Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Growing signs young won't do as well as their olds

Will today's young people end up better off than their parents? That used to be a stupid question. Of course they will. But these days, it's much less certain.

We've come to expect that each generation will be better off than its parents, with more income, better housing and better healthcare.

But many young adults have begun to doubt it. According to one opinion poll, only 22 per cent of respondents under 30 considered they would have a better life than their parents.

And now a report by the Grattan Institute think tank, The Wealth of Generations, has found evidence to support the fear that today's generation of young Australians may have lower standards of living than their parents at a similar age.

It's a question of what's likely to happen to their incomes and what's happening to their wealth.
Our wealth is our assets (property, superannuation and other financial investments, and money in the bank) less our liabilities (mainly debts).

Wealth is like congealed income. We can usually turn it back into money should we need to. Some of it produces income (rental properties, financial investments) and some reduces our need for income, such as when we live in our own homes rather than renting.

We add to our wealth when we save some of our annual income. Most of us save more than we think we do, by paying off a mortgage over 20 or 30 years, or by having our employer fulfil the government's requirement to put 9.5 per cent of our wage into super.

We also add to our wealth when the market value of the assets we own rises – "capital gain". And, of course, when we inherit the wealth of our relatives or receive a gift of money from them.

The wealth of Australian households has grown a lot over the years, even after allowing for inflation, as all the figures I'll quote do. But the report, by John Daley and Danielle Wood, finds that over the past decade, older households captured most of the growth in the nation's wealth.

Despite the global financial crisis, households aged between 65 and 74 in 2011-12 were, on average, $215,000 better off than households of that age range were eight years earlier. Those aged 55 to 64 were $173,000 richer, on average.

But the average household in the 35 to 44 age group was only $80,000 richer. And get this: those aged 25 to 34 actually had less wealth than people of the same age 8 years earlier.

Why? Various developments have conspired to bring this disparity about. Probably the biggest is what's happened to house prices and home ownership.

Rates of home ownership have fallen over the past two decades for all but the oldest households, the report finds. Going further back to 1981, more than 60 per cent of 25 to 34-year-olds were home owners. Thirty years later only 48 per cent of people in that age group were owners.

An increasing proportion of those born after 1970 will never get on the property ladder, according to the authors. If increasing education debts aren't already discouraging younger households from taking out mortgages, it sounds like it won't be long before they will be.

This means a higher proportion of the younger generation missed out on rising housing wealth as house prices boomed. Between 1995 and 2012, house prices increased by an average of 4.3 per cent a year faster than inflation. This was much faster than the rise in full-time wages.

The boom was caused by the greater availability of home loans, the return to low inflation in the mid-1990s and by our failure to build enough new dwellings to keep up with population growth.

The later you were to get in on it, the less the boom's capacity to increase your wealth, particularly because you had to borrow so much to join. But the worst of it for young people is that, though house prices are likely to stay high (making it hard to afford the entry fee), they can't possibly keep rising at the same rate (meaning the prize for getting in won't be as big as it used to be).

There's more to the problem than housing, however. Incomes also grew fastest for older people, allowing them to add more to their wealth through saving. In 2004, households aged 55 to 64 were net spenders; by 2010, with average annual incomes $4600 higher, their net annual saving was $2700.

Although households aged 25 to 34 kept their spending controlled, their average incomes increased by $3100 and their saving by $1500.

A big part of the reason for this is that, over the years, government spending and taxation policies have become more favourable to the elderly than they were. The age pension's been made more generous while income from super is now tax-free.

Who has gained most from the big budget deficits we've been running since 2009? The old. Who will eventually have to pick up most of the tab? The young.

All this wouldn't be such a worry if we could be confident that incomes will keep growing as strongly in the future as they have been for 70 years. They may.

But it isn't hard to think of reasons why they may not – including the thing none of us is allowed even to think about: climate change.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Economy: not good, but not disastrous

Don't drop your bundle. It's not clear the economy has slowed to the snail's pace a literal reading of the latest national accounts suggests. As for the talk of a "technical income recession", it's just silly.

What is clear is that, at best, the economy continues to grow at the sub-par rate of about 2.5 per cent a year, a rate insufficient to stop unemployment continuing to edge up. This has been true for more than two years.

A literal reading of last week's national accounts from the Bureau of Statistics says the economy - real gross domestic product - grew by a mere 0.3 per cent in the September quarter, down from growth of 0.5 per cent in the previous quarter and 1 per cent in the quarter before that.

But if we've learnt anything by now, it's that it's folly to take the quarterly national accounts too literally. They're just a first stab at the truth, based on incomplete and often inaccurate data.

The initial estimate for growth in any quarter will be revised - up and down - up to a dozen times before the bureau is satisfied it has got it pretty right. Reserve Bank governor Glenn Stevens referred recently to "the vagaries of quarterly national accounting".

Frankly, I don't believe the economy slowed markedly in the three months to September, or the six months, for that matter. If it were true, surely we wouldn't need to be told about it by the national accounts two months after the fact.

Since all individual economic indicators have their weaknesses and inaccuracies - meaning none should be taken too literally - the only adult way to proceed is to see if the signal coming from one key indicator fits with the overall message coming from the other indicators.

On the basis of what all the other indicators are saying, the forecasters - official and unofficial - expected growth in the September quarter of 0.6 per cent or 0.7 per cent, which would be consistent with the view we're still travelling at about 2.5 per cent a year.

When the published figures turn out to be half that, this suggests either that all the forecasters got something badly wrong, or that it's the published initial estimate that's wrong and likely to be revised up to something closer to what we expected.

The way we'll be able to tell whether the economy really has slowed to a crawl is by watching the rate at which unemployment rises in coming months. At the 2.5 per cent a year speed, it's worsening at a rate averaging 0.1 percentage points a quarter.

If that average rises, we'll know things are much worse than they were.

As for the "technical income recession", it proves little. Make a note that, in this context, the word "technical" is warning that what follows is based on an arbitrary rule with little sense to it.

"Technical" means two quarters of contraction in a row equal a recession. So one quarter of huge contraction isn't a recession, and two negative quarters separated by a zero quarter aren't a recession, but two consecutive negative quarters are a recession no matter how tiny the falls (or whether one is subsequently revised away).

"Real gross domestic income" is real gross domestic product adjusted for the change in our terms of trade during the quarter. Since, as we've seen, real GDP growth was weak in the past two quarters, the deterioration in our terms of trade in both quarters caused real income to decline by 0.3 per cent in the June quarter and by 0.4 per cent in the September quarter.

What happens to our terms of trade - and, hence, our aggregate income - is important. But, in this particular case, it's hard to get too excited.

As Dr Shane Oliver, of AMP Capital, has explained: "There is a danger in dwelling too much on the slump in real gross domestic income flowing from the falling terms of trade ... while swings in the mining and energy export prices are very important for resource companies, and hence for government revenues, their impact on the rest of the economy is far more modest."

In other words, the main impact is on mining company profits, and mining is about 80 per cent foreign owned. More their problem than ours.

If I thought the economy was sliding into genuine recession I'd say so. But I don't believe in exaggerating the bad news because it makes for more exciting betting on financial markets, makes a better story or because you've always hated whichever party happens to be in power at the time.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Why we're doing so much better on recessions

With the economy growing below par and spirits so flat that people have started making up new and silly terms like "technical income recession" just to spook us, it's time we put our present discontents into context.

And who better to provide it than the unfairly sacked secretary to the Treasury, Dr Martin Parkinson, who on Friday gave the last of his final speeches in a farewell tour equal to Johnny Farnham's (though well short of Nelly Melba).

On his last day in the job, Parko reflected on all the economic reforms he'd seen since he joined Treasury in 1981 and the economy's greatly improved performance since then. We are, after all, in our 24th year of growth since the severe recession of 1990-91.

Parkinson observed that about half the people of working age today weren't old enough to work at the time of that recession. They thus have little conception of how terrible recessions are. Or why oldies like me object to the R-word being invoked with such flimsy justification.

In that recession, the official unemployment rate rose from 5.8 per cent in December 1989 to 11.1 per cent in October 1992, an increase of more than 5 percentage points.

But, as Parkinson reminds us, up to that point we were used to having recessions about every seven years. In the Whitlam government's recession of the mid-1970s, which continued for some years into the Fraser government's term, the unemployment rate rose by about 4 percentage points.

Then came the Fraser government's own recession, in which unemployment rose from 5.4 per cent in June 1981 to 10.3 per cent in May 1983.

It was the era of "stop-start growth". In banging on about 23 years of uninterrupted growth, however, it's important to remember there were several periods of slower growth in that time, as Parkinson acknowledges.

Indeed, Reserve Bank governor Glenn Stevens observed recently that "but for the vagaries of quarterly national accounting we might well have called the end of 2000 a recession; we would have called the end of 2008 one, in fact I would call it that ... I think we had a recession then, but it was a brief one.

"It wasn't terribly deep and we got out of it fairly quickly. The question isn't how you can go another 23 years without a recession, it is how you have small ones and get out of them quickly."

Just so. Parkinson notes that, in 2000-01, the unemployment rate increased by about a percentage point, and during the global financial crisis of 2008-09, it went up by about 2 percentage points.

But this acknowledgment that we've had a few mini-recessions in the past 23-plus years only enhances Parkinson's point: compared with the previous 20 years, we've got vastly better at macro-economic management, at smoothing the business cycle.

"Those recessions of the 1970s, '80s and '90s were devastating to the economy," Parkinson said. "There was the direct loss to economic output of having around 5 per cent of our workforce thrown out of jobs.

"And there were the social and personal costs of increased unemployment that are more difficult to measure, but likely just as large, or larger, and more persistent, than the direct loss to economic output.

"Large numbers of people experienced long periods of unemployment following these recessions. In many cases, those long-term unemployed never worked again."

In the past 23 years we weren't knocked off course by the Asian financial crisis of 1987-88 or by the bursting of the technology bubble and subsequent recession in the United States in the early 2000s.

You can't put such a record down to good luck. So what changed to make our economic performance so much better than it had been? Parko identified three main factors.

First, all the micro-economic reforms of "product markets" (for oil, air travel, telecommunications, manufacturing, agriculture, rail, waterfront, water and electricity, bread and eggs) and "factor markets" (the exchange rate, banks and financial markets; labour market decentralisation).

These reforms not only improved the allocation of resources and so added to national income, they also made the economy more flexible in its response to economic shocks: less inflation-prone and unemployment-prone.

This, in turn, made the economy's growth more stable and the macro managers' job easier.

Second, there were reforms in the way macro-economic management was conducted, with the introduction of "frameworks" (rules and targets) and greater transparency. Monetary policy (control of interest rates) is now conducted independently by the Reserve Bank, guided by an inflation target.

Fiscal policy (the budget) is now conducted according to the Charter of Budget Honesty with a "medium-term fiscal strategy" and regular reviews.

Third, the building of economic institutions with operational independence in regulating the economy (Australian Prudential Regulation Authority, Australian Securities and Investments Commission, Australian Competition and Consumer Commission and Australian Taxation Office) and in advising the government (Productivity Commission).

Parkinson stressed that these reforms were "an important pre-condition for stronger and more stable growth" but the growth itself was produced mainly by Australia's businesses and households.

"Australia is not immune from economic cycles," he concludes. "But the economic reforms of the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s mean recessions will happen less frequently and be less severe, on average, than if we still had the economic policies and structures of the 1970s."

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

War on drugs succeeding from economists' perspective

How goes the war on drugs? On the face of it, not well. But in thinking about the drug problem it helps to know a bit of economics. When you do, you see things aren't as bad as they seem.

Most people agree that the use of heroin, cocaine and amphetamines such as speed and ice can become highly addictive and, when they do, a lot of harm is done to users and their families.

So most of us agree that governments should be working to limit the use of such harmful drugs. The arguments come over how best to do it. The conventional approach is to make the production, importation, distribution, sale and consumption of such drugs illegal. Problem solved.

But we've been pursuing this prohibition approach for years, spending a fortune on policing, the courts and the high proportion of drug offenders in our jails. With all this has come a fair bit of police corruption.

And yet illegal drug use remains widespread, with still too many drug overdoses and drug deaths. The seizures, arrests and prison sentences roll on, seemingly to little effect. People may be using less heroin, but its place has been taken by ice which, if anything, seems worse.

If prohibition so clearly isn't working, shouldn't we try a different approach?

Last week the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research published research that seems to provide powerful support for the contention that the conventional approach is broken.

We've all seen TV news reports of police proudly displaying the seemingly huge quantity of drugs they've just seized after an intricate detection operation. We're told the "street value" of the seized drugs, with the implication that this success will put a hole in drug consumption.

The take-away message is clear. See? The tide has turned and we're winning the war after all.

But the study took the figures for seizures and arrests of suppliers of illegal amphetamines, cocaine and heroin, and compared them with the figures for two indirect measures of drug use: hospital emergency department admissions for drug overdoses and arrests for drug use or possession. The figures were for the whole of Australia, over the 10 years to June 2011.

The study found no evidence that increases in drug seizures and arrests of drug suppliers reduced the number of emergency department admissions or the number of arrests for use or possession.

The study also analysed three specific NSW police operations - named Balmoral Athens, Tempest and Collage - identified by the NSW Crime Commission as being so successful they had the potential to affect the market for cocaine.

It found that the operations did have the effect of reducing arrests for use or possession of cocaine, but that effect was only temporary.

In fact, the study found that increases in drug seizures were often associated with increases in hospital admissions and arrests of users. Huh? The likely explanation is that at times when there is a lot more of the drugs available, the police will be able to increase the amount they seize.

What more proof do you need? Prohibition isn't working and we should try something else. Many medical people would like to see less emphasis on criminalisation and more on harm reduction. Just imagine if we could take all the money poured into catching and punishing people and use it to help people get off drugs and sort out their lives.

But Dr Don Weatherburn and the other authors of the study argue strongly against using its findings to conclude that drug law enforcement is a waste of money.

Why not? Because, when you look at the issue the way an economist would, you realise there's more to prohibition than just attempting to stamp out all illicit drug use.

The other thing it does is force up the price of drugs. Research suggests the black-market price of cocaine in the US is between 2 1/2 and five times what it would be in a legal market. For heroin it was between eight and 19 times higher.

Economists, as you know, are great believers in the power of prices, and in using prices to change people's behaviour. There's little reason to doubt that the high price of illegal drugs hugely reduces the number of users and the amount each user uses.

Before we write off prohibition we need to consider what economists call the "counterfactual": what would the world be like if these drugs weren't outlawed? Far more people would be using them and the amount of harm needing to be reduced would be infinitely greater.

But the law enforcers need to remember what it is that's keeping the price of drugs so high. It's obviously not their success in greatly limiting the supply of drugs relative to the demand.

No, it's the high incomes drug producers and traffickers need to earn to induce them to run the great risk of imprisonment that working in this industry entails. As an economist would think of it, it's the big "risk premium" suppliers add to the prices they charge that keeps prices so high.

This suggests that rather than trying to maximise the size of the seizures they can parade on telly to prove how successful they are, law enforcers should maximise the risks of traffickers getting caught, thereby inducing them to charge a higher risk premium.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Why Hockey's budget flopped so badly

Who could have predicted what a hash a Coalition government would make of its first budget? If Joe Hockey wants to lift his game in 2015, as we must hope he will, there are lessons the government - and its bureaucratic advisers - need to learn.

The first and biggest reason the government is having to modify or abandon so many of its measures is the budget's blatant unfairness. In 40 years of budget-watching I've seen plenty of unfair budgets, but never one as bad as this.

Frankly, you need a mighty lot of unfairness before most people notice. But this one had it all. Make young people wait six months for the dole? Sure. Cut the indexation of the age pension? Sure. Charge people $7 to visit the doctor, and more if they get tests, regardless of how poor they are? Sure.

Charge people up to $42.70 per prescription? Sure. Lumber uni students with hugely increased HECS debts that grow in real terms even when they're earning less than $50,000 a year? Sure.

What distinguished this budget was that even people who weren't greatly affected by its imposts could see how unfair it was to others.

Unfairly sacked Treasury secretary Dr Martin Parkinson is right to remind us we have to accept some hit to our pocket if the government's budget is to get out of structural deficit. But any politician or econocrat who expects to get such public acquiescence to tough measures that aren't seen to be reasonably fair needs to repeat Politics 101.

This is particularly so when a government lacks the numbers in the Senate - as is almost always the case. Without a reasonable degree of support from the electorate, your chances are slim. Especially when you subjected your political opponents to unreasoning opposition when they were in office.

A related lesson is that successful efforts to restore budgets to surplus invariably rely on a combination of spending cuts and tax increases. To cut spending programs while ignoring the "tax expenditures" enjoyed by business and high income-earners, as this government decided to do, is to guarantee your efforts will be blatantly unfair and recognised as such.

Move in on "unsustainable" spending on age pensions while ignoring all the genuinely unsustainable tax breaks on superannuation? Sure. Our promise to the banks not to touch super trumps our promise to voters not to touch the pension. This makes sense?

But a politically stupid degree of unfairness isn't the only reason this budget was such a poor one. Its other big failing was the poor quality of its measures.

It sought to improve the budget position not by raising the efficiency and effectiveness of government spending, but simply by cost-shifting: to the sick, the unemployed, to the aged, to university students and, particularly, to the states.

There are various ways to improve the cost-effectiveness of the pharmaceutical benefits scheme - though this would involve standing up to the foreign drug companies and to chemists - but why not just whack up the already high co-payment?

There are ways to reform the medical benefits scheme - by standing up to specialists - but why not just introduce a new GP co-payment, even though we already have a much higher degree of out-of-pocket payments than most countries?

The claim that introducing a GP co-payment constitutes micro-economic reform because it gets a "price signal" into Medicare lacks credibility. For a start, I don't believe that's the real motive. Who doubts that, once a co-payment is introduced, it won't be regularly increased whenever governments see the need for further cost-shifting?

For another thing, the notion that introducing a price signal would deter wasteful use without any adverse "unintended consequences" is fundamentalist dogma, not modern health economics.

Similarly, the notion that deregulating tuition fees would turn universities into an efficient, price-competitive market with no adverse consequences to speak of is first-years' oversimplification, not evidence-based economics worthy of PhD-qualified econocrats.

I'm not convinced the range of savings options Treasury and Finance offered the government was of much higher quality than the options it picked.

This budget was so bad because so little effort was put into making it any better.

I'm starting to fear our governments and their econocrats have got themselves into a vicious circle: because the econocrats can't come up with anything better, they fall back on yet another round of that great Orwellian false economy, the "efficiency dividend".

But the never-ending extraction of what have become inefficiency dividends is robbing the public service of the expertise it needs to come up with budget measures that would actually improve the public sector's efficiency.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Treasury boss's parting advice is daunting

One of Tony Abbott's first acts on becoming Prime Minister was to sack the secretary to the Treasury, Dr Martin Parkinson. Parkinson's crime was to believe - as did the government he had been serving - that we need to take effective action against climate change.

Abbott also sacked Parkinson's obvious successor at Treasury, Blair Comley, for the same crime. It was a disgraceful, vindictive way to treat loyal and proficient public servants.

But Parko's departure from Treasury was delayed, first so he could help the new government prepare its first budget and then because his experience was sorely needed to help Abbott and Joe Hockey prepare to chair the G20 meeting this month.

But the time for his departure has finally arrived and this week he gave one of the last of many speeches during his distinguished career. It was a tour of the short-term and longer-term challenges and opportunities that lie ahead. He professed to be very optimistic about our prospects, but I found his remarks pretty daunting.

Starting with the rest of the world, Parkinson observed that, even this far on, the big, developed economies' recovery from the global financial crisis was slow and uneven. Forecasts for global growth next year had been downgraded again, to 3.75 per cent, following a pattern that had become familiar over the past few years, he said.

"We now have a situation where 200 million people around the world are looking for work. As the International Monetary Fund's Christine Lagarde noted, if the unemployed formed their own country, it would be the fifth-largest in the world."

The financial crisis led to rapid accumulation of public debt, and governments in many countries had neither the political support nor market tolerance to use deficit spending to stimulate their economies, he said.

In normal times, countries might use monetary policy to offset fiscal tightening, supporting demand by cutting interest rates and boosting economic activity by having their exchange rates fall. But many countries already had their interest rates at zero.

So their efforts to cut spending and raise taxes while their economies are still so weak - known as a policy of austerity - ran the risk of weakening demand further and making the budget deficit bigger.

Many countries had resorted to "quantitative easing" - metaphorically, printing money - to offset the budgetary tightening. Trouble was, we are yet to see the massive increase in funding this has generated translate into growth-inducing investment, he said. It was leading to too much financial risk-taking (buying high-priced shares and bonds) but not much economic risk-taking (increasing production capacity).

This was why our move to get each of the G20 members to agree to take measures that would cause their growth over the next five years to end up 2 per cent higher than otherwise, particularly by increased investment in infrastructure, made so much sense.

In the short-term construction phase, it adds to aggregate demand. If it's done well, it adds to the economy's supply capacity and boosts productivity for the long term. And if you price access to the infrastructure properly, it might even help the budget in the medium term.

Turning to our economy, the short-term outlook was dominated by our transition from resources investment-led growth and risks associated with continued weakness in the global economy and the potential for renewed financial instability, he said.

But our transition to broader sources of growth was occurring more slowly than we might have expected. In particular, the dollar hadn't fallen as much as expected, considering how far commodity prices had fallen, so the boost to the non-mining economy hadn't been as great as hoped.

The limited fall in the dollar was explained by the big countries' quantitative easing, which was pushing their currencies down relative to ours.

Our consumers were also cautious in their spending and businesses seemed unwilling to invest until they saw consumer spending picking up. It was looking likely the economy would have grown below trend for seven of the eight years to 2015-16.

The long-delayed return to healthy growth created a risk that cyclical (temporary) unemployment turns into structural (lasting) unemployment. However, working the other way was our moderate growth in wages, which was a sign that the labour market was adjusting flexibly, even though it was also likely to be limiting consumer spending.

Turning to our longer-term challenges and opportunities, our big opportunity arose from the shift in the centre of global economic growth to Asia. By 2050, four of the five largest economies in the world would be in our region: China, India, Japan and Indonesia.

In this decade, the number of Asian middle-class consumers would equal the number in Europe and North America. These people would increase their demand for a wide range of goods and services that we could help supply.

But if we were to grasp these opportunities, we would need to work for them, and work hard, Parkinson said. There were no grounds for complacency.

We must use the opportunity provided by all the present reviews - of the tax system, the workplace relations system, the financial markets, competition policy and the functioning of our federation - to make decisions that improve our productivity growth and position ourselves to reap the most from our prospects.

Our other big problem was achieving a more sustainable fiscal position - getting the budget back to surplus. Australia had a "structural" budget problem - that is, one that wouldn't disappear once the economy had returned to normal growth - requiring a sustained and measured response, involving people giving up benefits.

It was important we start the process of repairing the budget now, he said. We had recorded 23 years of consecutive growth and the budget projections were based on an assumption that this would continue for another decade.

Such an outcome - 33 years of uninterrupted growth - would be without precedent. Get it? We're unlikely to be that lucky.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Why house prices will stay high

Why are house prices so extraordinarily high? Short answer: because Australians have an unusual relationship with their homes. The reasons for that strange relationship aren't new, but until now they haven't been well understood. And among foreigners they still aren't.

House prices in cities such as Sydney and Melbourne don't just seem high to you and me, they're high by international standards. According to the International Monetary Fund, Australia has the third highest house prices, relative to the level of people's incomes, among 24 advanced economies.

Our house prices are so high that just about every foreign economist who looks at them becomes convinced we're sitting on a bubble that could burst at any moment. But few Australian economists agree with them.

Though there's no guarantee prices will keep shooting up the way they have been lately and nothing to stop them falling back a bit - there's plenty of precedent for periods of either stable or falling house prices in our recent history - most local economists see little prospect of an American-style collapse in prices.

But what is it that's holding our prices so high? For the full explanation of Australian exceptionalism I'm relying on a typically thorough report by one of our top business economists, Saul Eslake, of Bank of America Merrill Lynch.

Much of the explanation comes from the insights of economic geography, the study of how we're affected by the spatial dimension of the economy and, in particular, of the way big cities work.

Eslake says foreigners tend to think of Australia as a country of wide-open spaces - "a land of sweeping plains" - where people live with kangaroos grazing peacefully on their front lawns. In truth, most of us live on the edge of the continent, crammed into a few very big cities, making us one of the most urbanised countries on the planet.

Almost 60 per cent of Australians live in cities with populations of more than one million, a proportion exceeded only by Japan, Hong Kong and Singapore. Of our six state capitals, all but Hobart fit that description.

Urban geography research suggests real estate prices are usually a lot higher in cities with populations of more than a million. So an unusually high proportion of Australians live in big cities where house prices are safe to be higher.

Second, compared with cities in other countries, Australian cities are large in terms of area, relative to the size of their populations. Trouble is, Eslake says, public transport and arterial roads in the outer suburbs of Australian cities are generally inadequate for the task of moving large numbers of people from those suburbs to the central business district.

But, because of this, many Australians choose to spend a higher proportion of their incomes on housing so as to spend a smaller proportion of their time commuting. In the process, we bid up the prices of houses and units closer in.

So houses prices are higher in Australia partly because commuting times are so long. The recent return of the delusion that building more expressways will reduce traffic congestion is unlikely to make things better.

Third, Australian house and apartment prices are higher because our homes tend to be bigger than those in other countries. Three-quarters of us live in detached houses, a much higher proportion than in most other rich countries. Our average size of a new house - 206 square metres - is a fraction higher than America's, with daylight third. And our housing is usually constructed using more expensive materials.

The international comparisons purporting to show how expensive our houses are never allow for differences in size and quality. If our housing is of higher quality than other people's, you'd expect it to cost more.

Eslake's fourth point is that, thanks partly to the resources boom and two decades without a severe recession, Australians are richer than we were, even relative to other high-income countries. Guess what? Better-off people tend to devote a higher proportion of their income to their housing.

We can afford to, so we do. Sounds pretty Australian to me.

Another part of the explanation is that, for more than a decade, we've been building too few houses and units to keep up with the growth in the population. Since the turn of the century we've had relatively fast growth averaging 1.4 per cent a year with 60 per cent of that coming from immigration.

During the 1990s we built 145,000 new dwellings a year, but though the annual increase in the population has doubled since then, our construction of new places has averaged just 150,000 a year. It was estimated that by June 2011 we'd built 284,000 fewer homes than needed to maintain housing patterns the way they were.

Supply isn't keeping up because of excessive restrictions and charges by state and local authorities. So this is putting some upward pressure on house prices. But it's just the opposite of what happened in most of the countries where prices tanked.

Finally, Eslake argues that a further part of the reason our house prices are so high is our unusual tax incentive encouraging people to invest in residential housing. It wouldn't be so bad if it added as much to the supply of homes as it adds to the demand for them but, in fact, 94 per cent of "negatively geared" investors buy established dwellings, not new ones.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Students pay for status under uni fee rise

With the Senate as unco-operative as it has become, it's not at all certain Education Minister Christopher Pyne's proposal to deregulate university fees will become a reality. But if it does it will involve harnessing the university status drive to help balance the budget.

The government's plan is to allow the universities to set their own undergraduate tuition fees for new students from January 2016. But this would be accompanied by a cut averaging 20 per cent in the government's contribution towards the cost of courses.

Joe Hockey has argued that fee control is holding back our unis, stopping them competing with the best overseas.

"Australia should have at least one university in the top 20 in the world, and more in the top 100," he said.

So the economic rationalists' claim that fee deregulation would make the unis more efficient is being combined with a status argument: we need to raise our top unis' rankings on the various international league tables.

What's the link between fees and higher international status? Allowing our top, research-oriented "sandstone" unis to charge much higher fees would allow them to divert more funds to their research effort (probably including paying higher salaries to attract higher-status foreign researchers), the thing that would do most to boost their international rankings.

This is the very motive for the sandstone (Group of Eight) unis' vigorous support for fee deregulation.

Both the proponents and the opponents of fee deregulation assume that the immediate fee increase needed to allow all unis to at least recover the cost of the reduction in the government's contribution to course costs would be just the first of many.

This, I have no doubt, is the main motive for the purse-string departments' advocacy of fee deregulation: giving the unis freedom to raise their fees whenever they want to will allow the government to continue to reduce its own funding of them - not just for teaching costs but also for research via the Australian Research Council.

The fact is, successive governments have been reducing their funding support for unis for decades. Although total spending on universities as a percentage of gross domestic product in Australia is about average among the advanced economies, by 2004 the proportion paid by government was third lowest. Fee deregulation would allow it to go a lot lower.

I don't doubt the econocrats are genuine in their instinctive belief that de facto privatisation of our unis would increase the competition between them, making them more efficient and improving the quality of service to students.

But this motivation would come a distant second to reducing the unis' drain on the budget. And I doubt the econocrats have given any serious consideration to the many instances of "market failure" involved in partially deregulating a government-owned oligopoly with considerable market power.
The scope for stuff-ups - "unintended consequences" - is enormous.

If the tertiary education "market" did operate in roughly textbook fashion, with individual unis lacking pricing power, competition between them would greatly limit their combined ability to raise their fees very far.

And yet it's clear the government and the sandstone universities are confident of their ability to impose big fee increases over a few years.

Why? Because they know that - though it's assumed away in the textbook model - the higher-status unis would be able to get away with making students pay for that higher status along with the cost of their tuition.

The tuition fees unis charge foreign students have long been deregulated. They vary widely between unis, with the sandstones able to charge a lot more than the "red bricks" (as the Poms would call them). As well, the level of fees charged varies by course, with those for higher-paid professions higher than for lesser-paid, regardless of differences in the actual costs of delivering such courses.

The econocrats assume deregulated fees for local students would follow the same patterns, but that's not guaranteed. There ain't a lot of precedent for this radical experiment.

Since the buyers' knowledge of the relative quality of degrees is far from perfect, there's a high risk the lesser-status unis would hike their fees by more than expected precisely to avoid sending a signal that their product was of lesser quality.

The non-sandstone unis don't like the sound of all this, but they won't openly oppose it because they don't want to publicly acknowledge their lesser status.

Meanwhile, some status-seeking students at sandstone unis could be obliged to pay not only the full cost of their tuition but also to cross-subsidise their uni's research effort.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Why India's development is so strange

Every Aussie who takes an interest in such matters knows how a country goes from being undeveloped to developed. We 've been watching our neighbours do the trick for years. It' s called export-oriented growth and it 's all about building a big manufacturing sector.

You encourage under-employed rural workers to move to the city and take jobs in factories. Because your one big economic advantage is an abundant supply of cheap labour, you start by concentrating on making low-cost, simple, labour-intensive items such as textiles, clothing and footwear.

Since the locals don' t have much capacity to buy this stuff, you focus on exporting it. Foreigners lap it up because to them it' s so cheap.

As the plan works and the country 's income rises, you plough a fair bit back into raising the education level of your workers, which allows you to move to making more elaborate goods and to paying higher wages. You 're on the way to being a developed country.

Over the decades we' ve seen a succession of countries climb this ladder: Japan, Hong Kong, South Korea, Taiwan, China and now even Vietnam and Bangladesh at the bottom. It s like pass-the-parcel: as each country' s labour gets too expensive to be used to produce low-value thongs and T-shirts, some poorer country takes over and starts the climb to prosperity.

That 's the way it s always done. Except for one country: India. Its economy started growing strongly in the 1990s and now it' s the world 's third-biggest (provided you measure it correctly, allowing for differences in purchasing power).

India has got this far without building a big, export-oriented manufacturing sector. It 's done something that' s probably unique: skipped the manufacturing stage and gone straight to the rich-country stage, in which most growth in jobs and production comes from services.

The Indians have done it by being so good with software and other information and communications technology and the things that hang off it, such as call centres. It' s a big export earner.

It' s an impressive effort, and there' s no reason a developing country shouldn' t have a big tech sector. But, even so, the experts are saying India would be a lot better off if it had a bigger, more vibrant manufacturing sector, employing a lot more people who, by Indian standards, would be on good wages.

This is a key theme in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development 's report on the Indian economy, issued this week.

The report offers suggestions on what could be done to encourage the growth of manufacturing, which go a fair way towards explaining why manufacturing never really got going the way it did in other emerging market economies .

First, some basic facts. India has a population of 1250 million and before long it will overtake China 's. About 29 per cent of the population is younger than 15.

Manufacturing accounts for only 13 per cent of India' s gross domestic product, which is low compared with the other BRIICS emerging economies: Brazil, Russia, Indonesia and China, but not South Africa.

Indian manufacturing probably accounts for a slightly smaller share of its total employment. Huh? It 's normally the other way round. You 'd expect it to be quite labour intensive. But "despite abundant, low-skilled and relatively cheap labour, Indian manufacturing is surprisingly capital and skill intensive," the report says.

Almost two-thirds of manufacturing employment is in companies with fewer than 10 employees. That compares with Brazil' s 9 per cent. This tells us the sector' s many small firms mean it isn' t exploiting its potential economies of scale.

And, indeed, its manufacturing productivity is low, with productivity 1.6 times higher in China and and 2.9 times in Brazil.

India' s employment in manufacturing hasn' t grown much over the years, with the sector hardest hit by the economy' s recent slowdown. What new jobs have been created have been " informal" , with workers not covered by social security arrangements.

Manufacturing' s share of India' s merchandise or goods exports (that is, ignoring the big and rapidly growing exports of IT services) fell from 77 per cent to 65 per cent over the decade to 2013.

My guess is an important reason for the sector 's unusual configuration and weak growth is excessive regulation. India has been and still is a highly, and badly, regulated economy. The socialists ' obsession with manufacturing means I wouldn' t be surprised if the newer technology sector has taken over the running because, being outside the Left' s traditional preoccupations, it wasn' t so heavily regulated.

Some regulation has been removed but, particularly as they apply to manufacturing, India 's labour and tax laws, which are tougher on bigger than smaller firms, have inhibited and distorted the industry 's development.

As the report puts it, manufacturing "firms have little incentive to employ and grow, since by staying small they can avoid taxes and complex labour regulations".

A second part of the explanation the report points to is what it calls "structural bottlenecks" . As with all developing countries, the whole Indian economy suffers under inadequate economic and social infrastructure.

But manufacturing is particularly reliant on good transport links - more so than the tech sector - and India 's transport infrastructure is still bad.

Every business needs a reliable electricity supply, but manufacturing probably needs it more than most. A business survey has found that 48 per cent of manufacturing firms experience power cuts for more than five hours a week. About 60 per cent of firms feel that erratic power supply affects their competitiveness and they would be willing to pay more for a more reliable supply.

As usual with developing economies, the list of things that need reform is long. The challenge for governments is to give priority to the ones that would do most to help, even though everything is interconnected.

In the case of Indian manufacturing, however, the OECD' s top recommendation is to introduce simpler and more flexible labour law, which doesn' t discriminate by the size of the enterprise.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

A good deal, but China wins on climate

At last, something to be positive about. Of all the Abbott government's efforts to improve our economic prospects over the year and a bit since its election, none compares with the benefits likely to flow from its remarkable trade agreement with China.

I'm not expecting to see any noticeable gains from the G20 leaders' pledge to increase economic growth by 2 per cent over the four or five years to 2018 - not directly as a result of our government's promised measures, nor indirectly as a result of the other governments' promises.

Those pledged actions don't seem to amount to much. And with Turkey taking over leadership of the G20 next year, it's possible this is the last we'll hear of them.

But the free trade agreement with China is of great substance, with phased reductions in China's tariffs (import duties) against many of our exports and, equally beneficial, in our tariffs against imports of certain manufactures from China.

It's likely to add significantly to our trade with China, increasing our ability to benefit from its growing middle class with ever more Western tastes, and giving us freer access to its ever more sophisticated manufactures. A coup for our tireless Trade Minister, Andrew Robb.

To be truthful, I've never been a great enthusiast for bilateral free trade agreements. They're greatly inferior to multilateral agreements, mainly because they're preferential agreements - you and I favour our mutual trade over trade with other people - contrary to what the term "free trade" implies.

This means they're capable of diverting and distorting trade, as well as generating red tape as rules are established to determine how much of an item that claims to be from China actually is.

But with efforts to achieve another round of multilateral trade improvements having been stalled since 2000, it seems we must accept that a spaghetti bowl of bilateral agreements is the best we're likely to get.

Australia has now negotiated quite a few of these deals, including John Howard's agreement with the United States in 2004 and Robb's agreements with South Korea and Japan earlier this year, but they amount to little compared with the China deal.

That's partly because China is fast becoming the world's biggest economy, partly because China is our largest trading partner - first on imports as well as exports - and partly because our economies are so complementary, but mainly because China is a still-developing country that joined the World Trade Organisation only in 2001 and so has many trade barriers still able to be reduced.

But it's a pity the government's ability to pull off such a good deal with the Chinese is not matched by a willingness to acknowledge the global good news embodied in last week's agreement between the US and China on measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions after 2020.

This meeting of minds of the two most influential players in the world's efforts to contain global warming has boosted confidence that we may yet be able to limit the industrial-age increase in average temperatures to 2 degrees Celsius and that major progress is possible at the next meeting of countries in Paris next year.

To hear our leaders seeking to avoid short-term embarrassment by denigrating the agreement and misrepresenting China's efforts to limit its own emissions is terribly disappointing. Joe Hockey let himself down with his claim that China will continue increasing its emissions until 2030.

This suggests he's as well briefed on the subject as a radio shock-jock. Should he care to raise his understanding to the level we expect of a federal treasurer, he could read a speech that Professor Ross Garnaut, a noted expert on the topic, gave as long ago as August.

As such a vocal advocate of economic growth, you'd expect Hockey to understand that China is committed to raising its people's material standard of living to a greater fraction of that Australians and people in other rich countries have long enjoyed.

This has inevitably involved much increased use of fossil fuel, with China's rapid economic growth during the noughties meaning it has become the largest contributor to annual growth in the world's greenhouse gas emissions.

But at the meeting in Copenhagen in 2009, China committed itself to reducing the emissions intensity of its economic growth by 40 to 45 per cent between 2005 and 2020. That is, each extra yuan worth of production would involve the emission of less greenhouse gas.

Garnaut points out that, relative to what would otherwise have happened, this represented a larger reduction than any other nation promised. And his calculations imply that the Chinese will achieve their commitment.

They have moved to a new economic strategy in which less of their growth comes from investment in factories and infrastructure and more from consumer spending, especially on services. This should involve less use of energy, particularly from fossil fuels, and so fewer emissions.

Garnaut's projections of China's electricity generation to 2020 - which accounts for most but by no means all of its emissions - suggest that its burning of steaming coal will actually fall a fraction between 2013 and 2020.

So, far from China still increasing its emissions in 2030, Garnaut believes they are likely to have peaked by 2020. You should have known that, Joe.

Monday, November 17, 2014

University status comes at a high price

Has it occurred to you that universities are fundamentally about the pursuit of status? Almost every aspect of their activities focuses on the acquisition of rank. And Christopher Pyne's proposed "reform" of universities is about harnessing the status drive to help balance the budget.

Ostensibly, unis exist to add to the store of human knowledge and to educate the brightest of the rising generation. All very virtuous.

When you think about it, however, you see that unis are about the pursuit of certification, standing, position and prestige. The main way they earn their revenue is by granting superior status to young people seeking to enter the workforce.

In theory, a degree proves your possession of knowledge in a certain area. Often in practice it certifies little more than that you're smart enough and persistent enough to have passed a lot of exams. Either way, try climbing the employment ladder without one.

This makes universities gatekeepers granting access to the good, well-paying jobs in the economy. Which gives them a kind of monopoly power.

In the old days the government paid them to teach, assess and certify young people; these days the young people are required, to an increasing extent, to buy their qualifications directly, making them customers as much as pupils.

Such is the strength of the unis' monopoly over access to the good jobs that most young people would be prepared to pay huge fees and take on very large debts before they resigned themselves to a lifetime of low socio-economic status.

The status symbols issued by unis are themselves subject to a well-understood system of ranking: doctorates rank above master's degrees, with thesis masters outranking course-work masters. Then come bachelor's degrees, with honours degrees higher than pass degrees and first-class honours higher than second class. Not forgetting the ultimate status symbol: being awarded a university medal.

But uni degrees are subject to a second, informal status ranking: employers (and parents) tend to be more impressed by degrees awarded by the older, bigger "sandstone" universities than those from younger, outer-suburban or regional unis.

While in the public's mind the unis' existence is justified by their teaching, few people become academics because of a burning desire to teach. Academics want to do research and, though some become good teachers and enjoy teaching, for the most part teaching is regarded as an unfortunate distraction.

The unis try to conceal the conflict between their priority (research) and the public's (teaching) by claiming that academics at the forefront of their discipline's research effort make the best teachers.

Students know this is rubbish. It pretends good teaching doesn't require possession of teaching skills and forgets that most undergraduate teaching has little to do with the teacher's super-specialty.

Academics know the fast track to the top comes from the quality and quantity of their research, as evidenced by their publication records. Promotion assessments - moving people up the status ladder from lecturer to full professor - give little weight to teaching, contribution to public debate or even the writing of textbooks.

The universities themselves are driven by their desire to raise their status relative to other unis by increasing the quantity and quality of their research. The government publishes regular rankings of our universities and their faculties, largely determined by their research output.

Universities threaten to sack academics who fail to reach research output quotas. They urge staff to compete for government research grants, granted partly on the basis of previously published research. Staff who win grants are rewarded with money they can use to pay part-timers to take over their teaching obligations.

The quality of published research is determined largely by the reputation of the academic journal that published it. All journals are ranked, with American and British journals scoring many points and Australian journals scoring few points.

(Since international journals are reluctant to publish research into Australian issues, this means our government uses our taxes to fund a universities-designed scheme that discourages our academics from doing empirical research on problems of particular relevance to us.)

In recent years the eight sandstone unis' greatest motivation has been to raise their position on a couple of regular international rankings of universities. To this end they've come increasingly to offer senior positions to American and British academics rather than locals, since the foreigners are more likely to get themselves published in more prestigious journals.

Some unis' drive to lift their international reputation involves a policy of never hiring lecturers whose highest qualification is a PhD they themselves granted. Cultural cringe, anyone?

How does this obsession with status-seeking tie in with the Abbott government's plan to deregulate uni fees? Watch this space.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

No 'reform' could increase jobs in the short term

What do we need to do to get the economy growing properly again? Wait ... for at least a year.

The most recent figures from the Bureau of Statistics confirm the economy has grown at an average annual rate of only 2.5 per cent over the past two financial years. Since it needs to grow at its medium-term trend rate of about 3 per cent just to hold unemployment steady, the jobless rate has been rising slowly over that time.

With the authorities holding out little hope of much improvement before 2016, it is not surprising people are wondering what more we could be doing to get things moving. Some have noted the impending loss of jobs in car making and elsewhere, and are wondering where the new jobs will come from.

At such times there is never a shortage of people peddling solutions. A perennial favourite is "industry policy" - which usually starts as a plan to kick-start some wonderful new industry, but too often ends up using subsidies to prop up industries from which the market has moved away.

Business lobbies perpetually tell us tax reform that lightens the burden on business and high-income earners would do wonders for the economy. But though it is true the tax system could be made more efficient, it is unlikely such reform could make more than a small addition to growth, spread over many years.

While it is true the economy's growth is weak because it is taking us a few years to get things back to normal following the major change in the structure of our economy that left us with a much-expanded mining sector, our growth problem is cyclical - that is, temporary - rather than structural.

Abstracting from the ups and downs of the business cycle, there is nothing fundamentally wrong with the functioning of our economy. While, as always, there are plenty of bits whose efficiency could be improved, there is no reform that could make a big difference in a short time.

Some people imagine the economy grows only to the extent the government is doing things to push it along. It ain't true. What propels the economy, keeping the number of jobs increasing virtually every year, is the material aspirations of business people and households.

All the macro managers do is hold the economy back a bit when it's going too fast, or give it a bit of a shove when it is going too slow. In normal times, the main instrument they use to slow things down or speed 'em up is interest rates.

That is just what is being done now, as an assistant governor of the Reserve Bank, Dr Chris Kent, explained in a speech this week reviewing the state of the economy and its prospects.

He warned that "GDP growth is expected to be below trend for a time before gradually picking up to an above-trend rate by 2016", meaning "the unemployment rate is likely to remain elevated for some time".

Many people devote a lot of time to following the chequered fortunes of the big economies - the United States, Europe, Japan, China - and probably conclude their slow growth will weigh heavily on our own.

If that's you, Kent has news: if you take our major trading partners' growth and weight it according to their share of our exports, it turns out our customers' economies have been growing since 2010 at the relatively stable rate of about 4 per cent a year, close to the long-term average.

The Reserve expects them to continue growing at that rate over this year and next. How is this possible? Simple: over the 13 years to last year, the advanced economies' share of our exports has fallen from 40 per cent to 25 per cent, with the much faster-growing developing Asian economies taking their place.

So the main adverse effects on us from the rest of the world are our still-too-high exchange rate, which is harming the price competitiveness of our export and import-competing industries, and continuing falls in the prices we get for our commodity exports, which reduce our real income.

The other big factor we will have working to keep our growth inadequate is mining investment spending, which "is set to decline more rapidly in the coming year or so than it has since it peaked in mid-2012".

Most of the factors pushing the other way arise from the stimulus provided by our exceptionally low interest rates. These have already led to growth in home building and some uptick in related spending on consumer durables, particularly in NSW and Victoria.

Growth in consumer spending is being constrained by weak growth in household income because growth in employment is so slow and wages are rising so modestly.

Even so, the Reserve is expecting consumer spending to be boosted by a continuation of the modest fall in the rate of household saving we've already seen. If so, this would represent households seeking to smooth the growth in their consumption despite weak income growth, as well as the effect of the rise in share and, particularly, house prices making them feel wealthier.

A separate source of stimulus Kent expects to see is a further fall in our exchange rate. With the American economy's recovery now entrenched, US authorities have ended their "quantitative easing" (creating money) and are expected to start raising their official interest rate in the middle of next year.

Once financial markets are convinced that tightening is on the way, the greenback should appreciate and our dollar depreciate. This would reduce the pressure on our tradeables industries and eventually help produce the long-awaited lift in investment spending by the non-mining sector.

As far as the Reserve is concerned, it has already done what needs to be done to get the economy back to normal. It's sitting tight, waiting for its sweet medicine to work, and thinks we should, too.