Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Business self-interest and economic ideology a good fit

We will hear a few toned-down echoes of the report of the National Commission of Audit in Tuesday's budget but, apart from that, the memory of its more extraordinary proposals is already fading. For most Coalition backbenchers, that can't come soon enough.

But I think the audit commission has done us a great service. It has been hugely instructive. The business people and economists on the commission offered us a vision of a dystopian future.

It's a view of what lies at the end of the road the more extreme economic rationalists are trying to lead us down. If you've ever wondered what life would be like if we accepted all their advice, now you know.

It would be a harsher, less caring world, where daily life was more cut-throat, where the gap between rich and poor widened more rapidly and where the proportion of households falling below the poverty line increased every year.

Ah, but think of the advantages: we would have fixed the budget problem and started getting the public debt down without having to pay any more tax. And that's not all: we'd be left with a much more efficient economy.

Are the report's proposals the product of self-interest or ideology? Fair bit of both. To oversimplify, the business people would be motivated mainly by self-interest. They don't tend to be big on ideology - at least, not the sort that's internally consistent.

The economists, on the other hand, would be driven mainly by ideology. When you study economics you're taught a simple model of the way the economy works. It's supposed to be just a useful analytical tool, but it tends to take over the thinking of those who get jobs as practising economists. Those who become convinced the simplest version of this "neo-classical" model holds an equally simple answer to most economic problems, come up with policy recommendations just like those in the report.

The self-interest in the report is easily seen: it would fix the budget problem - and, don't be in any doubt, there is a problem - by taking money from low income-earners and middle income-earners, but not high income-earners.

The report fits perfectly with a wry observation from John Kenneth Galbraith, as paraphrased by the late John Button: "The rich need more money as an incentive and the poor need less money as an incentive."

But if you want to understand the ideology behind the report - what prompted the economists on the commission to advocate the harsh measures they did - you need to know a little about the strengths and weaknesses of the simple neoclassical model that fundamentalist economists take as their infallible guide.

It assumes that pretty much all you need to know about the economic dimension of our lives is that markets work by allowing prices to adjust and thereby bring the demand for and the supply of particular goods or services into balance. Except in rare cases, the main thing that would stop this process keeping the economy in balance and working well is government meddling in the market.

So the model predisposes those who take it literally to believe the less governments do the better. Government needs to be as small as possible, so if government spending exceeds its revenue from taxes, the only acceptable answer is to cut spending to fit. To solve the problem by increasing taxes would damage the economy.

The model is built on various assumptions. One is that all of us are "rational" (hard-headed, with perfect self-control), so we don't need governments stopping us doing destructive things (such as smoking or becoming obese) or even using payments to nudge us in the right direction. Indeed, we'd all be better off if governments gave us more freedom (and thus didn't need to make us pay so much tax).

Two other key assumptions are that we all operate as individuals and that what makes the economy work efficiently is competition between us. So the model casts aside the possibility that we're social animals who identify with groups and like acting in groups, even groups as large as "the community". Nor does it have any place for the possibility that sometimes co-operation between us gets better results than competition between us.

It assumes the notion of "shared responsibility" - of using the budget to require the well-off to subsidise the less well-off - could only discourage the poor from standing on their own feet and so make things worse on both sides of the deal.

This explains why the report's main savings come from making even tighter the already very tight means-testing of access to government benefits. It would abandon Medicare's most fundamental principle of universality - treating everybody equally and paying for the system via general taxation - to introduce co-payments and means-testing.

The model further implies that the more aspects of our lives that are run on market principles the better off we'll be. So it advocates greater competition between public and private schools, public and private hospitals, private health funds, universities and private education providers (as well as among big and small unis) and between rich states and poor states (South Australia and Tasmania).

It's change that would move us from one person, one vote towards one dollar, one vote. For those of us who have lots of dollars, what a paradise it would be.
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Friday, May 2, 2014

Audit report: much ado about a manageable problem

Don't be too alarmed by the startling proposals by the National Commission of Audit. Few of its recommendations will make it into the budget on Tuesday week. They were never intended to.

Ostensibly, the commission wants to reverse the tide of a century of federal-state relations, crack down on the age pension while leaving superannuation tax concessions unscathed, reduce Medicare to something mainly for the poor, hit middle-income families and make the treatment of welfare recipients much harsher.

Don't believe it. Truth is, almost all incoming Coalition governments have commissioned commissions of audit since Nick Greiner used the tactic in 1988. What all the federal and state audit reports since then have in common is that only a handful of their recommendations are ever acted on.

That's not their purpose. Rather, it's to claim that the previous, Labor government left the books in a terrible mess, thereby justifying an initial, horror budget - all Labor's fault - and the breaking of any election promises now found to be inconvenient.

In this case, the audit report is softening us up for the budget by raising the spectre of a much tougher budget than we're likely to get. It's Joe Hockey getting ready to leave unsaid: See, I let you off lightly.

Audit reports are never put into practice because they are commissioned from worthies who make radical proposals no politician hoping for re-election would ever implement. The cuts we do see in the budget will have been worked up by the professionals: Treasury and Finance.

This report's proposals go so far over the top - are so impolitic, impractical and improbable - that today is the last you will hear of most of its 86 recommendations.

What distinguishes this report from its predecessors is the blatancy of its commissioning. It comes from an "independent" inquiry effectively handed over to just one business lobby group, the one composed of the most highly paid chief executives in the country, the (big) Business Council.

Not surprisingly, the commission found ways to solve our budget problem at the expense of almost everyone bar the top "1 per cent" whose interests the council represents. Speaking as a near one percenter myself, there's little in its 86 recommendations that would make a dent on my pocket.

There's little in the report's analysis of the budget problem that is new. Not to anyone who had bothered to read Hockey's midyear budget review in December, Treasury's budget review published early in last year's election campaign or any of Treasury's three intergenerational reports.

Don't be in any doubt: we do face a genuine and worrying problem with the budget which, without unpopular measures, will remain in annual deficit for years to come and rack up an excessive level of public debt. It's not a problem yet, but it will become one and the best time to start making tough decisions is now.

What's new - and dishonest - is its claim that the problem is all on the spending side of the budget, whose projected growth is "unsustainable". Its solution is to slash spending that supports the living standards of low- and middle-income earners, while arguing that asking high-income earners to chip in by paying higher taxes is unthinkable.

It exaggerates the projected rapid growth in government spending by focusing on the 15 biggest spending programs, which happen to be the fastest growing, while ignoring the many other programs, expected to grow much more slowly.

It turns out total spending is projected to grow at the rate of 5.3 per cent a year, while the economy grows at 5.1 per cent. That says there's no big problem on the spending side.

In fact, the commission exaggerates the size of the problem by adopting the arbitrary assumption that the growth in tax collections is capped at 24 per cent of gross domestic product. It justifies this by claiming the cap is needed to avoid the evil of bracket creep, conveniently ignoring the scope for covering the cost of limiting bracket creep by cutting the many tax breaks enjoyed by the big end of town.

But none of this fiscal prestidigitation says the budget will be a cakewalk. It will be the toughest budget since the Howard government's post-election budget in 1996. Its bark, however, will be worse than its bite.

A lot of its toughest measures won't take effect until after the next election. And some of its most unpopular measures are unlikely to make it past a hostile Senate.
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Monday, April 21, 2014

Greed is the market's forgotten vice

Where do Easter and business intersect? Well, what about at greed.

According to Dr Brian Rosner, principal of Ridley Melbourne, an Anglican theological college, greed has been glamorised by the market economy and is a forgotten sin.

Maybe it's this that allows those Christians who are business people, economists and politicians to share their colleagues' commitment to unending economic growth and an ever-rising material standard of living.

In his book, Beyond Greed, Rosner defines greed as ''wanting more money and possessions'', a refusal to share your possessions and ''the opposite of contentment''.

Greed has always been with us, and insatiability isn't unique to modern Western civilisation, but we're certainly giving it a workout. To us, money is the simplest measure of whether you're winning at the game of life.

But what is unique to our age, according to another author, is the cultural acceptance, even encouragement of insatiability. A survey of regular churchgoers in America found that whereas almost 90 per cent said greed was a sin, fewer than 20 per cent said they were ever taught that wanting a lot of money was wrong, and 80 per cent said they wished they had more money than they did.

It seems that, by comparison with the past, greed is regarded as a trivial sin. A retired priest has recounted that, in his long years of service, all kinds of sins and concerns were confessed to him in the confessional, but never once the sin of greed.

But Rosner's having none of that. He says greed is at the heart of three major threats to our existence as individuals and societies: pollution, terrorism and crime.

Pollution is caused by human unwillingness to pay the price for the cleaner alternative (ain't that the truth, Tony). ''On any reckoning, climatic change due to the effects of pollution could cause major 'natural' disasters in the days to come,'' he says.

In most cases of terrorism, each side accuses the other of some form of greed, whether involving people, land or property. ''Greed also fits both sides of the equation in many cases of crime,'' he says. ''Thieves steal because they want more, and often because they perceive the victims as having more than their fair share.''

The greedy are those who love money inordinately, trust money excessively, serve money slavishly and are never satisfied with their possessions.

Rosner says greed is a form of religion, the religion of Mammon. Literally, mammon means wealth or possessions, but it could just as easily be taken as the biblical word for the economy. And if greed is a religion, that makes it a form of the greatest of all sins: idolatry. (First Commandment: you shall have no other gods before me.)

In Western society, the economy has achieved what can only be described as a status equal to that of the sacred.

''Like God, the economy, it is thought, is capable of supplying people's needs without limit. Also, like God, the economy is mysterious, unknowable and intransigent,'' he says. ''It has both great power and, despite the best managerial efforts of its associated clergy, great danger. It is an inexhaustible well of good(s) and is credited with prolonging life, giving health and enriching our lives.

''Money, in which we put our faith, and advertising, which we adore, are among its rituals. The economy also has its sacred symbols, which evoke undying loyalty, including company logos, product names and credit cards.''

Rosner says we have to distinguish between the legitimate enjoyment of material things, which the Bible takes for granted, and an illegitimate and unhealthy attachment to wealth as an end in itself.
But if we don't want to be greedy, what should we be? Contented.

''To be content is to be satisfied, to enjoy a balance between one's desires and their fulfilment. To be content is in effect to experience freedom from want,'' he says. But note, it's being content with your own lot, not those of others less fortunate than you.

And the other side of the contentment coin is giving. Rosner says that if Charles Dickens' Scrooge epitomises greed, giving is epitomised by Victorian jam maker Sir William Hartley. Hartley regularly and voluntarily increased wages, practised profit-sharing and supplied low-cost, high-quality housing to some of his employees and free medical attention to all of them.

He was also concerned for his suppliers, and would amend contracts in their favour if a change in the price of fruit and economic circumstances conspired against their making a decent living.

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Saturday, April 19, 2014

Badly taught economics has high opportunity cost

Is it possible the discipline of economics is becoming so mathematical it's in the process of disappearing up its own fundament?

While you're thinking about that, let me take the opportunity to ask you a quiz question (it's a holiday weekend, after all).

You've won a free ticket to see an Eric Clapton concert (which has no resale value). Bob Dylan is performing on the same night and is your next-best alternative activity. Tickets to see Dylan cost $40. On any given day, you'd be willing to pay up to $50 to see Dylan. Assume there are no other costs of seeing either performer.

So what is the ''opportunity cost'' of seeing Clapton? Is it $0, $10, $40 or $50? Take your time (especially if you fancy yourself as an economist).

The opportunity cost of a decision is the value (benefit) of the next-best alternative. So the right answer is $10. When you go to the Clapton concert you forgo the $50 of benefit you would have received from going to the Dylan concert. But that's the gross benefit. You also forgo the $40 of cost, so the net benefit you forgo is $10.

If you didn't get the right answer, don't feel too bad. When two economists at Georgia State University, Paul Ferraro and Laura Taylor, asked that question of almost 200 economists attending a professional conference, almost 80 per cent got the wrong answer.

The answers they gave were spread across the four possible answers, with more than a quarter saying $50, apparently believing it was only the ''willingness to pay'' of $50 that was relevant.
The next most popular answer was $40, apparently because people thought the cost of a Dylan ticket must also have been the opportunity cost. Those who answered $0 must have concluded there could be no opportunity cost if the Clapton concert was free.

This left fewer than 22 per cent of respondents getting the right answer. And if that (along with your own failure to get it right) doesn't shock you, it should.

Opportunity cost is probably the most fundamental concept in economics. One introductory textbook lists it along with ''marginalism'' and ''efficient markets'' as three of economics' most fundamental concepts. Opp cost seems a pathetically simple concept, but non-economists keep forgetting to consider it - meaning they don't always make the best decisions about how to spend the limited time and money available to them.

And it seems the concept isn't as simple as we assume. If about 80 per cent of non-economists got the question wrong, that would be a pity, but not too surprising. But the respondents to the survey were, in the authors' words, ''among the most well-trained economists on the planet''. Two-thirds of the respondents had PhDs, with the remainder studying for their PhD.

What's more, more than 60 per cent of them had actually taught introductory economics courses. Those who'd taught the course were no more likely to get the right answer than those who hadn't, nor were those who'd attended one of America's top-30 graduate schools, nor those who'd graduated before 1996 rather than after it.

The only significant differences were in the economists' field of specialisation. Only the tiny number specialising in micro-economic theory got a halfway respectable score, followed well back by those doing applied micro. Worst were those doing macro or international economics.

The first reason for concern is what these results say about the quality of the teaching of economics at postgraduate level. After surveying students in seven top-ranking US graduate programs in 1987, David Colander, a leading researcher of the economics profession, concluded the programs emphasised mathematics to the detriment of empirical content and economic reasoning.

A commission on graduate education in economics in 1991 found that it generated ''too many idiot savants, skilled in technique but innocent of real economic issues''. This survey suggests little improvement since then.

Does it matter for economic research if economists can't identify opportunity cost? ''Obviously,'' the authors say, ''it matters for PhD economists who take jobs in the private or government sectors, in which opportunity costs are the fodder of daily decisions …

''Theoretical research rarely requires that an individual calculate an opportunity cost in the form of a word problem. Empirical research tends to focus more on appropriate techniques to make inferences about parameter values in models.

''But can economists be relevant in the world of ideas and policy if we cannot answer simple … opportunity cost questions?''

But whatever the failings of post-graduate teaching, there's also failure at the undergraduate level. The authors say the concept of opportunity cost is usually covered in the first week of introductory undergraduate classes and often deemed so straightforward as to not require further teaching time.

A Nobel laureate complained that ''the watered-down encyclopaedia which constitutes the present course in beginning college economics does not teach the student how to think on economic questions. The brief exposure to each of a vast array of techniques and problems leaves the student with no basic economic logic with which to analyse the economic questions he will face as a citizen.'' That was George Stigler, writing as long ago as 1963.

The authors say that ''if we are not able to instil in our students a deep and intuitive understanding of one of the most fundamental ideas that the discipline has to offer (and the idea whose frequent application could do most good in peoples' private and public lives) then we wonder what we can claim as our value-added to the college curriculum''.

It makes me wonder whether, in its preoccupation with using maths to make itself more ''rigorous'' and thus academically respectable, economics has lost its way.

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Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Why manufacturing in Australia has a future

Few things about the economy are worrying people - particularly older people and those from Victoria and South Australia - more than the decline in manufacturing. But many of our worries are misplaced, or based on out-of-date information.

For instance, many worry that, at the rate it's declining, we'll pretty soon end up with no manufacturing at all. And everyone knows that, unlike other states, Victoria's economy is particularly dependent on manufacturing.

But Professor Jeff Borland, a labour economist at the University of Melbourne, has written a little paper that sheds much light on these concerns.

It's true that manufacturing's share of total employment in Australia is declining. But this is hardly a new phenomenon, which suggests the end may not be nigh. Half a century ago, manufacturing accounted for a quarter of all employment. Today it's 8 per cent.

And almost none of that dramatic decline is explained by a fall in our production of manufactured goods. The great majority of the fall in manufacturing's share is explained simply by the faster growth of other parts of the economy, particularly the service industries.

It's true, however, there's been a (much less dramatic) decline in employment in the industry over the years. Employment in manufacturing reached a peak of 1.35 million in the early 1970s. Today, it's about 950,000. Of the overall loss of 400,000 jobs, about 200,000 occurred during the '70s, about 100,000 in the recession of the early '90s and the rest since the global financial crisis in 2008.

Many people would explain this decline in terms of the removal of protection against imports in the '80s and the very high dollar since the start of the resources boom in 2003. But, in fact, the great majority of it is explained by nothing more than automation.

How do I know? Because if you look at the quantity (or real value) of manufactured goods we produce, it reached a peak as recently as 2008, and has since fallen just 6 per cent. Nowhere have the machines of the computer age replaced more men (and I do mean mainly men) than in manufacturing. Is this a bad thing? It would be a brave Luddite who said so.

The consequence is a change in the mix of occupations within manufacturing, the proportion of machine operators, drivers and labourers falling by 10 percentage points since 1984, with the proportion of managerial and professional workers increasing by about the same extent. The proportion of technicians and tradespeople is little changed.

But there's also been a change in the types of things we manufacture, with the share of total manufacturing employment accounted for by textiles, clothing and footwear falling from 11 per cent to 4 per cent since 1984, while the share accounted for by food products has risen from less than 15 per cent to more than 20 per cent.

The share of transport equipment (cars and car parts) is down, but the share of other machinery and equipment is up by much the same extent.

The next thing that's changed a lot since 1984 is the location of manufacturing in Australia. Then, almost 70 per cent of manufacturing employment was located in NSW and Victoria; today it's down to 58 per cent. Then, NSW had more manufacturing workers than Victoria; today they have 29 per cent each. (Bet you didn't know that.)

But if the big two states now have smaller shares, which states' shares have grown? The two we these days think of as "the mining states". Western Australia's share has risen to 10 per cent, while Queensland's share has almost doubled to 21 per cent. (Bet you didn't know that.)

So far, South Australia's share of national manufacturing employment has fallen only a little to 8 per cent.

This tendency for manufacturing's distribution between the states to become more even over time, plus the much faster growth of other industries, has made all states less dependent on manufacturing for employment, as well as narrowing the gap between the most dependent (SA on 10 per cent of its total employment) and the least (WA on 7 per cent).

Whereas in 1984 Victoria depended on manufacturing for 21 per cent of its jobs, today it's 9 per cent. (See what I mean about out-of-date information?) Victoria's more dependent on the health industry (12 per cent) and retailing (11 per cent), with almost as many jobs in professional services as in manufacturing.

The wider conclusion is that, though the faster growth of other industries has made all states less dependent on manufacturing for jobs, this doesn't mean manufacturing's dying. Its actual output hasn't fallen much, though it's using fewer workers to produce that output.

The unwritten story is there've been big changes in what Australia's manufacturers produce: less stuff that relies on protection against imports and more stuff that fits with Australia's comparative advantage. You see that with food products - including things such as wine-making - now being the biggest category within manufacturing, employing 20 per cent of all manufacturing workers.

You see it also in the growth of manufacturing employment in the mining states - a spillover from the resources boom.

Manufacturing is undoubtedly suffering from the high dollar. But, apart from that, it's in good shape. It has shed some fat and is fitter and wirier than it has ever been, better able to survive in a harsh world.
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Monday, April 7, 2014

Our econocrats' vision is too narrow

Part of my job is making sure readers are kept fully informed about the messages our top econocrats are trying to get across to the public. They're usually much franker and clearer than the spin we get from our political leaders.

But just because I report their views faithfully doesn't mean I always agree with them.

As it related to the outlook for the economy, the message in the speech Treasury secretary Dr Martin Parkinson delivered last week fitted well with the messages we've been getting from Glenn Stevens and Dr Philip Lowe, of the Reserve Bank.

It's a warning that, between the slowdown in our rate of productivity improvement, the expected continuing fallback in mineral export prices and the reversal of the "demographic dividend" delivered by the baby boomers, "we face a significant challenge in maintaining the rate of growth in living standards that Australians have come to expect".

Specifically, Parkinson projected that, even if we assume labour productivity grows at its long-term average, the other two factors would cause real income per person to grow by just 0.7 per cent a year over the decade to 2023-24, rather than the 2.3 per cent "to which Australians have become accustomed".

So over 10 years our present annual real income of $63,600 per person would grow only to $69,000, rather than $82,000, leaving us only $5400 a year better off, rather than the $18,400 a year to which we've become accustomed.

To keep average incomes growing as fast as we've come to expect will require us to double our present rate of productivity improvement to 3 per cent a year.

Sorry, but I very much doubt we'll be willing to make the many controversial reforms needed to achieve such a transformation. More to the point, I'm not convinced we should.

The admonitions we get from our econocrats are far too relentlessly materialist and, hence, mono-dimensional. Whatever their professed "wellbeing framework", when the chips are down their advice is to make maintaining the rate at which our material standard of living is rising our highest priority, if not our only priority.

We're always being reminded of the pecuniary price to be paid for worrying about foreign ownership, or saving family farming or preserving the weekend. But the warnings never run the other way: the greater personal stress or relational problems or loss of leisure or greater social disharmony that could accompany going all out to maximise economic growth.

No one knows better than I do that you can't say everything you want to say in the time allotted for a speech or the space allotted for a column. But, even so, some obvious caveats and qualifications almost never rate a mention.

The most obvious is the environment. What reason is there to believe acting to maintain our rate of growth won't do significant further damage, even unacceptable damage to the ecosystem? How do we know continuing climate change - a problem about which we've decided not to make a genuine contribution to international efforts to combat - won't negate our productivity-raising efforts?

How can we talk about capturing a big share of the growth in Asia's demand for Western foodstuffs without mentioning climate change?

To be fair, their present political masters are so down on the environment that our econocrats aren't free to speak on the subject. Parkinson is facing the sack for having been chief designer of the emissions trading scheme (including the Howard government's version) and his successor - an outstanding Treasury officer - has already had the chop. It's a wonder Professor Ross Garnaut isn't behind bars - or at least had his office raided by ASIO.

Another obvious but never-mentioned caveat is the distribution of all this increased income. It's all very well to talk about increasing the average income, implicitly assuming the extra income will be shared in line with the existing distribution. Our experience of income growth over the past 30 years is that a disproportionate share ends up in the hands of the people at the top.

Why no mention of this when ordinary workers are being asked to support reforms that could cost them their jobs?

More basically, how do the econocrats know we'd find a slower rate of growth in our affluence bitterly disappointing? They don't. Their confident claims that we would are based on their faith in materialism, not evidence.

Most of us are condemned to spend 40 years of our lives working 40 hours a week. Why do econocrats never wonder whether making that work more satisfying would do more for our "wellbeing" than making extracting more productivity from our labour the only priority?
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Saturday, April 5, 2014

Treasury's opportunities and threats facing our economy

It shouldn't surprise you that when the secretary to the Treasury, Dr Martin Parkinson, devoted half his major speech this week to "fiscal sustainability" - the tax increases and spending cuts needed to get the budget back on track - the media virtually ignored the other half.

But the budget isn't the economy. And in that other half Parkinson offered a revealing SWOT analysis of the economy, outlining its Strengths and Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats. So let me tell you what he said (and leave my critique for later).

For people worried about what we do for an encore after the resources boom - about where the jobs will come from - Parko points to three big "waves of opportunity".

The first wave is the mining investment boom, which is ending but not leaving us high and dry. "With the capital stock in the mining and energy sectors now triple what it was a decade ago, additional productive capacity will drive strong growth in resources exports for several years to come," he says, although this will involve employing fewer workers than in the investment phase.

The second opportunity wave flowing from the vast economic shifts in Asia is rising global demand for agricultural produce. The Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences estimates that China's imports of fruit will treble by 2050. Imports of beef will grow by a factor of 10 while imports of sheep and goat meat increase by a factor of 19. Dairy will increase by a mere 165 per cent.

Asia already takes more than 40 per cent of our food exports. Parko warns, however, that our ability to gain a slice of its rising demand rests on continued productivity gains in our rural sector, supported by the right policy settings.

"Our handling of the concerns raised by foreign ownership of Australian agricultural land (and food manufacturing) in some parts of our community is one dimension of the agricultural policy challenge, along with our approach to trade policy, stimulating investment in on- and off-farm infrastructure and supporting research and development."

The third wave is the opportunities in the services and high-value manufacturing sectors brought about by the steadily increasing growth of the Asian middle class. It's estimated that, by 2030, just under two-thirds of spending by the world's middle class will come from the Asia Pacific region, compared with about a quarter today.

"To capture the benefits of the third wave, we will need to compete on the global stage for Asian demand for services and high-end manufactures on the basis of both cost and quality," he says. "We will also need to compete for foreign direct investment to help put the right export-related infrastructure in the right places."

But get this declaration from the economic rationalist-in-chief: "Contrary to how it is sometimes portrayed in the media, competing on the global stage does not mean driving down wages or trading off our standard of living. Far from it."

Parko says improving Australia's competitiveness in global markets means investing in the skills of our workforce so Australians have the opportunity to move into sustainably higher paid jobs, and investing in infrastructure that has a high economic return.

It means ensuring firms and their employees are freed from unnecessary regulatory burdens, and establishing the right incentives to encourage innovation and competition. "In other words, it means raising Australia's productivity performance," he says.

Which brings us to Parkinson's three big threats to our further economic success. The first is productivity improvement. He says that, even after you allow for temporary factors, there's been a slowdown in "multi-factor" productivity improvement that's broad-based across industries, suggesting that deeper, economy-wide factors are at play.

The second threat arises because, until mid-2011, the effect of this productivity slowdown on the rise in our living standards was masked by the rise in the prices we were receiving for mineral exports. But now the likelihood that these prices will continue falling means a "significant drag on Australia's national income growth" over the rest of this decade.

The third threat to continued strong economic growth comes from the turnaround in the "demographic dividend" delivered by the baby boomers. For about 40 years until 2010, the proportion of the population of working age (here defined as 15 to 64) grew a lot faster than the overall population because of the postwar baby boom, followed by a dramatic fall in the birth rate in the 1960s and '70s. This boosted economic growth.

"Over the next few years, this demographic dividend, which has been fading for some time, will actually reverse. The proportion of the population aged 65 and over is expected to increase to nearly 20 per cent in 2030, from 13.5 per cent in 2010."

As the population ages, the total participation rate - the proportion of people 15 and over participating in the labour market - will fall, despite the increase in the participation rate among older Australians. "This expected decline has already begun and will become more pronounced by the end of the decade," he says.

Productivity is the key long-run driver of income growth, but declining export prices and labour-force participation are expected to subtract from national income growth in future.

If we assume the productivity of labour grows at its long-term average, then income per person would grow over the coming decade by about 0.7 per cent a year, about a third of the rate to which we've become accustomed, he says. To avoid that, we'd need to sustain labour productivity growth of about 3 per cent a year, about double the rate we've achieved so far this century.

If we fail to make the reforms needed to achieve that rate of productivity improvement, by 2024 our income per person will have risen only to $69,000 a year, not $82,000. We'll each be $13,000 a year less affluent than we could have been.
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Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Bracket creep has become highly regressive

If you think you're having trouble coping with the rising cost of living now, just wait until you see what the politicians have in store for you over the next three years. In all likelihood, you'll be losing a significantly higher proportion of your pay in income tax, though people on low incomes will be hit a lot harder than those on high incomes.

This will happen because an increase in the overall tax we pay is inevitable, but it suits both sides of politics to avoid the obvious, up-front increase that would come from raising the rate of the goods and services tax (or from extending the tax to spending on fresh food, education and healthcare) and rely on what Malcolm Fraser called "the hidden tax of inflation" - otherwise known as bracket creep.

The pollies know voters much prefer any increase in taxation to be hidden from their view. Trouble is, the increase in "marginal" tax rates (the tax on the last part of your income, such as on a pay rise or some overtime) many workers face will be so big, you'd have to be pretty thick not to notice.

Treasurer Joe Hockey has been softening us up for the tough budget he's preparing for next month. Fine by me. But he's studiously avoiding admitting there's no way his spending cuts will get the budget back into lasting balance. He's pretending all the problem is on the spending side (and all caused by Labor), when he knows the problem on the budget's revenue side is just as big, if not worse.

Consider the facts. Collections from company tax - which account for about a fifth of total tax collections - aren't likely to grow any faster than the economy (gross domestic product). And collections from indirect taxes - which include the goods and services tax and excises on alcohol, tobacco and petrol - are likely to grow a lot more slowly than GDP.

Collections from excises are declining relative to the rest of the economy, partly because John Howard abolished the indexation of the petrol excise, but also because consumers' spending on alcohol and tobacco accounts for an ever-declining share of their total spending.

Collections from the GST are also in relative decline, because consumer spending has stopped growing faster than the overall economy (as it did when households were borrowing heavily) and because consumers' spending on items subject to the GST is growing more slowly than overall consumer spending. Putting it another way, private spending on untaxed education and healthcare is growing faster than our spending on taxed items.

That leaves collections from income tax, which account for about half the federal government's total collections. Assuming regular tax cuts, income tax collections will grow in line with GDP. Only if further tax cuts are avoided will continuous bracket creep mean income tax collections grow strongly enough to make up for the revenue-raising deficiencies of the GST and other indirect taxes.

Guess what? All the budget projections Hockey is using to justify big cuts in government spending assume no further income tax cuts. Without that assumption the underlying weakness on the tax side would be apparent.

His first reason for ignoring the budget's revenue-raising weakness is his need not to expose as wishful thinking the line Tony Abbott ran from the moment he became Liberal leader, that the Libs stood for low taxation, opposed all "great big new taxes on everything" (except the GST, of course) and should be voted for by anyone who didn't like the sound of the carbon tax or the mining tax.

Hockey's second reason is that any hint of increasing the GST (or any other tax) would allow Labor to do to Abbott what Abbott did to Labor. The party of higher government spending opposes the other side's new taxes for reasons of blatant political advantage.

But Labor also professes to oppose the GST because it's "regressive" - taking a higher percentage of low incomes than of high incomes. It must face the unpalatable truth that the past eight tax cuts have left us with a rate-scale that now makes bracket creep highly regressive.

Consider this. The average full-time wage next financial year, 2014-15, will be about $76,000. On the basis of reasonable assumptions about the growth in wages over the three years to 2017-18, you can calculate that someone on half the average wage would see the proportion of their wage that they lose in tax increase by 3.5 cents in the dollar.

For someone on the average wage the increase would be 2 cents in the dollar. On twice the average wage it's 1.1 cents. And on six times the average wage it's 0.8 cents.

Now that's regressive. Does Labor really think a rise in the GST would be much worse?
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Monday, March 31, 2014

We need less fancy financial footwork, not more

Attention conspiracy theorists: see if you can detect a pattern in this. Tony Abbott wants to review the renewable energy target, so he appoints self-professed climate change "sceptic" Dick Warburton, who feels qualified to explain to the scientists where they're going wrong.

Abbott wants to review the financial system, so he appoints a former boss of a big four bank, David Murray, who feels qualified to explain to economists where they're going wrong.

So, which industry sector stands the better chance of getting what it wants from its review?

Can you imagine how many proposals Murray's committee will receive aimed at making the financial system bigger and better - and all in return for just a little more help from taxpayers?

I read that the Australian Bankers Association's submission proposes abolition of interest withholding tax, so as to support offshore fund-raising by local banks and to encourage overseas banks to lend more in Australia. It also calls for the removal of "tax disincentives" on bank deposits. All to increase this financial sector's contribution to economic growth and jobs, naturally.

The government's terms of reference say "the inquiry is charged with examining how the financial system could be positioned to best meet Australia's evolving needs and support Australia's economic growth".

Fine. But if it's to be more than just an industry sales pitch, the inquiry needs rigorously to examine the industry's convenient assumption that the bigger it gets the more it benefits the rest of us.

In a brief submission that deserves more attention than it's likely to get, Professor Ron Bird and Dr Jack Gray, of the Paul Woolley centre at the University of Technology, Sydney, summarise the growing evidence that the developed economies' much expanded financial systems have been a bad investment from the perspective of the wider economy. (Both are former fund managers.)

The growth in America's financial sector has been amazing, with its share of gross domestic product rising from less than 3 per cent in 1950 to about 5 per cent in 1980 and more than 8 per cent in 2006. Its share of total corporate profits grew from 14 per cent in 1980 to almost 40 per cent by 2003.

Salaries in US financial services were similar to other industries until 1980, but are now on average 70 per cent higher than those elsewhere. This remarkable growth is referred to as the "financialisation" of the economy. One test of the inquiry's thoroughness will be whether it works out comparable figures for Oz.

The first warning that this growth might be making economies more risky came from Professor Raghuram Rajan, of the University of Chicago, at a central bankers' conference in 2005. They told him not to worry. He has since argued that the financial system's big rewards for risk-taking (with other people's money) result in the economy proceeding from bubble to bubble.

Since the mid-2000s, an increasing amount of analysis has questioned whether the growth of the financial system has worked to the betterment of anybody other than those working in the industry, Bird and Gray say.

One study for the Bank for International Settlements concludes that "big and fast-growing financial sectors can be very costly for the rest of the economy ... drawing essential resources in a way that is detrimental to growth at the aggregate level". A British minister has said: "We need more real engineers and fewer financial engineers."

Other research has found that real (physical) investment is being crowded out by the increasing size and profitability of financial investment. Even our Reserve Bank governor, Glenn Stevens, has questioned "whether all this growth [in finance] was actually a good idea; maybe finance had become too big (and too risky)".

The huge advances in information technology could have been expected to result in lower costs for financial services, but unit costs have actually increased over the past 30 years.

All the trading on financial markets is supposed to lead to better "price discovery" and thus improved efficiency in the allocation of resources, but a study found no evidence of financial market prices becoming more "informationally efficient".

Adair Turner, former chairman of Britain's Financial Services Authority, sees "no clear evidence that the growth in the scale and complexity of the financial system in the rich developed world over the last 20 or 30 years has driven increased growth or stability".

Bird and Grey conclude that the starting point of the Murray inquiry's analysis should be to assess the financial system's effectiveness and highlight where it is falling short and why.
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Saturday, March 29, 2014

Your guide to business entitlement

With the Abbott government's close relations with big business, we're still to see whether its reign will be one of greater or less rent-seeking by particular industries. So far we have evidence going both ways.

We've seen knockbacks for the car makers, fruit canners and Qantas, but wins for farmers opposing the foreign takeover of GrainCorp and seeking more drought assistance, as well as a stay on the big banks' attempt to water down consumer protection on financial advice.

The next test will be the budget. Will the end of the Age of Entitlement apply just to welfare recipients (especially the politically weak, e.g. the unemployed and sole parents, rather than politically powerful age pensioners) or will it extend to "business welfare"?

With Joe Hockey searching for all the budget savings he can find, there's a lot of business welfare or, euphemistically, "industry assistance" to look at. The Productivity Commission measures it every year in its Trade and Assistance Review.

Government assistance to industry is provided in four main ways: through tariffs (restrictions on imports), government spending, tax concessions and regulatory restrictions on competition. Although much rent-seeking takes the form of persuading governments to regulate markets in ways that advantage your industry, the benefit you gain is hard to measure, so it's not included in the commission's figuring.

Assistance through tariffs is far less than in the bad old days before micro-economic reform, but there's still some left. However, its cost is borne directly by consumers in the form of higher prices. So it's not relevant to Hockey's search for budget savings. Even so, I'll give you a quick tour.

The commission estimates that, in 2011-12, tariffs allowed manufacturing industries (plus the odd rural industry) to sell their goods for $7.9 billion a year more than they otherwise would have.

In the process, however, this forced up the cost of goods used by manufacturers and other industries as inputs to their production of goods and services by $6.8 billion a year. About 30 per cent of this cost to inputs was borne by the manufacturers themselves, leaving about 70 per cent borne by other industries, largely the service industries.

(This, by the way, shows why import protection doesn't help employment as non-economists imagine it does. It may prop up manufacturing jobs, but it's at the expense of jobs everywhere else in the economy.)

So now we get to budgetary assistance to industry. On the spending side of the budget it can take the form of direct subsidies, grants, bounties, loans at concessional interest rates, loan guarantees, insurance arrangements or even equity (capital) injections.

On the revenue side of the budget it can take the form of concessional tax deductions, rebates or exemptions, preferential tax rates or the deferral of taxation. In 2011-12, the total value of budgetary assistance was $9.4 billion, with just over half that coming from spending and the rest from tax concessions.

Often people will virtuously assure you their outfit doesn't receive a cent of subsidy from the government, but omit to mention the special tax breaks they're entitled to. Think-tanks that rail against government intervention and the Nanny State, hate admitting they're sucking at the teat because the donations they receive are tax deductible (causing them to be higher than otherwise, but at a cost to other taxpayers).

This is why economists call tax concessions "tax expenditures" - to recognise that, from the perspective of the budget balance and of other taxpayers, it doesn't matter much whether the assistance comes via a cheque from the government or via the right to pay less tax than you otherwise would.

Of the total budgetary assistance in 2011-12 of $9.4 billion, 15 per cent went to agriculture, 7 per cent to mining, 19 per cent to manufacturing and 45 per cent to the services sector (leaving 14 per cent that can't be allocated to particular industries).

To put that in context, remember that agriculture's share of gross domestic product (value-added) is about 3 per cent, mining's is 10 per cent and manufacturing's is 8 per cent, leaving services contributing about 79 per cent.

Within manufacturing, the recipients of the most business welfare are motor vehicles and parts, $620 million, metal and metal fabrication, $270 million, petroleum and chemicals, $220 million, and food and beverage processors, $110 million.

Within services, the big ones are finance and insurance, $910 million, property and professional services, $610 million, and arts and recreation, $350 million.

But if you combine tariff and budgetary assistance, then compare it with the industry's value-added (share of GDP), you get a different perspective on which industries' snouts are deepest in the trough. The "effective rate of combined assistance" is 9.4 per cent for motor vehicles and parts, 7.3 per cent for textiles, clothing and footwear, and 4.7 per cent for metal and metal fabrication.

Get this: outside manufacturing, the most heavily assisted goods industry relative to the size of its contribution to the economy is forestry and logging on 7.2 per cent. We pay a huge price to destroy our native forests.

Within services, the most heavily assisted industry is the one where incomes are so much higher than anywhere else: financial services. Virtually all the assistance picked up in the commission's calculations comes via special tax breaks, such as the tax concession for offshore banking units and the reduced withholding tax on foreigners receiving distributions from managed investment trusts.

But that ain't the half of it. These calculations don't pick up two big free kicks: the benefit to the industry because the government forces almost all workers to hand over 9.25 per cent of their pay to be "managed" by it, and the benefit it gains from having one of its main products, superannuation, so heavily subsidised by other taxpayers.

Cut these fat cats? Naah, screwing people on the dole would be much easier.
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Wednesday, March 26, 2014

How we can do better on Aboriginal imprisonment

You don't need me to tell you that in a country such as America, with all its history of racial conflict, the rate of imprisonment for African-Americans is far higher than the rate for whites. Twelve times higher, in fact. But you may need me to tell you we make the Yanks look good. Our rate of indigenous imprisonment is 18 times that for the rest of us.

Aborigines make up 2.5 per cent of the Australian adult population, but account for 26 per cent of all adult Australian prisoners.

If you want me to give you some economic reasons we should care about this, it's not hard. On average it costs $275 a day to keep an adult in jail. So it's costing taxpayers about $800 million a year just to keep that many Aborigines in prison. And this takes no account of the cost of juvenile detention centres, police costs in responding to offending, the cost of investigating and prosecuting suspected offenders and the health costs in responding to and treating victims.

Obviously, for every Aborigine who was in a job and paying tax rather than in jail and costing money, there'd be a double benefit to taxpayers, as well as a gain to the economy.

But the far more important reason for caring about the high rate of indigenous imprisonment is moral. As the criminologist Dr Don Weatherburn argues in his new book Arresting Incarceration, the consequences of European settlement have been truly calamitous for Aboriginal Australians.

"The harm might not have always been deliberate and it may not have been inflicted by anyone alive today, but it is no less real for that," Weatherburn says. "An apology for past wrongs would be meaningless without a determined attempt to remedy the damage done."

The trouble is, particularly in the case of Aboriginal imprisonment, we've been making such an attempt, but getting nowhere. If not before, the problem was brought to our attention by the 1991 findings of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Deaths in Custody.

The commission found that Aborigines were no more likely to die in jail than other prisoners. The reason so many died was that they constituted such a high proportion of the prison population.

The Keating government accepted all but one of the commission's recommendations and allocated the present-day equivalent of almost $700 million to put them into effect. State and territory governments committed themselves to a comprehensive reform program.

But get this: rather than declining since then, the rate of Aboriginal imprisonment has got worse.
"It is hard to imagine a more spectacular policy failure," Weatherburn says.

It would be easy to blame the problem on racism in the justice system but, though there may be some truth in this, it's not the real reason. Similarly, Weatherburn argues it's not good enough to blame it on "indigenous disadvantage".

If that were the case, virtually all Aborigines would be actively involved in crime and they aren't. Most are never arrested or imprisoned.

The plain fact is that more Aborigines are in jail because more Aborigines commit crimes, particularly violent crimes. In NSW, for example, the indigenous rate of arrest for assault is 12 times higher than the non-indigenous rate. The rate of indigenous arrest for break and enter is 17 times higher.

Measures taken after the royal commission failed to reduce crime because they assumed this would be achieved if indigenous Australians were "empowered". Much of the money and effort was devoted to legal aid and land acquisition.

Weatherburn argues that if you want to understand indigenous offending, you need to look at the factors likely to get anyone involved in crime, regardless of race.

"The four most important of these are poor parenting (particularly child neglect and abuse), poor school performance, unemployment and substance abuse," he says. "Indigenous Australians experience far higher rates of drug and alcohol abuse, child neglect and abuse, poor school performance and unemployment than their non-indigenous counterparts."

The first and most important thing we need to do, he says, is reduce the level of Aboriginal drug and alcohol abuse. This is key, not just because drug and alcohol abuse have direct effects on violence and crime, but also because they have such a corrosive effect on the quality of parenting children receive, which greatly increases the children's risk of involvement in crime.

Weatherburn's second priority is putting more resources into improving indigenous education and training. As the mining boom in the Pilbara has shown, it's much easier to find jobs for Aborigines when they have the degree of education and skill employers are looking for.

His third priority is investing in better offender rehabilitation programs. Efforts to divert serious and repeat offenders from prison have been a dismal failure. But small changes in the rate of indigenous return to jail have the potential to produce large and rapid effects on the rate of Aboriginal imprisonment.

Much existing spending on Aboriginal affairs is ineffective. Were it not for Tony Abbott's special affinity with Aborigines in the Top End, we could expect the coming federal budget to really put the knife through it.
But this would save money without reducing the problem.

It will be a great day when the advocates of smaller government abandon the false economy of not wasting money on the routine, rigorous and independent evaluation of the effectiveness of government spending programs. Then we might make some progress.
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Monday, March 24, 2014

Abbott's red tape play-acting hides rent-seeking

The world of politicians gets deeper and deeper into spin, and so far no production of the Abbott government rates higher on the spin cycle than last week's Repeal Day.

Hands up if you believe in red tape? No, I thought not. So how about we package up a huge pile of window dressing with some worthwhile but minor measures, slip in a few favours for our big business supporters and generous donors, and call it the most vigorous attack on red tape ever? This will give a veneer of credibility to our claim it will do wonders for the economy.

In the process, of course, we'll have changed the meaning of "red tape". It's meant to mean bureaucratic requirements that waste people's time without delivering any public benefit. In the hands of the spin doctors, however, it's being used to encompass everything from removing dead statutes to the supposed deregulation of industries.

Repealing redundant laws and regulations dating back as far as 1900 is mere window dressing. By definition they don't waste anyone's time - if they did they'd have been repealed long ago. Their primary purpose is to allow Tony Abbott to quote huge numbers: today I announce the abolition of more than 1000 acts of Parliament and the repeal of more than 9500 regulations. A trick you can pull only once.

Somewhere in there is some genuine, time-wasting red tape we're better off without, but it doesn't add up to much - hence the need for so much padding. Governments of both colours are always promising to roll back red tape, mainly because it gives people such an emotional charge.

But while it's true there are examples of mindless, unreasonable bureaucratic rules and requirements that could be eliminated or greatly simplified at no loss to anyone, much alleged red tape is in the mind of the beholder: it's red tape if you don't like it and good governance if you do.

There are plenty of small business people who'd try telling you supplying information to the Bureau of Statistics was "pointless red tape", maybe even filling out tax returns. In an era when big business is going overboard on "metrics", it's whingeing about the "reporting burden" the government imposes so it - and the rest of us - can know what's going on in the economy.

When business isn't complaining about "compliance costs" it's demanding greater transparency and accountability from governments. Guess what? They're opposite sides of the same coin. The world is and always will be full of compliance costs. The sensible questions are whether they're higher than they need to be and whether the benefits of compliance outweigh the costs.

The notion that all so-called red tape comes from power-crazed bureaucrats is a delusion. Most excessive regulation comes from politicians. Sometimes they act at the behest of lobbyists for particular industries, sometimes they're merely trying to create the appearance of action (an old favourite is laws to make illegal something that's already against the law) and sometimes they pass an act to impress the punters while carefully leaving loopholes and escape hatches for the industry pros.

But the most objectionable feature of the whole red tape Repeal Day charade is the way it has been used as cover for rent-seeking by the Coalition's industry backers. It's an open secret the protections for investors provided by the Future of Financial Advice legislation are being watered down at the behest of the big banks, which want to be freer to incentivise unqualified sales people to sell inappropriate investment products to mug punters.

Then there's the strange case of the Charity Commission,which was set up only recently to reduce inefficient regulation and red tape. It's to be abolished despite the objections of most charities, presumably because the Catholic Church doesn't like it.

It's being claimed all these dubious doings will "drive productivity, innovation and employment opportunities", not to mention "creating the right environment for businesses of all sizes to thrive and prosper and to drive investment and jobs growth".

Yeah sure. The claimed savings of $700 million a year (don't ask how that figure was arrived at) are equivalent to 0.04 per cent of GDP, and yet they'll work wonders. Must be an incredible multiplier effect.

We're told we'll be getting at least two Repeal Days a year, with the goal of achieving savings worth $1 billion a year. Really, a minimum of six Repeal Days in Abbott's first term? What's the bet that promise will be quietly buried?

But for as long as this pseudo reform lasts it seems it's intended as a substitute for genuine deregulation.
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Saturday, March 22, 2014

We own as much of their farm as they own of ours

Did you know that, at the end of last year, the value of Australians' equity investments abroad exceeded the value of foreigners' equity investments in Australia by more than $23 billion?

It's the first time we've owned more of their businesses, shares and real estate ($891 billion worth) than they've owned of ours ($868 billion).

These days in economics there's an easy way to an exclusive: write about something no one else thinks is worth mentioning, the balance of payments. We'll start at the beginning and get to equity investment at the end.

Before our economists decided the current account deficit, the foreign debt and our overall foreign liability weren't worth worrying about, we established that, when measured as a percentage of national income (gross domestic product), the current account deficit moved through a cycle with a peak of about 6 per cent, a trough of about 3 per cent and a long-term average of about 4.5 per cent.

Those dimensions were a lot higher in the global era of floating exchange rates than they'd been in the era of fixed exchange rates (which ended by the early '80s). This worried a lot of people, until eventually economists decided the new currency regime meant there was less reason to worry.

This explains why economists haven't bothered to note that for four of the past five financial years, the figure for the current account deficit as a percentage of GDP has started with a 3. And, as we learnt earlier this month, the figure for the year to December was 2.9 per cent.

So it seems clear that recent years have seen a significant change in Australia's financial dealings with the rest of the world. And the consequence has been to lower the average level of the current account deficit.

The conventional way to account for this shift is to look for changes in exports, imports and the "net income deficit" - the amount by which our payments of interest and dividends to foreigners exceed their payments of interest and dividends to us.

The first part of the explanation is obvious: over the past decade, the world's been paying much higher prices for our exports of minerals and energy. This remains true even though those prices reached a peak in 2011 and have fallen since then.

On the other hand, the prices we've been paying for our imports have changed little over the period. So, taken in isolation, this improvement in our "terms of trade" is working to lower our trade deficit and, hence, the deficit on the current account.

Next, however, come changes in the quantity (volume) of our exports and imports. Here, over the full decade, the volume of imports has grown roughly twice as fast as growth in the volume of exports. Until the global financial crisis, we were living it up and buying lots of imported stuff. And maybe as much as half of all the money spent on expanding our mines and gas facilities went on imported equipment.

The more recent development, however, is that the completion of mines and gas facilities means enormous growth in the volume of our mineral exports - with a lot more to come. At the same time, as projects reach completion there's a big fall in imports of mining equipment. That's a double benefit to the trade balance and the current account deficit.

Turning to the net income deficit, it's been increased by the huge rise in mining companies' after-tax profits, about 80 per cent of which are owned by foreigners. Going the other way, world interest rates are now very low and likely to stay low.

Put all that together and it's not hard to see why current account deficits have been lower in the years since the financial crisis, nor hard to see they're likely to stay low and maybe go lower in the years ahead.

The current account deficit has to be funded either by net borrowing from foreigners or by net foreign "equity" investment in Australian businesses, shares or real estate. This means the current account deficit is the main contributor to growth in the levels of the national economy's net foreign debt, net foreign equity investment and their sum, our net foreign liabilities.

Historically, our high annual current account deficits worried people because they were leading to rapid growth in the levels of our net foreign debt and net total liabilities.

But looking back over the past decade, and measuring these two levels relative to the growing size of our economy (nominal GDP), there's no longer a clear upward trajectory. Indeed, it's possible to say our net foreign debt seems to have stabilised at about 50 per cent of GDP, with net total liabilities stabilising a little higher.

Over the decades, the level of net foreign equity investment in Australia has tended to fall as big Aussie firms become multinational by buying businesses abroad and Aussie super funds buy shares in foreign companies, thus helping to offset two centuries of mainly British, American, Japanese and now Chinese investment in Aussie businesses.

But the net total of such equity investment is surprisingly volatile from one quarter to the next, being affected not just by new equity investments in each direction, but also by "valuation effects" - the ups and downs of various sharemarkets around the world as well as the ups and downs in the Aussie dollar.

Between the end of September and the end of December, net foreign equity investment swung from a net liability of $27 billion to a net asset of $23 billion. This was mainly because of valuation effects rather than transactions, so I wouldn't get too excited.

What it proves is that, these days, the value our equity investments in the rest of the world isn't very different from the value of their equity investments in Oz.
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Wednesday, March 19, 2014

More to infrastructure problem than spending money

We get bombarded with economic and political news. Some of it is worth knowing, some isn't. Some gets much attention, some gets little. Sometimes we give too much attention to things that aren't worth knowing and too little attention to things that are. The Productivity Commission's draft report on public infrastructure is one of the latter.

Ostensibly, it's a report advising Tony Abbott on how to achieve his dream of becoming the "infrastructure prime minister". In fact, it's an urgent warning to Australia's voters and taxpayers: we've wasted a lot of money on infrastructure and, if we're not careful, we could waste a lot more.

The point is not that all infrastructure is a waste of money, but that we tend to get too emotional about the topic and not sufficiently hard-headed. We need to think a lot more carefully, demand that our politicians - on both sides - lift their games, and insist on a lot more information being made public.

Almost all of us believe the country is suffering a serious infrastructure deficit, that there's a huge backlog of essential public infrastructure waiting to be built and our top priority must be to get on with clearing it as soon as possible.

I believe there's some truth to this perception. There most certainly are categories where we have an infrastructure problem. Big-city traffic congestion is a glaring example.

But to say we have an infrastructure problem is not to say we have an infrastructure deficit. To say we have a backlog is to presuppose the answer to the problem: just get out there and build a lot more ASAP.

It never occurs to us that, when we jump to that conclusion, we are, first, rewarding the lobbying efforts of the infrastructure industry and, second, making life too easy for our political leaders. We're doing just what the radio shock-jocks make their not-inconsiderable living encouraging us to do: use our hearts not our heads, react emotionally rather than intelligently.

Remember, we live in the age of rent-seeking - of big business interests using public opinion to extract favours from governments. Favours that, one way or another, you and I end up paying for.

It has suited the pockets of the infrastructure lobby - big developers, engineering construction companies and associations of engineers - to give us the impression we have an infrastructure crisis that's getting bigger by the minute and needs fixing by yesterday.

Much less effort has gone into checking out the existence of this backlog and its precise whereabouts than into spending like fury. Although these figures probably understate the full extent of spending on public infrastructure, it's true that, measured as a proportion of national income, spending on engineering construction work for the public sector fell to a low of just more than 1 per cent in 2003.

By 2012, however, it had doubled to more than 2 per cent. In present-day dollars, that's more than $30 billion a year being spent on new infrastructure.

Ever seen a headline screaming we've more than doubled our infrastructure spending in a decade? No, didn't think so. It suits too many people to have us go on thinking the backlog's getting bigger by the day.

One problem with the not-spending-enough approach to the infrastructure question is that it rewards politicians - particularly state politicians - merely for spending more of our money which, as we've seen, they've been doing like crazy for up to a decade.

Another problem is we have too little assurance the money is being well spent. In our concern about the backlog, we seem to have forgotten how prone politicians are to pork-barrelling - spending money disproportionately in marginal or National Party electorates - and how tempting it is to spend on those projects that happen to be the forte of generous corporate donors to party funds.

And not just that. Politicians of all stripes are terribly prone to favouring big-ticket, showy, popular projects over smaller, technical, hidden, boring projects that would actually do more good. They almost invariably favour projects where there's a ribbon they can cut.

They tend to underspend on boring repairs and maintenance then, when the infrastructure has gone to wrack and ruin, make heroes of themselves by building a brand new replacement.

For reasons I don't understand, the present crop of Coalition governments - federal and state - seem biased against public transport as the answer to traffic congestion and have reverted to the 1960s notion that more tollways will fix everything.

As the Productivity Commission has outlined, the answer to this is much more rigorous evaluation of the costs and benefits of projects - taking account of social factors, not just financial ones - by genuinely independent infrastructure authorities, with all their findings made public and no exceptions for bright ideas such as the national broadband network.

As well, the commission makes the obvious but easily forgotten point that we should make sure existing infrastructure is being used efficiently before we rush off and build more. Often this will involve smarter charging for infrastructure. This failing explains much of the rise in electricity prices being blamed on the carbon tax.

In infrastructure, as in everything, there's no free lunch. One way or another you and I end up paying for it. That's an argument for thinking it through.
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Monday, March 17, 2014

Ending the mining tax will hurt jobs

Don't be misled by last week's better-than-expected figures for employment in February. If you peer through the statistical haze you see the problem is the reverse: employment is weaker than you'd expect. Follow that through and it takes you to - of all things - the mining tax.


The job figures were better than expected for two quite silly reasons. First, because economists are hopeless at predicting month-to-month changes in employment and unemployment. Their guesses are wrong most months.

Second, because it suits the vested interests of the financial markets and the media to ignore the Bureau of Statistics' advice and focus on the volatile seasonally adjusted estimates rather than the more reliable trend estimates.The markets like volatility because it makes for better betting; the media like it because it makes for sexier stories.

If we put understanding ahead of thrills and spills and use the trend estimates, they show total employment grew by a paltry 58,000 over the year to February, an increase of just 0.5 per cent. Worse, within that, full-time employment actually fell by 24,000.

This doesn't fit with the news we got the previous week that real gross domestic product grew by a not-so-bad 2.8 per cent over the year to December. (Comparing employment to February with economic growth to December isn't a problem because employment responds with a lag.)

Economic growth of 2.8 per cent is only a bit shy of our medium-term trend growth rate of 3 per cent, which Treasury estimates is consistent with annual employment growth of 1.5 per cent, or 170,000 extra jobs.
So the real question we should be asking is why employment has been weaker than you'd expect.

The answer isn't hard to find: it's because "net exports" (exports minus imports) account for 2.4 percentage points of the overall growth of 2.8 per cent. And most of that is explained by the resources boom's shift from its investment phase to its production and export phase.

On one hand, construction workers are losing jobs as the building of new mines and natural gas facilities winds up while, on the other, few extra jobs are required to permit a huge increase in mining production. All this is fine for growth in production (real GDP), but bad for growth in employment.

Fact is, mining's so hugely capital-intensive that though it now accounts for an amazing 10 per cent of GDP, it still accounts for a mere 2.4 per cent of total employment.

Now, I've never had any sympathy for those who argue an expansion in mining isn't worth having because it generates so few extra jobs. This reveals a fundamental misunderstanding of how economies work (via the "circular flow of income").

The size of an industry's economic contribution is determined not by the number of jobs it creates directly, but by the amount of income it generates. And even with falling coal and iron ore prices, our miners are still highly profitable because their efficiency, plus the quality and accessibility of our mineral deposits, mean their marginal cost of production is far lower than that faced by miners in most other countries.

In other words, our miners earn huge economic rents.

What the mining bashers miss is that when all the income generated by an industry is spent, it generates jobs throughout the economy. This includes the income the industry pays in tax, which generates jobs when it's spent by governments.

In the case of mining, however, there's a weakness in this argument. For the income earned by an industry to generate jobs in Australia, it has to be spent in Australia. And our mining industry is about 80 per cent foreign-owned.

Got the message yet? For our economy and our workers to benefit adequately from the exploitation of our natural endowment by mainly foreign companies, our government has to ensure it gets a fair whack of the economic rents those foreigners generate.

This, of course, is the justification for the minerals resource rent tax. And the fact that, so far, the tax has raised tiny amounts of revenue doesn't mean mining is no longer highly profitable, nor that the tax isn't worth bothering with.

Because Labor so foolishly allowed the big three foreign miners to redesign the tax, they chose to get all their deductions up-front. Once those deductions are used up, the tax will become a big earner. Long before then, however, Tony Abbott will have rewarded the Liberal Party's foreign donors by abolishing the tax.

This will be an act of major fiscal vandalism, of little or no benefit to the economy and at great cost to job creation.
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Saturday, March 15, 2014

Many economists don't get the labour market

The world is full of economists who, though they know little of the specifics of labour economics, confidently propose policies for managing the labour market based on their general knowledge of the neo-classical model. All markets are much the same, aren't they?

I fear this is the best we'll get from the Productivity Commission's inquiry into regulation of the labour market. So a test of the commission's report will be whether it displays knowledge of advanced thinking on how labour markets actually work or is just another neo-liberal rant about free markets.

In their efforts to bone up on the topic, the commissioners could do worse than start with a quick read of Nobel laureate Robert Solow's 90-page classic, The Labor Market as a Social Institution.

Since the book was published in 1990, it should be old hat to economists, but I doubt it is. If so, it shows how little effort most economists - even academic economists - have put into studying the labour market.

Solow starts by reminding economists of a glaring problem they prefer not to think about: if the market for labour is just a market like any other market, and so is capable of being adequately analysed by the economists' standard tool kit of demand and supply - prices adjust until demand and supply are equal and the market "clears" - how come the labour market never clears?

How come we always have high unemployment, which shoots up during downturns and stays very high for years before falling only slowly?

To put the puzzle another way, if the labour market works like any other market, making wages just a price like any other price, why don't wages fall and keep falling as long as the supply of labour exceeds the demand for it?

Why do nominal wages almost never fall? Why is it the closest we ever get is nominal wages not rising as fast as ordinary prices, so wages fall a bit in "real terms"?

In a country with Australia's history of many minimum wages, carefully specified in awards and agreements, it's easy for economists to claim wages can't fall because they're being held up by legal minimums. But this doesn't wash. In reality, many if not most wages are well above the legal minimum, meaning the minimum isn't "binding" and so isn't stopping actual nominal wages from falling back to the minimum. But they don't - and nor do they in the US, where the minimum wage is kept so low it's almost never binding.

Overseas, some extreme neo-classical economists have tried to escape this problem by arguing most unemployment is voluntary rather than involuntary. It just so happens that, when economies turn down, a lot of people decide now's the time to take unpaid holidays and stay on them for many months. Yeah, right.

Solow says a more credible line of explanation is to admit the obvious: there must be something about labour markets that makes them different from other markets (such as the market for cars, or the market for bank loans) and so renders economists' usual analytical tools inadequate.

And it's not hard to think of what that something could be. Other markets are for the purchase and sale of inanimate objects, whereas every unit of labour bought or sold comes with a real live human attached. Every human is different - some are smart, some aren't; some work hard, some don't; some are co-operative, some aren't - and bosses turn out to be humans, too.

The thing about humans is they have egos and feelings and moods. One apple doesn't care about the other apples in the barrel, but a human cares about how they're being treated by their human boss, as well about how they're being treated relative to all the other humans working for the boss.

Hence the title of Solow's book. Unlike other markets, the labour market is also a social institution. Only an economist could imagine you could analyse the labour market successfully without taking account of the human factor.

So maybe it's the social dimension of labour that explains why wages are inflexible and the labour market doesn't clear. Solow uses the work of some woman whose name seems vaguely familiar, a Janet Yellen, and her Noble-prize-winning husband, George Akerlof to outline one possible explanation of the conundrum, "the fair-wage-effort hypothesis".

The "efficiency-wage theory" says that in the modern economy workers often have some control over their own productivity. They produce more when they are strongly motivated to do so. "One way for an employer to provide more motivation is by paying more than other employers do; another is to threaten to fire the excessively unproductive if and when they are detected," Solow says.

If that sounds obvious, note the radical implication: a firm's physical productivity depends not just on how much labour (and capital) it uses, but also on how well the labour is paid. If so, wages won't fall just because unemployment rises.

Yellen and Akerlof's version of efficient-wage theory says workers who believe they're being paid "a fair day's wage" feel a social obligation to deliver "a fair day's work" in return.

A different approach is "insider-outsider theory". This says the people already working for a firm (the insiders) are likely to be more productive than those who aren't (the outsiders) because they understand how the firm works. If so, the insiders are helping to generate "economic rent" for the firm and thus are able to share this rent by negotiating higher wages.

An outsider may be prepared to work for the firm for a smaller wage, but the boss won't want to risk reducing his productivity by switching from insiders to outsiders.

Whichever of those theories you find more persuasive, the point is the workings of real-world labour markets are far more complicated than most economists realise. Let's hope the Productivity Commission does.
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Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Compulsory super without protections is a rip off

A few weeks ago, when I offered my list of our top 10 economic reforms of the past 40 years, I was surprised by the number of people arguing I should have included compulsory employee superannuation in the list. Really? I can't agree.

It is, after all, merely a way of compelling people to save for their retirement. That's probably no bad thing in principle, countering our all too human tendency to worry excessively about the here and now and too little about adequate provision for our old age.

But compulsory saving hardly counts as a major reform. I suspect some of my correspondents see it as a boon for workers because it extracts a benefit from employers over and above the wages they're paid.

If so, they've been misled by appearances. Economists are in no doubt it all comes out in the wash: that when the government obliges employers to contribute to workers' retirement savings, the employers eventually make up for it by granting smaller wage rises than they otherwise would have.

It's true that compulsory super contributions - and the subsequent earnings on them - attract tax concessions, being taxed at a flat rate of just 15 cents in the dollar. But while upper income-earners do disgracefully well out of these concessions, people on incomes around the average gain little advantage, and those earning less than $37,000 a year gain nothing. Hardly sounds fair to me.

My other reservation about compulsory super is the way it compels employees to become the victims of the most shamelessly grasping, overpaid industry of them all: financial services. These are the people who made top executives and medical specialists feel they were underpaid.

Compulsory super delivers a huge captive market for the providers of investment services to make an easy living from and for the less scrupulous among them to prey upon. The pot of money the government compels us to give these people to manage on our behalf has now reached $1.6 trillion.

Most of us have little idea how much these people appropriate from our life savings each year to reward themselves for the services we're compelled to let them provide to us - and little desire to find out.

We should be less complacent. For many workers it's more than we pay for electricity each year. Think of it: we put so much energy and passion into carrying on about the rising price of power - and Tony Abbott used our resentment to get himself elected - while the men in flash suits dip into our savings without most of us knowing or caring.

To be fair, industry super funds dip into our savings far more sparingly than the profit-driven "retail" funds backed by the big banks, insurance companies and firms of actuaries. Since most workers do have a choice, you'd need a very good reason not to have your money with an industry fund.

But even this worries me. It means the union movement - the people whose job is to protect workers by being full bottle on the tricks the finance industry gets up to - has divided loyalties. Those who should be holding the industry to account are also part of it.

For years the industry campaigned for an increase in the super levy of 9 per cent of salary, arguing it was insufficient to provide people with an adequate income in retirement. This is a dubious argument, rejected by the Henry taxation review.

But look at it another way: here is a hugely profitable industry arguing the government should increase the proportion of all employees' wages diverted to the industry for it to take annual bites out of before giving us access to our money at age 60 or later.

This is classic rent-seeking. The Howard government was never tempted to yield, but as part of the Labor government's mining-tax reform package, it agreed to boost compulsory super contributions to 12 per cent by 2019. Why? I don't doubt Labor was got at by the union end of the financial services industry.

Contributions increased to 9.25 per cent last July, but the Abbott government came to power promising to defer the phase-up for two years. I'd lay a small bet this deferral will become permanent - though probably not before contributions rise to 9.5 per cent on July 1.

I wouldn't be sorry to see the phase-up abandoned. The Henry report recommended against it, arguing that action to reduce the industry's fees could produce a similar increase in ultimate super payouts. And it's doubtful that low income earners are better off being compelled to save rather than spend their meagre earnings.

The government's policy of compelling workers to hand so much of their wages over to the finance industry surely leaves the government with a greater-than-normal obligation to ensure the industry doesn't exploit this monopoly by misadvising and overcharging its often uninformed customers.

This - along with the millions lost by investors in Storm Financial and other dodgy outfits - prompted Labor's Future of Financial Advice reforms, which focused on prohibiting or highlighting hidden commissions and requiring advisers to put their clients' interests ahead of their own.

But now Senator Arthur Sinodinos is seeking to water down these consumer protections in the name of reducing "red tape". The financial fat cats live to rip us off another day.
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Monday, March 10, 2014

More privatisation will help fix the economy

I have no sympathy for those who take an ideological approach to the privatisation of government-owned businesses, whether they support all selloffs because governments are always inefficient or oppose all selloffs because the private sector can never be trusted.

No, each proposal should be judged on its merits - with a lot of boxes to be ticked before privatisation is justified.

Even so, it seems likely we'll see a fair bit of privatisation in coming days - particularly at the state level - as part of Joe Hockey's efforts to get his budget back in the black while avoiding having a contractionary effect on economic activity and, indeed, while ensuring the economy accelerates to the point where we get unemployment down again.

What squares this circle is staggered savings in the recurrent budget combined with increased spending on public infrastructure. Though it's getting late, a surge in infrastructure investment would also be a good counter to a possible collapse in mining investment over coming years.

While only Hockey's former scaremongering about supposedly soaring federal debt stands in the way of the feds stepping up their own infrastructure spending, they prefer it to be done by the states.

Trouble is, those state governments that haven't already lost their triple-A credit ratings are on the edge of doing so should their debt grow. In an ideal world, the (discredited) ratings agencies could be ignored and told to do their worst. But in our imperfect world it's probably not such a bad thing that politicians worry so much about their ratings.

So how can the states do a lot more infrastructure investment without increasing their debt levels? By privatising existing businesses and reinvesting the proceeds in new infrastructure. This is what Hockey hopes to encourage.

One disincentive the states face is that, as well as paying them dividends, the businesses the states own in effect pay company tax to their state owners, whereas privatised businesses pay company tax to the feds.

Although he's yet to spell out the details, Hockey has signalled his willingness to overcome this disincentive by passing that tax revenue back to the states.

On the face of it, the prospect of more state privatisations suffered a setback last week when the ACCC effectively vetoed the NSW government's plan to sell Macquarie Generation, the state's largest power producer, to AGL, one of the state's three largest power retailers. The commission judged that the deal would have resulted in a substantial lessening of competition in the electricity market.

This brings us to the first test of whether a proposed privatisation is in the public interest: it ought to involve an increase in competition within the relevant market and certainly shouldn't lessen competition.

Governments should resist the temptation to enhance the sale price of a business by adding to its pricing power, or sell off a natural monopoly without adequate regulation of its prices.

So it's a good thing the commission put its foot down. But, equally, it's a good thing NSW Treasurer Mike Baird expressed his intention to press on with plans to build up his privatisation recycling fund, and do so without selling any asset for less than its "retention value" to state taxpayers.

This raises the second test to be passed. The stream of dividends governments receive from the businesses they own (and are about to forgo) could easily exceed the saving in interest payments to be made from using the sale proceeds to repay government debt, unless the sale price is sufficiently high.

This is the main factor determining the business's retention value. To sell assets for less than that value is to put ideology ahead of the public interest.

Polling shows privatisation is greatly disapproved of by voters. But this is the punters wanting to have their cake and eat it. They demand better infrastructure, but don't want to pay higher taxes for the privilege, nor give up government services, nor see government deficits and debt build up.

Well, they can't have it both ways. And an obvious compromise is for governments to sell businesses for which there's no good reason for continued public ownership and use the proceeds to get on with meeting new needs.

It's notable that polling suggests such recycling deals attract significantly less voter disapproval. Note to diehard rationalists: hypothecation is the key to escaping the budget impasse.

But there's one last test to be passed to make such deals good economics: the new infrastructure's social benefits have to exceed its social costs. And public transport projects are more likely to do that than yet more motorways.
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Saturday, March 8, 2014

Clear signs the economy is picking up

At last some good news on the economy. This week's national accounts for the December quarter show the economy speeding up and, in the process, starting its fabled "transition" away from being driven largely by mining investment.

The economy's medium-term "trend" rate of growth in real gross domestic product - the rate that holds unemployment constant - is thought to be 3 per cent a year. For much of last year the economy was seen to be travelling at only about 2.5 per cent, thus leading to a slow but steady rise in unemployment.

But this week's accounts from the Bureau of Statistics show real GDP growing by 0.8 per cent in the December quarter and by 2.8 per cent over last year. Applying a bit of judgment, we can say the economy is probably now growing at an annualised rate of about 2.8 per cent.

This isn't enough to stop unemployment rising - and we really need a period of growth well above 3 per cent to get the jobless rate heading back down to its own trend level of about 5 per cent - but it beats 2.5 per cent.

And, as I say, the accounts show reasonably convincing evidence the "rebalancing" of the economy - away from mining investment and towards the other sectors of the economy and sources of growth - is finally under way.

After quite a few quarters of weakness, consumer spending grew by 0.8 per cent in the quarter and by 2.6 per cent over the year. This strengthening is a bit of a surprise when you remember household disposable income is only crawling ahead, with no growth in employment and very low rises in wages.

Arithmetically, the explanation is a fall in the household saving rate from 10.6 per cent of disposable income to 9.7 per cent. But this ratio is volatile, so I wouldn't take it too literally. It's possible households have shaved their rate of saving - say, from the high 10s to the low 10s - but I doubt it signals a return to the low saving rates we saw in the couple of decades before the global financial crisis.

The second sign of rebalancing was long-awaited real growth of 1 per cent in spending on home building, including renovations. This is not unexpected considering the rises in established house prices and in the issue of local government building permits.

More recent "partial indicators" for the month of January confirm that consumption and home building have picked up. Nominal retail sales grew by a strong 1.2 in the month to be up 6.2 per cent on a year earlier. And residential building approvals rose strongly in the month to be up 34 per cent on a year earlier.

Public sector spending rose by 1.1 per cent in the quarter, contributing 0.3 percentage points to the overall growth of 0.8 per cent in real GDP. Most of this came from public infrastructure spending.

But now we get to the bad news. Most of the growth I've outlined so far was offset by a sharp fall in business investment spending, which dropped by 3.6 per cent.

Most of this decline is explained by a drop in mining investment as the investment phase of the resources boom comes to an end. It's now clear mining investment peaked about a year ago.

It was our knowledge that mining investment was about to fall back from the dizzying heights it reached that caused us to see the need for "transition" or "rebalancing" in the economy (plus a few other buzzwords I've forgotten).

But this brings us to the weak part in the transition so far. Although most of the fall in total business investment is explained by mining, it's clear investment spending in the non-mining sector also fell - which is not what the doctor ordered. Rough estimates by Kieran Davies, of Barclays bank, suggest it fell by 1.2 per cent in the quarter and by 7 per cent over the year.

So if most of the growth in domestic demand in the quarter was cancelled out by the fall in business investment, where did the overall growth in aggregate demand of 0.8 per cent come from? From the one place left: net external demand, otherwise known as "net exports" - exports minus imports.

The volume (quantity) of exports grew by 2.4 per cent in the quarter and by 6.5 per cent in the year, whereas the volume of imports fell by 0.6 per cent in the quarter and by 4.6 per cent in the year.
Put the two together and net exports made a positive contribution to overall growth of 0.6 percentage points in the quarter and 2.4 points over the year.

Why are exports growing so strongly? Mainly because of rapid growth in our exports of minerals and energy as new mines come on stream. Why are imports so weak? Partly because domestic demand has been weak, but particularly because of the fall off in mining investment, which involves a lot of imported equipment.

So the investment phase of the resources boom is coming to an end and leaving a hole in the economy, but the production and export phase of the boom is helping to fill the hole - helping to tide us over while the non-mining economy is getting back on its feet (to mix a few metaphors).

The resources boom's now favourable effect on net exports translates into a much lower current account deficit on our balance of payments. Whereas it used to get as high as 6 per cent of GDP in the old days, and averaged about 4.5 per cent, for the December quarter it was just 2.6 per cent.

Maybe the economy has a future after all.
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