fees collected from households came from charges paid by the greater number of people choosing to break their fixed-rate mortgage contracts, but this was largely offset by a fall in banks' income from transaction and account-keeping fees. Much of this was explained by the banks' offers to waive fees to people who made regular deposits, part of their greatly increased competition to attract deposits.

By contrast, most of the huge growth in fees collected from business came from higher fees to existing customers now considered to be more risky and higher fees on undrawn overdrafts.

The story no one thinks worth writing is that since the global financial crisis, the banks have gone easier on their household customers but harder on their business customers.


Monday, June 21, 2010

God give us better armed forces, but not yet

Kevin Rudd's chronic tendency to over-promise and under-deliver means the Australian Strategic Policy Institute's annual review of the defence budget is always an object lesson in how his long-suffering purse-string ministers manage to square the budget circle each year.

The fact that the Howard government was prepared to neglect many areas of spending that the Rudd government isn't - education and infrastructure, for openers - doesn't leave it hard to believe Rudd will be economising in areas John Howard favoured, with spending on defence the prime example.

Not, of course, that Rudd hasn't promised to spend a lot more on defence. In his defence white paper delivered a week or two before last year's budget, he matched Howard's commitment to 3 per cent real growth a year in defence spending until 2017-18, and 2.2 per cent thereafter until 2030.

To be fair to him, he also announced a "strategic reform program" in which $20.6 billion worth of the real growth would be covered by savings.

These brave plans took their first blow just two weeks later, when last year's budget cut $8.8 billion in funding from the following six years and deferred it to undisclosed years beyond.

Clearly, the goal of returning the budget to surplus (which includes limiting the real growth in overall budget spending to 2 per cent a year) was given priority over plans to strengthen our defence capability.

The author of the institute's review, Dr Mark Thomson, says that, on the face of it, defence was let off lightly in this year's budget. There were no further spending deferrals (not within the period of the forward estimates, anyway).

And defence was given a $1.6 billion "supplementation" to cover the cost of overseas deployments over the next four years, although it was required to absorb almost all of the $1.1 billion cost of enhanced protection for our forces in Afghanistan.

Defence spending is budgeted to increase by 3.6 per cent in real terms in the coming financial year, reaching almost $27 billion. What's wrong with that?

Just that the job done on defence spending in last year's budget was so thorough it didn't need further adjustment this year. For the following two years, spending is planned to fall in real terms, before recovering in 2013-14 (which just happens to be the year after we're now projected to have the budget back in wafer-thin surplus).

Thomson points out that the now-expected budget surplus of $1 billion in 2012-13 would not have been possible had last year's budget not deferred $3.4 billion of defence funding in that year.

The government now has a lot of credibility riding on the achievement of a surplus that year. If this looked in doubt, how reluctant do you reckon the purse-string ministers would be to push a bit more defence spending off into the future?

But Thomson notes that defence is already holding a lot of IOUs. Real spending is projected to recover the following year, 2013-14. After that, the catch-up needed to deliver the promised average 3 per cent real growth in spending should see defence funding increase by 29 per cent over five years.

Perhaps by then the resuming resources boom will be so well entrenched that Treasury's coffers will again be overflowing, so accommodating such huge real growth in defence spending will be no probs. Failing that, however, I don't find it hard to imagine the government welching on some of those IOUs.

The record spending budgeted for in the coming financial year sounds more comfortable than it is. Thomson says money available to initiate new equipment projects will have fallen by 55 per cent on the forward estimates in last year's budget, with further falls of 42 per cent and 36 per cent in the following two years. Only some of that could be explained by a higher Aussie dollar.

When Lindsay Tanner was shadow finance minister before the 2007 election he invited various worthies (including yours truly) to offer suggestions on ways the budget papers could be made more transparent and generally more informative to people on the outside of government.

These suggestions were developed into the Operation Sunlight policy Labor took to the election and has, we're assured, been implemented now it's in government. But Thomson complains of a lot of newly darkened corners in the defence budget.

He says the government ceased disclosing funding deferrals in its first budget. And this year, "in a marked departure from previous years, the budget papers do not list the projects planned for approval in the coming 12 months. Instead we get an omnibus listing of projects under development which will be approved in the next two to three years."

I have my own beef about lack of sunlight. There are two budget languages, "accrual" and "cash". The budget papers are written in accrual (which I think of as French), but Treasury and the government have encouraged us to continue the macro policy debate in cash (English). Trouble is, the government doesn't provide a full English translation. We get the key totals, but not much else, which means that as soon as you start trying to hold the government to account on some specific issue, you run into the language barrier.

When people tried to use the budget papers to establish how much the government saved by abandoning its emissions trading scheme, they were told their figures were quite wrong because they were in French, not English. Then, when people asked for an English translation of budget figures in another part of the debate, the government refused to supply it.

I guess all governments engage in this sort of budgetary obfuscation, but I confess I had hoped for better from that nice Mr Rudd.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Population fall poses immense new challenges

Peter Costello used to say demography is destiny. Like many of the things he said, that's an exaggeration. But it is going to have a big effect on your future.

Demography is the study of human populations. In principle, it's quite separate from economics. But economists are likely to be saying a lot more about it - and boning up on it - because demographic change will have a big effect on the thing they care about most: the growth of the economy.

Actually, as you realise when you read the article by Jamie Hall and Andrew Stone in this quarter's Reserve Bank Bulletin, demographic change has always had a big effect on the growth in gross domestic product.

It's just that, because so far its effect on growth has been positive, we've been able to take it for granted. From about now, however, its effect is likely to be negative, so we'll be taking a lot more notice.

Leaving aside migration (as we will do in this article), the main factor that drives population growth is the fertility rate - the number of babies per woman. (The death rate also matters, obviously, but we'll also take rising longevity as read.)

The world's population has been growing rapidly for most of the past century, thanks to improvements in public health, medical science and economic development. But the global fertility rate has been falling sharply since the end of the postwar baby boom. From five babies per woman it's now down to about 2, thanks to the spread of effective contraception and rising living standards.

United Nations projections foresee the rate falling to two babies per woman by the middle of this century, which is lower than the replacement rate of 2.1 babies.

So the rate of growth in the world's population has been slowing for decades and, while population is expected to continue growing until the second half of this century, it will then start to decline.

Get that: some of our youngsters will live to see the world's population falling. But population decline will start earlier in some countries than others. Indeed, it's already started in Japan and Germany. And it won't be just the rich countries where population is falling.

The growth in a country's output of goods and services (GDP) can be viewed as coming from two sources: growth in the input of labour and improvement in the productivity of that labour. Three main factors determine the growth in the input of labour: growth in the population, growth in the proportion of the population that is of working age, and changes in the rate at which people of working age choose to participate in the labour force. (Again for simplicity we'll ignore changes in the participation rate.)

Over the 10 years to 2005 the United States' average growth in real GDP was 3.3 per cent a year. Turns out that 1.1 percentage points of that growth came from increased population (meaning it did nothing to raise America's standard of living) and 0.2 percentage points came from the rising proportion of the population that was of working age (here assumed to be those aged between 15 and 64).

But now Hall and Stone estimate that, over the 10 years to 2020, the average annual contribution to economic growth from population increase will be a smaller 0.9 percentage points, and the contribution from change in the working-age share will be minus 0.3 percentage points.

In other words, America's average rate of economic growth is expected to be 0.8 percentage points a year (or about a quarter) less, simply because of direct demographic change. The equivalent expected declines in the demographic contribution are 0.6 percentage points for Japan, 0.3 points for Germany and 0.2 points for Italy.

Why is America's loss likely to be greatest? Because demographic change is only now catching up with it. The others have already taken a fair bit of their medicine. It turns out that most of Japan's "lost decade" of weak economic growth is explained by its ageing and now declining population. Without that, its growth was much the same as Germany's.

So far we've tended to think of slow-growing or falling population as an issue purely for the developed countries. But Hall and Stone demonstrate that the coming decade will see demographic change making a reduced contribution to growth throughout Asia.

What's more, China's population will start to fall slowly in about 20 years' time and South Korea's population will peak in 10 year's time and then fall quite rapidly.

Looking again at the 10 years to 2005, China's economic growth averaged 8.8 per cent a year. Of this, 0.8 percentage points came from population increase and 0.6 percentage points from a higher working-age share.

Over the coming 10 years, however, Hall and Stone estimate that population's contribution to growth will slow to 0.6 points a year and the working-age share's contribution will be minus 0.3 per cent. So demography's contribution to growth will be 1.2 points a year lower than in the previous period.

Now take Korea. Demography contributed 0.7 percentage points to its average economic growth of 4.4 per cent a year in the first period, but will make a zero contribution over the coming decade.

The general story for east Asia (the five main ASEAN countries plus Korea, Taiwan and Hong Kong, but excluding China and Japan) is that demography's contribution of 1.8 percentage points (or almost half) during the 10 years to 2005 will fall to 1 percentage point in the coming decade.

But two Asian countries stand out from this general picture of demographic change making a significantly reduced contribution to economic growth over the next 10 years. Population growth in Indonesia and India will be slowing, but still relatively strong.

So the demographic contribution in Indonesia will slow only from 1.9 percentage points a year to 1.2 points a year. In India it will slow only from 2.2 points a year to 1.6 points.

Much of the demographic difference between China on one hand and India and Indonesia on the other would be explained by differences in population control policies, particularly China's one-child policy, which is about to really make its presence felt. (The main explanation for Korea, I suspect, is simply rising affluence prompting people to have fewer kids.)

But however it's explained, the likelihood is that, in about 2030, India will overtake China as the most populous country. So rest assured, economists will be saying a lot more about demography in coming years.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Wanted: some belief in a leader

As I lay in bed one freezing morning lately I wished it would rain so I wouldn't have to get up and go jogging. But it's a free country - if I disliked the idea of going out into the cold so much, why didn't I just stay in bed? Because I knew if I wanted to be fit there was a small sacrifice involved. I also knew that when I make an effort I feel better than when I don't. All of us make similar decisions every day.

There's no law against wanting to have your cake and eat it - which is just as well because people do it all the time. This, I suspect, is a big part of Kevin Rudd's problem. When Tony Abbott began worrying people by branding the emissions trading scheme a great big new tax on everything and the public's enthusiasm for action on climate change began to slip, Rudd assumed we'd all be quietly relieved when he dropped the idea.

Instead, he's been amazed to discover that decision caused him to drop hugely in our esteem. Why? It's just a case of us wanting to have our cake and eat it. We wanted to worry about what the trading scheme might do to our cost of living but we also wanted action to reduce climate change.

Of course, we also wanted a leader who believed in things and would stick to his guns. A leader we could respect. A leader who, if he went on and on about something being really important, wouldn't just ditch it when the going got tough.

A big part of Rudd's problem is inexperience. As a result of that inexperience and bad advice he has seriously underestimated the electorate. He thought he could stay popular by appearing to pander to our whims.

Turns out we have no respect for a leader who merely gives us what we say we want. Somewhere inside us there is a semi-conscious understanding - probably born of our experience as children - that we need a leader who sometimes imposes on us things we don't fancy but he knows are for our own good.

The tyro politician's error is to assume success is simply about

never telling us anything we don't want to hear. That's the appearance but there's a deeper and more complex reality.

In the months before the 2007 election, Labor's focus groups detected public dissatisfaction over the rising cost of living. Rudd tried to capitalise on this disaffection by expressing great concern about the issue

and implying - without actually promising - there was something he could do about it.

This was the origin of two of the early setbacks in Rudd's term as Prime Minister, the failures of Fuel Watch and Grocery Watch, the first bits of evidence fostering the public's growing (if unfair) conviction that Rudd is all talk and no action.

Guess what? If you conduct focus groups today you'll find much dissatisfaction over the rising cost of living. It is, I suspect, an almost permanent state. The cost of living is always rising - but so too are wages and pensions. We have genuine cause for complaint only when the rise in prices is outstripping the rise in our incomes. And though that happens from time to time, over the past 10 or 15 years wages have grown a lot faster than prices.

So our unceasing complaint about the rising cost of living - always changing its focus, from the cost of petrol to interest rates to the price of electricity - is just another case of us wanting to have our cake and eat it. We wish we lived in a world where prices never rose but incomes rose as they do now. Dream on.

Our problem is not with the rising cost of living but with our efforts to keep up with the rising standard of living. We worry about every price rise because, in our unceasing attempt to keep up with the Joneses (who strive to keep up with us), we over-commit ourselves. When you spend all your income - perhaps more than your income - you always feel poor, always have trouble making ends meet, no matter how high your income.

Politicians who imagine this kind of foolish selfishness defines the electorate underrate us. We're looking for politicians who, in their concern to protect and advance our interests, demand more from us.

Rudd thinks we went cold on his emissions trading scheme because his opponents gave us an exaggerated opinion of what it would do to our cost of living. But Hugh Mackay, the noted social researcher, has a roughly opposite take: having been convinced by Rudd and others that our greenhouse gas emissions need to be reduced, we expected to be asked - even compelled - to change our behaviour.

When cities were running out of water, we had to stop using water in certain ways. Few resented this and almost all complied. The more we complied the more convinced we became of the seriousness of the problem and the need for strong action.

With climate change, however, no immediate demands were made on us. This was partly because of Rudd's misguided fear that making demands on us would make him unpopular.

Mackay makes the psychologist's point that our changes in attitude don't last unless they're quickly and strongly reinforced by a change in our actions (a truth that doesn't fit easily with economists' aversion to moralising, compulsion and even voluntary action, in favour of mere changes in prices).

Now, thanks to his great misstep in abandoning his trading scheme, Rudd lacks the moral authority to be believed even when he assures us the mining companies' claims that the resource tax would damage the economy are self-serving scaremongering.


Monday, June 14, 2010

What would Jesus do about economic growth?

Should Christians support capitalism? According to a leading English layman, despite all its material benefits, capitalism as we know it contains moral flaws with serious social consequences.

I'm in no position to preach to Christians, but I'm happy to pass on the views of Dr Michael Schluter, founder of Britain's Relationships Foundation, which will be of interest to a wider audience (and can be found at

Schluter's beef is against the failings of capitalism that arise from corporations, which have developed as its primary engine.

His starting point is the belief that God is a relational being, whose priority is not economic growth, but right relationships between humanity and himself and between human beings. Christ's injunction to "love God and love your neighbour" points to the priority of relational wealth over financial wealth because love is a quality of relationships.

Corporate capitalism's first moral flaw, he says, is its exclusively materialistic vision. It rests on the pursuit of business profit and personal gain. It promotes the idolising of money, which Jesus calls "Mammon".

"People are regarded by companies as a resource, or as a cost in the profit and loss account, devoid of relational or environmental context. So capitalism constantly has to be restrained from destroying the social capital on which it depends for its future existence," he says.

This focus on capital lends itself to the idolatry of wealth at a personal level, and the idolatry of economic growth at a corporate and national level. Shareholders pursue personal wealth with little knowledge of how it is generated, and senior management with scant regard for pay structures at lower levels of the company, while customers are persuaded by advertising to pursue self-gratification in its many forms.

Corporate capitalism's second moral flaw is that it offers reward without responsibility. In the Parable of the Talents, Jesus implies that gaining money through interest on a loan is "reaping where you haven't sown". Lenders may accept some small risk, but they accept no responsibility for how or where the money is used.

Debt finance generally results in relational distance rather than relational "proximity" because the lender generally has no incentive to remain engaged with, or even in regular contact with, the borrower.

In the workings of large corporations, shareholders generally have little say in decision-making. Most investors provide share capital through a financial intermediary, such as a pension fund. Often they don't know or care in which companies they hold shares. Even the financial intermediaries generally do little to influence company policy.

Perhaps, Schluter says, instead of "no taxation without representation" we should adopt the slogan "no reward without responsibility, no profit without participation".

Corporate capitalism's third moral failing arises from the limited liability of shareholders, which allows debts to be left unpaid where the company becomes insolvent. Worse, the unpaid creditors are often employees, consumers and smaller companies supplying goods and services.

Because the downside risks of borrowing are capped, while the upside risks aren't, management has been willing to borrow huge sums relative to the company's share capital and thus expand companies at a frantic pace.

In the finance sector, incentive schemes often reward risk-taking excessively on the upside with no downside penalties, reflecting the risk position of shareholders. Consequent mega-losses have to be financed by taxpayers to limit wider economic fallout.

Schluter's fourth charge against corporate capitalism is that it disconnects people from place. In the Old Testament, the jubilee laws required all rural property to be returned free to its original family owners every 50th year.

This ensured long-term rootedness in a particular place for every extended family. A byproduct was to ensure a measure of equity in the distribution of property, which ensured a broad distribution of political power.

By contrast, capitalism regards land and property as assets without relational significance. This greater flexibility and mobility undoubtedly bring material benefits. But as extended family members move away from one another, and communities become more transient, they can no longer fulfil welfare roles.

Grandparents can no longer help look after grandchildren, and responsibility for care of older people and those with disabilities falls on the state, with the costs having to be met from tax revenues.

Schluter's final charge is that corporate capitalism provides inadequate social safeguards. It has no concept of protecting the vulnerable through constraints on the market. Deregulation limits constraints on consumer credit although the devastating consequences of debt for personal health and family relationships are well known.

Deregulation ensures labour is available for hire 24 hours a day, seven days a week, whereas biblical law protected a day a week for non-work priorities including rest, worship and family.

The adverse consequences of these flaws start with family and community breakdown. "The greater wealth of some sections of society in capitalist nations has to be set against the greater 'relational poverty' which extends to an ever greater proportion of the population. The danger is that over time these relational problems become self-reinforcing and self-replicating," Schluter says.

Another consequence of capitalism's failings over the longer term is a huge growth in government spending. As the number of damaged households increases, so does the size of the bureaucracy.

Government spending on welfare has reached a level many regard as unsustainable, Schluter argues, yet without it many vulnerable people would have little or no physical or emotional support.

As state agencies take over many of the roles of family and local community, they undermine the reasons why these institutions exist and thus further lower people's loyalty and commitment to them.

Schluter's conclusion is that Christians need to search urgently for a new economic order based on biblical revelation.


Saturday, June 12, 2010

The economy's animal spirits

John Maynard Keynes first recognised it when seeking to explain why the Great Depression happened even though the economic theory of the time said it couldn't. But it's taken the global financial crisis to help us rediscover that truth: the main reason economies fluctuate as they do is the changing psychology of the people who compose the economy.

Keynes called this our "animal spirits", which is the title of a book by George Akerlof, a Nobel laureate in economics, and Robert Shiller, a leading proponent of behavioural finance.

Why isn't Keynes widely recognised for what he was: the first behavioural economist? Because his followers - notably Sir John Hicks, another Englishman - quickly suppressed that part of Keynes's explanation for the Depression in their efforts to make Keynesian thinking more acceptable to economists steeped in the neo-classical assumption that economic actors (you and me) always act rationally (with carefully calculated self-interest) and never emotionally or instinctively.

Hicks and others preferred to explain the Depression by means of the newly invented Keynesian "multiplier" so they could do what they thought mattered most, win support for Keynes's key policy prescription: the use of government spending to stimulate demand when it was deficient.

These days, the term animal spirits is usually used to refer to business and consumer "confidence", as measured by, for example, the Westpac-Melbourne Institute index of consumer sentiment and the NAB survey of business confidence.

But Akerlof and Shiller point out that "animal" means "of the mind" or "animating". So they take the term to refer to all our non-economic, non-rational emotions and motivations. Their point is that though these motivations have been defined as non-economic (and thus have been excluded from the conventional, neo-classical model of the economy), that doesn't stop them having a considerable influence over our economic behaviour.

The truth is that, even with a multiplier built in, the neo-classical model can't explain why market economies have always moved in cycles of boom and bust. It simply assumes the economy is always at full employment. But the changing moods and attitudes of the humans who make up the economy can explain the business cycle.

Akerlof and Shiller acknowledge confidence as the cornerstone of animal spirits, but argue they have four other components: fairness, corruption and bad faith, money illusion and stories. These other elements are needed to adequately explain the economy's ups and downs, and catastrophic events such as the global financial crisis.

Conventional economics assumes that when businesses or individuals make significant investment decisions they consider all the options available to them and all the possible monetary outcomes, they attach probabilities to each outcome, multiply the two together and then add them up to get the "expected benefit". If it's high enough, they go ahead with the project.

But often the probabilities are no more than educated guesses. So whether the project goes ahead often depends on how confident people feel about the prospects for the economy and their project, whether they're in an optimistic or pessimistic mood.

Concerns about fairness are excluded from the conventional model, but not from the motivations of economic actors. Questionnaires show most people regard it as unfair for a business to raise the price of umbrellas on a wet day (a behaviour economists regard as rational), but fair for it to raise prices when its costs have increased.

Sociologists tell us there are behavioural "norms" that describe how people think they and others should behave in particular circumstances. We get angry when people fail to conform to norms and this anger may have adverse consequences for businesses.

One area where perceptions of fairness are very much to the fore is in the setting of wages. Workers get angry when there's any suggestion of their wages being cut (even though they may well accept a fall in their real wages if economic conditions seem to warrant it).

Employers' inability to cut nominal wages when there's a fall in the demand for their product means downturns in the economy lead to more unemployment than they would if wages and prices were more flexible (as the model assumes).

Most recessions involve corporate corruption scandals and instances of "bad faith" (people behaving in ways that are unethical but not illegal).

The business cycle is connected to fluctuations in personal commitment to principles of good behaviour and to fluctuations in predatory activity, which in turn is related to changes in opportunities for such activity.

"Money illusion" means people base their economic decisions on "nominal" monetary amounts, failing to allow for the effect of inflation. But one of the most important assumptions of modern economics (where "modern" means it has reverted to the neo-classical assumptions that prevailed before the Keynesian revolution) is that people always see through the "veil" of inflation and compare prices in real terms.

The obvious truth is that sometimes people allow for inflation and sometimes they don't. Or, they do to an extent, but not completely. If so, this causes them to behave in ways contrary to those predicted by the conventional model.

The human mind is built to think in terms of narratives, of sequences of events with an internal logic and dynamic that appear as a unified whole. And much human motivation comes from living through a story of our lives that we tell ourselves.

The same is true for confidence in a nation, a company or an institution. Great leaders are first and foremost creators of stories.

High confidence tends to be associated with inspirational stories, stories about new business initiatives, tales of how others are getting rich.

"New era" stories (such as that the internet has brought us to a new era of profit and prosperity) have tended to accompany the major booms in sharemarkets around the world.

So ends Akerlof and Shiller's list of all the main "non-economic" things that are in our minds and that influence our economic behaviour, but aren't in the conventional model.

"If we thought that people were totally rational, and that they acted almost entirely out of economic motives, we too would believe that government should play little role in the regulation of financial markets, and perhaps even in determining the level of aggregate demand," they say.

"But, on the contrary, all of those animal spirits tend to drive the economy sometimes one way and sometimes another. Without intervention by the government the economy will suffer massive swings in employment.

"And financial markets will, from time to time, fall into chaos."


Wednesday, June 9, 2010

NSW budget: Staying on target needs steady hands

So far, so good. A government on its last legs, with everything - and nothing - to lose, has delivered a responsible budget.

Of course, whether the good guys within the Keneally government can keep holding the line against crazy, panic-stricken decisions until election day is another matter.

The Treasurer, Eric Roozendaal, can - and does - boast a return to budget operating surplus two years earlier than expected, with the surplus for the coming financial year forecast to swell to $770 million and $890 million the year after.

In truth, the credit for this goes primarily to the economy itself. What went down has - predictably - come back up. If any particular politicians deserve to share the credit it is Kevin Rudd and Wayne Swan with their huge and timely fiscal stimulus (not forgetting the role of the central bankers in slashing interest rates).

Actually, the flow of federal stimulus money through the state budget has the effect of overstating the improvement in the state's budgetary position. A better measure is given by the Keneally government's annual "net borrowing" (which includes its considerable spending on capital works).

After borrowing $3.3 billion in the recession year of 2008-09, the government expects to borrow $3.8 billion in the financial year just ending, falling to $3.3 billion in the coming year and to $1.5 billion the year after.

Borrowing to finance worthwhile public infrastructure is no crime, particularly if a high proportion of the total capital spending is financed from the government's own funds, including the operating surplus.

The budget papers show that whereas only 38 per cent of the capital works program was financed from internal sources in 2008-09, this is expected to rise to almost half in the year just ending, to 57 per cent in the coming year and to more than three-quarters in the following year.

This is the justification (and explanation) for Roozendaal's claim to be "strengthening the state's balance sheet", along with the decision to use the proceeds from the sale of the Lotteries Office to reduce the government's unfunded superannuation liability.

It's just a pity the same commitment hasn't been given on the use of the proceeds from the pending sale of the electricity distribution companies and other businesses.

When you strip out the effect of federal stimulus money, total budget revenue is expected to grow at an average rate of 5.7 per cent a year over the next four years, compared with average growth in expenses of 4.7 per cent a year.

This, too, is evidence of responsible budgeting, particularly the control of spending growth. It suggests the governments better services and value plan, the announcement of which last year drew much scepticism (including from yours truly), is having some success in limiting growth in public sector wage sand controlling administrative costs.

But with a new round of wage negotiations coming up with the nurses, Kristina Keneallys pre-election nerve will be tested. Protect Labors reputation for cautious budgeting, or buy popularity with the nurses (and other government employees riding on their coat-tails) in the knowledge that, if it fails to do the trick, the bill will be left to your opponents?

The highlight of the budgets new measures is its strategy to increase the supply of new homes by reducing local councils developer charges and offering a temporary incentive for people to buy apartments off the plan.

This a welcome and generally well thought through initiative.

Unfortunately, thes ame cant be said of the decision to increase the already planned reduction in payroll tax, in response towrong-headed pressure from business lobby groups (which use their influence to favour big business at the expense of small- to medium-sized businesses)and an expedient opposition (which will see the light the momentits bum hits th eTreasury benches).

As economists never tire of trying to drum into the thick skulls of business people and politicians, the claim that payroll tax is a tax on jobs is spurious.

The same could be said of many taxes, including the goods and services tax and even income tax.

Nor does Roozendaal get a tick for his wasteful spending on investment attraction (read: competing with other states to have foreign companies play them off for a break, then setup where they were going to go anyway).


At last a strategy that will ease the housing shortage

It has taken Australians a long time to twig that rapidly rising house prices aren't as good as they sound. For ages home owners happily imagined higher prices made them richer. But richer in what sense?

For a start, you can't get your hands on that wealth unless you're prepared to trade down to a smaller or cheaper place. You can borrow against it, but what's so great about that? You still have to pay interest - and pay back the principal. Should you wish to trade up to a bigger or better place, the price has gone up for you as much as for anyone else. Exactly how are you better off?

Politicians will never tell you this, but economists will: a nation can't make itself richer by contriving to charge itself more for its housing.

All that really happens when house prices rise is a redistribution of wealth. People who own their home are better off at the expense of people who don't. (Even if those people have never aspired to own their home, they'll end up paying higher rent.)

For the most part what we're talking about is a transfer of wealth between the generations. The older generation gains at the expense of the rising generation. Which is fine if you don't have kids. If you do, however, you have to wonder how on earth they'll be able to afford a place of their own. One way they'll manage it - provided there aren't too many of them - is via a generous subsidy from their property-rich oldies.

Oh. See what I mean about in what sense are you richer? As this realisation has dawned, most of us have stopped seeing rising house prices as a great boon (and the pollies have stopped boasting about it).

Since 1995 house prices across Australia have risen about 230 per cent faster than the rate of inflation. That's a real increase averaging about 6 per cent a year (whereas the conventional wisdom was that house prices rose by only 1 or 2 per cent a year in real terms).

Australian house prices are now high even by the standards of other developed countries. Up until the middle of the noughties, the main reason for the increase was the marked fall in interest rates following our return to low inflation.

This allowed people to borrow a lot more for the same level of monthly mortgage payments, so a lot of people decided it was a good time to trade up to a bigger house in a better suburb. Trouble is, when so many people decide that at the same time, all they succeed in doing is bidding up the prices of the limited supply of better-located houses they're fighting over.

Since the middle of the noughties, however, the main cause of house-price rises has changed. High immigration has caused the population to grow faster than the number of homes. As ever when demand outstrips supply, prices rise.

Several years of this have left us with a chronic and growing shortage of dwellings. We seem to have trouble building more than about 155,000 homes a year. Allow for the homes we pull down each year, and for the proportion of holiday homes built, and this shrinks to about 133,000 a year.

According to the estimates of the federal government's National Housing Supply Council, at June last year we had a nationwide shortage of 178,000 dwellings. It estimates by the end of this month this will have increased to 202,000 (but don't be surprised if it's higher). NSW accounts for almost a third of the shortage.

With the business community and the Rudd government keen to maintain high levels of immigration, you can see why the housing shortage is becoming a matter of great concern.

The problem seems to be blockages in state and local government planning and approval processes, which limit the amount of new land being made available and built on. A related problem is the reluctance of many councils (under pressure from their voters) to approve medium- and high-density "infill".

NSW in particular has had a problem with exorbitant developer charges, which made newly released land unaffordable to young couples.

But here's the good news: yesterday's state budget introduces an impressive "comprehensive housing supply strategy" that looks like it really will increase the supply of new homes coming on to the market and thus limit the upward pressure on house prices.

In 2008 the government reduced its own "state infrastructure charges" on developers from about $46,000 to $11,000 a lot. Now it's imposed a cap of $20,000 a lot on local council charges, which at present can be as high as $50,000 or $60,000 a lot.

All council developer charges will have to be approved by the NSW Independent Pricing and Regulatory Tribunal, which will only permit passing on of infrastructure costs essential to the development sites, not general community betterment projects. This suggests some councils' charges may be lower than the $20,000 cap.

One reason councils have been so savage in imposing developer charges is the long-standing practice of pegging their rate increases to the consumer price index, which has left them with insufficient funds to finance needed capital works.

Now the rate-pegging process is to be handed over to the tribunal, which will develop a more realistic local government cost index and consider councils' requests for higher rate increases.

The government will spend $44 million over two years to speed up the planning and approval process and ensure more weight is given to economic concerns. Almost half that will reward councils that process more development approvals. Much of the rest will allow the Department of Planning to accelerate its implementation of reforms.

If ever there was an area where NSW needed to lift its game, this is it. And now, remarkably, it has.


Monday, June 7, 2010

How Keynes, not mining, saved us from recession

You never judge economists by whether they get their forecasts right. They rarely do. But they score points in my book if they're willing to work out why they got them wrong - and make the results public.

This is what Treasury's chief forecaster, Dr David Gruen, did in a speech to the Economic Society in Sydney on Friday.

I don't hold out much hope that such exercises will help produce better forecasts in future. But they should deepen our understanding of how the economy works.

Gruen's examination of Treasury's record in forecasting real gross domestic product over the past 21 years finds there's no upward or downward bias in its errors, but its "mean absolute percentage error" is 0.93 percentage points.

When you remember the trend rate of growth is about 3.25 per cent a year, that's a high degree of error.

Last May Treasury forecast that real gross domestic product would contract by 0.5 per cent in the financial year just ending, the first time it had ever forecast "negative growth". The year isn't over yet, but the revised forecast in this year's budget is positive growth of 2 per cent. And just the first three-quarters of the financial year are showing average growth of 1.9 per cent.

But if you think all that's bad, just remember: the smarties who purport to know better than Treasury are usually worse. Consider these reactions to the forecasts in last year's budget.

Des Moore, the climate-change denying activist: "The Rudd government's budget paints an unbelievable picture of a very mild recession (only a 0.5 per cent fall in GDP next year) followed by a recovery of 2.25 per cent in the election year (2010-11) and an above-trend rate of growth of 4.5 per cent in the following year."

John Roskam, a leading libertarian: "If Prime Minister Kevin Rudd genuinely believes Treasury is conservative when it forecasts economic growth of 4 per cent within two years, then it would be interesting to know his definition of optimistic. Treasury officials are not used to being laughed at on budget night but, as soon as their growth forecasts were revealed, no other reaction was possible."

Of course, we do know that average growth in real GDP in calendar 2009 was 1.3 per cent, and Gruen has revealed Treasury's unpublished forecast of minus 0.9 per cent. This was worse than the mean of minus 0.6 per cent for 17 private sector forecasts gathered by Consensus Economics, but right on the median.

After allowing for imports and inventories, the largest contribution to growth came from consumer spending (1.4 percentage points), followed by public sector spending (0.9 points), business investment and exports (0.4 points each), with housing investment making a negative contribution of 0.3 points.

(If you're wondering how all that adds up to just 1.3 per cent, it does so with the help of a negative contribution of 1.5 points from the "statistical discrepancy". Don't groan - the national accounts are like that; it's just one of the complications forecasters face.)

It's clear most of that surprisingly strong performance was due to old-fashioned Keynesian fiscal stimulus. Consumer spending was greatly bolstered by the cash splash, while the jump in public sector spending speaks for itself. The growth in business investment was explained by the draw-forward effect of the temporary tax break.

According to Treasury's estimates, the fiscal stimulus contributed about 2 percentage points to the overall growth of 1.3 per cent last year, meaning that, without it, GDP would have contracted by 0.7 per cent.

So much for the claim the mining sector was "a key factor in keeping Australia out of recession".

If you decompose exports' contribution of 0.4 percentage points, rural commodities contributed more (0.3 points) than mineral commodities (0.2 points), with manufactures making a negative contribution.

Treasury did allow for the effect of the fiscal stimulus in its forecast, but it's pretty clear it (and everyone else) didn't allow enough.

Gruen believes it took insufficient account of the "favourable feedback loop that expansionary macro-economic policy - both monetary and fiscal - appears to have generated".

"Macro-economic policy appears to have been large enough and quick enough to convince consumers and businesses that the domestic slowdown would be relatively mild," Gruen says.

"This, in turn, led consumers and businesses to continue to spend, and led businesses to cut workers' hours rather than laying them off which, in turn, helped the economic slowdown to be relatively mild."

The turnaround in business and consumer sentiment began earlier and was a lot stronger in Australia than in other developed economies. But that's another problem for the forecasters: swings in the collective mood are probably the biggest factor driving the business cycle, but how do you predict them?

It's true, of course, that continuing demand from China played a part in keeping us afloat. Gruen notes that the Consensus forecast for "non-Japan Asia turned out to be significantly too pessimistic".

But why? Partly because the forecasters made insufficient allowance for the Asians' lack of impairment in their financial systems, but also because they underestimated the speed and size of the fiscal and monetary stimulus, particularly in Korea and China.

As well as underrating the power of Keynesian policies - which are likely to be more potent in the young and dynamic emerging economies - too many forecasters failed to see how much success the Chinese would have in switching from external demand to domestic demand, particularly spending on infrastructure.

An economy as big as China has plenty of scope to "decouple" from the developed countries - a point worth remembering when you're tempted by the latest fear, that Europe's problems will wipe us out.


Saturday, June 5, 2010

Await boom but keep spending

Just about everything happening in the economic world at present is premised on the early return of the resources boom. If so, it won't come a moment too soon for the growth fiends: this week's national accounts show the economy losing momentum in the March quarter.

The imminent resumption of the boom explains why the Reserve Bank has been so keen to get interest rates back to normal levels, why the government is expecting to have the budget back in surplus in three years and, indeed, why it thinks now's a good time to reform the mining industry's royalty payments.

But the boom ain't back yet. To the contrary, the accounts show the economy growing by 1.1 per cent in the December quarter, then slowing to 0.5 per cent in the latest quarter. Those figures probably exaggerate the extent of the slowing - it's a mistake to take quarter-to-quarter changes in the accounts too literally.

Even so, what stands out is the economy's continuing dependence on the rapidly withdrawing fiscal stimulus. So if you think the stimulus was unnecessary or all a terrible waste or that the government should be winding it back much faster than it is, think again.

By far the greatest single source of growth during the quarter was government spending, which contributed 0.9 percentage points to the increase in gross domestic product. Within this, real capital works spending by the federal government grew by 15 per cent and that by the states by almost 17 per cent.

Much of that would be stimulus-related spending on public infrastructure but a fair bit would be the school-building program. Sections of the press have worked overtime to give an exaggerated impression of this program's wastefulness.

I don't doubt there has been some waste and that's regrettable. But the fearless campaigners never acknowledge (and probably don't understand) the macro-economic imperative to get the money spent as quickly as possible so as to limit the rise in unemployment and stop the economy dropping into a downward spiral.

It's all very well banging on about the waste of taxpayers' money but unemployment is also a waste. It's a waste of the time idle workers could have contributed to the nation's production.

Though the principal loss is borne by the jobless workers (who gives a stuff about them?), there's a cost to all of us - plus, of course, a cost to the budget in unemployment benefits and tax revenue forgone.

When workers are jobless for long periods they suffer a lasting loss of skills, confidence and motivation, which is also a loss to the community. And when high unemployment scares consumers into cutting their spending and causing yet more unemployment, otherwise-sound businesses go bankrupt and are broken up, destroying capital at a direct cost to the businesses' owners and an indirect cost to all of us.

So the next time you read another allegation of wastefulness (with no mention of the great majority of successful projects), think of all the costs and waste that would have occurred had the money not been spent. (It remains an inconvenient truth that even wasteful spending stimulates activity and helps avoid unemployment.)

Back to the national accounts. The only other significant positive contribution to growth in the quarter came from the lacklustre rise of 0.6 per cent in consumer spending. The $900 cheques are a distant memory.

But against these positive contributions are two main negatives. Business investment spending subtracted 0.5 percentage points from real GDP, with non-dwelling construction down 2.5 per cent and spending on machinery and equipment down 6 per cent (after being up 10 per cent the previous quarter).

Ah. More evidence of the fiscal stimulus - or rather, the absence of it. Business spending on plant was way up in the December quarter because that was the last quarter of the special tax break. It was way down in the March quarter because many businesses had brought their spending forward to take advantage of the special offer.

The other negative contribution was external. The volume of exports fell by 0.5 per cent (mainly due to a fall in coal exports caused by cyclones in Queensland) while the volume of imports increased by 2 per cent. Together, these subtracted 0.5 percentage points from GDP.

It's clear the fiscal stimulus is having conflicting effects on the economy. The programs that have wound up are subtracting from growth while those still going are adding to it. According to Treasury, the net effect is a subtraction from growth in the quarter of 0.1 percentage points.

Just think how much weaker the quarter's growth would have been had the government yielded to the opposition's calls for the stimulus spending to be cut off earlier than planned.

It would be wrong to conclude, however, that the accounts showed no sign of a returning resources boom. The terms of trade - the ratio of export prices to import prices - improved by 4 per cent, their third successive quarterly advance.

Clearly, the prices we're getting for our mineral exports are rising and this was also evident in the $2.2 billion turnaround in the trade balance for the month of April.

Whereas real GDP grew by only 0.5 per cent in the March quarter, the improvement in the terms of trade meant real gross domestic income grew by 1.3 per cent. Over the past three quarters, real GDI grew by 3.5 per cent, as against growth in real GDP of 1.9 per cent. This is an early indicator of stronger consumer spending on the way.

And although business investment spending was weak in the March quarter, we know from surveys there's huge spending in the pipeline, particularly mining and natural gas projects.

Last quarter the economy was betwixt and between but, never fear, the boom is returning (the big miners' callous brinkmanship over taxation notwithstanding).


Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Stay calm, this too shall pass

Talk about a two-track economy. Have you noticed how the government and others have been focused on the return of the resources boom, with all the tax bonanzas and challenges that could bring, while the rest of the world has been worrying itself sick about the debt problems in Europe, sending our sharemarket and the Aussie dollar tumbling?

Surely the two don't fit. Are we living in fantasyland? Is reality about to hit us on the head? Or could it be that Europe's problems don't have all that much to do with us and before long the global financial markets will stop panicking and our share prices and currency will recover?

Standard product warning: no one knows what the future holds and economists aren't good at predicting it. But my guess is the end of our world isn't nigh.

Although the Greek government was in over its head even before the global financial crisis reached its peak in late 2008 (and was fudging its figures to hide the truth), most of the other European governments now have big budget deficits and huge levels of debt because of their efforts to rescue their banks and their heavy spending to stimulate their economies.

Those national governments with rocky banks (including the United States) have, in effect, transferred their banks' debt on to their own books. So what started as excessive private debt is now excessive public debt.

I don't criticise them for this. Had they not rescued their banks the outcome would have been a lot worse. No, the real problem is that, unlike us, their affairs weren't in order before the crisis. They'd been running budget deficits even in the boom years and had high levels of debt even before they were obliged to borrow so heavily.

The particularly acute problems in Greece served to draw the attention of the world financial markets to problems in other countries - Portugal, Spain, Italy and Ireland. Even the Brits have huge debt levels.

As often happens, the markets flipped from inattention to panic. When they're in that sort of mood, all the news is catastrophic. The Chinese had jammed on the brakes to burst a property bubble, putting an end to the global recovery. The Australians had nationalised their mining industry (something like that, anyway; not sure of the fine detail).

Whenever the players in world financial markets are gripped by panic their tendency is to sell whatever shares they can wherever they can and buy US Treasury bills. Even when it's the US economy that's at the heart of the problem, they still do it.

The result is a fall in sharemarkets around the world and a rise in the value of the US dollar at the expense of most other currencies. If you remember, this is what happened after the collapse of Lehman Brothers. Our dollar went from US98 in July 2008 to US63 in November. It stayed there until March, then eventually climbed back to US92.

The likelihood is that, as the present panic subsides, our share prices will recover and our dollar will go back up (as it has already begun to). But this return of the staggers is a reminder that a lot of the underlying problems exposed by the global financial crisis are still with us, and will be for a long time.

So perhaps the recovery of sharemarkets in the months following the crisis was a bit too optimistic and this time it won't be as strong.

Certainly, the Europeans won't easily dispense with their debt problems. And the more they feel pressured by the markets to turn around their budget balances by slashing government spending and raising taxes the more they'll slow the recovery in their economies.

The Europeans' problems are compounded by the existence of the euro currency arrangement, and their efforts to hold it together may end up extracting a high price in terms of economic growth. All the troubled member-countries would be better off being able to set their own interest rates and allow their own currency to fall against those of their stronger European trading partners, but

they can't.

The Greeks are so deeply in hock their best solution would be to default on their debt and start again, but that isn't possible. Even leaving the euro would be terribly messy.

So Europe isn't likely to show much growth for the rest of the decade. But this won't hold Australia back as much as it would have in the old days. Our fortunes are now much more aligned with those of China, India and the rest of developing Asia. Are they likely to be adversely affected by Europe's troubles? My guess is, a bit but not a lot.

China's efforts to deal with its property bubble are quite circumscribed, so I don't expect its growth to suffer too much. If so, our authorities' expectations of a return of the resources boom aren't likely to be too far astray.

The thing about financial markets is they make judgments in haste and repent at leisure. If it's right that the prospects for our economy haven't been greatly impaired by the problems of the Europeans and the fine-tuning of the Chinese, eventually our strong position relative to the other developed economies will again be reflected in our higher share prices and exchange rate.

As ever, the ups and downs of the sharemarket will prove an unreliable guide to the prospects for the economy (even though the innocent souls who write headlines sometimes seem to imagine the sharemarket is the economy).

Similarly, the headline-writers' assumption that a fall in our dollar is an unmitigated evil says more about their innocence of economics than their grip on reality.

On this I'm with our farmers, manufacturers, tourist operators and education industry in hoping the dollar's return to the 90s takes as long as possible. There's more to life than overseas holidays.