Monday, March 28, 2016

The economy rests on Christian foundations

I can't think why, but Easter always reminds me of Christianity. Not, of course, that Christianity has anything to do with the grubby, materialist world of economics. Or does it?

Australia is the most unbelieving it has ever been, with the most recent census saying that only 61 per cent people identify themselves as even nominally Christian.

Twenty-two per cent say they have no religion and another 9 per cent didn't bother answering the question. People of non-Christian religions account for 7 per cent of the population.

Separate figures say only about 8 per cent of Australians attend religious services regularly. This is about the same as in Britain and France, but a lot less than in Canada or the United States.

With so few people having had much contact with organised religion, it's not surprising that so many people imagine Christianity to have little bearing on the modern world and economy.

But that is far from the truth, as Australian author Roy Williams argues in his latest book, Post-God Nation? I'm quoting him liberally.

Williams says he's sick of being told that religion's influence on our country has been either minimal or malign.

"It is a fact of history that Australia would not exist in anything like the form it does but for Judaeo-Christianity," he says.

"Deep-seated legacies of our religious heritage still endure, and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future."

Sydney Anglican Peter Jensen says "we are . . . secular, in a Christian sort of way".

This might be a new thought for many younger people, but it's not a rare observation. Former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher said "the Christian religion . . . is a fundamental part of our national heritage. For centuries it has been our very life blood."

Historian Geoffrey Blainey has said that the Christian churches did "more than any other institution, public or private, to civilise Australians".

All market economies rest on a foundation of laws, which enforce private property rights, the honouring of contracts and much else. Williams writes that all Western legal systems are grounded in two core assumptions, both from the Bible: that humans have free will and that morality is God-given.

But the English legal system has many other religiously based features, such as the separation of church and state, the jury system, Magna Carta (negotiated by the Archbishop of Canterbury) and the Bill of Rights (asserting Parliament's supremacy over the king, since both were "bound by the laws of God and nature").

The system of common law, based on rulings by judges rather than parliaments, was established by the devout Henry II, who ensured that most of the early judges were clerics, because of their knowledge of canon law.

Economic growth comes mainly from productivity improvement, productivity improvement comes mainly from invention and innovation, and invention mainly involves applying scientific discoveries.
Guess who were the West's first promoters of science and the inventors of universities?

The scientific method – discovery by empirical reasoning – is, Williams writes, unquestionably a byproduct of Christianity. To know the truth of God's creation, it's not enough to rely on human logic. It's also necessary to observe closely what God has created.

Most people today don't realise how many of the leading politicians, judges and business people who shaped the social and economic system we have inherited had religious beliefs or backgrounds.

Most of the founders of the trade union movement and the Labor Party, for example. John Fairfax, who bought The Sydney Morning Herald in 1841, was a deacon of the Pitt Street Congregational Church, who attended up to four services on a Sunday.

Four of the Herald's first five editors were ministers of religion. In his research, Williams found it remarkable how often famous Australians turned out to have been the son of a clergyman (me, too).

But Christianity has permeated our attitudes and values, not just the institutions of our society.
You can be an atheist or a humanist, but if you have any ethical beliefs or moral values they might be influenced by Buddhist ideas, but they're far more likely to reflect Judaeo-Christian thinking.

And though economists keep forgetting it, it's the ethical behaviour of ordinary business people and consumers that keeps our economy ticking over satisfactorily and makes the CommInsures still the exception rather than the rule.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

How signalling helps make the economy work

Why do so many people go on to university after finishing school? Why do some uni graduates get a job, but then go back to uni for further qualifications?

Why do sensible people dress up for a job interview – or wear a suit and tie if they're in court charged with an offence?

For that matter, why do people engage in conspicuous consumption – buy flash clothes or cars or houses, or send their kids to flash private schools?

Why do so many businesses put so much money and effort into protecting and projecting their brands?

Short answer to all those questions: because they're trying to signal something. What? Usually, their superior quality – although in the case of conspicuous consumption they're signalling their superior social status.

Signalling is something you don't read about in economics 101 textbooks, even though it occurs in all real-world markets.

That's because the simple neo-classical model makes the unrealistic assumption of "perfect knowledge" – buyers and sellers know all they need to know about all goods and services – not just the range of prices on offer but also the characteristics of the goods offered by various sellers, including their quality.

For many years, progress in economic theory has involved relaxing the various assumptions of "perfect competition" to see what we can learn from more realistic assumptions – which, by the very nature of theory and models, will still be a fairly simplified version of reality. (If a model was as complex as the real world, it would tell us nothing about what causes what in that world.)

Since the early 1970s, economic theorists have been studying "imperfect knowledge" (which in econospeak means "far from perfect", not "almost perfect"), recognising that there's much relevant information people don't know and that information is often costly to collect (in money or time).

As well, information is often "asymmetric", in that the people selling something, usually being professionals, know a lot more about it than buyers, usually amateurs, do.

In 2001 three American academic economists – Michael Spence, George Akerlof and Joseph Stiglitz – shared the Nobel prize in economics for their seminal contributions to the relatively new field of "information economics".

Akerlof (who's married to a certain central bank chairwoman) got his gong for a paper he wrote in 1970 called The Market for Lemons, aka used cars. Spence got the gong for a paper he wrote in 1973 about signalling in the job market.

So let's start again: why do people delay their income earning to get educational qualifications?

If you say it's because they want to gain knowledge and expertise in some field to make their labour more valuable – to increase their "human capital" – and help them get a better-paid job, you're not wrong and Spence wouldn't disagree with you.

But he focuses on a different, less obvious motivation. Employers are looking for intelligent workers and are willing to pay more for their services. But when you're hiring workers, it's hard to know how smart they really are. As economists say, it's an "unobservable characteristic".

So how do workers who know they're smart demonstrate that to potential employers? By using their educational qualifications to signal the fact. Employers are impressed by qualifications because they know they're not easy to obtain – they're costly, in a sense.

Of course, people who aren't so smart can gain qualifications if they try hard enough. But genuinely smart people don't have to try as hard, so they can gain higher, better qualifications than the less-smart can, and employers know this.

You're in line for a Nobel prize when you open up a new field and then other, more junior academics come along behind you to elaborate and expand on your discovery, eventually making it look pretty primitive.

By now thousands of academic papers have been written about signalling in various markets. It's become part of the study of "industrial organisation" (industry economics, as we used to say) but is also a branch of game theory.

Theorists have looked at cases of people sending signals implying they possess qualities that they don't and cases where signals are distorted by "noise" (say, you struck it lucky in the exams). And whereas in simple theory markets only ever have one equilibrium point – where everything is in balance – with signalling there are multiple equilibria.

One signalling theorist is Dr Sander Heinsalu, a bright young Estonian now in the Research School of Economics at the Australian National University.

In a recent paper he develops a "repeated noisy signalling model", quoting examples such as a politician giving speeches intended to make him appear competent, a firm buying positive product reviews, and a male deer growing antlers every mating season.

He finds that, if the cost and the benefit of signalling are constant across periods, the degree of signalling effort falls over time. This fits with the way conspicuous consumption falls with age.

In another paper Heinsalu says the conclusion of most signalling papers is that people for whom gaining more of the valued characteristic would be costly don't exert as much signalling effort as those for whom it is less costly.

But in his own paper he demonstrates that in some circumstances it can be the other way round.

With corruption, politicians face minor temptations and big ones. A pollie who is "too clean" may be avoiding minor misdeeds so he can survive long enough to engage in major graft when the opportunity arises, whereas another planning to avoid graft may not worry about small misdemeanours.

The guilty may deny accusations more strenuously than the innocent do because the innocent know they'll have less trouble proving it later.

As Shakespeare said, "the lady doth protest too much, methinks".

But if you want more proof than a quote from the bard, read the paper on his website. Hope your maths is up to it.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Business - and customers - pay for bad business behaviour

It's remarkable the way the Business Council of Australia constantly lectures us on the "reform" we should be accepting to improve our economic performance (and, purely by chance, their profits), but never seems to lecture its big-business members on their manifest need to "reform" their own standards of behaviour.

Among its most profitable members would have to be the four big banks. But the litany of scandals over their bad treatment of customers never seems to end.

The latest was CommInsure's denial of legitimate life insurance claims, but there's also been ANZ's alleged manipulation of a key commercial interest rate and the Commonwealth Bank's bad financial planning advice that lost money for many customers.

Now the chairman of the Australian Securities and Investments Commission, Greg Medcraft, has joined Australian Prudential Regulation Authority boss Wayne Byers in demanding the finance industry fix its corporate culture.

"Time and again, we have seen firms blaming [behaviour] on a few bad apples driving bad outcomes for consumers, rather than taking responsibility by looking more closely at their organisation and implementing the necessary changes to address the cause of the problem," Medcraft said on Monday.

"At the end of the day, you need to have a culture that your customers can believe in."

The captains of finance have not reacted well to the bureaucrats' admonition. David Gonski complained about the corporate regulator being the "culture police", while someone from the Institute of Company Directors offered the uncomprehending advice that corporate culture could not be imposed by law.

It would be wrong to focus only on the bad behaviour of the banks, of course. There have been other instances from other industries. Take 7-Eleven's underpaying of foreign workers.

Or take the many notorious cases of businesses rorting government subsidy schemes in ceiling insulation, childcare and vocational education and training.

It's possible what we're seeing is merely greater exposure of the bad behaviour of big business thanks to a surge in business investigative journalism, with Fairfax Media's Adele Ferguson at its head.

But I've been in and around businesses since I left school 50 years ago, and I think bad corporate behaviour is definitely worse than it was. As executive remuneration has headed for the stratosphere, so the willingness to exploit customers and staff has grown.

But why? One reason is the rise of a more fundamentalist approach to economics. "Economic rationalism" has prompted much deregulation, privatisation and outsourcing, which has made competition a lot more intense in many industries.

That's not necessarily a bad thing, but as managers have experienced greater pressure to perform – as it's become harder to keep profits high and rising – they've passed the pressure on to staff and customers.

Economic fundamentalism is both a product of the greater materialism of our age and a cause of it, with all its emphasis on monetary values and view of "labour" as just another resource to be exploited along with other raw materials.

What's worse is that economic fundamentalism has had the effect of sanctifying selfishness. When I put my own interests ahead of other people's, I'm not being greedy or self-centred or antisocial; I'm just being "rational".

One effect of the greater pressure to perform is the present "metrics" fad – the obsession with measuring aspects of the firm's performance, then using those measures to improve performance, such as by setting targets based on "key performance indicators".

What the KPI obsession is saying is: just get results; how you get them is of lesser interest. I'd lay money that the reason people at CommInsure were knocking back legitimate claims was they were being encouraged to do so by KPIs or other "performance incentives". (That's why it's dishonest for people at the top to blame "a few bad apples".)

Most people's sense of what is acceptable, ethical behaviour is determined by what they believe their peers are doing. If they do it, it's ethical for me to do it; if they don't do it, maybe I should feel guilty about it.

The trouble is, studies show that adults, like children, often harbour exaggerated impressions of how many others are doing it.

Social conformity (aka "culture") is such a powerful influence that it's always been hard for people to follow their own "moral compass". With the decline of religious adherence, it's harder even to have one.

The Business Council and its members ought to be a lot more worried about the decline in their standards of behaviour than they seem to be.

One fundamental the economic fundamentalists keep forgetting is that market economies run best on widespread trust: mutual trust between management and staff, and between businesses and their customers.

Allow declining standards of behaviour to erode trust and the economy suffers. Customers become harder to persuade, argue more with counter staff, are surlier with call-centre staff and more inclined to take their business elsewhere. They resist "upselling".

With less trust you have to waste a lot of money on increased security in its many forms. And governments react by multiplying laws and legal requirements.

When so many companies demonstrate their contempt for other taxpayers by the way they manipulate the tax they pay – their ethic is that if it's (barely) legal, it's ethical – it becomes much harder for governments to get voter support for cutting the rates of those taxes.

Who knew?

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Let's 'reform' lack of satisfaction at work

Has it ever occurred to you that, in all our economic striving, most of us – almost all our business people, economists and politicians, but also many normal people – are missing the point?

It occurred to me years ago, and I've thought about it often, but reading a little book by one of my gurus, Barry Schwartz, a professor of psychology at Swarthmore​ College in the US, has revved me up.

In my job I have to focus mainly on whatever issues everybody else is getting excited about. I've written a lot lately about the budget deficit, mainly because I see the Coalition swinging from exaggerating the size and urgency of the problem while in opposition, to virtually ignoring it now it's in government.

They had one big ill-considered and ill-fated attempt to fix the problem in their first budget, but now they don't even want to think about it.

Of course, getting the budget back to surplus is really just a housekeeping measure. It doesn't advance our cause in any positive sense, it just stops problems building up for the future.

No, the more positive efforts to improve our lot have focused on the need for "reform". The economists have noticed that the rate of productivity improvement has slowed and, since improving our productivity is the main way we keep our material standard of living rising, they're casting around for something we could do to improve matters.

When economic-types look for things to improve, their first thought is to "reform" taxation in a way that does more to encourage people to "work, save and invest".

Sorry, but all this is missing the point. Schwartz's little book is called Why We Work, and he asks us to reconsider the most basic question in economic life: why do we work?

To most people that's a stupid question. We work to make money, which we then use to keep body and soul together and buy the other things we need to give us a happy or satisfying life.

Next question: do we enjoy our work? Answer: sometimes yes, sometimes no. Some people do most of the time; most people don't.

The basic economic model assumes that people don't enjoy work; they do it only for the money. And, except perhaps to the individual, whether they do or they don't isn't of great consequence.

Most employers organise work in ways designed to maximise their employees' productivity – their productiveness. If their workers happen to enjoy their jobs, that's their good luck. If they don't, that's not something a boss needs to worry about.

Schwartz's argument is that we've allowed money – and the economists' way of thinking about work, which goes back to Adam Smith in 1776 – to get us muddled between means and ends.

Money is merely a means, not an end in itself. The end money is meant to be a means to is life satisfaction. But if satisfaction is the object of the exercise, why on earth would we organise the economy on the basis that whether or not people get satisfaction from their jobs doesn't matter?

Why fixate on earning money to buy satisfaction when we could be doing much more to gain satisfaction while we earn?

When you remember how much of our lives we spend working, think what a fabulous "reform" it would be if more of us got more satisfaction from our work.

If we got more satisfaction from our work, economists and politicians wouldn't have to worry quite so much about ensuring our money income kept growing strongly so we could keep attempting to buy more satisfaction. (Tip: the satisfaction you get from enjoying your job and doing it well is more powerful than the satisfaction you get from buying more stuff.)

And if bosses got more satisfaction from their own jobs, maybe they wouldn't be so obsessed by achieving ever faster-growing profits so as to justify ever-bigger bonuses.

You'd think that, with all the status and executive assistants to wait on them and people to boss about, bosses would be rolling in job satisfaction.

But when I see how obsessed they are with pay rises and bonuses, it makes me wonder if they actually hate their jobs more than most of their employees do.

Of all the company's workers, they're the ones showing most sign of only doing it for the money.

By now, I know, many managers will be thinking, if I made making sure my workers had a good time at work an objective, their productivity would suffer.

That's certainly why many jobs have been designed in the soul-destroying way they have been, and the mentality that informs the way many managers manage. Treat 'em mean to keep 'em keen.

But consider the reverse possibility. There's growing evidence that workers who gain satisfaction from their jobs try harder and think more about how they could do their jobs better. Is that so hard to believe?

I'm convinced greater effort to make jobs more satisfying could leave most of us better off with, at worst, no loss of efficiency.

How do employers go about making jobs more satisfying? How can someone with a deadly job make it more emotionally rewarding?

These questions have been well studied by industrial psychologists and Schwartz has lots of useful things to say. But I'll leave that for another day.

Monday, March 14, 2016

How to get better, not smaller, government

Whether it's a week early or not, it looks a safe bet that this year's budget will do little more than keep the wheels of government turning for another 12 months. If so, it will confirm our worst fears that neither side of politics is capable of improving things.

I hope I'm wrong, but it now seems that the sweeping tax reform we were long promised by the Coalition – with everything on the table, and a white paper to follow a green paper - has shrivelled to some minor tinkering to pay for a minor tax cut.

Which brings us back to the budget's primary macro-economic purpose, achieving "fiscal sustainability". We've been assured – as usual, by leak – that any improvement in revenue estimates arising from the seeming recovery in iron ore prices will be allowed to reduce the budget deficit, not used to fatten the tax cuts or otherwise buy votes.

Considering all the crocodile tears the Coalition shed over "debit and deficit", it's the least Malcolm Turnbull could do.

The Coalition has done little to restrain government spending in its first term for two reasons, one political and one economic. The political reason is that the public and the Senate held Tony Abbott to his last-minute and utterly unneeded promise not to cut any of the key areas of government spending.

The economic reason – which was perfectly sensible and actually began under Labor – was that with the economy growing at well below its "trend" (average) rate, now was the wrong time to weaken it further by raising taxes or cutting government spending.

With forward-looking trend growth now reduced to 2.75 per cent a year and the economy growing by 3 per cent in 2015, we should be getting on with budget repair.

So both those restraints are now inoperative – or should be. It's one thing to avoid nasties in a pre-election budget; it's quite another to lock yourself in for another term with promises not to cut this or that spending, or not to adjust taxes.

Similarly, it's all very well for Turnbull's supporters to say he needs his own mandate to establish his legitimacy and authority with his fractious backbench; it's quite another for him to gain a "mandate" that doesn't include a licence from the electorate to make the improvements we need.

So a key issue will be how much reform Turnbull promises not to make and how much leeway he leaves himself to do what needs to be done.

But after the monumental setback of Abbott's first budget, I worry not just about the character strength of our politicians, but also about the quality of the advice they're getting from the econocrats of Treasury and Finance and the heads of other departments.

One thing the bureaucrats should understand is that the ideological push for lower government spending is a snare and a delusion. It's never gonna happen, because the public won't accept it and there are no pollies mad enough to try.

The key to good spending management is to accept that the goal should be not smaller government, but better government. Delude yourself that we'll soon be seeing smaller government – that there are vast areas of things governments will stop doing – and you're more susceptible to the kind of short-sighted, mindless cutbacks that often involve false economies, mere cost-shifting or savings that don't stick, of which we saw so much in the first Abbott budget.

But accept that we need better government – that government will always be with us, with ever-growing responsibilities and spending – and you see more clearly that the task is to identify and correct specific instances of excessive or ineffective spending – with which the budget no doubt abounds.

You slow the rate of spending growth, reducing the incidence of what the public thinks of as "waste" (it may look like waste to me, but not to whoever's income it's adding to), thus giving taxpayers better value for money and helping to reduce the resistance to paying tax.

Focus on better government and you realise that the "no-brainer", set-and-forget, don't confuse me with the details, approach favoured by econocrats has an appalling record of failure.

You don't bother to think hard about the peculiar characteristics of the service being performed, nor do you wonder about the wisdom of letting private firms "sell" heavily subsidised government services, you just resort to generic, magic answers such as imposing an "efficiency dividend", "getting the incentives right" and making the provision of public services "contestable".

Economic shibboleths are no substitute for detailed knowledge and careful analysis.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

China still our advantage in a dismal world

We are living in an era of exceptionally weak growth in the world economy. We can now look back and see that era began after the global financial crisis in 2008. We can look forward and not see when the era will end. It could be years, for all we know.

Naturally, this continuing global weakness has its effect on us. So we shouldn't blame ourselves for our own weaker growth relative to our earlier performance. Rather, we should recognise that, relative to the other developed economies, we've been doing pretty well.

But we do need to remember that, compared with the others, we have a secret weapon: our strong economic links with China.

Nigel Ray, a deputy secretary of Treasury, spelt out the unusual features of the world we've entered in a speech this week. He notes that "global growth has struggled to regain sustained momentum post-global financial crisis, and global aggregate demand remains weak".

This is despite monetary policy (interest rate) settings in nearly all the major economies remaining "extraordinarily accommodative", and global public debt increasing since the crisis.

Official forecasters have continued to downgrade prospects for global growth, he says. The International Monetary Fund downgraded its forecast in its January update - the 17th downgrade in five years.

Now get this. Slower world growth has been accompanied by a number of trends that can be seen across the global economy: slower growth in international trade, weak business investment, slower productivity growth, slower population growth in the advanced economies, low inflation, and lower expectations about future inflation.

Wow. That's the sort of poor performance you expect to see briefly at the bottom of a world recession, not as a semi-permanent state.

We knew that slower growth in the working-age population as a result of population ageing would mean slower economic growth, but now official forecasters in other countries are also reconsidering their view of long-run "potential" growth in gross domestic product (just as we've done recently, cutting it from 3 per cent to 2.75 per cent).

For the other countries, "this partly reflects the ongoing legacy of the global financial crisis - such crises have long-lived effects on investment in productive capital and on labour markets, increasing structural unemployment and lowering labour force participation rates".

In other words, if business goes for some years under-investing in new and improved capital equipment, this diminishes the economy's production capacity. And when some workers go for years unable to find another job, they tend to lose their skills and the self-discipline that goes with having to turn up to work on time every day and do as you're told.

But it's not only the after effects of a protracted recession. Ray says recent estimates by IMF economists suggest that productivity growth was slowing in the advanced economies even before the GFC.

More recently, we've noticed that the "convergence" between the emerging and the advanced economies (as the emerging economies catch up by growing at a much faster rate than the advanced countries) that we've seen since the turn of the century is showing signs of stalling.

If that happens, it means slower global economic growth and could have other undesirable consequences.

It happened that Reserve Bank deputy governor Dr Philip Lowe gave a speech in Adelaide on the same day, adding to Ray's description of the strange state the world economy finds itself in.

Lowe noted that, although the official interest rate in the United States has been increased for the first time in nine years, the Bank of Japan has unexpectedly moved its rate into negative territory.

In doing so it joined the European Central Bank, the Swiss National Bank, the Swedish Riksbank and the Danish central bank with negative interest rates. And there's an expectation in various countries that yet further monetary easing will take place.

Lowe says that, in earlier decades, it was very rare for central banks to worry that inflation and inflation expectations were too low.

"Yet today we hear this concern quite often, and the 'unconventional' has almost become the conventional," he says.

But back to China and the special advantage it gives us in a dismal world. Ray says we have a higher proportion of our exports - about 32 per cent of our exports of goods - going to China than any other advanced economy does.

Twenty years ago, China's economy was less than a third of the size of America's. Today it's the largest economy in the world when you measure it according to "purchasing power parity" (as you should).

China's rate of growth may be slowing, but it remains one of the fastest growing economies in the world.

What many foreign observers don't seem to understand is that, just as we are "rebalancing" our economy from mining-driven to other sources of growth, so the Chinese are doing something similar, shifting from growth based on heavy industry, investment and exports, to growth based on service industries, consumer spending and imports.

It's possible the Chinese economy could falter as it makes this transition, but they'll get there in the end and this is why it's possible for us to shift from selling them mainly minerals to selling them the goods (fancy Western foodstuffs) and, particularly, the services their growing middle class demands.

We've been talking about this for years, but now it's actually happening. Ray says China is already our largest destination for services exports, taking about 14 per cent of them last financial year.

China is now our second largest source of overseas visitors, and their visitors spend far more than average. More than a million Chinese tourists arrived in 2015.

But get this: those million visits represented only about 1 per cent of China's overseas tourism market. They are so big relative to us that just a tiny share of their market is a big deal in helping us keep growing.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Where the jobs will come from

It's a question doubting customers have been asking me through the whole of my career: but where will all the jobs come from? We worry about jobs, convinced there's never enough of them.

Whenever we're in a recession, with unemployment high and rising, people simply can't see how we'll ever get it down again.

In the more recent resources boom, a lot of people got jobs in faraway places helping to build new mines and natural gas facilities, but we knew that wouldn't last.

Mining now accounts for about 10 per cent of the value of the nation's production – gross domestic product – but it still employs only about 2 per cent of the workforce.

When the three foreign car makers announced in 2013 that they'd be ending Australian production later this year or next, the familiar cry went up: where will the new jobs come from?

It was a question I used to find hard to answer, but now I don't. When I started in this job more than 40 years' ago, there were 5.8 million people in the workforce. By now it's more than doubled to 11.9 million.

So the jobs did come, despite 40 years of worrying that they wouldn't. Where did they come from? I could work out from the figures how many came in which particular industries, but I'll skip to the bottom line: virtually all the extra 6 million jobs came from the services sector.

Where will the jobs be coming from in the years ahead? Same place. Indeed, they already are.

Our most recent worry has been where our economic growth would come from now coal and iron ore prices are falling and no new mining construction projects are taking the place of completing projects.

But the evidence is coming in. We're experiencing strong expansion in parts of the vast services sector, which is generating lots of extra jobs.

Whereas mining – and farming and, these days, even manufacturing – are capital-intensive, and so provide few jobs, service industries are labour-intensive, and so provide lots of 'em.

From a job-creating perspective, the trouble with physical things – "goods" – is that it's been relatively easy to use machines to replace workers, whereas you still need a lot of people to provide services, even when those people are given better machines to help them.

The other trouble with goods industries is that there's a limit to how many things – clothes, cars, fridges, laptops – you want to own. Time has shown there's almost no limit to the number and kinds of services we'd like others to perform for us.

Did you know there's such an occupation as "lactation consultant"? There used not to be, but there is now.

These are the reasons why almost all the extra jobs being created are in the services sector.

Last year, total employment grew by a very healthy 300,000 jobs, more than half of them full-time.
Research by Professor Jeff Borland, of the University of Melbourne, has found that more than 90 per cent of these jobs occurred in the private sector.

This private sector growth was concentrated in NSW and Victoria, whereas the growth in public sector employment was concentrated in Queensland and South Australia.

But where did the additional jobs come from? Fully a third – 100,000 – were in (the mainly private sector parts of) healthcare. Then came 75,000 in businesses providing professional and technical services, almost 50,000 in retailing, more than 40,000 in financial services and more than 30,000 in administrative and support services.

The thing to note about that list is that while some of those jobs would have been low-skilled, many – particularly those in professional services and healthcare – would have been high-skilled, well-paid and intellectually satisfying. But even the lesser-paid jobs would have been clean and safe.

So don't turn up your nose at services sector jobs.

And get this: the extra jobs went disproportionately to older workers. Although people aged 45 and above account for only 31 per cent of the overall workforce, they accounted for 57 per cent of the growth in jobs.

But wait, there's more. Though we keep hearing about the growth in the quantity of our mineral exports as the new mines come on line, we've heard far less about the growth in the quantity of our exports of services, particularly education and tourism. (We "export" services when foreigners come to Oz to receive them.)

Our services exports have benefited greatly from the fall in our dollar, which has made them cheaper to foreigners.

Last year, spending by international students on course fees, accommodation, living expenses and recreation grew by 13 per cent to more than $19 billion. Spending by foreign tourists in Australia rose by 11 per cent to almost $16 billion.

What's more, our lower dollar has encouraged many Aussies to take their holidays at home rather than abroad. We now have more tourism money coming in than going out.

You well know it was exports to China that did most to fuel the resources boom. What nobody's bothered to tell you is that it's China and its growing middle class that's doing most to boost our exports of education and tourism services.

Don't underestimate the contribution services are making to "growth and jobs".

Monday, March 7, 2016

Let’s stand against misleading modelling

Many people have been left with red faces following their part in last week's disastrous intervention into the negative-gearing debate by forecasters BIS Shrapnel. Let's hope they all learn their lesson.

This isn't the first time that "independent" modelling purchased from economic consultants has been used by vested interests to try to influence government decisions. Nor the first time the questionable results have been trumpeted uncritically by the media and misrepresented by the side of politics whose case it happens to suit.

But BIS Shrapnel's late entry into this dubious game has come at a time when the game's credibility is wearing thin and qualified observers are more willing to go public with their critiques of the quality of the modelling, the plausibility of its assumptions and the internal consistency of its findings.

As is common practice, various of the BIS Shrapnel model's findings were expressed in a highly misleading way. "Rents will rise by up to 10 per cent ($2,600) per annum", for instance, doesn't mean rents will rise by up to 10 per cent a year. It actually means that, by the 10th year, annual rents will be up to 10 per cent higher than they otherwise would be. Not nearly as bad as it was made to sound.

The first lesson for BIS Shrapnel is that when you publish commissioned modelling, but agree not to disclose who commissioned it, you attract a lot more criticism and scepticism. When it's not possible for those on the other side of the debate to say "they would say that, wouldn't they", they examine your assumptions and methodology a lot more critically.

Another lesson is that when what you're modelling looks like it's a party's policy but isn't, you should say so up front, not in mitigation after that party has denounced you from the rooftops.

Similarly, "unfortunate typos" saying $190 billion when you meant $1.9 trillion get you hugely adverse attention. Your "trust me, I'm an economist" line implodes.

I can't remember when so many economists of repute have gone out of their way to attack a modeller's findings, and done it so bluntly.

John Daley, of the genuinely independent Grattan Institute, referred to the report's "convoluted logic", "manifestly ridiculous predictions", "outlandish" and "fanciful" claims, and "implausible" and "unjustified" assumptions. It was "nonsense on stilts".

The lesson for other economic consultants is that the days when you could produce for a client a bit of happy advocacy posing as objective econometric analysis, and have the rest of the profession look the other way, are coming to an end.

There's now a far greater likelihood that other economists or economic journalists will subject your assumptions, methodology and findings to scrutiny and make their conclusions public.

There's now much greater familiarity with the standard tricks of the trade, such as misuse of the Bureau of Statistics' "input-output tables" to exaggerate the "indirect effects" of some measure; saying "employment will fall by X" when you really mean "the growth in employment will be X less than otherwise", or presenting effects that build slowly over many years as changes that occur fully in the first year and occur again in each subsequent year.

The lesson for relatively new treasurers trying to establish a reputation for economic competence, and the ability to explain complex economic concepts persuasively, is you'll never do it if you act like a political brawler and latch on to whatever third-party modelling seems to be going your way.

A treasurer looking for respect doesn't identify himself with any modelling before his experts – the economists in his department, not the ambitious young politicos in his office – assure him it's kosher.

If I was a subscriber to an Australian newspaper that led its front page with a wide-eyed account of BIS Shrapnel's findings as though they were established fact, only to have them exposed the same day as highly debatable, I wouldn't be impressed.

The lesson for the economics profession is that the modelling they value so highly is too often being used by other economists to mislead rather than enlighten. The reputation of models and modellers is being trashed, and with it the credibility of the profession.

If economists don't want to be regarded by the public as charlatans, they should consider the call by the Australia Institute – a noted debunker of misleading modelling – for a code of conduct for economic modelling. It would "require key assumptions to be revealed, context and comparison to be provided, and the identification of who, if anyone, commissioned the work".

Since the profession has failed to act, the institute wants the code implemented by governments.

Saturday, March 5, 2016

Why the economy is growing faster

So, the shock, horror economic news of the week was something good. The national accounts showed the economy grew a lot more strongly during the last part of last year than anyone was expecting.

Whereas economists – both on the official and the market side – were expecting growth in real gross domestic product of 0.4 per cent or less during the December quarter, leading to growth of 2.5 per cent for the year, the Australian Bureau of Statistics came up with figures of 0.6 per cent and (thanks to upward revision of growth in the September quarter) 3.0 per cent for the year.

Why? Because the statisticians found stronger growth in consumer spending – particularly spending on services – than people were expecting, as well as stronger exports of services.

In other words, our domestic economy – indeed, not just our internal economy but the household sector of our economy – is a bigger part of our destiny than many imagine.

It should be a lesson to those who assume that problems in other economies immediately translate to problems in our economy.

Or that problems in financial markets – particularly the sharemarket – immediately translate to problems in the "real" economy inhabited by you and me. That once the bad news starts, all the news is bad.

The lesson holds even though this week's news relates mainly to a period that began five months ago and ended two months ago, whereas the bad news about China and the sharemarket and all the rest came in the new year.

The first conclusion to draw from this week's accounts is that, if we enjoy a long period of exceptionally low interest rates and a significant fall in the value of our dollar, these forms of stimulus will eventually get the economy growing faster.

The second conclusion is that, thanks to the help of low interest rates and a low dollar, the economy's transition from mining-led growth to growth in the rest of the economy is proceeding satisfactorily.

The national accounts showed business investment spending falling by 3.3 per cent in the December quarter and by 10.1 per cent over the year, with most of that explained by the sharp drop-off in mining and natural gas construction.

On the other side of the transition, the first effect of low interest rates was to encourage a surge in the buying and selling of existing houses, leading to a rise in the prices of those houses and the building of a lot of additional houses.

Spending on building new homes and altering existing ones grew by 2.2 per cent in the quarter and by 9.8 per cent over the year.

Consumer spending grew by 0.8 per cent in the quarter (following upwardly revised growth of 0.9 per cent in the September quarter) to show healthy growth of 2.9 per cent over the year.

Explaining this isn't easy. Let's turn to the "household income account" - which means we switch from quoting real (inflation-adjusted) changes to quoting nominal changes.

We know that household income wouldn't have been growing too strongly because, although a lot more people got jobs in the December quarter, wage growth has been very low. Household income grew by just 0.4 per cent in the quarter.

And household disposable income grew by less than 0.1 per cent, mainly because payments of income tax grew by 1.2 per cent in the quarter.

And yet consumer spending grew by a remarkably strong 1.2 per cent during the quarter (that figure's nominal, remember).

How was this possible? It happened not because households "dipped into their savings" as was mistakenly reported, but because they chose to reduce the amount of what they saved from the quarter's disposable income.

According to the accounts, the nation's households reduced their saving during the quarter by $2.9 billion, dropping it to $19.5 billion. This means the net household saving ratio fell from 8.7 per cent of household disposable income to 7.6 per cent.

Remember that the estimate of household saving is calculated as a residual (income minus consumption), so it can be distorted by any errors in the other items in the sum.

It's not hard to believe the rate of saving has fallen, because for the past four years it's been edging down from its post-financial crisis peak of 11.1 per cent at the end of 2011.

Even so, last quarter's drop of more than 1 percentage point seems very big, about double the size of the biggest previous quarterly falls. It may be revised to a smaller drop.

The best explanation for households' falling rate of saving is that people are less worried about their debts and about keeping their jobs, with rapidly rising house prices in most cities leading them to feel wealthier than they were.

The decline in the rate of saving as house prices rise is pretty convincing evidence of a "wealth effect" helping to bolster consumer spending at a time when household income isn't growing strongly.

And the wealth effect coming via house prices helps tie the strength of consumer spending back to the period of low interest rates and its ability to stimulate spending in different ways.

The news of faster growth in production also fits with the already-known strong growth in jobs – particularly in the later part of last year – and modest fall in the rate of unemployment.

It makes the good news we've been getting on the labour market easier to believe because it's now more consistent with the story we've been getting from the national accounts.

Annual real GDP growth of 3 per cent is a fraction higher than the economy's newly re-estimated trend or "potential" growth rate of 2.75 per cent. And this above-trend growth is what's usually required to have the unemployment rate falling – as it has been.

Of course, whether growth stays at or a little above trend this year isn't guaranteed.

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Doctors share blame for a sick budget

Some of my best friends are doctors. These days, I even have in-laws who are doctors. I've just become a grandad and my tiny grandson stands a fair chance of ending up as a doctor, too.

But I'm still a journo, and have to do my job. So let me let me adapt something Kerry Packer said about a youthful Malcolm Turnbull: never get between a doctor and bag of money.

If you wonder why it will be so long before we get the federal budget back into surplus, doctors are part of the reason.

If, as Scott Morrison keeps telling us, the trouble with the budget is a spending problem, not a revenue problem, the government's decision last week to greatly increase our spending on defence has just made the problem a lot worse.

That's the problem with saying government spending is the problem. Politicians – of all stripes – are much keener on increasing spending than on reducing it.

A lot of the growth in spending – especially if you include the state governments – is coming from spending on healthcare. Part of it's the ageing of the population, but most of it's the higher cost of new pharmaceuticals, prosthetics and medical procedures.

There's actually nothing terrible about that. If we're getting a little more prosperous each year, what's more natural than that we choose to spend a fair bit of that increase on improving our health?

If so, the problem isn't our spending, it's our reluctance to pay for it. Which means the real problem with the budget is the aversion of pollies on both sides to confronting voters with that simple truth: if you want more spending on better healthcare you're welcome to it but, as with everything else in life, you'll have to pay more for it.

The problem with the debate about spending and taxing is that government budgets are so huge – about $430 billion a year, and a lot more if you add in the states – with so many taxes spent on such a multitude of things – that it's easy for each of us to lose our sense of cause and effect, in a way we'd never do with our own, household budget.

But to say that spending on healthcare should and will continue growing strongly – so the pollies had better learn to live with that fact – is not to say that every dollar spent on health is a dollar well spent.

Every doctor I know tells me there's plenty of waste in the health system. Governments should be trying to find and eliminate that waste, thereby giving taxpayers better value for money, as well as slowing the rate of healthcare spending's inexorable rise.

Here I have to tell you that, under the greatly improved leadership of federal Health Minister Sussan Ley, and after the public's summary rejection of the harebrained idea of imposing a $7-a-pop patient co-payment on GP visits, the Health Department is making a much better effort to identify and remove waste.

Trouble is, just because a payment is judged unnecessary doesn't mean there isn't someone for whom that payment is part of their income. Threaten to take it away and all hell breaks loose as they fight to protect that income. Especially if they're a doctor.

Late last year the Turnbull government proposed saving $650 million over four years by removing bulk-billing incentives for pathology services and reducing them for diagnostic imaging.

The boss of the nation's most powerful union, aka the Australian Medical Association, was out of the blocks within moments, prophesying death and destruction.

Doctors would have no choice but to impose their own charges on patients, many of whom would struggle to afford them, leaving some poor people declining to get the tests they needed.

Yeah, sure.

Some years ago the Labor government tried to save money by cutting the rebate for eye operations. The ophthalmologists created an enormous stink, telling every little old lady they could find they'd have to start charging thousands for a cataract removal and urging them to write to their local member.

It worked. The Labor government beat a hasty retreat. Some years later, a doctor mate told me everyone in medicine knew the opthos were raking it in. The fees in the medical benefits schedule had been set long before the procedure had become highly automated, allowing surgeons to do far more operations in a day.

Everyone in medicine knew this, but while the opthos were bludgeoning the government, they kept their mouths shut – a practice known as "professionalism".

It's a similar story with pathology rebates. Advances in automation have made the rebates far higher than they need to be – which is why the special bulk-billing incentives aren't needed.

And because automation also offers big economies of scale, we now have about three-quarters of the nation's pathology tests being done by just two big companies, both listed on the stock exchange – a small fact the AMA boss didn't feel he needed to mention.

For once, this isn't about greedy specialists. This is a fight to protect the excessive profits of two big listed companies. But please still write to your local member.