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Monday Message Board

July 18th, 2016 43 comments

Another Monday Message Board. Post comments on any topic. Civil discussion and no coarse language please. Side discussions and idees fixes to the sandpits, please.

Categories: Economics - General Tags:

Sandpit

June 28th, 2016 67 comments

A new sandpit for long side discussions, conspiracy theories, idees fixes and so on.

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Why is global finance so profitable (crosspost from CT)

May 12th, 2016 21 comments

In a recent post, I asserted that

activities like tax avoidance/evasion and regulatory arbitrage aren’t peripheral flaws in a financial system primarily concerned with the efficient global allocation of capital. They are the core business, without which the profits of the global financial sector would be a tiny fraction of the $1 trillion or so now reaped annually

As I’m working on income distribution issues my long-running book project, this seems like a good time to see if this claim can be backed up by hard numbers.

First up, here’s my source for the $1 trillion number (actually $920 billion). As a plausibility check, I’ve tried to estimate the total size of the global financial sector. Various sources, including Wikipedia estimate that the banking and insurance sector accounts for 7-8 per cent of US gross product. Extrapolating to world gross product of about $80 trillion that would give around $6 trillion for the total size of the sector. The US is almost certainly more financialised than the world as a whole. Still, the profit number looks about right. A trickier question is whether the rents accruing to managers and top professional in the sector should be counted as part of profits. I’d guess that these rents account for at least another $1 trillion, but I have no real idea how to test this – suggestions welcome.

Is tax avoidance/evasion and regulatory arbitrage a big enough activity to account for a substantial share of a trillion dollars a year? Gabriel Zucman estimates that there’s $7.5 trillion stashed in tax havens, of which around $6 trillion is untaxed. He estimates the tax avoided at $200 billion . I’ll estimate that half of that ($100 billion) is creamed off in financial sector, mostly as profits or rents. That implies a profit margin of a bit under 2 per cent, which seems reasonable.

Tax evasion by wealthy individuals is only a small part of the story. Legal tax avoidance is almost certainly more important. Most of that involves companies, but it’s important to distinguish between “close” corporations, which hide the activities of an individual or family and large global corporations. I don’t have any idea how to measure the cost of avoidance through close corporations. As regards global corporations, Zucman estimates that “a third of U.S. corporate profits, or $650 billion, are purportedly earned outside the country, with a cost to the US of $130 billion a year . Extrapolating to the world as a whole, that would be at least $500 billion. Again, assuming the financial sector creams off half of the sum, we get $250 billion (the fact that the finance sector itself accounts for around 40 per cent of all corporate profits means there’s a problem of recursion that I haven’t worked through)

Then there’s manipulation of exchange rate and bond markets. I have no idea how to measure this, but given that the notional volume of trade in some of the markets concerned is measured in the hundreds of trillions, it seems plausible that the profits and rents from market-rigging must be at least in the tens of billions.

These are probably the biggest scams, but there’s also regulatory arbitrage, privatization (a huge source of rent over recent decades), domestic tax avoidance and more.

Adding them up, I’d suggest that $500 billion a year is a low-end estimate for the profits and rents associated with various forms of anti-social financial sector activity.

There’s lots of potential error around these numbers, but the order of magnitude seems reasonable to me. As against the claim that the explosion in financial sector activity and profits over the past 40 years has been driven by the benefits of a more efficient allocation of capital by rational markets, the claim that it’s all about tax-dodging and socially unproductive arbitrage seems pretty plausible.

Obviously, the social cost of a financial system devoted to undermining tax and regulatory systems far exceeds the profits earned from the activity. That’s true of any kind of socially destructive, but privately profitable, activity. But the problem is greater in the case of financial sector activity because of the disastrous effects of financial crises.

Polls vs punters: an explanation?

May 6th, 2016 35 comments

Nearly a month ago, I noticed that betting markets were giving long odds (3.5 to 1) against a Labor win in the (presumably) forthcoming election. That would be a good bet if you thought Labor had a better than 22 per cent (1/(1+3.5)) chance of winning. Given that the polls were pretty much tied, I thought those were good odds.

Since then, the polls have moved steadily in Labor’s favor to the point where their lead is just about statistically significant in a meta-analysis (add lots of independent samples and the margin of error declines). At the same time, the government has barely had a good news day. Their one big hit, the kerfuffle about 10-year projections of tobacco tax revenue (a bipartisan policy) blew up in their faces a few days later when Turnbull and Morrison couldn’t/wouldn’t state the cost of their company tax plan. It seems that they had the $50 billion number ready, but had hit on the clever plan of having the Treasury announce it today, just before Parliament is dissolved so that Labor couldn’t … I’m not sure what (cue underpants gnomes). As a result of all this, the pundits, who dismissed the idea of a Labor win as implausible until very recently, are now coming around to the idea

Yet despite all this, the odds are barely unchanged at 3.3 to 1. That’s good for anyone who gives Labor a 23 per cent chance. There are a few possible explanations of this

(a) The idea that betting markets are highly rational aggregators of information is wrong
(b) Those betting in these markets have inside information or else insights unavailable to the rest of us.
(c) The markets don’t really exist in any substantial form and are just a publicity stunt for the bookmakers. That’s the argument of this 2013 article by Michael West, whom I’ve usually found to be sensible and reliable.

Categories: Economics - General Tags:

Budget bubble

May 1st, 2016 5 comments

The stream of leaks about Tuesday’s budget suggest that the process was still in turmoil until the last minute. If the last round of leaks are broadly accurate, it looks like a budget that will fit fairly neatly into a class war frame. On the tax side, the government has long been floating a cut in company tax rates and the removal of the budget emergency levy on incomes above $180k. At the last minute, they have apparently decided on an increase in the threshold (currently $80 000) for the 37 per cent marginal tax rate.

Presumably, Morrison and Turnbull think that this will be a vote-winner for people concerned about being pushed into higher tax brackets, or already in the higher brackets. How may such people are there, and who are they? Let’s suppose that the budget measures compensate for the bracket creep since Labor left office. The income tax statistics for 2012-13 showed that, at that time, 18.6 per cent of tax returns reported income of $80 000 per year.

Assuming a 10 per cent increase in nominal incomes since then, I estimate that around 5 per cent of taxpayers would have entered the 37 per cent bracket since then. Of course, most of these would be paying 37 per cent on only a tiny fraction of their income, but people don’t always judge these things sensibly. Still, a budget measure targeted at 5 per cent of taxpayers (a good deal less than 5 per cent of the electorate, even taking account of the fact that many are in couple families) doesn’t seem like an election winner.

The real punch of the measure is that everyone on incomes currently over $80 000 will benefit. Assuming a 10 per cent increase, the full benefit of $360 per year (the 4.5 cent difference in marginal rates, applied to $8000) would go to everyone with a taxable income above $88000. That’s about 25 per cent of the 12 million who file income tax returns or 3 million people.

Those above $180 000 will also benefit from the removal of the 2 per cent emergency levy, which is a much bigger deal for the beneficiaries. Anyone earning over $200k will gain at least $400 from this measure, more than from the tax cut

The threshold change I’ve calculated would cost around $1 billion a year to benefit a relatively small group of voters, most of whom are already Liberals and the rest of whom (including me, for example) are unlikely to be all that responsive to tax cuts.

As a political strategy, this doesn’t make obvious sense. I suspect, however, that most politicians and political commentators (particularly, though not only, on the conservative side) make their political estimates on the basis of people they know, many of whom are exercised about bracket creep, and very few of whom make less than $80 000 a year. I recall studies where members of the political class were asked to estimate the median Australian income, and got the number drastically wrong. The social bubble is reinforced by the intellectual bubble created by an increasingly fact-free rightwing world view.

Bubble thinking isn’t exclusively a problem of the political right. But it’s more prevalent there than at any time in the recent past. It may well prove the Turnbull government’s undoing.

* Peter Martin makes the same point about median incomes. After seeing a lower number in his article, I’ve corrected my original estimate of the budget cost, which was too high.

Categories: Economics - General Tags:

Predistribution: wages and unions (extract from Economics in Two Lessons)

April 28th, 2016 10 comments

Over the fold, an extract from my book-in-very slow-progress, Economics in Two Lessons. I’m getting closer to a complete draft, and I plan, Real Soon Now, to post the material so far in a more accessible form. But for the moment, I’ll toss up an extract which is, I hope, largely self-sufficient. Encouragement is welcome, constructive criticism even more so.

The book is aimed at a US audience (if it goes well, an Australian edition will follow, as with Zombie Economics). So, there are US-specific institutional points, but the general argument is applicable more broadly.

Read more…

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I, for one (comment here)

April 21st, 2016 5 comments

Something went wrong with the “I, for one” post, so I’m attempting to open a comments thread for it here.

Categories: Economics - General Tags:

test

April 21st, 2016 2 comments

Test

Categories: Economics - General Tags:

Gas and climate change

April 16th, 2016 60 comments

As well as posting here, I have a couple of articles in the Conversation about the end of the coal era (I’ll give links in a subsequent post, if I get time). In all cases, I’m getting lots of people saying that the reduction in coal use in is entirely/overwhelmingly due to low gas prices caused by the rise of shale gas. So, I thought it was time for a post on the subject. I want to make three points

(1) This claim is presented in global terms, but it’s really specific to the US. There is no global market for gas, and the expansion of fracking is not global (it’s big in the US and in Queensland, but not many other places).

(2) The claim is out of date as applied to the US. New electricity generation capacity there is now dominated by renewables (still true even after capacity factors are taken into account, I think)

(3) The continuing low price of gas (like that for coal and oil) is being drive, in large measure, by competition from renewables

I also want to talk about different views on the role of gas in the decarbonization process, but I’ll leave that for another time.

Categories: Economics - General, Environment Tags:

Gaps and holes (crosspost from Crooked Timber)

April 8th, 2016 31 comments

Press coverage massive leak of papers from hitherto unheard of (by me, at any rate) Panama law firm Mossack Fonseca has, unsurprisingly, focused on the world leaders, celebrities and fixers whose financial affairs have been revealed in an unflattering light. As regards the financial system as a whole, the New York Times draws a fairly typical conclusion

Above all, the Panama Papers reveal an industry that flourishes in the gaps and holes of international finance.

Really? This description suggests that those involved are obscure minor players in the system, of the sort who might be expected to deal with dodgy law firms in tax havens. The real business of global finance is undertaking by upstanding financial institutions with transparent practices.

But writing this down is enough to see that it is silly. As usual in such cases, we find familiar names: HSBC, UBS, Credit Suisse,and RBS and so on. And of course this is just one firm in one tax haven. The absence of major American banks reflects, in large measure, the fact that they prefer tax havens other than Panama, where there is a high degree of US state countrol.

Again as usual, the line is that this is all in the past, and that the banks have cleaned up their act. But the criminal charges keep on coming. This is scarcely surprising when no major bank has been shut down, even for the most egregious wrongdoing, and where only a handful of bank employees have faced jail time over frauds that total well into the hundreds of billions.

As I’ve argued in the past, activities like tax avoidance/evasion and regulatory arbitrage aren’t peripheral flaws in a financial system primarily concerned with the efficient global allocation of capital. They are the core business, without which the profits of the global financial sector would be a tiny fraction of the $1 trillion or so now reaped annually. The burden of supporting this financial sector is a major factor in the secular stagnation now evident in most developed economies.[^1]

The financial globalization that began in the 1970s has not produced an efficient global financial market with a few gaps and holes. The gaps and holes are the market.

[^1]:Since it’s bound to be raised, the costs of financial globalisation to the developed world can’t be offset by considering rapid growth in China and India. These countries have, until recently, maintained tightly regulated financial systems, and have had plenty of criticism for it. Of course, that has resulted in plenty of corruption and misallocation of capital, but the sector simply hasn’t been enough to produce a large drag on growth. That’s clearly changed, in China at least, so it will be interesting to watch the consequences.

Categories: Economics - General Tags:

Adani mirage fading

April 4th, 2016 28 comments

Adani Mining has just received the final approval from the Queensland government for the Carmichael mine in the Galilee Basin. According to this report from February, citing a “top Adani Group executive”, operations should start in August 2016, which would be a disaster for the global environment.

But wait! Now it seems yet more “secondary approvals” are needed (it appears this refers to a bond for cleaning up the mess afterwards), and “we hope that construction would start any time in 2017”.

There’s more interesting stuff in the report.

He said the price of coal was not the main issue in determining the viability of the project, but rather the cost at which the coal could be mined as the company already had a price agreement with the Indian government.Adani Mining CEO Jeyakumar Janakaraj claims there’s no need to worry about the price of the coal they produce “We are an integrated player. We have sold electricity in India on a long-term price.

‘‘It is not about the price point of coal, it is about the cost point, at what cost can we produce coal so that we will always be able to make a profit with the electricity price that we have already sold,”

The reference to the Indian government is pretty cheeky, given the government policy of eliminating coal imports over the next few years, which looks to be on track to succeed. (it’s currently a little behind its targets for increased production, but that’s because of weak demand).

More importantly, Janakaraj’s claim that “We are an integrated player” suggests he does not know much about his own business. Adani was an integrated enterprise when the project began. But the restructuring of the Adani Group in 2015 separated Adani Power (the electricity producer with a diversified portfolio of coal-fired power and renewables) from Adani Mining, which holds the stranded assets like Carmichael. This analysis from IEEFA spells it all out. Adani Power would be breaching its fiduciary obligations to shareholders if it paid an above market price for coal from Adani Mining.

I found a response from Adani, which illustrates one of my favorite points. When you have no answer to a damning report, say that it is “flawed“. That’s true of just about anything, and saves you the trouble of an actual response.

Categories: Economics - General, Environment Tags:

Keeping Sea Lanes Open: A Benefit Cost Analysis

March 20th, 2016 21 comments

Whenever I raise the observation that navies are essentially obsolete, someone is bound to raise the cry “What about the sea lanes”. The claim that navies play a vital role in protecting trade routes is taken so much for granted that it might seem untestable. But it turns out that most of the information needed for a benefit cost analysis is available. Unsurprisingly (to me at least), the claimed benefit of keeping sea lanes open doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. I’ve spelt this out in my latest article in Inside Story, reprinted over the fold.

Read more…

Categories: Economics - General, Oz Politics Tags:

Peak paper

February 18th, 2016 37 comments

I’ve recently published a piece in Aeon, looking at the peak in global paper use, which occurred a couple of years ago, and arguing that this is an indication of a less resource-intensive future. Over the fold, a longer draft – I’ll add hyperlinks back in if I get a free moment.
Read more…

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The patrimonial society comes to Australia

February 7th, 2016 80 comments

Forbes just released its annual list of the ten richest Australians. Of the top eight, four inherited their wealth. The other four range in age from 75 to 85, suggesting that new heirs are likely to be joining the rich list before too long.

This pattern isn’t yet representative of the Australian wealth distribution as a whole, but it is becoming more so. Piketty’s patrimonial society is not far away.

There are a lot of things we can do to promote a more equal distribution of opportunity and outcomes, but a return to taxes on inheritance (preferably levied on the recipient rather than the estate) would be a good start.

A question about group selection

January 29th, 2016 73 comments

I’m doing some work on evolutionary models of game theory and need to understand the debate about group selection. It seems pretty clear that the great majority of evolutionary biologists reject the idea of group selection, but I haven’t found an adequate (to me) explanation of why they do so. A crucial problem for me is that the literature seems, without exception as far as I can see, to conflate group selection with co-operation and altruism. But the problem of group selection arises in non-cooperative settings, provided they are not zero-sum.

To illustrate the problem I’m struggling with, suppose that two previously isolated species meet as a result of some change. In one species (peacocks), competition between males for mates takes the form of elaborate, and energetically costly, displays. In the other species (penguins) males compete by providing food to their mates. In all other respects (diet, predators and so on) the two are similar. It seems obvious to me that the penguins, with their more efficient social arrangements, are going to outbreed the peacocks and eventually drive them to extinction.

It seems to me there are only two possibilities here
(a) My reasoning is wrong, and we can’t judge which species, if either, will dominate; or
(b) Even though it involves one group being selected over another, this isn’t what is meant by group selection

I’d really appreciate some help on this. I’m happy to have thoughts from anyone, but I’d most like to hear from actual experts with contact details.

Categories: Economics - General, Science Tags:

Hard cash and climate change: repost from 2005

January 20th, 2016 142 comments

While thinking about decarbonizing transport, I dug out this old post from 2005. It’s interesting to see how the debate has evolved (or not) since then.

The big change has been that the prospects for technological alternatives like alternative energy sources and electric vehicles have improved dramatically. As regards transport, I don’t see much reason to change the analysis I presented in 2005. Unfortunately, while some progress has been made along the kinds of lines I suggested, it’s been very limited compared to the radical changes in electricity generation. So, we are only at the beginning of the process of decarbonizing transport.

Read more…

Categories: Economics - General, Environment Tags:

Increasing fuel efficiency: standards vs prices

January 19th, 2016 24 comments

As I mentioned in a previous post, I’ll be talking to the Victorian Transport Economic Forum on decarbonizing transport on Wednesday, 10 February 2016 from 5pm at the Public Transport Victoria Corporate Centre, 750 Collins Street, Docklands. I thought I’d start with the policy issue implying the smallest change in existing transport patterns, increasing the fuel efficiency of petrol-engined vehicles. The primary choice here is between relying on a carbon price and imposing fuel efficiency standards. For those who want the shorter version, I think we need both but standards are probably going to be more important.

Read more…

Categories: Economics - General, Environment Tags:

Directional politics

January 6th, 2016 21 comments

A few Prime Ministers back, Australian politics seemed to be all about Western Sydney. On the conservative side of politics, unremarkable politicians who managed to win and hold former Labor electorates were lionised, while similar wins in other parts of the country were seen as part of the normal ebb and flow of electoral politics. On the Labor side, the region was invoked by the NSW Right (many of whom preferred not to live there) as the basis for its “aspirational” politics. This was all nonsense. The two million or so people who live in Western Sydney vary far more among themselves than they differ from the Australian population as a whole. To the extent that they have any sort of collective identity it hasn’t stopped large numbers of them for voting for (or, for that matter, against) governments led by silvertails from the North Shore, Northern Beaches and Eastern Suburbs.

But since the brief return of Kevin Rudd, the focus has shifted back to an area of more traditional concern: Northern Australia and its supposed need for development. I had hoped to see the end of this when Turnbull became PM, especially given the government’s fiscal woes. But sadly, this is not to be. Not only is the $5 billion development fund still alive, but we are getting stories about Turnbull’s plans to “unlock the North“.

As it happens, I’m in North Queensland right now, and I lived in Townsville for most of the 1990s. Like everyone else in the region I received a special “zone allowance” under the tax system to compensate me for living in a pleasant (if rather warm) coastal city with all the amenities that would be expected by a resident of, say, Newcastle or Wollongong. I understand that this allowance is still available. Nothing of the sort is on offer to people in poor suburbs or declining country towns in the rest of the country.

Like every other place in Australia, the North has plenty of unmet needs for services and, though to a much lesser extent than people seem to think, physical infrastructure. But it is in no sense “locked up”. There are road, rail and air transport links that meet the needs of the region with the same adequacy or lack of it as most other places in the country. Internet access is taken for granted in all but the remotest parts of the region. Ports, and transport links to them, are well developed to carry agricultural and mineral exports wherever they need to be sent. And so on.

Moreover, as with Western Sydney, the region has much the same diversity as the rest of the country, with a corresponding diversity of needs and wants. The cities of Rockhampton, Townsville, Cairns and Darwin differ as greatly from each other and from the rural areas they serve as they do from cities and regions in the rest of Australia.

We don’t need a Northern Australia policy any more than we need a Western Sydney policy. Public infrastructure projects should be assessed on the basis of their merits, and not their location. Private investment should be left to the commercial judgement of those involved. The $5 billion development fund should be rolled back into general revenue and used wherever it is most needed.

Categories: Economics - General, Oz Politics Tags:

What do you do with a problem like Adani ?

December 24th, 2015 22 comments

Having jumped a number of legal hurdles, Adani is now seeking approvals from the Queensland state government, necessary for the Carmichael coalmine/rail/port project to proceed. This presents the government with a nasty dilemma.

On the one hand, refusing approval would be a PR disaster. Adani, and the government’s opponents, would blame obstructive regulation for the failure of the massive bonanza that has been promised. Adani continues to claim that project will give Queensland $22 billion in royalties and taxes, and up to 10 000 jobs, even though its own expert refuted these claims in court.

On the other hand, everyone (even the International Energy Agency, notably until recently for its stubborn faith in the coal of the future) knows that this project is uneconomic, and unlikely to proceed before 2020, if ever. And while the government has said it won’t subsidise the mine, it appears that it may be forced to spend some money on the Abbot Point upgrade.

So, |irony alert on| I have a simple suggestion to resolve the government’s problem. Just ask for a downpayment of, say, 5 per cent of the promised benefits ($1.1 billion). In the unlikely event that Adani pays up, this will be money for jam. If, as is virtually certain, the money isn’t forthcoming, the government can rightly claim to have protected the interests of the Queensland public.|irony alert off|

Taking the question more seriously, the government should seek evidence from Adani that the project has sufficient finance to proceed before issuing any approval. That will be enough to ensure an indefinite delay.

Categories: Economics - General, Environment Tags:

The economist as Grinch

December 7th, 2015 51 comments

The Economic Society of Australia has started running a panel in which economists are asked to give their views on policy questions. I wasn’t too happy with the last one, on penalty rates, where I thought the question was ill-posed, and the majority of responses (though by no means all of them) failed to address the basic microeconomics of the issue.

The latest is a more light-hearted one, asking for responses to the proposition

“Giving specific presents as holiday gifts is inefficient, because recipients could satisfy their preferences much better with cash.”

Rather than give an opinion, I took the argument to its logical conclusion, as follows

The obvious problem with this claim is that exchanging cash is also inefficient, especially when combined with the generally accepted norm that equals should give presents of equal value. This results in a costly exercise that nets out to zero. Anyone who accepts the stated proposition shoud be in favor of cancelling Xmas and relying on the existing intra-family tax-transfer system

Monday Message Board

December 7th, 2015 16 comments

Another Monday Message Board. Post comments on any topic. Civil discussion and no coarse language please. Side discussions and idees fixes to the sandpits, please.

Categories: Economics - General Tags:

Secular stagnation and technology

December 3rd, 2015 26 comments

One of the problems I have with the term “secular stagnation” is that it implies condition relevant to the very long term, say, the coming century. Such long run conditions presumably have to arise from fundamental causes in demography and technology. That’s the kind of argument that Piketty makes with his r > g theory of rising inequality. There are some good arguments for the view that the depressed state of the global economy, and particularly that of the more developed countries, can be explained in this way. But it shouldn’t be implied in the name of the problem. I’ve argued in the past that technology, specifically the Internet, doesn’t explain growing inequality,

The key quote from that New Left Project article, responding to Tyler Cowen’s The Great Stagnation

The global crisis stopped economic growth, not only in the US, but in countries far inside the technological frontier like Greece; while it had hardly any impact in, for example, Australia, which avoided the initial financial crises and used Keynesian fiscal stimulus to offset shocks flowing from the global economy.

A further reason for scepticism about technological stagnation is that this explanation has been advanced in recessions and depressions ever since the beginning of the capitalist business cycle in the nineteenth century. Such claims represent the flipside of the equally common claim, made during every period of sustained expansion, that the economy has entered a New Era of untrammelled growth. The most recent episode of this kind was the ‘irrational exuberance’ of the 1990s, fuelled by optimistic claims about the potential economic implications of the Internet, which was opened to commercial use by the US Congress in 1992, and by capitalist triumphalism exemplified by Fukuyama’s The End of History.The collapse of the ‘dotcom’ bubble was softened by the housing bubble that developed shortly afterwards (again, not at all a new phenomenon), but the result was only to worsen the inevitable crash in 2008. The similarity of these events to previous bubbles and busts is good reason to doubt that they represent, or that they have inaugurated, a new phase in the evolution of capitalism.

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Secular stagnation and the financial sector (crosspost from Crooked Timber)

December 1st, 2015 21 comments

In my last post on private infrastructure finance and secular stagnation, I suggested a bigger argument that

The financialization of the global economy has produced a hugely costly financial sector, extracting returns that must, in the end, be taken out of the returns to investment of all kinds. The costs were hidden during the pre-crisis bubble era, but are now evident to everyone, including potential investors. So, even massively expansionary monetary policy doesn’t produce much in the way of new private investment.

This isn’t an original idea. The Bank of International Settlements put out a paper earlier this year arguing that financial sector growth crowds out real growth. But how does this work and what can be done about it?

The financial sector is an intermediary between savers and borrowers (for investment or consumption). So, the costs of running the financial sector and the profits generated in that sector must be included in the margin between the rates of return by savers and those paid by borrowers, or else they must be shifted on to society at large (for example, through bailouts or tax subsidies).

I’m still organizing my thoughts on this, so what I have are some ideas rather than a fully formed argument.

First, if the financial sector is unproductive, how can it be so large and profitable in a market economy?

Read more…

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Private infrastructure finance and secular stagnation (crosspost from Crooked Timber)

November 20th, 2015 36 comments

For most of my academic career, I’ve been working on (more precisely, trying to demolish) the idea of private investment in public infrastructure, exemplified by the Private Finance Initiative in the UK and the Public Private Partnerships program in Australia. Here’s my first published article on the subject, from 1996. I conclude that

The current enthusiasm for private infrastructure, like the enthusiasm for public ownership which it replaced, has been based more on ideological beliefs in the virtues of one sector and the vices of the other than on any systematic economic analysis …Analysis of the relative performance of the private and public sector in different phases of infrastructure provision suggests that, in most cases, the private sector will be most efficient in the construction phase but the public sector will be best equipped to handle the risks associated with ownership.

Twenty years later, this analysis seems finally to have been validated. The UK Auditor-General recently reported that

Analysis of the 2012-13 Whole of Government Accounts (WGA) implies that the effective interest rate of all private finance deals (7%–8%) is double that of all government borrowing (3%–4%)

As a result of the excess costs, and some spectacular failures, bipartisan enthusiasm for the PFI has finally turned to disillusionment. Here’s the Telegraph, correctly putting much of the blame on New Labour. And, for balance, here’s the Guardian. There hasn’t been a similar admission of failure in Australia, but the flow of PPP projects has greatly diminished, and most new ones rely on a substantial component of public capital.

Unfortunately, the failure of private finance hasn’t led governments to resume the high levels of public investment that prevailed in the Keynesian era of the 1950s and 1960s. So, even with central bank lending rates at zero, there has been no real recovery in infrastructure investment. Apart from the direct effect of lower investment, there’s a strong case that infrastructure investment increases the returns from private investment in general and therefore stimulates growth.

Read more…

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Grattan Institute advocates cutting university research funding

November 2nd, 2015 44 comments

Andrew Norton of the Grattan Institute has received quite a bit of attention for a piece arguing that universities don’t need additional funding because money intended to fund teaching is going to support research instead. Norton suggests that the funding going to research is around $2 billion a year

University research matters to Australia, but the evidence that it improves teaching is less clear. Direct spending on teaching, by contrast, is far more likely to ensure that universities offer the high-quality courses students want.

The obvious question is, if university research is important to Australia, won’t cutting $2 billion (or some substantial component of it) from research funding harm our national interest. As the quote above shows, Norton merely asserts that redirecting funding from research to teaching will benefit teaching.

The core of Norton’s piece is a misuse of accounting categories. The implicit claim that, since university funding is allocated on a per-student basis, it must be intended entirely for teaching. The further implicit assumption is that the only research that should be undertaken is that explicitly funded through bodies like the Australian Research Council.

But this has historically never been the case. In Australia, and (as far as I know) in every other country, university academics are expected to undertake research as part of their duties, whether or not they have grant funding. The standard proportion, which hasn’t changed in my 30+ year involvement in the system is 80 per cent teaching (and associated service), 20 per cent research, which appears to be exactly the proportion cited by Norton.

It’s true that more transparency in the allocation of resources between teaching and research would be a good thing, if it were feasible. But as the travails of exercises like the Excellence for Research in Australia process have found, this is easier said than done.

Read more…

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Adani out of excuses

October 15th, 2015 55 comments

Environment Minister Greg Hunt has just given approval to Adani’s proposed Carmichael coal mine in the Galilee Basin. This decision is sure to be challenged in court, but presumably the lawyers have been over the decision carefully, to fix up the errors that saw Hunt’s earlier approval overturned.

Assuming the decision stands up, Adani will be in the position of the dog that catches the car it’s been chasing. Adani and its advocates, like the Institute of Public Affairs, have been telling anyone who’ll listen that their marvellous project is being held up by “green tape”. The reality is that the project is as dead as a doornail.

No one will buy the coal it produces at a price that covers even the marginal cost of extraction. No bank will fund the deal: in fact, almost every potential financial institution that might provide funds has already announced a refusal (something almost unprecedented in the world of finance). Adani’s existing bankers, the Coommonwealth, walked away recently (or, in Adani’s telling, was pushed). All the contractors working on the project have been sacked, mostly without any public announcement

Most recently, Adani’s announcement of a proposed contract with Downer EDI has fallen into limbo. The contracts were supposed to be signed by 30 September, but nothing has happened. There’s a reference in the announcement to environmental approvals, so perhaps the contract will go ahead now, but, based on past form, this seems unlikely.

Adani would have done better, in PR terms, to pull the plug when the courts overturned Hunt’s initial approval. Perhaps they have a secret plan to salvage something from this mess, but it’s hard to see how this can work.

Categories: Economics - General, Environment Tags:

Bitcoin: a waste of energy

October 6th, 2015 51 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.

Categories: Economics - General Tags:

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].

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Categories: Economics - General Tags:

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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Categories: Economics - General, Environment Tags: