For interest rates, the only way is down

People might complain about mixed messages coming from the US Federal Reserve, but the same cannot be said about the Australia’s Reserve Bank at the moment.

The message from RBA Governor Glenn Stevens was about as unambiguous as a central banker can get: if there is to be a change in official interest rates in the next little while, the only direction will be down.

Mr Stevens highlighted the dovish sentiment currently prevailing at the central bank at the moment to the 2015 Economic and Social Outlook Conference in Melbourne today.

“Were a change to monetary policy to be required in the near term, it would almost certainly be an easing, not a tightening,” he said, adding that “an accommodative [monetary policy] stance will be appropriate for some time yet”.

But those hoping the RBA might be inclined to offset recent mortgage rate hikes by the big banks with a rate cut of its own are set to be disappointed.

Mr Stevens said that the recent increases had only partially reversed the decline in mortgage rates enjoyed by owner-occupiers this year, and those most affected were investors – a segment of the market policy makers will be happy to see cooled off a little.

Overall, the increases have been equivalent to half a 0.25 percentage point increase in the official cash, and have taken back just a quarter of the interest easing that has occurred since the start of the year, Mr Stevens said.

The RBA does not seem fussed by such a marginal tightening. The governor pointed out that “this increase is from the lowest rates that any current borrower will have ever seen”.

Change is happening

The central bank has also sought to bring some perspective to discussion about the country’s economic prospects, particularly the short-term growth path.

Mr Stevens said that the country had navigated the after-effects of the biggest terms of trade boom in 150 years reasonably well, managing to continue to grow despite the big plunge in mining-related investment.

Promisingly, he thought the country was about halfway through the decline, and the “headwinds” it was causing were currently about as intense as they were going to get.

The rebalancing of the economy away from resources-led growth toward other drivers of expansion, particularly burgeoning services activity, is, Mr Stevens said, well underway.

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Hackneyed penalty rates debate sells nation short

When politicians and business leaders talk about the need for flexibility, it is usually preceded by the word “labour”, and often comes down to cutting penalty rates, leave arrangements and other worker entitlements.

Which is what makes the contribution by Reserve Bank of Australia Deputy Governor Philip Lowe particularly refreshing.

While Lowe sees a flexible labour market as contributing to the overall adaptability of the economy, it is only but one part of the picture.

Instead, in his speech to the CFA Institute conference, the senior RBA official seen as a front-runner to head the central bank when Glenn Stevens retires, emphasises the importance of a freely-floating exchange rate, financial innovation, robust competition, incentives for innovation and investment in education as critical to the flexibility of the economy.

This is a much broader picture than the current hackneyed focus on industrial relations, and it opens up many more fruitful avenues for action and reform.

The wrongheadedness of the “IR-only” focus underlined by the fact that, by and large, current labour market arrangements seem to be serving the country fairly well.

As Lowe says, during the resources boom there was little spill-over from huge wage increase in the mining sector, while in the subsequent slowdown flexible work hours and weaker wage growth have helped limit unemployment.

“From a cyclical perspective, the labour market has proved to be quite flexible, and things have worked reasonably well,” he says.

In its recent assessment of the nation’s workplace relations, the Productivity Commission similarly thought the IR system was in need of repair, rather than replacement.

“Contrary to perceptions, Australia’s labour market performance and flexibility is relatively good by global standards…Strike activity is low, wages are responsive to economic downturns and there are multiple forms of employment arrangements that offer employees and employers flexible options for working,” the Commission reported.

Not that everything is rosy.

The Productivity Commission was critical of the Fair Work Commission’s “legalistic” approach to award determination, and suggested the need for an “enterprise contract” as a mid-way point between enterprise agreements (unwieldy for small businesses) and individual arrangements. It also said that at the moment it is too easy for employers to dodge punishment for sham contracts and exploiting migrant workers.

But overall the Commission supported, with some caveats, the minimum wage, penalty rates, Australia’s “idiosyncratic” awards system and enterprise bargaining.

Lowe’s speech suggests there are other areas that demand greater attention.

He says maintaining a flexible financial sector will be crucial in ensuring business is able to grab opportunities as they emerge. To achieve this, regulations will have to strike a judicious balance between supporting financial innovation while protecting investors.

Competition policy needs to ensure that businesses harnessing new technologies do not face unfair barriers to entering the market, and that the tax and legal systems – as well as community attitudes – provide incentives for innovation and entrepreneurship.

In education, Lowe says, “continual improvement in our human capital will hold us in good stead”, and has urged the need to strike a balance between developing specific technical and professional skills and encouraging general learning.

Many may quibble about what is on, and not on, Lowe’s list, but it opens things up a much more fruitful debate about what needs to be done to make sure the country is best-placed to take advantage of future opportunities as they arise.

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Will the China trade deal really deliver $billions?

Companies pursuing tax breaks often end up with contrived, complicated and opaque corporate structures that bog them down and bear only passing relation to how they actually operate.
It is increasingly the same in international trade.
With the conclusion of a preferential trade deal with China earlier this week, Australia is now signatory to 16 bilateral and plurilateral trade agreements, almost all of them negotiated in the last 15 years.
It is part of a regional trend.
Across the Asia Pacific, there has been a frenzy of deal making. At the turn of the century there were 51 preferential trade deals in the region. By earlier this year, their number had swollen to 215, with a further 60 under consideration.
The quality and comprehensiveness of these deals vary widely, and each is weighed down by rules and annexes that can run to thousands of pages setting out rules and exclusions.
Even the Korea-Australia Free Trade Agreement signed late last year, considered to be one of the higher-quality deals around, runs to 1700 pages and covers more than 4000 product-specific rules.
These deals come with sales pitches that typically claim they will deliver staggering riches.
For example, the Centre for International Economics – on commission from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade – has calculated that the triumvirate of Australia’s bilateral deals with Japan, China and Korea will, collectively, boost Australia’s exports by 11.7 per cent (almost $17 billion) by 2035 and create an additional 178,000 jobs.
Such gains, if realised, should not be sneezed at.
But there are reasons to be more than a little sceptical about these claims. Aside from the challenges of anticipating what the economy will be like in 20 years’ time (how many in 1995 would have imagined that a business based on sharing photos and pithy one-liners would grow into one of the world’s biggest companies), there is the question of how much trade that might go elsewhere will end up channelled to these three markets because of these trade deals.
But perhaps the biggest question of all is how much businesses will avail themselves of the opportunities contained in these agreements, and at what cost.
Tariffs may be cut to zero, but that means nothing unless businesses take advantage. And by pursuing the opportunity in one market, attention invariably shifts from others. Then there is the competition for domestic producers from cheaper imports, and the associated benefits that are likely to accrue to consumers.
Experience both in Australia and internationally shows that, despite all the hype, businesses are poor at taking advantage of preferential trade agreements.
An Economist Intelligence Unit study found that, across east Asia, less than third of eligible firms used concessions provided by trade deals, and a survey of Australian companies by the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry in late 2013 found that in almost all instances their understanding of Australia’s trade agreements was low – more than half said they didn’t understand them at all, and a further fifth used them but did not comprehend them.
A lot of this is due to complexity.
To take advantage of preferential agreements, exporters have to negotiate a thicket of rules about where components are made, how products are assembled, variable tariff rates and other technical details.
Working out how to take advantage of a trade agreement can be a huge undertaking for a company, particularly if it is small or operates in multiple markets.
Ultimately, if it is too hard and costly to use, businesses will just avoid using the concessions provided in trade deals.
ACCI warned in a submission to a parliamentary inquiry, “Australia may have the best trade agreements in the world, but they are wasted if the Australian Government does not follow through and ensure that…businesses know how to use them”.
Ultimately, the complicated web of preferential trade deals may hinder as much as help trade.
An exporter may find that in shaping their products and operations to take advantage of opportunities in one market, they fall foul of regulations in another.
The sum total may be a nest of complex and cross-cutting rules that are incompatible with one another and stymie attempts at setting uniform international standards.
But to try to assess bilateral trade deals in economic or commercial terms is to miss the point.
These are primarily political documents, a de facto form of diplomacy and strategic positioning.
It cannot be a coincidence that, after a decade of wrangling, the Australia-China FTA was concluded late last year in the shadow of the US-led Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement, which has been seen as part of efforts by Washington to ‘ring-fence’ Beijing as the rivalry between the two powers intensifies.
Unfortunately, these political games have real consequences for international trade, distorting the flow of goods and services and skewing the commercial playing field.
For evidence, you only need to look at the genesis of the Australia-Korea FTA. Business groups backed the deal for fear that competitors in the US, Europe, Canada and New Zealand were stealing a march in the battle for market share because their governments had already struck FTAs with the Koreans.
The beggar thy neighbour logic of preferential trade agreements creates a world in which governments must endlessly chase trade deals for fear of being left at a disadvantage, all the while creating rules and incentives that create inefficiencies and clog up commerce.
But in this game of double-jeopardy, it is one thing to know what is going on, another altogether to do something about it.

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Weak jobs, weak budget

Forget Tony Abbott’s boasts about how many jobs have been created since his government was elected.
The facts are that the labour market is weak, and the incentive for business to put on more staff is low (though the ANZ job ads survey out early this week indicated employers are increasingly looking to hire).
Not only has the unemployment rate (6.4 per cent last month) jumped to its highest point in almost 13 years, the average hours worked each week is stuck around a record low 31.7 hours.
In practice, it means there is plenty of scope for employers to bump up the hours of existing staff before they need to start thinking of hiring someone extra.
Today’s labour force figures simply reinforce Reserve Bank of Australia warnings that the growth outlook is underwhelming – the central bank expects the economy to have expanded by just 2.25 per cent in the 12 months to June this year, and doesn’t expect any major improvement until into 2016.
There are some positives. The exchange rate is hovering around $US0.76, interest rates are at a multi-decade low of 2.25 per cent, petrol prices have tumbled in recent weeks and consumer sentiment has jumped.
But the improved outlook of households is likely to be short-lived as worries about job security and political turmoil in Canberra drag on confidence.
Altogether, it is not a great time to be framing a federal budget, with little reason to think that the huge slowdown in revenues from company and personal income tax will be reversed any time soon.
If ever the nation needed to have a serious conversation about broadening the tax base and reigning in tax expenditures (which were worth $113 billion in 2009- 10 alone), this is the time.
As Stephen Bartos noted in testimony to the inquiry into the establishment of the Parliamentary Budget Office, “tax expenditures are the unloved orphan of fiscal scrutiny, paid little attention and not well understood and analysed”.
It is time to change that.

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An inconvenient obsession

There was a glimmer of hope earlier today that, boxed repeatedly around the head by evidence that the economy isn’t really travelling so well and that slashing Government spending was only compounding the problem, Joe Hockey had a conversion of sorts.
The Treasurer talked in almost Keynesian terms of the need for the Budget to act as a “shock absorber” for the economy.
Was the political obsession with returning the Budget to surplus as soon as a possible and bugger the consequences for the rest of the economy to be consigned to the rubbish heap of history?
Unfortunately, it appears not.
Whatever Joe Hockey’s rhetoric, in its latest update on the economy, the Government remains obsessed about public spending, devoting a major slab of the Mid Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook (MYEFO) to its “Smaller Government” reforms, including cutting the size of the public service to levels last seen in 2007-08, holding down public sector wage growth to 1.5 per cent a year and axing 175 Government bodies.
None of these bode well for support for economic activity.
The fact is, in earlier times, governments could fiddle with the Budget and not worry too much about the effects on the economy.
But, as Reserve Bank of Australia officials pointed out in a research paper earlier this year, governments need to be a lot more careful now:
“The changes to the taxation system overall are likely to have increased the sensitivity of revenues to fluctuations in the terms of trade and economic activity in the current episode.[8] The larger size of government means that the operation of automatic stabilisers has a more significant effect on overall economic activity” – Australia after the Terms of Trade Boom, RMA Bulletin, March 2014.
There is no doubt that the Budget is looking pretty ugly.
Tax receipt estimates have been slashed by $31.6 billion since May, contributing to a $43.7 billion deterioration in the Budget position.
As a result, the deficit this year (2014-15) is expected to reach $40.4 billion (as opposed to $29.8 billion in May), and the books will stay in the red right through the forward estimates – a deficit of $11.5 billion is projected in 2017-18.
There is no return to surplus projected until very late this decade, at the earliest.
This outlook is hardly surprising given what we have been through, not least a global crisis that has left the international financial system badly shaken.
Overlaid on this has been the unsettling surge and ebb of the resources sector.
Booms, whatever their source, rarely end smoothly, and the economy was always likely to hit some rocky times as mining-related investment faded and other sectors were slow to pick up.
One of the features of this period – a rapid decline in the terms of trade – was hardly unanticipated. All along, it was expected that the massive worldwide investment in mining capacity, encouraged by soaring commodity prices, would drive a huge increase in supply that would drive prices down – and this is what has happened.
In the lead-up to releasing today’s Mid Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook, the Government has been enthusiastically briefing the media on what has been described as a “collapse” in the terms of trade (principally as a result of plunging iron ore prices) and what this has meant to Commonwealth revenues.
It has been keen to highlight a 50 per cent plunge in global iron ore prices since the start of the year, including 30 per cent since the May Budget.
“The extent of the fall in the price was widely unexpected,” the Government said in MYEFO – Treasury had estimated a drop from $US120 a tonne to $US92 a tonne by mid-2016, whereas it is currently at $US63 a tonne.
The result of these and other moves, the Government says in MYEFO, “would be the largest fall in the terms of trade in a financial year since the Australian Bureau of Statistic’s Annual National Accounts started in 1959-60”.
But, as one of this column’s correspondents, Property Insights principal Rob Ellis points out, claims of a record fall in the terms of trade are overblown.
True, the terms of trade have fallen sharply (the index has fallen below 160 points surging above 180 around the start of the decade), but they are still very high in historical terms (see chart).
Nonetheless, the Government has trimmed its real non-farm GDP growth forecasts. The economy is now expected to expand by 2.5 per cent this financial year (a 0.25 percentage point reduction from the May forecast) but still grow by 3 per cent in 2015-16.
And it expects household consumption to grow at a similar rate – a questionable assumption when many workers are seeing their pay go backwards in real terms, and rising unemployment and slowing house price growth are only making households even more careful about their spending.
Dumping even more off the public payroll and squeezing the incomes of those left on it is only going to make the task of achieving these growth forecast more difficult.
terms of trade

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Tony Abbott’s world just gets uglier

The ugly position the Abbott Government finds itself in has been underlined by the latest tax revenue and public expenditure figures from the official statistician.
A lot of attention will probably be drawn to the 15 per cent plunge in tax receipts across all levels of government in the September quarter to less than $100 billion.
There is no doubt that tumbling commodity prices and weak wages growth are weighing heavily on the Budget ledger – Deloitte Access Economics reckons the write-downs will push the Budget deficit to $34.7 billion this financial year – $5 billion more than the Government forecast in May.
But the steep 15 per cent fall reported by the Australian Bureau of Statistics today is hardly unexpected – it happens every year at this time. Historically, the three months to September is the weakest quarter for tax collections, for the obvious reason that most corporations settle their annual tax bill in the June quarter.
What is more telling is the ABS’s assessment that Commonwealth spending (ex-defence) grew 2.2 per cent in the September quarter and is up more than a 1 per cent from where it was when the Coalition came to office little more than a year ago.
The Government will probably claim that this is because so many of its Budget savings measures have been stymied by a hostile Senate.
But they should not be let off the hook so easily.
Take the $7 Medicare co-payment proposal, which is languishing on the Government’s books and hasn’t even made it onto Parliament’s agenda yet.
The Government claims it will save $3.5 billion by slicing $5 from Medicare rebates for GP, pathology and diagnostic imaging services. But this money has not been slated to improve the Budget bottom line.
Instead, the revenue was to be directed to the Medical Research Future Fund, to provide a fig leaf for Tony Abbott’s pre-election pledge not to cut spending on health.
Other measures will take years to deliver savings, such as shifting more tertiary tuition costs onto students.
Ripping more than $1.8 billion out of public hospital funding is a significant (if short-sighted) savings measure, but it won’t really have a big impact on the bottom line until 2017-18, while abolishing programs and agencies, such as the Australian National Preventive Health Agency are mostly small beer (scrapping ANPHA will realise just $6.4 million in savings over four years).
Instead, the Government has lumbered itself with a raft of unnecessary costs arising from impulsive and ill-considered decisions affecting the machinery of government.
For instance, the Government reckons that – on paper, at least – abolishing AusAID and absorbing its functions within DFAT will save $397.2 million over four years.
But there are good reasons to question whether the savings will approach anything like that.
First of all, the savings were predicated on staff cuts, and DFAT offered attractive redundancy packages to entice people to leave. As at 30 June, 272 DFAT staff had accepted a voluntary redundancy. Tellingly, a majority (56 per cent) were 50 years or older and 55 per cent were executive level staff – so their payouts would not have been cheap.
Secondly, the entire process was a productivity killer. For months, nothing much was done as management worked out how to takeover would work, and sorted out the structure of the new, larger, organisation.
Third, the process has been a morale killer for many in the Department, further hitting productivity.
You can only wonder whether all these flow-on costs formed part of the calculation when the Budget was being drawn up. I suspect not.
A similar gag-handed decision is to relocate many of the functions of the Department of Agriculture to regional centres dotted across the country.
For an agrarian socialist, it sounds like a neat way of spreading jobs and encouraging economic activity in smaller regional centres.
But reality has a way of mugging such hopes.
There is the cost of breaking the lease on existing premises, locating and securing appropriate accommodation, assisting staff who are willing to relocate and paying out and replacing staff who are not.
Then there’s the increased expense of co-ordinating activities across and geographically dispersed and decentralised organisation – not least higher communication and travel expenses.
Then there is the challenge of luring appropriately skilled and experienced staff to work in these regional offices – not many rural communities will be flush with people experienced in, say, administering a grants program or overseeing research projects.
As the Government struggles to come up with a compelling narrative to pitch its forthcoming Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook, it will have seen precious few green shoots of hope regarding the Budget books.
As Reserve Bank of Australia Governor Glenn Stevens noted today, it will be “some time yet” before there is a sustained fall in unemployment, so growth in wages (and hence income tax revenue) will be weak for quite a while yet.
And desultory economic growth will not do much for corporate profits or tax receipts either.
If the Government wants to burnish the Budget books and chart a convincing path back to surplus, it will have to contemplate killing more than a few sacred cows, like the massive subsidies currently built into the system for superannuants and hugely expensive corporate tax breaks and handouts.
If Tony Abbott truly thought last May’s Budget was brave, then he and Joe Hockey will have to deliver something of Homeric proportions if they are serious about setting the Budget on a sustainable path.
Otherwise, we’ll just continue to bumble along on familiar our shambolic path of hasty, ill-conceived and partisan Budget decisions and just hope that something – another China, perhaps? – comes along to paper over the glaring inadequacies of the nation’s political class.

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ANZAC spirit fails drug test

It can be surprisingly difficult to get along with your neighbours, even when you frequently play sport together and have a lot more in common, besides.
The unheralded decision of the Australian and New Zealand governments to abandon 11 years of work on a joint regulatory regime for medicines, to be overseen by a single trans-Tasman watchdog, is a reminder of how hard it can be to achieve a level of harmony even between two seemingly similar countries.
Earlier this afternoon, Australian Health Minister Peter Dutton and his New Zealand counterpart Dr Jonathan Coleman jointly announced agreement to “cease efforts” to establish a joint therapeutic products regulator.
Aside from what this means for hopes of cheaper and more readily available medicines in the two countries, and a smaller regulatory burden for business, it is a significant blow – at least symbolically – to aspirations for much greater economic co-operation between the two countries.
When plans for the Australia New Zealand Therapeutic Products Agency were first hatched in 2003, it was amid a swirl of trans-Tasman bonhomie.
The agency was to have been the first fully joint trans-Tasman regulator, and the harbinger of much more to come.
The creation of the ANZTPA was seen as a relatively straightforward task that would embody the ambition of much more intimate trans-Tasman relations expressed in the Closer Economic Relations pact between the two countries, and blaze the trail of increased co-operation.
The unspoken ambition of some has been for the creation of a single ANZAC market.
But if the two countries can’t even agree on something as seemingly relatively straightforward and mundane as the regulation of drugs and medical devices, what hope for other areas of activity?
In their joint announcement, Mr Dutton and Dr Coleman said that the decision to abandon the project was taken “following a comprehensive review of progress and assessment of the costs and benefits to each country of proceeding”.
The collapse of this particular project hardly means the idea of closer Australia-New Zealand economic integration is dead.
But it does yet again call into questions the idea that closer economic ties will inevitably resolve political differences between countries and make national boundaries increasingly invisible.
Even a brief contemplation of the internecine conflicts and testy relationships that bubble beneath the surface between the members states of the European Union or the United States should be evidence enough of the fallacy of that.

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