Monday, September 2, 2019

Our leaders slowly come to grips with a different economy

The beginning of economic wisdom is to understand that the advanced economies – including ours – have stopped working the way they used to and won’t be returning to the old normal.

Second in the getting of wisdom is to understand that economists are still debating why the economy is behaving so differently – so poorly - and what we can do about it.

Last week Reserve Bank governor Dr Philip Lowe gave a speech to a conference of central bankers in Wyoming revealing his acceptance that, as he put it, the economic managers are having to “navigate when the stars are shifting”.

And Treasurer Josh Frydenberg gave a speech on Australia’s productivity challenge, which offered the Morrison government’s first acknowledgement that maybe not everything in Australia’s economic garden is rosy.

The shifting “stars” to which Lowe alluded were economists' estimates of the rate of full employment and the equilibrium real interest rate – both of which have moved downwards. He said that economists have become very good at developing explanations for why this has happened.

“Even so, the reality is that our understanding is still far from complete about what constitutes full employment in our economies and how the equilibrium interest rate is going to move in the future,” he said.

He offered two likely explanations for why the stars had moved. First, major changes around the world in the appetite to save and to invest. People were saving more despite low interest rates, and were borrowing less to fund physical investment despite low interest rates.

On the saving side, these changes were linked to demographics (the ageing population), the rise of Asia (which saves a lot) and the legacy of too much borrowing in the past.

On the investment side, the links were to slower productivity improvement and “importantly, increased uncertainty and a lack of confidence about the future”.

The second major change was an increased perception of competition as a result of globalisation and advances in technology. “More competition means less pricing power, for both firms and workers,” he said.

In all this he gave the lie to the latest line that our economy is going fine, it’s just the threat from abroad that’s the problem. Nonsense. Our economy is slowing to a crawl because of weak real wage growth. The external threat just makes it worse.

After giving a learned account of our slower rate of productivity improvement (and acknowledging that it’s happening throughout the developed world), Frydenberg admitted that business investment spending was not as strong as it ought to be.

But then he stepped into the lions’ den. Rather than returning capital to shareholders, business needed to back itself – make its own luck – by using its strong balance sheet (and exceptionally low interest rates) to “invest and grow”.

The fury of the righteous descended upon him, with the business media in full cry. It really is amazing the way business people boast about the centrality of the private sector to the economy and its success, but refuse to accept any responsibility for its outcomes.

Any weaknesses in the economy are solely the government’s fault, and feel free to criticise it uphill and down dale – not to mention using problems in the economy as a pretext for rent-seeking. Don’t even think that the performance of business could be less than blameless. Who do you think invented the term “all care but not responsibility”?

Even so, I fear business is right in protesting that the reason it’s not investing is that, with demand so weak, it can’t see how expanding its production capacity could be profitable.

This problem began long before Trump started playing his crazy trade-war games, but there’s little doubt that the uncertainty he has created is adding to firms’ reluctance to commit to major investment projects. And the more people delay their investment plans until the future is clearer, the greater the risk that conditions deteriorate and the investment never gets done.

Dr Mike Keating, a former top econocrat, argues that productivity improvement is weak because business investment spending is weak. It’s when businesses install the latest and best machines and systems that new technology is defused through the economy, lifting productivity.

So when weak wage growth leads to weak growth in consumption, you don’t get enough business investment and, hence, slower productivity improvement.

Government intervention to improve workers’ bargaining power may help speed up the flow of income through the system, but Keating believes a lasting improvement will come mainly by making education and training more effective in helping workers adapt to and adopt new technologies.
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Saturday, August 31, 2019

If you think surpluses are always good, prepare for great news


Don’t look now, but Australians’ economic dealings with the rest of the world have transformed while our attention has been elsewhere. Business economists are predicting that, on Tuesday, we’ll learn that the usual deficit on the current account of the balance of payments has become a surplus.

If so, it will be the first quarterly surplus in 44 years. If not, we’ll come damn close.

You have to be old to appreciate what a remarkable transformation that is. Back in the 1980s we were so worried about the rise in the current account deficit and the foreign debt that it was a regular subject for radio shock jocks’ outrage. They knew nothing about what it meant, but they did know that “deficit” and “debt” were very bad words.

By the 1990s, Professor John Pitchford, of the Australian National University, had convinced the nation’s economists that the rises were a product of the globalisation of financial markets and the move to floating exchange rates, and weren’t a big deal.

By now, economists have become so relaxed about the “balance of payments” that it’s rarely mentioned. So news of the disappearing deficit will be a surprise to many.

To begin at the beginning, the balance of payments is a summary record of all the monetary transactions during a period that have an Australian business, government or individual on one end and a foreign business, government or individual on the other.

The record is divided into two accounts, the current account and the capital and financial account.  The balance on the current account is always exactly offset by the balance on the capital account. If one has a deficit of $X billion, the other must have a surplus of $X billion, so that the balance of (international) payments is in balance at all times.

As a Reserve Bank explainer says, the current account captures the net flow of money resulting from our international trade. The capital account captures the net flows of financial capital needed to make all the exporting, importing and income payments possible. These flows during the period change the amounts of Australia’s stocks of assets and liabilities at the end of the period.

To work out the balance on the current account, first you take the value of all our exports of goods and services and subtract the value of all our imports of goods and services, to get the balance of trade.

Then you take all the interest income and dividends we earnt from our investments in foreign countries and subtract all the interest and dividend payments we make to foreigners who’ve lent us money or invested in our companies.

The result is the “net income deficit” which, after you’ve added it to the trade balance, gives you the balance on the current account. As Michael Blythe, chief economist at the Commonwealth Bank, noted this week, that balance has been a deficit for 133 of the past 159 years.

Why do we almost always run a deficit? Because our land abounds in nature’s gifts, and there’s great opportunity to exploit those gifts and earn wealth for toil. What we’ve always been short of, however, is the financial capital needed to take advantage of all the opportunities.

Moving from poetry to econospeak, for pretty much all of our modern history Australia has been a net importer of (financial) capital, as Reserve deputy Dr Guy Debelle said in a revealing speech this week.

Because we don’t save enough to allow us to fully exploit all our opportunities for economic development, we’ve always drawn on the savings of foreigners – either by borrowing from them or letting them buy into Australian businesses.

Blythe says “the shortfall reflects high investment rather than low saving. By running current account deficits, we have been able to sustain a higher [physical] investment rate than we could fund ourselves. Economic growth rates and living standards have been higher than otherwise as result.”

True. And Debelle agrees, noting that Australia’s rate of saving is on par with many other advanced economies. (So don’t let any silly pollies or shock jocks tell you a current account deficit means we’re “living beyond our means”.)

Be sure you understand this: a current account deficit is fully funded by the corresponding surplus on the capital account, which represents the amount by which we needed to call on the savings of foreigners because the nation’s physical investment in new housing, business plant and structures, and public infrastructure during the period exceeded the nation’s saving (by households, companies and governments) during the period.

But if all that’s true, how come we’re expecting a current account surplus in the June quarter? It’s a combination of long-term changes in the structure of our economy that have been working to reduce the deficit, and temporary factors that may push us over the line.

Debelle says that between the early 1980s and the end of the noughties, the deficit averaged the equivalent of about 4 per cent of gross domestic product. But it’s narrowed since 2015 and is now about 1 per cent of GDP.

Most of this change is explained by the trade balance. It averaged a deficit of about 1.25 per cent of GDP over the three decades to 2015, but since then has moved into surplus. It hit record highs during the three months to June, totalling a surplus of $19.7 billion for the quarter.

The resources boom has hugely increased the quantity of our minerals and energy exports, and there’s been a temporary surge in the price we’re getting for our iron ore. At the same time, the end of the investment phase of the resources boom has greatly reduce our imports of mining and gas equipment.

The rise of China and east Asia also means protracted strong growth in our exports of education and tourism.

At the same time, the net income deficit has widened a little in recent years but, at 3.4 per cent of GDP, is in the middle of its range since the late 1980s.

The marked reduction in the current account deficit overall means that Australia’s stock of net foreign liabilities (debt plus equity in businesses) peaked at 60 per cent of GDP in 2009 and has now declined to 50 per cent. But that’s a story for another day.

Read more >>

Wednesday, August 28, 2019

Greater social inclusion makes us wealthier, not just happier

If you like made-up, clunky words you could call it the humanisation of economics. And it’s one of the most exciting developments in a field most people don’t consider very exciting. It’s the product of economists’ search for reasons why the economies of the developed world have stopped working as well as they used to.

This week our Reserve Bank governor, Philip Lowe, gave a short but sobering speech at a conference of central bankers in Wyoming exploring the deeper, structural reasons why economies – including ours - aren’t growing as fast as they did, and admitting this wasn’t likely to change any time soon.

A big part of the reason for weaker growth is a slower rate of improvement in the productivity of labour – the use of improved technology to increase the output of goods and services per worker.

Also this week, Treasurer Josh Frydenberg gave a long, carefully researched and highly informative speech about the deterioration in our productivity performance. His one controversial proposition has been monstered by the business media, but the speech was an encouraging sign that the Morrison government may be moving from happy slogans to careful consideration of the problems besetting our economy.

Now to my new word, humanisation. Until the past couple of decades, it was relatively easy to achieve high annual rates of productivity improvement by using bigger and better machines to increase the efficiency of our farms, mines and factories in their production of goods.

These days, goods are produced by machines, helped by humans. Services, on the other hand, are delivered by humans helped by machines. Goods have come to account for an ever-smaller share of the value of economic activity, with services contributing an ever-bigger share.

But installing more productive goods-producing machines is a lot easier than making the human providers of services (ranging from prime ministers to scientists, doctors and teachers on to waiters and cleaners) better at their jobs. This does a lot to explain the slowdown in productivity improvement.

So economists have had to turn their minds to humans, and how you make them more productive. An obvious response is to ensure they’re well educated and trained, equipped with the right skills to take them onwards in an ever-changing economy.

Equally obvious is making sure our workers are in good health – mental as well as physical. These are things we could be doing better than we are.

Less obvious is economists’ relatively recent discovery of the economic importance of “place” – where people live and work. Particularly at a time when knowledge has become a more critical ingredient, big cities have become incubators, bringing together talented workers to promote experimentation and learning, as well as enabling the transfer of knowledge. (Bit surprising in an age where digital connections are ubiquitous.)

Another less-obvious realisation is that, in the services sector, productivity depends on creativity and imagination, which drive innovation. Increasingly the services sector is the home of start-ups aimed at finding innovative ways to deliver new and existing services to larger numbers of customers.

This is very touchy-feely stuff for hard-nosed economists. One of our leading economists, Professor Ian Harper, dean of Melbourne Business School, says creativity and imagination “are generally stimulated by human interaction, social creatures that we are".

“And the more diverse we are when we gather, the more we stimulate, challenge and goad one another to greater heights of imagination and creativity.

“But for diversity to work its magic, there must also be inclusion. No matter how diverse we are, without inclusion we remain separated by physical, social, cultural and emotional barriers, and the creative spark is quenched by sameness and group think,” Harper says.

Enter the SBS network, which has commissioned Deloitte Access Economics to study the economic benefits of improving social inclusion.

By this is meant affording all people the best opportunities to enjoy life and prosper in society. It includes the Indigenous, and almost 7 million immigrants, from 270 ancestries, since 1945. All the women who should have more senior jobs. Almost 50,000 same-sex couples, and one in five people with a physical or mental disability.

About a third of small businesses in Australia, representing 1.4 million employees, are run by migrants to Australia, the great majority of whom didn’t own a business before coming here. And most migrants feel socially included.

Greater social inclusion means people are less likely to experience discrimination in employment, less likely to experience health issues, especially anxiety and depression. By lifting wages and workforce participation in districts of socioeconomic disadvantage, the benefits of economic growth can be shared more evenly across the community.

All this could save the taxpayers money, as well as making businesses more productive – which, by Deloitte’s modelling, could yield an economic dividend of more than $12 billion a year. And that’s not to mention the small matter of allowing the individuals to lead happier, more satisfying lives.

For many years economists believed economic efficiency and fairness to be in conflict. You could make the economy a fairer place only by making it a less-rich place.

That’s the economists’ exciting discovery in recent years: if you play your cards right, you can make the world fairer and a bit richer.
Read more >>

Monday, August 26, 2019

Why government-controlled prices are soaring

As if Scott Morrison didn’t have enough problems on his plate, we learnt last week that government-administered prices are rising much faster than prices charged by the private sector.

Last week my colleague Shane Wright dug out figures from the bowels of the consumer price index showing that, over the almost six years since the election of the Abbott government in September 2013, the prices of all the goods and services in the CPI basket have risen by just 10.4 per cent, whereas the government-administered prices in the basket rose by 26 per cent.

Some of those "administered" prices actually fell and others rose by less than prices overall. But let’s do what everyone does and focus on the really big increases.

Behavioural economics tell us that people’s perceptions of the cost of living are exaggerated by a ubiquitous mental shortcut psychologists call "salience". We tend to remember the things that leapt out at us at the time and forget all the things that didn’t.

So, for instance, we vividly remember the shock we got when we opened our electricity bill and saw how huge it was and how much it had increased.

In round figures, the cost of secondary education rose by 30 per cent over the period, childcare by 27 per cent, postal costs by 27 per cent, hospital and medical services by 36 per cent, council rates by 21 per cent, cigarettes by 109 per cent, gas prices by 16 per cent and electricity by 12 per cent (most of the bigger increase came during the term of the previous Labor government).

Not hard to see that the government has a huge salience problem. Plenty of scope there for the punters to convince themselves the cost of living is soaring.

But what should Morrison do? At a glance, the problem's obvious: government prices rising much faster than market prices say governments are hopelessly wasteful and inefficient. So expose the government to competition and the waste will be competed away, to the benefit of all.

Sorry, the true story’s much more complicated. Indeed, part of the problem is the backfiring of governments’ earlier attempts to make the provision of government services "contestable".

Let’s look deeper. For a start, some of the increase in administered "prices" is actually increases in taxation. The doubling in cigarette prices is the result of the phased massive increase in tobacco excise begun by Malcolm Turnbull.

Local council rates work by applying a certain rate of tax to the unimproved land value of properties. State governments usually cap the extent to which the tax rate can be increased, but the base to which it’s applied soars every time there’s a housing boom.

Postal costs rise because we want to continue being able to post letters to anywhere in Australia at a uniform price, even though we're actually doing it less and less, thus sending economies of scale into reverse. Australia Post would have been privatised long ago if any business thought it could make a profit from the business without scrapping the letter service.

The doubling in the retail prices of the now largely privatised (but still heavily regulated) electricity industry over the past decade is the classic demonstration that attempts to introduce competition to monopoly industries are no simple matter and can easily backfire.

The cost of childcare has been rising over the years because governments have been raising quality standards – staff-child ratios, better educated and paid workers. Is that bad? This formerly community-owned sector has long been open to competition from for-profit providers without this showing any sign of helping to limit price increases.

Even so, childcare is heavily subsidised by the federal government. This government’s more generous subsidy scheme caused the net out-of-pocket cost to parents (which is what the CPI measures) to fall a little last financial year.

The modest suggested fees in government schools wouldn't have risen much over the past six years. If private school fees have risen strongly despite the heavy taxpayer subsidies going to Catholic and independent schools, it’s because the number of parents willing to pay them shows little sign of diminishing. Hardly the government’s problem.

Detailed figures show that the out-of-pocket costs for pharmaceuticals rose by less than 6 per cent (thanks to reforms in the pharmaceutical benefits scheme) and for therapeutic goods fell a few per cent, while for dental services they kept pace with the overall CPI, leaving the out-of-pocket costs of hospital and medical services up by a cool 36 per cent.

That tells you private health insurance is falling apart. Add the continuing problems with needs-based funding of schools, and electricity and gas prices, and the scope for further efficiency improvements in healthcare, and you see the Morrison government has plenty to be going on with.
Read more >>

Saturday, August 24, 2019

How strange could money get if the worst came to the worse?

With our official interest rate heading ever closer to zero, there’s much talk that the Reserve Bank may be forced to join other central banks in resorting to “unconventional monetary policy,” including QE – “quantitative easing”. But how likely is this? What might it involve? Are there alternatives? And would it be good or bad?

These questions were debated by Dr Stephen Kirchner, of the United States Studies Centre at Sydney University, Dr Stephen Grenville, a former deputy governor of the Reserve now at the Lowy Institute, and Lyn Cobley, boss of Westpac’s institutional bank, at a meeting of the Australian Business Economists in Sydney this week.

But let’s start with what the Reserve’s governor, Dr Philip Lowe, said on the subject to the House’s economics committee earlier this month.

He said it was possible the official interest rate would end up at zero. Here’s the key quote: “I think it’s unlikely, but it is possible. We are prepared to do unconventional things if the circumstances warranted it.”

The Reserve had been doing a lot of thinking about unconventional policies, so as to be ready if they proved necessary, not because it thought them likely to be needed.

“I hope we can avoid that,” he said. Which I take to mean that, should they prove needed, the economy’s prospects would be much worse than they are now. But also that the Reserve doesn’t fancy having to use unconventional methods.

Conventional monetary policy involves the central bank using its “open market operations” (selling or buying Commonwealth bonds from the banks) to push its official interest rate, and hence the banks’ short-term and variable interest rates, up or down so as to discourage or encourage borrowing and spending (“demand”) in the economy.

Lowe’s list of unconventional measures includes the “negative” interest rates applying in Switzerland, the euro area and Japan (where lenders pay the borrowers tiny interest rates; don’t hold your breath waiting for this one), the central bank lending funds to banks at below-market rates provided they lend them on to businesses, the central bank buying corporate bonds or mortgage-backed securities, or intervening in the foreign exchange market to push the value of its currency down.

But the measure Lowe seemed least uncomfortable with is the central bank buying long-term government securities to try to lower risk-free long-term interest rates. This is similar to conventional policy, just at the long end rather than the short end.

Lowe also said that, if it became necessary to start buying long-term securities, you wouldn’t need to have cut the official interest rate to zero before you started. He implied he might go no lower than 0.5 per cent.

Why stop there? Because by then the banks’ deposit rates would be too low to be cut any further, meaning they couldn’t pass the cut on to their home-loan and business borrowers.

However, he admitted, if things got so bad internationally that all the other central banks had cut their official rates to zero, we might be obliged to follow suit. Another possibility would be if our economic growth slowed even further – say, into the 1 per cent range – though in that case a response would be needed from fiscal policy (the budget) as well as monetary policy.

Turning to this week’s debate, Westpac’s Cobley made it clear the banks would have trouble coping with most of the unconventional measures. Even cutting the official rate any further would hit the banks’ profits (sounds of weeping and breast-beating by the bank customers present).

Kirchner, who is among the minority of economists who believe fiscal policy is ineffective in managing demand, saw no problem with using unconventional measures, which could easily have the same effect as cutting the official rate by a further 2.5 percentage points.

He said the consensus of academic studies was that unconventional measures in the US had been quite effective. Grenville agrees with him that, for the central bank to switch from buying short-term securities to buying long-term securities in no way constitutes “printing money” (even metaphorically).

Grenville disagreed with his claim that unconventional measures don’t promote inequality by helping the rich get richer, however. They lead to higher prices in the markets for shares and property, which help expand the economy through a “wealth effect” – working best for the wealthy.

Except where unconventional measures were used to rescue financial markets that had frozen at the height of the financial crisis, Grenville was unconvinced they achieved much. The academic studies made too little distinction between different episodes.

So he opposes taking interest rates lower and moving on to unconventional measures. Rather, the Reserve should tell the government monetary policy had gone as far as it reasonably could – was already “pedal to the metal” – so now it was over to fiscal policy.

Unconventional measures (I think “quantitative easing” is misleading) would probably achieve lower long-term interest rates, inflate asset prices (particularly shares), encourage financial risk-taking and lower the exchange rate, Grenville said.

None of those things seemed particularly desirable, he said. Lower long-term interest rates wouldn’t help much because, unlike in America, Australian households and businesses borrow at the short end. We’ve had plenty of asset-price inflation already.

A lower dollar helps our exporters, but it’s a “beggar-thy-neighbour” policy (inviting others to do the same to us) and, in any case, the dollar is already low enough to make any viable exporter profitable.

When unconventional measures are discussed, some people think of “helicopter money” – governments distributing cash to ordinary punters, from a metaphorical helicopter. But central bankers insist such a measure is not monetary policy and would have to come from the government as part of fiscal policy.

If the government covered the cost of the cash by borrowing from the public in the usual way, such a stimulus measure would be quite conventional – a la Kevin Rudd’s 2008 “cash splash” into people’s bank accounts.

If the government simply ordered the Reserve to credit people’s bank accounts, that would be “printing money” and highly unconventional. Again, don’t hold your breath.
Read more >>

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Recycling is all about being taken for a ride

Another day, another crisis. The crisis in kerbside recycling has been building since China effectively refused to take any more of our rubbish about 18 months ago. Then we sent it to other Asian countries, but now they’re jacking up, too.

The disruption to the local recycling industry has caused one company that accepted recycled material from local councils in Victoria and South Australia to collapse, leaving five big warehouses stuffed with baled paper and plastic that no one wants.

But then Scott Morrison took charge. At a meeting with the premiers, they agreed to establish a timetable to ban the export of waste plastic, paper, glass and tyres. In the meantime, he committed $20 million for “innovative projects to grow our domestic recycling industry”.

Morrison said Australia needed to take responsibility for its own waste, but this moral act should be seen as a money-making opportunity rather than a new economic burden. The changes should “not have to cost us more – in fact, hopefully, it’ll cost us less”.

Minister for Industry Karen Andrews said: “Boosting our onshore recycling industry has the potential to create over three times as many jobs as exporting our plastic waste, ensuring a more sustainable and prosperous future.”

Really? Sounds delusional to me. The truth is that most of what we put out each week is of little value to business – especially after you’ve had to move it, sort it, move it again, clean it up, melt it down or whatever.

It’s not clear that the cost of making our waste attractive to local businesses would be less than they were prepared to pay for it. If not, we’d pay through higher taxes. Of course, governments could compel businesses to use recycled materials, but if this increased their costs we’d pay through higher prices.

This is why, until now, so much of our waste – and that of the Americans, Japanese and Europeans – has been shipped around the world to Asian countries. That’s where wages are low enough to make feasible all the work involved in recovering waste materials.

But even they are now deciding it’s not worth all the air pollution, chemical emissions, discharge of untreated water and damage to workers’ health involved. A fair bit of the plastic can’t be recycled and gets burnt.

So we could spend a lot more than we do at present ensuring that we recycle a high proportion of our own household waste, but before we do we ought to ask ourselves how we’ve come to believe that recycling most of the stuff we discard is absolutely central to our efforts to reduce the damage we’re doing to the natural environment.

Why are we putting recycling on a higher pedestal than reducing carbon emissions? Because it’s easier? We’re learning it’s not as easy as it seems.

If the amount of household waste is such a problem, why are we emphasising recycling rather than reduced packaging? Because governments don’t like telling big business what it can and can’t do?

It amazes me that we’ve put recycling up there with motherhood and never stop to question whether it’s the best use of our time and money in the “environmental space”.

I think recycling involves a high degree of self-delusion (and don’t worry, I’ve been known to completely repack our bin so as to fit more in). It’s more about feeling good than doing good.

We’ve taken to recycling because, with just a small effort on our part, we’re able to convince ourselves we’re doing our bit to save the planet. (I remember shopping at a supermarket in California, with all its indulgences and absurd degree of choice. At the checkout, you were asked whether you wanted your stuff packed in “paper or plastic”. All you had to do was say “paper” and you emerged with a clear conscience.)

With kerbside recycling, it’s out of sight, out of mind. I played my part, what happens after that is up to the government. Turns out, we’ve been sweeping our dust under the carpet and only now are noticing the bulge.

Governments have found it easier to play along with our delusions – see above – than tell us the disillusioning truth. Green groups and ecologists also play along because they think it gives us something to do and keeps us engaged with their issue.

Nobody actually wants the stuff, so the authorities have been shipping it off to Asia on the q.t. Much of the stuff that doesn’t get shipped away ends up in landfill anyway.

What do we imagine recycling achieves? How much further use of fossil fuel, water, chemicals and other damage to the environment is justified to ensure the last bit of paper or bottle cap is recycled?

Recycling’s total effect on the environment is a far more complicated sum than it suits governments and experts to tell us.

For instance, we know how bad single-use plastic bags are. What we’re not told is that, according to a British government study, you have to use a paper bag three times – or a cotton bag 131 times – to be sure that, once the effect of producing the bag is taken into account, you’ve contributed to fewer carbon emissions.

We need to be sure we’re directing our effort and expense towards the most environmentally beneficial ends.
Read more >>

Monday, August 19, 2019

We’re relying on a government that spurns economic advice

I’m starting to wonder if the trouble with our politicians is that they’ve evolved to do politics but not economics, making them unfit to cope with the economic threats we now face.

On the one hand, they’ve been able to leave the management of the economy to the independent Reserve Bank, whose tinkering with interest rates – up a bit, down a bit – has successfully kept the economy growing for 28 years.

On the other hand, the pollies have been locked in a decade of unprecedented political instability where, since the demise of the Howard government in 2007, no prime minister has been safe from attack – from their own side.

In such an environment, with monetary policy (interest rates) so successfully managing the economy, the budget ceases to be “fiscal policy” and becomes just an instrument of politics.

Because you’re eternally looking over your shoulder trying to spot the next colleague holding a dagger behind his back, you use the budget primarily to shore up your support within the party, rewarding the base and punishing its designated enemies.

Be slavish in feeding the 24-hour news cycle. Keep up the pressure for ministers and their departments to provide a continuous flow of minor “announceables”. Remember, any vacuum you leave will be filled by your enemies (external or internal). If you run out announceables, just slag off your (official) opponents.

Of course, if the punters understood what you were up to, they wouldn’t be impressed. So when you’re trying to shore up the support of big business by cutting the rate of company tax, you keep claiming it’s a “plan for jobs and growth”.

When you’re using an income tax tax cut to buy some popularity at the election, you pretend that economic growth is driven by lower taxes.

The worst of it is, since the things your side really cares about – cutting taxes, preserving tax breaks favouring high income-earners, cracking down on the leaners and loafers on social welfare – are economic measures, you convince yourself you’re really into economics.

And running a budget surplus – that’s economic isn’t it? (No, not when your forecasts of a strong economy have proved way too optimistic and you’re counting on a freak improvement in iron ore prices to get you over the line. Then, it becomes an indulgent stretch for political kudos.)

You don’t actually know enough economics to realise economics is about rolling back rent-seeking and increasing the efficiency with which resources are allocated, at the micro level, and managing the economy through the ups and downs of the business cycle, at the macro level. All the rest is politics.

We’ve come to expect that if the person taking the treasurer’s job doesn’t know much about economics, Treasury will give them a crash course and get ’em up to speed. But former senior Treasury officer Paul Tilley’s new book, Changing Fortunes, leads me to think this no longer happens.

These days, treasurers are so preoccupied by the daily battle for political survival they have little time or interest in economics tutorials. Treasury has got out of the habit of giving the treasurer any advice his staff doubts he’d want to hear. Treasury’s job is largely to supply facts and figures when demanded by the treasurer’s staff.

In which case, you have to worry about how much professional rigour goes into producing the budget forecasts. How much they’re designed to avoid giving the treasurer news he doesn’t want to hear.

The Reserve Bank’s latest forecasts for wage growth are laughing at the optimistic forecasts of the budget in April. Where the budget has wages growing by 3.25 per cent a year by June 2021, the Reserve has the growth rate rising only a fraction to 2.4 per cent.

But here’s the surprising thing. Despite the central importance of wages in driving consumer spending and overall economic growth, the Reserve’s year-average forecasts for real GDP differ little from those in the budget.

I find this suspicious. And worrying. If the central bank feels constrained by the forecasts of a Treasury anxious to avoid displeasing its political masters, we’ve got a problem.

Last week, while worries about how much damage Trump’s trade war might do to the world economy were causing share markets to plunge, Treasurer Josh Frydenberg – who was 20 at the time of our last big recession – emerged from his bunker to assure us the government would “take the necessary actions to ensure our economy continues to grow”.

Great. But who’ll be advising him on which actions are necessary? The young punks in his office?
Read more >>

Saturday, August 17, 2019

Worried Lowe flouts convention to push for wage rises - now

The most important piece of local economic news this week was no news: the wage price index remained stuck at an annual growth rate of 2.3 per cent for yet another quarter. I’ve said it before but I’ll keep saying it until it’s sunk into the skull of every last politician: we won’t get back to healthy growth in the economy until we get back to healthy growth in wages.

That’s because economies are circular: all of us standing in a circle, buying and selling to everyone else. What’s the main thing people in the circle sell? Their labour. What do they do with the wages they earn? Buy stuff from the rest of the economy.

Business people (and Coalition politicians) are very conscience of the truth that wages are a cost to business. They’ve thus long had the attitude that wages should be kept as low as possible.

But equally, wages are income to wage-earners, and by far the biggest source of income for the nation’s nine million households. So the less wages grow, the less growth there is in the income households use to buy the goods and services produced by the nation’s businesses. Not good.

Get it? In the end, business has as much to lose from weak wage growth as workers do. This is the bit that many businesspeople and politicians don’t get. They’re so used to seeing the economy as my lot versus the other lot, they can’t see that, as the Salvos say, "we’re all in this together".

People – even the media – keep saying wages are flat. That’s not true. What’s true is that, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, the rate at which wages are rising has been flat, at 2.3 per cent a year, for the fourth quarter in a row.

In fact, wage growth has been surprisingly low since the end of 2013 – five and a half years ago.

Another point to be clear on is that it’s not low wage growth, as such, that’s the problem. If consumer prices weren’t growing, annual wage growth of 2.3 per cent wouldn’t be bad. It would be fantastic.

So it’s the rate at which wages are growing relative to the growth in consumer prices that matters. Real wages, in other words.

Standard economic theory says that, provided their real growth is no faster than the rate of improvement in the productivity of labour (that is, output per hour worked), wages can grow faster than prices without causing increased inflation.

What’s more, if wage-earners are to get their fair share of the benefit from improved productivity, real wages should be growing in line with the medium-term trend (average) rate of growth in labour productivity, which is about 1.1 per cent a year.

And because wages are the greatest single factor driving household income, household income is the greatest single factor driving consumer spending, and consumer spending accounts for about 60 per cent of gross domestic product, the economy won’t be back to a healthy rate of growth until real wages are back to growing pretty much in line with average productivity improvement.

Which, it turns out, is a bit of a worry. Why? Because it isn’t happening and doesn’t look like happening any time soon.

In the April budget, the government confidently predicted that wage growth would return to something approaching the old normal, accelerating to 2.5 per cent over the year to June this year, then 2.75 per cent by next June, and 3.25 per cent by June the year after.

We learnt this week that, as measured by the wage price index, wages fell short of the first hurdle, coming in at 2.3 per cent rather 2.5 per cent.

Worse, last week we learnt that even the Reserve Bank doesn’t share the government’s optimism.

The Reserve’s revised forecasts now see no advance on 2.3 per cent by June next year, and only the tiniest improvement to 2.4 per cent in two years’ time.

Admittedly, contrary to my contention that we won’t get to decent growth in the economy until we get decent growth in wages, the Reserve is predicting that real GDP will have strengthened to a healthy 2.7 per cent by June next year, and an even healthier 3 per cent by June 2021.

With wage growth forecast to continue weak, the Reserve is expected this improvement to happen with out much help from stronger consumer spending.

So how? Mainly through strong growth in business investment spending, exports and public sector spending on infrastructure.

Consumer spending would be helped a bit by the latest tax cuts and the cuts in interest rates. Other help would come from the falling dollar’s improvement to the price competitiveness of our export and import-competing industries, the brighter outlook for mining investment, and some stabilisation of the housing market.

Maybe. I remain sceptical. And if his behaviour last week is any guide, Reserve governor Dr Philip Lowe is pretty worried about the continuing weakness in wage growth.

It is simply not done for leading econocrats to tell employers they should be paying higher wages. But that’s just what Lowe did in his appearance before the House economics committee.

"At the aggregate [overall] level," he said, "my view is that a further pick-up in wages growth is both affordable and desirable."

Not after we’ve achieved greater productivity improvement, please note, but now. By how much does he think wages should be growing? By about 3 per cent a year, as he’s said on various occasions.

What’s more, federal and state governments – Labor as well as Coalition - should be setting the private sector a better example – or "norm" in Lowe's words – by raising the 2 to 2.5 per cent caps they’ve imposed on their own employees’ wage rises.

Thank goodness somebody’s minding the shop.
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Wednesday, August 14, 2019

We need more helicopter pollies caring for our kids


Sometimes I think that if our politicians spent as much time trying to fix the country as they do playing political games – slagging each other off and finding ways to “wedge” their opponents – we’d be in much better shape.

The world becomes ever more complicated and right now our future is looking, as a pollie might say, “challenging”. Not least among our challenges is ensuring our children have better lives than ours.

So far, you wouldn’t be sure we were making much progress on that project. Leaving aside the way we’ve shifted the tax system in favour of the old at the expense of the young, there’s the less-than-wonderful state of our education and training.

Our schools aren’t winning many prizes on speech day, and though our universities have become much bigger, you wouldn’t be sure all the extra youngsters going in are emerging with valuable degrees. You get the feeling some of them would have been better off going to TAFE.

Speaking of TAFE – sorry, “vocational education and training” - why is it still being treated as the poor relation in the education system? Has it recovered from the disastrous attempt to save money by making vocational training “contestable”?

You may not have noticed but, with Parliament not sitting last week, Scott Morrison and his minister thought they’d better get on with some work in the “education space”.

It was, to be polite, a week of modest accomplishment.

After decades of squeezing the universities – and turning the vice-chancellors into funding-hungry ringmasters who’re no longer sure what the circus is meant to prove – Julia Gillard introduced “demand-driven” funding of undergraduate places.

Predictably, the universities – particularly regional unis - went crazy, cutting entry standards and signing up everyone they could.

Gillard’s view that a much higher proportion of young people should go on to further education was sound, but did that mean everyone was off to uni now?

Enter the Coalition government, which decided demand-driven funding was costing too much. Why not deregulate the setting of uni fees? When that was shot down, it took some years for the government to decide simply to freeze the number of funded places.

Last year it relented, promising to increase places in line with the growth in the working-age population – but on condition of improved performance. Ah yes, performance indicators. That’s what we need.

But which? A committee of five vice-chancellors was commissioned to ponder the question. Last week Education Minister Dan Tehan released their report and accepted their recommendations. From next year the unis will get an extra $80 million, provided they demonstrate success on graduate employment, dropout rates, student satisfaction, and adequate participation rates for Indigenous, low socio-economic status and regional-and-remote students.

I have great sympathy for the government’s desire to stop the vice-chancellors using students as cash cows and get back to their main job of giving our kids a high-quality education.

But I doubt KPIs are the way to do it. Monetary incentives are a poor way to encourage better behaviour, partly because they’re too easily gamed. And nobody knows more about gaming performance indicators than our vice-chancellors, who devote much time to thinking of easy ways to boost their uni’s rank on the various international league tables of universities (because this attracts more overseas students and you can charge ’em more).

Moving on to VET, last week saw the release of a “Vision for Vocational Education and Training” following a meeting of federal and state ministers as part of the Council of Australian Governments.

As a collection of motherhood statements, it’s first rate. A sample: “VET and higher education [unis] are equal and integral parts of a joined-up and accessible post-secondary education system with pathways between VET, higher education and the school system.”

This seems to be an assertion that we already have just the thing we don’t have, but desperately need. How are we to achieve it? Not to worry. The ministers are working on it. (They say that COAG is where good ideas go to die.)

Meanwhile, Andrew Norton, of the Grattan Institute, has used the long-running Longitudinal Survey of Australian Youth to conclude that not too many of the less-academic students going to university – among the 40,000 students a year with ATARs (tertiary admission ranks) of 50 to 70 – would have done better for themselves in VET.

Low-ATAR uni students are more likely to fail subjects and get low marks, and when they graduate are less likely to find professional jobs or earn high salaries.

Less-academic men doing humanities or science degrees might have earned higher lifetime incomes had they done vocational diplomas in construction, engineering or commerce.

But less-academic women often do teaching and nursing degrees. These “deliver good employment outcomes to students across the ATAR range,” Norton says. “These students are unlikely to do better in a vocational education course.”

Hmm. Teaching may be good for less-academic students, but I’m not sure how good less-academic teachers are for teaching.

I think that if universities are willing to admit – and take big fees from – less-able students, they have an obligation to give them more help.

Norton says “a good tertiary education system steers prospective students towards courses that increase their opportunities and minimise their risks. Australia’s post-school system does not always achieve this goal”.
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Monday, August 12, 2019

We're edging towards admitting we're in secular stagnation

At least since 2012, Treasury, the Reserve Bank and successive governments have assured us a return to the old normal of strong economic growth, high wages and low unemployment wasn’t far off. But last week big cracks emerged in governor Philip Lowe’s optimistic facade.

In all the years since then, our estimated time of arrival at the promised land has been repeatedly pushed out a year or so. On the face of it, that’s what the Reserve did yet again in its quarterly statement on monetary policy.

Forecast growth in real gross domestic product over the year to December was cut again, to 2.5 per cent (down from a predicted 3.25 per cent last November), but not to worry. By June next year it will have bounced back to trend growth of 2.75 per cent. Happy days.

But that hardly fits with Lowe’s rhetoric during his appearance before the Parliament’s economics committee on Friday. He devoted a surprising amount of time to discussing the Reserve’s possible response in the "unlikely" event that the economy stayed weak.

His own forecasts imply the need for two further rate cuts, taking the official interest rate to just 0.5 per cent.

And if it got to 0.5 per cent, the Reserve would consider some form of "quantitative easing", he said, probably lowering the longer-term risk-free rate of interest by buying government bonds and paying for them simply by crediting the sellers’ accounts at the Reserve (the modern equivalent of "printing money").

What a long way we’ve come from Lowe’s line at the first official rate cut in June. The outlook for the economy was fine, he said then, it was just that the Reserve had redone its sums and realised that, with a bit of extra monetary stimulus, it could get the unemployment rate down to 4.5 per cent without causing any problem with inflation.

Actually, when your look deeper than the latest headline forecast of an early return to trend growth in the economy, you find that, by the end of 2021, wages still wouldn’t be growing any faster than they are now. Happy days?

Larry Summers, eminent academic economist and a former US Treasury secretary, began arguing that the American and other advanced economies were caught in "secular stagnation" – a protracted period of weak growth – in 2013. Since then, many economists have agreed, though they still debate its causes.

So far, however, those naughty, negative SS-words have never crossed the lips of any Treasury or Reserve official, let alone any politician. But on Friday Lowe gave us a detailed account of the phenomenon that’s both the key explanation for, and the main evidence of the existence of, secular stagnation: the amazingly low level of world real interest rates.

"There is a structural thing going on as well, and I think it is really important we understand this. At the moment, right around the world, there is an elevated desire to save and a depressed desire to invest," Lowe said.

"You see a lot of global savings because of demographic factors [population ageing]. There is a lot of saving in Asia [because they don’t have a social security system]. Many people borrowed too much in previous times and now they’re having to repair their balance sheets, so they want to save a bit more [paying off debt is a form of saving].

"There is a lot of desire to save and, right at the moment, not many firms want to invest. The reality we face is that, if a lot of people want to save and not many people want to use those savings to build new [physical] capital, savers are going to get low returns.

"The way the financial system works is that the central banks are the ones who set the interest rates, but we’re really responding to this deep structural shift in the balance between saving and investment right around the world and there’s not much we [central bankers] can do about that."

Just so. Two points. First, the "deep structural shift" began even before the global financial crisis. It’s not just the product of recent worry about a trade war – although that does provide econocrats and politicians with a convenient excuse to shift from their she’ll-be-right rhetoric.

Second, unprecedented low interest rates are a symptom of a deeper problem: aggregate (total) demand is insufficient to take up aggregate supply. That’s why growth is weak and will stay weak until a solution is found.

Where’s the additional demand to come from? Not from lower interest rates, obviously. Which leaves the budget. Now’s the time to rebuild public infrastructure and do other useful things we thought we couldn’t afford.

Anyone who still thinks now’s a good time to run budget surpluses just doesn’t get it. It’s now neither sensible nor possible. Wake up, Josh.
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Saturday, August 10, 2019

How politics came to trump economics in Canberra

How does the federal government really work? Is it as we were told in Yes, Minister, with the bureaucrats actually in charge, quietly manipulating the politicians? Or are public servants actually the servants of their political masters, as the pollies focus more on getting re-elected than running the country well?

Does Treasury dominate the other departments and the economic advice going to government? Do bureaucrats still give ministers "frank and fearless" advice, or has their role been usurped by the ever-growing army of ministerial staffers, politically aligned think tanks and lobby groups?

In truth, it’s hard for outsiders to be sure. But a new book by a former 30-year senior Treasury officer, Paul Tilley, Changing Fortunes, is surprisingly frank and fearless in spelling out how things work, and how Treasury’s relationship with the elected government has "changed dramatically in recent times".

Last month Scott Morrison said he saw the bureaucrats’ role as implementing the government’s policies. Their advisory role was limited to advising the government of any problems that might arise during that implementation.

Tilley makes it clear this isn’t just what Morrison would like, it’s pretty much what he and his recent predecessors have long had. Treasury gives much information to the treasurer, but avoids giving written policy advice it believes would be unwelcome. What little frank advice is given comes verbally, as part of the private discussion between the treasurer and Treasury secretary.

Tilley says the art of policy advising involves understanding the true nature of the problem, predicting the consequences of policy options and framing effective policy advice.

To be influential, however, policy advisers need to find a balance between having sufficient separation from the raw politics of government to maintain a strong policy framework, on one hand, and having sufficient responsiveness to ministers to be listened to, on the other.

"Treasury’s influence spectrum had ‘frank and fearless advice’ at one end and full ‘responsiveness to government’ at the other," he writes. The trick was the find the right spot in the middle.

But by 2014, under Tony Abbott, "Treasury was now at the full responsiveness-to-government extreme," he writes.

His book is a history of Treasury from its establishment in 1901. "Treasury has long considered itself to be the best economic policy advising agency in Australia.

"Its favoured economic policy framework has for the most part been grounded in neoclassical economics - a belief in the power of markets, and the inherent tendency of supply and demand forces to move towards equilibrium.

"Non-achievement of equilibrium must be caused then, by some market impediment or government interference, and Treasury has seen it as its job to tackle those impediments or that interference.

"If there has been one enduring belief within Treasury – its light on the hill – this is it," he writes.

This is what Tilley means by Treasury’s possession – unlike so many other departments - of a "strong policy framework".

"If there has been a central defining culture in Treasury, it has been around analytical excellence – having the strongest policy framework and the best ideas. If there has been one recurring constraint on Treasury’s policy effectiveness, it has been too narrow in its focus and closed to alternative perspectives," he says.

Tilley’s title, Changing Fortunes, recognises that, over its 118-year life, Treasury’s influence has waxed and waned.

For its first 30 years it was the government’s bookkeeper. It evolved into an economic policy agency only after the Great Depression revealed its inability to provide authoritative advice on economic policy.

The economists arrived from the 1930s, with the advent of Keynesianism. The "golden years" for the economy in the 1950s and ‘60s were also golden for Treasury, which grew in size and status, leading the debate about economic ideas and allowing its influence and strength to give it "a level of arrogance".

This did not sit comfortably with the increasingly assertive governments of the post-Menzies era. Treasury was pushed out into the cold by Gough Whitlam, and kept there by Malcolm Fraser. Treasury’s advice remained frank and fearless, but was considered dogmatic, and often wasn’t listened to. I think this was when our Yes, Minister era ended.

Relations became more constructive when Bob Hawke and Paul Keating arrived, and continued so under John Howard and Peter Costello. "There was a sense of partnership in the Treasury-government relationships, and with the advancement of economic reforms that Treasury advocated it again influenced the policy agenda."

But for the past decade, first under the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd government, then under Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison, the "political chaos" has robbed governments of the sustained political capital needed to pursue difficult reforms. Governments fighting for their political survival have maintained a "relentless push for message over substance".

"In the daily political and media battles of the last decade, Treasury policy advice has not been sought, and at times not very effectively given. In those battles, it has been economic and budget facts and figures, not policy advice, that have been demanded," we’re told.

"The habit has developed of not providing policy advice that ministers don’t agree with. Policy advice on contentious issues now is discussed with ministers’ offices in its preparation and if the office indicates that the minister would not be comfortable with the proposed advice an information brief goes instead.

"The office’s (politically attuned) policy advice can then be provided over the top of the Treasury information brief."

The balance of policy influence has shifted to the political offices and external stakeholder groups, with the public service becoming more information providers and implementers of government decisions, he says.

"The government, therefore, is left without a strong source of genuine policy advice. The consequent lack of a consistent economic narrative over the last decade is plain for all to see."
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Wednesday, August 7, 2019

One day the world's population will start falling

For those who worry about global warming and all the other damage humans are doing to our planet, the latest news on world population growth doesn’t seem good. Fortunately, however, the relationship between population and the environment is paradoxical.

The United Nations Population Division updated its projections in June. From its present 7.7 billion, the world’s population is projected to have grown by 2 billion in 2050. It should reach a peak of nearly 11 billion at about the end of this century, before it starts to fall.

Fortunately, projections are just projections, based on a lot of assumptions that may or may not prove to have been accurate. Some prominent demographers believe the UN’s assumptions are too pessimistic.

It’s a mistake to imagine that controlling world population growth is just a matter of access to effective contraception. Economic development also plays a big part.

It’s the activity of humans that generates greenhouse gas emissions and does other damage to the natural environment, using up non-renewable resources, over-using renewable resources such as fish stocks and forests, damaging soil and waterways, and making species extinct.

So the more people, the more damage. Most human activity is economic – people earning their living. And, the way economies are organised at present, the richer people become, the more damage they do.

But here’s the paradox: the richer people become, the fewer children they have.

As my favourite magazine, The Economist, noted in an article, before the Industrial Revolution the typical woman probably had seven or more children. In 1960, the global fertility rate was six children per woman. Today it’s 2.5.

Within that global average, the fertility rate in rich countries is 1.7 children, below the replacement rate for a stable population of 2.1. In middle-income countries it’s 2.4, not far above replacement. In poor countries, however, it’s 4.9 children.

The first economic factor to reduce family size is urbanisation. When you leave the farm, you don’t need as many kids to help with the work. (Both my parents grew up on farms early last century. Dad was one of 14, and Mum one of eight. Their four children, however, had an average fertility rate of 2.5.)

But perhaps the most important factor is the spread of education, particularly of girls. It’s well established that the more years girls spend at school, the fewer babies they have.

“Education reduces fertility by giving women other options,” The Economist says. “It increases their chances of finding paid work. It reduces their economic dependence on their husbands, making it easier to refuse to have more children even if he wants them.

“It equips them with the mental tools and self-confidence to question traditional norms, such as having as many children as possible. It makes it more likely they will understand, and use, contraception.

“It transforms their ambitions for their own children – and thus the number than they choose to have.”

Worldwide, the proportion of girls completing primary school has risen from 76 per cent in 1997 to 90 per cent today. The proportion completing lower secondary school is nearing 80 per cent.

Fertility rates are low in Europe – particularly in Italy (1.33) – and in Japan (1.37). They’re below replacement rate in New Zealand (1.9), Australia (1.83) and the US (1.78).

But the lowest fertility rates are in emerging Asia: Taiwan (1.15) and South Korea (1.11). In the world’s most populous country, China, it’s 1.69, thanks to the one-child policy. After the relaxation of that policy it rose only briefly. Flats are too small and childcare too limited.

By contrast, India’s rate is 2.24, pretty close to replacement. And it varies greatly from 1.8 in wealthy states such as Maharashtra, to more than 3 in poor states such as Uttar Pradesh. Even so, India's population is expected to overtake China’s in 2027.

Because fertility rates cover the whole child-bearing lives of women, it takes a long time for the population of a country that's a bit below the replacement rate to start falling – assuming they don’t top up with immigration, as we do.

Even so, 27 countries’ populations have fallen since 2010 – sometimes with low fertility rates reinforced by high emigration. Over the next 30 years, 55 countries’ populations are projected to fall – almost half of them by more than 10 per cent. China’s may fall by about 31 million, or 2 per cent.

So what’s the problem? In a word: Africa. Its painfully slow rate of economic development leaves it still with fertility rates of five or six, including big countries such as Nigeria, the Congo, Ethiopia and Tanzania.

The best hope that the world’s population will stop growing sooner than the UN projects is that it has underestimated the rise of girls’ education in Africa (and India and Pakistan).

Of course, economic development is two-edged. It may stop population growth, but it makes everyone else richer and thus makes more demands on the environment.

Just as we can limit climate change without reducing energy use by switching to renewable sources, so we could reorganise the economy in ways that ensured continued economic growth didn’t involve continued destruction of the environment. If we had the will.
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Monday, August 5, 2019

Are low interest rates bad? It depends on your perspective


Although media coverage invariably assumes that low interest rates are good news, they’re now so low there’s a backlash, with people pointing to the disadvantages of low rates and getting quite worried.

The fightback is coming at the usual level of complaints from the retired, but also from more sophisticated observers, such as Andrew Ticehurst, of the Nomura banking group, and Dr Stephen Grenville, a former deputy governor of the Reserve Bank.

It’s understandable that the retired and other savers object to the Reserve Bank’s decisions to cut interest rates and are particularly exercised now rates are so close to zero. Doesn’t the Reserve understand we live on our interest income? Of course it does. So why does it persist?

Interest rates are the price borrowers pay lenders (and, ultimately, savers) for the use of their money for a period. Clearly, cutting rates benefits borrowers at the expense of savers. Central banks cut rates to encourage borrowing and spending because they know the expansionary effect on borrowers greatly exceeds the contractionary effect on savers.

They’ll never be dissuaded from this approach. It’s true interest rates are a “blunt instrument”, but they’re pretty much the only instrument central bankers have.

The retired are on much stronger ground when they insist the government continually updates the “deeming rates” it uses to assess the effect of people’s savings on the amount of their part-pension. It’s surprising the grey lobby has taken so long to wake up to this.

The more sophisticated criticism is that, though market economies thrive on risk-taking (and this is one of the mechanisms by which lower rates are expected to stimulate demand), unduly low rates encourage excessive risk-taking.

Businesses are encouraged to become dangerously highly “geared” or “leveraged” (too dependent on borrowed capital rather than share capital) and firms invest in projects that are high-risk or are profitable only if the cost of borrowing is unrealistically low.

In both cases, the seeds of the next bust are being sown. When rates go back up, firms and projects will fall over and there’ll be hell to pay. Very low rates also allow the survival of “zombie” firms – those that have failed and should have died, but are still living – which tie up resources that could be used more efficiently elsewhere.

Running “ultra-loose monetary policy” at a time when demand is weak can do more to cause dangerous bubbles in share, property and other asset markets than to stimulate markets for goods and services.

There’s merit in these arguments – in normal times. But this brings us to the key question of our times: are our present troubles cyclical or structural? Is it just taking frustratingly long for the economy to return to the old normal, healthy rate of growth, or have so many major (but, as yet, not fully understood) changes occurred in the structure of the economy that a “new normal” has arrived, requiring us to get used to a much lower rate of growth, complete with permanently lower inflation and interest rates?

Treasury is sticking firmly to the view that we’ll soon return to the old normal (thus adding weight to the critics’ worries about the bad seeds being sown by protracted low interest rates) and so is the Reserve – except that governor Philip Lowe’s recent exposition of the reasons for persistent low inflation had a bob each way, nominating cyclical (spare capacity) and structural (effects of digitisation and globalisation) factors.

Remember, interest rates come in two parts: the borrower’s compensation to the lender for the loss of their money’s purchasing power while it’s in the borrower’s hands (the expected inflation rate) plus the borrower’s payment to the lender for the use of their money during the loan (the “real” interest rate).

For as long as inflation stays low, nominal interest rates will stay low – without any real loss to savers, even though their susceptibility to “money illusion” (forgetting to allow for inflation) means many don’t realise it.

And here’s something many people haven’t realised: globally, real interest rates have been falling since the 1970s and are still falling. Harvard’s Lawrence Summers finds in a recent paper that real rates have declined by at least 3 percentage points over the past generation.

Put the two parts together and interest rates – both nominal and real – look like staying low for a long time, whether we like it or not. This says many formerly unprofitable investment projects are now profitable, and budget deficits and high public debt are now much less worrying.

The critics imply the Reserve has great freedom to keep the official interest rate high or low. Not really. It can’t defy economic gravity. It’s the Morrison government that could, at the margin, use its budget to reduce the pressure on the Reserve to cut rates further.
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Saturday, August 3, 2019

Star pupil Philip Lowe gives tips on why inflation is so low

Reserve Bank governor Philip Lowe started his study of economics at high school in Wagga Wagga and finished it with a PhD from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Much thanks to his teacher, Mrs King, whose teaching style convinced him economics was interesting as well as important.

The great attraction of high school economics is its emphasis on linking theory to current events.

According to a speech he gave last week, when Lowe did the HSC in 1979, the standard exam question was: why does Australia have both high inflation and high unemployment ("stagflation") and what’s the government doing about it?

In those days there was much interest in the "misery index", which adds the inflation rate to the unemployment rate. We got to peaks well above 20 per cent. Today, however, it’s below 7 per cent.

As the Australian Bureau of Statistics advised this week, the consumer price index rose by just 1.6 per cent over the year to June. Which means it’s been below the Reserve’s inflation target of "between 2 and 3 per cent, on average, over the medium term" for almost five years.

So Lowe’s guess is that, these days, exam questions are likely to ask: why is inflation so low at the same time as unemployment is also low – and what’s the government doing about it?

Just to be of help, he told us how he’d answer the question – which is one of interest and importance to all of us, not just youngsters preparing for their finals.

He started by noting that very low inflation has become the norm in most economies. At present, three-quarters of advanced economies have an inflation rate below 2 per cent.

There’s no single answer, he says, but there are three factors that, together, help explain what’s happened.

First, the credibility of the monetary "frameworks" that central banks eventually adopted when, in the second half of the 1970s, they realised inflation was way too high and needed to be got under control.

It wasn’t until the early '90s that our Reserve Bank adopted its present target for inflation which, as Lowe says, helped cement low inflation “norms” in the economy. In econospeak, it provided an anchor for business and unions’ expectations about how much prices were likely to rise over the next year or two.

"Many people understand that if inflation were to pick up too much, the central bank would respond to make sure the pick-up was only temporary,” Lowe says.

It would do so by raising interest rates and so discouraging borrowing and spending, of course. Economists call this the "monetary policy reaction function".

(It’s one of the reasons for the old view among economists that attempts to use the budget to stimulate demand by cutting taxes or increasing government spending wouldn’t achieve much. The central bank, fearing the stimulus would push up inflation, would react by raising interest rates and so stymie it. In the new world of continuing weak demand and too-low inflation, however, central banks are most unlikely to react to budgetary stimulus in such a way, meaning the new view is that budgetary stimulus is very effective.)

Has inflation targeting worked? Well, annual inflation has averaged 2.4 per cent since the target was adopted, so it certainly seems to have.

The second part of Lowe’s explanation for very low inflation is that spare capacity to produce goods and services (including spare workers who are unemployed or under-employed) in many advanced economies means there’s little upward pressure on prices.

That certainly seems the case in Australia. Our unemployment rate could go a lot lower than its present 5.2 per cent without causing wages to take off – especially with our under-employment rate of 8.3 per cent.

Our labour market seems to be more flexible – and less inflation-prone - than it used to be.

The third part of his explanation is that changes in the structure of the economy caused by technology and globalisation seem to be keeping prices low.

For one thing, digitisation and globalisation seem to be lowering the cost of producing many goods. The entry of China and other emerging economies into the global trading system has added hundreds of millions of factory workers to the global market.

The prices of manufactured goods in the advanced economies have barely increased over the past couple of decades.

For another thing, globalisation and advances in technology are making markets more contestable and increasing competition. This is extending beyond manufacturing to almost every corner of the economy, including the services sector.

Historically, most services couldn’t be traded across national borders. But globalisation – driven mainly by advances in information and communication technology – means many services can now be delivered by somebody in another country.

Examples include preparation of architectural drawings, document design and publishing, and customer service roles (a nice name for call centres). As well, many tasks such as accounting and payroll have been automated.

The internet and its digital “platforms” have revolutionised services such as retail, media and entertainment, and transformed how we communicate, and search for information and compare prices.

"These changes are having a material effect on pricing, with services price inflation lower than it once was. Many firms know that if they don’t keep their prices down, another firm somewhere in the world might undercut them," Lowe says.

"And many workers are concerned that if the cost of employing them is too high, relative to their productivity [an important qualification], their employer might look overseas or consider automation."

More broadly, using the internet for better “price discovery” keeps the competitive pressure on firms.

The end result is a pervasive feeling of more competition. And more competition normally means lower prices.

What’s the government doing about low inflation and the deficient demand that is part of its cause?

Well, if you mean the elected government, the short answer is: not nearly enough. Especially when you remember how little scope the Reserve Bank has left to cut interest rates.
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Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Higher super: good for fund managers, not for workers

Do you have trouble understanding superannuation? Some government backbenchers are urging Scott Morrison to abandon or at least postpone the plan to phase-up the compulsory employer contribution from 9.5 per cent to 12 per cent of salary over the four years to July 2025. Good idea, or another attempt to cheat the worker?

One new backbencher has proposed that, since many low income-earners have a lot of demands on their budgets, super should be voluntary for everyone earning less than $50,000 a year. Whaddaya reckon?

You could be forgiven for being unsure. Super is complicated. You have to understand how it’s taxed and how it interacts with the age pension and its income and assets tests. I sometimes think that, with super, nothing is as it appears.

Take the notion of “employer contributions”. The government is forcing your boss to contribute to your retirement savings on top of the wage you’re paid. You beaut. Bring it on. The more the better.

Trouble is, economists believe that, in the end, it’s not the boss who pays, it’s the worker. How could that happen? Easy. Every time bosses are compelled to increase the rate of their contribution to their workers’ super, they compensate by granting ordinary pay rises that are smaller than they would have been.

After almost 30 years of playing the compulsory super game, that’s what the figures say has happened.

And ask yourself this: if employers really do foot the bill for their contributions to their employees’ super – if they come out of profits rather than wages – why isn’t business complaining loud and long about the plan to greatly increase those contributions?

Once you accept that employees end up paying for “employer” contributions, the question of whether they should be increased can be restated as: would you be happy for your pay to rise by about 2.5 per cent less than it would have over the four years to July 2025? And, ignoring other developments, stay that much lower every year for the rest of your working life?

The rational answer to that question is yes - provided the eventual improvement in my retirement income is sufficient to compensate me for the loss of the other things I could have done with all that money.

Before we consider answering that, here’s another thing that may not be as it appears. Compulsory super is a creation of Labor (and, if you hadn’t noticed, Paul Keating) and the unions. This was done in the belief that future generations would want more than the pension to live comfortably in retirement. Most people would live on a combination of age pension and super.

The Liberals opposed it from the start, saying they didn’t agree with compelling people to save. The Howard government scuttled Keating’s plan to increase compulsory contributions beyond the original 9 per cent.

Then, in 2013, the new Abbott government intervened to delay Kevin Rudd’s plan to get contributions up to 12 per cent by July 2019 – that is, now.

We’re asked to believe that the backbenchers are revolting because Morrison is refusing to abandon or further delay the already-legislated phase-up to 12 per cent by July 2025. But why would he reverse the Libs’ long-held opposition to compulsory super (which, by the way, delivers billions of dollars into “industry” super funds, in which half the trustees are union officials)?

I don’t believe it. Treasurer Josh Frydenberg is preparing to announce a wide-ranging inquiry into the interaction of super, the age pension and taxation. Since the next increase won’t happen until mid-2021, I think Morrison would simply prefer to announce a further curtailment of Labor’s plans in the context of the government’s response to that inquiry.

But why might an independent inquiry recommend against any further increase in the rate of compulsory contributions? Because, despite all the urging from the finance sector-types who make their high-paid living by taking a small annual bite out of every dollar the government forces us to leave in their care, in an unholy alliance with the union movement, the case for higher contributions is weak.

Recent detailed modelling by Brendan Coates, of the Grattan Institute – a non-aligned think tank that’s done much research into super – has found that the planned increase would leave many workers poorer over their entire lifetimes.

They would sacrifice a significantly increased share of their lifetime wages in exchange for little or no increase in their retirement income. Overall, and measured in today’s dollars, the typical worker would lose a cumulative total of about $30,000 over their lifetime, Coates estimates.

He finds that the lowest-paid 20 per cent of employees would be better off, the middle 50 per cent would be worse off, and the highest-paid 30 per cent would be better off.

Why? Partly because super tax breaks are still a lot greater for high income-earners, but mainly because, for workers in the middle, the operation of the age pension assets test would leave them sacrificing immediate income to increase their super payout, only to have their pension chopped back in consequence.

These results make me doubt the wisdom of making super voluntary for low income-earners. Many people are on low incomes not because they’re poor, but because their career is just getting started. It would work against the push for women to end their careers with more super than they do at present.
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