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

Monday, March 11, 2024

Speech in the Great Hall of Sydney University

I’m too old to suffer from impostor syndrome, but the thought has occurred to me that, had the University of Sydney’s officials taken a look at my academic transcript at Newcastle University, and seen how much trouble I had persuading that uni to give me a pass degree, we’d be holding this gathering down at Ralph’s cafe in the women’s gym.

The truth is that I had a lot of trouble passing a subject called economics, which I couldn’t make any sense of – perhaps because it didn’t interest me greatly. I failed a subject called international economics but, since it was the last subject I had to go, my lecturer was prevailed upon to give me a conceded pass.

So I have to tell you I’m a bit bemused by a university, of all institutions, making such a fuss about me and my job. I’ve spent much of my time urging the people I’ve helped to hire and train as economic journalists not to write like an academic. Keep it simple, I’d say. Don’t try to impress people with big words. Try to be understood, not to mystify. Now, obviously, that’s not the right advice to be giving an academic.

In my job, I’m paid to have an opinion on everything. And I’m paid to give free advice to everyone, from the prime minister down. And I’m now so much older than my boss I’m allowed to give him – and sometimes her – free advice. She or he, of course, is paid to pretend she greatly values that advice.

So while I’m here in this hallowed hall of learning, let me give the academics two bits of free advice. Some years ago, the federal government’s chief scientist paid good money to get one of those now-infamous four firms of accountants-turned-consultants to fudge up a dollar figure for the value of science to the economy. 

One of my proteges, filling in for me while I was on holidays, Gareth Hutchens, these days a columnist at the ABC, wrote a piece saying the chief scientist had to be kidding. Anyone who wasn’t smart enough to know that our material prosperity was built on technological advance, and that technological advance rested on a bed of pure science, wasn’t someone who’d be impressed by any magic number. Gareth was right, of course.

The point is, academics should never yield to intimidation by those who can see no further than immediate income. Academics must never be ashamed to proclaim their belief in the value of knowledge for its own sake. Knowledge doesn’t have to have a monetary value to be of value. Humans are an inquisitive species. We’d like to know whether the universe is expanding for no better reason than that we’d like to know. And thanks to the material prosperity science has brought us, we can afford to pay some scientist to find out for us.

My second bit of free advice is that universities should never be ashamed of their preoccupation with theory rather than practice. Every profession needs its theory. We develop theories to help us make some order, some meaning, out of the seeming chaos we see around us.

If you look at what I write about the economy, I think you’ll find I write about economic theory a lot more than other economic commentators do. Why? Because I think theory is important. Academic economists will complain that I’m often very critical of economic theory. Why? Because I think theory is important. The great sin in academic economics is to stop seeking the truth because you think you’ve already found it.

I want to talk now about the little-discussed paradox of the commercial news media. On one hand, most news outlets are in the business of selling their news to make a profit, just like all businesses. On the other, the commercial news media play a vital role in our democracy, informing citizens about the actions of governments and holding governments to account. We rarely think about this paradox, but the truth is, it was ever thus. We had newspapers before we had democracy.

Today we talk about public-interest journalism, but I like to think of it as the commercial media’s “higher purpose”. Making enough profit to keep our shareholders happy is the obvious part, but we must keep our eyes focused on the more important part, our self-appointed duty to ensure our readers are kept fully informed about all the things our governments are doing – and not doing

There’s an old saying in journalism: news is anything somebody somewhere doesn’t want you to know about. Governments have a lot of things they do want the public to know about what they’re doing. And their spin doctors are always trying to induce the news media to help them get the good news out to the voters

Governments have a near monopoly on news about their own doings. When they want something known, they can just put out a press release. Or, maybe a better idea would be for me to leak it to you exclusively – provided you give it a lot of prominence, and provided you run it uncritically. Why would the media agree to such a restriction on their freedom to fully inform their readers? Because if I play along today, you might give me another leak tomorrow. And that will make me look a lot more successful than my competitors.

Small problem: what about the reader? Is this the way to keep them fully informed and ensure they’re never misinformed? What if I’m so busy trying to be the best at extracting from the government news the government wants our readers to know about that I neglect my duty to dig out all the news the government doesn’t want our readers to know about?

Now, let me be clear. In saying this critical stuff, I don’t want you thinking I’m having a go at my own masthead. I’m giving my free advice to all mastheads. The mastheads formerly known as Fairfax aren’t perfect. No one knows that better than I do. But there are other outlets that have strayed a lot further from perfection than we have. Naturally, I won’t name those other Australian news outlets.

The digital revolution has hugely changed the news media. Once I’m retired, I’ll give in to the thought that it was all much better in my day. But while my day is still the present day, I can see the things that are better than they were.

These days, the mastheads our envious competitors like to dismiss as “the Nine newspapers” devote more resources to investigative journalism than we ever have. Maybe because of the digital world we now inhabit, generating your own news makes more commercial sense. What I’d add is that we need to make all our ordinary news more investigative. More questioning of all the messages some interest group or another wants us to pass on to our readers.

Another thing that’s better than it used to be – one close to my heart – is much greater emphasis on explanatory journalism. The internet has hugely increased the blizzard of news that we must fight our way through each day. Our readers don’t need more news, they need more help figuring out what on earth it all means. This, of course, is a big part of what I’ve always seen as my role.

With the advent of the internet, social media, the greater scope for the spread of misinformation and disinformation, and now AI, it’s easy see all this as a huge threat to what’s now called the MSM – the mainstream media, of which the SMH is a prime example. We live in a media world where people are finding it harder and harder to know whose news to believe. Who to trust.

What I want to say is that, for the mainstream media, and the quality end of the MSM, all the extra doubt and uncertainty about who to believe is playing into our hands. We are still more trusted by our customers than other, less reputable sources of information. Provided we retain our readers’ trust, work to regain what trust we have lost, and make retaining the trust of our readers our highest priority, I think we’ll survive – maybe even prosper – in a world teeming with misinformation.

We must never knowingly mislead our readers. We must see quickly correcting any errors we’ve made inadvertently, not as an admission of failure, but as badge of honour. Proof that we can be trusted. It means no more “I’m not sure it’s true, but it’s a great yarn and the punters will love it” stories. No more dubious stories published to oblige a powerful source – usually a government – and keep it supplying us with exclusives. It means telling our readers what they need to know, not what they want to hear. It means being a good read the hard way, not the easy way.

I’m confident that, if we get the trust right, enough money will follow. I’m hoping to stay around doing my bit for a few years yet.

This is an edited version of the speech Ross Gittins gave at the event honouring his 50th anniversary at The Sydney Morning Herald. Held in the Great Hall of the University of Sydney and staged in partnership with the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences.

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Monday, October 23, 2023

Want better productivity? Cut population growth

A simple reading of orthodox economics tells you that the urge to maximise profits leads businesses to continuously improve the productivity of their activities. But, as former competition tzar Rod Sims has often reminded us, improving productivity is just one way to increase profits, and there are other ways to do it that are a lot easier.

One other way is to increase your share of the market by having a better product. Or better, coming up with a marketing campaign that merely cons people into believing your product is better.

Another way to increase market share is to undercut your competitors’ prices. But in oligopolies dominated by only a few big players, which many of our markets are, the threat of mutually damaging retaliation is so great that price wars are rare.

(This why the big four banks were so shocked and offended when the Macquarie group, a huge financial group with deep pockets and a small bank, decided recently to get itself a slice of the lucrative home loan market by offering below-market interest rates.)

Another way to increase profits is to take over a competitor. This may or may not increase profitability – percentage return on the share capital invested in the business – to the benefit of shareholders. But the managers of the now-bigger business will have to be paid commensurately higher wages and bonuses.

But the simplest, easiest way to increase profits? Sell into an ever-growing market. And how do you do that? Persuade the government to maintain a high rate of immigration. This is a mission on which big business has had great success in recent decades.

Polling shows the public does not approve of high immigration. With some justification, the punters tend to blame it for road congestion and rising housing costs.

But the Howard government and its Coalition successors did a roaring trade in keeping the punters’ disapproval focused on poor people who arrived uninvited on leaky boats, while they were quietly ushering in all the immigrants that business was demanding. These people arrived by plane, and so drew no media attention.

Is it mere coincidence that productivity improvement has been weak during the period in which immigration-driven population growth has been so strong? I doubt it, though of course, I’m not claiming this is the only factor contributing to weak productivity improvement.

While it makes self-interested, short-sighted sense for businesspeople to be so untiring in their clamour for ever more immigration, the strange thing is that the virtue of rapid population growth goes almost wholly unquestioned by the nation’s economists.

Population growth is an article of faith for almost every economist. For a profession that prides itself on being so “rational”, it’s surprising how little thinking economists do about the pros and cons of immigration. There’s little empirical evidence to support their unwavering commitment to high immigration, but they don’t need any evidence to keep believing what almost all of them have always believed.

Before we get to the narrowly economic arguments, let’s start with the bigger picture. The primary reason for doubting the sense of rapid population growth is the further damage every extra person does to the natural environment.

As the sustainable population advocates put it: too many people demanding too much of our natural environment.

Economists have gone from the beginning of their discipline assuming that the economy and the environment can be analysed in separate boxes. This further assumes that any adverse interaction between the two is so minor it can be safely ignored.

In an era of climate change and growing loss of species, this is clearly untenable. The economy and the natural environment that sustains it have to be joined up. But when it comes to population growth, these are dots the profession hasn’t yet joined.

Even on narrowly economic considerations, however, economists long ago stopped checking their calculations. It’s obvious that a bigger population means a bigger economy, and since economists are the salespersons of economic growth, what more do you need to know?

Well, you need to know that economic growth achieved merely through population growth leads to what the salespersons are promising the punters: a higher material standard of living. Simply, higher income per person.

If there is evidence higher population growth leads to higher income per person, I’ve yet to see it. I have seen a study by the Productivity Commission that couldn’t find any. And I have seen a study showing that the higher a country’s population growth, the lower its growth in gross domestic product per person.

But it doesn’t surprise me that the committed advocates of population growth don’t wave around any evidence they have to support their faith. What is well understood, though the advocates seem to have forgotten it, is that, whatever economic benefits immigration may or may not bring, it comes with inescapable economic costs.

Which are? That every extra person dilutes our existing per-person investment in business equipment and structures, housing stock and public infrastructure: schools, hospitals, police stations, roads and bridges, and much else.

In other words, every extra person requires us to spend many resources on preventing this population growth from diminishing our economic and social capital per head, and thereby making us worse off.

Economists call this “capital widening”, as opposed to “capital deepening”, which means providing the population with more capital equipment and infrastructure per person.

Trouble is, there’s a limit to how much the nation can save – or borrow from overseas – to finance our investment in housing, business equipment and structures, and public infrastructure. So resources we have to devote to capital widening, thanks to population growth, are resources we can’t devote to the capital deepening that would increase our standard of living.

Using immigration to raise our living standards is like trying to go up a down escalator. You have to run just to stop yourself going backwards. This is smart?

In practice, it’s worse than that. There’s a big government co-ordination problem. It’s the federal government that’s responsible for immigration levels, and that collects most of the taxes the immigrants pay, but it’s mainly the state governments that are lumbered with organising the extra housing and building the extra sewers, roads, transport, schools, hospitals and other facilities needed to avoid congestion and overcrowding.

Another thing to remember is that the easier you make it for businesses to get the skilled workers they need by bringing them in from abroad, the more you tempt them not to go to the expense and inconvenience of bothering with apprentices and trainees.

This is why so many businesses were caught short when, during the pandemic, their access to imported skilled labour was suddenly cut off. No wonder they were shouting to high heaven about the need to reopen their access to cheap labour. A lot of it was actually unskilled labour from overseas students, backpackers and others on temporary visas, who are easy to take advantage of.

Have you joined the dots? If giving business what it wants – high immigration to grow the market and provide ready access to skilled and unskilled workers – hasn’t induced business to increase the productivity of its labour, why don’t we try the opposite?

Make it harder for business to increase profits without improving productivity and investing in training our local workforce. Of course, this would require us to value productivity improvement more highly than population growth.

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Wednesday, September 13, 2023

Big business should serve us, not enslave us

When my brain was switching to idle on my recent break, I thought of two central questions. First, for whose benefit is the economy being run – a handful of company executives at the top, or all the rest of us? Second, despite all the hand-wringing over our lack of productivity improvement, would it be so terrible if the economy stopped growing?

Then the whole Qantas affair reached boiling point. So we’ll save the economy’s growth for another day.

You’ve probably heard as much as you want to know about Qantas and its departed chief executive Alan Joyce. But Qantas’ domination of our air travel industry makes its performance of great importance to our lives. And Qantas is just the latest and most egregious case of Big Business Behaving Badly.

We’ve seen all the misconduct revealed by the banking royal commission, with the Morrison government accepting all the commission’s recommendations before the 2019 election, then quietly dropping many of them after the election.

We’ve seen consulting firm PwC caught abusing the trust of the Tax Office, with further inquiry revealing the huge sums governments are paying the big four accounting firms for underwhelming advice on myriad routine matters.

We’ve seen Rio Tinto “accidentally” destroying a sacred site that stood in its way and, it seems, almost every big company “accidentally” paying their staff less than their legal entitlement.

Now, let’s be clear. I’m a believer in the capitalist system – the “market economy” as economists prefer to call it. I accept that the “profit motive” is the best way to motivate an economy. And that the exploitation of economies of scale means we benefit from having big companies.

But that doesn’t mean companies can’t get too big, nor that all the jobs and income big businesses bring us mean governments should manage the economy to please the nation’s chief executives.

It should go without argument that governments should manage the economy for the benefit of the many, not the few. The profit motive, big companies and their bosses should be seen as just means to the end of providing satisfying lives for all Australians, including the disabled and disadvantaged.

We allow the pursuit of profit, and the chosen treatment of employees and customers, only to the extent that the benefits to us come without unreasonable cost to us. Business serves us; we don’t serve it.

In other words, we need a fair bit of the benefit to “trickle down” from the bosses and shareholders at the top to the customers and workers at the bottom. That’s the unwritten social contract between us and big business. And for many years, enough of the benefit did trickle down. But in recent years the trickle down has become more trickle-like.

This is partly explained by the way the “micro-economic reform” of the Hawke-Keating government degenerated into “neoliberalism” – the belief that what’s good for BHP is good for Australia. This would have been encouraged by the way election campaigns have become an advertising arms race, with both sides of politics seeking donations from big business.

Another cause was explained by a former Reserve Bank governor, Ian Macfarlane, in his Boyer Lectures of 2006: “The combination of performance-based pay and short job tenure is becoming increasingly common throughout the business sector ... It can have the effect of encouraging managers to chase short-term profits, even if long-term risks are being incurred, because if the risks eventuate, they will show up ‘on someone else’s shift’.”

The upshot of neoliberalism’s assumption that business always knows best is to leave the nation’s chief executives – and their boardroom cheer squads – believing they’re part of a commercial Brahmin caste, fully entitled to be paid many multiples of what their fellow employees get, to retire with more bags of money than they can carry, and to have politicians never do anything that hampers their money-grubbing proclivities.

Their Brahminisation has reached the point where they think they can break the law with impunity. They’re confident that corporate watchdogs and competition and consumer watchdogs won’t come after them – or won’t be able to afford the lawyers they can.

Chief executives for years have used multiple devices – casualisation, pseudo contracting, labour hire companies, franchising and more – to chisel away at workers’ wages. And that’s before you get to the ways they quietly chisel their customers.

The fact is that the error and era of neoliberalism are over, but the Business Council and its members have yet to get the memo. They’re continuing to claim that cutting the rate of company tax would do wonders for the economy (not to mention their bonuses) and that the Albanese government’s latest efforts to protect employees from mistreatment would make their working arrangements impossibly “inflexible”.

But the more Qantases and Alan Joyces we call out while they amass their millions, the more the public wakes up, and the more governments see we want them to get the suits back under control.

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Monday, August 14, 2023

Hate rising prices? Please blame supply and demand, not me

Have you noticed how, to many economists, everything gets back to the interaction of supply and demand? Understand this simple truth and you know all you need to know. Except that you don’t. It leaves much to be explained.

Why has the cost of living suddenly got much worse? Because the demand for goods and services has been growing faster than the economy’s ability to supply those goods and services, causing businesses to put their prices up.

Since there is little governments can do to increase supply in the short term, the answer is to use higher interest rates to discourage spending. Weaker demand will make businesses much less keen to keep raising their prices. If you hit demand really hard, you may even oblige businesses to lower their prices a little.

But, as someone observed to me recently, saying that everything in the economy is explained by supply and demand is a bit like saying every plane crash is explained by gravity. It’s perfectly true, but it doesn’t actually tell you much.

Consider this. After rising only modestly for about a decade, rents are now shooting up. Why? Well, some people will tell you it’s because almost half of all rental accommodation has been bought by mum and dad investors using borrowed money (“negative gearing” and all that).

The sharp rise in interest rates over the past year or so has left many property investors badly out of pocket, so they’ve whacked up the rent they’re charging.

Ah no, say many economists (including a departing central bank governor), that’s not the reason. With vacancy rates unusually low, it means that the demand for places to rent is very close to the supply available, and landlords are taking advantage of this to put up their prices.

So, what’s it to be? I think it’s some combination of the two. Had the vacancy rate been high, mortgaged landlords would have felt the pain of higher interest rates but been much less game to whack up the rent for fear of losing their tenants.

But, by the same token, it’s likely that the coincidence of a tight housing market with a rise in interest rates has made the rise in rents faster and bigger than it would have been. It would be interesting to know whether landlords with no debt have increased their prices as fast and as far as indebted landlords have.

The point is that knowing how the demand and supply mechanism works doesn’t tell you much. It doesn’t allow you to predict what will happen to either supply or demand, nor tell you why they’ve moved as they have.

It’s mainly useful for what economists call “ex-post rationalisation” – aka the wisdom of hindsight.

Economic theory assumes that all businesses – including landlords – are “profit-maximising”. But in their landmark book, Radical Uncertainty, leading British economists John Kay and Mervyn King make the heretical point that, in practice rather than in textbooks, firms don’t maximise their profits.

Why not? Well, not because they wouldn’t like to, but because they don’t know how to. There is a “price point” that would maximise their profits, but they don’t know what it is.

To economists, when you’re just selling widgets, it’s a matter of finding the right combination of “p” (the price charged) and “q” (the quantity demanded). Raising p should increase your profit – but only if what you gain from the higher p is greater than what you lose from the reduction in q as some customers refuse to pay the higher price.

What you need to know to get the best combination of p and q is “the price elasticity of demand” – the customers’ sensitivity to changes in price. In textbooks or mathematical models, the elasticity is either assumed or estimated via some empirical study conducted in America 30 years ago.

In real life, you just don’t know, so you feel your way gently, always standing ready to start discounting the price if you realise you’ve gone too far. And the judgments you make end up being influenced by the way you feel, the way your fellow traders feel, what you think the customers are feeling and how they’d react to a price rise.

How flesh-and-blood people behave in real markets is affected by mood, emotion, sentiment, norms of socially acceptable behaviour and other herding behaviour – all the factors that economists knowingly exclude from their models and know little about.

Keynes called all this “animal spirits”. Youngsters would call it “the vibe of the thing”. It’s psychology, not economics. And it’s because conventional economics attempts to predict what will happen in the economy without taking account of airy-fairy psychology that economists’ forecasts are so often wrong.

They may know more about how the economy works than the rest of us, but there’s still a lot they don’t know. Worse, many of them don’t think they need to know it.

It’s clear to me that psychology has played a big part in the great post-pandemic price surge. It didn’t cause it, but it certainly caused it to be bigger than it might have been.

The pandemic’s temporary disruptions to supply and the Ukraine war’s disruption to fossil fuels and food supply provided a cast-iron justification for big price rises, and it was a simple matter for businesses to add a bit extra for the shareholders.

It was clear to the media that big price rises were on the way, so they went overboard holding a microphone in front of every industry lobbyist willing to make blood-curdling predictions about price rises on the way. (I’m still waiting to see the ABC’s prediction of the price of coffee rising to $8 a cup.)

Thus did recognition that the time for margin-fattening had arrived spread from the big oligopolists to every corner store. One factor that constrains the prices of small retailers is push-back from customers – both verbal and by foot.

All the media’s fuss about imminent price rises softened up customers and told the nation’s shopkeepers there would be little push-back to worry about.

In the home rental market, dominated as it is by amateur small investors, who rightly worry about losing a tenant and having their property unoccupied for more than a week or two, it’s the commission-motivated estate agents who know when’s the right time to urge landlords to raise the rent, and how big an increase they can be confident of getting away with. 

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Monday, July 17, 2023

Bullock the safe choice as RBA governor, but is that what we need?

In Treasurer Jim Chalmers’ decision to accept the internal candidate as successor to Philip Lowe as Reserve Bank governor, we see what may become the ultimate judgment about the Albanese government: it wanted change, but not radical change. Not change that rocked the boat too much. Certainly, not change that got big business offside.

The choice of deputy governor Michele Bullock to move up one chair will delight the Reserve’s higher ranks (though the put-upon lower ranks may have been hoping for a newer new broom to sweep out the old order).

As with most institutions, the Reserve’s insiders want the internally determined pecking order to be preserved. The governor persuades the Canberra politicians to appoint the next-most able person as deputy and, when the time comes, they move up, as do those in the queue behind them.

The Reserve insiders’ great fear is that the pollies will impose one of their trusties on them, or – next worse – that someone from their eternal bureaucratic rival, Treasury, will be appointed to sort them out. Either way, the pecking order is disrupted.

Over the years, the Reserve has had much success in persuading governments to let it choose its own governor. This has been the safe choice for pollies of both colours.

Only once has the internal order been disrupted in (my) living memory, which was when, in 1989, treasurer Paul Keating decided to move his Treasury secretary, Bernie Fraser, from Treasury to the Reserve.

Although I was disapproving at the time, it turned out to be a very healthy development. Fraser brought a breath of fresh air to a fusty institution. He was one of our better governors, a lot more reforming than his predecessors.

Fraser came to fear that one day he’d wake up to find himself reporting to a new Liberal treasurer, Dr John Hewson, a former economics professor, who’d immediately impose on him the latest international fashion, a central bank with operational independence from the elected government, whose decisions on monetary policy (interest rates) would be guided by an inflation target.

That never happened, of course. But Fraser decided that, if this was the way the world was turning, he’d get in first and design his own inflation target, ensuring it was a sensible one.

The Kiwis, who were the first to introduce such a target, set it at zero to 2 per cent, which became the international standard. But, with help from the Reserve’s best people, Fraser decided on something more flexible: to hold the inflation rate between 2 per cent and 3 per cent “on average” over the cycle.

So, it wasn’t just higher than the others. While they had a target with sharp corners, our “on average” would free the Reserve from having to jam on the monetary brakes every time the consumer price index popped its head above 2 per cent.

Foreign officials kept telling the Reserve it should get a proper target like the Kiwis. But in the end, it was they who had to accept their target was too inflexible.

Fraser announced the new target in 1994, by casually dropping it into a speech to business economists. It wasn’t until the next Liberal treasurer, Peter Costello, arrived in 1996, that the target, and the Reserve’s operational independence, were formalised in an agreement between Costello and the new governor, Ian Macfarlane.

Opposition leader Peter Dutton has said that neither present Treasury Secretary Dr Steven Kennedy, nor Finance Secretary Jenny Wilkinson should be appointed to succeed Lowe because they would be “tainted” by their work with the Labor government.

This was ignorant nonsense. He failed to note that both those people were equally “tainted” by their close work with that last Liberal treasurer, Josh Frydenberg, throughout the pandemic.

So it’s worth remembering that, because of Fraser’s close connection to (by then) prime minister Keating, the money market smarties were convinced Fraser wouldn’t be raising interest rates before the 1996 election.

Wrong. He did. Indeed, he raised them before a crucial byelection, which Keating lost in the run-up to losing the election. Since then, governor Glenn Stevens raised rates during the 2007 election campaign, and Lowe during the 2022 campaign.

Getting back to the point, I’d have been happy to see someone from Canberra put in to implement the (more sensible of the) reforms proposed by the recent review of the Reserve’s performance. Such an insular, self-perpetuating institution needs a regular injection of new blood.

With the benefit of hindsight, it’s almost as though Lowe’s speech last week outlining the Reserve’s plans to implement the review’s recommendations – with Bullock having done most of the work on those proposals – constituted her application for the top job.

Or maybe it was the Reserve’s written undertaking to the Treasurer that, should he agree to preserve the order of succession, it would nonetheless faithfully implement the changes needed.

That so many of those changes – which would be of little interest to any but Reserve insiders and the small army of Reserve-watching outsiders – can be described as major reform says much about what a stick-in-the-mud outfit successive governments have allowed it to become.

The number of meetings of the Reserve Bank board will be cut from 11 a year to eight. Really. Wow.

In making that change, the Reserve will continue its practice of having four of its meetings timed to come soon after publication of the quarterly CPI. But it will use the opportunity to have the remaining four meetings come soon after publication of the quarterly national accounts.

The present practice of meeting on the first Tuesday of the month meant it was meeting the day before it found out how fast the economy had been growing.

Get it? The Reserve could have fixed this problem any time in the past several decades by moving its board meetings to fit. But no, it took a full-scale independent review to make it change its practice. We like doing things the way they’ve always been done. (The good news? No more meetings on Melbourne Cup Day.)

The only significant administrative change will be to have decisions about interest rates made by a board better able to argue the toss with the governor. In particular, what they need (and is already in the pipeline) is someone with expertise in real-world wage-fixing.

The real world keeps changing under the feet of economists, and we need central bankers capable of changing their views in an economy where the cause of inflation is changing from excessive wage growth to excessive profit growth.

That requires more debate within the Reserve, and more opportunity for the newly recruited bright young economics graduates to debate matters with the old blokes at the top.

The Reserve’s problem is too much deference to the views and wishes of the governor. It’s long been a one-man band. Bullock’s appointment as the first female governor ends that problem at a stroke. Let’s hope she does better than turn it into a one-woman band.

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Monday, June 5, 2023

Business cries poor on wages, even as profits mount

Don’t believe anyone – not even a governor of the Reserve Bank – trying to tell you the Fair Work Commission’s decision to increase minimum award wages by 5.75 per cent is anything other than good news for the lowest-paid quarter of wage earners.

Because they are so low paid, and mainly part-time, these people account for only about 11 per cent of the nation’s total wage bill. So, as the commission says, the pay rise “will make only a modest contribution to total wages growth in 2023-24 and will consequently not cause or contribute to any wage-spiral”.

But that’s not the impression you’d get from all the wailing and gnashing of teeth by the main employer group, the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry. It claims “an arbitrary increase of this magnitude consigns Australia to high inflation, mounting interest rates and fewer jobs”.

These are the sort of dramatics we get from the Canberra-based employers’ lobby before and after every annual wage review. They lay it on so thick I doubt anyone much believes them.

But it’s worse than that. In the age-old struggle between labour and capital – wages and profits – most economists have decided long ago whose side they’re on, and long ago lost sight of how one-eyed they’ve become.

For a start, many of the talking heads you see on telly work for big businesses. They’re never going to be caught saying nice things about pay rises.

Econocrats working for conservative governments have to watch what they say. And parts of the media have business plans that say: pick a lucrative market segment, then tell ’em what they want to hear.

In my experience, there’s never any shortage of experts willing to fly to the defence of the rich and powerful, in the hope that some of the money comes their way.

But I confess to being shocked in recent times by the way the present Reserve Bank governor, Dr Philip Lowe, has been so willing to take sides. The way he preaches restraint to ordinary workers struggling to cope with the cost of living, but never urges businesses to show restraint in the enthusiasm with which they’ve been whacking up their prices.

It’s true that Lowe has a board that’s been stacked with business people, but that’s been true for all his predecessors, and they were never so openly partisan.

When businesses take advantage of the excessively strong demand that Lowe himself helped to create, that’s just business doing what comes naturally, and must never be questioned, even in an economy characterised by so much oligopoly – big companies with the power to influence the prices they charge.

But when employees unite to demand pay rises at least sufficient to cover the rising cost of living, this is quite illegitimate and to be condemned. The more so when a government agency such as the Fair Work Commission acts to protect the incomes of the poorest workers.

On Friday, the commission set out what has long been the rule for fair and efficient division of the spoils of the market system between labour and capital: “In the medium to long term, it is desirable that modern award minimum wages maintain their real value and increase in line with the trend rate of national productivity growth”.

In other words, wage rises don’t add to inflation unless their growth exceeding inflation exceeds the nationwide (not the particular business’) trend (that is, over a run of years, not just the last couple) rate of growth in the productivity of labour (production per hour worked).

But last week, in his appearance before a Senate committee, Lowe was twisting the rule to suit his case, setting nominal (before taking account of inflation) unit labour costs (labour costs adjusted for productivity improvement) not real unit labour costs as the appropriate measure.

He told the senators that growth in labour costs per unit of 3 or 4 per cent a year was adding to inflation because the past few years had seen no growth in the productivity of labour (which, of course, is the fault of the government, not the businesses doing the production).

This is dishonest. What he was implying was that wage growth should not bear any relationship to what’s happening to prices at the time. Wage growth should be capped at 2.5 per cent a year every year, come hell or high water.

Without any productivity improvement, any wage growth exceeding 2.5 per cent was inflationary. Should the nation’s businesses choose to raise their prices by more than 2.5 per cent, what was best for the economy was for the workers’ wages to fall in real terms.

Now, Lowe is a very smart man, and I’m sure he doesn’t actually believe anything so silly. Like the employer groups, he’s cooked up a convenient argument to help him achieve his KPIs. He sees the inflation rate as his key performance indicator.

He’s got to get it down to the 2 to 3 per cent target range, and get it down quick. He ain’t too worried what shortcuts he takes or who gets hurt in the process.

When he claims that, absent productivity improvement, wage rises far lower than the rate of inflation are themselves inflationary, what he really means is that they make it harder for him to achieve his KPIs.

Clearly, the wage rise that would help him get the inflation rate down fastest is a wage rise of zero. It would plunge the economy into recession, and businesses would have a lot more trouble finding customers, but who cares about that?

It’s not true that sub-inflation-rate pay rises add to inflation. What is true is that the bigger the sub-inflation rise, the longer it takes to get inflation down. But he doesn’t like to say that.

Why’s he in such a hurry he’s happy for ordinary workers to suffer? Because he lies awake at night worrying that, if it takes too long to get inflation down, inflation expectations will rise and a price-wage spiral will become entrenched.

Does Treasury secretary Dr Steven Kennedy also lie awake? Doesn’t seem to. He told the senators last week that “there are no signs of a wage-price spiral developing and medium-term inflation expectations remain well anchored”.

If ever there was a general fighting the last war, it’s Lowe.

Meanwhile, please don’t say business profits seem to be going fine. It may be true, but please don’t say it. Business doesn’t like you saying such offensive things, and business’ media cheer squad goes ape.

Read more >>

Friday, April 7, 2023

Don't let an economist run your business, or bosses run the economy

A lot of people think the chief executives of big companies – say, one of the four big banks - would be highly qualified to tell them how high interest rates should go and what higher rates will do to the economy over the next year or two.

Don’t believe it. What a big boss could tell you with authority is how to run a big company – their own, in particular. Except they wouldn’t be sharing their trade secrets.

No, in my experience, when bosses step away from their day job to give Treasurer Jim Chalmers free advice, their primary objective is to tell him how to run the economy in ways that better suit the interests of their business (and so help increase their annual bonus).

But when it comes to keeping our banks highly profitable, our treasurers and central bankers are doing an excellent job already.

Of course, it’s just as true the other way around: don’t ask an economist to tell you how to run a business. It’s not something they know much about.

Running big businesses and running economies may seem closely related, but it’s not. They’re very different skills.

One of the ways the rich economies have got rich over the past 200 years is by what the father of economics, Adam Smith, called “the division of labour” – dividing all the work into ever-more specialised occupations. By now, managing businesses and managing economies are a world apart.

But as Free Exchange, the economics column in my favourite magazine, The Economist, explains in its latest issue, there’s more to it than that.

Conventional economic theory sees the economy as composed of a large collection of markets. Producers use resources – labour, physical capital, and land and raw materials – to produce goods and services, which they sell to consumers in markets.

Producers supply goods and services; consumers demand goods and services. How do producers know what to supply and consumers what to demand? They’re guided by the ever-changing prices being demanded and paid in the market.

So economists see economics as being all about markets using the “price mechanism” to ensure the available resources are “allocated” to the particular combination of goods and services that yields consumers the most satisfaction of their needs and wants.

It wasn’t until 1937 that a British-American economist, Ronald Coase, pointed to the glaring omission in this happy description of how economies work: much of the allocation of resources happens not in markets but inside firms, many of them huge firms, with multiple divisions and thousands of employees.

Inside these firms, the decisions are made by employees, and what they do is determined not by price signals, but by what the hierarchy of bosses tells them to do. A key decision when something new is wanted is whether to buy it in from the market, or make it yourself.

The Economist says another gap between economic theory and the world of business is the economists’ assumption that firms are profit-maximising. Well, they would be if they could be.

Trouble is, contrary to standard theory, they simply don’t have the information to know how much they could get away with. Gathering a lot more information would be expensive and, even then, they couldn’t get all they need.

As the American Herbert Simon – not really an economist, which didn’t stop him winning a Nobel Prize – realised, businesses live in a world of “bounded rationality” – they make the best decision they can with the information available, seeking profits that are satisfactory rather than ideal. They are “satisficers” rather than maximisers.

It took decades before other economists took up Coase’s challenge to think more about how companies actually go about turning economic resources into goods and services.

The Economist says a key idea is that the firm is “a co-ordinator of team production, where each team member’s contribution cannot be separated from the others.

“Team output requires a hierarchy to delegate tasks, monitor effort and to reward people accordingly.”

But this requires a different arrangement. In market transactions, you buy what you need and that’s pretty much the end of it. But, because a business can’t think of all the things that could possibly go wrong, a firm’s contracts with its employees are unavoidably “incomplete”.

Without these legal protections, what keeps the business going is trust between employer and employee, and the risk to both sides if things fall apart.

Another problem that arises within companies is ensuring employees act in the best interests of the firm, and are team players, rather than acting in their own interests. Economists call this the principal-agent problem.

In law, and in economic theory, businesses are owned by their shareholders, with everyone employed in the business - from the chief executive down – acting merely as agents for the owners. Who, of course, aren’t present to ensure everyone acts in the owners’ interests, not their own.

Economists came up with the idea of ensuring the executives’ interests aligned with the owners’ interests by paying them with bonuses and share options.

Trouble is, these crude monetary incentives too often encouraged executives to find ways to game the system. Ramp the company’s shares just before you sell your options and let the future look after itself.

Elsewhere, linking teachers pay to exam results encourages too many of them to “teach to the test”.

More recently, economists have decided it’s better to pay a fixed salary and avoid tying rewards to any particular task – which could be achieved by neglecting other tasks.

But whatever economists learn about how to manage businesses, it’s hard to see them supplanting management experts any time soon.

As The Economist observes, when a business hires a chief economist, it’s usually for their understanding of the macroeconomy or the ways of the central bank, not for advice on corporate strategy.

Read more >>

Friday, March 17, 2023

Ever wondered why your wages aren't rising?

It’s dawning on people that when the competition between businesses isn’t strong, firms can raise their prices by more than the increase in their costs, and so fatten their profit margins. What’s yet to dawn is that weak competition also allows businesses to pay their workers less than they should.

In standard economic theory, it’s the intense competition between firms that prevents them from overcharging for their products and earning more than a “normal” profit.

Normal profit gives the owners of the firm just sufficient return on the capital they’ve invested to stop them leaving the industry and trying their luck elsewhere.

The theory assumes the industry has numerous firms, each one too small to influence the market price. In today’s world, however, many markets are dominated by just two, three or four huge firms.

These firms are big enough to influence the market price, especially when it’s so easy for them to collude tacitly with their rivals.

We see the four big banks doing this every time interest rates are raised. They have an unspoken agreement not to compete on price.

EverI say they have “pricing power”, but many economists say they have “monopoly power”. How can a handful of firms have monopoly power? Because economists don’t use that term literally. On a scale of one to 1000 firms, we’re right down the monopoly end.

Dr Andrew Leigh, the Assistant Minister for Competition, and a former economics professor, has been giving a series of speeches about recent empirical studies on how competitive our markets are.

In one, he quoted the findings of Jonathan Hambur, a researcher who pivots between Treasury and the Reserve Bank, that Australian firms’ “mark-ups” – the gap between their cost of production and their selling price – have been rising steadily.

But in a further speech this month, Leigh turned the focus from what “market concentration” (among a few massive companies) means for the industry’s customers, to what it means for its employees.

So, in econospeak, we’re moving from monopoly to “monopsony”. Huh? Taken literally, monopoly means a market in which there’s a single seller meeting the demand for the product. Monopsony means there’s a single buyer from the people supplying the inputs to production. Workers supply the firm with the labour it needs.

The term was introduced by Joan Robinson, a colleague of Keynes at Cambridge, who was among the first to question the standard theory of how markets work. She was 30 in 1933 when she published her dissenting view that truly competitive markets were rare.

She argued that monopsony was endemic in the labour market and employers were using it to keep wages low. If there are few employers competing for workers, those workers have fewer “outside options” (to move to another firm offering higher pay or better conditions).

This limits workers’ bargaining power and gives employers the power to keep wages lower.

At the time, few economists took much interest. But in recent years there’s been a growing focus on market power by academic economists.

For instance, monopsony was cited in a US Supreme Court ruling against Apple in 2019. A report by Democrats in the US House of Representatives accused Amazon of using monopsony power in its warehouses to depress wages in local markets.

Evidence from the US, Britain and Europe has demonstrated that increases in labour market concentration – fewer employers to work for – are associated with lower wages.

Leigh says economists have long known that people in cities tend to earn more than those in regional areas. His own research found that when someone moves from a rural area to a major Australian city, their annual income rises by 8 per cent.

“The economics of monopsony suggests that an important part of the urban wage premium can be explained by greater employer competition in denser labour markets,” Leigh says.

Leigh reminds us that Australia’s average full-time wage ($1808 a week last November) was only $18 a week higher than it was 10 years ago, after allowing for inflation. Many things would explain this pathetic improvement, but one factor could be employers’ monopsony.

We know that the rate at which people move between employers has fallen. But over a person’s working life, the biggest average wage gains come when people switch employers. And when some people leave, the bargaining power of those who stay is increased.

This decline in people moving could be caused by increased employer monopsony. Hambur has done a study of employment concentration between 2005 and 2016.

He found that, within industries where concentration rose, growth in real wages over the decade was significantly lower.

When a firm has a large share of the industry’s employment, the gap between the value of the work a worker does, and the wage they’re paid in return, tends to grow.

He found that employment in regions close to major cities is twice as concentrated as in the cities. In remote areas it’s three times.

Read this carefully: Hambur found that labour markets had not become more concentrated over the decade. But at every degree of concentration, its negative impact on wages had more than doubled.

So, employers’ market power could well be a factor helping to explain the virtual absence of real wage growth over a decade. Hambur finds that the greater impact of employer concentration may have caused wage growth between 2011 and 2015 to be 1 per cent lower than otherwise.

This would help explain why not all the (weak) growth in the productivity of labour during the period was passed through to real wages – as conventional economists and business people always assure us it will be. Weak competition allowed employers to keep a lot of it back for themselves.

Part of the competitive process is new firms entering the industry. New firms usually poach staff away from the existing firms. But we know the rate of new entry has declined.

Read more >>

Friday, March 10, 2023

Can the critics prove higher profit margins are fuelling inflation?

There’s a big risk we’ll fail to learn a vital lesson from our worst inflation outbreak in decades. If inflation is such a scourge that we must pay a terrible price to get it back under control, why do we do so little to stop big companies from acquiring the power to raise their prices by more than needed to cover their rising costs?

Economists are far more comfortable thinking about inflation at the top, macro level than the bottom, micro level. At the top, inflation is caused by aggregate (total) demand for goods and services growing faster that aggregate supply – the economy’s ability to produce those goods and services.

We know from Reserve Bank figuring that more than half the price rise we’ve seen has come from temporary disruptions to the supply of production inputs, caused by the pandemic and the Ukraine war.

But, the Reserve insists, prices have also risen because demand’s been stronger than it should have been. Why? Because in our efforts to hold the economy together during the pandemic, we applied far more economic stimulus than was needed.

Economists – even those who stuffed up the stimulus – are comfortable with this explanation because it puts the blame on government. The model of the economy they carry in their heads tells them the market usually works fine, whereas it’s government intervention in the market that usually causes the problems.

So, you can see why economists were so discombobulated when one of the world’s top macroeconomists, Olivier Blanchard, tweeted about “a point which is often lost in discussions of inflation”. “Inflation,” he wrote, “is fundamentally the outcome of the distributional conflict between firms, workers and taxpayers.”

He’s saying economists need to look at the more fundamental, bottom-up factors driving inflation. Is worsening inflation caused by workers and their unions successfully demanding real wage rises higher than the increasing productivity of their labour justifies?

Or is the strength of competition insufficient to do what the mental model promises: prevent firms from raising their prices beyond what’s needed to cover their higher costs (including a “normal” return – profit – on the capital invested by their owners)?

The strange fact is that economists and econocrats have a long history of lecturing workers and unions on the need for wage restraint. Reserve Bank governor Dr Philip Lowe has been saying workers must be “flexible” and accept wage rises far less than the rise in consumer prices. That is, take a big pay cut in real terms.

But economists are infinitely more reticent in urging businesses to go easy with their price rises. I suspect this is partly because of the biases hidden in their mental model, but mainly because they know their employer, or the big-business lobby, or its media cheer squad, or all the business people on the Reserve’s board, would tear into them for daring to say such a thing.

Similarly, economists have insisted the Australian Bureau of Statistics publish any number of different measures of wage growth, but few measures of profit growth.

Last month, Dr Jim Stanford, of the Australia Institute, sought to even things up a bit by publishing figures that broke the inflation rate up into the bit caused by rising wages and the bit caused by rising profits.

He found that “excess corporate profits account for 69 per cent of additional inflation beyond the Reserve Bank’s target”, whereas rising labour costs per unit of production (that is, after adjusting for the productivity of labour) account for just 18 per cent.

What? Huh? Never seen an exercise like that before. How’d he cook that up? The business lobby went on the attack and the business press consulted a few economists who lazily dismissed it as nonsense.

But though it’s unfamiliar, it’s not as weird as you may think. Stanford was copying the method used by some crowd called the European Central Bank. What would they know?

Well, OK. But how can you take the rise in the prices of products over a period and “decompose” it (break it down) into the bit caused by rising wage costs and the bit caused by rising profits?

By taking advantage of the fact that, every time we measure the growth in gross domestic product in the “national accounts”, we measure it three different ways.

First, the growth in the nation’s expenditure on goods and services. Second, the growth in the nation’s income from wages, profits and other odds and sods. Third, the growth in the production of goods or services by each of our 19 different private and public sector industries.

In principle, each way you measure it gives you the same figure for GDP. Then you use a “deflator” to divide the growth in nominal GDP between the bit caused by higher prices and the bit caused by higher quantities – the “real” bit.

So, it’s quite legitimate to take this measure of inflation and break it up between higher wages and higher profits (leaving the bit caused by changes in taxes and subsidies).

Actually, the stats bureau’s been doing this exercise for wages (“nominal unit labour costs”) for decades, but not doing it for profits (because no one’s been keen to know the results).

Note that the “GDP deflator” is a quite different measure of inflation to the one we usually focus on: the index of consumer prices.

Note, too, that the Ukraine war has caused a huge jump in the profits of our energy producers. This windfall hasn’t been caused by businesses sneaking up their profit margins (“mark-ups”, as economists say). But the growth in mining industry profits accounts for only about half the rise in total profits over the three years to December 2022.

I’m not comfortable relying on a think tank for these figures. But if the economists who champion big business don’t like it, they should take this exercise seriously and join the debate. The government should ask the stats bureau to finish doing the numbers itself.

Read more >>

Friday, December 16, 2022

Weakening competition is adding to our inflation woes

We’ve worried a lot about inflation and its causes this year, but in one important respect the economy’s managers have yet to join the dots. The most basic economics tells us that what stops prices rising more than they should is strong competition between firms. If competition has weakened, that will be part of our inflation problem.

But is there evidence that competition is less intense than it was? Yes, lots. It was outlined by Assistant Treasurer Dr Andrew Leigh in a recent speech.

The basic model of how markets work – the one lodged in the head of almost every economist – assumes “perfect competition”.

Markets are supposed to consist of a huge number of consumers and many producers, each of them too small to have any ability to influence the price of the products they’re selling. So the price is determined purely by the interaction of producers’ supply and consumers’ demand.

Competition between these small firms is so intense that, should any one of them be so foolish as to raise their price above what all the other firms are charging, consumers would immediately cease buying their product, and they’d go out backwards.

I doubt if that was ever an accurate description of any real-world market. But even if it approximated the truth at the time economists got it so firmly fixed in their minds – the late 19th century – all the years since then have seen firms getting bigger and bigger.

So much so that many key industries today have just a handful of firms – often no more than four – accounting for well over half the industry’s sales.

This has happened thanks to a century or two of firms using improvements in technology to pursue “economies of scale”. Up to a point, the more widgets you can produce from the same factory, the lower their average cost of production.

Firms do this in the hope of increasing their profits. But the magic of markets – when they’re working properly – is that your competitors also use the new technology to cut their production costs, then undercut your price to pinch some of your share of the market.

This is the competitive process by which the benefits of scale-economies end up mainly in the hands of consumers, in the form of lower prices. This is a big part of the reason we’re all so much richer than our great-grandparents were.

The digital revolution has moved scale-economies to a new stratosphere. It costs a lot to develop a new GPS navigation program, for instance, but once you’ve done it, you can produce a million or two million copies at negligible extra cost.

So, fundamentally, the move to fewer but much bigger firms is a good thing. Except for this: the bigger a firm’s share of the market, the greater its ability to influence the prices it charges. This is a key motivation for big firms to keep taking over smaller firms.

And when markets are dominated by three or four big firms, it’s easy for them to reach an unspoken agreement to use advertising, marketing and superficial product differentiation to compete with their rivals, while avoiding undermining existing prices and profit margins by starting a price war.

Similarly, when all the big firms in an industry are hit by similar big increases the costs of their imported inputs – caused, say, by pandemic or war-related shortages of supply – it’s easy for them to reach an unspoken understanding that they will use this opportunity to fatten their profit margins by raising their prices by more than the rise in input costs justifies.

Which is just what seems to have been contributing to the huge rise in consumer prices this year – though it’s far too soon for economic researchers to have hard evidence this is happening.

What we do have, according to Leigh, is a “growing body of evidence that suggests excessive market concentration can lead to economic problems”.

“Dominant firms in a market may have less incentive to carry out research and development. They may have less incentive to produce new products. And in some cases, they may have less incentive to pay their employees fairly.

“As you can imagine, the drag on the economy only becomes stronger and deeper with each and every concentrated market,” Leigh says.

In the past decade, there has been a huge increase in the number of studies – covering the US and many other countries – confirming that markets have become more concentrated. That is, a higher share of the market held by a few big firms.

But, Leigh says, “mark-ups” – the gap between firms’ costs of production and their selling prices – are one of the most reliable indicators of “market power”. That is, power to raise their prices by more than is justified by their increased costs of production.

Australian research led by Treasury’s Jonathan Hambur finds that industry average mark-ups increased by about 6 percentage points between 2003 and 2016. This fits with figures for the advanced economies estimated in a study by the International Monetary Fund over the same period.

Hambur finds that mark-ups for the most digitally intensive firms increased by 12 percentage points, compared with 4 percentage points for all other firms.

And also that industries experiencing greater annual increase in concentration had greater annual increases in their mark-ups.

Of course, none of this should come as a great surprise to those few economists who specialise in the study of IO – industrial organisation – the way the real-world behaviour of monopolies and oligopolies differs from the way simple textbook models of perfect competition would lead us to expect.

Institutionally, the responsibility for seeking to ensure “effective competition” in our highly oligopolised economy rests with the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission. But its efforts to tighten scrutiny of company takeovers and other ways of increasing a firm’s market power have met stiff resistance from the big business lobby.

This new evidence of increasing mark-ups suggests the econocrats responsible for limiting inflation should be giving the ACCC more support.

Read more >>

Monday, September 19, 2022

Don't worry about inflation, the punters will be made to pay for it

Our sudden, shocking encounter with high inflation has brought to light a disturbing truth: we now have a dysfunctional economy, in which big business has gained too much power over the prices it can charge, while the nation’s households have lost what power they had to protecting their incomes from inflation.

It has also revealed the limitations and crudity of the main instrument we’ve used to manage the macro economy for the past 40 years: monetary policy – the manipulation of interest rates by the central bank.

We’ve been reminded that monetary policy can’t fix problems on the supply (production) side of the economy. Nor can it fix problems arising from the underlying structure of how the economy works.

All it can do is use interest rates to speed up or slow down the demand (spending) side of the economy. And even there, it has little direct effect on the spending of governments or on the investment spending of businesses.

Its control over interest rates gives it direct influence only on the spending of households. And, for the most part, that means spending that has to be done on borrowed money: buying a home. But also, renting a home some landlord has borrowed to buy.

Get it? The Reserve Bank of Australia’s governor’s power to manipulate interest rates largely boils down to influencing how much households spend on their biggest single item of spending: housing. Because no one wants to be homeless, using interest rates to increase the cost of housing leaves people with less to spend on everything else.

This means the governor has little direct influence over big business’s ability to take advantage of strong demand to widen its profit margins. He must get at businesses indirectly, via his power to reduce their customers’ ability to keep buying their products.

Get it? Households are the meat in the sandwich between the Reserve and big business (with small business using the cover of big business’s big price hikes to sneak up their own profit margins).

Join the dots, and you realise the Reserve’s plan to get inflation down quickly involves allowing a transfer of many billions from the pockets of households to the profits of big business.

On one hand, big business has been allowed to raise its prices by more than needed to cover the jump in its costs arising from the supply disruptions of the pandemic and the Ukraine war. On the other, the loss of union bargaining power means big business has had little trouble ensuring its wage bill rises at a much lower rate than retail prices have.

So, it’s households that are picking up the tab for the Reserve’s solution to the inflation problem. They’ll pay for it with higher mortgage interest rates and rents, and a fall in the value of their homes, but mainly by having their wages rise by a lot less than the rise in their cost of living.

The RBA’s unspoken game plan is to squeeze households until demand for goods and services has weakened to the point where big business decides that raising its prices to increase its profits would cost it so many sales that it would be left worse off.

It may even come to pass that households have been squeezed so badly big businesses’ sales start falling, and some of them decide that cutting their price to win back sales would leave them better off.

In economists’ notation, maximising profits – or minimising losses – is all about finding the best combination of “p” (price) and “q” (quantity demanded).

You don’t believe big businesses ever cut their prices? It’s common for them to “discount” their prices in ways that disguise their retreat, using special offers, holding sales, and otherwise allowing a gap between their advertised price and the price many customers actually pay.

But why would that nice mother’s boy Dr Philip Lowe, whose statutory duty is to ensure that monetary policy is directed to “the greatest advantage of the people of Australia”, impose so much pain on so many ordinary people, who played no part in causing the problem he’s grappling with?

Because, as all central bankers do, he sees keeping inflation low as his central responsibility. And he doesn’t see any other way to stop prices rising so rapidly. It’s a case study in just what a crude, inadequate and blunt instrument monetary policy is.

Lowe justifies his measures to reduce inflation quickly by saying this will avoid a recession. But let’s not kid ourselves. This massive transfer of income from households to business profits will deal a great blow to the economy.

After going nowhere much for almost a decade, real household disposable income is now expected to fall for two years in a row. And who knows if there’ll be a third.

Economists have made much of the extra saving households did during the pandemic. But during Lowe’s appearance before the parliamentary economics committee on Friday, it was revealed that about 80 per cent of that extra $270 billion in saving was done by the 40 per cent of households with the highest incomes. So, how much of it ends up being spent is open to question.

The likelihood that our measures to weaken household spending will lead to a recession must be very high.

Until Lowe’s remarks before the committee on Friday, his commentary on the causes and cure of inflation seemed terribly one-sided. The key to reducing inflation was ensuring wages didn’t rise by as much as prices had, so that rising inflation expectations wouldn’t lead to a wage-price spiral.

He warned that the higher wages rose, the higher he’d have to raise interest rates. He lectured the unions, saying they needed to be “flexible” in their wage demands. You could see this as giving an official blessing to businesses resisting union pressure and granting pay rises far lower than prices had risen.

Lowe could just as easily have lectured business to be “flexible” in passing on all the higher cost of their imported inputs, when these were expected to be temporary – but he didn’t. He’s always quoting what business people are saying to him, but never what union leaders say – perhaps because he never talks to them.

But on Friday he evened up the record. “It is also important to note that, to date, the stronger growth in wages has not been a major factor driving inflation higher,” he said. “Businesses, too, have a role in avoiding these damaging outcomes, by not using the higher inflation as cover for an increase in profit margins.”

That’s his first-ever admission that, when conditions allow, business has the market power to raise its prices by more than just its rising costs. Problem is, monetary policy’s only solution to this structural weakness – caused by inadequate competitive pressure – is to keep demand perpetually weak.

Read more >>

Monday, August 1, 2022

The inflation fix: protect profits, hit workers and consumers

There’s a longstanding but unacknowledged – and often unnoticed – bias in mainstream commentary on the state of the economy. We dwell on problems created by governments or greedy workers and their interfering unions, but never entertain the thought that the behaviour of business could be part of the problem.

This ubiquitous pro-business bias – reinforced daily by the national press – is easily seen in the debate on how worried we should be about inflation, and in the instant attraction to the notion that continuing to cut real wages is central to getting inflation back under control. This is being pushed by the econocrats, and last week’s economic statement from Treasurer Jim Chalmers reveals it’s been swallowed by the new Labor government.

I’ve been arguing strongly that the primary source of the huge price rises we’ve seen is quite different to what we’re used to. It’s blockages in the supply of goods, caused by a perfect storm of global problems: the pandemic, the war in Ukraine and even climate change’s effect on meat and vegetable prices.

Since monetary policy can do nothing to fix supply problems, we should be patient and wait for these once-off, temporary issues to resolve themselves. The econocrats’ reply is that, though most price rises come from deficient supply, some come from strong demand – and they’re right.

Although more than half the 1.8 per cent rise in consumer prices in the June quarter came from just three categories – food, petrol and home-building costs – it’s also true there were increases in a high proportion of categories.

The glaring example of price rises caused by strong demand is the cost of building new homes. Although there have been shortages of imported building materials, it’s clear that hugely excessive stimulus – from interest rates and the budget – has led to an industry that hasn’t had a hope of keeping up with the government-caused surge in demand for new homes. It’s done what it always does: used the opportunity to jack up prices.

But as for a more general effect of strong demand on prices, what you don’t see in the figures is any sign it’s high wages that are prompting businesses to raise their prices. Almost 80 per cent of the rise in prices over the year to June came from the price of goods rather than services. That’s despite goods’ share of total production and employment being about 20 per cent.


This – along with direct measures of wage growth - says it’s not soaring labour costs that have caused so many businesses to raise their prices. Rather, strong demand for their product has allowed them to pass on, rather than absorb, the higher cost of imported inputs – and, probably, fatten their profit margins while they’re at it.

Take the amazing 7 per cent increase in furniture prices during the quarter. We’re told this is explained by higher freight costs. Really? I can’t believe it.

Nor can I believe that months of unrelenting media stories about prices rising here, there and everywhere – including an open mic for business lobbyists to exaggerate the need for price rises – haven’t made it easier for businesses everywhere to raise their prices without fear of pushback from customers.

But whenever inflation worsens, the economists’ accusing fingers point not to business but to the workers. No one ever says businesses should show more restraint, they do say the only way to fix the problem is for workers to take a real-wage haircut.

There’s no better evidence of the economics profession’s pro-business bias than its studious avoidance of mentioning the way the profits share of national income keeps rising and the wages share keeps falling.

In truth, the story’s not as simple as it looks, but it seems to have occurred to no mainstream economist that what may be happening is business using the cover of the supply-side disruptions to effect a huge transfer of income from labour to capital.

Allowing real wages to fall significantly for three years in a row – as Chalmers’ new forecasts say they will – would certainly be the quickest and easiest way to lower inflation, but do the econocrats really imagine this would leave the economy hale and hearty?

Yet another sign of economists’ pro-business bias is that so few of them know much – or even think they need to know much – about how wages are fixed in the real world. Hence all the silliness we’re hearing about the risk of lifting inflation expectations. Can’t happen when workers lack bargaining power.

You’d think an understanding of wage-fixing is something a Labor government could bring to the table. But no. All we’re getting from Chalmers is that we need to cut real wages so we can increase them later. Yeah, sure.

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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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