Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Super: ignore it and miss seeing you're being bled

You know you're getting old when you attend the funeral of the man who hired you four decades earlier. Among all the rough-and-ready types in journalism, Alan Dobbyn, long-lasting news editor of the Herald - in the days when that meant he was really the editor - was a true gentleman.

When, as a chartered accountant, I applied for a job as a cadet journalist, Dobbyn told me he wasn't sure I'd last, but was prepared to give it a go. He didn't know how keen I was to escape the round eternal of the cash book and the journal. At the wake, I learnt from his family his concern was his inability to offer me a wage of more than $100 a week.

Not to worry. He got me a hefty pay rise four months later. And, in any case, being an accountant with an interest in such matters, I joined the Fairfax super scheme in my first week and this has served me more than well.

Just as it never crossed my mind I'd one day attend my boss's funeral, so most people under 50 can't bring themselves to think about superannuation. It is too complicated and too boring. It deals with contingencies so far into the unknowable future that they're inconceivable.

Why do bankers and other purveyors of "financial services" earn stratospheric incomes that chief executives have been quick to copy and medical specialists to envy? To a fair extent because so few people can bring themselves to keep a watchful eye on their super.

How do you get ripped off in a capitalist economy? By not paying enough attention to what the capitalists are doing to you via boring things like superannuation. By ignoring the watchwords of capitalism: caveat emptor - let the buyer beware.

Paul Keating is particularly proud of Labor's introduction of compulsory employee super in the 1990s. John Howard has always had his doubts, partly because of the compulsion, but mainly because it's meant so many unwashed union officials getting a hand in administering the billions that, by rights, should be the exclusive preserve of Liberal-voting business people.

I have no problem with the compulsion. It is an easily justified government intervention to help counter the very market failure we've been discussing: life-cycle myopia. But even if you regard our present arrangements as a great reform, it remains true they're also a great scandal. A remodelled house that's yet to have its tarpaulin replaced by a new roof to stop the rain getting in.

Lately, we've heard much about the way a mainly compulsory saving scheme is accompanied by tax inducements that cost the government about as much as the age pension, but are of little benefit to low-income earners, with most of the lolly going to high-income earners like me.

It's a scandal for the government to be proposing cuts to the age pension because its cost has become "unsustainable", while ignoring the super tax concessions going to the more than well-off.

But another scandal gets far less attention: the way the banks and life insurance companies and innumerable hangers-on are able to quietly overcharge all those mug punters who can't muster any interest in their super.

Think of it: the government compels employers to take 9.5 per cent of their workers' wages and hand this over to the "financial services" industry, then looks the other way while these fat cats rip off the mugs the government has delivered into their hands.

As Jim Minifie explains in his report, Super Savings, for the Grattan Institute, the previous government did do something to improve things, mainly by tightening requirements on the "default" super funds that workers are put into when, as usually happens, they don't exercise their right to nominate a fund.

But this just scrapes the surface of the potential reductions in the administrative and investment management fees imposed on people's accounts. The industry is inefficient because its customers' inattention means competition is inadequate.

To be fair to punters, it's just too hard to understand how super works and how different funds compare, and too time-consuming to complete the forms needed to move money around. Putting that into econospeak​, information and transaction costs are prohibitive, causing the market to fail.

Minifie finds there are too many super accounts - on average, about two per person - and too many super funds, which stops the exploitation of economies of scale. He says the government should encourage fund mergers and make it easier for people to consolidate their accounts.

But most of all, the government should inject more competition by calling tenders for the right to be a default fund, with those funds charging the lowest fees winning.

These reforms could cut the $21 billion in fees paid each year by people with super accounts by up to $6 billion a year. That's a decrease of almost 30 per cent.

Punters assume that, apart from the size of your wage, how much super you retire with depends on how well your investments do. Often, however, how much you're charged in fees can make a bigger difference.

Few realise they're paying about $1000 a year in fees. Minifie estimates that just introducing a tender for default funds would cause the average retirement payout of people in such funds to be 5 per cent higher.  That's about $40,000. Worth worrying about, I'd have thought.

Monday, April 6, 2015

Jesus the great debt-eliminator

At this time of our greatest Christian holy-days, what does the Bible have to say about economics? A lot more than you may think.

That's according to the Czech economist Tomas Sedlacek, whose book, Economics of Good and Evil, I'll be heavily relying on in this column.

When God expelled Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden after they had disobeyed him, part of their punishment was that "by the sweat of your brow you will eat your food" – they'd have to work for their living.

But Jesus said, "Man does not live on bread alone". So we have to be concerned about making our living, but we also have to be concerned about more than that.

"We were endowed with both body and soul, and we are both spiritual and material beings . . . Without the material, we die; without the spiritual, we stop being people," Sedlacek says.

Christianity doesn't condemn the material, but it does condemn materialism. It's not money that's the problem, it's the love of money. Keep too much of it for yourself and you've probably crossed the line.

It's true Jesus chased from the temple "men selling cattle, sheep and doves, and others sitting at tables exchanging money", but he didn't chase them any further. His problem was not with their commerce but with their mixture of the sacred with the profane.

Jesus's teaching is often based on paradox, we're told. Jesus considers more valuable two mites that a poor widow drops on to the collection plate than the golden gifts of the rich.

Implicitly, this legitimises the role of money. But, to economists, it also shows Jesus understood the concept of marginal disutility. The widow's mite involved much greater sacrifice than the rich person's gold.

Sedlacek notes the New Testament's extensive use of economic metaphors. Of Jesus's 30 parables, 19 are set in an economic or social context: the parable of the lost coin; of talents (money), where Jesus rebukes a servant who didn't "put my money on deposit with the bankers"; of the unjust steward; of the workers in the vineyard; of the two debtors; of the rich fool, and so forth.

But get this: the most central concept in the Easter story of Christ's death and resurrection – redemption – originally had a purely economic meaning. You need to know that, in New Testament Greek, sin and debt were the same word.

People who were unable to pay their debts became debt slaves. Once you fell into slavery, the only escape was for someone to ransom you, to pay your bail. Jesus's role was to redeem us, purchase us at a price, buying us out of our debt of sins. The price was the shedding of his blood on the cross, just as the sacrificial lamb's blood was shed at Passover.

"In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God's grace," St Paul said.

Western civilisation has been shaped by Christianity and Christian values, which means Christianity has also shaped economics. Sedlacek says the prayer "forgive us our sins", meaning "cancel our debts", could be heard from the West's leading banks in the global financial crisis.

Our modern economy cannot function without institutions that deliver the unfair forgiveness of debt. Bankrupts, for instance, are discharged even though they've paid back only a fraction of what they owe. When a company goes bust owing millions, the liability of its shareholders is limited to the face-value of their shares, paid long before by the original purchaser of the shares.

As for the GFC, Sedlacek says, "It would be hard to imagine the financial Armageddon that would follow if the government actually did not pay the ransom and redeem banks and some large companies".

"This, of course, goes against all principles of sound reason and of basic fairness. We also breached many rules of competition on which capitalism is built. Why did the most indebted banks and companies, which did not compete very well, receive the largest forgiveness?"

Why? It had to be done, in order to redeem not only these particular troubled and highly indebted companies, but also others that would fail if these few were not saved.

You've heard of "positive discrimination", but Sedlacek says Christian thought emphasises the concept of "positive unfairness": the more you've sinned, the bigger dollop of forgiveness you get.

"It doesn't matter how hard you try – everyone gets the same reward" (something the prodigal son's brother had trouble accepting).

"Christianity thus largely abolishes the accounting of good and evil. God forgives, which is positively unfair," he concludes.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Behavioural economics makes more sense to regulators

Pssst ... have you heard about this great new investment product called hybrid securities? They're terrific. Rather than having to choose between high-reward, high-risk shares and low-risk, low-reward bonds and other debt securities, hybrids give you the best of both worlds: high reward, low risk.

At least, that's what I think. And it's probably what the outfit that sold me the hybrids wanted me to think. But it's certainly not what the Australian Securities and Investments Commission wants people to think.

It regards hybrid securities as highly complex, tricky investments. They often promise high yields and are issued by well-known companies with trusted brands, but "investors need to very carefully consider the features and risks before investing".

So keen is the commission to make sure it's getting the message through to potential investors that it did something unusual: it resorted to the behavioural economists – those who, rather than assuming everyone always acts rationally, use psychology to discover how real people make decisions – to help it understand what it is that attracts people to hybrids.

It commissioned the Queensland behavioural economics group at the Queensland University of Technology Business School to conduct some experiments. The group assembled a lot of business-school uni students and gave each of them 100 units to be notional invested in a portfolio of bonds, hybrids and shares, getting them to take it seriously by promising to let them keep any profit they made.

First, however, it asked each student a bunch of questions designed to establish whether their decision-making was influenced any of a range of "cognitive biases" rather than solely rational consideration of the options.

Investors are known to be commonly affected by such "heuristics" (mental shortcuts) as the availability bias, representativeness bias, framing bias, recency bias, overconfidence, illusion of control, competence bias, ambiguity aversion and mental accounting.

So now, gentle reader, it's time for me to ask you some strange questions on this long weekend.

Give me high and low estimates for the average weight of an adult male sperm whale (the largest of the toothed whales) in tonnes. Choose numbers far enough apart to be 90 per cent certain that the true answer lies somewhere between.

Don't like that one? Try this: give me high and low estimates of the distance to the moon in kilometres. Choose numbers far enough apart to be certain that the true answer lies somewhere between.

Now something more personal. When you buy a Lotto ticket do you feel more encouraged regarding your chances if you choose the number yourself rather than using a computer-generated number?

Answer: (a) I'm more likely to win if I control the numbers picked, or (b) it makes no difference to me how the numbers are chosen.

Huh? What's all this about? Extensive testing has allowed psychologists to use people's answers to the first two questions to determine whether they suffer from overconfidence. (If you must know, such whales weigh about 40 tonnes and the moon is 384,400 kilometres away.)

Plenty of investors are overconfident in the sense that they have unwarranted faith in their own intuitive reasoning, judgments and cognitive abilities. Their ability to sell up just before the boom turns to bust, for instance.

Can you guess what the Lotto question was intended to discover? It makes no difference to your (tiny) odds of winning Lotto whether you or a computer picks your numbers.

If you imagine it does, you're suffering from what psychologists call the "illusion of control" – the belief you can control, or at least influence future outcomes when, in fact, you can't.

The illusion of control has been found to contribute to the overconfidence bias. And it's a lot more common than you may think. It is, for instance, the reason people keep asking economists for their forecasts about the economy even though they know economists are hopeless forecasters. We like to delude ourselves we can control the future.

Anyway, the Queensland behavioural economists – Anup Basu, Uwe Dulleck, Yola Engler and Markus Schaffner – found from their experiment that students who were more overconfident and suffered from the illusion of control were more inclined than others to invest in hybrid securities.

With better information about what it is that attracts some investors to buy hybrids, the commission should be able craft more effective warnings to people who need to think a lot more carefully before they leap in.

Of course, it also helps to know how to word your warnings. A growing number of government regulatory bodies around the word have found that different ways of writing a letter can have a surprising effect on the way people respond to it – whether they ignore it or act on it.

The commission asked the Queensland behavioural economics group to suggest ways of improving its letters to the directors of companies in liquidation, reminding them of their legal duty to co-operate with the liquidator in handing over the company's books and providing any other information.

Again the group conducted a laboratory experiment. Such experiments, using uni students, have their disadvantages, but they also have the advantage of giving researchers greater ability to control the many factors that could influence the decisions you're studying.

The experimenters recommended that the commission proceed to a randomised controlled trial where some directors were sent the present letter, while others were sent one of four different letters: one where the order of the points was reverse to make them easier to remember, one including a "social norm" noting that about 75 per cent of directors comply, one that allows directors to make active decisions that involve them in the process, and one that appeals to the good intentions most directors have.

At least some of those changes are likely to significantly improve directors' compliance. Practical regulators are getting much more useful advice from the behavioural brand of economists.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Tax reform needs explanation not spin

Sometimes I think there's no hope for the present crop of politicians - on both sides. When voters react badly to their proposals, they tell themselves there was nothing wrong with the policy, it just wasn't pushed properly.

What they should do is call in a policy expert capable of explaining the proposal and the need for it in words the public can readily understand. What they actually do is call in the spin doctors to help them "sell" the policy.

Lacking the ability themselves, the pollies don't see the difference between explaining something and doing a sales job. Spin doctors use slogans and catchy lines to make policy proposals seem simpler and more attractive than they really are. That is, they're deliberately misleading.

Joe Hockey seems to have a bad case of this. Both his recent intergenerational report and the tax reform discussion paper he issued on Monday were strange amalgams of densely written Treasury analysis preceded by fluffy executive summaries and glossy handouts, which seem to have been written by advertising copywriters who know little about the topic.

One of these characters decided it would be real cool to title the tax discussion paper Re:think.

Some other genius came up with the slogan, Better Tax: lower, simpler, fairer. Anyone who knows anything about tax reform knows that's a trifecta with the longest possible odds.

Not sure who thought of it, but Hockey keeps repeating the line that the tax system needs reform because it was "largely designed before the 1950s". Anyone beyond their 20s would need the memory of a gnat to believe that.

Every country that existed before the 1950s has a tax system that was designed before the 1950s, including us. No developed country I know of has thrown out their old system and replaced it with a quite different system, and neither have we.

But their systems would have changed hugely over the past 60 years - and ours has too. Apart from incessant tinkering, substantial changes were made by Paul Keating in 1985, in a package called RATS - reform of the Australian tax system.

Further big changes were made by John Howard in 1999, in a package called - wait for it - ANTS, a new tax system. Little thing called the GST - remember it?

In 1951, income tax cut in at an income of $300 a year, at a rate of 1 per cent. It then proceeded in 21 steps to a top rate of 65 per cent on income above $30,000 a year.

Today, income tax cuts in at $18,200 a year, at a rate of 21 per cent (including the 2 per cent Medicare levy) and proceeds in just four steps to a top rate of 49 per cent (including the Medicare levy and the temporary budget repair levy of 2 per cent) on income above $180,000 a year.

In the 1950s we paid sales tax on certain goods, but no services, at the rate of 2.5 per cent.  By the time sales tax was replaced by the goods and services tax in 2000, it was imposed on selected goods at six different rates ranging from 22 per cent to 45 per cent.

In the old days capital gains and fringe benefits went untaxed, but the tax breaks on superannuation were much less generous to higher income-earners than they are today. In the old days the states had franchise taxes on petrol, alcohol and tobacco, as well as various fiddling stamp duties, that no longer exist.

Hockey's hyped-up bit of the discussion paper makes much of the fact that, among member countries of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, only Denmark relies more heavily on income and company taxes than we do.

But if this leaves you thinking we pay more tax than almost every other country, you've been misled. As Treasury says in the fine print, when you take account of all the taxes we pay, "Australia has a relatively low tax burden compared to other wealthy countries."

And when you add compulsory social security contributions (Australia: none) and payroll taxes (Australia: low) to get a like-with-like comparison between countries, we raise 63 per cent of total taxation through "direct" taxes, compared with the OECD average of 61 per cent. Oh.

The discussion paper makes no recommendations, but add up all its arguments and the conclusion we're led to is clear: to reform our tax system to cope with the globalised 21st century, we need to make changes that cause high-income earners and foreign investors to pay less tax, but the rest of us to pay more. Purely coincidentally, of course.

As well, the paper engages in a two-card trick. Hockey's first budget was rejected by voters and the Senate because it sought to fix the budget deficit in ways that were manifestly unfair: big cuts in government spending programs affecting the bottom half of households, but no cuts to the huge tax concessions enjoyed by the top 20 per cent-odd of taxpayers.

The discussion paper readily concedes the unfairness of these elite tax concessions. But it makes virtually no mention of the government's oh-so-pressing problem with the budget deficit.

Get it? In the unlikely event anything much is done about these unfair concessions, the saving will be used to help pay for tax cuts for companies and high-income earners, not to help reduce the deficit.