Showing posts with label productivity. Show all posts
Showing posts with label productivity. Show all posts

Friday, March 24, 2023

Much prosperity comes from government and the taxes it imposes

The Productivity Commission’s job is to make us care about the main driver of economic growth: productivity improvement. Its latest advertising campaign certainly makes it sound terrific. But ads can be misleading. And productivity isn’t improving as quickly as it used to. We’re told this is a very bad thing, but I’m not so sure.

The commission’s latest report on our productivity performance, “Advancing Prosperity”, offers a neat explanation of what productivity is: the rise in real gross domestic product per hour worked. So it’s a measure of the efficiency with which our businesses and government agencies transform labour, physical capital and raw materials into the goods and services we consume.

The economy – GDP – can grow because the population grows, with all the extra people increasing the consumption of goods and services, and most of them working to increase the production of goods and services.

It also grows when we invest in more housing, business machinery and construction, and public infrastructure. But, over time, most growth comes from productivity improvement: the increased efficiency with which we deploy our workers – increasing their education and training, giving them better machines to work with, and organising factories and offices more efficiently.

Here’s the ad for productivity improvement. “There has been a vast improvement in average human wellbeing over the last 200 years: measured in longer lives, diseases cured, improved mobility [transport and travel], safer jobs, instant communication and countless improvements to comfort, leisure and convenience.”

That’s all true. And it’s been a wonderful thing, leaving us hugely better off. But here’s another thing: neither GDP nor GDP per hour worked directly measures any of those wonderful outcomes. What GDP measures is how much we spent on – and how much income people earned from – doctors, hospitals and medicines, good water and sewerage, cars, trucks and planes, occupational health and safety, telecommunications, computers, the internet, and all the rest.

The ad man’s 200 years is a reference to all the growth in economic activity we’ve had since the Industrial Revolution. We’re asked to believe that all the economic growth and improved productivity over that time caused all those benefits to happen.

Well, yes, I suppose so. But right now, the commission’s asking us to accept that our present and future rate of growth in GDP and GDP per hour worked will pretty directly affect how much more of those desirable outcomes we get.

That’s quite a logical leap. Maybe it will, maybe it won’t. Maybe the growth and greater efficiency will lead to more medical breakthroughs, longer lives, cheaper travel etc, or maybe it will lead to more addiction to drugs and gambling, more fast food and obesity, more kids playing computer games instead of reading books, more time wasted in commuting on overcrowded highways, more stress and anxiety, and more money spent on armaments and fighting wars.

Or, here’s a thought: maybe further economic growth will lead to more destruction of the natural environment, more species extinction and more global warming.

Get it? It doesn’t follow automatically that more growth and efficiency lead to more good things rather than more bad things. It’s not so much growth and efficiency that make our lives better, it’s how we get the growth, the costs that come with the growth, and what we use the growth to buy.

Trouble is, apart from extolling growth and efficiency, the Productivity Commission has little to say about how we ensure that growth leaves us better off, not worse off.

Economics is about means, not ends. How to be more efficient in getting what we want. The neoclassical ideology – where ideology means your beliefs about how the world works and how it should work – says that what we want is no business of economists, or of governments. What we want should be left to the personal preferences of consumers.

The Productivity Commission has long championed neoclassical ideology. It wants to minimise the role of government and maximise the role of the private sector.

It would like to reduce the extent to which governments intervene in markets and regulate what businesses can and can’t do. It has led the way in urging governments to outsource the provision of “human services” such as childcare, aged care and disability care to private, for-profit providers.

It wants to keep government small and taxes low to maximise the amount of their income that households are free to spend as they see fit, not as the government sees fit.

Fine. But get this: in that list of all the wonderful things that economic growth has brought us, governments played a huge part in either bringing them about or encouraging private firms to.

We live longer, healthier lives because governments spent a fortune on ensuring cities were adequately sewered and had clean water, then paid for hospitals, subsidised doctors and medicines, paid for university medical research and encouraged private development of pharmaceuticals by granting patents and other intellectual property rights to drug companies.

Governments regulated to reduce road deaths. They improved our mobility by building roads, public transport, ports and airports. Very little of that would have been done if just left to private businesses.

Jobs are safer because governments imposed occupational health and safety standards on protesting businesses. The internet, with all its benefits, was first developed by the US military for its own needs.

The commission says that when we improve our productivity, we can choose whether to take the proceeds as higher income or shorter working hours.

In theory, yes. In practice, all the reductions in the working week we’ve seen over the past century have happened because governments imposed them on highly reluctant employers. Ditto annual leave and long-service leave.

I don’t share the commission’s worry that productivity improvement may stay slow. It won’t matter if we do more to produce good things and fewer bad things. But that, of course, would require more government intervention in the economy, not less.

Read more >>

Wednesday, March 22, 2023

Most of us don't really want to be rich, for better or worse

When it comes to economics, the central question to ask yourself is this: do you sincerely want to be rich? Those with long memories – or Google – know this was the come-on used by the notorious American promoter of pyramid schemes, Bernie Cornfeld. But that doesn’t stop it being the right question.

It’s actually a trick question. Most of us would like to be rich if the riches were delivered to us on a plate. If we won the lottery, or were left a fortune by a rich ancestor we didn’t know we had.

But that’s not the question. It’s do you sincerely want to be rich. It ain’t easy to become rich by your own efforts, so are you prepared to pay the price it would take? Work night and day, ignore your family and friends, spend very little of what you earn, so it can be re-invested? Come unstuck a few times until you make it big? Put it that way and most of us don’t sincerely want to be rich. We’re not that self-disciplined and/or greedy.

The question arises because the Productivity Commission’s five-yearly report on our productivity performance has found that, as a nation, we haven’t got much richer over the past decade – where rich means our production and consumption of goods and services.

When business people, politicians and economists bang on about increasing the economy’s growth, they’re mainly talking about improving the productivity – productiveness – of our paid labour.

The economy – alias gross domestic product – grows because we’ve produced more goods and services than last year. Scientists think this happens because we’ve ripped more resources out of the ground and damaged the environment in the process.

There is some of that (and it has to stop), but what scientists can never get is that the main reason our production grows over the years is that we find ways to get more production from the average hour of work.

We do this by increasing the education and training of our workers, giving them better machines to work with, and improving the way our businesses organise their work.

But the commission finds that our rate of productivity improvement over the past decade has been the slowest in 60 years. It projects that, if it stays this far below our 60-year average, our future incomes will be 40 per cent below what they could have been, and the working week will be 5 per cent longer.

It provides 1000 pages of suggestions on how state and federal governments can make often-controversial changes that would lift our game and make our incomes grow more strongly.

So, this is the nation’s do-you-sincerely-want-to-be-rich moment. And my guess is our collective answer will be yeah, nah. Why? For good reasons and bad. Let’s start with the negative.

If you think of the nation’s income as a pie, there are two ways for an individual to get more to eat. One is to battle everyone else for a bigger slice. The other is to co-operate with everyone to effect changes that would make the pie – and each slice - bigger.

For the past 40 years of “neoliberalism”, which has focused on the individual and sanctified selfishness, we’ve preferred to battle rather than co-operate.

Our top executives have increased their own remuneration by keeping the lid on their fellow employees’ wages. Governments have set a bad example by imposing unreasonably low wage caps.

Then they wonder why their union won’t co-operate with their efforts to improve how the outfit’s run. Workers fear there’ll be nothing in it for them.

It’s the same with politics. Governments won’t make controversial changes because they know the opposition will take advantage and run a scare campaign.

But there are also good reasons why we’re unlikely to jump to action in response to the commission’s warning. The first is that economists focus on the material dimension of our lives: our ability to consume ever more goods and services.

We’re already rich – why do we need to be even richer? There’s more to life than money, and if we gave getting richer top priority, there’s a big risk those other dimensions would suffer.

Would a faster growing economy tempt us to spend less time enjoying our personal relationships? How would that leave us better off overall (to coin a phrase)?

How much do we know about whether the pace of economic life is adding to stress, anxiety and even worse mental troubles?

If we did go along with the changes the commission proposes, what guarantee is there that most of the increased income wouldn’t go to the bosses (and those terrible people with more than $3 million in superannuation)?

What we do know is that we should be giving top priority to reducing the damage economic activity is doing to the natural environment, including changing the climate. If that costs us a bit in income or productivity, it’s a price worth paying.

And there are various ways we could improve our lives even if our income stopped growing. Inquire into them.

Read more >>

Monday, March 20, 2023

Handle with care: Productivity Commission's advice on getting richer

If you accept the Productivity Commission’s assumption that getting richer – “advancing prosperity” – is pretty much the only thing that matters, then the five priority areas it nominates in its five-yearly review of our productivity performance make a lot of sense.

But when you examine the things it says we should do to fix those five areas, you find too much of its same old, same old, preference for neoclassical ideology over empirical evidence.

And you find no acknowledgement that part of our claimed failure to improve the productivity of the “government-funded non-market services sector” has occurred because, over recent decades, governments have acted on the commission’s advice to keep the public sector small and taxes low by outsourcing the provision of human services to profit-motivated businesses.

Which, if anything, has made matters worse rather than better. As witness: the mess we’ve made of aged care and vocational education and training, and the ever-growing cost of the National Disability Insurance Scheme.

The report is quick to explain that improving productivity does not mean getting people to work harder. Perfectly true. It’s supposed to mean making workers more productive by giving them better training and better machines to work with.

Except that when you see the commission recommending a move to “modern, fit-for-purpose labour market regulation” – including, no doubt, getting rid of weekend penalty pay rates – you realise the commission has learnt nothing from the failure of John Howard’s Work Choices, nor from the failure of the reduction in Sunday penalty payments to lead to any increase in weekend employment, as had been confidently predicted.

So, what the commission is really advocating is that the balance of power in wage bargaining be shifted further in favour of employers and away from workers and their unions. Which probably would lead to people working harder for little or no increase in pay.

What the commission should have said, but didn’t, is that workers would be more co-operative with bosses’ efforts to improve the productivity of their firms if they were more confident they’d get their fair share of the benefits.

At present, they have good reason to doubt that they would.

What’s conspicuously absent from all the bemoaning of the slowdown in our rate of productivity improvement, is any acknowledgement that there’s also been a huge fall in the rate of the flow-through to real wages of what improvement we are achieving.

Until that’s fixed – until the capitalist system goes back to keeping its promise that the workers will get their fair share of the benefits of capitalism – Australia’s households have no rational reason to give a stuff about what’s happening to productivity.

Back to the point. Productivity improves when you produce the same things with fewer inputs of labour or capital, or produce more – either more quantity or better quality – with the same inputs.

And the report is exactly right to say that steadily improving our productivity is the key to improving the nation’s material standard of living. The rich world has more than two centuries of proof of that truth.

The first of the report’s five priority areas is achieving a “highly skilled and adaptable workforce”. Dead right. This is economics 101. Economists have known for yonks that investing in “human capital” is the obvious way to increase productivity.

(And it’s the better-educated and trained workers who can most easily adapt to the changing demand for labour that the digital revolution and other technological advance will bring.)

But the commission long ago stopped pointing this out, while state and federal governments put their efforts into quite different objectives. The Howard government, for instance, spent hugely on expanding parents’ choice of private school.

“I’m a Callithumpian, and I’d like to send my kid to a Callithumpian school, where they won’t have to mix with sinners.” Next, we had the limited success of the Gonski-inspired push to fund schools based on student need rather than entrenched privilege and religion.

And then we wonder why school results have got worse and so many kids leave school with inadequate numeracy and literacy. How they’ll be advancing our prosperity in an ever-changing world I hate to think.

Which raises a recent “learning” by economists, that doesn’t seem to have reached the commission: if you ignore what your “reforms” are doing to the distribution of income between the top and the bottom, don’t be surprised if your productivity goes off.

For some inexplicable reason, growth in the number of the downtrodden makes the average look worse.

Meanwhile, with universities, the highest priority of successive federal governments – Labor and Liberal – over the past 30 years has just been to get them off the budget.

The feds have made them hugely dependent on attracting overseas students and charging them full freight. One way they’ve coped is by making university teaching by the younger staff part of the gig economy.

Apart from putting the public unis (but not the few private unis) on a starvation diet during the lockdowns, the Morrison government’s last effort to punish what it saw as a hotbed of socialism was a hare-brained scheme to encourage students to choose courses that made them “job-ready” by, among other things, doubling the tuition fees for a BA.

Fortunately, this failed to discourage the students, but did make the humanities a far more profitable product for the unis to push.

To be fair, another recent “learning” does seem to have got through to the commission. It’s third priority for attention is “creating a more dynamic and competitive economy”.

Research by Treasury has found strong empirical evidence that our economy has become less dynamic – less able to change and improve over time. Fewer new firms are being created, and fewer workers are being induced to change their jobs pursuing higher pay.

Our industries have become more oligopolised – allowed by our permissive takeover laws - and, not surprisingly, their profit margins (“markups,” in econospeak) have been creeping up.

No official will admit it, but it seems pretty clear that the reason the Reserve Bank has been raising interest rates so far and so fast – despite falling real wages – is the part that oligopolistic pricing power is playing in our high inflation rate.

And now further Treasury research has confirmed that our high degree of industry concentration (markets dominated by a few huge firms) has given employers greater power to limit the rise in wages.

All this makes it unsurprising that our rate of productivity improvement has weakened. It also helps explain why, over the past decade, virtually none of what improvement in the productivity of labour we have achieved has been passed on to real wages.

Read more >>

Friday, September 9, 2022

Consumers and Russians keep the economy roaring - but it can't last

They say never judge a book by its cover. Seems the same goes for GDP. This week’s figures showed super-strong growth in the three months to the end of June. But look under the bonnet and you find the economy’s engine was firing on only two cylinders.

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics’ “national accounts”, real gross domestic product – the economy’s production of goods and services – grew by 0.9 per cent in the June quarter, and by 3.6 per cent over the year to June.

If that doesn’t impress you, it should. Over the past decade, growth has averaged only 2.3 per cent a year.

The main thing driving that growth was consumer spending. It grew by 2.2 per cent in the quarter and by 6 per cent over the year, as the nation’s households – previously cashed up by government handouts, and by most people keeping their jobs and others finding one, but prevented from spending the cash by intermittent lockdowns and closed state and national borders – kept desperately trying to catch up with all they’d been missing.

The other big contribution to growth during the quarter came from a 5.5 per cent jump in the “volume” (quantity) of our exports. Most of the credit for this goes to that wonderful man Vladimir Putin, whose bloody invasion of Ukraine has greatly disrupted world fossil fuel markets, thus greatly increasing our sales of coal and gas.

(It has also greatly increased the world prices of coal and gas and grains, causing our “terms of trade” – the prices we receive for our exports relative to the prices we pay for our imports – to improve by 4.6 per cent during the quarter, to an all-time high.)

But that’s where the good news stops. The other cylinders driving the economy’s engine have been on the blink. A marked slowdown in the rate at which businesses were building up their inventories of raw materials and finished goods led to a sharp slowdown in goods production.

Government spending took a breather, and an increase in business investment in new plant and equipment was offset by a fall in business investment in buildings and other construction.

And then there’s what happened to home building. Despite a big pipeline of homes waiting to be built, building activity actually declined by 2.9 per cent in the quarter and 4.6 per cent over the year.

Huh? How could that happen? Well, the builders say they couldn’t find enough building materials and tradies. Which hasn’t stopped them using the opportunity to whack up their prices. (I believe this is called “capitalism”.)

So, while we listen to lectures from the economic managers about the evil of inflation and how it leaves them with no choice but to slow everything down by jacking up interest rates, let’s not forget that the big jump in the cost of new homes and renovations has been caused by... them.

They’re the ones who, at the start of the pandemic and the lockdowns, decided it would be a great idea to rev up the housing industry, by offering incentives to people buying new houses, and by cutting the official interest rate to near zero. Well done, guys.

Speaking of higher interest rates being used to slow down the growth in demand for goods and services, the first two of the five rises we’ve had so far would have had little influence on what happened in the economy over the three months to June.

But don’t worry, they’ll have their expected effect in due course. Which is the first reason the strong, consumer-led growth we saw last quarter won’t last, even if we see more of it in the present quarter.

Another reason is that households are running on what a cook would call stored heat. During the first, national lockdown, the proportion of household disposable (after-tax) income that we saved rather than spent leapt to almost 24 per cent.

We’ve been cutting our rate of saving since then, and it’s now down to 8.7 per cent. This isn’t a lot higher than it was before the pandemic. And with the gathering fall in house prices making people feel less wealthy, it wouldn’t surprise me to see people feeling they shouldn’t cut their rate of saving too much further.

And that, of course, is before we get to the other great source of pressure on households’ budgets: consumer prices are rising faster than workers’ wages. This no doubt explains why our households’ real disposable income has actually fallen for three quarters in a row.

With businesses putting up their prices, but not adequately compensating their workers for the higher cost of living, it’s not surprising so many people are taking more interest in what the national accounts tell us about how the nation’s income is being divided between capital and labour, profits and wages.

ACTU boss Sally McManus complains that workers now have the lowest share of GDP on record. It follows that the profits share of national income is the highest on record.

What doesn’t follow, however, is that any increase in profits must have come at the expense of workers and their wages. Profits are up this quarter mainly because, as we’ve seen, our miners’ export prices are way up, and so are their profits.

No, the better way to judge whether workers are getting their fair share is to look at what’s happened to “real unit labour costs” – employers’ labour costs, after allowing for inflation and the productivity of labour (that’s the per-unit bit).

Turns out that, since the end of 2019, employers’ real unit labour costs have fallen by 8.5 per cent. If workers were getting their fair share, this would have been little changed.

Short-changing households in this way is not how you keep consumer spending – and businesses’ turnover – ever onward and upward.

Read more >>

Monday, August 29, 2022

Jobs summit: shut up those playing the productivity three-card trick

Anthony Albanese and his ministers are keen to ensure this week’s jobs and skills summit doesn’t degenerate into the talk fest the opposition is predicting it will be. Well, one way to avoid much hot air is to shut up people playing the usual three-card trick on productivity.

The truth is there’s a lot of muddled and dishonest talk about the relationship between wages and productivity. Much of this comes from the employer lobby groups, which will spout any pseudo-economic nonsense that suits their goal of keeping wage growth as low as possible.

But they get too much comfort from econocrats who think that if you know what economics 101 teaches about how demand and supply interact, you know all you need to know about how all markets work, including the labour market.

As former top econocrat Dr Michael Keating, an economist specialising in the labour market, has explained, “the authorities’ model, which assumes perfect competition, constant returns to scale and neutral technological progress, implies that real wages can be expected to grow at the same rate as [labour] productivity, neither more nor less, making it look as if the collapse in productivity growth explains the collapse in wages growth”.

So when workers complain about the lack of growth in real wages, the employers’ professional apologists reply that real wages haven’t grown because the productivity of labour hasn’t improved. If only the unions would co-operate in efforts to improve productivity, wages would grow, as sure as night follows day.

But the supposed magical mechanism by which productivity improvement flows inexorably to real wages is refuted by the summary statistics quoted in Treasury’s issues paper for the summit. We’re told that, though productivity improvement has slowed, we’ve still achieved growth averaging 1 per cent a year since 2004.

But we’re also told that “real wages have grown by only 0.1 per cent a year over the past decade, and have declined substantially over the past year”. Not much automatic flow-through there.

Which brings us to another thing that’s being fudged in the present debate. You sometimes hear spruikers for the employers implying you need productivity improvement to justify even a rise in nominal wages.

But productivity is a “real” – after-inflation – concept. For the benefit from national productivity improvement to be shared fairly between capital and labour – employers and employees – it has to increase wages over and above inflation.

Here, however, is where we strike another difficulty. There used to be tripartite consensus – business, workers and government – that wages should always keep up with prices. Cuts in real wages were needed only to correct a period where real wage growth had been excessive – that is, exceeding productivity improvement.

Right now, however, the opposite is the case. Real wages were long falling short of what productivity improvement we were achieving before the present surge in prices left wage rates far behind. Even with the labour market so tight, workers simply haven’t had the industrial muscle to achieve wage rises commensurate with the leap in prices.

And now, while businesses show little restraint in passing their higher imported input costs through to higher retail prices, while adding a bit for luck, the great and good – read business and the econocrats – have agreed that the quickest and easiest way to get inflation down is for the nation’s households to pay the price.

A big fall in real wages squares the circle. Business has passed on its costs – and then some – and the economic managers have redeemed their reputations and got the inflation rate falling back. What’s not to like?

Well, we’ve solved the problem by allowing a big cut in real household income. It’s likely businesses will feel adverse effects as households see no choice but to tighten their belts. And I imagine some workers, consumers and voters will be pretty upset, concluding that the economy certainly isn’t being run for their benefit.

In effect, Treasury’s issues paper says forget the present disaster and look to the future. We can get real wages growing again – an election promise - as soon as we get productivity up.

Well, no we can’t. The paper’s claiming that, contrary to the experience of the past decade, improved productivity automatically flows through to real wages. And even if that were true, it assumes workers are innumerate, and won’t know that future real gains in wages must first make up for previous real losses. It’s the productivity three-card trick.

Meanwhile, business and the econocrats’ self-serving expedience, in deciding that the punters should pay for a problem they did nothing to cause, has created the climate for radical reform of the wage-fixing system: a return to industry bargaining.

Read more >>

Friday, August 26, 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read more >>

Wednesday, August 10, 2022

We've got more than we've ever had, but are we better off?

It probably won’t surprise you that the Productivity Commission is always writing reports about … productivity. Its latest is a glittering advertisement for the manifold benefits of capitalism which, we’re told, holds The Key to Prosperity.

Which is? Glad you asked. Among all the ways to co-ordinate a nation’s economic activity, capitalism – which the commission prefers to call the “market” economy – is by far the best at raising our material standard of living by continuously improving our … productivity.

Productivity is capitalist magic. It means producing more outputs of goods and services with the same or fewer inputs of raw materials, labour and physical capital. This involves not working harder or longer, but working smarter – using new ideas to reduce the cost of the goods and services we produce, to improve their quality and even to invent new goods and services.

Find that hard to believe? Keep watching the ad.

We’re told that sustained productivity improvement has happened only over about the past 200 years, since the Industrial Revolution. Then, 90 per cent of the world’s population lived in extreme poverty, compared with less than 10 per cent today.

Technological developments and inventions – including vaccines, antibiotics and statins – have driven huge increases in the length of our lives and years of good health.

In Australia, output of goods and services per person – a simple measure of prosperity – is about seven times higher than it was 120 years ago at Federation. This means people today have access to an array of goods and services that were unimaginable in the past.

For every 10,000 newborn babies in 1901, more than 1000 died before their first birthday; today it’s just three. For those who survived childbirth, life expectancy was about 60 years, compared with more than 80 today.

During their 60 years, the average Australian worked much longer hours than today, with little paid leave. The 48-hour week wasn’t introduced until 1916 and paid annual leave didn’t become the norm until 1935. Workplaces were far more dangerous.

Most people died before becoming eligible for the age pension (introduced in 1909) and the average wage bought far fewer goods and services, with a steak costing 5 per cent of the weekly wage.

Homes were more crowded – about five people per home, which were much smaller. We had outside toilets until the 1950s and washing machines and dishwashers didn’t become common until at least the 1970s.

By making goods and services cheaper and better, productivity improvement has increased the typical worker’s purchasing power. That is, it has reduced the number of hours of work required to achieve any particular level of material living standards.

For instance, the cost of a double bed, mattress, blanket and pillows has fallen from 185 hours of work in 1901 to 18 hours today. The cost of a loaf of bread has fallen from 18 minutes to four minutes.

More recently, the cost of a new car has fallen from 17 months in 1990 to five. The cost of a smartphone has fallen from 60 hours in 2010 to 16.

End of advertisement.

When you think about it, this is amazing. Objectively, there’s no doubt we’re hugely more prosperous than our forebears. Our lives are longer and healthier, with less pain, less physical exertion, less work per week, bigger and better homes, more education, more comfort, more convenience, more entertainment, more holidays and travel, more ready contact with family and friends, and greater access to the rest of the world.

We’re not just better off than our great-grandparents, we’re clearly better off than we were 20 years ago. Oldies like me can’t begin to tell our offspring how much clunkier the world was before computers and the internet.

And yet … the trouble with the higher material living standard we strive for – and economists devote their careers to helping us achieve – is that we so quickly take it for granted. It’s always the next step on the prosperity ladder that will finally make us happy.

We’re undoubtedly better off in 100 ways, but do we feel much better about it?

I suspect our lives are like a Top 40 chart – when one tune falls back, another always takes its place. There’s always one tune that sold most copies this week – even if this week’s winner sold far fewer than last week’s.

Whether they’re life-threatening or just annoying, there’s always a set of worries that mar our sense of wellbeing. Makes you wonder whether there might be more to life than prosperity. Human relationships, for instance.

Then there’s the possibility – beyond the purview of most economists – that prosperity comes at a price. Maybe the world we’ve created in our pursuit of prosperity comes at the price of more stress, anxiety, depression and loneliness.

And maybe the natural world is about to present us with a belated bill for all our prosperity: more droughts, bushfires, cyclones, flooding and higher sea levels. All of it in a despoiled environment.

Read more >>

Friday, August 5, 2022

If higher productivity comes from new ideas, it's time we had some

Economists and business people talk unceasingly about the crying need to improve the economy’s productivity, but most of what they say is self-serving and much of it’s just silly. Fortunately, this week’s five-yearly report on the subject from the Productivity Commission, The Key to Prosperity, is far from silly, and might just stand a chance of getting us somewhere.

It’s the first of several reports and, unlike the tosh we usually get, it’s not selling any magic answers. Business people mention productivity only when they’re “rent-seeking” – asking the government for changes that will make it easier to increase their profits without them trying any harder.

Their favourite magic answer is to say that if only the government would cut the tax paid by companies and senior executives, this would do wonders for productivity.

As for the econocrats, too often they see it as a chance to advertise the product they’re selling: “microeconomic reform” – by which they usually mean reducing government intervention in markets.

A lot of people think wanting higher “productivity” is just a flash way of saying you want production to increase. Wrong. The report makes it clear that improving productivity means producing more outputs, but with the same or fewer inputs.

It sounds like some sort of miracle, and it is pretty amazing to think about, but it happens all the time.

Another mistake is to think that wanting to increase productivity is the bosses’ way of saying they’re going to make us work harder. No, no, no. As the report repeats, productivity comes from working smarter, not harder or longer.

In response to the scientist-types who keep repeating that unending economic growth is physically impossible, and then wondering what bit of this the economist-types don’t get, the report says that “while economic growth based solely on [increased] physical inputs cannot go on forever, human ingenuity is inexhaustible”.

Get it? Economic growth doesn’t come primarily from cutting down trees and digging stuff out of the ground – and the scientists are right in telling us we must do less despoiling of the environment, our “natural capital” – it comes overwhelmingly from using human ingenuity to think of ways to produce more with less.

That’s why the report says improved productivity is “the key to prosperity” and is based on “the spread of new, useful ideas”.

To be more concrete, productivity is improved by people thinking of ways to improve the goods and services we produce, ways to make the production process less wasteful – more efficient – and thinking up goods and services that are entirely new.

This gives us a mixture of novel products, improved quality and reduced cost.

Over the past 200 years, since the start of the Industrial Revolution, the productivity of all the developed economies has improved by a few per cent almost every year. In our case, over the past 120 years the economic output of the average Australian is up seven-fold, while hours worked has consistently fallen.

Trouble is, the miracle of productivity improvement has been a lot less miraculous in recent times. Over the past 60 years, our productivity improved at an average rate of 1.7 per cent a year. Over the decade to 2020, it “slowed significantly” to 1.1 per cent a year.

The report is quick to point out that much the same has been happening in all the rich countries. (It does note, however, that the level of our productivity is now lower than it was compared with the levels the other rich countries have achieved.)

This is significant. It suggests that whatever factors have caused our productivity performance to fall off are probably the same as those in the other rich economies. But as yet, none of them has put their finger on the main causes of the problem.

If they’re still working on the answers, so are we. So the report focuses on thinking about what may be causing the problem and where we should be looking for answers. Remember, this is just first of several reports.

So, unlike the rent-seekers and econocrats, it’s offering no magic answers. But it does come up with a good explanation for at least part of the productivity slowdown: for most of the past two centuries, one of the main ways we’ve produced more with less is by using newly invented “labour-saving equipment” to replace workers with machines in farming, mining and then manufacturing.

The quantity of goods we produce in those industries has never been greater, but the number of people employed to produce it all is a fraction of what it once was. And this accounts for a huge proportion of the productivity improvement we’ve achieved since Federation.

Because producing more with less makes us richer, not poorer – increases our real income – total employment has gone up rather than down as we’ve spent that extra income employing more people to perform all manner of services – from menial to hugely skilled.

So successful have we (and all the rich economies) been at shifting workers from making goods to delivering services that the service industries now account for about 80 per cent of all we produce and about 90 per cent of all employment.

See the problem? In the main, services are delivered by people. So the economy’s now almost completely composed of industries where it’s much harder to improve productivity simply by using machines to replace workers. It’s far from impossible, but it’s much harder than on a farm, mine site or factory.

That’s the more so when you remember that two of the biggest service industries are health and social assistance, and education and training.

It’s pretty clear that, if we’re going to get back to higher rates of productivity improvement, we’ll have come up with some new ideas on how to make the service industries more productive, without diminishing quality. That’s what comes next in the Productivity Commission’s series of reports.

Read more >>

Saturday, June 18, 2022

Why Albanese needs to protect capitalism from the capitalists

One of the first things Anthony Albanese and his cabinet have to decide is whether the government will be “pro-business” or “pro-market”. If he wants to make our economy work better for all Australians, not just those at the top of the economic tree, Albanese will be pro-market, not pro-business – which ain’t the same as saying he should be anti-business. Confused? Read on.

It’s clear Albanese wants to lead a less confrontational, more consultative and inclusive government – which is fine. He’ll bring back into the tent some groups the Morrison-led Coalition government seemed to regard as enemies: the unions, the universities and the charities.

Conversely, it’s obvious he wants to retain big business within the tent – as, of course, it always is with the Liberals. Business is so powerful the sensible end of Labor never wants to get it offside.

Trouble is, over the years in which the Hawke-Keating government’s commitment to “economic rationalism” degenerated into “neo-liberalism”, big business got used to usually getting its own way – even if the process needed to be lubricated with generous donations to party funds.

If Albanese is genuine in wanting to govern for all Australians, he’ll have to get big business used to being listened to but not blindly obeyed. Which means he and his ministers will have to resist the temptation of having the generous donations diverted in the direction of whichever party happens to be in power.

Labor could do worse than study a recent speech, Restoring our market economy to work for all Australians, by the former boss of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, Rod Sims. He is now a professor at the Australian National University’s inestimable Crawford School of Public Policy, home to many of the nation’s most useful former public servants.

Sims starts with an important disclaimer: “I am a strong proponent of a market economy. All the alternatives do not work well. Further, our market economy has delivered significant benefits to all Australians.

“For it to endure, however, it needs improvement. Without this, it and our society will be under threat.”

Couldn’t have said it better myself. Sometimes people criticise an institution not because they hate it, but because they love it and don’t want to see it go astray. And capitalism is too important to the well-being of all of us to be left to the capitalists.

So, what’s the problem? “Running a market economy, where companies are motivated by profit, can only work as expected if there is sufficient competition, and we don’t have this now. We currently have too few companies competing to serve customers in the markets for many products; we need policies that promote competition, not thwart it,” Sims says.

A market-based economy is one where decisions regarding investment, production and distribution to consumers are guided by the price signals created by the forces of supply and demand, he explains.

But here’s the key proviso on which the satisfactory functioning of such an arrangement is based: “An underlying assumption is that there are many suppliers competing to meet consumer demands.”

Right now, that assumption isn’t being met. Sims quotes Martin Wolf, of the Financial Times, saying “what has emerged over the last 40 years is not free-market capitalism, but a predatory form of monopoly capitalism. Capitalists will, alas, always prefer monopoly. Only the state can restore the competition we need.”

What? Wolf is some kind of socialist? Of course not. Sims puts it more clearly: “A market economy also needs the right regulation in place so that companies pursue profit within clear guardrails.” We need some changes to Australian consumer law to provide these guardrails, particularly an unfair practices provision.

Market concentration – meaning there are only a few dominant companies seeking to meet the needs of consumers in many product markets – is high in Australia. “Think banking, beer, groceries, mobile service providers, aviation, rail freight, energy retailing, internet search, mobile app stores and so much more,” Sims says.

He quotes the Harvard economist Michael Porter, a corporate strategy expert, writing as long ago as 1979 that companies achieve commercial success by finding ways to reduce competition, by raising barriers to entry by new players, by lowering the bargaining power of suppliers including their workforce [No! he didn’t include screwing their own workers, did he?] and by locking in the consumers of their products and services.

“Companies don’t want markets . . . with many suppliers all with relatively equal bargaining power,” Sims says. “Instead, what firms seek is market power where they can price, or pay their suppliers, as they want, without being constrained by other competing companies.

“They seek above-normal profits based on using some form of market power.”

This is not controversial, he says. “Every businessperson would agree. None wants to work in a competitive market where they simply seek to outperform their competitors. They want an edge from some form of market power.”

Too much market power in our economy can cause a range of harms to many Australians and to our society. “The most obvious harm is higher prices, which occur particularly when supply is limited relative to demand.

“When supply is plentiful, however, market power means pressure comes on workers and other suppliers.”

Sims points to the way the profits share of national income has been rising at the expense of the wages share. He also notes concerns about the lack of innovation in Australia, as well as our low productivity.

Guess what? When so many markets are dominated by a few big firms, the resulting lack of competitive pressure reduces the incentives to invest, create new products and do other things that increase productivity.

The message for the new government is clear: keep giving big business what it wants – weak merger and competition laws, plus prohibitions on union activity – and the economy will continue performing poorly. Profits will keep growing while household income shrinks.

And it will prove what the Liberals have always said: Labor’s no good at running the economy.

Read more >>

Friday, April 15, 2022

Digital revolution is leaving economists scratching their heads

There should be a law against holding election campaigns while people are trying to enjoy their Easter break. So let’s forget politics and think about the strange ways the economy is changing as the old industrial era gives way to the post-industrial, digital era.

The revolution in information and communications technology is working its way through the economy, changing the way it works. The markets for digital products now work very differently from the markets for conventional products.

So a growing part of the economy consists of markets that don’t fit the assumptions economists make in their basic model of markets, as Diane Coyle, an economics professor at Cambridge University, explains in her book, Cogs and Monsters.

And the way we measure the industrial economy – using the “national accounts” and gross domestic product – isn’t designed to capture the new range of benefits that flow from digital markets.

Starting at the beginning, the great attraction of the capitalist, market economy is its almost magical ability to increase its productivity – its ability to produce an increased quantity of goods and services from an unchanged quantity of raw materials, capital equipment and human labour.

It’s this increased productivity – not so much the increase in resources used – that explains most of the improvement in our standard of living over the past two centuries.

Where did the greater productivity come from? From advances in technology. From bigger and better machines, and more efficiently organised factories, mines, farms, offices and shops, not to mention better educated and skilled workers.

Particularly in the past 70 years, we benefited hugely from the advent of mass-produced consumer goods on production lines. Economists call this “economies of scale” – the bigger the factory and the more you could produce, the lower the cost of each item.

Although each extra unit produced added marginally to raw material and labour costs, the more you produced, the more the “fixed cost” of building and equipping the factory was averaged over a larger number of items, thus reducing the “average cost” per item.

Decades of exploiting the benefit of economies of scale explain why so many of our industries are dominated by just a few big firms.

But the new economy of digital production has put scale economies on steroids. Coyle says software – and movies, news mastheads and much, much else – is costly to write (high fixed cost) but virtually costless to reproduce and distribute (no marginal cost).

So, production of digital products involves “increasing returns to scale”, which is good news for both producers and consumers - everyone except economists because their standard model assumes returns are either constant or declining.

But another thing that makes the digital economy different is “network effects”, starting with the greatest network, the network of networks, the internet. The basic network effect is that the more users of the network there are, the greater the benefit to the individual user. More increasing returns to scale.

Then, Coyle says, there are indirect network effects. Many digital markets involve “matching” suppliers with consumers – such as Airbnb, Uber and Amazon Marketplace. For consumers, the more suppliers the network attracts, the better the chance of quickly finding what you want. But, equally, for suppliers, the more customers the network attracts, the easier it is to make a sale. Economists call these digital networks “two-sided platforms”. The owner of the platform sits in the middle, dealing with both sides.

So, yet more benefits from bigness. And that’s before you get to the benefits of building, mining and sharing large collections of data.

All these benefits being so great, it’s not hard to see why you could end up with only a couple – maybe just one – giant network dominating a market. Welcome to the world of Google, Facebook, Apple, Amazon and Microsoft.

In their forthcoming book, From Free to Fair Markets, Richard Holden, an economics professor at the University of NSW, and Rosalind Dixon, a law professor at the same place, note that a number of leading lights have proposed breaking up these huge tech companies, in the same way America’s big telephone monopoly and interlocking oil companies were broken up last century.

But, the authors object, in most of these markets the power of these giants stems from the “network externalities” we’ve just discussed.

“Unlike traditional markets, when the source of market power is also the source of consumer harm, in these markets the source of market power is also what consumers (and producers, in the case of two-sided platforms) value – being connected with other consumers and producers,” they write.

“The key driver of the value that these firms create is precisely the network externalities that they bring about. Facebook is valuable to users because lots of other users are on Facebook . . .

“Google is a superior search engine because in performing so many searches, machine learning allows its algorithm to get better and better, making it a more desirable search engine.”

So, the driving force that leads to these markets having one dominant player is also the force that creates economic value. “Breaking up the large players will stop there being just a few large players, but it will also stop there being nearly as much economic value created,” they say.

Research by Holden, Professor Luis Rayo and the Nobel laureate Robert Akerlof has found that markets with network externalities tend to have three features. First, the firm that wins the initial competition in the market ends up with most of the market.

Second, it’s difficult to become a winning firm, and success is fragile. For instance, Microsoft has had little success getting its search engine Bing to take business from Google. And Netscape was once dominant in the browser market, but suddenly got supplanted.

Third, winners can’t go to sleep. They must constantly innovate and seek to raise their quality.

This makes the tech markets quite different from conventional markets like oil or even old-style networks like railways.

Economists’ efforts to get a handle on the new economy continue.

Read more >>

Monday, March 7, 2022

It will take more that faith to keep the economy growing

Treasurer Josh Frydenberg says it’s time for the private sector to drive the economy’s recovery. And, this being a Liberal Party article of faith, he’s likely to keep saying it in this month’s budget and the election campaign to follow. One small problem: there’s little sign it’s happening.

Last week’s national accounts for the December quarter were a reminder that the economy’s living on borrowed time and stored heat. Both households and businesses are cashed up as a result of “fiscal stimulus” – government income support – and income they weren’t able to spend during lockdowns.

It’s estimated that households have an extra $200 billion or more waiting to be spent. As it is spent, private consumption will continue growing strongly in real terms. But, absent further lockdowns, there’ll be no more special support from the budget. No more JobKeeper payments and the like, no more grants to encourage home building, and a looming end to tax breaks to encourage business investment in equipment and construction.

The two main things we need to achieve continuing strong economic growth (by which I mean growth in income per person, not just more immigration) is strong real growth in household consumption spending and business investment spending.

Trouble is, last week’s figures offered little assurance that either requirement will be forthcoming. Starting with business investment, Kieran Davies, of Coolabah Capital, reminds us that (even after including intangible investment in software and research and development) it’s presently at the “extraordinarily low” level of 10 per cent of gross domestic product, similar to the lows it reached in the recessions of the 1970s and 1990s.

It may be about to take off – or it may not be. It’s hard to think why a take-off is likely. Davies reminds us that a major benefit from a big lift in business investment would be a lift in the productivity of labour, as workers were supplied with the improved equipment they need to be more productive.

Indeed, you can turn the argument round the other way and wonder if the weak rates of business investment over the past decade or so do much to help explain why productivity has improved so little over the period.

Even the most tightwad employer must agree that improved labour productivity means wages can rise faster than prices without adding to inflation.

And if we want to see consumer spending, which accounts for well over half of GDP, continuing to grow strongly once all the money households saved during the pandemic has been spent, rising real wages are the only thing that will do it.

Trouble is, the (temporary) surges in consumer spending whenever we end a period of lockdown have given the impression the economy is booming, while concealing the truth that, after allowing for inflation, wages have been falling, not rising.

This is also reflected in last week’s news from the national accounts that “non-farm real unit labour costs” – which, by comparing the change in firms’ real labour costs with the change in the productivity of that labour, reflect the division of surplus between labour and profits – have fallen by 3 per cent since the start of the pandemic.

This should not come as a surprise when you remember that, in early 2020, when we feared the battle to control the virus would send us into a deep and lasting recession, most businesses moved immediately to impose a wage freeze.

Worried about whether the deep recession would sweep away their jobs, workers and their unions accepted the necessity of the freeze.

But that’s not the way things turned out. The pandemic wasn’t nearly as bad as epidemiologists first expected it to be, vaccines turned up much earlier than had been hoped, lockdowns were often short and intermittent, and unprecedented fiscal stimulus shifted much of the cost of the lockdowns off private businesses’ profit and loss accounts and onto the public sector’s budgets.

In the main, private sector profits have held up surprisingly well.

So the key issue of whether consumer spending, and thus the wider economy, can continue growing strongly after households have finished the spending repressed during the lockdowns is what happens to wage growth. And that comes down to three questions.

First, will employees get outsized pay rises this year to compensate them for the wage freeze that turned out not to be needed?

Second, will employees also get pay rises big enough to cover all the recent increase in living costs they face – higher petrol prices and the rest – or will employers, public as well as private, ask them to “take one for the team” one more time? If so, real wages will fall further and future consumer spending will be stuffed.

Third, will the econocrats’ strategy of running a super-tight labour market force tight-fisted employers to increase wages, as the only desperation measure able to attract the workers they need?

Or will the labour shortages gradually dissipate now our border’s been reopened to overseas students, backpackers and skilled immigrants on temporary visas?

Meanwhile, the man who should be solving our cost-of-living/weak wages problem will be blustering on about the private sector taking over the running. If the Opposition can’t make this the central focus of the election campaign, it deserves to lose. It, too, would be bad at managing the economy.

Read more >>

Monday, January 3, 2022

There are many ways to stuff up productivity

A good New Year’s resolution for readers of the business pages would be to read more widely and think more broadly, so their thinking about economic problems and their solutions doesn’t get into a rut, returning repeatedly to the same old solutions to the same problems.

No reader of these pages needs to be told that the key to higher material living standards is improved productivity – the ability to create more outputs from the same quantity of inputs of land (raw materials), labour and physical and intangible capital.

Almost continuous productivity improvement over the past two centuries is the outstanding achievement of capitalist, market economies, the proof of capitalism’s superiority as a system of organising production and consumption.

It’s what’s made us so much more prosperous than our forebears were, with much of that prosperity spilling over from the owners of capital to the middle class and people near the bottom.

But, as I’m sure you know, over the past decade or so the rate of productivity improvement in Australia and all advanced economies has slowed to a snail’s pace. Hence, all the talk about productivity and what we can do improve its rate of improvement.

So far, a decade of hand-wringing hasn’t got us anywhere. We need to think more broadly about the problem.

One new thought is to wonder if there is – or should be – more to the good life than economic growth and a higher material standard of living. If there are ways we could improve the quality of our lives even if they didn’t lead to us owning more and better toys.

A negative way to express the same thought is to wonder if being able to afford better houses and cars will be much consolation if we succeed in stuffing up our climate, with more heat waves, rainy summers, droughts, bushfires, floods, cyclones and a rising sea level.

But we’ll return to those thoughts another day, and descend now to the more prosaic. One rut we’ve got into is thinking it’s up to the government to lift our productivity by “reforming” this or that intervention in the economy.

This is model-blind thinking on the part of econocrats, hijacked by rent-seeking businesses and high income-earners wanting more power to limit the earnings of their employees and more of the tax burden shifted to other people in the name of improving “incentives”.

The same people show little interest in reforms that really would increase economic growth by increasing women’s participation in paid work, such as free childcare.

Another rut we’re in is thinking that we won’t get faster economic growth until we get back to faster productivity improvement.

This has much truth, but it misses the deeper truth that the relationship between economic growth and productivity can also run the other way: maybe we’re not getting faster productivity improvement because we’re not getting enough economic growth.

In practice, what does much to increase the productivity of labour is businesses – in mining, farming and manufacturing, but also the service industries – replacing old machines with the latest, most improved models.

But business investment has long been at historically low levels, making our weak productivity performance hardly surprising. And the dearth of new investment spending is also hardly surprising considering consumer spending has been so weak for so long.

Nor is weak consumer spending surprising when you remember how weak the growth in real wages has been. One reason wage growth has been so weak, as Reserve Bank governor Dr Philip Lowe has pointed out, is the present fashion of businesses using any and every means – legal or otherwise – to limit labour costs and so increase profits. There are other paths to profitability.

While we’re thinking unfamiliar thoughts on the possible causes of our productivity plateau, remember this one: when businesses have been investing strongly in new equipment in the past, it’s often been a time when labour costs have been rising rapidly, giving them a strong incentive to invest in labour-saving machines.

(Note, it’s precisely because this increases the productivity of labour, and thus increases real national income, that the pursuit of labour saving simply shifts the demand for labour from goods-producing industries to services-producing industries, leaving no decline in the demand for labour overall.)

Last year some economists at the International Monetary Fund wrote a blog post on yet another contributor to weak productivity improvement, which will certainly come as a surprise to “Brother Stu,” federal Education Minister Stuart Robert, who late last month sent a “letter of expectations” to the government’s Australian Research Council outlining the Morrison government’s desire to prioritise short-term research jobs that service the interests of commercial manufacturers.

It’s possible he and Scott Morrison merely wish to swing one for the Coalition’s generous business backers, but my guess is they imagined they were striking a blow for higher productivity. If so, they’ve been badly advised.

Research by the IMF economists finds that productivity improvement in the advanced economies has been declining despite steady increases in research and development, the best indicator we have on “innovation” effort, the thing so many business people give so many speeches about.

But get this: they find that what matters for economic growth is the composition of spending on R&D, with basic scientific research affecting more sectors for a longer time than applied research (commercially oriented R&D by companies).

“While applied research is important to bring innovations to market, basic research expands the knowledge base needed for breakthrough scientific progress,” they say.

“A striking example is the development of COVID-19 vaccines which, in addition to saving millions of lives, has helped bring forward the reopening of many economies . . . Like other major innovations, scientists drew on decades of accumulated knowledge in different fields to develop the mRNA vaccines.”

Which suggests the Morrison government has just jumped the wrong way in its latest intervention into the affairs of our universities. Should have done more R&D of their own before jumping.

Read more >>

Wednesday, August 25, 2021

Working from home would be back to the future

By now it seems cut and dried. The pandemic has taught us to love the benefits of working from home and stopped bosses fearing it, so we’ll keep doing it once the virus has receded and the kids are back at school. Well, maybe, maybe not. Any lasting change in the way we work is likely to be evolutionary rather than revolutionary.

Productivity Commission boss Michael Brennan and his troops have been giving the matter much thought and, as he revealed in a speech last week, such a radical change in the way we work would be produced by the interaction of various conflicting but powerful forces.

After all, it would be a return to the way we worked 300 years ago before the Industrial Revolution. Then, most people worked from home as farmers, weavers and blacksmiths and other skilled artisans. And, don’t forget, by today’s standards we were extremely poor.

What’s made us so much more prosperous? Advances in technology. But technology is the product of human invention. That invention could have pushed our lives in other directions.

What underlying force pushed us in the direction it did? As the Productivity Commission boss was too subtle to say, our pursuit of improved productivity.

Productivity isn’t producing more, it’s producing more with less. In particular, producing more of the goods and services we love to consume using less labour. Why among the three “factors of production” – land and its raw materials, capital equipment and labour – is it labour we’ve always sought to minimise?

Because we run the economy to benefit ourselves, and it’s humans who do the labour. We’ve reduced physical labour, but now automation allows us to reduce routine mental labour.

(While we’re on the subject, note this. Many people think automation destroys jobs. But in 250 years of installing ever-better “labour-saving technology” we’ve managed to increase unemployment only to 6 per cent or so. That’s because automation doesn’t destroy jobs, it changes and moves them. From the production of physical goods to the delivery of human services. In the process, it’s made us hugely better off.)

It was the Industrial Revolution that increasingly drove us to the centralised workplace. Initially, the factory and the mine, then the office.

The move to most people working in a central location was driven by economic forces. Businesses saw the benefits – to them and their customers – of combining labour with large and expensive machinery, powered by a single source. Initially, steam.

“The factory provided a means for bosses to co-ordinate activity in real time, supervise workers and it also provided an efficient way to share knowledge – as did the office,” Brennan says.

So the central workplace reduced the cost of combining labour and capital, but did so by imposing transport costs – mainly on workers who had to get themselves from home to the central location and back.

For most of the 20th century, however, it got ever-cheaper to move people around, via steam, electricity, the internal-combustion engine and the aeroplane. So advances in transport technology reinforced the role of the central workplace.

For about the past 30 years, however, the cost of moving people around has stopped falling. “We seem to have hit physical limits on speed; and congestion has meant that today it takes longer to move around our cities than was the case a few decades ago,” Brennan says.

This, of course, is why we fancy the idea of continuing to work from home. It’s only advances in computing and telecommunications technology that have made this possible. The cost of moving information has plummeted, while the cost of moving workers – in time and discomfort – has gone up.

So, could it be that modern communications technology is set to drive us back to our homes?

Perhaps. But remember this. While the tiny proportion of people working from home has hardly budged over the past two decades, our capital city CBDs have become more significant as centres of economic activity and as engines of productivity improvement.

Here’s the catch. At the same time as information technology was improving, and the cost of communicating over distance was falling, the nature of work was changing. As machines have replaced routine tasks, modern jobs have come to require more open-ended decision-making, critical thinking and adaptability.

Experts think these quintessentially human skills are best developed and honed through face-to-face interactions, such as the serendipitous encounter or the tacit knowledge we absorb through observing those around us.

Get it? That many of us have come to prefer working from home (I’ve been doing it since 1990) is just one factor that happens to be pulling us in the direction of home. Other factors will keep pulling us into the office. Expect a lot of businesses experimenting with different mixes of the two.

Economic history suggests that what evolves will be the combination that maximises our productivity. Not just because bosses want to make bigger profits, but also because most people like a rising standard of living.

Read more >>

Friday, July 23, 2021

Reduced competition between businesses is harming productivity

In the search for explanations of the slowdown in productivity improvement, the world’s economists are closing in on one of the significant causes: reduced competition between the businesses in an industry, giving them increased “market power” – ability to raise the prices they charge.

Research by various Treasury economists has found evidence of this happening in Australia. And this month US President Joe Biden acted to increase competition in various markets where it had been lacking.

A new study by Jonathan Hambur has added to earlier research by Treasury people finding that Australia’s private sector has shown less “dynamism” – ability to become more economically efficient over time – during the past decade or so.

Hambur has used a database of tax returns covering almost all Australian businesses to find that their “mark-ups” have increased by about 5 per cent since the mid-noughties.

To economists, a firm’s mark-up is the ratio of the prices it charges compared to its “marginal” cost of production – that is, the cost of the last unit it produced.

Hambur says that, while part of this increase seems to have been caused by technological change, it also shows an increase in firms’ market power and a decline in competition.

If so, this would explain about a fifth of the slowdown in the rate of productivity improvement we’ve seen over the past decade, since we already know the same period has seen slower reallocation of resources from low-productivity to high-productivity firms.

We measure productivity by comparing the quantity of the output of goods or services with the quantity of inputs of raw materials, labour and physical capital used to produce the output. Increasing output per unit of input is the main way we’ve been able to keep improving our material standard of living over the past two centuries.

And one of the ways an economy increases its productivity is by more of the production being done by the firms that are best at turning inputs into outputs at the expense of the less-efficient firms. Resources (inputs) are thereby “reallocated” to their most efficient use. What causes this reallocation to occur? Price competition between the firms in an industry.

Many people assume big companies can set whatever price they like. But this can’t be true. Even in the case of a single firm selling an important product, if the monopolist uses its considerable market power to set a price that’s simply too high for many people to afford, it will get to a point where it loses more from the sales it no longer makes than it gains from the extra profit it makes from those people still willing and able to pay the extra.

This is why economists say a firm wanting to maximise its profits is able to charge no more than “what the market will bear”. How much the market will bear depends mainly on the strength of the competition it faces from other firms selling the same product.

The textbook, neo-classical model of a “perfectly competitive” market – which is hugely oversimplified and has never existed in the real world – tells us the many firms in a market are able to charge a price no higher than their marginal cost of production (remembering that the “cost” includes a rate of profit just sufficient to discourage the owners of the firm from taking their financial capital to another market).

In this case, each firm that survives in the market will be able to charge only the identical market price set by the marginal cost. A firm that tries to charge more than the market price will sell nothing, whereas a firm that charges less will sell out immediately, but then go out backwards because it hasn’t covered its costs.

In the real world, there are a host of possible reasons why firms are able to charge a price higher than their marginal cost, and so make excess profit: because customers don’t know where to find the products that are cheaper but just as good, because customers are bamboozled by advertising and phoney “product differentiation”, because economies of scale and improved technology allow firms to get bigger and reduce their average cost of production.

Firms pursue scale economies and other innovations in the hope of making excess profits, but theory tells us that competition from other firms will end up forcing them to pass their cost savings on to their customers in the form of lower prices. The consumers always beat the capitalists.

When competition isn’t strong enough to make this happen, however, firms can and do earn mark-ups well above their marginal costs. Now Hambur has confirmed this happens in Australia. Worse, our mark-ups have increased over the past decade, telling us competition has weakened further and given our businesses greater market power.

With US economists finding similar evidence of reduced competition contributing to America’s own productivity slowdown, it’s not surprising to see President Biden acting to increase competition. Earlier this month he signed an executive order urging federal government agencies to crack down on anti-competitive practices ranging from agriculture to pharmaceuticals.

He denounced the present era of business monopolies. “Rather than competing for consumers [businesses] are consuming their competitors; rather than competing for workers they are finding ways to gain the upper hand on labour,” he said.

“Let me be very clear, capitalism without competition isn’t capitalism, it’s exploitation.”

Biden directed the Department of Justice and Federal Trade Commission to carefully review mergers and even challenge deals already put through.

He directed the trade commission to deal with competition concerns about the behaviour of Facebook, Apple, Alphabet’s Google, and Amazon, and to limit “killer acquisitions” where large internet platforms buy out potential competitors.

The justice department will launch a review of merger guidelines to determine whether they are “overly permissive”.

So, what could our government do about our own decline in competition? Well, we could start by tightening our own merger laws so the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission can be more successful in its efforts to protect us from anti-competitive takeovers.

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Friday, July 9, 2021

Little sign Morrison is serious about improving productivity

Improving the economy’s productivity is so central to lifting our material standard of living that politicians and big business people talk about it unceasingly. But the funny thing is, most of what they say makes little sense.

But first, let’s be sure we know what “productivity” means. It may be that politicians and business people get away with talking so much nonsense on the subject because so many of us aren’t sure.

A lot of people assume “productivity” is just a flash way of saying “production”. Wrong. It’s also possible people – particularly business people – think it means the same thing as profit, competitiveness or effort.

Wrong again. As Dr Richard Denniss and Matt Saunders, of the Australia Institute, say in a new paper, “while cutting the wages of a worker may lead to an increase in profit, and potentially improve the competitiveness of one firm compared to another, wage reductions do not result in an increase in productivity.

“Indeed, lowering wages may lead to a reduction in productivity if it dissuades firms from investing in labour-saving technology.”

The productivity of a business (or an economy) is the quantity of its output – production – of goods and services compared with the quantity of its inputs of raw materials, labour and physical capital.

It’s most commonly measured by dividing output by the quantity of usually the most expensive input, labour, to get output per hour worked.

The great achievement of capitalist economies is that they’ve been able to extract a bit more output from the average hour worked almost every year for the past two centuries.

It’s this improved productivity that almost wholly explains why the developed countries’ material living standards have got a bit better almost every year.

But how on earth has it been done? Mainly by advances in technology. Continuously since the Industrial Revolution, we’ve been inventing machines that allow us to produce goods using fewer and fewer workers.

This has greatly reduced the proportion of the workforce needed to work in farming, mining and manufacturing, but made it possible to afford far more people delivering services ranging from doctors and professors to people working in aged care, disability care and child care. Over the decades, total unemployment has been little changed by labour-saving technology.

The productivity of labour has been improved also by better education and training of workers, and by improvements in the way businesses are managed.

Now, as discussed last week, Australia’s rate of productivity improvement has slowed markedly since the global financial crisis. And, to be fair, we should remember that much the same has happened in the other rich economies.

But that’s no reason why the government shouldn’t be doing what it can to turn this around. And there’s been no shortage of talk about all the things the Coalition is doing to improve our productivity. What’s missing are signs that all this professed effort is doing much good.

It’s clear Scott Morrison hates being held accountable, but Denniss and Saunders have gathered a remarkable list of the claims he’s made, particularly while he was treasurer, to be working wonders on the productivity front.

In 2016, he claimed the creation of the Australian Building and Construction Commission was “an important reform . . . that will drive productivity, that will support wages growth, that will support increases in profits of small businesses so they can grow and expand”.

The same year he claimed the alleged “free-trade agreements” that the government had been making with other countries would “increase Australia’s productivity and contribute to higher growth by allowing domestic businesses access to cheaper inputs, introducing new technologies, and fostering competition and innovation”.

That’s a claim the Productivity Commission and many economists would strongly dispute.

Treasurer Morrison also claimed “the government is implementing a $50 billion national infrastructure plan to unlock our productive capacity, generate jobs, and expand business and labour market opportunities”. Train station car parks, for instance?

Other ministers have made similar claims, including Christian Porter’s assertion that his reform of wage-fixing rules would “make the bargaining system . . . more efficient and, most importantly, capable of delivering those twin goals of productivity and higher wages”.

This is not to mention the various tax cuts – in the rate of company tax for small business; the three-stage cuts in income tax, including the last stage, in 2024, which will give huge tax cuts to high income-earners despite adding $17 billion a year to an already swollen budget deficit – which are always justified as encouraging more effort, innovation and investment.

Trouble is, all this supposed achievement did nothing to encourage the authors of last week’s intergenerational report to raise their assumed rate of annual productivity improvement over the next 40 years.

Indeed, they cut the rate a fraction to 1.5 per cent a year. They said nothing about any of the above “reforms” helping to justify even that lower assumption, which is actually much higher than the 0.7 per cent average annual improvement achieved over the five years before the coronacession.

What’s more, both the report and Treasurer Josh Frydenberg acknowledge that it will take a lot more reform to get the rate of productivity improvement up to 1.5 per cent a year. What they don’t do is say what reforms they have in mind. Maybe we’ll be told after next year’s election. Or maybe it’ll just be more of the same sort of “reforms” Morrison has assured us are doing so much good.

In former times, big business worthies and conservative politicians used to tell us our goal must be to increase the size of the pie for everyone (which is what improved productivity does), not fight over the size of my slice of the pie compared to yours.

Maybe they’ve stopped saying this because, if we looked too hard at all the changes they assure us will improve productivity, we’d notice they’re aimed at increasing the slice of pie going to business owners and high income-earners.

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Friday, July 2, 2021

Business lobbies use the productivity slump for rent-seeking

It’s encouraging to see the scepticism with which this week’s intergenerational report from Treasurer Josh Frydenberg has been greeted. Any attempt to peer 40 years into the economy’s future will prove close to the mark only by happy accident.

But it’s discouraging to see the way the usual suspects have seized on the report’s most glaring weakness to do no more than push their vested interests in the name of “reform”.

This fifth version of the five-yearly intergenerational report allows us to see how far astray the report’s earlier projections have been, even though we’re only halfway towards the first report’s picture of the economy in 2041.

In their projections of growth in the population, its authors have repeatedly overestimated the fertility rate (expected number of births per woman) and underestimated the growth in net overseas migration (foreigners arriving minus locals leaving).

They predicted that the retirement of the Baby Boomers would see a fall in the rate at which people of working age participate in the labour force, but this “participation rate” has recently been at record highs.

It would be nice to think that, since the object of all these projections has been to alert us to looming pressures on the budget – caused, in particular, by the ageing of the population – governments have responded accordingly, thus making the reports’ prophecies self-defeating. Nice, but not likely.

The pandemic, and the expected four years of weak net overseas migration in particular, is rightly blamed for our population “growing slower and ageing faster” than previously expected. And slower growth in the size of the population means slower growth in the size of the economy.

We’re told that, whereas real GDP grew at the average rate of 3 per cent a year over the past 40 years, it’s now projected to slow to an average rate of 2.6 per cent over the coming 40.

But the justification for our obsession with economic growth is our desire for faster improvement in our material standard of living. And here’s a point Frydenberg hasn’t highlighted: according to the report’s calculations, the projected marked slowing in the economy’s overall rate of growth is expected to affect growth in GDP per person – a crude measure of living standards - only a little.

GDP per person’s average annual growth is projected to fall only from 1.6 per cent over the past 40 years to 1.5 per cent over the coming 40.

It’s here, however, that business and its media cheer squad have read the fine print and are deeply sceptical: that projection of GDP growth per person rests heavily on the mere assumption that the productivity of labour (output of goods and services per hour worked) will improve at the same average annual rate in the coming 40 years as it did over the past 30 years.

And they’re right. Of all the many assumptions on which the report’s mechanical projections depend, this assumption is far the most critical. As Frydenberg rightly says, improving productivity is what explains almost all the improvement in our standard of living over the decades.

And the sceptics are right to doubt that productivity will improve over the next 40 years at anything like the rate of 1.5 per cent a year. For a start, that 30-year average includes the 1990s, a decade when productivity improved at a rate far higher than experienced before or since.

For another thing, productivity improvement in recent years has been much weaker than usual.

So, purely by omission, the latest intergenerational report reminds us of the second biggest threat to our living standards: a continuing slump in productivity. (The biggest threat is the world’s inadequate response to climate change – another thing the report omits to take into account.)

What’s discouraging, however, is the way the business lobby groups have used this inadvertent reminder to bang the same old self-serving drum. The productivity slump has been caused by this government and its predecessors’ failure to continue the economic reform program begun by Hawke, Keating and Howard, we’re assured.

And what reforms do they have in mind? A cut in the rate of company tax for big business and changes in the wage-fixing rules to make the labour market more flexible for employers.

This lobbying is objectionable on three grounds. First, it implies that productivity improvement depends on an unending stream of changes in government policies, which is absurd. The day “reform” stops, productivity stops.

Second, it shifts the blame for weak productivity improvement from the actions of the private sector – in whose farms, mines, factories, offices and shops productivity either gets better or worse – to the politicians in Canberra.

Third, it seeks to disguise blatant rent-seeking as economic “reform”. Productivity would improve if business owners and high income-earners paid less tax, leaving the punters to pay more, and if the balance of bargaining power between bosses and workers shifted further in favour of bosses.

What this self-serving bulldust ignores is that productivity improvement has slumped in all the rich countries, not just in Australia because our pollies are so defective.

Michael Brennan, chair of the Productivity Commission, says the world’s economists are still debating the causes of the productivity slowdown.

They’ve pointed to “mismeasurement issues, a shift towards lower productivity industries, population ageing, a slowdown in the pace of technological discovery, a slowdown in the pace of technological diffusion, a plateauing of improvements in human capital, reduced rates of firm entry and exit, increased concentration and market power, lower capital investment, a shift to intangible capital and the slowing growth in global trade”.

As Melinda Cilento of CEDA, the Committee for Economic Development of Australia, has noted, “research by federal Treasury . . . showed leading Australian firms were not keeping up with leading global firms on productivity”.

Treasury would be much better employed continuing to research the causes of our productivity slump than doing literally unbelievable projections of what’s unlikely to happen over the next 40 years.

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Saturday, April 3, 2021

Cutting workers' pay and conditions worsens productivity

It’s a long weekend, so let’s relax and think more laterally than usual. I’ve been pondering one of the great mysteries puzzling the rich world’s economists: why has there been so little improvement in the productivity of our businesses over the past decade or two?

I’m wondering if a big part of the explanation is that business people have been finding easier ways to make a bigger buck.

Economists worry about productivity – producing more output of goods and services from a given quantity of inputs of labour, physical capital and raw materials – because it’s the secret sauce that’s made market capitalism so hugely successful over the past 200 years. That’s made us many times more well-off materially than we were back then.

The key driver of productivity improvement is technological advance: mainly bigger and better machines, but also better roads, railways and other infrastructure, as well as more efficiently organised farms, mines, factories, offices and shops. Not to mention increased investment in “human capital”: better educated and trained - and thus more highly skilled - workers.

You’d expect the digital revolution that’s working its way round the economy – disrupting industry after industry while creating new or improved products that meet customers’ needs much better – to be causing a marked improvement in productivity, but it’s not showing up in the figures.

So, why has productivity – most simply measured as gross domestic product per hour worked – been improving much more slowly in the past decade or two than in earlier times, not just in our economy but in all the advanced economies? Why is our material standard of living improving only very slowly – if at all?

As I say, that’s something economists are still debating. But I’ve been thinking much of the explanation may lie in the changed way our business people are going about their business.

If you listen to the business lobby groups, productivity isn’t improving because of successive governments’ failure to “reform” the economy. Nonsense. A moment’s thought reveals that the efficiency with which inputs are turned into outputs is determined primarily by the collective actions of each of the nation’s businesses.

Firms improve their productivity as part of their efforts to increase their profits. But their ultimate goal is higher profits, not necessarily being more productive. And, since improving productivity can often be quite hard, I’ve been wondering if productivity isn’t improving much because firms have found easier ways of increasing their profits.

Such as? Just by cutting costs. Particularly the cost of labour. One way to cut labour costs is to install better labour-saving machines. Doing so does improve the productivity of the workers who remain – and will show up in the productivity figures.

But if you find ways to limit the increase in – or even cut – your workers’ hourly wage rate, this does nothing to improve your productivity, but does increase your profits. Many employers have moved from fixing their wage rates by “collective bargaining” – which involves workers pressing for higher wages by having their union threaten to go on strike – to “individual contracts”, which often involve no bargaining at all.

Or you could cut your labour “on-costs” (including sick leave, annual leave, workers compensation insurance and superannuation contributions) by changing your workers from employees into (supposedly) independent contractors.

This, of course, is a big part of the motive for the rise of the “gig economy”. And there must surely be cost savings associated with the use of labour-hire firms.

Businesses have become a lot more conscious of the costly risks involved in running a business. They’ve sought better ways of “managing” those risks – which, in practice, has often involved shifting risks from the firm to its workers. For instance, moving to independent contractors shifts to workers the costs associated with the risks of them getting sick, being injured on the job, or even not having saved enough for retirement.

The move to firms carrying much lower inventories of raw materials and spare parts – “just-in-time” inventory management – means that the risk of interruptions to a firm’s supply chain can cause workers to be stood down on no pay until the problem’s fixed.

Yet another way firms have been saving on labour costs is by spending less on training their own workers and then, when they’re short of skilled workers, bringing them in from overseas on temporary work visas.

The trick is, these cost-saving measures don’t just fail to improve the productivity of labour, they can actually worsen it. Textbook economics sees firms continually comparing the cost of employing workers to perform tasks with the cost of using a machine to do it.

When wage costs are rising strongly, firms are more inclined to invest in labour-saving equipment. When wage costs are low or falling, however, firms become more inclined to avoid investing in machines and just hire more workers – even to perform quite menial tasks.

Before the pandemic, economists were continually surprised to see employment growing at a faster rate than the fairly weak growth in production (real GDP) would imply. That’s good news for employment but – as a matter of simple arithmetic - bad news for labour productivity: GDP per hour worked.

But it’s worse than that. For technological advances to improve our living standards, you don’t just need people inventing new and better machines, you need businesses across the economy regularly buying and using the latest, whiz-bang models to produce whatever it is they do.

That’s just what hasn’t been happening. As Reserve Bank governor Dr Philip Lowe noted recently, business investment in plant and structures has averaged just 9 per cent of GDP since 2010, compared with 12 per cent over the previous three decades.

Sometimes I think that, while businesses’ modern obsession with finding any and every means to minimise their wage costs no doubt fattens their profits in the short term, one day we’ll realise it’s been hugely destructive of our living standards.

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