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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…

Categories: Economic policy Tags:

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:

New Old Keynesianism (crosspost from Crooked Timber)

January 23rd, 2014 13 comments

The term “New Old Keynesian” was coined by Tyler Cowen a couple of years ago, to describe the revival of the view that the Keynesian analysis of recessions caused by lack of aggregate demand is relevant, not only in the short run (in this context, the time taken for wage contracts to reset, say 2-3 years) but in the long run (5 years or more) as well. When Cowen was writing, in September 2011, the New Depression could still, just about, be seen as a short run phenomenon[1]. In particular, the anti-Keynesian advocates of austerity in the US, UK and Europe were predicting rapid recovery.

As 2014 begins, it’s clear enough that any theory in which mass unemployment or (in the US case) withdrawal from the labour force can only occur in the short run is inconsistent with the evidence. Given that unions are weaker than they have been for a century or so, and that severe cuts to social welfare benefits have been imposed in most countries, the traditional rightwing explanation that labour market inflexibility [arising from minimum wage laws or unions], is the cause of unemployment, appeals only to ideologues (who are, unfortunately, plentiful).

So, on the face of it, Cowen’s “New Old Keynesianism” looks pretty appealing. But what are the alternatives? Leaving aside anti-Keynesian views for the moment, the terminology suggests four logical possibilities: Old Old Keynesianism, Old New Keynesianism, New Old Keynesianism and New New Keynesianism.

But do these logical possibilities correspond to actual viewpoints, and, if so, whose?

Read more…

Austerity in Australia, 1980s style

January 2nd, 2014 50 comments

The Sydney Morning Herald has an editorial praising the expenditure cuts introduced by the Hawke-Keating government in 1986 and 1987, and suggesting that Abbott should copy this example. Apparently, according to the Oz, Hawke and Keating themselves have endorsed this view (I haven’t gone behind the paywall for the full article).

This argument carries a great deal of force, because, as we know, the Hawke-Keating cuts restored the budget to surplus, leading to Keating’s famous declaration that the 1988-89 Budget was “the one that brings home the bacon”. Leading scholars like Alesina and Ardagna have pointed to this exercise as one of the great success stories of “expansionary austerity”.

What’s that you say? The economy fell in a heap in 1989, leading to a decade of deficits and fifteen years of high unemployment? To quote another Keating aphorism, that was “the recession we had to have”. I guess we are about due for another.

Categories: Economic policy Tags:

Abbott vs Science: The case of the Murray Darling Basin

December 19th, 2013 36 comments

I’m travelling at the moment, so updates are a bit erratic. A few days ago, I had a piece in The Guardian looking at the way the Abbott government is rejecting scientific advice on just about everything, notably including the Murray Darling Basin, on which I worked for a good many years. Comment here or there.

Categories: Economic policy, Environment Tags:

After the car industry

December 13th, 2013 60 comments

With the closure of GMH locked in, it seems virtually certain that Toyota will follow the same path in the end, along with most of the supporting components industry. It’s possible that a well-designed policy, combined with a sustained depreciation of the $A, could keep the industry alive (the fact that it survived the end of the high tariff era was largely due to the Button Plan in the 1980s), but this is the Abbott government we’re talking about, so it seems unlikely.

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.

There are direct implications for employment policy, arising from the job losses that are about to take place, and longer term implications for education and training. More on these soon, I hope.

Categories: Economic policy Tags:

The end of GMH

December 12th, 2013 39 comments

Another day, another stuffup from what already looks like the most incompetent government in Australian history. The Abbott government’s treatment of the car industry has been a disaster in policy terms, and just as bad as far as process is concerned. The key policy failure was the decision to retain fringe benefits tax breaks for cars (90 per cent of which are imported) at a cost of $1.8 billion over the forward estimates, while withdrawing Labor’s promise to give a much smaller amount in additional assistance to the remaining domestic manufacturers GMH and Toyota. Assuming Toyota also pulls out, every bit of the FBT concession will be public money sent overseas, with the exception of the slice creamed off by the salary packaging industry.

The policy process was even worse, announcing an inquiry, then pre-empting the result with a combination of leaks (of course, ABC stenographer Chris Uhlmann was happy to provide anonymity for the source) and Parliamentary taunts. Unsurprisingly, the new GM management in the US was sufficiently unimpressed to pull the plug immediately.

For the diehard fans of microeconomic reform, I guess this counts as a win. But even for them, it’s primarily a matter of cultural symbolism. The protection given to the car industry was so small that on a standard economic analysis, the welfare costs are utterly negligible. And of course, the benefits of protection were swamped by the costs of a chronically overvalued $A, which in turn reflects all manner of policy failures, from global financial deregulation to the subsidisation of the coal industry.

Grattan on Growth

November 28th, 2013 52 comments

I’ve been asked a few times about the Grattan Institute’s new report Balancing budgets: tough choices we need. It’s a substantial piece of work, and isn’t driven by a partisan agenda or special interest lobbying. On the other hand, I disagree strongly with the implicit criterion for policy design. This is nowhere spelt out, but the analysis is clearly driven by the following rule: seek policies that maximize GDP growth, subject to the constraint that the poorest (bottom 20 per cent of) households should not be made worse off.

This is most evident in the recommendation to remove the GST exemption for fresh food and use some of the proceeds to compensate the poorest 20 per cent of households. Let’s compare this with the alternative of raising income tax rates for high income earners (say, the top 20 per cent). By design, neither proposal has much net effect on the poorest 20 per cent. But the food tax falls mostly on the middle 60 per cent of households, since the top 20 per cent don’t spend much more on fresh food than the middle income group. It’s true that the cost of raising money through income tax is higher (Grattan uses an estimated cost of 25 per cent of the gross revenue) than for a food tax (5-10 per cent). But let’s spell this out a bit. Suppose you need to raise $500 in net revenue (roughly speaking what you’d get from the food tax for a household spending $100 a week). Would it be better to impose the tax on Gina Rinehart (in which case, taking account of the economic costs of collecting the tax, you’d have to raise an extra $100 or so compared to the food tax) or on one of her employees. If you regard Rinehart as an extreme example, take the choice between taxing a university professor (definitely in the top 20 per cent) or a campus worker such as a gardener or cleaner (not in the top 20 per cent, but normally not in the bottom 20 either, since this group consists almost entirely of people on pensions and benefits).

The fact is that Howard’s tax cuts, mostly carried on by Labor, used the temporary proceeds of the mining boom to permanently increase the after-tax income of the top 20 per cent. That’s the biggest single cause of the budget problems identified by the Grattan Institute, and the first thing that needs to change if we are to fix those problems.

Categories: Economic policy Tags:

Some good news from the US Congress

November 14th, 2013 11 comments

The US Congress is rightly regarded as a dysfunctional mess, blocking vital legislation for trivial partisan reasons. But occasionally, things work out for the best. A variety of critics ranging from left and liberal Democrats to members of the Tea Party appear likely to derail ‘fast track’ authority for Obama to sign the appalling Trans-Pacific Partnership. By contrast, the Abbott government is keen to sign this secret deal and has dropped Labor’s objections to clauses that would allow foreign corporations to sue our government for policies inconsistent with the market liberal ideology that informs the treaty. Let’s hope the whole thing is slowed down until the 2016 election year. If that happens, the pressure to renegotiate the deal, or scrap it altogether, will become intense.

Coincidentally, Wikileaks has published a draft chapter from the agreement, hidden from us by our governments and making clear what everyone knows. This isn’t about trade but about imposing market liberal institutions, including strong intellectual property in pharmaceuticals, copyright and so on.

The productivity zombie

October 3rd, 2013 6 comments

Following on from my previous post on productivity and the eponymous Commission, I have a piece in the Guardian with the stated objective of killing the productivity/micro reform zombie once and for all. Of course, that’s impossible: as watchers of the genre know, there are always more zombies, then sequels and new seasons, then reruns. But I’ll keep on trying.

Categories: Economic policy Tags:

A debate resolved

September 28th, 2013 13 comments

As regular readers will know, I’ve had a long debate[1] with the Productivity Commission on the sources of the supposed ‘productivity surge’ of the 1990s, which, I’ve suggested was primarily the result of increased work intensity and unmeasured increases in working hours at a time of high job insecurity. I was looking back at some of these discussions when Google turned up a Hansard transcript of hearings of the Senate Standing Committee on Economics in 2012. It turns out that the Commission now agrees with me, and has done so for some time. To quote the Commission’s expert witness, Dr Jenny Gordon[2]

There was a very big debate with the former branch head, Dean Parham, who did a lot of work on productivity. He looked at the effect of the reforms and ICT, which is one of the points that Professor Quiggin made, in trying to explain the productivity boom of the 1990s in terms of what actually happened. Professor Quiggin’s main point is that work intensity is important, which is quite hard to measure but, in fact, is a major source of productivity growth. If people work smarter and work harder while they are at work, that will improve productivity. So it is cutting the fat of organisations, I suppose you could call it. The other point is that people are working longer hours. But the way the productivity measurement is done takes account of the hours of work. That is actually data collected through ABS surveys of individuals reporting the hours that they work. So we could measures hours properly. It is hard to measure work intensity. It does appear and it is a source of productivity growth … So we were in full agreement with that. So the debate was settled back in the mid-2000s.

It’s good that we are in agreement this far. I would add though that productivity growth achieved by working harder does not, in general, improve economic welfare. As for “working smarter”, if this is a reference to technological progress, it’s fine. In my experience, however, it’s usually management-speak for “do the same job with less resources, and work out for yourself how to do it”.

More importantly, the key implication of my analysis is that, to achieve sustainable improvements in living standards, we ought to be focusing on getting the macro issues right rather than lining up for another round of microeconomic reform. Increases in work intensity don’t last, as experience since the 1990s has shown. Genuine long-term improvements in the productivity of the economy can be gained only through educating the workforce to take account of improvements in technology (only a small proportion of which are generated domestically) and through macroeconomic and labour market policies that avoid wasting human potential through unemployment and other forms of social exclusion.

fn1. In the same hearing I cite here, PC Chairman Gary Banks described it as a ‘rich’ and ‘ongoing’ dialogue. I’ve certainly learned a lot from it, and I hope the same for the Commission and any onlookers patient enough to follow it.
fn2. Not particularly germane, but interesting to this post is that Dr Gordon is married to Brian Schmidt, winner of the 2011 Nobel Prize for Physics

Categories: Economic policy Tags:

Buying back toll roads

September 23rd, 2013 91 comments

Reports that the NSW Liberal government is planning to buy back the Cross-City tunnel, following the bankruptcy of the second set of private owners mark an important step in the failure of the private infrastructure program launched in the 1980s with the Sydney Harbour Tunnel[1].

The interesting failure here is not the bankruptcy of the operators but the recognition that the whole idea of imposing tolls on a road designed to divert traffic from the city is nonsense. The most sensible plan, after buying the tunnel is to remove the toll and free road space in the CBD for a variety of initiatives including light rail and cycleways.

Unfortunately, the lessons have not been learned. The new WestConnex project in Sydney is to be a largely private tollway. The proposed East-West link in Melbourne is also a toll road but “is being procured as an Availability Public Private Partnership (PPP), with the State initially retaining tolling and traffic risk.” Whether or not these projects are economically and socially justified, there is no doubt that the use of toll funding will greatly reduce the benefits, leaving more traffic on congested, but untolled, roads.

fn1. A sham deal, which was eventually reconstructed as a publicly owned tunnel with a private operating contract.

Categories: Economic policy Tags:

Saving the salary packaging industry

September 19th, 2013 42 comments

The Abbott government is faced with its first big economic policy decision, a bit sooner than I expected. Going into the election Abbott promised to reverse the Rudd government’s tightening of FBT rules for motor vehicles, at a cost of $1.2 billion over the forward estimates period of 4 years. This was to be funded in part by scrapping $500 million of assistance to the domestic car industry.

Since the great majority of cars in Australia are imported, and since much of the benefit of FBT rorts is dissipated through the inefficiency of the required structuring of salary packages, the reversal of the FBT decision yields only a minimal benefit to the domestic industry. It’s unsurprising therefore, that Holden has announced that, unless the government restores Labor’s assistance policy by Christmas, the company will close down. The general assumption is that the resulting contraction of the supply chain would force Toyota out of domestic production as well, so that the entire industry would shut down.

All of this would be comprehensible if the government was pursuing a consistent free-market line. But no one has tried to pretend that the FBT treatment of cars is anything other than a rort. LNP advertising during the election was all about the damage removing the rort would do to jobs in the salary packaging industry and to employers who depended on the rort to reduce their wage bills. Those employers notably include charities and NGOs which could be aided more efficiently with grants – of course, the LNP is going to cut those grants.

Assuming the government is unwilling to see the car industry close down within its first year of office, the sensible thing would be a double backflip, restoring Labor’s policy. That seems highly unlikely. I’ll also be surprised if the government holds its nerve and lets Holden close. So, I suspect we are going to see a half-baked partial solution which will increase the structural budget deficit relative to any consistent policy, and still only defer the end by a few years.

But, even if we don’t make cars any more, we will, at least, have a salary packaging industry that is the envy of the world.

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A note on the ineffectiveness of monetary stimulus (updated and corrected)

August 26th, 2013 98 comments

A commenter on the previous post raised the idea, promoted by the “market monetarist” school, that monetary policy is so effective as to make fiscal policy entirely unnecessary, at least when interest rates are above the zero lower bound. My views on this issue were formed by the experience of the late 20th century, and in particular, the recession that began in 1990, following steep increases in interest rates. Having planned a “short, sharp, shock”, the RBA started cutting rates in January 1990.

They didn’t go for 25 basis point moves in those days. Over the period to March 1993, rates were cut by more than 12 percentage points, from 17.5 per cent to 5.25 per cent. Over the same period, unemployment rose from 6 per cent to nearly 11 per cent, a record for the period since the Depression, and stayed around that level well into 1994, until the adoption of the Working Nation package of fiscal stimuuls active labour market policies. As I said in the previous post, tight monetary policy can reliably cause recessions, but expansionary monetary policy in a deep recession is “pushing on a string”.

Update As pointed out by Mark Sadowski in comments, these are nominal rates of interest. To get the real rate, which is more relevant, you need to subtract the expected rate of inflation, which fell from around 7 per cent to around 4 per cent over this period (as measured by surveys, and by the premium for inflation-adjusted Treasury bonds). So, you get a 9 percentage point reduction in the real rate from 10 per cent to 1 per cent. This doesn’t make much difference to the story. Most economists would regard policy as contractionar/expansionary if real interest rates are above/below the long-run neutral level, about 3 per cent. So, we still have a shift from strongly contractionary to moderately expansionary.

However, market monetarists want to argue that the stance of policy should be assessed relative to a policy rule (Taylor rule or NGDP) that already incorporates a prescription of cutting rates when GDP falls and unemployment rises. This doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. It’s like arguing that Obama’s stimulus was actually a contractionary policy because it wasn’t as big as (according to a standard analysis based on Okun’s Law) it should have been. It’s partly a question of semantics, but it’s associated with the claim that, if only rates had been cut even more, we wouldn’t have had the recession, or would have recovered quickly. Having been around at the time, I disagree.

Fiscal multipliers and employment (wonkish)

August 26th, 2013 53 comments

With two weeks to go in the election campaign, we still haven’t seen anything resembling a budget proposal from Tony Abbott and the LNP. Various people have made estimates of the cost of his promises and the cuts likely to be needed to fund those promises and return to surplus. My main concern is that Abbott has locked himself so thoroughly into the rhetoric of surplus that, in the event of a downturn or recession, he will feel compelled to adopt the kinds of austerity measures that have had a disastrous impact in Europe and prevented any real recovery in the US. To make this point properly, we need some numbers. One way to get such numbers is with a macroeconomic model. That gives you some better precision, but often hides the key assumptions. Instead, I will give a very simple Keynesian analysis, yielding back-of-the-envelope estimates.

For illustration, I’ll assume a public expenditure cut of $10 billion a year – the calculation is linear so it can be scaled up or down as needed. In a recession, the fiscal multiplier is likely to be around 1.5 (that’s the value used by Christina Romer when she pushed for a larger fiscal stimulus in 2009, and consistent with recent estimates by the IMF). So, the impact of the cut, when multipliers are taken into account is $15 billion or around 1 per cent of national income (or GDP if you prefer that measure).

Now we can use Okun’s Law to estimate that the cut will raise the unemployment rate by around 0.5 percentage points. Taking participation rates into account, employment will also fall by around 0.5 per cent (about 50 000 jobs).

A bunch of qualifications and observations over the fold

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The failure of austerity in Europe

August 22nd, 2013 30 comments

The Don Dunstan foundation (with which I have an affiliation) has released a report by Dexter Whitfield, Director of the European Services Strategy Unit, giving chapter and verse on the failure of austerity policies in Europe. It starts with the failure of austerity in terms of its own objectives (reducing debt), and then covers the various consequences, including

The only point I want to make, yet again, is that (with the partial exception of Greece) the debt crisis to which austerity has been the response was not the result of government profligacy. It was caused by the Global Financial Crisis which, in its European dimension, was generated by the policies of financial deregulation, fixed fiscal policy targets and inflation-targeted monetary policy adopted by the European Central Bank and the European Commission – the very institutions that are now imposing austerity.

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NBN: we would have been better off without privatisation

August 22nd, 2013 42 comments

I have (over the fold) a piece in The Guardian, making the fairly obvious point that both the need for a publicly-owned NBN and much of the cost are the result of the decision to privatise Telstra, and to rely on “facility-based competition” to drive new investment.

Add in the failure of electricity reform, PPP toll roads and airport privatisation, and there’s not much in the way of success from the infrastructure reforms of the 1990s. Then, of course, there’s the collapse of the much-feted productivity boom.

And yet Australia is exceptionally prosperous. A little bit of that, particularly in Queensland and WA, is due to the mining boom. But most of it is the simple fact that, by a combination of good luck and good management, we’ve gone 20 years without a recession.

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Reading the economic theories of Rudd and Abbott

August 20th, 2013 53 comments

That’s the headline for my latest piece in Crikey, over the fold

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I’m underwhelmed …

August 15th, 2013 43 comments

… to put it mildly, by Kevin Rudd’s endorsement of the Coalition/IPA proposals for a variety of tax and policy distortions to subsidise economic activity in Northern Australia.

I get that a certain amount of this kind of thing is to be expected in an election campaign, but I hope we don’t see too much more of it.

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We’re only ‘doing it tough’ out of envy

August 14th, 2013 58 comments

That’s the title of my latest piece in Crikey, over the fold

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