Wednesday, March 21, 2018

How Labor is taking on the greedy elderly

Talk about missing the point. The media spent all last week working themselves into a lather over Labor's newly announced policy to abolish cash refunds for unused dividend imputation credits. (If you have no idea what that means, it probably wouldn't affect you.)

This promise would be terribly unfair to dirt-poor self-funded retirees, we were told. And it was utter stupidity for Bill Shorten to drop such a monumentally unpopular proposal in the last week of the Batman byelection, which he was now safe to lose.

Except, of course, that Labor won comfortably, with little sign the policy had much effect.

The media smarties' greater failure was their inability to see the bigger picture: the next federal election is shaping as a battle between the generations, with Labor championing the put-upon young and the Coalition defending the privileged old.

According to Canberra conventional wisdom, this too is crazy-brave territory for Labor. The ageing of the population means Grey Power is our fastest growing political force.

Those of retirement age (which includes me) have little more pressing to do than to worry incessantly about their finances, and have developed an unshakable sense of entitlement ("I've paid taxes all my life ..."). Any concession they've been granted, no matter how unjustified or unaffordable, can't be taken back, we're assured.

Well, I'm not so sure.

As a political force, Grey Power has one huge weakness: of all the age groups, the over-65s are those least likely to change their vote. The great majority vote for the Coalition, so Labor doesn't have a lot to lose.

It's among the non-aged (sorry) that most swinging voters are found, and it's by picking up enough swingers that a party wins.

Haven't you noticed how, since 2013, the Coalition has been reacting to Labor's pro-younger policies by flying to the defence of the better-off old? The conservatives are allowing themselves to be "wedged" – separated from the majority of voters.

The Canberra smarties also used to believe negative gearing was politically untouchable. But Labor went to the 2016 election promising to curtail it – while the Libs predicted it would send house prices crashing – and came within a whisker of winning. Labor's persisting with the policy.

Labor went to that election with another pro-younger policy: cutting the tax breaks going to exceptionally well-off superannuants (including me). This time, Malcolm Turnbull, needing help to pay for his company tax cuts, produced his own, Treasury-crafted version of Labor's idea.

The issue didn't feature greatly in the election campaign, but after the Coalition had won, the exceptionally well-off superannuants in the Liberal heartland turned on Turnbull. This advantaged Labor by adding to the disunity in the Coalition's ranks. Turnbull modified his super changes, but not greatly.

And now Labor is planning to remove another super tax concession that goes overwhelmingly, but not exclusively, to superannuants with large share portfolios. The Coalition hasn't resisted the temptation to side with its well-off elderly heartland, nor have the media resisted the temptation to promote its (and the super industry's) misrepresentation of the policy as an attack on struggling retirees (who just happen to own a lot of shares).

How is this another of Labor's pro-younger policies? That will be easier seen if, as seems likely, Labor uses the saving to pay for a promise of income tax cuts for people earning less than $87,000 a year – few of which would go to the retired rather than to the workers who pay for the retired's largely income tax-free status.

If you think an election campaign based on conflict between the generations is not a good thing, I agree. Unless what you mean by that is that the better-off aged should be allowed to retain their relatively recently conferred tax advantages, and the taxpaying non-old should continue to lump it.

It's a pity John Howard and Peter Costello (the chap who kept issuing reports warning that population ageing would play merry hell with the budget) didn't worry more about future generational conflict when they spent most of their 11 years in office slipping new benefits for the aged, particularly self-funded retirees, into the budget.

They started with the private health insurance tax rebate (the biggest users of private health insurance services are 60 to 79-year olds) and moved on to giving the alleged self-funded retirees the "seniors and pensioners tax offset", also making it easier for them to get health cards and pay the pensioners' rate for pharmaceuticals.

In 1999, they gave negative gearing a huge boost by introducing a 50 per cent discount on capital gains tax. And they decided that anyone who paid so little income tax they couldn't take full advantage of their dividend imputation credits should be sent a refund for the balance.

On the younger side of the ledger, while they didn't invent HECS debts for university students, they greatly increased them.

Then, in 2007, Costello introduced sweeping super changes, making super payouts completely tax-free for people over 60. He also made a lot of supposedly self-funded people eligible for a part pension.

Since this largesse was quite unaffordable, Labor and Coalition governments have been chipping it back ever since.

Even so, we retain an income tax system where how much you pay sometimes depends on the size of your income, but other times on how old you are. And that's not going to lead to intergenerational conflict?

Monday, March 19, 2018

Immigration the cheap and nasty way to grow the economy

The ABC's temerity in hosting a debate about the merits of high population growth has drawn predictable repostes from the economic establishment. Shades of the legendary note in the margin of a politician's speech: "shout here - argument weak".

There are at least four counts against the advocates of high immigration. First, their refusal to engage with the academic environmentalists arguing that we've exceeded the "carrying capacity" of our old and fragile land. Scientists? What would they know?

Second, they keep asserting high immigration's great economic benefits, blithely ignoring the lack of evidence. Whenever the Productivity Commission has examined the issue carefully it's found only small net effects, one way or the other. Its latest modelling found only a "negligible" overall impact.

Third, the advocates not only decline to admit the high social and economic costs that go with high rates of immigration, they decline to accept their share of the tab, doing all they can to shift it to the young, the poor and those on the geographic outer, including many of the migrants.

You rarely hear pro-immigration economists acknowledging the clearest message economic theory gives us on the topic: more population requires more spending on additional public and private infrastructure if material living conditions aren't to deteriorate.

The more we invest in such "capital widening" to stop the ratio of capital to labour declining, the less scope for investment in "capital deepening" to keep the ratio increasing, and so improving the productivity of our labour.

When we fail to invest sufficiently in capital widening – which we have – the decline in living conditions is manifest in overcrowding, traffic congestion and long commuting times.

Why have we failed to invest sufficiently? Partly because a high proportion of the promoters of high immigration are also promoters of Smaller Government, never acknowledging the two are incompatible.

A bigger population requires a bigger government, with more debt, not less. When you persist with high population growth, but put the clamps on government, you end up with overcrowding, congestion and the rest.

Another truth the high immigration advocates refuse to acknowledge is that a much bigger population must lead to much bigger cities and higher-density living in those cities.

The Reserve Bank's estimates of the huge addition to Melbourne and Sydney house prices caused by state governments' acquiescence to resistance to higher density in inner and middle-ring suburbs, are partly a consequence of successful attempts to shift the spatial cost of high immigration onto the less well-placed.

The fourth criticism of high immigration is that it's the cheapest and nastiest way to pursue economic growth. You get a bigger economy, but not the promised benefits. The studies repeatedly fail to show high immigration leads to a significant increase in real income per person.

Of course, the business lobby has no reason to care whether high immigration yields economy-wide benefits. All they're after is a bigger domestic market, allowing them to sell more widgets, make a higher profit and justify a bigger salary package.

Few economists can see this is a cop-out. An escape hatch. As a way of achieving corporate growth, it's even easier than taking over your competitors. And it sure beats the hard graft of trying to increase profits by being more efficient and contributing to national productivity improvement.

As we've seen, high immigration probably comes at the expense of productivity-enhancing (capital-deepening) business investment and public infrastructure. To the extent that inadequate capital-widening leads to overcrowding and congestion, it worsens productivity.

In principle, one productivity-enhancing effect of high immigration is that you get greater human capital on the cheap by pinching it from other (mainly poor) countries.

After foreign students have come here and paid full freight for Australian qualifications, you let them stay and work. You select permanent immigrants on the basis of their skills, or you let skilled workers on temporary visas stay on.

But as Dr Bob Birrell, of the Australian Population Research Institute, has shown, there's a big gap between the claims made for our skilled migration program and the reality. We let in people whose skills aren't in high demand, and plenty of them end up driving taxis because the local professions' gatekeepers refuse to recognise their qualifications.

So it's not clear the benefits of our skill-pinching program exceed the cost of discouraging businesses from incurring bother and cost training enough of our own young people, when you can always get the government to let you bring in someone ready-trained.

High immigration may suit our rent-seeking business people, but it's a hell of a way to pursue the professed benefits of economic growth.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Why protection from imports isn't smart

With The Donald now busy playing poker with Little Rocket Man, the threat of a trade war has receded. Good. Gives us time to get our thinking straight before the threat returns.

Everyone knows a trade war would be a terrible thing, but most people's reason for thinking so is wrong. This misunderstanding means such a war could happen, even though everyone knows it would be bad.

It seems common sense for a country to want to protect its industry by imposing a tax – known as a tariff or import duty – on imports competing with locally-produced goods. After all, we win and foreigners lose.

The problem arises only if the foreigners retaliate and slap a tariff on our exporters. That's bad for us because it may lead to job losses among those of our workers who earn their living making goods for export.

Is that the way you figure it? Sorry, it may be common sense, but it's wrong. You need to have learnt a bit of economics to see why, because the case against protection is "counterintuitive" – it doesn't seem right, but it is.

The reason people can't see what's wrong with protection is that every baby is born with a disease called mercantilism.

Mercantilism is the belief that exports are good, but imports are bad. Why? Because we – Australia – make money selling exports to foreigners, whereas it costs us money to buy imports, the foreigners' exports.

So mercantilists see Australia as like a company, and our balance of trade as like a company's profit and loss statement. The more you can export and the less you can import – the higher your trade surplus - the richer you become.

What's wrong with that way of thinking? Plenty. For a start, it's the mentality of a miser – someone who loves money for its own sake, not for what it will buy.

Money is just a means to an end, not an end in itself. The economic game is about producing goods and services so we can consume them. Production is the means; consumption is the end. Focus on one at the expense of the other and you've actually done badly in the game.

Similarly, jobs are just a means to an end. Why do people want jobs? So they can earn money and then spend it.

Exports are production, imports are consumption (although much of our imports are of machines we use in the production process). Production without consumption makes sense only to a miser.

Get this: 80 per cent of the way Australia makes its living is by all the workers and businesses and governments producing goods and services and selling them to other Australian workers, businesses and governments, so they can be consumed.

In principle, we could raise the 80 per cent to 100 per cent by only selling to and buying from ourselves. So why do we sell about 20 per cent of the things we produce to foreigners?

Not because it makes us richer, nor because it creates more jobs. It's solely so we can afford to buy some of the goods and services produced by businesses and workers in other countries, when we judge them to be better or cheaper than the stuff made locally.

Exports are good solely because we can use the proceeds to pay for imports – and imports are also good because they raise our material standard of living by giving all of us (workers, would-be workers and dependents) access to goods and services that are better or cheaper than those made in Australia.

If we weren't willing to use the proceeds from our exports to pay for imports from other countries, those countries would refuse to buy our exports.

Refusing to buy our exports would leave those countries worse off (because they'd lose their ability to buy the things we can produce better or cheaper than they can), as well as leaving us worse off because we lost our ability to use our export income to buy their exports.

This, BTW, is why trade wars are mutually self-harming. A group exercise in cutting off your nose to spite your face.

Why wouldn't it be better to be 100 per cent self-sufficient? Because this would limit the benefits to us from "specialisation and exchange". Our domestic economy is organised on the basis that we're all better off if each of us specialises in producing what we're good at, then uses money to exchange what we've produced with what other specialists have produced.

Opening our economy to trade with other countries merely extends this principle, on which we've always run our domestic economy, beyond our borders.

This is why the mercantilists' assumption that trade is a zero-sum game – if you win, I lose – is wrong. Both sides win because both benefit from the "mutual gains from trade".

It follows that the mercantilist notion that foreigners are the only people who lose when we decide to protect some of our industries is wrong. The biggest losers are every other industry and every Australian who loses their access to cheaper or better imported goods and has to pay more for the local version.

That is, tariffs are a tax, not on foreigners, but on Australian producers and consumers. A way of favouring some Australian industries at the expense of all the others. A redistribution of income to favoured industries from those that aren't favoured, and from Australian consumers generally. A form of rent-seeking.

And thus, an attempt to protect some jobs at the expense of all other jobs. Great idea.

Trade wars are destructive not primarily because it's crazy for other countries to retaliate – which it is – but because the country that provokes the retaliation by protecting some favoured industries is damaging itself.

Better to let it stew in its own juice than punish it by harming yourself.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

What's making homes hard to afford and what we could do

There aren't many material aspirations Australians hold dearer than owning their own home - but dear is the word. There are few greater areas of policy failure.

The rate of home ownership, of which we were once so proud, has been falling slowly for decades. And as the last high home-owning generations start popping off, it will fall much faster.

We've been debating this issue for years, while it's just got worse. Yet we have a better handle on the causes of the problem, and what needs to be done, than ever.

Let me see if I can pull a lot of the elements together and give you the big picture.

Don't let anyone tell you the younger generation would be happy to stay renting forever. Nuh.

And while the hurdle of owning a home and a mortgage seems almost insurmountable to the young, jumping it is just the start of our property ambition. Most people want to keep moving up to a bigger and better home. Every promotion we get makes us wonder whether we can afford a better place.

This preoccupation with the quality of our housing is the first part of the reason house prices have risen so high: ever growing demand.

Don't forget that our newly built houses are much grander than they were even 10 years ago. And most older houses have been renovated and extended to make them better.

When two-income families became common people thought "great, now we can afford a bigger mortgage on a better place".

When we got on top of inflation in the early 1990s and interest rates fell so far, people could have paid off their mortgage faster, or bought a boat, but more people said "great, now we can afford a bigger mortgage on a better place".

Trouble is, you can't satisfy increased demand for better houses – particularly better-located houses - by building more places on the outskirts of the city. And when a lot of people decide to move to a better place at the same time, the main thing they do is bid up the prices of existing houses.

One change in recent decades is the growth of the services sector and the knowledge economy (more workers knowing how to do things; fewer workers making things), which means many of the jobs have gravitated to the CBD and nearby suburbs.

So the meaning of "position" has changed from good views to "proximity" to the centre. In theory, the amount of land within 10 kilometres of the GPO is fixed. In practice, factories and warehouses can be moved further out, while detached houses can be replaced by townhouses and low-rise or high-rise units.

Even so, in every city, property prices have risen more the closer homes are to the centre.

Another source of increased demand for housing is our high population growth, caused by our policy of high immigration.

Then there's foreigners' investment in our housing, though this isn't as big a cause of higher prices as many imagine because – in principle but not always practice - foreigners are only supposed to buy newly built or "off-the-plan" homes. That is, create their own supply.

Another source of greater demand is Paul Keating's introduction of capital gains tax in 1985 and John Howard's introduction of a 50 per cent discount on the tax in 1999. This has made owner-occupied homes (which are exempt from the tax) and, thanks to negative gearing, rented-out homes, more attractive as a form of investment, relative to shares.

So house prices are higher partly because we've acquired a second motive for home-ownership: not just the security and freedom of owning the home you live in, but also the prospect of homes becoming much more valuable over time.

Of course, increased demand leads to higher prices only if supply fails to keep up. And that's where our governments – state and federal – have failed us.

It's better now, but for ages state governments failed to do enough to permit the building of more homes on the edge of cities. We got more immigrant families, but not more homes to put them in.

Worse, state governments have allowed people in inner and middle-ring suburbs and their councils to resist the pressure for more medium-density housing – more units – from people wanting to live closer to where the jobs and facilities are.

Just last week the Reserve Bank published estimates that this resistance to higher density had added more than $300,000 to the average Melbourne house price and almost $500,000 to the Sydney price, over the past two decades.

So, who pushed housing prices so high? We did. Who failed to do what was needed to counter the increase? Our governments.

The feds failed to limit the growth in demand (by limiting immigration and fixing the tax system), while the states did too little to increase supply (by discouraging the building of new homes on the outskirts and by permitting a first-in-best-dressed mentality by people in inner and middle-ring suburbs).

Why are they allowing the proportion of home owners to decline? Because most things they could do to genuinely help first home buyers would come at the expense of existing home owners, who have more votes than the youngsters.

If young people and their parents don't like that, the answer's more pressure at the ballot box. Wheels that squeak more.

Monday, March 12, 2018

How we could gang up against a Trump trade war

A possible trade war looms and, as always, an adverse overseas development has caught poor little Oz utterly unprepared. Well, actually, not this time.

Just as Treasury had been war-gaming the next big world recession well before the global financial crisis of late 2008, so the Productivity Commission began thinking about our best response to a trade war soon after the election of Donald Trump.

In July last year it published a research paper, Rising protectionism: challenges, threats and opportunities for Australia, to which Dr Shiro Armstrong, co-director of the Australia-Japan Research Centre, at the Australian National University, made a major contribution. (During a visit to ANU last week I also benefited from discussion with Professor Jenny Corbett.)

Trump's tariffs (import duties) on steel and aluminium were never a great threat to our economy. It'll be only when he decides to take a crack at the Chinese that there'll be a lot to worry about.

But the chest-thumping by our pollies (on both sides) over steel is a demonstration of the way populism can crowd out clear-headed self-interest where protectionism is involved.

Trade wars happen by accident. They start out in a small way, the perceived victims feel their manhood demands they stand up to a bully by retaliating, the bully hits back and pretty soon everyone in the bar is throwing chairs and punches.

As the research paper puts it, "significant worldwide increases in protection would cause a global recession."

Economic modelling by Armstrong estimates that, for every extra dollar by which our revenue from import duties rose, economic activity in Australia would fall by 64¢.

In total, the level of real gross domestic product would be 1 per cent lower each year. This would equate to a loss of about 100,000 jobs. (As with all modelling, take these figures as, at best, roughly indicative.)

A full-blown global trade war would take many months, even years to build up, so how should we respond to the provocative actions of others? What could we do to minimise the damage we'd suffer?

The research paper proposes what economists call a "first-best" response (here I'd call it the What-would-Jesus-do? cheek-turning response): not only should we resist the temptation to retaliate in any way, we should also cut what few remaining protective barriers we have.

If you think that would be plum crazy, you don't know as much about protection as you should. But you've demonstrated why any politician would find such advice almost impossible.

That's why I'm attracted by the paper's second-best suggestion: "working with a coalition of countries to keep their markets open is a strategy that would make it easier for Australia to resist protectionist pressures".

Good thinking. Our leaders want to be seen to be acting to defend our economy, and this response – "let's form our own gang and fight back" - is active rather than passive, and harder to portray as appeasing the bullies.

Oh yeah, what gang? What coalition of countries? That's obvious. We're already a member of a gang that, depending on how you measure it, is bigger than Trump's, or the Europeans'. And our gang's by far the fastest growing.

We do almost three-quarters of our two-way trade (exports plus imports) with Asia – in descending order, China, ASEAN, Japan, South Korea, New Zealand, India, Hong Kong and Taiwan. Europe accounts for only about 15 per cent and Trumpland​ for little more than 10 per cent.

Although it's true Asia needs to trade with North America and Europe, it's also true there's huge trade within our region. Just imagine the damage we'd suffer if we Asians started jacking up tariffs against each other. Or all of us against the rest of the world.

Australia and New Zealand are already members of various Asian trading clubs. And what greater incentive for Asians to pack down more closely than a threat from Trumpland, or from a Europe trying to repel boarders?

Nor is it presumptuous for Oz to take a (quiet) leadership role. Despite all their trade, there's a lot of mistrust between China, Korea, Japan and other countries. China and Japan, for instance, find it easier to work with us than with each other.

After all, we played significant roles in the formation of the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation group and in improving the governance arrangements for China's new Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. We worked behind the scenes with Japan to keep the Trans-Pacific Partnership alive despite Trump's dummy-spit.

And guess what? Malcolm Turnbull will host a summit of the 10 leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in Sydney next weekend.

Saturday, March 10, 2018

The economy is readying for faster growth

The last three months of 2017 were yet another quarter of weak growth in the economy. Fortunately, however, they weren't as weak as we've been led to believe.

According to the national accounts, issued this week by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, real gross domestic product grew by 0.7 per cent in the previous quarter, but slowed to 0.4 per cent in the December quarter.

This caused the annual rate of growth to slump from 2.9 per cent to 2.4 per cent.

Trouble is, the sudden slowdown is largely the product of quarter-to-quarter volatility, caused by one-off factors and unexplained "noise" in the figures – noise that stops you hearing the signal those figures are trying to send.

This is why the bureau also publishes "trend" or smoothed figures, which reduce the noise and make it easier to hear the underlying signal.

The trend figures show the economy growing at a fairly steady rate of 0.6 per cent a quarter, and by 2.6 per cent over the year to December.

This is likely to be closer to the truth, though it's still weaker than we've been hoping for, especially since employment grew by a remarkably strong 3.3 per cent during 2017 – almost 400,000 more souls.

How can the economy's production of goods and services grow by only 2.6 per cent when the number of people employed to produce those goods and services has grown by 3.3 per cent?

Over a period of more than a few years, it can't. But over shorter periods it's surprisingly common for the standard relationships between economic variables not to show up in the figures. Why? In a word: noise. (And noise not even statistical smoothing can penetrate.)

Note, however, that for as long as employment is growing faster than production, the productivity of labour will be falling, just as a matter of arithmetic. If you think employment growth is a good thing, this temporary fall in productivity is nothing to worry about.

To emphasise how weak quarterly growth averaging 0.6 per cent is, consider this. Growth in GDP per person is averaging only about 0.2 per cent a quarter.

This gives annual growth in GDP per person of 1 per cent. (Huh? Four quarters of about 0.2 per cent adds up to 1 per cent? Yes. You can't just add 'em up, you have to allow for compounding - otherwise known as "interest on the interest", as in compound interest.)

To have GDP growth of 2.6 per cent, but growth per person of only 1 per cent, is a reminder of how fast our population is growing, and how much of our growth (almost invariably faster than the growth rates of those rich countries whose populations aren't growing much) comes merely from population growth – a point every economist knows, but few bother pointing out to the uninitiated.

And don't hold your breath waiting for any treasurer to point it out. To those guys, a big number is a big number – and what's more, it's solely the result of our government's wonderful policies.

But back to the reasons this week's news of further weak growth isn't as bad as it sounds.

The first is that annual growth of 2.6 per cent isn't a lot lower that our estimated "potential" (medium-term average) rate of growth of 2¾ per cent.

It's true, however, that we've been growing at below our non-inflationary potential rate for so many years we've acquired such a lot of spare production capacity (including unemployed and under-employed workers) – such a big "output gap", in econospeak - that we could and should be growing a fair bit faster than that medium-term speed limit of 2¾ per cent, until the spare capacity's used up.

Another indication things aren't a bad as they've been painted is Reserve Bank governor Dr Philip Lowe's statement that this week's figures give him no reason to revise down the Reserve's forecast that growth will strengthen to 3 per cent this year and next.

Why so confident? Because when you look into the detail of this week's results, you see more signs of strength than weakness. (From here on I'll switch to quoting the unsmoothed figures favoured by those who prefer the exciting confusion of noise to the boring wisdom of signal.)

First point is that "domestic demand" (gross national expenditure) grew over the year at the healthy rate of 3 per cent, meaning it was a fall in "net external demand" (exports minus imports) that caused growth in aggregate (domestic plus external) demand to be only 2.4 per cent.

The fall in the volume of "net exports" (exports minus imports) was caused mainly by a fall in exports, but there's little reason to believe this was due to anything other than temporary factors.

Turning to the biggest components of domestic demand, we've been worried that consumer spending wasn't growing strongly because of the lack of growth in real wages. But this week's figures show consumer spending growing by 1 per cent during the quarter and a healthy 2.9 per cent over the year.

Quarterly growth of 1 per cent won't be sustained, but an upward revision to the previous quarter's growth adds to confidence that household consumption is stronger than we'd believed.

All the increased employment is boosting household income, even if real wage growth isn't.

Business investment in new equipment and structures fell by 1 per cent in the quarter, but this was explained by another fall in mining investment (which falls are close to ending) concealing stronger than expected growth in non-mining investment (as estimated by Treasury) of 2.1 per cent in the quarter and 12.4 per cent over the year.

As Paul Bloxham, of the HSBC bank, summarises, "the key drivers of domestic demand – household consumption and non-mining business investment – were strong, and should drive a lift in overall growth in 2018".

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Sensible communities set boundaries for business

A highlight of our trip to New York after Christmas was a visit to the Tenement Museum down on the lower east side, where the movie Gangs of New York was set. It was the area where successive waves of Irish, German and Russian immigrants first settled, crowded into tenements.

We were taken around the corner to see inside a tenement building restored to its original condition.

As we climbed the back stairs, we were shown a row of dunnies and a water tap in the backyard. This, we were told, was one of the first tenements required to have outside toilets and running water under a new city ordinance.

Can you imagine any developer today thinking they could get away with building multi-storey units without adequate (indoor) toilets and plumbing? Unthinkable.

But I can imagine the fuss the developers of that time would have made when the city government – no doubt acting under pressure from citizens worried about the spread of disease – was passing the new ordinance.

These excessively luxurious requirements would be hugely expensive and could send some tenement owners bankrupt – owners who had families and elderly parents to support. The additional cost would have to be passed on to tenants, of course, making rents prohibitive. Some families would be forced onto the street.

I bet few of those dire predictions came to pass. Why? Because business people still play this game and once the bitterly opposed legislation goes through and the new status quo is accepted, the exaggerated forebodings are soon forgotten.

Another highlight was a tour of Carnegie Hall. Once, when it fell on hard times, someone acquired it with a view to tearing it down and building high-rise apartments. A public outcry stopped it.

Then, our guide reminded us, there was the time Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis led the fight to stop Grand Central Station being replaced by an office block.

It reminded me of how that ratbag commo Jack Mundey – being quietly urged on by respectable National Trust-types – was frustrating go-ahead developers all over Sydney.

Just think how better off we’d be today had those those pillars of industry not been prevented from doing away with the crumbling old Queen Victoria Building – with its verdigris domes and rickety lifts – and building a shiny new office block.

Gosh, by now we’d be ready to tear it down and build a taller one. And just think how many jobs that would create.

Do you see where this travelogue is heading? I’m an unfailing believer in the capitalist system. We’d all be much poorer than we are were it not for those ambitious, hard-working, enterprising, optimistic souls who set out to make themselves rich by engaging in some business.

But that doesn’t stop them being thoroughly self-interested and often short-sighted. Whatever new project it is they’ve decided will make them more money, they want to get started yesterday and get terribly angry with those who won’t step out of their way and let them get on with it.

My point is, it was ever thus. Market economies work best – and all the people within them do best – when governments act on behalf of the community in setting boundaries within which entrepreneurs are free to be entrepreneurial.

It’s the community’s economy, and it’s the community that decides the rules that ensure businesses make their profits – good luck to them – in ways that do more good than harm to the rest of us.

The huge hurt and cost of the global financial crisis – from which the world is still recovering, 10 years later – is but the latest reminder of something we should have known: how easily an economy can run off the track when we fall for the line that self-interested, short-sighted business people should be free to do as they please.

I remind you of all this because we’re just emerging from a period of more than 30 years in which the Western world flirted with the notion that economies work best when businesses are given as free a hand as possible.

The present royal commission into the misbehaviour of the banks is just one response to the consequences of that ill-considered notion.

You have to be at least in your 50s to remember the world as it was before then, when governments felt free to limit businesses’ freedom of action in respects they judged necessary and to impose obligations on them.

Where do you think the minimum wage, four weeks annual leave, long service leave, sick leave and many other employee benefits came from? Governments decided to impose them on business so as to ensure workers got their share of the benefits of capitalism.

Many of our young people are deeply pessimistic about the working world they’re inheriting – the “gig economy” where most employment is “precarious” – because they’ve grown up in a world where businesses seemed to be free to do whatever suited them.

They think the gig economy would be a terrible world to live in. They’re right, it would. Which is why I’m sure it won’t be allowed to happen. Governments will stop it happening.

Why will they? Because workers have infinitely more votes than business people do. In the end, the economy is moulded to serve the interests of the many, not the few. Governments keep getting thrown out until they get that message.

Monday, March 5, 2018

Retailers affecting the economy in ways we don’t see

As uncomprehending punters complain of the soaring cost of living, and the better-versed ponder the puzzle of exceptionally weak increases in prices and wages, don't forget to allow for the strange things happening in retailing.

It's a point the Reserve Bank's been making for months without it entering our collective consciousness the way it should have.

The debate over the cause of weak price and wage growth has been characterised as a choice between a "cyclical" (temporary) problem as we recover only slowly from the resources boom, and a "structural" (long-lasting) problem caused by the effects of globalisation and industrial relations "reform" that's robbed employees of their power to bargain collectively.

To the annoyance of protagonists on both sides, I've taken a bit-of-both position. But the Reserve has raised a different structural contributor to the problem: the consequences of greatly increased competition in a hugely significant sector of the economy, retailing.

The media have focused on the digital disruption aspect, with the arrival in Oz of the ultimate category killer, Amazon Marketplace.

But that happened only late last year and, although retailers may already have been tightening up on wage increases and other costs in anticipation of greater threat from online competitors, much of those consequences are yet to be felt.

Of greater significance to date is the arrival of new foreign bricks-and-mortar competitors such as Aldi and Costco.

As Dr Luci Ellis, an assistant governor of the Reserve, said last month, "Australia has seen a marked increase in the number of major retail players. Foreign retailers have entered the local market in recent years and continue to do so.

"This has also induced the existing players to reduce their costs to stay competitive, for example by improving inventory management. This has probably been a bit easier for larger or less-diversified retailers than for smaller firms.

"Whether through lower costs, narrower margins or a combination of both, this competitive dynamic has weighed on prices for consumer durables.

"And for staples such as food, competition and related changes in pricing strategies (such as 'everyday low price' strategies) have contributed" to keeping prices low.

If you doubt that adds up to much, try this. According to the consumer price index, prices of food and non-alcoholic beverages (including restaurant and take-away meals) were almost unchanged over 15 months to December, and rose only 3.6 per cent over the previous six and a half years.

Prices of clothing and footwear fell by 3.5 per cent over the 15 months to December, and fell by 4.6 per cent over the previous six and a half years.

Prices of furniture and household equipment fell by 1.5 per cent over the 15 months to December, and rose by just 4.5 per cent over the previous six and a half years.

As Reserve Bank governor Dr Philip Lowe has remarked, this is good news for consumers, although not for some retailers – nor their employees, for that matter.

Sometimes I think everyone would be a lot happier if prices and wages were growing by 4 per cent a year rather than 2 per cent. This would be a delusion, of course, but the beginning of behavioural economic wisdom is to realise that illusions abound in the economy.

Low inflation is not a bad thing to the extent that it's caused by increased competition forcing down businesses' profit margins – and goodness knows the two big supermarket chains have plenty of profitability to cut into.

Indeed, the benefit to consumers – who, remember, include all employees – makes competition-caused low inflation a good thing. (What's not a good thing is low inflation caused by weak demand.)

And particularly where increased competition involves innovation and digital disruption, it usually brings consumers greater choice and convenience, not just lower prices.

The downside of increased competition and digital disruption, however, is the adverse consequences for employees. Some may lose their jobs; many may find pay rises a lot harder to extract from bosses worried about whether their business has a viable future.

Retailing is our second biggest employer, with about 1.2 million full-time and part-time workers. And whereas the overall wage price index rose by 2.1 per cent over the year to December, in retailing it rose by only 1.6 per cent. This was lower than all other industries bar mining, on 1.4 per cent.

It's likely to be some years yet before the disruption of retailing has run its course, and this may mean structural change in the sector acts as a continuing drag on wage growth overall.

Saturday, March 3, 2018

Free-trade agreements aren't about freer trade

You may think spin-doctoring and economics are worlds apart, but they combine in that relatively modern invention the "free-trade agreement" – the granddaddy of which, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, is presently receiving CPR from the lips of our own heroic lifesaver, Malcolm Turnbull.

It's not surprising many punters assume something called a "free-trade agreement" must be a Good Thing. Economists have been preaching the virtues of free trade ever since David Ricardo discovered the magic of "comparative advantage" in 1815.

Nor is it surprising the governments that put much work into negotiating free-trade agreements – and the business lobbyists who use them to win concessions for their industry clients – want us to believe they'll do wonders for "jobs and growth".

What is surprising is that so many economists – even the otherwise-smart The Economist magazine - assume something called a free-trade agreement is a cause they should be supporting.

Why's that surprising? Because you can't make something virtuous just by giving it a holy name. When you look behind the spin doctors' label you find "free trade" is covering up a lot of special deals that may or may not be good for the economy.

This is the conclusion I draw from the paper, What Do Trade Agreements Really Do? by a leading US expert on trade and globalisation, Professor Dani Rodrik, of Harvard, written for America's National Bureau of Economic Research.

Rodrik quotes a survey of 37 leading American economists, in which almost all agreed that freer trade was better than protection against imports, and were in equal agreement that the North American Free-Trade Agreement (NAFTA) to eliminate tariff (import duty) barriers between the United States, Canada and Mexico, begun in 1994, had left US citizens better off on average.

Their strong support for freer trade is no surprise. One of the economics profession's greatest contributions to human wellbeing is its demonstration that protection leaves us worse off, even though common sense tells us the reverse.

And that, just as we all benefit from specialising in a particular occupation we're good at, then exchanging goods and services with people in other specialties, so further "gains from trade" can be reaped by extending specialisation and exchange beyond our borders to producers in other countries.

What surprised and appalled Rodrik was the economists' equal certainty that NAFTA – a 2000-page document with numerous exceptions and qualifications negotiated between three countries and their business lobby groups – had been a great success.

He says recent research suggests the deal "produced minute net efficiency gains for the US economy while severely depressing wages of those groups and communities most directly affected by Mexican competition".

So there's a huge gap between what economic theory tells us about the benefits of free trade and the consequences of highly flawed, politically compromised deals between a few countries.

Rodrik says trade agreements, like free trade itself, create winners and losers. How can economists be so certain the gains to the winners far exceed the losses to the losers - and that the winners have compensated the losers?

He thinks economists automatically support trade agreements because they assume such deals are about reducing protection and making trade freer, which must be a good thing overall.

What many economists don't realise is that the international battle to eliminate tariffs and import quotas has largely been won (though less so for the agricultural products of interest to our farmers).

This means so-called free-trade agreements are much more about issues that aren't the focus of economists' simple trade theory: "regulatory standards, health and safety rules, investment, banking and finance, intellectual property, labour, the environment and many other subjects besides".

International agreements in such new areas produce economic consequences that are far more ambiguous than is the case of lowering traditional border barriers, Rodrik says, naming four components of agreements that are worrying.

First, intellectual property. Since the early 1990s, the US has been pushing for its laws protecting patents, copyrights and trademarks to be copied and policed by other governments (including ours). The US just happens to be a huge exporter of intellectual property – in the form of pharmaceuticals, software, hardware, music, movies and much else.

Tighter policing of US IP monopoly restrictions pits rich countries against poor countries. And though free trade is supposed to benefit both sides, with IP the rich countries' gains are largely the poor countries' losses. (Rich Australia, however, is a huge net importer of IP).

Second, restrictions on a country's ability to manage cross-border capital flows. The US, which has world-dominating financial markets, always pushes for unrestricted inflows and outflows of financial capital, even though a string of financial crises has convinced economists it's a good thing for less-developed economies to retain some controls.

Third, "investor-state dispute settlement procedures". These were first developed to protect US multinationals from having their businesses expropriated by tin-pot governments.

Now, however, they allow foreign investors – but not local investors – to sue host governments in special arbitration tribunals and seek damages for regulatory, tax and other policy changes merely because those changes reduced their profits.

How, exactly, is this good for economic efficiency, jobs and growth?

Finally, harmonisation of regulations. Here the notion is that ensuring countries have the same regulations governing protection of the environment, working conditions, food, health and safety, and so forth makes it easier for foreign investment and trade to grow.

Trouble is, there's no natural benchmark that allows us to judge whether the regulatory standard you're harmonising with – probably America's - is inadequate, excessive or protectionist.

Rodrik concludes that "trade agreements are the result of rent-seeking, self-interested behaviour on the part of politically well-connected firms – international banks, pharmaceutical companies, multinational firms" (not to mention our farm lobby).

They may result in greater mutually beneficial trade, but they're just as likely to redistribute income from the poor to the rich under the guise of "free trade".

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Too many school leavers are off to uni

If you had a youngster leaving school, what would you encourage them to do? Get a job, go to university, or see if there was some trade that might interest them? For a growing number of parents, that's a no-brainer: off to uni with you. But maybe there should be more engaging of brains.

It's widely assumed that, these days, any reasonably secure, decently paid career must start with a university degree.

Don't be so sure. The latest projections by the federal Department of Employment (since renamed by Malcolm Turnbull's spin doctors as the Department of Jobs and Small Business) are for total employment to grow by 950,000 over the five years to 2022.

The department projects that fewer than 100,000 of those extra jobs – less than 10 per cent – will be for people with no post-school qualifications.

More than 410,000 of the jobs – 43 per cent – will be for people with a bachelor degree or higher qualification.

But that leaves more than 440,000 of the jobs – 47 per cent – for people with the diplomas or certificates (particularly the "cert III" going to trades people) that come from TAFE.

Now, even the Department of Jobs possesses no crystal ball. But these educated guesses should be enough to disabuse you of the notion there'll be no decent jobs for people who haven't gone to uni.

But graduate jobs are better paid, right? Yes, but not by as much as you may think.

Figures issued by the Australian Bureau of Statistics on Monday show that, in August last year, the median (middle) pre-tax earnings of employees with a bachelor degree were $1280 a week, whereas for employees with a cert III or IV trade qualification it was $1035 a week.

And my guess is, if we keep stuffing things up the way we have been – taking in too many uni entrants and too few TAFE entrants – that gap will narrow, with certificate-holders' wages growing faster than graduates' wages.

While we were engrossed watching the Barnaby show, Labor's shadow education minister, Tanya Plibersek, was announcing its election policy to conduct a "once-in-a-generation" review of post-school education, with a view to establishing a single, integrated tertiary education system, putting universities and TAFE on an equal footing.

Her announcement was welcomed by the ACTU and the Business Council. Both sides know well how badly we've stuffed up young people's choice between uni and TAFE.

Plibersek was hardly going to admit it, but the problem goes back to missteps by the sainted Julia Gillard when education minister, made worse by state governments of both colours.

In 2010 she replaced the system where the feds set the number of new undergraduate places they were prepared to fund, and the numbers in the various degree categories, introducing a system where uni entry numbers were "demand-driven".

After decades in which their federal funding had been squeezed, the vice-chancellors couldn't believe their luck.

Particularly those at regional and outer suburban unis went crazy, lowering their admission standards and admitting hugely increased numbers. Did they employ a lot more academics to teach this influx of less-qualified students? Not so much.

It's likely many of these extra students will struggle to reach university standards – unless, of course, exams have been made easier to accommodate them.

Those who abandon their studies may find themselves lumbered with HECS-HELP debt without much to show for it. Many would have done better going to TAFE.

Meanwhile, TAFE was being hit by sharp cuts in federal funding (no doubt to help cover the extra money for unis) and subjected to the disastrous VET experiment.

The problem was that parts of the states' union-dominated TAFE systems had become outdated and inflexible, tending to teach what it suited the staff to teach rather than the newer skills employers required and students needed to be attractive to potential employers.

Rather than reform TAFE directly, however, someone who'd read no further than chapter one of an economics textbook got the bright idea of forcing TAFE to shape up by exposing it to cleansing competition from private providers of "vocational education and training".

To attract and accommodate the new, more entrepreneurial for-profit training providers, the feds extended to the VET sector a version of the uni system of deferred loans to cover tuition fees. State governments happily played their part in this cost-saving magic answer to their TAFE problem.

The result was to attract a host of fly-by-night rip-off merchants, tricking naive youngsters into signing up for courses of dubious relevance or even existence, so the supposed trainers could get paid upfront by a federal bureaucracy that took an age to realise it was being done over.

Eventually, however, having finally woken up, the present government overreacted. Now it's much harder to get federal help with TAFE fees than uni fees.

Far too little is being done to get TAFE training properly back in business after most of the for-profit providers have faded into the night.

The Turnbull government surely knows more must be done to ensure all those who should be training for technical careers are able to do so. In last year's budget it established an (inadequate) Skilling Australians Fund, and more recently suspended the demand-driven uni funding system.

It would be better if it joined Labor in supporting a thorough-going review of our malfunctioning post-school education arrangements.

Monday, February 26, 2018

Not even the IMF is worried by our huge foreign debt

In its latest report on Australia, the International Monetary Fund says it isn't worried by our net foreign debt, now just a squeak short of $1 trillion. Just as well, since none of us ever worries about it either.

Still, it's nice to have the fund's judgment that "the external position of Australia in 2017 was assessed to be broadly consistent with medium-term fundamentals and desirable policies".

Australia's negative "net international investment position" – consisting of our net foreign debt plus net foreign equity investment – has varied between 40 and 60 per cent of gross domestic product since 1988, it says. At the end of 2016, it was equivalent to 58 per cent.

That's high. So why's the fund so relaxed? Because, it says, both the level and the trajectory of our net international investment position are "sustainable".

It has calculated that a current account deficit between 2.5 and 3 per cent of GDP, which is larger than the deficit of 1.9 per cent it expects for 2017, would allow our total net foreign liabilities to be stabilised at about 55 per cent of GDP.

Note that, for some years now, our net foreign debt actually exceeds our total foreign liabilities (debt plus equity). That's because the value of our equity investments abroad (mainly foreign businesses owned by Australian multinationals and our super funds' holdings of foreign shares) now exceeds the value of foreigners' equity investments in Australia, to the tune of about $30 billion.

The fund derives much comfort from the knowledge that our foreign liabilities (both debt and equity) are largely denominated in Australia dollars, whereas our foreign assets (debt and equity) are denominated in foreign currencies.

Get it? In a globalised world of floating currencies and free capital flows between countries, the big risk for an economy heavily indebted to the rest of the world is a sudden loss of confidence by its foreign creditors, which would be manifest in a sudden drop in its exchange rate (as we experienced at the turn of the century, when the Aussie briefly fell below US50¢).

But when our foreign liabilities are expressed in Australian dollars, the depreciation doesn't increase their Australian-dollar value, whereas it does increase the Australian-dollar value of our foreign assets, leaving our net foreign liabilities reduced.

The broader conclusion is that an indebted country able to borrow abroad in its own currency has a lot less to worry about. And the fact that foreigners are willing to lend to us in our own currency is a sign of their confidence in our good economic management.

And, of course, a big drop in our dollar does improve the international price competitiveness of our export and import-competing industries.

Speaking of which, the fund estimates that, after the heights it reached in 2011 when prices for our coal and iron ore exports were at their peak, our "real effective exchange rate" (that is, the Aussie's average value against all our major trading partners' currencies, adjusted for the difference between our inflation rate and their's) depreciated by 17 per cent between 2012 and 2015.

Since then it's appreciated by about 5 per cent, up to September last year. The fund calculates that, by then, it was about 17 per cent above its 30-year average, leaving it between zero and 10 per cent higher than it probably should be, making it "somewhat overvalued".

The fund says our gross foreign liabilities (debt plus equity) break down into about a quarter as "foreign direct investment" (foreign control of Australian businesses, starting with our mining companies), about half as "portfolio investment" (mainly our banks' borrowings abroad, plus foreigners' holdings of Australian government bonds) and a quarter of odds and sods.

So the mining investment boom was mainly funded directly by the foreign mining companies themselves, including by ploughing back much of the huge profits they made while export prices were sky high.

But this was happening when, after the global financial crisis, our banks were increasing the stability of their funding by borrowing more from local depositors and less from overseas financial markets.

What most people don't know is that most of our net foreign debt is owed by our banks, though that's less true than it was, particularly because recent years have seen more central banks buying Australian government bonds from their original Aussie holders.

Though the central bankers like our higher interest rates, it's another indication that the rest of the world isn't too worried about our financial stability.

Saturday, February 24, 2018

Current account deficit improves without us noticing

They say a watched pot never boils, so maybe it's a good thing we now spend so little time worrying about the current account deficit. While our attention's been elsewhere, it's got a lot smaller.

This news comes courtesy of the International Monetary Fund's latest country report on Australia, issued this week.

Settle back. The nation's "balance of payments" is a statement summarising all the transactions between Australians (whether businesses, governments, or individuals) and the rest of the world.

It's divided into two main accounts. First is the "current account", which summarises exports and imports of goods and services, plus inflows and outflows of income, particularly payments of dividends and interest on loans.

Then there's the "capital and financial account" which, as its name implies, summarises the inflows and outflows arising from the financial-capital dimension of the transactions included in the current account.

Because the balance of payments is calculated using the accountants' double-entry bookkeeping system of debits and credits, the balance of payments is always in balance. So if the current account sums to a deficit, the capital account must sum to a surplus of the same size.

The fund's report acknowledges that Australia almost always runs a deficit on the current account, with an offsetting surplus (net capital inflow) on the capital account.

This is because we've always invested a lot more each year (in new business equipment and structures, homes and public infrastructure) than we (businesses, households and governments) have saved each year, so we've always needed to call on the savings of foreigners to make up the gap.

Foreigners' savings come as either loans (known as "debt capital") or the purchase of shares in our businesses or real estate ("equity capital").

Worries about the size of the deficit on the current account go back to the days before 1983, when the Australian dollar's rate of exchange with other currencies was fixed at a certain level by the government.

It was the government's job to defend that fixed rate by making sure the current account deficit and the capital account surplus were never too far apart.

This "balance of payments constraint" meant that if the current deficit got too big relative to the capital surplus, the government would have to crunch the economy so as to get imports down and thus help it keep the dollar's value unchanged.

If this didn't happen, the government would suffer the ignominy of devaluing our dollar and hoping this would get the current deficit and capital surplus back together.

When, in 1983, we decided to allow the value of the dollar to "float", however, this allowed it to move up or down automatically and continuously by however much was needed to keep the current deficit and the capital surplus exactly equal at all times.

It took until some years after the float for economists to realise that, in the new, more globalised world of floating currencies and unrestricted flows of financial capital between countries, there was much less reason to worry about the excessive size of the current deficit.

The necessary "devaluation" of the exchange rate would be brought about by the foreign exchange market, not the government.

The fund's report notes that, in the 1960s and '70s, the current account deficit fluctuated around 1 and 2 per cent of gross domestic product.

During the 35 years since the float, however, the current deficit blew out, averaging about 4 per cent of GDP. In consequence, there was a huge increase in our foreign liabilities, particularly our net foreign debt – to a mere $990 billion at last count.

This is what worried many people – until the economists and politicians decided to stop talking about it and focus on something different, the federal government's budget deficit and net government debt.

But here, at last, is the news: the fund reports that, since the global financial crisis in late 2008, the current account deficit has been a lot smaller. It's expected to have been only 2 per cent in 2017.

Why the improvement? Since the current deficit and the capital surplus are two sides of the same coin, you can explain changes by looking at either side – or both. The report offers two reasons for the smaller current deficit and three for the smaller capital surplus.

On the current account, it says we suffered a larger slowdown in growth in domestic demand (spending on consumption and investment goods) following the crisis than did our major trading partners (which, remember, are mainly fast-growing Asian economies).

So our imports from them weakened by more than our exports to them.

As well, the current deficit has been reduced by a lower "net income deficit" – gone from 3 per cent of GDP before the crisis to 1.5 per cent since – because world interest rates are so much lower, and our interest payments to foreigners far exceed their interest payments to us.

On the capital account surplus – representing the amount by which national investment exceeds national saving - the report notes that households have been saving a higher proportion of their incomes since the crisis than before it (even though they're saving less now than they were a few years back).

Second, since the crisis, our companies have saved more by retaining more of their profits rather than paying them out in dividends and, despite the surge in investment spending by mining companies that's only now ending, other companies haven't been investing much until recently.

Finally, the tightening up of international capital adequacy requirements in reaction to the crisis has obliged our banks to increase their saving by retaining more of their profits.

The report foresees the current account deficit stabilising at about 2.5 per cent of GDP in the next few years – which would be almost back to its modest levels when our exchange rate was still fixed.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Governments only pretending to fix Murray-Darling

Genelle Haldane, my desk calendar tells me, has said that "only until all of mankind lives in harmony with nature can we truly decree ourselves to be an intelligent species". I've no idea who Haldane is or was, but she's right.

And you don't need to be terribly intelligent to realise it. Even most economists get it. It's blindingly obvious that the economy – that is, human production and consumption of goods and services - exists within the natural environment.

The economy is sustained by the natural resources the environment supplies to it and by the natural processes that are part of the human production process. We rely on the ecosystem also to deal with the mountains of waste and emissions we generate.

It's equally clear that economic activity can damage the environment and its ability to function. We're exploiting the environment in ways that are literally unsustainable, and must stop doing so before the damage becomes irreparable.

But if it's all so obvious, why are we having trouble doing what we know we should? Why, for instance, has more fighting broken out over our use and abuse of the Murray-Darling river system, a problem we've been told our governments – state and federal – are busy fixing?

One reason is that some people – not many of us – earn their living in ways that damage the environment, and don't want their businesses and lives disrupted by being obliged to stop.

Often, they don't bear the cost of the damage they're doing. It's borne by farmers downstream, or by the wider community, or the next generation.

Those bearing the direct and immediate cost of stopping invariably fight harder to keep going than those affected only indirectly and to a small extent.

In the case of the Murray-Darling, it's only the costs being born by downstream irrigators – and downstream water drinkers in Adelaide – that keep the fight alive.

Since it's hard to be sure when damage to the environment has reached the point of no return, there's a great temptation to say doing a bit more won't hurt. I'll be right, and the future can look after itself. Business people think that; politicians even more so.

Democracy has degenerated into a battle between vested interests. Get in there to fight for your own interests, and don't worry about whether it all adds up or what happens to those who lose out.

The political parties have succumbed to this approach. They're too busy keeping themselves in power by oiling enough of the squeakiest wheels to worry about showing leadership, about the wider community interest or about any future beyond the next election.

I don't trust any of them, nor the Murray-Darling Basin Authority they appointed, which seems to see its job as assuring us everything's fine, when clearly it isn't.

Just how bad things are – how little progress has been made, how little has been done and how much spent on subsidies to irrigators – is made clear in a declaration issued this month by a dozen academics - scientists and economists - led by professors Quentin Grafton and John Williams, of the Australian National University, who've devoted their careers to studying water systems and water policy.

The decades of degradation of the Murray-Darling Basin, exacerbated by the Millennium drought, finally led John Howard to announce a $10 billion national plan for water security (since increased to $13 billion) in the months leading up to the 2007 election. Its intention was to return levels of water extraction for irrigation to environmentally sustainable levels.

It took until late 2012 for federal and state governments to agree on a basin plan to reduce water diversion by 2,750 gigalitres a year by July 2019, even though this was known to be inadequate to meet South Australia's water needs.

So far $6 billion has been spent on "water recovery", with $4 billion going not on buying back water rights but on subsidies to irrigators to upgrade to more efficient systems which lose less water.

Trouble is, those loses were finding their way back into the system, but now they don't. This has left the irrigators better off, but it's not clear there's much benefit in greater flows down the river. And no one has checked.

Federal figures show that buying water from willing sellers is 60 per cent cheaper than building questionable engineering works.

But little money has been spent helping communities adjust to the effects of adverse changes.

There's little evidence of much environmental improvement as a result of all the money spent, and river flows have been declining since 2011.

Until the ABC's 4 Corners program in July last year, many Australians were unaware of alleged water theft, nor of grossly deficient compliance along the Darling River.

State governments don't seem to be trying hard to fulfil their commitments under the 2012 agreement. Nor did the feds seem to take much interest when Barnaby Joyce was the minister.

The blow-up over the Senate's refusal to go along with a new round of reductions in the amount by which water extraction from the river is to be reduced – supposedly to be offset by increased spending on dubious engineering projects – is just the latest in the various governments' pretence of fixing the environmental problem, while quietly looking after their irrigator mates.

Monday, February 19, 2018

Unions play their cards wrong in hopes for higher pay

You don't need to read much between the lines to suspect that Reserve Bank governor Dr Philip Lowe and his offsiders think the workers and their unions should be pushing harder for a decent pay rise.

Why else would he volunteer the opinion, in his testimony to a parliamentary committee on Friday, that average wage growth of 3.5 per cent a year would be no threat to the Reserve's inflation target?

This while employers are crying poor and Scott Morrison makes the extraordinary claim that big business needs a cut in company tax so it can afford to pay higher wages.

Why should Lowe care about how well the workers are doing? Because, as one of his assistant governors, Dr Luci Ellis, pointed out last week, our economic worries are shared by most of the other rich economies, except in one vital respect: they have reasonably strong growth in consumer spending, but we don't.

What's making our households especially parsimonious? No prize for remembering our world-beating level of household debt. Trouble is, consumer spending accounts for well over half the demand that drives economic growth.

Our economy won't be sparking on all four cylinders until consumption spending recovers, and that's not likely until our households return to annual wage growth that's a percent or more higher than inflation. That's why Lowe's encouraging workers to think bigger in their wage demands.

Even so, his proposed pay norm of 3.5 per cent, errs on the cautious side. That figure comes from 2.5 percentage points for the mid-point of the inflation target, plus 1 percentage point for the medium-term trend rate of improvement in the productivity of labour.

But 4 per cent a year would be nearer the mark because the trend rate of productivity improvement is nearer 1.5 per cent a year.

Even so, Lowe is acknowledging a point employers and conservative politicians have obfuscated for decades: national productivity improvement justifies pay rises above inflation, not just nominal increases to compensate for inflation (as is happening at present).

Lowe's concern that the present annual wage growth of about 2 per cent not be accepted as "the new norm" is an important point from behavioural economics: rather than calculate the appropriate size of pay rises based on the specific circumstances of the particular enterprise, as textbooks assume, there's a strong tendency for bargainers to settle for whatever rise most other people are getting.

That is, there's more psychology – more "animal spirits", as Lowe likes to say; more herd behaviour – and less objective assessment, in wage fixing than it suits many employers and mainstream economists to admit.

Which implies that, if the unions would prefer a wage norm closer to 4 per cent than 2 per cent, they should be doing a better job of managing their troops' fears and expectations.

In the Reserve's search for explanations of the four-year period of weak wage growth, it puts much emphasis on increased competitive pressure, present or prospective.

But in her speech last week, Ellis qualified her reference to the more challenging "competitive landscape" by adding ". . . or at least how it is perceived". Just so. It's about perceptions of reality.

It's easier for firms worried about a future of more intense competition to take the precaution of awarding minimal wage rises if they can play on their employees' own fears about losing their jobs to Asian sweatshops or robots or the internet.

There's little sign in the figures for business profitability that most firms couldn't afford much bigger pay rises than they're granting. But it's no skin off the employers' nose if their fears of future adversity prove exaggerated. Only their workers had to pay for the excessive fearfulness.

Workers - particularly those in industries with enterprise bargaining – are meekly accepting smaller pay rises than their employers' circumstances could sustain because the union movement has done too little to counter the alarmists telling their members they've lost the power to ask for more.

They've played along with the nonsense about 40 per cent of jobs being lost to robots, and that there's nothing to stop greedy businesses from making us all members of some imaginary "gig economy".

Worse, they've exaggerated the spread of "precarious employment" and encouraged the still-speculative belief that weak wage growth is explained almost exclusively by anti-union industrial relations "reform", which has stripped workers' bargaining power to the point where the right to strike has been lost.

Presumably, their game is to advantage their Labor mates by heightening disaffection with the Turnbull government, but this is coming at the expense of the economy's recovery, not to mention workers' pay packets.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

How our economic prospects turn on wage growth

You know the world's behaving strangely when you hear a heavy from the central bank saying it's expecting more "progress" on the "turnaround in inflation", then realise they're hoping inflation will go higher.

That's just what Dr Luci Ellis, the Reserve Bank's third heaviest heavy, told a bunch of economists at a conference this week.

Why would anyone hope for prices to be rising faster than they are? Not so much because higher prices are a good thing in themselves, as because rising inflation is usually a sign of an economy that's growing strongly and keeping unemployment low.

By contrast, very low inflation – say, below 2 per cent – is usually a sign of an economy that's not growing strongly, with unemployment either rising or higher than it should be.

Ellis' remarks are a reminder that the economy's biggest problem at present is weak growth in wages. She knows that if prices started rising faster, the most likely explanation would be higher growth in wages, which employers were passing on to their customers by raising their prices.

What could oblige employers to increase the wages they pay? Their need to retain or attract more workers – particularly skilled workers – at a time when the demand for labour was rising, caused typically by increased demand for the goods and services businesses were employing people to produce.

The point to note here is that the Reserve's mental model of inflation is of what economists used to call "demand-pull" inflation. It's simple: the prices of goods and services rise when the demand for them is outpacing their supply.

Note, too, that this involves an inverse relationship between inflation and unemployment: when one goes up, the other goes down, and vice versa. Economists call this the "Phillips curve", named after its discoverer, Bill Phillips, a Kiwi economist.

Ellis confirmed that, although the economy (real gross domestic product) grew at a trend rate of just 2.4 per cent over the year to September, the Reserve's forecast that growth will pick up to about 3¼ per cent over this year and next remains unchanged.

This will involve a pick-up in wage growth and inflation, she said.

The Reserve is more confident of these forecasts than it was when it first made them in early November. Even so, Ellis admitted to some particular "uncertainties": how much production capacity in the economy is going spare at present, and how much, and how quickly, wage growth and inflation will pick up as spare capacity declines.

How much unused production capacity remains in the economy matters because, until it's used up, the economy can grow much faster than it can once the economy's at full capacity – full employment of labour and capital – without this causing inflation pressure to build.

Once the economy is at full employment, how fast rising demand can cause the economy to grow without also causing higher inflation is determined by the economy's "potential" growth rate – that is, by the rate at which rising participation in the labour force, increasing investment in capital equipment and improving productivity are adding to the economy's ability to produce more goods and services.

That is, how fast potential supply is growing. So the economy's potential growth rate sets the medium-term speed limit on how fast demand can grow before causing a build-up in inflation.

The Reserve's most recent estimate is that our potential growth rate has slowed to 2.75 per cent a year (mainly because of the retirement of the bulge of baby boomers).

But how do we measure how much spare production capacity we have at any time? We measure the spare capacity of our mines, factories and offices mainly by looking at answers to questions in the regular surveys of business confidence.

That's physical capital. In the labour market, idle production capacity is measured by the rate of unemployment.

But it's wrong to think full employment is reached when the unemployment rate falls to zero. That's partly because, at any point in time, there will always be some workers moving between jobs (called "frictional" unemployment).

Also because of a much higher rate of "structural" unemployment. The structure of the economy is always changing, with some industries expanding and some contracting. This increases the number of workers who don't have the particular skills employers are seeking, or who do have them but live far away from where the job vacancies are.

In the old days, there were a lot of low-skilled jobs that could be filled by people who had left school early and hadn't learnt much. These days, there a far fewer of those jobs, so people with inadequate skills are often out of a job.

Economists measure full employment by estimating the rate to which unemployment can fall before shortages of skilled labour cause employers to bid up wages and thus cause price inflation to accelerate.

They call this the NAIRU – the non-accelerating-inflation rate of unemployment – and the Reserve's latest estimate is that it's "around 5 per cent". It says "around" because every economist's estimate is different, so it's wrong to be too dogmatic.

This week's trend figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics for the labour force in January show the unemployment rate has been steady at 5.5 per cent since July. That's well above the NAIRU.

Over the same six months, however, employment has grown by almost 180,000, or 1.5 per cent, causing the rate at which people are participating in the labour force to rise by 0.4 points to 65.6 per cent – its highest for seven years and a record high for participation by women.

If the laws of supply and demand still hold – a safe bet – this unusually strong growth in the demand for labour should lead to higher wages and then higher prices sooner or later. But Ellis warns it's likely to be "quite gradual".

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Private health insurance is a con job

You won't believe it, but my birthday was on Tuesday and I got a present from the federal government. I also got a card from my state member, sending his "very best wishes" for reaching such an "important milestone" in my life.

I almost wrote back asking him to alert the Queen to be standing by in 30 years' time. Instead, my ever-sceptical mind told me the pollies have awarded themselves privileged access to the private information we're obliged to give the electoral commission.

So, what was my fabulous federal birthday present? Apparently, I'm now so ancient and infirm I get a bigger private health insurance tax rebate.

I never tire of pointing out that, contrary to what people say, our cost of living, overall, has not been rising strongly, unless you regard 2 per cent a year as "soaring".

It is true, however, that a few, easily noticed prices have risen a lot – including the government-regulated price of private health insurance.

My "important milestone" reminds me that people have been complaining about – and I've been writing about – the high cost of private health insurance for as long as I've been an economic journalist.

And the opposition leader of the day – Bill Shorten, as it happens – hasn't resisted the temptation to exploit people's disaffection by putting it firmly on the agenda for this maybe-there'll-be-an-election year.

The popular view is that everyone needs private insurance – if only they could afford it. Which about half of us can't.

Opinion polling by Essential has found that, although a clear majority of people believe "health insurance isn't worth the money you pay for it", 83 per cent of people believe that "the government should do more to keep private health insurance affordable".

The former opinion is right; the latter is delusional. Governments have been trying to keep health insurance affordable on and off for decades, while its cost just keeps climbing.

Why? Because it's a self-defeating process. The more you do to make insurance affordable, the easier you make it for the people running the health funds, the owners of private hospitals and the surgeons and other procedural specialists who work in hospitals, to raise their prices and fatten their profits.

Which the pollies fully understand.

In the old days, health funds were owned by their members, except for the government-owned Medibank Private. These days, three of the biggest funds – Medibank Private, Bupa and NIB – are for-profit providers, thus increasing the pressure on the government to allow big price rises and reducing the chance of getting value for money.

As Ian McAuley, of Canberra University, has written, from a policy perspective health insurance is a high-cost and inequitable way to fund healthcare.

Only 85 cents of every dollar passing through private insurance makes its way to paying for healthcare. And only if you can afford it do you share in the government subsidies taxpayers provide.

From the customers' perspective, it's a con job. Most people under 60 get back only a fraction of what they pay. Often when you do claim you don't get what you expected, because you don't get choice of doctor or a private room, you're caught by ever-changing exclusions from your policy, or because no one warned you about a huge gap payment.

Many buy insurance to avoid waiting times for elective surgery. But if private insurance didn't exist, surgeons would have to earn more of their income from public hospitals and waiting times would be shorter. It creates the problem it purports to solve.

Health insurance is such bad value that, when John Howard sought to prop up the private system, he had to make it subject to a tax rebate. When that didn't work he imposed a Medicare levy surcharge on better-off people who don't have insurance, and imposed escalating prices for people who aren't in a fund by the time they're 31 (which is a con trick on the innumerate).

When the Hawke government reintroduced Medicare, it intended that the universal, taxpayer-funded provision of high quality hospital and medical care would make private insurance unnecessary. Those who preferred the snob status of private care could pay for it from their own pocket.

This is why Labor long opposed public support for private insurance. Shorten, however, has taken a populist line, carrying on about the big increases in premiums and promising to cap them at 2 per cent a year for two years.

Another con. The profit-driven funds would respond either by excluding more procedures from coverage, or by demanding catch-up increases once the cap was lifted (as happened last time).

Private insurance is so counter-productive and so unfair that the best thing would be to end the subsidies and use the saving to improve the performance of the public system. (Howard's claim that his tax rebate would reduce the pressure on public hospitals was always just a fig-leaf to hide his attempt to prop up the two-class system.)

A less politically controversial alternative was first proposed in an Abbott government federalism discussion paper: use the saving to introduce a commonwealth hospital benefit, where the same amount would be paid to the hospital someone chose to go to, whether public or private.

Private hospital beds would stay in the system – at a price fixed by the government – but the parasitic private funds would be out on their own.

Monday, February 12, 2018

Economists do little to promote bank competition

The royal commission into banking, whose public hearings start on Monday, won't get a lot of help from the Productivity Commission's report on competition within the sector. It's very limp-wristed.

The report's inability to deny the obvious - that competition in banking is weak, that the big four banks have considerable pricing power, abuse the trust of their customers and are excessively profitable – won it an enthusiastic reception from the media.

Trouble is, its distorted explanation of why competitive pressure is so weak and its unconvincing suggestions for fixing the problem. It offered one good (but oversold) proposal, one fatuous proposal (to abolish the four pillars policy because other laws make it "redundant") and a lot of fiddling round the edges.

It placed most of the blame for weak competition on the Australian Prudential Regulation Authority, egged on by the Reserve Bank, for its ham-fisted implementation of international rules requiring banks to hold more capital, and for its use of "macro-prudential" measures to slow the housing boom by capping the banks' ability to issue interest-only loans on investment properties.

The banks had passed the costs of both measures straight on to their customers. It amounted to an overemphasis on financial stability (ensuring we avoid a financial crisis like the Americans and Europeans suffered) at the expense of reduced competitive pressure on the banks.

This argument is exaggerated. Even so, it's quite likely that, in their zeal to minimise the risk of a crisis, APRA and the Reserve don't worry as much as they should about keeping banking as competitive as possible.

The report's proposal that an outfit such as the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission be made the bureaucratic champion of banking competition, to act as a countervailing force on the committee that makes decisions about prudential supervision, is a good one.

The report's second most important explanation for weak competition is inadequacies in the information banks are required to provide to their customers. Really? That simple, eh?

See what's weird about this? It's blaming the banks' bad behaviour on the regulators, not the banks. If only the bureaucrats hadn't overregulated the banks, competition would be much stronger.

Why would the bureaucrats in the Productivity Commission be blaming other bureaucrats for the banks' misdeeds? Because this is the prejudiced, pseudo-economic ideology that has blighted the thinking of Canberra's "economic rationalist" econocrats for decades.

Whatever the problem in whatever market, it can never be blamed on business, because businesses merely respond rationally (that is, greedily) to whatever incentives they face. If those incentives produce bad outcomes, this can only be because market incentives have been distorted by faulty government intervention.

Market behaviour is always above criticism; government intervention in markets is always sus.

When the report asserted that the big banks had used the cap on interest-only loans as an excuse for raising interest rates, and would pass the new bank tax straight on to customers, there was no hint of criticism of them for doing so. They were merely doing what you'd expect.

In shifting the blame for these failures onto politicians and bureaucrats, the report fails to admit that the distortion that makes interest-only loans a worry in the first place is Australia's unusual tolerance of negative gearing and our excessive capital gains tax discount.

In criticising the bank tax, the report brushes aside the case for taxpayers' recouping from the banks the benefit the banks gain from their implicit government guarantee, and the case for taxing the big banks' super-normal profits (economic rent), doing so in a way that stops the impost being shunted from shareholders to customers.

Here we see a hint that the rationalists' private-good/public-bad prejudgement​ is only a step away from Treasury being "captured" by the bankers it's supposed to be regulating in the public's interest, in just the way it (rightly) accuses other departments of being captured.

The report's criticism of existing interventions would be music to the bankers' ears. Its fiddling-round-the-edges proposals for increasing competitive pressure have one thing in common: minimum annoyance to the bankers.

The Productivity Commission's rationalists can't admit that the fundamental reason for weak competition in banking comes from the market itself: as with many industries, the presence of huge economies of scale naturally (and sensibly) leads to markets dominated by a few big firms.

Market power and a studied ability to avoid price competition come with the territory of oligopoly. Have the rationalists spent much time thinking about sophisticated interventions to encourage price competition in oligopolies? Nope.

Have they learnt anything from 30 years of behavioural economics? Nope. When you've learnt the 101 textbook off by heart, what more do you need?

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Indigenous middle class arises despite slow closing of the gap

It's easy for prime ministers to make big promises at some emotion-charge moment of national attention, but a lot harder to keep those promises when the media spotlight (and that prime minister) are long gone.

I could be alluding to the promise Kevin Rudd made that the federal government would never forget the needs of the victims of Victoria's Black Saturday bushfires in 2009, but I'm referring to the promise he made a year earlier, at the time of his apology to the stolen generations, to Close the Gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.

The gap needing to be closed – and the commitments Rudd made – referred particularly to health, education and employment.

But all of those gaps contribute to another one: the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous incomes. What's been happening there?

I'm glad you asked because Dr Nicholas Biddle and Francis Markham, of the Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research at the Australian National University, have just written a paper on the subject.

And, on the face of it anyway, the news is reasonably good.

First, however, some background. You won't be surprised that there is a gap between the two group's incomes. But it's worth remembering that gap has existed since the early days of European settlement of the Wide Brown Land.

To be euphemistic, it's a product of our colonial history. To be franker, Indigenous people were systematically and violently deprived of access to economic resources, especially land, a process that continued until well into the second half of the 20th century.

And though Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people engaged with the settler-colonial economy in many ways, underpayment or theft of wages was systematic in many parts of the country until the 1950s and '60s.

This colonial legacy endures into the present, Markham and Biddle say.

They quote another academic saying that "Aboriginal people, families, households and communities do not just happen to be poor. Just like socioeconomic advantage, socioeconomic deprivation accrues and accumulates across and into the life and related health chances of individuals, families and communities" (my emphasis).

The authors use the censuses of 2006, 2011 and 2016 to study what's been happening to the level and distribution of incomes within the Indigenous population, and between it and the non-Indigenous population.

The good news is that the median (the one dead in the middle) disposable equivalised​ household income for the Indigenous population rose from 62 per cent of non-Indigenous income in 2011 to 66 per cent in 2016. ("Equivalised" just means adjusted to take account of differences in the size and composition of households.)

That's the highest the percentage has been since reliable data started in 1981. And, in fact, it's been trending up since then.

There's progress, too, on the Indigenous "cash poverty rate", which measures the proportion of Indigenous incomes falling below 50 per cent of the median disposable equivalised household income of the nation's entire population.

So, as is usual in rich countries, it's a measure of relative poverty (how some incomes compare with others) rather than absolute poverty (whether people's incomes are high enough to stop them being destitute).

It's called "cash poverty" in recognition of the truth that there's more to poverty than how much money you have. As well, it acknowledges that no account is taken of "non-cash income", such as the value of food gained by hunting and gathering in remote areas.

Remember, however, that there are also costs involved in hunting. And the prices of basic necessities are much higher in remote areas.

Measured this way, the Indigenous poverty rate has declined slowly over past decades. More recently, it's gone from 33.9 per cent in 2006 to 32.7 per cent in 2011 and 31.4 per cent in 2016.

Sorry, that's where the good news runs out.

For a start, the rate of improvement is far too slow. Markham and Biddle calculate that if the gap kept narrowing at the rate it did over the five years to 2016, the medians for Indigenous and non-Indigenous incomes would be equal by 2060. That fast, eh?

Now get this: while the gap between the two groups has been narrowing, the gap within the Indigenous group has been widening.

If you take the weekly disposable personal incomes of all Indigenous people aged 15 or older, adjust them for inflation, rank them from lowest to highest, then divide them all into 10 groups of 10 per cent each, you discover some disturbing things.

Between 2011 and 2016, the average income of those in the top decile rose by $75 a week, compared with $32 a week for those in the middle decile. Individuals in the bottom decile had no income (possibly because they were students or home minding kids), while those in the second and third lowest deciles saw their incomes fall.

But what explains this growing gap between the top and the bottom within the Indigenous population?

Turns out it's explained by where an Indigenous person lives. Household disposable incomes are highest – and have grown fastest - in the major cities, with a median of $647 a week, but then it's downhill all the way through inner regional areas, outer regional, and remote, until you get to "very remote", where the median income is $389 a week.

Over the five years to 2016, the real median income in remote areas hardly changed, and in very remote areas it actually fell by $12 a week.

Got your head around all that? Now try this: despite the weakness in median incomes in remote (but not very remote) areas, the incomes of the top 20 per cent are higher and have been growing relatively strongly.

Get it? However poorly we're doing on Closing the Gap, we are getting an Indigenous middle class.