Saturday, March 14, 2015

Why monetary policy stimulus is less effective

The advent of "stagflation" in the 1970s - the previously unknown combination of high inflation with high unemployment - led to a loss of confidence in Keynesian policies, with primary responsibility for management of the macro economy being shifted to monetary policy and with fiscal policy taking a lesser role.

Four decades later, the wheel may be turning again. The two hot stories in the world of macro management are the decline in effectiveness of monetary policy and a consequent resurgence of interest in active fiscal policy.

Last week Dr Philip Lowe, deputy governor of the Reserve Bank, gave a speech explaining the monetary policy story, so let's look at that today and leave the fiscal story for another day. (Monetary policy refers to the central bank's manipulation of interest rates - and, these days, its creation of money - and fiscal policy refers to the government's manipulation of taxation and government spending in the budget.)

In the aftermath of the global financial crisis of 2008, the big developed countries' central banks cut their official interest rates virtually to zero in their efforts to stimulate demand, avert a depression and get their economies moving again.

When this didn't seem to be having much effect, but being unable to cut their official rates below what economists pompously call "the zero lower bound", first the US and Britain, then Japan, then the euro zone resorted to an unorthodox practice known as "quantitative easing": central banks buying bonds from the commercial banks and paying for them by creating money out of thin air.

The main way this stimulated their economies was by pushing down their exchange rates relative to the currencies of those countries that didn't resort to QE - us, for example.

The Europeans got so desperate to get their economies moving their next step was to do something formerly believed impossible: they cut their official interest rate below zero - meaning the central bank charges its commercial banks a tiny percentage for allowing them to deposit money in their central-bank accounts. In a few cases, the commercial banks have passed on this "negative interest rate" to their business depositors.

As Lowe says, the present global monetary environment is "quite extraordinary". There's been unprecedented money creation by major central banks, official interest rates are negative across much of Europe, long-term government bond yields (interest rates) in most advance countries are the lowest in history and lending rates for many private-sector borrowers are the lowest ever.

Had anything like this much stimulus been applied in earlier decades, economies would be booming and inflation would have taken off. Instead, though the US and British economies are now growing moderately, Japan and the rest of Europe remain mired, with considerable idle capacity. Inflation rates are low almost everywhere and inflation expectations have generally declined, not increased.

But why have things changed so much? Lowe says it's partly because the GFC was the biggest financial shock since the Great Depression and so has required a much bigger dose of monetary stimulus than usual, which is taking longer than usual to work.

But it's also partly because monetary policy is less effective. "Economic activity does not appear to have responded to the stimulatory monetary conditions in the way that occurred in the past and inflation rates have been very low," he says.

The single most important factor causing the change, he says, is the very high levels of debt now existing in many advanced economies.

One of the "channels" through which stimulatory monetary policy works is by the lower interest rates encouraging people to borrow so as to bring forward future spending. This has worked well in the past, but the high stock of debt acquired from past episodes has left many households, businesses and banks (and even in some cases, perversely, governments) unwilling to add to their debt.

Rather, they're using the low interest rates to help "repair their balance sheets" by paying down their debts.

One aspect of easy monetary policy that is still working normally, however, is the rapid rise in the prices of assets such as property and shares.

Another thing that's different is the flow-on from demand to prices. Both workers and firms seem to perceive their pricing power to have been reduced. More worried about keeping their jobs, workers are accepting much lower wage rises. More worried about losing customers, firms are more cautious about putting up their prices.

So how is all this affecting us in Australia? Lowe says one big effect is to leave us with an exchange rate that's higher than it should be; that hasn't fallen as much as the fall in our mineral export prices implies it should have.

This has required the Reserve Bank to cut our official interest rate by more than it thinks ideal. It's done this partly to reduce our interest rates relative to other advanced countries' rates and so put some downward pressure on our dollar, but mainly to make up for the inadequate stimulus coming from the still-too-high exchange rate.

The big drawback to our very low interest rates is the boom in asset prices: for shares and, more worryingly, houses.

Second, Lowe says, the same factors affecting global monetary policy are evident in Oz, although to a lesser extent. Our banks, businesses and governments don't have excessive levels of debt, but our households do. So, many are using the fall in mortgage interest rates to step up their repayments of principal rather than increase their consumer spending.

Retirees living on interest earnings seem to have cut their consumption rather than eat into their capital.

Our wage growth is surprisingly low, contributing to low inflation.

Lowe's conclusion, however, is that our monetary policy is still working. And once the major advanced economies have fully recovered from the Great Recession - which could take as long as another decade - global monetary policy will return to normal.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Tears for first-home buyers the crocodile kind

Joe Hockey wants to help young people buy their first home by letting them dip into their superannuation, while NSW Labor leader Luke Foley wants to improve affordability by letting them pay off the stamp duty on their purchase over five years. Really? I often wonder whether our politicians are knaves or just fools.
But while we're questioning the sense and morality of our pollies, we shouldn't neglect to ask whether they're just reflecting our own weaknesses. There are few subjects on which more crocodile tears are shed than housing affordability.
At bottom, the economics of housing affordability is dead simple. Sometimes housing can be hard to afford because mortgage interest rates are way too high. But that hasn't been the case since we got inflation back down to normal levels in the mid-1990s.

And at present just the reverse applies. Mortgage interest rates are abnormally low. They won't stay that way, of course.
So if interest rates aren't the problem, the other factor is home prices. In a market economy like ours, the price of anything – whether ordinary goods or services, or an asset such as a house – rises when the demand for it exceeds its supply.
For some years now, the supply of additional houses and units has failed to grow in line with "household formation" – young people getting married, people immigrating to Australia and couples splitting up.

So inadequate growth in supply has been the real problem, caused by state and local governments placing too many legal obstacles and charges in the path of developers seeking to build new estates on the edge of the city and – perhaps more important – seeking to provide medium- and high-density "infill" closer in, where people increasingly prefer to live to avoid long commutes.
The NSW Coalition government claims to have made progress in reducing these obstacles, and it's true that housing construction is growing faster in Sydney at present than it has been.
But though the basic problem has been maintaining an adequate supply of appropriately located housing to meet the growing demand, the supply side of the problem isn't terribly visible to you and me.
We're more conscious of the demand side, represented by the high and ever-rising cost of buying a place faced by our kids and other young people. What's more, we suffer from a kind of optical illusion. Your daughter and her partner are just sitting there saving, watching some invisible force push house prices further and further out of their reach.
The trick is that while no single purchaser can move the market price, the combined demand of all purchasers can – and does, as we watch.
Our natural, uneducated tendency to see the house price problem from the viewpoint of the individual buyer makes us susceptible to the pseudo solutions peddled by politicians seeking votes.
If only my daughter could get a bit of a leg-up in either putting together a sufficient deposit (say, by being allowed to dip into super) or in lowering the initial cost of the purchase (say, by staggering the cost of stamp duty), she could afford to take on the mortgage and she'd be right.
See the weakness in that logic? If it helps your daughter and her partner, it also helps all the couples they're competing against to buy a place. Which means it gets your daughter nowhere. Actually, she's worse off. Since everyone can now more easily afford to pay the existing price, the prices of the homes they want to buy go even higher.
As economists say, the benefit from the caring pollie's supposed helping hand is "capitalised" into the price of "ideal first homes". And that means the benefit of the measure ends up going not to first-home buyers but to first-home sellers.
Economists have understood this perverse outcome since the year dot. Their rule is simple: when demand for housing is running ahead of supply, anything you do to make it easier for people to afford the high prices ends up only making prices higher, to the cost of buyers and the benefit of existing home owners.
It's possible Hockey and Foley aren't sufficiently economically literate to have worked out that their proposals would be counterproductive. (Not to mention that Hockey's would leave young people's eventual retirement payouts significantly diminished because of their loss of compound interest, or that Foley's would leave fully financially committed couples with additional large lump-sum payments for five years.)
What's not credible is that these guys' economic advisers would have failed to warn them of the perverse consequences of their proposals. So they may just be fools, but my practice is to give their intelligence or competence the benefit of the doubt and assume they're knaves: they knew it was a con, but were confident most voters wouldn't see through it, so they proposed it anyway.
And remember this: in any year, the number of voting home owners far exceeds the number of would-be home owners. So how could proposing a scheme that pretended to help first-home buyers while actually helping existing home owners cost you more votes than it gained?
The pollies know that proposing phoney schemes to help young home buyers without actually lowering the value of the homes owned by the rest of us is exactly the kind of help we prefer them to offer.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Econocrats doubt our ability to grow

So, how fast can we expect the economy to grow over the next 40 years? And, more to the point, where's that growth supposed to come from? That's a doubt you expect from people without the benefit of an economics education, but the intergenerational report reveals the econocrats are going through a crisis of confidence about growth.

First, a disclaimer: not being as materialist as the economists, I don't see maximising our material standard of living as the ultimate objective. I worry more about what climate change and resource depletion will have done to the economy in 40 years' time, and the social price we'll be paying for our obsession with the material.

But back to the dominant paradigm.

The report projects that growth in real gross domestic product will slow to an average rate of 2.8 per cent a year over the next 40 years, down from 3.1 per cent a year over the past 40.

A third of this decline is explained by slightly slower population growth, leaving average growth in real GDP per person falling from 1.7 per cent a year in the past to 1.5 per cent a year in the future.

I trust you're suitably shocked and dismayed. This projected decline is explained essentially by the ageing of the population, leaving the average rate of improvement in the productivity of labour unchanged between the past and the future at 1.5 per cent a year.

So, where will the growth be coming from? Exclusively from improving productivity: from the economy's output of goods and services growing faster than its inputs of labour.

It's productivity the econocrats and other economists are so pessimistic about. So how did they estimate that productivity will grow by an average of just 1.5 per cent a year?

They didn't. They simply followed previous practice and plugged in the same figure for the coming 40 years as for the past 30. Since it's impossible to know what will happen to productivity in the future, this neutral assumption is better than any other you could make.

But that hasn't stopped some economists from claiming that 1.5 per cent a year is overly optimistic. Really? This tells you something about the reigning mood of pessimism among economists.

But if income per person is driven by productivity improvement, what drives productivity? If you rely on the things economists say in public, you could be forgiven for not knowing that overwhelmingly – and for the past 200 years – it's technological advance.

Every economist knows that's true but they rarely say so. That's partly because they know little about how technological advance works and partly because they believe there's little they can do to affect it.

But in recent years, some leading overseas economists have lost their faith that rapid technological advance will continue lifting material living standards. Two centuries of innovation have hit a dry spot, we're told.

It seems Treasury agrees. It admits a fact rarely included in economists' unceasing sermons on the evil of our low rate of productivity improvement in recent times: "Australia has not been alone among advanced economies in experiencing slower productivity growth over the 2000s, which suggests that the rate of growth in technological advance . . . may have been slower than in previous decades."

So if we can't rely on a continuing stream of new technology to keep our living standards growing at a rate economists find acceptable, what does Treasury suggest? It was hoping you'd ask because it's got just the solution we need: more microeconomic or "structural" reform.

For several years, all right-thinking economists have been badgering us to pressure governments for more micro reform. To bolster its argument that micro reform is the missing elixir, Treasury says "the increase in productivity growth rates seen in the 1990s is widely attributed to significant policy reforms of that decade and the 1980s".

But even if you believe this (I'm sceptical), it's hardly a great advertisement for the benefits of reform. You can make the most sweeping reforms – reforms which, having been made, can't be repeated – and all you get for your pains is four or five years of improved performance before lapsing back into mediocrity.

Reform, we're asked to believe, is only a fleeting fix. To maintain an acceptable rate of productivity improvement, reform must be unceasing (and defy the law of diminishing returns).

This portrays our economy as hopelessly inefficient and unproductive, despite all our efforts. Other countries can grow satisfactorily without continuous reform, but we can't.

Really? Such a view is so deeply pessimistic as to verge on economic apostasy. It's also bizarre.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

More infrastructure spending would boost economy

It's good to see Joe Hockey finally making the transition to government and joining the economic optimists' party. This week he greeted the national accounts by saying the economy had grown by "a solid 0.5 per cent in the December quarter to be 2.5 per cent higher over the past year".

"Our income as a nation picked up in the quarter, with nominal gross domestic product rising by a solid 0.6 per cent," he continued. "Real gross national income also rose in the quarter."

A treasurer should never talk the economy down, just as the official forecasters should never be the first to predict imminent recession. Such negativity tends to be self-fulfilling.

So I'm sorry to rain on Hockey's parade by telling you that "solid" growth is the econocrats' euphemism for "not so hot".

Just so. Annual growth of 2.5 per cent is well below our trend (average) rate of 3 per cent, especially disappointing when you remember we've been well below trend for quite a few years.

But though the figures from the Bureau of Statistics were unsatisfactory, they don't support the earlier fears of some that the economy fell apart in the previous quarter. A sensible reading is that the economy continues to plug along at the rate of about 2.5 per cent a year.

This, of course, is insufficient to stop unemployment rising. But for some years the rate of worsening has been steady at about 0.1 percentage points a quarter – which fits with reasonably steady growth in real GDP of about 2.5 per cent a year.

One encouraging sign in the accounts is that consumer spending grew by 0.9 per cent in the quarter and 2.8 per cent over the year. This isn't too bad when you consider that, with weak growth in employment and wages, real household income is growing at an annual rate of only about 1 per cent, according to calculations by Kieran Davies of Barclays bank.

Clearly, households must be reducing their rate of saving. Over the past year it's edged down by about 1 percentage point to a still-high 9 per cent of household disposable income. From now on consumer spending should be boosted by the fall in petrol prices.

Another bright spot is home building, which grew by 2.5 per cent in the quarter and by more than 8 per cent over the year. This is one area where the Reserve Bank's exceptionally low interest rates are really working, with building approvals reaching an all-time high in January.

It's likely all the real estate activity is helping to boost consumer spending on durables. There's nothing like changing houses to make you think you need a new lounge suite.

The weakest part of the accounts was business investment spending, which fell by almost 1 per cent in the quarter. Within this, and according to Davies' figuring, mining investment fell by 5 per cent while non-mining investment grew by only 2 per cent.

This is where we need the economy to be making the transition from the mining investment boom to non-mining-led growth. It's happening, but not fast enough to get the economy heading back towards trend growth.

That's why the Reserve has reverted to cutting interest rates. Not so much because the economy was slowing as because it wasn't picking up the way it had expected. And it's early days yet: mining investment fell by about 13 per cent last year, it's expected to fall by about that much again this year and by a lesser amount in 2016.

Arithmetically, the big saviour was the rising volume of exports, up 1 per cent in the quarter and more than 7 per cent over the year. This was driven by mineral exports, of course.

Combine that with a 2.5 per cent fall in the volume of imports in the quarter and "net exports" (exports minus imports) contributed 0.7 percentage points to GDP growth in the quarter and 2 percentage points to growth over the year.

Why are imports falling? Mainly because less mining investment means fewer imports of heavy mining equipment, but also because the fall in the dollar seems to have discouraged imports of business services and Aussies from "importing" overseas holidays.

But I can't get too excited about the surge in mineral exports. Mining is so capital-intensive that far fewer jobs are created by higher mineral exports than you'd expect from a jump in other exports. If that's the best we've got going for us, it's not good enough.

One more point of interest: spending by the public sector rose by a mere 0.1 per cent in the quarter and actually fell by 1.1 per cent over year. So, no help from government spending in getting the economy moving.

But before you start muttering about "austerity" and blaming poor old Joe, note this: public consumption spending rose by 0.4 per cent in the quarter and by 2 per cent over the year, whereas public investment spending fell by 0.9 per cent in the quarter and by (an amazing) 11.9 per cent over the year.

The great bulk of spending on capital works – "infrastructure" if you prefer – is done by the state governments. So it seems that, between them, the state governments – unduly worried about retaining their high credit ratings – have been allowing their works programs to run down.

This at a time when so many mining construction projects are winding up and construction workers and other resources are becoming available. Sensible governments adjust their construction programs to fit with downturns in private sector activity and take advantage of lower construction costs, thereby doing themselves and the economy a favour.

With monetary policy (interest rates) now less effective in stimulating the economy, it would be better if fiscal policy (budgets) was doing more to help, not less.

Friday, March 6, 2015

Intergenerational report a disappointment

The five-yearly intergenerational report ought to be highly informative, leading to serious debate about the economic choices we face. In the hands of Joe Hockey, however, it has become little more than a crude propaganda exercise.
As such it will be quickly cast aside, like last year's report of the Commission of Audit. Within a few days all that will remain is the taxpayer-funded advertising campaign. It, too, will be more about spin than brain-food.
Hockey has shifted the report's focus from the next 40 years to the government's present struggles with the budget. The message he wants us to take away is that it's all Labor fault, but the government has worked hard to greatly reduce the problem. And were not for those crazies in the Senate - who seem to think our spending cuts were unfair - last year's budget would have set us up for budget surpluses right through to 2055.
The message we should take away from it, as with its three predecessors, is one no politician on either side is prepared to admit: as our demands on the government for more and better services continue to grow, we will have pay for them with higher taxes. Since our real incomes are projected to rise by almost 80 per cent, this won't be so terrible.
Instead, the message from all these reports is that there is no alternative to sweeping cuts in government spending, unfair or not.
They come to this conclusion by quietly assuming that before long we will return to annual tax cuts, even as the budget deficit and debt get bigger every year. Sure.
If you wonder how anyone could have any idea of how things will play out over the next 40 years, you are right. No one can. The one thing we can be sure of is that, whatever the budget and the economy end up looking like in 2055, it won't be what this report says they will.
The mechanical projections in this report are based on a host of assumptions about an unknowable future. Some of those assumptions are spelt out in the fine print, some aren't. Some are honest guesses, some have been chosen to lead us to the conclusions the government wants us to reach.
One demonstration that projecting what will happen over the next 40 years is unavoidably dodgy is that the four successive reports have each come up with widely differing figures for where the budget will end up.
One demonstration of the report's lack of genuine concern about our future is its dismissive treatment of climate change. The biggest risk we face in 40 years' time is the budget deficit?
One demonstration of the report's inadequacy is its failure to take account of what may be happening to the state governments' budgets. This allows it to claim last year's budget measures would have restored the feds to eternal surplus, while ignore the consequences of Hockey's proposal for ever-growing cuts in grants to the states for hospitals and schools. Really?
To be fair, before Hockey got into the act Treasury would use the intergenerational report for its own propaganda. Its message was aimed at its political masters: the budget may look OK now, but there is a lot extra spending coming in a few years' time, so keep running a tight ship.
It was spectacularly unsuccessful. The Howard government went mad with tax cuts and middle-class welfare and Rudd and Gillard were a fraction worse with their unfunded schemes to help disadvantaged school kids and the disabled.

And these guys think it's all our fault?

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Cities: jobs in the centre, most people on the outer

It's remarkable how few new ideas most economists get. They look at the world the way they always have and worry about the same things they've always worried about, chasing the same rabbits down the same burrows.
They analyse the world using their standard model and see those things the model is designed to highlight, but don't see anything that's outside its scope.
What most economists rarely think about is the spatial dimension of the economy. It's ignored by their model, so it's ignored by them. Could it have something to tell us about why the economy isn't functioning as well as it could? Who knows?
Jane-Frances Kelly and Paul Donegan, that's who. They've been studying the economics of our cities for the Grattan Institute, and their eye-opening findings are explained in their new book, City Limits: Why Australia's cities are broken and how we can fix them. Here's my version of their message.
Despite our self-image as sun-bronzed sons and daughters of the soil, we are a nation of city-dwellers. Australia is one of the most urbanised countries in the world.
Our capital cities are growing and most of our income is being generated in them, notwithstanding the big expansion in mining, which is more about additional structures and capital equipment than workers.
For at least the past 40 years, all the net increase in employment has been in the services sector, and the services sector exists mainly in cities. The arrival of the knowledge economy will only heighten this trend.
Most of the economic action in our capitals is occurring near the centre of the city. Just the Sydney and Melbourne central business districts – occupying a combined area of a mere 10 square kilometres - account for about a quarter of each city's production.
Businesses crowd into the CBD because it gives them the easiest access to desirable employees and because they benefit from being close to the other firms in their industry and their suppliers. It facilitates the transfer of knowledge. Get it? They think that crowding together increases their productivity.
The biggest trend in city property prices is not just big rises over time, but the way inner-city prices are rising so much faster than outer-city prices as people seek "proximity" – closeness to the centre, with all its facilities and jobs.
Researchers at the Reserve Bank have shown that if you draw a graph with home prices on the vertical axis and distance from the CBD on the horizontal axis and then plot actual prices, you get an almost perfectly downward-sloping curve for Sydney, Melbourne, Perth or Brisbane. On average, prices are highest close in and lowest far out.
For the five mainland state capitals, 60 per cent of all the employment growth over the five years to 2011 occurred within 10 kilometres of the centre. But here's the problem: no doubt because inner-city house prices were so high, about 55 per cent of the population growth occurred 20 kilometres or more from the centre.
In other words, we've been developing a big economic and social problem few economists have noticed: a growing spatial divide between where the jobs are and where people live.
It's an economic problem because it increases the economy-wide costs of each day's production of goods and services. It's a social problem because, for the most part, those costs fall on the less-wealthy working families living in outer suburbs. Some of the costs come as dollars paid, some as time wasted and some as opportunities forgone.
The growing distance between where we live and where we work means car travel in peak periods is getting slower in all capital cities. Traffic is slowest on inner-suburban roads, because that's where most people are travelling to or from.
Over the past decade, the proportion of people spending more than 10 hours a week commuting has increased by about half. One in four full-time employees spends more time commuting than with their children.
Women caring for children in outer suburbs face tough choices, with a lack of accessible jobs forcing some out of the workforce altogether.
So what can we do about it? We need to reduce congestion and make it easier, quicker and cheaper to move across the city. To me that means improving access to public transport – which is excellent in the inner-city and woeful in the outer suburbs – not returning to our earlier delusion that building more expressways will fix it.
One day we'll have the courage to use time-of-use tolling to encourage those who have the flexibility to avoid travelling in peak periods to stop doing so.
But improving public transport is expensive and can be only part of the solution. The authors stress the need to increase the supply of semi-detached homes – terraces, townhouses and low-rise blocks of flats – in inner and middle suburbs.
This would require changes to complex planning and zoning regulations – and a lot of public consultation if the changes are to stick. But if so many people want to live closer in, we need to accommodate their wishes.
With the release of another intergenerational report this week, we'll be hearing much agonising by politicians and economists about why our productive efficiency isn't improving fast enough. But don't hold your breath waiting for them to acknowledge that a fair part of their problem is spatial.

Monday, March 2, 2015

Treasury under new management

How much does the Treasury's view of the world change when a prime minister comes to power, sacks the head of Treasury (and his heir apparent) and replaces him with his own hand-picked man from outside the public service?

That's what the economic cognoscenti were asking last week when our first political appointment as Treasury secretary, John Fraser, made his first public appearances at a Senate estimates hearing and as a speaker at a conference of the Committee for Economic Development of Australia.

Fraser had risen to the rank of deputy secretary when he left Treasury in 1993 to make his name and fortune as an investment banker at the global level of the UBS bank. It's hard to imagine such an old and rich chap would hang around long if he found his advice wasn't being heeded.

From what he's said so far, you don't get the feeling Fraser has spent the past 22 years keeping tabs on the Australian economy or keeping abreast of the latest applied research on fiscal policy. Even so, he's a man of strong and confidently held opinions, who isn't afraid to tell you about them.

His views were pretty conservative when he left Treasury, at a time when the views of Treasury itself were more cautious than they've been in recent years, and his time as a chief executive is unlikely to have radicalised him.

Dr Martin Parkinson and Dr Blair Comley seem to have been sacked for their lack of scepticism about climate change, so we can presume Fraser doesn't share that failing. I may be wrong, but I don't see him as someone who wastes much time worrying about "wellbeing frameworks".

We know from his evidence to the Senate that he's a great admirer of Ronald Reagan's tax cuts of the early 1980s (which did so much to lay the foundations for America's present towering public debt), but has "old-fashioned" views about the evil of public debt.

He is sceptical about using the budget to stimulate the economy when it's very weak – which means he's invalidated one of the best arguments for getting debt down: the need to "reload the fiscal cannon" ready for the next recession.

And he thinks the policy of "austerity" practised in Britain and (by default) America has been a great success. This opinion he expressed to the Senate and backed up with figures in his later speech.

To silly people on the left, "austerity" is a swear word you slap on any budget saving you disagree with. But it really means a policy of cutting the budget deficit hard even while the economy is very weak.

The lefties never understood that Joe Hockey's first budget was carefully crafted to involve minimal net cuts to the deficit in the first three years, with the big hit delayed until 2017, when the economy was expected to be back growing strongly.

So, is true austerity about to come to Oz under the advice of the new Treasury boss? You might think so. Fraser says "we need to start now" and repairing the fiscal (budgetary) position is "an immediate priority".

But I'm not so sure. Later in his speech he advocates "committing now to savings measures that build over time to deliver a return to surplus over the medium term". And asked if now was the time to cut savagely considering the weak outlook, he said the coming budget would have to be "tailored to the situation".

While much of what Fraser has said so far is what you'd expect of an Abbott appointee, some of it isn't. His summary of how the budget got into its present state doesn't put all the blame on Labor, but acknowledges the role of excessive tax cuts and spending by the Howard government.

And while noting that government spending has grown at an average real rate of more than 4 per cent a year since 2007-08 (mainly under Labor), he also noted that it grew by about 3.5 per cent a year over the four years to 2007-08 under the sainted Howard government.

He is sharply critical of the increase in "middle-class welfare" in Howard's last years, including Peter Costello's (obviously unsustainable) superannuation changes, which he highlights for reform.

And unlike the huge majority of economists, he frankly admits the great drawback to using immigration to boost economic growth: it "places additional demands on government budgets in areas such as infrastructure, health and education".

Maybe high immigration, but inadequate investment in business equipment, housing and public infrastructure, help explain why our rate of productivity improvement isn't as great as Fraser says we need.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Why a 10-year census would be fine

What's the difference between a census – a full count – and a sample survey? The census will always be superior, right? Not really.

With talk that the Bureau of Statistics and the government are considering changing our census of population and housing from five-yearly to 10-yearly and making up for this with regular sample surveys, the difference between the two has suddenly become a question of interest to more people than just students of statistical theory.

Since all of us have to fill in the census form, many people have opinions on the topic. And it seems from the feedback backbenchers are getting that some of us quite enjoy census night. There's a feeling of togetherness as families across the land sit up answering a seemingly unending questionnaire for each person in the family.

In principle, a census provides a true measure of the population because, by definition, it doesn't involve any risk of sampling error. But if you think that makes censuses foolproof, you're mistaken.

For a start, in practice you fall well short of a 100 per cent "enumeration". When you've got to get forms from everyone, no matter how elusive or remotely located, you're bound to come up short. So you have to adjust the figures for this undercount, which you do by (get this) conducting a "post-enumeration survey".

For another thing, the answers you collect may be wrong, because people misunderstood the question or are being less co-operative than they should be. Errors in the census are both expensive and difficult to reduce.

Censuses are conducted on a particular day, which may or may not be representative of other times during the year. From that day on, the counts become ever-more-outdated. The things we're measuring are often too important for us to wait another five years for another count, but anything you do to update the figures in the meantime won't have the same certainty as a census.

Attempting to question every person in the country is such a huge exercise that it's hugely expensive. The census in 2011 cost taxpayers about $440 million. And because there's so much data on so many subjects, it takes ages to process. The figures can be maybe two years old before we get to see them.

It's such a major exercise that the bureau begins planning the next census two years before the latest one has been conducted.

A big part of the reason some people have been dismayed by news that a move from five- to 10-yearly censuses is being considered is that they've heard only half the story. They know what they'd lose, but not what would be put in its place. Researchers and interest groups who make great use of a particular part of the census have visions of going 10 years between drinks.

But another part of the problem, I suspect, is that a lot of people don't know much about the wonders of the science of statistics, a branch of mathematics that draws particularly on probability theory.

One way of thinking of statistical science is that it's the study of ways to be sure you're drawing accurate conclusions from a bunch of puzzling data. Another way is that statistics is the search for ways to draw accurate conclusions about a "population" (of people, things or events, such as all the road accidents in Victoria in 2014) as quickly, easily and cheaply as possible.

Get it? Statistics is the discovery of mathematical tricks that allow us to avoid all the hassle, delay and cost involved in always having to do censuses of this, that and the other.

The truth is that, as interestingly told by an article in the Christmas issue of The Economist, we've made great strides in this just since World War II.

In which case, why shouldn't we take advantage of this technological advance, just as we unhesitatingly take advantage of advances in computer science? Why run to the great expense of frequent censuses when we can get results that are almost as reliable, and in other respects better, much more easily, quickly and cheaply by using sample surveys?

That, after all, is why we've developed sampling theory – being able to take just a small sample of a population and draw accurate conclusions about the characteristics of that population.

The trick to sampling is to ensure the sample has been drawn at random from the population – to be sure it's representative of that population – and to ensure the sample is large enough to make conclusions reliable.

Sampling theory tells us how big a random sample needs to be, given the size of the population. It does so using probability theory. In the case of the population and housing census, we get information about innumerable, quite small sub-populations – such as the proportion of dwellings in the Sydney CBD that are owned outright by owner-occupiers. The smaller the sub-group, the bigger the sample needs to be to maintain accuracy.

The Americans conduct their census only every 10 years and keep it very short. But they make up for this by having an annual survey of the population covering a host of questions, with a sample size of (get this) three million households, representing 1 per cent of the population.

It seems that if we decide to go to 10-yearly censuses, we'll introduce a similar, detailed annual survey, with a sample size covering about a million people. (Our present monthly household survey – from which we get our estimates of unemployment – covers about 55,000 people.)

This would leave us with a 10-yearly census to "benchmark" all our surveys against, but give us much more frequent, less outdated, accurate information about a host of census topics, doing so more flexibly.

It would do so quickly, easily and much more cheaply, enabling us to spend the saving on replacing the bureau's ancient computer systems.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Raising mothers' job participation only half the story

I'm not sure how many barbecues it's stopping these days, but the issue you and I call childcare and the politically cool call ECEC - early childhood education and care - is still one of great concern to experts ranging from hard-headed economists to soft-hearted social workers, not to mention the odd parent.
From a narrowly economic perspective, childcare matters because any problems with it limit women's participation in the paid workforce and economists have decided increasing the "participation rate" of women and older workers is a key to reducing the budgetary cost of an ageing population and to maintaining our rate of economic growth.
With girls now more highly educated than boys - and with the taxpayer having contributed significantly to funding  that education - it's been obvious for a few decades that it makes little sense to allow the conventions of a labour market designed for men to prevent women from participating fully in the workforce.
Taxpayers want a return on their investment, economists want faster growth, and the women want to take advantage of their education by earning money and enjoying the greater mental stimulation that goes with a job.
Under pressure from families across the country, governments have been struggling to make the appropriate renovations since the days of Bob Hawke and Paul Keating. Their cumulative alterations and additions have been a bit patchwork.
One early move was to reduce the cost of childcare by introducing a means-tested childcare benefit. Then the Howard government added an unmeans-tested 30 per cent rebate of parents' net childcare costs. The Rudd government raised the rebate to 50 per cent.
Next came Labor's relatively frugal paid parental leave scheme, which Tony Abbott promised to top with a scheme much more generous to higher income-earners. Most of these measures came as election promises.
But under immense pressure from his colleagues, Abbott has now abandoned this promise, accepting the argument that, if there's any extra taxpayers' money to be spent, improving the cost and availability of childcare would be more effective in raising women's participation.
The government will now consider the recommendations of a report from the Productivity Commission in preparing a "families package", to be announced in the next few months.
The commission's main proposal is for the means-tested benefit and the unmeans-tested rebate to be rolled together into a means-tested "early care and learning subsidy". At little extra cost to government, and little change in the present overall average subsidy of about 65 per cent of cost, the new arrangement would increase the subsidy going to low to middle-income families and reduce it for high-income families.
For families with two kids in care, we're talking about gains of up to about $20 a week or losses of up to about $10 a week.
But the commission is quick to warn that such a change is likely to produce only a small increase in mothers' participation in the workforce. It estimates an extra 25,000 people working part time, equivalent to about 16,400 working full time.
Of course, the government could induce more participation if it was willing to spend more on the subsidy. It had planned to cover the cost of its more generous paid parental leave scheme by imposing a levy on big business. Will it make big business help bear the cost of higher participation?
But the cost of childcare is just one of the financial factors affecting mothers' decisions about whether to take a job and how many hours to work. The commission notes sadly that "the interaction of tax and welfare policies provide powerful disincentives for many second income earners to work more than part time".
It's trying to say that when their husbands have reasonably paid jobs, mothers who earn more don't just pay tax on their earnings, they have their family tax benefit cut back, leaving them without much to show for their efforts.
It's one of the great drawbacks of Australia's unusually heavy reliance on means-testing and probably does a lot to explain why our rates of female participation are lower than in other English-speaking countries.
But none of this explains why childcare has become "early childhood education and care". It's in response to the growing scientific evidence that children's experiences in the earliest years of their lives greatly affect the development of their brains, with implications for their wellbeing - and misadventures requiring government intervention and expense - throughout the rest of their lives.
Far too slowly, these insights are affecting government policy. They've had a big effect on childcare, leading to better paid and qualified carers and more emphasis on nurturing infants' mental development.
As part of this, there is federal and state agreement to increase the proportion of children either attending a dedicated preschool or participating in a preschool program in a long-day care centre.
"The benefits of quality early learning for children in the year prior to starting school are largely undisputed, with evidence of immediate socialisation benefits for children, increased likelihood of a successful transition into formal schooling and improved performance in standardised test results in the early years of primary school as a result of participation in preschool programs," the commission says.
The greater emphasis on early childhood development is one area where our economic aspirations and social aspirations fit together well.