Monday, August 14, 2023

Hate rising prices? Please blame supply and demand, not me

Have you noticed how, to many economists, everything gets back to the interaction of supply and demand? Understand this simple truth and you know all you need to know. Except that you don’t. It leaves much to be explained.

Why has the cost of living suddenly got much worse? Because the demand for goods and services has been growing faster than the economy’s ability to supply those goods and services, causing businesses to put their prices up.

Since there is little governments can do to increase supply in the short term, the answer is to use higher interest rates to discourage spending. Weaker demand will make businesses much less keen to keep raising their prices. If you hit demand really hard, you may even oblige businesses to lower their prices a little.

But, as someone observed to me recently, saying that everything in the economy is explained by supply and demand is a bit like saying every plane crash is explained by gravity. It’s perfectly true, but it doesn’t actually tell you much.

Consider this. After rising only modestly for about a decade, rents are now shooting up. Why? Well, some people will tell you it’s because almost half of all rental accommodation has been bought by mum and dad investors using borrowed money (“negative gearing” and all that).

The sharp rise in interest rates over the past year or so has left many property investors badly out of pocket, so they’ve whacked up the rent they’re charging.

Ah no, say many economists (including a departing central bank governor), that’s not the reason. With vacancy rates unusually low, it means that the demand for places to rent is very close to the supply available, and landlords are taking advantage of this to put up their prices.

So, what’s it to be? I think it’s some combination of the two. Had the vacancy rate been high, mortgaged landlords would have felt the pain of higher interest rates but been much less game to whack up the rent for fear of losing their tenants.

But, by the same token, it’s likely that the coincidence of a tight housing market with a rise in interest rates has made the rise in rents faster and bigger than it would have been. It would be interesting to know whether landlords with no debt have increased their prices as fast and as far as indebted landlords have.

The point is that knowing how the demand and supply mechanism works doesn’t tell you much. It doesn’t allow you to predict what will happen to either supply or demand, nor tell you why they’ve moved as they have.

It’s mainly useful for what economists call “ex-post rationalisation” – aka the wisdom of hindsight.

Economic theory assumes that all businesses – including landlords – are “profit-maximising”. But in their landmark book, Radical Uncertainty, leading British economists John Kay and Mervyn King make the heretical point that, in practice rather than in textbooks, firms don’t maximise their profits.

Why not? Well, not because they wouldn’t like to, but because they don’t know how to. There is a “price point” that would maximise their profits, but they don’t know what it is.

To economists, when you’re just selling widgets, it’s a matter of finding the right combination of “p” (the price charged) and “q” (the quantity demanded). Raising p should increase your profit – but only if what you gain from the higher p is greater than what you lose from the reduction in q as some customers refuse to pay the higher price.

What you need to know to get the best combination of p and q is “the price elasticity of demand” – the customers’ sensitivity to changes in price. In textbooks or mathematical models, the elasticity is either assumed or estimated via some empirical study conducted in America 30 years ago.

In real life, you just don’t know, so you feel your way gently, always standing ready to start discounting the price if you realise you’ve gone too far. And the judgments you make end up being influenced by the way you feel, the way your fellow traders feel, what you think the customers are feeling and how they’d react to a price rise.

How flesh-and-blood people behave in real markets is affected by mood, emotion, sentiment, norms of socially acceptable behaviour and other herding behaviour – all the factors that economists knowingly exclude from their models and know little about.

Keynes called all this “animal spirits”. Youngsters would call it “the vibe of the thing”. It’s psychology, not economics. And it’s because conventional economics attempts to predict what will happen in the economy without taking account of airy-fairy psychology that economists’ forecasts are so often wrong.

They may know more about how the economy works than the rest of us, but there’s still a lot they don’t know. Worse, many of them don’t think they need to know it.

It’s clear to me that psychology has played a big part in the great post-pandemic price surge. It didn’t cause it, but it certainly caused it to be bigger than it might have been.

The pandemic’s temporary disruptions to supply and the Ukraine war’s disruption to fossil fuels and food supply provided a cast-iron justification for big price rises, and it was a simple matter for businesses to add a bit extra for the shareholders.

It was clear to the media that big price rises were on the way, so they went overboard holding a microphone in front of every industry lobbyist willing to make blood-curdling predictions about price rises on the way. (I’m still waiting to see the ABC’s prediction of the price of coffee rising to $8 a cup.)

Thus did recognition that the time for margin-fattening had arrived spread from the big oligopolists to every corner store. One factor that constrains the prices of small retailers is push-back from customers – both verbal and by foot.

All the media’s fuss about imminent price rises softened up customers and told the nation’s shopkeepers there would be little push-back to worry about.

In the home rental market, dominated as it is by amateur small investors, who rightly worry about losing a tenant and having their property unoccupied for more than a week or two, it’s the commission-motivated estate agents who know when’s the right time to urge landlords to raise the rent, and how big an increase they can be confident of getting away with. 

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Friday, August 11, 2023

Don't be so sure we'll soon have inflation back to normal

Right now, we’re focused on getting inflation back under control and on the pain it’s causing. But it’s started slowing, with luck we’ll avoid a recession, and before long the cost of living won’t be such a worry. All will be back to normal. Is that what you think? Don’t be so sure.

There are reasons to expect that various factors will be disrupting the economy and causing prices to jump, making it hard for the Reserve Bank to keep inflation steady in its 2 per cent to 3 per cent target range.

Departing RBA governor Dr Philip Lowe warned about this late last year, and the Nobel Laureate Michael Spence, of Stanford University, has given a similar warning.

A big part of the recent surge in prices came from disruptions caused by the pandemic and the invasion of Ukraine. Such disruptions to the supply (production) side of the economy are unusual.

But Lowe and Spence warn that they’re likely to become much more common.

For about the past three decades, it was relatively easy for the Reserve and other rich-country central banks to keep the rate of inflation low and reasonably stable.

You could assume that the supply side of the economy was just sitting in the background, producing a few percentage points more goods and services each year, in line with the growth in the working population, business investment and productivity improvement.

So it was just a matter of using interest rates to manage the demand for goods and services through the undulations of the business cycle.

When households’ demand grew a bit faster than the growth in supply, you raised interest rates to discourage spending. When households’ demand was weaker than supply, you cut interest rates to encourage spending.

It was all so easy that central banks congratulated themselves for the mastery with which they’d been able to keep things on an even keel.

In truth, they were getting more help than they knew from a structural change – the growing globalisation of the world’s economies as reduced barriers to trade and foreign investment increased the trade and money flows between the developed and developing economies.

The steady growth in trade in raw materials, components and manufactured goods added to the production capacity available to the rich economies. Oversimplifying, China (and, in truth, the many emerging economies it traded with) became the global centre of manufacturing.

This huge increase in the world’s production capacity – supply – kept downward pressure on the prices of goods around the world, thus making it easy to keep inflation low.

Over time, however – and rightly so – the spare capacity was reduced as the workers in developing countries became better paid and able to consume a bigger share of world production.

Then came the pandemic and its almost instantaneous spread around the world – itself a product of globalisation. But no sooner did the threat from the virus recede than we – and the other rich countries – were hit by the worst bout of inflation in 30 years or so.

Why? Ostensibly, because of the pandemic and the consequences of our efforts to limit the spread of the virus by locking down the economy.

People all over the world, locked in their homes, spent like mad on goods they could buy online. Pretty soon there was a shortage of many goods, and a shortage of ships and shipping containers to move those goods from where they were made to where the customers were.

Then there were the price rises caused by Russia’s war on Ukraine and by the rich economies’ trade sanctions on Russia’s oil and gas. So, unusually, disruptions to supply – temporary, we hope – are a big part of the recent inflation surge.

But, the central bankers insist, the excessive zeal with which we used government spending and interest-rate cuts to protect the economy and employment during the lockdowns has left us also with excess demand for goods and services.

Not to worry. The budget surplus and dramatic reversal of interest rates will soon fix that. Whatever damage we end up doing to households, workers and businesses, demand will be back in its box and not pushing up prices.

Which brings us to the point. It’s clear to Lowe, Spence and others that disruptions to the supply side of the economy won’t be going away.

For a start, the process of globalisation, which did so much to keep inflation low, is now reversing. The disruption to supply chains during the pandemic is prompting countries to move to arrangements that are more flexible, but more costly.

The United States’ rivalry with China, and the increasing imposition of trade sanctions on countries of whose behaviour we disapprove, may move us in the direction of trading with countries we like, not those offering the best deal. If so, the costs of supply increase.

Next, the ageing of the population, which is continuing in the rich countries and spreading to China and elsewhere. This reduction in the share of the population of working age reduces the supply of people able to produce goods and services while the demand for goods and services keeps growing. Result: another source of upward pressure on prices.

And not forgetting climate change. One source of higher prices will be hiccups in the transition to renewable energy. No new coal and gas-fired power stations are being built, but the existing generators may wear out before we’ve got enough renewable energy, battery storage and expanded grid to take their place.

More directly, the greater frequency of extreme weather events is already regularly disrupting the production of fruit and vegetables, sending prices shooting up.

Drought prompts graziers to send more animals to market, causing meat prices to fall, but when the drought breaks, and they start rebuilding their herds, prices shoot up.

Put this together and it suggests we’ll have the supply side exerting steady underlying – “structural” – pressure on prices, as well as frequent adverse shocks to supply. Keeping inflation in the target range is likely to be a continuing struggle.

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Wednesday, August 9, 2023

Universities teach us much about government mismanagement

I’m starting to worry about Anthony Albanese and his government. As politicians go, they’re a good bunch. Well-intentioned, smart and hard-working. Only occasionally got at by their union mates.

They’re anxious to fix things, which is surely what we elect our politicians to do. Things the previous lot either neglected or worsened. But, like all pollies, their overriding objective is to stay in office.

And I fear they lack what John Howard called the “ticker” to make the tough decisions. To knock heads together when needed. To make the unpopular decisions their predecessors shied away from.

Above all, to say to voters what a tradie says to a home owner: “I can fix it, but it’s gonna cost ya.”

Everywhere you look in the federal space you find problems: aged care, the National Disability Insurance Scheme, government employees who’ve gone for years being underpaid, especially women in the “caring economy”, who’ve been exploited for decades. Medicare, with its overstretched hospitals and staff, overpaid specialists and underpaid GPs. The way the increasing frequency of extreme weather events is making insurance unaffordable.

Housing – whether it’s home ownership or renting. The decades of neglect of public housing. The rundown of the public service and its expertise and its replacement by untrustworthy management consultants charging exorbitantly for self-serving advice.

What many of these problems have in common is that they’re the consequence of both parties’ decades-long experiment with “smaller government” and lower taxes and the always-dubious notion that, because the private sector is inherently more efficient than the public sector, handing institutions over to private owners and the provision of various public services over to for-profit providers would leave us much better off.

No. Government is smaller only because so many of its bits have been sold off. The new private owners have rarely hesitated to whack up their charges, but our taxes don’t seem any lower. Put it together, and we’re paying more for services whose quality has declined.

Education Minister Jason Clare’s plans to fix universities are an extreme example of supposed “reform” gone wrong.

Last month, he issued an interim report promising five immediate actions to start fixing the sector’s many problems, ahead of the more comprehensive changes to be proposed in the accord panel’s final report in December.

These involve setting up 20 additional “study hubs” in regional areas plus up to 14 outer-suburban hubs, abolishing the Morrison government’s rule requiring students who fail to pass 50 per cent of their courses to be sent away, giving uni places to all First Nations students who meet the eligibility requirement for the course, guaranteeing uni funding for a further two years, and persuading state governments to appoint more people to uni councils who actually know something about universities.

That list is too modest to fault, but nor is it likely to do much good. When it comes to universities, everywhere you look you find problems. The academics tell you the government isn’t giving them enough money to do good research; the students tell you the teaching isn’t good enough, with too much of it palmed off onto casuals. Too many students drop out of their courses without anyone much caring. Young graduates seeking a career in academia get no job security and are treated badly.

The Morrison government’s crazy Job-ready Graduates scheme cut the tuition fees for degrees it approved of – teaching, nursing and agriculture – while doubling the fees for the humanities degrees it disapproved of. There’s been no decline in people doing arts degrees, just a lot more debt for those who do.

The HECS student loans started life in the late 1980s as carefully designed and fair, but governments’ attempts to get the money repaid faster have stuffed up the fairness.

The plain truth is that successive governments have brought about a sort of back-door privatisation of our universities with disastrous results. They’ve been trying for ages to get the unis off the federal budget. Their big let-out has been to allow the unis free rein in overcharging overseas students.

They’ve succeeded in giving unis the worst of both worlds. Unis have been filled with layers of high-paid managers, whose main role seems to be to annoy the academics. If businesses can fill up with casuals and keep accidentally underpaying people, we can too.

Vice-chancellors have become fund-raisers, always hunting for new sources of revenue. They spend much time finding ways to game the various international rankings of universities, which impresses the parents of overseas students and allows the big-city unis to charge higher fees.

One problem for Clare is that though the unis are agreed the system is bad and needs big change, they can never agree on what the changes should be.

But the biggest problem is that nothing can be fixed without costing the government a lot of money. This is where Clare risks raising expectations the government can’t meet. We’re stuck with smaller government in the sense that the pollies aren’t game to ask us to pay more for a better one.

Read more >>

Monday, August 7, 2023

Why you should and shouldn't believe what you're told about inflation

If you don’t believe prices have risen as little as the official figures say, I have good news and bad. The good news is that most Australians agree with you. The bad news is that, with two important qualifications, you’re wrong.

Last week the officials – the Australian Bureau of Statistics – reminded us of a truth that economists and the media usually gloss over: the rate of inflation, as measured by the consumer price index, can be an unreliable guide to the cost of living. Especially now.

But first, many people who go to the supermarket every week are convinced they know from personal experience that prices are rising faster than the CPI claims. Wrong. Your recollection of the price rises you’ve noticed at the supermarket recently is an utterly unreliable guide to what’s been happening to consumer prices generally.

For a start, only some fraction of the things households buy are sold in supermarkets. The CPI is a basket of the manifold goods and services we buy – some weekly, some rarely.

Apart from groceries, the basket includes the prices of clothing and footwear, furnishings, household equipment and services, healthcare, housing, electricity and gas, cars, petrol and public transport, internet fees and subscriptions, recreational equipment and admission fees, local and overseas holidays, school fees, insurance premiums and much more.

But the main reason no one’s capable of forming an accurate impression of how much prices have risen is our selective memories. Have you noticed that no one ever thinks prices have risen by less than the CPI says?

That’s because we remember the big price rises we’ve seen – they’re “salient”, as psychologists say; they stick out – but quickly forget the prices that have fallen a bit. Nor do we take much notice of prices that don’t change. We don’t, but the statisticians do – as they should to get an accurate measure of the rise in the total cost of all the stuff in the basket.

Sometimes the price of the latest model of a car or appliance has risen partly because it now does more tricks. Because they’re trying to measure “pure” price increases, the statisticians will exclude the cost of this “quality increase”.

My son, who watches his pennies, was sure the eggheads in Canberra wouldn’t have noticed “shrinkflation” – reducing the contents of packets without changing the price. No. This trick’s intended to fool the unwary punter; it doesn’t fool the statisticians. It counts as a price rise.

But now for the two reasons the CPI can indeed be misleading. The first is that averages can conceal as much as they reveal. Remember the joke about the statistician who, with his head in the oven and his feet in the fridge, said he was feeling quite comfortable on average.

The most recent news that, according to the CPI, prices rose by 0.8 per cent in the three months to the end of June, and 6 per cent over the year to June, was an average of all the households – young, middle-aged and old; smokers and non-smokers, drinkers and teetotallers, no kids and lots, renters, home buyers and outright owners – living in the eight capital cities.

Now note this. Economists, politicians and the media tend to treat the CPI and the “cost of living” as synonymous. But if you read the fine print, the bureau says that, while the CPI is a reasonably accurate measure of the prices of the goods and services in its metaphorical basket, it’s not, repeat not, a measure of anyone’s cost of living.

Why not? Partly because it does too much averaging of households in very different circumstances, but mainly because of the strange – and, frankly, misleading – way it measures the housing costs of people with mortgages.

The cost of being a home buyer is the interest component of your monthly payments on your mortgage.

But that’s not the way the CPI measures the cost of home buying. Rather, it’s measured as the price of a newly built house or unit. Which makes little sense. Many people with mortgages haven’t bought a new home.

And even those people who did buy a newly built home, did so some years ago when house prices were lower than they are now.

The bureau changed to this strange arrangement a couple of decades ago. Why? Because the Reserve Bank pressured it to. Why? Well, as you well know, the Reserve uses its manipulation of interest rates to try to keep the annual rate at which prices are rising, as measured by the CPI, between 2 and 3 per cent on average.

But, after it had adopted that target in the mid-1990s, it decided that it didn’t want the “instrument” it was using to influence prices – interest rates – to be included in the measure of prices it was targeting, the CPI.

So, the bureau – unlike other national statistical agencies – switched to measuring home buyers’ housing costs in that strange way. And the bureau began publishing, in addition to the CPI, various “living cost indexes” for “selected household types”.

The main difference between these indexes and the CPI is that home buyers’ housing cost is measured as the interest they’re paying on their loans, not the cost of a newly built house. But, of course, different types of households will have differing collections of goods and services in the basket of things they typically buy.

So, whereas the CPI tells us that prices rose by 6 per cent over the year to the end of June, the living cost indexes show rises varying between 6.3 per cent and 9.6 per cent.

Among the four selected household types (which between them cover about 90 per cent of all households), the type with the highest price rises was the employees, whose costs rose by 9.6 per cent overall.

That’s mainly because most of the people with mortgages would be is this category. Mortgage interest charges rose by 9.8 per cent in the quarter and (hang onto your hat) by 91.6 per cent over the year.

At the other end of the spectrum, supposedly “self-funded retirees” had the lowest living-cost increase of 6.3 per cent – mainly because almost all of them would own their homes outright.

Then come age pensioners, with cost rises of 6.7 per cent – few with mortgages, but some poor sods renting privately.

And finally, “other government transfer recipients” - those of working age, including people on unemployment benefits, on the disability pension and some students. They’re costs are up 7.3 per cent. Some of these would have mortgages, most would have seen big rent rises.

What this proves is that using interest rates to control prices makes the cost of living worse before making it better.

Read more >>

Friday, August 4, 2023

NSW Treasury's new realism: productivity won't be speeding up

Have you noticed how people keep banging on about “productivity” these days? That’s because it’s the secret sauce of economics, the bit that comes closest to giving us a free lunch. But also because we haven’t actually been getting much of it lately.

Unfortunately, that’s made productivity a happy hunting ground for bulldust propositions. So let’s spell out exactly what productivity is.

A business – or a whole economy – improves its productivity when it finds ways to produce more outputs of goods and services with the same inputs of raw materials, labour and physical capital.

Sounds a great idea, but how is it possible? Short answer: advances in technology. Workers become more productive when they’re given tools and machines to work with. Many improvements in technology are designed to make workers more productive.

Better education and training make workers more productive by increasing their “human capital”. Even finding better ways to organise factories and offices can improve productivity. So can be teaching bosses better ways to jolly along their troops.

In my writing about the topic, I always focus on the simplest and least inaccurate way of measuring productivity. The productivity of labour is just output per worker or, better, output per hour worked.

Another approach would be to measure the productivity of the other main “factor of production”, capital equipment and constructions: output per unit of capital employed.

But economists often prefer to focus on “total-factor productivity” (or “multifactor productivity” as the statisticians prefer to call it): the growth in output (gross domestic product) that can’t be explained by increased use of labour and capital.

Economists have discovered that most of the improvement in people’s material standard of living over the years and centuries has come from improvement in total-factor productivity. This is why economists seem so obsessed by it. Keep productivity improving and we get wealthier.

But, as you see, total-factor productivity can’t be measured directly. It’s measured as a residual – what’s left when you take GDP and subtract two different things – which increases the chance your measurement is wrong.

And the truth is, economists don’t know as much about what causes productivity improvement as they ought to. That’s why they’ve spent the past decade debating the reasons that productivity growth has slowed significantly in all the advanced economies, not just Australia.

Theories abound, but there’s no agreement. And while we’re hearing plenty of tub-thumping sermons from business people (and central bankers) with their own axes to grind, there’s no agreement on what we should be doing apart from blaming the government and demanding it do something.

But last year, Professor Thomas Philippon of New York University wrote a working paper that offered a quite different explanation for the weak productivity growth we’ve been experiencing.

Conventional economic theory assumes that total-factor productivity grows “exponentially”, but Philippon has examined America’s productivity figures since 1947 – and done the same for a large group of other advanced economies – and found the growth has merely been “linear”.

Huh? Try this. If you have $100 growing 2 per cent each year, that’s exponential. If instead it just grows by $2 a year, that’s linear. Exponential growth is a fixed percentage rate; linear growth is a fixed absolute amount. The first $2 is 2 per cent of $100, but over the years the percentage rate of growth slowly declines.

So Philippon is saying we’ve been expecting productivity to grow at a much faster percentage rate than we should have been. Because its growth is “additive” rather than “multiplicative”, its annual percentage growth is declining.

The assumption that productivity improvement is exponential implies that innovation today makes further discoveries easier in the future. Philippon, however, finds that new ideas add to our stock of knowledge, but they don’t multiply it.

In the NSW Treasury’s new research paper, Trends in productivity: What should we expect, Keaton Jenner and Angus Wheeler have replicated Philippon’s exercise for Australia, getting similar results.

Whereas the standard exponential model implies that total-factor productivity should have grown at the annual rate of 1.7 per cent between 1983 and 2019, they find this significantly overshoots actual productivity growth.

But the new, additive model implies that productivity increases by 0.024 points per year, with an annual growth rate that tapers down from 1.25 per cent in 1984 to 0.9 per cent in 2019.

So, Philippon’s additive model yields what would have been a much more accurate – though still slightly optimistic – forecast.

This suggests that, without some major new “general-purpose” technological advance (such as the spread of electricity, or the internal-combustion engine), the model predicts that total-factor productivity growth will slowly fall to zero per cent.

But this doesn’t mean living standards wouldn’t continue to improve. Because living standards are powered by the productivity of labour, the authors find, they would grow by increasingly larger absolute amounts, but not at a steady, exponential rate of growth.

In the NSW government’s intergenerational report in 2021, productivity projections were based on the historical 30-year average exponential rate of 1.2 per cent a year. Other assumptions meant that real gross state product was projected to grow at an average rate of 2.2 per cent a year out to 2041.

The authors repeat this exercise using an additive productivity model and find that annual growth in labour productivity declines from 1 per cent to 0.8 per cent over the 20 years to 2041. This means an average annual rate of growth in real gross state product of 1.9 per cent – 0.3 percentage points lower that projected in the 2021 report.

The authors point out that, if realised, the NSW economy would be about 7 percentage points smaller in 2041 than was projected in the report two years’ ago. This, in turn, would have “material implications” for the government’s revenue base and budget balance, assuming no offsetting reduction in government spending.

It will be interesting to see if Victoria and the other state governments recalibrate their projections using this new, more pessimistic – but more realistic – view of the future.

Read more >>

Wednesday, August 2, 2023

What a future: impossible climate, a life of renting and a crappy job

The older I get, the more I worry about the nightmare we oldies are leaving for our children and grandchildren. The obvious, in-your-face problem is climate change, but other difficulties are everywhere you look.

Now the northern hemisphere has been introduced to the joys of bushfires and heatwaves with, I imagine, a cleanser of flooding to come, global warming has become global boiling. Climate change is now — and will get a lot worse even before we oldies have popped off.

We wasted decades worrying about the economic cost of doing something about climate change, now we’re facing the daunting economic costs of not having done anything about climate change.

We’ve exchanged a government of closet climate-change deniers for a government that knows what it should do, but is dragging its feet under the influence of two powerful unions representing the interests of a relative handful of mine workers who don’t want to look for jobs elsewhere.

Then there’s the way the older generation of home owners has allowed the lure of ever-rising house prices to permit successive governments to turn housing into an inheritance lottery.

Australia is dividing into two distant tribes: the owners and the renters. If you have the good fortune to be born to home-owning parents (perhaps with an investment property or two on the side), the Bank of Mum and Dad will ensure you too eventually become a home owner, able to pass your good fortune on to your own kids.

But pick renters as your parents — or have too many siblings — and you, like them, will be a life-long renter. As will your kids.

And, naturally, governments couldn’t possibly oblige landlords to give their tenants more security and better maintenance without the landlords giving up and leaving thousands homeless on the streets. (Yeah, sure.)

HECS HELP debt is adding to the difficulty of making it onto the home ownership merry-go-round. The scheme was designed to have people who benefit from a university education contribute towards its cost without discouraging kids from poor families from seeking to better themselves.

But incessant tinkering by successive governments has turned HECS into a millstone.

And all that’s before you get to the gig economy, better thought of as the rise of insecure employment. The security of having a full-time, permanent job is something the older generation has been able to take for granted. Not so the youngsters.

In the latest surge of inflation, businesses haven’t hesitated to pass on to customers the higher cost of imported inputs, often seeming to add a bit extra for luck.

But in the decade or two before then, price rises were modest, sometimes even falling below 2 per cent a year, despite healthy growth in profits.

One way that businesses kept prices low was to find new ways of holding down labour costs. With the gig economy, people seeking to earn a living from digital sites are treated as contractors rather than employees.

They thus get no guaranteed work, no paid sick or holiday leave, no workers’ compensation cover and no employer contributions to their superannuation. Their work is precarious.

But that’s just the bit that gets the publicity. Less talked about are the various devices businesses have used to minimise labour costs, shift risks onto workers, and weaken the legal link with their workers by using labour-hire companies, setting up franchise arrangements and disposable subsidiaries.

Above all, workers have been hired as casuals. Casual employment is meant for cases where work is intermittent, short-term or unpredictable. But these days many casuals work full-time, most work the same hours from week to week, more than half can’t choose the days on which they work, and most have been with their employer for more than a year.

Casual workers get no sick or holiday pay, meaning if they’re too sick to work they earn no income. If they take a break, they have to live on their savings.

In principle, they get a 25 per cent loading instead. But get this: as best we can tell from official statistics, less than half actually receive it.

And because they’re casuals, they get no job security. Permanent employees can’t be sacked without due cause. If they’re laid off, they get redundancy money. Casuals don’t have to be sacked and don’t get redundancy. They just don’t get rostered on.

Some companies avoid union wage rates and conditions by using workers actually employed by labour-hire companies.

Last week, workplace relations minister Tony Burke announced further details of the government’s plan to make it easier for casual workers to apply to become permanent. Earlier he’d announced plans to require labour-hire workers to be paid the same as the regular employees doing the same work beside them.

Naturally, the employer groups cried that this would “increase business costs and risks” – which I take as a tacit admission that causal workers have been underpaid.

It’s not much, but it’s a step towards giving the younger generation a better future.

Read more >>

Monday, July 31, 2023

Another rise in interest rates is enough already

Whatever decision the Reserve Bank board makes about interest rates at its meeting tomorrow morning – departing governor Dr Philip Lowe’s second-last – the stronger case is for no increase. Indeed, I agree with those business economists saying we’ve probably had too many increases already.

If so – and I hope I’m wrong – we’ll miss the “narrow path” to the sought-after “soft landing” and hit the ground with a bang. We’ll have the recession we didn’t have to have. (That’s where recession is measured not the lazy, mindless way – two successive quarters of “negative growth” – but the sensible way: a big rise in unemployment over just a year or so.)

For those too young to know why recessions are dreaded, it’s not what happens to gross domestic product that matters (it’s just a sign of the looming disaster) but what happens to people: lots of them lose their jobs, those leaving education can’t find decent jobs, and some businesses collapse.

Market economists usually focus on guessing what the Reserve will do, not saying what it should do. (That’s because they’re paid to advise their bank’s money-market traders, who are paid to lay bets on what the Reserve will do.)

That’s why it’s so notable to see people such as Deloitte Access Economics’ Stephen Smith and AMP’s Dr Shane Oliver saying the Reserve has already increased interest rates too far.

Last week’s consumer price index for the June quarter gave us strong evidence that the rate of inflation is well on the way down. After peaking at 7.8 per cent over the year to December, it’s down to 6 per cent over the year to June.

As we’ve been told repeatedly, this was “less than expected”. Yes, but by whom? Usually, the answer is: by economists in the money markets. Here’s a tip: what money-market economists were forecasting is of little interest to anyone but them.

That almost always proves what we already know: economists are hopeless at forecasting the economy. Even after the fact, and just a week before we all know the truth. No, the only expectation that matters is what the Reserve was expecting. Why? Because it’s the economist with its hand on the interest-rate lever.

So, it does matter that the Reserve was expecting annual inflation of 6.3 per cent. That is, inflation’s coming down faster than it thought. Back to the drawing board.

The Reserve takes much notice of its preferred measure of “underlying” inflation. It’s down to 5.9 per cent. But when the economy’s speeding up or slowing down, the latest annual change contains a lot of historical baggage.

This is why the Americans focus not on the annual rate of change, but the “annualised” (made annual) rate, which you get by compounding the quarterly change (or, if you can’t remember the compounding formula, by multiplying the number by four).

Have you heard all the people saying, “oh, but 6 per cent is still way above the target of 2 to 3 per cent”? Well, if you annualise the most recent information we have, that prices rose by 0.8 per cent in the June quarter, you get 3.3 per cent. Clearly, we’re making big progress.

But the next time someone tells you we’re still way above the target, ask them if they’ve ever heard of “lags”. Central Banking 101 says that monetary policy (fiddling with interest rates) takes a year or more to have its full effect, first on economic activity (growth in gross domestic product and, particularly, consumer spending), then on the rate at which prices are rising. What’s more, the length of the lag (delay) can vary.

This is why central bankers are supposed to remember that, if you keep raising rates until you’re certain you’ve done enough to get inflation down where you want it, you can be certain you’ve done too much. Expect a hard landing, not a soft one.

Since the road to lower inflation runs via slower growth in economic activity, remember this: the national accounts show real GDP slowing to growth of 0.2 per cent in the March quarter, with growth in consumer spending also slowing to 0.2 per cent.

How much slower would you like it to get?

The next weak argument for a further rate rise is: “the labour market’s still tight”. The figures for the month of June showed the rate of unemployment still stuck at a 50-year low of 3.5 per cent, with employment growing by 32,600.

But the nation’s top expert on the jobs figures is Melbourne University’s Professor Jeff Borland. He notes that, in the nine months to August last year, employment grew by an average of 55,000 a month – about double the rate pre-pandemic.

Since August, however, it’s grown by an average of 35,600 a month. Sounds like a less-tight labour market to me.

And Borland makes a further point. Whereas the employment figures measure filled jobs, the actual number of jobs can be thought of as filled jobs plus vacant jobs – which tells us how much work employers want done.

This is a better indicator of how “tight” the labour market is. And, because vacancies are falling, the growth in total jobs has slowed much faster. Since the middle of last year, part of the growth in employment has come from reducing the stock of vacancies.

Another thing the Reserve (and its money-market urgers) need to remember is that, when it comes to slowing economic activity to slow the rise in prices, interest rates (aka monetary policy) aren’t the only game in town.

Professor Ross Garnaut, also of Melbourne University, wants to remind us that “fiscal policy” (alias the budget) is doing more to help than we thought. The now-expected budget surplus of at least $20 billion means that, over the year to June 30, the federal budget pulled $20 billion more out of the economy than it put back in.

Garnaut says he likes the $20 billion surplus because, among other reasons, “we can run lower interest rates”.

One last thing the Reserve board needs to remember. Usually, when it’s jamming on the interest-rate brakes to get inflation down, the problem’s been caused by excessive growth in wages. Not this time.

Since prices took off late in 2021, wages have fallen well behind those prices. Indeed, wages haven’t got much ahead of prices for about the past decade. And while consumer prices rose by 7 per cent over the year to March, the wage price index rose by only 3.7 per cent.

This has really put the squeeze on household incomes and households’ ability to keep increasing their spending. And that’s before you get to what rising interest rates are doing.

Dear Reserve Bank board members, please remember all this tomorrow morning.

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Wellbeing? Measure what matters, then start fixing it

In this rushing world, it’s easy for the new, the exciting, the entertaining or the worrying to crowd out the merely important. But that’s one reason mastheads have columnists. To say, hey, don’t overlook this, it’s important.

If, like all sensible people, you think there’s more to life than gross domestic product – more than “the economy”, narrowly defined – you need to take more notice of Treasurer Jim Chalmers’ long-promised Measuring What Matters wellbeing framework, released on Friday.

Taken as just another news story, it was a remarkably unremarkable document. It gathered 50 statistical indicators of Australians’ wellbeing, only a few of which were the standard economic indicators.

Of these, 20 show an improvement since the early 2000s, 12 have deteriorated, while the rest have shown little change or mixed outcomes. Our headline shouted the astonishing news: “We’re living longer, but cuddly animals are on the decline.”

Meanwhile, the government’s unceasing critics had much sneering fun pointing out how outdated some figures were. Did you see they say home owners are finding it easier to repay their mortgages?

Hopeless. It’s obviously just Labor’s “pitch to progressives living in Green and teal colonies”.

Actually, it’s a genuine effort to acknowledge and pay more attention to all the aspects of our lives that matter in addition to how many of us have jobs, how much we earn and what we’re spending it on.

The people who know a lot and care a lot about our wellbeing, in all its dimensions – such as Warwick Smith, director of the Centre for Policy Development’s Wellbeing Initiative – were much less critical. They said it was a good start, and could be improved and built upon, with the ultimate objective of having our greater consciousness of these other priority areas doing more to influence what the government was spending its time trying to improve.

Few economists would disagree with the frequent claim that GDP isn’t a good measure of wellbeing or progress. Indeed, the first person to say it was the bloke who invented GDP in the 1930s, Simon Kuznets.

It’s just that, economists being economists, they’ve continued to focus on GDP – economic growth – and left the better measures of wellbeing to others. Politicians have continued to focus on economic growth because that’s what the rich and powerful care most about. They’re hoping it will make them richer and more powerful.

It’s precisely because our leaders have been so focused on GDP as a measure of economic growth that our economic statistics are comprehensive and up to date, but our measurements of other things aren’t.

So, getting fair dinkum about “measuring what matters” involves giving the Australian Bureau of Statistics more money to measure the other things that matter more fully and more frequently.

Having been a bean counter in both my careers, I know the boring, pettifogging importance of measurement. As they say, what gets measured gets managed. You want to get your map sorted before you take off into the jungle.

But what are the other, non-standard things that matter most to our wellbeing? This is what we got on Friday: the government’s decision about the key components of wellbeing. This is the wellbeing “framework”.

It nominates five dimensions of wellbeing. First, health. “A society in which people feel well and are in good physical and mental health, can access services when they need, and have the information they require to take action to improve their health,” the framework says.

Second, security. “A society where people live peacefully, feel safe, have financial security and access to housing.”

Third, sustainability. “A society that sustainably uses natural and financial resources, protects and repairs the environment and builds resilience to combat challenges.”

Fourth, cohesion. “A society that supports connections with family, friends and the community, values diversity, promotes belonging and culture.”

And finally, prosperity. “A society that has a dynamic, strong economy, invests in people’s skills and education, and provides broad opportunities for employment and well-paid, secure jobs.”

Each of these five “themes” (dimensions is a better word) are “underpinned” by the need for “inclusion, equity and fairness” (but if there’s a difference between equity and fairness, I don’t know it).

I think that covers the bases. Sounds a nice place to live. It puts the economy into a broader, more balanced context. The economy is vitally important – it’s our bread and butter, after all – but so are many other things.

If we nail it on prosperity but go backward on the others, why would that be good? The rich could survey the ruins around them and say, I won!

And there’s a lot of interdependence. Good luck with your economy once you’ve irreparably damaged the natural environment on which it depends.

On many of these dimensions, what we need to know is not so much how well we’re doing on average, but who’s missing out and needs help. Not who’s included, but who’s excluded. (Something a Voice would make it harder to forget.)

But measurement is just a means to an end. Until what we know affects what our governments do, it’s just box-ticking.


Read more >>

Friday, July 28, 2023

Why inflation is easing while rents are rising - and will keep going

It never rains but it pours. With the prices of so many things in the supermarket shooting up, now it’s rents that are rising like mad. Actually, while the overall rate of inflation is clearly slowing, rents are still on the up and up. What’s going on?

The Australian Bureau of Statistics’ consumer price index (CPI) showed prices rising by 0.8 per cent over the three months to the end of June, and by 6 per cent over the year to June. That’s down from 7.8 per cent over the year to December.

But rents in Sydney rose by 7.3 per cent over the year to June, up from 3.3 per cent over the year to December. Rents in Melbourne are now up by 5 per cent, compared with 2.2 per cent to last December.

But hang on. Those increases seem low. I’ve been reading and hearing about rent increases much bigger than that. What gives?

You’ve been reading about bigger rent increases than the CPI records because what gets most notice in the media is what economists call “advertised” rents – the asking price for presently vacant properties that have been listed with real estate agents.

So, this is the most relevant price for someone who’s decided to rent, or is wishing to move. Remember, however, in normal times landlords don’t always get as much as they ask for initially. Times like now, when the market’s so tight, they may end up with more.

But, each month, only 2 or 3 per cent of properties have a change in tenants. So most people are existing renters, wanting to sit tight, not move. It’s a safe bet they’re paying less that the price being asked of new tenants. And, though their rent will be increased soon enough, it hasn’t been yet.

The stats bureau’s increases are lower than the asking price because they include the rents actually being paid by all capital-city renters, not just the new ones.

But if the asking price is a lot higher than the average of the rents being paid by everyone, this is a good sign the average will keep going up. The rent increase is working its way through the system, so to speak.

But why are asking prices rising so much? Ask any economist, and they’ll tell you without looking: if the demand for rental accommodation exceeds the supply available, prices will rise.

That’s true. And the way we know it’s true is that vacancy rates are much lower than usual.

It’s when vacancy rates are low that landlords know now would be a good time to put up the rent. If the landlord has borrowed to buy the rental property, the rise in the interest rates they’re paying will make them very keen to do so.

But more than half of all rental properties are owned debt-free. Those landlords will probably also be keen to take advantage of this (surprisingly rare) chance to increase their prices by a lot rather than a little.

When demand is outstripping supply, the economists’ knee-jerk reaction is that we need more supply. Rush out and build a lot more rental accommodation.

But the economists who actually study the rental market aren’t so sure that’s called for. If you look back over the past decade, you see little sign that the industry has had much trouble keeping the supply up with demand.

If anything, the reverse. Until the end of 2021, rents went for years without rising very fast. Especially compared with other consumer prices, and with people’s incomes. Indeed, there were times when rents actually fell.

You didn’t know that? That’s because the media didn’t tell you. Why? Because they thought you were only interested in bad news. (And they were right.)

What’s too easily forgotten is all the ructions the rental market went through during the pandemic. What’s happening now is a return to something more normal. It’s all explained in one of the bureau’s information papers.

Official surveys show that renters tend to younger and have lower incomes than homeowners, and to devote a higher share of their disposable (that is, after-tax) income to housing costs. This is why so many renters feel the recent rent rises so keenly. And also, why the pressure is greater on people renting apartments rather than houses.

The pandemic, with its changes in population flows, vacancy rates and renters’ preferences, had big effects on rents and renters. Early in the pandemic, demand for rental properties in the inner-city markets (that is, within 12.5 kilometres of the CBD) of Sydney and Melbourne declined, as international students returned home, international migration stopped and some young adults moved back in with their parents.

Some landlords offering short-term holiday rentals switched to offering longer-term rental, further increasing the supply of rental accommodation. And the need to work from home prompted some renters to move from the inner city to suburbs further out, where the same money bought more space.

This is why inner-city rents fell during the first two years of the pandemic. Also, state governments introduced arrangements helping tenants who’d become unemployed or lost income to negotiate temporary rent reductions.

But inner-city rental markets began tightening up in late 2021, as the lockdowns ended and things began returning to normal. Some singles who’d gone back home or packed into a share house began seeking something less crowded. And, eventually, international students began returning.

So, we’ve gone from the supply of rental accommodation exceeding demand, back to stronger demand. Rents that were low or even falling are going back up.

As an economist would say, with the pandemic over, the rental market is returning to a new “equilibrium” – a fancy word for balance between supply and demand.

What we’re seeing is not so much a “crisis” as a catch-up. One reason it’s happening so fast is the higher interest rates many landlords are paying. But another reason renters are finding it so hard to cope with is that other consumer prices have risen a lot faster than their disposable incomes have.

Read more >>

Monday, July 24, 2023

Beating inflation shouldn't just be left to higher interest rates

Everyone’s heard the surprising news that last financial year’s budget is now expected to run a surplus of about $20 billion, but few have realised the wider implications. They strengthen the case for relying less on interest rates to fight inflation.

But first, the news is a reminder of just how bad economists are at forecasting what will happen to the economy – even in not much more than a year’s time. Which shows that economists don’t know nearly as much about how the economy works as they like to imagine – and like us to believe.

Then-treasurer Josh Frydenberg’s budget in March last year forecast a budget deficit in 2022-23 of $78 billion. By Jim Chalmers’ second go at the budget last October, that became a deficit of about $37 billion.

By the following budget, in May, the best guess had turned into a surplus of $4 billion. And just two months later – and that financial year actually over – the best guess is now a surplus of about $20 billion.

That’s a forecasting turnaround, over the course of only about 15 months, of almost $100 billion, or 4 per cent of gross domestic product.

What did Treasury get so wrong? It grossly underestimated the growth in tax collections. This was partly because it assumed a fall in the prices of our key commodity exports that didn’t happen, thus causing the company tax paid by our miners to be higher than expected.

But mainly because collections of income tax were much higher than expected. The economy grew at close to full capacity, so more people found jobs and many part-time workers got more hours or became full-time.

A huge number of new jobs have been created, almost all of them full-time. Do you realise that a higher proportion of people aged over 15 have paid employment than ever before? The rate of unemployment fell to its lowest in 50 years and many people who’d been unable to find a job for many months finally succeeded.

Obviously, when people find work, they start paying income tax, and stop needing to be paid unemployment benefits. So full employment is excellent news for the budget.

But the rapid rise in the cost of living during the year caused workers to demand and receive higher pay rises, even though those rises generally fell well short of the rise in prices.

So all the people who already had jobs paid more tax, too. But not only that. Our “progressive” income tax scale – where successive slices of your income are taxed at progressively higher rates – means that pay rises are taxed at a higher rate than you paid on your existing income.

Ordinary mortals call this “bracket creep”. Economists call it “fiscal drag”. Either way, the higher rate of tax workers paid on their pay rises also made a bigger-than-expected contribution to income tax collections and the budget balance.

Note that this unexpected move from deficit to surplus in the financial year just past, this underestimation of the strength of tax collections, has implications not only for the size of the government’s debt at June 2023, it has implications for the size of tax collections in the next few years, as well as for the amount of interest we’ll have to pay on that debt this year and every year until it’s repaid (which it won’t be).

In Frydenberg’s budget in March last year, the projected cumulative deficit for the five financial years to June 2026 was just over $300 billion. By the budget in May, this had dropped to $115 billion.

And now that we know last year’s surplus will be about $20 billion, the revised total projected underlying addition to government debt should be well under $100 billion.

Get it? Compared with what we thought less than 16 months ago, the feds’ debt prospects aren’t nearly as bad as we feared. And the size of our “structural” deficit – the size of the deficit that remains after you’ve allowed for the ups and downs of the business cycle – isn’t nearly as big, either.

Which suggests it’s time we had another think about our decision in the late 1970s – along with all the other rich economies – to shift the primary responsibility for managing the macroeconomy from the budget (“fiscal policy”) to the central bank and its interest rates (“monetary policy”).

One of the arguments used by the advocates of this shift was that fiscal policy was no longer effective in stimulating the economy. But our remarkably strong growth since the end of the pandemic lockdowns shows how amazingly effective fiscal policy is.

It’s now clear that fiscal “multipliers” – the extent to which an extra $1 of deficit spending adds to the growth in real GDP – are much higher than we believed them to be.

We know that a big part of the recent leap in prices was caused by shocks to the supply (production) side of the economy arising from the pandemic and the Russia-Ukraine war. But central banks have argued that a second cause was excessive demand (spending), which happened because the stimulus applied to cushion the effect of lockdowns proved far more than needed.

If so, most of that stimulus came from fiscal policy. Our official interest rate was already down to 0.75 per cent before the pandemic began. So, further proof of how powerful fiscal stimulus still is.

But another implication of the $20 billion surplus is that the stimulus wasn’t as great – and its ultimate cost to the budget wasn’t as great – as we initially believed it would be.

In the budget of October 2020, the expected deficit of $214 billion in 2020-21 was overestimated by $80 billion. In the budget of May 2021, the expected deficit of $107 billion in 2021-22 was overestimated by $75 billion. And, as we’ve seen, the deficit for 2022-23 was initially overestimated almost $100 billion.

This says two things: the fiscal stimulus caused the economy to grow much faster than the forecasters expected, even though the ultimate degree of stimulus – and its cost to the budget – was much less than forecasters expect.

Economists know that the budget contains “automatic stabilisers” that limit the private sector’s fall when the economy turns down, but act as a drag on the private sector when the economy’s booming.

We’ve just been reminded that the budget’s stabilisers are working well and have been working to claw back much of the fiscal stimulus, thereby helping to restrain demand and reduce inflation pressure.

Whenever departing Reserve Bank governor Dr Philip Lowe has been reminded of the many drawbacks of using interest rates to manage the economy, his reply has always been: sorry, it’s the only instrument I’ve got.

True. But it’s not the only instrument the government has got. It should break the central bank’s monopoly on macro management and make more use of fiscal policy.

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Friday, July 21, 2023

Covid spending makes bread and circuses too costly for Andrews

These days it’s not unusual for cities to realise they prefer not to host major sporting events such as the Commonwealth Games and Olympic Games. What is unusual is that it’s taken so long for Premier Daniel Andrews to pull the plug.

The later the decision, the greater the disappointment and the ire of organisers, athletes and sport fans. And, no doubt, the greater the wasted spending.

Even so, it does take great political courage – and maybe overconfidence – to make such a decision, especially based on an undocumented claim of such a massive cost overrun – from $2.6 billion to as much as $7 billion.

If there isn’t a political price to be paid at the next Victorian election, it really will prove Andrews’ invincibility – with able assistance from a hopelessly divided opposition.

It isn’t hard to believe that the now-expected cost is far higher than the initial estimate. But the latest estimate of up to $7 billion does stretch credulity.

Overruns are a virtual inevitability in games hosting. This is shown by a table of overruns for the summer and winter Olympics, prepared by researchers at Oxford University.

It shows that Sydney’s stated overrun of 90 per cent in 2000 was on the high side, but nothing to compare with Atlanta in 1996, Barcelona in 1992 and the all-time winner, Montreal in 1976.

Even so, the table does suggest that the size of overruns has fallen in recent times as, presumably, host cities wise up. Perhaps now it’s cities with more experience – and good existing sporting facilities – that are more likely to seek and win the games, or perhaps these days cities know to take more care with their budgeting.

Initially understating the likely cost seems standard political practice for all public projects, let alone major sports events. “It’ll be great fun, bring us the international recognition we deserve, not to mention huge tourist dollars – and it won’t cost all that much.”

But it’s not just the pollies who mislead us. We’re all so keen to enjoy the games at home that we’re easily convinced they won’t cost much and will bring great benefits.

What gives hosting international games such a great risk of blowouts is partly the international sporting body’s demand for many new venues, but mainly the need for them to be completed by a specific, immovable date.

This leaves the games organisers hostage to greedy unions and private contractors.

But there’s rarely a shortage of “independent” consultants willing to take a highly optimistic view of what it all will cost, and what the (always greater) monetary benefits the games will bring in. Even to the extent of putting a dollar value on the supposed “social” benefits they will bring.

It’s all too easy to overestimate the benefit that all the spending by sport fans – local and visiting – will bring. Economists have put much thought into what they call “the economics of special events”, remembering, as most people don’t, to allow for the greatest insight of economics, “opportunity cost” – what your decision to do X means you now won’t be able to do.

Another pertinent concept is “intertemporal substitution” – decisions to move spending between time periods. Remember, too, that the amount of benefit varies with the perspective from which you view it.

Holding the Commonwealth Games in Melbourne, for instance, would attract many visitors from other states, spending on tickets, travel, accommodation, meals and so forth.

From the perspective of the Victorian economy, that’s a benefit. From the perspective of the Australian economy, however, the extra spending in Victoria is cancelled out by the reduced spending in other states.

From a national perspective, the only benefit is from overseas visitors, spending money in Oz that they otherwise wouldn’t have.

Most of the spending would come from Victorians themselves. But it’s likely most of this is money they otherwise would have spent in Victoria on other things, at other times in the year. So, little net benefit to the state’s economy, except for spending by overseas and interstate visitors.

It’s a different matter, however, for the mayors of the five regional cities that were planned to share the hosting of the games. Their cities would have benefited greatly from the spending by visitors from the rest of Victoria, other states and overseas.

Andrews’ decision to regionalise the games was intended to be their special feature, a new model for how the games could be run. But this dispersion seems to have added greatly to the games’ cost. Even at $2.6 billion, Victoria would have been spending much more than other state hosts of Commonwealth Games.

Andrews has promised that the regional cities will still get their planned new sporting venues, but it’s hard to see how this squares with his new view that the state has more pressing spending priorities.

So, just why has Andrews cancelled at this embarrassingly late stage?

He hasn’t said so, but it’s obvious. Because he spent so much coping with the pandemic, and the great debt this has left him with. He has no room left for spending on bread and circuses.

It’s now become common for cities to think twice about their plans to host Commonwealth or Olympic games – though not for them to leave it this late.

It’s noteworthy that Melbourne had no rivals in its bid for these games. And that no other Australia state is interested in filling the vacuum.

Why has hosting become less attractive? Because it’s finally dawning on cities that building so many new sporting venues – which will be little used after the games’ fortnight – is a waste of money that could have been spent on far more lasting and useful things.

But I doubt this means the days of these funfairs are numbered. The international controlling bodies will have to trim their demands for new facilities, and rotate the games between a few cities that have maintained adequate existing venues.

Read more >>

Wednesday, July 19, 2023

Don't let the political duopoly block the little guys

What could be better for democracy than taking the big money out of election campaigns? Both Victoria and NSW have made moves in this direction, but the feds have done nothing. Until now. The Albanese government’s working on plans for reform.

Last month, the parliament’s Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters, now chaired by Labor’s Kate Thwaites, tabled an interim report recommending sweeping reforms to the rules on donations to political parties.

Thwaites wrote that the evidence the committee heard allowed it to “develop clear goals for reform to increase transparency in election donations and curb the potentially corrupting influence of big money, to build the public’s trust in electoral and political processes, and to encourage participation in our elections”.

The committee proposes that limits (“caps”) be set on the maximum permissible donation and the maximum spending by election candidates. Caps would also apply to “third parties”, such as big organisations seeking to influence the election outcome.

The maximum donation that could be made without the donor’s identity having to be disclosed should be lowered from the present $15,200 to $1000. And the disclosure would have to be made at the time, not months later after the dust had settled.

The Labor majority report also urged a new system of increased public funding for parties and candidates in the light of the effect these changes might have in discouraging private donations.

The committee didn’t specify how the caps on donations and spending would work but left it for the government to decide.

Wow. Wouldn’t all that be an improvement? What’s not to like?

Well, I can think of a big risk. At present, the two major parties are at loggerheads, with the Coalition committee members issuing a minority report. They’re particularly – and rightly – opposed to Labor’s desire to regulate donations from big business while exempting donations from big unions.

But as I’ve written before – and will keep writing – the big political development of our time is not the continuing struggle between Labor and Liberal, but the continuing decline of the two-party system of government, as the bad behaviour of both sides turns an ever-growing proportion of voters away to the minor parties and independents.

I think it will become rare for one side to have a comfortable majority, and common to have a minority government. If so, whichever side forms government will be more dependent on winning the support of the crossbenchers – which, I hope, will make them more reformist.

My interest in this is not just that it affects the economic policies governments will be pursuing, but that economists have given much thought to the way small numbers of big firms – “oligopoly” – find ways to compete that are better for them and worse for their customers.

One thing economists know is that the two parties of a duopoly commonly settle into a carve-up of the market that makes life cosier for both of them.

Oligopolists collude – tacitly, of course, since overt collusion is illegal – to keep prices and profits high. This leaves them exposed to some new firm entering their market and taking business away from them by undercutting those excessive prices.

So oligopolists devote much attention to finding ways to raise barriers that stop interlopers entering their market. Often, this involves persuading governments to raise those barriers for them. All for the greater safety of the customer, naturally.

Do you see the parallel with the threat the teals pose to the Liberals, and the Greens pose to Labor? Except that, in the two big parties’ case, when they combine to repel intruders, they don’t have to extract a favour from the government because they are the government.

Surely, there’s some hidden solution to neuter those pesky minor parties that the two big guys could cook up?

Well, the teals, in particular, needed huge donations from badly dressed internet billionaires (and lesser mortals) to knock off so many sitting Liberal members. So maybe we can toughen up on donations in a way that wins much approval and looks even-handed without people noticing it’s disadvantaged the interlopers more than us.

If we have fewer funds from donations, but more public funding, that advantages the established parties because, although every candidate gets the same dollars per vote, the funding you have to spend in this election campaign was determined by how many votes you got last time.

Oh, you didn’t run last time? What a pity.

But that benefit is small compared with the advantages of being the incumbent. Sitting MPs and senators get better paid than most of us, but they also get electoral staff, cars, travel allowances, printing allowances and much else.

All this support is justified as helping the pollie give their constituents good service. But it’s easily diverted to helping them get re-elected. When pollies shake many hands at a school fĂȘte, are they just doing their job, or shoring up their vote? Both.

When the government comes up with its plans to reform election donations and spending, we’ll need to examine their implications carefully.

Read more >>

Monday, July 17, 2023

Bullock the safe choice as RBA governor, but is that what we need?

In Treasurer Jim Chalmers’ decision to accept the internal candidate as successor to Philip Lowe as Reserve Bank governor, we see what may become the ultimate judgment about the Albanese government: it wanted change, but not radical change. Not change that rocked the boat too much. Certainly, not change that got big business offside.

The choice of deputy governor Michele Bullock to move up one chair will delight the Reserve’s higher ranks (though the put-upon lower ranks may have been hoping for a newer new broom to sweep out the old order).

As with most institutions, the Reserve’s insiders want the internally determined pecking order to be preserved. The governor persuades the Canberra politicians to appoint the next-most able person as deputy and, when the time comes, they move up, as do those in the queue behind them.

The Reserve insiders’ great fear is that the pollies will impose one of their trusties on them, or – next worse – that someone from their eternal bureaucratic rival, Treasury, will be appointed to sort them out. Either way, the pecking order is disrupted.

Over the years, the Reserve has had much success in persuading governments to let it choose its own governor. This has been the safe choice for pollies of both colours.

Only once has the internal order been disrupted in (my) living memory, which was when, in 1989, treasurer Paul Keating decided to move his Treasury secretary, Bernie Fraser, from Treasury to the Reserve.

Although I was disapproving at the time, it turned out to be a very healthy development. Fraser brought a breath of fresh air to a fusty institution. He was one of our better governors, a lot more reforming than his predecessors.

Fraser came to fear that one day he’d wake up to find himself reporting to a new Liberal treasurer, Dr John Hewson, a former economics professor, who’d immediately impose on him the latest international fashion, a central bank with operational independence from the elected government, whose decisions on monetary policy (interest rates) would be guided by an inflation target.

That never happened, of course. But Fraser decided that, if this was the way the world was turning, he’d get in first and design his own inflation target, ensuring it was a sensible one.

The Kiwis, who were the first to introduce such a target, set it at zero to 2 per cent, which became the international standard. But, with help from the Reserve’s best people, Fraser decided on something more flexible: to hold the inflation rate between 2 per cent and 3 per cent “on average” over the cycle.

So, it wasn’t just higher than the others. While they had a target with sharp corners, our “on average” would free the Reserve from having to jam on the monetary brakes every time the consumer price index popped its head above 2 per cent.

Foreign officials kept telling the Reserve it should get a proper target like the Kiwis. But in the end, it was they who had to accept their target was too inflexible.

Fraser announced the new target in 1994, by casually dropping it into a speech to business economists. It wasn’t until the next Liberal treasurer, Peter Costello, arrived in 1996, that the target, and the Reserve’s operational independence, were formalised in an agreement between Costello and the new governor, Ian Macfarlane.

Opposition leader Peter Dutton has said that neither present Treasury Secretary Dr Steven Kennedy, nor Finance Secretary Jenny Wilkinson should be appointed to succeed Lowe because they would be “tainted” by their work with the Labor government.

This was ignorant nonsense. He failed to note that both those people were equally “tainted” by their close work with that last Liberal treasurer, Josh Frydenberg, throughout the pandemic.

So it’s worth remembering that, because of Fraser’s close connection to (by then) prime minister Keating, the money market smarties were convinced Fraser wouldn’t be raising interest rates before the 1996 election.

Wrong. He did. Indeed, he raised them before a crucial byelection, which Keating lost in the run-up to losing the election. Since then, governor Glenn Stevens raised rates during the 2007 election campaign, and Lowe during the 2022 campaign.

Getting back to the point, I’d have been happy to see someone from Canberra put in to implement the (more sensible of the) reforms proposed by the recent review of the Reserve’s performance. Such an insular, self-perpetuating institution needs a regular injection of new blood.

With the benefit of hindsight, it’s almost as though Lowe’s speech last week outlining the Reserve’s plans to implement the review’s recommendations – with Bullock having done most of the work on those proposals – constituted her application for the top job.

Or maybe it was the Reserve’s written undertaking to the Treasurer that, should he agree to preserve the order of succession, it would nonetheless faithfully implement the changes needed.

That so many of those changes – which would be of little interest to any but Reserve insiders and the small army of Reserve-watching outsiders – can be described as major reform says much about what a stick-in-the-mud outfit successive governments have allowed it to become.

The number of meetings of the Reserve Bank board will be cut from 11 a year to eight. Really. Wow.

In making that change, the Reserve will continue its practice of having four of its meetings timed to come soon after publication of the quarterly CPI. But it will use the opportunity to have the remaining four meetings come soon after publication of the quarterly national accounts.

The present practice of meeting on the first Tuesday of the month meant it was meeting the day before it found out how fast the economy had been growing.

Get it? The Reserve could have fixed this problem any time in the past several decades by moving its board meetings to fit. But no, it took a full-scale independent review to make it change its practice. We like doing things the way they’ve always been done. (The good news? No more meetings on Melbourne Cup Day.)

The only significant administrative change will be to have decisions about interest rates made by a board better able to argue the toss with the governor. In particular, what they need (and is already in the pipeline) is someone with expertise in real-world wage-fixing.

The real world keeps changing under the feet of economists, and we need central bankers capable of changing their views in an economy where the cause of inflation is changing from excessive wage growth to excessive profit growth.

That requires more debate within the Reserve, and more opportunity for the newly recruited bright young economics graduates to debate matters with the old blokes at the top.

The Reserve’s problem is too much deference to the views and wishes of the governor. It’s long been a one-man band. Bullock’s appointment as the first female governor ends that problem at a stroke. Let’s hope she does better than turn it into a one-woman band.

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Friday, July 14, 2023

Less competition reduces the power of interest rates to cut inflation

The ground has been shifting under the feet of the world’s central bankers, including our own Dr Philip Lowe, the outgoing chief of the RBA. This has weakened the power of higher interest rates to get inflation down.

Like all economists, central bankers believe their theory – their “model” – gives them great understanding of how the economy works and what they have to do to keep inflation low and employment high.

They know, for instance, that inflation – rising prices – occurs when the demand for goods and services exceeds the economy’s ability to supply those goods and services. So they can use an increase in interest rates to discourage businesses and households from spending so much.

This will reduce the demand for goods and services, bringing it into alignment with supply and so stop it causing prices to rise so quickly. It will also slow the rate at which the economy’s growing, of course.

But, with a bit of care, they won’t need to push interest rates so high the economy goes into “recession”, when demand (spending) becomes so weak that the economy gets smaller, causing some businesses to go bust and many workers to lose their jobs.

This theorising has worked reasonably well for many years, leading central bankers to be confident they know how to fix the present surge in inflation.

But the economy keeps changing, particularly as we keep using advances in technology to improve the range of goods and services we produce, and the way we produce them.

One consequence of our businesses’ unending pursuit of labour-saving technology – more of the work being done by machines and less by humans – has not been fewer jobs, but bigger factories and businesses.

As in all the rich economies, many industries are now dominated by just a few huge companies. In our case, we’re down to just four big banks, three big power companies, three big phone companies, two airlines and two supermarket chains. And that’s before you get the handful of giants dominating the rich world’s internet hardware, software and platforms.

Trouble is, when just a few firms dominate an industry, they gain “market power” – the power to hold their prices well above their costs; to increase their “markup”, as economists say.

The size of markups is a measure of the degree of competition in an industry. When competition between firms is strong, markups are low. When competition is weak, markups are high.

There is much empirical evidence that industries in the rich countries have become more concentrated over time, and markups have risen. And, as I’ve written before, Australia’s no exception to this trend.

In economics, “monopoly” means just one seller. “Monopsony” means just one buyer. So, when a firm has a degree of monopoly power, it can overcharge its customers. When a firm has a degree of monopsony power – when workers don’t have many employers to pick from – it can underpay its workers.

Researchers have found much evidence of labour-market power. And again, I’ve written before about the evidence this, too, is happening in Australia.

But this week, at the annual Australian Conference of Economists, federal Competition Minister Andrew Leigh, himself a former economics professor, drew attention to two recent International Monetary Fund research papers suggesting that a lack of competition is reducing the effectiveness of monetary policy – the manipulation of interest rates – in influencing inflation.

The first paper, by Romain Duval and colleagues, uses American data and data from 14 advanced economies to find that, compared with low-markup firms, high-markup firms are less likely to respond to changes in interest rates. The level of their sales changes less, as do their decisions about future investment in production capacity.

So, fat markups mean companies are less likely to change their behaviour. They’re not likely to cut their investment spending, for example.

This means more of the pressure to respond to higher rates will fall on households with big mortgages, but also on firms with low markups.

The second paper, by Anastasia Burya and colleagues, uses online job ads from across the United States to find that in regions where firms have a lot of labour-market power – that is, where workers don’t have much choice of where to work – those firms can hire workers without having to offer higher wages to attract the people they need.

This is the opposite of what standard theory predicts. It’s bad news for workers, who could have expected strong demand for labour to push up wages.

But another way to look at it is that, where big firms have labour-market power, there’s little relationship between employment and the change in wages. If so, conventional calculations of the “non-accelerating-inflation rate of unemployment” – the lowest point to which unemployment can fall without causing wages to take off – will give wrong results, encouraging central banks to keep unemployment higher than it needs to be.

And at times when price inflation is too high, unemployment will have to rise by more than you’d expect to get the rate of inflation back down to where you want it. How do you bring about a bigger rise in unemployment? By increasing interest rates more than you expected you’d have to.

So, whether it’s inadequate competition in the markets for particular products, or inadequate competition in the market for workers’ labour, lack of competition makes monetary policy – moving interest rates – less effective than central bankers have assumed it to be.

The model of how markets work that central bankers (and most other economists) rely on assumes that the competition between firms – including the competition for workers – is intense.

In the real world, however, markets have increasingly become dominated by just a few huge firms, which has given them the power to keep prices higher than they should be, and wages lower than they should be.

Leigh, Minister for Competition, gets the last word: “If you care about central banks being able to do their jobs, then you should care about a competitive and dynamic economy.”

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Wednesday, July 12, 2023

Robodebt: Politicians behaving badly to win our approval

Cliches become cliches because so many people see how aptly they capture a situation. My rarely achieved goal is to initiate them rather than reuse them. But at least let me be the first to see how aptly one applies to the robo-debt scandal, by paraphrasing Thomas Jefferson: we get the politicians we deserve.

You may not know it, but there once was a time when the convention – rigorously policed by Yes, Minister-style bureaucrats – was that incoming governments did not inquire into the doings of their predecessors.

But that convention was breached a long time ago, and now it’s conventional for every newly elected government to immediately initiate formal inquiries into the misdeeds – actual or supposed – of the government the voters have just thrown out.

It’s become another of the many advantages of incumbency. You improve your chances of a prolonged period in power by discrediting your traditional opponent in the eyes of the electors.

The first such inquiry I remember was the Costigan royal commission into the notorious activities of the Ship Painters and Dockers Union, called by Malcolm Fraser’s Coalition government in 1980, in the hope of embarrassing Labor.

The Howard government established another anti-union royal commission, into the building construction industry, and the Abbott government set up royal commissions into the Rudd government’s ill-fated “pink batts” home insulation program, and into trade union governance and corruption, hoping to embarrass the then Labor leader, Bill Shorten. So it may not be a simple coincidence that Shorten was the minister who commissioned the robo-debt inquiry.

I was once a supporter of the no-looking-back convention, but now I see that the decline in standards of political behaviour require governments to be held more strictly to account – if only in retrospect. When you think about it, the old gentlemanly convention – that dog doesn’t eat dog – arose from the two political sides colluding to make their lives easier at the expense of the public’s knowledge of what they’ve been up to.

So, it’s a good thing that this royal commission has shone a bright light on robo-debt as “a crude and cruel mechanism, neither fair nor legal” that made many people on the dole and other benefits “feel like criminals”.

“In essence, people were traumatised on the off-chance they might owe money,” the commissioner concluded.

The Liberal ministers who initiated and had oversight of this horrendous scheme should face the music, and those ministers who allowed it to run on for years despite its iniquities being well known (I wrote about them in early 2017) should be ashamed.

But while we’re all pointing accusatory fingers at the former government, I don’t think the rest of us should get too high on our high horse. Most of us don’t come out of this episode with clean hands.

The truth is, most of us knew – or certainly could have known – what was going on, but weren’t too bothered by it. We didn’t inquire further.

When the opportunity arose to disgrace its political opponents, the Albanese government knew where the bodies had been buried but, at the time, the Labor opposition didn’t make a great fuss about robo-debt.

Media outlets love boasting about the royal commissions their investigations have forced on reluctant governments but, with an honourable exception or two, they can claim little credit for this one. This one’s a win for the #notmydebt victims using social media.

People are right to see the former government as being utterly, shockingly lacking in compassion in its treatment of people falsely accused of owing the government money. For such a measure to be initiated by someone proud to proclaim his Christian faith is truly shocking.

But it’s wrong to see these people just as ruthless debt collectors, determined to cut government spending by fair means or foul. Scott Morrison wanted to be seen as the tough welfare cop.

The government wanted to be seen getting rough and tough with dole bludgers because it knew many voters would find it gratifying.

Labor knows it, too. That’s why it wasn’t making much fuss at the time. And why, in the May budget, it rejected expert advice that it greatly increase the rate of the JobSeeker payment to stop it being well below the poverty line.

Both sides of politics know there’s much “downward envy” among Australians. Hard-working, tax-paying people who greatly resent those people – mainly youngsters – who prefer sitting around at home rather than getting out and finding a job, but still have the government giving them money.

There are many reasons I’m proud to be an Australian. But one thing that makes me ashamed is the way our politicians seek popularity by pandering to the worst side of the Australian character: our tendency to scapegoat those less fortunate than ourselves, particularly boat people and the jobless.

Like Joe Hockey, we see ourselves as “lifters”, and greatly despise those we regard as “leaners”.

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Friday, June 23, 2023

Enjoy the wonderful land of full employment - while you can

I hope that while you’re complaining about the cost of living, you’re also wallowing in the joys of living in an economy that’s reached the sacred land of “full employment” – being able to provide a job for almost everyone who wants one. This is the first time we’ve seen it in 50 years.

You have to say we’ve achieved it not by design, but as an unexpected consequence of our bumbling attempts to cope with the vicissitudes of the pandemic.

We used interest rates and, more particularly, the budget, to stimulate demand (encourage business and consumer spending) and ended up doing a lot more than we needed to. To the economy managers’ surprise, the rate of unemployment fell rapidly to 3.5 per cent – a level most of them had never seen before and never expected to see.

The sad truth is that, during the half century that the high priests of economics were wandering in the wilderness of joblessness, they lost their faith, and started worshiping the false god Nairu, who whispered in their ears alluring lies about the location they were seeking.

But now the wanderers have stumbled upon the promised land of Full Employment, a land flowing with milk and honey.

So now’s the time for us all to sing hymns of praise to one true god of mammon, Full Employment, in all its beneficence and beauty. And here to be our worship leader is Michele Bullock, deputy governor of the Reserve Bank, who published some new soul music this week.

Bullock says it’s “hard to overstate the importance of achieving full employment. When someone cannot find work, or the hours of work they want, they suffer financially. However, the costs of unemployment and underemployment extend well beyond financial impacts.

“Work provides people with a sense of dignity and purpose. Unemployment – particularly long-term unemployment – can be detrimental to a person’s mental and physical health,” she says.

“The costs of not achieving full employment tend to be borne disproportionately by some groups in the community – the young, those who are less educated, and people on lower incomes and with less wealth.

“In fact, for these groups, improved employment outcomes and opportunities to work more hours are much more important for their living standards than wage increases.”

Early in the pandemic and the imposition of lockdowns, we thought we were in for a regular recession. And “the sobering experience from previous recessions had taught us that these episodes leave long-lasting marks on individuals [called “scarring” by economists], communities and the economy.

“For example, if people stay unemployed for too long, their skills may deteriorate or become obsolete and their prospects for re-engaging in meaningful work may decline. This can result in more people in long-term unemployment or, alternatively, people withdrawing from the workforce,” Bullock says.

But, thanks to all the up-front stimulus, there was no recession and, hence, no scarring. Instead, outcomes in the labour market over the past three years “have consistently exceeded the expectations of the Reserve Bank and other forecasters”.

In fact, the share of the Australian population in employment has never been higher – higher even than in the decades between the end of World War II and the mid-1970s, when full employment became the norm.

Today, the number of Australians in a job has increased by more than 1.1 million since late 2021, and the level of employment is now almost 8 per cent above its pre-pandemic level. Get that.

Almost all the gains in employment since the start of the pandemic have been full-time jobs. Strong demand for labour has enabled many previously part-time employees to move into full-time work. This has pushed the underemployment rate – the proportion of people with jobs, but seeking more hours – down to its lowest since 2008.

Bullock says the people who’ve benefited most from all this are those on lower incomes and with less education. Unemployment has tended to decline more in local areas that had weaker employment to begin with.

Young people – those aged 15 to 24 years – who usually suffer most when recessions occur, have seen their rate of unemployment decline by more than twice the decline in the overall unemployment rate.

Long-term unemployment is defined as being without work for more than a year. Last year, a record number of the long-term unemployed found a job, and fewer gave up looking for one.

What’s more, the risk of not being able to find a job within a year declined significantly. So the rate of long-term unemployment is close to its lowest in decades.

Wow. Now, Bullock’s not exaggerating when she says it’s hard to overstate the many benefits – economic and social – of achieving full employment.

But she’s harder to believe when she assures us that, just because the Reserve has hardly spoken about anything other than the need to reduce inflation for the past year and more: “it does not mean that the other part of our mandate – maintaining full employment – has become any less important.

“Full employment is, and has always been, one of our two objectives.”

Well, I’d love to believe that was true, but both the Reserve’s present rhetoric and behaviour, and its record, make it hard to believe.

The Reserve has had independent control over the day-to-day management of the economy for more than 35 years. For almost all of that time we’ve had low inflation, but only now have we achieved full employment – and only by happy accident.

For most of that time it, like most macroeconomists the world over, has been listening to the siren call of the false god Nairu – aka the “non-accelerating-inflation rate of unemployment” – telling it that “full employment” really means an unemployment rate of 5 per cent or 6 per cent.

If you dispute that, answer me this: how many times in the past 35 years has a Reserve Bank boss been able to make a similar speech to the one Bullock gave this week?

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Wednesday, June 21, 2023

My version of how 'net zero' will change our lives: not much

I think by now almost all of us are agreed that, to reduce climate change, we’ll have to achieve “net zero emissions” of greenhouse gases by 2050. But that’s a very tall order, involving much change to existing industries – many of which will continue seeking to delay the inevitable – and change in the way you and I use energy. So, how on earth is it going to come about?

We see the Albanese government and the state governments setting targets and beavering away on various parts of the puzzle, but if the feds have a grand plan for how it all comes together they’re doing a good job of keeping it to themselves.

So let me have a stab at detecting the method in our leaders’ madness. I’ll be leaning heavily on the work of the one person who is thinking out loud about how we can get to the 2050 objective, Tony Wood of the Grattan Institute.

First, let me acknowledge the truth the climate change deniers and foot-draggers make so much of: nothing we Australians do will stop the globe warming unless the other major emitting countries – America, China and those in the European Union – also achieve net zero emissions by 2050.

This is why, though we’ve known about the problem for decades, we’ve achieved so little to date. It’s just so easy to use others’ inaction as an excuse for our own. The truth is, all we can do is set a good example and urge the others to do likewise. Under the previous federal government, we were setting a bad example.

But remember this: our part in reducing global emissions is bigger than just reducing our own because we’re also one of the world’s largest exporters of fossil fuels. We need to reduce our complicity in other countries’ emissions by at least ceasing to expand our existing coal mines and gas fields.

Getting to net zero largely involves eliminating our use of coal, oil and gas, and replacing them with renewable sources of energy.

This history-making break from the past won’t happen by magic. Nor by sitting back and waiting for market forces to bring it about. No, it won’t happen until the government has the courage to make it happen, by saying just what has to happen, and by when.

As with the pandemic, and most of the problems we face, the responsibility is shared between the federal government and the states. This means the feds must take the lead, but in close consultation and co-operation with the states. Since the feds have most control over the purse strings, the wheels of co-operation are greased by offers of money.

As I see it, the basic strategy is simple: switch the production of electricity from coal and gas to renewables and batteries, and use clean electricity to replace the use of oil and gas. The beauty of this great reliance on electricity is that, though it will mean much disruption of particular industries, it doesn’t involve much disruption to the way we run our households.

Much of the heavy lifting with the major industrial emitters will be done by Climate Change Minister Chris Bowen’s recent reforms to the “safeguard mechanism”, aimed at achieving the promised 43 per cent reduction in emissions by 2030.

Much of the progress in eliminating our use of oil will come from shifting to electric vehicles. Make sure your next car is electric, and you’ve got that box ticked with minimal disruption to your life. It’s the various governments’ job to get the price of EVs down to something more reasonable and ensure sufficient charging points.

Which brings us to the elimination of natural gas, the subject of Wood’s Grattan report earlier this week. It would suit the blatant self-interest of the gas industry for gas to be seen as the “transition fuel”: we move electricity production from coal to gas and later to renewables.

But 2050 – and even worse climate change - isn’t that far away, and we don’t have time for a leisurely transition. We must move straight to renewables and storage (batteries), using gas to provide only residual capacity, balancing the last 10 per cent or so.

Household use of gas – for cooking, water heating and space heating – is big only in Victoria, NSW and the ACT. About 30 per cent of Australian homes are already all-electric, and Wood calculates that about 40 per of those that have gas are in a position to upgrade to all-electric.

Although electric appliances are dearer than gas appliances, electricity itself is cheaper – meaning savings longer-term. It’s also cleaner and free of fumes that damage your health. So, being obliged to become all-electric is no great imposition. Even so, governments should move all their own social housing to all-electric, offer tax incentives to landlords and low-interest loans to homeowners.

Governments should ban new gas connections and phase out the sale of gas appliances, so the last remaining gas appliances are replaced with electric. Set firm rules and deadlines, and we can rely on market forces to do the rest.

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