Wednesday, December 4, 2019

Women are making themselves at home in the workforce

In the world of paid work, women still have a lot to complain about: unequal pay and promotion, still-inadequate childcare, and a tax and benefit system that discourages “secondary earners” from working more.

All true. But don’t let this conceal from your notice the success women are having at flooding into the long male-dominated workforce and slowly reshaping it to their needs.

In my never-humble opinion, for as long as girls continue making themselves better educated than boys, it’s only a matter of time before women are calling the shots.

Reserve Bank deputy governor Dr Guy Debelle highlighted women’s growing role in the labour market in a speech he gave last week.

You’ve no doubt heard the government boasting about how strongly the number of jobs has grown on its watch. It’s true. The rest of the economy hasn’t been doing well – wages, the standard of living, for instance – but employment has been growing at the disproportionately strong annual rate of about 2.5 per cent over much of the past three years. As a consequence, a near-record 62.6 per cent of all Australians aged 15 and over have a paid job.

But here’s what the pollies never mention, but Debelle noted: women accounted for two-thirds of the additional jobs in the past year.

This means the rate at which working-age females are participating in the labour force is now at its highest. So with female participation continuing to grow strongly over the decades, while male participation has fallen back, the gap between male and female participation is the narrowest it’s been.

Similarly, if you look just at the gender of those with jobs, women’s share is now above 47 per cent. Similar trends are occurring in all the advanced economies, of course.

Debelle says “changing societal norms and rising educational attainment have contributed to more women moving into ... employment outside the home. Female participation has also been influenced by the increasing flexibility of working-time arrangements, the availability and cost of childcare and policies such as parental leave.”

True. There was a time when most employers thought in terms of full-time workers and not much else – an attitude reinforced by the male-dominated unions. The increasing use of part-time employment has greatly added to the “flexibility” with which employers can deploy labour within their businesses, and no doubt helped to make them more profitable.

But the fact remains that the advent of part-time employment has been a boon, first, to women seeking a career as well as motherhood, then to full-time university students seeking income while they study, and now to many older workers seeking a mid-point between the extremes of full-time work and retirement. So the dread “flexibility” can benefit workers as well as bosses.

Debelle says that the participation rate of mothers with dependent children has kept increasing, rising by 10 percentage points since the early 2000s to 73 per cent. Over the past decade, the rise has been most pronounced for mothers with children aged up to 4.

Of those returning to work within two years after the birth of a child, an increasing majority are citing “financial reasons” as their main reason for doing so. Others returning to work cite “social interaction” or to “maintain career and skills” as their main reason.

Financial reasons could be capturing a number of considerations, according to Debelle, including low growth in wages, the rise in household debt or childcare costs.

Research suggests the cost and quality of childcare does have a significant effect on the willingness of women to do paid work, he says. According to the HILDA survey – of household income and labour dynamics in Australia – the share of households using (more expensive) formal childcare for young children has increased notably over the past decade.

Even so, access to childcare places and financial assistance with childcare costs remain “very important” issues for mothers not back at work.

Debelle says the rise in the level of mortgage debt owed by households in recent decades has “broadly coincided” with the increase in women’s rate of participation in the labour force. But which one’s causing what?

Are debt levels higher because more households have two incomes and so can afford to borrow more? (If so, that would suggest the increase in second incomes is helping to push up house prices.)

Or does the need to borrow more to afford the higher prices drive women’s decisions to go back to work? Maybe the low growth in wages in recent years has caused couples to have more debt than they anticipated and thus needing to work more to pay it down.

What little research evidence there is has usually found it’s the higher debt levels that lead to more women going back to work, but the evidence isn’t strong.

Looking beyond the continuing increase in participation by the mothers of young children and the ever-growing workplace role of prime-aged women – 25 to 54 years – of which it is part, women also account for a big part of the swing from early to later retirement.

Do you realise that 60 per cent of women aged 55 to 64 are taking part in the labour force? That compares with 20 per cent or so before the turn of the century. And the rising participation by women 65 and over isn’t all that much less than for men. Times change.

Monday, December 2, 2019

Lowe should rescue a PM lost in the Canberra bubble

Dr Philip Lowe, governor of the Reserve Bank, is one of the smartest economists in the land. You don’t get a PhD from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology unless you’re super-sharp. But the question now is whether he has the courage to stand up to a wilful Prime Minister whose confidence far exceeds his comprehension.

Scott Morrison, as we know, is refusing to do what Lowe – with the support of the international agencies and most of our economists – has been begging him to do: use his budget to come to the rescue of monetary policy and its ever-feebler efforts to stop the economy slowing almost to stalling-speed.

Morrison is desperate to deliver a budget surplus. So desperate he’s convinced himself that failing to do so would cost him more political support than would allowing the economy to continue failing to lift voters’ living standards, and be so weak that a shock from abroad could push us into recession.

How any politician could come to such a self-harming conclusion is hard to fathom. Perhaps it’s that the 28 years since our last severe recession have robbed the latest generation of Liberal pollies of their economic nous.

Morrison’s so green he hasn’t learnt the first rule of politics: if you stuff up the economy, they throw you out. If that’s news to you, remember the 1961 credit squeeze, which brought Bob Menzies within a whisker of having his career cut short.

Remember how the 1975 recession dispatched with Gough Whitlam, the recession of the early 1980s finished Malcolm Fraser and the 1990 recession caught up with Paul Keating despite a one-term reprieve granted by Liberal fumbling of the 1993 election.

The question for Lowe is how he responds to the Prime Minister’s misreading of his own best interests (not to mention ours). Does Lowe stand back and watch an overconfident leader dice with political death by pretending that monetary policy hasn’t reached the end of its useful life and that blood can still be squeezed from the stone? Or does he announce he’s done all he sensibly can and turn the economy’s problem back to the one (elected) person who could fix it if he came to his senses?

Conventional monetary policy (interest-rate manipulation) has lost most of its power because household debt is at record levels, because the official interest rate is almost at zero, and because rates are already so low that another few cuts won’t make much difference.

Further, as Lowe explained in his speech last week, there’s little to be gained from deciding to progress to QE – "quantitative easing". It’s not capable of lowering rates much further and, in any case, comes at a cost.

As Lowe himself has acknowledged, it creates a moral hazard. For as long as Lowe pretends monetary policy is still effective, he’s running cover for the person who could do something effective, but chooses not to.

And it’s not just the absence of a positive, it’s also the continuation of a negative. Everything that causes the budget to take more out of the economy than it puts back in government spending causes private demand to be weaker.

Consider the way continuing bracket creep (only partly countered by the new middle income-earners’ tax offset) takes a bigger bite out of households’ wage income before they can spend it. Fiscal policy is actually counteracting monetary policy.

In his speech outlining the "limitations of monetary policy" and his lack of enthusiasm for unconventional measures, Lowe noted that their modest benefits needed to be balanced against their possible adverse side-effects.

Such as? First, they may change incentives in an unhelpful way. Providing the banks with ready liquidity during emergencies may encourage them not to bother holding their own adequate buffers, thus making further crises more likely.

Similarly, "the willingness of a central bank to use its full range of policy instruments might create an inaction bias by other policymakers [and] this could lead to an over-reliance on monetary policy," he said. But which policymakers could he possibly have in mind?

A second possible side effect is reducing the efficiency with which resources are allocated throughout the economy. Low interest rates and flattening the yield curve (pushing long-term interest rates down to the level of short-term rates) can damage banks’ profitability, leaving them with less capacity to lend.

There are also risks to the stability of the financial system when low interest rates cause the prices of property or shares (and borrowing) to boom at a time when the economy’s actually weak.

Finally, a third side-effect is a blurring of the lines between monetary policy and fiscal policy. "If the central bank is buying large amounts of government debt at zero interest rates, this could be seen as money-financed government spending," and so damage a country’s credibility internationally.