Monday, January 31, 2011

Floods' economic pain greatly exaggerated

Most of us are back at work, but the silly season won't be over until we get the Queensland floods into perspective. They are a great human tragedy, but they're not such a big deal for the economy.

It's not surprising the public has been so excited about such amazing scenes and so much loss of life and property. Nor is it surprising the media devoted so much coverage to the floods when, with most of us at the beach, there's been so little other news.

It's not even surprising the Gillard government has been beating up the story, making it out to be the biggest thing since the global financial crisis. At one level this is just the pollies doing their instinctive I-feel-your-pain routine. They could seem heartless if they tried telling people things weren't as bad as they seemed.

At another level it's easy to see Julia Gillard trying to gain the same boost to her popularity as Anna Bligh. She'd be well aware of all the seats Labor lost in Queensland at the election in August. It's an almost inevitable assumption by the punters and the media that if an event is huge in human and media terms it must be just as big in its effect on the economy. When the punters tire of seeing footage of people on roofs, you "take the story forward" by finding some expert who'll agree it also spells disaster for the economy.

The wise and much-loved econocrat Austin Holmes used to say that one of the most important skills an economist needed was "a sense of the relative magnitudes" - the ability to see whether something was big enough to be worth worrying about.

That sense has been absent from the comments of those business and academic economists on duty over the silly season, happily supplying the media's demand for comments confirming the immensity of the floods' economic and budgetary implications.

With the revelation last week of the econocrats' estimates of the likely magnitudes, it's clear the figures supplied by business economists were way too high. And the economists' furious debate over how the budgetary cost of the rebuilding effort should be financed is now revealed as utterly out of proportion to the modest sums involved.

Of course, you still wouldn't have twigged to this had you focused on the government's rhetoric rather than its figures. In Gillard's speech on the budgetary costs and Wayne Swan's speech on the economic impact both were busily exaggerating the size of the crisis, even while revealing how small it really was.

Gillard said it was "the most expensive disaster in Australia's history" and that the "cost to the economy is enormous". The government's task, she kept repeating, was to "rebuild Queensland".

Swan repeated that "this is likely to end up being the most costly disaster in Australian history", which was "going to cost Australia dearly" and involves a "massive reconstruction effort". The closest he got to the truth was his observation that "the economic questions pale into insignificance next to the human cost of what we've seen".

If this is the most expensive natural disaster in Australian history, all it proves is the cost of earlier disasters was negligible. If you can "rebuild Queensland" for just $5.6 billion, it must be a pretty tin-pot place.

If $5.6 billion seems a lot, consider some "relative magnitudes": the economy's annual production of goods and services (gross domestic product) totals $1400 billion, and the budget's annual revenue collections total $314 billion.

Note that, though no one's thought it worthy of mention, the $5.6 billion in spending will be spread over at least three financial years, making it that much easier to fund.

We know that more than a third of the $5.6 billion will be paid out in the present financial year with, presumably, most of the rest paid in 2011-12. So just how the flood reconstruction spending could threaten the budget's promised return to surplus in 2012-13 is something no one has explained.

And if $5.6 billion isn't all that significant in the scheme of things, how much less significant is the $1.8 billion to be raised from the tax levy? The fuss economists have been making about it tells us more about their hang-ups over taxation than their powers of economic analysis.

And how they can keep a straight face while claiming it could have a significant effect on consumer spending (well over $700 billion a year) is beyond me.

Turning from the budget to the economy, Treasury's estimate is that the floods will reduce gross domestic product by about 0.5 percentage points, with the effect concentrated in the March quarter.

Thereafter, however, the rebuilding effort - private as well as public - will add to GDP and probably largely offset the initial dip. So the floods will do more to change the profile of growth over the next year or two than to reduce the level it reaches.

Most of the temporary loss of production will be incurred by the Bowen Basin coal miners. But, though it won't show up directly in GDP, their revenue losses will be offset to some extent by the higher prices they'll be getting as a consequence of the global market's reaction to the disruption to supply.

And despite all the fuss the media have been making over higher fruit and vegetable prices, Treasury's best guess is that this will cause a spike of just 0.25 percentage points in the consumer price index for the March quarter, with prices falling back in subsequent quarters.

So the floods do precious little to change the previous reality that, with unemployment down to 5 per cent and a mining investment boom on the way, the economy is close to its capacity constraint and will soon need to be restrained by higher interest rates.


Saturday, January 29, 2011

It's about China, and steel

You wanna make guesses about what will happen to the economy this year? Here's a tip: forget the floods and take more notice of China.

Australia's business economists have already got the message that China dominates the rest of the world's effects on us, whereas their mates in the money markets are slower on the uptake, retaining their obsession with all things American.

China matters, first, because, with a population of 1.35 billion, it's the most populous country in the world. That gives it 20 per cent of the world's population, making it 11 times larger than Japan.

The second reason China matters is because its economy has been growing so rapidly for so long: an average rate of 10 per cent a year for three decades, meaning it's been doubling every eight years.

This means that, since 1980, it's gone from being the 12th-largest economy in the world to the second-largest. This is measured using "purchasing power parity" - that is, taking account of the fact that one US dollar buys far more in China than it does in the US.

So China's economy has moved from being 9 per cent of the size of America's to about 60 per cent in 2009. The International Monetary Fund is expecting it to reach 90 per cent in 2015. If so, it won't be long before China's the biggest economy.

Of course, this still leaves the average Chinese a lot poorer than the average American. Income per person in China has reached only 18 per cent of American incomes - suggesting the Chinese have scope for a lot more growth yet (provided the world has enough idle resources to make it possible).

When you combine China's huge population with its rapid economic growth you find this growth accounted for a quarter of all the growth in the world economy during the noughties. Get that. America's share of world growth would have been very much smaller.

The third reason China matters so much to us: its economy is in our part of the world and is such a good fit with ours. China needs to buy what we've got to sell, and vice versa.

According to figures from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, last financial year China became both our largest export market and our largest trading partner. Our two-way trade in goods and services grew by more than 18 per cent to $90 billion.

China has been our biggest market for exports of goods for some time but last year it overtook the United States to become our largest market for services as well.

Over the course of the noughties China's share of our two-way trade increased from 5 per cent to almost 18 per cent. Its ascension means Japan is now our second-largest export market. And get this: our third-largest is India.

Our top three imports in 2009-10 were travel ($19 billion), passenger vehicles ($15 billion) and petroleum ($15 billion). But to get back to the point, our top three exports were coal ($36 billion), iron ore ($35 billion) and education ($19 billion).

Why's that the point? Because coal and iron ore are the main things we sell China. Iron ore and coking coal are the main components of steel - and, as part of their economic development, the Chinese are producing huge quantities of steel.

So the well-versed economy watcher needs to know more than a bit about China's steel industry. Its story was summarised by James Holloway, Ivan Roberts and Anthony Rush in an article in the latest Reserve Bank Bulletin.

China is now the world's largest producer and consumer of steel. Ten years ago it accounted for 15 per cent of global steel production; today its share is 45 per cent.

Just how much of a country's gross domestic product is devoted to steel is determined by its stage of economic development. Undeveloped countries don't use much steel and advanced countries aren't very "steel-intensive" because much of their economic infrastructure has been built and most of their growth is coming from expanding services.

In between, however, countries are rapidly industrialising and urbanising. And that's where China is. Remembering its average rate of growth in GDP of 10 per cent a year for the past three decades, its steel production grew at average annual rates of 7 per cent in the 1980s, 10 per cent in the '90s and almost 20 per cent in the noughties.

The Chinese steel industry is highly decentralised, with plants scattered throughout the country and with a small number of large, advanced, state-owned steel makers and a large number of small and medium-sized private firms. The Chinese government's policy is to consolidate the industry, to improve economies of scale and reduce the use of high-polluting facilities.

The industry mainly produces steel directly from iron ore and coking coal using the blast furnace and basic oxygen converter method. This means that, on average, each tonne of steel produced requires about 1.7 tonnes of ore and 0.5 tonnes of coking coal.

China has its own extensive reserves of iron ore, but their ore content averages only about 33 per cent, compared with 62 per cent in Australia and about 65 per cent in Brazil and India, making local ore more expensive. So now more than half the ore used is imported.

Until recently China was self-sufficient in coking coal. But many of its deposits are relatively inaccessible and thus costly to mine. And many of its mines are unsafe. So since 2009 there's been a surge in demand for our coal.

More than half China's annual steel production is used for investment in buildings, structures and machinery. (Total public and private investment spending's share of GDP is a remarkably high 45 per cent - a sign China's in the industrialisation phase of development.)

At least a quarter of steel production is used for manufacturing cars, home appliances and much else. A lot of these would be consumed locally but most are probably exported.

The authors conclude that China's steel-intensive industrialisation phase - and hence its strong demand for our iron ore and coking coal - is likely to continue "over the next decade or so".

One conclusion from this is that the floods' biggest effect on our economy is likely to be the temporary disruption to the Queensland mines' production and export of coal.

Think of China, think of steel; think of Chinese steel, think of Australia making big bucks

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Aged care dilemma: tap homes, or let taxpayers pay

There's a lot more to life than money. But it's money - how much things cost and who will pay for them - that causes many of the arguments in families and most of the arguments in politics. Nowhere is that truer than in aged care.

We all agree that old people must be adequately cared for in their declining years and that governments must ensure this happens. But where does private responsibility end and public responsibility begin? More to the point, how should the cost of care be shared between the individuals involved, their heirs and successors, and the taxpayer?

The scope for duck-shoving - the temptation to push costs off on to someone else, particularly the anonymous taxpayer - is enormous. Trouble is, governments represent the taxpayer. Elected politicians know that if the demands they make on taxpayers get too high or grow too rapidly, they're in trouble.

Unless we're careful, we end up with government paralysis: politicians who aren't game to push more of the costs back on to individuals and their families, but aren't prepared to impose a lot more cost on the taxpayer.

The result is an aged care system that isn't working properly. Where some old people who need care aren't getting it because the government has imposed arbitrary limits on how much it's prepared to spend; where some individuals are getting a much bigger public subsidy than is fair, while others are paying a lot more than is fair, and where institutions are underfunded and the people who work for them are underpaid.

As last week's draft report from the Productivity Commission reminds us, that's where our aged care system is now and where it will stay until we find federal leaders with the courage to stand up to both the duck-shovers and the reluctant taxpayers.

But, actually, the system won't stay as it is for long. The ageing of the population means a lot more people will be requiring aged care in coming years, particularly when the bulge of baby boomers reaches old age.

The commission says there's no way the cost of aged care to federal taxpayers will fail to grow significantly over the years. So, barring the unlikely event of offsetting cuts in other government spending, we will have to pay higher taxes.

We can, however, limit the growth in cost to the taxpayer - as well as alleviating other deficiencies in the present system - by making the system more efficient and requiring greater contributions to aged care costs from those individuals in a position to make them.

What would be fair? The commission starts by dividing the total costs faced by old people requiring care into four categories.

First is the cost of accommodation, which is equivalent to rent or mortgage payments and home maintenance. Next are everyday living expenses, such as for food, clothing, laundry, heating and social activities.

Third is the cost of healthcare, such as nursing, therapies and palliative care. And fourth is "personal care" - the additional costs of being looked after because of frailty or disability.

The commission argues that accommodation and everyday living expenses should be the responsibility of individuals, but with a safety net for people of limited means. (Remember, this is why people receive the age pension. Those ineligible for the pension - or for a full pension - have other, private means to call on.)

The commission argues that health services should attract a universal (that is, non-means-tested) subsidy, as is a key principle of Medicare.

On the cost of personal care, the commission says individuals should be required to contribute according to their capacity to pay, but shouldn't be exposed to catastrophic costs of care. It suggests maximum lifetime payments be capped at $60,000.

We tend to think of the elderly as among the poorest in the community, but that's because we focus on their usually modest incomes. But it's a different story when the focus is on their assets.

The distribution of wealth has been shifting towards older Australians since the mid-1980s, and this trend is likely to continue. It's estimated that, in 2000, the 12 per cent of the population aged 65 and over held about 22 per cent of the total net wealth of households. It's projected that by 2030, the aged's share of the population will rise by 7 percentage points, but their share of net wealth will more than double to 47 per cent.

Where's all this wealth coming from? From the rising value of the family home. The rate of home ownership among the elderly is very much higher than among the rest of us. Yet the value of people's homes is largely ignored when calculating their aged-care charges and subsidies - until the house is sold, when everything changes.

This is what the commission says must change to make the cost-sharing fairer to those oldies who've never owned their homes or have recently sold their home, not to mention working taxpayers who may be far less well placed in the housing market.

Taking account of the value of people's homes in assessing their ability to contribute to the cost of their care - which the commission says should vary between 5 per cent to 25 per cent - would increase the pressure on people to sell their home or at least borrow against it.

It proposes widening the use of accommodation bonds - where money is lent to the care institution interest-free - but with the proviso that the size of bonds reflects the actual cost of accommodation.

Many old people and their inheritance-conscious children will hate the sound of all this. But since even John Howard lacked the courage to impose these reforms, it's doubtful whether Julia Gillard will be game to touch them.

The only trouble is, our treatment of people receiving and providing aged care will continue to worsen until we as a nation are prepared to call a halt to the duck-shoving.