Thursday, December 31, 2009

Thursday column: Happy new year - it's still hard to switch banks

Early in 2008 as Treasury staff beavered away on the Treasurer's much-hyped bank-switching package, Wayne Swan made a private phone call.

He told Peter Kell, then head of the consumer group Choice that he wasn't completely happy with the Treasury's approach and asked for personal advice about how to design a system that would really work.

Kell said at the time they spoke for half an hour with the Treasurer asking questions that made clear he was was genuinely across the details.

Which is probably why Wayne Swan is no longer trumpeting the package that resulted...

Ahead of its introduction in November 2008 he said it would empower customers to "pass their judgement to their banks," change banks and "put them under competitive pressure".

Since then, scarcely a word.

The silence was understandable during the months in which mortgage rates were plummeting. No-one would have been much interested in switching.

But when mortgage rates started climbing in October and when Westpac opened up the biggest-ever gap between the big banks' mortgage rates in December, a Treasurer who had confidence in his product might have been expected to be spruik it from the rooftops.

A government advertising campaign would have been entirely reasonable. "We've made it easy to switch over your mortgage. Here's How."

Instead we've had silence, most probably because the Treasurer knows it's not easy.

Westpac is banking on it's customers suspecting or figuring that out.

Here's what you'll have to do if you want to switch banks.

After finding a new mortgage that's cheaper (hint: a NAB loan is an extraordinary 0.27 points cheaper than a Westpac loan - that's $50 per month cheaper on a $300,000 loan) you'll probably have to prove your identity all over again. You'll need to assemble driver's licences, passports and signed statements from people such as church ministers who can certify that they know you, 100 points worth. If it's a joint mortgage your partner will have to do it as well.

You might be lucky. You might already be known to the new lender. But you'll still have to demonstrate your spending and savings habits all over again. Months of bank statements should do it along with pay slips or group certificates and perhaps a letter from your employer confirming that you work there.

The new bank might also want child support statements, even superannuation statements. It'll want you to value your house again. And it'll want a copy of your rates notice.

The bank switching package eases none of these requirements. It could have. A simple rule saying that if you were known to one of the big banks there was no need to reprove your identity to another would have been a start. As would a rule saying that if you were simply switching a mortgage established in the last three years there was no need to reprove your eligibility for it. If one of the big four has found you eligible, that should be good enough for the others.

But these would have been radical changes that the Treasury and the banks would have resisted; the Treasury because of ingrained caution and the banks in part because they would have been effective.

Instead the Treasurer was left trumpeting a package that was mainly about what happens after you switch banks. It requires your old bank to hand your new bank a list of your regular deductions, which eases some of the pain of switching, but not much.

He has also encouraged the banks to cut or eliminate exit and entry fees. Also a help, but a less than complete one.

At a time when the case for switching is clearer than ever, most of us still won't do it because of the weeks - even months - it would take out of our spare time.

Despite the Treasurer's best intentions we're "sticky", which is how spiders like insects, and how banks like their customers.

Published in today's  Age

Related Posts

. Changing banks is as easy as....

. Westpac digs deeper

. Swan's bank-switching package is a useless joke


Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Baby boomers get old?

The Beatles are set to replace Glenn Miller in retirement homes. Australia's first wave of baby boomers - those born from 1946 - become eligible for the pension from next week.

Official projections suggest up to 107,000 baby boomer women will reach the female pension age of 64 next year. A year later a further 100,000 baby boomer men will reach the male pension age of 65 as a further 120,000 women will reach pension age.

"The bulge will expand for 15 years," says David Knox, an actuary and worldwide partner at Mercer Consulting. "And these boomers will be living longer than did earlier pensioners."

Dr Knox was behind a push to gradually lift the pension age to 67, a decision implemented in the May Budget with the first increase to 65 years and six months due in 2017 and the final increase in 2023.

"I think we'll need more," he told The Herald... "I would like the pension age to keep increasing as life expectancy increases, not on a one-for-one basis, but by six months for every year that lives lengthen, so that the costs are shared."

The rapid aging of the Australian population brought on by the steady march of boomers into their upper sixties and early seventies will be a focus of both the Henry Review and the Treasury's third Intergenerational Report to be released early in the new year.

Current projections suggest that by the middle of the century almost one in four Australians will be aged 65 or older, roughly double the present 13 per cent.

The proportion aged 85 or older will triple from 1.7 per cent to 5 per cent.

In an early insight into the content of the report Treasurer Wayne Swan told the Australian Institute on Population Ageing Research in September it would find that Australia's population will be larger and somewhat younger than had been believed, driven by an unexpected jump in the birth rate and greater than expected immigration.

The challenge would be to encourage older Australians to continue to contribute to the community, as carers, volunteers and as ongoing workers.

The Budget eased the pension income test in order to make continued part-time work easier.

But David Knox said the reality was that most Australians retired well before the pension age, with retirement at 58 or 59 typical, although there were signs the age was increasing to 61.

"The global financial crisis has eaten into nest eggs forcing some people to postpone their retirement plans. And the recovery is going to encourage employers to hang on to their workers as they become scarce," he said.

The Henry Review has considered recommending slowly lifting the superannuation preservation age to 67, to bring it into line with the higher pension age from 2023, effectively making it impossible to get a retirement income before 67 without working or living off investments.

Australians live 23 years longer than they did when the aged pension was introduced in 1909.

Published in today's SMH  and Age 


Related Posts

. Ken Henry's grain of mustard seed - what to expect

. You want us to work 'til 67? And then when?

. Retirement at 65 is old hat! Let's raise the pension age... then raise it again

. Why Australia's 'aging timebomb' is fizzing

. The one graph that sums up today's intergenerational report


Sunday, December 27, 2009

Don't be evil - why words matter

Here's an interview with the man who came up with the most memorable phrase in any mission statement:

Google's Don't Be Evil.

Did it really make a difference, Russ Roberts asked Paul Buchheit (who incidentally also developed gmail)?

Yes, Buchheit said.

It granted workers permission to question what their organisation was doing.

I've been reading about the Reserve Bank and its subsidiary Securency, about the Australian Wheat Board, and about James Hardy.

The last two have made brilliant books. The first might also.

There were good people in AWB and James Hardy.  Yet they were given no room, no permission to say "should we really be funneling hundreds of millions of dollars to a cash-staved murderous dictator  who will be killing our troops", "should we really be knowingly killing our workers and assuming that what happens to our customers is not our concern".

If those companies had had Don't Be Evil as their motto it would have made a difference.

It would have given them permission to ask, "is this really what we should be doing?"

If only.

Related Posts

. James Hardie - the video and audio

. Australia's James Hardie - close to evil

. Not so shiny


Saturday, December 26, 2009

The return of the master, in hip hop

It's been Keynes year, again.

So fans and critics have put together a hip hop video.

NewsHour previews it, weaving in a discussion of the master, in a rather good nine-minute use of the medium.

Oh, and here's the story behind the story.

Related Posts

. Painless ways to learn economics

. The Economics Nobel explained, in a video

. Can economists be funny?


Thursday, December 24, 2009

Yes, our new daughter was the baby in the nativity play


"Inspirational" - Seen at Borders at the Canberra Centre

The inspirational section has books by or about Desmond Tutu, Mother Theresa...

Oh, and some other guy, third from the left.

Happy Christmas.

Back on Boxing Day.


Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Economists are studying drunk people, to find out about their inner selves

Call this seasonal, from the NYT annual Year in Ideas

"The so-called ultimatum game contains a world of psychological and economic mysteries. In a laboratory setting, one person is given an allotment of money (say, $100) and instructed to offer a second person a portion. If the second player says yes to the offer, both keep the cash. If the second player says no, both walk away with nothing.

The rational move in any single game is for the second person to take whatever is offered. (It’s more than he came in with.) But in fact, most people reject offers of less than 30 percent of the total, punishing offers they perceive as unfair. Why?

The academic debate boils down to two competing explanations. On one hand, players might be strategically suppressing their self-interest, turning down cash now in the hope that if there are future games, the “proposer” will make better offers. On the other hand, players might simply be lashing out in anger.

The researchers Carey Morewedge and Tamar Krishnamurti, of Carnegie Mellon University, and Dan Ariely, of Duke, recently tested the competing explanations — by exploring how drunken people played the game.

As described in a working paper now under peer review, Morewedge and Krishnamurti took a “data truck” to a strip of bars on the South Side of Pittsburgh (where participants were “often at a level of intoxication that is greater than is ethical to induce”) and also did controlled testing, in labs, of people randomly selected to get drunk.

The scholars were interested in drunkenness because intoxication, as other social-science experiments have shown, doesn’t fuzz up judgment so much as cause the drinker to overly focus on the most prominent cue in his environment. If the long-term-strategy hypothesis were true, drunken players would be more inclined to accept any amount of cash. (Money on the table generates more-visceral responses than long-term goals do.) If the anger/revenge theory were true, however, drunken players would become less likely to accept low offers: raw anger would trump money-lust.

In both setups, drunken players were less likely than their sober peers to accept offers of less than 50 percent of the total. The finding suggests, the authors said, that the principal impulse driving subjects was a wish for revenge.

HT: Dan Ariely

Related Posts

. Sunday dollars+sense: Too much testosterone

. Sunday dollars+sense: The more clever you are...

. Are successful investors not quite the full quid?


Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Grandma got run over by a reindeer?

Krugman puts the unusual risk now facing the well-endowed elderly in the US more bluntly:

Throwing Momma from the train

I warned you, back in 2001!

"So in the law as now written, heirs to great wealth face the following situation: If your ailing mother passes away on Dec. 30, 2010, you inherit her estate tax-free. But if she makes it to Jan. 1, 2011, half the estate will be taxed away. That creates some interesting incentives. Maybe they should have called it the Throw Momma From the Train Act of 2001.

And it’s happening:

"At the beginning of 2010, the Bush estate tax plan is scheduled to change such that all estates, up to any value, are excluded. Because the tax bill was passed through reconciliation, however, it has a ten-year time frame, meaning that the law expires at the end of 2010. And that means that the heirs of fortunes received in 2010 will pay no tax, while heirs getting theirs in 2011 will pay 50% of the value of the estate to the Internal Revenue Service.

Perhaps you notice the uncomfortable incentive structure here.

The unwelcome news is that Australian experience shows Krugman's concerns to be well founded.

Did the Death of Australian Inheritance Taxes Affect Deaths?

Joshua S. Gans, Melbourne Business School, University of Melbourne
Andrew Leigh, Australian National University


In 1979, Australia abolished federal inheritance taxes. Using daily deaths data, we show that approximately 50 deaths were shifted from the week before the abolition to the week after. This amounts to over half of those who would have been eligible to pay the tax. Although we cannot rule out the possibility that our results are driven by misreporting, our results imply that over the very short run, the death rate may be highly elastic with respect to the inheritance tax rate.

Oh my.

Related Posts

. A boosted baby bonus means...

. Tuesday column: Axe the baby bonus

. Tuesday column: Births, conceptions and deaths. Money changes everything.


Monday, December 21, 2009

Wind back the stimulus? Where's the love?

"Now we once again call on the government to pull back on its massive spending program, otherwise interest rates are going to go up much higher than they need to be."

Gee I wish I was as confident as that man that it was safe to start withdrawing the stimulus - which by the way is happening automatically anyway.

This graph plots Treasury estimates of the effect:

But there's something else wrong with the Hockey-Abbott line, dealt with in this (somewhat wonkish) paper from Melbourne University's Max Corden entitled Why the world needs fiscal stimulus.

It begins:
"The first argument is that the economy is already recovering so we no longer need a fiscal stimulus. Perhaps the economy would have recovered without the stimulus. Nonetheless, we should stop the stimulus now.

The central issue here is that success of fiscal stimulus cannot be seen clearly. A fiscal stimulus is successful to the extent that something doesn’t happen, that is, if there is an absence of severe economic turmoil."

Here's what happened to retail spending before and after the stimulus:

Would Joe Hockey really want to withdraw stimulus any faster than is already scheduled?

Come on Joe, where is the love?

Showing somewhat less love on this topic, Bill Mitchell takes apart what he thinks is the worst OpEd of all time - in The Australian

Related Posts

. Prepare to return to normal. We've done it.

. A third interest rate hike. Let's be honest about why.

. Ken Henry's devastating question to Senators


Saturday, December 19, 2009

Who lobbies who? Get an eyeful.

LobbyLens was created in just a day or two for a MashupAustralia contest.

Play with it. See how much money has changed hands.

It's a posterchild for Government 2.0 at

Task Force chair (and spice girls fan) Nick Gruen explains what it is up to below.

The complete draft report is here.

The expression Web 2.0 connotes the internet as a platform for collaboration of all kinds. It also connotes openness. Open standards permit interoperability allowing people to build on each others’ work. This makes the net the world’s first truly serendipitous network. It regularly bombards us with wonderful surprises – like blogs, Wikpedia, Flikr and Facebook. The potential of Web 2.0 to transform the ‘open government’ agenda – now itself identified by the term ‘Government 2.0’ – has been evident for some time. Obama made open government a centrepiece of his administration.

Australian government agencies have produced some wonderful Government 2.0 initiatives. But in the draft report we’ve just released, the Government 2.0 Taskforce found that Australia had yet to give the Government 2.0 co-ordinated, whole of government attention as the US, UK and New Zealand governments have done. And public agencies continue to act like owners rather than custodians of public data and information. Thus, although the Australian Government went to great lengths to get the word out about its last Budget, its inside asserts that “no part may be reproduced by any process without prior written permission”.

On Web 2.0 or collaborative web, search engines ensure people collaborate – even if they don’t’ know it – by harvesting the knowledge embedded in internet links and the preferences embodied in users’ choices about what they link to from search results to build ever more relevant search results. And collaborative web is serendipitous web, connecting people in improbable ways, enabling highly specific, local and ephemeral knowledge to be discovered and tapped.

US Federal Reserve research recently quoted ‘Tanta’ on the sub-prime mortgage market. Who was Tanta? She was a literature lecturer who’d recently worked in the mortgage market, meticulously – and hilariously – anatomising the practices of her industry on the blog Calculated Risk. And the Fed knew of her because she’d quickly become a must read for economist bloggers – Nobel Prize winning and otherwise – trying to nut out what was happening.

Web 2.0 platforms like Google Calendar, Microsoft Earth and Swivel also provide incredible new tools for ‘mashups’ in which data from multiple sources is combined on some ‘platform’ for doing so – like a map. Mashups add value to data. They can make practical tasks more convenient – for instance when I mash my own online calendar up with my wife’s. Sometimes mashups seem frivolous – as the collaborative map of magpie swoop hotspots was to me – until a cyclist friend pointed out its contribution to bicycle road safety. And important policy insights are emerging from mashups mapping the co-location of social pathologies like crime and poverty.

Government 2.0 embraces all these possibilities within government. In digitising its collection of historic newspapers back to 1802 our National Library ‘crowdsources’ the correction of errors that computer digitization has made. Since its launch in 2007 the site has corrected over seven million lines of text and has worked round the clock – literally never been idle. Nearly a quarter of volunteers log on from offshore. Between them they’ve corrected over seven million lines of text. Sydney’s Powerhouse Museum released historic photos on Flikr (a world first) eliciting a wealth of contextual information and complementary photos from those familiar with the relevant subject of the photos. The National Archives does likewise on its site commemorating World War One diggers.

Out Taskforce ran competitions bringing volunteers together to build mashups of data that we’d persuaded government agencies to open up. Why did the volunteers come? To build a better world; to give themselves a chance of winning (modest) prizes; to meet others and to have fun. (The members of the winning team at our GovHack weekend got on so well that each discovered just before the presentations that the other members of their team weren’t already good friends!). Mashup Australia teams built

. My Representatives which lists all your local, state and federal government representatives upon your entering your address;

. It’s buggered mate which enables citizens to notify maintenance problems with government infrastructure and track governments’ progress in fixing it (The UK has had functioning equivalents of both the above sites for several years); and

. LobbyLens which mashes up data from the lobbyist register with data on winning government tenders.

Oh – and 79 other mashups! (What data does your workplace hold? Is it useful to others? Release it and find out!)

Our draft report is a roadmap for getting to Government 2.0 – and in doing so making our government more open, participatory, informed and citizen centric. Government 2.0 will help improve the quality of all those things where governments are major players as service deliverers, information providers or regulators. It can improve our schools, our hospitals, our workplaces and indeed our lives.

For that reason it holds the key to several existing government agendas, from building an innovative public service that is the world’s best to making the most of our huge national investment in broadband.

Government 2.0 is about more than Web 2.0 technology or even policy. It’s about governments letting the community into its workings, letting them see and contribute to their own governance. And so it requires culture change. That won’t be easy and it won’t happen overnight.

But it’s the kind of thing we do well once we get organised. We need only the courage, the perseverance and the imagination to grasp the opportunity.

Please visit us on and tell us how we can improve our draft report.

Artwork: Don Arthur

Related Posts

. Trying to get the government to take up a good idea

. Can't yet see the point of Government 2.0?

. Let's realy open access

. Saturday Forum: Deregulation, the Spice Girls way


Friday, December 18, 2009

"How can changing our economy cool the temperature?"

Err, by taxing (more precisely pricing) the activities that drive warming.

I'm worried, less so by Professor Ian Plimer, who takes part in the discussion outlined below and who distinguished himself memorably on LateLine, but by the man asking the question.

He is Luke Bona of 2GB, a Sydney radio station that was once taken seriously.

The audio's here, James Farrell had a go at the transcript, and I've checked it against the audio and made it completely accurate.

Bona: Penny Wong is saying changing our economy is crucial to fighting climate change. I wanna ask you, because I don’t understand this, how can changing the economy cool the temperature? [Plimer chuckles, as though this a self-evidently ludicrous connection]. I’ll repeat, I'll say again what she said. She says: ‘changing our economy is crucial to fighting climate change.’

Plimer: Well, I’m not so sure how throwing money up in the air and flushing it down our sewerage system is going to change climate. I think she needs to explain the science behaind that statement. That’s the sort of statement you make in the front bar of a pub after you’ve been there all day. [Laughs] It's quite entertaining.

Bona: I don't understand it either.

This wasn't even midnight to dawn.

Prices affect behaviour. Not every price change will change behaviour, some are too small relative to other forces at work. Sometimes the effect of income changes that take place at the same time overwhelm the price effect.

But pure price effects work, if the price is pushed high enough.

That's why we have fines. They change behaviour.

For an interviewer not to know this, or to pretend not to know it, saddens me on behalf the people who listen to a once serious radio outfit.

Yes I know that 2GB staff are prepped to play to prejudices. Defectors talk.

But I'm still saddened.

Related Posts

. Abbott also destroys tax reform

. Shock! Prices affect behaviour.

. Oil: Guess what? High prices cut sales.


Thursday, December 17, 2009

Kevin Rudd: Time for a bargain between the past and the future

Just delivered in Copenhagen

Short, specific, punchy:

"When the history of this century is written, this conference, and the results of this conference, may constitute one of its defining chapters.

History will record it as a time when either the peoples of the world, mindful of a common threat to us all, decided to act in concert against that threat - and so turned the tide of history.

Or else history will record this conference as a time when once again, we became so consumed with the petty nationalisms of the past, that we turned instead against each other and failed to act on this great common challenge of the future.

This history of much of the last century is littered with the carnage and the wreckage of ideologies incapable of embracing the common needs of all our peoples.

Yet here at the dawn of this century, we are privileged to have been given by history this opportunity and this responsibility to write a different narrative of human cooperation:

· to act for those who have no voice, but who depend on us to give them voice;

· to act for our children and our grandchildren and those not yet born, but who depend on us to give them voice;

· to act for the planet.

These are the deep choices which lie before us.

In the next two days, we will assemble together as the largest gathering of global leaders in history.

This is no accidental gathering....

We gather because the peoples of the world demand that we gather.

And the peoples of the world will judge us not just as nations.

Each and every one of us here will be judged as individuals.

For what we say.

For what we do.

And for what we fail to do.

On how we as individual women and men gathered at this great conference have responded to the scientific reality of climate change.

And whether we have responded in conscience to the indisputable facts that science has put before us.

And history will be a harsh judge of us all.

None of us comes to this conference with clean hands.

The inescapable truth is that we the developed world carry the overwhelming historical responsibility for the accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

Any developed nation, large or small, which seeks to absolve itself of past responsibility for the problem the planet now confronts, is being dishonest.

Yet we must also bring the same spirit of inquiry to the problems of the future.

But if the developed world became carbon neutral and the developing world continued to grow on current trends, then the truth is that the emerging economies alone would be responsible for more than half of total global emissions by 2050 – and this would create a temperature rise of between 3.2 degrees and 4 degrees Celsius and even possibly higher.

The truth is that unless we all act together – because we are all in this together – there will be limited prospects of development because the planet itself will no longer sustain it.

That is why history is calling on us all to frame a Grand Bargain on climate change:

· a Grand Bargain between past responsibility and future responsibility;

· a Grand Bargain between the developed world and the developing world;

· a Grand Bargain between the strongest and the most vulnerable;

· a Grand Bargain between ourselves as the current custodians of the planet and those who will come after;

· a Grand Bargain on climate change.

So what then is to be done in the little time that is left?

Words without deeds are a dead letter.

There have been millions of words spoken here, but as one of our colleagues said, it is time to stop talking, and start working.

It is time to take up the pen to define precisely the finite number of major policy differences between us:

· On mitigation, our collective national ambitions now make up about two thirds of what we need to get on a path to our common ambition of 450 parts per million – and the task we have is to find the remaining 5 gigatonnes reduction across the largest economies;

· On climate change finance to deal with the adaptation and mitigation needs of the poorest countries, we already have substantial agreement on fast start funding for the next three years and the prospect of agreement for the remaining seven;

· On verification, I believe we can achieve a consensus on international and national means of accounting whether we honour our carbon commitments or not;

· And on the future of the Kyoto Protocol and its intersection with a new Copenhagen Accord, we can I believe accommodate a common and integrated future for both international instruments which embrace the legal responsibilities of all parties – developed and developing.

These are the four major disagreements between us all.

You would not know that if you examine, as I have done, the 102 square bracketed areas of disagreement that lie in the existing text before us.

Nor would you know that if you listened to the avalanche of procedural interventions in this conference which is seen to be guided by a single purpose – to prevent the conference from distilling down our areas of disagreement to a manageable list so that leaders can decide.

· I fear a triumph of form over substance;

· I fear a triumph of inaction over action.

Let us instead resolve to decide for our future – not simply to defer.

Climate change is no respecter of persons.

No respecter of cultures.

No respecter of nations.

Its consequences are vast.

Whether it is the washing away of villages in Tuvalu, Kiribati or the Maldives.

Whether it is the melting of the glaciers of the Tibetan Plateau.

Whether it is the 30 million of the most vulnerable people in the low lying areas of Bangladesh.

Whether it is the Chinese peasants dealing with unprecedented drought on the North China Plain.

Or the destruction of arable farmland in sub-Saharan Africa.

Or, in our own country, the destruction of one of the wonders of the world – the Great Barrier Reef.

Australia is one of the hottest and driest continents on earth.

That is why we need decisive action globally here in Copenhagen.

That is why the Australian government is committed to acting nationally through a Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme as the cheapest and most effective way to act at home.

It is global and national action together that makes a difference.

Before I left Australia, I was presented with a book of handwritten letters from a group of 6 year olds.

One of the letters is from Gracie.

Gracie is six – “Hi” she wrote. “My name is Gracie. How old are you.”

Gracie continues “I am writing to you because I want you all to be strong in Copenhagen... Please listen to us as it is our future.”

I fear that at this conference, we are on the verge of letting little Gracie down.

And all of the little children across the world.

I would ask every Leader at this summit right now to ask themselves this simple question.

When I arrive home at the end of this week, will I be able to sit down, look my children in the eyes and tell them in clear conscience that I did absolutely everything I could to achieve action to avoid dangerous climate change.

Because if we cannot, then we will have failed in our basic duties as leaders of our nations, as fathers and mothers of our children and custodians of our nations’ future.

The children of the world are watching.

They are listening.

And history will be the judge of each of us here today.

Liveblogging here.

Related Posts

An animated journey through climate change

"Tony and the people who put him in his job do not want to do anything about climate change..."

Beds are burning, again


Want to watch your life pass away before your eyes?

Go to

Click "I'm feeling lucky" with nothing in the box.

Then watch and wonder as the number of seconds left this year pass before your eyes.

(It seems to be adjusted for local time)

HT: LifeHacker


"The less the people know about how sausages and statistics are made...

...the better they sleep at night"

- to further misquote a quote whose origins are already obscure

Tim Colebatch is blunt about Wednesday's September quarter growth figures which really tell us little more than that they don't make sense:

"I think the bureau is having trouble working out what is going on in the economy. The GDP figure it puts out is an average of three measures from different sets of data, covering expenditure, income and production. All year, all three of them have been having the loudest argument in the history of the national accounts.

The income and production data both show that Australia went into recession late last year, stayed there in the first half of this year, but accelerated into positive territory in September. But the expenditure measure tells a startlingly different story. It says we were booming in the first half of 2009, then slid back into recession in September.

To me, the story told by the first two makes sense. The third story is just barmy.

But the bureau has to average them out... and that's why it tells us growth slowed in the September quarter.

It's clear where the problem is. The expenditure figures confirm spending was in recession, but say all the damage fell on imports. They concede our export revenues also plunged, but estimate this is because average export prices fell 24 per cent in six months, and export volumes in fact rose in the middle of the deepest global recession for 70 years.

Common sense suggests that's wrong. More likely, the bureau has exaggerated the fall in export prices, and therefore overstated export volumes and growth. Our recession was probably deeper than its figures suggest, and our recovery from it is stronger."

Related Posts

. "If you throw enough money at a problem, some of it will stick". It has. We're back.

. "Something is very wrong with the GDP"

. Er, what is a recession anyway?


Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Monetary policy already "back in the normal range" - Reserve

And the Bank says banks like Westpac helped get it there. Truly.

The key quote from Ric Battellino's extraordinary speech, just delivered...

"Taking these considerations into account, it would be reasonable to conclude that the overall stance of monetary policy is now back in the normal range, though in the expansionary segment of that range."

It's worth reading the whole thing:

Some Comments on Bank Funding

Related Posts

. A third interest rate hike. Let's be honest about why.

. Green light - Reserve gives banks the all-clear to nudge up rates

. Six easy graphs - the story of the Australian economy


Meanwhile Westpac says it "started 2010 with strong momentum across all our businesses"


It's in the slides prepared for today's AGM in Melbourne, which are on the ASX website with the Chairman's speech.

Ted Evans says:

"...we would do no favours to anyone by offering mortgages at rates that we know to be unsustainable.

Nor is it fair to other borrowers, such as small business owners, or even large project developers, to have their interest rates increased so that mortgage raes can be subsidised.

Nor is it fair to those who save to have deposit rates held down so that mortgage borrowers can he subsidised."

Two points:

- Given that increasing interest rates charged to "other borrowers such as small business owners, or even large project developers" is exactly what Westpac has done, bigtime (increasing margins actually) will it now give back those margin increases?

- Ted Evans is not seriously claiming that deposit rates are being --- or are in prospect of being --- held down is he? Some are higher than the cash rate!

Related Posts

. Westpac gets political, broadcasting "a message for Tony Abbott"

. Westpac digs deeper

. Now Westpac treats its staff like idiots

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Westpac gets political, broadcasting "a message for Tony Abbott"

No joke.

Go to

It'll look like this:

Click on the Peter Hanlon video, which Westpac have removed (they've been removing a lot lately)

It'll change to this:

Then to this:

Now click on the image of the banana plantation:

And you'll see:

No joke. It's a message to Tony Abbott from the Australian Youth Climate Coalition.

Brought to you via Westpac.

I reckon they've got enough problems communicating their own message.

Correction. I reckon they've got enough trouble working out what their message is.

What next? Donating to both sides of politics? Oh. They've already done that.

Removing their head of retail and attempting to remove video evidence of him? They've already done that.

By the way, here's the ad that started the whole thing. Westpac says it removed it "following feedback". It hasn't actually. Click on this button and you'll still find it.

Okay. So they can't work out what their message is, can't deliver it, and can't run an ever-changing website.

But you'd trust them with your banking.

UPDATE: 11.50 pm Wednesday - Westpac finally removed the page. I guess they read this post.

Here's how it looks now:

Meantime NAB's been busy.

Its message is easier to sell:

Related Posts

. Westpac digs deeper

. Now Westpac treats its staff like idiots

. So Westpac flew all these community representatives to Sydney for a meeting, then...

. Thursday Column: The mating call of the banks


Krugman vs Lomborg

"We have a reasonable probability of catastrophe"


HT: Krugman

"The economics are very simple. It's an externality, stupid so price it."


THE Copenhagen summit is missing a crucial element. How should we design a long-term agreement to reduce global emissions of greenhouse gases?

Negotiators focus on the medium term. How much should each country do to cut emissions or restrain their growth by 2020? Under what rules? What should rich countries do to help poor countries rein in emissions growth?

There's logic there. No political leader will be in power long enough to deliver on a target for 2050. The 2020 deadline means it's up to them to deliver the action that meets their pledges.

And at this distance, the signs seem encouraging. All the key players have put pledges on the table, some better than others. The fact that 110 leaders are coming to Copenhagen to negotiate in person suggests they mean business.

True, pledges can be broken: we saw that with the Kyoto commitments, especially from Japan and Canada. But it is positive when China commits to cut its emissions per dollar of GDP by 40 to 45 per cent, President Obama pledges a 17 per cent cut in total US emissions, Congress party chief Sonia Gandhi overrules India's obdurate negotiators to pledge a cut of 20 to 25 per cent from business-as-usual levels, and even Russia's President Medvedev doubles its promised cut.

Yet there are worrying signs. The developed countries' pledges collectively fall well short of the 25 to 40 per cent cut from 1990 levels that, realistically or not, was widely expected. And some developing countries still seem to see this as a problem for the rich world to solve, not one that requires all to take verifiable action.

The head of the International Energy Agency, Nobuo Tanaka, puts it bluntly: on current policies, he says, 97 per cent of all growth in emissions to 2030 would come in developing countries.

Even if the rich countries were to reduce their emissions to zero, global temperatures would still rise by more than 2 degrees.

China understands that. But while it is taking wide-ranging action to slow emissions growth, its own hang-ups prevent it playing the leadership role the summit needs. Its refusal to agree to international verification of its emissions is like its perverse policy of maintaining a hugely undervalued currency. Both are unnecessary, and both seriously harm the prospects of other countries.

But Copenhagen might not see the gaps close. One reason why is that we are debating medium-term targets without having agreed on a long-term goal.

Yes, there is broad agreement that we need to reduce global emissions in 2050 to half their 2000 levels. But how will we distribute those emission rights? And by what road will we get there?

Ask these questions, and one reality leaps out at you. The only fair basis for determining long-term emission rights is population. At Copenhagen, they are negotiating on total emissions or emissions growth. Yet inescapably, the currency we will end up dealing with is emissions per head.

Ross Garnaut saw this clearly, and made it the central feature of his report's design for a global agreement. He proposed that the world adopt a goal of convergence to equal per capita emissions by 2050. With a 50 per cent cut in global emissions, that implies cutting emissions to about 2.5 tonnes per head.

That implies Australia and the US would have to cut emissions per head by 90 per cent over the next 40 years, and China by 45 per cent. But a poor country like India would be able to expand emissions by 90 per cent. And countries could trade emission rights to meet the target.

That goal would be tough, but fair but they're not talking about it in Copenhagen because it's too hard. The US and Australia don't want it, because they have the largest per capita emissions of the big players, so they would have to make the largest cuts. The shriller advocates for developing countries don't support it, because it allows Western countries another 40 years to lower their emissions to sustainable levels.

But realistically, it's at the outer edges of what Western democracy American democracy, in particular can promise. It implies massive technological leaps to achieve affordable low-emission technologies. It then implies a rapid roll-out of them all around the world. That would be hard.

Can it be done without putting a price on carbon, as Tony Abbott and others argue? Former climate change sceptic Bjorn Lomborg, who now accepts the need for action, argues that instead of emissions trading or a carbon tax, the world should spend $US100 billion ($A109 billion) a

year on research and development to discover affordable renewable energy technologies then roll them out.

But to get there would be impossible without a price on carbon.

Dirty coal is cheap and plentiful partly because when you burn it, you pay nothing for dumping your hot air in the atmosphere. If that distortion (what economists call an externality) is not corrected, new technologies whether renewable, nuclear, or clean coal will never be cheaper than dirty coal.

The International Monetary Fund's director of fiscal affairs, Carlo Cottarelli, puts it bluntly on an IMF blog: "The science of the issue can get pretty incomprehensible pretty quickly. And the politics are clearly very ugly. Let's not forget, however, that much of the economics is very simple. It's an externality, stupid so price it.

"The basic principle remains: polluters should pay." If they don't, the future will.

Related Posts

. An animated journey through climate change

. On CRPS D-Day

. Betraying the planet - Krugman


Twelve days to Christmas. And you'll be spending...

$US21,466 - just  $386 more than the year before.

PNC Wealth Management also calculate the "True Cost of Christmas" - the cumulative cost of all the gifts counting each repetition, reflects the cost of 364 gifts. It's $87,402 this year.

As the chart below the fold illustrates the Seven Swans-a-Swimming traditionally make up the bulk of the cost - this year they're pricey at $5250, but beaten for the first time by the Nine Ladies Dancing at $5473.

Here's what I wrote on a Christmas past:

Most years the index has moved up in line with the general rate of US inflation – a finding that might seem odd. Pipers piping, partridges and pear trees aren’t the sort of things that usually make their way into the consumer price index.

But it has been found time and time again that unless a shopping list is extremely obscure its total will usually move in line with prices in general...

The best example is the price of a Big Mac.

We think of a hamburger as one product, but actually it is its own shopping list containing within it labour, rent, electricity, farm produce and so on.

When, noting its standardised nature, the Economist magazine began (as a joke) comparing price movements in Big Macs across nations it discovered that they closely tracked more complicated measures of prices.

That’s because if ever one part of a big Mac was to became especially expensive people would buy fewer of them, their price would moderate and the prices of things people spent their money on would climb.

The other thing that PNC has discovered about the Twelve Days shopping list is that the importance of goods and services has changed places.

Goods (in this case birds and trees) used to account for most of the cost.

These days it’s the services that cost the money. The lords a leaping (sourced from the Pennsylvania Ballet) get ever more expensive.

Goods have become relatively cheap to source. We have become so much better at making them. But in Western countries we have paid ourselves more as well.

That’s why it’s the personal things - be they pipers piping, ladies dancing, or any service that requires face-to-face contact - that have become valued and rather more rare.

PNC Christmas Price Index Chart

Related Posts

. Scroogenomics - the Christmas debate writ large

. Might we spend even more this Christmas?

. Do you think the CPI is a joke?


Monday, December 14, 2009

Economics is about so much more than the pursuit of happiness - Samuelson knew it

Paul Samuelson is dead, at 94.

I feel as I felt when other legends died - bereft.

Of course, he taught me economics - through his great textbook, co-authored in Australia with Keith Hancock and Robert Wallace.  (I was fortunate enough to have Hancock and Wallace teach me in person, so academically I was indeed Samuelson's child).

Here's are two magnificent NYT obituaries.

Two things to add, for now.

One is that two years ago, when Samuelson was 92, he wrote an article observing:

When I come to write a newspaper article like this 10 years from now, I believe America may still be leading the pack in per-capita affluence. But in all probability, the China that has already displaced Japan as the economy with the second biggest total gross domestic product will likely have a total GDP equal to America's.

Full marks for style. Only people who knew his age got the joke.

The other is to point to this 1993 paper "Altruism as a Problem Involving Group versus Individual Selection in Economics and Biology".

The title may not be snappy, but the content...

It influenced me a lot. Many economists still haven't freed themselves to see the world as it is, as Samuelson wants.

An extract:

Mesmerized by Homo economicus, who acts solely on egoism, economists shy away from altruism almost comically. Caught in a shameful act of heroism, they aver: "Shucks, it was only enlightened self interest." Sometimes it is. At other times it may be only rationalization (spurious for card-carrying atheists): "If I rescue somebody's son, someone will rescue mine."

I will not waste ink on face-saving tautologies. When the governess of infants caught in a burning building reenters it unobserved in a hopeless mission of rescue, casuists may argue; "She did it only to get the good feeling of doing it. Because otherwise she wouldn't have done it." Such argumentation (in Wolfgang Pauli's scathing phrase) is not even wrong. It is just boring, irrelevant, and in the technical sense of old-fashioned logical positivism "meaning-less." You do not understand the logic and history of consumer demand theory — Pareto, W. E. Johnson, Slutsky, Allen-Hicks, Hotelling, Samuelson, Houthakker,... — if you think that is its content.

They are some of the most sharpened, lethal, sentences ever used in economic debate.

He wrote well, he thought well, he taught well, and he was usually right.

Samuelson on Altruism

Related Posts

. If we are on the verge of a worldwide recession...

. Professor Friedman is dead

. John Vincent is dead. He can't be.


The Westpac ad, with yet anther new twist:

Enjoy! Gee they're getting good value out of this...


HT: Choice

I imagine Westpac's web team isn't too pleased though.

It seems to have to keep removing things.

Related Posts

. Westpac - its just like a bank that... Here's the ad reworked:

. Westpac's week - so far

. Westpac digs deeper

. Now Westpac treats its staff like idiots


Saturday, December 12, 2009

Ken Henry's call to arms

What you do with your degree is up to you.

But you'll have to live with it.

Here's his ANU conferring of degrees speech delivered Friday:


It is a great pleasure to have this opportunity to address such an outstanding group of Australians. All are high achievers. And today is, more than anything else, an occasion for all of us to celebrate their fine achievements.

Yet, even as we celebrate past achievement, we know that for all of our gifted graduates there exists an enormous potential for future achievement.

All of today's graduates have choice. Because of their skills and the capabilities they possess, both of which have been enhanced considerably by their education at this outstanding university, they have the opportunity to choose a future. This is not an opportunity available to more than a small proportion of the world's population.

People who have that opportunity – people who are endowed with the freedom to choose a life they have reason to value – have much to celebrate. But with that freedom there also comes responsibility. And it is responsibility that I want to talk to you about today.

30 years ago I completed an honours degree in economics at another fine Australian university.

The cohort of students who graduated in the last class of the 1970s also had much to celebrate. They too graduated with a set of capabilities that endowed them with the freedom to choose a future.

And yet, earlier this year when I was invited back to that other university to address another impressive group of graduates, I had to confess that when I reflected back on the students of the 1970s, and on what they had chosen to do with their lives, there was something that bugged me.

The students of the 1970s were idealists....
They grew up in the fog of the Cold War, and faced the real risk of having to go off to fight in the Vietnam War. Then, in 1972, Gough Whitlam became Prime Minister. Access to a university education expanded enormously and Australia's involvement in the Vietnam War was brought to an end. In the 1970s, as in other periods, student idealism found expression in music and fashion. And it found expression also in a level of interest – unprecedented in Australia – in environmental concerns. Some of those concerns were motivated by the nuclear cold war horror that that generation had grown up with. But environmental consciousness was actually very broadly based.

The students of the 1970s were also deeply concerned about poverty and other forms of extreme social disadvantage. And they understood, perhaps better than any other generation, the importance of social infrastructure – infrastructure to support education and health care services, for example.

And yet, if we are to judge by outcomes, we would have to conclude that most of my generation left these concerns behind the day they graduated.

How else might one explain our failures? How do we explain the failure to deal with the extreme disadvantage still evident in many of our indigenous communities? How do we explain the failure to invest sufficiently in the nation's roads, hospitals and educational facilities? How do we explain the failure to deal rationally with the allocation of water on this driest inhabited continent on earth? How do we explain the failure to prevent the continuing destruction of habitat, vital to the survival of many of our endangered species of native flora and fauna? And how do we explain the failure in dithering for decades about an appropriate response to climate change? How to explain these failures?

If we wanted to be charitable, we might conclude that my generation simply took it for granted that governments could be relied upon to deal effectively with social and environmental matters. But in being that charitable, we would have to conclude that they had made a very serious mistake.

Governments take an interest in the things that matter to those who take an interest in them. Thus, unless the electorate is highly focussed on indigenous disadvantage, inadequacies in social infrastructure provision, the crisis in water, the destruction of native animal habitat and species extinction, there should be no expectation that governments will take an interest in any of these things.

Instead, policy decisions will benefit those with voice – even if their voice represents a peculiar minority interest.

Those who approach governments with a loud voice are usually seeking a concession. Governments grant such concessions on behalf of the community in general. What, then, about the community interest in sustainability? Who takes responsibility for sustainability?

Australian governments, for many years, have licensed irrigators to extract water from the Murray-Darling Basin at rates considered sustainable. Today, Australian governments set quotas at levels they consider to be consistent with the sustainable 'commercial harvesting' of kangaroos. If we're lucky, it will be many decades before we know whether these judgements are well based. If they are, this will turn out to be the first instance in human history of the sustainable plunder of a natural resource.

I know a bit about plunder. Most Australians of my age do. They grew up with it.

For all but a few years of his working life, my father was a timber worker – cutting railway sleepers and felling logs, principally out of the state forests of New South Wales. Saw mill owners for whom he cut logs had to pay royalties to the NSW government for what was taken out of the forest. One afternoon, as we were admiring an immense log that my father had taken out of the Lansdowne State Forest – a log large enough to provide the framing for three average-sized houses, cut from a tree that was probably several hundred years old – I asked about those royalty payments. Dad told me that the royalties payable on that one tree were a few dollars. He went on to say that he had cut down hundreds of trees of a similar size and age, but had had to leave them lying in the bush. He explained that old hardwoods typically have hollow cores – 'pipes' he called them – and the saw mill didn't consider it 'economic' to pay the transport costs that would be required to bring in a log with less than one foot of solid timber around the hollow core. That was one of the impressive things about the log we were looking at that afternoon: it had a very small 'pipe'. The problem was that you couldn't tell how hollow a tree was until you cut it down. That didn't trouble the saw mill, because it paid royalties only on what it took out of the forest. The Forestry Department – that is, the people of NSW – didn't get a cent for what was left behind on the forest floor. This, then, was government sanctioned plunder. Hundreds of trees, hundreds of years old, torn down and left to rot where they fell.

Years after that childhood lesson in the way governments operate, I learned that one of the conditions of dad's father retaining possession of his 640 acre 'soldier settler' block of rainforest timber running up the side of the Comboyne Mountain was that he 'clear' a certain number of acres each year. Over the years that I visited the old fellow's place I got to see how the trees were replaced by bracken fern and lantana and I saw how the soil washed into the creeks and gullies, replacing the native fish that had long since been plundered to extinction anyway.

Earlier generations, on both sides of my family, were 'cedar getters'. When, as a child, I asked my parents what a 'cedar getter' was, what I heard them say was something like: "well that's why we don't have any red cedar trees anymore".

My ancestors plundered the red cedar. They plundered our native hardwoods. And they plundered our native fish stocks. Other people's ancestors plundered our birds, our rock wallabies, our cycads, our fragile soils and our fresh water resources; and they plundered our natural temperate grasslands – of which less than 2 per cent now survives, and even in that alarmingly degraded state manages to provide a home to at least 14 endangered or vulnerable species of flora and fauna. Collectively, our ancestors kidded themselves that these resources, and many others, were so plentiful that no rationing was necessary – the rate of extraction would never exceed the rate of reproduction, or renewal. Our common-pool resources were thought inexhaustible. We now know how wrong they were.

The sustainability of the human exploitation of naturally occurring resources for their wood and meat products is an important topic. But it is not the subject that motivates those who take an interest in environmental sustainability. People interested in that topic are more worried about the trees than the wood; and they are more worried about the fish, the birds and the native mammals than they are the meat on their bones.

These people have a lot to be worried about, because the general body of evidence on this matter points to a rather disturbing conclusion: sustainability arguments in this more important domain – of trees, fish, birds and mammals – have influence only when it is too late.

There are well understood reasons for this, having to do with so-called 'free-rider' problems and something that behavioural psychologists, and behavioural economists, refer to as 'neglect of scope '. I don't have the time today to take you through that reasoning. Suffice to say that these things explain why our native species have to be extremely severely depleted – more or less on death row – before their vulnerability stands a chance of grabbing the attention of governments.

They explain why we humans have, in a little more than two centuries of industrial settlement, plundered to extinction some 115 species of native flora and fauna, including 23 birds, 4 frogs, 4 reptiles and 27 mammals; and why there are another 1,700 Australian species presently considered by the Australian government to be threatened by human activity .

This is a timely moment in Australia's economic history to reflect on sustainability issues; timely because, while the challenges of the past have been very substantial, in many respects they pale in comparison with the challenges that lie ahead.

I am referring to the immense challenges – economic, social and environmental – posed by a rapidly ageing, but also rapidly growing, human population on this large but fragile continent of ours; noting that over the next 40 years the Australian population will grow to be about 35 million; nearly 8 million Australians will be aged 65 or more; nearly 2 million will be older than 85 years.

I am referring also to the challenges posed by climate change – the challenges of adapting to a warmer, more volatile climate and of adjusting to climate change mitigation strategies.

And I am referring to the challenges posed by the changing shape of the global economy; with China and India, in particular, emerging as global super-powers.

The prospect of a much larger and older population raises some confronting questions about where Australians of the future will live and the large-scale economic and social infrastructure investments that will be required to sustain economic and social activity. A larger population also sharpens some old questions relating to environmental sustainability.

Climate change adaptation and the response to mitigation strategies will also have profound implications for the pattern of human settlement on this continent.

Taken together, these forces could produce the largest structural adjustment in our economic history.

And the emergence of China and India, especially because of its implications for global commodities demand, has conferred on Australia a large boost to its real wealth; but, at the same time, has set up a set of structural adjustments that will challenge policy makers for decades.

Challenges of these dimensions confront countries all over the world today. In all countries there are immense challenges that will test the limits of sustainability; economic, social and environmental.

Of course, they also offer unprecedented opportunity. This really could be a golden age for much of the world's population.

But here's the thing: the way this plays out is up to you. It is not something you should be leaving to governments. The question for you is whether you want to be able to say to your children, and their children, that you did everything you could to ensure that their generation would also enjoy the freedom to choose lives they would have reason to value.

Here's Henry on a related topic - the start of education, in 2006.

His conclusion:

A few weeks ago I was invited to visit my old high school on the mid north coast of NSW where I spent six years in the early 1970s, completing Year 12 in 1975. In the three decades since I hadn’t been back. The school has changed enormously, of course. Today’s student population of 850 is about 15 per cent smaller than in my day. And it has changed in other, quite profound, ways. The indigenous student population in my day was about three-tenths of one per cent. Today, it numbers 17 per cent. One happy consequence is that the graffiti that adorned the walls of the four brick buildings in my student years has been replaced by spectacular murals of stunning indigenous artwork. The couple of dozen demountable class rooms of my day – freezing in winter and roasting in summer – have been replaced by an additional five modern air conditioned brick buildings, networked with state-of-the-art IT infrastructure. At the centre of the school, cleverly located to achieve effortless integration with the general body of students, is an impressive purpose-built facility for students with special needs. The students I spoke to were bright, energetic and happy. The teachers appeared enthusiastic and dedicated to their students. Teachers and students alike were obviously very proud of their school. I was impressed.

And yet, I came away from the school with a sense of unease. Other things had changed at the school as well. And some of these changes were not so impressive. Given the substantial increase in year 12 retention rates over the past 30 years, I probably shouldn’t have been surprised to learn that, today, less than half the students in years 11 and 12 study mathematics. Even so, I was disappointed. I was surprised to learn that in many years it is impossible to put even one physics class together. And I was shocked to learn that the school no longer offers economics; not at all. At my old school, economics is dead. Maths, physics and economics are simply too hard. One of the teachers – who had turned his back on the study of medicine at Sydney University to devote his life to the teaching of economics – told me that these outcomes really shouldn’t surprise anybody. The set of incentives confronting teachers and students should not be expected to produce anything else. Today, many students are happy studying what this teacher and I, as students ourselves, would have regarded as soft options. Anyway, the soft options pay better. And teachers don’t get rewarded for having students achieving ordinary grades in tough subjects.

There is a temptation to think that we can indulge ourselves in consuming the fruits of this economic boom; that this lucky country of ours can afford the luxury of the soft option.

But in that temptation lurks an intergenerational tragedy: if we succumb to the temptation we will avoid its costs, but we will impose an unnecessary burden on our children and grandchildren – indeed, on all future generations of Australians. Is that to be the legacy of this period of prosperity?

Australia’s recent economic success is not the consequence of soft options. That path leads back to the economic outcomes of the 1970s. Like the study of maths, physics and economics, policy discipline is hard. But it is not too hard. Like those subjects, it is precisely as hard as it needs to be.

Related Posts

. Ken Henry's guiding principles

. Tuesday Column: It's the Treasury, but not as we know it

. The impressive Doctor Henry