Sunday, February 09, 2014

Romance. Why is a ''basic woman'' is so attractive to a basic man?

Sixteen Valentines Days ago economist Herbert Stein stumbled across perhaps the ultimate question.

Why is it, he asked, that a “basic woman” is so attractive to a basic man?

He was quick to point out that he could have asked the question the other way around.

Stein had worked presidents Nixon and Ford. He was a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. He was 81.

The question is harder to answer than you might think.

Stein liked to ponder it as he sat at an outdoor table watching couples walk arm-in-arm up the hill leading to New York’s Kennedy Centre.

“I look particularly at the women in those couples. They are not glamorous,” he wrote in Slate Magazine.

“Some of them are pretty, but many would be considered plain. Since they are on their way to the Kennedy Center, presumably to attend a play, an opera or a concert, one may assume that they are somewhat above average in cultural literacy. But in other respects one must assume that they are, like most people, average.”

“But to the man whose hand or arm she is holding, she is not average,” he wrote. “She is the whole world to him. They may argue occasionally, or even frequently. He may have an eye for the cute intern in his office. But that is superficial. Fundamentally, she is the most valuable thing in his life.”

And then his question: “Why is this basic woman so valuable to the man whose hand or arm she is holding?”

In their new book, An Economic Theory of Greed, Love, Groups, and Networks Australian economists Paul Frijters and Gigi Foster actually attempt an answer, but at a personal cost...

Forster writes that while the prospect of understanding love is intellectually compelling, “actually witnessing the demystification of the love mechanism is also shocking on a personal level.”

“One must find a way to carry on after this experience as a normal individual, despite having deconstructed love (and hence one’s own loves) into constituent parts.”

They see love as a strategy, in the same way as trade and stealing are strategies. Each is about getting something we want, but love is a strategy that changes us.

Economists have long known about the other two. We are acquisitive. If we see something we want we take it. If we can’t take it we trade something for it. But what if neither taking nor trading works? What if we are powerless to get what we want?

Newborn babies are as powerless as could be. Taking things isn’t an option, they can scarcely move. Nor is trade, they have nothing physical to trade.

So they do the only thing they can. They completely subjugate themselves to a higher power.

As Frijters puts it: “Someone who starts to love begins by desiring something from some outside entity. This entity can be a potential sexual partner, a parent, society, a god, or any other person or abstract notion.”

“From a position of relative weakness, the loving person tries to gain control over this entity by incorporating the entity into his own sense of self.”

The needy person makes themselves a mere part of something larger, be it society, a religion or (hopefully) a couple.

And then they are hooked. They are no longer just themselves. It’s hard to fall out of love with something you’ve become part of. The other person, the society or the church or cult has becomes your everything.

Why is this basic woman so valuable to this basic man?

Stein says it isn’t necessarily sex, although it may once have been. He says it’s something even more primitive: human contact.

And conversation.

“The primary purpose of this conversation is not to convey any specific information,” he writes. “Its primary purpose is to say, I am here and I know that you are here."

And it’s being needed.

“If no one needs you, what good are you, and what are you here for?” he asks. “Other people - employers, students, readers - may say that they need you. But it isn't true. In all such relationships you are replaceable at some price. But to this woman you are not replaceable at any price.”

“So this ordinary woman - one like about 50 million others in America - has this great value to this man she is going to the theatre with. He surely does not make a calculation. He probably never says how much he values her, to himself or to her. But he acts as if he knows it.”

How did Stein, a mere economist, know it? He wrote: “My wife and I walked up that hill to the Kennedy Centre many times”.

In The Age and Sydney Morning Herald

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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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