Monday, November 23, 2020

THE POST-COVID ECONOMY: How our economy has changed

Talk to virtual Comview conference

I want to talk to you about how the Australian economy has changed as a result of the pandemic, including a once-in-30-year change in the macro-economic policy mix, and consider how the economy can recover from this unique recession.

You don’t need me to tell you that the coronavirus is the greatest threat to the health of Australians and the entire world since the “Spanish” flu pandemic a century ago. Nor that the recession this pandemic has precipitated is the greatest blow to our economy, and the world economy, since the Great Depression of the 1930s. What I may need me to remind you of is that, despite Victoria’s second wave, Australia has so far had more success in suppressing the virus than almost all the other advanced economies, and this should mean we suffer less economic damage than they do. It’s also true that our major trading partners – China, Japan and South Korea – have also done well in controlling the virus, which is another good sign for our recovery relative to the other rich countries. However, the pandemic is far from over and we don’t know when that will be. We could still suffer setbacks, and it’s hard to see a full return to business and consumer confidence until it’s clear the pandemic is over. With the rich countries likely to grab the vaccine before the poor countries get it, it seems likely that international travel will be the last thing to return to something like we were used to.

Why this recession is unlike previous recessions

Usually, recessions occur not simply because the economy runs out of puff, but because an inflationary boom prompts the macro authorities to apply the interest-rate brakes, but they hit it too hard and the boom turns to bust. The mood of optimism flips to pessimism, and greed turns to fear. This time, however, there was no boom and no inflation. The economy had not properly recovered from the global financial crisis more than a decade earlier, it was growing slowly and the mood was already sombre.

This time, the recession was driven by governments’ attempts to limit the spread of the virus by closing our borders, shutting down a large part of the economy and requiring people to leave their homes as little as possible. This means the contraction in demand came suddenly and completely, rather taking months to decline, as it usually does. Note, however, that had the government not ordered a lock down, economic activity would have fallen anyway as people tried to avoid being infected.

But the fact that it was the government’s own actions in ordering the lockdown meant that its fiscal policy and monetary policy response to the recession was faster and larger, particularly its two big measures, the JobKeeper wage subsidy scheme and the temporary supplement to JobSeeker unemployment benefits. JobKeeper’s objective was to maintain the link between employers and their workers even if the lockdown left them with little work to do, so that once the lockdown ended, normal trading could resume. Together with other measures, another goal was to help protect the cash flow of firms during the lockdown. At one point 3.5 million workers were benefiting from JobKeeper, who otherwise would have been unemployed. With the lockdown having soon been lifted in all states bar Victoria, it’s now clear that much of the collapse in employment and hours worked in April has now been reversed, with Victoria now following. So there has been a significant bounce-back, with much of the 7 per cent decline in real GDP during the June quarter reversed in the two following quarters. Even so, the bounce-back has been far from complete. And although the collapse of many businesses has been avoided, many failures haven’t been.

How the coronacession has changed the economy

In a recent speech, Reserve Bank governor Dr Philip Lowe listed five respects in which the pandemic is leaving its mark on the economy. The first is on the labour market. The rate of unemployment is expected to peak at about 8 per cent by the end of the year, with the rate of under-employment even higher. Unemployment will then decline only slowly and still be above 6 per cent by the end of 2022, the year after next. This suggests wage growth will continue weak.

Second, weak population growth. Restriction of international travel and migration, and a lower birth rate, mean the population is expected to grow by just 0.2 per cent in the present financial year, the lowest since 1916, and be weak the following year. This compares with growth averaging 1.5 per cent a year over the past two decades. Even when eventually international travel resumes, it’s not clear that our rate of immigration will return to what it was. And, even if it does, it seems unlikely that the two or three years of lost population growth will be made up. Australia has had one of the fastest rates of population growth among the advanced economies, with higher rates of economic growth to match. This may not continue, although it may not mean lower rates of economic growth per person. If so, we’ll have a smaller housing industry and less need for investment in new infrastructure.

Third, a changed property market. The market is being hit by a range of conflicting factors: a recession; lower population growth; record low interest rates; government incentives to support residential construction; and changes to the way that people work, shop and live. Rents for CBD retail properties have fallen, as have vacancy rates for office blocks. Residential property prices have fallen in Sydney and Melbourne, particularly for apartments.

Fourth, attitudes to risk. Businesses and households seem to have become more averse to the risks involved in decisions to borrow and spend, despite the fall in interest rates. This is understandable when there is so much uncertainty about what the future holds but, as Lowe reminds us, economic growth depends on business people and consumers being willing to take calculated risks to advance their prosperity. Lowe worries greater risk aversion may add to the signs that the economy has become less “dynamic” – slower to change over time. These signs include low numbers of new firms, less switching between jobs, slower adoption of new technology, and fewer workers moving from low to high productivity firms.

Fifth, digitisation. It seems clear that the pandemic and the lockdown has hastened the adoption of digital technology. Doctors’ longstanding resistance to telehealth and electronic prescriptions has broken down. Many firms have used technology to allow their staff to work from home, and much of this may continue after the pandemic is past, with big implications for time spent commuting, CBD retailing and transport infrastructure needs. Online meeting technology has reduced the need for travel. There has been huge growth in online retailing, which is unlikely to be reversed. Electronic transactions have greatly reduced cash transactions.

The changed macro management policy mix

For the first 30 years following World War II, the main policy instrument used to stabilise demand as the economy moved through the business cycle was fiscal policy, with monetary policy playing a subsidiary, supporting role. That changed in the late 1970s when the advanced economies acquired a serious problem with high and rising inflation, and “stagflation” destroyed confidence in the simple Phillips curve trade-off between inflation and unemployment. The conventional wisdom became that monetary policy, conducted by an independent central bank, should be the main instrument used for stabilising demand, with fiscal policy playing the subsidiary role.

But roughly 30 years later, the coronacession has a seen a reversion to fiscal policy playing the dominant role in short-term stabilisation, leaving monetary policy as a back-up. Ostensibly, this is because the need for stimulus was so great and because, with interest rates already so low, monetary policy was left with little room to move. In the recession of the early 1990s, for instance, the official interest rate was cut by more than 10 percentage points. In the response to the global financial crisis of 2008-09, the rate was cut by more than 4 percentage points. In the response to the coronacession, the RBA has been able to cut by less than 1 percentage point before taking the cash rate virtually to zero, at 0.1 per cent. Since March the RBA has also resorted to “quantitative easing” – buying second-hard government bonds from the banks and paying for them merely by crediting amounts to the banks’ exchange-settlement accounts with the RBA – but how much this does to stimulate demand for goods and services (as opposed to demand for assets such has houses and shares) is open to doubt. By contrast, the federal budget has provided a total of $257 billion in direct stimulus over serval years, equivalent to 13 per cent of nominal GDP in 2019-20. (This compares with stimulus in response to the GFC of 6 per cent of GDP in 2008-09.)

Behind these immediate reasons for fiscal policy resuming the leading role, however, are deeper, structural factors. As Treasury Secretary Dr Steven Kennedy has observed, there has been “a fundamental shift in the macroeconomic underpinnings of the global and domestic economies, the cause of which is still not fully understood”. This is a reference to the “secular stagnation” or “low-growth trap” I discussed at last year’s Comview. Your modern, independent central bank – and the policy mix that gave top billing to monetary policy – was designed to cope with the problem of high and rising inflation. But, as former Reserve governor Ian Macfarlane has explained, inflation in the advanced economies has been falling for the past 30 years and is now below central bank targets. Low inflation means low nominal interest rates, of course. And, as Treasury’s Kennedy has reminded us, the global real interest rate, similar to the neutral interest rate – the real official rate that’s neither expansionary nor contractionary – has been falling steadily for the past 40 years. This has been due to structural developments that drive up savings (the supply of “loanable funds”) relative to the willingness of households and firms to borrow and invest (the demand for loanable funds), he says. This “is likely due to some combination of population ageing, the productivity slowdown and lower preferences for risk among investors,” he says.

All this says that fiscal policy’s return to primacy over monetary policy is not just a temporary development, but the culmination of structural forces building up over decades, suggesting this will be a lasting change. It may be many years before inflation returns as a problem.

Fiscal policy and monetary policy: pros and cons

Monetary policy’s great advantage is that it can be changed so quickly and easily, by a decision of the RBA board (this covers the decision lag and implementation lag), whereas fiscal policy changes involve possibly protracted development of measures and consideration by cabinet (the decision lag), and then often delays before the measures can be put into effect (the implementation lag). But, once implemented, monetary policy changes probably take longer to have their full effect on the economy (the impact lag) than does fiscal policy.

But fiscal policy measures – whether on the tax or spending sides of the budget - can be targeted to fixing particular problems, whereas monetary policy is a “blunt instrument” or one-trick pony: it uses interest rates to encourage or discourage borrowing and spending. Fiscal policy includes the budget’s automatic stabilisers (to which, Kennedy has argued, JobKeeper and the JobSeeker supplement, being open-ended, were temporary additions).

Economists at the IMF and elsewhere argue that fiscal policy multipliers are higher than earlier believed. This is partly because leakages to imports are less significant when all major governments are stimulating simultaneously in response to the same global shock (such as the GFC or a pandemic). But it’s also because the effect of fiscal stimulus isn’t reduced by the “monetary policy reaction function” – the decisions of independent central banks to raise interest rates because they fear the fiscal stimulus will add to inflation pressure.

Finally, and as I said in last year’s talk, monetary policy’s “comparative advantage relative to fiscal policy is controlling inflation, not stimulating demand when the economy is again caught in a liquidity trap”. Because we are likely still to be caught in a low-growth trap even when the pandemic is a receding memory, l have no trouble believing the econocrats’ repeated warnings that the road to recovery will be long and bumpy.


Monday, November 9, 2020

Reserve Bank suffering relevance deprivation syndrome

I’m sorry to say it, and it’s certainly not the done thing to say, but the Reserve Bank looks to me like that emperor with a serious wardrobe deficiency.

Apart from the nation’s allegedly “self-funded” retirees – whose angry letters to Reserve governor Dr Philip Lowe must by now be absolutely blistering – no one wants to question last week’s decision to make what must surely be the smallest-ever cut in the official interest rate, and engage in a bit more of what central bankers prefer to call “quantitative easing” or “balance-sheet expansion” rather than use those verboten words Printing Money.

I guess there’s no reason any borrower would object to paying lower interest rates, no matter how microscopic the reduction. Nor are the nation’s treasuries and governments likely to object to having their own interest bills cut a fraction.

As for the experts in the financial markets, their vested interest lies in having the central bank stay as busy as possible, organising events where they can lay bets. An inactive Reserve is a central bank that’s not helping them justify their lucrative but unproductive existence. “Negative interest rates? Might be a fun day out. Bring it on.”

But I’ve heard from a lot of retired central bankers who disapprove of the Reserve’s scraping of the barrel. And last week Dr Mike Keating, a former top econocrat, also questioned the wisdom of keeping on keeping on.

Some other people have seen the Reserve’s decision to, in Lowe’s words, “do what we reasonably can, with the tools that we have, to support the recovery” as a sign it judged last month’s budget not to have done enough.

Maybe, but I doubt its motives are so noble. Alternatively, Lowe’s reference to “doing what we can” with “the tools we have” could be taken as a tacit admission that his tools can’t do much.

As Treasury Secretary Dr Steven Kennedy made clear last week, monetary policy’s “scope . . . to provide sufficient stimulus is limited and has necessitated the large levels of fiscal support”. His speech was devoted to making sure his financial-markets audience – and the rest of us – understood that the headquarters of short-term management of the macro economy has now shifted from Martin Place, Sydney to Parkes Place, Canberra.

No, I think what we’re seeing is our most well-resourced economic regulator (well-resourced because it prints its own banknotes) desperately trying to look busy and relevant because it’s lost its main reason for existence, but can’t be shut down or even sent on “furlough” – the latest euphemism for being put on unpaid leave, in the hope the need for your services will return.

No country could leave itself bereft of a central bank. The Reserve can’t be shut down because one of its infrequent but vital roles is to flood the financial markets with liquidity whenever they become dysfunctional (as happened in the global financial crisis and, in a smaller way, in the early days of the pandemic).

But the fact remains that the Reserve’s primary function – the short-term stabilisation of demand - has gone away and isn’t likely to come back in my lifetime (another 20 years, max). That is, its problem is structural (long-lasting) not cyclical (temporary).

Your modern, independent central bank was designed to respond to the problem of high and rising inflation. And during the 1980s (and, in Australia, 1990s) its ability to do so was clearly demonstrated.

But, as former Reserve governor Ian Macfarlane has reminded us, inflation rates in the advanced economies have been falling for the past 30 years, and now seem entrenched below the central banks’ targets. And, as Treasury’s Kennedy reminded us last week, the global (real) neutral interest rate has been falling for 40 years.

Central banks need independence of the politicians so they can raise interest rates to fight inflation. They don’t need it to lower rates. But with inflation having gone away as a problem, it’s now 10 years since the Reserve last raised rates (and even that proved unnecessary and had to be unwound).

When nominal interest rates were high, cutting rates in big licks did seem effective in helping revive growth and employment. But with interest rates now so low and getting lower in the 12 years of weak Australian and advanced-country growth since the financial crisis, there’s little reason to believe cutting rates is effective in reducing unemployment and underemployment.

Last week Lowe insisted that an official interest rate down at 0.1 per cent does not mean the Reserve has “run out of firepower” – by which he meant that there’s still plenty of money he can print.

True. But, as Reserve assistant governor Dr Chris Kent has explained, the dominant purpose of the money-printing is to lower “risk-free” (government bond) interest rates further out along the maturity curve beyond the official overnight cash rate.

And this doesn’t provide a reason to believe slightly lower interest rates will induce households and firms to borrow and spend in a way that fractionally higher rates didn’t. Whatever people’s reasons for not spending, the high cost of borrowing isn’t one of them.

The old jibe that cutting interest rates to induce growth is like “pushing on a string” for once seems apposite.

Remembering the retired Reserve bankers’ point that it chose to limit its intervention in financial markets to short-term and variable interest rates for good reason – to limit monetary policy’s distortion of private sector choices - one thing we can be more confident of is that printing money and cutting rates when few people want to borrow for consumption or real investment will be effective in inflating bubbles in the prices of assets such as houses and shares.

How this would leave the unemployed better off is hard to see. Risking our heavily indebted household sector becoming more so doesn’t seem a great idea.


Friday, November 6, 2020

Treasury chief warns big changes are on the way

When finally the pandemic has become just a bad memory, we’ll see it has left big changes in the way the macro economy is managed and the way we work and spend. Whether that leaves us better or worse off we’ve yet to discover.

That’s the conclusion I draw from Treasury Secretary Dr Steven Kennedy’s (online) post-budget speech to the Australian Business Economists on Thursday, the restoration of a tradition going back to the 1990s.

Kennedy observes that, although “fiscal policy” (changes in government spending and taxing) has always responded to large shocks such as recessions, for the past 30 years the accepted wisdom in advanced economies has been that the preferred tool for stabilising the ups and downs in demand is “monetary policy” (changes in interest rates by the central bank), leaving fiscal policy to focus on structural and sustainability (levels of public debt) issues.

This mix of policy roles was preferred because central banks could make timely decisions, using an appropriately nimble instrument – the official interest rate. Interest rates, it was considered, could help manage demand without having much effect on the allocation of resources (the shape of the economy) in the long-run, Kennedy says.

In previous downturns, monetary policy played a major part in helping to get the economy moving. In response to the 1990s recession, Kennedy reminds us, the Reserve Bank cut the official interest rate by more than 10 percentage points. In response to the global financial crisis of 2008-09, it cut rates by more than 4 percentage points.

By now, however, the Reserve has run out of room. In its response to the coronacession, it cut the rate by 0.5 percentage points to 0.25 per cent. This week it squeezed out another cut of 0.15 percentage points and went further in “unconventional” monetary policy measures. That is, printing money.

Why so little room? Interest rates are down to unprecedented lows partly because, as I wrote last week, the rate of inflation has been falling for the past 30 years.

But Kennedy explains the other reason: the “natural” or “neutral” interest rate has been “steadily falling globally over the past 40 years”. The neutral interest rate is the real official rate when monetary policy is neither expansionary nor contractionary.

(Note that word “real”. Conceptually, nominal interest rates have two parts: the bit that’s just the lenders’ compensation for expected inflation, and the “real” bit that’s the lenders’ reward for giving borrowers the temporary use of their money.)

“The declining neutral rate is due to [global] structural developments that drive up savings relative to the willingness of households and firms to borrow and invest,” Kennedy says.

“While the academic research is not settled on the relative importance of different structural drivers, it is likely due to some combination of population ageing, the productivity slowdown and lower preferences for risk among investors,” he says.

Because this is a “structural” (long-term) rather than “cyclical” (short-term) development, “a number of central banks have suggested that interest rates will not rise for many years”.

Kennedy says the size and speed of the shock from the pandemic necessitated a large fiscal (budgetary) response. This would have been true even if a large response from conventional monetary policy had been available – which it no longer was.

Monetary policy is a one-trick pony. It can make it cheaper or dearer to borrow, and that’s it. As we saw with the early measures – particularly the JobKeeper wage subsidy and the temporary supplement to the JobSeeker dole payment – fiscal policy can be targeted to problem areas. “Monetary policy cannot replace incomes or tie workers to jobs,” he says.

So the move from monetary policy to the primacy of fiscal policy is not only unavoidable, it has advantages.

Since the onset of the pandemic, the federal government has provided $257 billion in direct economic support over several years, which is equivalent to 13 per cent of last financial year’s nominal gross domestic product. That compares with the $72 billion the feds provided in economic stimulus during the global financial crisis, or 6 per cent of GDP in 2008-09.

Kennedy notes that fiscal policy is about stabilising the economy’s rate of growth over the short term; it can’t increase economic growth over the medium to long-term. According to neo-classical theory, that’s determined by the Three Ps – growth in population, participation in the labour force, and productivity.

But whereas over the 10 years to 2004-05 our rate of improvement in “multi-factor” productivity averaged 1.4 per cent a year, over the five years prior to the pandemic it averaged half that, 0.7 per cent.

There are many suggested causes for this slowdown (which can also be observed in the rest of the rich world). Treasury research has highlighted signs of reduced “dynamism” (ability to change over time), such as low rates of new firms starting up, fewer workers switching jobs, slower adoption of the latest technology, and fewer workers moving from low-productivity to high-productivity firms.

Kennedy says it’s not clear how the pandemic will affect Australia’s long-run rate of improvement in productivity. But it has the potential to cause some large structural changes in the economy. We’ve seen the way it has forced businesses to innovate.

“Necessity is a great ramrod for breaking down the barriers to technological adoption,” he says.

Remote working is one example. In September, almost a third of workers worked from home most days. If this continues it could have “significant implications for transport infrastructure planning and for the functioning of CBDs”.

An official survey in September found that 36 per cent of businesses had changed the way products or services were provided to customers. The ability to pivot displayed by many firms indicates potential for innovation and adaptation.

On the other hand, there’s a risk that closures among smaller firms will lead to even more market concentration and slower productivity growth. Let’s hope not.

Wednesday, November 4, 2020

We should stop backing losers in the Climate Change Cup

The big question for Scott Morrison and his colleagues is whether they want to be a backward-looking or forward-looking government.

Do they want to enshrine Australia as the last giant of the disappearing world of fossil fuels, and pay the price of declining relevance to the changing needs of our trading partners, with all the loss of jobs and growth that would entail?

Or do they have the courage to seize this opportunity to transform Australia into a giant in the production and export of renewable energy and energy-intensive manufactures, with all the new jobs and growth that would bring?

In recent weeks, the main customers for our energy exports – China, Japan and South Korea – have done something we’ve so far refused to do: set a date for their achievement of "carbon neutrality". Zero net emissions of greenhouse gases.

Faced with this, and the free advice from fellow conservative Boris Johnson that he should get with the program, Morrison has defiantly declared that Australia would make its own "sovereign decisions".

This is infantile behaviour from someone wanting to be a leader, like the wilful child who shouts, "You’re not the boss of me!"

It goes without saying that Australia will make its own decisions in its own interests. No other country has the ability or desire to force its will on us. But nor can we force our will on them. They will go the way they consider to be in their best interests, and it's clear most are deciding to get out of using fossil fuels.

We remain free to change our export offering to meet our trading partners’ changing needs, or to tell them all to get stuffed because producing coal and gas is what we’ve always done and intend to keep on doing. Our sovereignty is not under threat. No one can stop us making ourselves poorer.

A report issued on Monday by Pradeep Philip, head of Deloitte Access Economics, called A New Choice attempts to put figures on the choices we face in responding – or failing to respond – to global warming. I’m not a great believer in modelling results, but the report does much to illuminate our possible futures.

In last year’s election, Morrison made much of Bill Shorten’s failure to produce modelling of the cost to the economy of his plan to reduce emissions in 2030 by much more than the Coalition promised to do in the Paris Agreement.

Had he been sufficiently dishonest, Shorten could easily have paid some economic consultancy to fudge up modelling purporting to show the cost would be minor, but for some reason he didn’t. However, Morrison didn’t resist the temptation to quote the results of someone who, over decades of modelling the cost of taking action to reduce emissions, had never failed to find they would be huge.

It’s true that the decline of our fossil fuel industries will involve much expensive disruption to those businesses and the lives of their workers, as they seek out new industries in which to invest their capital and find employment.

But what’s a lot more obvious today than it was even last year is that this cost will be incurred whether it happens as a result of government policy, or because the decline in other countries’ demand for our fossil fuel exports leaves us with what financiers call "stranded assets" – mines and other facilities that used to turn a profit, but now don’t.

Last year it was possible for the cynical and selfish to ask why we should get serious about climate change when no one else was. Today the question is reversed: how can we fail to act when everyone else is?

One of Morrison’s great skills as a politician is his ability to draw our attention away from some elephant he doesn’t want us to notice. In the election he got us to focus on the cost of acting to reduce our emissions. The bigger question we should have been asking is, what’s the cost to the economy if we and the others don’t act to stop future global warming?

Whatever number some modeller puts on that cost, our "black summer" should have left us needing little convincing that climate change is already happening and already imposing great destruction, pain and cost on us. Nor is it hard to believe the costs won’t be limited to drought, heatwaves and bushfires, and will get a lot worse unless we stop adding to the greenhouse gas already in the atmosphere.

On a more positive note, Deloitte adds its support to those experts – including Professor Ross Garnaut and the Grattan Institute’s Tony Wood – finding that "in a global economy where emissions-intensive energy is replaced by energy from renewables, Australia can be a global source of secure and reliable renewable power. Countries such as Japan, South Korea and Germany have already come to Australia asking for us to export renewable hydrogen for their own domestic energy consumption."

We have a "once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to simultaneously boost economic growth, create sustainable jobs [and] build more resilient and cleaner energy systems".


Monday, November 2, 2020

Economies malfunction when we can't trust our leaders

With the federal, NSW and Victorian governments all mired in questionable conduct but refusing to accept responsibility for their actions, a reminder of the value of ethical behaviour to the good governance of the nation is timely.

A report, The Ethical Advantage, by John O’Mahony, of Deloitte Access Economics, and commissioned by Dr Simon Longstaff’s Ethics Centre, reminds us that while ethical behaviour and trust are different things, a long record of ethical behaviour builds trust, which can be quickly destroyed by unethical behaviour.

To be successful, business leaders need the trust of their customers, employees and suppliers. The less people trust them, the harder they must work – and the more they must spend on marketing and security – to remain profitable.

It’s true you can go for a fair while abusing the trust of others, but when eventually they wake up, they tend to be pretty dirty about it. For years our banks took advantage of their customers’ trusting inattention by, for instance, failing to advise loyal customers of the better deals they were offering new customers. Now they wonder why their customers hate and distrust them.

Years of declining standards of behaviour on both sides of politics, and refusal to accept responsibility when things go wrong, have led to declining levels of trust in our politicians, and lowering respect for our leaders.

The imminent threat posed by the pandemic prompted our federal and state leaders to stop bickering and pull together, with oppositions anxious to be co-operative. The result was a marked increase in public confidence in the Prime Minister and premiers – a bonus Queensland’s Annastacia Palaszczuk banked on Saturday.

But no sooner had the threat eased – but not passed – than we were back to politics as usual. Our leaders don’t lead, they try to score points off their opponents. Great way to kill their newfound popularity.

Unsurprisingly, the report finds that there remains significant scope for us to raise our levels of ethical behaviour and trust. The Governance Institute of Australia’s ethics index, based on an annual survey of Australians’ perceptions of the level of ethical behaviour in society, gave us a “somewhat ethical” score of plus 37 on a scale of minus 100 to plus 100.

This was for last year, before the pandemic, and down from plus 41 in 2017. Across industries, healthcare was seen as the most ethical, with a score of plus 67. Then came education, charities and not-for-profits, and agriculture. Banking, finance and insurance was seen as the least ethical industry, with a score of minus 18.

According to the 2020 Edelman Trust Barometer, just 47 per cent of Australians trust business, government, media and our non-government organisations to do the right thing. Worse, none was seen as strongly competent or ethical – with government being seen as the least competent and ethical out of all our institutions.

Remembering the “steady stream of state and federal political scandals”, the report says, this weak ethical performance is no surprise. Royal commissions have uncovered unconscionable behaviour in religious and other institutions, widespread misconduct in the banking, superannuation and financial services industry, and alarming lapses in aged care quality and safety.

Behaving ethically requires us think a lot about what’s right and wrong in the things we do, the way we treat people and the choices we make. For some action to be legal doesn’t make it ethical. Grant Hehir, Commonwealth Auditor General, says “we care not only about whether an entity is following the legal rules, but also whether it is acting within the intent of the law and community expectations”.

Nor is an action ethical because “it’s what everyone does”. Professor Ian Harper, of Melbourne University Business School, says “we all have values and moral convictions – ethics is about having the courage to apply these in the real world”.

The report says that, apart from the pandemic, we’re facing big challenges to our future, including from climate change, an increasingly risky geo-political environment, new technology and the future of work, and reconciliation with Indigenous Australians.

The actions needed to cope with these challenges “will require leadership of a quality that enables society to cohere in the face of external and internal pressures that would otherwise cause divisions.

“In these circumstances, trust will be at a premium – especially for key institutions. In turn, this will depend on the quality of ethical decision-making by individuals, groups and organisations,” the report concludes.

When the unethical behaviour of business and politicians causes them to lose the public’s trust, governments lose the ability to make tough “reforms”. As the pandemic demonstrates, only when politicians can clearly be seen as acting in the whole public’s best interests will they be safe at the polls.


Friday, October 30, 2020

How inflation became a big problem, but has disappeared

Treasury Secretary Dr Steven Kennedy observed this week that there’s been “a fundamental shift in the macro-economic underpinnings of the global and domestic economies, the cause of which is still not fully understood”. He’s right. And he’s the first of our top econocrats to say it. But he didn’t elaborate.

This week we got further evidence of that fundamental shift. The Australian Bureau of Statistics’ consumer price index for the September quarter showed an annual “headline” inflation rate of 0.7 per cent and an “underlying” (that is, more reliable) rate of 1.2 per cent.

This is exceptionally low and is clearly affected by the coronacession, as you’d expect. But there’s more going on than just a recession. Since 1993, our inflation target has been for annual inflation to average 2 to 3 per cent. For the six years before the virus, however, it averaged 1.6 per cent. And most other rich countries have also been undershooting their targets.

So, part of the “fundamental shift” in the factors underpinning the global economy is that inflation has gone away as a significant problem. But why? As Kennedy says, these things are “still not fully understood”. Some economists are advancing explanatory theories, which the other economists are debating.

Former Reserve Bank governor Ian Macfarlane, who has form for being the first to spot what’s happening, offered his own explanation of the rise and fall of inflation in a recent Jolly Swagman podcast.

Macfarlane says that, though every developed economy’s experience is different, they’re all quite similar. If you stand well back and look at the rich countries’ experience over the past 60 years, he says it’s not too great a simplification to say that two phases stand out: inflation rose in the first phase to reach a peak in the mid-1970s to early 1980s, but then fell almost continuously until we reached the present situation where it’s below the targets set by central banks.

In our case, we had double-digit inflation in the ’70s and rates of 5 to 7 per cent in the ’80s, then a long period within the target range until about six years ago. Since then it’s been below the target “despite the most expansionary monetary policy [the lowest interest rates] anyone can remember”.

So how is this experience of roughly 30 years of rising inflation, then 30 years of falling inflation explained? Macfarlane thinks there are about half a dozen reasons for the worsening of inflation in Australia.

For a start, the growth of production and employment during the 30-year post-war Golden Age was stronger than any period before or since. We had high levels of protection against imports, with little or no competition from developing countries.

We had a strong union movement, confident that in pushing for higher wages it wasn’t jeopardising workers’ job prospects. We had a centralised system for setting wages, with widespread indexation of wages to the consumer price index.

Our businesses took a “cost-plus” approach to their prices. If wages or the cost of imported components rose, this could be passed on to customers, confident your competitors would be doing the same. That is, firms had “pricing power”.

Finally, businesses’, unions’ and consumers’ expectations about how fast prices would rise in future were quite low at the start of the period, but they picked up and, by the end, had become entrenched at a high rate.

“This macro-economic environment was clearly conducive to rising inflation, and it took one policy error to push it over the limit,” Macfarlane says.

Under the McMahon government – predecessor of the Whitlam government – fiscal policy was made expansionary even though the inflation rate was already 7 per cent. Monetary policy was eased, with interest rates remaining below the inflation rate. And the centralised wage-fixing system awarded 6 or 9 per cent pay rises.

So, that’s how we acquired an inflation problem. What changed in the second 30-year period of declining inflation? Macfarlane thinks “the defining feature of the later period was that, in the long struggle between capital and labour, the interests of capital took precedence over those of labour”.

That is, the bargaining power of labour collapsed. In most countries the labour share of gross domestic product has declined, with the profits share increasing. Wage growth has been restrained, union membership has shrunk and the inequality of income and wealth has increased.

“These features have been most pronounced in the US, but many other countries, including Australia, have shown most of the same signs,” he says.

Two main developments account for this change. First, globalisation. The rapid growth of manufactured exports from China and the developing world pushed down consumer prices. More importantly, businesses and workers in the rich world realised that firms or whole industries could be shifted to countries where wages were lower.

Businesses had lost pricing power and sought to maintain profits by cutting costs and reducing staff levels. Union members became more concerned with saving their jobs than pushing for higher wages.

Second, labour-saving technological advance. In manufacturing, sophisticated machines started replacing workers. In the much bigger services sector, advances in information and communications meant that armies of state managers, regional managers and other middle management were no longer needed. Clerical processes were automated. Call centres were cheaper than a network of offices. Customers could buy on the internet, without the need for shop assistants.

As the period of high inflation passed into distant memory, Macfarlane says, inflationary expectations fell. Inflation expectations – whose importance comes because they tend to be self-fulfilling – change very slowly. It took decades for them to rise in the earlier period and, now, after nearly three decades of moderate and low inflation, it will take a long time before higher inflationary expectations are rekindled.

I see much truth in Macfarlane’s explanation. But it certainly means there’s been a “fundamental shift” in the factors bearing down on the economy – the implications of which we’re yet to fully realise, let alone fix.


Wednesday, October 28, 2020

Privatisation crusade is core business for tribal Libs

Critics of this year’s strange budget, which claims to be “all about jobs” but is really about helping some people and not helping others, accuse Scott Morrison and his faithful Treasurer of being “ideological”. That’s not a sensible criticism.

To accuse someone you disagree with of being “ideological” is dishonest and hypocritical. It misuses the word, turning it into a meaningless term of abuse. It implies that you’re being ideological, but I’m not.

To be ideological is to hold to a system of beliefs about how the world works and how it should work. So every adult who hasn’t wasted too much of their life watching reality television rather than thinking has an ideology — some better thought through than others.

When I accuse you of being “ideological”, what I’m really saying is that your ideology differs from my ideology and I think yours is wrong.

But I object to the term also because it’s an attempt to intellectualise and dignify a motivation far less noble: our deeply evolutionary instinct to form ourselves into tribes. My side, your side. Us and them. Good guys versus bad guys.

In politics, partisanship leads to polarisation and polarisation to policy gridlock and impotence. For example, look at the dis-United States. The richest, smartest big country in the world has been hopeless at coping with the pandemic, with many, many deaths. The Democrats and Republicans refuse to co-operate on anything. They’ve even turned mask wearing into a partisan issue.

It’s not so surprising that Morrison and Josh Frydenberg have been happy to justify their widely criticised budget choices by reference to their own ideology, saying the budget strategy “is consistent with the government’s core values of lower taxes and containing the size of government, guaranteeing the provision of essential services, and ensuring budget and balance sheet discipline”.

These “core values” are elaborated on the Liberal Party website. “We work towards a lean government that minimises interference in our daily lives, and maximises individual and private sector initiative.”

“We believe ... in government that nurtures and encourages its citizens through incentive, rather than putting limits on people through the punishing disincentives of burdensome taxes and the stifling structures of Labor’s corporate state and bureaucratic red tape.”

“We believe ... that businesses and individuals — not government — are the true creators of wealth and employment.”

To summarise, the individual is good, the collective is bad. Private good, public bad. Government is, at best, a necessary evil, to be kept to an absolute minimum.

Sorry, but this is just tribalism — the Liberal private tribe versus the Labor public tribe — masquerading as eternal truth. It’s phoney party-political product differentiation. Vote Liberal for low taxes; vote Labor for high taxes. Really? I hadn’t noticed much difference.

Private good/public bad makes no more sense than its left-wing opposite, public good/private bad. Both are a false dichotomy. It takes little thought to realise that the two sectors of the economy have different and complementary roles to play. One could not exist without the other, and we need a lot of both.

The individual and the collective. Competition and co-operation. Both sectors do much good; both can screw up. The hard part is finding the best combination of the two somewhere in the middle, not at either extreme.

As Frydenberg has often said, the budget’s strategy is to bring about a “business-led” recovery. This explains why most of the money it spends or gives up goes to business as tax breaks. Tax cuts and cash bonuses to individuals come a poor second and direct spending on job creation has largely been avoided.

Frydenberg justified this by saying that “eight out of every 10 jobs in Australia are in the private sector. It is the engine of the Australian economy.”

Surely he’s exaggerating, I thought on budget night. But I’ve checked and it’s true. Or rather, it is now. These days, 89 per cent of men and 81 per cent of women work in the private sector, leaving just 15 per cent of workers in the public sector.

In 1994, before the mania for privatisation and outsourcing took hold, 28 per cent of employees worked in the public sector (with two-thirds of those working for state governments).

The electricity, gas and water utilities used to be almost completely public sector. Now they’re 78 per cent private. Sale of the Commonwealth Bank, state banks and insurance companies mean the finance sector is almost totally private.

The sale of Qantas and Australian Airlines, ports and shipping, airports and much public transport means employment in the transport industry is 90 per cent private. Despite state government ownership of schools, TAFEs and universities, employment in education is now only 54 per cent public.

Despite health and community services being largely government-funded, three out of four workers are privately employed.

See what’s happened? With some help from their rivals, the Libs have worked tirelessly over the past 25 years moving workers from the Labor public tribe to the Liberal private tribe. Haven’t you noticed the big improvement?


Monday, October 26, 2020

Putting pollies back behind the wheel means a bumpier ride

This budget marks a historic shift in how the macro economy is managed. After 30 years, the dominant influence has moved from monetary policy (interest rates) to fiscal policy (the budget). Which means day-to-day economic power has transferred from the econocrats back to the politicians.

And as Paul Bloxham, of the HSBC bank, has reminded us, that means we’re in for a bumpier ride. It’s a fair bet that our days of a long gap between recessions are over and we’ll return to having recessions about every seven years, not every 30.

With monetary policy having run out of puff, the coronacession has seen almost all the heavy lifting left to fiscal policy. Whereas before, the Reserve Bank could cut interest rates to get households and businesses borrowing and spending, now it has to be the government that spends our way back to recovery and lower unemployment.

To see how big this change is, we must go back in time. In the Golden Age of the 30 years after World War II, governments in all the rich economies used their budgets – changes in taxes and government spending – to smooth the economy’s path through the business cycle and keep it never far from full employment.

In some years a small surcharge was added to the rates of income tax; in others, a small discount was subtracted. The role of monetary policy was subsidiary and subordinate. Central bankers’ job was always to keep interest rates low.

But after the first OPEC oil price shock of 1973 (just before I became an economic journalist) it became clear the developed economies had a chronic problem with inflation, It stayed high even when the economy turned down.

It took some years – and much argument - for the world’s economists and econocrats to decide why economies had begun to malfunction and what to do about it. They had to find a way to get inflation under control.

A new conventional wisdom developed that monetary policy should become the primary instrument used to stabilise the economy’s path through the business cycle, with fiscal policy relegated to the medium-term role of ensuring levels of public debt didn’t get too high.

After the failed experiment of using monetary policy to target growth in the supply of money (a quantity), it was decided that central banks should use the manipulation of short-term interest rates (a price) to target the rate of inflation directly. To do this successfully, each country’s central bankers would need independence of the elected government, thus giving them a free hand on rates.

The major developed countries got inflation back in its box in the 1980s and we followed in the ’90s, after a deep recession had knocked the stuffing out of the economy, and the Reserve Bank had adopted its present inflation target in 1994, with the incoming Howard government formalising the Reserve’s independence in 1996.

I think turning the setting of interest rates over to the econocrats does much to explain how we managed to go for almost 30 years without a serious recession. Under the pollies, rates had been set more to fit the electoral cycle than the business cycle, and macro management had been erratic.

By contrast, former governor Bernie Fraser raised rates in the run-up to the Keating government’s defeat in 1996 and former governor Glenn Stevens raise rates during the 2007 election campaign, at which the Howard government was defeated.

Another factor contributing to our record period without a recession was the micro-economic reforms – particularly the move away from centralised wage-fixing – that made the economy less inflation-prone and thus easier to keep on a stable course.

But with the demise of inflation has come the impotence of conventional monetary policy. The central bankers will do what they can to still look relevant but, really, it’s the politicians who are back at the economy’s driving wheel.

And the sad truth is that politicians rarely manage to put the economy’s best interests ahead of their political objectives. This year’s one-year, fold-away budget is a good example. We’re told it’s “all about jobs” but, in truth, its measures will do far less to create jobs than they could have because they’ve been chosen to advance the Liberals’ “core values” of “lower taxes and containing the size of government”.

This translates as keeping new government spending projects temporary and brief (because government spending favours poor people less likely to vote Liberal) and keeping tax cuts and tax breaks permanent (because these favour people more likely to vote Liberal).

Trouble is, the Smaller Government push fitted well with macro management being left to monetary policy, but it’s a bad fit with our new-found dependence on fiscal policy to get people back into jobs.

The bumpy ride we’re in for is unlikely to mean a return to high inflation (sometimes I wish it did). No, it means weak economic growth and high unemployment while the Coalition – and the voters – learn the hard way that, in today’s world, Smaller Government and full employment are incompatible.


Saturday, October 24, 2020

Budget's infrastructure spend more about sex appeal than jobs

Economists haven’t been enthused by inclusion in the budget’s big-ticket stimulus measures of $11.5 billion in road and rail projects. Why not? Because spending on “infrastructure” often works a lot better in theory than in practice.

Economists were more enthusiastic about infrastructure before the pandemic, when Scott Morrison’s obsession with debt and deficit had him focused on returning the budget to surplus at a time when this was worsening the growth in aggregate demand and slowing the economy’s return to full employment.

Reserve Bank governor Dr Philip Lowe pointed out that, unlike borrowing to cover the government’s day-to-day needs, borrowing to fund infrastructure was a form of investment. The new infrastructure could be used to yield benefits for decades to come, and so justify the money borrowed. Indeed, well-chosen infrastructure could increase the economy’s productive efficiency – its productivity – by, for instance, reducing the time it took workers to get to work or the cost of moving goods from A to B.

Another motivation was the high rates of population growth the government’s immigration program was causing. More people need more infrastructure if congestion and shortages aren’t to result, and thus worsen productivity.

But much has changed since then. The arrival of the worst recession in many decades has changed our priorities. We’re much less worried about debt and deficit and much more worried about getting the economy going up and unemployment coming down. And we don’t want economic growth so much to raise our material standard of living as to create more jobs for everyone needing to work.

Because infrastructure involves the government spending money directly, rather than using tax cuts and concessions to transfer money to households and businesses in the hope they’ll spend it, it should have a higher “multiplier effect” than tax cuts.

But as stimulus, infrastructure also has disadvantages. Big projects take a long time to plan and get approved, so their addition to gross domestic product may arrive after the recession has passed. And major infrastructure tends to be capital-intensive. Much of the money is spent on materials and equipment, not workers.

In a budget we’re told is “all about jobs”, many economists have noted that the same money would have created far more jobs had it been spent on employing more people to improve the delivery of many government-funded services, such as education, aged care, childcare and care of the disabled.

Most of those jobs are done by women. Infrastructure is part of the evidence for the charge that this is a “blokey” budget, all about hard hats and hi-viz vests.

If there’s a TV camera about, no one enjoys donning the hard hat and hi-viz more than our politicians – federal and state, Labor and Liberal, male and female. And it turns out that “high visibility” is another reason economists are less enthusiastic about infrastructure spending than they were.

In practice, many infrastructure projects aren’t as useful and productivity-enhancing as they could be because they’ve been selected to meet political objectives, not economic ones.

Politicians favour big, flashy projects – preferably in one of their own party’s electorates – that have plaques to unveil and ribbons to cut. It’s surprising how many of these projects are announced during election campaigns.

An expert in this field, who keeps tabs on what the pollies get up to, is Marion Terrill, of the Grattan Institute. She notes that since 2016, governments have signed up to 29 projects, each worth $500 million or more. But get this: only six of the 29 had business cases completed at the time the pollies made their commitment.

So “politicians don’t know – and seemingly don’t greatly care – whether it’s in the community’s interest to build these mega-projects,” she says.

Terrill says the $11.5 billion new infrastructure spending announced in the budget includes a mix of small and large projects, such as Queensland’s $750 million Coomera Connector stage one, and $600 million each for sections of NSW’s New England and Newell highways.

The money is being given to the state governments to spend quickly, and it will be taken back if they don’t spend it quickly enough.

Which they may not, because the new projects go into an already crowded market. Federal and state governments have been pumping money into transport construction for so long that, even two years ago, work in progress totalled an all-time high of about $100 billion.

By March this year – before the coronacession – the total had risen to $125 billion, Terrill calculates.

In some states at least, the civil construction industry – as opposed to the home construction industry – is already flat chat. It’s hardly been touched by the lockdown and doesn’t need the support it will be getting. Just how long it takes to work its way through to the new projects, we’ll see.

Terrill notes that the bulging pipeline of infrastructure construction built up before the pandemic was all about responding to the high population growth we’d had for years, and imagined we’d have forever.

But the pandemic’s closure of international borders – and parents’ reluctance to bring babies into such a dangerous world - has brought our population growth to a screaming halt. The budget papers predict negligible population growth this financial year and next, with only a slow recovery in following years. That is, we’re looking at a permanently lower level of population, and maybe a continuing slower rate of population growth.

Terrill says that, rather than ploughing on, we should reassess all the road and rail projects in the pipeline when we’ve got a clearer idea of what our future needs will be. And when we have a better idea how social distancing may have had a lasting effect on workers’ future travel and work patterns.

What’s so stupid about mindlessly piling up further transport projects is that the glitz-crazed pollies are ignoring a real and long-neglected problem: inadequate maintenance of the roads and rail we’ve already got. No sex appeal, apparently.


Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Budget is blokey because Morrison's 'core values' make it so

I'm sorry to have to agree, but Grattan Institute boss Danielle Wood is right to say this is a "blokey" budget. As are those who add it's a blokey budget from a blokey government.

Scott Morrison is offended by the charge, but the trouble is, the blokier you are, the harder it is to see what's blokey and what's not. Women see it sticking out, but blokes often can't.

The simple truth is that, over the centuries, what economists call the "institutional arrangements" that make up the economy have been designed by men, for the convenience of men. This was fine when the great majority of the paid (note that word) work was done by men, but not so fine now women are better educated than men and make up 47 per cent of the paid workforce.

It's because the blokiness of the way we've always managed the economy is so deeply ingrained in the way we've always thought about the economy that so many men can't see it. Outsiders can; insiders can't. To steal a phrase from the feminists of my youth, it's now the men who need the "consciousness raising".

(Of course, it's nothing new that people can see their own point of view – and their own vested interest – far better than they can see other people's.)

The first place a bias in favour of men is hidden is the division we make between the production of "goods" (by the agriculture, mining, manufacturing, utilities and construction industries) and the production of "services" by every other industry.

Kevin Rudd's declaration that he didn't want to be prime minister of a country that didn't "make things", and Morrison's similar noises recently, are manifestations of the truth that, in general, jobs in the goods sector are held in higher esteem than those that involve performing services.

Would it surprise you to learn that 79 per cent of the jobs in the goods sector are held by men whereas, in the almost four-times bigger services sector, 54 per cent of the jobs are held by women?

Would it surprise you that jobs held by men tend to be more senior and higher-paid than jobs held by women? Even within the services sector – which, of course, includes a lot of highly paid occupations, such as prime ministers and premiers, managers, doctors, dentists and lawyers.

Over the past 50 years, almost all the net growth in jobs has been in the service industries. This is because the production of goods has become increasingly "capital-intensive" (more of the work is done by machines), whereas the services sector is, by its nature, labour-intensive.

It's no accident that most of these extra service sector jobs have been filled by women, returning to the workforce or never really leaving it. Much of this growth has been in what the National Foundation for Australian Women's latest Gender Lens on the Budget report calls the "caring professions" – nursing, childcare, aged care and disabled care.

Would it surprise you that caring jobs are done mainly by women and tend to be low-status and low-paid? Surely it's obvious that being in charge of an expensive machine is a far more responsible role than being in charge of children, the elderly, the sick or disabled?

Although the coronacession is unusual in having its greatest effect on service industries, the budget sticks to the standard script of directing most stimulus to the goods sector: construction, energy, manufacturing and road and rail projects.

The concession to encourage more business investment in equipment favours capital-intensive goods industries over service industries. The tax cuts will go more to men than to women, especially after the middle-income tax offset is withdrawn next financial year.

But there's where the budget aims its stimulus and where it doesn't. No economic modelling should be taken as gospel truth, but modelling by Matt Grudnoff, of the Australia Institute, finds that bringing forward stage two of the government's tax plan will create only between 13,400 and 23,300 jobs – depending on how much of the cut is saved or is spent on imports.

By contrast, Grudnoff estimates that splitting the same $13 billion evenly between service industries – universities, childcare, healthcare, aged care and the creative arts – would create almost 162,000 jobs.

Modelling commissioned by the women's foundation from Dr Janine Dixon, of Victoria University, has found that redirecting government spending from infrastructure to the provision of greater care for children, the aged or the disabled would yield significantly greater benefit to the economy and jobs.

So why did Morrison and his Treasurer choose not to spend more on services sector jobs? Because this didn't fit with the "core values" that guided their choice of stimulus measures: "lower taxes and containing the size of government".

Although these days most of the heavily female-performed childcare, healthcare, aged care and disabled care has been contracted out to the community and private sectors, its cost is heavily subsidised by the taxpayer.

I bet it's never crossed Morrison's mind that his commitment to Smaller Government is biased against women and the further growth of female employment.


Monday, October 19, 2020

This one-year, fold-away budget won't do the trick

From the way the budget blows out debt and deficit, it may seem that Scott Morrison and Josh Frydenberg have stopped caring how much they rack up, but it ain’t so. This budget is just a one-year plan, which not only brings the handouts to an early stop, but then starts reeling much of the money back in.

This budget is like a fold-up bike you can put back in the boot after you’ve finished with it. Technically, its design is clever. But I fear it’s too clever by half.

If it turns out Morrison has turned off the budgetary stimulus too soon – as many business economists fear – he won’t have got the economy growing strongly enough and unemployment falling far enough.

His decision to turn the stimulus off so early – and to choose his budget measures based more on political correctness than job-creating effectiveness – may prove a great error of political (as well as economic) judgment as the election approaches in late next year or early 2022.

But let’s unfold Frydenberg’s one-year, fold-away budget. First, the two initial, big-ticket stimulus measures – the JobKeeper wage subsidy scheme and the temporary JobSeeker unemployment benefit supplement – have already been scaled back and their termination dates set.

The $17-billion dole supplement will end in December (with almost every dollar saved coming out of retailers’ cash registers) and JobKeeper will end in March, after a total cost of $101 billion.

First among the budget’s new measures is the immediate write-off for tax purposes of businesses’ capital equipment purchases. It will apply to new assets from now until June 2022, at a cost to revenue of $31 billion over the three years to June 2023.

But because this measure simply allows firms to deduct the cost of new equipment earlier than would otherwise apply, by the fourth year, 2023-24, firms are expected to be paying in excess of $4 billion more tax than they otherwise would have in that year.

Buried deep in the budget’s fine print you discover that what costs the revenue $31 billion in the first three years, ends up costing only a net $3 billion “over the medium term”.

Similarly, while the measure allowing companies (but not unincorporated firms) to carry back losses incurred in the three financial years to June 2022 for tax purposes will cost the revenue more than $5 billion in its first two years, by 2023-24 it will begin reeling the money back in. The net cost over the medium term is expected to be less than $4 billion.

Get it? Though the huge early cost of these measures, combined with the miniscule number of new jobs they are expected to create, makes them look like a giant handout to the government’s business supporters, in truth all they involve is a temporary improvement in businesses’ cash flows, as opposed to their profits.

Next, note that, though the JobMaker wage subsidy “hiring credit” has a cost of $4 billion over three years (with almost three-quarters of that hitting the budget next financial year), the scheme will be open only until October 7, 2021. The further cost to the budget after June 2022 will be minimal.

Finally, remember that the tax cut comes in two bits: the continuing tax cuts for people earning more than $90,000 a year, plus the temporary cost of the one-year extension of the misleadingly named “low and middle income tax offset”, aimed mainly at above-median tax-filers on $48,000 to $90,000.

Because the cash benefit of the temporary tax offset is delivered retrospectively, the two-year draw-forward of stage two (as opposed to its continuing cost from July 2022 on) will cost the budget about $7 billion this financial year and about $17 billion next year but – get this – add to revenue by almost $6 billion in 2022-23.

By then, much of this year’s budget will have been folded away.

Now you see why, after blowing out to $85 billion last financial year and an expected $213 billion this year, the budget deficit is expected almost to halve to $112 billion next year, and fall to $88 billion in 2022-23. (After that, the rate of improvement tapers off, with the deficit projected to take seven years to fall from 3 per cent of gross domestic product to 1.6 per cent.)

Question is, will the economy be able to keep up with this contraction in the budget? At present, the $101-billion JobKeeper is supporting 3.5 million workers – a quarter of all workers. It will end in March, to be replaced by the $4-billion JobMaker scheme for young workers. Doesn’t seem enough.


Friday, October 16, 2020

Budget is big on political correctness but weak on job creation

The more I study the budget, the less impressed I am. It spends a mint of money – which it should - but Scott Morrison and Josh Frydenberg have chosen its measures based on how well they fit the government’s "core values", not on whether they’re likely to deliver "bang for buck" – maximum jobs per dollar forgone.

The funny thing is, if you read the budget papers carefully, they admit that its measures were run through the filter of Liberal Party political correctness, while also providing enough information to allow us to calculate that its most expensive measures are expected to create surprisingly few jobs.

The budget papers say the government’s fiscal (budgetary) strategy "is consistent with the government’s core values of lower taxes and containing the size of government, guaranteeing the provision of essential services, and ensuring budget and balance sheet discipline".

Over the years, macro economists have given much thought to how well particular types of budget measures stimulate the economy and create jobs. They identify three broad categories of measures.

First, give tax breaks and incentives to businesses, in the hope that this will induce them to expand their operations, spending more on capital equipment and new employees.

Second, give tax cuts (or maybe one-off cash grants) to individual taxpayers or welfare recipients, in the hope that they will spend most of the money and thereby generate economic activity and jobs.

Those two categories involve the government making "transfer payments" from itself to households or firms. The third category is the government spending money directly by paying someone to build a house or an expressway or to work for the government and perform some service.

As a rule, economists expect direct spending to yield a greater stimulus (and thus have a higher "multiplier" effect) than transfer payments. That’s because all the government’s spending adds to demand for goods and services in the "first round", whereas some of the money you transfer to a firm or individual may be saved rather than spent, even in the first round.

Economists consider saving a "leakage" from the various rounds of the "circular flow of income" round and round the economy. Other leakages occur if the money is spent on imports rather than locally made goods and services.

Still on direct spending, if your primary goal is not so much to add to the production of goods and services (real gross domestic product) as to increase employment, you’d be better off directing your government spending to a labour-intensive purpose (employing an extra uni tutor or aged-care nurse, for instance), rather than a capital-intensive purpose, such as a new expressway.

Now let’s look at how the budget’s main measures fit these three categories. Its temporary measure to allow firms an immediate write-off of the cost of new equipment (costing the revenue $26.7 billion over four years), its temporary measure allowing firms to carry back current losses for tax purposes ($4.9 billion), its research and development tax incentive ($2 billion) and its temporary JobMaker "hiring credit" - wage subsidy – ($4 billion) add up to total revenue forgone under the first category of tax breaks to businesses of almost $38 billion.

This is far bigger than the money going to individual taxpayers and welfare recipients in the second category: personal tax cuts ($17.8 billion over four years) and "economic support payments" to pensioners ($2.5 billion), a total of just over $20 billion.

Under the third category, direct government spending on goods and services, the main measures are various infrastructure programs – mostly via grants to state governments - worth more than $10 billion over four years.

So you see how much the budget’s fiscal stimulus measures have been affected by the government’s "core values". No less than $38 billion goes as tax breaks to business, three-quarters of the $20 billion in transfers to individuals comes as tax cuts, leaving about $10 billion in direct spending going to the least labour-intensive purpose – transport infrastructure.

Now, according to the budget papers – or according to the budget "glossies" fudged up by ministerial staffers with lots of colour photos of good-looking punters – the government and its minions have estimated the number of jobs the top programs are expected to create.

The immediate asset write-off and loss carry-back for businesses is expected to create about 50,000 jobs. Is that a lot? Well, remembering we have a labour force of 13.5 million, it doesn’t seem much. And dividing the 50,000 into the budgetary cost of $31.6 billion gives a cost of $632,000 per job.

That’s infinitely more than any of those extra workers are likely to be paid, of course, and absolutely pathetic bang per buck. Giving money to business in the hope it will do wonders for "jobs and growth" is a classic example of "trickle-down economics". Clearly, a lot of the money doesn’t.

But, when you think about it, it’s not so surprising that so much money produces so few extra jobs. Why not? Because almost all the capital equipment Australian firms buy is imported. And because firms get the concession even if they don’t buy any more equipment than they would have done.

Next, the budget documents imply that the personal tax cuts worth $17.8 billion will create a further 50,000 jobs. That works out at $356,000 per job – still terrible bang per buck. Why so high? Too much of the tax cut is likely to be saved.

Finally, the budget documents tell us the $4 billion cost of the JobMaker hiring credit will yield "around 450,000 positions for young Australians". That’s a much better – but still high - $8900 per "position" – which I take to mean that a lot of the jobs won’t be lasting or full time.

So, what measures would have yielded better job-creation value? The ones rejected as politically incorrect: big spending on social housing, a permanent increase in the JobSeeker unemployment benefit – or even just employing more childcare workers.


Wednesday, October 14, 2020

Innovative: a two-class tax cut with disappearing cake

 Surely the most unfair criticism of Josh Frydenberg’s budget comes from the economist who said it was uninspiring. It’s the most innovative, creative document I can remember. With uncharacteristic modesty, he’s presented the tax cut that forms its centrepiece as just another cut, whereas in truth it’s like no other we’ve seen. Frydenberg will be remembered as the inventor of the two-class tax cut.

Those travelling first class get a big tax cut that’s permanent and will show up in their pay packet (or, these days, bank account) in a few weeks. Those in second class get a small tax cut that’s temporary, and they won’t see it until the second half of next year – which is when it will then be whipped away, leaving them paying more tax, not less.

This strange result arises because the second stage of last year’s three-stage tax plan was designed not to be of benefit to the great majority of taxpayers, those earning less than $90,000 a year. Also because of the great invention of Frydenberg’s predecessor as treasurer, Scott Morrison: the appetisingly named “low and middle income tax offset” – known to tax aficionados as the LaMIngTOn.

In its final form, announced in last year’s pre-election budget, the lamington provides an annual tax reduction of up to a princely $255 to taxpayers earning up to $37,000. Those earning between $37,000 and $48,000 have the size of their lamington phased up to $1080, with all those earning between $48,000 and $90,000 getting the full $1080 cake. Then it phases down to no cake at all by the time incomes reach $126,000.

That $1080 is equivalent to a tax cut of a bit less than $21 a week. But, being a “tax offset” rather than a regular tax cut, you don’t get your hands on it until you’ve submitted your tax return after the end of the financial year, and it’s included in your annual tax refund.

On the face of it, the second stage of the tax plan (which wasn’t intended to start until July 2022, but the budget brings forward to July this year) gives a tiny tax cut to those earning between $37,000 and $45,000 and a bigger cut that starts at incomes of $90,000 and keeps growing until income reaches $120,000 – by which time it’s worth $2430 a year, or about $47 a week.

Under the bonnet, however, stage two does something an old accountant such as me regards as quite clever. It whisks away the lamington and substitutes other things, without those who got it under stage one being any worse off.

Trouble is, while almost no one earning less than $90,000 would be worse off, nor would they be any better off. Taken by itself, stage two would give noticeable tax cuts only to those earning more than $90,000 (which is getting on for double the median taxpayer’s income).

Sound fair to you? It would be politically unsaleable. Nor would it fit with the government’s claim to have brought the tax cut forward purely to do wonders for “jobs and growth”.

So someone had a bright idea. While quietly whisking away the old lamington, introduce a new, identical lamington – but only for the present financial year. Problem solved. Every player gets a prize.

The 4.6 million taxpayers earning between $48,000 and $90,000 get a tax cut of $1080 or a little more, while the 1.5 million earning between $90,000 and $120,000 get up to $2430. Everyone earning more than $120,000 gets the flat $2430 (thanks, Josh).

All this was carefully spelt out in one of the sheaves of press releases Frydenberg issued on budget day. But the things he said in his televised budget speech didn’t quite fit his own facts.

“As a proportion of tax payable in 2017-18, the greatest benefits will flow to those on lower incomes – with those earning $40,000 paying 21 per cent less tax, and those on $80,000 paying around 11 per cent less tax this year,” he said.

“Under our changes, more than 7 million Australians receive tax relief of $2000 or more this year.”

Sorry. By comparing this financial year’s tax cuts not with last year’s, but with the tax we paid three years ago, in 2017-18, Frydenberg has managed to add last year’s tax cut to this year’s. For people receiving the lamington, that doubles the tax cut they’re supposedly receiving “this year”.

Why has Frydenberg chosen to describe his tax cut in such a misleading way? Because it helps disguise the truth that high-income earners are getting much bigger dollar savings than low- and middle-income earners.

Similarly, comparing tax cuts according to the percentage reduction in a person’s total tax bill is nothing more than playing with arithmetic – which, to be fair, every government does. Remember, if your income was so low you paid only $10 tax on it, I could change the tax system in a way that dropped you from the tax net and claim you’d had a 100 per cent tax reduction – which made you by far the biggest winner. Yeah, sure.


Monday, October 12, 2020

Budget’s easy future: no more surpluses, lots more tax cuts

Last week’s budget quietly brought about a historic shift in the fiscal policy “framework”: we moved from the Treasury puritanical view of what constitutes responsible budgeting, to the more licentious Republican view.

Until now, the Liberals have been committed to ending “debt and deficit”, but now they’ve decided they can live with both. The coronacession has left them with little choice, but there’s more to it.

America’s Republicans adhere to two fiscal principles: first, budget deficits are terrible things - but only because those appalling, big-spending Democrats are in charge. Second, once the Republicans are back in power, deficits are of less concern and no barrier to us granting our supporters big tax cuts.

Treasuries – including state treasuries – have a lot of firmly held views about what constitutes good public policy, but what they care about most – their sacred duty – is to keep the budget in balance.

Every time a recession pushes the budget into deficit, they fight untiringly until the economy’s recovery and much “fiscal consolidation” has returned the budget to balance. Their rationale for this obsession is that if they don’t care about balancing the budget, who will? The vote-buying politicians?

Early in the term of the Howard government, when the budget had still not fully recovered from the recession of the early 1990s, Treasury persuaded the Libs to enshrine this objective as their “medium-term fiscal strategy” - to “maintain budget balance, on average, over the course of the economic cycle”.

Successive Labor and Liberal governments have adopted that strategy with minor alteration.

After the Rudd government’s use of fiscal stimulus to avoid the Great Recession in 2009, it added a “deficit exit strategy” which committed it to “banking” any recovery in tax receipts and avoiding any policy changes (that is, tax cuts), as well as limiting real growth in government spending to an average of 2 per cent a year (a commitment Labor only pretended to keep).

In Tony Abbott’s first budget, the Libs’ “budget repair strategy” committed them to more than offset new spending measures by reductions in spending elsewhere, and to bank any improvement in the budget bottom line until a surplus of at least 1 per cent of gross domestic product had been achieved.

In Malcolm Turnbull’s first budget in 2016, however, he broke the commitment by deciding to cut the rate of company tax while the budget was still well short of surplus.

With that commitment out the window, it was easy in last year’s pre-election budget for Scott Morrison to promise a three-stage tax cut, spread from July 2018 to July 2024 and costing $300 billion over 10 years, purely on the strength of projections showing that tax collections would otherwise exceed the government’s ceiling of 23.9 per cent of GDP and keep soaring to 25.6 per cent by 2029-30. Immediately after its miraculous re-election, it rushed the plan into law.

It was always folly for any government committed to eliminating its debt to enact tax cuts five years into an uncertain future. The projections were overly optimistic at the time, but then the coronacession blew them away.

Tax collections are now expected to be only 21.8 per cent of GDP this financial year, and are projected only to have recovered to 22.9 per cent by 2030-31 – still way below the ceiling formerly said to justify a round of tax cuts.

Any government still committed to getting the budget back to surplus as soon as reasonably possible would have cancelled the legislated tax cuts – which now would be funded by borrowing – when further targeted-and-temporary government spending would be far more effective in creating jobs. Rate-scale tax cuts (as opposed to the one-year extension of the middle-income tax offset) are a continuing drag on the budget balance.

But no, rather than cut his coat according to his cloth, Scott Morrison has doubled down, bringing the second-stage tax cuts forward two years under the pretence it will do wonders for “jobs and growth”. The budget is projected still to be in a deficit of 1.6 per cent of GDP in 10 years’ time.

To make it all legit, however, the commitment to achieve budget surpluses on average has been junked and replaced with a new medium-term fiscal strategy merely to “focus on growing the economy in order to stabilise and reduce debt”, which will thereby “provide flexibility to respond to changing economic conditions”.

As the budget papers explain, and Josh Frydenberg has said, “with historically low interest rates, it is not necessary to run budget surpluses to stabilise and reduce debt as a share of GDP – provided the economy is growing steadily”.

Which is true. And the new, weaker medium-term strategy also provides the flexibility for governments to act like the Republicans and give a tax cut in response to changing political conditions. Happy days.


Saturday, October 10, 2020

The Liberal Keynes moves back into Treasury

For a man who, just months ago, was too prudish to say that dirty word “stimulus”, there’s now no doubt Treasurer Josh Frydenberg has become a card-carrying Keynesian. This week’s budget administers a huge Keynesian boost to our recessed economy. But he’s done it in a very Liberal way.

And, although the budget papers prefer to say “support” rather than “stimulus”, the man himself is always tossing off Keynesian jargon such as “aggregate demand” and burbling about the budget’s “automatic stabilisers”.

(John Maynard Keynes, BTW, was an avowed supporter of the British Liberal Party – although it was a different animal to our party of that name.)

According to the budget papers, the budget announced a further $73 billion in stimulus (plus $25 billion in virus-related health measures) over the next four years, on top of earlier spending of $159 billion.

Another way of judging the budget’s effect on aggregate (total) demand in the economy is to say the government expects the underlying cash deficit to increase from $85 billion last financial year to $213 billion this year.

This increase of $128 billion is equivalent to more than 6 per cent of gross domestic product. Unlike a strict Keynesian analysis, however, this takes the stimulus’ addition to the “structural component” of the budget balance, arising from the government’s explicit decisions to increase government spending or cut taxes, and combines it with the addition to the “cyclical component” made by the operation of the budget’s automatic stabilisers.

As the budget papers explain, “automatic stabilisers are features of the tax and transfer system that dampen the size of economic cycles without the need for explicit actions by policymakers. The government has allowed the automatic stabilisers to operate freely to dampen the effect of the COVID-19 shock.

“In a downturn, household and business after-tax income falls by less than before-tax income (for instance, due to progressivity in the tax system and [provisions for companies to deduct their losses from future - and now past – profits for tax purposes]) and transfer payments increase (due to increases in unemployment benefit payments and income-testing of other transfer payments).

“This provides an economic stimulus [whoops] that can reduce the magnitude of the downturn,” the papers say.

But Frydenberg wants to be clear that he’s embraced Keynesianism on his own terms. The budget papers say the economic recovery plan “is consistent with the government’s core values of lower taxes and containing the size of government, guaranteeing the provision of essential services, and ensuring budget and balance sheet discipline”.

And, as Frydenberg has said many times, the goal is to use budgetary stimulus to bring about a “business-led recovery”. I’d have thought that spending a lot of public money makes it a government-led recovery, but I think what he means is that most of the public money should be given to businesses, rather than being spent directly or given to punters.

Once you realise this, Frydenberg’s choices of what measures to include in the budget are easier to understand.

For instance, by far the most expensive measure – costing $27 billion over four years – is a temporary concession allowing businesses to deduct the full cost of all the new equipment they buy in the first year, rather than apportion the cost over the life of the asset.

Next are the personal income-tax cuts, costing $18 billion over the budget year and the three years of the “forward estimates”.

Then there’s infrastructure grants to the states of $7 billion, plus $2 billion for road safety improvements and upgrades. Then the $5 billion cost of letting loss-making businesses get an immediate tax deduction for their loss.

Only now do we get to the budget’s other centrepiece beside the tax cuts, the JobMaker hiring credit (wage subsidy) for employers who hire jobless young people under 35, which is the government’s replacement for the $101 billion JobKeeper wage subsidy scheme when it finishes in March. The new scheme will cost just $4 billion over three years.

Then we come to the cash splash payments to pensioners ($2.6 billion), $2 billion in new spending on aged care and $2 billion on a research and development tax incentive.

You see from this incomplete list how many of the budget’s measures seek to direct money into the hands of businesses: $34 billion in tax breaks and $4 billion in wage subsidies, compared with $20 billion in personal tax cuts and the pensioner cash splash.

Most of these measures are intended to get businesses investing and employing, but they do so by cutting the cost to them of capital equipment or labour. Those who would have invested and employed anyway are left better off, without taxpayers getting any value.

(And remember that one reason the government was happy to pay what it thought would be $130 billion for the JobKeeper scheme was that the money went to workers via their employer. This left businesses better off to the extent that their workers kept working.)

You do have to wonder whether all this spending would have done more to get the economy moving and unemployment falling if more of it had gone on job subsidies and less on investment incentives. Trying to get businesses investing in expanding their production rather than trying to get more people in jobs and spending on the things businesses produce seems to get things the wrong way round.

And you see that this “Liberal values” business-directed, tax-reducing approach to fiscal stimulus explains why the budget didn’t include the two measures economists most wanted to see because they’d do most to boost consumer spending and jobs: a big spend on social housing (a no-no under the rules of Smaller Government) and a permanent increase in unemployment benefits (almost every cent of which would have been spent).

The risk with Frydenberg’s politically correct stimulus is that too much of it will be saved. He needs to bone up on Keynes’ warning about the “paradox of thrift”.


Wednesday, October 7, 2020

Morrison's new goal: tax cuts adding to higher debt and deficit

This is the hanged-for-a-sheep-rather-than-a-lamb budget. Realising the coronacession means it will be ages before he can make good his premature claim to have the budget Back in Black, Scott Morrison has decided to go for broke (if you'll excuse the expression).

Many people have been anxious to see just how big Josh Frydenberg's expected budget deficit will be (a record $213 billion, dwarfing anything produced by the free-spending Kevin Rudd) and how much public debt it will leave us with (almost a net $1 trillion by June 2024, and continuing to grow every year until at least June 2031).

Mr Frydenberg is right to say that, if we want to get the economy moving and unemployment falling, he has no choice but to spend in giant licks. More concerning is whether all the money added to the debt has been chosen to deliver the greatest possible gain in jobs.

That's the problem. It hasn't. Although the plan to subsidise the wages of newly employed young people in their first year gets a big tick, the brought-forward and back-dated tax cut that is the centrepiece of this budget is among the least effective ways to create jobs.

That's because much evidence shows that a high proportion of tax cuts is saved rather than spent. This is particularly likely at present, when so many people fear they may be next to lose their job.

To be fair, Mr Frydenberg has not brought forward the third stage of the tax plan – still scheduled for July 2024 – which is slanted heavily in of favour high earners. It's well established that high income-earners save a higher proportion of tax cuts than lower income-earners.

If you remember, when stage one of these tax cuts allowed people getting the new "low and middle income tax offset" to receive a flat $1080 refund in July and August last year, Mr Frydenberg confidently predicted it would give a fillip to retail sales. Didn't happen.

Summarising, the new tax cut will be worth the equivalent of almost $21 a week to those earning between $50,000 and $90,000 a year, but about $47 a week to those earning more than $120,000 a year.

Mr Frydenberg justifies the tax cut by saying "we believe people should keep more of what they earn". Fine. But such a belief has little to do with this budget's stated goal, nor the justification for adding to the deficit: it's "all about jobs".

This tax cut is much more about political popularity than getting the economy out of recession.

The government has made much of its efforts to limit the rise in deficits and debt by keeping new spending measures temporary. But the cost of the changed tax scales will roll on forever.

When the Economic Society of Australia surveyed 49 leading economists recently, asking them to choose the four programs that would be most effective in supporting recovery, only 10 of them nominated bringing forward the legislated tax cuts.

So what measures did they favour? More than half wanted spending on social housing (which creates employment in the housing industry, adds to our stock of homes and helps the disadvantaged).

Half the economists wanted a permanent increase in JobSeeker unemployment benefits (because $40 a day is below the poverty line and any increase is almost certain to be spent).

But those two top preferences have been ignored in this budget.

By contrast, some of the measures that are in the budget didn't raise much enthusiasm. An expanded investment allowance for business got support from only 29 per cent of the economists – presumably because it wasn't expected to be very effective. At best, it's likely to draw forward some of the spending on capital equipment that would have been spent in later years.

And even spending on infrastructure projects was preferred by only 20 of the 49 economists – perhaps because too much of it goes on wasteful projects.

The government's two main stimulus measures – the JobKeeper wage subsidy and the JobSeeker temporary supplement – have been most successful in breaking the economy's fall.

But they were cut back from the end of September, and this budget doesn't change the plan to end them from March and December respectively.

If the measures in the budget prove insufficient to fill the gap their withdrawal leaves, and so keep the recovery progressing, it will be because the government has been too quick to limit its spending and replace it with tax cuts.


Monday, October 5, 2020

Smaller Government has failed, but let's cut taxes anyway

Think about this: despite a rocketing budget deficit, Scott Morrison is planning to press on with, and even bring forward, highly expensive tax cuts for high income-earners at just the time we’re realising that the 40-year pursuit of Smaller Government has been a disastrous failure.

Wake-up No. 1: the tragic consequences of the decision to outsource hotel quarantine in Victoria have confirmed what academic economists have long told us, and many of us have experienced. Contracting out the provision of public services to private operators cuts costs at the expense of quality.

Wake-up No. 2: efforts to keep the lid on the growing cost of aged care have given us appalling treatment of the old plus high profits to for-profit providers and some not-for-profits seeking to cross-subsidise other activities.

A new report by Dr Stephen Duckett and Professor Hal Swerissen, of the Grattan Institute, summarises the aged care system’s “litany of failures”, as revealed by the royal commission, as “unpalatable food, poor care, neglect, abuse and, most recently, the tragedies of the pandemic”.

There was a time when aged care was provided by governments, particularly in Victoria and Western Australia. But as the population has aged, successive federal governments have sought to limit the role of government by having aged care provided first by religious and charitable organisations and then by for-profit businesses.

The report’s authors note how little we spend on aged care. Countries with well-functioning aged care – such as the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden and Japan – spend between 3 and 5 per cent of gross domestic product, whereas we spend 1.2 per cent.

“Rather than ensuring an appropriately regulated market, the government’s primary focus has been to constrain costs,” they say. When old people are assessed for at-home care or for residential care, the emphasis is less on their needs than on their eligibility for less-costly or more-costly support.

Partly because of the failure to set out clear standards for the quality of the care the community should be providing to our elderly – presumably, because keeping it vague helps limit costs – the system has become “provider-centric”.

Over the past two decades, the provision of aged care has increasingly been regarded by government as a market. “Residential facilities got bigger, and for-profit providers flooded into the system. Regulation did not keep pace with the changed market conditions,” the authors say.

But, though you’d better believe the profit motive of for-profit providers is super real, anyone who’s done even high-school economics could tell that the aged-care “market” offers nothing like the countervailing forces that textbooks describe.

The royal commission’s interim report found “it is a myth that aged care is an effective consumer-driven market”. A myth instigated and perpetuated by the Smaller Government brigade.

Duckett and Swerissen say that, “in practice, providers have much more information, control and influence than consumers. In residential care, a veil of secrecy makes it very difficult for consumers to make judgments about key quality variables such as staffing levels.”

Rather than turning aged care into a well-functioning market, “the so-called reforms resulted in for-profit providers increasingly dominating the system. The number of for-profit providers has nearly tripled in the past four years, from 13 per cent in 2016 to 36 per cent in 2019".

Even the Land of the Free has instituted a five-star system for ranking residential institutions to better inform the aged and their families. We haven’t bothered. But research for the royal commission shows that a majority of providers have staffing levels below three stars. And, the authors add, it doesn’t necessarily follow that the more you pay, the higher the quality.

Residential aged care can be so offputting that it’s gone from being a lifestyle choice to a last resort. So great is the public’s aversion to aged care that the government has had to offer a range of at-home assistance packages.

But, consistent with the half-arsed pursuit of Smaller Government, the government has allowed a waiting list of about 100,000 people to build up. And, since the packages are delivered by private providers, amazing proportions of the cost can be eaten up by “administrative costs”.

Duckett and Swerissen say that, while (much) more money is needed, this won’t be enough to fix the problem without not only better regulation but fundamental change in principles, governance and incentives. Access to extra funding should be tightly scrutinised so the money goes to upgrade staffing and not to greater profits for wealthy owners of provider businesses.

Back to tomorrow’s budget. The strongest motivation behind the Quixotic quest for Smaller Government is the desire of the better-off to pay lower taxes. Like Don Quixote, it has failed. Fixing it will cost billions. But blow that, let’s cut taxes regardless.