Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Parties' similarities and differences on economics

I get criticised by rusted-on supporters of both sides of politics when I say this, but that doesn't stop it being true: there are differences between the two sides' policies, but they're not as great as they want us to believe (and their supporters do believe).

So let's identify the main points of agreement and disagreement. Most argument in election campaigns is about economic issues, with much less disagreement on other issues.

On economic management the parties are agreed on the issue which, though it's rarely acknowledged by either side, is by far the most significant: that the day-to-day management of the economy be left to the Reserve Bank, acting independently of the elected government.

That just leaves the government in control of its budget, which does have effects on the economy in the short and longer term but, because it's all the pollies have left to argue over, gets more attention than it deserves.

On getting the budget back into surplus – and so getting the level of public debt falling rather than continuing to rise – there's little to choose from. The Coalition isn't in any hurry, and nor is Labor.

Malcolm Turnbull says his policies won't have the budget back to surplus until 2020-21, after which the surplus will stay tiny.

Bill Shorten's plans say he will get back to surplus in the same year, though he'd spend an extra $16.5 billion over the four years, but then add an extra $27 billion to the surplus in the following years to 2026-27.

(You can say who knows what will happen in four years' time, let alone 10. True. But remember this applies equally to both sides' figuring. All we can do is focus on the estimated effects of the measures each side promises to take.)

The main differences between Labor and the Coalition occur because Labor would not proceed with the government's planned cuts to spending on education and health while, on the other hand, it would continue the 2 per cent "deficit levy" on income above $180,000 a year but wouldn't proceed with the government's planned cut in company tax.

It's because the cost of the company tax cut grows strongly in the later years, as do the savings from Labor's plan to "grandfather" its limits on negative gearing and the capital gains tax discount, that Labor's budget plan would take so long to improve the budget balance.

It's clear from this that when the Liberals accuse Labor of being into "spending and taxing" it is guilty as charged.

The harder question is whether government spending and taxes would be all that much lower under the Coalition. If so, it won't be by as much as it would have us believe.

It's not clear, for instance, that the Coalition will have the political courage to press on with the cuts in grants to the states for public hospitals and schools that are built into its budget figures.

The main difference is likely to be in the categories of spending that grow faster or slower under each side, and in the types of taxes and tax concessions that are cut or increased.

For instance, it's clear to me that the high cost of cutting the rate of company tax will have to be covered by more bracket creep and fewer income tax cuts.

On particular tax promises, though both sides are promising cuts to superannuation tax concessions, the Coalition's plans are clearly superior, whereas Labor's plan on negative gearing is far more attractive to young would-be home buyers.

The public's conviction that the Coalition is the better manager of the economy seems to roll on regardless of evidence. In truth, it's not supported by the record. Both sides have had their achievements and their stuff-ups.

Economic threats don't come bigger than climate change. Here, both sides' plans fall short. The Coalition has announced no credible plan to achieve the commitments it made in Paris which, in any event, were inadequate.

Labor is braver, but not by much. It plans a hugely ambitious target for growth in renewable energy, but doesn't show how it will be achieved. It plans a quite innocuous emissions trading scheme.

Both sides descend to dishonest scare campaigns. Both sides have previously supported policies they now vociferously oppose. Both may oppose policies simply because the other side supports them.

In some cases their disagreement is greater than they want to admit (penalty rates, for instance), whereas in others they disagree more in words than deeds (foreign aid; the national broadband network).

One rule-of-thumb that still works is that, in their decisions about spending and taxing, the Coalition will tend to favour business and higher income-earners, whereas Labor will tend to favour "middle-class and working-class Australians". Take your pick.

Monday, June 27, 2016

Business lobbies sell out Aussie shareholders

One thing we've learnt from this election campaign: whoever's interests our business lobby groups represent, it's not Australian shareholders.

That's clear from their vociferous defence of Malcolm Turnbull's hugely costly promise to cut the company tax rate from 30 to 25 per cent, even though our system of dividend imputation means local shareholders have little to gain from the cut.

Local shareholders would have the present 30 per cent rate of their "franking credits" cut back in line with the fall in the company tax rate. Something similar would affect all Aussie workers with superannuation.

The business lobbies carry on about the company tax cut as if the loss of revenue to the budget had no opportunity cost. In truth, the gap would mean higher budget deficits (and a higher interest bill to taxpayers) unless it was covered by cuts in the provision of government benefits and services, or by higher taxes.

It would probably be some combination of the three, with most weight taken by higher income tax, brought about by further bracket creep in the absence of tax cuts.

The budget's tiny tax cut for income-earners on more than $80,000 a year was almost a tacit admission that this was the last tax cut any of us would be seeing for many a moon.

Point is, while local shareholders have little to gain from the company tax cut, they'll bear their share of its cost.

There could be no more convincing refutation of the eternal fiction that company executives represent the interests of their shareholders. Economists have recognised this conflict of interests since the work of American economists Berle and Means in 1932.

So what's motivating the business lobby groups in their enthusiasm for a company tax cut? Well, though Australian shareholders would be little better off, the company itself would be paying less tax, which its executives may regard as an improvement.

Of course, the shareholders who would benefit from a lower tax are the foreign owners of Australian shares, since they receive no imputation credits to be reduced.

Provided, however, their home country doesn't have a company tax rate higher than ours. This means American shareholders – who supply at least a quarter of our equity capital – ultimately have nothing to gain from the cut.

The Internal Revenue Service taxes US owners of foreign shares at the American company tax rate of 36 per cent, less whatever tax they've already paid to a foreign government.

So, in principle, cutting the tax we extract from them actually benefits the IRS, not our foreign shareholders.

Of course, many big American multinationals turn legal cartwheels so as to have their Australian profits taxed at a nominal rate in some tax haven. But they escape paying the US's higher tax rate on those profits only for as long as they keep them offshore (and thus unable to be passed on to their US shareholders).

It's not so surprising that the most untiring urger of the company tax rate cut, the Business Council, should be so uncaring about its lack of benefit to local shareholders.

It's a club of the chief executives of our biggest companies. Its conception of what's good for business is what's good for company executives.

What's more, many of the council's Australian chief executives would be answerable to head office executives in foreign countries. So they'd be pleased to see a tax change the primary beneficiaries of which were foreign shareholders.

Similarly, it's not surprising to see the Minerals Council so supportive of the proposed cut. It's dominated by the three foreign global mining giants that dominate our mining industry: BHP-Billiton, Rio Tinto and Xtrata-turned-Glencore.

To those guys, Oz is just a place to be exploited – in both senses of the word.

What's harder to comprehend is why the other business lobby groups – the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry and the Australian Industry Group – have been so enthusiastic about a cut that would bring so little benefit to local shareholders.

It's surprising because both groups purport to represent the interests of small business. Almost by definition, small business is Australian-owned.

And with a genuinely small business – where the owner-manager is also the chief shareholder – the business's profits (those not taken as salary and perks) will always ultimately be taxed in the owner's hands, meaning most of the benefit from the lower rate of company tax is lost through the equivalent cut in franking credits.

But so great was AiG boss Innes Willox's lust for a lower company tax rate that at one stage he proposed paying for it by abolishing dividend imputation. Not sure he'd thought that one through.


Saturday, June 25, 2016

Productivity and fairness should go together

They say we get the politicians we deserve but recent weeks convince me we also get the election campaigns we deserve. When we're moved more by scare campaigns than by policy debate, guess what the pollies give us?

To the extent that we have been debating policy choices, we've had economic policy but much less social policy.

That's pretty standard for elections. The Coalition's offering has been mainly about its "plan for jobs and growth".

What could be more important than that? Ignoring climate change, not much – provided we remember that the income from jobs and growth needs to be shared widely and fairly, including with people unable to work.

They haven't mentioned it much in the campaign, but our politicians and their economic advisers are worried that our prospects for economic growth are weak because our productivity – production per worker – isn't improving as much as it used to.

In its latest annual economic outlook, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development – a club of mainly rich nations – very much shares that concern.

But here's the trick: unlike our economic managers, the OECD brackets weak productivity improvement with worsening inequality of incomes, describing them as "a twin challenge".

The two issues are interrelated. Although the report doesn't canvas the respects in which inequality may be contributing to weaker productivity improvement, it does emphasise that the policy measures we choose to improve productivity could come at the expense of worsening inequality, or could improve both productivity and income equality at the same time.

That's one of the big discoveries of the international economic agencies in recent years: whereas economists have long assumed that "efficiency" and "equity" (fairness) are conflicting objectives, there are various policy choices that can bring us more of both.

Part of this is their realisation that the size of a country's government – its level of taxes and government spending – has little bearing on its government efficiency and rate of growth.

The report notes that most advanced economies have experienced slower rates of productivity improvement since the early 2000s.

Income inequality – the gap between the highest and lowest incomes – has been widening for the past two or three decades.

"The productivity slowdown and the rise in inequality have impacted the wellbeing of many workers and their families. Low- and middle-income households have had to cope with slow-growing, and in some cases stagnant or falling, real incomes," the report says.

"These trends are threatening progress in living standards, fiscal sustainability and social cohesion."

(If you wonder why so many Americans have flirted with a clown like Donald Trump, I think it's their uncomprehending way of reacting against the fact that so many of them have gained so little extra real income from the United States' economic growth over the past 30 years.)

In a well-functioning economy, wages – real, not just nominal – should rise in line with the improvement in the productivity of labour.

So the report says lower rates of productivity growth have been bad news for workers, since this has reduced the room for productivity-driven growth in real labour income (wages).

But it's worse than that, for two reasons. First, average real labour income across the OECD's rich member countries has grown less than productivity has grown.

That's particularly true for the US but, according to the OECD's calculations at least, also for us.

Second, the inequality of labour income has increased, with some employees getting much bigger wage increases than others.

Over the period from 1990 to 2013, the rich members' labour productivity grew by 3.1 per cent a year until 2000, then by just 0.9 per cent a year for the past 13 years.

But whereas productivity improvement averaged 1.8 per cent a year for the full period, average real labour income improved by only 1.5 per cent a year.

And remember that, because of the presence of a relatively small number of very highly paid employees, the average (mean) income is always higher than the more-representative "median" (dead middle) income, which improved by just 1.3 per cent a year.

But it's worse even than that. Since 1990 the real disposable income of the top 10 per cent of households has increased by 30 per cent, whereas that of the bottom 10 per cent has increased by only 4 per cent.

(Note that "labour" income becomes "market" income when you add households' capital income – from profits, dividends, rent or interest earnings – and then becomes "disposable" income after you allow for taxes paid and welfare benefits received.)

So what can be done to tackle the "twin challenge" of weak productivity improvement and worsening inequality? You look for those policy changes that create "synergies" between the two.

The report says productivity growth has slowed partly because of weak demand since the global financial crisis. Governments need to stimulate demand (spending) by making more use of fiscal (budgetary) policy, it says, implicitly criticising the resort to policies of "austerity" by governments in Europe and elsewhere.

This would not only reduce inequality immediately by reducing unemployment, it would help reduce inequality more permanently because "long-term unemployment erodes the skills of workers and their earnings prospects".

In resorting to fiscal stimulus, the emphasis should be on increased public investment in infrastructure because this adds more to demand than do tax cuts or increased recurrent spending – it has a larger "multiplier" effect.

The report says government effectiveness in delivering high quality services – such as education, health and transport – is empirically associated with higher economic growth and productivity, plus lower income inequality.

"The empirical links of better and more education [particularly early childhood education] with higher growth, productivity and equality suggest long-term benefits from a greater share of education in public spending," it says.

If we were having a more adult election campaign, these are issues we'd be debating.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Baird's budget is the model of conservatism, not reform

If, in these strange times, you have ever wondered what a genuinely conservative government would look like, consider the Baird government as revealed by its budget.

Premier Mike Baird and his Treasurer, Gladys Berejiklian, are cautious and responsible to a fault, putting retention of the government's AAA credit rating above all other objectives.

But, almost by definition, this makes them complacent, unimaginative and lacking in initiative. They are also claiming far too much of credit for the NSW economy's strong performance in recent years, especially relative to the other states.

It's true the state economy has been performing much better. But though the Coalition government has done more to help than to hinder, most of what happens in the economy is outside its puny control.

It's swings and roundabouts. Sometimes other states are growing more strongly than we are; at others - like now - it's our turn to lead the pack. In this our tendency to recurring property booms is a great help (though not to first home buyers).

Berejiklian tells us that "since coming to office in 2011, the NSW government has created 338,600 jobs". Really? Private enterprise played no part in it, eh?

Over the past year, we're told, NSW has created more jobs than any other state and now has the nation's lowest unemployment rate.

True. But what's equally true is that NSW has the lowest proportion of its population in employment - 60.7 per cent, against a national average of 61.1 per cent.

The economy's strong, property-fuelled growth, combined with the effects of privatising various government businesses, has led to rapidly rising budget revenue.

By maintaining fairly tight controls on government spending - particularly on the wages of government employees - Berejiklian has achieve ever-growing budget surpluses.

These surpluses have allowed a big increase in spending on infrastructure without much increase in government debt, thereby preserving our top credit rating.

With so much expansion and renewal of infrastructure needed, a government so well-placed financially and politically could afford to defy the strictures of the discredited American ratings agencies, but that's not the conservative way.

A truly conservative government is largely content with the world as it is and leaves "reform" to the radicals on the other side.

That's certainly been this government's approach. This budget only now honours an eight-year-old commitment to abolish three minor taxes on business transactions.

The government has done so because it has belatedly realised it could make up most of the lost revenue by imposing extra conveyancing duty and land tax on foreign purchasers of real estate.

Is this economically efficient? Does it fit with all the Coalition's talk about the need to encourage foreign investment?

Who cares? The government knows the impost on foreigners will be popular with voters, and is (rightly) confident it will do little to discourage investment - meaning, however, it will do little to make homes more affordable to locals.

Where did this bright idea come from? Although Berejiklian claims NSW is "leading the way in innovation" it came - as did other tax reforms adopted - from those hopeless Victorians. And Queenslanders.

This budget will keep us well away from financial bother. But it could have been much better.