Archive for the ‘Economics – General’ Category

Bitcoin: a waste of energy

October 6th, 2015 48 comments

I have a piece up in The Drum, making the point that most of the market value of a Bitcoin reflects the electricity wasted in the calculations needed to “mine” it, with the obvious disastrous implications for the global climate. Unsurprisingly, it’s provoked some vociferous, if mostly incoherent, responses from Bitcoin fans.

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When did “Free Trade Agreements” become “reform” ?

September 8th, 2015 15 comments

The Oz is pushing hard for the China-Australia Free Trade Agreement. Support for the deal was (AFAICT) the only significant output from the “National Reform Summit” held by the Oz and AFR a week or so ago. This raises a few points of interest.

* Until very recently, bilateral trade deals of any kind were seen as the antithesis of free-market reform. Reformers favored either unilateral removal of trade barriers or global deals through the World Trade Organization. Admittedly, the latter is clearly a forlorn hope, but what happened to unilateral free trade

* Second, it ought to be clear by now that “reform” means “whatever the Oz and IPA wants”. For example, tax reform doesn’t mean taxing mineral rents or carbon externalities or tax-dodging trusts and shell companies. In essence, it means taxing food and giving the proceeds to the rich. Anyone concerned with good policy should stop using this word in a positive sense

* Most importantly, “Free Trade Agreements” are nothing of the kind. The key to the China deal is the expansion of the 457 system to allow for 100 per cent overseas workforces. Even if you think that’s a good idea, it should be addressed in the context of immigration policy. There’s a startling contradiction between this stuff and Joe Hockey’s high profile persecution of Chinese buyers who are allegedly pushing up the price of Sydney houses.

* The same is true of the other FTA’s this government has signed, and even more so of the proposed TPP. At most, the trade component of these deals consists of Australia selling its domestic policy sovereignty to foreign governments in return for the removal of their trade barriers.

The great replication crisis

September 3rd, 2015 30 comments

There’s been a lot of commentary on a recent study by the Replication Project that attempted to replicate 100 published studies in psychology, all of which found statistically significant effects of some kind. The results were pretty dismal. Only about one-third of the replications observed a statistically significant effect, and the average effect size was about half that originally reported.

Unfortunately, most of the discussion of this study I’ve seen, notably in the New York Times, has missed the key point, namely the problem of publication bias. The big problem is that, under standard 20th century procedures, research reports will only be published if the effect observed is “statistically significant”, which, broadly speaking means that the average value of the observed effect is more than twice as large as the estimated standard error. According to the standard classical hypothesis testing theory, the probability that such an effect will be observed by chance, when in reality there is no effect, is less than 5 per cent.

There are two problems here, traditionally called Type I and Type II error. The classical hypothesis testing focuses on reducing Type I error, the possibility of finding an effect when none exists in reality, to 5 per cent. Unfortunately, when you do lots of tests, you get 5 per cent of a large number. If all the original studies were Type I errors, we’d expect only 5 per cent to survive replication.

In fact, the outcome observed in the Replication Study is entirely consistent with the possibility that all the failed replications are subject to Type II error, that is, failure to demonstrate an effect that is there in reality

I’m going to illustrate this with a numerical example[^1].

Read more…

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My submission or the Abbot Point port expansion Environmental Impact Statement

August 28th, 2015 22 comments

The Queensland government is going ahead with (or, more hopefully, going through the motions of) the process for expansion of the Abbot Point coal terminal. A Draft Environmental Impact Statement has just been released, and there is a call for comments here

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What do destroyers destroy? What do frigates … ?

August 25th, 2015 192 comments

The Abbott government is copping plenty of flak (metaphor used advisedly) over its obvious politicking with respect to the construction of a new class of guided-missile frigate for the Royal Australian Navy. The project with total costs touted at $90 billion is promised to create lots of jobs in South Australia, perhaps replacing those when the same government, in its free-market incarnation, welcome the death of the car industry.

Rather than pile on, I’ll ask a question which, from past experience, I know is bound to annoy many. What are these things supposed to do?

As far as I can tell, guided-missile frigates are supposed to shoot down aircraft and missiles, but this seems, on the face of things, to be an absurd proposition. Pitting an effectively stationary boat, costing the better part of a billion dollars, against missiles (fired from land or from aircraft), travelling at the speed of sound or more, and costing a million dollars apiece, seems like a hopelessly lopsided contest.

Of course, it’s just about impossible to test this proposition. AFAIK, the only conflict in which surface ships have actually engaged in combat with aircraft using missiles was the Falklands, more than thirty years ago. That didn’t appear decisive: the Royal Navy managed a win against the air force of a Third World country, but took some heavy losses in the process. But technology has advanced a long way since then, and there’s no way of testing which side of such conflicts it now favours. So, naval advocates can make up whatever claims they like about the capabilities of the ships we keep on buying.

Of course, the fact that there has been so little naval warfare in the last 70 years or so seems to me to be a very strong argument for spending less on money on warships.

Readers will be aware that I think war is almost always disastrous for both sides, that most military spending is wasteful and harmful, but that I know this to be a minority view. Even given that, the case against spending money on navies (and particularly surface fleets) seems so overwhelming to me that I’m amazed to find hardly anyone in agreement.

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The generation game and the 1 per cent

August 6th, 2015 50 comments

For a generation (fifteen years) or more I’ve been writing and rewriting the same piece about the silliness of the “generation game”, the idea that one’s year of birth matters more than class, gender or race in determining life outcomes and attitudes. But this is a zombie idea that can never be killed.

Stephen Rattner in the New York Times is the latest example, with a piece showing that US Millennials (those born after 1980) are doing much worse than previous generations at the same age, despite higher levels of education. Rattner notes the role of the recession, now nearly a decade old, but then jumps to the conclusion that it is the Baby Boomers, as a group, who are to blame. His only evidence for this is the long-discredited claim of a looming crisis in Social Security.

Rattner doesn’t present any evidence about the recent experience of non-Millennials, but his piece leaves the impression that the experience of doing worse than older cohorts at the same age is uniquely Millennial. So I thought I’d do his work for him, and dug out this graph prepared by Doug Short HouseholdIncomeByAge As can be seen, the group suffering the biggest loss, relative to older cohorts at the same age, are those households with heads aged 45-54 in 2013, a mix of late Boomers (for aficianados, this group is called Generation Jones) and early X-ers. But the main point is that median household income is falling for all groups except the 65+ cohort (mostly called Silents in the generation game). Part of this is due to declining household size, but (IIRC) household size has stabilized recently as forming a new household has become less affordable.

Rattner doesn’t mention, even once, the obvious and well-known explanation for the fact that median income is falling while mean income rises. This can only occur if the distribution of income is becoming more skewed, with the top tail (the 1 per cent) benefiting at the expense of everyone else.

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August 4th, 2015 35 comments

Among critics of renewable energy, one key idea is that of Energy Returned On Energy Invested (EROEI). The central idea can be illustrated by the case of ethanol produced from corn in the US. It’s argued by critics that the production of ethanol from corn uses more fossil fuel inputs than it displaces. The US Department of Agriculture has an EROEI slightly greater than 1, but it’s still clear that corn ethanol is not going to do much to solve the carbon dioxide problem.

Now lets look at the case of solar PV. The energy-intensive component of a solar PV module is the polysilicon used to produce the wafer, which is produced using an electric furnace. Clearly, if more electricity is used in this process than is generated by cell, EROEI < 1, and the idea does not work. We can do a rough check by observing that a typical wafer uses 5 grams/watt of polysilicon. The cost of polysilicon is $20/kg. To be conservative let's assume this is all electricity, at a cost of 5c/Kwh. Then a quick calculation shows that each watt of PV requires 2 KWh of electricity in production or about 1 year's generation in a favorable location. So, for a panel with a 10-year lifetime, the EROEI is 10. Clearly not much of a problem. The estimate omits the energy costs of the rest of the module, but that's almost certainly more than offset by the conservative assumptions about polysilicon.

Some EROEI fans don't like this calculation. They want to include all sorts of other costs, going as far as the food energy used by the workers who instal the panel. At this point, the exercise becomes one of trying to price all economic activity in terms of energy, an idea that has been tried without success for decades. For everything except energy-intensive activities like smelting, energy costs are a small part of the total, and imputing such costs to any particular energy source is a fools errand.

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CCS: A fiction that has outlived its usefulness

August 2nd, 2015 41 comments

With only a handful of pilot projects in operation around the world, Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) has not played a significant role in reducing carbon dioxide emissions. CCS has, however, been valuable as a fiction for all those who want, for whatever reason, to avoid dealing explicitly with the fact that stabilizing the global climate will require ending the use of fossil fuels, and particularly coal. For example, rather than prohibiting new coal-fired power stations, the US EPA has proposed that only power stations equipped with CCS technology should be permitted. Since new coal stations are mostly uneconomic even without CCS, this amounts to a ban, but can be justified simply as requiring best practice.

It now appears that this fiction has outlived its usefulness. Recent reports suggest that the EPA will drop the CCS requirement in favour of the weaker requirement that all new coal-fired stations should use supercritical combustion. There are two main reasons for this

(a) The requirement might not stand up to legal challenge on the basis that CCS is not a feasible technology
(b) No new coal plants are likely to be built anyway

Meanwhile, the EU is struggling over proposals to stop subsidies for coal-fired power. Again, the compromise was to subsidise only projects with CCS. But the coal lobby is now arguing that

proposed requirements on carbon capture and storage (CCS) to neutralise emissions have to be realistic as the technology is still in its infancy.

In this context, “realistic” means supercritical and therefore theoretically ready for CCS, as opposed to actually using the technology.

Combine this with a string of cuts in funding for CCS projects, and the conclusion is inescapable. CCS is an ex-parrot.

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Leaving it in the ground

July 23rd, 2015 33 comments

If there’s to be any chance of stabilizing the global climate, a large proportion of existing reserves of coal will need to be left in the ground. The Galilee Basin, estimated to contain 27 billion tonnes of coal, enough to raise atmospheric concentrations of CO2 by several parts per million on its own, is arguably the biggest test case in the world right now. Fortunately, the latest news is good.

The critical project is the Carmichael Mine proposed by Adani Coal. To get the coal out Adani proposed a new rail line and a port expansion at Abbot Point. Korean conglomerate POSCO (originally a steelmaker) was named as the builder of the railroad, with the prospect that POSCO would take an equity share and the Korean Export-Import Bank would lend money on favorable terms. If the rail line is built, other projects could go ahead. One such project, owned by Bandanna Coal (now in receivership) was just approved by Environment Minister Greg Hunt.

It now seems clear that Adani is mothballing the project. A month ago, the engineering design teams were told to stop work, and now Posco’s contractors have been sent home. Coincidentally or otherwise, Posco has announced the intention to return to its steelmaking roots, with aggressive cuts to its engineering and construction divisions.

Adani is still blaming regulatory delays, but this seems increasingly implausible. The sacking of the engineering teams will set the project back many months, if not years, and burning your primary equity partner doesn’t seem like a sensible response to regulatory problems. At this point, I’d say the strategy is to obtain and bank the regulatory approvals then hope that the price of coal increases in the future. This seems unlikely, given the collapse of demand in the US, declining demand in China and increasing Indian focus on renewables, in which Adani itself is a big player.

Moreover, with every year that passes, the obstacles to coal projects of any kind get bigger. Most international development banks will no longer lend to such projects, global banks are under similar pressure and institutional equity investors are being pushed to divest. It’s unlikely that the proponents of new coal projects in Australia will ever again see a government as favorable as the Abbott government, so if they can’t succeed now, they will probably never do so.

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Derp: An irregular verb

July 7th, 2015 28 comments

Following up on Noah Smith’s marvellous definition of derp, I thought I would add the first person to give the declension of this irregular verb

* I can’t see this happening
* You regularly restate your tight (low probability) prior
* He herped a flerp of derp, the twerp

Read more…

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Backing down on Greece’s debt is the safest, most rational option

July 6th, 2015 160 comments

I wrote this for The Guardian and Crooked Timber in response to the Greek referendum result.

Lots of people have raised the suggestion of applying game theory to the the Greek debt crisis. I haven’t attempted this, reflecting my general scepticism about game theory in the absence of a well-defined strategy space. But now the Greek government and public have made, what is, in effect, a final move. In view of the No vote, Syriza can’t accept a deal that doesn’t include an explicit debt write-off or one that obviously crosses its stated red lines. Within those parameters, its clearly eager for a face-saving compromise.

For the other side (effectively the Troika and the German government), since Syriza’s move has already been made, the problem has now been reduced to one of decision under uncertainty, which is something I am comfortable with. More precisely, it’s a choice between a “safe” option, with an outcome that is fairly predictable, and a “risky” option where the outcome is uncertain.
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Economists call on climate change policy

July 2nd, 2015 68 comments

I’ve just signed a statement drawn up by a group of economists from the Toulouse School of Economics and the Université Paris-Dauphine, in advance of the current COP21 international negotiation. The aim of the statement is to encourage the parties to aim for a more comprehensive and economically effective agreement that would ultimately supersede the patchwork of voluntary commitments being put forward at present. While the commitments being made for COP21 represent a huge advance on the vague aspirations that emerged from Copenhagen, we should not lose sight of the ultimate goal of decarbonizing the global economy in a way that minimizes the economic costs by taking advantage of the power of price mechanisms.

From an Australian viewpoint, the most important part of the Call is Part 3: “Free rider” behavior must be hindered. The current government’s attempts to position Australia as a free rider on the efforts of others cannot succeed in the end, and will only do Australia harm.

If you’re a professional economist and agree with Call, you can sign it here. More generally, it’s open for discussion in the comments thread.

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Adani Galilee Basin project on hold: threat or alibi?

June 25th, 2015 36 comments

In an interesting sequence of events, Adani has halted engineering work related to its proposed Carmichael mine in the Galilee Basin.

Last week, it appears, Adani sent out notices to our major engineering contractors, including WorleyParsons, Aecon, Aurecon and SMEC, to stop work. A team of up to 40 engineers at WorleyParsons’ Brisbane office, which was working with Aecon on the rail joint venture, was among those pulled off the project. No public announcement was made.

Yesterday, the Guardian revealed the stopwork, citing “sources”. Adani declined to comment

Today, Adani is claiming that the stopwork was due to delays in regulatory approvals, a claim denied by the Queensland government. It’s worth noting that the new Labor government quickly resolved the biggest outstanding issue for Adani’s rail line and port expansion, namely where to dump the dredging spoil from the port. The solution was neat – they offered land that had been reserved for an expansion proposed by BHP Billiton, who have abandoned the idea, as have most of the other big players.

So, there are two possible explanations. One is that Adani is pressuring governments to hurry up with the threat of bad publicity about putting the project on hold, lost jobs and so on. But if so, why not make a big splash with the announcement. The other, more plausible in my view, is that Adani is preparing to cut and run, and wants to be able to blame government interference rather than its own misjudgement of the market.

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In the press

June 16th, 2015 116 comments
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My response to Grattan on solar PV

June 1st, 2015 71 comments

Crikey has published my reaction to the Grattan Institute’s Report on solar PV (over the fold). My summary

the headline finding of the Grattan Report is totally wrong, even ignoring all the criticisms that have been made of the analytical framework. The report should be retracted and rewritten.

Read more…

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The end of coal

May 23rd, 2015 23 comments

I have a piece in The Conversation, looking at the continued fall in Chinese demand for coal, and a highly relevant IMF study confirming previous findings that, even disregarding climate change, the health costs of burning coal make it more costly than renewables. So, the idea that the path to development lies through coal is a nonsense. The Chinese government has recognised this and acted, and the same will be true in India before too long.

I’ve reprinted over the fold.

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Queensland in recession?

May 22nd, 2015 6 comments

There’s been a bit of fuss over the announcement by Queensland Treasurer Curtis Pitt that Gross State Product contracted during the last two quarters of 2014, which were also the last two full quarters under the Newman LNP government. Two quarters of negative growth is a common criterion for declaring a recession, and much of the controversy concerns Pitt’s use of this term. Is it justified. Obviously, the LNP and their allies would like to prove that it is not, and have made vociferous attempts to do so.

Some can be dismissed pretty easily as bluster. Joe Hockey, demonstrating the grasp of quantitative analysis for which he has become famous, declared Pitt’s claim “complete rubbish”. His supporting arguments were a mixture of irrelevance “There’s certainly no evidence of that at a national level” and wishful thinking “the bottom line is, we want Queensland to grow”.

Similarly, the claim I’ve seen quoted by Opposition spokesman Langbroek that the numbers exclude net exports appears to be just plain wrong.

A more serious objection, at least potentially, is that these figures are derived from preliminary Queensland Treasury figures, rather than the ABS numbers due in June. June isn’t far away, and will either confirm the preliminary numbers or not. It will be interesting to see if anyone is willing to eat humble pie.

A more interesting question, to my mind, is whether two quarters of negative growth is a good definition of recession. This article (in the Murdoch Courier-Mail, but authored in part by the excellent Paul Syvret, suggests not.

According to the data released yesterday, Queensland was by strict definition in recession in the latter months of 2014, but it was not one accompanied by waves of retrenchments (outside sections of the resources sector), business failures and plunging consumer sentiment.

Part of the problem here is that the only recession most Australians can remember is that of the early 1990s, long and deep and followed by a jobless recovery. Before that, the recessions of the 1970s and 1980s were also severe. The last time we had a mild recession, of the kind for which the two-quarter rule was proposed, was back in the 1960s.

This is fairly accurately summed up in the same article

in the second half of last year we had gradually rising unemployment, and a more marked slowing in business investment as major resource sector projects tapered off. At the same time public sector investment was dragging on growth as the government concentrated on fiscal consolidation ahead of its planned privatisation and asset recycling program.

To sum up, the numbers are bad enough to demolish any idea that, to the extent that governments have any influence on the economy, the LNP government and its federal counterpart were doing a good job for Queensland in 2014. But we already knew that the economy was slowing down with the end of the mining boom.

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Through the looking glass

May 11th, 2015 17 comments

The New York Times has a piece about Obama’s push to gain “fast-track” authority for the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership, which would preclude any amendments by Congress after the deal (still secret, except for what Wikileaks has revealed) is announced. The key para, buried a fair way down

To the president, the Trans-Pacific Partnership would counter the economic weight of China and set rules on labor, the environment, intellectual property and investor protections for the growing economies of the Pacific Rim. For members of Congress, it’s about jobs.

shows how differently the debate is playing out in the US compared to other countries involved, such as Australia, and how much leading papers like the New York Times are missing the point

In the Australian debate, it’s generally understood (based on both economic modelling and past experience) that there won’t be much effect on jobs either way, at least not through the direct effects on trade. For the critics (just about everyone on the left), it’s precisely the “rules on labor, the environment, intellectual property and investor protections” that represent the big concerns. All of these rules benefit corporations at the expense of workers, the environment, the free flow of information and national sovereignty. It’s the general strengthening of corporate power, and not the flow of goods, that will harm jobs, wages and working conditions Investor-State Dispute Settlement provisions, for example, have been used to challenge minimum wage laws.

Leading US critics like Elizabeth Warren and the AFL-CIO have raised some of these points, noting (for the benefit of Republicans in particular) that the ISDS provisions will enable unaccountable arbitrators to override US federal and state laws.

The use of trade deals as an instrument of geopolitics is also unwelcome for a country like Australia that needs to balance itself between the US and China. Despite its enthusiastic support for the US and the TPP deal, the conservative government here signed up to join China’s regional infrastructure bank, developed largely in response to China’s exclusion from the TPP.

But US news coverage can’t seem to get out of a frame set by the trade deals of last century, such as NAFTA.

Flogging the dead horse of nuclear power

May 5th, 2015 96 comments

As I anticipated, my post on Tesla’s new battery provoked some pretty hostile responses, most notably from pro-nuclear diehards. I’ve written plenty on this (use the search facility), so rather than repeat myself I’ll make an observation drawing on the previous post.

Ten years ago, solar PV was a faintly hopeful technologica prospect, making a minuscule contribution to electricity generation. Today, it’s a reality that is creating massive disruption for electricity utilities around the world. As I said in the previous post, the availability of even moderately cost-effective storage removes the last big obstacle (more on the economics soon)

By contrast, ten years ago, nuclear energy was a mature technology which seemed to be at the beginning of a renaissance. Today it’s further away, in almost every respect, than it was in 2005. Construction times have blown out, costs have turned out to be twice as high or more than expected, the operating record (thanks to Fukushima) is far worse, and the various new technologies (SMRs, Gen IV) have receded even further.

None of this means that the replacement of fossil fuels with renewables+storage is going to happen under current policy settings. But such a replacement is now clearly feasible, much faster, more reliably and at much lower cost, than attempting to reboot the failed nuclear renaissance.

Backing the nuclear horse was a reasonable choice in 2005. But it’s dead, and flogging it won’t revive it.

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Is Powerwall good for coal and nuclear?

May 5th, 2015 74 comments

No one seems to have spelt this point out, but there’s an obvious potential for Powerwall to be used in ways that benefit coal, nuclear and geothermal power, as well as renewables like wind and solar. Advocates of these technologies love to cite the fact that they are “baseload” supplies, but this is a misconception. Because they are costly to turn on and off (or even up and down), these technologies produce too much power at times of little demand (late night and early morning).

If owners of home solar systems, connected to grids with an off-peak excess supply, install battery storage on a large scale, it would make sense to run two cycles per day. The systems (most sensibly oriented west) would charge up from solar panels in the early afternoon, and supply power in the evening. Then they would recharge from the grid in the early morning, and supply power to meet the morning peak associated with getting ready for work, school etc.

What’s the net effect of this. First, obviously, it makes storage a more appealing economic choice for householders. Second, although it reduces costs for any kind of electricity that is not fully dispatchable, the benefits are bigger for renewables for two reasons. First, the variability of these sources is greater. Second, pricing systems, at least those in Australia, are already set up to encourage use of off-peak grid power, whereas current feed-in tariffs discourage solar PV.

From our current starting point, effect of adding more systems with a combination of solar PV and storage will be to reduce total demand for coal-fired power (and, where it exists, nuclear power), and to enable more efficient use of existing capital stock. So, it’s likely to discourage new investment in these sources. However, unless we have a carbon price, or other measures in place, it won’t necessarily accelerate the closure of existing coal-fired plants.

Update A note on the economics: Calculations I’ve seen on the web assumed that lithium batteries have a life of 1000 recharge-discharge cycles, but it appears this number can be improved drastically. These guys are claiming 20 000. More on this soon, I hope.

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May 5th, 2015 17 comments

A new sandpit for long side discussions, idees fixes and so on. Unless directly responding to the OP, all discussions of nuclear power, MMT and conspiracy theories should be directed to sandpits (or, if none is open, message boards).

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Loaves and fishes, again

May 2nd, 2015 20 comments

I expanded my earlier analysis of the Galilee Basin mines in this piece for The Guardian. The really striking number is 483, the number of long-term new jobs the Carmichael mine is estimated to generate in the local (Mackay Isaac Whitsunday) region. That estimate comes from a computable general equilibrium (CGE) modelling exercise by Adani’s own consultants, ACIL Allen. Before the Queensland election, of course, much bigger numbers of 10-20 000 were bandied about. That’s partly a difference of coverage – the bigger numbers envisage, implausibly, that all the proposed mines in the Basin will go ahead, along with rail lines and port expansions.

Also, some of them focus on peak numbers during construction for each project, so that the jobs in question would only last a year or so. But the big difference is that the larger estimates were made using the discredited input-output method, in which each job created directly generates many more indirect jobs. This is an extreme version of the Keynesian multiplier effect, valid during a deep recession. But, as ACIL Allen observes, it makes sense only if you assume that the recession is going to last for the life of the project.

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Loaves and fishes (updated)

April 22nd, 2015 19 comments

Readers who attended Sunday School will remember the story of miracle of the loaves and fishes, performed by Jesus on the Sea of Galilee. A couple of fish and a few loaves of bread proved sufficient to feed a multitude.

Something similar appears to be happening in the Galilee Basin, where large, but economically marginal, coal mines are supposed to produce massive wealth for everyone. The Courier-Mail has a report of a court case in which the Alpha mine, owned by GVK Hancock, is claimed to be capable of generating $44 billion in royalties. The royalty rate in Queensland is 10 per cent for coal prices below $100/tonne (prices above that level will almost certainly never be seen again). At the current price of around $65/tonne, that’s $6.50/tonne. Alpha claims to be able to produce 32 million tonnes a year. If realised, that would make a little over $200 million a year. That is, to realise the amount claimed, the mine would have to produce at its maximum capacity for over 200 years.

But that’s the least of the problems. GVK Hancock’s own estimate of the cash costs of extracting coal is $55/tonne and others are as high as $70/tonne (I don’t know if this includes royalties. So, even at the most optimistic estimates of cost and extraction rates we are looking at a margin of $10/tonne for 32 million tonnes or $320 million a year, out of which a variety of corporate overheads will have to be paid. The capital cost of the project will be at least $10 billion. So, at current prices, the gross return on capital before interest, depreciation and amortisation (and tax, if any is paid) is at most 3.2 per cent, barely equal to the rate of interest on Australian government bonds. Obviously, no sensible lender or equity investor would look at this project.

A similar analysis can be performed for Adani’s Carmichael mine, which has apparently lost the $1 billion in funding proposed to come from the State Bank of India, as well as $300 million in equity promised by the Newman LNP government.

Adani claims cash costs of less than $50/tonne, but this seems very optimistic, being dependent on the assumption that other coal projects will fall over, reducing wages and other input costs. But it has a much higher projected output, around 50-60 million tonnes by 2022. So, it could be generating $900 million a year in EBITDA. But it’s hard to see that covering depreciation and interest on a $10 billion project. And of course, another $10-$20 off the coal price would kill the project completely, taking the lenders’ money with it.

In essence, these projects are being kept on life support in the hope of a recovery in coal prices to levels near those that were prevailing when the projects began. That really would be a miracle

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Rank Delusions

April 10th, 2015 20 comments

That’s the title of a piece I had in the Chronicle of Higher Education in February. CHE is paywalled, but they kindly agree to let me republish here, after a suitable interval. The article (or at least a near final version) is over the fold.

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CO2 emissions levelling out?

April 7th, 2015 236 comments

Preliminary estimates from the International Energy Agency, released in March, suggest that energy-related emissions of CO2[1] were unchanged in 2014 compared to 2013. Countries experiencing notable drops in emissions included China, Britain, Germany and the EU as a whole, but not, of course, Australia[2]

This has happened before, but only in years of global recession, whereas the global growth rate in 2014 was around 3 per cent. Of course, there are plenty of special factors such as a good year for hydro in China. Still, after looking carefully at the numbers, I’ve come to the conclusion that this really does represent, if not the long-sought peak in emissions, at least the end of the link between rising living standards and CO2 emissions.

The most striking feature of 2014 in this context was the behavior of fossil fuel prices. Coal prices had already fallen a long way from their peak levels in the years around the GFC, and they kept on falling through the year, even as coal mines began to close and lots of projects were abandoned. Oil prices remained at historically high levels until the middle of the year but then joined the downward trend, which has continued into 2015. Natural gas is a more complex story, since there isn’t a global market, and I haven’t figured it out yet.

Still, it seems to me that the 2014 outcome is a consistent with a story in which most growth in demand for energy services will be met by a combination of renewables and energy efficiency, and in which coal continues to lose ground to gas. The lack of demand implies that fossil fuel prices are likely to stay permanently below the levels anticipated when most recent projects were initiated.

Behind all this, it seems as if the various piecemeal measures introduced with the aim of switching away from fossil fuels are working better than almost anyone expected, and with minimal economic cost. Hopefully, this will encourage world leaders to set more ambitious targets, consistent with stabilising the global climate at temperatures 2 degrees or less above pre-industrial levels.

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Cognitive biases

April 5th, 2015 28 comments

Ross Gittins cites some interesting questions used by some of my QUT colleagues to assess cognitive biases before undertaking a study of investment behavior. Here you go: Try to answer before reading on or checking comments:

Give me high and low estimates for the average weight of an adult male sperm whale (the largest of the toothed whales) in tonnes. Choose numbers far enough apart to be 90 per cent certain that the true answer lies somewhere between.

Don’t like that one? Try this: give me high and low estimates of the distance to the moon in kilometres. Choose numbers far enough apart to be certain that the true answer lies somewhere between.

Now something more personal. When you buy a Lotto ticket do you feel more encouraged regarding your chances if you choose the number yourself rather than using a computer-generated number?

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Handicapping the Oz-NZ GDP growth race

April 4th, 2015 15 comments

There has been even more media excitement about the fact that New Zealand is currently experiencing more rapid economic growth than Australia. This is largely due to the fact that the two economies are in different phases of the medium term macroeconomic cycle.

However, there is another important factor that needs to be taken into account in making comparisons of this kind. Given access to the same technology, and with similar levels of education, poor countries will grow faster than rich ones, and will eventually converge to similar level of income. There’s a huge literature on this, to which I contributed a little bit back in the 1990s. The key finding is that, on average and under the conditions just stated, we should expect to see a poorer country make up around 2 per cent of the income gap with a richer country each year. That is, convergence will typically take around 50 years (there’s some tricky Zeno-style paradoxes here, which I don’t have room to discuss)

How does this affect comparisons between Australia and New Zealand. The IMF estimates here give income per person of 45138 for Australian and 33626 for New Zealand. So Australia’s income is about 35 per cent above the New Zealand level. The two countries were roughly on a par until the 1970s.

The standard convergence estimate is that NZ should make up about 2 per cent of that gap (or 0.7 per cent of GDP) each year. If the gap is larger, NZ could reasonably be said to be outperforming Australia for the year in question, relative to the standard 50 year timeframe for convergence. If the gap is smaller, NZ is doing worse than par.

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Voting with their feet, and following the business cycle

March 28th, 2015 14 comments

Among the regular themes in the Australian business press is the claim that we are being outperformed, in economic terms, by New Zealand. I collected a bunch of such claims here, and they were even more prevalent (but hard to find now, being pre-Internet) in the late 1980s. I’m seeing the same theme recurring today (too many repetitions to link).

This is a recurring rather than a continuous theme: there are long periods during which Oz-NZ comparisons are absent from the press. So, if you took the Australian press at face value, it would be reasonable to suppose that Australia was becoming relatively poorer than NZ, not continuously, but in a series of downward steps.

In fact to a close approximation, the reverse is the case. But because market economies are cyclical, there are inevitably brief periods when the NZ economy is on an upswing and Australia in a slowdown or recession. It is only at such times that the business press notices New Zealand’s existence.

A point often made at such times is that net migration from NZ to Australia has slowed to a trickle, usually with the implication that this marks the end of the long term movement. In reality, the cyclical nature of net migration has been a marked feature of movement patterns, ever since the beginning of mass migration westward across the Tasman. The starting point was 1973 Closer Economic Relations Trans-Tasman Travel agreement, which coincided with the beginning of New Zealand’s relative decline. The authority here is Jacques Poot, and this 2009 paper sums up the story.

Interestingly, the flow has continued, unabated though still cyclical, despite the Howard government’s move to exclude Kiwis from welfare payments (arising, IIRC, from a dispute over concerns that NZ’s more liberal immigration policy would provide a ‘backdoor’ path to Australia).

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March 23rd, 2015 61 comments

A new sandpit for long side discussions, idees fixes and so on. Unless directly responding to the OP, all discussions of nuclear power, MMT and conspiracy theories should be directed to sandpits (or, if none is open, message boards).

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Bad for the client, bad for the bottom line

March 20th, 2015 21 comments

My report on the NSW governments proposal to sell (they prefer to say “lease”, but it’s a sale) assets and then undertake a large-scale infrastructure program notionally funded by the proceeds cited the former Secretaries of the NSW and Victorian Treasuries the point that selling income-generating assets does not create a ‘bucket of money’ that can be used to fund non-income-generating infrastructure. I made the claim that regardless of their attitude to privatisation, economists (at least when writing honestly on the subject) would agree with this.

My point was proved, twice over, a couple of days ago. The main point was proved when global bank UBS released a research note headed headlined “Bad for the budget, good for the state“. Of course, UBS supports privatisation, but the adverse effect on the budget was obvious.

However, it turns out that a different part of UBS is advising the Baird government on privatisation. A quick call from the Premier’s office produced a revised version of the note with the offending phrase removed. This proved, via the contrapositive, the parenthetical aside in my claim.

The episode raises the question: what reliance can be placed on published reports from firms like UBS cited in support of government policy? Of course, the same question is equally applicable to reports like my own, which more commonly oppose government policy? A few thoughts over the fold.
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