While in Hobart, Tasmania for the 2022 Australian Conference of Economists, show host Gene Tunny caught up with Dr Leonora Risse and Dr Cameron Murray to reflect on the big economic issues covered at the conference. The Conference was framed in the context of adjusting to the so-called new normal. It dealt with issues such as government wellbeing budgets, the housing affordability crisis, the pandemic, and nowcasting, among others. Hear from Gene, Leonora, and Cameron regarding conference highlights and takeaways, including the risk of unintended consequences of government policy interventions.
You can listen to the episode via the embedded player below or via podcasting apps including Google Podcasts, Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and Stitcher.
About this episode’s guests – Leonora Risse & Cameron Murray
Dr Leonora Risse is an economist who specialises in gender equality. She is a Research Fellow with the Women’s Leadership Institute Australia, and recently spent time in residence at Harvard University as a Research Fellow with the Women and Public Policy Program. Leonora is a co-founder of the Women in Economics Network (WEN) in Australia and currently serves as the WEN National Chair. Leonora earned her PhD in Economics from the University of Queensland, and previously served as a Senior Research Economist for the Australian Government Productivity Commission. She is currently appointed as a Senior Lecturer in Economics at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia. Her Twitter handle is @leonora_risse.
Dr Cameron Murray is Post-Doctoral Research Fellow in the Henry Halloran Trust at The University of Sydney. Cameron has taught a number of courses including UQ’s MBA economics course, macroeconomics, globalisation and economic development, and managerial economics. He writes for MacroBusiness, IDEA economics and Evonomics. Cameron has a PhD from the University of Queensland on the economics of corruption. He hosts the podcast Fresh Economic Thinking and his Twitter handle is @DrCameronMurray.
Links relevant to the conversation
Greta’s articles at the Lowy Institute Interpreter:
Greta’s articles at ASPI’s the Strategist:
Greta’s conversation article on Australia’s relationship with South East Asia:
Background reading on China and Taiwan:
Transcript: Aussie Conference of Economists wrap-up w/ Leonora Risse & Cameron Murray – EP148
N.B. This is a lightly edited version of a transcript originally created using the AI application otter.ai. It may not be 100 percent accurate, but should be pretty close. If you’d like to quote from it, please check the quoted segment in the recording.
Gene Tunny 00:01
Coming up on Economics Explored.
Leonora Risse 00:04
I think we also need to clarify that a well-being budget doesn’t mean just spending more, like spending more on feel-good items. I think there is some misinterpretation out there. I think it’s more about proper reallocation.
Gene Tunny 00:17
Welcome to the Economics Explored podcast, a frank and fearless exploration of important economic issues.
I’m your host, Gene Tunny. I’m a professional economist based in Brisbane, Australia, and I’m a former Australian Treasury official. This is episode 148 on the 2022 Australian Conference of Economists, or ACE as we call it. The conference was held on 11th to 13th July in Hobart, Tasmania.
In this episode, I reflect on the highlights of ACE with my colleagues, Dr. Leonora Reese, and Dr. Cameron Murray, who I was lucky enough to catch up with at the conference.
Leonora is the chair of the women in Economics Network, and she’s a senior lecturer at RMIT, the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology. This is Leonora’s third appearance on the program.
Cameron Murray, however, is appearing on the program for the first time, and I’m delighted that he agreed to share his thoughts on the conference with me. Cameron is postdoctoral research fellow in the Henry Halloran Trust at the University of Sydney.
One of the big takeaways for me from the conference was the risk of unintended consequences from government policy interventions. And I give some examples of those in this episode.
The show notes, you can find relevant links and details of how you can get in touch with any questions, comments, or suggestions. Please get in touch and let me know your thoughts. I’d love to hear from you.
Right oh, now for my conversations with Leonora, who’s on first, and Cameron who’s on second on ACE 2022.
Thanks to my audio engineer, Josh Crotts for his assistance in producing this episode. I hope you enjoy it.
Leonora, good to be chatting with you again.
Leonora Risse 02:00
Thanks, Gene for having me.
Gene Tunny 02:02
Oh, it’s good to catch up here at the conference in Hobart. So, how have you found the conference so far?
Leonora Risse 02:10
It’s great to be back in person. This is the first Annual Conference of Economists in Australia since the pandemic. So, it’s wonderful to be surrounded by people again, seeing people face to face, hearing the latest research. In some ways, it feels like time hasn’t really passed. You know, we’re seeing everyone again. And there’s some great research that’s really timely reflecting on COVID. But also thinking about climate change, politics, immigration, the labor force, So, many highly topical issues are being covered.
Gene Tunny 02:49
Absolutely. And we just had this amazing presentation via Zoom last because he couldn’t make it by Martin Wolf, one of the editors at the Financial Times. And he was talking about a number those issues and the crisis of democratic capitalism, which I found really a fascinating presentation and gave us a lot to think about and their issues I’ve tried to cover on the program in the past. I was grateful for that presentation. Were you involved in the organization of this conference?
Leonora Risse 03:19
This year, I wasn’t. So, the way that the conference works is each state or territory branch usually takes carriage of organizing it. So, this year, a big shout out to the Tasmanian branch of the Economic Society who organized it. I’m part of the Economic Society Central Council, a representative of the Women in Economics Network. So, we were involved in organizing the wind sessions of the conference. So, I was involved in that part.
Gene Tunny 03:48
Okay, good one. So, what were those sessions, Leonora?,
Leonora Risse 03:52
Each year, since WEN was created, that’s the Women in Economics Network, that was created in 2017. So, WEN has been a part of the program, we’ve held a special session where we’ve discussed some of the issues that are confronting women in the economics profession.
This year, we talked about what WEN had achieved in its first five years. We looked back at what action we had taken to deal with this problem of women’s under representation in economics. So, we were sharing some statistics as well as some examples of the initiatives that WEN had embarked on in that session, and it was more it was broader than just talking about gender inequality. It was talking about diversity and inclusion in the economics profession. So, we held that special session.
We made sure that there were females amongst the keynote speakers, we had Angela Jackson, talking about the well-being budget. And Angela is a member of our WEN committee, but a very distinguished speaker in her own right and that was wonderful to make sure we had females amongst the keynotes. And tomorrow, we have a lunch for WEN members to come along and network and meet and talk about some topical issues.
Gene Tunny 05:12
Oh, good one. And So, Angela is a co-author of Yours. On a paper, I’d like to talk with you about; so, you had a look at how COVID affected the economy here in Australia and how it had differential impacts by agenda. So, would you be able to tell us about that, please, Leonora?
Leonora Risse 05:32
Thanks so much for the opportunity to share this with you, Gene. We looked at the workforce impacts of the first year of the COVID pandemic in Australia, where we had very strict lockdowns as well as the direct effects of the pandemic. And at the time, there was obviously a lot of interest from the news, from the media, from the government, what exactly were the impacts, and we knew that women were generally being more severely affected on average than men, because of the gender patterns that exist in industries of employment. So, we know that the types of industries that women are employed in, they tended to be the ones that were most affected by the direct lockdowns, particularly in the state of Victoria. But then, also women were potentially dropping out of the workforce, because they were responsible for homeschooling; schools were closed. Childcare wasn’t necessarily available through out that duration.
So, we wanted to produce a systematic and statistical based analysis of what exactly happened in terms of labor force indicators. So, employment, unemployment, labor force participation; and break it down by gender, because I think there was a lot of talk, and there’s potentially some misinterpretation about what exactly those effects were, and generally, we saw a dive, a plunge in women’s employment, that was steeper than men’s. Then towards the end of the first year of the pandemic, women’s jobs did start to pick up again, which was a positive thing. And we were concerned that that was giving the impression that things were okay again, and even though there were huge numbers of women who dropped out of the workforce, just looking at those numbers climb again, it potentially led to people assuming that that time out of the workforce hadn’t caused any damage for women being detached those interruptions losing your job, and perhaps coming back again, but not being the same job that you had before; losing potentially, your eligibility for leave entitlements. It’s what we call scarring effects of economics.
Gene Tunny 08:05
Is this hysteresis? Is that the old term for it? Or am I thinking of something else? Was that related to it? There was that idea that if you had a period out of the workforce that reduced your; well, you lost the attachment, it can affect your marketability in the future, So, it can have these long run consequences.
Leonora Risse 08:27
Yeah, that is a concern about people sort of, getting stuck in that state of unemployment or labor force detachment. That’s exactly right. So, we were looking at net numbers, aggregate numbers. We weren’t necessarily following the same individuals to see potentially, people who dropped out of the workforce who lost employment and didn’t reenter. But that would have been a concern behind the scenes. When I presented the paper here at the conference, there was an excellent question about long term unemployment, people would become entrenched in unemployment or drop out of the workforce and don’t reenter. So, that’s part of that concern about hysteresis as well, people getting stuck. And that skill erosion and perhaps that lack of confidence to reenter again, some of the dynamics that can explain what you’re describing there.
Gene Tunny 09:14
Right. So, I’ve got a couple of questions. You looked at the Australian data, do you know if this happened in the US and the UK as well? Was this the xi session that they talked about?
Leonora Risse 09:26
Yes. This was very much a global picture. You’re right. We were hearing this from the US, from Europe and the UK, from many other countries throughout Asia, Canada; that there were terms like it was a she-session, a play on the recession, but emphasizing the gender element of it. And the thing is that this is very different from past economic downturns. So, in our analysis, we look at what happened with job losses during the 1990s recession in Australia and during the global financial crisis around 2008. And what you see with the economic downturn, the recession that occurred as a result of COVID, women share those total job losses was a much higher proportion than what had occurred in previous economic downturns. And why that matters is because, it meant the policy responses needed to be different.
Gene Tunny 10:24
That was stunning. So, I was struck by just the proportion of the jobs lost in the early 90s recession here in Australia that were lost by men; what was it? 90% or something. I guess that makes sense because at the time, the industries that suffered were manufacturing industries or construction, because we had the colossal property boom in the 80s, and then the crash. So, they were industries dominated by men, but this time, and this is what you found, I think, isn’t it? that it was those sectors where women were disproportionately employed such as hospitality.
Leonora Risse 10:58
Yes, that’s right. So, it was the preexisting patterns of employment. For instance, at retail trade, what are the types of jobs within retail trade that women tended to be employed in things like clothing stores, Ford fronting customer service roles, waitress or waiter jobs in hospitality, whereas males tended to be employed in things like in retail, but in electronic stores, or building supply and hardware stores, which actually were all booming during the pandemic, because of all the incentives for people to stay at home or invest in these other things and things like shell fillers, or deliveries and transport behind the scenes rather than face to face customer service.
So, these preexisting gender patterns of employment, as well as who’s doing the bulk of caring duties at home and who takes on the majority of the homeschooling responsibilities, meant that there were demand side factors as well as supply side factors, putting a lot of pressure on women’s capacity to retain their attachment to the workforce as well.
Gene Tunny 12:12
Okay. I might ask you about your highlights of the conference. I can tell you mine so far. I mean, one highlight was definitely Martin Wolf’s presentation, which made me think a lot about, how do we get that balance between having a market system which provides the goods and services we want that’s dynamic, that allows for you know, that is compatible with individual liberty, but at the same time, avoid a system where we have monopolization, where we have money getting into politics and corrupting it and inequality widening for various reasons, including monopoly, because of the big tech platforms, the big tech giants, people being able to earn money globally because of these platforms. And then if you’ve got an advantage that can be magnified by the technology, also skill biased technological change all those reasons. How do we deal with that in a way that keeps the incentive to innovate, but means we don’t have inequality that could be politically devastating? And I mean, I don’t know the answer to that. But I’m just saying that I thought that was a great presentation and Hal Varian, I mean, that was amazing. Talking about how they’re using all of the Google Trends data to Nowcast the economy, so, unemployment claims just based on people searching, where’s the local unemployment office in Michigan or wherever. So, I thought that was great. But how about you, Leonora? What were your highlights?
Leonora Risse 13:41
Oh, I haven’t been able to see everything on the program, which is frustrating when there’s so many options, you can’t see them all. The keynote speakers have been fantastic this year, because they’ve been so timely. The topics, the issues that they’ve been delving into, I thought hell variants, illustration of how we can use Google data for economic analysis, really enlightening. There’s so much capacity there. I’m looking forward to hearing Joseph Stiglitz speak tomorrow. So, we haven’t come to the end of the program. And he’s, he’s obviously an eminent voice in terms of inequality issues. I really enjoyed Angela Jackson’s keynote address at the start of the conference. And Angela talked about a well-being budget and put a lot of thought into what would be the dimensions of well-being.
And also, she brought up some really potentially confrontational issue. She did talk about how do we handle domestic violence and family violence? And I think that was an indication that these are some hard topics that economists and policymakers and researchers need to deal with. And I mentioned that as a highlight, because I really don’t think in past conferences, we’ve been empowered or bold enough to bring up some of these confrontational topics.
Gene Tunny 15:02
I think that’s true. I want to see how this wellbeing budget is implemented in practice. I mean, as a former Treasury bureaucrat and someone who worked in Budget Policy Division, I’m just not sure what it’s going to mean. Is it just another chapter in the budget, enhance more work for Treasury analysts? Or is it a fundamental rethinking of how the budget process works and how the all of these policy measures are assessed? Will there be an explicit wellbeing score? I don’t know; we have to see exactly how the government is going to implement it. And whether it is something that really will mean that the budget is reformulated or rethought of as something that’s explicitly dedicated to improving well-being and therefore you would look at the whole range of government expenditures and activities.
Is it that or is it just something that is just going to be another glossy budget document or something that the government of the day can sort of, wax lyrically about, but doesn’t have any real practical implications? That’s just my natural skepticism. So, I’m not knocking it. I just want to see how it’s implemented.
Leonora Risse 16:10
Yeah, I think that’s a really healthy degree of skepticism to have with any government. I sense that this government is really sincere and actually quite well informed by the research because as your listeners have known, there are very deep and comprehensive streams of research looking at measures of multi-dimensional poverty or disadvantage, which is really part of that literature on what constitutes a well-being and life satisfaction. And I think the takeaway here is when we think about a well-being budget, it’s about broadening the suite of indicators that we monitor, and we care about. So, it’s not just GDP, or inflation or wage price index. But we include a wider and fuller list of economic indicators, including measurements of inequality. So, I imagine that if you’re constructing a well-being budget, you’d want to compute a Gini coefficient, for instance. So, at least inequality is going to be on the minds of your policymakers, it becomes more salient, so that when they’re developing their policies, they’re not just thinking about how do we increase GDP, but what is the distribution of those prosperity benefits?
Gene Tunny 17:19
So, they could ask how do these particular budget measures affect inequality, affect the Gini Coefficient? Is that what you thinking?
Leonora Risse 17:26
Potentially along those lines, that’s right. So, it’s thinking about measuring success along a broader spectrum or dimensions of real world impact.
Gene Tunny 17:37
Yeah. Okay. So, every budget, as well as providing the economic outlook in terms of GDP and talking about what the budget aggregates are, you could have a reflection, the government could reflect upon what’s happening with some of these other indicators, such as inequality. Angela mentioned a whole range of things they could be interested in targeting in the interests of well-being, mental health, reducing domestic violence.
Leonora Risse 18:04
The budget contains a lot of that already. And it’s about pointing out; actually, a lot of that contributes to GDP, which we know like, if you invest in your mental health and physical health and community inclusion in your population that are all in federal ingredients was making people or supporting people to become more productive as well. But I think it will probably find that there are a lot of government initiatives that are in place that are supportive of well-being and this is, I guess, perhaps justifying that expenditure in a broader set.
I think we also need to clarify that a well-being budget doesn’t mean just spending more, like spending more on feel good items. I think there is some misinterpretation out there. I think it’s more about proper reallocation. So, you could say, well, let’s not go ahead with this hypothetical, say tax cuts for a higher income bracket, because that’ll have a negative effect on the Gini Coefficient. It will detract from income equality.
So, we then have another benchmark of impact you consider some of these redistribution or reallocation decisions, it doesn’t mean spending more, it just means spinning things in different ways.
Gene Tunny 19:23
Yeah, fair point. Okay, Leonora thanks so much. Great to catch up with you here in Hobart.
Leonora Risse 19:27
Thanks, Gene. And thanks for running such a great podcast.
Gene Tunny 19:30
Okay, we’ll take a short break here for a word from our sponsor.
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Gene Tunny 20:07
Now back to the show.
Cameron Murray, good to be chatting with you.
Cameron Murray 20:13
Thanks for having me,Gene.
Gene Tunny 20:14
It’s a pleasure. We’re both finished the Conference of Economists for 2022, here in Hobart. We just had the lecture by Joseph Stiglitz. And, yes, it’s been a busy, few days. How have you found the conference, Cameron?
Cameron Murray 20:30
Yeah, pretty good. Pretty broad range. I’ve been to this conference many times, I like it because you, you will find a few people that study related topics, and you can catch up with your mates who researched your area, and then you can sit in on the random ones. Your session was called what, Miscellaneous? Which is actually pretty good. I think most people enjoyed, you know, a variety of discussions that you just don’t really get a lot of smart people in one room to chat about that often. Yeah, it was a good time.
Gene Tunny 21:01
Thanks. Yes, that was an interesting session. And we can touch on that a bit later. I thought it’d be good to chat about highlights of the conference and also what the themes of the conference have been. So, I guess on the themes, there was a big theme, it seemed to me of Economics in the New Normal; I think that was actually the designated theme of the conference, something about the new normal. And there was that speech by Martin Wolf, where he’s talking about the crisis of democratic capitalism. And then Joseph Stiglitz, today was talking about the Post-Neoliberal Order. So, there seems to be this general recognition that things need to change. I still don’t know exactly what they’re proposing.
Cameron Murray 21:54
Yeah, I got the same impression. There’s a lot of; we’re at the end of some era, and something’s happening. And I wasn’t clear what specifically is not working? I’m not a big believer in labelling of things; oh this is proper capitalism. I’m like, well, you can have capitalism and a good welfare state and good public services and, you know, all of those functions well, together. It’s not clear that we need a new label. I think we do have a lot of things right. I found that a little bit unusual, I thought Stiglitz was right, in terms of Economics as a discipline evolving. And I can observe that I’ve been involved after the financial crisis in that rethinking economics and those groups trying to add some color and flavor to your economics education, because it can be a bit dry, like it’s straight with the neoclassical view on things. But in terms of actual policy, yeah, it’s wasn’t super clear to me where it’s going, but it was kind of unusual to get that feeling that everyone thinks there’s some change happening..
Gene Tunny 23:03
So, you’ve got a blog, haven’t you? Fresh Economic Thinking, and I found that interesting, what you were saying about the teaching of Economics and you said that you’ve tried to give it a different flavor. What sort of things have you done? What have you tried to emphasized in your teaching and your writing?
Cameron Murray 23:20
Yeah, well, maybe let me give you an example. Because Joe Stiglitz, one of the last things he talked about was, well, we use Robinson Crusoe as this example of production. And when Friday comes, we talk about specialization. And I use that to say, well, that’s one element of the coordination problem when you’ve got two people. Someone pick the coconuts and someone go fishing. That example allows us to think more broadly? Why is someone better at picking coconuts? Who taught them? Who has the fishing net? And why do they have it and not the other person? Can they be more productive if the two of them go fishing on one day using a net holding one end each, and then the two of them pick coconuts the next day by helping them climb the tree? Like these, the coordination problems are much broader than I guess the way we’re trying to think about it. And I think in Economics training, we can think more broadly as issues come up, we can maybe see where there’s these net improvements on the status quo. And that’s kind of, what my blog is; is there a different angle to this problem? Is this really a coordination problem? Is it really specialization? Is it this? Is it that?
When I look at housing, for example, I was writing about the Shared Equity proposal, I’m like, well, is this the best option? Why isn’t a 100% equity better? This is the proposal where the government will buy 30% of a house for you as an equity partner for first home buyers.
Gene Tunny 24:46
Are they going to go ahead with that, aren’t they? Because they want government here in Australia, right.
Cameron Murray 24:51
And someone at the conference was telling me that the details are being worked out, can’t say anymore. I think we got to think well, that’s one policy, and we can look at it. But we should be tweaking at the edges as well and going well, if 30% is good, why isn’t 40% better? And if 40% is better, why not 100%. And if we’re at 100% equity, where sort of the government owns your house, that’s public housing. Like we should be a bit more expansive in thinking about how things fit together. And that’s what I tried to do.
Gene Tunny 25:22
So, we’re reportedly having a housing crisis here in Australia. And you’ve previously commented, or you’ve recommended a Singapore model, haven’t you? Is that what you’re driving at with a 100%?
Cameron Murray 25:37
Oh, well, my example, for example, in that blog post was the Land and Housing Corporation in South Wales that owns all the public housing stock. And the value of that housing stock went from $32 billion in 2012, to $54 billion in 2019. And like, that’s a really good return on equity for government, if we consider that as an independent entity, making $20 billion in seven years in terms of the value. So, that was my example of well, you know, we’re going to start another fund over here, and it’s going to buy equity in people’s houses; we have a fund here, that’s buying equity, we’re just not conceptualizing it this way, we’re only looking at the costs, and we’re ignoring the fact that what public housing is is an equity investment. So, that’s the expansive way to think about it.
Gene Tunny 26:24
Right. Okay. I’ll put some links to your blog in the show notes, and also some of the reporting on your recommendation regarding that Singapore model.
Okay. What I found were the highlights, and I can ask you about yours. Papers that really struck me as something I wasn’t expecting, or that made me think differently, it was an analysis by this recent master’s graduate from Harvard, Nicole Kagan, not so super. And what she showed was that, that policy during the COVID period here where they let you withdraw $10,000 from your superannuation balance, and it was a lot easier than the normal requirement where you had to demonstrate hardship. And she was making the point that it could actually backfire on the government in the long term due to the fact that it’s reducing their super balance, and therefore the government would have to pay them more pension in the future. She had some calculations that illustrated how that could occur. I thought that was a good analysis, a good paper, and it just shows those unintended consequences and just how there, whenever you’re designing a policy, there’s probably or there’s possibly a lot better way to do it. And So, you should be thinking laterally about the types of policies.
Cameron Murray 27:58
I thought hers was very good as well, because she didn’t just say, this is the result of this policy. She said, oh, here’s another policy of an interest free loan. And what was the other; that she had a third one as well and said, here’s something else. And now I’m going to compare all three of them. And I feel like that’s a really fundamental economic approach of saying, well, this is a good policy I showed you, it’s like, no, what are all the alternatives? And we should be picking the best one, because if we can beat this, we should. Right. So, I thought that was very good. And that was my comment to her as well, there was another. And it might be related to your presentation as well, that the government could have let you take your super or it could have bought your assets from your super and given you the cash and held those assets in its own fund and got their compound growth or whatever. And, therefore, the government would have had those future assets to pay you back when you got the pension, if you know what I mean. So, you could sort of draw a little circle around the super early release program, and take that forward through time by the government owning those assets in its own federal treasury super account, and then paying the extra pensions to you in the future out of that account if it wanted to. So, you know, that’s just another alternative. And she evaluated three and I really liked that approach and was enthusiastic to look at more.
Gene Tunny 29:25
Yeah, I thought it was good. The other papers I liked; Stephanie Schurer who won Young Economist of the Year Award, she looked at a paper, while her paper looked at these anti interventions of various measures in the Northern Territory to a world to reduce alcoholism or to reduce domestic violence and sexual abuse in the indigenous population there. She had this, I think it was some differences model share this methodology to identify what happened in Alice Springs when they introduced a minimum price of alcohol to try to reduce the drinking and the cost of wine. It didn’t have the effect that they necessarily expected. When they looked at what did it mean for babies with the birth way of babies? And what seems to have happened is, well, there was some substitute; they did stop drinking cask wine. There was a big drop in the consumption of that. But then, there was an increase in consumption of beer and other alcohol, to an extent. So, there’s sort of substitution there. But also smoking, smoking increased.
Cameron Murray 30:43
Yeah, it did. That was pretty clear and one of the main results, wasn’t it?
I think that’s actually a result I’ve seen elsewhere of trying to change behavior with the sort of syntax approach where you tax the behaviour you don’t want to get. And I think we get that in cigarettes and marijuana and things like that, if there are substitute ways to get the broader consumption good. Then you’ll find them.
Gene Tunny 31:12
Yeah. I thought that was a good illustration of the possibility of unintended consequences that you can get with policy and as was Nicole’s paper, too. Okay. The other one I thought was great was Warwick McKibbin’s paper on COVID. So, he went over some modelling results of his early in the pandemic. And I mean, Warwick was claiming, I think he’s probably right about this, that he got reasonably; I mean, his estimates were probably better than any ones in terms of the ultimate economic impact. And a lot of it came from voluntary, people voluntarily withdrawing from the labor market.
Cameron Murray 31:58
I wasn’t in that one. Can you? What did he predict? And why?
Gene Tunny 32:03
This was a paper he released in February of 2020. He saw that COVID was spreading in China. And it was going to come to the end; I think it was in Italy at the time. And he used his, what is it, the McKibbin Sachs Global model – MSG model he’s got some global economic model originally built with Jeffrey Sachs at Harvard. And he’s sold it; to all of these finance ministries, I think Treasury had a copy when I was there. How would you describe it? Well, it’s a general equilibrium macro-economic model of the global economy. And he was projecting; he calls them simulations, he’s not calling them forecasts. He made a joke today about how he doesn’t like doing forecasts, because you’re only ever going to be wrong, you never forecast know precisely.
Cameron Murray 33:10
I think that’s very wise.
Gene Tunny 33:12
So, I think that’s very clever of Warwick to do that. And he was showing what GDP deviations he was getting from his assumptions around how COVID would spread. Then he had endogenous policy responses, or actually, they may not have been endogenous, he must have assumed what policy responses would be in terms of fiscal policy, and then monetary policy. He knew that governments would respond and that would help the economy recover. And he was showing that he had the big GDP losses to begin with, but then the V-shaped recovery or the rapid recovery. So, Warwick was claiming that; and it’s probably right.
Cameron Murray 33:56
Did you get the inflation element as well as it’s sort of second half of last year and this year? Because the V-shape recovery; remember, there was a big debate, V-shaped recovery, W-shaped recovery. There was a lot of chatter, and I think obviously he was right on that. But what about the inflation part?
Gene Tunny 34:19
I think he was. He may not have got it to the; he may not have predicted as much as it has occurred, but I’ll have to check that. I think he did say something about that. I just can’t remember off the top of my head. I’ll put links in the show notes to that paper. I found that fascinating.
One thing he didn’t predict and he was surprised by; he was really surprised by just how badly the United States did. But he was modelling the COVID infections and mortality, the COVID deaths, and his prediction for the US was too low. And because in his model he was basing the health response. So, he had the epidemiological development of the disease, the infections and the deaths. He had that related in part to the public health system or the public health response. And because the US, because of the CDC, it came out high in terms of public health effectiveness. So, in his model, US had high public health effectiveness. So, that was reducing his estimate of what would happen in the States. We all know that it just didn’t work. I mean, they may have had the CDC, but for some reason or another, something didn’t work.
Cameron Murray 35:49
Well, you know, the assumptions matter don’t they? One of the standout presentations for me was Hal Varian, the Chief Economist at Google. And I think, simply because he’s got the inside run on all the data, he had a great method of augmenting your traditional time series forecasts that have seasonality and trends with an additional regression that selects for the most useful search terms out of Google Trends, and then uses them as predictors in the regression part of the overall model. And was pretty good at predicting a lot of economic outcomes from Google trends search data, which I thought was pretty impressive, but I guess we kind of, accept that that happens. But what impressed me more is they have a Google survey tool that you can put as like an ad on the news item. And people get credit on Google Play or something if they fill in surveys. So, you can do these really rapid surveys, and it will distribute them to readers of news that meet certain criteria. And it replicates really well, these well-done official surveys that sample representatively across society based on census records of types of people and where they live, it replicates a lot of findings by being completely non representative, and just flooding the internet, essentially, with the survey.
So, the message here is sort of saying is we don’t know if representativeness is that important, but you can find out cheaply and quickly by just doing a Google survey to augment your official survey where you’ve got representative samples from different parts of the country, in different age groups and so forth.
We’re obsessed about sampling and he’s now saying, well, as long as we throw it out to the internet, sometimes it doesn’t really matter.
Gene Tunny 37:54
It’s good enough, the results are good enough. It may not be as precise as a random survey, or a survey done by Roy Morgan or Gallup but it’s got to be good enough for what most people need it for.
Cameron Murray 38:07
Especially picking the trends, right? Is this declining in interest or rising interests, you’ll get that sort of stuff very quickly and cheaply. So, I immediately went back to my computer after that session and looked at housing markets and predictions and tried to catch up with the state of the literature on that, and it’s booming right now. So, I think that’s going to be something we’ll hear more about. And I expect, for example, in the next five years, we’ll probably have a new house price index that is informed by daily Google search trends. Like a live modelled index from this type of stuff, that would be my expectation, given that people are already trying to do that.
Gene Tunny 38:46
Yeah, because CoreLogic put out a daily House Price Index, I think, don’t they?
Cameron Murray 38:52
They do put out a daily index but there’s a lot of assumptions because you don’t know sales data until the settlement and the price was 30 or 60 days beforehand. Over a longer term, it works well. And it seems to pick turning points well. But I think if you’re in the market for producing high frequency index like that, and you can augment that with Google Trends, I think you would dominate that market because people would put more stock in yours, you’d get more press coverage, you’d become very; So, I’d be very interested in if CoreLogic has got people looking at this. They obviously have a lot of data nerds. You might see live daily trackers of many things; could be an interesting new world at the next conference.
Gene Tunny 39:40
Yeah, absolutely. That was great, that nowcasting session and I chatted about that with Leonora. I’ll put a link in the show notes regarding that, too.
So, on housing, Cameron, you presented a paper on housing, didn’t you? Would you be able to tell us about that, please?
Cameron Murray 39:56
Yeah. So, it’s pretty straightforward. There was a lot of very detailed statistical modelling at this conference and mine was the exact opposite. Mine was just, here’s the data on the rate of production of housing from new major subdivisions in Australia. Because the argument that we have at the moment, are planning regulations, stopping supply and keeping the price of housing up. And my question was, how are planning regulations stopping supply? Because we can observe in practice, all these major approvals with three to 20,000, approved housing lots, and we can observe how quickly they supply after the approval. And what you find is that during an economic boom, these property developers will sell at a rate that’s 30 to 50 times faster than when it’s not a boom.
So, they’ll sell five a month, and then they’ll sell eight a month for a few months when there’s a boom. So, if you look at land sales in major subdivisions around Melbourne, when there was that 2015 to 17, boom, you can see, not only did the price rocket, but the sales rocket, and then when the price is up, typically, supply and demand say, well, at higher prices, you sell more, but then it stops once price gets up. So, as prices start rolling over, they stopped selling again.
The main point of that is, there seems to be a built-in speed limit. And then in addition to that, I looked at aggregate company data for listed companies across states where they had eight to 12 different projects. And the question there as well, is that variation I’m observing; does it average out across different areas, if we diversify? And it does, but only to a small degree. And then I looked at council level data for the different councils in Queensland and showed that actually, the variation, even at a whole council level is much the same. So, the point of all that is that there’s some kind of built in speed limit that the market will supply, regardless of planning restrictions. So, if you want to talk about the effective planning regulations, it has to go via this market absorption rate, this optimal rate per period that you would produce new housing.
Gene Tunny 42:20
Yeah, I see what you’re arguing there. So, at any point in time, there is going to be a speed limit. I think that’s fair enough. It’s like with the sale of government bonds, for example. So, they don’t just go and auction off the whole years in one day.
Cameron Murray 42:42
Yeah. The market has a finite depth, right? Especially in property, your local market has a very; it’s very competitive. But in your local area, if there’s only a few buyers rocking up each week, you can’t really sell faster than that. And if you did want to, you’d have to reduce the price dramatically. And that itself might not even work, because who wants to buy something that’s falling in price? Right? You’ve just showed me this is a terrible property asset to buy, because you keep decreasing the price on me. Right? I think property markets function like other asset markets, property developers aren’t in the business of panicking, and to reduce price and selling very quickly. So, if we want to talk about cheap and affordable housing options or systems, we’ve got to acknowledge that limit.
We can’t go around saying oh up zone, and it’ll all be fine, because we’ve got a property boom in the whole world, regardless of local planning conditions. There’s almost no city you can name right now, Regardless of whether they’ve got very generous planning, whether they’ve got height limits, where they’ve got no height limits. Auckland, famous in 2016 up zone the whole city, and then had the biggest boom, I think just about in the world between 2016 and 2021.
So, that was mine. Yours was one of the last sessions of the day, that was just before Joe Stiglitz. I actually really liked your topic because, I have a strong interest in privatizing public assets and accounting trickery.
Gene Tunny 44:26
Yeah. Well, what I thought was bizarre about what Queensland Government did. This is the state government, where Cameron and I both reside; it’s the state government where Brisbane is the capital. What I found odd about what they did was they actually didn’t privatize it, they pretended they privatize it. They said if we did privatize it, we could sell it for $8 billion, and therefore, even though it’s still doing the same thing it did yesterday, we’re now going to treat it as a well; we’re creating this private company, we’re converting a government.
Cameron Murray 45:08
This was the property title’s office, right where you change, when you sell a house, you register the change in ownership. It’s the Torrens title.
Gene Tunny 45:16
Yeah, that’s right. Sorry, I should have mentioned that. Well, this is actually a private company, and we own shares in it. So therefore, we’re going to take it out of the general government sector. And we’re going to recognize this $8 billion asset on our balance sheet and use it to offset our $40 billion worth of debt or whatever it was, and that reduces our net debt.
Cameron Murray 45:47
That’s an accounting trick. I did think it was very interesting that we’re going to privatize, we’re not going to change the ownership. We’re just going to say that it’s; and I guess my point to you was; The other point you were saying is that Queensland has a future fund that does investments in private companies. And they were saying that we’re not putting it in that fund is that?
Gene Tunny 46:14
I know they did. So, it is in that future fund? Yeah. It is in there – the debt retirement fund they’ve got.
Cameron Murray 46:22
Well, and I think one of the questions in your comments was that New South Wales got a lot of flak last year for doing the same thing. And they created this thing called the transport asset holding entity. Did you follow that news?
Gene Tunny 46:38
Yeah, I’ve got to look more into it.
Cameron Murray 46:4
The basic gist was the same thing. They said, well, this is the Department of Rail or whatever it’s called. But actually, we’re going to corporatize it and say it’s a private company. So, when we subsidize it, that’s an equity injection. So, that’s actually an investment, not a cost. So, there was this great big accounting trick to get around there other standard measures of government spending and standard ways that they produce the budget. They’re like, well, no, that’s not a cost, that’s an equity injection, which of course, you could do for anything.
Gene Tunny 47:19
I have to have a closer look at that. I guess the point I was trying to make is that I thought this was a good example of just the financial or the public accounting trickery that can go on. And I think as economists, we need to be mindful of that.
Cameron Murray 47:40
I think your point; you said at the beginning that we’re meant to be sort of, reporting in a standardized way. And you’re comparing governments between countries and budgets and debts. How much does this accounting trick matter? And we’re comparing Queensland and Western Australia or Australia to New Zealand to Canada.
Gene Tunny 48:01
Yeah. It’s difficult to know. And while any one of them, you might think in the greater scheme of things, okay, maybe that’s not the biggest deal but they just all add up and you just don’t know.
I remember what I was saying about what was going into the future fund. What I was trying to say is that originally, they were going to put in liquid assets. So, the original idea was, we would have, I think it was 4 billion or whatever it was, from the defined benefit. The funds set aside to meet the defined benefit superannuation liability, and they were going to take that out, because they were saying, well, we’ve got excess there, we don’t need that much to pay the pensions. We’ll put that into this future fund, but they would have been liquid financial assets. So, cash or shares or whatever. But then, they didn’t have as much as they expected. So, they couldn’t actually put in liquid assets. What they then did was said, well, oh, we’ve got these $8 billion titles registry, let’s stick that in the future fund. And is not the same thing, because it’s not actual ready money. It’s not a liquid asset.
Cameron Murray 49:13
No, it’s definitely not. Although, we did later discuss before we recorded that, a cynic might say that the government is wedged right now in not privatizing any public assets. And they’re literally setting this up. So, when they’re out of power, they get the result they want because the next government, it makes it easier for them to then privatize and sell this off, because the structure is already changed.
Gene Tunny 49:42
It certainly does do that.
Cameron Murray 49:45
It depends how much you think these political games are being played behind the scenes.
Gene Tunny 49:50
Yeah, I’ll put a I’ll put a link to both of our papers in the show notes. I’ve got to think more about your housing article because I think that’s a fair point about the speed limit at a point in time. And I’ve had Peter Tulip on the show before. Peter is someone that you’ve debated or you have a lot of interactions on Twitter and
Cameron Murray 50:15
and in person every time. Yeah.
Gene Tunny 50:19
So, Peter was here at the conference too. And I think Peter’s point is that; I think he acknowledges that, like, you’re not going to solve the housing supply shortfall overnight by relaxing restrictions, because there’s just so much construction or so much building that would have to occur. I mean, have to occur over many years. And I think his point is that, well, the problem is we’ve had these restrictions in place for decades. So, there’s been a whole lot of under building.
Cameron Murray 50:51
We had a good conversation last night with Peter. I think there’s a hidden mental model that we both have that I can’t quite articulate with both tried. One of the components of that is this competitive element in the property market, like how fast would we supply? What’s the real counterfactual? Because his argument, and it’s a common argument, is that we’ve had supply constraints for a long time, therefore, we don’t have enough houses. If we didn’t have a supply constraint, we would have more dwellings per person and more space than ever before. And yet, that’s actually what we have.
Although prices are high. Part of that’s the interest rate, right? Rents compared to income in the private market are 20%. They were 20% in 1996. So, we’re talking, what’s that 26 years ago, quarter of a century. So, not only are rents the same proportion of income, and we’d probably expect people to spend roughly the same proportion of income on housing as they do, you know, there’s a fixed budget share results in the Cobb Douglas function as your income grows. But we have bigger houses, we have more bedrooms and more area and fewer people. And we actually saw that in the recent Census. Census was interesting, because last year, the week that we filled it out in August 2021, I predicted that the homeownership rate in the census would go up. Because it was 65.4%, in the 2016 census. And when the data came out a month ago, it was 66.0. So, a 0.6% increase. So, we got more homeownership. And we saw that the number of people per dwelling fell quite a lot as well, partly because of COVID. People sort of spread out a little bit more. Yeah. And we had a bit of a building boom as well, in that period. And So, we’ve got bigger houses, fewer people in them. So, the question is, why isn’t this the market outcome? Like, surely, you’ve got to tell me why the market outcome is something of even bigger houses and fewer people than what we have. And why would that be the case? That’s where we still disagree. Myself and Peter Tulip as the most active housing supply debaters on Australian social media.
Gene Tunny 53:27
Absolutely. Love to have you both thoughts for a chat in the future. But anyway, we’ll have to leave it there. Because we’ll wrap up soon, because we’ve got the State of Origin game between Queensland and New South Wales coming up.
Yeah, I thought that’s been a great discussion. I just thought of something with Nicole Kagan’s paper.. So, you’ve got that idea that the government could have bought the shares off or it could have basically bought the super assets…
Cameron Murray 54:05
From people if they want to cash out their super, then the Superfund says, okay, we’ll give you cash but the government’s got to give us the cash to take a claim on their same assets.
Gene Tunny 54:15
Yeah. So, the government would have to borrow to buy or to let them cash out. But your argument would be they would be earning more, the government would be earning more from those assets than the cost of the borrowing, giving borrowed and was so cheap.
Cameron Murray 54:31
Yeah. And also, that whatever they earn on those assets is exactly what the people who took the money out of super would have earned. So, if you’re thinking about a cost to the age pension in the future, well, the government now got those assets, exactly the same amount of assets that it can use to spend on your age pension. Do you know what I’m saying? Because you don’t have the super, the government has it. And if you need the age pension, they’ve got exactly the same amount of money that they can give back to you if you qualify for the age pension.
Gene Tunny 55:00
I’ll just have to think that through because I’ll also have the debt one day to a border. Although you could think about the Reserve Bank doing it, perhaps. I mean, that’s one thing that could have;
Cameron Murray 55:14
I mean, it’s a balance sheet expansion for the government. And it’s a contraction for the person who took the cash and doesn’t have that other asset. I might write a blog on this;
Gene Tunny 55:25
I think would be good. I’d love to see.
Cameron Murray 55:27
Nicole was the author of the paper? I’ll reach out because I thought she had the right idea of testing all these scenarios. There you go. That’s what conferences are for; meeting people and sharing ideas.
Gene Tunny 55:41
Absolutely, very good. Cameron Murray, from University of Sydney. Thanks so much for your time. It’s been really great chatting. And it’s been amazing catching up with you at this conference. It’s been great.
Cameron Murray 55:52
Yeah, I know, it has been great to hang out, Gene.
Gene Tunny 55:57
Okay, that’s the end of this episode of Economics Explored. I hope you enjoyed it. If so, please tell your family and friends and leave a comment or give us a rating on your podcast app. If you have any comments, questions, suggestions, you can feel free to send them to firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll aim to address them in a future episode. Thanks for listening. Till next week, goodbye.
Thanks to this episode’s guests Leonora and Cameron for the great conversations, and to the show’s audio engineer Josh Crotts for his assistance in producing the episode and to the show’s sponsor, Gene’s consultancy business www.adepteconomics.com.au.
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