Wednesday, February 05, 2014

We've drawn a line in sand on industry support. Sure.

Within minutes of treasurer Joe Hockey declaring an end to “the age of entitlement” on Monday the assistant infrastructure minister Jamie Briggs stood on a highway on the outskirts of Hobart and announced a grant of $3.5 million to a Tasmanian seafoods manufacturer, Huon Aquaculture.

It would help “provide the equipment to process fresh fish, as well as smokehouses and other machinery for boning, skinning, portioning and mincing,” he said.

The Tasmanian government was kicking in $1.5 million, the Commonwealth $3.5 million and Huon Aquaculture itself $7 million.

As it happens the proportions are roughly similar to those asked for by SPC Ardmona to save its fruit canning plants in Victoria. SPC had suggested $25 million from the state government, $25 million from the Commonwealth and $90 million from itself. In fact as a proportion of the total SPC had asked the Commonwealth for less than Huon - two dollars in every ten rather than three.

Why did the Commonwealth reject one, creating “an important marker” and not the other? On Tuesday finance minister Mathias Cormann tied himself in knots explaining that one was a “grant” while the other was a “co-investment”, although at it wasn’t always clear which.

“Let’s just be very clear,” the finance minister said.

“We were not being asked to make a co-investment, we were being asked to make a grant from the taxpayer to an individual business so that they would be able to invest in a $12 million dollar restructure of their business. We were not being asked to make an investment, if you make an investment you actually get a share in the business and you end up getting a return from your investment.”

Governments of all persuasions support businesses, sometimes by direct grants, sometimes by tax breaks, sometimes by tariffs and sometimes by the provision of services such as Austrade, subsidised water and electricity, technical colleges and the CSIRO.

Often the support has a broader justification. We are told the grant to Huon Aquaculture will “support Tasmania's contribution to this vital industry”.

The $16 million to Cadbury in Tasmania is “essentially an investment in tourism infrastructure” according to the prime minister.

What will eventually be $750 million per year in “direct action” grants to carbon emitters is as much about the environment as it is the businesses that benefit.

It’s the same with the $5.5 billion per year private health insurance rebate. It’s about the patients as well as the funds...

Government support for business is as hard to escape as it is to quantify.

The Australia Institute says the mining industry receives $4.5 billion per year in subsidies and tax concessions, half of it from fuel subsidies. The Productivity Commission comes up with a lower total - $700 million per year.

The motor vehicles industry costs $621 million, and another $785 billion in tariffs. Food manufacture costs relatively little in terms of grants and concessions ($45 million and $62 million) but a whopping $1.7 billion in tariffs.

All up the Productivity Commission says Australian governments deliver $10 billion per year in industry support.

An end to support - “a line in the sand” as a backbencher put it - would be something to see. But we’re nowhere near it and we probably never will be.

In The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age

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Saturday, February 01, 2014

Steady as she goes. Rates on hold all year?

Here is is, the 2014 BusinessDay economics survey:

As the Reserve Bank prepares for its first board meeting of the year the BusinessDay forecasting panel is predicting a rarity - an entire year without a move in official interest rates.

It hasn’t happened since 2004.

A unique blend of 25 of Australia’s leading forecasters in the diverse fields of market economics, academia, consultancy and industry associations, the BusinessDay panel includes several former Treasury forecasters. Over time its average forecasts have proved to be more reliable than those of any of its individual members.

A year ago the average forecast was for a cut in the Reserve Bank’s cash rate from 3 per cent to 2.7 per cent. The Bank cut to 2.5 per cent. In 2012 the average forecast was for a cut from 4.5 per cent to 3.6 per cent. The Bank cut to 3 per cent. This time the average forecast is for no cuts. The average comes in slightly below the current rate at slightly below the current rate at 2.46 per cent by June and slightly above at 2.55 per cent by December.

If rates do say on hold at around 2.5 per cent for the entire year it will be because the settings are already in place to deliver just enough (anemic) economic growth to keep further unemployment (almost) at bay.

The average forecast reflects a panel evenly split. Nine of the 25 members expect rates to fall further, nine expect rates to climb, and seven expect them to stay put. Two of the panel expect cash rates to fall to an ultra-low 2 per cent. One of them, Macquarie Group’s Richard Gibbs expects it to happen in the first half of the year. The most bullish forecast is from Stephen Koukoulas of Market Economics who expects 3.5 per cent by the end of the year and 3 per cent by June. As it happens Koukoulas was spot on last year, predicting a near-record low of 2.5 per cent by year’s end.

The central forecast is for improving global growth partly offset by a further easing in China. The panel expects the world economy to grow 3.3 per cent in 2014. In the United States it expects through-the-year growth to climb to 2.7 per cent. China’s growth should slip further to 7.4 per cent, but there is a wide range around the forecast. Melbourne University’s Neville Norman expects China to grow by 8.2 per cent. Stephen Anthony of the Canberra consultancy Macroeconomics expects 6.5 per cent.

Weaker Chinese growth would mean a further slide in Australia’s terms of trade. The price of Australia’s exports relative to imports has already slid 18 per cent from the peak in late 2011. The panel expects a further slide of 3.9 per cent. Only Richard Robinson of BIS Shrapnel and Gareth Aird of the Commonwealth Bank expect an improvement. Their forecast upturns are modest: 1.4 and 0.7 per cent.

Business investment is expected to stagnate further as resource prices sink. Non-mining businesses are unlikely to fill the gap. The average forecast is for a further decline in investment of 3.2 per cent. Tim Toohey of Goldman Sachs forecasts the steepest decline: 11.6 per cent. Neville Norman is alone among the panel in expecting an increase, of 5.1 per cent.

The panel expects Housing investment to surge as the full impact of last year’s rate reductions comes through. The most impressive forecast is from Tim Toohey who offsets his pessimism about business investment by predicting a 10.5 per cent lift in home building. The average forecast is for a 5.3 per cent increase. One of the lowest forecasts is from the Housing Industry Association itself, which is expecting 1.8 per cent.

The pace of Household spending is also expected to pick up, climbing 2.5 per cent in 2014 after advancing 1.8 per cent over the past twelve months.

The panel believes the boosts in both housing investment and household spending will be enough to lift the pace of GDP growth from 2.3 per cent to 2.7 per cent. The highest forecast, from Stephen Koukoulas is 3.9 per cent. The lowest, from Jakob Madsen of Monash University is 1.2 per cent.

Although welcome, economic growth of 2.7 per cent would be well below the long-term growth rate of 3.4 per cent, and insufficient to stop the unemployment rate rising. The central forecast is for an unemployment rate of 6 per cent by year’s end, up two notches from the present 5.8 per cent.

Population growth means individual living standards will advance by less than GDP. The panel expects GDP per capita to grow by 1 per cent during 2014, which is an improvement on 2013. Jakob Madsen expects it to fall, slipping 0.5 per cent.

Inflation has been edging up with the falling dollar, most recently reaching 2.7 per cent in the year to December. The panel expect it to stay at recent highs, finishing the year at 2.5 per cent backed by an underlying rate of 2.4 per cent. The ANZ’s Justin Fabo picks the highest headline rate: 3.4 per cent. Nigel Stapledon of the Australian School of Business picks the lowest, 2 per cent.

The panel expects the Australian dollar to drift lower, finishing the year at 86 US cents - close to but not quite at the “magic spot” of 80 and 85 US cents identified by Reserve Bank board member Heather Ridout in an interview with Fairfax Media in January. Only two of the panel expect the dollar to end the year back up above 90 US cents: Su-Lin Ong of RBC Capital Markets who expects US 95 and Stephen Koukoulas who expects parity. The lowest forecast, from Stephen Anthony is for US 78.

And the budget deficit will come in pretty much as forecast, both this year and the next in the view of the panel. The result is more surprising than it seems. The forecasts in the government’s pre-Christmas budget update were presented as if they reflected badly on the outgoing Labor government. The update predicted a deficit of $47 billion in 2013-14 and $33.9 billion in 2014-15, unless something changed. The government has set up a Commission of Audit to recommend changes in time to shrink the deficit in 2014-15, but the panel expects little progress. It’s opting for $47.6 billion in 2013-14 and $32.8 billion in 2014-15.

Given the panel’s relatively weak forecast for Australian economic growth it might be of the view that the economy couldn’t take too much progress on the cutting the deficit. If the government reaches a different view and cuts hard, the panel’s central forecast of unchanged interest rates may turn out to be on the high side.

In Business Saturday

The most accurate of the Business Day forecasters this past year was only half human.

“Barry” is a dynamic stochastic general equilibrium model of the Australian economy. Its creator is Stephen Anthony, a former Treasury modeller who set up a private consultancy Macroeconomics in 2007.

Dr Anthony uses his own judgement about fiscal policy and monetary policy and then uses Barry to spit out results for everything else. Barry is built from more than fifty equations.

Last year Barry said the Australian economy would grow by 2.5 per cent (so far it’s been growing at 2.3 per cent), China would growth 7.3 per cent (so far 7.7 per cent), the US would grow through the year growth by 2.1 per cent (2.0 per cent), household spending would grow 1.8 per cent (1.8 per cent) housing investment 2.1 per cent (1.7 per cent). Barry said the Australian dollar would end the year at 90.5 US cents (it ended at 89.2) and a current account deficit would reach $55 billion (it reached $52 billion).

Not everything came out the way Barry and Stephen predicted. Inflation was higher at 2.5 per cent rather than 2.1 per cent, unemployment was lower at 5.8 per cent rather than 6.3 per cent and the cash rate was nowhere near as low. It ended the year at 2.5 per cent, well above the machine-human hybrid’s prediction of 2 per cent.

Only five out of the Business Day panel got the cash rate completely right, and they were completely human: Shane Oliver of the AMP, Nigel Stapledon of the University of NSW, Frank Gelber of BIS Shrapnel, Stephen Koukoulas of Market Economics, and Brad Crofts of the Australian Workers Union. Most of the panel thought it would end the year much higher, some above 3 per cent.

The inflation rate of 2.7 per cent was an easy pick for most of the market economists, but for no-one else apart from Neville Norman of Melbourne University.

Where the academics came into their own was the 2012-13 budget deficit. None of the other forecasters predicted anything like the eventual outcome of $18.8 billion. Professors Bill Mitchell and Jakob Madsen came about as close as possible, picking $20 billion.

All of the other forecasters who went for a lower deficit can be excused. The Treasurer had been predicting a surplus.

In Business Saturday

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Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Where's the Gonski report? It's back, on a government website

...after a bit of a push

The Gonski Report is now back on a government website. But only after an extraordinary intervention by Fairfax Media.

All traces of the 286-page school funding report and its associated submissions vanished from departmental websites shortly after the Abbott government took office in late 2013.

A search for the phrase 'Gonski Report' on the education department's website returned the query: “Did you mean ‘lenskyi support’?”

The new education minister Christopher Pyne said he wanted to go “back to the drawing board” on school funding and charged his department with developing “a new model that is national, that is fair to everyone and that is needs-based”.

The Gonski Review, the most comprehensive in 30 years, vanished from the official record.

Other publicly-funded reviews including the Henry Tax Review and the Garnaut Climate Change Review remained on their dedicated websites.

Asked through the freedom of information process why it had deleted the Gonski website the department referred to “the outcome of the federal election and the relevant machinery of government changes”.

In January Fairfax Media used a little-known provision of the Freedom of Information Act in attempt to return the report to the department's site.

The Act not only requires a range of documents to be supplied on request, but also stipulates those documents that are supplied be published or made available on a so-called disclosure log, which each department has to place on its website.

Fairfax Media didn't need a copy of the report. It had already published one on its own website and had access to the National Library's copy available on its Pandora web archiving site.

Last week the department granted Fairfax request and returned the report to its website,

Australia's Freedom of Information Commissioner James Popple said the intent of the provision was to encourage departments to publish public documents “unless there is a technical reason why they can't”...

“Direct publication facilitates public access,” he said. “Technically if a document has been provided under the Act it is already available. Disclosure logs put that into practice.”

But the department has returned to the web much less than was there before. It has published only the 286-page final report requested by Fairfax. The issues paper. The previously-published commissioned studies and submissions remain hidden.

And the department has taken steps to distance itself from the report. It has included a disclaimer noting the report was commissioned by the “previous government”.

In The Sydney Morning Herald

Click to

Friday, January 24, 2014

The makeup trap. Why women keep piling it on

And some would like to take it off

Tracey Spicer wears three inches of make up. She doesn’t literally wear that much, but she says that’s the way it feels.

Let me take you through my schedule,” the television journalist told the Brisbane TEDxWomen conference in December.

“Get up, look in mirror, see old lady looking back, put on running gear designed to suck in wobbly bits, run to maintain professionally acceptable size 10, go to bathroom, scour skin with defoliant to get rid of those dreadful dead cells, hop in shower, lather hair with sodium laurilsulfate, rinse out, dollop on conditioner containing placenta extract, wait until it sinks in, rinse off, soap up, wash off, get out of shower, dry body, lather body in petroleum byproduct, otherwise known as body moisturiser, and wait until that sinks in, cleanse face, add toner containing alcohol, dab on eye cream, cover the rest of the body in bronzing cream, and wait until that soaks in, put straightening jell in hair, section of and apply searing heat until styled into shape, almost do back in lifting up makeup kit, foundation powder, concealer, blusher, eyeshadow, eyeliner, eyelash curler, mascara, eyebrow liner, eyebrow colour, lip liner, lipstick, lipgloss, put on shapewear to suck in mummy gut after two children, pop on dress perfectly pressed by a dry cleaner using known carcinogens, add liquid to nails containing chemicals linked to cancer after yesterday visiting the house of pain, the one with the hot wax which drips above my lip and below my eyebrows before large hairs are torn out of my face.”

"Why, why do we do this to ourselves?” she asked, before adding: “...because its bullshit.”

And then, in the video on the internet, Spicer began to he begins to “deconstruct” the problem, literally.

To whooping and laughter she removes her layers of makeup, sprays her hair to return the frizz, takes off her dress, removes her high heels, and remains on stage wearing nothing much at all.

“Imagine what we could achieve if we weren't beholden to society's unreasonable expectations about how we should look?” she asks.

“Over our lives on average women will take 3276 hours grooming...

For men it's 1092.”

“Do you know what we could do over those 3276 hours? We could complete a Master of Business Administration, become proficient at a musical instrument, learn another language...”

“I've got a seven year old daughter. Every time I get ready for my TV appearances she stands next to me in the bathroom, and she always asks the same question: Mummy, why do women wear makeup and men don't?”

“I can't say: ‘Because honey it makes me look better’, because that implies that women don't like the way they look naturally. I can't say: ‘It makes me feel better’, because that points to pathologically low self esteem.”

“What I do say to her is: Darling, I don't like it, it's not right, but it is what society expects of women.”

Is it wasted effort as Spicer suggests? If the aim of makeup, grooming, and what would would have once been unthinkable exfoliation is to help women get ahead (and good looks do help, even babies are attracted to beautiful faces) the the effort ultimately will be wasted, even though if though it works to start with.

Four decades ago the British economist Fred Hirsch summed up the folly of what he called positional goods like this: “If everyone stands on tiptoe no one sees better”.

A positional good is something that improves the position of someone who uses it, like buying a $500 suit to attend a job interview. It’ll work, and it’s far from stupid to try it. But as soon as everyone gets a suit, the expense is wasted. The job outcomes will be the same, yet everyone will have spent an extra $500. But by then there will be no way of escaping it. It will have become essential.

Charles Darwin was on to it earlier. He noted that large antlers gave male elk an advantage in fighting for females. But as they mated the entire species developed very large antlers and became vulnerable to attack. In his book The Darwin Economy economist Robert Frank sums up it up this way: What was good for the individual was bad for the species.

Think about dental work, or university degrees. We are drowning in them compared to earlier decades, and they help the people who get them. But does all the extra work advance the species?

Frank says in many areas of life we impose limits. Nations have arms reduction talks, ice hockey players wear helmets. We get together to help individuals in a way they can’t themselves.

No-one should accuse Spicer of hypocrisy for continuing to wear makeup when she presents the news. She is prepared to point to the problem and she is pleading for a way out.

In The Canberra Times, The Sun Herald

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Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Clipping peaks. Why we'll allow power companies to turn off our air conditioners

It'll save us a fortune

Productivity Commission
Only an idiot would turn off their air conditioner during near-record heat. But the economics of electricity mean that’s what we’ll have to do if we want our power bills to stop rising.

Last week’s extraordinary heat was unusual. One estimate says Melbourne hasn’t had a run of days like it for 100 years. But the generators and the cables had to be build to handle it (they nearly failed).

In NSW the rare spikes of extreme electricity use last for just 40 hours a year when added up. That’s a mere half of one per cent of each year. But the Productivity Commission says the cables, substations and generators built to handle them account for around 25 per cent of each electricity bill.

It’s a financial cost that dwarfs the carbon tax. And the physical cost of generators we otherwise wouldn’t need and rarely-needed maximum strength cabling is enormous.

Sometimes the peaks last just minutes.

Twelve years ago extreme peaks were only an emerging problem. Australia had half as many air conditioners as it does today. In NSW 65 per cent of homes are now air conditioned, in Victoria and Queensland it is around 75 per cent, in Western Australia 86 per cent and in South Australia more than 90 per cent.

Queensland estimates suggest that each 2 kilowatt air conditioner imposes a cost of up to $7000 on the entire system. This isn’t the cost of running it. It’s the cost of building otherwise unneeded capacity to be able to run it on those rare occasions when nearly everyone else is running their’s.

The Productivity Commission says the $7000 figure is an overestimate...

Many new air conditioners simply replace older ones. And they are getting more efficient (although although more powerful).

Its calculation, allowing for the fact that even in peak periods some air conditioners are not fully used, is a one-off cost of $2500. It says that’s amounts to an extra cost of $350 per year per air conditioner, paid by all electricity users, whether or not they cool their homes.

Productivity Commission
It’s even more unfair than it seems. It isn’t just the few Australians without air conditioners who are paying money they needn’t to build up the system for those with them, it is also Australians with only small air conditioners who are paying far more than they should to support houses with massive three-phase ducted systems.

Rarely has there been a problem in economics to which so many inappropriate solutions have been offered.

A decade back South Australia imposed a higher electricity charge in summer than it did in winter. It was meant to impose greater costs on users of air conditioners. But all it did was impose greater costs on everyone in summer, even those who couldn’t afford to or didn’t need to cool themselves.

The Electricity Supply Association suggests imposing a larger fixed supply fee on those households with double the usual electricity consumption (typically those houses with lots of air conditioning). But the main effect would be to lumber them with a fairly inescapable cost. Already being liable for the fee, they would have every incentive to run their systems at full bore in extreme heat.

In December the Commonwealth government issued an issues paper proposing greater time-of-use pricing. The idea is that high prices at times of high use would encourage people to move their use to other times, as happens with variable road tolls.

It’s an idea that seems to have promise because Australians are indeed price sensitive when it comes to electricity. Energy analyst Hugh Saddler of pitt&sherry says that as electricity prices took off from 2008 household electricity use steadied. As prices soared still higher from 2010 household electricity use fell for the first time in a century. Houses use less electricity now than they did five years ago.

But that doesn’t mean they will use less in a heatwave.

"No one is going to avail themselves of time-of-use pricing on a 45 degree day,” he tells me. “No one is going to turn off their air conditioner when it gets extremely hot just because of time-of-use pricing. The only time you would need them to respond to time-of-use pricing is the time they won’t.”

Economists, conditioned to believing that prices always change behaviour, find this hard to accept - unless they themselves have been locked inside a building during five straight days above 40C.

The economic problem of finding a way to avoid massive infrastructure costs brought on by mere days or hours of extreme peaks is probably best solved by turning away from economics.

Queensland is showing the way. The government-owned Energex offers customers cheaper electricity if they install “PeakSmart” air conditioners. PeakSmart means remotely controlled. As peaks approach, the electricity supplier sends a “ripple” down the line which can switch the cooler off or into a less cold method of operation (the fan stays on so it still feels cool). At test sites in Perth and Adelaide most of the users couldn’t tell the difference. The switch-off might last just minutes, not much longer from what happens automatically when the system is operated by a thermostat. But because different suburbs are powered down at different times, PeakSmart can eliminate extreme system-wide peaks.

Eight manufacturers are already providing machines that are PeakSmart ready. You might have bought one yourself without even knowing. Australian ministers will meet soon to decide whether to make PeakSmart readiness compulsory. After that it’ll be up to us and whether we are prepared to have our machines turned off remotely.

It’s less scary than it sounds, extraordinarily simple, and urgently needed.

In The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald

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Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Australia Post. Why it no longer needs to deliver daily

When I was young the postman came twice a day. You could post a letter in the morning and if you were lucky have it delivered across town by the afternoon.

It was the only way to send messages (apart from telegrams, which were expensive).

Then came the phone (and the increasing usefulness of phones - they weren’t very useful at first when only a few houses were connected). Deliveries were cut back to once a day, and the Saturday service was axed.

The nature of the post changed. Short messages arranging meetings were no longer needed. Longer 'essays' were still the preserve of the post as was the delivery of documents, parcels and bills.

Then came mobile phones and text messages (and with them the gradual disappearance of Doctor Who style telephone boxes). You could send messages from almost anywhere. Even away from home there was no need to send a letter.

At first the arrival of email made little difference to the post. As with the phone it was of limited use when few of us had email addresses. And we couldn't send big documents.

Then email addresses became ubiquitous, as did social media. The much forecast 'digital divide' never happened. Every strata of Australia is now connected, from the elderly to farmers to school children. And the capacity of the system has grown. Almost all of us can send big documents and long letters with ease. We don't need to post them.

Australia Post says back in the 1980s almost all written communication was carried by the post. Today it’s less than 1 per cent...

And most of it is bills or notices from various levels of government.

Late to the party, businesses are abandoning the post big time. They are using email to send us bills and even ‘junk mail’. Links to websites mean they can get an instant response, or instant payment.

The Coalition has pledged to put virtually all government services and interactions online by 2017. By then there will be scarcely anything left to post.

Mail deliveries are plummeting at the rate of 4 to 5 per cent a year. Twelve years ago Australia Post delivered an average of 2.2 local letters or bills per day to each street address per day. It is now 1.7 and on track to fall to 1.3 by 2016, sliding further beyond that.

When the national broadband network is complete there will be no excuse whatsoever for daily mail deliveries. Australia's really remote locations are already limited to two deliveries per week. That should become the standard for the rest of us, as a precursor to eliminating local deliveries. If the spread of the telephone was responsible for halving the frequency of mail deliveries, the spread of the internet should be responsible for eliminating them.

It would be absurd to have spent $40 billion building a world-class system to instantly deliver messages while hanging on a system poorly replicating it that hardly anyone used.

Delivering mail used to make Australia Post money. It now costs it $150 million per year. The loss is on track to blow out to $1 billion, and then perhaps $2 billion, far exceeding the profits from delivering parcels and making the entire organisation an albatross around the taxpayers necks.

Delivery twice a week is more than adequate for most parcels. If someone wants one sooner, they can try a competitor to Australia Post or pay a premium.

Australia will soon stop paying Holden and Ford to make cars Australians aren't keen to buy.

If we are serious about getting value for our taxpayer dollars we will also stop paying postal workers to make deliveries Australians no longer need.

Australia Post employs 33,000 workers and provides work for another 10,000 contractors. Twice-weekly deliveries would slash the wage bill (and the rubber burnt and the petrol poured into tanks) and give us a chance of making good on our investment in the NBN.

It’s not only a question of money. Right now there are roughly 2 Australians of traditional working age for each Australian who is older or younger. The Intergenerational Report says by 2050 there will be just 1.5.

Australia will need to make good use of every worker it has. Employing someone to do something we no longer need merely because we always have will be a waste of a scarce resource. In most fields the market will handle the transition. Banks are moving us away from tellers, supermarkets invite us to check out our own groceries, and the baker and the milkman no longer call.

But Australia Post is stuck with a government-imposed requirement to deliver mail five days a week to 98 per cent of Australian addresses. Changing it will require a government decision. It’ll mean taking on unions and the National Party.

The Business Council tackles the question obliquely in its submission to the Commission of Audit by saying there’s a case for selling Australia Post. But that's beside the point. The point is that we are asking Australia Post to do things we no longer need. Passing the parcel to a private owner who can take on the unions and lobby for weaker service standards is passing the bucks.

In The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age

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Sunday, January 12, 2014

Secret fees. Why the war on red tape is a war on us

Imagine being whacked with an annual fee for a service you didn’t get. You would want to know about it, right? Apparently we’ve voted not to.

The annual fees we pay to financial planners are so big they rival electricity bills. Many of us might not even be able to remember the last time we saw a financial planner. But if we once did, and if that planner put us into a superannuation fund or investment product, it is likely the planner is continuing to get an ongoing “kick back” or “trailing commission” - year in, year out for as long as we stay with the product.

Worth typically 0.5 per cent of the funds under management, it gets bigger over time as our contact with the planner recedes into the past. It adds up to $500 on a fund with $100,000 under management, $1000 per year when the fund grows to $200,000 under management, and $2000 per year when it grows to $400,000.

It shouldn’t be confused with the separate and larger annual fee for actually managing the money - that goes to the financial institution itself. The trailing commission is a hangover from the days when financial planners were called insurance salesmen. It was their commission for selling and keeping you in a product. (A separate, larger commission was paid to them upfront - taken directly from your funds before they were placed under management).

If you didn’t know you were paying the annual fee, it could be because you didn’t read the fine print, or it could be because you were put into the fund way back in the days when the fine print was exceedingly fine and hard to find.

It is still hard to find, which is why after a Senate inquiry into the collapse of several high-fee institutions the previous government wrote into the law a requirement for financial planners to tell you.

Every year each financial planner would be required to write to each client telling them the fee the planner had taken out of their fund in the previous year, the services that had been provided in return for the fee, the fee that would be taken out the following year and the services that would be provided in return for it.

Every second year they would be required to also send a renewal notice...

If the client said no, or didn’t send it back, that would be the end of the fee.

Planners could escape the strict letter of the law only by joining a professional association which imposed requirements no less severe.

The law required a few other things as well. Financial planners would required to act in the “best interests” of their clients and to “place the interests of their clients ahead of their own”. Astoundingly, this hadn’t previously been the case. That’s because financial planners were once salesmen. Just as a refrigerator salesman isn’t required to put your interests ahead of his own in recommending the most suitable model, insurance salesmen weren’t either.

And from July 2013 it would be illegal for any new deal between a planner and a client to be funded by “conflicted remuneration” or kickbacks. Customers would have to pay planners directly.

Rather than accept the law, or campaign publicly against it, those planners wedded to trailing commissions went to the Coalition complaining about “red tape”.

After the election, under the cover of Christmas on Friday December 20, those planners received their reward.

The assistant treasurer Arthur Sinodinos announced that “consistent with the Coalition's election commitment to reduce compliance costs for small business, financial advisors and consumers,” the legislation would be “improved”.

Gone will be the requirement to send all clients an annual statement. It will apply only to new clients, signed up from July 2013. Older clients (most of us) won’t be told how much we are continuing to pay to someone who was once our advisor. They will be able to keep the income stream and sell it when they sell their businesses.

One statement once a year would have been “overly onerous”, even though its probably the least that could have been expected from a planner who actually was providing on ongoing service.

Gone too will be the requirement for anyone paying an ongoing fee to “opt in” every two years. We will still be able to opt out if we want, but unless the planner hears from us it’ll be assumed we want to keep paying the annual fee (even if we don’t know what it is because we are not getting annual statements).

Its a deal other industries would love, made all the more invisible because superannuation contributions are deducted automatically from our wages.

Sinodinos thinks we voted for it.

In The Canberra Times and Sun Herald

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Wednesday, January 08, 2014

Medicare. What would charging for a previously free visit to the doctor achieve?

There’s something odd about the plan to charge six dollars (“the price of two cups of coffee or a Big Mac with a side of fries”) for previously free bulk-billed visits to the doctor.

The Australian Centre for Health Research has told the Coalition the fee would make us “think twice about going to the doctor about minor ailments”. But it also says we could buy private health insurance to cover the fee, meaning those of us who did wouldn’t need to think twice at all.

It’s less odd when you realise the Centre was set up with a grant from a private health insurance fund, Australian Unity.

Other things are odd about the proposal as well.

At first glance it’s simple economics. If we are charged for a product we’ll want less of it than if it’s free.

But the charge would apply to all visits to the doctor, both serious and frivolous. And we are not skilled at deciding what’s frivolous. That’s why we go to the doctor. Their product is partly advice about whether we need it.

There’s no need to guess about the effect of charging for previously free medical services. It is “one of the most thoroughly discussed issues in the health economics literature,” according to a 1991 health department report. The massive Rand Corporation experiment in the United States was almost certainly the most expensive ever conducted.

Rather than compare naturally occurring different methods of charging for the doctor in different cities the Rand Corporation created them. Between 1974 and 1977 it funded visits to the doctor for 5809 Americans in six different cities at four different rates. Some were charged so-called copayments of 95 per cent of the fee, some 50 per cent, some 25 per cent and some zero, as happens in Australia with bulk billing.

It also collected data on their social status and health, not only by questionnaires but also by physical examinations. All up it accumulated 20,190 person years of data.

If found a copayment of 25 per cent cut the use of services by around 8 per cent. But the $6 fee proposed in Australia is much lower than the Rand Corporation’s 25 per cent fee and US medical charges are higher. As a result, Australia's Health Department was warned that here fewer patients would be turned away.

In the US they were as easily turned away from care for serious problems as for trivial ones...

In the words of the Rand report: “Cost sharing did not seem to have a selective effect”. And where it did have an effect it was almost entirely on first visits to the doctor, those that determine whether further visits are needed.

Nevertheless Rand concluded that on average the health of those asked for a copayment got no worse than those provided care for free. Although it noted a disturbing possibility: The health of some of those asked for co-payments might have got worse while the health of others asked for copayments might got better. Too many visits to the doctor can damage health for patients with some conditions while too few can harm health for patients with others.

The broader advice proffered to Australia’s health department was that in the real world the Rand findings wouldn’t apply. There might well be next to no impact on the number of visits to the doctor because of the actions of doctors themselves.

Rand provided health care funding for just a few thousands of Americans spread across six cities. The relatively few that were turned away from each surgery made each no less busy. But if an entire state or country switched from free medicine to fees, doctors deprived of business would respond, either by cutting their fees or providing more treatment.

Jeff Richardson is the foundation director of the Monash University Centre for Health Economics. He is the author of the 1991 health department report.

He says the technical term for what happens is “supplier-induced demand”. But he doesn’t like it.

“It conjures up wrong behaviour. I think that's probably wrong,” he says. “I suspect doctors work until they finish their working week believing with some justification the services they give are needed. Doctors can quite ethically treat patients more intensively, or for slightly longer believing it helps. It's not the same as saying they are crooks.”

Richardson’s rule of thumb puts supplier-induced demand at 50 per cent, meaning that if the Rand study showed copayments would cut visits to the doctor by 3 per cent (at Australian prices) the actual outcome might be 1.5 per cent.

And the few who are denied medical care would be overwhelmingly those on the lowest incomes. The Rand study provided free care at random. Australian doctors do not. Meliyanni Johar of the University of Technology Sydney examined the records of 2.3 million consultations between 2006 and 2009 and found that where they could doctors varied what they charged according to income. Their poorest patients were the most likely to be bulk billed.

And general practitioners are cheap compared to other forms of medicine. They account for less than 10 per cent of health spending. They act as gatekeepers, directing Australians to hospitals and more expensive specialists only when needed. They are not where costs are rising. They are among the last places costs should be cut back.

In The Canberra Times, The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age

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Wednesday, January 01, 2014

Sugar. It could be the real reason you can't lose weight

Let me guess. You're going to lose weight. Let me guess again. You won't succeed for long.

The standard approach, the one that almost always fails, is to treat weight as an exercise in accounting.

I call it the “federal budget” approach. If only the treasurer spent a little less money each month or took in a little more tax, the deficit would shrink. If only you or I took in a little less food each month or did a bit more exercise, our tummies would shrink.

It ought to be true because it's a truism: Energy in equals energy out plus weight gained. But the equation tells us nothing about the mechanism. Cutting your energy going in (by eating less) might just as easily cut your energy going out (by making you lethargic) as it would cut your weight. And even if it did cut your weight a few weeks later you might find yourself getting ravenously hungry and getting your weight back. It's what usually happens. It is why we keep making the same resolution each December 31.

What if there is something else - something not in the equation – which is driving all three parts of it, just as the broader economy drives the budget?

It's not exactly a far-fetched idea. We used to think that stomach ulcers were caused by stress, until in 2005 two Australian researchers were awarded the Nobel Prize for discovering the real cause – a bacterial infection.

We know that hormones trigger growth in children. During growth spurts they eat more and exercise less, but only in the trivial sense is it true that eating causes their growth. It would be just as true to say that growth causes their eating, more true to say that both are caused by something else.

Hormones drive the development of breast and buttock fat in women at puberty. They drive hunger during pregnancy.

Is it really so unlikely that they could also drive how much we eat, how much we exercise, and how much we store as fat?

We don't need to look far to find the hormones involved. Insulin, and its partner leptin, drive the packing and unpacking of fat cells and the signals that tell our brain it has had enough and is no longer hungry.

Each responds to sugar...

And please don't tell me sugar is “a natural part of life” as the ads used to say. In his massively viewed YouTube lecture Sugar: The Bitter Truth, childhood obesity expert Robert Lustig makes the point that until relatively recently pure sugar was inaccessible, protected by either fibre (sugar cane is extraordinarily tough) or bees.

Ordinary sugar is half glucose and half fructose. There are around 16 packets in a 600 ml drink. The glucose triggers a surge of insulin that packs fatty acids into fat cells and temporarily prevents them getting out. It also directs glucose to muscles where it is stored as glycogen. The fructose helps build insulin resistance and also resistance to leptin, the chemical messenger that turns off the feeling of hunger. The greater our exposure to fructose the longer we feel hungry and the more insulin we produce, directing fat to our fat cells (fructose itself is turned into fat).

Lustig says Americans are producing twice the insulin they were 25 years ago.

None of this would matter much if it was merely making us big, but it is also driving high blood pressure, strokes and heart attacks. It's helping kill us.

Australia's soft drink industry is wrong when it says “all kilojoules matter, it doesn’t matter where those kilojoules come from”. Some drive hunger itself, making the “federal budget” approach of eating less and exercising more extraordinarily difficult.

Until recently the National Health and Medical Research Council was relatively unconcerned.

Its dietary guidelines advised that “a moderate amount of sugar in daily meals is not a problem”.

“In fact, spreading a little jam on wholemeal bread or sprinkling a little sugar to wholegrain breakfast cereal can make these nutritious foods more enjoyable to eat.”

Not now. The new guidelines issued in February for the first time tell Australians to limit their consumption of “foods and drinks containing added sugars such as confectionery, sugar-sweetened soft drinks and cordials, fruit drinks, vitamin waters, energy and sports drinks”.

In September the international investment bank Credit Suisse wrote to clients comparing sugar to tobacco. “There is not a single study showing that added sugar is good for you,” it said.

Credit Suisse says what worked for tobacco will work for sugar. Extra taxes on full-calorie soft drinks should quickly cut consumption; all the more so because unlike cigarette manufactures, soft drink makers already provide healthier alternatives.

But in Australia the sugar industry has one big advantage the tobacco industry didn't. Sugar is our second-biggest export crop. Its claws are everywhere, from Australian trade policy to the National Party to the nutrition industry. Until recently Sugar Australia was a corporate governor of Sydney University's Nutrition Research Foundation.

We are likely to be told repeatedly that the science isn't settled, that we need more research. And we are likely to keep remaking the same new years resolution.

In today's Sydney Morning Herald

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Sunday, December 15, 2013

'Twas the dollar that killed Holden, not the carbon tax

At the risk of labouring the obvious

What do Holden and Qantas have in common?

Here’s a clue. It isn’t that they are being strangled by the carbon tax.

(Although you might think they were. In his letter to Holden on Tuesday the deputy prime minister Warren Truss said axing the carbon tax would “lower the cost of producing cars in Australia”. The truth is the cost would scarcely budge. The cheapest new Commodore sells for $35,000. Holden says the carbon tax costs it $45 per car. That’s right, only $45. It’s a decimal place of a per cent.)

And nor are Holden and Qantas being done over by rapacious unions.

During the global financial crisis Holden’s workers accepted half shifts in order to stop job losses. In April this year they signed up for a three-year wage freeze in exchange for a commitment from Holden to stay in business beyond 2016. Each production line worker put in an extra quarter hour per day.

They are literally the most productive in the 37 countries General Motors in which General Motors manufactures cars.

Every 60 seconds a vehicle rolls down our assembly line,” Holden boss Mike Deveraux told the Productivity Commission this week.

“The people making cars in Adelaide have to deal with a significant amount of complexity as each car comes past them - much more than many and most other GM plants. They will build a couple of Cruzes, they will build a Commodore, a sports wagon, a Caprice, another Cruze. I mean, a different car and a different job comes at these people every 60 seconds, and on Cruze, they are loaded to 56 seconds out of that 60-second cycle time, balanced across hundreds of people on that assembly line.”

“It's the highest loading in GM plants anywhere that build the Cruze"...

And yet Australian workers cost more than their less agile counterparts overseas.

Around 80 per cent of the cost of making a car is people.

Deveraux asked rhetorically: “Is the cost of labour higher in Australia than it is in Asia?”

He answered: “Of course it is. We have a very good standard of living here and I don't think I would be making anybody surprised when I say that people in Australia make more than they do in many other places in the world.”

Holden told the Commission it cost twice as much to make a car in Australia as in Europe, four times as much as in Asia.

Holden never needed to close that gap. The deal it had struck with the Gillard government (which the Abbott government reneged on) wouldn’t have closed the gap. But it would have closed it somewhat, enough to make it worth staying.

A global corporation like GM can tolerate having loss-making plants in affluent markets like Australia. Its general philosophy is to “build where we sell”. And it knows the dollar might one day turn down.

The dollar is the common thread that’s linking the death spirals of Qantas and Holden. Not as obvious or as politically charged as less important issues like the carbon tax or industrial relations it has jumped to where it has jumped to a height never before seen in its 30-year history as a floating currency and hasn’t yet moved too far down.

In the quarter of a century to January 2010 the Aussie averaged 72 US cents. In recent months it has been 105 US cents. It has been great for car buyers, great for travellers. A foreign car that used to cost $20,000 now costs $14,000. A foreign air ticket that used to cost $2000 now costs $1400.

For companies like Holden and Qantas that were on the edge before the dollar soared, it means anything they try to sell overseas costs 45 per cent more. Its why Golden Circle is closing its canneries and moving to New Zealand, its why Electrolux is closing its factory in Orange and will source fridges from Asia and Eastern Europe. It’s why neither Holden nor Qantas can survive. Unless the dollar falls.

On Friday the Reserve Bank governor Glenn Stevens abandoned his usual reserve and said he would prefer a dollar nearer to 85 US cents than 90 where it has recently been. It’ll need to go lower still if we are regain our competitiveness. When mining prices were high and earnings were flooding in, it didn’t much matter whether the rest of the economy was able to make money. Now that they are not, and that the Australian dollar is still high, we have a problem.

One way or another we will have less buying power next Christmas. Either the dollar will be dramatically lower allowing us to compete again or more and more Australian firms will collapse, bringing on a recession. It’s time to talk seriously about how we can bring the dollar down.

In today's Canberra Times, Sydney Morning Herald

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