Wednesday, November 10, 2010


Talk to Watermark’s CEO lunch, Sydney
November 10, 2010

The immediate outlook for our economy is for strengthening growth. Our economy’s trend or ‘potential’ rate of growth is about 3.25 per cent a year, but the Reserve Bank is forecasting growth of 3.5 per cent this calendar year, rising to 3.75 per cent next year and 4 per cent in 2012. At present most of the growth is coming from the high prices we’re receiving for our exports of coal and iron ore. Australia’s terms of trade are the best they’ve been at least since Federation, excluding the two-quarter spike in wool prices during the Korean war. Those high prices are likely to fall back somewhat over the next year or two, but by then the stimulus to growth is likely to be coming from an unprecedented program of investment in mining and natural gas production capacity.

If you find it hard to believe the economy is travelling so well it’s probably because some parts of the economy aren’t doing all that well. Retailing is doing it tough because, though households have growing incomes, they’re saving a higher proportion of that income and tending to pay down their debts rather than add to them. This position probably won’t last long, but the longer it does the better. Why would I say that? Because the looming massive boom in business investment - mainly mining investment - will be more than enough to keep the economy growing strongly, and if we add a consumption boom on the top of that the Reserve Bank will have no choice but to limit inflation pressure by pushing interest rates up even further than it would already have had to.

If you’re still not convinced the economy is travelling so well at present you have to explain why the labour market is so strong. Employment grew by almost 340,000 over the year to September - up more than 3 per cent - and unemployment is down to 5.1 per cent. Even in what many regard as the basket-case economy of NSW, employment has grown by 2.5 per cent and the unemployment rate is down to 5.2 per cent.

That last comparison leads me to the next point I want to make: don’t overdo the two-speed economy stuff. It is true the resources boom is concentrated in Queensland and Western Australia, but the links between the state economies are strong and income flows very readily across state borders. The federal government’s taxing and spending helps to bring that about, as does the way the Grants Commission divides up the GST revenue between the states. But the states also trade with each other so money that’s earned in one state often gets spent in another. Another point to note is that Queensland’s economy isn’t travelling all that well at present, mainly because its tourist industry has been hard hit by the high dollar.

But the main thing I want to say is this: although the major developed economies are likely to experience very weak growth over the rest of the decade, we look like having a decade-long mining investment boom. It’s possible, of course, that the Chinese economy could fall over and leave us in the lurch, but I don’t think it’s very likely. I’ll worry about that if it happens. So, on the face of it, we look like having a great time while most of our rich mates do it tough. But here’s the trick: for a lot of people - a lot of industries - the great boom of the 2010s isn’t likely to be much fun. Why not? Because we’re re-entering the resources boom with the economy already close to full capacity, which means the Reserve will be eternally worried about inflation and will never have its hand far from the interest rate lever. Economists regard full employment as an unemployment rate of about 4.75 per cent. If it goes much lower than that you get growing shortages of skilled labour and upward pressure on wages, which flows through to the prices of goods and services. Just last week the Reserve made the first 0.25 percentage-point move from a neutral stance of monetary policy to a restrictive stance. It has a long way further to go as it seeks to keep inflation within it 2 to 3 per cent target range over the rest of the decade.

The high interest rates are likely to be accompanied by a high exchange rate. It will be high not so much because interest rates are high as because export prices are high, because money is pouring into Australia to finance the mining investment boom and because the prospects for our economy will be so much more attractive than for the other developed economies.

This high exchange rate means our non-mining export and import-competing industries - farming, manufacturing, tourism and education - are likely to be continuously under the gun. Life’s going to be very tough for them for a protracted period. There won’t be a lot governments can do to ease the pressure on them, and there won’t be a lot their econocrats want them to do. There is some scope for big increases in the budget surplus to limit the upward pressure on interest rates, but this is easily exaggerated. From an economist’s perspective, the pressure the high exchange rate imposes on the non-mining tradeables industries isn’t a bad thing, it’s a good thing. It’s part of the way a floating exchange rate helps to limit inflation during a protracted resources boom. With the economy already at full employment, the problem is finding the additional labour and capital needed by the expanding resources sector. But the high exchange rate causes the non-mining tradeables industries to contract, thus releasing resources to flow to the resources sector. Immigration is another source of skilled labour, of course.

The other way to think of it is that we’re likely to be entering a protracted period of a perpetually tight labour market. Combine the long boom with the ageing of the population and employers will really know they’re alive. It will be a period where they’re always on the lookout for more skilled staff, where they’re trying to accommodate baby boomers rather than have them retire and trying to encourage staff loyalty. Those with more sense will be focusing on training and internal promotion rather than poaching the staff of other firms.

Turning to the political outlook, the dust is settling after the extraordinary events of this year and a few things are becoming clearer. First point is to abandon any expectation that the minority Gillard government could fall at any moment. The independents whose votes would be needed to bring about the government’s defeat have as great a motive for not doing that as the government has for wanting to survive. In any case, we’ve had plenty of experience of minority governments at the state level and we know they tend to be long-lasting. Similarly, I wouldn’t assume that, just because the Libs came so close to winning this time, they’re dead set to win the next election whenever it’s held. If Gillard survives for the best part of three years it’s anyone’s guess as to the relative standing of the two parties at that time. Gillard may have found respect and affection in the heart of the electorate by then - she’ll certainly be trying to - or Abbott may have revealed the more erratic and manic side of his character that led so many people to write him off. Three years of unrelenting opposition to everything - punch, punch, punch - could wear very thin with an electorate that gets terribly tired of seeing politicians perpetually arguing with each other. Or Abbott may grow in stature in the job, as may Gillard. The big question is whether Gillard has a learning curve. I think Rudd had no such learning curve, but there’s little doubt this Labor government has a lot to learn about governing. Labor has proved to be remarkably amateurish, even in the matter of political spin. It thought the game was about spin; it turned out to be about communicating to the electorate your vision, determination, diligence and competence.

In contrast to Rudd - and notwithstanding pink batts and the BER - Gillard is a highly competent administrator, she listens, consults and carries people with her - her own side, the bureaucrats and even the interest groups. She’s a highly experienced and skilful negotiator. What she’s not is a person of great conviction and charisma. With the retirement of Lindsay Tanner, this government is down to just one economic rationalist, Craig Emerson - that is, just one person with a deep understanding of how markets work and a commitment to making them work well. The rest of the government just pretends to be rational reformers because they feel that, politically, they have no choice. Labor has an inferiority complex in the area of budgeting, and is very conscious of the fact that it continues in office with the consent of business - particularly big business; it is constantly seeking the approval of business and is wary of doing anything that might seriously annoy business.

Many people have been expecting this minority government to be a weak government: a government that doesn’t have much direction and doesn’t get much done because it can’t get the numbers on anything. Maybe a government that’s obliged to do stupid, wasteful things to keep in with the motley collection of independents on whose support it depends. We haven’t seen much sign of this yet - perhaps it’s too early - and I’m not sure this will end up being a major issue. From my perspective, this is likely to be a weak government more because it doesn’t believe in anything much and its lack of conviction robs it of the courage to do anything very unpopular.

In a speech she gave last night, Gillard spelt out her core beliefs - the things that drive her politically: hard work, education, respect. Hard work means being self-reliant. Education as the main way people get a chance to better themselves. Respect - some people aren’t better than others because of their title, occupation or background.

She also spelt out her government’s vision for Australia: a strong economy, and opportunity for all. More jobs, more opportunity, better life chances. For all, not some.

Finally, she left us with a clear idea of her agenda: a price on carbon, a decision on water and getting the budget back into surplus by 2012-13. No doubt you could add pressing on with the NBN, bedding down the mining tax, finding a regional solution to asylum seekers and a few other things - but an old agenda (no addition of major new items) and a modest agenda, one with about as much challenge as she feels able to cope with.


Demand a better deal and stop moaning about banks

Forgive me if I'm less than impressed by the tirade of righteous indignation being unleashed against the banks. It's self-serving, selective and uninformed.

I guess when you get angry you forget to check things out and think them through. The media and the politicians on both sides are whipping up indignation, rather than conveying information and fostering understanding.

Much of the indignation has assumed that if the Commonwealth Bank has raised its mortgage interest rate by 0.2 percentage points more than the 0.25 percentage-point increase in the official interest rate, the other three big banks are sure to follow suit.

But so far they haven't. And I think it's unlikely they will. My bet is that some will raise their rates by more than the official increase, but by less than the Commonwealth. And at least one of them won't exceed the official increase. If that bank is National Australia Bank, its rate will be 0.32 percentage points lower than the Commonwealth's.

If I'm on the right track, the oft-repeated claim that there's no competition between the banks will be seen as false.

But let's say I'm quite wrong and all the banks do as the cynics expect and follow the Commonwealth's lead in raising their mortgage rates by almost double the official increase. In that event home buyers won't end up being any worse off.

Why not? Because the Reserve Bank has left little doubt it expects to announce further rate rises in the months ahead. With the economy back in a resources boom, it will be raising rates to discourage borrowing and spending and thus limit inflation pressure.

And here's the trick none of the rabble-rousers bothered to tell the punters: the Reserve long ago made it clear that the interest rates it cares about are those actually paid by households and businesses, not its own official rate. So if the banks get ahead of the game and raise their rates by twice the increase in the official rate, that just means we'll end up with one less increase in the official rate than we would have. It will all come out in the wash.

Another unwarranted assumption by the indignation merchants is that all of us are borrowers from the banks and none of us are lenders to the banks. Nonsense. Many people - including those in or approaching retirement, those who rent and those saving for a home deposit - have savings deposited with banks.

And those people have benefited from the same process people with home loans have been complaining about. The banks have justified their various rate rises in excess of official increases by saying the cost to them of the funds they borrow for lending to home buyers and businesses has risen by more than the increase in the official rate. This isn't always true, but it does contain a significant element of truth. And one respect in which it's true is that the banks are now paying much higher interest rates on deposits, particularly term deposits.

Before the global financial crisis, the rates the banks paid on term deposits were below the official interest rate. Now, however, they're well above it. Although the official rate is now 4.75 per cent, it's easy to get better than 6 per cent on a six-month deposit.

(And don't forget that every home buyer with money parked in a "redraw" account is a lender as well as a borrower. Most of these people would, in effect, be earning an interest rate on their savings equal to the rate they pay on their loan.)

In the aftermath of the crisis, the banks decided they'd be better off getting more of their funds from retail depositors and less from wholesale money markets here and overseas. But as they battled for more deposits, they bid up the rates on those deposits to unheard of levels - further proof that competition between the big four isn't dead.

Another sign of competition between the banks that the rabble-rousers haven't seen fit to remind us of is the way NAB has led the way in cutting its fees and charges, including unreasonable charges on credit cards.

Everyone imagines the greedy banks love picking on helpless home buyers when they're trying to protect their profit margins by passing on their higher costs of borrowing. Don't kid yourself. They hate it because they know home buyers are protected by the fuss-making media and politicians.

So what do they do? They push more of their higher costs off onto business - particularly small business - and less onto home buyers. This gives them less grief from the noise-makers while imposing a hidden cost on the economy's ability to create jobs.

We're suckers for illusions.

The media always quote the banks' announced "indicator" rates on home loans. Before the latest rise in the official rate, the average indicator for standard variable mortgages from banks was 7.4 per cent. But whereas small businesses often pay more than their indicator rate, home buyers usually pay less. The actual rate paid by people with mortgages averaged 6.75 per cent - a discount of 0.65 percentage points.

Why do bank managers charge less than the announced price? Because they're afraid of losing business to their competitors. But guess what? The biggest discounts go to those who bargain - those who look around at what others are offering and threaten to move unless their existing lender offers a better deal.

The trouble with all the media and political fuss about rates is it reinforces the impression "competition" is something the banks - or the government - should deliver to us on a plate.

Sorry, whingeing lazybones, markets don't work like that. Those who say competition between the banks is inadequate are right. But they should be looking in the mirror as they say it.


Monday, November 8, 2010

Labor's bluff called on bank competition

There are no good guys in the fuss over "unofficial" rises in mortgage interest rates. Each of the players is on the make: the greedy banks, the self-pitying punters, the commercially driven media and the insincere pollies.

The banks have happily used the global financial crisis to gain advantage over their non-bank competitors and enhance their pricing power - though we've yet to discover the extent to which the big four exploit that power in this episode.

It is, of course, "rational" for the banks to want to stamp out competition and to exploit whatever special advantages they gain from the government's need to protect the public from instability in the banking system. But that doesn't mean we have to condone or put up with such behaviour.

The media, as usual, are bringing far more heat than light to the affair. They're playing it for all it's worth, fanning the punters' uncomprehending self-pity for commercial advantage without any real desire to help them understand the wider issues or even help them deal with their problem.

And it's hard to feel any sympathy for Wayne Swan and the Rudd/Gillard government. It's been facing the issue of unofficial rate rises virtually since its election in November 2007, but it still hasn't reached an effective strategy for dealing with it.

Throughout its life the government has exhibited three related deficiencies: a lack of values, a lack of courage and a lack of skill in managing its relations with the electorate.

Labor's approach to unofficial rate rises - like its approach to executive salaries and "the cost of living" - has been dominated by focus group-driven insincerity. There's been a lot of "I feel your pain" and "I share your outrage" rhetoric without any great intention to take effective action.

What Labor has yet to realise is that this is a good tactic for oppositions - just ask Joe Hockey - but a bad one for governments. Pretty soon the punters say the obvious: if you're so concerned, what are you doing about it? When you've been in power for three years, they say what have you done about it?

Answer: nothing that's made any difference. There are two reasons for the lack of effective action on unofficial rate rises (and executive pay and the cost of living): you don't want to do the obvious and intervene directly because you know the side-effects might be worse than the decease, and you lack the courage to do anything - sensible or otherwise - that might annoy powerful interests involved.

A big part of Labor amateurism in media management - spin, if you like - is the way so much of what it says in the media is directed at attacking the opposition. A more experienced leadership would understand that the best way to neutralise your opponents is to ignore them.

The government's unceasing response to whatever the opposition is saying gives those opinions legitimacy and more media attention than they'd otherwise get. When Swan and Julia Gillard falsely accuse the Libs of wanting to re-regulate interest rates and refix the exchange rate, they richly deserve what they've ended up with: Hockey looking like the only person with a sensible policy.

Arguing the toss with the opposition not only fails to convince the punters, it also crowds out what the government should be doing: educating the public on the complexities of the issue and on individuals' responsibility for fixing their own problems (as does all the fake I-feel-your-pain/outrage rhetoric).

All this reinforces the mistaken notion that every problem can be and should be solved by the government. At least Penny Wong has had the gumption to tell whingeing punters they should bargain with their bank manager.

One small problem with the I-share-your-outrage approach is that, thanks to the global financial crisis, at various points the banks have been justified in varying their mortgage rates differently from the official interest rate.

So the government's been right to focus its policy response on acting to enhance competition between the banks by reducing the barriers facing people wanting to move their deposit accounts or mortgages.

The problem has been the utter ineffectiveness of these efforts to date, which demonstrates the government's insincerity, its lack of genuine belief in market forces and its fear of offending the powerful banking interests.

If Labor was genuine in its economic rationalism - instead of just pretending because it's a politically convenient position for a supposedly left-of-centre government - it would have the courage to make pro-competitive interventions despite the banks' objections.

That's what we need: imposition of measures - maybe portable bank account numbers - to facilitate account-switching and legislative restrictions on unreasonable exit fees, an end to St George-like takeovers, proper pricing of government guarantees and probably restrictions on the banks' overseas adventurism (which has almost always ended in tears).

If Labor really understood and believed in market forces, it would understand that banking is (necessarily) far from a free market and that the government's extensive protection of the banks both justifies and necessitates carefully considered countervailing interventions to enhance competition and also limit the banks' moral-hazard temptation to have Australian taxpayers indirectly underwrite their foreign adventures.

After years of Labor faking it, the punters and the rabid end of the media have called its bluff: do something effective to curb the banks' market power or be judged a waste of space. We'll see if it can summon the courage.


Saturday, November 6, 2010

Use your brain before joining the bank lynch mob

When the punters, the pollies and the media all get their knickers in a twist over rising mortgage interest rates, any argument - no matter how misconceived - is fair game.

We're being assured that the banks' huge and growing profits are obvious evidence of "gouging". And any increase in mortgage rates in excess of the rise in the official interest rate is obviously immoral and probably should be made illegal.

Sorry, but no matter how unlovely the banks are - and I'm no admirer or defender of them - those propositions don't make sense.

With Westpac this week being the last of the big four banks to announce its annual profit, much has been made of the 26 per cent increase in its underlying (or "cash") profit to $5.9 billion. Surely this is proof of profiteering?

Well, no, not when you look at it.

Turns out the main cause of the increase was not a rise in the bank's net interest income but a big fall in the amount of its annual provision for bad and doubtful debts.

The next supposed evidence that the big four banks are gouging is just the huge amount of their combined profits: $21.4 billion, as we were told many times this week.

But anyone who knows the first thing about business knows you can't tell much about how well a business is doing just by the size of its profit. You have to compare the size of the profit with the size of the business. A profit of $1 billion would be fantastic for a corner store, but pathetically poor for Telstra, for instance.

In other words, what matters is not the absolute size of the profit but the degree of profit-ability - profit as a proportion of the size the business, measured by the amount of its assets or the amount of its "equity" (the money invested by the owners of the business).

Our banks are very big - among the biggest companies in the country - so it's not surprising their profits seem huge. The big four earn a return on assets of a bit under 1 per cent a year, and that hasn't changed much. Their return on equity, however, is usually up at 16 or 17 per cent a year. (It's a lot higher than the return on assets because the banks are highly "geared" or "leveraged" - they have a high ratio of borrowed funds to shareholders' equity.

How does this return on equity compare? Right now it's high by the standards of banks in the United States and Europe - but that's because those banks have screwed up so badly. Compared with the banks in Canada - a country that, like us, escaped most of the conflagration - ours are in the same ballpark.

Compared with other industries, however, these rates of return are high. Most businesses would be delighted to earn as much. Of course, rates of return need to take account of the riskiness of the business you're in - the chances of making losses if difficulties arise.

In theory, banking is a fairly risky business, thus justifying higher rates of return than for less risky businesses. The idea is you need to do better in the good years to cover the one or two years every decade when you do really badly.

In practice, however, banking isn't all that risky because - as we were reminded during the global crisis - it's effectively guaranteed by the government. What's more, our banks haven't had a bad year since the early 1990s.

So our banks are doing very nicely. I regard their rates of return as higher than they need to be (as is probably also the case in Canada) and thus a sign that price competition among the banks, and between the banks and other lenders, is less vigorous than it should be.

Turning to the notion that there's something immoral or illegitimate about rises in mortgage interest rates in excess of rises in the official interest rate, it has no basis in law or economics.

Banks borrow on one hand and lend on the other. They are justified in raising the interest rates they charge if they suffer an increase in the cost of the funds they borrow. By far the biggest single influence over the banks' cost of funds is the official interest rate - the cost to the banks of borrowing "cash" from each other overnight.

But it's not the only influence over the banks' cost of funds. These days they get about half their funds from retail depositors, less than a fifth from the short-term wholesale market (bank bills) and about a quarter from the long-term wholesale market (three- to five-year corporate bonds issued by the banks), with most of the rest provided by the banks' shareholders ("equity"). More than half the wholesale funding comes from overseas.

The point is that each of these sources yields funds priced at some margin above the official cash rate. Provided those margins stay fairly steady in absolute size, movements in the cash rate will accurately reflect movements in the banks' cost of funds.

This was the position for some years before the global financial crisis and it explains why the public gained the impression that mortgage interest rates always do and should move in lock step with the official cash rate.

But that happy state was disrupted by the crisis, which caused many of those margins above the cash rate to blow out, thus justifying changes in mortgage rates different from changes in the cash rate. Most of those margins have fallen back a long way as the crisis has abated. But now the banks are under pressure to change the mix of their funding, getting more from retail and less from wholesale, as well as more long-term and less short-term.

Trouble is, the newly preferred sources have higher margins above the cash rate. It thus becomes an empirical question whether the banks are justified in raising their mortgage rates by more than the rise in the cash rate. And the judgment of the econocrats is that, as a group, the banks aren't justified, though the Commonwealth may have a better case than the others.

So if too many of the other banks use the cover of the Commonwealth's increase of 0.20 percentage points in excess of the rise in the cash rate to raise their own mortgage rates by more we can take this as a sign they're happily exploiting the inadequate competition in lending.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

A sustainable Australia?

Clancy Auditorium, UNSW
Thursday, November 4, 2010

My strongest reason for opposing continuing high levels of net migration is my scepticism about the airy assurances from economists and others that continued population growth is compatible with an ecologically sustainable Australia. Economists offer these assurances not because they’ve thought deeply about Australia’s ecological carrying capacity - it’s not a subject they know much about - but because they’re used to thinking about the economy in isolation from the environment and because they have a suspiciously convenient faith in the ability of technological advance to solve environmental problems and faith in the ability of increases in man-made capital to substitute for the depletion of non-renewable resources, the over-exploitation of renewable resources, the degradation of waterways and soil, the destruction of species and the damage to ecosystem services (such as carbon sinks).

But since I’m no expert on ecology either, I’ll stick to something I know a bit about. It’s to warn non-economists that the contribution of immigration to increased material prosperity isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. There’s no doubt that net migration causes the economy to grow - to be bigger because it has more people in it. Businesses want a bigger economy because it gives them more people to sell to and profit from. From their self-interested perspective, that’s quite rational. But for economists and politicians it’s not good enough to assume that bigger is better, to believe in growth for the sake of growth. No, according to their narrow, materialist perspective, growth is only a good thing if it makes us better off, if it raises our material standard of living, if it increases real income per person.

Now here’s the thing: although economists don’t like to talk about it - don’t like to think about it - plenty of studies have shown that immigration does little or nothing to raise real income per person. What little gain there is goes to the immigrants themselves, not the pre-existing population that invited them in. This conventional but little-trumpeted finding is confirmed by the most recent study, undertaken by the Productivity Commission in 2006.

So why is it that adding extra workers tends not to raise the average standard of living? Well, it’s well understood by economists: it’s because all those extra people require additional spending on capital - ‘capital broadening’ as economists call it - if the average amount of capital per person isn’t to fall. The extra people need to be supported by additional capital in their private lives - more housing - additional capital equipment in the firms where they work, and additional public infrastructure: more roads, more public transport, schools, hospitals, power and water. Thus the economic benefit of having more workers is essentially cancelled out by the cost of providing the extra capital that needs to go with them and their families (most of which has to be borrowed from foreigners).

The fashion among economists at present is to ignore this glaring drawback and focus on more seemingly appealing arguments, such as that high immigration will reduce our problem with ageing (true but exaggerated) and Professor Peter McDonald’s argument that politicians don’t determine the size of our immigration, the needs of the economy do. There’s some truth to this, but then economists point to the resources boom and the massive increase in construction activity it involves and conclude we must open the immigration flood gates to avoid skilled-labour shortages and wage inflation. Actually, we only surrender our control over immigration to the economy when we proceed from the assumption that economic growth is pretty much the only thing that matters and that the role of the natural environment can be left out of the model.


Wednesday, November 3, 2010

There are lies, damned lies and vested interests' reports

What's the world coming to? The latest is that Australia has become a net importer of food. Last financial year our imports of food and groceries exceeded exports by $1.8 billion, a dramatic turnaround from our $4.5 billion surplus five years earlier. This alarming news comes from a report by the accounting firm KPMG for the Australian Food and Grocery Council.

The council's chief executive, Kate Carnell, said the industry "is still a major exporter but imports are rising fast, eroding the trade surplus historically enjoyed by the industry".

"I don't think Australians really understand what we're facing at the moment," she said. "We really are facing a scenario where Australia really won't manufacture much at all in this space. The majority of products will come from overseas.

"The ... costs of power, costs of staff, costs of transport, costs of government regulation, costs of the drought in the food space [have] really put pressure on costs for Australian manufacturers.

"To protect Australia's food supply and overcome this challenge, there must be a 'whole-of-government' national strategy to ensure food and grocery manufacturing's long-term growth, increase export earnings and boost competitiveness. Proposed water allocation cuts for food production in the Murray-Darling Basin will also threaten the future viability of numerous food manufacturers in the basin ... and making it harder for locally produced goods to compete with imports."

There's just one problem. This is all nonsense. Australia? A net importer of food? Yeah, sure. If you fell for it, your bulldust detector has seriously failed you in the media space.

And in these days of he-said-she-said journalism, you need your detector working as never before. Increasingly, the media are used by interest groups - whether governments, oppositions, businesses or lobby groups - to push their own barrows. And increasingly the media suspend disbelief and happily pass on the most dubious claims, provided they're sufficiently novel, alarming or combative.

Often the vested interests are waving some "modelling" or "independent report" they've bought from some seemingly reputable source. Only if you find the report and read its fine print do you discover the reputable source covering its backside with disclaimers.

Consider this from KPMG's report for the food and grocery council: "no opinions or conclusions intended to convey assurance have been expressed. The report has been prepared for general guidance on matters of interest only, and does not constitute professional advice.

"You should not act upon the information contained in this report without obtaining specific professional advice. No representation or warranty (express or implied) is given as to the accuracy or completeness of the information contained in this report ..."

Translation: if your bulldust detector isn't working that's your look-out.

According to figures compiled by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, in calendar 2009 we had total food exports of $25.4 billion and imports of $11 billion, leaving us with a surplus of $14.4 billion. Even if we ignore unprocessed and look only at processed food, we still had a trade surplus of $5.8 billion.

So how did the food and grocery council get exports of $21.5 billion and imports of $23.3 billion for 2009-10, giving that deficit of $1.8 billion? By using its own definition of "food and groceries". We're not talking about farmers here but the people who take what the farmers produce and process it for presentation in supermarkets.

So the council's figures exclude unprocessed food exports, including wheat (worth $4.8 billion in 2009), other grains and live animals. They include "grocery manufacturing products", such as medicines and pharmaceuticals, plastic bags and film, paper products and soap and other detergents.

That's food? It turns out our exports of "groceries" totalled $4.9 billion in 2009-10, whereas our imports totalled $12.9 billion, leaving us a "grocery" trade deficit of $8 billion. This is hardly surprising. Since when was Australia big in the manufacture of medicines? (And since when were they a major part of the Murray-Darling Basin economy?)

If you leave out groceries, the report's figures show we had exports of processed food and beverages worth $15.9 billion compared with imports of $9.9 billion, plus exports of fresh produce worth $700 million against imports of less than $500 million. That leaves us with a trade surplus of $6.2 billion for fresh and processed food and beverages. Don't be conned.

It is true, of course, that agriculture has been hard hit by the drought and by our very high exchange rate. And the international price competitiveness of manufacturing - whether of food, "groceries" or anything else - has been, and will continue to be, harmed by the high dollar.

The food and grocery council claims to represent about a quarter of Australian manufacturing industry. Rest assured, for as long as the resources boom keeps our exchange rate uncomfortably high - which might be for a decade or more - we'll be hearing complaints from manufacturers and demands that the government do something. The rest of them won't be hiding behind farmers, however.

Just to prepare you for the onslaught: Australia has long had, and always will have, a positively huge deficit on trade in manufactures and it's almost certain to get worse. None of this is a worry because you can't be good at everything.

Australia has long been a major world exporter of agricultural, mineral and energy commodities. Being a net importer of manufactures goes with that territory. Live with it.

Now we're being paid a fortune for our coal and iron ore and we're engaged in a decade-long period of investment for a huge increase in export capacity. The dark side of this is a high exchange rate and pressure on our farmers, manufacturers, tourism operators and education providers. You can't have everything.


Monday, October 18, 2010

Welcome to the harsher, tougher economy

Our high dollar - which could easily go higher - is imposing considerable pain on our farmers, manufacturers, tourist operators and education providers. The pain will intensify over time, but guess what? The econocrats think it's a good thing.

The pollies don't mind either, because the punters think parity with the US dollar is Christmas come early.

Remember, too, that about three-quarters of Australian industry is non-tradeable - it neither exports nor competes against imports. So it is not directly affected, except to the extent that it uses (the now cheaper) imported components and capital equipment.

A higher exchange rate is anti-inflationary and thus does a similar job to a rise in interest rates. It lowers the price of imported goods and services, which reduces consumer prices directly (though, these days, the process is quite attenuated, with foreign suppliers and importers tending to absorb rather than pass on the short-term ups and downs in the exchange rate).

As well, a higher dollar helps to ease inflation pressure by redirecting some domestic demand into imports (for instance, it makes locals more inclined to holiday abroad than at home) and by dampening production of exports (such as accommodation for foreign tourists or education for foreign students).

So, to some extent, a higher exchange rate is a substitute for further rises in the official interest rate. But I wouldn't take this to mean a further rise in rates this year is now unlikely. At best it could mean a rise in early December rather than Melbourne Cup Day.

And I wouldn't even count on that. It might mean one less rise over the next year.

But these short-term considerations for monetary policy (interest rates) are just part of the story. The econocrats - Treasury as well as the Reserve Bank - are very conscious that, thanks to the mildness of the recession, we're fast approaching full employment, which they take to be an unemployment rate of about 4.75 per cent (though no one knows precisely where the point is).

This is happening at a time when the resources boom is back with a vengeance, with our terms of trade (export prices relative to import prices) at their most favourable in a century (ignoring the two-quarter spike in wool prices during the Korean War).

The initial effect is a huge increase in the nation's real income which, as it is spent, threatens the inflationary blowout we've experienced in all previous resources booms. If it doesn't happen this time it will be partly because of the vigilance of the authorities. (Now you know why the Reserve is so concerned about inflation even though the underlying inflation rate is within the 2 to 3 per cent target.)

But it will be mainly because, this time, we have a floating exchange rate and it has done what the textbooks promise it will do: appreciate significantly, thus easing inflation pressures. One part of this mechanism is that the higher dollar effectively transfers real income from the miners to all those industries and individuals who buy imports.

Here you see a further reason why the econocrats think a high dollar is good, not bad, in our present circumstances. But I'm trying to get from the immediate cyclical issue to the longer-term structural one. Sooner or later, coal and iron ore prices will fall back from their present dizzy heights, though they're likely to stay well above their long-term average.

The second element of this boom - the thing that distinguishes it from previous commodity booms, giving it a medium-term, structural element - is the unprecedented boom in mining investment that's about to get started, coming on top of a level of business investment spending during the downturn that was already remarkably high.

Even if some of these projects are abandoned and some are delayed, we're still talking about a huge expansion in our mining sector that constitutes a historic change in Australia's industry structure, affecting the oil and mining industry, the mining services industry and - for a decade or more - the engineering construction industry.

This will require a huge application of resources: labour and financial and physical capital. But because it comes at a time when we're already at full employment then, to the extent we're not adding to our supply of skilled labour via immigration, this will require a reallocation of resources within Australia.

Labour and capital will need to move from non-mining industries to the mining sector and from the non-mining states to the mining states.

The textbook, closed-economy way for this to happen is for the mining sector to bid up wages and other ''factor'' prices until it gets what it needs and can still afford. But in an open economy, the textbook promises the process of reallocation will be assisted by a high exchange rate, which will cause the non-mining tradeables sector to contract, thus releasing labour and other resources to shift to the mining sector.

Now do you see the other reason the econocrats want a high dollar? It is a key part of the market mechanism by which the industrial restructuring of our economy will be brought about without it exploding.

So don't bother telling yourself the dollar is overvalued because of the ''currency war'' (so far its effect on our trade-weighted index is small) or because our rates are so high (our rates are always and inevitably high because our returns on investment are high relative to other countries).

All this says is that times are going to be very tough for people in the non-mining tradeables sector. It's true; there is no denying it.

But whether this weak Gillard government - goaded at every point by an utterly unprincipled opposition - has the courage to stick with good policy is another matter.


Saturday, October 16, 2010

A little fiddling is fine in terms of our currencies

WHAT contrary times: up the front of the paper we're celebrating the Australian dollar's approach to parity with the greenback; up the back we're worrying about the global currency war. Take both with a grain of salt. The Aussie's latest bout of strength is, of course, a byproduct of the alleged currency war. Perhaps a better term is "competitive devaluation". It seems a lot of countries would like their currency to be weaker than it is.

Or, in China's case, weaker than it should be. At the heart of the "war" is the Americans' long-held belief that the Chinese are holding the value of the yuan lower than it should be and this is disadvantaging US export and import-competing industries, adding to the US trade deficit and reducing its economic growth.

The Yanks are half right. The Chinese are holding their exchange rate too low, fixing its value to the US dollar and revaluing it only very slowly. But the Americans are deluding themselves if they think a higher yuan would solve most of their problems. It would just help a bit.

And they have form in blaming other countries for home-grown problems. Before China became the bogeyman they used to blame all their troubles on an overvalued yen. And they don't seem to have heard of "face". The more they lecture the Chinese in public, the less likely it is they'll get what they want.

What's provoked most of the talk about a currency war is the likelihood the US Federal Reserve is about to engage in another round of "quantitative easing" (colloquially, printing money). It's not clear the primary objective would be to lower the value of the greenback but that's certainly a consequence.

It's more likely the Fed just wants to stimulate the sickly US economy. The US government has little scope for more fiscal (budgetary) stimulus and the official interest rate is already down almost to zero, so printing money is all that's left.

It's done by the Fed buying government bonds from the banks, paying for them by crediting money to (as we'd call it) the banks' exchange settlement accounts with the Fed. Where does this money come from? The Fed creates it from thin air.

The effect of the increased demand for government bonds is to force up their price, which reduces their "yield". (The yield is the interest to be earned on the bond, expressed as a percentage not of the bond's face value but its now-higher market value.)

Because American home buyers and businesses tend to borrow at long-term interest rates, lowering the rate on long-term government bonds tends to push down borrowing rates generally. This should encourage more borrowing and spending. And the extra money in the banks' exchange settlement accounts (where it earns very low interest) should encourage them to do more lending.

The lower yield on long-term government bonds should encourage local financial investors to shift to other, better paying financial assets, including corporate bonds. The higher demand for corporate bonds raises their price and lowers their yield, making it cheaper for big American corporations to borrow for expansion.

(That's how it works in principle. At present, however, US households are trying to reduce their debts, not add to them. And businesses facing weak demand for their products aren't of a mood to expand.)

The lower yields on US government and corporate bonds make US financial investors inclined to take their money overseas in search of better returns. They also make foreign investors more inclined to seek higher yields in countries other than the US (including one down under).

This, of course, causes the US dollar to fall in value. For the past month or so it's been depreciating against other currencies as the financial markets merely anticipate another round of quantitative easing.

Some countries have been trying to prevent their currencies appreciating. The Japanese have spent billions intervening in their foreign exchange market, to little effect. A bunch of Asian countries - South Korea, Taiwan and the south east Asians - have been holding their currencies down with the greenback, mainly because they don't want to appreciate against the yuan.

A few big economies - particularly Britain - have also been making noises about further quantitative easing.

And other countries - including Sweden, Canada and us - have been appreciating against the greenback and any other countries than have succeeded in keeping their exchange rates low.

Why do countries prefer a low exchange rate? Because it makes their export and import-competing industries more price competitive internationally.

This, by the way, explains why only those who buy imports - or go on overseas trips - are pleased to see the Aussie reaching parity with the greenback. Our farmers, manufacturers, tourist operators and education providers hate the idea.

So by how much has the supposed currency war overvalued the Aussie? Not much. We were up at about US92 before the war started and that was caused by our own "fundamentals": commodity prices the highest in a century, quite high interest rates by world standards and a rosy outlook for economic growth.

But even the difference between US92 and parity overstates the extent of any over-

valuation. Everyone focuses on our exchange rate with the US dollar, but the US accounts for less than 9 per cent of our two-way trade (exports plus imports).

The best way to judge what's happening is to look at changes in the Aussie's value against the "trade-weighted index" - a basket of the currencies of our 20 biggest trading partners, with each country's currency weighted according to its share of our two-way trade.

The annually revised weights, adopted this month, are: the yuan, 22.5 per cent (up 4 percentage points); yen, 15 per cent (down 2 points); the euro, 10 per cent; US dollar, 8.5 per cent; Korean won, 6 per cent and Indian rupee, 5 per cent. Then, in descending order: Thai baht, Singapore dollar, New Zealand dollar, British pound, Malaysian ringgit, Taiwan dollar and Indonesian rupiah etc.

Since September 10, we've risen by about 8 per cent against the greenback but only by 4 per cent against the TWI, partly because we've actually fallen by almost 3 per cent against the euro. This says we're not particularly overvalued relative to the fundamentals.

As long as countries merely fiddle with their currencies, it's not too terrible. It's if the currency war turns into a trade war - with the US Congress restricting Chinese imports and the Chinese retaliating - that we should worry.


Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Don't think you can keep on neglecting me, Darling

Sustainability is a dangerous word, but one to which politicians are irresistibly attracted. It has a wonderful ring to it and drips with virtue. Can you think of anyone who would admit to supporting anything that wasn't sustainable?

And Julia Gillard has brought sustainability back into its own. Kevin Rudd appointed Tony Burke our first Minister for Population, but one of Gillard's first acts was to change his title to Minister for Sustainable Population.

These days Burke is Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities. Phew. Anything else you'd like me to fix while I'm at it?

One of his tasks is to soothe the anguished and outraged response of irrigators to the Murray-Darling Basin Authority's "guide to a plan" to restore the river system's environmental flows by reducing water allocations by 27 to 37 per cent.

Apparently, the bureaucrats at the authority have no idea of the devastation they'd cause, wiping out whole river towns and causing horrendous unemployment, while prompting a huge leap in the price of food, ending the nation's food security and prompting a surge in food imports.

Clearly, there is a requirement for commonsense to prevail and for the needs of people, their livelihoods and their communities to be put ahead of worries about the environment.

Just one problem: that dangerous notion, sustainability. The authority's guide says many of the challenges and risks faced by the basin and its communities are the direct result of the actions of successive governments over the history of the basin. "In retrospect, many of these decisions failed to strike a long-term balance between meeting the needs of the environment and those of a growing economy and population," the guide says.

"The amount of surface water diverted for consumptive use such as [in] towns, industry and irrigation has increased from about 2000 gigalitres per year in 1920 to entitlements of approximately 11,000 gigalitres per year in the 1990s. However, the impact of drought over the past decade has seen actual diversions drop significantly.

"The combination of drought and historic diversions means there have been no significant flows through the Murray mouth since 2002."

It is clear the impacts of the necessary adjustments would fall on the current generation of farmers and irrigators, industries and communities. So effective transitional arrangements would be needed to help people.

But it is also clear the environment has not had sufficient water for decades. This has led to serious environmental decline. "Twenty out of 23 catchments in the basin are in 'poor' to 'very poor' ecosystem health," the guide says. "The past decade has seen increasing water quality problems and more frequent outbreaks of blue-green algae blooms.

"The real possibility of environmental failure now threatens the long-term economic and social viability of many industries and the economic, social and cultural strength of many communities."

Over the past few decades, the focus has swung primarily to looking at the economics of the basin and what it can produce, such that the role of the environment in underpinning that economic development has been "somewhat overlooked".

But that can't continue. "If the focus does not swing back towards considering water required for the environment, then the nation risks irretrievably damaging the attributes of the basin that enable it to be so productive," the guide says.

See what this is saying? The sustainability of the ecosystem is, in the end, non-negotiable. It's not a question of being reasonable, of politicians splitting it down the middle and everyone going away grumpily satisfied. It's not even a question of imagining we can put the interests of flesh and blood ahead of mere inanimate objects.

The natural environment is utterly unreasonable and unforgiving. For years we have been able to abuse it - knowingly and unknowingly - confident in the belief it would recover from that abuse or some new technology would pop up to solve any problems.

But now it is clear to our scientists we are reaching the tipping point. Keep flogging the horse and the horse will die and leave us in the lurch. You can't negotiate with the environment, asking it to remember how many people's livelihoods are depending on it. And no amount of abuse of ignorant, city-living greenies will make the problem go away.

If what we are doing to the Murray-Darling is ecologically unsustainable it won't be - can't be - sustained. Sooner or later, it will come to an end. The only choice we face is whether to take the pain now in the hope of saving something for the future or do what all our predecessors have done and close our eyes to the problem, take a few token steps to confound our consciences and hope to be dead before the final devastation.

But politics as usual - create such a fuss the pollies back off - remains dominant. And the standard tactic is to hugely exaggerate the amount of pain that would be suffered. The authority's guide says its plan could lead to long-term job losses of 800. Just one irrigation lobby has "modelling" showing that 17,000 jobs will be lost in NSW alone.

A tip: worry about the decline of country towns if you wish - that would really happen - but don't worry about job losses. Why not? Because our economy's problem is just the opposite: we are already close to full employment, where we don't have workers to fill all the (mainly city) vacancies. That's why our interest rates are already so much higher than other countries' and why they're set to go higher. That's why economists and business people are clamouring for higher immigration.

And to country people who fear the change the authority's suggested cuts would impose on them, I'd say just keep carrying on the way you are. This is a weak federal government without a majority, opposed by a Coalition wedded to populist obstruction.


Saturday, October 9, 2010

Do not let the environment go to waste

I sympathise with the calls from ecologists and others for an end to economic growth. But that doesn't mean I'd like to see no further increase in gross domestic product.

Huh? Let me explain. There's a lot of confusion between scientists and economists on exactly what is meant by "economic growth". Each side uses the words to mean something different.

As Professor Herman Daly, of the University of Maryland, a founder of ecological (as opposed to environmental) economics, has explained, what many ecologists want an end to is growth in the use of natural resources.

Actually, he says an end to the "throughput" of natural resources. This is a reference to the first law of thermodynamics, which says matter and energy can't be destroyed, just have their form changed.

So when we use natural resources as an input to the economic machine, so to speak, what comes out the other end (apart from the goods and services we sought to create) is various forms of waste - sewage, landfill, polluted air and waterways, not to mention greenhouse gases.

Thus from a scientific perspective, what economic activity does is convert natural resources into waste. Daly's point is that we have to worry about both ends of the process: not just the exhaustion of non-renewable resources and the over-exploitation of renewable resources, but also the unending stream of waste we're pumping into the environment.

The scientists are saying that, since the global economy (human activity of an economic nature, which is most of it) exists within the global ecosystem and the ecosystem is of a fixed size, it's simply not physically possible for the economy to grow at an "exponential" (a reasonably steady percentage) rate forever.

They're also saying we must be close to the ecological limits to growth in our throughput of natural resources, as is clearly the case with greenhouse gas emissions. Hence the calls for an end to "growth".

Most economists - particularly older economists who've known nothing but the promotion of endless growth throughout their careers - find this a pretty shocking notion. But it's not as bad as they fear.

Why not? Because the "growth" the scientists have in mind is not the same as the growth the economists have in mind. The economists' idea of growth is growth in (real) GDP - that is, growth in the economy's output of goods and services.

And the growth in the output from the economic machine comes from two different sources: from increased inputs of all resources (labour, man-made capital and "land", which includes natural resources), but also from the increased efficiency with which those resources are combined - otherwise known as improved "productivity" (output per unit of input).

So improved productivity means achieving more output of goods and services from an unchanged quantity of inputs. This increased production is achieved mainly by technological advance: the invention of better machines, the discovery of better ways to manage the production process (increased "know-how") and the exploitation of economies of scale, though increases in human capital (the skill of the workforce) also help.

It turns out that, over the decades, improved productivity is actually the main source of growth in GDP. Economists are mainly concerned with organising the economy in a way that creates the incentives for people to achieve greater efficiency in the use of all types of resources and thus improved productivity.

And though they usually don't realise it, the scientists aren't saying they have any objection to the pursuit of efficiency and improved productivity. Indeed, implicit in what they're saying is that they'd love to see us become more efficient in the use of natural resources if this allowed us to use fewer of them.

So the expertise economists contribute to society - their understanding of how to promote efficiency in the allocation of resources - wouldn't be under threat from moving to a "steady-state economy" in which the goal was no further growth in the throughput of natural resources.

Indeed, our move to such an economy couldn't be achieved without the expertise of economists. They understand how economies work and scientists don't.

Economists see what they do as helping people to "optimise under constraints", the main constraint being the scarcity of all resources. What the ecologists are calling for is simply the imposition on the economy of one specific constraint: no further increase in the throughput of natural resources. How would that be achieved? By using an "economic instrument" invented by economic rationalists, the cap-and-trade system. Just as an emissions trading scheme caps the amount of greenhouse gases allowed to be emitted, so you'd impose a cap on the use of natural resources.

Proceeds from auctioning permits to use natural resources would constitute "a great big new tax on everything", so you'd use those proceeds to finance cuts in other taxes, particularly those on income and consumption. You'd rejig the tax system so more revenue came from taxing environmental "bads" and less from taxing economic "goods".

You'd be significantly changing relative prices in the economy, so goods and services with a high natural-resources component became a lot dearer, whereas those with a low natural-resources component became a lot cheaper.

Market forces would adapt to the change in relative prices, achieving the cap in the use of natural resources with least disruption to the economy. The point of the cap is to stop market forces doing what they otherwise would: flowing the benefit of increased efficiency in the use of natural resources on to customers in the form of lower prices, which would then defeat the object of the exercise by encouraging greater demand for natural-resource-intensive goods and services.

Under the present constraints, market forces focus on economising in the use of the most expensive resource, labour (which is made more so by the high taxes on labour - income and consumption taxes). Often, this involves waste in the use of cheaper, natural resources because it's not economic to do more recycling and to repair rather than replace appliances.

The point is, even if you achieved an end to "growth" in the throughput of natural resources, you'd still be getting "growth" in real GDP arising from increased productivity in the use of all resources. The main difference is that the market's effort would go into raising the productivity of natural resources rather than the productivity of labour. Daly's way of trying to end the terminological confusion is to say that in a steady-state economy there'd be no "quantitative growth" but there'd still be "qualitative development".


Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Obesity problem is bigger than we think, despite GDP benefits

I have bad news and good about the O-word. Although there has been a suggestion in some quarters the media got over-excited about the "obesity epidemic", a report from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development - unlikely to be a purveyor of faddish enthusiasms - has confirmed the seriousness of the problem.

The report says obesity is worsening throughout the developed world and becoming the top public health concern. One in two people is now overweight or obese in almost half the developed countries. In some, two out of three people will be in trouble within 10 years.

In Australia, 61 per cent of adults are overweight or obese, making us almost as fat as the Americans. In 20 years, our overweight rate has risen faster than in any other developed country. It is projected to rise another 15 per cent in the next 10 years.

And the good news? It's saving taxpayers money.

Although healthcare spending for obese people is at least 25 per cent higher than for someone of normal weight, and increases rapidly as people get fatter, severely obese people are likely to die eight to 10 years earlier, so their shorter lives mean they incur lower healthcare costs over their lifetime. It's even greater than the saving on smokers.

If you don't like that, try this. As measured by gross domestic product, obesity is a win-win-win situation. The more you eat the more you add to GDP and the profits of businesses. If the messages of advertising and marketing make you self-conscious about your overweight, everything you spend on fancy diets, gym subscriptions etc adds to GDP.

And then when you damage your health, everything you, the government and your health fund spend on trying to keep you going adds to GDP. Even when you die prematurely that won't count as a negative against GDP, although the absence of your continued consumption will be missed.

Get the feeling there's something amiss?

Two of our greatest campaigners on obesity are Garry Egger, the professor of lifestyle medicine at Southern Cross University and the founder of GutBusters, and Boyd Swinburn, professor of population health at Deakin University.

They've written a book, Planet Obesity, which takes a rather different tack. Since obesity is endemic, it can't be dismissed as the product of gluttony and sloth on the part of a few individuals.

Obesity has been rising since the 1980s. Before then it was rare. Clearly, it's a product of our modern lifestyle, of the way we organise our society.

We're getting fatter for a host of interacting reasons. According to the OECD report, the supply and availability of food altered remarkably in the second half of the 20th century, brought about by big changes in food production technologies and an increasing and increasingly sophisticated use of promotion and persuasion.

The price of calories fell dramatically and convenience foods became available virtually everywhere, while the time available for traditional meal preparation from raw ingredients shrank as a result of changing working and living conditions.

"Decreased physical activity at work, increased participation of women in the labour force, increasing levels of stress and job insecurity, longer working hours for some jobs, are all factors that, directly or indirectly, contribute to the lifestyle changes which caused the obesity epidemic," the report says.

See what this is saying? The rise in obesity is a product of the success of capitalism and the technological advance it fosters and exploits.

So far, those who haven't tried to blame the problem on the weakness of individuals have treated it as an unfortunate byproduct of modern life, needing to be remedied in some way so we can carry on as usual.

Egger and Swinburn see it very differently, not as a disease but as a signal. "It's the canary in the coalmine, which should alert us to bigger structural problems in society," they say.

Obesity and the health problems it often brings - type 2 diabetes, heart disease - are part of a rise in chronic conditions, including respiratory disease and many forms of cancer, that could eventually end our ever-increasing longevity, or at least make our longer lives far less pleasant.

People in developed countries have been getting taller and heavier since 1800. For almost all that time, our weight gain has made us healthier but in recent decades it's greatly accelerated and is now making us unhealthy.

So what's the signal Egger and Swinburn say the obesity epidemic is sending us? That we've passed the "sweet spot" - the point where everything's fine, the point of equilibrium, as an economist would say.

Until fairly recently, economic growth was making us unambiguously better off. Making us more secure, more prosperous and, because of scientific advances, improving our health. But now we've overshot the sweet spot and continued economic growth is starting to worsen our health.

It's a similar story with global warming. Economic growth and rising affluence - much of it based on the burning of fossil fuels - was fine as long as the world's sinks could absorb all the extra carbon dioxide we were pumping into the atmosphere.

But now we've passed that point, partly because we've been cutting down and clearing forests and other sinks, greenhouse gases have built up and are adversely affecting the climate. Should we fail to reverse this trend, much worse lies in store.

Egger and Swinburn say the trouble with humans is their tendency to overshoot by trying to maximise, rather than optimise, good things such as economic growth and plentiful food.

So the question is how long it will take us to recognise the signal that famine has turned to feast and too much feasting is bad for us. But however long it takes us, our trusty GDP meter will continue assuring us we're doing fine.


Monday, October 4, 2010

Psychologists needed to help implement policies

In my next life I'm going to be a psychologist. If I can make myself work harder at uni than I did last time, I'll become an academic and start a new branch of the discipline called PPP - public policy psychology.

Why? Because there's such a glaring need for it. The politicians themselves have a reasonable feel for how people think and behave, but much of their advice comes from a profession that believes the principles of human behaviour need only be assumed, not studied empirically.

Assume everyone behaves "rationally" - that we all think like Albert Einstein, store as much memory as IBM's Big Blue and have the willpower of Mahatma Gandhi, that our preferences never change - and your equations will work perfectly.

Is it any wonder government actions are bedevilled by "unintended consequences" and most economists regard intervention in markets as problematic?

Economists tell themselves government regulation fails because of the corruptibility of politicians and public servants. It never occurs to them the root cause may be their own shaky grasp on human motivation.

Economics is in an imperialist phase where economists seek to dominate the bureaucratic advice going to governments. Economists confidently supply solutions to problems outside their field of competence, without themselves or their masters realising it.

Consider, for example, the desire of governments to stamp out price-fixing cartels. The question is, which would be the more effective deterrent: heavy fines or short jail terms?

This is an empirical question, but economists think they already know the answer: increase the size of the fine until, after being multiplied by the numerical probability of being caught, it exceeds the likely benefit from price-fixing.

Then, when the pollies fail to lift fines to the stupendous levels this "expected value" formula dictates, you quietly accuse them of lacking "political will".

The alternative deterrent of a jail term never gets seriously considered. Why not? Because it can't be measured in dollars - unless you do something really lame, like estimating the income chief executives would forgo while in the slammer.

The real deterrence of jail is non-monetary: the shame and stigma suffered by the executive and his family, which would linger long after a sentence of even just a month or two had ended. Can you imagine the indignity suffered by a chief executive's wife in her social set? Imagine the hard time she'd give her husband? Imagine how, after a few executives had been strung up, others would be keen to avoid ruining their lives in this way?

This suggests chokey may be a far more effective deterrent, but it remains an empirical question - one suited to the more empirically oriented discipline of psychology. The false attraction of economics is that, in the absence of empirical evidence, its practitioners happily fall back on pure theory. If I were seeking to establish the sub-discipline of public policy psychology, I'd ransack all its branches looking for policy-relevant findings and collect them in a handbook, before embarking on experiments aimed at filling in the gaps.

Where else might advice from psychologists be superior to that from conventional economists? A paper delivered to the Australian Economic Forum by Ian McAuley, a lecturer on public policy at the University of Canberra, is full of examples.

He notes various instances where people provide public goods voluntarily, by doing voluntary work (Clean Up Australia, Meals on Wheels) or making cash donations. Many public sector workers (doctors, teachers, even econocrats) work for lower pay than they could expect in the private sector.

All of this is of great benefit to the nation (and the taxpayer), and politicians may wish to do more to encourage it. But you need to understand people's (non-monetary) motives. Fail to understand the "psychology of rewards" and you can end up doing more discouraging than encouraging.

Consider next the crazy way otherwise-savvy economists designed the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme such that the voluntary efforts of households and even governments to reduce their emissions merely reduced the pressure on big polluters. What on earth did they imagine the punters would think once they twigged?

Thanks to their training, economists are oblivious to the importance of "procedural fairness" - doing things in ways perceived to be fair - whereas psychologists know people care deeply about it. McAuley suggests the failure of motorists to use toll roads in the numbers predicted - even in cases where avoiding them may be more costly in time, fuel and vehicle wear - may be caused by the belief that slapping fees on particular roads is unfair and ought to be censured.

McAuley quotes evidence from the Swiss cantons, where "voluntary compliance" with tax laws - now a big problem in loophole-seeking Australia - is stronger in those cantons where people feel the tax authorities treat them with consideration.

Robert Cialdini, the psychologist famous for his study of the factors that influence us, found that when household energy users were asked to rank their reasons for saving energy they put "because it will save the environment" first, followed by "because it will save me money" and then "because other people are doing it".

But examination of people's actual behaviour gave the example of others top billing. No surprise to psychologists, but explicitly ruled out by "the economic way of thinking".

Economists specialise in studying the behaviour of markets. But economic sociologists know a lot about how markets work - that they're social phenomena, influenced by the informal constraints of social norms as well as the formal constraints of public policy - that economists don't.

Economists are great believers in the efficiency-enhancing effects of competition, except on their own patch. Psychologists and sociologists should stop bewailing the excessive influence of economists on public policy and give the economists a run for our money.


Sunday, October 3, 2010


Talk to Festival of Dangerous Ideas, Sydney Opera House
October 3, 2010

Our economy, and pretty much every economy, has been growing for at least the past 200 years. Almost every year the quantity of goods and services being produced has increased. Production has grown faster than the population has grown, meaning that, on average, people’s annual consumption has increased. Our material standard of living has risen by a percent or two every year; we’ve become more affluent.

Almost every economist, business person and politician believes this is the way things should be and must continue to be forever. All those groups are convinced this is what the public wants: ever-increasing affluence. They think any politician who failed to promise economic growth would be pilloried; any government that failed to deliver it would be thrown out. Even the Greens avoid publicly expressing any doubt about the desirability of continuous growth. It’s just too hot. So deep-seated is this belief that it constitutes a bedrock assumption underlying the whole economic debate. Most of my participation in that debate - most of what I write in the Herald - implicitly accepts this conventional wisdom.

But the longer I’ve continued as an economics writer, the more I’ve read and thought about it, the more I’ve come to doubt the conventional wisdom. My rejection of the case for economic growth is spelt out in my new book, The Happy Economist. I have three reasons for breaking with this almost-compulsory belief.

The first is that, contrary to everything economists, business people and politicians assume, our increasing material standard of living over time hasn’t made us any happier. In many countries, annual surveys of the public’s satisfaction with life have stayed essentially unchanged over the decades despite ever-increasing real incomes. It’s true that, at any point in time, people with higher incomes tend to be happier - a little happier - than people with lower incomes. But as everyone’s income rises over time, average happiness is unchanged. Psychologists offer two main explanations for this paradox. One is that we quickly get used to pay rises and promotions and the extra stuff they allow us to buy; we soon take them for granted as our expectations adjust. The other is that what we like is an increase in our relative income, because the income and the flashy stuff it buys give us greater social status. It allows us to engage in conspicuous consumption, demonstrating to the world that we’re not only keeping up with the Joneses but getting ahead of them. That cynical and sexist old American journalist H. L. Menken said that to be wealthy is to have an income that’s at least a hundred dollars a year more than the income of your wife's sister's husband. But no amount of economic growth can make all of us feel socially superior to everyone else. It’s a status race that some people can win only at the expense of those who lose. So it’s socially wasteful.

My second reason for breaking with the belief that the pursuit of unending economic growth is desirable is that the things we do to encourage growth by increasing the economy’s efficiency often generate social costs, many of which go unnoticed. They go unnoticed partly because they’re subjective and hard to measure, but also because, being things that fall outside the economic model - the economic way of looking at things, which has a deep influence on the habitual lines of thought of politicians and business people - we’ve never put much effort into measuring them.

One of the clear lessons of the ‘science of happiness’ confirms something we all know: how much of the satisfaction we derive from life comes from our relationships. Relationships with our spouse and our children, our parents and siblings, our wider relatives, workmates, neighbours and friends. But despite their central importance to our wellbeing, our relationships simply don’t figure in the economists’ model. Which means economists frequently urge on our politicians ‘reforms’ they are sure will add to our affluence, without a moment’s thought about what effect these may have on our relationships and the social dimension of our lives.

A prime example is the effort in recent years to lift the nation’s productivity by deregulating shopping hours and getting rid of penalty payments, which has hastened the demise of the weekend, when most adults and school children weren’t working and so were able to enjoy each other’s company. Only when the economics-types went to the extreme of Work Choices did many people see clearly the social costs that would accompany the economic benefits - the greater affluence - it might have brought about.

My third reason for rejecting the belief that the pursuit of unending economic growth is desirable - or even possible - is the one that would have sprung first to the mind of many of you: the sheer impossibility of exponential growth in the economy - growth at a reasonably steady percentage rate - continuing indefinitely within a finite natural environment. The basic economic model, which hasn’t changed much since the second half of the 19th century, is a model of market transactions: the factors of production - land, labour and capital - change hands for a price and are used to produce goods and services which also change hands for a price. So it’s the model of a market and the only things in the model are things that have a price. Anything that isn’t bought and sold at a price - including clean air, clean water, photosynthesis, native species, natural sinks for carbon dioxide - is external to the model and thus tends to be ignored. So the ‘ecosystem services’ that are utterly essential to the functioning of the economy - indeed, to the survival of humanity - have historically been treated by economists as ‘free goods’ - goods in such abundant supply they don’t carry a price and so can safely be ignored. The natural environment is outside the market, so we can forget it.

Now, it’s important to note that, 100 or 150 years ago, this was a reasonable approximation of the truth. Human activity - most of which is economic activity - obviously caused damage to the local environment, but so limited was that activity relative to the vastness of the natural world that it was reasonable to assume it was having no significant effect on the overall ecosystem. If so, it was reasonable to ignore the natural environment.

Two things have happened since then. One is advances in the natural sciences, which have allowed us to understand the harmful effects of economic activity on the ecosystem that often aren’t visible to the naked eye. The other is the massive growth in economic activity, as a result of the success of capitalism and the technological advance it fosters and exploits. In the past 200 years, the world’s population has increased by a factor of more than six, thanks to advances in public health and medical science. In the same period, the average material standard of living of all the people in the world has also increased by a factor of six, thanks to capitalism and technological advance. Multiply the two together and you see the amount of economic activity - as measured by GDP - has increased 45-fold in the past 200 years since the start of the Industrial Revolution.

And all this in a natural environment that’s grown no bigger. So whereas it was possible say economic activity was too small to have much impact on the global ecosystem, it’s not credible to say it today. We get back to the earlier question of whether economic activity can continue growing exponentially in an ecosystem of fixed size. Clearly it can’t. And this raises a vital question: are we reaching the limits to growth? When ecologists first suggested this in the 1970s, economists laughed at them. But in the time since then the evidence has been stacking up on the scientists’ side. It’s now apparent, for instance, that we’re rapidly approaching the limits to growth in one dimension: greenhouse gas emissions arising from the burning of fossil fuels and the destruction of forests. There could be no clearer example of how economic activity is starting to do great damage to the ecosystem, some of which may soon be irreversible. But there are other areas where the damage we’re doing to the environment is mounting up: all the problems we’re having with water, rivers, farming methods and soil quality; the irreversible decline in fish stocks and the difficulties associated with fish farming; the declining reserves of certain non-renewable resources, and the destruction of species.

My fear that we’re approaching the limits to growth more generally than just in the case of greenhouse gas emissions is greatly increased by the rapid economic development of the two most populous countries in the world, China and India, which between them account for almost 40 per cent of the world’s population. We’re well aware of how hugely resource-intensive is the lifestyle of the 15 or 20 per cent of the world’s population in the developed countries. But now these two big countries have been growing at rapid rates for the past two or three decades. China’s GDP has been doubling every seven years; India’s every eight or nine years. Should this growth continue for another 20 or 30 years, the material standard of living of another 40 per cent of the globe’s population would be approaching that of ours. Question is: do we have enough natural resources available to make this possible? And could the global ecosystem survive such an immense call on its services?

Problem is: we’re in no position to urge the Asians to abandon their efforts to become as materially affluent as we have long been. It wouldn’t be moral for us to try and it wouldn’t have any effect if we did. There are two dimensions to the problem: the continuing growth in the world’s population and the continuing growth in the world’s average material living standards. I believe the only way to try to reconcile the poor countries’ material aspirations with the ecological limits to growth is for the developing countries to focus particularly on limiting their population growth and for developed countries such as Australia to focus on limiting our economic growth. (The rich countries don’t need to worry about population growth because our fertility rates are already below the replacement level of 2.1 babies per female.)

We rich countries need to move to a ‘steady-state’ economy, where there is no growth in our use (‘throughput’) of natural resources, even though there is no restriction on efforts to use all resources (natural, labour and man-made capital resources) with greater economy - that is, on productivity improvement. With a fertility rate below the replacement rate and limited net immigration, this should not involve a significant decline in our present material standard of living.

How would this absence of growth in the use of natural resources be achieved? By the much wider application of cap-and-trade schemes such as the emissions trading scheme proposed for greenhouse gas emissions. This would have the effect of raising the prices of natural resources and everything made from them, but provided the permits for firms to put natural resources into the production chain were auctioned rather than given away, the rise in prices would be equalled by an increase in government revenue. That is, the scheme would be equivalent to, in Tony Abbott’s immortal phrase, ‘a great big new tax on everything’. But the proceeds from the natural resource tax could be used to make equivalent cuts in other taxes, particularly income and consumption taxes. In other words, the tax system would be realigned, so that we increased the tax on environmental ‘bads’ while reducing the tax on environmental ‘goods’, without much change in the level of taxation overall. In the process, we’d be changing relative prices in the economy, discouraging activities that involved heavy use of natural resources while encouraging activities involving little use of natural resources.

At present, developed economies are oriented towards economising on the use of the most expensive (and most heavily taxed) resource, labour, but in the new regime labour would be a lot cheaper and the most expensive resources would be natural resources. So all of capitalism’s economising, productivity-seeking efforts would be redirected towards reducing the use of natural resources. The recycling of natural resources would become more economic, as would the repair rather than replacement of durable consumer goods. We’d still have a market-based, efficiency-oriented economy, but we’d impose a different set of constraints on it. It would be an economy that strove for improved quality, not increased quantity.

My guess is that a lot of people like the sound of an economy that does less damage to the environment, and aren’t particularly perturbed by the thought that their level of consumption wouldn’t keep increasing year after year, but wonder whether a capitalist economy that stopped growing would implode. If we stopped consuming more each year wouldn’t that lead to mass unemployment? They seem to think of the economy as being like riding a bike: if you stop going forward you fall off. Certainly, there are plenty of economists and business people who’d be happy to leave you with that impression.

The strongest argument in favour of economic growth is that we need a bigger economy to generate the extra jobs needed to gainfully employ an ever-growing workforce. But if ever there was a time when we were freed from that imperative it’s now. Like the other developed economies - and China - we’re entering a period where the ageing of the population means, if anything, the demand for labour will exceed its supply. What’s happening in Australia right now is that more than half the growth in our population and labour force is coming from immigration. In other words, our problem at present is the reverse of the one people worry about: to maintain our rate of economic growth we’re having to import workers from other countries. So if we give up our desire for growth in our use of natural resources, we can cut our rate of net migration and have little trouble finding jobs for everyone who wants to work. Should unemployment persist, however, the answer would be to take the gains from increases in workers’ productivity not as real wage rises (to permit higher consumption) but as a shorter working week.

The conventional view among economists, business people and politicians is that economic growth must continue. I believe, on the contrary, that growth in our use of natural resources must stop; that this could be achieved without great technical difficulty, that it wouldn’t involve any loss of human happiness and could lead to improvements in social relationships. The only question is how much further damage to the global ecosystem must occur before we come to accept the need for change. When we do come to accept it, however, it’s to the economists that we’ll turn to work out how it can be done.


Saturday, October 2, 2010

Number's up for the far side of the brain

Try this holiday quick quiz: A bat and a ball cost $1.10 in total. The bat costs $1 more than the ball. How much does the ball cost? If your answer is 10, sorry, you're wrong.

(If the ball costs 10 then the bat costs 90 more than the ball not $1 more.) But don't feel bad. Even the brightest people who read that sentence tend to get the wrong answer.

But don't feel good if, having taken a closer look at the question, you've managed to work out the right answer must be 5. When your brain's in alert mode it's not a difficult sum.

No, the point of this famous experiment is to show that most people answer the question using the wrong hemisphere of their brain.

As Ian McAuley, a lecturer in public sector finance at the University of Canberra, explained in a paper on behavioural economics delivered to the Economic Society's Australian Economic Forum, "sound decision-making often rests not so much on technical skills (anyone can solve the bat and ball experiment with basic algebra or with trial and error) but more on being able to identify the nature of the problem".

That little experiment is an introduction to a relatively new branch of economics, "neuro-economics", which is the application of the techniques of neuroscience - the study of the brain and the nervous system - to economics.

A lot of the pioneering work in neuro-economics has been done by Colin Camerer, a professor of behavioural economics at the California Institute of Technology. McAuley identifies seven significant findings of Camerer and his colleagues.

First, how impatient we are, how much risk we're prepared to run and how generous we are is "domain-specific". We can be impatient in some things, but not in others; willing to take risks in some areas but cautious in others. A person might be highly disciplined about saving, for instance, but quite impulsive about diet.

But we're often unaware of how inconsistent we are. We may think of ourselves as scrupulously honest because we'd never steal and would always return a wallet we found, forgetting that we take home office stationery because this is "not the same thing". That's why it's always hypocritical to accuse others of hypocrisy - all of us are hypocrites.

Second, many of us value money in its own right, not just for what it will buy. People commonly suffer from "money illusion", forgetting to allow for inflation when comparing amounts coming from different years. And most people suffer from "loss aversion" - we hate losing $100 much more than we love gaining $100.

Point is, we suffer those conditions more when actual money is involved than when valuable tokens, such as frequent flyer points, are involved. We behave differently when spending cash to when paying by debit card.

I always convert my credit card reward points into David Jones shopping vouchers. A certain party well known to me uses these vouchers with gay abandon because they're "free". (They may have been easily acquired, but if you regularly buy a fair bit from that shop, this doesn't stop them being as valuable as money.)

A third lesson from neuro-economics is that our brains seem to have different systems for "wanting" and "liking". Wanting is about motivation, whereas liking is about pleasure. Think of the kid who begs and begs his parents to buy a pet - or a guitar - then loses interest in it within a few days. There was a yawning gap between wanting and liking.

All of us have times when we lack the motivation to do something we know we'd enjoy. That's almost the definition of being depressed. It's given rise to a psychological therapy called PAT - pleasant activity training: make a list of the things you enjoy doing and then do them more often. Don't scoff.

Fourth, we also seem to have two mental systems for making decisions. Daniel Kahneman, the psychology professor who won the Nobel prize for inventing behavioural economics, says System 1 is "fast, automatic, effortless, associative and difficult to control or modify".

System 2, on the other hand, is "slower, serial, effortful and deliberately controlled ... also relatively flexible and potentially rule-governed". If, for instance, I sat you down to do a dozen of those bat-and-ball style questions, and provided feedback, you'd quickly learn to read the question carefully before blurting out an answer and would probably produce a pen and paper to help you.

The lesson here is that too many demands on our controlled, cognitive system (System 2) decease its capacity to make good decisions. "Salespeople promoting a product can load our mind with minor but complex technical details in order to distract us from more important considerations," McAuley says.

His fifth lesson from neuro-economics is that we use the left hemisphere of our brain to assess probabilities, but the right side to process logic. This is why we often don't see the logical errors resulting from our "conjunctive bias".

Huh? Say I give you a description of Paula and her circumstances. She may not sound like the sort of person who'd work for an insurance company, but if I tell you she's taken an entry-level office support job in an insurance company to accumulate some money, you'll be more inclined to believe it - even though, logically, it has to be less likely because it's more specific.

Humans are a story-telling animal, so we tend to believe good yarns which have a coherent structure, McAuley says.

Sixth, in situations where we have to decide whether to be trusting or distrusting, the decision we make can be influenced by our hormone cycles. (So not only are we often less than logical, we're not even conscious of why we jump the way we do.)

Finally, even if we strive to avoid stereotyping people according to their race or gender, we automatically develop stereotypes through mental associations of which we have no awareness.

In his fascinating book Blink, Malcolm Gladwell tells how he repeatedly took a test designed to show any racial prejudices, trying to improve his score because it indicated he was prejudiced, even though his mother was Jamaican (and he sports a fabulous afro).

As McAuley observes, this finding has worrying implications for discrimination in employment. It suggests employers' decisions about who to hire can be affected by prejudices without them being aware of it.

Clearly, economists have a lot to learn from the burgeoning study of how our brains work.