Monday, July 22, 2019

Despite the photo-op, RBA knows we need fiscal stimulus

Never fear, Reserve Bank governor Dr Philip Lowe may have stumbled on the optics of agreeing to a photo-op with Treasurer Josh Frydenberg the other week, but the Reserve’s independence remains intact and our weak economy remains in need of budgetary stimulus.

Politicians have damaged our trust so badly that they like having respected econocrats appearing beside them to bolster their credibility. But central bank governors who wish to preserve the authority of their office don’t oblige, just as Lowe’s predecessor, Glenn Stevens, declined to be used as a prop by Kevin Rudd.

That’s the trouble, of course. There’s nothing wrong with treasurers and governors having private meetings – the more the better – but once the media are invited in the pollies will always be playing their own game, and it’s always one that puts their political standing ahead of the economy’s interests.

I suspect the message Frydenberg wanted to convey to viewers was that the economy was going fine and he had no intention of allowing fiscal stimulus to jeopardise the budget’s predicted and glorious return to surplus, which would make his name as a treasurer.

He and his Treasury officers had spent two hours explaining this to Lowe, and Lowe had accepted their arguments.

I very much doubt that’s what really happened. Nor do I except the media interpretation that, pressured by Frydenberg, Lowe went on to repudiate all he’d been saying about the economy’s weakness and why he’d needed to cut the official interest rate two months in a row.

Why then did Lowe say “I agree 100 per cent with you [Frydenberg] that the Australian economy is growing and the fundamentals are strong”?

Well, for a start, no one denies that the economy is still growing. And “the fundamentals” is such a vague concept it could be taken to mean lots of things. Presumably, Lowe doesn’t include wages among the fundamentals, because annual growth of 2.3 per cent is not what I’d call strong.

I think all he was trying to say was that he was confident we aren’t heading into recession.

But there’s a deeper point to understand: central bankers see it as an important part of their job to exude calm and confidence. No matter how worried they are, they take pride in never showing it.

They’re like a duck: moving serenely above the water, paddling furiously underneath. Lowe has spoken several times recently about the need to preserve stability and confidence.

So never hold your breath waiting for a Reserve governor, Treasury secretary or, let’s hope, treasurer  to be the first to warn that recession is possible. They’ll be the last to admit it.

Like Paul Keating on the day he tried to conceal his failure by bulldusting about “the recession we had to have”, they don’t use the R word until the figures make it impossible to deny.

And that is just as it should be. Why? Because – particularly when it’s negative, and when sentiment is wavering – what they say has too much influence over what the rest of us think and do. Too much risk of their prophesies becoming self-fulfilling.

That’s why, as a mere media commentator, it’s my job to be brutally frank, and theirs to be circumspect.

And that’s why it’s wrong to claim Lowe has suddenly changed his tune about the economy’s prospects. Those who think otherwise are like the people in the famous psych experiment who were so busy counting points in a basketball match they didn’t notice a gorilla run across the court.

In his announcement of the second rate cut – as in almost all his recent public utterances – Lowe insisted that “the central scenario for the Australian economy remains reasonable, with growth around trend expected”.

The significant change has been the Reserve’s revised judgement that the “non-accelerating-inflation rate of unemployment” has fallen from about 5 per cent to 4.5 per cent or lower. Lowe has used this as his justification for cutting interest rates.

“Today’s decision to lower the cash rate will help make further inroads into the spare capacity in the economy” and “will assist with faster progress in reducing unemployment . . .”, he said in the announcement.

It’s a lovely thought, but I fear the immediate challenge is not to get unemployment lower, but to stop it continuing to rise. And the latter risk fits better with Lowe’s repeated calls for more help from the budget – for it to be pointing in the same direction as monetary policy (interest rates), not the opposite direction, as at present.

Frydenberg’s photo-op made it clear his answer is no. Perhaps at their next two-hour meeting Lowe should explain to him how the budget’s “automatic stabilisers” work, and may well wash away his promised budget surplus.
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Saturday, July 20, 2019

Change is inevitable. If we embrace it we win; resist it we lose

Will Australia’s future over the next 40 years be bright or pretty ordinary? It could go either way, depending on how we respond to the challenges facing us. So what do we have to do to rise to the occasion?

The challenges, choices and likely consequence we face are spelt out in the report, Australian National Outlook 2019, produced by the CSIRO in consultation with 50 leaders from companies, universities and non-profits. The group was chaired by Dr Ken Henry, former Treasury secretary, and David Thodey, former boss of Telstra.

The report identifies six main challenges we face between now and 2060. First is the rise of Asia and the way it is shifting the geopolitical and economic landscape.

Asia’s middle class is growing rapidly, but unless we improve our ability to compete and also diversify our exports, we risk missing out on this opportunity and will be vulnerable to external shocks.

Next is the challenge of technological change, such as artificial intelligence, automation and biotechnology, which is transforming existing industries and changing the skills required for high-quality jobs.

Third challenge is climate change, the environment and loss of biodiversity. These pose a significant economic, environmental and social threat to the world and to us. We could be on a path to 4 degrees global warming by the end of the century unless significant action is taken.

Then there’s the demographic challenge: at current growth rates Australia’s population may approach 41 million by 2060, with Sydney and Melbourne housing 8 to 9 million people each. At the same time, ageing means the population’s rate of participation in the workforce could drop from 66 per cent to 60 per cent. (I don’t accept that such a rate of population growth is either inevitable or desirable.)

The fifth challenge is that trust in governments, businesses, other organisations and the media has declined. Without a lot of trust, it will be much harder to agree on the often-tough measures needed to respond to all these challenges.

Finally, measures of social cohesion have fallen in the past decade, with many Australians feeling left behind. Inequality, financial stress, slow wage growth and poor housing affordability may be contributing to this.

The report develops two plausible but opposite scenarios of how things may develop over the next 40 years. The “slow decline” scenario is the muddle-through future, in which we resist change for as long as we can. In the “outlook vision” scenario we agree to bite the bullet, resist the lobbying of declining industries, make the needed policy changes and exploit the benefits of new technology and trading opportunities.

Under the low-road scenario, real gross domestic product grows at an average rate of 2.1 per cent a year, whereas under the high-road scenario it grows by 2.8 per cent. This would cause average real growth per person to be 39 per cent higher than under the low-road.

Real wages would be 90 per cent higher in 2060 than today, compared with 40 per cent higher under the low-road.

The low-road approach would allow cities to continue to sprawl, whereas the high-road would involve increasing the density of cities by about 75 per cent compared with today. This would keep our cities highly liveable.

Urban congestion could be reduced by higher density. Vehicle kilometres per person would fall by less than 25 per cent under the low-road, compared with up to 45 per cent under the high-road.

Net carbon emissions would fall by only 11 per cent under the low-road, with total energy use increasing by 61 per cent on 2016 levels, and only a modest improvement in energy productivity (efficiency).

By contrast, net zero emissions would be reached by 2050 under the high-road, with a doubling of energy productivity per unit of GDP and total energy use increasing by less than 45 per cent.

Whereas returns to landowners would increase by about $18 billion a year under the low-road, they’d increase by up to $84 billion a year under the high-road.

There’d be minimal environmental planting in 2060 under the low-road, but between 11 to 20 million hectares under the high-road, accounting for up to a quarter of intensive agricultural land. This “carbon forestry” explains why net zero emissions could be achieved without significant effect on economic growth.

More biodiverse plantings and better land management could help restore our ecosystems. And low-emission, low-cost sources of energy could even become a source of comparative advantage for us, with exports of hydrogen and high-voltage direct-current power.

The report says we need to achieve five key shifts to get us on to the high road. First, Industry. We need to allow a change in the structure of our industry, by increasing the adoption of new technology and so increasing productivity. We need to invest in the skills of our workers to keep their labour globally competitive and ready for the technology-enabled jobs of the future.

Second, urban sprawl. We need to plan for higher-density, multicentred and well-connected capital cities to reduce sprawl and congestion. We need to reform land-use zoning, so diverse high-quality housing options bring people closer to jobs, services and amenities. We must invest in transport infrastructure, including mass-transit, autonomous vehicles and "active transit", such as walking and cycling.

Third, energy. We must manage the shift to renewable energy, which will be driven by declining technology costs for generation, storage and grid support. We need to improve energy productivity using new technology to reduce the waste of power by households and industry.

Fourth, land. We need to use digital and genomic technology to improve food technology and to participate in new agricultural environmental markets to capitalise on our unique opportunities in global carbon markets. This will help to maintain, restore and invest in biodiversity and ecosystem health.

Finally, culture. We need to rebuild trust, encourage a healthy culture of risk-taking and deal with the social and environmental costs of reform policies.

Trouble is, a public that’s willing to re-elect the reactionary Morrison government seems more likely to settle for the low-road than strive for the best we could be.
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Wednesday, June 26, 2019

News from the shopping trolley: retailers are doing it tough

If I told you that a big reason we're feeling such cost-of-living pressure is the increasing profits of the big supermarket chains, department stores, discount stores and other retailers, would you believe me? A lot of people would.

But that would just show how little we understand of the strange things happening in the economy in recent years. The economy in which we live and work keeps changing and getting more complicated, the digital revolution is disrupting industry after industry, but we have far too little time to check out what's happening – especially behind the scenes – so we rely on the casual impressions we gain along the way and on our long-held views about who's ripping it off and who's getting screwed.

Which are often off-beam. Perhaps because in many respects it's a good news story, few people realise the way digital disruption is putting retailing - a pretty big part of the economy, and a big part of household budgets - through the wringer.

If this meant retail staff were being laid off in their thousands we'd have heard about it. If it meant big retail chains were jacking up their prices, we'd have been told.

Instead, increased competition between retailers is making it much harder than usual for them to put up their prices, and causing some prices to fall.

It's all explained by Matthew Carter in an article in last week's Reserve Bank Bulletin, using data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics and the Reserve's regular contact with many medium and large retailers.

The article covers about a third of the "basket" of goods and services bought by Australian households, the changing prices of which are measured by the consumer price index. That is, not just food and other things you buy in supermarkets, but clothing and footwear, furniture, household items and much else, though not motor vehicles and fuel. Nor other classes of consumer spending not done through retailers, such as the costs of housing, healthcare and education.

Since the early 2000s, the increased competition in retailing has come first from online shopping – competition not just between local and overseas retailers, but between those local retailers who use the internet and those who don't, as well as between those who do.

The other main source of increased competition in retailing is the arrival of big new international companies, such as Aldi, Costco and, of course, Amazon, which is both online and a big new arrival from overseas. (The article doesn't mention two other disruptive developments: the advent of "category killers" such as Officeworks and Bunnings, and the decline of the department store.)

The basic model of markets used by economists assumes that businesses compete with each other mainly on price. In real-world Australia, however, the two, three or at most four big companies that dominate most markets much prefer to compete via product differentiation, marketing and advertising, and avoid price competition.

That's what online shopping has changed. And it's not just that the internet has made it infinitely easier for shoppers to compare prices. It's also that, on the net, it's much easier to compare prices than to compare colours or quality.

And when a big foreign player decides to try to break into an established market, price competition is the main way it tries to gain market share.

The result is that retailing has become more price conscious. And retailers are telling the Reserve Bank that their customers have become more price sensitive – which isn't surprising considering how slowly their wages are growing.

Nor does it matter much that, so far, not many people do their grocery shopping online, or that Aldi is still much smaller than Woolies or Coles. The others have protected themselves from losing market share by matching their rivals' lower prices.

Another effect of digitisation is to make it a lot easier for retailers to change their prices (as well as to find out what their rivals are charging). And the greater price consciousness of their customers means that 60 per cent of retailers now review their prices weekly or even daily.

This means many retailers more frequently discount their prices - put them "on special" - and make the discounts deeper.

The Reserve Bank's survey of retailers shows the main reasons they lower prices is because their competitors have cut their prices or because demand has weakened.

Carter has analysed the Bureau of Statistics' industry statistics and found that the net profit margins of both food and non-food retailers had fallen by about 1.75 percentage points (that's 1.75¢ in every dollar of sales) since 2011-12.

It may not sound much, but it is – especially in supermarkets, which are low-margin, high turnover businesses. Further analysis confirms that this decline comes from reduced ability to mark-up wholesale prices, rather than higher operating costs.

However, retailers are fighting back, trying to improve their mark-ups by offering more own-brand products (cuts out the wholesaler) and more premium brands (higher mark-up), while some non-food retailers are joining the supermarkets in moving from the traditional "high-low" pricing strategy ("specials" and frequent "sales") to an "everyday low price" strategy. By selling more, they gain more power to bargain with wholesalers.

Of all the things that are making our lives tough, higher retail prices ain't one of them.
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Monday, June 24, 2019

Poor Josh Frydenberg: on the wrong tram, heading for trouble

It’s not my policy to feel sorry for any politician – they’re all hugely ambitious volunteers – but I do feel sympathy for Treasurer Josh Frydenberg. He’s not the first treasurer to be strong on party dogma but light on economic understanding, but he’s among the first to be heading into stormy weather light on expert advice from a confident and competent Treasury.

There he was, thinking his first budget would be his last, primping up a pre-election budget that claimed to have fixed the economy and delivered on deficit and debt when that was all in the future and built on nothing more than years of wildly optimistic forecasts, combined with a massive tax bribe whose cost will keep multiplying for seven years.

Do you think that while cooking up the happy forecasts needed to justify his claims of Mission Accomplished and make his tax cuts seem affordable, Treasury warned him of the risks he was running, making himself and his government hostages to fortune?

I doubt it. They wouldn’t have been game to. The Coalition’s politicisation of Treasury, intended to kill its corporate sense of mission and replace it with people who’d proved their right-thinking and party loyalty as ministerial staffers, sent the message that the government wanted people who spoke only when spoken to and kept any contrary opinions to themselves.

In the process, however, most of the people with a deep understanding of macro-economic management have drifted away. People who understood the mysteries of the business cycle, with experience of recessions - and how excruciatingly painful they are for the government of the day.

These are people who know how much worse you make it for yourself – and for the economy voters depend on – by refusing to face the mess you’ve got yourself into, and who know how to help you change trams with as little loss of face as possible.

People game to tell you to stop digging. People who know that the longer you take to accept that the game has changed, the harder it will be to get the economy back on track – and, incidentally, to avoid getting the blame for completely stuffing it up.

People who’ll tell you to blame your about-face on changes coming from the rest of the world, but not to believe your own bulldust. People who’ll tell you to forget about party political doctrine – and the crowing of your opponents - and be completely pragmatic in doing whatever needs to be done to get you and the economy out of the poo.

Here’s what Frydenberg’s experts should be telling him, but probably aren’t – unless he speaks to Reserve Bank governor Dr Philip Lowe a lot more regularly than I imagine he does.

First, worrying about deficit and debt is something national governments can afford to do only when they’ve got an economy that’s growing strongly. The three successive quarters of pathetically weak growth we’ve experienced – complete with rising unemployment and underemployment - may prove to be just a blip, as the budget’s forecasts assume they will, but it’s much easier to believe they show the economy is fast running out of puff.

Recession is neither imminent nor inevitable in the next year or three, but with the economy in such a weakened state it is vulnerable to any adverse shock that happens along – whether of domestic or international in origin.

In such circumstances, it would be economically damaging and fiscally counterproductive (not to mention politically disastrous) to press on with fiscal consolidation rather give top priority to boosting economic activity and getting the economy back into strong-growth mode.

The problem is, the economy seems to be running out of puff because it’s caught in a vicious circle: private consumption and business investment can’t grow strongly because there’s no growth in real wages, but real wages will stay weak until stronger growth in consumption and investment gets them moving.

Policy has to break this cycle. But, as Lowe now warns in every speech he gives, monetary policy (lower interest rates) isn’t still powerful enough to break it unaided. Rates are too close to zero, households are too heavily indebted, and it’s already clear that the cost of borrowing can't be the reason business investment is a lot weaker than it should be.

That leaves the budget as the only other instrument available. The first stage of the tax cuts will help, but won’t be nearly enough. “Structural reform” is always a nice idea, but fixing a problem of deficient demand from the supply side would take far too long to be of practical help.

Over to you, Josh. If you’ve got the greatness in you, this could be your finest hour.
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Saturday, June 22, 2019

How to multiply the bang from your budget buck

Years ago, I came to a strong conclusion: the politician who could resist the temptation to use the budget to prop up the economy when it’s falling in a heap and making voters hugely dissatisfied has yet to be born.

So let me make a fearless prediction: whatever they’re saying now, sooner or later Treasurer Josh Frydenberg and his boss Scott Morrison will use “fiscal policy” (aka the budget) to help counter the sharp slowdown in the economy that, if we’re not careful or our luck doesn’t hold, could lead to something much worse.

How can I be so sure? Because I’ve seen it happen so many times before. As I wrote in this column last week, since the late 1970s it’s been the international conventional wisdom among governments and their advisers that “monetary policy” (interest rates) should be the chief instrument used to stabilise the economy as it moves through the ups and downs of the business cycle, with fiscal policy focused instead on achieving “fiscal sustainability” – making sure the public debt doesn’t get too high.

Take Malcolm Fraser, for instance. He spent almost all his time as prime minister trying to eliminate the big budget deficit he inherited from the Whitlam government.

Until, that is, his advisers noticed indications of what became the recession of the early 1980s. In his last budget, he cut taxes and boosted government spending.

The Hawke government was totally committed to leaving it all to monetary policy, and stuck to that even when Treasurer John Kerin brought down the 1991 budget during the depths of the recession we didn’t have to have in the early 1990s.

Except that, by this time, Paul Keating was on the backbench, telling everyone who’d listen that you’d have to be crazy not to be using the budget to stimulate the economy.

In February 1992, soon after he’d deposed Bob Hawke, Keating unveiled his own big One Nation stimulus package – which by then was far too late.

It was Dr Ken Henry’s realisation at the time that politicians will always do something, even if they should have done it much sooner that, after the global financial crisis in 2008, saw him urging Kevin Rudd to “go early, go hard, go households”.

Combined with a cut in interest rates far bigger than would be possible today, that fiscal stimulus was so effective in keeping us out of the Great Recession that, today, the punters have forgotten there was ever any threat and the Coalition has convinced itself it was never needed in the first place.

Now, as we also saw last week, with interest rates so close to zero, fiscal policy is back in fashion internationally – though I’m not sure the carrier pigeon has yet made it as far as Canberra. So we’ve got time for a quick refresher on how fiscal stimulus works while we wait for the penny to drop in the Bush Capital.

There is a “circular flow of income” around the economy, caused by the simple truth that one person’s spending is another person’s income. This means that $1 spent by the government (or anyone else, for that matter) can flow around the economy several times.

This is what economists call the “multiplier” effect. Just how big the multiplier is for any spending will depend on the “leakages” from the flow that happen when someone decides to save some of their income rather than spend it all, or when they spend some of their income on imported goods or services (including overseas holidays).

(There are also “injections” to the flow from investment – someone uses or borrows savings to spend on a new house or office or equipment – and from exports of goods or services to foreigners.)

This means that the degree of stimulus the economy receives will differ according to the choices the government makes about the form its stimulus will take.

In a briefing note prepared by Dr Peter Davidson for the Australian Council of Social Service, he quotes research on the size of multipliers calculated by the Congressional Budget Office for the various measures contained in President Obama’s stimulus package in 2009, after the financial crisis.

Where the government spent directly on the purchase of goods and services, $1 of spending increased US gross domestic product by between 50¢ and $2.50. Where the spending was money given to state governments for the construction of infrastructure, the multiplier ranged between 0.45 and 2.2.

For spending on social security payments, the multiplier ranged between 0.45 and 2.1. For one-off payments to retirees, it was between 0.2 and 1. For grants to first-home buyers, between 0.2 and 0.7.

Turning from government spending to tax cuts, the budget office found than tax cuts for low to middle income-earners yielded a multiplier of between 0.3 and 1.5. For tax cuts for high income-earners, it was between 0.05 and 0.6. For additional company tax deductions, it was 0.4.

These big differences aren’t hard to explain. Multipliers are highest for direct government purchases or construction because there’d be no initial leakage into saving and little into imports.

The multipliers for tax cuts are lower because of initial leakage into saving and imports – not so much for low and middle income-earners, but hugely so for high income-earners.

Davidson’s conclusion is that a fiscal stimulus package would give the biggest bang per buck if it focused on direct government spending (particularly on timely infrastructure projects) and transfer payments to social security recipients.

Unsurprisingly, he slips in a plug for a $75 a week increase in dole payments to single people and single parents which, because it went to the poorest households in the country, would be spent down to the last penny and on essentials such as food and rent, not imports. It would also go to the poorest regions in the country.

Sounds good to me – and also to Reserve Bank governor Dr Philip Lowe.
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Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Kiwis go one up and bring happiness to the budget

Like the past, New Zealand is a foreign country. They do things differently there. While we’ve just had a budget promising what seems like the world’s biggest tax cut, the Kiwis have just had what may be the world’s first “wellbeing budget”. Bit of a contrast.

I’ve long believed that all government politicians everywhere, when they’re not simply delivering for their backers, are trying to make voters happy and thus get themselves re-elected. They just differ in how they go about it.

Like governments everywhere, our governments of both colours have seen delivering economic growth - and the jobs and higher material living standards it’s expected to bring - as the chief thing we want of them to make us happier.

To this end they’ve adopted as their chief indicator of success the rate of growth in GDP – gross domestic product – which measures the nation’s production of goods and services during a period.
They’ve largely assumed that the extra income produced by this growth is distributed fairly between us - though, in recent decades, the share going to those near the top has grown a lot faster than the shares of everyone else.

This, presumably, is Australian voters’ “revealed preference”, since we’ve just rejected the party promising to cut various tax breaks going mainly to high income-earners and use the proceeds to increase spending on hospitals, schools and childcare, in favour of the party offering tax cuts worth an immediate saving of $1080 a year to middle income-earners and delayed savings of up to $11,640 a year to those of us on $200,000 and above.

According to the Liberal winners, voters in outer suburbs and the regions turned away from Labor because it would have dashed their “aspirations” to one day be earning two or three times what they’re earning today and so be raking it in from family trusts, negatively geared investments and, above all, refunds of unused franking credits.

But if our aspirations to happiness revolve around more money in general and less tax in particular, our cousins across the dutch aspire to a radically different brand of happiness.

According to their Finance Minister Grant Robertson, in his budget speech, New Zealanders were asking “if we have declared success because we have a relatively high rate of GDP growth, why are the things that we value going backwards - like child wellbeing, a warm, dry home for all, mental health services or rivers and lakes we can swim in?

“The answer to that question was that the things New Zealanders valued were not being sufficiently valued by the government . . . So, today in this first wellbeing budget, we are measuring and focusing on what New Zealanders value – the health of our people and our environment, the strengths of our communities and the prosperity of our nation.

“Success is making New Zealand both a great place to make a living, and a great place to make a life.”

According to the nest of socialists who’ve overrun the NZ Treasury, “there is more to wellbeing than just a healthy economy”. So GDP has been moved from its central place, replaced by Treasury’s “living standards framework”, based on the four sources of capital: natural capital (land, soil, water, plants and animals, minerals and energy resources), human capital (the education, skills and health of the population), social capital (the behavioural norms and institutions that influence the way people live and work together) and human-made capital (factories, offices, equipment, houses and infrastructure).

The living standards framework covers 12 “domains”: income and consumption, and jobs and earnings (which two cover GDP), and “subjective wellbeing” (the $10 term for happiness), plus health, housing, knowledge and skills, the environment, civic engagement and governance, time use, safety and security, cultural identity and social connections.

The wellbeing budget then set out five government priorities: improving mental health, reducing child poverty, addressing inequalities faced by Maori and Pacific island people, thriving in a digital age, and transitioning to a low-emission, sustainable economy.

I’ve often thought this would be the right way for governments to go about increasing “aggregate happiness” – by focusing on reducing the main sources of un-happiness.

To make a start, the budget provides almost $1billion over five years to improve the wellbeing of children, including extra funding for low-income schools, more help for children affected by domestic and sexual violence, and indexing family benefits to wages rather than prices.

The budget’s expensive mental health package includes creation of a new frontline service and funds to help people with mild-to-moderate mental health problems rather than making them wait until their problems worsen. Helping people with addictions is also seen as a health issue.

A “sustainable land-use” package works on the environmental challenges facing agriculture, including excess nutrient flows into iconic lakes and rivers.

Despite all this, the budget sticks to the government’s budget responsibility rules, with surpluses forecast and reduction of public debt. According to Saint Jacinda of Ardern, the wellbeing budget “shows you can be both economically responsible and kind”.

So, those uppity Kiwis think they can walk and chew gum at the same time. Fortunately, we Aussies know not to try.
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Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Perrottet uses no-probs rhetoric to hide fiscal stimulus

If you’ve ever got a dodgy proposition you want spruiked, see if you can get NSW Treasurer Dominic Perrottet to do it.

His budget offers the most optimistic view of the next four years, leading our state to a new Golden Century (and here was me thinking the Golden Century was where Sussex Street Labor went for a Chinese meal).

Behind all Perrottet’s bravado, however, he has taken his lumps, using his budget to absorb some of the economic pain and keep stimulating the state’s slowing economy.

Which makes him much less in denial than his federal counterpart, Josh Frydenberg, who despite all the bad news we’ve had about the national economy since his budget in April, says he’s pressing on with returning the federal budget to surplus.

The stark truth, from which Perrottet was trying to distract attention, is that the NSW economy is well past its peak. It will be many years before yet another housing boom brings back such good times.

The real question is just how far the economy will deteriorate before it levels out. Perrottet sees it slowing only to annual growth of 2.25 per cent in the financial year just ending and going no slower in the coming year, before bouncing back to its average rate of 2.5 per cent in the following years.

In other words, the present sharp slowdown will prove to be just a blip in our inevitable progress onward and upward. Like Frydenberg, Perrottet is a member of the “back-to-normal-in-no-time” party.

Let’s hope their optimism is right. I doubt we’re that lucky.

Perrottet makes much of the unusually strong growth in employment – and unusually low rate of unemployment – we’ve seen in recent years, with NSW performing better than most other states.

What he doesn’t mention is that, according to his own forecasts, those days are past. Employment may have grown by 3.25 per cent in the financial year just ending, but in the coming year growth will slow to 1.5 per cent, and a fraction less in subsequent years.

On the other hand, while the labour market is weakening, we’re told, wage growth will be strengthening, growing 0.75 percentage points faster than consumer prices in the year just ending and pretty much for the next three or four years.

Why so confident of stronger wage growth? Because, if it doesn’t happen, consumer spending will fall in a heap and so will the economy overall.

It’s when you come to his budget that Perrottet’s actions speak louder than his happy words. Having achieved years of huge budget operating surpluses when the housing market was booming and collections of conveyancing duty were overflowing, he’s now repeatedly revised down his expected surpluses as the extent of the housing bust has become apparent.

Had he been as obsessed with budget surpluses as his federal colleagues, he could have sought to limit the fall by cutting expenses but, even in this post-election budget, cuts in government spending are minor.

And, unlike other state governments, he has resisted the temptation to lower the 2.5 per cent government-imposed cap on public sector wage rises. Rather, the government will press on with its election promises to hire more than 14,000 extra teachers, nurses, health professionals and police over the next four years.

State governments regularly run operating surpluses to help fund their annual investment in infrastructure and other capital works. Perrottet increased infrastructure spending by 47 per cent in the financial year just ending and plans to increase it by a further 25 per cent in the coming year. This will increase the state’s expected overall (not just operating) budget deficit (repeat, deficit) to $14.5 billion in 2019-20, up from $2.8 billion two years earlier.

Perrottet estimates that this investment spending will account for about 0.5 percentage points of the state’s expected economic growth of 2.25 per cent in each of this and the coming financial years.

He may talk the same see-no-evil talk as the federal treasurer, but he seems to know a lot more about how you keep the economy growing in tough times.
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Monday, June 17, 2019

Economic reform is stalled until politicians get back our trust

For those who care more about good policy than party politics, there are unpleasant conclusions to be drawn from the federal election. The obvious one is that it was a case of policy overreach leading to failure.

The less obvious one is that decades of misbehaviour by both sides have alienated so many people from the political process and turned election campaigns into such a cesspit of misrepresentation and dishonesty that, henceforth, neither side will be game to propose or implement controversial reforms.

The election was lost by the party proposing to remove a long list of sectional tax breaks and use the proceeds to increase spending on hospitals, schools and childcare, and won by the party that couldn’t agree on any major policies bar a humongous tax cut.

The risks to good economic policy are obvious. Labor concludes only a mug would try to get themselves elected on the back of good policy; the Coalition concludes you don’t need to be promising to do anything much to get re-elected.

Labor’s conclusion could be used to reinforce the political class’s widely held view that controversial reforms should only be pursued once in government, never from opposition.

Trouble is, the Coalition’s conclusion could be used to argue that, if you can get re-elected without any plans to fix things, why take the risk of proposing anything that could be unpopular?

But I think the threat to good policy runs even deeper. It comes from the electorate’s ever-growing disillusionment and alienation from politics and politicians, and from the two main parties in particular.

The vote for a changing array of third parties continued to rise, while the primary vote for both the majors was down – though more so for Labor than the Coalition. Until now, the rise of One Nation and other populist parties of the right has been a much bigger worry for the Coalition than the Greens have been for Labor.

This time, however, many former Labor voters in outer suburban and regional electorates used One Nation and Clive Palmer’s United Australia Party as a bridge to switch their vote to the Liberals.

In numerical terms, that’s why Labor lost. The point for good-policy advocates to note is that, when so many voters tune out of the political debate, but are still required to vote, they tend to make a last-minute choice based not on a well-informed assessment of how they would be affected by the rival parties’ policies, but on superficialities (“that nice Mr Rudd” or “Shorten looks shifty to me”), scare campaigns and negative advertising.

In other words, in a world where switched-off swinging voters aren’t even guided by informed self-interest, the scare campaign is king. To be blunt, the best liars win.

The Libs were convinced that former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull came so close to losing the 2016 election because of the success of Labor’s Mediscare campaign, conducted at the last minute using social media.

My theory is that, this time, the Libs resolved to turn the tables. This time they made much superior use of social media to run bigger scare campaigns about Labor’s “retirement tax” and “housing tax”. That was mere misrepresentation of Labor’s policies (most of which had strong support from economists and econocrats). The anonymous soul who dreamt up the “death tax” was an outright liar.

I think the biggest single reason so many outer-suburban and regional voters turned away from Labor was its opponents’ success (with much help from Palmer’s blanket advertising) in convincing those voters that Labor planned to increase their taxes.

My guess is that the next federal election will either see each side battling to out-scare the other – an orgy of lies - or, more likely, neither side being game to propose any reform of consequence, for fear of having it grossly misrepresented by the other side.

The more the bad behaviour of both sides – the broken promises, the hypocrisy, the spin, the abuse of statistics, the preference for bad-mouthing your opponents rather than explaining your policies – continues, the more both sides will turn from substance to empty populism.

And guess what? The more they do, the more voters will disengage and become more susceptible to lies and superficialities.

From the noises Anthony Albanese has been making, everything Labor did was wrong, and every triumphalist Liberal explanation of why Labor lost is right. The trouble with Labor selecting leaders from its Left faction is that they’re so anxious to prove they’re not left wing (which, these days, they aren't) they end up standing for nothing.

It would be nice if, having worked a miracle and established his authority over the Coalition’s warring tribes, Scott Morrison now turns his mind to fixing at least some of the many bits of the economy that need fixing. We can but hope.
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Saturday, June 15, 2019

It's the budget, not interest rates, that must save the economy


According to a leading American economist, there are two views of the way governments should use their budgets ("fiscal policy") in their efforts to manage the macro economy as it moves through the business cycle: the old view – which is now wrong, wrong, wrong – and the new view, which is now right.

In late 2016, not long before he stepped down as chairman of President Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers and returned to his job as an economics professor at Harvard, Jason Furman gave a speech in which he drew just such a comparison.

I tell you about it now because, with our economy slowing sharply, but the Reserve Bank fast running out of room to cut its official interest rate so as to stimulate demand, it’s suddenly become highly relevant.

Furman says the old view has four key principles. First, "discretionary" fiscal policy (that is, explicit government decisions to change taxes or government spending, as opposed to changes that happen automatically as the economy moves through the ups and downs of the cycle) is inferior to "monetary policy" (changes in interest rates) as a tool for trying to stabilise the economy.

This is because, compared with monetary policy, fiscal policy has longer "lags" (delays) in being put into effect, in having its intended effect on the economy and in being reversed once the need for stimulus has passed. Scott Morrison’s inability to get his tax cut through Parliament by July 1, as he promised he could, is a case in point.

Second, even if governments could get their timing right, stimulating the economy just when it’s needed, not after the need has passed, discretionary fiscal stimulus wouldn’t work.

It could be completely ineffective because, according to a wildly theoretical notion called “Ricardian equivalence”, people understand that a tax cut will eventually have to be paid for with higher taxes, so they save their tax cut rather than spending it, in readiness for that day. Yeah, sure.

Or it could be partially ineffective because the increased government borrowing need to cover the budget deficit would force up interest rates and thus "crowd out" some amount of private sector investment spending.

Third, use of the budget to try to boost demand (spending) in the economy, should be done sparingly, if at all, because the main policy priority should be long-run fiscal balance or, as we call it in Oz, "fiscal sustainability" – making sure we don’t end up with too much public debt.

Now, I should explain that this view is the international conventional wisdom that eventually emerged following the advent of "stagflation" in the early 1970s, and the great battle between Keynesians and "monetarists" that ensued.

But Furman adds a fourth principle to the old view of fiscal policy: policymakers foolish enough to ignore the first three principles should at least make sure that any fiscal stimulus is very short run, so as to support the economy before monetary stimulus fully kicks in, thereby minimising the harm done.

Remind you of anything? The package of budgetary measures – the cash splashes and shovel-ready capital works – designed mainly by Treasury’s Dr Ken Henry after the global financial crisis in 2008 which, in combination with a huge cut in interest rates, succeeded in preventing us being caught up in the Great Recession, was carefully calculated to be "timely, targeted and temporary".

Furman says that, today, the tide of expert opinion is shifting to almost the opposite view on all four points.

That’s because of the prolonged aftermath of the financial crisis, the realisation that the neutral level of interest rates has been declining for decades, the better understanding of economic policy from the past eight years, the new empirical research on the impact of fiscal policy, and the financial markets’ relaxed response to large increases in countries’ public debt relative to gross domestic product.

Furman admits that this "new view" of the role of fiscal policy is essentially the "old old view" dating back to the Keynesian orthodoxy that prevailed between the end of World War II and the mid-1970s.

Furman outlines five principles of the new view of fiscal policy. First, it’s often beneficial for fiscal policy to complement monetary policy.

This is because the use of monetary policy is constrained by interest rates being so close to zero.

This isn’t new: the real interest rate has been trending down in many countries since the 1980s and was already quite low before the financial crisis.

Second, in practice, discretionary fiscal policy can be very effective. Experience since the crisis shows that Keynesian “multipliers” (where stimulus of $1 adds more than that to GDP) are a lot bigger than formerly thought.

And when you apply fiscal stimulus at a time when private demand is weak, there's little risk of inflation, so central banks won’t be tempted to respond by tightening monetary policy and lifting interest rates, thus countering the fiscal stimulus.

Third, governments have more “fiscal space” to run deficits and increase debt than formerly believed. The economic growth that fiscal stimulus causes means nominal GDP may grow as fast or faster than the increase in government debt.

Partly because of reform, the ageing of the population won’t be as big a burden on future budgets as formerly thought.

Fourth, if government spending involves investment in needed infrastructure, skills and research and development, it not only adds to demand in the short term, it adds to the economy’s productivity capacity (supply) in the medium term.

And finally, when countries co-ordinate their fiscal stimulus – as they did in their initial response to the financial crisis - the benefit to the world economy becomes much greater. This is because one country’s “leakage” through greater imports is another country’s “injection” through greater exports, and vice versa.

It seems clear Reserve Bank governor Dr Philip Lowe understands all this.

But whether the present leaders of Treasury, and Treasurer Josh Frydenberg’s private advisers, have kept up with the research I wouldn’t be at all sure.
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Wednesday, June 12, 2019

For every problem there’s a job, and no shortage of problems

With the economy subsiding in a heap within days of Scott Morrison winning re-election thanks to the Coalition’s superior economic management skills, he and his ministers are being swamped with helpful hints about how they can get things moving again.

The business lobby groups are proffering some novel solutions: what would do the trick is to cut the rate of company tax and reform industrial relations so the unions are no longer running the country and extracting exorbitant pay rises from employers.

But, in doing what they always do, the lobby groups are selling business short. The conclusion I suspect our smarter business people are drawing is that the surprise re-election of a government that isn’t able to agree on many policies means that if they’re waiting for these guys to fix their problems, they’ll be waiting a long time.

We’ve entered the DIY economy: if you’ve got a problem, fix it yourself. Since the government can’t agree that climate change is more than a lip-service problem, the electricity industry will have to find its own solution.

Same goes for our low rate of productivity improvement. The nation’s productivity improves when the nation’s businesses work smarter, not from government planes dropping policy cargo from the sky.

That’s what I like about a new report from Deloitte Access Economics, The Path to Prosperity: Why the future of work is human.

According to its lead author, David Rumbens, “we don’t face a dystopian future of rising unemployment, aimless career paths and empty offices. Yes, technology is driving change in the way we work, and the work we do, but it’s ultimately not a substitute for people.

“Technology is much more about augmentation than automation, and many jobs will change in nature because of automation, rather than disappear altogether. We can use technology to our advantage to create more meaningful and productive jobs, involving more meaningful and well-paid work.”

Rumbens’ boss, Richard Deutsch, says that “for every problem there’s a job, and the world isn’t running out of problems”.

Just so. The report disputes the popular notion that robots will take our jobs. “Technology-driven change is accelerating around the world, yet unemployment is close to record lows, including in Australia,” it says.

“New technologies will have the capacity to automate many tasks, but also create as many jobs as they kill, and employment is growing in roles that are hardest to automate.”

Another mistaken notion is that people will have lots of different jobs over their careers. Despite all the things people who wouldn’t know try to tell you, overall, work is becoming more secure, not less. Australians are staying in their jobs longer than ever.

The gig economy is not taking over, and the proportion of casual jobs isn’t changing, despite what the unions claim. This is not opinion, it’s statistical fact.

Why are jobs becoming more secure rather than less? Because, with more tasks being done by machines, the kinds of skills employers need their workers to possess are changing. And the skills employers increasingly need are in short supply.

When you find people who possess the skills you’re looking for, you don’t make them casuals, you try to keep them. If they left, they’d be hard to replace. That’s particularly true if they’ve acquired those skills on the job – at the boss’s expense.

It shouldn’t surprise you that employers’ demand is shifting from manual skills to cognitive skills – from the hands to the head – and from routine to non-routine jobs. Manual and routine white-collar jobs are most easily done by machines.

What may surprise you is that, as machines get better at doing routine cognitive jobs, employers increasingly require skills of the heart rather than the head – the “soft skills” needed for “interpersonal and creative roles, with uniquely human skills like creativity, customer service, care for others and collaboration, that are hardest of all to mechanise”.

Such heart skills will be needed most in the services sector, where people rather than machines are the key to driving how value is created – government services, construction, health, professional services and education.

So, what must the government be doing to meet this need? The report doesn’t say. Its focus is on what employers – private or public – should be doing.

“With skill requirements changing faster and becoming more job-specific [good point], the future of work will require much more, and much better, on-the-job learning than Australia has today,” it says.

“Business leaders will have to make active choices, and just buying skills won’t be enough, they will have to adopt an investment frame of mind, and train them.

“With investment in on-the-job training cheaper, more relevant and more focused than classroom learning, the future of work will be a combination of learning and work integrated into one. And refreshing the skills of current, experienced workers will be just as critical as producing students and graduates with the skills they need.

“By making workers smarter and better suited to the jobs of the future, and improving the match between what businesses need and what workers have, we will make our workplaces happier and more productive.”

Who’d have thought one of the big four chartered accounting firms could talk so much sense?
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Monday, June 10, 2019

ABBA was right: Rockonomics shows the winner takes it all

Why do we live in the era of superstars – whether people or businesses? Why is there such a thing as winner-take-all markets? Why do the top 1 per cent of households get an ever-bigger slice of the pie?

Short answer: because the digital revolution is disrupting far more of the economy than we realise.

It’s explained in the new book, Rockonomics: What the music industry can teach us about economics and life, by Alan Krueger, and summarised in his article in the New York Times, from which I’ll quote. Krueger, an economics professor at Princeton University, died in March at the age of 58.

Krueger says the first economist to explain the growing income gap between superstar businessmen and everyone else was the great English economist Alfred Marshall, in the late 1800s.

Marshall argued that a remarkable development in communications technology, the undersea telegraph, allowed top entrepreneurs “to apply their constructive or speculative genius to undertakings vaster, and extending over a wider area, than ever before”.

Ironically, Marshall used the music profession as his counterexample. Because the number of people who could be reached by a human voice was so limited, it was unlikely that any singer could better the £10,000 that the great soprano Elizabeth Billington was said to have earnt in a season.

What the superstar businessmen had, but Billington and her rivals lacked, was the ability to scale up at no prohibitive cost. Of course, Krueger notes, the other thing you need to become a superstar is what economists call “imperfect substitutes”. In English, you must have your own unique style and skills.

Today, of course, music is a most extreme and obvious example of superstars and winner-take-all markets. Why? Because technological advance has provided the economies of scale lacking in Marshall’s day.

Start with amplification of the human voice and then musical instruments. Then, the advent of enhanced recording technology. Finally, the internet and digital streaming of individual tracks anywhere in the world.

“Scale magnifies the effect of small, often imperceptible differences in talent. With the ability of scale, the rewards at the top can be much greater for someone who is slightly more talented than his or her next-best competitor, because the most talented person’s genius can reach a much greater audience or market, in turn generating much greater revenue and profit,” Krueger says.

Album sales and digital streaming clearly reflect the superstar phenomenon, he says. In 2017, the top 0.1 per cent of artists accounted for more than half of all album sales. Song streams and downloads are similarly lopsided.

But a strange thing has happened. Because digital recording has made it so easy to copy and share recordings, the revenue earned by artists and record labels has collapsed. These days, musicians make most of their income from live performances – from nobodies playing in pubs to superstars touring the world’s major venues.

Krueger says that, in 2017, the top 1 per cent of artists increased their proportion of total concert revenue to 60 per cent, compared with 26 per cent in 1982.

Another funny thing: it's now so cheap and easy to record your performance and get it onto the internet, where it’s available to the whole world, that anyone can do it. But does that make you famous? No way. The amount of music available on the net is so vast that the chances of your genius being discovered are tiny.

If you’re already famous, it’s easy to become more so. We hear of some unknown’s YouTube video getting a million clicks, but these are the exceptions. And if that happens it does so because something about the video is exceptional, and because a cascading network of people hear about it and recommend it to their friends. Do you make any money out of it? Probably not.

What happens is not a normal, “bell-shaped” distribution of listens – or dollars – but a “power-law” distribution in which a small number of people get huge scores, which quickly fall off until you get to everyone else getting next to nothing.

In 2016, Krueger says, the most popular artist, Drake, was streamed 6.1 billion times, followed by Rihanna (3.3 billion streams), Twenty One Pilots (2.7 billion) and The Weeknd (2.6 billion). Move down just 100 places and you get to Los Tigres del Norte (0.5 billion).

See how quickly it falls away? That’s a power-law distribution. So is the “80/20 rule”.

Krueger says that the whole United States economy has moved in the direction of a superstar, winner-take-all market. Since 1980, more than 100 per cent of the total growth in income has gone to the top 10 per cent of households, with two-thirds of that going to the top 1 per cent, while the share of the remaining 90 per cent has shrunk.
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Saturday, June 8, 2019

Election hype about strong growth now back to grim reality


The grim news this week is that the weakening in the economy continued for the third quarter in row, with economic activity needing to be propped up by government spending.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics’ “national accounts” showed real gross domestic product – the nation’s production of market goods and services – grew by just 0.3 per cent in the September quarter of last year, 0.2 per cent in the December quarter and now 0.4 per cent in the March quarter of this year, cutting the annual rate of growth down to 1.8 per cent.

That compares with official estimates of our “potential” or possible growth rate of 2.75 per cent a year. It laughs at Treasurer Josh Frydenberg’s claim in the April budget – and Scott Morrison’s claim in the election campaign - to have returned the economy to “strong growth”, which will roll on for a decade without missing a beat.

It suggests Frydenberg’s boast of having achieved budget surpluses in the coming four financial years – and Labor’s boast that its surpluses would be bigger – are little more than wishful thinking, manufactured by a politicised Treasury.

The future may turn out to be golden but, even if it does, the econocrats have no way of knowing that in advance – they’re just guessing - and the road between now and then looks pretty rocky.

Why is the immediate outlook for the economy so weak and uncertain? Not primarily because of any great threat from abroad – though a flare-up in Donald Trump’s trade war with China could certainly make things worse – but primarily because of one big and well-known problem inside our economy: five years of weak growth in wages.

When you examine the national accounts, that’s what you find. Over the nine months to March, the income Australia’s households received from wages grew by 3.5 per cent, before adjusting for inflation.

That wasn’t because of strong growth in wage rates, but because more people had jobs. Weakness in other forms of household income meant that total household income grew by just 2.4 per cent.

But households’ payments of income tax grew by 4.5 per cent, thanks mainly to bracket creep. This helped cut the growth in household disposable income to 2 per cent. Even so, households’ spending on consumer goods and services grew by 2.2 per cent – meaning they had to reduce their rate of saving.

Actually, the last big fall in households’ rate of saving occurred in the September quarter. Since then, households have tightened their belts, cutting the growth in their consumer spending so as to raise their rate of saving from 2.5 per cent of their disposable income to 2.8 per cent.

Reverting to “real” (inflation-adjusted) figures, this explains why consumer spending has grown by only about 0.3 per cent a quarter since June, reducing its growth over the year to March to an anaemic 1.8 per cent.

The bureau noted that the weakness in consumer spending was greatest in discretionary spending categories, including on recreation, cafes and restaurants, and clothing and footwear – a further sign that households are feeling the pinch.

Since consumer spending accounts for almost 60 per cent of GDP, that’s all the explanation you need as to why the economy’s now so weak. But there are other factors contributing.

One is the end of the housing boom. Home-building’s contribution to growth peaked in the September quarter, with building activity falling by 2.9 per cent and 2.5 per cent in the following two quarters. It will keep falling for some time yet.

And business investment is also weak. While non-mining investment grew by 2 per cent in the quarter, mining investment fell a further 1.8 per cent. Overall, business investment was up 0.6 per cent in the quarter, but down 1.3 per cent over the year to March.

External demand is helping, however. With the volume of exports growing, while the volume of imports was “flat to down” - another sign of weak domestic demand - “net exports” (exports minus imports) are contributing to growth.

Even so, total private sector demand (spending) has actually fallen for the second quarter in a row. So, apart from the contribution from net exports, any growth is coming from public sector demand.

It grew by 0.7 per cent in the quarter to be 5.5 per cent higher over the year. This reflects the rollout of the National Disability Insurance Scheme and state spending on infrastructure. It means government spending contributed half the growth in GDP during the quarter and more than 70 per cent of total GDP growth over the year to March.

Note, it’s not a bad thing for government spending to be contributing to growth. That’s exactly what it should be doing when private demand is weak. No, the concern is not that public spending is strong, it’s that private spending is so weak.

Dividing GDP by the population shows that GDP per person fell fractionally for another quarter, and grew by a mere 0.1 per cent over the year to March.

This tells us not that the economy is on the edge of recession – how could GDP contract when a growing population is making it ever bigger? – but that, as Jo Masters of Ernst & Young has said, “growth is being driven by population growth alone, and not increased participation or productivity”.

The economy’s getting bigger, but it’s not leaving us any better off.

Speaking of productivity, the productivity of labour deteriorated by 0.5 per cent in the March quarter and by 1 per cent over the year.

Is this a terrible thing? Well, before you slit your wrists, remember that when employment is growing a lot faster than the growth in the economy would lead you to expect, a fall in GDP per worker (or, in this case, per hour worked) is just what the laws of arithmetic would lead you to expect.

Surprisingly strong growth in employment – most of it full-time – doesn’t sound like a bad thing to me. It’s just hard to see how it can last much longer.
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Tuesday, June 4, 2019

Interest rate cuts may not do much to counter slowdown

This won’t be the only cut in interest rates we see in coming months – which may be good news for people with mortgages, but it’s a bad sign for the economy in which we live and work.

The Reserve Bank is cutting rates because the economy’s growth has slowed sharply, with weak consumer spending and early signs that unemployment is rising.

In such circumstances, cutting interest rates to encourage greater borrowing and spending is the only thing it can do to try to push things along.

Whether we see just one more 0.25 percentage-point cut in a month or two’s time, or whether there will be more after that depends on just how slowly the economy is growing. The Reserve – and the rest of us - will get a much better idea of that on Wednesday morning, when the Australian Bureau of Statistics publishes the quarterly “national accounts”, showing by how much real gross domestic product grew during the first three months of this year.

If you’re thinking that cutting interest rates by a mere 0.25 per cent isn’t likely to make much difference, you’re right. That’s why we can be sure there’ll be at least one more cut.

While it’s true that, with the official interest rate now at a new record low of 1.25 per cent, the Reserve has limited scope for further cuts, don’t expect it to follow the advice from some chief executives that it should refrain from responding to further evidence of weakness in the economy with further cuts so that, once the economy’s reached the point of being really, really weak, the Reserve will still have something left to use to give it life support.

Let’s hope these executives are better at running their own businesses than they are at offering the econocrats helpful hints on how they should be doing their job.

No, we can be confident that, until it believes the economy is picking up, the Reserve will keep doing the only thing it can to help – cutting rates further.

Should this mean the official rate gets to zero, Scott Morrison and his government will then have no choice but finally to respond to governor Dr Philip Lowe’s repeated requests – repeated again only two weeks ago – that they put less emphasis on returning the budget to surplus and more on helping to keep the economy growing, by spending more on needed (note that word) infrastructure and doing it soon, not sometime in the next decade.

Morrison got himself re-elected by claiming to be much better at running the economy than his political opponents. In the next three years we’ll all see just how good he is. Boasting about budget surpluses while unemployment rises is unlikely to impress.

But back to the efficacy of interest rate cuts. Even if we get several more of them, the economy’s circumstances are such that this wouldn’t offer it a huge stimulus.

One part of this is that while interest rates are an expense to borrowers, they are income to lenders, so that a rate cut reduces the spending power of the retired and others. This is always true, but it’s equally true that borrowers outnumber lenders, so the net effect of a rate cut is to increase spending.

In principle, the mortgage payments of households with home loans will now be a little lower, leaving them with more to spend on other things. In practice, many people leave their payments unchanged so they’re repaying the mortgage a little faster.

In principle, lower mortgage rates allow people to borrow more. And moving houses almost always involves increased spending on consumer durables - new lounge suites and the like. In practice, Australian households are already so heavily indebted that few are likely to be tempted to borrow more.

In principle, lower interest rates should also encourage businesses to borrow more to expand their businesses. In practice, what’s constraining businesses from borrowing more is poor trading prospects, not the (already-low) cost of borrowing.

In principle, lower rates are good news for the property market. But the Reserve wouldn’t be cutting rates if it thought the property boom might take off again. Combined with the removal of Labor’s threat to negative gearing, the likely result is a slower rate of fall in house prices, or maybe a floor for them to bump along for a few years. The home building industry won’t return to growth for some years yet.

The rate cuts should, however, cause our dollar to be lower, which may not please people planning overseas holidays, but will give a boost to our export and import-competing industries.

Putting it all together, even if we get a few more rate cuts that isn’t likely to give the economy a huge boost. Which means it’s unlikely to do much to fix the underlying source of the economy’s weakness: very small increases in wages.

The Fair Work Commission’s decision to raise all award minimum wage rates by 3 per cent will help about 2.2 million workers, but few of the remaining 10.6 million are likely to do as well.

Morrison’s promised $1080 boost to tax refund cheques, coming sometime after taxpayers have submitted their annual returns from the end of this month, will provide a temporary fillip, but it's a poor substitute for stronger growth and the improved productivity it helps to bring.

I have a feeling Morrison and his merry ministers will really be earning their money over the next three years.
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Monday, June 3, 2019

How to dud manufacturing: be the world’s biggest gas exporter

Did you know Australia has now overtaken Qatar to be the largest exporter of natural gas in the world? But, thanks to private profiteering and government bungling, this seeming triumph comes at the risk of further diminishing manufacturing industry in NSW and Victoria.

It’s yet another example of naive economic reformers stuffing things up because real-world markets don’t work the way they do in textbooks.

Last week Dow Chemical announced it would close its Melbourne manufacturing plant due, in part, to high gas prices. This came after RemaPak, a Sydney-based producer of polystyrene coffee cups, and Claypave, a Queensland-based brick and paving manufacturer, went belly-up citing rising gas prices as an important contributing factor.

“Many other manufacturers are close to making critical decisions on their future operations,” according to Australian Competition and Consumer Commission boss Rod Sims. “If wholesale gas prices do not [come down], it is just a matter of time before they follow Dow, RemaPak and Claypave.”

When expected world liquefied natural gas prices rose last year, Australian gas suppliers were quick to raise their prices to local manufacturers, which use much gas in their production processes.

But expected world prices have fallen significantly over the past six months. Have the three suppliers dominating our east coast market cut their prices with the same alacrity? No. Most commercial and industrial users will pay more than $9 a gigajoule for gas this year, with some paying more than $11.

Why haven’t suppliers cut their prices? Because their pricing power means they don’t have to if they don’t want to. Why would they want to? Only because the government threatens them with something worse if they rip too much off their customers.

This was the big stick the softly spoken Sims was carrying last week as he urged them to do the right thing.

Is this the best way to regulate a market? No, but once you’ve stuffed it up you have little choice. The stuff-up evolved over some years, under federal governments of both colours and, predictably, with a lack of federal-state co-ordination.

It began in the resources boom, when Labor’s Martin Ferguson approved the construction of no less than three gas liquefaction plants near Gladstone in Queensland. That was one plant too many.

The companies secured the cost of building their plants by writing future contracts to export LNG to foreign customers. The first two companies secured the supply of sufficient gas from local sources, but the third had to scramble for what it needed to meet its sales contracts.

They expected far more gas to be available than transpired because they failed to anticipate the NSW and Victorian governments’ moratoriums on fracking for unconventional gas from coal seams.

Until the construction of the liquefaction plants – which enabled gas to be shipped overseas – the east coast gas market was cut off from the world market. This meant its prices were much lower than world prices.

The federal government knew that allowing the plants to be built meant opening the east coast market to the (much bigger) world market, forcing local prices up to the “export-parity price” or LNG “netback” price.

But, as Sims noted in a speech last week, the east coast was "just about the only region in the world that allowed unrestricted exports”. By contrast, when our west coast gas market was opened up, the West Australian government insisted on reserving sufficient gas to meet the needs of local users at local prices.

So, the east coast market opening was textbook pure (and much to the liking of the gas companies). Trouble was, the market worked nothing like the textbook promised. Lack of competition meant prices shot up to way above the export price.

The gas producers were able to overcharge the big industrial users, the three big gas retailers – AGL, EnergyAustralia and Origin – charged the smaller industrial users even more, and the pipeline owners whacked up their prices, too. Retailers’ prices peaked at $22 a gigajoule.

The threat to manufacturing was so great that Malcolm Turnbull eventually stepped in. Arming himself with the “Australian gas domestic security mechanism” (permitting him to set up a domestic reservation scheme), he forced the LNG producers to agree to offer domestic users sufficient gas on reasonable terms.

Now, however, prices have drifted back above export-parity. And the Australian Energy Market Operator is warning that gas shortages in NSW and Victoria could arise as soon as 2024 in the absence of major pipeline upgrades to allow more gas to flow from Queensland, or new sources of supply emerging.

This uncertainty adds to the risk of manufacturers giving up the struggle. The easiest and best solution would be for the Victorian government to lift its restrictions on development of – would you believe – conventional gas deposits.
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Saturday, June 1, 2019

As you were: getting back to budget surplus no longer urgent

Sometimes, changes in fashion are shocking. In economics, the fashion leaders are top American economists. Their latest fashion call is highly relevant to Australia’s circumstances, but will shock a lot of people: stop worrying so much about debt and deficit.

Among the various big-name economists advocating this change of view, the one who made the biggest splash was Professor Olivier Blanchard, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in his presidential lecture for the American Economic Association early this year.

Blanchard was formerly chief economist at the International Monetary Fund, and had a big influence on the advanced economies’ response to the global financial crisis. He offered a simpler version of his lecture in a paper for the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington.

When governments spend more than they raise in taxes, they cover their deficit by borrowing via the sale of government bonds. If you run deficits for many years, you rack up much debt.

So the conventional wisdom – which we heard from both sides in the election campaign – has long been that, as soon as the economy has recovered from its downturn, governments should raise more in taxes than they spend, so as to run an annual budget surplus. They use the surplus to buy back some of the bonds the government has issued, and thus reduce its debt.

Why do most people – and many economists still - think this is the right thing to do? Because when you borrow money you have to pay interest. The more you borrow, the more interest. And the only way to stop having to pay interest is to repay the debt.

Blanchard calls this the “fiscal [or budgetary] cost”. In the end, interest payments and repayments of principal have to be covered by the higher taxes extracted from people, which may discourage them from working or distort their behaviour in other ways.

But Blanchard realised there may be no fiscal cost because interest rates are so low – especially for governments, whose debt is regarded as risk-free (or “safe” as he calls it). Governments are almost always able to repay their debts because, unlike the rest of us, they can get the money they need by increasing taxes. Or they could simply print more money.

Safe interest rates in the rich economies – including Australia – are so low that, after you allow for inflation, the “real” interest rate may be close to zero, or even negative. If they’re zero they’re costing the government nothing.

If they’re negative, the lender is actually paying the government to borrow from them (once you remember that, because of inflation, the lender will be repaid in dollars with less purchasing power that the dollars originally borrowed).

But that’s not all. A government’s revenue-raising capacity tends to grow in line with the size of the economy – nominal gross domestic product. And nominal GDP almost always grows faster than the nominal safe interest rate.

If so, the government can go on, year after year, paying the interest on its debt and continuing to run a budget deficit - provided it isn’t too big – without its debt growing relative to the size of the economy.

Now, you may object that interest rates are so low at present only because it’s taking so long for the world economy to recover from the global financial crisis and the Great Recession.

But if interest rates are higher in the future, that will be because there’s stronger demand to borrow relative to the supply of funds available, and this, in turn, should mean the economy is also growing at a faster rate.

In any case, Blanchard and others have shown that nominal GDP growth has been higher than the safe interest rate for decades.

So, unless budget deficits are very high, the value of the debt should decline over time as a percentage of GDP. This, in fact, is the way all countries got on top of the massive debts they incurred during World War II.

The second conventional reason for worrying about government debt is the cost to the economy, which Blanchard calls the “welfare cost”. When governments borrow to fund their deficit spending, they compete with private sector borrowers, driving up the interest rates firms have to pay and so “crowding out” some business borrowers.

This causes firms’ investment in renewing or expanding their businesses to be lower than otherwise which, in turn, leads to less economic growth and job creation than otherwise.

(That’s the standard argument, used since Milton Friedman’s day. It’s still relevant to an economy as huge as America but, in an economy as small as ours, it stopped applying after we floated the dollar and our financial markets became integrated with the global market. In Australia, if crowding out happens, it does so via the inflow of borrowed foreign capital causing our exchange rate to be higher than otherwise and thus making our export and import-competing industries less price competitive.)

But Blanchard argues that, in fact, the welfare cost of high government debt is probably small. If the average rate of return on business investment projects is higher than the rate of growth in nominal GDP, this implies there is a cost to the welfare of people in the economy.

On the other hand, if the safe interest rate is lower than the rate of growth in nominal GDP, this implies a welfare benefit from the government debt. Putting the two together implies that the welfare cost, if any, wouldn’t be great.

Blanchard is quick to warn, however, that these arguments don’t “add up to a licence to issue infinite amounts of [government] debt”. Debt and deficit make sense when government spending is countering the weakness in private sector spending. When this fiscal stimulus succeeds in restoring strong growth in private sector spending, governments should pull back to avoid excessive inflation pressure.

And, to be on the safe side, government borrowing should be used mainly to support investment in needed infrastructure, education and healthcare, so it’s adding to the economy’s productive capacity, not just to consumption.
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Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Our new economic worry: Reserve Bank running out of bullets

Scott Morrison got the government re-elected on the back of a budget built on an illusion: that the economy was growing strongly and would go on doing so for a decade. The illusion allowed Morrison to boast about getting the budget back into surplus and keeping it there, despite promising the most expensive tax cuts we’ve seen.

The illusion began falling apart even while the election campaign progressed. The Reserve Bank board responded to the deterioration in the economic outlook at its meeting 11 days before the election.

It’s now clear to me that it decided to bolster the economy by lowering interest rates, but not to start cutting until its next meeting, which would be after the election – next Tuesday.

If that wasn’t bad enough for Morrison, with all his skiting about returning the budget to surplus he may have painted himself – and the economy – into a corner.

In a speech last week, Reserve Bank governor Dr Philip Lowe made it clear that cutting interest rates might not be enough to keep the economy growing. He asked for his economic lever, “monetary policy” (interest rates), to be assisted by the government’s economic lever, “fiscal policy” (the budget).

He specifically mentioned the need to increase government spending on infrastructure projects, but he could have added a “cash splash” similar to those Kevin Rudd used to fend off recession after the global financial crisis in 2008.

See the problem? Any major slowdown in the economy would reduce tax collections and increase government spending on unemployment benefits, either stopping the budget returning to surplus or soon putting it back into deficit.

That happens automatically, whether the government likes it or not. That’s before any explicit government decisions to increase infrastructure spending, or splash cash or cut taxes, also worsened the budget balance.

And consider this. The Reserve’s official interest rate is already at a record low of 1.5 per cent. Its practice is to cut the official rate in steps of 0.25 percentage points. That means it’s got only six shots left in its locker before it hits what pompous economists call the “zero lower bound”.

What happens if all the shots have been fired, but they’re not enough to keep the economy growing? The budget – increased government spending or tax cuts – is all that’s left.

The economics of this is simple, clear and conventional behaviour in a downturn. All that’s different is that rates are so close to zero. For Morrison, however, the politics would involve a huge climb-down and about-face.

My colleague Latika Bourke has reported Liberal Party federal director Andrew Hirst saying that, according to the party’s private polling, the Coalition experienced a critical “reset” with April’s budget. The government’s commitment to get the budget back to surplus cut through with voters and provided a sustained bounce in the Coalition’s primary vote.

The promised budget surplus also sent a message to voters that the Coalition could manage the economy, Bourke reported.

Oh dear. Bit early to be counting your chickens.

The first blow during the election campaign to the government’s confident budget forecasts of continuing strong growth came with news that the overall cost of the basket of goods and services measured by the consumer price index did not change during the March quarter, cutting the annual inflation rate to 1.3 per cent, even further below the Reserve’s target of 2 to 3 per cent on average.

Such weak growth in prices is a sign of weak demand in the economy.

The second blow was that, rather than increasing as the budget forecast it would, the annual rise in the wage price index remained stuck at 2.3 per cent for the third quarter in a row. The budget has wages rising by 2.75 per cent by next June, by 3.25 per cent a year later and 3.5 per cent a year after that.

As Lowe never tires of explaining, it’s the weak growth in wages that does most to explain the weakening growth in consumer spending and, hence, the economy overall. Labor had plans to increase wages; Morrison’s plan is “be patient”.

The third blow to the budget’s overoptimism was that, after being stuck at 5 per cent for six months, in April the rate of unemployment worsened to 5.2 per cent. The rate of under-employment jumped to 8.5 per cent.

Why didn’t Labor make more of these signs of weakening economic growth during the campaign? It had no desire to cast doubt on the veracity of the government’s budget forecasts because, just as they provided the basis for the government’s big tax cuts, they were also the basis for Labor’s tax and spending plans.

Labor was intent on proving that its budget surpluses over the next four years would be bigger than the government’s – $17 billion bigger, to be precise.

Think of it: an election campaign fought over which side was better at getting the budget back to surplus, just as a slowing economy and the limits to interest-rate cutting mean that, at best, any return to surplus is likely to be temporary.

Morrison’s $1080 tax refund cheques in a few months will help bolster consumer spending, but they’re a poor substitute for decent annual pay rises.
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Monday, May 27, 2019

Without decent policies, Labor would get fewer votes, not more

The main reason so many voters have given up on politics and politicians is their belief that modern pollies care more about advancing their careers than advancing the wellbeing of the nation.

So, were Labor to decide that it lost the election – which dodgy polling encouraged it and everyone else to believe it was sure to win - because it made itself a "big target" by having lots of policies to fix things, rather than "small target" with few policies of any consequence, it would risk confirming voters’ suspicions that it cared more about getting back to power than improving voters’ lives.

Not a great way to garner votes. Particularly because, for reasons I’ll get to, the small-target strategy works better for the party of the business establishment and the status quo than for the party representing those who think the status quo needs reforming.

When you decide that having too many policies was the main reason you lost, it’s only human nature to flip to the opposite extreme of having none. Human, but not smart.

Economics teaches that success in life comes from seeking out the best “trade-off” between conflicting but equally desirable objectives. It involves using your brain to nut out the best answer, not turning it off.

As political scientist Rod Tiffen has reminded us, the no-brain response after elections is that “everything the winning party did is treated as a stroke of genius, and all the loser’s moves were foolish”.

If Labor wants to draw the right conclusions about the various reasons for its failure it will need to put a lot more mental effort into answering the eternal policy question: “what works and what doesn’t?”.

One obvious possibility is that Labor lost partly because it “did a Hillary Clinton,” focusing on the well-educated, socially progressive (and often public-sector employed) section of the party’s base and forgetting about the less educated, less progressive section in outer suburbs and the regions.

Labor’s had the tricky job of straddling these two, very different parts of its heartland for decades. When John Howard perfected the technique of “wedging” your political opponent, the original application involved driving a wedge between the well-educated and the blue-collar parts of Labor’s base. The classic case is the treatment of asylum seekers.

The no-brain response would be for Labor to “go back to” its blue-collar base. Labor can’t win without both ends. But it certainly needs to put a lot more effort into satisfying both ends. What can it do to help the regions than isn’t too blatantly wasteful? How can it look after victims of the inevitable shift from fossil fuels to renewable energy?

With every summer getting hotter, it’s not surprising the Greens had a good election. And the best explanation for the swing to Labor or independents in many well-heeled Liberal electorates is Liberal voters’ growing recognition that we need a government that’s genuine about combating global warming.

It’s quite possible this is of less concern to the blue-collar end of Labor’s heartland, particularly if it can be (falsely) convinced the immediate cost to household budgets would be high. But for Labor to tone-down its climate policy would risk it getting an even lower primary vote as more of its progressive base shifted to the Greens and, in the case of the Senate, didn’t flow back.

Labor needs reminding that life wasn’t meant to be easy for reformist parties. The party of the business establishment and the status quo always starts with a built-in advantage. They’re the people who surely must be better at running the economy and who stand for minimal change – the thing we all fear.

That’s why the Libs can get elected with no policy other than blocking the rise of all those Labor trouble-makers, and why Labor gets elected only by making the case for change. Why vote for a Labor status quo when you can vote for the original and best?

One of the Libs’ most effective lines was “Labor can’t manage money so they’ll come after yours.” Labor’s eternal vulnerability on the money question is why it would be folly for it to lay most of the blame for its failure at the feet of its one money man who does command the respect of econocrats, economists and business people, Chris Bowen. All the people who wanted to win votes by promising to spend big on education and health, scapegoating the poor blighter who had to find ways to pay for it all.

Similarly, when Labor relegates to a junior role a highly regarded former economics professor, Andrew Leigh, simply because he’s not a member of any faction, it reinforces voters’ suspicion that Labor members put their own careers ahead of the country’s good governance.
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Saturday, May 25, 2019

Why did Labor lose? Not because of its tough tax plans

It’s been a week since the election so, naturally, by now a great many of the people who work in the House with the Flag on Top – politicians, staffers, journalists – know exactly why Labor lost and the Coalition won: those hugely controversial dividend franking credits.

There were other reasons, of course, but franking credits is the big one. How do I know they know? Because this is what happens after every election.

The denizens of the House take only a few days to decide on the single most important factor driving the result. Surprisingly, each side of politics – the winners and the losers – almost invariably comes to the same conclusion.

And once they have, the concrete around the notion sets quickly and what started as a theory becomes received wisdom, something any fool knows and part of the building’s corporate memory.

Months later, political scientists will come up with different, much more “evidence-based” explanations, but by then it will be too late. No one listens to them because the die has been cast.

Which is why it may already be too late for research by Dr Richard Denniss and others at the Australia Institute to debunk the quite misguided notion that it was all the people who’d be hurt by the franking credits policy voting against an evil-intentioned Labor Party.

When you see Denniss’ quite startling findings it should also disabuse you of the notion that, particularly in a country as big and varied as ours, a party’s loss of an election could ever be, as the academics say, “mono-causal” rather than “multi-factorial”.

Labor’s performance was disappointing (for its supporters, anyway), not disastrous. The composition of the House of Reps has changed surprisingly little. So it may surprise you, but shouldn’t, that as well as there being lots of electorates that swung to the Coalition (measured on a two-party-preferred basis), there were also lots of electorates than swung to Labor.

Get this: the seats that swung to the Coalition were mainly those whose voters had low incomes, whereas the seats that swung to Labor tended to be those whose voters had high incomes.

Among the seats with the 10 biggest swings to Labor were five from Victoria, three from NSW and one each from WA and the ACT. The swings varied from 3.7 per cent to 6.6 per cent.

In all but two of those seats, they had at least twice the proportion of high income-earners (people in the top 20 per cent) than the national average. Under the Coalition’s three-stage tax plan, voters in the same eight electorates are estimated to get tax cuts in 2024 varying from 49 per cent more to double the national average.

Across Australia, the average value of franking credits per taxpayer is $695 a year. In those eight electorates (five of which are held by the Coalition), the average value ranges from $1213 to $2578 a year.

Now let’s look at the 10 electorates with the biggest swings to the Coalition – six in Queensland and four in NSW. The swings varied from 6 per cent to 11.3 per cent. All of the seats had less than the national average of people with high incomes. And for all but one of them, the average tax cut in 2024 will be below the national average.

How much do they get in franking credits? All 10 seats get less than the $695-a-year national average. Between 83 per cent and 16 per cent of the average, to be precise.

Looking more generally, electorates with more people on low and middle incomes tended to swing to the Coalition, whereas electorates with more people on high incomes tended to swing to Labor.

Next, since it’s the (well-off) retired who would have been hit by the plan to end refunds of unused franking credits, the researchers looked at the voting trend for electorates with a high share of voters over 65.

They found only a very slight tendency for such electorates to move their votes to the Coalition.

So, what should we make of all this? Well, for a start, the figures allow us to rule out some possibilities, but leave others open.

They seem to refute the contention that many well-off retirees (or even prospective well-off retirees) moved their votes away from Labor because they were deeply opposed to the planned changes to franking credits.

They leave open the possibility than many less well-off voters moved their vote away from Labor because they disapproved of the way well-off retirees were to be treated. If so, they were being very magnanimous towards people better off than themselves.

Possible, but not likely. It’s easier to believe they (or, at least, some of them) were renters voting against Labor in response to the real estate agents’ scare campaign claiming Labor’s plan to limit negative gearing would force up rents.

Turning to the higher-income electorates, there’s little sign of many people moving their votes away from Labor because of their opposition to its franking credit plan – or to its move against negative gearing, for that matter.

According to Denniss, it looks like renters voted to help their landlords keep their tax lurks, whereas the landlords voted for Labor’s offer of free childcare and the restoration of penalty rates for their tenants.

Well, maybe. What can be said with more confidence is that it’s hard to see much sign of an outbreak of class warfare.

Moving on from Labor’s controversial tax changes, the success or near success of independents running in Liberal seats such as Warringah and Wentworth in prosperous parts of Sydney, and Indi in rural Victoria, makes it easier to believe the swing to Labor in so many high-income electorates was motivated by a concern that Australia needed a more convincing policy to combat climate change.

As for the swing against Labor in many low-to-middle electorates in Queensland and NSW, my guess is they felt Labor was neglecting their worries about jobs and the cost of living.

It’s never as simple as many workers in Parliament House convince themselves.
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