Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Wage growth the key to lasting economic strength in 2018

So, no train strike in Sydney because unionists were ordered to keep working by the Fair Work Commission. Is that good news or bad? Depends on the point from which you view it – but don't assume you have only one of 'em.

And if your viewpoint's from somewhere in Victoria, don't assume it's a matter of little relevance to your own pay packet.

A 24-hour train strike would have caused great inconvenience to commuters and disruption to many businesses – which is precisely why the unionists were ordered to abandon their strike. Thank goodness. Damage averted.

Or maybe not. The union wanted to strike for better wages and conditions during the very brief period following the end of an enterprise agreement when industrial action is legally protected.

I don't want to shock you, but all strikes are designed to impose financial costs on an employer – that's what gives bosses an incentive to agree to pay rises they don't fancy. Inconvenience to the employer's customers is usually unavoidable.

It's no bad thing that such disruption has become rare – always provided employers and their workers are able to reach agreement on reasonable wages and conditions without the need for disruption.

That's what gives the averted rail strike its wider significance. If the rail workers can't strike even during their brief "bargaining period", when can they? Maybe never. In which case, what's to stop employers driving ever more one-sided bargains?

The union movement's response is to claim that the right to strike is "very nearly dead". I'm not convinced. But, equally, I'm not certain it contains no element of truth.

And get this: if it is true that the past few decades of industrial relations "reform" have robbed the nation's workers of much of their power to bargain collectively, that's not just bad news for more than 12 million employees, and their dependents, it's bad news for the entire economy – including most of the nation's grossly overpaid chief executives.

This is an issue we'll keep hearing about this year. Much – even the fate of the Turnbull government – will turn on an issue it doesn't want to talk about: what happens to wages.

There's great optimism among economists and business people about a return to strong growth in the economy this year.

Everyone's convinced the world economy will grow faster than it has in years and, at home, the amazingly strong growth in employment last year – most of it in full-time jobs – is expected to continue.

What could be better calculated to lift the survival prospects of Malcolm Turnbull and his band of not-so-happy siblings, who must face an election by the middle of next year at the latest?

While economists and business people sing eternal praises to the great god of Growth in the size of the economy, voters care most about increased Jobs. The two usually go together, but they're not the same.

There's just one problem with the rosy prospects for Jobson Grothe this year: wages have grown no faster than consumer prices for the past four years. Employees have gained nothing from the improvement in productivity during that time, with all the lolly going to profits.

Does that sound like heaven on a stick for our business people? Many are yet to realise it's a fool's paradise. But, rest assured, if it keeps up for another year, light will dawn.

There are rival explanations for the weakness in wage growth. Some say it's temporary, others that it's lasting.

The econocrats – whose forecasts for wage growth have been way too high for years – say it's just a result of the economy's slow recovery from the resources boom, plus maybe a little digital disruption, and will go away if we're patient a bit longer.

They say it's simple supply-and-demand: as employment keeps growing, suitable labour becomes harder to find, obliging employers to pay higher wages to attract the staff they want.

Others fear the problem is deeper and long-lasting: it has been only the collective bargaining strength conferred on employees by industrial relations law that has allowed them to extract from employers the wage growth (above inflation) that has been their rightful share of improved productivity.

By now, however, years of "reform" have swung the industrial relations pendulum too far in favour of employers, thus allowing them to avoid sharing any of the productivity gains with their workers.

What do I think? My guess is it's a bit of both. It's too soon to be sure how much of the problem is temporary and how much is permanent, requiring governments to do more to roll back the Howard government's measures to discourage collective bargaining.

But time's running out for the not-to-worry brigade. If we don't see some quickening in wage growth as the year progresses, suspicions will increase that the economy's stopped working the way it's supposed to.

It's weak growth in wages that's really driving voters' complaints about the rising cost of living.

Worse, consumer spending is by far the biggest contributor to growth in the economy. Consumer spending is driven by the growth in household incomes, which in turn is driven partly by rising employment, but mainly by real wage rises.

Take away the real growth in wages and neither the economy nor jobs will stay growing strongly for long. If so, neither voters nor business people are likely to be happy.

Monday, January 1, 2018

Who’s doing best in the rent-seeking business

Economists joke that, whereas they are taught that any barriers to new firms entering a market are bad, allowing profits to be too high, MBA students are taught that "barriers to entry" are good, and shown ways to raise them.

Economists have no quarrel with businesses making profits. The shareholder-owners who provide the financial capital needed to sustain those firms are entitled to a return on their investment, one that reflects not only the (opportunity) cost of their capital, but also the riskiness of the particular business they're in.

Economists call such a return on equity "normal profit". But sometimes the various barriers to new firms entering a market limit competition, allowing the incumbents to make profits in excess of those needed to induce them to stay in the industry.

These are called "super-normal" profits (super as in "above"). Now get this: the other name for super-normal profits is "rents" – economic rents, to be precise.

We're used to thinking of rent-seekers as businesses or industries that ask governments for special treatment. But it's common for rents to be sought in situations that have nothing to do with government favours.

One of the most informative pieces of economic research undertaken last year was conducted by Jim Minifie, of the Grattan Institute, who made detailed estimates of the economic rents being earned in particular industries – something no government agency would be game to do.

He focused on the two-thirds of the economy made up by the "non-tradable private sector", excluding export and import-competing industries and the public sector.

He found that the annual return on equity in the most competitive part of this sector averaged 10 per cent. That compares with returns exceeding 30 per cent in internet publishing, which includes online classified advertising of homes, jobs and cars.

Then came internet service providers on 25 per cent and wired telecom on a fraction less. Supermarkets were on about 23 per cent, sports betting on 22 per cent, liquor retailing on 19 per cent, and wireless telecom and (get this) private health insurance on about 18 per cent.

Delivery services and fuel retailing are on 15 per cent, with banking not far behind on 14 per cent, level pegging with electricity distribution and airport operations.

But the rate of an industry's super-normal profit or economic rent isn't the same as its absolute amount. Most industries with very high rates of profit are quite small.

Measured in dollar terms, the most rents are in banking, followed by supermarkets, electricity distribution (just the local poles and wires), wired and wireless telecom.

Minifie estimates that rents account for 20 per cent of the non-tradable private sector's total annual after-tax profits of $200 billion. This is equivalent to more than 2 per cent of gross domestic product.

Another way to judge the significance of super-normal profits is to express them as "mark-ups" – as proportions of total sales.

The average mark-up across the whole non-traded private sector is 2 per cent. So, if rents were eliminated, but costs didn't change, average prices would fall by 2 per cent.

Within that average, however, the mark-up in internet publishing is 26 per cent. Then come airport operations on 20 per cent, wired telecom on 19 per cent and electricity distribution on 12 per cent.

Further down the league table, electricity transmission – the high-voltage power lines, not the local poles and wires – has an estimated mark-up of 7 per cent.

But get this: the banks' mark-up is just 4 per cent and the supermarkets' is a bit over 3 per cent.

How come, when super-profits account for more than half the supermarkets' total profit? Because supermarkets are a high-volume, low-margin business (as are banks).

Minifie notes that Coles and Woolworths are so big they achieve huge economies of scale. And, as dairy farmers well know, they achieve further cost savings by using their market power to force down the prices they pay their suppliers.

Trick is, they pass much of these cost savings on to their customers, but keep enough of them to remain highly profitable.

Coles and Woolies have substantially higher profit margins than their smaller rival IGA, even though their average prices are lower than IGA's prices. So the big two's costs must be a lot lower than IGA's.

The list of industries with the highest super-profits reminds us how badly governments have stuffed-up the national electricity market, how much better they could be doing in controlling the prices of monopoly businesses such as Telstra, airports and port terminals, and in charging for liquor and gambling licences, not forgetting the indulgent treatment of private health funds.