Showing posts with label inequality. Show all posts
Showing posts with label inequality. Show all posts

Saturday, August 24, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

If the government simply ordered the Reserve to credit people’s bank accounts, that would be “printing money” and highly unconventional. Again, don’t hold your breath.
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Wednesday, November 14, 2018

The price we pay for funding schools based on religion

You can tell we’ve had generational change among our federal leaders when the latest prime minister through the revolving door knows to pronounce the “d” in congratulations. No doubt he’ll have many impordant things to say to us.

So far, the message seems to be that he’s just an ordinary, fair dinkum, baseball cap-wearing, pie-eating, beer-swilling kinda guy. Egalitarianism is back and Jack is as good as his prime minister.

Or maybe not. A great disappointment with the Coalition government is the failure of its attempt to have a second run at the Gonski reforms proposing needs-based, sector-blind funding of schools.

Gonski was our chance to do something other countries did decades ago: remove sectarianism from federal and state funding of schools. To stop determining how much government funding a child receives according to the religious affiliation (or lack of it) of the school attended. Need should be the only criterion, regardless of religion.

Julia Gillard threw a lot of taxpayers’ money at the reform to avoid conflict with non-government schools, but couldn’t pull it off. She ended up doing side deals with the Catholic schools and other groups.

Malcolm Turnbull’s reworking of Gonski seemed to be more principled, but the Catholic hierarchy kept the pressure up – we want to share the money our way, not your way – and the government buckled. The Catholics got their special deal and the (mainly Protestant) independent schools got something similar to stop them kicking up.

What a country we live in. We can happily agree to same-sex marriage, but when Catholics put the frighteners on, politicians on both sides get weak-kneed.

Some relevant information has just arrived from Paris. A report from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development has used its PISA worldwide testing of 15-year-olds on maths, reading and science to assess progress on Equity in Education.

Prime ministers love boasting about our economy’s high standing in the world, so how about this: Australia now has the equal-fourth most socially stratified education system among the OECD’s 35 member-countries.

Only Mexico, Hungary and Chile can claim to have a more social class-segregated school system than ours. For a country that still likes to think of itself as class-free, that’s quite an achievement.

The report classifies students according to their parents’ socio-economic status, taking account of economic, social and cultural factors. Socio-economically disadvantaged students are those in the bottom 25 per cent of students in their country. Socio-economically advantaged students are those in the top 25 per cent.

Similarly, socio-economically disadvantaged schools are those in the bottom 25 per cent of the distribution of schools, based on the average status of their students.

If all schools perfectly reflected the socio-economic composition of the total population, each school would have 25 per cent of students in the disadvantaged category, 25 per cent in the advantaged category and the rest in between.

Of course, no country’s schools are anything like that lacking in social stratification. In Australia, however, the proportion of disadvantaged students attending disadvantaged schools is not 25 per cent, but double that: 51 per cent.

By contrast, the proportion of disadvantaged students attending advantaged schools is not 25 per cent, but 4.6 per cent.

The report also measures the change in the proportion of disadvantaged kids in disadvantaged schools between 2006 and 2015.

On average, it fell a fraction, with 22 countries improving and 13 getting worse. Another international distinction for Morrison to boast about: we won silver with a worsening of 5.2 percentage points. Only the Czechs did worse.

But why does it matter if our schools become more socio-economically stratified?

It matters because, on average, disadvantaged students attending disadvantaged schools don’t do as well as they would if they attended advantaged schools.

Such students face a double disadvantage: one coming from their parents’ circumstances and another from the less conducive learning environment at school.

Trevor Cobbold, of Save Our Schools, says information published by the OECD in June shows disadvantaged schools (95 per cent of which happen to be public schools) have more students per teacher, more teacher shortages, more teacher absenteeism and more poorly qualified teachers.

It matters because it helps show the price we’re paying for decades of funding schools on the basis of religion rather than need. The Kiwis stopped doing that ages ago, and they have the fourth lowest proportion of disadvantaged students at disadvantaged schools.

It matters if you don’t want what we’ve got: a yawning gap between our strongest students and our weakest.

It matters because it has broader implications for society. “Social segregation in schools breeds social intolerance in communities and workplaces and undermines social understanding and cohesion,” Cobbold says.

“Schools segregated by class make it more difficult for children to develop a real understanding of people of different backgrounds and to break down barriers of social intolerance.”

And then we wonder why politics is getting more polarised.

Of course, many factors besides schools are contributing to the growing social stratification of our cities. But schools are something we can influence by adopting better policies.

And if you believe in equality of opportunity, the first thing you fix is schooling. As the OECD says, “children from poor families often have just one chance in life, and that is a good school that gives them an opportunity to develop their potential.

“Those who miss that boat rarely catch up.”
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Saturday, September 1, 2018

Inequality not as great as claimed, worse than others admit

This week the Productivity Commission issued a “stocktake of the evidence” on inequality in Australia. Its findings will surprise you. But it wasn’t as even-handed as it should have been.

Its report forcefully dispels the myths of the Left – that inequality is great and rapidly worsening – but is much more sotto voce in telling the Right there’s still a problem and that the reason it’s not as bad as some think is that governments have taken corrective actions the Right usually disapproves of.

This has allowed the conservative commentators of the national press to greet the report with great glee. One in the eye for their ideological opponents. Inequality? Nothing to see here.

The report looks at three different measures of economic inequality – the distribution of income, consumption and wealth – over a long period: the 27 years from 1988-89 to 2015-16. It focuses on the experience of households rather than individuals, and eliminates the effect of inflation.

The report concludes that inequality has risen only slightly over the period. Measured by the Gini coefficient – where zero means perfect equality and 1 means one household has everything – the distributions of both income and consumption have risen slightly.

The distribution of household wealth (mainly owner-occupied housing and superannuation savings) is most unequal of the three. It, too, has become a bit more unequal over the period.

But, particularly for income, inequality increased during the resources boom of the mid-noughties, then decreased in the years following the global financial crisis of 2008.

Over the 27 years, the disposable income of all households rose at an average rate of about 2.2 per cent a year in real terms.

The annual incomes of households in every decile (10 per cent group), from the bottom to the top, increased. It won’t surprise you that average incomes in the top two deciles rose by more than the economy-wide average. The top decile’s average income rose by more than 2.5 per cent a year.

It will surprise you that average incomes in the bottom decile rose at the same rate as the economy-wide average. So it was households between the bottom 10 per cent and the top 30 per cent whose incomes rose by less than the national average.

Many people would be surprised by all this. Why? Because they hear what’s happened in America and assume it must be pretty similar here. Wrong.

The report notes that our progressive income tax and highly means-tested welfare payments do a lot to equalise household incomes (as I’ve written recently in this column).

Our income inequality in 2015 was about average for the rich countries. In 2017, our wealth inequality was eighth lowest among 28 rich countries.

Australians’ chances of moving between higher and lower income groups – a rough measure of equality of opportunity – “compare favourably with many other developed countries”, the report says.

It tells us that, at 9 per cent of Australians – 2.2 million people – our rate of poverty (measured as people with incomes below half the median income) is no higher than it was 27 years ago.

But if all these truths tell you we don’t have much to worry about, you’ve been misled. The report is much less up-front in reminding us of the qualifications to its findings.

It leaves the strong impression that, if inequality hasn’t increased much, and isn’t as great as in some other countries, there’s no great problem. This implies the inequality we started with was fine.

As Professor Peter Whiteford, of the Australian National University, has noted, the report does too little to remind us that all the averaging involved in Gini coefficients and decile groups rolls households who’ve gained together with households who’ve lost and tells us little has changed.

For instance, the report downplays the issue of the huge increase in the incomes of the top 1 per cent of households. Their extreme gains are averaged with the more modest gains of the next 9 per cent to give a rise in the incomes of the top decile that’s high compared with the rest of us, but not greatly so.

Since the increase in inequality occurred during the resources boom, the report notes quietly that, contrary to what conservative politicians keep telling us, “[economic] growth alone is no guarantee against widening disparity between rich and poor”.

True. Then we’re reminded that this increase in inequality went away in the long period of weak growth following the financial crisis.

So what does the Productivity Commission want us to conclude? Let nature take its course? Don’t worry about increasing inequality because the next recession will fix it?

The report’s fine print acknowledges the truth that a country’s degree of inequality is greatly influenced by its economic institutions (such as its tax system and the rules of its welfare system), by government policy changes, and by the public’s attitudes to inequality.

I happen to agree with the commission’s value judgement that the growing gap between the top 1 per cent of incomes and middle incomes isn’t of as great concern as the gap between the bottom and the middle.

But I don’t accept another implicit value judgement that not much more could be done to reduce income and wealth inequality (presumably, for fear the rich would stop wanting to get richer) and that, at the bottom end, the government should limit its intervention to assisting those poor people whose disadvantage has become “entrenched”.

In other words, don’t acknowledge that poverty is being kept high by successive governments’ refusal to lift the freeze on real unemployment benefits.

The report proudly informs us that the bottom decile’s income has kept pace with the economy-wide average, but does little to explain how this amazing truth came about.

The chief suspect is the Rudd government’s increase in the base-rate of the age pension, a boost so big it seems to have more than offset the adverse effects of the real dole freeze and the bipartisan policy of moving disabled and sole-parent pensioners onto the much lower dole.

Still think there’s nothing to see here?
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