Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Pinned down by fear of possibilities, not outcomes

It's not something economists emphasise. Indeed, they prefer not to think about it because it reminds them of the limits of their so-called science. But the peregrinations of the economy are as much about psychology - moods and feelings - as tangible economic forces.

When you view the economy from outside, what you see is might and power.

Big corporations with towering offices, branches in every suburb, huge factories, gleaming shopping complexes, thousands of employees, annual turnover of hundreds of millions of dollars.

Then you have the big governments supposedly running the show. The federal government spending a budget of $360 billion a year.

The Reserve Bank moving interest rates up, or down, at will. The total value of all the goods and services Australia produces in a year is $1.4 trillion.

And against all that is me or you. No wonder we feel like pawns in a huge game, pushed this way and that by forces beyond our control.

But, last week, a student reminded me how bizarre it is that the world economy is built on something as nebulous as ''confidence''.

We may be as insignificant as ants, but when enough of us push in the same direction, we can make the global economy tremble. Take banks. They accept deposits from people who are free to withdraw their money at will, but then they lend that money to someone for 25 years.

So were it not for government protections, a run of depositors demanding their money back could bring the mightiest bank crashing down. When people see a queue forming outside a bank, all their instincts tell them to join it.

Take the sharemarket. If people are keener to sell a company's shares than to buy them at any moment, down comes the price - and, if it's one of our big companies, the retirement savings of people across the land take a dip.

If a company's shares fall, or if shares fall generally, the chances increase that the next move will be down rather than back up.

Take consumer confidence. When the economy looks like it's slowing and people worry about the possibility of losing their job, they postpone taking on new commitments and cut their spending on inessentials, just to be on the safe side. If enough people think and act that way, their fears become self-fulfilling and a self-reinforcing cycle develops.

Their reduced spending causes businesses to lay off staff, news of this causes others to become more precautious, and this, and the greatly reduced spending of the jobless, prompts another round of job losses and belt-tightening.

Our being social animals - our moods and actions are heavily influenced by the moods and actions of the people around us - means these swings easily develop momentum.

They work in both directions, of course. When we're confident, we spend, move to bigger or better homes and push up share prices with gay abandon.

When things are on the up, we can't imagine they'll ever stop rising; when things are heading down, we can't imagine they'll ever stop falling.

These swings in consumer confidence are matched by swings in business confidence. Business people take their lead from consumers, but they're just as susceptible to the mood swings of their own class.

The availability of credit amplifies these swings.

Households and businesses borrow heavily to take advantage of the good times, get ahead of rising property prices and keep the party going. On the way down, their high levels of debt add to their fears, caution and cuts.

So the economy is driven by alternating waves of excessive optimism and excessive pessimism.

At all times it looks terribly tangible, huge and inscrutable. But the booms and slumps are being driven by the nebulous moods and feelings of the human animal. Note, it doesn't matter whether the fears that set off these chains of adverse developments - runs on banks, falls in share prices, loss of consumer confidence - are well-founded or ill-founded.

Their consequences are real, regardless of their origins.

Adding to the insecurity and uncertainty - especially at times like these - is one of the hallmarks of the human animal, our insatiable curiosity.

We always want to know what's happening, why it's happening, how the world works and what the future holds.

The economies of Europe have serious debt problems. They've been grappling with those problems for months without resolving them.

We have no idea how well or badly this episode will end, nor even when. But every other week the world's financial markets suffer another bout of nerves and drop share prices further.

This increases the pressure on Europe's politicians to find a solution, but probably also increases the likelihood of disaster.

Every time our shares take another dive, the saga moves to the media's centre stage and they attempt, yet again, to explain its complexities and ask more experts to predict how things will turn out.

Our crazy, unceasing urge to ask people who can't know to speculate about what the future holds arises from what psychologists call our ''illusion of control'' - our tendency to overestimate our ability to control events.

We want to know all about the events in Europe and elsewhere and how they will affect us because ''forewarned is forearmed'', and just in case there is something we can do to protect ourselves.

In truth, however, the main thing we are doing is putting the wind up ourselves long before it is possible to know what will happen and how seriously it will affect us in Australia.

My guess is, what will hurt us most is our fear of the possibilities, not the ultimate events.

The trouble with moods and feelings is their ability to influence hard economic facts.


Monday, September 26, 2011

Memo bosses: happier staff work better

In the quest to lift the flagging productivity of labour, we can go back to old, failed ideas or move on to new ones. Last week Peter Reith came out of retirement to urge the Liberals to get tough with workers and reopen class warfare.

Want to get more out of your workers, make them work at unsociable hours for normal hourly rates, keep wage rises tiny or simply whittle away at their conditions? Re-introduce statutory individual contracts and split workers off from their union so they lose all bargaining power.

Does this mean you spend most of the year negotiating one-on-one with your employees because Mary wants to leave early on Mondays, Jenny and Julie want to job-share and Bill wants time off to do a tech course?

Hell, no. That's just the advertising. In reality you get your lawyer to cook up a single contract document that runs all your way and tell each of your employees to feel free to leave if they don't want to sign.

It's a good way to minimise wage costs if you don't mind having a surly, resentful staff, if they're supervised tightly enough for you to be confident they won't be able to find ways to get back at you, if they're mainly unskilled and if unemployment is high.

But if their work is skilled, if you need them to accept a high degree of responsibility with limited supervision, if there are shortages of skilled labour and rival employers are on the poach, it's a great way to damage a good business.

I'm sure there are second-rate business people urging the Libs to restore their former ability to screw their workers with impunity, but I hardly think it's the way to a brighter, more productive future.

The first stage of employer enlightenment comes when they seek to improve employees' performance with monetary incentives: merit increases to selected workers, bonuses or other forms of performance pay.

This approach makes sense to model-bound economists and money-minded executives, but industrial psychologists know it often backfires. Workers do care about pay, but they care less about the absolute level of their pay than about its relative level - that is, what they're getting compared with others are getting, particularly those they consider their equals. In other words, play favourites with pay and you're just as likely to create dissatisfaction as satisfaction.

The other thing to remember (which many economists and business people don't) is that when you establish a culture that good performance is rewarded with money, you tend to demotivate people from performing well for other, more intrinsic reasons. You debase the currency, so to speak.

What never occurs to second-rate managers - the sort of managers who run to politicians for legal solutions to their inadequate relationships with their workers; the sort who never reach the ultimate stage of human-relations enlightenment - is that most workers want to work in an environment in which they can trust their bosses and be trusted by them, where they can give and receive loyalty.

Why wouldn't you want to work in such an environment? Recent research by two Canadian economists, John Helliwell, of the University of British Columbia, and Haifang Huang, of the University of Alberta, shows that life satisfaction - happiness - is significantly higher among workers who work where they rank management trustworthiness highly.

For example, the roughly one quarter of surveyed workers who rated trust in management at nine or 10 on a 10-point scale also rated their satisfaction with life at 8.3 on a 10-point scale, compared with an average of 7.5 for the quarter or more who rated trust in management at five or below.

And, get this: for the whole sample of workers, a change in trust in management of just 0.7 points had the same effect on life satisfaction as a 31 per cent change in income. But why should a hard-headed manager care about the happiness of the people working for them?

Well, one reason is that, unless managers are money-hungry to a quite inhuman extent, they themselves would get more satisfaction being the boss of an outfit where everyone gets on and pulls together.

Even a manager should see there is more to life than money (and, please, spare me the sermon about how corporation law requires you to maximise profits for the shareholders). But, if that's not a good enough argument for you, try this: longitudinal research finds that happier people tend to be more successful in all dimensions of their lives - their incomes, their careers, their health and their relationships.

It's not hard to believe successful people are happier, but this is saying the reverse: being of a happier disposition tends to make people more successful. More specifically, happy workers make more money, receive more promotions and better supervisor ratings, and are better citizens at work.

So, if employers want to offer a satisfaction-inducing working environment, what must they do? The British psychologist Peter Warr has identified five factors as important to job satisfaction. First, opportunities for personal control. This means having some discretion - autonomy - in how to tackle problems, apply skills and envisage outcomes.

Second, jobs with a variety of tasks. Many jobs are naturally varied but highly repetitive jobs are soul-destroying. When workers work in teams, roles can be shared.

Third, good supervisors provide a balance of freedom and supervision. The ideal ratio of positive to negative feedback is about six to one.

Fourth, jobs that afford people respect and status are likely to engender feelings of competence and pride. In the best organisations, the respect that is inherent in some high-status jobs can be extended to all jobs.

Finally, have clear requirements and information on how to meet the requirements.


Saturday, September 24, 2011

Retail despair as consumers spurn goods for services

There's a bumper sticker that says: if you think money doesn't buy happiness, you don't know where to shop. It's just a joke. But there's actually a bit of science in it. Research by psychologists says buying stuff doesn't bring us as much satisfaction as buying experiences - such as a holiday or even a restaurant meal.

Experiences are more satisfying than goods because they leave us with memories to think over (which we often enhance by forgetting the bad or boring bits) and give us something to talk about with our friends. And, after all, what are we but the sum of our experiences?

Experiences are services rather than goods and it's possible Australians are taking the psychologists' findings to heart because, as Dr Philip Lowe of the Reserve Bank pointed out in a speech to the Australian Economic Forum this week, consumers have been switching their spending towards services and away from goods.

The Bureau of Statistics' household expenditure survey shows that, over the quarter century since 1984, the proportion of household spending devoted to food felLby more than 3 percentage points to just 16.5 per cent.

The proportion devoted to clothing, footwear, household furniture and appliances fell from about 14 per cent to just over 8 per cent. Similarly, the share going to spending on alcohol and tobacco dropped by almost 1.5 percentage points to less than 4 per cent.

Over that period we're also spending smaller proportions of our budgets on cars and petrol and - get this - fuel and power, the latter of which now accounts for less than 3 per cent of the average household's budget.

But if we're devoting smaller shares to all those things, what things are getting bigger shares? Top of the list is housing, which is up from less than 13 per cent to 18 per cent. That includes people who are renting as well as people with mortgages and people who've paid off their mortgages.

We're also devoting higher proportions to spending on healthcare, education, household services (including childcare, cleaning, lawn mowing and gardening) and recreation (including audiovisual equipment, toys, sporting goods, pets and holidays).

As you see clearly from all that, we're devoting less of the consumer dollar to goods and more to services. While our politicians are giving speeches about the need for Australia to ''make things,'' we're busy making it a place that ''does things''.

This trend's been running for many moons but why? Long story. The first thing to remember is that just because we're devoting a smaller share of our budgets to food, clothing and footwear doesn't mean we're starving ourselves and running round barefoot and naked. It's not that we're spending any less on goods, it's that our spending on services has been growing faster than our spending on goods, thereby reducing goods' proportion of the total.

Part of the reason services' share is up is that the prices of services are rising faster than the prices of goods. That's because it's easier to increase the productivity of labour in the production of goods. People keep inventing ever-better labour-saving equipment, which allows the prices of manufactured goods to stay fairly stable or, in some cases, actually fall.

Many of the manufactured goods we buy are imported and the prices of imported manufactures are being kept low by various factors over the years: by increased competition from China and other Asian developing countries putting downward pressure on the world prices of many manufactures, by the phasing down of protection for domestic producers of clothing, footwear and cars, and lately by the higher dollar.

In marked contrast, services tend to be more labour-intensive, with less scope for better machines to increase the productivity of labour. Even so, real wage rates in the services sector tend to keep pace with the improvement in economy-wide productivity (most of which comes from the other sectors).

But though it's true we're spending more on services because their prices are rising faster, it's also true the quantity of services we're buying is rising faster than the quantity of goods we're buying. As real household income increases over time we have to spend the extra income on something, but there's a limit to how much more we can eat, how many clothes we can wear and cars and fridges we can use. By contrast, we're well short of the limit on the things we'd like to pay other people to do for us as we get more able to afford it. Enterprising businesses keep thinking of new things to do for people.

A ''superior good'' is one to which we devote a higher proportion of our spending as our income grows. And most superior goods are, in fact, services. Healthcare and education are superior goods, as is recreation and ''meals out'', as the bureau calls them.

But the glaring case in recent times is housing. Its share of our budgets has risen by more than 5 percentage points, with most of that occurring in the past decade. The reason is not higher mortgage interest rates - they go up and down - but higher house prices and bigger mortgages, thus leading to higher interest payments.

As an individual, you may think you had little choice but to pay the higher house prices. But what's true for the individual isn't true for the whole. House prices have risen so much because all of us bid them up in our (largely futile) efforts to use our higher disposable incomes to buy better housing.

That explains the long-term trend towards services and away from goods. But, as Lowe pointed out, over just the past year, the trend's become supercharged. According to the national accounts, real consumer spending over the year to June rose by 1.75 per cent for goods, but about 4 per cent for services.

Consumer spending on education services was up by 5 per cent, on hotels, cafes and restaurants by more than 6 per cent, on recreation and culture by 7 per cent, and on ''transportation services'' by 16 per cent. This last is mainly people taking cheap overseas holidays. (Other research shows that even people on lower incomes are spending more on holidays.)

So now you know why the retailers - who sell goods, not services - are doing it so tough but, despite widespread misapprehension, overall consumer spending is growing fine.


Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Sydney too must go up to go green

As a denizen of the inner city, I love getting away to the countryside. Away from the tar and cement and exhaust fumes to the trees and grass and clean air. In the country or on the coast you feel closer to nature, leading a simpler, cleaner life, doing less damage to the environment. I always feel that, being more natural, trees and grass are good for the spirit.

So it comes as a bit of a shock to read in Triumph of the City, the latest book by America's leading urban economist, Professor Edward Glaeser, of Harvard, that cities are a lot greener than the suburbs and countryside.

''Cities are much better for the environment than leafy living,'' Glaeser says. ''Residing in a forest might seem to be a good way of showing one's love of nature, but living in a concrete jungle is actually far more ecologically friendly.

''We humans are a destructive species, even when ? we're not trying to be. We burn forests and oil and inevitably hurt the landscape that surrounds us. If you love nature, stay away from it.''

We could minimise our damage to the environment by clustering together in high-rises and walking to work, he says. We maximise our damage when we insist on living surrounded by greensward. Lower densities inevitably mean more travel, and that requires energy. While larger living spaces certainly have their advantages, large suburban homes also consume much more energy.

Anyone who believes global warming is a real danger should see dense urban living as part of the solution. Over the next 50 years, China and India will cease to be poor rural nations, and that's a good thing. They, like the West before them, will move from farms to urban living.

''If billions of Chinese and Indians insist on leafy suburbs and the large homes and cars those suburbs entail, then the world's carbon emissions will soar ? The critical question is whether, as Asia develops, it will become a continent of suburban drivers or urban-transit users.''

Historically, the wealthy managed to combine city and country living by having two homes. Winter months were spent in the city, while hot summers were spent on the country estate.

Less expensive solutions were to surround towns and cities with a green belt. Failing that, big city parks were established. But the emergence of faster, cheaper transportation made it possible to live with trees and work in the city.

Homes and cars account for about 40 per cent of the average American household's emissions of carbon dioxide, half of which is attributable to cars. People could buy more fuel-efficient cars, but the big difference is whether you drive 500 kilometres a year or 50,000, which depends on whether you live in a city or a suburb. Cities are also greener than suburbs because city households use less electricity.

''Smart environmentalism requires thinking through the inadvertent side-effects of different environmental policies and recognising those that actually do more harm than good,'' Glaeser says. The conservationists who keep the San Francisco Bay area free from new construction are preventing development in the greenest part of America. They are consequently increasing development in America's browner areas, such as baking-hot, air-conditioned Texas.

''In older cities like New York, NIMBYism hides under the cover of preservationism, perverting the worthy cause of preserving the most beautiful reminders of our past into an attempt to freeze vast neighbourhoods filled with undistinguished architecture.

''In highly attractive cities, the worst aspects of this opposition to change are that it ensures that building heights will be low, new homes will be few, prices will be high, and the city will be off-limits to all but rich people.''

People seem surprisingly ignorant of how supply and demand work. When the demand for a city rises, prices will rise unless more homes are built. When cities restrict new construction, they become more expensive.

Cities grow by building up or out. When a city doesn't build, people are prevented from experiencing the magic of urban proximity. Preserving a city can, in fact, require destroying part of it, Glaeser says.

The modern desire to preserve Baron Haussman's Paris has helped turn the affordable Paris of the past - with its history of impecunious but ultimately celebrated artists - into a boutique city that today can be enjoyed only by the wealthy.

There is great value in protecting the most beautiful parts of our urban past, but cities shouldn't be embalmed in amber. Too much preservation stops cities from providing newer, taller, better buildings for their inhabitants.

Height restrictions - in Paris, New York and Mumbai - should be of interest and concern to far more of us than just the planning professionals. ''These rules are shaping the future of our cities and our world,'' Glaeser says. ''If the cities' history becomes a straitjacket, then they lose one of their greatest assets: the ability to build up.''

Height, he says, is the best way to keep prices affordable and living standards high.

Glaeser's observations seem of obvious relevance to Sydney and the decisions facing the O'Farrell government. Our sky-high house and unit prices are partly the product of strong demand being met by a woefully inadequate supply of additional houses and units. Now those high prices are contributing significantly to Sydney and NSW's weak rate of economic growth.

The lack of additional supply comes partly from our topography, but mainly from excessive government restrictions on development. But there are limits to how far Sydney can be allowed to sprawl - including the inadequacy of public transport.

Sydney needs to go up, and part of that up is more medium-density housing in north shore Liberal electorates, including the Premier's own.


Monday, September 19, 2011

New budget office must clarify, not confuse

Economists believe people should be judged by their ''revealed preference'' - by what they do, not what they say. If so, Wayne Swan is supremely confident Labor will romp home at the next election, whereas Joe Hockey is not at all sure the Liberals will win this time round.

You can deduce this from the different positions the two men take on the legislation to establish a parliamentary budget office. Swan has presented a bill that offers tightly defined benefits to the opposition of the day, whereas Hockey wants to give oppositions a much wider licence to argue the toss with the government. Both seem to be ''taking no thought for the morrow''.

The idea of a parliamentary budget office - roughly modelled on the independent US Congressional Budget Office - has potential to greatly improve the quality of the debate about how much election promises would cost and how they'd be paid for, imposing greater discipline on the parties.

Peter Costello's charter of budget honesty was intended to bring this about by giving both sides the ability to have their policies costed by Treasury and the Department of Finance during the election campaign. But Costello biased the rules against the opposition of the day, meaning they have proved unworkable. The present arrangements require the heads of Treasury and Finance to publish in their own name a pre-election economic and fiscal outlook - giving revised forecasts for the economy and the budget balance - soon after each election is called. No problem there.

It also allows both sides to submit their announced policies to Treasury and Finance for costing. These costing are published by the two departments as soon as they are done. This is fine for governments, which are able to privately bombard the departments with requests to cost a host of possible policies before the election is called. In a process of iteration, treasurers are able to refine their proposals in the light of advice about what things will cost and alternative ways of skinning the cat.

Then, once the election's called, they announce their policies and bowl them up to be ticked by the same people who costed them in the first place.

But oppositions get no pre-election access to the econocrats to try out different proposals. They have to painstakingly gather facts about the cost of this and that, or spend a fortune paying Canberra consultants to cost their policies, knowing those consultants can't necessarily do it the way Treasury does it - especially so after Access Economics retired hurt from the game, having been monstered once too often by the lovely Costello.

The problem is that if Treasury and Finance judge the opposition's costing to be wrong - as there's a high chance they are - this is announced during the campaign and the treasurer carries on about the incompetence and irresponsibility of his opponents.

Swan's bill follows the unanimously agreed recommendations of a multi-party committee. The office would be established as a department of the Parliament, independent of the government. It would give all non-government members the ability to have policy proposals costed in a private, iterative process until the start of the campaign.

The costings for policies submitted during the campaign would be automatically made public. This would put the opposition on the same basis as the government, provided the office had adequate access to the unique information base and costing models used by Treasury and Finance.

It would give the Greens and independents access to accurate costing for the first time, a big step forward. The office would be required to use the same economic forecasts, budget parameters and costing conventions as Treasury and Finance, which would put all costings on a comparable basis and mean the costings used by an opposition during a campaign were essentially the same as those Treasury would incorporate into the budget should the opposition become government.

The office would not have the power do its own forecasts, nor undertake modelling of the economic (as opposed to budgetary) consequences of possible policy reforms.

But Hockey has proposed amendments to the government's bill to give the office a wider range of powers. It would have the same powers as the Auditor-General to demand information of government departments. It would be able to use different forecasts and costing conventions to those in the budget.

Non-government members would be able to have confidential dealings with the office even during election campaigns, making their own decisions about whether and when to make costings public. The Gillard government's funding allocation for the office - about $6 million a year for four years - would be indexed to Treasury's funding.

These Liberal counter-proposals demonstrate a degree of mistrust of governments - and governments' ability to interfere with Treasury forecasts and budget estimates - that seems common among oppositions but is unwarranted.

Not since the Hawke-Keating government have governments interfered in Treasury's economic forecasts and budget figurings. Treasury's forecasts are often wrong and even its costings can prove astray, but there's no reason to believe any other outfit could do better. I think it fair enough to require oppositions to get their policies decided and costed before the campaign starts, just as the caretaker convention requires governments to.

If the taxpayer has to pay for an additional costing body it's vitally important the work of this body helps to clarify the debate not make it even more confusing than it already is.

It's infinitely preferable that all parties' costings be prepared on the same basis, rather than allowing oppositions to chose different economic forecasts or different budget parameters and costing conventions.

If we can avoid that tower of Babel the parliamentary budget office will be a big improvement.


Saturday, September 17, 2011

Thrift paying big dividends on current accounts

The nation's econocrats have been pondering the resources boom for years, but one thing they've been expecting isn't coming to pass: we're not getting huge deficits on the current account of the balance of payments.

Last week's figures showed a deficit of just $5.3 billion for the June quarter, about half what it was in the March quarter. This included a surplus on the balance of (international) trade in goods and services of

$7.5 billion - the fifth quarterly surplus in a row - offset by a deficit on net income payments (our payments of interest and dividends to foreigners less their payments to us) of $12.8 billion.

Switching to the year to June, the current account deficit was $33.6 billion, down from $53.3 billion the year before. Expressed as a proportion of gross domestic product, this was an amazingly low 2.4 per cent, down from 4.1 per cent the year before.

So why were the econocrats expecting bigger deficits? Because most of the money to finance the surge of investment in new mines and natural gas facilities would have to come from foreigners, thereby adding to the surplus on the capital account of the balance of payments which, with a floating currency, is always exactly balanced by a deficit on the current account.

And why haven't the big deficits come to pass? Because household saving has been a lot greater than the econocrats were expecting. The more the nation saves, the less it has to call on the savings of foreigners to finance its investment spending.

Last financial year's current account deficit is down because saving is up while the mining investment boom is only just getting started.

As that boom gets under way, the current account deficit is likely to grow. This year's budget forecast a deficit of 4 per cent of GDP for this financial year, rising to 5.25 per cent in 2012-13. Even so, those figures are smaller than the econocrats had been expecting before they realised how much more households were saving.

Last week's national accounts showed households saving a net (that is, after allowing for the year's depreciation in the value of household assets) 10.5 per cent of household disposable income. This is unlikely to be an aberration; it's more likely to be a reversion to our earlier thrifty habits.

If you're more used to thinking about the current account deficit in terms of exports and imports, I should explain that these days economists tend to look on the other side of the coin, which shows saving and investment.

The current account deficit equals the capital account surplus, which represents the net inflow of foreign financial capital to the Australian economy. As we've seen, we call on the savings of foreigners to finance that part of our investment in new physical capital than can't be financed by our own saving.

This net inflow of foreign financial capital allows us to import more goods and services than we export, including imports of capital equipment.

The net capital inflow also helps us finance our net payments of interest on the nation's net foreign debt and our net payments of dividends on net foreign equity investment in Australia's businesses - though the ultimate justification for our foreign borrowing is the profits we make from our physical investments.

The nation's annual investment spending includes not just business investment in equipment and structures, but also public investment in infrastructure and households' investment in the construction of new homes.

Similarly, the nation's annual saving includes not just the amount saved by households, but also the saving companies do when they retain part of their after-tax profits rather than paying them all out in dividends and the saving governments do when they raise more in revenue than they need to cover their recurrent spending.

According to an article in the federal Treasury's latest Economic Roundup, in the decade or so before the first stage of the mining boom began in 2003, the current account averaged 3.7 per cent of GDP. During the first stage it averaged 5.7 per cent, but since the global financial crisis it's averaged 3.3 per cent.

Before the mining boom, gross national investment spending (that is, before allowing for the annual depreciation of assets) averaged 24.3 per cent of GDP. Since the start of the mining boom it's averaged 27.9 per cent.

Had the level of gross national saving stayed unchanged, that would have increased the average current account deficit by 3.6 percentage points. In fact, national saving has increased from 22.2 per cent to 24.5 per cent.

While households have been saving a lot more in the period since the global financial crisis, federal and state governments have fallen into operating deficit, meaning they've gone from saving to dissaving. As they get their budgets back to operating surplus in the next year or two they'll be adding to rather than subtracting from national saving.

Company profits have been high in recent years and many companies have been saving a fair bit. Mining companies, in particular, have been reinvesting a lot of their after-tax profits in expanding their activities. (To the extent that those retained earnings are owned by foreign shareholders, and were initially counted in the balance of payments as capital outflows, their reinvestment is counted as foreign capital inflow, even though the actual dollars never left the country.)

Australia's persistent current account deficit has always reflected a high rate of national investment rather than a low rate of national saving. Although our household saving rate was quite low during the decade or so to the mid-noughties, our overall, national rate of saving has been around the average for the developed economies.

Point is, should our current account get a lot bigger in the next few years, it will be because the mining construction boom involves a lot more investment spending, not because we're saving less.

We've done much hand-wringing lately about ''the cautious consumer'' (especially when we imagined consumer spending was weak, which we learnt last week it isn't), but the fact that increased household saving has stopped the strong growth in household income translating into booming consumer spending has some big advantages.

If we can avoid a consumption boom occurring at the same time as an investment boom, the Reserve Bank won't need to increase interest rates as much to control inflation and this, in turn, will avoid adding upward pressure to the Aussie dollar.


Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Terrorism. A vast cost of feeling a little more secure

Now the 10th anniversary of the terrible events of September 11, 2001, has passed, it's time for plain speaking.

You've often seen me criticise economists for their bloodless rationalism - their excessive focus on efficiency in the satisfaction of our material wants and neglect of our emotional and social needs. Yet it's possible to go too far the other way, to be too emotional and not sufficiently hard-headed in our reaction to events.

And that's just what we've been in our response to the destruction of the World Trade Centre towers. We've exaggerated the threat from terrorism and spent far more than is sensible in trying to reduce it.

As usual, we have better information on the Americans' response than on our own, similar response. But there's much to learn from a study of the American experience by John Mueller, a professor of national security studies at Ohio State University, and Mark Stewart, a professor of civil engineering at our own University of Newcastle.

In the months after September 11, it was almost universally assumed the events represented not an aberration but the start of a new era of greatly increased terrorist threat. Intelligence sources estimated there were as many as 5000 al-Qaeda operatives in America.

So, like we did, the Americans hugely increased their spending on security. They established a new Department of Homeland Security and, in the time since then, increased spending on homeland security by a cumulative $US360 billion ($348 billion). They increased spending on federal intelligence by a cumulative $US110 billion, while state and local governments increased their spending by the same amount. The private sector's increased spending on security measures is estimated to be similar.

All that totals $US690 billion. Now Mueller and Stewart add the opportunity costs of terrorism insurance premiums, passenger delays caused by airport screening, the value of lives lost because people drove to their destination rather than suffer airport delays, and other losses in consumer welfare.

That totals $US420 billion, taking the grand total additional cost since 2001 to well over $US1 trillion.

Those figures don't include the cost to US taxpayers of the terrorism-related wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The equivalent figure for Australia (which does include the cost of the wars) is about $30 billion.

The question people often ask is, are we safer? That's a silly question. Of course we're safer. The posting of a single security guard at the entrance to one building makes us safer, if only microscopically.

The sensible question is, are the gains in security worth the amount we're paying? Or, in the words of one risk analyst, "How much should we be willing to pay for a small reduction in probabilities that are already extremely low?"

The fact is, despite the escalation in our fear of terrorism, and despite the considerable publicity given to cases where the authorities have foiled bungling terrorist intentions, there's been no great increase in terrorist attacks outside war zones.

In 2005, after years of well-funded sleuthing, the FBI and other investigative agencies admitted that they had been unable to uncover a single al-Qaeda sleeper cell anywhere in the US.

So any terrorist threat derives from small numbers of home-grown people, often isolated from each other, who fantasise about performing dire deeds and sometimes receive a bit of training and inspiration overseas.

Home-grown Islamist potential terrorists are estimated to represent one in every 30,000 Muslims in the US. Muslim extremists have been responsible for a 50th of 1 per cent of the homicides committed in the US since 2001.

Around the world, the number of people killed since 2001 by Muslim extremists outside of war zones is 200 to 300 a year. That's 200 to 300 people too many, of course.

But it's less than the number of people in the US who drown in bathtubs each year.

The increased delays at US airports because of new security procedures have prompted many people travelling short distances to drive rather than fly.

But driving is far riskier than air travel and the extra road traffic is estimated to result in 500 or more extra road deaths each year.

More than 100 Australians have been killed by terrorists since 2001. But all of them have been overseas, the majority in the Bali bombing of 2002. There have been no terrorist attacks in Australia, though our security agencies claim to have foiled four "mass casualty events".

Stewart says the risk of an Australian being killed in a terrorist attack is one in seven million each year, which is about the same as the risk of being struck by lightning.

Why have we spent such huge sums trying to reduce such a small risk? And why have governments paid so little attention to whether we're getting value for money, especially at a time when budgets are tight and so many worthier causes are going begging?

Partly because we demand it of them. As someone said, "we have come to believe that life is risk-free and that, if something bad happens, there must be a government official to blame". Apart from the desire of security forces and spooks to work in a growth industry, politicians face distorted incentives. It's safer to spend more and risky to spend less.

Osama bin Laden's stated goal in launching his attack and threatening more was to lead the US into bankruptcy. He didn't succeed, but he has provoked a reaction that's contributed significantly to the US government's severe budgetary problem, which seems likely to cripple the American economy for the rest of the decade.

Meanwhile, we're left with security measures at airports and elsewhere that do more to inconvenience the public than the terrorists and amount to little more than security theatre.


Monday, September 12, 2011

Rising unemployment more puzzle than worry

The unemployment rate has risen by 0.2 percentage points for two months in a row. Taken at face value, that says the economy is rapidly heading into recession. But it's always a mistake to take economic statistics at face value and, fortunately, the truth is likely to be far more reassuring.

The trick to using economic indicators to understand what's happening in the economy is not to overreact to the latest reading from one indicator. The new figure has to be put into the context of the particular indicator's trajectory and the general message coming from all the indicators.

Some indicators are more important than others. The quarterly national accounts - the centrepiece of which is gross domestic product - are the most important because they constitute the summation of a host of ''partial indicators''. GDP may be a poor guide to the nation's overall well-being, but it's a good guide to the outlook for income and jobs.

The monthly figures for employment and unemployment are very important because that's one of the main things we expect the economy to do for us: generate jobs for all those who want them.

The next question to ask when you get a new reading from an indicator is: how reliable is it? The job figures are based on a rotating sample survey, meaning they're subject to sampling error (as well as a lot of opportunity for other, human errors).

They tend to bounce around from month to month for reasons you can never put your finger on, but which don't reflect the more stable reality of the labour market. The national accounts also bounce around and are subject to heavy revision as more reliable data come to hand.

So both the key indicators are a bit ropey, and economists often use one as a check on the other. We know from last week's national accounts that, though natural disasters caused the economy to go backwards in the March quarter, it bounced back strongly in the June quarter and will recover further over the rest of the year as flooded coalmines get working again.

Last week's jobs figures told us that national employment - which totals 11.4 million - fell by 4000 in July and 10,000 last month. These are trivial amounts; they're saying not that employment is falling, but just that it's not growing. Trouble is, we need employment to keep growing because the population of people wanting jobs keeps growing. We need employment to grow by about 10,000 a month just to hold the rate of unemployment steady. Fortunately, this is less than half the rate of employment growth we needed a year or two ago because the rate of growth in immigration is now so much lower.

Note, unemployment has risen not because people are losing their jobs, but because additional jobs aren't being created. As a general proposition, we need the economy to be growing steadily because that's what creates additional jobs. Stepping back to view a longer run of figures, we see that employment was growing very strongly until November, since when it's shown virtually no growth. Though the economy contracted sharply in the March quarter, this contraction was weather-related and concentrated heavily in mining. And, as we've seen, the economy grew strongly in the June quarter.

So the pattern of growth in employment isn't easily reconciled with the pattern of growth in production (GDP). We need to examine the jobs figures to see how robust they are.

One way to see if there may be problems with the rotating sampling process is to look at what's happening to the ''matched'' sample (the part of the sample that's unchanged from one month to the next). Kieran Davies, of the Royal Bank of Scotland, has done this and finds that ''smoothed matched-sample employment is growing at 17,000 a month, while headline employment is broadly flat''. Hmmm.

Examining the breakdown of the (headline) employment figures shows the weakness is heavily concentrated among men rather than women. It also shows the problem is concentrated in Queensland (where in two months the unemployment rate has risen 0.9 percentage points to 6.2 per cent) and Western Australia (where in one month the unemployment rate has risen 0.4 percentage points to 4.4 per cent).

I don't trust those figures. But if you take them literally, both they and the national accounts are saying the precise opposite to the conventional wisdom about the ''two-speed economy'': all the weakness is in mining and the mining states, while all the strength is in the so-called non-mining economy.

But here's another puzzle. While there's been no growth in the number of people employed this year, the total number of hours worked has been rising solidly, with average hours per worker rising from 34.7 to 35.6 hours a week.

As Davies has argued, this sort of behaviour by employers - where they work existing staff harder rather than employing more workers - is what often happens when the economy is recovering from a recession and the media is wringing its hands over ''jobless growth''. It may be that, fearing skilled labour shortages, employers stocked up with workers last year, but this year they're not hiring any more until they need to.

The forward indicators of employment (job ads, vacancies etc) are weaker than they were, but still not weak. And the outlook is for strengthening GDP growth over the rest of this year, with the Reserve Bank's forecast of 3.25 per cent growth over the year to December still in with a chance.

So whatever the job figures are telling us, it's not that we're sliding rapidly towards recession - even in the so-called non-mining economy.


Saturday, September 10, 2011

A dose of reality for people who profit from doom

It's good news week - rumours of the impending death of the economy turn out to be greatly exaggerated. The national accounts for the June quarter provide a salutary lesson on how far popular perceptions can drift from reality.

Three months ago we were told real gross domestic product contracted by 1.2 per cent in the March quarter. This week we're told the contraction was a quarter less than that: 0.9 per cent.

That contraction was fully explained by the temporary effect of floods and cyclones. This week the temporary nature of that setback was confirmed - the economy rebounded to grow by 1.2 per cent in the June quarter.

Note that part of this rebound is purely arithmetic: had the economy not gone down in the March quarter it wouldn't have come back up as much in the following quarter. So it would be mistaken to imagine the economy was travelling at the annualised rate of 4.9 per cent (roughly, 1.2 x 4) in the quarter.

Despite the clearly temporary nature of the contraction, it fed into an increasingly negative mood about the state of the economy. The retailers were doing it tough because consumers were worried about so many things - the carbon tax, interest rates, uncertainty about the North Atlantic economies - and so were saving rather than spending.

You could see this from the way the indicators of consumer confidence kept falling. As part of this consumer caution, not many people were buying new homes.

Then there were the manufacturers doing it tough and laying off workers because of the very high dollar.

In short, the miners and the mining states might be coining it, but all the rest of us in the ''non-mining economy'' were just about stuffed. Turns out most of that was nonsense. Some of it was true - the retailers and manufacturers are doing it tough and housing activity is weak - but those three sectors account for less than 20 per cent of the economy, not the 90 per cent that is the so-called non-mining economy.

The rest we imagined. The media did its usual thing of trumpeting the bad news and playing down the good news but this fell on unusually fertile ground, to mix a few metaphors. The Gillard government's doing a terrible job, therefore the economy's stuffed. That's logical, isn't it?

This week we got a bulletin from the real world. Turns out that though real retail sales grew by just 0.3 per cent in the quarter and 0.6 per cent over the year to June, real consumer spending grew by a healthy 1 per cent in the quarter and a bang-on-trend 3.2 per cent over the year.

Huh? How did we get it so wrong? Well, we took too much notice of the retail sales figures simply because they come monthly, forgetting they account for only about 35 per cent of total consumer spending.

Retail sales cover mainly goods - what they don't cover is mainly services. In recent times our spending preferences have shifted away from goods and towards services. When that happens, the retail sales figures give you a bum steer.

Our other mistake was to take too much notice of the fall in consumer sentiment. It proved a dodgy guide to actual consumer spending. Both these things have tricked us many times before.

The punters know no better and, though it pains me to admit it, the media have a vested interest in not querying a bad-news story. But there's no excuse for the business economists - for them it's professional incompetence. Proof they're not as rational as their model assumes all of us are and not impervious to the popular perceptions around them, as their model also assumes.

This week's figures also reveal a tiny fall in the rate of household saving to 10.5 per cent of household disposable income. Though the ratio is notoriously volatile, this raises the possibility that households have got their rate of saving up to where they want it.

This, in turn, raises another point of arithmetic - it's not a high rate of saving that causes weak growth in consumer spending, it's an increasing rate of saving. Once the rate has stabilised, consumption must grow as fast as household disposable income is growing.

And despite all the phoney I-know-you're-doing-it-tough rhetoric coming as both sides of politics feed back the whinges they hear from their focus groups, the accounts confirm household income is growing particularly strongly - by a nominal 7.5 per cent over the year, way ahead of inflation.

That strong growth comes from a combination of healthy growth in employment (more household members with jobs) and somewhat excessive growth in real wages given our weak rate of productivity improvement.

Both factors are evidence most of us aren't doing it tough.

Part of the narrative of the resources boom is that growth will come more from business investment spending (as we build a lot more mines) than from consumer spending. That wasn't true this quarter. Why not? Not because business investment was weak - it wasn't - but because consumer spending was both strong and accounts for a much bigger share of GDP than investment does.

The other side of the non-mining-economy-is-stuffed proposition is that pretty much all the growth in the economy is coming from the mining sector. As a general proposition, there's no doubt the mining, mining-related and heavy construction industries are growing strongly. But, according to the accounts, that wasn't true in the June quarter. As Kieran Davies, of the Royal Bank of Scotland, has pointed out, with the output of mining proper going backwards during the quarter, the output of the so-called non-mining economy grew by 1.3 per cent, more than accounting for the growth of 1.2 per cent overall.

That's the bit people have convinced themselves is stuffed.

Why isn't mining growing? Because a lot of the flooded Queensland coalmines are still not back to production. But this, of course, is temporary. As they come back on line in the second half of this year they'll give GDP a one-off boost.

You have to be careful not to read too much into the quarterly national accounts, which are subject to frequent revision.

But you have to be even more careful not to be misled by those who cry loud and long about how tough things are. They're probably exaggerating (or being exaggerated by a bad-news obsessed media) while those who are doing fine say nothing.


Thursday, September 8, 2011


Gruen Lecture series, Australian National University
September 8, 2011

I’m delighted to be taking part in this lecture series to honour my old friend Fred Gruen. I still regret his passing, even though his two sons just about fill the vacuum he left.

Oldies have always lamented that things aren’t as good as they used to be, but I don’t think there’s any reason to doubt the widespread perception that the debate - or ‘discourse’ as the fashionable academics say - about politics and public policy has become a lot less intellectually satisfying. If Fred were to come back and take up today’s newspapers, I don’t doubt he’d notice the difference. It’s got worse since the arrival of the Rudd-Gillard government, and worse again since Tony Abbott became opposition leader. But I suspect it would be a mistake to attribute too much of the deterioration to the actions of particular individuals. And, in any case, I’m sure the rot set in a lot earlier than 2007 or 2009. We’re dealing with a deteriorating trend that has been running for many years.

I could regale you with the worst examples of the way the debate has dumbed down - the preoccupation with Julia Gillard’s appearance, Kristina Kenneally’s decision to let her hair grow out, Tony Abbott’s decision hardly to mention the budget in his budget reply speech - but I’m more interested in trying to explain why the dumbing down has come about. Suffice to say that evidence of the phenomenon can be found in the increased emphasis on ‘race-calling’ in political reporting (who’s winning, who’s losing; who’s up, who’s down), on personalities, trivialities, scandals and accusations, slogans and name-calling rather than reasoned debate.

Lindsay Tanner offered his explanation in his book Sideshow: Dumbing Down Democracy. He argues it’s pretty much all the fault of the media, which is under siege from commercial pressures and technological change. Since the politicians must use the media to communicate with the electorate, they’ve had little choice but to dumb down their message to meet the media’s demands. The Canberra press gallery’s response to this thesis was predictably defensive, passing a lot of the blame back to the pollies. So, which side is to blame? Well, here a bit if economic training comes in handy: to be convincing, any explanation of some development has to provide reasons from both the demand side and the supply side. In other words, I think we can share the blame roughly evenly between the media on the demand side and the pollies on the supply side.

Let’s start with the media. And let me start by observing that much of the media has always been pretty dumb. The tabloids have always been tabloid and the commercial electronic media - radio and television - have never been terribly earnest in their coverage of politics. I think it’s true, however, that the tabloids have become dumber over the years: more hyped up, more inclined to emotional outbursts than factual reporting. Even so, when people complain about the debate dumbing down, I suspect most of their complaints relate to what they read in the quality press - or on the quality press’s websites.

In my 37 years in journalism I’ve been particularly conscious of the way old professional standards - being a paper of record, strict separation of news and opinion, the avoidance of subjects considered sordid - have given way to more overt commercial considerations. Part of this I attribute to microeconomic reform, especially deregulation of the capital market, which has intensified competition in general and, in particular, the sharemarket’s scrutiny of the adequacy of the newspaper companies’ profit performance.

For many years newspapers have faced steadily intensifying competition from other media. For as long as I’ve been in this business newspapers have worried about their circulation figures, which have been falling heavily relative to population growth and, more recently, have been falling in absolute terms. This I take to be explained by the increased competition they face from the ever-growing list of other ways for people to spend their leisure time. Television long ago became the main way people get their news, and the rise of talk radio and radio talkback was pinching our customers long before the arrival of the internet, with its multitude of alterative news sources, including the newspapers’ own websites.

Evening television news bulletins and breakfast radio programs were stealing the thunder of morning newspapers long before the internet began delivering ‘breaking news’ to people in their offices throughout the day. Because the electronic media and the new media are so much better at breaking news, the media have been feeding the public’s natural impatience to know the very latest. But breaking news gives primacy to immediacy over meaning. It’s undigested news - often unable to give an adequate account of what happened, let alone how it happened and why. Breaking news is dumbed-down news.

A related phenomenon is the long-emerging 24-hour news cycle, which has been reinforced by the arrival of 24-hour news radio and television channels. This increased output of news greatly increases the demand for news items and for new news items as the day progresses. It has the effect of shortening attention spans and it may well be that increased quantity comes at the expense of quality reporting and commentary. Speaking of attention spans, television and radio news stories are getting briefer, with the grabs of ‘actuality’ from politicians getting ever shorter. Politicians are able to repeat slick slogans without having to elaborate or defend them.

The arrival of the internet poses a considerable threat to the survival of newspapers - particularly the quality press - as they lose the formerly highly lucrative classified advertising and some display advertising, but also lose readers -particularly younger readers who prefer to read our offerings on the net, on tablets or on smartphones.

With all these pressures, is it surprising newspapers are trying to attract more readers by making their news more entertaining and, in the process, dumbing it down? Journalists have long understood that people prefer stories - narrative - to analysis, and stories about people rather than concepts. News has always been a combination of the important and the interesting, so the news media have responded to increased competitive pressures by increasing the interest component at the expense of the importance component. They have personalised politics by focusing on individuals, particularly leaders, making it more presidential. They have increasingly covered politics as though it was a spectator sport rather than policy debate. They have made the news more exciting by focusing on conflict and controversy rather than reasoned debate. They have made the news more entertaining by focusing more on gaffes and gimmicks. They have always understood that their audience finds bad news more exciting than good news, but they have stepped up the search for bad news, allowing it to crowd out the reporting of straight news about the facts of policy proposals. They spend most of each parliamentary term demanding the opposition produce its policies, but then devote little attention to those policies when finally they are produced.

Newspaper websites are often much dumber than the papers themselves, with a lot of perfunctory news stories, sexy photos, gimmicky stories and stories about celebrities. This is partly because the internet audience is much younger and also because the online editors get real-time feedback on what people are clicking on, and what they click on is sexy photos and stories about celebrities. The better informed editors are about the customers’ ‘revealed preference’, the harder it is to feed them material they feel would be better for them.

I believe the advent of talkback radio has had a big influence on politics and political reporting. It is very much news as entertainment, particularly the engendering of indignation about the claimed failures of officialdom. Shock jocks have broken down earlier conventions about subjects considered off-limits, particularly those with xenophobic or racist overtones. This has affected the behaviour of other mediums - particularly the tabloids - and the politicians. The electronic media and the tabloids do much to cater to - and amplify - the public’s worries about crime. Once, the quality press avoided dwelling on the gruesome details of particular crimes, but in its efforts to attract and retain readers it now devotes a lot more space to crime reporting. Television thrives on colour and movement. If it bleeds, it leads. Television is well suited to covering natural disasters, and the print media have met this competition despite their disadvantage, leaving less room for politics and policy. The extended coverage of natural disasters is a form of voyeuristic entertainment. For completeness I should record that, over the years, the broadsheet papers have come to include a lot of overt entertainment, in the form of ‘lifestyle’ sections on television, food, fashion and weekend gig guides.

So the media have certainly played a major part in the dumbing down of the policy debate. But the politicians have also played a big part. Just as the media’s commercial imperative has become more dominant, so I believe the politicians have, in their own way, become more commercial. They’ve always sought to balance the conflicting goals of using power to make the world a better place and staying in office because it’s nice to be in charge. I think politicians on both sides now put a lot more emphasis on attaining and retaining office than on ensuring they use their time in office to achieve improvements. On the Labor side, but increasingly also on the Liberal side, politics is becoming a professional career structure, where you start out from university as a union or ministerial factotum, eventually working your way to the top of elected office. You become steeped in the backroom, cynical side of the game of politics - learning the tricks of attaining and retaining office - without gaining much experience of the outside world or, it seems, acquiring many deeply felt convictions about how the world needs to be changed.

Politics has also become more commercial - more professional, more scientific - with its increasing resort to the techniques of marketing and market research. In the old days politicians could only guess from personal contacts and experience how the policies they were pursuing would be received by the electorate of polling day. It was easier to convince yourself that something you really wanted to do would go down well. These days, opinion polls and focus groups leave both sides in little doubt about exactly what voters are thinking and feeling about particular policies. Note, however, that these things give the public’s opinions a constancy and stability they don’t possess. In earlier times, qualitative research was use to help politicians shape arguments to sell the policies they wished to introduce; these days, the lifetime professional-career approach to politics makes it a lot more tempting to use qualitative research to decide what your policies should be.

It also makes it tempting to confirm to the media’s whims if that’s what’s needed to connect with the electorate. Politicians now spend a lot more time inspecting disaster sites, getting in on the story, demonstrating their authority and their concern - and otherwise wasting time. Politicians and their bureaucrats devote a lot of time to coming up with minor ‘announceables’ to feed to the ever-demanding 24-hour news machine and fixing the problems of particular individuals whose case attracts the media’s attention.

Even so, it’s misguided to see politicians as innocent victims of the demanding media machine. To a great extent the media are open to being used as a tool by governments and interest groups. All governments and oppositions see ‘media management’ (read, manipulation) as a major part of the successful performance of their jobs. I don’t believe it was merely to oblige the media that politicians moved to a presidential style of politics; it suited the politicians’ marketing objectives just as it suited the media’s needs for personalisation. Similarly, it’s the politicians who choose to humanise themselves by being accompanied by their spouse and children on the campaign trail or being interviewed at home by a women’s magazine. Politicians and interest groups happily exploit the media’s disinclination to critically examine claims that are bad news before shouting them from the rooftops, such as that some proposed government measure will destroy 10,000 jobs. In moments of weakness some politicians have explained that keeping the media regularly fed with minor announceables keeps them too occupied to have time to go digging for their own, possibly less favourable stories.

Politicians have long understood that, in politics, the perception can be just as important as the reality. Their new-found access to knowledge of exactly how the public perceives policy questions can tempt them to concentrate on manipulating perceptions while neglecting to attend to the reality of government performance - which, if allowed to deteriorate too greatly, won’t fail to register on the public’s perceptions about a government’s competence.

I suspect the growing careerism in politics has caused the fight for office to become more intensely competitive, prompting politicians to seek short-term advantage at the expense of their profession’s long-term credibility with the electorate: to be more willing to make and break election promises, find deceptive ways of expressing things and take the fight into areas formerly held by tacit agreement to be off-limits, such as immigration and asylum seekers. The politicians themselves must accept most of the blame for this aspect of the dumbing down of the policy debate.

But let me finish by saying that, in some ways, the media discussion of politics and policies is richer than ever before. As part of its effort to compete with the greater immediacy of the electronics - and perhaps also in response to a much better educated and more economically literate audience - the quality press devotes a lot more space to commentary and analysis than it used to, and only a portion of this is the mere assertion of intemperate opinions. Much of it is analysis of policy issues by specialist journalists or academics. Then we have the media’s opinion websites, plus the universities’ The Conversation website, and any number of blogsites - both local and international - where academics and other erudite souls debate policy issues at a level of sophistication much higher than in any newspaper. The politicians themselves may not be conducting a very edifying policy debate, but if that’s what you want you can find it without too much effort.


Wednesday, September 7, 2011

NSW: Not all that different but clearly better

This is the I-solemnly-promise-to-be-tough budget. Its nasties come as an IOU. When the whole state had its tongue hanging out for deliverance from the Carr-Iemma-Rees-Keneally government, some wondered just how different and better Barry O'Farrell would be.

Now we have our answer. Not all that different, but clearly better. We hope.

Incoming governments usually cut savagely in their first budget, knowing all the nastiness can be blamed on their hopeless predecessors. But O'Farrell is a man of moderate convictions and modest ambition.

He's done enough - on paper, at least - to steer the budget back to surplus in the financial year after this, but not nearly enough to produce the ever-growing surpluses necessary to permit the greatly increased spending on infrastructure he says we need.

Truth is, this budget is remarkably similar to the budgets we had from Labor: full of resolutions to be pure, but not yet. It promises annual growth in recurrent spending of less than 4 per cent in the three years of the forward estimates, but 7.1 per cent in the budget year.

It promises the most minuscule operating surpluses in the three "out years" but a collapse into deficit (to the tune of $718 million) in the budget year, after a surplus of $1264 million in Labor's last year.

To be fair, most of that deterioration isn't the fault of O'Farrell and his Treasurer, Mike Baird. Of the total worsening of almost $2 billion, about 45 per cent is explained by the withdrawal of federal government stimulus spending and the standard, but misleading, accounting treatment of it in the state budget.

Another 45 per cent is explained by the expected deterioration in state revenues after the very recent slowdown in the economy.

But that leaves a worsening of $226 million put in by O'Farrell's hand, the net cost of all his unfunded election promises.

Of the promised spending savings of $8 billion over four years, much had already been announced by the Labor government. That's particularly true of the $6 billion in savings from imposing "efficiency dividends" on government departments.

One genuinely new measure is $800 million in savings from cuts in particular spending programs. It's these that could impose pain on particular parts of the community.

But no measures were announced in the budget because none has yet been decided. Only when they are, and the public has reacted, will we know whether O'Farrell has the steel to bring the budget back to surplus.

One savings measure where O'Farrell has admitted copying Labor is his intention to limit state employees' pay rises to 2.5 per cent a year plus the proceeds from agreed cost savings.

The trouble with Labor's budgets was that they never delivered on promised future savings. The donkey never got to eat the carrot.

The only hope for O'Farrell and Baird is that they will deliver. O'Farrell's willingness to enshrine his wages policy in law is a hopeful sign. But at this stage hope is all we can do.


Politics of self-interest feeds the inner beast

Barring the start of World War III, we may never hear an Australian politician repeat John Fitzgerald Kennedy's unforgettable line, "Ask not what your country can do for you - ask what you can do for your country".

Nobility be hanged. There was a time when our leaders saw it as their job to bring out the best in their followers. These days, they see their best chance as pandering to our dark side - our fears, our weaknesses, our selfishness.

These days, self-centredness not only comes naturally, it's officially encouraged. On what basis should you decide which politician to support? The one that's offering you the best deal, of course.

Why do our leaders have such a low opinion of our motivations? Perhaps for the same reason people who lie a lot always expect other people to be lying. Despite their protestations to the contrary, most politicians seem motivated less by a burning desire to make the world a better place than by ambition for personal advancement. They simply assume we are like they are.

Then there's the influence of economists. The doctrine of economic rationalism not only assumes self-interest to be normal and altruism to be non-existent, it sanctifies self-interest as a civic virtue.

Adam Smith, founder of modern economics, said a lot of noteworthy things, but few are quoted more than this: "It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our necessities but of their advantages."

Be as selfish as you like because selfishness is what makes the economy work.

But here's a balancing quote from the great man that's much less often repeated: "How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it, except the pleasure of seeing it."

There are two sides to our nature; we do have our "better angels" as Abraham Lincoln put it, but at present our lesser selves are in the ascendancy.

Perhaps another influence on the politicians is their resort to the techniques of marketing to further their pursuit of power. Marketers have no hesitation in appealing to our envy, lust or greed.

In their world, use of the word "indulgence" is taken to be enticing, not a condemnation. "You deserve it" and "because you're worth it", advertisers assure us. My favourite is an ad for a cinema candy bar: "in the dark, no one can see you". Go ahead, guts yourself.

Marketers use focus groups to test products and make sure they're giving the customers exactly what they want. Politicians use them to make sure they're telling voters exactly what they want to hear.

At least since John Howard's last days, people in focus groups have been complaining about the rising cost of living. Really? That's a new one. When the most people can do is complain about the cost of living it's a sign they've got nothing bigger to worry about. I suspect it's the product of our having gone 20 years without a severe recession. When you're worried about keeping your job, you don't complain about the cost of living.

And yet both sides of politics are perpetually echoing back to the electorate their professed concern about how tough times are. Tony Abbott's remarkably successful scare campaign against the carbon tax - it's actually not half as bad as the goods and services tax, and certainly far less disruptive than the effect of the high dollar on manufacturing and tourism - preys on people's worries about the cost of living.

When Howard was introducing the GST a lot of people's attitude was: "I don't like the sound of it one bit, but if you're insisting on it I suppose it must be in the best interests of the country." Much the same could be said of the carbon tax, yet far fewer people are saying it - nor are they being encouraged to think that way.

As it's understood by scientists, our preoccupation with our own interests usually extends to the protection of our own family. But there seems little sign of concern for the wellbeing of our children and grandchildren in the carbon tax debate. We've been encouraged to focus only on our immediate worries about balancing the household budget.

But for unbridled selfishness there could surely be no more egregious example than the success the licensed clubs have had in stirring their members' opposition to the Gillard government's reluctant championing of compulsory pre-commitment on poker machine use.

If ever there was an action that could be said to be "un-Australian", it's profiting from the addiction of gamblers and all the misery caused to them and their families. The killer statistic is this: according to the Productivity Commission, about 15 per cent of regular poker machine users contribute about 40 per cent of all the money put through pokies.

So the whole edifice of the licensed club industry rests heavily on the exploitation of a small minority of their own members. All the cheap meals and shows, all the grants to local sporting groups - much of that money is coming from the pockets of the spouses and children of problem gamblers.

But those fighting to keep their cheap meals mustn't feel guilty. You're only doing what our politicians, economists and advertisers urge you to do: putting your own interests ahead of other people's, including the less fortunate.


Monday, September 5, 2011

Productivity weak, but that's not all bad

Before you get too panic-stricken about Australia's poor productivity record, consider this: maybe it's a good sign. If you've been given the impression productivity can be weak only for bad reasons, you've been misled. Productivity - output per unit of input - is only what you could call a key performance indicator; a means to an end, not an end in itself.

The end is the material well being of the Australian people. And there are plenty of things that improve our well-being (or ''welfare'' as economists call it) while worsening measured productivity.

This is an uncontroversial point among economists and has been acknowledged by the leading protagonists in the productivity debate, the secretary to the Treasury, Dr Martin Parkinson, and Saul Eslake of the Grattan Institute. But you have to read their fine print to find that acknowledgement.

The productivity of labour in the mining industry has declined by about 40 per cent since 2001-02, but that's mainly because much work is being done on the installation of additional production capacity, without that additional capacity yet coming on line and adding to output. When eventually it does, the industry's productivity will be much improved.

Another factor affecting mining is that the exceptionally high prices we're receiving for our minerals have prompted firms to mine lower-grade or harder-to-get-at ore. Is it a bad thing it's now economic to mine and sell second-grade minerals? Hardly - well, not from our standard materialist viewpoint.

Labour productivity has dropped by about a third in our utilities sector (electricity, gas and water). Electricity and gas businesses are investing heavily to expand their production capacity, replace ageing transmission infrastructure and meet renewable energy targets.

Similarly, governments have undertaken significant investment in water infrastructure - including desalination plants in five states - to guarantee security of supply during droughts.

Once again, none of these developments is bad, notwithstanding their adverse effect on measured productivity. The experts disagree on how much of the overall deterioration in productivity is accounted for by mining and utilities. Some say a lot of it.

But another factor contributing to our poor productivity performance is that, with an unemployment rate of 5 per cent or so for more than a year, we're close to full employment. This means firms are having to employ people who wouldn't be their first pick for the job, thereby lowering the average productivity of their workforce.

Is this a bad thing? On the contrary, it's wonderful the economy is in a position to provide work for these people. This, after all, is one of the main things we want from our economy: that it generate jobs for all those who want them.

It's possible something similar is happening to the productivity of our capital equipment. Some firms may be using whatever old or second-rate machines they can get their hands on so as to keep up with demand. Again, not such a bad thing.

I wrote some weeks ago that the big microeconomic reform push of the 1980s and '90s proved disappointing in its effect on productivity. It produced a once-off lift in the level of our productivity, but failed to achieve the lasting increase in our rate of productivity improvement.

But there was a different respect in which micro reform yielded a quite unexpected benefit: it made the economy a lot more flexible and resilient in response to economic shocks. By increasing the degree of competition in many markets, it reduced firms' pricing power (and hence their unions' bargaining power), thus making the economy significantly less inflation-prone.

In consequence, the macro economy became much easier to manage. Combine that with the authorities' adoption of more disciplined frameworks for the conduct of monetary and fiscal policies, and you probably have much of the explanation for our record of 20 years without a severe recession.

Is that a good thing? Of course it is. It's a remarkable achievement. But in economics everything has an opportunity cost and even good things have their drawbacks. It's highly likely the drawback of going for so long without a serious recession is an ever-weakening productivity performance.

As Dr Diane Coyle wrote in her book, The Economics of Enough, ''a recession is a period of faster industrial restructuring rather than simply an economy-wide reaction to a common shock''.

When times are good - and, despite our recent complaints, times have been very good for most of our businesses for many years - firms aren't under a lot of pressure to improve their performance. It often takes adversity to oblige firms to try harder and lift their game. Inefficiencies and unsuccessful projects can be overlooked when times are good. They tend to accumulate. But when times get tough there's a lot of spring cleaning.

So, as Coyle implies, structural change tends to occur in bunches at the time of recessions, rather than continuously as textbooks assume.

Of course, this process of ''creative destruction'' during recessions can be very painful, involving a lot of workers losing their jobs.

As a case in point, it's likely the adjustment being imposed on our manufacturers by the high dollar will leave productivity a lot higher in what's left of manufacturing. Many firms will really have to improve their performance if they're to survive.

So, not to worry. Sooner or later the economy will face another severe recession - the business cycle is far from dead - and once it has done its worst and we're into the recovery phase our productivity figures are likely to look much better.


Saturday, September 3, 2011

Is this time different?

When the Queen asked economists why so few of them had foreseen the global financial crisis, our professor Geoff Harcourt and some other academics petitioned her to say, among other things, that one reason was their profession's loss of interest in economic history.

That sad truth was demonstrated convincingly by two American professors, Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff, in a book which has since become a modern classic, This Time Is Different: Eight Centuries of Financial Folly. It's just out in paperback, published by Princeton University Press.

In their landmark study of hundreds of financial crises in 66 countries over 800 years, Reinhart and Rogoff find oft-repeated patterns that ought to alert economists when trouble is on the way. One thing stops them waking up in time: their perpetual belief that ''this time is different''.

But, as we're witnessing at present, even when economists and financial market players have been hit over the head by reality, their ignorance of history stops them understanding what happens next. Wall Street and Europe fondly imagined the Great Recession was behind them, only to discover it's still rolling on.

Reinhart and Rogoff could have told them - did tell them - financial crises of this nature aren't so easily escaped. The Great Recession was so called to signify that another depression had been averted.

The authors say a more accurate name would be the Second Great Contraction. ''The aftermath of systemic banking crises involves a protracted and pronounced contraction in economic activity and puts significant strains on government resources,'' they say.

They show that, in the run-up to America's subprime crisis, standard indicators such as asset price inflation, rising leverage (debt relative to the value of assets), large sustained current account deficits on the balance of payments and a slowing trajectory of economic growth exhibited virtually all the signs of a country on the verge of a severe financial crisis.

So why did so few economists recognise the signs? Everyone thought this time was different.

''Our basic message is simple,'' the authors say, ''we have been here before. No matter how different the latest financial frenzy or crisis always appears, there are usually remarkable similarities with past experience from other countries and from history.

''Recognising these analogies and precedents is an essential step towards improving our global financial system, both to reduce the risk of future crisis and to better handle catastrophes when they happen.''

When looking for the root cause of the global financial crisis, a lot of people put it down to human greed. That's true enough, but it doesn't give us much to work on.

The authors' studies lead them to a different culprit: debt. Credit is crucial to all economies, ancient and modern. Progress would be a lot slower without it. So the point is not that credit is bad, but that it's dangerous stuff.

''Balancing the risks and opportunities of debt is always a challenge, a challenge policymakers, investors and ordinary citizens must never forget,'' the authors say.

But ''if there is one common theme to the vast range of crises we consider in this book, it is that excessive debt accumulation, whether it be by government, banks, corporations or consumers, often poses greater systemic risks than it seems during a boom.

''Infusions of cash can make a government look like it is providing greater growth to its economy than it really is. Private sector borrowing binges can inflate housing and stock prices far beyond their long-run sustainable levels, and make banks seem more stable and profitable than they really are.''

Such large-scale debt build-ups pose risks because they make an economy vulnerable to crises of confidence, particularly when debt is short-term and needs to be constantly


Again and again, countries, banks, individuals and firms take on excessive debt in good times without enough awareness of the risks that will follow when the inevitable recession hits. Many players in the financial system often dig a debt hole far larger than they can reasonably expect to escape from, most obviously in the US in the late 2000s.

''Government and government-guaranteed debt ? is certainly the most problematic, for it can accumulate massively and for long periods without being put in check by markets ? Although private debt certainly plays a key role in many crises, government debt is far more often the unifying problem across the wide range of financial crises we examined.''

Financial crises are nothing new. They've been around since the development of money and financial markets. And they follow a rhythm of boom and bust through the ages. ''Countries, institutions and financial instruments may change across time, but human nature does not,'' they say.

Human nature brings us to the Achilles heel of debt: confidence. ''Perhaps more than anything else, failure to recognise the precariousness and fickleness of confidence - especially in cases in which large short-term debts need to be rolled over continuously - is the key factor that gives rise to the this-time-is-different syndrome.

''Highly indebted governments, banks or corporations can seem to be merrily rolling along for an extended period, when bang! - confidence collapses, lenders disappear and a crisis hits.''

We've come to believe sovereign debt defaults are unthinkable and extremely rare. This may be partly because ''a large fraction of the academic and policy literature on debt and default draws conclusions based on data collected since 1980''.

The book focuses on two particular forms of financial crises: sovereign debt crises and banking crises. The present global crisis began with failing banks and has now proceeded to the threat of sovereign debt default.

Which, having looked at more than a mere 30 years of data, we now discover is quite common. Had economists been researching the question with the diligence of Reinhart and Rogoff - who put most of their effort into assembling a massive database covering 66 countries for up to 800 years - they may have come up with a little statistic it would have been handy to know a bit earlier.

On average, government debt rises by 86 per cent during the three years following a banking crisis. And that's not the cost of the bank bailouts. It's mainly because banking crises ''almost invariably lead to sharp declines in tax revenues as well as significant increases in government spending''.

Had we known our history, it wouldn't have surprised us that, when you start with heavily indebted governments, a banking crisis soon leads to a sovereign debt crisis.