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Productivity yet again

July 23rd, 2014 24 comments

The ABC has yet another story about economists warning on the need for more productivity. It’s a mixed bag. First up, this from Professor James Giesecke from Victoria University’s Centre for Policy Studies

“We’re going to need a growth rate in multi-factor productivity more like the rates that we saw back in the ’70s and ’80s, about 0.7 per cent per annum, in order to begin increasing per capita living standards going forward

appears to mark an abandonment of the mythical 1990s productivity surge, though he goes on to talk about micro-economic reform. More clearly positively, a bit of attention paid to bloated and lazy management rather than telling the rest of to “work harder and smarter” Many economists are turning their eyes to the business sector to take the productivity baton from the labour market to galvanise growth. Finally, there’s this from Peter Harris of the Productivity Commission who has

nominated energy, health and education and other parts of the non-traded sector as candidates for reform. (emphasis added)

Wow! I would have thought that, 20 years after the Hilmer report, the Australian energy sector has been as thoroughly reformed as it can possibly be, short of going back to oil lamps. We’ve had corporatisation, privatisation, pool markets and full retail competition. And of course, the results are evident for all to see. Apparently, though, we are in need of more.
Read more…

Categories: Economic policy Tags:

La Trobe cuts economics: a bad signal

July 11th, 2014 67 comments

La Trobe University is in serious financial difficulty, which is not surprising given the pressures on universities, and particularly newer universities operating in a “competitive” market that is in fact rigged in favor of the traditional sandstones (like UQ, where I work). Also unsurprising, given past experience, is the decision to make sharp cuts in the economics program. Cutting out economics to focus on business degrees seems to be a routine response of second-tier institutions. But it seems to me to be shortsighted, even in marketing terms. The presence or absence of an economics program is one of the clearest signals of whether or not an institution aspires to be in the top rank.

Categories: Economic policy Tags:

Can any evidence convince the right?

July 7th, 2014 53 comments

Along with nearly 60 other Australian economists, notably including John Hewson, Justin Wolfers and Harry Clarke, I’ve signed my name to a public statement urging agreement on a fair, economically efficient and environmentally effective policy to price and limit carbon emissions.

I’m not naive enough to expect that this will have much of an effect, any more than previous statements of this kind I’ve signed. The problem is not, as you might think, that there is serious disagreement among economists on the issue. Opponents of market-based policies to limit carbon emission have tried in the past to organize counter-statements, and have failed miserably. Outside the set of IPA hacks, most recently seen defending the ludicrous claims of the tobacco lobby, there is essentially no disagreement on this (although there is plenty of dispute about the best design, the optimal price and so on).

The problem is, rather, that there is no evidence, and no clever way of framing the issue that is going to convince the tribal right to go against their shibboleths on this issue. If there were, the actual experience of a carbon price of $24/tonne would have done so. In the leadup to the introduction of the carbon tax/price, Tony Abbott described it as a ‘wrecking ball’ that would destroy the Australian economy. Two years later, the economy is still here and not even the government pretends that removing the carbon tax is going to yield any significant benefit.

And the same is true more generally, notably in the US. This NY Times article by Brendan Nyhan makes the point

Once people’s cultural and political views get tied up in their factual beliefs, it’s very difficult to undo regardless of the messaging that is used.

While this is always true to some extent, it’s far more true, at present, of the right (in English speaking countries) than of the left, and far more true of the right today than in the past.

In the end, there’s no way to persuade those on the political right to accept factual truths about (for example) climate change, without also persuading them to abandon the political right.

Categories: Economic policy, Environment Tags:

Australia’s economic growth secret

July 6th, 2014 11 comments

I argue in this review of John Edwards’ After the Boom that it’s neither mining, nor macro reform. The reason our economy has done so well over the past 20 years is that policymakers have made the right macroeconomic policy calls when it mattered, during the Asian crisis of the 1990s and the GFC.

Categories: Economic policy Tags:

Lifters and leaners

June 19th, 2014 33 comments

I have a piece up at The Guardian looking at Hockey’s adaptation of the “47 per cent” line made famous by Mitt Romney. The focus is not so much on demolishing the claim (Greg Jericho did a more comprehensive job on this) but on the state of delusion that would allow Hockey to think that this kind of claim would be favorably received. After all, even Romney didn’t use the 47 per cent line in public: he was caught on video talking to rightwing donors.

The “job-killing” carbon tax

June 11th, 2014 155 comments

Tony Abbott hasn’t exactly covered himself in glory on his overseas trip. But he has found one ally: Canadian PM (at least until next years election) Stephen Harper, also a climate denialist. They made a joint statement denouncing carbon taxes as “job killing”. I didn’t notice any massive destruction of jobs when the carbon price/tax was introduced in 2012, but rather than do my own analysis, I thought I’d take a look at the government’s own Budget outlook, to see how many jobs they claim to have been destroyed by the carbon tax, and what great benefits we can expect from its removal. Here’s the relevant section of the summary (note that the outlook is premised on the Budget measures being passed)

The Australian economy is in the midst of a major transformation, moving from growth led by investment in resources projects to broader‑based drivers of activity in the non‑resources sectors. This is occurring at a time when the economy has generally been growing below its trend rate and the unemployment rate has been rising. During this transition, the economy is expected to continue to grow slightly below trend and the unemployment rate is expected to rise further to 6¼ per cent by mid‑2015.

In this environment, the Government is focused on implementing measures to support growth and jobs while putting in place lasting structural reforms to restore the nation’s finances to a sustainable footing. The timing and composition of the new policy decisions mean that the faster pace of consolidation in this Budget does not have a material impact on economic growth over the forecast period, relative to the 2013‑14 Mid‑Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook (MYEFO).

Since MYEFO, the near‑term outlook for the household sector has improved. Leading indicators of dwelling investment are consistent with rising activity, while household consumption and retail trade outcomes have improved recently, consistent with gains in household wealth. This is partly offset by weaker business investment intentions, particularly for non‑resources sectors.

The outlook for the resources sector is largely unchanged from MYEFO. Resources investment is still expected to detract significantly from growth through until at least 2015‑16, as reflected in the outlook for investment in engineering construction which is forecast to decline by 13 per cent in 2014‑15 and 20½ per cent in 2015‑16. Rising resources exports are only expected to partially offset the impact on growth. Overall, real GDP is forecast to continue growing below trend at 2½ per cent in 2014‑15, before accelerating to near‑trend growth of 3 per cent in 2015‑16.

The labour market has been subdued since late 2011, characterised by weak employment growth, a falling participation rate and a rising unemployment rate, although outcomes since the beginning of 2014 have been more positive. The unemployment rate is forecast to continue to edge higher, settling around 6¼ per cent, consistent with the outlook for real GDP growth. Consumer price inflation is expected to remain well contained, with moderate wage pressures and the removal of the carbon tax.

The reference to the CPI effects of the carbon price (around 0.4 per cent) is, as far as I can tell, the only mention in the whole of the Economic Outlook statement.

Campus reflection

May 22nd, 2014 54 comments

That’s the mild pun the Chronicle of Higher Education picked for my article (paywalled, but I’ve put my draft version over the fold) making the point that a higher education system is, in important respects, a mirror of the society that created it, and that it helps to recreate. I make the point that, like the US health system and labor market, the US higher education does a great job for the 1 per cent who go to the Ivy League Schools (and whose parents are mostly in or close to the top 1 per cent of the income distribution), does an adequate but expensive job for the next 20 per cent or so, and leaves everyone else in the lurch.

This is important in the context of the Abbott governments proposed removal of caps on fees for higher education, explicitly aimed by Education Minister Pyne at creating a system in which we might have institutions like Harvard and Yale. I plan to write more on this, but the central point will be that, far from creating more places at existing universities, fee deregulation will give them incentives to shrink, pushing students out to the alternatives now being funded under HECS: for-profit institutions and the TAFE system (which has its own funding crisis), corresponding to the bottom tiers of the US education system, where all the recent growth has taken place.

Read more…

Categories: Economic policy Tags:

If it looks like a debt, walks like a debt and quacks like a debt …

May 21st, 2014 11 comments

I’ve finally got around to checking out the big-ticket item (estimated value $28 billion) in the Queensland government’s privatisation program, involving the electricity distribution sector. It’s called a Non-Share Equity Interest, and the Treasury web page explains its appeal to the government.

Under this option the State retains 100 per cent ownership of the ordinary shares in the network businesses and assets. Private sector participation occurs through a hybrid security instrument, a Non–Share Equity Interest (NSEI).

The private sector contribution will equate to the net funding for the capital expenditure requirement and therefore represents new capital injections.

The NSEI security is debt in its legal form, but classified as equity for tax and accounting purposes and these characteristics give the security it’s (sic) “hybrid” form. (emphasis added)

The returns on the NSEI are sculpted to reflect the holders proportionate interest in dividends and tax equivalents paid by the network businesses separately.

In other words, the government is replacing debt raised by the Queensland Treasury Corporation from the private sector with an instrument that’s almost identical, but is classified as equity, and can therefore be presented as a reduction in debt

Read more…

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The Budget, the bottom billion and the 1 per cent

May 14th, 2014 25 comments

My first Budget commentary is up at the Guardian. Teaser

No progress on tax avoidance, no sign that Australia will responsibly lead the G20, no reform of expensive concessions to the wealthy: this Budget is a massive moral failure

Categories: Economic policy Tags:

Zombie Apocalypse: Commission of Audit edition

May 5th, 2014 20 comments

I’ll be talking on this topic at a hastily-organized workshop at ANU tomorrow. Details here

Categories: Dead Ideas book, Economic policy Tags:

Licenses for cyclists?

May 3rd, 2014 95 comments

NSW Transport Minister Duncan Gay (seemingly one of the few NSW Ministers still in his job) has raised the idea of licenses for cyclists, in response to growing numbers of fatal and near-fatal accidents and (entirely justified) pressure for action against motorists who endanger fellow road users.

He can expect a negative response for a number of reasons. A license scheme is problematic, most obviously because children are (and should remain) free to ride bikes, but can scarcely be expected to pay license fees or sit for an exam. But the policy goal could be achieved without a license. All that is needed is to create a general right to cycle on roads, with no requirement to obtain a license, but with the courts having the power to suspend that right for cyclists who commit traffic offences. There’s no longer any practical requirement for a physical license. If an offender doesn’t have formal ID, a photograph or a phone would be enough to confirm identity in 99 per cent of cases (sad, perhaps, but true).

Then there’s the question of registration. Again, that’s a system that makes much more sense for cars than for bikes. But, if we had a proper system of road pricing, there wouldn’t be much difficulty in including bikes, though I suspect economic analysis would show their contribution to road costs to be very low.

Categories: Economic policy Tags:

Reviewing the Commission of Audit’s opening night

May 2nd, 2014 42 comments

I played my little part in the political theatre that was the Commission of Audit, with about 15 seconds on ABC Lateline. I’m pleased to see that other reviewers agreed with me in dismissing this tired remake of the 1988 and 1996 hits as stale and derivative. Attempts to gin up a bit of excitement by introducing the minimum wage as a new villain wnet nowhere, and reviving the golden oldie (last performed by Malcolm Fraser in the 1970s) of returning income tax powers to the states fell flat. And of course, a supposed audit of the public finances with tax expenditures cut out of the show is like Hamlet without the Prince. About the only thing to be thankful for is that they toned down the Hockey-Abbott melodrama of a debt crisis and budget emergency, preferring instead some dark murmurs about ominous long term trends.

I give it one star.

Categories: Economic policy Tags:

A rose by any other name …

April 30th, 2014 106 comments

Most of the discussion of the Abbott government’s recently announced revenue raising measure has focused on semantics: is there a meaningful difference between a levy and a tax, has the government broken its promises and so on. All of this is boringly predictable. The last government to treat its election promises as binding obligations was Whitlam’s. Perhaps Rudd would have kept his promises if it weren’t for the GFC (I don’t think he broke many before that), but with that exception we’ve got used to the various theatrical devices associated with ditching promises: Black Holes, debt crises, Commissions of Audit and so on. The reaction of Bill Shorten and the Labor Opposition is equally predictable. The job of the Opposition is to oppose, and in particular to excoriate the government for breaking any promise, no matter how ill advised.

On the other hand, I’m disappointed that the Greens have taken the same line. Their job, in my view, is to use their leverage to promote sustainable social democratic policies, and to oppose regressive market liberal and environmentally destructive policies, regardless of source. So, for example, they were sensible to wave through Hockey’s abolition of the debt ceiling, even though it involved breaking a silly promise. They can’t stop the government breaking lots of promises on the expenditure side, so they should try and achieve balance by supporting sensible proposals to raise additional revenue.

The case in favor of an increase in taxes for higher income earners[1] is obvious. The big cuts promised by Howard in the leadup to the 2007 election, and largely matched by Rudd were unaffordable at the time and became even more so when the GFC led to slower growth in real and nominal incomes and therefore to less of the bracket creep that normally pays for such cuts. Along with Costello’s massive handouts to “self-funded” (but publicly subsidised) retirees the previous year, these cuts are the main reason it has been so hard to achieve a return to surplus after the GFC stimulus was wound back under the Labor government.

So, it makes sense to increase the rate, and to keep it high until bracket creep finally works its magic and restores the revenue raising capacity of the income tax to something like its pre-2007 level. I haven’t done the numbers but it seems as if four more years ought to do it. So, a temporary increase that can be called a levy makes sense. And, if everything else is held constant, an increase in revenue translates one-for-one into a reduction in debt.

Summing up, if Abbott wants to increase income tax on high earners, I’ll support him. And, if he wants to call this policy a “debt reduction levy”, I don’t have a problem with that.

fn1. Doubtless, we’ll get objections that taxpayers on $80 000 a year aren’t really high income earners, although the median wage for full time workers is around $60 000. But the extra tax payable by someone on $80 000 is precisely zero: the levy is only payable on income in excess of that level. Even at $180k, the levy is only $2000/year or about $40/week – a small fraction of the discretionary spending of most people earning this kind of income.

Categories: Economic policy Tags:

Stratification in tertiary education

April 28th, 2014 39 comments

When people call for a university system more like that of the US, they commonly have in mind the idea that Australia should have institutions like Harvard and Princeton, and a belief that more competition in tertiary education would bring this about. There are a couple of obvious problems with this.

First, high-status universities like this provide undergraduate education only a tiny proportion of young Americans. Around 1 per cent of the college age cohort attends high-status private institutions like the Ivy League unis, Chicago and Stanford, and this proportion has been declining steadily over time. Most of the Ivies enrol no more undergrads than they did in the 1950s. Adjusting for population, an Australian Ivy League would consist of a single institution enrolling perhaps a thousand students a year.

Second, the US experience shows that the idea of competition between universities is a nonsense. Harvard, Princeton and the rest were the leading universities in North America before the US even existed, and they are still the leaders today. The newest of the really high status universities is probably Stanford, founded in 1885. Competition between universities is pretty much the same as the competition between the Harlem Globetrotters and the Washington General.s

The reality of US education is a highly stratified system. Below the high-status private universities are the “flagship” state universities, which educate around 10 per cent of the college age cohort (again, a proportion that is declining, or at best stable).

After that, there are lower-tier state universities, two-year community colleges and, worst of all, for-profit degree mills like the University of Phoenix which exist largely to lure low-income students into debt and extract Federal grant money, with only a minority ever completing their courses.

Australia has always had a stratified system, but to a much lesser extent. (More on the history when I get a chance). The big question facing policy is whether to increase stratification, by widening the gap between the “Group of 8″ and the rest, or to treat tertiary education like other public services, available to all who can benefit from it, at the best quality we can provide for everyone.

University education systems mirror and recreate the society to which they belong. A highly stratified system, like that in the US and UK, reflects and reinforces a class-bound society in which the best thing you can do in life is to choose the right parents. We should be aiming at less stratification, not more.

Update Just by chance, one of the lead articles in the NY Times advises that, thanks to increased international intakes, the number of places for domestic undergraduates at the Ivies has fallen sharply

Joining a sinking ship

April 26th, 2014 39 comments

According to news reports, Education Minister Christopher Pyne is going to reprise his successful Gonski exercise of last year with an attempt to remodel the Australian university system along US lines, as recommended by former Howard education minister David Kemp and his adviser Andrew Norton. In particular, he hopes to expand the role of the private sector.

Apparently none of these people have read the stream of reports coming out of the US making the points that

* Whereas the US was once the world leader in the proportion of young people getting university education it now trails much of the OECD (including, if I got the numbers right, Australia)
* US university education, even in the state system, is ruinously unaffordable
* The top tiers of the US system are increasingly closed to students from all but the top 5 per cent (or less) of the income distribution
* The US has the most inequality and some of the lowest social mobility in the developed world
* For-profit education in the US is a scam, based on exactly the mechanism promoted by Kemp and Norton, namely access to public funding/

The US tertiary education system is now like the US health system: world-beating for the 1 per cent, high-quality but incredibly expensive for the top 20, unaffordable or non-existent for the middle class and the poor. And this is the model the LNP wants to emulate

Categories: Economic policy, Oz Politics Tags:

Advance review of the Audit Commission

April 26th, 2014 5 comments

Only a few weeks until Budget Day and Joe Hockey is sitting on, or rather, selectively leaking the report of the so-called Commission of Audit. As promised, I’ve written a review in advance, which I presented to a Senate Committee a couple of weeks ago. It will be interesting to see what, if anything, needs changing when the actual report is released.

Categories: Economic policy Tags:

The end of manufacturing in Australia

April 20th, 2014 37 comments

Ross Gittins has a piece, drawing on research by Jeff Borland of the University of Melbourne, in which he presents a “glass half-full” view of the Australian manufacturing sector. He makes some good points, but the overall picture is misleading.

It’s true that, on standard statistical definitions of the manufacturing sector, there’s still a fair bit of employment and output, though both have declined in recent years and will almost certainly continue to do so, given the recent closure announcements. But what’s left of manufacturing looks very different from the mental image the word ‘manufacturing’ produces, at least for me: a large factory, with hundreds of manual workers producing complex industrial products (consumer goods, motor vehicles, industrial equipment and the like).

A closer look at Borland’s data reveals the following:

* Within manufacturing, the main growth area is food processing typified by the production of meat, bread, milk and wine. More traditionally manufacturing-oriented parts of the sector like canning fruit are in decline as we saw recently with the near-closure of SPC.

* As regards employment, the share of managerial and professional staff is expanding, while that of laborers and machinery operators, the kind of jobs we would typically think of as ‘factory work’, is falling. [1]

On the latter point, Borland shows that laborers and machinery operators now represent 30 per cent of a manufacturing workforce of 955 000, implying around 285 000 jobs in total, around 2.5 per cent of all employment. By contrast, in 2011, there were 290 000 schoolteachers in Australia.

To sum up, manufacturing in the traditional senses of the term, is no longer a significant part of the Australian economy. This has a number of implications.

Read more…

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The “People’s Budget” that doesn’t add up

April 14th, 2014 23 comments

The LNP government in Queensland is launching a massive and expensive campaign to persuade voters to accept the sale of publicly owned assets. This follows an earlier campaign by the Bligh-Fraser Labor government (remember how well that worked out!) and looks likely to make the same claims, with the additional (self-contradictory) claim that the Labor government, whose policies the LNP is now adopting, drove the state to dangerous levels of debt. In particular, the LNP campaign repeats the central error of Labor’s, namely the claim that selling assets provides a way to fund public expenditure without taxation.

Technology moves own. Whereas Labor gave us a printed pamphlet (reproduced on the web), the LNP offers an interactive website where we can make our own choices. This would in principle, be quite a useful contribution to public debate. If it were available generally, it would be possible for voters to weigh up various proposed initiatives, and assess whether new public services are worth the revenue measures that would be required to fund them.

Unfortunately, but unsurprisingly, this version is rigged. The website claims that it is necessary to reduce gross public debt by $25-30 billion and offers three ways to do so: raising taxes, cutting spending or selling assets. The more we do of one, the less we have to do of the others. I assume (and will check later) that the amounts listed for the tax and spending measures are derived from the forward estimates (four years). By contrast, the asset sales are a once-off measure.

The real dishonesty in the setup comes at the end. If we do want the government wants and agree to all the proposed asset sales, the estimated proceeds are $34 billion. The reward is a $1.7 billion saving in interest, which we are then invited to spend on desirable things.

There’s just one problem. The calculation has omitted the fact that, if we don’t own public enterprises any more, we forgo their earnings. Fortunately, there’s a relatively easy fix. The 2013-14 Budget Paper 2 has a section devoted to public non-financial corporations. The total Earnings Before Interest and Tax of these enterprises was $3.7 billion. Of this sum, $1.2 billion was paid to the state in dividends, about $500 million in tax-equivalent payments (state-owned enterprises aren’t subject to company tax, but make these payments in the interests of competitive neutrality) and the rest was either paid in interest on debt or retained to finance future investment.

How much will the public lose from the asset sales?. Most obviously, we will lose the dividends, which virtually wipe out the proposed interest savings. The tax equivalent payments are a loss to us as Queensland citizens, but (assuming the private owners pay similar rates of tax, which is not guaranteed) are offset by a corresponding benefit to the Commonwealth. And the debt calculation almost certainly includes the debt held by these enterprise, so part of interest we save is has already been covered by their earnings which will no longer be available. Finally, retained earnings contribute to future growth and are a real loss when an asset is sold.

So, if we sold everything, we would forgo $3.7 billion in income, far more than the $1.7 billion the government suggests we can gain. However, a close reading of the options indicates that the proposal isn’t for a complete sale. Electricity transmission and distribution assets are going to be retained, with some form of private participation. This is supposed to save $28 billion, whereas an outright sale would fetch more,

Still, an honest presentation of the proposal would have the asset sale yielding a net loss of up to $2 billion. Like its predecessor the LNP proposes to cash in the proceeds of privatisation and ignore the loss of revenue it entails

Categories: Economic policy Tags:

Asset sales, yet again

April 12th, 2014 18 comments

Among the most unkillable of zombie ideas is the belief that governments can solve their fiscal problems by selling assets. What’s particularly surprising about this belief is that it is most strongly held by the kind of politician who likes to talk as if government and household budgets are exactly the same. But would anyone suggest to a household struggling to make ends meet that it would be a good idea to cash in the super, or sell the house and rent it back from the new owners, in order to pay off the credit card? The advice of course, would be to get your expenditure and income in line before addressing the debt problem.

I’ve written yet another paper making this point, which, along with my recent post on capital recycling, got a run from Paul Syvret in the Courier-Mail. Nothing new for those who’ve been paying attention, but, clearly, lots of people haven’t been.

Reviewing the Commission of Audit, in advance

April 10th, 2014 6 comments

Just about every incoming conservative government since the 1980s has instituted a Commission of Audit report on taking office. These Commissions are pieces of political theatre rather than serious attempts to examine the whole of the government’s operations – given a small secretariat and a short period in which to work, it could hardly be otherwise. The conclusions are entirely predictable: the outgoing Labor government left a financial disaster; drastic action is needed, mostly consisting of measures the new government has always favored but which it chose not to mention (or to disavow explicitly) during the election campaign; there will be pain, but we will all be better off in the long run

What’s less predictable is the use that the government makes of the report. In general, this depends on the polls. If the government is riding high, the report is released in a blaze of publicity and the new government’s first budget contains deep cuts. The idea is that an expenditure of political capital early makes room for sweeteners in the leadup to the next election. On the other hand, if things are already going badly (eg the Baillieu government in Victoria) the report may be suppressed altogether. The middle path is to keep the report under wraps until close to Budget day, when the choices about how to respond have to be made in any case.

That’s the way the Abbott government has gone. The Audit Commission finished its interim report (usually the most important one) in February and its final report in March, but neither has seen the light of day.

So, I’m preparing a ‘review’ of the report based on a combination of past precedent and the leaks emanating from the Treasurer’s office. It’s surprisingly easy, and it struck me that I could enhance my productivity by turning the review into a template which could then be used for generations to come. Just plug in the names of the new PM and Treasurer, the LNP credentials of the Commissioners, the number of billions in the shock-horror headline number and so on. The section on policy recommendations would be easiest of all. Just start with the standard list of 1980s micro=reform and fiscal policy agenda items (along with my standard rebuttal), then delete those already implemented, add back any that have been repealed, and voila, the job would be done. It seems as if this could all be done in MS Word, but maybe a report generator is what I need. Would anyone care to help me with the tech aspects?

Categories: Economic policy Tags:

‘Recycling’ publicly owned capital assets

April 9th, 2014 14 comments

I tend to be a little bit behind on buzzwords, but suddenly I’m hearing this one all the time. The politically toxic idea of privatising public assets is being repackaged as ‘recycling’. The idea is that the public sells one asset, and uses it to buy another.

There is one version of this idea that is, at least arguably, sensible. Suppose the public sector has a greater capacity to bear the demand risk associated with some kinds of projects (for example, ports) and that this risk is greatest in the early years of operation, after which revenue streams become predictable. Suppose also that the public sector wants to keep its gearing ratio (debt to assets) low for one reason or another. Then it would make sense to undertake development in the following sequence. The government decides a new port is needed and contracts for its construction on a fixed price basis (with rewards and penalties for early or late completion). When the port is built, it is operated as a government business enterprise until the demand risk settles down. Then it is sold and the proceeds are used to build a new port, or some other piece of income-generating infrastructure. So, at any given time, construction companies are bearing construction risk, the government is bearing demand risk and the private sector owns and operates various ‘mature’ assets. This process of recycling can, in principle, be carried on indefinitely

There are arguments for and against this kind of recycling, but they are irrelevant to the proposals actually on the table, which involve selling income generating assets and notionally allocating the proceeds to projects that generate no income. For example, according to Warren Truss, the NSW government

have sold the Port of Botany and they have raised a lot of money from that which is now being put into road systems. They’re interested in selling the Port of Newcastle and that is be used to revitalise the central city of Newcastle.

It seems highly unlikely that the road systems can be recycled to fund new investment, let alone a revitalised central city. This isn’t recycling in the proper sense of a sustainable process – it’s melting down your tools for scrap, and using the money to pay the rent.

Recycling’ public assets is a one-way trip to the fiscal scrapyard

Categories: Economic policy Tags:

She who pays the piper

March 26th, 2014 60 comments

I’ll be on Radio National Bush Telegraph this Friday, talking about the proposals for massive tax expenditures on a “Northern Economic Zone” being pushed by Gina Rinehart, her lobby group Australians for Northern Development (ANDEV) and the Institute of Public Affairs, now heavily reliant on funding from wealthy individuals of whom Rinehart, directly and via ANDEV is the most prominent.

Back in 2000, the IPA was describing the Alice Springs to Darwin rail link, a heavily subsidised Public Private Partnership, as “the modern equivalent of the stupendously wasteful Ord River irrigation scheme“. This was one of the rare occasions on which I agreed with the IPA.

And it has historically been critical of deductions, rebates and other tax expenditures, correctly describing them as a disguised form of public spending
. Again I agree. It’s very rare to find a tax subsidy that achieves a public policy goal more cost-effectively than direct spending.

Having been exposed to Ms Rinehart’s persuasive mode of argument, the IPA has changed its tune, and plays a melody sweeter to her ears. It’s now fully on board with dams, tax subsidies to promote Northern development, and even special visa conditions on migrants, a policy that ought to be repugnant to libertarians of all kinds.

I’ll be interested to see how the IPA reconciles its former free-market line with its current position as advocate for yet more subsidies for someone who is arguably the world’s greatest welfare queen.

Categories: Economic policy Tags:

Social security won’t be around long enough for me to collect it (crosspost from Crooked Timber)

March 24th, 2014 13 comments

Salon has a couple of interesting articles about US millennials. Tim Donovan focuses on the plight of young people without college education who are suffering the combined effects of long-term growth in inequality and the scarring that comes from entering the worst labor market in at least a generation[^1]. Elias Isquith has a piece debunking Rand Paul’s prospects of pulling the millennial vote (I’ve seen a few of these lately, which may or may not mean anything), which includes the following observation

Despite the fact that a whopping 51 percent of millennials believe they’ll receive no Social Security benefits by the time they’re eligible, and despite the fact that 53 percent of millennials think government should focus spending on helping the young rather than the old, a remarkable 61 percent of young voters oppose cutting Social Security benefits in any way, full stop.

The idea that “Social security won’t be around long enough for me to collect it” is a hardy perennial, and thinking about it led me to the following observation:

It’s now possible for someone to have spent their entire working life believing that Social Security would not last long enough for them to receive it, and now to have retired and started collecting benefits. This belief has been prevalent at least since the early years of the Reagan Administration when it was pushed hard by David Stockman, and I’m going to date it to the first big “reform” of the system in 1977. Someone born in 1952, who entered the workforce in 1977 at the age of 25, would now be turning 62 and eligible to collect Social Security.
Read more…

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Abbott and tribalism

March 14th, 2014 163 comments

I’ve been too busy to post much, but I’ve written a number of articles over the past month or so that might be interesting to readers here. This one, published by various Fairfax papers looks at the damp squib of the G20 finance ministers meeting, and links it to the Abbott government’s elevation of tribalism over good government, and even over market liberal ideology.

There’s a follow-up here from Charles Richardson at Crikey and something more on similar lines by Rob Burgess at the Business Spectator

Categories: Economic policy, Oz Politics Tags:

Quiggin and Catallaxy vs Newman and Bligh

March 1st, 2014 25 comments

I’ve had a few responses to my recent report on the history of electricity privatisation and market reform in Australia. There’s one here from Lynnette Molyneux, who’s with another research group in my own school, and one from the Electricity Supply Association (doesn’t seem to be online, I’ll post a link shortly). Most interestingly, one from Sinclair Davidson at Catallaxy[1] who starts with a couple of points of agreement.

A couple of thing where we agree:

Economists, at least when they were thinking clearly and speaking honestly, were as one in rejecting the most popular political reasons for privatisation: as source of cash for governments or a way of financing desired public investments without incurring public debt.

I made a similar argument recently in New Zealand.

Then he is critical of Public-Private Partnerships. I am too – albeit for different reasons. All too often, I suspect, they are financing mechanisms looking for infrastructure to finance, as opposed to being a positive NPV infrastructure project looking for financing.

before going on to quibbles and more substantive criticism.

I’ll try to present a proper rejoinder to the criticisms later, but for now I want to observe the striking fact that the point on which Davidson and I, and (AFAICT) all Australian economists, agree is also the focus of agreement between Campbell Newman and his predecessor, Anna Bligh, along with Peter Costello, Barry O’Farrell, and the great majority of Australian politicians[2]. The only problem is that the politicians agree on a view exactly opposite to that of the economists

Read more…

Categories: Economic policy, Oz Politics Tags:

Toxic projects

March 1st, 2014 10 comments

The announcement that Lend Lease is pulling out of a joint venture bid with Aurizon (the former Queensland Rail freight arm) to participate in the expansion of the Abbot Point coal terminal comes shortly after the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority has approved a proposal to dump dredge spoil from the Abbot Point coal terminal expansion in the marine park area. (The government’s go-to guy for “independent” ethical clearances, Robert Cornall[1], assures us that there were no conflicts of interest arising from the presence of coal companies executives and employees on the Board. Then he had to rush off to whitewash investigate the conduct of the government and its agents on Manus Island).

On normal commercial calculations, this decision ought to have made the project more appealing. But the Lend Lease statement withdrawing from the project included the slightly gnomic observation that “Lend Lease remained committed to applying “rigorous due diligence” and considering the environmental impacts of all it projects,” it’s reasonable to infer that the decision made the project more toxic rather than less. The obvious reasons
* Coal projects are attracting more and more opposition, but it’s always possible for the proponents of one project to say that if theirs didn’t go ahead, another, possibly worse one, would. By contrast, when a government that’s busy revoking World Heritage Status announces that the project will involve dumping waste in a sensitive marine park, any company that cares about its public image is going to run a mile
* Given the obvious PR costs, the fact that the proponents went for this, rather than looking for a more expensive but less politically toxic approach to waste disposal suggests that the project is economically marginal, an inference supported by the earlier abandoment of a more ambitious version involving Rio Tinto and BHP.

An obvious follow-on project is: who is financing these projects. It looks as if all the major Australian banks are involved to some extent. Westpac is already running into trouble in New Zealand for financing coal mines in sensitive areas. As major international banks, particularly development banks, start dumping toxic projects like this, the Oz banks are likely to find themselves with a lot of undiversifiable risk.

fn1. Breaking usual protocols, I’ve linked to the Oz. When the Murdoch press calls someons a “Howard defender” and strongly implies that he’s stooge, I think it’s safe to say that the appearance of independence is compromised.

Categories: Economic policy, Environment Tags:

The uselessness of privatisation “safeguards”

March 1st, 2014 16 comments

Telstra is lining up behind Qantas for the removal of restrictions on foreign ownership. It’s worth mention that these annoying “restrictions” were marketed to the public as “safeguards” when these enterprises were privatised in the 1990s. As I said at the time

Based on past experience, it seems unlikely that restrictions on foreign ownership will ultimately be effective. The effect of the ‘safeguards’ in the Telstra (Dilution of Ownership) Bill will be to reduce the sale price obtained by taxpayers while obscuring the fact that the ultimate outcome of privatisation will probably be either a foreign-controlled monopoly in telecommunications or a duopoly consisting of two foreign-owned firms.

Current and recent proposals for the sale of state-owned electricity assets have been pushed with safeguards of this kind, which achieve nothing. If it’s OK to privatise a business, it’s OK, and indeed obligatory, to sell it to the highest bidder. For obvious reasons, this will usually a foreign multinational in the same line of business.

Categories: Economic policy Tags:

Electricity privatisation in Australia: A record of failure (updated with link)

February 20th, 2014 41 comments

That’s the title of a report I’m releasing at Parliament House in Brisbane today, commissioned by the Victorian branch of the Electrical Trades Union. It’s essentially a synthesis of 20 years of work on this topic, going back to my book Great Expectations: Microeconomic Reform and Australia and including case studies of the various states where privatisation proposals have been put forward, with varying results. As well as privatisation, I look at the related market reform process which gave rise to the National Electricity Market. I view the reforms as having been fundamentally misconceived, relying on prices to perform a range of incompatible functions, while leaving retail prices largely unrelated to the actual cost of electricity generation and distribution.

Here’s a link to the report

Categories: Economic policy Tags:

After the car industry (revised and updated)

February 10th, 2014 67 comments

Quicker than I expected, Toyota has announced that it will be abandoning motor vehicle manufacture in Australia by 2017. That presumably will flow through to components manufactures of all kinds.

The impending end of the car industry constitutes the effective end of large scale manufacturing in Australia, at least as the term is ordinarily understood. The remaining manufacturing sector consists mainly of basic processing of agricultural and mineral products for export, along with food and beverages for the domestic market. Elaborately transformed manufactures, on which such high hopes were pinned in the 1980s and 1990s have been declining for years, and will be confined to niche markets once we stop exporting automotive products.

An immediate policy implication of the end of car production is that it’s time to drop a bunch of policies whose rationale was to support the domestic industry. The most obvious candidate is the FBT concession, just reinstated by the Abbott government. But there’s also the maintenance of some of the worlds weakest fuel efficiency standards, driven by the desire not to tilt the playing field against Falcons and Commodores. More generally, a whole range of pro-car policies will need to be reassessed, given that they increase our dependence on imports and therefore our vulnerability to terms of trade shocks.

The other big policy implication is that there is no longer any reason for Australia to have fuel efficiency standards much weaker than those in the rest of the world. The original rationale was to protect local icons like the Falcon and Commodore. Now that all cars will be important, we should demand that they meet the same standards as in their home markets.

Finally, in political terms, the Abbott government’s toughminded attitude on the end of manufacturing represents a striking contrast with its eagerness to help favored groups like the financial sector (including the salary packaging industry) and primary industry. This produces bizarre contradictions. For example, as Peter Touhey of the Victorian Farmers Federation recently noted, the Coalition government is spending more than $1 billion to upgrade privately owned irrigation infrastructure in the Goulburn valley region, but is then unwilling to come up with $25 million to keep the processing end of the industry open.

Categories: Economic policy Tags:

Some thoughts on energy storage

February 3rd, 2014 107 comments

A lot of the discussion of my last post on energy issues was devoted to discussion of energy storage. Rather than get involved in that, I thought I’d collect my own thoughts on this. Broadly speaking, Here are some observations, labelled for convenience and partly derived from this study by the US Department of Energy

(a) Any reversible energetic process represents a potential storage technology. Reversibility entails that some energy is stored (as potential or chemical energy) when the process goes one way, and released when it goes the other. Of course, the Second Law of Thermodynamics implies that we will always add entropy (that is, lose useful energy) in this process
(b) Any technical or social change that shifts the time at which energy is finally used replicates the effects of storage
(c)Energy storage is in much the same position as renewable electricity generation was, say, 15 years ago.
(d) There are a lot of potential approaches, most of which have been developed in niches where particular characteristics are required. For example, car batteries need to store a lot of energy for given weight, household batteries need to store energy for a long time and so on. The needs of a renewable-dominated electricity system are very different and will require substantial modifications of these technologies
(e) With one big exception, there is currently no price incentive, in most jurisdictions to use storage technologies and therefore none are used
(f) The big exception is off-peak hot water. Coal and nuclear systems generate baseload supply when it is not needed for consumption. Price incentives are used to encourage people to store the resulting excess energy in the form of hot water
(g) There’s no technological obstacle, given the availability of smart meters, to changing the timing of hot water systems to reflect actual availability of excess electricity rather than reflecting the assumptions of a coal-based system
(h) All of this applies to electric cars. Even ignoring the possibility of feeding power back into the grid, the economics of electric cars would be drastically improved if they could be charged using low-cost power in times of excess supply (in the case of solar PV, around midday when lots of cars are sitting in parking lots)
(i) Something I just found out from the DoE study: Electric car batteries are considered unfit for services when they fall to 80 per cent of their original charge capacity (recall that energy density is critical for car batteries). But they still have a long potential life as static storage devices. This enhances both the economics of electric cars (since the battery has resale value) and of storage (since the opportunity cost is zero)

Here’s an older post, with a really simple example of how the argument works, once you get away from the fixation on replicating the characteristics of a coal-fired system.

Categories: Economic policy, Environment Tags: