Showing posts with label budgets. Show all posts
Showing posts with label budgets. Show all posts

Friday, June 7, 2024

The RBA has squeezed us like a lemon, but it's still not happy

Let me be the last to tell you the economy has almost ground to a halt and is teetering on the edge of recession. This has happened by design, not accident. But it doesn’t seem to be working properly. So, what happens now? Until we think of something better, more of the same.

Since May 2022, the Reserve Bank has been hard at work “squeezing inflation out of the system”. By increasing the official interest rate 4.25 percentage points in just 18 months, it has produced the sharpest tightening of the interest-rate screws on households with mortgages in at least 30 years.

To be fair, the Reserve’s had a lot of help with the squeezing. The nation’s landlords have used the shortage of rental accommodation to whack up rents.

And the federal government’s played its part. An unannounced decision by the Morrison government not to continue the low- and middle-income tax offset had the effect of increasing many people’s income tax by up to $1500 a year in about July last year. Bracket creep, as well, has been taking a bigger bite out of people’s pay rises.

With this week’s release of the latest “national accounts”, we learnt just how effective the squeeze on households’ budgets has been. The growth in the economy – real gross domestic product – slowed to a microscopic 0.1 per cent in the three months to the end of March, and just 1.1 per cent over the year to March. That compares with growth in a normal year of 2.4 per cent.

This weak growth has occurred at a time when the population has been growing strongly, by 0.5 per cent during the quarter and 2.5 per cent over the year. So, real GDP per person actually fell by 0.4 per cent during the quarter and by 1.3 per cent during the year.

As the Commonwealth Bank’s Gareth Aird puts it, the nation’s economic pie is still expanding modestly, but the average size of the slice of pie that each Australian has received over the past five quarters has progressively shrunk.

But if we return to looking at the whole pie – real GDP – the quarterly changes over the past five quarters show a clear picture of an economy slowing almost to a stop: 0.6 per cent, 0.4 per cent, 0.2 per cent, 0.3 per cent and now 0.1 per cent.

It’s not hard to determine what part of GDP has done the most to cause that slowdown. One component accounts for more than half of total GDP – household consumption spending. Here’s how it’s grown over the past six quarters: 0.8 per cent, 0.2 per cent, 0.5 per cent, 0.0 per cent, 0.3 per cent and 0.4 per cent.

A further sign of how tough households are doing: the part of their disposable income they’ve been able to save each quarter has fallen from 10.8 per cent to 0.9 per cent over the past two years.

So, if the object of the squeeze has been to leave households with a lot less disposable income to spend on other things, it’s been a great success.

The point is, when our demand for goods and services grows faster than the economy’s ability to supply them, businesses take the opportunity to increase their prices – something we hate.

But if we want the authorities to stop prices rising so quickly, they have only one crude way to do so: by raising mortgage interest rates and income tax to limit our ability to keep spending so strongly.

When the demand for their products is much weaker, businesses won’t be game to raise their prices much.

So, is it working? Yes, it is. Over the year to December 2022, consumer prices rose by 7.8 per cent. Since then, however, the rate of inflation has fallen to 3.6 per cent over the year to March.

Now, you may think that 3.6 per cent isn’t all that far above the Reserve’s inflation target of 2 per cent to 3 per cent, so we surely must be close to the point where, with households flat on the floor with their arms twisted up their back, the Reserve is preparing to ease the pain.

But apparently not. It seems to be worried inflation’s got stuck at 3.6 per cent and may not fall much further. In her appearance before a Senate committee this week, Reserve governor Michele Bullock said nothing to encourage the idea that a cut in interest rates was imminent. She even said she’d be willing to raise rates if needed to keep inflation slowing.

It’s suggested the Reserve is worried that we have what economists call a “positive output gap”. That is, the economy’s still supplying more goods and services than it’s capable of continuing to supply, creating a risk that inflation will stay above the target range or even start going back up.

With demand so weak, and so many people writhing in pain, I find this hard to believe. I think it’s just a fancy way of saying the Reserve is worried that employment is still growing and unemployment has risen only a little. Maybe it needs to see more blood on the street before it will believe we’re getting inflation back under control.

If so, we’re running a bigger risk of recession than the Reserve cares to admit. And if interest rates stay high for much longer, I doubt next month’s tax cuts will be sufficient to save us.

Another possibility is that what’s stopping inflation’s return to the target is not continuing strong demand, but problems on the supply side of the economy – problems we’ve neglected to identify, and problems that high interest rates can do nothing to correct.

Problems such as higher world petrol prices and higher insurance premiums caused by increased extreme weather events.

I’d like to see Bullock put up a big sign in the Reserve’s office: “If it’s not coming from demand, interest rates won’t fix it.”

Read more >>

Wednesday, June 5, 2024

It's slowing the spin doctors' spin that keeps me busy

Do you remember former prime minister John Howard’s ringing declaration that “we will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come”? It played a big part in helping him win the 2001 federal election. But it’s only true in part.

The job of economic commentators like me is supposed to be telling people about what’s happening in the economy and adding to readers’ understanding of how the economy works.

But the more our politicians rely on spin doctors to manipulate the media and give voters a version of the truth designed always to portray the boss in the most favourable light, the more time I have to spend making sure our readers aren’t being misled by some pollie’s silken words.

These days, I even have to make sure our readers aren’t being led astray by the economics profession. For the first time in many years, I’ve found myself explaining to critical academic economists that I’m a member of the journos’ union, not the economists’ union.

Like many professions, economists are hugely defensive. And they like to imagine my job is to help defend the profession against its many critics. Sorry, I’m one of the critics.

My job is to advise this masthead’s readers on how much of what economists say they should believe, and how much they should question.

It’s not that economists are deliberately misleading, more that they like to skirt around the parts of their belief system that ordinary people find hard to swallow.

And then there’s the increasing tendency for news outlets to pick sides between the two big parties, and adjust their reporting accordingly. My job is to live up this masthead’s motto: Independent. Always.

So, back to Howard’s heroic pronouncement. It’s certainly true that “we” – the federal government – decide the circumstances in which people may come to Australia. If you turn up without a visa, you’ll be turned away no matter how desperate your circumstances. If you come by boat, your chances of being let in are low.

But if you come by plane, with a visa that says you’ll be studying something at some dodgy private college when, in truth, you’re just after a job in a rich country, in you come. If we’ve known about this dodge, it’s only in the past few weeks that we’ve decided to stop it.

No, the problem is, if you take Howard’s defiant statement to mean that we control how many people come to this country, then that’s not true. We decide the kinds of people we’ll accept, but not how many.

There are no caps because, for many years, both parties have believed in taking as many suitable immigrants as possible. It’s just because the post-COVID surge in immigration – particularly overseas students – has coincided with the coming federal election that the pollies are suddenly talking about limiting student visas.

But remember, the politicians have form. Knowing many voters have reservations about immigration, they talk tough on immigration during election campaigns, but go soft once our attention has moved on, and it’s all got too hard.

It’s a similar thing with Anthony Albanese’s Future Made in Australia plan. Polling shows it’s been hugely popular with voters. But that’s because they’ve been misled by a clever slogan. It was designed to imply a return to the days when we tried to make for ourselves all the manufactured goods we needed.

But, as I’ve written, deep in last month’s budget papers was the news that we’d be doing a bit of that, but not much. It’s just a great slogan.

On another matter, have you noticed Treasurer Jim Chalmers’ dissembling on how he feels our pain from the cost-of-living crisis, which is why he’s trying so hard to get inflation down?

What he doesn’t want us thinking about is that, at this stage, most of the pain people are feeling is coming not from higher prices, but from the Reserve Bank’s 4.25 percentage-point increase in interest rates.

Get it? The pain’s coming from the cure, not the disease. The rise in interest rates has been brought about by the independent central bank, not the elected government, of course. But when Chalmers boasts about achieving two successive years of budget surplus, he’s hoping you won’t realise that those surpluses are adding to the pain households are suffering, particularly from the increase in bracket creep.

And, while I’m at it, many people object to businesses raising their prices simply because they can, not because their costs have increased. This they refer to disapprovingly as “gouging”.

But few economists would use that word. Why not? Because they believe it’s right and proper for businesses to charge as much as they can get away with.

Why? Because they think it’s part of the way that market forces automatically correct a situation where the demand for some item exceeds its supply. In textbooks, it’s called “rationing by price”.

Rather than the seller allowing themselves to run out of an item, they sell what’s left to the highest bidders. What could be better than that?

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Friday, May 31, 2024

Australia's future to be made under Treasury's watchful eye

The Albanese government’s Future Made in Australia has had a rapturous reception from some, but a suspicious reception from others (including me). In a little-noticed speech last week, however, one of our former top econocrats gave the plan a tick.

Rod Sims, former chair of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, and now chair of Professor Ross Garnaut’s brainchild, the Superpower Institute, has been reassured by the plan’s “national interest framework”, prepared by Treasury and issued with the budget.

But first, the budget announced that the government would “invest” – largely by way of tax concessions – $22.7 billion in the plan over the next decade.

Treasury’s framework will be included in the planned Future Made in Australia Act. It will “clearly articulate” how the government will identify those industries that will get help under the act, to “impose rigour on government’s decision-making on significant public investments, particularly those used to incentivise private investment at scale,” according to Treasury.

So, Sims is reassured by the knowledge that the framework – and Treasury – will ensure that “sound economics has been applied”. “In my view, [the plan] represents a growth and productivity opportunity every bit as bold as seen under previous governments,” he says.

Some of those giving the plan a rapturous reception believed it was “a welcome return to activist industry policy and making more things and value-adding in Australia,” Sims says. But “despite what has been said for political reasons, this is not the logic driving [the plan] as described by Treasury”.

Sims says we don’t need to revisit old and tired debates about protectionism. But as it happens, he notes, making more things in Australia will be an outcome of the plan.

Some said the plan represented the end of “neoliberalism” and a return to interventionist thinking. “It is not that either,” he says. “[The plan] relies on sound economics, and any change in economic thinking is a return to the application of sound economics.”

The way I’d put it is that to intervene or not to intervene is not the question. A moment’s thought reveals that governments have always intervened in the economy. (One of the most incorrigible interveners is a crowd called the Reserve Bank, which keeps fiddling with the interest rates paid and received in the private sector.)

No, as we’ll see, the right question is usually whether the intervention is adequately justified by “market failure” – whether, left to its own devices, the market will deliver the ideal outcomes that economic theory promises.

Others have approved of the plan because it’s about encouraging some local production in necessary supply chains. Sims admits there’s an element of this, as local battery and solar panel manufacture are mentioned, but they are a small part of the program.

Similarly, some move to make supply chains less at risk of disruption may be involved, but it’s not the driving logic of the plan.

Yet others have said the plan is copying the United States and its (misleadingly named) Inflation Reduction Act. “This is incorrect,” Sims says. The Americans’ act “spreads money widely, whereas [the plan] is targeted to Australia’s circumstances”.

The US act “also has many destructive features that we will not copy, such as its protectionist approach.”

But, to be fair to the sceptics, he adds, “the policy’s introduction was poorly handled. It was linked to making solar panel modules, when they can be purchased much more cheaply from China, and then there was the announcement of $1 billion for quantum computing.”

“It helps neither global mitigation [of climate change] nor Australian development to force manufacture here, if the final products are produced most cost-effectively elsewhere.”

So, if the plan isn’t mainly about protectionism, what’s its main purpose? Achieving the net zero transition and turning Australia into a renewable energy superpower.

Treasury’s national interest framework says the net zero transition and “heightened geostrategic competition” (code for the rivalry between the US and China) are transforming the global economy.

“These factors are changing the value of countries’ natural endowments, disrupting trade patterns, creating new markets, requiring heightened adaptability and rewarding innovation,” the framework says.

“Australia’s comparative advantages, capabilities and trade partnerships mean that these global shifts present profound opportunity for Australian workers and businesses.” We can foster new, globally competitive industries that will boost our economic prosperity and resilience, while supporting decarbonisation.

In considering the prudent basis for government investment in new industries, the framework will consider the following factors: Australia’s grounds for expecting lasting competitiveness in the global market; the role the new industry will play in securing an orderly path to net zero and building our economic resilience and security; whether the industry will build key capabilities; and whether the barriers to private investment can be resolved through public investment in a way that delivers “compelling public value”.

So, that’s quite a few hurdles you have to jump before the government starts giving you tax breaks. And proposals will be divided between two streams: the net zero transformation stream and the economic resilience and security stream. We can only hope that a lot more of the money goes to the former stream than the latter.

To justify government intervention, the framework requires evidence of “market failure” such as “negative externalities” that arise because the new clean industry is competing against fossil fuel-powered industries which, in the absence of a price on carbon, haven’t been required to bear the cost to the community of the greenhouse gases they emit.

Another case of market failure are the “positive externalities” that arise when the first firms in a new industry aren’t rewarded for the losses they incur while learning how the new technology works, to the benefit of all the firms that follow them.

Politicians being politicians, I doubt whether Treasury’s policing of its national interest framework will ensure none of the $22.7 billion is wasted. But we now have stronger grounds for hoping that Treasury’s oversight will keep the crazy decisions to a minimum.

Read more >>

Wednesday, May 29, 2024

The pollies have twigged that our crazy housing game can't go on

Last week, a fairly ordinary place in our street, similar to ours, sold for $4.7 million. I suppose I should be congratulating myself on how well I’ve done in the capitalist game. And it’s only fair since I’ve “worked hard all my life”. In truth, all we’ve done is pay the exorbitant price of $180,000 for our place, then hung around for 40 years. This makes sense? Surely, this crazy game can’t keep going onward and upward forever.

It’s now been two weeks since Treasurer Jim Chalmers delivered his budget, but I’ve only just realised its main content is not the one-year $300 electricity bill rebate we’ve obsessed over, it’s the evidence the government has finally accepted our housing system is dysfunctional and must be fixed. The budget papers include a long statement spelling out what’s wrong with housing with a candour I’ve not seen before.

The hard truth is that, until now, the pollies on both sides have only pretended to care about how hard the young were finding it to afford a home of their own. Why? Because the number of voters who own a home – whether outright or still with a mortgage – greatly exceeds the number who’d merely like to become a homeowner. As John Howard used to say, he’d never heard any homeowner complain about the rising value of their property.

All the things pollies do in the name of helping first-home buyers – such as cutting stamp duty on the purchase price – don’t actually help, and probably aren’t intended to. When they claim to be helping you afford the high price, they’re really helping to keep it high. If they helped you and no one else you’d be advantaged. But when they also help the people you’re bidding against, it’s actually the seller who benefits.

It’s the same with the Bank of Mum and Dad. The more parents help their kids afford the high prices – as I have – the higher those prices will stay. Again, the sellers benefit.

When the value of the oldies’ homes just keeps going up, this constitutes a transfer of wealth from the younger to the older generation. The Bank of Mum and Dad transfers some of the wealth back to the youngsters. The losers, however, are those kids who didn’t have the sense to pick well-off parents.

But what makes me think the Albanese government has seen the light?

Well, for a start, it makes more political sense than it used to. Not only are younger people having trouble affording their first home, they’re being hit with big jumps in rent thanks to an acute shortage of rental accommodation.

The budget statement admits that the median price of dwellings in the eight capital cities has more than doubled since the mid-noughties. So have advertised rents. It now takes more than 11 years to save a 20 per cent deposit on a house.

Politicians have been favouring the old at the expense of the young for decades, but the young are getting restive. Labor has more than its share of the votes of young adults. It risks losing those votes if it doesn’t start delivering for the younger generation.

Labor sees that house prices and rents are rising because the supply of homes has failed to keep up with growth in the population. Part of the reason for this is what the statement admits has been a “long-term, chronic under-investment in social housing”.

Why all these frank admissions? Because the Albanese government has decided to do something big to ease the problem. The budget announced new measures worth $6 billion which, added to those already announced, amount to a $32 billion plan to deliver 1.2 million new, well-located homes in the five years to June 2029. This would be equivalent to a city the size of Brisbane.

As with so many of our problems, the feds have most of the money needed to fix the nation’s housing, but the actual responsibility for housing rests with the states and even local government. The plan’s attraction is that it’s been agreed with the states and includes monetary incentives for them to co-operate.

The words “well-located homes” are code for many of them involving medium and high-density housing in the capital cities’ “missing middle”. It requires the states to take on their local government NIMBYs (see monetary incentives above).

It would be wrong, however, to see this plan as the simple solution to a housing system that’s been performing poorly for decades. It will be some years before it makes much difference, and experts have questioned whether so many new homes can be built in just five years.

It’s an advance to see the new emphasis on improving the system’s ability to supply more houses, but the vexed question of fixing the distortions to demand caused by misguided tax concessions remains to be faced.

Read more >>

Monday, May 20, 2024

How the budget was hijacked by a $300 cherry on the top

Talk about small things amusing small minds. It looked like a textbook-perfect exercise in budget media management by Anthony Albanese’s spin doctors. Until it blew up in the boss’s face. Trouble is, it wasn’t just the tabloid minds that got side-tracked. So did the supposed financial experts.

Budget nights are highly stage-managed affairs, as the spinners ensure all the mainstream media are focused on the bit the boss has decided will get the budget a favourable initial reception.

You pre-announce – or “drop” to a compliant journo – almost all the budget’s measures, big or small, nice or nasty. This time they even revealed the exact size of the old year’s surplus. But you hold back one juicy morsel, knowing the media’s obsession with what’s “old” and what’s “new” will guarantee it leads every home page.

I call it the cherry on the top. And this time it was the $300 energy rebate going to all households. A prize for everyone (except the pensioners, who last year got $500) and proof positive that Jim Chalmers feels their cost-of-living pain. (It would have been much better to announce the rejig of the stage 3 tax cuts, of course, but Albo had to play that card early, to help with a dicey byelection.)

How were the spinners to know the punters would be incensed when they realised it would even be going to Gina Rinehart? And get this: if a billionaire owned, say, 10 investment properties, they’d be getting 11 lots of $300. Outrageous.

The way some tabloids tell it, the punters were so offended they were rioting in the streets, demanding Chalmers stick their $300 up his jumper. It was the Beatles returning their MBEs.

Why wasn’t the rebate means tested? Perfectly good reason: because that would have been more trouble and expense than it was worth. Don’t bother mentioning: because, apart from being a popular giveaway, the rebate’s other purpose was to help reduce the consumer price index by 0.5 of a percentage point, and means testing it would have reduced the reduction.

How so many shock jocks and journos could get so steamed up about such a small thing is hard to explain. But what’s much harder to explain is why so many otherwise sensible economists got so steamed up about the wickedness and counterproductive wrongheadedness of it.

I think it’s a perfectly sensible device to hasten progress in getting inflation down to the target zone, and by no means the first time governments have used it. The temporary energy rebate will cost $3.5 billion over two years and the continuing increase in the Commonwealth rent allowance for people on social security will cost $880 million over its first two years.

So while it’s true that increased government spending adds to inflationary pressure, to argue furiously about $4.4 billion in an economy worth $2.7 trillion a year shows the lack of something the late great econocrat Aussie Holmes said every economist needed: “a sense of the relative magnitudes”. It’s chicken feed.

But the financial experts’ righteous indignation about what they see as an inflationary attempt to fudge the inflation figures seemed to utterly distort their evaluation of the budget and its effect on the macroeconomy.

The budget was a “short-term shameless vote-buying exercise” in which Labor abandoned all pretence of fiscal responsibility and went on a massive spending spree. The budget’s return to surplus had been abandoned, leaving us with deficits as far as the eye could see. We now had a permanent “structural deficit”. The hyperbole flowed like wine.

It’s true that the policy decisions announced in the budget are expected to add $24 billion to budget deficits over the next four years. But if, as the financial experts assert, getting inflation down ASAP is the only thing we should be worrying about, then it’s really what’s added in the coming year that matters most. Which reduces the size of Chalmers’ crimes to less than $10 billion.

It’s true, too, that the expected change in the budget balance from a $9 billion surplus in the financial year just ending, to a deficit of $28 billion in the coming year, is a turnaround of more than $37 billion. Clearly, and despite Chalmers’ denials, this changes the “stance” of fiscal policy from restrictive to expansionary.

But the financial experts seem to have concluded this development can be explained only by a massive blowout in government spending. Wrong. It’s mainly explained by the $23-billion-a-year cost of the stage 3 tax cuts.

Perhaps they were misled by the budget’s Table of Truth (budget statement 3, page 87) which, like everything in economics, has its limitations. The tax cuts don’t rate a mention. Why not? Because they’ve been government policy since 2018, and so have been hidden deep in the budget’s “forward estimates” for six years.

But whatever its main cause, surely this shift to expansionary fiscal policy puts the kybosh on getting inflation back down to the target range? Well, it would if shifts in the stance of the macroeconomic policy instruments were capable of turning the economy on a sixpence.

Unfortunately, the first rule of using interest rates to slow down or speed up the economy is that this “monetary policy” works with a “long and variable lag”.

The financial experts seem to have forgotten that managing the strength of demand – and fixing inflation without crashing the economy – is all about getting your timing right.

So is predicting the consequences of a policy change. Two years of highly restrictive monetary and fiscal policies won’t be instantly reversed by a switch to expansionary fiscal policy. As the new boss of the Grattan Institute, Aruna Sathanapally, has wisely noted, at the heart of the budget is the sad truth that the economy is weak, which is one reason inflation will fall.

The inflation rate peaked at just under 8 per cent at the end of 2022. By March this year it had fallen to 3.6 per cent. To me, that’s not a million miles from the Reserve Bank’s target range of 2 per cent to 3 per cent.

But the financial experts seem to have convinced themselves there’s a lot of heavy lifting to go. They even quote one brave soul saying the Reserve will need two more rate rises. I think it’s more likely we’ll get down to the target in the coming financial year, and that the move to expansionary fiscal policy will prove well-timed to help reverse engines and ensure the Reserve achieves its promised soft landing.

Chalmers’ decision to use the $300 rebate to reduce the consumer price index directly by 0.5 of a percentage point adds to my confidence. It’s particularly sensible if, as the financial experts have convinced themselves, the inflation rate’s fall is now “sticky”.

Those dismissing this decline as merely “technical” display their ignorance of how wages and prices are set outside the pages of a textbook. To everyone but economists, the CPI is the inflation rate. It’s built into many commercial contracts and budget measures.

It’s a safe bet this device will cause the Fair Work Commission’s annual increase in minimum award wage rates – affecting the bottom quarter of the workforce – to be about 0.5 of a percentage point lower than otherwise. And do you really think employers won’t take the opportunity to reduce wage rises accordingly? I doubt they’re that generous.

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Friday, May 17, 2024

Budget's message: maybe we'll pull off the softest of soft landings

When normal people think about the economy, most think about the trouble they’re having with the cost of living. But when economists think about it, what surprises them is how well the economy’s travelling.

It’s been going through huge ups and downs since COVID arrived in early 2020. By 2022, it was booming and the rate of unemployment had fallen to 3.5 per cent, its lowest in almost 50 years. Meaning we’d returned to full employment for the first time in five decades.

Trouble was, like the other rich economies, prices had begun shooting up. The annual rate of inflation reached a peak of almost 8 per cent by the end of 2022.

The managers of the economy know what to do when the economy’s growing too fast and inflation’s too high. The central bank increases interest rates to squeeze households’ cash flows and discourage them from spending so much.

The Reserve Bank started raising the official “cash” interest rate in May 2022, just before the federal election. It kept on raising rates and, by November last year, had increased the cash rate 13 times, taking it from 0.1 per cent to 4.35 per cent.

While this was happening, Treasurer Jim Chalmers was using his budget – known to economists as “fiscal policy” – to help the Reserve’s “monetary policy” to increase the squeeze on households’ own budgets, reducing their demand for goods and services.

Why? Because, when businesses’ sales are booming, they take the chance to whack up their prices. When their sales aren’t all that brisk, they’re much less keen to try it on.

The government’s tax collections have been growing strongly because many more people had jobs, or moved from part-time to full-time, and because higher inflation meant workers were getting bigger pay rises.

As well, iron ore prices stayed high, meaning our mining companies paid more tax than expected.

Chalmers tried hard to “bank” – avoid spending – all the extra revenue. So, whereas his budget ran a deficit of $32 billion in the year to June 2022, in the following year it switched to a surplus of $22 billion, and in the year that ends next month, 2023-24, he’s expecting another surplus, this time of $9 billion.

So, for the last two years, Chalmers’ budget has been taking more money out of the economy in taxes than it’s been putting back in government spending, thus making it harder for households to keep spending.

Guess what? It’s working. Total spending by consumers hardly increased over the year to December 2023. And the rate of inflation has fallen to 3.6 per cent in the year to March. That’s getting a lot closer to the Reserve’s target of 2 to 3 per cent.

The Reserve’s rate rises have been the biggest and fastest we’ve seen. Wages haven’t risen as fast as prices have and, largely by coincidence, a shortage of rental accommodation has allowed big increases in rents.

And on top of all that you’ve got the budget’s switch from deficits to surpluses. Much of this has been caused by bracket creep – wage rises causing workers to pay a higher average rate of income tax, often because they’ve been pushed into a higher tax bracket.

Bracket creep is usually portrayed as a bad thing, but economists call it “fiscal drag” and think of it as good. It acts as one of the budget’s main “automatic stabilisers”, helping to slow the economy down when it’s growing too quickly and causing higher inflation.

The Reserve keeps saying it wants to get inflation back under control without causing a recession. But put together all these factors squeezing household budgets, and you see why people like me have worried that we might end up with a hard landing.

Which brings us to this week’s budget. The big news is that in the coming financial year the budget is expected swing from this year’s surplus of $9 billion to a deficit of $28 billion.

This is a turnaround of more than $37 billion, equivalent to a big 1.3 per cent of annual gross domestic product. So, whereas for the past two financial years the “stance” of fiscal policy has been “contractionary” (acting to slow the economy), it will now be quite strongly “expansionary” (acting to speed it up).

Some people who should know better have taken this turnaround to have been caused by a massive increase in government spending. They’ve forgotten that by far the biggest cause is the stage 3 tax cuts, which will reduce tax collections by $23 billion a year.

The same people worry that this switch in policy will cause the economy to grow strongly, stop the inflation rate continuing to fall and maybe start it rising again. But I think they’ve forgotten how weak the economy is, how much downward pressure is still in the system, and how long it takes for a change in the stance of policy to turn the economy around.

Treasury’s forecasts say the economy (real GDP) will have grown by only 1.75 per cent in the financial year just ending, will speed up only a little in the coming year and not get back to average growth of about 2.5 per cent until 2026-27.

So, the rate of inflation will continue falling and should be back into the target range by this December. All this would mean that, from its low of 3.5 per cent – which had risen to 4.1 per cent by last month – the rate of unemployment is predicted to go no higher than 4.5 per cent.

That would be lower than the 5.2 per cent it was before the pandemic, and a world away from the peak of about 11 per cent in our last big recession, in the early 1990s.

So maybe, just maybe, we’ll have fixed inflation and achieved the softest of soft landings. Treasury’s forecasting record is far from perfect, to put it politely, but it is looking possible – provided we don’t do something stupid.

Read more >>

Wednesday, May 15, 2024

Budget will make us better off now, but worse off later

It’s said you can tell a government’s true priorities from what it does in its budget. If so, the top priority of Anthony Albanese’s government is not to have any priorities.

Rather than focusing on fixing the most pressing of our many problems, his preference is to be seen doing a little to alleviate all of them. In this budget, (almost) every voter wins a prize.

Certainly, every powerful interest group gets something to placate it. Of course, when you’re handing out so many prizes, most of them aren’t all that big.

Unfortunately, it’s a strategy that works better politically – where every vote counts – than economically, where sticking to what you’re good at brings better returns.

Fortunately, however, this budget has been “back-end loaded”. Most of what’s likely to be wasteful spending will come sometime in the next 10 years. Most of the budgetary cost of the sensible decisions starts from the first day of the new financial year, in just seven weeks’ time.

So let’s start with the good half of the budget, and leave the bad stuff for later.

By far the greatest political pressure on the government is to ease the intense cost-of-living pressure that so many people are feeling. Since most of the pressure has been caused by rapidly rising prices, this is also the government’s most immediate economic problem.

The trouble for Treasurer Jim Chalmers is that the standard remedy for rapid inflation involves making the pressure worse to make it better. You use higher interest rates and a bigger tax bite out of people’s pay rises to make it harder for households to keep spending, which stops businesses from raising their prices as much.

This explains Chalmers’ repeated but contradictory statement that he wants to ease the cost of living without weakening the efforts – by the Reserve Bank and his own budget surpluses – to get inflation down.

But this is where Albanese’s predilection for the each-way bet actually makes sense. Chalmers has found a way to do the seemingly impossible: ease living pressures a bit, while weakening the inflation fight only a bit.

He’s done this, first, by introducing a $300 power-bill rebate for all households, increasing the rent allowance paid to people receiving welfare benefits, and freezing the cost of prescriptions for two years.

This not only helps those people; it also reduces the rise in the consumer price index somewhat. And this, in turn, brings closer the day when the Reserve Bank starts cutting interest rates.

But second, by his rejig of the stage 3 tax cuts. This may be old news, but it’s by far the biggest measure in the budget. Most wage earners will realise how big it is – and how much it helps – when it increases their take-home pay at the start of July.

Albanese and Chalmers took a tax cut the previous government had intended to be of real benefit only to those on incomes well above the average, and changed it to ensure all taxpayers got something.

See? Everyone gets a prize. Everyone on incomes below about $150,000 a year gets more; everyone above that gets less than first intended. As a measure to ease living costs, it’s now far more effective.

Why won’t this $23 billion-a-year tax cut weaken the inflation fight? Because it has been government policy since 2018. It’s likely effect on households’ spending has been built into the Reserve Bank’s decisions to raise interest rates 13 times. Good stuff.

But it’s when we turn to the longer-term Future Made in Australia plans that you see the folly of Albanese’s efforts to stay friends with every interest group on every side.

By far the most important task Albanese must accomplish to secure our economic future is to achieve a smooth transition from fossil fuels to renewables – most of it done by 2030 – without blackouts and avoidable jumps in the cost of electricity.

But, more than that, he must ensure our continuing income from exports by establishing new green, further-processing industries exploiting our new-found strength of being among the world’s cheapest producers of renewable energy. This can be what will keep us prosperous when the world stops buying our fossil fuels.

The government spending needed to get these green industries started is included in the Future Made in Australia project. Trouble is, so is money for a lot of crazy ideas, such as setting up in competition with China as a producer of solar panels.

Albanese’s problem is he wants to say yes to everyone and everything, not just stick to the main chance. He’s saying he can turn us into a renewable energy superpower with one hand while, with the other, he lets the gas industry steam on to 2050 and beyond.

This does not fill me with confidence in the Albanese government’s capability. Quite the reverse.

Read more >>

Monday, May 13, 2024

Labor's persistent refusal to fix the JobSeeker payment is shameful

Remarks by Treasurer Jim Chalmers seem to say there’ll be no one-off increase in the pitifully inadequate rate of unemployment benefits in Tuesday night’s budget. If this is wrong, I’ll be delighted to offer an abject apology. If it’s right, Anthony Albanese and his ministers should hang their heads in shame. They claim to be the good guys, but they aren’t.

And the unions – which, as recent changes in industry policy reveal, have great behind-the-scenes influence over Labor governments – should be ashamed of themselves as well, for their failure to get Albo and co. up to the mark. They claim to represent the interest of the workers, but it turns only those who have jobs. Those still looking for one are on their own.

Do you realise Australia has the lowest benefits for the short-term unemployed among 34 countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development?

The lowest? Really? Does that make us the poorest of all those countries? No, of course not. We’d be comfortably among the richest.

So how’s it explained? Well, perhaps we don’t mind if people in other countries think of us as among the stingiest of the rich countries. The kind of person who’d walk past someone in trouble without offering them help. The kind who thinks anyone without much money must be lazy.

Australians tend to think of people on the age pension as poor, but a single pensioner gets $556 a week, which is $170 a week more than the single adult rate of the JobSeeker payment.

In 1996, the dole was about 90 per cent of the age pension, but it’s been allowed to fall steadily and now, despite two small one-off increases in recent years, is little more than two-thirds of what the oldies get.

To cut a long story short, this is because, since the early days of the Howard government, the pension has been indexed to wage growth, while unemployment benefits remain indexed to the consumer price index.

By now, the dole is 26 per cent below the OECD’s poverty line, set at 50 per cent of median (dead middle) income. There are other ways to measure poverty, but the dole’s below all of them.

A common argument for keeping unemployment benefits low is that we don’t want to discourage the jobless from going to the bother of doing a paid job. Talk about treat ’em mean to keep ’em keen.

But this is self-justifying nonsense. The single dole is now just 43 per cent of the full-time minimum wage.

A better argument is that benefits are so low people can be left unable to afford the fares and other costs involved in seeking a job.

Chalmers’ excuse for not increasing JobSeeker is that “we can’t afford to do everything”. But if you believe that, you haven’t thought about it.

Of course we can’t afford to do everything, but a rich country like ours, with a federal budget that will spend more than $700 billion next financial year, can certainly afford to do any particular thing it really wants to.

That’s the point: you can include it among all the things you’ll do if you really want to. Economists are great believers in “revealed preference”: judge people not by what they say, but by what they do.

Budgets reveal a government’s true priorities. What it spends on is what it most wants to do; what it “can’t afford” is something it doesn’t really want.

So the real question is why the government doesn’t want to fix JobSeeker. Well, it’s no secret. It might be the right thing to do, but there are no votes in it. Indeed, there may be votes to be lost.

It’s normal to envy those doing better than we are. But Australians suffer from the strange illness of “downward envy”. “I have to go out to work, while those lazy blighters sit around at home with their feet up, enjoying daytime television.”

And, of course, any money Labor spends helping one of the most deserving groups in society is money it can’t spend trying to buy the votes of the less deserving.

So, terribly sorry, love to help, but just can’t afford it.

If you’re looking for evidence that neither side of politics is up to much, you’ve just found some. I fear you’ll get more on Tuesday night.

Read more >>

Friday, May 10, 2024

The economy is just the means to an end. So, is it working?

We spend a lot of time hearing, reading and arguing about The Economy, and we’ll be doing a lot more of all that after we’ve seen Tuesday night’s federal budget.

But while we’re waiting, let’s take a moment to make sure we know what we’re talking about. What’s the economy for? How does it work? What does it do? Who owns it? Who runs it?

Why am I suddenly so deep and meaningful? Because Dr Shane Oliver, AMP’s chief economist, has written a note saying the economy doesn’t seem to be giving us what we want.

As individuals, it’s easy to think of the economy as something that’s outside ourselves, something that does things to us, over which we have little control.

As individuals, that’s true. But if you take us altogether, it’s not true. Why not? Because if you took all the people out of the economy, there wouldn’t be an economy. What’s more, you wouldn’t need one.

You’d be left with a lot of homes and other buildings, roads, cars and machines that had been abandoned, were just sitting there and so were worthless.

So, in that sense, the economy belongs to all of us because it is us. It’s most of us getting up each morning, going to work and earning a living, and all of us spending what’s been earnt.

Most of us have paid work, some of us do unpaid work, while some of us are still getting an education and others are too old or sick to work. But all of us consume.

So don’t think of the economy as high finance beyond your understanding. It’s actually as basic as you can get. This is why it’s important to remember the economy is just a means to an end.

At its most elemental, the end we’re seeking is for the economy to provide us with food, clothing and shelter, plus a few luxuries. But all of us want to do more than barely subsist. We want our lives to bring us enjoyment.

Economists say we want all our earning and spending to bring us “utility”. A better word would be satisfaction. But it’s no stretch to say what we want from our lives is happiness. And it’s on happiness that Oliver finds we aren’t doing as well as we should be.

All this is why the best way to think about the economy is that it belongs to all of us. Legally, however, most of the capital – whether physical or financial – is owned by companies, big and small. So most of us are employed by companies.

Where does government fit in? Apart from employing a lot of workers, it owns most of the roads and other public infrastructure. It makes the laws that limit what businesses (and the rest of us) are permitted to do and the way we do it.

Governments discourage some business activities and – as we’ve seen with the Albanese government’s recent announcements – seek to encourage others.

But the central bank also uses its control over short-term interest rates to “manage” the strength of the private sector’s total demand for goods and services, encouraging it when unemployment is high, and – as now – discouraging it when inflation is high.

As well, the federal government uses its budget – government spending on one side, taxes on the other – to discourage or encourage private demand. Hence, all the fuss next week.

But how are we, and other rich countries, going in our efforts to use our economic activity – earning and spending – to keep us happy and getting happier? Not well, according to Oliver’s research.

For Australia, he finds that, though our real annual gross domestic product per person has increased fairly steadily over the past 20 years, the average score we give ourselves on our satisfaction with our lives (as surveyed by the World Happiness Report) has actually been falling over the same period.

It’s a similar story for the United States, where its real GDP per person has risen steadily since 1946, while the proportion of Americans describing themselves as “very happy” has fallen slowly over most of that period.

In particular, he finds that younger people in the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand are the least happy age group. This is a major change from 20 years ago.

Why is this happening? We can all have our own theories, but I think the big mistake many of us – and certainly, most economists – make is to focus on improving our material standard of living: using our increasing income to buy bigger and better things. Homes, cars, smartphones, whatever.

Trouble is, our materialism puts us on a “hedonic treadmill”. We think buying a bit more stuff will make us happier and, at first, it does. But pretty soon the thrill wears off – we get used to our higher standard of living – and tell ourselves it’s actually the next new thing that will make us happy.

Many people use their pursuit of promotions and higher income to make them happier by raising their social status. But this, too, is a step up you can get used to. And, in any case, it’s a zero-sum game. If passing you on the status ladder makes me happier, why won’t being passed by me make you less happy?

Actually, as I explained in a book I wrote some years back, there’s a lot of evidence that what’s better at giving us lasting satisfaction is the quality of our relationships with partners, family and friends. Beats just buying more stuff or getting a promotion.

And while it’s true that the economy, and our small role in it, can be seen as just a means to an end, it turns out that “extrinsic” benefits – such as wanting to earn money because of the nice things it buys – aren’t as satisfying as “intrinsic” benefits: such as finding a job you enjoy doing, not just do for the money it brings.

Read more >>

Wednesday, May 8, 2024

When politicians talk of 'security', be on your guard

I doubt if you’re waiting with bated breath for next Tuesday night’s federal budget but, since it’s the big set-piece event of my year, I’ve started limbering up. I’ve set my bulldust detector to ping every time I see or hear the word “security”. May I suggest you do the same?

We’ve been hearing a lot of that word lately, particularly from Anthony Albanese and his treasurer, Jim Chalmers. It comes with many adjectives – energy security, food security and, of course, national security – and with many spooky euphemisms: risk, strategic, sensitive, critical and sovereign, not to mention the spookiest of them all, terrorism.

In Albanese’s landmark speech on A Future Made in Australia, he assured us that “strategic competition is a fact of life”. “Nations are drawing an explicit link between economic security and national security,” he told us.

“We must recognise there is a new and widespread willingness to make economic interventions on the basis of national interest and national sovereignty,” he said. His government would be guided by three principles, the second of which was that “we need to be more assertive in capitalising on our comparative advantages and building on sovereign capability in areas of national interest”.

His government would be “securing greater sovereignty over our resources and critical minerals”.

Indeed so. When Chalmers announced the government’s new foreign investment rules last week, they seemed to be all about security.

“By providing more clarity around sensitive sectors and assets,” Chalmers said, “our reforms will give businesses and investors greater certainty while safeguarding our national security.

“National security threats are increasing due to intensifying geopolitical competition and risks to Australia’s national interests from foreign investment have evolved at the same time as competition for global capital is becoming more intense.”

The reforms to our foreign investment rules would “boost economic prosperity and productivity, while strengthening our ability to protect the national interest in an increasingly complex economic and geostrategic environment.

“We are dedicating more resources to screening foreign investment in critical infrastructure, critical minerals, critical technology, those that involve sensitive data sets, and investment in close proximity to defence sites, to ensure that all risks are identified, understood and can be managed – balancing economic benefits and security risks,” Chalmers said.

And a bolstered foreign investment compliance team will use the minister’s “call-in power” to review investments that come to pose a national security concern.

My goodness. If you were the excitable type (which I’m not), you could wonder whether the economy’s being put on a war footing. Or maybe it’s that Treasury’s been taken over by Defence and Foreign Affairs. Or ASIO.

Of course, it may be that the government and its spooks know something terrible they’re not telling us. Perhaps some foreign enemy is, as we speak, preparing to do us in.

But if you’ve spent years studying the behaviour of politicians (which I have), you wonder if it’s something less life-threatening and more self-serving. Is there an election coming up, for instance? Do voters have complaints about the economy that you’d like to draw attention away from?

The independent economist Saul Eslake says that, as the government seeks to use “national security” and “economic security” as a rationale for a major shift in economic policy, two things concern him deeply.

First, the tendency to use “security” as a justification for a policy initiative opens the door to interventions that are, in the infamous phrase of former Treasury secretary Dr Ken Henry, “frankly, bad”. Decisions that, without the “security” label, wouldn’t pass muster.

Second, grounding a policy decision in “security” gives politicians an excuse to shut down any questioning of the justification for that decision.

“When governments say something is a matter of ‘national security’, they usually refuse to say why it is; that it would be wrong to allow grubby considerations of ‘cost and benefit’ to interfere with their judgments about ‘security’, or even that it is borderline unpatriotic to question a decision made on ‘security’ grounds,” Eslake says.

It’s not the first time Eslake has expressed such concerns. Here’s a quote from an article he wrote in this august organ in late 2011.

“If you want a government to do something that entitles you to some form of protection from competition (especially overseas competition), some kind of subsidy or tax break, or some other privilege not enjoyed by ordinary folk, but you know that your proposal wouldn’t pass any kind of rigorous, independent, arms-length scrutiny ... then your best chance of getting what you want is to succeed in portraying it as being somehow essential in order to enhance some form of ‘security’,” he wrote.

Sometimes I even wonder how AUKUS – the wisdom of which many defence experts quietly doubt – came about. How much of it was the Americans’ idea, and how much was ours?

What we do know is that, without any prior debate, Scott Morrison suddenly unveiled it as a fait accompli and great coup. Had Labor opposed it, we’d have been straight into a khaki election.

But Labor accepted it without demur and the costs or benefits we’ll discover over the next decade or two.

Read more >>

Monday, April 1, 2024

When funding healthcare, don't forget the caring bit

 It’s Easter, and we’ve got the day off. So let’s think about something different. As a community, we spend a fortune each year on health, mainly through governments. What has economics got to tell us about healthcare? And, since it’s Easter, what light has Christianity got to shed on how we fund healthcare?

One man who’s thought deeply on these questions is Dr Stephen Duckett, Australia’s leading health economist, whose career has included academia, running government health departments, and the Grattan Institute think tank. He’s now back in academia, at the University of Melbourne.

Duckett has long been a lay reader in the Anglican Church. He’s recently completed a doctorate in theology, awarded by the Archbishop of Canterbury. He’s turned his thesis into a book, Healthcare Funding and Christian Ethics, published by Cambridge University Press.

One way to run a hospital is to let the doctors and nurses do as they see fit until the money runs out but, for several decades, health economists’ advice has reshaped the health system, helping to ensure that the money available is spent in ways that do the most good to patients.

One definition of economics is that it’s the study of scarcity. We have infinite wants, but limited resources of land, labour and physical capital to achieve those wants. So we must carefully weigh the costs and benefits of the many things we’d like, so we end up choosing the particular combination of things that yields us the greatest “utility” (benefit) available.

Since there’s never enough money to spend on healthcare, hard decisions have to be made about what can be done and what can’t, what drugs should be subsidised and what can’t, who should be helped and who turned away.

Health economists analyse the cost-effectiveness of the various options to help governments and hospitals make their choices, working out the number of “quality-adjusted life years” each option would add.

The Scotsman called the father of modern economics, Adam Smith, saw it as a moral science but, as economists have striven to be more “rigorous” (which mainly means more mathematical) this touchy-feely stuff has fallen away.

Most economists see economics as amoral, that is, neither moral nor immoral; having nothing to say about moral issues. When it comes to means and ends, economists see themselves as sticking to means.

They’re saying: tell me what you want to do, and I’ll tell you the best way to achieve it. That’s what they say; it’s not always what they do.

Economics is based on utilitarianism: seeking the greatest good for the greatest number. But this ignores the question of “equity”: how fairly the benefits are shared. Are some getting a lot while others miss out?

Duckett says: “Economics’ assumption that humans are simply individual units, de-emphasising community, and [economics’] ubiquitous use in policymaking, comes at a cost, as Homo economicus [the self-interested, rational calculator that economists assume us to be] crowds out other manifestations of what it is to be human.”

Economists often say they have no expertise on equity and the community, so they leave that to others – such as the politicians. Economists often claim that economics is “objective” and “value-free”.

But Duckett says it’s not simple. By ignoring issues you’re implying that they don’t matter. And you’re making implicit assumptions that are value-laden.

For instance, if a cost-effectiveness study does not explicitly highlight the distribution of costs and benefits [how unequally they are shared between people], it is implicitly conveying the message that the distribution is not a relevant issue.

If nursing home funding allows money ostensibly allocated for care to be leached out as extra returns to the owners, then quality is assumed to be not a concern of those doing the funding.

If a system design places a higher monetary reward on cosmetic surgery intended solely to improve appearance compared to the monetary reward for caring for older patients and people with mental illness, this sends a signal about the value placed on care for the marginalised.

Duckett says that, because decisions about public policy inherently involve value choices, health economics becomes a “moral science” whether economists like it or not. What’s true, however, is that economics is not well-equipped to determine issues such as what should be society’s priorities, what value should be place on unfettered choice, and the value to place on ensuring no one is left behind.

This is where Christian ethics has a contribution to make, a contribution that, except on matters of sexual morality, doesn’t differ much from the views of the aggressively secular philosopher Professor Peter Singer and, no doubt, many other Western ethicists.

Duckett offers a “theology of healthcare funding” based on Christ’s parable of the Good Samaritan. As I hope you remember, a man was travelling to Jericho when he was set upon by robbers, who left him naked and bleeding by the road.

Two separate religious figures passed by him on the road without stopping to help. But a Samaritan saw him and “was moved with pity”. He bandaged his wounds, put him on his donkey and took him to an inn, where he paid the innkeeper in advance to look after him, promising to come back and pay for any extra expense.

From this parable Duckett derives three principles that should guide health economists in the advice they give on healthcare funding.

The three are: compassion (shown by the behaviour of the Samaritan), social justice (everyone included and treated equally; shown by the identity of the Samaritan, a race despised by the Jews) and stewardship (shown by the innkeeper, who was trusted to care for the traveller and to spend the Samaritan’s money wisely).

Compassion must involve feeling leading to doing. It must involve helping people other than yourself. So health economics must be less impersonal, remembering the flesh and blood behind the statistics and calculations. Any funding arrangement must allow time for workers to care for patients in a compassionate way.

The Christian ethic is that social justice is not simply about fairness for atomised individuals, but also the person as part of a community, something economists tend to forget. Archbishop Desmond Tutu has said “a person is a person through other people . . . I am human because I belong. I participate, I share.”

“Christian contributions to the public square need to challenge policy ‘solutions’ that rely on individuals pulling themselves up by their own bootstraps, victim-blaming approaches, and a narrow definition of [who is my] ‘neighbour’,” Duckett says.

As for stewardship, it’s the easy bit. It’s the Christian word for what economists already know about: making sure that other people’s money is spent carefully, and their property is looked after. It’s being efficient.

But the Christian contribution to what health economists do is to make sure stewardship is kept in tension with the other two principles. “Austerity does not mean that compassion and social justice can be ignored, or distributional consequences [for the rich and the poor] can be erased from consideration.

Read more >>

Wednesday, March 27, 2024

What a way to start Easter - a plan to smash the nest-egg

Most of us are too young to see it, but a big way the federal government affects our lives is through its system of compulsory superannuation. As you get older and retirement becomes a lot less distant, you begin to realise that the rules of super – and successive governments’ tinkering with those rules – will have a significant impact on the up to 30 years of your life after you stop working.

When the age pension was introduced more than a century ago, many men didn’t live long enough to reach the age of eligibility, 65. But our greater prosperity, improvements in public health and advances in medical science have changed all that.

Although the age of pension eligibility – for women as well as men – has been raised to 67, and no doubt will reach 70 one day, our longevity has increased by more, making it possible, particularly for women, to live up to 30 years in retirement.

But the introduction of compulsory super in the early 1990s now means that people retiring after about 2030 will do so with so much super that their eligibility for the age pension will be between limited and non-existent.

Since the introduction of that new system, almost every government has changed it. Why? Because the new compulsory system was bolted onto an old voluntary system of tax concessions that proved to be far too generous to high-income earners and too mean to lower-income earners.

Everyone knows the age pension costs the government a lot of money. What many don’t realise is that the tax concessions attached to super contributions and to the subsequent earnings on those contributions also cost the government a lot in the form of income tax collections forgone.

So, all the super changes since those made by the Howard government in 2007 (which gave well-off Baby Boomers like me a huge free kick) have aimed to reduce super’s cost to the budget by reducing the tax breaks going to high earners.

Take my word, there’ll be many similarly motivated changes to come. Those made last year by Treasurer Jim Chalmers won’t be the last.

One way to limit the budgetary cost of super is to stress that its sole purpose is to provide people with enough money to live comfortably in retirement. What it’s not meant to be used for is letting people maximise their children’s inheritance (thus widening the gap between rich and poor).

Trouble is, the compulsory super system is designed to deliver people a lump sum of money upon their retirement for them to use as they choose. It’s easy to see this lump sum as your nest-egg, the amount you’ve saved over a lifetime of working.

If so, surely it’s up to me and my spouse to decide how much of that sum we choose to spend on living expenses and how much we choose to leave for our kids? I’m sure many people think the right thing to do is to live as much as possible on the interest and other earnings from the lump sum so the principal can be passed on largely intact.

This is where a proposal of two economists from the Australian National University, professors Andrew Podger and Robert Breunig, comes in.

But first, one insight of “behavioural” economics, borrowed from psychology, is that people can react very differently to the same circumstances, depending on how they’re packaged or, as the psychologists say, “framed”. It’s been shown that surgeons much prefer a 90 per cent success rate to a 10 per cent failure rate.

This, of course, is spin doctoring 101. Reminds me of the story about the bloke who invented death insurance. Didn’t sell many policies until he changed the name to life insurance.

Podger and Breunig remembered that, in the days before compulsory super, it was limited mainly to public servants who ended up with a lifetime pension, most of which could be passed on to a surviving spouse. It never occurred to them that super had anything to do with inheritance.

So, if you want to stop people with super payouts using them (and all the tax concessions that contribute so much to their size) as a vehicle for enriching their kids, why not move to a system where people are encouraged to use their lump sum to buy a lifetime pension.

The amount of the pension would be determined by the size of the lump sum. Some people scrimp and save in retirement because they can’t know when they’ll die, and they’re not sure their money will last the distance.

One great attraction of a lifetime pension is that it shifts this “longevity risk” onto the provider of the pension.

In the jargon of high finance, such a pension is called an “annuity”. You can buy annuities today, but most are for fixed periods, and they’re not popular. To make them more attractive, they’d have to be for life, and this would require them to be backed by the government.

Don’t shake your head. It could happen.

Read more >>

Monday, March 18, 2024

The budget is rent-seekers central

Last week we got a reminder that, among its many functions, the federal budget is the repository of all the successful rent-seeking by the nation’s many business and other special interest groups. Unfortunately, it added to the evidence that the Albanese government knows what it should do to manage the economy better, but lacks the courage to do more than a little.

Rent-seeking involves industries and others lobbying the government for special treatment in the form of grants, tax breaks or regulatory arrangements that make it hard for new businesses to enter their market or protect them from competition in other ways.

Whenever that rent-seeking involves grants or tax concessions it weighs on the budget. Decades of continuous rent-seeking weigh hugely on every year’s budget, limiting the government’s ability to ensure every dollar of taxpayers’ money is spent to great effect in benefiting all Australians.

For example, a big lump of the feds’ spending on education is devoted to achieving the Howard government’s goal of enhancing parents’ choice of which school to send their kids to. When the callithumpians decide to build their own schools, so their children can be educated without contamination by people of other religions, the federal taxpayer coughs up.

That all this spending on choice leaves the great majority of kids attending public schools that aren’t adequately funded is just an unfortunate occurrence, which we may get around to fixing if we ever have any spare dollars looking for a home.

What you certainly couldn’t do is cut back the money you’re giving the callithumpians. They’d kick up the devil of a fuss and start telling their followers not to vote for you.

When rent-seeking leads governments to make grants to special interest groups, the details of this spending are there to be found in the bowels of the budget papers. Where it leads to some activities getting special tax breaks, Treasury attempts to keep track of these “tax expenditures” in an annual statement.

When it comes to extracting rents from governments, few industries or occupations are better at it than the medical specialists. (That’s not true of the GPs, however. Their Medicare rebates were frozen for years, as part of the former Coalition government’s pretence that it could cut taxes while in no way harming the provision of essential public services.)

Some years ago, a Labor government decided to cut back the Medicare rebate for cataract surgery because advances in technology now meant a surgeon could perform far more operations in a day.

The rest of the medical profession knew what a rort it had become but, under the ethical principle of dog doesn’t eat dog – or maybe, honour among thieves – they stood silent while their eye-surgeon brethren fought dirty to protect their swollen incomes.

They pretended the sky was falling, telling their elderly patients the wicked government had left them no alternative to charging them thousands more in out-of-pocket payments. If their elderly patient didn’t think this was fair, perhaps they might like to have a word with their local federal member, saying how terrible it was to have their lovely doctor treated so badly.

Predictably, the government backed off and the rorting continued.

Last week it was the turn of the chemists. Few industries are so heavily regulated by state and federal governments, all with a view to protecting pharmacists’ incomes. There are limits on how many chemists may set up within an area and, in particular, prohibitions on supermarkets having pharmaceutical sections.

Anthony Albanese and his government have made much of the way their introduction of 60-day medicine prescriptions – as recommended by an expert committee – has saved patients money and helped ease the cost-of-living crisis.

But hang on. Surely, that means chemists receiving fewer dispensing fees from the government? This evil must be opposed. Enter a union more powerful than any workers’ union, the Pharmacy Guild. This iniquity will see shortages of medicine and hundreds of chemists closing down across the land, it assured us.

The government fought back, refuting the talk of shortages and revealing figures showing a surge in applications for new pharmacies in the months following the announcement of the prescription change.

It had already promised to plough back into pharmacies the $1.2 billion it expected to save on dispensing fees. But the guild claimed pharmacies’ losses would be $4.5 billion, and last week the guild negotiated a new deal, which would see the government pouring a further $3 billion into pharmacies over five years.

Also last week, we saw the government releasing the report of the aged care taskforce, chaired by Aged Care Minister Anika Wells, calling for the well-off elderly to contribute more to the cost of their own care.

What was the problem? Wells spelled it out in a speech last June: “We must act now. The Baby Boomers are coming … We are going to need a fair and equitable system to meet the needs of Baby Boomers who, with their numbers and determination to solve problems, have shaken every single system they’ve come across.”

The report argued for the present mechanism used to get more from the better-off, the refundable accommodation deposit, to be replaced by a rental-only system.

But it called for the deposit system to be phased out over five years, and postponed the proposed start of the phase-out to 2030. With all its talk of “grandfathering” – applying the changes only to new entrants to the system – it remains to be seen how keen Albo & co are to take on the entitled Baby Boomers.

Finally last week, the Commonwealth Grants Commission’s carve-up of the proceeds from the goods and services tax for the next financial year was announced, bringing a bad shock for NSW and Queensland, and good news for Victoria and the other states and territories.

It was an unwelcome reminder of the separate, but related, special deal then-treasurer Scott Morrison awarded the West Australians in 2018. So great was the uproar from the other states that they were promised more money to ensure the sandgropers’ special deal left the others “no worse off”.

Meaning? That the West Australians’ successful rent-seeking is costing federal taxpayers from other states a bundle in forgone federal spending.

As the independent economist (and proud Tasmanian) Saul Eslake never tires of demonstrating, the Westies had less than zero grounds for arguing that they were getting a bad deal from the carve-up formula.

The grants commission was set up in the 1930s in response to their congenital paranoia that the rest of Australia was having a lend of them. For as long as they were classed as a “mendicant” state cross-subsidised by Victoria and NSW, they were happy.

But from the moment the growth of their mining industry was so great that they were required to join Victoria and NSW in helping maintain the quality of government services in the other states, it suddenly became yet another plot by those “over east” to do them down.

So, here’s the moral of the story for our weak-kneed federal politicians on both sides. Once you give in to rent-seekers, you’re gone. They won’t give up their ill-gotten gains without a massive, vote-losing fight.

Meanwhile, everyone else wonders why, despite the huge sums you’re raising in taxes, the quantity and quality of the services you’re providing is so poor.

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Monday, March 4, 2024

Contrary to appearances, the stage 3 tax cuts will leave us worse off

It’s time we stopped kidding ourselves about the looming tax cuts. They’re what you get when neither of the two big parties is game to make real tax reforms, and the best they can do is lumber us with yet another failed attempt to wedge the other side.

If you want real reform, vote for the minor parties, which may be able to use their bargaining power in the Senate to get something sensible put through.

The stage 3 tax cuts always were irresponsible, and still are. They’ve caused interest rates to be raised by more than they needed to be, and they’ll leave us with substandard government services, as well as plunging us back into deficit and debt.

Only an irresponsible (Coalition) government would commit themselves to making a huge tax cut of a specified shape more than six years ahead of an unknowable future, hoping they could trick Labor into making itself an easy political target by opposing them.

Back then, the Libs thought the budget was returning to continuing surpluses. Wrong. They didn’t think there’d be a pandemic. Wrong. They had no idea it would be followed by an inflation surge and a cost-of-living crisis.

Only an irresponsible (Labor) opposition would go along with legislating the tax cuts five years ahead of time, then promise not to change them should it win the 2022 election.

Let’s be clear. Just because Prime Minister Anthony Albanese’s changes made the tax cuts less unfair, that doesn’t make them good policy. And just because many families, hard-pressed by the cost-of-living crisis, will be pleased to have the relief the tax cuts bring, that doesn’t mean the tax cuts are now good policy.

Don’t be misled by the Reserve Bank’s acceptance of Albanese’s claim that his changes would not add to inflation. Any $20 billion-a-year tax cut is a huge stimulus to demand, imparting further upward pressure on prices.

All the Reserve was saying was that diverting a lump of the tax cut from high-income earners to middle and low earners wouldn’t make much difference to the degree of stimulus. Why wasn’t it worried about a $20 billion inflationary stimulus? Because it had known it was coming for years, and had already taken account of it, increasing interest rates sufficiently to counter its future inflationary effect.

Get it? Had there been no huge tax cut in the offing, interest rates would now be lower than they are, and causing less cost-of-living pain.

As the Grattan Institute’s Brendan Coates and Kate Griffiths have reminded us, the big loser from the stage 3 tax cuts – whether the original or the revised version – is the budget.

The budget has done surprisingly well from the return to full employment, the effect of continuing high commodity prices on miners’ payments of company tax and from wage inflation’s effect on bracket creep. So much so that it returned to a healthy surplus last financial year. It may well stay in surplus this financial year.

Great. But next year it’s likely to return to deficit and stay there for the foreseeable future. Why? Because we can’t afford to give ourselves a $20 billion annual tax cut at this time. As if we didn’t have enough debt already, we’ll be borrowing to pay for our tax cut.

In theory, of course, we could pay for it with a $20 billion-a-year cut in government spending. But, as the Coalition was supposed to have learnt in 2014 – when voters reacted badly to its plans for big spending cuts, and it had to drop them post-haste – this is a pipe dream.

No, in truth, what voters are demanding is more spending, not less. The previous government went for years using fair means or foul – robo-debt, finding excuses to suspend people’s dole payments, neglecting aged care, allowing waiting lists to build up – to hold back government spending as part of its delusional claim to be able to reduce taxes.

As Dr Mike Keating, a former top econocrat, has said, we keep forgetting that the purpose of taxation is to pay for the services that our society demands, and which are best financed collectively.

So when we award ourselves a tax cut we can’t afford, the first thing we do is condemn ourselves to continuing unsatisfactory existing services, and few of the additional services we need.

Those additional services include education – from early education to university – healthcare, childcare, aged care, disability care and defence. (Another thing the Libs didn’t foresee in 2018: our desperate need to acquire nuclear subs.)

But don’t hold your breath waiting for any politician from either major party to explain that home truth to the punters. No, much better to keep playing the crazy game where the Libs unceasingly claim to be the party of “lower, simpler and fairer taxes” and Labor says “I’ll see you and raise you”.

Anyone who knows the first thing about tax reform knows that achieving that trifecta is impossible. But if the Liberal lightweights realise how stupid repeating that nonsense makes them seem to the economically literate, they don’t care.

All they know is that the punters lap up that kind of self-delusion. Which, of course, is why Labor never calls them out on their nonsense.

The other thing we do by pressing on with tax cuts we can’t afford is sign up for more deficits and debt. Coates and Griffiths remind us that the high commodity prices the budget is benefitting from surely can’t last forever.

If you exclude this temporary benefit, Grattan estimates that we’re running a “structural” budget deficit of close to 2 per cent of gross domestic product, or about $50 billion a year in today’s dollars.

We’re ignoring it now, but one day we’ll have to at least start covering the extra interest we’ll be paying. How? By increasing taxes. How else? Ideally, we’d introduce new taxes that improved our economic efficiency or the system’s fairness. Far more likely, we’ll just be given back less bracket creep.

It’s the pollies’ bipartite policy of not stopping bracket creep by indexing the income tax scales each year that makes their unceasing talk of lower tax so dishonest and hypocritical. They’ve demonised all new taxes or overt increases in existing taxes, while keeping bracket creep hidden in their back pocket.

Which is not to argue we must eradicate it. Most of the tax reform we’ve had – notably, the introduction of the goods and services tax – has come with the political sweetener of a big, bracket-creep-funded cut in income tax. (Would-be reformers, please note.)

Another name for bracket creep is “automatic stabiliser”. When spending is growing strongly and inflation pressure is building, bracket creep is one of the budget’s main instruments working automatically to help restrain demand by causing people’s after-tax income to rise by a lower percentage than their pre-tax income.

The pollies can’t just let bracket creep roll on for forever. You have to use the occasional tax cut to return some of the proceeds. But July 2024 turned out to be quite the wrong time to do it.

So even if the Reserve starts to cut interest rates towards the end of this year, the tax cuts mean rates will stay higher for longer than they needed to.

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Wednesday, February 28, 2024

Paying for the cowpat sandwich Morrison handed Albo

It never pays to be too sorry for politicians. They’re all volunteers, they’re well paid for what they do, and even the nicest of them have thrust themselves ahead of many others to get as far as they have.

But I can’t help feeling a bit sorry for Anthony Albanese. He got himself elected by promising not to change much, but I doubt he expected to be handed quite such a cowpat sandwich from the smirking Scott Morrison.

As part of his efforts to prove he could keep taxes lower than Labor, Morrison avoided fixing anything much and allowed waiting lists to build up. Now everywhere Albo and his ministers look, they find problems.

These problems will be expensive to fix. This week it’s Education Minister Jason Clare’s turn in the spotlight. The final report on the Universities Accord, which was released on Sunday, reveals plenty that needs fixing.

For openers, the previous government’s job-ready graduates scheme has been a disaster. Under the guise of encouraging students to pick courses that left them job-ready, it cut fees for teaching and nursing, while more than doubling the fees for such courses as arts and humanities, including economics and law.

As the experts predicted, this had little effect on the courses chosen. But it did have its intended effect: saving the government money. One expert suggests that returning tuition fees to something more reasonable could cost the government about $1 billion a year.

The report recommends that the fees for particular courses be set according to the expected lifetime earnings of someone with that degree. Good idea.

I’ve always been happy to defend the HECS-HELP debt scheme as a way of getting people to contribute towards the cost of their education. With repayments geared to the size of their income, and an interest rate far below commercial levels, it should not deter youngsters from poor families from attempting to better themselves.

But unsympathetic governments have fiddled with the scheme incessantly, and with the (hopefully brief) return to high inflation, it’s not surprising Gen Z is so dissatisfied. But Clare seems disposed towards the tweaks the report proposes.

Annual indexation of the debt would occur after deducting the year’s repayments, rather than before. The debt would be indexed to the lower of the rise in consumer prices or the wage index. And the rates at which repayments were required would be applied to successive slices of your income, just as income tax is applied.

There are shortages of workers with various tertiary qualifications at the moment, and the report sees the demand continuing to grow. At present, about 60 per cent of workers have trade or degree qualifications, and we need to reach at least 80 per cent by 2050, the report says. This would involve more than doubling the number of Commonwealth-supported students each year to 1.8 million.

Clare worries that not enough disadvantaged young people are making it to – and through – uni. (Let me tell you, people have been worrying about this at least since Gough Whitlam’s day. And even making university free didn’t help much.)

At present, people from poor families – those of “low socio-economic status” in academic-speak – account for about 17 per cent of enrolments, compared with 25 per cent of the population. Other target groups are First Nations peoples, people with a disability and people living in regional and remote areas.

The report proposes that uni students’ places be funded on a needs basis, similar to Gonski’s scheme for schools. Unis would receive a base amount per student, plus further loadings according to the particular students’ disadvantage.

This would mean regional and outer-suburban unis got a lot more funding per student than the sandstone central-city Group of Eight. But the extra money would be used to reduce the chances of disadvantaged students failing to complete their course for monetary or other reasons.

There would be fee-free courses to prepare chosen students for the rigours of university learning, and financial support for students required to undertake presently unpaid work placements.

It all sounds a big improvement. Quite apart from fairness, it’s clear that the higher the proportion of young people the government wants with a uni degree, the more it will need to include people from disadvantaged backgrounds.

But note this: none of these good ideas has been costed, let alone accepted by the Albanese government. We don’t know whether those that are accepted will start in this year’s budget or in 10 years’ time.

As for Gonski-like arrangements, the real Gonski needs-based funding for schools has still not been fully implemented more than 12 years later.

Let me quote Clare back at himself: “We’re not going to tackle this problem if we think that we can solve all the problems at the door of the university when someone turns 18.”

Just so. With education, it’s best to start at the bottom and work up. But we won’t solve many of our multitude of problems until some pollie has the courage to say maybe we need taxes to be higher, not lower.

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Monday, February 26, 2024

Two-class school system a great way to entrench low productivity

In 2011, the Gonski report recommended that government funding of schools be needs-based and sector-blind. More than 12 years later, it still hasn’t happened. And it’s by no means certain it will happen any time soon.

The idea of sector-blind schooling – funding all students according to their needs, rather than their religion – fell at the first hurdle. Sectarianism has bedevilled attempts to ensure all our kids get a decent education since the introduction of compulsory schooling in 1880.

And so fearful of the religious vote are both major parties that this time’s been no different. Providing adequate funding for the more disadvantaged kids congregated in public schools could have been a simple matter of redistributing money from privileged private schools, but no.

Former prime minister Julia Gillard was straight out of the blocks, promising that private schools would be left no worse off. That is, disadvantaged kids would be helped only to the extent that extra money could be found for education, at the expense of all the government’s other responsibilities.

So the private schools – almost all of them professing some religious affiliation – have retained their funding priority. It used to be a matter of Catholics and Protestants but, thanks to the Howard government’s introduction of a new education priority – giving parents greater choice of which school to send their kids to – it’s now also a matter of Jewish schools, Muslim schools, “Christian” schools (code for the smaller non-conformist Protestant denominations) and soon, no doubt, Hindu schools and Buddhist schools.

If you wonder why the eternal enmities of the Middle East are echoed in faraway Australia, that’s part of the reason. “Choice” is a nice idea but, from the taxpayers’ perspective, it comes at a cost. Public schooling used to be part of the way we could be multicultural and still socially cohesive.

Now we’re paying more for it to be less so. Now, if you choose to have your kid grow up never having rubbed shoulders with people of other religions, that’s another service the taxpayer provides.

Except that it involves a monetary cost we’re reluctant to pay, and our politicians are reluctant to make us pay. How to square the circle? I know, let’s short-change the (majority of) kids still going to public schools.

But not to worry. The more things keep going the way they are, the fewer kids will be left going to public schools and the less the pollies will have to worry about the raw deal they’re getting.

We’ll have more kids leaving education with inadequate numeracy and literacy, of course, but who’ll notice that – or the extra cost to the budget – when we’ll all be so busy listening to the Business Council giving yet another sermon on the pressing need to reverse our declining productivity by cutting the company tax rate.

The beauty of a new plan to have most kids going to private schools – whether their parents can afford it or not – while only the kids of the rock-bottom poor are still going to public schools is that it’s self-reinforcing.

The more the better-paid and better-educated shift their children to private schools, the more those who are left will scrimp and save to join them.

And don’t forget this: public schooling is the default setting. One of the ways private schools maintain their reputation for greater discipline is to decline students with special needs, and expel students who cause too much trouble.

The public schools have no choice but to pick up the rejects. This wouldn’t be such a problem if they were given the extra funds needed to cope with the extra problems. But depend on it: they won’t be. This will give parents even greater incentive to get their kids out of there.

The plan does have a big drawback, however. No parent ever wants to admit it but, for many of them, a great attraction of private schooling is the greater social status it confers on the parents, as well as the old-school-tie benefits it confers on the kids.

Economists see education as a prime example of a “positional good” – a product that advertises to the world your high position in the pecking order. Trouble is, social status requires exclusivity. The more kids pile into private schooling, the less exclusive it becomes.

Economists say the demand for a good or service is “inelastic” if a rise in its price does little to deter people from buying it. As a positional good, the demand for private schooling is highly inelastic.

This explains why, not content with the big government subsidies they receive, the oldest and most famous private schools can charge parents huge fees on the top. Their fees rise faster than the inflation rate year after year, even in years of a cost-of-living crisis.

It may be that, the more parents pile into the cheaper Catholic systemic and other private schools, the more the elite private schools have to raise their fees to retain their exclusivity – their status as a positional good.

And, of course, the higher their fees, the more desirous status-seeking parents are to be seen paying them. Only the Reserve Bank’s ability to print its own money beats that. Remind me, why exactly is the taxpayer subsidising elite private schools?

Economists also say education is a “superior” good, meaning that the higher people’s real incomes rise, to more of that income they’re willing to spend on the product. In theory, people are buying more education or higher quality education.

But I have a theory that two-income families are more likely to choose private school education to prove to themselves their kids aren’t missing out. If so, they’re victims of a rarely remarked economic fallacy: anything that costs more must be of higher quality.

Fallacious though such thinking may be, the rise of the two-income family helps explain the shift to private schools and suggests it has further to run. Yet another reason to question why the federal government is propping up private schools at the expense of public schools.

Since Gonski, the feds have calculated the “schooling resource standard”, an estimate of how much total government funding a school needs to meet its students’ educational needs. The previous federal government’s agreement with the states required it to contribute 80 per cent of the private schools’ standard, with the states contributing the remaining 20 per cent.

For public schools, it was the reverse: the states pay 80 per cent, while the feds pay 20 per cent. Since the feds’ taxing powers are far greater than the states’, this deal had an inbuilt bias in favour of private schools.

As it’s worked out in practice, almost all private schools are fully funded, with many being overfunded, whereas almost all public schools are still underfunded, more than 12 years since Gonski.

The Albanese government’s Education Minister Jason Clare is renegotiating the funding agreement with the state education ministers, who met with him on Friday. They’re demanding that he hasten the public schools’ achievement of full funding by raising the feds’ contribution to 25 per cent.

You’d expect a Labor government to care about public school students getting a decent education. We’ll soon find out if it does.

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Monday, February 19, 2024

Lest we forget the unknown public servant, working to inform us

Have you ever wondered how much taxpayers’ money is wasted by our politicians and public servants? Do you hope that every dollar governments spend is fully accounted for?

And would you like it to be made public not just how much was spent on public servants’ wages, rent, grants, paperclips and other administrative expenses, but how much was being spent on each of the individual programs within education, health, police, courts, roads and all the other government departments?

Better yet, would you like to see what were the outcomes of all that spending on this program and that? That is, hard evidence on whether they were achieving their stated purpose, and by how much things were getting better or worse.

You don’t have to be keen personally to spend hours poring over the books to believe that such information must be made available for others to study: the government’s auditor-general, of course, but also the opposition, the media, nosey investigative reporters, academic experts, and even the special interest groups.

I’m pleased to tell you that all those things you’ve just agreed we need are being provided. But I need to remind you that 40 years ago, they weren’t.

In those days, government financial reports – state and federal – were a dog’s breakfast of facts and figures. If you were able to form a conclusion from them, it would probably have been wrong.

The accounts concealed about as much as they revealed. This was partly because no one had made the effort to make them more reliable and informative. And partly because this laxity made it easier for bureaucrats and politicians to fudge the figures, making things look better than they were.

But we’ve had much improvement since those bad old days. Many people have played a part in this reform, and much has happened under pressure from professional accounting bodies, the International Monetary Fund and the UN Statistical Commission.

But if you were to single out one person who drove most of the many improvements over many years, it would be Don Nicholls.

Never heard of him? That’s the way he wanted it. He was a shy, self-effacing Treasury officer, who wore a cardigan in the office and always ate a long pink iced bun for lunch. He joined the NSW Treasury straight from school in 1948, he retired in 1990, and he has just died, at 93.

If he sounds boring, know this: when he told his first wife, a writer, that writing seemed easy, she challenged him to enter the SMH short story writing competition. He won it with a story about cricket.

Some people assume only second-class minds join the public service. They’re wrong, and never more so than in Nicholls’ case. He went to a selective school, Fort Street High (one of two I went to), gained an economics degree and an accounting qualification while working and, a year after he retired, he published the tome Managing State Finance, which became the Treasury bible.

Many public servants are intent on ensuring things are done the way they always have been, but Nicholls had a strategic mind and was always thinking of ways things could be improved.

These days, all the states produce multiple performance indicators for their many activities, on a uniform basis, collated and reported annually by the federal Productivity Commission.

Nicholls introduced “program budgeting” to Australian government accounting, and he also consolidated the NSW government’s accounts so they showed the “general government” sector separately from all the businesses it owned, plus a balance sheet outlining the state’s assets and liabilities. Money hidden from view in “special deposit accounts” was brought into the open.

Before Nicholls, the government didn’t even know the value of all the buildings, businesses and land it owned. Since the year dot, businesses have used “accrual” accounting to accurately match the amount they earned during a year with their expenses during that year.

It wasn’t introduced to state and federal government accounting until about 2000. Nicholls played a big part in this, insisting on uniform rules for the measurement of budget deficits and surpluses. (Federal Treasury, however, has stuck with the old “cash” accounting, so it can still fudge the figures.)

Nicholls’ influence spread throughout Australia because he was asked to conduct separate independent audits of the finances of the NSW, Victorian, Tasmanian and South Australian governments. He was, for a time, Victoria’s Treasury secretary.

A lot more Australians are indebted to his influence than they know.

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