Saturday, June 30, 2012

Poor getting wealthier faster than the rich

There’s not much justice in the world, but there is a bit: according to a researcher at the Reserve Bank, the poor have been getting wealthy faster than the wealthy have been in recent years.

If you find that hard to believe, I don’t blame you. It’s not a conclusion you come to from looking at the Bureau of Statistics’ survey of the distribution of wealth. Rather, it comes from Richard Finlay’s decomposition of the wealth figures included in HILDA - the survey of household, income and labour dynamics in Australia.

But let’s start at the beginning. In Australia, as in all countries, the distribution of disposable income (wages and other earnings, plus welfare benefits, less income tax) between households is quite unequal. And here, as well as in other countries, the distribution of wealth (household assets less liabilities) is even more unequal.

According to the bureau’s figures for 2009-10, the best-off 20 per cent (‘quintile’) of households had 40 per cent of all the income, but 62 per cent of all the wealth. By contrast, the worst-off quintile had 7 per cent of the income, but just 1 per cent of the wealth.

Why the disparity between income and wealth? Partly because some forms of wealth (such as owning your own home) don’t generate explicit flows of income. But also because governments focus most of their efforts on redistributing income rather than wealth between rich and poor, using the tax and transfer (welfare benefits) system.

The poorest 20 per cent of households have some income because the government pays them a pension or the dole to make sure they don’t starve. They have no wealth primarily because they don’t own the home they live in.

So there’s no great mystery to wealth. The main way to acquire it is to buy a home and pay it off. The next most common way is to have a job and be compelled to put 9 per cent of your wage into superannuation saving. Then comes buying a weekender or an investment property.

Most people would have some money in the bank; some people have a lot. About a third of households own shares (directly, not just via super) and some own businesses. It’s mainly these latter that distinguish the really rich.

You’d expect the people with the highest incomes to have to most wealth, but it’s not that simple. People who own their home outright tend to be richer than people with a mortgage and people with a mortgage tend to be richer than people who rent.

As well, older people tend to be richer than younger people because they’ve had longer to save (and benefit from capital gain). Of course, once people retire they inevitably (and sensibly) run down their savings.

Naturally, the value of people’s assets has to be weighed against their liabilities. Few people acquire property without also acquiring debt, and property debt accounts for 80 per cent of all household liabilities. We worry about our credit card debt, but it pales compared with property debt, which divides 70/30 between the principal home and weekenders and investment properties.

It’s much more the rich than the poor who have debts. These days you borrow to make money and, in any case, banks are reluctant to lend to the poor. That’s particularly true of people borrowing for negatively geared property or share investments.

The top income quintile accounts for almost half the total household debt, while the top two quintiles account for more than 70 per cent.

When people see that household debt now accounts for about 150 per cent of annual household disposable income, they think of young couples getting in over their heads to buy their first home. There are some of them, of course, but for the most part the people with the most debt are those with the greatest ability to service it.

Finlay’s article in the Reserve Bank Bulletin says the real (inflation-adjusted) wealth per household was relatively flat from the late 1980s to about 1996. But then it started to increase, driven by the rising prices of property and shares. Over the following decade it grew at the real rate of 6 per cent a year.

But in 2008, ‘with the onset of the global financial crisis, household wealth fell substantially as the prices of dwellings and financial assets fell,’ he says. Wealth recovered somewhat in 2009 and 2010, but since then (and not covered in our figures, which are for 2010) house and share prices have been, as they say in the market, ‘flat to down’.

Over the four years to 2010, mean real wealth per household grew at the rate of just 1 per cent a year. But here’s a trick: whereas the mean (arithmetic average) wealth per household was almost $700,000, the median (middle) wealth was about $400,000.

It’s actually common for the mean to be a lot higher than the median in the case of income or wealth. That’s because a relatively small number of individuals or households are so much better off they push up the mean, thus making the median a better measure of the ‘typical’ household.

Another way to put it is that the distribution of wealth is ‘skewed’ in favour of people at the top. But Finlay finds the degree of skewness seems to have fallen over the past four years.

Using the median rather than the mean to characterise each quintile (which I suspect explains why his findings differ from the bureau’s), he finds that median real wealth in the lowest quintile grew by 5 per cent a year over the period, whereas the medians for the three middle quintiles grew by about 2 per cent a year and for the wealthiest quintile by less than 1 per cent a year.

Why? Partly because of a low-base effect: the less you’ve got to start with, the easier it is to have a larger percentage increase.

But also because richer households tend to hold a higher proportion of their wealth in riskier forms, such as shares. So they would have suffered bigger losses during the financial crisis and maybe smaller gains since then.

Richer households are more likely to have taken on negatively geared property and share investments. The crisis wouldn’t have been kind to them. As well, the very highest house prices tend to be more volatile than other home prices.

There’s just a bit of justice in the world.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Carbon tax is nothing to object to

When psychologists study those sects that predict the end of the world on a certain day, they find the leaders rarely willing to admit they were wrong and their true believers rarely willing to admit they were duped.

Rather, the sect members find some dubious rationalisation. It was our prayers, brothers and sisters, that interceded for this wicked world and persuaded the Good Lord to stay his hand.

Since the day he won the leadership of the opposition on the strength of his willingness to switch from supporting to opposing putting a price on carbon, Tony Abbott has been predicting the carbon tax would wreak devastation on the economy, wrecking industries and destroying jobs.

To be fair, running scare campaigns against new taxes has always been accepted as a legitimate tactic by our ethically challenged political class.

Labor was happy to exploit the fears of the ill-informed in its opportunist opposition to John Howard's ''great big new tax on everything'', the goods and services tax.

The biggest difference is that Abbott's misrepresentations have been so much more successful.

But with the carbon tax taking effect from Sunday, the moment of truth approaches. Soon enough it will become clear that, for consumers and the vast bulk of businesses, the dreaded carbon tax will have an effect much smaller than the GST.

The retail prices of electricity and gas will rise about 9 per cent, but the increases in other prices will be very small.

Whereas the GST increased the consumer price index 2.5 per cent, the carbon tax is expected to raise it just 0.7 per cent.

Whereas the GST is expected to raise revenue of $48 billion in the new financial year, the carbon tax is expected to raise about $4 billion in its first year and about $7 billion in subsequent years.

Julia Gillard and her supporters have been hoping against hope that, as soon as this reality dawns on a fearful public, as soon as the magnitude of the Liberals' hoax is revealed, voters will switch back to Labor in droves.

I don't see it happening. It rests on an unrealistic view of the lack of self-delusion in human nature.

Political parties and their cheerleaders don't like admitting they've been dishonest - even to themselves. And you and I don't like admitting we've allowed ourselves to be conned by unscrupulous politicians and shock jocks.

So we look for rationalisations, no matter how tenuous. And in these the carbon tax abounds. With the GST, the object of the exercise was clear and simple: to raise more revenue. With the carbon tax the object is far from clear to anyone who hasn't done their homework.

For a start, it's clear the object is not to raise revenue, because much of the revenue raised is being returned to households as ''compensation'' in the form of a small cut in income tax for most people and small increases in pensions, allowances and family benefits.

But if the object is simply to discourage people from using emissions-intensive goods and services - which it is - why give back to most people the extra tax they'll be paying?

Because economists believe that to change people's behaviour it's necessary only to change the relative prices they face: to raise the prices of fossil fuels (particularly electricity and gas) relative to all other prices. It's not necessary to leave people out of pocket by keeping the proceeds from the tax you used to bring about the change in relative prices.

You may say you can't see how such a relatively modest rise in the price of electricity could make much difference to households' use of power. That's probably true, though it may encourage people to buy a more energy-efficient model next time they're replacing an appliance.

Actually, the price increase is aimed mainly at big industrial users of energy and, more particularly, the generators of electricity.

If the industrial users can be induced to eliminate wasteful use of power, this will make a difference. And if power companies can be induced to replace their present generators with less emissions-intensive models when the time comes, this will make a big difference. Raising the price of electricity produced by burning fossil fuels helps make the price of power produced from renewable sources more competitive.

But if those objections to the tax don't wash, there are plenty more. One is that the tax of $23 per tonne of carbon dioxide is way too high. I discuss this one in my little video on the website.

Yet another objection is that, since there's nothing an individual country can do to have a significant effect on global emissions of greenhouse gases, in the absence of a binding agreement to act by all the major countries there's no point in us doing anything.

Trouble with that argument is it increases the likelihood of failure. Only if enough countries demonstrate their good faith by getting on with it is effective global action likely to eventuate. We should line up with the good guys, not the bad guys - and we're far from the only good guy.

But if all else fails - if you can't find any other argument to confirm the wisdom of your original conclusion the carbon tax is a terrible thing - just tell yourself that, when the vast majority of scientists specialising in the area warn us continued emissions of greenhouse gases will lead to devastating climate change, they've got it all wrong.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Punters turn away from share investment

The return of the prudent consumer is being accompanied by the return of the risk-averse consumer. Households aren't only saving more of their incomes, they're saving more through banks and less through shares.

In the days when the public was less economically literate, many people had no conception of saving other than putting money in the "savings accounts" offered by banks. After a season in which we thought that was for mugs, saving through bank accounts is back.

In truth, the main way Australians saved was to take on a huge home mortgage, then pay it off over the next 25 or 30 years. By the time most people retired, most of their savings were embodied in the unencumbered value of their home.

And their outright ownership of their home was a big part of the reason they were able to scrape by happily enough on little but the age pension. Although the value of the pension has been rising in line with real wages for decades, ours is the first generation convinced it couldn't possibly live on the pension alone.

So it's probably just as well that, starting in the mid-1980s, employees have been compelled to save via superannuation. Super is now the chief rival to paying off a home loan as the main way Aussies save over their working lives.

Remember when John Howard was encouraging us to become "a nation of shareholders"? That was at a time when government-owned businesses such as the Commonwealth Bank and Telstra were being privatised and non-profit outfits such as AMP and the NRMA were being "demutualised", so many households acquired tiny shareholdings of this and that.

And, having taken the plunge, many then acquired shares in the more usual way. Well, owning shares directly is no longer fashionable. Of course, working households' indirect ownership of shares via superannuation increases as each pay day passes.

But, as the Reserve Bank observes in an article in last week's quarterly Bulletin, households have shifted their "portfolios" away from riskier financial assets, such as shares, and towards less risky assets, such as deposits. I'll be drawing from that article.

I've no doubt much of households' saving has taken the form of reducing debts and getting ahead on their mortgage repayments. There was a time when Aussies' highest financial goal was to repay the mortgage as early as possible. That goal is coming back into its own with the return of the prudent consumer.

I guess the chief motivation was a desire to be unencumbered but, as a tax-effective investment strategy, repaying the mortgage has always scored highly - exceeded only by negatively geared property or share investments.

Which brings us back to risk - and risk aversion. Between 2003 and 2007, the proportion of household financial assets held in shares (both directly and via super) increased from 35 per cent to 45 per cent.

Much of this increase came from capital gain. Total return on shares averaged about 20 per cent a year over this period, compared with average deposit rates of about 5 per cent. But then came the fall in wealth caused by the global financial crisis and the mild recession of 2008-09.

Between 2008 and 2011, there were net outflows from households' direct holdings of shares of $67 billion, while holdings of deposits rose by $225 billion.

It's likely people were reacting, on the one hand, to the large capital losses in the sharemarket, but also to the market's volatility, which has doubled since 2007.

But, on the other hand, people would have been reacting to the advent of much higher interest rates offered on bank term deposits as, in the aftermath of the global crisis, the banks bid up those rates in their competition to replace now-riskier overseas funding with more stable, "stickier" funding from domestic deposits.

Over the past 30 years, the average annual real return on Australian shares (including capital growth and dividends) has exceeded the average annual real return on deposits by about 5.5 percentage points.

Since 2008, however, that's been reversed, with a return on shares of minus 5 per cent versus 2.5 per cent on deposits.

The share of households' financial assets held directly in equities has more than halved from 18 per cent before the crisis to 8 per cent at the end of last year. In contrast, the share of deposits has increased from 18 per cent to 27 per cent.

That this shift has been driven mainly by households' greater aversion to risk is confirmed by the changed answers people are giving to relevant questions in the survey of consumer sentiment and other reputable surveys.

In theory, households have shifted to a less risky risk/return trade-off and, by doing so, are willing to live with lower returns over the longer term. But whether the "equity premium" - the much higher rate of return on shares relative to fixed-interest securities - will stay as high as it's been in the past is open to doubt.

The equity premium has always looked much healthier over long periods than it has over many shorter periods, meaning people in or approaching retirement shouldn't be too mesmerised by it and should be favouring more stable returns.

So the shift from shares to deposits may well be explained partly by the baby boomers' rapidly approaching retirement.

The big super funds have also shifted their mix away from shares to some extent, though they've done so by less than the self-managed super funds, suggesting they're more wedded to "equity" than they ought to be.

Why might that be? Well, part of the problem is that the dividend imputation system means share returns are more favourably taxed than fixed-interest returns. Not good.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Summary of many tax and benefit changes on July 1

The government has taken to announcing changes in taxes and benefits long before they take effect. But that day has to come eventually and a host of changes - big and small, good and bad - are set to start tomorrow week, July 1, the first day of the new financial year.

Actually, all the bad changes start on July 1, but some of the good ones have arrived this month.

Even so, July 1 will be the most significant day for tax changes since July 1, 2000, the start date for the goods and services tax.

Two new taxes are starting, the carbon tax and the mining tax, though combined they raise far less than the GST.

Like the GST, both taxes come as part of packages, meaning much of the proceeds from them are used to cover the cost of cuts in other taxes and increases in pensions and benefits.

But here's a difference: the government is increasing the budget's redistribution of income from higher- to lower-income earners by imposing means tests and by other means.

A means test on the 30 per cent private health insurance rebate will take effect and the 20 per cent net medical expenses tax offset will also be means-tested.

Next are changes to the taxation of superannuation. Super contributions have been taxed at the flat rate of 15 per cent. Now, workers earning up to $37,000 a year will, in effect, pay no contributions tax, whereas those earning more than $300,000 a year will pay 30 per cent.

Older workers had been permitted to make concessional contributions to super, including by salary sacrifice, of up to $50,000 a year, but this will now drop to $25,000.

The minerals resource rent tax will raise only about $3 billion a year and has been designed to have no adverse effects on the economy or retail prices.

Proceeds from the tax will be used to provide two new tax concessions for small business and cover the cost of replacing the tax rebate on parents' spending on school children's education expenses with lump-sum bonuses for each schoolchild. The first bonuses have just been paid.

Mining tax revenue will also cover the cost of a tiny increase in unemployment benefits (from March) and an increase in the family tax benefit Part A, to take effect from July 1 next year.

The carbon tax will fall mainly on the production of electricity and gas. It will add 9 per cent to household electricity and gas bills, but quite small amounts to most other retail prices.

Treasury has estimated that, all told, the tax will add just 0.7 per cent to the consumer price index. Since Treasury was right in predicting the 10 per cent GST would add 2.5 per cent to the index, you can believe it.

However, the total rise in household electricity bills from July 1 will be twice that attributable to the carbon tax.

Whereas the GST will raise $48 billion next financial year, the carbon tax is expected to raise $4 billion in its first year and about $7 billion in later years.

Because it's designed simply to raise the prices of emissions-intensive goods and services relative to other prices, much of its proceeds are being used to compensate people for their higher cost of living.

But, again, the compensation is going only to low- and middle-income earners. Means-tested pensions, allowances and family benefits have already been raised.

And a limited tax cut will take effect from July 1. The tax-free threshold will be raised from $6000 to $18,200 (but with a largely offsetting reduction in the low-income tax offset). About 60 per cent of all taxpayers will get a tax cut worth about $5.80 a week, but no individual earning more than $80,000 a year will receive a cut.

All that higher-income earners get is a separate, backhanded saving: the end of the temporary flood levy.

We're adding the environment to the national accounts

How do you get economists and business people to take the environment and its relationship with the economy seriously? Change its name to one that resonates with commercial values. What's a word that denotes great value, preciousness to a capitalist? I know - "capital".

You've heard of physical capital (machines, buildings and other structures), financial capital (securities such as shares and bonds), human capital (an educated and skilled workforce) and social capital (the shared values and norms of behaviour that enable mutually advantageous cooperation).

So why don't we rename the environment "natural capital"? It wasn't me who thought of it, however.

It doesn't sound like a lot of progress has been made at the Rio+20 summit on sustainable development. But one thing giving me hope is the "natural capital declaration" made by banks and big businesses, including our National Australia Bank, represented by its chief executive, Cameron Clyne.

"Natural capital," it says, "comprises Earth's natural assets (soil, air, water, flora and fauna) and the ecosystem services resulting from them, which make human life possible. Ecosystem goods and services from natural capital are worth trillions of US dollars per year and constitute food, fibre, water, health, energy, climate security and other essential services for everyone.

"Neither these services, nor the stock of natural capital that provides them, are adequately valued compared to social and financial capital. Despite being fundamental to our wellbeing, their daily use remains almost undetected within our economic system.

"Using natural capital this way is not sustainable. The private sector, governments, all of us, must increasingly understand and account for our use of natural capital and recognise the true cost of economic growth and sustaining human wellbeing today and into the future," the declaration says.

It goes on to say that "because natural capital is a part of the 'global commons' and is treated largely as a 'free good', governments must act to create a framework regulating and incentivising the private sector - including the financial sector - to operate responsibly regarding its sustainable use.

"We therefore call upon governments to develop clear, credible and long-term policy frameworks that support and incentivise organisations - including financial institutions - to value and report on their use of natural capital and thereby working towards internalising environmental costs."

Lovely. Great stuff. Most enlightened. But if you think we're just at the earliest stages of realising we need to measure our impact on the environment and incorporate it into our decision making, I have good news. At the level of national accounting, we're a lot further advanced than you realise.

You often see me banging on about the "national accounts", from which key economic indicators such as gross domestic product emerge. You've also seen me pointing to the limitations of GDP as a measure of wellbeing or progress, particularly its failure to take account of the costs economic activity is imposing on the environment and of the environment's present state of repair.

The "system of national accounts" we use is laid down by the United Nations Statistical Commission for use in all countries. It's an accounting framework that measures economic activity and organises a wide range of economic data into a structured set of accounts. It defines the concepts, classifications and accounting rules needed to do this.

So here's the news: earlier this year the UN Statistical Commission adopted as a new international statistical standard with equal status to the system of national accounts, the "system of environmental-economic accounting" - SEEA.

Our Bureau of Statistics has been at the forefront in the development of SEEA. Last month, it published a document, Completing the Picture: Environmental Accounting in Practice, explaining what SEEA is. I'm drawing on this document.

SEEA is another accounting framework that records as completely as possible the stocks and flows relevant to the analysis of environmental and economic issues. So SEEA is different from the various present independent sets of statistics because it demands coherence and consistency with a core set of definitions and treatments.

Get it? An accounting framework allows you to add a lot of different things together, making sure they fit together logically and there's no double-counting. SEEA puts information about changes in the environment on the same basis as the existing information about changes in the economy, so they can be combined and give us an integrated picture of how the environment and the economy are affecting each other.

Just a small problem, however. The existing national accounts measure economic activity in money terms. To achieve this, they stick almost wholly to measuring transactions in the market, since these reveal market valuations.

But the very reason economists and business people have been taking too little notice of the environment for the past centuries is that, for the most part, it's outside the market system - a "free good". There's not one price for clean air and another for dirty. Photosynthesis, pollination and precipitation are ecosystem services to the economy that aren't paid for, so it's hard to put a figure on what they're worth.

Despite this, SEEA extends the national accounts by recording environmental data that are usually available in physical or quantitative terms in coherence with the economic data in monetary terms. Maybe one day we'll discover a way to value natural capital so we can add it all together.

There are three main types of account in the SEEA framework that are added to the existing monetary flow (the change in something over a period) and stock (the position at a point in time) accounts of the national accounts.

First are physical flow accounts that record flows of natural inputs from the environment to the economy, flows of products within the economy and flows of "residuals" (various forms of waste) generated by the economy. These flows include water and energy used in production and waste flows to the environment, such as solid waste to landfill.

Second are functional accounts for environmental transactions between different economic sectors (such as industries, households, governments). Such transactions include investing in technologies designed to prevent or reduce pollution, restoring the environment after it has been polluted, recycling, conservation and resource management.

Finally, asset accounts in physical and money terms measure the stocks of natural resources available and changes in the amount available. There'd be accounts for minerals and energy, timber, fish, soil, water and land.

The bureau is beavering away to produce more of these accounts. It's making progress in turning SEEA into an Australian reality.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

The economy isn't a Sunday school - it often hurts

When I was a kid marbles were the rage. When you played at home with your brothers and sisters, mum made sure that, whoever won, everyone got their marbles back when the game was over. When you played at school, however, the big boys insisted on "playing for keeps", so kids like me went home with a lot fewer marbles.

I also went to Sunday school, which was run by kindly mothers. If you forgot to memorise your verse of scripture, there was no comeback. If you misbehaved there was no punishment, just a look of disappointment on the face of your teacher.

We've been hearing a lot lately about people losing their jobs. Firms in manufacturing, but also other industries, are announcing redundancies. There've been so many they could give you the impression employment is falling. Fortunately, it isn't; the people losing their jobs are being more than made up for by others gaining jobs (including people who lost their jobs earlier).

Sometimes people are laid off because the economy is in recession, but at present it's happening because powerful forces are changing the industrial structure of the economy. Older industries are shrinking while newer ones are expanding.

It must be a terrible thing to lose your job through no fault of your own, even if they do give you a fat cheque as they push you out. It's anxious waiting after an announcement to see if you'll be among those tapped on the shoulder. When "downsizing" was the fashion in the 1980s and '90s, it was said even those who kept their jobs suffered "survivor guilt".

When you're a victim of structural change - or just a feeling person looking on - it's tempting to look for someone to blame. Managers have been altogether too ruthless in protecting the business's bottom line; they took too long to recognise the problem and when they did respond they could have done it far better. The government should have stepped in to protect the industry.

Since managers are as subject to human frailty as ordinary employees (just extraordinarily more highly paid), there's often some truth to these criticisms - especially with the wisdom of hindsight.

If businesses weren't so quick on the trigger in laying off workers in the early stages of a downturn, fewer downturns would turn into full-blown recessions. If they were more imaginative and innovative they'd find less painful solutions to problems (they'd probably also anticipate a lot of problems that didn't materialise).

But when there are major changes in the forces bearing down on an industry, there's no point imagining change could have been resisted, nor any way that all human pain could have been avoided.

The economy isn't run like a Sunday school. In an economy like ours, everyone - bosses, workers, customers - pursues their self-interest. The economic game is played for keeps. So everyone runs a greater or lesser risk of losing their job. Even bosses get the bullet.

All of us act in self-regarding ways that, whether or not we realise it, contribute to someone's job insecurity. And that means a fair bit of uncertainty, anxiety, fear, disappointment, loss of status, self-doubt, frustration, family discord, despair, humiliation, depression, belt-tightening and worse are part of the deal.

Nor is the risk of pain fairly distributed. Some people never lose their job in a long career, some make the transition to a new job relatively easily, some move into retirement earlier than they'd bargained for, some have considerable difficulty finding another job, some never work again.

Perhaps the greatest force driving structural change is advances in technology - people inventing new products, new things to do or new ways of doing old things. The digital revolution is reshaping our economy - destroying jobs here, creating them there - in ways and to an extent we as yet see only dimly.

Does anyone suggest we should halt technological advance because of all the economic disruption it brings - and has brought since the days of the Luddites? Does anyone imagine such an attempt could work?

Another major force driving economic change is globalisation - the lowering of natural and government-made barriers between countries, caused by technological advance and, to a lesser extent, deregulation.

The historic re-emergence of the mighty economies of China and India - and the rapid economic development of the poor countries generally - is shifting jobs around the world.

Most rich countries are benefiting from cheaper imported manufactures (gains to consumers, but job losses in manufacturing), but Aussies are also benefiting from higher prices and quantities for our rural and mineral exports (increased income for the whole nation, but pressure for capital and labour to shift to mining).

Think the poor countries' pursuit of prosperity should be stopped because of the economic disruption it's causing? Think it could be?

For decades we tried to shut out change from the rest of the world by protecting particular industries. These days we use taxpayer subsidies. But jobs in particular industries can be protected only at the expense of jobs in the unprotected industries. Import restrictions and subsidies merely shift the job pressure (which never troubles the people demanding assistance).

When you're in the thick of it, it's easy to imagine structural change leads to ever-rising unemployment. But businesses have been installing new, "labour-saving" technology continuously for two centuries without it leading to mass unemployment.

Structural change doesn't reduce jobs overall, it destroys them in some industries and creates them in others.

Market economies deliver almost continuously rising material prosperity. But they do so by continually changing, and that change comes with a fair bit of pain for many people.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Present gloom is more political than economic

The release of two downbeat indicators of business and consumer confidence last week serves only to deepen the puzzle over the gap between how we feel and what the objective indicators are saying about the state of the economy.

My theory is we have two-track minds. Many of us are thinking gloomier than we’re acting.

As you recall, the national accounts from the Bureau of Statistics show real gross domestic product growing by a remarkable 1.3 per cent in the March quarter and a rip-roaring 4.3 per cent over the year to March.

The bureau’s latest labour force figures, for May, show employment growing by an average of 25,000 a month over the first five months of this year, with much of the growth in the ‘non-mining’ states.

I never take the initial reading of frequently revised estimates too literally. The governor of the Reserve Bank, Glenn Stevens, has noted the annual growth figure is probably inflated by a catch-up effect following the disruption to economic activity caused by the Queensland floods early last year. He’s willing to say only that the economy’s travelling at about ‘trend’ (3.25 per cent a year).

Now Dr Chris Caton, of BT Financial Group, has advanced his own theory to explain the surprisingly strong 1.3 per cent growth in the March quarter. He notes the inclusion of a leap day in the quarter - so it contained 91 days rather than the usual 90 - may have thrown out the bureau’s seasonal adjustment process.

Some components of GDP would have been adjusted for this ‘trading-day effect’, but many may not have. Sounds far fetched? Caton looked back over the five previous leap years, finding the March quarter growth figure exceeded the average rate of growth for the three preceding and three subsequent quarters in four of those years, with the excess for the five years averaging 0.46 percentage points.

But even if you accept Stevens’s judgement the economy’s growing at about trend - which I do - you’re still left saying it’s doing a lot better than implied by the gloominess of business and consumer confidence as we conventionally measure them.

NAB’s business survey for May showed business conditions (the net balance of respondents regarding last month’s trading, profitability and employment performance as good) fell to their weakest level in three years.

To put this in context, the conditions index is now 5 points below its long-term average since 1989, but nothing like as bad as it got during the global financial crisis of 2008-09, let alone the recession of the early 1990s.

The index of business confidence (how the net balance of respondents expects conditions to change in the next month) is saying something roughly similar. NAB says the survey implies GDP growth will slow to an annualised 2 per cent in the June quarter.

The Westpac-Melbourne Institute index of consumer sentiment rose a fraction in June to 96, down almost 6 per cent on a year earlier. It’s pretty low, though at nothing like the depths to which it sank in 2008-09.

The overall index can be divided into two bits, the current conditions index and the expectations index. In June the conditions index rose by 6 per cent, whereas the expectations index fell by 4 per cent. And whereas the conditions index stands at 104, the expectations index is a 90.

I’m a great believer that the mood of consumers and business people does a lot more to drive the business cycle than it suits most economists to admit (because their theory tells them little about what drives confidence and, in any case, it’s not easy to be sure what you’re measuring).

So it pains me to admit that, at present - and not for the first time - the conventional confidence indicators seem to have been bad predictors of what HAS happened in the economy, and don’t look like reliable predictors of what WILL happen.

I think there’s a gap between how people are feeling and how they’re acting. How consumers and business people feel is a function of their direct experience and what their peers are saying and doing, but also of what the media is telling them about the wider world.

They probably give a lot more weight to the former than the latter. Direct experience tells them things aren’t too bad; interest rates have dropped a long way in the past six months and, despite all the media stories, they’ve seen little in the way of job losses close to them.

On the other hand, the media are bringing them a lot of worrying news about Europe and elsewhere. It seems pretty clear this is having a big effect on how they feel. It’s less clear how much it has affected their behaviour - so far, at least.

I suspect the present mood - as opposed to present behaviour - is also affected by political sentiment. A lot of people have decided - rightly or wrongly - the economy is being badly managed.

The NAB business survey showed 47 per cent of respondents believed the May budget would have a negative effect on their business. This seems a huge overreaction to the one piece of bad news for business in the budget: the cost of a cut in the company tax rate of a mere 1 percentage point was instead being paid into the pockets of business’s customers.

And consider this: when you divide the consumer sentiment index according to federal voting intention you find the index for Labor voters stands at 119, whereas the index for (the far greater number of) Coalition voters is down to 82.

Perhaps the main thing the confidence indicators are telling us is something we already know: the Gillard government is highly unpopular with consumers and business people.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

How GST has sprung a leak

It's not a good time to be the taxman. The poor chap has fallen on hard times. But if you think that sounds like good news, you haven't thought it through. We don't pay taxes for fun and the government doesn't tear up our money when it receives it. Obviously, it's used to pay for all the services governments provide.

It's now clear how much trouble the Europeans have brought on themselves by ignoring the two sides of their budgets. It's equally clear a big part of the reason we don't share the Europeans' predicament is the acceptance by our governments - federal and state, Labor and Coalition - over many years that their spending and their tax collections must be kept in balance over time.

So if tax collections are falling short of spending, it follows that either spending must be cut or taxes increased. At present, governments are willing to contemplate only spending cuts, and are working on the theory there's enough inefficiency in the public sector to reduce costs without significantly reducing the services it delivers.

But you can push that relatively politically painless idea only so far. And the problems with tax collections are so deep-seated eventually they - and we - will have to face the terrifying prospect of higher taxes.

The federal government has structural problems with income tax, capital gains tax and company tax, but the tax with the biggest problems is the goods and services tax, as was well explained this week in the NSW government's budget papers, which I'll draw on.

When John Howard introduced the GST in July 2000, he neutralised opposition from the premiers by promising them all the proceeds from the tax in place of the feds' former general revenue grants. So GST is a federally controlled and collected tax that benefits only the states.

It's divided between them according to the principle of "horizontal fiscal equalisation", which aims to ensure each state and territory has the fiscal capacity to provide the national average standard of services and infrastructure.

This means the GST proceeds are divided in a way that ensures those states with greater capacity to raise revenue subsidise those with lesser revenue-raising capacity.

For decades this meant taxpayers in Victoria and NSW subsidised taxpayers in all other states. Since 2008-09, however, the resources boom has left the governments of Queensland and, particularly, Western Australia so flush with mining royalties they too have become subsidisers of the remaining states and territories. So, of late, NSW and Victoria haven't had to subsidise the others nearly as much.

When Howard first handed the proceeds of GST to the states, it seemed clear he'd given them the fabulous "growth tax" they'd long dreamt of. Up to 2007-08, collections grew at an average rate of more than 8 per cent a year - faster than the economy (nominal gross domestic product) was growing.

But every time the federal Treasury peers into the future it revises down its projections for growth in GST receipts. It's now expecting growth over the period from 2008-09 to 2015-16 to be just 4.5 per cent a year.

So what's the problem? Well, there are a couple. The first is that, during the 30 years in which Australian households were progressively lowering their rate of saving, their consumer spending on goods and services was (as a matter of simple arithmetic - the formula is: consumption plus saving equals income) growing faster than household disposable income.

But from about mid-2003 households began increasing their rate of saving, and after the global financial crisis in late 2008 they really got down to it. Obviously, while the rate of saving is increasing consumer spending will be growing more slowly than income.

So it's clear the GST captured only the final few years of the outsized growth in consumer spending. In its first year, 2000-01, consumer spending accounted for 59 per cent of nominal GDP. By 2007-08 it had fallen to 56 per cent and by 2010-11, 54 per cent.

But for the past 18 months the net household saving rate has been roughly steady at about 9.5 per cent of household disposable income, meaning consumer spending has been growing at much the same rate as household income. If the household saving rate has stabilised, consumer spending will continue falling as a proportion of GDP only if household disposable income grows at a slower rate than GDP, which doesn't seem likely.

But that's just the first reason the joy has come out of GST as a great little revenue raiser (of an expected $48 billion in the coming financial year, or 3.2 per cent of GDP).

Although we tend to think of GST as a tax on the purchase of all goods and services, in fact a significant slice of the value of our purchases (initially, about 36 per cent) is exempt from the tax. Our spending on rent, health and education were excluded because taxing them accurately was judged too hard. Then spending on food was excluded as part of the deal needed to get the tax passed by the Senate.

Fine. What's happened since then is, although the volume (quantity) of our purchases of these exempt items has grown pretty much in line with the volume of taxable items, the prices of the exempt items have consistently grown faster than prices of the taxable items.

So much so that over the tax's first 11 years, the value (price times volume) of taxable consumption relative to total private consumption has fallen about 4 percentage points.

Since health and education are "superior goods" (we spend an increasing proportion of our income on them as our incomes rise), and costs in both areas grow significantly faster than other consumer prices, we can expect this erosion of the GST tax base to keep rolling on.

At first blush, the feds can dismiss this as the premiers' problem. But the states are so dependent on GST revenue (in NSW's case, to the tune of a quarter of total revenue) and are so restricted by the constitution in what they may tax that, in the end, it's a problem for Canberra.

And since we know from successive intergenerational reports that most of the pressure on federal and state budgets over the next 40 years will come from health spending, the lasting solution is staring us in the face: the GST's tax base must be broadened at least to include private spending on education and health.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Much change is structural, not cyclical

One of the first lessons economists teach us is that the economy moves in cycles of boom and bust. A second, trickier lesson is that although most of the changes going on in the economy at any moment are "cyclical" (temporary), there may also be changes driven by "structural" (longer-lasting) forces.

In a speech last week, Glenn Stevens, the governor of the Reserve Bank, implied that much of the "unrelentingly gloomy" public discussion about the economy may be caused by people mistaking structural problems for cyclical ones.

Despite the official statistics saying the economy's quite healthy, people think it's weak and want the economy's managers to get it moving by such standard remedies as a tax cut or a cut in interest rates.

But if the problem is structural - if it arises from deep-seated changes in the economic environment - such remedies will make little difference. Structural change is rarely painless - it often involves people losing their jobs and businesses failing - but it's almost always better to adapt to the way the world now works than try to resist it.

The boom in export prices and the construction of new mines arises from the historic re-emergence of the Chinese and Indian economies and is a classic example of structural change. The accompanying high dollar is helping to bring about a long-term shift of workers and capital into mining and away from manufacturing, tourism and overseas education.

But Stevens argues the resources boom is getting blamed for the problems of industries whose tough times are the product of a quite different source of structural adjustment: the markedly changed behaviour of Australian households. Consider his figuring.

In the mid-1970s, households began reducing the proportion of their disposable incomes they saved, meaning their spending was able to grow faster than their incomes. But this went into overdrive between 1995 and 2005.

Over that decade, households cut their rate of saving by a cumulative 5 percentage points. In consequence, their consumer spending grew at an average annual rate of 2.8 per cent per person, after allowing for inflation, even though their disposable incomes grew at a real annual rate of just 2.3 per cent per person.

Why did so many of us feel we no longer needed to save much of our income for use later on? Largely, it seems, because we saw ourselves getting wealthier as each year passed. The gross value of assets held by households - mainly the value of our homes - more than doubled between 1995 and 2007. That involved a real annual increase of more than 6 per cent per person.

Only a small part of this increase came from the building of additional homes. Most of it was just the rise in the prices of existing homes.

So why did housing prices rise so dramatically? Mainly because we went through a decade-long frenzy of competing with each other to move to better homes, which bid up prices.

In the process, of course, households took on a lot more debt, including for investment properties. Total household debt rose from 70 per cent of total annual household income in 1995 to about 150 per cent in 2007. This unprecedented "gearing up" by households was made possible by the deregulation of the banks and the return to low inflation and, hence, low mortgage interest rates.

All this borrowing couldn't have gone on forever, and households began to call a halt a year or two before the global financial crisis reached its peak in late 2008, after which they really began saving a lot more and trying to get on top of their debts.

While households were increasing their rate of saving, their consumer spending grew more slowly than their incomes. But their saving rate has been relatively stable - at a rate last seen in the 1980s - for about 18 months, meaning consumer spending has returned to growing at the same rate as incomes.

As part of our households' return to their former prudence, the rate at which homes change hands has fallen by a third from its average over the previous decade. And now the demand for housing has slackened, house prices have fallen back a bit. They won't keep falling forever, but nor are we ever likely to see them shooting up the way they used to.

The return of the prudent consumer is causing adjustment pains for various industries: the banks aren't doing as much business (I know your heart bleeds), nor are the real estate agents. State governments are getting a lot less revenue from conveyancing duty.

Last but not least are the retailers. The halcyon days of rapid growth in consumer spending are gone for good and they'll just have to get used to it. Those retailers selling the sorts of things people buy when they move into a new home are finding life a lot tougher.

But the end of the "platinum age" is just one source of structural change facing retailers. Another source is that retailers sell goods, but as each year passes, more of the consumer dollar goes on services and less on goods.

Yet another is the digital revolution. While shopping in one store, people are using their smartphones to check the prices being offered in rival stores, then demand they be matched. And the internet is giving people access to the cheaper prices charged by retailers in other countries.

None of these various structural changes are the fault of the government and there's little the managers of the economy can or should do to halt or even alleviate them. Business has little sensible choice but to adjust. In any case, most are for the better.

Monday, June 11, 2012


June 2012

One of the big events this year is the Gillard government’s plan to return the budget to surplus in the coming financial year, 2012-13. As the budget papers make clear, this represents the end of the unusual period in which discretionary fiscal policy was used to assist monetary policy in countering the effects of the global financial crisis. Now, although the budget’s automatic stabilisers will continue to be allowed to play their role in assisting to achieve internal balance - a steady rate of economic growth and thus low inflation and low unemployment - discretionary fiscal policy will revert to its primary objective of achieving ‘fiscal sustainability’ - that is, avoiding the build up over time of large levels of net public debt.

So monetary policy is back to being the primary instrument used to achieve internal balance. But that raises a question in a lot of people’s minds: with the banks making their own ‘unofficial’ or ‘out-of-cycle’ increases in mortgage interest rates, or passing on to borrowers less than the Reserve Bank’s full cuts in the cash rate, how effective is monetary policy these days? Is it as powerful as it was as an instrument for influencing the strength of demand and achieving low inflation and low unemployment? We’ll discuss this question first, then we’ll look at what’s happening in the economy and how fiscal and monetary policies are being used to respond to those developments.

Is monetary policy still effective?

The main instrument the RBA uses to achieve its objective is what the media call the ‘official’ interest rate and economists call the ‘cash rate’. This is the cost of borrowing overnight in the money market; the rate at which the banks lend to each other. The RBA keeps the cash rate under very tight control by means of open market operations. Between 1999 and 2007 it was easy to see how the RBA’s ability to change the cash rate led to changes in the rates the banks charged on home mortgages and borrowing by businesses: any change in the cash rate - whether up or down - was soon passed on by the banks to their customers.

But from 2007, in the early days of the global financial crisis, that simple relationship broke down and the banks began making ‘unofficial’ rate changes, usually in association with official changes. Why did things change? Because of the money-market disruption and changed relationships brought about by the GFC.

The cash rate is regarded as the risk-free rate of borrowing overnight and it thus forms the ‘anchor’ for all other short-term and variable interest rates in the market. The other rates will usually be higher than the cash rate, with those other rates’ margin (or ‘spread’) above the cash rate reflecting the extra reward to lenders for the various risks they have taken on: the ‘credit risk’ (of not being repaid), the ‘liquidity risk’ (of being unable to sell the debt security without loss because of limited demand for that security) and the ‘term risk’ (of having your money tied up for a longer period).

During the period up to the start of the GFC, all these risks, and hence margins, stayed steady. So a change in the risk-free anchor could be passed on mechanically to the banks’ borrowers. But the GFC made people in various international markets a lot more conscious of the risks they were running, thus increasing the spreads they were demanding. Some markets actually ceased to operate for a time. This wiped out our banks’ chief competitors, the mortgage originators, which ended up being bought out by the banks. Later on, the prudential supervisors and the rating agencies decided our banks had made themselves too vulnerable to events such as the GFC by relying too heavily on short-term borrowing from overseas money markets. So the banks began trying to lengthen the maturity of their foreign borrowing and also began competing with each other to attract more domestic deposits, particularly term deposits.

These changed conditions meant that, though the cash rate - the risk-free anchor for interest rates - remained the largest single influence over the banks’ cost of funds, that cost was also influenced by other factors, such as the changing spreads required by foreign long-term lenders to our banks and by the higher rates needed to attract more term deposits from Australian savers. Anxious to preserve their existing (very generous) ‘net interest margin’ (the difference been the banks’ average cost of funds and the average rate they charge their borrowers), the banks have become emboldened to pass any increase in their cost of funds on to their customers independent of changes in the cash rate.

After the RBA’s cut in the cash rate of 25 basis points in June, the banks decided to pass on about 20 or 21 basis points, thus demonstrating that the cash rate remains the dominant influence over market rates (in this example, 84 pc) notwithstanding the change in the banks’ circumstances and behaviour.

The more fundamental reason for remaining confident the effectiveness of monetary policy has not been reduced is the RBA’s repeated statements that the interest rates it cares about are those actually being paid by households and businesses, not the cash rate. So it makes whatever changes to the cash rate are necessary to get mortgage rates and business borrowing rates where it wants them to be.

Many politicians and home-buyers are highly disapproving of the banks’ efforts to preserve their profitability by increasing the spread between the cash rate and the mortgage rate. But don’t confuse the question of whether you approve of the banks’ behaviour with the question of whether monetary policy has become less effective. It hasn’t.

Factors affecting the economy

The economy’s being hit by three different factors, at present: one expansionary, one contractionary and one that sounds worse than it actually is - so far, at least. These conflicting factors are affecting different industries differently and different states differently. This is because they’re bringing about a change in the structure of our economy, and structural change is often painful.

The first factor is the resources boom, which is expansionary because higher export prices have added to the nation’s real income and because the mining investment boom is adding to economic activity.

The second factor is the high exchange rate the resources boom has brought about. This is helping to ensure the boom doesn’t lead to higher inflation by directly reducing the prices of imports but also by reducing the international price competitiveness of our export and import-competing industries, particularly manufacturing, tourism and education. This tends to reduce their output and their profits, thus making it a contractionary force.

The third factor affecting the economy is the problems in the developed economies of the North Atlantic, particularly the Europeans’ debt crisis and worries about the survival of the euro. At this stage, Europe’s problems are probably having a bigger effect on the confidence of consumers and business people than they are on any other aspect of the economy.

Fiscal policy

Fiscal policy - the manipulation of government spending and taxation in the budget - is conducted according to the Gillard government’s medium-term fiscal strategy: ‘to achieve budget surpluses, on average, over the medium term’. This means the primary role of discretionary fiscal policy is to achieve ‘fiscal sustainability’ - that is, to ensure we don’t build up an unsustainable level of public debt. However, the strategy leaves room for the budget’s automatic stabilisers to be unrestrained in assisting monetary policy in pursuing internal balance. It also leaves room for discretionary fiscal policy to be used to stimulate the economy and thus help monetary policy manage demand, in exceptional circumstances - such as the GFC - provided the stimulus measures are temporary.

After the onset of the GFC, tax collections fell heavily, and they have yet to fully recover. The Rudd government applied considerable fiscal stimulus to the economy by a large but temporary increase in government spending.

The government’s ‘deficit exit strategy’ requires it to avoid further tax cuts and limit the real growth in government spending to 2 pc a year until the budget has returned to a surplus equivalent to 1 pc of GDP. The delay in returning to surplus is caused not by continuing high spending but by continuing weak revenue.

In this year’s budget the government shifted its spending plans around to allow it to keep its election promise to budget for (then actually achieve) a tiny budget surplus in 2012-13. After allowing for unimportant changes in the timing of spending and the effect on demand of particular budget measures, the stance of fiscal policy is much less contractionary than it appears to be, with the Treasury secretary estimating the effect to be less than 1 pc of GDP, which is still significant.

Monetary policy

Monetary policy - the manipulation of interest rates to influence the strength of demand - is conducted by the RBA independent of the elected government. It is the primary instrument by which the managers of the economy pursue internal balance - low inflation and low unemployment. MP is conducted in accordance with the inflation target: to hold the inflation rate between 2 and 3 pc, on average, over the cycle. The primary instrument of MP is the overnight cash rate, which the RBA controls via market operations.

Aware the unemployment rate was only a little above the NAIRU (the non-accelerating-inflation rate of unemployment) and concerned the resources boom could lead to excessive wage growth, the RBA stood ready to tighten monetary policy throughout most of 2011. But, partly because of the lingering effect of the Queensland floods in early 2011, the economy did not accelerate as much as the RBA had forecast. The outlook for growth in the North Atlantic economies worsened, business and consumer confidence weakened and inflation continued to improve. So the RBA cut the cash rate by a click in both November and December of 2011, lowering it to 4.25 pc. In May it cut by 0.5 points in June by a further 0.25 points, taking the cash rate down to 3.5 pc, more than offsetting the banks’ efforts to preserve their profit margins, and producing a net fall in the interest rates actually paid by households and businesses. With market interest rates a little below their long-run average, the stance of monetary policy is now mildly expansionary.


Should the contractionary stance of fiscal policy combine with other factors to weaken aggregate demand, the RBA has scope to counter this by further loosening monetary policy from its present stance of ‘mildly expansionary’.

Why we can't read the economy without help

The nation's economists, commentators and business people got caught with their pants down last week. They'd convinced themselves the economy was weak, but the Bureau of Statistics produced figures showing it was remarkably strong.

It's not the first time they've failed such a reality test. They prefer not to think about such embarrassing, humbling occurrences, but it's important to ask ourselves why we got it so wrong.

The bureau told us real gross domestic product grew by 1.3 per cent in the March quarter and by 4.3 per cent over the year to March. Then it produced labour force figures for May, showing employment has been growing at the rate of 25,000 a month this year, with much of that growth in NSW and Victoria.

So why is there such a yawning gap between what we thought was happening in the economy and what statistics say is happening?

Well, one possibility is the figures are wrong. That's likely to be true - to some extent. They're highly volatile from quarter to quarter and month to month, and much of that volatility is likely to be statistical "noise" rather than "signal".

But the financial markets, economists and media knowingly add to the noise by insisting on using the seasonally adjusted figures rather than the trend (smoothed seasonally adjusted) figures as the bureau urges them to. Truth is, both markets and media have a vested interest in volatility for its own sake - it makes for better bets and better stories.

However, even if the latest figures are likely to be revised down, their "back story" still contradicts the conventional wisdom. Cut March quarter growth back to the 0.6 per cent economists were forecasting and you're still left with above-trend annual growth of 3.6 per cent.

Consumer spending may not have grown by as much as 1.6 per cent in the March quarter, but - and notwithstanding all the retailers' complaints - it's been growing at above-trend rates for a year.

Another argument embarrassed economists are making is that the March quarter figures are "backward looking". All the news since March has been bad. They always use that excuse. But there's nothing out of date about job figures for May, and they, too, tell a story of strengthening growth.

If you accept, as you should, the figures are roughly right - especially viewed over a run of months or quarters - you have to ask how our perceptions of the economy have got so far astray from statistical reality.

It's less surprising business people's perceptions are off the mark. They're not students of economic theory or statistical indicators; their judgments are unashamedly subjective, based on direct experience and the anecdotes they hear from other business people, plus an overlay of what the media tell them.

More surprising is the evidence economists' judgments and forecasts aren't as rigorously objective and indicator-based as they like to imagine. They're affected by the mood of the business people they associate with and aren't immune to the distorted picture of reality spread by the media (because they highlight events that are interesting - and, hence, predominantly bad - rather than representative).

Like the punters, business people probably overestimate the macro-economic significance of falls in the sharemarket - particularly when our sharemarket is taking its lead from overseas markets reacting to economic news in the US and Europe that doesn't have much direct bearing on our economy.

Similarly, all the bad news from America and, particularly, Europe we're hearing from the media night after night can't help infecting our views about our economy. We're getting more economic news from China these days but we hear about the threats rather than the opportunities.

The familiar refrain about the alleged two-speed economy is tailor-made for the media but, as last week's figures make clear, an exaggeration of the truth. Consumer spending is reasonably strong in the non-mining states, as is employment growth this year.

In the absence of anything better, economists and the media persist in setting too much weight on the bureau's quarterly figures for state final demand, unaware they give an exaggerated picture of the differences in gross state product between the mining and non-mining states (because Western Australia and Queensland use much of their income to buy goods and services from NSW and Victoria).

The risk is the more we repeat the two-speed story to ourselves the more it becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy. This may be part of the explanation for the weakness in non-mining business investment spending, but as yet it doesn't seem to have affected consumer spending.

The media's highlighting of announced job lay-offs is a classic example of the way their inevitably selective reporting of job movements leaves the public, business people and maybe even economists with a falsely negative impression of the state of the labour market.

A recent list of 25 lay-off announcements showed total job losses of 17,000. When people wonder how the bureau's employment figures could be right when we know so many jobs are being lost, they're showing their ignorance of how selective media reporting is and how big the labour market is.

In a workforce of 11.5 million people, job losses of 17,000 are peanuts (though not, of course, to the individuals involved). Far more than 17,000 workers leave their jobs every month and far more take up jobs every month. The media tell us about just some of the job losses and about virtually none of the job gains.

The unvarnished truth - which none of us can admit, even to ourselves - is we think we know what's happening in the economy, but we don't. We're too fallible, and it's too big and complicated.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Figures to cheer us up

Oh dearie, dearie me. We've been embarrassed in the nicest possible way. The Bureau of Statistics has produced figures showing the economy roaring along in the March quarter, when we'd convinced ourselves things were pretty weak.

It followed that up with figures showing a lot stronger growth in employment in May than economists had been expecting.

Three months ago we were told the economy (real gross domestic product) grew an exceptionally weak 0.4 per cent in the December quarter and 2.3 per cent over the year to December - well below the ''trend'' (long-term average) annual growth rate of 3.25 per cent.

On the strength of this and other indications, economists were expecting growth in the March quarter of just 0.6 per cent and growth over the year to March of about 3.2 per cent.

Instead we've been told this week that growth in the quarter was more than twice that - 1.3 per cent. For good measure, the figure for the December quarter was revised up to 0.6 per cent, and for September it was raised 0.2 points to 1 per cent.

For the June quarter growth was left unchanged at 1.4 per cent, meaning growth for the year to March was a remarkable 4.3 per cent - way above trend.

Question is, can we believe it? Or, to put it more carefully, how literally should we take these figures? Well, I'm no statistical fundamentalist. Unlike many in the media, I don't assume the bureau's estimates (and ''estimates'' is the bureau's word) are God's immutable truth.

Its monthly job figures are subject to sampling error and human error. Its quarterly figures from the national accounts are produced before all the necessary information has come to hand, and so represent a first stab at the truth. As more reliable information comes in, the bureau revises its figures, gradually closing in on an approximation of reality.

I'm not convinced the economy grew as strongly as 1.3 per cent in the March quarter, and I won't be surprised to see that figure revised down in subsequent quarters. So I don't really believe the economy grew by a rip-roaring 4.3 per cent over the past year.

Were that to be true, you'd have expected stronger growth in employment over the period, even though it's been a lot stronger this year than it was in 2011, and the bureau has belatedly confessed that, due to human error, it overstated employment growth in 2010, then sought to quietly correct the problem by understating it in 2011. Not a smart way to protect your credibility, guys.

Even so, it's not possible to point to anything in this week's accounts that looks obviously dubious. And they're now showing a picture of strong growth in all four quarters bar December.

It's true, however, the accounts show a very mixed picture for different parts of the economy. The weakest part is home building. It contracted 2.1 per cent in the quarter and 6.2 per cent over the year to March.

Spending by the public sector is essentially flat in real terms as federal and state governments seek to get their budgets back into operating surplus.

Non-mining business investment spending is weak, while weather problems caused a fall in the volume of exports, and import volumes grew quite strongly. Net exports (exports minus imports) subtracted 0.5 percentage points from growth in GDP during the quarter and 1.3 points over the year.

So where did the growth come from? You won't need me to tell you growth in mining investment spending is exceptionally strong. New engineering construction increased by nearly 20 per cent in the quarter to be up more than 50 per cent over the year.

So far, the story fits the familiar refrain about the alleged two-speed economy. ''No wonder we think the economy's stuffed - in our part of the country, it is. All the growth's in the Pilbara and Queensland's Bowen Basin.''

Sorry, but that won't wash. The other big contributor to growth was consumer spending, growing 1.6 per cent in the quarter and 4.2 per cent over the year. Both figures are way above trend and they mean consumption contributed 0.9 percentage points to GDP growth in the quarter, and 2.4 points over the year.

Yes, you may object, but how do you know the lion's share of the consumer spending didn't come from Western Australia and Queensland? Because I checked. In the March quarter, consumption growth was above trend in all states and territories.

It was strongest in Western Australia with growth of 2.4 per cent, and pretty strong in Queensland at 1.9 per cent. But in sorry-for-itself Victoria it was a rip-roaring 2.1 per cent. The weakest it got was 0.9 per cent in NSW.

Together, Western Australia and Queensland account for a third of the nation's gross domestic product. They accounted for an above-weight 39 per cent of consumer spending in the March quarter. But that left the rest of us accounting for 61 per cent of the spending.

They're going gangbusters but the rest of us are at death's door? I don't think so.

And though it has been true the mining states accounted for most of the growth in employment around the country, it's a lot less true over the first five months of this year.

Using the trend estimates, total employment grew at an annualised rate of 1.5 per cent (not too bad) during the period. Victoria accounted for almost a third of the increase and NSW for more than a quarter.

Returning to consumer spending during the March quarter, when you scrutinise it you find it was strong across all the spending categories. Retail sales accounts for fewer than a third of total consumer spending but even it recorded strong real growth for the quarter of 1.8 per cent (though retailers had to discount heavily to achieve it - which would explain their continuing complaints).

The strong growth in consumer spending has occurred without any significant fall in the rate of household saving, which has been relatively stable at 9.5 per cent for two years. That is, consumer spending has been strong because household disposable income has been growing strongly.

The economy may not be travelling quite as well as the latest national accounts imply, but it has been travelling a lot better than a lot of us have imagined. We'd do well to cheer up.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

How to improve health without paying more to doctors

It's a well established fact and most of us have at least heard of it. It's also a surprising fact. But it's a fact that doesn't get nearly as much attention as it deserves - not from our politicians, the media or the public.

It's known to social scientists and medicos as the "social gradient" or the "social determinants of health". And it means there's a strong correlation between socio-economic status and health. The higher your status, the better your health.

To put it the other way, the lower a person's social and economic position, the worse their health. And the health gaps between the most disadvantaged and least disadvantaged socio-economic groups are often very large.

One organisation that's taken a great interest in the phenomenon is Catholic Health Australia. It has commissioned the national centre for social and economic modelling (NATSEM) at the University of Canberra to produce two reports on the subject, one of them released this week. It has also produced a policy paper of its own. I'll be drawing on all three documents.

You may think the explanation is pretty obvious: the more money you've got, the better health care you can afford. You can also afford a more nutritious diet. And the better educated you are, the more aware you're likely to be of the risks to health from smoking, excessive drinking and insufficient exercise.

These things are part of it, no doubt, but it's not that simple. Medicare is, after all, free or cheap to all. And who doesn't know that smoking damages your health?

There's growing evidence that status and power affect health. The lower you are in the hierarchy, the worse your health is likely to be. A fair bit of it seems to be psychological.

A study of men in England found life expectancy of 78.5 years for a professional worker, 76 years for a skilled non-manual worker and 71 years for an unskilled manual worker.

According to a paper by the American College of Physicians, job classification is a better predictor of cardiovascular death than cholesterol level, blood pressure and smoking combined. And non-completion of high school is a greater risk factor than biological factors for the development of many diseases.

The earlier report from NATSEM found that if people in the most disadvantaged areas of Australia had the same death rate as those in the most advantaged areas, up to two-thirds of premature deaths would be prevented.

Among Australians aged 25 to 44, only 10 per cent of those who are least disadvantaged report having poor health, whereas for those who are most disadvantaged it's up to 30 per cent. Among Australians aged 45 to 64, the most disadvantaged are up to 40 per cent less likely to have good health than the least disadvantaged.

Early high school leavers and those who are least socially connected are 10 per cent to 20 per cent less likely to report being in good health than those with a tertiary education or a high level of social connectedness.

Those Australians who are most socio-economically disadvantaged are twice as likely as those who are least disadvantaged to have a long-term health condition. More than 60 per cent of men in jobless households report having a long-term health condition or disability, and more than 40 per cent of women.

The socio-economic factors best at predicting whether people smoke are education, housing tenure (whether you rent, are paying off your home or own it outright) and income. Less than 15 per cent of individuals with a tertiary education smoke.

Among women aged 25 to 44, less than 20 per cent of those in the most advantaged socio-economic classes are obese, compared with up to 30 per cent of those in the most disadvantaged classes. The likelihood of being a high risk drinker for younger adults who left school early is up to two times higher than for those with a tertiary qualification.

See what this is saying? There are two ways to improve the nation's health. One way is to spend a lot more taxpayers' money on health care. That's the solution we're always hearing about, especially from doctors.

The other way is to reduce socio-economic disadvantage; to narrow the gap between the top and the bottom, not just in income but also in educational attainment (completing secondary education), housing tenure (more affordable rental accommodation) and the way people are treated at work.

This is the solution we rarely hear about. It too would cost money, of course. But it would make more people happy as well as healthy. And it would also save taxpayers money. Just how much is what NATSEM attempts to estimate in this week's report.

If the health gaps between the most and least disadvantaged groups were closed (an impossible ideal, but one we could work towards), up to 500,000 Australians could avoid suffering a chronic illness. Up to 170,000 people could enter the labour force, generating up to $8 billion a year in extra earnings.

That would produce savings in welfare payments of up to $4 billion a year. Up to 60,000 fewer people would need to be admitted to hospital annually, producing savings of $2.3 billion. Up to 5.5 million fewer Medicare services would be needed each year, saving up to $275 million. And up to 5.3 million fewer prescriptions would be needed each year, saving the pharmaceutical benefits scheme up to $185 million a year.

But the real point is that when we choose to allow the gap between rich and poor to widen each year - including by allowing the dole to stay below the poverty line - we're casting a blind eye to the ill health it causes.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012


Talk to UBS Economics Lecture Day, Sydney, Tuesday, June 5, 2012

When you’re a manager of the Australian economy - when you’re the governor of the Reserve Bank in charge of monetary policy, or the federal Treasurer, in charge of fiscal policy - there’s always some problem you’re having to cope with. When the economy’s in recession, or growing only weakly, you probably don’t have a problem with inflation, but you are very worried about high unemployment and how you can get it down. When the economy’s growing strongly, you probably don’t have a problem with high unemployment, but you are worried about a build up in inflation pressure and what you have to do to keep inflation under control.

Economic report card

So what’s the big problem for the economic managers at present? Well, as you’ve been hearing, if you look overseas at the world economy, you find plenty. But I’m going to focus on our economy, and if you’d just arrived here from Mars and took a quick look, you might think it all looks pretty good. In last month’s budget, Wayne Swan forecast growth in real GDP in the coming financial year, 2012-13, of 3.25 per cent - which is right on the economy’s ‘trend’ rate of growth (its longer-term average rate, which is also its ideal cruising speed, so to speak). The latest figures say underlying inflation is running at 2.2 pc - almost down to the bottom of the RBA’s 2 to 3 pc inflation target. The latest figures say unemployment is running at about 5 pc - which economists say is down very close to our NAIRU - the non-accelerating-inflation rate of unemployment, which is the lowest point to which unemployment can fall before labour shortages start causing wage and price inflation. That is, unemployment is very close to its lowest sustainable rate. Even if you look at the latest figures for the current account deficit, you find it’s down at 2.3 pc of GDP, compared with its trend rate of about 4.5 pc.

The resources boom and its high dollar

So our Martian concludes everything in the Australian economy is going surprisingly well, and the economic managers don’t have any kind of problem at present. But they - and you and I - know better. The economic managers have, in fact, got plenty to worry about. Why? Because our economy is being hit by two major, but conflicting economic shocks: the expansionary effect of our exceptionally favourable terms of trade and the mining construction boom, and the contractionary effect of the accompanying high exchange rate.

The problem facing the economic managers at present is to ensure the net effect of those two conflicting forces continues to leave the economy growing at trend, with inflation within the target zone and unemployment neither much lower nor much higher than is now. For most of last year, the RBA’s biggest worry was that the economy would grow too strongly and inflation pressure would start to build. But that didn’t happen - partly because worries about what’s happening in the rest of the world dampened the confidence of consumers and businesses - and the economy didn’t grow as fast as forecast. Inflation is actually lower than expected, so now the RBA is focused on ensuring growth is fast enough to prevent much rise in unemployment.

The three-speed economy

Another way of saying the economy is not as problem-free as a Martian might think is to say, as so many people do, we have a two-speed economy: the part linked with mining is growing very strongly, while the part hit by the high dollar is growing only slowly. Similarly, the main mining states, Queensland and Western Australia, are in the fast lane, but the other states are in the slow lane. Actually, economic theory tells us it’s more accurate to think of the resources boom and the high dollar causing a three-speed economy. The third and middle lane is for the ‘non-tradeables sector’ - those mainly service industries that don’t export their product or compete against imports, so aren’t directly affected by the high dollar, but do benefit from their (and their customers’) access to cheaper imports. Industries and states in this middle lane won’t be growing as fast as the mining-related industries, but nor will they be as hard-hit as manufacturing and tourism.

The big problem: structural change

But perhaps the best way to think of it is that the problem facing the economy at present isn’t the usual cyclical problem - is the economy growing too fast or too slow? - but is more structural in nature. Economists argue that the exceptionally high prices we’re getting for our coal and iron ore exports and the huge investment we’re seeing in building new mines and liquid-gas facilities represents a long-lasting change in the rest of the world’s demand for our mineral (and rural) commodity exports. This necessitates change in the structure of our industries, with relatively more resources of labour and capital going to mining, and relatively fewer resources going to all other industries, but particularly manufacturing and service exports. Economists further argue that the high exchange rate is the market’s painful way of helping to bring about this structural change. They say that using government subsidies or other forms of protection to help our industries resist change reduces the efficiency with which the nation’s resources are allocated.

Retailing is another industry facing structural change as consumers shift their preferences from goods to services, and as the internet gives consumers access to overseas markets where retail prices are lower. This change is not related to the resources boom, but is related to the end of a long period when consumption grew faster than household income.

So the economic managers are having to manage the economy at a time when it is being hit by a lot of painful structural change. Let’s look at what they’re doing with the main economic instruments - or arms of policy - they use, starting with monetary policy, then moving to fiscal policy.

Monetary policy

Monetary policy is conducted by the RBA independent of the elected government. It is the primary instrument by which the managers of the economy pursue internal balance - low inflation and low unemployment. MP is conducted in accordance with the inflation target: to hold the inflation rate between 2 and 3 pc, on average, over the cycle. The primary instrument of MP is the overnight cash rate, which the RBA controls via market operations.

Aware the unemployment rate was only a little above the NAIRU and concerned the resources boom could lead to excessive wage growth, the RBA stood ready to tighten monetary policy throughout most of 2011. But, partly because of the lingering effect of the Queensland floods in early 2011, the economy did not accelerate as the RBA had forecast. Instead, the outlook for growth in the North Atlantic economies worsened, business and consumer confidence weakened and inflation continued to improve. So the RBA cut the cash rate by a click in both November and December of 2011, lowering it to 4.25 pc. In May it cut by a further 0.5 point to 3.75 pc, more than offsetting the banks’ efforts to preserve their profit margins and producing a net fall in the interest rates actually paid by households and businesses. With market interest rates a little below their long-run average, the stance of monetary policy is now mildly expansionary.

Fiscal policy

Fiscal policy - the manipulation of government spending and taxation in the budget - is conducted according to the Gillard government’s medium-term fiscal strategy: ‘to achieve budget surpluses, on average, over the medium term’. This means the primary role of discretionary fiscal policy is to achieve ‘fiscal sustainability’ - that is, to ensure we don’t build up an unsustainable level of public debt. However, the strategy leaves room for the budget’s automatic stabilisers to be unrestrained in assisting monetary policy in pursuing internal balance. It also leaves room for discretionary fiscal policy to be used to stimulate the economy and thus help monetary policy manage demand in exceptional circumstances - such as the GFC - provided the stimulus measures are temporary.

After the onset of the GFC, tax collections fell heavily, and they have yet to fully recover. The Rudd government applied considerable fiscal stimulus to the economy by a large but temporary increase in government spending.

The government’s ‘deficit exit strategy’ requires it to avoid further tax cuts and limit the real growth in government spending to 2 pc a year until the budget has returned to a surplus equivalent to 1 pc of GDP. The delay in returning to surplus is caused not by continuing high spending but by continuing weak revenue.

In this year’s budget the government shifted its spending plans around to allow it to keep its election promise to budget for (then actually achieve) a tiny budget surplus in 2012-13. After allowing for unimportant changes in the timing of spending and the effect on demand of particular budget measures, the stance of fiscal policy is much less contractionary than it appears to be, with the Treasury secretary estimating the effect to be less than 1 pc of GDP, which is still significant.

Macro bottom line

Should the contractionary stance of fiscal policy combine with other factors to weaken aggregate demand, the RBA has scope to counter this by further loosening monetary policy from its present stance of ‘mildly expansionary’.

Microeconomic policy

The objective of microeconomic policy is to achieve faster economic growth and make the economy more flexible in its response to economic shocks. Whereas macroeconomic policy seeks to stabilise demand over the short term, microeconomic policy works on the supply side of the economy over the medium to longer term, seeking to raise its productivity, efficiency and flexibility. It does this mainly by reducing government intervention in markets to increase competitive pressure. Much microeconomic reform since the mid-80s - including floating the dollar, deregulating the financial system, reducing protection, reforming the tax system, privatising or commercialising government-owned businesses and decentralising wage-fixing - has made the economy significantly less inflation-prone. In the second half of the 90s it also led to a marked improvement in productivity. But the micro reform push has fallen off and much of the government’s attention is directed to other reforms: the introduction of a minerals resource rent tax and the introduction of a price on carbon.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Tax reform lost in saga of expediency

Whether led by Kevin Rudd or Julia Gillard, this government has little sense of strategic direction. Everything it does is a response to the needs of the moment. Consider the chequered history of the Henry inquiry into tax reform, the final blow to which was delivered in the budget last month.

The inquiry had its genesis in one of the first of Rudd's silly ideas, the Twenty-20 summit. Bring a bunch of bright people together with a pile of butcher's paper and who knows what good ideas they could come up with?

The business people attending came up with the world's most predictable idea: what this country needs is more tax reform. What they really meant was that taxes should be changed so they paid less. When it comes to contributing to the public debate, our business people are nothing if not chancers.

But Rudd was desperate for something solid to "take forward" to prove the summit hadn't been a complete fiasco. His need, I suspect, became the Treasury secretary's opportunity. No one in this country knows more, or cares more, about tax reform than Dr Ken Henry. He's been part of all the considerable reform we've had since the mid-1980s.

Knowing his time as Treasury secretary would come to an end, he must have seen his chance to make a last big mark on the future. Of course, his idea of tax reform was quite a bit different from that fondly imagined by business.

The inquiry was ordered to report by Christmas 2009. Really? A report about a subject as contentious as tax reform - with all its winners and losers - set to lob not many months before the next election?

But apparently Labor had a plan. Its coffers were overflowing with proceeds from the resources boom. It could go into the next election promising sweeping tax reform and using all the surplus revenue to square away any losers. What's the problem?

Then the global financial crisis. It quickly emptied the government's coffers and left it spending big to stimulate the economy. Oh no! We've got this blasted tax report coming which will propose all these changes everyone will hate.

By the time Henry reported, Rudd was in a terminal funk over the Senate's rejection of his carbon pollution reduction scheme and the failure of the Copenhagen climate change summit. Rather than putting the tax report out for public discussion he delayed looking at it, pretending to be too busy visiting dozens of hospitals to discuss health reform with the nearest pretty nurse.

Then someone had a bright idea. Among Henry's hundred-plus proposals was one for some new-fangled tax on the miners' economic rents. We could rip a lot of brass off the miners, then use the proceeds to cherry-pick Henry's other proposals.

At no net cost to the budget we could take a tax reform package into the election. We'd spread the proceeds around a host of interest groups. They'd love it and we'd have a reform program only the miners didn't like. But there'd be little public sympathy for them.

We'd cut the company tax rate by a couple of points, give something nice to small business and, above all, get the union secretaries and superannuation industry off our back by covering the budgetary cost of increasing super contributions to 12 per cent.

But caught off guard by a new tax no one understood (and which would raise twice as much as the government imagined), the miners - led by BHP Billiton's Marius Kloppers - opted to campaign for the government's defeat. They ran TV ads assuring the mug punters the mining tax would cost 'em their jobs.

Rudd's losing fight with the miners, coming on top of his collapse in the polls when he walked away from "the great moral challenge of our time", cost him his job. Gillard decided to buy off the big three miners - BHP, Rio and Xstrata - at any price so she could rush to an election and capitalise on her imagined honeymoon with the voters. The deal she did replaced an incomprehensible mining tax with a dog's breakfast designed on the run by the big miners. It came at the expense of their pipsqueak contemporaries - including T. Forrest, G. Rinehart and C. Palmer - and big business generally, which had its cut in the company tax rate halved.

Time passes, Gillard's poll ratings are at rock bottom and we get to this year's budget. With all the whingeing about the cost of living it would be great to give the punters a bribe, but how could we afford it when we're moving heaven and earth to get the budget back to surplus?

Another bright idea. Since everyone's lost interest in tax reform, why not unpick the remnants of the tax-reform package and use the savings to "spread the benefits of the boom to families" with votes?

Why not can the cut in the company tax rate (our stocks with business couldn't go any lower), postpone the higher concessional super contributions cap and forget the new standard deduction and the discount on tax on interest income?

Instead of using the mining tax to cut taxes elsewhere, why not just use it to increase welfare spending? Tax reform is sooo yesterday.

But the one bloke you don't need to feel sorry for in this saga is Henry. He was never so naive as to expect a weak, hard-up government to buy a bundle of unpopular tax reforms on the eve of an election.

What he wanted was to leave his successors in Treasury and elsewhere with a detailed blueprint of the direction in which the tax system should head over coming decades. He got to leave his legacy.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Pollies' tangled web on infrastructure spending

After all the Rudd-Gillard government has said about its wicked predecessors' failure to invest in infrastructure, what would you think if I told you it's planning to dis-invest in infrastructure in the coming financial year?

It's true - or rather, it's what the budget papers say. They say that whereas the government is expecting net capital investment spending of $4.8 billion in the financial year just ending, "net capital investment is expected to be negative $2.7 billion in 2012-13, $7.5 billion lower than in 2011-12".

Unfortunately, the hard part with the budget papers is not so much finding out what they say, it's working out what they really mean. And that's particularly hard this year because the government's been turning so many cartwheels to meet its promise to budget for a surplus.

Fortunately, when you do decipher what it means, you find it's not as bad as it sounds. But nor is it good.

Turns out the main reason net capital investment will be going backwards is that the total includes "the sale of some non-financial assets". Non-financial assets are assets you can touch - land, buildings, maybe even a highway. Which assets, exactly? We're not told - or, if we are, the news was buried somewhere I couldn't find it. The helpful description we're given is "other purposes". How much are they expecting to get for the assets? Not told that, either - except that if you jump from page 6.52 to page 9.22 in budget paper No.1, you find an item called "gains from sale of assets, $4.7 billion". Ah.

Now, the reason for our interest is, presumably, our belief that the government should be getting on with building new infrastructure. That's true if we care about the adequacy of the nation's infrastructure. It's also true if we're asking the macro-economic question: what effect is this year's budget likely to have on activity in the economy?

From either perspective, it doesn't matter whether the government continues to own existing assets - we're probably talking about buildings - or it sells those assets to someone in the private sector.

What matters is the construction of new infrastructure. So we should ignore the proceeds from asset sales. We should also ignore any other negatives included in net capital investment, such as depreciation.

That is, the best figure for our purposes is (gross) "purchases of non-financial assets". This tells us the government will be spending $8 billion next year. Ah, that's more like it. Except that it's down from $10.3 billion in the old year.

Note, however, that about 60 per cent of this refers to defence assets. That's probably not what you had in mind when thinking of "infrastructure". And it's a fall in defence spending that accounts for most of the fall in the total.

If we're trying to assess the budget's impact on economic activity, it matters whether this is spending on the purchase of equipment and weapons from overseas (which wouldn't have much effect on our economic activity) or it's spending on the building of facilities or equipment (sub-standard subs, for instance) in Australia. If there's an answer to this question, I couldn't find it.

If you're thinking new capital spending of even $8 billion isn't much in an annual budget of $370 billion, you're right. The fact is that, despite all the feds' talk about the need for more spending on infrastructure, they've always tended to leave the lion's share of capital works spending to the state governments.

It's the states that build the schools, hospitals and police stations, as well as the roads, bridges and railways. The Feds limit their direct capital spending to things such as defence and communications. If they think we need more spending on schools or highways or public housing, they give capital grants to the states.

If you keep searching until you get to page 9.21, you find the states will be getting capital grants of $5.4 billion in the coming year - though this is less than half the $11.7 billion they got in the old year.

Not good. Except something tells me this is where the creative accountants have been at work, shifting spending out of the would-be surplus year back into the old deficit year. So, in reality, probably not such a negative to economic activity as it looks to be.

Do you get the feeling we're trespassing into areas the government would prefer us to keep our noses out of? One area where inquiry is unwelcome is the difference between the expected and much-trumpeted "underlying cash surplus" of $1.5 billion and the never-mentioned "headline cash deficit" of $8.7 billion.

This distinction was introduced by Peter Costello, in reaction against the way the Hawke-Keating government used to disguise the size of its budget deficits by including proceeds from the sale of businesses such as Qantas or the Commonwealth Bank.

Costello decided to exclude from the "underlying" budget balance something now known as "net cash flows from investments in financial assets for policy purposes". Businesses such as Qantas were classed as financial assets because what the government owned was shares in those businesses, and shares are financial assets, not "real" (physical) assets.

Good move. Selling existing businesses had little effect on economic activity. It was really just an alternative way of funding the budget deficit to selling government bonds, not a way of reducing it.

But good ole Pete left himself a loophole: he didn't exclude from the underlying budget balance proceeds from the sale of non-financial assets such as land or buildings, even though the same argument applies.

And it would never have occurred to Costello that his successor would come along and, instead of selling a financial asset, would set up new government-owned businesses. Say, one that uses its government-supplied share capital to lay a broadband network around the nation. You can't say paying people to lay cables has no effect on economic activity.

Most of the difference between the underlying surplus of $1.5 billion and the headline deficit of $8.7 billion is explained by spending of $13.3 billion on the setting up of new businesses, including the NBN Co Ltd.

See what's happened? To help get the budget back to surplus, the creative accountants have, first, used a loophole to include proceeds from the sale of land and buildings when they shouldn't have and, second, used a loophole to exclude spending on infrastructure when they should have included it.