Tuesday, July 21, 2020


UBS HSC Online Economics Day, Tuesday, July 21, 2020

Australia is in the grip of a recession that’s its deepest since the Great Depression of the 1930, but also it’s most unusual, being the consequence not of problems in the economy, but of the effects of the coronavirus pandemic and the government’s response to it. After the government realised the virus had spread to Australia, it banned foreign arrivals from China at the start of February and progressively widened the ban to include all foreign nationals, with all returning Australians required to enter 14-day quarantine. In concert with the state governments, it then moved to limit the spread of the virus within Australia by ordering many industries, schools and universities to close. It required people to work from home where possible, and leave their homes as little as possible. During this “lockdown”, hand-washing and “social distancing” were encouraged, and large gatherings and unnecessary travel were banned.

This hugely reduced economic activity, prompting many businesses with little revenue coming in to lay off workers or reduce the hours of part-time workers. So from mid-March, the government introduced a series of measures intended to assist firms facing financial pressures, helping them retain their staff until the crisis had passed, to help people who had lost their jobs, maintain the training of apprentices and trainees, help firms and households having difficulty paying their rent, and assist industries with particular problems, such as housing and airlines. Taken together, these measures would provide fiscal (budgetary) support to the economy in general, at a time when private sector demand was weak. All these measures were designed to be targeted to easing particular problems and to be temporary, running for about six months to the end of September 2020.

The government’s two most important measures were the $70-billion JobKeeper wage subsidy scheme, which paid those employers whose revenue had fallen significantly subsidies of $1500 per fortnight for each worker they retained. This unprecedented and hugely generous scheme – adapted from similar schemes introduced in Britain and the US – was intended to maintain the link between an employer and its workers until the crisis had passed and normal business could resume. For those workers unable to benefit from the JobKeeper scheme, the JobSeeker coronavirus supplement effectively doubled unemployment benefits by adding a supplement of $1100 a fortnight for six months.

In mid-March the Reserve Bank made the last contribution it was able to make toward stimulating demand. First, it cut the official cash rate by 0.25 percentage points to its effective lower bound of 0.25 per cent, and promised the rate would not be raised until the rate of unemployment was falling towards its full employment level (about 4.5 per cent) and the inflation rate was in the target band of 2 to 3 per cent. It made a move to “quantitative easing” by setting at target of 0.25 per cent for the yield on Australian government bonds. That is, it promised to buy as many second-hand bonds as was necessary to get the yield down to 0.25 per cent. So far, this has involved it creating credit (or “printing money”) only to the extent of about $50 billion. Third, to encourage the banks to ease their repayment requirements on hard-pressed small businesses, the RBA offered to lend them up to $90 billion at the concessional rate of 0.25 per cent. This too would involve the RBA creating credit. So far, however, there has been little demand for this relief.

The crisis caused the annual federal budget to be postponed from May until Tuesday, October 6 (just a few weeks before the HSC Economics paper on Friday, October 23). In the meantime, however, Treasurer Josh Frydenberg will deliver an economic statement this Thursday, July 23, in which he will announce changes to the JobKeeper and JobSeeker schemes after they are due to expire at the end of September. He will also announce new forecasts for the economy and the budget deficit.

Definition of recession

Don’t be misled by media assertions that the economy is in recession when real GDP falls in two successive quarters. This mere rule of thumb has no status in economics and can be misleading. It puts all the emphasis on production and none on the real reason people fear recessions: rapidly rising unemployment. A former senior Treasury official has defined recession as: “a sustained period of either weak growth or falling real GDP, accompanied by a significant rise in the unemployment rate.” In February 2020, before the virus struck, the unemployment rate was 5.1. By June, just four months later, it had leapt to 7.4 per cent. Over the same period, the rate of under-employment jumped from 8.7 per cent to 11.7 per cent. That’s all you need to know to be certain we’re in a deep recession. But the effect of the lockdown and the JobKeeper subsidy (which involves many people being counted as employed although they are doing no work) means the “effective” rate of unemployment is about 13 per cent [graph 2].

How this recession differs from past recessions

This recession is different partly because it’s much worse than the previous recessions in the mid-1970s, early 1980s and early 1990s – which was almost 30 years ago. Whereas in the early ‘80s unemployment peaked at 10 per cent, and in the early ‘90s at 11 per cent, this time we are already up to 13 per cent and counting [graph1]. The contraction in GDP is also likely to be a lot bigger this time than in those earlier episodes.

But this recession is different – even unique - because its cause is non-economic. To stop the spread of the virus, the government ordered a large part of the economy to cease trading. And even if it hadn’t, many people would have cut their economic activity and kept to their homes to protect themselves from the virus. Normally, recessions occur because a boom has got out of hand and has prompted the authorities to push interest rates too high in an effort to control inflation. They often end up overdoing it and accidentally causing a downturn.

The unique cause of this recession means that, whereas previously the brunt of the downturn has been borne by workers in manufacturing and construction, this time it’s workers in the services sector. The hardest hit have been in accommodation, restaurants and cafes; retail; and arts and recreation. This change in the industrial composition of the recession means that whereas it’s usually men who bear the brunt, this time it’s women. It’s always the young – particularly education-leavers - who are hit hardest by a recession and, I’m sorry to tell you, this time is no exception.

The budget, debt and deficit

All recessions involve the government using the two main instruments of macroeconomic management to cushion the economy from the contraction in private sector demand and, more positively, stimulate an expansion in private demand, by cutting interest rates, increasing government spending, or cutting taxes. This time, however, monetary policy has pretty much done its dash and all the work falls to fiscal policy – the budget.

Whereas the government had managed finally to return the budget to balance in 2018-19 and was proudly looking forward to a surplus in the financial year just ended and many further surpluses in the years ahead, all that has been turned on its head by the response to the virus. The mini-budget on July 23 will give us the latest official figures, but unofficial estimates from Dr Shane Oliver suggest a deficit of about $95 billion (or almost 5 per cent of GDP) in the financial year to June this year, rising to a deficit of more than $220 billion (or 11 per cent of GDP) in 2020-21. Note that this likely enormous blowout in the budget deficit is explained not just by increased stimulus spending, but also by the effect of the recession in causing tax collections to fall. The stimulus is an increase in the “structural” component of the deficit, whereas the fall in tax collections is an increase in the “cyclical” component. In Oliver’s estimates, the two effects are of roughly equal size.

How the budget deficit will be funded

There are various ways the budget deficit could be funded but, at least since the early 1980s, it has always been funded by the government borrowing from the public rather than from the RBA (which would constitute printing money). The bonds are sold by regular auctions conducted by a branch of the Treasury. There is never any shortage of banks, superannuation funds, other fund managers and other countries’ central banks wanting to buy the bonds. This can be seen in the government’s ability in recent months to sell 10-year bonds paying an effective interest rate of less than 1 per cent. It is true, however, that when the RBA buys second-hand government bonds previously sold to financial institutions by Treasury, and pays for those bonds merely by crediting those institutions’ bank account with the RBA, it is doing the modern equivalent of printing money.


Monday, July 20, 2020

The economy can't fully recover until the virus is gone

It’s time we stopped debating suppression versus elimination of the coronavirus and got serious: let’s make it a party-political issue. Liberal voters should defend suppression and denigrate elimination, while Labor voters do the opposite. Or vice versa.

This wouldn’t get us anywhere, of course, just as the politicisation of climate change has long crippled our efforts to make real progress. But it would gratify those who follow politics like others follow sport, and it would be a fillip for a media more interested in controversy than solutions.

But above all, it would relieve the rest of us of the mental effort of judging the merits of suppression versus elimination. To decide what our opinion was, all we’d need to do is remember which party we vote for.

We sub-contract the job of thinking through important policy issues to our ever-trustworthy political representatives, who can always be relied on to put our interests ahead of their own. And then we wonder why we’re making so little progress in solving the nation’s problems.

What thinking I’ve managed to do about our setback in getting on top of the virus makes me unconvinced that the policy of suppression – or “aggressive suppression” as Scott Morrison prefers to call it – rather than elimination explains the relapse. Nor that switching from suppression to elimination would prevent further relapses.

This controversy – which the hugely “aggressive” responses of Morrison and NSW premier Gladys Berejiklian have done much to puff up – is a distinction in search of a difference. Certainly, it’s a distinction much easier to see on the pages of a textbook than on the ground.

Morrison and Berejiklian want us to believe the economic cost of elimination would be much higher than for suppression. I doubt that – just as I doubt their critics’ retort that they’re putting the interests of The Economy ahead of Australians’ lives.

This debate is spurious because it reads the problem wrong. The eradication party is preoccupied with “community spread” and their belief that asymptomatic carriers mean there is huge community spread lurking under the radar, waiting to rear its head. If so, it’s gone well hidden for many weeks.

The simple truth is, the virus comes to us from abroad. Our biggest problem is its continued spread in the rest of the world. Every time we let through a carrier from abroad it spreads exponentially, triggering much community transmission. We then have to frantically identify everyone who’s been infected and stop them infecting others.

Which is just what we have done – with great success in every state. The Kiwis have done the same. What’s changed? As best we can tell, a breakdown in Melbourne’s quarantine of returning travellers – including the people staffing the quarantine – combined with poor contact tracing has allowed a flare-up in cases.

And again, as best we can tell, Sydney’s smaller outbreak is best explained by the arrival of a super spreader from Melbourne. Perhaps more than one.

The point is, if you have weaknesses in your quarantine regime, or deficient contact tracing, it doesn’t matter whether the label on the policy you’re pursuing says “elimination” or “suppression”. As economist-turned-businessman Andrew Mohl has reminded us, in real life what matters more is not the strategy you choose, but how well you execute it.

The saintly, eliminating Kiwis, are just one badly handled quarantine breach away from ignominy. It follows that what we should be doing now is tightening up our quarantine arrangements and, in Victoria at least, greatly improving contact tracing.

It also follows that Sydney and Melbourne have had – and always will have – the greatest infection problem, simply because they’re the country’s two main international gateways. While ever there’s some doubt about the effectiveness of these two’s quarantine arrangements, the other states are justified in closing their borders to the south-eastern reprobates. Better four states virus-free than none.

It’s easier to see now than it was a month ago that, with the rest of the world still highly virus-prone, lapses and setbacks were inevitable. And with no vaccine yet on the horizon, that may remain true for months, even years to come.

There seems little doubt that Melbourne’s return to lockdown will set back the recovery in the national economy both directly (because of Melbourne’s one-fifth share of it) and indirectly, because of the fears and uncertainty it engenders in the rest of the county.

There may be many further bumps in the road ahead, which will weaken the economy and slow the recovery. Until a vaccine is available globally, lasting elimination is a delusion. We shall either have to hide under the bed till then, or become inured to living in a much riskier world.

The one good thing is that this nasty return to reality has come before rather than after Thursday’s mini-budget reset.

Saturday, July 18, 2020

We won't achieve economic reform until we start co-operating

If you wonder why the push for economic reform has ground to a halt, I’ve discovered the reason. It’s because the foundational assumption of conventional economics – that individuals competing in pursuit of their self-interest make us all better off – is only half the truth.

If the mention of economic reform made you think of tax reform, then you’re making my point. Those who want a higher GST because they’d benefit if the proceeds were used to lower income or company tax are stymied by the many punters convinced they’d be worse off if this “reform” came to pass.

Many other cases for reform suffer the same fate. Your pursuit of your self-interest is neutered by my pursuit of my mine.

What the conventional economic model misses with its emphasis on individuals, competition and self-interest is that much of the success of the human animal – including its success economically – is owed to people co-operating to achieve changes of benefit to the whole community.

Often, norms of socially acceptable behaviour – entrenched views about what behaviour is ethical and what isn’t - are used to encourage people to put the interests of the group ahead of their own immediate interests. Markets work much better, for instance, if it’s realistic to assume that almost all the people you deal with can be trusted to act honestly.

All this applies in spades to our failure to make progress in the area of reform that’s more important to our economic future even than conquering the coronavirus: stopping emissions of greenhouse gases from wrecking the climate.

Here, the owners and miners of our huge remaining deposits of coal and gas are fighting tooth and nail to delay the day when those deposits become worthless, while the rest of us are encouraged to put the frightening thought of having to pay a bit more for electricity and petrol ahead of the future environmental and economic wellbeing of our children and grandchildren.

It’s okay for the oldies – who, until this year’s bushfire conflagration, fondly imagined they wouldn’t live long enough to suffer the consequences of their selfish short-sightedness. And those who will suffer the consequences have either yet to be born or are only just realising what a mess their loving parents are leaving for them.

But the deterrent to action isn’t just that the (modest) adjustment costs are upfront, whereas the (much greater) costs of inaction are off in the uncertain future. It’s also that the greenhouse effect is global, not local.

As the climate-change deniers love reminding us, no amount of effort to reduce emissions on our part will make much difference until people in other parts of the world are doing the same. In which case, why don’t you and I do nothing and leave it to all the others? (Economists call this the “free-rider” problem.)

All this may explain why a recent discussion paper from the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia, Efficient, Effective and Fair, included a chapter on the moral case for action on climate change, written by Professor Garrett Cullity, a philosopher from the University of Adelaide.

Cullity argues there are five reasons why climate change is a moral issue, each of which is independent of the others. The first is that it involves many causes of harm including extreme weather events, tropical diseases, and malnutrition.

“These harms are primarily borne by the most vulnerable members of the global community,” he says. “We should be morally concerned to reduce the amount of harm we do to them.”

The second argument holds if we believe there’s a risk of serious harm in the future but can't be sure it will come to pass. “Action that imposes serious risks on others can be morally wrong because it is negligent and reckless, independent of the harm that actually eventuates,” Cullity says.

These first two arguments give us moral duties of both “mitigation” (reducing the further damage our emissions are doing) and “adaptation” (helping vulnerable people to adapt to the damage already done).

“They apply not just to national governments, but to any agent whose actions contribute to increasing atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations – including state and local governments, cities, corporations, non-government associations and individuals.

“And they apply to each of these agents unilaterally. The moral duty not to engage in actions that harm or endanger others is not a duty that we are exempted from when someone else is not complying with it.

“The strength of the duty is proportional to the harm or risk imposed if the duty is not followed, and it may be related also to the capacity to influence others to comply with their duty.”

The third argument concerns “contributional fairness”. When a group needs to achieve something important by acting together and is doing so by sharing the overall burden among its members, failure to contribute an equitable share of that burden amounts to free-riding. Duties of fair contribution apply to groups of any size.

In the case of a wealthy country such as Australia, the size of our contribution to the solution should reflect the size of our contribution to causing the problem, the benefit we have derived from past emissions-producing economic activity, and our relatively great “ability to pay”, as tax economists put it.

The remaining two moral arguments concern the responsibility of national governments. If you accept that they have a duty to protect future citizens, not just present ones, it follows that they must contribute to global mitigation, not just local adaptation. And, since the economic costs of responding to the problem get higher the longer you delay, they have a moral duty to begin now.

Conventional economics doesn’t take much interest in morality. But economies where everyone sticks out for Number One stop working very well. And self-interest isn’t enough to solve a “wicked” problem like climate change.

Wednesday, July 15, 2020

Don't forget those the pandemic leaves out in the cold

After a fortnight's patriotic duty swanning round the backblocks of the state dispensing modest monetary good cheer – and discovering we were far from the only cityslickers doing it – it's back to a city plunged into renewed foreboding. The greatest concern is the pandemic's returning risk to our lives but, for me, this worsens rather than detracts attention from the great economic cost: protracted unemployment. A second wave of the virus would bring a double-dip recession.

When Treasurer Josh Frydenberg – a man so committed to looking on the bright side he's positively Pythonesque – feels it his duty to advise that the official unemployment rate of 7.1 per cent is actually an effective rate of 13.3 per cent once you allow for the peculiarities of the lockdown, you know we must be in deep trouble.

He wouldn't be issuing such a warning if he didn't need to prepare us for next week's mini-budget, which the setbacks in Melbourne and Sydney will have caused to be a lot less penny-pinching than earlier planned.

Where before Scott Morrison might have told himself the worst was over and it was time to start limiting the damage to his precious budget, now he must keep the money flowing so as to limit the damage to the livelihoods of many workers and their families.

Back in March, many of the government's initial measures to limit the economic damage caused by his harsh but unavoidable efforts to stop the spread of the virus – including the innovative JobKeeper wage subsidy scheme and JobSeeker's doubling of the rate of unemployment benefits – were timed to last six months and so end in late September.

The mini-budget's main purpose is to announce what will happen after that. A point to remember is that these measures don't just directly relieve the financial pressure on people who've lost their jobs, they benefit all of us indirectly by injecting additional money into the economy, which then flows through many hands – shopkeepers and workers alike – keeping the economy moving and thus limiting the further rise in joblessness.

A further thing to remember is that the unemployed don't only need money to help them keep body and soul together and feed their families (not to mention money to keep their mobile working, travel to job interviews and be appropriately dressed), they also need help finding another job.

The terrible thing about recessions is that they throw the economy up in the air, so to speak, and what eventually comes down is different to what went up. Recessions accelerate the changing structure of the economy. The industries and occupations change, with some contracting and others expanding.

So the jobs move, and employers' demand for particular occupations changes. Even with assistance from the wonders of the internet, many workers need help to locate a new job, need guidance to give up on industry A and try industry B, or even help to retrain for a job in another occupation where demand is greater.

After a severe recession, it can take a year or more before the quantity of goods and services produced each quarter has returned to where it was before it started falling, and several years before it gets back to where it would have been had the recession not happened.

But it takes longer for employment to return to where it was and far longer for unemployment to fall. After the last recession, the number of people on unemployment benefits fell by almost half, from a peak of 890,000 in 1993 to 464,000. But get this: it took 14 years.

If that wasn't bad enough, in that time, the number of recipients who'd been on the dole for more than a year fell by only 20 per cent to 276,000.

One lesson from this is that it's the unemployed who'll bear most of the economic cost of this pandemic, however long it lasts. It will take longer than you may think for people who lose their jobs to find another. While they're out in the cold, we who've kept our jobs have a moral obligation to ensure they're given a reasonable sum to live on, as well as a lot of help finding a new berth.

Many will find a job within a month or two, but some will take much longer. And the longer it takes, the less likely it becomes. These are people who deserve extra help to avoid getting stuck in the mud at the bottom of the unemployment pool, and we should give it.

Last week the Australian Council of Social Service called for JobKeeper to be phased down only gradually, and for the JobSeeker payment to be increased permanently by at least $185 a week, which would lift it to the rate of the age and other pensions.

The focus of Centrelink and the Job Network should be switched from penalising the jobless for concocted infringements to actually helping them find jobs and retrain. It's the least we should do.

Monday, June 29, 2020

Morrison is taking the recovery too cheaply

In theory, recovery from the coronacession will be easier than recoveries usually are. In practice, however, it’s likely to be much harder than usual – something Scott Morrison’s evident reluctance to provide sufficient budgetary stimulus suggests he’s still to realise.

The reasons for hope arise from this recession’s unique cause: it was brought about not by a bust in assets markets (as was the global financial crisis and our recession of the early 1990s) nor by the more usual real-wage explosion and sky-high interest rates (our recessions of the early 1980s and mid-1970s), but by government decree in response to a pandemic.

This makes it an artificial recession, one that happened almost overnight with a non-economic cause. Get the virus under control, dismantle the lockdown and maybe everything soon returns almost to normal.

It was the temporary nature of the lockdown that justified the $70 billion cost of the unprecedented JobKeeper wage subsidy scheme. Preserve the link between employers and their workers for the few months of the lockdown, and maybe most of them eventually return to work as normal.

Note that, even if this doesn’t work out as well as hoped, the money spent still helps to prop up demand. Had we not experimented with JobKeeper, we’d have needed to spend a similar amount on other things.

Because this recession has been so short and (not) sweet, it’s reasonable to expect an early and significant bounce-back in the September quarter. Just how big it is, we shall see. But, in any case, there’s more to a recovery than the size of the bounce-back in the first quarter after the end of the contraction.

And there are at least five reasons why this recovery will face stronger headwinds than most. The first is the absence of further help from the Reserve Bank cutting rates. People forget that our avoidance of the Great Recession in 2009 involved cutting the official interest rate by 4.25
percentage points.

Second, Australia, much more than other advanced economies, has been reliant for much of its economic growth on population growth. But, thanks to the travel bans, Morrison is expecting net overseas migration to fall by a third in the financial year just ending, and by 85 per cent in 2020-21.

Now, unlike most economists, I’m yet to be convinced immigration does anything much to lift our standard of living. And I’m not a believer in growth for growth’s sake. It remains true, however, that our housing industry remains heavily reliant on building new houses to accommodate our growing population. And if Morrison’s HomeBuilder package is supposed to be the answer to the industry’s problem, it’s been dudded.

Third, we’re used to our floating exchange rate acting as an effective shock absorber, floating down when our stressed industries could use more international price competitiveness, and floating up when we need help constraining inflation pressures – as happened during most of the resources boom.

But this time, not so much. With the disruption to our rival Brazilian iron ore producer’s output, world prices are a lot higher than you’d expect at a time of global recession. And with world foreign exchange markets thinking of the Aussie dollar as very much a commodity currency, our exchange rate looks like being higher than otherwise – and higher than would do most to boost our industries’ price competitiveness.

Fourth, the long boom in house prices has left our households heavily indebted, and in no mood to take advantage of record-low interest rates by lashing out with borrowing and spending. The “precautionary motive” always leaves households more inclined to save rather than spend during recessions, but the knowledge of their towering housing debt will probably make them even more cautious than usual.

The idea that bringing forward the government’s remaining two legislated tax cuts could do wonders for demand is delusional. If you wanted the cuts spent rather than saved, you’d aim them at the bottom, not the top.

Finally, although our politicians and econocrats refuse to admit it, our economy – like all the advanced economies – has for most of the past decade been caught in a structural low-growth trap. We can’t get strong growth in consumer spending until we get strong growth in real wages. We can’t get strong growth in business investment until we get strong consumer spending. And we can’t get a strong improvement in the productivity of labour until we get strong business investment.

Meanwhile, the nation’s employers – including even public sector employers - will do what they always do and use the recession, and the fear it engenders in workers, to engineer a fall in real wages. Which will get us even deeper in the low-growth trap.

I fear, however, that Morrison and his loyal lieutenant, Josh Frydenberg, will learn all this the hard way.

Saturday, June 27, 2020

We should get a fair share of foreign investors' profits

Australia has been a recipient of foreign investment in almost every year since the arrival of the First Fleet in 1788. Yet for much of that time the idea of foreigners being allowed to own so much of our businesses, mines, farms and land is one many ordinary Australians have found hard to accept.

For older Australians, the thought of “selling off the farm” to foreigners makes them distinctly uncomfortable. Why can’t we do it ourselves and own it ourselves?

The short answer is, we could. But had we chosen that path we wouldn’t be nearly as prosperous today as we are. As the Productivity Commission reminds us in a paper published this week, you need money to set up a business, let alone a whole industry.

That money has to be saved by spending less than all your income on consumption. And had we been relying solely on our own saving, we’d have been able to develop much less of this vast continent than we have done. So, from the days when we were a British colony and had no say in the matter, we’ve invited foreigners to bring their savings to Australia and join us in exploiting the golden soil and other of nature’s gifts with which our land abounds.

Total foreign direct investment – that is, where the foreigner owns enough of the shares in a company to have some control over its management – is now worth about $1 trillion. The largest sources of direct investment are, in order, the United States, Japan and Britain. In recent years, of course, most of the action – and the angst – comes from China.

The less poetic way to put it is that Australia has been a “net importer of capital” for more than two centuries. It’s thus not so surprising that, despite whatever reservations ordinary Australians may have, the dominant view among our politicians, business people and economists has been that we must keep doing whatever it takes to attract the foreign investment we need to keep the economy expanding strongly.

For many years it was felt that we always run a deficit on our balance of trade in goods and services with the rest of the world, so we always need to attract sufficient net inflow of foreign capital to be sure of financing that trade deficit – as well as covering all the regular payments of dividends and interest we need to make to the foreigners who have invested in local businesses or have lent us money.

This mentality made sense in the days when we had a “fixed exchange rate” – when the government, via the Reserve Bank, set the value of our country’s currency relative to other countries’ currencies – particularly the British pound and, later, the US dollar – and changed that value only very rarely in situations where it couldn’t be maintained.

The point is that when you choose to fix the price of your currency, you do have to worry about getting sufficient net inflow of foreign capital to cover the deficit on the “current account” of the “balance of payments”. Should you fail to attract sufficient inflow, you’re forced into the ignominy of cutting the price you’ve fixed.

Now, this problem went away a long time ago. In 1983, after we’d been having a lot of trouble keeping our exchange rate fixed and our balance of payments in balance, we decided to join most of the other advanced economies in allowing the value (or price) of our currency to float up and down according to the strength of the rest of the world’s demand for the Australian dollar (the Aussie, as it’s called in the foreign exchange market) relative to the supply of it.

From that day, the two sides of our balance of payments – the current account and the capital account – were in balance, the deficit on one matched exactly by the surplus on the other, at all times. How? Because the price of the Aussie adjusted continuously to ensure they were.

The “balance of payments constraint”, which had worried the managers of our economy for so long, just evaporated. But here’s the point: the attitude that we must always be doing as much as we can to attract as much foreign investment as possible continued unabated.

There’s this notion that, in the now highly competitive, globalised financial markets, if poor little Australia doesn’t try really, really hard, we’ll miss out.

This, of course, is the reasoning behind the unending push by big business for us to cut the rate of our company tax. Our system of “dividend imputation” means Australian shareholders have nothing to gain from a lower company tax rate. The only beneficiaries would be foreign shareholders because they aren’t eligible for “franking credits”.

We’re asked to believe that how well the level of the nominal rate of our company tax compares with other countries’ rates is the main factor determining whether we get all the foreign investment we need. Not even how the tax breaks we offer compare matters much, apparently.

I don’t believe it. It’s a try-on. As the Productivity Commission’s paper reminds us: “Foreigners invest in Australia because of our fast-growing and well-educated population, rich natural resource base, and stable cultural and legal environment.”

Just so. Mining companies flock to Australia because we have the high-quality, easily-won minerals and energy they need. The idea that global companies such as Google or Amazon would give Australia a miss because our company tax rate’s too high is laughable. Especially when they’re so adept at minimising the tax they pay in advanced countries.

We should take a more hard-nosed, business-like attitude towards foreign investors such as the miners, which make huge profits but employ very few workers. When state governments fall over themselves building infrastructure for them and offering royalty holidays and other inducements, it matters greatly how much company tax they pay before they ship their profits back home.

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Morrison moves the deck chairs on the hulk of our universities

A new rule of politics seems to be that no matter how badly the pollies have stuffed up some area of government responsibility, they can always make it worse. Enter the hapless federal Education Minister Dan Tehan who, doubtless acting under instructions from the boss, has just announced another set of passive-aggressive changes to university funding.

If, like a good Quiet Australian, you haven't been paying close attention, you may have gained the impression that the government is acting to help our unis to take in more local students – helping fill the vacuum left by the disappearance of overseas students – and changing the structure of tuition fees to encourage students into more occupationally oriented courses, which will make them "job-ready graduates" going into fields where the need for graduates is expected to be greatest.

You probably haven't noticed that, according to Tehan, the package includes "an additional $400 million over four years" for regional unis, and "a further $900 million" for the National Priorities and Industry Linkage Fund.

Except that the whole package is "budget neutral" – a bureaucrat's way of saying it will cost the government not an extra cent. Since the government's expecting extra demand for uni places over the next three years, this is tantamount to its first major cost-cutting exercise after taking fright at the blowout in the budget deficit caused by the lockdown of the economy. So the "extra" and "further" funding will be coming not from the government's pockets but those of the universities and their students.

The government will fund an extra 39,000 places by 2023 – an increase of about 6 per cent – as the recession prompts more school leavers to stay on in education (and avoid taking a gap year), but will compensate for this by cutting the amount of its funding per student.

According to calculations by Professor David Peetz, of Griffith University (whose former job as a senior federal bureaucrat helps him find where the bodies are buried), the government will cut its funding by an annual $1883 per student, with the average increase in tuition fees of $675 per student reducing the net loss to universities to $1208 per student. (The fee changes won't apply to existing students, however.)

That is, the unis are being asked to do more with less. It's a safe bet their main response will be to further increase their ratio of students to staff. Unis will become even more of a sausage factory – which will be really great for the nation's investment in "human capital".

My guess is that the changes to the structure of tuition fees – with a hodgepodge of big cuts, small cuts, small increases, big increases and no changes – are intended to give the appearance of doing something to increase employment, to gratify the parliamentary Liberal Party's antipathy towards the universities (hotbeds of leftie activists who think Black Lives Matter and have kids who wag school because the silly-billies are worried about climate change) and to divert attention from the way the unis have been short-changed.

With the fee for humanities degrees up by a mere 113 per cent, it's quite a diversion. I'll be diverted only to the extent of quoting from a speech by a Business Council official in 2016: business needed the skills of "critical thinking, synthesis, judgment and an understanding of ethical constructs". The humanities produced people who can "ask the right questions, think for themselves, explain what they think, and turn those ideas into actions".

Ah, maybe that's what the backbench doesn't fancy.

Professor Andrew Norton, of the Australian National University, a recognised expert, doubts that the fee changes will do much to change students' preferences away from courses they think they'd like. And Peetz points out that it's the unis, not the government, that will be bearing the cost of the fee reductions for those courses the government prefers.

Which brings us to Professor Ian Jacobs, boss of UNSW, who points to the perverse incentives the changes will create (assuming the Senate is mad enough to pass them). Unis will be tempted to offer most places in those courses with the widest gap between the high government-set tuition fee and the cost of running the course. They'll be pushing BAs harder than ever.

This, of course, is exactly the way you'd expect the vice-chancellors to behave when you've taken government-owned and regulated agencies, spent 30 years pursuing a bipartisan policy of cutting their federal funding (from 86 per cent to 28 per cent of total receipts, in the case of Sydney University) and pretending they've been privatised.

Then, after they've turned to getting about a quarter of their funding from overseas students, but the coronavirus obliges you to ban foreign travellers, you hang them out to dry, refusing them access to the JobKeeper wage subsidy scheme because they should never have allowed themselves to become so dependent on a single source of revenue.

For a while I thought the crisis had got Scott Morrison governing for all Australians. It hasn't taken him long to revert to playing friends and enemies.

Monday, June 22, 2020

Wage tribunal saves employers (and us) from their own folly

Sometimes if you really want to help somebody, you do them a favour and don’t do what they ask you to. The employer groups begged the Fair Work Commission not to increase minimum award wages during the recession, but it broke with convention and decided on a rise intended to preserve the real value of award wages.

The unions wanted a 4 per cent rise, the employers wanted none, and the Morrison government didn’t have the courage to say what it wanted (that is, it wanted whatever the employers wanted, but didn’t want to lose workers’ votes by saying so).

So the spin-doctor-renamed industrial relations commission did what came naturally and split the difference at 1.75 per cent (which will amount to a lot more than $13 a week for many of the 2.2 million workers on award wages).

In recessions past, the commission has almost always “deferred” the annual increase – without any catch-up the following year. That is, an unspoken cut in real wages. This time the quarter of award workers in (mainly public-sector) industries whose job numbers have been least affected by the lockdown will get their rise as usual on July 1.

The 40 per cent of award workers in only moderately affected industries (including construction and manufacturing) will have to wait four months until November 1, with award workers in badly affected service industries (accommodation, arts and recreation, aviation, retail and tourism) waiting seven months until February 1.

In other words, a carefully calibrated compromise that – despite the anguished posturing with which industrial relations abounds – won’t annoy any of the parties. Both the unions and the employer groups will assure their members they’ve had a qualified win.

Even so, any kind of pay rise during what will be the deepest contraction since the 1930s is something for the history books. It’s happened partly because of the unique circumstances surrounding this recession and partly because the economics profession is in the middle of slowly turning its conventional wisdom on minimum wage rates on its head.

You can see that in the results of the Economic Society of Australia’s recent poll of 42 academic and business economists, asking whether they agreed that “a freeze in the minimum wage will support Australia’s economic recovery”.

On past performance, you could have expected overwhelming support for that statement of economic orthodoxy. Instead, two respondents were undecided and, of the rest, only 21 agreed while 19 disagreed.

This question has a long history in economics. After the severe recession of the mid-1970s and the steady rise in unemployment that followed, there was a long debate between economists over the rival theories of the causes of – and thus cures for – unemployment.

Neo-classical economists argued that real wage increases far in excess of the improvement in the productivity of labour had raised the price of labour to the point where employers preferred to invest in labour-saving machines rather than hire all the people wishing to work.

By contrast, Keynesian economists argued that high unemployment was explained by “deficient demand” – employers weren’t hiring enough workers because consumers weren’t buying enough of their products to make it necessary.

It wasn’t until 1988 that two Reserve Bank economists, Bill Russell and Warren Tease, published a seminal article resolving the debate: the rise in unemployment could be explained by both theories, in roughly equal measure.

But that was when we were still working to overcome the extraordinary rises in real wages under the Whitlam government. Even by the end of 1985, the Australian Bureau of Statistics’ index of real labour costs per unit of output – a measure of how real wages are growing relative to labour productivity - stood at 116. That is, real wages were running 16 per cent ahead of productivity.

Nowadays, the index has been a bit below 100 since the end of 2017. There’s no way wage rates can be said to be excessive. More to the point, there’s no visible evidence that moderate increases in minimum award wages have discouraged growth in employment.

No, the real problem is that employers and their Canberra lobbyists are caught in a “fallacy of composition” that does much to make recessions worse: it may make sense for individual employers to keep wage rises to a minimum, but when all employers do it, all employers suffer. Why? Because what’s a cost to one employer is income to another employer’s customers.

Our economic growth was weak even before the coronacession, primarily because real wage growth was weak. Using the recession as an excuse to actually cut real wages just gets us in deeper, making demand even more deficient. Most employers and half our economists don’t understand that. Fortunately for them, the Fair Work Commission does.

Saturday, June 20, 2020

A recovery won’t get us out of the low-growth trap

The most useful insights in economics are deceptively simple. The most widely relevant is the idea of “opportunity cost” – whatever you choose to do costs you the opportunity to do something else – but the most useful after that is probably the notion of supply and demand. This can tell us much about why we’re in recession and how we recover from it.

The discipline of “micro-economics” tells us that a market consists of firms willing to supply a particular good or service and customers interested in buying (demanding) that good or service. If the two sides can agree on the price of the item, a sale is made. It’s the relative willingness of the supplier and the demander that determines the price.

The discipline of “macro-economics” takes all the markets that make up a market economy like ours and studies the relative strengths of “aggregate” (total) supply and “aggregate” demand. When aggregate demand is growing more strongly than aggregate supply, this puts upward pressure on prices, causing inflation.

When the growth in aggregate demand is weaker than the growth in aggregate supply, this means firms have idle capacity to produce goods and services and some of the workers who want to help in the production process will be unemployed.

Your typical recession involves a boom in which demand outstrips supply and the rate of inflation is high, but unemployment is low. The managers of the economy use higher interest rates and cuts in government spending or tax increases to try to slow the growth of demand and thus reduce inflation. But they end up overdoing it and the boom turns to bust. Demand falls back, so the inflation rate falls, but unemployment shoots up.

But that doesn’t describe this recession. There was no preceding boom. The growth in demand hadn’t been strong enough to take up all the growth in firms’ “potential” to supply goods and services – which the econocrats estimate was growing by 2.75 per cent a year - meaning the inflation rate’s been lower than their target of 2 to 3 per cent a year, while the rate of unemployment’s been higher than their target of about 4.5 per cent.

So, with no boom and no jamming on of the brakes, why are we in recession? Because the sudden arrival of the coronavirus and the need to stop it spreading and killing many people obliged the government to do something that would normally be unthinkable: order the closure of non-essential industries and order all of us to stay in our homes and leave them as little as possible.

The management of the macro economy is intended to be “counter-cyclical” – to smooth the economy’s path through the ups and downs of the business cycle by slowing demand when it’s too strong and boosting it when it’s too weak.

So, obviously, the task now the virus has been suppressed and we can end most of the lockdown (but not yet open our borders to foreign travellers) is to “stimulate” the economy to get demand growing more strongly than supply is growing and start reducing unemployment. (Supply increases because of growth in the population, more people participating in production, and business investment to improve the productivity of the production process.)

The authorities usually stimulate demand with big cuts in interest rates (known as monetary policy) and by increasing government spending or cutting taxes (fiscal policy). Trouble is, this time interest rates are already as low as they can go, meaning virtually all the stimulus will have to come from fiscal policy – the budget.

This standard approach assumes the imbalance between demand and supply is essentially “cyclical” – caused by short-term factors. But we shouldn’t forget that, before the virus arrived out of the blue, we were struggling to explain why, at least since the global financial crisis more than a decade ago, economic growth had been much weaker than we’d been used to.

This was true in Australia where, except for a year or two, the growth in real gross domestic product – our production of goods and services - had fallen well short of our potential growth rate of 2.75 per cent a year. But it was just as true of most other advanced economies.

The fact that this weak growth had gone on for most of a decade, and applied to so many countries, was a pretty clear sign the imbalance between supply and demand wasn’t just cyclical – short-term – but was “structural”: long-lasting.

The symptoms of weakness included weak growth in wages, consumer spending and business investment, without much improvement in the productivity (efficiency) of our production process. Because the old word for structural was “secular”, economists called this phenomenon “secular stagnation”. But Mervyn King, a former governor of the Bank of England, prefers to say we’re caught in a “low-growth trap”.

Why are we caught in a protracted period of weak growth? Because aggregate demand has gone for a decade failing to keep up with the growth in aggregate supply – our potential (but not our reality) to produce goods and services.

The evidence that demand isn’t keeping up with supply is unusually low inflation and low growth in real wages. Also the weak rate of improvement productivity – although this also means supply isn’t growing as strongly as it used to, either.

But the ultimate evidence of secular stagnation is that interest rates have been so close to zero for so long. Interest rates are just another price. Why are they so low? Because the supply of money savers are making available to be borrowed exceeds the demand for those funds by people wanting to invest.

The debate over the possible reasons why aggregate demand is chronically falling short of aggregate supply is a fascinating subject for another day. What’s clear is that recovering from this cyclical recession won’t eliminate our pre-existing structural weakness.

It’s equally clear, however, that if the Morrison government isn’t prepared to use its budget to stimulate demand sufficiently, we won’t even achieve much of a recovery from the recession.

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Economy's need may run second to Morrison's spending hang-ups

Looking back, Scott Morrison's response to the coronavirus has been masterful on the medical side and, on the economic side, his willingness to spend money cushioning the job-threatening consequences of the lockdown was unstinting. But (and there had to be a but) with the economy's recovery far from assured I fear his nerve may be cracking.

The plain truth is that the only way out of deep recessions is for governments to spend their way out. But for a government as far to the right as Morrison's, spending money with enthusiasm is an unnatural act. It has an ideological objection to government spending which, it believes, is a necessary evil at best, and so should be kept to a minimum.

It claims to be motivated by the pursuit of Jobs and Growth but its "revealed preference", as economists say – not what it says, but what it does – is to prioritise the elimination of debt and deficit.

So great is its aversion to debt that the government is impervious to reason. Interest rates have been so low for so long that governments can borrow for 1 per cent or less. When you allow for an inflation rate of about 2 per cent, this means financial institutions (including your super fund) are willing to pay the government for the privilege of lending to it.

In which case, why not borrow as much as you need? Because that word "debt" just sounds so bad. And that debt will have to be repaid by our children. Actually, it won't be. Governments rarely repay debt. What they mainly do is roll it over while they wait for the economy to outgrow it, with help from inflation.

And ask yourself this: what do you think your kids would prefer to inherit? A bit more public debt or an economy that's been deeply recessed for a decade, with stagnant living standards, little opportunity to get ahead and stories about how much better things were in their parents' day.

Recessions always involve the private sector – businesses and households – contracting and the public sector expanding to take up the slack and get things moving again. In our particular circumstances, six years of weak wage growth and record household housing debt mean consumers have little scope to start spending big.

For their part, businesses won't spend on expansion until they see a reason to. Morrison's notion of incentivising business with investment tax breaks, changes to wage fixing and cuts in red tape is magical thinking.

That leaves it up to the government to keep spending until the private sector has the wherewithal to spend. Without a government-laid foundation, believing in a "business-led recovery" is believing the economy runs on spontaneous combustion.

I suspect Morrison has looked at our prospective budget deficits and taken fright. Paradoxically, although he readily agreed to the JobKeeper wage subsidy scheme when told it would cost $130 billion, when Treasury realised it wouldn't take nearly as much to "flatten the curve" as the epidemiologists had led it to expect and so cut the cost to $70 billion, Morrison saw this as a miraculous escape from the sin of profligacy.

The ideologically pure end of his own party started urging him to spend no more. And this week he started talking about the need to find budgetary savings.

This would be completely contrary to the advice he received only last week from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development that "there is ample fiscal space to support the economic recovery as needed". This is the OECD's way of saying "if you Aussies think you have a frightening level of debt, you're kidding yourselves". The International Monetary Fund says the same.

The OECD continues: "The scarring effects of unemployment – especially for young workers – should be alleviated through education and training, as well as enhancing job search programs. Firms should continue to be supported ... The authorities should be considering further stimulus that may be needed once existing measures expire ... Such support should focus on improving resilience and social and physical infrastructure, including strengthening the social safety net and investing in energy efficiency and social housing."

To be fair, should Morrison turn from spending to cutting before the economy has fully recovered, he'd be no more disastrously wrong-headed than Britain's David Cameron and other European leaders after the global financial crisis, when they started tightening their budgets too soon and condemned their countries to a decade of weak growth.

You can see Morrison's change of tack in his poorly received HomeBuilder package. Reviving the housing industry is a standard part of the response to every recession, but this is the package you have when you're only pretending to have a package.

It's too small to make much difference and the deadlines for its $25,000 grants are so tight few people are likely to qualify. Glaring by its absence was any mention of spending on social housing.

But this raises another of the Libs' hang-ups. They oppose government spending in general, but spending that helps the needy in particular.

Monday, June 15, 2020

Morrision's report: high marks so far, but now the hard part

There are more ways than one for Scott Morrison still to stuff up the virus crisis. And in seeking to avoid such a calamity he’d do well to remember a rule followed by all successful leaders: don’t believe your own bulldust.

It’s become increasingly clear that Morrison’s handling of the corona crisis has benefited greatly from his disastrous handling of the bushfires. Obviously, he resolved not to make the same mistakes twice – and he hasn’t.

He was too slow to appreciate the magnitude of the political, environmental and human consequences of the fires. And by the time he did, it was too late. But when the medicos gave him the classic Treasury advice to "go early, go hard", he took it.

When you’re dealing with "exponential" growth, starting a week or two earlier than you might have can make all the difference. And it has. Morrison’s entitled to be terribly proud of our success in suppressing the virus, which compares well against all the big advanced economies.

With the bushfires, Morrison was wrong to see them as primarily a state responsibility. What the constitution says and what voters think aren’t always aligned. A good rule for prime ministers is that any problem that affects more than one state is a problem the electorate will hold the feds responsible for. Which is fair enough when you remember it’s the feds who control the purse strings.

In our federation, most problems involve shared federal and state responsibilities. Health and education are key examples. In which case, Mr Moneybags should always take the lead. Morrison’s masterstroke solution in the case of the virus was the national cabinet – though I share the scepticism of the former premier who doubted that the unity would last once we’d all stopped singing Kumbaya.

Another reaction to the fires failure, I reckon, was Morrison’s decision to under-promise and over-deliver. This fitted with the epidemiologists who, having to predict the consequences of a new virus about whose characteristics they knew little, seem to have decided to err on the high side.

For his part, Morrison left us with the impression the lockdown would last six months, and didn’t discourage the econocrats from predicting that gross domestic product would fall by 10 per cent and the rate of unemployment would double to 10 per cent.

It now seems clear it won’t be as bad as that. We’ll learn this week whether the fall in employment in the four weeks to mid-May was anything like as bad as in the four weeks to mid-April. We may well have seen the worst of it – at least until the JobKeeper wage subsidy scheme winds up in late September.

But having to wait until mid-June to know where we were a month earlier is frustratingly slow in this uniquely fast-moving recession. The "weekly activity tracker" – based on high frequency data such as restaurant bookings, confidence, retail foot traffic, hotel bookings, credit card usage, etcetera – used by Dr Shane Oliver, of AMP Capital, suggests the economy hit bottom in mid-April and has now risen for eight weeks in a row.

The medicos hate it when I say this, but my guess is that suppressing the virus will prove to be the easy half of the problem. Getting the economy back to being anything like where it was in December is a much harder ask, demanding first-rate judgment from Morrison’s econocrat advisers and Morrison having the humility to take that advice and suppress his instinct to play political favourites.

This is where he must resist the temptation to believe his own political bulldust. Exhibit A: the claim that we entered the crisis from a "position of strength". This is the very opposite of the truth, which is why restoring the economy to healthy growth will be exceptionally hard. The key problem is six years of weak wage growth, which the recession is making even weaker.

Exhibit B: Morrison’s belief that, come the election in early 2022, voters won’t blame him for still-high unemployment and weak growth because they’ll remember with gratitude his sterling performance in averting their own deaths. If only.

Exhibit C: Morrison’s belief that supply-side economic reform aimed at raising the economy’s "potential" growth rate in the medium to longer term is an adequate substitute for demand-side budgetary stimulus in the short term.

That yet more tinkering with the tax system and the wage-fixing system is what will give us "business-led growth" out of recession. That’s not economics, it’s rent-seeking propaganda you mouth while swinging one for your big-business donors. Jobs and growth – yay!

Actually believe such tosh and you’re dead meat.

Saturday, June 13, 2020

The tables have turned in our economic dealings with the world

If you know your economic onions, you know that our economy has long run a deficit in trade with the rest of the world which, when you add our net payments of interest and dividends to foreigners, means we’ve long run a deficit on the current account of our balance of payments and, as a consequence, have a huge and growing foreign debt.

Except that this familiar story has been falling apart for the past five years, and is no longer true. In that time, our economic dealings with the rest of the world have been turned on their head.

Last week the Australian Bureau of Statistics announced that we’d actually run a surplus on the current account of $8.4 billion in March quarter. Does that surprise you? It shouldn’t because it was the fourth quarterly surplus in a row.

But that should surprise you because the first of those surpluses, for the June quarter last year, was the first surplus in 44 years. And now we’ve clocked up four in a row, that’s the first 12-month surplus we’ve run since 1973.

Of course, when the balance on a country’s current account turns from deficit to surplus, its net foreign liabilities to the rest of the world stop going up and start going down.

What’s brought about this remarkable transformation? Various factors, the greatest of which is our decade-long resources boom, which occurred because the rapid development of China’s economy led to hugely increased demand for our coal, natural gas and iron ore.

A massive rise in the world prices of those commodities, which began in 2004 and continued until 2011, prompted a boom in the construction of new mines and gas facilities which peaked in 2013. From then on, the volume of our exports of minerals and energy grew strongly as new mines came online.

But while our mining exports expanded greatly, the completion of the new mines and gas facilities meant a fall in our extensive imports of expensive mining equipment. As a consequence, our balance of trade in goods and services – which between 1980 and 2015 averaged a deficit equivalent to 1.25 per cent of gross domestic product – has been in surplus ever since.

The rise of China’s middle class gets much of the credit for another development that’s helped our trade balance: strong growth in our exports of services, particularly inbound tourism and the sale of education to overseas students.

When our country has gone since white settlement as a net importer of foreign financial capital – which has been necessary because our own savings haven’t been sufficient to fund all the physical investment needed to take full advantage of our country’s huge potential for economy development – it’s not surprising we have a lot of foreign investment in Australian businesses and have borrowed a lot of money from foreigners.

In which case, it’s not surprising that every quarter we have to pay foreigners a lot more in interest and dividends on their investments in our economy than they have to pay us on our investments in their economies.

This “net income deficit” – which is the other main component of the current account - has grown enormously since the breakdown of the post-World War II “Bretton Woods” system of fixed exchange rates prompted us to float our dollar in 1983 and started a revolution in banks and businesses in one country lending and investing in other countries, including the rise of multinational corporations.

That was when Australia’s net foreign debt started rising rapidly and the net income deficit began to dominate our current account. The net income deficit has averaged a massive 3.4 per cent of GDP since the late 1980s.

It hasn’t changed much since the tables started turning five years ago. Except for one thing. The rapid growth in our superannuation funds since the introduction of compulsory employee super in the early 1990s has seen so much Australian investment in the shares of foreign companies that, since 2013, the value of our “equity” investment in other countries’ companies has exceeded the value of more than two centuries of other countries’ investment in our companies.

At March 31, Australia had net foreign equity assets worth $338 billion. You’d expect this to have significantly reduced our quarterly net income deficit, but it hasn’t. Why not? Because the dividends we earn on our investments in foreign companies aren’t as great as the dividends foreigners earn on their ownership of our companies. Why not? Because our hugely profitable mining industry is three-quarters foreign-owned.

If you add our net foreign equity assets and our net foreign debt to get our net foreign liabilities, they’ve been falling as a percentage of GDP for the past decade. If you look at the absolute dollar amount, just since December 2018 it’s fallen by more than 20 per cent.

If all this sounds too good to be true, it’s certainly not as good as it looks. The final major factor helping to explain the improvement in our external position is the weakness in the economy over the 18 months before the arrival of the virus shock.

The alternative way to see what’s happening in our dealings with the rest of the world is to focus on what’s happening to national saving relative to national (physical) investment. That’s because the difference between how much the nation saves and how much it invests equals the balance on the current account.

Turns out that national investment has fallen in recent times (business investment is weak, home building has collapsed and government investment in infrastructure is falling back) while national saving has increased (households have been saving more, mining companies have been retaining much of their high profits, and governments have been increasing their operating surpluses).

So much so that the nation is now saving more than it’s investing, giving us a current account surplus. But this is a recipe for weaker not faster “jobs and growth”.

Wednesday, June 10, 2020

Time to dig deep for those who haven't had a good crisis

Do the initials EOFY mean anything to you? It’s a relatively new abbreviation, but it’s become so widely used by marketers anxious to squeeze in one last bargain sale before their books close that you probably don’t need me to tell you it stands for end of the financial year.

It’s also become a standby for our tax-deductible charities which, at this time of year, are busy mailing their supporters to subtly remind them that a generous donation or two in the next few weeks would do much to fatten the refund cheque that’s the reward awaiting us when we’ve submitted our tax return.

As an accountant who’s highly conscious of what’s tax deductible and what’s not – and who, in earlier times, did his share of knocking on doors, selling buttons on button day and rattling a collection box at the entrance to the show, but drew the line at helping his father sell the War Cry newspaper in pubs – EOFY looms large on my to-do list in the next few weeks.

It’s years since I’ve helped with the Salvos’ Red Shield appeal but, in any case, no house-to-house collection day was possible this year, for obvious reasons. Which is a pity since it means the Salvos will have a lot less ability to help those it always finds needing assistance, let alone the surge in families caught short by a recession likely to be still blighting many people’s lives long after Scott Morrison and Josh Frydenberg have triumphantly declared recovery and withdrawn their extra financial support.

Thinking about it, tax deductibility is a way that we mere mortals can oblige our political masters to divert more taxpayer support to those causes to which we attach more importance than the pollies seem to. And, if that’s your motivation, the knowledge that much of what you give will be coming back to you should prompt you to give a lot more than you first thought of.

Of course, the Salvos are far from the only charity caught short by their reliance on volunteer funding drives. A report published last week by Social Ventures Australia and the Centre for Social Impact at the University of NSW is a reminder that, apart from social distancing’s disruption of volunteering and fundraising events, donations always suffer when economic times are tough.

There are more than 57,000 charities registered with the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission. Before the recession they employed about 1.3 million people – one worker in 10 – and had 3.7 million volunteers.

Charities provide a huge range of services to the community: education, health care, sport and recreation, legal services, arts and culture, animal protection, environmental protection and much else.

Governments rely on charities to deliver services on their behalf: aged care, disability services, employment services (replacing the old Commonwealth Employment Service) and childcare and early learning.

Governments also rely on charities to fill in the gaps in their systems. When the dole was only $40 a day – to which Morrison says he’ll soon revert – they could be sure no one would starve because the Salvos, Vinnies and Mission Australia would be there to give them a feed or a food parcel.

All those homeless people on the street? The Salvos, Vinnies and Mission Australia will do what they can. Maybe those people enjoy sleeping in parks and under railway bridges – especially in summer.

People who get themselves deep in debt with multiple credit cards and pay-day lenders? Not to worry. I hear the Salvos have an excellent financial counselling service.

Most charities have few reserves to fall back on when donations fall short. The report by Social Ventures Australia took a sample of 16,000 charities with 1.2 million employees and found that, should their revenue fall by 20 per cent, 88 per cent of them would immediately be making an operating loss, with 17 per cent at high risk of closing their doors within six months. More than 200,000 jobs could be lost as a result of cost-cutting and closures.

To be fair, the Morrison government has modified its JobKeeper wage subsidy scheme so as to include charities and their employees, though the scheme is set to expire in September.

Mitchell Evans, leader of the Salvos’ Sydney Streetlevel mission, says they are expecting “an avalanche of need in the months to come, as the government’s JobKeeper and additional funds under JobSeeker [unemployment benefits] conclude”.

His mission in Surry Hills has already seen a 60 per cent increase in demand for its meal services, and now provides 80 takeaway lunches every day.

At Major Brendan Nottle’s Project 614 in Bourke Street, Melbourne (where my cousin Barry is working), demand for emergency relief has now tripled to 90 people a day. “We’ve particularly seen more men coming to us for help, often with a mate, as they’re embarrassed and don’t really know how to ask for help,” Nottle says.

As Morrison cuts back to be sure of affording the huge tax cuts he’s promised high income-earners like me in 2024, kicking the tin’s the least I can do.

Monday, June 8, 2020

Economy to blame for part of the expected budget blowout

When you ask people who work in the House with the Flag on Top why the budget deficit has gone up or gone down, most will tell you it’s gone up because the government decided to spend more money, or it’s gone down because the government decided to spend less money.

When you live in Canberra, the budget looms large and the economy is something far distant in Melbourne or Sydney or somewhere. The budget is the steering wheel by which those in the national capital control the economy of you and me, they think.

When you consider how close they live to all the economists in Treasury and all the distinguished economists at the Australian National University, it's surprising how little so many Canberrans understand about the economy.

The truth is, the nation’s economy – almost all of which exists outside the ACT – is far bigger and more powerful than the budget of the federal government (even after you throw in the budgets of the eight states and territories).

So, though it’s true that changes in the federal budget can have a big influence on what happens in the economy, it’s just as true that what happens in the economy can have a big influence on what happens to the budget.

To be clear, there’s a two-way relationship between the big thing that is the economy and the much smaller thing that is the budget. What’s done to the budget affects the economy, but what you and I - and the businesses we mainly work for - do to the economy has a big effect on the budget.

On how much tax we end up having to pay, and on the benefits – in kind as well as cash – the government has to pay us. How many kids we have and send to school. Whether they decide to go on to university or TAFE. How old we get and need the age pension and go to doctors and hospitals more often. Whether we lose our jobs and need to be supported by the dole. And all the rest.

With the virus and the consequent recession changing everything, this week we were supposed to get an emergency update on the state of the economy and the budget from Treasurer Josh Frydenberg. But he’s put it off until late next month.

Not to worry. On Friday the independent Parliamentary Budget Office stepped into the breach and produced “medium-term fiscal projections” of the effect of the coronavirus and the policy response to it.

Starting with the forecasts in the mid-year update published in December as its base, it used the Reserve Bank’s recently published forecasts for the economy (in lieu of Treasury’s) to estimate the expected change in the federal budget’s receipts, payments and underlying cash balance brought about by the crisis.

Its headline finding was that the crisis may cause the federal government’s net public debt to be between $500 billion and $620 billion higher than it would otherwise have been by 2029-30. That would be equivalent to between 11 and 18 per cent of gross domestic product.

But no one knows what the future holds, and projections 10 years into the future are so speculative as to be useless. They’re actually a bad thing because they give the uninitiated (including the politicians) a false sense of certainty.

The report’s way of putting this is to say its results are “indicative only” – which is an econocrats’ way of saying that, at best, they give you a rough idea of what might happen. So let’s just focus on the guesstimates for this (almost over) financial year and the next two, ending with 2021-22.

They show the budget deficit for this financial year is now expected to be $67 billion worse than formerly expected. The budget balance for the coming financial year may be $191 billion worse and for 2021-22 may be $56 billion worse. That’s a total deterioration of $314 billion.

Now, the explicit policy decisions of the government in response to the virus are expected to account for only $187 billion of that total. This accounts for almost all the expected increase in government payments, leaving the expected fall of $126 billion in tax collections and other receipts making up the remainder.

Get it? About 40 per cent of the overall deterioration came from the recession, caused by the fall in tax collections – individuals earning less income and paying less income tax; companies earning lower profits and paying less company tax; consumers buying less and paying less goods and services tax – leaving the government’s own actions accounting only for the remaining 60 per cent.

As economists put it, about 60 per cent of the expected deterioration in the budget balance over three years is “structural”, whereas 40 per cent is “cyclical” – meaning it will fix itself as the economy recovers.

Saturday, June 6, 2020

Virus lockdown pushes already weak economy into recession

If you needed the news that the economy contracted in the March quarter or Treasurer Josh Frydenberg’s official admission that, because Treasury expects the present quarter to be much worse, we are now in recession, go to the bottom of the class. Sorry, but you just don’t get it.

To anyone who can tell which side is up, what characterises a recession is not what happens to gross domestic product in two successive quarters or even half a dozen, it’s what happens to employment.

The role of the economy is to provide 13 million Australians with their livelihoods. When it falters in that role, that’s what we really care about. We call it a recession, and it’s why just hearing that word should frighten the pants off you. It means hundreds of thousands – maybe millions – of families will be in hardship, anxiety and fear about the future, which could go on for months and months.

So you should have been in no doubt that the economy was in recession from the day, weeks ago, you turned on the telly to see footage of hundreds of people queueing round the block to get into Centrelink and register for unemployment benefits – the JobSeeker payment as it’s now called.

The statistical confirmation of recession came not this week, but more than three weeks ago when the Australian Bureau of Statistics issued labour force figures showing that, in just the four weeks to mid-April, the number of Australians with jobs fell by an unprecedented 600,000.

What more proof did you need? There was more. The total number of hours worked during the month fell by more than 9 per cent. Also unprecedented. In consequence, the rate of under-employment (mainly part-timers wishing to work more hours than they are) leapt by almost 5 percentage points to 13.7 per cent. “Gee, do you think a recession might be coming?”

Of course, what happens to jobs is closely related to what happens to GDP – the volume of goods and services being produced during a period. When firms or government agencies decide to reduce the goods or services they’re producing, it’s a safe bet they’ll also reduce the number of workers they need to help with the producing.

No, my point is just, don’t get the monkey confused with the organ-grinder. We don’t need GDP to tell us whether we’re in recession, we need it to help us understand why we’re in recession and which aspects and industries are most affected.

So let’s start again. The “national accounts” issued by the bureau this week showed real GDP fell by 0.3 per cent in the March quarter so that the economy grew by only 1.4 per cent over the year to March.

To put that 0.3 per cent fall into context, had the economy continued growing at its previous rate it would have increased by about 0.5 per cent. So it’s a fall of 0.8 per cent from what might have occurred. A bit of that fall is explained by the bushfires, but most of it by the early stages of the economic response to the coronavirus – particularly the travel bans and first two weeks of the lockdown.

The largest factor explaining the actual fall is consumer spending, which fell by 1.1 per cent and so contributed minus 0.6 percentage points to the overall fall of 0.3 per cent. Some of this fall was involuntary (as the early days of the lockdown closed many businesses and prevented housebound families from getting out to shop), but much would have been deliberate, as households tightened their belts in anticipation of tough times to come.

Investment spending on new homes and alterations continued to fall – by 1.7 per cent – and business investment spending fell by 0.8 per cent. So, all told, the private sector’s subtraction from growth increased to 0.8 percentage points.

In contrast, government consumption spending (which included spending related to the bushfires and the virus) grew by 1.8 per cent. Add modest growth in infrastructure spending and the public sector made a positive contribution of 0.3 percentage points to the overall fall in GDP during the quarter.

Apart from a fall in inventories that subtracted 0.3 points from the overall change, that leaves “net exports” (exports minus imports) making a positive contribution of 0.5 percentage points. But that’s not as good as it sounds. The volume of our exports actually fell by 3.5 per cent, so we got a positive contribution only because the volume of imports fell by more.

The main factor influencing trade was the travel bans, which hit inbound tourism and incoming overseas students (both exports) and hit outbound tourism (an import) harder. We’re a net importer of tourism.

You see happening in this recession what happens in every recession: it’s the private sector that contracts, whereas the public sector (via federal and state budgets) expands to fill the vacuum. The extent to which governments apply “fiscal stimulus” and allow their budget deficits to rise has a big influence on how severe the recession is, how high unemployment goes and how long it takes to get everyone back to work.

Frydenberg claimed on Wednesday that the economy entered the crisis “from a position of strength”. This is simply untrue. People will stop believing what the Treasurer says if he continues playing so lightly with the truth.

The truth comes from economist David Bassanese of BetaShares: “Let’s not forget the economy was already struggling before the virus crisis due to a downturn in housing construction, weak business investment and tapped out consumer spending. Those fundamental challenges have not gone away, and the shock of COVID-19 has only exacerbated them.”

The truth Frydenberg is so unwilling to face up to is that, with the private sector already so weak, we were relying on the federal and state budgets to prop up the economy for many quarters before the virus arrived. Pretending otherwise won’t create a single job.

Wednesday, June 3, 2020

Many illusions performed in the name of creating jobs

How on earth can someone get to be Treasurer of our oldest state and yet say something as uncomprehending as that he has to freeze NSW public servants’ wages so he can use the money to create jobs? Fortunately, Victoria’s Treasurer is better educated.

So, for the benefit of Dominic Perrottet, Economics 101, lesson 1: every dollar that’s spent by governments, businesses, consumers or the most despised welfare recipient helps to create jobs. And don’t tell me that, as well as creating jobs directly, your pet project will also create jobs indirectly. That’s also true of every dollar spent.

In high school economics it’s called “the circular flow of income”. They ought to write a song about it: the money goes round and round. That’s because what’s a cost to an employer is income to their employee. And when that employee spends part of their wage in another employer’s business, that cost to the employee becomes income to the other business. (I know it’s complicated, but stick with it.)

You have to be a duly elected politician to believe that only dollars that are spent by governments, bearing the label “job creation”, do the trick – preferably with a ribbon to cut while the cameras roll.

Perrottet claims that “everything for me is jobs, jobs, jobs”. He’s certainly right to believe that the political survival of every government – state or federal – will depend on their success in getting people back to work after this terrible, government-ordered recession. And it won’t be easy.

But if he cared as much about jobs as he claims to, he’d raise state public sector wages by 2.5 per cent as normal and spend big on his specific, look-at-moy, look-at-moy job creation projects.

If it’s all so important, why must one form of job creation be sacrificed to pay for another? Why must Peter be robbed to pay Paul? Perrottet says “this is not about the budget. This is not about savings”.

Really? Then what is it about? Well, one possibility is that it’s about party prejudices. Perrottet hails from the Liberal tribe, whose members tend to regard people who work for the government as overpaid and underworked. If private sector workers are likely to miss out on a pay rise this year, those tribe members might be pretty unhappy about seeing nurses and teachers and pen-pushers escape unscathed.

But I suspect the real reason is Perrottet’s unreal fear of debt and, more particularly, of having the state’s triple-A credit rating downgraded. In the old days, governments worried a downgrading would mean having to pay higher interest rates on their bonds. But these days rates are already so close to zero you couldn’t see the difference with a magnifying glass.

So why are our politicians – state and federal – willing to cede their sovereignty to a bunch of American rating agencies, whose creditability was smashed in the global financial crisis? Not only did they fail to see it coming, they contributed to it by selling triple-A ratings to business borrowers whose debt was later found to be “toxic”.

So why? Because the pollies live in fear of the drubbing they’d take from the other political tribe. Unfortunately, Labor is as much into playing cheap tit-for-tat politics as are the Libs. Being downgraded by a bunch of Yanks on the make is, we’re always assured, the ultimate proof of economic incompetence. Yeah, sure.

Turning to the private sector, its long-established practice is for annual pay rises to be forgone during recessions. Despite the Victorian government’s support for a 3 per cent increase in national minimum and award wages, the Fair Work Commission is likely to follow precedent and give it a miss. The Morrison government wouldn’t have the gumption to propose otherwise.

Individual big businesses will press their unions to skip a beat, and workers afraid they could be next on the dole queue won’t be inclined to argue. Economic orthodoxy says it’s never smart to raise the price of something – labour, in this case – when you’re not selling enough of it. (It’s just a pity there’s so little empirical evidence to support this over-simplified model of how the job market works.)

One of the troubles with recessions is they encourage counter-productive behaviour. Fearful of losing my job, I cut my spending and save as much as I can. But when everyone does the same, we all suffer.

It’s the same with wages. When business is weak and profits are down, it makes sense to keep your wage bill low. But when every business does it, the result is no growth in the wages your customers use to buy your product and get you back to health and strength. Allow you to employ a few more people even.

What gets me is that their “debt and deficit” phobia stops even the Liberals from seeing that, at times like this, the role of the public sector is to do whatever it takes to rescue their mates in the private sector (which includes you and me). Even the business lobby groups don’t seem to get it.