Monday, September 24, 2018

Frydenberg must lift Treasury’s game on spending control

I read that our new Treasurer, Josh Frydenberg, has already understood the chief requirement of his office: the ability to say no to ministerial colleagues wanting to spend more on 101 worthy projects.

Sorry, Josh, but if you’re hoping to be a successful treasurer in the years beyond the coming election, you – and your Treasury minions - will need to do much better than that.

It takes strength, but zero brain power, to say no to everything in the belief that, though a fair bit will get through, enough won’t to keep the budget on track for the ever-growing surpluses projected from 2019-20 onwards.

As we’re reminded by the Parliamentary Budget Office’s report on those projections out to 2028-29, the Abbott-Turnbull government has done a good job in restraining the growth in its spending so far.

Whereas in the 14 years to 2006-07 the Keating and Howard governments racked up real spending growth averaging 3.2 per cent a year, in this government’s term real spending growth so far has averaged just 1.5 per cent a year.

Trouble is, it’s hard to see any government maintaining such an extraordinary degree of restraint – repression? – for many years to come. That’s particularly likely to be so once the budget’s back in surplus and the net public debt is falling.

(A tell-tale sign of the been-there-done-that syndrome is Scott Morrison “doing a Swanny”: portraying the forecast return to tiny surplus by June 2020 as already in the bag.)

After such a period of discipline, the pressure to let out the budgetary stays will be huge. Yet the forward estimates for the four years to 2021-22 imply real spending growth averaging just 1.8 per cent.

This is composed mainly of increases in spending on the national disability insurance scheme of more than 0.6 percentage points of gross domestic product, more than 0.1 points for defence and almost 0.1 points for aged care, offset by falls of about 0.2 points each for road and rail infrastructure, pharmaceutical benefits, and the family tax benefit, and falls of about 0.1 points each for the disability support pension, veterans and public debt interest payments, plus a fall of 0.3 points for administrative costs.

The projected increases are easier to believe than the projected falls. Those for spending on infrastructure and pharmaceutical benefits are creative accounting. The tougher criteria for the disability pension won’t withstand the rise in the age pension age to 67, nor any economic downturn.

And, of course, the huge saving in public administrative spending assumes that after more than a decade of annual cuts to staffing costs, the “efficiency dividend” can roll for another four years without any noticeable loss of efficiency.

The Coalition’s rule that ministers proposing new spending programs must also propose equivalent savings from within their portfolio seems to do most to explain the low real growth in spending overall.

But this, too, is a discipline that will be ever-harder to sustain for a further decade. The way Morrison is dishing out dollars to fix political pressure points, it’s likely to take a beating just between now and the election.

What worries me is the way Treasury and Finance’s approach to spending control is so old-school, so blunt-instrument, so hand-to-mouth, so no-brainer.

Just Say No. Just tell every department to find savings, and cut their admin costs by yet another 2.5 per cent, then look the other way while they make short-term savings at the expense of our future.

Treasury and Finance see spending control as an act of being tough and unreasoning and opportunist, not one involving any science or learning or expertise.

It’s as though, stuck on a sheep run in the middle of NSW, obsessing about macro-economic management, they’ve been oblivious to the advances in spending control techniques made by applied micro-economists at universities around Australia.

There’s the campaign of Dr Richard Tooth (from a consulting firm) for price signals to encourage better driving, there’s Professor Bruce Chapman’s invention of the income-contingent loan which, as Professor Linda Botterill keeps saying, could be applied to drought loans and much else.

There’s all the work health economists put into the developing case-mix funding of hospitals, and the unending stream of smart suggestions coming from the nation’s leading health economist, Dr Stephen Duckett, of the Grattan Institute.

Then there’s former professor Andrew Leigh’s championing of using randomised control trials to discover what spending works and what doesn’t, there’s more rigorous and transparent use of benefit-cost analysis to evaluate infrastructure projects, there’s greater use of “behavioural insights” teams, there’s more emphasis on preventive medicine and there’s exploiting the long-term budgetary savings offered by greater investment in early childhood development.

Now, many of these advances have been taken up, at least in some modest way. But, to my knowledge, because they’ve been pushed by other people, not because Treasury and Finance have shown much interest. They’re asleep at the wheel.
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Saturday, September 22, 2018

Never mind carbon, let’s put a price on bad driving

What would an economist know about road safety? More than you’d think. Certainly, more than the road safety establishment thinks.

Or maybe they just don’t want to disturb the insurance companies’ nice little earner from compulsory third-party car insurance.

The economist in question is Dr Richard Tooth, a consultant with Sapere Research Group, who’s been working for some years on his pet project of using economics to reduce the road toll (with, at one point, some funding from Austroads, the peak body representing road transport agencies).

Over the decades we’ve had much success in using seat belts, random breath testing and safer cars to bring down the road toll.

But we seem to have run out of ideas. The national death toll has started going back up. Last year 1226 people lost their lives on Australia’s roads.

The newly released report of the inquiry into national road safety for the coming decade (which says little about insurance) reminds us that at least another 36,000 people are admitted to hospital each year.

“Often these are life-changing injuries, such as paralysis, brain injuries, amputations or loss of sight,” it says.

Tooth thinks there’s an obvious improvement we could make that wouldn’t cost much more initially, and would actually save money once it started affecting people’s driving habits. It’s to base a driver’s annual motor vehicle insurance premium on how risky their driving is.

Viewed the way economists see things, there are two key problems. As behavioural economists (and social psychologists) have long known, humans tend to be overconfident.

Almost all of us think we’re good drivers, it’s just those other drivers that are causing the problem.

The second problem is that, when we drive badly and cause accidents, we don’t bear the full cost of the damage we do. Economists call the part we don’t pay for ourselves a “negative externality”.

And if someone else is paying, why should we worry? Economists call this “moral hazard”.

Insurance is obviously a good idea, a way of sharing risk. Those people whose house didn’t burn down make a small contribution to the cost of building a new house for the person whose did.

The downside of all insurance, however, is moral hazard. Why should I worry much about ensuring my house doesn’t burn down, it’s insured?

Insurers have ways – usually fairly primitive – of trying to reduce moral hazard. Say, you get a discount on your premium if you have smoke alarms fitted. And on other insurance policies there’s a “deductable”, where you bear the first part of the claim yourself. And, of course, the no-claim bonus.

With car insurance, however, a lot of the cost of accidents is borne by neither the insurance company nor the policy holder. A fair bit is borne by the general taxpayer – the need to maintain many traffic police, ambulances and hospital emergency departments.

But the biggest “cost” is one that’s hard to measure in dollars but is very real: the grief, pain and suffering caused by avoidable deaths and disablement.

Whatever price we put on a human life, it’s safe to assume it would be a whole lot higher than $200,000 – which is what Tooth says is the average cost paid via insurance.

He’s concerned that our system of dividing highly regulated compulsory third-party insurance (which covers injury to people) off from general vehicle insurance (which covers damage to property, plus other things such as theft) makes it hard to give drivers a greater monetary incentive to avoid driving riskily.

With a few exceptions, the state-government run CTP schemes charge people a flat premium that bears no relationship to how carefully they drive. Which, when you think about it (as an economist would), means the schemes effectively tax the low-risk drivers so as to subsidise the high-risk drivers.

That, of course, is the wrong way round if we’re trying to discourage rather than encourage risky driving. And that’s Tooth’s point.

He says we should do what most other advanced countries do and allow insurance companies to offer policies that cover third-party bodily injury in a package with property damage and other risks. The CTP component could remain compulsory and the other components remain voluntary.

This would allow the companies to charge premiums based on the individual’s assessed risk of having an accident, as is happening increasingly in Britain. It would better align insurance companies’ motivation to reduce claims with the community’s desire to reduce road death and injury.

It would mean higher premiums for drivers who were young - or very old. But technological advances have made it possible to assess risk more accurately than just via the driver’s age.

People using “advanced driver assistance systems”, such as autonomous emergency braking, would pay less. Young people driving cars with such assistance systems would get bigger discounts than older drivers.

And then there’s “telematics”, such as onboard devices that record the way a car has been driven – hard braking, swerving and so forth. Such UBI – usage-based insurance – is very big in Britain.

According to Tooth, research shows this can reduce crash risk by at least 20 per cent overall, and by up to 40 per cent among young drivers.

He believes risk-based insurance premiums can influence whether people drive (young people may delay becoming drivers, with ride-sharing apps helping this choice), what they drive (safer cars or cars with added assistance systems) and how and when they drive.

But Tooth would like us to go one better than the Brits (and anyone else). The government could “internalise the externality” of the intangible costs of death and disablement on society by imposing a commensurate charge on insurance companies, which they would pass on to customers having accidents in which they’re at fault.

The government could use the proceeds to build safer roads or for some other worthy cause. The real purpose of such a tax would be to encourage people to avoid it by driving more carefully.

Is this ringing any bells? Putting a price on bad driving follows the same logic as putting a price on carbon.
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Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Aged care abuses the latest of many economic mistakes

How will the era of “neoliberalism” end – with a bang or a whimper? With a royal commission – or three. But don’t worry. Royal commissions always make a lot of noise.

With the memory of the government’s embarrassing delay in yielding to public pressure for a royal commission into banking still fresh, Scott Morrison got in before the Four Corners expose to announce a royal commission into aged care.

Who’s to say this will be the last? A royal commission into electricity and gas prices is mooted. Maybe sometime in the future we'll see a royal commission into problems with the National Disability Insurance Scheme.

To Morrison, the aged care commission has the advantage of kicking a political hot potato into the long grass of the next parliamentary term. “How can you claim we’re doing nothing? We’ve called an inquiry.”

Actually, the neglect and mistreatment of old people in nursing homes has been the subject of so many inquiries and reports – going back to the kerosene baths in 1997 – that only an inquiry of the status of a royal commission could have satisfied the many complainants.

But I wonder if the increasing resort to royal commissions has a deeper economic and political significance.

A key part of the era of what we used to call “micro-economic reform” has been to take services formerly provided by governments – and sometimes charities – and pay profit-making businesses to provide them.

Among the first of these “outsourcing” schemes was the Howard government’s decision to abolish the Commonwealth Employment Service and contract a network of charitable and for-profit firms to help the jobless find work.

Then came the expansion of childcare to for-profit providers, the move by successive federal and state governments to make technical and further education “contestable” by private providers, and the decision to open the provision of aged care to for-profit providers.

Plus the decision to turn five state electricity monopolies into a single, competitive national electricity market.

The reformers were sure these changes would lead to big improvements. As everyone knows, the public sector is lazy and wasteful, whereas competition and the profit motive make the private sector very efficient.

The reform would allow governments to reduce their spending on the services they subsidised, even while the public got better service. Competition from private providers would oblige church and charitable providers to lift their game.

And introducing market forces meant the providers of government-subsidised services didn’t need to be closely regulated. As any economics textbook tells you, it would be irrational for providers to mistreat their customers because they’d soon lose them to their many rivals.

It hasn’t worked out the way the reformers hoped. We won’t know whether non-government provision of job-search services is working well until unemployment surges in the next recession. But we do know that childcare was thrown into crisis when one private provider, ABC Learning, which had been allowed to acquire about half the nation’s childcare centres, went belly up.

We know that making vocational education and training “contestable” was a costly disaster, as many private providers conned youngsters into signing up for unsuitable courses (and debt).

We know that turning electricity from government monopolies to a national market has seen the retail cost of power double in a decade.

And now it’s aged care where mounting complaints about neglect and abuse can no longer be fobbed off.

Providers have been required to make public so little evidence of staffing ratios and other indicators of performance that we don’t yet know whether neglect and abuse is greater among for-profit or non-profit providers.

The notorious Oakden nursing home in South Australia, after all, was state-government run. But our experience of private operators gaming government subsidies and cutting quality to increase profits in other areas of outsourcing makes me think I know where the greatest problems lie.

And the way the announcement of the commission prompted steep falls in the share prices of four aged-care companies listed on the stock exchange suggests investors share my suspicions.

According to research by the Tax Justice Network, if you measure it by number of beds, non-profit providers make up about half the “market”, with the six biggest for-profit providers accounting for more than 20 per cent.

The biggest is Bupa (owned by a British mutual), followed by Opal (part owned by AMP), Regis, Estia and Japara (all ASX listed), and Allity.

We do know that the number of serious-risk notices given to providers jumped by 170 per cent in the past financial year, and significant non-compliance increased by 292 per cent. This says there’s been a sudden increase not in misbehaviour, but in vigilance by the authorities.

Why are unannounced visits and compliance audits only now in vogue? Good question.

Aged care is just the latest instance of the failure of contestability and “marketisation” to deliver government services satisfactorily – a great embarrassment to econocrats and governments of both colours.

The chickens are coming home to roost and the uproar is threatening the Coalition’s survival. Calling a royal commission with all its shock revelations may be the answer to the politicians’ problem.

It changes the question from “how could you have been so naive as to believe competition would save customers from being abused?” to “what are you doing to punish these bastards and stop it happening?”.

It also tells generous donors to party coffers the government's had no choice but to let them go.
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Monday, September 17, 2018

Long way to go to get banks back in their box

Have we learnt from the mistakes of the global financial crisis, now 10 years ago? Yes, but not nearly as much as we should have.

Of course, the answer is different for the Americans and the other major advanced economies to what it is for us, who managed to avoid bank failures and the Great Recession.

Globally, much has been done under the Basel rules to strengthen requirements for banks to hold more capital and liquidity, reducing the likelihood of them getting themselves into difficulties.

It would be naive, however, to imagine this has eliminated the possibility of any future financial crisis. Recurring financial crises are a feature of capitalist economies through the centuries.

All we can do is work on reducing their frequency and severity. On that score, the rich countries could have done a better job of rationalising the division of responsibility between the various buck-passing authorities supposed to be regulating their financial system.

The root cause of the GFC was ideological: the belief that the more lightly regulated the banks and other financial players were, the better they’d serve the wider economy’s interests, allied with the belief that their greater freedom wouldn’t tempt them to take excessive risks because that would be contrary to their interests.

Wrong. This badly misread the perverse incentives bank executives faced – heads I win big bonuses; tails my shareholders do their dough – and the way the heat of competition can induce business people to do things they know they shouldn’t, not to mention the “moral hazard” of knowing that, should the worst come to the worst, the government will have no choice but to bail us out.

As actually happened. In the North Atlantic economies, politicians and central bankers did the right thing in rescuing failing banks. Had they not, the whole financial system would have collapsed and the loss of wealth and employment would have been many times greater than it was.

But don’t try telling that to a public that watched governments racking up billions in debt to save banks and bankers, who then proceeded to turn out on the street people who could no longer afford the mortgages they should never have been granted.

The US authorities’ mistake was failing to draw a clear distinction between saving banks to protect their customers and stop the system collapsing, and punishing the failed banks’ managers and shareholders for screwing up.

Why didn’t they? In short, because the banks are too powerful politically.

Which brings us to Australia’s response to the GFC and how we escaped the Great Recession. Our big banks didn’t fall over because our econocrats never believed the banks wouldn’t be silly enough to take risks that could endanger their survival. Our banks didn’t buy toxic assets because our prudential supervisors wouldn’t let ‘em.

That didn’t stop the GFC dealing a blow to business and consumer confidence, such that real gross domestic product contracted by 0.5 per cent in December quarter 2008. That we avoided recession is thanks to the quick action of the Reserve Bank in slashing interest rates and the Rudd government in applying huge fiscal stimulus, which stopped the economy unravelling.

At another level, however, the econocrats did believe the banks should be lightly regulated in their relations with customers, and could be trusted not to mistreat them. Outfits such as the Australian Securities and Investments Commission had their funding cut and were given the nod not to be overactive.

The absence of a crash meant our governments didn’t learn that, in the non-textbook world, market forces can cause, as well as limit, the mistreatment of customers. Our own banks’ great political influence reinforced this naivety, prompting governments to wave aside the mounting evidence of bank misconduct and the public’s mounting disquiet and distrust.

So, in a sense, the banking royal commission is the product of our earlier failure to learn what we should have from the GFC.

But there’s a much broader lesson we’ve yet to learn from the crisis, one that applies to all the advanced economies. It’s that the banking and “financial services” sector is far bigger than we need, is bloated by rent-seeking, involves many times more trading between banks (a form of gambling) than trading between banks and real-economy customers, and is thus a waste of economic resources.

When financial services’ share of our economy (and most other advanced countries’) was expanding rapidly in the decades preceding the crisis, economists told us we were benefiting from financial innovation and advances in the management of financial risk.

The GFC revealed that rationale as about 95 per cent bulldust. To misquote Keynes, the economy would be better off if most of the people making big bucks in finance got useful jobs such as being dentists.
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Saturday, September 15, 2018

Morrison optimistic we’ll get much bracket creep

The mystery revealed. Consider this: how does the Morrison government cut income and company taxes and avoid big cuts in government spending, but still project ever-rising budget surpluses and ever-falling net public debt over the next decade?

With publication of the Parliamentary Budget Office’s report on the May budget’s medium-term projections, we now know. Short answer: by assuming loads more bracket creep between now and then.

You may remember that, at the time of budget, I was highly critical of the rosy forecasts and assumptions used in the budget’s “forward estimates” from 2018-19 to 2021-22, and then in its “medium-term projections” out for a further seven years to 2028-29.

They showed the budget’s underlying cash balance returning to a tiny surplus in 2019-20, then the surplus growing steadily to about 1.3 per cent of gross domestic product by the end of the decade.

As a consequence, the government’s net debt would peak in June this year at 18.6 per cent of GDP, then fall sharply to just 3 per cent in 2028-29 as the annual surpluses were used to repay debt.

There you go. Big cuts in company tax and a plan for three cuts in income tax, but we’ll soon be back in the black and eliminating the debt. I thought then it sounded too good to be true.

The budget office, which is independent of the government, is required by its Act to accept the government’s forecasts and macro-economy assumptions for its projections. But the budget papers gave no details of how, according to the government’s projections, the budget surplus would grow from 0.8 per cent of GDP in 2021-22 to 1.3 per cent in 2028-29.

This is what the office’s report tells us. It does so using its own modelling of each of the main taxes and 23 big spending programs, while sticking to the government’s macro-economy assumptions.

The report’s projections show total receipts ending the seven years where they began, at 25.5 per cent of GDP, while total spending grows more slowly than GDP so that it falls from 24.7 per cent to 24.1 per cent.

This implies that all the projected improvement in the budget surplus is expected to come from many years of amazingly disciplined spending restraint. But such a conclusion misses an obvious question: how can total receipts stay growing as fast as the economy is projected to grow when the government is planning to cut the rate of company tax by a sixth (from 30 to 25 per cent) and have three cuts in income tax?

Ah, that’s the report’s big reveal. Its projections show company tax collections declining as a proportion of GDP and “other receipts” also declining, but with this being exactly offset by the growth in income tax collections.

And that would be made possible by the fiscal magic of bracket creep. Remember bracket creep? It was the justification for the tax cuts and, according to then-treasurer Scott Morrison, the tax cuts would “eliminate bracket creep for the middle class”.

Or not. Turns out, according to the report’s projections, there’ll be so much continuing bracket creep as to more than wipe out the benefit from the promised tax cuts.

Taken over the full 10 years – and remembering that the first of the tax cuts began in July this year - income tax collections are projected to rise from 11.2 per cent to 12.5 per cent as a proportion of GDP, a huge jump of 1.3 percentage points.

Over the same decade, the average tax rate across all taxpayers is projected to rise from 22.9¢ in every dollar to 25.2¢. But here’s another important revelation by the report: some people do much better from the tax cuts than others, while bracket creep doesn’t affect everyone equally, either.

The report ranks everyone paying income tax according to their income, then divides them into five groups of about 2.9 million each - “quintiles” – from lowest to highest. It then looks at the way the average tax rate in each quintile is affected by the tax cut and by bracket creep. It looks at the change from 2017-18 to 2026-27.

On average, the three-stage tax plan will cut the average tax rate paid by people in the bottom quintile by just 0.3¢ in the dollar. Those in the second and third quintiles will save 0.9¢, while those in the fourth quintile save 1.1¢ and those in the top quintile save 2.1¢ in every dollar.

(This, BTW, is the proof that the three-stage tax plan does change the progressive income tax scale in a regressive direction, making it significantly less progressive.)

Now, the effect of bracket creep (before allowing for the tax cuts). It raises the bottom quintile’s average tax rate by 1.1¢ in the dollar, then the second and third’s by 5.4¢, but the fourth’s by 3.7¢ and the top quintile’s by just 2.9¢ in the dollar.

Leaving aside the bottom quintile (where most people rely on benefits and earn little income), the big net losers - bracket creep less tax cut – are those in the second and third quintiles. That is, those earning between 30 percentage points below the median income and 10 points above it.

Another name for such people is “low to middle income-earners” – the very people Morrison claimed his cuts were aimed at helping most.

But before you get too steamed up, remember that the budget office is merely exposing the previously hidden implications of the government’s medium-term projection and the rosy assumptions it depends on.

The key assumptions are “above-trend economic growth for much of the period” – which contains a hidden assumption that our record of 27 years without a severe recession will roll on for another 10 – and, in particular, “a return to trend wage growth”.

That is, it will take only a few years before wages are back to growing by 3.5 per cent a year – a percentage point faster than prices – and will stay growing that fast for the duration.

It’s this strong wage growth that does most to produce the bracket creep. So, if you’re not as optimistic about wages grow, you don’t need to be as concerned about bracket creep. By the same token, however, we wouldn’t be making as much progress reducing public debt.
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Wednesday, September 12, 2018

There are delusions for young and old

There are things oldies tell young people that the youngsters should believe, and things they shouldn’t. One thing I wouldn’t believe is the confident predictions about the huge number of different jobs and careers they’re likely to have.

One thing I would believe is that eligibility for the age pension is likely to have risen to 70 by the time they get there, whatever Prime Minister Scott Morrison says about it being off the table.

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard adults – usually teachers - assuring school kids they’ll end up having 17 changes in employer across five different careers.

It sounds as if it’s the conclusion of some careful scientific study by experts. But as far as I can tell, if there is such a study it’s been lost in the annals of time.

Which is a pity because other experts need to go back to such a study and tell us just how careful and scientific the study was. Doesn’t sound it to me.

Rather, the line’s become an urban myth – widely repeated and accepted as true because it’s so often repeated.

Those who peer into the “future of work” are always telling us the rising generation needs to be endowed with “21st century skills” such creativity, team work and critical thinking. True.

And our youth could start by applying some critical thinking to the prediction of exactly how many jobs and careers they’ll be having in a working life that hasn’t even started. More critical thinking than the silly adults who keep repeating a finding of whose origin and authority they know nothing.

A key critical-thinking question is: how on earth would you know? How could anyone, no matter how expert, look 45 or 55 years into the future and count the number of jobs and careers young people will end up having, even on average?

We can’t forecast with any confidence what the next five years will hold, let alone the next 55. Any genuine expert would hedge any guess they made with a dozen caveats and qualifications. Anyone who can be as certain as 17 and five is more entertainer than expert.

Do you remember when Julia Gillard dispatched Kevin Rudd in 2010? She had a to-do list of problems inherited from Rudd – including his mining tax and emissions trading scheme - that needed to be dispatched forthwith in readiness for an election.

Malcolm Turnbull’s successor seems to have a similar to-do list. Actually, the plan to raise the age pension age to 70 is inherited from Tony Abbott. It’s one of the few cost-saving measures remaining from the many included, but since abandoned, in Abbott’s first budget in 2014 – a budget so politically disastrous it has blighted the Coalition government throughout its life.

The higher pension age proposal was implacably opposed by Labor and Senate crossbenchers alike. It was already a dead letter and it’s no surprise Morrison has dumped it.

You can believe that, should Morrison be elected, he’ll stick to his promise. But the eligibility age wasn’t to reach 70 until July 2035, and a lot could change between now and then. Say, 17 prime ministers and five changes of ruling party.

We’ve been raising the pension age since the early 1990s and we still are. This has raised little controversy. So it’s not hard to believe that, by the time today’s school students are approaching 70, the age pension age will have drifted up from 67 to 70.

In 1993, the Keating government decided to increase the pension age for women from 60 to 65, phased in over 20 years.

In 2009, the Rudd government decided to phase up the pension age for men and women from 65 to 67, starting six years later. At present we’re up to 65 and six months, and it will rise by six months every two years until it reaches 67 in 2023.

Abbott’s plan was to wait a further two years then, from July 2025, raise the age by six months every two years until it reached 70 by 2035.

A point to ponder is that it was Labor governments that are getting us up to 67, even though Labor has so righteously opposed adding a further three years. Maybe it’s OK if they do it.

There’s no age at which people must retire. The rationale for raising the age at which we become eligible for retirement assistance from the taxpayer is we’re living ever longer, healthier lives.

That’s a good thing. But it comes at a cost to the community – particularly to younger taxpayers – if we insist that those extra years of healthy life must be spent in longer years of retirement rather than work, thus raising the proportion of non-workers to workers.

As I’ve noted recently, one way we’ve used to slow the ageing of our population is high levels of younger immigrants – but this too carries costs many people don’t want to pay.

The notion that retirement beats working is the great delusion of middle age. If the ever-diminishing minority of workers doing hard physical labour fear their bodies won’t last the extra few years, that’s partly why we have the disability support pension. We should stop stigmatising it.

If it’s too hard for older workers to find jobs, that’s an attitudinal problem among employers we should be – and are – reducing.

If workers find their jobs so unpleasant they can’t wait to retire, that’s a communitywide problem of misguided employers we should be correcting directly, to the benefit of all wage slaves.
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Monday, September 10, 2018

The social sciences: so essential we neglect them

As I’m sure you’re only too well aware, today is the first day of the inaugural Social Sciences Week. Just as I’m sure you knew that someone somewhere in America declared a day last week to be Read a Book Day.

Why do people name days, weeks, months and even whole years after worthy causes? Perhaps because there are so many worthy causes, and they’re hoping to gain theirs a little more attention amid the tumult.

We just want to be sure our fellow citizens are aware of who we are and what wonderful things we do, the organisers tell you. And once they’ve got their higher profile, there just might be a message or two they’d like to get through to the government and keeper of the purse strings.

What lifts Social Sciences Week above the ruckus is that last year by some mischance one of its sponsors made me a member of their club – shades of Groucho Marx – thus converting me to the cause. You have been warned, dear reader.

But just what are the social sciences, I hear you cry. Glad you asked. The week is being sponsored by the associations representing sociologists, criminologists, anthropologists and political scientists, plus the Academy of Social Sciences in Australia (whose members include demographers, geographers, accountants, economists, statisticians, historians, lawyers, philosophers, educationalists, psychologists and specialists in linguistics, management and marketing) and the Council for HASS – humanities, arts and social sciences.

In short, social scientists study human behaviour in all its dimensions. Nothing of much importance, then.

Not being ones to boast, the social scientists would like you to know their former students pretty much run the world. They’ve produced the majority of ASX-listed chief executives. Probably just as true of the public service and politicians.

Add the arts and humanities, and most of the tertiary-educated workers in Australia have HASS degrees. Almost three-quarters of university students are in HASS courses. Most of the overseas students paying full freight for their degrees – and now constituting one of our top export earners – do HASS courses, particularly business courses.

But though the social sciences and humanities dominate the work of universities, they don’t dominate their leadership. That honour more often goes to academics from a STEM – science, technology, engineering and maths – background.

And ratios of students to academic staff are much higher for HASS than for STEM courses. Truth is, law and more particularly, business, are the milch cows of universities, used to cross-subsidise subjects considered more worthy.

And you thought STEM was the neglected, put-upon Cinderella of academia? You’ve been spun. Just as every pollie wants you to believe they’re the underdog in the election, so the academics compete to be seen as hard done by. In that comp, STEM is winning. Its trouble is a shortage of customers to justify all the money it gets.

When it comes to research funding, there’s a hierarchy of perceived worthiness. The research aristocrats are the medicos. Since they devote their lives to saving ours (sometimes without thought of reward), we bow down before them.

They get their own special source of federal research funding – the National Health and Medical Research Council – plus money from bequests, philanthropists and patients with say, diabetes, being asked to kick the tin for diabetes research.

The rest of academia fights for a share of the funding distributed by the feds’ Australian Research Council. Here STEM is the upper class, the social sciences come a long way back as the middle class, leaving humanities as the poor relations.

A study from 2012 found that HASS produced 34 per cent of university research, and accounted for 44 per cent of the fields of research judged worthy of research funding, but got just 16 per cent of the lolly.

In this year’s hugely competitive funding round, 423 STEM projects got up, but only 113 social science projects did. This isn’t so surprising since none of the research priorities nominated by the council falls into the social sciences.

It makes no sense. As Senator Arthur Sinodinos said while minister for industry, innovation and science, “the advancement of the Australian economy relies on robust research from physical science and social science alike.

“The social sciences ... provide valuable insight into how to turn a scientific discovery into an informed policy for the nation, and how to implement that policy to ensure effectiveness.”

Just so. The Medicare funding system we value so highly was designed not by any medico, but by two professors of health economics. The huge expansion of university places we’ve seen was made affordable to taxpayers by an economics professor’s discovery of the income-contingent loan, known as HECS.

If applied to research grants, such loans would allow increased funding for social science research without cutting the funding to STEM. That’s what social science can tell you that STEM can’t.
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Saturday, September 8, 2018

A beautiful set of numbers gets you only so far

This week’s national accounts don’t leave any doubt that the economy grew strongly in the first half of this year. But whether it can sustain that growth rate is doubtful.

According to figures issued by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, real gross domestic product grew by 0.9 per cent in the June quarter and an upwardly revised 1.1 per cent in the March quarter, yielding growth of 3.4 per cent over the year to June.

For once, the bureau’s “trend” (smoothed) estimates tell the same story.

Annual growth of 3.4 per cent is well above the economy’s medium-term “potential” growth rate of about 2.75 per cent, suggesting we’ve started making inroads into our unused production capacity.

It also means we’ve now completed 27 years of continuous growth since our last severe recession of the early 1990s. (We had recessions too small to remember in 2000 and again at the time of the global financial crisis in 2008, but let’s not spoil the party.)

The figures vindicate the Reserve Bank’s steadfast forecast of growth returning to “a bit above 3 per cent” in 2018 and 2019.

This growth of 3.4 per cent from one June quarter to the next amounts to growth averaged over the whole of the 2017-18 financial year of 2.9 per cent – meaning that (contrary to what I was expecting) the government has comfortably exceeded its budget forecast of 2.75 per cent.

Where’s the growth coming from? Over the year, the biggest contributions came from consumer spending and government consumption spending (mainly the wages of people working in health and education), business investment spending and public investment in infrastructure.

Since the volume of imports grew a lot faster than the volume of exports, the external sector subtracted from growth.

It was, however, a financial year of two halves, with growth at an annualised rate of less than 3 per cent in the last half of 2017, but more than 4 per cent in the first half of this year.

Trouble is, no one sees the economy continuing to grow at an annualised rate as high as 4 per cent – not private forecasters or the Reserve Bank, nor even the government.

Why not? Because the biggest contributor to growth – whether over the year to June or in the latest quarter – has been strong consumer spending.

Consumer spending accounts for more than half of GDP. And its growth does much to stimulate growth in business investment spending, particularly non-mining business investment. (It’s when demand for your product threatens to exceed your production capacity that you expand your business.)

Growth in consumer spending is driven by growth in households’ disposable income. Household disposable income, in turn, is driven mainly by growth in wages. That’s real growth in wages – wages growing a per cent or so faster than prices are rising.

But this is just what’s not been happening over the past three or four years. And although Reserve Bank governor Dr Philip Lowe remains confident we’ll get back to heathly real wage growth eventually, he keeps warning the recovery will be a long time coming.

This gives us good reason to doubt that the rapid growth of the first half of this year will be sustained. But, before we get to that, how’s it been achieved so far?

The first part of the explanation is the extraordinarily strong growth in employment. As you may have heard (many times), employment grew by a calendar-year record of 400,000 in 2017, about double the annual average.

This week the new Treasurer, Josh Frydenberg, noted that 2017-18 saw jobs growth of more than 330,000 – the largest jobs growth in a financial year since 2004-05.

Notice the diminishing superlatives? If you use trend figures to break that into half years, you find 70 per cent of it occurred in the first half and only 30 per cent in the second. Hmmm.

While wage rises are the main source of increase in household disposable income, the secondary source is increased employment – more people earning income in more households.

To illustrate, total wages paid to households (“compensation of employees”, in the jargon) rose by 0.7 per cent in nominal terms in the June quarter, whereas average wages per worker rose by 0.1 per cent. Get it? Increased employment accounted for almost all the growth in total wages.

But that employment growth is not the main thing that kept consumer spending growing strongly despite weak growth in household income. The bigger factor was households cutting their rate of saving.

The ratio of household saving to household disposable income continued its fall, dropping from 2.8 per cent to 1.4 per cent (using trend figures). This is down from a peak of 9 per cent after the financial crisis.

Note, this means households added to their savings at a lesser rate, not that they reduced the amount of their savings.

This is what economists call “consumption smoothing”. If the growth in your income is weak, you reduce your rate of saving to avoid having to tighten your belt and consume less.

Nothing wrong with that. But there’s not much scope left for further cuts in the saving rate.

Dr Shane Oliver, of AMP Capital, offers this summary of the outlook for the economy: “While housing construction will slow and consumer spending is constrained, a lesser drag from mining investment [because it’s almost hit bottom] along with solid export growth provide an offset, and are expected to see growth of between 2.5 and 3 per cent going forward.”

I’m more optimistic than that. I hope the Reserve’s “a bit above 3 per cent” will be on the money.

But be clear on this: no matter how wonderful the latest figures look - and there are two more quarterly announcements to come before an election in May - strong growth in the economy isn’t sustainable until workers are back to getting their share of the benefits of national productivity improvement in the form of real wage growth of a per cent or two a year.

Until then, voters aren’t likely to be greatly impressed by "a beautiful set of numbers”.
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Tuesday, September 4, 2018

Punishing wrongdoers won’t fix our problem with banking

The other day I noticed a column I’d written in 1990 saying the banks’ abuse of their customers’ trust was getting them a bad name, so they should desist.

That was almost 30 years ago. It tells you the banks started playing up not long after the Hawke-Keating government deregulated them in the mid-1980s.

I was complaining about the way they’d offer new customers a better deal than their existing customers, then make no effort to tell their unsuspecting suckers they should change.

They’re still doing it, of course. But as the banking royal commission has informed us in the most gruesome detail, they’ve graduated to much worse than exploiting their customers’ loyalty and inertia.

Their policy of buying into every dimension of “financial services”, particularly “wealth management” – running superannuation funds, and giving people advice on where to invest their retirement savings – has opened an Aladdin’s cave of opportunities to charge fees and commissions, plus temptations to exploit the conflict been their interests and their customers’.

“Why don’t I get you to agree to put your money into an investment that pays me a higher commission, or that’s offered by another part of my bank, even though it wouldn’t be the right thing for you?”

Financial services are particularly susceptible to overcharging, not just because the sellers know so much more than we do, but because ordinary mortals find financial details extraordinarily dull and have great trouble making themselves spend their precious leisure time examining statements, closing old accounts and checking up on businesses they should be able to trust.

And now, of course, we’ve had Westpac making an “out-of-cycle” increase in mortgage interest rates, and are waiting to see whether the other big banks will use the chance to raise their own rates.

Will they be game to add further offence while they’re at the height of their unpopularity? I fear they will.

If I’m right, this will tell us a lot about how banking got to be in its present sorry state and how likely the royal commission’s proposals for reform are to change the banks’ bad behaviour.

The commission’s inquiry is nearing its end. Its interim report is due by the end of this month, with its final report due by February 1. So we’re likely to know its recommendations – and what each side proposes to do about them – before the federal election.

Is it reasonable to hope it won’t be too long before the banks' bad behaviour is a thing of the past? Yes and no.

The commission's being conducted by a former High Court judge and a lot of barristers. If these lawyers interpret “misconduct” to mean breaking the law, they’ll be focused on referring suspect banks and individuals for further investigation, tightening up the law and making sure the bodies supposed to be regulating the banks, particularly the Australian Securities and Investments Commission, get more resources and try a mighty lot harder than they have been.

If this is the way things shape - and provided punishments extend to fining or jailing individuals, not just imposing fines on businesses with the deepest pockets in the land – I think we can hope for a marked reduction in rule-bending and outright lawbreaking.

The problem is that the big four banks have been so focused on the game they’re playing that they’ve lost touch with reality – with how many customers’ lives they’ve been ruining; with the way the rest us have come to despise them.

When the spouses of bank chief executives and board members realise their other half risks a trip to the slammer, just watch them pull their heads in.

Trouble is, most of us haven’t been victims of illegal behaviour. It’s no offence to take advantage of customers who aren’t paying attention. It’s not against the law to raise interest rates out-of-cycle.

In other words, there’s a big economic dimension to the banks’ misconduct. Neglect that and we’ll still have much to complain of.

The strange thing about banking is that it’s ruthlessly competitive and uncompetitive at the same time. The banks’ bosses are obsessed by a game in which they compete to achieve the highest percentage increase in their profits and share prices.

It’s this competition that’s kept bankers in their bubble of unreality, urging their minions on with KPIs and commissions and bonuses, and turning a blind eye to the rule-bending they lead to.

This is why Westpac has moved to protect its profit margin by passing a small increase in its costs on to customers, even though our banks are already among the most profitable in the world. And this is why its competitors are likely to follow suit, whatever their customers think.

It’s the lack of price competition at the retail level that makes it possible for the banks as a group to raise their prices whenever they see fit. The others could hang Westpac out to dry, but it’s a safe bet they won’t.

It’s only effective measures to increase price competition that will stop the banks overcharging us. There are no easy answers. But the banks are so influential that, to date, neither the two parties nor their bureaucratic advisers in Treasury, the Reserve Bank and the Australian Prudential Regulation Authority have shown much enthusiasm for the challenge.

That’s what we must hope all the voter anger generated by the royal commission is about to change.
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Monday, September 3, 2018

How to damage Australia: don’t collect good data

You don’t have to be very bright to see that as we enter the information age, realise decisions need to be evidence-based, and glimpse the huge potential of “big data”, we need the Australian Bureau of Statistics to be at the top of its game. But you do have to be brighter than our econocrats and politicians.

They’ve been cutting the bureau’s funding every year for more than a decade – meaning both parties have been at it – in the name of increased efficiency. The Orwellian annual “efficiency dividend”, cutting up to 2.5 per cent off running expenses, is a flowing fount of false economy.

According to the bureau’s boss, David Kalisch, it has suffered a reduction in real resources of more than 20 per cent over the past decade. Meanwhile, funding from big users of its data – which now accounts for between 10 and 20 per cent of its total funding - has increased only slightly.

The majority of its social statistical collections are only possible through user funding, with budget funding devoted predominantly to its economic and population stats.

The cutbacks have obliged the bureau to “prioritise”. It has reduced or stopped a number of statistical collections, with Kalisch admitting it hasn’t undertaken a survey of the way Australians use their time, nor a survey of mental health, for more than a decade.

“If the [bureau] continues to be subject to efficiency dividends over the next decade, at the same trajectory as it has for the past decade, some of the core information currently taken for granted by governments, business and the community may no longer be available,” he told a conference last month.

“Our capacity to continue producing all of the detailed statistics around our labour market, industry activity and population would increasingly be at risk.”

It oughtn’t be necessary to remind politicians, bureaucrats, marketers, academics, journalists and ordinary citizens just how heavily we rely on our national statistical office for reliable, objective information about a hundred dimensions of what’s actually happening around us, including to the natural environment.

The bureau’s data inform “fiscal and monetary policy settings, social support programs and infrastructure spending . . . many pertinent public policy debates, such as housing affordability, income and wealth inequality, cost of living, energy prices, the quality of life in our cities and regions, education and health outcomes, needs-based school funding, immigration policy and much more,” Kalisch told a conference of economists.

That’s not to mention that official data are “key to the effective functioning of our democracy, with population data helping establish fair electoral boundaries and our official statistics informing choices by voters and political aspirants”.

But it’s not just that we’d be much more poorly informed if government spending cuts robbed us of any of the information we presently collect. Our economy, society and natural environment keep changing, meaning we need to measure more than we do at present, as well as improving the way we measure things because they’ve changed from what they were.

Kalisch says globalisation and the digital economy introduce new measurement challenges. Over the past 15 years, the services sector has grown at an average rate of 6 per cent a year, meaning it now accounts for 63 per cent of gross domestic product [and a much higher proportion of total employment].

Measuring services is more difficult – conceptually and empirically – than goods. Good measurement of two key industries – health and education – is particularly important.

“Policy-makers and service providers are confronting wicked [difficult or impossible] problems across social policy and the environment that require a more sophisticated evidence base,” he says.

The bureau was an early public sector adopter in using computers, but in 2013 Kalisch’s predecessor blew the whistle on its “fragile ageing statistical infrastructure”. In 2015 the government agreed to provide most of the additional funding to build new systems.

In 2016 the bureau struck trouble with its first go at having many people complete their Census forms online. At the start of the filing period, the system was offline for nearly two days.

It was a “teachable moment”, but the bureau “owned the process errors, has reflected upon the learnings from this experience" and has revised its operating arrangements across the bureau. As proof it has learnt its lesson, Kalisch points to its trouble-free conduct of the same-sex marriage postal survey.

And all this before we get to big data. Any fool can see its huge potential for improving our evidence base at relatively low cost. But it takes a bit more brain to see that if we barge on with little attention to the public’s concerns over privacy and Big Brother governance, we could derail the whole show before we even get going.

Just the right time to cut the funding of the national statistical agency and decide we can afford to do stats on the cheap.
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Saturday, September 1, 2018

Inequality not as great as claimed, worse than others admit

This week the Productivity Commission issued a “stocktake of the evidence” on inequality in Australia. Its findings will surprise you. But it wasn’t as even-handed as it should have been.

Its report forcefully dispels the myths of the Left – that inequality is great and rapidly worsening – but is much more sotto voce in telling the Right there’s still a problem and that the reason it’s not as bad as some think is that governments have taken corrective actions the Right usually disapproves of.

This has allowed the conservative commentators of the national press to greet the report with great glee. One in the eye for their ideological opponents. Inequality? Nothing to see here.

The report looks at three different measures of economic inequality – the distribution of income, consumption and wealth – over a long period: the 27 years from 1988-89 to 2015-16. It focuses on the experience of households rather than individuals, and eliminates the effect of inflation.

The report concludes that inequality has risen only slightly over the period. Measured by the Gini coefficient – where zero means perfect equality and 1 means one household has everything – the distributions of both income and consumption have risen slightly.

The distribution of household wealth (mainly owner-occupied housing and superannuation savings) is most unequal of the three. It, too, has become a bit more unequal over the period.

But, particularly for income, inequality increased during the resources boom of the mid-noughties, then decreased in the years following the global financial crisis of 2008.

Over the 27 years, the disposable income of all households rose at an average rate of about 2.2 per cent a year in real terms.

The annual incomes of households in every decile (10 per cent group), from the bottom to the top, increased. It won’t surprise you that average incomes in the top two deciles rose by more than the economy-wide average. The top decile’s average income rose by more than 2.5 per cent a year.

It will surprise you that average incomes in the bottom decile rose at the same rate as the economy-wide average. So it was households between the bottom 10 per cent and the top 30 per cent whose incomes rose by less than the national average.

Many people would be surprised by all this. Why? Because they hear what’s happened in America and assume it must be pretty similar here. Wrong.

The report notes that our progressive income tax and highly means-tested welfare payments do a lot to equalise household incomes (as I’ve written recently in this column).

Our income inequality in 2015 was about average for the rich countries. In 2017, our wealth inequality was eighth lowest among 28 rich countries.

Australians’ chances of moving between higher and lower income groups – a rough measure of equality of opportunity – “compare favourably with many other developed countries”, the report says.

It tells us that, at 9 per cent of Australians – 2.2 million people – our rate of poverty (measured as people with incomes below half the median income) is no higher than it was 27 years ago.

But if all these truths tell you we don’t have much to worry about, you’ve been misled. The report is much less up-front in reminding us of the qualifications to its findings.

It leaves the strong impression that, if inequality hasn’t increased much, and isn’t as great as in some other countries, there’s no great problem. This implies the inequality we started with was fine.

As Professor Peter Whiteford, of the Australian National University, has noted, the report does too little to remind us that all the averaging involved in Gini coefficients and decile groups rolls households who’ve gained together with households who’ve lost and tells us little has changed.

For instance, the report downplays the issue of the huge increase in the incomes of the top 1 per cent of households. Their extreme gains are averaged with the more modest gains of the next 9 per cent to give a rise in the incomes of the top decile that’s high compared with the rest of us, but not greatly so.

Since the increase in inequality occurred during the resources boom, the report notes quietly that, contrary to what conservative politicians keep telling us, “[economic] growth alone is no guarantee against widening disparity between rich and poor”.

True. Then we’re reminded that this increase in inequality went away in the long period of weak growth following the financial crisis.

So what does the Productivity Commission want us to conclude? Let nature take its course? Don’t worry about increasing inequality because the next recession will fix it?

The report’s fine print acknowledges the truth that a country’s degree of inequality is greatly influenced by its economic institutions (such as its tax system and the rules of its welfare system), by government policy changes, and by the public’s attitudes to inequality.

I happen to agree with the commission’s value judgement that the growing gap between the top 1 per cent of incomes and middle incomes isn’t of as great concern as the gap between the bottom and the middle.

But I don’t accept another implicit value judgement that not much more could be done to reduce income and wealth inequality (presumably, for fear the rich would stop wanting to get richer) and that, at the bottom end, the government should limit its intervention to assisting those poor people whose disadvantage has become “entrenched”.

In other words, don’t acknowledge that poverty is being kept high by successive governments’ refusal to lift the freeze on real unemployment benefits.

The report proudly informs us that the bottom decile’s income has kept pace with the economy-wide average, but does little to explain how this amazing truth came about.

The chief suspect is the Rudd government’s increase in the base-rate of the age pension, a boost so big it seems to have more than offset the adverse effects of the real dole freeze and the bipartisan policy of moving disabled and sole-parent pensioners onto the much lower dole.

Still think there’s nothing to see here?
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Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Digital disruption is stopping retail prices from rising

I’ve heard of the gap between perception and reality, but this is ridiculous. According to the experts, increased competition among supermarkets, department stores and other retailers is holding down prices in a way we’ve rarely seen before.

This fits with the consumer price index, which showed prices rising by just 2.1 per cent over the year to June. Over the past three years, the annual increase has averaged even less: 1.8 per cent.

What it doesn’t fit with are the complaints we keep hearing about the high cost of living. I read it’s got so bad parents are raiding their kids’ piggy banks to help make ends meet.

How can the experts’ reality be reconciled with the people’s perceptions? It’s simple. With a few glaring exceptions – electricity prices, for instance – the cost of living isn’t rising much.

No, the reason many people are having trouble making ends meet is because their wages aren’t growing much either. We’re used to wages rising a bit faster than prices, but that hasn’t been happening for the past four years.

Modern politicians seek popularity by reinforcing our perceptions, whether they’re right or wrong. If you doubt that, just listen to the soothing noises Prime Minister Scott Morrison will be making between now and the election.

Unfortunately, our tiresome econocrats remain committed to determining the reality and correcting misperceptions. Last week Reserve Bank deputy governor Dr Guy Debelle gave a speech which departed from the official talking points and revealed a truth which must not be spoken: the digital revolution is squeezing many retailers’ profit margins and forcing them to cut costs so rising prices don’t cost them customers.

Debelle says that, since 2015, the price of the typical food basket (excluding fruit and veg, and meals out and takeaway) has actually fallen a fraction. Fruit and vegetable prices have risen, but by only a third of their average rate over the past 25 years.

The prices of alcoholic drinks have risen more slowly since 2015, and non-alcoholic drink prices have fallen a bit.

The prices of consumer durable items, including fridges and furniture, have been falling since 2015, meaning they’ve hardly increased over the past 25 years.

The prices of audio-visual equipment – including TVs, computers and phones – have fallen significantly over the past 25 years and particularly the past three.

If you’re finding this hard to believe, there are two main explanations. The first is that, because bad news interests us more than good news, big price rises stick in our minds, but small price falls don’t. Nor do we notice when prices stay unchanged for long periods.

The second is that every new TV, computer or phone does better tricks than the previous model. The new model may cost more than old one, but when the official statisticians allow for the value of the improvement in quality, they almost always find that the underlying price has fallen. Again, this is something we should notice, but usually don’t. Our perceptions play us false.

If we’re having trouble affording the new whiz-bang, big-screen, digital, internet-connected TV, that’s not the higher cost of living, it’s us straining for a higher standard of living.

When we confuse the two we’re deluding ourselves. We’re not getting better off, we’re just having to pay more.

Debelle says changes in the cost of imported goods used to be passed straight on by wholesalers and retailers. But over the past decade or so retailers have become reluctant to pass on higher import prices.

This is only partly because consumer spending hasn’t been growing as strongly as it used to. Debelle finds evidence that net retail margins have been declining.

Cost-cutting means the productivity of labour in retail is rising faster than in other industries, with the savings used to keep prices down rather than fatten profits.

What’s been happening in recent years is intensifying competition between retailers. One cause is the advent of “category killers” such as Bunnings, Officeworks and JB Hi-Fi. These are giving department stores and smaller retailers a hard time.

The buying-power of the many chains of liquor stores now owned by Coles and Woolworths is keeping prices down and putting great pressure on independent stores.

We’ve also seen large foreign retailers setting up bricks-and-mortar operations in Australia. In clothing, these include H&M, Zara, Topshop and Uniqlo.

The biggest bricks-and-mortar disrupter, of course, is Aldi supermarkets. Aldi seems to have taken market share from independent IGA stores, while forcing Coles and Woolies to avoid losing customers by lowering their prices.

Then there’s online shopping, which exposes our retailers not just to competition from big overseas businesses but between themselves.

Online sales still make up only about 5 per cent of total retail trade, but they’re growing rapidly, increasing by 50 per cent over the year to June.

Last year local retailers trembled over the impending arrival of Amazon, but so far it hasn’t had a big impact. Not directly, anyway. Maybe the locals have taken evasive action by keeping their prices low.

Smart phones have made it easier for people to comparison shop – even while in someone else’s store.

And I believe the internet increases the emphasis on price competition, rather than the emotive advertising and marketing big business prefers.

Digital disruption is bad news for the workers in disrupted industries – including journos – but don’t let anyone delude you: it’s almost always good news for consumers.
Read more >>

Monday, August 27, 2018

Weakening dollar looks a lot worse than it is

Oh dear. While the pollies have been playing their games, the dollar has been falling and there’s even talk in the market of it going below US70¢. Is this a worry? Short answer: naah.

At the local close on Friday the Aussie was at US72.8¢. That’s down from a recent peak in January of almost US81¢. Is that a bad thing?

Depends who you ask. You can find plenty of people who’ll tell you a low dollar is bad and a high dollar is good. But most manufacturers, farmers and miners will tell you the opposite. The lower the better, they say.

Truth is, a fall in the dollar has some advantages and some disadvantages; a rise in the dollar has the opposite set.

A lower dollar has the disadvantage of making imported goods – and overseas holidays – more expensive. It will add to inflation. But it has the advantage of making our export and import-competing industries more internationally competitive on price.

An Australian item priced in Aussie dollars will be cheaper for foreigners to buy; an Australian item priced in US dollars will now bring more Aussie dollars to an Australian exporter. And overseas-produced goods and services will be more pricey relative to locally produced.

Since our inflation rate is unusually low, and our economy should be growing faster, that doesn’t sound like a bad deal to me.

But that’s just the first part of the story. Because a fall sounds bad and a rise sounds good, many people assume a falling dollar must be happening because we’ve stuffed up.

As we’ve seen, wrong on the first count. And most likely wrong on the second. The exchange rate is a relative price – the value of our currency relative to the value of another country’s currency. In this instance, the Yankee dollar.

Any change in that rate of exchange could be explained by happenings on either side of the Pacific – or a bit of both.

At present, however, all the action’s on the American side. The US economy is growing strongly, with President Trump stimulating an economy already close to full employment by cutting company and personal taxes.

So higher inflation is a significant risk. The US Federal Reserve has already raised the US official interest rate from about zero to about 2 per cent (significantly, higher than our 1.5 per cent), and may well raise it further if it gets more concerned about inflation.

A strongly growing economy, with rising interest rates attracting more capital inflow, is an economy with an appreciating currency. In recent times the greenback has been rising in value not just against the Aussie but almost all currencies.

A fact too few people realise is that, though the Aussie has fallen against the greenback (and the currencies of a few developing countries that shadow the greenback), it hasn’t changed much against most other currencies.

We don’t realise that because we’ve long had the bad habit of regarding the Aussie’s value against the greenback as the exchange rate rather than just one of many.

Economists, however – and particularly those at the Reserve Bank – know not to take such short-cuts. They focus on our “effective” exchange rate – the rate against a basket of our trading partners’ currencies, with each country’s currency weighted according to its share of our two-way trade (exports plus imports).

This is the trade-weighted index, or TWI (pronounced “twy”). Since our trade with the US is less than most people assume, the US dollar’s direct weight in the basket is just a bit over 10 per cent.

So whereas since January the Aussie has fallen by almost 10 per cent against the greenback, it’s fall against the TWI has been a more modest 4.4 per cent.

Which is why the country’s economic managers are neither greatly worried nor greatly excited by the dollar’s movements in recent times.

They see the TWI as simply as being around the bottom of the band in which it’s been moving for the past few years. No biggie.

For someone planning an overseas holiday, it’s not good news if you’re off to the States. But doesn’t make much difference if you’re going to Britain, Europe, N’Zillund or Bali.

But could the Aussie fall a lot further against the greenback? It could, and that’s what economic theory would lead you to expect. But I don’t recommend making currency bets on the basis of economic theory.

As a Reserve Bank assistant governor admitted recently, if she knew how to forecast the exchange rate with any accuracy she wouldn’t be here, she’d be on her private island.

Even so, should the dollar end up falling below US70¢ in coming months, I can’t see the Reserve getting too worried. As I say, a bit more inflation would do little harm and a boost to our export industries would be handy.
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Saturday, August 25, 2018

“Lags”: one reason economists keep getting it wrong

I’m compiling a short-list of the main things economics teaches us. One is: economic developments take longer to affect the economy than you’d expect. Economists call these delays “lags”. That there are so many of them – and their lengths keep changing – does a lot to explain why economists’ forecasts are so often wrong.

Last week Dr Luci Ellis, an assistant governor of the Reserve Bank, gave a prestigious lecture at the Australian National University devoted solely to the problem of lags.

Ellis says a lag occurs in any instance where time passes between when an activity is initiated and when it has its impact. “Almost all economic phenomena involve lags,” she says. And she’s divided them into three types.

The first is “process lags” – the time it takes for any production process to be finished. The time it takes to build a house, for instance.

This includes the time it takes to make a decision (say, about whether to build the house). Particularly where decisions are made by governments or big businesses, this can take some time. You may have to gather information, do analysis, prepare documents, convene meetings and complete review processes before you’ve decided.

Economists often compare the strengths and weaknesses of the two main instruments they use to manage the macro economy: monetary policy (the manipulation of interest rates) and fiscal policy (the manipulation of government spending and taxation in the budget).

An important difference between the two is that decisions to change interest rates can be made quickly and easily. The Reserve Bank board meets monthly, decides, has lunch and then announces its decision.

By contrast, decisions to change taxes or government spending require a lot more preparation and debate by the cabinet. Then there can be a delay of weeks or months before legislation is passed by parliament and put into effect. Sometimes the firms affected have to be given notice to prepare for the change.

The trick is, once decisions have taken effect, changes to taxes and government spending usually affect the economy more quickly than do changes in interest rates, for which the lags are “long and variable”. The full effect of a rate change could take up to three years.

Another example of decision lags is the local government approval process for building projects, which can take months.

An important case of process lag is known as the “hog cycle”. A farmer takes his pigs to market, discovers prices are high, so decides to grow more pigs.

Trouble is, this takes a few years. And pork prices have fallen back long before the pigs are ready. But when they are, the farmer still has to sell them – which depresses prices even further.

Hog cycles occur in many industries where the long delay between deciding to produce something and getting it finished means demand and supply for the product are never in sync. This causes prices to boom when demand exceeds supply, then bust when supply exceeds demand.

It’s happening now with new apartments. Demand has fallen off, but buildings begun a year or two ago are still adding to supply, putting downward pressure on prices.

The hog cycle – the long lag between rising mineral commodity prices on world markets and our new mines and gas plants finally coming on line – does much to explain the wringer the resources boom and bust has put our economy through over the past decade and a half.

Ellis’s second category is “stock-flow lags”. A stock is the amount of something at a particular point in time – say, the money in a bank account at June 30. A flow is the amounts flowing in and out of the account during a period of time. The difference between the stock at the start of a year and the stock at the end of the year will be the flows in and out.

This is important in housing, where the number of newly built homes in a year is a small fraction of the stock of all existing homes (especially after you allow for the homes that were knocked down during the year).

So if the stock of homes has fallen far short of the number of homes needed, it can take longer than you’d expect to make up the gap.

Historically, macro-economics has tended to focus on flows and ignore stock levels. But Ellis says “if you aren’t taking stocks and flows seriously you probably don’t have a realistic model of the economy”.

Her third category is “learning lags”. This is the time it takes individuals – or the whole economy – to realise economic relationships have changed and to change their behaviour accordingly.

These lags can vary because some people are quicker on the uptake than others. But also because how long it takes before you can conclude a change has occurred depends on many factors: the “noisiness of the data” (the way monthly or quarterly statistics jump around for no apparent reason) and how open you are to changing your views about how things work.

This takes us to the common case of economists having to decide whether some problem is “cyclical” (temporary) or “structural” (lasting).

Ellis says our knowledge that lags often vary in length should make us slow to conclude that the economy’s structure has changed, but human nature seems to push us the other way. It’s too easy to convince ourselves “this time is different” when usually it isn’t.

The big debate between economists at present fits this pattern: is the weakness in wage growth just the product of longer lags than we’re used to in the recovery phase, or has there been some change in workers’ bargaining power that needs correcting?

Whatever the answer, you see how ubiquitous lags are in the economy, how their length can change, how they contribute to the ups and downs of the business cycle, and how hard they make it to be sure where we are now, let alone where we’re headed.
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Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Our concern about the drought isn’t fair dinkum

It’s taken him too long, but public concern and the looming election have finally obliged Malcolm Turnbull to do the right thing by our farmers struggling with severe drought.

In Forbes on Sunday, Turnbull announced a further $250 million in assistance to farmers and communities, including initial grants of $1 million each to 60 drought-affected councils in NSW, Queensland and Victoria, bringing Canberra’s direct handouts to $826 million.

Add a further $1 billion in concessional loans and the total outlay comes to $1.8 billion.

Well, about time.

Is that what you think? I don’t.

I think most of it will be a waste of taxpayers’ money. You’ve heard of being cruel to be kind, but the way we carry on every time there’s a drought is being kind to be cruel. Our sympathy, donations and taxpayer assistance just prolong the agony of farmers unable or unwilling to face the harsh reality of farming in a country with one of the most variable climates in the world.

We may not be able to predict their timing or their length, but we can be certain that, before too long, this drought will be followed by another. And the scientists tell us climate change is making it worse.

And yet we keep pretending no one could have predicted or prepared for the next drought. Nonsense.

Our attitude to drought is all soft heart and soft head. I have two objections. The first is the way our collective concern about drought and its consequences is always media-driven.

When I visited the country in mid-May, my host complained that no one in the city seemed to know or care about the drought that was ravaging the countryside.

But when, a few months later, the first media outlet got the message, it started the usual flood of heart-rending drought stories.

The media love drought stories because they know how much they stir their customers’ emotions. Most people like having the media give their heart-strings a regular workout. I don’t.

And the trouble is, our concern about the drought – or the tsunami or earthquake or bushfire – lasts only as long as it takes the media’s attention to shift to some newer source of concern.

It’s already happening. Turnbull’s big announcement in Forbes got little media coverage because the threat to his leadership was far more exciting.

My more substantial objection to the recurring carry-on about drought is that it makes the problem worse rather than better. We give the bush a fish to feed it for a day when we should be helping it learn better fishing techniques.

In their efforts to tug our emotions, the media invariably leave us with an exaggerated impression of the severity of the drought and the proportion of farmers who are suffering badly. They show us the very worst farms and the worst-off farmers.

To be blunt, they show us the bad managers, not the good ones. I can’t remember ever seeing a story where someone whose farm was in much better shape than his neighbours’ was asked how he did it.

The exception that proves the rule? Don’t be so sure. On average over the six years to 2007-08 – the Millennium drought – nearly 70 per cent of Australia’s broadacre and dairy farms in drought-declared areas managed without government assistance.

Many, maybe most, farmers prepare for drought. Some don’t. They’re the ones the media want us to feel sorry for. The ones who’ve overstocked their now badly degraded properties hoping it will rain before long or, failing that, the government and guilt-ridden city-slickers will give them a handout.

The trouble with our emergency assistance approach to drought is that it encourages farmers not to bother preparing for the inevitable. It encourages farmers whose farms are too small, or who lack the skills or spare capital to survive, to keep struggling on when they should give up.

And it does all that to the chagrin of the wise and careful farmers who’ve made expensive preparation for the next drought with little help from other taxpayers.

Australians have been leaving the farm and moving to the city for more than a century. They’ve done so because continuous advances in labour-saving technology have made small farms uneconomic and decimated the demand for rural labour. All while the nation’s agricultural production keeps growing.

This is my own family’s story. I was raised mainly in cities, but my father grew up on a dairy farm near Toowoomba and my mother on a cane farm in North Queensland.

Meaning that, were it not for my brush with economics, I too would share the city-slickers’ sense of guilt at having deserted the true Australian’s post on the land for a cushy life in the city. Would $50 be enough, do you think?

We are perpetrators of what Americans have dubbed the “hydro-illogical cycle”. As Dr Jacki Schirmer and others at the University of Canberra describe it, this occurs when “a severe drought triggers short-term concern and assistance, followed by a return to apathy and complacency once the rains return.

“When drought drops off the public and media radar, communities are often left with little or no support to invest in preparing for the next inevitable drought.”

Every government report on drought concludes the best response is for farmers to improve their self-reliance, preparedness and climate-change management. We could help them with their preparations, but we get a bigger emotional kick from giving them handouts when droughts are at their worst.
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Monday, August 13, 2018

We could increase bank competition if we wanted to

Would you like to put your savings in a super scheme presently reserved for public servants? Would you like your bank account or mortgage to be with the Reserve Bank?

Impossible to imagine such a crazy idea? Well, that’s what the Productivity Commission thinks, but it’s neither as impossible nor as crazy as it may sound.

Everyone says they believe in innovation, but when we’re used to thinking and doing things one way and some bright spark argues we should be doing it the opposite way, they’re more likely to be dismissed than grappled with.

And our econocrats are no more receptive to innovative ideas than the rest of us, it seems.

The bright spark in question is Dr Nicholas Gruen, principal of consulting firm Lateral Economics. The Bank of England and Martin Wolf, of the Financial Times, think he’s worth taking seriously, but in the Productivity Commission’s final report on competition in the financial system his ideas are brushed off as though he’s a nut job.

So let’s have a look at them. In his submission to the commission’s inquiry, Gruen argued we needed to give a twist to a widely accepted principle of micro-economic reform, established in 1996, called “competitive neutrality”.

In those days there were a lot of (mainly state) government-owned businesses. Sometimes they had a natural monopoly over some network, sometimes it was an “unnatural” monopoly granted by legislation, sometimes it was a bit of both.

The reformers’ concern was that, being monopolies, these government businesses weren’t terribly efficient. They tended to be overstaffed and do “sweetheart” pay deals with their unions because they knew they could pass the cost straight on to their customers.

Clearly, it would be much better for customers if these outfits could be exposed to competition from private firms, to force their prices down. But this competition would emerge only if the public businesses were robbed of any special advantage arising from their government ownership.

Fine. Almost a quarter-century later, most of those businesses have been privatised – many of them with their anti-competitive advantages intact or restored, so as to boost their sale price.

Today, of course, the big problem is the lack of competition in, say, the oligopolised national electricity market or, as the commission’s inquiry acknowledged, in oligopolised banking. With super, the big problem is workers’ reluctance to engage with all those boring comparisons.

This is where Gruen’s twist on competitive neutrality comes in. If what we needed back then was to increase private competition with government businesses, surely an answer to our present problem of inadequate competition between private players is increased competition from public businesses.

In the case of banking, he asks why, in these days of online banking, the significant benefits of being able to bank with the central bank should be restricted to producers (the commercial banks) and denied to consumers (households and other businesses). What’s competitively neutral about that?

In the case of superannuation, why should savers be prevented from giving their money to funds managing the super savings of public servants? Surveys show public sector funds achieve returns to members even higher than the non-profit industry funds, let alone the for-profit “retail” funds run by banks and insurance companies.

Gruen notes that public sector funds would offer only modern, defined-contribution super and involve no subsidies – that is, they’d be competitively neural. (More radical reformers would say, so what if public providers had a government-related advantage they could pass on to customers? If the government can give the public a better deal, why shouldn’t it?)

Sometimes public providers would have an advantage because they were so big. But that’s not an unfair advantage. It’s exploitation of economies of scale that mean so many private industries are dominated by only a few firms. Only problem is insufficient price competition between them to ensure the cost savings are passed to customers, not owners.

In response to Gruen’s idea of opening up access to central banks, the commission raised practical objections that could be solved if you really wanted to.

In brushing off the idea of public super providers, the commission quoted the case of the Swedes doing something similar. Bad idea, apparently. More than two-thirds of new contributors defaulted into the public fund – perhaps because it earned better returns than the private sector funds.

Of course, you wouldn’t expect privately own banks or super funds to welcome reform that could cost them customers or force down their profit margins. Perhaps this explains the commission’s lack of interest in the idea – it knew the proposal wouldn’t appeal to a Coalition government.

But it's more likely the econocrats are just stuck in an ideological rut. Economic reform was always about reducing public and increasing private. Going the other way is so obviously wrong it doesn’t need thinking about.
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Saturday, August 11, 2018

Immigration is sharply slowing the ageing of our population

Reserve Bank governor Dr Philip Lowe thinks Australia’s strong population growth in recent years is a wonderful thing, and he sings its praises in a speech this week.

I’m not sure he’s right. Like most economists and business people, Lowe is a lot more conscious of the economic benefits of population growth than the economic costs. As for the social and environmental costs, they’re for someone else to worry about.

But whatever your views, you’ll be heaps better informed after you’ve seen what he says about our changing “population dynamics” and absorbed his tutorial on demography.

Over the past decade, our population has grown at an average rate of about 1.6 per cent a year. This is faster than in previous decades. It’s also faster than every advanced economy bar Singapore.

Most other rich countries – including the US and Britain – grew by well under 1 per cent a year over the period. The populations of Italy, Russia and Germany were stagnant, and fell in Japan and Greece. China’s annual growth averaged only 0.5 per cent.

What’s driving our growth is increased immigration, of course. Over recent times, net overseas migration has added about 1 per cent a year to the population, with “natural increase” (births minus deaths) adding only about 0.7 per cent.

Our rate of natural increase is pretty steady. It perked up a bit a decade ago, but quickly resumed its slow decline, as more couples have smaller families and some have none.

Net migration, by contrast, goes through a lot of peaks and troughs – which, not by chance, correlate well with the ups and downs of the business cycle.

We think of the government controlling immigration with a big lever (making it “exogenous” or coming from outside the system, as economists say, pinching the word from medicos) but many demographers see immigration as “endogenous” or determined within the system.

This has become truer as permanent migration becomes dominated by workers with skills we need, rather than by family reunion, and there’s more temporary migration by overseas students and skilled workers brought in by employers to fill a temporary shortage.

The resources boom showed temporary skilled migration was great at helping us control (wage-driven) inflation, one of Lowe’s primary concerns as boss of the central bank.

But I worry our young people are paying the price for this greater macro-economic flexibility. We’re schooling our employers not to bother training plenty of apprentices ready for the next shortage because it’s easier to wait until the shortage emerges and then pull in a tradesperson or three from overseas.

Sorry, back to Lowe’s speech. He notes that growth in the number of people here on temporary visas adds to the size of our population. For instance, there are now more than half a million overseas students studying in Australia.

Here’s a stat you probably didn’t know: about a sixth of foreign students are permitted to stay and work here after finishing their studies. This boosts our population. Always a man to look on the bright side, Lowe reminds us it also boosts the nation’s “human capital”.

Plus, he’s too polite to say, it does so free of charge. It’s a neat trick: we charge foreign parents in developing countries full freight to educate their children, then allow the best of 'em to stay on.

But wait, there’s more: we also benefit from our stronger overseas connections when foreign students return home, Lowe says.

Now for his big reveal. Particularly because of our emphasis on skilled workers and students (as opposed to bringing out nonna and nonno), the median age of new migrants is between 20 and 25, more that 10 years younger than the median age of the rest of us.

At the time of Treasury’s first intergenerational report in 2002, our present median age of 37 was expected to rise rapidly to more than 45 by 2040. But after the past decade of increased immigration of young people, the latest estimate is that the median age will be only about 40 by then.

“This is a big change in a relatively short period of time, and reminds us that demographic trends are not set in stone,” Lowe says.

This means that, on the question of population ageing, and looking at the latest projections over the next quarter of a century, we compare well with other advanced economies, he says.

First, our median age of 37 makes Australia one of the youngest countries. We are ageing more slowly than most of the others, meaning we’re projected to stay relatively young. This is better than earlier projections suggesting we’d move to the middle of the pack.

Second, we have a higher fertility rate than most rich countries. Australians tend to have larger families than those in many other countries. (Note, not large, but larger than the others.)

Third, our average life expectancy is at the higher end of the range, and is expected to keep rising.

Fourth, our old-age dependency ratio – people 65 and older, compared to people of working age, 15 to 64 – is rising, but less quickly than in most other countries.

And our relative youth and higher fertility rate means our dependency ratio is expect to stay lower than other countries’ for the next 25 years or so. Only then is it projected to rise rapidly.

The first intergenerational report expected that the disproportionate bulge of baby boomers reaching normal retirement age would lead to a steady decline in the proportion of people participating in the labour force.

It hasn’t happened. The reverse, in fact – for fascinating reasons I’ll save for another day.

To economists, this slower rate of population ageing – that is, slower rise in the old-age dependency ratio – is great news. It means the economy’s growth in coming years won’t slow as much as they were expecting (see point above about the participation rate).

It also means ageing will put less pressure on future federal and state budgets. But let me give you a tip: there are so many other pressures we probably won’t notice its absence.
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