Monday, September 13, 2010


Talk to Victorian Commercial Teachers Association
September 13, 2010

The survival of the Gillard government with the support of the various independents has breathed new life into the debate about tax reform and the recommendations of the Henry tax review. Ms Gillard has agreed with the two country independents to hold a tax summit before July next year to discuss the economic and social effects of the reforms proposed by the review. The Labor government’s survival also allows it to press on with its intention to enact the revised minerals resource rent tax and the package of measures it will pay for. All of the four members of the House whose votes the government needs have indicated their support for the mining tax in some form, as have the Greens, who will have the balance of power in the Senate after June next year. About $6 billion of the $10 billion regional assistance package negotiated with the independents will be funded from the proceeds of the mining tax, via the Regional Infrastructure Fund.

The Henry tax review

The tax package was produced as the government’s response to the Henry review panel’s comprehensive review of the Australian tax and transfer system, federal and state. It’s the first comprehensive review since the Asprey report of 1975. Just as the Asprey report set the direction for tax reform over the following 25 years, so Ken Henry’s goal was to lay down a blueprint to guide further reform over coming decades, whether by this government or its successors. Henry set out proposals to:

• concentrate federal and state revenue-raising on four broad-based taxes: personal income, business income, rents on natural resources and land, and private consumption. Other taxes should be retained only where they serve social purposes or internalise negative externalities (eg gambling, tobacco and alcohol taxes, petrol taxes, pollution taxes). State taxes on insurance, conveyancing and other stamp duties and payroll tax should be replaced by a comprehensive 1 pc land tax and a ’broad-based cash flow tax’ (a simplified GST-type tax). (The objection to payroll tax is not that it’s a tax on labour - so is the GST - but that its high threshold means only larger businesses are taxed.)

• change the mix of taxation to reduce reliance on taxing mobile resources (eg business income) and increase reliance on taxing immobile resources (eg land and resources, and consumption). The company tax rate should be reduced from 30 pc to 25 pc. State royalty charges on minerals should be replaced by a resource rent tax levied at 40 pc.

• introduce a new two-step income tax scale with a tax-free threshold of $25,000 (but with the low-income tax offset and other offsets abolished), a 35 pc rate to $180,000 (but the 1.5 pc Medicare levy abolished) and (the present) 45 pc rate above that.

• regularise the widely disparate rates of tax on income from savings by allowing a 40 pc discount on income from interest, rent and capital gains, but also on deductions for interest expense of rental properties.

• improve the targeting of cash transfer payments.

• reform the taxation of superannuation by abolishing the 15 pc tax on contributions. People’s contributions should be taxed at their marginal rate, but they should receive a tax offset designed to ensure low income earners pay no net tax on contributions, middle income earners pay no more than 15 pc and only high income earners pay more than 15 pc. This would greatly improve the present inequitable distribution of the super tax concession. The tax on fund earnings should be halved to 7.5 pc. These two measures would lead eventually to greater super payouts, particularly for low and middle earners, making a rise in the compulsory contribution rate unnecessary.

• improve the taxing of roads by introducing congestion pricing that varies by time of day, using the proceeds to replace the tax element of motor vehicle registrations and possibly fuel taxes. Heavy vehicles should pay changes reflecting the damage they do to roads.

• reduce the complexity of the tax system, including by using an optional standard deduction for work-related expenses to simplify the completion of tax returns and save on tax agents’ fees.

Contents of the original tax package

A week before the 2010 budget was announced, the Rudd government unveiled the tax reform package that was its response to the Henry review and also the centrepiece of its budget. The package consisted of one big new tax, originally called the resource super-profits tax, which would cover the cost of various tax cuts and increased tax concessions. The mining tax effectively replaced the states’ various royalty charges for the use of minerals owned by the Crown. Although the states would continue to charge these royalties, miners would have their payments refunded by the feds. The resource tax was originally expected to raise a net $12 billion in its first two years of operation.

Proceeds from the resource tax would finance a range of tax reductions:

• Company tax rate phased down from 30 pc to 28 pc

• Small business to receive company tax rate cut earlier than other companies, plus instant write-off of new fixed assets worth less than $5000

• The present tax deduction for resource exploration costs to be turned into a ‘refundable tax offset’ at the prevailing company tax rate, making it more valuable to explorers and much more expensive to the government

• The concessional treatment of superannuation made more concessional in several ways, including: the 15 pc contributions tax for people earning up to $37,000 a year is effectively eliminated and the higher cap on contributions by people over 50 will be continued permanently for those with inadequate super. The package would also cover the cost to revenue of the decision to slowly phase up the compulsory contribution rate for employees from 9 pc to 12 pc between 2013 and 2019. (The cost to revenue arises because wages that formerly would have been taxed at the employee’s marginal rate will now be taxed at the 15 pc rate of the contributions tax. The legal incidence of the increased contributions falls on the employer, but economists believe it is shifted to the employee by means of wage rises that are lower than otherwise.)

• Tax on interest income to be subject to a 50 pc discount (similar to the tax on capital gains) up to a limit of $1000 interest income.

• As a step towards simplifying tax returns, rather than itemising their work-related expenses (and tax agent’s fees), people may opt to claim a standard deduction of $500, to be raised to $1000.

As well as these tax measures, the government announced that part of the proceeds from the resource tax will be contributed to a ‘regional infrastructure fund’ and distributed to the states, particularly the resource-rich states, to finance resource-related infrastructure.
Timing: the resource tax isn’t due to begin for more than two years - July 2012 - and so all the other parts of the package are begun or phased in from that date.

The original package as tax reform

The Rudd government’s response to the Henry tax review was surprisingly limited. Of the review’s 138 recommendations, the government accepted and acted upon just a couple, explicitly rejected 19 politically controversial proposals and failed to comment on the rest. In other words, it cherry-picked the report, selecting just a few things it thought would bring short-term electoral benefit.

The report contained many politically difficult recommendations but one that was particularly attractive: a proposal to introduce a whole new source of revenue by using a federal resource rent tax to replace the states’ mineral royalty charges. Here the government had some highly respected economists urging it to introduce a lucrative new tax on an unpopular, mainly foreign-owned industry and assuring it the tax would do nothing to discourage mining or hurt the economy.

It could use the new tax to pay for various politically attractive ‘reforms’, to be introduced after it was re-elected. The resource rent tax it announced was in line with Henry’s recommendations, except for a spin-doctor-inspired name change to the ‘resource super-profits tax’. The tax was opposed by the Opposition and bitterly resisted by the mining companies, which won a fair bit of sympathy from wider business community. This resistance caused many voters to wonder whether the tax would be bad for the economy, but almost all the criticisms were unjustified. Precisely so as to ensure the tax didn’t do the bad things it was accused of, it was hugely complex, meaning that many of its critics simply didn’t understand how it would work.

When you look at the other supposed reforms, however, you find they bear little resemblance to the Henry report’s recommendations:

• It did propose a cut in the company tax rate, but to 25 pc not 28 pc.

• It did propose the instant write-off of assets, but for those costing less than $10,000 not $5000.

• On superannuation, the report proposed that the cost of increasing the concession on contributions by lower income earners be covered by reducing the concession to higher income earners. The government did the nice bit but not the nasty bit. The government did nothing about halving the tax on fund earnings as recommended. The report specifically avoided recommending an increase in the rate of compulsory contributions, but we got on anyway.

• The report recommended a thorough overhaul of the tax on savings, with the 50 pc discount on capital gains cut to 40 pc and the 40 pc discount extended to interest income and the interest expense deductions on rental property. The government introduced a 50 pc discount for interest income, but with a cap of $1000 in interest income. It made no changes to the capital gains discount or to negative gearing.

• The introduction of a standard deduction for work-related expenses was in line with the report’s proposals (though it may have been more generous that the report had in mind) and the report said nothing about introducing a new infrastructure fund.

The package as amended by Julia Gillard

The original resource tax drew considerable opposition from the mining industry, which reduced the Rudd government’s standing in the opinion polls and contributed to Kevin Rudd’s removal by his party and replacement by his deputy, Julia Gillard. Within a week of her taking the top job - and just two months after its announcement - the resource super profits tax was extensively modified after negotiations with the three biggest mining companies and renamed the minerals resource rent tax. The coverage of the tax was reduced to just those firms mining coal and iron ore. Even those firms are excluded if their liability would be less than $50 million a year. The rate of the tax was reduced from 40 pc to a nominal 30 pc, but an effective 22.5 pc. The guaranteed rebate of 40 pc of losses was replaced with a higher cut-in point for the rent tax: the long-term government bond rate plus 7 percentage points. Whereas under the original arrangement all firms were given an automatic rebate of the state royalty payments, under the revised arrangement they will merely receive a deduction against their liability for the resource rent tax, meaning if they pay no rent tax they receive no relief from royalty payments. Various other changes were made and the existing 40 pc petroleum resource rent tax was extended to cover all offshore and onshore oil, gas and coal-seam gas projects.

The government originally expected to raise a net $12 billion over the first two year of the super profits tax but, as Mr Swan revealed when announcing the revised tax, later realised it would have raised ‘about double’ this amount (mainly because Treasury had greatly underestimated the expected production volumes of the three big mining companies). This explains why, despite the near-halving of the rate of the tax and other concessions, the proceeds from the tax are expected to fall by only $1.5 billion to $10.5 billion. This loss of revenue was covered by abandoning the plan to turn the tax deduction for exploration costs into a refundable rebate and by limiting the cut in the rate of company tax to 1 percentage point, not 2.

The economic rationale for the new resource rent tax

The present state government royalties - which aren’t so much taxes as charges for the use of mineral resources belonging to the community - are quite inefficient because they are based either on quantity (a price per tonne) or on a certain percentage of the market price. This means they take no account of the cost of mining the mineral, which varies from site to site and may increase as the exploitation of a particular site moves from the easily extracted to the hard-to-extract. Thus the present royalties can have the effect of making a prospective site uneconomic and discouraging the full exploitation of a site. This inflexibility limits the ability of state governments to raise the rate of the royalty when world commodity prices are high. (They may also be inhibited by perceived competition between the states or unduly close relations with the mining companies.)

The beauty of the new tax (and the existing petroleum resource rent tax) is that, because they are based on taking a share of super-normal profits, they don’t discourage the exploitation of marginal sites, nor encourage the under-exploitation of existing sites. They are highly flexible, taking higher royalties when world commodity prices are high, but automatically reducing the take when world prices fall. There will be times when world prices fall to the point where some sites are paying no royalty-equivalent (the resource tax) and there will be some sites with high production costs that never have to pay royalties.

Super-normal profits are profits received in excess of those needed to keep the capital employed within the business rather than leaving in search of more profitable opportunities. So super-normal profit represents ‘economic rent’ - any amount you receive in excess of the amount needed to keep you doing what you’re doing, your opportunity cost. Accountants and economists calculate profit differently. Accountants take revenue, subtract operating costs and regard the remainder as profit. But economists also subtract normal profit - the minimum acceptable rate of return on the capital invested in the business - which they regard as an additional cost, the cost of capital. The appropriate rate of return must be ‘risk-adjusted’ ie the higher the risk of the business operating at a loss, the higher the rate of return above the risk-free rate of return, usually taken to be the long-term government bond rate.

(This is what’s so silly about the mistaken claim that the original resource tax regarded any profit in excess of the bond rate as super profit. The risk was taken into account not by adding a margin to the bond rate [as occurs with the petroleum resource rent tax] but directly, by having the government, in effect, bear 40 pc of the cost of the project, including losses.)

Most taxes on an economic activity have the effect of discouraging that activity. This is clear in the case of the existing royalty charges. But resource rent taxes are carefully designed to have minimal effect on the taxed activity. Because the return on capital remains above its opportunity cost, activity should not be discouraged, meaning there should not be any adverse effect on employment or economic growth. Indeed, because of the more favourable treatment of marginal projects, there should be more employment and growth.

Economic theory says a resource rent tax should not add to the prices being charged by the taxed firms because it does nothing to add to their costs (as opposed to the effect on their after-tax profits) and because the firm is already charging as much as the market will bear. In practice, it may not be charging as much as it could. So a better argument is that our mining companies are price-takers on the international market, with Australian producers’ share of the world market not big enough to have much effect on the world price.

The fact that resource rent taxes have been explicitly designed not to do all the bad things the vested interests accuse them of doing explains the strong support for such taxes from economists. The resource rent tax is actually the proud invention of Australian economists, available to be copied by other countries.

The package as short-term macro management

The tax package is roughly revenue neutral over the next four financial years. It can be thought of as detachable - should the mining tax not be passed by the Senate, none of the measures it finances would go ahead, thus leaving the budget little affected.

This means it’s wrong to imagine the resource tax would play a significant part in returning the budget to surplus. The budget is projected to reach (negligible) surplus in 2012-13 for three reasons:

• the effect on the budget’s automatic stabilisers of the economy’s expected return to strong growth

• the always-planned completion of the government’s temporary stimulus measures

• the government’s adherence to its ‘deficit exit strategy’ of allowing the level of tax receipts to recover naturally as the economy improves (ie avoid further tax cuts) and holding the real growth in spending to 2 pc a year until a surplus of 1 pc of GDP has been achieved.

The fact that the government now expects the return to surplus to occur three years’ earlier than it expected in last year’s budget is explained by the much milder recession than it expected and the much stronger forecasts for the next four years. Various factors caused the recession to be so mild, including the V-shaped recovery in China and the rest of developing Asia, and the consequent bounce-back in coal and iron ore prices.

In view of the government’s commitment to limiting the real growth in its spending to 2 pc, it’s worth noting that virtually all the things on which it intends to ‘spend’ the proceeds from the resource tax are tax cuts and tax concessions. That is, the package has been structured so as to add little to the government’s difficultly in meeting its 2 pc target. The qualification to this is the plan to put about $700 million a year into the new state infrastructure fund. My guess is that contributions to the fund have been designed to be the ‘swing instrument’ - that is, to be reduced or even eliminated should collections from the resource tax fall short of projections.

The package as long-term macro management

Because the resource tax is designed to be heavily influenced by the ups and down in world commodity prices, receipts from it are likely to be highly variable over the years. By contrast, the cost to revenue of the tax cuts and concessions it finances is likely to be far less variable. For an accountant-type, as Peter Costello appeared to be, this would be a worry. The tax package will make the budget balance much more cyclical. For an economist, however, this is a virtue: by introducing the resource tax the government has added a new and powerful automatic stabiliser to its budgetary armoury.

Because Australia is such a major producer of mineral commodities, the cycle in world commodity prices is likely to align pretty closely with our business cycle. Whenever we’re in a resources boom, close to full capacity and with the Reserve Bank worried about inflation pressure, the resource tax will take more revenue from the boom sector and send it to the budget. Provided this extra revenue isn’t spent or used to repeatedly cut income tax (as it was in John Howard’s day) it will act as a drag on the economy, reducing inflation pressure and hence the need for higher interest rates. Whenever we’re in a resources bust, the economy has turned down and unemployment is rising, resource tax collections will collapse, the budget will go more quickly and more deeply into deficit and this will be the automatic stabilisers working to help prop up the private sector and put a floor under the downturn.

The tax package can be seen as an attempt to improve the economic managers’ ability to manage the economy during resources booms: to chop the top off them and make them less inflationary, but also to ensure we have more to show from them when they’ve passed. The contributions to the state infrastructure fund are a way of requiring the miners to contribute more towards their own additional infrastructure requirements.

More significantly, the linking of the minerals tax with an increase in compulsory superannuation contributions should ensure at least some of the income from the boom is saved rather than spent. Empirical evidence suggests the introduction of compulsory super has done more to increase national saving than conventional analysis led us to expect. (The practical weakness in the argument is that the super increase is being phased in so slowly - the first tiny increase takes place in July 2013 and the last in July 2019 - the boom could be long past its peak by then.)

Ceteris paribus, an increase in national saving will cause our current account deficit and foreign liabilities to be lower than otherwise - always remembering that the resumed resources boom is expected to cause the CAD to be high for a protracted period. The small cut in company tax may make Australia more attractive as a destination for foreign investment, particularly equity investment. Combined with the higher national saving and potential for interest rates to be less high than otherwise (less weight on monetary policy), it’s possible to see this leading to a lower exchange rate than otherwise.

The economic effects of Julia Gillard’s changes to the mining tax

When the government finally realised its tax would extract about twice as much from the miners as it had expected to, it should simply have halved the rate of the tax from 40 to 20 per cent. This would have left all the efficiency benefits and macro stabilisation benefits of the tax intact. Instead, the government almost halved the effective rate of the tax (from 40 to 22.5 per cent) but also butchered the tax, thus reducing - though not eliminating - its economic benefits.

Originally, the tax involved a complete, up-front rebate of state royalties; now all a firm gets is a deduction against any mining tax it pays. Originally, the tax applied to all minerals; now it applies only to coal and iron ore, with an exemption for those firms owing less than $50 million in mining tax. So whereas originally the whole of the mining industry would have benefited by being released from the state royalty system, now all non-coal and iron ore miners and many small coal and iron ore projects will stay subject to the inefficient, activity-discouraging royalty system. Originally, 40 per cent of losses were guaranteed by the government. Now 7 percentage points have been added to the bond-rate ‘uplift factor’. This arbitrarily leaves some projects better off, but some worse off.

It was always the case that virtually all the new tax was to have been paid by the big three companies; in some years, MORE than all. In other words, excluding the other minerals and the coal and iron-ore tiddlers may actually have saved the government revenue. Many projects would have been permanently relieved from paying royalties while only sometimes having to pay resource rent tax. If so, those other firms are worse off under the changes. They would remain subject to all the drawbacks of the state royalty system. And fewer mining projects are likely to be started because their potential promoters will find the prospect of early losses more daunting.

When the mining tax involved a 40 per cent take from profitable mining projects, but a 40 per cent rebate for unprofitable projects, this made the proceeds from the tax highly cyclical. They would shoot up when world commodity prices were high, but collapse when resource prices were low. In those years, the government might be paying out almost as much on unprofitable projects as it was receiving from profitable projects. So the replacement of the 40 per cent rebate on losses with a higher uplift factor reduces the extent to which the new tax would act as one of the budget’s automatic stabilisers.


Rationalists just don't get the new paradigm

The dismay with which economic rationalists have greeted the ascension of Julia Gillard's "weak and hopefully short-lived government" is overdone. What we're getting is different from what we expected, but I'm not convinced it'll be any worse.

What the rationalists want is continued sound management of the macro economy plus loads of unpopular micro-economic reform to lift our flagging productivity improvement. Considering most of the macro management task is handled by the Reserve Bank, and the parties' mutual obsession with getting the budget back to surplus, we can expect the macro economy to remain as remarkably well-managed as ever.

There's been much disapproving talk about pork-barrelling - as if the practice had been invented in the past fortnight - but the emerging details of how Gillard offered the independents a lot less than Tony Abbott, yet had her offers accepted by three out of four, is a cause for confidence all round: the more responsible side won and the indies restrained their avarice.

What we've learnt since the election about the quality of the Liberals's costings and the abandon with which Abbott tried to win office undercuts all his claims to be a prudent money-manager.

By contrast, it's clear most of Gillard's promised increase in spending in the regions will be achieved by "reprioritisation" - rural will be moved to the front of the queue at the expense of some other, less squeaky wheel (the outer suburbs, probably).

The rationalists are impatient to get on with big micro reforms. But they seem to be projecting their pent-up frustration onto Gillard and her motley crew as though, had she not managed to survive, a much better alternative was on offer.

Such as? John Howard - the man whose commitment to big reforms was limited to the goods and services tax and Work Choices (which he himself watered down when he realised how unpopular it was)? Paul Keating - who took great strokes as treasurer, but not as prime minister?

Let's get real. Whether the rationalists like it or not, the era of widespread reform is long gone. The notion that, had Abbott won, we might be back to the glory days is delusional.

Abbott, a man who has hitherto shown no great interest in economics, fought an almost completely negative campaign and resorted to blatant populism. He promised faithfully to avoid all changes to industrial relations, never introduce a price on carbon, ditch the mining tax (which was intended to reform the tax system by shifting the mix towards immobile resources) and shun anything that could be labelled "a great big new tax".

And don't forget he agreed to far more items on Bob Katter's anti-competitive 20-point wish list. The rainbow coalition is more susceptible to populism? Not on the evidence so far.

Of course, had Gillard been re-elected in the normal course, we couldn't have expected much better. She'd have proceeded with the mining tax, but done nothing useful on climate change nor anything more on the Henry tax review.

But here's what the rationalists have missed: Gillard's need to win the support of the independents may increase the likelihood of a few reforms going through. Andrew Wilkie, Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott each support serious action on climate change and a tax on mining.

We're now likely to get some movement towards a carbon price during this term. For good measure, the rural independents have obliged Gillard to reopen consideration of the pigeonholed Henry review.

Much of the rationalists' gloom arises from the Greens gaining the balance of power in the Senate. But this was always going to happen. The psephologists were telling us to expect it long before Labor's troubles began with its repudiation of its emissions trading scheme. What's more, the Greens took more Senate places from the Libs than from Labor.

Some people are delighting in quoting spooky things from the fine print in the Greens's policy statement - did you know they want to bring back death duties? Oh no! But anyone with any sense knows not to take that stuff too literally.

The strange fact is the Greens are now the only party committed to a rationalist, price-based response to climate change. They're also committed to the resource rent tax (and only a fool would fear they could bid Gillard back up to a 40 per cent rate for the tax).

It is likely there'll be a fair bit of public debating of policy options between the government and the indies. It will be a messy process. And it's guaranteed the opposition and the Murdoch press will portray this as disunity, indecision and chaos.

But I think it could be the making of Gillard. Once we got a hung parliament, messiness and continuous negotiation-mode were inevitable. But Gillard has already shown herself much better suited to this challenge than either Abbott or Kevin Rudd.

After Labor's disastrous first term, it has a lot to learn. But I reckon Gillard has a much steeper learning curve than Rudd. One thing Labor must learn is to stand its ground and fight for unpopular policies, not get its spin doctors to change the subject.

Fortunately, the need to garner the independents's votes on every major issue will now leave Labor no choice but to explain, explain, explain.


Sunday, September 12, 2010


VCTA Student Revision Lectures
September 12, 2010

The economy has been on a roller-coaster ride from resource boom to global financial crisis to recovery from the mildest of recessions to the likelihood of an early return to the resources boom and an economy at near full employment. Monetary policy played its accustomed role in all this and Keynesian fiscal policy returned to the fore. But did we have a recession? And just what was the role played by fiscal/budgetary policy?

Yes, we did have a recession

The widespread belief - encouraged by the Rudd government - that Australia avoided recession is based solely on the notion that a ‘technical’ recession occurs when real GDP contracts for two quarters in succession. But though this rule is widely used by the media, it’s merely rule of thumb with no status among economists. It’s quite arbitrary, and doesn’t always give the right answer. A better definition of recession was given by Dr David Gruen of Treasury: ‘a sustained period of either weak growth or falling real GDP, accompanied by a significant rise in the unemployment rate’.

The evidence that we did have a (very mild) recession is clear: we saw the collapse of various local fringe financial institutions, a 0.7 per cent fall in real GDP in the December quarter of 2008 and weak growth in later quarters, a rise of 230,000 (1.8 percentage points) in unemployment and a bigger rise in under-employment, much tougher borrowing conditions for small business, and weakness in retail sales and home building as the effects of budgetary stimulus wore off.

The reasons why the recession was so mild and short-lived were many: our banks didn’t get into difficulties, the continued strength of our exports to China, the strong growth in the population, the reluctance of employers to retrench their skilled staff and the dramatic cuts the official interest rate. But much of the credit must go to the fiscal stimulus, which was particularly effective in turning around the collapse in business and consumer confidence following the US and European banking crisis.

Fiscal policy

Definition: the manipulation of government spending and taxation to influence the strength of demand.

Instruments: variation of the size and composition of government spending and taxation.

Objective: to serve as a backup to monetary policy in achieving internal balance - low inflation, low unemployment and a relatively stable rate of economic growth. It is conducted in accordance with the government’s ‘medium-term fiscal strategy’: to ‘achieve budget surpluses, on average over the medium term’.

This strategy, which the Rudd government essentially took over intact from the Howard government, was carefully worded so as to fully accommodate a Keynesian approach to fiscal policy. It implies that fiscal policy will support economic growth and jobs by allowing the budget to move into temporary deficit during an economic downturn. So it was deliberately framed in a way that permits the automatic stabilisers to respond to a downturn by turning the budget balance from surplus to deficit. But it also permits the Government to apply discretionary fiscal stimulus, provided the budget balance is brought back into surplus once the economy recovers. In this way, the deficits in the bad years will eventually be offset by surpluses in the good years, thus causing the budget to be balanced (or even in surplus) on average over the full cycle. In other words, the strategy is constructed to permit what I call ‘symmetrical Keynesianism’.

The fiscal stimulus

During the boom, fiscal policy was given a limited role to play in the policy mix, with the heavy lifting left to monetary policy. Once the economy turned down, however, fiscal policy came to fore. The Government announced its first fiscal stimulus package (worth $10 billion) in October 2008, then a second package (worth $42 billion) in February 2009. And it announced a $22 billion national infrastructure program in the 2009 budget.

The measures included in the various packages were intended to comply with three principles enunciated by Treasury and known as the ‘three Ts’: measures needed to be timely, targeted and temporary. Timely meant they should take effect as soon as possible; targeted meant the spending should go to those people or activities most likely to involve spending rather than saving; temporary meant they should involve only a one-off cost to the budget (eg cash bonuses, specific capital works) rather than a continuing cost (eg tax cuts, pension increases).

Some people have the impression that most of the stimulus spending went on cash bonuses. In fact, they cost about $22 billion, less than a third of the Government’s total stimulus spending of $74 billion over the four financial years to2011-12. The remaining two-thirds went on ‘shovel-ready’ minor capital works (road black spots, level crossings, public housing, roof insulation and primary schools) and major infrastructure projects (roads, rail, ports and broadband).

Whereas in May 2008 the government was projecting a long run of budget surpluses, it is now projecting large budget deficits, leading to an increase in the Australian Government’s net debt. It is important to understand, however, that most of this deterioration has been caused by the operation of the budget’s automatic stabilisers, rather than by the Government’s explicit spending decisions. Lower prospective tax collections required the Government to write down its projected revenue by $110 billion over the five years from 2008-09 to 2012-13. Higher prospective dole payments would also have contributed to the deterioration in the budget balance.

The latest estimates suggest the government is expecting the budget deficits over the four years to 2011-12 to total $135 billion. Thus discretionary fiscal stimulus accounts for only a bit over half of the accumulated deficits, with the automatic stabilisers accounting for the rest.

Stimulus spending by governments is intended to have ‘multiplier effects’. Empirical research shows, however, that, particularly because of leakages to saving and imports, the multiplier effects are much smaller in real life than in textbooks. In the Treasury’s calculations for the budget it used highly conservative (pessimistic) multipliers of 0.6 for the Government’s cash bonuses and 0.85 for capital works spending. It now seems clear that the fiscal stimulus has been far more successful than even its promoters expected. That is, the multipliers seem to have been greater than expected.

The changing policy mix

The Opposition’s calls for the stimulus spending to be curtailed now the economy has begun to recover fail to take account of the originally planned phase-down as the T-for-temporary spending programs expire. According to Treasury’s calculations, after the December quarter of 2009 the stimulus spending’s contribution to GDP growth swung from positive to negative. This occurred because, though more stimulus money was spent in the March quarter, it was less than the stimulus money spent in the December quarter. And this meant it subtracted from the rate of growth in GDP (even though it still added to the level of GDP). In other words, from the end of December the stance of fiscal policy switched from expansionary to (mildly) contractionary as the stimulus was withdrawn. To hasten this planned withdrawal would make fiscal policy more contractionary.

By contrast, the various increases in the cash rate we’ve seen, taking it to 4.5 per cent, merely represent moves to take the stance of monetary policy from stimulatory to neutral.

What we have to show for the fiscal stimulus

The Opposition runs hard with the line that, thanks to all the fiscal stimulus, we’re left with nothing to show but a lot of deficits and debt. This isn’t true. Clearly, we’ll be left with all the shovel-ready capital works - rail crossings, fixed black spots, social housing, school buildings and ceiling insulation - and major infrastructure.

But that’s not all - though you have to be an economist to see it. Even the money spent on the cash splashes and unneeded assembly halls has left us with something to show. All the spending - discretionary and automatic - reduces the time it will take for the level of real GDP to return to its previous peak. And that leaves us better off than we would have been in two respects. First, the smaller the rise in unemployment and thus the fewer people unemployed - and the shorter the time they spend unemployed - the less the atrophy (wasting away) of individuals’ skills. Reducing this problem, which economists call ‘hysteresis’, is a benefit not just to the individuals involved, but also to the community.

Second, the milder the recession, the fewer viable businesses go bust, thus avoiding the destruction of various forms of tangible and intangible capital. Some capital equipment - and some understandings, networks and arrangements the firms have made - that could have been used to produce goods and services in the upswing is destroyed. So the milder the recession, the less the loss of productive potential because of the destruction of human, physical and intangible capital.

The opposition opposed all but the first stimulus package and has been continually finding fault. At first it argued the measures - particularly the cash splash - wouldn’t work. But it’s clear from the economic indicators - for retail sales, home loan approvals, new home building approvals and business investment in equipment - that the measures were highly successful in leading to increased private spending. It’s true some of the cash was saved rather than spent, but the marked improvement in business and consumer confidence at the time suggests this saving made many people less anxious about their debts and so less keen to cut back their spending as a precautionary measure.

Later the opposition switched to claiming much of the stimulus - particularly the spending on ceiling insulation and school buildings - had been wasted. It’s true the insulation program should have been much more carefully administered and that there was a degree of waste in the school building program. However, an official inquiry received complaints from only 2.7 per cent of schools, suggesting the extent of waste had been greatly exaggerated by the opposition and sections of the media. Stimulus spending always involves a difficult trade-off between conflicting objectives: the macroeconomic objective (getting the money spent as soon as possible so as to limit downturn in activity) and the value-for-money objective (making sure we have something of lasting value to show for the spending). The way to avoid waste is to take as long as necessary to ensure the money is spent well. So when speed is a high priority, some degree of waste is inevitable. Note, too, that even when spending is wasted on classrooms no one wants, it still creates jobs.

The tax reform package

The main measure announced in this year’s budget was a tax reform package, in partial response to the report of the Henry review of the tax system. After its amendment by Julia Gillard, the package consisted of a minerals resource rent tax, expected to raise about $10 billion in its first two years, the proceeds from which would be used to cover the cost of reducing the company tax rate from 30 per cent to 29 per cent, plus tax concessions for small business, superannuation and individuals. Note that the new tax won’t take effect until July 2012, so the measures it pays for will be phased in from that date. Note, too, that the package is roughly revenue neutral, meaning it’s wrong to imagine the resource tax will play a significant part in returning the budget to surplus.

Mr Swan is now expecting a budget deficit for the old financial year (2009-10) of $57 billion (or 4.4 per cent of GDP), falling to a deficit in the present financial year of $40 billion (2.8 per cent). With the cessation of most stimulus spending programs, this means the stance of policy adopted in the budget is mildly contractionary.

The budget is projected to reach a small surplus in 2012-13 for three reasons: First, the effect on the budget’s automatic stabilisers of the economy’s expected return to strong growth; second, the always-planned completion of the government’s temporary stimulus measures; and third, the government’s adherence to its ‘deficit exit strategy’ of allowing the level of tax receipts to recover naturally as the economy improves (ie avoid further tax cuts) and holding the real growth in spending to 2 pc a year until a surplus of 1 pc of GDP has been achieved. The fact that the government now expects the return to surplus to occur three years’ earlier than it expected in last year’s budget is explained by the much milder recession than it expected and the much stronger forecasts for the next four years.


Saturday, September 11, 2010

Debt is good when it means investment

One of the most remarkable, but unremarked, features of the election campaign was the extraordinary fuss made about a net federal government debt expected to peak at a mere $90 billion, while not a word was said about Australia's net foreign debt of $670 billion - and rising.

Similarly, despite all the feigned concern about the size of federal budget deficit, nothing was said about the current account deficit, which is almost always much bigger.

This just proves politicians carry on about what it suits them to. It hasn't suited the opposition to bang on about the current account deficit because it was consistently high throughout the Howard government's 11 years - meaning the net foreign debt just kept getting bigger.

But the Liberals - and Labor, for that matter - aren't alone in not wanting to talk about the current account deficit (which is the amount by which our imports and income paid to foreigners exceed exports and income received from foreigners) and the resulting net foreign debt (which is the money Australians owe foreigners, less the money they owe us).

These days, the nation's "external accounts" hardly rate a mention in the media, either. So surprisingly little has been made of the news that, at $4.2 billion, the current account deficit for the June quarter was the lowest in almost a decade.

It turned out our export earnings were up 24 per cent on the previous quarter, whereas our imports were up 6 per cent, causing the trade balance to swing from a deficit of $2.8 billion to a surplus of $7.8 billion. Trade surpluses aren't all that common, and this one was our biggest since 1973.

For good measure, our net income payments to foreigners (covering interest payments on the foreign debt and dividend payments to foreign owners of Australian businesses) were down by a bit under $1 billion to about $12 billion, yielding the current account deficit of $4.2 billion. Wow. Why such an improvement? Because everything went right with our exports. For a start, there was a big increase in the prices we received for our exports of coal and iron ore. The volume of coal exports was up, as were exports of gold. Exports of oil were up as two new oil fields off the coast of Western Australia came on line.

But it's not such a bad thing the media didn't make a fuss about the improvement. Why? Because it can't last. It's the calm before the storm.

When our terms of trade improve - when export prices rise relative to import prices - as they have mightily this year, people always expect this to lead to an improvement in our trade balance and current account deficit, but it rarely does. They think this because they forget to ask one of the great economists' questions: but what happens then? You never get the right answer until you take account of what economists call "second-round effects".

What happens then is the rise in exports leads to a rise in imports. This happens several ways. First, the improved terms of trade represent an increase in the nation's real income. As this real income is spent, a fairly high proportion is spent on imports: imports of consumer goods, but also imports of components and capital equipment.

This process is accentuated because an improvement in our terms of trade usually leads to an appreciation in the exchange rate. The higher dollar makes imports cheaper, thus encouraging people to buy more of them relative to locally produced goods and services.

Second, a rise in world prices for minerals and energy encourages our mining industry to expand its production capacity, building new mines and natural gas facilities. A high proportion of the equipment needed for these expansions is imported. Take the coming Gorgon natural gas project on Barrow Island. It's expected to involve investment spending of about $50 billion over five years. Roughly half that money will go on imports.

The truth is the return of the resources boom is expected to involve a return to the big current account deficits (and thus faster-rising levels of foreign debt) we have seen since the start of the boom in the early noughties. So whereas the current account deficit got down to the equivalent of just 1.6 per cent of gross domestic product in the June quarter, the econocrats are expecting it to go back up to 5 or 6 per cent during the rest of the decade.

To see why this isn't as worrying as it sounds - and to debunk the Liberals' dishonest implication that anything labelled "deficit" or "debt" must always be bad - it's useful to pull another economists' trick and switch the discussion of our "external imbalance" from the language of exports and imports to the language of saving and investment.

Huh? Just as Australia almost always imports more than it exports, so the nation also spends more on investment (in new housing, business equipment and structures, and public infrastructure) than it saves (whether by households, companies or governments).

All physical investment spending has to be financed from savings, and when we don't save enough to finance all our investment we make up the difference by borrowing the savings of foreigners. This is why Australia runs a surplus on the (financial) "capital account" of our "balance of payments" to and from the rest of the world, which exactly matches and finances the deficit on the "current account" of the balance of payments.

The current account deficit is low at present because private sector investment spending fell somewhat in the economic downturn, while the mining companies are saving (as retained earnings) much of their extra income from higher world commodity prices.

Soon enough, however, national investment spending will boom as households build more houses, ordinary businesses invest in better equipment and, in particular, as the miners hugely increase their investment spending.

All this is likely to happen without much increase in the nation's rate of saving. If so, the capital account surplus is likely to be much bigger as we call more heavily on the savings of foreigners - and so is its mirror image, the current account deficit (as we import more capital equipment).

If the worsening in the current account comes from higher investment spending rather than lower national saving - as happened in the first part of the resources boom and is expected to happen now - we don't have a lot to worry about. Eventually, the investment will pay for itself.


Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Perhaps now politicians will stop trashing their reputations

Let's hope it's not back to politics as usual. And let's hope the fortnight or so since the voters' collective refusal to award the election to either of the major parties has allowed both sides time to reflect on something that hasn't troubled them to date: when will the political profession decide to call a halt to its trashing of its own reputation?

The process by which our politicians have slowly destroyed their credibility with the electorate has been running for so long it's easy for them - and us - to be unconscious of what is happening. But it reached a new low in this campaign, so it shouldn't have been such a surprise when the electorate couldn't decide who it distrusted less.

The disdain with which we've come to regard our politicians struck me when I considered the success of the mining industry's advertising campaign against the resource super profits tax. With world coal and iron ore prices at record highs, the largely foreign-owned mining companies are raking in unbelievable profits.

The Labor government said the new tax was needed to ensure the people who actually owned these resources - you and me - got a fairer price for them. The miners claimed the tax would cripple them, discourage further development and cause people to lose their jobs.

You might have expected the public to respond to these over-the-top claims with scepticism - they would say that, wouldn't they?; whoever likes paying more taxes? - but it seems many people believed them.

(Think about it: we were being asked to believe the Secretary to the Treasury, the high priest of economic rationalism, backed up by two highly regarded economists and the chief executive of a major business association, was proposing a tax that would lay waste to the mining industry and seriously damage the economy.)

So why was the word of fat-cat miners favoured over that of our own government? Because the credibility of our politicians is at rock bottom. Even big businesses on the make are judged more likely to be telling the truth.

Surveys of the reputation of various occupations show politicians well down the list (but above journalists, advertising people and car salesmen). The company pollies keep on the list makes it clear: the public has a low opinion of people they have come to believe seek to manipulate them and tell them things that aren't true.

The more politicians have relied on the techniques of market research - polling, focus groups, advertising and direct mail - the more they've sought to con us.

Top of the list of behaviour that has cost politicians our respect is broken promises. We have seen it so many times from both sides we have come to view all political promises with suspicion. Consider the possibility that Gillard's last-minute promise to build the on-again-off-again Parramatta to Epping rail link cost Labor as many votes as it gained.

It will always be that some promises aren't kept because they have been overtaken by events and it would be foolish, even impossible, to press on with them. But so many promises have been broken many voters believe they are often given without any intention to keep them.

My guess is the process is more cavalier. Pollies think: if I win that's when I'll worry about whether I can honour them all.

The answer is for pollies to be a lot more cautious in making promises. But why do they make so many? Because of the way, under the influence of marketing techniques, election campaigns have come to take the committed voters for granted and focus on winning the votes of swinging voters in marginal electorates. Swinging voters are judged to be people with little interest in politics, whose only thought is what's in it for them and their families. Hence the temptation to keep promising goodies.

Election campaigns have become increasingly unreal. The pollies create a fairytale world in which nothing bad ever happens. They'll spend more on this and that, but without increasing taxes and, of course, while also eliminating deficits and debt.

In this imaginary world, the law of opportunity cost doesn't operate. We can have everything we want, without price. The pollies encourage people to believe the government can - and should - solve all their problems. Is it any wonder disillusionment is rife?

Often - as with all the pseudo-sympathetic talk about the rising cost of living in this campaign - the pollies seek to appear empathetic while carefully avoiding promising to do anything. They think they're being clever, but when people gain the impression you're going to fix their problem and you don't, they feel just as cheated as if you really had promised it.

In Queensland, voters feel they were ambushed by Anna Bligh because she waited until after the election to announce unpopular tax changes and privatisations.

That's the "positive" way politicians have damaged their reputations. Of late they've resorted more to negative methods: trashing each other. This campaign boiled down to rival scare campaigns about Work Choices, the mining tax, the "Woollies and Coles tax", mountainous debt and boat people.

Politicians wouldn't resort to scare campaigns and negative advertising if they didn't work. They play on the gullibility of people who don't think much about politics. But what works in the short term comes at a long-term cost to the politicians' credibility. The same goes for oppositions automatically opposing everything governments do and the endemic abuse of statistics.

Many voters are naive and gullible. But when eventually they realise they've been conned, they switch not to reasoned scepticism but utter cynicism about the untrustworthiness of our political leaders.

Many politicians believe John Howard lost office because voters had simply "stopped listening" to him. Those who deposed Kevin Rudd concluded voters had "stopped listening". If this isn't ringing alarm bells in the political profession, it should be.

The hung parliament offers politicians the chance of a circuit breaker in this mutually destructive process.


Monday, September 6, 2010

Our economic challenge will be feast not famine

Perhaps we're seeing the emergence of a new law of elections: the real issues facing the economy in the next term won't bear any resemblance to those discussed during the campaign.

In the 2007 campaign, the Liberal slogan was Go for Growth and Labor wanted the growth to involve more investment in training and infrastructure. In reality, the Reserve Bank was hauling on the interest-rate brakes because of rising inflation pressure, and we ended up spending most of the term fending off the worst global recession in 60 years.

In this campaign, the Libs defined our biggest economic problem as combating Labor's horrendous budget deficits and struggling to overcome Labor's mountainous public debt. They assumed their net cuts in spending (which Treasury and Finance later found to be largely illusory) were the only thing that could return the budget to surplus.

Lacking convictions and the courage of them, Labor - which had done a remarkably good job of shepherding the economy through the global financial crisis - fell in with this bookkeeper's vision of economic management.

But two weeks after the election, the June quarter national accounts have swept away all the nonsense of the campaign. The resources boom is back, the economy is roaring along, the government's filling coffers will soon get the budget back into surplus without the pollies doing any more than resolving not to spend all of it, and the economy's big problem will be growing at full employment without overheating.

Before we explore those challenges that await us, why is economic debate during election campaigns so off-beam?

It's partly because the modern practice of aiming election campaigns almost exclusively at swinging voters in marginal electorates - people known to be uninterested in politics, without ideology, economically illiterate and of a self-centred, what's-in-it-for-me? disposition - means nothing unpleasant or even faintly serious can be raised.

Consider the recent British elections. Anyone taking the slightest notice would have known that whichever side won the election would immediately plunge into sweeping spending cuts and tax increases to hack into a budget deficit that really was a worry. But all sides studiously avoided engaging with the issue.

The other reason election campaigns are so unreal is that even economists can be quite ill-informed about the state of the economy and direction in which it's headed.

Throughout this campaign most economists thought consumer spending and home-building were quite weak, with the worries about the US and European economies, and maybe even the disincentive effects of the new mining tax, putting a question mark over the medium-term prospects for our economy.

Most of those doubts and misconceptions have been swept away by last week's figures, including the survey of firms' capital expenditure plans, which exposed how much the mining companies were lying about the resource super profits tax's supposed threat to their future activities.

I've come to the view that few people - even economists - have a good feel for how the economy's travelling at any moment. It's never very clear what's happening until we see the national accounts. Then, of course, any fool can tell you what the score is.

I suppose it's possible a double dip in the US and lingering weakness in Europe could be sufficient to knock China, India and the rest of emerging Asia off its stroke and thus bring our resources boom to a sudden halt, but I doubt it's likely.

It is likely coal and iron ore prices are near their peak and will fall back as world supply catches up with world demand. But prices could fall a fair way and still settle well above their long-term level. Part of what we lose on price we'll make up on increased volume. And the miners and natural gas companies have maybe a decade's worth of construction projects in the pipeline.

We're back to growing at the trend rate and are already close to full employment. As in all Australian commodity price booms, our big problem will be how we manage the inflation pressure as the extra export income is spent.

Can we keep travelling at full-employment level without overdoing it and having to induce a recession? Rest assured, the Reserve Bank will raise interest rates to whatever level is needed to keep inflation in check, but can we do better than that?

Could we keep tightening budgetary policy to take some of the pressure off monetary policy and interest rates? The bookkeeper's approach to economic management doesn't augur well. The flipside of the nonsense we heard in the campaign is that once the budget's back in surplus, whoever's in government will imagine they're able to spend more freely (just as John Howard did during the first stage of the boom).

To help with the macro management part of the problem, but also to ensure we have something to show for the boom, we need to save a higher proportion of the extra national income. Perhaps we need a sovereign wealth fund to justify ever-higher budget surpluses.

The idea of increasing compulsory superannuation contributions to raise national saving is attractive, but a Coalition government wouldn't go ahead with it and Labor's present scheduled phase-up is too delayed to be of much use.

We need to revisit - more intelligently - the question of population growth, but ask whether meeting the mining industry's need for more labour actually requires open slather on skilled immigration (with all the increased spending on public infrastructure that would necessitate).

Now the election's (almost) out of the way, there's so much we need to debate about economic policy.


Saturday, September 4, 2010

Our resources boom comes bouncing back

This time three months ago it was clear the economy was being propped up by rapidly withdrawing budgetary stimulus, and it was not clear private spending would perk up in time to take over the running.

This time two weeks ago it seemed clear business investment spending was doing OK but households were dragging the chain, with retail sales and home building approvals surprisingly weak.

What a difference three months - or even two weeks - makes. This week's national accounts for the June quarter show the economy roaring along, with the private sector firing on (almost) all cylinders even as the budgetary stimulus continues to withdraw. The boom is coming back.

One lesson: don't get too carried away by talk of a two-speed economy.

The accounts issued by the Bureau of Statistics showed real gross domestic product growing by 1.2 per cent during the quarter and 3.3 per cent over the year to June. If we were quoting the figures the way the Americans do, we'd say the economy grew at an annualised (that is, made annual) rate of almost 5 per cent during the quarter (multiply 1.2 by 4 and add a bit for compound interest).

Now that's a boom. But since the quarterly rate of growth varies a lot, it probably exaggerates the pace of the upturn, so it's better to do it the Aussie way and focus on the actual annual growth of 3.3 per cent - right on our medium-term trend rate of growth.

Public sector spending accounted for just 0.3 percentage points of the 1.2 per cent growth for the quarter. Consumer spending grew by 1.6 per cent and (because it makes up well over half of GDP) accounted for most of the rest.

Home building activity grew by 5 per cent, showing households have really started pulling their weight.

How can consumer spending be so strong when retail sales have been quite weak? Because there's a lot more to consumer spending than retail sales.

We get figures for retail sales monthly while we wait for the quarterly national accounts, so we watch them closely, but they take no account of many of the services households buy, nor the cars they buy. In this quarter, spending on cars was up 11 per cent. How could home building be growing strongly when local government home building approvals have been weak for quite a few months?

Because of lags in the system. There's a delay between new homes getting the council go-ahead and actual building starting. The recent downturn in approvals says actual building activity isn't likely to keep growing strongly.

The accounts show a sharp fall in the level of business inventories subtracted 0.7 percentage points from GDP growth for the quarter. But the volume of exports grew by 5.6 per cent, whereas the volume of imports grew by only 3 per cent, meaning "net exports" (exports minus imports) contributed 0.4 percentage points to overall growth.

Actually, the fall in inventories and the jump in exports are related. Bad weather caused a lot of Queensland coal to be stockpiled rather than shipped overseas in the March quarter, but there was a catch-up in the June quarter.

So that's where the growth came from in the quarter: consumer spending, home building and exports, with just a little help from government spending.

Notice something missing? Business investment spending recorded negligible growth during the quarter. But not to worry. We know from the capital expenditure survey that, relative to this time last year, businesses are expecting to increase their investment spending by 24 per cent in the present financial year.

Within that, mining investment is expected to be up 48 per cent. Now, the actual increase isn't likely to be so huge. But it will be big - so there ain't much doubt: the resources boom is back.

And the other sign of the return of the resources boom is the marked improvement in our terms of trade - the prices we receive for our exports relative to the prices we pay for our imports. The ratio improved by 12.5 per cent during the quarter and by 24.5 per cent over the year.

An improvement in our terms of trade means the same quantity of exports now buys a greater quantity of imports.

Guess what? That's one definition of getting richer. Whereas real GDP grew by 1.2 per cent during the quarter, real gross domestic income grew by 4 per cent. And now you know why.

As the nation's higher income circulates around the economy a lot of it gets spent and, as it's spent, jobs are created. So where's the impetus for greater consumer spending coming from now that the budgetary stimulus has largely been withdrawn? That's where.

In nominal terms, households' earnings from wages grew by 2.9 per cent during the quarter, with average earnings rising by 2.5 per cent and the number of employees up by 0.4 per cent. So this is what allowed consumer spending to grow by 1.6 per cent, even though it involved the rate of household saving falling from 3.4 per cent to 1.5 per cent of net household disposable income. Talk of resources booms makes people think of two-speed economies. The quarterly national accounts don't divide GDP by state, but they do divide up a poor substitute for it, "domestic final demand" (which is GDP before you allow for changes in inventory levels and for exports and imports).

Consider this. Nationally, domestic final demand grew by 5.3 per cent over the year to June. Three states had growth fairly close to the national average: NSW on 5.7 per cent, South Australia on 5.9 per cent and Victoria on 6 per cent.

Way above the national average was Western Australia on 7.9 per cent. Dragging down the average were Tasmania on a weak 2.6 per cent and Queensland taking out the wooden spoon with a pathetic 1.6 per cent.

Huh? Queensland in the slow lane? Yep. Its consumer spending and business investment spending are particularly weak. It's suffering a hangover in the residential and commercial property markets after a boom preceding the financial crisis. And the resources-boom-caused high exchange rate has hit Queensland's tourism industry as Australians take advantage of cheaper overseas holidays.

The broader lesson is that, for all the talk of a two-speed economy, the six states form one, highly integrated national economy. Income that arises in one state easily flows across state borders as it's spent.

Economists call this "the circular flow of income", but you can say what goes around comes around.


Wednesday, September 1, 2010

House, marriage and children - in their own sweet time

The media leap on any suggestion of social change. At present there's talk of younger people being happy to keep renting rather than buy their own homes. Before that there was talk of career women not wanting children. And before that, we kept hearing about young people not bothering to get married, even after the kids had started arriving.

I guess there's some truth in all these stories. Perhaps the truth is that, whereas in times past just about everybody conformed to expected behaviour, these days a minority rebels. Or perhaps it's just that these days more young adults are turning to the conventional response later, rather than not at all.

But whatever the explanation, don't let an excitable media convince you the world is changing beyond recognition. Human nature's a bit more resistant. Things change, but not dramatically.

According to a new report from social researchers Ipsos Mackay, almost everyone in their 20s to mid-30s who participated in their group discussions wanted the "trifecta" of marriage, house and children. What's changed is they're a lot more flexible about the order in which they come and how long they take.

Young adults still want to see the world before they settle down. Perhaps these days it's easier for more of them to do so and they're inclined to make several overseas visits rather than just one extended working holiday. (Sometimes I wonder whether declining oil supply and concerns about greenhouse gas emissions will one day cause us to look back with longing on a golden age of international travel.)

One change is that, when young adults start to settle down, buying a property is often the highest priority. They're "keen to get started for fear of missing out," according to the report. So much so that some of them, unable to afford their own home, nonetheless seek a foothold in the market by buying an apartment and renting it out.

The fear of missing out - of delaying until the point where prices become unaffordable - is the very mentality that keeps prices rising, of course. It's a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The surprising thing is many years of strongly rising house prices seem to have done so little to dull the home-owning ardour of the next generation. They repeat their parents' conviction that rent is "dead money" and mortgage payments are no higher than rent (not really true).

They see property as a good investment and - in what may be an advance on their parents - a means of forced saving. Just so. Until the advent of compulsory superannuation, it had long been the case the main way Australians saved was to borrow a huge sum on their mortgage and spend the next 25 years paying it back.

Even where people continue to live in that home in retirement rather than trading down to a smaller and cheaper one, owning your home makes it a lot easier to live on the age pension.

Why is the next generation so keen to own the roof over its head? Because it creates "a sense of security and pride in ownership".

Just so. We all have an urge to own. I have a holiday house I love, but only rent. It took my head years to convince my heart I was getting the best of all worlds since the place was almost always available when I wanted it and I had no responsibility for the upkeep of the place. If the grass needs cutting when I roll up for a break, I experience not the slightest twinge of conscience.

The report says young people "invariably" rely on support from family. That's something all parents need to understand. The rise in house prices represents a transfer of wealth from the younger generation to the older. At the level of the individual, that wealth needs to be recycled from old to young if the young aren't to be dispossessed.

At the collective level, should sufficient recycling fail to occur, house prices would slip (which might be no bad thing). In the end, this generation sells its homes to the next. If the next generation can't stump up the money, prices will fall until they can. The remarkable thing is, so great is our continuing desire to own our homes that young couples keep finding the money from somewhere. One way they do it is by allowing housing costs to take up a bigger share of their weekly budgets than in earlier times. Another way is for wives to keep working and delay the start of their families.

There's the rub. According to the report, most young people accept the impossibility of buying property on one income. In theory, having two incomes makes it possible for couples to enjoy a much higher standard of living. In practice, the presence of two incomes, with their greater purchasing power, has simply bid up the price of houses. What began as an advantage to those couples able to command two incomes has become a disadvantage to those unable or unwilling to have the wife go out to work.

It seems to remain the case that most young people marry - eventually. What's changed is the variability in when in the process of acquiring a house and children marriage occurs.

Big weddings are fashionable and seem to have become more expensive - with the average cost said to exceed $35,000 - but the couple is now likely to pick up more of the tab. With prices like that, it's not hard to see it postponed to a more financially convenient time.

So marriage is no longer a major point of transition for many young people. On the other hand, the young adults covered in the report found having kids radically transformed their lifestyle. Now who among us oldies would ever have imaged that?


Monday, August 30, 2010

Why political rivalry reduces voters' options

Simple economic theory tells us competition leads to increased choice. But as the election campaign showed, competition between the two main parties seems to be reducing the choice we're offered.

Before the election, many people complained about how unengaging the campaign was. It didn't seem to be aimed at people with brains. It seemed dominated by trivia. The two sides were locked in furious argument, but the policy differences between them seemed minor.

We were offered no real choice on climate change, industrial relations, the harsh treatment of boat people, the war in Afghanistan or economic management (the choice between a budget surplus in 2012-13 of $3.5 billion or $6.2 billion).

The main issues of genuine choice were the mining tax and the national broadband network. And even these didn't get a lot of attention. I'd like to believe the electorate's failure to decide which of the parties it wanted and its tendency to turn to minor parties and independents was a reaction to the unattractive choices we faced. Let's hope the pollies learn never to stage such an empty campaign again.

I don't deny the media's part in the campaign's superficiality. Every available diversion from serious discussion of policy choices was seized on. There was more "race calling" - Who won the leaders' debate? Which side won the week's campaigning? Who do the polls say is winning? - as politics was turned into a spectator sport rather than an earnest evaluation of policies.

One lesson from behavioural economics is that when consumers face excessive, confusing choice they tend to avoid making a decision. In this case, however, it seems it was lack of choice that caused voters to be so indecisive.

Most economists believe choice is a virtue in itself (true) and the more choice the better (above a certain point, not true). They love competition because their simple neo-classical model of markets predicts competition leads to wider choice.

So how come competition between political parties seems to be reducing choice? The simple market model rests on the assumption of "atomistic" competition: a large number of small sellers, none big enough to be able to influence the price, with each needing to give customers exactly what they want or be forced out of business.

In the modern world, few, if any, markets work that way. Much of our increased prosperity is owed to firms' pursuit of economies of scale. But this has created a tendency for firms to get much bigger and for many markets to be dominated by a small number of large firms.

Hence the real-world prevalence of "oligopoly". Clearly, under oligopoly - and duopoly, a form of it particularly common in Australia - there's only a small number of sellers and thus less choice, although each firm is likely to offer a full product range.

Under oligopoly, firms compete for market share, with increased share of the market being the main way they seek to maximise profits. But because each firm has a fairly big share of the market, each has the ability to influence the market price and thus affect the fortunes of the others.

This means competition in oligopolised markets takes on a form unknown in the basic market model: rivalry. Firms focus on each other and never make a move without first considering how their rivals may react to that move.

Here we're getting closer to competition in the political "market". Most people imagine governments, holding the reins of power, concentrate on deciding what to do and whether the voting customers are likely to react well or badly.

It's always a surprise to people to realise how much the behaviour (or expected behaviour) of oppositions influences the behaviour of governments. You and I may regard oppositions as largely irrelevant until the next election, but governments never do. That's rivalry.

Hugh Mackay says the key to competition is to focus on the customers and their needs, not your competitors and what they're doing. I think he's right, but it's tough advice to follow in an oligopolistic market.

The same goes for politicians. In their case, I think rivalry - obsession with your competitors - and the fear of taking a misstep help explain why both sides converge on the centre and adopt similar policies.

The market analogy takes us only so far. In a duopoly the two rivals share the market and fight for greater market share only at the margin. Politics, by contrast, is a winner-takes-all market. Lose the election and you get a zero market share.

Perhaps this all-or-nothing feature of political competition tends to make the parties more risk averse. Maybe it's the case that, just as oligopolists prefer to avoid competing on price, so the major political parties prefer to avoid competing on policy. In this campaign, both sides wanted to battle over perceptions of competence rather than my policy versus yours.

But this doesn't explain why the aversion to policy choice is relatively recent, why we now live in post-ideological times. I suspect the reason is the advent of what I call "scientific" politics, the rise of backroom specialists who use polling, focus groups and other market research techniques to peer into the minds of voters, particularly those judged to be swinging voters in marginal seats.

Knowing so clearly the likes and dislikes of key voters - chosen explicitly for their lack of ideological commitment - probably drives the major parties towards common ground, encourages pragmatism over idealism and prompts them to offer bribes rather than reforms.

Let's hope the hung parliament causes them to reconsider this form of scientific "progress".


Saturday, August 28, 2010

Numbers say we're growing quite nicely

The mildness of last year's recession means the economy has now entered its 20th year of growth since the deep recession of the early 1990s. But how has this growth been distributed through the economy? That's a question Ric Battellino, the deputy governor of the Reserve Bank, set out to answer in a most informative speech last week.

It's a question you can answer in different ways. For a start, since June 1991, 3.5 million additional jobs have been created, representing an average increase of 2 per cent a year. Income per household has risen in total by 30 per cent in real terms.

But this means employment grew faster than the population. How was this possible? Because there was a rise in the proportion of the population choosing to participate in the workforce and also because of a fall in the rate of unemployment from 9 per cent to a little over 5 per cent.

When you divide the growth between the states, however, it was quite uneven. Over the 18 years to 2008-09, Queensland grew at an average rate of 4.8 per cent a year, followed by Western Australia on 4.5 per cent. Victoria came third on 3.7 per cent. At the rear came South Australia, Tasmania and NSW on about 2.9 per cent.

But much of this faster economic growth came because of faster population growth. Queensland's population grew at the rate of 2.2 per cent a year, followed by Western Australia on 1.8 per cent, Victoria (1.2 per cent), NSW (1 per cent), South Australia (0.6 per cent) and Tasmania (0.4 per cent).

So it turns out when you look at growth per person - that is, at the growth in material living standards - much of the disparity disappears. Western Australia's average growth in real income per person of 2.7 per cent was just a fraction faster than Queensland's (2.6 per cent) and Victoria and Tasmania's (both 2.5 per cent). Then came South Australia on 2.3 per cent and NSW on 1.8 per cent.

Thus a 2 percentage point disparity in income growth between the fastest and slowest states was reduced to less than a 1 percentage point disparity after allowing for population growth.

Similarly, the disparity in unemployment rates isn't all that great, with most states ending up on 5.6 per cent, but with Tasmania on 6.5 per cent and WA on 4.4 per cent.

Another question is how the increased income over the period was distributed between households of different income levels. If you imagine it's got a lot more unequal, then you've been reading too many newspapers.

"Income relativities across the bulk of the population did not change much over the period, though the relative position of households in the top 10 per cent of the income distribution improved somewhat, and that of households in the lowest 10 per cent deteriorated," Battellino said.

One area where there has been sizeable differences in growth performance is between industries.

Over the 17 years to June 2009, Australia's total output grew at an average rate of 3.6 per cent a year and each of the 14 industry categories recorded positive growth in their output. But some grew faster than the national average and some grew more slowly than it.

Those growing at rates well above the average included financial services, professional and technical services, and construction. Those growing at rates well below the average included agriculture and manufacturing.

Now we've covered the differing growth rates, we can look at how the structure of industry has changed - that is, at industries' changing shares of the economy.

The financial services sector's share of total output (gross domestic product) has grown by a remarkable 3.8 percentage points to 10.8 per cent, making it now our biggest industry.

The financial sector has long grown faster than the rest of the economy in all the developed countries because we've been borrowing and lending more, saving more for retirement through pension funds (in Australia, because 9 per cent of wages is going into super funds) and doing more to manage risks by use of derivatives.

Just how sensibly based all this financial activity has been we may now question, following the global financial crisis and its revelations. It might not be a bad thing for the financial sector to grow at a slower rate than the rest of the economy in coming years.

The mining sector's share of GDP has grown by 2.7 percentage points to 7.7 per cent, probably the biggest it's been since the gold rush and bigger than any other developed country can claim.

Even so, that's probably not as big as many people have imagined from all the fuss about the resources boom. But with the growth of mining has gone the rise in the construction sector's share of GDP, by 1.1 percentage points to 7.4 per cent.

You may imagine that, to the extent it comes from the building of new mines and natural gas facilities, this increase in construction will be temporary. Not that temporary. The miners have plans to keep constructing new facilities for the rest of the decade at least.

Leaving aside China's continuing demand for our resources, if India keeps growing at the rates it has been over the past decade it will need huge quantities of iron ore, and much of that will come from Australia.

The growth in mine building probably also does much to explain the rise in the share of the "professional, scientific and technical services" sector by 1.8 percentage points to 6.1 per cent.

But if some industries' shares of the economy are getting bigger, others' shares must be getting smaller. The two stand-out cases are agriculture (down 0.7 percentage points to a mere 2.6 per cent of GDP) and manufacturing (down 4.6 percentage points to 9.4 per cent). So the past 17 years have seen manufacturing decline from our largest industry to our fourth largest (after financial services, education and health, and retail and wholesale). Remember, both agriculture and manufacturing are producing a lot more than they did in the early '90s; it's just that other sectors have grown faster.

Many people lament manufacturing's declining importance in our economy (and every other developed economy) as economies become more services-intensive and less goods-intensive and as the global growth in manufacturing shifts to the developing world. But as Battellino observes, manufacturing's small share of our economy has been one reason we fared so well over the past couple of decades (not to mention in the global financial crisis).


Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Revolution of thinking voter turns politics green

Sorry but I'm not convinced a hung parliament is a terrible thing. It may end up being a good thing. I see it as the revolt of thinking voters against an election campaign that was aimed almost exclusively at unthinking voters.

Labor's been given an almighty kick in the pants but there was no enthusiastic embrace of the Liberals, whose campaign was almost completely negative. The parties should take it as a warning that if they want to win sufficient votes to form government in their own right next time, they should offer more sensible policies and arguments.

The big winner is the emerging third party, the Greens. Labor's share of the primary vote fell by almost 5 percentage points but the Coalition's share rose by only about 1.4 percentage points, with the Greens' share up by 3.6 points.

Those figures make it seem as though all the Greens' additional votes came from Labor. In truth, they show only the Coalition's net gain in votes, concealing those votes it too lost to the Greens. Had the optional preferential voting system been available, I'm sure many of those who voted for the Greens wouldn't have allowed their preferences to flow back to either party.

The swing to the Greens was even greater in the Senate, where their primary vote of almost 13 per cent is expected to give them an extra senator in each state, with some of those positions taken from the Libs. This will lift the Greens' total senators to nine, giving them the balance of power in the Senate from July next year and probably for at least the next six years.

So unattractive was the choice the main parties offered that I'm sure people voted Greens for various reasons. But no doubt concern about lack of "real action" on climate change was the most prominent. Consider the way people concerned about global warming - still a majority of voters - were dudded by the two main parties. Both went to the last election promising to introduce (similar) emissions trading schemes; both went to this election promising not to introduce such schemes.

As Dr Richard Denniss of the Australia Institute observes in a paper to be released today, this election has shown just how much of a challenge new issues such as climate change are for old political structures. Despite much of the election allegedly being fought on economic management, neither Labor nor the Libs had to explain how they could claim to be "good economic managers" yet they were determined to ignore all economic evidence about the best way to tackle climate change.

The Libs describe their approach as "direct action" - which translates as support for the regulation and government intervention once primarily associated with Labor. Labor's major contribution to the climate change policy debate during the campaign was its proposal for a "citizens' assembly", which sounds reminiscent of the Greens' historical preference for "consensus-based" decision-making. "The Greens, on the other hand, have been pushing for the economic rationalist approach of relying on a carbon tax and price signals," Denniss says.

Despite the Liberals' pious condemnation of waste in the campaign, most of their direct action policies would be riddled with waste, with the likely cost per tonne of emissions reduced by their subsidy schemes far exceeding any price per tonne contemplated under emissions trading or a carbon tax. The same is true of Labor's proposed cash-for-clunkers scheme.

The parties' failure to gain a majority in their own right means neither can claim a Mandate for the policies they took to the election. The side that finally reaches a deal with the independents will probably have had to change its policies to achieve that deal.

But this sudden need for policy flexibility in response to unexpected circumstances could be good news for those silly sausages who worry about saving the planet. By my reckoning, three of the four members expected to hold the balance of power in the lower house - the three country independents and the Greens MP for Melbourne - accept the need for a price on carbon. And then, of course, there's the Greens' balance of power in the Senate.

There's no substitute for a government with a logically consistent set of policies (and no reason only one major party should have a monopoly on the desire to save the economy from the ravages of climate change). But for the benefit of those independents - or anyone else - seeking a coherent approach to the problem, the Australia Institute's paper, Once More With Feeling, sets out six principles for good policy design.

First, remove subsidies that encourage the use of greenhouse gas-emitting fuels. These include the concessional taxation of company cars and (controversially for the country independents) the fuel tax credit scheme.

Second, introduce a price on greenhouse gas emissions. Given the rejection and abandonment of Labor's carbon pollution reduction scheme, a simple carbon tax - as already proposed by the Greens - may be the best starting place.

Third, remove existing subsidies to renewable energy that don't deliver low cost of abatement or help develop a domestic industry. For instance, the present subsidy for photovoltaic solar panels on rooftops has been found to cost $447 per tonne of emissions avoided. As for developing a local industry, the panels are imported.

Fourth, invest in public transport and other infrastructure to ensure consumers can more easily respond to the higher price of fossil fuels.

Fifth, regulate to enhance energy efficiency where existing market failures reduce the ability of higher energy prices to achieve reduced energy consumption.

And finally, provide business investors with certainty about the direction, if not the destination, of legislative change.

Two-party government has reached a sad state when neither side is offering such a sensible - dare I say, rational - approach to our greatest and most pressing economic threat.


Monday, August 23, 2010

Voters censure Labor's lack of principles

The one thing we can be sure of is Labor has suffered a huge reverse. While we wait to learn which party will form government, it's instructive to ponder what it did wrong.

By all the rules of federal politics, Labor should have romped home. The rules say first-term governments get an extension to finish proving their worth. They say governments get tossed out after they've allowed the economy to bomb, not after they've seemingly avoided a recession. They also say voters distinguish between federal and state. But one rule has stood up: oppositions don't win elections, governments lose them. This disaster for Labor is its own fault.

Labor has been a remarkably timid government. Saturday's failure could make it even more so, but that would be fatal. Similarly, the conclusion Labor's reversal was caused just by a bad election campaign would be delusional.

No, if Labor wants to learn from its drubbing it needs to draw the obvious lesson: voters punished it for its lack of principles. Those who still voted for it did so with no enthusiasm and many registered their protest by turning to the Greens.

The great paradox of politics is that though voters hate change and hip-pocket pain, they want to be led by people with convictions and the courage of them. First Kevin Rudd and then Julia Gillard were too conscious of the former and oblivious to the latter.

Every politician wants to be re-elected, but good politicians don't want just to preside over the economy and keep it on track, they also want to reform it. They understand the hard part of politics is getting re-elected and making reforms. When the going got tough, Rudd threw overboard the economic reform that, along with rolling back the Work Choices false reform, had been at the centre of his case for election: introduction of an emissions trading scheme.

The end of Rudd's remarkably long honeymoon with the electorate can be dated to his decision to give up on climate change rather than fight for its approval by a joint sitting following a double dissolution.

Even those relieved to be free of a "great, big, new tax" were shocked by such a cowardly repudiation of one of Labor's core values. Sensing this, the Liberals immediately switch from criticising the scheme to criticising Labor's abandonment of its "greatest moral challenge". With this act Labor sent the electorate a signal: we're not moral.

When Gillard deposed Rudd and set about getting the government back on track she had an opportunity to redeem the position to some extent, but again Labor's lack of conviction let it down. She toyed with taking tentative steps towards a carbon price, but in the end decided on a gimmick the public instantly saw through: the 150-person citizens assembly. The end of Gillard's own brief honeymoon can be dated to that gutless decision.

Voters work on instincts and impressions, not rational analysis. They can smell a politician who puts self-preservation ahead of the national interest. They can smell it even when they're not sure they fancy the measures need to advance the national interest. And they're never impressed. But Labor's loss of principles extends beyond its loss of core belief in the need for reform. It also involves standards of acceptable behaviour in public life. It's now clear many voters were repelled by Labor's ruthless treatment of Rudd, and by Gillard's part in it despite all her protestations of loyalty.

No policy reform principles and no personal principles turned out to be a deadly combination. Gillard stands revealed as little more than a careerist. Such people never endear themselves to the electorate.

Labor should dispense with the unprincipled Sussex Street thugs who were behind-the-scenes urgers on every major false step it made in its first term. It was they who (acting behind Gillard and Wayne Swan) persuaded Rudd to abandon his climate-change commitment, they who staged his beheading in a way that offended so many Labor supporters and they who advised Gillard to rush to an election while her honeymoon lasted, when she should have allowed more dust to settle and given voters more time to get to know her.

These are the same geniuses who've brought us the debacle of the Carr-Iemma-Rees-Keneally government (which itself contributed to Gillard's drubbing). They're uncomprehending bunglers of the first order. They're so ruthless and cynical they've lost consciousness of the electorate's basic decency.

They're all expediency and no values, all tactics and no strategy. But with all their pragmatism and tricky tactics, they can't deliver the goods.

Labor must abandon its obsession with controlling the 24-hour news cycle. The spin doctors kept Rudd in control of the news for the best part of three years, but where did that get Labor in the end? This preoccupation with control and an unending stream of trivial "announceables" distracts ministers and their departments from real work. The excessive control antagonises the press gallery, which waits its chance to strike back when you're vulnerable (as Rudd discovered as soon as his ratings slipped).

Apparatchik Labor's lack of convictions saps it of the will to fight for needed but controversial reforms; the 24-hour spin doctors' dark arts sap it of the ability to fight. It's a snare and a delusion. Senior ministers get so used to relying on media stunts and emotional button-pushing their ability to explain and defend complicated policies atrophies.

That Labor ended up on the defensive over its enviable economic performance shows how badly it was served by its media minders. Their stock in trade is always to change the subject, never to stand and fight; to bamboozle, never to educate.

Labor's Hollow Men period has brought it disaster. Time to recover some values.