Saturday, August 31, 2013

Forest logging propped up by conservationists

Everyone knows the environment and the economy are in conflict; that any effort we make to protect the environment comes at the expense of profit and jobs.

So, for instance, everyone knows that if the community wants to see restrictions on the logging of native forests in Tasmania, it's only reasonable for the government to compensate the industry and its workers for their loss of livelihood.

And this is precisely what the federal government has been doing for years. As long ago as 1989, the Tasmanian forestry sector received $42 million under the Helsham agreement. Under the Tasmanian regional forestry agreement of 1997, it got $110 million and under the Tasmanian community forest agreement of 2005, it got $203 million.

Under the Tasmanian forestry agreement - negotiated by the industry, unions and conservation groups, and finalised earlier this year - it will get another $300 million. Two weeks ago, as the battle for Tasmanian votes hotted up, Labor announced that the release of some of this money would no longer be conditional on the preservation of certain forests.

The national native forest industry has been doing it tough in recent years. Over the period from 2009 to 2011, removals of "roundwood" (logs) were 30 per cent below the average of the previous 18 years. And woodchip exports fell by a third between 2008 and last year.

The fall in production and exports has bankrupted the native hardwood industry's largest producer, Gunns Limited, and led to the closure of numerous processing facilities around the country.

State forest authorities have also recorded substantial losses. Forestry Tasmania recorded a net loss before tax and other items of $64 million over the four years to last year, an average of $16 million a year. The Forests Corporation of NSW recorded a total loss of $85 million over the same period, an average of $21 million a year.

The way the industry likes to tell it, it was hit by the banning of logging in certain forest areas and the tightening up of forest management practices. But while it was recovering from this blow, it was hit first by the global financial crisis and then by the high dollar (which has reduced earnings from exports and reduced the price of the imported forest products it competes against).

Talk about bad luck. Clearly, the industry just needs a bit of government help to keep it on track until things get back to normal.

And, indeed, all of the parties to the latest Tasmanian forestry agreement believe it will deliver "an ongoing, vibrant forestry industry in Tasmania based on native forests and, increasingly in the future, plantation".

There's just one problem: this is wishful thinking. The industry's story uses the environment as a convenient whipping-boy to draw attention away from its long-term structural decline - and probably demise.

The chequered story of the native forest industry and the way it has sucked ever-growing subsidies from governments can be deduced (as I have done) from a report prepared earlier this year by Andrew Macintosh, of the Australian National University, for the Australia Institute, The Australian Native Forest Sector: Causes of the decline and prospects for the future.

It's true the industry has been adversely affected by conservation measures, the global financial crisis and the high dollar. But they're secondary to its underlying problem of declining demand for its products and increasing competition both from other products and other, overseas producers of its products.

When you look at it, you see that the logging of hardwood native forests is under pressure from every direction.

To the extent that people still want hardwood, they increasingly prefer it from plantations, not native forests. But demand for hardwood itself is declining in favour of softwood, most of which comes from plantations.

Demand for wood is being reduced by demand for other products such as steel, by engineered wood (where thin bits of wood are glued together in different ways) and by wood-saving innovations.

And all that's before you get to increased competition from wood producers in other countries - competing in our domestic market and competing in our export markets.

The supply and future supply of plantation wood has been greatly expanded by another government subsidy, managed investment schemes, in which misguided punters overinvested in crazy pursuit of tax breaks.

Where the native forest sector can't sell its logs for use in building construction - as increasingly it can't - it sells them to be chopped into woodchips for papermaking. Naturally, woodchips are worth less. But even the native forest woodchip market is facing reduced demand and increased competition.

Macintosh concludes that "with sluggish demand in many key markets, strong competition from Asian, South American and African producers, and a distinct market preference for plantation-sourced products" and "in the absence of additional government assistance, the sector is likely to continue to decline and, in some areas, it could collapse entirely".

See what's happening? Our perception that protecting the environment is always in conflict with the economy and jobs is being used by the industry, its unions and the politicians as a cover for continued handouts to the industry, handouts that will do nothing but delay the inevitable.

And the conservation groups, having been convinced the industry's problems are all their fault, are running cover for an industry that doesn't want to face the truth and politicians trying to buy Tasmanian votes.

The result is that taxpayers are paying to allow an industry that probably would have collapsed to continue doing damage to native forests. It's getting help other industries wouldn't get, partly because it's doing something most other industries don't do: destroying the environment.

This makes sense?

If the conservationists had more sense they'd joint the economic rationalists in urging governments to stop giving subsidies - explicit and hidden - to an industry trying to defy market realities.

Environmentalists would do more good if more of them knew a bit of economics.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Parties' sameness hides a big difference

You could be forgiven for concluding there's little to pick from in this election; the age of ideology is long gone and the true difference between the parties is minor. The two sides have assiduously eliminated their differences to the point where we're asked to choose between the red management team and the blue management team.

You could be forgiven for thinking all this because there's much truth to it. The more "scientific" and calculated politics has become the further the sides have moved towards the centre.

But it's not the whole truth. The parties may not be terribly ideological and - with the notable exceptions of Julia Gillard and Wayne Swan - they may assiduously avoid the language of class conflict, but they do play favourites in the policies they espouse.

If you think the class war is over, you're not paying enough attention. The reason the well-off come down so hard on those who use class rhetoric is that they don't want anyone drawing attention to how the war's going.

All of them except Warren Buffett, the mega-rich American investor. "There's class warfare, all right," he once said, "but it's my class, the rich class, that's making war, and we're winning."

The reason the wiser heads in Labor don't want to talk about class conflict, either, is they know it gets them nowhere. It alienates people at the top without attracting many at the bottom.

This, of course, is why the well-off like me are winning. The workers are too busy watching telly to notice the ways they're being got at. It requires attention to boring things like superannuation when you could be up the club playing the pokies.

The significant thing about the looming change of government is not that the economy will be much better managed - it won't be; these days most of the key decisions are made by the econocrats - but that the Coalition will bring to its decisions about taxing and spending a different bias to Labor's.

How can I say that? By looking at Tony Abbott's promises. If you do pay attention it's as plain as a hundred dollar bill.

Let's start with that boring question of the concessional tax treatment of superannuation. It's by far the most expensive example of (upper) middle-class welfare.

Super has always been a scheme heavily favouring those on the highest rates of income tax, who also happen to be those most able to afford to save.

But towards the end of his time as treasurer, Peter Costello introduced "reforms" that made it far more favourable to the well-off by making super payouts tax free and opening the scheme wide to "salary sacrifice" by those able to afford it.

At the time, many economists said what they're saying now about Abbott's paid parental leave scheme, that it was so generous as to be fiscally unsustainable.

And so it has proved. In its unending search for budget savings the Labor government has chipped away at that generosity in almost every budget (as I know to my cost).

And as part of its mining tax package, Labor finally acted to remove one of the most iniquitous features of the scheme.

It introduced the "low-income super contribution rebate" to end a situation where everyone earning less than $37,000 a year gained nothing from the concessional treatment of super contributions (while people like me saved tax of 31.5? in the dollar).

Earlier this year, when Labor was making noises about doing more to make super less inequitable - and the big banks and insurance companies were putting up their usual furious fight - Abbott promised to avoid any further changes for three years. Labor later topped this by promising no further changes for five years. Who benefits most from this moratorium - aspirational families in the western suburbs?

And get this: to help pay for its promise to abolish the mining tax - paid on their super-profits by three of the biggest mining companies in the world - an Abbott government would abolish the low-income super contribution rebate.

Who would benefit most from Abbott's opposition to Labor's plan to remove the concessional tax treatment of company cars?

Abbott's paid parental leave scheme would introduce a major new example of middle-class welfare. Since even most on his own side disapprove of it, it's guaranteed to be chopped back in future.

Then there's his pledge to remove the means-testing from the private health insurance rebate.

To its unforgivable shame, Labor has repeatedly refused to increase the poverty-level rate of the dole. In March, however, it began paying dole recipients a twice-yearly supplement of up to $105. No doubt as part of its campaign against waste and extravagance, an Abbott government would abolish this supplement.

Early in its term, the Howard government rejigged its grants to schools so as to favour private schools. After doing nothing for six years, the Labor government accepted the Gonski report's plan to bias school funding in favour of disadvantaged students, most of whom are in public schools.

After roundly condemning the Gonski proposals, Abbott affected a deathbed conversion to them as the election loomed. Read his fine print, however, and the parents of children at private schools can rest easy. The disadvantaged will soon be back at the back of the queue where they belong.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Checkmate election spells fiscal indiscipline

It's truly ironic that after spending five years banging on about debt and deficit, and then proclaiming us to be in a budget emergency, the side most likely to form the next government has made one fiscally irresponsible commitment after another.

It's all part of the way the two sides' long-running battle of the scare campaigns has morphed into a checkmate election campaign in which most effort has gone into eliminating the differences between the parties, leaving them with little to debate and voters with little choice other than which side to "trust". What if you don't trust either lot?

It's just bad luck for those of us who believe fiscal sustainability is something to be achieved, not just talked about when it's convenient. Perhaps the most irresponsible act arising from the checkmate game is Tony Abbott's commitment - without time limit - never to change the goods and services tax.

This puts paid to big business's dream of increasing the rate or broadening the base of the GST (or both) to finance a cut in the company tax rate. But lots of people have their eyes on the GST as a solution to their problems and I think the premiers have first go.

They were promised a growth tax, but the return of the prudent household (whose consumption spending grows no faster than its income) and the faster-growing exclusions from the GST's base (most notably, private spending on health and education) mean collections from the GST aren't keeping pace with the public's demand for increased spending on most areas of state responsibility, but particularly hospitals.

When Labor keeps accusing its opponents of planning to cut spending on health and education, the Coalition vigorously denies it. But any federal party that refuses to increase collections from the GST will inevitably be squeezing state spending on health and education. (Meaning a re-elected Labor government would too.)

Rivalling the irresponsibility of refusing to change the GST is the Coalition's promise to make no further changes to the concessional tax treatment of superannuation, which Labor matched with a promise to make no changes for five years.

Super is the most egregious example of middle-class welfare - the less help you need, the more you get. So the side that needs to pay for about $28 billion worth of promised tax breaks over four years before it finds ways to cover government spending growing at an underlying real rate of 3.5 per cent a year swears not to touch the biggest rort going.

And the other side, which still doesn't know how it would cover the ever-growing later-year costs of the disability scheme and the Gonski education funding - on top of the inescapable strong real growth in healthcare costs - makes the same undertaking.

One thing you can be certain of is that the Coalition's pledge to avoid further reform of super means its two-year postponement of the phase-up of compulsory employer contributions to 12 per cent of salary will end up being permanent. No bad thing.

Next, note that in one of the few cases where one side outbid the other rather than merely matching it - the Coalition's far more generous paid parental leave scheme - the conservatives have opened up a brand new source of middle-class welfare, a lucrative new entitlement program, one that as well as being expensive and unfair will do little to increase labour force participation.

It's true, however, that there are two big examples of checkmate politics where the Coalition hasn't been as fiscally irresponsible as it would like voters to believe. The first is its me-too on Labor's disability scheme.

As Saul Eslake, of Bank of America Merrill Lynch, has pointed out, the little-remarked 0.5 percentage-point increase in all rates of income tax the Coalition has accepted as part of the package will start four years before the full scheme starts. I'm sure the extra revenue will come in handy.

The second checkmate that won't be as costly as it seems is Abbott's supposed about-face in accepting the Gonski education funding reforms. The first trick is that he's agreed only to match the first four years of spending. Most of the increase is in the following two years. And when he says he'd remove the strings Labor has attached to its scheme he means he will neither make the states contribute towards the cost of Gonski's reforms nor check to ensure they don't use the fed's new Gonski money to cut back their existing spending.

So Abbott's deathbed conversion to more equitable sharing of federal grants to public and private schools turns out to be no conversion at all, just an old private school boy's three-card trick.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Resurces boom now a growth negative but still going

Kevin Rudd keeps saying the China resources boom has ended, but Reserve Bank governor Glenn Stevens said recently the boom was merely "changing gear" and going through a "phase shift". So who should we believe?

The econocrat, of course. The politician is exaggerating. It's true, however, that we have reached a highly significant point in the boom: though it's far from ending, we've reached the point where it's gone from making a positive contribution to economic growth (real gross domestic product) to making a net negative contribution.

The resources boom we're living through is one of the most significant things ever to happen in the history of our economy. So it's worth getting a clear picture of it in your mind. It's not a simple story.

The boom began in 2003 and was divided into two parts by the global financial crisis of 2008-09. For a few months it looked as though it was over, but then it started up again to be bigger and better than before.

But here's the tricky bit: you can divide the life of the boom into three phases - hence Stevens' talk of a "phase shift".

The first phase was an almost unbelievable increase in the prices we received for our exports of coal and iron ore, prompted particularly by the rapid industrialisation and urbanisation of China and other developing countries. This greatly increased our export income and lifted our terms of trade - export prices received relative to import prices paid - to their most advantageous in about 150 years.

But minerals prices stopped rising and started falling a long time ago - the middle of 2011 - and since then our terms of trade have deteriorated by about 18 per cent.

It's clear prices have further to fall, but how far and how fast they fall we can only guess. Right now, our terms of trade are still very much better than they were in the decades before the boom.

And the econocrats are confident that, even when prices have fallen as far they're going to, our terms of trade will remain a lot better than they were. If so, this will be a lasting consequence - and benefit - of the boom.

The second phase of the boom followed from the higher prices: resource producers responded to the increased demand by greatly increasing their investment in new mines and facilities. That was particularly true for iron ore and natural gas, and to a lesser extent coal.

Stevens says annual new investment spending by the resources sector rose from an average of about 2 per cent of GDP, where it had spent most of the previous 50 years, to peak at about 8 per cent.

That's a phenomenal increase. And all that mining construction activity has been the main factor driving the growth in the economy for the past few years while the manufacturers and tourist operators have been hit by the high dollar, and home building and retailing have been hit by the end of the long credit boom and other problems.

But the construction phase seems now to have gone over the hill. Treasury observed in the economic statement that "with investment in iron ore and coal projects likely to have already peaked, future resources investment will be underpinned by liquefied natural gas projects already under construction".

So the big development is that the amount of mining investment spending seems to have stopped getting bigger from quarter to quarter - and thus contributing to the quarterly growth in real GDP - and will now get smaller each quarter, meaning it will now subtract from quarterly growth.

Note, however, that though the amount of construction activity will get smaller each quarter, more investment will still be happening each quarter. That is, the second, construction phase of the boom isn't over, it's just passed its peak.

Come back in five years time and we'll have a lot more mines and natural gas facilities than we have today. Don't let the economists' obsession with quarter-to-quarter growth mislead you.

The next thing to remember is that maybe 40 per cent of our total mining investment spending goes on the purchase of imported capital equipment.

And, obviously, money we spend on imports is a minus in the sum that gives us GDP, the value of domestic (local) production of goods and services. So a reduction in a minus helps with growth. Allow for the decline in imports and the reduction in mining investment spending doesn't subtract as much from the bottom line as first appears.

Which brings us to the boom's third phase, production and export, which is just getting going. As all the newly built mines and gas facilities come on line, we experience very strong growth in the volume (quantity) of mining production and exports of minerals and energy.

This, of course, makes a positive contribution to the growth of GDP - and it's the main reason for saying the boom is far from over. Stevens says volumes of iron ore are rising by about 15 per cent a year. Shipments of natural gas won't start increasing strongly until 2015, and will probably have several years of very strong growth then remain high for a few decades.

Treasury says the record surge in investment has more than doubled the resource capital stock (production capacity) over the past decade, and this will support strong growth in mining commodity exports for years to come.

Even so, when you put all the bits together - a negative contribution from slow mining investment spending, a positive contribution from fewer capital imports and a positive contribution from increased production of exports - you're still left with a net negative contribution to growth from here on.

Finally, don't forget this: we started with a mining sector that accounted for about 4 per cent of total national production. Now it's 10 per cent and counting - a lasting consequence of the boom.

Friday, August 23, 2013


Talk to VCTA Teachers Day, Melbourne, Friday, August 23, 2013

Often when I talk to economics teachers I focus on helping them keep up to date with the latest thinking on some topic, believing they need to know a lot more background information than their students do and leaving it for them to decide how much of what I’ve said they need to pass on to their kids. But this time I’m going straight to the classroom to give you answers to what I imagine are frequently asked questions by your students - and maybe even by you. The full version of my speech is a lot longer than I’ll have time to talk to today, so make sure you get a copy. Even so, I’m sure there are many more FAQs than I’ve had time to write about - or even think of. So if you’ve got questions I didn’t answer, I’d be grateful if you’d write them down and give them to me - or send me, if you think of them later - and I’ll use them for another talk or bear them in mind for my Saturday column, which has high school economics students as primary target audience.

Can we trust the official unemployment figures?

Short answer: yes and no. Yes we can trust the figures in the sense that, contrary to a widely believed urban myth, there was no time in the past when some government - Labor or Liberal - doctored the figures to make them look better. The figures are calculated by the Bureau of Statistics, which is not a government department but, like the ABC, has a high degree of independence of the elected government and doesn’t let politicians tell it how to measure things. The bureau, which is regarded as one of the best statistical agencies in the world, sticks closely to the statistical conventions laid down by the UN Statistical Commission, the IMF and, in the case of the labour force survey, the ILO. The definitions it uses to decide who is employed, unemployed or ‘not in the labour force’ haven’t changed significantly for many decades.

Remember that the labour force figures come from a sample survey conducted every month by the bureau, using a sample of 26,000 households - up to 20 times those used in media opinion polls. Even so, this does mean it is subject to sampling error, and the results jump around from month to month, meaning it’s best to look at the ‘trend’ (smoothed seasonally adjusted) figures.

Many people assume that the number of people said to be unemployed by the bureau is the same as the number on the dole. This isn’t true. You can be on the dole but not counted as unemployed in the survey (say, because you picked up a few hours of casual work during the week) or you can be counted as unemployed by the survey but not on the dole (say, because your spouse’s job gives you too much income to be eligible). Some old people have ideas in their heads that are a hangover from the time before 1978, when the Fraser government paid to have the labour force survey moved from quarterly to monthly, so that it replaced the old method of measuring unemployment as the number of people registered with the Commonwealth Employment Service.

I suspect some people’s false memories of the government fiddling with the figures stem from their memory of controversies over governments changing rules about how much work you can do and still be eligible for disability benefits or the dole. It’s sometimes claimed that a government has tried to hide some of the unemployed by putting them on training schemes. But people have been making such claims for years and the claim implies the training schemes are phoney, that they’d be of little value to the job seeker and are motivated only by a desire to fudge the figures. Whether a person is classed as unemployed depends not on how they’re classified by a government department, but on what answers they give to the bureau’s interviewers.

So, yes, we can trust the official figures in the sense that they haven’t been fiddled. But, no, we can’t trust them in the sense that they don’t give an accurate picture of the extent of unemployment. It is true - and has been for decades - that, under the international convention, someone who’s done as little as an hour’s work in the previous week is classed as employed, not unemployed. This means the official definition of unemployment is too narrow, making it too hard to qualify as unemployed and thus understating the full extent of joblessness. Note that very few people actually work only a few hours a week. It’s also true that the majority of people working part time (ie less than 35 hours a week) are happy with the number of hours they’re working. Many full-time students, young mothers and semi-retired people don’t want to work full-time.

Even so, a significant number of part-timers do wish they could get more hours, so we have a significant problem with under-employment. I suspect this measurement problem has arisen because the decision to call someone employed if they worked for only a few hours was made long ago when part-time and casual employment was quite rare. As it has become increasingly more common, the original definition of unemployment has become increasingly misleading.

The bureau has tacitly acknowledged this by calculating the rate of underemployment and adding this to the official unemployment rate to get the rate of ‘labour force underutilisation’. This broader measure of unemployment is calculated every quarter and published with the monthly labour force survey. From July 2014 the bureau plans to calculate and publish the broader measure monthly. Let’s hope this will prompt economists and the media to give it more attention.

In May 2013 the trend unemployment rate was 5.5 pc, while the underemployment rate was 7.3 pc, giving an underutilisation rate of 12.8 pc. Note that the measure counts as underemployed not just people working part-time who’d prefer to be full-time, but also those part-timers who’d like only a few more hours. So to that extent its definition of unemployment is probably a little too broad.

For many years I’ve used the rough rule of thumb that the easy way to correct the official unemployment rate is to double it. If you’re making comparisons with the past, however, you have to remember to double both the starting point and the end point. And remember that even if the level of the official rate is too low, it should still give a reasonably reliable indication of whether unemployment is rising, falling or staying the same.

Does the RBA still control interest rates when the banks can do as they please?

Short answer: yes it does. The RBA uses market operations to keep the overnight cash rate under very tight control. The cash rate has acted - and still acts - as the anchor for all other short-term and variable interest rates. Of course, all the other interest rates - from bank bill rates to mortgage interest rates - are a margin (or ‘spread’) above the cash rate because they involve riskier lending, but for several years before the global financial crisis world financial markets were very steady and those margins changed little. This gave people the impression mortgage interest rates always move in lock-step with the cash rate. After the turmoil of the crisis, however, many of the margins widened. The banks passed this increase in their cost of funds on to their borrowing customers. In the case of people with home loans, the banks did this by increasing their mortgage interest rates by more than any increase in the cash rate, or by failing to pass on the whole of any cuts in the case rate. Note that the banks increased the rates they charge their business borrowers by a lot more than they increased the politically sensitive mortgage rates.

For a brief period during the GFC the overseas financial markets in which our banks borrowed a high proportion of the money they lent to their customers ceased to operate. When trading resumed their margins were a lot higher. Realising the extent of our banks’ over-dependence on overseas ‘wholesale’ markets, the share market, the credit rating agencies and the official regulators put pressure on our banks to borrow more of the funds they needed from domestic depositors, whose deposits tended to be ‘sticky’ (slow to move away in search of higher returns) and thus more dependable. The resulting sudden surge in all the banks’ demand for deposits forced up the interest rates they paid on deposits, particularly term deposits, raising them from below the cash rate to above it. This, of course, was a great benefit to Australian savers, but the banks passed this higher cost on to their borrowers.

Could the banks have absorbed these higher borrowing costs? They could have - their profitability (not just the absolute size of their profits, but the rate of their profits relative to the value of their total assets or their shareholders’ capital) is very high by world standards or by the standards of other Australian industries - but they chose not to. And the limited degree of competition between the members of the big-four banking oligopoly gave them the pricing power to pass their higher costs on to borrowers and preserve their rate of profitability.

But don’t confuse the rights and wrongs of the banks’ actions with the quite separate question of whether their behaviour has robbed monetary policy of its effectiveness. It hasn’t. Why not? Because although the RBA uses the cash rate as its instrument, what does the real work of monetary policy are the market interest rates actually paid by businesses and households, so the RBA focuses on getting market rates where it wants them to be. If the independent actions of the banks cause market rates to be higher than where the RBA wants them, it simply cuts the cash rate by more to achieve its desired result. In other words, the fact that the banks’ margin above the cash rate is now wider than it was before the GFC simply means the RBA has had to cut the cash rate by more than it otherwise would have to get markets rates to where it wants them.

Does monetary policy still work?

Short answer: yes. When the share and property markets were booming in the late 1980s, the RBA spent several years raising interest rates to get the boom under control. The rise in rates didn’t seem to be working, and it became fashionable to say that monetary policy had become ineffective. I was still wondering whether this could be true when the economy started the slide that became the recession of the early 90s, the worst recession since the Depression, in which unemployment got close to 11 pc. Then all the smarties started saying interest rates had been held ‘too high for too long’.

There could be no better experience to cure me of ever doubting that monetary policy was effective. And yet we hear such claims whenever people observe a delay between the RBA starting to move the cash rate and making clear its desire to speed up or slow down demand but nothing seems to be happening. When the RBA cuts the rate but there’s a delay before demand picks up, people use an old Keynesian phrase that using interest rates to try to stimulate demand is like ‘pushing on a string’. But that analogy is appropriate only when the economy is in a liquidity trap - which the North Atlantic economies may be in at present, but we certainly aren’t.

In 40 years of watching the management of the Australian economy I can’t recall any time when monetary policy has failed to move demand in the desired direction. The problem is just that, as you well know, monetary policy operates with a lag that’s ‘long and variable’. Another thing that makes the process slow and adds to people’s impatience is that the RBA almost invariably moves in baby steps of 0.25 percentage points. Clearly, a single 25 basis point change isn’t likely to have a big effect on decisions about borrowing and spending. It’s probably true, too, that the response to a monetary tightening or loosening episode isn’t proportional or linear. That is, you may adjust rates several times without getting much effect, but then anther click finally has a big impact. The RBA uses the rule of thumb that most of the effect of a monetary policy on demand occurs within two years, with maybe two-thirds of the full effect occurring in the first year. The effect on inflation - which, of course, runs via the effect on demand - is longer again.

Would a big cut in the cash rate produce a fall in the dollar?

Short answer: no. This question has been asked a lot in recent times as trade-exposed industries such as manufacturing have be hard hit by the high dollar associated with the resources boom.

The first point to understand is that, in practice, economists don’t have a good handle on what factors determine movements in the exchange rate over short periods of less than a year of so. There are rival theories, but no particular theory always gives a convincing explanation of why the exchange rate has moved - or not moved - as it has in recent weeks. Instead, one theory tends explain recent events better than another does at a particular time, so economic practitioners tend to switch between the rival theories depending on which one seems to be working better at the time. I think the reason no theory seems to work well at all times is that the global foreign exchange market isn’t nearly as rational as the perfect market hypothesis assumes.

In the old days, a common theory was that the currency of a country with an excessive current account deficit would tend to depreciate, so as to help bring it back to equilibrium and, similarly, the currency of a country with an excessive current account surplus would tend to appreciate. These days, you rarely hear this theory relied on because there’s little if any empirical support for it. I think it was a hangover from the days of fixed exchange rates, when it was clear the authorities’ decisions on whether to devalue or revalue the currency were determined by pressures on their current accounts. In these days of floating currencies and the removal for foreign exchange controls, it’s clear the ‘driver’ of floating exchange rates has switched from the current account to the capital account - that is, from trade flows to capital flows.

These days, and particularly from an Australian perspective, there are three main, rival theories to explain exchange rate movements. The first is that the biggest influence over our exchange rate is our terms of trade, and particularly world primary commodity prices. There is much empirical support for this view if you look at a graph of the two over the years, though you can see the correlation breaking down over some shorter periods. The second theory is that the biggest influence over our exchange rate is our ‘interest-rate differential’ - the size of the difference between our official interest rate (or short-term commercial rates) and those of the major developed economies, particularly the United States. The higher our rates are relative to the others, the more our exchange rate is likely to be high and rising, and vice versa. Note that this is very much a capital-flows driven theory. The third theory is a kind of combination of the first two: countries with strong economic prospects relative to the major developed countries should have strong currency, whereas countries with weak prospects relative to the majors should have a weak currency. This theory makes a lot of sense and often seems to be pretty true, but there are times when it’s far from true.

Australia’s very strong exchange rate over most of the past decade is commonly explained by the resources boom and our exceptionally favourable terms of trade as a result of record high prices for coal and iron ore. Its rise can not be explained by any increase in our interest rates relative to the major economies, even though their rates have been at rock bottom since the global financial crisis. But this has not discouraged people adversely affected by the high dollar from convincing themselves the high rate is the product of currency market speculation or our relatively high rates since the GFC, and then arguing the RBA should make a big cut in our cash rate with the express purpose of engineering a big fall in the dollar.

Our terms of trade began falling in about September 2011, but the dollar didn’t start to fall until April 2013. This delay probably encouraged people to switch to a different theory. They may have thought the RBA was being too cautious in the speed at which it was bringing rates down.

Although no one can be too dogmatic about these things, the RBA does not believe the interest rate differential has very much effect our exchange rate. And this is despite the signs we see that expectations about whether the RBA will or won’t move rates haves an immediate effect on the bill rate. These effects are very temporary. During the period in which the RBA was lowering rates and openly expressing its hope that the dollar would fall to a more appropriate level, many people concluded it was cutting rates in the hope this would lower the exchange rate. It wasn’t. Rather, it was loosening monetary policy because the exchange rate wasn’t coming down. That is, it was trying to ease pressure on the tradeables sector as a substitute for a lower dollar.

Although the Aussie stayed high for about 18 months after commodity prices had fallen sharply, it has fallen by about 10 per cent since April 2013. Some people may attribute this to steady easing in policy over most of that time, but the BRA doesn’t agree with them. A much more likely explanation is that the Aussie finally began falling when Wall Street began worrying that the long-awaited pickup in the US economy would prompt the Fed to start ‘tapering’ the size of its quantitative easing. QE - the central bank’s purchase of bonds and other securities which are paid for merely with bank credits - puts downward pressure on a country’s exchange rate.

The point to note is that the exchange rate is a relative price - the value of my currency relative to the value of yours. So it shouldn’t be so surprising that changes in the level of our exchange rate need to be explained in terms of changed conditions in the US as well as changes in Australia.

Why are our interest rates always higher than other people’s?

Short answer: because we’re riskier. It’s true our interest rates are almost invariably higher than those in the major economies. This has been true for many years. It wasn’t hard to understand before the mid-1990s - when our inflation rate was still well above everyone else’s - but it remains true even when you compare real interest rates.

The explanation seems to be that, as a nation of perpetual net borrowers from the rest of the world (we run a persistent current account deficit), we are required to pay our foreign lenders a significant risk premium on top of the going international rate to compensate them for the extra risks they run in lending to a country that already has a very large net foreign debt and that, being a relatively small economy, is perceived to be more volatile (even though that’s not always true).

Another way of putting it is that Australia always has higher interest rates because we’re a country with an abundance of potentially profitable investment projects relative to the major economies. Our projects have to be relatively profitable or we wouldn’t be able to continue borrowing despite the high risk premium foreign lenders require us to pay.

Does a budget deficit mean fiscal policy is expansionary and a surplus mean it’s contractionary?

Short answer: no they don’t. Life would be very simple for students of macroeconomics if they did, but unfortunately they don’t. Why not? Because what macro economists focus on is not the level of economic activity, but the change in the level - that is, whether the economy has been/will be expanding or contracting. That means they’re interested in determining whether the budget - fiscal policy - is making a positive or negative contribution to economic growth. So it’s the change in the budget balance - and the direction of the change - that matters when assessing whether a particular budget is expansionary or contractionary.

These days the RBA and most market economists assess the stance of policy adopted in a particular budget simply by looking and the direction - and size - of the expected change in the budget balance between the previous year and the budget year. An expected reduction in a deficit or increase in a surplus is regarded as contractionary; any expected increase in a deficit or decrease in a surplus is regarded is expansionary. As a guide, the change needs to be equivalent to at least 0.5 pc of GDP to be significant. A change of 1 pc or more is extremely significant.

Strict Keynesians, however, define the stance of fiscal policy differently, distinguishing between changes in the cyclical component of the budget balance (caused by operation of the budget’s automatic stabilisers as the economy moves through the business cycle) and changes in the structural component (caused by governments’ explicit changes to taxes and spending programs). So they define the stance of policy adopted in a budget according to the direction of the expected change in the structural component arising from the net effect of the spending and taxing changes announced in the budget. They ignore the change in the budget balance caused by the economy’s effect on the budget, focusing on the change caused by the budget’s effect on the economy.

Note, changes in the stance of fiscal policy will be only one of the factors contributing to whether the economy is expanding or contracting. Other factors include: the stance of monetary policy, movements in the exchange rate, changes in the world economy and in confidence.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Why election campaigns have become so vacuous

For many of us, the big question isn't who should win the election - or who will - but why election campaigns have become so vacuous. Why so much politics but so little policy? So much argument but so little debate? So much sound and fury signifying not very much?

No doubt there are many reasons but I suspect an important one is that campaigning has become more professional, more scientific. The consultants and others who advise politicians have caused them to think more deeply about what they do and why they do it, what works and what doesn't.

The result is a more pragmatic, even ruthless attitude. It's not their job to foster debate, or ensure voters are fully informed on the choices available to them. And being open and accountable is more likely to lose you votes than win them.

If it's just about attracting enough votes to win, and that's not easy, better not to waste time on anything that doesn't do much to help. Why waste your energy trying to win the votes of people who long ago decided not to vote for you or those who are always going to vote for you?

So these days campaigns are directed at people who haven't made up their minds. It would be nice if these were people who were so deep into the policy choices they needed some extra convincing.

Sadly, politics doesn't work that way. The people whose votes are up for grabs tend to be those who don't have strong opinions, aren't ideological and don't take much interest in politics until the election is upon them.

I'm breaking it to you gently that modern election campaigns aren't aimed at anyone smart enough to read a paper like this one. They're for the people who don't think, not the people who do. So campaigns have become less cerebral and more emotional.

Politicians care more about the ads they run on telly than their televised debates. They find simple slogans and pithy sound bites more effective than complex arguments. They find scare campaigns - on the carbon tax, WorkChoices, the mining tax, debt and deficit, and the goods and services tax - very effective with people who are guided more by feelings than thought.

The way politicians look and sound has become as important as what they say. Perceptions matter more than reality.

Few of us have face-to-face contact with politicians during campaigns, so almost all we know comes to us via the media. So campaigns are a product of the symbiotic relationship between politicians and the media.

But the news media have long been in competition with the ever-growing range of other ways for people to entertain themselves in their spare time. So the news media have had to step up the entertainment content of their news, treating politics as a form of football - who's winning in the polls, who won the week, who's got a problem with their hammies - bringing us endless colour and movement on the campaign trail and eternally searching for laughable "gaffes".

The more the media try to keep news entertaining, the more they keep searching for novelty and changing the subject. They see themselves as catering to their audience's ever-shortening attention span, little realising that by changing the subject so often they're helping to shorten that span even further.

The opposition could have released all its policies weeks ago but it didn't because it needed to "maintain momentum" by releasing individual policies every few days during the five-week campaign. Because of this, we're told, it's unable to tell us how its promises will be paid for until the last week.

But this preoccupation with changing the subject combines badly with each side's strategy of focusing attention on a few issues it knows from its focus groups are its strengths, while shifting attention away from those issues it knows are points of vulnerability.

The amazing result is the large number of important policy changes in this campaign that have been announced but never referred to again as the campaign rushes on to something new. Sometimes both sides are in tacit agreement to slip through a tax increase without it being noticed. More often, one side checkmates the other on an issue, so there's nothing left to talk about.

Thus are we robbed of real choice by two sides who've done nothing but argue furiously throughout the three years of minority government.

Under the heading of looming tax increases it suits neither side to talk about (and so go unexamined by the media) the 0.5 percentage point increase in the Medicare levy, an effective doubling of the tax on cigarettes and a new tax on bank deposits likely to be borne by people with home loans.

Under the checkmate heading are the bipartisan promises to not make further changes to superannuation tax concessions (the biggest middle-class welfare rort of them all), to implement the Gonski school funding reforms (provided you don't read Tony Abbott's fine print), to implement the national disability insurance scheme (and worry about the full cost later), to leave the GST unchanged (and thus keep state spending on health and education under an unrelenting squeeze) and to waste yet more taxpayers' money chasing the pipedream of Northern Development.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Mixed motives for Hockey’s budget intransigence

Joe Hockey has many reasons - worthy and unworthy - for avoiding making any firm commitment on when an Abbott government would get the budget back to surplus.

Starting with the worthy ones, Hockey is perfectly justified in saying the outlook for the economy as it makes the transition to more normal sources of growth is far too uncertain, and the consequent forecasts and projections for the budget balance shown in Treasury's pre-election economic and fiscal outlook far too unreliable, to provide any sensible basis for such a commitment.

Everything Treasury said in the outlook about its uncertainty and the fallibility of its forecasts confirms the foolishness of treating the latest estimates as offering anything but the roughest of rough ideas of what the future holds.

What Hockey is not justified in doing is impugning the professional competence of Treasury - when it comes to guessing the future, the econocrats are at least as good as the rest - or implying it had been got at by its political masters. Nor is he justified in telling the punters that wrong forecasts equal economic mismanagement and profligate spending by Labor.

The second worthy reason for the Coalition parties to make no firmer commitment than their uncheckable promise to always do better than Labor is that, despite their fear campaign on the evils of deficit and debt, sensible fiscal policy tells us there's no urgency about getting the budget back to surplus.

When the Rudd government laid out its "deficit exit strategy" in its second big fiscal stimulus package in February 2009, it specified that the strictures it would impose on itself - to avoid more tax cuts and limit the real growth in government spending to 2 per cent a year - wouldn't take effect until the economy had turned up and was back to growing at its medium-term "trend" rate (3 per cent a year).

For as long as it seemed the economy had returned to growth at or near trend, it was reasonable to stick to those strictures and thereby do nothing to hinder the budget's automatic stabilisers in their role of returning the budget to surplus as the expansion proceeded.

With hindsight, however, it is clear growth has reached or exceeded 3 per cent only in one year - 2011-12 - since the global financial crisis hit in 2008-09. It was well below trend in the first three years. For the past financial year growth is now expected to be 2.75 per cent, falling to 2.5 per cent in 2013-14.

This below-par performance was concealed by Treasury's persistent over-forecasting of real growth. And that's before you get to its recent over-forecasting of the growth in nominal gross domestic product - and thus tax collections - because it underestimated the fall in export prices.

The point is that the bipartisan "medium-term fiscal strategy" simply requires governments to let the automatic stabilisers do their job of returning the budget to surplus without hindrance by explicit policy decisions.

You don't make the deficit worse - after any initial temporary stimulus - but nor are you required to hurry things along except to the extent that you're acting to reduce any structural - that is, longer-term - component of the deficit once strong growth has resumed, and such efforts won't be counterproductive ("pro-cyclical") as they've proved to be in Europe.

Of course, none of this absolves the Coalition from its obligation to show how it will pay for its election promises, with costings done by the Parliamentary Budget Office and consistent with Treasury's costing conventions - as applied to their Labor opponents - not fudged-up costings supposedly audited by some underqualified, little-known firm of accountants, as in the last election, nor some panel of retired worthies with no access to the multitude of data needed to cost programs with any accuracy.

And the unworthy reasons for avoiding any firm commitment on when an Abbott government would get the budget back to surplus? I can think of three. Because it's a safe bet the Coalition parties intend to put their debt-and-deficit rhetoric on the back burner as soon as they're back in power and the fear campaign has served its purpose.

Because, even in government, Tony Abbott is likely to prove an incorrigible populist with little interest in or sympathy for the precepts of rational economics. As is clear from the way he keeps departing from the agreed line in this campaign, Hockey, Arthur Sinodinos and Malcolm Turnbull would have an unending struggle trying to keep the boss up to the mark. He could easily prove worse than Kevin Rudd in fiscal indiscipline.

And, finally, because an Abbott government would have handicapped itself so badly on the tax side of the budget that fiscal responsibility would require a degree of continuing restraint on the spending side of which no flesh-and-blood government is capable.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Budget forecasts for adults only

When Treasury and the Department of Finance issued their pre-election economic and fiscal outlook statement this week it had something written on the cover in invisible ink: Why don't you all grow up!

Although the figures in the PEFO ("pee-fo") for the forecast and projected growth in the economy and the change in the budget balance over the four years to 2016-17 were virtually identical to those in the Labor government's economic statement 11 days earlier - no surprise to anyone except conspiracy theorists - the words were quite different.

What Treasury issued was a kind of adults only version of the government's document, a rebuke to people who think knowing what the future holds is easy peasy and anyone who gets their forecasts wrong must be either incompetent or corrupt.

The Labor government was so unsophisticated in its understanding of the limitations of forecasting it took a Treasury projection of the budget balance in four years' time and raised it to the status of a solemn promise. No one working in Parliament House thought this a foolish thing to do.

The first thing Treasury does in the PEFO is stress that, while all forecasts are uncertain, the economy's transition to new sources of growth make these forecasts particularly so. It said the transition "may not occur as smoothly as forecast" twice on the first page.

Cop this for a product warning: "This uncertainty surrounding global growth prospects poses a risk to the terms of trade and nominal gross domestic product forecasts. There is also a risk that the anticipated fall in resources investment following its peak could be sharper than expected, especially around the middle of the decade. In addition, the transition to new sources of growth may not occur as smoothly as anticipated. Unexpected global or domestic developments could also generate further sharp movements in the exchange rate."

It's long been the convention to express forecasts as a "point estimate" - a single figure rather than a range. But quoting single figures gives the forecasting exercise an air of false precision which can mislead the uninitiated.

So Treasury has joined the Reserve Bank in showing the "confidence interval" surrounding its key point-estimate forecasts. It has examined the (lack of) accuracy of its forecasts over the past 13 years and used this to show its latest forecasts over a symmetrical range, with its point estimate the central forecast within that range.

Its central forecast is that real GDP will grow at an average annual rate of 2.75 per cent over the two years to 2013-14. So if you assume its forecast errors are similar to those in the past, and also assume its forecasts are just as likely to prove too high as too low, there is a 70 per cent probability that actual real growth will average somewhere between 2 per cent and 3.5 per cent (that is, the central forecast plus or minus 0.75 percentage points).

Its central forecast is that nominal GDP will grow at an average annual rate of 3.125 per cent over the two years. So there's a 70 per cent chance the actual rate of growth will average between 1.75 per cent and 4.5 per cent (central forecast plus or minus 1.375 percentage points).

Why is the confidence interval for nominal GDP so much wider than for real GDP? Because, to get to nominal, you also have to forecast the GDP inflation rate (strictly, the GDP deflator) and it's much more uncertain because it's heavily affected by the change in the terms of trade (export prices divided by import prices) and thus the prospects for world commodity prices.

Why is the GDP inflation rate forecast to be so small, just an average rate of 0.375 a year? Mainly because export prices are expected to fall a fair bit further.

Why does the growth in nominal GDP matter much? Because, as Wayne Swan never tired of pointing out, we live in - and pay tax in - the nominal economy; the real economy is just a (useful) concept.

It was because Treasury kept under-forecasting the rise in export prices that it kept underestimating the improvement in the budget balance in the early years of the resources boom. It's because it's been under-forecasting the fall in export prices that it's been overestimating the improvement in the budget balance in recent years.

Another aspect of the politicians' and media's incomprehension of the budget figuring is their failure to understand the difference between forecasts and projections. By government decision, the figures for the budget year and the first year of the forward estimates are forecasts - that is, Treasury's best guess on what will happen. But the last two years of the forward estimates are merely projections - that is, you assume it will be an average year and mechanically plug in the figures accordingly.

You assume "trend" real growth of 3 per cent, trend employment growth of 1.5 per cent, inflation at the middle of the Reserve Bank's target range - 2.5 per cent - and unemployment at what the econocrats consider to be its lowest sustainable rate (aka full employment), 5 per cent.

This makes it all the more foolish for the government to turn a mere projection of the budget balance in four years' time into a solemn promise, and for the rest of us to take it seriously.

It also means you can get some literally incredible jumps between the last forecast year and the first projection year.

For instance, between 2014-15 and 2015-16, the unemployment rate is supposed to drop from 6.25 per cent to 5 per cent, even though real growth stays unchanged at just 3 per cent.

Treasury uses the PEFO to show what it would have forecast for the last two years of the forward estimates had it not been required to use projections, and drops a big hint it will ask the "future government" to change the rules to four years of forecasts.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

City and country problems all demand higher taxes

At last we've settled on an election issue of substance: did Kevin Rudd use notes in the TV debate and was this against the rules? And that's not all: did he rustle his notes and, if so, was this deliberate or just a nervous mannerism?

The two leaders' aim in the debate was the same as their aim in this campaign: to make it to election day while giving as few commitments as possible about what they'll do in the next three years.

I wouldn't mind so much if they were trying to stay unencumbered, able to respond to any eventuality. But actually they're trying to create the illusion that everything they have planned will solve our problems without any price to be paid.

Tony Abbott keeps telling us about all the taxes he plans to abolish but not how he'll cover the loss of revenue, except to say he'll get rid of government waste. Sure.

In response to Rudd's embarrassing "cheap scare campaign" on the goods and services tax he assured us that "the GST is not going to change", but avoided answering a question on how long that guarantee would last.

By the end of the next day, however, the pressure had become irresistible and he ruled out changing the GST for as long as an Abbott government lasts. In modern campaigning, tough issues aren't debated, they're closed off.

And on when Sydney will get a second airport, both men are evasive. In the 40 years since Gough Whitlam asserted "you're getting Galston", successive governments have pushed the decision aside.

These guys touch on matters of concern to ordinary people's ordinary lives but they rarely get to grips with them. Consider the findings of the latest Ipsos Mind and Mood report on differences between the city and the country, Life in Two Australias. A series of 16 group discussions in Sydney, Melbourne, Tamworth, Townsville and Bunbury finds that, whatever their complaints, country people prefer the country and city people prefer the city, though country people do seem more effusive.

They see their lives as low-stress, with friendly faces, open spaces and manageable mortgages. It's a cleaner environment where their kids can get dirty. Parents feel their kids get great formal education but are also more rounded and grounded in their social and communication skills.

"Skinny-dipping, fishing, four-wheel driving, open fires and bartering were cherished aspects of a free-range, unconstrained regional lifestyle," the researchers, led by Dr Rebecca Huntley, report.

And the big drawback? "It is healthier to live in the country unless you're sick." Poorer access to good quality health services was a key disadvantage of regional centres, sending the sick onto long local waiting lists or down the highway in search of help in the city.

Although country participants felt they had a monopoly on community spirit, city people valued social inclusion and connection with their neighbourhoods. And though their green spaces and open places may be smaller, they're valued.

The high cost of housing and rising living costs were key motivations for considering a move to the regions. Country life looks attractive to stressed-out city residents, young families and retirees.

But could they leave family and friends? What about the horror stories of inadequate country health services? Would there be enough shops and enough entertainments to keep them amused? And would they be welcomed? "Rumours of gossip-laden, judgmental, close-knit social networks that could be hard to break into fed fears of potential social isolation," the researchers find.

How does this discussion of ordinary life fit with the preoccupations of the election campaign? Well, it's clear adequate healthcare and access to doctors is a major concern for country people.

But health is one of the issues being closed off. There's a lot more needing to be spent. But Labor is being pilloried for its increased spending (on health as much as anything) and the focus is on criticising tax increases, cutting company tax, abolishing new taxes and swearing never to increase old ones.

For city-siders, however, the big issue is roads and public transport. "The lengthy commute in bumper-to-bumper traffic is literally driving people out of our capital cities to regional Australia in hope of recovering wasted hours spent in the car each day," the researchers say. City drivers feel forced to take to their cars because of inadequate public transport, while country people envy their trains, trams, buses and taxis.

Ah, here we may have found a match. Although Rudd hasn't had much to say about roads and transport, Abbott says he hopes he'll become known as an infrastructure prime minister and reels off a list of city road projects he wants to fund.

Sorry, but I'm not convinced. The Coalition doesn't seem to have learnt what I thought everyone realised by now: building more expressways solves congestion only for long as it takes more people to switch to driving their cars.

The problem is reduced only by improved public transport. But Abbott would revert to the view that the feds don't finance urban public transport projects.

So leave it to the states. But they've just had their finances crimped by his promise never to repair the premiers' biggest but ailing source of revenue, the GST.

And both sides' belief that government debt is evil condemns us to a life of inadequate public infrastructure.

Monday, August 12, 2013

How controversial change can still be achieved

As you see from Tony Abbott's unceasing attack on new taxes and both sides' wariness on calls for an increase in the goods and services tax, the politicians on both sides are certain voters are united in not wanting to pay a cent more in taxes.

This certainty is unshaken by much opinion polling seeming to suggest the contrary.

Which makes it remarkable that, with a minimum of fuss a few days before this year's budget, both sides agreed to raise all rates of income tax by half a percentage point from next July, and that this decision prompted hardly a peep from the public.

It's even more remarkable that this remarkable event has passed almost completely unremarked. The nation's usually unshut-upable media commentariat forgot to comment. Why? Because this highly unusual event happened so quickly and without controversy.

If you're not sure what I'm talking about, it's the decision to partially fund the national disability insurance scheme by increasing the Medicare levy from 1.5 per cent to 2 per cent. But why did this potentially unpopular event cause no controversy?

First, because the tax rise was directly linked to a popular new government spending program. The economic rationalists' long-standing disapproval of "hypothecation" is too rational by half. It fails to understand that accepting the need for higher taxes is an emotional judgment, that government and its budgets have become so huge and complex people can't see the connections any more and have become alienated from the process.

People are reluctant to give governments an open cheque: "How do I know what you'll use it for?" It amazes me economists can't see that people are attracted by the logic of a normal consumer transaction: if you want some item you have to pay for it; if you pay out money you expect to get something back in return.

But the second reason the decision to raise income-tax rates aroused little public opposition is because it became bipartisan. When oppositions oppose government reform proposals, the media seize on the controversy and give it much publicity.

All those who fear they may be adversely affected have a flag to rally around. And it's not just that. Many people take their attitude to a policy proposal from the stance adopted by the party they habitually support.

But when the potential opponents of a measure have no champion to rally around or see little sign of public sympathy for their objections, they tend to shut up and go along with the herd.

It surprises me that the advocates of controversial economic reform keep banging on about the need for our politicians to "show leadership" - that is, risk being tossed out of their jobs - when the clear lesson of history is that the Hawke-Keating government showed so much leadership in initiating micro-economic reform as it knew John Howard and John Hewson wouldn't seek partisan advantage by opposing reforms they, too, believed in.

Look at the way Labor toyed with a broad-based consumption tax while in government, but bitterly opposed it when the Howard government proposed it. And then, once in government, never for a moment considered modifying the supposedly evil tax.

Look at the way the Coalition took a carbon emissions trading scheme to the 2007 election to match Labor but then, when relegated to opposition, vociferously condemned essentially the same scheme. Previously silent climate-change deniers were let out of the closet.

And now look at the way Abbott opposes Labor's overt subsidies to the moribund motor vehicle industry but then opposes its reform of the fringe benefits tax on company cars because it would remove a hidden subsidy to the industry.

Or look at the way he criticises so many of the more recent tax increases and other measures Labor has used to try to plug the budget deficit, while carefully avoiding promising to reverse them in government.

The conclusion is clear: these days there's little ideology or principle in the opposing positions the parties adopt, just opportunism. You would implement much the same policy if you were in government but, since you're in opposition, you seek to gather the support of whoever is disaffected with the policy.

Our rival management teams are always seeking advancement by concocting difference where little exists. So the key to getting controversial reforms implemented is not to urge governments to be brave but to persuade their opponents to exempt this particular measure from their efforts to differentiate themselves, foster discontent and collect the support of disaffected minorities.

Obviously, two-party democracies work on oppositions opposing. But that doesn't require them to oppose absolutely everything.

This approach isn't likely to work, however, if the term "reform" is merely being used to disguise business rent-seeking. You do need genuine national interest.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Using micro-economics to analyse savings account levy

Treasurer Chris Bowen says he's imposing a new savings account levy on our super-profitable banks, but the banks say they'll just pass it straight on to their depositors. They say it, but can you believe it?

Details of the levy haven't been announced, but we can piece them together. It won't take effect until January 2016, and it's expected to raise almost $750 million in its first 18 months. It will apply to all deposits of up to $250,000 in banks, building societies and credit unions.

It will be imposed at the rate of 0.05 per cent (5? per $100) on the balance in your account at a particular date each year. The proceeds will go into a separate "financial stability fund" until, after 10 years, the fund has accumulated an amount equivalent to 0.5 per cent of the value of all accounts guaranteed under the government's existing "financial claims scheme".

Money in the fund will be invested by the Future Fund guardians or a similar body. It can be taken out only to compensate people who've lost their savings in the unlikely event of their bank going under.

So the levy is like an insurance premium, a user-pays measure that means the banks will be paying for the benefit they receive from having the government guarantee their deposits of up to $250,000. Larger deposits will not be formally government guaranteed.

Needless to say, the banks hate the idea of having to pay for a guarantee they previously didn't have to pay for. And they've tried to gain public support by saying they'd be forced to pass the cost on to their customers.

But that's what businesspeople always say when they're fighting a new impost. As a consequence, they've spent decades inculcating in the public's mind the belief that markets are based on "cost-plus pricing".

The prices a business charges are simply a reflection of the costs the business incurs plus a margin for profit. So when a wicked government imposes a new cost on a firm, it has no choice but to pass it on. But economics teaches that cost-plus pricing is not the way markets work. That's because cost-plus focuses solely on the business's cost of supply, ignoring the role of customers' demand and their "willingness [or unwillingness] to pay".

On the other hand, economists well understand that the initial or legal "incidence" of a tax (the person required by law to write the cheque that pays the tax in to the taxman) isn't likely to be the same as the tax's final or effective incidence (the person who ends up actually bearing the burden of the tax). This is because the firm that bears the legal incidence will use whatever economic power it has to shift the burden of the tax either back to its employees or forward to its customers.

But anyone who has studied any economics knows it is unlikely to be true that all the cost of the deposits tax will be passed on to depositors. Early in an economics course you learn to test such arguments by drawing a diagram with price on the vertical axis, quantity on the horizontal axis and a supply curve sloping up to the right, crossed at some point by a demand curve sloping down to the right. The point where the two curves cross is the market price.

Shift the supply curve up to reflect the extra cost imposed on the firm by the tax and you soon see the increase in the market price is less than the amount of the tax, meaning some part of the tax has been shifted onto customers, but the rest remains borne by the firm as a reduction in its profits.

Why do firms and industries try to fight the imposition of new taxes by claiming they'll simply pass the tax on to their customers? If that's true, why are they getting so upset? Because they fear that, in truth, they'll have to bear some of the burden themselves.

It turns out that how much of the tax they can get away with passing on to customers is determined by the steepness of the slope of the demand curve, which represents the degree of "elasticity" (price-sensitivity) of the demand for the product.

When demand for the product is highly elastic (so that a small price rise causes a big fall in the quantity demanded), firms will have to bear most of the burden of the tax. Only in rare cases where demand for the product is perfectly inelastic (so that the quantity demanded is unaffected by changes in its price) will firms be able to pass on all the tax.

Unfortunately, this neat analysis - like much micro-economic analysis - is highly simplified: based on the assumption of "perfect competition". Among the many unrealistic assumptions of perfect competition, the most pertinent in our case is there are so many small sellers in the market none is able to have any effect on the price.

By contrast, banking is an oligopoly (a small number of big sellers) where each firm does have some degree of pricing power - especially when they act in concert.

But here's the trick. The banks' behaviour since the global financial crisis makes it much more likely the banks will protect their profits by passing on the burden of the deposits tax to their borrowers than to their depositors.

That's because the GFC caused the sharemarket, the ratings agencies and the regulators to pressure the banks to raise less of the funds they need from overseas and more from local depositors. Their competition bid up the "price" of deposits and they passed this increase in their "cost of funds" on to their borrowers by making "unofficial" increases in mortgage interest rates and passing on less than the full cuts in the official interest rate.

Their need to attract deposits remains, so they're likely to pass this small increase in their funding costs on to borrowers, not depositors.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013


Gavin Mooney Memorial Oration (with Rev Tim Costello), Melbourne University, Wednesday, August 7, 2013

I didn’t know Gavin Mooney, but I do know that, unusually for an economist, he had a deep concern for fairness or, as economists call it, ‘equity’. So it’s highly appropriate that, in this the inaugural Gavin Mooney Memorial Oration, we address ‘the case for a more equitable Australia’. I want to talk about the economic case for a more equitable Australia. But before I do I want to enter a major caveat.

Why should we seek a more equitable Australia in which income and wealth and opportunity are shared more fairly between the top and the bottom? For no better reason than that it’s the ethical, moral, right thing to do. If it’s the moral thing to do - the thing that, for Christians, Jesus wants us to do, and most other religions and humanist ethical codes tell us we should do - we don’t need any supporting arguments. I’ve often heard the ethicist Simon Longstaff say that if you’re ethical in your business practices because you believe it’s good for business, you’re not being ethical at all. Ethics as a profit-making strategy isn’t ethics. One of the things I’ve learnt from my reading of psychology is that it’s always better to do things from intrinsic rather than extrinsic motives. It’s better to do things for their own sake - because you enjoy doing them or believe it’s your duty to do them - than because doing them brings you some sort of external reward - money, power, fame or status.

I’m often sorry when I hear people in noble occupations defending what they do with instrumental arguments. I’d like to hear more vice chancellors say they believe in increasing and spreading knowledge for its own sake, that a rich country like ours can afford to spend a far bit of its wealth on satisfying our insatiable human curiosity, that the better educated people are the more they can get out of life, even if they never put that education to use in the workforce, rather than arguing that investing in education is good for the economy. I’m sorry when I hear people in the arts arguing that the arts create many jobs. When we do this we’re giving in to the hyper-materialism of our age.

But having said that, I have to acknowledge that Tim is more qualified than me to make the moral case for a more equitable Australia - and he’s just done that - and as an economic journalist it’s more appropriate for me to make the economic case. So it may seem that I’m about to do what I just said other people shouldn’t do: argue that we should be more equitable because this would make the community better off materially. I actually believe that to be true - just as it’s true that spending more on education would make us all better off materially - but actually I’m going to make the mirror image argument: that making Australia more equitable wouldn't make us worse off.

Why am I mounting such a negative argument? Because there’s a widespread belief among economists and their fellow travellers that making Australia more equitable would leave the community worse off materially, that it would come at the cost of a lower material standard of living overall.

The longstanding conventional wisdom among mainstream economists is that ‘equity’ is in conflict with ‘efficiency’ - that is, the efficient allocation of resources so as to maximise the community’s material standard of living and foster economic growth. Economists are comfortable with objectives being in conflict because a key part of their expertise is knowing how such conflicts are resolved: by trading off one unit of equity for one for one unit of efficiency (or vice versa) and continuing to do this until you’ve achieved the particular combination of equity and efficiency that gives you maximum satisfaction overall. Once you’ve achieved that ideal trade-off you’ve achieved economic nirvana: equilibrium.

In practice, however, it’s worse than that. Economists specialise in efficiency, but not in equity. Their contribution to society is to explain to the community how to organise the economy in ways that maximise our utility or satisfaction from the production and consumption of goods and services, and how to keep our material standard of living improving every year. If you believe that efficiency and equity are always in conflict, so anything you do to improve equity will always be at the expense of efficiency, but you, as an economist, happen to specialise in efficiency, it’s easy to decide to focus on efficiency and ignore equity. After all, we live in an age of ever-increasing specialisation - which is actually a primary source of productivity improvement and thus our ever-rising material affluence. So you focus on efficiency and growth, and leave equity for others to worry about.

You bolster this decision by observing that, whereas efficiency is objective and measurable, equity is highly subjective; fairness is in the eye of the beholder. So you tell yourself - and anyone who asks - that you stick to the science and leave the value judgments to those more qualified, such as the politicians. (This would be fair enough, were it not for the fact that, in proffering their advice, economists rarely attach product warnings. Though the advertisers of patent medicines warn people to see a doctor ‘if problems persist’, economists don’t warn politicians to check with sociologists or prelates before they act on the economists’ advice.)

The problem is, if it’s not true that efficiency and equity are in conflict - or not always true - then the economists will be failing to advise politicians of cases where equity can be improved without any loss of efficiency - that is, failing to advise the community when there’s a free lunch to be had. And if, because of their lack of interest in equity as an objective, economists fail to draw attention to those cases where improving equity can lead also to improved efficiency, then economists are failing in their own specified role to maximise efficiency and failing to point out cases where we can kill two birds with one stone.

I’m sure there are plenty of cases where equity and efficiency really are in conflict. But I’m equally sure there are many cases - far more than we realise - where they aren’t; that there are delicious free lunches going begging and opportunities to increase efficiency that the efficiency experts themselves haven’t noticed because of this kink in their thinking.

Let’s start by looking at the limited case: where is the evidence that greater equity damages efficiency? The opponents of government intervention have been searching for years for cross-country or other evidence that developed economies with a bigger public sector (and thus a more redistributive tax and transfer system) have inferior records on economic growth. They haven’t found it. Nor have they found evidence that countries with a less unequal distribution of income between households have inferior economic growth. In his book, The Price of Inequality, the Nobel Prize- winning economist Joe Stiglitz observes that various European countries enjoy a standard of living much the same as America’s while doing much more to reduce income inequality than America does. So there’s little evidence we have to accept a highly unequal society to preserve an efficient, growing economy. Studies show the US has surprisingly low social mobility: few people with poor parents go on to have high incomes and, conversely, few people suffer a decline in income between generations. If you can stay rich in America without trying, and stay poor despite trying, it’s hard to believe this won’t lead to a long-term decline in the dynamism of the US economy.

So let’s move on to the evidence for the more positive case: that equity and efficiency can pull together, that reduced inequality can actually enhance efficiency and growth. There’s a growing amount of such evidence. But before we get to it I need to acknowledge the contribution of Gavin Mooney. One of his great research interests was in what health economists and public health medicos call ‘the social gradient’ or ‘the social determinants of health’. There is much evidence that the health of people with low socio-economic status is much worse than that of people with high socio-economic status. The obvious response to this evidence is to say that measures to improve the health of people on the bottom ought to lead to a very real improvement in their wellbeing. That’s the equity objective. But health, like education, is one of those things that are both a means and an end in themselves, an instrument as well as an objective. The better educated a population is, the more its labour is worth and the richer we can expect it to be. Similarly, the healthier a population is the more able it is to work and the richer we can expect it to be. So the more we do to improve the health of the bottom half, the more efficient the economy should be and the faster it should grow.

Stiglitz cites an IMF study finding that the less unequal a country’s income distribution is, the further apart its recessions are likely to be - that is, the less macroeconomic instability it’s likely to suffer. His book contains much similar evidence and arguments, but I want to refer to the work of one other American Nobel laureate, James Heckman, before I move my argument closer to home. Heckman’s work demonstrates the almost magical power that attending to the early childhood development of at-risk children has in reducing the likelihood of them getting into trouble with the police, dropping out of school, being in and out of employment and in and out of jail. It’s obvious that the success of such a program would do much to improve equality of opportunity, and it’s not hard to see it would also greatly improve the beneficiaries’ contribution to the paid labour force (not to mention the pressure on government spending).

The most obvious case of increasing equity also increasing efficiency is unemployment. We think it’s unfair to have people who want to work unable to find a job, not just because it leaves them with less to spend but also because we know the unemployed are particularly unhappy. Sure. But it’s also glaringly inefficient to have people who’re able to work lying around idle and not contributing to national production. Finding ways to get those people back to work would often make a far greater contribution to efficiency than many of the micro-economic reforms economists hanker after.

Two prominent - and now apparently bipartisan - policies in this campaign are seen as primarily about equity, but nonetheless should bring significant efficiency benefits. The first is the Gonski reforms to school funding, which are intended to increase the assistance able to be given to students suffering one form of disadvantage or another regardless of which school system they’re in. If this results in more young people gaining a better education, the value of their labour is increased as well as their degree of participation in the labour force. It’s a similar situation with the national disability insurance scheme. It can be expected to increase workforce participation and the acquisition of skills. And where unpaid carers with high skills are able to return to the workforce after being replaced by paid carers with lesser skills there’s obviously some increase in the skills of the workforce. According to the estimates of no less an authority than the Productivity Commission, the disability scheme could be expected to lead to an annual increase in real GDP reaching 1 percentage point by 2050.

Finally, in an issue that’s dear to my heart, there is growing evidence that organising work in the workplace in ways designed to increase the satisfaction workers derive from their work - by making sure you put round pegs in round holes, or having them work in teams, or giving them greater personal autonomy or a say in the way things are run - leads them to make a better contribution to the success of the firm. Since most of us are doomed to spend 40 hours a week working for most of our lives, it amazes me the populous hasn’t long ago insisted that work be made as satisfying as possible. The growing evidence that doing so would also increase efficiency makes it even more amazing.

The case for greater equity in Australia is fundamentally a moral one: we should do it because it’s the right thing to do. But the economic efficiency case for not making Australia more equitable is weaker than many economists assume. There is evidence we can increase equity in ways that don’t reduce efficiency. And if we look for them there are many ways we can reduce inequality and increase efficiency at the same time. Let’s do it.

It's the season for breakable promises

Election campaigns are dangerous things. They're dangerous for individuals who get caught in the crossfire between political leaders, dangerous for good policy and dangerous for the credibility of politicians. They're also times when policy statements fly so thick and fast we often fail to notice matters that affect us.

I suspect election campaigns have become more vicious, life-or-death affairs as politics has become less about convictions and more about careers - a ladder to be climbed by young people who leave university to work for a union or a politician, with ambitions to win preselection for a safe seat, make it into government, make into cabinet and then have a crack at the top job.

When almost all the opportunities for promotion or demotion come just once every three years, it's not hard to see why politicians get so desperate and campaigns so willing.

Business economists long ago learnt to keep their heads down and their lips buttoned during campaigns, for fear something they say is taken up by one side, prompting the other side to blacken their name. Too many people's careers have become collateral damage in the political fighting.

Election campaigns are when promises are made - some of them considered, some of them short-sighted, some of them on the spur of the moment to get out of a tight corner. When a government isn't at all sure it's going to win, its desperation often leads it to go for broke, making wild promises and worrying about how on earth it will keep them only if it manages to cling on.

When such incredible fuss was made over Ju-liar Gillard breaking her promise not to introduce a carbon tax, people were behaving as though such a thing was utterly unprecedented. The people who work in the House with the Flag on Top convinced themselves the era of easily made and broken promises was over.

Somehow, I doubt it. Elections have become too panic-stricken for the politicians to stick to a vow of scrupulous honesty. Already, and for the next five weeks, promises are being made that - whether or not the makers of those promises realise it - are destined to be broken. The hard part for voters is picking which ones they are.

Leaving aside those that never become operative because the party doesn't win, election promises can be divided into three categories: those the pollies make while having little or no intention of keeping them, those that are made and kept, and those made with good intention but broken because they're overtaken by events.

Too many voters have concluded most broken promises are in the first, knowingly dishonest category, whereas I suspect most are in the latter, overtaken category. Either way, our leaders would command more respect and trust from us if they made fewer promises and so were forced to break fewer.

I'm sure in their more reflective moments they realise they're trashing their own brand, but it doesn't seem to deter them - probably because the competition is so intense. "I would if he would, but I know he won't, so I won't. If I became scrupulous and he didn't, I'd get done."

A big part of the media's role in campaigns is trying to extract promises from pollies - "Will you guarantee no one would be worse off from your policy? Do you promise you won't ... ?"

I'm sure the journalists who ask such lazy questions think they're performing a public service, but I have my doubts.

When can politicians ever promise that no one will be worse off? Why would it be smart for our politicians never to make any change that involved losers? Is life that easy? Why is it always in our interests to have our leaders close off their options in coping with an unknown future?

That's the trouble, of course: none of us knows with any certainty what problems will arise over the coming three years. And yet election campaigns are conducted on the mutual and tacit assumption we do know - as with last week's economic statement, where the government pretended it knew exactly how the economy would perform between now and 2017, and how this would affect its budget down to the last dollar. And the rest of us nodded wisely.

It was to reinforce the illusion of being in control of the future that Labor announced four major tax measures in just the past week or so. One is a supposed 60 per cent increase in the excise on cigarettes, one an effective increase in the fringe benefits tax on company cars and the third is a new levy on bank deposits.

Another, deliberate feature of election campaigns is that the announcement of plans and promises is so fast and furious they flash past without properly registering on our consciousness. The increase in tobacco excise will be phased in over three years in a way that, combined with another recent change, will cause the excise to double in five years.

The company car measure won't take effect until April next year, while the bank deposit tax - the details of which haven't been revealed - won't start until 2016.

And the fourth measure? A solemn promise not to change the tax treatment of superannuation for five years. Nothing to hurt you in that one? That's what they want you to think.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Hockey's populism ties Labor in budget knots

The political experts don't seem to have noticed how successfully Joe Hockey has outfoxed Chris Bowen and Kevin Rudd on the questions of budget promises and perceptions of economic competence.

Hockey's fast footwork achieved its most dramatic success on Friday when Labor re-nailed itself to the cross of a Treasury budget projection almost four years into an unknowable future only a few months after Wayne Swan and Julia Gillard had so painfully torn themselves down from the selfsame cross.

And to give this triumph of hope over experience some shred of credibility, Bowen and Rudd thought it best to announce spending cuts and tax increases worth a net $10 billion over two years just a few days before the start of an election campaign.

Most of those political nasties don't really bite for at least two years but, never mind, take the political pain now.

Would Labor have done something so politically costly - and economically foolhardy - had Hockey and Tony Abbott not inveigled them into it with five years of populist nonsense about ''debt and deficit'', with their economically illiterate contention that budget deficits are always and everywhere a bad thing and always the product of wasteful spending decisions, never the weak state of the economy?

What the political experts haven't noticed is that Hockey has conned Labor into being so foolish while quietly manoeuvring himself into a position where he and the Liberals won't be matching Labor's folly.

When, a week ago, Hockey trumped up a story about how he'd take no notice of the econocrats' pre-election economic and fiscal outlook statement (the ''pee-fo'') - to be released no more than 10 days into the election campaign, and now sure to be virtually identical to Bowen's statement - because Treasury couldn't be trusted, the political types thought it meant he was refusing to let Treasury and Finance cost the Coalition's election promises.

But oppositions never let Treasury cost their promises because it's too politically risky. That's why taxpayers have been run to the expense of setting up the Parliamentary Budget Office. Hockey did say he'd be using the office to cost at least some of his promises.

For months Hockey's been saying he couldn't possibly release his costings until he'd seen the pre-election economic and fiscal outlook statement. This convenient excuse for delaying the release of detailed policies until the last possible moment before the election wasn't justified by his need to use the statement to cost particular promises.

No, it was justified by the need to see Treasury's most recent stab at the expected budget balances over the next year or two so the opposition would know how much it could afford to spend. It would also allow the Liberals to commit to achieving Treasury's forecasts or bettering them by $x billion.

Penny dropped yet? By claiming the fiscal outlook statement couldn't be trusted, Hockey was freeing the opposition from having to make anything but the vaguest commitment about when it would get the budget back to surplus, even though its opponents had nailed themselves to a hard and fast target.

In this Hockey isn't just being politically fast-footed, he's also being economically wise. When the outlook for the economy is so uncertain - with, as the Reserve Bank governor spelt out just last week, a lot of things needing to fall into place before we return even to trend growth - Hockey is keeping all options open, while Bowen is busily closing them.

If, God forfend, the economy were to slow to the point of contraction sometime in the next four years, Bowen would have to break a promise to do anything about it. If growth were still below trend in two years, he's pledged to make things worse.

The opposition's wider - though unscrupulous - political achievement is convincing the media the federal budget is the economy, that the ultimate test of good economic management is not to keep the standard of living rising or stop unemployment worsening, but to get the budget back to surplus come hell or high water.

Its success in this deception - which includes convincing the media Labor's utterly remarkable finesse in minimising the effects of the global financial crisis was just an exercise in monumentally wasteful government spending - is thanks to Labor's lack of courage, talent and commitment to enlightened macro-economics.

Bowen's best excuse is that, after five years of dereliction and intellectual dishonesty, it was far too late to try to turn things around.

But the greatest absurdity of the economic statement is the way grown men and women could pretend it was possible to say anything meaningful about the state of the economy or the budget balance in three or four years.