Monday, June 10, 2013

In the business game, less is often more

It's a holiday, so let's talk about sport not business - for openers, anyway. Indoor handball is a team sport where players face a constant stream of quick decisions about what to do with the ball: pass, shoot, lob or fake?

Players have to make these decisions in an instant. Would they make better decisions if they had more time and could analyse the situation in depth?

In an experiment with 85 young, skilled handball players, each stood in front of a screen, dressed in his uniform with a ball in his hand. On the screen, video scenes of high-level games were shown. Each scene was 10 seconds long, ending in a freeze-frame.

The players were asked to imagine they were the player with the ball and, when the scene was frozen, to say as quickly as possible the best action that came to mind.

After these intuitive judgments, the players were given more time to inspect the frozen scene carefully, and name as many additional options as they could. For instance, some discovered a player to the left or right they had overlooked, or noticed other details they weren't aware of under time pressure.

Finally, after 45 seconds they were asked to conclude what the best action would be. In about 40 per cent of cases this considered judgment was different from their first choice.

OK, that's enough fun. Back to business. We live in a business world where the thinking of educated people has been heavily influenced by rational analysis. For instance, one rational conclusion is that to make good decisions we need the best information possible. To be better informed is to perform better.

These days, all switched-on managers know they need an adequate business information system - the right "metrics" - to be fully informed about their business's performance and so be able to make the right decisions to keep it scoring goals.

To the rationally trained person, more information is always better and more options to choose from are always better. Economists add the qualification that information is often costly, so you shouldn't keep collecting it beyond the point where the additional cost exceeds the additional benefit.

Practical managers know there's a trade-off between speed and accuracy. It's good for decisions to be as accurate as possible, but it's also good for decisions to be made without much delay. So the smart manager finds a happy medium between accuracy and speed, knowing they're sacrificing some accuracy for a speedy decision.

Back to handball. This experiment was recounted by German psychologist Gerd Gigerenzer, of the Max Planck Institute in Berlin, in his book Gut Feelings. To measure the quality of the actions the players proposed, the experimenters got professional-league coaches to evaluate all proposed actions for each video.

They found that, contrary to the notion of a speed-accuracy trade-off, taking time and analysing didn't generate better choices. The players' gut reactions were, on average, better than the actions they chose after reflection.

Indeed, the order in which possible actions came to the players' minds directly reflected their quality: the best came to mind first, the worst came last. This result is consistent with many experiments showing that, though the inexperienced need to think it through carefully before they take a golf shot, drive a car, or tie their shoe laces, the experienced do better if they don't think about what they're doing but simply do what comes naturally.

This is consistent with another finding that chicken sexers, chess masters, professional baseball players, award-winning writers and composers are typically unable to explain how they do what they do.

In some circumstances, more information and more time to process it is better. But a surprising amount of the time less turns out to be more.

Gigerenzer says this will be so in cases where we're relying on unconscious motor skills. It's also true when the limits of our brain power mean we make better decisions if we don't confuse ourselves with too much conflicting information.

Our brains seem to have built-in mechanisms, such as forgetting a lot of things and starting small, that protect us from some of the dangers of possessing too much information.

A famous experiment involving selling different flavours of jam in a supermarket found that having too many choices leads to decision-making paralysis. Offering a choice of six led to more sales than a choice of 20. It doesn't follow, however, that offering an even smaller choice would increase sales further.

Gigerenzer's other conclusion - of particular relevance to business decision-making - is that empirical testing can reveal simple rules of thumb that predict complex phenomena as well or better than complex rules do.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Economy yet to make transition to post-boom world

The economists' buzzword of the week - and probably the year - is "transition". If it's not in your lexicon add it immediately. You'll need it - because this week we learnt how tricky it's likely to be.

As the construction phase of the resources boom nears its peak, the economy needs to make a transition from mining-led growth to growth led by all the normal sources: consumer spending, home building and non-mining business investment.

This week the national accounts for the March quarter from the Bureau of Statistics showed growth in real gross domestic product of just 0.6 per cent for the quarter and 2.5 per cent for the year to March.

For once this seems a reasonably reliable reflection of how the economy's travelling. It's not disastrous, but nor is it satisfactory.

The economy needs to be growing at its medium-term trend rate of about 3 per cent a year. Growth of that order is needed just to hold unemployment constant. And since we've been falling short of it for about a year it's not surprising that, over the year to April, the unemployment rate has drifted from 5.1 per cent to 5.5 per cent.

(If you had it in your mind our trend growth rate was nearer 3.25 per cent, you're not wrong, just out of date. The econocrats have lowered it to 3 per cent to take account of the ageing of the baby boomers, which means a larger proportion of the population is now in an age range with lower participation in the labour force.)

The worrying thing about this week's figures is that they reveal the pressing need for a transition from mining-led to broader growth, but not much sign it's about to happen.

As best he can determine it, Kieran Davies, of Barclays bank, estimates mining investment spending fell about 7 per cent in quarter. Rather than rising, however, non-mining investment spending fell about 3 per cent.

At the same time, new home building (including alterations) was flat. Consumer spending strengthened to grow 0.6 per cent, but this was still below trend.

Public sector spending grew 1.1 per cent, but this followed a much bigger fall the previous quarter and with all the pressure on state and federal governments to balance their budgets, we shouldn't expect much help from the public sector.

According to the opposition, the Gillard government's been doing far too much to help.

It turned out a lot of the growth in the March quarter came from "net external demand". The volume (quantity) of our exports grew 1.1 per cent, whereas the volume of imports fell 3.5 per cent, meaning "net exports" (exports minus imports) made a positive contribution to growth of 1 percentage point.

Some silly people have been saying if it hadn't been for net exports the economy would be in a bad way - which is a bit like saying if we cut off one of our arms we'd be in a bad way. What they're missing is that the growth in export volumes will be lasting (they grew 8.1 per cent over the year to March) because it's coming from strong growth in exports of coal and iron ore, as new mines come into production and the third phase of the resources boom kicks in.

In other words, it's wrong to imagine the boom's about to leave us high and dry. Mining production and exports have a lot further to grow in coming years. Even the fall in imports (which constitutes a reduction in their negative contribution to growth) is linked to the boom: reduced investment in new mines means reduced imports of capital equipment.

As for the second, construction phase of the boom, spending from quarter to quarter is too variable to allow us to conclude this quarter's fall means the peak has been passed. Maybe, maybe not. Nor is it clear how precipitous the fall will be when it arrives. It may be fairly gentle since the miners' pipeline of committed projects still stands at a record high of $268 billion.

What reason is there to hope the non-mining sources of growth will strengthen? The main one is that the Reserve Bank has cut the official interest rate 1.5 percentage points in a little over a year, taking the "stance" of monetary policy to its most stimulatory in many a moon.

Everything we know tells us lower interest rates encourage borrowing and spending, particularly in interest-sensitive areas such as housing and the purchase of consumer durables. We also know it often takes a while to work. In my experience, it's just when people are running around saying it isn't working that it starts to.

Of course, a significant fall in the dollar would help a lot by improving the international price competitiveness of our export and import-competing industries, particularly manufacturing and tourism. It would help them produce more for export and replace imports in the domestic market. (So much for those who think it makes sense to assume away net exports.)

The dollar does seem to have fallen about US7? in the past few weeks. This may be some help, but it's far short of what would be justified by the deterioration in our terms of trade (the passing of the first phase of the boom) and what our traders need to restore their competitiveness.

The best hope for further falls in the exchange rate is not further cuts in our official interest rate (its role is widely overrated) but better prospects for the US economy leading to expectations of the cessation of "quantitative easing" (metaphorically, printing money), which has the side effect of putting downward pressure on the greenback. The Reserve has been cutting rates since November 2011, not to induce a fall in our dollar so much as to offset the contractionary effect of its failure to fall as export prices have fallen.

Should the dollar keep falling the Reserve won't cut rates any further. Should the dollar fail to keep falling, it probably will.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

We can be fairer and more efficient at the same time

Humans are a pattern-seeking animal but also a categorising animal. We're forever trying to get a handle on how the world works by sorting things into different boxes. When we can slap a label on something or someone, we think we've understood them.

It's fashionable among our business people to divide the world into "wealth creators" (them) and "wealth distributors" (everyone else but particularly governments). Wealth creators are the source of all prosperity; wealth distributors are essentially parasitic.

Economists' favourite boxes are similar, but not quite so crude. They divide policy objectives into "efficiency" (promoting economic growth) and "equity" (ensuring a reasonably fair distribution of the fruits of that growth).

For the most part, economists see efficiency and equity as in conflict. They care deeply about promoting efficiency but often leave it to others to worry about equity - unless they fear some equity measure would lead to inefficiency.

But sometimes our habitual ways of categorising things can be a hindrance to understanding and progress. Sometimes the labels on boxes don't adequately describe their contents, which can have more in common than we realise. Sometimes we "frame" problems in ways that conceal their solutions.

A new book, Inclusive Growth in Australia, proposes just such a new way of thinking about equity and efficiency. It's edited by Professor Paul Smyth, of Melbourne University and the Brotherhood of St Laurence, and Professor John Buchanan, of the workplace research centre at Sydney University.

A lot of economists and business people are worried about a fall in the rate at which the economy's productivity is improving. Productivity measures the efficiency with which we take inputs of land, labour and capital and turn them into outputs of goods and services. It normally improves by a per cent or two a year but it's been weak for about a decade.

It's our improving productivity - brought about by advances in technology, improvements in public infrastructure and a better educated and more skilled workforce - that causes our material standard of living to keep improving. It also helps to have a higher proportion of the population participating in the workforce.

To date, the deterioration in our productivity performance has been concealed by the resources boom, with its higher prices for our exports and hugely increased construction of new mines. But, the economists worry, now the boom is passing its peak, people will really feel the absence of ever-rising incomes.

So what's the Gillard government doing about it? Ignoring wealth creation and worrying about perfecting the way it's distributed. It's going to the election with two policy changes in pride of place: a disability insurance scheme and the Gonski changes to school funding.

All very worthy, no doubt, but talk about fiddling while Rome burns. But here's where the proponents of "inclusive growth" have a useful perspective. They say that far from being an irrelevance or an indulgence, social policy can, if you do it right, constitute an investment in improving the economy's performance.

As it happens, both the disability scheme and the Gonski reforms are good examples. Many physically and mentally disabled people - and their voluntary carers - would dearly love to make a greater contribution to the paid workforce, if they were enabled to.

And intervention to assist the disabled can be strategic: do it the right way at the right time and much subsequent expense - not to mention personal anguish - can be avoided. No more soft-headed authority than the Productivity Commission attests to the ability of the disability scheme to add to national income.

Similarly, it doesn't take too much thought to realise changing the basis for federal grants to public and private schools to one that gives more to schools with disadvantaged students can been seen either as a move to greater fairness - improving their equality of opportunity - or a move to greater efficiency.

We have no trouble seeing the benefit of doing more to assist the education and training of our brightest and best but much trouble realising the same applies at the bottom end. If, by giving them greater and more timely assistance, we could reduce the number of kids who drop out of school - or make it through with inadequate levels of literacy and numeracy - we'd be making them more productive workers.

The main lesson to be learnt from the league tables showing how our students' educational attainment compares with those in other countries is not that our best students aren't keeping up but that there's a widening gap between our best and our worst.

Another theme of the inclusive growth advocates is "flexicurity" - improving unemployment benefits and assistance to the jobless so as to reduce resistance to the unceasing change in the structure of our economy as the poor countries develop and the digital revolution proceeds.

I think the search for ways to kill two birds with one stone is a good one - just as long as it doesn't devolve into a miser-like attitude that economic efficiency is all that matters and we help people only to the extent we can see a buck in it.

We are - and will stay - a rich country. We can afford to educate ourselves well because to be educated is one of the joys of life, a benefit from being rich. And we should need no better reason for sharing our wealth fairly than that it's right thing to do.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Garnaut cries from the economic wilderness

Professor Ross Garnaut, now at the University of Melbourne, is our most prophetic economist. In a much-discussed speech last week he prophesied that the easing of the resources boom would bring "hard times after more than two decades of extraordinary prosperity".

He says we face three big challenges if we're to avoid the end of the long boom leaving us with much to regret. The first is that our real exchange rate now needs to fall a long way to be consistent with full employment.

The second big challenge, he says, is to change entrenched expectations that living standards will rise inexorably over time; that household and business incomes and public services will rise and taxes will fall, as they have done for a generation.

"Those expectations must be reversed in the process of dealing with the legacy of the boom, or our efforts in reform will be defeated by bitter disappointment with political leadership and eventually political institutions," he says.

I think he's making two points. One is that economic life consists of downs as well as ups, losses as well as gains, and anyone who imagines governments should or even could shield them from all unpleasantness is destined for disillusionment. The need for income earners not to be compensated for the higher cost of imports caused by a fall in the dollar is a case in point.

The other point is we must disabuse ourselves of the notion economic life is about sitting around waiting for another serve of prosperity to be handed to us on a plate. Outside of resources booms, we have to make our own luck.

The third big challenge we face is that our political culture has changed since the reform era of 1983 to 2000, in ways that make it much more difficult to pursue policy reform in the broad public interest. "If we are to succeed, the political culture has to change again," he says.

Policy change in the public interest seems to have become more difficult over time as interest groups have become increasingly active and sophisticated in bringing financial weight to account in influencing policy decisions, he says.

"Interest groups have come to feel less inhibition about investment in politics in pursuit of private interests.

"For a long time ... it has been rare for private interests of any kind to be asked to accept private losses in the interests of improved national economic performance. When asked, the response has been ferocious partisan reaction rather than contributions to reasoned discussion of the public interest in change and in the status quo.

"A new ethos has developed in which there can be no losers from reform. Business has asserted a property right to continuing benefits of regulatory mistakes. It demands compensation for corrections to errors in policy.

"Households have been led to expect that no policy changes will cause any of them to be worse off."

Garnaut says that whether comprehensive public interest reform is possible depends a great deal on the quality of political leadership. Quality of leadership is partly about capacity to explain to citizens the nature of the choices that must be made on their behalf. He's no doubt right about the need for better leadership, but when the rest of us dwell on that lack it becomes a cop-out. It's actually a symptom of the very easy-prosperity syndrome Garnaut is warning about.

The Business Council in particular is prone to sitting around praying for God to send us leaders "prepared to lose their jobs to get things done". That's a quality as rare among politicians as it is among chief executives. If we wait for a policy suicide bomber we'll be waiting a while.

In truth, politicians are more followers than leaders. They deliver those changes being urged on them by what I'd call the nation's opinion leaders and Garnaut calls "a substantial independent centre of the national polity".

Pollies make risky reforms when they know these people have already done much educating of community power-holders on the necessity for the reforms in the public interest, and when they're confident the urgers will stand by them when the flak is flying. (The Business Council always finks out at that point.)

And Garnaut offers a further warning to those who, like the Business Council, dream of "reforms" that advance their private interests at the expense of the rest of us. Reform must be clearly in the public interest if certain groups are to be persuaded to cop losses for the greater good.

Finally, "it is a lesson of Australian history that successful periods of restraint require the equitable sharing of sacrifice". Developing a framework of equity will be important to the success of a choice by the nation to put the public interest ahead of business as usual.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Latest on the debt no one mentions

It's funny that people who like to worry about the supposedly humongous size of our "debt and deficits" have focused on one debt when they could have picked another one four times bigger.

They carry on about the federal "net public debt", which is expected to have reached $162 billion - equivalent to 10.6 per cent of gross domestic product - by the end of this month. It's now expected to peak at $192 billion - 11.4 per cent of GDP - in June 2015, before it starts falling.

But that's chicken feed compared with our "net foreign debt", which reached $760 billion - 51 per cent of GDP - in December.

Whereas the net public debt is the net amount owed by the federal government to people who hold its bonds (whether they're Australians or foreigners), the net foreign debt is the net amount Australian governments, companies and households owe to foreigners.

One reason for the lack of trumpeted concern about the foreign debt is you can't score any party-political points with it. In dollar terms, at least, it's just kept growing under Liberal and Labor governments.

A better reason is there isn't a lot to worry about. Throughout the history of white settlement, Australia has always been a net importer of foreign capital because our scope for economic development has always been greater than we could finance with just our own saving.

And, as Treasury points out in this year's budget papers, there's now even less reason to worry than there used to be.

The net foreign debt is the partial consequence of a deficit that rarely rates a mention these days, the deficit on the current account of our balance of payments. (The balance of payments records all the transactions between Australians and the rest of the world.)

The current account deficit is usually thought of as the sum of our trade deficit (exports minus imports) and our "net income deficit" (our payments of interest and dividends to foreigners minus their payments of interest and dividends to us).

But it can also be thought of as the extent to which we have called on the savings of foreigners to fund that part of the nation's investment spending (on new homes, business equipment and structures, and public infrastructure) the nation has been unable to fund with our own saving (by households, companies and governments).

Actually, borrowing foreigners' savings is only one way to make up the saving deficiency. The other way is to attract foreign "equity" investment (ownership) in Australian businesses.

In December, when our net borrowing from foreigners totalled $760 billion, the net value of foreigners' equity investment in Australia was $110 billion, taking our total net foreign liabilities to $870 billion.

Our net foreign liabilities represent the accumulation of all our past current account deficits (and we've run such a deficit almost every year for at least the past 200).

Treasury makes the point that just because we don't save enough to finance all our annual new investment doesn't mean we don't save much. We save a higher proportion of national income (GDP) than many developed countries, and we've been saving a lot more since the early noughties.

Though governments are saving less, it's well known that households are saving a lot more. And companies are saving more by retaining a higher proportion of their after-tax profits. So national saving has risen to about 25 per cent of GDP.

Some of this rise has been offset by an increase in national investment spending, driven by the mining construction boom, which has taken national investment spending up to about 28 per cent of GDP.

Even so we've still reduced the gap between national investment and national saving to about 3 percentage points of GDP, which compares with an average of 6 percentage points in the years leading up to the global financial crisis. Treasury says this smaller gap (that is, smaller current account deficit) is likely to continue for at least the next two years.

Before the financial crisis, the dominant form of net capital inflow was "portfolio debt", Treasury says. This debt was held largely by our banks, but their foreign borrowing was really to meet the borrowing needs of their household and business customers.

Since the crisis, however, the household sector has ceased to be a net borrower and reverted to its more accustomed position as a net lender to other sectors of the economy.

The corporate sector (excluding the banks) is still a net borrower, but the mining companies in particular have funded a lot of their investment in new mining construction from retained earnings rather than borrowings.

Since the miners are largely foreign-owned, however, this use of retained earnings shows up in the balance of payments as an inflow of foreign equity.

This implies we've become less dependent on foreign borrowing to finance the current account deficit.

As part of this, our banks have been net repayers of their total foreign liabilities since mid-2010.

(The counterpart of this is that they've been getting a lot higher proportion of their funding from Australian household depositors, particularly through term deposits.)

One lesson from the financial crisis is that severe dislocations in foreign funding markets can impede the ability of even the most creditworthy borrowers (our banks, for instance) to obtain funds, even if only for a short time.

This helps explain our banks' subsequent move back to reliance on household deposits (made more possible by our households' changed saving behaviour, of course) and also their move to reduce their exposure to "rollover risk" (having trouble replacing a maturing debt with a new debt) by lengthening the average term of their foreign borrowers.

These days, 63 per cent of our foreign debt is more than a year from maturity, including almost a third with more than five years to run.

Finally, some people worry that, when we borrow in foreign currencies, a fall in our dollar would automatically increase the Australian-dollar amount of our debt. But Treasury points out, these days, almost two-thirds of our net foreign debt has been borrowed in Australian dollars.