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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Wednesday, August 8, 2018

This country is run for home owners, by home owners

Name a group that accounts for about a third of the population and rising, is much more likely to suffer stress in affording their housing than other groups, and yet has never had much sympathy from politicians, voters or the media.

Ironically, the bit of sympathy they’ve had in recent days hasn’t been warranted.

They’re the forgotten minority – more forgotten than the forgotten people we keep being reminded about. They’re renters.

They get forgotten because we live in a land where home ownership is the only recognised real estate religion. This country is run for home owners, by home owners.

Now, it may have occurred to you that a supposedly sacred group known as “first home buyers” – actually, would-be home buyers - are renters. Surely a fair bit of sympathy exists for them?

Well, not really. We profess to be sympathetic, but we aren’t. That’s because, as economists get tired of pointing out, all the things we do in the name of helping would-be home owners – first home buyer grants or stamp duty concessions, capital gains tax exemptions for owner-occupiers, even negative gearing – actually benefit existing home owners at the expense of aspiring home owners.

These things add to the demand for homes, relative to supply, and thus push up their prices, making them harder to afford.

Politicians are almost always unwilling to help aspiring home owners by reversing these concessions because they know how angry existing owners would be if they did.

But getting back to renters generally, why do we take so little interest in them and their problems?

Partly because, in a world that values home ownership above all else, renting is assumed to be just a brief transitional state while young people get together the money for a deposit.

Unfortunately, that assumption gets less true as each year passes. When I became a journo in the mid-1970s, we were particularly proud of Australia’s 70 per cent rate of home ownership. It’s been declining, slowly but inexorably, ever since.

Meaning the proportion of renters has been growing ever since. A lot of people still attain home ownership, of course, but it takes them many years longer.

The other reason we take so little interest in renters is that, since almost all of us aspire to own our home, those who never make it – those who stay renting all their lives – are those never able to afford it. And who spends much time worrying about the poor?

But this, too, is becoming less true as the years pass, with a lot more middle-income earners spending a lot more of their lives in rented accommodation.

In the day, we used to rely on “the housing commission” to take the poor off our conscience. In the years since then, the enthusiasm of governments, federal and state, for what we now euphemistically call “social housing”, including “affordable housing”, has steadily diminished – further demonstrating our lack of interest in renters.

The latest report from HILDA – the long-running, government-funded survey of Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia – includes a most informative chapter on renters, by Professor Roger Wilkins, of the Melbourne Institute at Melbourne University.

Wilkins confirms that renters of social housing are 10 percentage points more likely to experience financial hardship than people who own their homes outright. But renters of private housing are 15 percentage points more likely.

HILDA defines “housing stress” as households in the bottom 40 per cent of the distribution of household incomes who spend more than 30 per cent of their income on mortgage payments or rent. (Plenty of high-income households spend more than 30 per cent, but that’s a choice they can afford.)

The proportion of private renters suffering housing stress rose from almost 18 per cent after the turn of the century to 20 per cent by the end of the decade, but hasn’t increased since then.

Of late, some sympathy has been expressed for renters, who must be suffering huge increases in their rent as house prices in Sydney and Melbourne have soared.

Sorry, I’ve looked up the consumer price figures and they don’t compute. In Sydney, over the four years to June this year, the prices of newly built dwellings bought by owner-occupiers rose by almost 20 per cent, whereas rents rose by less than 10 per cent – not a lot higher than the rise in all consumer prices of 7.5 per cent.

In Melbourne, new home prices rose by more than 16 per cent, whereas rents rose by less than half that – only a fraction more than consumer prices generally.

But if soaring rents don’t explain renters’ high rates of financial and housing stress, what does? Their generally low and lower-middle incomes, which have probably worsened somewhat, relative to the rest of us, so far this century.

Note that housing stress is surprisingly low among people of retirement age. That’s because this is the group with by far the highest rate of outright home ownership. The modest level of the age pension takes this fact into account.

But that means those relatively few pensioners who rent privately do suffer much hardship. When a spate of complaints about the inadequacy of the single age pension prompted an investigation, it found that only single pensioners in private rental were doing it tough.

Kevin Rudd responded with a big one-off increase for all single pensioners, plus an increase for married pensioners so they wouldn’t feel left out. As I say, renters don’t count.
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Monday, August 6, 2018

How to lift our schools’ performance

We’re at it again. Every time education or healthcare pops up in the news, it’s almost always people arguing about money and how much of it they’re getting. Rarely is it people discussing how the billions we’re already spending could be used more effectively.

There’s nothing the media love more than a fight. And when it comes to government spending, there’s never a shortage of interest groups demanding more or predicting death and destruction if their funding’s cut.

Now “Gonski” is back in the news, but it’s people still arguing the toss about David Gonski's first report on needs-based funding, not Gonski 2.0 on how we can improve a school system that’s failing far too many of its students.

Inevitably, the latest fight is sectarian. The Catholics are trying to extract special deals from both Labor and the Coalition before the election, while the largely Protestant “independent” sector is threatening to arc up if the Catholics succeed.

Hope Jesus is pleased with the example you’re setting your students, guys.

The Melbourne-based Grattan Institute takes pride in focusing on more substantive policy issues. And it got through a public discussion of Gonski 2.0 in Sydney last week without once mentioning funding.

Gonski’s second bite at the education cherry confirmed that, since 2000, Australian student outcomes have declined in key areas such as reading, science and maths. There’s a wide gap between our best and worst performers.

It’s a gap that won’t be magically removed by needs-based funding. So what does Gonski suggest?

The first of his three priorities is to “deliver at least one year’s growth in learning for every student every year”. Our achievement gap shows that many of our kids get through a year without learning all the curriculum assumes they have.

Gonski says we still have a 20th century industrial-style model of schooling where students are grouped by grade and age, learn or don’t learnt what they’re supposed to, then move in lockstep to the next grade.

At the end of the half-year or year they’re tested to see how much they’ve learnt, mainly so they can be ranked according to how well they performed in the competition.

Gonski wants to move to a model that focuses on measuring “growth” – the progress each individual student is making along a defined “learning progression”, which is an empirically determined list of the sequence in which most students learn the steps to acquiring, say, literacy or numeracy.

Teachers make regular assessments of each individual’s progress, so they know what the kid’s ready to learn next. This helps prevent the slower students falling hopelessly behind, but also makes sure the brighter students are stretched.

These regular assessments are diagnostic rather than how you’re going in the comp. Students are applauded for their growth, not for coming top. As Paul Cahill, of the Catholic Schools system, said to the Sydney gathering, we need more growth in learning and less ranking and sorting.

Just as well, because all those diagnostic assessments will be time-consuming. Gonski says education authorities should develop an online and on-demand student learning assessment tool for teachers and also “limit the burden of non-core activities such as administrative tasks”.

This move to “targeted teaching” is being practiced in some schools and is endorsed by much research. It just needs to be used much more widely.

Gonski’s second priority is to “equip every child to be a creative, connected and engaged learner in a rapidly changing world”.

“As routine manual and administrative activities are increasingly automated, more jobs will require a higher level of skill, and more school-leavers will need skills that are not easily replicated by machines, such as problem-solving, interactive and social skills, and critical and creative thinking,” his report says.

People call these “soft skills” or “21st century skills”, but the educationists’ term is “general capabilities”. There’s wide agreement that these things warrant greater attention, and has been for a decade. What’s missing is the will to get on with it.

But some worry that more emphasis on soft skills means dumbing down the syllabus. More touchy-feely means less knowledge of facts and concepts.

At last week’s gathering, however, Leslie Loble, of the NSW Education Department, insisted there need be no conflict. General capabilities and hard knowledge must always go together; you gain your general capabilities while learning the traditional subjects.

Grattan’s highly influential school education expert, Dr Peter Goss, noted that Gonski 2.0’s greatest strength – it wasn’t urging the Feds to impose its priorities on the states and territories – is also its great weakness. As I’d put it, now we have to wait for Brown’s cows to get their acts together.

The longer it takes, the more of our young people get off to a bad start in life.
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Saturday, August 4, 2018

It's weak investment that’s crimping productivity and prospects

US President Donald Trump said his big cut in company tax would do wonders for the economy. It’s certainly done wonders for company share buybacks. Which may be a clue to why America’s rate of improvement in productivity is so pathetic.

The continuing puzzle for the rich world’s economists is explaining the unusually weak rate of productivity improvement throughout the advanced economies. In Oz we’re not doing so badly, though we used to do a lot better.

Productivity measures the quantity of the economy’s (or just a particular business’s) output of goods and services relative to its inputs of raw materials, labour and capital equipment.

Productivity improves when a given quantity of inputs to the production process is able to produce a greater quantity of goods and services than before. It’s most commonly measured by reference to just one of the inputs, labour. So it’s output per unit of labour, usually per hour worked.

You still see people assuming that some politician or business person saying we need to increase our productivity is really saying we should work harder.

Wrong. The main way to make workers more productive is to give them more or better machines and structures to work with. That is, to invest in more physical capital.

Increasing workers’ education and training – “human capital” – also makes them more productive: better able to work with more sophisticated machines, to think of ways to make machines do better tricks, and think of more efficient ways to organise the work that’s done in a mine, farm, factory, office or shop.

Often, what the better machines and ways of organising things are intended to do is further exploit economies of scale.

Point is, it’s the almost continuous improvement in productivity, year after year, that does most to explain why we are so much more prosperous than our ancestors.

Hence economists’ consternation over the rich world’s unusually weak rate of productivity improvement for the past decade or so, and their search for explanations.

The most popular explanation among them, advanced by Professor Bob Gordon, of Northwestern University in Illinois, is one the rest of us would find hard to credit.

It’s that the present information and communication technology revolution isn’t transforming the economy to the extent that earlier general-purpose technologies – such as electricity, the internal combustion engine, the automated production line, and even running water and indoor toilets – did.

A different, but probably only partial, explanation is that much of the benefits coming from the digital revolution are going unrecognised by a system of national accounts (gross domestic product) designed to measure the industrial economy.

A month ago, I argued that another partial explanation was that the innovations of too many of our brightest and best brains were being used for nothing more productive than finding new ways to get around inconvenient laws and taxes.

Then there’s the notion of “secular stagnation” from Professor Lawrence Summers, of Harvard. Among other things, it says that the ageing of the population and very slow population growth in the rich countries (though not in Australia) means they face a future of weaker growth in consumer spending, thus diminishing the incentive for firms to invest in expansion.

Which links to the much more straightforward – and thus persuasive – explanation offered by former senior econocrat Dr Michael Keating and Professor Stephen Bell, of the University of Queensland, in their book Fair Share.

They argue that the key to productivity improvement is investment – particularly investment by businesses – and the spur to business investment is economic growth and the expectation it will continue.

Innovation is fine, but the main way some new technology is “diffused” throughout the economy is by firms replacing their old machines and structures with new ones that incorporate the latest advances.

Investment is also an essential part of the continuous process of change in the industry structure of the economy, where changes in consumers’ preferences and other developments cause some industries to contract while others expand and new industries emerge.

If firms are reluctant to invest, you don’t get enough expansion to offset the contraction.

What is businesses’ main motive for investing? Their expectations of increased demand for whatever they’re selling, Keating and Bell say.

But this is where the global financial crisis and the Great Recession come in. It was by far the deepest recession the developed world has suffered since the 1930s. The crisis was 10 years ago next month, and the recovery has been particularly weak.

Things in America may look pretty good today – unemployment is very low, profits are high and the economy grew at an annualised rate of 4.1 per cent in the June quarter.

But all is not as it seems. The latest amazing growth is the product of fiscal stimulus from Trump's income tax cuts and won’t last.

Low unemployment conceals a marked fall in the proportion of the population (particularly less-skilled middle-aged men) participating in the labour force.

Many people who lost their job during the recession have given up looking for another one. Their skills have “atrophied” – wasted away – and are a loss of human capital to the US economy.

Keating and Bell show that business investment fell more in this recession than previous ones and has been remarkably slow to recover.

Seeing no great reason to expand, US businesses have been using their profits not to reinvest but to pay big dividends and to buy back their shares on the stockmarket, hoping to boost their price. Trump’s company tax cut has pushed buybacks to record levels.

Get it? Weak economic growth in the advanced economies is discouraging businesses from investing. Weak investment means weak productivity improvement and skills atrophy. But weak productivity means more weak growth.

The authors note that business investment in physical capital, and growth in human capital, are key drivers of the economy’s “potential” growth rate in future years. Neglect them and the economy loses its ability to speed up.

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development calls this a “low-growth trap”. Not an encouraging thought.
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Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Young people bearing the brunt of a weak economy

Without wanting to be branded a class traitor, I have to admit that we Baby Boomers have enjoyed a rails-run in the race of life.

Most of us had little trouble getting ourselves set up in the jobs market and then the housing market. I look at today’s bright and bushy-tailed youngsters, just starting out in both markets, and don’t envy them one bit (except, of course, their instinctive understanding of the right place to click on a webpage).

(Just to protect my back: those Baby Boomers who were conscripted, or ended up in Vietnam, didn’t have it easy. Nor should those who’ve come after us imagine all Baby Boomers are rolling in it, have never been unemployed, never paid uni fees nor suffered bad luck.)

In the decade since the global financial crisis and the recession we supposedly didn’t have, the supply of people wanting to work has been stronger than employers’ demand for work to be done.

That’s true even though the rate of unemployment never got very high and isn’t all that high today. But a study by Zoya Dhillon and Natasha Cassidy, of the Reserve Bank, confirms what I’ve long suspected: the reason the position overall hasn’t looked so bad is the brunt of the weakness in employers’ demand for labour has been borne by young people leaving school and university.

Whatever you’ve heard in the media, not a lot of workers have been laid off since the shock in September 2008. Employer behaviour has changed, the study confirms. Firms have been less inclined to get rid of people and more inclined to reduce the total amount of hours they’re paying for.

This has become easier for them to do because of their greater ability to employ people on a part-time or casual basis.

On balance, and from an economy-wide perspective, this change of behaviour is an improvement, a shift to a lesser evil. It’s a terrible blow to suddenly lose your job. Better to have some paid work than none.

But the price for this marginal improvement has been paid mainly by the young. Established workers have tended to keep their jobs, but employers haven’t recruited as many people at entry-level. And more of the jobs they’ve offered young people have been part-time.

A new twist on last in, first out.

The result is that education-leavers have had greater trouble – and suffered longer delays – in finding a full-time job suited to their education.

“Over the past decade,” the study says, “increases in the unemployment and underemployment rates for younger people have been twice as large as for the overall labour market. The share of 20 to 24 year-olds that have become disengaged from either study or work has also increased.”

“Younger people” means those aged 15 to 24, though remember that those aged 15 to 19 will mainly be still at school, while many of those aged 20 to 24 will be at university or TAFE.

Some younger people have part-time jobs while still at school, and most higher education students in full-time study also work part-time.

Nothing new or worrying about that. But “in recent years there has been a pronounced increase in the share of 20 to 24 year-olds working part-time who are not studying full-time”.

You’ve heard, no doubt, that while the official unemployment rate has been edging down, the rate of underemployment – people working part-time who want to work more hours – has been edging up (until lately, as we’ll see).

What’s less well known is that underemployment is dominated by younger workers, and it’s they who’ve done most to drive the rate up over recent years. A lot of this would be people finishing uni but having trouble finding a full-time job and taking a part-time job while they keep searching.

In the mid-1990s, about 80 per cent of all bachelor-degree graduates found a full-time job within four months of graduating. By last year, that had fallen to just over 70 per cent – about the same as it got down to during our last severe recession in the early 1990s.

Remember, it’s like a traffic jam. It takes a lot longer than it should, but you do get through eventually.

The most worrying thing is the “NEET rate” – the proportion of younger people who are “not in education, employment or training”. The NEET rate has fallen over the decades as we’ve done better at getting more of our young people into education and training.

But the rate for 20 to 24 year-olds has increased in recent years and is back to where it was in 2005.

The study says prolonged spells of disengagement from the labour market are known to have lasting ill-effects. “Poor labour market outcomes early on not only affect an individual’s future employability, but also have persistent negative effects on lifetime earnings.”

All this says the difficulties younger people are encountering in finding decent full-time jobs are better explained by the economy’s prolonged period of below-par growth since the financial crisis than by the sexier and more frightening explanation that it’s caused by the rise of the “gig economy”.

Which brings me to a little good news. The trend rate of underemployment for all ages has fallen a little to 8.4 per cent over the past year. And the rate of unemployment for younger people has fallen from 12.4 per cent to 11.6 per cent in just the past four months.
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