Showing posts with label big business. Show all posts
Showing posts with label big business. Show all posts

Monday, October 9, 2023

It's time for more sensible thinking on productivity

When will we tire of all the bulldust that’s talked in the name of hastening productivity improvement? We never do anything about it, but we do listen politely while self-appointed worthies – business people and econocrats, in the main – read us yet another sermon on the subject.

Trouble is, when the sermons come from big business – accompanied by 200-page reports with snappy titles – they boil down business lobby groups doing what lobby groups do: asking the government for special favours – aka “rent-seeking”.

You want higher productivity? It’s obvious: cut the company tax on big business, and give us a free hand to change our workers’ pay and conditions as we see fit.

When the sermons come from econocrats, they’re more like professional propagandising: calls for “reform” – often of the tax system – that are usually theory-driven and lacking empirical evidence that they really would have much effect on productivity.

What we get in place of genuine empiricism is modelling results. Models are a mysterious combination of mathematised theory, sprinkled with ill-researched estimates of elasticity and such like.

We’ve become so inured to all this sermonising that we’ve ceased to notice something strange: although in a market economy it’s the behaviour of business that determines how much productivity improvement we do or don’t get, any lack of improvement is always attributed to the government’s negligence.

This is where the business rent-seekers and the econocrat propagandists are agreed. The econocrats willingness to point at the government comes from the biases in their neoclassical theory, which assumes, first, that businesses always respond rationally to the incentives they face and, second, that government intervention in markets is more likely to make things worse than better.

Big business is happy to use this ideology to hide its rent-seeking. (If you wonder why neoclassical economics has been dominant for a century or two despite surprisingly little evolution, it’s partly because it suits business interests so well.)

The other strange thing we’ve failed to notice is that the modern obsession with the tax system and regulation of the labour market has crowded out all the economists’ conventional wisdom about what drives productivity improvement over the medium term.

But before we get to that wisdom, a health warning: there’s a famous saying in economics that the sermonisers have stopped making sure you know. It’s that, for economists, productivity is “a measure of our ignorance”.

Just as economists can calculate the “non-accelerating-inflation rate of unemployment”, and kid themselves it’s next to infallible, when you ask them why it’s gone up, or down, all they can do is guess at the reasons, so it is with calculations of productivity. Economists can’t say with any certainty why it’s up or why it’s down. They don’t know.

Even so, in the present opportunistic sermonising, all that the profession thought it knew has been cast aside.

Such as? That productivity improvement is cyclical and hard to measure. Recent quarterly results from the national accounts will probably change as better data come to hand, and the accounts are revised.

It’s true that the measured productivity of labour actually has fallen over the three years to June this year, but it’s likely this is, to a great extent, a product of the wild swings of the pandemic and its lockdowns. As Reserve Bank economists have argued, these effects should “wash out”.

It’s well understood that the main thing that improves the productivity of labour is employers giving their workers more and better machines to work with. But Australia’s level of business investment as a share of gross domestic product is low relative to other rich countries.

Growth in non-mining business investment has declined from the mid-2000s and stagnated over the past decade. It’s grown strongly recently, but it’s not clear how much of this is just tradies taking advantage of lockdown tax concessions to buy a new HiLux ute.

Point is, why do the sermonisers rarely acknowledge that weak business investment spending does a lot to help explain our weak productivity improvement?

Another factor that should be obvious is our recent strong growth in employment, the highest in about 50 years, with many people who employers wouldn’t normally want to employ, getting jobs. This will lower the workforce’s average productivity – but it’s a good development, not a bad one.

Again, why do the sermons never mention this?

Yet another part of the conventional wisdom it’s no longer fashionable to mention is the belief that productivity improvement comes from strong spending – by public and private sectors – on research and development. Have we been doing well on this over the past decade or so? I doubt it.

And, of course, productivity improvement comes from giving a high priority to investment in “human capital” – education and training.

So, why no sermons about the way we’ve gone for a decade or more stuffing up TAFE and vocational education, or the way school funding has given “parental choice” for better-off families priority over the funding of good teaching in public schools?

Too many of those sermons also fail to mention the small fact that all the other developed economies are experiencing similar weakness – suggesting that much of our poor performance is explained by global factors, not the failure of our government.

Related to this, the preachers usually compare our present performance with a much higher 30- or 40-year average, implying our weak performance is something new, unusual and worrying.

Or, we’re told that, whereas productivity improved at an annual rate of 2.1 per cent, over the five years to 2004, it worsened to 0.9 per cent over the six years to 2010, and improved only marginally to 1.2 per cent over the nine years to 2019, before the pandemic.

This is all highly misleading. The fact is that periods of weak improvement are more common than periods of strong improvement, which are rare.

Our period of unusually strong improvement from the late 1990s to the early noughties is paralleled by America’s strong period from 1995 to 2004, which the Yanks usually attribute to rapid productivity improvement in the manufacturing of computers, electronics and semiconductors.

We usually attribute our rare period of strong improvement to the belated effects of the Hawke-Keating government’s program of microeconomic reform. Maybe, but computerisation and the information revolution are a more plausible guess.

Either way, contrary to the sermonisers’ implicit claim that the present period of weak improvement is unusual, it may be closer to the truth that weakness is the norm, interspersed by occasional bursts of huge improvement, caused by the eventual diffusion of some new “general-purpose technology” – the next one likely to be generative AI.

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Wednesday, September 20, 2023

How to make big business deliver for us, not just the fat cats

When we’ve got big business behaving badly, what can we do about it? Most of the answer’s obvious: strengthen the laws against misbehaviour, greatly increase the penalties and then, most obvious of all, police them vigorously until the fat cats get the message.

As the banking royal commission showed, much of the misbehaviour uncovered involved breaking the existing law. And the casinos in Sydney and Melbourne seem to have been breaking the law.

If PwC’s decision to pass on to other clients the information it had been given by the Tax Office after promising to keep it confidential wasn’t illegal, it should have been. And obviously, the many big businesses found to have been paying their workers less than they were legally entitled to were breaking the law.

The High Court has just confirmed that Qantas’ dismissal of 1700 workers was illegal, just as the Federal Court had originally found it to be many months ago. Qantas had appealed against the Federal Court decision but failed, so it took its appeal to the High Court and was again rebuffed.

Think how much shareholders’ money was spent trying to escape what most people would have thought was the company’s legal duty to its employees. And how much the shareholders will now have to pay to compensate the unlawfully dismissed employees.

Now the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission is taking legal action against Qantas, alleging it continued selling fares on flights it had already cancelled. Should the airline lose the case, it will be up for hefty fines.

It’s hard to believe that in all these cases big businesses, with their own legal departments, didn’t know that what they were doing could be found to be against the law. Much easier to believe they thought the chances of being prosecuted were low.

It’s possible some thought that, should they be prosecuted, they could afford the legal firepower to find a way to get them off the hook. But I think the main reason so many big companies have been acting as they have is their confidence that they wouldn’t be prosecuted.

Of course, in competitive markets – even markets like ours, where competition on price isn’t nearly as strong as it’s supposed to be – when one big business is seen to be gaining an advantage by finding neat legal arguments, the temptation for other businesses to do the same is intense. And it’s all too human to assume that the test of what’s ethical behaviour is what you imagine everyone else is doing.

Remember, too, that although many personal crimes are committed in the heat of the moment, big-business lawbreaking is likely to be the result of carefully considered advice.

That’s why penalties for business lawbreaking need to be very high. I think going to jail – even for just a few months – would be a highly effective deterrent. Think what your spouse would say if you got caught.

But why have chief executives been so confident their misdeeds would go undiscovered and unpunished? Because for a long time, it was pretty true.

During the now-ended era of “neoliberalism” – the doctrine that what’s good for business is good for the economy – successive governments used nods and winks to let corporate watchdogs, competition and consumer watchdogs, and wages watchdogs know their job was to look impressive without ever biting anyone.

And, if that wasn’t enough, governments would deny them the funds needed to police adequately the laws they were responsible for. Even the Tax Office wasn’t funded to do as many audits of taxpayers as it should have done – despite those audits bringing in far more revenue than they cost.

But, as I say, the neoliberal era is over, a victim of the manifest failure of much privatisation and outsourcing, and the exposure of big business misconduct by investigative journalists – most of them working for this august organ and the ABC.

And, of course, the crossbenchers are using Senate committees to draw attention to failures the two major parties would prefer to go unnoticed.

Once the public’s attention is aroused, governments have to act, calling royal commissions and being seen enforcing the law.

Now the watchdogs are better funded, and the ACCC is calling for stronger powers. Last week its chair, Gina Cass-Gottlieb, told a parliamentary committee that many unfair trading practices currently fall outside the scope of Australian consumer law, “despite causing considerable harm for consumers, small business [note that; big businesses often mistreat small businesses] and competition”.

She was referring to practices such as making it hard for people to cancel digital subscriptions, online sites with opaque and confusing trading terms for small businesses, manipulative sales practices such as misleading scarcity claims (“Hurry, stocks limited”), or deceptive design patterns such as sites that confuse you into buying things you didn’t actually want.

In the post-neoliberal world, there’s much cleaning up to be done.

Read more >>

Wednesday, September 13, 2023

Big business should serve us, not enslave us

When my brain was switching to idle on my recent break, I thought of two central questions. First, for whose benefit is the economy being run – a handful of company executives at the top, or all the rest of us? Second, despite all the hand-wringing over our lack of productivity improvement, would it be so terrible if the economy stopped growing?

Then the whole Qantas affair reached boiling point. So we’ll save the economy’s growth for another day.

You’ve probably heard as much as you want to know about Qantas and its departed chief executive Alan Joyce. But Qantas’ domination of our air travel industry makes its performance of great importance to our lives. And Qantas is just the latest and most egregious case of Big Business Behaving Badly.

We’ve seen all the misconduct revealed by the banking royal commission, with the Morrison government accepting all the commission’s recommendations before the 2019 election, then quietly dropping many of them after the election.

We’ve seen consulting firm PwC caught abusing the trust of the Tax Office, with further inquiry revealing the huge sums governments are paying the big four accounting firms for underwhelming advice on myriad routine matters.

We’ve seen Rio Tinto “accidentally” destroying a sacred site that stood in its way and, it seems, almost every big company “accidentally” paying their staff less than their legal entitlement.

Now, let’s be clear. I’m a believer in the capitalist system – the “market economy” as economists prefer to call it. I accept that the “profit motive” is the best way to motivate an economy. And that the exploitation of economies of scale means we benefit from having big companies.

But that doesn’t mean companies can’t get too big, nor that all the jobs and income big businesses bring us mean governments should manage the economy to please the nation’s chief executives.

It should go without argument that governments should manage the economy for the benefit of the many, not the few. The profit motive, big companies and their bosses should be seen as just means to the end of providing satisfying lives for all Australians, including the disabled and disadvantaged.

We allow the pursuit of profit, and the chosen treatment of employees and customers, only to the extent that the benefits to us come without unreasonable cost to us. Business serves us; we don’t serve it.

In other words, we need a fair bit of the benefit to “trickle down” from the bosses and shareholders at the top to the customers and workers at the bottom. That’s the unwritten social contract between us and big business. And for many years, enough of the benefit did trickle down. But in recent years the trickle down has become more trickle-like.

This is partly explained by the way the “micro-economic reform” of the Hawke-Keating government degenerated into “neoliberalism” – the belief that what’s good for BHP is good for Australia. This would have been encouraged by the way election campaigns have become an advertising arms race, with both sides of politics seeking donations from big business.

Another cause was explained by a former Reserve Bank governor, Ian Macfarlane, in his Boyer Lectures of 2006: “The combination of performance-based pay and short job tenure is becoming increasingly common throughout the business sector ... It can have the effect of encouraging managers to chase short-term profits, even if long-term risks are being incurred, because if the risks eventuate, they will show up ‘on someone else’s shift’.”

The upshot of neoliberalism’s assumption that business always knows best is to leave the nation’s chief executives – and their boardroom cheer squads – believing they’re part of a commercial Brahmin caste, fully entitled to be paid many multiples of what their fellow employees get, to retire with more bags of money than they can carry, and to have politicians never do anything that hampers their money-grubbing proclivities.

Their Brahminisation has reached the point where they think they can break the law with impunity. They’re confident that corporate watchdogs and competition and consumer watchdogs won’t come after them – or won’t be able to afford the lawyers they can.

Chief executives for years have used multiple devices – casualisation, pseudo contracting, labour hire companies, franchising and more – to chisel away at workers’ wages. And that’s before you get to the ways they quietly chisel their customers.

The fact is that the error and era of neoliberalism are over, but the Business Council and its members have yet to get the memo. They’re continuing to claim that cutting the rate of company tax would do wonders for the economy (not to mention their bonuses) and that the Albanese government’s latest efforts to protect employees from mistreatment would make their working arrangements impossibly “inflexible”.

But the more Qantases and Alan Joyces we call out while they amass their millions, the more the public wakes up, and the more governments see we want them to get the suits back under control.

Read more >>

Wednesday, May 31, 2023

PwC: How are the haughty chartered accountants fallen

As we watch the Albanese government and the Senate crossbench getting to the bottom of what’s become “The PwC Scandal”, it’s important to join the dots. It’s not just a question of who did what and when, and how they’ll be held accountable for their actions. It’s more a question of how did a formerly highly respected firm of chartered accountants come to behave in such an unethical and possibly illegal way. And how did the federal government allow itself to get into such a compromised position?

It’s an issue that interests me on many levels. There’s a caste system among accountants, and the ones who call themselves “chartered” – acting under a charter from the King – regard themselves as the brahmins.

Before I became a journalist almost 50 years ago, I worked for one of the “big eight” firms of chartered accountants – Australian partnerships that had affiliated with one of the eight big, American-based international firms. (I’m still a fellow of the chartered accountants’ institute.)

The big eight coalesced into today’s big four, with their snappy, slimmed-down names: PwC, KPMG, Deloitte and EY. Historically, the main thing they did was audit publicly listed companies, certifying that their published accounts were “true and fair”. They also gave tax advice and did rich people’s tax returns.

But there’s not much money in auditing, so each of the big four has branched out into providing consulting services to big companies – in a big way. The consultants – few of whom would be accountants – have become the fat tail wagging the chartered dog.

There is much potential conflict of interest between these three activities, and it’s possible this scandal will hasten the separation of the auditors from the consultants – something that should have happened ages ago.

That’s enough about boring accountants, except to say that, if you wonder why PwC has been so slow to send the offending heavies packing, it’s because these businesses aren’t companies with the usual command structure, they’re unwieldy partnerships. “Why should I vote to get rid of one of my partners, when I might be next?” In Australia, PwC has about 900 partners and 8000 staff.

These days, much of the big four’s income is from consulting to federal and state governments. In 2021-22, the feds paid $21 billion for “external labour” – consultants, but also contractors and labour-hire companies. Senator Barbara Pocock, of the Greens, says this is equivalent to 54,000 full-time workers, and compares with 144,000 directly employed federal public servants.

Barrister Geoffrey Watson has asked “why is Australia outsourcing so much of its governing to private enterprise? Policy development and implementation are now routinely taken from the public service and turned over to private consultants.”

To leftie academics, the answer is that it’s part of the rise of “neoliberalism”. To me, its part of the quixotic quest for smaller government and lower taxes, via deregulation and privatisation in all its forms: not just the sale of government-owned businesses, but the provision of publicly funded services such as job search, childcare, aged care and disability care by church and community groups and profit-making businesses.

Plus, in the present case, getting rid of public servants in favour of advice from private consulting firms. At the beginning, the big four had no great understanding of public policy. But they set up offices in Canberra and hired many of the policy experts being let go by government. These people got paid a lot more, and their services sold back to the government at an even higher rate.

What’s not to like? It’s only taxpayers’ money.

Remember that PwC’s questionable behaviour occurred long before the arrival of the Albanese government. It was the Coalition government, particularly under Scott Morrison, that distrusted and disliked public servants.

One of the attractions of paying outside consultants for advice is that, to ensure repeat business, they tend to tell you what they think you want to hear. Whether in auditing or consulting, the notion that anyone can buy genuinely independent advice is a delusion.

According to Andrew Podger, a former senior public servant, the government’s imposition of ceilings on staff numbers and wage bills “led to the use of external labour even when departments knew it didn’t represent value for money”.

Consultants will always give their business’s profits priority over the public interest. When you join the dots, they go from the PwC affair to the problems we encountered years ago with privately owned childcare, the royal commission into aged care, and all the present problems with the cost of the National Disability Insurance Scheme.

The great experiment of finding out whether it’s better for public services to be delivered by the private sector than the tea-drinking public servants has been a resounding failure. And the suggestion that, by dishonouring its confidentiality agreements, PwC may have broken the law, provides a link to the royal commission on banking misconduct, and even to the epidemic of wage theft.

Somehow or other, the “smaller government” policies of recent decades have left many businesses believing they are no longer required to obey the law.

Read more >>

Friday, April 14, 2023

Yes, the government does believe what companies do you to online

How often have you had trouble cancelling a subscription to a streaming video site or some other service? When you’re trying to do something online, how often have you ticked a box to say you’d read the terms and conditions, when you hadn’t?

I do it all the time. And my guess is that almost everyone else does too. Why? Because the site won’t let you get on with making a restaurant booking or buying something until you do.

You don’t have the time to read the terms and conditions, which probably run to several pages of fine print. And how would you benefit if you did? It will be written in legalese – by lawyers, for lawyers.

What little you could understand would give you a clear impression: you have few rights, but the company has loads. Ah, it was written by the company’s lawyers to cover its backside, but not yours.

Say you were mad enough to wade through all that guff. Can you imagine the reception you’d get if you rang the company’s call centre and told someone in Manila that you’d like them to explain what term 3(b) means, and could they strike out clause 9(f) because it’s unacceptable?

No, it’s a take-it-or-leave-it deal. The company knows you won’t have read or understood the terms and conditions, and it doesn’t care. All it wants is to be able to tell the judge you said you had, so you’ve got no grounds for complaint.

But can companies really get away with those kinds of stunts? Are the unfair conditions they write into their contracts legally enforceable? In most rich economies – even the US – no they’re not.

And in Australia? In a speech last week, Dr Andrew Leigh, Assistant Minister for Competition, gave the answer: maybe, maybe not.

He told a small business conference that those leasing printers from Fuji Xerox may have received notification that certain terms in their contracts were void.

That’s because, on application by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, last August the Federal Court found that 38 contract terms in 11 of Fuji Xerox’s small business contracts were void and unenforceable. These included ones providing for automatic renewal, excessive exit fees and unilateral price increases.

You may not know that the commission protects small businesses as well as consumers. Leigh reminded us that one of the government’s first acts last year was to prohibit the use of unfair terms in standard-form contracts.

From November this year, the commission and the Australian Securities and Investments Commission can ask the court to fine big businesses that try to push small businesses around in this way.

But unfair contract terms are one thing; unfair trading practices are another. Although the Australian Consumer Law bans several specific unfair practices, there’s no general ban on them. The government is working on this.

One form of unfair trading practice is the “dark patterns” used by companies on their websites. Leigh says these are subtle tweaks in the way sites are designed, intended to trick users into doing things they didn’t intend to do. They discourage consumers from doing things that would reduce the company’s sales.

Efforts to make it hard for you to unsubscribe from digital streaming services are so notorious the Norwegian Consumer Council wrote a whole paper about them, Leigh said.

It compared how hard it was to sign up for Amazon Prime with how hard it was to cancel a subscription. “Consumers who want to leave the service are faced with a large number of hurdles, including complicated navigation menus, skewed wording, confusing choices, and repeated nudging,” it found.

(What I found, before I switched to the ordinary taxis’ app, was how hard it was to cancel a ride with Uber, even though drivers were playing pass-the-parcel with your order. And how hard it was to query a surprisingly high fare, only to have my complaint considered and dismissed in a nanosecond.)

The commission lists other examples of dark patterns: false reminders such as low-stock warnings and false countdown timers, preselected add-ons to what you purchased, and illogical colours, such as a red button for yes and a green button for no.

Then there’s the manipulation of search engines, such as when food delivery companies impair the ability of restaurants to attract customers by ensuring the delivery company’s site appears above the restaurant’s in internet searches.

There’s nothing new about unfair trading practices. But, with the law as it stands, the commission has had mixed results getting firms prosecuted. It alleged Medibank had engaged in misleading conduct in what it told members about its benefits. The Federal Court said Medibank had acted “harshly” and “unfairly”, but still ruled against the commission.

In another case, the commission was unsuccessful in bringing an action against a vocational education and training provider that used door-to-door selling in disadvantaged communities, promising students a free laptop, and promising the courses were free if the students’ earnings stayed low. Such behaviour was found not to breach the act.

The US, European Union, Britain and Singapore simply prohibit unfair trading practices. The US, of all places, has been doing it since 1938.

The Albanese government is working on plans to do something. Leigh says the government knows that effective competition depends on strong safeguards for households and small businesses.

“When laws allow a firm to get away with ripping off consumers, it can create the wrong competition incentives. Other firms in the market see bad behaviour go unpunished and protect their own patch by employing the same dodgy tactics. Soon enough there’s a race to the bottom in dodginess,” he said.

Consumer protections are intended to improve the wellbeing of consumers – and small businesses. But consumer protections also foster effective competition.

They help drive a race to the top in service quality. “But that race to the top can only occur if there’s enough competition,” Leigh said.

True. So, what we also need is stronger merger laws.

Read more >>

Friday, April 7, 2023

Don't let an economist run your business, or bosses run the economy

A lot of people think the chief executives of big companies – say, one of the four big banks - would be highly qualified to tell them how high interest rates should go and what higher rates will do to the economy over the next year or two.

Don’t believe it. What a big boss could tell you with authority is how to run a big company – their own, in particular. Except they wouldn’t be sharing their trade secrets.

No, in my experience, when bosses step away from their day job to give Treasurer Jim Chalmers free advice, their primary objective is to tell him how to run the economy in ways that better suit the interests of their business (and so help increase their annual bonus).

But when it comes to keeping our banks highly profitable, our treasurers and central bankers are doing an excellent job already.

Of course, it’s just as true the other way around: don’t ask an economist to tell you how to run a business. It’s not something they know much about.

Running big businesses and running economies may seem closely related, but it’s not. They’re very different skills.

One of the ways the rich economies have got rich over the past 200 years is by what the father of economics, Adam Smith, called “the division of labour” – dividing all the work into ever-more specialised occupations. By now, managing businesses and managing economies are a world apart.

But as Free Exchange, the economics column in my favourite magazine, The Economist, explains in its latest issue, there’s more to it than that.

Conventional economic theory sees the economy as composed of a large collection of markets. Producers use resources – labour, physical capital, and land and raw materials – to produce goods and services, which they sell to consumers in markets.

Producers supply goods and services; consumers demand goods and services. How do producers know what to supply and consumers what to demand? They’re guided by the ever-changing prices being demanded and paid in the market.

So economists see economics as being all about markets using the “price mechanism” to ensure the available resources are “allocated” to the particular combination of goods and services that yields consumers the most satisfaction of their needs and wants.

It wasn’t until 1937 that a British-American economist, Ronald Coase, pointed to the glaring omission in this happy description of how economies work: much of the allocation of resources happens not in markets but inside firms, many of them huge firms, with multiple divisions and thousands of employees.

Inside these firms, the decisions are made by employees, and what they do is determined not by price signals, but by what the hierarchy of bosses tells them to do. A key decision when something new is wanted is whether to buy it in from the market, or make it yourself.

The Economist says another gap between economic theory and the world of business is the economists’ assumption that firms are profit-maximising. Well, they would be if they could be.

Trouble is, contrary to standard theory, they simply don’t have the information to know how much they could get away with. Gathering a lot more information would be expensive and, even then, they couldn’t get all they need.

As the American Herbert Simon – not really an economist, which didn’t stop him winning a Nobel Prize – realised, businesses live in a world of “bounded rationality” – they make the best decision they can with the information available, seeking profits that are satisfactory rather than ideal. They are “satisficers” rather than maximisers.

It took decades before other economists took up Coase’s challenge to think more about how companies actually go about turning economic resources into goods and services.

The Economist says a key idea is that the firm is “a co-ordinator of team production, where each team member’s contribution cannot be separated from the others.

“Team output requires a hierarchy to delegate tasks, monitor effort and to reward people accordingly.”

But this requires a different arrangement. In market transactions, you buy what you need and that’s pretty much the end of it. But, because a business can’t think of all the things that could possibly go wrong, a firm’s contracts with its employees are unavoidably “incomplete”.

Without these legal protections, what keeps the business going is trust between employer and employee, and the risk to both sides if things fall apart.

Another problem that arises within companies is ensuring employees act in the best interests of the firm, and are team players, rather than acting in their own interests. Economists call this the principal-agent problem.

In law, and in economic theory, businesses are owned by their shareholders, with everyone employed in the business - from the chief executive down – acting merely as agents for the owners. Who, of course, aren’t present to ensure everyone acts in the owners’ interests, not their own.

Economists came up with the idea of ensuring the executives’ interests aligned with the owners’ interests by paying them with bonuses and share options.

Trouble is, these crude monetary incentives too often encouraged executives to find ways to game the system. Ramp the company’s shares just before you sell your options and let the future look after itself.

Elsewhere, linking teachers pay to exam results encourages too many of them to “teach to the test”.

More recently, economists have decided it’s better to pay a fixed salary and avoid tying rewards to any particular task – which could be achieved by neglecting other tasks.

But whatever economists learn about how to manage businesses, it’s hard to see them supplanting management experts any time soon.

As The Economist observes, when a business hires a chief economist, it’s usually for their understanding of the macroeconomy or the ways of the central bank, not for advice on corporate strategy.

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Monday, September 19, 2022

Don't worry about inflation, the punters will be made to pay for it

Our sudden, shocking encounter with high inflation has brought to light a disturbing truth: we now have a dysfunctional economy, in which big business has gained too much power over the prices it can charge, while the nation’s households have lost what power they had to protecting their incomes from inflation.

It has also revealed the limitations and crudity of the main instrument we’ve used to manage the macro economy for the past 40 years: monetary policy – the manipulation of interest rates by the central bank.

We’ve been reminded that monetary policy can’t fix problems on the supply (production) side of the economy. Nor can it fix problems arising from the underlying structure of how the economy works.

All it can do is use interest rates to speed up or slow down the demand (spending) side of the economy. And even there, it has little direct effect on the spending of governments or on the investment spending of businesses.

Its control over interest rates gives it direct influence only on the spending of households. And, for the most part, that means spending that has to be done on borrowed money: buying a home. But also, renting a home some landlord has borrowed to buy.

Get it? The Reserve Bank of Australia’s governor’s power to manipulate interest rates largely boils down to influencing how much households spend on their biggest single item of spending: housing. Because no one wants to be homeless, using interest rates to increase the cost of housing leaves people with less to spend on everything else.

This means the governor has little direct influence over big business’s ability to take advantage of strong demand to widen its profit margins. He must get at businesses indirectly, via his power to reduce their customers’ ability to keep buying their products.

Get it? Households are the meat in the sandwich between the Reserve and big business (with small business using the cover of big business’s big price hikes to sneak up their own profit margins).

Join the dots, and you realise the Reserve’s plan to get inflation down quickly involves allowing a transfer of many billions from the pockets of households to the profits of big business.

On one hand, big business has been allowed to raise its prices by more than needed to cover the jump in its costs arising from the supply disruptions of the pandemic and the Ukraine war. On the other, the loss of union bargaining power means big business has had little trouble ensuring its wage bill rises at a much lower rate than retail prices have.

So, it’s households that are picking up the tab for the Reserve’s solution to the inflation problem. They’ll pay for it with higher mortgage interest rates and rents, and a fall in the value of their homes, but mainly by having their wages rise by a lot less than the rise in their cost of living.

The RBA’s unspoken game plan is to squeeze households until demand for goods and services has weakened to the point where big business decides that raising its prices to increase its profits would cost it so many sales that it would be left worse off.

It may even come to pass that households have been squeezed so badly big businesses’ sales start falling, and some of them decide that cutting their price to win back sales would leave them better off.

In economists’ notation, maximising profits – or minimising losses – is all about finding the best combination of “p” (price) and “q” (quantity demanded).

You don’t believe big businesses ever cut their prices? It’s common for them to “discount” their prices in ways that disguise their retreat, using special offers, holding sales, and otherwise allowing a gap between their advertised price and the price many customers actually pay.

But why would that nice mother’s boy Dr Philip Lowe, whose statutory duty is to ensure that monetary policy is directed to “the greatest advantage of the people of Australia”, impose so much pain on so many ordinary people, who played no part in causing the problem he’s grappling with?

Because, as all central bankers do, he sees keeping inflation low as his central responsibility. And he doesn’t see any other way to stop prices rising so rapidly. It’s a case study in just what a crude, inadequate and blunt instrument monetary policy is.

Lowe justifies his measures to reduce inflation quickly by saying this will avoid a recession. But let’s not kid ourselves. This massive transfer of income from households to business profits will deal a great blow to the economy.

After going nowhere much for almost a decade, real household disposable income is now expected to fall for two years in a row. And who knows if there’ll be a third.

Economists have made much of the extra saving households did during the pandemic. But during Lowe’s appearance before the parliamentary economics committee on Friday, it was revealed that about 80 per cent of that extra $270 billion in saving was done by the 40 per cent of households with the highest incomes. So, how much of it ends up being spent is open to question.

The likelihood that our measures to weaken household spending will lead to a recession must be very high.

Until Lowe’s remarks before the committee on Friday, his commentary on the causes and cure of inflation seemed terribly one-sided. The key to reducing inflation was ensuring wages didn’t rise by as much as prices had, so that rising inflation expectations wouldn’t lead to a wage-price spiral.

He warned that the higher wages rose, the higher he’d have to raise interest rates. He lectured the unions, saying they needed to be “flexible” in their wage demands. You could see this as giving an official blessing to businesses resisting union pressure and granting pay rises far lower than prices had risen.

Lowe could just as easily have lectured business to be “flexible” in passing on all the higher cost of their imported inputs, when these were expected to be temporary – but he didn’t. He’s always quoting what business people are saying to him, but never what union leaders say – perhaps because he never talks to them.

But on Friday he evened up the record. “It is also important to note that, to date, the stronger growth in wages has not been a major factor driving inflation higher,” he said. “Businesses, too, have a role in avoiding these damaging outcomes, by not using the higher inflation as cover for an increase in profit margins.”

That’s his first-ever admission that, when conditions allow, business has the market power to raise its prices by more than just its rising costs. Problem is, monetary policy’s only solution to this structural weakness – caused by inadequate competitive pressure – is to keep demand perpetually weak.

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Friday, August 26, 2022

Don't expect great productivity if we give business an easy ride

An unwritten rule in the economic debate is that you can say whatever you like about the failures of governments – Labor or Liberal; federal or state – but you must never, ever criticise the performance of business. Maybe that’s one reason we’re getting so little productivity improvement these days.

One reason it’s unwise to criticise big business is that it’s got a lot of power and money. It can well defend itself but, in any case, but there’s never any shortage of experts happy to fly to its defence, in hope of a reward.

But the other reason is the pro-business bias built into the standard demand-and-supply, “neoclassical” model burnt into the brains of economists. It rests on the assumption that market economies are self-correcting – “equilibrating” - and so work best when you follow the maxim “laissez-faire” – leave things alone.

So if markets don’t seem to be going well, the likeliest explanation is that intervention by governments has stuffed them up. Business people always respond rationally to the incentives that governments create, so if what business is doing isn’t helpful, it must be the government’s fault.

In theory, economists know about the possibility of “market failure”, but many believe that, in practice, such failures are rare, or of little consequence.

All this explains why almost all discussion of our poor productivity performance assumes it must be something the government’s doing wrong, which needs “reforming”. You’ll see this mentality on display at next week’s jobs and skills summit.

Which is surprising when you remember that, for the most part, productivity improvement – producing more outputs of goods and services from the same or fewer inputs of raw materials, labour and physical capital – occurs inside the premises of businesses, big or small.

Fortunately, one person who understands this is the new assistant treasurer, Dr Andrew Leigh, a former economics professor, who this week used the Fred Gruen lecture at the Australian National University to outline recent Treasury research on the “dynamism” of Australian businesses – how good they are at improving their performance over time.

The news is not encouraging. One indicator of dynamism is job mobility. When workers switch from low-productivity to high-productivity firms, they earn a higher wage and make the economy more efficient.

The proportion of workers who started a new job in the past quarter fell from 8.7 per cent in the early 2000s to 7.3 per cent in the decade to the end of 2019.

Another indicator of dynamism is the “start-up rate” – the number of new companies being set up each year. It’s gone from 13 per cent in 2006 to 11 per cent in 2019.

Over the same period, the number of old companies closing fell from 10 per cent to 8 per cent. So our firms are living longer and getting older.

The neoclassical model assumes a high degree of competition between firms. It’s the pressure from competition that encourages firms to improve the quality of their products and offer an attractive price. It spurs firms to develop new products.

Competition encourages firms to think of new ways to produce their products, run their businesses and use their staff more effectively, Leigh says.

“In competitive industries, companies are forced to ask themselves what they need to do to win market share from their rivals. That might lead to more research and development, the importation of good ideas from overseas, or adopting clever approaches from other industries.

“Customers benefit from this, but so too does the whole economy. Competition creates the incentive for companies to boost productivity,” he says.

As Leigh notes, the opposite to competition, monopoly, is far less attractive. “Monopolists tend to charge higher prices and offer worse products and services. They might opt to cut back on research, preferring to invest in ‘moats’ to keep the competition out.

“If they have plenty of cash on hand, they might figure that, if a rival does emerge, they can simply buy them out and maintain their market dominance. Monopoly [economic] rents lead to higher profits – and higher prices.”

Taken literally, “monopoly” means just one seller, but economists use the word more broadly to refer to just a few big firms - “duopoly” or, more commonly, “oligopoly”.

One indicator of the degree of “market power” – aka pricing power – is how much of a market is controlled by a few big firms. At the start of this century, the market share of the largest four firms in an industry averaged 41 per cent. By 2018-19, it had risen to 43 per cent. So across the economy, from baby food to beer, the top four firms hold a high and growing share of the market.

And the problem’s even greater when you remember that the rival firms often have large shareholders in common. For instance, the largest shareholders of the Commonwealth Bank are Vanguard and Blackrock, which are also the largest shareholders of the three other big banks.

But the strongest sign of lack of competition is the size of a company’s “mark-up” – the price it charges for its product, relative to its marginal cost of production. In the textbook, these mark-ups are wafer thin.

Treasury estimates that the average mark-up increased by about 6 per cent over the 13 years to 2016-17. This fits with the trend in other rich economies. And the increase in mark-ups has occurred across entire industries, not just the market leaders.

It seems that rising market power has reduced the rate at which labour flows to its most productive use, which in turn has lowered the rate of growth in the productivity of labour by 0.1 percentage points a year, according to Leigh’s rough calculations.

If so, this would explain about a fifth of the slowdown in productivity improvement since 2012. Lax regulation of mergers and takeovers has allowed too many of our big businesses to get fat and lazy, even while raising their prices and profits. But don’t tell anyone I said so.

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Wednesday, February 2, 2022

We should make the economy less unequal - and we can

Since the working year doesn’t really get started until after Australia Day, it’s not too late to tell you my New Year’s resolutions. Actually, they’re more in the nature of re-affirming my guiding principles as an economic commentator. Why are we playing the economic game? Who are the people it’s supposed to benefit? And would all the policies I write in support of lead us towards or away from these ultimate objectives?

My first principle is that “the economy” – all the daily effort we put into producing and consuming goods and services – should be managed to benefit the many, not the few.

But it’s hard to believe this has been our overriding objective, particularly in recent decades. Although most of the activity in the economy is undertaken by the private sector – households and businesses – this activity is regulated by the public sector, governments.

Since our governments are democratically elected, this ought to mean that governments govern in the interests of all voters, not just some. But, as we all know, sometimes it doesn’t work out that way.

Sometimes governments pander to the majority when it gangs up against an unpopular minority – asylum seekers, for instance. Other times, governments act in the interests of powerful individuals, businesses and interest groups.

Since the two main political parties have become locked in a hugely expensive contest to influence voters at election time, they seem to have become more receptive to the interests of businesses able to donate generously to party coffers.

The notion that the economy will work best when governments manage it in ways that best suit the interests of business was hugely reinforced by the 30-year reign of a fad called “neoliberalism” – a movement started by na├»ve econocrats and economists (and supported by yours truly) that was soon hijacked by businesses and politicians who saw an opportunity to advance their own interests.

The neoliberal era is over – the proof of which you see every time Scott Morrison announces another government subsidy to a new gas-fired power station, oil refinery or Snowy Mountains scheme.

But our new project, to redress the balance of benefit in favour of ordinary workers and consumers, has a long way to go. It will make more progress when more voters understand the need to give ordinary players in the economic game a bigger share of the prizes.

Business invariably justifies its demand for favourable treatment by the jobs it creates. But increasingly, those jobs are of a lower quality than we have come to expect.

Many are casual, part-time and insecure. They come with fewer safeguards: sick and holiday pay, workers compensation coverage, super contributions. Pay rises are fewer and meaner. Wage theft has become common.

Voters need to realise the rise of crappy jobs in the “gig economy” is not some inescapable consequence of technological progress. It’s a policy choice that governments have made using the power we give them.

Were voters to tell politicians more forcefully that such a deterioration in the quality of the working life of the rising generation is unacceptable, they would act to stop less-scrupulous businesses finding ways to avoid or evade the labour laws that protect the rest of us.

All this is happening while the share of national income going to profits has risen strongly, at the expense of the share going to wages. And the share of income collected by the top 1 per cent of Australia’s income earners has risen to about 9 per cent of total income.

A capitalist economy wouldn’t work as well as it does were entrepreneurs not always trying new ways to increase their profits. The trouble is that not all the ways they try are of benefit to the rest of us, not just themselves and their shareholders.

In such cases, governments should not shirk their responsibility to act in the interests of the many not the few. Nor should we fear that, unless we give businesses free rein in their pursuit of higher profits, our business people will lose all interest in running businesses.

So, a longstanding view of mine is that we’d all be better off if business executives focused less on maximising profits (and their related bonuses) and more on giving their customers value for money and ensuring all their employees had rewarding jobs.

Not just jobs that were better paid and more secure, but more emotionally satisfying because they gave workers more autonomy – more freedom to choose the best ways of doing their job – and jobs better fitted to a worker’s particular strengths and preferences.

Easier said than done? True. Particularly because, though governments can prohibit certain undesirable practices in the treatment of workers, they can’t legislate to force bad bosses to be good ones.

Not easy, but not impossible to reshape the economy to improve it for ordinary people, not just bosses. And we won’t get any improvement until we accept that it is possible, and that we should measure the politicians we vote for according to their willingness and ability to spread the benefits of economic life less unequally.

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Monday, March 11, 2019

Economists: lonely, misunderstood angels in shining armour

If you’re tempted by the shocking thought that economists end up as handmaidens to the rich and powerful – as I’m tempted – Dr Martin Parkinson wishes to remind us that’s not how it’s supposed to be. The first mission of economists is to make this world a better world, he says. But don’t expect it to make you popular.

Let me tell you about a talk he gave on Friday night. It was a pep talk to the first of what’s hoped to be a regular social gathering for young economists come to Canberra to study, teach or work in government or consulting.

Apparently, working in Canberra can be a tough gig if you don’t know many economist mates to be assortative with.

Parkinson’s own career has had its downs and ups. He was sacked as Treasury secretary by Tony Abbott – who feared he actually believed in the climate change policy the Rudd government had him designing – then resurrected by Malcolm Turnbull as secretary of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, the Treasury secretary’s bureaucratic boss.

He began the pep talk with a story about the woman with only six months to live, who’s advised by her doctor to marry an economist so as to make it seem like a lifetime.

That may be because, as Parko says, economists are trained to be analytical. To be rigorously logical and rational in their thinking. (I define an economist as someone who thinks their partner is the only irrational person in the economy.)

“Economics gives you insights into the way the world works that other professions cannot,” he says. Economists see things that others can’t. Sometimes that’s because the others have incentives not to see them.

As Upton Sinclair famously put it, it’s difficult to get someone to understand something when their salary depends on them not understanding it.

Ain’t that the truth. The endless bickering between our politicians explained in a single quote. And the economists’ limited success in persuading people to take their advice.

Economists are trained to see “opportunity cost” which, according to Parko, is “the core tenet of the profession”. “This under underlies everything we do.

“This leads us to positions that are often counter-intuitive [the opposite of common sense] and unpopular – but are right.”

True. It may amaze you that so much of what economists bang on about boils down to no more than yet another application of opportunity cost: be careful how you spend your money, because you can only spend it once.

It’s a pathetically obvious insight, but it’s part of the human condition to always be forgetting it. So it’s the economist’s role to be the one who keeps reminding us of the obvious. If economists do no more than that, they’ll have made an invaluable contribution to society – to making this world a better world - and earned their keep.

But here’s the bit I found most inspiring in Parko’s pep talk. “Economists are not ‘for capital’ or ‘for labour’ . . . We do not see the world through constructs of power or identity, even though we see the importance of them.

“We are ‘for’ individual wellbeing regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation or capabilities. Because of this, we are often against entrenched interests and for those without a seat at the decision table.

“Economists view the past as ‘sunk’ [there’s nothing you can do to change it] and argue for decisions about the future to be made free of sentiment and in opposition to special interests. Now, this is in sharp contrast to the incentives in our political system, which favour producer interests over that of consumers.”

Ah, that’s the point. The ethic of neo-classical economics is that the customer is king (or queen). Consumer interests come first, whereas “producer interests” (which include unions as well as business) matter only because they are a means to the ultimate end of the consumers’ greater good.

Economists believe in exposing business to intense competition, to keep prices no higher than costs (including a reasonable rate of return on capital) and profits no higher than necessary. Competition should spur innovation and technological advance, while ensuring the benefits flow through to customers rather staying with business.

Business doesn’t see it that way, of course. Unlike some, my policy is to tell business what it needs to know, not what it wants to hear. Some people – suffering from a touch of the Upton Sinclairs – tell themselves this makes me anti-business. No, it makes me pro-consumer. That’s the ethic we so often fall short of.
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Monday, February 25, 2019

It’s not business-bashing, it’s the public’s moment of truth

With the federal election campaign being fought over which side will do the better job of re-regulating the banks, the energy companies and business generally, big business seems to be going through the stages of grief. It’s reached denial.

According to the Australian Financial Review, the Business Council of Australia is most put out that the Morrison government has yielded to pressure from Labor and some Nationals to support a bill making it easier for smaller businesses to take legal action against big businesses.

Apparently, Scott Morrison and his lieutenants had the temerity to make the decision without giving the council an opportunity for private lobbying.

Which would have been intend to avoid “harmful unintended consequences,” including any possible drag on the economy. Of course.

Apparently, it’s just another instance of the growing level of “business bashing” in this campaign.

Sorry, guys, you’ve got to have a better argument than that. Accusing your critics of business-bashing or teacher-bashing or bank-bashing is what you say when you haven’t got a defence and are succumbing to a persecution complex.

It makes you and your mates feel better, but that’s all.

It’s a refusal to accept any responsibility for the bad performance of which people are complaining. Since it’s entirely the fault of others – usually, the government – any attempt to make me and my mates bare our share of responsibility can be explained only by ignorance and malice.

Such denial offers big business no way forward. Much better to admit there’s a fair bit of truth to the criticisms and accept that your performance will have to be a lot better.

The Business Council needs to admit to itself that this is not some passing phase of populist madness, it’s the end of the line for the “bizonomics” that micro-economic reform degenerated into – the belief that what’s good for big business is good for the economy.

The simple truth is that, when you go for years abusing your market power, the electorate eventually wakes up and hits back, threatening to toss out any government that isn’t prepared to set things to rights.

Now the scales of economic fundamentalism have fallen from our eyes, who could doubt that big businesses use their superior power – including their ability to afford the best legal advice – to unreasonably impose their will on smaller businesses, just as they impose incomprehensible and utterly non-negotiable terms and conditions on their customers. Like it or lump it.

One of the greatest weaknesses of “perfect competition” – the oversimplified model of market behaviour that permeates the thinking of economists, both consciously and unconsciously – is its implicit assumption that the parties to economic transactions are of roughly equal bargaining power.

In the era of oligopoly, however – where so many markets are dominated by four or even two huge corporations - nothing could be further from the truth.

It’s thus perfectly reasonable for governments to intervene in markets to bolster the bargaining power of the smaller and weaker parties – whether employees permitted to bargain collectively and go on strike, small businesses helped to seek legal redress from much bigger businesses, or customers protected from misleading advertising, high-pressure selling and other abuses.

It’s because economists’ thinking is so deeply infected by their model’s unrealistic assumptions that they fell for the notion that merely providing consumers with more information on labels and in “product statements” (quickly sabotaged by being turned into pages of legalese) would protect them from exploitation.

Though oligopolies have existed for decades, economists have put remarkably little effort into studying how they work and, more particularly, how they can be regulated to ensure the economies of scale they have been designed to capture are passed through to their customers.

The trouble is that oligopolies do all they can to avoid competing on price.

A part of this is offering a range of products that are almost impossible to compare with other firms’ products.

In the complex, busy world we live in, it’s utterly unrealistic to expect ordinary consumers to devote hours of precious leisure time to checking to see whether their present provider of bank accounts, credit cards, mortgages, mobile phones, electricity, gas and even superannuation is quietly taking advantage of them.

This is the case for government regulation to impose standardised comparisons and default products, statutory guarantees, legal obligations to act in the client’s best interests, and much else.

The other thing we’ve learnt in recent times – from the banking inquiry and many other examples – is that if businesses large and small are confident they won’t get caught, there’s no certainty they’ll obey the law.
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Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Corporate crime is far too common

If we’re to believe what we see in the media, we’re being engulfed by a corporate crime wave. An outbreak of business lawlessness that engages in “wage theft”, mistreatment of franchisees, abuse of workers on temporary visas, and much else.

But should we believe it? Regrettably, my years as a journalist have taught me not to believe everything I read in the paper (this august organ excepted, naturally).

News gathering is a process of what when I was an accountant I would have called “exception reporting”. That’s because people find the exceptions more interesting than the ordinary, everyday occurrences.

When the exceptions pile up, however, the risk is that they’re taken by readers to be representative of the wider reality.

So, in the case of businesses behaving badly, how exceptional are the exceptions? The answer from Rod Sims, chairman of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, in a speech he gave last Friday night, is not as exceptional as you’d hope.

To prove his point, Sims offered an extraordinary list of the commission’s enforcement activity, just in the month of April this year.

Ford was ordered to pay $10 million in penalties after it admitted that it had engaged in unconscionable conduct in the way it dealt with complaints about PowerShift transmission cars, sometimes telling customers that shuddering was the result of the customer’s driving style despite knowing the problems with these cars.

Telstra was ordered to pay penalties of $10 million in relation to its third-party billing service known as “premium direct billing” under which it exposed thousands of its own mobile phone customers to unauthorised charges.

Thermomix paid penalties of more than $4.5 million for making false or misleading representations to certain customers through its silence about a safety issue affecting one of its products which the company knew about from a point in time.

Flight Centre was ordered to pay $12.5 million in penalties for attempting to induce three international airlines to enter into price-fixing agreements.

K-Line, a Japanese shipping company, pleaded guilty to criminal cartel conduct concerning the international shipping of cars, trucks and busses to Australia.

Woolworths had proceedings instituted against it alleging that the environmental representations made about some of its Homebrand picnic products were false, misleading and deceptive.

Phew. Surely that was an exceptional month. But Sims has more cases to list.

Earlier this year, the Federal Court found that the food manufacturer Heinz had made misleading claims that its Little Kids Shredz products were beneficial for young children, when they contained about two-thirds sugar.

Who could forget the case of four Nurofen specific pain products? Their packaging claimed that each was specifically formulated to treat a particular type of pain when, in fact, each product contained the same active ingredient and was no more effective at treating that type of pain than any of the others. “The key difference was that the specific pain products were near double the price of the standard Nurofen product,” Sims says.

Hotel giant Meriton was caught taking deliberate steps to prevent guests it suspected would give an unfavourable review from receiving TripAdvisor’s “review express” prompt email, including by inserting additional letters into guests’ email addresses.

The court found this to be a deliberate strategy by Meriton to minimise the number of negative reviews its guests posted on TripAdvisor.

Optus Internet recently admitted to making misleading representations to about 14,000 customers about their transition to the national broadband network, including stating that their services would be disconnected if they didn’t move to the NBN, when under its contracts it could not force disconnection within the timeframe claimed.

Pental has admitted that it made misleading claims about its White King “flushable” cleaning wipes, saying they would disintegrate in the sewerage system when flushed, just like toilet paper, when our wastewater authorities are having big problems because the wipes can cause blockages in their systems.

Shocking. But, you may object, isn’t this just more anecdotes? How representative are they? Sims acknowledges that not all companies behave poorly.

He says that “poor behaviour usually occurs on a spectrum, with few companies behaving badly often, but rather many engaging in occasional significant instances of bad behaviour” – which, he insists, remains unacceptable.

So what can the commission and the government do to reduce the incidence of unacceptable behaviour?

Since businesses commit these excesses in their completely legitimate pursuit of higher profits, the key is to increase the cost to them of bad behaviour.

Many firms invest heavily in their brand reputation, which is a signal that they can be trusted. “The greater the likelihood that bad behaviour will be exposed and made public [see above], the more companies will do to guard against such behaviours.”

In their amoral, dollar-obsessed way, economists assess the attractions of law breaking by weighing the benefit to be gained against the cost of being caught multiplied by the probability of being caught.

Leaving aside the cost of reputational damage (just ask AMP if it knows about that), if you can’t do as much as you should to increase the chance of being caught, you should at least wack up the fines.

Sims says that “the penalties for misconduct, given the likelihood of detection, are comparatively weak”. He believes he’s had some success in persuading the Turnbull government to increase them.

“Just imagine if the penalties I mentioned [see above] were 10 to 20 times higher,” he concludes.
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Monday, April 30, 2018

Bank inquiry will change the course of politics and policy

The misbehaviour by banks and other big financial players revealed by the royal commission is so extensive and so shocking it’s likely to do lasting damage to the public credibility and political influence of the whole of big business and its lobby groups.

That’s particularly likely should the Coalition lose the looming federal election. If it does, that will have been for many reasons. But it’s a safe bet that pollies on both sides will attribute much of the blame to the weeks of appalling revelations by the commission.

With Labor busy reminding voters of how much effort during its time in office the Coalition spent trying to water down the consumer protections in Julia Gillard’s Future of Financial Advice legislation and then staving off a royal commission – while forgetting to mention the tough bank tax in last year’s budget – the Coalition will surely be regretting the closeness of their relationship.

Some Liberals may see themselves as having been used by the banks, notwithstanding the latter’s generous donations to party coffers. So, even if the Coalition retains office, it’s likely to be a lot more reluctant to be seen as a protector of big business.

A new Labor government is likely to be a lot less inhibited in adding to the regulation of business, and tightening the policing of that regulation, than it was in earlier times.

Should Malcolm Turnbull succeed in getting the big-company tax cut through the Senate, an incoming Labor is likely to reverse it (just as Tony Abbott didn’t hesitate to abolish Labor’s carbon tax and mining tax).

Many punters are convinced both sides of politics have been bought by big business, leaving the little guy with no hope of getting a fair shake from governments.

But that view’s likely to recede as both sides see the downside as well as the upside of keeping in with generous donors. This may be the best hope we’ll see of both sides agreeing to curb the election-funding arms race.

I’m expecting more customers for my argument that, in a democracy, the pollies care most about votes, not money. If they can use donations to buy advertising that attracts votes, fine. But when their association with donors starts to cost them votes, they re-do their calculus.

The abuse of union power during the 1960s and ‘70s – when daily life was regularly disrupted by strikes, and having to walk to work was all too common – left a distaste in voters’ mouths that lingered for decades after strike activity fell to negligible levels.

This gave the Libs a powerful stick to beat over Labor’s head. Linking Labor with the unions was always a vote winner. Every incoming Coalition government – Fraser, Howard, Abbott – has established royal commissions into union misbehaviour in the hope of smearing Labor.

But the anti-union card has lost much of its power as the era of union disruption recedes into history. The concerted efforts to discredit Julia Gillard didn’t amount to much electorally, nor this government’s attempt to bring down Bill Shorten.

From here on, however, the boot will be on the other foot. It’s big business that’s on the nose – being seen to have abused its power – and it is being linked with big business that’s now likely to cost votes.

All this change in the political and policy ground rules just from one royal commission, which may or may not lead to prosecutions of bank wrongdoers?

No, not just that. This inquiry’s revelations come on top of the banks’ longstanding unpopularity with the public and the long stream of highly publicised banking misbehaviour running back a decade to the aftermath of the global financial crisis.

And the bad story for banks, fund managers and investment advisers piles on top of continuing sagas over the mistreatment of franchisees and a seeming epidemic of illegal underpayment of wages to young people and those on temporary visas.

That’s not to mention the way fly-by-operators rorted the Vocational Education and Training experiment, ripping off taxpayers and naive young people alike, nor the mysterious way the profits of the three companies dominating the national electricity market at every level have blossomed at the same time retail electricity prices have doubled.

Times have become a lot more hostile for business, and only a Pollyanna would expect them to start getting better rather continue getting worse. Should weak wage growth continue, that will be another factor contributing to voter disaffection.

Why has even the Turnbull government slapped a big new tax on the banks, tried to dictate to the private owner of Liddell power station and now, we’re told, plans to greatly increase the petroleum and gas resource rent tax?

Take a wild guess.
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Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Sensible communities set boundaries for business

A highlight of our trip to New York after Christmas was a visit to the Tenement Museum down on the lower east side, where the movie Gangs of New York was set. It was the area where successive waves of Irish, German and Russian immigrants first settled, crowded into tenements.

We were taken around the corner to see inside a tenement building restored to its original condition.

As we climbed the back stairs, we were shown a row of dunnies and a water tap in the backyard. This, we were told, was one of the first tenements required to have outside toilets and running water under a new city ordinance.

Can you imagine any developer today thinking they could get away with building multi-storey units without adequate (indoor) toilets and plumbing? Unthinkable.

But I can imagine the fuss the developers of that time would have made when the city government – no doubt acting under pressure from citizens worried about the spread of disease – was passing the new ordinance.

These excessively luxurious requirements would be hugely expensive and could send some tenement owners bankrupt – owners who had families and elderly parents to support. The additional cost would have to be passed on to tenants, of course, making rents prohibitive. Some families would be forced onto the street.

I bet few of those dire predictions came to pass. Why? Because business people still play this game and once the bitterly opposed legislation goes through and the new status quo is accepted, the exaggerated forebodings are soon forgotten.

Another highlight was a tour of Carnegie Hall. Once, when it fell on hard times, someone acquired it with a view to tearing it down and building high-rise apartments. A public outcry stopped it.

Then, our guide reminded us, there was the time Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis led the fight to stop Grand Central Station being replaced by an office block.

It reminded me of how that ratbag commo Jack Mundey – being quietly urged on by respectable National Trust-types – was frustrating go-ahead developers all over Sydney.

Just think how better off we’d be today had those those pillars of industry not been prevented from doing away with the crumbling old Queen Victoria Building – with its verdigris domes and rickety lifts – and building a shiny new office block.

Gosh, by now we’d be ready to tear it down and build a taller one. And just think how many jobs that would create.

Do you see where this travelogue is heading? I’m an unfailing believer in the capitalist system. We’d all be much poorer than we are were it not for those ambitious, hard-working, enterprising, optimistic souls who set out to make themselves rich by engaging in some business.

But that doesn’t stop them being thoroughly self-interested and often short-sighted. Whatever new project it is they’ve decided will make them more money, they want to get started yesterday and get terribly angry with those who won’t step out of their way and let them get on with it.

My point is, it was ever thus. Market economies work best – and all the people within them do best – when governments act on behalf of the community in setting boundaries within which entrepreneurs are free to be entrepreneurial.

It’s the community’s economy, and it’s the community that decides the rules that ensure businesses make their profits – good luck to them – in ways that do more good than harm to the rest of us.

The huge hurt and cost of the global financial crisis – from which the world is still recovering, 10 years later – is but the latest reminder of something we should have known: how easily an economy can run off the track when we fall for the line that self-interested, short-sighted business people should be free to do as they please.

I remind you of all this because we’re just emerging from a period of more than 30 years in which the Western world flirted with the notion that economies work best when businesses are given as free a hand as possible.

The present royal commission into the misbehaviour of the banks is just one response to the consequences of that ill-considered notion.

You have to be at least in your 50s to remember the world as it was before then, when governments felt free to limit businesses’ freedom of action in respects they judged necessary and to impose obligations on them.

Where do you think the minimum wage, four weeks annual leave, long service leave, sick leave and many other employee benefits came from? Governments decided to impose them on business so as to ensure workers got their share of the benefits of capitalism.

Many of our young people are deeply pessimistic about the working world they’re inheriting – the “gig economy” where most employment is “precarious” – because they’ve grown up in a world where businesses seemed to be free to do whatever suited them.

They think the gig economy would be a terrible world to live in. They’re right, it would. Which is why I’m sure it won’t be allowed to happen. Governments will stop it happening.

Why will they? Because workers have infinitely more votes than business people do. In the end, the economy is moulded to serve the interests of the many, not the few. Governments keep getting thrown out until they get that message.
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Saturday, December 16, 2017

Who's ripping it off? Competition theory and reality

Puzzling over the rich economies' poor productivity improvement and weak wage growth (but healthy profits), American economists are pointing the finger at reduced competition between firms. But can this explain Australia's similar story?

Jim Minifie, of the Grattan Institute, set out to answer this in his report, Competition in Australia.

Economists regard strong competition between businesses as essential to ensuring market economies function well, to the benefit of consumers and workers.

Competition is what economic theory says stops us being ripped off by the capitalists. Firms that overcharge for their products lose business to firms that undercut them.

So competition pushes prices down towards costs (which economists – but not accountants – define as including the "cost of capital", or "normal profit", the minimum rate of profit needed to induce firms to stay in the market).

Competition helps ensure that economic resources - land, labour and (physical) capital – move to the uses most valued by consumers.

Competition also encourages firms to come up with new or better products – or less costly ways of producing a product – in the hope of higher profits. But those that succeed in this soon find their competitors copying their ideas, and bidding down the price to get a bigger slice of the action.

The innovations improve the economy's productivity (output per unit of input), but competition soon takes away the higher profits, delivering them into the hands of consumers, who often get better products for lower prices.

That's the theory. Question is, to what extent does it hold in practice? And does it hold less in recent years than it used to?

The simple theory assumes any market has a large number of sellers, each too small to be able to influence the market price. In practice, however, many of our markets are dominated by two, three or four big firms.

Why? Mainly because of the presence of economies of scale. It's very common that the more you produce of something – up to a point – the less each unit costs.

So, it makes great sense to have a small number of big firms doing much of the production – provided competition ensures most of the cost saving is passed on to customers in lower prices. Which, as a general rule, it has been over the decades.

Trouble is, big firms do have some degree of control over prices. And it's common for the few big firms in an industry to come to an unspoken agreement to compete using advertising or product differentiation, but not price.

Firms can increase their pricing power by taking over their competitors to get a bigger share of the market. It's the role of "competition policy" – run in our case by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission – to prevent overt collusion between firms, and takeovers intended to increase market power. But how well is that working?

"Natural monopolies" – where it simply wouldn't make economic sense for more than one firm to serve a particular market, such as rival sets of power lines running down a street, or two service stations in a small town - are another common departure from the theoretical model.

So, what did Minifie find in his study of competition in practice? He found evidence it had lessened in the United States, but not here.

He found plenty of markets where a few firms did most of the business. But "the market shares of large firms in concentrated sectors are not much higher in Australia than in other countries [of comparable size], and they have not grown much lately," he says.

Nor have their revenues (sales) grown faster than gross domestic product. The profitability of firms – profits relative to funds invested - hasn't risen much since 2000.

Minifie identifies eight industries characterised by natural monopoly (in descending order of size): electricity transmission and distribution, wired telecom, rail freight, airports, toll roads, water transport terminals, ports and pipelines.

Then there are nine industries where large economies of scale mean they're dominated by a few firms: supermarkets, wireless telecom, domestic airlines, then (of roughly equal size) internet service providers, pathology services, newspapers, petrol retailing, liquor retailing and diagnostic imaging.

Next are eight industries subject to heavy regulation by government: banks, residential aged care, general insurance, life insurance, taxis, pharmacies, health insurance and casinos.

(Often, these industries are heavily regulated for sound public policy reasons, but the regulation often acts as a barrier to new firms entering the market, thus allowing them to be dominated by a few firms.)

But note this: by Minifie's calculations, natural monopolies account for only about 3 per cent of "gross value added" (a variant of GDP), while high scale-economies industries account for 5 per cent and heavily regulated industries for 7 per cent.

So that means the parts of the economy where "barriers to entry" limit competitive pressure make up about 15 per cent of the economy. Then there are 29 industries with low barriers to entry making up the rest of the "non-tradables" private sector, and about half the whole economy.

That leaves the tradables sector (export and import-competing industries) accounting for 14 per cent of the economy and the public sector making up the last 20 per cent.

Even so, Minifie confirms that, in industries dominated by a few firms, many firms make "super-normal" profits – those in excess of what's needed to keep them in the industry.

By his estimates, up to half the total profits in the supermarket industry are super-normal. In banking it's about 17 per cent.

Other companies and sectors with substantial super profits include Telstra, some big-city airports, liquor retailers, internet service providers, sports betting agencies and private health insurers.

Comparing this last list with the lists of natural monopolies and heavily regulated industries suggests governments could be doing a much better job of ensuring the regulators haven't been captured by the companies being regulated.
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Saturday, December 2, 2017

Good could come from bank royal commission

The banks and other opponents of a royal commission into banking told us it would generate a lot of noise and expense without achieving anything of value. They'll probably still be claiming that when the just-announced inquiry has reported.

Well, maybe. By contrast, I think there's a good chance the commission's establishment will be seen as the most visible marker of the time when the two sides of politics turned their backs on the era of bizonomics – the doctrine that what's good for big business is good for the economy and the punters who make it up.

The litany of misconduct by the big four banks – the unscrupulous investment advice given, the mistreatment of people with legitimate life insurance claims, the charges that the bank-bill swap rate was being rigged, and allegations of extensive use of bank facilities for money laundering – has driven the public's growing insistence that the banks be brought to account.

This week Rod Sims, boss of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, confirmed what all of us know, that competition in banking is weak ("not vigorous") leaving the big four with great ability to protect their excessive profits by passing costs on to their customers ("the large banks each have considerable market power").

The arguments of the banks and the Turnbull government that an inquiry must be avoided because it would shake confidence in the integrity and strength of our financial system – including in offshore markets – were just as weak then as they are now when used by the banks and the government to justify holding an inquiry to end the "political uncertainty".

The plain truth is that a rebellion by its own backbenchers has robbed the government of its ability to stop an inquiry going ahead.

This is the best explanation for the banks' sudden reversal from opposing an inquiry to claiming one is now "imperative". Since the revolt makes one inevitable, they'd prefer its establishment to be controlled by their Liberal defenders, not their Nationals, Greens and Labor critics.

They say a smart prime minister never commissions a report unless he knows what it will find and recommend. But that's easier imagined than achieved.

Were the commission's report to be judged by voters as a whitewash, with no significant consequences, this would simply ensure the bad behaviour of the banks remained a hot issue favouring the government's opponents at the next election.

What's just as likely is that royal commissioner Kenneth Hayne will interpret his terms of reference as he sees fit and, in any event, uncover a lot more instances of misconduct.

Broadening the inquiry's scope to cover misconduct in wealth management, superannuation and insurance, as well as in banking proper, is unlikely to leave voters thinking the banks' behaviour hasn't been as bad as they first thought.

Polling shows high public support for a banking royal commission, including among Coalition voters.

But the way the government has been forced by public opinion to abandon its attempt to protect the banks is a sign of much deeper public disaffection with the long-dominant "neoliberal" doctrine – formerly accepted by both sides of politics – that governments should do as little as possible to prevent businesses doing just as they see fit.

That when business mistreats its customers or it employees, there's nothing the government could or would want to do.

That big businesses' generous donations to both sides' coffers mean they have the politicians in their pockets. That the Turnbull government's desire to cut the rate of company tax on foreign multinationals that already avoid paying much is proof the economy's run to please the big boys, not you and me.

I've been writing for months about the breakdown of the "neoliberal consensus". This is evident in the way the Labor side has promised a banking royal commission, opposed big business tax cuts, opposed reductions in penalty rates, and pressed for constraints on negative gearing and the capital gains tax discount.

But set aside his resistance to a banking inquiry and (impotent) advocacy of big business tax cuts, and you see Turnbull's already doing much to respond to voters' rejection of the fruits of neoliberalism – privatisation, the various economic reform stuff-ups – with his new tax on multinational tax avoiders and coercion of particular companies in his struggle to fix the stuffed-up national electricity market and the cornering of the eastern seaboard gas market by three big companies.

Remember too the way, as part of his efforts to stave off a banking inquiry, Turnbull has become ever tougher on the banks, making them pay for more surveillance by the Australian Securities and Investments Commission and imposing a new tax on the five biggest of them.

In his most recent attempt to head off pressure for an inquiry, a proposed arrangement to compensate victims of bank misbehaviour, the banks would have been paying.

When the political smarties look back on this saga, my guess is they'll conclude Turnbull was mad to lose so much political credit in his abortive attempt to protect the banks from the public's disapproval of their greed-driven misbehaviour.

He should have got, much earlier than he did, the message that the era of governments pandering to big business was over, killed off by voters' disaffection with the political mainstream and willingness to flirt with the populist fringe.

I'm not sure Australia's big business has yet got that message, particularly not the big banks – transfixed as they are by their inward-looking contest to increase their profits and chief executive remuneration package by more than their three rivals have.

I support the royal commission because another year or more of public dredging through all the moral (and sometimes legal) shortcuts the banks have taken on their way to higher profits and bonuses may finally get the message through that their way of doing business – and treating their customers – must change.
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Wednesday, September 6, 2017

It's business that has the greatest sense of entitlement

How the worm – and the world – turns. When the Abbott government came to power just four years ago, it claimed its arrival signalled the "end of the age of entitlement". Don't laugh, it's happening – but in the opposite way to what treasurer Joe Hockey had in mind.

As Hockey saw it, the sense of entitlement we'd acquired, but which could no long be afforded, applied to the social needs of individuals and families.

We saw the results of this attitude in Tony Abbott and Hockey's first budget of 2014, which got an enormous thumbs-down from the public and the Senate, so that pretty much all that remains of the attack on unwarranted entitlement is the unending crusade by the government's Don Quixote, Christian Porter, and his loyal Sancho, Alan Tudge, to root out the last welfare cheat.

Not content with the grand stuff-up that was the "robodebt" use of unguided computers to collect amounts that may or may not have been overpaid, the pair are now hot on the trail of drug-taking welfare recipients.

Drug testing isn't cheap, so it's likely the exercise will cost the taxpayer more than it saves. And drug care experts – who weren't consulted - say addicts can't be successfully coerced into treatment.

Trouble is, successive governments have been cracking down on the crackdown on welfare cheats every year for decades, so there can't be all that many of 'em left.

Why do I get the feeling that cracking down on welfare cheating is, at best, what governments do when they want to be seen to be cutting their spending but aren't game to.

Or, at worst, when they want to exploit the popular delusion that we could all be paying less tax if it weren't for the massive sums being siphoned off by dole bludgers and the like.

Sorry, the people doing by far the most to keep welfare spending high and rising are known as age pensioners. And no one has a stronger sense of entitlement than an oldie fighting for the pension. "I've paid taxes all my life . . ."

But though one of Aussies' less attractive traits has been our proneness to "downwards envy" – the delusion that people worse-off than us are doing it easy – polling by the Essential organisation suggests it may be wearing off, replaced by disapproval of wealthier tax dodgers.

Essential finds only 12 per cent of respondents (including 14 per cent of Coalition voters) are "bothered a lot" by "the feeling that some poor people don't pay their fair share", whereas 53 per cent (40 per cent of Coalition voters) are bothered a lot by "the feeling that some wealthy people don't pay their fair share".

Ask whether they're bothered a lot by the feeling that "some corporations" don't pay their fair share, and disapproval shoots up to 60 per cent, including 51 per cent of Coalition voters.

It's a sign of the times. It has finally dawned on us that the people with the overweening sense of entitlement are our business people.

They used not to be so arrogant, but more than three decades of neoliberal ideology – under which governments should do as little as possible to burden the private sector or restrict its freedom – have left business people convinced they're demi-gods, the source of all goodness and justly entitled to our approbation and genuflection.

They're the source of all jobs, and thus entitled to have their every demand satisfied.

Why should chief executives earn up to 300 times what their workers earn? Isn't it obvious?

Why should the chief executive's package rise by 8 per cent while his workers' wage rise is held down to 2 per cent because times are tough? Because I've just realised that Joe Blow over at XYZ Corp is getting more than me, and I'm better than him.

Why should companies doing legal contortions to minimise the tax they pay, hesitate to demand a cut in the rate of company tax in the name of creating jobs?

The developed world is still recovering from the carnage of the global financial crisis, caused by letting American banks do hugely risky things in the pursuit of higher profits and bonuses, confident in the knowledge that, should things come unstuck, the government would bail them out.

We weren't so silly as to let our own banks behave like that, but the years since then have seen a litany of banks mistreating their customers, as their managers put bonuses ahead of service and the four big banks compete single-mindedly for the highest rate of profit.

Meanwhile, journalists are uncovering a remarkable degree of lawlessness by other businesses: young people paid less than their legal entitlement, exploitation of foreign workers on visas, employers failing to pay in their workers' super contributions.

It's as though business people see themselves as so economically virtuous as to be above the law. Just a bit of red tape those gutless pollies have yet to clear away.

What's changed with the end of the era of neoliberalism, however, is the willingness of politicians on both sides to toughen up on the banks and other businesses.

They'll be paying more rather than less tax in future, and governments are already far less hesitant to regulate them more closely.

I see a lot more coming. Why? Because voters have got jack of arrogant business people.
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