Monday, January 30, 2017

Lord save us from being governed by bankers

With Our Glad Berejiklian – the archetypal girl who works harder than the boys – replacing pin-up boy Mike Baird as Premier of NSW, should the citizens of other states be envious? Don't be too sure.

True, Berejiklian, like Baird before her, came to public office from a job in banking, rather than a post-uni career as a political apparatchik, though she did spend time as a ministerial staffer. Baird didn't even have that.

Politics is becoming a priesthood – a lifetime calling, culminating in elected office – with ever fewer politicians having spent most of their lives working in a normal job with normal people.

I doubt we're better governed under this development.

One thing making NSW different from other states is that, until Baird's resignation, it was a state governed by former bankers: premier, treasurer and Treasury secretary Rob Whitfield, shipped in after a 29-year career as a deal maker at Westpac.

With Baird gone, NSW may seem one banker down. Except that Berejiklian's successor as Treasurer, Dominic Perrottet, was a solicitor specialising in "banking restructuring".

I suppose one good thing about having a government dominated by bankers is they can be relied on to keep the budget shipshape. They'd be the last pollies to send us bankrupt.

Indeed, Berejiklian's proudest boast is that the NSW government (narrowly defined) is now debt free.

But is that the highest achievement of a government? You'd expect bankers to know better than to regard an institution like NSW without any debt as a joy to behold.

What about all the infrastructure the state still needs? Why boast about having no debt at time when debt is exceptionally cheap and governments' size and taxing powers make them ideally placed to borrow?

Though the fashionable fatwa against debt is atypical of bankers, what it does reveal is a weak grasp on the tenets of economics.

It's a mistake to imagine bankers and economists think alike. That's been my greatest reservation about the financially virtuous Baird government and my greatest fear about its Berejiklian successor.

Its only leading light who can be counted on to have a better grasp on the ways the powers and obligations of governments differ from those of a business is the secretary of the Premier's Department, Blair Comley, a former top federal Treasury officer.

Historically, state governments have had responsibility for owning a lot of profitable businesses, which have been government-owned only because they're natural monopoly networks – electricity, gas and water – as well as managing huge service-delivery organisations: public transport, roads, hospitals, schools and prisons.

This has led to the common notion that running a state government is pretty much about running a collection of businesses. The main thing you need is efficiency.

Sorry, wrong.

First, where governments deliver services with "public good" characteristics – services whose supply would be insufficient if customers had to pay market prices – the quality of the service, reflecting the multiple objectives in supplying it, is just as important as the cost of supplying it.

Second, when you're owning – or selling – a profitable business, profit should never be maximised at the expense of the wider community. You have to take an "economy-wide" perspective.

I fear a banker-dominated government is too likely to adopt a simple, business approach towards an endeavour that that has much wider objectives and obligations; to see the state budget as akin to a business's profit and loss account – as an end in itself rather than just a means to an end; to imagine that maximum benefit to the state's finances equals maximum benefit to people of the state and their economy.

Every instinct of a deal-making banker tells them the object of the exercise is to privatise a business for the highest price possible, this being in the best interests of taxpayers.

You do this by packaging the business up with government-conferred competitive advantages.

But this comes at the disadvantage of taxpayers-as-customers of the business, any present or potential private competitors, and business customers of the privatised business.

Rod Sims, boss of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, has been highly critical of the NSW government's privatisation of its ports which, of course, enjoy a degree of geographic monopoly.

I supported privatisation of NSW's electricity "poles and wires" mainly because ownership of a key natural monopoly presented the government with too much temptation to look the other way while its trading enterprises fattened their profits by gouging their customers.

Damaging the state's economy in the interests of improving the state government's finances is something only an ill-educated banker could think was a good idea.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Think you're pretty sharp? Try this simple quiz

It's the last (unofficial) holiday weekend of summer before the new year really gets down to business on Monday. So let's have some fun. Try yourself on this simple quiz.
Q1: Linda is 31 years old, single, outspoken and very bright. At uni, she majored in philosophy. As a student she was deeply concerned with issues of discrimination and social justice, and also participated in anti-nuclear demonstrations.
Which of these two is more likely: that Linda is a bank teller or that Linda is a bank teller and is active in the feminist movement?
If you went for a feminist bank teller - sorry, wrong.
Q2: As an investor you're trying to decide between buying shares in three listed companies when you notice that one of them's been chosen as company of the year by a business magazine. Would that make it best bet of the three?
Q3: You're trying to decide which super fund to put your savings in, so you look up the figures to see which one had the highest returns last year. Would it be the best bet?
If you answered yes to those questions you're likely to be disappointed.
Q4: The instructors of fighter pilots found that pilots who were praised when they'd flown well always performed worse the next time, whereas those who were criticised for performing badly always performed better the next time.
The instructors concluded that criticism was more effective than praise. Were they right?
If you answered yes - sorry, wrong.
Q5: You flip an unbiased coin and it comes up five heads in a row. Which is more likely from the sixth throw: heads or tails?
Q6: Which is the more likely birth order in a family of six kids: B B B G G G or G B B G B G?
In the first case the sixth throw is just as likely to be another head as a tail. In the second, the two birth orders are equally likely.
Q7: Which would you prefer, an operation with a 90 per cent success rate, or a different one with a 10 per cent failure rate?
Answer: Have another think about the question.
Apart from the investment questions (which I threw in to please the business editor) all those questions come from best-selling business writer Michael Lewis' latest book, The Undoing Project.
It's the story of two Israeli-American academic psychologists, Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, who demonstrated how wide of the mark is the assumption of conventional economics that we're all "rational" - coldly logical - in the decisions we make, thus giving a huge push to the new school of behavioural economics.
A lot of their experiments involved our understanding of maths. Don't feel bad if you failed many of them. Most of us do, even people good at maths.
The moral is, however much or little people know about maths, particularly the rules of probability, we have trouble applying this to our daily lives because we let our emotions distract us.
Q1 was about the rules of probability. Linda certainly sounded like a feminist, but a lot of bank tellers aren't feminists so, statistically, there was a higher probability that she was a bank teller than a bank teller and a feminist.
All that guff about her interests at uni engaged our emotions and distracted us from the simple probabilities.
The questions about investment choices and fighter pilots were about a key statistical regularity most of us haven't heard of, called "reversion to the mean".
The performance of companies, super funds or fighter pilots in any year is a combination of skill and luck. We're always tempted to attribute good luck to high skill.
The luck factor is random, so a performance that's way above average is likely to have been assisted by luck, just as a really bad performance is likely to have been worsened by bad luck.
If good luck and bad luck average out over time, an outstandingly good performance is more likely to be followed by a performance closer to the average than by another rip-snorter. Similarly, a really bad performance is more likely to be followed by one not so bad.
Note that we're only accounting for the luck factor in performance, so a policy of always predicting reversion to the mean gives you a slight advantage in the forecasting stakes, not a sure thing.
The pilot trainers were observing reversion to the mean, but falsely attributing it to their own efforts in awarding praise or criticism.
Sadly, this has left many of the world's bosses suffering the delusion that criticism works better than praise.
The questions on coin tosses and baby order were about the "law of large numbers", which says that if events have equal probability of occurring, eventually they'll occur an equal number of times.
We all know that if you toss a coin enough times you'll get a roughly equal number of heads and tails. And we all know the numbers of boys and girls being born are almost equal.
Trouble is, you need thousands of samples to be sure of getting that result. By expecting to see equal numbers in a sample as small as six, we've turned the statisticians' law of large numbers into our own imaginary "law of small numbers".
Remember, probability theory applies to independent events, where what's gone before has no effect on what happens next.
Humans are pattern-seeking animals, but sometimes we go too far and see patterns that aren't real. Five heads in a row, or three boys followed by three girls, may look unlikely but, because the law applies only to large numbers, are perfectly consistent with a random draw.
Whether it's heads or tails, boy or girl, the safest bet remains 50/50. In the case of the five heads in a row, no one told the coin its duty was to make its sixth toss a tail.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Heartless government sools computer onto needy citizens

Of the loads of films I saw last year, the most memorable was Ken Loach's I, Daniel Blake. I go to the movies for escapist entertainment, not to give my emotions a good workout but, even so, it left a lasting impression.

It was the story of a 59-year-old carpenter in Newcastle, England, whose cardiologist told him not to go back to work for a few months after he'd had a heart attack on the job.

What we saw was Blake's mistreatment at the job centre he went to for social security payments at the height of the Cameron government's austerity spending cuts.

It was run like an assembly line, with "clients" processed as fast as possible, with a complete lack of flexibility or consideration.

Nothing Blake said was listened to, but at his first sign of frustration he was rebuked for his utterly unacceptable behaviour and threatened with removal by security guards. He was repeatedly threatened with the "sanction" of having his dole suspended for such crimes as being late for his appointment.

He got nowhere when he visited the centre, had to hang on for ages when he phoned, and was always being told to fill out forms online. Small problem: he didn't have a computer and didn't know how to use one.

Sorry, online forms are "mandatory".

Why would a government treat its citizens so badly? Well, reading between the lines you saw the centre had been handed over to a private business. It probably underquoted to get the contract and had turned the centre into a sausage machine in the hope of saving enough on staff to make a profit.

I thought of Daniel Blake when I read of the way the Turnbull government is using an "automated debt recovery program" to harass former users of Centrelink.

It's using a computer program to go back several years, checking Centrelink benefit payments against records from the Tax Office, to look for apparent overpayments and demand the money be repaid.

Trouble is, the exercise is hugely prone to error. Eligibility for social security benefits is assessed on a fortnightly basis, whereas tax information is annual. The machine merely divides the annual figures by 26 and often gets the wrong answer.

Where the same employer's name has been recorded differently, the machine treats them as separate businesses, sometimes calculating "debts" that are thousands of dollars out.

The machine may send its demand to an old address, even though failure to respond within 21 days is taken as acceptance that the figure named is correct, and the trigger for debt collectors to be called in, with the addition of a 10 per cent "recovery fee".

The many leaks from appalled Centrelink staff suggest they've been discouraged from correcting obvious errors before the machine-generated demands are sent out, and discouraged from helping people in person, rather than just telling them to use the website.

It's clear this is a fishing expedition. You make what you know may often be erroneous claims for repayment, shift the onus of proof onto people with few records or resources, give them a scare, then sit back and see how much you rake in.

I confess to feeling much empathy for people struggling with the many digital tentacles of the ironically named MyGov website. I'm an accountant but I still struggle with its online tax return.

Its requirement for you to supply your spouse's income sets up a Catch 22 where neither you nor your spouse can submit a return without saying something you know isn't true.

This year I'm stuck on a section of the return which, when I try to save it and move on, just says ERROR. OK, what's the error? Doesn't say. But I know what it's thinking: that's for us to know and you to find out.

So far I've spent ages searching the site for the answer, to no avail. I'm waiting for the time and courage to do battle with the Tax Office's phone system - assuming that's still permitted.

Back on the Centrelink debacle, I've been amazed by the way the Centrelink boss, the junior minister, Alan Tudge, and the senior minister, Christian Porter, have each denied there's any problem.

Really? This is the way bureaucrats and politicians get their names into the history books for contributing to their government's demise.

So far they've mainly been picking on young people on the dole, but now they're moving on to invalids and age pensioners. Really? Courageous decision, minister.

What on earth is motivating them? Partly it's that, having made so much fuss about debt and deficit while in opposition, the government is having enormous trouble getting the budget deficit down.

It lacks the courage to tackle the big sources of rent-seeking by business interests, but is confident it can get away with cracking down on the tiddlers in social security.

It's worse than that, however. Porter and Tudge are from the Liberals' hard Right. You can see from their speeches and remarks they have little sympathy for people poor enough to need social welfare, and every sympathy for their own class, groaning under the weight of a tax rate of supposedly "almost 50 per cent".

Their sacred mission is to prevent the need for higher taxes by ensuring none of their department's "clients" get away with a dollar more than they're supposed to get.

Monday, January 2, 2017

Have a touchy-feely holiday break from the economic grind

I hope your "face time" with family and friends over the holiday break wasn't done using a mobile phone.

A phone call may be better than nothing, but it turns out that regular, in-the-flesh, face-to-face communication reduces the risk of depression in older adults.

That's according to research by Alan Teo, a psychiatrist at the Oregon Health and Sciences University, and others.

"Meeting friends and family face-to-face is strong preventive medicine for depression. Think of it like taking your vitamins, and make sure you get a regular dose of it," Teo advised.

Thanks to my own painstaking research (I googled it), I can tell you we know from previous studies that having social support and staying connected with people is good for your physical and mental health. It even helps you live longer.

Teo and his mates examined the results of a survey of about 11,000 people aged 50 or more between 2004 and 2010.

They found a correlation between the types of interactions people had with others and their likelihood of showing symptoms of depression two years later.

"We found that all forms of socialisation aren't equal. Phone calls and digital communication with friends or family members do not have the same power as face-to-face social interactions in helping to stave off depression," Teo said.

But what, pray tell, has this to do with the economics I'm paid to write about?

Well, in the silly season it doesn't have to. But as it happens, it does. One of the most important discoveries of economists in the past decade or so is the almost magical economic properties of face-to-face contact.

For this new knowledge we're indebted mainly to the guru of urban economics, professor Edward Glaeser, of Harvard, as set out in his important 2011 book, Triumph of the City.

Economic geographers have long understood the significance of "economies of agglomeration". We crowd into ever-bigger cities because close proximity between a business, its workers, its customers, its suppliers and even its competitors does wonders to improve productivity.

Unfortunately, what's good for our material standard of living isn't necessarily good for the soul.

Glaeser's contribution was to realise that, in the era of the knowledge economy, firms want to crowd together in the very centre of the biggest cities – regardless of sky-high rents – because knowledge spreads most effectively though face-to-face contact between the smartest people.

Here in Oz, pioneering empirical work by Jane-Frances Kelly of the Grattan Institute, has shown how more and more of our gross domestic product is being generated in the CBDs of our four biggest cities.

While she was at it, she publicised Reserve Bank research showing convincingly that, in every capital city, house prices are rising fastest in those suburbs closest to centre and slowest in those suburbs furthest out.

So if you think the golden rule of real estate is position, position, position, you're behind the curve. In big cities these days its proximity, proximity proximity. And that gets back to the economic value of face-to-face contact.

Unfortunately, however, what's good for our material standard of living isn't necessarily good for the soul.

When we're crammed in together in trains, lifts or waiting rooms, we know almost instinctively to avoid invading people's "personal space", avoid conversation and even eye contact.

But research by Nicholas Epley, of the University of Chicago's Booth School of Business, and Juliana Schroeder, of the University of California, Berkeley's Haas School of Business, shows our instincts are wrong.

In a series of experiments, those commuters who were instructed to strike up conversation with a stranger reported having the most positive experience, compared with those instructed to sit in silence or behave as they usually would.

When it comes to the advent of the knowledge economy, the information revolution and digital disruption, there are two errors we can make: underestimating the extent to which it's already changing the way the economy works (see above), and overestimating the extent to which it's changing the way humans work – and are happiest working.

You can be sure the world's model-bound economists will make – are making – the first error. And since their model copes with human nature only by assumption, they won't even be conscious of the second.

For the rest of us, however, the thing is to remember new technology raises three distinct questions: first, what new tricks is it actually capable of doing for us, second, do we really want it to do that trick for us and, finally, assuming we do, what will we eventually feel about the wisdom of that choice? See intro.