Showing posts with label profits. Show all posts
Showing posts with label profits. Show all posts

Monday, May 16, 2022

Inflation: workers being unreasonable, or bosses on the make?

When you think about it clearly, the case for minimum award wages to be raised by 5.1 per cent is open-and-shut. So is the case for all workers to get the same. This wouldn’t stop the rate of inflation from falling back towards the Reserve Bank’s 2 to 3 per cent target zone.

But if, as seems likely, the nation’s employers contrive to ensure that this opportunity is used to continue and deepen the existing fall in real wages, the nation’s businesses will have shot themselves in the foot.

What, in their short-sightedness, they fondly imagined was a chance to increase their profits, would backfire as this blow to households’ chief source of income, crimped those households’ ability to increase or even maintain their spending on all the things businesses want to sell them.

The recovery from the “coronacession” would falter as households’ pool of savings left from the lockdowns was quickly used up, and their declining confidence in the future sapped their willingness to run down their savings any further.

Should the economy slow or even contract, unemployment could rise and the hoped-for gain in profits would be lost. Cheating your customers ain’t a smart business plan.

Such short-sighted thinking by businesses involves a “fallacy of composition” common in macro-economics: what seems “rational” behaviour by an individual firm doesn’t make sense for firms as a whole. It’s a form of “free-riding”: it won’t matter if I screw my workers because all the other businesses won’t screw theirs.

But back to wages. If all workers got a 5.1 per cent pay rise to compensate them for the 5.1 per cent rise in consumer prices over the year to March, thus preserving their wage’s purchasing power, surely that means the inflation rate would stay at 5.1 per cent?

Firms would have to raise their prices by 5.1 per cent. But many small businesses wouldn’t be able to afford such a huge pay rise and would give up, putting all their workers out of a job.

Is that what you think? It’s certainly what the employer-group spruikers want you to think. But it’s nonsense. Hidden within it is a mad assumption, that wages are the only cost a business faces.

Unless all those other costs have also risen by 5.1 per cent, the business can pass on to its customers all the extra wage cost with a price rise of much less than 5.1 per cent.

How much less? That’s a question any competent economist could give you a reasonably accurate answer to by looking up the Australian Bureau of Statistics’ most recent (for 2018-19) “input-output” tables and doing a little arithmetic.

The tables divide the economy into 115 industries, showing the value of all the many inputs of raw materials, machinery, labour, rent and other overheads to the process by which the industry produces its output of goods or services.

Any competent economist (which doesn’t include me, I’m just a journo) could do this, but only two economists from the Australia Institute, Matt Saunders and Dr Richard Denniss, have bothered, in a paper forthcoming this week, Wage price spiral or price wage spiral?

The official tables show that the proportion of total business costs accounted for by labour costs (that is, not just wages, but also “on-costs” such as employer super contributions and workers comp insurance) varies greatly between industries, ranging from less than 3 per cent in petroleum refining to almost 71 per cent in aged care.

But this “labour/cost ratio” averages just 25.3 per cent across all 115 industries.

Now, let’s assume all workers in all industries received a 5 per cent pay rise, and all businesses chose to pass all the extra cost through to prices. By how much would prices rise overall? By 1.27 per cent.

That’s going to keep inflation soaring? It’s well below the Reserve’s 2 to 3 per cent target range.

Of course, that’s just what economists call “the first-round effect”. What about when all a firm’s suppliers put their prices up to cover their wage rises? The “second-round effect” takes the overall rise in prices from 1.27 per cent to 1.85 per cent – still below the target.

Do you remember when the ABC quoted some spruiker saying the cost of a cup of coffee in a cafe could rise to $7? The authors use the tables to show that passing on a 5 per cent pay rise could increase the retail price of a $4-cup by 9 cents.

(Such people are always telling us a crop failure in South America has doubled or trebled the price of coffee beans. It’s the same trick: they never mention that the cost of beans is the least part of the price of a coffee. The biggest cost is often renting the cafe.)

Now get this. That 1.85 per cent rise in prices probably overstates the effect of a universal 5 per cent wage rise, for three reasons.

First, because it assumes zero improvement in the productivity of labour. It’s not great at present, but it’s not non-existent. Second, it assumes firms don’t respond to higher costs by shifting to cheaper substitutes.

And third, because six of the 10 “industries” with the highest labour cost pass-through are either government departments (which don’t actually charge a price that shows up in the consumer price index) or are heavily subsidised by government. Effect on the budget isn’t the same as effect on inflation.

Note that whereas the Fair Work Commission has the ability simply to order a 5 per cent rise in the many minimum award rates covering the lowest-paid quarter of the workforce, should it choose to, the public and private sector employers of the remaining three-quarters of workers are unlikely to be anything like that generous.

That’s a fourth reason the effect of wage rises is likely to be (a lot) less than the authors’ simple calculation of a 1.85 per cent rise in retail prices.

But don’t get the idea wages are the only reason consumer prices rise. Wage rises would explain little of the 5.1 per cent rise in consumer prices over the year to March.

The great bulk of the rise is explained by businesses passing on to retail customers the higher prices of imported goods and services caused the pandemic’s various supply disruptions and the Ukraine war’s effect on energy and food prices.

But some part of that 5.1 per cent rise in prices is explained by businesses deciding now would be a good time to raise their prices and fatten their profit margins. This may not be a big factor so far, but I won’t be surprised if it’s a much bigger one this quarter and in future.

For months the media have been telling us how much a problem inflation has become, with a lot worse to come. Top business leaders and industry lobbyists have used naive reporters to, first, send their competitors a message that “we’re planning big prices rises so why don’t you do the same” and, second, soften up their customers. “Prices are rising everywhere – don’t pick on me.”

It’s quite possible we’ll have trouble getting inflation back into the target range. If so, it won’t be caused by big pay rises – but it’s a safe bet people will be using a compliant media to blame it on greedy workers.

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Wednesday, February 2, 2022

We should make the economy less unequal - and we can

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Saturday, February 22, 2020

No progress on wages, but we’re getting a better handle on why

In days of yore, workers used to say: another day, another dollar. These days they’d be more inclined to say: another quarter, another sign that wages are stuck in the slow lane. But why is wage growth so weak? This week we got some clues from the Productivity Commission.

We also learnt from the Australian Bureau of Statistics that, as measured by the wage price index, wages rose by 0.5 per cent in the three months to the end of December, and by just 2.2 per cent over the year - pretty much the same rate as for the past two years.

It compares with the rise in consumer prices over the year of just 1.8 per cent. If prices aren’t rising by much, it’s hardly surprising that wages aren’t either. But we got used to wages growing by a percentage point or so per year faster than consumer prices and, as you see, last year they grew only 0.4 percentage points faster.

It’s this weak “real” wage growth that’s puzzling and worrying economists and p---ing off workers. Real wages have been weak for six or seven years.

So why has real wage growth been so much slower than we were used to until 2012-13? Various people, with various axes to grind, have offered rival explanations – none of which they’ve been able to prove.

One argument is that real wage growth is weak for the simple and obvious reason that the annual improvement in the productivity of labour (output of goods and services per hour worked) has also been weak.

It’s true that labour productivity has been improving at a much slower annual rate in recent years. It’s true, too, that there’s long been a strong medium-term correlation between the rate of real wage growth and the rate of labour productivity improvement.

When the two grow at pretty much the same rate, workers gain their share of the benefits from their greater productivity, and do so without causing higher inflation. But this hasn’t seemed adequate to fully explain the problem.

Another explanation the Reserve Bank has fallen back on as its forecasts of stronger wage growth have failed to come to pass is that there’s a lot of spare capacity in the labour market (high unemployment and underemployment) which has allowed employers to hire all the workers they’ve needed without having to bid up wages. Obviously true, but never been a problem at other times of less-than-full employment.

For their part, the unions are in no doubt why wage growth has been weak: the labour market "reforms" of the Howard government have weakened the workers’ ability to bargain for decent pay rises, including by reducing access to enterprise bargaining.

But this week the Productivity Commission included in its regular update on our productivity performance a purely numerical analysis of the reasons real wage growth has been weak since 2012-13. It compared the strong growth in real wages in the economy’s “market sector” (16 of the economy’s 19 industries, excluding public administration, education and training, and health care and social assistance) during the 18 years to 2012-13 with the weak growth over the following six years.

The study found that about half the slowdown in real wage growth could be explained by the slower rate of improvement in labour productivity. Turns out the weaker productivity performance was fully explained by just three industries: manufacturing (half), agriculture and utilities (about a quarter each).

A further quarter of the slowdown in real wage growth is explained by the effects and after-effects of the resources boom. Although the economists’ conventional wisdom says real wages should grow in line with the productivity of labour, this implicitly assumes the country’s “terms of trade” (the prices we get for our exports relative to the prices we pay for our imports) are unchanged.

But, being a major exporter of rural and mineral commodities, that assumption often doesn’t hold for Australia. The resources boom that ran for a decade from about 2003 saw a huge increase in the prices we got for our exports of coal and iron ore. This, in turn, pushed the value of our dollar up to a peak of about $US1.10, which made our imports of goods and services (including overseas holidays) much cheaper.

This, of course, was reflected in the consumer price index. When you use these “consumer prices” to measure the growth in workers’ real wages before 2012-13, you find they grew by a lot more than justified by the improvement in productivity.

In the period after 2012-13, however, export prices fell back a fair way and so did the dollar, making imported goods and services harder for consumers to afford. So there’s been a sort of correction in which real wages have grown by less than the improvement in labour productivity would have suggested they should. Some good news: this is a one-time correction that shouldn’t continue.

Finally, the study finds that a further fifth of the slowdown in real wage growth is explained by an increase in the profits share of national income and thus an equivalent decline in the wages share.

Almost three-quarters of the increase in the profits share is also explained by the resources boom. It involved a massive injection of financial capital (mainly by big foreign mining companies, such as BHP) to hugely increase the size of our mining industry – which, as the central Queenslanders lusting after Adani will one day find out, uses a lot of big machines and very few workers. Naturally, the suppliers of that capital expect a return on their investment.

But harder to explain and defend is the study’s finding that more than a quarter of the increase in the profits share is accounted for by the greater profitability of the finance and insurance sector. Think greedy bankers, but also the ever-growing pile of compulsory superannuation money and the anonymous army of financial-types who find ways to take an annual bite out of your savings.
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Wednesday, June 26, 2019

News from the shopping trolley: retailers are doing it tough

If I told you that a big reason we're feeling such cost-of-living pressure is the increasing profits of the big supermarket chains, department stores, discount stores and other retailers, would you believe me? A lot of people would.

But that would just show how little we understand of the strange things happening in the economy in recent years. The economy in which we live and work keeps changing and getting more complicated, the digital revolution is disrupting industry after industry, but we have far too little time to check out what's happening – especially behind the scenes – so we rely on the casual impressions we gain along the way and on our long-held views about who's ripping it off and who's getting screwed.

Which are often off-beam. Perhaps because in many respects it's a good news story, few people realise the way digital disruption is putting retailing - a pretty big part of the economy, and a big part of household budgets - through the wringer.

If this meant retail staff were being laid off in their thousands we'd have heard about it. If it meant big retail chains were jacking up their prices, we'd have been told.

Instead, increased competition between retailers is making it much harder than usual for them to put up their prices, and causing some prices to fall.

It's all explained by Matthew Carter in an article in last week's Reserve Bank Bulletin, using data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics and the Reserve's regular contact with many medium and large retailers.

The article covers about a third of the "basket" of goods and services bought by Australian households, the changing prices of which are measured by the consumer price index. That is, not just food and other things you buy in supermarkets, but clothing and footwear, furniture, household items and much else, though not motor vehicles and fuel. Nor other classes of consumer spending not done through retailers, such as the costs of housing, healthcare and education.

Since the early 2000s, the increased competition in retailing has come first from online shopping – competition not just between local and overseas retailers, but between those local retailers who use the internet and those who don't, as well as between those who do.

The other main source of increased competition in retailing is the arrival of big new international companies, such as Aldi, Costco and, of course, Amazon, which is both online and a big new arrival from overseas. (The article doesn't mention two other disruptive developments: the advent of "category killers" such as Officeworks and Bunnings, and the decline of the department store.)

The basic model of markets used by economists assumes that businesses compete with each other mainly on price. In real-world Australia, however, the two, three or at most four big companies that dominate most markets much prefer to compete via product differentiation, marketing and advertising, and avoid price competition.

That's what online shopping has changed. And it's not just that the internet has made it infinitely easier for shoppers to compare prices. It's also that, on the net, it's much easier to compare prices than to compare colours or quality.

And when a big foreign player decides to try to break into an established market, price competition is the main way it tries to gain market share.

The result is that retailing has become more price conscious. And retailers are telling the Reserve Bank that their customers have become more price sensitive – which isn't surprising considering how slowly their wages are growing.

Nor does it matter much that, so far, not many people do their grocery shopping online, or that Aldi is still much smaller than Woolies or Coles. The others have protected themselves from losing market share by matching their rivals' lower prices.

Another effect of digitisation is to make it a lot easier for retailers to change their prices (as well as to find out what their rivals are charging). And the greater price consciousness of their customers means that 60 per cent of retailers now review their prices weekly or even daily.

This means many retailers more frequently discount their prices - put them "on special" - and make the discounts deeper.

The Reserve Bank's survey of retailers shows the main reasons they lower prices is because their competitors have cut their prices or because demand has weakened.

Carter has analysed the Bureau of Statistics' industry statistics and found that the net profit margins of both food and non-food retailers had fallen by about 1.75 percentage points (that's 1.75¢ in every dollar of sales) since 2011-12.

It may not sound much, but it is – especially in supermarkets, which are low-margin, high turnover businesses. Further analysis confirms that this decline comes from reduced ability to mark-up wholesale prices, rather than higher operating costs.

However, retailers are fighting back, trying to improve their mark-ups by offering more own-brand products (cuts out the wholesaler) and more premium brands (higher mark-up), while some non-food retailers are joining the supermarkets in moving from the traditional "high-low" pricing strategy ("specials" and frequent "sales") to an "everyday low price" strategy. By selling more, they gain more power to bargain with wholesalers.

Of all the things that are making our lives tough, higher retail prices ain't one of them.
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Monday, March 11, 2019

Economists: lonely, misunderstood angels in shining armour

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Business doesn’t see it that way, of course. Unlike some, my policy is to tell business what it needs to know, not what it wants to hear. Some people – suffering from a touch of the Upton Sinclairs – tell themselves this makes me anti-business. No, it makes me pro-consumer. That’s the ethic we so often fall short of.
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Monday, February 11, 2019

Politicians, economists will decide if bank misbehaviour stops

In the wake of the Hayne report on financial misconduct, many are asking whether the banks have really learned their lesson, whether their culture will change and how long it will take. Sorry, that’s just the smaller half of the problem.

You can’t answer those questions until you know whether the politicians and their economic advisers have learned their lesson and whether their culture will change.

Why? Because the game won’t change unless the banks believe it has changed, and that will depend on whether governments (of both colours) and their regulators keep saying and doing things that remind the banks and others on the financial-sector gravy train that the behaviour of the past will no longer go undetected and unpunished.

One of Commissioner Hayne’s most significant findings was that almost all the misbehaviour he uncovered was already illegal. Which raises an obvious query: in that case, why did so much of it happen?

Hayne’s answer was “greed”. That’s true enough, but doesn’t tell us much. Greed has been part of the human condition since before we descended from the trees. But greed has been channelled and held in check by other factors – particularly by social norms that disapprove of it and find ways to censure people who aggrandise themselves are the expense of others. In old times, social ostracism was enough.

So, since banks and other financial outfits haven’t always been willing to exploit their customers the way they have recent decades, the question is: what changed?

One explanation is that the economy’s become a bigger, more complex, more impersonal place, where the exploiter and the exploited don’t know each other. Where the exploitation is carried out by four of the biggest, most sprawling and intricate computer systems in the country.

Where I can spend my obscenely large pay cheque without seeing the faces of the people I’ve ripped off flashing before my eyes. Indeed, in my suburb, all of us get huge pay cheques. And I don’t feel guilty; some of them get much bigger cheques than me.

But another part of the explanation must surely be that things started changing after the triumph of “economic rationalism”, the introduction of microeconomic reform, and the deregulation of the financial sector in the second half of the 1980s.

In the highly regulated world, there was less scope and less incentive to mistreat customers. Competition was limited and there was little innovation. Deregulation was intended to spur competition between the banks and give customers a better deal.

I’m not saying bank deregulation was a bad idea. It did bring innovation (we forget that banking and bill-paying are infinitely more convenient than they were) and you no longer have to live in a good suburb to get a loan from a bank.

And the banks do compete far more fiercely than they used to. It's just that they compete not on price (as the reformers assumed they would) but on market share and which of the big four achieves the biggest profit increase.

In this they’ve behaved just as you’d expect oligopolists to behave.

In the meantime, economic rationalism sanctified greed (the “invisible hand” tells us the market leaves us better off because of the greed of the butcher and the baker) and economists invented euphemisms such as “self-interest” and “the profit motive”.

Then, after economists got the bright idea of using bonuses and share options to align management’s interests with shareholders’, big business elevated “shareholder value” to being companies' sole statutory obligation.

Now, however, when Hayne says the banks gave priority to sales and profits over their customers’ interests, everyone’s rolling around in horror.

And politicians and econocrats are feigning surprise that financial regulators, long given a nod and wink to dispense only “light” regulation of the players (and denied the funding to give them any hope of successful prosecutions), did just as they were told.

Unless the econocrats and their political masters are willing to accept the naivety that marred bank deregulation, the harm ultimately done to bank customers – ranging from petty theft to life-changing loss – and the system’s susceptibility to political corruption, the banks’ culture won’t change because the will to change it won't last.

The existing prohibitions on mistreatment of customers need to be made more effective, as proposed by Hayne but, above all, the law needs to be policed with vigour – including adequately resourced court proceedings – so the banks realise they have no choice but to change.
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Monday, October 8, 2018

The long run is now, and bills are arriving

It’s easy to take Keynes’ dictum that “in the long run we’re all dead” out of context. When you do, you can come badly unstuck - as the banks and insurance companies are discovering.

In case you’ve ever wondered, economists see the short term as being for a year or two, the medium term as about the next 10 years, and the long term as everything further away than that.

See the point? If the long run is only 10, 15, 20 years from now, you won’t be dead. Nor will most of the people around you at work. The economy will still be alive and kicking in 20 years’ time and, in all probability, so will your company.

In which case, spending too many years making short-sighted decisions could leave you looking pretty bad if you haven’t had the foresight to skip town.

For many years people have bemoaned “short-termism” – the tendency to favour quick results over longer-term consequences. To go for the flashy at the expense of patient investment in future performance. To do things where the benefits are upfront, and the costs much later, even when the initial appearance of success actually worsens the likely outcomes down the track.

Short-termism seems particularly to have infected big business. Listed companies are under considerable pressure to ensure every half-year profit is bigger than the last.

This pressure comes from the sharemarket, from “analysts”, but more particularly from institutional investors – the super funds, banks and insurance companies that manage the savings of ordinary people, invested mainly in company shares.

Although the “instos” don’t actually own many of the shares they control, they represent the shares’ ultimate owners (you and me) by continuously pressuring companies to get higher and higher profits – which will lead to ever-higher share prices.

It’s long been alleged that the short-termism the sharemarket forces on big business – to which companies have responded by trying to align executive pay with profits and the share price – has led firms to underinvest in projects with high risks or long payback periods.

If so, this fits with former senior econocrat Dr Mike Keating’s thesis that the advanced economies’ weak growth in activity, productivity and real wages is explained mainly by a protracted period of weak investment.

But the banking royal commission is a stark reminder to a lot of companies, the sharemarket and shareholders that after years of short-sighted, corner-cutting, even illegal behaviour, the long run has arrived, we’re all still alive and there are bills to be paid.

Those bills will take many forms. It’s likely some of the borderline customer-harming behaviour will become illegal, and so won’t be available to keep profits heading onward and upward every half-year.

Banks and insurance companies found to have mistreated their customers in ways that are outright illegal, will face big bills for restitution.

But probably the biggest bill comes under the heading of “reputational damage”. As Australian Competition and Consumer Commission boss Rod Sims reminded us in a speech, most companies spend much time and money promoting and protecting their “brand”.

A highly-regarded brand is money in the bank to the firm that owns it – as you see just by comparing the prices of branded and unbranded goods on a supermarket shelf. Brands engender trust – that the product is of consistently good quality and will do what it promises to do – and often social status.

But, as Sims says mildly, “bad behaviour by a company can undermine its brand reputation”.

“A key value of the royal commission has been to expose the poor behaviour of financial institutions to public scrutiny. The evidence about the conduct of AMP was particularly damning. The resulting damage to AMP’s brand reputation has been substantial.”

Sure has. And that damage to AMP’s reputation and likely future profitability has seen its share price fall by 35 per cent since its first day in the witness box in April.

Sims says one way to discourage misbehaviour by companies is to “identify and shine a light on bad behaviour”.

“The greater the likelihood that bad behaviour will be exposed and made public, the more companies will do to guard against such behaviours,” he says.

Get it? The regulators are wising up, and in future will do more to name and shame offenders – to diminish brand reputation – so as to discourage short-sighted, take-no-thought-for-the-morrow behaviour. To move firms from the short run to the long run.

So far, the big four banks’ share prices have fallen only a per cent or two since the release of the commission’s interim report. But my guess is they have a lot further to fall once we see the full price they’ll be paying for past short-run profit-maximising behaviour, and how much less scope there’ll be for such behaviour “going forward”.
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Monday, January 1, 2018

Who’s doing best in the rent-seeking business

Economists joke that, whereas they are taught that any barriers to new firms entering a market are bad, allowing profits to be too high, MBA students are taught that "barriers to entry" are good, and shown ways to raise them.

Economists have no quarrel with businesses making profits. The shareholder-owners who provide the financial capital needed to sustain those firms are entitled to a return on their investment, one that reflects not only the (opportunity) cost of their capital, but also the riskiness of the particular business they're in.

Economists call such a return on equity "normal profit". But sometimes the various barriers to new firms entering a market limit competition, allowing the incumbents to make profits in excess of those needed to induce them to stay in the industry.

These are called "super-normal" profits (super as in "above"). Now get this: the other name for super-normal profits is "rents" – economic rents, to be precise.

We're used to thinking of rent-seekers as businesses or industries that ask governments for special treatment. But it's common for rents to be sought in situations that have nothing to do with government favours.

One of the most informative pieces of economic research undertaken last year was conducted by Jim Minifie, of the Grattan Institute, who made detailed estimates of the economic rents being earned in particular industries – something no government agency would be game to do.

He focused on the two-thirds of the economy made up by the "non-tradable private sector", excluding export and import-competing industries and the public sector.

He found that the annual return on equity in the most competitive part of this sector averaged 10 per cent. That compares with returns exceeding 30 per cent in internet publishing, which includes online classified advertising of homes, jobs and cars.

Then came internet service providers on 25 per cent and wired telecom on a fraction less. Supermarkets were on about 23 per cent, sports betting on 22 per cent, liquor retailing on 19 per cent, and wireless telecom and (get this) private health insurance on about 18 per cent.

Delivery services and fuel retailing are on 15 per cent, with banking not far behind on 14 per cent, level pegging with electricity distribution and airport operations.

But the rate of an industry's super-normal profit or economic rent isn't the same as its absolute amount. Most industries with very high rates of profit are quite small.

Measured in dollar terms, the most rents are in banking, followed by supermarkets, electricity distribution (just the local poles and wires), wired and wireless telecom.

Minifie estimates that rents account for 20 per cent of the non-tradable private sector's total annual after-tax profits of $200 billion. This is equivalent to more than 2 per cent of gross domestic product.

Another way to judge the significance of super-normal profits is to express them as "mark-ups" – as proportions of total sales.

The average mark-up across the whole non-traded private sector is 2 per cent. So, if rents were eliminated, but costs didn't change, average prices would fall by 2 per cent.

Within that average, however, the mark-up in internet publishing is 26 per cent. Then come airport operations on 20 per cent, wired telecom on 19 per cent and electricity distribution on 12 per cent.

Further down the league table, electricity transmission – the high-voltage power lines, not the local poles and wires – has an estimated mark-up of 7 per cent.

But get this: the banks' mark-up is just 4 per cent and the supermarkets' is a bit over 3 per cent.

How come, when super-profits account for more than half the supermarkets' total profit? Because supermarkets are a high-volume, low-margin business (as are banks).

Minifie notes that Coles and Woolworths are so big they achieve huge economies of scale. And, as dairy farmers well know, they achieve further cost savings by using their market power to force down the prices they pay their suppliers.

Trick is, they pass much of these cost savings on to their customers, but keep enough of them to remain highly profitable.

Coles and Woolies have substantially higher profit margins than their smaller rival IGA, even though their average prices are lower than IGA's prices. So the big two's costs must be a lot lower than IGA's.

The list of industries with the highest super-profits reminds us how badly governments have stuffed-up the national electricity market, how much better they could be doing in controlling the prices of monopoly businesses such as Telstra, airports and port terminals, and in charging for liquor and gambling licences, not forgetting the indulgent treatment of private health funds.
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Saturday, December 16, 2017

Who's ripping it off? Competition theory and reality

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Comparing this last list with the lists of natural monopolies and heavily regulated industries suggests governments could be doing a much better job of ensuring the regulators haven't been captured by the companies being regulated.
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Monday, June 5, 2017

Radical policy change may be needed to fix wages

It's too early to be sure, but not too early to suspect that, if we and the other developed economies keep travelling the way we are, conventional wisdom about what constitutes good economic policy may soon need to be turned on its head.

We're living through very strange times. Each developed economy has its own story, but there are strong similarities. One is exceptionally low inflation, which doesn't seem temporary.

Another is surprisingly weak rates of measured productivity improvement, although our rate of improvement in the productivity of labour isn't too bad.

My guess is a fair bit of this is mis-measurement arising from our quite radical shift to a digital economy.

But the other explanation may be a decline in price competition in many industries, thanks to several decades of both natural and government-facilitated rent-seeking by big businesses, in ever-more concentrated industries.

Next, wages. It's too soon to conclude that wage growth – which in Oz has been slowing since mid-2012 and been pathetically weak for three years – is down for the count.

We don't yet know how much of the weakness is merely cyclical and how much is due to deeper, longer-lasting, structural causes.

Even so, it's hard not to suspect that a fair bit of the wage weakness is structural. My guess is that while we've been busy decentralising wage-fixing and removing all provisions thought to favour unions, globalisation and technological change have conspired to rob the nation's employees of any collective bargaining power.

This may sound like a dream come true for business and its high-paid executives but, if it's true, it's deeply destabilising overkill.

Wages are a key variable in the economy. Allow them to be either too high or too low and the economy gets out of kilter.

Allow the profits share of national income to keep continually expanding at the expense of the wages share and expect to pay a price economically, socially and politically.

And that's before you remember that wages are the chief source of governments' tax revenue. Not only personal income tax, but all the indirect taxes – notably, the goods and services tax – that households pay when they spend their labour incomes.

Low nominal wage growth isn't necessarily a worry if, at the same time, the rise in consumer prices is low.

What matters to working households and the rest of the economy (but not governments) is what's happening to real wages.

In a healthily functioning economy, real wages should rise pretty much in line with the improvement in the productivity of labour.

That way, both labour and capital get their fair share of the fruits of economic progress.

Trouble is, in the US this relationship broke down maybe 30 years ago, explaining why the top few per cent of households have captured most of the growth in the nation's real income over that time.

This doesn't just widen the gap between rich and poor. By directing so much income growth away from the high spenders at the bottom and middle to the high savers at the top, it slows growth in consumption and thus production.

It also adds to the disillusionment of ordinary voters, making them more likely to lash out and vote for the cunning wacko celebrity-de-jour candidate, such as Clive Palmer, Pauline Hanson or Donald somebody​.

Get this: there are tentative signs the relationship between real wage growth and labour productivity may be breaking down in Oz.

The relevant indicator, the index of real labour costs per unit, should hover around 100. It fell by 3.3 per cent during 2016, reaching 98.1, equal lowest since the series began in 1985.

If this weakness persists, it will raise the question of whether the formerly healthy relationship was a product of market forces, or the industrial relations system's achievement of a fine balance between employer and union bargaining power.

If it does persist, how could we return to a healthy relationship? By reversing the dominant wisdom of many decades, that governments must never do anything that adds to the regulatory burden on employers. By acting (very carefully) to strengthen the hand of union collective bargainers.

Final point: governments of all colours secretly rely on bracket creep to help tax collections keep up with the inexorable growth in government spending.

But bracket creep depends on both reasonable inflation and real wage growth to work its barely noticed fiscal magic.

What happens if inflation stays low and real wages stop growing? You have to junk your rhetoric about smaller government and keep doing what Malcolm Turnbull did in this budget: justify explicit tax increases.

Either that, or get wages growing properly.
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Saturday, March 4, 2017

The news is good, but not for the reason we've been told

Fabulous news on the economy this week. The recession that never was, didn't happen. Phew. That's a relief.

After going backwards by 0.5 per cent in the September quarter of last year, we learnt from the Bureau of Statistics' national accounts that the economy rebounded by 1.1 per cent in the December quarter - meaning, according to the overexcited children of economic reporting, that we've escaped "technical" recession.

Actually, anyone with sense knew three months ago we would. The detail of the national accounts showed the contraction was no more than a pothole on the economic road, the product of an unusual accumulation of negative one-offs.

But even if this week's figures had shown a second consecutive quarter of "negative growth", the recession the excitables would be shouting about would be technical rather than real.

Why? Because you can't have a real recession without falling employment and rising unemployment, and we've had neither. Oh. No one told me.

But back to reality. Just as the economy didn't really contract in the September quarter so, however, the economy didn't really take off like a rocket in the December quarter.

There's a lot of largely inexplicable "noise" in the initial estimates of the quarter-to-quarter change in real gross domestic product. That's why adult economists never take the figures too literally.

It's common for a literally unbelievably bad quarterly figure to be followed by an unbelievably good one.

That's partly because of catch-up – work that couldn't be done in the first quarter because of, say, bad weather, is caught up with in the second.

But also because of the laws of arithmetic. If we compare the December quarter with the weak September quarter, we get an increase of 1.1 per cent. But compare it with the quarter before that and the increase is only 0.6 per cent.

The rate of real GDP growth over the year to December – 2.4 per cent – is closer to the rate at which we're likely to actually be travelling, but even that may be on the light side.

One suspiciously strong aspect of the accounts in the December quarter was growth in consumer spending of 0.9 per cent.

With the rise in wages so small, and only modest growth in employment, household disposable (that is, after-tax) income grew by only 0.2 per cent in nominal terms.

So how could consumer spending have grown so strongly? Since, by definition, income equals consumption plus saving, the statisticians assume households must have reduced their rate of saving.

The national accounts show the household saving ratio peaking at almost 10 per cent of household disposable income at the end of 2011, then falling almost continuously since then, taking a big drop in the December quarter to reach a little over 5 per cent.

If that's really happened and isn't just the product of some misestimate of income or consumption (or both), it's probably explained by a "wealth effect" – people in Melbourne and Sydney, seeing the value of their homes shooting up, feel wealthier and so decide they don't need to save as much and can spend more.

The next bit of apparent good news is that new business investment spending grew by almost 2 per cent. This, believe it or not, included an increase in mining investment, plus a stronger-than-usual increase in non-mining investment.

The former is likely to be just a blip as mining investment continues to fall back to normal, post-boom levels; the latter is an encouraging sign that the rest of business is getting on with the rest of their lives.

The last bit of good news in the accounts is that our terms of trade – the prices we receive for our exports compared with the prices we pay for our imports – improved by 9 per cent during the quarter, taking the improvement for the year to almost 16 per cent.

This is mainly because, after falling sharply since their peak 2011, coal and iron ore prices rose over most of last year.

This is important for several reasons. An improvement in our terms of trade increases our real income – since the same quantity of our exports now buys an increased quantity of imports.

"Real net national disposable income per person" – a better measure of living standards than real GDP per person – increased  2.5 per cent in the quarter to be 5.3 per cent higher over the year.

Many people noticed that company profits (the profits share of GDP) leapt by 16.5 per cent in nominal terms during the quarter, whereas the nation's wages bill (the wages share of GDP) fell by a nominal 0.5 per cent.

Why the disparity? Mainly because of the huge boost to mining company profits from the jump in export prices.

Not to worry. If the economy works the way the textbook says, this gain to miners should flow through the economy, causing higher wages and higher tax payments.

This latter likelihood is shown in the fact that nominal (as opposed to real) GDP grew 3 per cent in the quarter to be 6.1 per cent higher through the year.

This is great news for the Treasurer because we pay taxes (and everything else) in nominal dollars, not real dollars.

Last word goes to Dr Shane Oliver, of AMP Capital, who says there are seven reasons to be upbeat about the outlook for the economy.

"Thanks to a more flexible economy, Australia is on track to take out the Netherlands for the longest period without a recession. South-east Australia is continuing to perform well.

"The great mining investment unwind is near the bottom. The surge in resource export volumes has more to go.

"National income is rising again. Public investment is strong and there are signs of life in non-mining investment. Growth is on track to return to near 3 per cent this year," Oliver concludes.
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