Wednesday, June 29, 2011

West heads to a Greek tragedy, too

To boil it down, the reason Greece is in so much trouble is that every Greek wanted a government that did all the expensive things governments do, but none wanted to pay tax.

Greece's politicians did not have the courage to tell their people that, in the end, you cannot have one without the other.

The Greek government ran budget deficits for year after year, racking up more and more government debt, eventually doing dodgy deals to disguise the amount of that debt until - surprise, surprise - the day of reckoning arrived.

Greece is now in the hands of its bank manager and - another surprise - he is not inclined to be gentle or reasonable.

The ostensible reason the rest of Europe is more worried than sympathetic is Greece's membership of the euro currency group and the knowledge that a lot of their own banks have lent to its government. That, plus the fact that Ireland and Portugal are in similar dire straits.

Were Greece to default on its sovereign (government) debt, it could touch off a financial tsunami - driven as much by fear as logic - that swept up the whole of Europe and even reached across the Atlantic to America.

But, really, why should the major advanced economies of the world be so worried about the fate of a piddling country like Greece? Because their own noses are not clean. They are not as far down the track as Greece and the others, but they, too, have been running big budget deficits year after year, building ever-increasing government debt.

They, too, have not had the courage to tell their voters that government benefits have to be paid for with higher taxes.

Australia used the long boom before the global financial crisis to run successive budget surpluses and so pay off all our net federal government debt, but the United States, Japan, Britain, Italy and various other European countries continued building up big government debts.

Then, when the financial crisis struck, they borrowed huge sums to bail out their teetering banks and, to a lesser extent, to stimulate their deeply recessed economies. Put that on top of their existing high levels of debt and even the mightiest economies of the world are in too deep.

In most of the leading economies, the ratio of government debt to gross domestic product will have risen by 2014 to the region of 100 per cent of GDP, compared with 60 to 70 per cent before the crisis. Japan, which started with a high government debt ratio because of its 1990s economic crisis, will end up with a figure of about 240 per cent by 2014.

This explains the stern warning the Bank for International Settlements, the central banks' central bank, issued at the weekend. The major advanced economies should not just be worried about Greece, it said, they should be worried about themselves. If the huge debt levels of the major economies prompt the world financial markets to wonder if those debts will be honoured, so that the markets take a set against sovereign debt in general, the majors, too, will be in big trouble.

But as the British economist Dr Diane Coyle reminds us in her new book, The Economics of Enough, it is worse than that.

We have known for years that the major advanced economies are facing immense pressure on their budgets from the ageing of their populations. They are committed to generous pension payments and healthcare spending for their retiring baby boomers at a time when, for many countries, their populations will be falling.

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development has estimated that, within a decade, the government of the average member country will need to borrow 5 per cent of gross domestic product a year more than it does at present.

The ideal way to get on top of your debts is to trade your way out. Keep the income coming in, hold down your expenses and use the difference to pay down the principal. What makes it hard is the continuing big interest payments you have to meet before you can reduce the principal. Once your bankers lose faith in you, they may well increase the interest rate you are paying to cover their heightened risk.

For governments it is even harder. If they start from a position of annual deficit, they have to slash spending and raise taxes just to return the budget to balance and so stop adding to the principal. To get the budget into surplus - and so have money to reduce the principal - they have to cut spending and raise taxes even further.

But the more governments cut their spending and raise taxes, the more they slow the growth of their economies. And the more slowly their economies grow, the more slowly their tax revenue grows and the higher is their spending on dole payments, making it that much harder to get back to surplus.

The trouble with bank managers is that when finally they lose patience with you, they become quite unreasonable, imposing requirements and restrictions that actually make it harder for you to repay your debt. And when the "bank manager" takes the form of a herd of anonymous traders in global financial markets, their actions can be destructive and even self-defeating.

No matter how deep the problems of the developed world, it will survive. But these seemingly prosperous countries - which have gone for many years falsely inflating their prosperity by borrowing from the future - are reaching their day of reckoning.

Even if they avoid another financial crisis, they are set for a protracted period of austerity and relative penury, with their economies growing only slowly for many years. They have not woken up to this yet, but they will.


Monday, June 27, 2011

How to blow the boom: cocoon manufacturers

The fusspots are right when they say we must make sure the nation gains lasting benefit from the resources boom. But doing so is as much about what we shouldn't do as what we should.

The first thing to note is that, even if the boom were to end a lot earlier than the policy-makers expect, the main thing we will be left with is a very much larger mining sector, producing and exporting a lot more minerals and natural gas than we do at present - and earning a good living in the process.

The sceptics who fear we'll be left with nothing when the present sky-high prices fall back - as they will - need reminding that higher prices are just one way to make a quid. The other way is with increased volume. And that is what we'll end up with.

Mining will account for a lot higher proportion of gross domestic product than its present 9 per cent. It is true that, mining being so highly capital-intensive, its share of total employment is likely to be just a few per cent.

It is true - but irrelevant. What matters is how much income mining brings into the country. When that income is spent - by the companies, their employees, governments and shareholders - jobs are created somewhere in the economy. Where exactly? In the services sector, where else?

Those who worry about us suffering Dutch disease - in which the high exchange rate caused by a minerals boom wipes out the manufacturing sector, leaving us with nothing when the boom's over - are themselves suffering from various misconceptions.

For a start, as a matter of historical accuracy, the manufacturing industry in the Netherlands wasn't wiped out in the 1970s and is alive and kicking to this day. Industries are invariably more resilient than they fear they will be - especially when seeking special assistance from governments.

Next, we need to avoid the mercantilist fallacy that the only way to make a living is to sell things to foreigners. At least three-quarters of our workforce makes its living selling things to other Australians. The only reason we need exports is to pay for imports - but the money earnt by the miners will help us with that.

We also need to avoid the physiocratic fallacy that the only way to make a living is to produce something that can be touched. If that is true, please explain how the three-quarters of the workforce toiling in the services sector - from the Prime Minister down to the lowliest cleaner - make their living.

We won't wipe out our manufacturing sector but even if we did, there is no shred of doubt where the jobs would come from: the same place all the extra jobs created in the past 40 years have come from - the services sector.

Yet another point to remember is that, with the economy already close to full employment in the early stages of the resumption of the resources boom, and with the ageing of the population causing the demand for labour to outstrip the supply of it, the one thing we won't have to worry about in coming years is: ''Where will the jobs come from?''

No, the problem here is not the threat of mass unemployment; it's just the matter of making sure we don't pee too much of the proceeds of our resources' good fortune up against a wall.

Why is that a worry? Because that is what we've done in the past.

In terms of export income, our economy has been riding on a sheep's back or on a coal truck since its earliest days.

What we've never had is a vibrant manufacturing sector. Our economy has been too small to get sufficient economies of scale, too far from North Atlantic markets and too good at mining and agriculture (by definition, you can't have a comparative advantage in everything).

But, for most of the past century, we hankered after a big manufacturing sector like all the other rich countries had. So we erected huge tariff barriers and set up a manufacturing industry behind them, thus forcing Australians to pay a lot more for their manufactures than they could have paid had they been given access to cheaper imports.

In other words, we took a fair bit of the proceeds from our rural and mineral wealth and used it to cross-subsidise a manufacturing sector far bigger than could have stood on its own feet. And now, with all the cries about the high exchange rate, we are being asked to do it again.

Since old-style protection in the form of tariffs and import quotas is now so unfashionable, the industry's lobbyists - including its unions - are pushing for disguised protection in the form of tighter anti-dumping restrictions and handouts in the name of ''innovation''.

There is no denying our manufacturers will need to be - and will be - innovative in their efforts to survive in an era of high exchange rates. But the more governments yield to rent seeking by pretending to be subsidising ''innovation'', the longer it will take the industry to accept responsibility for its own destiny.

No, if ever there is a time when it is obviously stupid for rich countries to prop up their manufacturers against competition from developing Asia, it is now.

The obvious way to maximise our lasting benefits from the resources boom is to let secondary industry take its chances and put all our effort into boosting tertiary industry - with all its clean, safe, well-paid, high value-added and intellectually satisfying jobs.

And the obvious way to do that is to invest in a lot more education and training, thereby increasing the nation's human capital and the saleability of Australians' labour.


Pop bubbles before they can cause havoc

Don't drop your bundle yet. It would be a brave person - braver than me - who denied any possibility of another global financial crisis.

Sure it's possible, but it's far from certain. And another financial crisis might be like we eventually realised the last one was: more North Atlantic than global.

The Bank for International Settlements is the central bankers' club. And central bankers don't warn of catastrophe if they really fear one's on the way. When things really are near crisis point, they are calm and reassuring.

So this is the world's bank manager issuing wayward clients with a stern lecture on the need to mend their ways. The bank is saying, don't assume the problems are limited to Greece, Ireland and Portugal. The big North Atlantic economies - the United States, Britain and much of Europe - have huge, unsustainable levels of government debt, and should the financial markets lose confidence in those countries' efforts to get on top of their debts, another crisis is possible.

It's preaching against the optimistic attitude in those countries that the crisis has passed and it's back to business as usual. No, no, back to the grindstone.

To that extent it's dead right: those economies face at least another decade of low growth as they grind away at reducing their public and private debts.

This is not a message aimed at us. We could be affected by another financial crisis but we're just as well placed to cope as we were with the first.

Our banks remain well supervised, with few loans to the worst-affected governments. Our government debt is laughably small compared with the US and Europe. Our interest rates are not too low.

If there's one lesson from the first crisis, it's that our fortunes depend much more on Asia than on Europe and America.


Saturday, June 25, 2011

Raising the bar on the dollar's change in fortune

You may not have noticed, but the econocrats have raised the bar on the amount of economics you need to know to follow the debate about the economy - or, at least, to follow what they are saying about it. The jargon phrase of the year is the "real" exchange rate.

Until recently, heavies from Treasury and the Reserve Bank were content just to say the exchange rate - the overseas value of the Australian dollar - had depreciated (gone down) or appreciated (gone up) by a certain amount.

This was a reference to the "nominal" exchange rate - the one they tell you about at the end of a news bulletin, the one you can find in the business pages and the one your bank will use if you want to change some Aussie dollars into US dollars, euros or whatever.

As its name implies, the "real" exchange rate is the nominal exchange rate adjusted for inflation. But it's not just our inflation rate that comes into the calculation, it's our rate relative to the inflation rate of the country whose currency we're exchanging for the Aussie dollar.

Actually, just to complicate it a bit further, when economists talk of the real exchange rate, they're usually referring to the real "effective" exchange rate. This is our exchange rate, not against the US dollar or any other particular currency, but against all the currencies of our major trading partners, with each partner's currency weighted according to that country's share of our two-way (exports plus imports) trade. In other words, our effective exchange rate is the trade-weighted index.

(Of the 22 currencies in the trade-weighted basket, the Chinese yuan gets a weight of almost 23 per cent, then the yen with 15 per cent, the euro with 10 per cent, the US dollar on 9 per cent, South Korean won on 6 per cent, India rupee on 5 per cent and so on.)

Whether they talk about the nominal exchange rate or the real exchange rate, economists always think in terms of the real exchange rate because they believe it's always real (inflation-adjusted) variables that matter.

It's the real growth in gross domestic product that's important, and real interest rates and real wage rates that influence people's behaviour. (When people pay too much attention to nominal variables, they're said to be suffering from "money illusion".)

Let's assume the nominal effective exchange rate stays stable for a period. If our inflation rate is higher than the average inflation rate of our trading partners, the real exchange rate is appreciating.

If our inflation rate is lower than the average for our trading partners the real exchange rate is depreciating.

Why? Because they are the adjustments necessary to ensure the prices of internationally traded goods and services end up being the same in all countries, as predicted by the theory of "purchasing power parity" (PPP) - economists' main theory about what determines the way exchange rates move.

When economists say a particular currency is overvalued by X per cent, or undervalued by Y per cent, it's the assumption of PPP they're using as the basis for their calculation. But the fact that economists are always making such calculations is a reminder that the actual market exchange rate of a currency can go for years being significantly at variance with where the PPP theory says it should be.

So if PPP holds in the real world, it can only be said to hold over the long term. In the shorter term, lots of other factors affect the way exchange rates move.

However, if we stick to the theory and assume there's an inexorable, "equilibrating" force (a force that moves everything towards equilibrium, or balance) moving every currency towards PPP, then countries that don't allow their currencies to float freely - by, for instance, fixing their currency to that of another country - will find their inflation rate adjusting to move their real exchange rate in required direction.

Thus if you're holding your currency's value too low (according to PPP), you'll end up with an inflation rate that's a lot higher than your trading partners' rates, which will cause your real exchange rate to appreciate. Many economists would say this is China's problem at the moment.

All this is great fun if you like fancy analysis (as economists do), but does it matter? It matters to the economy - and to a lot of business people - because our real effective exchange rate is the best measure of the "international competitiveness" of our export and import-competing industries.

And thanks to the huge appreciation in the nominal exchange rate brought about by the foreign exchange market's response to the sky-high prices we're getting for our coal and iron ore, our real effective exchange rate is the highest it's been since the mid-1970s and about 40 per cent higher than its average since the dollar was floated in 1983. In other words, it's a long time since our tradeables industries were less competitive internationally than they are today. This isn't a great problem for our miners, because the world prices they're getting are so high at present, nor is it a great problem for our farmers, whose prices for many items are high, too.

But it is a big problem for our manufacturers and the producers of our two biggest services exports: tourism and education. Actually, both manufacturing and tourism are import-competing industries as well as export industries. They're getting wacked.

Remember this, however: because economists are so obsessed by prices, they often forget to make it clear they're talking about international price competitiveness. When you're exporting undifferentiated, bulk commodities - whether mineral or agricultural - price competition is the main game.

But for more sophisticated products, there's plenty of non-price competition. You can compete on quality, stylishness, reputation, reliability, service and so forth. You can cater to niche markets the big boys don't bother with. Such "business models" can allow you to have higher prices and still make sales.

Since there's nothing sensible the authorities can do to lower our exchange rate - real or nominal - and since it looks likely to stay high for many moons, the more our hard-pressed tradeables industries focus on non-price competition, the better they'll survive.


Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Primary products are setting us up well

For many years - most of the second half of the 20th century - it looked like Australia was on the wrong tram. In a world of ever-more high-tech, sophisticated manufactured goods, we were hewers of wood and drawers of water. To put it less biblically, we paid for our imports mainly by growing things in the ground or digging stuff out of the ground.

We were stalled in primary industry while the rest of the developed world had moved up the ladder to secondary or even tertiary industry. They were doing a lot more ''value-adding'' than we were. The prices we were getting for our agricultural and mineral exports were steadily declining, whereas the prices we were paying for all the manufactures we imported were rising inexorably.

At the time of the Sydney Olympics, when the dollar was heading down towards US 50 cents, visiting business leaders berated us for being an ''old economy'' with few IT start-up companies. That was when it started turning around. The old-economy talk evaporated within a few months with the arrival of the sharemarket Tech Wreck. And not long after, the prices we were receiving for our coal and iron ore took off, lifting the value of our dollar in the process.

Over the past 11 years, the prices we're getting for our exports are up by 7 per cent, whereas the prices we're paying for our imports are down by 9 per cent. Why? The governor of the Reserve Bank, Glenn Stevens, explained it in a speech last week.

''Hundreds of millions of people in the emerging world have seen growth in their incomes and associated changes in their living standards, and they want to live much more like we have been living for decades. This means they are moving towards a more energy- and steel-intensive way of life and a more protein-rich diet,'' he said. ''That fact is fundamentally changing the shape of the world economy.''

We're witnessing a ''large and persistent change in global relative prices''. The world is paying a lot more for the commodities we export - energy, the main ingredients of steel, and food - relative to the prices of everything else, but is also charging a bit less for the manufactures we import.

So whereas it looked for so long that we were backing losers, now it's clear we're in the winners' circle. And we look likely to stay there for many moons. We've had plenty of commodity booms in the past, of course. Prices shoot up, then crash back to earth. And no one imagines the prices we're getting for coal and iron ore will stay at their present stratospheric levels for long.

Even so, this boom seems likely to last a lot longer - say, a decade or more - than previous booms. Indeed, it has already lasted a lot longer than we're used to. Past booms have been based on a cyclical (and thus temporary) upswing in the developed world's demand for our commodity exports, whereas this one is based on a structural (and thus longer-lasting) change in the world economy: the rapid industrialisation and urbanisation of the two most populous economies, China and India, with various other developing countries following in their wake.

Only the natural environment's inability to cope is likely to halt this development. So it will survive the temporary speeding-ups and slowing-downs of the Chinese and Indian economies. And though coal and iron ore prices are bound to fall, they're unlikely to fall back all the way. They should remain a lot higher than they were throughout most of the past century. If so, our dollar is likely to stay high rather than revert to its average level of about US70? since it was floated in 1983.

Another thing that makes this time different is the huge surge of investment in new mines and natural gas facilities. This is likely to run for a decade or more, and will be the main factor driving the economy's growth. It's the main reason the Reserve Bank keeps warning that interest rates will need to rise, even though consumer spending isn't all that strong.

But it's not just our miners who are doing well. The rapidly rising wealth of developing Asia is increasing its demand for more protein-rich food. That increased demand is raising the price of food. We've already heard a lot - and will hear a lot more - about rising world food prices. This is invariably presented as a terrible thing - a ''crisis'' - and to many people it is. But it's not a bad thing that the people of Asia can now afford to eat better. And it certainly ain't a bad thing for our farmers. Now you know why, for once, farmers aren't whingeing about the high dollar. Again, only environmental problems will inhibit their ability to clean up.

Consumers throughout the developed world are experiencing a rise in the prices of food, energy and raw material-intensive manufactures, which lowers their standard of living. That includes Australian consumers, though we enjoy the spill-over benefits of living in an economy that's a major global supplier of raw materials.

In economics, however, there are no benefits without costs (leading to a net gain in this case, or a net loss in others). The world having seriously changed its mind about the value of the raw materials we supply to it, we must now rejig our economy to fit.

We're getting a very much bigger mining sector and a revitalised agricultural sector, but we can't be good at everything and so the manufacturing sector's share of the economy will shrink. For us, it's back to the future.


Monday, June 20, 2011

Let punters beware of business carbon claims

Sometimes I suspect many business people regard it as quite ethical to lie and mislead the public, provided they're lying in the shareholders' interests. And when you're laying it on thick to pressure some government into giving you a special deal or an exemption from some measure, you're always doing it for the shareholders. What's in the nation's interests - and whether your special deal would damage the nation's interests - is not your concern.

Often, any special concession you screw out of the pollies will come at the expense of those businesses and industries that don't get a similar concession, but there seems to be an honour among thieves that requires those who'd lose from the success of another industry's lobbying to keep their traps shut.

For a rival industry to point out how exaggerated or self-serving the lobbying industry's claims are is just not done. Governments - and the citizens, taxpayers and consumers whose interests they represent - are regarded as fair game. If the totality of business's success in ducking its responsibilities leads to the country being badly governed, that's just bad luck for the country.

Businesses on the make invariably seek to pressure governments by putting the frighteners on the public. And this means they often claim the government measure they're objecting to would lead to huge job losses. This has the additional advantage of frightening their own employees, and so getting the union to join them in the fight.

In the old days, businesses would pluck some big-sounding figure out of the air, but these days the fashion is to pay one of Canberra's many firms of economists-for-hire to do some ''independent'' modelling.

Any economist who can't juggle the assumptions until they get the kind of findings their client is hoping for isn't trying. And economists have no code of ethics that might inhibit them in making sure their customers are happy with the ''independent report'' they paid for.

If you come up with a big-sounding figure for supposed job losses, you can be reasonably sure the media will trumpet the figure in shocked tones. You can also be sure few if any journalists will subject your claims to examination to see how credible they are. Why spoil a good story? I didn't say it, they did. If it's wrong, blame them, not me. All I'm doing is acting as a messenger, recording both sides of the debate. It's not my job to act as a censor.

(This is tosh. Messengers don't decide which messages they'll deliver and which they won't; which they'll shout from the rooftops and which they'll whisper. Every aspect of the reporting and editing process involves judgments about what goes in and what hits the cutting-room floor. It's clear the media is often happy to pass on to its paying punters without comment information it either knows is misleading or hasn't bothered to inquire into.)

With Julia Gillard, the Greens and the independents busy deciding on the precise form their hybrid carbon tax/emissions trading scheme will take, it's open season for industries lobbying for special favours.

Last week it was the turn of the Australian Coal Association, which produced a report prepared by the economic consultants ACIL Tasman claiming that putting a price on ''carbon'' (greenhouse gas emissions) would lead to the loss of 4700 jobs by 2020-21 from existing coalmines in NSW and Queensland. Counting the flow-on effects to other industries would increase the loss to 14,100.

As well, applying emissions pricing to potential new mines would eliminate 25 to 37 per cent of potential new jobs. This, too, would cause much larger losses to the wider economy when flow-on effects were taken into account.

I suspect the key assumption driving these results is the assumed rise in the real price of carbon. After starting at $19 a tonne in 2012-13, it would leap to $47 a tonne in 2016-17, reaching $57 a tonne in 2021-22. But these figures are pure supposition.

The next thing to remember is that almost all the estimates of ''lost'' jobs you see don't involve any actual decline in the number of people employed in an industry. Rather, they refer to the extent to which employment grows by less than it otherwise would.

Whether deliberately or through ignorance, this distinction is almost always lost in translation - as the ''independent'' consultants surely know it will be. But if these job ''losses'' were labelled more carefully the punters would find them much less alarming.

We're in the early stages of a resources boom, which will involve the establishment of new coalmines and the expansion of existing mines. It's no doubt true the imposition of a significant carbon price will cause there to be less expansion than otherwise. But the notion we could see a lot of out-of-work coalminers is fanciful.

If I had enough money I'd happily pay for every industry lobby group in the country to commission an ''independent'' report on the wider, multiplier effects of their industry. I reckon they'd add up to a mighty lot more than 100 per cent of gross domestic product or total employment.

So never take notice of such claims. They're mere puffery. In the coalminers' case they're built on the assumption that money not invested in mining would be left under the bed rather than invested in some other value-adding and job-creating activity. And that everyone who loses their job as a result of the closure of a mine never works again.

In any case, 4700 job ''losses'' may sound a lot, but in the context of an economy of 11.4 million workers, with hundreds of thousands of people moving between jobs and total employment growing by at least 250,000 a year, it's microscopic.


Saturday, June 18, 2011

Resources boom has mined a rich seam for everyone

If you haven't said it yourself, I bet you've heard others saying it: ''Resources boom? What resources boom? Whoever's benefiting from it, I'm not. None of it's come my way.''

Is that what you think? Well, don't kid yourself. Whether or not you realise it, you almost certainly have benefited from the boom.

But how have people who don't work in or near the mining industry - and don't live in Western Australia or Queensland - benefited from the miners' good fortune in being paid way higher prices for their coal and iron ore?

Short answer: everyone's benefited because, as Marx observed, in the economy everything's connected to everything else. Or, to put it in economists' lingo, we're all benefiting because of ''the circular flow of income''.

When I spend my income buying something from you, my spending becomes your income. Then, when you spend your income, that becomes the income of someone else and so on, round and round.
How do you know the notes in your wallet didn't start in the hands of a mining company? You don't. Some of them probably did.

The governor of the Reserve Bank, Glenn Stevens, observed in a speech this week that the higher prices the miners are getting have improved our ''terms of trade'' - the prices we receive for our exports relative to the prices we pay for our imports - by about 85 per cent above their 20th century average.

This constitutes an increase in the nation's real income because the same quantity of exports now buys a great quantity of imports. And Mr Stevens estimates the additional income is equal to at least 15 per cent of our annual income (gross domestic product). Although a substantial fraction of that income accrues to foreign investors who own large stakes in many of our resource companies, what's left still represents a very large boost to national income.

Let's trace the extra income going to the mining companies. Some of it would be going to the people employed in the mines, who've had big pay rises in recent years. This wouldn't be a major factor, however, because mining, being so highly capital-intensive, employs less than 2 per cent of the workforce.

Even so, Stevens estimates that, to produce a dollar of income, the mining companies spend about 40¢ on acquiring ''non-labour intermediate inputs'' - goods and services bought from other businesses.

''Apart from the direct physical inputs, there are effects on utilities, transport, [and] business services such as engineering, accounting, legal, exploration and other industries. It is noteworthy that a number of these areas are growing quickly at present,'' Mr Stevens says.

Most of those businesses would be Australian but many would be from other states. Remember, there are no trade or currency barriers between our states, so a lot of trade occurs across state borders.

Once the costs of producing the mining companies' output, and their taxes , are taken into account, the remaining revenue is distributed to shareholders or retained. While a significant proportion of the earnings distributed goes offshore, local shareholders also benefit.

Who are those local shareholders? We are. Most of us are shareholders in the mining industry through our superannuation schemes. We don't get this income directly to spend now - it's in our super. ''Nonetheless, it is genuine income and a genuine increase in wealth,'' Mr Stevens says.

His rough estimate suggests that about 10 per cent of our superannuation assets - $130 billion - is invested in resource companies. And this 10 per cent has been providing a healthy return: over the past year alone, the average return on resources company shares has been about 20 per cent.

A good proportion of the earnings retained by companies is being used to fund the construction of new mines and natural gas facilities. Mr Stevens estimates that about half the demand generated by these projects - for construction and manufacturing - is filled locally.

In contrast to the operation of mines, the construction of them is labour-intensive. Workers are being attracted from all over Australia, which creates job vacancies in the parts of Australia from which they come and also puts upward pressure on the wages paid to people in the relevant occupations - whether or not they make the move. Now let's think about all the taxes the mining companies pay. The federal government's company tax takes 30 per cent off the top of the companies' profits (after granting the companies generous deductions for the depreciation of their assets).

It was booming company tax collections that prompted the Howard government to offer cuts in personal income tax for eight years in a row. So if you've enjoyed any of those tax cuts you can't claim to have had no benefit from the resources boom.

The mining companies also make big royalty payments to their state governments as a price for all the publicly owned resources they pull from the ground. But even if you don't live in WA or Queensland you've still benefited.

How so? The proceeds from the federal government's goods and services tax are divided between the states using a complicated formula that has the effect of spreading the royalty proceeds proportionately between all the states and territories.

Yet another less-than-obvious way the proceeds from the resources boom have been spread around the economy is via the exchange rate. The primary reason our dollar is so high at present is the high prices we're getting for our exports of minerals and energy. And the high dollar has reduced the price of imported goods and services.

So every business that buys imported equipment or components is benefiting from the resources boom, as is every consumer who buys imported stuff - which is all of us. If you've taken an overseas holiday, for instance, you've benefited. If you've taken a local holiday you've probably benefited, too, because foreign competition is holding down local prices.

If you've bought petrol, you've benefited (because the higher dollar has reduced the effect of the rise in the world price of oil).

Now, if you say our non-mining export and import-competing industries have been harmed by the boom-caused rise in the dollar, that's true. In economics, nothing that has benefits comes without costs.

So it's fair enough for those people in the adversely affected industries to argue that, for them, the costs of the resources boom have outweighed the benefits.

But they're a minority. For the great majority of us, the benefits have far outweighed the costs.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Great cities inspire us to reach for the sky

As I'm sure you've heard, for the first time in human history more than half the world's population lives in cities. In the developing countries, particularly China, the urban population is growing by 5 million a month. In rich and poor countries alike, cities are a magnet. But why are people so keen to crowd into congested, expensive cities?

The explanation has to be primarily economic, but most economists studiously ignore the spacial dimension of economic activity. There is, however, a notable exception: Professor Edward Glaeser, of Harvard University, is one of the world's leading experts on urban economics.

In his new book, Triumph of the City, Glaeser proclaims cities to be humans' greatest invention. Why? Because they make us rich. ''Urban density provides the clearest path from poverty to prosperity,'' he says. People who live in big cities not only earn a lot more than those who don't, they're more productive.

Cities are ''the absence of physical space between people and companies''. This closeness generates ''economies of agglomeration''. Producing a product close to a large market cuts costs by allowing large-scale production and reducing distribution expenses. The bigger the city, the greater the scope for firms to specialise in particular fields. Firms know they'll have less trouble finding the labour they need in a big city; workers come to cities knowing there'll be plenty of good jobs.

Historically, big cities often arose because they were convenient hubs for national or international trade in particular products. Many developed their own manufacturing industries - garment-making in New York, cars in Detroit, for instance. But such areas of strength can be challenged by changes in technology. Big reductions in the cost of transport and communications have brought about ''the death of distance'' and shifted much manufacturing to developing countries where labour is cheaper.

Detroit has never recovered from greater competition with Japanese and other Asian carmakers. Its population is less than half what it was. New York lost most of its manufacturing industry, but began reinventing itself in the 1970s. Today, more than 40 per cent of Manhattan's payroll is the financial services industry.

This experience leads Glaeser to emphasise a different driver of the benefits of cities: knowledge.

''Humans are an intensely social species that excels, like ants or gibbons, in producing things together. Just as ant colonies do things that are far beyond the abilities of isolated insects, cities achieve much more than isolated humans,'' he says.

''Cities enable collaboration, especially the joint production of knowledge that is mankind's most important creation. Ideas flow readily from person to person in the dense corridors of Bangalore or London, and people are willing to put up with high urban prices just to be around talented people, some of whose knowledge will rub off.''

Cities magnify humanity's strengths. Because humans learn so much from other humans, we learn more when there are more people around us. Urban density creates a constant flow of new information that comes from observing others' successes and failures. Cities make it easier to watch, listen and learn.

Pundits have predicted that improvements in information technology will make urban advantages obsolete. Once you can learn from Wikipedia in Gilgandra, why pay Sydney prices?

''But a few decades of high technology can't trump millions of years of evolution,'' Glaeser says. ''Our species learns primarily from the aural, visual and olfactory clues given off by our fellow humans. The internet is a wonderful tool, but it works best when combined with knowledge gained face to face, as the concentrations of internet entrepreneurs in Bangalore and Silicon Valley would attest.''

An experiment challenged groups of six students to play a game in which everyone could earn money by co-operating. One set of groups met for 10 minutes' face-to-face to discuss strategy before playing. Another set had 30 minutes for electronic interaction. The groups that met in person co-operated well and earned more money. The groups that only connected electronically fell apart, as members put their personal gains ahead of the group's needs.

This fits with many other experiments, which have shown that face-to-face contact leads to more trust, generosity and co-operation than any other sort of interaction.

Cities, and the face-to-face interactions they engender, are tools for reducing the ''complex-communication curse''. Long hours spent one-on-one enable listeners to make sure they get it right. It's easy to mistakenly offend someone from a different culture, but a warm smile can smooth conflicts that could otherwise turn into flaming emails.

Glaeser says the ''central paradox of the modern metropolis'' is that proximity has become even more valuable as the cost of connecting across long distances has fallen. His explanation is that the declining cost of connection has only increased the monetary returns to clustering close together. Before, high transport costs limited the ability to make money quickly from selling a good idea worldwide. ''The death of distance may have been hell on the goods producers in Detroit, who lost out to Japanese competitors, but it has been heaven for the idea producers of New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles, who have made billions on innovations in technology, entertainment and finance.''

So what do you have to do to be a successful city? Well, first, you have to overcome the three main costs of cities: disease, crime and congestion. After you've achieved clean water (solved the sewerage problem), the harder goals are safe streets, fast commutes and good schools.

Cities thrive when they have many small firms and skilled citizens. Industrial diversity, entrepreneurship and education lead to innovation. Innovation allows cities to overcome setbacks and stay prosperous.

''Human capital, far more than physical infrastructure, explains which cities succeed,'' Glaeser concludes. ''Infrastructure eventually becomes obsolete, but education perpetuates itself as one smart generation teaches the next.''


Monday, June 13, 2011

Far too much economic news for our own good

Ian Macfarlane, the former governor of the Reserve Bank, thinks Australians get too much news about the economy, and this surfeit actually worsens the decisions we make about investments.

At the risk of being drummed out of the economic journalists' union, I suspect he's right. But I'll let him do the talking (he was delivering the Mosman Address at Mosman Art Gallery on Friday night).

Over the past couple of decades the public has been inundated with economic statistics, he says. "The newspapers and magazines are full of economic news, television reporting is saturated with it, there are special radio and television programs devoted to it."

It's true this is a worldwide phenomenon, but it's more pronounced in newspaper coverage in Australia. Foreign visitors often express surprise at how much economic coverage there is in Australian papers, particularly on the front page.

A few years ago the Reserve compared the coverage of central bank monetary policy decisions in three countries: the US, Britain and Australia. It looked at three comparable papers in each country, including The Australian Financial Review, The Australian and The Sydney Morning Herald.

Adding up the number of articles in the three days surrounding two successive monthly monetary policy meetings, it found 35 in the US, 46 in Britain and (wait for it) 131 in Australia. Looking just at articles on the front page, there was one each in the US and Britain, but 14 in Australia.

Why is there so much more economic coverage in Australia than elsewhere? Maybe because there's not much other news to report.

"We are not an international power or trouble spot, we are not engaged in major wars, we do not have racial riots, civil insurrections or sectarian violence. And the private lives of our politicians are not as lurid as British ones (or a recent American president). So instead our newspapers are taken up with recent figures on employment, interest rates, the consumer price index or the budget," Macfarlane says.

[There's an alternative explanation, however. In the US and Britain the link between changes in the official interest rate and changes in mortgage interest rates is quite loose, whereas here it's direct and immediate.]

"With the media competing so strongly against each other, there is inevitably a bias towards sensationalism. While Australia has a few experienced and thoughtful economic commentators who are world class, it also has a multitude of eager beavers who are mainly concerned with tomorrow's headlines," Macfarlane says.

"They try to extract the maximum amount of coverage out of each ephemeral piece of news - monthly or even daily figures are invested with a significance well beyond their actual information content."

Interest rates don't merely rise, they "soar", the exchange rate "dives" or "plunges" and budgets "blow out". The reader is left with the impression of constant action and turmoil. The recurring television image is of people in dealing rooms or on the floors of futures exchanges shouting at each other.

Another feature, he says, is the tendency to concentrate on pessimistic news. It's the nature of all journalism - not just economic - that its practitioners seek to expose a disaster or a conspiracy.

No one ever wins a prize in journalism by pointing out that things are proceeding relatively smoothly and uneventfully, hence the tendency to find bad news and mistakes in policy, and to label every minor glitch as a crisis (the most overworked word in journalism).

"At the margin I believe all this news tends to make us less confident, less secure and less happy than if we had less of it," he says.

But does all this information make us better at doing our jobs or investing our savings? Macfarlane says a broad range of information is better than a narrower one, but more frequent information about a particular thing may stop us seeing the wood for the trees.

More frequent information also exposes us to the "narrative fallacy" - our need to tell a story about why a movement in an economic variable occurred, even if it's just a small daily movement in the exchange rate or the sharemarket. Often the movement is just random noise, but we can't say that.

Macfarlane says several financial advisers have told him that, among their clients, those who spend the most time tracking daily movements in their portfolio do worse on average than those who review their portfolios less frequently.

Research has shown that most people exhibit "loss aversion" - they experience more unhappiness from losing $100 than they gain in happiness from acquiring $100.

So the more often they're made aware of a loss the more unhappy they become.

If the sharemarket rises by 6 per cent a year that, plus dividends, is a reasonable return. But on average the market would fall on about 47 per cent of days and rise on 53 per cent. This suggests a net fall in happiness despite the satisfactory return. Reviewing the market monthly rather than daily would produce a smaller proportion of losses, making us happier.

Behavioural finance research shows that, because we suffer from myopia as well as loss aversion, investors who get the most frequent feedback take the least risk and thus earn the least money.

In listing the false signals given by the rule that two successive quarters of falling real gross domestic product constitute a "technical" recession last Monday, I missed one. No one knew it at the time, but the Bureau of Statistics' latest estimates show the economy contracting by 0.02 per cent in the September quarter of 2000 and then by 0.4 per cent in the December quarter. So, a recession on John Howard and Peter Costello's watch? No, just a stupid rule.


Saturday, June 11, 2011

Quest to make uni fees a heck of a lot fairer

One measure in the May budget's tightening up on ''middle-class welfare'' drew surprisingly little debate: the decision to cut the rate of discount offered to people who pay off their university HECS debt up front from 20 per cent to 10 per cent.

When the higher education contribution scheme was introduced in the late 1980s, the discount for paying up front was 25 per cent. Now it's falling to 10 per cent. And the discount for making voluntary repayments of $500 or more is to be cut from 10 per cent to 5 per cent.

Wayne Swan says the move will save the government almost $300 million over four years and will make the scheme fairer.

But why would it save that much? And how would it make things fairer? That the shock jocks didn't bother debating these questions probably means people bright enough to go to uni don't ring up talkback radio.

It is a bit of a puzzle. The first question is, why would the government give any discount to people paying their HECS up front rather than paying it off over the years as their income rises and the taxman extracts it from their pay packet?

Well, the government's better off getting the money up front rather than having to wait maybe 10 or 15 years for it all. So it makes sense for the government to give people an incentive to pay up front.

But, if that's the case, why does it make sense to reduce the incentive? Surely the rational response to a reduced incentive for early payment would be for fewer people to pay up front. And if that's the case, wouldn't that leave the government's coffers worse off rather than better off?

Well, it seems the econocrats are expecting some of those who'd otherwise pay up front to be put off, but not many. But see what this means? They're not expecting a rational response to the move.

This is one case where the econocrats aren't proceeding under the assumption we're all like Homo economicus - economic man - carefully calculating and self-interested in all we do.

And I've no doubt they're right: there won't be a rational response to the cut in the discount. Why not? Because paying HECS up front has never been a rational thing to do. It follows that the response to the cut in the discount isn't likely to be rational, either.

Perhaps we should start from the beginning. The wider community benefits when young people go to university and get a degree. But the greatest benefit goes to the graduate. On average, possession of a degree causes workers to earn a lot more over their working lives.

So HECS was introduced to require graduates to make a greater - though still far from full - contribution towards the cost of their education, reducing the subsidy they receive from other, less fortunate taxpayers.

You can think of higher education as an investment. You make an initial outlay (the main cost being not for fees or books, but the income forgone while you study rather than work) in return for lifetime earnings that are higher than they would have been.

According to one study in 2002 by Professor Jeff Borland, of the University of Melbourne, uni graduates earn an average of almost $10,000 a year more than high school graduates do. After allowing for the initial outlay, this was equivalent to an investment return of about 20 per cent a year.

That was without including HECS. Allowing for HECS (which was then at a lower rate than it is today), cut the annual return to about 14 per cent - still a very good deal.

But wouldn't charging fees discourage bright young kids from poor families from going to uni and bettering themselves? That was the risk. But HECS was carefully designed (by Professor Bruce Chapman, of the Australian National University) to avoid this happening.

Rather than simply levying tuition fees, the government would allow people to defer payment of the fees until they'd graduated and were earning a reasonable salary. Then they'd have to pay a small proportion of their salary in repayments, with the proportion rising as their salary grew.

So the government was, in effect, lending students the cost of their uni fees. It didn't charge interest on the loan, but did index the value of the balance outstanding to the inflation rate. In other words, it changed people a real interest rate of zero.

By contrast, any loan you get during your life from a bank or finance company will involve a high real interest rate and a fixed repayment schedule that takes no account of how hard or easy it is to meet the payments (it's not ''income-contingent'' like HECS is).

See what this means? HECS is the best loan - the cheapest money - you're ever likely to get. So the rational response is not to pay it off any earlier than you have to, thereby avoid having to borrow as much commercially for other purposes or being able to keep more money in the bank earning interest.

This is true even with a discount - 25 per cent, let alone 10 per cent - for repaying the loan up front.

(You can check this by working out the ''present value'' of the debt by discounting the flow of repayments over the life of the loan, so as to take account of ''the time value of money''. Don't know what all that means or how to do it? Go to uni and do an economics or business degree and they'll tell you.)

But if it makes no sense to do the government a favour and repay HECS debts up front, why do people do it?

I doubt if many students do it. It's much more likely to be well-off parents who do it (one of whom is very well known to my good self) so their little darlings don't have to worry about being in debt.

If this is the motive of those people who pay HECS up front, they're unlikely to be

deterred by a cut in the rate of discount.

Thus the government probably will make significant savings.

And since those savings will come from the pockets of well-off parents, it's probably right to see this measure as an attack on middle-class welfare that will make the scheme fairer.

A last point: in the real world, a lot of the things we don't do aren't strictly ''rational'' - but all that does is make us human.


Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Sympathy for those on $150,000, but...

One thing I despise about public life in Australia today is the way power-chasing pollies and self-promoting media personalities seek to advance themselves by encouraging people living during the most prosperous period in our history to feel sorry for themselves. Apparently, the soaring cost of living is absolutely killing us.

So forgive me but, just this once, we're going to worry about other people's problems, not yours.

Years ago, long before I became a journalist, I used to do the tax return of a lecturer in social work. One day he dumbfounded me by remarking that it wasn't good enough to measure poverty in money terms.

I was just a simple accountant; what on earth was he on about? How else could you judge it?

It's taken me a long time to realise he was on to something. Part of the trouble with economics is its confident assumption that all problems worth worrying about can be measured in dollars.

The economist Professor Peter Saunders, of the University of NSW, is probably Australia's leading expert on poverty. But in his latest book, Down and Out, he argues that poverty - lack of income - is just one aspect of the broader problem of social disadvantage. The other aspects are deprivation and social exclusion.

''Social disadvantage'' refers to a range of difficulties that block life opportunities and prevent people from participating fully in society. Although poverty is a factor contributing to disadvantage, the root causes of disadvantage extend beyond the lack of money and need to be identified and tackled separately.

Saunders offers the example of Leah, a single parent born in North Africa, now living in the south of Israel, leading a harsh and miserable life dominated by men.

Giving Leah money could help her a lot, but unless something is done about the underlying causes of her problems - lack of education, exposure to discrimination, lack of voice in events that affect her, induced depression, unwise choices and bad luck - there will be little prospect of relieving the disadvantages she experiences and preventing them from being transmitted to future generations.

Do you really think there are no Leahs in Australia?

''Cycles of poverty that result from an inadequate education that restricts employment prospects and constrains earnings will not be prevented by income transfers alone, but also require efforts to raise human capital in ways that can provide the foundation for economic independence and improved social status,'' Saunders says.

One of the most important determinants of social disadvantage is where you live. This is true not only of which country you live in, but also of where you live within a country. ''Increasingly, where one lives can have a powerful impact on access to employment, on the ability of a given level of income to support a particular standard of living and on the availability and effectiveness of services to address disadvantage,'' he says.

Tony Vinson, a former professor of social work, has written that ''when social disadvantage becomes entrenched within a limited number of localities, the restorative potential of standard services in spheres like education and health can diminish.

A disabling social climate can develop that is more than the sum of individual and household disadvantages and the prospect is increased of disadvantage being passed from one generation to the next.''

Historically, poverty has been measured by setting a level of income and saying everyone who falls below that line is poor. But such ''poverty lines'' can be set in fairly arbitrary ways - half of the median income is a common measure, for instance - and so are open to argument.

The concept of ''deprivation'' has been developed to try to measure poverty more directly. It seeks to identify what is an unacceptable standard of living by using community views to specify the items and activities that are regarded as normal or customary in a particular society at a particular time.

Surveys show that the list of items Australians regard as the ''essentials of life'' include such things as medical treatment if needed, warm clothes and bedding if it's cold, a substantial meal at least once a day, and the ability to buy medicines prescribed by a doctor. By contrast, the concept of ''social exclusion'' focuses on how relationships, institutions, patterns of behaviour and other factors (including lack of resources) prevent people from participating fully in the life of their community.

Australian research has divided social exclusion into three domains: disengagement, service exclusion and economic exclusion. Indicators of disengagement include: no regular social contact with other people, children don't participate in school outings, children have no hobby or leisure activity, and unable to attend wedding or funeral in the past 12 months.

Indicators of service exclusion include: no access to a local doctor or hospital, no access to dental treatment, no childcare for working parents, no aged care for frail older people, and no access to a bank or building society. Indicators of economic exclusion include: not having $500 in savings for use in an emergency, having to pawn or sell something in the past 12 months, not having spent $100 on a special treat in the past 12 months, and living in a jobless household.

The groups with the highest risk of facing ''deep exclusion'' are (in declining order) unemployed people, public renters, lone parents, indigenous Australians and private renters.

So that's how the other half lives. What a pity these people have no idea what a struggle it is trying to make ends meet on $150,000 a year.


Monday, June 6, 2011

This time it's a recession we don't have to have

Though nothing is certain in the unpredictable world of the national accounts, it's highly unlikely we'll see a second, successive quarter of ''negative growth'' when the figures for this quarter are released in early September. Which, in a way, will be a pity.

Why? Because even if the hiccup caused by our natural disasters had spread itself over two quarters - after the 1.2 per cent contraction in the March quarter - not even the most ignorant journalist or most excitable market trader would have believed the consequent ''technical recession'' was a real recession.

The reason the rule about two successive quarters of falling real gross domestic product amounting to a ''technical'' recession (whatever that is) won't lie down and die is its handiness: it's simple to judge, objective and involves minimum waiting.

The reason it should bite the dust is that it's a completely arbitrary rule of thumb containing no science, which is perfectly capable of telling us we're in recession when we're not, or failing to tell us we're in recession when we are.

It's also unreliable in another sense because it's based on the Bureau of Statistics' first estimate of the quarterly change in GDP, which is subject to heavy revision in subsequent months and years. (Keep reading.)

It was because all the contraction after the global financial crisis was crammed into a single quarter (the fall of 0.9 per cent in the December quarter of 2008) that the Rudd government got away with the claim that we avoided recession even though, in truth, we had a mild recession involving a rise in unemployment of almost 2 percentage points.

Kevin Rudd, Ken Henry & Co timed their stimulus packages with the clear (if unacknowledged) objective of ensuring there weren't two quarters of contraction in a row. They did this in the belief that, whatever the realities of the situation, the fuss the media would make about ''technical recession'' would be certain to further damage business and consumer confidence and make the talk of recession self-fulfilling and the downturn deeper.

They were right and they deserve a medal. They understood - as few macro-economists do - the central role the management of our animal spirits plays in determining the severity of downturns.

They also understood that the effectiveness of cash splashes and other give-aways is determined as much by their effect on how people feel about the future as by the size of the increase in spending they immediately bring about.

Once the second successive quarter had been avoided, the government happily trumpeted the (false) news that we'd avoided recession - no doubt believing it was merely reinforcing the more confident outlook.

But no good deed goes unpunished. The opposition was happy to accept the no-recession line but, in a novel twist on the post-hoc-ergo-propter-hoc fallacy, turned it back on the government, arguing that all the money Labor spent trying to moderate a recession was obviously wasted. (The fallacy says, since A preceded B, therefore A caused B. The opposition's version was, since there was no recession, therefore there was no need for all the spending to stop it happening.)

Not many people remember it was the old two successive quarters rule that lured Paul Keating into making his hugely resented remark about the recession we had to have. Though, in 1990, Keating and Treasury had been assuring us we were in for no worse than a ''soft landing'', by the time the national accounts for the June quarter showed a contraction of 0.9 per cent, most people needed no convincing we were in deep trouble.

Even so, Keating persisted with his denial. But by late November, on receiving the September quarter accounts showing a whopping contraction of 1.6 per cent, he realised the game was up and (to his eternal regret) decided to brazen it out, preferring to be seen as a conniving knave rather than the miscalculating fool he really was.

At his news conference to respond to the accounts, his opening words were: ''The first thing to say is, the accounts do show that Australia is in a recession. The most important thing about that is that this is a recession that Australia had to have.''

But here's the joke. Remember what I said about initial estimates being subject to heavy revision? By now, the first of his successive contractions has been revised from minus 0.9 per cent to plus 0.4 per cent. The second has been revised from minus 1.6 per cent to minus 0.4 per cent.

So applying the two-quarter rule to the bureau's by-now reasonably accurate estimates, Keating confessed to a recession that didn't exist. Except, of course, that at the time everyone knew from the evidence that it did - and they were right.

Since, according to the latest estimates, the economy grew in the following, December quarter, it wasn't until early September the next year - nine months later - that the two-quarter rule was signalling the arrival of recession.

A rule of thumb that throws up so many false negatives - in 1990-91 and 2008-09 - is a rule that should be ditched. The economist Saul Eslake has road-tested a different rule, showing it has produced no false signals. It defines recession as ''any period during which the rate of unemployment rises by more than 1.5 percentage points in 12 months or less''.

But I prefer the definition offered by David Gruen, of Treasury: ''A sustained period of either weak growth or falling real GDP, accompanied by a significant rise in the unemployment rate''.


Saturday, June 4, 2011

GDP hot air gives Hockey hiccups

See how long it takes you to figure this one out: if something falls by 50 per cent, then rises by 100 per cent, where is it? Answer: just back where it started.

If you had to think about it you need to be careful what conclusions you draw from this week's national accounts showing the economy - real gross domestic product - contracted by 1.2 per cent in the March quarter.

Thanks to economists' obsession with growth, we focus almost exclusively on the percentage change in GDP and its components from one quarter to the next, but if you don't have a good feel for how percentage changes work you risk bamboozling yourself.

(Speaking of which, remember that, though the percentage increase needed to get you back to par is always bigger than the original fall, the smaller that fall the less spectacular the subsequent rebound.)

Now try this reaction to the national accounts from Joe Hockey: ''If the mining boom has a cough the Australian economy can suffer pneumonia. The economy is increasingly reliant on the mining boom.''

It's a snappy soundbite for the telly, but it's nonsense. Indeed, it's roughly the opposite of what the national accounts are telling us.

For a start, the problem during the March quarter wasn't the mining boom, it was the weather. Is our economy heavily reliant on the weather? Our farmers are, but the rest of the economy isn't (well, not until we're finally screwed by climate change).

For another thing, what happened last quarter wasn't a cough that shows we've got pneumonia, it was a hiccup that isn't worth worrying about. Remember, 98.8 per cent of the economy was still there in the March quarter.

All that happened was that flooding and cyclones temporarily disrupted our production of coal, iron ore, agriculture and tourism. The disruption to mining in particular led to a decline of 27 per cent in the volume of coal exports during the quarter, causing the volume of all exports to fall by 8.7 per cent.

But today, two months after the end of the March quarter, we know the bad weather has stopped, most mines are working again, farmers have replanted and the rebuilding of houses, roads and other infrastructure has begun. Export volumes recovered in the month of March and further in April.

The natural disasters are estimated to have subtracted 1.7 percentage points from real GDP growth during the quarter. But Wayne Swan is expecting a rebound of about 1 percentage point in the present quarter and a further rebound in the September quarter. This is why Hockey's pneumonia is no more than a hiccup.

The rebound will come for three reasons: production will return to normal; some firms will work overtime to catch up on lost production and there will be much rebuilding and purchasing of new equipment.

Note that, thanks to our obsession with rates of quarterly change, part of the rebound is simply arithmetic. The government estimates the various natural disasters subtracted $6.2 billion from the real value of production in the March quarter, but will subtract only $3.1 billion in the June quarter. If so, this reduction in a negative represents a positive contribution to the growth in real GDP in the June quarter.

The point is, when the economy contracts in a quarter, you have to investigate the causes before you decide the economy has pneumonia and needs to be hospitalised. In this case, the causes are transitory - and self-correcting - rather than lasting.

Another clue is that the economy suffered a weather-caused shock to its supply side (production of goods and services) rather than weakness in its demand side (spending on goods and services).

A weakness in demand is more likely to be deeper-seated and longer-lasting, requiring the economy's demand managers - the government and the Reserve Bank - to adjust the settings of the instruments they use to influence the strength of demand: respectively, fiscal policy (the budget) and monetary policy (interest rates).

What makes Hockey's talk of pneumonia so opposite to the truth is, when you look past the temporary supply problem you see demand growth is quite healthy. Consumer spending grew by 0.6 per cent in the March quarter (and by 3.4 per cent over the year to March), with government spending on consumption items growing by 1.4 per cent (4.6 per cent for the year).

Turning to investment spending, spending on new or altered housing grew by 4.6 per cent (annual, 6.6 per cent) and business investment in new equipment and structures grew by 2.9 per cent (annual, 4.5 per cent).

That leaves public sector investment spending, which fell by 0.7 per cent (annual, minus 6 per cent) as the fiscal stimulus continued to be withdrawn. (Overall, the withdrawal of stimulus trimmed 0.4 percentage points from GDP growth during the quarter.)

Adding this up, ''domestic final demand'' grew by a whopping 1.3 per cent during the quarter and by 3.3 per cent over the year. Allowing for a fall in the level of business inventories (much of it probably caused by the natural disasters), ''gross national expenditure'' - which is domestic demand proper - grew by a healthy 0.8 per cent during the quarter and by 3.1 per cent over the year.

This healthy growth ain't surprising since total employment grew by almost 50,000 during the quarter.

As the secretary to the Treasury, Martin Parkinson, pointed out this week, though the mining sector gets most of the headlines, it accounts for only about 8 per cent of GDP (and an even smaller proportion of total employment). So that leaves 92 per cent of the economy that's not mining but is doing fine.

It's true that, of late, much of the growth in the economy has been coming, directly and indirectly, from mining. But it's rare for all parts of the economy to be growing at the same rate, so it's common for one sector - often it's been housing - to account for much of the growth in a particular period. That doesn't mean we'd catch pneumonia were that sector to falter.

Consider this: if the sky-high prices we're getting for coal and iron ore were to suddenly collapse, that would be a blow, but it would also bring about changes that encouraged other sectors to grow faster: the high exchange rate would fall, the Reserve Bank would cut interest rates and the budget wouldn't be as contractionary, taking longer to return to surplus.


Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Mouse is mightier than the stores

Well-mannered newspapers don't spend a lot of time talking about themselves. Even so, you've no doubt heard that the future of newspapers - though not news or journalism - is under great challenge from the arrival of the internet.

Much classified advertising has moved to the net and now some display advertising is going.

Some readers are moving to the net, smartphones and tablets such as the iPad.

As you may imagine, these are anxious times for newspaper managers and print journalists.

It's dawned on me, however, that what the internet is doing to the media is just for openers.

You wait until you see what it does to retailing over the next decade or two.

Retailers have been complaining lately about people buying more stuff on the internet - and thus being able to avoid paying goods and services tax on purchases of less than $1000 - but I doubt if this does much to explain their present weak sales.

A report by Southern Cross Equities shows that by last year local online retailers had a 4 per cent share of total retail sales.

This was up from 2 per cent in 2005, but it's still not a lot.

Yet come back in 10 years and it may be a very different story.

Buying things in shops has many advantages. You're able to see, touch and even try on what there is to choose from. You can seek further information from a live human. There's less worry about the security of your payment and being able to return goods that prove unsatisfactory.

So why would people buy online? Partly because, if you know what you want, it's very convenient. You avoid having to find a park at crowded shopping malls and avoid unwanted human contact.

But a new study by Ben Irvine and colleagues at the Australia Institute, The Rise and Rise of Online Retail, finds that online shoppers give ''saving money'' as their primary reason. ''Bargain hunters'' outnumber ''mall haters'' five to one.

When bricks-and-mortar retailers also run a website they tend to charge the same prices on both. If they didn't, more of their customers would switch to online. Add the cost of postage (and ignore the cost in time and money of travelling to their shop) and it's often not particularly attractive to buy from local retailers online unless you find one offering a much lower price.

It's when people browsing prices on the internet compare prices being offered on overseas sites that they find large savings, sometimes up to 50 per cent - savings that make the freight costs well worth paying. This is true for books, DVDs, music, shoes, electronic goods and much else.

People are amazed to find that global corporations are selling the identical goods at quite different prices in different countries.

As a very broad generalisation, prices tend to be low in the United States and high in Australia, with British prices somewhere in between.

Our retailers and others try to justify these differences by reference to freight costs, differences in taxes, the high Aussie dollar and much else, but they never can.

Many people imagine prices are based on the cost of manufacture and distribution, plus a reasonable mark-up. But, in economists' speak, this is just looking at the supply curve.

You also have to take account of the demand curve, which shows the prices customers are
''willing to pay''.

Taking this into account means prices are set at the highest level ''the market will bear''. Charging different prices in different markets (whether those markets are in different countries or are different segments of the same country's market) is a long-standing business strategy.

You maximise your profit by charging whatever price - high or low - is the most the people in each market or market segment are willing to pay.

Economists call this ''price discrimination'' and regard it as perfectly reasonable.

Now here's something the economists won't tell you: people are willing to pay higher prices in Australia because that's what they're used to. People are willing only to pay lower prices in the US because that's what they're used to.

As every economics textbook will tell you, however, the trick to successful price discrimination is you have to be able to keep the markets separate, otherwise people in high-price markets will switch to buying in lower-price markets.

Guess what? The internet has broken down the geographic (and knowledge) separation between national markets. So the game is up for country-based price discrimination. It will take a while but, as e-commerce spreads, our greater ability and willingness to buy from countries with lower prices will force Australian retail prices down, particularly website prices. (The day may come when people who want personal service in a shop will have to pay a premium above the internet price.)

This will be an enormously painful process for retailers and their employees (welcome to the club). And also for the firms that own and rent out retail space.

It will be painful because it's wrong to imagine Australian retailers charging twice as much for the identical product as US retailers charge are therefore making twice the profit.

Why not? Because, over the many decades this price difference has existed, Australian retailers' cost structures have adjusted to fit (just as broadsheet newspapers' staffing levels increased to absorb most of the ''rivers of gold'' flowing from their classified ads). In particular, the rent paid by retailers would be much higher.

The internet is changing the world to make it work more like economics textbooks have always assumed it worked.

It's intensifying price competition over other forms of competition, such as marketing, and slowly bringing to reality a concept beloved of economists: ''the law of one [worldwide] price''.