Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Pollies' bad behaviour & dishonesty worsening all over

We are witnessing history being made. Unfortunately, it s a history-making decline in standards of political behaviour. At least it proves we 're not merely imagining that things were better in the old days.

Tempting though it is, one of the things incoming governments don' t do is delve into the affairs of their predecessor. The papers of the old government aren 't made available to the new masters.

But all that is out the window with the Abbott government 's decision to establish a royal commission into the Rudd government' s handling of the home insulation program and provide it with Labor' s cabinet documents.

It takes innocence greater than I can muster to believe the motive for the inquiry is to bring justice to the program 's victims rather than to embarrass the Coalition 's political opponents by raking over one of their more celebrated stuff-ups.

Labor can take its lumps. The real pity is that a long standing convention seeking to limit political vindictiveness has been cast aside. One thing we can be sure of is that when next Labor returns to power it will lose no time in retaliating, as will that government 's eventual Coalition successor. Advantage-seeking retaliation will become a bigger part of the political debate.

The man who set new lows in negativity and obstructionism in opposition is now taking us to new lows in government. In a more godly world, Labor would resist the temptation to sink to the level of misbehaviour set by its opponents, thus giving substance to its repeated claims of moral superiority.

But so intense is the competition between the parties that this seems unlikely. Last week Bill Shorten promised to lead a constructive opposition and not oppose everything for the sake of it. It 's a wonderful resolve - one which, if lived up to, many voters would find attractive - but I fear it' s another take from Tony Abbott: almost tearful promises to sin no more, followed by an immediate resumption.

The great likelihood is that Labor in opposition will model its behaviour on Abbott in opposition, in conformity with that great moral precept: tit for tat. The sad truth is that, for politicians as for most of us, the moral compass that guides us asks: what' s everyone else doing?

We take our ethics from our perception of the behaviour of those around us, particularly our competitors.
We all see ourselves as more moral than the next person, but when challenged our defence is always: I' m no worse than he is. After all, he started it.
Thus are our politicians locked in a race to the bottom.

Rather than trying to counter our fear of foreigners, politicians have preferred to pander to it, vying to be the side whose mistreatment of asylum seekers goes so far it discourages any more from coming - all intended to dissuade them from risking their lives on a dangerous sea voyage, naturally.

So far have our standards sunk that we must now suffer the indignity of being lectured on human rights by the Chinese government.

Declining standards at federal level have been matched by bad behaviour at state level. For an example of state politicians willing to blatantly mislead their electorates, look no further than the Victorian and NSW governments' dishonest explanation for the looming jump of about 25 per cent in the price of household gas.

The true reason for the rise is that the building of natural gas liquefaction plants in Gladstone will soon allow gas producers on Australia' s east coast to export their gas and obtain the much higher prices paid on the world market. The east coast will go from being outside the world market to inside it.

The price rise is thus inevitable unless governments were to prohibit the companies from exporting their gas, forcing them to continue accepting below-world prices. There has been no suggestion of penalising the gas producers in this way.

Rather, state politicians have taken up the dishonest claim of the gas companies that permitting them to build new and controversial coal seam gas plants would somehow prevent gas prices from rising or force them back down.

But as any student of economics could tell you, there' s no way NSW and Victoria could ever produce enough natural gas to significantly affect the world price of gas.

The price of gas in NSW and Victoria would stay below the world price only if the new producers were compelled to sell their gas to local users at below the world price. Again, there s been no suggestion of this.

Last week the gas companies' illogical argument was taken up by the new NSW Minister for Energy and Resources, Anthony Roberts. I' m prepared to believe Roberts may be economically illiterate, but I don' t believe his advisers are - nor that they don t read the papers, where the scam has been exposed.

Although Roberts has replaced a minister who left the cabinet under a cloud, he seems uninhibited in his efforts to mislead the electorate.

It' s hard to know whether he is simply seeking to advance the gas industry' s vested interests or is setting up an alibi which allows the government to blame the inevitable jump in gas prices on those terrible people opposed to fracking.

Either way, his only crime is seeking to deceive voters. And these days that 's the way everyone plays the political game, isn 't it?

Monday, February 24, 2014

Abbott's anti-union push not what it appears

If you were a conspiracy theorist it would be easy to see Tony Abbott's actions against unions as revealing his true dastardly intentions despite all his soothing statements before the election.

But I see it just as standard Coalition behaviour, motivated more by a search for political advantage than by a desire to free the economy from the scourge of unionism. Indeed, when the union movement finally expires - which can't be too many years off - I'd expect the Coalition to shed a private tear at the loss of such a useful whipping-boy.

When you contemplate the royal commission into union corruption, remember that, since the days of Malcolm Fraser, all Coalition governments set up such commissions. We know they sometimes backfire against the government or employers, and rarely lead to the conviction of many unionists. Royal commissions are about raising a hue and cry, not getting wrongdoers into jail.

As politicians on both sides well know, unions have long been on the nose with the public. This is partly because it's always easy for proprietors of the established order to portray unions as troublemakers and partly because of the public's race memory of the way the unions were always staging disruptive strikes in the decades up to the mid-1980s (yes, that long ago).

The Coalition wouldn't still be so keen to press the public's anti-union button, however, if the unions weren't still so closely associated with its political opponent, the Labor Party - a linkage that, if anything, strengthened as Julia Gillard sought to shore up her leadership against the ever-present threat from Kevin Rudd.

This is not to imply there's no corruption in the union movement. There is, just as there is among businesses - and politicians, for that matter. Just how widespread corruption is in the union movement is hard to know and the royal commission is unlikely to tell us, though you can be sure the relatively few instances it uncovers will be highly publicised.

A second ulterior motive is the Coalition's resentment of the way the unions channel big donations to Labor, but never to it. By contrast, business will donate to Labor rather that the Liberals whenever it thinks Labor's likely to win.

And, of late, we've seen signs of a third level of political prejudice against the unions. How is it the "end of entitlement" seems to apply far more to manufacturers than to farmers or formerly government-owned airlines?

Could it be because highly protected manufacturing tends to be highly unionised, with the unions playing a leading role in fighting for continued government assistance, particularly when Labor is in power?

It's worth remembering that manufacturing is the traditional base of the union movement. Manufacturing's declining share of total employment is part of the explanation for the movement's decline.

Manufacturing's further decline will hasten the eventual demise of the unions - or perhaps their relegation to the public sector. Just 13 per cent of private-sector workers are union members, compared with 43 per cent of public-sector workers, making 18 per cent overall. But note that only 19 per cent of manufacturing workers are members.

You may think the public's strong reaction against WorkChoices contradicts the idea that unions are on the nose. Not really. The unions' advertising at the time rightly alerted part-time and casual workers to the greater scope for unreasonable employer behaviour under WorkChoices, but while this made many anxious it led few to conclude the answer was to join a union. For many workers, unions are a relic from a bygone age.

Remember that the Coalition's attempt to extract political mileage from the unions, bad employers' attempt to blame the unions for their poor relations with their own staff (e.g. Qantas) and the national dailies' attempt to suck up to big business, all involve leaving the public with the impression the unions are a much bigger bogyman than they actually are.

What the people with the hidden agendas will never tell you is that more than 80 per cent of enterprises don't have a union presence. Only about 40 per cent of employees are covered by collective agreements, some of which have been drafted by employers without union involvement.

If the government really did stamp out union corruption, or prompt Labor to cut its ties with the unions (thus depriving many union leaders of an attractive career path), or shame union leaders into giving up their lucrative fees as trustees of industry super funds, it would get the union leadership back to its knitting, giving their movement a better chance of surviving.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Why the success of the G20 matters

It's easy to be cynical about the G20. Will the meeting of finance ministers and central bank governors in Sydney this weekend, and the leaders' summit in Brisbane in November, amount to anything more than talkfests?

People say the Brisbane summit will be the largest and most important economic meeting ever held in Australia. That's true, but it just means it will be bigger than the Sydney APEC leaders' summit in 2007 - which is remembered mainly for The Chaser boys' Bin Laden stunt.

But though it's easy to be cynical, it's a mistake. It's possible the two meetings this year will prove no more than talkshops, but that would be a great pity. And, since Australia is this year's chair of the group, it's up to Joe Hockey and Tony Abbott to make sure they're worth more than that.

The G20 began in 1999 as a group for finance ministers and central bankers, in the aftermath of the Asian financial crisis, which revealed the need for greater co-operation and co-ordination between governments in responding to crises in the global financial system and, better, making changes to the global financial "architecture" (rules and institutions) that reduced the frequency and severity of financial crises.

The formation of the G20 was a recognition that the G7 (compromising only Europe, North America and Japan) wasn't truly global, particularly because it excluded the emerging BRICS economies - Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa.

For a decade or two most of the growth in the global economy has come from the BRICS, and the developing economies now account for more than half gross world product. For a better global spread, the G20 also adds Argentina, Indonesia, Mexico, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, Turkey, the European Union and, of course, Oz. With just these 20, it accounts for 85 per cent of gross world product.

In 2009, in the aftermath of the global financial crisis, the G20 was upgraded from just finance ministers to include summits of presidents and prime ministers, an acknowledgment of the way economic power had spread beyond the North Atlantic. But why do we need these get-togethers?

Because, as Christine Lagarde, boss of the International Monetary Fund, said recently: "The breakneck pattern of integration and interconnectedness defines our times."

It has become unfashionable for the media to talk about globalisation, but it's continuing apace. As Mike Callaghan of the Lowy Institute said last week: "If there is one lesson from the [global financial] crisis, it is the interconnectedness between financial markets. Events in US financial markets had worldwide consequences. We need co-operation to deal with globally operating financial institutions."

These days, global integration is being driven less by deregulation and more by advances in technology, particularly the information and communications revolution. One part of this is the way the internet has globalised the media.

News of an economic calamity in one country is now conveyed to the rest of the world almost instantly. Financial traders in New York or other centres can start moving money out of the affected country in no time. They can then take a set against neighbouring countries they merely fear may have a similar problem, giving rise to a big problem called "contagion", where trouble spreads like a communicable disease.

And TV news that a few banks are tottering in Europe can scare the pants off consumers and business people in countries around the world, prompting them to stop spending until their confidence returns.

But it's not just crises. As Callaghan reminds us, more and more businesses now operate globally. Goods are more likely to be "made in the world", with inputs from many countries rather than just one. So the trade policies agreed by the international community have to adapt to the new reality that such "value chains" are increasingly driving world trade.

Then there's tax. The more businesses that operate globally, the more businesses that are able to exploit loopholes between different countries' tax laws, shifting their profits to countries with low tax rates. This is eroding the tax base of many countries - including ours - so their taxes aren't raising as much revenue as they should be.

In other words, technology-driven globalisation - the ever-reducing barriers separating particular economies - is throwing up problems that can't be solved by individual countries acting individually.

So we need greater communication, co-operation and co-ordination between countries, first, to discourage countries from pursuing "beggar-thy-neighbour" policies - I attempt to fix my problems at your expense, which usually provokes retaliation, so we all suffer - and, second, to find group solutions to the various problems.

The first couple of G20 leaders' summits in 2009 were quite effective in ensuring the Great Recession wasn't as bad as it could have been. But the truth is the G20 has been running out of momentum, resorting to high-sounding rhetoric while getting bogged down in excessive detail.

Considering how crisis-prone the global economy has become, it's important merely for world leaders, treasurers and central bankers to know each other, have face-to-face meetings and phone each other.

But we also need more joint action, and if the G20 doesn't lift its game the big boys will stop coming to meetings and eventually shift their interest to a smaller, more cohesive group which includes China and a few others, but excludes Australia.

Clearly, it wouldn't be in our interests to lose our seat at the top table. That's why it's so important we use our position as this year's chair to get the G20 back on the rails. Many pre-meeting phone calls need to be made by Hockey and Abbott to their counterparts, to gather support on the directions to be taken.

Then they need to chair the meetings effectively, discouraging set-piece speeches and encouraging interchange that improves mutual understanding and makes progress on a limited range of key issues.

We have a lot to gain or lose.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Drawing a line between the market and the social

The hard part of economics, politics and public policy is deciding where to draw the line. It's as easy as pie to take a position at one extreme or the other. To buy the whole Liberal or Labor package - which, after a change of government, will often involve supporting things you opposed six months ago. To oppose virtually all government regulation or to think more regulation is never enough. Doing it this way always feels good - so neat and tidy.

But though it's easy and neat, it's not satisfactory. It's pretending the world is either black or white when in fact it's a quite unsatisfying shade of grey. To say I agree with the Libs on this and that, but with Labor on that and the other. To accept that some regulation is good, but too much is bad. It takes more effort, leaves you under attack from both sides, and it's messy.

It involves doing your own thinking, which is hard work. I've been thinking lately that, while I want very much to live in a market economy, I definitely don't want to live in a market society.

In a market economy, you and I are pretty much free to make our own decisions about what we'll consume, what occupation we choose and where we'll work - all within the limits of what's available, of course - while the great majority of decisions about the goods and services - and jobs - we're offered are made by private businesses.

You and I are motivated by the desire to get the most satisfying deal we can - to buy what appeals to us and not buy what doesn't - while businesses big and small are motivated by a desire to make profits by successfully catering to our wants (which aren't necessarily our needs).

Their desire to make more profit than they did last year is what drives our economy on, making it ever bigger and creating more jobs, but also contributing to its continuously changing structure.

Fine. But it's not that simple. Anyone who didn't know before the global financial crisis must surely know now that if you let businesses do whatever they want in their search for greater profits, the system will run off the rails and cause horrific injuries.

So we do have to ensure profit-obsessed businesses work within government-imposed guardrails designed to protect them and us from their greedy excesses.

We also need to understand that, if we left it to profit-seeking business people - and their public-policy consultants, economists - they'd gradually turn every aspect of our lives into a marketplace, with everything commercialised. Everything changed into a profit-making opportunity.

Where there was some legal barrier preventing the market from spilling over into some part of our lives, businesses would pressure governments to remove it in the name of "reform". And because, in this hyper-materialist era, business is on top - and the unions are pariahs, subject to regular besmirching royal commissions - the politicians are usually keen to give business what it demands.

This is why I've been thinking I want to live in a market economy, but not a market society. I like the commercial to be commercial, but I don't want the non-commercial made commercial just because business people imagine it would increase their profits (and the economists' model tells them it would be more "efficient").

An example is penalty rates. Until relatively recently in our history, weekends and public holidays were social institutions largely outside the market economy. They were essentially commerce-free zones, where as few people as possible worked and we were free to socialise with our kids, other family and friends.

Fools that we were, we thought we worked five days a week so we could relax and enjoy the other two together.
Weekends were kept largely commerce-free by two legal institutions: restrictions on trading hours and industrial award provisions that sought to discourage employers from instructing staff to work at "unsociable" hours by requiring them to pay a penalty, which rose according to the degree of unsociability.

Most restrictions on trading hours were removed in the 1980s and '90s in the cause of "micro-economic reform". And now employers have renewed their attack on penalty payments, portraying them as some kind of hangover from the dark ages of socialism, which are preventing businesses creating more jobs (note they never mention profits).

Thus are we being pressured to shift the line separating the commercial from the non-commercial, the economic from the social. Already that line is blurred and the temptation to remove the last legal barrier is great.

It's tempting because, in this more materialist, less religious age, almost all of us like the idea of being able to shop and patronise commercial sport and entertainment on the weekend. Naturally, we'll take the kids and meet our friends there.

Trouble is, what we want is for us to be able to shop and be entertained, but not be required to work ourselves. We'd like to be part of the upper class that doesn't have to work, served by a lower class that can't afford not to.

When you turn a social institution over to market forces, those with money do well and those without don't. We'd raised our material standard of living, but do it by lowering our quality of life.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Hockey risks scaring off consumers

You can never be sure what a fall in the measures of consumer confidence actually proves, but if I were Joe Hockey I'd be a bit worried. If he keeps on playing tough guy he may frighten people into clamping their purses shut.

We learnt last week that the Westpac-Melbourne Institute index of consumer sentiment fell by 3 per cent this month, down 9.5 per cent from its election-time high. Optimists now barely outnumber pessimists, the worst result since July.

I'm a great believer in the central role of business and consumer confidence - their alternating moods of optimism and pessimism - play in driving the ups and downs of the business cycle. As the Rudd government demonstrated with its remarkably deft response to the global financial crisis, managing psychology is probably more important that actual stimulus spending.

Trouble is, we don't seem able to measure consumer confidence with any accuracy. The index of consumer sentiment is an unreliable predictor of consumer spending. And there's reason to fear it tells us more about the state of politics than the state of the economy.

People who intend voting for the government of the day are invariably far more optimistic about the economy than people who intend voting for the opposition. This could mean people's views on how well the economy is being managed determine whether they intend to vote for government or opposition.

But Labor voters switched from pessimistic to optimistic and Coalition voters from optimistic to pessimistic the moment Kevin Rudd won the 2007 election, then the positions were reversed when Tony Abbott won in September. Seems clear it's people's political loyalties that drive their views about the state of the economy.

Even so, the fall in confidence since the election does seem to be explained by people's growing worries about losing their jobs. The related Westpac-Melbourne Institute unemployment expectations index worsened by 2.3 per cent this month, and by 9.2 per cent since September.

In a rational world people would judge their risk of unemployment from the monthly labour force figures, which, although they show unemployment worsening marginally to 6 per cent last month, aren't so frightening.

In the real world, however, the punters judge their risk of joblessness from the frequency of stories about factory layoffs on the TV news. All the fuss about the successive decisions of Ford, Holden and now Toyota to cease car-making in Australia, plus bad news about other manufacturers, Telstra and Qantas seems to have put the wind up a lot of people.

An Essential opinion poll shows respondents nominating unemployment as their greatest economic concern. Add all Hockey's efforts to soften us up for a tough budget and it's hardly surprising pessimism is spreading.

Note that, as part of this non-rational response, news that factories will close in three years' time is coded as jobs lost this week. Job losses in manufacturing get three times the publicity of jobs lost elsewhere, and jobs losses in the public sector worry no one in the private sector.

The Reserve Bank believes rising house prices are a helpful development, spurring people to get on with their housing plans before prices rise further, and also making home owners feel wealthier and so willing to lower their rate of saving and increase their rate of consumption spending.

This ''wealth effect'' would boost consumption even though incomes won't be rising strongly because growth in employment and wages will be weak.

But the proportion of consumer sentiment respondents believing it's a good time to buy a dwelling has fallen 10.8 per cent from its September peak. And Saul Eslake, of Bank of America Merrill Lynch, differs with the Reserve by believing house price rises are unhelpful.

He points out that renters are significantly less optimistic than mortgagers and outright home owners according to the consumer sentiment index, with tenants' confidence falling harder over the past year.

While it was true in the pre-GFC world that households responded to their rising (paper) wealth by slashing their rate of saving, Eslake doubts it will happen this time, mainly because household debt remains very high as a proportion of disposable income.

In the end, you can ''monetise'' rising paper wealth only by borrowing against it. And people with a lot of debt who are starting to worry about whether they'll keep their jobs are much less likely to resume borrowing.

This is something Hockey should remember when the econocrats tell him retail sales are growing more strongly since the election and that stronger home building approvals presage a rise in dwelling construction.

If Hockey's budget toughness - rhetorical and otherwise - adds to the punters' anxieties, his big political vindication could delay the return to strong employment growth.


Saturday, February 15, 2014

Why the jobs will come, though we can't say where

Take the news that Toyota is joining Holden and Ford in ceasing to make cars in Australia, then add the news that unemployment is now the highest it has been in a decade and you see why everyone's asking the obvious question: where will the new jobs be coming from?

Bill Shorten has joined others in demanding to see the Abbott government's ''jobs plan''. If the government has no plan to ensure there are new jobs to replace the thousands being lost, particularly in manufacturing, what hope is there?

Sorry to be snippy, but although all this may be the obvious question, it's actually a stupid question. Has everyone suddenly turned socialist? Do they imagine we live in a planned economy?

It amazes me that people who spend their entire lives living in a market economy don't have a clue about how market economies work.

Well, let me give you one: market economies are driven by market forces, not governments.

I'm no libertarian and, these days, I'm a poor apology for an economic rationalist. I don't believe there's such a thing as a ''free market''. I believe market economies are the creation of government and that any government with half a brain knows its job is to provide guidelines for the market and ensure it doesn't run off the rails - as happened in the global financial crisis.

But, by the same token, it ought to be obvious that the vast majority of decisions made in a market economy are made by private sector producers and consumers, each acting in what they imagine to be their own interests.

In other words, the greatest single factor driving the economy forward is self-interest: business people trying to make a buck (and make more bucks than last year) and households spending about 90 per cent of their income, trying to get maximum satisfaction for their money.

Those silly people demanding to see the government's ''jobs plan'' and concluding that, unless it successfully pursues such a plan, few if any future jobs will be created, seem to assume the economy works like a glove puppet: unless the government sticks its hand in the puppet and moves it, nothing happens.

If you want to know in which particular industries or occupations the government plans to ensure new jobs are created - which winners the government has picked - the answer is: none. It's leaving the market to determine all that.

But it does have a ''jobs plan'' of sorts. It's a two-step plan. Step one: leave the primary responsibility for ensuring the economy keeps growing and creating jobs to the Reserve Bank. Step two: get started on ensuring we don't end up destroying jobs the way the Europeans and Americans have been by getting the budget back under control, while ensuring this ''fiscal consolidation'' doesn't weaken demand and so discourage employment in the next few years.

So what's the Reserve's ''jobs plan''? You ought to know. It's to encourage borrowing and spending on consumption and investment - and, in the process, counter the employment-dampening effect of our still-too-high exchange rate - by keeping interest rates at near-record lows. With any luck, our dollar will fall further as the US Federal Reserve phases out its policy of ''quantitative easing'' (creating money).

What makes our Reserve so confident doing this will, before too many months have passed, create lots of additional jobs and get the unemployment rate heading back down towards 5 per cent? Well, apart from orthodox economic theory, decades of experience. It's worked every other time, why won't it work now?

As for the government itself, there is more it could be doing to enhance the economy's job-generating capacity. One is to borrow as much as necessary to provide our businesses with adequate public infrastructure and ensure existing infrastructure is used efficiently through such things as appropriate pricing.

Another is to ensure our education and training system - from early childhood to postgraduate - is doing enough, and is effective enough, in raising the skills of our labour force. As part of this, the Gonski reforms are a good start towards increasing the employability of kids at the bottom end.

And, recognising the market failure that leads to inadequate private investment in research and development, making sure economy-wide government incentives are adequate and effective.

There may be a role for ''industry policy'', though I've yet to see programs that aren't just disguised protection of favoured industries, amounting to propping up losers rather than picking winners. Most ''innovation'' programs have been a sham.

I've spent my career being asked where the jobs will come from. It's something people ask after every severe recession. It's a symptom of the pessimism that grips the public mood at the bottom of the business cycle (in reaction to the equally unreal mood of optimism that drives booms).

It's a question I've never been able to answer. But having lived through three severe recessions my answer is now: ask me again in five years' time and I'll look up the figures and tell you precisely where they came from.

I'm supremely confident they'll come because we've never yet had a downturn from which we failed to recover, with total employment ending much higher than before the downturn.

Since the last recession, total employment is now 3.6 million jobs above its peak in June 1990, an increase of 45 per cent, with full-time jobs accounting for almost half the increase.

In terms of occupations, the biggest growth has been among managers, professionals and associate professionals, with the weakest growth in semi-skilled occupations.

I don't know where the jobs will come from this time, but I'll give you a hint: virtually all of them will be in the services sector.

How can I be so sure? That's where virtually all additional jobs have come from for the past 50 years.


Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Why the end of car-making isn't such a terrible thing

One advantage of getting old is meant to be a greater sense of perspective. You've seen a lot of change over your lifetime and seeing a bit more doesn't convince you the world is coming to an end. Unfortunately, getting old can also leave you convinced every change is for the worst as the world goes to the dogs.

A lot of people have been disturbed by the news that Toyota's closure as a car maker in 2017 will bring an end to the manufacture of cars in Australia, with the loss of many jobs also in the parts industry.

But my guess is the most disturbed observers will be the old, not the young. I doubt if many young people had been hoping for a career in the car industry. And I know that few people - young or old - buy Australian-made cars.

That's not a cause for guilt, but for being sensible. To regret the passing of an industry whose products few of us wanted is just sentimentality, making no economic sense.

A lot of the dire predictions we're hearing won't come to pass. However many jobs the vested interests are claiming will be lost, they're almost certainly exaggerating.

That's particularly true of the alleged flow-on effects, which are often calculated on the assumption that any money which would have been spent buying the product in question will now not be spent on anything.

I've never believed car making was of special strategic significance to advanced technology. Every industry claims to be special. And I've heard the claim that this spells "the end of manufacturing in Australia" too many times in the past to believe it.

You think 35,000 is a huge number of jobs to be lost? It isn't. It's 0.3 per cent of all jobs, equivalent to about two months' net job creation in a normal year. You think this could put the economy into recession? We're overdue for another recession but this isn't nearly big enough to be the main cause of one. Even if it was, it wouldn't happen until 2017.

It's true some of the workers who lose their jobs won't be able to find alternative jobs, and some that do won't find jobs as well paid. But far more will find jobs than many of us imagine. Naturally, it's important for governments to give affected workers a lot of help to retrain and relocate.

Some people assume an imported car creates no jobs. Far from it. Are you able to buy an imported car for anything like the price at which it crosses our docks? Of course not. Most of the gap between the landed price and the retail price goes on creating jobs for Australian workers in our extensive car-distribution industry.

The fact is the sale, fuelling, servicing and repair of cars has always involved far more jobs than the making of cars and car parts has.

I've been responding to people's fears about the decline in manufacturing for almost as long as I've been a journalist because manufacturing's share of total employment began declining well before I joined Fairfax in 1974.

The truth is the industrial structure of our economy has been changing slowly but continuously since the First Fleet. A lot of angst has been generated over that time but the fact remains we're infinitely more prosperous today than we were then - with a much higher proportion of the population in the paid workforce.

The changing mix of industries is actually a primary cause of our greater affluence. Countries that try to prevent their industry structure changing are the ones that stop getting richer.

To put the latest developments into context, let me show you the bigger picture of Australia's economic history, drawing on a Reserve Bank article. Throughout much of the 19th century, agriculture accounted for about a third of the nation's total production, with mining bigger than manufacturing.

By Federation, agriculture provided about 25 per cent of total employment, with manufacturing providing 15 per cent and mining about 8 per cent. By the 1950s, however, manufacturing had grown to 25 per cent, agriculture was falling towards 10 per cent and mining was down to 1 per cent.

So as the shares of agriculture and mining declined, manufacturing's rose. But from the 1960s, manufacturing's share of total employment started falling from its peak of about 25 per cent to be down to about 8 per cent today.

Remember, however, that an industry's declining share of the total doesn't necessarily mean it's getting smaller in absolute size. Although today agriculture accounts for only about 3 per cent of the total, the quantity of rural goods we produce has never been higher. And manufacturing's output began falling only in recent years.

So an industry's share falls mainly because other industries are growing faster. And, with the exception of mining, the sector that has provided virtually all the growth is services. It accounted for half our jobs even in the 19th century, but from the 1950s its share took off, rising sharply to about 85 per cent today. Most of the growth has been in health, education and a multitude of "business services".

Many older people find the relative decline of manufacturing disturbing but I can't see why. Services sector jobs tend to be cleaner, safer, more skilled, more value-adding, more satisfying and better paid.

Monday, February 10, 2014

We need a wage problem, so let's imagine one

It's been two decades since we had reason to worry about excessive wage growth. This remains true despite cabinet ministers and some economists saying we have a problem.

The structural reason we don't have to worry is the continuing effect of the Hawke-Keating government's micro-economic reforms - particularly the floating of the dollar, the removal of protection against imports, deregulation of many industries and the move from central wage-fixing to bargaining at the enterprise level - in making the economy far less inflation prone, as well as more flexible in responding to economic shocks.

Micro reform failed to deliver the expected lasting rise in the rate of productivity improvement, but it did deliver the unheralded benefit of making the macro-economy much easier to manage. You would expect people who profess to care so much about reform to know this.

Starting with the cabinet ministers, it's understandable that a conservative government that made a solemn promise to make no significant changes to industrial relations law in its first term would want to camouflage its lack of pro-employer militancy by turning up the volume on its anti-union rhetoric.

That the union movement is a shadow of its former self is no impediment to the gratification it gives the Liberals (and the national dailies) to portray the unions as the economy's great bogeyman.

Trouble is, the ministers don't seem to have looked at the stats lately. As the Reserve Bank summarised the story on Friday: "Various measures of wage growth are now around the lowest they have been over the past decade or longer."

Since the economy has been growing at below trend, with slowly rising unemployment, for quite a few quarters, this is hardly surprising.

More worthy of serious discussion is the argument of Professor Ross Garnaut and others that, if the economy is to gain lasting stimulus from the belated fall in the dollar, it will need to be accompanied by a fall in real wages.

It is true that a fall in the dollar leads to a rise in the prices of internationally tradeable goods and services.
It is also true that the fall in the nominal exchange rate has to be accompanied by a fall in the real exchange rate (the nominal rate adjusted for our inflation rate relative to those of our trading partners) if it is to cause a lasting improvement in the price competitiveness of our trade-exposed industries.

What doesn't follow is that the real exchange rate can fall only if real wages fall. For a start, it doesn't require wages to grow no faster than the inflation rate for that rate to be unchanged.

All that's need is for wages to grow no faster than the inflation rate plus the trend rate of improvement in the productivity of labour (often taken to be 1.5 per cent a year).

Thus are the benefits of productivity improvement spread around the economy in the form of rising real wages (and, thanks to indexation, rising real pensions) without adding to inflation. As it loved reminding us, this is just what happened throughout the Howard government's term.

It follows that real wages would need to fall only to the extent that the increase in inflation caused by the fall in the dollar exceeded the trend rate of productivity improvement. (Of course, the need for slower wage growth would also be reduced to the extent that our trading partners' inflation rate happened to be higher than ours.)

Let's do some figuring. The Reserve's rule of thumb is that a 10 per cent fall in the dollar adds between 0.25 and 0.5 percentage points to the annual inflation rate over each of the following two years or so.

Since its peak last April, the Aussie has fallen by about 15 per cent against the US dollar. But it's misleading to focus on temporary peaks, so a more representative fall would be less than 14 per cent. And we really should use the fall against the more economy-wide trade-weighted index, which reduces the depreciation to about 11 per cent.

There may be a fair bit more to come, of course, but so far we don't have a lot to worry about. There's no sign we need a fall in real wages, just lower-than-normal real growth.

And if you take the danger level of economy-wide nominal wage growth to be 4 per cent (that is, the inflation-target mid-point of 2.5 per cent plus trend labour productivity improvement of 1.5 per cent), we're looking very restrained.

The wage-price index never got out of hand even at the height of the resources boom, and by September its annual rate of increase had slowed to a terrifying 2.7 per cent. Not.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Top 10 economic reforms that transformed Australia

1. Floating the dollar
Letting the market set the value of the Aussie dollar after December 1983 allowed it to fluctuate between US48c and $US1.10 so far, making it an absorber of shocks from the rest of the world. This has made the economy more stable and stopped the resources boom causing an inflation blowout.
2. Deregulating the banks
Introducing foreign banks and allowing banks to set their own interest rates made it much easier to get a loan and increased competition between banks and other lenders, but led to excessive lending to businesses and caused the deep recession of the early 1990s.

3. New taxes on capital gains and fringe benefits
In October 1985 Paul Keating announced new taxes but cut the top income-tax rate from 60 per cent to 49 per cent. He also abolished negative gearing, but reversed this under pressure from estate agents.

4. Removing import protection
In May 1988 Keating announced the virtual phasing out of the import duties and quotas imposed on most manufactured goods. Predicted demise of manufacturing industry did not materialise.

5. Privatising government businesses
Sale of the Commonwealth Bank began in 1991 and Qantas in 1992. The Howard government sold Telstra in three tranches from 1997. State governments sold their banks, insurance companies and some power producers and distributors.

6. Enterprise bargaining
In 1993 the Keating government ended centralised wage-fixing through a "national wage case" and introduced collective bargaining at the enterprise level. In 2005, Work Choices sought to promote individual contracts by reducing worker protections, further encumber unions and end reliance on industrial rewards. The Rudd government reversed the most extreme parts of Work Choices, but left much of it in force.

7. National competition policy
In 1995 Keating sought to encourage deregulation and privatisation by state governments and tighten the Trade Practices Act's restrictions on anti-competitive behaviour. Premiers tended to drag their feet.

8. Central Bank independence
In 1996 Peter Costello allowed the Reserve Bank to make its decisions independent of the elected government, endorsing its target of holding inflation between 2 per cent and 3 per cent, on average. The Reserve has raised interest rates more than a politician would - including during the 2007 election campaign - but this has kept inflation under tighter control than when politicians were in charge.

9. Goods and services tax
The start of the GST in 2000 came 25 years after it had been proposed by a major inquiry. It replaced wholesale sales tax and various unconstitutional or inefficient state taxes. Much death and destruction were predicted; little eventuated. But now GST is showing signs of wear and needs renovation.

10. Taxes on mining and carbon
Wayne Swan planned to raise huge sums from taxing miners' high profits and use the proceeds to give tax cuts and concessions to business and individual savers. He also used a tax to impose a price on carbon dioxide emissions. Both reforms were badly mishandled and Tony Abbott has pledged to reverse these reforms.


Our three top treasurers in 40 years

In the 40 years I've now been an economic journalist for Fairfax Media I've given 12 federal treasurers the benefit of my free advice. I doubt it has made much difference, but I do know this: despite all you read in the paper, our economy is now far better managed than it used to be.

For this I give most of the political credit to just three of them: Paul Keating, by a country mile, Peter Costello and one you won't believe: Wayne Swan.

That the economy is now far better managed is easily proved. We went from boom to recession in my first year, 1974, back into a severe recession in 1982 under treasurer John Howard, and then again in 1990 with Keating's "recession we had to have".

Each was worse than the one before and each was correctly labelled "the worst recession since the Great Depression". I formed the view that recessions happened about every eight years.

But as Paul Bloxham, of the HSBC bank, has reminded us, Australia is now in its 23rd year of continuous economic growth. Must be doing something right.

To have achieved such an unprecedented gap since the last severe recession we had to escape the Asian financial crisis of 1997-98, the US "tech-wreck" recession of the early 2000s and the Great Recession that followed the global financial crisis in 2008 - and still isn't really over.

Reckon that was all down to good luck?

We owe it at least as much to good management. I know because I remember the roller-coaster ride the economy was on before the econocrats got it back under control.

Wages rising 25 per cent in a year and inflation hitting more than 17 per cent under the Whitlam government; inflation back up to 12 per cent under treasurer Howard and unemployment peaking above 10 per cent after his recession; mortgage interest rates hitting 17 per cent and unemployment peaking at 11 per cent in Keating's recession.

Turns out the present growth period accounts for just over half my 40 years. And of my 12 treasurers, Keating, Costello and Swan were in office for well over half.

Keating is our best treasurer by far because he instigated the sweeping reforms that transformed the economy and laid the groundwork for better day-to-day management of it. He made the economy less inflation-prone and more flexible, thus able to reduce unemployment faster.

Costello's greatest achievement was to free the Reserve Bank to change interest rates as it saw necessary, meaning the economy is now managed more by econocrats than politicians. He also ensured our banks were tightly supervised while the Americans were letting theirs create so much havoc.

Swan deserves a spot on the treasurers' honour board purely for his surprisingly deft handling of stimulus spending and human confidence after the GFC, ensuring we suffered only the mildest of recessions.

Aided by some in the media, his political opponents have had great success in rewriting that recent history. But later historians won't be deceived.

A short history of the economy

To me it doesn't seem all that long ago, but looking back I have to admit the economy has changed hugely since my first day as an over-age cadet journalist on February 7, 1974. Some things are worse, but a lot are better.

What strikes me most, however, is the roller-coaster ride we have been on to get from then to now.

In those days, just eight years after we moved from pounds, shillings and pence, TV was still black and white and my new employer had a five-digit phone number. Gough Whitlam was prime minister and Billy Snedden was opposition leader.

An ambitious young suburban solicitor named Howard was preparing to take a seat in Parliament at the election to be held three months later. (Outlasted you, John.)

As a cadet I earned about $100 a week, a big comedown from my former pay as a chartered accountant, but a lot better than the $45.50 a week paid to married pensioners. It would take me some years to get up to the top tax rate of 66.7 per cent, which cut in at $40,000 a year.

Child endowment was 50c a week for the first kid and $1 for the second.

The standard interest rate paid on passbook savings accounts of 3.75 per cent doesn't look too bad today, and the mortgage interest rate of 8.4 per cent probably isn't as low as you expected. But remember that the inflation rate was 14 per cent.

A few years after I joined Fairfax we bought a not-so "ideal first home" in the inner city for $27,000. Its value would have increased at least 20-fold since then. Incomes have also increased a lot, of course, there are a lot more two-income families, and even established houses get ever bigger and better. But, even allowing for all that, we have bid up the prices of houses and units relative to other things.

The rate of unemployment was 2.4 per cent in 1974, which was up from 1.8 per cent the previous year and so considered high. It would hit 4.6 per cent by the time the Whitlam government was dismissed in November 1975.

Almost two-thirds of the labour force was male and only one worker in eight was part-time. Today women account for a bit less than half the labour force and almost one worker in three is part-time. The number of people in jobs has almost doubled to 11.6 million.

These days, a higher proportion of students stay on to year 12 and a high proportion go on to uni. Biggest difference: females have a higher rate of "educational attainment" than males.

Then, almost one in four workers worked in manufacturing (which in those days included John Fairfax Limited, manufacturer of newspapers) whereas today it's about one in 12.

The big jobs growth has been in health, education and all manner of "business services". The fastest-growing occupations have been managers, professionals and associate professionals. Beats blue-collar work.

The value of the Australian dollar was fixed at $US1.49 but, in those days before the advent of the jumbo jet, overseas travel was much more expensive, relative to other things, than it is today.

Forty years ago imports accounted for 13 per cent of the value of all we bought. Today it's more than 21 per cent. But then we exported less than 13 per cent of all we produced, whereas today it's almost 21 per cent.

Thanks particularly to the efforts of Paul Keating and Bob Hawke, our economy is these days a lot more open to the rest of the world. Less of our trade is with America and Europe and a lot more is with Asia - China, Japan, South Korea and India.

When I started my economy-watching, the value of all the goods and services Australia produced in a year was $54 billion. Today it's more than $1.5 trillion. But don't forget consumer prices have increased by 700 per cent since then and the population has gone from less than 14 million to more than 23 million.

Even so, Australia's real income per person has almost doubled, so there's no doubting we are far better off materially.

What price we have paid for this in strained relationships, stress and mental ill-health, greater inequality and damage to the environment is another matter - one we prefer not to think about and put too little effort into measuring.

From the viewpoint of economic news, the timing of my arrival at Fairfax was perfect. In 1974 the postwar Golden Age of low inflation and full employment throughout the developed world came to an abrupt end.
It was ushered out by the first OPEC oil price shock, which hit in late 1973, and the advent of an ugly word to describe a new and ugly state of affairs - stagflation, the combination of high inflation with high unemployment.

It was a turning point in the history of the world economy and the Whitlam government had no idea what hit it. It was undeterred in its efforts to correct 23 years of perceived Liberal backwardness within a three-year term.

But it wasn't just the politicians who didn't get it. It took the world's economists at least a decade to work out why things had gone wrong and how economies should be managed so as to keep both inflation and unemployment low.

It took the rich world's governments even longer to get their economies back in working order and it took longest in Australia, mainly because of the Whitlam government's excesses, which took longer to work off.

When I arrived at Fairfax the economy was booming, with wages set to rise by 25 per cent in a year and prices headed for an inflation rate of 17.7 per cent.

But before the year was out the economy was contracting thanks to a Treasury-inspired "short, sharp shock". Despite Dr Jim Cairns' frantic efforts to revive it, the Whitlam recession had begun.

Malcolm Fraser happily echoed all the "smaller government" rhetoric coming from Maggie Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, but didn't really believe it. He thought it was just a case of not doing the things Whitlam had done and everything would get back to the way it had been before the arrival of the interlopers.

It didn't. He dismantled Medibank because it annoyed the doctors so much, but couldn't bring himself to cut government spending hard. Unlike his treasurer, Howard, he was no economic rationalist.

The economy did pick up a bit. The inflation rate fell, but by September 1982 it was back up to 12 per cent. There was talk of a mining boom, but instead we got the severe recession of the early 1980s, with unemployment reaching a peak of 10.3 per cent just a month or two after the election of the Hawke government.

Hawke's timing was perfect. The drought broke and the recession ended within months of his ascension. He used his Accord with the union movement to cut real wages and the result was very strong growth in employment.

The election of March 1983 gave voters no indication that Labor's treasurer, Keating, was about to completely remodel the economy - though, as Keating reminded the ABC's Kerry O'Brien recently, he did spell out his intentions in an interview with me within a few weeks of taking the job.

Labor floated the dollar, deregulated the banks, reformed the tax system, largely removed protection against imports, privatised most federal government-owned businesses, ended centralised wage-fixing and moved to enterprise bargaining.

It was most un-Labor-like behaviour and many supporters hated it. But with their new-found freedom the banks went crazy with their lending to business, the economy boomed and unemployment got to a brief low of 5.9 per cent in late 1989, which was when the government's frantic efforts to slow the economy took mortgage interest rates to 17 per cent.

The result was the severe recession of the early 1990s, in which unemployment peaked at 11 per cent in the first half of 1992. Because so many businesses had borrowed so much to buy assets now worth a lot less than they had paid, the recession was particularly protracted and the recovery painfully slow.

After Dr John Hewson muffed things, Howard was perfectly placed in 1996 to benefit from all Keating's economic reforms as well as the "recession we [didn't] have to have". Inflation got back under control late in Keating's term, but Howard didn't get unemployment back under 6 per cent until late 2003.

He made few further reforms apart from granting policy independence to the Reserve Bank, introducing the Goods and Services Tax and over-reaching on industrial relations.

Peter Costello steered the ship steadily until the revenue flooding in from the resources boom led him to go crazy with tax cuts and unsustainable superannuation concessions, thus laying the foundations for the present chronic budget problems now being blamed solely on Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard.

Their failings are too recent to need repeating, but already we've forgotten Labor's greatest macro-economic achievement: limiting the fallout from the global financial crisis to a mild downturn. Anyone could have done it? Don't believe it.

How my views have changed over 40 years

They say if you still believe at 50 what you believed when you were 15, you haven't lived. Just this week I've now worked at Fairfax Media as an economics journalist for 40 years. Those ages don't quite fit, but my views today are certainly very different from what they were when I started.

When, disillusioned with life as a chartered accountant, I began at Fairfax, most of my effort went into relearning the economics I was supposed to have learnt at university. There it didn't make much sense to me and I had trouble remembering enough of it to pass exams. Once passed, it was promptly forgotten.

A lot of my re-education came at the hands of the nation's most high-powered econocrats, who are remarkably generous with the telephone tutorials they're willing to give journos who seem genuine.

So at first most of my effort went into mastering and then propagating economic orthodoxy. I still see it as an important part of my job to help readers understand what it is that leads economists to do and say the things they do.

Newspaper economics tends to be pretty basic. Doing the job year after year is like answering the eternal year 12 economics essay question: "From your knowledge of economic theory, comment on ..." Joe Hockey's budget preparations, cabinet's decision not to give SPC Ardmona a $25 million subsidy, the government's inquiry into the financial system.

But one ambition has been to introduce something a little more sophisticated, to lift the level of analysis from introductory to intermediate. To this end I've devoted a fair bit of my free time to reading the latest books about developments in economics and, increasingly, psychology.

Though Australian academic economists write books that seem intended to impress by being incomprehensible, leading American academics write (carefully footnoted) books that explain their findings to the average intelligent person. Sometimes they even make the best-seller lists.

I've been looking for stuff that would interest readers, but also trying to deepen - and broaden - my understanding of the topic. It's this broadening that's done most to change my views about economics and how I should do my job.

Economics is the study of "the daily business of life" - earning money and spending it, buying and selling assets such as homes and shares, borrowing to finance the purchase of assets and saving to repay debts. Macro-economics is the study of how whole economies work and how governments can "manage" them, seeking to limit inflation and unemployment and promote growth.

So, contrary to my conclusions at uni, economics has a lot of practical application. There's always plenty of interest in the topic and plenty of coverage in the media.

But as I've got older and read more widely I've realised that, if anything, we tend to take economics too seriously. It deals only with the material side of life - getting and spending - and in this more materialist age we run a great risk of focusing excessively on getting and spending at the expense of other, equally important aspects of our lives. I've concluded there's more to life than economics.

Our heightened materialism means we take economists far more seriously today than we did 40 years ago. Their message is that we're not trying hard enough: not doing enough to change ("reform") our economic arrangements to foster faster growth in the economy and hence a more rapidly increasing material standard of living.

But I've concluded economists suffer from the same failing as other specialists. In their enthusiasm for their topic they want to take over your life. The economists' union wants to make becoming more prosperous the nation's central objective. And these guys urge us on with little thought about what trying harder and doing more may imply for the other dimensions of our lives.

You and I know most of the satisfaction in our lives comes from our personal relationships. But relationships aren't part of the economists' model, so they urge particular "reforms" without any thought about the implications for our relationships. Politicians act on their advice without such thought, either.

So, to borrow a cliche, economists need to be kept on tap but not on top. These days I try to explain the rationale for economic policies - what they're trying to achieve and how they're supposed to work - but also play the role of a sort of economics theatre critic, adding a critique of economics, economic policies and economists.

I've learnt there's little correlation between being a successful business person and having a good understanding of economics. They seize on an argument that seems to support the line they're pushing. Whether it's logical they seem not to know or care.

Economists study and advocate efficiency in the way we combine economic resources - land, labour and capital - to produce goods and services. This is supposed to maximise material prosperity. The position I've come to is that we should strive for efficiency unless we've got a good enough reason to be inefficient.

For instance, it's inefficient to have government rules specifying minimum levels of local content on television. It would be much cheaper to buy not just most but all our TV programs from America. But I agree it's better to force our TV channels to produce a bit of Aussie drama. Culture matters.

Even so, knowing where to draw the line on inefficiency ain't easy. It's too short-sighted to expect that those industries, interest groups or regions that have managed to extract assistance from government in the past retain their privileges forever, or that industries adversely affected by overseas developments be given ever-growing government assistance so nothing needs to change and all pain is avoided.

Life's a bit tougher than that. Change is unrelenting. It's our continuously changing circumstances - and, I hope, our improving understanding of how to respond to challenges - that keeps me going.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Hockey faces daunting budget challenge

In shaping this year's budget - their most important macro-economic task for the year - Tony Abbott and Joe Hockey face a dilemma: the timing for a particularly tough budget may be right politically, but it's anything but right economically.

It's clear they intend to follow the example of John Howard and Paul Keating by using the first budget after their election to have an almighty cleanout and strike a lasting blow for fiscal sustainability.

A lot of this simply involves replacing policies favouring your predecessors' heartland supporters with those favouring your own supporters - that is, making room for your election promises - but it has to go further and achieve a significant net improvement in the "structural" budget balance (the balance we would have if this were a normal year in the business cycle).

The first budget after a government's election is the one where it can take unpopular measures with greatest political impunity. You blame it all on the incompetence of your predecessors, and you give voters the maximum time to forgive and forget before the next election.

Fine. But the economy is so fragile at present, and its transition from mining-led to non-mining-led growth so tentative and uncertain, that Hockey would be crazy to produce a budget that cut the deficit significantly in the coming financial year or even the one after.

You can't be forecasting growth as weak as 2.5 per cent, with slowly worsening unemployment this year and next - implying below-trend growth for three years in a row - and also be tightening fiscal policy. After all, the Labor government's eminently worthy "deficit exit strategy" (which it only pretended to stick to) kicked in only "once the economy returns to above-trend growth".

The sad truth is the economy's prospects are so uncertain - and the fall-off in mining construction spending so unpredictable - that Hockey must not only avoid doing anything that adds to the weakness, but also stand ready to inject emergency fiscal stimulus the moment it becomes clear a collapse in mining investment threatens to push us into overall contraction.

The point is that, while it's undeniable we need to return the budget to cyclical surplus (and structural balance), this shouldn't happen - and, thanks to our still low level of public debt, doesn't need to happen - with any urgency.

So, how should Hockey resolve this contradiction between smart politics and responsible macro-management and avoid the charge that he's descended to a counter-productive policy of "austerity"?

One solution would be to announce all the tough measures in May, and get them through Parliament, but time them to start only slowly, then build up rapidly in the "out years" - by which time, we presume, the economy will have returned to healthy growth.

An alternative, but riskier approach would be to press on with the deficit-reducing measures, but offset their contractionary effect by embarking on a big new program of spending on infrastructure. This makes the point federal governments have hitherto ignored in their rhetoric: it's only the recurrent (or operating) budget that needs to be balanced over the cycle.

It's perfectly responsible for capital works spending to be financed partly by borrowing - thereby requiring future generations to contribute to the cost of the long-lasting infrastructure they benefit from - provided the projects aren't wasteful but yield a high social return.

Another worry is Hockey's statement before Christmas that his budget-repair measures would be limited to cuts in government spending, which was reinforced by Abbott's homily at Davos praising smaller government and lower taxes.

As John Daley of the Grattan Institute has noted, there's no precedent for successful fiscal consolidation here or elsewhere that didn't involve both spending cuts and tax increases.

The plain fact is that, though there's much scope for spending cuts - reduced business welfare, including subsidies to chemists, inefficient arrangements with fee-for-service doctors, home-made submarines, excessively generous grants to well-off private schools and so on - no remotely plausible list of spending cuts would be sufficient to achieve fiscal sustainability.

This is mainly because the greatest single contributor to Treasury's projections of unending budget deficits is the inexorable real growth in spending on healthcare. Any pollie who imagines they could do any more than temporarily slow that growth, or cover its cost by never-ending cuts in other areas of spending, is an ideologically crazed fool.

The other problem is that for many years much "spending" by governments has taken the form of tax exemptions, rebates and other concessions. Unless Hockey and Abbott's definition of spending cuts includes cuts in "tax expenditures" I can tell you now their efforts will fall far short.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Outlook for the economy: short-term and long

A lot of people believe Tony Abbott and Joe Hockey begin their first full year in office facing a daunting economic challenge, even a crisis. But what is the nature of the challenge? How daunting is it, and how pressing?

Well, let's analyse it - and do so using some of the standard distinctions economists use to get their heads around a problem.

People see the government as having a problem with the economy and with its budget. To the casual observer, the economy and the budget seem pretty much the same thing. But, though the two are obviously interrelated, economists draw a clear distinction between them.

The government's budget (its spending and revenue-raising) has an effect on the economy (the whole nation's production and consumption of goods and services, income-earning and spending) and, equally important, the much-bigger economy has an effect on the government's budget.

But we'll get a clearer picture of what's happening if we deal with the two separately. Let's focus on the economy and leave the budget for another day. (Don't worry, you'll hear a lot more about the budget in coming weeks.)

And in thinking about the economy, let's use the economists' trick of distinguishing between cyclical and structural factors. Cyclical factors are those temporary influences that are causing the economy to speed up or slow down at present and over the coming year or two.

Structural factors are those that operate underneath the cyclical factors, affecting the economy less dramatically at any particular moment, but having a much longer-lasting and hence more important influence in changing its shape.

Starting with the cyclical outlook, it isn't too hot. The economy's production of goods and services (real gross domestic product) grows at an average rate of about 3 per cent a year, sufficient to keep the rate of unemployment steady and inflation within the Reserve Bank's 2 per cent to 3 per cent target range.

But we've been growing more slowly than 3 per cent for the past few years, and Treasury's expecting growth to slow to just 2.5 per cent this financial year and next, 2014-15. The recent slow growth explains why unemployment has been creeping up - to 5.8 per cent on the latest reading - but inflation hasn't been a worry.
The forecast of continued weak growth implies unemployment will continue creeping up - to 6.25 per cent by June next year - but inflation will stay controlled.

The reasons for the past and coming slow growth are well known: the end of the resources boom's investment phase and the high dollar the boom brought with it. Most growth was coming from mining construction, with the rest of the economy pretty subdued, but now mining construction is expected to fall off rapidly, with the rest of the economy only slowly getting back on its feet to take up the slack.

We've already done what we need to get the economy growing faster: the Reserve Bank has cut interest rates to historic lows, and the dollar has fallen by about 16 per cent (partly because the Reserve has been talking it down). Now we're waiting to see how long it will take for the medicine to work.

Remember that primary responsibility for managing the macro-economy rests with the Reserve Bank, not the elected government. Hockey's main job is to make sure the budget doesn't add to the present weakness, but also stand ready to apply emergency fiscal stimulus should mining construction spending unexpectedly collapse at some point.

So the economy's short-term, cyclical position isn't wonderful, but there's isn't a lot more we can or need to do. Leaving aside the inevitability that one day our record period of expansion since the last severe recession will have to end, the economy's longer-term, structural position is vaguely similar: it's not as dire as some imagine but, as usual, there's plenty of room for improvement.

While Labor was in power, it suited some business lobby groups to claim our rate of improvement in productivity (output per unit of input) had stalled. Surprisingly, the answer was always for the government to give them the rent-seeking privileges they wanted.

The truth is less apocalyptic. It's true we had an uncharacteristically strong burst of productivity improvement in the second half of the 1990s, but then weak to non-existent improvement through much of the noughties. Since then, however, productivity has been improving at a rate that's OK but hardly wonderful. Analysis of our formerly weak performance suggests much of it was explained by one-off factors and measurement problems.

But in Treasury's periodic intergenerational reports, it has consistently projected slowing in our long-term rate of growth in real GDP. Most recently, in 2010, it projected that the annual rate of growth in GDP per person would slow from 1.9 per cent over the previous 40 years to 1.5 per cent over the coming 40.

This may not sound disastrous - and to me it isn't - but to our deeply materialist economists and business people it is. So note that half the decline is explained by a fall in the proportion of the population participating in the labour force as the baby boomers retire and the population ages.

This can be predicted reasonably confidently, but the other half is explained merely by Treasury's assumption that our 40-year average rate of improvement in the productivity of labour will fall from 1.8 per cent to 1.6 per cent a year.

Plenty of economists around the world share Treasury's fear that productivity improvement will be slower in coming years. And this probably wouldn't take anything like 40 years to become apparent.

So for the Abbott government and those who share its professed commitment to maintaining strongly rising material affluence (and don't worry about little annoyances such as the survival of the planet), there is a reason to pursue reforms that improve labour force participation and labour productivity.