Showing posts with label inflation. Show all posts
Showing posts with label inflation. Show all posts

Friday, May 24, 2024

Treasury tells all: how the housing market is so stuffed up

Would you believe that our ever-rising house prices are a sign there’s something badly wrong with our housing market? Would you believe our housing arrangements are worse than in the other rich countries?

Well, I would when that’s what Treasury is admitting in the annual sermon it tacks onto the budget papers. This year it’s about meeting our housing “challenge”.

In a well-functioning economy, its industries can respond to the increase in demand for their good or service by increasing their supply without much delay. Of course, it takes a lot longer to build a new house or apartment than it does to churn out more ice-creams or haircuts.

But, even so, our housing industry has been too slow to respond to the increased demand for housing. This comes from our rising population which, thanks to continuing high levels of immigration, has grown faster than most of the other rich countries.

Figures from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, a group of mainly advanced economies, show that our number of dwellings per 1000 people increased only from 403 to 420 between 2011 and 2022. This compared poorly with most other countries.

In 2011, our level of housing supply was just 92 per cent of the OECD average. And by 2022 it had fallen to 90 per cent. This was behind countries such as Canada, the United States and England.

Our completions of new private dwellings reached a peak of more than 200,000 a year in 2018-19 but have since fallen to about 160,000 a year. This has left us with an acute shortage of properties available to buy or rent.

Nationwide, the number of homes being offered for sale has fallen since 2015, while the number offered for rent has been falling since early 2020.

Speaking of renting, Treasury says the rental market is considered to be in balance – meaning renters have little trouble finding a place and landlords have little trouble finding a tenant – when the vacancy rate is about 3 per cent. In cities such as Sydney and Melbourne it’s now down to about 0.5 per cent. Ouch.

Not surprisingly, when demand grows faster than supply can keep up with, prices rise. The rise in the cost of newly built homes, and the cost of renting, have contributed significantly to the general cost-of-living crisis.

So, why has our housing industry become so slow to respond to increased demand? Treasury says the causes are “multifaceted, complex and affect all stages of the housing construction process, including all levels of government and industry”.

One way to improve the market’s response to greater demand is to accelerate the construction process. But Treasury says that completion times for apartments, townhouses and detached houses actually worsened by 39 per cent, 34 per cent and 42 per cent respectively over the 10 years to June 2023.

Calculations (or, if you want to sound more scientific, “modelling”) by a federal government agency says that, over the next six years, the nation’s existing unmet demand will never be satisfied unless completion times are speeded up. In six years’ time, we’ll still have a backlog of about 39,000 dwellings.

Treasury says the expectation that churning out homes faster will help to lower house prices is supported by empirical research. One study found that those OECD countries that built more housing over the 15 years to 2015 experienced lower real growth in house prices.

Another study showed that adding an extra 50,000 homes a year for a decade could reduce house prices by up to 20 per cent.

So, what can be done to increase the housing industry’s annual output? Treasury says planning and zoning restrictions can limit the speed at which land is made available.

Delays in approving development applications by local councils can be excessive. I think councils and government departments are monopolists and, like all monopolists, they take advantage of the lack of competition.

Private sector monopolists whack up their prices and don’t worry about the quality of the service they provide. Public monopolists make you jump through hoops that aren’t strictly necessary, and they fix your problem in their own good time.

I wonder whether, over all these years, those outfits have ever had much pressure on them to lift their game. If that changed, I’m sure we could get more homes built per year.

Treasury says average times for the approval of development applications vary by state, with Victoria and NSW experiencing the longest waiting times early this month of 144 and 114 days, respectively.

It shouldn’t surprise you that Treasury wants housing to be delivered in well-located areas where the demand is greatest.

Dense development in the “missing middle” of major cities, where households can reside closer to jobs in areas with higher quality amenities and infrastructure, has been limited by planning and zoning restrictions and slow release of infill land, Treasury says.

Global supply constraints and price shocks on imported building materials associated with the pandemic have added to the cost of construction, driving up the price of newly built homes. Although prices aren’t rising as fast as they were, they haven’t fallen back.

Shortages of building labour have also increased the prices of newly built homes and slowed the pace of construction. The growth in non-dwelling construction activity has drawn labour away from home building. The productivity of labour in construction has not improved since the early 2000s.

The industry blames these shortages on the drop-off in rates of skilled migration during the pandemic. But I wonder if the deeper problem is that the former ready availability of imported labour tempted the industry to save money by failing to train as many apprentices as they should have.

So, what’s the Albanese government doing about this mess? It’s finally grasped the nettle and is spending big – $32 billion, including $6 billion in this month’s budget – to “address historical underinvest in the housing system” and build 1.2 million new, well-located homes. We’ll see how they go.

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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.

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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.

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Monday, March 11, 2024

RBA will decide how long the economy's slump lasts

The media are always setting “tests” that the government – or the opposition – must pass to stay on top of its game. But this year, it’s the Reserve Bank facing a big test: will it crash the economy in its efforts to get inflation down?

There’s a trick, however: when the Reserve stuffs up, it doesn’t pay the price, the elected government does. This asymmetry is the downside of the modern fashion of allowing central banks to be independent of the elected government. Everything’s fine until the econocrats get it badly wrong.

It’s clear from last week’s national accounts that the economy has slowed to stalling speed. It could easily slip into recession – especially as defined by the lightweight two-successive-quarters-of-negative-growth brigade – or, more likely, just go for a period in which the population keeps growing but the economy, the real gross domestic product, doesn’t, and causes unemployment to keep rising.

Because interest rates affect the economy with a lag, the trick to successful central banking is to get your timing right. If you don’t take your foot off the brake until you see a sign saying “inflation: 2.5 per cent”, you’re bound to run off the road.

So now’s the time to think hard about lifting your foot and, to mix the metaphor, ensuring the landing is soft rather than hard.

Here’s a tip for Reserve Bank governor Michele Bullock. If you get it wrong and cause the Albanese government to be tossed out in a year or so’s time, two adverse consequences for the Reserve would follow.

First, it would be decades before the Labor Party ever trusted the Reserve again. Second, the incoming Dutton government wouldn’t feel a shred of secret gratitude to the Reserve for helping it to an undeserved win. Rather, it would think: we must make sure those bastards in Martin Place aren’t able to trip us up like they did Labor.

Last week’s national accounts told us just what we should have expected. They showed that real GDP – the nation’s total production of goods and services – grew by a negligible 0.2 per cent over the three months to the end of December.

This meant the economy grew by 1.5 per cent over the course of 2023. If that looks sort of OK, it isn’t. Get this: over the past five quarters, the percentage rate of growth has been 0.8, 0.6, 0.5, 0.3 and 0.2. How’s that for a predictable result?

Now you know why, just before the figures were released, Treasurer Jim Chalmers warned that we could see a small negative. It’s a warning we can expect to hear again this year.

If you ignore the short-lived, lockdown-caused recession of 2020, 1.5 per cent is the weakest growth in 23 years.

But it’s actually worse than it looks. What measly growth we did get was more than accounted for by the rapid, post-COVID growth in our population. GDP per person fell in all four quarters of last year.

So whereas real GDP grew by 1.5 per cent, GDP per person fell by 1 per cent. We’ve been in a “per-person recession” for a year.

It’s not hard to see where the weaker growth in overall GDP is coming from. Consumer spending makes up more than half of GDP, and it grew by a mere 0.1 per cent in both the December quarter and the year.

At a time when immigration is surging, and it’s almost impossible to find rental accommodation, spending on the building of new homes fell by more than 3 per cent over the year.

Of course, this slowdown is happening not by accident, but by design. Demand for goods and services had been growing faster than the economy’s ability to supply them, permitting businesses of all kinds to whack up their prices and leaving us with a high rate of inflation.

Economists – super-smart though they consider themselves to be – have been able to think of no better way to stop businesses exploiting this opportunity to profit at the expense of their customers than to knock Australia’s households on the head, so they can no longer spend as much.

For the past several decades, we’ve done this mainly by putting up interest rates, so people with mortgages were so tightly pressed they had no choice but to cut their spending. The Reserve began doing this during the election campaign in May 2022, and did it again 12 more times, with the last increase as recently as last November.

It would be wrong, however, to give the Reserve all the credit – or the blame – for the 12 months of slowdown we’ve seen. It’s had help from many quarters. First is the remarkable rise in rents, the chief cause of which is an acute shortage of rental accommodation, affecting roughly a third of households.

Next are the nation’s businesses which, in their zeal to limit inflation, have raised their wages by about 4.5 percentage points less than they’ve raised their prices. Talk about sacrifice.

And finally, there’s the federal government, which has done its bit by restraining its spending and allowing bracket creep to claw back a fair bit of the inflation-caused growth in wage rates. As a consequence, the budget has swung from deficit to surplus, thereby helping to restrain aggregate demand.

It’s the help the Reserve has had from so many sources that risks causing it to underestimate the vigour with which spending is now being restrained. It’s far from the only boy standing on the burning deck.

Last week some were criticising the Reserve for popping up in November, after doing nothing for five months, and giving the interest-rate screws another turn while, as we now know, the economy was still roaring along at the rate of 0.2 per cent a quarter.

The critics are forgetting the politics of economics. That isolated tightening was probably the new governor signalling to the world that she was no pushover when it came to the Reserve’s sacred duty to protect us from inflation.

In any case, a rate rise of a mere 0.25 per cent isn’t much in the scheme of things. It’s possible that quite a few hard-pressed home buyers felt the extra pain. But when did anyone ever worry about them and their pain? It was the central bankers’ duty to sacrifice them to the economy’s greater good – namely, preventing the nation’s profit-happy chief executives from doing what comes naturally to all good oligopolists.

The looming stage 3 tax cuts should give a great boost to the economy, of course, provided seriously rattled families don’t choose to save rather than spend them.

What matters most, however, is by how much unemployment and underemployment rise before the economy resumes firing on all cylinders. So far, the rate of unemployment has risen to 4.1 per cent from its low of 3.5 per cent in February last year.

By recent standards, that’s still an exceptionally low level, and a modest increase in the rate. But for a more definitive assessment, come back this time next year.

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Monday, February 12, 2024

Let's stop using interest rates to throttle people with mortgages

What this country needs at a time like this is economists who can be objective, who’re willing to think outside the box, and who are disinterested – who think like they don’t have a dog in this fight.

On Friday, Reserve Bank governor Michele Bullock, with her lieutenants, made her first appearance as governor before the House of Reps economics committee.

See if you can find the logical flaw in this statement she made: “The [Reserve’s] board understands that the rise in interest rates has put additional pressure on the households that have mortgages. But the alternative of lower interest rates and high inflation for a prolonged period would be even worse for these households, as well as all the households without mortgages.”

Sorry, that’s just Bullock doing her Maggie TINA Thatcher impression, mindlessly repeating the assertion that “There Is No Alternative”. Nonsense. There are various alternatives, and if economists were doing their duty by the country, they’d be talking about them, evaluating them and proposing them.

What’s true is that the Reserve has no alternative to using interest rates to slow demand. Some economists can be forgiven for being too young to know that we didn’t always rely mainly on interest rates to fight inflation, just as we didn’t always allow the central bank to dominate the management of the economy.

These were policy changes we – and the rest of the rich world – made in the early 1980s because we thought they’d be an improvement. In principle, now we’re more aware of the drawbacks of giving the central bank dominion over macroeconomic management, there’s no reason we can’t decide to do something else.

In practice, however, don’t hold your breath waiting for the Reserve to advocate making it share its power with another authority. Nor expect the reform push to be led by economists working in industries such as banking and the financial markets, which benefit from their close relations with the central bank.

What those with eyes should have seen in recent years is that relying so heavily on an instrument as blunt as interest rates is both inequitable and inefficient. It squeezes the third of households with mortgages – or the even smaller proportion with big mortgages – while hitting the remaining two-thirds or more only indirectly.

It’s largely by chance that the Reserve’s need to jam on the demand brakes has coincided with the worst shortage of rental accommodation in ages, thereby spreading the squeeze to another third of households. Had this not happened, the Reserve would have needed to bash up home buyers even more brutally than it has.

Clearly, it would be both fairer – and thus more politically palatable – and more effective to use an instrument that directly affected a much higher proportion of households. This should mean the screws wouldn’t have to be tightened so much, another advantage.

One obvious alternative tool would be to temporarily move the rate of the goods and services tax up (or, at other times, down) a percentage point or two.

Another alternative, one I like, is to divide compulsory employer superannuation contributions into a part permanently set at 11 per cent, and a part that could be varied temporarily between plus several percentage points and minus several points.

This would leave workers less able to keep spending (or more able to spend), as the managers of demand required to stabilise both inflation and unemployment.

Its great attraction is that it involves the government temporarily fiddling with people’s ability to spend, without actually taking any money from them. Surely, this would be the least politically painful way to manage demand.

Experience with central-bank dominance has shown us one big advantage: the economic car has been driven markedly better when the brake and the accelerator are controlled by econocrats independent of the elected government.

But this simply means we’d have to set up an independent authority to control all the instruments of macro management, whether monetary or fiscal.

Not all our economists have been too stuck in the mud of orthodoxy to think these new thoughts. They were canvased by professors Ross Garnaut and David Vines in their submission to the Reserve Bank inquiry – which, predictably, was brushed aside by a panel of economists anxious to stay inside the box.

A century ago, Australians were proud of the way we showed the world better ways of doing things, such as the secret ballot and votes for women. These days, our economists are dedicated followers of international fashion.

This means the country that should be leading the way to better tools to manage demand will wait until it becomes fashionable overseas. Why should we be first? Because our unusual practice of having mainly variable-rate home loans means our use of the interest-rate tool bites a lot harder and faster, thus making our monetary policy a lot blunter than theirs.

Economists may not fret much about how badly some punters are hurting as the economic managers rapidly correct the consequences of their gross miscalculations – the Reserve played a big part in the excessive stimulus during the COVID lockdowns – but one day the politicians who carry the can politically for these miscalculations will revolt against the arrogance of their economic gurus.

Reserve Bank governors – and, in earlier times, Treasury secretaries – privately congratulate themselves for being the last backstop protecting the nation against inflation. When no one else cares, they do. When no one else will impose a cost of living crisis on spendthrift consumers, they will.

Don’t you believe it. If they cared as much as they think they do, they’d care a lot more about effective competition policy. But when the economists leading the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission – Allan Fels and later, Rod Sims – were battling to get more power to reject anticompetitive mergers, they got precious little support from their fellow economists.

While the (Big) Business Council was lobbying privately to retain the laxity, backed up on the other side by a few Labor-Party-powerful unions that had done sweetheart deals with their big employers, the Reserve and Treasury were missing in action.

The people at the bottom of the inflation cliff boast about the diligence of their ambulance service, while doing nothing to help the people at the top of the cliff trying to erect a better safety fence.

If you were looking for examples of oligopolies with pricing power, you could start with the big four banks. If you were looking for examples of “regulatory capture” – where the bureaucrats supposed to be regulating an industry in the public interest get sweet-talked into going easy – you could start with the Reserve and banking (with Treasury not far behind).

In the natural conflict between the goals of financial stability and effective competition, the Reserve long ago decided we’d worry about competition later.

But the more concentrated we allow our industries to become, the more often the Reserve will have to struggle to control inflation surges, and the harder it will need to bash home-buyers on the head.

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Friday, February 9, 2024

You can (partly) blame cost-of-living crisis on greedy businesses

The nation’s economists and economist-run authorities such as the Reserve Bank have not covered themselves in glory in the present inflationary episode. They’ve shown a lack of intellectual rigor, an unwillingness to re-examine their long-held views, and a lack of compassion for the many ordinary families who, in the Reserve’s zeal to fix inflation the blunt way, have been squeezed till their pips squeak.

There’s nothing new about surges of inflation. Often in the past they’ve been caused by excessive wage growth, where economists have been free with their condemnation of greedy workers. But this one came at a time when wage growth was weak and barely keeping up with prices.

What economists in other countries wondered was whether, this time, excessive growth in profits might be part of the story. Separate research by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, the International Monetary Fund, the Bank for International Settlements, the European Commission, the European Central Bank, the US Federal Reserve and the Bank of England suggested there was some truth to the idea.

But if the Reserve or our Treasury shared that curiosity, there’s been little sign of it. Rather, when the Australia Institute replicated the European Central Bank’s methodology with Australian data and found profit growth did help explain our inflation rate, the Reserve sought to refute it with a dodgy graph, while Treasury dismissed it as “misleading” and “flawed”.

One leading economist who has been on the ball, however, is Professor Allan Fels, a former chair of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, whose experience of competition and pricing issues goes back to the year before I became a journalist.

In his report this week on price gouging and unfair pricing practices, commissioned by the Australian Council of Trade Unions, he concluded that “business pricing has added significantly to inflation in recent times”.

Fels says his report is “fully independent” of the ACTU, which did not try to influence him. Considering his authority in this area, I have no trouble believing it.

“ ‘Profit push’ or ‘sellers’ inflation’ has occurred against a background of high corporate concentration and is reflected in the surge of corporate profits and the rise in the profit share of gross domestic product,” he finds.

“Claims that the rise in profit share in Australia is explained by mining do not hold up. The profit share excluding mining has risen and [in any case,] energy and other prices associated with mining have been a very significant contributor to Australian inflation,” he says.

Fels says there has been much discussion about inflation and its causes – including monetary policy and fiscal policy, international factors, wages, supply chain disruption and war, but “hardly any discussion that looks at actual prices charged to consumers, the processes by which they are set, the profit margins and their possible contribution to inflation”.

His underlying message is that there are too many industries in Australia which are dominated by just a few huge companies – too many “oligopolies” – which limits competition and gives those companies the ability to influence the prices they can charge.

“Not only are many consumers overcharged continuously, but ‘profit push’ pricing has added significantly to inflation in recent times,” he says, nominating specifically supermarkets, banks, airlines and providers of electricity.

Fels says, “some of Australia’s largest businesses, often [those selling such necessities that customers aren’t much deterred by price rises], are maintaining or increasing margins in response to the global inflationary episode”.

He identifies eight “exploitative business pricing practices” – tricks – that enable the extraction of extra dollars from consumers in a way that wouldn’t be possible in markets that were competitive, properly informed, and that enabled overcharged customers to switch easily from one business to another.

First, “loyalty taxes” set initial prices low and then sharply increase them in later years when customers can’t easily detect, question, or renegotiate them, and where the “transaction costs” of changing to another firm are high. This trick can be found in banking, insurance, electricity and gas.

Second, “loyalty schemes” are often low-cost means of retaining and exploiting consumers by providing them with low-value rewards of dubious benefit.

Third, “drip pricing” occurs when firms advertise only part of a product’s price and reveal other costs as the customer continues through the purchasing process. This trick is spreading in relation to airlines, accommodation, entertainment, pre-paid phone charges, credit cards and other things.

Fourth, “excuse-flation” occurs when general inflation provides camouflage for businesses to raise prices without justification. This has been more prevalent recently. As the inflation rate starts falling, excessive inflation expectations and further cost increases can be built in to prices.

Fifth, “confusion pricing” involves confusing customers with myriad complex price structures and plans, making it difficult to compare prices and so dulling price competition. This is occurring increasingly in mobile phone plans and financial or maintenance service contracts.

Sixth, asymmetric or “rockets and feathers” pricing is a big deal now the rate of inflation is falling. When a firm’s costs rise, prices go up like a rocket; when its costs fall, prices drift down slowly like a feather.

Fels says this trick can be very profitable for businesses. The banks have long been guilty of this stunt, yet I can’t remember a Reserve Bank governor ever calling it out.

Seventh, “algorithmic pricing” is where firms use algorithms to change prices automatically in response to what their competitors are doing. Fels wonders whether this reduces price competition and is analogous to the way now-illegal cartel pricing worked.

Finally, “price discrimination” involves charging different customers different prices for the same product, according to what the firm deduces a particular customer is “willing to pay”. The less competition firms face, the easier it is for them to play this game.

That so few economists and econocrats have been willing to think about these issues doesn’t speak well of their profession’s integrity. If they won’t speak out about businesses’ failings, why should we trust what they do tell us?

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Sunday, February 4, 2024

Why all politicians want to use bracket creep to mislead you

Another round of tax cuts; another round of politicians saying tricky things about bracket creep. Whether they’re giving some of it back or letting it rip, our pollies on both sides hope bracket creep remains, as it has long been, their dirty little secret.

The latest is the claim that Anthony Albanese’s changes to the legislated stage 3 tax cuts will, over the next 10 years, cause income tax collections to be $28 billion higher than they would have been.

Anthony Albanese’s tax cut rejig will make them fairer. But we’ll have more bracket creep under Labor than we would had under Scott Morrison.

This figure is from Treasury’s published advice to Treasurer Jim Chalmers. What Treasury hasn’t been honest enough to do, however, is to warn us that its projection is based on a quite unrealistic assumption.

So let me tell you how bracket creep works, in a way the pollies never would.

First, understand that the income tax scale assumes there’s no such thing as inflation. It assumes that every pay rise you get results from a promotion or from moving to a better-paid job.

In which case, it would be fair enough to make you pay a higher proportion of your income in tax. It ignores that most of the pay rises we get merely cover the rise in consumer prices, leaving us no better off in “real” terms.

This would be true even if all of us paid the same flat tax rate of, say, 30 per cent. But it’s even more the case because the tax scale is “progressive”: our income is taxed in slices, with the tax rate on each slice getting progressively higher.

That is, the proportion of our total income paid in tax – our overall average rate of tax – increases as our income increases, for whatever reason.

The justification for having a progressive tax scale is to ensure that those who can afford to cover a higher share of the cost of government pay a lot more than those who can’t. Fair enough.

It’s easy to see how a rise in our income that pushed the last part of that income into a higher tax bracket would increase our average rate of tax. That’s how this phenomenon got the name “bracket creep”.

What’s harder to see is that, though moving to what economists call a higher marginal tax rate is the fastest way to increase your average rate of tax, the mere fact that every pay rise means a greater proportion of your total income is taxed at your (higher) marginal rate will still drag up your average rate. That’s even if you’re not pushed into a higher bracket – say, because you’re already on the top marginal rate.

What all this means is that, for as long as the pollies sit back and do nothing, the presence of any degree of inflation means everyone’s average tax rate keeps rising forever.

The dirty secret is, all pollies like bracket creep because it’s a way of increasing taxes without having to announce it, meaning many people don’t notice.

But obviously, the pollies know they can’t get away with that forever. The standard solution to bracket creep – practised by the US, Canada, Denmark, Sweden and other European countries – is to automatically index all the tax brackets each year, raising them by the rate of inflation.

The Fraser government did this for a couple of years in the 1970s before deciding it wasn’t worth it politically. Because the annual tax cuts it produced were small and automatic, the media and the taxpayers took too little notice of them.

So Malcolm Fraser decided it was smarter politics to delay having tax cuts until you could afford to have a big one. Say, every three years or so. And what about having it before an election – or maybe just after an election?

And, what’s more, why give everyone the same percentage cut in taxes when you could play favourites by cutting tax rates on some slices more that on others?

Why not cut the rates for higher brackets by more than you cut them for lower brackets? This would make the tax scale less progressive, which the better-off would love.

This is the way both sides have played the tax-cut game until then-treasurer Scott Morrison came along in the 2018 budget with his tricky plan to cut tax in three stages over seven years.

Note that having tax cuts only every three years or so means the taxman gets to keep a lot of the proceeds of bracket creep. Your eventual tax cut gives back only some of the extra that bracket creep has taken.

What a tax cut does is lower your average tax rate to somewhere closer to what it was at the time of the previous tax cut. And, of course, the day after your latest tax cut, the bracket-creep machine starts pushing your average tax rate back up again.

Note too, that if, rather than raising each of the tax brackets by the same percentage, the pollies start fiddling with the size of the rates applying to some of the brackets, there’s no guarantee that the bracket creep you lost is related to what you get back.

And the truth is, bracket creep doesn’t hit taxpayers towards the top of the scale proportionately to those towards the bottom. Average tax rates towards the bottom rise more than those at or near the top.

That’s because the brackets are closer together – the tax slices are thinner – near the bottom than they are near the top. And, of course, someone already on the top marginal tax rate can’t ever move to a higher rate.

Got all that? Now we can look at the strange design of the three-stage tax cut treasurer Morrison announced in the budget of May 2018, and at Albanese’s broken promise last week not to change stage 3 of the cuts.

As I’ve written several times, stage 1 – the low- and middle-income tax offset – was terminated, without announcement, in the Morrison government’s last budget before the 2022 election. Labor could have made sure everyone knew this, but chose to stay silent.

The stage 2 tax cuts were small and did little for taxpayers in the bottom half. The stage 3 tax cuts, long planned to start this July, centred on moving to put everyone earning between $45,000 a year and $200,000 a year – about 94 per cent of taxpayers – on a marginal tax rate of 30¢ in the dollar.

This, we were assured, would end bracket creep for good and all. Not true – because, as I’ve explained, there’s more to bracket creep than moving into a higher tax bracket. What is true, however, is that this move would have greatly reduced the extent of bracket creep in future.

Trouble is, moving to this radically less progressive tax scale involved no tax cuts for people at the bottom, and only modest cuts for those in the middle, but massive cuts for people on $180,000 a year and above.

Get it? The bottom half, who have contributed most to the bracket creep now being returned, would get precious little of it back, while the top half would clean up. As we know, Albanese’s rejig will make the tax cuts much less unfair.

However, the drawback is that, in future, we’ll have more bracket creep under Labor’s plan than we would have under Morrison’s. That’s the main reason Treasury projects that, over the next 10 years, the taxman will now collect about $28 billion more than he would have without the latest changes.

Just one problem with this arithmetic. It assumes that future governments could get away with letting bracket creep rip for a whole decade without ever having a tax cut to give some of it back. Yeah, sure.

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Albanese uses tax cuts to ease cost of living pressure - a little

 Having trouble deciding the rights and wrongs of Anthony Albanese’s claim to be changing the stage 3 tax cuts in a way that helps ease cost of living pressure without adding to inflation? The air’s been thick with economists making confusing statements on the topic.

For instance, economists at one bank say any tax cut will add to inflation pressure, but canning the cut would allow the Reserve Bank to lower interest rates by 0.5 per cent. Those at another outfit say Albo’s changes will be inflationary because they involve reducing the tax cuts going to high-income earners (who would have saved more of it) and increasing the tax cuts going to low and middle-income earners (who, being harder up, will spend more of it).

Well, let’s see if I can help you decide what to think of the government’s changes. There are three main ways to decide.

The first is a very popular method: let your preferred party do your thinking for you. If you vote Labor, conclude the change must be a good idea. If you vote Liberal, conclude it must be a terrible betrayal of the nation’s trust.

Second, just as popular method: look yourself up in the government’s “what you save” tax table and see how the change will affect you. If you’ll be better off under Albo’s changes, conclude they’re just what the economy needs. If you’ll be worse off than you would have been under former prime minister Scott Morrison’s original stage 3, conclude it will be an economic disaster.

Third, a rarely used method: try to work out which version would, in all the circumstances, have been best for the nation as a whole, regardless of how you personally would be affected.

Adding to this week’s confusion is that, in principle, Albanese’s goal of reducing cost of living pressures without adding to inflation pressure is a contradiction in terms.

Why? Because increasing the cost of living pressure on households is the very stick the managers of the economy are using to get inflation down. It’s deliberate.

When the economy is growing so strongly that the demand for goods and services is running faster the economy’s ability to supply them, prices keep rising.

So the only quick way economists can think of to stop prices rising so rapidly is to slow demand by throttling people’s ability to keep spending. This makes it harder for businesses to keep whacking up their prices.

This is precisely the reason the Reserve has increased interest rates so greatly: to leave people with mortgages with less money to spend on other things.

The government’s been helping with the squeeze by hanging on to almost all the extra income tax we’ve been paying – including because of bracket creep – and getting the budget into surplus.

A budget surplus means the government is using its taxes to take more spending potential out of the economy than it’s putting back in with its own spending.

Get it? The plan is to fix inflation by making the cost of living squeeze worse, to eventually make it better. Sounds crazy, but it’s true.

Albanese and his Treasurer, Jim Chalmers, know this full well. But so many people are feeling so much pain that they’re threatening to vote against the government, so they had to find a way to ease the pain.

This is a major rejig of the planned tax cuts, to ensure much more of the money goes to low- and middle-income earners – who’ve been hurting most – and much less to the top earners.

But hang on. Treasury expects the budget to return to big deficits in the coming financial year. Why? Because the government long ago legislated for the stage 3 tax cuts, costing a massive $21 billion a year.

Clearly, by easing the cost of living pressure on households, the tax cuts will reduce the downward pressure on prices. So those economists saying the fastest way to get the rate of inflation down would be to abandon the tax cuts are right.

But the cuts have been on the books for so long that this easing of pain coming from the budget has already been taken into account by the Reserve in deciding how much interest rates needed to rise. The tax cuts have also been taken into account in the econocrats’ forecasts of how long it will take to get inflation down.

What hasn’t been accounted for is that so much more of the $21 billion a year will now be going to people far more likely to need to rush out and spend it.

In Treasury’s published advice to the government, it acknowledges that these people have a higher “marginal propensity to consume”, but then asserts that this “will not add to inflationary pressures”.

Sorry, not convinced. What I would accept is that the effect on consumer spending isn’t so big it outweighs the other reasons for Albanese’s changes: the need for greater fairness and to keep a “progressive” income tax scale.

The defenders of the original stage 3 cuts claim that, by putting almost everyone on the same, 30¢-in-the-dollar marginal rate of tax, it would put an end to bracket creep.

Sorry, not true. Despite the name, you don’t literally have to move into a higher bracket to suffer from inflation causing your overall, average rate of tax to creep ever higher over time.

That’s why we can’t just go year after year allowing bracket creep to roll on. That’s why we do need to have a decent tax cut this year.

The original version of stage 3 wouldn’t have ended bracket creep, but would have greatly reduced it. Trouble is, it would have done so in a way that favoured high-income earners at the expense of everyone else. This even though bracket creep hits people lower down harder than those higher up.

On page 8 of its advice to the government, Treasury does a good job of demonstrating that Albanese’s way of returning (some of) the proceeds of bracket creep is much fairer.

Read more >>

Wednesday, December 20, 2023

With luck, we’ll escape recession next year, but it will feel like one

What we’ve come to call the “cost-of-living crisis” has made this an unusually tough year for many people as they struggle to make ends meet. It’s likely to get worse rather than better next year. Which won’t help Anthony Albanese’s chances of being comfortably returned to government in early 2025.

Everyone hates rapidly rising prices and demands the government do something. But I’m not sure everyone understands the paradoxical nature of the usual ways central banks and governments go about fixing the problem. They make it worse to make it make better.

In a market economy, when our demand for goods and services exceeds the economy’s ability to supply them, businesses solve the problem by putting up their prices. The economic managers then seek to weaken our demand by squeezing households’ finances so that they can’t spend as much.

As our spending weakens, firms are less able to keep raising their prices without losing sales.

The main way the Reserve Bank puts the squeeze on household spending is by engineering a rise in mortgage interest payments, leaving people with less money to spend on everything else.

A shortage of rental housing has allowed landlords to make big rent increases. Employers have helped the squeeze by ensuring they raise wages by less than they’ve raised their prices. And Treasurer Jim Chalmers has helped by allowing bracket creep to take a bigger tax bite out of wage increases.

All this is why so many people have been feeling the financial heat this year. But even if there are no more interest rate rises to come, the existing pressures are still working their way through the economy, with little sign of relief.

Consumer prices rose by 7.8 per cent over the year to last December, but the annual rate of increase slowed to 5.4 per cent in September. That’s still well above the Reserve’s target of 2 per cent to 3 per cent.

If the Reserve has accidentally hit the economy harder than intended, we could slip into recession next year, causing a big jump in the number of people out of a job, and thus hitting them much harder.

But with any luck, it won’t come to that. And the crazy-lazy way the media define recession – a fall in real gross domestic product in two successive quarters – means that growth in the population may conceal the hip-pocket pain many people are feeling.

Consider the case of someone on the very modest wage of $45,000 a year in September 2021. If their wage rose in line with the wage price index, it would have risen by $3300 to $48,300 in September this year.

However, bracket creep, plus the discontinuation of the low and middle income tax offset, raised the average rate of income tax they pay from 9.8¢ in the dollar to 14.2¢. So their tax bill would have grown by $2460.

Now allow for the rise in consumer prices over the two years, and the purchasing power of their disposable income has fallen by about $5290, meaning their “real” disposable income is $4450 a year less than it used to be.

Can you imagine that person being terribly happy with the way their finances have fared under the Albanese government? My guess is, there’ll be growing disaffection with Labor as next year progresses.

To help him win last year’s federal election, Albanese made Labor a “small target” by promising very little change, including no change to the stage three income tax cuts, legislated long before the pandemic, to start in July next year.

His game plan had been to spend his first term being steady and sensible, keeping his promises and being an “economically responsible” government. This would get him re-elected with an increased majority and able to implement needed but controversial reforms.

But, through no great fault of his own, he’s had to grapple with the worst surge in the cost of living in decades. If there’s a low-pain way to get inflation back under control, I’ve yet to hear about it.

The trouble set in well before the change of government, and the Reserve Bank began its long series of interest rate rises during the election campaign.

My guess is that Albanese’s hopes of storming back to power at an election due by May 2025 are dashed. But it’s hard to see Peter Dutton winning the election unless he can win back the Liberal heartland seats that went to the teals, which seems doubtful.

So, it’s not hard to see Albanese losing seats and reduced to minority government, dependent on the support of the Greens and teals.

There is, however, one thing he could do to cheer up many voters: rejig the coming tax cuts so the lion’s share of the $25 billion they’ll cost the budget goes not to the high-income taxpayers who’ve had the least trouble coping with living costs, but to those on lower incomes who’ve the most.

Read more >>

Monday, December 18, 2023

How full employment has changed the economy

This may be the first time you’ve watched the managers of the economy using high interest rates and a tighter budget to throttle demand to get inflation down. But if it isn’t your first, have you noticed how much harder they’re finding it to catch the raging bull?

It explains why both the previous and the new Reserve Bank governor have been so twitchy. How, after they seem to have made as many interest rate rises as they thought they needed, they keep coming back for another one.

The economy isn’t working the way it used to. Have you noticed that, although consumer spending stopped dead in the September quarter, and overall growth in the economy slowed to a microscopic 0.2 per cent, there’s been so little weakness in the jobs market?

Although there’s no doubt about how hard most households have been squeezed over the course of this year, how come the rate of unemployment has risen only marginally from 3.5 per cent to a still-far-below-average 3.9 per cent in November?

And if the economy’s been slowing for the whole of this year, how come the budget balance is getting better rather than worse, with Treasurer Jim Chalmers achieving a surplus last financial year and hoping for another in the year to next June?

There are lots of particular things that help explain these surprising results – world commodity prices have stayed high; some parts of the economy change earlier than others – but there’s one, more fundamental factor that towers over all the others: this is the first time in 50 years that we’ve been trying to slow a runaway economy that’s reached anything like full employment.

It turns out that throttling an economy that’s fully employed is much harder to do. Households are more resilient and, after a period when it’s been hard to get hold of all the workers they need, businesses have been far less inclined to add to the slowdown by shedding staff.

Remember that we reached full employment by happy accident. Between the unco-ordinated stimulus of state as well as federal governments, plus the Reserve cutting rates to near-zero, we (like many other rich economies) hit the accelerator far too hard during the pandemic.

This was apparent after the pandemic had eased and before the Morrison government’s final budget in March last year. But there was no way Scott Morrison was going to hit the budget brakes just before an election.

So the econocrats in the Reserve and Treasury resigned themselves to second prize: an unemployment rate much lower than what they were used to and felt comfortable with.

Because the pandemic had also caused us to close our borders and thus block employers’ access to skilled and unskilled immigrant labour, the econocrats got far more than they expected: unemployment so low we hit full employment.

The jobs market is getting less tight, with the number of job vacancies having fallen a long way, but last week’s figures for November showed how strong the labour market remains.

Sure, unemployment rose a fraction to 3.9 per cent, but this is no higher than it was in May last year. And the month saw total employment actually grow, by more than a remarkable 61,000 jobs during the month.

After all this slowing and all this pain, the rate at which people of working age are participating in the labour force by either having a job or actively seeking one has reached a record high.

And almost 65 per cent of the working-age population has a job – a proportion that’s never been higher in Australia’s history.

Employment is still growing strongly, partly because of the rebound in immigration, with foreign students in particular filling part-time job vacancies.

But also, it seems, because more hard-pressed families are trying to make ends meet by taking second jobs. In past downturns, those jobs wouldn’t have been there to be taken.

To force households to spend less, they’re being hit with three sticks. Obviously, by raising mortgage interest rates. Also by employers, taken as a group, raising the wages they pay by less than they’ve raised their prices (have you noticed how Chalmers avoids referring to the cut in real wages by just blaming “inflation”?).

And, third, by the government allowing bracket creep to take a bigger bite out of what pay rises the workers do manage to get.

But there’s another factor that’s been working in the opposite direction, adding to households’ ability to keep spending: over the year to November, the number of people with jobs rose by more than 440,000. That’s a full-employment economy.

All the extra people with jobs pay income tax. All the part-time workers able to get more hours pay more tax. All the people getting second jobs pay more tax. Add the bigger bite out of pay rises, and you see why Chalmers’ budget’s so flush.

But note this: the many benefits of full employment come at a cost – “opportunity cost”. As a coming paper by Matt Saunders and Dr Richard Denniss of the Australia Institute will remind us, “opportunity cost makes it clear that when resources are used for one purpose, they become unavailable for other purposes”.

So when we’re at or close to full employment, any developer, business executive or politician seeking our support for any project because “it will create jobs” should be laughed at. Where will the workers come from to fill the jobs? You’ll have to pinch them from some other employer.

This is especially true when the jobs you want to create are for workers with specialist skills.

According to a federal government report, in October last year there were 83 major resource and energy projects at the committed stage, worth $83 billion. But about two thirds of these were for the development of fossil fuels, including the expansion of nearby ports.

Really? And this at a time when the electricity grid needs urgent reconfiguration as part of our move to a low-carbon economy, but projects are being deferred because you can’t get the workers?

As Saunders and Denniss conclude, “With rapid population growth and the stated need to transform our energy system, the real cost of spending tens of billions of dollars building new gas and coal projects is the lost opportunity to invest in the infrastructure and energy transformation the Australian economy needs.”

I think Jim Chalmers needs to explain the iron law of opportunity cost to his boss. And make sure Climate Change and Energy Minister Chris Bowen’s in the meeting.

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Friday, December 15, 2023

Chalmers finds a better way to get inflation down: fix the budget

There’s an important point to learn from this week’s mid-(financial)-year’s budget update: in the economy, as in life, there’s more than one way to skin a cat.

The big news is that, after turning last year’s previously expected budget deficit into a surplus of $22 billion – our first surplus in 15 years – Treasurer Jim Chalmers is now expecting this financial year’s budget deficit to be $1.1 billion, not the $13.9 billion he was expecting at budget time seven months’ ago.

Now, though $1.1 billion is an unimaginably huge sum to you and me, in an economy of our size it’s a drop in the ocean. Compared with gross domestic product – the nominal value of all the goods and services we expect to produce in 2023-24 – it rounds to 0.0 per cent.

So, for practical purposes, it would be a balanced budget. And as Chalmers says, it’s “within striking distance” of another budget surplus.

This means that, compared with the prospects for the budget we were told about before the federal election in May last year, Chalmers and Finance Minister Katy Gallagher have made huge strides in reducing the government’s “debt and deficit”. Yay!

But here’s the point. We live in the age of “central bankism”, where we’ve convinced ourselves that pretty much the only way to steer the economy between the Scylla of high inflation and the Charybdis of high unemployment is to whack interest rates up or down, AKA monetary policy.

It ain’t true. Which means Chalmers may be right to avoid including in the budget update any further measures to relieve cost-of-living pressures and, rather, give top priority to improving the budget balance, thereby increasing the downward pressure on inflation.

The fact is, we’ve always had two tools or instruments the managers of the economy can use to smooth its path through the ups and downs of the business cycle, avoiding both high unemployment and high inflation. One is monetary policy – the manipulation of interest rates – but the other is fiscal policy, the manipulation of government spending and taxation via the budget.

This year we’ve been reminded how unsatisfactory interest rates are as a way of trying to slow inflation. Monetary policy puts people with big mortgages through the wringer, but lets the rest of us off lightly. This is both unfair and inefficient.

Which is why we should make much more use of the budget to fight inflation. That’s what Chalmers is doing. The more we use the budget, the less the Reserve Bank needs to raise interest rates. This spreads the pain more evenly – to the two-thirds of households that don’t have mortgages – which should be both fairer and more effective.

Starting at the beginning, in a market economy prices are set by the interaction of supply and demand: how much producers and distributors want to be paid to sell you their goods and services, versus how much consumers are willing and able to pay for them.

The rapid rise in consumer prices we saw last year came partly from disruptions to supply caused by the pandemic and the Ukraine war. There’s nothing higher interest rates can do to fix supply problems and, in any case, they’re gradually going away.

But another cause of the jump in prices was strong demand for goods and services, arising from all the stimulus the federal and state governments applied during the pandemic, not to mention the Reserve’s near-zero interest rates.

Since few people were out of job for long, this excessive stimulus left many workers and small business people with lots to spend. And when demand exceeded supply, businesses did what came naturally and raised their prices.

How do you counter demand-driven inflation? By making it much harder for people to keep spending so strongly. Greatly increasing how much people have to pay on their mortgages each month leaves them with much less to spend on other things.

Then, as demand for their products falls back, businesses stop increasing their prices and may even start offering discounts.

But governments can achieve the same squeeze on households by stopping their budgets putting more money into the economy than they’re taking out in taxes. When they run budget surpluses by taking more tax out of the economy than they put back in government spending, they squeeze households even tighter.

So that’s the logic Chalmers is following in eliminating the budget deficit and aiming for surpluses to keep downward pressure on prices. This has the secondary benefit of getting the government’s finances back in shape.

But how has the budget balance improved so much while Chalmers has been in charge? Not so much by anything he’s done as by what he hasn’t.

The government’s tax collections have grown much more strongly than anyone expected. Chalmers and his boss, Anthony Albanese, have resisted the temptation to spend much of this extra moolah.

The prices of our commodity exports have stayed high, causing mining companies to pay more tax. And the economy has grown more strongly than expected, allowing other businesses to raise their prices, increase their profits and pay more tax.

More people have got jobs and paid tax on their wages, while higher consumer prices have meant bigger wage rises for existing workers, pushing them into higher tax brackets.

This is the budget’s “automatic stabilisers” responding to strong growth in the economy by increasing tax collections and improving the budget balance, which acts as a brake on strong demand for goods and services.

There’s just one problem. Chalmers has joined the anti-inflation drive very late in the piece. The Reserve has already raised interest rates a long way, with much of the dampening effect still to flow through and weaken demand to the point where inflation pressure falls back to the 2 per cent to 3 per cent target.

We just have to hope that, between Reserve governor Michele Bullock’s monetary tightening and Chalmers’ fiscal tightening, they haven’t hit the economy much harder than they needed to.

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Monday, October 30, 2023

Why it's doubtful we need another interest rate rise

There’s nothing the media likes more than an interest rate rise on Melbourne Cup day. It’s surprising how often it’s happened, and many in the financial markets have convinced themselves that’s what we’ll get next Tuesday. And the good news is that, despite the radical reform of moving to a mere eight board meetings a year, the Reserve Bank has ensured that meetings on cup day will continue.

What I’m not sure of is whether, if we do get a rate rise next week, it will be happening by accident or design. In central banking, getting your timing right is just as important as it is in a comedy routine.

It was no surprise last week when new Reserve Bank governor Michele Bullock used her first big speech to make sure everyone noticed her bulging anti-inflation muscles. “There are risks that could see inflation return to target more slowly than currently forecast,” she warned.

“The board will not hesitate to raise the cash rate further if there is a material upward revision to the outlook for inflation,” she said. She added some qualifications but, predictably, neither the markets nor the media took much notice of them.

Any new governor would have said the same in their first speech. Trouble is, her tough statement about not being willing to return to the 2 to 3 per cent inflation target “more slowly than currently forecast” came just the day before publication of the consumer price index for the September quarter.

And while it showed the annual rate of inflation continuing to fall from its peak of 7.8 per cent at the end of last year to 5.4 per cent nine months later, it also showed the quarterly inflation figure rising from 0.8 per cent to 1.2 per cent.

This was 0.2 percentage points or so higher than the markets – and, they calculate, the Reserve – were expecting. Bingo! Rate rise a dead cert. All the big four banks are laying their bets accordingly.

But the main reason for the slightly higher number was a rise in petrol prices, which contributed 0.25 percentage points of the 1.2 per cent. This rise comes from insufficient supply: the higher world price of oil, forced up the OPEC oil cartel and others trying to increase the price by restricting their supply.

It does not come from excessive Australian demand – which is the one factor the Reserve can moderate by increasing interest rates. Similarly, the next-biggest price increases, for newly-built homes (imported building materials), rents (surge in immigration) and electricity (Ukraine war) aren’t caused by anything a rate rise can fix.

So I think the case for yet another rate rise is weak. As Bullock clearly demonstrated elsewhere in her speech, the Reserve’s single, crude instrument, raising interest rates, delivers most of its punishment to the quarter or so of households with big mortgages.

Too many of these people are really hurting, and the full hurt from rate rises already made has yet to be felt. The economy is slowing, consumer spending is hardly growing, real income per person is falling.

And, as Treasury secretary Dr Steven Kennedy noted in a speech last week, last financial year’s budget surplus of $22 billion shows the budget’s “automatic stabilisers” are working hard to help the Reserve restrain demand – a truth that’s been completely missing from the Reserve’s commentary. That’s gratitude for you.

But if, having thought hard about such a small change to the “outlook for inflation”, Bullock decides a further rate rise isn’t warranted, what are the money market punters (and I do mean people making bets) going to think, considering all her chest-beating? That she speaks big but carries a soft stick?

There are a few things she – and her urgers in the financial markets (most of whom have never in their lives had reason to worry about the cost of living) – need to remember.

First, at this late stage in the game, we really are into fine-tuning. And acting because a revised forecast means we’ll return to target later than we had expected suggests you’ve forgotten what every governor needs always to remember: as with all economists, the Reserve’s forecasts are more likely to be wrong than right.

They can be wrong by a lot or wrong by a little. Worst, they can prove too optimistic or too pessimistic. If your previous forecast was wrong, what makes you so sure your next one will be right? When it comes to forecasts, the person making the actual decisions needs to be the biggest sceptic.

Second, the Reserve’s previous forecast was for inflation to be back to the top of the target range by the first half of 2025. If its latest forecast pushes that out to the second half, what’s so terrible about that? How much extra pain for young people with huge mortgages does that justify?

Ah, says the Reserve, the reason we can’t wait too long to get inflation back to target is that, the longer we leave it, the greater the risk that business’ and workers’ expected rate of inflation rises above the target range.

If that happened, we’d need much higher interest rates and much more pain to get expectations back down to the only range we’ve decided is acceptable.

This is true in principle but, in practice, it’s mere speculation. The fact is, the world’s central bankers have no hard evidence on how long it takes for inflation expectations to adjust – a few years or a few decades.

I’m old enough to remember that when inflation returned, in the late-1960s and early-’70s, it took a decade or two for expectations to adjust. The smarties used to advise youngsters to borrow as much as anyone would lend them. Why? Because real interest rates were negative.

But when a decade or two of tough inflation fighting eventually got expectations down to what became the target range, after the recession of the early ’90s, they’ve shown zero sign of moving for 30 years. Not even during the present inflation surge.

So when nervous-nelly governors decide to err on the safe side, they’re deciding to beat young home buyers even further into the ground. Either sell your house or starve your kids.

Finally, in her answers to questions last week, Bullock implied that the risk of rising inflation expectations was now so great that the Reserve could no longer afford the nicety of distinguishing between supply-side shocks and price rises driven by excessive demand.

Whatever the cause, continuing delay in getting inflation back to target presented such a threat to expectations that rates would have to keep rising regardless.

This means that if our return to target is delayed by supply-side problems – mismatches in the transition to renewable energy, leaps in meat and veg prices caused by extreme weather, or higher oil prices caused by worsening conflict in the Middle East – the home buyers cop it.

In this era of continuing supply shocks, failure to distinguish between the causes of price rises would be a recipe for deep recession. The Reserve’s professed “dual mandate” – full employment – would be out the window.

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Wednesday, October 18, 2023

Why your income tax refund is so much less than last year's

The political hardheads in Canberra are convinced much of the resounding No vote in the Voice referendum is a message from voters that they want the Albanese government fully focused on the cost of living crisis – which is really hurting – not wasting time on lesser issues.

I suspect they’re right. But if so, it’s the consequence of years of training by politicians on both sides that we should vote out of naked self-interest, not for what would be best for the country.

So, as the government switches to moving-right-along mode, expect to hear a lot from Anthony Albanese and Treasurer Jim Chalmers on how much they feel our pain and the (not so) many things they’ve done to ease the pain.

If that pain gets a lot worse – or just if the cries of anguish get a lot louder – expect to see the government doing more. If the Reserve Bank has miscalculated and, rather than just slowing to a crawl, the economy starts going backwards, expect to see the two of them spending, big time.

There’s no denying that, for most of us – though by no means everyone (see footnote) – it’s become a weekly struggle to make ends meet. Paradoxically, this is partly because of the post-lockdowns surge in many prices and partly because of the Reserve Bank’s efforts to stop prices rising so fast by ramping up interest rates.

Mortgage interest rates at present are not high by past standards. Two factors explain the pain from mortgages. First, thanks to higher house prices, the size of loans is much bigger than it used to be.

Second, after lowering interest rates to rock bottom during the lockdowns, the Reserve unexpectedly raised them by a huge 4 percentage points within just 13 months.

Households with big home loans, roughly a quarter of all households, have had their belts tightened unmercifully. Less usually, the third of households that rent have seen their rents rise by 10 per cent in the past 18 months; more than that in Sydney and some other capital cities (but not Melbourne, according to Australian Bureau of Statistics figures).

To this, add the big rises in the cost of petrol, electricity and gas, home insurance, overseas travel and various other things. Most people’s wages have not kept up with the rise in prices.

So yes, the cost of living crisis is no media exaggeration. And Albanese and Chalmers are full of empathy on all the elements I’ve listed. But there’s one other contribution to the crisis that many people will have stumbled across without understanding what was hitting them.

It’s below the radar because Albanese and Chalmers do not want to talk about it. Nor does the ever-critical opposition. As a consequence, most of the media have not woken up to it – with the notable exception of this august organ.

But according to Dr Ann Kayis-Kumar, a tax lawyer at the University of NSW, one of the most Googled questions in Australia in recent times is “Why do I suddenly owe tax this year?” A related question would be, why is my tax refund so much smaller than last year’s?

I’ll tell you (and not for the first time). Preparing for former treasurer Josh Frydenberg’s last budget, just before the election in May 2022, the Morrison government decided to increase the “low and middle income tax offset” (dubbed the LAMIngTOn) from $1080 to $1500, but not to continue it in the 2022-23 financial year.

Frydenberg made much of the increase, but governments that decide not to do things aren’t required to announce the fact. So Frydenberg didn’t. And Chalmers, watching on, said nothing.

The tax offset was a badly designed measure and all the insiders were pleased to see the end of it. I was too but, as a journalist, felt it was my job to tell the people affected what the politicians didn’t want them to know: that, in effect, their income tax in 2022-23 would be increased by up to $1500 for the year.

The 10 million taxpayers affected have been getting the unexpected news in just the past three months or so, after submitting their tax returns and discovering their refund was much less than last year’s, or had even turned into a small debt to the Tax Office.

The full tax offset went to those earning between $48,000 and $90,000 a year, which was most of the 10 million. Our friendly tax lawyer notes that the median taxable income in 2020-21 was $62,600, leaving $90,000 well above the middle.

Disclosure: Having paid off my house decades ago, and being highly paid (as are politicians), I haven’t felt any cost of living pain. Which makes me think that, when the people who are feeling much pain see Albo and Jimbo giving people like me a long-planned $9000-a-year tax cut next July, while they get chicken-feed, they might be just a teensy weensy bit angry.

Read more >>

Monday, October 2, 2023

How full employment can coexist with low inflation

Who could be opposed to full employment? No one. Not openly, anyway. But Treasurer Jim Chalmers’ white paper on employment has been badly received by the Business Council and other business lobby groups. And, of course, business’s media cheer squad.

At least since Karl Marx, the left has charged that business likes unemployment to stay high so there’s less upward pressure on wages and workers are more biddable. We know that when, during recessions or lockdowns, bosses announce they’re skipping the annual pay rise, the unions never dare to disagree. Forget the pay rise and keep my job secure.

So you don’t have to swallow all the Marxist claptrap to suspect there may be some truth to the idea that, though businesses hate recessions, they don’t mind a bit of healthy unemployment.

If so, don’t expect them to be greatly enamoured of Labor’s latest resolve to pay more than lip service to the goal of full employment. But, by the same token, don’t be surprised if business happens to find in the full-employment package something they can profess to be terribly worried about.

Talk about speed reading. As is the practice in lobbyist-ridden Canberra, within minutes of the release of the white paper last Monday, the Business Council – like a lot of other business lobby groups – issued a full-page press release singing its agreement with the government’s move. It was all wonderful, and, in fact, just what the council had been calling for in its own recent voluminous report.

Until, suddenly, in the third-last paragraph, we discover the government had got it a bit wrong. Unfortunately, “we believe the federal government’s workplace relations reforms will undermine the objectives set out in the white paper.

“They will return the workplace relations system to an outdated model, unable to meet the expectations of both employees and businesses in the ways they seek to work today. It will risk fossilising industry structures and work practices when we know technology is going to change and people and workplaces need to adapt quickly,” the council says.

“If the government is to achieve the task it has set itself in this white paper, we encourage it to halt the current workplace relations changes and work constructively with business to identify challenges and find solutions that will deliver sustainable real wage increases for Australians.”

Ah, yes. Now we have it. And I’m sure all that would make perfect sense to every chief executive.

No, part of the opposition to the employment white paper comes from paper’s qualification to the definition of full employment as no one being jobless for long: “These should be decent jobs that are secure and fairly paid.”

But another part of the opposition has involved flying to the defence of the NAIRU – the “non-accelerating-inflation rate of unemployment” – which Chalmers now calls the “technical assumption” used by the Reserve Bank and Treasury in their forecasting, as opposed to the broader definition of full employment set out in the white paper.

The Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the biggest employer group, said in its response to the white paper that the government “needs to make it clear that, contrary to trade union understandings, there will be zero impact on the Reserve Bank’s interest rate setting framework, and zero expectation that [it] will be more doveish on inflation”.

Well, not sure about that. Those who take the government’s recommitment to the goal of full employment to be a return to the post-World War II days when full employment was the only goal in the management of the macroeconomy are doomed to disappointment.

But those who happily imagine it will make zero difference are also kidding themselves. As the white paper makes clear, achieving sustained full employment involves “minimising volatility in economic cycles and keeping employment as close as possible to the current maximum level consistent with low and stable inflation”.

It doesn’t mean that, having fallen to about 3.5 per cent, the rate of unemployment must never be allowed to go any higher. No one has abolished the business cycle, nor the need for macro management to smooth the ups and downs in demand as the economy moves through that cycle.

So, the likelihood that, having greatly increased interest rates despite the fall in real wages, we’ll see some rise in unemployment in coming months, won’t prove the white paper was all hot air.

It’s also true, as more sensible business economists have realised, that the improvements in education and training that the white paper envisages could reduce “structural” unemployment, and thus the level of estimates of the NAIRU.

The truth is, economists make lots of calculations and the NAIRU is just one of them. While their calculations can tell them the NAIRU is now higher or lower than it was a few years ago, economists have never been able to tell you just why it’s changed.

The best they’ve ever been able to do is “ex-post” (after the fact) rationalisation. If the NAIRU has fallen, think of something that’s improved. If it’s risen, think of something that’s got worse.

The way the critics have rushed to the defence of the NAIRU, you’d think its magic number was written by God on tablets of stone. It’s just an estimate. And, like all estimates, it can be more reliable or less reliable.

No, what the government’s recommitment to full employment does is put full employment back up there as an economic objective equal in importance to low inflation. There’s always been scope for tension between the two objectives, and this increases that tension.

It says: if you’ve been erring on the side of low inflation, don’t. Try harder to find a better trade-off between the two.

It means the Reserve Bank and Treasury will now be less mindless and more mindful in the way they use the NAIRU to influence forecasts and judgements. But, unlike the critics, I think the Reserve and Treasury have already got that message.

As generator of magic numbers, the NAIRU has two glaring weaknesses. It was designed in an era when most jobs were full-time, so entirely ignores the spare capacity hidden in underemployment.

And, as the Reserve itself has acknowledged, it assumes all price rises are caused by excess demand, when we know that, in recent times, many price rises have come from disruptions to supply. And we know there’ll be more supply-driven pressure on prices from the transition to renewables and other things.

Have you noticed that whenever the Reserve and Treasury tell us their latest estimates of the magic number, they never tell us how much “judgment” they applied to the number that popped out of the model before they announced it?

But if that doesn’t convince you, try this one: the judgements the Reserve Bank makes will be better in future because, for the first time in a quarter of a century, Chalmers has appointed to its board someone who really knows how wages are set in the real world.

Read more >>

Friday, August 25, 2023

Albanese's big chance to improve inflation, productivity and wages

Are Anthony Albanese and his ministers a bunch of nice guys lacking the grit to do much about their good intentions? Maybe. But this week’s announcement of a review of competition policy raises hope that the nice guys intend to make real improvements.

The review, which will provide continuous advice to the government over the next two years, has been set up because “greater competition [between Australia’s businesses] is critical for lifting dynamism, productivity and wages growth [and] putting downward pressure on prices”, Treasurer Jim Chalmers says.

As I wrote on Monday, the great weakness in our efforts to reduce high inflation has been our assumption that its causes are purely macroeconomic – aggregate demand versus aggregate supply – with no role for microeconomics: whether businesses in particular industries have gained the power to push their prices higher than needed to cover their increased costs.

But it seems Chalmers understands that. “Australia’s productivity growth has slowed over the past decade, and reduced competition has contributed to this – with evidence of increased market concentration [fewer businesses coming to dominate an industry], a rise in markups [profit margins] and a reduction in dynamism [ability to change and improve] across many parts of the economy,” he says.

The former boss of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, Rod Sims, had some pertinent comments to make about all this at a private business function last week.

He observes that “companies worked out long ago that the essence of corporate strategy is to gain market power and erect entry barriers. Profits from ‘outrunning’ many competitors from a common starting point are generally small; profits from gaining market power are usually large.

“Businesspeople know that when the number of competitors gets too large, price competition is often the result, and that this ‘destroys shareholder value’ or, alternatively put, helps consumers.”

Sims says the goals of growing and sharing the economic pie are being damaged in Western economies, and in Australia, by inadequate competition leading to market power. But, aside from the specialists, the economics profession more broadly has been slow to realise this and factor it into policy responses.

Australia has an extremely concentrated economy, Sims says. We have one dominant rail freight company operating on the east coast, one dominant airline with two-thirds of the market, two beer companies, two ice-cream sellers and two ticketing companies, all with a 90 per cent share of their markets.

We have two supermarkets with a combined market share of about 70 per cent. We have three dominant energy retailers and three dominant telecommunications companies. We have four major banks, with a 75 per cent share of the home mortgage market.

This is much greater concentration than in other developed countries. And, as you’d expect, the profit margins of these companies generally exceed those of comparable companies overseas.

The centuries that businesses have spent pursuing economies of scale explain why we don’t have – and shouldn’t want - the huge number of small firms assumed by the economic theory burnt on the brains of most economists.

But, Sims argues, our relatively small population doesn’t justify the much greater concentration of our industries. For one thing, studies of Australian industry sectors show that the returns to scale stop increasing well before market shares are anything like as high as they are in Australia.

For another, Australia’s modest size doesn’t explain why our industries are getting ever more concentrated, so that our key players are less likely to be challenged by competitors.

And it’s not just our high concentration, it’s also that we see large asset-managing institutions with big shareholdings in most of the firms dominating an industry. Thus, asset managers have an interest in keeping the whole industry’s profits high by limiting price competition between the companies.

One study, of 70,000 firms in 134 countries, found that the average prices charged by our listed companies were 40 per cent above the companies’ marginal cost of production in 1980, and about the same in the late 1990s. But by the early 2000s, average prices were 40 per cent above marginal cost. By 2010, they’d risen to 50 per cent above, and by 2016 it was nearly 60 per cent.

Analysis by federal Treasury has found that our companies’ markups increased over the 13 years to 2017.

The evidence in Australia and overseas is that in concentrated industries we see less dynamism, lower investment and lower productivity, Sims says. Our productivity performance has been very poor at a time when our focus on pro-competition public policy appears to have been lost.

It’s not hard to believe that the latter explains the former. “We run harder when competing versus when we run alone,” Sims says.

Our Treasury’s research also shows that firms in concentrated markets are further from the productivity frontier as there’s less incentive to keep up.

And market concentration also has implications for wage levels. Where labour mobility – the ease with which people move between employers – is reduced, wage levels are lower.

But high industry concentration means fewer firms that workers can move to, bringing relevant skills, and fewer new firms entering the industry. Less competition for workers means lower wages.

“Non-compete clauses” make the problem worse. Recent Australian studies have shown that more than one in five employees are prevented from working for competitors under such contract terms, often even in fairly low-skilled jobs.

Another finding is that the benefits of improved productivity are less shared with workers in concentrated industries. The share of productivity gains going to workers has declined by 25 per cent in the last 15 years, Sims says.

So next time some business person, politician, Reserve Bank governor or other economists tells you higher productivity automatically increases everyone’s wage, don’t fall for it. Used to be true; isn’t any more.

All this says that if the Albanese government is fair dinkum about getting inflation down and productivity and wages up, it will at least ban non-compete clauses and tighten up our merger laws.

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