Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Changes to HECS debt: a users' guide

There is one glaring exception to the rule that Tony Abbott’s budget cuts are designed to protect higher income-earners at the expense of lower income-earners: the changes to university fees.

Although uni students like to see themselves as part of the deserving poor, it’s overwhelmingly the sons and daughters of people in the upper part of the distribution of income who go to university, and do so with the goal of acquiring the qualifications that will allow them to take their own place in the upper reaches of the distribution.

So the irony of the government’s efforts is that it’s predominantly the children of the better-off who’ll be hit by the expected significant increases in the cost of a uni education. And those increases raise the hurdle faced by those wishing to join the echelon intended to benefit most from the government’s budget reordering.

Only about 17 per cent of uni entrants come from a lower socio-economic background – a proportion that has changed little over the decades. The Whitlam government’s abolition of fees was intended to increase the proportion of poor kids getting to uni, but didn’t.

The Hawke government’s reintroduction of fees was predicted by some to reduce the proportion of poor kids, but didn’t – mainly because of the success of an invention by Professor Bruce Chapman, of the Australian National University, specifically designed to ensure it didn’t: the "income-contingent loan", known to us as HECS.

Much the same was predicted when the Howard government greatly increased uni fees, but HECS ensured it didn’t happen. That was chicken feed compared with this decision to allow unis to set their own fees. If this one doesn’t reduce the proportion of poor kids at uni, it will be because of the continuing magic of HECS.

That, plus the new requirement that 20 per cent of the unis’ additional revenue be used to set up "Commonwealth scholarships" to assist students from disadvantaged backgrounds. (Where have I heard that name before? Maybe because I had one in my uni days, before Whitlam. This government is nothing if not retro.)

These days, going to uni means not so much paying fees as taking on a debt. Loans have three key variables: the size of the principal borrowed, the rate of interest charged, and the term of the loan.

Abbott’s changes will affect the first two, with major implications for the third. Once the unis are let off the leash, there’s no telling how high they’ll lift their fees. Between them, they have a monopoly over the provision of a high-status, high-value product in high demand.

And it’s not just the changes planned to take effect in 2016. The further the government cuts its funding to unis, the more the unis will up their fees. And they may not stop at covering the cost of teaching, but also require students to subsidise their lecturers’ research. So suggestions that fees could double or treble aren’t far-fetched.

That covers the principal. At present under HECS there’s no formal interest rate, but outstanding debt is indexed to the consumer price index. To economists, this says the debt is subject to a "real" interest rate of zero.

Now there’s to be a formal interest rate set at the long-term Commonwealth bond rate, 4 per cent at present, but capped at 6 per cent. This implies a real interest rate of between 1.5 per cent and 3.5 per cent.

So whereas at present outstanding debt merely keeps pace with inflation, now it will grow in real terms – will compound, particularly while no repayments are being made. (This change will apply to everyone still with a HECS debt, not just present and future students.)

Commercial loans have a fixed repayment period, with a fixed rate of repayment calculated to ensure all interest and principal is paid by the end of the period. HECS debt has no fixed repayment period.

Rather, debtors pay nothing until their annual income exceeds about $50,000. Initially their repayments are set at 4 per cent of their income, but this increases as their income rises, to a maximum of 8 per cent. (Hence the term income-contingent loan.)

So the time it takes people to repay their HECS debt varies mainly with the level of income they attain after leaving uni. The lower your income, the longer it takes to repay. This means the imposition of a real interest rate is "regressive", hitting lower-income debtors harder than those on higher incomes.

It also means that, leaving aside differences in the size of the initial principal, the people who’ll end up with the biggest debts under the new rules will tend to be students who stay at uni for a year or two before realising tertiary education isn’t for them, graduates who take time out of the workforce to raise children and then work part-time for a bit, and graduates who go overseas. These last will face an ever-growing disincentive to come back.

But none of this contradicts Abbott’s claim that a HECS debt will still be "the most advantageous loan they ever receive". That’s why it never made financial (as opposed to filial) sense to repay HECS early under the present rules, and only rarely will it make financial sense under the new rules.

People’s debt will be much bigger and they’ll stay owing it for many years longer, but their repayments will never be onerous, thanks to the loan being income-contingent.


Monday, June 2, 2014

Hockey crafts our first decadal budget

This is the 40th budget I've studied, and it's unique. The only decadal budget we've ever had, a budget only an incoming, Coalition government would deliver, a budget with big political costs up front, but a big pay-off way into the future.

It's obviously the budget of a new government, one confident it can blame its predecessors for its harsh cuts and broken promises. But it's such a slow-burn, delayed-reward budget that only the party that knows it's born to rule - that's confident it will stay in office for at least a decade - would have the front to introduce it.

The legendary Labor finance minister Peter Walsh was proud of persuading the Hawke-Keating government to introduce budgets showing the "forward estimates" for the three years following the budget year. At last governments would be obliged to reveal the longer-term consequences of their decisions.

That was fine until the Gillard government, struggling to reconcile its big-spending proclivities with its foolhardy promise to return the budget to surplus in 2012-13, came up with the "fiscal bulldozer" it used to push its ever-mounting spending commitments off to the years beyond the forward estimates, where they couldn't be seen.

By last year's budget this trick was wearing thin, so we saw the emergence of the antidote, the latest attempt to keep governments honest, the 10-year "medium-term budget projection". We've seen that projection in every budget-cycle document since, so we must hope it's permanent.

This is the first budget we've had built around that 10-year projection. In concept, this budget is simple: it doesn't reform spending programs or drop many programs. Rather, it shifts some of the cost of programs off onto others, including the states.

It does this partly by introducing or increasing user charges, but mainly by changing indexation arrangements.

As one of the budget's glossy spin documents reveals, the changes to university funding are "part of a government-wide decision to streamline and simplify indexation for programs". That's one way to put it; I call it changing the indexation in any way that favours the government.

A remarkably high proportion of the measures in the budget involve fiddling with indexation: suspending it for a few years, introducing it where to do so would favour the budget, changing its basis where that's what would favour the budget. You don't get this budget unless you get its preoccupation with indexation.

Why indexation? I can imagine why. The new treasurer arrives and the Treasury boffins sit him down to explain the budgetary facts of life. They start by showing him the medium-term projection, which shows that, on unchanged policies, we won't be back to surplus even after 10 years.

There's worse. You must understand, minister, that returning to a healthy rate of economic growth won't reduce the deficit. Your plan to increase productivity would be great for the economy, minister, but will do little to help the budget balance.

Really? Why? Because higher productivity soon translates into higher real wages. That's great for tax collections, particularly income tax. Trouble is, it also pushes up the spending side of the budget.
Directly or indirectly, almost all spending programs are linked to wages.

Wages are by far the greatest component of operating costs throughout the public sector - federal and state, education, health, even non-government welfare organisations.

To top it off, we index pensions to wages.

Suddenly, someone gets a bright idea. I know, we'll cut the Gordian knot by shifting from indexing to wages to indexing to prices. With one bound, Joe broke free. Even the huge cuts in overseas aid can be seen as a switch from indexing to gross domestic income to indexing to prices.

The thing about the indexation solution is that the initial savings are small, but they compound with each year that passes. So provided you're still in power, you clean up down the track.

Take the resumed indexing of fuel excise: a huge political stink over a tiny tax rise, but once that's past the revenue grows inexorably without anyone noticing.

As well, this budget creates scope for big future savings, such as discretionary increases in user charges. With universities' fees off the leash, there's huge scope for further cuts in federal funding, including pushing research costs on to students.

And anyone who thinks the maturation of the new Medical Research Future Fund won't prompt the feds to cut other grants for medical research is terribly trusting. (Whoever came up with that ruse deserves the Public Service Medal.)

One small weakness in the 10-year projection approach (about which the Treasury secretary has warned): it's just a mechanical projection, and assumes we'll go for 33 years without a severe recession.

Sunday, June 1, 2014



Reporting, economic focuses on reporting developments in the national economy - and, occasionally, the state economies - and the efforts of governments and their agencies to influence the economy. It covers economic policy, micro-economic as well as macro-economic. It is to be distinguished from business (formerly financial) reporting, which focuses on the activities of listed companies and the stock exchange. Economic journalists devote most of their time to reporting and interpreting movements in the wide range of economic indicators published by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, covering unemployment, inflation, wages, retail sales, housing activity, gross domestic product, trade and much else. Other economic indicators are published by the Reserve Bank of Australia, while the commercial banks sponsor regular surveys of such things as business and consumer confidence.

Economic journalists also report announcements concerning the federal government’s budget, official reports, speeches and press releases by senior economic ministers and bureaucrats, including announcements of changes in official interest rates by the Reserve Bank, as well as statements from business lobby groups.

Because most of these announcements are made in Canberra, most economic reporting is done from the federal parliamentary press gallery. This is true of most reporting of Reserve Bank announcements, even though the bank is headquartered in Sydney. The main national and metropolitan newspapers have specialist economics correspondents in the gallery, most of them with university qualifications in economics. In smaller gallery bureaus the reporting is done by political correspondents.

The financial deregulation of the 1980s had the effect of greatly expanding the choice of sources available to economic journalists, with its growth in financial-market economists keen for publicity and need for the Reserve Bank to be more active in media relations. Growth in think tanks and university research centres has also helped reduce Treasury’s former dominance of economic information.

The distinction between financial and economic reporting was probably pretty blurred until the late 1960s and early 1970s, when economics became seen more clearly as a specialty within federal political journalism. During the 17 years he spent as financial editor of the Sydney Morning Herald, Tom Fitzgerald combined editorials and commentary on economic management with his path-breaking exposes of corporate mismanagement. When he left to join the Australian in 1970 he was replaced by both a financial editor and an economics editor, although the SMH had employed the British journalist J. C. Horsfall as its economics editor for several months before he became the foundation editor of the Australian Financial Review in 1951. By contrast, from the time Max Newton left Treasury to join the SMH in 1957, he would always have written more about the economy in a political context than about the world of companies.

Referring to SMH editors of the 1950s, Horsfall complained in his book, The Liberal Era, published in 1974: ‘The trouble with most editors was that the subject of economics which had become the main stuff of politics was largely a mystery to them’. It was this dawning realisation that led to greater media interest in reporting the management of the economy and the changed perception of it as part of political reporting rather than business reporting. This perception was mightily reinforced in 1974 when, in the aftermath of the first OPEC oil shock, the advent of ‘stagflation’ - simultaneous high inflation and high unemployment - led governments in all the developed economies to a loss of confidence in the simple Keynesian remedies of the post-war era and a period of experimentation with solutions as different as incomes policies and control of growth in the stock of money. The restoration of low inflation and low unemployment was to dominate those governments’ concerns throughout the remainder of the 1970s and the whole of the 1980s - longer in Australia’s case. Tracking the ups and downs of the economy has remained a major media interest to this day, even without the added impetus of the global financial crisis in 2008 and the lingering Great Recession it precipitated.

The rise of economic journalism as a specialty within political journalism can be traced in the careers of its leading practitioners. Kenneth Davidson worked for Treasury before becoming the Australian’s Canberra-based economics correspondent in 1965 and the Age’s economics editor in 1974. Only a few years earlier, Alan Wood, who had been a Canberra economics correspondent for the AFR, became economics editor of the SMH. After a period out of daily journalism he returned eventually as economics editor of the Australian. P. P. McGuinness joined the AFR as an economics writer in 1971, left to work for the Whitlam government, then returned as economics editor in 1974. When the author, who had worked as a chartered accountant, joined the SMH as a cadet in 1974, he was encouraged to focus on economics rather than business, sent to Canberra late that year as economics correspondent and returned to Sydney in 1976 to replace the departing Wood as economics editor.

Whereas in recent decades governments have sought to discourage contact between journalists and bureaucrats, the technical nature of their task my help explain why economic journalists have been able to maintain active contact with senior econocrats, including those of Treasury and the Reserve Bank. Although almost all economic reporters are located within the Canberra press gallery, the major papers are divided on whether their economics editors - whose work chiefly involves economic commentary - should be stationed in Canberra or at the paper’s head office. At present the economics editors of the Age, the Australian and the West Australian are based in Canberra, whereas those for the AFR and the SMH are based in Sydney.

American practice is for movements in economic indicators to be reported in neutral terms, accompanied by balanced quotes from experts saying the figures are good while others are quoted saying they are bad. In Australia, however, reporters are more likely to take their own stand on whether the movement is good news or bad. This may be because, in Australia, the reporters are more likely to have economic qualifications and on-the-job training in the interpretation of statistics. But this can lead reporters and their editors into the temptation of judging movements according to their perception of whether readers would regard the change as good or bad. Movements in interest rates, for instance, are almost invariably judged from the perspective of readers with a mortgage rather than those dependent on interest income from investments. An overused formula in modern times is for movements in indicators to be judged according to whether they make an increase or decrease in the official interest rate at the next meeting of the Reserve Bank board more likely or less likely. Since the indicators are volatile, this can generate headlines that show the prospect for interest rates rising, falling and rising again in the same week. Falls in the dollar are usually taken to be bad and rises good, mainly because of their effects on the prices of imports and overseas holidays; effects on the competitiveness of Australian industries tend to be ignored. A fall in unemployment during an election campaign may be billed as ‘good news for the government’ rather than good news for those seeking jobs.

Perhaps because there is so much room for interpretation of economic developments, economic journalism tends to involve more analysis and commentary than in other specialist areas of journalism. This is largely the role of economics editors, who tend to do little reporting and even less editing. Whereas political journalists strive to appear even-handed in their commentary - telling Labor how to win one week then the Coalition the following week - economics editors rarely hesitate to push their own view of what constitutes good policy, even to campaign in favour of particular economic reforms. The line they take generally reflects the economic orthodoxy they were taught at university, which is regularly reinforced by their bureaucratic contacts. Historically, it is less likely to reflect their paper’s editorial line than for their line to be reflected in the editorials. The economics editors’ ethic, however, is that their line should seek to advance the public interest according to their own economic beliefs and personal values, not any private party-political sympathies, much less their personal interests. It can thus be argued that the work of economic journalists played a part in the rise of economic rationalism in the 1980s and 1990s and the various micro-economic reforms it led to, particularly the phasing out of protection against imports.


Gittins, Ross (1995) The Role of the Media in the Formulation of Economic Policy, Australian Economic Review,  4th quarter, Institute of Applied Economic and Social Research, Melbourne, Wiley-Blackwell.

Gittins, Ross (2011) Economic Journalism: How Influential are Journalists, Economic Papers, vol 30, no. 4, December, Economic Society of Australia, Wiley-Blackwell.

J. C. Horsfall (1974) The Liberal Era: A political and economic analysis, Sun Books, Melbourne.



June 2014

The structure of the economy – particular industries’ relative shares of GDP and total employment, but also the age, gender and full-time/part-time structure of the labour force, and the role and relative size of government – is always changing. It’s always changing because the forces for change bearing down on the economy keep changing. But those forces seem particularly numerous and strong at present.

So I want to talk about those structural changes, about how the government is responding to them with its economic policy, and about the prospects for the economy, particularly employment.

Sources of structural change

Among the many sources of structural change affecting the Australian economy, the two biggest and most general are globalisation and technological advance. Globalisation is the process by which the natural and man-made barriers between national economies are being broken down, partly by deregulation but mainly by advances in technology.

One part of globalisation is the rapid economic development of Asia, which is increasing our access to cheaper imports of manufactures, from clothing to electronic goods and cars, but also increasing the demand for our exports of minerals and energy. The growth of Asia’s middle class will increase demand for tourism, westernised foodstuffs and niche manufactured items.

The internet, the advent of e-commerce and the digital revolution are beginning to have big effects on industries such as recorded music, cinema, book selling and publishing, the post office and the retail sector generally, not to mention newspapers and the rest of the news media, and the advertising industry.

Households went through a protracted adjustment to financial deregulation – which greatly increased the availability of credit – and the return to low inflation in the early 1990s, which significantly reduced nominal interest rates, prompting a housing boom and leading households to greatly increase their housing debt, reducing the household saving rate to zero. But this untypical behaviour couldn’t go on forever. It started to end before the global financial crisis, but continued in earnest after it, with the household saving ratio returning to 10 per cent, where it seems to have settled.

Demographic change – the decline in fertility and the retirement of the baby-boomer bulge – is changing the economy’s ratio of workers to dependents, making a slower rate of growth over the next 40 years more likely as the participation rate falls for demographic reasons and highlighting the need to make the labour market more female-friendly and older worker-friendly.

Another structural change is climate change. The Labor government responded to this by introducing a carbon tax that was to turn into an emissions trading scheme in July this year. It bolstered this by raising the Howard government’s renewable energy target to ensure that 20 pc of Australia’s electricity comes from renewable sources by 2020. However, the Abbott government, which includes many climate change deniers, is seeking to abolish the carbon tax and replace it with ‘direct action’ in which businesses are offered incentives to reduce emissions. The renewable energy target is being reviewed by an avowed climate change ‘sceptic’.

The resources boom, stage III

But the biggest and most immediate structural change affecting both the structure of the economy and its year-to-year macroeconomic management is the resources boom, itself a product of globalisation and the rapid economic development of Asia, particularly China.

The resources boom began in 2003 and was divided into two parts by the global financial crisis of 2008-09. The boom has had three stages: first, much higher prices for our exports of coal and iron ore, causing our terms of trade to reach their best for 200 years. Second, a historic surge of investment spending to greatly expand our capacity to mine coal and iron ore and extract natural gas. And third, a considerable increase in the volume (quantity) of our production and export of minerals and energy.

The first stage is now over, with coal and iron ore prices reaching a peak in mid-2011 and the terms of trade falling about 20 pc since then. Now the second stage, the growth in mining investment spending, has reached a peak and begun to decline, making a negative contribution to growth. This is being only partly offset by the commencement of the third stage of the boom, the rising volume of mineral and energy exports as the newly installed production capacity comes on line.

The boom has greatly expanded our mining sector, taking its share of total production (GDP) from 4 pc to about 10 pc, although the industry is so highly capital-intensive its share of total employment is still only about 2 pc. The industry has been, and remains, highly profitable. Since its direct contribution to the employment of Australians is so small and since the industry is about 80 pc foreign-owned, it is important that it contribute to the economy by having its economic rent adequately taxed. The Labor government responded with a minerals resource rent tax, but mishandled its introduction, allowing the three main companies paying it to minimise their payments in the early years by getting generous tax deductions up-front. The Abbott government is seeking to abolish the tax.

The rapid expansion of the mining sector has required the transfer of labour and capital from elsewhere in the economy, a process of structural adjustment which the high dollar, brought about by the marked improvement in our terms of trade, has helped to facilitate by exerting painful contractionary pressure on our other tradeable industries, particularly manufacturing.

In its early stages, the boom presented the macro managers with the challenge of ensuring the jump in our real national income brought about by the high export prices didn’t lead to an inflation blowout as had happened with previous commodity booms. This possibility was avoided, particularly because our floating exchange-rate regime allowed a big rise in the dollar, which constrained our other tradeable industries, reduced inflation directly by lowering import prices and directed excess consumer demand into imports.

In the later stages of the boom, however, the macro managers now face roughly the opposite challenge: ensuring the fall in national income as export prices fall back, and the pipeline of mining and natural gas investment projects starts to empty, don’t cause the economy’s growth to slow too far and lead to a big rise in unemployment.

The need for the economy to make a ‘transition’ from mining-led growth to growth led by other industries and other categories of demand has been preoccupying the macro managers for at least a year and is likely to be their main focus of attention for at least another year. The falloff in mining investment spending is expected to subtract significantly from domestic demand in the coming financial year, 2014-15, and the following year. The need to encourage growth in the non-mining economy has so far been made more necessary and more difficult by the failure of the dollar to fall by as much as the fall in mining export prices and deterioration in our terms of trade had led us to expect. The dollar did fall back after April 2013, but in more recent times has been surprisingly strong, possibly because of the continuing ‘quantitative easing’ in the United States and elsewhere.

The continuing preoccupation with successfully negotiating the transition from mining-led to broader-based growth is the dominant consideration in the settings of both monetary policy and fiscal policy.

Monetary policy

Monetary policy - the manipulation of interest rates to influence the strength of demand - is conducted by the RBA independent of the elected government. It is the primary instrument by which the managers of the economy pursue internal balance - low inflation and low unemployment. MP is conducted in accordance with the inflation target: to hold the inflation rate between 2 and 3 pc, on average, over the cycle. The primary instrument of MP is the overnight cash rate, which the RBA controls via market operations.

After the GFC reach its height in late 2008, the RBA feared we would be caught up in the Great Recession that hit other economies, so it quickly slashed the cash rate from 7.25 pc to 3 pc. By October 2009, however, it realised we would escape the recession, so began lifting the cash rate from its emergency level, reaching 4.75 pc in November 2010.

In November 2011, the RBA decided the resources boom was easing and would not push up inflation. It realised growth in the non-mining sector of the economy was weak - held down particularly by the dollar’s failure to fall back in line with the fall in export prices – at a time when mining-driven growth was about to weaken. So it began cutting the cash rate, getting it down to a historic low of 2.5 pc by August 2013.

The RBA is trying to counteract the dampening effect of the high dollar by using lower interest rate to stimulate demand in other parts of the economy, particularly housing and consumption, but also non-mining business investment. It is having some success with housing investment, but not much with consumer spending and none with business investment. Barring a sharp fall in the dollar, it’s likely to keep interest rates low until it is confident the economy has made the transition to broad-based growth successfully.

Fiscal policy

Fiscal policy - the manipulation of government spending and taxation in the budget - is conducted according to the Abbott government’s medium-term fiscal strategy: ‘to achieve budget surpluses, on average, over the medium term’. This means the primary role of discretionary fiscal policy is to achieve ‘fiscal sustainability’ - that is, to ensure we don’t build up an unsustainable level of public debt. However, the strategy leaves room for the budget’s automatic stabilisers to be unrestrained in assisting monetary policy in pursuing internal balance. It also leaves room for discretionary fiscal policy to be used to stimulate the economy and thus help monetary policy manage demand, in exceptional circumstances - such as the GFC - provided the stimulus measures are temporary.

The Labor government proved unable to keep its promise to get the budget back to surplus in 2012-13, not because it was spending too much (though it did have big plans for increased spending in the second half of the 2010s), but because the sharp falls in mineral export prices slowed the growth in nominal GDP and so caused the recovery in tax collections to be far weaker than expected.

Mr Hockey’s first budget included many cuts in government spending, big increases in user charges for GP visits, pharmaceuticals and university education, a shift from indexing payments and benefits to wages to indexing them to prices, a return to indexing the fuel excise and a temporary deficit levy on high income-earners.

The budget deficit is expected to fall from $50 bil in the financial year just ending to $30 bil in the coming year, 2014-15, then to $17 bil the following year and $3 bil in 2017-18. The budget’s 10-year ‘medium-term projection’ shows it returning to a balanced budget in 2018-19, then with a surplus growing each year until it reaches 1.5 pc of GDP in 2024-25.

From a fiscal policy perspective the budget has two key features: 1) A slow pace of fiscal consolidation. The budget’s new measures and revisions to forecasts are expected to improve the budget balance by just $4 bil in the budget year and by $7 bil in each of the following two years, but by $26 bil in 2017-18. This slow start is intended to avoid the budget having a dampening effect on growth while the economy is expected to be growing at a below-trend rate.

2) A switch in the composition of government spending. While spending on transfer payments leading to consumption is reduced, spending on infrastructure investment is increased by $12 bil. About half this is spent on an ‘asset recycling initiative’ intended to encourage the states to increase their own infrastructure spending. The goal is to help fill the vacuum left by the fall in mining investment.

All this means the ‘stance’ of fiscal policy adopted in the budget is contractionary, but only to the most minor extent. The government knows the economy will be hit by big cuts in mining investment spending over the next two years, and so is delaying its plans to return the budget to surplus.

The outlook for growth and employment

The government is expecting the economy to grow by 2.75 pc in the present financial year, slowing to 2.5 pc in the coming year, but rising to 3 pc in 2015-16 and 3.5 pc in the following two years.

The economy’s medium-term trend rate of growth is 3 pc. This is consistent with growth in employment of 1.5 pc a year and the rate of unemployment at its lowest sustainable rate (the NAIRU) of 5 pc.

So below-trend growth this financial year and next is expected to see unemployment creep up to 6.25 per cent by June 2015, and stay high until it returns to 5.75 pc by June 2018.


Saturday, May 31, 2014

Uni 'deregulation' not what it's claimed to be

The greatest economic puzzle in the budget is Tony Abbott's intention to "deregulate" university fees in 2016. There's a lot more to it than many people imagine.

Punters who make no profession of understanding economics think fees will skyrocket. Advocates of the change, who think they know more than the punters, say increases will be constrained by competitive pressure.

The more economics you know, the less certain you can be about how things will turn out. But you can make a pretty persuasive case that, for once, the punters may be closer to the truth than the advocates.

Abbott and his Education Minister, Christopher Pyne, plan two main changes: the deregulation of fees and changes to the HECS loan scheme. I'll leave the loan changes for another day and focus on the fee changes.

At the same time as it permits unis to set their own fees for undergraduate courses, the government will cut its contribution towards the cost of courses by an amount that averages 20 per cent. It will then reduce the annual indexation of its contribution, switching to the consumer price index, which doesn't rise as fast as the unis' wages and other costs.

So the government's primary motivation is clearly to shift more of the cost of universities from itself and onto students. The 20 per cent cut will give the unis an immediate and pressing reason to use their new freedom to increase the fees they charge, and the less-generous indexation will maintain the pressure for further increases.

Even so, the man who recommended that unis be allowed to set their own fees, Andrew Norton, is confident the initial increase will be no more than $6000 a year, taking annual fees to between $12,000 and $16,000, depending on the course.

The government is confident its changes will increase competition between the unis, leading to greater diversity, innovation and quality, and giving us "a world-leading higher education and resource system".

The simple model of how markets work taught in introductory economics courses leaves may people with excessive faith in the ability of market competition to foster increased efficiency, constrain price increases and ensure customers get high quality.

Its promises are based on a host of limiting assumptions, which usually don't apply. It assumes a very large number of small firms selling a homogeneous product to buyers with "perfect knowledge" of the quality and other characteristics of what they're buying.

In the tertiary education "market", however, we have a relatively small number of large and larger organisations, selling differentiated products of uncertain quality. We have oligopoly rather than "perfect competition".

We know oligopolists compete, but usually try to avoid competing on price rather than marketing. They have a degree of pricing power and their competition takes the form of "rivalry" - focusing on the behaviour of competitors rather than the needs of customers.

It's misleading to describe giving unis freedom to set their own fees as "deregulation". Indeed, it's silly to imagine higher education is anything like a market. It's "firms" are owned by the state governments and highly regulated by the federal government. All its courses still have to be accredited by the feds which, they claim, guarantees that quality standards won't fall.

Even the unis' freedom to raise their fees - which the next government could reverse - comes with a string attached: fees charged to local students may not exceed those charged to overseas students.

There's no profit motive. And, as any academic will tell you, unis are highly inefficient, bureaucratic organisations dominated by administrators.

The safest prediction is that giving unis greater revenue-raising ability will lead to them employing more administrators.

How can uni fees be regarded as a "price" in the textbook sense when people are lent the money to pay the price under a concessional loan they won't have to repay for years?

In effect, universities have a government-regulated monopoly over a product that gives young people access to the country's highly paid jobs. What will they do when the price jumps - abandon all ambition? Demand seems highly "price inelastic" - unresponsive to price changes.

Our unis are protected from import competition by the high fees other countries charge foreign students. Within Australia, unis enjoy a degree of geographic monopoly. Sydney and Melbourne unis don't really compete for students. Living costs can be high if you move to a regional uni.

The sandstone unis will be able to charge a premium that reflects their higher status, more central locations and lovely campuses. In a normal market, other unis would charge less than the big boys.

The simple model assumes consumers ensure prices reflect differences in quality. But where it's hard to judge the quality of a product before you try it, many people reverse the causation and assume the higher the price, the higher the quality. This gives lower-quality producers an incentive to charge high prices.

In the early noughties, the Howard government allowed unis to raise their fees by 25 per cent. One small uni decided not to do so. It found its applications from new students actually fell. So the following year it put its fees up like all the others and its applications recovered.

In Britain, the Cameron government allowed unis to raise the 3000 pound annual fee they charged local students up to a limit represented by the 9000 pound fee charged to foreign students. Almost all of them took the opportunity to raise their fees to the maximum allowed. Applications dropped by 9 per cent in the first year, but rose in subsequent years.

On the basis of all this, my guess is the sandstone unis will raise their fees a long way and the less reputed unis won't be far behind them. Their notion of competition will be to make sure no one imagines a lesser fee than the big boys is a sign of their lesser quality.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Why exactly are we punishing young jobseekers?

It has been easy for older people to see themselves as particular victims of this budget. And I confess I never expected to see any government courageous enough to pick on Grey Power the way Tony Abbott's has. In his efforts to get people into the workforce, however, it's carrots for the old and sticks for the young.

A major goal of this budget is to increase everyone's ability to contribute to the economy: "everyone who can contribute should contribute." Contribute doesn't mean paying a higher rate of tax, of course, but taking a paid job.

"This budget is about shifting our focus from entitlement to enterprise; from welfare to work; from hand-out to hand-up." Don't you feel better already?

To this end, the budget cuts benefits to sole parents and stay-at-home mums, reviews the assessment of some younger recipients of the disability support pension and imposes "compulsory activities" on recipients under 35, cuts the benefit received by unemployed people aged 22 to 24 from the dole to the youth allowance, imposes a waiting period for benefits of up to six months on people under 30, reintroduces Work for the Dole and introduces a "restart" payment of up to $10,000 to employers who take on job seekers aged 50 or over who have previously been on benefits, including the age pension.

Get it? Older people want to work, but suffer from the prejudice of employers, so they're helped with a new and generous subsidy to employers, whereas the young don't want to work when they could be luxuriating on below poverty-line benefits, so they're whipped to find a job by having their benefits cut and their entitlement removed for six months in every year until the lazy loafers take a job.

Just how having their benefits reduced or removed helps young adults afford the various costs of finding a job - including being appropriately dressed for an interview - the government doesn't explain.

But anyone who can remember the controversial statements Abbott used to make as minister for employment in the late 1990s will know he has strong views about the fecklessness of youth and the need for a pugilistic approach to their socialisation.

Consider this from a budget glossy spin document: "The government is reinforcing the need for young Australians to either earn or learn. The changes will prevent young Australians from becoming reliant on welfare.

"Because we want new jobseekers, especially those leaving school and university, to actually look for work, income support will only be provided once a six-month period of job hunting has been completed."

And if it doesn't work the first time, give them six months on Work for the Dole, then keep repeating the dose until it does. If that doesn't get 'em off their arses, nothing will.

Really? Young Aussie adults are that lazy and lacking in aspiration? No shortage of jobs, just a shortage of effort that a monetary boot in the backside will soon fix?

The notion that our young people should either be "earning or learning" has intuitive appeal, but a moment's reflection shows it can easily be taken too far.

How does it help to starve a youngster to the point where they're prepared to undertake some pointless training course? Is it really smart to take a university graduate who's having a few months' wait to find a suitable job and force them into a taxpayer-funded course on driving a forklift truck?

We've been hearing a lot lately about the difficulty older people have in finding re-employment. I'm sure there's much truth to it, and the government has acted. But we hear much less about the way the young suffer whenever times are tough and employers become reluctant to hire.

Everyone thinks a policy of reducing staff numbers by "attrition" is a relatively benign response to an economic slowdown. Big staff layoffs are avoided. But few remember this transfers the burden from people already in jobs to those seeking jobs, particularly those leaving education. The annual entry-level intake is the first thing to go.

Before Abbott turned up with his punitive solution to a problem few people realised we had, the Brotherhood of St Laurence began campaigning to raise public awareness of rising youth unemployment.

Unemployment among those aged 15 to 24 shot up in the recession of the early '90s, reaching more than 380,000 in October 1992. But by August 2008 it had fallen to less than 160,000. That was immediately before the global financial crisis. Since then it has climbed back to about 260,000.

The rate of unemployment among 15- to 24-year-olds is 12.5 per cent, more than double the overall rate. This means they account for more than a third of the unemployed.

And it's not just more of them: over the past five years the average duration of unemployment for young people has risen from 16 weeks to nearly 29 weeks.

The funny thing is, the executive director of the Brotherhood, Tony Nicholson, doesn't find much evidence these people are happy to live on the dole forever. "They aspire to a mainstream life - to have a home, to have some sense of family, to belong. A key part of that belonging is the desire to have a paid job."

Maybe the problem is not enough jobs rather than not enough effort. If so, putting them on a starvation diet may not do much to help.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Hockey’s budget applies a chopper, not a brain

According to Treasury secretary Dr Martin Parkinson, the budget is replete with ''structural reforms''. According to his boss Joe Hockey, it will ''drive the productivity required to generate economic growth''. Sorry, not convinced.

As a vehicle for micro-economic reform, the budget gets less impressive the more I study it. Parkinson seems to be referring to reforms to the structure of the budget itself, which will build ''fiscal resilience'' over the coming decade.

That's true enough in terms of returning the budget to a sustainable surplus (business cycle permitting). In the process, however, the budget cuts will do little to raise the efficiency with which the government performs its own tasks, nor the efficiency of its interaction with private industries.

Rather than making what the government does more cost-effective, it just stops doing as much. It makes the federal government smaller, but not better. It's a giant exercise in cost-shifting: to people on pensions, to the young jobless, to university students, to the sick and, to the tune of $80 billion, to the states.

It's about crude spending cuts, not about using science to improve efficiency. Does anyone seriously believe imposing yet another temporary increase in the ''efficiency dividend'' on the public service will lead to cost savings without any decline in the quantity and quality of services provided to the public?

Hockey's talk of productivity improvement seems mainly a reference to the budget's increased spending on public infrastructure. I guess we shouldn't complain about the Liberals' belated recognition that adequate infrastructure increases the productivity of the private sector - it would be news to Peter Costello - but the money does need to be well spent to maximise the benefit.

Monuments and pork-barrelling do little for productivity. And I'm not convinced the Libs' bias - federal and state - towards expressways and against public transport is the way to get the greatest productivity gain.

Next exhibit on the micro-reform list would be the deregulation of university fees. The claim that this will unleash competition and so make the tertiary education ''industry'' a lot more efficient is so debatable I'll leave it for another day.

Along with Tony Abbott (St Ignatius, Riverview) and Christopher Pyne (St Ignatius, Adelaide), Hockey (St Aloysius, Sydney) has repudiated the Gonski reforms which would have put federal grants to schools on a needs basis. He's left grants to private schools unreformed and unmeans-tested, while grants to public schools will cover an ever-declining share of their costs.

Leaving aside questions of fairness (and partiality), this is a micro-reform negative. Adjusting grants to reflect students' disabilities would have done much to increase the skills, employability and workforce participation of kids at the bottom of the distribution. It could have been done more cheaply than Labor planned by reducing grants to privileged schools to compensate.

Medical services account for 9.5 per cent of gross domestic product, meaning we have few industries that are bigger, even though much of the industry is government-owned or heavily government-subsidised.

There is plenty of room for the reform of excessive schedule fees for certain procedures, perverse incentives and overservicing, particularly by the corporate sausage-machines that have been permitted to take over so much of general practice.

The doctors' union could be obliged to allow nurses and other health professionals to perform many routine procedures. Many evidence-based reforms could be implemented to reduce waste and increase productivity in public hospitals without reducing the quality of care.

Much could be done to reduce the cost of the pharmaceutical benefits scheme by taking a tougher line with foreign drug companies over generics and the ''evergreening'' of patents, not to mention the chemists' union.

Paradoxically, overseas experience says greater efficiency can be achieved by imposing a cap on the growth in total scheme spending, thus requiring medical representatives to make harder choices about which new drugs are really worth listing.

So what was done? Hockey introduced a $7 charge on GP visits, tests and scans that will be costly to collect and will get at the corporate overservicers by hitting every patient and will discourage the poor from seeing the doc, whacked up an already high co-payment for pharmaceutical scripts and slashed projected grants to public hospitals.

For good measure, Hockey stopped wasting money on all that preventive medicine stuff. Brilliant. Must have taken a genius to dream all that up.

Finally, ''corporate welfare''. The foreshadowed toughness didn't materialise, save for a brave decision to take the ethanol subsidy from a very generous political donor. But the opportunity for sharing the pain - and doing much to force change on a lot of corporate ''leaners'' - was missed.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Sleights of hand in Hockey's budget

You have to look hard, but there are two logical sleights of hand in Joe Hockey's fiscal policy, as dutifully expounded by his Treasury secretary, Dr Martin Parkinson, in his speech this week.

Parkinson makes three important points that have tended to be lost in all the furore over Hockey's choice of victims in his efforts to get the budget back on track. I'll take issue with the last two.

The first is the "measured pace of fiscal consolidation". ("Fiscal" is a fancy word for the budget and "fiscal consolidation" is a euphemism for the spending cuts and tax increases needed to get the budget back into surplus.)

Parko's point is that, though Hockey has announced a host of decisions to improve the budget balance, many of them don't start for a year or three and the rest don't have much effect for a few years.

Relative to the estimates we were given in the mid-year budget review just before Christmas, the effect of the measures announced in the budget, plus any revisions to the economic forecasts, is expected to reduce the deficit for next financial year by just $4 billion (relative to nominal gross domestic product of $1630 billion).

The expected improvement in the second year, 2015-16, is just $7 billion, with the same improvement the year after. Not until the fourth year, 2017-18, is a big improvement of $26 billion expected to bring the budget back almost to balance.

See how gentle it is? Why so "measured"? Because the economy is still relatively weak - "below trend", in the jargon - and is expected to stay relatively weak for another year or two as spending on the construction of new mines and gas facilities falls much further.

So Hockey delayed the effect of most of his measures until he was confident the economy could absorb the shock without falling in a heap. This is exactly what the Brits and others didn't do - which is why it's both wrong and ignorant to refer to Hockey's measures as a policy of "austerity".

Parko's second point is that the budget measures involve a "compositional switch" in government spending. Hockey's cuts are aimed at "transfer payments" (transfers of money) that flow into consumer spending.

At the same time, however, he's actually increasing investment spending on new infrastructure by almost $12 billion over five or six years. Five billion of that is his "asset recycling initiative", which offers the state governments a 15 per cent incentive to sell off some of their existing businesses and use the proceeds to build new infrastructure.

So the incentive should lead to a lot more infrastructure spending than would otherwise have occurred. And, on top of that, we know investment spending has a higher "Keynesian multiplier" than consumption spending.

This change in the mix of government spending is happening by design, intended to help fill the vacuum left in the engineering construction sector by the sharp fall in mining construction. More proof Hockey is no economic wrecker.

But this year's budget papers include a new section giving the split-up of total government spending between "recurrent" spending (cost of keeping the show going for another year) and spending on investment, something forced on Hockey as part of a deal with the Greens to remove Labor's (silly) cap on total government borrowing.

What past governments haven't wanted to tell us is that about 9 per cent of their annual spending is capital, not recurrent. For the coming financial year this is $36 billion. More than half of this is capital grants to the states, 20 per cent is defence equipment and 14 per cent is building the national broadband network, leaving 11 per cent on the feds' own capital purchases.

The budget papers confirm the new government's commitment to the "medium-term fiscal strategy" first set down by the Howard government to "achieve budget surpluses, on average over the course of the economic cycle".

This is a good formulation, with one, now-more-salient weakness: its failure to distinguish between recurrent and capital spending. Hockey and his boss keep saying the budget has to be returned to surplus because we're "living beyond our means" and leaving the bill for our children.

That's true only to the extent we continue borrowing to cover recurrent deficits. To the extent we borrow to help cover the cost of infrastructure - which will deliver a flow of services extending over 30, 40 even 50 years - we're not living beyond our means (any more than a family that borrows to buy its home is) and not treating the next generation unfairly.

So setting yourself the goal of paying for all your infrastructure investment and having the government end the cycle with an ever-rising bank balance is fiscal conservatism gone crazy.

The second of the government's fiscal sleights of hand comes with Parkinson's third point: Hockey's plan involves creating "headroom for tax cuts".

In projecting government spending and revenue over the coming decade, the government has resolved to impose a cap on the growth in tax collections at 23.9 per cent of GDP. And government spending has been cut hard enough to accommodate that cap while still producing ever-growing surpluses.

Why? Because, we're told, "fiscal drag" (bracket creep) can't be allowed to run on forever. It would push low- and middle-income-earners into much higher tax brackets ("marginal tax rates") which would be both economically damaging and politically infeasible.

Fine. We've had to rely on years of bracket creep to correct the irresponsibility of Peter Costello's eight tax cuts in a row, but this can't go on for ever.

Did you see the sleight of hand? You don't need to cap tax collections just to counter bracket creep in income tax. Hockey is making room for much bigger tax cuts than that. And there's zero guarantee the chief beneficiaries of those cuts will be the low- and middle-income-earners who suffered most under the creep.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Hockey's budget game plan: favour the well-off

Do you like paying tax? No, I thought not. Well, I have good news. The harsh measures in last week's budget were directed towards one overwhelming objective: getting the budget back into surplus without increasing taxes to do it. Indeed, Joe Hockey is working towards the day when he can start cutting income tax.

If you hadn't quite realised that, you could be forgiven. You've been unable to see it because of two distractors: the deficit levy and the resumed indexation of fuel excise.

But the levy is just a temporary pin-prick to the top 3 per cent of taxpayers who will pay it. And the price of petrol will rise by only about 1 cent a litre per year. The effect of the excise increase will be dwarfed by the ups and downs in the world price of oil.

The catch is this: you may hate paying tax, but don't be too sure Hockey's efforts to avoid tax increases and eventually make room for income-tax cuts will leave you ahead on the deal.

Why not? Because to avoid increasing taxes - and avoid cutting the big tax breaks some people enjoy - Hockey has concentrated on cutting back all manner of government spending. And most people - maybe all families bar the top 10 per cent or so - have more to lose from cuts to government spending made, than they have to gain from tax increases avoided.

That's particularly true when Hockey's efforts to cut government spending take the form of tightening means tests, moving to meaner rates of indexation and introducing or increasing user charges.

Don't think just because you voted for the Coalition Hockey is looking after you. It works out that low income-earners - generally the old, the young and the unemployed - are heavily dependent on government spending, and genuinely middle income-earners with dependent kids are significantly reliant on government spending.

Only high income-earners who've already been means-tested out of eligibility for most programs (e.g. me) have little to lose from Hockey's cuts. That's the reason for the deficit levy. Without it, it would have been too easily seen that high income-earners weren't doing any of Hockey's "heavy lifting".

Indeed, too many people might have twigged that the whole exercise was designed to have high income-earners as its chief beneficiaries. The spending cuts are permanent and many of them save more as each year passes. But the deficit tax is temporary.

Hockey wants us to believe he had no choice but to do what he did. I accept he had to get on with bringing the two sides of his budget back into balance, but he had a lot of choice in the measures he took to bring that about.

He chose to focus on cutting three big classes of government spending: health, education, and income-support programs (pensions, the dole and family tax benefits). Not by chance, these are the programs of least importance to high income-earners.

He carefully avoided cutting the programs of most importance to the well-off: superannuation tax concessions, the concessional tax treatment of capital gains and negative gearing, Tony Abbott's Rolls Royce paid parental leave scheme, the mining industry's fuel excise rebate and other "business welfare" and, of course, the high income-earners' favourite charity: defence spending.

And while slashing away at health, education and income support, he was also busy abolishing the carbon tax, the mining tax paid largely by three huge foreign mining companies, cutting the rate of company tax by 1.5 percentage points and exempting federal grants to private schools from his education cuts.

Hockey will tell you his net cuts to health, schools and age pensions don't actually take effect until 2017, after the 2016 election. This is the basis for his claim not to have broken Abbott's election promises. (Remember, all the proceeds from his cuts and charges in health care will go into the new medical research future fund.) It's largely true - though only for Abbott's "core" promises.

Even so, Hockey's most objectionable changes are the punitive treatment of the young jobless and the attack on Medicare's principle of universality. The measures that will do most harm to the Liberal heartland (including the children of high income-earners) are the changes to HECS and deregulation of university fees.

Some people are referring to Hockey's $7 patient co-payment for GP visits, tests and scans as a tax. This is quite wrong. It's precisely because it isn't a tax that it has been introduced. It's a user charge: use the service, pay the charge. By contrast, taxes are amounts you pay the government that bear no direct relationship to what you get back.

High income-earners want more user-charging (for pharmaceuticals as well as GP visits) because they're no great burden to the highly paid, but they reduce the need for higher taxes. They reduce the cross-subsidy from the rich to the poor.

I must warn you, however, of the one glaring exception to high income-earners' insistence that tax increases be avoided at all cost (to other people). The one tax increase they lust after is a rise in the goods and services tax.

Why? Because they believe it will be part of a deal in which the higher GST paid by everyone is used to pay for another cut in the rate of company tax plus a cut in the top rate of income tax.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Less to the budget than meets the eye

The more of the budget's fine print I get through, the less impressed I am. It's not a budget so much as a flick-pass.

On its main goal of returning to surplus, you can accept the plausibility of its projections that budget balance will achieved by 2018-19 without being terribly impressed by the quality of its claimed "structural" savings.

The policy changes proposed yield savings over the four years to 2017-18 totalling $38 billion (on an accruals basis). Contrary to all the government's rhetoric, almost a quarter of these savings come from increased tax collections.

But get this: fully 46 per cent of the total savings come in the fourth year. Until then, net savings are quite modest. There are various reasons for this delay. One is political: Tony Abbott is keeping some core promises by not breaking them until after the 2016 election.

Another is macro-economic: Joe Hockey is delaying the big cuts until he's confident the economy will be strong enough to absorb them. Yet another is that the Labor government's back-end loading of its new spending programs meant some very big bills fell due in the year beyond last year's forward estimates (where they were harder to see).

But there's one more reason: 2018 is the first year when the expiry of various agreements allows the feds to really start screwing the states on grants for public schools and public hospitals. From then on, grants will be adjusted only in line with inflation and population growth.

This means almost all of Hockey's cumulative savings of more than $80 billion on payments to the states for schools and hospitals over the decade to 2024-25 occur beyond the forward estimates.

Before the election, Abbott and Hockey claimed repeatedly to be able to return the budget to surplus by eliminating waste. In truth, they've identified and eliminated little or no genuine waste.
Rather, they've defunded worthy causes (grants to charities and cultural activities, overseas aid), imposed new user charges (Medicare benefits, the real interest rate on HECS), whacked up existing user charges (pharmaceutical benefits, university fees) and tightened up means-testing (family tax benefit B).

But a lot of the longer-term savings come from lowering the indexation of payments from a wage-related index to the consumer price index. In the case of pensions, this will cause the relative value of pensions to fall continuously over time, pushing the aged and disabled below the poverty line.

In the case of payments to the states for schools and hospitals - whose main cost is wages - it leaves an ever-widening gap the states wouldn't have a hope of covering by increased efficiency, only from other revenue sources. (The cost of medical supplies grows much faster than the CPI.)

As well as meaner indexation, there's a lot of two or three-year pauses in indexing thresholds or payments (family tax benefit, some medical benefits schedule fees, the Medicare levy surcharge, the private health insurance rebate, grants to local governments).

Note, these are largely temporary savings to the budget, though there's some ongoing saving because of the lower base (in real terms) established before indexation is resumed.

And note this. Hockey justified his exclusion of the cost of superannuation tax concessions from his efforts to curb the allegedly unsustainable growth in the cost of population ageing by saying tax expenditures would be considered as part of the coming review of taxation. In truth, he did fiddle with tax expenditures when it suited him (the mature age worker tax offset and the dependent spouse tax offset).

See what this means? If the Coalition ever does get around to reforming the concessional tax treatment of super, capital gains and negative gearing - each benefiting mainly high income-earners - it will do so not as part of the effort to balance the budget, but as part of a revenue-neutral tax reform package where the savings are used to (I bet) cut the top tax rate, with increased collections from the GST shared between the premiers and a lower rate of company tax.

The budget was a giant attempt to get back to surplus solely by cutting spending and not increasing taxes. It failed. Not so much because of the temporary deficit levy or the resumption of indexing the fuel excise, but because the cumulative $80 billion saving from short-changing the states on schools and hospitals - almost a quarter of the total saving - will have to be covered by increased state taxation.

A tax increase flick-passed to the states is a tax increase avoided? Any serious increase in state tax revenue would have to be made possible by the feds, in any event.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Budget's effect on economy: not as bad as it looks

The consumerist question about this week's budget is: how did it affect my pocket? The egalitarian question is: was its treatment of people at the bottom, middle and top reasonably fair? But the macro-economic question is: how will the budget affect the economy?

We know the economy has been, and is expected to continue, growing at below its medium-term trend rate of about 3 per cent a year, the rate that keeps unemployment steady. So will the budget help to speed things up or slow them down? In the economists' jargon, will its effect be "expansionary" or "contractionary"?

It may seem a simple question, but economists have various ways of attempting to answer it. One outfit asking itself this question is the Reserve Bank. The Reserve will take account of the budget's effect - along with various other factors' effects - on the strength of demand in the economy in making its monthly decisions about whether to raise, lower or leave unchanged the instrument it uses to affect the strength of demand, the official interest rate.

In making that assessment the Reserve takes a very simple approach: in what direction is the budget balance expected to change between the present financial year and the coming financial year that starts in July? And having determined the direction of the change, how big is it? Obviously, the bigger it is, the more notice we should take of it.

Taken at face value, the answers to those questions aren't ones most people would be pleased to hear. Joe Hockey is expecting a budget deficit of $49.9 billion in the financial year just ending and a deficit of $29.8 billion in the coming year.

That's an expected improvement of $20.1 billion - which may please those people who think getting the government's deficits and debt down as quickly as possible is the only thing that matters, but would worry most business people and economists.

Why? When governments spend more in the economy than they take out of it in tax collections - that is, run a deficit - they're contributing to the net demand for the production of goods and services that keeps the economy growing and increasing employment opportunities. Which, when private demand is weak, is a good thing.

(It would be a different matter if private demand were strong and the additional demand from the public sector was adding to inflation pressure.)

So the expected reduction of $20.1 billion in the budget's net addition to demand will have a contractionary effect which, taken by itself, will tend to make the economy grow even more slowly. And since the budget papers imply nominal gross domestic product will be $1632 billion in 2014-15, a $20.1 billion change represents 1.2 per cent of GDP - making it highly significant.

Oh dear. Doesn't sound good. But, as I say, this is taking the budget figures at face value - always unwise in economics. What's more, simply focusing on the direction and size of the expected change in the budget balance is a bit simplistic.

For a start, Hockey inflated the old year's deficit by choosing to make a payment of $8.8 billion to the Reserve Bank. This is just the government moving money between its pockets; it has no effect on demand.

If you ignore the one-off payment to the Reserve, the expected improvement in the budget deficit falls to $11.3 billion, which is equivalent to 0.7 per cent of GDP - but that's still a quite significant degree of contraction.

But here's where we start getting tricky. When you imagine that reducing the budget deficit by $1 will therefore reduce nominal GDP by $1, you're implicitly assuming that whatever the government does to bring that $1 reduction about won't have any effect on the behaviour of people who've had their benefits cut or their tax increased.

In the economists' jargon, you're assuming a "multiplier" of 1. In 2009, however, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development published estimates of the multiplier effects of changes in various classes of government spending and taxation by the Australian government.

It found, for instance, that increased government spending on building new infrastructure would have a multiplier of 0.9 in the first year (and 1.3 in the second year, as the increased spending by the government prompted the eventual recipients of that money to increase their own spending).

By contrast, it found that, on average, an increase in government spending on "transfers to households" (such as a cash splash) had a multiplier of just 0.4 in the first year, rising to 0.8 in the second year.

Why? Because a lot of people would hang on to the money (save it, or use it to reduce their debts) rather than spend it, particularly at first.

This explains why the OECD's multiplier for a cut in income tax is only 0.4 - people would save most of it. Similarly, an increase in income tax would reduce consumer spending by only 60 per cent of the increase because some people would cut their rate of saving to "smooth" their consumption.

The OECD's various multipliers for Australia range from 0.3 to 1.3. If we use a narrower range closer to the middle of that range - 0.6 to 0.9 - and apply these multipliers to the 0.7 per cent of GDP we calculated earlier, we get an estimated negative impact on GDP of between 0.4 and 0.6.
This suggests the budget's negative effect on demand won't be too terrible.

And note this: most of the expected improvement in the deficit in 2014-15 comes from an expected improvement in the economy (more people paying more tax; fewer people needing assistance) rather than from all the tough changes Hockey announced on Tuesday night.

The lion's share of the budget savings don't come until 2017-18. Why? Partly for political reasons but also because, as he's long been saying, Hockey didn't want to hit the economy while it was down.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Hockey's first budget: tough but unfair

This budget isn't as bad as Labor will claim and the Liberal heartland will privately think. It's undoubtedly the toughest budget since John Howard's post-election budget in 1996, but it's hardly austerity economics.

I give Joe Hockey's first budgetary exam a distinction on management of the macro economy, a credit on micro-economic reform and a fail on fairness.

Although Hockey has laboured hard to ensure few sections of the community escape unscathed, the truth is most of us have been let off lightly.

Only those people right at the bottom of the ladder have been hit hard - unemployed young people, the sick poor and, eventually, aged and disabled pensioners - but who cares about them? We've been trained to worry only about ourselves, and to shout and scream over the slightest scratch.

Someone in the top 4 per cent of taxpayers on $200,000 a year will be wailing over the extra $7.70 a week they'll be paying in tax. A single-income couple with kids will be losing a lot more than that, while someone under 30 denied the dole for the first six months will lose $255 a week.

And everyone will be angry about the resumption of the indexation of fuel excise, so worked up they forget it will raise the price of a litre of petrol by about one cent a year.

Anyone surprised and shocked by the budget can be excused only if last year's election was their first. Any experienced voter who allowed themselves to be persuaded that "Ju-liar" Gillard was the first and last prime minister ever to break an election promise should pay their $7 and ask a GP to check for amnesia.

If you thought a man who could promise "no surprises, no excuses" was a man who could be trusted to keep his word, more fool you.

Any experienced voter who didn't foresee that changing the government would mean this year's budget was a stinker, isn't paying enough attention.

Labor supporters want to believe that because Hockey and Tony Abbott are exaggerating about a "budget emergency" and "tsunami of government spending", we don't really have a problem. They are refusing to face reality.

After running budget deficits for six years in a row, we faced the prospect of at least another decade of deficits unless Hockey took steps to bring government spending and revenue back together. Failure to make tough decisions wouldn't have turned us into Greece, but since when was that the most we aspired to?

This budget is Abbott's admission that his claim to be able to balance the budget without increasing taxes was no more than wishful thinking. The Liberal heartland, however, schooled for years to give its selfishness free rein, is having trouble facing this reality.

Hockey's problem was that, with the economy weak and with big declines in spending on mining construction still to come, sharp cuts in government spending or big rises in taxes could have slowed the economy to a crawl.

This is why some of the biggest savings he announced - particularly on the age pension - have been timed not to take effect until 2017. It's also why he put so much emphasis on increasing spending on infrastructure, particularly by the states.

The economy is expected to be a lot stronger by the time Tuesday's measures take full effect. This carefully measured approach is what wins Hockey high marks for macro-economic management.

He claims his reforms will improve the economy's performance. His best measures along those lines are the increased competition between universities, the concessional loans to TAFE students, the loans to encourage youngsters to complete their apprenticeships and the grants to encourage employment of people over 50.

But some measures are likely to make things worse rather than better. The $7 patient co-payment for GP visits and tests is certainly likely to discourage visits - more by the poor than the rest of us - but if it dissuades people from seeking help until their medical problems are acute it may end up costing the taxpayer more than it saves.

The planned tighter means-testing and much less generous indexation of pensions will be defensible only if the planned review of the tax system leads to big reductions in the superannuation tax concessions going to retirees far too well off to get the pension.