Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Social and economic case for helping women work

Surely the most momentous social change of our times began sometime in the 1960s or '70s when parents decided their daughters were just as entitled to an education as their sons. Girls embraced this opportunity with such diligence that today they leave schools and universities better educated than boys.

Fine. But this has required much change to social and economic institutions, which we've found quite painful and is far from complete. It's changed the way marriages and families operate - changed even the demands made on grandparents - greatly increased public and private spending on education, led to the rise of new classes of education and childcare, changed professions and changed the workplace.

It has led to greater "assortative mating", where people are more likely to marry those not just of similar social background, but of a similar level of education.

For centuries the labour market was built around the needs of men. Changing it to accommodate the needs of the child-bearing sex has met much resistance, and we have a lot further to go. This is evident from last week's report of the Human Rights Commission, which found much evidence to show "discrimination towards pregnant employees and working parents remains a widespread and systemic issue which inhibits the full and equal participation of working parents, and in particular, women, in the labour force".

You can see this from a largely social perspective - accommodating the rising aspirations of women and ensuring they get equal treatment - or, as is the custom in this more materialist age, you can see it from an economic perspective.

By now we - the taxpayer, parents and the young women themselves - have made a hugely expensive investment in the education of women. It accounts for a little over half our annual investment in education.

If we fail to make it reasonably easy for women to use their education in the paid workforce, we'll waste a lot of that money. Our neglect will cause us to be a lot less prosperous than we could be.

Of late, economists are worried our material standard of living will rise more slowly than we're used to, partly because mineral export prices have fallen but also because, with the ageing of the baby boomers, a smaller proportion of the population will be working.

They see increased female participation in the labour force - more women with paid work, more working women with full-time jobs - as a big part of the answer to this looming catastrophe (not).

But how? One way would be to impose more requirements on employers, but in an era where the interests of business are paramount, politicians are reluctant to do that. Make employers provide childcare or paid parental leave? Unthinkable.

So, for the most part, taxpayers have picked up the tab. Government funding of childcare has reached about $7 billion a year, covering almost two-thirds of the total cost. The cost of government-provided paid parental leave is on top of that.

Governments' goals in childcare have evolved over time. In the '70s and '80s, the focus was on increasing the number of places provided. In the '90s, the focus shifted to improving the affordability of care, with the introduction of, first, the means-tested childcare benefit, and then the unmeans-tested childcare rebate. Under the Howard government, the rebate covered 30 per cent of net cost, but Labor increased it to 50 per cent.

More recently, increased evidence of the impact of the early years of a child's life on their future wellbeing has shifted governments' objectives towards child development and higher-quality, more educationally informed, childcare. This includes getting all children to attend pre-school. Linked with this has been a push to raise the pay of childcare workers.

The federal government asked the Productivity Commission to inquire into childcare and early childhood learning. Last week it produced a draft report. I suspect the pollies were hoping the commission would find a way to reduce regulation of what they kept calling the childcare "market"; thus improving workforce participation and "flexibility" while achieving "fiscal sustainability".

If so, they wouldn't have been pleased with the results. The main proposal was that the childcare benefit and rebate be combined into one, means-tested subsidy payment paid direct to childcare providers.

This would involve low-income families getting more help while high-income families get less. There would be a small additional cost to the government, but this could be covered by diverting money from Tony Abbott's proposed changes to paid parental leave. It was "unclear" his changes would bring significant additional benefits to the community.

The commission wasn't able to claim its proposals would do much to raise participation in the labour force, mainly because our system of means-testing benefits - which works well in keeping taxes low, something that seems to be this government's overriding goal - means women face almost prohibitively high effective tax rates as their incomes rise, particularly moving from part-time to full-time jobs.

Like the Henry tax review before it, the commission just threw up its hands at this problem. And even the commission couldn't bring itself to propose major reductions in the quality of education and care. Sorry, no easy answers on childcare.

Monday, July 28, 2014

A more balanced budget might get through Senate

Joe Hockey and Tony Abbott are perfectly right in saying we need to get the budget back into surplus, we need to make a start now and that this will inevitably involve unpopular measures.

But this makes it all the more puzzling that, lacking a majority in the Senate and being unable to claim a "mandate" for breaking many election promises, they should adopt such a highly ideological and unfair collection of budget measures.

In a three-part essay on John Menadue's blog last week, Dr Michael Keating, former senior econocrat, argues that as a nation we're "unlikely to succeed in charting a viable way forward to fiscal sustainability until governments are prepared to subject their views to a proper conversation based on a clear appreciation of the pros and cons of the different alternatives.

"Only in that way can the public support be built that is required to achieve future fiscal sustainability. In present circumstances it is hardly surprising that this necessary support is not forthcoming, when less than 12 months ago the government promised in the election to both spend more and tax less and now seeks to impose a most unfair budget on the community with no prior warning nor any such mandate."

If we are to chart a way forward and establish the necessary public understanding and consensus, he says, we particularly need to drop the ideology surrounding the merits of taxation versus expenditure and consider the claims of each tax and expenditure proposal on its merits.

Just so. There are many ways to skin the budget cat - some fairer or more sensible than others - and it's absurd for the government and its barrackers to pretend, Maggie Thatcher-like, that the measures proposed in the budget are the only alternative to irresponsible populism.

Anyone who knows anything about successful "fiscal consolidation" knows it invariably involves a combination of spending cuts and tax increases (including reductions in tax concessions - "tax expenditures").

And anyone who knows much about economics knows there's little empirical evidence to support the ideology that economies with high levels of government spending and taxation don't perform as well as those with low levels.

Yet Hockey and Abbott thought it sensible to propose a 10-year budget plan that relied almost exclusively on cuts in government spending - apart from the temporary deficit levy and much unacknowledged bracket creep.

Keating points out that, combining all levels of government as a percentage of gross domestic product, Australia already has the lowest budget deficit and public debt compared with Canada, Japan, Britain, the US and the OECD average.

At 26.5 per cent, our level of total taxation seems higher than the Americans' 24 per cent, until you remember their budget deficit is 5 percentage points higher than ours. So the claim that we have a bloated, "unsustainable" level of government spending is itself unsustainable.

To restore some balance to proposed budget savings, to share the burden of budget repair more fairly and in answer to the challenge, well, what would you do? Keating suggests savings on the revenue side that would raise about $42 billion a year in 2017-18, the year most of Hockey's savings would cut in.

One objectionable feature of the budget was the way it laid into spending on the age pension while not merely ignoring the equally expensive superannuation tax concessions but actually reversing some of Labor's timid attempt to make aged-income support fairer. Keating estimates a more balanced approach to tax concessions could save $15.5 billion a year.

To extend the "end of entitlement" beyond welfare recipients to business welfare, he suggests ending the fuel excise rebate for miners and farmers, saving $7.5 billion a year. There's no economic justification for subsidising just one input among many of just two industries among many.

Abolishing the subsidy for private health insurance would save more than $7 billion a year. Many evaluations have shown this money would treat a greater number of patients if spent in public hospitals. Removing the 50 per cent discount on capital gains tax would save $5 billion a year, as well as making the taxation of various sources of income a lot fairer.

About $5.5 billion a year could be saved by restoring the carbon price mechanism and the minerals resource rent tax. That leaves $1.5 billion to be saved by restoring anti-avoidance measures implemented by Labor, Keating says.

We could get the budget back in the black without any loss of economic efficiency and do it in a way much fairer to ordinary voters - remember them? - and less partial to the Coalition's big business backers.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Why we're still not free of the GFC

Almost six years since the global financial crisis reached its height, it's easy to forget just how close to the brink the world economy came. To someone like Reserve Bank governor Glenn Stevens, however, those events are burnt on his brain.

Which explains why he thought them worth recalling in a speech this week. And also why, so many years later, the major developed economies of the North Atlantic are still so weak and showing little sign of returning to normal growth any time soon.

When those key decision-makers who lived through 2008 and 2009 say that there was the potential for an outcome every bit as disastrous as the Great Depression of the 1930s, "I don't think that is an exaggeration", he says.

"Any account of the events of September and October 2008 reminds one of what an extraordinary couple of months they were. Virtually every day would bring news of major financial institutions in distress, markets gyrating wildly or closing altogether, rapid international spillovers and public interventions on an unprecedented scale in an attempt to stabilise the situation.

"It was a global panic. The accounts of some of the key decision-makers that have been published give even more sense of how desperately close to the edge they thought the system came and how difficult the task was of stopping it going over."

But, despite the inevitable "mistakes and misjudgments", the authorities did stop it going over. Stevens attributes this to their having learnt the lessons of the monumental mistakes and misjudgments that that turned the Great (sharemarket) Crash of 1929 into the Great Depression.

Economic historians (including one Ben Bernanke) spent decades studying the Depression and, in Stevens' summation, they came up with five key lessons: be prepared to add liquidity – if necessary, a lot of it – to financial systems that are under stress; don't let bank failures and a massive credit crunch reinforce a contraction in economic activity that is already occurring – try to break that feedback loop; be prepared to use macro-economic policy aggressively.

So far as possible, maintain dialogue and co-operation between countries and keep markets open, meaning don't resort to trade protectionism or "beggar-thy-neighbour" exchange rate policies. And act in ways that promote confidence – have a plan.

There was a lot of action and a lot of international co-operation, and it worked. As a result, we talk about the Great Recession, not the Great Depression Mark II.

"We may not like the politics or the optics of it all – all the 'bailouts', the sense that some people who behaved irresponsibly got away with it, the recriminations, the second-guessing after the event and so on," he says. "But the alternative was worse."

With collapse averted, the next step was to fix the broken banks. Their bad debts had to be written off and their share capital replenished, either by them raising capital from the markets or accepting it from the government.

Fixing the banks' balance sheets was necessary for recovery, but not sufficient. A sound financial system isn't the initiating force for growth, so stimulatory macro-economic policies were needed to get things moving.

On top of all the government spending to recapitalise the banks came a huge amount fiscal (budgetary) stimulus spending. Stevens says a financial crisis and a deep recession can easily add 20 or 30 percentage points to the ratio of public debt to gross domestic product.

Then you've got the weak economic growth leading to far weaker than normal levels of tax collections. Add to all that the various North Atlantic economies that had been running annual budget deficits for years before the crisis happened.

"So fiscal policy has not had as much scope to continue supporting recovery as might have been hoped," Stevens says. "Policymakers in some instances have felt they had little choice but to move into consolidation mode [spending cuts and tax increases] early in the recovery."

He doesn't say, but I will: this crazy, counterproductive policy of "austerity" has helped to prolong the agony.

With fiscal policy judged to have used up its scope for stimulus, that leaves monetary policy. Central banks cut short-term interest rates hard, but were prevented from doing more because they soon hit the "zero lower bound" (you can't go lower than 0 per cent).

But long-term interest rates were still well above zero and, in the US and the euro area, long-term rates play a more central role in the economy than they do in Oz. Hence the resort to "quantitative easing".

Under QE, the central bank buys long-term government bonds or even private bonds and pays for them merely by crediting the accounts of the banks it bought from. Adding to the demand for bonds forces their price up and yield (interest rate) down. And reducing long-term rates is intended to stimulate borrowing and spending.

Has it worked? It's intended to encourage risk-taking, but are these risks taken by genuine entrepreneurs producing in the real economy, or are they financial risk-taking through such devices as increased leverage?

Stevens' judgment is that it always takes time for an economy to heal after a financial crisis [because it takes so long for banks, businesses and households to get their balance sheets back in order - they've borrowed heavily to buy assets now worth much less than they paid] so it's too soon to draw strong conclusions.

For Stevens, the lesson is that there are limits to how much monetary policy can do to get economies back to healthy growth after financial crises. "If people simply don't wish to take on new business risks, monetary policy can't make them," he says.

Perhaps the answer is simply subdued "animal spirits" – low levels of confidence, he thinks. But, at some stage, sharemarket analysts and the investor community will ask fewer questions about risk reduction and more about the company's growth strategy.


Putting people back in the rent or buy decision

So, the Reserve Bank has done the numbers and killed the Great Australian Dream: owning your home is no more lucrative than a lifetime of renting. Somehow, I doubt that will be the end of the matter - and nor should it be.

The strongest conclusion we should draw from the Reserve’s figuring is that, when you view home ownership purely as a financial investment, buying rather than renting isn’t the deadset winner most people assume.

It can be a close run thing, mainly because people take insufficient account of the costs of home ownership - not just all the interest they pay but the stamp duty and conveyancing costs, insurance, repairs and maintenance and the rates and other payments not borne by renters.

But our deeply ingrained belief that home ownership is a great investment is only one of our motives for wanting to own rather than rent. The other big one is security of tenure.

It’s nice to own your own place and make your own decisions about alterations and improvements, minor and major, about painting it or not painting, building up the garden or not bothering.
 It’s also nice to know you’re unlikely to have to leave it unless it’s your choice. Renters generally have a lot less say over how long the rental lasts, rent rises and changes of landlord.

The Reserve’s calculations take no account of these non-monetary considerations, which could easily be sufficient to bring ownership in as a clear winner in many people’s minds (starting with me).

And though those calculations are as careful and impartial as you would expect of the central bank, that doesn’t stop them being based on assumptions and averages like all such calculations, meaning they may or may not be a good fit with your own circumstances and preferences.

For instance, what’s true for average home prices across Australia, may not be true for Sydney. And what’s true for the whole of Sydney may not be equally true for inner ring, middle ring and outer ring homes.

We know the authorities expect huge growth in Sydney’s population over the next 20 or 30 years. And unless they greatly improve their performance on congestion, my guess is we will see inner-ring property prices grow a lot faster than Sydney prices generally.

The Reserve’s calculations roll together home owners and renters of all ages and stages. But switching rental accommodation is not the problem for young adults that it can be for families with school-age children.

The calculations assume home owners change homes every 10 years. If you have already, or intend to, stay put a lot longer than that then your investment is already performing, or is likely to perform, better than the figures suggest.

Of course, no calculations based on what’s happened to home prices and rents over the past 60 years is a foolproof guide to what they’ll do over the coming 60.

And remember, the low level at which the age pension is set tacitly assumes people own their homes outright. The value of your home isn’t included in the means test, but other investments are.


Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Big cities have become the engine of the economy

Old notions die hard. If you took all the production of goods and services in Australia and plotted on a map where that production took place, what would it look like?

Any farmer could tell you most of the value is created in the bush. A miner, however, would tell you - a bunch of ads have told you - these days most of the wealth is generated in areas such as the Pilbara in Western Australia and the Bowen Basin in Queensland.

Then, of course, there are the great manufacturing states of Victoria and South Australia - with most work done in the suburbs of Melbourne and Adelaide, but also regional cities such as Geelong.

That make any sense to you? It's completely off beam.

A report issued this week by the Grattan Institute finds that, these days, 80 per cent of the dollar value of all goods and services in Australia is produced on just 0.2 per cent of the nation's land mass. Just about all of that is in our big cities, as close in as possible.

The report, by Jane-Frances Kelly and Paul Donegan, finds that big cities are now the engines of our prosperity. If you take just the central business districts of Sydney and Melbourne - covering a mere 7.1 square kilometres - you have accounted for almost 10 per of Australia's gross domestic product.

What do workers do in all those city offices? Nothing you can touch. That's how much the economy's changed.

To find the economy as many people still imagine it to be, you have to go back 50, even 100 years. About 100 years ago, almost half Australia's population of 4 million lived on rural properties or in small towns of fewer than 3000 people.

Many of these would have been market towns serving the agricultural economy. Agriculture and mining accounted for a third of the workforce. And only about one in three Australians lived in a city of at least 100,000 people.

These days, agriculture employs only 3 per cent of workers and contributes only 2 per cent of GDP. Our two biggest CBDs contribute at least four times that much.

By the end of World War II, manufacturing had become Australia's dominant industry. At its height in 1960, the report reminds us, manufacturing employed more than a quarter of the workforce and accounted for almost 30 per cent of GDP.

The rise of manufacturing shifted much of our economic activity - our prosperity - to the big cities, but mainly to the suburbs. Suburbs away from city centres had lower rents and less congestion.

Postwar growth in car ownership made possible the shift to a manufacturing economy with a strong suburban presence. It also led to the demise of many small towns and the rise of regional centres.

Today, however, manufacturing employs only 9 per cent of the workforce and accounts for just 7 per cent of GDP. The thing to note is that this seeming decline in manufacturing has involved only a small and quite recent fall in the quantity of things we manufacture in Oz.

Similarly, the decline in agriculture's share of employment and GDP has occurred even though the quantity of rural production is higher than ever. The trick is that these industries didn't contract so much as other parts of the economy grew a lot faster, shrinking their share of the total.

One of those other parts is mining, of course. But get this: "While Australia's natural resource deposits are typically in remote areas, workers in cities make a critical contribution to the industry's success," the report says.

"For instance, in Western Australia, where the most productive mining regions are located, more than one third of people employed in mining work in Perth."

That's partly because of fly-in fly-out, but mainly because many of these workers are highly skilled engineers, scientists, production managers, accountants and administrators.

So what explains the greater and still-growing economic significance of big cities, so that Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth now contribute 61 per cent of GDP? The rise of the knowledge economy.

Increasingly, our prosperity rests not on growing, digging up or making things, but on knowing things. Our workforce is more highly educated than ever, and this is the result.

"Knowledge-intensive jobs are vital to the modern economy. They drive innovation and productivity, and are a critical source of employment growth. In the last 15 years there has been much higher growth in high-skilled, compared to low-skilled, employment," the report says.

Knowledge-intensive activities aren't confined to jobs in the services sector, but are also increasing in mining and manufacturing. They often involve coming up with new ideas, solving complex problems or finding better ways of doing things.

But here's the trick: it suits many of the knowledge workers, and the businesses that employ them, for those workers to be crowded into big cities, as close in as possible. When you're all packed in together, there's more scope for the transfers of expertise, new ideas and process improvements known as "knowledge spillovers".

Such spillovers come particularly through face-to-face contact. Large cities offer employers knowledge spillovers and a large skilled workforce. They also offer people greater opportunities to get a job, move to a better job, build skills and bounce back if they lose their job.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Mining boom our gift to rich foreigners

The mining tax - whose last-minute reprieve may well prove temporary - is the greatest weakness in the argument that we gained a lot from the resources boom. The blame for this failure should be spread widely, with economists taking a fair share.

Late last week a majority of senators passed the bill repealing the minerals resource rent tax, but not before knocking out its provisions cancelling various programs the tax was supposed to be paying for.

The government is refusing to accept the amended version of the bill, arguing that "by voting to keep many of the associated spending measures [naughty - most are actually tax expenditures], senators have effectively voted to keep the mining tax".

We'll see how long that lasts. But if you're thinking the tax raises so little it hardly matters whether it stays or goes, you're forgetting something. When Labor allowed BHP Billiton's Marius Kloppers and his mates from Rio Tinto and Xstrata (now Glencore) to redesign the tax, they predictably opted to take their depreciation deductions upfront. Once they're used up, however, receipts from the tax will be a lot healthier - provided it survives that long.

You can blame Kevin Rudd, Wayne Swan and Julia Gillard for their hopeless handling of the tax. But don't forget to copy in Tony Abbott who, faced with a choice between the interests of Australian taxpayers and the interests of three foreign mining giants, sided with the latter in the hope they'd fund his 2010 election campaign.

You can also blame Treasury for originally proposing an incomprehensible, textbook-pure version of the tax which couldn't survive, and so getting us lumbered with a fourth-best version. It also did a bad job of quietly test-marketing the tax with its banking contacts and of estimating the likely receipts.

But where were all the economists - including academics - explaining to the public why the tax wouldn't discourage mining activity or otherwise damage the economy, as it suited the big miners to claim?

Where were the economists explaining the special need for a resources rent tax in the case of the exploitation of mineral deposits, particularly when the miners were so largely foreign-owned?

As usual, they were keeping their mouths shut. Contribute their expertise to the public debate? Why? Better just to criticise from the sidelines.

Part of the problem is an ethic among economists that regards it as bad form to distinguish between local and foreign investors for fear of inciting "economic nationalism" - a form of xenophobia. If an investment generates jobs and income, why does it matter whether the firms involved are local or foreign?

It's no doubt thanks to this ethic that we do such a bad job of measuring foreign ownership (and so deny ourselves the ability to use hard facts to fight xenophobic impressions that foreigners now own everything). But the best guess is that mining is about 80 per cent foreign-owned.

Trouble is, mining is an obvious exception to this generally sensible aversion to economic nationalism, for two reasons: because our abundant natural endowment makes minerals and energy such a huge source of economic rent and because mining is so extraordinarily capital-intensive.

Added to that, as Dr Stephen Grenville (a former senior econocrat who does make a useful contribution to the public debate, via the Lowy Institute) has written, "mining royalties, a state government domain, fall victim to special relationships and inter-state competition to attract projects".

Put all that together and you see why having an effective resource rent tax is so essential to ensuring Australians get a fair reward for the exploitation of their birthright. High economic rents, few jobs created and the lion's share of profits going to foreigners mean unless especially high rates of profitability are adequately taxed we don't have a lot to show for the resources boom.

Saying that isn't anti-foreigner, it's simple self-interest, the driving force of market economies. Foreigners are welcome, provided we get a fair share of the benefits. Foreign investment isn't meant to be a form of aid to rich foreigners.

It's true our rate of national saving increased during the boom. But a lot of this was foreign-owned mining firms reinvesting their profits in local expansion rather than repatriating them, thereby increasing their share of our productive assets.

Now the construction phase is ending, more of the (undertaxed) profits will be sent back home. And the capital-intensive production and export phase will mean each $1 billion of growth in GDP now creates fewer jobs than it used to. Thank you Labor, thank you Coalition, thank you economists.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

How to reform industrial relations

Tony Abbott's strategy for getting back into government was to make himself a small target by adopting few controversial policies. He mollified his big business backers by promising to hold many inquiries and take any proposals for controversial reform to the 2016 election.

But once in government Abbott couldn't avoid announcing many unpopular measures to get the budget back on track. These have hit his standing in the polls, while causing difficulty and delay in getting budget measures through the Senate.

It's likely a lot of them won't pass, implying the government will have to put a lot of effort into finding more palatable savings. Even then, some of this year's unpopular measures - particularly the age-pension changes - will have to be defended at the election.

Meanwhile, most of a year has passed without the government getting on with its promised inquiries into controversial issues such as industrial relations, tax reform and federal-state relations (think three letters: GST).

Not a lot of time is left for the various inquiry processes to report, for the government to consider the reports, decide what reforms it proposes and then explain and justify them to voters before the election.

Does Abbott's unexpected radicalism on budget measures presage equally radical proposals in these other issues? If so, the next election campaign will be a lot more exciting than the last one.

Or does all the hostility he has aroused just with his budget measures make it more likely Abbott won't want to bite off a lot more trouble on other fronts?

On the question of industrial relations reform, Abbott and his minister, Eric Abetz - not to mention the Productivity Commission, which will be conducting the inquiry - would do well to ponder a recent speech by Geoff McGill, a long-experienced industrial practitioner and now a visiting scholar at Sydney University's Workplace Relations Centre.

McGill observes that the history of federal industrial relations legislation "has been punctuated by swings in the IR pendulum across the political cycle". First the Howard government's Work Choices swung the pendulum in favour of employers, then the Labor government's Fair Work swung it back towards the unions.

Now big business and its cheer squad in the national dailies want the restored Coalition government to give the IR pendulum another shove back in the direction to the employers. Isn't this the way the political game is played?

It is. But McGill questions whether continuing to play that way is the best way to get where we want to go. The advocates of yet another round of industrial relations "reform" justified it mainly by arguing the need for faster improvement in the productivity of labour.

That's something all sides can agree is a desirable objective. But McGill shoots down some wishful thinking on the topic. "Productivity growth is a complex process and usually described in simplistic terms," he says. "It can never be assumed and is only evident after the event.

"There is little evidence to support claims that particular changes in industrial relations legislation will boost national labour productivity."

It's the substance of the employment relationship, not its legal form, which determines whether people are engaged and productive, he says. Productive workplaces are not the outcome of legislation, but of the quality of leadership and culture at the workplace.

Surely there must be a law against someone speaking such obvious sense.

McGill brings to mind another point. Much of the thinking behind "the end of entitlement" and the unpopular budget measures is about saying governments can't solve all your problems for you (just the opposite of the message all politicians spread during election campaigns). It's not possible and, in any case, it's not healthy for people to be so dependent on the authorities.

True enough. But if that's what the government is telling everyone from the young unemployed to uni students to age pensioners, why is it allowing big business to imagine its industrial relations problems should - or even could - be solved by the government changing the law?

Actually, my guess is most of business isn't silly enough to think that. The push is probably coming from lobbyists trying to justify their fee, journos trying to sell newspapers and a relative handful of belligerent employers facing equally belligerent unions and hoping the government will give them some new stick to beat over the heads of their opponents.

Another point of McGill's: if we want better industrial relations leading to greater productivity improvement and the main way for employers to bring this about lies in the workplace, maybe a better way to encourage them to focus on the domestic challenge is to give them a period of legislative stability rather than more changes in the rules of the game.

Most successful managers understand that getting along with people - winning their regard, respect, support, trust, loyalty and co-operation - works better than getting heavy and legalistic. That's how you get better industrial relations - by, as McGill says, putting more emphasis on the relations and less on the industrial.

Managers like to be kept in the loop. Guess what? So do workers. Smart managers keep their staff well informed about the company's performance and the challenges it faces, and give early warnings - even to the union - about any need for nasties like redundancies. They never risk a breakdown in relations by telling workers things they subsequently discover to be untrue.

You engender co-operation by treating people well, consulting them, giving them a degree of autonomy, rewarding loyalty and sharing the business's proceeds fairly between shareholders, managers and staff. Workers accept a hierarchical pay structure, but you don't cause envy and disaffection by rewarding some equals more than others.

And if you don't like outside union officials coming into your workplace, you keep your workers so happy they never need to call them in.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Carbon tax not real reason for soaring power prices

Tony Abbott is right about one thing: the price of electricity has shot up and is now a lot higher than it should be. It's a scandal, in fact. Trouble is, the carbon tax has played only a small part in that, so getting rid of it won't fix the problem.

Until a rotten system is reformed, the price of electricity will keep rising excessively, so I doubt if many people will notice the blip caused by the removal of the carbon tax. (As for the price of gas, it will at least double within a year or two, as the domestic price rises to meet the international price, making the carbon tax removal almost invisible.)

So Abbott will be in bother if too many voters remember all the things he has said about how much the tax was responsible for the rising cost of living, how much damage the tax was doing to the economy and how much better everything would be once the tax was gone.

He would be wise to change the subject and join the push to reform the electricity pricing arrangements.

A new report by Tony Wood and Lucy Carter, of the Grattan Institute, Fair Pricing for Power, says that over the past five years the average Australian household's electricity bill has risen by 70 per cent to $1660 a year.

And this has been happening while the amount of electricity we use has been falling, not rising. Just why electricity demand has been falling is a story for another day.

The cost of actually generating the power accounts for 30 per cent of that total. The cost of delivering the power from the generator to your home via poles and wires - that is, the electricity transmission and distribution network - accounts for 43 per cent of the total.

That leaves the costs of the electricity retailer - the business you deal with - accounting for 13 per cent of the total bill, with the carbon tax making up 7 per cent and the various measures to encourage energy saving or use of renewables making up the last 7 per cent.

Of these various components, the one that does most to account for the rapid rise in overall bills is the cost of the physical distribution network. Whereas there's fierce competition between the now mainly privately owned power stations, the network businesses - still government-owned in NSW and Queensland, but privatised in Victoria and South Australia - are natural monopolies.

This means the prices the networks are allowed to charge - whether government or privately owned - are regulated by government authorities. And this is the source of the problem. Loopholes in the price regulation regime have made it easy for the network businesses to feather their nest at the expense of you and me.

Why would a government-owned network business want to overcharge? Because their profits are paid to the state Treasury, which needs all the cash it can get. So the NSW and Queensland governments gain by looking the other way while their voters are ripped off. The gouging hasn't been nearly as bad in privatised Victoria, where electricity prices are well below the national average.

An earlier report from the Grattan Institute identified four main faults in the system used to regulate the prices of network businesses: the pricing formula allows excessive rates of return, considering essential monopolies are low-risk; government ownership leads to excessive investment in infrastructure and reduced efficiency; reliability standards to prevent blackouts are wastefully high; the pricing formula rewards investment in facilities you don't really need.

The various combined state and federal regulatory bodies have belatedly begun attempting to fix these problems, but they could do a lot more if the politicians prodded them harder.

Meanwhile, the latest Grattan report proposes a solution to one aspect of the over-investment problem: coping with peak demand. The trouble with electricity networks is that, if you want to avoid blackouts, the network has to be powerful enough to cope with the periods when a lot of people are using a lot of electrical appliances at the same time, which these days is a hot afternoon.

Over the course of a year, these occasions are surprisingly few, so you end up having to build a lot of capacity, which is expensive, but then is rarely used. It would make far more sense to encourage people to avoid such extreme peaks in their demand.

The way the pricing system works at present, however, is that far from discouraging people from buying airconditioners and turning them on full blast on very hot afternoons, they're subsidised by those householders who don't.

The simple answer would be for the part of people's bills that relates to their share of network costs to be changed from charging for how much power they use to a capacity-based charge. That is, they pay according to the maximum load they put on the network in peak periods.

The result would be to remove the subsidy between high and low-capacity users, increasing or reducing their bills by up to $150 a year.

The greater benefit would be the price signal sent to high-capacity users to reduce their use of appliances during peak periods and save. As people responded to this incentive, the need to keep adding to the network's capacity would fall, thus reducing the need for higher electricity prices.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Bankers and wealth managers take ethics oath

As the misadventures of the can-do Commonwealth Bank remind us, even though our bankers didn't bring the house down in the global financial crisis as happened elsewhere, we still had too many victims of bad investment advice losing their savings.

So, what's the answer? Tighter regulation of banks and investment advisers, or a higher standard of ethical behaviour by individuals working in banking and wealth management? Try both.

I'm not so naive as to have much faith in self-regulation, but that's not to deny that some people's behaviour is more ethical than others', nor that more individuals behaving ethically would make a difference.

When you stop believing our personal behaviour matters, that we're all mere cogs in some uncontrollable machine, it's time to slit your throat.

My guess is most people like to think of themselves as reasonably ethical, which is not to say most of us actually are at all times (not even me). Trouble is, most people make their judgments about what is ethical and what's not from the behaviour of those around then.

Moral compasses are hard to find. But that's why I'd like to see a movement initiated by Dr Simon Longstaff, of the St James Ethics Centre, the "banking and finance oath", get more publicity and more signatories. The better known are the oath and those who've signed up, the better judgments others can make about how a particular action measures up.

The oath consists of nine principles: trust is the foundation of my profession; I will serve all interests in good faith; I will compete with honour; I will pursue my ends with ethical restraint; I will create a sustainable future; I will help create a more just society; I will speak out against wrongdoing and support others who do the same; I will accept responsibility for my actions; my word is my bond.

The names of the many signatories to this oath are listed on its website, They include Glenn Stevens, Jillian Broadbent, Carolyn Hewson, Warren Hogan, Andrew Mohl and Elizabeth Proust.

Why doesn't someone ask the chief executives of the big four banks just what it is that makes them feel unable to sign up? It couldn't be a threat to their profitability, surely.

THESE days the world is positively awash with forecasts of what will happen to the economy. Treasury publishes its forecasts twice a year, the Reserve Bank publishes four times a year and a couple of dozen economists in the financial markets make their forecasts regularly and freely available.

But it wasn't always like that. Before the financial markets were deregulated in the early 1980s few economists worked in them, the Reserve kept its opinions to itself and Treasury's official forecasts in the budget papers were kept terribly vague. Billy Snedden's last budget advised that "economic growth is expected to quicken considerably in 1972-73".

When I became an economic reporter in 1974, one of the few unofficial forecasters was Melbourne University's Melbourne Institute, where the regular pronouncements of Dr Duncan Ironmonger drew rapt attention from the media.

And by then Philip Shrapnel's business selling his forecasts had been going for 10 years, meaning the economic analysis and forecasting firm BIS Shrapnel is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year.

Shrapnel, who trained at the Reserve, spent a few years working as a forecaster for pretty much the only notable management consulting firm in those days, WDScott, before going out on his own. He was a character, said to polish off a least half a bottle of scotch as he stayed up studying the documents on budget night.

A lot of the people who paid to attend his forecasting conferences - still held today - would have been there to get his forecasts and plug them into their company's annual budget. These days my guess is his company makes more of its money from its research reports on particular industries and its special focus on property and construction.

Whereas David Love's rival subscription newsletter, Syntec, made its name from its uncanny ability to read the mind of Treasury, Shrapnel was fiercely independent. Not for him the risk-averse strategy of clustering with everyone else around the official forecast.

His successors retain this approach of doing their own analysis their own way and sticking to it. Like all forecasters they've had their misses, but their independence of mind may explain some notable calls: no downturn as a result of the Asian financial crisis of 1997-98; a downturn in 2000-01 no one else was expecting; and no recession following the global financial crisis.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

How economists changed their tune on minimum wages

When the Fair Work Commission announced a 3 per cent increase in the national minimum wage to more than $640 a week - or almost $16.90 an hour - from last week, employers hinted it would lead to fewer people getting jobs and maybe some people losing theirs.

And to many who've studied economics - even many professional economists - that seems likely. If the government is pushing the minimum wage above the level that would be set by the market - the "market-clearing wage" - then employers will be less willing to employ people at that rate.

That's because market forces set the market rate at an unskilled worker's "marginal product" - the value to the employer of the worker's labour.

Almost common sense, really. Except that such a conclusion is based on a host of assumptions, many of which rarely hold in the real world. And over the past 20 years, academic economists have done many empirical studies showing that's not how minimum wages work in practice. They've also developed more sophisticated theories that better fit the empirical facts. It's all explained in the June issue of the ACTU's Economic Bulletin.

As a result, there's been a big swing in academic thinking on the question of the minimum wage. Last year, researchers at the University of Chicago asked a panel of economists from top US universities whether they agreed with the statement that "the distortionary costs of raising the federal minimum wage to $US9 per hour and indexing it to inflation are sufficiently small compared with the benefits to low-skilled workers who can find employment that this would be a desirable policy".

Fully 62 per cent agreed and 16 per cent disagreed, leaving 22 per cent uncertain.

Earlier this year, more than 600 US economists - including seven Nobel laureates - signed an open letter to Congress advocating a $US10.10 minimum wage. They said that, because of important developments in the academic literature, "the weight of evidence now [shows] that increases in the minimum wage have had little or no negative effect on the employment of minimum-wage workers".

The first such study, published by David Card and Alan Krueger in 1994, compared fast food employment in New Jersey and Pennsylvania after one state raised its minimum wage and the other didn't. They did not find a significant effect on employment.

Since then, many similar US "natural experiments" have been studied and have reached similar findings. In Britain, the Low Pay Commission has commissioned more than 130 pieces of research, with the great majority finding that minimum wages boost workers' pay but don't harm employment.

There's been less research in Australia, but one study by economists at the Australian National University, Alison Booth and Pamela Katic, suggests that the facts in Australia seem to fit the "dynamic monopsony" model of wage-fixing.

Under the simple textbook, "perfect competition" model of the market for labour, individual firms face a horizontal supply curve: each firm is so small that its demand for labour has no effect on the price of labour. It can buy as much labour as it needs at an unchanged price.

In the dynamic monopsony model, however, each firm faces an upward-sloping labour supply curve. This is because more realistic assumptions recognise the existence of "imperfections" or, more specifically, "frictions".

Such as? Workers may not have perfect information about all the alternative jobs they could take and this could make them cautious about moving. Searching for a job may involve costs in time or money. Workers and jobs may be mismatched geographically, so changing jobs may involve greater transport costs. Workers - being humans rather than inanimate commodities - may not have identical preferences about the jobs available.

In other words, there are practical reasons why it takes a lot for a worker to want to leave their job.

These frictions, or "transaction costs", are assumed away in the simple model. But their existence can result in employers having market power, which they can take advantage of to pay workers less than the value of what they produce (their marginal product).
Economists call such power "monopsony" power. Just as a monopolist is a single seller, so a monopsonist is a single buyer. But don't take that word too literally. An employer with monopsony power doesn't need to be a monopolist in the market for its product (the "product" market), nor the sole buyer of labour in the region or the industry.
"A single employer in a market with many employers can have monopsonistic power if workers bear costs of job search," the article continues. In other words, it possesses a degree of monopsony power.

The point is, if a firm is facing an upward-sloping labour supply curve and wants to hire more workers, it may need to pay a higher wage than it is paying its existing workers. So, if it goes ahead with hiring, it will need to increase the wage rates of its existing workers.

And this means the firm's profit-maximising level of employment and wages will both be lower than they would be under perfect competition.

In such a model, if the minimum wage rate is set at or below the marginal product of labour, this won't cause employment to fall and may cause it to rise. Monopsonistic models don't have an unambiguous prediction for the employment effect of a minimum wage.

A paper by Bhaskar, Manning and To, published in the Journal of Economic Perspectives in 2002, concluded that "a minimum wage set moderately above the market wage may have a positive effect or a negative effect on employment, but the size of this effect will generally be small".

It will be interesting to see how long it takes those many Australian economists who don't specialise in studying the labour market to catch up with this change in their profession's thinking.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Ignoring climate change will cost the economy

Sometimes I fear Australia has decided to go backwards just as the rest of the world has decided to go forwards. Take climate change. If the repeal of the carbon tax gets through the Senate this week there will probably be celebrations in the boardrooms of all the business groups that lobbied so hard for its removal.

But if they imagine the lifting of this supposedly great burden on them and the economy will mean it's back to business as usual, they'll soon find out differently.

They may have rolled back the economic cost of doing something about climate change, but now they'll face the increasing cost of not doing something about it. As Martijn Wilder, an environmental lawyer with the Baker & McKenzie law firm, finds in a new report for the Committee for Economic Development of Australia, we're going to be hit from all sides.

There are the costly physical effects of climate change we've already started experiencing, there are the consequences for us of measures our trading partners are starting to take to limit their emissions, there's the growing reluctance of foreign institutions to fund new coalmines and power stations and there's the threat to our fossil fuel industries from ever-cheaper renewable energy.

In case anyone's forgotten, Wilder reminds us that the physical effects of climate change include a rise in the sea level, acidification of the ocean, change in rainfall patterns and an increase in the frequency of natural disasters, including droughts. Extreme weather may lead to more bushfires, while heavy rainfall and cyclones may lead to flooding.

Do you think all that generates no costs to business, no disruption to the economy? Take the Queensland floods in 2011, Wilder says. They not only hit insurance company earnings, they also halted production at various coalmines. This forced up world coal prices, with adverse effects for industries reliant on coal.

Since we've always had cyclones and floods, no one can say climate change caused this particular disaster. But the scientists tell us events such as these will become more frequent. And the insurance industry's records tell us the number of catastrophic weather events is already increasing, with the economic losses associated with weather rising.

As for the idea there's no hurry in preparing for problems that may not become acute until later this century, consider this. Had a levee to protect Roma, in Queensland, been built in 2005, it would have cost $20 million. Since it wasn't built, $100 million has been paid out in insurance claims since 2008 and a repair bill of more than $500 million incurred by the public and private sectors since 2005.

This sort of thing is happening in other countries, too. Hurricane Sandy, in October 2012, caused widespread damage in New York, crippling electricity infrastructure and leaving downtown Manhattan without power for four days. The record-breaking storm surge alone cost the local electricity company $500 million and New York businesses $6 billion.

Perhaps such events explain why many other countries are moving forwards rather than backwards in their efforts to combat climate change. Australia's coal and natural gas industries won't escape being affected by tougher regulation of the use of fossil fuels in the countries to which they export.

While Europe has had a weak emissions trading scheme since 2005, the Chinese are trialling such schemes in six provinces. South Korea, one of our main trading partners, is to introduce a scheme next year. The US is taking direct action to cut power station emissions.

China is moving to limit coal to 65 per cent of energy consumption by next year and has banned new coal power generation in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou. Wilder says this will cut demand from the largest importer of Australian coal and thus affect the value of big mining and loading assets in Australia.

The more the rest of the world seeks to reduce its use of coal and other fossil fuels, the more Australian businesses need to contemplate the possibility of their mines becoming "stranded assets" - assets that suddenly become unprofitable and so lose their value.

Until recently, foreign investors and financiers haven't taken climate-change risk into account. Now they're starting to worry not just about the morality of emitting more greenhouse gas, but the risk that investments in new mines and power stations will lose their value before they reach the end of their useful lives. The change started with international agencies such as the World Bank, but is spreading to pension-fund investors.

Then there's the threat from the rise of renewable energy. China's goal of becoming a world leader in renewable energy has made it the world's largest maker of renewable energy equipment and the single largest destination for investment in renewables.

Wilder says renewables are reaching a "point of disruption" and will displace coal and gas power stations in many parts of the world. In Australia, the sharply rising price of gas is increasing the cost-competitiveness of renewables.

"Unlike natural gas and coal, the input for renewable energy is not subject to the volatility of global energy markets and with renewable costs continuing to decline, renewable generation represents a safer long-term investment," he says.

I know, let's get the government to put the kybosh on renewables. That would be a smart move.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Tough times restore productivity performance

It's official: Australia's rate of improvement in the productivity of labour returned to normal during the reign of Julia Gillard.

How is that possible when big business was so dissatisfied and uncomfortable during Gillard's time as prime minister? The latter explains the former.

According to figures in a speech by Reserve Bank governor Glenn Stevens last week, labour productivity in all industries improved at an annual trend rate of 2.1 per cent over the 14 years to the end of 2004, but then slumped to an annual rate of just 0.9 per cent over the six years to 2010.

This is what had big business rending its garments over the productivity crisis. Egged on by the national dailies, chief executives queued to attribute the crisis to the Labor government's "reregulation" of the labour market, its failure to cut the rate of company tax, plus anything else they didn't approve of.

Except that, according to the Reserve Bank's figuring, labour productivity improved at the annual rate of 2 per cent over the three years to the end of 2013.

So why no crisis after all? Well, as wiser heads said at the time, much of the apparent weakness in productivity was explained by temporary factors such as, in the utilities industry, all those desalination plants built and then mothballed and, more significantly, all the labour going into building all those new mines and gas facilities.

No doubt much of the recent recovery is explained by the many mines now starting to come on line - meaning we can expect the productivity figures to remain healthy for some years. Few extra workers are being employed to produce the extra output - another way of saying the productivity of the miners' labour is much improved.

But mining hardly explains all the improvement, so what else? At the time when business complaints were at their height, many businesses - particularly manufacturers - were suffering mightily under the high dollar.

Many have been forced to make painful cuts, abandoning unprofitable lines and laying off staff. Some have gone out backwards, with the best of their workers being taken up by rival employers.

Guess what? Such a process is exactly the sort of thing that lifts the productivity of the surviving firms. In their dreams, chief executives like to imagine their productivity - which they perpetually conflate with their profitability - being improved by governments doing things to make their lives easier.

But requiring them to be lifters rather than leaners - which is pretty much what That Woman did - usually gets better results. And since the dollar remains too high and seems unlikely to come down anytime soon, it's reasonable to expect the non-mining sector's productivity performance to continue improving. Who told you productivity was soft and cuddly?

As for the convenient argument that the productivity slump must surely be explained by Labor's "reregulation" of the labour market under its Fair Work changes, it's cast into question by some figuring reported in another speech last week, from Dr David Gruen, of Treasury.

Gruen examined the rise in nominal wages over the decade to March this year, as measured by the wage price index, then compared this aggregate rise with the rise for particular industries. In contrast to the days when wage-fixing really was centrally regulated, he found a far bit of dispersion around the aggregate.

Wages in mining, for instance, rose a cumulative 9.7 percentage points more than the aggregate. Wages in construction rose by 5.4 percentage points more and wages in the professional, scientific and technical sector rose by 2.5 points more.

By contrast, wages in manufacturing rose by a cumulative 0.9 percentage points less than aggregate wages. Those in retailing rose by 4.3 points less and those in the accommodation and food sector rose by 7.6 points less.

Notice any kind of pattern there? It's pretty clear. Wages in those industries most directly boosted by the resources boom rose significantly faster than aggregate wages, though not excessively so considering it was a 10-year period.

By contrast, wages in those industries worst affected by the boom-induced high exchange rate - manufacturing and tourism - rose more slowly than the aggregate. Retail had its own problems, with the return of the more prudent consumer, and its wages grew by less than the aggregate.

That's just the dispersion you'd expect to see in a "reregulated" labour market? Hardly.

What it shows is that we now have a genuinely decentralised and more flexible wage-fixing system, delivering wage growth in particular industries more appropriate to their circumstances.

If that's reregulation, let's have more of it.