Monday, September 3, 2012

We pay for miners' impatience

Is patience a virtue? Our mothers taught us that it was, but much economic thinking treats it as a vice. And business people treat their impatience as though it's a virtue. But I'm with mum.

What isn't in doubt is that impatience is a pretty much universal human characteristic; we're all impatient, to a greater or lesser extent. I hardly think that makes impatience "rational" but, even so, conventional economics is careful to take full account of it.

The most fundamental reflection of our impatience is found in interest rates. No one is likely to lend money to a non-family member without charging a fee. Lenders want to be rewarded for doing you a favour and also for running the risk they won't be repaid.

But why not charge borrowers a flat fee? Why charge them at an annual rate for however long it is they have your money? Because you're impatient to get it back. So interest rates are a reflection of our impatience.

It's because lenders are always paid, and borrowers always charged, an amount of interest that varies with the length of the loan, that interest rates reflect "the time value of money". Allow for that value and you see why a dollar today is worth more than a dollar tomorrow (or in a year's time).

If you had a dollar today, you could lend it to someone and charge interest; if you needed a dollar today you'd have to pay interest. This being universally true, it becomes "rational" for economic calculations to take account of our impatience, as reflected in our charging of interest on the basis of time.

This is why, if someone promises to pay you $1 million a year for 10 years, it's not sensible to value that promise at $10 million. It's worth less than that because you have to wait so long for the money. How much less? That depends on how long you have to wait and your degree of impatience.

This, of course, explains the common business practice of "discounting" future flows of cash (both incoming and outgoing) to determine the "net present value" of a project. (A "discount rate" is compound interest in reverse, working from the future to the present rather than the present to the future.)

But this practice of discounting at a constant rate over time is far from foolproof. For one thing, behavioural economists have shown that, in real life, we're a lot more impatient in the near term than the longer term ("hyperbolic discounting").

For another, conventional discounting implies we care little about the distant future, which flies in the face of our concerns about the wellbeing of our children and grandchildren ("intergenerational equity") and sustainability - ecological or otherwise.

Business people treat delay as a vice - they're always on their high horse about government delays in approving their projects - but impatience may be motivated by selfishness, shortsightedness and even greed. We want to be richer - and we want to be richer now.

So we demand quarterly performance reports and structure chief executives' remuneration packages to reward them for getting quick results. Then we discover they're neglecting to invest in the longer term, not worrying about what will happen to the business in future years, and complain about "short-termism".

John Maynard Keynes said many wise things, but his most foolish (or misapplied) was that "in the long run we are all dead". It's not true - I'm still alive after first hearing it almost 50 years ago - and it's a maxim most of us will live to regret following.

People have understood the shortsightedness of short-termism for decades, but little or nothing has been done to correct it. The truth is, the business world is shackled by its uncontrollable impatience, to our long-term detriment.

It doesn't seem to have occurred to those people complaining about being in the slow lane of the resources boom that their problems are being compounded by the miners' impatience to get in for their cut while the going is good.

That's because, in business circles, impatience is seen as something to be admired. Among economists, the speed at which market participants wish to proceed is seen as a matter for them in their response to market incentives, not something the government should interfere with.

The more the dollar stays high, despite the fall back in coal and iron ore prices, the more likely it's being held up by the huge mining investment boom, as miners rush to get extra production capacity on line before prices have fallen too far.

Miners are elbowing their competitors aside, trying the grab the labour and other resources they need to get their mine built before other people's mines.

In their mad scramble they're attracting resources away from other industries - including major public infrastructure projects - creating shortages of skilled labour and bidding up wages. This explains why miners are demanding that environmental and other approval processes be speeded up. Worry about the environmental consequences later; let's just do it!

But their mad dash to get their mines built as soon as possible is causing indigestion problems for the rest of the economy.

They're bidding up wages to attract the workers they need, and for a long time the Reserve Bank was afraid they would cause an inflation surge.

It kept interest rates higher in consequence - thus probably adding a little to the dollar's strength - and, either way, making life tougher for the manufacturers and tourism operators.

And all because no one was prepared to tell the miners our minerals would come to no harm staying in the ground, so they should stop making trouble for others by being so impatient.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Productivity more about technology than reform

A while back I met a businessman who'd been a big wheel in IT. He expressed utter amazement that the Productivity Commission and other economists could attribute the whole of the surge in productivity during the 1990s to micro-economic reform, without a mention of the information and communications technology revolution.

He was right; that's exactly what they do. And he's right, it's pretty hard to believe that computerisation and the digital revolution could make such a big difference to the way so many businesses go about their business without that making any noticeable difference to the nation's productivity.

Can the economists prove the productivity surge in the late '90s and early noughties was caused by the delayed effect of all the micro reforms of the '80s and '90s - floating the dollar, deregulating the financial system, phasing down protection, privatising or corporatising government businesses, reforming taxes and decentralising wage-fixing?

No they can't. The plain truth is so many factors influence productivity, and the figures themselves are so ropey, you can't say what's driving them at a particular point with any certainty.

I think the best you can say is all that reform must surely have had some positive influence. But most economists are great advocates of micro reform, so you've got to allow for salesman's bias.

But here's the big news for that incredulous businessman: for the first time, to my knowledge, the econocrats have acknowledged that IT may have played a significant part in the productivity surge.

The likelihood is accepted in an article on Australia's productivity performance by Patrick D'Arcy and Linus Gustafsson in the most recent issue of the Reserve Bank's Bulletin.

"One possible explanation for the surge and subsequent decline in multi-factor productivity growth in Australia ... over the past two decades is the pattern of adoption of information and communication technologies, which are primarily developed and produced offshore," they say.

"The widespread adoption of these technologies through the 1990s was largely complete by the early 2000s. Assuming that the introduction of computers created a gradual upward shift in the level of productivity of some workers ... this would have been reflected in strong multi-factor productivity in the 1990s, with the contribution to productivity growth moderating in the 2000s once rates of usage had stabilised."

In case you're rusty, "multi-factor productivity" growth measures the increase in the amount of output for a given amount of both labour and capital inputs.

Over the 20 years to 1994, it improved in the market sector at the rate of 0.6 per cent a year. Over the 10 years to 2004, the rate surged to 1.8 per cent a year. Over the seven years to mid-2011, it contracted at the rate of 0.4 per cent a year. Exclude mining and the utilities industry, however, and the underlying improvement was plus 0.4 per cent a year.

If you're a glass-half-full kind of guy, you can say our productivity performance in recent years is only a little worse than our long-term average. But on this score most economists prefer the half-empty view: the rate of productivity improvement has suffered a significant and worrying slowdown in recent times.

Again, that's a salesman's line. The authors observe that what's exceptional is not our present underlying performance but the unprecedented surge in the '90s.

If you're new to the productivity business you could be forgiven for thinking it occurs mainly as a result of economic reform. That's what many economists have been implying, but - as they well know - it's nonsense.

Particularly over the longer term, the primary driver of multi-factor productivity improvement - and the rise in material living standards it brings - is technological advance. That's why it never ceases to surprise me how little interest most economists take in technology and innovation.

But the authors outline what economists do know. "At a fundamental level," they say, "productivity is determined by the available technology (including the knowledge of production processes held by firms and individuals) and the way production is organised within firms and industries."

Conceptually, economists often view technology as determining the productivity "frontier". That is, the maximum amount that could be produced with given inputs.

Factors affecting how production is organised - including policies affecting how efficiently labour, capital and fixed resources are allocated and employed within the economy - determine how close the economy actually is to the theoretical maximum.

This means "trend" (medium-term average) productivity growth is determined by the rate at which new technologies become available (that is, how fast the frontier is shifting out) and also the rate of improvement in efficiency (how fast the economy is approaching the frontier).

"Overall, there is some evidence that both a slowdown in the pace at which the frontier is expanding and the pace at which Australia is approaching the frontier have contributed to the decline in the rate of productivity growth relative to the historically high growth of the 1990s," they say.

However, there is little evidence a lack of incentives to invest in physical capital has been significant in explaining the slowdown in multi-factor productivity growth, we're told.

The authors note that the slowdown in multi-factor productivity improvement has occurred despite continued strong growth in investment. In many cases, new investment involves increasing the stock of physical capital based on existing technologies. And although this "capital deepening" may improve labour productivity, it doesn't necessarily improve multi-factor productivity.

For investment to drive gains in multi-factor productivity, there need to be "spillover effects" that generate a more than commensurate increase in output than the increase in capital.

In practice, this typically requires the introduction of a new technology to be associated with some fundamental reorganisation of production processes, or the development of a genuinely new technology that has benefits greater than the research costs required to develop it.

For these reasons, economists generally view the likely drivers of multi-factor productivity as being research and development spending, investment in human capital (education and skills) and investments in capital equipment that can fundamentally change the way firms operate, such as information and communication technologies.

Figures show a fairly universal slowing in productivity growth in the noughties among the members of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

This suggests part of our slowdown may be related to common global factors, such as the pace of technological innovation and adoption.