Saturday, March 17, 2012

Why the economy isn't splitting in two

The news from last week's national accounts seemed very clear and very worrying: the economy was splitting in two, with the mining-boom states of Queensland and Western Australia roaring off into the future, leaving the rest of Australia going nowhere fast.

Over the year to December, state final demand grew by more than 11 per cent in WA and by 10 per cent in Queensland, but by about 1.5 per cent in the rest of Australia.

Fortunately, the true position isn't nearly as bad as that, as Kathryn Davis, Kevin Lane and David Orsmond explain in an article in the March quarter Reserve Bank Bulletin, issued this week.

The trick was that label "state final demand". When we talk about "growth" in the context of the national accounts we're talking about growth in (real) gross domestic product - the value of all the goods and services produced by the market during a period.

We focus on production because it's production that creates jobs and generates income. The equivalent of GDP at state level is gross state product.

So if you want to compare how the states are travelling you compare the growth in their GSP.

Trouble is, the Bureau of Statistics doesn't publish GSP quarterly, only annually. What it does publish quarterly is state final demand, the national equivalent of which is "domestic final demand".

Because these are the only figures available, the media (and some economists who should know better) have fallen into the habit of assuming state final demand and GSP are much the same thing.

Wrong. State final demand differs from GSP in one minor respect and one major respect: it takes no account of exports and imports. And that's not just overseas exports and imports, it's also exports and imports between the states.

In other words, when you make state final demand a substitute for GSP you're implicitly assuming each state has no trade with either the rest of the world or even the other states. Or that its trade is always in balance.

Guess what? Make such unrealistic assumptions and you get misleading results.

The authors point out that growth in spending on home building and non-mining investment over the year to December didn't vary much between the states. There were two main differences. One was that whereas consumer spending grew by about 3.5 per cent in NSW, Victoria and Queensland, it grew by 6 per cent in WA.

The other difference was the huge growth in mining investment spending in WA and Queensland. This was what did most to explain why their growth in final demand was in double figures whereas NSW and Victoria's demand growth was so modest.

But here's the point: the Reserve estimates that roughly half the spending on mining investment goes on imported equipment. Take this into account and the gap between the mining and non-mining states gets a lot smaller.

Another factor narrowing the gap is that part of the miners' spending on investment (and their ordinary operations) goes on goods and services, such as accounting and consulting services, produced in other states. And some of the workers who fly-in/fly-out take their income home to other states.

To give you an idea of how the shift from state final demand to GSP narrows the gap between the states, let's look at the most recent figures, for 2010-11 as a whole. The final demand figures show spending growth ranging from 1.4 per cent in SA to 6.5 per cent in WA - a spread of 5.1 percentage points.

But the GSP figures show production growth ranging from 0.2 per cent in Queensland (get that) to 3.5 per cent in WA - a spread of 3.3 percentage points. After WA came Victoria on 2.5 per cent, SA on 2.4 per cent, NSW on 2.2 per cent and Tasmania on 0.8 per cent.

In other words, state final demand provided a quite misleading guide to the states' ranking. Queensland does so well on spending but so badly on production because, though it gains from having a fair bit of mining, it loses from being so dependent on tourism (hard-hit by the high dollar).

In the absence of more up-to-date figures for GSP, the trick is to examine independently estimated direct and indirect measures of state activity. If the mining states really were growing five or six times faster than the other states, you'd expect that to mean they had much lower rates of unemployment and much higher rates of inflation than the others.

It's true WA's trend unemployment rate was a very low 4.1 per cent in February, but the other mainland states were all tightly bunched around the national average rate of 5.2 per cent. As for inflation, over the year to December the mining states had the lowest rates rather than the highest.

If the gap between the mining states and the rest turns out to be narrower than you expected it's because you've been misled by all the talk of a two-speed economy: mining in the fast lane, manufacturing in the slow.

In truth, and as the distinguished economist Max Corden, of the University of Melbourne, reminded us this week, it's actually a three-speed economy, with mining in the fast lane and manufacturing (plus other export and import-competing industries) in the slow lane, but with almost all other industries - the non-tradable sector - in the middle lane.

This matters because the non-tradable sector benefits from the mining boom and the high dollar in two ways: from the increase in national income brought about by the high commodity prices, and from the lower prices of imports brought about by the high dollar.

Guess what? This non-tradable sector accounts for the great majority of production and employment in all states bar WA (where mining accounts for an amazing 33 per cent of GSP).

The people of Victoria see their state as weak on mining (true) and heavily dependent on manufacturing. Not true: manufacturing accounts for 8 or 9 per cent of GSP in all states bar WA (5 per cent). Where Victoria and NSW stick out is in their dependence on the business services sector (particularly financial and insurance services), which accounts for 28 per cent and 30 per cent of GSP, respectively, compared with about 17 per cent in the other states.

It's because business services are mainly in the not-hard-hit non-tradable sector that Victoria and NSW aren't travelling too badly compared with the mining states.
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Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Why we should pay more tax

In the early 1980s, not long after I got into the economic commentary business, Maggie Thatcher and Ronald Reagan were riding high and the great enthusiasm of the moment was the need for Smaller Government.

Thirty years later, government is no smaller but the attraction of the idea is undiminished.

Its latest champion is Tony Abbott, who promises to eliminate government waste and cut taxes - and return the budget to surplus. Julia Gillard isn't far behind. She'd never admit to being against smaller government, and is insistent on getting the budget back to surplus next financial year and not a day later.

Smaller government is an idea that appeals at every level. It's attractive to libertarians, economists and business people, who remain suspicious of government. And it appeals to every voter who doesn't like paying more tax.

But Ian McAuley, a lecturer in public finance at the University of Canberra, questions our uncritical support for the smaller government ideal in an extended essay published today by the Australian Collaboration, The Australian Economy: Will our prosperity be short-lived?

Contrary to some perceptions, he writes, Australia already has a small public sector and a low level of public debt. "Successive governments have kept taxes and deficits down by keeping expenditures down. As a result Australia has one of the smallest public sectors of all developed countries."

Over the seven years to 2008, taxes paid in Australia to all levels of government averaged 29 per cent of gross domestic product, compared with a developed-country average of 35 per cent. Only Japan and the United States pay less than us - 27 per cent - and that's because they run perpetual budget deficits.

If you judge it by total government spending, rather than total taxation, our spending averages 34 per cent of GDP, compared with the developed-country average of 40 per cent. (In our case, the gap between taxation and spending is covered by non-tax revenue.)

Our aversion to supposed big government includes an obsession with government debt even though, with government net debt no higher than 13 per cent of GDP, Australia's public debt is "way below the level of almost every other developed country".

Economists' and business people's support for smaller government stems from their entrenched belief that big government causes economies to malfunction. One small problem: after decades of searching they can't find evidence to support such a link.

There's no correlation between size of government and rate of economic growth. Some countries with big public sectors do well; some countries with small public sectors do badly.

Many business people - who wrongly imagine countries compete the same way firms do - worry a great deal about their country's "competitiveness". So let's examine the (highly subjective and ever-changing) World Economic Forum's global competitiveness index.

Top of the ranking in 2011 is Switzerland, with the same rate of tax to GDP as us, 29 per cent. We come 20th. The United States, with a tax rate of 27 per cent, comes fifth. But it's pipped by Finland, on fourth, with a tax rate of 44 per cent and Sweden, on third, with a rate of 48 per cent.

Denmark, the country with the highest tax rate - 49 per cent - comes eighth. Germany, with a tax rate of 36 per cent, comes sixth, while the Netherlands, with a tax rate of 38 per cent, comes seventh.

As McAuley concludes, what counts rather than size of government are the uses to which public revenues are put and whether government services are provided efficiently.

Nor is there any necessary connection between the size of a country's government and its discipline in keeping the two sides of its budget within cooee of each other and thus limiting budget deficits and avoiding excessive government debt.

When we observe the bother the Americans and various European countries have got themselves into after decades of deficits, we see the upside of our debt-and-deficit phobia.

But, as McAuley reminds us, that phobia has a downside. What is important economically, he says, is not so much the level of debt as the use to which that debt is put. If governments borrow to fund present consumption, that's unsustainable over any extended period.

"There is no reason, however, to avoid using debt to finance productive infrastructure. Well-chosen infrastructure can provide good returns," he says.

You can divide public spending into spending on public goods (including physical assets such as roads, as well as services such as health care) and "transfer payments" (such as pensions, family allowances and industry subsidies).

McAuley argues we've yielded to pressure for ever-increasing spending on transfer payments, with the share of total federal spending on social security rising from 21 per cent in 1972 to 33 per cent today. This doesn't count the ever-growing amount of revenue forgone in the form of tax concessions for superannuation, private health insurance, capital gains and much else. Many of these benefits go to people who are reasonably well-off.

Combine this with our pre-occupation with limiting overall government spending and taxation and you find we've been crowding out spending on public services. We've gone for years squeezing our spending on education - particularly tertiary education - which is really an investment in the human capital of our future workforce.

We've also neglected investment in physical infrastructure and environmental protection. But these are important investments if we're to have a prosperous economy in a world where success rests on wise use of human and natural resources.

Bottom line: the only path that's both politically feasible and economically responsible - one that sustains transfer payments while spending more on needed public services - is for us to pay higher taxes.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
Read more >>

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.
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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.
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Monday, February 13, 2012

What happens now on interest rates

Until last week, the financial markets and most business economists thought the Reserve Bank had several rate cuts up its sleeve and would start doling them out this month. The smarter ones don't think that any more.

When the Reserve failed to cut the official interest rate last week, some observers swung to the opposite view of expecting no further cuts for the foreseeable. And with all the fuss about the banks' small "unofficial" increases in mortgage rates, you can bet the punters are now convinced rates are heading back up.

Needless to say, the official rate is unlikely to rise. With luck, it won't need to be cut further. But if the outlook for the economy deteriorates, it will be.

Since the Reserve cares most about the rates households and businesses actually pay, and has no desire to tighten the interest-rate screws, the tiny unofficial increase will be one factor - but only one - favouring another cut in the official rate sooner rather than later.

Why didn't the Reserve cut last week? Because you may have convinced yourself the economy's in trouble, but the Reserve hasn't.

For the markets and business economists to have been so sure the Reserve would cut, it was necessary for them to be convinced of the truth of one or both of two propositions.

First, that the outlook for the world economy is now worse than it was late last year. It's true that, in recent times, the Reserve has judged the state of the rest of the world to be the greatest single threat to the continuing growth of our economy.

But almost all the news we've received from abroad so far this year has been reassuring. Things have calmed down a lot in the euro zone, with the actions of the European Central Bank making people a lot less worried about the European banks than they were, with sovereign bond yields falling back to more sensible levels, with banks able to raise funds with new bond issues, with Greece looking like it may reach a deal with its saviours, and with world sharemarkets looking up.

None of this implies the Europeans don't have a lot more to do, nor that there's little chance of something somewhere suddenly going badly wrong. The continuing risk that things could deteriorate in Europe remains the greatest single reason the Reserve could cut rates again this year.

But you do have to say the improvement in conditions in Europe so far this year makes it easier to believe the Europeans will muddle through.

As for the United States, its economy isn't roaring, but it is doing better than it was, growing fast enough to slowly reduce unemployment. For China, it's slowed a bit, but is still growing strongly.

The second proposition you'd need to believe to have been so confident the Reserve would cut last week is that the domestic economy is clearly slowing.

The tribulations of particular parts of the economy - notably manufacturing and retailing - have generated so many negative headlines I've no doubt many people are convinced the economy's in trouble.

Certainly, the belief the economy is slowing is widely held. But that's what happens when the news is mixed, with the bad bits trumpeted and the good bits played down. Just why the commercial media regard misinforming the public in this way as good for business I'm blowed if I know.

Do they imagine only the Labor government will suffer if they succeed in talking the economy down? Do they think it's like "a Martian ate my baby"? It's just entertainment and no one actually believes them?

The unrecognised truth is, the economy's speeding up a little, not slowing down. That's because we're recovering from the effects of the bad weather this time last year. Abstract from the weather effect and the economy's been travelling at about its medium-term trend annual rate of 3.25 per cent for the past two years or so, and is expected to grow at that rate this year.

With the unemployment rate steady at just 5.2 per cent and underlying inflation in the centre of the target range and expected to stay there for the next two years, you'd have to conclude the economy is right on normal.

In which case, the present level of interest rates - close to their own trend rate - must surely be pretty right. But it's clear from the Reserve's rhetoric that it retains a weak "bias to ease" (cut rates further): "the current [favourable] inflation outlook would, however, provide scope for easier monetary policy should demand conditions weaken materially".

How would such a weakening be manifest? Well, obviously by a deterioration in the world economy. Were Europe to implode, the flow-on to the rest of the world would be considerable - even for us. In this case we know how the Reserve would react: by slashing interest rates in a few big, bold steps.

But the requisite material weakening could also be brought about by a deterioration in essentially domestic factors.

The way the Reserve sees it, the economy is being hit by two powerful but opposing shocks: the expansionary effect of the once-in-a-century mining construction boom and, against that, the contractionary effect of the high exchange rate, which has reduced the international price competitiveness of our export and import-competing industries.

At present, the two conflicting forces are roughly offsetting each other, leaving the economy travelling at its trend rate. Should it become clear the high exchange rate is doing more restricting than the construction boom is doing expanding, which would show itself in slowly but steadily rising unemployment, the Reserve will cut rates further.
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Saturday, February 11, 2012

How fiscal policy does and doesn't work

It's remarkable that the politicians of Europe and America are making things much worse for themselves and their people because they've unlearnt the economic lessons of the past 70 years.

Economists spent many years studying what policymakers did wrong in the Great Depression of the 1930s, making it much worse than it needed to be. One well-understood lesson was not to try to get the government budget back into balance too quickly.

This is counter-intuitive to many people. The government's tax revenues have collapsed, its spending has increased, it has a yawning budget deficit and government debt is piling up. Surely it's obviously right to get spending and your income back into line as quickly as you can.

Not if you're a national government. Why not? Because governments are so big that what they do affects the rest of the economy. Remember, governments can borrow more for longer than the richest individual or corporation, since they represent the whole community and have the power to pay their bills by levying taxes.

Economic downturns, recessions or depressions almost always manifest themselves in consumers and businesses cutting their spending. The more they cut, the more people lose their jobs and their businesses and the greater the decline in spending.

In such circumstances, it's not possible for the private sector to lift itself up by its bootstraps. Clearly, the government needs to do something that helps the private sector get back on its feet.

One thing the central bank can do is cut interest rates to encourage borrowing and spending. In normal times this is usually effective, but in really bad times a lot of people are too uncertain about the future to want to borrow and expand, no matter how low rates are. And if interest rates are already very low - as they are in the advanced economies at present - you can't cut them below zero.

The next tool available to help the private sector is "fiscal policy" - the budget. The first way to help is do nothing: when fewer people paying tax and more people on the dole cause the budget deficit to blow out, don't do anything to counter it.

This process happens automatically when the private sector turns down, and the fact that some people are paying out less money to the government while others are getting more money from it means the government is helping to cushion the private sector's fall, stopping it from falling further. Thus economists say budgets contain "automatic stabilisers".

If you try to counter the effect of these stabilisers by cutting spending or increasing taxes, you'll push the private sector down further and, because of that, probably won't succeed in getting the budget closer to balance in any case.

The second way to help is more active: stimulate the private sector by cutting taxes or increasing spending. If you were to do this when the economy was strong, you'd just worsen inflation. But if you do it when the economy is flat on its back, it will probably be effective, particularly if you increase spending rather than cutting taxes (which would allow some people to save their tax cuts).

Once you get the economy growing again, tax collections will improve and people will go off the dole, thus causing the deficit to reduce. This is the automatic stabilisers working the other way. Keep it up and the budget balance will turn to surplus, which you can then use to repay government debt.

See the point? Exercise enough discipline and patience and eventually the budget problem will fix itself.

All this had been well understood by economists and politicians for many years. It was how governments responded to the global financial crisis in 2008. But governments in Britain and the euro zone, and the US Congress, are now doing pretty much the opposite.

Their economies are still quite weak but they want to increase taxes or - more commonly - slash government spending to get their big budget deficits down in a hurry. In consequence of this policy of "austerity", the European economies are heading back into recession and their deficits getting worse.

Why are they doing something so counter-productive? Because their stock of government debt is so unsustainably high. Whereas sensible policy involves running surpluses and reducing debt during the good years, they kept running deficits and piling it up in the noughties.

When the global financial crisis struck in 2008, many had to borrow heavily to rescue their banks and then borrow even more to kick-start their economies. Their debt is now so high the financial markets have started wondering whether they'll be able to repay it.

But the flighty financial markets are an unreliable guide to good policy: though they seemed to approve when governments announced their austerity programs, they started disapproving when they saw those programs were causing economies to weaken.

Of course, when a country's sovereign debt gets so high that markets will soon refuse to lend more to it at any price, it has no choice but austerity. You can renege on your debts, but you can't run a deficit if no one will finance it.

Even if some international institution bails you out, it will punish you for your profligacy by insisting on austerity. Will this make things worse long before it makes them better? Inevitably.

That's the case of Greece. But most of the European countries aren't in those dire straits, so why are they slashing spending?

What they should be doing is promising and laying plans to reduce their spending down the track, as their economies recover and can take it in their stride.

Why don't they? Because, after decades of fiscal indiscipline, they don't have much credibility when making promises to be good tomorrow.

But that doesn't change economic reality: cut when the economy's weak and you make it weaker. The answer is to find ways of making their promises more credible.

As for the Americans, they too have years of fiscal indiscipline and a way-too-high level of debt. But though it suits President Obama's critics to claim the US has a "debt crisis", it doesn't. The world is still so anxious to lend to the US government that the yield (effective interest rate) on its long-term debt is down to 2 per cent.

It has plenty of time to get its budgetary house in order but, at present, a hostile Congress has the budget set up to crunch the US economy next year. These guys have learnt nothing.
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