Monday, June 10, 2013

In the business game, less is often more

It's a holiday, so let's talk about sport not business - for openers, anyway. Indoor handball is a team sport where players face a constant stream of quick decisions about what to do with the ball: pass, shoot, lob or fake?

Players have to make these decisions in an instant. Would they make better decisions if they had more time and could analyse the situation in depth?

In an experiment with 85 young, skilled handball players, each stood in front of a screen, dressed in his uniform with a ball in his hand. On the screen, video scenes of high-level games were shown. Each scene was 10 seconds long, ending in a freeze-frame.

The players were asked to imagine they were the player with the ball and, when the scene was frozen, to say as quickly as possible the best action that came to mind.

After these intuitive judgments, the players were given more time to inspect the frozen scene carefully, and name as many additional options as they could. For instance, some discovered a player to the left or right they had overlooked, or noticed other details they weren't aware of under time pressure.

Finally, after 45 seconds they were asked to conclude what the best action would be. In about 40 per cent of cases this considered judgment was different from their first choice.

OK, that's enough fun. Back to business. We live in a business world where the thinking of educated people has been heavily influenced by rational analysis. For instance, one rational conclusion is that to make good decisions we need the best information possible. To be better informed is to perform better.

These days, all switched-on managers know they need an adequate business information system - the right "metrics" - to be fully informed about their business's performance and so be able to make the right decisions to keep it scoring goals.

To the rationally trained person, more information is always better and more options to choose from are always better. Economists add the qualification that information is often costly, so you shouldn't keep collecting it beyond the point where the additional cost exceeds the additional benefit.

Practical managers know there's a trade-off between speed and accuracy. It's good for decisions to be as accurate as possible, but it's also good for decisions to be made without much delay. So the smart manager finds a happy medium between accuracy and speed, knowing they're sacrificing some accuracy for a speedy decision.

Back to handball. This experiment was recounted by German psychologist Gerd Gigerenzer, of the Max Planck Institute in Berlin, in his book Gut Feelings. To measure the quality of the actions the players proposed, the experimenters got professional-league coaches to evaluate all proposed actions for each video.

They found that, contrary to the notion of a speed-accuracy trade-off, taking time and analysing didn't generate better choices. The players' gut reactions were, on average, better than the actions they chose after reflection.

Indeed, the order in which possible actions came to the players' minds directly reflected their quality: the best came to mind first, the worst came last. This result is consistent with many experiments showing that, though the inexperienced need to think it through carefully before they take a golf shot, drive a car, or tie their shoe laces, the experienced do better if they don't think about what they're doing but simply do what comes naturally.

This is consistent with another finding that chicken sexers, chess masters, professional baseball players, award-winning writers and composers are typically unable to explain how they do what they do.

In some circumstances, more information and more time to process it is better. But a surprising amount of the time less turns out to be more.

Gigerenzer says this will be so in cases where we're relying on unconscious motor skills. It's also true when the limits of our brain power mean we make better decisions if we don't confuse ourselves with too much conflicting information.

Our brains seem to have built-in mechanisms, such as forgetting a lot of things and starting small, that protect us from some of the dangers of possessing too much information.

A famous experiment involving selling different flavours of jam in a supermarket found that having too many choices leads to decision-making paralysis. Offering a choice of six led to more sales than a choice of 20. It doesn't follow, however, that offering an even smaller choice would increase sales further.

Gigerenzer's other conclusion - of particular relevance to business decision-making - is that empirical testing can reveal simple rules of thumb that predict complex phenomena as well or better than complex rules do.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Economy yet to make transition to post-boom world

The economists' buzzword of the week - and probably the year - is "transition". If it's not in your lexicon add it immediately. You'll need it - because this week we learnt how tricky it's likely to be.

As the construction phase of the resources boom nears its peak, the economy needs to make a transition from mining-led growth to growth led by all the normal sources: consumer spending, home building and non-mining business investment.

This week the national accounts for the March quarter from the Bureau of Statistics showed growth in real gross domestic product of just 0.6 per cent for the quarter and 2.5 per cent for the year to March.

For once this seems a reasonably reliable reflection of how the economy's travelling. It's not disastrous, but nor is it satisfactory.

The economy needs to be growing at its medium-term trend rate of about 3 per cent a year. Growth of that order is needed just to hold unemployment constant. And since we've been falling short of it for about a year it's not surprising that, over the year to April, the unemployment rate has drifted from 5.1 per cent to 5.5 per cent.

(If you had it in your mind our trend growth rate was nearer 3.25 per cent, you're not wrong, just out of date. The econocrats have lowered it to 3 per cent to take account of the ageing of the baby boomers, which means a larger proportion of the population is now in an age range with lower participation in the labour force.)

The worrying thing about this week's figures is that they reveal the pressing need for a transition from mining-led to broader growth, but not much sign it's about to happen.

As best he can determine it, Kieran Davies, of Barclays bank, estimates mining investment spending fell about 7 per cent in quarter. Rather than rising, however, non-mining investment spending fell about 3 per cent.

At the same time, new home building (including alterations) was flat. Consumer spending strengthened to grow 0.6 per cent, but this was still below trend.

Public sector spending grew 1.1 per cent, but this followed a much bigger fall the previous quarter and with all the pressure on state and federal governments to balance their budgets, we shouldn't expect much help from the public sector.

According to the opposition, the Gillard government's been doing far too much to help.

It turned out a lot of the growth in the March quarter came from "net external demand". The volume (quantity) of our exports grew 1.1 per cent, whereas the volume of imports fell 3.5 per cent, meaning "net exports" (exports minus imports) made a positive contribution to growth of 1 percentage point.

Some silly people have been saying if it hadn't been for net exports the economy would be in a bad way - which is a bit like saying if we cut off one of our arms we'd be in a bad way. What they're missing is that the growth in export volumes will be lasting (they grew 8.1 per cent over the year to March) because it's coming from strong growth in exports of coal and iron ore, as new mines come into production and the third phase of the resources boom kicks in.

In other words, it's wrong to imagine the boom's about to leave us high and dry. Mining production and exports have a lot further to grow in coming years. Even the fall in imports (which constitutes a reduction in their negative contribution to growth) is linked to the boom: reduced investment in new mines means reduced imports of capital equipment.

As for the second, construction phase of the boom, spending from quarter to quarter is too variable to allow us to conclude this quarter's fall means the peak has been passed. Maybe, maybe not. Nor is it clear how precipitous the fall will be when it arrives. It may be fairly gentle since the miners' pipeline of committed projects still stands at a record high of $268 billion.

What reason is there to hope the non-mining sources of growth will strengthen? The main one is that the Reserve Bank has cut the official interest rate 1.5 percentage points in a little over a year, taking the "stance" of monetary policy to its most stimulatory in many a moon.

Everything we know tells us lower interest rates encourage borrowing and spending, particularly in interest-sensitive areas such as housing and the purchase of consumer durables. We also know it often takes a while to work. In my experience, it's just when people are running around saying it isn't working that it starts to.

Of course, a significant fall in the dollar would help a lot by improving the international price competitiveness of our export and import-competing industries, particularly manufacturing and tourism. It would help them produce more for export and replace imports in the domestic market. (So much for those who think it makes sense to assume away net exports.)

The dollar does seem to have fallen about US7? in the past few weeks. This may be some help, but it's far short of what would be justified by the deterioration in our terms of trade (the passing of the first phase of the boom) and what our traders need to restore their competitiveness.

The best hope for further falls in the exchange rate is not further cuts in our official interest rate (its role is widely overrated) but better prospects for the US economy leading to expectations of the cessation of "quantitative easing" (metaphorically, printing money), which has the side effect of putting downward pressure on the greenback. The Reserve has been cutting rates since November 2011, not to induce a fall in our dollar so much as to offset the contractionary effect of its failure to fall as export prices have fallen.

Should the dollar keep falling the Reserve won't cut rates any further. Should the dollar fail to keep falling, it probably will.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

We can be fairer and more efficient at the same time

Humans are a pattern-seeking animal but also a categorising animal. We're forever trying to get a handle on how the world works by sorting things into different boxes. When we can slap a label on something or someone, we think we've understood them.

It's fashionable among our business people to divide the world into "wealth creators" (them) and "wealth distributors" (everyone else but particularly governments). Wealth creators are the source of all prosperity; wealth distributors are essentially parasitic.

Economists' favourite boxes are similar, but not quite so crude. They divide policy objectives into "efficiency" (promoting economic growth) and "equity" (ensuring a reasonably fair distribution of the fruits of that growth).

For the most part, economists see efficiency and equity as in conflict. They care deeply about promoting efficiency but often leave it to others to worry about equity - unless they fear some equity measure would lead to inefficiency.

But sometimes our habitual ways of categorising things can be a hindrance to understanding and progress. Sometimes the labels on boxes don't adequately describe their contents, which can have more in common than we realise. Sometimes we "frame" problems in ways that conceal their solutions.

A new book, Inclusive Growth in Australia, proposes just such a new way of thinking about equity and efficiency. It's edited by Professor Paul Smyth, of Melbourne University and the Brotherhood of St Laurence, and Professor John Buchanan, of the workplace research centre at Sydney University.

A lot of economists and business people are worried about a fall in the rate at which the economy's productivity is improving. Productivity measures the efficiency with which we take inputs of land, labour and capital and turn them into outputs of goods and services. It normally improves by a per cent or two a year but it's been weak for about a decade.

It's our improving productivity - brought about by advances in technology, improvements in public infrastructure and a better educated and more skilled workforce - that causes our material standard of living to keep improving. It also helps to have a higher proportion of the population participating in the workforce.

To date, the deterioration in our productivity performance has been concealed by the resources boom, with its higher prices for our exports and hugely increased construction of new mines. But, the economists worry, now the boom is passing its peak, people will really feel the absence of ever-rising incomes.

So what's the Gillard government doing about it? Ignoring wealth creation and worrying about perfecting the way it's distributed. It's going to the election with two policy changes in pride of place: a disability insurance scheme and the Gonski changes to school funding.

All very worthy, no doubt, but talk about fiddling while Rome burns. But here's where the proponents of "inclusive growth" have a useful perspective. They say that far from being an irrelevance or an indulgence, social policy can, if you do it right, constitute an investment in improving the economy's performance.

As it happens, both the disability scheme and the Gonski reforms are good examples. Many physically and mentally disabled people - and their voluntary carers - would dearly love to make a greater contribution to the paid workforce, if they were enabled to.

And intervention to assist the disabled can be strategic: do it the right way at the right time and much subsequent expense - not to mention personal anguish - can be avoided. No more soft-headed authority than the Productivity Commission attests to the ability of the disability scheme to add to national income.

Similarly, it doesn't take too much thought to realise changing the basis for federal grants to public and private schools to one that gives more to schools with disadvantaged students can been seen either as a move to greater fairness - improving their equality of opportunity - or a move to greater efficiency.

We have no trouble seeing the benefit of doing more to assist the education and training of our brightest and best but much trouble realising the same applies at the bottom end. If, by giving them greater and more timely assistance, we could reduce the number of kids who drop out of school - or make it through with inadequate levels of literacy and numeracy - we'd be making them more productive workers.

The main lesson to be learnt from the league tables showing how our students' educational attainment compares with those in other countries is not that our best students aren't keeping up but that there's a widening gap between our best and our worst.

Another theme of the inclusive growth advocates is "flexicurity" - improving unemployment benefits and assistance to the jobless so as to reduce resistance to the unceasing change in the structure of our economy as the poor countries develop and the digital revolution proceeds.

I think the search for ways to kill two birds with one stone is a good one - just as long as it doesn't devolve into a miser-like attitude that economic efficiency is all that matters and we help people only to the extent we can see a buck in it.

We are - and will stay - a rich country. We can afford to educate ourselves well because to be educated is one of the joys of life, a benefit from being rich. And we should need no better reason for sharing our wealth fairly than that it's right thing to do.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Garnaut cries from the economic wilderness

Professor Ross Garnaut, now at the University of Melbourne, is our most prophetic economist. In a much-discussed speech last week he prophesied that the easing of the resources boom would bring "hard times after more than two decades of extraordinary prosperity".

He says we face three big challenges if we're to avoid the end of the long boom leaving us with much to regret. The first is that our real exchange rate now needs to fall a long way to be consistent with full employment.

The second big challenge, he says, is to change entrenched expectations that living standards will rise inexorably over time; that household and business incomes and public services will rise and taxes will fall, as they have done for a generation.

"Those expectations must be reversed in the process of dealing with the legacy of the boom, or our efforts in reform will be defeated by bitter disappointment with political leadership and eventually political institutions," he says.

I think he's making two points. One is that economic life consists of downs as well as ups, losses as well as gains, and anyone who imagines governments should or even could shield them from all unpleasantness is destined for disillusionment. The need for income earners not to be compensated for the higher cost of imports caused by a fall in the dollar is a case in point.

The other point is we must disabuse ourselves of the notion economic life is about sitting around waiting for another serve of prosperity to be handed to us on a plate. Outside of resources booms, we have to make our own luck.

The third big challenge we face is that our political culture has changed since the reform era of 1983 to 2000, in ways that make it much more difficult to pursue policy reform in the broad public interest. "If we are to succeed, the political culture has to change again," he says.

Policy change in the public interest seems to have become more difficult over time as interest groups have become increasingly active and sophisticated in bringing financial weight to account in influencing policy decisions, he says.

"Interest groups have come to feel less inhibition about investment in politics in pursuit of private interests.

"For a long time ... it has been rare for private interests of any kind to be asked to accept private losses in the interests of improved national economic performance. When asked, the response has been ferocious partisan reaction rather than contributions to reasoned discussion of the public interest in change and in the status quo.

"A new ethos has developed in which there can be no losers from reform. Business has asserted a property right to continuing benefits of regulatory mistakes. It demands compensation for corrections to errors in policy.

"Households have been led to expect that no policy changes will cause any of them to be worse off."

Garnaut says that whether comprehensive public interest reform is possible depends a great deal on the quality of political leadership. Quality of leadership is partly about capacity to explain to citizens the nature of the choices that must be made on their behalf. He's no doubt right about the need for better leadership, but when the rest of us dwell on that lack it becomes a cop-out. It's actually a symptom of the very easy-prosperity syndrome Garnaut is warning about.

The Business Council in particular is prone to sitting around praying for God to send us leaders "prepared to lose their jobs to get things done". That's a quality as rare among politicians as it is among chief executives. If we wait for a policy suicide bomber we'll be waiting a while.

In truth, politicians are more followers than leaders. They deliver those changes being urged on them by what I'd call the nation's opinion leaders and Garnaut calls "a substantial independent centre of the national polity".

Pollies make risky reforms when they know these people have already done much educating of community power-holders on the necessity for the reforms in the public interest, and when they're confident the urgers will stand by them when the flak is flying. (The Business Council always finks out at that point.)

And Garnaut offers a further warning to those who, like the Business Council, dream of "reforms" that advance their private interests at the expense of the rest of us. Reform must be clearly in the public interest if certain groups are to be persuaded to cop losses for the greater good.

Finally, "it is a lesson of Australian history that successful periods of restraint require the equitable sharing of sacrifice". Developing a framework of equity will be important to the success of a choice by the nation to put the public interest ahead of business as usual.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Latest on the debt no one mentions

It's funny that people who like to worry about the supposedly humongous size of our "debt and deficits" have focused on one debt when they could have picked another one four times bigger.

They carry on about the federal "net public debt", which is expected to have reached $162 billion - equivalent to 10.6 per cent of gross domestic product - by the end of this month. It's now expected to peak at $192 billion - 11.4 per cent of GDP - in June 2015, before it starts falling.

But that's chicken feed compared with our "net foreign debt", which reached $760 billion - 51 per cent of GDP - in December.

Whereas the net public debt is the net amount owed by the federal government to people who hold its bonds (whether they're Australians or foreigners), the net foreign debt is the net amount Australian governments, companies and households owe to foreigners.

One reason for the lack of trumpeted concern about the foreign debt is you can't score any party-political points with it. In dollar terms, at least, it's just kept growing under Liberal and Labor governments.

A better reason is there isn't a lot to worry about. Throughout the history of white settlement, Australia has always been a net importer of foreign capital because our scope for economic development has always been greater than we could finance with just our own saving.

And, as Treasury points out in this year's budget papers, there's now even less reason to worry than there used to be.

The net foreign debt is the partial consequence of a deficit that rarely rates a mention these days, the deficit on the current account of our balance of payments. (The balance of payments records all the transactions between Australians and the rest of the world.)

The current account deficit is usually thought of as the sum of our trade deficit (exports minus imports) and our "net income deficit" (our payments of interest and dividends to foreigners minus their payments of interest and dividends to us).

But it can also be thought of as the extent to which we have called on the savings of foreigners to fund that part of the nation's investment spending (on new homes, business equipment and structures, and public infrastructure) the nation has been unable to fund with our own saving (by households, companies and governments).

Actually, borrowing foreigners' savings is only one way to make up the saving deficiency. The other way is to attract foreign "equity" investment (ownership) in Australian businesses.

In December, when our net borrowing from foreigners totalled $760 billion, the net value of foreigners' equity investment in Australia was $110 billion, taking our total net foreign liabilities to $870 billion.

Our net foreign liabilities represent the accumulation of all our past current account deficits (and we've run such a deficit almost every year for at least the past 200).

Treasury makes the point that just because we don't save enough to finance all our annual new investment doesn't mean we don't save much. We save a higher proportion of national income (GDP) than many developed countries, and we've been saving a lot more since the early noughties.

Though governments are saving less, it's well known that households are saving a lot more. And companies are saving more by retaining a higher proportion of their after-tax profits. So national saving has risen to about 25 per cent of GDP.

Some of this rise has been offset by an increase in national investment spending, driven by the mining construction boom, which has taken national investment spending up to about 28 per cent of GDP.

Even so we've still reduced the gap between national investment and national saving to about 3 percentage points of GDP, which compares with an average of 6 percentage points in the years leading up to the global financial crisis. Treasury says this smaller gap (that is, smaller current account deficit) is likely to continue for at least the next two years.

Before the financial crisis, the dominant form of net capital inflow was "portfolio debt", Treasury says. This debt was held largely by our banks, but their foreign borrowing was really to meet the borrowing needs of their household and business customers.

Since the crisis, however, the household sector has ceased to be a net borrower and reverted to its more accustomed position as a net lender to other sectors of the economy.

The corporate sector (excluding the banks) is still a net borrower, but the mining companies in particular have funded a lot of their investment in new mining construction from retained earnings rather than borrowings.

Since the miners are largely foreign-owned, however, this use of retained earnings shows up in the balance of payments as an inflow of foreign equity.

This implies we've become less dependent on foreign borrowing to finance the current account deficit.

As part of this, our banks have been net repayers of their total foreign liabilities since mid-2010.

(The counterpart of this is that they've been getting a lot higher proportion of their funding from Australian household depositors, particularly through term deposits.)

One lesson from the financial crisis is that severe dislocations in foreign funding markets can impede the ability of even the most creditworthy borrowers (our banks, for instance) to obtain funds, even if only for a short time.

This helps explain our banks' subsequent move back to reliance on household deposits (made more possible by our households' changed saving behaviour, of course) and also their move to reduce their exposure to "rollover risk" (having trouble replacing a maturing debt with a new debt) by lengthening the average term of their foreign borrowers.

These days, 63 per cent of our foreign debt is more than a year from maturity, including almost a third with more than five years to run.

Finally, some people worry that, when we borrow in foreign currencies, a fall in our dollar would automatically increase the Australian-dollar amount of our debt. But Treasury points out, these days, almost two-thirds of our net foreign debt has been borrowed in Australian dollars.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Political cycle of cynicism and naivety about to turn

They say oppositions don't win elections, governments lose them. If, as almost everyone expects, Prime Minister Julia Gillard loses the election in September, it will be a classic example of that phenomenon. Labor will be tossed not because Opposition Leader Tony Abbott's policies seem so much better but because too many of us have tired of this government's foibles and failings.

A telltale sign that a prime minister is on the skids is when nothing they say makes any difference, when the public has just stopped listening. We'd stopped listening to Paul Keating before the 1996 election and to John Howard before the 2007 election, and it seems pretty clear that we've stopped listening to Gillard.

But though this is the usual way government changes hands, it's hardly the ideal way. It means that in the months before the election, the opposition, the media and the electorate devote most attention to recounting the government's many failings, not reviewing the opposition's policies and plans.

This, of course, is just how oppositions like it. They make themselves into the smallest target possible in the hope they can slip into government with as few commitments and as little examination as possible.

And for the most part, they succeed, because we're preoccupied by our disaffection with the last lot.

Trouble is, our lack of diligence almost invariably sows the seeds of our eventual disaffection with the new lot. When we make up our mind to throw a government out, hope springs eternal that the new lot will be much better.

How do we know they'll be better? We don't really. Certainly, it's not a conclusion we reach after careful evaluation of their policies. It's just a naive hope that a new broom will sweep cleaner. That a new government with a new page won't blot it the way the last mob did.

But I've been around long enough to know the flip side of naivety is cynicism - the kind of cynicism we're seeing all around at present, the kind that causes people to stop listening and some to go into plague-on-both-your-houses mode.

The antidote to both naivety and cynicism is reasoned scepticism. And it's because we didn't exercise it from the start that we end up disillusioned and cynical. Scepticism determines what can be believed and what can't; cynicism comes to the lazy, impotent decision that nothing can be believed.

Because we don't put in enough effort to be continuously questioning, the cycle keeps repeating: having flipped to cynicism about the old lot, we flip to naivety about the new lot.

What feeds both naivety and cynicism is unrealistic expectations about what the new government will do and what any government could ever have the ability to do. As we speak, unrealistic expectations are building about an Abbott government. And that's true despite - and, indeed, partly because of - all Abbott's efforts to make himself a small target and make as few commitments as possible.

How? Well, first, by Abbott's probably successful effort to slip into government without much voter attention being paid to the unpopular cuts in government spending he knows he'll need to make after the election to pay for all his promises.

When voters discover the new government is doing things it didn't warn them were coming, they'll suffer their first bout of disillusionment.

And, second, by the opposition's unreasonable criticisms of the Gillard government's performance. It's become standard practice in Australian politics to blame governments for almost every bad thing that happens on their watch, including developments beyond their control.

This makes no sense but, since so many punters don't bother to think things through, it goes down well with your rusted-on supporters and the great unwashed. So in shadow treasurer Joe Hockey's reply to the budget last week he implicitly - but of course, not explicitly - blamed Labor because Treasury got its forecasts wrong, because the world economy keeps behaving unexpectedly and because Labor can't control the value of the Australian dollar.

Now, you may protest that both sides do this and it's long been regarded as acceptable behaviour. True. We can be sure that when Labor's back in opposition it will be returning the compliment, making the same unreasonable criticism of the Abbott government.

But that's my point. The way our pollies play the political game perpetuates the cycle of cynicism and the ever-declining credibility of their profession.

Abbott says the few commitments he's making are part of his determination to rebuild the trust of an electorate that feels alienated and disenfranchised.

Sorry, but that's what they all say - when they're in opposition. So far, it's not what they do in government, and I'll be surprised if the most successful scare-campaigner of our age turns out to be the first prime minister in living memory to get through three years of government without breaking any promises.

Hockey is promising a return to ''stable, predictable and honest government''. But how can you have stable and predictable government in an unstable and unpredictable global economy?

Honest Abbott's unqualified promise to Stop the Boats assumes there are no push-factors beyond our government's control, only pull-factors within its control. Sure. So what are the punters likely to think when, long after September 14, the boats don't stop coming?

I've got a better idea. Why don't the pollies on both sides Stop the Bulldust? And why don't the rest of us keep giving both sides a hard time until they do?

Monday, May 27, 2013

Waiting for PEFO just Hockey's excuse to delay truth

I have a feeling Joe Hockey would make a much better treasurer than many imagine, but all politicians talk a fair bit of nonsense while in opposition and Hockey is no exception. Ministers know what they say is under much closer scrutiny.

Hockey professes hardly to believe a word of Wayne Swan's budget. It "lacks integrity" and he has "deep reservations about the numbers", which "at the very best are optimistic".

He claims not to lack faith in the work of the Treasury, only in the Treasurer. But he criticises various budget assumptions about how spending on certain items will change over the next four years (he seems terribly confident about the accuracy of his own crystal ball), implying Swan has imposed his own, implausible figures on the econocrats.

So what's he on about? Part of it is no doubt just an attempt to further destroy the credibility of the man who, in last year's budget, boasted it "delivers [note that word] a surplus this coming year, on time, as promised, and surpluses each year after that, strengthening over time". Oh dear.

Well, Hockey wouldn't be a pollie if he didn't exploit that golden opportunity to put in the boot. And he's right to cast doubt on the likelihood of a $6.6 billion surplus in four years' time - not because the government has got at Treasury and Finance but because no one, not even Hockey, can have any certainty about how the economy will unfold between now and then.

That's just common sense. It's the simple souls who take medium-term projections literally that Hockey should be wising up, not implying he can know the future better than Swan can, or that Treasury's forecasts would be right on the money were Swan not forcing them to be wrong.

There's no reason to believe a change of government would make any difference to the likelihood of budget forecasts proving off-beam because of unforeseen developments. The world will not suddenly become more stable or predictable on September 14.

But I think Hockey's motives in rubbishing the budget forecasts are more devious. He dribbles out the odd example of unpopular spending cuts but, since he doesn't know the budget's true position, he can't do more than that. He doesn't know how much he's got in the kitty to play with - or, rather, how big is the "true" deficit that will constrain the promises the Coalition will make.

Get it? He claims the budget figures are politically tainted because this justifies him delaying publication of his costings until only about three weeks before election day - which is when we'll receive the PEFO, the pre-election economic and fiscal outlook, signed off not by Swan and Penny Wong, but by the secretaries of Treasury and Finance.

The "pee-foe", part of Peter Costello's charter of budget honesty, is a good idea gone wrong. Its purpose was to stop future incoming governments doing what Costello did in 1996 (and Paul Keating did in 1983): claiming to have uncovered a "budget black hole" left by their predecessors and using this as an excuse for a horror budget, in which cuts not mentioned in the campaign materialise and promises retrospectively declared to be "non-core" are broken.

That's fine, but successive oppositions have used it ever since as an excuse to leave revelation of their plans and costings to the last moment.

Trouble is, last week Treasury secretary Martin Parkinson (who said he'd been authorised by Finance secretary David Tune to speak also on his behalf) undercut Hockey's excuse, saying that had the PEFO been released at the same time as the budget, it would have said the same thing.

So if the PEFO differs from the budget it will be because of government policy decisions and developments in the economy, not because the econocrats are no longer being leaned on.

Note that, if he follows past practice, Swan is likely to publish an updated economic and fiscal outlook document just a week or two before the PEFO. Why? So he can take any policy measures needed to prevent the econocrats' latest forecasts from comparing too badly with the budget.

Hockey says "we must return stable, predictable and honest government to Australia". Well, if he can magically make the economy more stable and predictable, good luck to him. As for restoring honesty, it would be a good thing. But by using such a weak excuse to keep the electorate in the dark about his plans until the last moment, he's not off to a good start. The next honesty test will be whether his costings are checked by the Parliamentary Budget Office or by some back-street accountant who has certified only that the arithmetic's OK.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Structural budget reveals tax cuts are the problem

They say it's only when the tide goes out you discover who's been swimming naked. It's the same when you calculate the "structural" budget balance. And we've just learnt that though Wayne Swan's cossie has slipped revealingly, Peter Costello was completely starkers.

This week both the new Parliamentary Budget Office and Treasury published estimates of the federal budget's structural balance from the start of the noughties to 2016-17, in the office's case. The figures used were actual outcomes up to 2011-12 and then the forecasts and projections contained in last week's budget. The two agencies' conclusions are very similar.

When you look at the figures for the overall budget balance you get the story the Liberals have been drumming into us non-stop since 2009: we were fabulous managers of the government's finances, but Labor's been absolutely hopeless. We left office in 2007 having produced six budget surpluses in a row. As a result, we paid off the debt we inherited from the Keating government and left office with $45 billion in the bank. But from the moment Labor took over, everything went to pot. If it gets tossed out in September, Swan will have presided over six deficits in a row and, according to his own figuring, no return to surplus for another three years. He will have left us with a net debt of about $178 billion.

That's all arithmetically correct and it sounds pretty damning. But it glosses over the fact that Costello's luck was a lot better than Swan's. Costello presided over the first part of the resources boom when the government's coffers were overflowing, whereas Swan wasn't in office long before the global financial crisis hit.

He spent a lot of money trying to stave off recession but, though he had much success, the government's revenues still haven't fully recovered. And though the resources boom soon resumed, it was very different from the first stage, with the miners' investment spending meaning they didn't pay much company tax and the high dollar meaning other tradeable industries didn't pay much either.

When you take the overall budget balance and adjust it to determine the structural (or underlying) budget balance, what you're doing, in effect, is removing the part of the budget balance that's the result of luck.

By trying to ascertain what the budget balance would have been had the economy been having an average year - with it neither booming nor very weak - you're taking away Costello's good luck and making up for Swan's bad luck. And by doing that you're getting at whether each man was a good manager or a bad one.

You're trying to remove the effect of the business cycle and other temporary factors so as to reveal the structural (lasting) changes that took place. These mainly result from the overt decisions governments make to change their spending or taxing arrangements.

Don't think this is a bit of sophistry cooked up to explain away Swan's failure to get the budget back to surplus as promised. It's a calculation with a long history in macro-economics, that's done for us each year by both the International Monetary Fund and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

But that doesn't make it a simple or certain calculation.

As with so much in economics, it involves making a lot of assumptions, and everyone who does it comes up with a different answer. In our case, the big imponderable is what's going to happen to our terms of trade (essentially, the prices we get for our exports of coal and iron ore).

For clarity, I'll quote the mid-point of the range of estimates of the structural balances calculated by the budget office. It finds the budget began the noughties in structural surplus, but then the structural balance declined steadily between 2002-03 and 2011-12, from a surplus equivalent to about 2.5 per cent of nominal gross domestic product to a structurally balanced budget in 2007, before falling to a structural deficit of about 3.75 per cent of GDP in 2011-12.

Based on the figures in last week's budget, the structural deficit then shows a sharp improvement to a bit over 2 per cent this financial year. In the next four years to 2016-17 the structural deficit is expected to improve to a bit under 1 per cent of GDP.

So what are the causes of this deterioration and then improvement? From the structural balance's biggest surplus in 2002-03 to its biggest deficit in 2011-12, the structural level of revenue fell by about five percentage points of GDP, while the structural level of spending rose by about one percentage point.

From 2011-12 to 2016-17, the structural level of revenue is expected to rise about 1.75 percentage points, while the structural level of spending declines by about one percentage point, with the combined effect significantly reducing the structural deficit.

The budget office says more than two-thirds of the initial five percentage point decline in structural revenue was caused by the cumulative effect of the six tax cuts in a row delivered or promised by Costello. (Two-thirds seems too much to me. I suspect it doesn't allow for the notional indexation of the tax scale and so counts this as structural rather than cyclical.)

A further quarter of the five points, the office tells us, results from a decline in excise receipts, caused by Costello's decision to end the indexation of petrol excise in the 2001 budget and by a decline in smoking (and thus tobacco excise).

The expected 1.75 percentage point rise in revenue between 2011-12 and 2016-17 is mainly the result of rising income-tax collections because of bracket creep and the budget's initial net benefit from the increase in the Medicare levy until the new disability scheme is fully phased in.

See what this means? The Libs keep saying the problem is Labor's unrestrained spending but, in fact, it's almost all on the tax side. The tax weakness arises overwhelmingly from Costello's eight delivered or promised tax cuts. Swan's main failings were to actually deliver the last three of those cuts and to not restore the indexation of petrol excise.

News on economy not as bad as it sounds

Good grief! It seems all the news about the economy this week has been terrible. Is the roof about to fall in?

First we heard consumer confidence took a 7 per cent hit after Treasurer Wayne Swan's all-bad-news budget, then we hear the sharemarket has taken a dive because the Americans can't decide whether things are getting better or still as bad as ever.

By now the dollar's down about US6c. New figures show the mining investment boom is no more and, to top it off, we hear Ford is ceasing production with up to 10,000 jobs to go.

So, is the roof falling in on the economy?

Fortunately, it's not as bad as it sounds. My guess is the economy will continue motoring along (sorry), not doing brilliantly but not doing too badly either.

Let's put the bad news in context. For a start, the ups and downs in measures of consumer confidence must mean something, but they are an unreliable guide to the prospects for consumer spending.

We all know the sharemarket goes up and down from one day to the next, and of late there has been more up days than down.

The fall in the dollar might be bad news for people planning overseas holidays or buying imported goods, but it's good news for our hard-pressed manufacturers and tourist operators. My fear is it won't last.

Ford might have announced its closure this week, but it won't actually happen for another three years. That gives its workers plenty of time to find new jobs.

In any case, our workforce of 11.6 million often grows by 10,000 or more in just a month. That might sound like a lot of jobs but, compared with the size of our economy, it's microscopic.

The economy's been growing at an average rate of 3 per cent a year. That's been enough to hold unemployment below 5.5 per cent, though it's true the budget expects the economy to slow a fraction in the coming financial year, thereby allowing unemployment to creep up to 5.75 per cent by next June.

It's true the end of the mining boom is likely soon to be reducing rather than adding to the economy's growth, but that is why the Reserve Bank has been cutting interest rates back to their lowest since the global financial crisis: to encourage borrowing and spending on consumer durables, housing and business investment.

And remember this: every time we get a new government hope springs eternal and people cheer up, with punters spending more and businesses investing in renewal and expansion.

How long the good mood lasts depends on the new government's performance, of course.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Both sides' big secret: taxes must go up, not down

Someone said the reason the political debate in Australia has become so bitter and personally abusive is that, at bottom, there's not a lot of difference between the two sides on policy issues. There are a few issues on which they offer clear alternatives, but not many.

You may think, for example, there's a big difference between them on taxation. But, as it has become clearer in the past week, the supposed differences are more contrived than real.

The parties are as one in their refusal to acknowledge the truth that strikes whoever examines the many studies inquiring into future spending pressures on federal and state budgets: there's only one way taxes can go and that's up.

I'm sure all our political leaders understand this but, fearing what the other side would say, they pretend the problem isn't looming. When I tax cabinet ministers with the topic, they don't tell me I'm talking nonsense, they look aghast and mutter "we couldn't possibly say that".

As so often with economic matters under the Rudd-Gillard government, in the politicians' determination not to confront voters with the harsh realities on taxation it's the Liberals who take the offensive and Labor that's defensive.

Tony Abbott initially put a lot of work into exploiting and reinforcing the voters' deeply held misperception that the Liberals are the party of low taxation, and Labor the party of high taxes. He promised to abolish Labor's "great big new taxes" on carbon emissions and the impoverished mining companies. Bronwyn Bishop repeated virtuously that the Liberals are always opposed to big new taxes.

I wanted to ask her, do the letters GST ring a bell? When you measure the burden of federal taxes as a proportion of the nation's income - as you should - Peter Costello was our highest taxing treasurer. Wayne Swan can't hold a candle to him. Only if you ignore inflation and the real growth in the economy can you pretend Swan is extracting more tax than his predecessor.

But when it comes to cynical and hypocritical exploitation of the public's presumed opposition to higher taxes, both sides have form. Remember how hard Labor campaigned against John Howard's iniquitous goods and services tax in 1998?

It was immoral and would greatly damage the economy. Yet when Labor returned to power nine years later, the idea of repealing or even modifying the tax never once crossed its mind.

Abbott's grandstanding on the horrendous cost and economic damage to be wrought by the carbon tax has been the most successful yet utterly dishonest scare campaign of modern times.

But now Labor is preparing to return the compliment. Prevented by all his crocodile tears over Labor's "debt and deficits" from acting on his promise to return the budget to surplus forthwith while still introducing a tax cut, Abbott is now giving the appearance of action by promising yet another review of the tax system, this time not excluding the goods and services tax.

So Labor is gearing up for another scare campaign on the GST, which will be dishonest not because an expansion of the tax is unlikely - it's highly likely within a few years - but because Labor will portray it as unneeded and economically disastrous, all the while standing ready to benefit from the tax when the party next returns to office.

The pressure for more revenue from the GST is the clearest, most immediate reason for believing we'll be paying a higher proportion of our incomes in tax in the future. It has turned out not to be the great "growth tax" and saviour of the state governments.

The era in which households were running down their savings, thus allowing consumer spending to grow perpetually faster than household income, has ended and won't be returning. What's more, the two main areas of household spending excluded from the GST (apart from food) - health and education - are growing faster than the spending included, meaning the tax applies to an ever-declining proportion of total consumer spending.

Since the states are so heavily dependent on revenue from the GST to finance their own considerable spending, this a big worry for the premiers, who by now must be desperately hoping a way can be found to raise the rate of GST or broaden its scope, or preferably both.

What's a problem for all the premiers becomes a problem for Canberra. And big business is partial to higher GST, hoping the proceeds could be used to cut the rate of company tax (vain hope).

It's often charged that most of the many budget "savings" Swan boasts of are actually increases in taxation. It's true. But note this: last week Abbott warned he reserved the option of implementing all of Labor's savings if he gets into power (no matter what nasty things he'd said about them at the time).

The disability insurance scheme represents a clear extension of the social safety net. Nothing could make more sense than saying such an extension would need to be covered by higher taxation.

Yet Julia Gillard, proud mother of this historic reform, lacked the courage to propose such an obvious measure until forced by budget realities just a week or two ago.

But here is the point: No-new-taxes Tony immediately embraced a 0.5 percentage point increase in the rates of income tax. And voters copped it almost without murmur. The era of higher taxes is dawning.

Monday, May 20, 2013

This budget less dishonest than last year's

When it comes to forecasting the economy - and thereby the budget balance - the econocrats of the Reserve Bank and Treasury are on a hiding to nothing.

When they get it pretty right that's no better than it should be. But when they get it wrong - for whatever reason - they're fools and probably knaves as well.

The obvious truth is no economists are consistently good at forecasting the economy. It's those non-economists who forget this - including Wayne Swan and Julia Gillard - who are the fools, not the economists who cater to humankind's irrational but unquenchable desire to pretend the future can be known.

Budget week is open season for anyone who can find a microphone to claim Treasury's forecasts are wildly optimistic. But though the econocrats' record is pretty bad, I've yet to discover any non-official forecaster whose record is better.

And whereas the budget-time know-alls are rarely held to account, the econocrats are always accountable. Their forecasts are on the record for the whole world to judge after the event.

The proof of their high standard of accountability is that they often conduct systematic reviews of their forecasting accuracy, which they make public so as to keep themselves humble and to warn users of their forecasts' fallibility.

According to my quick squiz, the leading business economists' forecasts for real gross domestic product are only a fraction lower than Treasury's, but their forecasts for nominal GDP are significantly lower, mainly because they expect our terms of trade (export prices, essentially) to fall by a lot more than Treasury does.

If they are right, you'd expect Treasury's revenue forecasts again to prove too high. But to give the business economists their due, they haven't been trumpeting their differences with Treasury, either for cheap publicity or to prove what fools they are in Treasury.

No, this year the vociferous criticism of Treasury's forecasts and assumptions has come from the Opposition (they would say that), partisan economists and shock jocks who wouldn't know the difference between a forecast and a projection if it bit them on the backside.

The irony is, this is a less dishonest budget than the past few that Swan produced as he realised the long-promised return to surplus in 2012-13 would need help from performance-enhancing accounting.

One trick used extensively last year was to take spending planned for the early weeks of 2012-13 and switch it into the later weeks of the old year, thereby overstating spending in the old year and understating the budget year. Every $1 you switch increases the difference by $2.

This year Swan's creative accounting has been limited to bringing forward $1.1 billion in payments to local government - presumably to hide the fact that the budget year's deficit is actually a little higher than the previous year's.

As every accountant knows, the trouble with shifting expenses is that it comes back to bite you the following year. The government's strategy requires it to limit the real growth in its spending to 2 per cent a year, on average.

The games played in last year's budget caused real government spending to grow by 4.8 per cent the previous year, then fall by 3.2 per cent in 2012-13. But that year's fall means, despite this year's restraint, spending is expected to jump by 4.3 per cent. The comparison would be even worse without this year's fiddle.

Another trick last year was to use Swan's fiscal bulldozer to push spending commitments off into the future beyond the forward estimates, where they became invisible.

This year he's done something new, showing how the offsetting savings (including sinful tax increases) are more than sufficient to cover the growing cost of the disability scheme and the Gonski education reforms, not merely over the forward estimates but over the next 10 years.

Those who think politics but never economics saw this move as a cunning attempt to "wedge" Tony Abbott. If so, it didn't work. But I see it as a marked improvement in budget transparency, needed to prove the fiscal bulldozer had been left in its shed.

The transparency has, however, allowed Saul Eslake, of Merrill Lynch - who invariably produces the most penetrating analysis of the budget - to note that, though the disability scheme will cost only $1.9 billion over the four years to 2016-17, the linked increase in the Medicare levy will raise $11.6 billion in that time.

Eslake says about two-thirds of the net improvement in the budget balance attributable to policy decisions over the four years to 2015-16 comes from this discrepancy.

He further notes that, if you switch your focus from the "underlying" to the "headline" cash balance (thus taking account of the off-budget building of the national broadband network), the budget should still be in deficit in the last two years of the forward estimates.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Worry more about the economy than the budget

Most of those who take a political approach to the budget assume that if it's in deficit, the way you get it back to surplus is to cut government spending or, if you're a really bad person, increase taxes. They forget it's the budget itself that's supposed to do the heavy lifting.

When the severe recession of the early 1990s turned Paul Keating's budget surpluses into big deficits, he told people not to worry: as the economy recovered, the budget would "whirr back to surplus".

He was right, it did. Only trouble was it took a while to happen, and by then the chap in charge of the budget was Peter Costello - who, as any politician would, took all the credit.

When Wayne Swan and Julia Gillard began predicting the budget would be back to surplus this financial year, 2012-13, they were assuming it would happen pretty much automatically. The budget would again whirr back to surplus after all the weakness of the global financial crisis.

It hasn't happened. As we learnt this week, the budget balance for this year is now expected to be a deficit of $19.4 billion rather than a surplus of $1.5 billion.

Why? Not because the government has continued to spend like a drunken sailor, as some would have you believe, but because the budget didn't whirr back as it was expected to. Rather than growing strongly, tax collections grew by a lot less than expected.

Contrary to what most economists were expecting, when the high coal and iron ore prices feeding the resources boom began to fall back, the dollar didn't fall back with them.

So the miners' profits have fallen, but the high dollar has continued to squeeze the profits of our other trade-exposed industries as well. They haven't been able to earn as much from their exports, nor charge as much for the stuff they sell in our domestic market because imported goods and services have stayed cheap.

So far, this hasn't adversely affected economic activity. The quantity of goods and services we produce (real gross domestic product) has continued to grow at a reasonable rate, but the rise in prices has been weak, meaning nominal GDP hasn't grown as fast as real GDP.

This means we haven't had to worry about inflation, but the profits of our miners, manufacturers and tourist operators (and, for different reasons, our wholesalers and retailers) have been squeezed.

For the budget, it means collections from company tax have grown more weakly than expected, as has the tax on capital gains. (Collections from the new mining tax have been a fraction of what was expected, but for a quite different reason: because the tax was new, Treasury overestimated how much it would raise in its early years.)

So the budget hasn't whirred back to surplus as expected because, for quite unusual reasons, the recovery from the GFC hasn't proceeded normally. The spending and taxing decisions of the government have had little to do with this.

Here's the point: if problems in the economy have prevented the budget from returning to surplus, we should worry about those problems, not the delayed return to surplus.

As the budget papers say: "Fiscal [budgetary] objectives are not ends in themselves. They matter because of their implications for employment, incomes and wellbeing. In essence, good fiscal policy entails allowing the fiscal position [the budget balance] to vary in response to economic conditions in the near term, while ensuring fiscal settings are sustainable over the medium-to-long term."

What causes the budget balance to vary in response to economic conditions are the "automatic stabilisers" built into the budget. They're what does the whirring, pushing the budget into deficit when the economy goes down and pushing it back into surplus when the economy comes back up.

The main built-in stabilisers are the progressive income-tax scale and the availability of the dole but, as we've just been reminded, the other taxes also play a part.

So much for the economy's effect on the budget balance. In budget week we need to look also at the budget's effect on the economy; to assess the "stance of policy" adopted in the budget.

The Reserve Bank's way of doing this is simply to look at the expected change in the underlying cash budget balance, from a deficit of $19.4 billion this financial year to a deficit of $18 billion next year, 2013-14.

But Wayne Swan has fiddled this comparison by taking payments to local councils worth $1.1 billion and paying them in the old year when they weren't due until the new year. If you adjust the figures to remove this fiddle, you get a deficit of $18.3 billion in the old year and one of $19.1 billion in the new. This says the budget overall will have a tiny expansionary effect on total demand in the economy.

The Reserve will take this into account - along with many other factors - when it decides whether a further easing in the "stance" of monetary policy (another cut in interest rates) is needed.

However, the strict Keynesian way of assessing the stance of fiscal policy is to ignore the effect of the automatic stabilisers and focus on the net effect of all the discretionary policy changes announced in the budget.

Doing it this way shows that, after correcting for the fiddle, those changes will add $1.2 billion to the deficit for the old year and $1.4 billion to the one for the new year. This says the policy stance is stimulatory, but only to the tiniest extent (remember, nominal GDP will be $1.6 trillion).

It is true, as you've heard, that the effect of all the spending and tax changes announced this week would (if they are implemented by the government that wins the election) improve the budget balance by a net $28.4 billion over five years.

But this discretionary tightening isn't planned to start until the year after next, 2014-15, by which time we can expect the economy (and the budget) to be a lot stronger.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Swan's last budget: weird in a good way

This is the weirdest budget you or I are ever likely to see. That doesn't make it bad - just very strange.

With just four months until the election, it's the most unlikely pre-election budget you could imagine, with loads of nasties and next to no sweeteners. It is more like a post-election budget, particularly the kind you get after a change of government.

But its strangeness doesn't end there. The Parliament has so few weeks left to sit, it is likely most of its controversial measures won't become law before the election (with the increase in the Medicare levy the main exception).

That makes it less a budget than an election policy speech. Only if Julia Gillard is re-elected can we be sure the budget measures will become a reality.

And since the chances of Labor's re-election seem low, this is more Tony Abbott's budget than Gillard's. It will be he who decides which measures survive and which don't; whether Labor's last budget becomes anything more than its final, impotent gesture.

Do you think Gillard doesn't know that? This is the budget of a government that knows it's a dead duck.

Usually when governments know they are going to lose, they go for broke, offering electoral bribes they know they will never have to find a way to pay for, aiming to minimise their loss of seats.

Not this time. This budget is more likely to cost Labor votes than win it any.

No, the purpose of this budget is not vote-buying - it is reputation-rescuing, a last-ditch attempt to influence what history will say about the Rudd-Gillard government as an economic manager.

History will be impressed by this budget - and a lot more forgiving of Labor's shortcomings than voters are likely to be on September 14.

At this time in 2010, Wayne Swan seized on a Treasury projection three years into the future and boasted about his feat of returning the budget to surplus in 2012-13.

In the following election campaign, Gillard foolishly turned that long-range projection into a solemn promise.

This time last year, Swan boasted of budgeting for four surpluses in a row, as though they were in the bag. His surplus of $1.5 billion for the financial year just ending is now expected to be a deficit of $19.4 billion (but even that isn't yet certain). This year his boast of being able to get the budget back to a surplus of $6.6 billion in 2016-17 (again on the basis of Treasury's long-range projections) will draw understandable cynicism.

But just as Swan and Gillard should have more sense than to attach much weight to economists' forecasts, so should the rest of us. Treasury's crystal ball will be no more reliable after a change of government. Less initial naivety on the part of the media and the public would reduce ultimate cynicism.

The strength of this budget - should it come to pass - is that Swan has found sufficient saving measures (90 per cent of them tax increases) to cover the cost of the painfully slow phase-in of the disability insurance scheme, the Gonski school funding reforms and other new spending measures.

He has found other savings to make a start on reducing the budget's significant "structural" deficit - the product of excessive generosity by successive governments - and eventually getting the budget back to surplus, but without endangering the economy's tricky transition from mining-driven to consumer and business investment-driven growth over the coming year.

These additional, structural deficit reductions build from nothing in the coming financial year to $6 billion in the following year and $12 billion in each of the next two years. Being saving measures, these figures are less dependent on predictions about the state of the economy and so are easier to believe.

By my rough figuring, they will eventually reduce the structural deficit - that is, claw back unfunded handouts - by about 60 per cent.

It has to be said, however, that few of the nasties in the budget will cause voters to lose much sleep. They are aimed mainly at the well-off and foreign multinationals.

Even so, for a government that's been far too timid in tackling unjustified spending programs and tax breaks, this budget is surprisingly brave.

And if, by being the one to propose last night's unpopular measures, Gillard makes it easier for Abbott to agree to them now or to introduce them after the election, Labor will deserve respect for initiating such a heavily disguised form of bipartisanship.

For what it's worth, this is a good budget. But that is the trouble: under these strange circumstances, it ain't worth a lot.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Budget becomes Canberra's con job on the nation

Tuesday night's budget may have become the central plaything in the dog fight between Labor and Liberal, but its economic importance is a shadow of what it used to be.

It suits no one in Canberra to admit it - not the pollies of either side, the econocrats, the business lobbyists nor the journalists - but these days the budget is not of great significance in the macro management of the economy.

True, it's still of great newsworthiness because the decisions the government makes about changes to spending programs and taxes do affect the pockets of people across Australia.

And these decisions are of micro-economic significance because they affect the efficiency with which the nation's economic resources are allocated. They also affect the fairness with which income is distributed between low, middle and upper-income households.

But with so many people having made up their minds on whom they'll vote for, and so many of the nasties already leaked to the media (or selectively leaked to the morning papers before being announced the same day), I doubt the budget will have much political significance.

And that's even if, following the usual budget media-manipulation script, the government has held back a few nice measures for the media to give exaggerated attention to on the night.

Even so, Canberra's dirty little secret is that the decisions we'll be making so much fuss about on Tuesday night will have surprisingly little effect on how the macro economy performs over the coming financial year.

That's for two reasons. First, politicians' decisions have much less effect on the budget than the daily decisions made by the 98.4 per cent of Australians living outside the ACT.

If, as seems likely, most of the budget deficit we're told about on Tuesday is accounted for by the "structural deficit" - that is, the net cumulative effect of unwise decisions by governments of both colours over many years - this will prove how much tosh the pollies have been spouting about the bad state of the economy.

Even the government has long been crying crocodile tears about how tough people are finding it to keep up with the rising cost of living. Julia Gillard and Wayne Swan keep doing this because their focus groups tell them the cost of living is all the punters can find to complain about.

They make sympathetic noises even though they know the economic indicators say real incomes are rising, not falling.

The second reason the budget's macro-economic significance is exaggerated by the denizens of Canberra is that, as the fine print in the budget papers admits every year, the primary responsibility for the day-to-day management of macro economy rests with monetary policy (the manipulation of interest rates), which is determined by the Reserve Bank in Sydney without reference to the pollies in Canberra.

It's true changes in the budget balance affect the strength of aggregate demand in the economy, but what the Keynesian Rip van Winkles haven't woken up to is that so do a lot of other things - the exchange rate, for openers.

The point is, the budget is just one of various factors the Reserve takes into account when deciding whether to use its interest-rate lever to stimulate or restrict demand. In other words, monetary policy is the "swing instrument".

Sometimes the Reserve chooses to push in the same direction as the budget, sometimes it chooses to counteract the budget by pushing in the opposite direction (as it did in the Howard government's later years when it was using its budget to worsen rather than improve the business cycle).

Much will be made on Tuesday night of the forecasts for the economy contained in the budget papers. We'll be told how fast Treasury expects the economy, inflation and all the rest to grow next financial year, as though this is news of great significance.

It isn't. Why not? Partly because it's the forecasts of the macro managers that matter and, as we've seen, neither Treasury nor its masters manage the economy. It's the Reserve Bank's forecasts that matter.

Actually, Treasury makes sure its forecasts (which it uses primarily to help it estimate budget spending and revenue) are little different from the Reserve's. Why? Because the Reserve's independence of the politicians makes it the more credible forecaster.

And get this: the forecasts we'll be told about with great fanfare on Tuesday will be old news. Why? Because they'll be the same as the forecasts the Reserve announced last Friday. The economy's growth should average 3 per cent in 2012-13 and about 2.5 per cent in 2013-14. The forecasts for inflation will be 2.25 per cent and about 2.5 per cent respectively.

Why does everyone in Canberra have an interest in misleading us about the budget's macro-economic significance? Because, as the ACT's principal export to the rest of Australia, the budget is how they make their living.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

How to worry about the budget deficit

Far too much fuss is being made about this year's budget because politics has overtaken economics. I'm adding to the fuss, of course, but at least I'm trying to help people assess the economic significance of all the political argy-bargy.

When we see the budget on Tuesday night the deficit is likely still to be very big. How worried should we be about that deficit? And how urgent is it for the government to get the budget back to surplus?

For the politically partisan, these are easy questions. If you're a one-eyed Liberal supporter, any deficit is a terrible thing and it should be eliminated ASAP. If you're a one-eyed Labor supporter, budget deficits aren't a great problem and to reduce them while the economy is in its present state could do great damage.

If you're interested in an economic analysis, however, it's not as simple as the political partisans imagine.

To decide how worrying a budget deficit is you have to know about the state of the economy at the time. This is because - although the political types don't know it, or keep forgetting it - the budget balance at any moment is a product of two different forces: the economy's effect on the budget, on one hand, and the government's effect on the budget on the other.

When the economy's in the upswing part of the business cycle the budget's likely to be in or heading towards surplus. That's because people will be earning more income and paying a lot of tax on it, while others will be finding jobs and going off the dole.

When the economy's in the downswing part of the cycle the budget's likely to be in or heading towards deficit. That's because people will be earning less income and paying less tax, while others are losing their jobs and going onto the dole.

But though the economy's effect on the budget balance via the business cycle is usually the bigger effect, we still have to take account of the government's effect on the balance. The economy's effect is known as the ''cyclical component'' of the budget balance and the government's effect is called the ''structural component''.

The structural component should be the cumulative effect of all the policy decisions the government has made - some going back quite a few years - to change taxes and government spending (although it may also include the effect of changes in the underlying structure of the economy).

The point of all this is that if the deficit at a particular time was largely the product of the weak state of the economy, the weak state of the economy would be something to worry about, but the deficit it produced wouldn't be.

So to decide how worried we should be about the budget deficit we see on Tuesday, we need to know how much of it is cyclical and how much is structural. Whatever part of it is cyclical is justified by the state of the economy and something that will fix itself as the economy strengthens.

If a significant part of it is structural, that could be justified only if the economy was so weak the government was adding its own stimulus to that provided automatically by the budget's ''automatic stabilisers''. (These are built-in elements of the budget - particularly the progressive tax scale and the dole - the operation of which is what creates the cyclical component of the budget deficit or surplus.)

The way economists divide the budget balance into its cyclical and structural components is to work out where the budget balance would be if the economy were running at trend levels - on its medium-term average growth path, averaging out all the ups and downs in the cycle. The extent to which the actual budget balance departs from this trend estimate represents the structural component.

As with so many concepts in economics, the idea's easy to grasp but putting a number on it ain't. You have to make a lot of assumptions and estimates, meaning different economists come up with different figures.

This week Chris Richardson, of Deloitte Access Economics, published his estimates that the overall cash budget deficit will be $22.2 billion for the year just finishing, 2012-13, and $20.2 billion for the coming year.

His corresponding estimates for the structural deficit are $22.8 billion (equivalent to 1.5 per cent of gross domestic product) and $20.2 billion (1.3 per cent). In other words, the overall deficit is totally explained by structural factors.

Note that these figures are on a ''no-policy-change basis''. That is, they're estimates of the ''starting-point deficit'' before the government began deciding on all the policy changes to be announced on Tuesday (and which it has been leaking as part of its media manipulation). Richardson says the small improvement in the structural deficit between the years is probably mainly the result of a year's worth of bracket creep.

Does it surprise you that, according to Richardson's figuring, no part of the overall deficit is cyclical? If it does, it shouldn't. You've been listening to politicking, not reading the economic indicators. Reserve Bank governor Glenn Stevens said this week the economy is growing at only ''a bit below trend''.

And this week we learnt the smoothed unemployment rate has been at 5.5 per cent for three months. Remember, economists regard full employment as an unemployment rate of about 5 per cent.

All this says most of the deficit we see on Tuesday will be structural. As we saw in last week's column, however, much of it will be the legacy of unwise decisions made by the Howard government (including, Richardson reminds us, its decision to stop indexing the excise on petrol, which is now costing about $5 billion a year).

To be sustainable, the recurrent budget does need to be in balance on average over the cycle. It would risk damage to the economy to try to eliminate a big structural deficit in one hit. But that will not excuse any failure by the Gillard government to get on with reducing it.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

The economic geography of big cities

If you've seen those ads the mining industry is running you probably realise the entire economy is riding on the miners' backs, and if asked to pay another dollar more in tax they'll up sticks and shift their mines to some better-run country like Peru or Nigeria.

If you've spoken to a farmer any time in the past 50 years you'll know it's actually farming that's propping the economy.

In either case you'll be surprised to know the truth: according to estimates by the Department of Infrastructure and Transport, 80 per cent of Australia's economic activity takes place in Australia's major cities.

That's because the great majority of us live in big cities. We live there because that's where most of the jobs are. Equally, most of the jobs are where the people live because most jobs involve doing things for people (such as bringing them the news).

But it's not by accident that so many of us happen to be piled into a handful of cities (as are people in all developed countries and, increasingly, many developing countries). We pile together because it's more efficient economically, thus making us more prosperous.

For one thing, it saves on transport and other distribution costs. For another, outfits such as hospitals and schools - even shopping centres - gain economies of scale when they have more people to serve.

But that's just the start of the "economies of agglomeration", as Jane-Frances Kelly and Peter Mares point out in their report for the Grattan Institute, Productive Cities.

We're used to dividing up the economy by sector - agriculture, mining, manufacturing and the big one, services - and focusing on how these sectors' shares of the economy are changing. But this blinds us to an important development.

"One of the most significant long-term shifts in advanced economies is towards knowledge-intensive activities. These take place across all sectors of the economy," the authors say. In other words, there are knowledge-intensive jobs in each of the sectors - but almost all of them are located in the cities.

Knowledge-intensive activities tend to involve customised problem solving, which requires significant intellectual effort. So such workers solve problems and generate ideas. Their jobs are clean, safe, well-paid and intellectually satisfying. They're the way for Australia to go if we want a better future than just farming and mining (lucrative though they are).

But here's the point: knowledge-intensive activities grow best in big cities. This is because people and businesses learn from each other, and the closer together they are the more they learn. According to the urban economist Edward Glaeser, the "central paradox of the modern metropolis" is that even as the cost of connecting across distance falls, so the value of being close to other businesses rises.

As well, the more businesses and workers cluster together, the more they each benefit from "deep" labour markets. Firms have more workers to pick from; workers have more firms to pick from. Jobs can become more specialised, and ever-increasing specialisation is one of the main ways economies have become richer over the past 200 years.

When you specialise in something you get better at it. And the individual worker more closely fits the needs of the individual employer (which makes the worker more valuable and able to command a higher salary). But the more specialised you are the more contact you need with others in your specialty to help you keep up.

The report says that, adapting to changing economic circumstances, Australia's largest cities have evolved from compact colonial cities where jobs and houses were close together and most people walked to work, to cities that spread outwards into suburbs.

"This transition was made easier by changing transport technologies: first trams and trains, then buses and cars. The transition further separated the worlds of work and home, an arrangement that was well suited to a 20th-century economy driven largely by manufacturing, when industry could often be a dirty and noisy neighbour."

Initially this led to the "hollowing out" of inner cities as both residents and jobs moved to the suburbs. In the decades since 1980, however, the trend began to turn around, as services began to replace manufacturing as the main source of new jobs.

Combined with factors such as traffic congestion and rising fuel prices, this helped to prompt a resurgence of CBDs and inner suburbs as places to live and work.

The point here is that the economic efficiency of cities - their ability to generate well-paying jobs - turns on where the jobs are, where the homes are and the adequacy of the transport system that allows us to move between the two.

But the report finds that labour markets are shallow in significant parts of Australia's biggest cities. "In many suburbs - particularly outer suburbs - residents can reach fewer than 10 per cent of all metropolitan jobs with a reasonable commuting time," it says.

The answer is not for governments to try (and often fail) to create jobs in outer suburban areas. People want to live closer in, and many of them want units rather than houses. So the answer is to remove the disincentives faced by developers building in established suburbs and stop established suburbs from being "locked down" by restrictive zoning and planning rules.

The way to reduce traffic congestion and increase the capacity of city transport systems is to start charging for the use of roads and use the revenue to expand public transport.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Pain hits business before it hits the budget

As we approach the budget next week we're hearing a lot about how the strangely weak growth in nominal gross domestic product has hit tax collections, particularly from company tax.

But we're hearing a lot less about what this implies is happening to the "real" economy.

What's causing nominal GDP to be so weak - weaker than real GDP - is that although the prices of our mineral exports have fallen a fair bit, the dollar hasn't also fallen, as it was expected to. This means we're getting the worst of all worlds.

The miners are getting lower prices, but still losing as much from the high dollar. The other export and import-competing industries - farmers, manufacturers, tourist operators and others - who gained little from the resource boom are still being robbed of their international price competitiveness when they could have expected to be getting a bit of relief by now.

If company tax collections aren't growing as strongly as had been expected, this must be because corporate profits are weak.

In fact, the national accounts version of corporate profits ("gross operating surplus") has fallen in nominal terms for five quarters in a row and by 4 per cent over the year to December.

So company profits are being squeezed - which is really only what you'd expect when the dollar's been so high for so long. Even so, it helps explain why businesses are so unhappy and blaming the Labor government for their troubles.

But the consumer price index for the March quarter showed puzzling things are happening to a sector you'd expect to benefit from a high dollar: retailing.

It showed that whereas the retail prices of "non-tradeables" - goods and services not able to be traded internationally - rose by a hefty 1.3 per cent in the quarter and 4.2 per cent over the year to March, the retail prices of "tradeables" fell by 1.2 per cent in the quarter and 0.2 per cent over the year.

This is further evidence manufacturing and tourism are under a lot of pressure.

But it's also a puzzle because it's only when the dollar is rising that you would expect the prices of tradeables to be falling. As Paul Bloxham of HSBC bank has observed, the Australian dollar has been broadly steady for more than two years.

According to the CPI, retail furniture prices fell 6.8 per cent in the quarter and 2.3 per cent over the year.

Household textile prices fell by 6.7 per cent and 4.3 per cent. Appliance prices fell by 2.5 per cent and 4.4 per cent.

Retail prices of audio-visual items fell 4.7 per cent and 13.5 per cent, while overseas holiday prices fell by 5.2 per cent and 0.4 per cent.

Michael Workman of Commonwealth Bank argues the lower prices of imported goods and services are a reflection more of weak global consumer markets for European and Asian producers than the effect of the high dollar.

That is, foreign suppliers are cutting the prices they charge Australian importers so as to keep their sales up. If so, the lower prices our retailers are charging customers aren't coming out of their own hide.

Well, that's one theory. But others aren't so reassuring. Another theory is that weak demand and intense competition between retailers is obliging them to cut their prices at the expense of their profit margins.

They may be starting to feel the heat from customers using the internet to discover the lower prices being charged overseas, or using their smartphones to seek lower prices from other stores while haggling with shop assistants. If so, their profits are being "compressed" as the econocrats put it.

I have a theory retailing is suffering from a lot of excess capacity - too many stores - because it geared itself to a world where the rate of household saving kept falling, so that consumer spending grew consistently faster than household incomes.

Now the saving rate seems to have stabilised at 10 per cent, spending can grow no faster than incomes, meaning stores are competing to see who survives and who doesn't.

If so, this would be squeezing profits - at least until the losers shut up shop, so to speak.

Yet another possibility - which would apply to the manufacturers and tourist operators as well as the retailers - is that several years of heightened competitive pressures have obliged firms to find tough ways of lifting their productivity and then pass the savings through to their customers rather than taking them to the bottom line.

Whatever the truth of the situation - maybe some combination of all the various possibilities - it's not hard to see why the retailers are just as unhappy as the manufacturers. And don't forget a big part of small business is in retailing.

But not to worry, chaps. As soon as Julia's out and Tony's in, he'll fix everything.

Pain under the Libs is much easier to take.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Ghost of Costello haunts Swan's budget

If you're a rusted-on supporter of the Coalition there can't be a shadow of a doubt that all the budget problems we're hearing about are the product of the Gillard government's incompetence. And if you don't think much about economics, it's perfectly believable.

After all, the budget had been in surplus for eight years straight when the Howard government lost office in late 2007. In that time Peter Costello not only paid back the $96 billion net public debt he inherited from Labor, he clocked up a credit balance of $45 billion.

In marked contrast, Labor's first budget went straight into deficit and has stayed there ever since, despite its solemn promise to get back to surplus this year. Wayne Swan soon chewed up all the money the Libs left him and racked up a net debt of about $140 billion and counting.

What more do you need to know?

Well, a bit of economics would be nice. Failing that, a bit of commonsense. The good guys/bad guys story I've just told rests on two silly assumptions.

First, everything that happens to the federal budget happens because of the actions of the government. Nothing happening in the rest of the economy - or the rest of the world - could possibly affect the budget balance. In other words, nothing happens that's beyond the treasurer's control.

Second, from the day a new treasurer takes over, everything that happens must be in consequence of his actions. Nothing his predecessors had done could still be having an effect on the budget long after they'd been tossed out.

Clearly, life - and budgeting - is a little bit messier than that. Economists well know that things beyond the treasurer's control actually have a bigger effect on the budget than things that are within the government's control.

That's true regardless of whether you're Labor or Liberal and whether what the economy does to your budget is good or bad.

It's equally true that some of the decisions made by a treasurer can still be affecting his (we've never had a female treasurer) successors many years later.

So, as with everything else in work or life, the budgetary performance of a government is some combination of luck and management.

Costello's management was good in many respects but, as we'll see, not as good as many have assumed. Swan's management has been the opposite: far from perfect, but not as bad as it has suited many people to claim. As for luck, there's no contest: Costello's luck was great; Swan's has been lousy.

To a partisan of the right, the trouble Swan is facing in getting the budget back to surplus any time in the foreseeable future is explained solely by Labor's chronic inability to stop spending. All the recent talk of "structural" (that is, long-lasting) problems on the revenue side of the budget is just excuse-making.

It's true Labor has trouble controlling its urge to splurge. But it's also true that the slowness of tax collections to return to their normal healthy rate of growth as the economy grows is partly the result of weaknesses that go back to decisions made by the Howard government.

Increasingly, economists are realising our governments mishandled the revenue windfall from the first phase of the resources boom, spending too much of it and saving too little.

Not only did John Howard allow government spending to grow at Labor-like rates in the noughties, but Costello responded to the temporary boost in collections from company tax by cutting income tax eight years in a row (though, to be sure, the last three of his cuts were actually delivered by Labor).

Usually, income tax is cut only every three years or so, and cut close to an election so voters haven't forgotten it happened. Does it surprise you that cutting income tax so much can reduce its revenue-raising power today and in coming years? It shouldn't.

The Australia Institute has used the well-regarded Stinmod micro-simulation model to estimate that, had the income-tax scale for 2004-05 still been in use last financial year, 2011-12, collections from the tax would have been almost $39 billion higher.

Now, you may object that we couldn't have gone for all that time without any tax cut. Since our tax scales aren't indexed for inflation, we need regular tax cuts just to counter the effect of bracket creep.

Fair point. So next the institute compared the actual tax scale in 2011-12 with the 2004-05 scale with its tax brackets indexed up to allow for all the inflation in between. It found the indexed scale would have raised an additional $25 billion. So Costello's many tax cuts cut the real rate of income tax - on the strength of a surge in company tax collections that proved to be temporary.

Think how much smaller the budget deficit (and the accumulated debt) would be now had he limited himself to offsetting the effect of bracket creep. (Remember too that, particularly in the years before the global financial crisis, his decisions to spend rather than save the tax windfall from the resources boom obliged the Reserve Bank to raise interest rates higher than otherwise, to prevent this recycling from causing inflation.)

It's worth noting that the successive tax cuts were biased in favour of the better-off, with the cut-in point for the top tax rate trebled to $180,000 a year. As a result, the value of tax cuts going to the top 10 per cent of income earners exceeded that of the cuts going to the bottom 80 per cent.

If that doesn't convince you responsibility for the present and future state of the budget has to be shared between Labor and the Coalition, remember the other irresponsible revenue decision Costello made when the government was temporarily flush with funds: making income from superannuation totally tax free for people 60 and over.

Even at the time, economists warned this handout to the better-off was unsustainable - and so it has proved.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

What it's like to be genuinely poor

Don't be too alarmed by all the talk of budget black holes and everything being on the table in Julia Gillard's search for savings. It's more likely we're being softened up for a lot more budget deficits than for a horror budget in two weeks' time.

Even so, it's clear there will be more cuts in spending and tax concessions. And though they're hardly likely to be draconian, you can be sure they'll draw howls of protest from those affected, egged on by shock jocks and opposition pollies on the make.

What's more, it's a safe bet they'll be aimed mainly at the better-off. So before we're engulfed by another round of upper middle class self-pity, I thought I'd get in early and tell you a little about the lives of people who really do have difficulty making ends meet.

According to a survey conducted by the Bureau of Statistics in 2010, almost one in five Australian adults experienced "financial stress" that year, where this means not being able to pay their bills, rent or mortgage on time or make minimum repayments on their credit cards, or they had to sell or pawn something because they needed cash.

A newly published report by Dr Nicola Brackertz, of Swinburne University, for the Salvation Army (my co-religionists), tells us a lot about the who, how and why of people suffering genuine financial stress. She surveyed 225 of the clients of the Salvos' free financial counselling service, Moneycare, operating for 20 years.

The first thing to note is that a third of respondents were living alone and another 28 per cent were sole parents. Only 14 per cent were couples with dependent children.

Two-thirds were women. Almost 80 per cent had a government pension or benefit as their main source of income. Only 15 per cent had wages as their main income.

Almost 40 per cent of respondents were renting privately and 22 per cent were renting public or community housing. Only 21 per cent were paying a mortgage and just 5 per cent owned their homes outright.

Put all this together and it tells me we're dealing with people right at the bottom of the heap. Most of the respondents would be unemployed, on the disability support pension or sole parents (many of whom have been relegated to the dole by a caring government).

Since the great majority of age pensioners own their homes, we're dealing in the main with only those age pensioners living alone and renting. It all goes to show how close people on the dole live to the poverty line, the more so if they have to rent privately.

With rents as they are, it's no surprise people in privately rented accommodation on a very low income are highly likely to experience financial stress. The surprise is the disproportionate number of respondents living in public housing.

The rent these people pay is generally set at 25 per cent of their income, no matter how low that income is. This sounds pretty generous; the standard measure of housing stress is rent or mortgage payments exceeding 30 per cent of income.

The trouble is the cost of true necessities such as food, clothing and power tends to be a reasonably fixed amount, whatever your income. So if your income is very low, you may not be left with enough for spending 25 per cent of the total on rent to be easily manageable. By the same token, if your income is quite high, a lifestyle choice to devote a lot more than 30 per cent of it to housing doesn't leave you feeling the pinch.

If you're as comfortably off as I am, it's a surprise to discover how small were the total debts that got the respondents into trouble with their creditors. Although a third had debts of more than $20,000, the typical (median) debt level was $5000 to $10,000.

Almost half had three or more sources of debt, with the most common being utility bills, credit cards, phone bills and personal loans. Well over half the respondents had been experiencing financial difficulties for two years or more.

Why did the respondents get into financial trouble? In their own words, "the leading causes were insufficient income caused by retrenchment, unemployment or underemployment and an insufficient level of government allowances and pensions", the report says.

"Health reasons, including disability and mental illness, often prevented respondents from earning sufficient income." It's easy for you and me to tell ourselves these people are just bad money-managers. But American research I've been reading says they're no better or worse managers than the rest of us. Their real problem is that life at the bottom is so much more unforgiving.

When your income's so low you need all of it just to get by, there's no scope to build a buffer of savings to cover you when quarterly utility bills arrive or some unexpected expense arrives. And when you can't afford car insurance or home contents insurance, big unexpected expenses are more likely to arrive.

When some service is cut off because you haven't paid the bill, you can't get it back on until you've paid the arrears and a reconnection fee. When you borrow to tide yourself over, you pay much higher interest rates than the rest of us - including to "payday lenders" and pawnbrokers.

If none of this applies to you, count your blessings (as we used to sing in Sunday school).