Growth without direction: How Australia measures up against UN targets


Rod Glover, Monash University

Australia has enjoyed 27 years of continuous economic growth, arguably more than any other developed country. Almost alone among developed economies, we managed to avoid a recession during the global financial crisis. Employment is at an all-time high, due mainly to a surge in the labour force participation of women, from 40% to 56% of all women over the past three decades.

This success was built on a contract – partly explicit, but mostly implicit – in which the bulk of the population agreed to support contentious reforms in exchange for a guarantee that they wouldn’t be left behind.

The Transforming Australia: SDG Progress Report published this week by the National Sustainable Development Council in partnership with the Monash Sustainable Development Institute finds that contract has become fragile. Although the economy is much larger than it was, since 2012 disposable income per capita has barely grown at all.

Our AAA credit rating is at risk from our reliance on foreign capital for investment (mostly borrowed), our high household debt and our narrow industry base.




Read more:
Australia’s UN report card: making progress, could do better on inequality and climate


High employment masks high inequality and entrenched disadvantage. Although the unemployment rate has fallen from 6.5% to 5.5% since the turn of the century, underemployment (where people work fewer hours than they want to) has climbed from 6.5% to 8.5%. Since the crisis the proportion of the unemployed who have been out of work more than a year has climbed from 14% to 24%. Low-skilled men, younger Australians, women with children, and Indigenous Australians find working more challenging than the headline figure suggests.

Wages growth fell to an all time low after the economic crisis and has yet to recover.

Well-connected cities and regions

As a vast country, connectivity is critical to our prosperity. By and large, we meet the need well through investment in physical infrastructure. But rapid population growth in our big cities and political considerations have made it more difficult.

Our cities and regions offer a very high quality of life, but are evolving by default rather than design. Planning isn’t guided by a consensus about the desired pattern of economic and population growth. The result is low-density cities (far lower than comparable overseas cities) meaning long commutes and social isolation for many.




Read more:
Our urban environment doesn’t only reflect poverty, it amplifies it


As house prices have surged, our household debt has climbed from 70% of GDP in 2000 to 120% of GDP today. Home ownership has become more difficult, with many only able to afford options that come with poor access to services and jobs. We are now vulnerable to falling house prices, rising interest rates and global uncertainty.

Dynamic but not diversified

Our open and flexible economy has benefited from dynamism offered by new people, new ideas and new investment. Strength in industries such as international education delivers not only a sizeable brain gain, but also new and important relationships, particularly in our rapidly growing region.

But these successes disguise our wider failure to diversify our economic base. Economic complexity (EC) measures the depth (sophistication) and breadth (diversity) of what a nation sells to the world. It is a strong predictor of economic prospects.

While the EC measure has limitations for a heavily resource-intensive and service-based economy, Australia’s low and deteriorating ranking, 86th in the world, is consistent with other indicators.




Read more:
No clear target in Australia’s 2030 national innovation report


Our high investment in physical capital contrasts sharply with our comparatively low investment in knowledge-based capital. Knowledge-based capital encompasses not only research and development, but also software and data, design, marketing and organisational capabilities.

Australia’s business investment in R&D has fallen consistently since the crisis. We rely far more heavily than other nations on indirect R&D tax incentives, leaving less room for more direct approaches.

Innovative nations stimulate both public and private sector innovation through mission-driven approaches. With a few exceptions, Australia does not. We do not attempt to leverage our strengths in fields such as health, education and water, or to meet societal needs, such as those for reduced emissions, sustainable food, better population health or less inequality.

There’s an alternative

A more robust and resilient Australia would be built on a broader base of industries and capabilities. It would address goals that were more than merely economic and adopt as a goal a smaller environmental footprint.

Getting there would require us to develop a shared vision of what we want. We are doing well overall, and badly in places, without quite knowing what we are trying to achieve.

Transforming Australia: SDG Progress Report is an initiative of the National Sustainable Development Council to assess Australia’s progress against the UN Sustainable Development Goals.The Conversation

Rod Glover, Professor of Practice, Monash University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Research check: we still don’t have proof that cutting company taxes will boost jobs and wages



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There still isn’t clear research showing company tax cuts will increase employment or wages.
Shutterstock

Ross Guest, Griffith University

If you read these headlines you might think we finally have proof that cutting company taxes will boost employment and investment:

These stories are based on analysis of the 2015 company tax cut by consultants AlphaBeta. But the study, as well as some of the media coverage of it, show a worrying misunderstanding of how company tax cuts work.

Simply comparing companies that receive a tax cut with those that don’t isn’t the right methodology to conclude that the 2015 tax cuts created more employment or higher wages.




Read more:
There isn’t solid research or theory to support cutting corporate taxes to boost wages


Cutting taxes lets companies keep more of their profits, allowing them to invest in new equipment and premises for example. The company then needs to hire more workers to work with these new assets. The newly created jobs require businesses to compete for workers and this increased demand pushes up wages across the entire economy.

Suppose a retail company gets a tax cut and opens a new store. It advertises for workers, many of whom are already employed by a rival store that didn’t get the tax cut. The first company will need to offer the workers higher wages to entice them away. The rival store will need to consider matching the wages in order to keep the workers.

In other words, even workers in companies that don’t receive the tax cut should see a wage rise.

Going through the AlphaBeta report

In 2015, the federal government cut the tax rate from 30% to 28.5% for businesses with less than A$2 million in revenue. Eligible businesses saved around A$2,940 on average because of the tax cut.

AlphaBeta used transaction data from 70,000 businesses to compare businesses just below the A$2 million threshold to companies that were just above it.

The analysis looked at the differences between the two groups of firms in terms of whether they hired new workers, invested in their businesses, increased worker wages, or kept some of the cash as a reserve.

AlphaBeta chalked any differences between companies that received the tax cut and those that didn’t to the company tax cuts.




Read more:
The full story on company tax cuts and your hip pocket


As reported in The Australian, AlphaBeta found that companies that received the tax cut increased their employee headcount by 2.6%. The companies that didn’t receive the cut increased employment by just 2.1%.

This difference turned out to be “statistically significant”, meaning it is very unlikely to be the result of random chance.

As the Sydney Morning Herald pointed out, AlphaBeta also concluded that 51% of the tax cut was kept as cash, 27% went towards new investment, but only 3% was paid to workers in higher wages.

In other words, wages increased by just A$1.44 per week. This is not only a small amount, it was also found to be not statistically significant.

Problematic methodology

The main issue with this study’s methodology is actually noted by AlphaBeta in the report itself (and echoed in the coverage by the ABC and Sydney Morning Herald).

The problem is that we cannot draw any conclusions about the effect of company tax cuts on jobs or wages by studying a bunch of firms that received them and another bunch that did not, even if the firms are only slightly different.

This is because, as noted above, the effect of company tax cuts on jobs and wages take place in the entire labour market. An increase in demand for labour flows through to all business, and therefore, so do higher wages.

So we should not expect to see wages rising only in those businesses that receive the tax cuts. The finding that an increase in wages is small and insignificant is exactly what we would expect to see from this study.

Another problem is that we do not know whether the characteristics of the companies in AlphaBeta’s sample. Were some industries with particularly pronounced employment or wage increases over represented in one group but not the other, for instance?

Studying the effect of company tax cuts on employment and wages also requires a longer time period – sometimes years – and careful control of other factors affecting jobs and wages in some firms relative to others.

Blind review:

The analysis in this review is generally fair and reaches a sound conclusion regarding the AlphaBeta report. However, the logic behind company tax cut raising wages is somewhat simplified.

A cut in company tax lowers the costs of production and can flow to labour, capital (including equipment and buildings) and consumers. Economics tells us that who actually benefits from a tax cut depends on what is more responsive to the tax – labour, capital or output.

The lower production costs from a company tax cut can lead to greater output and lower prices as consumers buy more goods and services. This depends, of course, on how responsive consumers are to changes in price.

In the short-run labour is more mobile than capital, which is usually regarded as fixed. Therefore, in the short-run most of the benefit is borne by owners of capital (the companies) in the form of higher after-tax profits.

However, over the longer term, companies invest their after-tax profits in the business. So most of the benefit of the tax cut goes to workers though higher wages as the increased “capital stock” (such as equipment) makes labour more productive.

The ConversationIt follows that there is no reason to expect a significant increase in wages over a period of one or two years (as the AlphaBeta report covers). Indeed, such a result would be somewhat surprising. – Phil Lewis

Ross Guest, Professor of Economics and National Senior Teaching Fellow, Griffith University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Budget policy check: do we need ribbon-cutting infrastructure for jobs and growth?


Hugh Batrouney, Grattan Institute

In this series – Budget policy checks – we look at the government’s justifications for policies likely to be in this year’s budget and measure them up against the evidence.

In this piece we look at the need for infrastructure projects.


We look set for another infrastructure budget: big new projects that will, we’re told, boost growth, create jobs and tackle the pressures of our booming population. For example, the Turnbull government has already pledged up to A$5 billion for a rail link from Melbourne Airport to its CBD.

Infrastructure can play an important role, but behind the rhetoric some fundamental investment principles are missing.

Are investing in infrastructure and economic growth a sort of virtuous circle that feed each other?

Through a stronger economy, you can also invest in important infrastructure that again drives stronger growth in our economy … but also delivers the infrastructure that busts the congestion in cities, that makes rural and regional roads safer.

– Treasurer Scott Morrison

Yes, sometimes infrastructure spending and economic growth form a virtuous circle. In new suburbs and rapidly growing cities, infrastructure is needed to connect people to jobs and that in turn drives economic activity.

But we shouldn’t be fooled into thinking any spending is good spending. There are many examples where the opposite is more likely true: where poorly targeted infrastructure wastes resources and weakens economic growth.

If we want to identify the best projects, a good place to start is our biggest cities. Big cities have a productivity advantage because they match workers to jobs better and faster than smaller cities and towns. Transport infrastructure is key to this matchmaking.

But in many cases, the enormous costs of construction in big cities – acquiring land, disrupting traffic, and the physical challenge of constructing in densely developed places – often makes it hard to justify the incremental increases in accessibility that a project generates.

Instead, policies and projects targeting better use of existing infrastructure can have greater economic impacts. The trouble is, these projects usually don’t involve cutting a ribbon.

Changes to the way we set prices for the use of roads and public transport, for example, can help us get more out of the infrastructure we already have. Charging public transport users different amounts depending on the time of day they travel can reduce peak-period overcrowding on our trains. With much lower capital costs, policies like this often deliver a bigger bang for the buck than major new investments.

Are these road and rail projects the sort of infrastructure that supports growth?

Whether it’s the Tulla Rail or the M1 up in Queensland or indeed in my home city of Sydney around Western Sydney Rail from the airport and the road infrastructure that goes around that in particular, we are making important national investments in infrastructure that will support growth, bust congestion in our cities and make our transport – rural and regional roads – safer.

– Treasurer Scott Morrison

Infrastructure undeniably plays a role in supporting the economy. But not every project will add to the productivity of our economy.

On the face of it, the economics of airport rail in Melbourne look thin. Infrastructure Victoria has said upgrading airport bus services should be investigated first, because at A$50-100 million it’s a much cheaper way to tackle the same problem. It has also said that the rail line should be delivered within 15-30 years.

The perceived urgent need for airport rail in Melbourne may stem from the slow and unreliable travel to the airport over the past 18 months. This is a byproduct of the Tullamarine Freeway widening project, which is now almost complete. Responding to a short-term pressure with a multi-billion dollar investment – in the absence of a detailed business case – is a depressing example of poor policy-making.

And the Treasurer’s enthusiasm for the Western Sydney airport rail is also concerning, given that a recent state government study indicated the project wouldn’t be needed to cater for customers and workers at the airport until 2036, at the earliest. Infrastructure Australia has been clear that a rail corridor, running north-south through the airport site, needs to be preserved for a future rail line. But that is a long way from justifying billions of dollars of infrastructure that isn’t needed for nearly another 20 years.

Does Australia need infrastructure to create jobs?

Our national economic plan for jobs and growth has been getting results…A $75 billion national infrastructure investment plan that is building the runways, railways and roads Australia needs to remain competitive, and create jobs.

– Treasurer Scott Morrison

At certain points in the economic cycle, infrastructure spending can help create jobs. New projects create jobs for workers involved in planning, building and deploying each project, as well as for the suppliers of equipment and materials needed as inputs.

And in the longer term, the Treasurer is right to say that infrastructure is essential if our cities are to remain competitive.

But again, context is everything.

Infrastructure can put people to work when there is “slack” in the labour market – when there is unemployment or underemployment, in other words. But if there is little slack in the labour market, then the workers required to get a project off the ground will be drawn from other productive activities. In that case, there may be no boost to jobs or economic growth, because one activity is merely displacing another.

With national unemployment currently around 5.5%, there does appear to be some slack in the labour market right now. However, firms are now finding it more difficult to access the labour they want. And the slack doesn’t appear to be in the parts of the economy that would benefit most from new projects: as the RBA reports, the construction sector recently reached its highest share of total employment since the early 1900s.

What’s the verdict?

Eminent urban economist Ed Glaeser once said, “if you have a focus on jobs and macroeconomic effects, it leads to infrastructure in the wrong place”. Australia should focus on a project-by-project approach; that’s the only way we can be assured that investments represent the best possible use of available funds.

This means starting with some basics: the government should not commit to expensive new infrastructure projects until it has commissioned a detailed look at the economic impacts of the investments, and it has made public the results of that analysis.

The ConversationThat’s how infrastructure policy would be done in an ideal world. But sadly, in a pre-election budget, we can probably expect politics to triumph over policy, yet again.

Hugh Batrouney, Fellow, Grattan Institute

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Vital Signs: Australia’s stubborn growth problems are moving at a geologic pace



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Unfortunately for the RBA, the health of the economy is not measured on the Geologic Time Scale.
Alfonso Silóniz/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

Richard Holden, UNSW

Vital Signs is a regular economic wrap from UNSW economics professor and Harvard PhD Richard Holden (@profholden). Vital Signs aims to contextualise weekly economic events and cut through the noise of the data affecting global economies.

This week: Interest rates remain on hold as the RBA talks up employment growth, green shoots remain in manufacturing, and China strikes back in the Trump-led trade war.


On Tuesday, the RBA left official interest rates unchanged at 1.50% for the 18th consecutive meeting, tying their all-time record. They will break that record next month when they do the same thing.

And the official statement by governor Philip Lowe sounded like it came from a guy who had gone from crossing his fingers to crossing his toes as well. For example:

“The Australian economy grew by 2.4 per cent over 2017. The Bank’s central forecast remains for faster growth in 2018.”

Um, why? The same macro model that got 2017 wrong is now going to get 2018 right?

Or this one:

“The unemployment rate has declined over the past year, but has been steady at around 5½ per cent over the past six months. The various forward-looking indicators continue to point to solid growth in employment in the period ahead, with a further gradual reduction in the unemployment rate expected.”

But a few months ago, those same forward-looking indicators were saying the plateau in the unemployment rate wouldn’t happen.

And finally (but only because I have space constraints):

“Notwithstanding the improving labour market, wages growth remains low. This is likely to continue for a while yet, although the stronger economy should see some lift in wages growth over time.”

If “over time” is read analogous to “life in the Mesazoic Era evolved over time” then I suppose that may be right.

Unfortunately for the RBA, the health of the economy is not measured on the Geologic Time Scale. Stubbornly low inflation, persistently hopeless wage growth, and with the Australian population growing at 1.6% p.a., that 2.4% GDP growth number looks pretty weak. The real question is whether the RBA is not cutting rates because it thinks monetary policy is ineffective at this level, or because it’s scared of fuelling (further fuelling?) a (the?) housing price bubble.




Read more:
What economics has to say about housing bubbles


ABS data released Wednesday showed a drop in building approvals in February. Total dwelling approvals were down 6.2%, driven by a 16.4% drop in apartments, compared to a 1.9% rise in houses. For the 12 months to February 2018, that puts the total down 3.1%, again driven by a large (14.8%) drop in apartments and a rise (6.1%) in houses.

This is all evidence that demand – often from offshore – has dried up in one important sector of the market: apartments. It is still too early to know what the fallout will be, but this is exactly the kind of pattern one sees in property markets when the music has stopped.

The Australian Industry Group’s Performance of Manufacturing Index, released this week, hit a record high of 63.1 index points for March. Perhaps more importantly, the survey indicated that capacity utilisation was at a record high of 81.2%. This matters because it suggests stronger employment and wage growth in the sector.

On the other hand, manufacturing is about 6.5% of GDP, so even strong growth in the sector has a relatively modest overall effect. But, as they say in baseball, you can’t boo a home run.

US jobs figures continued to impress, with payroll processor ADP releasing figures Thursday Australian time that the economy added 241,000 jobs in March. The official figures from the BEA come out Friday US time, with market expectations at an addition of 185,000. So if the official figures line up with ADP, this will be further evidence of strong employment growth.

Trump trade war update

This week, China struck back, again. The Trump administration recently instituted roughly US$50 billion worth of tariffs on steel, cars, automotive and aircraft parts, consumer products like televisions, and other goods. Almost immediately, China responded with tariffs of a similar value on 106 types of American goods.




Read more:
America’s allies will bear the brunt of Trump’s trade protectionism


Those 106 types of goods include soybeans and others produced in the Trump heartland. This was a cleverly designed, targeted measure, designed to hurt Trump politically.

His response:

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That reveals his mercantilist view of trade: that it’s a zero-sum game rather than something that increases the size of the economic pie and makes both countries better off. But hey, maybe he has a big reading backlog and isn’t up to 1817, when David Ricardo pointed this out with his theory of “comparative advantage”.

The ConversationLet’s hope it does, and President Trump gets the message that he needs to knock this off. All he is doing is making America poorer. And the game theory of it is worse. Tariffs beget tariffs.

Richard Holden, Professor of Economics and PLuS Alliance Fellow, UNSW

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

There isn’t solid research or theory to support cutting corporate taxes to boost wages


Fabrizio Carmignani, Griffith University

The argument that cutting the Australian company tax rate will lead to higher investment and wages, more employment and faster GDP growth does not have solid empirical or theoretical backing.

A close look at the economic research in this area shows a lack of consensus. Different studies, looking at different samples of countries, over different periods of time, reach different conclusions.

And the predictions made by theoretical models are sensitive to the underlying assumptions and structures built into the models themselves.

Many of the issues surrounding tax cuts remain unsettled – such as the size or length of the impact, how it affects inequality and the relationship with other government policies.




Read more:
Qantas and other big Australian businesses are investing regardless of tax cuts


The recent International Monetary Fund (IMF) forecast for the American economy highlights some of the issues.

In short, the IMF acknowledges that the recent US tax cuts will have a positive impact on economic growth in 2018-19. However, this is conditional on the US government not cutting expenditure, is likely to be short-lived, and will come at the cost of increased government deficits.

In this light, corporate tax cuts seem to be a long-term pain for a short-term gain, which is probably not what we need in Australia.

Conflicting information

Let’s start with the point that is probably least controversial – that a reduction in the corporate tax rate will lead to an increase in wages.

Think of the output produced by a corporation as a pie. This pie is shared among shareholders (in the form of dividends), banks and other lenders (in the form of interest paid on loans), workers (in the form of wages) and the government (in the form of taxes).

If we reduce the government’s share then there is more for everybody else, including workers. And some data do suggest that wages increase when corporate tax rates decline.

Yet economists disagree on the extent to which wages would actually increase in response to a tax cut.

Some research suggests that this increase might be small, even in a country like Germany, which is often used as an example of the beneficial impact of tax cuts on wages.

Certain aspects of the German economy and industrial relations system make it more likely that German workers will benefit from corporate tax cuts compared to Australian workers.

In Germany, workers’ representatives sit on company supervisory boards, which monitor and appoint members of management boards.

This means German workers have a stronger say when it comes to sharing the pie. For any given decrease in the slice of the government, German workers are more likely to get a bigger slice for themselves. This is not necessarily the case in Australia.

It is therefore difficult to draw implications for Australia from studies that look at the experience of Germany or other countries with significantly different institutional arrangements.

Furthermore, the fact that wages should increase in response to a corporate tax cut does not automatically imply that other economic variables will also respond positively. For instance, the more wages increase in response to a corporate tax cut, the smaller the increase in employment is likely to be.




Read more:
The full story on company tax cuts and your hip pocket


This leads to an even more controversial question: what is the effect of corporate tax cuts on real economic activity, such as employment and GDP growth?

The trickle-down effect of corporate tax cuts rests on the idea that business investment would increase once taxes are cut, which in turn leads to the creation of more jobs and faster economic growth.

However, this line of reasoning neglects the fact that investment decisions in today’s globalised world are not necessarily driven by the corporate tax rate.

Many other factors come into corporate investment decisions, such as the quality of institutions, the proximity to important markets, and the cost of labour (wages).

Because of these other factors, the impacts of tax cuts on employment and growth can be small, short-lived, or conditional on other government policy actions, such as managing debt.

In a similar vein, recent theoretical work that incorporates more realistic assumptions about the economy (such as the distribution of entrepreneurial skills in the population) suggests that a tax cut only has a significant impact on economic growth when the tax rate is initially high.

This means that even within a given country, the effect of a corporate tax cut can change depending on initial economic and policy conditions.

Putting tax cuts in a broader context

Beyond growth and employment, the effects of corporate tax cuts should also be considered in terms of deficit and inequality.

From the point of view of the public budget, a cut in the tax rate has to be somehow financed. How?

A first possibility is that the tax cut pays for itself. This is essentially the idea that as the tax rate goes down, the increase in the tax base (e.g. pre-tax corporate profit) is sufficiently large to ensure that the total tax revenue increases.

However, an increase in the tax base would require a significant and sustained increase in business investment, which, as we have already seen, does not necessarily happen.

The government could increase other taxes, but this means the government would effectively be taking from one group of taxpayers (possibly workers themselves) to give to corporations.

Another option is to reduce some government expenditures. But this could also involve taking from one group to give to another. If the decision is made to cut social welfare and public goods like education and health, then more vulnerable segments of the population will bear the cost of lowering the corporate tax rate. This means more inequality in the economy.

Of course the government could decide to just let the deficit be. This would result in higher debt. But can Prime Minister Turnbull (or President Trump for that matter) accept that?

The ConversationThe central economic challenge for Australia is to promote long-term, inclusive growth. Are we confident that this is what corporate tax cuts will deliver? Based on the economic research that I have read, the answer is no.

Fabrizio Carmignani, Professor, Griffith Business School, Griffith University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Budget update shaves growth and wage forecasts but is brighter about the deficit


Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

The 2017-18 budget update shows an improvement in the deficit forecast for this financial year but predicts lower economic growth and a smaller increase in wages than was expected in the May budget.

The deficit for 2017-18 is now expected to come in at A$23.6 billion, an improvement of A$5.8 billion from the May forecast, according to the Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook released by Treasurer Scott Morrison and Finance Minister Mathias Cormann.

Growth for this financial year is forecast to be 2.5% compared with the budget’s 2.75%, reflecting recent lower-than-expected growth in household consumption.

Nevertheless Morrison and Cormann said Australia’s growth story “remains a compelling one, and although real GDP growth has been slightly tempered in 2017-18, the trajectory is upward”. Real GDP is forecast to grow at 3% in 2018-19, the same as the budget number.

Budget update on wages

The update notes that wage growth “remains low by historical standards in both the public and private sectors and has been more subdued than expected since budget”.

Wages are forecast to increase by 2.25% through the year to the June quarter 2018 and 2.75% through the year to the June quarter 2019.

This is 0.25 of a percentage point lower in both years compared with the budget – vindicating the scepticism that economists expressed about the budget forecast being too optimistic.

The flat wages situation reflects a serious political pressure point for the government, as many people struggle with high power prices and other squeezes on their cost of living.

“Wage growth is forecast to lift as the economy strengthens, inflation picks up and excess capacity in the labour market is reduced,” the update says.

Budget receipts have been revised upwards by about A$3.6 billion in 2017-18 and A$2.8 billion over the forward estimates compared with budget time – driven mainly by company tax and superannuation tax. The company tax forecasts reflect increased profitability and enforcement activity by the Australian Taxation Office.

But “over the forward estimates, lower forecasts for wages and unincorporated business income are expected to weigh on individuals’ income tax receipts,” the update says.

The half yearly revised numbers confirm that the budget is on track to have a surplus in 2020-21. The projected surplus of A$10.2 billion in that year is A$2.7 billion better than estimated in May.

Savings measures on education and welfare

The government has announced in the update a new welfare crackdown to save money and also an alternative higher education savings package after it could not pass its earlier proposals.

Savings of A$1.2 billion over four years will be reaped by broadening the criteria for waiting periods for new migrants before they can get various welfare benefits.

The changes will extend the present two-year waiting period for a range of payments, such as Newstart, to three years, and introduce a consistent new three-year waiting period to apply to a further number of benefits such as Family Tax Benefit and Paid Parental Leave.

Social Services Minister Christian Porter said the measures “will reinforce the foundational principle that Australians’ expectation of newly arrived migrants is that they contribute socially and economically for a reasonable period before having access to our nation’s generous welfare system”.

The higher education package includes a freeze on total Commonwealth Grant Scheme funding from January 1, set at 2017 levels, and a combined limit for all tuition fee assistance under all HELP and VET Student Loans.

The government will also pursue an alternative set of HELP repayment thresholds from July 1 next year, with a new minimum repayment threshold of A$45,000, higher than the A$42,000 in the original plan. At present the threshold is A$55,000.

Most of the new higher education package doesn’t have to be legislated, thus avoiding the Senate hurdle. The previous higher education package was set to save A$2.7 billion over the forward estimates; the new one saves A$2.1 billion.

Real growth in payments over the budget period is expected to be an annual average of 1.9%. Compared with the budget, nominal payments are lower in every year of the forward estimates.

The payment to GDP ratio is expected to fall to 24.9% of GDP by 2020, slightly above the 30 year historical average.

Morrison told a joint news conference with Cormann: “As we push into the new year, there is still more work to be done but we are on the right track.

“Jobs and growth will continue to be our mission and our focus. Helping the lives of the thousands of Australians, millions of Australians, and their families and returning the budget back to balance.”

Cormann said: “This is a good set of numbers in all of the circumstances.”

Shadow treasurer Chris Bowen said the government remained committed to increasing the tax paid by working Australians. He said there was no mention of personal tax cuts – which Malcolm Turnbull has foreshadowed – in the update. People only got a tax rise.

He condemned the revised higher education package, saying it would particularly hit those from a lower socioeconomic background.

The ConversationThe chair of Universities Australia, Professor Margaret Gardner, said the package would leave university funding “frozen in time”. She said the blow would be hardest in areas where university attainment was lowest, such as regional areas.

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

What would it take to raise Australian productivity growth?


Roy Green, University of Technology Sydney

While productivity is once again growing in Australia, we face a big challenge in getting it to a level that would restore the rate of improvement in our living standards of the last few decades.

Yet the measures required to meet this challenge may not be the ones usually promoted by economists and editorial writers. We need innovation not just in the technologies we use but in our business models and management practices as well.

The problem, according to new Treasury research, is that national income growth can no longer be propped up by the favourable terms of trade associated with our once-in-a-generation mining boom.

Does this mean we are back to the hard grind of productivity-enhancing reform? There are (at least) two opposing schools of thought on this. Some believe reform is needed, but mainly corporate tax cuts and labour market deregulation. Others deny any such reform is even necessary.

What has happened to productivity?

Productivity is a complex issue, but may be simply defined as output produced per worker, measured by the number of hours worked. On this basis we have seen a modest spike in productivity growth over the last five years to 1.8% per year.

This is primarily due to “capital deepening”, an increase in the ratio of capital to labour. Contemporary examples include driverless trucks in iron ore mines, advanced robotics in manufacturing and ATMs in banking.

Before this five-year period, productivity growth was much lower, even negative. This was especially the case during the mining boom itself when capital investment was taking place but had not yet translated into increased output.

The Treasury paper argues that to achieve our long-run trend rate of growth in living standards of 2% a year, measured as per capita income, we now need to increase average annual productivity growth to around 2.5%.

This will require not just capital deepening, but also improvements in the efficiency with which labour and capital inputs are used, otherwise known as “multifactor productivity”.

The hype cycle

Australia is not alone in facing this productivity challenge. Globally, amidst what would appear to be an unprecedented wave of technological change and innovation, developed economies are experiencing a productivity slowdown.

Again, explanations for this vary. Some economists question whether the current wave of innovation is really as transformative as earlier ones involving urban sanitation, telecommunications and commercial flight.

Others have wondered whether it is still feasible to measure productivity at all when innovation comprises such intangible factors as cloud computing, artificial intelligence and machine learning, let alone widespread application of the “internet of things”.

However, there is an emerging consensus that we are merely in the “installation” phase of these innovations, and the “deployment” phase will be played out over coming decades.

This has also been called the “hype cycle”. New technologies move from a “peak of inflated expectations” to a “trough of disillusionment” and then only after much prototyping and experimentation to the “plateau of productivity”. Think blockchain in financial transactions and augmented reality for consumer products.


Read more: A guide to deconstructing the battery hype cycle


The world is bifurcating between “frontier firms”, whose ready adoption of digital technologies and skills is reflected in superior productivity, and the “laggards”, which are seemingly unable to benefit from technology diffusion.

These latter firms drag down average productivity growth and, lacking competitiveness, they inevitably find it more difficult to access global markets and value chains.

The increasing gap between high- and low-productivity firms is less a matter of technology as such than the capacity for non-technology innovation. In particular, this encompasses the development of new business models, systems integration and high-performance work and management practices.

Many of the world’s most successful companies, such as Apple, gained market leadership not by inventing new technologies but by embedding them in new products, whose value is driven by service design and customer experience.

Engaging our creativity

Recent international studies have shown that a major explanatory variable for productivity differences between firms, and between countries, is management capability.

It is noteworthy that Australian managers lag most behind world-best practice in a survey category titled “instilling a talent mindset”. In other words, how well they engage talent and creativity in the workplace.

Most organisations today would claim that “people are our greatest asset”, but much fewer provide genuine opportunities for participation in the decisions that affect them and the future of the business. Those that do are generally better positioned to outperform competitors and demonstrate greater capacity for change.

More survey work on this issue is under way.

A more inclusive approach

Wages are also related to productivity but not always in the way that is commonly assumed. It is said that productivity performance determines the wages a company can afford to pay, with gains shared among stakeholders, including the workforce.

But evidence is emerging that causation might equally run in the reverse direction, with wage increases driving capital investment and efficiency.

This casts the current debate on productivity-enhancing reform in a very different light. It may now be a stretch to argue that corporate tax cuts will be much of a game-changer in the absence of any incentive to invest in new technologies and skills. The same may be said about the ideological insistence on labour market deregulation, if all that results is a low-wage, low-productivity economy.

The populist revolt against technological change and globalisation has its roots not just in the failure to distribute fairly the gains from productivity growth, but in a longstanding effort in some countries to fragment the structures of wage bargaining and to exclude workers from any strategic role in business transformation. This has assigned the costs of change to those least able to resist, let alone benefit from it.

The next wave of productivity improvement, if it is to succeed, must be based on a more “inclusive” approach to innovation policy and management.

The ConversationAs jobs change or disappear altogether, Australia’s workforce can make a positive contribution. But workers will only be able to do so if they have the skills and confidence to take advantage of new jobs and new opportunities in a high-wage, high-productivity economy.

Roy Green, Dean of UTS Business School, University of Technology Sydney

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Vital Signs: dismal wages growth makes a joke of budget forecasts



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Pay packets rose just 0.5% in the first quarter.
bradleypjohnson/Flickr, CC BY-ND

Richard Holden, UNSW

Vital Signs is a weekly economic wrap from UNSW economics professor and Harvard PhD Richard Holden (@profholden). Vital Signs aims to contextualise weekly economic events and cut through the noise of the data affecting global economies. The Conversation

This week: investor loans continue to rise, unemployment ticks down, wages growth remains distressingly low, and consumers are unconvinced the budget will improve their financial situation.


https://datawrapper.dwcdn.net/UKhAL/1/

Now that Australia’s two major political parties (and the Greens) have decided that robbing banks is legitimate public policy, we return our focus to how the Australian economy is actually functioning.

ABS data released Monday showed that investor housing loans rose slightly, up 0.8% on the previous month. The really interesting figures on this front are still to come, since the Australian Prudential Regulation Authority announced tighter macro-prudential measures – especially on interest-only loans – at the end of March. There are already some anecdotal suggestions that these have started to dampen investor demand, but there is no proper evidence yet. The next round of ABS housing finance data will certainly provide some clues.

The ABS also reported this week that first quarter wage growth was distressingly low, with pay packets rising just 0.5%. That puts private-sector annual wages growth at 1.8%. The main concerns here are, of course, for workers struggling to get by and the fact that rising levels of income inequality are not being dented by robust wage growth.

Added to this, however, is the impact of low wage growth on the budget, and the economy more generally. The RBA has pointed out in recent months that around one-third of mortgage holders have less that one month’s repayment buffer. As the cost of living keeps rising, but wages don’t, people with close to no wiggle room get squeezed more and more.

Last week’s budget, and the forecast return to surplus in 2020-21, was predicated in no small part on very robust wage growth.

On budget night I wrote that these wage growth assumptions were bullish and unlikely to eventuate. 3% going to 3.75% annual wage growth looks really aggressive against a stagnating 1.8 – 1.9% (counting the public sector’s slightly stronger growth). When wage growth is lower than it has been since the mid 1990s, how can one forecast with a straight face that the growth rate will double?

Ratings agency Standard & Poor’s certainly understands this. It almost grudgingly reaffirmed Australia’s AAA credit rating this week, but cast doubt on the projected return to surplus, saying “budget deficits could persist for several years, with little improvement, unless the Parliament implements more forceful fiscal policy decisions”.

Figures released Thursday showed the unemployment rate fell from 5.9% to 5.7%. This is seemingly good news, although this ABS series has been notoriously unreliable in recent times.

The workforce participation rate was steady at 64.8% – and this may be a better and more relevant measure of short-term fluctuations in employment.

There was also a continued shift to part-time employment. Total jobs were up 37,400, but people in full-time work fell by 11,600 and the number of part-time jobs was up 49,000.

Consumer confidence weakened a little in May according to the Westpac-Melbourne Institute Index. It was down a point to 98.0 in May (recall that for indices like these 100 is the level at which optimists and pessimists are in equal supply).

Westpac chief economist Bill Evans said:

Respondents’ confidence in housing and the outlook for house prices deteriorated sharply, while the assessment of the budget around the outlook for family finances was decidedly weaker.

And why wouldn’t it be? The budget contained essentially nothing to address the housing affordability crisis, further fuelling concerns that there will be a messy correction to prices.

Meanwhile, the government’s best ideas for how to grow wages and incomes were to waive a white flag about spending restraint, whine about how the Senate won’t pass their legislation (“this is a Senate tax”, said the treasurer on budget day), and launch a populist attack on our five largest banks.

And that attack – the bank tax – will be passed on to consumers, just like the last increase in regulatory capital required by APRA.

So the government raised the taxes of most Australians and blamed the cross-bench. That doesn’t fill me with confidence. And it seems I am not alone.

Richard Holden, Professor of Economics and PLuS Alliance Fellow, UNSW

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Shifting the tax burden to middle-income earners will undermine jobs and growth


Patricia Apps, University of Sydney

The government’s idea of raising the Medicare levy, while also removing the 2% budget deficit levy on incomes above A$180,000, is less “transformational” and more signature Liberal policy. It shifts the tax burden towards middle income earners, as opposed to Labor’s plan to direct higher tax rates towards higher income earners. The Conversation

Rather than introducing a simple flat rate rise of 0.5% in the marginal tax rate across all taxpayers, the government has chosen to increase the Medicare levy. The reason lies in the fact that the levy contains the equivalent of a low-income tax offset due to the phasing out of the low-income exemption.

For example, in the current financial year, the thresholds for the phasing out of the Medicare levy exemption is A$21,665 for singles and A$36,541 (plus A$3,356 for each dependent child/student) for families. At these thresholds, tax rates rise by the rate of the withdrawal of the exemption, which works out to be 8% (calculated as 10% less the 2% Medicare levy rate).

In the case of a two-child family, this means an 8% rise in the marginal tax rate at an income from A$43,253, to an upper income limit of A$51,803. If a Medicare levy increase of 0.5% were introduced in the current tax year, the upper income limit for the higher marginal tax rate would rise to A$54,066.

In combining a rise in the Medicare levy with the removal of the budget deficit levy, the government is therefore proposing a rise in marginal tax rates across a wide band of middle incomes and a marginal tax rate cut for the top.

This direction of tax reform is a continuation of the incremental shift in the overall tax burden towards middle income earners over recent decades. And because the threshold for the Medicare levy exemption is based on family income, the reform will reinforce the move towards higher effective tax rates on low income second earners in a family.

This shift in the tax burden from top to middle income earners, and to middle income families, will undermine aggregate demand and, in turn, “jobs and growth” in the future.

In contrast to the government’s policy, Labor’s policy limits the rise in the Medicare levy to incomes above the top two bracket points and retains the budget deficit levy. Raising taxes on top incomes is not only a fairer policy, but a more efficient one in the conventional economic sense.

The impact of taxes on hours worked declines as earnings get higher, and has close to no effect on the hours worked by those with top incomes. And by avoiding higher taxes on second family earners, Labor’s policy should have a less negative effect on second earner hours of work and therefore the tax base.

The government’s and Labor’s tax reforms therefore represent very different policies.

Patricia Apps, Professor of Public Economics, Faculty of Law, University of Sydney

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.