Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Jobs matter more than balancing the budget

With the budget due next Tuesday, the media are about to revert to another period of obsession with government spending, taxation, deficits and debt. I'll probably be more obsessed than most. But before the circus starts, let me offer a little pre-match pep talk.

Don't take it all too literally. Try to put it in a wider context. The budget is worthy of the attention the media give it, but not for the reason many people imagine.

The budget matters most because its changes in taxes and spending programs have so much effect on our lives. How would those changes work? Are they sensible? Who benefits from them and who loses? Are they fair or unfair?

But the budget is not the economy. It's just the federal government's incomings and outgoings. The economy, by contrast, covers the federal and state government budgets, plus the whole of business, plus the market activities of Australia's 8.2 million households, making the economy just a bit bigger and more important.

Our problems with the budget don't necessarily mean we have a problem with the economy. And fixing the budget problem would go only a small way towards fixing any problems with the economy.

It's true the budget has an effect on the economy, making it grow faster or slower, but that effect isn't as important as the effect the Reserve Bank has with its manipulation of interest rates.

What's more, though we mustn't let the budget stay in deficit forever, racking up more debt, the debt isn't huge at present and it's best to wait until the economy's returned to an adequate rate of growth before any plans to get the deficit down start having big effects.

Something the sacked former secretary of the Treasury, Dr Martin Parkinson, said last week put the budget deficit into its right context.

"Australia has fantastic opportunities in front of it. The shift of economic weight toward our region, the technological changes. If we grasp it, it's an incredibly exciting time for us," he said.

"How do we go about grasping it? Well, first we've got to get our house in order. That means we've got to get our fiscal [budgetary] situation sorted out. Once you start to do that, you can focus on the real issues."

One of the real issues is jobs. We need the number of jobs to be growing in line with the number of people wanting to work. Everyone knows that, which is why Tony Abbott is already claiming the budget will be about creating more of them.

But the jobs question isn't that simple. We tend to think it's a terrible thing when someone loses their job, and that any politician or businessperson claiming to be able to create jobs must be a good guy.

I've never been sacked or made redundant, but I'm sure it's a terrible experience. However, I also know this: we didn't get to be among the richest countries in the world without a lot of people losing their jobs.

The point is, to stay prosperous we've had to keep changing, responding to the changes occurring in the rest of the world and, even more so, to advances in technology. There's nothing like new technology to destroy jobs in some industries while creating them in others.

That's what's happening with the "disruptive change" being unleashed on us by the digital revolution. The disruption is already well advanced in my industry, but it seems clear it will be just among the first of many industries to be turned upside down.

And though this will be unprecedented in one sense, in another it's nothing new. As a big report on Australian industry reminded us last year, "Australia's short economic history has been a story of constant change".

In the 19th century, agriculture contributed more than 30 per cent of gross domestic product; today it's just 3 per cent. In the 1960s, one in four jobs was in manufacturing; today the ratio is about one in 12.

"Like other developed countries, the majority of Australia's economic activity today occurs in services industries. These industries account for more than two-thirds of GDP and about 10 million jobs," the report says.

Far more change occurs than we realise. Every year, around a million Australian workers change jobs and a quarter of a million businesses enter and exit the market.

Over the decade to 2013-14, total employment grew by 2 million. This involved 52,000 jobs lost in agriculture and 92,000 jobs lost in manufacturing, but 462,000 jobs gained in healthcare alone. Apart from mining, all the other jobs gained were in the services sector. And note this: on the whole, the additional jobs were better paid than those lost.

"Employment growth has been stronger in higher skilled occupations, and for individuals with higher levels of education. As the transition towards a knowledge-based service economy continues, it is reasonable to expect that these trends will continue," the report says.

Government spending on healthcare and education in all its forms will be a big part of all the fuss about the budget. But both areas are far too important to our future for them to be viewed purely in terms of their costs to the budget.

Stuff up education, for instance, and our transition to a knowledge-based economy and continued prosperity will be off the rails.

Monday, May 4, 2015

No more shortcuts to budget surplus

Maybe we're getting somewhere. The nation's almost unanimous rejection of the proposed Medicare co-payment has proved to be a blessing. It's obliged the replacement Health Minister, Sussan Ley, to go back to basics and find genuine savings.

It won't be long before we find out what effect the failure of last year's budget has had on this year's. Judging by most accounts, it won't a favourable one.

Badly burnt by the monumental misjudgments in his first attempt, Tony Abbott seems to have swung to the opposite extreme of doing little or nothing to tackle our medium-term budget deficit problem.

But Ley's more positive response – initiating a review of the Medicare benefits schedule, a review of primary health care, a focus on Medicare compliance and a tougher renegotiation of the government's contract with the chemists' union – is a more hopeful sign.

The nationwide rejection of last year's budget is a seminal event, not just in the potentially brief life of the Abbott government, but in the history of budget-making. The present generation of politicians will be making judgments and drawing conclusions that will affect their behaviour for years to come.

But there's just as much cause for the econocrats, economists and business lobby groups to be learning from this historic stuff-up.

The rule that bureaucrats' advice to their political masters remains confidential means we can never know how much that advice contributed to the budget's failure. It's possible all the dumb ideas and misjudgments came from the pollies and their private-office advisers – not forgetting the totally over-the-top advice from a commission of audit subcontracted to the Business Council – but I find it hard to believe the econocrats contributed nothing to the disaster.

With Abbott copying John Howard in making his first act the sacking of a range of department heads "to encourage the others", it's possible the econocrats' advice wasn't as fearless as it should have been.

If so, let's hope Coalition politicians have learnt their lesson. If you frighten the econocrats to the point where they say Yes, Minister then stand well back while you do yourself an injury, your bullyboy tactics have robbed you of the protection the public servants could have provided.

But I suspect part of the problem is that year upon year of departmental staff cuts perversely known as "efficiency dividends" have, in fact, rendered the public service less efficient by robbing it of the expertise needed to propose sensible, targeted, efficiency-enhancing cost savings.

Finance and Treasury no longer have the ability to identify those areas in a particular portfolio where savings could be made without loss of quality or unintended consequences, and nor does the department itself.

If so, governments and their advisers have got themselves into a vicious circle: successive efficiency dividends have removed their ability to come up with well-considered savings, so they're compelled to fall back on another round of efficiency-sapping efficiency dividends.

The most obvious lesson – one to be learnt not just by politicians but by all those who care about fiscal responsibility – is that if you manage to con the pollies into proposing blatantly unfair "reforms" you run a high risk of actually setting back the cause of reform.

If, for instance, you tell the punters a Medicare co-payment is unavoidable because health spending is growing "unsustainably", while forgetting to mention that you're paying too much for generic drugs and chemists' dispensing, as well as paying for medical procedures that are known not to work.

A corollary is that slugging the punters so as to avoid fights with powerful drug companies, chemists' unions and doctors' unions is dumb politics.

The less obvious lesson is that the 2014 budget failed partly because the savings measures it proposed were such poor quality. So primitive, short-sighted and otherwise ill-considered. They were kneejerk cuts to which little thought had been given or expertise applied.

Don't try to reduce the element of waste and rent-seeking in health spending, just shift some of the cost onto patients, rich and poor alike, using some pseudo-economic excuse about the need for a "price signal".

Don't ask how many of the patients you deter from visiting doctors should have sought early advice or whether they'll end up costing taxpayers more than they would have. Worry about that in another budget – and fix it by increasing the co-payment.

Too many of the measures in last year's budget seem to have been proposed by accountants who understood nothing but the budget arithmetic and didn't care what crazy things were done to get back to surplus.

Let's hope Ley's more intelligent approach is a sign these lessons are being learnt.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Resources boom not done yet

If you think the resources boom is all over bar the shouting, someone who ought to know begs to differ. He thinks the last phase of the boom is just getting started. But even he thinks the boom leaves us with stuff to worry about.

In a speech this week, Mark Cully, the chief economist of the federal Department of Industry and Science, says the resources boom actually consisted of three booms.

The price boom lasted for about eight years and peaked in 2011. The overlapping investment boom lasted for about six years, with $400 billion worth of resources projects. Overall, business investment spending peaked in the last quarter of 2012 at an astonishing 19 per cent of gross domestic product.

By now we're in the early stages of the production boom, making the whole thing more of a "super-cycle" than a common or garden boom.

We're well aware that resource prices are still falling from their 2011 peak and that mining investment spending is rapidly coming to an end. But, according to Cully, the production boom is set to last far longer than the others did.

As always, it's a story of global prices being determined by the interaction of global demand with global supply. World prices shot up because demand grew faster than supply could keep up with.

Eventually, however, the world's producers of resources such as iron ore, coking and steaming coal, liquefied natural gas and petroleum responded to the high prices in textbook fashion, desperately expanding their production capacity so as to cash in on the bonanza.

It took a while for that extra capacity to come on line. But, as the textbook predicts, once supply started catching up with demand prices started falling back. And, adding to the pressure for lower prices, world demand started to fall off.

So, isn't that the same-old, same-old end to the story of the boom? And if we get to the point where world supply actually exceeds world demand, doesn't that mean prices could have a lot further to fall?

Not if it's turns out to be true – as I and others have believed – that this commodity cycle is being driven more by a longer-term change in the structure of the global economy than by the usual shorter-term cyclical mismatch between supply and demand.

Many people see the resources boom as caused by the rapid development of China, whose economy is now growing more slowly. But Cully sees China as just the first act, with other countries to follow.

"Economic growth in the highly populated emerging economies of Asia will continue to be a defining theme of this century," he says.

Per-person consumption of energy and materials in most countries in Asia lags the developed nations by a large margin and so is almost certain to grow. As incomes rise and they attract infrastructure and commercial investment, Asia's consumption of resources will grow by volumes that far outweigh whatever's happening in the rich countries.

Iron ore and coking coal are used to make steel, of course. Cully says China's steel production is estimated to have reached a record last year. He expects it to fall in the short term but, over the medium term, to reach a new peak almost 10 per cent higher by 2020.

"This will be required for China to continue expanding its infrastructure networks, especially rail, build more housing and grow its capital stock," he says.

Then there's India. Its Ministry of Steel wants present production to be four times higher by 2025. It may not achieve that target, but this still suggests rapid growth.

There've been highly publicised falls in the world price of iron ore in recent times, but Cully expects it to remain low this year and next before rebounding over the medium term as higher-cost producers exit the market and demand continues to grow. Australia has some high-cost producers, but most are in other countries, leaving Rio Tinto and BHP Billiton as the world's lowest-cost producers.

Turning to steaming coal, Cully questions the environmentalists' optimistic belief that world demand for it is on the way out. More than 300 gigawatt (one billion watts) of coal-fired electricity generation capacity is being constructed or has been approved in developing countries.

"Barring major policy adjustments," he expects coal-fired power to remain a primary source of generation in China and India. Japan, South Korea and Taiwan are increasing their use of steaming coal, while Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam and Thailand are increasing by even more.

Australia is likely to play an important role in meeting this increased demand because our coal's higher energy content makes it more suitable for use in advanced generators. Cully expects our exports to have increased by 15 per cent by 2020, making us the world's largest exporter of steaming coal.

Finally, natural gas. Cully's team projects that our exports of natural gas will increase more than threefold to about 75 million tonnes a year in 2019-20. By that time Australia would be the world's largest exporter of gas.

The increased volume of gas exports is likely to be the principal driver of growth in Australia's export revenue. Looking across all the mineral commodities, increases in the volume (quantity) of exports are expected to outweigh further decreases in prices, so that the value of these exports (price times quantity) increases by about a third through to 2019-20.

So what could there be to worry about? Well, it's worth remembering that, although we're exporting more thanks to the resources boom, our share of global exports is actually falling. Other countries' exports must be growing faster than ours.

More concerning, while we've been becoming global export leaders in iron ore, coal and natural gas, our range of exports has become even less diversified than it was before the boom.

Considering how dependent we are on exporting fossil fuels, that ought to worry us more than it does.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Super: ignore it and miss seeing you're being bled

You know you're getting old when you attend the funeral of the man who hired you four decades earlier. Among all the rough-and-ready types in journalism, Alan Dobbyn, long-lasting news editor of the Herald - in the days when that meant he was really the editor - was a true gentleman.

When, as a chartered accountant, I applied for a job as a cadet journalist, Dobbyn told me he wasn't sure I'd last, but was prepared to give it a go. He didn't know how keen I was to escape the round eternal of the cash book and the journal. At the wake, I learnt from his family his concern was his inability to offer me a wage of more than $100 a week.

Not to worry. He got me a hefty pay rise four months later. And, in any case, being an accountant with an interest in such matters, I joined the Fairfax super scheme in my first week and this has served me more than well.

Just as it never crossed my mind I'd one day attend my boss's funeral, so most people under 50 can't bring themselves to think about superannuation. It is too complicated and too boring. It deals with contingencies so far into the unknowable future that they're inconceivable.

Why do bankers and other purveyors of "financial services" earn stratospheric incomes that chief executives have been quick to copy and medical specialists to envy? To a fair extent because so few people can bring themselves to keep a watchful eye on their super.

How do you get ripped off in a capitalist economy? By not paying enough attention to what the capitalists are doing to you via boring things like superannuation. By ignoring the watchwords of capitalism: caveat emptor - let the buyer beware.

Paul Keating is particularly proud of Labor's introduction of compulsory employee super in the 1990s. John Howard has always had his doubts, partly because of the compulsion, but mainly because it's meant so many unwashed union officials getting a hand in administering the billions that, by rights, should be the exclusive preserve of Liberal-voting business people.

I have no problem with the compulsion. It is an easily justified government intervention to help counter the very market failure we've been discussing: life-cycle myopia. But even if you regard our present arrangements as a great reform, it remains true they're also a great scandal. A remodelled house that's yet to have its tarpaulin replaced by a new roof to stop the rain getting in.

Lately, we've heard much about the way a mainly compulsory saving scheme is accompanied by tax inducements that cost the government about as much as the age pension, but are of little benefit to low-income earners, with most of the lolly going to high-income earners like me.

It's a scandal for the government to be proposing cuts to the age pension because its cost has become "unsustainable", while ignoring the super tax concessions going to the more than well-off.

But another scandal gets far less attention: the way the banks and life insurance companies and innumerable hangers-on are able to quietly overcharge all those mug punters who can't muster any interest in their super.

Think of it: the government compels employers to take 9.5 per cent of their workers' wages and hand this over to the "financial services" industry, then looks the other way while these fat cats rip off the mugs the government has delivered into their hands.

As Jim Minifie explains in his report, Super Savings, for the Grattan Institute, the previous government did do something to improve things, mainly by tightening requirements on the "default" super funds that workers are put into when, as usually happens, they don't exercise their right to nominate a fund.

But this just scrapes the surface of the potential reductions in the administrative and investment management fees imposed on people's accounts. The industry is inefficient because its customers' inattention means competition is inadequate.

To be fair to punters, it's just too hard to understand how super works and how different funds compare, and too time-consuming to complete the forms needed to move money around. Putting that into econospeak​, information and transaction costs are prohibitive, causing the market to fail.

Minifie finds there are too many super accounts - on average, about two per person - and too many super funds, which stops the exploitation of economies of scale. He says the government should encourage fund mergers and make it easier for people to consolidate their accounts.

But most of all, the government should inject more competition by calling tenders for the right to be a default fund, with those funds charging the lowest fees winning.

These reforms could cut the $21 billion in fees paid each year by people with super accounts by up to $6 billion a year. That's a decrease of almost 30 per cent.

Punters assume that, apart from the size of your wage, how much super you retire with depends on how well your investments do. Often, however, how much you're charged in fees can make a bigger difference.

Few realise they're paying about $1000 a year in fees. Minifie estimates that just introducing a tender for default funds would cause the average retirement payout of people in such funds to be 5 per cent higher.  That's about $40,000. Worth worrying about, I'd have thought.

Monday, April 6, 2015

Jesus the great debt-eliminator

At this time of our greatest Christian holy-days, what does the Bible have to say about economics? A lot more than you may think.

That's according to the Czech economist Tomas Sedlacek, whose book, Economics of Good and Evil, I'll be heavily relying on in this column.

When God expelled Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden after they had disobeyed him, part of their punishment was that "by the sweat of your brow you will eat your food" – they'd have to work for their living.

But Jesus said, "Man does not live on bread alone". So we have to be concerned about making our living, but we also have to be concerned about more than that.

"We were endowed with both body and soul, and we are both spiritual and material beings . . . Without the material, we die; without the spiritual, we stop being people," Sedlacek says.

Christianity doesn't condemn the material, but it does condemn materialism. It's not money that's the problem, it's the love of money. Keep too much of it for yourself and you've probably crossed the line.

It's true Jesus chased from the temple "men selling cattle, sheep and doves, and others sitting at tables exchanging money", but he didn't chase them any further. His problem was not with their commerce but with their mixture of the sacred with the profane.

Jesus's teaching is often based on paradox, we're told. Jesus considers more valuable two mites that a poor widow drops on to the collection plate than the golden gifts of the rich.

Implicitly, this legitimises the role of money. But, to economists, it also shows Jesus understood the concept of marginal disutility. The widow's mite involved much greater sacrifice than the rich person's gold.

Sedlacek notes the New Testament's extensive use of economic metaphors. Of Jesus's 30 parables, 19 are set in an economic or social context: the parable of the lost coin; of talents (money), where Jesus rebukes a servant who didn't "put my money on deposit with the bankers"; of the unjust steward; of the workers in the vineyard; of the two debtors; of the rich fool, and so forth.

But get this: the most central concept in the Easter story of Christ's death and resurrection – redemption – originally had a purely economic meaning. You need to know that, in New Testament Greek, sin and debt were the same word.

People who were unable to pay their debts became debt slaves. Once you fell into slavery, the only escape was for someone to ransom you, to pay your bail. Jesus's role was to redeem us, purchase us at a price, buying us out of our debt of sins. The price was the shedding of his blood on the cross, just as the sacrificial lamb's blood was shed at Passover.

"In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God's grace," St Paul said.

Western civilisation has been shaped by Christianity and Christian values, which means Christianity has also shaped economics. Sedlacek says the prayer "forgive us our sins", meaning "cancel our debts", could be heard from the West's leading banks in the global financial crisis.

Our modern economy cannot function without institutions that deliver the unfair forgiveness of debt. Bankrupts, for instance, are discharged even though they've paid back only a fraction of what they owe. When a company goes bust owing millions, the liability of its shareholders is limited to the face-value of their shares, paid long before by the original purchaser of the shares.

As for the GFC, Sedlacek says, "It would be hard to imagine the financial Armageddon that would follow if the government actually did not pay the ransom and redeem banks and some large companies".

"This, of course, goes against all principles of sound reason and of basic fairness. We also breached many rules of competition on which capitalism is built. Why did the most indebted banks and companies, which did not compete very well, receive the largest forgiveness?"

Why? It had to be done, in order to redeem not only these particular troubled and highly indebted companies, but also others that would fail if these few were not saved.

You've heard of "positive discrimination", but Sedlacek says Christian thought emphasises the concept of "positive unfairness": the more you've sinned, the bigger dollop of forgiveness you get.

"It doesn't matter how hard you try – everyone gets the same reward" (something the prodigal son's brother had trouble accepting).

"Christianity thus largely abolishes the accounting of good and evil. God forgives, which is positively unfair," he concludes.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Behavioural economics makes more sense to regulators

Pssst ... have you heard about this great new investment product called hybrid securities? They're terrific. Rather than having to choose between high-reward, high-risk shares and low-risk, low-reward bonds and other debt securities, hybrids give you the best of both worlds: high reward, low risk.

At least, that's what I think. And it's probably what the outfit that sold me the hybrids wanted me to think. But it's certainly not what the Australian Securities and Investments Commission wants people to think.

It regards hybrid securities as highly complex, tricky investments. They often promise high yields and are issued by well-known companies with trusted brands, but "investors need to very carefully consider the features and risks before investing".

So keen is the commission to make sure it's getting the message through to potential investors that it did something unusual: it resorted to the behavioural economists – those who, rather than assuming everyone always acts rationally, use psychology to discover how real people make decisions – to help it understand what it is that attracts people to hybrids.

It commissioned the Queensland behavioural economics group at the Queensland University of Technology Business School to conduct some experiments. The group assembled a lot of business-school uni students and gave each of them 100 units to be notional invested in a portfolio of bonds, hybrids and shares, getting them to take it seriously by promising to let them keep any profit they made.

First, however, it asked each student a bunch of questions designed to establish whether their decision-making was influenced any of a range of "cognitive biases" rather than solely rational consideration of the options.

Investors are known to be commonly affected by such "heuristics" (mental shortcuts) as the availability bias, representativeness bias, framing bias, recency bias, overconfidence, illusion of control, competence bias, ambiguity aversion and mental accounting.

So now, gentle reader, it's time for me to ask you some strange questions on this long weekend.

Give me high and low estimates for the average weight of an adult male sperm whale (the largest of the toothed whales) in tonnes. Choose numbers far enough apart to be 90 per cent certain that the true answer lies somewhere between.

Don't like that one? Try this: give me high and low estimates of the distance to the moon in kilometres. Choose numbers far enough apart to be certain that the true answer lies somewhere between.

Now something more personal. When you buy a Lotto ticket do you feel more encouraged regarding your chances if you choose the number yourself rather than using a computer-generated number?

Answer: (a) I'm more likely to win if I control the numbers picked, or (b) it makes no difference to me how the numbers are chosen.

Huh? What's all this about? Extensive testing has allowed psychologists to use people's answers to the first two questions to determine whether they suffer from overconfidence. (If you must know, such whales weigh about 40 tonnes and the moon is 384,400 kilometres away.)

Plenty of investors are overconfident in the sense that they have unwarranted faith in their own intuitive reasoning, judgments and cognitive abilities. Their ability to sell up just before the boom turns to bust, for instance.

Can you guess what the Lotto question was intended to discover? It makes no difference to your (tiny) odds of winning Lotto whether you or a computer picks your numbers.

If you imagine it does, you're suffering from what psychologists call the "illusion of control" – the belief you can control, or at least influence future outcomes when, in fact, you can't.

The illusion of control has been found to contribute to the overconfidence bias. And it's a lot more common than you may think. It is, for instance, the reason people keep asking economists for their forecasts about the economy even though they know economists are hopeless forecasters. We like to delude ourselves we can control the future.

Anyway, the Queensland behavioural economists – Anup Basu, Uwe Dulleck, Yola Engler and Markus Schaffner – found from their experiment that students who were more overconfident and suffered from the illusion of control were more inclined than others to invest in hybrid securities.

With better information about what it is that attracts some investors to buy hybrids, the commission should be able craft more effective warnings to people who need to think a lot more carefully before they leap in.

Of course, it also helps to know how to word your warnings. A growing number of government regulatory bodies around the word have found that different ways of writing a letter can have a surprising effect on the way people respond to it – whether they ignore it or act on it.

The commission asked the Queensland behavioural economics group to suggest ways of improving its letters to the directors of companies in liquidation, reminding them of their legal duty to co-operate with the liquidator in handing over the company's books and providing any other information.

Again the group conducted a laboratory experiment. Such experiments, using uni students, have their disadvantages, but they also have the advantage of giving researchers greater ability to control the many factors that could influence the decisions you're studying.

The experimenters recommended that the commission proceed to a randomised controlled trial where some directors were sent the present letter, while others were sent one of four different letters: one where the order of the points was reverse to make them easier to remember, one including a "social norm" noting that about 75 per cent of directors comply, one that allows directors to make active decisions that involve them in the process, and one that appeals to the good intentions most directors have.

At least some of those changes are likely to significantly improve directors' compliance. Practical regulators are getting much more useful advice from the behavioural brand of economists.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Tax reform needs explanation not spin

Sometimes I think there's no hope for the present crop of politicians - on both sides. When voters react badly to their proposals, they tell themselves there was nothing wrong with the policy, it just wasn't pushed properly.

What they should do is call in a policy expert capable of explaining the proposal and the need for it in words the public can readily understand. What they actually do is call in the spin doctors to help them "sell" the policy.

Lacking the ability themselves, the pollies don't see the difference between explaining something and doing a sales job. Spin doctors use slogans and catchy lines to make policy proposals seem simpler and more attractive than they really are. That is, they're deliberately misleading.

Joe Hockey seems to have a bad case of this. Both his recent intergenerational report and the tax reform discussion paper he issued on Monday were strange amalgams of densely written Treasury analysis preceded by fluffy executive summaries and glossy handouts, which seem to have been written by advertising copywriters who know little about the topic.

One of these characters decided it would be real cool to title the tax discussion paper Re:think.

Some other genius came up with the slogan, Better Tax: lower, simpler, fairer. Anyone who knows anything about tax reform knows that's a trifecta with the longest possible odds.

Not sure who thought of it, but Hockey keeps repeating the line that the tax system needs reform because it was "largely designed before the 1950s". Anyone beyond their 20s would need the memory of a gnat to believe that.

Every country that existed before the 1950s has a tax system that was designed before the 1950s, including us. No developed country I know of has thrown out their old system and replaced it with a quite different system, and neither have we.

But their systems would have changed hugely over the past 60 years - and ours has too. Apart from incessant tinkering, substantial changes were made by Paul Keating in 1985, in a package called RATS - reform of the Australian tax system.

Further big changes were made by John Howard in 1999, in a package called - wait for it - ANTS, a new tax system. Little thing called the GST - remember it?

In 1951, income tax cut in at an income of $300 a year, at a rate of 1 per cent. It then proceeded in 21 steps to a top rate of 65 per cent on income above $30,000 a year.

Today, income tax cuts in at $18,200 a year, at a rate of 21 per cent (including the 2 per cent Medicare levy) and proceeds in just four steps to a top rate of 49 per cent (including the Medicare levy and the temporary budget repair levy of 2 per cent) on income above $180,000 a year.

In the 1950s we paid sales tax on certain goods, but no services, at the rate of 2.5 per cent.  By the time sales tax was replaced by the goods and services tax in 2000, it was imposed on selected goods at six different rates ranging from 22 per cent to 45 per cent.

In the old days capital gains and fringe benefits went untaxed, but the tax breaks on superannuation were much less generous to higher income-earners than they are today. In the old days the states had franchise taxes on petrol, alcohol and tobacco, as well as various fiddling stamp duties, that no longer exist.

Hockey's hyped-up bit of the discussion paper makes much of the fact that, among member countries of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, only Denmark relies more heavily on income and company taxes than we do.

But if this leaves you thinking we pay more tax than almost every other country, you've been misled. As Treasury says in the fine print, when you take account of all the taxes we pay, "Australia has a relatively low tax burden compared to other wealthy countries."

And when you add compulsory social security contributions (Australia: none) and payroll taxes (Australia: low) to get a like-with-like comparison between countries, we raise 63 per cent of total taxation through "direct" taxes, compared with the OECD average of 61 per cent. Oh.

The discussion paper makes no recommendations, but add up all its arguments and the conclusion we're led to is clear: to reform our tax system to cope with the globalised 21st century, we need to make changes that cause high-income earners and foreign investors to pay less tax, but the rest of us to pay more. Purely coincidentally, of course.

As well, the paper engages in a two-card trick. Hockey's first budget was rejected by voters and the Senate because it sought to fix the budget deficit in ways that were manifestly unfair: big cuts in government spending programs affecting the bottom half of households, but no cuts to the huge tax concessions enjoyed by the top 20 per cent-odd of taxpayers.

The discussion paper readily concedes the unfairness of these elite tax concessions. But it makes virtually no mention of the government's oh-so-pressing problem with the budget deficit.

Get it? In the unlikely event anything much is done about these unfair concessions, the saving will be used to help pay for tax cuts for companies and high-income earners, not to help reduce the deficit.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Let's be more hard-nosed towards foreign miners

Joe Hockey and Competition and Consumer Commission boss Rod Sims must surely deserve a medal for their selfless devotion to the interests of foreigners, after their shocked reaction to Twiggy Forrest's suggestion that the world's big producers stop the plunge in iron ore prices by limiting their output.

And here was me thinking economics was about rational self-interest.

Hockey sniffed that the idea smacked of forming a cartel. Which was good of him when you remember the way the plunging price of iron ore is robbing his budget of company tax revenue and causing his deficits to be bigger than those Labor left.

We can't afford to give much money to the foreign poor, but if foreign-owned mining companies want to keep forcing down ore prices by expanding production at a time when world demand is weak, that's fine by Joe.

Sims proclaims that cartels are illegal and is investigating whether Twiggy should be prosecuted. It surely can't have escaped his notice that very little of Australia's iron ore production is used locally, meaning no Australian consumers or businesses would suffer from such an arrangement.

But that, apparently, is not the point. Cartels are morally wrong, even if they advance Australia's national interest. If big foreign-owned producers such as Rio Tinto and BHP Billiton want to use their lower costs per unit to keep expanding production, forcing down the world price and attempting to wipe out higher-cost Australian-owned producers such as Forrest's Fortescue Metals, good luck to them.

Fine by us. That's the way the global resources game has always been played – wild swings from excess demand and inadequate supply causing booms, to weak demand and excess supply causing busts – and so that's the way it must continue to be played.

No effort can or should be made to moderate this crazy game. That there is a lot of fallout on bystanding industries, workers and consumers in the countries where big mining chooses to play this contact sport, is just an unfortunate fact of economic life which it is our government's sacred duty to make us grin and bear.

But while we're being so noble and self-sacrificing, it's worth remembering it wasn't always thus. Consider the many decades in which our governments sought to stabilise the world price of wool, which ended badly only after misguided economic rationalists handed control of the scheme to the woolgrowers themselves.

And don't forget the old Australian Wheat Board's "single desk". We weren't big enough to control world wheat prices, but we did make sure our growers weren't bidding against each other.

While the punters talk xenophobic nonsense about Chinese state-owned corporations taking over NSW's electricity poles and wires, Australia's economists have a deeply ingrained ethic that it's a form of racism ever to acknowledge that a company is foreign-owned.

Now we're in the final throes of the decade-long mining resources boom, it's a good time to reflect on how much we got out of it (not all that much, remembering it's all our minerals) and how well we handled it.

We played it by letting the foreign mining companies do pretty much whatever they wanted, which was to build as many new mines and gas facilities as possible in minimum time. This insane rush came at the expense of all our other industries, but no one questioned its wisdom.

It was left to the Reserve Bank to ensure the miners' greedy stampede didn't cause a wages breakout and inflation surge, which it did by repressing the rest of the economy. To "make room" for the money-crazed miners, it held interest rates higher than they otherwise would have been, which may have caused the exchange rate to be even higher than otherwise.

Was any effort made to assess whether attempting to build 180 resource projects in three years was in the national interest? Yes, but the economists left it to the lawyers. Each of those projects would have been accompanied by an environmental assessment assuring some court that the project would create thousands of jobs and do wonders for the economy.

Evaluating each project separately, the lawyers bought it. You needed to be a macro-economist to see that, added together, those claims made no sense. There wasn't that much skilled labour available and, with the economy near full employment, it just isn't possible to create many extra jobs. All you'd do is move jobs around, bidding up wages and creating shortages in the process.

But the macro-economists were away at the time, probably busy explaining to politicians why it was our economic duty to allow foreign mining companies to use our economy as a doormat.


Sunday, March 29, 2015

State governments don't greatly affect the economy

With the election over, Sunday is the first day of the rest of the life of the NSW economy under the new Baird government. So how much has changed?

A lot less than the rhetoric of the election campaign may have led you to expect.

State elections are times when governments claim the credit for all the good things happening in the economy and get blamed by oppositions for all the bad things.

In truth, they should get only some of the credit or blame. That's because there is really no such animal as the NSW economy.

There are no barriers between NSW and the other states and territories, meaning it's just the NSW corner of the national economy.

So the government agencies with the most influence over our corner are the Reserve Bank and the federal government.

It is true the NSW economy has grown relatively strongly since the O'Farrell-Baird government took over four years ago. We were performing poorly compared with other states, but now we are doing best in various categories.

But that's mainly because market economies are cyclical: what goes up must come down, and what is down will go back up soon enough.

What came down was Western Australia and Queensland as the mining construction boom came to an end. What went back up was NSW and Victoria as things got back to normal.

Because NSW is by far the largest of the states, it is rarely far from the national average, and often a bit above it.

But the Coalition's economic policies have been good and it can take some of the credit for our improved performance.

Historically, NSW has had trouble building enough new housing to accommodate the state's growing population, a problem that does much to explain Sydney's exceptionally high house prices – and one the state government can do much to improve.

The undue regulation and high charges on developers have limited the supply of new homes on the outskirts of the city, and planning restrictions have permitted too little of the medium and high-density in-fill home buyers are demanding so as to be closer to jobs.

But a lot more homes are now being built, for which Mike Baird should get credit. This higher level of building is likely to continue.

State governments have no control over immigration and national population growth, but are responsible for solving the growing social and economic problem of traffic congestion and long commute times.

Both sides of politics have neglected the development of public transport. And road projects such as WestConnex are likely to offer only temporary relief.

The state's performance on employment has improved relative to the other states, but worsened with the national performance in recent years.

It will continue slowly worsening until the national economy picks up speed. Schemes offering payroll tax incentives to encourage businesses to increase employment are gimmicks to impress voters at election times.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

A rational analysis of Hockey's 'asset recycling'

I'm never sure who annoy me more, the business types who are certain every business is better run if privately owned, or the lefties who oppose every sale of government-owned businesses on principle.

On the question of privatisation, mindless prejudice is no substitute for rational analysis of the pros and cons. On the tricky question of the "asset recycling" being promoted by Joe Hockey to all state governments with businesses left to sell, careful analysis is essential.

Premier Mike Baird's hugely controversial proposal to sell most of NSW's electricity transmission and distribution network businesses – the "poles and wires" – and use the proceeds to finance $20 billion worth of public transport, road and other infrastructure is a classic example of asset recycling.

It offers a good case study in thinking through the issues, even to people who won't be voting in Saturday's state election.

You must cover all the relevant major considerations for and against, ignoring considerations that aren't relevant (or are common to both alternatives). You have to remember to take account of opportunity costs as well as actual costs and to avoid any double counting.

It will avoid confusion if we consider the two sides of the proposition separately. First, is it a good idea to sell the poles-and-wires businesses to private owners? Second, assuming the planned infrastructure projects are worthwhile, is privatising businesses the only way available to finance them?

The obvious starting point for consumers is: would selling the businesses lead to electricity prices being higher than they would be under continued public ownership? Or would there be a decline in the quality of service, such as blackouts?

In this particular case, the answers are more certain than usual: no and no. That's because, the networks being natural monopolies, the prices they charge are controlled by the Australian Energy Regulator, which believes they're already too high. Service quality is also tightly regulated.

The regulator's determination to get efficiency up and prices down suggests there will be job losses – in other states as well as NSW – whether or not the businesses are privatised.

This being so, the main issues of contention concern state government finances. The critics of privatisation stress that it's no magic pudding: sell these profitable businesses and you lose the dividends they were paying the government, along with the equivalent of the company tax they were paying to the state (because state-owned businesses don't pay tax to the federal government).

That's obviously true. But remember that, according to economic theory, the sale price of any business should be the "present value" of the stream of income it's expected to earn in coming years.

If so, the seller is perfectly compensated in the sale price for the loss of future dividends. Why else would they sell?

But does the theory work in practice? Not perfectly. For one thing, who can be sure what income will be earned in the future? The seller ought to have a better idea than the buyer, but if there aren't many potential buyers and the seller is anxious to sell, they may settle for less than they should.

Alternatively, if there are a lot of potential buyers, the seller may get more than the business is worth. Almost all buyers of established businesses are confident they can run it more profitably than the present owner.

Point is, provided the sale price is adequate, there's no financial reason to regret the loss of dividends. A complication is that a fair price would not compensate the state government for its loss of tax equivalent payments.

That's because a new private owner would be liable to pay real company tax to the federal government. This is part of the rationale for Hockey's scheme to give federal grants – $2 billion, in this case – to states that take part in his asset-recycling incentive scheme.

A factor having a bigger (downward) influence on the amount of the fair sale price is that the flow of annual profits from the network business in coming years is likely to be much lower than the recent $1.7 billion a year that Labor's Luke Foley keeps quoting.

That's partly because the regulator has signalled its intention to crack down on the excessive profits being earned by the nation's electricity network businesses, but also because the demand for electricity from the grid is falling and will fall further as people move to solar and the introduction of smart meters helps homes and businesses limit their demand for power.

(This demonstrates the economic truth that natural monopolies are a product of the existing technology. The network businesses' monopoly is being eroded by climate-change-driven technological advance.)

Some critics argue that selling profit-making assets and replacing them with roads and loss-making public transport reduces the state government's "net worth" and weakens its balance sheet.

This is true arithmetically, but is a strange argument. Governments aren't profit-seeking businesses. Their job is to meet the social and economic needs of their community by, among other things, ensuring the provision of adequate infrastructure – directly profitable or otherwise.

Turning to the predicated link between the sale of network businesses and the spending on needed infrastructure, it rests on an assumption it would be unthinkable for the state government to lose its AAA credit rating, which would happen if it simply borrowed another $20 billion.

For decades, federal and state treasuries have used credit ratings to beat off unworthy proposals for vote-buying capital works. But I think we have little to lose by causing the discredited rating agencies to lower our rating by a notch or two.

But though their limit on our debt level may be too low, there does have to be some safe limit. And the doctrine that state governments may acquire assets but, once acquired, they may never ever be sold off, strikes me as weird.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Poles and wires: who's misleading us about what

The politicians' decades of bad behaviour may have caused them to lose our trust, but not our mistrust - making us suckers for scare campaigns.

This election campaign has been dominated not by reasoned debate but by Labor and the power unions' almighty scare campaign over the sale of the state's electricity poles and wires.

It's the most successful scare-job since all the dishonest things Tony Abbott said about how the carbon tax would destroy the economy.

The truth is it doesn't matter much to electricity users whether the state's power transmission and distribution businesses stay government-owned or are sold off. That's because, being natural monopolies, the prices they charge are controlled by a national body, the Australian Energy Regulator.

The standard of service they deliver - blackouts, for instance - is also tightly regulated.

It is true that private owners would attempt to increase their profits by reducing overstaffing and other inefficiencies - which tells you what the power unions are so excited about - but the regulator has announced its intention to force all the nation's public and privately owned poles and wires businesses to raise their efficiency and to ensure the savings are passed on to consumers as lower prices.

It's clear that, whoever owns the poles and wires, those businesses will be doing it much tougher in coming years. That's because the demand for electricity from their grid will keep falling, with households and businesses moving to solar and the introduction of smart meters helping households cut their usage, especially at peak periods.

This is why the dividends the state government would lose by selling the businesses would be a lot lower than the present $1.7 billion a year Luke Foley keeps claiming. (A characteristic of scare campaigns is that you stick to your wrong claims even after you've been caught out.)

This is not to say we can believe everything Mike Baird has been saying, of course. He describes his plan as "the long-term lease of 49 per cent of the NSW electricity network". This is highly misleading, an attempt to fool us into believing he isn't really privatising the network.

There's little practical difference between a 99-year lease and an outright sale. And that figure of 49 per cent - making it seem the government would retain majority ownership of the network - is highly contrived.

Baird plans to sell 100 per cent of TransGrid, the state-wide high-voltage transmission business, and 50.4 per cent each of Ausgrid and Endeavour Energy - which distribute power locally to about 70 per cent of the state's population living between Ulladulla and Newcastle, and inland to Scone, Lithgow and Bowral.

How does that add up just 49 per cent? By taking account of the plan not  to sell any of Essential Energy, which distributes power to the state's backblocks. Convinced?

A separate question is: is selling the electricity network the only way we would be able to fund the $20 billion in new public transport, road and other infrastructure Baird promises?

Yes - if you think it matters that the state keeps its triple-A credit rating. No - if you don't. I don't.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Should taxpayers develop properties for churches?

Election campaigns are busy times for interest groups. They turn up the pressure on governments and oppositions to give them written promises to grant them particular benefits, or not do things the groups don't fancy, during the next term.

It's surprising how often the pollies give in to such tactics. They do so for fear the interest groups will campaign against them if they don't sign on the line.

In the last federal election, for instance, the banks and other financial institutions got the Labor government to promise not to make any more adverse changes to the taxation of superannuation for five years, then persuaded the Coalition to match Labor's promise during its first term. A lot of promises have been broken since then, but not this one.

Historically, few groups have pursued this tactic more successfully than the Catholic systemic schools. If you were a pollie, which would you choose: risk being preached against on the Sunday before election day, or be photographed beside a beaming archbishop as you sign the deal?

Recognising the Catholics' superior bargaining power, the other religious and independent schools tend to ride on their coat-tails.

Late last month the Catholic Education Commission announced that in the NSW election campaign it would "play an advocacy role in the interests of students, parents and teachers in the Catholic education sector".

Its "key policy issue" is that, in the light of the expected growth in the number of schoolchildren, the state government "must increase its capital funding to Catholic schools to help Catholic schools enrol their share of this growth".

Last year, we're told, the state's 584 Catholic schools educated 21 per cent of the state's students, but received only 2 per cent of the NSW government's capital funding for schools.

"The NSW Government must first reverse its 2012 decision to cap capital funding to non-government schools at $11 million per year and put in place a sustainable, long-term funding framework that grows as enrolments increase", the commission's executive director, Brian Croke, said.

The Catholic schools' share of the $11 million was $7.6 million, equivalent to about $30 per student, while government schools received more than $399 million, or $524 per student.

The state government's forecast is that all NSW schools will need to accommodate an extra 267,000 students by 2031. For the proportion of students in Catholic schools to remain unchanged, Catholic schools would need to create places for a further 58,000 students, the equivalent of more than 2300 new classrooms.

Sorry, but this argument needs thinking about. For one thing, the campaigners don't mention that non-government schools also receive capital funding from the federal government, which is a lot more generous than state grants.

For another, it's hardly surprising the state government spends a lot more on building and equipping its own schools than it does on subsidising other people's schools.

Where do taxpayers' obligations to Catholic and other non-government schools end? Governments have an obligation to provide for a growing student population, but do they have an obligation to ensure Catholic or any other non-government group's share of the school population doesn't decline as the population grows?

For religious or other groups to say they have school facilities they wish to make available for the education of kids - kids of their own choosing in locations of their own choosing - is one thing. For those groups to argue governments have an obligation to subsidise their provision of additional facilities so their share of the overall school population doesn't drop is quite another.

Who's to say those non-government groups will want to build their additional facilities in those locations where the population growth occurs? If the groups want to build in areas other than those of fastest growth - which these days would include the inner city - are taxpayers obliged still to cough up subsidies while also building the new schools where they're actually needed?

And is it reasonable to demand that taxpayers provide big subsidies towards the building of new facilities that remain the property of the churches or other groups involved?

The Catholics argue that their building of new facilities has been, and will continue to be, largely funded by parents. So the church itself doesn't put up much, but gets to retain ownership of the schools while the parents move on. When it comes to real estate, I wouldn't have thought the mainstream churches were all that property poor.

Federal grants come with a proviso that, should the subsidised school facilities be sold or used for another purpose within the first 20 years, the government may ask for its grants to be repaid. How often this provision is enforced I don't know.

We've long been asked to believe the non-government schools are doing taxpayers a favour, providing education to kids that taxpayers would otherwise have to pay for. But this demand for capital grants is aimed at reducing the size of the favour.

And when it comes to recurrent funding, the favour isn't all that great. Federal and state grants covered almost three-quarters of the costs of running Catholic schools in 2012. Fees charged to parents covered another 22 per cent.

With the election just a few days away, I'm hoping whichever side wins will get through without promising more funds to non-government schools. But we may not know whether they have until after it's over.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Budget needs more efficiency, less deficit repression

Joe Hockey's intergenerational report says something I really agree with: "to ensure government expenditure is sustainable and better targeted . . . governments need to focus their efforts on achieving the efficient provision of services".

At last, Hockey is acknowledging that we need to reduce the rate of growth in government spending in ways that increase the efficiency of the government's delivery of services.

To me – but no one else, it seems – the pet shop galahs' call for "more micro reform" points directly at two of our biggest industries, healthcare and education, which happen to be mainly in the public sector.

The intergenerational report projects that federal healthcare spending will rise only modestly over the next 40 years from 4.2 per cent of gross domestic product to 5.5 per cent, while federal education spending actually falls from 1.7 per cent to 1 per cent.

Believe that and you'll believe anything. These implausible projections rest on assumptions that the unsustainable cuts in the indexation of federal grants for state hospitals and schools plus the deregulation of uni fees proposed in last year's budget will roll on untouched for four decades.

Truth is, both healthcare and education are "superior goods", meaning they make up an ever growing proportion of consumption as real incomes rise over time. They account for such a large proportion of federal and state government spending that they expose the fiscal monoculists' goal of cutting spending to the point where taxation stops increasing and even falls, for the pipe dream it is.

Fiscal monoculists are those who take a one-eyed view of the budget. If it's in deficit, this can only be caused by excessive spending, never by inadequate taxation, even when the lack of revenue arises from choice-distorting sectional tax breaks, blatant multinational tax avoidance or irresponsible Reagan-style tax cuts.

Brushing aside the more obvious objections to last year's budget, another was its dearth of what Paul Keating called "quality cuts". These are cuts that aim to improve the efficiency of the provision of services.

By contrast, most of the savings came from nothing more virtuous than cost-shifting – to the young unemployed, university graduates, the aged, the sick and, above all, the state governments. This is why so many of the measures, even if they'd got through the Senate, were unsustainable.

You could argue that the GP co-payment, with its introduction of a price signal, and the deregulation of uni fees were genuine, cost-saving reforms, aimed at increasing efficiency in healthcare and higher education.

But such an argument stands up only if you make the most cursory examination of the economics involved. A co-payment price signal improves efficiency only if it deters unnecessary consultations, not if it deters low-income patients from reporting serious problems to their GP before they get worse. Too many of the latter and your "reform" becomes a false economy, storing up higher costs for later.

Deregulating uni fees and expecting market forces to prevent over-charging is a case of magical thinking when you remember the unis remain government-owned and highly regulated, are possessors of market power, and would be selling a service still heavily subsidised by taxpayers via HECS's income-contingent, real-interest-free loans.

There are ways to cut costs in healthcare and education – or, at least, slow their rate of growth – without reducing quality, but they require a lot more thought and effort than was put into last year's GP co-payment and uni fee deregulation proposals.

If you accept that governments ought to be assisting the victims of homelessness, domestic violence, people who can't possibly afford legal representation, dispossessed Indigenous people, the working poor and so forth, it's not efficient to make savings by cutting grants to charities, whose non-profit benevolence is a free good being offered to the taxpayer.

Echoing economists' strictures against "repressed inflation" in days past, the prominent American economist Lawrence Summers is warning against the prevalence of "repressed deficits", where governments engage in accounting tricks and false economies to hide the true costs and make budget deficits and debt look better than they really are.

Such as? Failing to properly maintain public assets, deferring the replacement of infrastructure beyond the end of its useful life, effectively paying higher interest rates to persuade private firms to hide government-initiated debt on their own balance sheets or, with similar effect, engaging in the sale and leaseback of government offices.

On the latter, the Howard government wasted millions of taxpayers' dollars doing that in its first budget. And now, I hear, Hockey is planning the same thing for the Treasury building. Not smart, Joe.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Why fiscal policy may be making a comeback

For four decades, fiscal policy has been the poor relation among the tools available for countries to use to stabilise demand as their economies move through the ups and downs of the business cycle. Monetary policy has been the preferred instrument. But this may be about to change.

Monetary policy refers to the central bank's manipulation of interest rates, whereas fiscal policy refers to the government's manipulation of taxation and government spending in the budget.

Of course, in those four decades fiscal policy hasn't been completely friendless. In times of recession, politicians have almost always resorted to budgetary stimulus, sometimes against the advice of their econocrats.

In the policy response to the global financial crisis in late 2008, aimed at preventing it turning into a worldwide depression to rival the depression of the 1930s, there was an instinctive resort to budget spending in addition to the sharp easing of monetary policy.

The fiscal response was partly because the North Atlantic economies needed to lend money to their banks, but also because demand needed bolstering at a time when households and businesses, conscious of their high levels of debt and the diminished value of their assets, were in no mood to spend no matter how low interest rates were.

Urged on by the International Monetary Fund, all the major economies engaged in huge fiscal stimulus at the same time. This succeeded in averting depression and getting their economies on a path to recovery.

But by then the North Atlantic economies had high levels of public debt, and the ideological opponents of fiscal activism fought back, persuading Britain and the rest of Europe to abandon fiscal stimulus and instead cut government spending and raise taxes, even while their economies were still very weak.

Unsurprisingly, the result was to prolong their recessions and force them to resort to ever more unorthodox ways of trying to stimulate their economies with monetary policy.

In this column last Saturday we saw Dr Philip Lowe, deputy governor of the Reserve Bank, accepting that monetary policy had become a lot less effective around the developed world, but arguing this would cease to be so after the major advanced economies had finally shaken off the Great Recession in about a decade's time.

But a leading American economist, Professor Lawrence Summers, of Harvard, a former US Treasury secretary, argues that monetary policy's reduced effectiveness could last for the next quarter of a century.

This is because he sees world interest rates staying very low for at least that period. In all the recessions since World War II, the US Federal Reserve has had to cut its official interest rate by an average of 4 percentage points to get the economy moving again.

If interest rates stay low, the Fed (and other central banks) won't have room to cut the official rate to the necessary extent before hitting the "zero lower bound". This will make economic managers more dependent on fiscal policy to provide stimulus.

Why does he expect interest rates to stay low for so long? Because, at base, interest rates are the price that brings the supply of saving into balance with the demand for funds for investment.

And, in the developed economies, Summers sees less investment occurring because of weak or falling population growth, because capital equipment gets ever cheaper and possibly because of slower technological advance.

On the other hand, he sees higher rates of saving because more of the growth in income will be captured by high-income earners, with their higher propensity to save.

So if the supply of saving increases while the demand for funds decreases, real interest rates will be very low, even after all the quantitative easing (money creation) is unwound. Continuing low inflation will keep nominal interest rates low.

Summers argues that, over the decades, the popularity of fiscal policy has fluctuated with economists' changing views about the size of the fiscal "multiplier" – the size of the increase in national income brought about by a discretionary increase in government spending.

The latest view, coming from the IMF, is that the fiscal multipliers are much higher than previously believed (particularly for spending on infrastructure, less so for tax cuts). This is mainly because the reduced effectiveness of monetary policy has caused a change in central banks' "policy reaction function".

Whereas in earlier times the central bank would have increased interest rates if it feared fiscal stimulus threatened to worsen inflation (thereby reducing the fiscal multiplier), these days the central bank would be less worried about inflation and pleased to see fiscal policy helping it get the economy growing at an acceptable pace.

But Summers has another point. Lasting low real interest rates not only make monetary policy less effective and fiscal policy more effective, they also mean that lower debt servicing costs allow governments to carry more public debt.

His oversimplified calculation is that if the interest rate on public borrowing halves from 2 per cent to 1 per cent, a government can now carry twice as much debt for the same interest bill.

Let's put this interesting discussion into an immediate, Australian context. We know from the latest national accounts that, at a time when the economy's growth is too weak to stop unemployment continuing to creep up, public sector spending is acting as a drag.

This isn't because of federal government cuts in recurrent spending, but because the states have allowed their annual capital works programs to fall back at a time when private construction activity is falling through the floor and yields (interest rates) on government bonds are the lowest in living memory.

If the Feds had any sense they'd be borrowing big for well-chosen infrastructure projects, thereby reducing the pressure on the Reserve Bank to keep cutting interest rates and risking a house price bubble. The Reserve would love a bit of help from fiscal policy.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Our kids need social skills, not just high marks

My father raised me to be contemptuous of fashion in all its forms, and I try not to be overawed by the rich and powerful. But, like my mum, there's one thing I am impressed by: brains.
My job brings me into regular contact with the econocrats at the top of the Reserve Bank, Treasury and other departments. Let me tell you, they're the brightest of the bright. I have to keep telling myself this as I struggle to keep up with them. All of them could hold down jobs as professors, or earn a lot more money in business.
These days, most have PhDs - though it's disturbing that, so far in his time as Prime Minister, Tony Abbott has relinquished the services of five economist department secretaries: Dr Martin Parkinson, Dr Don Russell, Blair Comley, Dr Ian Watt and now Dr Paul Grimes. Not sure we have that many brains to spare.
In recent years, however, I've realised that being super-bright ain't enough. To be really successful you also need "people skills". I've decided an extra unit of EQ - emotional intelligence - is worth a lot more than an extra unit of IQ. And if a genie appears from a bottle, that's what I'll ask for.
Most of our politicians have heard that the development of children's brains is hugely significant in influencing their success throughout the rest of their lives. Hence governments' increasing attention to early childhood education and care.
What people may not realise is that brain development doesn't matter just because of its effect on kids' intellect. As a new report from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, The Power of Social and Emotional Skills, makes clear, it matters also for children's social development.
We don't need telling about the importance of "cognitive" skills. These days, governments conduct periodic tests of children's literacy, numeracy and scientific literacy as they progress through the school system.
They make the results available directly to parents, but also put them on websites so the whole world can compare the academic performance of particular schools. Teachers object that good teaching involves a lot more than the three Rs and that the emphasis on competition via "metrics" encourages schools to "teach to the test" and spend much time drilling for coming tests.
The OECD's PISA exercise now compares our cognitive tests with those undertaken in other countries, so that every year or so we agonise because we've slipped back in the international comp on this cognitive measure or that.
The point of this latest report is to agree with the teachers: there is a lot more to the adequate development of our kids than just nurturing their IQs. It finds that children and adolescents need a balanced set of cognitive and social and emotional skills in order to succeed in modern life.
Cognitive skills - as measured by achievement tests and academic grades - have been show to influence the likelihood of individuals' success in education and the jobs market. They also predict broader outcomes such as our self-perceived health, social and political participation, and trust.
But social and emotional skills - such as perseverance, sociability and self-esteem - have been shown to influence numerous measures of social outcomes, including better health, improved subjective wellbeing (aka happiness) and reduced odds of antisocial behaviour.
If that doesn't impress you, try this: cognitive skills and social and emotional skills interact and cross-fertilise each other, empowering children to succeed both in school and out of school.
For instance, social and emotional skills may help children translate intentions into actions, and thereby improve their likelihood of graduating from university, sticking to healthy lifestyles and avoiding aggressive behaviours, the report says.
For children who are talented, motivated, goal-driven and collegial, and thus more likely to weather the storms of life, cognitive skills aren't enough. They need to be combined with social and emotional skills, which include conscientiousness and emotional stability.
The report stresses that "skills beget skills". They build on each other, and the earlier kids start acquiring them and the firmer their foundation the more skills are gained and the better the kids do in life.
You may say that children from "good" homes will acquire social skills from their parents without any fuss. That's fairly true and it's why, apart from making attendance at preschool universal, early intervention programs are best targeted at disadvantaged families, offering parents training and mentoring.
But though an early start is best, children's acquired skills remain malleable through adolescence. Programs aimed at older children emphasise teachers' professional development. Among adolescents, mentoring seems to work well, while hands-on experiences in the workplace can instil skills such as teamwork, self-efficacy (strong belief in your ability to reach goals) and motivation.
Improvements in social skills don't necessarily require major reforms or resources but can be incorporated into existing curricular and extracurricular activities, the report says. A lot of social and emotional skills can be gained from sport, arts clubs, student councils and voluntary work.
The report finds that recent developments allow us to measure social and emotional skills reliably within a particular culture and language. I reckon that as long as we retain our obsession with measuring and comparing academic performance we need to balance this with regular measurement of progress in acquiring social skills.
Surely our econocrats are bright enough to see that.

Monday, March 16, 2015

We're not taking productivity seriously

Given our obsession with materialism, productivity "isn't everything, but in the long run it is almost everything," as Paul Krugman famously said. If so, the intergenerational report's consideration of the topic is quite inadequate.

It's partial in both senses. It mentions most of the key factors that influence productivity improvement - defined as increased goods and services produced per hour worked - but doesn't do justice to many, including climate change.

That's partly because, though the report purports to be about the future of the economy, its real target is Treasury's eternal top priority, the future of the budget balance.

But it's also because the econocrats are leading us towards their preferred policy response to our alleged productivity problem and away from those responses their "priors" - preconceived beliefs about how the world works - cause them to disapprove of.

There are two broad approaches to government efforts to improve productivity: one which involves more intervention and spending and one which involves less intervention and little change in spending. Guess which one Treasury's priors lead it to favour?

For the past 200 hundred years, most of the world's productivity improvement has come from technological advance - people inventing better machines and thinking of better ways to do things.

But the other fish Treasury wants to fry prompt it to embrace an extreme view held by a few American economists that we've entered a period of much less rapid technological change.

When you consider all the disruption the digital revolution is unleashing on so many industries this is hard to believe.

In the era of the knowledge economy, you'd expect much long and earnest discussion about what governments should and shouldn't be doing to encourage acquisition of the "human capital" that comes from education and training.

Should we be cutting budgetary support for science and research and development? Is now the right time to be pushing university funding off the budget and on to students and universities' money-making schemes?

Why would a government that professes to believe in "equality of opportunity" welch on its professed support for the Gonski reforms to school funding? Why would it view Gonski as about private versus public rather than about lifting the future participation and productivity of kids at the bottom of the distribution?

Instead, the issue of human capital is airily dismissed with the line that "there is little evidence that slower productivity growth has been the result of inadequate investment in skills, education and innovation more broadly".

Maybe. But it's probably equally true there's little evidence it hasn't been. All you're really saying is that there's little evidence - because we've never been willing to run to the expense of adequately measuring such a vital ingredient in our future wellbeing.

The other key element of productivity improvement that gets short shrift is public infrastructure spending. To what extent are its inadequacies limiting the productivity of businesses and adding to commuting times (an important part of our wellbeing that doesn't show up in gross domestic product)? But do workers who spend an hour getting to work arrive at their productive best?

No discussion of our present and future productivity performance is adequate without assessment of the role being played by our policy of high immigration. But all we get is the throwaway line that "there is some evidence that" high levels of migration increase productivity because our focus on skilled migration raises the workforce's average skill level and because "migrants can be highly motivated".

This is true and quite dishonest at the same time. It minutely examines the dog in the room while studiously ignoring the elephant. What economists know but try not to think about - and never ever mention in front of the children - is that immigration carries a huge threat to our productivity.

The unthinkable truth is that unless we invest in enough additional housing, business equipment and public infrastructure to accommodate the extra workers and their families, this lack of "capital widening" reduces our physical capital per person and so reduces our productivity.

Think of it: the very report announcing that our population is projected to grow by 16 million to 40 million over the next 40 years doesn't say a word about the huge increase in infrastructure spending this will require if our productivity isn't to fall, nor discuss how its cost should be shared between present and future taxpayers.

No, none of that. Just another repetition of that peculiarly Australian doctrine that pretty much the only way to improve productivity is to engage in unceasing micro-economic reform.