Showing posts with label United States. Show all posts
Showing posts with label United States. Show all posts

Sunday, June 11, 2023

THE ECONOMY AND THE POLICY MIX

June 2012

If you’re not quite sure what’s happening in the economy at present, don’t feel bad. Some people are saying the economy’s in bad shape; others are saying it’s doing pretty well. The reason for the confusion is that the economy’s being hit by three different factors, at present: one expansionary, one contractionary and one that sounds worse than it actually is - so far, at least. These conflicting factors are affecting different industries differently and different states differently. This is because they’re bringing about a change in the structure of our economy, and structural change is often painful. The three factors are: first, the resources boom; second, the high exchange rate the resources boom has brought about and, third, the problems in the developed economies of the North Atlantic, particularly the Europeans’ debt crisis and worries about the survival of the euro. Let’s start with the troubles in the North Atlantic, then move to the boom then on to the high exchange rate.

Problems in America and Europe

The mighty US economy is recovering only very slowly from the Great Recession of 2008-09. But the problems are much more severe in continental Europe, as well as Britain. Europe’s basic problem of excessive levels of public debt is greatly complicated by the now-exposed structural weaknesses in the euro currency union. Most governments have resorted to the policy of ‘austerity’ - attempting to reduce budget deficits by slashing government spending and raising taxes at a time when their economic recoveries were still very weak. Unsurprisingly, this policy has proved counter-productive and has pushed various economies back into recession.

The media have given great publicity to Europe’s troubles and its tribulations have caused weakness in global sharemarkets, including ours. But the real question is the extent to which Europe’s problems affect our economy. They could do so via three main channels. First, the financial channel: they could cause certain global lending markets to seize up for a time, or increase the risk premiums paid by Australian banks or businesses borrowing in those markets. Second, the confidence channel: media reports of problems in Europe could damage the confidence of Australian consumers and business people. Third, the trade channel: weak growth or contraction in Europe could reduce our exports.

So what damage have we suffered so far? Europe’s tribulations have added a little to our banks’ costs of borrowing overseas. They do seem to have added to the uncertainty of our business people, helping to explain the weakness of non-mining business investment spending. But it’s hard to be sure Europe has had much effect on consumers because the household saving rate has been steady for more than a year and consumer spending has been growing at its trend rate. Europe accounts for less than 10 pc of our exports, so its weakness has had little direct effect on our export income.

However, Europe is a significant customer of our biggest export customer, China. So any adverse effect from Europe’s weakness could come to us via China - unless China were to offset the fall in its export income from Europe by stimulating its domestic demand, as it seems willing and able to do.

Bottom line: Europe’s problems have had some negative effect on us, but so far, not much. This could change, however, if the euro arrangement collapsed. Were something really bad to happen in Europe, the RBA would react quickly with big cuts in the official interest rate.

Resources boom

The big expansionary shock to the economy is coming from the resources boom, the biggest we have experienced since the gold rush. The rapid industrialisation of China and India has pushed prices for our exports of coal and iron ore to extraordinary heights, with our terms of trade only now starting to fall from their best level in 200 years. The improvement in the terms of trade represents a significant increase in the nation’s real income which, when spent, adds to demand. The boom has also added to demand by sparking a huge surge of investment spending on the construction of new mines and liquid-gas facilities. The emerging economies’ demand for the main components of steel is likely to stay strong for a decade or two. So, though the price of our exports of coal and iron ore is likely to fall back to less extreme levels, the volume of our exports is likely to continue growing for many years.

High exchange rate

The big contractionary shock to the economy is coming from the still very high exchange rate caused by the resources boom. An improvement in our terms of trade almost always leads to a rise in our exchange rate. Our dollar is likely to stay unusually high for some years, even as commodity prices fall back, because of the significant net inflow of foreign capital needed to finance the expansion of our mining sector. The high exchange rate helps to prevent the resources boom from leading to inflation by, first, directly reducing the price of imports and, second, reducing the international price competitiveness of our export and import-competing industries, thus reducing their production and so working in the direction of diminishing demand.

Structural change

The public is used to thinking about the economy in cyclical terms: it’s either booming or turning down. At present, however, because these two big shocks to the economy - the resources boom and the high dollar - are working on opposite directions, the economy is neither booming nor busting. It’s easier to understand what’s going on in the economy if you think of it in structural terms: the interplay of the two conflicting forces bearing on the economy is causing some industries to expand while others contract. The mining industry and mining-related parts of the construction industry and the manufacturing industry - accounting in total for up to 20 per cent of GDP - is expanding rapidly, whereas most of the other trade-exposed industries (manufacturing and service export industries such as tourism and education) are likely to get relatively smaller. The other industry that’s suffering from structural change is retailing. The pressures it’s facing have little to do with the high dollar, however. It’s being affected by the digital revolution and the rise of e-commerce.

Outlook for the economy

Over the year to March, the economy grew by an exceptional 4.3 pc, lead by strong consumer spending and the boom in mining investment. But now the economic managers are expecting growth to return to its trend rate of 3.25 pc for the coming financial year, 2012-13, as a whole. But this is expected to involve quite disparate growth in the components of GDP: another very big increase in mining investment spending and trend growth in consumer spending, but no growth in new home building and a small contraction in public sector spending as federal and state governments seek to return to operating surplus.

And note that the other economic indicators are looking pretty good at present. The latest figures say underlying inflation is running at 2.2 pc - almost down to the bottom of the RBA’s 2 to 3 pc inflation target. The latest figures say unemployment is running at about 5 pc - which economists say is down very close to our NAIRU - the non-accelerating-inflation rate of unemployment, which is the lowest point to which unemployment can fall before labour shortages start causing wage and price inflation. That is, unemployment is very close to its lowest sustainable rate.

Monetary policy

Monetary policy - the manipulation of interest rates to influence the strength of demand - is conducted by the RBA independent of the elected government. It is the primary instrument by which the managers of the economy pursue internal balance - low inflation and low unemployment. MP is conducted in accordance with the inflation target: to hold the inflation rate between 2 and 3 pc, on average, over the cycle. The primary instrument of MP is the overnight cash rate, which the RBA controls via market operations.

Aware the unemployment rate was only a little above the NAIRU and concerned the resources boom could lead to excessive wage growth, the RBA stood ready to tighten monetary policy throughout most of 2011. But, partly because of the lingering effect of the Queensland floods in early 2011, the economy did not accelerate as the RBA had forecast. Instead, the outlook for growth in the North Atlantic economies worsened, business and consumer confidence weakened and inflation continued to improve. So the RBA cut the cash rate by a click in both November and December of 2011, lowering it to 4.25 pc. In May it cut by 0.5 points in June by a further 0.25 points, taking the cash rate down to 3.5 pc, more than offsetting the banks’ efforts to preserve their profit margins, and producing a net fall in the interest rates actually paid by households and businesses. With market interest rates a little below their long-run average, the stance of monetary policy is now mildly expansionary.

Fiscal policy

Fiscal policy - the manipulation of government spending and taxation in the budget - is conducted according to the Gillard government’s medium-term fiscal strategy: ‘to achieve budget surpluses, on average, over the medium term’. This means the primary role of discretionary fiscal policy is to achieve ‘fiscal sustainability’ - that is, to ensure we don’t build up an unsustainable level of public debt. However, the strategy leaves room for the budget’s automatic stabilisers to be unrestrained in assisting monetary policy in pursuing internal balance. It also leaves room for discretionary fiscal policy to be used to stimulate the economy and thus help monetary policy manage demand, in exceptional circumstances - such as the GFC - provided the stimulus measures are temporary.

After the onset of the GFC, tax collections fell heavily, and they have yet to fully recover. The Rudd government applied considerable fiscal stimulus to the economy by a large but temporary increase in government spending.

The government’s ‘deficit exit strategy’ requires it to avoid further tax cuts and limit the real growth in government spending to 2 pc a year until the budget has returned to a surplus equivalent to 1 pc of GDP. The delay in returning to surplus is caused not by continuing high spending but by continuing weak revenue.

In this year’s budget the government shifted its spending plans around to allow it to keep its election promise to budget for (then actually achieve) a tiny budget surplus in 2012-13. After allowing for unimportant changes in the timing of spending and the effect on demand of particular budget measures, the stance of fiscal policy is much less contractionary than it appears to be, with the Treasury secretary estimating the effect to be less than 1 pc of GDP, which is still significant.

Conclusion

Should the contractionary stance of fiscal policy combine with other factors to weaken aggregate demand, the RBA has scope to counter this by further loosening monetary policy from its present stance of ‘mildly expansionary’.
Read more >>

Monday, December 27, 2021

This isn't America, so please stop acting like a Yank

If there’s one thing that annoyed me about 2021, it’s the way people have been aping all things American. Our financial markets copped a bad dose of it, the media got carried away, we looked to the Yanks – the smart ones and the crazies - to know what we should think and do about the coronavirus, and many on the Right of politics took their lead from Trump’s Republicans.

One on one, I like the Americans I know. But put them together as a nation, and they seem to have lost their way. We’ve long imagined the US to be the wellspring of everything new and better, but these days it seems to be racing headlong towards dystopia.

Who’d want to be an American? Who’d want to live there?

There’s nothing new, of course, about American cultural imperialism. You’ve long been able to buy a Coke in almost any country. Or, these days, a Big Mac or KFC.

But globalisation has hugely increased America’s influence in the world. Wall Street dominates the world’s now highly integrated financial markets. What’s less well appreciated is the way advances in telecommunications and information processing have globalised the news media. Call it the internet.

These days, news of a major occurrence in any part of the world spreads almost in real time. One thing this means is that you can read the latest from The Age or The Sydney Morning Herald in almost any country.

But another thing is that we get saturation coverage of all things America. These days, America’s greatest export is “intellectual property” – patents and copyright covering machines, medicines and software, but also books, films, TV shows, videos and recorded music, and news and commentary from all of America’s great “mastheads”.

Of course, the little sister syndrome applies. Just as Kiwis know more about us than we know about them, so we and people in every other country know more about the Americans than they know about us. Just ask John Fraser, Malcolm Trumble and “that fella from Down Under”.

And remember this: when you’re as big and as rich as America, you’re the best in the world at most things – but also the worst in the world. These guys win the Nobel Prize in economics almost every year but, no doubt, have the biggest and best Flat Earth Society. They have loads of the super-smart, but even more of the really dumb.

Back to this year’s Yankophile annoyances, as soon as Wall Street decided America had an inflation problem and would soon be putting up interest rates, our local geniuses decided we’d soon be doing the same.

Small problem – we don’t have a problem with inflation. Our money market dealers know more about the US economy than they know about their own. To them, we’re just a smaller, carbon copy of America. If you’ve seen America, you’ve seen ’em all.

The Americans have a lot of people withdrawing from the workforce – leaving jobs and not looking for another – which they’re calling the Great Resignation. Wow. Great new story. So, some people in our media are seizing any example they can find to show we have our own Great Resignation.

Small problem. Ain’t true. Following the rebound from the first, nationwide lockdown in 2020, our “participation rate” – the proportion of the working-age population participating in the labour force by having a job or actively looking for one – hit a record high. With the rebound from this year’s lockdowns well under way, the rate’s almost back to the peak.

A lot of America’s problems arise from the “hyperpolarisation” of its politics. Its two political tribes have become more tribal, more us-versus-them, more you’re-for-us-or-against-us. The two have come to hate each other, are less willing to compromise for the greater good, and more willing to damage the nation rather than give the other side a win. More willing to throw aside long-held conventions; more winner-takes-all.

The people who see themselves as the world’s great beacon of democracy are realising they are in the process of destroying their democracy, brick by brick – fiddling with electoral boundaries and voting arrangements, and stacking the Supreme Court with social conservatives.

Donald Trump continues to claim the presidential election was rigged, and many Republicans are still supporting him.

It’s not nearly that bad in Australia, but there are some on the Right trying to learn from the Republicans’ authoritarian populism playbook.

When your Prime Minister starts wearing a baseball cap it’s not hard to guess where the idea came from. Or when the government wants to require people to show ID before they can vote, or starts stacking the Fair Work Commission with people from the employers’ side only. Enough.

Read more >>

Wednesday, January 20, 2021

Deeper causes of America's troubles are economic and social

The older I get the more I prefer movies where nothing much happens. I’m increasingly impatient with car chases, gunfights and sword fights. I like movies that look at people’s lives and the way their relationships develop. Truth be told, I prefer escapist movies, but make an exception for those that help me better understand the difficulties encountered by people living in circumstances very different to mine. They may not be much fun, but they are character-building.

I put Frances McDormand’s memorable Nomadland in that category. If you want to understand how the richest, smartest, most “advanced” civilisation in the world could be tearing itself apart before our very eyes, Nomadland is an easy place to start.

McDormand plays an older woman who, having recently lost her husband, finds the global financial crisis and its Great Recession have caused her to lose her job, her home and even the small company town she’s lived in for years.

She fits out a second-hand campervan and takes off on the roads of middle America in search of somewhere to earn a bit of money and somewhere to camp for a few weeks that doesn’t cost too much.

It’s a solitary life, but slowly she makes casual friendships with a whole tribe of other older nomads moving around in search of unskilled casual work. The climax comes when her van breaks down and she must return to suburbia to beg her sister for a loan so she can keep on the move.

It’s a fictionalised version of a non-fiction book, Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century. In the hands of the film’s director, it becomes a story of human resilience, how McDormand’s character and the other nomads learn to adapt and survive. According to the reviews, the movie glosses over the book’s criticism of the poor treatment and payment of people working at a huge Amazon warehouse.

For a harder-nosed expose of life on the margins of America’s mighty economy, I recommend the recent work of the Nobel prize-winning Scottish American economist, Sir Angus Deaton. With his wife Anne Case, another distinguished economics professor from Princeton University, Deaton has obliged Americans to acknowledge an epidemic that’s been blighting their society for two decades, the ever-rising “deaths of despair” among working-class white men.

These are deaths by suicide, alcohol-related liver disease and accidental drug overdose. Much of the problem is the opioid crisis, in which increased prescription of opioid medications – which the pharmaceutical companies had assured doctors were not addictive – led to widespread misuse of both prescription and non-prescription opioids and many fatal overdoses.

Deaton and Case found that these deaths of despair had risen from about 65,000 a year in 1995 to 158,000 in 2018 and 164,000 in 2019. This increase is almost entirely confined to Americans – particularly white males – without a university degree.

While overall death rates have fallen for those with full degrees, they’ve risen for less-educated Americans. Amazingly, life expectancy at birth for all Americans fell between 2014 and 2017 – the first three-year drop since the Spanish flu pandemic. It rose a fraction in 2018, as the authorities finally responded to the opioid crisis.

Deaton and Case have found that, after allowing for inflation, the wages of US men without college degrees have fallen for 50 years, while college graduates’ earnings premium over those without a degree has risen by an “astonishing” 80 per cent.

With the decline in employment in manufacturing caused by globalisation and, more particularly, automation, less-educated Americans have become increasingly less likely to have jobs. The share of prime-age men in the labour force has trended downwards for decades.

Despite losing the popular vote to Hillary Clinton in 2016, Donald Trump won more votes in the Electoral College partly because most Republicans held their nose and voted for him, but mainly because three or four smaller midwest “rust bucket” states – still suffering from the loss of less-skilled jobs in the Great Recession – switched from the Democrats to the man who promised to give the establishment a big kick up the bum. (Instead, he gave it big tax cuts and more deregulation.)

So Trump is more a symptom than a cause of America’s long-running economic and social decay. Which doesn’t change the likelihood that his woeful mismanagement of the coronavirus pandemic will add to the economic and social causes of deaths of despair.

Deaton and Case say the pandemic has exposed and accelerated the long-term trends that will render the US economy even more unequal and dysfunctional than it already was, further undermining the lives and livelihoods of less-educated people in the years ahead.

In the pandemic, many educated professionals have been able to work from home – protecting themselves and their salaries – while many of those who work in services and retail have lost their jobs or face a higher risk of infection doing them.

“When the final tallies are in, there is little doubt that the overall losses in life and money will divide along the same educational fault line,” they conclude.

Read more >>

Saturday, December 15, 2018

Trump's mad trade war has a hidden logic

Simple economics tells us Donald Trump’s stated reasons for starting a trade war with China make no sense. But more advanced economics tells us it’s no surprise he’s 'P’d off' over China’s economic rise.

Trump complains that the United States buys more from China than China buys from the US, meaning his country runs a trade deficit with China. He sees this as an obvious injustice and a sign China is cheating.

But economics teaches that bilateral trade imbalances are natural and normal, the inevitable consequence of countries’ differing “comparative advantage”. (Australia’s strength is rural and mineral commodities, for instance, whereas China’s is manufacturing.)

What matters is a country’s trade with all its trading partners. But, even here, economics teaches it’s not necessarily bad for a country to run an overall trade (or, strictly, current account) deficit.

Why not? Because a country runs a current account deficit when its investment in new homes, business equipment and public infrastructure exceeds its ability to fund this investment with its own saving by households, companies and governments, thus requiring it to call on the saving of foreigners.

Conversely, a country runs a current account surplus when it saves more each year than it needs to fund that year’s investment spending, thus allowing it to lend some of its saving to foreigners.

Because some countries (such as China, Germany) save more than their profitable investment opportunities can take up, they run current account surpluses most years.

On the other side of the coin are countries (the US, Australia) that have more profitable investment opportunities than their savings can cover, so they run current account deficits most years.

Put the two groups together and – at least in theory – the world’s annual saving flows to the most profitable investment opportunities to be found on the planet, thus leaving everyone in the world better off.

But a deputy secretary of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, Dr David Gruen, noted in a recent speech that, at a more advanced level of analysis, some of the recent tension over trade is a consequence of the strong and sustained growth of Asian economies, including China.

“As economies in our region have grown and moved up the value-added chain, they have increasingly competed with more entrenched, influential and valuable industries in advanced countries [such as the US],” Gruen says.

When rapidly developing countries embrace some new technology, the consequent increase in their productivity constitutes an increase in their real income (because they’re producing more output per unit of input).

This should also help raise the income of the developed countries with which they trade, since the rich guys are usually getting access to imports that are cheaper than they can produce themselves.

“While some advanced-country industries [and their workers] have undoubtedly been harmed by a rising Asia-Pacific, a rising Asia-Pacific has also meant more demand for other goods and services from advanced countries [as the developing countries spend some of their higher income on imports from the rich world],” Gruen says.

So better technology and increased trade between the rich and poor countries don’t reduce the real incomes of the advanced countries, but they are likely to change the distribution of income.

More income is likely to flow to the owners of capital and to highly skilled workers, while some lower skilled workers’ real incomes stagnate or fall.

“Such disruption is likely to continue as technology makes it easier to trade services across borders, and economies in the Asia-Pacific become increasingly sophisticated. Some of these newly threatened advanced-economy jobs rely on intellectual property or skills premiums, providing an economic rent worth protecting.

“It is no surprise that the generally open-trade stance of those in places like Silicon Valley sits alongside [Trump’s] demand for strong enforcement of intellectual property rights,” Gruen says.

And, although the rich world is better off with free trade, as technology continues to bring down natural barriers to trade in sectors previously considered “non-tradeable” – particularly services – politically influential opposition to free and open trade is likely to continue, he says.

But there’s a second implication of the economic rise of Asia I bet you haven’t thought of. “It makes less sense for the largest economy in the world to bear the costs of maintaining an open trading system as its economy becomes a relatively smaller share of global output.

“Free trade is a 'public good' – we all benefit from it, but each country has an incentive to shift the cost of maintaining it to others.

“The United States shouldered that burden when it was the world’s largest economy. When you are half the global economy you tend to benefit wherever in the world trade is occurring.

“The logic of [it] continuing to do so is now less compelling. The rules-based [trading] system, including the World Trade Organisation, emerged at a time when the US was the dominant global superpower."

Small or medium-sized economies with limited bargaining power in global markets (such as us) are better off with free trade – even when other countries are being protectionist. Why? Because protecting a few of your industries against imports hurts the rest of your industries more than it hurts the countries whose imports you don’t take.

But that’s not always true for large economies with significant market power, such as the US. They can sometimes use tariffs to drive down the prices other countries charge them for imports.

How? Their market is so lucrative the country supplying the imports absorbs some of the cost of the tariff to keep its retail prices competitive. The lower price of imports across the docks improves the big country’s terms of trade, increasing its real income.

Get it? The US has less to lose from an outbreak of protectionism than do smaller countries like us. That’s why the rest of us have to put more effort into preserving and abiding by the WTO’s “rules-based system” and Trump isn’t quite the madman he seems.
Read more >>

Saturday, April 28, 2018

Both sides of politics play along with costly con trick

Since there’s probably more madness to come, it’s too soon to tell how much Donald Trump’s uncomprehending machinations on trade will do to make America’s economy less great, let alone the rest of us. But it’s safe to predict damage to our economy – much of it self-inflicted.

Yes, self-inflicted. It won’t just be what Trump and others do to us, but also the damage we do to ourselves by hitting back in ways that hurt us more than they hurt the other guys.

By reacting emotionally rather than intelligently. By playing to the peanut gallery.

It’s true that our economy loses when other countries try to reduce their spending on our exports by imposing a tariff (import duty) on their citizens’ purchases of those exports.

But for us to retaliate by whacking a tariff on our imports from them – as is the instinctive reaction of almost everyone – just makes matters worse by requiring our citizens (and businesses) to pay more for those imports.

This gut reaction is prompted by people’s unthinking assumption that exports are good, but imports are bad. When you think it through, however, you realise imports are just as good as exports – why would we be so keen to buy them if they weren’t?

And exports are good mainly because we can use the money we make from them to buy imports.

International trade is an exercise in mutual and reciprocal benefits. They gain from buying our exports; we gain from buying their exports.

The gains are greater the more each side concentrates on exporting the things they’re good at and importing the things they aren’t much good at. That is, from specialising in their strengths, then exchanging with others with different specialisations.

Trying to maximise your exports while minimising your imports is like not wanting to take your turn in a playground game. The others will object and exclude you from the game if you won’t play fair.

But there’s more to it than just fairness to others. By trying to reduce your imports you’re seeking to divert your own resources – land, labour and capital - from producing stuff you’re good at to producing stuff you aren’t good at.

A great way to make yourself poorer rather than richer.

But to get back to where we started, how can I be so sure our politicians would be stupid enough to respond to the folly of others by doing something that would merely increase the cost to us?

Because of the knee-jerk reaction of both the Coalition and Labor when Trump first announced his intention to impose a tariff of 25 per cent on America’s imports of steel.

As Peter Harris, boss of the Productivity Commission, reminded us in a speech this week, “politicians on both sides, along with steel company executives, competed to sound alarms and promote the concept of even bigger price imposts on steel users in this country, all in the name of supposedly saving jobs”.

Apart from asking our best mate Don to exempt our steel from the new tariff (which is what eventually happened), the government trumpeted its willingness to ramp up our “anti-dumping assistance”.

It didn’t mention that this would have been the third ramp-up in decade. A ramp-up of a ramped-up ramp-up.

Not to be outdone, the opposition not only pledged support for tougher anti-dumping measures, it also said it was willing to shift responsibility for reviewing applications for “safeguards” tariff increases from the hard-headed Productivity Commission to some other, soft-headed outfit.

Both the anti-dumping and the safeguards provisions are backdoor ways of using excuses to sneak back-up tariffs you’d earlier reduced.

They’re ways of giving special treatment to our tiny and inefficient steel industry. And, as always, at the expense not just of all Australian consumers of steel products, but all the other Australian industries that use steel as an input to whatever it is they’re producing, possibly for export.

The popular delusion is that higher protection against imports hurts only the countries whose exports we’re trying to keep out. The truth we’re never told about is that the cost of protecting our industry is actually picked up by all our other industries.

Protection doesn’t save jobs, it just attempts to save jobs in the favoured industry by reducing jobs in all other industries. It’s a form of income redistribution from the efficient to the inefficient which, in the process, makes our economy less efficient overall.

Great idea. So why do politicians do it? In Trump’s case, because he’s a fool, and takes no advice from people who are smarter. In the case of our politicians, because they’re knaves: they know (if only because our econocrats keep telling them) that protection is a costly con trick, but prefer to humour popular incomprehension.

In its Trade and Assistance Review for 2016-17, published this week, the Productivity Commission models several “scenarios” that could emerge from Trump’s trouble-making, depending on how we and others respond to his provocation.

It finds that, should no country respond to Trump significantly increasing tariffs on imports from Mexico and China, Australia would be little affected.

On the other hand, should an all-out trade war leave all countries (including us) with tariffs 15 percentage points higher than at present, real gross world product would fall by 2.9 per cent. The fall in our GDP would be less than half that.

Should we hold out from the general increase in tariffs, our gross domestic product would actually be a bit higher than otherwise, though our real national income would be a little worse.

Now get this: should we join with the other members of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership – China, Japan, South Korea, India, New Zealand and the ASEAN countries – in refusing to increase tariffs while everyone else was, the effects of a not-so-global trade war on us would be tiny.
Read more >>

Monday, March 12, 2018

How we could gang up against a Trump trade war

A possible trade war looms and, as always, an adverse overseas development has caught poor little Oz utterly unprepared. Well, actually, not this time.

Just as Treasury had been war-gaming the next big world recession well before the global financial crisis of late 2008, so the Productivity Commission began thinking about our best response to a trade war soon after the election of Donald Trump.

In July last year it published a research paper, Rising protectionism: challenges, threats and opportunities for Australia, to which Dr Shiro Armstrong, co-director of the Australia-Japan Research Centre, at the Australian National University, made a major contribution. (During a visit to ANU last week I also benefited from discussion with Professor Jenny Corbett.)

Trump's tariffs (import duties) on steel and aluminium were never a great threat to our economy. It'll be only when he decides to take a crack at the Chinese that there'll be a lot to worry about.

But the chest-thumping by our pollies (on both sides) over steel is a demonstration of the way populism can crowd out clear-headed self-interest where protectionism is involved.

Trade wars happen by accident. They start out in a small way, the perceived victims feel their manhood demands they stand up to a bully by retaliating, the bully hits back and pretty soon everyone in the bar is throwing chairs and punches.

As the research paper puts it, "significant worldwide increases in protection would cause a global recession."

Economic modelling by Armstrong estimates that, for every extra dollar by which our revenue from import duties rose, economic activity in Australia would fall by 64¢.

In total, the level of real gross domestic product would be 1 per cent lower each year. This would equate to a loss of about 100,000 jobs. (As with all modelling, take these figures as, at best, roughly indicative.)

A full-blown global trade war would take many months, even years to build up, so how should we respond to the provocative actions of others? What could we do to minimise the damage we'd suffer?

The research paper proposes what economists call a "first-best" response (here I'd call it the What-would-Jesus-do? cheek-turning response): not only should we resist the temptation to retaliate in any way, we should also cut what few remaining protective barriers we have.

If you think that would be plum crazy, you don't know as much about protection as you should. But you've demonstrated why any politician would find such advice almost impossible.

That's why I'm attracted by the paper's second-best suggestion: "working with a coalition of countries to keep their markets open is a strategy that would make it easier for Australia to resist protectionist pressures".

Good thinking. Our leaders want to be seen to be acting to defend our economy, and this response – "let's form our own gang and fight back" - is active rather than passive, and harder to portray as appeasing the bullies.

Oh yeah, what gang? What coalition of countries? That's obvious. We're already a member of a gang that, depending on how you measure it, is bigger than Trump's, or the Europeans'. And our gang's by far the fastest growing.

We do almost three-quarters of our two-way trade (exports plus imports) with Asia – in descending order, China, ASEAN, Japan, South Korea, New Zealand, India, Hong Kong and Taiwan. Europe accounts for only about 15 per cent and Trumpland​ for little more than 10 per cent.

Although it's true Asia needs to trade with North America and Europe, it's also true there's huge trade within our region. Just imagine the damage we'd suffer if we Asians started jacking up tariffs against each other. Or all of us against the rest of the world.

Australia and New Zealand are already members of various Asian trading clubs. And what greater incentive for Asians to pack down more closely than a threat from Trumpland, or from a Europe trying to repel boarders?

Nor is it presumptuous for Oz to take a (quiet) leadership role. Despite all their trade, there's a lot of mistrust between China, Korea, Japan and other countries. China and Japan, for instance, find it easier to work with us than with each other.

After all, we played significant roles in the formation of the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation group and in improving the governance arrangements for China's new Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. We worked behind the scenes with Japan to keep the Trans-Pacific Partnership alive despite Trump's dummy-spit.

And guess what? Malcolm Turnbull will host a summit of the 10 leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in Sydney next weekend.
Read more >>

Saturday, July 8, 2017

How economic neglect has fed the populist revolt

Recent political shocks – Brexit, Trump and the failure of Theresa May – are prompting much soul-searching and rethinking among the world's leading economists.

Last week, for instance, Ben Bernanke, former chairman of the US Federal Reserve, gave a speech to a forum of the European Central Bank in which he admitted that "recent political events" had "cast a bright light on some disturbing economic and social trends in the United States".

"Unfortunately, policymakers in recent decades have been slow to address or even to recognise these trends, an error of omission that has helped fuel the voters' backlash," he said.

"If the populist surge we are seeing today has an upside, it is to refocus attention on both the moral necessity and practical benefits of helping people cope with the economic disruptions that accompany growth."

It's true that the American economy's cyclical recovery has entered its ninth year and appears to have room to run, Bernanke says.

Although the Great Recession was exceptionally deep and the recovery was slow, real gross domestic product is now up about 12.5 per cent from its pre-crisis peak and real disposable income is up more than 13 per cent.

Since the trough in employment in early 2010, more than 16 million new jobs have been created – compared with a workforce of about 160 million – bringing the rate of unemployment down from 10 per cent to 4.3 per cent, its lowest since 2001.

Fine. But Bernanke's new insight is in the title of his speech, "When growth is not enough".

Americans seem exceptionally dissatisfied with the economy and have been for some time, he says. Those who tell pollsters that the economy is "on the wrong track" consistently outnumber those who believe that America is moving "in the right direction" by about two to one.

Bernanke highlights four "worrying trends" that help explain the sour mood. First, stagnant earnings for the median worker.

"Since 1979, real output per person in the US has expanded by a cumulative 80 per cent, and yet during that time, median weekly earnings of full-time workers have grown by only about 7 per cent in real terms."

And almost all of that tiny growth is explained by higher wages and working hours for women. For male workers, real median weekly earnings have actually declined since 1979.

So despite economic growth, the middle class is struggling to maintain its standard of living.

Second, declining economic and social mobility. One of the pillars of America's self-image is the idea of the American Dream, that anyone can rise to the top based on determination and hard work.

But upward economic mobility in the US appears to have declined notably since World War II. One study of census figures found that 90 per cent of Americans born in the 1940s would eventually earn more than their parents did, but only about 50 per cent of those born in the 1980s would do so.

The trend to increased inequality of income and wealth is worse in the US than other advanced economies. This tends to impede economic mobility by increasing the relative educational and social advantages of people in the upper percentiles.

Third, increasing social dysfunction in economically distressed areas and demographic groups. Studies show that rates of midlife mortality among white working-class Americans (those with only a high-school education) have worsened sharply relative to other groups.

These are often "deaths of despair" because of their association with declines in indicators of economic and social wellbeing and the important role played by factors such as opioid addiction, alcoholism and suicide.

Indeed, in 2015, more Americans died of drug overdoses than died from car accidents and firearms-related accidents and crimes combined.

Among the most worrying economic trends is the decline in labour force participation among prime-age men – 25 to 54 – from 97 per cent in 1960 to 88 per cent today. The fall has occurred across demographic groups (an American euphemism for racial groups).

Studies suggest most of these men are idle – neither looking for work nor caring for family members. One part of the explanation is that America's high rate of incarceration leaves many men, particularly African-Americans, with prison records, which hurts their employment opportunities for many years.

Fourth, greater political alienation and distrust of institutions, both public and private. Americans generally have little confidence in the ability of government, especially the federal government, to fairly represent their interests, let alone solve their problems.

"Stagnant median wages, limited upward mobility, social dysfunction and political alienation are a toxic mix indeed. The sources of these adverse trends are complex and interrelated. But at a fifty-thousand-foot level, they appear to be the product of some broad global developments ... together with the US policy response (or lack thereof) to those developments," Bernanke says.

Missing from the response was a comprehensive set of policies aimed at helping individuals and localities adjust to the difficult combination of slower growth and rapid economic change.

Whatever the reason for this failure, "it's clear in retrospect that a great deal more could have been done, for example, to expand job training and re-training opportunities, especially for the less educated; to provide transition assistance for displaced workers, including support for internal migration; to mitigate residential and educational segregation and increase to access of those left behind to employment and educational opportunities; to promote community redevelopment, through grants, infrastructure construction and other means; and to address serious social ills through addiction programs, criminal justice reform and the like".

Bernanke concludes that "the credibility of economists has been damaged by our insufficient attention, over the years, to the problems of economic adjustment and by our proclivity towards top-down, rather than bottom-up, policies.

"Nevertheless, as a profession we have expertise that can help make the policy response more effective, and I think we have a responsibility to contribute where we can."

That's putting it mildly.
Read more >>

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Reduced competition may be slowing US growth

US financial markets may be betting that the Trump administration's budget policies will stimulate economic growth and inflation, but they're cheered by this prospect only because of deeper fears that America and the advanced economies have entered an era of persistently weak growth.

America's rate of growth has been slowing for decades, starting long before the onset of the global financial crisis.

As part of this, America's rate of productivity improvement has been weakening, despite a short-lived uptick in the 1990s.

So the hunt's been on for factors that may be causing this slowdown. There are many suspects. But one you often see mentioned by economists such as Professor Paul Krugman is a decline in the strength of competition in many American markets.

If markets are significantly less competitive, you'd expect this to mean consumer prices that are higher than they might be, profits that are higher, less innovation, slower productivity improvement, worsening inequality and slower growth.

But what's the evidence of reduced competitive pressure? Earlier this year President Obama's Council of Economic Advisers issued a paper reviewing the evidence, which I'll summarise.

There are various ways to measure the degree of "concentration" in an industry – that is, how much of the business done by an industry is captured by a small number of large firms.

Figures collected by the US Census Bureau show that, over the 15 years to 2012, the share of total sales revenue earned by the 50 largest firms in 13 broad industry categories fell in three, was unchanged in one but increased in nine.

If 50 sounds like a lot of firms, remember this is America, whose economy is about 12 times bigger than ours.

Sales concentration was highest among utilities – electricity, gas and water – at 69 per cent, which isn't surprising considering many are natural monopolies. Even so, concentration increased by almost 5 percentage points.

After that came finance and insurance, where concentration was up by 10 percentage points to more than 48 per cent, followed by transportation and warehousing (up more than 11 points to 42 per cent) and retail trade (up 11 points to 37 per cent).

This picture is confirmed by studies of specific industries, the briefing paper says. One study of the national market for loans found that, over the 30 years to 2010, the top 10 banks' market share increased by 20 points to 50 per cent.

For deposits, the market share increased from 20 per cent to almost 50 per cent.

Another study found that, for hospital markets over the decade to 2006, a common measure of concentration increased by about 50 per cent, to a degree equivalent to having just three equal-sized competitors in a market.

A different measure of possibly reduced competition comes from looking at what's happened to the rates of profitability of big firms.

When researchers take the rates of return on invested capital for listed US companies, then rank them from highest to lowest, they find that for firms at the 90th percentile (that is, 10 per cent down from the top; 90 per cent up from the bottom) their rate of return is five times higher than for the median (dead middle) firms.

A quarter of a century ago, the 90th percentile firms' rate of return was closer to twice the median firms'.

This suggests some firms are better able to extract "economic rent" than they were. Economic rent is the profit you make that exceeds what you'd need to earn to be willing to remain in the industry.

Yet another indication comes from the "long-term downward trend in business dynamism", as indicated by a steady decline since the late 1970s in the proportion of new firms entering markets each year.

This is while the proportion of firms exiting markets each year has been little changed. Since the entry rate has now fallen to be equal to the exit rate, the total number of firms – which used to grow by about 6 per cent a year – is now unchanging.

Part of the explanation for the decline in the number of new firms could be rising "barriers to entry" into many industries.

This could be caused by increased federal, state or local licensing requirements, ever-rising economies of scale or data-mining information advantages to incumbent firms, or successful lobbying for government rules to protect against new entrants.

Labour market dynamism – how often workers change employers – has also declined since the 1970s.

This could have many causes, including no-poaching agreements between employers and greatly increased occupational licensing, which limits people's freedom to move between states.

The briefing paper notes it's not yet clear how these various indicators suggesting the US may be suffering a fall in competition within its markets fit together.

Turning to possible causes of reduced competition, it notes the problem of "common ownership". Researchers have argued that institutional investors who are large owners of the biggest firms in a particular industry, implicitly encourage those firms not to compete with each other, thus raising the investors' profits.

According to other research, the role of institutional investors has grown over the past 30 years so that, in 2014, they controlled 61 per cent of worldwide investment assets.

One anti-competitive development the briefing paper doesn't mention is the US Congress's willingness to keep extending the lives of existing and future patents and copyright.

Meanwhile, US government trade negotiators use bilateral preferential trade deals – going by the Orwellian name of "free trade agreements" – and plurilateral deals such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement to press partners like us to extend the lives of our patents and copyright to fit with the Yanks' domestic arrangements.

Maybe one reason economic growth is slowing is that the world's multinational corporations are getting too good at finding ways to inhibit competition between them, including by enlisting the help of governments.
Read more >>

Monday, November 21, 2016

Our politicians go populist at their peril

If I were an Australian politician I'd think hard about the ascension of Donald Trump before I drew conclusions for local consumption.

When someone so unattractive surprises us by winning, it's tempting to conclude he must have done so because of a massive surge of anger over immigrants, Muslims and jobs lost through trade agreements.

We connect this with the Brexit surprise and the resurrection of One Nation and conclude we're witnessing a worldwide populist uprising against globalisation and "neo-liberalism".

Pollies on both sides wonder whether they should protect their backs by reverting to more protectionist policies, rejecting more Chinese investment and shouting louder about Australia-first.

But such a reaction much exaggerates the popularity of populism in America – as is clearer now more of the vote has been counted.

First, note that Hillary Clinton got over a million votes more than Donald Trump did. He actually got fewer votes than Mitt Romney in 2012 and John McCain in 2008.

How is such a wide discrepancy between the popular vote and the electoral college result possible? Because the many smaller states get a disproportionate number of votes in the college.

So Trump won because he got more votes in the right places – three or four smaller "swing states" in the midwest Rust Belt, which normally vote Democrat.

It's true Trump won these states because enough white males without college educations found his plain-talking and promise to "make America great again" – that is, bring jobs back to the Rust Belt – more attractive than establishing a Clinton dynasty.

But let's not kid ourselves America is seeing a nation-wide upsurge in populist protectionism, any more than One Nation's ability to exploit an ill-judged double dissolution represents an existential threat to Labor or the Coalition.

Next, remember populist sentiments can't be satisfied. They're about the expression of emotion – anger, frustration, envy, fear of foreigners, resentment of city-slickers and the better-educated – not about rational choices.

They're about wishing the world hadn't changed and wishing some saviour could change it back.

Populism is about ignoring the things that have changed for the good – such as much lower prices for clothes, groceries, hardware, electronic goods, cars and much else – and assuming we can reverse the changes we don't like without losing the benefits we've come to take for granted.

Populism is about explaining the decline in employment in manufacturing, and the shift in economic activity from the Rust Belt to the Sun Belt, solely in terms of free-trade agreements – which were made by governments and so supposedly can be reversed – while ignoring the much greater role played by technological change, which happened in spite of governments and can't be stopped by governments.

It's perfectly possible for America to make no further trade agreements, but only an American could delude themselves that their government could tear up longstanding agreements with other countries while those countries sucked it up.

Protectionist moves lead to retaliation by your trading partners. That leaves both sides worse off.

Consider all the wild promises Trump made to con the Rust Belt's white male workers into voting for him: a wall along the Mexican border, a 35 per cent tariff on Mexican imports and 45 per cent on Chinese imports, plus renegotiation of the North American free-trade agreement.

Assuming he wanted to, he can't actually do these things. Assuming somehow he could, they wouldn't fix the problem the way his dupes imagine, while introducing a new set of problems.

This says it won't be long before the Rust Belt's plain talkers realise they've been conned.

Add to them the majority that didn't want him in first place, and the many who held their nose and voted Republican because they couldn't stomach any Democrat, and it's not hard to see Trump setting records for the time it takes a president to become thoroughly on the nose.

Sound like a winning formula for our pollies to copy? Since populism fosters aspirations that can't be satisfied, it's suited to new, minor parties, but a high-risk tactic for parties that stand a chance of getting to government and having to deliver on the expectations raised.

None of this says the Rust Belt revolters don't have legitimate grievances.

A small group of business heavies and well-educated city-slickers has grabbed almost all the benefits from the structural change that's so disadvantaged the rust-belters, without governments – even Democrat majorities – doing much to oblige the winners to share with the losers.

For once in their lives, rather than going lower when they see the Yanks go lower, our pollies should, to quote Michelle Obama, "go high when they go low".
Read more >>

Monday, November 14, 2016

Little right, much wrong with Trumponomics

For years I've wondered how America's business elite could grab almost all the proceeds of the country's growth, leaving real wages permanently stagnant, without having ordinary workers rioting in the streets.

Now I know. The anger kept building until a political huckster called Trump found the way to exploit it for personal advancement.

The bitter joke is that the populist promises he made to keep out Muslims, Mexicans and Chinese imports would do little to make the mug punters better off, whereas many of his more conventional economic policies will do much to further fatten the pockets of the 1 per cent the punters so resent.

While we wait to see which promises he acts on, the best guess is he'll implement those of his policies that fit with Republican orthodoxy.

After all, he'll be relying on the usual Republican suspects to make up his cabinet and relying on Republican majorities in Congress to put his policies into law.

This suggests he'll be quick to start phasing corporation tax down from 35 per cent to 15 per cent, and lowering all rates of personal income tax (though not necessarily in a way that favours low and middle earners).

He's likely to increase defence spending and maybe even keep his promise to fund a much-needed urban infrastructure renewal program.

But surely this would cause a huge expansion of the still-excessive federal budget deficit, wouldn't it?

Yes, but that's unlikely to stop it happening. It is, after all, similar to what Ronald Reagan did on coming to office in 1981.

We're about to see confirmation of an eternal truth of American politics: the Republicans care hugely about the evils of debt and deficit – it keeps them awake worrying about what we're leaving for our children and grandchildren – but only when there's a Democrat in the White House.

For the most part it will be a giant exercise in trickle-down economics – even though many of the people who fell for Trump's crude charms now rightly see it for the voodoo economics it mainly is.

Protectionism may be the new saviour – in Nick Xenophon's Oz as well as Trump's Rust Belt states – but it's still the delusion it always was. It seems "only common sense", but that doesn't mean it works.

In any case, were Trump to impose a huge tariff on Chinese imports, do you imagine that would re-open the ghostly steel mills in Gary, Indiana, or the rusting automobile plants down the road from Michael Moore's place in Flint, Michigan?

Turning back globalisation is no easier than turning back time. The main thing you'd do is rob working people (and the rest of us) of access to the one aspect of globalisation they've clearly benefited from: imported goods much cheaper than the locally made goods they replaced.

Don't kid yourself: some lost their jobs in factories, but all workers – most of whom never worked in manufacturing – benefited from lower prices.

That's why there's no free lunch in protection: it's a scheme where the fortunate few are subsidised by the less-favoured multitude. It's not foreigners who lose out, it's other locals.

And don't kid yourself on this: far from all the jobs lost from manufacturing were lost through import competition.

Far more than many oldies realise were lost through computerisation. That's a big part of the reason reimposing high tariffs would do surprisingly little to restore manufacturing employment.

It's a convenient delusion that globalisation is solely the product of "neo-liberal" deregulation. Its other, bigger driver is technological advance and the digital revolution. Think any pollie can stop that?

This isn't to say scuttling the Trans-Pacific Partnership free-trade agreement would be any loss. It offered trivial benefits to us, in return for giving foreign multinationals power to push our government around.

Just because preferential trade deals are called "free-trade agreements" doesn't make them a good thing. The US's primary goal in its many agreements is to advance the interests of its exporters of intellectual property, while continuing to protect its farmers.

Its trans-Pacific deal was intended as cover for the bilateral deal with Japan hidden within it, as well as strengthening America's trading links with all the main Asian economies that weren't China.

The Yanks may be paranoid about the rise of China, but the joke is there never were two big economies – the two biggest – more interdependent. The US is China's largest trading partner, while China is the US's second-biggest – and its biggest creditor.

The Yanks are really stoopid​ enough to take a crack at Chinese imports? Trump is a cunning con man, not an idiot.
Read more >>

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Why Trump won't be as big and bad as many fear

Sorry, but I find the ascent of Donald Trump more fascinating than frightening. If it's all going to be so terrible, how exactly is he going to make it happen?

If you take literally all the things he's said he'll do, it will be a disaster. But anyone who believes all the things politicians say in the heat of election campaigns isn't too bright.

It wouldn't surprise me if many of the people whose votes got him elected don't know half of what he promised, don't much care what he promised and certainly don't expect him to deliver.

They voted for him because, in their anger with the business and political establishment, they wanted to give the system a kick up the bum. The less he sounded like a proper politician, the more they thought him the man for that job.

Because Trump isn't part of the standard two-party system and didn't win the election the orthodox way, it's more relevant than usual to ask what motivated him to run for president.

It wouldn't surprise me if he was more interested in proving he knew the right buttons to press to be president, or was popular enough to be president - that he could ensure he was the last contestant voted off the island - than he was in actually doing a list of things to "make America great again".

How keen will he be to take on four years of 18-hour days making unending judgment calls?

When you think of all the struggle needed to "drain the swamp", he strikes me as more Phony Tough than Crazy Brave.

Much of the commentary we've seen so far is very "great man theory of history". Trump is such a wild man, he'll single-handedly destroy the American alliance, end America's world supremacy, start a global trade war that reverses globalisation and resumes the Great Depression, and maybe provoke a shooting war with China.

Was that in his first term, or would it take two?

Sorry, I lean more to the view that history is a product of pre-existing trajectory, random developments and the interaction of powerful political and social institutions.

They say that in the race of life, you should always back Self-interest because at least you know it's trying. I'd also put a couple of bob on Inertia.

In the coming history of the Trump administration, I see big roles for self-interest and inertia, aka the status quo.

Start with the Republicans. The hated usurper Trump, rather than dumping them in it, has had a famous victory in their name, ensured Republican majorities in both houses of Congress, and acquired control over countless perks and preferments.

If you were in the Republican caravan, what would you be doing? Sucking up.

There's an army of worthies - academics, think-tankers, bureaucrats, retired generals, former lobbyists, business people and Wall Street bankers - who spend their careers moving in and out of taxpayer-funded jobs in Republican administrations.

Trump will be knocked over in the rush to be his special friend. The thousands seeking a gig will have two dominant motivations: a share of the spoils of office and a say in the shaping of policy.

There's probably only one Republican in the country who agrees with every item on Trump's supposed to-do list, and that's the man himself.

If so, every other Republican will be hoping to persuade Trump to drop this, tone down that, add this and put that one on the backburner.

Do you really think he's going to spend his 18-hour days ensuring every bright sales idea written on the back of an envelope during the campaign remains inviolate?

What about all the real, professional econocrats, diplomats and generals? "Alienate our closest allies? Start a trade war? Good idea, Mr President."

Remember, too, that presidents often have trouble getting their policies passed by Congress, even when it's of the same political colour.

There's far less party discipline in the American political system, with individual congress people requiring a small bribe (hopefully, only something for their constituency) before they toe the party line.

They're also anxious to keep sweet with the main interest groups that contributed to their campaign costs.

Which brings us to Washington's other big industry, the lobbyists. They're going to meekly bow before Trump's sacred list of bright ideas, are they?

No, they're going to go on doing what they're so handsomely paid to do: mould the actions of president and Congress to fit the perceived interests of their generous customers.

Who are these big-spending interest groups? Well, the ones with the most money to splash around are the ones representing the most successful and powerful industries. The gun industry, for instance.

But, right at the head of the list, Wall Street - the people whose greed caused the global financial crisis, who got bailed out by the taxpayer, avoided going to jail and left millions of ordinary people to pick up the pieces of their lives.

Many of those ordinary people are those who voted for the larrikin Trump, hoping he'd give Wall Street an almighty kick up the bracket - he being a regular plain-talkin' guy, just like them.

Get it? The business and political establishment is still running the place, still ensuring their interests are put ahead of those of the lesser mortals silly enough to vote for Trump.

Now Trump has no choice but to turn to them, seeking their help in running the joint and implementing his brave plan to put them and their paymasters back in their box.

They'll be falling over themselves to help - and mould the egotistical Trump to their masters' will.

It's a recipe for inertia and preservation of America's system much the way it's always been.

Trump's amazing defeat of the political establishment isn't so much the revolt of the put-upon punters, as just another political con job.
Read more >>

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Don't jump to conclusions on big bad Trump

Keep your shirt on. The world as we know it may be ending, but if so it won't be for a while. And maybe things won't change as much as feared.

Yesterday the experts were confidently predicting Hillary Clinton would be president. Today they are predicting Donald Trump's presidency will be a disaster with equal confidence. How do they know?

I find it hard to imagine Trump's ascendancy won't end up being bad for our economy, for the rest of the world and the Americans themselves.

But that's a long way down the track and lots of unexpected things could happen between now and then. Maybe even a few good things.

The thing of which I'm most certain is that the election of a climate change-denying president will further delay a serious response to the challenge by America and, through its bad influence, the rest of us.

But, hey, we are probably too late already. So no (extra) harm done. And Donald, you and I will be dead long before it gets really bad.

Sorry, back to the present. Don't forget the guy doesn't even get the job until January. And even then he may not yet have assembled the full range of his thousands of appointees.

Not that there is likely to be any shortage of volunteers. They won't be America's finest, but there will be plenty of people keen to be the president's friend.

The delay will give Wall Street and the world's share markets plenty of time to change their mind about Trump - several times.

Remember, share markets took no time to decide Brexit was the end of the world and only a little more to decide it wasn't.

And every new presidency starts with a honeymoon, in which all the people who voted him in rejoice - a new start for America! - some of the people who didn't wish they had, and everyone is glad to be shot of the last lot and all their failings.

Nothing very bad will happen in the honeymoon.

If one of the first new policies to go forward is Trump's plan to end decades of neglect by renewing America's public infrastructure, that would be a good thing of itself, would boost the US economy and spread a little growth on to the rest of us.

At the other extreme, should Trump lose no time in starting a trade war with China, everyone would lose - the US, China and the rest, with Australia prominent among those last.

This is where we must trust that America's celebrated "separation of powers" comes to the rescue, allowing other, wiser heads to prevent Trump from being as foolhardy as he said he would be.

Of course, the one prediction every Aussie voter can make made with confidence is that Trump, being a politician, will fail to keep most of his promises. Good.
Read more >>

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Materialist era a qualified success

Tired of obsessing over what happened in the economy yesterday? Let's go to the other extreme and look at what's been happening in the past 200 years, and broaden the focus from poor, ailing Australia to the world.

In October, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development published a report, How Was Life? Global Well-Being Since 1820. It's an extension of the work of great economic historian Angus Maddison.

His life work was to piece together estimates of real gross domestic product for all the big countries and regions of the world between 1820, which he took to be the end of the (first) industrial revolution, and 2000.

This latest study has extended the GDP figures to 2010, but also tried to estimate measures of various other socio-economic indicators of well-being.

It paints a picture of the way economic development has spread throughout the world, raising living standards, widening but then narrowing the gap between incomes, fostering population growth and, when you combine the two, causing great damage to the globe's natural environment.

The world's population was about 1 billion at the start of the 19th century, but has grown to more than 7 billion today. That growth was both a cause and a consequence of economic development and the technological advance it promotes.

Advances in public health, particularly sewerage and clean water, led to falling death rates, which slowly encouraged people to have fewer children. Then advances in medical science took over, eventually including more effective means of contraception.

However, these improvements took a long time to spread from Western Europe and the "Western Offshoots" (Maddison's name for the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand) to the rest of the world.

This is the story of the huge challenge the world economy has faced in the past 200 years: how to feed, clothe and house this growing population. Overall, we've done it.

Between 1820 and 2010, the world's average real GDP per person increased by a factor of 10. Multiply that by the sevenfold increase in population and world real GDP rose by a factor of 70.

The first weakness in this materialist success story is obvious: this economic growth was spread very unevenly. In 1820, the richest country, Britain, was at most five times as wealthy as the poorest countries. By 1950, the richest countries were more than 30 times as well off.

Only recently has the spread of industrialisation to China and India, which between them contain about one-third of the world's population, caused global income inequality to begin to decline.

Another indicator the study examines is the movement in the real wages of unskilled labourers. They rise more or less in line with real GDP, suggesting that some income does indeed trickle down, even if it has to be helped along by government interventions such as minimum wages.

During the first half of the 19th century, unskilled wages were above subsistence level only in Europe and the Western Offshoots. Now, however, world unskilled real wages are about eight times what they were then.

They were always highest in the Western Offshoots, with Western Europe catching up only since World War II, and they are still low in south-east Asia and Africa.

Turning to education, in 1820 less than 20 per cent of the world's population was literate, and most of these were in Europe and its offshoots. Today, literacy is nearly 100 per cent almost everywhere, although in south-east Asia, the Middle East and North Africa, it's about 75 per cent, and in the rest of Africa it's only 64 per cent.

Much of the increase in literacy has been achieved since the war and decolonisation. It has been accompanied by rising average years of education in all parts of the world. Levels of global inequality are much lower for education than for income.

At the start of the industrial period, average life expectancy was about 40 years in Europe and its offshoots, and 25 to 30 in most of the rest of the world. Only after the late 1890s did life expectancy start to rise significantly. Now, it's about 80 in the rich countries. Elsewhere, the catch-up started after the war, with most of the other world regions now up to about 60 to 70, and only Africa lagging significantly behind.

Income inequality within particular European and offshoot countries has followed a U shape, declining between the end of the 19th century and about 1970, since when it has risen sharply. In other parts of the world, particularly in China, recent trends have led to greater income inequality.

However, when we look at global income inequality, it was driven largely by increasing inequality between countries, as opposed to within them. It worsened until the 1950s, but has since stabilised.

The other big weakness in the success story is, of course, what we have done to the quality of the environment. There has been a long-term decline in biodiversity worldwide. Emissions of carbon dioxide have been rising since the industrial revolution, with its shift to fossil fuels such as coal and oil.

Although almost all the greenhouse gases that have built up in the atmosphere since the early 19th century are the result of economic activity in the developed countries, China's huge population and remarkably rapid industrialisation mean that it has now taken over from the US as the world's largest emitter.

Something tells me that, from here on, climate change and other environmental damage will be the main factor limiting the spread of industrialisation and prosperity to the remaining less-developed parts of the world.
Read more >>

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Chinese economy overtaking US and getting more like it

It isn't so many years since I used to berate the denizens of the financial markets for their lack of interest in the economy that had so much influence on ours: China. How things have changed. So has China.

After averaging growth of 10 per cent a year for 30 years, China's economy is now struggling to achieve its reduced target of 7.5 per cent. The financial market participants' role has been to watch on with concern.

And this week comes news that, though the International Monetary Fund sees China coming close to target this year, it expects it to slow to 7.1 per cent growth in 2015 and slow further in following years.

More surprisingly, the fund says that China should slow down to give it a chance to work on its big problems, rapidly growing debt and a rapidly contracting real estate market. Fumble those and growth could be even lower.

But while so many of us have been so focused on China's difficulty maintaining its rate of growth, we've lost sight of how big it is and how fast it's still growing compared with the rest of us.

Compared, say, with the world's biggest economy, the United States. Except that, according to the calculations of Euromonitor International, China will overtake the US this year. That's when you compare the two economies using "purchasing-power parity", which makes allowance for the fact that one US dollar buys a lot more in China than it does in the land of the free.

With China biggest and the US second, then come India, Japan, Germany, Russia and Brazil. We come in at 17th, not far behind Indonesia. The world certainly is changing.

Of course, the Chinese and American economies remain very different. China is big because of its much bigger population - 1.4 billion versus 300 million. Its income per person remains a fraction of America's. A not unrelated fact is that the US's productivity (measured as gross domestic product per worker) is more than nine times higher than China's.

And the two countries' industry structure is also very different. Agriculture contributes 10 per cent to GDP in China but just 1 per cent in the US. But get this: it accounts for almost a third of the workforce, compared with just 1.4 per cent in the US.

Manufacturing makes up 30 per cent of China's GDP, but only 13 per cent of America's. That tells us a lot about why China's rise, and the growth in its exports of manufactures, has affected so many other countries as well as maintaining downward pressure on world prices.

But the biggest difference between the two economies is their relative emphases on consumption and investment. Euromonitor International estimates that this year private consumption will account for 68 per cent of GDP in the US, compared with 37 per cent in China.

Here, however, we get to the really important news: the Chinese authorities have embarked on a process of "rebalancing" the economy, increasing consumer spending and domestic demand and reducing the roles of exports and investment in heavy industry.

The Economist notes that consumer spending has already begun its expansion, with its share of GDP rising from less than 35 per cent in 2010 to more than 36 per cent last year. And this year it has accounted for more than half the growth in GDP.

A big reason for stronger consumer spending is rapid growth in wages. Get this one: over the five years to 2013, real wages in manufacturing rose by about 2 per cent in the US, but by 45 per cent in China. As always happens, the benefits of economic development do flow eventually to ordinary workers.

This strong growth in consumption involves faster growth in the services sector, with manufacturing's share of GDP having peaked at almost a third in 2007.

This structural change means people following the ups and downs of the Chinese economy ought to be following a different set of indicators, as Peter Cai of China Spectator noted last week with help from Guan Qingyou, an economist at Minsheng Securities.

Cai says the main reason Chinese policymakers care so much about the rate of growth in GDP is their belief that the economy needs to grow by at least 7.2 per cent to absorb 10 million new entrants to the labour market each year.

But this correlation has been breaking down since 2010. Slower growth in GDP has not led to weaker job creation. Gaun suggests this is because the expanding services sector has a greater capacity to absorb new job seekers.


More fundamentally, China seems to be approaching its "Lewis turning-point", where a developing country runs out of its supply of surplus rural labour. This would also help explain the rising real wages.

Financial market participants focus on the growth in "industrial production" (manufacturing, mining and utilities) as a predictor of GDP growth, and on the manufacturing PMI (purchasing managers' index) as a predictor of industrial production.

But Cai says the strong correlation between industrial production and GDP is breaking down because the services sector is growing a lot faster than the industrial sector. Last year, for instance, the services sector contributed 47 per cent of the annual growth in GDP, whereas the industrial sector contributed less than 40 per cent. So, it's better to focus on the services sector PMI.

A big problem for China-watchers is that you don't know how much faith to put in official statistics. Earlier in his career, Premier Li Keqiang let it be known that he, too, had his doubts. So he focused on railway freight volumes, electricity consumption and bank lending as offering a better guide.

Now others have developed a "Li Keqiang index". But here, too, Guan argues that its reliability has declined, because of changes in the structure of industrial electricity use and changes in financing. China is changing.
Read more >>

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Trans-Pacific Partnership: we pay more for longer

According to someone called Oscar Ameringer, politics is the gentle art of getting votes from the poor and campaign funds from the rich, by promising to protect each from the other. However, when Tony Abbott spoke at the Business Council's 30th anniversary dinner last week, he was very much in protecting-big-business mode.

"On election night, not quite three months ago, I declared that Australia is under new management and once more open for business," he told the captains of industry. "My business - the business of government - should be making it easier for you to do your business because government doesn't create prosperity, business does.

"Governments' job is to make it easier for good businesses to do their best ... that's why almost everything we've done over the past three months has been to make it easier for Australians to do business."

It's possible, of course, that Abbott didn't really mean all that. Perhaps he was just greasing up business people because they were who he happened to be speaking to. Maybe next week he'll tell a bunch of consumers he's doing it all for them.

It's too early to tell just whose interests the Abbott government is seeking to advance. Maybe it doesn't yet know itself.

But I get a bit twitchy when I hear politicians running the line that what's good for General Motors is good for America.

I worry when I hear allegations that Australia bugged the cabinet room of a friendly nation not in the national interest but in the interest of a particular Australian company. Then that one of the politicians at the time has since become an adviser to the company.

I confess to being concerned about what deal Trade Minister Andrew Robb is doing in our name at the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations in Singapore this week.

The partnership is a trade treaty the US wants with 11 other Pacific rim countries: Canada and Mexico, Chile and Peru, Australia and New Zealand, Japan and Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei and Vietnam.

The US has been negotiating the treaty since 2006 in what it has insisted be complete secrecy. Although it has no doubt been consulting with its own big companies, and it's a safe bet our business lobby groups have been briefed about the contents of the treaty and have advised our government on their views and goals, the rest of us aren't meant to know what's going on.

Parliament will have to be told the content of the done deal before it votes to ratify any treaty the government has agreed to, but that's all. It's "need to know" and you, dear voter, don't need to know. Leave it to the adults.

Well, not quite. Last month one of the draft treaty's 29 chapters, on intellectual property, was published by WikiLeaks.

This week one country's detailed description of the state of negotiations was leaked. So we know a fair bit about what we're not supposed to know. And what we know isn't terribly reassuring.

What I know about the US government's approach to trade agreements - which doesn't seem to have changed since the deceptively named free-trade agreement we made with it in 2004 - is that its primary objective is to make the world a kinder, safer place for America's chief export, intellectual property: patents, copyright and trademarks - in the form of pharmaceuticals, films, books, software, music and much else.

To this end, the length of copyright would be extended beyond the 70 years to which it has already been extended, and copyright infringement would be made a criminal offence. It would be made easier for pharmaceutical companies to artificially extend the life of their patents and frustrate the activities of others wishing to produce generic versions.

It is clear this would greatly benefit America's big entertainment, software and drug companies.
What's equally clear is that it has no economic justification, being simple "rent-seeking"; government intervention in markets to enhance the profits of particular companies.Rupert Murdoch's 21st Century Fox would be a prime beneficiary.

Since Australia is a net importer of intellectual property, our government ought to be in no doubt the Americans' demands are contrary to our economic interests.

The leaks reveal many dubious demands by the US, but none more so than its promotion of "investor-state dispute settlement" provisions, which would allow foreign companies to pursue legal actions against our government in foreign tribunals if, for example, it were to introduce policies they considered contrary to their interests.

This would give foreign companies an advantage local companies didn't have. The Productivity Commission found such provisions offered few benefits, but considerable policy and financials risks. The former Labor government had a blanket ban on agreeing to such clauses, but Robb's approach is more flexible.

Why would any country agree to such unreasonable demands? Because, in exchange, the Americans are holding out the promise of greatly enhanced access to their markets - in our case, for sugar and beef.

So what we're not supposed to know is that, if the rest of us get sold out, it will all be in aid of Australian farmers. The trouble with running the economy to benefit business is you end up harming some to help others.

But not to worry. The leaks suggest agreement on the treaty is a long way off.
Read more >>

Monday, December 31, 2012

The four business gangs that run America

IF YOU'VE ever suspected politics is increasingly being run in the interests of big business, I have news: Jeffrey Sachs, a highly respected economist from Columbia University, agrees with you - at least in respect of the United States.

In his book, The Price of Civilisation, he says the US economy is caught in a feedback loop. "Corporate wealth translates into political power through campaign financing, corporate lobbying and the revolving door of jobs between government and industry; and political power translates into further wealth through tax cuts, deregulation and sweetheart contracts between government and industry. Wealth begets power, and power begets wealth," he says.

Sachs says four key sectors of US business exemplify this feedback loop and the takeover of political power in America by the "corporatocracy".

First is the well-known military-industrial complex. "As [President] Eisenhower famously warned in his farewell address in January 1961, the linkage of the military and private industry created a political power so pervasive that America has been condemned to militarisation, useless wars and fiscal waste on a scale of many tens of trillions of dollars since then," he says.

Second is the Wall Street-Washington complex, which has steered the financial system towards control by a few politically powerful Wall Street firms, notably Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan Chase, Citigroup, Morgan Stanley and a handful of other financial firms.

These days, almost every US Treasury secretary - Republican or Democrat - comes from Wall Street and goes back there when his term ends. The close ties between Wall Street and Washington "paved the way for the 2008 financial crisis and the mega-bailouts that followed, through reckless deregulation followed by an almost complete lack of oversight by government".

Third is the Big Oil-transport-military complex, which has put the US on the trajectory of heavy oil-imports dependence and a deepening military trap in the Middle East, he says.

"Since the days of John D. Rockefeller and the Standard Oil Trust a century ago, Big Oil has loomed large in American politics and foreign policy. Big Oil teamed up with the automobile industry to steer America away from mass transit and towards gas-guzzling vehicles driving on a nationally financed highway system."

Big Oil has consistently and successfully fought the intrusion of competition from non-oil energy sources, including nuclear, wind and solar power.

It has been at the side of the Pentagon in making sure that America defends the sea-lanes to the Persian Gulf, in effect ensuring a $US100 billion-plus annual subsidy for a fuel that is otherwise dangerous for national security, Sachs says.

"And Big Oil has played a notorious role in the fight to keep climate change off the US agenda. Exxon-Mobil, Koch Industries and others in the sector have underwritten a generation of anti-scientific propaganda to confuse the American people."

Fourth is the healthcare industry, America's largest industry, absorbing no less than 17 per cent of US gross domestic product.

"The key to understanding this sector is to note that the government partners with industry to reimburse costs with little systematic oversight and control," Sachs says. "Pharmaceutical firms set sky-high prices protected by patent rights; Medicare [for the aged] and Medicaid [for the poor] and private insurers reimburse doctors and hospitals on a cost-plus basis; and the American Medical Association restricts the supply of new doctors through the control of placements at medical schools.

"The result of this pseudo-market system is sky-high costs, large profits for the private healthcare sector, and no political will to reform."

Now do you see why the industry put so much effort into persuading America's punters that Obamacare was rank socialism? They didn't succeed in blocking it, but the compromised program doesn't do enough to stop the US being the last rich country in the world without universal healthcare.

It's worth noting that, despite its front-running cost, America's healthcare system doesn't leave Americans with particularly good health - not as good as ours, for instance. This conundrum is easily explained: America has the highest-paid doctors.

Sachs says the main thing to remember about the corporatocracy is that it looks after its own. "There is absolutely no economic crisis in corporate America.

"Consider the pulse of the corporate sector as opposed to the pulse of the employees working in it: corporate profits in 2010 were at an all-time high, chief executive salaries in 2010 rebounded strongly from the financial crisis, Wall Street compensation in 2010 was at an all-time high, several Wall Street firms paid civil penalties for financial abuses, but no senior banker faced any criminal charges, and there were no adverse regulatory measures that would lead to a loss of profits in finance, health care, military supplies and energy," he says.

The 30-year achievement of the corporatocracy has been the creation of America's rich and super-rich classes, he says. And we can now see their tools of trade.

"It began with globalisation, which pushed up capital income while pushing down wages. These changes were magnified by the tax cuts at the top, which left more take-home pay and the ability to accumulate greater wealth through higher net-of-tax returns to saving."

Chief executives then helped themselves to their own slice of the corporate sector ownership through outlandish awards of stock options by friendly and often handpicked compensation committees, while the Securities and Exchange Commission looked the other way. It's not all that hard to do when both political parties are standing in line to do your bidding, Sachs concludes.

Fortunately, things aren't nearly so bad in Australia. But it will require vigilance to stop them sliding further in that direction.
Read more >>

Monday, August 15, 2011

Is economic reform worsening productivity?

The North Atlantic economies have pressing problems to grapple with, but here at home the biggest thing we have to worry about is our weak rate of productivity improvement. And we won't get far if we stick to the received wisdom it's all the fault of excessive government intervention.

If our econocrats want to preserve their monopoly over the advice their political masters seek, they need to be less model-bound in their thinking. Since it doesn't take much thought to realise ''more micro reform'' is unlikely to make a big difference, we need more lateral thinking.

Rather than merely assuming market failure wouldn't be a material part of the problem - or assuming nothing could be done to correct market failure that wouldn't make things worse rather than better - perhaps we should look harder to see if market failure is part of the story.

After all, it's the market that's failing to generate as much productivity improvement as it has in the past.

Then we could start looking for cleverer forms of intervention that don't end up being counterproductive. Here we could put a lot more effort into evaluating interventions, so as to build up our understanding of what works and what doesn't.

The acute government debt problems in the United States and Europe are a reminder of how much more fiscally disciplined our governments have been, going right back to the Hawke-Keating government with its various budget limits and targets.

It's a great temptation to give the public the ever-increasing government spending it demands, but then fail to summon the courage to make people pay the extra taxation needed to cover that higher spending.

For all their failings, however, our politicians have achieved balanced budgets on average over the cycle and have kept government debt levels - federal and state - quite low and manageable.

But could it be we've paid for our fiscal responsibility with lower productivity improvement? It seems clear we've been underspending on public infrastructure as part of our efforts to keep debt levels low, but adequate public infrastructure is needed to permit the private sector to raise its own productivity.

As well as physical capital there's human capital. As part of our abstemiousness, we've gone for several decades underspending on all levels of education and training: early childhood development, schools, vocational training and universities. Particularly universities.

If we've gone for so long underspending on human capital, is it any wonder our productivity performance has worsened? It's true the Rudd-Gillard government has loosened the purse strings in recent years, but there's safe to be a delay before that leads to an improvement.

Another possibility worth exploring is whether the microeconomic reforms of the past have had unintended consequences that damaged our productivity.

Micro reform is almost always aimed at increasing firms' efficiency by subjecting them to great competitive pressure - whether from rivals in the domestic market or from imports.

But the human animal has achieved the great things it has not only as a result of competition between us but also as a result of our heightened ability to co-operate in the achievement of common objectives. The economists' conventional model is big on competition, but sets little store by co-operation, since it assumes we're all rugged individualists. Could it be that, by greatly increasing the competition most firms face in their markets, micro reform has reduced the amount of productivity enhancing co-operation?

A further possibility is that, in turning up the heat of competition in so many markets, and in spreading market forces into areas formerly outside the market, micro reform has diminished our ''social capital'' in ways that adversely affect economic performance.

There's no place for trust, feelings of reciprocity or norms of socially acceptable behaviour in the economists' model, so they tend to under-recognise their importance. But you only have to observe a loss of trust within the community to realise the high cost that loss imposes on the economy as well as society.

The less we feel we can trust each other, the more avoidable costs we impose on the economy in spending on supervision and monitoring, security devices and security people.

Micro reform seeks to increase the community's income without paying any attention to the equitable distribution of that extra income. If higher earners end up with more than their fair share, the disaffection of those who lose out may detract from their productivity.

It seems clear the increased competitive pressure on firms has led many to take a more ruthless attitude towards their employees.

Firms are more anti-collective bargaining, more prone to laying off staff as soon as business turns down, more willing to award huge pay rises to executives without a thought as to how this might make other employees feel, more inclined to pay some workers more than their peers, more inclined to expect people to work split shifts or on weekends and public holidays without extra pay and more likely to demand unpaid overtime (which last does increase measured productivity, however).

Is it so hard to credit that all this might have made workers less co-operative and productive rather than more?

In the Treasury Secretary's recent speech on our poor productivity performance, Dr Martin Parkinson nominated health and education as the next candidates for major micro reform. He's right, there's plenty of scope for improvement.

But these are service-delivery sectors where it's the performance of professionals that's crucial. And economists' notions about what motivates people and how you encourage excellence are so blinkered - they assume money is the only incentive and key performance indicators work a treat - that you'd have little confidence their ''reforms'' would make things better.

Read more >>