Saturday, July 30, 2011

Putting away dollars makes sense once again

Our top econocrats make a lot more speeches these days, but sometimes they say things that represent a clear advance in our understanding of what's happening with that mysterious animal we call the economy. Glenn Stevens, governor of the Reserve Bank, gave such a speech this week.

One device economists use to get a handle on economic developments is to distinguish between those that are ''cyclical'' and those that are ''structural''. Cyclical developments are a product of the economy's present position in its eternal movement through the business cycle of boom and bust. That is, they may be important now, but they won't last.

Structural developments, by contrast, come from deeper, underlying and long-running economic and social forces. They usually move more slowly, but they're more permanent.

The main message the econocrats have been trying to get to us is that the present resources boom isn't just another short-lived commodity boom but is bringing about a long-lasting change in the structure of our economy.

But this week Stevens identified a quite different structural change occurring at the same time as the mining construction boom. We're in the middle of a profound shift in the attitudes of Australian households towards how much of their income they spend on consumption and how much they save.

For many years households used to save a high proportion of their disposable incomes: 10, 12 even 15 per cent. Taking all households together, their mortgage and other debt stood at less than 50 per cent of annual household disposable income. Everyone's ambition was to pay off their mortgage as early as possible.

But, as Stevens points out, all that started to change in the mid-1990s. Over the 10 years to 2005, the trend rate of growth in real household disposable income (here, meaning income after tax and net interest payments) was 2 per cent a year per person. That's a very healthy rate of income growth - more than double the rate seen in the previous two decades.

Even so, household consumption spending grew over the same period at the even faster real, per-person rate of 2.8 per cent a year. How can our spending grow at a faster rate than our income? By us steadily cutting the rate of our saving.

We even got to the point where our consumption spending exceeded our income. How is that possible? By ''dissaving'' - running down past savings or by borrowing.

But from about 2005, before the global financial crisis in late 2008, all that began changing.

Over the five years to the end of 2010, real household disposable income per person grew at the even faster rate of 2.9 per cent. Why? Because of the flow through the economy of the very much higher export prices we've been getting.

But here's the thing: as our rate of income growth has accelerated, our rate of consumer spending has slowed down. In per-person terms, real consumption today is no higher than it was three years ago.

So what's changed? We've stopped saving less and started saving more. Why? Well, it's obviously not primarily because we're worried about higher interest rates, the risk of problems in Europe and America causing another global financial crisis or we're all afraid the world will end when the carbon tax starts next July.

Those worries are clearly part of the present, short-term, cyclical explanation for our caution as consumers, but they can't explain a structural trend that began about six years ago.

For that you have to look deeper. As we've seen, it's possible for your spending to grow faster than your income for a protracted period as you run down past savings and borrow. But you can't keep doing it forever. Eventually, your debts get so great that you (or your bankers) call a halt.

You realise having so much debt is dangerous, so you hold back your spending and increase your saving - often by paying off some of the debt. The ratio of household debt to annual disposable income shot up to about 150 per cent, but in the past few years it's levelled off.

The point to realise is that this new trend represents a return to normal behaviour after a protracted period of abnormal behaviour. We used to save 10 or 12 per cent of our incomes, and now we've got back to saving that much. We used to want to pay off our mortgage ASAP, and now we're back to wanting that to.

What happened in the middle was households making a protracted but essentially once-only adjustment to two major developments: financial deregulation, which made banks much keener to lend to households using newer, more flexible deals, and the return to low inflation and low nominal interest rates, which allowed people to borrow a lot more for the same monthly payments.

With hindsight it's clear we'd long wanted to spend more on better housing so, when the opportunity arose, we did. In the process of everyone wanting to move to a better house at pretty much the same time, however, we greatly bid up the price of houses and acquired a lot of debt.

But now we've adjusted to the new world of lower interest rates and higher levels of debt. We're not getting in any deeper, so have moved back to more normal levels of saving.

While we were watching the value of our homes going up and up we felt richer and so didn't feel we needed to save from our incomes. We stepped up our consumption. But now house prices have levelled off and so we've held back our consumption and returned to saving for the future the normal way.

Point is, the period of consumption spending growing faster than income has ended and is unlikely to return. At present, our efforts to increase our rate of saving mean consumption is growing a lot more slowly than our income is growing.

But as soon as we get our rate of saving back to where we want it to be, we can maintain that rate while consumer spending returns to growing at the same speed as income. With the saving rate already back to 11 per cent, you'd think we must be pretty close to reaching that point. If so, consumer spending could resume a reasonable rate of growth once our present short-term worries lift.

Message for retailers: the party times will never return, but the present tough times won't last.


Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Crime has become a mind game

The older I get, the more I realise how complicated - even mysterious - the world is. When I was young I tried to keep everything straightforward, concrete and logical. Then I realised the direct effects of some action can sometimes be overshadowed by its indirect effects.

Accountants and economists, as you've no doubt realised, tend to evaluate things in monetary terms. And there's no denying money is important - even to those who profess to have a soul above it.

But when you boil it down, money is important because of its power to affect how we feel. And not everything we feel can be converted to monetary terms. Unfortunately, our tendency to focus on the concrete and easily measured means we often neglect things that, while intangible, are important to our well-being.

Fortunately, economists are coming to realise this. Take crime. Why do we worry so much about it? Well, it does lead to monetary loss, including all the expense we run to as individuals and a community to protect ourselves from loss. And crime can lead to physical injury too, of course.

As a community, we - and our media - devote a lot more attention to crime than we used to. As part of this there's a lot more concern for the welfare of the victims of crime. We're more inclined to agree they should be compensated and we listen sympathetically as they take to the airwaves demanding vengeance against the perpetrators.

But has it occurred to you that the suffering of the wider community may exceed that of the victims? Or that crime's greatest cost may be to our mental well-being rather than our physical health or our pocketbooks?

By the standards of developed countries, crime rates in Australia are high. In a survey conducted in 2000, a higher share of Australians reported being the victim of a crime in the previous year than in any of the other 16 countries, including the US. By the same token, the level of crime in Australia, particularly property crime, fell quite considerably during the first half of the noughties - a fact that hasn't received as much publicity as our concern about crime would lead you to expect.

Francesca Cornaglia, of the centre for economic performance at the London School of Economics, and Andrew Leigh, formerly a professor of economics at the Australian National University and now a Labor member of federal parliament, have used local data to examine the link between crime and mental well-being in Australia.

They find that victims of property crime (burglary and theft) tend to be slightly better educated, whereas victims of violent crimes (homicide, assault, sexual assault, abduction and robbery) are less well educated.

Being a victim of crime, particularly violent crime, is "strongly and significantly related" to experiencing a deterioration in mental well-being. Victims' social functioning is harmed as emotional problems interfere with normal social activities. And they have difficulties with daily personal activities because of emotional problems.

Victims who are already suffering from mental distress are likely to react more strongly to crime than other people do. And victims are more likely to live in areas with higher crime rates. Victims of violence are particularly likely to experience post traumatic stress disorder, depression, panic and substance abuse. But Cornaglia and Leigh find that the rest of us also suffer a decrease in our mental well-being as a result of an increase in violent crime. The effect on our social functioning is nearly half the effect experienced by the actual victims.

Among all the violent crimes, it's assault, sexual assault and robbery that affect most categories of mental well-being. Although sexual assaults constitute a fairly small proportion of all crime, they have a "sizeable and significant effect" on three of the five components of mental well-being.

So the study finds strong evidence that the costs of crime are mental as well as physical and monetary. It also finds that the cost of violent crime in reducing our mental well-being extends well beyond the victims to the whole of the community.

But when you turn from the victims to the rest of us you turn from the reality to the perception, from the actual experience of crime to the fear of experiencing it. The degree of fear we feel about being a victim of crime can be out of proportion to the statistical risk of us actually becoming a victim.

This means that if media coverage of crime heightens our fear of being a victim beyond the actual risk of it, the media is adding unnecessarily to the decline in our mental well-being. Cornaglia and Leigh find the intensity of media reporting does increase the negative effect on mental well-being.

The media have "turned to crime" in recent decades in their pursuit of commercial advantage and in the no-doubt-correct belief that crime reporting is something their audience wants more of.

But the tabloid press in Britain is discovering the same people who lap up intimate details of the private lives of celebrities, politicians and even crime victims can turn on you when faced with the knowledge of the lengths to which you went to bring them those details.

If feeding the public's fascination with crime - and, in the process, leaving it with an exaggerated perception of the chances of becoming a victim - reduces the public's mental well-being, a day may come when "but that's what you wanted" won't be judged a sufficient excuse.


Monday, July 25, 2011

Don't wish a fall in interest rates on us

So you like the sound of a cut in interest rates? Don't get your hopes up. It's possible, but not probable. And remember, rates go down only when times get tougher. Is that what you want?

Though the likelihood is that hysteria over the imminent devastation to be wrought by the carbon tax accounts for the greatest part of the present caution among consumers, vague anxiety over the incomprehensible goings on in Greece is probably also contributing.

I don't believe in troubling trouble until trouble troubles me - especially when there's nothing you can do about it. But it seems I'm in a minority. Scare yourself over some event that with any luck won't happen? Yeah, why not? Got to get some excitement in your life.

The surest way for us to get a cut in interest rates would be for some major disaster in Europe - say, a disorderly debt default by Greece that caused the flighty financial markets to spread contagion to other highly indebted members of the euro area - to bring about another global financial crisis.

Should it happen, it would be similar to what we experienced after the collapse of Lehman Brothers in September 2008, with one exception: the financial markets are less likely to freeze up the way they did then. This time, no bank, central bank or government could say they had no inkling it was coming - which is what reduces the likelihood of a disaster being allowed to happen.

What we would get is the same wave of fear and uncertainty among consumers and businesses sweeping instantaneously around the world to every country that has television news - even those with little direct connection to the debt problems, including China (as happened last time) and us (ditto). We wouldn't be human if we didn't act like sheep.

We now know what happens when consumers and businesses around the globe become uncertain about the future and so suspend any plans they may have had for new spending until the outlook becomes clearer: international trade plummets, industrial production dives and world commodity prices crash.

The first time that happened it didn't take the Reserve Bank long to figure out what it needed to do: slash interest rates. It cut the official interest rate by 4 percentage points in five months. It would take it even less time to come to a similar conclusion this time.

If you could enjoy some such huge cut in your mortgage rate while being completely sure you and yours would keep their jobs, what a wonderful world this would be for those schooled by politicians and the media to take an utterly self-centred view of the economy. Trouble is, with everyone around you panicking, you couldn't be at all sure of keeping your job.

But let's step back from the worst-case scenario to something more probable. The truth is that despite all the self-pitying, over-hyped gloom, the Reserve retains a ''bias to tighten'' - its expectation that sooner or later it will need to raise interest rates, not cut them.

Why? Because we're in the middle of the biggest commodity boom, and the early stages of the biggest mining construction boom, we've experienced in 140 years. And because it's delusional to imagine all the benefit from that boom is penned up in Western Australia.

To be more specific, it's because the Reserve's first responsibility is to keep inflation in check and inflation is showing signs of breaking out. In particular, wages are growing at the relatively fast rate of 4 per cent.

Were labour productivity improving at the 2 per cent or even 1.5 per cent rate we've enjoyed in the past, that would be nothing to worry about. But productivity improvement has been particularly limited for some years, meaning ''unit labour costs'' (the average cost of labour per unit of production) are rising at a rate that will add to employers' price pressure.

How do you slow down wages growth? By using an increase in interest rates to slow the growth in borrowing and spending - demand - and, hence, the derived demand for labour.

All this says the Reserve will be scrutinising the consumer price index figures we get on Wednesday with particular concern.

It's true, however, that significant parts of the economy are doing it tough at present. Some of this is the unavoidable and actually helpful consequence of the resources boom's effect on the dollar, but in the case of retailing it's a self-inflicted bout of caution.

So, despite its worries about inflation, the Reserve will be reluctant to raise interest rates while the weakness in retail sales and other parts of the economy raise a question about the ongoing strength of demand. If underlying inflation in the June quarter comes in at about 0.7 per cent, it will be happy to stay its hand and await a clearer picture. Were the underlying increase to be as high as 1 per cent, it would probably still avoid raising rates at its board meeting the following Tuesday, but would be most uncomfortable about it.

When will it raise rates? When it sees signs consumers are losing their caution, or if the unemployment rate were to keep falling.

But what would prompt it to cut rates in the absence of global catastrophe? A lower than expected rise in underlying inflation next week plus, over the next few months, continuing consumer caution leading to further weakness in economic activity and a significant rise in unemployment.

You may wish for a rise in joblessness to bring about a cut in your mortgage rate, but that would be selfish and quite possibly foolhardy.


Saturday, July 23, 2011

Keynesian economists keen on Gillard's way

They say if you laid all the economists in the world end to end, they still wouldn't reach a conclusion. In truth, though they do tend to be an argumentative lot, there's a fair bit of agreement between them - as you can see from the Economic Society of Australia's latest survey of its members' opinions.

Much of the agreement is on things you'd expect but there are a few surprises. If you judged professional economists' views by the articles you see them writing in the press, you'd conclude most were pretty libertarian, opposed to high taxation and government spending and suspicious of governments.

But the survey reveals them to be still quite Keynesian in their attitude towards managing the macro economy and quite willing to support government intervention in the economy to correct instances of market failure.

The survey also reveals their views to be more consistent with the policies of the federal Labor government than those espoused by the opposition. Almost three-quarters of respondents support the levying of a national tax on the excess profits of the mining industry, for instance. And 79 per cent believe "price-based mechanisms" rather than direct regulation are the more appropriate way to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

But price-based mechanisms could include the subsidies that are part of Tony Abbott's direct action plan. So a different question was asked of just those people attending the first session of the annual conference of economists last week.

This showed 59 per cent agreeing Julia Gillard's carbon tax package was "good economic policy," with 26 per cent disagreeing. By contrast, only 11 per cent agreed Abbott's direct action approach was good policy, with 62 per cent disagreeing.

Returning to the main survey, it had more than 570 respondents, 86 per cent of whom hold at least a bachelor degree with honours. More than 37 per cent have PhDs. Of those employed, 37 per cent are academics, 34 per cent work elsewhere in the public sector and 26 per cent in the private sector.

If you want agreement, try this: 85 per cent agree that an independent cost-benefit analysis should be published before any major public infrastructure project is approved. Almost three-quarters support congestion pricing of road use, indexation of the income-tax scale and abolition of the first home buyers grant (which harms rather than helps first home buyers by raising house prices).

More than 70 per cent want to abolish the baby bonus, 65 per cent the stamp duty on the conveyancing of homes and 64 per cent want increased skilled migration.

About 60 per cent oppose continuation of the government guarantee of bank deposits, support unilateral reduction of industry protection and believe there is a "natural rate" of unemployment to which the economy tends in the long run.

No surprises there. Now try these. Only 45 per cent are confident lowering the minimum wage would reduce unemployment. Only 42 per cent believe lowering marginal rates of income tax would increase work effort. A narrow majority supports increasing the rate of compulsory superannuation contributions.

About 58 per cent believe restrictions on capital flows into countries would significantly improve the stability and soundness of the global financial system. A third agree large trade deficits are bad for the economy but 38 per cent disagree.

Economists turn out to be great believers in using regulation to reinforce competition. Two-thirds say competition laws should be enforced vigorously to reduce market power from its present level. And three-quarters support the use of jail sentences for executives guilty of price fixing.

Here's a surprise: 62 per cent disagree with the contention that consumer protection laws reduce economic efficiency. Almost two-thirds oppose suggestions that Australia reduce its spending on overseas aid. And almost three-quarters say governments should provide greater economic incentives to improve people's diet.

If you think that makes them sound terribly politically correct, note this: 60 per cent oppose requiring companies to have a minimum number of women directors. And they narrowly favour basing income tax on family rather than individual income - 41 to 38 per cent - an idea no feminist would accept.

Another sign of lack of political correctness is they're pretty much equally divided on the use of nuclear power in Australia.

Now a question for you: how do you think they divide on whether increasing federal government power relative to the states would increase economic efficiency? Only 32 per cent agree, 35 per cent disagree and 33 per cent "neither agree nor disagree".

Turning to management of the macro economy, more than three-quarters agree a substantial cut in interest rates is an appropriate response to a severe recession. That says they believe governments should attempt to manage the economy through the business cycle. What makes them pretty Keynesian in their approach to macro management is that three-quarters believe a substantial increase in government spending is an appropriate response to a severe recession, while only 43 per cent support a substantial tax cut.

Just less than half believe the Reserve Bank should focus on low inflation rather than on employment or economic growth, with 35 per cent disagreeing. (I'd have been in the neither agree nor disagree category since, in practice, the Reserve focuses on both, as it should.)

What I don't understand is how all this can be true while an amazing 79 per cent believe inflation is caused primarily by growth in the money supply. Huh?

It's also clear economists are stronger supporters of the redistribution of income than you might expect. More than 44 per cent believe the government should adopt policies to make the distribution of income more equal than it is at present.

Two-thirds believe the government should cut middle-class welfare and increase the help given to the disadvantaged.

And they're equally divided on the proposition that the goods and services tax be increased to cover cuts in income tax and company tax.

If you think economists are mindless supporters of the Labor Party - as one leading libertarian has concluded - consider this. Less than a third back abolition of the private health insurance rebate and 46 per cent oppose it.

And they're equally divided on the proposition that all Australians should have access to fast broadband at a uniform wholesale price. Clearly, they're not all the way with Labor's sacred national broadband network.

What Economists Want


Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Trust makes the world go around, honestly

What does Britain's phone hacking scandal have in common with its earlier scandal over parliamentary expenses and with the failure of several of its banks during the global financial crisis? As Jonathan Tame, of Britain's Relationships Global, has observed, all three events shake the trust the Brits can have in key institutions of their democracy. The latest scandal raises questions about the trustworthiness of the press, the government and the police.

Sometimes you don't appreciate the importance of things until you're threatened with their loss. Of nothing is that truer than trust.

''Every society is built on trust, and every person needs to be trustworthy,'' Tame says. ''Yet greater integrity is expected from politicians, the police and the media, which is why their failure to meet the public's ethical standards is so distressing.''

Why is trust so important? It's what prevents us from having to do everything ourselves. Trust is believing someone else will act correctly. It enables us to hand our children over to teachers, give our vote to a politician, relax while the pilot flies the plane, put our money in a bank account and share the roads with other motorists.

''We do these things without anxiety because we believe that the others involved share our values, will act responsibly and look after our interests,'' Tame says.

''With any loss of trust, relational capital diminishes. Society becomes poorer as more time is taken drawing up detailed contracts and regulations, more funds are spent on security, surveillance and policing, and health declines because people grow more anxious.''

Mark Scholefield prepared a study on trust for the Relationships Foundation. He says trust allows us to share information and responsibilities for our mutual benefit, while giving us the freedom to get on with our own work and life without worrying too much about the part others play.

''We probably cannot live without some degree of trust,'' Scholefield says. ''Our lives and relationships are too complex to monitor and control completely.''

Trust involves reciprocity. If I trust you, you're more likely to trust me. If you trust me, I'm more likely to live up to that trust. Assume I'm untrustworthy and I'm more likely to conform to your expectations.

But to abuse another's trust is often to end your relationship with them. You can cheat someone with impunity if you're never expecting to see them again. If you're planning to stick around, however, the best strategy is to behave in a trustworthy manner. It's intolerable not to be trusted and equally intolerable not to be able to trust the people around you.

Trust is closely linked to reputation. Whether you're a business, an employee or just a friend, it pays to build a reputation for trustworthiness and reliability. In the modern world we deal with so many people and organisations we don't know that we're often forced to rely on their reputations.

Richard Bronk, of the London School of Economics, has written that trust is crucial to the success of economic relationships such as those between managers and workers or between companies and their suppliers. And honesty is the essential lubricant to a system of exchange.

''If trust and honesty mean anything it is that these individuals will be motivated by them to suspend the continual quest for personal advantage in certain key situations,'' Bronk says.

If ever there was a case where the quest for personal, commercial and party advantage is damaging our trust in politicians and the media it's the unending brawling over the carbon tax.

It seems the public's trust in Julia Gillard will forever be tainted by the manner in which she came to power. She's not the first or the last politician to break a promise - in this case her promise not to introduce a carbon tax during the present term - but her failure to apologise and adequately explain her reasons for doing so is undoubtedly compounding the loss of trust in her.

Nor will it be helped by her use of taxpayers' money to pay for an advertising campaign to sell the carbon tax before it has become law. In opposition, Labor bitterly attacked the Howard government's abuse of public funds for such purposes; now it's doing the same. In the heat of battle, the possibility of short-term benefit outweighs the risk to the reputation of politicians in general and Labor in particular.

Scare campaigns - where politicians prey on the fears of insecure and ill-informed voters by greatly exaggerating the likely consequences of the other side's policies - are accepted by both sides of politics and the media as a legitimate tactic.

It's always a lot harder to explain a complex policy than it is to put the frighteners on the punters but Tony Abbott's gross misrepresentation of the carbon tax's effect on prices, employment and whole industries exceeds all records in effectiveness and dishonesty.

I would never have believed one politician could, by all his reckless claims, stop retail sales in their tracks as frightened punters close their purses in fear for their futures. Why the retailers aren't tearing him apart I don't know.

Do his fellow Liberals and their supporters imagine there will be no backlash when voters eventually realise just how much they were wound up?

But is the media working to help their perplexed customers discern the truth of all the claims and counterclaims? Too many of them are playing the controversy for all it's worth, trumpeting the claims of interest groups that are undocumented and untested. Some are motivated by partisanship, almost all by commercial advantage.

Do they, too, imagine this abuse of the public's trust will go unpunished? What's happening in Britain says otherwise.


Monday, July 18, 2011

Decarbonising economy is not such a big deal

To a lot of thoughtful people, Julia Gillard's plan to virtually ''decarbonise'' our economy represents one of the most radical attempts at reform in our history.

It will present a profound challenge to the Australian way of life, we're told, requiring changes to our lifestyle, spending patterns, taxation burdens and possibly even people's chosen field of employment.

As well as changing our everyday practices, it will change the structure of the country's fiscal and industrial systems and the way we trade with the rest of the world.

Fortunately, however, the adjustment needed to achieve a low-carbon economy won't be nearly as drastic as the thoughtful observers expect.

The first point is that the very reason economists advocate the use of the price mechanism is their confidence this will be the least-cost way to bring about the desired changes. Least-cost primarily refers to least reduction in the rate of improvement in our material standard of living (which reduction Treasury's modelling estimates to be less than 0.1 percentage points

a year, totalling about 0.5 per cent by 2020).

Something that has such a modest effect on our standard of living is unlikely to have much effect on our way of life. If it doesn't, that will be by design.

Decarbonising the economy isn't as radical as it sounds. It's not too much of an oversimplification to say the main change we need to achieve is just in the means we use to generate electricity.

It's not likely to involve any reduction in our use of electricity, nor much reduction in the rate of growth in that use. That's true despite all the talk about the higher price of electricity encouraging householders and businesses to use it less wastefully. By definition, wasting electricity contributes nothing to our standard of living.

The majority of the economy will be largely unaffected by carbon pricing. Get this: Treasury estimates that industries employing more than 90 per cent of the workforce account for less than 10 per cent of emissions.

Note, too, that Treasury expects about half the eventual reduction in emissions achieved by our big polluting industries to be brought about in other countries, where reducing emissions is cheaper. This, too, is a design feature intended to minimise the cost and disruption to our economy.

Remember that the decarbonising of the economy won't happen overnight. It will be brought about over the next 40 years. And much of it will happen relatively smoothly as electricity producers install emissions-efficient generators when their old power stations come to the end of their useful lives.

This is why it's so important to leave those producers in no doubt that the cost of emissions will be high and rising. Paradoxically, the more they believe that, the more their actions will cause it to be less true.

Tony Abbott claims the scheme obviously involves the end of the coal industry because Treasury's projections envisage coal accounting for less than 10 per cent of electricity production in 2050.

This is dishonest for several reasons. It ignores the 15 per cent of production expected to come from coal that's been subject to carbon capture and storage. More significantly, it ignores the high proportion of coal produced for export, including coking coal for steel-making. (And this guy calls Gillard a liar.)

Decarbonisation should also involve a major reduction in our use of fossil fuels for transport, of course. But, if the world price of oil keeps rising, over time that change will come about regardless of Gillard's carbon pricing.

The assertion that decarbonisation will bring marked and disturbing changes in our way of life reveals a lack of appreciation of how much things are always changing - especially over a period as long as 40 years.

Our spending patterns change over the years as we buy proportionately fewer goods and more services, as new electronic gismos are invented, as more women leave the home to work and as enterprising businesses dream up new services to sell us. Do we notice? Not really.

It's funny to have some critics asking why they're levying a new tax then giving back most of the proceeds (including by reductions in income tax) and then have others talking about significant changes in the tax burden and the fiscal structure.

The beauty of taxes that are used to change the relative prices people and businesses face is that you can then use the proceeds to reduce other, ideally more inefficient, taxes. This, too, is a design feature.

John Howard used the surge in company tax revenue associated with the resources boom to cut personal income tax five years in a row then proposed increasing it to eight years (with the Rudd government obliging). This significant change in the mix of taxes was brought about without anyone much noticing.

It's true the carbon price will cause employment in the small proportion of the economy that's emissions-intensive to grow less quickly than otherwise, while employment in the small proportion of the economy producing renewable energy grows more quickly than otherwise.

While ever the overall economy is growing, such modest changes in employment shares won't cause much angst. And get this: each year about 2 million people change jobs, including about 500,000 who change industries.

The structural change the carbon price will bring isn't likely to be all that history-making. According to Treasury, ''the changes to the Australian economy from pricing carbon are [projected to be] small by historical standards and small compared to the changes we are already seeing in our economy as it adjusts to accommodate the pressures of mining boom mark II''.

A carbon tax is nothing compared with an exchange rate that stays above parity with the greenback.


Saturday, July 16, 2011

Gillard's flawed scehme worth doing

In this far from perfect world, no reform that makes it into law is ever ideal. It's always flawed and internally inconsistent, a product of the compromise necessitated by our democracy. Of course, some reform attempts are more flawed than others. So the question for Julia Gillard's carbon tax package is: is it too flawed to be worth bothering with?

In this far from perfect world, no reform that makes it into law is ever ideal. It's always flawed and internally inconsistent, a product of the compromise necessitated by our democracy. Of course, some reform attempts are more flawed than others. So the question for Julia Gillard's carbon tax package is: is it too flawed to be worth bothering with?

With Kevin Rudd's carbon pollution reduction scheme in 2009, the compromise was negotiated with the Liberals. But they reneged at the last minute, sacking Malcolm Turnbull and turning to Tony Abbott because so many of them doubted that climate change was real.

The Greens, who were excluded from the negotiations, helped the Coalition vote it down in the Senate, arguing it would do too little to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases and gave too much compensation to the big polluting industries. Knock this one back and they'd have to come up with something better.

With Gillard's package, the compromise has been done with the Greens and the independents. In the meantime, Abbott has had so much success arousing opposition to action on climate change that the continuing supporters of action aren't in a mood to be picky. They'll take what they can get.

But the question remains: is the new package worth all the angst it's causing? And is it much better as a result of the Greens' ministrations?

For starters, it's just a modified version of the Rudd scheme, not radically different. So the ''big polluters'' will still get as much compensation, if not more. But although most economists agree they're getting more compensation than is justified (those competing in export markets against foreign producers not burdened by a carbon tax do need some relief), most economists would also agree the compensation isn't likely to greatly diminish their efforts to reduce emissions.

Non-economists seem to think you can't get people to change their behaviour unless you punish them. Take money from them and they'll change their ways. Economists think the main way to discourage a particular activity is to raise its price relative to the price of other activities. You don't have to take money from them (the ''income effect'' as economists call it) to get them to respond to the changed price structure (the ''substitution effect'').

Most of the compensation will go to the ''emissions-intensive, trade-exposed'' industries, in the form of free emission permits. But each firm's compo will be based on the average emissions of firms in their industry. So those with above-average emissions, which they'll need to cover by buying extra permits, have a clear incentive to find ways to reduce their emissions.

But even those with average or below-average emissions also have an incentive to reduce emissions. Why? Because they'll be able to sell to other firms any of their free permits they don't need.

Thus, just as the Rudd scheme would have done more to discourage emissions than many people imagined, so this package will also discourage emissions.

Gillard's package is widely described as a carbon tax but, strictly speaking, it's an emissions trading scheme in which the price of emission permits is fixed for the first three years and permits made freely available, after which the price is set by auction, with an ever-declining quantity of permits made available each year.

So it's not hugely different from the Rudd scheme, which itself planned to start with a price fixed at $10 a tonne of carbon emissions in the first year. This time the price will start at $23 a tonne, increased in each of the two subsequent years by 2.5 per cent in real terms - an improvement.

The reductions in the trading scheme's cap on emissions - needed to reduce total emissions over time and thus likely to gradually raise the price of permits - will now be set by the government on the basis of recommendations by an independent climate change authority, chaired by a former Reserve Bank governor, Bernie Fraser. An improvement.

Another improvement is that the independent Productivity Commission, no soft touch, will review the levels of assistance provided to trade-exposed industries with a view to reducing them as other countries limit the emissions of their own industries.

The Rudd scheme was widely criticised because its guaranteed reduction in emissions to 5 per cent below 2000 levels by 2020 was considered too small. It's actually more demanding than it sounds because, without action, our emissions would grow a lot between 2000 and 2020. Achieving the 5 per cent target will require emissions in 2020 to be 23 per cent lower that they'd otherwise be.

However, both the old scheme and the new allow for the target reduction to be increased to 15 per cent or 25 per cent of 2000 levels if other countries tighten their own targets. The old scheme aimed to reduce emissions in 2050 to 60 per cent below 2000 levels, whereas the new one aims for 80 per cent below.

Rudd included transport fuels in his scheme while excluding cars and farm vehicles for three years and heavy road vehicles for one year. Gillard's scheme excludes cars and farm vehicles ''forever'' and imposes the equivalent of a carbon price - just 6 cents a litre - on aviation, mining and shipping, extending this to heavy road vehicles after two years.

But nothing is forever in politics and, in any case, does anyone expect the world price of oil to do anything but keep rising?

Gillard's scheme provides substantially more support for innovation, mainly through a $10 billion clean energy finance corporation, which will give a partial subsidy to those firms that win the assistance by proposing better schemes to reduce emissions.

Her scheme also includes (at the behest of an independent, Tony Windsor) a land-sector package worth $1 billion over four years, which will improve biodiversity (the preservation of species) and encourage more eco-friendly farming practices.

Gillard has roundly attacked Abbott's plan for ''direct action'' on climate change rather than ''putting a price on carbon'', but her package also includes direct action - such as buying out the hugely polluting brown coal power stations.

There's nothing wrong with a two-pronged approach in principle, so long as the direct measures aren't too wildly expensive per tonne of carbon avoided or just disguised handouts to rent-seeking industries (as the brown coal buy-out seems to be).

Rudd's flawed scheme was always worth doing; this one is better - just a bit.


Wednesday, July 13, 2011

How influential are (economic) journalists?

Australian Conference of Economists, Canberra
Wednesday, July 13, 2011

I take my title, How influential are journalists?, to be a reference to economic journalists, particularly economic commentators. My answer has changed little since a paper I wrote on the topic was published in the Australian Economic Review in 1995: not nearly as influential as you might imagine. But in preparation for defending that view, let me make a few clarifying points.
First, economic journalists distinguish themselves sharply from business (formerly known as financial) journalists. We write about macro and micro issues, they write about the adventures of listed companies.

Second, economic journalists - those who specialise in writing about macro and micro issues, and usually bring some university-level economic training to bear - are relatively rare. There are a few at the ABC (eg Stephen Long), but most work for the quality press.

Third, the economic content in the press can be divided into reporting of news and commentary on that news. News covers such things as ABS statistics, RBA announcements and speeches, speeches by the treasurer and treasury heavies, government reports, the budget and mid-year reviews, and developments in financial markets. Most of that economic reporting is done from the Canberra press gallery. This means that, in practice (and unlike in the US and elsewhere) economic journalism tends to be a specialty within political journalism, making it more focused on political economy issues. Except for the quality press, much economic reporting is done by political reporters - which means, for instance, that if the opposition seems to be making political headway in criticising deficits and debt, the political journalists will take it a lot more seriously and uncritically than economic journalists would. Issues are judged on their political potency, not their economic merits.

Fourth, the role of the news media is much misunderstood by many people. They assume the media’s role is to give their audience a balanced picture of what’s happening in the world beyond people’s personal experience. In fact, because the media is directly or indirectly selling its news, we limit our reporting of what’s happening in the world to those things we believe our audience will find particularly interesting. This imparts considerable biases to what we report: we pay a lot more attention to bad news than good, to problems rather than solutions, and to conflict and controversy (so that, for instance, dissenters from the dominant view on climate change among scientists get a lot more space than their numbers warrant). The media are more interested in people than concepts, and more interested in concrete case studies than abstract principles. In political and economic reporting there is much resort to ‘race-calling’: which side’s doing well in the polls and which isn’t, which leaders are secure and which under threat; which economic indicators are up this month and which are down (or, for the share market and the exchange rate, which are a bit up or a bit down today). The media tend to pander to what they assume to be their audience’s prejudices: so rises in interest rates and the dollar are always good, falls are always bad. Deficits are always bad, surpluses are always good.

So, how influential are economic commentators? Well, not sufficiently influential to discourage their editors from the eternal race-call. They try to discuss indicators in a longer and broader context, but fight an uphill battle. Similarly, they stand against the political journalists’ misconceptions (eg references to the budget deficit as ‘Australia’s deficit’; the notion that the carbon tax package’s funding shortfall of ‘$4 billion over four years’ is a huge discrepancy, or belief that a budget surplus of $1 billion is significantly different from a deficit of $1 billion), but in this they don’t seem to have any impact on the political journalists’ judgements. They don’t have much success in resisting pressure for unending idle speculation about the timing and direction of the next move in the official interest rate.

Economic commentators, in sharp distinction to political commentators, don’t hesitate to take a position in the policy debate and to campaign for particular policies. It’s intended to be a constant and logically consistent position - not one that keeps adjusting so that whatever a government does can be criticised - based on their school of economic thought and personal values, not on partisan loyalties. The bane of an economic commentator’s life is people always trying to consign him or her to a party-political box. In the past most of them have tended to be pretty orthodox in their views - pretty rationalist - but some of us have been trying to offer a wider range of views. The commentators’ paper’s emphasis on race-calling means macroeconomic issues tend to crowd out microeconomic issues, which are often more important. The journalistic profession’s obsession with timeliness - with never being ‘off the pace’ - limits their ability to continue pursuing issues once the political caravan has moved on.

Economic commentators are not great original thinkers. They don’t keep up with the literature. As with most economists, most of the arguments they mount and policy solutions they espouse are pretty derivative. I’ve never deluded myself I’ve been giving the pollies policy advice that was significantly different to and superior to the official advice they were getting. Economic commentators spend a lot of time talking to senior econocrats, and much of what they write echoes the views of the particular econocrats they talk to. They don’t talk to academic economists as much as they probably should, mainly because so few academics keep up with the policy debate. My emphasis has been more on explaining economic policies to my readers than on telling pollies or central bankers how to run the country. And these days I’m trying to offer my readers a critique of economists and economics.

One factor that hugely limits the influence of economic commentators is that all of us read more for reinforcement of our existing views than for enlightenment. We generally avoid reading the opinions of people we know we’ll disagree with, though psychological studies find that, where we do persevere with an article that doesn’t fit with our views, it serves only to confirm the rightness of those views.

I guess that where the economic commentators all sing the same song, a song that’s being sung also by the econocrats and many academics, and we go on doing that for long enough, it is possible to make certain views the conventional wisdom among elite opinion. Of course, my opinion on the extent of our influence is hardly objective, but from my perspective it’s pretty limited.


Give and take: The new tax is a piece of cake

Years ago, the Keating government had a problem with pensioners wasting taxpayers' money on prescriptions. Knowing their elderly patients got their prescriptions free, doctors were happily issuing ones their patients might or might not end up needing and pensioners were taking them to the chemist and getting them filled, just in case. Many of these often very expensive drugs were not used.

So the government decided to impose a nominal fee on pensioner prescriptions of $2 a pop, just to make people think twice about whether they'd be needed. But, anxious though it was to save big money by reducing the waste of taxpayer-subsidised pharmaceuticals, the government had no desire to leave pensioners out of pocket. It worked out the average number of prescriptions pensioners had filled, multiplied it by $2, and increased pensions by that amount.

I dredge up this story because it may help you understand something about Julia Gillard's planned carbon tax that many people find puzzling.

If Gillard is imposing a carbon tax to raise the price of electricity and gas, with some flow through to the prices of other items, so as to discourage us from using so much fossil fuel, why is she undoing the effect by giving us back most of the tax we'll pay as cuts in income tax and increases in pensions and family benefits?

What's the point of this money-go-round, as Tony Abbott calls it? How can it do any good?

Though the carbon tax will raise about $9 billion a year in revenue, raising revenue is not its primary purpose. Rather, its purpose is to change people's behaviour. And one of the most basic ideas in economics is that the best way to change people's behaviour is to change the prices they face. If there's some activity you wish to discourage, raise its price relative to all the other prices people pay.

When, after a cyclone, the price of bananas shoots up relative to the prices of other fruit, people tend to buy fewer bananas and more apples and oranges. When the price of beef rises more than other meat, people buy less beef and more chicken.

The thinking is that if you raise the price of fossil fuels and emissions-intensive goods relative to the prices of all the other things people buy, they'll change their spending in ways that reduce the use of fossil fuels.

It's not necessary to leave people worse off to get them to change their spending patterns. And since the primary purpose of the carbon tax is to change relative prices rather than to raise revenue, you may as well return the revenue to people by cutting income tax and increasing benefits.

(You can't give back all the revenue because you're using part of it for other purposes, so you favour low- and middle-income households and let higher-income households take it on the chin. Since your calculations about how much the carbon tax will cost people are based on averages, and not everyone fits the average, you give low-income households a bit more than the average so fewer of them are undercompensated.)

Now, you may say finding ways to cut your use of electricity and gas isn't as simple as buying apples rather than bananas, and you'd be right. There are ways to reduce energy use around the house, but I suspect the main way people will respond is by buying a more energy-efficient model the next time they're replacing an appliance.

If you think no amount of energy saving in the home is likely to bring about the degree of reduction in fossil fuel use we needed to achieve, you'd also be right.

People have an automatic tendency to apply government moves such as this to themselves and their homes but, in fact, the relative price change is directed mainly at the big industrial users of electricity and, more particularly, the generators of electricity.

It's when their existing power stations come to the end of their useful lives and are replaced by less-polluting generators that the big steps forward will be made.

The government claims the changes it will make to the income tax scale - lifting the tax-free threshold from $6000 a year to $18,200 - is a major reform, meaning about a million people will no longer have to submit tax returns.

Tony Abbott counters that it's a terrible change: "This is the first time in a generation that marginal tax rates have been increased." The bottom tax rate of 15 per cent is to be increased to 19 per cent, and the second rate of 30 per cent increased to 32.5 per cent.

Both sides are playing on the public's ignorance of the complexities of the tax system, in particular the operation of the "low-income tax offset" of $1500 a year, which lifts the present effective tax-free threshold from $6000 to $16,000, but is then clawed back after people's incomes exceed $30,000 a year, at the rate of 4? in the dollar.

Under the new arrangement, this offset will be cut to $445 a year and its rate of withdrawal cut to 1.5? in the dollar. When you take this into account, Labor's grand reform becomes a minor reform. Most of the million people aren't paying tax under the present system, they just have to put in a return to claim the offset.

As for Abbott, the change will involve no increase in anyone's effective marginal tax rate. All it means is that the hidden 4 per cent rate at which the offset is withdrawn will no longer be hidden.

The carbon tax is neither as good as Gillard claims nor as bad as Abbott claims. Funny, that.


Monday, July 11, 2011

It will be neither as good nor as bad as we're told

So now, supposedly, we know exactly what to expect when, as seems likely, the carbon tax comes into effect on July 1 next year.

The average household's costs will increase by about $10 a week. All but the top 10 per cent of households will receive tax cuts and benefit increases to compensate them for this higher cost and two-thirds of households will be fully compensated.

Uncertainty over? Don't you believe it. Now begins the search for the devil in the details. And what a frantic, spine-tingling, imaginative search it will be, led not by seekers after truth but by all those who stand to gain by convincing us disaster is about to befall us and our economy.

There is much distrust of Julia Gillard and her assurances, particularly since she has broken her election promise not to introduce such a tax in this term. But how much trust can we place in her critics? Since the Coalition, in its day, has supported putting a price on carbon emissions, can we be sure Tony Abbott's change of heart isn't motivated primarily by desire to win back government?

We will be assailed by business people telling us how devastating the tax would be for jobs in their industry. Can we be sure they aren't exaggerating as they jockey for concessions? If we doubt the word of politicians, can we trust the predictions of business people?

This scheme is hellishly complex, so it contains much scope for apprehension, justified or otherwise. It is designed to change our behaviour without penalising most households - itself a puzzle to many people - so this will in time change the shape of the economy.

In truth, some industries will gain while others lose. We will hear at full voice from those fearing they will lose, while the winners stay mum, as do the great majority of industries that will be little affected.

Psychology sheds as much light on these questions as does economics. The safest prediction is that the tax won't be as bad as its critics fear, nor as benign as its defenders claim.

We can be sure of this because of humans' well-researched inability to accurately predict the future.

We almost always expect bad things to be worse than they prove to be and good things to be better than they prove.

And psychology teaches us another lesson: once the tax starts we will get used to it very quickly.


Labour isn't inanimate. We're human.

When Dr Martin Parkinson gave a speech urging a renewed effort to lift the productivity of labour, the subeditors at the ABC knew just what he meant: Treasury secretary says we should work harder. Whoops.

That ain't what he meant. As the old slogan says, improving labour productivity involves "working smarter, not harder". Indeed, increasing productivity requires producing more from the same inputs. So increasing output by increasing labour inputs clearly doesn't do the trick.

The standard way to raise the productivity of labour is to supply workers with more and better machines to work with. But Parkinson is talking about something more demanding, more reforming than this. He wants a renewed round of microeconomic reform.

He's right in saying the rate of improvement in labour productivity has "slowed sharply" since the start of the new century. He argues only part of this is explained by the delay while the mining industry's partially installed production capacity comes on line.

So what kind of reform do we need to buck things up? Well, a lot of people think the answer's obvious. Peter Reith, a former Liberal minister for workplace relations, for instance: "Labour market issues are at the heart of productivity and, in the end, about living standards. Australia's productivity performance has been poor in recent years. We cannot pretend this problem does not exist."

Another Howard government luminary, Peter Costello, would be the first to agree. He once said: "We need a new dose of active, wide-ranging and vigorous industrial relations reform in this country. No single reform would boost productivity in the Australian economy to the same extent."

He said that in 2005, in support of John Howard's Work Choices reforms. But Work Choices is no more. First it was watered down by Howard himself when finally he realised how unpopular it was, then it was further dismantled by Julia Gillard's Fair Work Act. And Tony Abbott promised repeatedly that Work Choices was "dead, buried and cremated".

I suspect a lot of Liberals' consciences are troubling them over Work Choices. They share the belief of Reith and Costello that industrial relations is the one key reform that would fix productivity. They know it's politically difficult, but the Liberals have to stand for something and reversing the Fair Work Act is something worth fighting for.

If the Murdoch press is to be believed, there's mounting disaffection among employers at the way Fair Work has re-regulated the labour market. Union power is back, we read, and strikes and excessive wage settlements are on the way.

I remain to be convinced this is anything more than employers' paranoia. Big wage increases in the mining industry are only to be expected during a mining boom. It's actually the way market forces work to shift labour from declining industries to expanding industries.

It's hard to believe the union monster could be revived. Union membership in the private sector is down to 14 per cent. Strike activity is a fraction of what it used to be and still falling. And though it doesn't prove much (because, in the real world, all else never stays equal), wages are growing at an unworrying 4 per cent annual rate.

But is industrial relations reform the key to restoring our productivity growth? I doubt it's the magic bullet the Liberals are convincing themselves it is. And Parkinson's agenda for further reform included not a hint he thought it important.

Even so, I don't doubt that reinstating the weakening of workers' bargaining power against their clearly more powerful employers by frustrating collective bargaining and promoting individual contracts, tolerating summary dismissal of workers and removing legislative protection of wages and conditions would indeed raise the productivity of labour (not to mention enhancing profits at the expense of wages).

It would do so mainly by giving employers far more freedom to shift workers around - to hire and fire at will, to bring workers in or send them home, and to split their shifts, move them between branches, put them on rolling shift work and make them work on weekends and public holidays all without additional compensation.

In other words, removing most of the paraphernalia of industrial relations legislation would give employers almost the same freedom to economise on the use of labour as they already have in managing the inanimate raw materials and machines that contribute to the production process.

It would impart to the labour market the supreme "flexibility" that Parkinson and other economists extol as the sine qua non of economic efficiency.

There's just one small problem, one the economists' model ignores rather than highlights: unlike all the other "factors of production", . Every unit of the stuff comes with a human attached. And each human unit is a bit different.

This means labour can give you trouble that other raw materials can't. The worse you treat it, the more it looks for ways to get back at you. The worse you treat it, the more you have to spend supervising it to prevent shirking.

You can't give yourself a huge pay rise without making it think it's underpaid. You can treat it inconsiderately only when it's in plentiful supply. If it's in short supply, it will up and leave. Smart employers (and conservative politicians) understand this, dumb ones don't.

But all that's by-the-by. The real point is that humans are meant to be the object of the economic exercise. When you seek to raise productivity and material living standards by making people's working lives a misery of uncertainty and insecurity, damaging people's family lives and even their health, you confuse means with ends, harming people in the name of helping them.


Saturday, July 9, 2011

Immigrants and oldies share our growing work load

Most of the interest in this week's figures for the labour force in June was in what they told us about the strength of the demand for labour. But what's happening to the supply of labour is just as interesting.

With the trend figures showing total employment grew by 188,000 over the six months to December, but by only 38,000 over the past six months, it's clear the demand for labour is slowing. This suggests the economy itself is growing less quickly, reducing concerns about gathering inflation pressure - for the time being, anyway.

Even so, the rate of unemployment staying steady at (a healthily low) 4.9 per cent for the past four months says the demand for labour at least is keeping pace with the supply of it. Which means the supply must have slowed, too.

The labour force (all those people with jobs or actively seeking them) grew by 1.7 per cent to just over 12 million people in the year to June, which was down from 2 per cent growth the previous financial year.

This is in distinction to the earlier position because, as an article in the latest Reserve Bank Bulletin points out, the labour force has grown at an average rate of 2.5 per cent a year since 2005. That's fast - it's also an extra 1.4 million people. Where have they all come from?

The first source is more people of working age (those 15 and over) choosing to actually participate in the labour force. And the big increase has been among women, plus older workers choosing to delay their retirement.

To appreciate the full effect we have to go back a bit. Since 1980, the rate of participation by women aged 25 to 54 has increased by about 20 percentage points, while the rate for women aged 55 to 64 has risen by a remarkable 35 percentage points.

Female participation has been rising since the 1960s and is occurring in all the rich economies. It reflects changing social norms as well as economic factors. The proportion of women with post-school qualifications has risen from 7 per cent in the early 1980s to more than 25 per cent today - which is higher than the proportion for men. Why wouldn't these women want to use their qualifications in paid work?

The strong growth of employment in service industries has suited women, partly by providing more jobs with flexible working arrangements. Growing access to child care and paid maternity leave has also helped.

But the largest increase in participation has been for older workers. The change for men began in about 2000. Since then, the rate for males aged 55 to 64 has risen by more than 10 percentage points. This trend, too, is happening around the developed world.

In Australia there had been a trend towards early retirement (you can access your superannuation savings at 55), but this is reversing. One factor encouraging people to remain in the labour force for longer is greater longevity.

Another is increases in the qualification age for the age pension. Since 1995 the age for women has been gradually increasing from 60 to 65, the same as for men, and for both men and women it will increase from 65 to 67 between 2017 and 2024.

Other factors encouraging later retirement include more flexible work practices, such as greater willingness to allow older workers to work part time, and the rising share of jobs in the services sector, where employment is typically less physically demanding than in the traditional goods-producing industries.

And here's where psychology enhances oh-so-logical economics: more people are working longer because more of their mates are working longer. As social animals we have an instinctive urge to do what everyone else is doing.

Something to note about the rise in both female and older-worker participation, however, is that it's been accompanied by a decline in the average hours worked per worker. It's gone from 35 hours a week in 1980 to 32 hours today.

Why? Because women and older workers are more likely to work part-time. It also reflects a fall in the share of people working very long hours in recent years.

This means a bigger factor explaining the growth in the supply of labour has been the growth in the population of working age. It's been increasing at an average rate of 1.5 per cent a year since 1980. But annual population growth picked up markedly from the mid-2000s, peaking a more than 2 per cent in 2008, since when it's fallen back to the average.

Part of this is population growth is ''natural increase'' (more kids turning 15 than oldies dying) but most of it is net migration (more people come in than going out). The increase in net migration between 2004 and 2008 mainly reflected a higher intake of permanent and temporary skilled migrants and a huge rise in the number of overseas students.

The Howard government's switch of priority from family reunion to skilled migration helps explain why more than 80 per cent of the migrants who arrived in 2009-10 were of working age, compared to 70 per cent of the total population. The proportion of the labour force that had arrived in Australia in the previous five years rose from under 3 per cent in 1996 to 6 per cent in 2011.

In recent years the significance of the government's much-watched annual permanent immigration program has been overshadowed by the temporary immigration categories for skilled workers (employer-sponsored 457 visas), students and working holiday-makers (backpackers).

The number of 457 visa holders has doubled since the mid-2000s, though their share of total employment is still less than 1 per cent. Their numbers have fallen as a result of the global financial crisis, but are likely to go back up because of resources boom mark II.

The number of student visa holders has tripled over the past decade, accounting for most of the surge in net migration. Overseas students are permitted to work 20 hours a week while their course is in session and unlimited hours during scheduled course breaks.

Student numbers have fallen sharply, however, because of a tightening in entry rules, the higher exchange rate and the bad publicity in India.

Those who disapprove of high immigration should remember this - as should those economists who bewail the slowdown in net migration. A lot more overseas students won't avert our looming skilled labour shortages.


Friday, July 8, 2011


IQ2 Debate Sydney City Recital Hall
Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Some of you who read my column may be wondering what on earth I’m doing on the side opposing this motion that, by 2020, only the rich will be at home in Australia. Don’t I care about inequality? Well, yes I do. Do I believe everything in the garden is rosy? No I don’t. I do believe the gap between high and low incomes is too wide and I’d be happy to see governments do more to redistribute income from high income-earners like me to lower income-earners like you. (No, I suspect few of you are low income-earners.)

So why am I opposing this motion? Because it’s too extreme; it’s way too pessimistic and it goes over the top. Think about it: by 2020, only the rich will be at home in Australia. Let me ask you: do you feel at home in Australia right now, or do you feel like an outcast? Are you rich? No, you’re not. But what this motion asserts is that, within just 12 years or less, you’ll be dispossessed. If you own your home now, within 12 years you’ll have lost it. If you’ve got any superannuation, it won’t have grown in the next 12 years, it will have disappeared. If you’re middle-class, educated and reasonably comfortable now, within 12 years you’ll have lost it all. You’ll by like a new migrant who isn’t sure he jumped the right way; who doesn’t feel at home in Australia.

Another question: what proportion of the population would you consider to be rich? The top 50 per cent? 20 per cent? 10 per cent? What about the top 2 per cent? To be in the top 2 per cent of taxpayers you have to be earning more than $180,000 a year. So let’s say the top 2 per cent. This motion is saying that, within 12 years, the remaining 98 per cent will be stuffed. Now, I don’t pretend to know what will happen in the next 12 years, but the other side is certain they know: you are going to be completely buggered.

I don’t believe that for a minute, and that’s why I’m opposing this motion. It takes a sensible argument - the gap between rich and poor is too wide - and goes way over the top, predicting death and destruction for everyone in the middle.

Let me make three points. First, don’t believe everything you read in the paper. (Except the Herald, of course.) By their intense focus on the amazing salaries of a relative handful of chief executives and rich businessmen they’ve left us with a quite exaggerated impression of how well everybody earning more than we are is doing. What happens to the incomes of about 2000 men (and the odd woman) may be big news, but it tells us little about what’s happening to the remaining 21 million of us.

Second, it’s na├»ve to assume, as our opponents do, that things just keep moving in the same direction forever. If they’ve been getting worse, they can only keep getting worse. History shows that’s not true. The economy moves in cycles - house prices move in cycles, home loan affordability moves in cycles, interest rate go up and then come down. I believe in the pendulum theory of history, under which things keep moving in one direction until there’s a reaction, and they start swinging back in the opposite direction, only eventually to go too far in that direction. The proposition that gap between rich and poor can only widen in the next 12 years reveals an ignorance of the way the world works.

Third, what will all the low and middle-income voters be doing while they’re being dispossessed by the top 2 per cent? Democracy protects us from such extremes because the rich will never have more votes than the bottom and the middle, and governments that want to stay in power must attract the votes of the non-rich. The notion that elected governments do nothing but pander to the rich and powerful is defies common sense.


Monday, July 4, 2011

This very lucky country enjoys a good whinge

Another week, another batch of bad news, adding to the general impression things aren't going at all well in the economy. But the gloomy talk doesn't fit with the objective indicators. Will we snap out of it, or could we talk ourselves into genuine poor performance?

Undisputed winner of the Greatest Gloom award was the quarterly report of the Sensis business index. "Weak consumer spending and an uncertain economic outlook have caused business confidence in Australia to tumble to a low not seen since the global financial crisis ...," the report said, forgetting to mention it covers only small and medium businesses.

Business confidence fell from 44 per cent to 28 per cent, the second biggest drop in the index's 18-year history. Perceptions about the present state of the economy fell from plus 8 per cent to minus 7 per cent.

Support for the federal government's policies fell 16 percentage points to minus 41 per cent. Fully 53 per cent of small businesses said a carbon tax would have a negative impact on their business, while 41 per cent believed it would have no impact.

In earlier news, the Westpac-Melbourne Institute index of consumer sentiment fell by 2.6 per cent in June to its lowest level in two years. Comparing this June with June 2009 - when we were still expecting the financial crisis to result in a severe recession - people's expectation for general economic conditions are 98 now, whereas they were 85 then.

So the index's present weakness is explained by people's feelings about their own finances compared with a year ago. Whereas the rating was 82 in June 2009, today it's 76. And whereas feeling about the outlook for family finances over the coming 12 months was 114 then, it's less than 96 today.

Next we had a Newspoll survey which found 35 per cent of respondents expected their standard of living to get worse in the next six months, up 10 points on what people thought last December. The proportion expecting their living standard to improve dropped to just 12 per cent, with 51 per cent expecting it to stay the same.

You'll have noted that all this gloom is coming from surveys of how people feel. When you look at the objective indicators of the economy's performance you find a different story. While employment growth is slowing, we still have 260,000 more jobs than we did a year ago, most of them full-time. And unemployment remains at 4.9 per cent. The figures show growth is fairly well spread between the states, not just concentrated in the resource states.

Between the growth in employment and quite strong growth in wage rates, household disposable income rose by 8.3 per cent over the year to March. Over that period, the consumer price index rose by 3.3 per cent and the cost of living index for employees rose by 4.9 per cent. Does that sound like a squeeze on living standards to you?

We keep hearing about the weakness in retail sales, and it's true they grew by only 0.8 per cent in real terms over the year to March. But overall consumer spending grew by 3.4 per cent, a perfectly healthy rate.

The repeated claims we hear about how much difficulty people are having coping with the cost of living hardly fit with the ever-rising rate of household saving, which now exceeds 10 per cent of household disposable income.

It seems clear the economy's problems are more in the minds of consumers and business people than in their behaviour - though I'd be the last to deny that the way we feel can influence the way we act. Question is, why do so many people feel so bad and will this start having real effects?

Part of the problem may be a widespread lack of confidence in the Gillard government. Breaking down the Newspoll figures on expectations about the standard of living shows unsurprisingly that 45 per cent of Coalition supporters are expecting it to get worse.

More surprisingly, they're joined by 23 per cent of Labor supporters, with only 17 per cent expecting it to get better. Of course, the government's tactic of always echoing the punters' self-pity on the cost of living makes it its own worst enemy.

A related explanation is the undoubted success of Tony Abbott's scare campaign over a carbon price. Explaining the slump in consumer confidence, Bill Evans of Westpac says that "despite steady interest rates and falling petrol prices, concerns about the introduction of a price on carbon are rattling households". These concerns disproportionately affect low income earners. But you'd expect them to dissipate fairly quickly when, as seems likely, the issue turns from imaginings to reality in July next year.

The macro-economically literate understand the huge effect on the economy that's coming - and will come - from having our terms of trade at a 140-year high and from an amazing mining construction boom. They also understand that this income will spread throughout the alleged two-speed economy.

Is it possible the luckiest - and long the best macro-economically managed - country in the developed world could turn its prosperity to ashes?

I believe in the power of psychology, but I doubt it's that powerful. The resources boom will steam on no matter how the punters are feeling.

But it is possible we could go on feeling hard done by, even as we get richer and the economy's underlying structure gets stronger.

And if the non-mining economy hangs back in fear and confusion while the mining sector booms, at least that will make life a lot easier for the macro managers.


Saturday, July 2, 2011

The price we would pay for keeping the farm

According to the Greens, the mining industry is 83 per cent foreign-owned. And their anxiety is matched by Senator Barnaby Joyce's worries about foreigners buying up rural land in NSW. But how concerned should we be about "selling off the farm" and what could we do about it?

The Greens' claims have not gone unchallenged. According to the Minerals Council, official figures show mining is actually 71 per cent foreign-owned. The Greens say BHP Billiton is 76 per cent foreign-owned, but the correct figure seems to be 60 per cent.

No one's disputing, however, that Rio Tinto is 83 per cent foreign-owned and Xstrata is totally foreign-owned. And even if the mining industry overall is "only" 71 per cent foreign-owned, that's still a remarkably high proportion.

What's more, the funding for the present huge expansion in the mining sector, which is likely to continue for quite a few years, is safe to come mainly from foreigner investors. If so, their share of the ownership of our mining companies is bound to go higher.

So why don't we just pass a law prohibiting foreigners from buying Australian mines and farms - or at least limiting foreign purchases in some way?

Sorry, it ain't that simple. Before we did that, we'd need to be sure we were prepared to pay the price of keeping what's left of Australia in Australian hands.

All spending on new physical investment - whether on homes, business equipment, mines and other structures, or public infrastructure - has to be financed by saving. For every $1 billion we invest this year, the money has to come from somewhere and, in fact, it has to come from us saving $1 billion this year.

The saving can be done by households, by companies retaining some of their after-tax profits, or by governments raising more in revenue than they spend on recurrent purposes. There's just one escape clause: we can also finance our investment spending by using the savings of foreigners.

We can either borrow from them - thereby adding to Australia's foreign debt - or we can sell them some Australian asset: real estate, an existing business, shares bought on the stock exchange or the right to set up a new business with their own money.

If we borrow their savings, the money will have to be repaid in due course, and we'll have to pay interest to them. If, instead, we sell off part of the farm, the after-tax profits the foreigners make from their share of the business will belong to them. They can either reinvest those profits in the business (which will increase the amount of the farm they own) or take them out of the country.

The Greens estimated that, over the next five years, the foreign owners of our mining companies will be entitled to after-tax profits of $265 billion, but will reinvest four dollars in every five, taking home only about $50 billion.

I'm not sure how accurate those figures are, but they do illustrate a point about which everyone agrees: a very high proportion of the big profits foreigners are making from our mining sector is being ploughed back into expanding the sector.

Does all this shock you? It's been going on, year after year, pretty much since white settlement. Because this is a big country packed with natural wealth, but with a relatively small population, Australians have never saved enough to finance all the abundant opportunities for economic development and enrichment.

So we've always invited foreigners - first the British, then the Americans, then the Japanese and now, to some extent, the Chinese - to bring their capital to Australia and join us in fully exploiting our nation's potential.

In other words, we've always been a "capital-importing" country. We've almost always run a surplus on the capital account of our balance of (international) payments, with more foreign capital funds flowing in than Australian capital funds flowing out. These funds include borrowed money and money for the purchase of physical assets and businesses ("equity" capital).

(It's worth remembering, though, that in recent decades we have had a lot of Australian money flowing out as our superannuation funds have invested in foreign shares and bonds, and Australian transnational corporations have expanded abroad. So while the rest of the world has been acquiring more of Australia, we've be acquiring more of the rest of the world.)

If we almost always run a surplus on the capital account of the balance of payments, it follows as a matter of arithmetic that we run an exactly offsetting deficit on the current account of the balance of payments. Thus the capital account surplus allows our exports to exceed our imports and covers the cost of our net payments of interest and dividends to the foreign suppliers of capital.

But why have we always invited foreigners to bring their savings to Australia and participate in the economic development of our nation? Because of our impatience to be richer, our desire to raise our material standard of living.

And because, as part of that, we've always been confident we were getting our fair share of the benefits. Any profits the foreigners make, we tax. Any minerals they extract from our land, we charge them royalties (though, with world commodities prices so high at present, probably not enough, which is what the new mining tax is about). But the benefits of economic activity exceed the profits made. It also generates a lot of jobs, directly and indirectly. Those jobs go mainly to Australians and help feed their families.

We could perhaps borrow more from foreigners so as to reduce their ownership of our real estate and businesses, but there are limits to how far debt can substitute for equity and limits to how much debt the nation should take on.

So if we want to impose new restrictions on how much foreigners own, it's pretty safe to involve less economic development, slower economic growth than we were expecting and a more slowly rising standard of living.

That wouldn't worry me much, but many people would see it differently. Point is: don't imagine restricting foreign ownership would come without a price to be paid.