Monday, March 12, 2012

Abbott's audit will find all the cuts he won't make

What do punters and economists have in common? Both like to delude themselves budgets can be balanced by relatively painless cuts in government "waste" and "profligacy" without resorting to unspeakable, unthinkable tax increases.

Both like to imagine wasteful and unnecessary government spending is almost infinite and easy to identify and eliminate. Both don't like to admit the obvious: that what's wasteful to my eyes is vitally necessary to the voters and businesses that benefit from it.

In the punters' case this is mere wishful thinking; in the economists' case it stems from the libertarian, anti-government ideology hidden in their neo-classical model.

If you think Julia Gillard will have trouble finding the spending cuts to produce a paper-thin budget surplus next financial year, consider the size of Tony Abbott's fiscal credibility gap.

Actually, no one knows the amount of spending cuts Abbott would have to find to cover the multi-year cost of his many election promises. Pouncing on a figure his finance spokesman, Andrew Robb, once mentioned in passing, the government keeps claiming it's $70 billion. But the opposition has repeatedly refused to confirm that figure, or nominate any other.

It has to be in that mind-boggling vicinity, however, because Abbott went to the last election claiming to have identified $50 billion in savings (even though Treasury and the Finance Department found $11 billion of it didn't stack up).

The reason the figure's so high is not so much Abbott's new spending promises, but his pledge to rescind Labor's carbon tax and its mining tax without also reversing the various tax cuts and spending increases Labor will use the two new taxes to pay for.

That Abbott wants the cheers for promising to abolish the two taxes but not the boos that would go with abolishing the goodies they pay for is the first reason to doubt his status as a macho-man spending slasher.

His reluctance even to put a figure on the size of his savings task - let alone produce a list of his intended cuts - is the second reason.

But on Friday Abbott unveiled the magic answer to his disclosure problem. He calls it a "commission of audit". A long-experienced election spin doctor from the other side calls it "the giant asterisk", which is used to prove the Libs' promises are "fully funded". Follow the * to the fine print and you read: "details to come after election".

Abbott says it's been 16 years since the Commonwealth conducted such a top-to-bottom independent review of public spending from the perspective: "If we were to start with a clean slate, what government spending and what government programs are really required?

"The last such review was the National Commission of Audit chaired by Professor Bob Officer in 1996, following the election of the Howard government," Abbott said.

And we all remember John Howard's first budget, in August 1996, included the most extensive collection of spending cuts and savings in living memory. "As the Howard government demonstrated, prudent fiscal management is in the Coalition's DNA," Abbott said.

He promised to make establishing a commission one of his first acts. What's more, he would require it to report within four months,

so "the operations of government can be improved and streamlined while a new government has maximum political capital to take hard decisions".

Convinced? I'm not. It's become established practice for incoming coalition governments - state and federal - to set up audit commissions headed by economic hard-men. But it's equally established practice for few if any of their (often worthy) recommendations to be acted on.

That was certainly the case with Officer's report to the Howard government. Next to none of its proposals were adopted. In one notable case, Officer recommended that pensions and benefits be indexed to a much less generous version of the consumer price index.

Howard's first budget did the opposite: switching from indexing to the CPI to indexing to the more generous average weekly earnings - though Peter Costello somehow forgot to mention this hugely expensive decision in the budget papers.

No coalition government has come to office with more "political capital" than Barry O'Farrell's. Yet the audit report he commissioned from a former Treasury secretary, Michael Lambert, has been largely ignored. It wasn't "released", but you can find it languishing on the NSW Treasury website.

So much for commissions of audit. All the cost-cutting in Howard's first (and only) horror budget came from a menu put up by the people whose job it always is, Treasury and Finance.

But let's not be too misty-eyed about that budget. Its huge cuts involved a monumental breaking of election promises and Howard's retrospective invention of the core and non-core promise.

Most of the measures involved cuts in areas favoured by Labor (job creation, the ABC, Aborigines and childcare) and they made room for increased spending on Liberal favourites (private health insurance rebate, bigger grants to private schools, payments to stay-at-home mothers).

Not long after the horror budget's announcement, the economy picked up and the budget's "automatic stabilisers" raised tax collections and cut spending on the dole, rapidly returning the budget to a healthy surplus.

As soon as Howard realised the budget was generating surpluses without his help he began reversing the unpopular measures in his first budget. Then, once the resources boom began filling his coffers to overflowing, he began spending heavily.

Howard's need to accommodate some expensive spending promises pales by comparison with Abbott's need to pay for the abolition of two big taxes. He'd either have to break promises wholesale or spend his first term utterly preoccupied with finding spending cuts he was game to make.

Sunday, March 11, 2012


Speech to trainees

Neroli has asked me to talk to you about writing a column, but also to say something about my career path and how I got into journalism, so I’ll start with that.

Thirty-five years ago I decided to take a break from my career as a chartered accountant, spend a year doing something interesting and then resume my accounting career. I spent the time doing the first year of what’s now the BA (Communications) at what’s now UTS. During that year I became the inaugural co-editor of the student newspaper at UTS, then called Newswit. As the year came to an end my journalism lecturer, Terry Mohan, asked me if I’d thought about making a career in journalism rather than accounting. I hadn’t, but on his prompting, I did. I applied to the ABC and the Fin Review and got nowhere, but Terry said he knew the cadet counsellor at the Herald and would get me an interview. It’s obvious to me now that he also put in a good word for me. I got the job and, at what was then considered to be the terribly mature age of 26, as a qualified chartered accountant, I started as a graduate cadet on a fraction of my former salary.

That was in 1974, the year following the first OPEC oil shock which ended the post-war Golden Age, the year our economy fell apart under the Whitlam government and the year newspapers discovered that politics was mainly about economics and decided they’d better start finding people who could write about economics. I was an accountant, not an economist, but the Herald decided that was near enough. I had a fair bit of economics in my commerce degree, of course. I soon realised the Herald was making quite extensive use of my professional qualifications, so I suggested it start paying me more appropriately and after about four months my cadetship was cut short and I was made a graded journalist on the equivalent of what I guess today would be a J4. After less than a year I was sent to Canberra as the Herald’s economics correspondent. After a bit over a year I was brought back to Sydney as economics writer, replacing my mentor, Alan Wood, who had resigned as economics editor. About two years later - that is, about four years after I’d joined the Herald - I was promoted to economics editor. That was 30 years ago this year and I’ve been economics editor ever since. In those days the main thing the economics editor did was write leaders - unsigned editorials - but within two years or so Alan Mitchell - who’s now economics editor of the Fin - took over the economics leaders so I could concentrate on writing columns. Since 1980 I’ve written three columns a week (plus a few odds and ends) - the same columns on the same days and in the same parts of the paper.

I should warn you that journalistic careers today aren’t as meteoric as mine was then. I just had the immense good fortune to be in the right place at the right time. But think of it another way: I’ve been doing almost exactly the same job for the best part of 30 years. I haven’t gone anywhere, haven’t had a promotion in 30 years. My one ambition in journalism was to be the Herald’s economics editor; I achieved that ambition in four years - far sooner than I ever imagined I would - and in all the time since I haven’t been able to think of any job I wanted to do more or any paper I wanted to work for more than what I had. The one big advance I’ve had in that time was when, a long time ago, The Age started running my columns. In terms of combined circulation and quality, newspapers can’t offer any bigger or better platform that the Herald plus The Age.

Now let’s talk about writing a column. It’ll probably be a long time before any of you get invited to write a column - it’s a job reserved for senior journalists - but there’s no reason you can’t aspire to that goal and take an interest in what it involves. I should warn you, however, that only good writers get invited to write columns (or be feature writers).

One question is the subject matter of the column - politics, economics, business, sport, whatever - but another is the style of column. There’s a range of partly overlapping styles to pick from. You could write a controversialist or contrarian column, where you’re always aiming to provoke the reader and say the opposite of what most people think. Paul Sheehan’s column in the Herald would be an example. You could write a populist column, where you sought to reflect back to the reader what most people could be expected to think about any issue. This is the stance taken by radio shock jocks. You could write a partisan column, aimed at gratifying just one side of the ideological divide and annoying the other side. For the Herald, Miranda Devine and Gerard Henderson write such columns on the Right and Adele Horan on the Left. The nature of such columns is such that you soon alienate readers on the other side, who stop reading you. Young journos often wonder why the editor persists with columnists they - the young journos - disapprove of. He does so because he’s trying to cater to the range of political views among his readers. Sensible editors of soft-left papers such as the Herald and The Age will want to run a few right-wing columnists to run cover for all the lefties and avoid alienating too many conservative readers. Another style of column that’s sprung up lately is the Gen Y or Young Things column, of which Lisa Prior’s column is a good example. Newspapers worry that they’re not attracting a new generation of readers, that the paper’s dominated by ageing baby boomers like me, and want to run a few columns that stop the paper looking so old and that express the attitudes of the younger generation. There’s scope for more Young Things columns in papers, which may provide an opening for some of you. But perhaps the best way you could talk someone into giving you a column would be to think up some style or subject matter than had never been tried before. There’s a lot of emphasis on encouraging young journalists to learn the way things are always done; there ought to be more emphasis on encouraging them to think up new ways to do things and things to do we’ve never done. I think that, in a modest way, I did a bit of innovating in my youth - and I don’t think it did my career any harm.

That brings me to my style as a columnist, which is to write informative, explanatory columns. Many readers are interested in the economy, but don’t know much economics and find a lot of what they see on the topic hard to understand or boring. My life’s mission is to explain to readers how the economy, economics and economic management work. From the very beginning I’ve put an enormous amount of effort into trying to offer clear and seemingly simple explanations. I’ve also put a lot of effort into trying to do that in a readable, reasonably entertaining way. I commend the notion of ‘explanation journalism’ to you. It’s not fashionable or widely practiced, but it should be - and, I suspect, will be. The world becomes ever more specialised and complex and the people in it become ever more specialised in their own narrow areas of expertise. So the need for popularisers who can explain important aspects of life to people who’ve specialised in something else keeps growing. As the blizzard of news engulfing us grows ever worse, many people’s approach to information overload will be to find the one commentator they trust and can understand, and ignore the rest. As the internet feeds the public’s craving for ‘breaking news’ - news that’s indiscriminate, undigested and often wrong or misleading - the off-line Herald that lobs up to 24 hours later has to have something quite different to justify its existence, and it strikes me that explanation - explaining how and why whatever happened happened - is the obvious way to go.

That covers the basic question of the style of column you choose. The next big question is who you’re writing the column for. People who paint pictures often claim that they do it only to please themselves, but mere journos don’t enjoy that luxury. They write to impress or please someone else. You can write to impress other journos (including your boss), to impress your contacts if you’re in a specialised round, or to please the readers. I think it’s always an indulgence to write to impress your contacts, but it’s just as bad to write to impress other journalists. That’s wrong, it’s bad journalism - but I suspect a lot of people do it. They write for their mates or to impress their competitors.

I want to suggest to you that, right at the start of your journalistic careers, you adopt as your ethic or credo or raison d’etre the simple motto: Serve the Reader (or listener or viewer). Everyone needs an ideal that’s greater than themselves to give meaning and purpose and even a touch of nobility to what they do, and I can’t think of any better one for a journalist. Stay focused on the reader and it will help you resolve a lot of ethical issues as you go about your work. Sometimes serving the reader involves giving them the light-weight froth and bubble you know they’ll lap up, but often it involves giving them what they should want - and busting a gut to convince them it’s both important and interesting. Let the readers dictate the question - but not the answer to it.

There’s loads more I could say about writing columns, but I want to finish with something that’s much more general to your career as a journalist. In journalism, as in all aspects of life, we often face choices between equally desirable, but conflicting, objectives. We can write about stuff that’s important, or about stuff that’s interesting. We can focus on being commercially successful, or we can focus on maintaining high journalistic standards. We can beat stories up, or we can stick strictly to the facts and be boring. The point I want to make is simple: don’t let yourself think, and don’t let anyone convince you, that you face such either/or, black or white, good or bad choices. When you face a choice between equally desirable but conflicting objectives, you don’t opt for one or the other, you pick some combination of both. In the jargon of economics, you find the best trade-off between the two. And it’s getting to the best available trade-off - where you’re getting a fair bit of both - that’s the hard part and usually requires a lot more effort on your part. You want to write about things that are important - and bust a gut to make them interesting. You want to be commercially successful - to get promotions; to do you bit to help sell papers - and be true to journalistic ideals. You want to avoid beating stories up and avoid being boring. All these combinations are possible - but not without extra effort and ingenuity.

Other points

I don’t just assert my opinion, I try to argue a case, quoting lots of facts and acknowledging both sides of the argument (eg It’s true that X, but Y). Sometimes your role is to remind the reader of why they disagree with you. That’s fine by me. But no matter how judicious you are, you must, as a matter of artistry, come to a conclusion and state an opinion. Only during an election campaign would I limit myself to on the one hand, but on the other.

You have to combine information with entertainment. Well written and an easy, enjoyable read eg Ian Verrender. An informal, chatty style goes down well.

Should inject some of your own personality.

Predictability is the great enemy of all columnists. Try to avoid having obvious, run-of-the-mill opinions on a particular subject. That doesn’t mean always having a contrarian view, tho if you view happens to be opposite to everyone else, that’s a plus. No, you have to have a more thoughtful, better-informed and thus novel view, which you achieve by giving the subject more thought and research than the reader has.

But you also need to avoid being too predictable over time. ‘I stopped reading Paddy because I always knew what he was going to say about any subject’ is the kiss of death for a columnist. Good to have views that are complex - that acknowledge differing shades of grey - and that evolve over time as you learn more from your experience but also your reading.

Criticise from a fixed viewpoint - a fixed model or view of the way the world works or should work - don’t keep changing your vantage point until you’ve got something to criticise. That’s the mark of an amateur.

I sometimes write what you might call primativist columns (like primitive art) - columns intended to connect with the unsophisticated view ordinary readers might adopt towards some development and move them forward, not columns that simply contribute to a debate being conducted at the sophisticated level by my expert contacts. That is, I act as a populariser and a bridge between punter and expert.

My ambitions are horizontal, not vertical. Pyramid or star system.

Readers are more interested in stories about people than about ideas. And they like stories to be stories.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Economy slows though consumers spend

For weeks the Reserve Bank has been telling us the economy is growing at "close to trend", but the indicators we got this week leave little doubt we're travelling at below trend.

Had the Reserve's forecast of growth in real gross domestic product of 2.75 per cent over the year to December been achieved, this would indeed have meant the economy was expanding at close to its medium-term trend rate of growth.

But this week's national accounts showed GDP growing by a weak 0.4 per cent in the December quarter and by just 2.3 per cent over the year to December.

There are always things you can quibble with in the Bureau of Statistics' initial estimate of growth for a particular quarter. It's always rough and ready, subject to revision as more reliable figures come to hand.

But it's hard to quibble this time because the story of weakness the national accounts are telling was confirmed by the independently estimated labour-force figures published the next day.

These February figures showed about 3000 jobs a month were created in the past six months, with the rate of unemployment essentially steady at 5.2 per cent, just a bit above the rate the econocrats regard as the lowest sustainable rate we can achieve.

Something else the Reserve has been saying is that the economy's being hit by two huge, but opposing, external shocks: the expansionary effect of our high export prices and all the spending being undertaken to expand our mining capacity, but also the contractionary effect of the high exchange rate, which has reduced the international price competitiveness of our export and import-competing industries.

The economy's below-trend growth suggests the contractionary force may be gaining an edge over the expansionary force. This increases the likelihood of another cut in the official interest rate before too long.

It's important to recognise, however, just why the reported weakness in the March quarter occurred. The greatest single reason was the utterly unexpected fall of 1 per cent in business investment spending. This is actually good news in the sense it's a blip that won't be repeated this quarter. We know the mining construction boom has a lot further to run.

The greatest (but longstanding) area of weakness in the economy is spending on the construction of new homes. It fell 3.8 per cent in the quarter and 1.8 per cent over the year to December. And doesn't look like recovering any time soon.

If you combine the fall in home building with the (temporary) fall in business investment you find the total fall in private sector investment spending subtracted 0.4 percentage points from the overall growth in GDP for the quarter.

If you listen to the retail industry's propaganda you could be forgiven for thinking weak consumer spending must be a big part of the story. Even the Treasurer, Wayne Swan, is still banging on about the "cautious consumer".

But though it's true the growth in consumer spending of 0.5 per cent is on the weak side, consumption nonetheless contributed 0.3 percentage points to overall growth in the December quarter.

And over the year to December consumption grew by 3.5 per cent - that's definitely "close to trend". If consumers really were being cautious we'd be seeing this in a rising rate of household saving. In truth, the rate dropped a little in the December quarter.

But when you look through the quarter-to-quarter volatility, it's clear the saving rate has essentially been steady at about 9.5 per cent of household disposable income for the past 18 months. That's not cautious, it's prudent.

To say consumers are cautious implies that when their confidence returns they'll start spending more strongly. That's a misreading of the situation. Their spending is already growing at trend. They've got their rate of saving back to a more prudent level after some decades of loading up with debt, and from now on their spending is likely to grow at the same rate as their income grows.

What's wrong with that? Nothing. If it leaves the retailers short of customers, that's their problem. Don't be conned: in a market economy, the producers are meant to serve the consumers, not vice versa. If the retailers are selling stuff people don't want to buy - or at prices people don't want to pay - the retailers have to adjust to fit.

We don't have a problem with weak consumer spending; the retailers, who account for less than a third of all consumer spending, have a problem because consumers have switched their preferences from goods to services.

To bang on about the "cautious consumer" implies the retailers' - and, more particularly, the department stores' - problem is cyclical (it will go away as soon as consumers cheer up) rather than structural (it will last until the businesses involved do something to solve it).

A build-up in business inventories contributed 0.3 percentage points to the overall growth in GDP during the quarter. This is a temporary contribution that could be reversed in the present quarter, but Dr Chris Caton, of BT Funds Management, offers the reassuring calculation that the ratio of non-farm inventory to sales was coming off a record low.

For once, the external sector - exports minus imports - made a positive contribution to overall GDP growth during the quarter, of 0.3 percentage points. That was because the volume of exports rose 2.2 per cent, whereas the volume of imports rose only 0.7 per cent.

If you look at the figures over the full year, however, you see a very different story: export volumes in this December quarter were up only 0.8 per cent on December quarter 2010, whereas import volumes were up 12.8 per cent, causing the external sector to subtract 2.6 percentage points from through-the-year growth.

Finally, a key development that's not directly reflected in the GDP figures, but will have a dampening effect on them in coming quarters: for the first time since the global financial crisis our terms of trade have deteriorated - by 4.7 per cent in the quarter - as import prices rose and, more particularly, export prices fell.

So whereas the volume of the nation's production of goods and services (real GDP) rose 0.4 per cent, our real gross domestic income fell 0.6 per cent.

It's production that generates jobs, but the nation's real income declined because the terms on which we trade with the rest of the world deteriorated.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Don't let on, but property crime is down

Wow. Did you see the latest figures for the falling crime rate? Pretty good, eh? What's that, you didn't see the figures? No one told you, eh.

It's true. Despite the best efforts of the federal Minister for Justice, Jason Clare, on Sunday, the Australian Institute of Criminology's latest compilation of statistics got remarkably little attention.

Why? One reason could be that it's old news. Levels of property crime have been falling for a decade. You've long known that, right? If you have, congratulations: you're much better informed than most.

A survey conducted in NSW in 2007 found that more than 80 per cent of respondents believed property crime had been increasing or had remained stable over the past five years. Only 11 per cent said it had been falling.

So why were the media so uninterested? Because they didn't think you'd be interested. They presumed you'd prefer to have your existing beliefs reinforced rather than up-ended. But I prefer to write for the minority who want to be informed rather than humoured.

The figures show falls in all the main categories of recorded property crime - burglary, motor vehicle theft and "other theft" (pickpocketing, bag snatching and shoplifting) - across Australia in 2010.

They also show falls in all the main categories of recorded violent crime - homicide, assault, sexual assault and robbery - other than kidnapping/abduction in 2010. For the latter, the number of cases rose by 39 to 603.

But levels of crime can rise or fall from one year to the next without that proving much. What really matters is whether the longer-run trend is up or down.

The clearest evidence is of a long-run decline in recorded property crime. The number of burglaries reached a national peak of almost 440,000 in 2000, and has since halved to fewer than 220,000 a year.

The number of motor vehicle thefts reached a peak of 140,000 a year in 2001, and has now fallen by 61 per cent to below 55,000 a year. Other thefts peaked at 700,000 a year in 2001, but are now down by a third to almost 460,000 a year.

If you allow for our rising population - up by a per cent or so a year - the decline in the rate of property crime is even greater.

So, as I say, it's clear property crime has been declining for a decade. For violent crime the trend isn't as clear - except for robbery, the property crime with violence. Robberies reached a peak of almost 27,000 in 2001, but have since fallen by 44 per cent to below 15,000 a year.

It's hard to detect any trend in the level of kidnapping and abduction, though the rate is very low: 2.7 incidents per 100,000 population. You wouldn't expect to see a trend in homicide, the rate of which is also very low: 1.2 incidents per 100,000 population. But after being well above 300 a year until 2006, it's been below 300 a year since then.

No trend in the number of assaults is visible to the naked eye, but the rate of assault seemed to peak in 2007 at 840 victims per 100,000, and is now down to 770 per 100,000. If this trend is confirmed, it will be because police have begun targeting the worst-offending licensed premises.

It's estimated only about half of all sexual assaults are reported to police. The number of recorded sexual assaults rose markedly between 1996 and 2008 to 20,000 victims a year - perhaps because of growing willingness to report offences - but though the arithmetic says the rate of sexual assault has been falling modestly since 2006, I'm not sure I believe it.

So why has property crime been falling? When the decline was first observed in the early noughties, much of it was attributed to a shortage of heroin, which led to a decline in its use and, hence, a fall in thefts by heroin addicts.

That seems true enough, but though heroin prices and purity stabilised in about 2004, the fall in property crime continued. Obviously, there must be more to it.

Most criminologists believe the amount of property crime is linked to the state of the economy. Unemployment has fallen and average weekly earnings have risen in real terms since the start of the noughties, so this may well help explain why people have been less inclined to take stuff that doesn't belong to them.

Another part of the explanation for which there's solid evidence is an increase in the proportion of property offenders who are imprisoned. The story here is not so much that tougher sentences are a greater deterrent, but that the more time you spend behind bars, the less time you're able to practise your nefarious profession.

And there are other possible explanations which, though untested by researchers, seem plausible. One is increased police effectiveness. They've been pushing hard on repeat offenders and also shifting their resources to crime hot spots at "hot" times of the day or night. Their crackdown on pubs and clubs with the worst records of assaults is a case in point.

A further possibility is that success breeds success. The more the incidence of crime falls while the number of coppers remains stable or rises, the easier it ought to be to catch offenders. As for motor vehicle theft, it's likely improvements have made cars harder to pinch than they used to be.

I finish with an appeal: you may prefer to know the truth, but keep it to yourself. Please don't spoil the fun of those who like to imagine they could be swept away at any moment by the rising tide of crime.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Want better productivity? Try better education

The American con man Bernie Cornfeld's sales pitch was, "Do you sincerely want to be rich?" That is, are you prepared to pay a price to be rich? The question for Australia's business people is, do you sincerely want to raise our productivity?

It seems just about all our senior business people have taken to preaching sermons about the need to improve our flagging rate of productivity improvement, but I'm not sure how sincere they are.

Why not? Because the specific changes they say they want sound like a child's wishlist for Santa: industrial relations "reform" to reduce their workers' bargaining power, and tax "reform" to reduce the amount of tax they pay.

If chief executives were more sincere in their thirst for higher productivity - as opposed to things the government could do to make their jobs easier - they might have asked what the empirical research tells us about which changes would do most to enhance our productivity.

Had they done that, they would have found the biggest gains come from adding to human capital - that is, to the education and training of the workforce.

The productivity debate has been so superficial and self-serving you could be forgiven for not knowing that. Among all the research, consider the findings of Professor Eric Hanushek, of the Hoover institution at Stanford University, and Professor Ludger Woessmann, of the University of Munich. Because human capital is hard to measure, economists commonly fall back on the "proxy" (stand-in) of the workforce's average number of years of schooling or higher education.

The researchers collected data for 50 countries over the 40 years to 2000. They found that each additional year of schooling raised a country's average annual rate of growth in gross domestic product per person by 0.37 percentage points.

That's a significant increase. And it's consistent with the findings of many other researchers.

But Hanushek and Woessmann wanted to find a more accurate measure of human capital than just level of educational attainment.

So they constructed for each country an index of their students' performance in maths and science tests, such as those conducted by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development in its program for international student assessment (PISA). Using this measure not of years of schooling but of cognitive skills, they found countries with higher test scores experienced far higher rates of growth in income per person (the very thing productivity improvement increases).

They found that if one country's test-score performance was 0.5 standard deviations (don't ask) higher than another country's in the 1960s, the first country's annual rate of economic growth per person was, on average, a full percentage point higher than the second country's over the following 40 years.

They also found, once the effect of higher levels of cognitive skills was taken into account, the significance of levels of school attainment dwindled to nothing.

So, the authors deduce, a country benefits from asking its students to remain at school for longer only if the students are learning something as a consequence.

"Higher levels of cognitive skill appear to play a major role in explaining international differences in economic growth," they say.

But could there be other factors helping to explain a country's higher rate of growth? Different researchers have identified two other important factors: the security of the country's property rights and its openness to international trade.

When Hanushek and Woessmann took those two factors into account, the positive effect of cognitive skills on average annual economic growth was reduced to 0.63 percentage points per half a standard deviation of test scores.

"This is the best available estimate of the size of the impact of cognitive skills on economic growth," they say. "Our commonsense understanding of the importance of good schools can thus be documented quite precisely.

"A highly skilled workforce can raise economic growth by about two-thirds of a percentage point every year."

Clearly, the professed searchers after higher productivity ought to be taking a lot more interest in what's happening in our schools than they are. One question they could be asking is whether it's having a few "rocket scientists" at the very top of the skills distribution that spur economic growth or if it's "education for all" that's needed.

When the researchers estimated the importance, they found each to be separately important to economic growth.

"That is, both the performance of countries in ensuring that almost all students achieve at basic levels and their performance in producing high-achieving students seem to matter," they say.

Just why this should be so isn't hard to imagine. Even if a country is simply making use of new technologies developed elsewhere - as we do - the more workers who have at least basic skills, the easier it will be for them to make use of those new technologies.

On the other hand, some workers need a high level of skills so they can help adapt the new technologies to their countries' particular situation.

Of course, it's not just the broad community that benefits from the accretion of human capital. As Dr Ben Jensen, of the Grattan Institute, has pointed out, improving the effectiveness of teaching - which is what increases students' cognitive skills - has substantial benefits for the students themselves.

"Young people who stay in school and invest in further education can expect to earn an additional 8 to 10 per cent per year for each additional year of education they undertake," he says.

But while we're focusing on the acquisition of education as a means to raise our material standard of living, let's not forget that education is also an end in itself. It allows us to lead broader, more inquiring, more comprehending lives.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

All work creates wealth

You'll find this hard to believe but not every reader of my columns agrees with everything I write. And when I wrote recently that jobs lost in manufacturing would be offset by jobs gained in other parts of the economy, one reader emailed to say he could see a gaping hole in my argument.

My point was that the high dollar wouldn't destroy jobs so much as "displace" them: shift them from contracting industries to expanding industries.

This would happen because the high dollar was the market economy's way of helping us restructure our economy to take full advantage of the marked and long-lasting change in what the rest of the world wants to buy from us at higher prices (primary commodities) and sell to us at lower prices (manufactures and tradeable services such as tourism).

So employment would fall in manufacturing and tourism but would increase in mining and construction, as well as in the services sector.

(This is not to imply that all the workers losing their jobs in manufacturing would move simply and easily to jobs in the expanding industries. Some may encounter difficulty making the switch, which is why governments should help them retrain and relocate. Some older workers will never make the transition. And some of the new jobs will go to people from outside manufacturing.)

People are often vague about which industries are included in the services sector, so I offered some examples of those likely to expand: "health, education and training, public administration, the science professions and arts and recreation".

Ah, said my reader, gotcha. "Surely the funding for many of the job types identified comes from the public purse, that money being generated by taxes on employees, companies, profits from investment in local manufacturing and [from] the businesses, secondary and tertiary, generated from manufacturing," he wrote.

"Where is your viable break-even point here between job creation and taxes/wealth creation sufficient to create those [public sector] jobs?"

See his argument? You have manufacturing and the rest of the private sector it supports, which creates the wealth and the jobs and pays the taxes governments use to finance all their activities, creating public sector jobs in the process.

If you allow the manufacturing sector to contract, you erode the economy's wealth- and job-creating capacity, thus reducing the tax governments are able to collect and use to create jobs in the public sector.

So there must be some point below which you can't allow the private sector to fall, otherwise you also destroy jobs in the public sector.

Convinced? I'm not. The reader's riposte is built on two related misconceptions.

One is that the private sector is productive - it generates the wealth and creates the jobs - whereas the public sector is essentially parasitic: it appropriates some of the private sector-created wealth via taxation and redistributes it to presumably worthy causes, employing public servants in the process.

Sorry, not true. What is this "wealth" that's being created? It's more accurately described as income: the income that's generated when employers and employees produce all the goods and services that make up the nation's gross domestic product.

So "wealth" is generated when people go to work and their employer provides them with the equipment and direction to do what they do. The workers receive income in return for their work. They pay some of that income in direct and indirect taxes but most of the rest they spend on the goods and services they need, which generates continuing demand for all the stuff that they and other workers have produced.

If you think this description of the economy is circular, you're right: supply (production) creates demand (spending) and demand leads to supply. Point is, there's no important distinction between goods and services produced in the private sector and those produced in the public sector. Nor between goods and services paid for in the marketplace and those paid for via taxation.

To imagine otherwise is to imply that someone working on a production line producing cans of beans is productive (generating "wealth") but doctors and nurses who fix broken legs and save lives, or people who teach our children to read and write, are unproductive (generating no wealth).

Many doctors are self-employed and there are plenty of private hospitals; many teachers work for non-government schools. We're being asked to believe that those in the private sector are productive wealth-generators but those in the public sector are unproductive wealth-appropriators.

We could, if we wished, leave the whole of healthcare and education to the private sector. Would that make the economy vastly more productive? Hardly. (What it would mean is a lot of people being unable to afford education or healthcare.)

The reader's argument also implies that only people working in the private sector pay tax and contribute to the cost of publicly-provided goods and services. Rubbish. Everyone who works is productive and everyone who earns and spends income pays taxes, regardless of their sector.

The second misconception is that economies are built like the pharaohs built the pyramids: one level on top of another. You start with a base of primary industry (farming and mining), then put secondary industry (manufacturing) on top of that and tertiary industry (services) on top of that.

Take away one of the lower building blocks and you lose the basis on which to build the levels above it. If you had no manufacturing sector, for instance, how could you have a services sector?

If you were building a closed economy - one that didn't trade with other economies - that's the way you'd do it. But, like all economies, we have considerable trade with other countries. Why? Because it makes us wealthier.

We specialise in producing things we're relatively good at, they specialise in producing what they're relatively good at, and we trade. That leaves both sides better off and means you don't have to do everything to have a viable economy. Indeed, the more you insist on doing things you're not good at, the more you forgo wealth.

These days, the rich countries of Europe have little mining and waste taxes propping up their inefficient farmers when they could buy from us more cheaply. Our natural endowment (plus 200 years of experience) makes us highly-efficient producers of rural and mineral commodities, which are now in great demand as poor countries develop. The workforces in the rich countries are too highly skilled and expensive for them to be used to make things in factories, so manufacturing in these countries is shifting to Asia.

So where are the jobs being created in the rich economies? In the services sector. The range of simple to sophisticated services we can perform for other people in our country - or for foreigners - is infinite.

And everyone with a job that involves "doing things" is generating wealth.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Education is mainly about teachers

Thank goodness for that. David Gonski and his committee have produced a comprehensive review of school funding without setting off a bitter debate between the proponents of government and non-government schools.

They've done it by focusing not on how the lolly is divided between the rival systems but on the needs of students, with greater funding to be shifted over time to those suffering disadvantage.

Their report has been warmly welcomed by most groups, though not so their request for governments to spend an extra $5 billion a year. And just how willing the states will be to rejig their spending according to the committee's recommendations remains to be seen.

Some have suggested the report, worthy though it is, will be quietly pigeonholed, but I'm not so pessimistic. Just as Ken Henry produced his report on tax reform not for immediate implementation but to provide a road map for change over the coming decades, so the Gonski report will provide a guide to policy-makers on the right - and wrong - direction in which to head.

And now we have that guide to how the funds should be directed, perhaps we can move on to the question of what we most need to do to improve the performance of our schools.

Have you noticed how often our furious debates about education and health are debates about how they should be funded rather than what we should be doing with the money? We seem to be extraordinarily preoccupied with who gets what rather than what they do with it.

Why this obsession with money? Partly because allocating funds is the main thing the federal government does. While the states run the schools and the hospitals, it's the feds who raise most of the tax revenue and decide how it's divided.

But also because all the interest groups involved - the doctors, teachers, health funds and private schools, not to mention the premiers - have an obvious motive to push for a bigger slice. These contesting groups use the media to enlist the support of the electorate, and you and I end up arguing endlessly about funding rather than the substance of education and health.

One attraction of the study that Dr Ben Jensen has been doing on education for the Grattan Institute is its focus on what we could be doing better.

As measured by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development's regular testing of the performance of 15-year-olds at reading, maths and science under its program for international student assessment (PISA), Australia is doing well. We don't do as well as Finland and Japan, but we're consistently better than the Americans, British, Germans and French and about the same as the Canadians.

As more Asian countries are added to the comparisons, however, we're slipping down the rankings. We also have a worryingly wide gap between the performance of our best and poorest students.

So we shouldn't be resting on our laurels. What can we do to improve our schools' performance? Well, it's not simply a matter of spending more money.

Jensen says most studies show more effective teachers are the key to producing higher performing students. "Conservative estimates suggest that students with a highly effective teacher learn twice as much as students with a less effective teacher," he says.

"Teachers are the most important resource in Australian schools. Differences in teacher effectiveness account for a large proportion of differences in student outcomes - far larger than differences between schools. In fact, outside of family background, teacher effectiveness is the largest factor influencing student outcomes."

Jensen says there are five main mechanisms to improve teacher effectiveness: improving the quality of applicants to the teaching profession; improving the quality of teachers' initial education and training; appraising and providing feedback to improve teachers once they're working in the profession; recognising and rewarding effective teachers; and moving on ineffective teachers who've been unable to increase their effectiveness through improvement programs.

His greatest interest is in appraisal and feedback. "Systems of teacher appraisal and feedback that are directly linked to improved student performance can increase teacher effectiveness by as much as 20 to 30 per cent," he says. Such an improvement would lift the performance of Australia's students to the best in the world.

Jensen says our present systems of teacher appraisal and feedback are broken. This is not to attack teachers, which would be both unfair and counterproductive. On the contrary, it acknowledges the central importance of the work of individual teachers and argues we should be investing in their greater effectiveness.

Indeed, no one understands the inadequacy of the present arrangements better than teachers themselves. A survey finds 63 per cent of them say appraisals of their work are done purely to meet administrative requirements. More than 90 per cent say the best teachers don't receive the most recognition and reward, and 71 per cent say poor-performing teachers in their school won't be dismissed.

"Instead, assessment and feedback are largely tick-a-box exercises not linked to better classroom teaching, teacher development or improved student results," Jensen says.

He proposes a new system of teacher appraisal and feedback that avoids a centralised approach. "Instead, schools should have the responsibility and autonomy to appraise and provide feedback to their own teachers."

Appraisal should be based on a "balanced scorecard" that recognises all aspects of a teacher's role. It thus shouldn't rely solely on students' performance in national competency tests but should include such things as teachers observing and learning from other teachers, direct observation in the classroom by more experienced teachers, and surveys of students and parents.

Such an approach would require a culture change in many schools, but it offers huge benefits for relatively little cost.

Monday, February 27, 2012

How manufacturing will survive the high dollar

Beware of dire predictions that manufacturers will be wiped out by the strong dollar unless they're propped up by the government. All our experience says it won't happen.

Manufacturers and their (highly vociferous) unions gave us the same warning in the 1980s when the Hawke-Keating government decided to take away their protection from imports. It didn't happen - the industry adapted, and survived to complain another day.

Though manufacturing's share of the nation's total output (gross domestic product) and total employment has been declining for the best part of 40 years, little of this is due to the removal of protection.

Most is explained by the services sector growing at a faster rate than manufacturing grew. On the employment side, it's also explained by computerisation and other technological advances raising the productivity of labour in manufacturing, so that the same quantity of output could be produced using fewer workers. (Agriculture and mining have the same characteristic, in contrast to the labour-intensive services sector.)

So it's only in recent years that the absolute quantity of Australia's manufacturing production has begun to decline. Manufacturing survived the removal of protection by rationalising its production, becoming leaner and fitter.

And probably by hastening its introduction of the latest labour-saving technology. When employers get their unions to pressure Labor governments to provide protection (or, these days, direct government grants), the workers imagine they're protecting jobs.

In truth, all they can protect is profits. That's certainly the history of what happened in manufacturing during protection's last hurrah in the decade before 1987.

One way manufacturing responded to the removal of protection was by getting into the business of export. That was utterly contrary to the prediction that without protection against imports it would cease to exist.

When vested interests make such claims they're playing on the public's lack of knowledge of economic history, lack of imagination and lack feel for how market forces work.

In a market economy, nothing stays static. Industries could just sit there doing nothing until their last customer leaves, but they don't. They take evasive action. They cut their coat according to their cloth. More formally, they adapt to their changed economic environment.

Individual firms may bite the dust, but the industry regroups and survives. Consider the advent of television from the mid-1950s. Many people imagined it would spell the end of radio.

Instead, radio changed its programming markedly and survived. It went from being something people sat in the living room listening to, to something they carried around with them, particularly in their cars. They listened to it while they were doing something else: driving somewhere or cooking the dinner.

Many people imagined television would spell the end of the cinema. It's true most of the cinemas in every suburb were converted to supermarkets, but then along came the video cassette recorder and video lending shops.

Finally, someone invented the multiplex cinema, a classic example of exploiting economies of scope (producing more than one product at the same plant). Today a wider range of movies would be showing in any city than when suburban cinemas were at their height.

So what can we say about how manufacturers may adapt to a prolonged high exchange rate? Well, one possibility is that they simply move their production abroad to where labour is dirt cheap.

You have to suffer all the illusions and delusions of protectionism and mercantilism to think that would be a terrible thing; that most of the displaced workers wouldn't be able to get work elsewhere in the economy. But, in any case, I doubt if nearly as much of it will happen as is feared.

So what else? People say the high dollar reduces the international competitiveness of our manufacturers. Actually, it reduces their price competitiveness. So one way to respond is to search for ways to reduce their production costs - by becoming yet more capital intensive (raising the productivity of their labour) or finding other efficiency improvements.

Another response is to find non-price ways to stay competitive. A reputation for high quality can justify pricing at a premium. Indeed, if you're smart you can get into the space where the causation is reversed: people take your higher price as a sign of higher quality (utterly contrary to the most basic assumptions of conventional economics).

You can use superior design to justify charging higher prices. You can beat the foreign mass-producers by being more carefully and quickly attuned to changing fashion. Or you can be more willing and adept at customising your product. If all else fails you can get yourself a reputation for giving good after-sales service.

This is an old Australian angle, but still relevant: look for niches to occupy. One advantage of our smallness relative to the rest of the world is that what seems too small to the big boys seems quite big to us.

If manufacturers are to get their cut from the much-foreshadowed blossoming of the Asian middle class, it's pretty safe to be in niche areas that are too small for our bigger rivals to worry about, or that somehow exploit the novelty of our Australianness.

I think this time it is quite likely manufacturing's output will decline. But it's even more likely we'll retain a manufacturing sector that's leaner and fitter than it is today.

If it does survive and prosper it will be because manufacturers and their employees find ways to raise their productivity and respond with a wave of innovation. There's nothing like having your back to the wall to call forth such an uncharacteristic response.

And it's a safe bet those firms that do best in adapting will be those that do best at enlisting the engagement and initiative of their employees.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Jobs aren't lost, just moved

As the media keep reminding us, the many pressures for change in the structure of our economy are causing some workers to be thrown out of their jobs. But this is unlikely to cause a decline in overall employment. Huh?

The structure of the economy - as represented by the relative sizes of the various industry sectors - is always changing. Normally the rate of change is so slow we don't notice it. At present, however, the pace of change is much quicker than usual.

These pressures are coming from outside Australia. Many are the consequence of the rapid transition of various populous economies from developing to developed. Some of these "emerging" economies are in South America; most are in Asia.

One big consequence of this development is that much of the manufacturing undertaken in the world is moving from the developed to the emerging economies, where labour is more abundant and thus cheaper. This is hitting manufacturing in all the developed economies, not just us. (They're not enjoying it, either.)

Because the emerging economies' immaturity means they're growing a lot faster than the rich economies, another consequence is that most of the growth in the global economy comes from them. That's been true for years; it will be even truer in the coming decade because the North Atlantic economies damaged their prospects so badly with their financial crisis.

A further consequence is that the cycle in the world prices of primary commodities - food and fibre, minerals and energy - is now driven more by the emerging economies than the rich economies.

And the different needs of the emerging economies - for energy, steel and high-protein foodstuffs - have produced a long-lasting change in the structure of world trade, where the demand for primary commodities is growing faster than the demand for manufactures, meaning the prices and volumes of commodities are growing faster than those for manufacturing.

Because the emerging economies have much more economic development to do, and because there's a pipeline of countries coming behind China and India, the increased global demand for commodities relative manufactures is likely to last for many moons.

This is bad news for the real incomes of most of the developed countries (which tend to import most of the primary commodities they use, while gaining most of their export income from manufactures), but great news for us, since our imports are mainly manufactures and our exports mainly commodities.

Of course, both the big advanced economies and we face painful structural change as a consequence of this shift in the structure of the global economy, but I know whose shoes I'd prefer to be in.

In Australia we have to shift resources of labour and capital to the expanding mining (and agricultural) sectors from the declining manufacturing sector and elsewhere in the economy.

The improvement in our trading fortunes relative to the rest of the world is reflected in our higher exchange rate - which is thus likely to stay high for the foreseeable future. To many people, this sounds like terribly bad luck (when they're not thinking about their next overseas holiday, that is).

To economists, however, it's all part of the same deal. Our trading position has improved, so our exchange rate has appreciated to help us bring about the change in the structure of our industries needed to fully exploit that improved position.

In other words, by making it harder for our manufacturers (and tourist operators and education providers) to compete on international markets, the higher dollar is helping shift resources out of manufacturing and into mining and elsewhere.

Of course, the era of the emerging economies isn't the only factor forcing change on our industries. The other big one is the continuing information technology revolution, which is presenting considerable challenges to our established media companies, the book industry, retailers and shopping-centre owners.

I started by asserting that the job losses being caused by structural change were unlikely to lead to a fall in employment overall. Why not? Because what creates jobs is the spending of income.

Starting with the mining boom, it's bringing a lot of additional income to Australia (first from higher prices per tonne, then from a lot more tonnes). But, people object, mining is highly capital intensive so it doesn't employ many people. It may account for 10 per cent of the value of all we produce (gross domestic product), but it accounts for only 2 per cent of total employment.

True, but what happens to all the income the miners earn that isn't paid to their employees? Some of it goes to foreign owners and is spent abroad, but the rest goes to local shareholders and local suppliers to the industry, with Australian governments also getting a big chunk (as they should).

When the local shareholders, suppliers and governments spend that income, jobs are created. Where? At present, a lot are in the construction industry but, more generally, all round the services sector.

How can I be so sure? Because the services sector (including construction) accounts for about 85 per cent of all employment and because it has accounted for all the net jobs growth for the past 40 years.

Next, the advent of new technology often prompts employers to retrench staff as machines replace workers. People imagine these jobs have been "lost", but economists know they've merely been "displaced" (moved).

Why? Because when companies make changes that improve their productivity (output per worker), they raise the economy's real income. The company shares the benefit from its higher productivity among its remaining workers, its shareholders and the taxman, but often competition forces the benefit through to its customers in the form of prices that are lower than they otherwise would be. And lower prices mean higher real incomes.

The point is that as this income is spent around the economy it creates jobs around the economy. Where? Somewhere in the services sector.

Ah, you say, but are all the workers "displaced" from manufacturing able to take up the new jobs in mining or the services sector? A lot more are than you imagine will be able to, but some will have a struggle and some individuals won't make it.

That's why the smart response from governments to pressures for structural change is not to help companies carry on as if nothing in the world had changed, but to help individual workers adjust to that change with help to retrain and relocate.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Yes, there is more to life than happiness

Fed up with all the wrangling and speculation over who should be leading the Labor Party? Want something more substantial? How about the meaning of life - that weighty enough for you?

The question has been an object of contemplation by clerics and philosophers throughout the ages, of course, but in more recent times many psychologists and even a few economists have taken to studying it.

Psychologists' traditional focus has been on the abnormal - on relieving misery, helping people suffering from depression, alcoholism, schizophrenia, trauma and the like.

But for at least the past 30 years some psychologists and economists have been researching the nature of happiness. A spate of books has been written on the subject (including one by yours truly).

Then, about a decade ago, there sprang up among psychologists a new school known as "positive psychology", dedicated to helping the normal live more satisfying lives. The practitioners of positive psychology seemed to take over the happiness business.

The person most responsible for starting the positive psychology movement is Professor Martin Seligman, of the University of Pennsylvania. Seligman regularly works in Australia, and will speak at the Happiness and its Causes conference in Sydney next week, subtitled Life, Death and Everything. But is happiness all there is to the meaning of life? A lot of people doubt it. The spate of happiness books is now prompting a flow of anti-happiness books - including one by our own (eminently sensible) Hugh Mackay.

I think a lot of the problem lies with the word happiness. It's an eye-catching, emotive word beloved of book publishers and headline writers. But what does it actually mean? Different things to different people.

The critics interpret it very narrowly, as being perpetually in an upbeat, ho-ho-ho mood. And perhaps being a Pollyanna - looking on the bright side of everything and refusing to acknowledge problems.

If that's what happiness means it deserves to be ripped into by the critics. It's neither possible nor desirable to live like Dr Pangloss, and you could do yourself a mischief trying to.

Seligman points out that such an ideal favours those with an extroverted personality, disadvantaging the half of the population who are less expressive and more introverted.

Mackay argues that nature equipped us with the capacity to feel negative emotions - pain, sorrow, fear, even anger - for good reason.

But I've always used happiness to mean something much broader and more substantial. The seeking of pleasure and avoidance of pain is mere hedonism, and that's life without meaning.

Most of the academic study of happiness relies on surveys that ask people to rate their satisfaction with their lives on a scale of, say, one to 10. That's a bit broader, but recent research suggests people's answers to such a question are too greatly influenced by how they were feeling at the time they were asked.

Seligman has been giving the question much thought and the result of his cogitation is outlined in his latest book, Flourish. His objective is to guide the positive psychology movement away from happiness as its goal to something more encompassing, which he dubs "wellbeing".

Wellbeing, he argues, has five elements, of which only the first, "positive emotion", covers the narrow conception of happiness. He calls this "the pleasant life".

His second element is "engagement". Living the engaged life means regularly being in a state of "flow", where you become so absorbed in what you're doing you lose sense of time and consciousness of yourself.

It can involve your work or a hobby, but it requires an equal match between the challenge you face and your ability to meet that challenge. People in a state of flow realise they were happy only in retrospect.

Seligman's third element is "meaning". The meaningful life involves "belonging to and serving something that you believe is bigger than the self," he says. This is where other people first enter the picture.

"Today it is accepted without dissent that connections to other people and relationships are what give meaning and purpose to life," he says.

The fourth element is "accomplishment" - something Seligman added to his list only after a student told him his theory of what humans choose had a huge hole in it: "It omits success and mastery. People try to achieve just for winning's own sake."

Well, that's certainly the way it appears, though a leading economist researcher in this area, Andrew Oswald, of the University of Warwick, would argue that people want to win not for its own sake, but to increase their social status.

Billionaires scrabbling for their next billion aren't motivated by greed. They just want to demonstrate - to themselves and others - how good they are at playing the money game.

Anyway, Seligman now accepts that people pursue success, accomplishment, winning, achievement and mastery for their own sakes. He stresses, however, that his objective is to describe what people actually do to get wellbeing.

"Adding this element in no way endorses the achieving life or suggests that you should divert your own path to wellbeing to win more often," he says.

His fifth element is "positive relationships". When another founder of positive psychology was asked to say what it was about in two words or fewer, he replied "other people". Seligman says "other people are the best antidote to the downs of life and the single most reliable up".

No doubt, but that sounds a bit self-centred. For relationships to be "positive" they have to be two-way; you have to give as well as get. Whatever you call it - happiness, wellbeing, flourishing - it won't work if it doesn't have relationships at its core.

That's what we keep forgetting.

Monday, February 20, 2012

High dollar’s job losses will raise productivity

If your goal is to raise Australians' material standard of living, the debate about what must be done to increase our flagging productivity is vitally important. But if we want the debate to achieve something, we should stop talking so much weak-headed nonsense.

People are talking about productivity as if it's motherhood for businessmen - all fluffy and soft. Sorry, productivity is more nasty than nice. Sometimes it's red in tooth and claw. It always involves effort and unsettling change, and often involves people being thrown out of their jobs.

As the headlines scream at us every day, many of our industries are being put through the wringer at present, and are shedding workers to prove it. This is not a downturn in the economy, it's the economy being hit by multiple pressures for structural change.

Manufacturers (and tourism and education - not that anyone cares about them) are being hit by the high dollar. Retailers are being hit by the end of a 30-year period in which consumer spending grew faster than household income and by globalisation as the internet breaks down longstanding national price-discrimination schemes. Shopping-centre owners are also in the gun.

Banks are still adjusting to the continuing global financial crisis, which has increased their cost of funds while also increasing their pricing power. Newspaper and media companies, and book publishers and sellers, are adjusting to the information and communication revolution. Qantas is adjusting to deregulation and globalisation.

Guess what? All these nasties are in the process of increasing Australia's productivity - as we speak. To the extent firms are shedding labour faster than their unit sales are declining, they're increasing their productivity as a matter of simple arithmetic.

More fundamentally, structural change is presenting all these firms (bar the banks) with an ultimatum: shape up or die. As they fight for corporate survival in a radically changed world, they will become leaner and fitter. In the process, they'll almost certainly contribute to an increase in national productivity.

What this means, however, is that all the business people, union leaders, opposition politicians and commentators pressuring the government to protect industries from change are fighting to prevent productivity improving. And every time the government gives in to those pressures it's acting to stop productivity improving.

I'm convinced many of the worthies banging on about productivity don't actually know what it is. Productivity is output per unit of input. That means it's about comparing quantities, not prices or values.

This is why productivity and profit (or profitability - profit relative to the equity capital or assets employed to earn the profit) are quite different concepts, not pretty much the same thing - as many business people seem to imagine.

Usually productivity is measured as output divided by units of labour inputs (hours worked), giving the productivity of labour. If you divide output by units of both labour and capital inputs you get "multi-factor [of production] productivity" (which always grows at a much slower rate).

The great delusion of the productivity debate - one inadvertently fostered by crusading economists - is that productivity improvement is a gift governments deliver to business, provided they have the political courage to implement "reform".

Rubbish. As our great private-sector productivity expert Saul Eslake has said: "Productivity only happens as a result of the decisions that are made and implemented in places of work."

So there's an obvious question no one is asking: why have Australia's chief executives failed to increase their firms' productivity for the past decade? Obvious answer: because it's been easier for them to increase their profits without doing much to increase their productivity. (And a big part of the reason for this is that the economy's been growing reasonably strongly, year after year, for 20 years - with just a mini-recession in 2008-09.)

Research suggests few firms actually measure their labour productivity. That's no surprise: the goal of firms isn't to increase their productivity it's to increase their profit - which is what they do measure, carefully and often.

Increased national productivity may be the key to rising material living standards, but increased productivity is just an incidental by-product of a firm's efforts to increase its profit. There are often many easier ways to increase profit than to improve your productivity.

Sometimes firms increase their productivity in response to opportunities or incentives - carrots - created by governments. This is what chief executives dream about while primitive tribes dream about planes dropping cargo from the sky.

Sometimes firms increase their productivity in response to governments beating them with sticks to force them to lift their game. This is known as "micro-economic reform". You slash protection against imports, allow the dollar to float, dismantle a host of interventions designed to give industries an easy life and tighten up the Trade Practices Act.

All this increases the competitive pressure on firms - from imports and local competitors - forcing them to lift their performance and their productivity. Is this the "reform" the business lobbies are crying out for? I doubt it.

Sometimes national productivity is improved by nothing more than firms doing what they do: striving to increase their profits. But, as we've seen, that hasn't been happening for a decade.

Alternatively, national productivity is improved as a by-product of firms grappling with adverse changes in their economic environment that threaten their profits and even their survival.

That's what's happening in our economy right now. You want higher productivity? Your wish is about to come true. When we've got through the present bout of structural adjustment we'll have a much more efficient set of industries. But everyone seems to be hating it.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Herd behaviour, fashion and status seeking

Think for more than a moment about the causes of the global financial crisis - the fallout from which is still hurting the US and Europe - and you realise herd behaviour had a lot to do with it.

People paid extraordinarily high prices for houses because they felt they were trailing the Joneses. Brokers sold unsound mortgages because they had to keep up with rival brokers. Funds managers - remunerated according to their relative performance against other managers - traded shares with the same motive.

So, the study of herd behaviour must be a pretty important part of economics, right? Wrong. Between 1970 and the onset of the crisis only nine out of 11,500 articles in three esteemed economic journals discussed herd behaviour. And when they did discuss it they usually viewed it as "informational learning" - learning what I should do from your behaviour. If you hear a fire bell and see people running for the exit, you don't inquire further, you just join them.

Yeah, sure. That explains it. Fortunately, one economist who's taken a great interest in herding is Professor Andrew Oswald, of the University of Warwick, in Britain, and the IZA research institute, in Bonn. Oswald spoke about herd behaviour and keeping up with the Joneses at a conference this week to celebrate the contribution of Professor Ian McDonald, of Melbourne University.

Unlike his peers, Oswald has spent his career crossing the boundaries between economics and the other social sciences. Now he's forging links with the physical sciences and is on the board of editors of the journal Science.

On herding, Oswald took his lead from a seminal zoological paper written in 1971. "Before that article, the standard theory in biology was that herds had some inexplicable communitarian instinct," Oswald says. But the article argued that an animal clusters with others because its relative position is what matters. When you're being threatened by a predator, clustering with others reduces the chance it will pick you as its prey.

What has this to do with humans? Just our preoccupation with our position relative to others. Our desire to be in fashion - to wear what our peers are wearing - is motivated subconsciously by our strong desire to keep up.

And falling back worries us because it involves dropping down the status ladder. So, our often demonstrated desire to do what other people are doing seems to show a deep, though unconscious, concern to defend or advance our status (or rank) relative to others.

Economists have long been suspicious of survey evidence, of asking people what they think about things or why they do things. It's too subjective; how can you be sure they're telling you the truth? This is one of the profession's reservations about the study of happiness (of which Oswald has been a leader among economists).

So, Oswald has been interested in finding more objective ways to measure feelings such as happiness. When I compare your rating of your satisfaction with life with your spouse's or your friend's rating of your satisfaction, do they line up? (Yes, they do.)

He's done a lot of work using the British medical profession's system for rating people's mental health, rather than just asking people how they feel about their lives.

Another approach is to use magnetic resonance imaging (MRI scanning) to see what happens inside people's brains when they have certain feelings or encounter certain ideas.

Yet another approach Oswald is pursuing is the use of "biomarkers": can changes in a person's physiology - their heart rate or blood pressure, say - tell us about what they're thinking and feeling?

Oswald quotes the results of a study by German economists who put pairs of people in adjacent brain scanners and asked them puzzle questions, with money rewards for correct answers. They found that outperforming the other guy had a positive effect on the reward-related parts of the brain. People compare themselves with others and enjoy feeling they're winning.

You reckon that's pretty obvious? Not to an economist. Their standard model assumes away all interpersonal comparison. My likes and dislikes ("preferences") are unaffected by other people's preferences and never change over time.

Raise my income by $10 and my satisfaction ("utility") increases. Raise my income by

$20 and there's a commensurately greater increase in my utility. Raise my income by

$10 while you increase my mate's income by $20 and I won't mind a bit.

Actually, we know from happiness research that relative income (how my income compares with yours) has a big effect on how satisfied people feel with their lives.

Oswald asks whether our satisfaction from social status accelerates or decelerates as we increase in status. That is, does our pursuit of status bring increasing marginal utility or decreasing marginal utility?

This question is still being researched empirically. Oswald quotes the case of top tennis players. The gain in utility from going from being third in the world to second is likely to be much bigger than the gain from going from eighth to seventh.

But increasing marginal utility is probably limited to the very top of the status ladder, with diminishing utility applying to most of us.

We know, for instance, that though people with high incomes are happier than those with low incomes successive increases in income buy progressively smaller and smaller increases in satisfaction with life.

Another thing we know is that the rising average real incomes the developed economies have achieved over the decades haven't led to any increase in average levels of satisfaction.

This raises what Oswald calls a "disturbing possibility". "Maybe modern society is stuck," he says. "Individually, we chase higher income and 'rank', but for society as a whole this cannot be achieved."

Here's another worry: "Herd behaviour is often very natural and individually rational. But it has the potential to be disastrous for the group," he says.

"When rewards depend on your relative position it will routinely be dangerous to question whether the whole group's activity is flawed, and be rational simply to compete hard within the rules that govern success."

In the dotcom bubble a decade ago - where the shares of internet companies that had never made a dollar of profit traded for ever more ridiculous prices - those analysts who said it made no sense got fired.

"In financial markets, people are now routinely rewarded in a way that depends on their relative performance" - whether they're in the top quartile, second quartile or whatever. "That's dangerous," he concludes.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Jobs market isn't nearly as bad as you think

Economists don't have a good record on forecasting what will happen to the economy, but here's a prediction I make with great confidence: whatever happens, it won't be as bad as you think it is. That applies particularly to the jobs market.

Consider this. One day you pick up a newspaper and on page five you read a small story saying employment grew by 10,000 last month, leaving the rate of unemployment unchanged at 5.2 per cent. A couple of days later, every time you turn on the car radio or look on the internet, then settle down at home to watch the evening news, you're told about the car company that's announced its intention to lay off 350 workers. The next day the big news is that a bank intends to lay off 1000 workers.

Question is, what conclusion do you come to about the state of the jobs market? You wouldn't be human if you didn't think things were in pretty bad shape.

You'd need the steel-trap mind of an economist to say to yourself: "These stories I'm hearing about layoffs here and there are sad news for the individuals involved, but they don't really prove anything. To make a balanced assessment of what's happening in the labour market I need aggregate statistics, not anecdotes - and the last stats I saw said that, overall, employment is growing sufficiently to hold the unemployment rate steady at 5.2 per cent."

The human mind isn't particularly good with statistics. Some people even have trouble pronouncing the word. Figures are too cold and impersonal. We're interested in other people, not numbers. So there's a sense in which we're moved more by a story of 350 people losing their jobs than by one saying 10,000 jobs had gone. Of course, what would really engage us is a story, with pictures, about the plight of just one sacked worker, worried about the mortgage and not at all sure where their next job was coming from.

But there's a distinction between fellow-feeling for someone who's struck hard times and assessing how worried we should be about the state of the world.

Already this year we've heard a lot of stories about people being laid off in manufacturing, retailing and now banking. It's a safe bet we'll be hearing a lot more, and that each announcement will get much attention.

How could this not leave most of us with the impression the economy's going to hell in a foreign-made handcart? Yet this impression will almost certainly be exaggerated, and may well disguise a position where, overall, the economy is holding its own.

One reason we're misled is that we're unduly impressed by very small figures. To put it another way, we don't appreciate just how big the economy is. There are 11,421,300 people in the labour force, either in a job or actively seeking one. So 350 people represent 0.003 per cent of the total.

The point is not that the fate of 350 people is unimportant, but that it makes a minuscule difference to the fate of workers generally. Make it 10,000 people and we're still only up to 0.09 per cent.

Another reason we're unduly impressed by news of people losing jobs is we don't realise how much turnover there is in the labour market. Julia Gillard keeps saying that every year about a million workers change jobs - with about a quarter of them also changing the industry they work in. When I checked that surprisingly large figure with an expert, he said it was too low.

(Gillard emphasises the remarkable degree of change in the economy by adding that, every year, about 300,000 businesses close - and 300,000 new ones start up.)

So every month many thousands of people leave their jobs - voluntarily or involuntarily - and many thousands move into jobs. What's another 350?

By now you may have realised we get told about only the tiniest fraction of all the coming and going. In fact, we get told when a big company announces it's decided to get rid of a block of workers. It makes an announcement because it wants to impress the sharemarket or pressure the government for assistance.

But we don't get told when big companies decide to hire a block of workers or, more usually, to hire people in dribs and drabs. And we're told virtually nothing about the hiring and firing by small business. Get the feeling we're being given a biased impression?

There is, however, another, more fundamental reason we'll be getting a distorted impression of what's happening in the economy this year. We're getting the idea the high dollar is causing the economy to slow down and shed jobs.

In truth, the high dollar and the factors that brought it about aren't destroying jobs so much as shifting jobs from one industry to another. That's painful for the contracting industries - and we're hearing their cries loud and clear - but, predictably, we're not hearing much from the expanding industries.

While jobs are being lost in manufacturing and elsewhere, employment will be growing in mining and the construction industry, pretty obviously, but also in the services sector, including in health, education and training, public administration, the science professions and arts and recreation.

I'll be surprised if, overall, we don't see continuing growth in employment. Whether this growth will be sufficient to cope with the natural growth in the labour force and thus hold unemployment steady, I'm not as sure.

But I do know this: with inflation under control, if the Reserve Bank sees unemployment drifting up it will cut interest rates further to encourage borrowing and spending and thus foster faster growth in employment.

Monday, February 13, 2012


Sydney, Monday, February 13, 2012

Greg has asked me to talk to you about the state of the world economy we find ourselves coping with, particularly the problems in the euro zone. But before I do I have to issue a standard consumer warning: economists have a very bad record in forecasting what will happen in the economy, so you’d be wise not to take a blind bit of notice of anything I say.

I can say that confident you will take an interest in what I say because everyone already knows economists aren’t good at forecasting but it’s never stopped them asking for another forecast. That’s because the human animal has an insatiable curiosity about the future - an incurable belief that it’s possible to know about the future and the more we know about it the better our chance of controlling it. John Kenneth Galbraith said economists were created to make astrologers look good, but I prefer to say that if people don’t have economists to ask about the future, they’ll settle for asking witchdoctors.

Perhaps economists are modern-day witchdoctors. But I draw a distinction between understanding what’s going on in the economy and predicting what will happen next, so I’m going to focus more on what and why things are happening rather than what will happen next.

I’ll say a bit about China eventually, but I’m sure you realise the big problem area in the world economy at present is the North Atlantic economies, the United States and Europe (including Britain). Most people automatically assume that if these big economies are in trouble that spells trouble for us, but I think it’s important understand the various ‘channels’ by which developments in other countries flow through to us. The first and most obvious channel is via trade: if they reduce their demand for our exports that’s bad for us, of course. But these days the EU accounts for less than 10 pc of our export income and the US for only 5 pc, so direct trade with the North Atlantic shouldn’t be greatly affected. A second channel is via the global financial markets. We know that worries about worries about major problems in the world can push our sharemarket down. And now compulsory superannuation has made a lot more Australians conscious of sharemarket falls. We also know problems with banks can cause some international funds markets to freeze or can push up the cost of overseas funding to our banks, as is happening to a small extent at present. The third channel thru which adverse developments in other economies can adversely affect our economy is via confidence. Consumers and business people hear all the bad news and it tends to make them less confident and more uncertain about the future. Consumers tighten their belts, increase their saving and pay down debts and avoid making new commitments. Businesses put expansion plans on hold, try to improve their gearing, cut non-essential spending such as advertising and maybe lay off staff.

It’s clear this third, psychological channel is the main channel by which worrying developments in the North Atlantic economies become a worrying development in our economy. The more I see of the ups and downs of the business cycle, the more convinced I become that ‘confidence’ - and particularly our collective swings from excessive optimism to excessive pessimism - is the biggest single factor determining the swings in the economy. There are ‘real’ factors at work, of course, but they are greatly amplified by the way business people and consumers are feeling at the time. The trick is that when the way we feel affects the way we act, the merely emotional becomes real. To take an example close to home, when I decide to cut my advertising budget because I’m uncertain about the future, the effect on businesses that sell advertising is very real. And when negative sentiment takes hold, it tends to feed on itself, becoming self-fulfilling and self-reinforcing. This is why, as you may have noticed, in my writing I’m putting a lot more emphasis on ensuring I give our readers a reasonably balanced assessment of how good or bad things are, even tho it’s a lot more fun to scare the pants off them.

Two factors do most to explain why the North Atlantic economies have been in so much bother since the global financial crisis reached its peak with the collapse of Lehman Brothers in 2008, and why they’re unlikely to be completely out of bother for many years. The first is ‘debt’ and the second is the euro. The crisis in 2008 brought an end to a debt-fuelled boom in the developed economies that lasted - with interruptions from mild recessions - for about 20 years. In the US it’s clear households borrowed too much, for housing and to maintain lifestyle; in their efforts to maximise profits banks became too highly leveraged, and the US government ran too many annual deficits and racked up too much debt. In Europe, the banks became far too highly geared and governments were far too undisciplined in their budgeting. When the crisis peaked, governments in the US and Europe borrowed heavily to rescue their banks, then borrowed again to get their economies moving. Coming on top of the already high debts acquired during the long boom, this took most governments to quite unsustainable levels.

But this brings us to a paradox: for individual households or businesses or banks, the best way to get on top of your debts is to tighten your belt; for whole economies, however, the best way is to grow your way out of them. The ideal for governments is to keep growing, while slowly mending your ways. The trouble for governments with lax budgeting records, however, is that markets, German governments and others don’t trust their promises to be good boys tomorrow but not today. This does much to explain the flirtation with policies of austerity which, by making economies even weaker, can make it even harder to reduce budget deficits. Then markets react badly when they see economies weakening. Of course, when a government reaches the point where people are no longer willing to lend to it - as with Greece - it has no choice but to accept austerity.

A point to note is that, because of this debt overhang, it’s idle to imagine (as I suspect some people still do imagine) there’s some way Europe - or even America - can get back to normal rates of growth within a year or two. For a start, the rates of growth we came to regard as normal in the 90s and the noughties turned out to be debt-propelled. It will be a long time before we see its like again. For another thing, the process of ‘deleveraging’ is always protracted. So the only options available to the North Atlantic economies are weak growth for the rest of the decade, or economic disaster for the rest of the decade.

Starting with the US, its households are likely to be preoccupied with getting on top of their debts for many years yet, which will constrain the growth of consumption spending. It has unsustainably high levels of government deficit and debt, but its ‘debt crisis’ is political rather than economic. The two sides in Congress can’t agree on how and when to get its budget under control but, in marked contrast to the Europeans, global financial markets remain so willing to continue financing its deficit that the yield on US Treasury bonds has fallen to 2 pc.

One point I want to leave you with is that the outlook for the North Atlantic economies has improved markedly since late last year. In the case of the US, its recovery faltered in the middle of last year, but has improved a lot since then. The economy grew at an annualised rate of 2.8 pc in the December quarter and the unemployment rate has been falling slowly for the past five months. The US sharemarket is up about 20 pc on its low point in October. Growth isn’t likely to continue at that healthy rate, but all the talk of a double dip has evaporated.

What makes Europe’s story much more worrying that America’s is the euro. The rationale for the single currency area was more political than economic. Even without the addition of the former communist countries, the economies of the foundation members of the area were at far too disparate states of development for this to be a sensible arrangement. The interest rate and exchange rate levels appropriate for Germany and France were never likely to be appropriate for Portugal, Ireland, Greece and Spain - even for Italy. The removal of currency barriers between the 17 members of the euro does increase trade between them and, for a time, the governments of the less developed and less fiscally disciplined members did benefit from being able to borrow in euros at much lower interest rates then they’d been paying.

But, as is now all too painfully evident, all that did was lure Greece and others into borrowing far more than was good for them. And now they’re having difficulty servicing that excessive sovereign debt, the drawbacks of the currency union are painfully apparent: no ability to regain lost competitiveness with the rest of Europe by devaluing your exchange rate rather than cutting nominal wage rates; no ability to set interest rates at levels appropriate to your own needs. And, indeed, no easy way to escape the straitjacket of the currency area. Greek firms that had borrowed in euro would find their debt levels greatly increased when expressed in new drachmas.

The founders of the Euro understood that budgetary indiscipline was the greatest threat to the single currency’s survival, and established deficit and debt limits and targets accordingly. But they failed to live up to or enforce those limits, and now they’re chained together whether they like it or not.

It’s by no means certain the Europeans can make the euro work. And it’s hard to imagine a way it could break up that wouldn’t turn the mild recession they’re already in, into a deep and prolonged recession that worsened the US recovery and made life a lot tougher for us as well. They’re having a lot of trouble agreeing on what they need to do, and the longer they dither the greater the risk of some unexpected but damaging accident.

But having conceded that, I have to remind you of my point that, even with Europe, the situation is now looking a lot less on-the-brink than looked late last year. Under a more pragmatic president, the European Central Bank has provided its banks with huge amounts of cheap three-year liquidity, which has calmed market concerns about the banks. They’ve used much of that liquidity to buy the bonds of euro governments, which has significantly lowered the rates those governments face when they borrow. The euro governments are moving towards a new fiscal responsibility treaty which, at least, seems to have mollified the Germans somewhat. And the Greeks have passed another milestone.

The IMF, the Reserve Bank and Treasury base their forecasts for growth in Europe on the assumption the euro leaders manage to ‘muddle through’ without a disaster occurring. That’s the only sensible basis on which a forecast could be based and, thankfully, it’s easier to see it coming to pass than it was three months’ ago.

I haven’t left myself enough time to talk about China and the rest of developing Asia, but let me make a few quick points. The adverse effect on trade from the North Atlantic economies comes to us mainly via China. So China is the economy whose health we need to be most concerned about. Fortunately the news from the orient is a lot less worrying. It’s true its exports to the North Atlantic have been hit, but many people overestimate its continuing reliance on export-led growth. It’s true the Chinese authorities have been acting to slow their growth and reduce inflation pressure, but they and other emerging Asian economies retain plenty of scope to stimulate domestic demand should the rest of the world slow by more than we’re expecting at present.

The IMF is forecasting world growth of 3.3 pc this year, which is below the average rate of about 4pc, but well above the 2 pc level regarded as a world recession. When you weight that 3.3 pc to take account of the countries to which we send most of our exports, you add 1 percentage point.