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Want jobs and growth? Forget business tax cuts

On the face of it, the idea that you can increase employment and pump up economic activity by reducing corporate taxation sounds straight forward and uncontroversial. After all, the less company revenue that goes to the tax man, the more should be on hand for things like hiring more staff, buying new equipment and the like.

Ultimately, the thinking goes, the boost to employment and growth will make everyone a winner.

It is the deceptively simple idea that lies at the heart of the Coalition’s economic plan to boost jobs and growth by implementing $48 billion worth of business tax cuts over the next 10 years.

It also happens to be wrong.

Many have already pointed out that the benefits of stronger growth and increasingly profitable businesses don’t necessarily “trickle down” through more and better-paid jobs, as some naively believe.

The widening gulf between a small group of high-income “haves” and the rest of society is evidence of that. In Australia in 2013-14, 62 per cent of all household wealth was concentrated in the top 20 per cent, while the bottom 20 per cent held just 1 per cent of all wealth. Ten years earlier, the wealthiest 20 per cent owned 59 per cent of all wealth.

As The Economist reported this week, the proportion of working poor in the UK is increasing – 10 years ago about 40 per cent of those in absolute poverty (income less than 60 per cent of the national median, after housing costs) lived in households where people were in some sort of employment. Today, that proportion has risen to more than 50 per cent.

Try telling workers whose wages have yet to recover to pre-GFC levels even while house prices soar, and it is little wonder that an election pitch centred on business tax cuts is a hard political sell job.

But added to well-founded scepticism about who will actually benefit from business tax cuts is an even deeper problem that makes them a poor prescription for jobs and growth.

The searing experience of the GFC and its aftermath has provide a wealth of information to digest about what works and what doesn’t in trying to support economic activity and employment at times of low or stagnant growth.

Among those who have taken a close look at the effectiveness of government stimulus measures is Princeton University economist Alan Blinder.

Blinder, who is a former Vice Chairman of the US Federal Reserve’s Board of Governors and served on Bill Clinton’s Council of Economic Advisers, has run the ruler over the various actions taken by the US Government in the wake of the Lehman Brothers collapse, from welfare handouts and the Cash for Clunkers program to infrastructure and defence spending and business tax cuts.

His findings (http://www.hamiltonproject.org/papers/fiscal_policy_reconsidered) will hearten Keynesians and should give those who spruik business tax relief as the first and best policy response to a downturn pause for thought.

What Blinder found was that the most effective action taken by the US Government was to target temporary handouts to low income households through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly known as food stamps).

In the first three months of 2009, for every $1 directed by the government through SNAP, $1.74 worth of economic activity was generated.

Extending unemployment insurance benefits had a 1.61 multiplier effect over the same period, while a temporary boost to work-share programs had a 1.69 multiplier effect.

Even increasing infrastructure spending was found to have a significant multiplier effect, though Blinder said the time lags involved in commissioning and undertaking capital projects meant that it was a stimulus measure more appropriate for prolonged downturns rather than shorter ones.

But, effective as some of these spending measures proved to be, there was great clamour from more conservative members of Congress for tax cuts as the tonic the ailing economy needed.

Here, Blinder found the evidence was mixed.

While temporary tax cuts and credits targeted at “liquidity constrained” (read, hand-to-mouth) households had appreciable multiplier effects (like Child Tax Credits, 1.38 times; Earned Income Tax Credits, 1.24 times), permanent tax cuts were much less impressive in their effectiveness.

The multiplier effect of permanent cuts to dividend and capital gains taxes was 0.39, and for a permanent cut in the corporate tax rate, it was just 0.32.

Not only were corporate tax cuts much less impressive as a stimulus measure, but they were prone to getting hijacked by the business lobby and turned into something whose prime purpose was to plump profits rather than fuel economic activity.

As evidence, Blinder cites the experience of an accelerated (“bonus”) depreciation measure included in a 2002 tax cut bill.

The change, which had the effect of putting investment goods “on sale” for a limited period of time, was originally due to expire after 18 months. This short duration was considered key to its effectiveness as a stimulus measure.

Instead, business lobbied hard to have the bonus depreciation extended…and extended… and extended…so much so that last year legislation was passed to keep it going until 2019.

“Ironically, we may have destroyed the usefulness of bonus depreciation as a countercyclical tool by making it permanent,” Blinder says, and advances what he calls a general theorem of political economy: “Business tax cuts artfully designed by economists for maximum bang for the buck will be altered by lobbyists to achieve maximum revenue loss instead”.

The reason is that “business lobbyists don’t care about ‘bang’, but care deeply about getting more ‘bucks’ for their clients, and lobbying almost always overpowers economic logic”.

 

The lesson, says Blinder, is to be wary of using investment incentives as a stimulus measure.

Many might object that American business and politics is a lot different to that in Australia and, anyway, we are a long way from the dire economic circumstances that confronted policymakers in late 2008 and early 2009, so Blinder’s analysis has little to tell us.

But the real question is, is a company tax rate of 30 per cent stifling activity, and would cutting it to 25 per cent over the next 10 years unleash a wave of investment and jobs growth?

The evidence suggests the answer to both questions is no.

As the Reserve Bank of Australia has observed, what has been holding growth down in Australia has been the plunge in global commodity prices and the fall in resources investment.

This has been partially offset by the effects of low interest rates and a weaker currency, which has encouraged growth in services exports and housing investment – both oif which have helped support an improvement in consumption to around its decade-long average of 3 per cent.

Arguably, what has been weighing on hiring and non-mining investment for the last few years has been soft demand and uncertainty about the outlook.

A $48 billion company tax cut might help firms capitalise on the improvement in consumption, but it is hard to see how it would drive it. Unless there is a compelling reason to hire and invest (read: an opportunity to make money), businesses are unlikely to make an outlay, regardless of whether the tax rate is 30 per cent or 25 per cent.

Instead, much of it could find its way into the bank accounts of lawyers and bankers devising M&A activities or pumping up shareholder dividends.

 

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Why the gloomsayers are overdoing it

When national leaders talk up how good things are, it is often taken as a sign that they are about to turn very bad.

So when Barack Obama and Malcolm Turnbull each delivered upbeat speeches in the past week, more than a few pessimists probably took them as vindication of their bleak outlook.

After all, there seems to be plenty to be worried about.

The new year has begun in a flood a red ink on global sharemarkets as China growth fears, weak commodity prices, terrorist attacks and natural disasters have all weighed heavily on investor sentiment.

For those determined in their gloom, the latest update on the Chinese economy suggested additional reason for pessimism. The world’s second largest economy expanded at an annual rate of 6.9 per cent in the last three months of 2015, its the slowest pace in 25 years.

Taken together with the decision by the International Monetary Fund to trim its global growth forecasts for 2016 and 2017 by 0.2 of a percentage point each to 3.4 per cent 3.6 per cent respectively, and the bearish mood would seem to be well founded.

But in striking discordantly upbeat messages about the outlook, Messers Obama and Turnbull are not just handing around warm cups of cocoa.

There are concrete reasons to think the gloom is overblown.

Although a sudden upsurge in economic activity appears as likely as a return by Tony Abbott to the Lodge, there are several pointers – local and international – that suggest optimism is not misplaced.

Most importantly, the US economy – still overwhelmingly the largest in the world – appears well established on a growth path.

If the US Federal Reserve’s much-anticipated interest rate increase late last year did not confirm it, a streak of sustained jobs growth that has seen the unemployment rate halve from 10 to 5 per cent ought to allay doubts.

Yes, many jobs have been part-time or casual, and wage growth is weak. And there are headwinds from the weak oil price, which has kicked the stuffing out of the shale gas industry, and the increasing US dollar, which will weigh on export competitiveness.

But cheaper petrol has also boosted real household income, and the American consumer is back shopping and spending, which in turn is encouraging businesses to hire and invest.

As has been widely recognised for some time now, China is engaged is engaged in a highly challenging phase in its economic and political development.

The investment-led growth model that has powered its expansion for the last 25 years has run its course, and left a massive overhang of excess capacity and troubling debt.

If this was not challenge enough, the central government’s reluctance to loosen its control over the economy is coming back to bite it. As The Economist notes, its current situation of a slowing economy, a semi-fixed currency and increasingly porous capital controls is a volatile combination – if the government loosens monetary policy to boost consumption, it will weaken the currency and encourage even more capital to flow offshore.

Still, the Chinese government has plenty of ammunition if recession threatens – $US3 trillion of foreign exchange reserves and ample room to trim interest rates and devalue the yen.

The gloom about Australia’s prospects is also overstated.

The fall in commodity prices has been steep, but so was their rise. As Rod Sims recently pointed out in The Australian Financial Review, the current dominant market narrative of a “collapse” in commodity prices is underpinned by a short-term view. From a historical perspective, they are more accurately depicted as returning toward their long-term average.

Pessimists also point to soft wages growth and a weakening housing market as causes for concern.

But the country is generating sufficient jobs to edge the unemployment rate lower – it fell to 5.8 per cent in December – setting a firmer base under pay rates and raising the prospect of an eventual consumption-boosting lift in household incomes as spare capacity shrinks.

And although capital gains in housing have slowed as some of the heat has gone out of the property market, sentiment toward buying shows signs of picking up.

On the question of whether now was a good time to buy a dwelling, the Westpac-Melbourne Institute Consumer Sentiment Index found a sharp improvement in mood. The index jumped almost 14 per cent this month to 113 points – the highest reading since May last year and only a little below the level of a year ago.

Westpac chief economist Bill Evans says the reading should be treated with some caution, but nevertheless “ma be signalling some improving optimism in the housing market”.

This interpretation is supported by a jump in house price expectations following a plunge in the second half of 2015.

Late last year, Reserve Bank of Australia Governor Glenn Stevens estimated the economy was “roughly half way” through the decline of resources investment, and a rebalancing in the sources of growth was underway – a process that will be greatly aided by the falling currency.

Economic commentary often exudes an unjustified air of certainty.

But the sharemarket’s current bloodletting, but a focus on this has tended to blot out some of the more positive big picture developments occurring.

This is one of those seemingly rare occasions when it may pay to heed the message of political leaders.

 

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Unemployment rate drop unlikely to trigger rate hike

As economists are often wont to say, the March labour market figures are decidedly ‘noisy’.
The unemployment rate is down (a 0.2 percentage point drop to 5.8 per cent), but so is the participation rate (also slipping 0.2 of a percentage point to 64.7 per cent.
So, jobseekers were more successful last month, but there were proportionately fewer of them.
In addition, the Australian Bureau of Statistics tell us, more than 22,000 full-time jobs were lost, offset by the addition of more than 40,000 part-time positions, to push the aggregate hours worked in the month up by eight million.
A review of recent jobs data shows these numbers have been volatile. Until last month, the unemployment rate seemed to be on an inexorable rise. After hovering around 5.7 to 5.8 per cent for most of the second half of 2013, it climbed in quick succession to 6.1 per cent by February.
Over the same period the participation rate slid down to a seven-year low of 64.5 per cent (in December 2013) before jumping to 64.9 in February and settling a little lower last month.
The trend measure, which is offered as a way to ‘see through’ the monthly volatility, says the unemployment rate held steady last month at 6 per cent, and the rate of increase has slowed and may be levelling off.
Looking at the labour market through the prism of demand for workers, the ANZ job ads series suggests more employers are looking to add staff, which would be a concrete vote of confidence that better times lie ahead.
Turning points in indicators of economic activity often seems to be characterised by a period of volatility before a definite direction asserts itself, much like a sail that momentarily flaps in the breeze as a ship changes tack.
Often such turning points only become really apparent with hindsight.
But other evidence suggests that jobless rate might not have much further to climb, bringing the prospect of an interest rate hike into sharper focus.
Retail sales are firming (strong monthly gains in December and January were consolidated in February), building approvals are up more than 23 per cent from a year earlier, and business conditions and confidence are improving.
But the recent appreciation in the exchange rate (the Australian dollar surged to US94.3 cents following the release of the jobs data) is a clear risk for the RBA, which has been keen to see the currency lose much of its altitude.
Today’s activity shows the currency markets are primed to exploit even the hint of an increase in the interest rate differential between Australia and the US, where confirmation by the Federal Reserve of a US$10 million cut in bond purchases under the quantitative easing program saw the greenback lose ground.
The stronger $A will also hamper the shift in the economy away from resources-led activity toward other sources of growth, possibly prolonging the nation’s lacklustre GDP performance.
A turn in the labour market, if that is what this proves to be, is unlikely by itself to convince the RBA Board to hike rates – particularly while wage inflation appears so tame.
A more probable prompt for a rate rise would be increasingly uncomfortable signs of heat in the housing market, particularly credit growth. So far, the warning signs on this front are amber, rather than flashing red.

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Timely warning for home buyers

As fears for the stability of the global financial system continue to ease, the thoughts of a central bank inevitably turn to more home grown concerns.
So it is that the Reserve Bank of Australia has issued a timely reminder to homebuyers that interest rates will not remain at record lows indefinitely.
In its biannual stocktake on the health of the local and international financial system, the Financial Stability Review, the RBA has devoted some attention to developments in the local property market.
This is hardly surprising – as the US sub-prime crisis so spectacularly demonstrated, what goes on in real estate can have explosive and devastating consequences for the rest of the economy.
Low interest rates are usually seen as a good thing (except by those trying to live off interest-bearing investments), but they come with risks.
The longer that rates stay low, the more desperate the competition among lenders for customers, and the greater the temptation for borrowers to increase their debt.
While rates stay low, many borrowers may be comfortable servicing their loan. But, inevitably, rates will rise, and as the financial squeeze increases, an increasing proportion of borrowers may find themselves in over their heads. And if they can’t unload their assets at a price to cover their debt (as can occur when many people simultaneously find themselves in trouble) things can get ugly very quickly.
This is the scenario the RBA is keen to avoid, and explains why it is watching borrowing behaviour and lending practices like a hawk.
It warned in today Review that there are already “indications that some lenders are using less conservative serviceability assessments when determining the amount they will lend to selected borrowers”.
It goes on: “It is important for both investor and owner-occupiers to understand that a cyclical upswing in housing prices when interest rates are low cannot continue indefinitely, and they should therefore account for this in their purchasing decisions.”
In other words, don’t bank on the idea that the recent surge in house prices will be sustained. If you are borrowing to your limit to buy a house, don’t be surprised when interest rates eventually go up, and the price you paid turns out to be at the top of the market.
None of these dangers are in immediate prospect.
The international economic recovery is still in its early days, and subdued local growth means there is little pressure at this stage to inch official interest rates higher.
But, while financial markets don’t expect the RBA to begin tightening monetary policy until at least early next year, the RBA might be tempted to act sooner if it sees a risky build up in household debt.

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