How should we tax banks?

The first real Budget leak of the season has sprung, with indications that the government will introduce a tax on bank deposits, aimed at financing a deposit insurance fund. This was proposed by Labor in 2013, and attacked by Tony Abbott at the time. Judging by Andrew Leigh’s comments that “I don’t think we’re going to take any lessons on bipartisanship from Joe Hockey”, they haven’t forgotten.

The best course for Labor would be to support the measure, but to impose ACCC supervision to stop the banks passing the charge onto consumers. That should be the wedge for permanent ACCC oversight of fees and charges.

None of this, however, gets to the real issue. Banks are immensely profitable, and their profitability rests on the fact that they can never really fail. It’s nearly always cheaper for the regulators to bail a bank out (for example, via a takeover) than to actually shut it down and pay out the depositors.

The appropriate tax base for a profit-enhancing subsidy is profits, currently running at $29 billion per year. Bank profits should be subject to a special tax, reflecting their special status. This would raise substantially more revenue than a deposit insurance levy.

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Voting with their feet, and following the business cycle

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).

The inevitability of red tape

I have a piece in The Guardian pointing out that the Abbott government’s Red Tape Reduction program is basically cover for a couple of big measures benefit the mining and gambling industries.

A bigger question raised by the piece: why does bureaucracy and red tape seem to grow without limits? Anyone who has ever worked as an academic, faced with a proliferation of pro-vice-chancellors, executive deans and multiple layers of hierarchy has certainly asked this question, and there’s nothing unusual about academics. The uselessness of administrators is the central theme of the comic strip Dilbert, popular in offices around the world.

The obvious explanations are
(a) stupidity; and
(b) administrative bloat benefits administrators and they are the ones who make the decisions

I don’t think either of these works adequately. Stupidity is certainly common, but the phenomenon is too pervasive to be explained in this way. As regards administrative self-interest, the problem is that senior executives could potentially gain a lot by cutting mid-level bureaucracy, and many have tried (remember ‘flatter organizations’ and ‘lean and mean’).

My own hypothesis is that every big mistake (for example, an undetected embezzlement or a mishandled episode of harassment) produces a permanent bureaucratic response designed to prevent a recurrence. This is very costly to reverse (who wants to deal with the first big embezzlement just after they downsized the accounting department) even if it would, in some sense, be less costly to put up with occasional failures. Moreover, for both good and bad reasons, I think we are, as a society, becoming less tolerant of institutional failures across a wide range of activities (systematic wrongdoing by financial institutions is a major counterexample but, I think, exceptional). So, we have more checks and balances, and more bureaucrats to enforce them.


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).

Bad for the client, bad for the bottom line

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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