Saturday, August 22, 2020

It may be a terrible recession, but it could have been worse

In economics, everything is relative. Relative to you, the coronacession is likely to be the worst economic disaster you’ll experience in your lifetime. Relative to Australia, it is – as the media (including yours truly) keep telling us – the worst recession since the Great Depression of the 1930s.

But, as a report published this week by the Lowy Institute reminds us, there’s another side of the story. Relative to what we were expecting initially, the recession isn’t as bad as feared. And relative to many other developed economies, we’ve got off lightly.

The report is by Dr John Edwards, a former member of the Reserve Bank board. Perhaps in reaction to his former career as a journalist, Edwards has a penchant for highlighting the aspects of an economic story his former colleagues have tended to gloss over. Which means he finds the not-so-bad bits – and so is always worth hearing from.

How badly a country is suffering economically is largely a function of how well it responded to the pandemic. Those that followed the medicos' injunction to "go early, go hard" have done better than those that procrastinated. Fortunately, and thanks in large part to Scott Morrison’s leadership, we’re in the former group.

Edwards says that, because of our early success in controlling the virus, the "pandemic in Australia is fading sooner and with less economic damage than expected. While the secondary wave of infection in Victoria is a big setback and there may yet be other regional or local outbreaks, the economic recovery already evident is set to continue."

The pandemic "from which Australia is now emerging was the most abrupt, savage and frightening economic shock in the lifetime of most Australians. But the jolt was also short and unexpectedly shallow."

If you judge it by the progress of the economy’s output (real gross domestic product), you may not be convinced the recovery has begun. But judging it by the state of the jobs market, which is what matters most, leaves little doubt.

The best measure of the immediate employment response is the total number of hours worked in the economy. Between March and April we experienced an astonishingly swift fall of 9 per cent. The following month it fell by less than 1 per cent. In June, however, it rose by 4 per cent. The 1.3 per cent rise in July signals a slowdown in the rate of the jobs recovery.

So in July we were still down 5 per cent on July 2019. But here's Edwards’ other way of looking at it: "Through the four months of what was widely portrayed as a general economic cessation, a large proportion of Australian employees kept working.

"New networking technologies permitted most office work to be performed at home. Mining and farming continued. So did much of manufacturing and construction. Electricity, gas and water utilities employees kept their jobs.

"Throughout Australia, public servants continued working, often at home. Tradespeople, cleaners and gardeners more often than not were working. Most health employees remained on the job, busier than ever. Childcare facilities remained open in most places and, where necessary, classroom teaching continued remotely. Media workers struggled to keep up with the demand for news and entertainment.

"The economic cessation, such as it was, centred on restaurants, clubs, pubs and accommodation, discretionary retail such as clothing and furniture, local and international travel, sports, entertainment, and the arts.

"Take-up of the JobKeeper program, which helped businesses retain employees, was far lower than expected because the economic damage was less than expected. All up, most of the Australian workforce remained on the job, either from their usual place of work or from home."

Surprisingly, most of the economic downturn took the unusual form of a sudden cessation in household consumption.

While it’s true that colleges and universities have been hurt by the suspension of foreign student arrivals, Edwards says the majority of international students living in Australia before the pandemic stayed. Indeed, many of them had little choice. Quarantines will remain necessary, but plans are now being made to permit the resumption of student arrivals.

More than nine million foreigners, mostly tourists, visited Australia last year. The number arriving since March this year is “scarcely worth counting," he admits. The resumption of mass foreign travel, unimpeded by quarantine, awaits not only the discovery and approval of a vaccine, but also its worldwide distribution in millions of doses.

But get this: in the short term, however, the suspension of normal international travel actually adds to Australia’s gross domestic product. That’s because Australians’ spending abroad exceeds foreigners’ spending in Australia.

Now, compare how we’ve fared with how the other rich countries have. Taking total coronavirus deaths as a proportion of the population, Edwards calculates that our rate is less than a thirtieth of the rates for the United States and Britain.

So it’s little wonder our economy hasn’t been as badly hit. Using the forecasts of the International Monetary Fund, the economic contraction in the United States, the whole of the Euro area, Britain and Canada will be twice the size of our contraction.

Global economic growth will be lower than it would otherwise have been for years to come. And, "while unemployment will be the principal domestic problem, the changing global context will also shape the Australian economy for years to come", Edwards predicts.

Doesn’t sound good. But he has found a silver lining: “The impact for Australia of lower global demand and production is mitigated because three-quarters of its goods exports are to East Asia, a region that is growing faster than Europe or the United States and which, in most cases, has handled the pandemic well.

"While world output [gross world product] will contract nearly 5 per cent in 2020 on IMF forecasts, developing Asian countries will contract by less than 1 per cent."

For us, it all could have been much worse.
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Wednesday, August 19, 2020

We've been electing governments that damage our kids' future

One of the most dismal ideas for our youth to entertain is that their lives won't be as comfortable as their parents'. Everyone in the older generation knows how much their lives have improved over the decades, and how much better off we are than our parents were.

We've come to regard continuous improvement in living standards and quality of life over the generations as part of the natural order. Our pay-off for living in a capitalist economy.

So how can our kids have become so pessimistic about the future? How can they imagine their parents would allow such an appalling prospect to befall their offspring? Isn't improving their kids' chances in life a big part of the reason parents work so hard?

Isn't it why so many parents pay so much to send their kids to private schools? Isn't preserving their kids' inheritance the reason the well-off retired fought so hard against Labor's plan to take away their dividend franking credits?

How could any government that presided over a significant deterioration in our children's prospects hope to survive?

Trouble is, the kids are right to be so pessimistic. We can't know what the future holds, but we do know that various trends in that direction are well-established.

And the plain truth is that one way governments have got themselves elected and re-elected in recent decades has been to pursue policies that favour the old and don't worry about the young.

Politicians have been tempting us to put our immediate interests ahead of our offspring's future – and it's worked a treat.

This week the Actuaries Institute of Australia published a new index of intergenerational equity, which compares the "wealth and wellbeing" of people aged 65 to 74 with that of people aged 25 to 34 between 2000 and 2018.

Note that this is before any effect of the coronacession. And remember that the faces in these two aged groups keep changing as people age. No one who was between 65 and 74 in 2000 is still in that group now.

Since the Baby Boomers were born between 1946 and 1964, probably more than half of them were in the 65 to 74 age range by 2018. And the Millennials were joining the 25 to 34-year-olds.

The actuaries have divided "wealth and wellbeing" into six "domains": economic and fiscal (allocated a subjective weighting of 30 per cent in the index), health and disability (20 per cent), social (including rates of homelessness, incarceration and being a victim of robbery; 15 per cent), environment (15 per cent), education (10 per cent) and housing (10 per cent).

The scores for people aged 65 to 74 in 2000 were given an index value of 100. In the same year, the scores of people aged 25 to 34 amounted to 70. It's hardly surprising that people 40 years younger have significantly lower scores. They've had much less time to gain promotion, earn, save and pay off a home (or even receive an inheritance).

No, what matters more is how the two groups' scores have changed over time. Over the 18 years, the older group's score has risen to 115, whereas the younger group's score has fallen to 69.

Turning to the size of the young's deficit relative to the old, it improved from minus 30 to minus 11 between 2000 and 2006 – presumably mainly because the young did well in the resources-boom-driven labour market – but then deteriorated to minus 20 by 2012.


That year, 2012, was when the resources boom started winding down. And it was when the Baby Boomers started reaching 65. Over just the six years to 2018, the young's deficit relative to the old worsened dramatically to minus 46.

But why has the position of the young relative to the old deteriorated so badly since 2006? Well, they've benefited from improving health, as life expectancy has increased and rates of disability have decreased.

They've benefited also from increasing levels of educational attainment and, socially, from modest reductions in the gender pay gap and falling rates of robbery (which affect the young more than the old).

But these gains have been more than countered by losses in other domains. In ascending order of loss, young people have suffered economically as, since the global financial crisis, education-leavers have taken much longer to find full-time jobs; government spending has been skewed towards older generations (higher spending on health, pensions and aged care, but less on the rate of unemployment benefits) and public debt has risen.

The young have suffered in housing, as the rate of home ownership for their age group has dropped from 51 per cent to 37 per cent over the past two decades. But their greatest loss (sure to grow in coming years) is from the deterioration in the natural environment: rising carbon emissions and temperatures, the drying Murray-Darling Basin and declining biodiversity.

And all these trends before the likely weak and prolonged recovery from the coronacession scars the careers and lives of another generation of education-leavers, without governments or voters being too worried about it.
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Monday, August 17, 2020

Tribal prejudices about wages guarantee a weak recovery

Neither side of politics wants to admit it, but it’s a safe bet that the economy’s recovery from the coronacession will be weak and slow until we get back to strong growth in wages.

Scott Morrison and the Liberals can’t admit it because it flies in the face of their tribe’s view that the unions have too much power, that wage rises are always economically damaging and that public servants are underworked and overpaid.

Meanwhile, Anthony Albanese and Labor can’t admit it because they live in fear of being portrayed as anti-business and because tribal loyalties mean they’ve taken on the union movement’s vested interest in ever-increasing compulsory super contributions.

Last week we learnt that, as measured by the wage price index, after growing by a weak 0.5 per cent or so per quarter for the past six years, wages grew by just 0.2 per cent in the June quarter, the first virus-affected quarter. This took annual growth down to 1.8 per cent.

Worse, wages in the private sector grew by just 0.1 per cent in the quarter. This included actual falls in some wage rates, those negotiated by individual arrangement with people in senior executive and highly paid jobs.

The Reserve Bank sees annual wage growth falling to 1.25 per cent by the end of this year, and staying there until the end of next year. By the end of 2022, it will have recovered only to its present well-below-par rate.

Wage growth is the key to recovery because wages are the greatest single driver of economic activity and employment. But rather than thinking of ways to get wages up, both sides are working on ways to slow them further.

Not that private sector employers will need any help. They always skip pay rises during recessions because, afraid of losing their jobs, workers know they’re in no position to argue.

But, while as individuals, firms benefit from cutting the real value of the wages they pay, when all of them do it at the same time, they all suffer because the nation’s households have less money to spend on the products of the nation’s businesses.

So what can governments do? Well, they can at least avoid doing anything that makes real wage growth any weaker. Federal and state governments can resist the temptation to cut the real wages of their own employees.

This helps sustain household income directly, but also indirectly because employer and employee judgments about what’s “a fair thing” are influenced by what other employers are doing – that is, by wage “norms”.

State Labor governments have been as bad as Coalition governments in using weak growth in private sector wages as an excuse to slow the growth in their own wages. They haven’t, however, been as muddle-headed as the NSW government in freezing its public servants’ wages so as to “stimulate” their economy by using the saving to pay for additional infrastructure spending.

Robbing Peter to pay Paul ain’t stimulus. And the Australia Institute has used the Australian Bureau of Statistics’ “input-output tables” to show that whereas every $1 million spent by consumers (including public servants) generates 1.79 jobs directly, every $1 million spent on construction generates only 0.97 jobs.

But federal Labor is worse. It’s thrown its weight behind the for-profit and industry superannuation funds’ campaign to ensure the rate of compulsory employer super contributions is raised from 9.5 per cent of wages to 12 per cent over the next few years.

Labor and the unions have turned a blind eye to the theoretical and empirical evidence that employers largely recover the cost of super contributions by granting pay rises that are lower than otherwise.

So, at a time when we need workers to be spending as much as they can, and the rate of household saving is way too high, the labour movement wants workers to save an even higher proportion of their wage – even though the more we save the less jobs growth we get.

(The Grattan Institute’s Brendan Coates has demonstrated that the present contribution rate of 9.5 per cent is sufficient to yield workers a comfortable income in retirement, and that the Morrison government’s early release of super to distressed workers will have little effect on this because most of it will be made up by part-pension payments that are higher than otherwise.)

Finally, Morrison and the Liberals are working on plans to further “reform” the wage-fixing system by making changes that the employers want but the unions oppose. This would leave everyone better off, we’re told, by making the system more “flexible”.

At a time when the system is, if anything, too flexible – witness: so much part-time and casual labour, labour-hire, phoney self-employment, the “gig economy”, almost non-existent strikes, and six years of chronically weak wage growth – this could only increase employers’ power to keep wages low.

See what I mean? Wage growth looks set to stay even weaker than it was before the coronacession.
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Saturday, August 15, 2020

The last thing we need: neutering the free-trade referee

With the coronavirus putting the world economy into its worst dive in almost a century, it would help if the surviving trade in goods and services between countries was continuing in an orderly way. But, as if we didn’t have enough problems, the future of the international body responsible for ensuring free and fair trade, the World Trade Organisation, is in grave doubt.

The eternal temptation in international trade is protectionism: please buy all our exports, but we’ll be importing as few as possible of your exports. It’s tempting because, to the voters in every country, it seems just common sense to favour your own industries over their rivals in other countries.

Only when you’ve learnt a bit of economics – about the gains from specialisation and exchange, in particular – do your realise that first, it’s the consumers of the protected products and all the local industries you don’t protect who pick up the tab, and second, when you try to steal a march on other countries, they usually retaliate, which ends up meaning you’re both screwed.

That’s why the WTO was set up: to help its 164 member countries reduce their import duties (“tariffs” as economists call them) and other restrictions on imports, and then keep them down, so all the members are better off.

As explained in a report from the Lowy Institute, prepared by Dmitry Grozoubinski, a former trade negotiator with our Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, the WTO has three main roles.

First, the negotiation of successive “rounds” of mutual reductions in tariffs and import bans or quotas by all the members. After the establishment of the Geneva-based General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) after the end of World War II, eight multilateral rounds of reductions were negotiated.

In the early rounds, the members were mainly the developed countries and they concentrated on reducing the tariffs on manufactures that had built up in the 1930s as countries tried to use protection to end the Great Depression, but succeeded only in making it worse.

The result of the rounds was hugely increased trade between the rich countries, which many economists believe contributed greatly to the post-war period of rapid economic growth, rising living standards and full employment, but which ended with the coming of “stagflation” – high inflation and unemployment – in the mid-1970s.

By the “Uruguay round”, completed in 1994, the negotiations had broadened to cover textiles, agricultural subsidies, services and intellectual property. Many developing countries had joined the agreement and benefited from the liberalisation of trade in clothing and textiles, and rural products.

But the round’s most spectacular achievement was turning the GATT into the World Trade Organisation, still based in Geneva. Many more developing countries joined, as did China in 2001.

The WTO’s second role is to monitor member countries’ compliance with the rules agreed on during the rounds. One rule is that once a tariff reduction has been agreed on, it’s then “bound” and mustn’t be increased.

But the most important rule is “most favoured nation”: no other country should be given a special deal. So the lowest tariff you impose on some nation must be the one you impose on every other member. Another key rule is “national treatment”: imported and locally produced goods must be treated equally.

The point of these rules is to keep world trade both free and fair; to discourage countries from backsliding and help governments resist local pressure to revert to protection. In particular, to stop small countries being pushed around by big countries.

And so you see why a middle-size country like ours has much to gain from living in a world where every country sticks to the rules – and much to lose when the big boys on the block decide to start throwing their weight around.

The WTO’s third role is to formally adjudicate trade disputes between its member countries, thereby enforcing its rules. Serious disputes go to a court-like “dispute settlement body” and, if necessary, to an “appellate body”.

So, what’s the problem? Why is the WTO in deep trouble? Because, in Grozoubinski’s words, “all three pillars are wobbly, and had been long before the Trump administration started taking a sledgehammer to them. Unquestionably, however, the picture in 2020 is grim.”

The first role – negotiating further rounds of reduced barriers to trade – is, he says, “hopelessly stalled”. The “Doha round” was launched in 2001, but was unable to reach agreement, partly because it’s much harder for so many developed and developing countries to find common ground. The last attempt to make progress was in 2013.

Meanwhile, countries have shifted from seeking multilateral agreements to doing any number of bilateral (misnamed) “free-trade agreements,” which breach the spirit if not the letter of WTO rules such as “most favoured nation”.

The second role – monitoring members’ compliance with the rules – “relies on international peer pressure for the bulk of its enforcement,” but the world is in the grip of a trade war between the United States and China, meaning the US has gone from decades of getting everyone else to agree on sensible rules and stick by them to ignoring any rules it finds inconvenient in its quest to “make America great again”.

As for the third role – a binding dispute settlement mechanism – in December the US used a procedural blockade to render the WTO’s appellate body “impotent and unable to convene the required quorum of three panellists,” thus rendering the formerly legally binding system of arbitration optional.

If that wasn’t enough, the US is refusing to approve the organisation’s budget, and Congress has bills that would withdraw the US from the WTO (but which are unlikely to be passed). The outfit’s director-general has resigned, and any member could sabotage his replacement. The next conference of trade ministers has been delayed until at least 2021.

And all this is happening at a time of pandemic and escalating protectionism. Well done, chaps.
Read more >>

Wednesday, August 12, 2020

Technology is amazing, but human nature is unchanging

When momentous events such as the coronavirus pandemic occur, it's tempting to conclude they'll change our lives forever. Even if we don't think it, you can be sure there'll be some overexcited journalists saying it. Just as there were after the attack on the Twin Towers on 9/11 in 2001.

Even then I was too old to believe it would "change our lives forever" and – although it did have lasting effects on international relations and our fear of terrorism – it didn't really.

This time people are telling us we'll all be working from home (with city office blocks and streets turning into ghost towns), doing our shopping online, learning online, seeing doctors online, and no longer doing business travel.

Somehow, I doubt it will be that radical. But I don't doubt there'll be change in all those directions. Most of them were already happening as part of the continuing digital revolution, and this will accelerate those trends.

The revolution's usual pattern is to bring modest benefits – greater "functionality" (machines that do more and better tricks) and convenience – to an industry's customers, while turning the industry on its head, with considerable disruption to the lives of many of its workers.

There was a time when watching television meant seeing only what the few available channels happened to be showing at the time. These days, recorders and catch-up apps and a multitude of free-to-air and for-the-small-fee channels and streaming video have given us vastly more choice.

This has meant huge upheaval for the industry, but improved our lives only to a small extent – something we've soon come to take for granted.

Some people (and not just Victorians) are finding it hard to imagine the pandemic will ever be over. But, though we can't be sure when, it will end. And when it does, far more aspects of the way we live and work will go back to the way they were than will change forever.

Truth be told, and unless we do a lot more to correct it, the biggest and baddest continuing effect of the pandemic will be on the careers of young people leaving education during the recession and what looks like being a long and weak recovery.

Staying serious, we can expect more concern about problems in health than in education. More concern about physical health than mental health. More concern about the problems of the old than those of the young.

Nothing new about any of that – except that Scott Morrison's heroic condemnation of those on his own side of politics suggesting that the lives of the elderly should have been "offered up" in the interests of the economy sits oddly with his and all federal politicians' tolerance of decades-long neglect and misregulation of aged care.

(As economists make themselves unpopular by pointing out, every time politicians decide to spare taxpayers the expense of fixing a level-crossing or in some other way saving "just one person" they are implicitly putting a dollar value on human life. They do so on our behalf and we rarely tell them to stop doing it. The term "cognitive dissonance" comes to mind.)

But I'm determined to keep it light this week, so on with happy chat about the pros and cons of new technology.

It's worth remembering that advances in digital technology have made the lockdown and social distancing tolerable – indeed, doable – in a way that wouldn't have been possible 20 years ago. Far more of us work as "symbolic analysts" (people who spend all day making changes on a screen) these days. Get access to all the office's programs on your laptop at home? Easy. Zoom to endless and unending meetings? Feel free.

The virus is likely to hasten technology-driven change because the crisis has broken through our fear of the new and unfamiliar. Both workers and bosses now understand both the pros and the cons of working from home relative to working from work.

We've tried buying groceries online. Doctors, departments of finance and patients have overcome their hang-ups about telemedicine. Online learning suits uni students better than school pupils.

But all these things do have their advantages and disadvantages. And most of the disadvantages are social. For the human animal, social distancing is a deeply unnatural act. We get a lot of our emotional gratification from face-to-face contact.

We communicate more efficiently and we learn things we wouldn't otherwise learn that help us do our job better. Relationships with suppliers, customers and consultants work better when we come to know and like each other.

So I think we'll do more digital remote working, but not turn our working lives over to it. Surveys show most people would like to work from home some days a week, but not all week. Business people may do less travel between capital cities – it could easily become the latest business cost-cutting fad – but it would be amazing if executives stopped wanting to shake hands with the people they deal with.

Technology can change what we do, but it won't change human nature.
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Monday, August 10, 2020

'Extreme uncertainty' causes RBA's bright-side mask to slip

I can’t be sure, but the econocrats seem to have become uncertain about what they’re uncertain about. The one thing about which they’re not uncertain is how uncertain they are. And, of course, they’re no longer pretending to be certain it’ll all be fine.

Central bank governors take a professional pride in concealing whatever doubts and fears they have. Which is as it should be. Treasurers, on the other hand, have become so ruled by their young spin doctors they’re perpetually in bulldust-your-way-through mode.

Economists (and media economic commentators) always exude confidence about their knowledge of what lies ahead because they know that’s what the customer’s paying for. They’re like doctors who dispense pills not because they’ll work but because they’re what will make the patient feel good. At least until they’re out of the surgery.

Psychologists tell us the human animal is eternally seeking “the illusion of control”. We want to know what the future holds so we can – we fondly hope – control how it affects us. People ask me questions about the financial future. I explain why it’s not possible to know. They say: “Yes, I know that, Ross, but whaddya reckon?”

The new forecasts the Reserve Bank issued on Friday were significantly different to those it issued three months ago. Worse, they laughed at Treasury’s forecasts in the economic update just two weeks earlier.

The general story is that, thanks to the setback in Victoria, the upturn in the economy’s production (real gross domestic product) will now come later than expected, and be weaker. When Reserve governor Dr Philip Lowe says the recovery is “likely to be both uneven and bumpy” you can be confident he’s not exaggerating. “Uneven” means stronger in some states than others. “Bumpy” means not every post will be a winner.

Reading between the lines, the lockdown's full contractionary effect on GDP was expected to come in the June quarter (for which we’ll see the figures in three weeks’ time), with the recovery starting in the present September quarter.

The first quarter after the contraction should always be pretty strong (and, this time, particularly because the end of the lockdown meant people could get out, visit shops and restaurants and pubs), even if subsequent quarters aren’t as strong.

This time last week, the smart money was expecting the recovery in the September quarter to be followed by a contraction in the December quarter, as demand was hit by the wind back in the JobKeeper wage subsidy and the JobSeeker supplement.

Now, the September quarter recovery in the other states is likely to be overwhelmed by the effects of Victoria’s move to a harder lockdown. This, in turn, probably means there's less likely to be a further contraction in the December quarter – just continuing weakness. We do know that, in response to Victoria’s problems, Scott Morrison has modified JobKeeper at a cost of more than $15 billion.

Friday’s statement on monetary policy acknowledged “extreme uncertainty” about the course of the pandemic and, hence, its economic effects. In response to this uncertainty, the Reserve has moved from a single set of forecasts to three scenarios: baseline, upside and downside.

As explained by the Reserve’s assistant governor (economic), Dr Luci Ellis, in a webcast for the Australian Business Economists, the baseline scenario assumes that the rate of infection subsides, the tightening of restrictions in Victoria succeeds, there are no new lockdowns elsewhere, and restrictions are eased progressively over the rest of the year.

The upside scenario assumes the pace of decline in the number of cases is a bit faster than in the baseline, so the restrictions are eased a bit faster – like recent experience in the smaller states. People take more comfort from this and so confidence recovers faster than in the baseline.

Households are thus willing to spend more of the savings they accumulated during the first half of this year, compared with what’s assumed in the baseline scenario.

The downside scenario assumes that infection rates continue to escalate around the world this year and next. Australia faces a series of outbreaks and periods of stage three and four restrictions in some states. The result is further near-term weakness in economic activity. Confidence is damaged and so the recovery is much slower as well.

The other main point of variation between the three scenarios is how long Australia’s international borders remain closed. Three months ago, the Reserve was assuming travel restrictions would be lifted by the end of this year. In the new baseline and upside scenarios, it’s assumed that the borders reopen mid next year. In the downside scenario, it’s assumed continuing spread of the virus overseas causes our borders to be closed for the whole of next year.

There is, of course, another major source of uncertainly that the econocrats are too polite to mention: whether Morrison retains his pragmatic approach and keeps the government-spending tap open to fill whatever gaps emerge during the slow and troubled recovery, or succumbs to his ideological instincts and eschews further spending. My scenario: he’ll do more, but not enough.
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Saturday, August 8, 2020

People on the dole don't want a job? Don't believe it

When Scott Morrison introduced the "coronavirus supplement" that temporarily added $275 a week to the dole’s $40 a day, he explained this was to help those who’d be losing their jobs "through no fault of their own". But it wasn’t long before he was finding fault.

"We are getting a lot of anecdotal feedback from small businesses, even large businesses, where some of them are finding it hard to get people to come and take the shifts because they’re on these higher levels of payment," Morrison told 2GB radio.

"What we have to be worried about now is that we can’t allow the JobSeeker payment to become an impediment to people going out and doing work."

These views would explain his decision to slash the supplement to $125 a week after September, and continue it only to December. What happens after that is still to be decided. But recipients will be required to prove they’ve looked for at least one job a week and will have their dole suspended if they refuse to take a job offer considered suitable.

Of course, it wouldn’t have escaped Morrison’s notice that this "treat ’em mean to keep 'em keen" approach would also help with his worries about the ballooning budget deficit.

I can’t say I’m surprised to hear small business people saying that, despite all the talk of high unemployment, they can’t get people to take the jobs they need to fill. I've heard that in all the previous recessions I’ve worked through.

And, indeed, the practice of denigrating the jobless goes back at least as far as the Great Depression of the 1930s. Then, there were newspaper reports of huge dole frauds that threatened to cripple the system and of a lazy, chicken-eating family living in luxury on the dole.

There’s just one problem with all this. There’s no hard evidence to support these anecdotes, and growing evidence that paying decent rates of unemployment benefit doesn’t discourage people from taking jobs.

These anecdotes don’t fit with a survey of employers conducted by the federal Department of Employment in June, which found just 6 per cent of employers said they were having difficulty recruiting due to a lack of applicants.

The trouble with anecdotes is that they’re anecdotal. The people telling you the stories never give particulars of why they had no takers. Were the vacancies well advertised? Were they paying below the legal award wage or wanting to pay in cash under the table? Were they wanting people to work overtime or at weekends without getting penalty rates? Was the job dangerous or especially unattractive – split shifts, for example.

In recent years, many casual jobs paying less than the law requires have been accepted by overseas students and others on temporary visas. Since the coronavirus hit, many of these people, being denied unemployment benefits or the JobKeeper wage subsidy, have been told to go back home, and have done so. Is that the problem?

In my experience, small business people can see their own perspective very clearly, but other people’s not so much. Many people who seek part-time work do so because they have other commitments that the work must be fitted around – full-time studies, for example, or young children. Maybe that extra shift Morrison refers to would have required people to pay more for childcare.

Then there’s the special circumstances of the virus. It’s likely many single parents have given up casual or part-time work to stay home with their kids when schools are closed. Some older people would have stopped working for fear of catching the disease.

I’ve met many business people (big and small, so to speak) who fall for the economists’ occupational hazard of assuming that, because money is a powerful motivator when it comes to work, money is the only motivation.

They can’t imagine that anyone would want to work rather than sit around at home because they like working, because they like being busy, like seeing their workmates, feel that healthy people should work, or even just to avoid the stigma many unkind people attach to being unemployed.

Many people have the attitude that anyone who really wants a job can find one. But while ever the number of unemployed exceeds the number of vacant jobs, this is a “fallacy of composition” – what may be true for the individual isn’t true for everyone.

Between February and May, the number of people on the JobSeeker payment (formerly Newstart) and the youth allowance rose by more than 90 per cent to 1.8 million whereas, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics’ quarterly survey, the number of vacant jobs fell by 43 per cent to 129,000.

So there are about 14 jobseekers for every vacancy. Which means that, no matter how punishingly low you set the unemployment benefit – say, $40 a day – you can’t incentivise people to take jobs that don’t exist.

Even when the coronavirus supplement had almost doubled the dole to $550 a week, that’s just 73 per cent of the national minimum full-time wage of $754 a week. This percentage is one measure of what economists call the “wage replacement ratio”.

It’s also the most “conservative” measure - that is, likely to overstate the problem – since most full-timers would earn more than the minimum wage. In any case, the planned $150 cut in the supplement to just $125 a week will reduce the replacement ratio to just 53 per cent.

Not much of a disincentive to take a job there, I’d have thought. But this great fear of temporarily increased unemployment benefits being a great disincentive to work is a big issue in the United States and an argument Republicans have used to refuse to renew the supplement.

But as Catherine Rampell has written in the Washington Post, no fewer than five different academic studies have concluded the same thing: the Americans’ supplement does not appear to have adversely affected jobs growth.
Read more >>

Wednesday, August 5, 2020

Virus reminder: governments need to be better, not smaller

One good thing the coronavirus has done is slow the pace of our lives, leaving us more time to think about them. And since the main device being used to stop the spread of the virus has been to reduce physical contact between people, it hasn’t been hard to see that what matters most to us is face-to-face contact with family and friends.

People of middle age fret about not being able to visit elderly parents. The great Dr Brendan Murphy, flat out advising the Prime Minister, really misses being able to hug his granddaughters. (Grandsons and granddaughter, in my case.) Teenagers take their family for granted, but miss their friends. Younger kids realise they actually like going to school and mixing with others.

The virus has also thrown into relief our rights as individuals versus our obligations to the group. The prevailing political and economic ideology highlights the individual and plays down the group, but in emergencies like this even our squabbling federal and state politicians see that the only way of coping is to co-operate rather than compete.

Looking at the Americans and the terrible disaster they’re making of it – including people refusing to wear masks because it’s a violation of their personal freedom – it’s not hard to see that individualism can go too far, and playing your part as a loyal member of the group has its virtues.

The virus reminds us that many of the problems we face can’t be solved by individuals acting alone, but by all of us acting together. For this we need leadership; we need the government to govern. To tell us what needs to happen, to issue instructions, provide support for those who need it, and then have all of us falling into line and pulling our weight.

That’s easy to see – and accept – in a crisis, but harder when we’re muddling along as normal. Fact is, however, our world abounds with problems that can’t be solved by individuals and businesses acting on their own initiative.

For these we do need somebody – or some body – with the authority to act on our behalf, calling the shots, fixing things, spending money and requiring us to cough up that money according to our ability to pay.

And yet the rise of individualism has been accompanied by the denigration of the role of government. It was the now-canonised Ronald Reagan who famously said that the nine most terrifying words in the English language are "I’m from the government and I’m here to help".

Obviously, governments can be far from perfect. Government agencies can be unhelpful, they can push us around for no good reason, be inefficient and waste our money. And yet the prevailing ideology’s response – influencing the behaviour of both sides of politics – hasn’t been to improve the functioning of government, but to chop it back as much as possible.

Any government business that can be sold, should be. Industries should be deregulated so private enterprise is given maximum freedom to be enterprising. There are services that governments need to pay for from the public purse, but their provision should be contracted out to private firms.

The trouble is, the advocates of Smaller Government have never persuaded the public of the wisdom of this approach, nor received a mandate. When governments try to cut back government spending in big licks – as Tony Abbott, despite promises to the contrary, tried to do in his first budget – they get repudiated.

So they end up forever trying to keep the lid on government spending – quietly cutting money going to politically unpopular causes (the unemployed, public servants), and ignoring all the people warning them to start preparing for possible problems in this field or that (a bad bushfire season, for instance).

They justify all this short-sighted penny pinching by saying no one wants to pay more taxes. Which is the message we so often send them, partly because we’ve grown distrustful that our money will be spent wisely.

See where this is leading? All the denigration and distrust of government does much to explain why we haven’t responded to the pandemic as well as we should have. National planning for a pandemic was discontinued after 2008 and it’s likely that the recommended national stockpile of personal protective equipment was a victim of successive "efficiency dividend" cut backs.

The ironically named efficiency-dividend cuts to the public service may help explain the inadequacy of Victoria’s contact tracing arrangements. There’s an inquiry into the failures of Victoria’s quarantine of returning travellers, contracted out to private firms.

Deregulation of wage-fixing has encouraged the growth in casual workers, whose lack of paid sick leave tempts them to go to work while at risk of having contracted the virus. Governments are scrambling to fill this dangerous gap.

Finally, the decades of wilful neglect and misregulation of aged care facilities, “left out of sight and out of mind” and “fragmented, unsupported and underfunded” – to quote the latest of many inquiries. All to keep taxes low.
Read more >>

Monday, August 3, 2020

Weak inflation tells us: it's the demand side, stupid

Despite the remarkable 1.9 per cent fall in the consumer price index in the June quarter, we face no imminent threat of deflation. But it’s not as improbable a fate as it used to be.

Apart from in headlines, one negative quarter does not deflation make. Deflation occurs when price falls are modest, widespread and continuous, the product of chronically weak consumer demand. Businesses cut their prices as the only way to get people to buy what they’ve produced. Their goal is not to make a profit, but to reduce their losses.

Paradoxically, deflation – which was dogging Japan not so many years ago – is to be feared. Why buy now if prices are falling? Why not wait until they’re even lower? But the longer consumers wait, the more prices fall. And the faster they fall, the more businesses cut production and lay off workers. The economy implodes.

By contrast, our fall was produced by cuts in two key government-controlled prices – for childcare and pre-schools – plus petrol prices. We already know these falls will largely be reversed in the present quarter.

Even so, all the other prices in the CPI basket of goods and services rose during the quarter by just 0.1 per cent. People are reluctant to buy during recessions, so businesses don’t raise their prices for fear of selling even less. It’s a safe bet inflation will stay negligible for as long as the recession lasts and for as long as it takes the economy to recover.

Trouble is, we had unduly weak price growth long before the coronasession. Our rate of inflation’s been below the bottom of the 2 to 3 per cent target range for almost six years. The Reserve Bank has been struggling to get it up into the target, "Goldilocks" range without success.

Point is, when you have a problem with high inflation, you have a problem with the supply side of the economy. Supply isn’t keeping up with demand, so something needs to be done to get the economy’s production growing faster and more efficiently.

Conversely, when inflation isn’t a problem but high unemployment is, you have a problem with demand side of the economy. Consumers aren’t spending enough and businesses aren’t investing enough.

But too-low inflation isn’t the only indicator that demand and supply are out of whack. Another sign is record low interest rates. They’re low not just because inflation is so low, but also because “real” interest rates – the lenders’ above-inflation reward for letting other people use their money – have also fallen.

Why? It can only be because the amount of money savers have available to lend (the “supply of funds”) exceeds the amount home-buyers, businesses and governments want to borrow to cover their investment spending (the “demand for funds”). That real interest rates have been falling for years is another sign that our problem is chronic deficient demand, not inadequate supply.

One consequence of this is that the authorities’ ability to encourage borrowing and spending by cutting interest rates has been exhausted. So “monetary policy” has done its dash, leaving “fiscal policy” – the budget – as the only instrument left for the government to use to support the economy during the recession and then to stimulate growth.

If it wants more spending in the economy, the government must do it itself.

There’s just one difficulty. During the period in the 1970s and ‘80s when it was clear the developed economies had a major problem with inflation – meaning the supply side was chronically unable to keep up – the conventional wisdom emerged that the short-term management of the economy should be left to monetary policy, with fiscal policy reserved to help with other, medium-term issues.

This approach fitted neatly with the conservative side of politics’ preference for Smaller Government. Our Liberals have come to view macro-economic management in largely party-political terms: we use monetary policy; Labor uses fiscal policy. We follow neo-classical economics; Labor follows Keynesian economics. We cut government spending and taxation; Labor loves to spend and tax. We worry about deficient supply; Labor worries about deficient demand.

This political ideology approach to macro management can’t cope with the developed economies’ tendency to switch from long periods when supply and inflation are the big problem to long periods when demand and unemployment are the big problem.

You can see this in the Morrison government’s obvious reluctance to spend enough to limit the economy’s contraction to two successive quarters, despite our continuing struggle to contain the virus. You see it in Morrison’s desire to move on to “reforms” aimed at improving the supply side.

Both political sides see that wage growth is too weak at least partly because the productivity of labour is improving only slowly. But the Liberals’ ideological approach to macro tells them the answer to low productivity is more supply-side reform, whereas a pragmatic, more contemporary analysis says it seems obvious that if consumer demand is weak, business investment will be weak and if business investment in the latest technology is weak it’s no surprise that productivity improvement is slow. It’s the demand side, stupid.
Read more >>

Saturday, August 1, 2020

Morrison’s not doing nearly enough to secure our future

It was obvious this time last week, but even more so a week later: Scott Morrison and Treasurer Josh Frydenberg are taking both the continuing threat from the coronavirus and the need to restore the economy far too cheaply. Figuratively and literally.

One thing another week of struggle by Victoria and NSW to contain the virus’s second wave has shown more clearly – plus the realisation of how vulnerable the neglect and misregulation of our aged care sector have left us – is the unreality of the government’s expectations about the effects of the pandemic.

Last week’s economic and budget update assumed Victoria would be back on track in six weeks and NSW’s struggles were too minor to matter. And also that we’ll start opening to international travel in January.

A more realistic assumption would be that the larger, virus-prone half of the economy (NSW and Victoria) will need to stay sealed off from the healthier, smaller half (the other states and the Northern Territory) indefinitely. Half a healthy economy is far from ideal, but it beats none.

Surely we should have realised by now that the pandemic will be a long-haul flight. Speaking of which, our barriers against the rest of the world are likely to stay up long after the 12th day of Christmas.

Economically, we must make the best of it we can – which won’t be anything like as good as we’d like. Forcing the pace on lifting the lockdown and removing the interstate barriers could easily end up setting us back rather than moving us forward.

What economists seem yet to understand is that, psychologically, what we have to do to keep the virus controlled is the opposite to what you’d do to hasten an economic recovery. To ensure people keep mask-wearing, hand-washing, sanitising, social-distancing and filling out a form every time they walk into a cafe for month after month, you keep them in a state of fear, afraid the virus may bite them at any moment.

How will this give them the confidence to get on with spending and investing? It won’t. Quite the opposite. But it’s the first indication Morrison and Frydenberg will need to spend more for longer.

The second thing that’s more obvious now than it was a week ago is that the setback in Victoria and NSW has put a question mark over the signs of an initial bounce-back in the economy as the lockdown has been lifted. The new payroll-based figures for the week to July 11 show jobs falling in all states, not just Victoria and NSW.

All this casts further doubt on the wisdom of the changes to the JobKeeper and JobSeeker programs announced last week. The initial reaction of relief that the government had not gone through with its original plan to end them abruptly in September has given way to the realisation that this threat of dropping the economy off a “fiscal cliff” has been delayed rather than averted.

The new boss of independent think tank the Grattan Institute, Danielle Wood, has estimated that the changes to the two job schemes will reduce the government’s support for the economy by close to $10 billion in the December quarter and thus “leave a substantial hole in the economy”.

In an earlier major report, Grattan argued that the government needed to spend a further $70 billion to $90 billion to secure a recovery. The measures announced last week amount to only about an additional $22 billion.

According to calculations by the ANZ bank’s economics team, the withdrawal of budgetary support amounts to the equivalent of about 10 per cent of quarterly gross domestic product during the December quarter.

In consequence, although the bank agrees with Treasury that real GDP will grow in the present September quarter, it sees the economy returning to contraction in the December quarter. What would that do for business and consumer confidence?

In its earlier report, Grattan said the government should aim to get the unemployment rate back down to 5 per cent or below by mid-2022. Why the hurry? To “reduce the long-term economic pain and avoid scarring people’s lives”.

Particularly young people’s lives – as this week’s report from the Productivity Commission has reminded us.

But the economic update last week forecast the unemployment rate would peak at 9.25 per cent in the December quarter and still be sitting at 8.75 per cent in the middle of next year.

That’s simply not good enough. It puts the interests of the budget deficit ahead of the interests of tens of thousands of Australians thrown out of work through “no fault of their own”, to quote a Mr S. Morrison.

Grattan’s Wood stresses that she has no problem with making the JobKeeper wage subsidy scheme better targeted. But that’s not all the government did. It cut back the size of payments and extended the scheme only for another six months.

After the cutback in income support for the jobless and potentially jobless was announced two days before the presentation of the budget update, she hoped the update would include announcements about the new spending programs that would fill the “substantial hole” the cutback left.

It didn’t. Not a sausage.

“The missing piece of the puzzle,” she now says, “remains a plan to stimulate the economy and jobs growth as the income supports are phased out and social distancing restrictions are eased in many parts of the country.”

So what should the government be spending on? She suggests measures that would both create jobs and meet social needs. “Social housing, mental health services, and tutoring to help disadvantaged students catch up on learning lost during the pandemic would deliver on this double dividend.

“Boosting the childcare subsidy to support family incomes and workforce participation should also be in the mix,” she says.

To that you could add fixing aged care, spending more on research and development and universities, not to mention renewable energy.

There’s no shortage of good things worth spending on.
Read more >>

Wednesday, July 29, 2020

Thatcherism: our conservatives prefer punishment to 'reform'

If your citizen-strength bulldust detector isn’t pinging like blazes, you need a new one. And if Scott Morrison and Josh Frydenberg have a fraction of the courage of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, I’ll eat the hat I’m not yet bald enough to need.

Speaking from experience, Frydenberg is like the fat man whose eyes are bigger than his belly and orders more than he can eat. He wanted to give his hardline Liberal backbenchers a thrill by invoking the holy names, but he and his boss don’t have the appetite for tough “reforms”.

The truth is that only conservatives of a certain age (and failing memories) hanker after the glory days of Thatcher and Reagan. No one else wants to return to the halcyon era of privatisation and deregulation because by now most people realise how lacking in halcyonicity those things are.

In any case, all the obvious reforms have already been made. When you’ve privatised Telstra, Qantas, the Commonwealth Bank, the Commonwealth Serum Laboratories and much else, what’s left? Selling off Australia Post?

The further you go down that road, the more dubious and distasteful your sell-offs become. The more recent privatisation of Medibank has effectively opened private health insurance provision to profit-seeking companies, adding a further problem to all that sector’s other life-threatening ailments.

The states’ privatisation of the electricity industry has turned five state monopolies into three big money-hungry oligopolists and raised electricity prices far higher than a carbon tax ever could.

The admission of for-profit businesses to childcare and aged care has hardly been a roaring success (on the latter, just ask Victorians). Bringing private companies into vocational training has turned technical education into a disaster area that’s still to be cleaned up.

The public is strongly opposed to privatisation. When the Coalition was considering privatising Medicare’s back-office processing, Labor portrayed this as a plan to privatise Medicare proper which, apparently, cost Malcolm Turnbull a lot of votes in the 2016 election.

Speaking of which, remember that Thatcher’s initial reforms were so unpopular she needed a war with Argentina to get re-elected. John Howard’s goods and services tax was so unpopular he went perilously close to losing the 1998 election.

I was puzzled to see Frydenberg associating Thatcher and Reagan with removing red tape. They aren’t remembered for anything so minor. Then I realised removing red tape was his euphemism for “deregulation”. The word now has such negative connotations he didn’t even want to say it – much less do it.

No, I don’t think we have anything to fear from Morrison’s inner Maggie.

For another thing, she wanted to close Britain’s inefficient coal mines, not defy economic reality and keep them going at all cost. And she, being a scientist, never had any doubt about the reality of climate change and the need to stop it.

The historian Manning Clark argued that, thanks to the circumstances of white settlement, Australia’s leaders could be divided into two groups: the “enlargers” and the “punishers and straighteners”. The enlargers wanted to get on with exploiting this land’s huge opportunities, whereas the punishers and straighteners, successors to the governors and prison guards, just wanted to go on running the place and keeping the lower orders in line.

If today’s Liberals were enlargers, they’d be resisting the temptation to help our coal and gas industries postpone their inevitable demise, and embracing this great opportunity to transform Australia into a global superpower in the production and export of renewable energy.

The Libs’ continuing role as punishers and straighteners is seen in their penchant for playing friends and enemies. Honourable friends and disreputable enemies. Honourable friends get rewarded with big tax cuts, which probably need to be brought forward – in the national interest, of course.

Although the Libs have lacked the mandate to cut government spending generally, they’ve selected various enemies whose lack of public sympathy means their money can be cut with impunity. Amid the massive government spending to counteract the lockdown, they’ve still singled out the universities for exclusion from the JobKeeper wage subsidy scheme or any other help of consequence.

But the people the Libs have most wanted to punish are the unemployed. When the lockdown caused unemployment to more than double, they had no choice but to increase the dole. But they kept their measures temporary, and introduced a two-class system.

Those travelling second class – who’ve lost any link to an employer – were given the JobSeeker unemployment benefit of $558 a week, about a quarter less than those in first class on JobKeeper.

We learnt last week that, after September, this will drop to $408, about a third less than the reduced JobKeeper payment. Means-testing will be resumed, as will penalties for failing to search for jobs. JobKeeper has been extended for six months, but the JobSeeker supplement only for three, with no guarantee it then won’t revert to $40 a day.

Why so tough? Because the unemployed aren’t like you and me. They’re shirkers. If you want them to work, you have to threaten punishment.
Read more >>

Monday, July 27, 2020

Why we don't need to panic over big budget deficits

Despite the great majority of economists – including Reserve Bank governor Dr Philip Lowe – telling Scott Morrison and Treasurer Josh Frydenberg not to worry too much about a record blowout in the budget deficit at a time of a once-in-a-100-year pandemic, it’s clear many people – including many members of the Parliamentary Liberal Party – are very worried.

So much so, they think it’s a more pressing problem than sky-high unemployment. In consequence, the government’s nerve has cracked. The unspoken message from last week’s policy announcements and budget update was: we’re prepared to spend a further $22 billion to turn the feared "fiscal cliff" in September into a less precipitous fall, but after that all you’ll get to help the economy is the airy objectives and cold comfort of "reform".

When the Economic Society of Australia polled 50 leading economists recently, 88 per cent of them agreed that governments should provide ongoing budgetary support to boost demand during the economic crisis and recovery, "even if it means a substantial increase in public debt".

In a speech last week, Lowe said the budget blowout might seem quite a change to people used to low budget deficits and low levels of public debt. "But this is a change that is entirely manageable and affordable and it’s the right thing to do in the national interest," he said.

So why don’t most economists share the worries of so many conservative politicians, headline writers and ordinary citizens? Five reasons.

The first is, these are extraordinary times. I’m not sure Frydenberg is right in claiming the pandemic is "without doubt, the biggest shock this country has ever faced," but it’s certainly one of them. And it’s certainly the most economically devastating pandemic since the Spanish flu of 1919.

As we can see even more clearly in countries that have been less than successful than we have in containing the virus, between the direct damage caused by the lockdown and the psychological damage of great fear and uncertainty about what the future holds, the economy has been flattened.

The pandemic will be working to keep the economy down until an effective vaccine is widely available worldwide, which may be several years way. Just as World War I wasn’t all over by Christmas, nor will this be.

It’s thus not surprising that such extraordinary times should be leading to previously unknown levels of government spending, budget deficits and public debt. Except, of course, that nothing we’re likely to do comes anywhere near where we were by the end of World War II.

Second, as AMP Capital’s Dr Shane Oliver has said, "it makes sense for the public sector to borrow from households and businesses at a time when they have cut their spending, and to give the borrowed funds to help those businesses and individuals that need help".

People ask me where will all the money the government’s spending come from? Mainly from other Australians, who have money they’ve saved and want to lend. Others ask, who buys all those government bonds? There’s no shortage of financial institutions keen to buy, starting with your superannuation fund and other fund managers.

So much so that recent offerings have been way oversubscribed, allowing the government to borrow for five years at a yield (interest rate) of just 0.4 per cent, and for 10 years at just 0.9 per cent. With the inflation rate at 1.7 per cent, this means it’s costing us nothing to borrow.

Third, the federal government has run budget deficits in more than 80 per cent of the years since federation. If deficit and debt is such a terrible thing, how come we’re not in debtors’ prison already?

Fourth, just because our latest levels of debt and deficit are high by our standards, doesn’t mean they are by anyone else’s. Relative to the size of our economy, Australia’s net public debt is much smaller than the Eurozone’s, a hell of a lot smaller than the United States’ and almost invisible compared to Japan’s.

That’s why the International Monetary Fund – the outfit responsible for bailing out countries that get too deeply into debt – keeps assuring us we have plenty of "fiscal space". Translation: Why do you Aussies fret so much about so little debt?

Finally, it’s fine to fret about debt, but what’s the alternative? The alternative to using government spending to support the economy until the crisis finally passes is to let it continue shrinking, with more and more people being thrown out of work and businesses failing.

But this wouldn’t get the budget back to balance, it would cut tax collections even further and increase government spending on unemployment benefits, thus worsening the deficit and adding further to the debt. Why would that be a good deal?
Read more >>

Saturday, July 25, 2020

Frydenberg decides to favour limiting debt and deficit

Well, that’s a relief. The economy faced falling off a “fiscal cliff” if Scott Morrison had gone ahead with his plan to end the expensive JobKeeper and JobSeeker schemes in September, but he decided to keep them going at lower rates for another quarter or two. So, another expansionary (mini-) budget.

Is that what you think? It’s certainly what Treasurer Josh Frydenberg wants you to think. He’d like to have his cake and eat it: be seen to be continuing to stimulate (he’d prefer the term “support”) the recessed economy, while actually cutting back that support as he succumbs to his party’s ideology of putting fixing the budget ahead of fixing the continuing rise in unemployment.

Judged strictly, however, this week’s measures and mini-budget aren’t expansionary, they’re contractionary. While it’s true Morrison will continue the JobKeeper wage subsidy scheme for another six months from September, and continue the increase in the amount of the JobSeeker unemployment benefit for another three months, both will involve greatly reduced support.

Between September and February, the JobKeeper payment to workers will be cut from $1500 a fortnight to $1000 a fortnight for those who work more than 20 hours a week, and to $650 a fortnight for those working less than 20 hours a week. Either way, the whole scheme will be wound up after another six months.

After September, the JobSeeker supplement to the dole will be cut from $550 a fortnight to $250 a fortnight, and wound up after December.

Over the six months to September, JobKeeper is expected to cost something less than $70 billion, whereas the following six months will cost $16 billion. Slashing the JobKeeper supplement will reduce the additional cost to less than $4 billion.

And if a sharp recovery in private sector spending doesn’t occur in the next six months – it would be another of Morrison’s miracles if it did – then the reduction in fiscal (budgetary) support will leave the economy growing more slowly than it would have.

The point is, according to the strict Keynesian way of judging it, for a budget to be “expansionary”, the extra stimulus it provides has to be greater than the stimulus it previously provided. If you cut back the amount of stimulus being provided, that counts as “contractionary”.

Now, you can argue that, in its original form, JobKeeper was too generous, giving those few casual workers it helped more money per fortnight than they’d been earning.

There’s no denying that the scheme, having been pulled together in a great hurry, had its flaws. But to say it needed to be made fairer or more efficient, doesn’t change the fact that, if you fix those flaws in a way that hugely reduces the amount of money the government is pumping into the economy to limit its contraction, your policy change is contractionary.

From the perspective of keeping the government spending big while households and firms have good reasons to spend as little as possible, if you decide Ms X is being paid too much, you need to give the saving to someone else.

In other words, if you think like an accountant rather than an economist, you get the wrong answer. That’s the trouble with Liberal Party ideology: it’s the thinking of an accountant (“Oh no, that woman’s getting more than she should.” “Oh no, look at all that deficit and debt mounting up.”) rather than the thinking of an economist (“If the government isn’t spending at a time like this, who will be?”).

Putting it another way, in the Liberals’ drift to the Right, their way of thinking about how the economy works has reverted to being “pre-Keynesian” – to thinking about the economy the way their grandfathers did in the Great Depression when economic orthodoxy’s answer to the problem was to cut wages and balance the budget.

John Maynard Keynes convinced the economics profession that such thinking was exactly the wrong way to fix a recession or depression. That’s why few economists deny that he was the greatest economist of the 20th century – and why, at times like this, the thinking of almost every economist is heavily influenced by “the Keynesian revolution”.

When it suits them, however, the Libs are not averse to using a very Keynesian concept: that the budget has “automatic stabilisers” built into it. This week Frydenberg has been anxious to point out (mainly, I suspect, to Liberal voters) that the huge blowout in the budget deficit isn’t explained solely by his stimulus spending.

No, the deficit is up also because tax collections have collapsed. Many companies have had their profits greatly reduced or even turned to losses, meaning they’ll be paying much less company tax. More significantly, many people have had their incomes reduced, meaning they’ll be paying much less income tax.

As well, with many more people eligible for unemployment benefits, government spend on these payments has jumped (and would have even without the temporary supplement).

This week’s budget update shows that, over last financial year and the present one, Treasury expects the budget balance to worsen by $281 billion. The government’s discretionary policy measures explain just $177 billion of this, leaving the remaining 37 per cent - $104 billion – explained by the budget’s automatic response to the downturn in the economy.

As the budget papers explain, economists call this the work of the budget’s inbuilt automatic stabilisers, which reduce tax collections and increase government spending automatically when the economy turns down. (And do the opposite when the economy’s booming.)

The automatic stabilisers have thus helped to stabilise demand – stop it falling as much as it would have – without the government doing anything. Any explicit decisions the government makes to increase its spending or cut taxes thus add to the stabilisation already provided automatically.

And the budget papers add an important point: our progressive income tax system means that people’s after-tax income falls by less than their pre-tax income does – another aspect of the budget’s automatic role in limiting the fall in demand.
Read more >>

Thursday, July 23, 2020

Complacent government cutting back support far too early

Sorry, but this is the economic statement of a government that’s complacent about controlling the coronavirus and about getting a million unemployed people back to work. It sees its job as largely done. Now it’s time to quickly wind back its spending on supporting the economy and call for the bill.

You can tell Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Treasurer Josh Frydenberg decided this before the extent of the setbacks in Victoria and NSW became fully apparent. They have assumed that after the six-week lockdown in Melbourne, everything will be fine again.

That’s quite an assumption, especially because those two states account for more than half the national economy.

A less complacent assumption would have been that, in the many months likely to pass before a vaccine is widely available, several further major setbacks could occur and delay the return to confidence by consumers and businesses that normal economic times had resumed and it was time to get on with spending and investing.

If so, the government might have a lot more spending to do to keep the economy above water until the pandemic’s “once-in-a-century shock” to the economy has passed.

Were you shocked by the news of the highest budget deficits since World War II, leading to net public debt already up to $488 billion and expected to hit $677 billion by next June?

Such shock seems to have been the main goal of Thursday’s budget update. The government’s spin doctors announced the fate of both the JobKeeper wage subsidy scheme and the temporary doubling of the JobSeeker unemployment benefit two days earlier so as to now heighten public concern about all that money being spent, and get us to accept the government’s decision that spending should be wound back pronto.

And that’s what Morrison announced on Tuesday – though you could be forgiven for not noticing it through all the spin. The government had gone for weeks threatening to end both schemes in September.

So when Morrison announced that they would be continued for another six months, in modified form, there was a sigh of relief. Few people noticed that the threatened “fiscal cliff” would now be just a precipitous incline.

It’s estimated that two-thirds of companies – and their employees – will be off JobKeeper by early next year. Which will be fine provided the economy bounces back as strongly as the government seems to believe it will.

But Treasury’s forecast that the economy will grow by 2.5 per cent in 2021 seems optimistic to me – and in any case, wouldn’t be sufficient to do much to turn around the 870,000 jobs lost between March and May this year and the million workers who saw their hours cut.

What seems clear is that the government is anxious to rein in the growth in its spending so as to limit the growth in its debt. What’s much harder is to find economists who agree that, with the economy’s prospects still so worrying, now is the time to be cautious and pull back.

A poll of 50 leading economists, conducted by the Economic Society of Australia, found that 44 of them agreed the government should use its budget to boost demand during the economic crisis and recovery, “even if it means a substantial increase in public debt”.

And if Reserve Bank Governor Philip Lowe shares the government’s worries about debt and deficit, he’s got a strange way of showing it.

Only on Tuesday he said that “debt across all levels of government in Australia, relative to the size of the economy, is much lower than in many other countries and it is likely to remain so. The Australian government can borrow at the lowest interest rates since Federation.”

So it is “well placed to smooth out the shock to private incomes and support the economy through the pandemic”.

It all translates to economists telling the government it’s the “eye-watering” levels of unemployment it should be most worried about.
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Wednesday, July 22, 2020

How Morrison could reward mothers hit hard by the recession

This recession is different in many ways. One is that it has hit female workers harder than male workers. So a good test of the adequacy of Scott Morrison and Josh Frydenberg’s mini-budget on Thursday will be how much it focuses on the needs of women.

Past recessions have hit men a lot harder than women because they’ve been concentrated in male-dominated industries such as manufacturing and construction. In this coronacession, manufacturing and construction have largely been able to continue working while the lockdown has closed female-dominated service industries such as accommodation and food services, retail, arts and recreation.

Recessions always hit part-time and casual workers harder, and these categories too include more women than men. Similarly, recessions always hit the lower-paid harder, and women are generally paid less than men. The imbalance did reduce a lot in June, however, as some service industries have been able to resume trading.

There’s evidence that a higher proportion of employed women than men have been able to work from home, making it even more likely that, when schools have been closed, women have done more of the home schooling. It’s also likely that some women have chosen to work fewer hours so as to mind kids at home.

But the case for the needs of women being front-of-mind in the government’s budgetary response to the recession rests on more than gender fairness. In recessions, governments use their budgets not just to help those who lose their jobs and to bolster the economy at a time when even those who’ve kept their jobs are limiting their spending, but also to give the economy a positive boost. To get things moving again.

Morrison has already started talking about the need for reforms to the structure of the economy to encourage faster growth in the years ahead. (The unmentionable truth is that, in the months before the arrival of the virus, the economy had lost momentum and was growing only slowly. Ending the recession to return to that status quo is not an exciting prospect.)


If Morrison decides to bring forward either or both of the second and third stages of the tax cuts he promised in last year’s budget (presently legislated to take effect in July 2022 and July 2024), it’s a safe bet he’ll justify that not just as giving the economy an immediate boost but also improving incentives for people to work and invest in coming years.

It’s a nice idea. But it’s a nicer idea from the perspective of a well-paid male. From the perspective of less well-paid females, not so much. When the cuts are fully implemented, the income tax I and others on the top tax rate pay will have been cut by 6 cents in every dollar of earnings. Will this motivate me and other high income-earners to work a lot harder than we already do? Oh gosh yes. Please believe that.

By contrast, the total saving for most women working part-time or in typical jobs done by females will be no more than about 1 cent in the dollar. That will motivate no one.

When well-paid men think about reform, their thoughts go immediately to the enticing idea of paying less income tax. They see the world from their point of view and are quick to tell you that any women earning as much as they do will get the same tax cuts they get. Sorry, gender doesn’t apply to the tax scales.

Except that it does when you add in our means-tested social benefits system. As female tax economists have been trying to tell male econocrats and politicians for ages, the one really significant disincentive to working in our tax-and-transfer system applies to mothers (and the occasional house husband) who want to go from working part-time to working full-time.

Naturally, every extra hour they work is taxed. But because eligibility for the family benefit is based on the combined income of couples, they soon find that each extra dollar of wages cuts back the amount of family benefit.

Professor Miranda Stewart, of the University of Melbourne, calculates that “second earners” wanting to work more days a week face an effective marginal tax rate of roughly 90 cents in the dollar. Add the extra cost of childcare and working more days will often leave mothers actually out of pocket. That doesn’t affect incentives?

If Morrison really wanted to change the structure of the economy in a way that, once the recession was behind us, would encourage faster economic growth, he’d drop his tax cuts for high earners and use this opportunity to remove a barrier to women putting their ever-higher levels of education to work in paid employment.

If that’s all too hard, he could do much good for women simply by making permanent his now-abandoned emergency measure of making childcare free. Too expensive? It would cost a lot less than his tax cuts for high (mainly male) income-earners.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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