Saturday, December 8, 2012

Wellbeing index gives better picture of mining boom

DON'T believe the doomsayers.This week's national accounts indicate the economy is slowing to something a bit below trend but the critics of the great god gross domestic product are right: it is a quite inadequate and often misleading measure of the nation's progress.

This is why, for more than a year, the Herald has commissioned Dr Nicholas Gruen, principal of Lateral Economics, to calculate a broader index of wellbeing, which we have published within a few days of the release of the Bureau of Statistics' quarterly national accounts, with GDP as their centrepiece.

Our purpose has been to supplement rather than supplant the official figures, which have valid - if narrower - uses and were never intended to be treated as the nation's all-encompassing bottom line.

The Herald-Lateral Economics wellbeing index uses the national accounts to produce a modified version of GDP called "net national disposable income". This adjustment takes account of the annual depreciation (using up) of man-made capital and of the income earned within Australia which isn't owned by Australians.

It also shifts the focus from the value of the nation's production to how much disposable income the nation's households have available to spend on consumption or save, in the process allowing for the change in the prices of our exports relative to the prices of imports.

To this figure the index adds adjustments for the value of the net depletion of natural resources (after allowing for new discoveries), the estimated cost of future climate change, all levels of education and training, changes in income inequality, various measures of the nation's health and employment-related satisfaction.

All this means the index is well placed to help answer a question on many people's minds: what will we have to show for the resources boom?

Unlike GDP, the wellbeing index takes account of the loss of the minerals dug up and sent overseas, not just the export income earned from doing so. It also takes account of the loss of real income we have suffered from the end of the first stage of the boom: the marked decline in the world prices of coal and iron ore during the three months to the end of September.

This was the main factor that converted the growth of 0.5 per cent in GDP during the quarter - a measure of the quantity of goods and services produced in the economy - to a fall of 0.7 per cent in our net national disposable income.

But the accounts confirm that Australian households are continuing to save the high proportion of their disposable incomes. So that is proof we have been saving rather than spending some of our windfall gain from the boom.

But the broader index shows we have also increased our investment in the education and training of our workforce. So much so that, despite the fall in export prices, the index rose by 0.2 per cent during the quarter.

We should be using our good fortune to raise the value of workers' labour and improve their lives in the years ahead - and the wellbeing index shows we are.