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The future US fiscal crisis and how to avert it w/ Romina Boccia, Cato Institute – EP159

The Cato Institute’s Romina Boccia explains why she’s concerned about a future US fiscal crisis. She explains how entitlement programs such as Social Security and Medicare are the source of the problem. 

This episode’s guest Romina Boccia is Director of Budget and Entitlement Policy at the Cato Institute, where she specializes in federal spending, budget process, economic implications of rising debt, and Social Security and Medicare reform.

Please get in touch with any questions, comments and suggestions by emailing us at contact@economicsexplored.com or sending a voice message via https://www.speakpipe.com/economicsexplored

You can listen to the episode via the embedded player below or via podcasting apps including Google PodcastsApple PodcastsSpotify, and Stitcher.

Links relevant to the conversation

Romina’s Cato Institute profile

Romina’s first post for the Cato Institution: Joining Cato to Restrain the Federal Budget Leviathan

Council on Foreign Relations article containing deficit projections which Gene mentions: The National Debt Dilemma

U.S. News article: How Much You Will Get From Social Security

Transcript: The future US fiscal crisis and how to avert it w/ Romina Boccia, Cato Institute – EP159

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,

Romina Boccia  00:04

The better solution is to realise that we are on a highly precarious fiscal trajectory even under the best circumstances. And now is the time to adjust our fiscal scenario to reduce the growth in spending.

Gene Tunny  00:21

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 159 on the US federal budget and debt. My guest is Romina Boccia, Director of budget and entitlement policy at the Cato Institute. Romina is concerned that the US is on a path toward a fiscal crisis. We chat about why this is so and what can be done about it. Please check out the show notes, relevant links and details of how you can get in touch. You can send me an email or a voice message. Please get in touch and let me know what you think about what either Romina or I have to say in this episode, I’d love to hear from you. Right now for my conversation with Romina Boccia about the US federal budget. Thanks to my audio engineer Josh Crotts for his assistance in producing this episode. Hope you enjoy it. Romina Boccia, a director of budget and entitlement policy at the Cato Institute. Romina, great to be speaking with you today.

Romina Boccia  01:26

Thanks so much for having me on your show, Gene.

Gene Tunny  01:29

Oh, it’s, it’s excellent. So you’ve joined Cato in recent months, haven’t you Romania. And I read one of your pieces in which you are introducing yourself at Cato. And you wrote that, today I am joining the Cato Institute, to do my part to prevent a severe US fiscal crisis by restraining the federal budget Leviathan. I’ll write and speak about federal spending, the budget process, the economic implications of rising debt, and Social Security and Medicare reform. So really big topics there. To start off with, could I ask you, what do you mean by a fiscal crisis? Just how bad do you think things currently are? How bad could they get in the US?

Romina Boccia  02:26

Yes, you know, the thing with a fiscal crises is a bit like when, whether you’re entering a recession or not that you don’t quite know if you’re in it until you’re in it. And in the United States scenario, there are quite a few factors that make it even more difficult to predict if our when a fiscal crisis might occur, because the United States, of course, as you’re aware, provides the US dollar, which is a world, the primary world reserve currency, which allows the United States government to get away with a lot worse fiscal policy than another nation state might. But that doesn’t mean that lawmakers in the United States can just rest on those laurels. And think that they can spend and borrow as much as they would like in order to satisfy their constituent spending demands, without facing any consequences for that. So what I mean by fiscal crises, and we’ve seen this in various countries over the course of roughly 800 to 1000 years of history. Carmen, Kenneth Rogoff and Carmen Reinhart did an excellent book on this, that, despite a small mistake they made in a research paper, which was corrected later on, still stands in its lessons. And that was over 800 years of history of public debt, and how that affects the countries that accumulate that debt. And so, in, in the scenario of US fiscal crisis, we could potentially face a sudden and very high rise in interest rates, much higher and much more sudden than we’re currently experiencing. And that could result in disrupting productive investments severely lead us into a significant recession. And this could also potentially precede an episode of hyperinflation, which is something that other countries have lived through in the past. I’m originally from Germany, that has a history of hyperinflation after World War Two. And, and that type of rapid accelerating out of control inflation would be very, very damaging to the country, disrupting employment, markets and causing a tremendous pain for US households. And even just, you know, the recent bout of inflation, which was quite severe and not something that the US population has experienced in a long time. Even that doesn’t come close to what we might potentially face in a hyperinflationary scenario. And in the long run, if the US is fiscal standing were to change significantly if the dollar were to lose its prominent status as a world reserve currency, if markets employment investment were severely disrupted, if inflation got out of control, and the Fed wasn’t able to put this genie back in the bottle, it could also have other unforeseen ramifications affecting the security and global standing of the United States as an economic powerhouse as a foreign powerhouse. And also, its, its attractiveness as a destination for immigrants, investment, etc. My point is that lawmakers are playing with fire. And the sooner they come to reckon with that fact and start making amends, the higher the likelihood that we will be able to avert such a fiscal crisis. But it’s it’s a tough pill to swallow because the programmes that are driving us into this large and rising debt, and that could potentially precipitate a fiscal crisis in the future, who knows when those are also the most popular federal government programmes, namely, Social Security and Medicare, which is why in my work, I want to be focused on making reforms to those drivers of growing spending.

Gene Tunny  06:57

Right. Okay, so you mentioned hyperinflation, and we had a, I had a conversation in the last episode about hyperinflation and you refer to the hyperinflation. So Germany had very extreme, it had hyperinflation after the First World War, when the Weimar Republic, and, I mean, there’s a certain set of circumstances that lead to hyperinflation, I mean, a breakdown of your economic system, really your tax, the ability to raise taxes, and then the government turns on the printing press. So that’s the worst case. But short of that your, I think, uh, you’re, you’re concerned about them? Are you concerned about them having to make rapid adjustments, cutting other programmes to be able to service the interest bill or having to raise taxes? Is that the type of scenario you have in mind.

Romina Boccia  07:54

I think that in a, in a lower severity scenario, what we’ve, what we’ll see is much higher tax rates in the United States in the future, which will negatively impact growth and standards of living, and could also undermine the United States as a, as a, as an innovation powerhouse. There’s also a scenario where the debt continues to rise, lawmakers avoid tax increases, and we find ourselves in more of a Japan like stagnation where the economy barely grows, or maybe growth is even negative for some period of time. That’s another, that’s another alternative, which is also not very desirable. Or in, a in a worst scenario. You know, I don’t, I don’t see lawmakers making rapid changes to Social Security and Medicare unless they had no other options left. Yeah, because their primary interest is to get reelected. So I could see us more likely entering into a high inflation scenario in an attempt to continue to pay these benefits, despite there not being the revenue for it. And, you know, the United States can, can and does print its own money. And we’ve seen several bouts of so-called quantitative easing, which are a version of that, where that unfortunately, to me seems more likely than significant changes to entitlement programmes unless we can strike some kind of a grand bargain, which has happened in other nations before. One scenario found quite illustrative is, Sweden went through some significant budgetary reforms. Many of its means tested and other social insurance programmes. And while Sweden still has much higher tax rates than the United States, they’ve, they’ve been able to get to a place where they’re roughly balancing their budget over time. And that is certainly a more stable scenario than the rapid. And at times accelerating increase in the deficit that we’ve seen in the United States. Of course, we’re coming out of a very highly unusual period of time, with massive supplemental spending bills due to the COVID pandemic, and unprecedented deficits. And those are now declining, because we’re not spending as much as we did during the pandemic, but still, us spending as a steep upward trajectory. And most of it, most of that growth will be financed by additional borrowing, which is, which is quite troubling.

Gene Tunny  10:50

Yeah. So you’ve got deficits projected out for the next few decades, if I remember correctly, I think there was a CBO. Or actually, yeah, Office of Management and Budget, congressional and Congressional Budget Office, there’s a chart from the Council on Foreign Relations, I’ll put a link in the show notes. But it’s got the federal deficit, going from several percentage points of GDP, wherever it is now. And then over the next 30 years, it goes, this is all business as usual, if you just assume nothing changes, and I mean, hopefully something changes, they’ve got it getting up to over 13% of GDP, this is the deficit by 2050. Are these the types of projections you’re looking at Romina. And that’s what’s informing your commentary on this?

Romina Boccia  11:42

Yes, so the Congressional Budget Office is a very reliable primary source in the US Congress. It’s a nonpartisan agency that provides information to Congress. However, they are somewhat limited in how they do projections as well. And there have been some questions about some of their assumptions pertaining to fertility and growth, and at times under estimating the potential increase in higher interest rates. So there are some alternative scenarios as well that we consider as fiscal scholars. So we have a range of potential outcomes that we look at. None of them are very good. The current Congressional Budget Office projections are also in many ways, too optimistic. Because the Congressional Budget Office is, is tasked with projecting the deficit and debt and spending levels based on assumptions of current policy. Now, there are many policies, especially tax policies, but also some spending policies in the US context that have been intentionally adopted for a temporary period of time, like certain middle class tax cuts that are slated to expire that were put in place by the Trump administration by 2025. And it seems highly unlikely that Congress will allow those to expire. Because of the families and individuals, middle class families and individuals that would be affected, it would seem like that would not be very politically popular. So if we run alternative assumptions, where those tax cuts get extended, the, the debt scenario going forward looks a lot worse. We’re going from 185% of GDP and publicly held debt over the next 30 years from the current 110% level, to more than doubling to 260% of GDP, and that, again, over 30 years doesn’t take into account that there might be natural disasters, that there could be another war, or the US might get involved in a current active war more so than it has in the past. Or that there could be another pandemic. I mean, lots of things can happen over the next 30 years. And none of those are taken into account with those projections. So again, the better solution is to realise that we are on a highly precarious fiscal trajectory, even under the best circumstances, and now is the time to to adjust our fiscal scenario to reduce the growth in spending. And because that’s what’s driving it, you know, tax revenues are above their historical average level, even with the economy slowing down. And so that’s not what’s driving the growth in the debt and the deficit. It’s it’s very much on spending and primarily spending on so called entitlement programmes and their entitlement programmes, because you don’t have to be poor, you don’t have to. Yeah, you don’t have to be in grave need in order to qualify. Medicare and Social Security are primary or really old age entitlements, with some contributions made by individuals over their lifetimes, but not contributions in the sense of contributions made to say a 401 K, which is the US retirement account that individuals contribute to, they make their defined contributions, and then they own those assets in those accounts. That’s not how these programmes work. There are tax and spend programmes or pay as you go programmes where current workers have financing benefits, health care and retirement benefits for the retire generation. And, of course, lawmakers were able to make promises to these individuals without concerning themselves with how those benefits would be paid. No provision was made to pay those benefits, even social security in the United States context where for some time, there were surpluses, that the programme was accumulating, but they were spend immediately on other federal government priorities. They weren’t saved for Social Security. So now that those bills are coming due, Social Security is already running deficits. Those those those, those prior surplus funds there, they don’t they don’t exist anymore. They would just spend on other priorities. And now Congress would need to raise taxes, or in this case, they’re borrowing more to make up for, for that discrepancy and what they’ve promised current beneficiaries, current retirees, and what they’re able to collect from current workers.

Gene Tunny  17:00

Yeah, I remember reading in the 80s. Or maybe I read the book in the early 90s, that the last time people were worried about the US deficit and debt. This was before the 90s, before Clinton and Gingrich struck some sort of accommodation struck, struck some sort of deal and then managed to get the budget under control for a while. I remember there was a book by Benjamin Friedman, who was at Harvard and day of reckoning. And, and the concern there was because of the tax cuts in the 80s, and the big spending on the, the defence, all of the defence spending, which I mean, arguably lead to the demise of the Soviet Union. So big tick there, but did blow out the deficit. I think the way Friedman described it was that there was a Social Security Trust Fund and the government just took the money out of it and put IOUs in it. So is that right that? Is that roughly right there there? What the I think this is what you were talking about. There was a surplus, but then that money was spent on other purposes?

Romina Boccia  18:12

Yes, the, that’s roughly right. The Social Security trust fund is mainly it’s an accounting mechanism. But it isn’t a trust fund, like you would think about it in the economic or investment sense. Because those trust, investment trust funds would hold real economic assets, could be a portfolio of stocks and bonds. Treasury securities, cash, you name it. The Social Security trust fund is an accounting mechanism for internal governmental purposes. It’s basically is a provision in law that allows Social Security to continue to pay benefits, even when current taxes are no longer sufficient to pay for those benefits. And to find the money elsewhere, in this case, from the Treasury through borrowing by selling more US debt in, in open markets. But those Yeah, those assets, there were no assets in it ever. The way it works is when employers pay payroll taxes or self employed individuals pay their payroll taxes, they go to the Treasury just with, with their income taxes and every and all other tax revenue that the Treasury is collecting. There’s no distinction made, whether those are payroll taxes that are supposed to be designated for Social Security or income taxes or, or corporate taxes. It all gets muddled at that point. And then that money just goes out for current government spending. The US federal government doesn’t have a policy of, say, of saving. And, and so that never happened. Now, the best way in my view, to establish financial security in old age for individuals, if you’re going to have mandatory government programme to, let’s say, help individuals to save for their, for the later years, because apparently, we don’t trust individuals to be able to do that for themselves, then the best way to do it is to do it in a defined contribution way, rather than the current system, which is more akin to a defined benefit system, where you qualify for certain benefit, regardless of what you paid into the system or, or how much money is in the system to pay out those benefits. So a defined contribution system, you would actually set up a savings mechanism, you might invest those funds in the market. Now, I’m not really comfortable with the federal government getting involved in that to a great degree, I would be much more comfortable with individuals being able to own and control the funds in their own accounts. Because the government, as always is subject to special interest pressure, we’re seeing this in the United States with pension funds in the state local level right now, where you have special interest groups, especially the environmental left pushing to disinvest, from fossil fuels and, and other areas of the economy that they disagree with, where there’s more concern for pushing a political agenda through these public investments, then the primary consideration which should be gains for the beneficiaries of these accounts, and I would see a very similar risk if the US government adopted a system of private social security accounts, but actually controlled the investments in those so much better for individuals to be able to control and own their own retirement funds. Though in the big picture, I don’t even think that that is necessary anymore in a way for the federal government to get involved with. I think that the best role the government could play as just to provide a minimum level of security in old age, with the goal of protecting older individuals from falling into poverty if they run out of their own, own resources because they live longer than perhaps they were expecting, or they had low incomes all their lives, and were never really able to save a whole lot, or maybe they fell on hard times their business went went bankrupt, you name it, there’s all sorts of scenarios why individuals can find themselves in need of help. But in terms of private retirement savings, we live in an era where it is so simple to set up auto enrolment savings, to have automatic investments through Target Date retirement funds and other index funds where you don’t have to be a financial whiz to manage your own retirement investments. You can, you can do so much more easily than was the case 85 years ago, when a Social Security first originated. So I questioned the need for a forced, a government based force mechanism for individuals to provide for their own security in old age. I think a minimum poverty level benefit, combined with private individual savings that are owned and controlled by individuals themselves, make much more sense and also take those funds out of the hands of the government which of course, spent the money when it was collecting Social Security funds. They didn’t go towards social security in the end, they went to defence, they went to other social programmes. They went to subsidies and corporate welfare and all sorts of places, but not for their intended use.

Gene Tunny  24:03

Okay, we’ll take a short break here for a word from our sponsor.

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Gene Tunny  24:37

Now back to the show. Can I ask about Social Security? So your ,Are you suggesting that the level of social security in the US it’s too generous and that those benefits should be cut? Is that what you’re suggesting? So and that would encourage people to, to save in their own way retirement accounts.

Romina Boccia  25:02

Yes, I’m very much suggesting this. And the benefits are too generous in a number of ways, one of which is that the eligibility age for Social Security has barely budged in light of significant increases in life expectancy. That means that the number of years that have been that individuals are eligible to collect social security benefits has risen significantly. While the number of years that they have to, they’re required to work to qualify for those benefits has not. And so you get an imbalance there, where when Social Security was first launched, the eligibility age was actually above the life expectancy of, of that age, such that very few individuals were expected to ever claim that benefit, it was primarily set aside for those lucky or poor souls who outlive their peers. But today, the Social Security aged early claiming ages is still 62. Right? And, and individuals now live to be roughly 78, which is the current roughly the current life expectancy in the United States. And so there’s many, many more years that individuals can claim those benefits, but they don’t have to work any longer. So that has made the programme more generous over time. And also more unaffordable. Another factor is that the highest income earners receive the highest benefits from Social Security. And they need those benefits the lease. Yeah, so one way to fix the financial picture and also focus benefits on those individuals who need the most. If that was the original intent of old age income support programme, would be to Means test those benefits. Now, I think a fairer way to do this would be by adjusting the benefit formula. So the Means Test doesn’t apply once individuals are in retirement, especially if they’ve done the right thing. They, they work their, their whole lives, they set aside their own funds, so they could enjoy a comfortable retirement. We don’t want to penalise those individuals for doing the right thing for saving for their own needs. But there are ways of making the benefit formula more progressive, that acts as a means test as well. Except it considers lifetime earnings rather than just income in retirement.

Gene Tunny  27:48

Yeah, I think that’s a really good point. Romina. It didn’t occur to me that was the case that the more you earn, the more the government pays you in Social Security after when you retire. So I was just looking on the web. And I’ll put links in the show notes regarding this. So the average social, social security benefit is $1,657 per month, that was in January 2022. So conceivably, there are people getting more than that from the federal government each month as in Social Security. And, yeah, I can see the logic in, in changing that formula.

Romina Boccia  28:31

You’re correct about the average Social Security benefit, but there are some higher income earners can collect up closer to $3,300 per month in Social Security benefits. And that doesn’t account for if you’re looking at a married couple, an additional spousal benefit, that, that would bring their security benefit more than 4500 to $5,000 per month range.

Gene Tunny  29:02

Yeah. And some of these households probably don’t need it because they’ve got other assets, they own their own home, they’ve got investments, etc. Okay. Now, that’s, that’s Social Security. Is that the big? That’s the big programme driving the future deficits, is it or to what to what extent is it Medicare and Medicaid? Do they play a role too?

Romina Boccia  29:25

Yes, Medicare is actually the elephant in the room. Because with Social Security, you’re primarily looking at a fairly predictable benefit formula where you consider demographic factors like fertility rates, the number of new workers in the United States, including immigrants, and then when do, when do people reach the eligibility age roughly in their mid 60s, and what is their life expectancy? And so right now we’re going through a big growth spurt in Social Security as the baby boomers started retiring at, at significant rates, I want to say it was 11,000 per day. 10,000 per day, I think it was 10,000 per day starting in 2011. And over a 20 year period of time, we’re moving through this big bubble of baby boomers entering the Social Security and Medicare systems. Once we’re through that baby boom, bubble, there’s a decline in fertility after that baby boom. And so Social Security roughly levels out at 6% of GDP. And then, you know, fluctuates around around there. But with Medicare, because you’re looking at a health insurance programme, and health care costs are rising steeply, and don’t seem to be slowing down. And what we also know is that health care is a luxury good, where as societies become wealthier, they desire to consume more health care. So wealthier societies tend to increase the portion of their budgets that they spend on health care, not all of which is is very well spend, we also know that much of healthcare expenditures are going towards the signalling or showing that you care, and paying for medical treatments for conditions that that don’t respond well to those treatments for a number of incentives. And that were spending the most during individuals final years of their lives, where perhaps that additional dollar of healthcare spending isn’t doing that much good anymore. But all of those factors are driving up the growth in health care spending. And that seems to be just going up with that with none of that leaving and inside, if you will, for where it will taper off, we can’t we don’t know when or if it will taper off. And so Medicare is the big elephant in the room. And there too, you have very similar issues where, again, the eligibility age is roughly 65 hasn’t gone up, as individuals are living longer. So increasing the retirement age and then indexing the age of eligibility to increases in life expectancy is a very common sense, change that would help alleviate some of the cost drivers. And the other one, again, is that you should consider how much of a health care subsidy you should be giving, if any, to to high income earners. Those individuals who are capable of paying for their own health care, and retirement should pay for a larger share of it. So that you can focus benefits on those individuals who need them to most means testing is one very, very common sense way of adjusting how much you know, the programme spends and who would spend that money on and to get more in line with what incoming revenues and not to drive up the deficit too much. But in the big picture, I think we we’ve come to over rely on a third party payment system where there’s a lot of treatments and even administrative costs are skyrocketing. Because there’s very little consumer interaction in this marketplace. So much is paid. The vast majority of health care expenditures are paid through insurance systems, I think the best use of an insurance system is to pay for catastrophic health care to pay for very expensive chronic conditions to pay for, you know, a big accidents that, that incur large medical costs for individuals, but not for routine healthcare needs. And that’s that’s where we’ve ended up over over several decades of shifting towards a system of third party payment. And, and one of the big reasons in the United States for that is after World War Two, the health care tax exclusion for employer provided health care has really driven up the cost of health care in the United States. And we should have fairer treatment for individuals who are self employed or who choose not to use their employer’s health care to be able to at least get the same tax treatment as their employer. Better yet. My colleague Michael Tanner at Cato has put forth a proposal where instead of employers buying health insurance for their employees, they could provide the funds that they would spend on their employees health insurance through a health savings account, and then the employees themselves could decide how much of that they want to allocate towards health insurance and how much of that they might want to keep in those health savings accounts to pay for out of pocket costs, such as getting A high deductible health insurance plan that’s primarily focused on those catastrophic expenses, while paying for routine health care needs, out of their health savings accounts, that would bring more consumer involvement into this marketplace, which would also help with price transparency, as consumers become more educated as healthcare consumers, and especially for routine treatments start shopping around. Of course, it’s not possible if you are being picked up in an ambulance because you just suffered from an emergency. But there are, there are other scenarios where becoming a more cost conscious patient and healthcare consumer makes a lot of sense and can help to reduce costs.

Gene Tunny  35:47

Hmm, I’ll have to look at Michael’s work. So Michael Tanner, you mentioned his work. Yeah. But I’ll have to, I’ll have to come back to health in a future episode, because I know it’s a very complicated area to look at. On Medicare Romina, do you have any figures on that? I mean, you mentioned it was at US Social Security will get up to about 6% of GDP. Did I hear that right? And do you have any comparable figures for Medicare?

Romina Boccia  36:17

I’m not going to top of my head, but the Congressional Budget Office provides those in their budget and economic outlook. I’m more focused on Social Security, because as you just mentioned, Medicare has its own complex bag of a variety of different policies. So we have a scholar solely dedicated to that.

Gene Tunny  36:41

Yeah, yeah. Fair enough. And I mean, my understanding is that the Social Security’s that’s the, that’s the big one. But then you’re saying that yeah, Medicare is a, it’s an important issue.

Romina Boccia  36:52

It’s approaching, yeah, the size of Social Security. So between Medicare and Social Security, more than half of the federal government’s budget goes towards these two programmes. Okay, gotcha. So they make up the vast majority of federal spending now, and they’re projected to grow significantly.

Gene Tunny  37:10

Right, do you have any concerns about defence spending at all? I mean, often one thing that’s often pointed out as well, I mean, the US spends much more than any other country on defence, of course, you’ve got an important role in the, the world economic or the world geopolitical order, or however you’d like to describe it. So have you looked at that? And do you have any thoughts on defence?

Romina Boccia  37:34

No, not just the fence. But so the way that the budget is, is allocated in the US context is that there’s a so called discretionary spending, which makes up roughly 1/3. And then there’s the so called mandatory or autopilot spending and the key differences that discretionary spending has to be voted on each and every year. For example, this week, the US Congress is voting on defence and non defence discretionary spending to avert a government shutdown because we’re at the end of the fiscal year. That is not the case for programmes like Medicare and Social Security and even Medicaid, which which which have authorizations, which have spending allocations that don’t expire, so they can just continue spending even when the resources aren’t there. But both non defence and defence discretionary spending has seen a large increases, especially during the pandemic, there’s been large increases in in nondefense discretionary spending for varieties of things including support for state and local government to weather the pandemic. Various handouts for special interest groups. We just recently saw the chips act pass for the semiconductor industry in the United States. And then the inflation Reduction Act, which had a lot of green New Deal policies to subsidise green energy and electric vehicles, etc. So there’s been a while that spending, it doesn’t get projected out over the extended periods, 30 years 50 or 75 years in the case of Social Security, Medicare, because Congress, allocates, appropriates it every single year. We are seeing a rise in discretionary spending also in the area of emergency and disaster relief with no budget or notional account to control that spending. So it’s often used as a as a loophole to fund other priorities without going through the regular budget process. And, yes, overall, I’m concerned about most aspects of the federal government being on a growth trajectory and defence and non defence discretionary spending very much in that in that sphere. are as well. One of one solution there is to adopt us spending caps and the US has adopted those, with some success in the past, with little less success in the recent past. But discretionary spending caps that set a goal or a level that then lawmakers have to fight over or the public can hold them to account for can be very helpful. We don’t have any discretionary spending caps right now. And I think it sets up a good discussion when you have those to say, Okay, if you truly believe that, that is not sufficient, you need to spend more, what can we cut instead. And then in more likely scenario, lawmakers are not going to want to cut anything. So instead, we get some discussion over offsetting spending cuts elsewhere, say in the mandatory portion of the budget. Or if they increase, it agreed to a spending increase, at least now we have something we can hold them to. So I do think it sets up a productive debate around the purpose of spending limits priorities for the federal government, what are true priorities and what they’re just want to have spore favourite lobbying groups, so that the public can do a better job also of holding their lawmakers accountable. And there is an opportunity for the US Congress, the new Congress in the next year to impose more spending restraint. The debt limit will approach again likely next summer and the summer of 2023. And the debt limit is often a very effective action forcing mechanism for fiscal restraint. Basically, lawmakers can make demands that they won’t increase the debt limit, unless there are offsetting spending cuts or a budget plan is put in place. And I think a spending caps over the entire federal budget would be, would be best so that Congress can budget within so called Unified budget, consider all priorities and needs within context and and make those necessary trade offs. But one, one good start and those are easy to implement would be discretionary spending caps on defence and non defence.

Gene Tunny  42:16

Right. Okay, I’ll have to look back and see some, look for some examples of those spending caps in the past that sounds really interesting.

Romina Boccia  42:28

So yes, we had the, the Budget Control Act of 2011, that imposed spending caps for a period of roughly 10 years, but they were, they were circumvented several times. But there were also some offsetting spending cuts to allow for those increases in defence and non defence. The other thing that has become sort of gimmicky in the US context, under President Obama and the Democrats are continuing to try and push this, this this idea of parity that the defence account and the non defence, domestic discretionary accounts should be getting the same amount of money, which is just a goal that they have set as if it this was some kind of a political game without any consideration for real needs, either in the domestic economy or on the defence side, the threats that the United States face, it’s just an arbitrary target, we just want to get as much money as the other guys. And that just doesn’t make any sense at all. And I think I think the public should, should call lawmakers out for that apparently doesn’t make any sense we should not be allocating any more spending than is, is necessary. And it should also be within the within the bounds of the US Constitution. Because that document has a has a purpose, which is to restrain the government and protect the rights of the, of the individual. And so that should be our guidance for what to spend money on and how much to spend not some arbitrary goal of we just want parody because it’s political.

Gene Tunny  44:06

Yeah, yeah. Okay, final question. Romina. Have you looked at what we do here in Australia or what’s done in New Zealand with retirement savings? Have you looked at our we have a compulsory.

Romina Boccia  44:18

A little bit? Yeah, I was reading up recently on, on the superannuation, I think it’s called. Yeah, I mean, I like the defined contribution aspect, but I also recognise that there’s a push to increase the amount that employers have to pay for their employees superannuation and, and that can create distortionary incentives for how many individuals to employ because you’re driving up the cost of labour, I would see, I would think that that would be an issue, but what are your thoughts on how how the system’s working?

Gene Tunny  44:53

Oh, well, I think overall, it’s, it’s better to have it than not have it. So we did have the problem that people were too reliant on the aged pension here. So you’re, well, what our Social Security programme for the elderly, although there are differences in the, in the the rate and it doesn’t. It’s not, it doesn’t increase if you contribute more over your, your lifetime. So if you have higher earnings over your lifetime, so it’s different in that regard. And yeah, so I think it’s, it’s good that we’ve got a system that takes some of the pressure off the age pension, but we’ve still got rising age pension costs, it hasn’t removed that problem entirely, the future imposed on the budget of our age pension is a lot lower than your Social Security system from what I can just from my quick, the quick look, I’ve had the figures. Yep. So I think it’s good in that regard. But yeah, you’re right, there is that issue of the fact that in the short run the can hit employers, so we’ve had an increase in the contribution rate, it was 9%. And they’ve been increasing it, I think half a percent every couple of years. And now it’s up at 10 and a half percent, if I remember correctly. And so initially, the employer has to pay more each quarter to the Australian Tax Office, I’m an employer. So this is something I’m very conscious of. So I’ve had to increase the superannuation contributions. But over the long term, I think what the expectation is that it will come out of wages of the employees, so the employees will end up paying for it, because it is a form of compensation. That’s how it was initially sold in the 90s, when it was introduced. So it was a trade off. The treasurer at the time, Paul Keating, who was on, he was part of the Labour Party, he was on the, on the left of politics, but it was a very sensible, very moderate government, and highly praised around the world for economic reforms. And the way that he sold it was that you will get this super so you’re getting the super, but it means you have to have wage restraint at the same time. So that trade off was explicitly recognised. So yeah, but in the short run, there’s a, there’s certainly an impact on employers. But there’s a recognition that over the longer term, it really is the employees who will be paying for it. Look, there are a couple of issues with the, the design of, of super, there’s a concern that these industry super funds control, they have too much control or they’re controlling too much money and they’re too dominated by unions. There are people who are concerned about that. There are other people that are arguing that oh, look, it’d be better if people had access to this money. So they could buy a house, there’s a big debate about whether people should be able to withdraw from Super to buy a house. What else? Yeah, and clearly, some people might be better off if they were able to use that money while they, were while they were young. And when we had COVID. During the COVID period, the government did allow people to withdraw from their super accounts. And we saw a lot of people take that up. And I think they pulled 10 or $20,000 out, if I remember correctly, that was very popular. So yeah, overall, I think it’s a good thing, even though, as a someone who’s very sympathetic to classical, liberal views, I think, Oh, well, it’s not good that the government saying you’ve got to do this, but on the other hand, I recognise that for a lot of people, they might not be saving enough for retirement, and therefore in that case, the government would have to pay for it. So look on balance, I think it’s good. We’ve got it there and are some issues with it. Sure. Yep. So that’s my general, Yeah, that all make sense or any questions.

Romina Boccia  49:17

It’s, it’s certainly an improvement over the US Social Security system where it’s the government handling the entire thing, even though there are contributions by workers and their employers. I did read that individuals who pulled funds from their super accounts during COVID on average, spend longer unemployed than individuals who didn’t choose to tap their super accounts. So it indicates just like in the US, we saw that extended unemployment benefits tend to incentivize people to stay home longer and go back to work later. Even in the context of super, that seems to have had a similar effect.

Gene Tunny  50:07

Yeah, I think that’s that’s probably true. We’ll have to look up that, that evidence of that sounds right to me. Right. Oh, well, remember, this has been fantastic. I think that’s been a great overview of the fiscal challenges facing the US. I hope that you’re, they’re inviting you to appear before Congress at some time to testify to get your views because I think they’re really well informed and important views. So that’s terrific. So yeah, if there’s any final points, anything else to add?

Romina Boccia  50:42

Thank you. I just wanted to just looked up Medicare as a percentage of GDP and it’s roughly 4% right now. Going up.

Gene Tunny  50:49

Okay, gotcha. Right. So that is a big deal. Okay Romina Boccia from the Cato Institute. Thanks so much for your time. I really appreciate your insights and really enjoyed the conversation.

Romina Boccia  51:02

Yeah, so fun chatting with you, Gene. Thanks so much for inviting me on your show.

Gene Tunny  51:06

Okay, thanks Romina. 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 contact@economicsexplored.com And we’ll aim to address them in a future episode. Thanks for listening. Till next week, goodbye.

Credits

Thanks to Josh Crotts for mixing the episode and to the show’s sponsor, Gene’s consultancy business www.adepteconomics.com.au

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Categories
Podcast episode

Hyperinflation: what causes it and what to do about it – EP158

What causes hyperinflation and how can it be avoided in the first place or stopped if it occurs? What characterizes countries which fall victim to hyperinflation? A conversation between show host Gene Tunny and his colleague Arturo Espinoza which explores the economic theory and evidence around hyperinflation, and discusses peculiarities which can arise in hyperinflation-afflicted economies – e.g. pensions denominated in cows in Zimbabwe.  

Please get in touch with any questions, comments and suggestions by emailing us at contact@economicsexplored.com or sending a voice message via https://www.speakpipe.com/economicsexplored

You can listen to the episode via the embedded player below or via podcasting apps including Google PodcastsApple PodcastsSpotify, and Stitcher.

Links relevant to the conversation

Current inflation rates around the world (Trading Economics)

What is hyperinflation and should we be worried? (WEF article from June 2022)

Wikipedia entry for Alberto Fujimori

Why a Zimbabwean firm offers pensions denominated in cows | The Economist

The Modern Hyperinflation Cycle: Some New Empirical Regularities (IMF Working paper from 2018)

Chris Edmond’s note on Cagan’s model of hyperinflation

Alberto Alesina and Lawrence H. Summers’ paper Central Bank Independence and Macroeconomic Performance: Some Comparative Evidence

Bitcoin Could Solve Zimbabwe’s Hyperinflation Problem—Instead, The Country Is Telling Impoverished Citizens To ‘Just Buy Gold’ (Forbes article)

Inflation is spiking in Zimbabwe (again). Why high interest rates aren’t the answer (Conversation article by Jonathan Munemo): 

Transcript: Hyperinflation: what causes it and what to do about it – EP158

Gene Tunny  00:00

Coming up on economics explored.

Arturo Espinoza Bocangel  00:01

That, of course, affected or negatively affected people’s economic decisions, because my parents are all the people who live at the moment who are subject to new higher prices every day.

Gene Tunny  00:18

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 158 on hyper inflation, what causes it and what to do about it? In this episode, I chat about hyperinflation with my Adept Cconomics colleague, Arturo Espinoza. Please stick around until the end of the episode for some additional thoughts from me on hyperinflation. I’ll be interested in your thoughts on this episode. So please get in touch and let me know what you think. In the show notes, you can find my contact details along with relevant links, info and clarifications. Please note that alas, I made some Clangers by miss speaking at a couple of points in my conversation with Arturo, the Weimar Republic in Germany came after World War One obviously, rather than World War Two, and the so called Fuji shock happened in Peru rather than Japan. Silly me for misspeaking. Righto. Now for my conversation with Arturo about hyperinflation thanks to my audio engineer Josh Crotts for his assistance in producing this episode. I hope you enjoy it. Joining me today is my adept economics colleague, Arturo Espinosa, Arturo, good to be chatting with you.

Arturo Espinoza Bocangel  01:40

Hi, Gene it’s my pleasure to be here.

Gene Tunny  01:44

Excellent. Arturo. So one of the things we’ve been chatting about a lot lately is inflation. And we’ve been looking at inflation and unemployment. And that’s for a project that we’ve been working on. And back a few months ago, we did chat about stagflation, a particular type of it’s a nasty combination of unemployment and inflation. That was episode 143. And I thought, based on what we’ve been looking at, and you showed me, or you alerted me to some data from Peru, in the 1990s, about a hyperinflation they had, I thought it’d be good to chat about hyperinflation is one of those economic calamities, because there are, well, it’s fascinating. It’s not something that happens a lot. And it’s, it’s awful when it happens. And it’s good to know, well, what are the things that lead to hyperinflation? What are the circumstances? How can we avoid it? And if it starts, how can we stop it? So I think it’s an important thing for us to talk about on the show. So yeah, if you’re happy to chat about hyperinflation, I think we should we should get into it. So. Yes. Yep. Let’s start. Okay. Very good. Right. So I guess where this started, was, we had a look at. But what prompted me to do this episode was I forget how it came up. But we were talking about high rates of inflation. You mentioned that in Peru in the early 90s, you had this hyperinflation and caused all sorts of all sorts of problems. And when I looked at the data on macro bond, it had an inflation rate in one year, I think it was over 10,000%. It was huge. It was it was massive. I don’t know the exact rate, I’ll have to put that in the show notes. I can’t recall it off the top of my head, but very high inflation rate. And then that reminded me Okay, well, this is something that happens from time to time, it’s hyperinflation. At the moment in advanced economies, we’ve got inflation rates of, you know, five to 10% or so. So Australia through the year, a bit over 6%, US eight to 9%. And we’re not in that sort of hyperinflation and territory, the way that they typically define Hyperinflation is where you have a monthly inflation rate. And this is prices, on average, increasing by 50% a month. So that’s a standard definition of a hyperinflation. I think that comes from an article by us economist, Phillip Kagan, I think in the 50s on hyperinflations. But there’s no commonly or there’s no widely accepted definition. As far as I can tell, I mean, there’s no official definition and Dornbusch and Fischer, so Stanley Fischer and Rudiger Dornbusch, who wrote this great macro economics textbook, back in the 80s. And, and, I used it in the 90s when I was studying, they defined it as a, an annual inflation rate of 1,000%. So whether it’s 50% Monthly, which if you looked at that on a yearly basis, that it’d be nearly 13,000%, or whether it’s 1,000%. Annual, it’s still really bad. So 1,000% annual inflation rate, where prices go up, basically 10x, isn’t it? I mean, that’s, that’s a huge. That’s a huge, impressive inflation rate. So you’re challenging for people to, to deal with? And, yeah, so I’ve got some data on the what inflation rates that we’ve seen at the moment, and it looks like, while in recent history, we have had some hyperinflations in places like Zimbabwe and Venezuela, which we’ll talk about in a moment. When I look at the trading economics websites, I’ll put a link in the show notes to this, we look at inflation rates around the world, the highest at the moment. So in annual terms, it looks like we’ve got well Zimbabwe coming in at looks like 285%. Lebanon 168%. So the very high inflation rates, but not in the hyper inflation range just yet. Okay. But it had they have had that sort of experience in the past. And we might cover that in a moment. So I thought this would be good to talk about, because, I mean, it’s something that people are aware of this can happen. And we all know that there are concerns about government, money printing and all of that. And it’s, if you’re a member of the public, and yet perhaps you haven’t studied economics, it may not be obvious what leads to these hyperinflations I mean, is this a risk for countries such as Australia, or the United States or, or Britain? And you know, what would lead to this eventuality of hyperinflation? And so what what I want to do in this episode, Arturo is just articulate. What are those conditions that lead to hyperinflation and when should we worry about it? There was an interesting article on the World Economic Forum website, what is hyperinflation? And should we be worried? I’ll put a link in the show notes to that I think that provides some interesting stories about inflation, I might kick off by talking about hyperinflation, I might kick off by reading from that. So it notes that it’s, it’s readily accepted that France and you are the world’s first recorded instance of hyperinflation during the French Revolution in the late 18th century, when monthly inflation topped 143%. Okay, so recall, at the moment in advanced economies, were concerned about inflation rates of between well between five and 10%, over through the year over a year, whereas when you’re in hyperinflation, you’re getting monthly inflation of could be 143% in France in the late 18th century. They go on to say that nevertheless perhaps the most well known example of hyperinflation incurred in the night occurred in the 1920s, when following World War One and crippled by reparation debt, Weimar, Germany saw its monthly inflation rate reached 29,500% in 1923, according to the Cato Institute, more recently, Zimbabwe was bound by hyperinflation, recording a staggering monthly inflation rate of about 70,000,000,000,  79,000,000,000% in november, that’s just insane. So I guess what those examples illustrate is that you’re dealing with countries where there’s an underlying problem, there’s some sort of deep crisis and or there’s a big disruption that occurs. So French Revolution, obviously, the end of the ancient regime, the new revolutionary government, executions, people getting detained, the end of the old regime, and huge disruption. And then following World War Two, we’ve got the Weimar Republic. And I mean, there was that you’re familiar with that the peace deal at Versailles that they struck, which was very hard on Germany at the time. So the reparations debt so the the victors the the allies, so well, outside or Britain and Australia and the US. We imposed a very tough, yes. Yeah. And so it meant that they really struggled. The Germans really struggled to pay that back and that meant that, you know, they’ve put a lot of pressure on their budget. And, well, this is where the problem comes from, essentially, your budget is in such dire straits, your deficits are so large, you have to resort to the printing press, you have to basically, well monetize your deficit, you have to create the new money yourself to be able to, to pay the bills. And that’s where you end up with, with really well, really high inflation and hyperinflation when things get out of control. And in the public, don’t trust the government anymore. They don’t want to hold the currency and the government keeps having to print more and more to try to get enough currency to pay the bills. And it just all ends really badly, you end up with these very high rate well hyperinflation 1000% plus inflation rate per annum. And you need to take really drastic measures to to get that under control. Right. So what causes it? And I think we’ve, we’ve alluded to that it’s the, it’s the fact that there is this, this printing of money to finance deficits that, for some reason or another, the government of the day can’t raise the money it needs via taxation, or it can’t borrow the money from the bond market, it can’t borrow the money from the private sector. So one of the reasons that a country like Australia or the US or Britain, why they don’t usually have to worry about inflation, or why we haven’t had a sorry, a hyperinflation. And why we haven’t had a hyperinflation here is because, well, we generally don’t resort to the printing press to finance deficits at times in the past, we have to a significant extent, but now what we do is we sell bonds into the market, the government sells the bonds, and it gets the money it needs that way. And we also don’t have the big disruption that tends to lead to hyperinflation. So what you have to have really is this combination of, well, you’ve got the there’s the money print ing going on, but that’s, that’s going on, because there’s some underlying disruption, that means that the government can’t get the money it needs, or it’s in some sort of crisis. And it needs to spend a lot of money, such as what the Germans faced in the aftermath of World War One when they had these heavy reparations payments to make. Okay, so what we see Dornbusch and Fisher note in their textbook, that classic hyperinflations took place in the aftermath of of wars. So that’s one thing we know there’s this disruption. And that’s going to affect the government’s ability to to raise money. And one thing that Dornbusch and Fischer noting, in their textbook is that hyperinflationary economies all suffered from large deficits in many cases, that was because of the war, you ended up with this large national debt. And if you end up with a lot of debt, then you’ve got the interest payments associated with that. And also, it just wrecked the country’s ability to raise taxes. Okay, because, you know, it’s destroyed businesses, for example, or perhaps it’s wrecked your, your tax collection capacity. You don’t, you don’t have the, the administrative capacity anymore to be able to collect the tax. So it’s, it ends up being a two way interaction, as they describe it. They talk about how large deficits lead to rapid inflation by causing governments to print money to finance the deficit, and then high inflation then increases the deficit. And that’s because there are two things going on. The nominal interest rates are increasing, because there’s higher inflation expected. And also because if your taxes if you’re calculating them based on what’s happened over the last 12 months or so, and prices have risen since then, then you’re going to lose out in real terms. So there’s this lag in both the calculation and then, the, the collection of the taxes and this is called the Tanzi-Oliveira Effect. So Tanzi, after a famous economist who was at the IMF, Vito Tanzi, okay, so what you have is that you’ve got this two way interaction. You’ve got, you’ve got large budget deficits that have to be monetized. And that ends up being inflationary. But then you have inflation, increasing the deficit that you’ve got, and this thing becomes a vicious circle, or it’s or it’s reinforcing. And this inflation gets a momentum, it gets a life of its own, and you can end up if you’re not careful. And if things get really bad, you can end up in this hyper inflationary situation. Right. And, I mean, the amazing thing is, I mean, we talked about, we talked about Germany, and then that’s the classic, or the infamous case of hyperinflation. And the stories that come out of these periods are just, they’re unbelievable, and they just illustrate the the hardship that’s occurred by people in these in these hyper inflationary periods, which is why we need to really guard against it and why we, we need to ensure that our monetary and fiscal policies are as sound as possible, because this is a this is a pathology, that you get this is a problem you get when you’ve got both bad monetary and fiscal policy, isn’t it? Because you’ve got the fiscal policy, which is there’s a budget deficit. And there’s also the monetary policy, which, which is financing the budget deficit by money printing. So you need the monetary authority, the central bank, or, well, perhaps it’s the Treasury, you need to have this hyperinflation go on, you need them to be doing the wrong thing there, as well as running the budget deficit, you need them to be monetizing it. So there are a lot of things that have to go wrong before you get into this hyperinflationary situation. And what happens is, you end up with massive hardship. And one thing I find I find extraordinary, there’s that story about the hyperinflation in Austria, after World War One. When, and this was a story that Keynes told, and it’s recounted in Dornbusch, and Fischers textbook. And he, they noted that people would order two beers at a time because they grew stale at a slower rate than the price was rising. So you’d go to a bar and you’d order two beers. Because the next time he went to the bar, the price would, would be high. Prices were rising. So fast, I mean, just terrible. Absolutely extraordinary stories like that. And there’s another story from Zimbabwe, we might tell in the moment, but what I thought would be good to do is we might consider some examples of some hyper inflation’s throughout the world. And because this conversation was motivated, partly by what you’re telling me about what happened in Peru, could you tell me a bit a bit about what happened in Peru in the it was it late 80s, early 90s. And then and then how that was resolved, please,

Arturo Espinoza Bocangel  18:08

In Peru, in my case, my parents, they live through that harsh time, in terms of in terms of economics and social. So basically, in the case of Peru is a particular case where some components, social, economic, and all models converge to this economic result or economic event that you have mentioned about hyperinflation. Let me give you a little bit of context about the Peruvian economy in the decade of 1980s or last decade in Peru, basically was, as I mentioned, marked by hyperstar stagflation, where is the son of hyper inflation plus recession. During those years. In Peru, the government took bad decisions. They started to spend a lot of money printing money, particularly the government of Ireland, Garcia, the first government between 1985 to the end of 80s, 90s.

Gene Tunny  19:31

Was this a socialist government?

Arturo Espinoza Bocangel  19:33

Yes, it was a leftist government. But at that moment, the political decision were the words, they they wanted to do the best. The the results told something different. But during that moment, the Peruvian Economy experience for our unfavourable terms of trade wars credit conditions for public debt and also some work condition, which caused floods, also many economic loss in during that time. So all these factors contributed towards in real economic growth.

Gene Tunny  20:23

Right. So you had this triple whammy, didn’t you? You had the declines in commodity prices, I suppose. So lower commodity prices, which affected your terms of trade, and then you said worse credit conditions for, for debt. So, higher interest rates was it at higher borrowing costs. And then you had the bad weather so, okay, yeah, pretty awful.

Arturo Espinoza Bocangel  20:47

And also is the government of Ireland, Garcia decided not to pay those public depths. So Peru also had some consequences doing that. So in response to that, the Peruvian government implemented a group of heterodox measures. So including the use of price controls, or multiple exchange rates to reduce inflation. So during that decade, Peru faced period of high inflation, so between 20% to 50% K per year, but the wars are pure in September 1988, when Peru faced its first episode of hyperinflation, the second episode of hyperinflation occur between July to August in 1990. So that, of course, affected or negatively affected people’s economic decisions. Because my parents or all the people who live at that moment, were subjected to new higher prices every day. Yeah. So imagine that. So as you mentioned about the viewers, if you want to buy milk, when milk, a jar of milk one day, the next day is, the price is higher also. So imagine that effect. So basically, those relatively poor people were the most affected. Because some of the Peruvians, they started to buy dollars, American dollars in order to avoid all the negative effects of inflationary pressures. Yeah, yeah. So that was the context. Yeah, what happened in Peru.

Gene Tunny  22:48

Um, I might just give you a break there Arturo, because I’ve just found the relevant table in the Dornbusch and Fisher textbook, my old university textbook, and then the estimates they have of the inflation rate in Peru. So if you look at 1985, I mean, it was it would have been higher from our perspective, 163%. And then it got down a little bit in 86, and 87, to 78.86%, in 98 82.5%, 1989 3,399%, 1999 7,482%, before dropping to 410% in 1991, and 88% in 1992. So, you know, just awful numbers would have been difficult for people to plan anything. And if you’re, if you’re holding your wealth in the local currency, I mean, it’s just wiped out. It’s just, you’re just losing all of that, that wealth or if you’re holding government bonds, you’re right. Yeah. You’re in deep trouble. Yeah. Yeah. And so what happened? I mean, the, there was, was there a new government and it implemented new policies.

Arturo Espinoza Bocangel  24:06

Yes, these new governments implemented heterodox policies like they wanted to control prices. And also they implemented multiple exchange rates. And I remember that impor for example, you want to import something at that moment they were restricted so import was controled as well. It was was a very dark moment in Peru.

Gene Tunny  24:36

Right. Okay, and that so that didn’t go well, that period that the initial that their response was not really the best way to tackle this was

Arturo Espinoza Bocangel  24:45

They wanted to do the best, but they think, they didn’t follow the correct prescription. Yeah, for that moment. Yeah.

Gene Tunny  24:53

And so what happens is a is it Fujimori comes in and then he’s got a different way of resolving it.

Arturo Espinoza Bocangel  24:59

At the beginning of 90s, with a new government for the Fujimori government implemented policies to stabilise the economy. So, basically, that kind of package or general economic package in order to combat the, those economic problems also social problems rely in two pillars. The first was related to cut inflationary fiscal financing. Also, the Peruvian central bank became autonomous in 1993. So there was a good hit for tackling inflation. And the second pillar was related to enhance free market conditions to liberalise the Peruvian market.

Gene Tunny  25:54

Yeah, yeah. So that they’re important, aren’t they? Because, let’s, let’s look at it. So there’s the commitment to cut inflationary fiscal financing. So we’re no longer monetizing the deficits. And I’m not sure exactly the relationship between the finance ministry or the Treasury and the central bank there. The way that deficits are monetized, is going to be different in different countries. But I mean, having this autonomy, having this autonomous Central Bank as well as important because one of the ways that deficits are monetized is that the central bank just buys the bonds from the government issues and just credits them with the money in the government’s bank account of the central bank that’s necessary to that the government wants to pay the bills. So the central bank is important in getting rid of this monetization with the central bank is often part of the monetization. So having an autonomous central bank is important because an autonomous central bank is going to tell the government no, we’re not going to buy your, your bonds, you’ve got to sell into the private market, or you need to borrow from another lender and international lender, for example. And, you know, we’re not going to be part of this money printing and monetization of the, of the deficit. So yeah, that’s incredibly important. And there’s evidence to that this autonomy, or this independence of the central bank, that is correlated with better inflation outcomes. And I mean, that’s, that’s across the whole spectrum of, of inflationary outcomes, right? So it’s going to help you prevent hyperinflation. And even if you’re a country with lower levels of inflation, you don’t have hyperinflations, such as Australia, New Zealand, Britain, US, etc. Having a more independent central bank, you’re going to get better inflation outcomes there. And I think there’s evidence by from Alberto Alesina, that’s a commonly cited study from the late 80s. I’ll put a link about that in the show notes. Okay. Now, this was called the Fuji shock. Is that right?

Arturo Espinoza Bocangel  28:11

Yes. Yes, absolutely. Yeah. The combat. hyperinflation. Yeah.

Gene Tunny  28:18

And so what was it? It was a, like they cut the they, cut the deficit, where the harsh fiscal measures. And this is, this is where it gets really bad. This is why you don’t you want to avoid getting into a hyperinflationary situation in the first place. Because the medicine is harsh. It’s harsh medicine, isn’t it? I mean, really, because you’ve got to just cut that deficit. You can’t monetize it, you’ve got to, you’ve got to either raise the taxes domestically, or you’ve got to borrow domestically. But what if people don’t want to lend to you what if your own citizens don’t want to lend to you or they don’t have the capacity to lend enough money to you then then you might have to go to an international lender, or you might have to borrow from overseas and what we find I think, in stopping a lot of these hyperinflations it’s a it’s a combination of this fiscal austerity or getting your budget under control, not monetizing your deficits are getting better monetary policy and independent central bank, but also often it’s getting a loan getting some foreign investment or getting a borrowing from overseas to to help stabilise your exchange rate, for example, that can be part of the solution.

Arturo Espinoza Bocangel  29:41

To facilitate internationally in foreign investment.

Gene Tunny  29:45

Yeah, because there was a paper that you found where you pulled out inflation and the cost of stabilisation, historical and recent experiences and policy lessons by Andre Solimano. World bank research observer in July 1990. And, and in that paper, the author writes that the experiences of stopping hyperinflation provide examples of both rapid disinflation achieved through restrictive monetary and fiscal policies. Yep. So getting your money supply under control by not monetizing deficits, getting your fiscal policy under control. And then he goes on to say, and the key role played by stabilisation of the exchange rate in successful stabilisation. So you need to get your exchange rate stabilised so that you’re not getting inflation through the exchange rate. So if your exchange rate is deteriorating, and then the cost of imports is rising, that’s contributing to inflation, so you need to get that under control. Last but not least, the history of economic stabilisation has amply shown that the availability of adequate foreign financing as a support to the stabilisation effort is a crucial ingredient in the success of stabilisation plan. So I thought that was really fascinating on and that’s an important finding, right? So it just goes to show what you need to get in place to correct a hyperinflation if it if it occurs if you’re in that unhappy situation. Right. And it looks like Peru ended up getting some it ended up borrowing from overseas as part of that if I if I recall, there was a or the IMF ended up guaranteeing loan funding for Peru according to the Wikipedia entry on Fujimori. Fujimori, is it? Yeah, I’ll put it. I’ll put a link in the show notes. And what’s fascinating about him. So he’s, he has Japanese ancestry, and he became President of Peru. But he’s a controversial figure in the end, wasn’t he? There’s a story there’s

Arturo Espinoza Bocangel  31:54

a story about the birth certificate. Well, because in order to be a Peruvian President, you need to be born in Peru. But apparently he will. He was born in Japan, but something strange okay with her with his birth certificate. Yep.

Gene Tunny  32:15

Right. Yes. I mean, he got they seem to have got it under control. But I should know that he was accused of corruption wasn’t a Oh, yes, yes. Yeah,

Arturo Espinoza Bocangel  32:28

there is. He’s considered one of the wards, precedent or corrupted precedent in the world. Yeah.

Gene Tunny  32:38

Okay, we’ll take a short break here for a word from our sponsor.

Female speaker  32:43

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Gene Tunny  33:13

Now back to the show. So I think we’ve talked a bit about how you stop hyperinflation. It’s, it’s harsh medicine, it’s austerity, and that’s going to deliver pain, getting your monetary policy under control. And also stabilising your exchange rate, possibly through some foreign borrowing. Okay. The other example I wanted to talk about was, was Zimbabwe, because that’s an example of D monetization, isn’t it? So one of the one of the points that you made I remember when we were preparing for this conversation is that one thing you see in Hyperinflation is that people start avoiding the currency don’t they try not to use the currency, they might switch to US dollars, for example, if they’re available, they don’t want to use the local currency. or, in extreme cases, they might even use us commodities as as items at those units of account. So this is this this bizarre story. This is from the Economist magazine, I’ll put a link to it in the show notes and this was from earlier this year, and so may 14 2022. And the headline was wire Zimbabwe and firm offers pensions denominated in cows, okay. And there’s this this actuary, Mr. Chimp, Chairman, Norway, and an actuary trained in Britain started a company, the hacker life insurance, so apologies of mangled those pronunciations instead Out of this company to sell inflation proof pensions to Zimbabweans. The Pensions are not denominated in Zimbabwe dollars, since they quickly evaporate nor in American dollars since many Zimbabweans are struggling to obtain any. Instead, they are denominated in cows, which the government can’t print. This is what I love about the economist. I love these really clever, witty, witty lines in there. That’s great, isn’t it? So say there’s typically wage earners such as teachers, they chip in cash, which NACA immediately turns into cattle. So he, okay, the the assets grow by breeding, when a policy matures, clients can demand payment in cows or the cash equivalent, right? So, look, this is a sort of quirky thing that happens when you’ve got this really disruptive hyperinflation, you see people ordering multiple beers at the bar to avoid having to pay higher prices later. And you see things like this where you’ve got contracts denominated in capital. So it’s just an extraordinarily disruptive economic phenomenon that you really need to avoid, if you can, well, it can end up being incredibly costly to get under control, but you need to do it or otherwise you just end up with? Well, societal breakdown. Really. I mean, Hyperinflation is not something that that you can you can live with, you’ve got to get it under control. Okay. So there are a few other papers I just wanted or a few other studies I wanted to mention, before we wrap up, because I think they help illustrate what sort of economies end up in, in hyperinflation. And, you know, what are those characteristics? And why? When we consider that we start thinking, Well, okay, we’re probably not there yet. It’s not yet a concern for countries like Australia, or the US, or the UK. I mean, we’ve got, we certainly have issues in our countries, but it’s, we’re nowhere near the situation where you could end up in some sort of hyperinflation, you need to have some sort of massive political turmoil, a government that just loses control of things and starts turning on the printing press to finance this deficit. So if we think about mid 80s, Bolivia, this is an example that Dorn bush and Fisher Fisher given their textbook, they had a budget deficit of 26.5% of GDP in 1984 10.8%, and 85. And inflation in those years was 1,282%, and 11,750%, in 84, and 85. So you’ve got very large deficits, like crazily high deficits, and then there’s money growth associated with that, because you’re financing it by the printing press. And you end up with the high inflation, too much money chasing too few goods. Right? Oh, they do give an example of how the sharp cut in the deficit, the fiscal austerity can stop the hyperinflation, but at a high costs, so Dornbusch and Fischer go on, they talk about how, as a result of austerity, and and poor export prices, again, in economics is multiple factors at any one time, you can you can’t run control experiments. If you listen to the show regularly, you’re aware of that Bolivian per capita income in 1992 was 30%, less than it had been 10 years earlier. So they really suffered, again, the lesson is avoid hyperinflation in the first place. have made sure you don’t have that societal disruption and, and you avoid the political turmoil that could lead to a government that, you know, enacts policies that are well, not good and need to be financed with, with money printing, right? So yeah. Okay, so there was a study that was done by the IMF. It’s an IMF working paper from 2018, the modern hyperinflation cycles and new empirical regularities. And I thought this was an interesting study, they looked at multiple countries, they had a data set 62 variables, 496 countries over 57 years, they were looking at what are the characteristics of countries that ended up having hyperinflation, and the three big ones were depressed economic freedoms, deteriorated socio economic conditions and rule of law as well as high levels of debt. aesthetic conflict tivity and government instability. Okay. So it’s when you’ve got lots of political turmoil really and, and that’s why it’s, it’s more common or it has been more common in the last well over the last 50 years or so in either Latin American countries, or in some sub Saharan African countries where there’s just been more political strife for various reasons, whereas countries that have been more fortunate countries where there’s there’s been more established democratic norms, and we haven’t had populist governments generally that on either side, I mean, I guess there have been some But largely, we’ve avoided the the extremes in particularly in Australia. And I suppose in US and UK. What’s that? What that has meant is that we haven’t ended up in a situation where we’d have to worry about hyperinflation. But again, something to be conscious of, we want to guard against it, we want to make sure we know the lessons of history and know the lessons of economics. Right. Finally, I’ll also link to a paper by Well, it’s a note on Kagan’s model of hyperinflation. It’s a note by Chris Edmund, who’s a Queenslander who I went to UQ with really bright guy ended up getting a Fulbright scholarship studied at UCLA then worked at the NYU Stern School of Business, he wrote a paper while he was at stern Kagan’s model of hyperinflation, and he talks about the conditions under which you end up with a hyperinflation. So he goes into the maths behind inflation. And its relationship with the amount of money that that people in the economy want to hold. So it’s very technical paper. But a good one, it’s worth reading, if you can, if you can get through the all of the math there, I’d recommend it. And what he, what he concludes is that one of the important messages that economists take away from Kagan’s paper, so this is the famous paper which introduced the concept of hyperinflation, or defined it in the 50s. Or maybe it was early 60s, I’ll link to it in the show notes. One of the important messages that economists take away from Kagan’s paper is the need one for fiscal discipline, and or an independent central bank to prevent monetize deficits that can allow a hyperinflation to get started, and to the need for individuals inflation expectations to be anchored, and thereby relative Lee unlikely to lead to a momentum driven inflation breakout. Okay, so what Chris is driving out here is that when things get really bad, and no one wants to hold the local currency, no one trust the government, the government just keeps printing more and more currency to try to buy the goods and services it needs. And that leads to more and more inflation. And that leads to higher expectations of inflation. And you just end up with this vicious circle, that just reinforces itself, things get out of control, it gets explosive. Okay, so that’s what he’s driving out there. And then he concludes, of course, part of the trick to anchoring inflation expectations is for government policy to be credibly anti inflation, right. So and this is often why you need a change of regime, you need a new government that comes in a new broom sweeps clean, big shock, Fuji shock, for example, in Japan, it’s tough medicine, but sometimes it has to be done to get hyperinflation. Well to to get rid of it to reduce that inflation over over the coming years. And, look, there’s a bit of a debate in economics. I don’t think we’ll have time to cover it today. But it’s about how quickly you can stop these hyperinflations. And there was a famous paper by Thomas Sargent the end, the end of for big inflation’s, or the ends of for big inflation’s, I think it is Yep. And he argues that you can actually stop these hyperinflations relatively quickly. So it’s not it doesn’t have to be a drawn out process over over several years, where you’re losing all this GDP, you can stop it quickly, if you do have a very sharp and credible change in the policy regime. So there must be an abrupt change in the continuing government policy or strategy for setting deficits now and in the future that is sufficiently binding us to be widely believed. And this is related to his rational expectations theory. So if people believe that the There’s a new credible policy, then there are expectations of future inflation can drop massively, very quickly. And that therefore, that means inflation itself drops very quickly. And you save yourself a lot of pain by having to have a slower economy and higher unemployment for several years to get rid of it. Okay. Anything else? Arturo I know, we might have to wrap up soon.

Arturo Espinoza Bocangel  45:28

I think the these topical Hyperinflation is very complex. But you have provided a good summary. I think my final message is any government around the world must be aware of that it’s important to monitor inflation to target the inflation because that putting these this or that potential economic event would bring a lot of suffer, especially for poor people. Absolutely.

Gene Tunny  46:10

Okay. Tara, it’s been great chatting with you about hyperinflation. So thanks so much for your time.

Arturo Espinoza Bocangel  46:17

Thank you, Jim. Thank you for having me.

Gene Tunny  46:21

Okay, I hope you found the conversation about hyperinflation interesting and useful. As with many of the episodes I record, I feel I could explore this topic a lot more, and I hope to come back to it in the future, it may be useful to do a deep dive on some specific instances of hyperinflation, possibly the 1920s, German hyperinflation or more recent hyperinflations in Venezuela or Zimbabwe. I’d like to delve into exactly what went wrong in the first place. How did these countries end up with big government budget deficits that needed to be monetized in the first place? Please let me know if there’s a specific hyperinflation that you’d like to learn more about, and I’ll see what I can do. I should note that one point I think I could have covered better in this episode relates to D monetization. One way a hyperinflation can end is if the government abandons the currency and replaces it with a currency that people trust such as the US dollar. When this occurs, not only is there D monetization that is declaring that a currency is no longer legal tender, but there is so called dollarization as well. This happened in Zimbabwe in 2009. Eventually, the Zimbabwe government tried to reintroduce a new local currency in 2018 19. And hyperinflation started again. Governments of course, would prefer to have their own currency as it means they can partly finance themselves via the printing press A found a good article on what happened in Zimbabwe on the conversation website, and I’ll put a link to it in the show notes so you can check that out. One other issue I would have liked to have covered in this conversation is whether hyperinflation affected economies could abandon their currencies and adopt a cryptocurrency such as Bitcoin. There was an intriguing Forbes article in July titled Bitcoin could solve Zimbabwe’s hyperinflation problem. I’ll link to it in the show notes. If you’re a regular listener, you’ll know that I’m sceptical about the potential for cryptocurrencies to replace traditional currencies, particularly given the huge degrees of volatility in their values. But I will acknowledge that crypto advocates are right about the potential for fiat currencies to be debauched. Hyperinflation is the outcome of the most extreme divorcement of currencies. As always, I’m trying to be open minded and plan to come back to cryptocurrency and other crypto assets such as non fungible tokens in a future episode. I’m also keen to have a closer look at the concept of smart contracts which are enabled by Aetherium. Right, I better finish up now. I’d love it. If you could join me again next week for some more explorations in economics. Ciao. 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 writing on your podcast app. If you have any comments, questions, suggestions, you can feel free to send them to contact at economics explore.com And we’ll aim to address them in a future episode. Thanks for listening. Till next week, goodbye.

Credits

Thanks to Josh Crotts for mixing the episode and to the show’s sponsor, Gene’s consultancy business www.adepteconomics.com.au

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Categories
Podcast episode

Bitcoin & books w/ author & ex-fighter pilot Lars Emmerich – EP157

Author and ex-fighter pilot Lars Emmerich explains why he’s so excited about the future of Bitcoin. And you’ll hear how he responds to the criticism that Bitcoin mining wastes a lot of  energy. Lars also tells show host Gene Tunny about his experience as an author operating in a disrupted book industry. Lars explains how the internet can give authors a better deal than traditional book royalties, and he tells us about the importance of Facebook Ads for acquiring new readers.   

Notes:

a) This episode was recorded on Tuesday 13 September 2022, two days before the Ethereum Merge with Lars and Gene discuss in this episode.

b) This episode contains general information only and nothing in this episode should be taken as financial or investment advice. Please see a professional financial adviser regarding investment decision making specific to your needs. 

You can listen to the episode via the embedded player below or via podcasting apps including Google Podcasts, Apple PodcastsSpotify, and Stitcher.

About this episode’s guest: Lars Emmerich

Lars Emmerich is a retired fighter pilot, entrepreneur, investor, and musician. He writes about good guys with a bad streak and bad guys with a few redeeming qualities.

He is the author of the million-selling Sam Jameson series. He lives in Colorado with his family and his neuroses. He’s either hard at work on the next novel in the series, or he’s procrastinating. Usually the latter.

Stop by Lars Emmerich Books to pick up a free digital copy of The Incident: Inferno Rising, the first installment in the Sam Jameson series.

Check out Lars’s author page on Amazon

Links relevant to the conversation

The controversy over Tim Ferriss’s deal with Amazon Publishing for the 4-Hour Chef: Timothy Ferriss’ ‘The 4-Hour Chef’ stirs up trouble

What is hash power and why would anyone buy it?

Financial Times article – The Merge: a blockchain revolution or just more hype? (pay-walled)

Book on Bitcoin recommended by Lars: The Bitcoin Standard: The Decentralized Alternative to Central Banking

Transcript: Bitcoin & books w/ author & ex-fighter pilot Lars Emmerich – EP157

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  00:00

Coming up on economics explored.

Lars Emmerich  00:01

The bull case for Bitcoin is that at some moment in the future, we will have given the world the last dollar the world cares to have, cares the hold…

Gene Tunny  00:18

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 157 on books and Bitcoin. My guest is Lars Emmerich, a popular author and investor in Bitcoin. His bio on his Amazon page reads, Lars Emmerich is a retired fighter pilot, entrepreneur, investor, and musician. He writes about good guys with a bad streak, and bad guys with a few redeeming qualities. Is the author of the million selling Sam Jamison series. He lives in Colorado with his family and his neuroses. In this episode, you’ll hear from Lars and why he’s such a supporter of Bitcoin. You’ll hear how he responds to the criticism that Bitcoin mining wastes a lot of energy. Lars provides some great information and makes some thought provoking points. Nothing in this episode should be interpreted as financial or investment advice specific to you. Obviously, you’d want to think about whether it makes sense for you to invest in something so risky and so difficult to value. Do you believe the story that Bitcoin enthusiasts tell about it potentially becoming a global reserve currency? Let me know what you think. I’d love to hear from you. Please get in touch, either by email or voice message. You’ll find my contact details in the show notes along with relevant info and links. Right oh, now for my conversation with Lars Emmerich. About online book publishing in Bitcoin. Thanks to my audio engineer, Josh Crotts for his assistance in producing this episode. I hope you enjoy it. Lars Emmerich, welcome to the programme.

Lars Emmerich  02:04

Thank you, Gene. Pleasure to be here.

Gene Tunny  02:06

Yes, good to be chatting with you, Lars, I’m keen to speak about a couple of things, at least that your you’ve been involved in. So you’re successful author, so I’m keen to chat with you about your experience in the book industry, because that’s an industry that’s been disrupted substantially over the last few decades because of the internet. So I’m interested in how you thrive in that industry. And also, I’m keen to get your thoughts on crypto and Bitcoin and, and other cryptos to the extent that you’ve been involved in them, because that’s, that’s a sector in which a lot is happening. And there’s been a lot of big news lately. So be keen to keen to chat with you about those things. So, to begin with, could you tell us a bit about your experience as an author, please Lars.

Lars Emmerich  02:56

I think I formed the idea of becoming an author when I read my first Tom Clancy novel, back when I was probably 20 Years Old. I was just fascinated by the way these seemingly mundane and separate storylines, wove themselves together into this amazing, multifaceted story. And fortunately, I had nothing to say at 20 or 23. So I was off doing other things, flying fighters for 20 years and, and learning about life. And I came back to it at a time when I was spending most of my days in airports and hotel rooms. And so I wanted something productive to do with my, quote unquote, free time. And I just started writing, I had writing professionally. Not as a novelist, but for business purposes. And I, I think I was writing a piece on a particular bit of sewage processing equipment. And I had one of those, what in the world am I doing with my life moments, and I decided if I was going to write words, I was going to write my own stories. And I dove in and really enjoyed it. And I quickly discovered that the publishing landscape was definitely in the process of being disrupted by at the time, nearly Amazon but Barnes and Noble and a couple of other retailers had a significant online presence as well. And I never, I never had it in my mind to pursue a traditional publishing deal, because it just didn’t seem like a good deal. The royalty percentage, the effort was the same. You were very much beholden to the degree of interest your publisher took in your work or didn’t take in your work. And generally speaking, if your author career is to go anyplace, you’re going to be the one pushing, you’re going to be the one doing the work. And so if that’s the case, I would much rather be on the 94% and of the revenue stream than on the 6% end of revenue stream, as it were,

Gene Tunny  05:08

Sorry, what do you mean exactly by that exactly Lars. Sorry just so I understand that you’d rather be on the 94%, than the 6%, oh, you get 94% of it rather than just 6%.

Lars Emmerich  05:19

That’s an a normal publishing deal like a traditional publishing deal, author royalties, and this changes per deal, for sure. But at the time I was making this decision, the number in my head that I had researched was about 7% of the book, royalties would find their way in your pocket, at some, some moment, well beyond when the books were sold, and the tallies were conducted. And all of the rights subtractions were, taken from your royalties. And the way that I had approached it originally was just to publish directly via the online retailers. I realised quickly that this was just a slight adjustment to the existing agreement, they paid you a bit more, but you’re still pretty much at their whim. And it was still up to you. And so I believe in 2018, I decided to sell directly to readers. And so while my books remain available on Amazon, they’re also mainly sold directly to readers, readers just buy directly from my website. That’s where the 94% revenue comes in. There are some there, there are some realities associated with credit card processing, and a few other services that are mandatory, that take it take their cut, but by and large, the, the gross revenues are yours. Now against that is the advertising costs, that’s required to make any business enterprise go. And that becomes that can become, it’s extremely time consuming. And it also consumes a huge portion of the revenue. So the margins in business are no better than they really ever have been. For most authors. But the landscape as you as you’ve alluded to, has definitely changed.

Gene Tunny  07:17

Yeah. Look, there are a few things I want to follow up on. And this is, it’s so fascinating stuff with advertising. What’s the best channel for you? Or for authors? In generally, I’ll just say anything about that? Is it Facebook? Is it is it is a Google ads, do you have any thoughts on that?

Lars Emmerich  07:38

I do, absolutely. I’ve tested, if there’s a place you can advertise and sell books are most likely tested. And far and away the most profitable, has been historically Facebook ads. And this is changing now. Because the way that Facebook worked, relied on very granular user preference data, Facebook was able to see a good bit of what you bought as a consumer. And so it could, it could understand Facebook could with a good bit of detail which authors a person liked to read. And you could and we’re talking about the big luminaries in each genre, the big names, the biggest names in the genres. And if your books were similar to those other authors’ books, you could reach fans of the big names in your genre, via the data that Facebook had on the number of people and who they were who really enjoyed these authors. Now, last year, at some point, Apple said, Facebook, you’re very welcome for all the data you’ve been getting for free and building this billion dollar business on top of, however, we’re building our own advertising platform, and we’re, we’re cutting you off. We’re producing data that you’re that you’re able to use and profit from. And when this happened, we’ve lost a lot of the detail that we used to have about we can tell generally who likes to read, it’s much more difficult to tell what those people like to read. And so that has, that’s the first thing that has changed the profitability of Facebook, it’s still profitable, not not as much as it used to be. The second thing is that it is an auction market for advertising. And all of the excess profit margin in any industry accrues to the advertising, the advertising platform, because I’m always competing with the next person who’s trying to get attention to sell books, and I compete all the way up until I have just squeezed the last bit of margin out of my business and I either quit, or I took another take another channel and all of that excess profit, all of that excess margin accrues to Facebook and to Google. And there was some interesting report where 40% of all venture capital investment went to Facebook ads.

Gene Tunny 10:21

I’ll have to look that up. Yeah, I believe it. Yeah.

Lars Emmerich  10:24

You know, don’t take that number to the bank. It’s an interesting, you know, it’s an interesting, it’s an interesting concept. And, and certainly, having been deeply involved in Facebook advertising and Google ads and other mechanisms, I can see that it does not sound false to me.

Gene Tunny  10:42

Yeah, it’s that point about, the, the the auction mechanism, that’s one that Seth Godin has made, and how that means a lot of the money ends up with Google or Facebook. So I think that’s a very good point. Just on. So you mentioned Tom Clancy. So this is the Jack Ryan series of novels, is it? Is it clear and present danger and Patriot Games and Hunt for Red? October is that’s what’s inspired you, is it? And then how did, what is your series of books about you write thrillers in that? Well, I mean, I’m not necessarily saying you’re trying to emulate Tom Clancy, but you write thrillers you’re trying to write in that sort of genre, so to speak.

Lars Emmerich  11:25

Yeah. Alright. So I spent a long time in the national security business. And I don’t write directly about those for various reasons. But I write peripherally about them. And they, I basically write edgy spy novels. And so Clancy was this intersection of espionage and statecraft and whatnot. It’s interesting that it’s interesting thinking about Tom Clancy now, because several years ago, I went back and I started rereading one of the novels, the cardinal of the Kremlin, and I got about 60 pages in. And it struck me that it was going so slowly. The pace of the narration was so slow, I couldn’t finish it, I stopped, I put it down. And I think our standards for what makes the story interesting have definitely changed, there needs to be much more movement, and much more. It needs to be much twister and turnier then some of those old masters. Another one along those lines is another one along those lines is the Bourne series. Yeah, they’re amazing movies, the books not so much. But they’re classics. And at the time, they were revolutionary, but our taste for story has changed, the pace at which we consume concepts has changed, we’re smarter. Generally, we have access to so much more information. So there’s less description required for any particular scenario, that’s another interesting phenomenon that my inspiration was now so slow as to be unreadable for me. But interesting, how that’s changed your I suppose what’s now been 30 years.

Gene Tunny  13:21

Yeah, but could you tell me, could you tell me about the series that you’ve developed? You’ve got a central character, haven’t you? You’ve got a central, you’ve got someone in sort of an arc or whatever you call it. Can you tell us about that process?

Lars Emmerich  13:35

Yeah, the Sam Jameson series. And by the way, these are the best deal I have at any given time available at Lars.buzz, if this is of interest to anybody, large.buzz is a great spot to go get the best, the best deal currently. But the SamJameson series is centred around a female protagonist, Samantha Jameson. And her, her stint in the series begins as she’s a counter espionage agent for Homeland, some made up office in a, in a real bureaucracy. And I did that to avoid the inevitable letters about oh, no such and such reports directly to so and so in the real world wanted to avoid all of that by creating a fake office inside of the Department of Homeland Security. And I have a lot of fun exploring all sorts of different kinds of themes that relate to the relationship of the individual to the state, the big macro kind of way and that leads us directly into the cryptocurrency discussion that I think is around the corner. The other thing that is really interesting is how do you discover what’s true in a business where everybody is lying. Yeah, everybody is deceiving somebody in some way. Many people are deceiving everybody in some way. How do you find what is true? Not I don’t mean like metaphysically true. I mean fact, how do you discover what’s factual and act on it? And that’s a really interesting set of really, interesting set of situations.

Gene Tunny  15:27

Yeah, well, I mean, in real life, there was the concern in the 60s and 70s that there was a high level mole in think it was in British intelligence or even in US intelligence and the counter counter espionage people I think was a James Jesus Hangleton in the US and yes, yeah, but he was just obsessed with finding that mole whether or not they existed and, and John, the John le Carre, in Smiley’s People and tinker Tailor, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, I think it was I mean, he’s very good at just explain, just telling that story about how difficult it is to figure out what’s going on. And you don’t know who you can trust. I love those. Those novels. Right. Okay, so yeah, I’ll put links to your, to your books to the Sam Jameson series. So, so yeah, that sounds that sounds great. Just on the book publishing can ask you’ve, you’re selling direct. And you’re also selling via Kindle. Is that right? On the Amazon store?

Lars Emmerich  16:29

I am. Yep. So I’m always testing, testing, right? What’s the, what’s the best way to get books to readers that have a value that they are pricing in a way that meets their value expectations, but also allows allows us to run a profitable business? That’s a constant evolution as big landscape changes, and it changes quite quickly.

Gene Tunny  16:54

Yeah, and the best deal for you is obviously if they buy on your website, because is it the case that Amazon takes a substantial cut on Kindle,

Lars Emmerich  17:04

Your royalties are either 70% or 65%, depending on the way it is set up. 70% is a terrific royalty rate, it represented a 10x improvement in the deal that authors generally otherwise got. And, and so they, they disrupted the industry in a way that, that really allowed a lot of very talented folks to find an audience who otherwise would not have done. But there’s a level of bureaucracy that comes with having to curate a library, that’s, I don’t know, 20 million volumes old and are large. And they’re not always well behaved, about how they do that. So within, you know, within the Amazon community, there’s a lot of unrest on the part of authors regarding the way that we’re treated. And, you know, we’re, there’s always some dissatisfaction about how royalties you calculated, or discoverability on the platform, or the way that your rankings are calculated, which influences your discoverability on the platform. And these things are always in flux. And you occasionally come to realise that Amazon, they’re actually serving their shareholders, which is the way that American businesses constructed, but you’re not a shareholder, you’re a supplier. And they’re overtly and aggressively looking to replace and vertically integrate suppliers. So the price pressure, and a bunch of other aspects of the way the book business has developed under Amazon’s auspices, it’s not appreciably better for many authors than it was under the old system, in spite of a better route.

Gene Tunny  18:55

By the vertical integration, what do you mean, exactly? Do you mean they’re trying to get them have people as dedicated Amazon authors, I’m just trying to understand what your what you mean by that, 

Lars Emmerich  19:08

Their business model as as they in order by being the marketplace, you have a terrific understanding of what where margin exists in the marketplace. And when you find that, you can just either use your own manufacturing techniques and technologies to replace the merchants so that you don’t have to pay them. You don’t have to pay them a cut you. You are the merchant as Amazon, and they’re doing this in a lot of other industries. And they’re, they’re definitely looking at looking into it in, in the book business as well. And there are some interesting projects underway related to artificial intelligence, writing stories and and whatnot. We’re not there yet. Wow. But as a position as a position. They’re interested in paying suppliers less and less and less and having fewer and fewer and fewer suppliers to have to pay. There are reading that writing on the wall, you have to make your own way. You can’t, you can’t rely on it for your, you know, for your meals.

Gene Tunny  20:08

Okay. Yeah, I’ll have to look more into that. I remember, I think it was Tim Ferriss got into trouble. Well, he had an issue, maybe 10 years ago or so with his Four Hour Chef book that he was developing. I think he developed it for Amazon. And it was going to be sold through Amazon and then some of the traditional booksellers, I think Barnes and Noble, were unhappy with him about that. I have to look up the details and put it in the show notes. Fascinating developments. It looks like yeah, this is the, this is the wider guide and the extent that you can do it yourself. And the technology’s there, and why not? And I know that there was a lady who wrote 50 Shades of Grey, who think she started off as a self published and just selling it, using the platforms that are available to sell it rather than having a traditional book and is able to say whether that you’ve you’ve been, have you been approached by anyone in the film industry? Has your work been optioned at all?

Lars Emmerich  21:08

No, not at the moment. We’re not under option for anything. You hear rumblings and such.

Gene Tunny  21:15

Oh, yeah, I was just gonna say it sounds like you’ve got a good concept and, and, you know, people that people are looking for new content to develop and that I think that Jack Ryan series on Amazon Prime was popular. I think that’s, that’s a good example of how everything’s sped up, right? Because the new Jack Ryan is much more he’s much younger, he’s much more, there’s much more action than in the traditional Harrison Ford films. Okay. So I might ask you about crypto now, Lars, you were talking about how one of the themes you explore is the relationship of the individual to the state. Now, it’d be good to unpack that exactly what you, you mean by that? And how then that influences your views on? Well say traditional money, fiat money? And, and crypto like how, why did? Why does that lead you to be a supporter of crypto? Could you tell us a bit about that, please?

Lars Emmerich  22:13

Sure, I noticed that the money that I was saving was worth less and less over time, I became aware at some moment that there was an inflation target. Not more than but also not less than. And I think when you print more and more of anything, the sum the total, individual dollars that you print each become less valuable over time. So it struck me as weird that you couldn’t just hold your money, because it would lose its value by virtue of just being held. And that was, I mean, it’s part of the it’s part of culture, it’s part of just the socio economic background, the water that we’re swimming in, we all take it as a given, you must invest your money, otherwise it would disappear. And I started wondering, gosh, who does it really serve? process. And it turns out, I think that a fiat system, it has a lot to recommend. There’s a there, there’s a lot in terms of being able to organise and focus, human effort and energy in a particular direction, you can do that very, very quickly. With a loan. Those dollars don’t generally exist before you go take out a business loan to open a gas station or whatever. It’s a very quick way, at the point of need to deploy capital. I think it exists mainly to ensure that the authority that issues that remains the authority remains viable remains in charge. And they, the agreement is, hey, we’re the state we have the monopoly on violence. And we decree that all transactions will occur in our currency will control the supply of that currency. And that’s for your own benefit. You know, when times are tough, we’ll be there to help. When it gets a little too crazy. We’ll be there to ease back, right. Inherent in that is that we have both the wisdom and the judgement to do that effectively. And I think that’s the great weakness of the fiat currency system is that the temptation is, is overwhelming to irresponsibly print. And, and I think, where you get into trouble and when it seems to happen, it seems to happen with a very large percentage of fiat currencies. Something will happen where the state feels the need to have it really amounts to an abuse of this agreement, like the estate says, Here’s the money, your job is to pretend it’s valuable. And we’ll control the supplies such that we don’t flaunt your trust. It’ll, you know, we won’t just flood the world with so many of these things that you’re pretending it has value, these little green pieces of paper are these numbers in a spreadsheet, you’re, you’re pretending that they’re valuable. It’s sort of relies on the state’s good behaviour. But something inevitably comes up, somebody wants to start a war, how do you get it? How do you start a war? Well, you don’t save a trillion dollars, and then go buy a war, you start a war, and print your way to the hardware and payroll that you need to execute this war. So that’s one way that it’s, it’s sort of abused. In other ways, when you’re looking to be reelected, or you’re looking to quell any kind of an uprising, you can very easily pander and purchase the loyalty that you need, with printed money that occurs at like an accelerating pace over time, either to the point where people recognise that whatever was supposed to have been backing the currency, for example, gold, there’s no longer any real relationship between some quantity of currency and a different quantity of gold. That’s supposedly back into currency. That’s the first way that people lose confidence in a currency. And I think a second way is when the rate of inflation is visibly painful. It’s personally painful. It’s causing hardship in a way that it wasn’t before. It’s just under the radar until it is until you’re thinking my gosh, I’m having trouble affording my food and my energy costs. And that’s the second major way I think that people on mass, lose confidence in occurrence. Yeah, ultimately, that’s what it is. It’s an agreement, we’re all going to agree to pretend this is valuable, until pretending it is so far farcical that we have to start doing it. And then the currency collapses.

Gene Tunny  27:16

Yeah. So I think what you’re describing when you’re talking about, oh, well, we want a war or we want to, you know, we’ve got a reelection election coming up, then we’ll just spend up big and we’ll just turn on the printing press to fund that. I think that’s something that’s been, you know, that’s occurred in some Latin American countries or some kleptocratic African states in the past. And you’ve seen the results of that. We mean, I was just looking the other day, at the inflation rate in Peru in the early 90s. That got up to I think it was 10,000% over the year, or something like that, just absolutely insane. And, and you’ve seen that in some other Latin American countries in the past, I guess, in the US and Australia and Britain, we, we haven’t had inflation that bad, thankfully. And we’ve we’ve managed, we haven’t we typically haven’t financed, or we’ve been careful with how we have finance budget deficits, where we can we do try to borrow from the bond market, so that it’s not as if we are turning on the printing press to to fund that. But one of the big changes in the last well, since the financial crisis, and this is something that economists are still debating and something that, you know, I personally, I used to work in the treasury here in Australia. And you know, it’s something that has started to concern me is just this now that quantitative easing, or this large scale purchase of assets with newly created money by the Central Bank, that’s something that, I don’t know, 20 or 30 years ago, we thought we would never do that. I mean, that’s sort of, yeah, that’s really, that that unconventional monetary policy is that’s, that’s a bit out there. We wouldn’t go there. But now it seems to be part of the standard, macro economic playbook. And I think we’ll be debating that for the wisdom of that for decades to come. So yeah, I think I think you do make some some good points there. Lars. And so is this what has led you into being a crypto investor? Could you tell us a bit about that, please?

Lars Emmerich  29:28

Yeah, I like the idea. I think it’s important here to make a distinction. Cryptocurrency is has become a fairly broad term. I view it this way. There’s, there’s Bitcoin and there’s everything else. And the distinction there is the degree of decentralisation which makes Fiat type printing extremely difficult to do with Bitcoin. And exceptionally easy to do with the other projects, which amount to very centralised. They’re basically unregulated unregistered securities. They’re, they’re a project run by founders, in the best cases, the feathers of CEO and a CEO and a board of directors not vetted to the same extent that you would find on a stock exchange, for example. In the best cases, you’re, you’re investing in a legitimate business. And the worst case is you’re investing in vaporware. And you have a rogue pool in your, in your future, where and how Bitcoin differs is that the supply is algorithmically controlled, which means nothing if one person can change the algorithm, but spread around the globe are something on the order, somewhere between depending on whose numbers you believe 15,000 and 100,000, individual verifiers if you will have every transaction. So if you suddenly want to change the rules, you can do so if and when you convince 51% of everybody globally, involved in the project, that it’s a good idea to devalue the currency. So from a practical standpoint, it’s it’s not likely to happen. And what this ensures is scarce. And so it’s it’s very, it’s unlikely that there will be runaway inflation, or even inflation of any sort that’s beyond the programme to mount that. That exists in Bitcoin as the minting and mining that the total number of planned coins, which is 21 million. So that’s the part one, it’s scarce, nobody can abuse, no individual, no small group of people, no even large group of people are likely to be able to abuse your trust in the currency. On the first hand, on a second hand, there’s no third party risk. Meaning when I put my money in a bank, that’s a building full of people doing things. And they’re in between every transaction that occurs, I give them money that I have, they dole it out to whoever I say, I want them to pay it to, they’re the trusted third party that makes the whole thing go. And trust like that can and is abused. And it’s most obvious and most prevalent in the cases where nations undertake capital controls where suddenly the money that was in your account is not. The state took it, okay, it’s part of living here, sorry, times are rough, we’re taking your money, or we’re going to ensure that you can’t, you can exchange your money and take it out of country. Bitcoin allows you to move millions of dollars all across the globe, inside of 10 to 15 minutes for fees under 10 bucks. So the degree of participation available now, economic participation is much higher than it was before when there was a third party gate gatekeeper standing between you and whoever you were trying to pay or receive money from. So this, is this has just dissolved economic borders. And it has a huge impact for things like remittances. But it also has a huge impact. For things like personal sovereignty. We’re less beholden to the good behaviour of the state in order to earn a livelihood in order to provide for your family. If things become politically untenable, where you live, you have the you have a real option by memorising your private key to carry all of your wealth with you out the door with nothing in your pockets. So the degree of personal sovereignty and individual liberty that comes from having this a construct like that. It’s quite important in many, many parts of the world. And I think those two things scarcity and this global transaction capability, they’re going to prove to be quite transformational.

Gene Tunny  34:39

Okay, we’ll take a short break here for a word from our sponsor.

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Gene Tunny  35:13

Now back to the show. With that private key this is your password to your, your wallet, is it? Is that what you’re talking about? And is that just that’s a string of characters? Is it? Is it something that you can memorise it, because I know that some people have lost that in the past, and then they’ve lost their, their access to Bitcoin that would be worth, you know, large amounts of money. So you got to make sure you keep hold of that.

Lars Emmerich  35:40

Yeah, there ain’t  no free lunch. So if you are responsible, if you think of it as you are your own banker, so you have to learn how to take take care of your private keys. Now you can leave them on an exchange, but now it’s just like leaving it in the bank, you’re trusting the third party? So yeah, it’s, it’s, it’s a way to get your foot in the door in to the space, but the best practice is to, is to be the custodian of your own private keys, which are like your password to spend the money that is yours.

Gene Tunny  36:13

Gotcha. And can I ask you about the volatility? So you were talking about look, the problem with fiat money is that inflation will erode the value of it. And you’re concerned about our monetary and fiscal authorities and their policies and what that means for, for inflation. I mean, I think we’ve seen that in the time of the pandemic, and then we had the big monetary expansion and then followed by the inflation that probably should have been predicted back then, when they were undertaking those policies. That if we look at what’s happened with Bitcoin, I mean, it’s fallen in value by almost 50%, or something this year, or over the last year. So

Lars Emmerich  36:54

More than that, I would imagine.

Gene Tunny  36:56

Yeah, I mean, crypto is, crypto is quite, it’s volatile, because we’re still trying to figure out what the true value of it is. So how do you how do you deal with that? Is that something you just accept that just comes with, with crypto assets?

Lars Emmerich  37:14

Well, in in the case of in the case of Bitcoin, that relates to sentiment, news cycle, whatever’s in the news, I think it also relates to the fact that the supply is really quite, quite inelastic. So you get wild price swings as sentiment changes, I think the other thing at play is the available availability of investable cash. So I think it has become known at the moment as an inflation hedge and an asset to invest your dollars in, in the hope that you can exchange them for more dollars in the future. I think the bull case for Bitcoin is that at some moment, in the future, we will have given the world the last dollar the world cares to have cares the whole. And I think we because the SWIFT system settles in USD, because for years, we’ve been forced militarily, the petro-dollar concept where whoever buys oil anywhere from anybody pays in US dollars, that has given us carte blanche to print in a way that, you know, small countries, there’s only so many of the units of currency you can print before they spill over. And this spilling over is what we can think of as this as the crisis causing loss of confidence. But that the entire globe is now the reservoir of dollars, everyone is kind of infected with dollars everyone is whether they know it or not. They’re deeply exposed to the US dollar. So what that means is we can print a lot more dollars for a lot longer before the crisis occurs. But when the crisis occurs, because I think these things tend to have this kind of cycle, there’s likely to be some moment where we’ve, we’ve just pushed it too far. And people have finally said, it can’t be worth all this if you’re just printing it at this pace, right? If and when that happens, what I think will be a very strong candidate for the global, global reserve currency is something like Bitcoin is relatively free of politicisation. I mean, all of all the miners were kicked out of China, get out, beat it. And Bitcoin didn’t skip a beat. The network ran, transactions settled. This was an entire block, a huge block of mining entire operations just overnight, decimate and and yet, functionally, and practically. Yes, there were price fluctuation associated Bitcoin to dollar exchange rate that fluctuated, of course, but the way the network function, completely oblivious to this loss of hashing power and this giant political upheaval, I think that will make it very attractive as a reserve currency. So, in the moment, we’re comparing, how many dollars is a Bitcoin worth? And we hope it’s worth more in X number of months or years. I think the long case is this is this has some likelihood of being the reserve currency. So you’re, you’re purchasing today, what will be the money going forward? And so from that standpoint, if your horizon is that length of time, whether it’s a decade or two, or three, who knows? If that’s your horizon, you’re far less concerned about the volatility than if you’re trying to put in a good result, result this quarter. Yeah, my argument is if you want to invest in this space, take the longest view possible. And make your decision based on the longest you don’t, don’t, don’t expect that you’re going to be able to, A predict the right project and B predict the right timeframe, an entry and exit points to get in and out to make a bunch of dollars off of your crypto investment. But that’s, you know, people will make a lot of money, but a lot more people will lose a lot more money.

Gene Tunny  41:20

Yeah. So you talked about a loss of hashing power. So I’ll put a link in the show notes about hashing power. I think I know what you mean. But this relates to the process of, is this the process of solving the puzzles of proving whether a transaction is legitimate or not, broadly speaking?

Lars Emmerich  41:40

Yeah, this is, so it’s the marriage of how Bitcoin is created. And the pace at which it’s created, the way it’s set up is that every 10 minutes or so a new block. And a block is nothing but a list of all the transactions that have occurred in the last 10 minutes, plus the hash. So the cryptic cryptographic code that summarises every prior transaction. And this does two things. The way this hash is determined, you, you can’t calculate it in advance, but it’s trivial to verify it in reverse. The way the math works, it’s, you couldn’t with massive amounts of computing power, you couldn’t trick the system and guess faster than everyone else. So the way mining works, is that these processors, they’re guessing millions of times a second, the hash, and the world is literally guessing what string of characters will solve this hash of the summary of the last 10 minutes worth of transactions plus the hash that represents cryptographically, every other transaction that’s ever happened. And so because it’s trivial to verify, its takes no, almost no computation power whatsoever to verify that the right hash has been found. But it’s very, very difficult to guess it, you have to roll a 36 sided dice correctly, 100 times in a row, that’s what mining is. Now, that’s when your computer or your mining pool guesses correctly, you get rewarded with some number of Bitcoins. That’s the incentive for mining. But what mining represents, is when you, you take the list of transactions and package them together and create a hash function out of them. What you’re saying is if anybody tries to go back and change any one of these transactions, no words, if anyone tries to commit fraud, the entire world knows about the entire world rejects the fraudulent transaction, because the entire world can tell cryptic, cryptographic, if one thing has been changed at any point along the line. And so this is the real value of mining operation, is that it it prevents fraud. It prevents theft, it prevents double spending in a way that takes entire police apparatus and, you know, buildings full of banks and all sorts. It’s a beautiful solution to a really intractable, intractable problem prior to this, prior to this innovation that reason. It’s remarkably immune to political and criminal intervention. Right.

Gene Tunny  44:52

It sounds like they’re using a brute force approach as you were describing it. So there’s no algorithm that allows you to quickly get to the right solution to solve this, this hash or figure out what it is. And that’s why you need all of this computing power. Now, there’s, if I’m interpreting this all correctly, and there was an article in the Financial Times that I didn’t get a chance to send it to you before, because I just, I just read it this, this morning, my time in Australia, and they’re talking about how the amount of energy that’s consumed by Bitcoin mining or the, you know, all the Bitcoin operations around the world is equivalent to the energy use, or the electricity used by the country of Belgium, I think it was, and this was in an article.

Lars Emmerich  45:44

Its about 1 half of 1%, I think of current global energy supply. So there’s a lot in that figure that we can, we can pull apart, the first thing I think we would say about that is given that every transaction is visible and verified by the entire globe. That removes what you’re, what you’re buying by expending that energy, is the security of the global financial network and the integrity of the global financial network. And what you don’t have to buy is the military intervention for 30 years in the Middle East to ensure that all petroleum transactions settle in US dollars, you don’t have to pay the energy for all of the buildings and humans it takes to run the global banking system, which is just a series of of parochial, third party, you know, intermediaries, and you don’t pay the cost of a fraud and theft. And you also don’t pay the enormous cost of inflation. When you’re, even if inflation is 3% per year, you’re you’re, you’re spending 3% more energy every single year, just to keep your nose above water to keep your productivity to keep your standard of living. So that’s what you’re, that’s what’s on the other side of this energy equation. I don’t know how much energy that amounts to. I know that, by many estimates, we, we’ve spent between six and a half and $10 trillion, since 2001 prosecuting the global war on terror, which has been conducted largely in the oil producing countries on the planet. And you know, someone somewhere on the order of, of a million lives, you have to think that those kinds of things are less necessary, when the currency has its own integrity. The other thing that is difficult to quantify is and we’ll get to the actual breakdown of that, that number one half  of a percent, in just a second, there’s more there than, than their first appears. The other thing is that when a currency is scarce, and you can’t just print it up, when you’re ready to go fight a war there’s likely to be fewer wars, there’s likely to be less military action, when when it’s an it’s always always destructive, you know, that the real cost of military action is just astronomical. And it’s far less feasible when you can’t just print up a war like you, like you can now. So I think those are costs that are that are on the other side of the ledger that that people don’t necessarily appreciate. That’s what scarce and sound and and forcibly scarce and and forcibly sound money buys for you. The second thing is it’s an exceptionally competitive industry mining Bitcoin, super competitive, the salient variable, are two. Chip production and these are application specific integrated circuits, their their purpose in life is to mined Bitcoin period. When you produce a new semiconductor, that’s an expensive process. The second and this ends up being the dominant cost in Bitcoin mining is the price of energy. So what this means is that the Bitcoin mining operation automatically flows to those places where energy production is cheap. And so you can think of it like the aluminium industry where it takes a massive amount of electricity to smelt aluminium. And so, aluminium, put production migrated to those places where geothermal energy is cheap or other sources of energy. So Iceland, a couple of places that have a high geothermal energy output? Well beyond what people, what people can use in those areas, and there are places in China where seasonally, and places all over the Earth where seasonally, the hydroelectric power that’s available in the rainy season is astronomically more than the population consumes. And more than current battery technology lets you hold. So the hashing power goes to these places where excess electricity is produced largely sustainably. And so a good portion of the energy that secures the Bitcoin network is pretty green. Another area is that as petroleum is processed in the world runs on petroleum, that’s not going to change overnight. It’s not going to change in several decades, because it’s it’s so deeply entrenched in everything that we that we do. It’s just a fact of life. But the process of it, you have to burn certain amount of, of gas, that’s a byproduct. So these are refineries all over the earth, you see these bright orange flames, just shooting energy into the ether, because there’s nothing else that they’re doing with that gas. Well, what Bitcoin and Bitcoin and energy production, they’re, they’re coming together, because Bitcoin helps stabilise the production profile for power plants, number one, number two, it gives a bit the burn, that refineries do just burning off this waste gas, that thermal energy can produce electricity on site that can be used for Bitcoin mining, and there are several places where those agreements are, are being implemented now. So that’s, that’s energy that is just currently being absolutely full of waste, that will no no longer be wasted it will be put to put to use. So it’s not clear. It’s not this clear case where we’re irresponsibly securing the Bitcoin network, which in and of itself, I think is a mean, what else you’re going to spend energy, if not to secure the financial infrastructure of potentially all sorts of nations on Earth, and maybe even at some point, what may become a global reserve currency in the way that the US dollar has become a global reserve currency. You know, it’s not quite the soundbite that the reality of the situation is not quite the soundbite that you hear, Oh, gosh, it’s terrible. It’s kind of warm the earth up to whatever and it’s evil? Not so much, you know, not so fast. Yeah, there’s, there’s been a bit a bit of thought put into it.

Gene Tunny  52:56

Yeah, I’ll have to look more into those, those opportunities you were talking about to to use energy that would otherwise be wasted for for crypto. So I’ll have to look at that. That’s interesting. You’ve got an interesting hypothesis there about how crypto could mean less military intervention worldwide. So again, yeah, I think I have to get my head around around that. And but I think yep, you know, if that’s, if that’s, that, that’s, that’s a hypothesis. So I’m happy to accept that as a as a hypothesis. Can I ask about a theory? Um, if you’ve been following what’s been happening with a theory? Are you mainly in Bitcoin laws

Lars Emmerich  53:42

with a great deal of interest? Yeah. I want to circle back Yeah. It’s not nearly crypto. That is, like, not all crypto is good in the way that I have described bitcoins virtues, okay. Because if, if it is just down again, to a central authority to govern the supply, whether or not it’s cryptographically secured, once you’ve issued the new supply, doesn’t really matter. If I can print more of these tokens whenever I desire, then I lose the scarcity. I’m just an all I am is an updated digital fiat currency and the central bank, digital currencies that that are. I think, in autocrats, you know, dream. They’re, they’re really, they’re really just digital forms of the existing system. There’s not there’s not any advance not any revolution, not any evolution there. And in the case of Aetherium this is a really interesting case because Aetherium is a project that you know that eath has some some value. eath is also used to power it’s a substrate a commodity used to To power computation in Aetherium, related applications, or business. In other words, it, you can think of it almost like a programming language that requires fuel. And eath is the fuel. And they are currently on a proof of work system. And that’s what Bitcoin is proof of work. They’re talking about moving to a proof of stake, meaning who makes the rules, the people who have the most eath make the rules, they have the greatest stake in the game, and therefore they have the greatest authority over the governance. And this is, this is basically fiat currency. It’s, it’s basically the same thing as the fiat currency, you know, the, the, the Board of Governors or or whoever’s whatever small collection of people is in charge at Etherium. They will ultimately decide how many tokens or print Yeah, and, and the proof of stake just you’ve automatically instituted an oligarchy. As you go proof, you the only people are the people who have the most say, over the way our money is handled, if that comes money, or the people already have all the money, or most of the money. That doesn’t seem like an improvement. To me, that seems like more of the very same. And the bumper sticker is oh, we’re going green. Yeah, we’re not gonna do this evil energy thing. Instead, we’re just gonna hand the keys to the kingdom to the people already, who already own the kingdom.

Gene Tunny  56:40

Yeah, yeah, that was. That was. I think that was the sentiment from some of the critics of this, that were quoted in the Financial Times. I’ll put a link in the show notes. Yep. So they’re saying that look, this is going away from what crypto is all about? So yeah, it’s it’s not the right direction, according to them. Okay. Lars has been great. Pick your brain for the last nearly an hour or so. Is there anything? Before we wrap up any anything we’ve missed? Or any any important points you think would be good to? To get out there to my audience? Before we wrap up, please?

Lars Emmerich  57:21

Sure. I think there’s been a, we’ve talked a lot, a lot of it is technical. And there are some technical details to digest. For sure. I think the most important thing to say on this particular topic is there’s there’s a lot out there that you can, that you can educate yourself on, you won’t fully understand it unless and until you bite the bullet. And just get into some of the more technical discussions. Until you do that. You’re completely at the mercy of the interpretation of whoever’s writing the news article, and whatever slant has been taken on it. So if you want to make a real decision, I would say look at how the technology actually works. Whether you’re thinking of a project that’s that’s not Bitcoin, that’s more of a security or a stock, or a new investment, or a new startup that you’re thinking of investing in that’s issuing a token? Or if you like, what you’ve heard about Bitcoin, go look at how it functions, and then make up your mind from there and stress tested, think about edge cases, think about who can manipulate it, and how what would it take to manipulate this particular venture. And I think that’ll go a long way toward also, think about your time horizon. If you’re looking to get in and get out with a quick book, join the club, everybody wants to do that. And there’s enough lottery ticket winners to just keep us off frothing at the mouth, but you’re gonna lose your shirt, most likely. Think really long term, and think about all the edge cases and arrive at a sober you know, well considered position on

Gene Tunny  59:07

rod and were there any good resources from your perspective that I could link to in the show notes? If there are if you do have any I can. I can link to them in the show notes for people.

Lars Emmerich  59:17

Yeah, there’s there’s a, I recommend this with reservation safety and almost the Bitcoin standard. There’s a few digressions in there that are that are worrisome, and that detract from the central argument that he makes, he goes on a few tangents that are not helpful, but he does a really good job of describing the fundamentals of how the network works and how how the Bitcoin, the Bitcoin network works. So if you can ignore the rant on modern art. I mean, just completely skip the chapter. And if you can, you know, just focus on the way he describes the functioning of network that’s really quite useful.

Gene Tunny  1:00:02

Good stuff. Okay, last anyway, thanks so much for the conversation. I really enjoyed it. And yeah, it’s made me think think a bit more laterally about these issues. So that’s great and yeah all the best for your, your publishing career. I think it’s terrific. You’re, you’re doing well in that area. So that’s great. And yeah, Lars, really appreciate it. So thanks so much for your time.

Lars Emmerich  1:00:28

Thank you, James. My pleasure.

Gene Tunny  1:00:31

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 contact at economics explore.com And we’ll aim to address them in a future episode. Thanks for listening. Till next week, goodbye.

Credits

Thanks to Josh Crotts for mixing the episode and to the show’s sponsor, Gene’s consultancy business www.adepteconomics.com.au

Please consider signing up to receive our email updates and to access our e-book Top Ten Insights from Economics at www.economicsexplored.com. Also, please get in touch with any questions, comments and suggestions by emailing us at contact@economicsexplored.com or sending a voice message via https://www.speakpipe.com/economicsexplored. Economics Explored is available via Apple PodcastsGoogle Podcast, and other podcasting platforms.

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Podcast episode

The Aussie electricity market malfunction of June 2022 – EP156

Australia’s National Electricity Market was suspended by the market operator for nine days in June 2022. For a brief period, authorities were worried there would have to be widespread blackouts to balance supply and demand. In this episode, Andrew Murdoch, Managing Director of Arche Energy, explains what went wrong in June, and he talks to show host Gene Tunny about whether it could happen again. Are renewables coming into the system too quickly? What’s happening with batteries? Will Australia be able to cope with the retirement of coal-fired power stations? And what about all the EVs that will need charging? These and other questions are tackled in a frank and fearless conversation.  

You can listen to the episode via the embedded player below or via podcasting apps including Google PodcastsApple PodcastsSpotify, and Stitcher.

About this episode’s guest: Andrew Murdoch

Andrew Murdoch is Managing Director of Arche Energy, a Brisbane-based consulting firm specialising in energy projects.. He is an experienced general manager, project director and engineer operating in renewable power, power generation, energy, ports and heavy infrastructure. For more on Andrew’s experience, check out the Arche Energy website.

Links relevant to the conversation

Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO) report into market suspension in June 2022

AEMO’s Integrated System Plan

NEM suspensions costs lower than expected – NB when they were directed to supply gas to the market at an uneconomic price for them at the market price cap of $300/MWh, the generators became eligible for compensation

AEMO’s Electrical Statement of Opportunity

Some large-scale Australian renewable and battery projects: 

Lockyer Energy, Supernode

Global coal demand as high as it has ever been (IEA report)

Transcript: The Aussie electricity market malfunction of June 2022 – EP156

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

Coming up on economics explored…

Andrew Murdoch  00:01

Reflecting on the events of June, more energy would have been handy. So it was the cost of energy issue that created these extreme prices. So whether that energy came from renewables or from gas or from coal, any additional gigajoules or megawatt hours generated onto the system would have had downward pressure on prices and certainly would have helped.

Gene Tunny  00:26

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 156 on Australia’s national electricity market, the NEM. In June 2022, the NEM was suspended by the market operator for nine days. For a brief period, authorities were worried there would have to be widespread blackouts to balance supply and demand. My guest this episode explains what went wrong in June, and we talk about whether it could happen again. My guest is Andrew Murdock, Managing Director of RK energy, a Brisbane based consulting firm specialising in energy projects. Andrew has a background in engineering, and he really knows what he’s talking about when it comes to electricity. So standby for a deep dive into Australia’s NEM. Please check out the show notes relevant links Information and for details of how you can get in touch. Please let me know what you think about what either Andrew or I have to say. I’d love to hear from you right now for my conversation with Andrew Murdock on the NEM. And we also chat briefly about electric vehicles toward the end of the conversation. Thanks to my audio engineer Josh Crotts for his assistance in producing this episode. I hope you enjoy it. Andrew Murdoch for a market energy. Thanks for coming on to the programme. Thanks, Jane.

Andrew Murdoch  01:55

Good to be here.

Gene Tunny  01:56

Yes. Great to have you on. So you got in touch after a recent episode where I was talking about EVs and I mentioned that you really love to talk to someone who’s familiar with energy with electricity. And you got in touch and yeah, it seems like you’ve got a great track record. Great experience. Could you tell us about what Arche Energy does and your experience, please?

Andrew Murdoch  02:22

Yeah, sure. So Arche Energy is an energy advisory firm. We’re a small firm based here in Brisbane, Australia. We help people develop energy projects, we help people solve strategic energy related problems. We help people with decarbonisation and developing strategies to meet their netzero goals or other other related goals. We do project management, project development, strategic engineering, owners engineering, etc, in the energy and infrastructure industry.

Gene Tunny  02:54

Right. So in terms of meeting their decarbonisation goals, are you advising them about what renewable energy options they’ve got? I mean, what sort of things would you be advising them?

Andrew Murdoch  03:06

Yeah, absolutely. So I guess a typical decarbonisation job will be a for us will be an industrial mining facility with a significant energy consumption need. And we will look at what what their energy consumptions is, what their, what their physical processes are, and look for opportunities to either make better use of the resources that they’re using, whether that’s gas, coal, heat, power, etc. And then also look at opportunities for integrating renewables and other low carbon sources of energy into their into their processes.

Gene Tunny  03:45

Right. Okay. Are there any examples of clients you can talk about or jobs you’ve done?

Andrew Murdoch  03:51

Yeah, so one particular job was a mining clients, they they developing a greenfield mine, lithium mine over in Western Australia, they guessed the way that you would power a mine 20 years ago was when you would just get a half a dozen big diesel generators, truck diesel, the site and the way you go. These days, you look at some more complicated, complicated processes. So you might integrate some solar into the into the system, you might, you might also integrate some wind into the system and certainly batteries are very valuable for mine supplies. Mine power supply systems now because it allows you to if it allows you to run your engines more efficiently, allows you to have less engines and allows you to deal with shocks to the energy system when a cloud goes over your solar farm or the wind stops blowing etc. So those technologies that are available now are we’re seeing those in most mine supply power jobs that we’re doing these days, right

Gene Tunny  04:56

but would you typically have some diesel generators, they’re just in case.

Andrew Murdoch  05:02

Yes. So system has to be robust enough to deal with a wet week or a week without rain, when the batteries can’t recharge, nighttime evening peaks, etc. So, but we’re seeing, you know, we’re seeing in the studies we’re doing these days, we’re seeing renewable energy fractions going up to sort of the 60s and 70 percents, which is, which is fantastic and wouldn’t have been achievable 20 years ago on mine sites.

Gene Tunny  05:27

Wow, that’s incredible. Okay, that’s, that’s good to know. We want to want to chat about as this whole issue of integrating renewables into the system. And, look, there’s a lot of debate about this. And there are people who are very pro renewable. And I mean, I understand that we have to get there eventually we need to decarbonize. I mean, I’m not arguing against that. But one thing I’ve been concerned about is just just how not, are we doing it too quickly? I think that’s still that’s a legitimate question. What are the risks to the system? We had this situation earlier this year, when the Australian energy market operator had to intervene in the national electricity market? It because it looked like there were concerns about the reliability of supply. Could you tell us about that? What’s your take on what happened there, Andrew?

Andrew Murdoch  06:19

Sure, we might just rewind a little bit and start with a little bit about how the market works. And the physics involved. It’s an incredibly complex system, both physically and commercially. So what we have essentially is a market that needs to match supply and demand almost instantaneously. We have very, ah, it’s not possible to store electricity as electricity. So even batteries are chemical storage, not not, not electrical storage. And so there’s a constant need to match supply and demand as accurately as we can. When demand exceeds supply frequency goes down, everything starts spinning a little bit slower. And when supply exceeds demand, the opposite happens. Everything speeds up a little bit. So there’s a constant need to match supply and demand.

Gene Tunny  07:09

Right? So I mean, what does this mean? Could this mean that it could damage some of our equipment, our appliances connected to the grid,

Andrew Murdoch  07:17

The system in Australia is very, it’s very geographically dispersed. We have power stations that are in the regions. And we have centralised demand in the major cities, capital cities, and also industrial cities like Gladstone, Newcastle, Illawarra, for example. And we need to manage the flows between the generation sources and the loads without overloading a particular network elements. So if we get too much power trying to flow through a particular part of the network, then we start to melt things. And so the market has to manage that. The national electricity market, the NEM, was established just over 20 years ago. And so, it, it has the objective of supplying power in the most economically efficient way to the consumer. Yeah, without breaching any of the technical constraints that it has to work with. So NEMO, the Australian electricity market operator operates a dispatch engine and the name dispatch engine. And that dispatch engine takes bids from each of the generators, builds a bid stack for each of them, and each of the each of the NEM zones, and the NEM zones roughly correlate to each of the states. And then that dispatching engine matches supply and demand and sets a marginal price based upon where the supply demand curve crosses,

Gene Tunny  08:45

Right. So this bid stack, your ranking the bids that come in, so see us energy or whatever, or the other generators say we will supply, what is the bid in terms of is it megawatts? Yeah, megawatts over whatever, particular period?

Andrew Murdoch  09:01

Yeah. So the unit of sale is megawatt hour, so that megawatt hour, one megawatt for an hour. But the bids are done on the bids are done every five minutes on a megawatt basis.

Gene Tunny  09:13

We will supply this much electricity at this price, correct? Gotcha.

Andrew Murdoch  09:19

And then the price is then set at the marginal, the marginal, the marginal bidders price, and everyone, everyone who gets everyone who bids below the marginal bidders price gets dispatched, and they and they they receive that price modified by their loss factor. And then anyone who bids over that price, then doesn’t get dispatched.

Gene Tunny  09:37

Okay, so it’s the marginal bidders price. So that’s the price that was offered by the bidder that they need the last bidder, the marginal bidder, to make sure that the supply of energy matches the demand. Correct? Yeah. Okay. Gotcha. And so everyone, all of the energy supplied, up to there that all gets the market price.

Andrew Murdoch  10:06

Correct. Now the bidders can bid anywhere between negative $1,000 and $15,100 per megawatt hour. So there’s quite a large range of permissible bids. Yeah, the reason for the negative bids is so that if you’re a thermal unit, a coal plant, you have a large cost associated with coming offline. And coming back online, so you will accept for short periods, you’ll accept the cost of having to stay on and receive negative prices for your power. The purpose for the extremely high prices are there to provide an economic incentive to construct peaking plants. So, peaking plant might be something like a gas turbine that only runs maybe 2% of the Year, 3% of the year. So it needs those extreme prices to be able to cover its costs for the rest of the year when it’s simply on standby. In parallel with the physical market, there’s also a contracting market, which is essentially an over the counter market where a generator and a retailer will enter into an agreement to swap exposure to the pool price. So essentially, they that’s what agreements that synthetically generates a fixed price netting out the generators exposure with the with the buyers, the buyers exposure. The larger gen-tailers also tend to vertically integrate as well to manage their risk.

Gene Tunny  11:28

So gen-tailers their generators and their retailers as well, because we’ve got this. Yeah, we’ve broken up the market in Australia, haven’t we? We’ve got we’ve split generators from distribution and from retailers. And once upon a time they were all integrated, weren’t they? We had these electricity boards. We had southeast Queensland electricity board, and yeah,

Andrew Murdoch  11:52

Yeah. So back in the 90s. Yeah, the, the industry deregulated and competition was introduced at a wholesale level. And now we have retailers competing for our, our, our, our retail contracts. And then we have the wholesalers competing to supply to the, to the retailers.

Gene Tunny  12:12

So Andrew, this is fascinating. We’ve got this complicated market, where there’s generators bidding into supply electricity at particular prices, and we’ve got these, this wide band over which they can bid and there’s a negative. There’s a possibility of negative bids. So that’s something we’re seeing more of lately, we’re seeing these negative prices. And that might strike people as very strange, why we see negative prices. So we’re going to just sort of chat about that in a minute. But also, you mentioned that it could go up to what was it $15,000 a megawatt hour. But what happened recently was that they said no bids over what was it? $300 a megawatt hour?

Andrew Murdoch  12:52

Yeah, that’s That’s correct. That’s correct. So I might I might go through what happened in early June. Yeah, fascinating. It’s a fascinating story. So so it all, it all began when Russia was demanding payment for their gas in rubles, and that shell and Orsted and others refused to comply and Russia then made significant cuts to gas supply into Europe, which then obviously had an impact on the the global LNG prices. And because most of these cases of this gas is is connected to the LNG market through the the LNG plants in Gladstone. And we’ve seen netback prices on the East Coast go up as well. So if I reflect back to sort of 2011 2012, we had a spot price of gas that was largely following the cost of supply around $5, $6, $7 dollars a gigajoule. In in March, sorry, in June, we saw prices ranging from between $15 and $43. A Giga Joule for gas, so quite a significant increase over the over the cost of supply for for gas on the East Coast. Right. So

Gene Tunny  13:59

we’re talking many multiples of cost of supply and multiples of many multiples of what it was trading at previously.

Andrew Murdoch  14:06

Correct. Yeah, right. Meanwhile, we had a very wet summer, and that wet summer had the impact of restricting coal supply. So for example, Millmerran wasn’t able to mined coal for a significant period, period of time. And global coal prices also followed energy prices upwards which coal difficult to get and expensive. So last time I checked, thermal coal was trading at around $400 a tonne, which is which is incredible. Now concurrent with that, we had a third factor which was that a large number of plant was out of service throughout, throughout the country. So we had outages that are raring Bayswater, Loyang Liddell and keloid Sea. See, I believe there’s also an outage, just one vacay at the same time as well. So that was about 30% of the call fleet was out of service in in in June. So we do have significant capacity be taken out of the market.

Gene Tunny  15:01

So one thing that’s brought up and I don’t know, I should be careful not to necessarily attribute this to Matt Canavan because I’ve had Matt on the show before Matt, someone I chat with from time to time about these issues. And I’m hoping to get him on the programme again. But it may have been Matt that said that, look, they’re just not investing in this old coal fired power generation, because there’s a push to decarbonize. There’s all of this excitement about renewables, and they’re not doing the maintenance, so they’re not refurbishing the old coal fired power generation capacity. Is that do you know if that’s true, or do you have any views on that?

Andrew Murdoch  15:39

I do have a view. And I guess I take the view that we’re currently using a lot of coal in the country. And it’s great to decarbonize, and it’s great to reduce our reliance on coal, but it’s not going to happen immediately. Yeah. And my personal view is that there was a lot of decarbonisation to be gained simply by making coal plant more efficient, and more reliable. So I’m talking about things like, for example, reducing our reliance on Victorian lignite and transforming it that to higher quality Queensland black coal will have a significant impact on carbon emissions, just by the higher quality of the fuel being burned. The other thing we can do that is, in my view, an easy win is to transfer from 1960s 1970s subcritical technology to 2020 Ultra supercritical technology, or even better integrated combined cycle gas turbine technology.

Gene Tunny  16:38

What’s the difference? Is there an easy way to explain what the difference between those two different types of the whatever it is, it depends on its level of criticality or something

Andrew Murdoch  16:49

Subcritical versus super critical. So, So essentially, if you imagine a little paper wind turbine that you’ve made that in primary school, for example, and you blow on it, and it spins, now the harder you blow on it, the faster it will spin and the more energy that it takes. Yes. So essentially, what we’re trying to do in terms of making a steam turbine more efficient is to increase the pressure at the, at the steam turbine inlet. So essentially, the more energy we can put into the steam before it gets into the turbine, the more efficient the turbine will be. Now, the difference between subcritical and supercritical, interesting little point of physics is that subcritical boilers, the pressure is relatively low, and we we heat up and boil water, similar, similar to the way that the kettle works at home. We bought boiled water to make steam, a supercritical plant. So supercritical plants, there’s not a distinct boiling phase, we simply just heat it up, and it gets thinner and thinner. And that steam because it’s such high pressure has the properties of both a gas and a liquid at the same time. So okay, that’s so much. It’s not so much irrelevant to the physics of efficiency. It just has to do with how we designed the boiler and the steam processes.

Gene Tunny  18:09

Okay. So it’s good to know that, that this technology that came out of the 19th century or possibly even before it can be improved and yeah, okay. That’s good.

Andrew Murdoch  18:21

And then the other dimension to, to decarbonisation of coal generation is, is is carbon capture utilisation and, and storage. And my personal view, and I know, people have some very strong views on this, but my personal view is that there’s more to be gained in carbon capture and storage. Okay. Okay, good. Good. Yeah. So back to June. And I guess the next factor that we have to consider was that June was unusually cold. So we had the ninth of June, the low at Archerfield, was 7.9 degrees against the June mean of 11.8 degrees. So it’s not super cold, but just a little bit colder than usual. And that what that led for us all to do was at home turn on your air conditioners. And in Queensland, on the ninth of June, we reached a new record maximum demand for Q2, for quarter two of just over 8000 megawatts, which is 8.2%, higher than the ninth of June of 2021.

Gene Tunny  19:18

And was this the day that they were warning that they might have to restrict supply? They might have to be blackouts in some areas,

Andrew Murdoch  19:26

correct? Yeah. So that was when we got the loss of reserve notices from right. So and So. Yeah. So I guess moving to that. Obviously, as that demand supply balance started to started to move into, the into the zone of scarcity. The prices went up and hit the market cap of $15,100 per megawatt hour on a number of occasions. As I said, you know that that very high market cap isn’t for our current market design and necessary factor to encourage investment in peaking Last. However, there’s a, there’s a safeguard, there’s a bit of a safety valve on the on the on the system so that we’re not exposed to $15,000 a megawatt hour for too long. And that’s the cumulative price cap. So the cumulative price cap is just under $1.4 million. And that’s taken as the sum of the price in each of the five minute periods over the seven days preceding. So essentially what that does is it gives you a maximum exposure that, that, that that for, for energy buyers, and on the rationale that okay, you’ve had $15,000 for a little while, you’ve paid your operating costs for many years to come. That’s enough.

Gene Tunny  20:41

Yeah. So do we know? I mean, I don’t expect you to denote that I’ll be here. But do we know which was the plan? Or the bidder the marginal bidder? Do we know who was the marginal bidder and what they were bidding into? To meet the supply? Yeah, well, that showed to meet the demand to provide the supply.

Andrew Murdoch  20:59

So yeah, that’s publicly available information and can be achieved, can be obtained through an email. Now it changes for every five minute period. Yeah. Maybe a different person to tomorrow. So there is a lot of data to get through to to identify that. And yeah.

Gene Tunny  21:17

So sometimes, so sometimes it’ll be renewables will let in the during the day, and sometimes it’s coal, and sometimes it’s gas. Do we know?

Andrew Murdoch  21:23

Yeah, so typical, a typical day. So back when when energy prices were normal. Yeah, the marginal the marginal operator during the middle of the day would be either coal or renewables, depending upon depending upon how sunny it is or how windy it is. So on a, on a sunny, moderate day, in April or September, you might find that that solar is is is the marginal bidder, and they may be solar has a negative short run marginal cost, because every month for every megawatt hour of renewable energy that you produce, you also produce a large scale renewable energy generation certificate, which you can then sell for $30, $40, $50 a megawatt hour to to your retailer so that your retailer can meet their renewable energy target obligations. Or you might sell it to a customer who would like 100% Green Power, okay, so so they have a negative a negative short run marginal costs and can afford to operate with a negative spot price.

Gene Tunny  22:28

So they can bid into the NEM at a negative price so that they can sell that power, and then they get this certificate, which meant, so this is a subsidy from the government. Is this right?

Andrew Murdoch  22:41

It’s a subsidy from the energy consumer. So yeah, okay. So so our retailers are obligated to, to surrender a certain number of renewable energy certificates based upon our consumption. Yeah. And we obviously pay for that through, our through our electricity bills.

Gene Tunny  22:56

Gotcha. Yeah. Okay, that makes sense. Okay. Yep. Yep.

Andrew Murdoch  23:00

Then on a more moderate day, the coal plant will be the marginal, the marginal, bidder. Yeah. And they typically have a short run marginal cost in the order of anywhere between $15 and $30 per megawatt hour when the price is normal. Yeah, maybe not today. So then in the evening, you might see some of the gas plant come on. And again, sort of back to normal energy prices, they might have a short run marginal cost somewhere in the order of 80 to $100 a megawatt hour.

Gene Tunny  23:28

So we’ve got, we’ve got solar potentially bidding in negative, you’ve got coal coming in sort of at a you’re at a positive level, and then gas at a higher rate they’d be bidding in during the evening. Yep?

Andrew Murdoch  23:43

Correct. Yeah. So you’ve sort of got those natural price bands that fit around short run marginal costs. Now, then you can sort of add to that and elements of profit maximisation. So. So to actually obtain those high prices, you might not be all of your volume at your short run marginal cost, you might reserve some of that to try and encourage the price up a little bit higher. So yeah, so, essentially, yeah, your goal is profit maximisation. And if you’re, if you’re a gas plant, and you’ve got so many territories of gas to burn every evening, you’re going to try and bid them into the network at at at a at a price where essentially you, you’re going to use up all your gas for the maximum amount of revenue that you can possibly obtain in that evening.

Gene Tunny  24:33

Yeah, yeah. Okay. So they’re being strategic about when they bid into the market to maximise their profits and Okay, so if we go back to June so there was you talked about this cumulative price cap and did that kick in in June did it Yeah, correct.

Andrew Murdoch  24:49

So, yeah the cumulative price cap kicked in. And, and what what that did was forced amo to, to cap the spot price to $300 a megawatt hour. So, so we ended up going from a market operating as it normally would to a strict $300 cap. So which which sounds okay, however, the price of gas was $40 a megawatt hour, I beg your pardon, the price of gas was $40 a giga joule. Yeah, now, the short run marginal cost of a gas turbine is approximately 10 times its gas price. Okay, so, so essentially a megawatt hour of for gas turbine to produce a megawatt hour of electricity, it will it will consume, it will consume 10 Giga joules of gas. So, so 40 times 10 is obviously $400. So, if you’re a rational operator of gas turbines, you’re not going to be dispatching at a cost of $400 to to only receive $300 in revenue. So, so the gas turbine operators, rationally withdrew capacity, which was, which was not in itself sounds like a selfish thing to do, they needed to do that to allow a new AEMO to issue a lack of reserve notice, which then allowed AEMO to force the gas turbines back online. So, without that lack of reserve notice, they wouldn’t have been able to, to order the gas turbines back online, which is, which is what they do.

Gene Tunny  26:18

So they essentially they intervened in the market, they said you, you’ve got to supply this, we will direct you to supply this into the market. Correct. So the market and this is why people at the time were saying the market is essentially failed. And I mean, is that a fair thing to say that, look, the national electricity market, as it was originally designed, is no longer fit for purpose. I mean, if if you’ve got a situation where the the operator has to intervene and essentially take over and go into command and control, central planning style, is that, does that mean that whole system has failed? And we need to start it again?

Andrew Murdoch  26:55

Look I think I think, I think it’s a bit harsh to say that the market has failed, the market has operated extremely well for for over 20 years. And, and has has done an excellent job of balancing supply demand and, and facilitating private investment into the, into the market. And, and I guess modernising beyond state controlled power systems. It’s not perfect, though. And we have this situation, this extreme situation of four unusual events that happened that that was not foreseen. What was the scene was that these types of events will happen. And therefore we give, we have the cumulative price cap to act there is a safety valve to to allow a AEMO to intervene and suspend the market when when it’s appropriate. So yeah, so after a week, of, of regulated $300 A megawatt hour cap, then at most suspended the market and then set the price based upon previous bidding behaviour. But yeah, and that was essentially, essentially just to give time for people to go and have a few deep breaths and, and, and Reset, reset themselves and reset, how they were going to bid. In same way that, you know, in the share market, for example, a company might say, Okay, we need to have a market, we need to suspend trading of our shares, because we’re dealing with this issue, or we’re dealing with that issue. And every system has crisises, from time to time, and it is appropriate to suspend markets from time to time.

Gene Tunny  28:36

Yeah, I think that’s a that’s a fair point. Now, it looks like there was a close run thing, we didn’t end up having blackouts, which was good. I think they had some big industrial users reduce their demand quite substantially, didn’t they? But yeah, we did avoid blackouts of residential areas. I mean, I was concerned and I thought, what a terrible night because it was very cold at the time. Like, what if you couldn’t run your heater? That would be awful. So do you think could this happen again? I mean, how concerned should we be about this? Or do you think that the people running in the people in AEMO the people in the other agencies are overseen energy policy? Do they have this under control? How concerned should we be Andrew?

Andrew Murdoch  29:23

Well, I think look, I think it’s important to note that we didn’t have load shedding Yeah, and and you know, aside from some, some negotiated reduction of industrial load, AEMO were able to keep the lights on and the market participants were able to keep the lights on so. So that in itself is is a tribute to the to the people involved that hey, we we can as a as an industry collaboratively, do our job during, during these extreme extreme periods. Now, I guess, could the factors happen again, could the, could we find ourselves into in a situation where AEMO has to has to suspend them again? Well, the answer is yes. Because if you look at the four, the four factors, could we have very high gas prices? Again? Well, well, yes, they haven’t gone down, prices are still still expensive and Nord streams would drop to drop two to two, no deliveries into Europe. And the headlines coming out of Europe are more and more exciting. From day to day, and particularly as we move into the European into the European winter and into our, our summer, which is our our peak peak demand, very concerning. I feel that we’re globally under invested in gas exploration. We have very long lead times for project development from exploration all the way through to production is many, many years. There’s a reluctance by governments, policymakers, insurances, insurers and banks to support hydrocarbon projects. And so yes, I think gas, high gas prices will happen again.

Gene Tunny  30:55

Where would that be that exploration? Is Australia, one of the prime places you’d be exploring for for gas?

Andrew Murdoch  31:02

Oh, absolutely. Yeah. So so as I think, you know, we’ve seen We’ve seen Moratorium on on gas exploration in Victoria and New South Wales, which is reduced supply into, into into the Australian East Coast grid. There’s certainly a lot more gas in Queensland that that can be developed over, over time. So, so yeah, there’s there’s there’s, there’s a lot there that we have, we can we can contribute there. Yeah. Likewise, with coal. I don’t see. I don’t see global coal prices restoring to levels that we’ve seen in the past. I don’t think they’re going to take $400 a tonne forever. But like gas, you know, there’s reluctance in an even greater reluctance to develop and approve coal projects. Notwithstanding that, globally, we’ve consumed as much coal in the last 12 months as we’ve ever consumed. And that’s a reflection of increasing energy demand from developing economies, who are building coal fired power stations.

Gene Tunny  32:09

Okay, we’ll take a short break here for a word from our sponsor.

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Gene Tunny  32:43

Now back to the show. Right, so what about this concern about renewables? Is there a big challenge integrating them into the grid? Does that make the grid more unreliable? If we don’t have the backup the storage capacity, and it looks like we don’t at the moment, we’ve got coal fired power stations, they’re going to be progressively shutting down over the next couple of decades? How confident are you arecan manage that transition? And if you know, what are the what are the things we need to do to make sure it goes well, and we don’t end up with with loadshedding with blackouts from time to time.

Andrew Murdoch  33:32

Yeah, so renewables are complex. And the obvious thing to say on renewables is that, you know, solar doesn’t work when the sun’s not shining, and wind doesn’t work when the winds not blowing the challenge for us. I guess the the key challenges is number one, accessing the resource number two, matching supply and demand, making sure that we’ve got the transmission infrastructure in place to connect the generation to the to the to the load centre, noting that the generation is going to come from your is coming from different places to where it has come from in the past. And then, you know, dealing with storage, so I guess, to, to develop a system where we have the equivalent of baseload power from renewables, you first got to generate the power. Yeah, then you’ve got to store it, then you’ve got to dispatch it. So you’ve got three elements, where we where we would once have had one so so it is it is quite, quite complex. I guess in terms of accessing the resource and there’s a there’s a lot of really good work being done. If you look at the the growth statistics in solar and wind over the last five years has been fantastic. In terms of the, the the number of megawatts that has been added to the grid. It’s still it’s still not easy to develop these projects. You’ve got landholder interest to deal with. You’ve got the interests of traditional owners, you’ve got community interests and expectations. Some people love wind farms, some people don’t. And we each have a different, different view on that. And competing, competing land use is is another another issue. So moving moving through that, I guess, you know, land land acquisition and development approval environmental approvals is complicated for, for renewables projects are land intensive projects. And so and so therefore, therefore complicated from a renewals perspective in matching supply and demand. We have very limited opportunities for baseload renewable says obviously, hydro, but between snowy and Tassie hydro, pretty much tapped all of the hydro resources that we have in the country, there’s a little bit of biomass, particularly integrated with sugar mills, I think we can make better value out of waste to energy projects. So that is using the energy in waste to generate, to generate power. And we’re going to need to to develop massive, massive amounts of storage to cover an average 24 hour load cycle. So yeah, so pumped hydro, large battery projects, and we’re working on on on a very large pumped hydro project, and two very large battery projects that will contribute to, to contribute to solving some of these problems. Yeah.

Gene Tunny  36:18

Do you have any thoughts on what this bet the future with batteries will look like? Well, well, we all have to have something like the Tesla Powerwall. At home, will there be larger batteries? on street corners? I mean, houses going to? How’s it going to play out? What are your thoughts on where the technology is out at the moment? where it’s going? Yeah, are we actually going to have the, the the improvements, the technological improvements that we need? I mean, I remember reading might have been in Bill Gates his book on on the climate change challenge. And I think you were saying we need some, you know, multiple improvement in the efficiency of batteries. I don’t know if it was 20x was some big number in that we need to improve batteries by

Andrew Murdoch  37:03

Yes, I think I think we’re going to see a mix of projects. And we’re working on some very large projects, gigawatt scale battery projects. And, and these batteries are a two hour duration. So they’ll they’re really they’re these projects are really designed to harvest solar energy generated during the middle of the day, store it and then put it back onto the grid in the evening. And essentially dealing with that dealing with that peak load, I think you’ll see, you’ll see a lot of batteries at at a at an industry level as well, we’ll see projects on the fringe of grid utilise batteries a little bit more. So for example, a mine that is in an Outback community that might be supplied by a long skinny transmission line that doesn’t quite have the capacity to serve the mind. So the mind will put a battery in trickle charge the battery during the day and then use that battery to use that battery to cover the peak demands that the mine might have, they might also integrate their own solar in there as well to to self generate a little bit so so so we are seeing a lot of batteries within industry there for for energy management also helps with things like peak demand tariffs and other related energy costs. We’ll also see batteries at a household level participators as virtual power plants, so essentially what happens there is that you’ll you’ll go and have a battery that that you’ll instal in your house and your retail supply agreement will allow your retailer to control your battery and that will allow your retailer to use your battery capacity to trade a little bit of energy. They’ll they’ll harvest the harvest the solar from your roof and then dispatch, dispatch it to your house and then whatever’s whatever the Enders and overs are they can then trade onto the grid. So I think I think we’ll see them at all all levels are at wholesale level that at large industrial level and also at at the household level.

Gene Tunny  38:59

Right. Can we talk about that gigawatt battery? That sounds fascinating. And it gigawatts obviously, a huge amount of energy. So what would that actually power? Do you know? I mean, that I mean, I guess you you could estimate it based on household electricity use, but are we took like what sort of sized town are we talking about?

Andrew Murdoch  39:22

So to put it into context, the the Peak Peak Demand in in Queensland is somewhere between eight and 10,000 gigawatt hours. So let me start that again. So to put it into context, the peak demand in Queensland is somewhere between eight and 10 gigawatts during during high high demand. So essentially, it could contribute roughly 10% of the peak demand to the state.

Gene Tunny  39:51

Right. So that’s now this is going to be in precise because industrial use is a big part of demand but 10% of Queensland. So we’ve got about 5 million people. So that’s about that’s 500,000. People. So we’re talking. Yeah, I mean, that’s a that’s a city. Right. That’s a reasonable sized city. I mean, yeah. I mean, we don’t have any main gold coasts, for example. 500,000 people. Right. So that’s a big battery, then. That’s impressive. Yeah, it is a big battery. Yes. Okay. And so that’s the sort of thing we’d be, we’d be looking at, we’re looking at large batteries to back up the grid. And so without naming names, it looks like the people who are sort of involved in this, the the companies involved in this are looking at options like this.

Andrew Murdoch  40:43

Yeah, absolutely. Yeah. I mean, investors look for opportunities to solve a problem. And yeah, that’s, that’s, that’s how capitalism works, of course, is that you, you know, you add value to the community, by by solving a problem, and then you get paid for it. So yeah, we have some some very smart clients who, who, who can identify these types of opportunities, and then deploy their capital to solve

Gene Tunny  41:06

them. Okay, because they know they can store the energy in the battery and then sell it into the grid when it’s needed. Correct. Okay. Uh, one thing I forgot to ask was about, if you’ve still got time, I know a token. Yeah, that’s right. Do we need something like a capacity mechanism in the national electricity market to to keep this coal fired power and gas fired power online? Because one of the complaints I hear is that with the way the markets been set up, and these, these certificates that mean that renewables can get beat in at negative prices, This undermines the viability of the coal fired and the gas fired generation, but we actually need them from time to time to be able to provide that was it peaking to do the peaking to provide that, that that energy when we really need it?

Andrew Murdoch  42:02

Yeah, well, I guess, yeah, we don’t specifically need coal or specifically need gas. To provide that firming capacity. We need dispatchable power. And traditionally, we’ve gotten that from from coal sources, and yeah, from gas sources. So so it’s not so much that we we need, we need coal, or we need batteries, are we need gas, or we need pumped hydro, we need something. Yeah, that will provide that, that, that, that peaking capacity, then if you overlay a climate change lens on it progressively over time, we need the carbon intensity of that capacity to reduce. Yeah. So back to your question about, do we need a capacity mechanism? It’s hard to see a market restructure being able to address the combination of geopolitical meteorological and physical issues that were were present in early, early June, those four factors still would have been the irrespective of what the what the the, the, the, what the market structure was, I think there are some tweaks we can make to the, to the system, for example, that market cap of $15,000 a megawatt hour, perhaps that should integrate down once it’s hit the cap a few times as you integrated down over time. So the cumulative price cap is not, is never, is never is never exceeded. And I think if you took a control systems engineering view to to how that price cap operates, you could put a feedback system in there that has integrated control down to a to an equivalent of that, of that price cap, which is averages out at about $800 a megawatt hour. So which is good money, if you’re if you’re

Gene Tunny  43:49

I think I understand what you’re saying. So you’re, you’re saying that maybe don’t let it get up as far as 15,000 or maybe once but then start scaling that, like just start reducing that so that they’re still getting the high prices when the market really needs energy, but they don’t get such high enough prices, that it ends up exceeding their cumulative cap, which means that I am asked to intervene and yeah, okay, great. Yeah. Okay.

Andrew Murdoch  44:18

Now, we also have another, a few other, let’s call them quasi capacity mechanisms that are in the system already. And that, as I said that that $1,500.15 $1,000 A megawatt hour is a significant incentive to make sure that you’re well invested in in pacity. And those that weren’t lost a lot of money. So the the other the other thing we have is we do have the contract market on the side. So if you’re an energy retailer, you can go and contract with with the power station to to provide you to provide you with with coverage and essentially they’re providing a physical slot. So every time that the pool price goes up, they will generate on your behalf and you’ll swap that exposure. So so that’s, you know, that’s a A non let’s call it a voluntary capacity market that already exists. And email also has the reliability and emergency reserve trader. And that’s a short term mechanism that whenever a emo feels that the based upon it’s more than just feeling it’s based on some some very sophisticated modelling that the the probability of unserved power exceeds point oh 2%, then they’re able to go and contract with generators to, to provide emergency power during a particular period. And that led to some some temporary generators being being installed in various different locations around the country over the over the past few years.

Gene Tunny  45:42

Temporary generators are they diesel generators? Oh, they

Andrew Murdoch  45:46

could be diesel could be gas. So yeah, so you can you can go to GE and order some trailer mounted 30 megawatt trailer mounted gas turbines. And there’s there’s fleets of these owned by hire companies that that go around the world? And, and, and plug holes in power systems here and there. So

Gene Tunny  46:05

very good. Okay. Yeah. So we were chatting about the capacity mechanism. And I think you’re saying that it’s not going to solve all the problems that that could that could arise, which would, which would cause which would cause issues? So I mean, what, what do we need to do? Do you have any thoughts on what needs to happen with the NEM.

Andrew Murdoch  46:28

So I guess, reflecting on the events of June, more energy would have been handy. So it was a cost of energy issue that that created these extreme prices. So whether that energy came from renewables or from gas or from coal, any additional gigajoules or megawatt hours generated onto the system would have had downward pressure on prices, and certainly would have helped. So there’s a couple of tweaks you can do to the you can do to the to the to the rules to perhaps prevent the accumulated price stress on ever been ever been breached? And that’s just, that’s just a function of mathematics.

Gene Tunny  47:07

That was what we were talking about before. Yeah, yeah, yeah,

Andrew Murdoch  47:10

looking forwards. We’ve got 8.3 gigawatts of coal plant sheduled to be taken out of the market between now and 2029. It’s like 2022. Now. So that’s a lot of a lot of firming capacity needs to be developed in that timeframe. If I look at the various different committed projects that are that are in the system, at present, I only get that only adds to 1.32 gigawatts of dispatchable generation required to cover that 8.3 gigawatts of retiring capacity. So so there is a bit of a deficit there in terms of project firming projects that are available. Now more projects will be be committed between now and then. And those projects I mentioned before, aren’t included in that 1.3 gigawatts. But yeah, these these projects we’re working on are in the development phase development phase for projects is, is very long takes many years. There’s a there’s a lot of hoops to jump through. Some of them necessary, some of them not so necessary. So it’s a bit like the argument in house prices and housing demand is, you know, is extreme high house pricing being caused by the the complexity and speed of approvals, or are there other factors that played personally my my view in power is that we could, we could certainly work a lot faster in terms of bringing these projects onto the onto the grid. If the approvals process wasn’t so bureaucratic and slow. Now, I think it should still be thorough. We certainly, we certainly want to have a thorough EIS process and a thorough technical review of of the contribution that these plants have on the grid. But I think there’s a lot we can do to make it a lot more efficient and perhaps remove duplication. And yeah, and and yeah, I guess add a little bit of I want to say common sense, but that’s not quite the right word for it, but

Gene Tunny  49:23

we do maybe a sense of urgency among some of these regulatory agencies. So you mentioned the EIS environmental impact statement. And I guess, yeah, trying to respond to the environmental issues that that’s obviously a major part of the whole process. Trying to satisfy the environmental regulator that you’re not going to damage the environment. You’ve got a plan, like if there’s a particular there’s foreigner that’s threatened, you’ve got a plan to manage that. So yeah, yes,

Andrew Murdoch  49:53

essentially. Yeah. And I guess, you know, to be fair to this is not just one one agency that the could improve. We see it across all all, all agencies. The the, I guess is there’s a desire for perfection, that that whether whether it’s whether it’s a technical approval or or a planning approval or a or traffic or whatnot, every, each of the departments come wanting to see a level of perfection in every every area, and sometimes it’s just not practical.

Gene Tunny  50:29

Yeah. Okay, I’ll, I’ll put something to you. And I’d be interested in your reaction. I’m looking at what’s happening with energy in Australia at the moment. And I see, we need all of this firming capacity, or we need to be able to back up the grid because we’re bringing in all these renewables. We’re coal fired power, leaving the system. And I mean, I look at this, and I’m very worried about whether we’re actually going to have sufficient power in five or 10 years time, I’m really worried about the reliability of the system. And partly, that’s because I’m concerned that we’ve promoted renewables into the system at a very high rate, but faster than the system can can handle it and not in conjunction with the storage. And we’ve done that for Well, we, I mean, I think, you know, the people are doing it for reasons that, you know, I think they, they think they’re doing the right thing, because it’s for the environment, it’s to tackle climate change. But I’m worried about what that means reliability of power in five or 10 years. And what that will mean for prices, How worried should I be? Am I just am I overly concerned? Am I too concerned? Or is that there might be an irrational, am I being biassed myself in analysing this issue? yet? So

Andrew Murdoch  51:51

I think we can’t oversimplify, or we shouldn’t be oversimplifying the debate. We are talking about complex physics and complex economics. And whether it’s in the media or in politics, there’s these oversimplifications of the answer is x. And depending upon what your political view or your commercial view is your put whatever noun you’re after the answer is to to suit your needs. I try and take a balanced view. Now, in terms of, Should we be worried at a technical level? So I’ll get back to those numbers. Again, there’s 8.3 gigawatts being retired from the fleet between now and 2029. So we’ve been through an incident where, essentially, yeah, it was more of an energy related issue than a capacity related issue, but capacity wasn’t far behind. So we, we have kind of almost just enough right now. Okay. So when we retire 8.3 gigawatts, and we increase peak demand, because peak demand continues to grow, you’re on. And we want to we want to continue to to industrialise and we want to continue to grow the population and grow the economy. And there’s a strong correlation between energy consumption and GDP. So that, you know that that margin is probably going to go negative. And so we should, yeah, we should certainly be prioritising firming capacity. And as I said, previously, whether that firming capacity comes from batteries from gas turbines, from pumped hydro is somewhat somewhat irrelevant. There’s probably still a role for coal to play, but it gets a little bit harder for for, for coal plant to, to provide, provide firming, in terms of, you know, should we be worried about capacity in the future? That’s, the answer is yes. And or just scroll down here to have a look, I was reading over the weekend, the HMOs. Electrical statement of opportunities, which essentially is a forecast of off demand that they use to inform the market. So they’re forecasting that the reliability standard will be breached. If there’s no further investment, that the reliability standards will be breached in New South Wales in 2025, and then Victoria in 2027, and Queensland and South Australia shortly thereafter. How web are if the FA Mo’s recommendations in the integrated system plan, which is a Mo’s map of the projects that they feel should be progressed, then that situation improves a little bit we don’t see the reliability standard being breached in in Victoria until 2027 28. And then, New South wails 2029 2030 But again linked to coal plant retirements,

Gene Tunny  55:05

I have to look at this integrated system plan, what are they? What are they saying in that are they saying, you know, these are these are the investments that are needed in what capacity and in storage and distribution. So,

Andrew Murdoch  55:17

so it deals, the integrated system plan deals with the transmission network more so, than the generation network, they do look at where they believe the, the more, the better renewable energy zones are on the grid and, and that informs a lot of the infrastructure. So that allows them to forecast where the energy is going to be coming from in future years. So it’s essentially feed into the regulated process. So once I emo identify a project that then allows the network service providers, so the power links the trans grids, to start the regulatory investment process, which then allows them to invest in these in these upgrades. But yeah, the timeframe between amo raising a project in the in the ISP and then a network service provider to actually construct and commission a plant is many 510 years in the making. So So these these are big infrastructure projects that take a long time to develop and construct

Gene Tunny  56:21

good one, I’ll check that out. I’ll check out this ISP and put a link in the show notes. One thing that one thing that’s occurred to me is that I mean, one, one possible way to avoid this, this deficit that you’ve you’ve described is, well, we just don’t retire these coal fired power stations, we keep some of them open or longer than is intended or was initial longer than amo thinks that other companies themselves think they will be currently be kept open for. But what that might mean is that’s where that capacity mechanism could could be useful, possibly, but then that means that we’d be paying then just to have the generation available if it’s needed. And that’s why there are accusations that our capacity mechanism would be coal keeper. Have you heard that? Yeah. So

Andrew Murdoch  57:06

I’ve certainly heard the call keeper fever slogan. Yeah, look, it’s it’s interesting. I’d have to think about that a little bit more as to what would a capacity credit encourage a coal plant to stay open more so than the current market structure? I guess the economics of ongoing operation of coal plants on one hand, you’ve got back to a world where energy prices are, quote, unquote, normal. On one hand, you’ve got a very low cost of operation, then you’ve got four, seven production. So you’re you’re it’s true baseload and the volumes are higher. On the other hand, you’ve got ongoing refurbishment costs. So I think callide spent $130 million or so on the refurbishment of one of the B units recently. Yeah, that’s a lot of money. And so you know that that’s an that will keep that that plant operating for another five years for argument’s sake. So it’s always it’s always that economics of, you know, when you’re between major overhaul cycles, and you keep going until the until you hit the next major maintenance. And then and then you make a decision. Do I spend $100 million? Upgrading? Yeah. refurbishing, economy or economy economizer tubes or whatnot? Or do you or do you at that stage retire the plant?

Gene Tunny  58:29

Okay. Okay. Look, I better I only ask one more question, because I’m so long, because this is fascinating. And I really liked the point you made about how, look, let’s not look at this, simplistically, it’s too easy just to come up with some simple diagnosis of what’s going on. And as economists we like to do that, because we like to cut through the complexity. We like to have a simple, elegant model of what’s going on. But I understand Yep, you’ve got to think about the physics and all of this as well as the economics that makes perfect sense. My final question is about EVs. Are we ready for EVs in the network? Will we be able to provide the power? Will we be able to provide the necessary charging infrastructure? And one thing I should I’m interested if you’ve got any thoughts on it is how can EVs help us have a smarter grid? Because I’ve seen that in I think it’s in California? Is there a company that lets people who have EVs they can have that use them as a bit of a mini as battery? And then they can they can even start selling power to other people? I don’t know if you’ve seen that sort of thing. So if you could just talk about EVs?

Andrew Murdoch  59:38

Sure, certainly certainly. Great. I just want to go back to the Nikah the the complex physics and complex economics. I just want to make one other point. There’s also an ecological impact as well as your Yeah, is it every choice we make, it has an impact on cost. It has an impact on reliability, but it also has an impact on carbon emissions. So truth is balancing the three and three issues are all common. looks. So back to EVs. Yeah. So, so So yeah, fascinating stuff. And, and obviously, you’ve had a couple of guests over the last couple of weeks who have had some some interesting things to say on EVs. But yes, so there are there are companies who are planning on using the battery capacity in your Eevee, as part of that virtual power plant mechanism that I was talking about, yeah, with a battery on the wall, that you can also extend that by plugging in your Eevee and allowing them to use that charge. So maybe you’ll come home from from from work, you’ll drive into your garage and about this time of evening, that’s, it’s 6pm, here and in. So you might come home and plug in in the evening, and you might still have 80% of your battery charges there. So the the your retailer might use that to cover peak demand during the evening, rather than drawing from the grid. And then later in the night, when peak demand goes off, and power prices get a little bit cheaper, maybe the wind starts blowing a little bit, then your your retailer will then fully charge your car. So the next morning, you get up and unplug and away you go to work, and you don’t even know that it’s happened. So So yeah, so these kinds of things can be can be done, I noticed, I was reading on LinkedIn, I think this morning, the the Tesla’s in in California, over the last couple of days have been setting you people will go home and the Tesla comes up on the on the Tesla display. You know, the California grid is about to experience peak demand, you might like to charge your car later in the later in the evening. And the Tesla system has an ability for you to time to essentially tell it when you want to leave and it will optimise the charging process a to maximise battery life and also to minimise power costs and impact on the grid. But I guess in terms of physical impacts, look, if we all go home in the evening and plug in our EVs in the evening, then that’s going to contribute to peak demand. And that’s not going to be particularly helpful when it comes to reliability of supply. Yeah. But if we time the charging of the car to be a little bit later in the evening to in the morning, three in the morning, and as I say the Tesla’s can do it. And I’m sure the other EVs can do it as well, with smart charging, then, then the impact on the grid will be will be minimal, because we’re making better use of matching, we’re using the cars to to maximise supply and demand.

Gene Tunny  1:02:31

Right, based on so how does it work? So the you mentioned Tesla, so they’re looking at what the the power prices are, they’re getting a signal from the market. And they’re saying, Oh, look, you might you might want to charge later. Because there’s a lot of demand for power at the moment. And prices are high.

Andrew Murdoch  1:02:53

Yeah, so in the case of the California one it was it was more around reliability. So okay, as I understand it, California is going through a situation that was similar to what we went through June, where they’re, they’re issuing lack of reserve notices, or whatever the California for the lack of reserve notices. And so it’s more so more related around around system system reliability, rather than rather than price. Okay, but there’s no reason why it couldn’t also respond to price if it’s integrated with the with your retailers.

Gene Tunny  1:03:23

Okay. That’s, that’s cool. And just finally, so yeah, so I guess you answered the question. You’re saying that, if we do it intelligently, if there’s some if there’s some way with a possibly buy it, that, I guess it would be via it that these things are charging at the right time? During the night? They’re not all charging when we get home? That they’re delayed, then yeah, it’s possible we we should be able to handle it in your view.

Andrew Murdoch  1:03:54

Yeah, yeah. Yeah. So that’s not to say that won’t have any impact that will have an impact, because there’s more energy that the power grid needs to provide. So if it is all coming from from renewables, and that’s more solar farms and more wind farms, because we still have to produce more megawatt hours of energy and transmit them. Yeah, so it all contributes to load growth. And there will be there will be EVs that do have to be charged during the peak because I’ve just come home or maybe I’ve driven home from a couple 100 kilometres away. Yeah, 2% left in my battery. And in an hour’s time, I’ve got to pick the kids up from school. So I’ve got a charge now. So there will be a contribute contribution, but it won’t be won’t be everyone most of the time for most of your daily cycling will be able to charge during during periods. When when it’s not peak demand. And do

Gene Tunny  1:04:39

You think this will be done automatically? Will there be the computer the in on the in the car or and it connects to the grid and then this will all be managed and coordinated across all of the EVS out there and yeah,

Andrew Murdoch  1:04:51

Yeah, so So Rena did a study. And they found that when people were just left to their own devices, people would come home and plug in Yeah, 30% of all charging happens during peak periods. Yes. Because that’s when you come home. If they, if they then get gave a 10 cent per kilowatt hour incentive, this dropped 10%. So people started thinking about it, I want to save some money or save some money on my power bill. So I’m not going to I’m going to programme car did not start charging into after peak period. And then if they handed over control of the charging to the retailer, then that peak demand use dropped to 6%. Yeah, so Gotcha. So automation is definitely the way and who wants to come home and think about oh, what time should I charge the car? Yeah, I can just plug it in and have have the AI work it out for me. And as long as I don’t know, if I don’t have to think about it, it’s easy.

Gene Tunny  1:05:44

Yeah. Extraordinary. Okay. We’ve, I think we’ve probably come to time because yeah, we’ve had a great chat, Andrew. And, yeah, I’ve really enjoyed this conversation and learned an incredible amount. So it’s been incredibly valuable for me. Any final words before we wrap up? Oh, no. Look,

Andrew Murdoch  1:06:04

thank you for the opportunity to talk. As I say it’s a complex system. We’re balanced. We’re balancing our contribution to climate change. We’re balancing economic development. We’re balancing physics, we’re balancing reliability, and we’re balancing affordability. So it is it is, it can’t be over simplified.

Gene Tunny  1:06:20

So I think that’s a really good way to to put it. Andrew Murdock, Managing Director of RK energy. Thanks so much for your time. I really enjoyed that conversation. Thanks,

Andrew Murdoch  1:06:29

Joan. I appreciate the opportunity.

Gene Tunny  1:06:31

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 contact at economics explored.com And we’ll aim to address them in a future episode. Thanks for listening. Until next week, goodbye

Credits

Thanks to Josh Crotts for mixing the episode and to the show’s sponsor, Gene’s consultancy business www.adepteconomics.com.au

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Podcast episode

EV taxes, congestion charges & taking high-polluting trucks off the roads w/ Marion Terrill  – EP155

An electrified vehicle fleet will mean lower fuel tax revenues for governments and possibly greater traffic congestion as EVs are cheaper to run. Governments around the world are having to reassess how they charge for road use and one Australian state, Victoria, has introduced an EV tax based on distance traveled. In Economics Explored EP155, Marion Terrill from the Grattan Institute discusses what a rational road user charging system would look like. She also talks about Grattan’s truck plan, which is designed to get high polluting old trucks out of major Australian cities.  

This episode’s guest Marion Terrill is Transport and Cities Program Director at the Grattan Institute. Marion is a leading transport and cities expert with a long history in public policy. She has worked on tax policy for the federal Treasury, and led the design and development of the MyGov account. She has provided expert analysis and advice on labour market policy for the Federal Government, the Business Council of Australia, and at the Australian National University.

You can listen to the episode via the embedded player below or via podcasting apps including Google PodcastsApple PodcastsSpotify, and Stitcher.

Links relevant to the conversation

Marion’s bio: https://grattan.edu.au/expert/marion-terrill/ 

Grattan Institute on Twitter: @GrattanInst

Marion’s Australian Financial Review article “Electric vehicles: Feds should pave way for gold standard road user charges” (pay-walled)

Grattan’s 2019 report Right time, right place, right price: a practical plan for congestion charging in Sydney and Melbourne

The Grattan truck plan: practical policies for cleaner freight

Previous episodes featuring Marion:

Megaprojects with Marion Terrill from Grattan Institute | Episode 62

Unfreezing Discount Rates with Marion Terrill of the Grattan Institute | Episode 42

Transcript: EV taxes, congestion charges & taking high-polluting trucks off the roads w/ Marion Terrill  – EP155

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  00:00

Coming up on Economics Explored.

Marion Terrill  00:01

As we get more and more electric vehicles, great in many ways, and they’re much cheaper to run than internal combustion engine vehicles. But if they’re cheaper to run, it means people will be inclined to drive more. So I think unless governments take some kind of action on congestion, this is a recipe for gridlock.

Gene Tunny  00:26

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 155. On road user charges, what’s the right way to charge for road use, particularly as we switch to electric vehicles and governments lose revenue from fuel taxes. My guest this episode has been thinking a lot about this. It’s Marion Terrill, who was transported cities programme director at the Grattan Institute, a leading Australian Think Tank. You may recall I previously spoke with Marion and on the podcast, we spoke about mega projects in Episode 62. And about discount rates in Episode 42. I’ll put links to those episodes in the show notes along with other relevant links. In the show notes, you can also find out how you can get in touch with me. Please let me know what you think about either Marion and I have to say in this episode, I’d love to hear from you. Right now from my conversation with Marion Terrill on road user charges. And we also chat about Grattan’s new truck plan for Australia. Thanks to my audio engineer Josh Crotts for his assistance in producing this episode. I hope you enjoy it. 

Gene Tunny  01:47

Marian Terrell from the Grattan Institute Good to have you back on the show. 

Marion Terrill

Hello, Gene. 

Gene Tunny 

Yes, good to see you, Marian. I’m keen to chat with you about the piece you had published in the financial review last week on road user charges. And also I know that Grattan released a new truck plan. So I’m keen to, to chat a bit about that as well. Now in the financial review, last week, you had a piece that was titled, Feds should pave way for gold standard road user charges by and by feds, you mean federal government. And there’s a sub heading here, which may have been written by their sub editor. I’m not sure. But we can. I’d like to sort of launch off from this. It says that regardless of what the High Court decides, fuel excise duty, should be killed off quickly and give way to a smarter way to pay for roads. By mentioning the high court you’re referring to this. There’s a challenge isn’t there that some people are challenging? This new Victorian electric vehicle tax and the Commonwealth has got involved? Can you tell us about that, please?

Marion Terrill  02:58

That’s right. So Victoria introduced new charges on electric vehicles in July of last year. So, the rate that they pay is 2.6 kilometres, or sorry, 2.6 cents per kilometre for an electric vehicle and 2.1 cents per kilometre for a plug in hybrid. And New South Wales is also planning to impose similar charges from 2027, or whenever electric vehicles make up 30% of new car sales, whichever comes sooner. And there was a plan to do this in South Australia. But when the government changed, I understand it’s been canned. So but I think there is, there has been, some coordination across the states to do this. That’s what the charge is. And then what’s happening here in Victoria, is that electric vehicle drivers have been up in arms about it. And two of them are challenging it on constitutional grounds. And so they’re saying, as I understand that this the argument is that it is a tax on kilometres is actually an excise or ad valorem tax, if you like for your business. And so this all hinges on how broadly or narrowly you define an excise because only the Commonwealth can charge an excise. So that’s the basic argument. I don’t know how that will play out. There would have been other ways to implement this tax or this charge this charge on electric drivers but this particular method of charging it does permit space for this constitutional challenge.

Gene Tunny  04:54

Right and what was the justification that these EVs aren’t paying, well, there’s no fuel excise paid by the owners of the EVS because, well, they, they’re powered by electricity. And presumably, this is the reason why the hybrid charge is lower because the they would be saying, well, they are at least contributing somewhat in terms of the fuel excise the 44 cents a litre. Yeah, so that must be the justification. But it is a bit cheeky, isn’t it? Because it’s the federal government that collects the excise, isn’t it? Is that right?

Marion Terrill  05:31

That’s right. That’s right. It’s a little bit of a rat’s nest here. So the, the rationale is, as you say that these drivers are not paying fuel excise, therefore, they’re not contributing, some people say contributing to the upkeep. But it all goes into one big pot really. But the other the other way of making that argument is a fairness argument to say, Well, how is it fair for this driver over here to be paying like this, and this driver over here not to be paying? So those are the arguments, but I think there is a further argument that doesn’t get so much of a public hearing. But that, and I guess this is what I’m pointing to in my, in my article that really, you would imagine that fuel excise is a even though it’s kind of not declining. Today, it is in structural decline as the fleet electrifies. And so it will become increasingly unfair because the because electric vehicles are more expensive to buy, the people who most quickly get out of paying it, those who can afford a more expensive vehicle and, and that I think that will become acute as a political pressure. And so the federal government has got the option to let it just wither on the vine, and become kind of increasingly unpopular. Or another option is just to say, Okay, we’re gonna kill it off now. And we’ll hand over the responsibility for taxing the taxes on driving to the States, but we’ll also hand over a funding responsibility to go with it.

Gene Tunny  07:17

Yeah, yeah, I think that could be there could be some attraction there or there could be an attractive option. I mean, it’s good to have that funding, the ability to fund it and the spending responsibility in the same place. Okay, so yeah, I guess it is a big issue, isn’t it? Because the is it 11 billion a year or something is is raised in fuel excise by the Commonwealth? Yeah.

Marion Terrill  07:41

That team in net fuel excise. It’s the actual amount is somewhat higher. It’s about 19 billion, I think. 18 or 19. But then seven, and a half of it is, is rebated throw the fuel tax credit. So the net amount that 10 million, so it’s, it’s about five? Well, yeah, it’s sorry, it’s about two and a half percent of Commonwealth taxman news, the net amount?

Gene Tunny  08:10

Yeah, and you mentioned all goes into the same or a bit the big pot of money that is consolidated revenue, so it’s not earmarked or hypothecated. Is that correct? That’s right.

Marion Terrill  08:21

Not in any meaningful way. It was last hypothecated in 1959. Right. 59, it was hypothecated. There is a little bit of it, that’s hypothecated. So this is getting a bit in the weeds, but basically, it wasn’t indexed for a period from 2001 to 2014. And when the indexation restart, and the index amount is hypothecated, but it’s gonna not meaningful, because it’s such a tiny amount and far less than what the current spends on roads.

Gene Tunny  08:58

Okay. Yeah. I’ll have to just look at that that small bit, just to make sure I’m across all the detail. Yes, because there is that common understanding. People seem to think that well, this pays for roads. And I mean, I guess it does go into the pot. And so it does help pay for roads, but then you can’t say that any that particular dollar raise from fuel excise is what actually pays for roads, because money is fungible, as they say,

Marion Terrill  09:22

Because the amount that is raised through fuel excise and about 10 billion is more than the Commonwealth spends on transport infrastructure, which is usually it’s lumpy, but it’s usually seven to eight. So, I mean, kind of where you draw those lines, I think, is an open question. But yeah, the amounts Don’t bear any relationship to one another.

Gene Tunny  09:44

Yeah. Have you looked at whether the fuel excise and motor vehicle registration fees at the state and territory level combined? Do they add up roughly to what is spent on roads by federal and state governments? I heard that some One quarter that I’ve heard or quoted in the last few months, but I’ve never been able to verify whether that’s the case or not I’ve ever seen that

Marion Terrill  10:08

We have been looking at that sort of thing. And the short answer is no. Okay. What we have noticed those and as a trend is that the the share of road related tax revenue raised by state seems to be rising. But it’s harder to discern a trend on spending, because it is so lumpy, from, as you know, from one year to the other, to the next, it does jump around a bit. So, which would be a problem if you did try to hypothecated? Actually, because they’d be it’d be quite difficult to predict how much you’d have to spend, but you do need to predict because the roads take time to plan. So yes. They there’s, there is a lot of, or there’s a lot of reasons why Hypothecation isn’t a great idea, but people do really believe that. It’s hypothecated. And even if not formally, that it’s somehow it is informally hypothecated.

Gene Tunny  11:12

Yeah, yeah. Yeah. I’m not a big fan of earmarking, because it reduces your, your flexibility with your budget. Okay. Do you know what’s happening in other parts of the world? Marion? I mean, you look, you mentioned Victoria’s, it’s tried to impose this. EV tax. Sa was going to but then there was a change of government, New South Wales is considering it. Are we leading the world on this? So do we know if other countries are looking at this sort of thing as well?

Marion Terrill  11:43

I’m not too sure. Who is I think, at the time when the Victorians announced this tax, there was a lot of media. And it’s sort of painting in quite extreme terms, even calling it the worst EV tax in the world. That I think a lot. I mean, we’ve been looking at the different fuel excise type regimes around the world. And, and sort of, I think, by global standards, a couple of things I’d say on this and one is we don’t charge much in fuel excise or similar types of taxes compared to other countries, particularly similar countries to us. And we see genuine the like, and we also don’t have any congestion charging or that kind of thing. So on the whole driving, is, appears to be relatively lightly taxed here, compared to in many other countries.

Gene Tunny  12:42

Yeah, I’ll have a look for whether there’s any OECD table. I seem to remember one years ago. Is it the case that, UK has high excise or taxes on fuel? I’m guessing the Germans probably do.

Marion Terrill  13:00

Yeah. Continental Europe does. Yeah. Sorry. I don’t know off the hoof.

Gene Tunny  13:06

level. I’ll have a look. Yeah, I agree with that general point you made? I think that yeah, I have seen some data on that. So that’s good. might be good to go on to what you’re arguing in that piece? Because you said that? Well. Yeah, this EV tax? Well, it’s probably not the way you resolve this problem we’ve got with this The problem we’ve got with fuel excise duty disappearing. This EV tax probably isn’t the right way to go about addressing what you might see as a an issue there. Could you explain what your argument is, Marion? I mean, what do you think would an optimal policy would look like and first, am I right that you don’t agree with this EV tax just for just to be clear on that.

Marion Terrill  13:56

I don’t think it’s the worst tax in the world. I think it’s fair enough for the states to raise this revenue. And I would also say, given that you’re running an economics podcast, perhaps I can make the point that the people’s, like if you think about fuel price, elasticities, they’re pretty low, are not likely to change their behaviour much in the presence of a modest tax. And this is very modest. I think the estimates are that the typical driver might pay $300 a year. So I would have thought it was a reasonably efficient base. And I think it is arguably laying the groundwork for it to become to spread to other types of vehicles and to be paid at a higher rate over time. So I think all of that is fine. I guess I think well, if you just think about it as a revenue base, that you know, this low elasticity is a good thing. But I think a lot of the debate does sort of invoke the fact that EVs are better or better for the community because they aren’t producing the carbon emissions. And so they should be advantaged not disadvantaged. And I think that that’s in the absence of an economy one carbon price. That’s absolutely right. But I think in the the point of taxing driving, that I think makes the most sense is to try to bring about an efficient use of the road network. And by that, I mean that you should be charged, little or nothing, if you’re driving at a time of day in in a place where there’s no congestion. But if you want to contribute to congestion in peak hour, then you should be paying for it. So here, it’s an externality argument. So what you really want to do is set it at a low rate, so that you just deter that driver who can be most flexible, who cares the least about being there, they’ll put their trip off or take it another way. And that’s an efficient outcome. But if you do that, you won’t raise much revenue. So I think that governments are confronted with a choice. But I suppose I think in the road network is so important to the economy and society that what you really want is the latter. So I would like to see road user charges that vary by time of day and location, and vehicle size. So the Commonwealth can’t impose that kind of charge, because it cannot charge different Taxs, to different parts of the country, under the Constitution. So this has got to be in state based charge. And so that’s why I think, well, perhaps it is time for the governor for the federal government to step out of its role in taxing driving and hand that job over to the States because the technology has now improved. And it’s it is now much more realistic for states to do sort of fair and precise charging in a way that probably wasn’t feasible, even 10 years ago.

Gene Tunny  17:23

Right. So by the technology has improved. You mean that there are ways of tracking people. I know that if you’re going on toll roads here, in Queensland, you’ve got a tag or something that pings or that that tells the toll road company when you go on the toll road? So imagine there’d be some device, is that what you’re thinking?

Marion Terrill  17:47

Or you can do that, I think, look at the I think the most foolproof way is to use number plate recognition cameras, which are more up to date technology really than those tollgate. But I think people are foreshadowing when we’ll be able to use GPS to do this. Now, my, my feeling that that is it will happen. But we’re not really there yet. That no country has used GPS to introduce a road pricing scheme across the board. But they’re so let’s sort of see what Singapore does, really, but I think that that is becoming increasingly likely, but number plate recognition cameras, much less kind of unsightly and obtrusive than Tollgate entries. And so that that’s definitely a way that you can do it. In the shorter term.

Gene Tunny  18:45

I should have thought of that because I’m a big fan of British crime shows and often they will catch people with that, that number plate recognition, technology or they’ll know where they’re going. So I should have thought about that.

Marion Terrill  19:00

It has improved a lot and become that technology. So yeah.

Gene Tunny  19:03

Okay. And one point that one of my guests will Tim who was on the show, last week I was chatting with about EVs. One thing he was concerned about is this issue of well, it’s surveillance where our privacy is being compromised. Have you thought about that at all? Is that often raised as an objection to this sort of thing?

Marion Terrill  19:25

Yeah, I think it’s, I agree with him. I think people are very quick to dismiss it. It is actually another reason why I’m dubious about GPS technology, because there’s sort of a few different ways in which Surveillance can be a problem. One is that the government can surveil you. The other one is the company can surveil. Yeah. And maybe market at you or, you know, interact with you in a unwelcome way. So both of those are concerns I think. So really what you want is the, you need to set up a structure I think where you have the information, that’s the image of you, or image of your vehicle is sent to a place in the encryption key that links that image to you is in a different place to protect people’s privacy, but I do think in this country, we do have, we have had a long history of the, of the, of privacy. The Privacy lobby, I think, is quite effective at unraveling government ideas, too, to act in ways like to make use of technology in ways that could be prejudicial to people’s sort of freedom to go about their lives anonymously.

Gene Tunny  20:52

Okay, we’ll take a short break here for a word from our sponsor.

Female speaker  20:57

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Gene Tunny  21:26

Now back to the show. So Marion, have you looked at how this is working? Or how road user charges have worked in other countries? I mean, you mentioned? Well, I mean, there’s the UK. I mean, there’s the the infamous congestion charge in central London. That’s probably the only one I’ve experienced. But I understand. Well, I’ve heard that there’s this sort of thing is there this sort of thing in Singapore and is it germany you mentioned?

Marion Terrill  21:55

Well, it’s interesting this, there’s established congestion charging in quite a few cities around the world. So Singapore was the first London, Stockholm and other countries, other cities are thinking about it. But what’s happening these days is now low emission zones are coming in. And so in London, for example, the low emission zone is layered on top of the congestion zone. And really these many, many, many cities are doing low emission zones. And they kind of like a coordinate around the central part of the city, that now the motivation, we’re recommending that for the major capitals here in Australia, because the the effect of exhaust pipe pollution from trucks is so terrible for health. But it’s interesting, because in some cities like Milan, for example, there is a low emission zone, but the reason for it is to preserve the beautiful buildings rather than to preserve people’s health. So there’s, I think there’s certainly a significant, a significant global movement towards this sort of thing. And it can usefully be combined with congestion charging, because what you’re really doing is you’re trying to deal with two externalities at once. And you can calibrate your instrument to do both of those things. Because where there’s a concentration of vehicles, that’s where you get obviously, congestion, but also concentration of exhaust pipe pollution.

Gene Tunny  23:28

Right. Okay. Okay. Yep. So with the congestion charging, that’s almost like a syntax is it or it’s a form of corrective taxation, or you’re making the driver face the marginal social cost of them going on the road network at that particular time in that particular place?

Marion Terrill  23:50

Yeah, that’s right. And people have different sort of strength of desire to use the roads at peak periods. And so it would be a poor result, to put off too many people. So don’t want to set your charge too high. And you certainly want someone who’s going to a job interview or an important appointment, you don’t want to put them off. But if you are thinking about someone who’s perhaps a retired person going to a medical appointment, for that person, it may be very low cost to do it at 11am, not 9am. And so to send a signal to such a person, to that gets them to take into account their contribution to slow it not only being slowed down by everyone else, but also to slowing everyone else down. And I think this is going to become more acute Gene because as the as we get more and more electric vehicles, great in many ways, and they’re much cheaper to run than internal combustion engine vehicles. But if they’re cheaper to run, it means people will be inclined to drive more. So I think unless governments take some kind of action on congestion. We really are. This is a recipe for gridlock. I think is very strong for governments to act on congestion charging, and preferably to do so early. And so that to go back to the we were talking before about our electric vehicle chargers. Yeah, I think, you know, this is the side of it that the current charges in Victoria and on the table elsewhere, don’t really take account of at this point 

Gene Tunny  25:31

Right Yeah, I look, I think what you’ve, what you’ve said, and what you wrote in that piece is great. I mean, as an economist, it definitely appeals to me. I’d like to see the model, though, of course, as you would do, you know, if anyone’s developing this, what this could look like, what the parameters would be, what those charges would be. When, I mean, how would the prices be set? Would it be? How regularly they would they be reviewed? Is there some algorithm involved? Have you thought about how this would work? In practice? Is anyone developing a model for this, Marion?

Marion Terrill  26:08

Yeah, we’ve developed a detailed model for it, actually. So yeah, we published it in 2019. So we designed in detail, a congestion charging scheme for Sydney, and Melbourne and one for Melbourne. And what we did was we in terms of phasing, just start with a cordon around the CBD. And we worked out exactly where the cordon would go, and how many detection points you would need. Look through all the different technologies that’s really rare came to the view that number plate recognition was the way to go. And then we looked at the, we looked at traffic data and worked out when peak hour and when the shoulder period should be. And finally, we worked out the what we thought were the appropriate charges to levy taking into account the cost of public transport into the CBD. And then we worked with Veitch Lister Consulting who did the demand modeling for us to see what the impact on congestion would be? So all of that detail is in a report called ‘Right Time, Right Place, Right Price’ up on the grattan website. So we did do that. And so that was on congestion charging. I guess. This week, we put out a report on trucks, Grattan truck plan, and one of the recommendations was to introduce a low emission zone. And we didn’t scope that up in detail, because I think it is the subject for reporting its own right. It’s quite a complex area. But we are, we’re planning to do that report and publish in 2023. With detailed design for how to, and this takes into account, things like how much proximity matters to a main road. How much sort of how much difference it makes when when you’ve got a more vulnerable population in one way or another. So and what kind of mitigations you can take in terms of sort of greening and that sort of stuff, so that we can come up with a detailed design, but at this point, our recommendation is that trucks manufactured before 2003 should be banned from the densely populated areas of the major cities.

Gene Tunny  28:30

Yeah, I wondered about that. And I was stunned. Looking at the figures you had in that report regarding how much worse they were or trucks that were, you know, over 20 years old, how much worse they are in terms of the the toxic particles that come out and the in the exhaust? Or how much worse than more modern trucks? Is there some reason you chose 2003? Was there some change in technology?

Marion Terrill  28:58

There was. Yeah, so the pollution levels for trucks are the international standards and known as Euro standards. And before 1996, there were no standards at all, so anything goes and those trucks are the worst. So a pre 1996 truck emits 16 times as much particulate matter, and eight times as much of the poisonous nitrogen oxides as a truck sold today. And then in the when the Euro standards were first adopted in Australia, Euro one the first level, operated until 2003. And that is better than nothing but still, by today’s standards, very lenient standards. And so, the reason all this matters is that more than a quarter of the trucks on the road today 2003 or earlier, and 14% of them are these pre 1996 ones which are particularly toxic. And that’s if they’ve been properly maintained, some of them will be worse. So, over time the standards have increased have become more stringent. At the moment, we’re on Euro five standards, we have been since 2011. We’re a decade behind kind of most major markets, which have been on Euro six for a long time. And so we’ve been agitating to get on to Euro six. But even this year, Euro seven is coming out. So we’re, we’re so far behind. And so of course, the track operators don’t really have an incentive to adopt these standards, because it costs money. So it really is a matter of for government regulation to prevent the interaction of really dirty old trucks with densely populated areas.

Gene Tunny  30:51

Yeah. So have you thought about how this would impact the industry? I’m sure you have. I’m just interested in your thoughts on it. Because I mean, there could be significant short run costs, you could have a lot of probably smaller operators, leave the market if they can’t use their truck anymore. I mean, imagine that the bigger operators have more a more modern truck fleet, but then there’s a lot of smaller operators that have the older trucks. Could this impact our supply chains? I mean, we’ve had all the logistics problems this year and associated with people being off work or in isolation due to COVID. Things haven’t been turning up at the supermarket. Have you thought about how this would? What impact would have on the industry and how that could be mitigated Marion?

Marion Terrill  31:36

Yeah, we have some I’m very alive to this. I think you’re absolutely right, that the big fleets of trucks are generally pretty new. And they’re the ones that kind of get sold on and feed through the chain. So at the at the oldest end of the spectrum, it is a lot of operators who might struggle to get them to upgrade the truck. So a couple of things, I’d say. One is that we don’t really the compromise that we thought was reasonable was that these trucks would be able to operate but not in the densely populated area. So, for example, a lot of trucks that do farm runs can be quite old. And it’s if they’re in an area where there aren’t many people will, the harm is much less. Now that’s not any good if you’re the actual driver, but it’s some some mitigation, that you’re not going past childcare centers and spewing out poisons at the kids. So there is one comment I’d make. The we did. We did recommend, though, that the government should assist by sort of with a track replacement fund or scrappage fund. Basically, we thought it should have a tender based programme where truck owners can make a binding bid for how much they’d be prepared to accept to scrap their truck. And because government’s got to be bit careful not to overpay for this stuff. In the end these traps have been allowed perfectly legally, to create quite a public health hazard. And we think that should stop, but we, you know, recognising that there are implications and that the government might want to assist with the scrappage fund.

Gene Tunny  33:39

Yeah. And so are you confident that this would pass the cost benefit analysis tests, if there was a regulation impact statement arrears on this, you’d be able to demonstrate that the avoided costs of the community through the fact that these particulates were causing an elevated level or incidence of disease in the community? And if we tried to put some, you know, put a figure on that, what you’d be willing to pay to avoid that? What it’s costing the economy in terms of the well, having to replace that truck fleet, any disruptions associated with that. Are you confident that that equation would be in favour of this measure? Have you done any numbers yourself?

Marion Terrill  34:26

Yeah, look, the government’s done a raise. And, and there are clear social benefits to doing it. So we’ve updated that and I think the, the basic figure is like the health benefits or health costs avoided, if you like, like by 2014, would be of the order of 1.7 billion in a year. Yeah. So yeah, very considerable health benefits. And just just to clarify for your listeners by health benefits, or health costs, avoid I don’t mean In the costs of treatment in hospitals, it’s the pain and suffering of, of getting the disease. Like, they’re the diseases that you get from these poisons, or you get, obviously, respiratory illnesses. But because the particles are so fine, they get into your bloodstream. And so you can get cancer type two diabetes, stroke, can affect it affects children in particular and vulnerable people, even in children in the womb. And it also even when it’s not causing diagnosable disease can impair cognitive function. Then every time the World Health Organisation or researchers do research on this, they find Oh, it’s worse than we thought

Gene Tunny  35:41 

Right? Yeah, yeah. So this really is I’ll have to have a look into this. So this has already been done. Do you know how recent it is? I mean, is this on the agenda of governments to do something about?

Marion Terrill  35:54

Yeah, it’s been on the agenda of governments for quite a while. The I think the reason is about five years old, yeah. So we, we’ve updated that. But it’s, if anything more compelling now than it was then.

Gene Tunny  36:13

Yeah. Yeah. But they’ve obviously that there, someone in government has been concerned about what it mean for the industry. Maybe they’ve been lobbied on it. I’m just wondering why they haven’t done anything. But it looks like you’re, you know, have been I mean, I guess, assuming that these numbers are right, I mean, hopefully, your report does motivate some action in this on this issue.

Marion Terrill  36:39

Yeah we are really hoping so. And I think by doing some follow up work in 2023. We’re working with some students at Monash to get more sort of air quality data, and to just enrich our understanding so that we can do detailed design, that that should be pragmatic and practical and effective. So it’s it. I think it’s a big issue. And it’s, I think it’s an under researched issue, actually.

Gene Tunny  37:10

Yeah. Yeah. Okay. Just final question. When I read the press release, and I had a quick look at the report, it looks like you’re focused on Sydney and Melbourne. Why not Brisbane, one at the third largest city in Australia.

Marion Terrill  37:26

Oh, we had a lot of debate about this actually, Gene. And I absolutely think that Brisbane should be in this, Adelaide in particular has got almost it’s got 45% of its trucks, pre 2003. So, so. And people have said to me, Well, what about Wollongong? And what about Newcastle? Absolutely. So in Europe alone, there are 250. More than 250 Low Emission zones. This is not a big deal. But we, yeah, we’re so we do plan to unfold more on this, but I think you’re absolutely right that Brisbane has got I forget the exact figure but approximately 20% of trucks. Pre 2003. It’s too many.

Gene Tunny  38:13

Yeah, yeah, I wouldn’t be surprised. I mean, there are still a lot of old trucks out there for sure. Okay, Marion, this has been fantastic. I’ll put links to all of these reports that have been mentioned in the show notes. I’ll put links to your social media. Anything else before we wrap up?

Marion Terrill  38:32

Oh, no, I reckon that’s about it for now.

Gene Tunny  38:35

Great. Yeah. Well, thanks, Marion. And that’s been terrific. Good. A good summary of all of these issues, and I’ve learned a lot. I mean, I always think I’m keeping up to date with what different think tanks are putting out and including Grattan’s. But maybe I sort of in the back of my mind, remember that that congestion charging one but I’m gonna have to revisit it this ‘Right time, Right Price, Right Place’. Yeah. And, and have a close look at that. So that’s terrific. So yeah, again, thanks so much for your time. I really enjoyed the conversation.

Marion Terrill  39:13

Me too. It’s always a pleasure. Thank you, Gene.

Gene Tunny  39:17

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 contact@economicsexplored.com And we’ll aim to address them in a future episode. Thanks for listening. Until next week, goodbye

Credits

Thanks to Josh Crotts for mixing the episode and to the show’s sponsor, Gene’s consultancy business www.adepteconomics.com.auPlease consider signing up to receive our email updates and to access our e-book Top Ten Insights from Economics at www.economicsexplored.com. Also, please get in touch with any questions, comments and suggestions by emailing us at contact@economicsexplored.com or sending a voice message via https://www.speakpipe.com/economicsexplored. Economics Explored is available via Apple PodcastsGoogle Podcast, and other podcasting platforms.

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Podcast episode

Fuel prices & electric vehicles (EVs) – EP154

A wide-ranging conversation on petrol/gasoline prices and electric vehicles (EVs). The conversation explores the peculiar economic phenomenon that is Australia’s petrol price cycle. What drives it and how can consumers make it work for them? Show host Gene Tunny and his guest Tim Hughes then discuss the big issues around replacing petrol-powered vehicles with EVs. What does it mean for total electricity demand and what challenges do we face in adopting EVs?

You can listen to the episode via the embedded player below or via podcasting apps including Google PodcastsApple PodcastsSpotify, and Stitcher.

Links relevant to the conversation

Australian Financial Review article (paywalled) quoting Ampol CEO saying EVs have to be 50% cheaper before widespread take up

Recent oil price news

Brent crude oil price (ABC news)

Australian Competition and Consumer Commissions (ACCC) monitoring of Australia’s petrol price cycle

Information on Queensland’s electric superhighway

Queensland Government website on environmental benefits of EVs

The Grattan Car Plan which includes lots of useful data on EVs

John Freebairn on fuel excise in Australia

Drive magazine article on impact of EVs on electricity use

Australian Energy Market Commission (AEMC) paper on integrating EVs in the power grid

Economics Explored EP113 – Lithium and the new energy revolution with Lukasz Bednarski

ABC News report As EVs drive a mining revolution, will Australia become a battery minerals superpower?

Transcript: Fuel prices & electric vehicles (EVs) – EP154

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,

Tim Hughes  00:04

But you can maximize your chances. And you can sort of, play the game over that four-week cycle to keep your fuel costs down.

Gene Tunny  00:13

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 154, on fuel prices and electric vehicles. I’m joined this episode by Tim Hughes. Tim has been doing some business development work in my business, Adept Economics. Tim’s not an economist, but he’s very interested in economic issues. And in my opinion, he asked very good questions, so I thought it’d be good to have him on the show again to chat about some big issues regarding fuel prices and electric vehicles.

On fuel prices, Tim and I have a close look at a regular cycle and fuel prices that we see in Australia. On EVs, one of the important takeaways from the discussion, is the big challenge we face in replacing petrol powered vehicles with EVs. It’s not impossible, but we’ll need to generate much more electricity and spend a lot of money getting the necessary infrastructure for EV charging in place. 

Please, check out the show notes for relevant links and clarifications and for details of how you can get in touch. If you’re outside Australia, please let me know if there are any patterns and how fuel prices behave where you live. Also, please let me know your views on EVs and any useful info you may have. I’d love to hear from you. 

l’ll come back to EVs in a future episode for sure. I know that I need to look more closely at all the resources needed to build EVs such as lithium, nickel, cobalt, and copper. Australia looks well positioned to supply many of these minerals. But will there be sufficient supplies worldwide to meet the growing EV demand? We’ll aim to cover that issue in a future episode. 

Right oh, now for my conversation with my colleague, Tim Hughes on fuel prices and EVs. Thanks to my audio engineer, Josh Crotts for his assistance in producing this episode, I hope you enjoy it. 

Tim Hughes, welcome back onto the show. 

Tim Hughes  02:16

Gene Tunny, good to be back.

Gene Tunny  02:17

Excellent, Tim. Now, Tim, you actually suggested the topic of today’s conversation. So, could you just tell us please, what are these issues that are turning over in your mind at the moment? What are you interested in speaking about today?

Tim Hughes  02:33

So many things Gene, but we’ll settle with; for today, we’ll talk briefly about the price cycle. We’re in Brisbane, in Australia, we have this price cycle of roughly month fuel prices, yes. So, it was in relation to that when we got chatting. There’s a lot around this that we did discuss that we won’t go into today around, you know, the future with electric vehicles and that kind of thing. I don’t know if we’re going to talk about that too much. 

Gene Tunny  03:05

I’d like to chat about that, because I’ve done some research on that.

Tim Hughes  03:09

So, it did set us off around fuel prices. And then, we did talk in broader sort of, ways about the future of what that fuel cycle might look like with the rise of electric vehicles, and then how they’re going to be paired. So, we’ll talk about that in a bit shortly, I guess. But fuel prices otherwise, yeah.

Gene Tunny  03:31

Exactly. I mean, there is a logical connection there isn’t there. Because with the higher fuel prices that’s making more people think about electric vehicles. The problem is electric vehicles are still so expensive. And the Chief Executive, I think, was Ampol. The other day, I saw it in the financial review, I’ll put a link in the show notes. He came out and said, look, basically they have to half in price, you need to get those EVs prices, which I think start in the 40,000s and if you want a Tesla, it’s above 50,000. You need to get them into the 200 to 300 range for there to be widespread take up of EVs in Australia. And I suspect I mean, there’s going to be a similar issue in the States as well and in other countries. 

Although Scandinavian countries, they seem to have higher rates of take up and yeah, but here, I think the price is a barrier and also the so-called range anxiety. We can talk about that a bit later.

Tim Hughes  04:28

There are so many things that would be interesting to talk about with that. And of course, there’s a cost, an ongoing cost to me, the amount that for instance, you might pay, on petrol or diesel now, over a year compared to what your costs might be to charge an electric vehicle and the running costs of any vehicle, which seems to be at the moment far less if you have an EV.

Gene Tunny  04:56

Exactly. Well, you’re not paying for the petrol.

Tim Hughes  05:00

You’re paying for the power, I mean, at the moment, you charge these not from home, it like, there are certain stations that you charge the EVs at. Is there a cost to those? I haven’t actually checked that. I understood that Tesla didn’t charge for recharging the car. I don’t know if that’s correct or not.

Gene Tunny  05:18

That’s a good question. I’m not sure if it’s made it or not. I’ll have to look into that. I know that the Queensland Government has; it’s built this EVs super-highway across Queensland. So, it’s set up charging stations in different cities, I think there must be over 20 of them. I’ve got a link somewhere I can put it in the show notes. They’ve got them in places like Port Douglas and there’d be some places in Brisbane and Cairns Townsville.

Tim Hughes  05:45

I mean, this is an area, because I know that we were speaking broadly today. So, we’ll go into a deeper dive into that part of the infrastructure and the costs. Because I can only imagine that if it’s free at the moment, that it won’t stay that way. I mean, it doesn’t seem to be tenable to not charge people. And also, it’s not the way that it normally works. Obviously, if there’s energy being used, somebody’s got to pay for it somewhere. 

Gene Tunny  06:11

Well, I think there’s a big issue with apartment blocks. So, if you, if you’re doing it at home, then you’re paying for it. The question is, what happens with apartment blocks and some of the evidence I’ve seen, and I’ve got, when I was doing the research, I found these experts talking about the challenges in some apartment blocks of getting the right infrastructure in there, and making sure that the apartment block can support the EVs that are drawing all that power, given they’ve already got lifts and things that are also drawing on power. So, that’s a big issue there. So, there’ll be cost associated with that that’ll have to be met by the body corporate.

Tim Hughes  06:50

Well, we might as well dive as deep as we can on this now, because that is such a big part of what that future of EVs will look like, I mean, obvious time for people to charge their vehicles is overnight, most people, you know, working sort of, during the day. So, to charge overnight, you’d want to be able to charge from home, if you’ve got a house, that’s going to be more likely. Clearly, you’re going to be using power. If you’re in an apartment, like you’re saying there’s going to be an infrastructure challenge there to make that available to the cost basis. And if you’ve got street parking, you know that’s going to give you another challenge, as well. But all of that energy as well, it’s got to come from somewhere. So, we’re going to have to produce more energy than we currently do for electricity to basically replace what we use fuel for, petrol and diesel to have electricity. And then the conversation around the likelihood of where that energy is going to come from, again, infrastructure would be something to consider. But clearly, at the moment, we can’t do that through clean energy. So, the drive towards clean energy is also then part of that question. I don’t know, we’ve talked about the importance of coal, in a transition phase from current coal supply or coal supply power to clean energy.

Gene Tunny  08:20

Well, at the moment, we really don’t have much of an alternative, because we’re still generating the bulk of our electricity from fossil fuels, than coal and gas. Now, the idea was that gas would be the transitional fuel that we would move out away from coal fired power much quicker than we have. But I think we’re discovering now just how hard that is and what that means for the reliability of the network. A lot of the problems we’ve had in the electricity market here in Australia this year, have been because we’ve had some coal fired generators offline, the Callide generator up in Queensland, part of that which was shut down for they had some incident there last year, if I remember correctly, and there are other coal fired power stations that have; there was a big one that closed down in Victoria. And that means that there’s not as much capacity as there once was. So, that’s a big issue. 

And when you have a winter, that was unexpectedly cold, there’s a big demand. There’s not enough supply, the renewables are intermittent. We don’t have enough battery technology to store the power. We don’t have enough pumped hydro. Yeah, this is it’s a big problem.

Tim Hughes  09:35

Well, I mean, the thing is, like, it clearly seems to be moving that way. Personally I’m fully supportive of. I think the drive for clean energy, and electric vehicles is good. One of the things I wanted to talk about was, from your perspective as an economist, you know, to look at just how clean the making and running of electric vehicle is because obviously, there’s an environmental cost to anything that gets produced, and then whatever waste products come from that. But the move towards that seems to be, it’s quick. And so, in some ways, I guess it’s not a problem unless we’re just trying to move too fast. You know, like, clearly there’s a transition period that’s needed with the available infrastructure and fuel supply that we have currently. But that’s going to change significantly over the next 5-10 years. 

So, as that move towards electric vehicles, as the infrastructure does catch up, and as the cost of the vehicles comes down becomes more attractive. I can only imagine then that, we can only move as fast as we can move. So, if there’s a holdup with the infrastructure, or the power supply of electricity for EVs, that’s going to just slow down the rollout of EVs and lengthen the period of time that we might have fuel powered cars. 

Gene Tunny  11:03

Yeah, I think maybe we’ll save this discussion for later on in the program, because you’ll get on to the fuel prices. I think that’s a very good introduction. I agree with you regarding those challenges that we face, I think you’ve actually captured that or presented that quite well. That’s good. Very good, Tim. 

So, you got me thinking about these issues myself. 

Tim Hughes  11:31

Yeah. And there are big areas as well. And we will have like, a lot of this, obviously, like I said, we can dive as deep as we can. We have got some guests and friends and colleagues that we’ve been talking to about coming on here who can dive far deeper than us on these individual issues. But this is more of an overview. I guess, at the moment. 

Gene Tunny  11:53

I had Lukas Bednarski from, well, he’s over in London, he’s wrote a book on lithium. He came on the show last year, and just talking about all the opportunities with electrification and making use of, of lithium batteries. So, we had that conversation. So, I’ll put a link in the show notes. So, that was good. 

So, there’s a lot of potential there. It’s just a matter of, you know, how’s all this going to come together and play out? And if you’re an optimist, you think, oh, yeah, we’ll solve it all with technology. And we’ll, get the policy settings right. But then if you’re an economist who has been around a while, you might be thinking, no, it looks pretty risky. And, I’m not sure we will get those policy settings right. We will eventually, but there’ll be a lot of messiness in the meantime. And that could last decades. 

Tim Hughes  12:49

It’s really interesting, because we’ve obviously headed in this direction of electric vehicles, because hydrogen powered vehicles are still in the conversation and all sorts of other options, I guess. And it’s going relatively fast in the EV direction, and where it had been talked about for decades prior to it really happening. So, this is really quite fast. And I guess technology is just driving that little bit further ahead, of course. And so, we’re just following the available technology. And as they get better, the rollout of EVs is getting quicker. So, it’s that, I guess, we have all of these industries, working like crazy to get ahead of the demand to try and make it possible. So, it’s an interesting time. It’s a fascinating time to see all of this change happening globally, extremely fast. It’s very quick.

Gene Tunny  13:45

Talk about how fast it’s going. It’s going faster in other parts of the world than it is in Australia.

Tim Hughes  13:53

Always fastest in Scandinavia. They always seem to be ahead of the curve over there.

Gene Tunny  13:58

Yes, yes. Yeah. That’s a whole different; that’s another podcast episode, possibly. What is it about Scandinavia? What is it about Sweden? I mean, from the outside, it looks like they’ve got a lot of things right. And we look at it from our Anglo-Saxon perspective and we think oh, well, we really wouldn’t do things like that but it seems to work for them and they seem to be very happy.

Tim Hughes  14:27

The Viking mentality tribes.

Gene Tunny  14:33

We’re gonna chat about that in another episode. Let’s begin with fuel prices. So, everyone’s noticed petrol prices are so high. I mean, what are we paying? Is it nearly $2 a liter or something? 

Tim Hughes  14:47

Well, so we’re in August 2022 in Australia, so this is going to be not an evergreen episode for this part of it. Currently, the cycles just finished in the last week or so. So, it went up to $1.95. So, I’m going to come clean here, I’m a complete fuel nerd. Like when it comes to prices, I’ve sort of, tried to maximize everything, which is I think, where this conversation started with us. The previous peak of the cycle went to around $2.25. So, which is about as expensive as it has ever been? I think it was hitting new heights that was just a couple of months ago.

Gene Tunny  15:23

Was that before they cut the fuel excise?

Tim Hughes  15:27

That was after. So, we were still with the fuel excise in place, which I think is 22 cents a liter. Is that right?

Gene Tunny  15:33

Yeah, it’s normally 44 cents a liter. And they halved it temporarily and

Tim Hughes  15:37

So, the Morison government put that in place. We had an election over here, of course, and new government, but that is still in place, and has been extended until the end of September, I believe.

Gene Tunny  15:49

Yes. So, finishes in late September, September 29, or something like that, and it’s going to be a big deal when the cut is unwound, and there’s another 22 cents a liter added to your fuel bill.

Tim Hughes  16:04

From the consumer’s perspective, we can only imagine that when we were paying $2.25, we should have been at the top of the, you know, the most expensive part of the cycle, effectively, we would have been paying $2.47. Without that fuel excise cut, you know, an extra 22 cents. So, in the cycle, it’s just been, we’ve dropped down to as far as a dollar 53 was about as low as it went. Which was great, you know, so for the consumer, it’s really good. It’s just going up to $1.95. So, it’s about a 40-cent jump whenever it seems to jump. The cycle seems to be around a 40-cent cycle. So, we’ve gone a lot deeper than before, without any real understanding of why there’s still a war in Ukraine, which apparently has an influence on fuel prices here.

Gene Tunny  16:55

Yeah, because Russia was producing oil and also, the gas supplies have been compromised. And so, there’s some substitution between gas and oil in our generation. And so like, everything’s connected, and so when Russia gets taken out of the market, and there’s still the demand for it, because the global economy has been recovering from the COVID recession, prices really,

Tim Hughes  17:24

Which made sense. I’m saying, like, it supposedly affects us over here, because it doesn’t explain why we got so low at the bottom of our last cycle, which was down to like $1.53.

Gene Tunny  17:38

Okay, so the global oil price was coming down, it’s going back up now. So, if you look at the Brent crude oil spot price, and I’ll put a chart in the show notes, it got up to about $125 a barrel earlier in the year, it fell back down to maybe about 95, or something it’s been at, and it’s going back up now. 

So, there’s a report from Reuters. So, this is a 23rd of August report, 2022. Oil prices surged by nearly 4% on Tuesday, after Saudi Arabia floated the idea of OPEC plus output cuts to support prices in the case of returning Iranian crude and with the prospect of a drop in US inventories. Okay, so prices are starting to go back up. Yeah, they reached almost $130 A barrel in the US earlier in the year. So, they’ve been down a bit since then. But they’re much higher than they were a few years ago. 

Tim Hughes  18:45

Yeah. So, the thing being is like, I find it really interesting as to why there’s such volatility in these little four-to-five-week cycles that we have here. So, for instance, we’re up at 2.25 just a few weeks ago, with the 22 cents cut. So, that’s dropped 30 cents, if we’re talking the peak of the cycle. So, we’ve just gone back to the start a new cycle, and it went up to $1.95. So, that’s still 30 cents less than what it was. As a consumer, it’s great, you know, like, obviously, we love the low prices, but that volatility in the local cycle doesn’t seem to match other cycles. That’s not linked, that kind of volatility that doesn’t seem to be linked to the price of crude oil.

Gene Tunny  19:33

Okay, so what’s interesting I think about the Australian market and we’ve studied this extensively in Australia, the ACCC, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission keeps an eye on it. I think I’ll have to look more closely at other markets but I think this really isn’t Australia phenomenon that we’ve got this price cycle. I don’t know if you noticed it when you’re in England.

Tim Hughes  19:54

They’re pretty stable over there. Like it doesn’t seem to move around very much. I mean, I have to say it’s actually a bit of a game. It is a game over here, which kind of you know, like putting fuel in the car is pretty dull. So, it’s a little bit more spice to doing that, because you can, which we’ll talk about at some point. I know, this is one of the things we talked about, which got us on to this conversation, but you can maximize your chances. And you can sort of, play the game over that four-week cycle to keep your fuel costs down.

Gene Tunny  20:24

So, we can talk about how it is a game and one way that economists have analyzed fuel prices is as a game. So, there’s a field of study called game theory. So, you’ve seen A Beautiful Mind, haven’t you, John Nash, the great mathematician who, you know, had a few issues, but was, obviously a genius. He made major contributions to game theory. So, game theory is a theory of how do people interact? What’s their best strategy, and you can apply that to businesses. And you can apply that to say, fuel retailers, I mean, what’s turned out to be the optimal strategy that they’ve all figured out works for them, and no one really deviates from it. Because it’s just going to make life worse for everyone. If they get into some fuel price war, that is figure out, let’s not do that, let’s not rock the boat, let’s just go along, and we’ll will benefit from this cycle. And they’re making this cycle work for them. So, there’s no real collusion, they’re not ringing up each other. They just sort of, all know how the games play; this has developed over the years. 

Tim Hughes  21:30

They’ve got a mode of behavior that they all follow. They just have to do the same thing at the same time.

Gene Tunny  21:40

Yeah, it’s, it’s funny, isn’t it? You can explain that with Game Theory. So, there have been various different models of this proposed over the years with fuel prices. I’ll have to revisit it, I remember learning about it in the 90s. This was a topic of conversation in one of our micro economics lectures, I remember Harry Campbell is a professor at UQ. He would often talk about fuel prices. 

Now, the way I think about it is how this benefits the petrol retailers is that they’re able to segment the market, they’re able to divide the market into different segments and charge different prices to both segments, and this is going to maximize their profit. Now, one of the challenges that firms have when they’re selling to the public is that they can’t distinguish between different customers in terms of their willingness to pay, how much were they actually willing to pay for this their product. And so, what they end up doing is, well, if you can’t really discriminate, every customer has to pay the same amount, then the price you charge is just enough to cover the costs of production of the last unit, the last sale that you’ll make to the last consumer that is profitable to sell to. But what that means is that you’re missing out on a lot of the upside from customers who would have paid more. And, well, what you can do is have a strategy of price discrimination, if you can separately identify different groups of customers, you can discriminate amongst them charged at different prices, depending on their willingness to pay. So, that’s why for years I mean, well, look, that could be another explanation. But one explanation for why nightclubs used to charge lower cover charges for females, relative to males is that males typically had more money, they made more money on average, higher income, higher willingness to pay to get into the nightclub. 

Tim Hughes  23:41

I thought that was to encourage, because it was better to have women in the nightclub.

Gene Tunny  23:46

I think so, that’s part of it. But it could also be because men have a higher willingness to pay to get into the nightclub than women. So, yeah, it’s in the interests of the nightclub to attract the women in;

Tim Hughes  23:59

And to get the men in who want to pay more to get in.

Gene Tunny  24:03

Yes. To the attract the right ratio, or the right numbers of women, and they have to lower the price for females. And then they charge the males more. Males have a higher willingness to pay to get into the nightclub.

Tim Hughes  24:17

And then we’re known as meat markets, which sort of, explains that approach, I guess, because that was part of that scene, I guess.

Gene Tunny  24:29

Yeah. Don’t think as many places have covered charges now.

Tim Hughes  24:35

They do apparently, someone also tells me

Gene Tunny  24:38

I guess I’m not going to;

Tim Hughes  24:41

You can get in free before 10 o’clock at certain clubs. But back in the day.

Gene Tunny  24:48

I’ve just noticed that there seem to be fewer places with cover charges. I think maybe it’s more competitive now, who knows. Anyway.

Tim Hughes  24:54

We should do some research on that.

Gene Tunny  24:59

So, how I think this plays out in the fuel market with the fuel cycle that goes over several weeks is that they figure out there’s a group of customers who are really price conscious, they’ll buy when the fuel price is cheap, we’ll get them in. So, they’re a group that we can’t really get out. Or we can’t charge the high price to. They are the savvy consumers, they’re like you, Tim. They’re monitoring the, what are you doing? Are you monitoring or not?

Tim Hughes  25:45

Yeah, we’ll go into that in a bit. I’ll let you finish what you were saying. I’ll go into that.

Gene Tunny  25:49

Okay, you’re the savvy consumer. They know that there are some consumers they have to charge this lower price, too. But then there are the less savvy consumers or the consumers with deep pockets who don’t really watch the fuel tank, who aren’t thinking about when should I fill up what’s the optimal time, they just don’t care, there’s a high opportunity cost of their time. And the fuel retailers know that it’s sometimes, we can really charge them the maximum that we can get away with.

Tim Hughes  26:18

So, they are the only ones who are going to be filling up.

Gene Tunny  26:21

So, what they’ve done with this fuel price cycle, it allows them to segment the market into the high opportunity cost people who don’t care, people with deep pockets, let’s charge them as much as we can get away with. And then another market segment; that’s the savvy consumer, the cost-conscious consumer, the consumers who are paying attention to this price cycle, the fuel nerds, they might be monitoring the ACCC website, and the ACCC website is amazing. It has buying tips. I’m going to have to follow this now. Buying Tips, prices are decreasing, but they are likely to decrease further. So, this is what you were saying before, we were at the peak of the most recent cycle, is that right? And so they’re coming down now.

Tim Hughes  27:08

So, it went up to $1.95, which is a peak, is lower than it has been. It was going up to 2.25. That was the peak just a few weeks ago, maybe, one or two cycles ago; the top of it was 2.25. And that’s with the 22 cents cut in in the excise.

Gene Tunny  27:26

Yeah. Okay. And they recommend, if possible, motorists should delay by and petrol until later. I wonder if anyone’s ever complained to the ACCC about their advice. But I guess their advice is based on the cycle, and the cycle is just built in now. Because everyone’s playing the game; all the fuel retailers know that this is in their best interest, all the customers come to expect it.

Tim Hughes  27:48

There’s very little said about it, because it’s just accepted. That’s just how it is, but you can see, when the when the cycle does change. Because it happens gradually, it’ll happen over a seven to 10 day period from the first one you see, changing all of a sudden, that’s 40 cents difference, no one’s going there, it’s empty. So, very few people are going to be at that first one. And then it trickles down over the next seven to 10 days, until the last ones there. And when you get to that pointy end, those last ones normally have quite a few cars in there filling up. So, you can maximize your chances obviously, by keeping topping up or go through.

Gene Tunny  28:29

Yeah, you know, you go through it, but just tell me, did my explanation makes sense?

Tim Hughes  28:37

It did, because it was one of the questions why did they do that? But that made sense as to why they do it because they’re looking to charge as much as they can for those who don’t care as much.

Gene Tunny  28:50

That’s my as to why they’re doing it. It makes sense in terms of price discrimination, which is something you learn about in first year economics or micro economics. It’s a strategy that a firm will employ if it can distinguish different market segments and charge different prices to different market segments.

Tim Hughes  29:12

I guess it’s interesting. I’d like to say I don’t mind it, it’s a bit of a game and you play the game, or you don’t care. And it’s it doesn’t really matter. But I wouldn’t be interested; like my other experience really is in the UK, where I’ve been for longer periods and not noticed the cycles. And I would imagine with anything like this, if there’s a benefit that that will catch on and get done around the world. So, it’s kind of like side thought, but it’s it would be interesting to see if it’s unique to Australia to have this kind of volatility in a four-week cycle, or if that’s common in other parts of the world.

Gene Tunny  29:47

Yeah, I’ll have to look more into it. But it’s my understanding that it is. This is an Australian phenomenon. We’re examining that there might be elements of it in different countries, but for some reason it is baked in here. Our retailers have figured out, this is in our best interests.

Tim Hughes  30:04

Because it’s a big step, I mean, 40 cents out of it. Like, even if we average $2 at the top of the range at the moment, you know, that’s a 20% difference, which is big.

Gene Tunny  30:19

Anyway, okay. I want to hear about how you’re playing the game, Tim. Could you tell us how you’re playing the fuel price game?

Tim Hughes  30:26

It’s great, because technology really helps with this. There are several apps out there, for instance, again, this is Australia. So, for other countries, it’s going to be different. But there are; RACQ have one, there’s another one called fuel track, I think it is. And if you just look up fuel app, you’ll come up with all these different ones. And they will tell you, or you can search your local area to find out what’s the cheapest and you get a good idea as to, once you hook into the cycle, you can start to see when they’re starting to go up. There’s normally a couple of, for instance, here in Brisbane, around Kenmore, there’s a couple of servos there that are like the first to adopt; but that changes around too, you know. So, you can find that where it used to be the first place to go up isn’t always the case, I don’t know how that works. And again, that’s going to be stuff that we may never know about. But it doesn’t seem to be absolutely predictable. 

But what is predictable is once you see one go up. And so, if you can search an area around you and you see the first one go up, then you know you’ve got maybe a week before that disappears out of the realms of being able to get that lowest price. And so, when you know you’re at the bottom of the cycle will you fill up, you know, you fill your car up, and you keep topping it up until the cycle is completely gone. There’s a further thing you can do, which I’ve got, which is from the 7-11 app, it’s called My 7-11. And so, 7-11 and Mobil have joined forces. So, it’s basically a Mobil servo with the 7-11 shop attached to it. And the My 7-11 app allows you to do a fuel lock, which is fantastic. So  So, when you when you know you the end of that, and again, this is a real game, because when you do your fuel lock, it’s locked in for seven days. So, you can do it, but effectively, you’ve got seven days before you can then put another fuel lock in. I did a fuel lock, and it was a long time before it all disappeared. So, I filled up on my sixth day, and it reset. So, it looks like if you do your fuel lock, I might be hard to follow with this. I’ve realized but, if you do a fuel lock and then you buy some petrol. What happens is you show your app and the little barcode of when you did the fuel lock and it’ll lock in the price that you locked in. Then it starts again. So, that seven-day cycle does actually start again. So, you don’t have to wait seven days until you can do your fuel lock again.

Gene Tunny  33:05

Is there a transaction fee if you’re locked? Do you have to pay for fuel lock?

Tim Hughes  33:09

No, nothing. So, it’s really good. So, obviously, if you don’t use a full tank in those seven days, you stretch out until the seventh day, you’ve got a time on your fuel lock, which says it’s only up until this point. And then you can go to a 7-11 or Mobil station, fill it up and show them that fuel lock barcode on your app, and it’ll charge you, so for instance, instead of paying $1.95, I paid $1.55 for the tank full I got yesterday. There’s one little tip there, which I got wrong. The first time I used it is you have to specify what kind of fuel you’re going to use. So, I just had unleaded and I filled up with the 10 and they wouldn’t honor it because you can only do it for the fuel lock of the fuel that you’ve locked in anyway. Nerdy stuff but you can get you can get another week’s worth or another full tank of discount fuel once everyone else is paying top dollar.

Gene Tunny  34:12

Yeah, so tell me about that. I mean, you’re not going to get from trough to trough of the cycle with one tank of fuel, are you?

Tim Hughes  34:21

It depends what you do, what car you’ve got. And for me, I use about a tank full of fuel every week. I do a lot of running around. Like for you, you’d be okay.

Gene Tunny  34:32

I Hardly use any;

Tim Hughes  34:36

But you don’t do a lot of driving with it. So, you probably fall in the category where you don’t really care because you don’t use much anyways. You just get fuel when you need it. Yeah, but using a tank a week with a lot of running around, it makes a big difference. So, I never pay top price. And so, the rest of my strategy, I’ll just finish my thing there. So, I’ll do that, I’ve filled up at the cheapest, I’ve put my fuel lock on, or go for another week, and then fill up again at the last opportunity, either the weeks running out, or I’m running out of fuel, fill up again. And then you run that all the way down. So, you basically run that extra tank out, by which time, more than halfway through the next cycle. So, you should be heading towards a reasonable price anyway. And at that point, you just put in 20 bucks, $30 at the most to top up until it gets to the bottom of the cycle, then you fill up and go through it all again.

Gene Tunny  35:30

Yeah, I find it interesting that they don’t charge you for that privilege of having fewer lock, because if you think about it, there’s a correspondence to something in financial markets called a call option. Okay, so this is the Investopedia definition, a call option is a contract that gives the option buyer the right to buy an underlying asset at a specified price within a specific time period. So, you might have a call option on a share. Now they’re giving you something of value and you’re not paying for it because you got the right to buy that; maybe they figure out some people are going to make the wrong call. Or it’s a way of them segmenting the market even further, because they realize it’s the real savvy, the super savvy customers who are going to fuel lock, that will do enough research to figure this out. And yet we know we can’t rip these guys off.

Tim Hughes  36:35

Well, it’s an interesting point and they’ve obviously got reasons for that one of it. One of the reasons with 7-11 is that you have to go in their store, which is effectively a 7-11 shop, to pay for your fuel, and they have all these other rewards and incentives for you to buy stuff in there. So, the more often they can get you into that shop, the more often they can get you to buy things from them.

Gene Tunny  37:00

So, they’re hoping you get the connoisseur cookies and cream ice cream?

Tim Hughes  37:04

That’s just a rumor, Gene. That wasn’t real.

Gene Tunny  37:06

that was stuck. At 7-11.

Tim Hughes  37:12

They had this brilliant thing with a $2 Pies sometimes ago, which were okay. But yes, so there’s other incentives and other marketing schemes for doing that. And I think 7-11 is one of those that doesn’t take part; my understanding is they don’t take part in an ongoing rewards offering. So, for instance, part of my strategy is using Puma for that interim time. So, once I’ve used my fuel lock, when I get my fuel from that point onwards, I go to Puma, because I can use my RACQ card and I get four cents off a liter, so that drops it down again. This is another retailer, so, my understanding is I don’t think there’s one out there for Mobil. And so maybe they just sort of, like balance that out with being able to offer fuel lock, but they don’t do the four cents off. Because that’s another point worth making in my world of fuel nerdery that there are certain ones; the Woolworths one I think is one, I haven’t checked that, but you get four cents off for having rewards card. I think it’s Caltex that are linked with Woolworths, and you get a further four cents off if you spend $5 or more in store. But normally, that sort of, doesn’t pay out whenever you have to buy something in store, the elevated prices of whatever you’re getting in store normally, cancel out any kind of financial advantage of having that four cents off a liter. So, the little things like that play into it and it was funny. 

One of the things we did mention so through all those cycles, occasionally you get somebody who sticks out as not playing the game. And here in Brisbane, there’s one that I know of, which I have used if I’ve run out of fuel. And if the false sense of Puma is still higher than Keith Mackay at Red Hill, who does his flat, he has a flat level price that he tries to change very infrequently. And so sometimes, he’s for instance, is $1.79 At the moment, so he’s a good 16 cents less than most. And so that’s the place to go for fuel if you feel conscious and having to fill up at this time. So, I want to give a shout out to Keith Mackay for sort of, being an independent out there. 

Gene Tunny  39:36

What’s the problem? I mean, because it’s on a busy road and not everyone’s going on Waterworks road, you sort of, have to be going past Keith’s place for it to work for you to get there. Is that right for it to be economic for you or optimal? No, for anyone else?

Tim Hughes  39:52

For anyone, you have to go in person. You have to be going the right direction for that particular, I guess is the same for a lot of all analysts shorter corner. That’s pretty much the same for anybody getting fuel. If you’re on the wrong side of the road, you’re not going to go there.

Gene Tunny  40:06

But there are fewer servos here in Australia than there were 20 or 30 years ago. That’s a fact. I mean, I remember seeing a chart and in an ACCC report years ago when I was in Treasury, and I think, I don’t know the exact numbers, but at one time, there would have been 15,000, maybe, and then it’s well below 10,000 now, in terms of retail outlets in Australia.

Tim Hughes  40:29

Well, we can get onto that in a sec, because I imagine will change with part of the landscape, moving towards EVs that’s going to be impacted, massively. 

Gene Tunny  40:41

Oh, yeah, well. That’s right, all of that space that’s currently devoted to petrol stations to their forecourts, we may not need that anymore but let’s see. We should move on to that. Because we’ve had a good 41 minutes or so, so far of chat. So, we’re going to get on to EVs, which was one of the key things you’re interested in. But that fuel price cycle stuff, that’s fascinating, isn’t it?

Tim Hughes  41:09

Yeah. I just want to add with Keith Mackay, his main gig is tyres, which I think, he’s not there as a fuel guy. But it’s interesting and nice to see that somebody isn’t affected by the, the cycle as much or as standing up to the cycle and just sort of, leveling out.

Gene Tunny  41:27

Yeah, so it sounds like he’s willing to; he wants to offer a service to people in local area. He’s not as motivated by profit as a lot of the other retailers, or maybe he’s trying to profit in another way.

Tim Hughes  41:44

I think it’s his main gig. So, it’s just part of what he does, but like, it’s not a main one. But we’ll have to get Keith on here one day to explain.

Gene Tunny  41:53

I’d be interested in his logic and also, what does he think of this whole fuel price cycle? How does it work? Does he have any insight? We’d like to know. 

Okay, we’ll take a short break here for a word from our sponsor.

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Gene Tunny  42:38

Now back to the show. 

We better move on to EVs, Tim. Okay, so you had some questions about EVs. So, do they reduce greenhouse gas emissions? I mean, it’s a key one. 

Tim Hughes  42:53

I think what it was is like, looking at the whole process, from the making of the EV, to any waste products to them, the end life of an EV. So, the amount of, lithium being one, there’s a lot of resources needed; a lot of resources that go into making an electric vehicle. Yeah, they still have to be dug out of the ground, like, you know, 200 kilos of

Gene Tunny  43:19

Copper too, it’s got copper in there?

Tim Hughes  43:23

Yeah, I’ve only seen this from one source. So, this is unverified and people will know far more about it than I. But clearly, there’s an environmental cost of building an electric vehicle. There’s an environmental cost of running an electric vehicle; obviously we’ve discussed, you know, the fuel source of producing that energy, and in this transition phase, and that’s going to be coal or gas, or whatever, it may be some, you know, part of it would be solar or clean, but certainly not all of it. We’re not there yet with that capability. 

I imagined that the future, ideally, would be a point in the future where we can do all of our electricity needs, and including the ability to power electric vehicles from clean energy. So, that I imagine is, you know, that’s a worthy place to head towards. And that transition phase is going to be a certain period of time where we do need fossil fuels of some sort, like coal and gas or whatever to get us to that point. And that infrastructure is going to change massively in that period of time.

Gene Tunny  44:26

Yeah, okay. So, just on EVs, I think it’s difficult to say but all of the credible studies I’ve seen suggests that they do result in lower emissions and then, they’re better for the environment than petrol driven vehicles. I think we can confidently say that. 

There’s a Queensland Government website shifting to zero emissions vehicles. I’ll put a link in the show notes and it says across Australia, battery electric vehicles, so, your Tesla’s, emit on average, 29 to 41% less lifecycle emissions than a typical fossil fueled vehicle for every kilometer driven in Australia. And then the extent to which electric vehicles can lower emissions varies depending on which state and territory you live in, much depends on how much electricity is generated from renewable sources, such as solar, wind, and hydro. So, my interpretation of less lifecycle emissions means that they should have taken into account the manufacturing process, but look, that’s not guaranteed. So, I’d have to dig more into their sources. But I’d be fairly confident in saying that they’re better for the environment than petrol powered vehicles, I think that’s pretty clear. The problem is that they’re still so costly, and they’re just not economic for most consumers yet.

Tim Hughes  45:45

Yeah. And the thing is also that we would hopefully become more efficient in the manufacturing of electric vehicles, you know, in the manufacturing of batteries, and the disposal of batteries and other parts of that whole process when it comes to it.

Gene Tunny  46:03

I think all those costs are coming down. Before battery technology, I don’t think it’s improving fast enough. Maybe it is for cars. But one of the issues with batteries is that we really need them to back up the electricity grid, we really need them to be able to absorb the solar energy that comes during the day, and then allow us to power the country during the peak periods. That’s one of the big challenges we’ve got at the moment. I mean, we need more Tesla power walls, and we need big sort of, batteries across the suburbs. Really, we need big Tesla Powerwall type batteries in local areas.

Tim Hughes  46:50

And the charging time as well. Obviously, when you fill up with fuel, it’s relatively quick, five minutes and you normally done; 10 minutes tops, if you’re getting a cookies and cream connoisseur from the freezer. But I know I’m fully behind this move towards greener energy. And I think it’s really exciting to see how quickly it’s moving. But it’s that transition phase we’ve mentioned, which seems to be happening organically anyway, because it appears that people are able to charge EVs at the moment and that sort of, they’re selling more EVs. So, it seems to be the way this is happening, you know, appears to be working, but for everyone to be expected to have an EV or the majority of people. Clearly the infrastructure is a long way from being what it needs to be.

Gene Tunny  47:43

Yeah, we could talk about that in a minute. So, just on this is happening quickly. Look, the growth rate is, is high. I think they’re growing; I don’t know 200%. EV sales have grown by some really high rate over the last few years in Australia. But, so in the first half of 2021, there were 8,698 EVs sold in Australia. That compares with 6900 EVs sold in 2020. I think a stat I saw was that there’s been 40,000 electric vehicles sold in Australia since over the last 10 years or whatever the period was. But look, we have to compare that with 20 million registered motor vehicles in Australia, right? So, it’s really small relative to the total stock. It’s going to take a long time, decades for EVs to become the predominant vehicle type in Australia. And we’re actually a global Lagarde. This is according to a Grattan Institute report. The Grattan car plan Australia is a global laggard on electric vehicles. So, electric vehicle sales as a proportion of new vehicle sales in 2020. Australia was 0.78%, United States, 2.3%, global average 4.2% China 6.2%, Sweden 32.2%, Iceland 45%, Norway 74.8%.

Tim Hughes  49:15

Iceland makes sense. So, because small place, they can be far more agile with this kind of infrastructure and technology. And the energy that they have at their disposal with geothermal energy is just enormous. I mean, that just drill down and away you go.

Gene Tunny  49:31

Well, that’s better as a renewable, is it renewable, or whatever it is. I mean, it’s greenhouse friendly. It’s better for the environment than fossil fuels. But that’s a more constant source of energy, isn’t it? than say, wind or solar, the problem we’ve got is, the renewable energy sources, we’ve got are intermittent

Tim Hughes  49:52

Yeah, and the geothermal, from what my understanding is very stable and it’s 24/7.

Gene Tunny  50:00

Yeah, I need to get an engineer on here to explain it all. But this is a challenge with trying to understand what’s going on and this whole debate. There are all these engineering issues and scientific issues that it’s challenging for any economist to comment on.

Tim Hughes  50:17

And also, after so with Iceland, they do have the possibility of something cataclysmic happening as well over there. I think anywhere where you’ve got geothermal availability, you’ve got the possibility of something crazy happening.

Gene Tunny  50:30

And I think the fact that it’s a small place to means they don’t have that range anxiety, which is a big issue in Australia, where you could be driving hundreds of kilometers to your next destination, particularly if you’re in the outback. Or if you’re in regional Queensland and New South Wales, you might have to travel 200-300 kilometers to the next town. And you’d probably rather have a petrol driven vehicle with a big tank than an EV which, I mean, what’s the range? Is it 300 kilometers maybe? I’m trying to remember; I hope to look it up. But I know that’s an issue here in Australia. I know that EVs are getting better at that. But there are some people still are concerned about whether they can go the distance, so to speak. But then look, Norway is a big place and they seem perfectly comfortable. So, they’ve obviously set themselves up well, with the necessary infrastructure.

Now there are two more issues I want to chat about, because we’re sort of, approaching the time limit. You want to talk about how much more energy is required? There is just quite a bit more. There was a report in Drive Magazine that suggested that it could be equivalent to 12 million more houses. So, like one new electric vehicle is equivalent to a house. And I was struggling to find a good figure for the proportion of electricity that’s consumed by households compared with business and industry. But it’s going to be a fraction of the title. So, it’s not as if we’re going to double the amount of electricity needed. But it could be 50% or something. Yeah, I think it’s probably Yeah, maybe 30 to 40%, I think I saw an estimate. So, we’ll need 40% More energy, electricity. And yeah, the challenge is that at the moment where we’ve got all of this coal fired power stations that are retiring or projected to retire over the next two decades, and we’ve got a challenge, just replacing that capacity with renewables. And doing that in a way that we don’t screw up the liability of the energy system, where we’d end up having blackouts and all that; we need to avoid that with the firming with the battery power. If battery technology gets cheap enough that everyone can have a Tesla Powerwall, or whatever the competitor’s product is, if we can have grid level storage, big batteries dotted around the suburbs, or if we have more pumped hydro, that’s a challenge because environmental considerations, raising dam walls building new dams, I mean, that’s, that’s not going to be popular.

Tim Hughes  53:16

All comes back to energy at that every point really, isn’t it? We’re going to get our energy from and what’s the most efficient and clean way of getting that energy? And to be able to increase the capacity.

Gene Tunny  53:28

But we do need more, we’re going to need more energy for EVs. The authorities are aware of this. So, the Australian energy market commission published a paper in 2020, that dealt with this issue. And I’ll put a link in the show notes. They had a paper integrating electric vehicles into the power system. And its press release to the AMC says Australia needs a forward-thinking plan to get the energy system market ready for an electric vehicle future. Now, are we going to get that forward thinking plan? I don’t know. We’ve had a lot of problems in Australia getting an energy policy that makes sense; that sensible that everyone agrees on. I mean, we’ve had the climate wars, the big debates over climate change policy. This is going to be a big challenge. But look, people are aware of it. They know it’s an issue. There’s an issue with apartment buildings for sure. So, in that drive magazine article I mentioned, electric cars could have big impact on Australia’s energy supply. They quote this Mark Hartje, who’s CEO of charging installation company, Harman electric. His business regularly encountered developers who are unaware of the demands electric car charging good place on energy supply. One of the issues in this building we’re working on is the amount of power they have available. It sounds like a lot, but it’s running lifts, a lot in aircon, so the building doesn’t have the capacity to provide any more energy and we could burn the substation down. So, not good. 

So, he claimed the risks are high developers and body corporates were dealing with don’t really realize it’s an issue until we tell them. It will be like the pink bats cladding issue, once a couple of buildings go up in flames, they’ll do something. And then what he’s saying is that as a result, our chargers have automatic load management. So, if demand gets too high, like when all the air cons on the Chargers will throttle back, how we notify owners, we’re still not entirely sure about I think what he’s saying is that, yeah, basically what’ll happen is if there’s always EVs getting charged the system, there’s some intelligent system that is, an IT there that will just throttle, that turn the power down. So, it’ll shut down some of the EVS or the charging or shut down some air cons, or they’ll have to manage that it’ll cause all sorts of problems.

Tim Hughes  55:55

And, of course, this is a problem that’s not currently there. So, it’s, like, you know, the general population, we’re not great at dealing with new problems, like we, you know, like things to get easier and better. So, it is, I mean, I can only feel that whatever these issues are, that they will get sorted out, you know, it seems to be that we’re on this path towards electric vehicles. And, you know, we’re moving fairly quickly in that way, even though those percentages that you talked about are really very small. Well, percentages of how many electric vehicles we have actually have here. It’s not a lot. So, like, we’re massively predominantly having fuel driven cars. But the changes that we’ll need to make, I mean, of course, all of this stuff doesn’t happen with everything in place, you know, like it evolves and the challenges get met along the way. So, clearly, there are some big challenges here. And I’ve got no doubt that they’ll get met, which will be really interesting to sort of, see, because there will be some challenges, as we’ve outlined, with getting these EVs powered for everybody.

Gene Tunny  57:04

Yeah, and bringing them down. So, they’re cost effective, and people can purchase them. One of the challenges, or one of the reasons that they’re so expensive, is that these companies are making the EVs are trying to recover all of the R&D that they’ve spent developing the EV.

Tim Hughes  57:22

The last two years have been felt, of course, with supply of any new vehicles. That is still getting caught up with that.

Gene Tunny  57:30

Title mess, supply chain problem;

Tim Hughes  57:33

It will be really interesting to see how this changes and just want to briefly mention on that, like, we’re talking about the infrastructure changing. And the amount of fuel stations that there are here at some point, those fuel stations just become charging stations, then that infrastructure doesn’t necessarily change too much, but they’re just going to be selling, because they’ll have to sell it at that point to recharge, you’re not going to get free electricity to charge your EV as an ongoing basis. I think that’s just a bit of a perk to get people. Right. So, Tesla are doing it’ll happen at some point. That’s not going to continue. 

Gene Tunny  58:10

Well, if you’re offering that if you’ve got your recharging station, then that’s taking up land. And yeah, you’ll need to;

Tim Hughes  58:16

Somebody’s got to pay for that, no matter how its generated. But I’m sure it’ll get worked out. But it’ll be interesting to see how all of all of this unfolds.

Gene Tunny  58:25

Exactly. Okay. Just one more thing. One of the issues that economists are thinking about at the moment is, as we move away from petrol driven vehicles, we’re going to get less revenue from fuel excise here in Australia. So, that’s currently bringing in, well, before we cut the rate temporarily, I think it was running at about 10 billion per annum or something like that. I mean, it’s, it’s a big amount of money. I’ll put the exact figure in the show notes; might be 11 billion, there was a great article by John Freebairn an economist at University of Melbourne. What is petrol excise? And why does Australia have it, anyway? I’ll link to that in the show notes. 

So, there’s a big debate about well, how do we make up for that revenue? Should we have an electric vehicle tax, as Victoria has implemented? There’s currently a high court case on that. I think the Commonwealth is taking them to court and say no, we don’t want you to have that. That’s not the right way to go about it. And where economists are going is that, that’s probably not a good idea. Because at the moment, we want to encourage people to take up EVs. So, you don’t want to go and tax them. But there is a legitimate debate about how we charge for the use of roads and the damage that’s done for roads and the fact that roads can be congested at times. So, there’s a big debate about road user charging. And so there’s a lot of thinking going on about that. And that’s something I’ll try and cover with Marian Terrell from Grattan Institute in a future episode. She’s written a great piece in the financial review this week on that. She’s opposed to that EV tax in Victoria as I am, I think we should take the opportunity to think, more laterally; think about what’s the appropriate way to pay for the roads. And so, what John Freebairn writes in his article is that in an ideal world, we would charge explicitly for road use pollution and congestion in the cities during peak hours. Fuel excise is an increasingly inappropriate way of charging for road use. Because more and more cars, including hybrids are using less fuel per kilometer, and some, including all electric vehicles are using none. So, look, I don’t know how we do this, we probably need some sort of, chip or tag to keep track of you. 

And then the one of the ideas is that on a really congested road, you could charge people if they’re driving on that road. You know how there’s the congestion charge in London? I think we were probably talking about that before you got standby. 

Consider a London and getting the thing. Yeah. So, yeah. So, there’s a lot of thinking going on about what’s the right way to charge for roads. So, I’ll cover that in a future episode. Does that makes sense because we are losing fuel excise and a lot of people will point to the fact, that’s partly paying for the roads well sort of, I mean, it goes into the big pot of money. That is a whole bunch of things. Money is fungible that. Okay, it’s a legitimate thing to be to think about that. Yeah, we’re going to be getting less revenue to pay for services, including roads, goods and services.

Tim Hughes  1:01:53

Because it gets complex, doesn’t it? Like HGVs and obviously, you know, different size vehicles and heavy vehicles, potentially do more damage to the road. 

Gene Tunny  1:02:07

There’s a system for charging heavy vehicles. We’ve got that. Yeah. 

Tim Hughes  1:02:11

So, it makes sense that it would be done on a per kilometer basis. I don’t know. I mean, I’m also in favor of less, certainly personal tracking, you know, over the last two years, the whole of the pandemic and throw no liberalism and freedoms. That’s another conversation as well. I think it’s really hard to give up ground on personal movement and you know with your vehicle, although that would be the fairest way. If you travel a kilometer, you pay X amount per kilometer.

Gene Tunny  1:02:43

Very good, Tim, I should have thought about myself. As someone who just went to the Friedman conference, in July in Sydney, as someone who’s had a long-term association with center for Independent Studies, which is a great proponent of liberty in Australia. I think I should have thought of that point myself. It’s a very good point. I mean, it’s tracking to be able to implement this road user charging system, you need to have some way of tracking people as they drive. 

Tim Hughes, we better wrap up. Any final words before we close?

Tim Hughes  1:03:12

No. Just that it’s a fascinating subject that I know a lot of people talk about, it comes up in conversations everywhere. We’ve done just a broad overview of this, to the best of our knowledge at the time, but these are individually little areas that we’ve talked about, that will dive deeper with industry representatives, or colleagues or people.

Gene Tunny  1:03:35

And experts, yeah. I’ll try and get some EV experts on charging the energy network. Because, there’s so much complexity here, you almost have to be an engineer, an economist, a philosopher in a way as well, to try and grapple with these issues.

Tim Hughes  1:03:51

And as a consumer, you sort of, like, see this unfolding. And it is really interesting. And my driving principle, for me, personally, is about, you know, the environment and what’s best for the environment. So, I’m interested to see that discussion further, with the greenest possible solution to how we move from A to B and back to A again.

Gene Tunny  1:04:13

Okay, so long as it doesn’t cost us too much. We want it cost effective, but, we want to look after the environment, that’s right. We want to make sure it’s done in the most cost-effective way. We want to minimize the pain going forward. 

Tim Hughes  1:04:28

It’s got to be practical, you got to be able to do it, you know, like the green options now, which is to walk or cycle, you know, but that’s not practical for me to by the time we get to work, I’d have to turn around and go back again. 

Gene Tunny  1:04:41

All the way was set up as cities. We’re all living in these big cities, and we’re all time constrained. Yeah. 

Tim Hughes  1:04:48

So, the overriding principle for me anyway, like is, what’s going to be best for the planet in our hippie at heart, and, but you got to be realistic as well. But I’m excited because that’s the way that EVs seem to be heading. And that can obviously be tweaked and fine-tuned to be better and better and more efficient and less impact on the environment as we move ahead.

Gene Tunny  1:05:13

Okay. Tim Hughes, is it’s been great chatting with you. We always enjoy our conversations. I think you’ve raised some really important issues here. And yeah, really enjoyed our conversation. And we’ll try and get some experts and other industry people on in the future and we can have a further chat with them. So, thank you. 

Tim Hughes

Thanks, Gene.

Gene Tunny

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 contact@economicsexplored.com and we’ll aim to address them in a future episode. Thanks for listening. Until next week, goodbye.

Thanks to Josh Crotts for mixing the episode and to the show’s sponsor, Gene’s consultancy business www.adepteconomics.com.auPlease consider signing up to receive our email updates and to access our e-book Top Ten Insights from Economics at www.economicsexplored.com. Also, please get in touch with any questions, comments and suggestions by emailing us at contact@economicsexplored.com or sending a voice message via https://www.speakpipe.com/economicsexplored. Economics Explored is available via Apple PodcastsGoogle Podcast, and other podcasting platforms.

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Podcast episode

GDP & the National Accounts: What they are and why they matter w/ Brendan Markey-Towler – EP153

The National Accounts are a huge intellectual achievement and an incredibly useful set of data, including GDP and its components. Chatting about the National Accounts with Economics Explored host Gene Tunny is fellow economist Dr Brendan Markey-Towler, author of the Substack newsletter Australian Economy Tracker. Brendan explains how the National Accounts help us track the current state of the economy as well as longer-term trends, such as shrinking manufacturing sectors and growing services sectors in many advanced economies.

You can listen to the episode via the embedded player below or via podcasting apps including Google PodcastsApple PodcastsSpotify, and Stitcher.

Links relevant to the conversation

Brendan’s Australian Economy Tracker Newsletter

Brendan’s post discussed in this episode

Planet Money episode on Simon Kuznets

Australian Financial Review article (pay-walled, alas) which reported “Federal government business generated $1.7 billion in revenue for the big four accounting and consulting firms over the past five years – though the government has a different take on the contract value of that business.”

Transcript: ROI of education: how economists estimate it + US economic update – EP152

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.

Brendan Markey-Towler  00:04

So, that’s where we get the view that Australia is less and less a country that makes things and builds things. Construction, manufacturing declining as a share of GDP.

Gene Tunny  00:16

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 153 on GDP and the National Accounts. What they are and why they matter. 

Chatting about the national accounts with me this episode, is my good friend and fellow economist, Dr. Brendan Markey-Towler, who started a new sub stack newsletter, Australian Economy Tracker. Brendan explains how the national accounts help us track the current state of the economy, as well as longer term trends, such as shrinking manufacturing sectors and growing services sectors in many advanced economies. 

In the show notes, you can find relevant links and any clarifications. Please send any comments or questions to contact@economicsexplored.com. I’d love to hear from you. I’ve been very grateful for all the comments on recent episodes. Your comments really helped me figure out the issues that you’re interested in, and the types of guests that you’re interested in hearing from. So, please keep the comments coming to me.

Right oh! Now for my conversation with Brendan Markey-Towler on the national accounts. Thanks to my audio engineer, Josh Crotts for his assistance in producing this episode. I hope you enjoy it. Brendan Markey-Towler, welcome back to the program.

Brendan Markey-Towler  01:43

Gene, it’s always a pleasure to be here. Sorry, I’m a bit husky today, but I’ve bruised my throat. I’d like to pretend that it was under heroic circumstances, but it was not.

Gene Tunny  01:52

Okay, well, thanks for participating. I understand it’s not damaging your throat, you’re able to talk, you’ve been talking all day. And you’re still happy to talk.

Brendan Markey-Towler  02:01

I could talk under wet cement, mate. So, a bruised throat isn’t going to stop me.

Gene Tunny  02:07

Well, you know, now, you can get a job as a rugby league commentator, possibly?

Brendan Markey-Towler 02:14

That’s true. I’m more of a union man. Yeah, but I will go with league. That’s good. 

Gene Tunny  02:18

Right oh, okay. So, the topic of today, national accounts, what it is, why it matters? You’ve started a sub stack and one of your first pieces that came out on the sub stack was on the national accounts. And you displayed a level of enthusiasm for the national accounts that is very rare. And it actually reminded me of just how marvelous the set of data – the national accounts are, and what a superb intellectual achievement. 

So, going back to the work of Simon Kuznets, and Colin Clark, who, was it Stone as well, Richard Stone, who formulated the methodology financial accounts, and then it was like a system a toss by the UN. So, I think, what your note did was it really helped us; well, it really reminded me of just how impressive those national accounts are. So, could you just tell us first, what you were trying to do in that note? And what’s your sort of general take on the national accounts, please, Brendan? Why do you think they’re so important?

Brendan Markey-Towler  03:28

Partly to justify why I had no friends at school. Because I get excited about nerdy stuff like this. But look, when you actually know what the national accounts are, they’re extremely interesting. And what they really do is they aim to provide a snapshot of the activity within an economy over a set period of time. So, in Australia, and throughout almost the world, I’m not sure of any country that doesn’t do it this way. It gives you a snapshot of all the activity that went on in an economy over the previous quarter. And the central number that depicts that activity is the number that we call gross domestic product. And gross domestic product is a measure of how much wealth was added to the economy, how much production, how much activity, and under the three great categories production, exchange, and income, or earning. That’s what the national accounts do. And they add that up into a single number, GDP. And that tells you how much activity went on in the economy over that quarter. 

Now, where it gets really interesting, is that number not alone would be kind of cool. And we talk about the GDP growth rate. That’s what we mean when you hear on the news that people say economic growth or the economy grew by, that’s what they meant that GDP number increasing or decreasing. But where it gets really interesting is that we approach GDP in three ways. And you can think of this as looking at the economy as the same thing, but from three different directions. And that changes the way that you interpret that number. So, we call these GDP I, or at least I call them GDP I, GDP O, and GDP E. That is, GDP expenditure, GDP income and GDP output. 

And what those numbers are doing are adding up GDP, the activity in the economy, looking at that activity from one to three ways: as a production, as an expenditure, and as an income, right. So, if you think about it this way, when you go down and you buy something that’s dear to our heart, here in Queensland, you go down into buy your coffee, there’s three things going on, there’s three ways that they get that same transaction gets measured and add to GDP. From the expenditure side, the expenditure that you make, when you buy that coffee goes into GDP E, and we add all of those up together, and we get GDP. That expenditure becomes income from the perspective of the person behind the bar. And that gets added up into GDP income. 

And there’s also an interesting concept of gross value add, which is how much value has been produced by that transaction. The way that we measure that in GDP O, is we take the value of the output that was sold and subtract the value of the inputs that went into it. And that by definition, that’s the value that was added. 

So, that’s the three ways that we add up GDP and we get an interesting view of the economy from that. A little bit further breaking that down, obviously, you can break that down to the level of the individual transaction. But the you know, you don’t get a huge amount of information that you get so much information, you have no information. So, we categorize at a high level, these different activities to get a sense of what’s driving GDP. So, within GDP E, the expenditure, which is the most popular and most focused on of the national accounts measures of GDP, we break down expenditure by consumption, investment; in Australia, we break down by housing, as well, government expenditure, both consumption and investment, and net exports.

Gene Tunny  07:34

And by investment, we mean capital investment, we mean expenditure on capital goods. So, we mean, new housing developments, or we mean, new, non-residential buildings, new schools, new factories, new capital equipment that’s purchase.

Brendan Markey-Towler  07:55

That’s right. Yeah. So, in Australia, we call it gross fixed capital investment, which is at the addition to the capital stock of the country in the capital stock of the country is; in Australia, again, we trade a little, perhaps, oddly, that we add housing into that. But factories, equipment; we actually add intellectual property as well. So, science and technology research get added into that figure. And so that’s what we that’s, that’s the way that we break down the economy. 

So, when we break down GDP E that way consumption, investment, government spending net exports, we get a sense of which sector of the demand side of the economy is pulling the economy along. Is it household consumption? Is it buying new houses or building new houses? Is it businesses investing? Is it government consuming, spending money? Or is it government investing? Or is it coming from the international sector? And that gives us a lot of information about the activity within a country, it also gives us information about what might be dragging economic growth as well. So, that’s expenditure. 

Another really interesting measure, well, I mean they’re all interesting, but the second measure GDP O – GDP output, sometimes called GDP gross value add, gives us a sense more of the supply side of the economy. 

So, expenditure gives us a view of what’s driving the economy on the demand side. GDP O gives us a view of what’s driving the supply side. So, we get GDP in Australia, broken down by industry. And that’s where it gets really interesting because we can see which industries are adding the most to GDP. So, that’s cool. We can say, oh, mining adding more? Or how much is mining adding to GDP and how much is it driving or dragging on GDP? Ditto for professional scientific and technical services is another one that we use, agriculture and fishing, public administration safety; how much are these sectors adding to GDP and how much are they dragging or driving GDP. And then finally, the GDP I number. This is typically not quite as informative as the others, which is kind of ironic because it’s the easiest to add up because we just look at the tax returns. GDP I, breaks down GDP by income. And in Australia, we do it by what we’d call the greatest states of Australian society. So, wage earners, non-financial corporations, financial corporations, and government. And we can get a view of who’s earning the income within GDP. How what of that GDP that’s expended and outputted. Where is the income from that activity accruing to? Is it accruing to wages? Is it accruing to company profits? If it’s an accruing company profits, is it occurring to financial or non-financial companies? So, that’s some of the really interesting stuff that we get from GDP, it gives us this, really, especially in Australia, because our accounts are quite amazing.

Gene Tunny  11:05

Yeah, we’ve got some of the best in the world for sure. 

Brendan Markey-Towler  11:09

They really are and we get a really rich view of what’s driving and dragging the Australian economy. What’s creating the wealth in our economy and what’s potentially dragging on the wealth of our economy. And kind of, we get a sense as well, where it’s going.

Gene Tunny  11:26

Okay, so the few things I want to talk about there, Brendan. Okay, so you mentioned that GDP; well, is it an approximation of the addition to wealth? Let me think about this. I mean, part of it is in addition to wealth, to the extent that you’re increasing the capital stock, but then part of it is consumed, and then part of the investment is consumption of fixed capital. So, I mean, it’s national income really, isn’t it? I mean, it’s related to wealth. Yes. So, it’s certainly related to that. It gives us a picture of our national income. I think national income was the original term for it, wasn’t it?

Brendan Markey-Towler  12:11

Yes, although national income gets a little trickier because the we focus on GDP, because it’s really limited to the geographical definition of the country. And that distinction was made early on in the development of the methodology, because national income is a bit fuzzier because it’s typically added up by nationals, rather than by where the activity occurred. So, that’s why the classic example that we give in an economics course, is that national income for a country like Luxembourg is, I think, Ireland, sorry. National income for a country like Ireland is actually much higher than its GDP, because a lot of its nationals live overseas. So, there’s few distinctions that we make within it. But really, what it’s giving you is a view of the activity that’s occurred in the economy, the economy being that system of human behavior, why we produce and exchange stuff that we need for everyday life. And so obviously, that adds to the stock of wealth in the economy, because some of that gets consumed and taken out and other elements of it gets allocated to the national wealth. 

So, yeah, it’s a flow metric in the classic distinction between stocks and flows. It a reflection of the consumption and investment activity in an economy during a particular period.

Gene Tunny  13:40

Yes, it was developed during, well; the need for it became obvious during the 30s, when they were trying to quantify the extent of the Great Depression, I think Kuznets produced a report for the US federal government that strangely became a best seller. I mean, it was the first time someone had produced numbers like this. There’s a great planet money episode on that. I’ll try and find it and link to it in the show notes.

Brendan Markey-Towler  14:09

Well, that’s a good point, right? Because before then everyone kind of knew when times were good, or times were bad. And so, you could tell there were panics and manias and crashes as Charles Kindleberger famously said, but before the national accounts were developed, we never really were able to quantify what that was. And a lot of this was crystallized by John Maynard Keynes, his famous book, The General Theory of Interest, money and employment. I’ve got that wrong, interest money I think I got three. I’m one of the few in my in my generation, I think who actually read the book, which is, which is why it’s embarrassing I can’t remember the name because we always refer to it as the general theory.  And what Keynes was trying to do there was give a theory of why we experienced these manias, panics and crashes, you know, boom and bust. And the problem was that when he wrote it, he was dealing with a lot of abstract thoughts and that needed to be measured. And I’ll actually give a little plug here for our home state of Queensland because Queensland was at the forefront of this, currently the building out at UQ, which houses the School of Economics, the University of Queensland, the School of Economics there is housed in the Colin Clark building, which is kind of ironic because Colin Clark didn’t become an academic at UQ until much later in life, I think around the 1980s. But Colin Clark was at the forefront of developing the methodology, not only for what the national accounts are, but how you actually design the surveys that add up those numbers and find out what the numbers are. 

Gene Tunny  15:49

And he’s quoted in Keynes’s book because Keynes used his estimates of consumption spending for Great Britain, if I remember correctly, in the general theory. 

Brendan Markey-Towler  16:01

And it’s kind of funny. So, Colin Clark who came out here to Australia and did a tour of Australia and he was the hotshot wizkid political economist from Cambridge. And he met with all of the premiers because back in those days, we understood the constitution. So, the premiers were much more powerful than the prime minister. And when he came up here to Queensland, the premier at the time William Forgan Smith, which the alumni of UQ will know, is that is the main building at the University of Queensland. Kind of, a nice little coincidence. Forgan Smith basically said to him, look, do you want to come and be my adviser on all things economics? As Forgan Smith was a great reformer and trying to develop the Queensland economy, he needed to be able to measure the size of the Queensland economy: what was driving, what was dragging, what was causing development, what was dragging on development. And there’s a famous letter that Colin Clark writes back to Keynes to say, I’ve been offered a job to basically become the shadow premier of Queensland. I’m not going to turn that down. And Keynes, I think said something to the effect of where is Queensland. So, then, Colin Clark came out, join the Queensland Statistical Bureau and, he was instrumental in the development of the national accounts and as a point to why the national accounts are so important. While Colin Clark was doing that, he’s obviously thinking about what goes into an economy? What is an economy? What exactly does it mean to say an economy? Because when you actually; we all kind of know what it is, is the economy stupid?

Gene Tunny  17:44

It’s an abstraction, isn’t it? 

Brendan Markey-Towler  17:47

But it is an abstraction. And so, he had to think about, Okay, what does it actually mean? What is an economy, what counts as economic activity? And this is becoming very pertinent again, in these days, where we’re talking about things like Facebook and Amazon and Google where a lot of the activity that goes on there, we sort of think of as economic but it doesn’t measure it. But what happens as a result of Colin Clark thinking through these questions, is he’s starting to develop views of how economic development occurs. So, he ends up writing a large book, which sort of became a classic and development economics on how economies develop, what the basis for economic development are, what the settings for economic policy should be to encourage development. Particularly important question here in Queensland, which was a quite underdeveloped economy at the time.

And as a result, he became a very close adviser to Bob Santamaria, who those diehard fans of Australian politics will know was instrumental in the foundation of the Democratic Labor Party. So, this is the guy who invented a lot of the methodology behind the national accounts. So, when you understand something at that level, when you understand what an economy is, when you know how to measure it, imperfect as that measure may be, you get really rich insights into how an economy is tracking over time. And you get really rich insights as a result that develop over a long period of time of working with these things of what drives economic growth. You can situate those numbers in a history that tells you why the economy is growing, or why it’s not.

Gene Tunny  19:32

Yeah. Where do you get that Colin Clark story from? Is that in that book you keep talking about by, was it Millmow?. 

Brendan Markey-Towler  19:38

Yeah. Alex Millmow, A History of Australasian Economics Thought. I think that’s where I got it from. Yes, it is where I got it from. It’s a really good book because Alex points out that a lot of Australia’s economic contributions to economic thought came from really practical questions like this. How do we measure?

Gene Tunny  19:57

Absolutely. Yeah, yeah, absolutely. Okay, we’ll take a short break here for a word from our sponsor.

Female speaker  20:07

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Gene Tunny  20:36

Now back to the show. Okay, now, I did want to go back to the point you made about the difficulty of well, the issues around the modern economy and the India head, etcetera. There was a great lecture that John Quiggin, who’s a professor at UQ. And if any Australian economist is going to win a Nobel Prize, it’d be John. I mean, he’s one of the most cited academic economists that Australia has. I mean, maybe, Warrick McKibben could win one. So, but yeah, certainly, John is;

Brendan Markey-Towler  21:11

I always like for John Foster personally.,

Gene Tunny  21:15

Well, John Quiggin, is incredibly distinguished economist and his view at the this lecture he gave was that the problem with GDP is that it’s gross, its domestic and its product. Okay, so we’ve already talked about the domestic issue. So, the fact that you could have a lot of production, but if all your incomes remitted overseas, okay, because it’s just foreign mining companies producing and sending profits home, and then you may not see all of that benefit. But the point he was making is it because its product, and it’s measured at market prices, what you could be missing out on is consumer surplus, you’re not necessarily measuring the benefit to consumers, because all of these products are provided for, well, a lot of them for free. But yet, the foreign company makes money out of you in some other ways, because it’s monetizing your attention, isn’t it?

Brendan Markey-Towler  22:11

Yeah. And so, this is a debate that’s been really reopened, it’s been a perennial debate in economics, and there’s a lot of interesting ideas floating around, inspired by it, which is that when we talked about, you know, how GDP is added up, we talked about the exchange, okay. But the only way that we really observe and exchange is by the exchange of money, right? So, the price multiplied by the quantity of goods or services sold. Now, the problem merges; what happens in a world full of freemium models? What happens in a world where the price of a Facebook membership is zero? That sort of kind of, well, I don’t particularly like Facebook. So, you know, I would challenge just how much consumer surplus is creating, but there’s, you know, many people would argue that there is a value added.

Gene Tunny  23:11

I think TikTok is creating the most at the moment. Especially among the younger generation..

Brendan Markey-Towler  23:16

Massively, yeah. the only thing that shows up in the national accounts from Facebook, Google, TikTok, Instagram, is the data sales. That’s the only thing that shows up in the national accounts. I mean, apart from the marketplace exchanges that go on as well in the Facebook marketplace, and so on like that. But really, it’s ultimately the advertising for Google the sales of data from all of them. That’s the only thing that shows up in the national accounts. So, but there’s more than that, as well. Another problem, And Peter Thiel has recently raised this issue.

Gene Tunny  23:53

Oh, the billionaire? Right.

Brendan Markey-Towler  23:57

The chap who founded PayPal, he thinks that we’ve actually had no economic growth or very little economic growth in the past 70 years. And the reason he says that is because he contends that what is observed as economic growth in the past 70 years, is actually just us bringing production and exchange; valuable production exchange that used to happen in the home, into markets. So, cooking, cleaning, keeping the house in order, gardening; all this stuff gets done on marketplaces, rather than in the home. And that’s a bias in GDP. It doesn’t measure that stuff because it’s not on a marketplace. It can’t be observed. So, that’s another argument. 

You know that GDP doesn’t measure the actual value that’s being created. Now, the problem ultimately is, this goes back to a problem of micro economic theory, which is what is utility? And what is consumer surplus? And actually, from my perspective, why I ultimately say, look, let’s stick with GDP. It’s the worst measure we have, except for all the other things. Some countries have toyed with measuring gross national happiness. You know, New Zealand is toying with that at the moment, Bhutan famously measured it. The UN uses the Human Development Index, which is a weighting of GDP per capita literacy rates and life expectancy, I think.

Gene Tunny  25:31

All of which are highly correlated, aren’t those?

Brendan Markey-Towler  25:33

Yeah, and so, that was a March Ascends Brainchild, Jagdish Bhagwati famously said, well, yeah, they’re correlated. So, what are we talking about here? So, all those debates over replacing GDP ultimately, were reduced to a deep, deep philosophical problem, which economists are not well placed to solve, which is, what is value? What is good, what is true, what is beautiful? And I got some views on that. But as an economist, I ain’t got nothing to say about that. And so, when economists start dabbling in it, you kind of go, I used to be a fan of the happiness literature. But now I read and go, ah, this is, you know, it’s very simplistic. We’re going to use subjective wellbeing measures to add up Gross National Happiness. Okay, fine, that’s a really subjective and not very tangible measure. Whereas I can look out the window and see the cranes on the skyline here in Brisbane and see that’s an objective, measurable thing.

Gene Tunny  26:37

Well, it stood the test of time, hasn’t it? So, we’ve been using it for decades now. And there’s a general feeling that it does capture the state of the economy reasonably well. I mean, there are going to be people who grumble about it from time to time, but generally well, in Australia, at least when we had the recession, I mean, I always remember the 91 recession, because I was in high school at the time. And like, things just look bleak for anyone who was in high school and wanted to get a job. But then that was the period when retention rates at high school really ramped up. So, it was it was telling us something important there and it tends to; like it could give false signals, there’s a big debate at the moment over what’s happening in the US. But then look, the economy’s looks like it is slowing to an extent. There’s the impact of the Federal Reserve hikes. So, let’s wait and see how it all plays out. I mean, my feeling is, it’s generally a pretty good indicator of the state of the economy. 

Brendan Markey-Towler  27:38

I look bad, I’m a Queenslander first, Australian second, and as a result, I do have a bias which is towards tangible reality. Right, feelings are very ephemeral. And feelings are important, right? They are very important, but they’re really difficult to measure. And they’re very subjective, and they can be easily manipulated. Now, GDP can be manipulated as well, depending on how you count things up. But at the end of the day, it’s stuff that’s being produced stuff that’s being consumed. And it’s tangible, observable goods and services. So, insofar as I really have a criticism of GDP, my major criticism is that it really; I agree with Peter Thiel largely, biases us away from realizing the value that is produced in a house. 

And look, I’ve got a young, I’ve got a four-month-old son now so and my wife is at home, taking care of that. And I tell you what, that is incredibly mind blowing valuable work that she’s doing; doesn’t show up anywhere in GDP. Now, that doesn’t negate GDP. Because I think the solution to that is really, let’s just realize what GDP is actually measuring. Now, that does work in a political debate, because in politics and the way that the media works, you need a number and you need that number to be growing, otherwise, elections get lost, and so on and so forth. But when you’re, you know, when you’re doing grown up analysis instead of politics, I think the solution is to look at what GDP is actually measuring. It’s not a measure of value and if you think of it that way, then you’re wrong. Stop thinking of it like that. Think of it as it’s a measure of the production of stuff and the exchange of stuff within the economy, within the market that we can observe. Don’t try and start thinking about as a measure of all of the economic activity that ever happens in an economy. Just recognize the limitations, it doesn’t measure this stuff that goes on the household and that’s incredibly important.

Gene Tunny  29:51

Yeah, fair enough. That’s a good point. I’ll have to come in another episode to this issue of what’s in GDP? What’s out? What does it all mean? I’ll try and have that discussion in a future episode because there is a couple of other things I wanted to pick up on from your note; your note reminded me of a couple of things. And it’s the fact that this system is so beautiful, I mean, we end up getting from two different directions, possibly two different sets of data. I mean, we can look at what spend on consumption goods, final consumption goods, now, we have to be careful, we’re talking about final consumption goods and final investment goods, because what we’re trying to do is avoid double counting, we’re trying to get; because there are a lot of business to business transactions, businesses selling to other businesses inputs, so you have to take care of all that and make sure you’re not double counting title output, you want the expenditure on final goods and services. 

So, if you look at that, that ends up telling you what GDP is, once you add exports, subtract imports, because, well, if you import something, then you don’t have to produce it here. So, there could be stuff that shows up a consumption spending or an investment spending that’s imported, and we didn’t produce it here. So, you have to subtract it. And likewise, if we’re exporting something, well, we produced it here, we know we produced it here, then that adds to our output. But then, you look at spending data, on the other hand, you can look at income data. So, you are saying, look at the wages data, look at the profits data. And yeah, I guess it is coming from the ITR. I’m not sure exactly where the IBS gets it from. But I mean, that’s a likely source. I do surveys of businesses.

I’d have to check exactly how much they’re using ATO data, but I know they do surveys of businesses to get that information. They’ve got a household expenditure survey, they’ve got surveys of, well I guess they got their business server; I’d be looking at what they spending on capital goods. Looking at what they’re earning. And so, they build up this picture of earnings that way, and also the gross value added in the business. Which as you described, is their revenue less their production costs, and wages are part of the value added to. So, wages plus the gross operating surplus, is your value added in the business?

Brendan Markey-Towler  32:21

Yeah, it’s a very slippery definition, because it’s not quite profits. But it’s, you know, the value of inputs minus the value of outputs. And that by definition has to be the value that is added by that business to the economy, insofar as we can measure it.

Gene Tunny  32:35

This is because we’re talking about gross domestic product. So, we haven’t subtracted for the depreciation of capital stock, because some of the investment that occurs is just replacing existing capital stock. So, the building wears out and we have to replace it.

Brendan Markey-Towler  32:52

Too hard. We set that aside. Depreciation is very funny thing to talk about.

Gene Tunny  32:56

Right? Yeah. Well, we’ll leave that for now. You got time just to chat about your great quote? I should have brought it in earlier. You use these different perspectives on GDP to provide a really nice summary of what’s been happening in Australia. I thought this was very good. Exactly. Okay, so after you analyze where the growth has occurred, and you know, it’d be good if you could explain this at the moment. You concluded this; to put it somewhat tribally, Australia is less and less a country that derives its wealth from making and building things. Still a country that makes its wealth by digging stuff out of the ground and renting houses, and more and more a country that consults and cares. Could you please explain how you came to that conclusion, Brendan?

Brendan Markey-Towler  33:53

Well, you so what I did there, this is one of the most informative aspects of the national accounts I’m very interested; everyone focuses on the demand side of the economy, because we’re all Keynesian.

Gene Tunny  34:07

What we’ve been heavily influenced by Keynes, yes. There’s no doubt about that, whether we’re Keynesian. So, that’s another question. You can go ahead. Yes.  

Brendan Markey-Towler  34:13

We are all Keynesians. But the supply side of the economy is super interesting. See which sectors of the economy are generating the wealth. Now, the way that you can do that is by looking at gross value add, right. So, then you take the gross value added by each industry divided by the total GDP and you get the share of GDP, economic activity, economic value that is being created by that industry. And you can track that over time. Now, the problem with that data why almost no one really uses it? Some people do, but almost no one does. And you’ve used it, Gene, is that there’s a lot there, the ABS breaks the economy down by I think its 20 sectors. possibly 25. So, you’ve got to kind of cut it down to get some useful insights from it. 

So, the way I did it was alright, let’s cut out everything that’s less than 5% of the economy and look only at things that produce more than 5% of Australian GDP. Now, no sector really produces more than about 15. But there’s a clear standout. And there are clear standout trends once you do that, and you clean the graph up by eliminating all the Martin “minor sectors”. And you see some very strong trends. 

Trend number one that’s quite striking, and I should emphasize, this is all by real data. So, we hold prices constant to see what’s going on at the volumetric level in each of these sectors. So, we hold P constant, and we look at what’s changing in Q. Q is for quantity. And so, there’s benefits and costs to doing that. But it’s valuable as an exercise as long as you’re aware of the limitations of doing that. First interesting thing, manufacturing and construction are in decline in Australia. They’re not producing as much value add. In volumetric terms, they’re not producing as much value add anymore. They’ve been declining for the past 10 years as a share of GDP. So, that’s where we get the view that Australia is less and less a country that makes things and builds things; construction, manufacturing declining as a share of GDP.

Gene Tunny  36:30

So, with manufacturing, we had a car industry once, we subsidized a car industry, we tried to buy ourselves a car industry, and it just could not be viable on its own. And there wasn’t any more money we could throw at it to keep it open. 

Brendan Markey-Towler  36:48

And you look at somewhere like Maroubra or Ipswich. Which would you know, once kind of manufacturing ish areas in Queensland. Maroubra main manufacturing now is government contracts, building bullets for the Australian Army.

Gene Tunny  37:03

And do they build trains, still?

Brendan Markey-Towler  37:06

They do now. Yes, Maroubra now has a trains contract to build trains for the Queensland Government as well. And I think Ipswich still has a little bit of a train industry as well. But really not too much, by the way of price manufacturers. It’s not to say that it doesn’t exist, and it’s not to say that it’s very valuable. Queensland, for instance, has very vibrant medical manufacturing sector. That’s kind of grown up on the back of our extremely good hospitals and medical research. But generally, across Australia, the story is one of the car industries; we don’t really make stuff anymore. It’s just not competitive to build stuff. And so, that number is reflecting something that you see a lot when you go down to Fortitude Valley here, which, you know, the state would like to think Silicon Valley. Yes. Anyway, it’s Fortitude Valley, Queensland Silicon Valley, you see that a lot of the companies there just want to grow big enough that they can afford to offshore their manufacturing elsewhere. And the classic one is, I think Trivium, the electric car battery manufacturer, which is, as soon as they got big enough, they got a loan from the Queensland Government and then went to build factories in Tennessee.

Gene Tunny  38:17

Is that right? Is that a good use of taxpayers’ money?

Brendan Markey-Towler  38:21

Well, I’m completely agnostic on that. So, that’s what’s that number is reflecting. Similarly, construction,  this runs a bit counter to the crane index that we’re seeing in the city at the moment, but construction has been adding less and less to the economy. It’s not just large construction projects, but construction is declining as a share of GDP. 

Gene Tunny  38:48

Well, I’ll have to look at this. But I think what could be explained is 10 years ago, we had that massive project up in Gladstone at Curtis Island where we built the three LNG terminals or what are they? Refrigeration or liquification facilities. They turn the methane that comes from the coal field, the coal seams to liquefy it so, they can put it on a boat economically and ship it to Japan or Korea. And that was like $70 billion.

And it basically doubled the level of capital expenditure in Queensland at the time. It’s absolutely extraordinary.

Brendan Markey-Towler  39:31

There’s a huge effort on part of government corporations to get that going. 

Gene Tunny  39:35

And then in the southern states, maybe a few years later, I can’t remember the time; we had that big apartment construction boom. So, that could be explained. I’ll have to look at the data but go on. 

Brendan Markey-Towler  39:48

And that’s what’s really good about the national accounts is kind of counter to what you’re seeing if you’re walking around, particularly, Brisbane at the moment. The number of cranes in the sky is astounding, but this is why statistics are important because what’s local loss to a particular area is not necessarily true of the entire country. And what’s even true of a particular sector of construction, residential construction, government construction is not necessarily true, it might mean that we’re not building that many mines, which ties into the second point, which is, although it has declined in volumetric terms, the mining sector is still the single biggest contributor to Australian real GDP. And it’s not close, it’s way up; I forget the exact number, but it’s well up towards 10% of the entire Australian economy value added is produced by the mining sector. 

So, that’s, you know, digging stuff out of the ground, selling it to various countries around the world.. Behind that really interesting sector is, is the rental sector. So, a lot of value added in the Australian economy. It’s the only sector that holds candle to mining is the rental sector where people are building houses and renting them.

Gene Tunny  41:03

Okay. So, when you analyzed that, did you look at the industry, is it rental services? Or did you look at what’s in the national accounts as; there’s rental income, isn’t there? What do they call it? Trying to remember what the label is in the national accounts, but they impute rent for owner occupied dwellings as well, in that sector. If I remember correctly.

Brendan Markey-Towler  41:29

Rental services. I’m pretty sure is the exact name of the sector.

Gene Tunny  41:33

Looking at it by industry. Okay. Yeah.

Brendan Markey-Towler  41:36

So, that’s an important point, right? Because rent to also shows up as an income segment as well. Not nearly as big there. But the value add is quite large. And so that’s saying, you know, the Australian economy is very much one that is dominated at the moment, by digging stuff up out of the ground, and then sending it offshore, and providing housing for people. Those are the two biggest sectors of the Australian economy. And then, finally, the very long-term trend, we come to the third part of that bond ma that you so ably quaffed, which is, surprisingly, the sectors that are growing fastest as a share of the Australian economy are; you’ll have to double check me on this, but I’m pretty sure it’s called health care and social assistance.. And professional scientific and technical services. Those have gone quite strongly over the last few years as a share of GDP. 

Scientific and Technical Services is obvious enough, right? That’s the IT department and you know, the lab.

Gene Tunny  42:45

There’s professional too. 

Brendan Markey-Towler  42:49

Yeah. Professional Services is the big one. So, this is your consultancy lawyers. So on and so forth, right. It’s Eagle street, the consulting firms along Eagle street.

Gene Tunny  42:58

Where we are in Brisbane, in the top end of town, would you call it the big end of town? You’re sitting in water from place to the moment and the offices of Hopko Gannon, thanks, again for allowing us to use.

Brendan Markey-Towler  43:13

And so this area is growing really strong. I forget where the legal services are counted among professional service.

Gene Tunny  43:18

But I think I would be Yeah, sure.

Brendan Markey-Towler  43:21

They might be under administration, administrative services. But professional, scientific and technical services, basically, scientific and technical can kind of be in house. But a huge majority of that professional services is consulting, right? So, Australia is doing a lot more consulting as a share of GDP.

Gene Tunny  43:40

And this is business to business, typically? Business-to-business consulting services or business to government.

Brendan Markey-Towler  43:47

Business to government is the big one, especially here in Queensland right now. That’s not backed by a number. But that’s you know, that’s kind of;

Gene Tunny  43:58

There are numbers for the Australian Government. I’ll put them in the show notes, because I looked at what the Australian government has spent on the Big Four consulting firms like KPMG and PwC. And it’s hundreds of millions a year, right? It’s big money. 

Brendan Markey-Towler  44:12

And then, you go step below and the state governments will probably be even bigger again, because every consulting project by the Department of Public Works now gets a cut benefit cost analysis written by one of the big firms, right. So, just because of the procurement rules around that, so professional, scientific and technical services really growing as a segment of GDP, but also health care and social assistance. And so that I would posit is really a reflection of the ageing population. Ageing population, you need more health care and social assistance, certainly. That sector is growing very strongly – aged care.

Gene Tunny  44:49

Yeah. Which is NDIS too, the National Disability Insurance Scheme.

Brendan Markey-Towler  44:53

Absolutely massive, huge boom. You throw a stone in Brisbane and you hit NDIS provider, which is really not good, you shouldn’t do that because that’s naughty. And that getting on the back of Yeah, health departments are in Queensland; Queensland Health is the largest single employer in the state. That’s a massive sector. It’s a $20 billion in the state budget. That’s a big number, right? And we’re always trying to spend more on it. So, very big sector that. So, those are the two real growth sectors in the Australian economy. And again, I should stress by volumetric measures, right? So, notice that that kind of cuts against the mining booms like us, and that goes to the difference between real and nominal GDP. Real being a volumetric thing where we’re trying to hold prices constant, and the reason we do that is because nominal GDP could be growing because the actual underlying productive capacity of the economy is growing, or because inflation is growing. And real GDP tries to say, what’s the underlying volumetric productive capacity of the economy? How’s that growing and contracting. And in that measure, you really see the big growth sectors, mining is actually declining as a volumetric share of GDP as a share of real GDP, but it’s still the biggest by far professional, scientific and technical services, and healthcare and social assistance really, really growing. Yeah, that’s where the saying, that’s where my little trite way of putting it came from. Australia is less and less a country that makes things and build things. It’s still very much a country that digs stuff out of the ground and provides housing, but it’s more and more something of a white collar economy.

Gene Tunny  46:43

Oh, yeah. It’s postindustrial. We’re moving more to services. Yeah.

Brendan Markey-Towler  46:49

Natural I mean, with the natural resources sector.

Gene Tunny  46:52

Yeah. that’s right. And I mean, because the world wants to buy our resources. And for the last year or so, they’ve been paying ridiculously high prices for them. It’s an open question over whether we want to sell it. Right. Well, yes. I mean, there’s the big issues there of course that we don’t have time for.

You’ve been very generous with your time, Brendan

Brendan Markey-Towler  47:22

You are very generous letting me on the podcast to talk to people again, Gene.

Gene Tunny  47:27

You’re a great talker. Always enjoy having you on.

Brendan Markey-Towler  47:30

Even with the bruised throat? Like I told you, I could talk through a wet cement.

Gene Tunny  47:35

Very good. So, any final points before we wrap up?

Brendan Markey-Towler  47:39

No, it just ends up on I ended up with the note of circling back to where we started, which is don’t underestimate the national accounts. They’re a really, really, really interesting data set. They give us such a rich view. We didn’t even talk tonight about how in Australia, they break down by state as well, so, we can get an even richer view of how the different states are doing because you know, Australian economy tracker – my blog.

Gene Tunny  48:06

Okay, right. On Sub stack, is it?.

Brendan Markey-Towler  48:09

Yeah, on Sub stack. Please subscribe and contribute to the Markey-Towler retirement fund. It’s founded on two points, which is that one, the perfect graph says more than a doctoral thesis and two, there’s no such thing as an Australian economy. There’s actually six different city state economies and two territories. So, the national accounts in Australia are amazing, not just because of the depth of analysis, they allow us on the supply side of the economy, but on the demand side as well. We get some really, really rich version. So, a plug to remember has to diehard nerds who didn’t have friends at school, but now we have the national accounts.

Gene Tunny  48:53

I’m sure you had friends at school, Brendan. Brendan Markey-Towler, that’s been terrific. I really enjoyed talking to you about the national accounts. 

Brendan Markey-Towler  

I really enjoyed talking to you, Gene. Thanks for having me. 

Gene Tunny  

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 contact@economicsexplored.com and we’ll aim to address them in a future episode. Thanks for listening. Till next week, goodbye.

Credits

Thanks to Josh Crotts for mixing the episode and to the show’s sponsor, Gene’s consultancy business www.adepteconomics.com.auPlease consider signing up to receive our email updates and to access our e-book Top Ten Insights from Economics at www.economicsexplored.com. Also, please get in touch with any questions, comments and suggestions by emailing us at contact@economicsexplored.com or sending a voice message via https://www.speakpipe.com/economicsexplored. Economics Explored is available via Apple PodcastsGoogle Podcast, and other podcasting platforms.

Categories
Podcast episode

ROI of education: how economists estimate it + US economic update – EP152

Do you get a return on investment if you get a university or college degree? Does the taxpayer get an ROI for any subsidies provided? Economics Explored host Gene Tunny discusses how economists crunch the numbers on the ROI of education with his colleague Arturo Espinoza. Gene also gives an update on the US economy, covering the strong jobs growth figure for July 2022 among other indicators.  

You can listen to the episode via the embedded player below or via podcasting apps including Google PodcastsApple PodcastsSpotify, and Stitcher.

Links relevant to the conversation:

Macrobond charts and commentary on the US economy (PDF)

Sheepskin effect (Wikipedia)

Estimating the return to schooling using the Mincer equation by Harry Anthony Patrinos, World Bank and Georgetown University (PDF)

Evaluating the Return on Investment in Higher Education: An Assessment of Individual- and State-Level Returns by Kristin Blagg and Erica Blom, Urban Institute

Reassessing the College Wage Premium Payoff by Jack Salmon, Mercatus Center, George Mason University

Rich Roll’s podcast

Graduate Winners: Assessing the public and private benefits of higher education by Andrew Norton

Estimating the public and private benefits of higher education report from Deloitte Access Economics

Median weekly hours data by qualification for Australia (Australian Bureau of Statistics)

Transcript: ROI of education: how economists estimate it + US economic update – EP152

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.

Arturo Espinoza Bocangel  00:04

The mincer equation suggests that each additional year of education produces a private rate of return to schooling about five to 8% per year.

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 152 on  the Return on Investment in Education. Joining me is my Adept Economics colleague, Arturo Espinosa. Arturo, good to be chatting with you. 

Arturo Espinoza Bocangel  0_00:00:41_

Hey, Gene, it’s my pleasure to be here. 

Gene Tunny  0_00:00:44_

Excellent, Arturo. So, today, what I’d like to talk about is the return on investment in education. So, whether it makes sense for people or rather the typical person to go to university or college. So, we’re talking about the typical person rather than a Bill Gates or Steve Jobs who dropped out of a top university and ended up founding a billion-dollar company, despite that. There are always going to be exceptional individuals who can thrive even if they don’t finish university. So, we’re not necessarily talking about them. Okay. 

We’re talking about the relationship between education and earnings and GDP at that population, or the whole economy level or for the average rather than specific individuals. And this is based on a question that came from one of my listeners – Dave, and he asked what I thought about this issue. Can economists demonstrate whether there is a return on investment in education? So, I thought this would be a good topic to cover on the show. So, if you’re happy to chat about it, we can get stuck into that a bit later. Okay. 

The first thing I want to do though, is I just want to go over this issue of what’s happening in the US again. So, I published an episode last week on US recession; is the US in recession or not? There’s a big debate about it. And the funny thing was, just as I was about to publish it, the Bureau, I think it was Bureau of Labor statistics released the new jobs figures, and they were strong. And that has really changed people’s views on how the US economy is going. It lends support to the view that the US is probably not in a recession at the moment. So, that came out just before I published it. And I thought, Okay, well, I’ll publish it, I’ve got the episode ready. I’ll cover this in the next episode, because it’s an important update. 

And this new report showed that; and this is according to the Guardian, and their quote in the actual data. So, it’s right. The US added 528,000 jobs in July, the jobs market return to pre pandemic levels, the US has now added 22 million jobs since reaching a low in April 2020. Unemployment rate dipped to three and a half percent. Okay. So, this has meant that the talk about the US recession that’s died down a bit, because this jobs report was so good. And just today, we’ve learned about new inflation data in the US that so it looks like inflation on a monthly basis is much lower. So, that’s suggesting to some economists that maybe the Fed doesn’t have to hike rates as much as was previously expected. And therefore, there may be less risk of the US going into a recession because of what the Federal Reserve’s doing. Of course, these are month monthly data. And I one thing I always caution about monthly data is you don’t want to read too much into month-to-month changes, because there could be statistical error; statistical noise in the data. And you can be misled by that. So, you want to look at things over, over many more months than that. So, that’s the one thing I’d say about that. 

It just goes to show how difficult it is to forecast or even to understand even to nowcast, even to understand where the economy is at the moment. And there’s a big debate still about what’s happening in the US. I received a great note from the macro data service that we subscribe to here, in Adept Economics. They said that’s macro bond. And they’ve looked at a range of data they sent out a great note on this. I’ll put a link in the show notes. And they’ve looked at the various indicators that the NBER, the National Bureau of Economic Research; what it looks at when it calls the business cycle in the state It’s and it’s not just GDP. It’s things like well, nonfarm payroll employment, personal consumption expenditures, real industrial production, real manufacturing and trade sales, real personal income, excluding current transfer receipts. And there’s a chart that they have there that shows that if you compare those indicators; these six major indicators with where they were earlier in the year, in January, most of them are still above where they were, except for real manufacturing, and trade sales in this chart here. So, I’ll put that chart in the show notes or a link to that so, you can see that. 

But what that’s telling us is that some indicators are suggesting there could be a downturn, others aren’t necessarily suggesting that. And the jobs market data, as we noted before, are incredibly strong. On the jobs market, on the labour market, I do have to note that the very high rates of job openings that they’ve had, so the jobs that are available, that is starting to come off from the very high level. So, there’s a chart that macro bond has produced from the job openings and labour turnover survey, and we had numbers up around 12 million, so 12 million vacancies, 12 million vacant jobs, and that’s fallen to below 11 million now, if I’m reading that chart correctly. Still, much higher than it was pre pandemic. So, it looks like there’s still very strong labour demand in the States, but it is coming off. 

Okay, so what do we make of this? It’s all a bit of a confusing picture. It’s probably too soon to tell whether the US is in recession or will go into recession. That said, I think Janet Yellen, the Treasury Secretary did make a risky call when she was so adamant that the US isn’t in one at the moment, because there’s always a chance that the economy could react badly or households could really react badly to these interest rate increases to try to control inflation, and then you do end up in a downturn. And then, months later, Janet Yellen is having to apologise for that, because she spoke too soon. 

Okay, so the main topic is going to be return on investment in education. So, we’ll get on to that now. And there are some big questions around this issue of the return on investment in education. So, what are those big questions? Okay. One, does it make sense for individuals? So, for people to go to college or university. 

Okay, now, there’s a general expectation or a general view that, you’ve got to finish high school, right? I think all the data suggests, you’ve got to finish high school, there are big returns to finishing high school. If you don’t finish high school, then your career prospects are limited, you’re going to end up in minimum wage jobs for the rest of your life. So, we know that completing high school is a positive thing. And therefore, state governments and school boards around the world fund secondary education. 

There’s a bit of a question now about well, what about tertiary education? And does it make sense for individuals to go to the tertiary education? And this is a question that economists are well placed to answer because it’s a question about the return on investment, isn’t it, Arturo? It’s a question of what you’re doing is there’s a tradeoff there. I mean, you’re sacrificing earnings that you could make today; you’re forgoing some earnings by going to college or university, rather than going straight into the workforce or working full time, you could have a part time job, of course, you’re spending all of this time. So, there’s an opportunity, cost of your time, three or four years in university or even more if you want to be a doctor, and then that’s in the hope of having higher earnings over your lifetime. So, you’ve got to think about well, does that make sense as an investment? Does it makes sense to make that investment? Now, those foregone earnings, any tuition fees, you may have to pay? Or loans you have to take out and then pay back? Do you get compensated for that through your lifetime from higher earnings? I mean, the general answer, the broad answer is yes. I mean, if you look at the data, people with higher education degrees, earn more on average than those without; we know that. We’ll go over some figures a bit later in this episode. We’ll look at some of the studies. So, we know that occurs, the question is, does that compensate you enough for the cost of the tuition and also the foregone earnings? So that’s the basic economic question, isn’t it?

Arturo Espinoza Bocangel  10:11

Yes, definitely. Yes. Individually, you will face that important decision between, okay, if I study one additional year, how much I will receive as a return. For example, in my case, I study Economics in Peru, then I was there around five years, and then I decided to study overseas. And I choose to study Mastering Economics and Public Policy here in Australia, because at that moment, I expected to receive or a higher return for those years of education. That was a purely economic decision. So, that’s why I’m here now in Australia after finishing my Masters, and now I am working with you.

Gene Tunny  11:10

Very good. Yes, yes. I think what you find too with students who come from overseas to either Australia or to United States or UK, I mean, there’s also a benefit from coming to an economy with higher productivity on average or higher earnings. So, there’s certainly a benefit there, that helps out too, and also, there can be benefits to some people, because if you get permanent residency or citizenship in a country, that can be a great benefit to people to, of course. 

Now, we’ve been talking about financial benefits. One thing I should acknowledge, because I know if you’re, you know, some people might bring it up in the audience, because it is a point that does get made from time to time. It’s this point that they are going to be non-financial returns to tertiary education. Okay. I mean, university is one of the best, the some of the best years of your life, really. I mean, if you get involved in various activities at uni., you make great friends. I mean, you could join a debating society, various other clubs, you make friends for life, interesting people, a great conversation. So, there are all of these non-pecuniary returns as well. But we’re not factoring those into this discussion, because you can’t really measure those. 

So, we’re talking about does it make sense for individuals to go to college? And yes, economists can attempt to estimate this, given the available data. And the way they do this is through these mincer earnings regressions. Now, I’m going to ask you about those a bit later, because you’ve been looking at that. And that’s after Jacob Mensa, who is a Professor of Economics at Columbia University in New York City. The studies of the returns to education, they’ve been helped out a lot by just the great data sets we have now in many countries. However, in Australia, we have this Hilda survey, this household income and labor dynamics Australia survey, which is a longitudinal survey. So, it’s panel data, you’re tracking individuals over time. In the US, there’s the Panel Study of Income Dynamics, which is the gold standard panel data, set or longitudinal data set, and that’s what the Hilda was trying to replicate.

So, one big question is does it make sense for individuals to go to college? And then, I think the other big question is, does it make sense for the government to subsidize college investment? University investment, to subsidize tuition to an extent. And what we find is that, I would say in most of the OECD economies, or in most of the advanced economies, there are very substantial subsidies to higher education in Europe and the UK, in Australia, although it’s a mixture here. I mean, we’ve got an income contingent loan scheme, which was called HECS I think now it’s called help, but it’s the higher education loans program whereby there’s some subsidy for your tuition, but the rest of it you effectively borrow from the government and you have to pay it back through the tax system. So, this HECS/help system okay. You’ve heard of that, haven’t you?

Arturo Espinoza Bocangel  14:36

Yes, I heard something about it, yeah.

Gene Tunny  14:39

So, in the 70s, the government at the time, the Whitlam government, I think you helped me out on a presentation we were looking at that; just the changes that came in during that government in the 70s. It made university education free, and that led to the Commonwealth would just subsidize the whole cost of course. And that led to a big increase in tertiary education. But by the late 80s, it was clear that that was very expensive, and that they had to introduce this HEC scheme as Higher Education Contribution Scheme where people would contribute when their income got over a certain level. So, it’s an income contingent loan. And this was something that was designed by Bruce Chapman who was an economist today. 

Initially, the amount of HECS you had to repay was pretty low, I hardly had to pay anything back when I went through in the 90s. But over the years, it’s become a bit more substantial. But still, there is a very generous subsidy from the Australian Government to higher education here in Australia. I think there’s some support in the states in the US, depending on what sort of college you go to. There are state colleges, there’s state university system saying California, there’re student loans you can get, there are scholarships; I think there are more private scholarships in the US than there are here in Australia. But generally, there’s less public support, less public subsidy for university or college education in the US than there is an Australia. We’re not as generous here in Australia as they are in the UK, or in the continental Europe, in France or Germany.

Arturo Espinoza Bocangel  16:28

What about those developing countries, like Peru, and Chile? I know that those ones are still providing scholarships to study overseas. So, they tend to promote national student to study around the world in order to enhance their knowledge and then come back.

Gene Tunny  16:56

Yeah, yes. Yeah. I’m not an expert on that, Arturo but yeah, if actually, we probably should look at what’s happening in some of those other countries, in Latin America sometime that would be interesting. Okay. 

Okay, we’ll take a short break here for a word from our sponsor.

Female speaker  17:16

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Gene Tunny  17:45

Now back to the show. 

So, they’re the big question. Are there returns to individuals to go to college? Does it make sense for the government to subsidize college? And look, there’s another, there is another question that sometimes comes up, but it’s not one we’re going to explore in great detail on this episode. Have you heard of this sheepskin effect?

Arturo Espinoza Bocangel  18:12

Gene, more or less, yes, yeah.

Gene Tunny  18:14

So there’s this idea; there’s this effect called the sheepskin effect. It’s named after the fact that, I think once upon a time, university degrees, so if you got it from Oxford, or Cambridge, or Harvard or Yale back in the, the 18th century, or whenever or 19th century, your degree was on sheepskin. So, I think that’s where it comes from. But there are some economists who have speculated that if you look at the average earnings of people who complete year 12, or finish school, or finish a university degree, versus those people who nearly finished it or similarly experienced or similarly clever, or whatever as the people who actually did get the degree or the diploma than the people who got the degree or the diploma, get an extra benefit, it looks like they get a boost in their earnings relative to those people who look very similar other than the fact that they just didn’t get a qualification. 

So, there’s this view that, well, there’s this sheepskin effect. And some economists have speculated that that means that a lot of education is just sorting, it’s just figuring out who are the highly productive people that doesn’t actually confer much of a productivity benefit itself. All it is, is it’s signaling, it’s signaling that these people are high quality individuals. And that’s what the benefit of that education is. Yeah, I mean, one of the prominent economists associated with that view is Brian Kaplan. He wrote a book – The Case Against Education for Princeton University Press he’s associated with, might be George Mason, I better get that right. I’ll check and put it in the show notes, but he’s often on Ross Roberts’s podcast – Economics, or Econ Talk, I mean. He’s quite prominent in making in expressing that view. 

I’ll put some links regarding that sheepskin effect. I’d like to think that a lot of the benefit from education is certainly it is from lifting your productivity or making you think critically, I mean, as a former university teacher, and as you are, I mean, you’re doing some tutoring there, you would like to think that most of the benefit that you see in terms of higher earnings of university graduates is related in some way to what they learn or the development of critical thinking skills at university. 

Okay. So, just note that as a bit of a caveat or a qualification on what we’re talking about today, and maybe we’ll come back and look at it in a future episode. Any of these topics, Arturo, anything in economics; there’s just so much you could talk about, there’s so many studies, so many different perspectives, we just have to limit it to what we’re looking at today. 

Okay, so you found an interesting study on the return on investment in education. It’s a Cross Country Study, is it? Can you tell us about that. 

Arturo Espinoza Bocangel  21:25

It’s a very interesting study, and the author is Harry Anthony Patrinos, he’s an advisor from the World Bank. And he also specialized in the Economics of Education, particularly the return to school in school based management, demand side financing and public-private partnerships. So, his study, which is related to the return to school in using the mincer equation. Basically, he highlights that the mincer equation suggests that each additional year of education produces a private rate of return to schooling, about 5 to 8% per year.

Gene Tunny  22:11

That’s a real rate of return, is it? And so, that would mean, it’s a relatively good investment. If you think about what’s the cost of borrowing or what’s the opportunity costs.

Arturo Espinoza Bocangel  22:24

With the current fee for example of inflation, that is not going to be a good value. 

Gene Tunny  22:32

But is that a real return? I think it wouldn’t it be.

Arturo Espinoza Bocangel  22:34

It could be, but I’m not sure.

Gene Tunny  22:37

Okay, I will check that and put it in the show notes. How does he interpret it? Does he interpret that as a positive? Is he saying that it suggests that education does yield a good return?

Arturo Espinoza Bocangel  22:49

He’s positive. That is the main message that another important findings related around the world. So, in general terms, the returns to tertiary education are the highest. So, that mean that people who will study university level or trying to get a university degree, they will get a higher rate of return.

Gene Tunny  23:19

So, there are big gains from going to university then. So, he’s looked at all around the world, has he?

Arturo Espinoza Bocangel  23:26

Yes. it’s like considering most of the countries. Yep.

Gene Tunny  23:33

And has he just reviewed existing studies? Or has he done his own data analysis?

Arturo Espinoza Bocangel  23:38

It’s he’s own analysis. 

Gene Tunny  23:41

Okay. Oh good. Well, I’ll put a link to that in the show notes so people can check that out. Generally, that makes sense, right? I mean, there are various studies that show there is a positive and a reasonably good return on investment, private return on investment for education for university or college education. And you talked about the mincer equation. So, what that’s trying to do, you’ve got this statistical equation, econometric equation where you’re getting data on earnings of individuals, is that right? And then, you’re looking at the different characteristics of those individuals, their sex, their age, their years of experience; whether they’ve got a qualification on all the things that you think could influence their earnings, and then you’re testing whether the contribution or whether there’s a statistically significant relationship between having a degree and your earnings and what’s that contribution, what’s the uplift to earnings from that degree, is that right?

Arturo Espinoza Bocangel  24:47

Yes, that’s right. That means your equation estimate the average impact on one additional year of education on the wage. Yeah.

Gene Tunny  24:56

Okay. So, then you could also use to determine whether; can you use it to determine whether a qualification, university education helps gives you an uplift?

Arturo Espinoza Bocangel  25:10

Gerry’s methodology when you use categorical variables.

Gene Tunny  25:16

Okay, categorical variable, okay, good.. So, you could you could determine that. I mean, there are a wide variety of ways to do this; many ways to skin a cat, probably many ways to specify the variables in a mincer earnings regression. Okay, so that’s that study that you mentioned. We’ll put a link in the show notes to that. 

I’ve had a look at some studies from the States and from Australia. And for the US, I’ve looked at this; there’s this great briefing note that’s come out of the Urban Institute. And that’s a leading think tank in Washington, DC. It’s not particularly partisan. As far as I can tell. I think they do good work. I’ve had one of their people on my show in the past. Steve Rosenthal is a tax policy expert. And we talked about all of the various tax loopholes there are in the in the US. So, this paper from the Urban Institute that I think is really good is called Evaluating the Return on Investment in Higher Education: An assessment of individual and state level returns by Christian Blag and Erica Blom. So, they’re looking at does it make sense for individuals, for private people to go to college? Does it make sense for the state government in the relevant state government in the US. I think, because state governments have a big role in the provision of the college or they’ve got their own state-based university systems. 

Here in Australia. Even the, even though the universities have been set up under state acts of parliament, typically, so there’s a University of Queensland act here in Queensland, there’d be a University of Sydney act in New South Wales. Even though that’s the case, the federal government has largely taken over university, so the funding of universities and administration of them or the policy settings for universities. 

So, what this Urban Institute study finds or rather a review, and they do do some number crunching themselves, I should note. So, they find that, for most an investment in higher education yields a substantial economic and personal return, but this investment may not pan out for some students. okay, so we’re talking about students on average, or the majority of students; some people can obviously go to uni., and you know, maybe they have some bad luck. Or maybe they study something that’s not really in demand. So, we’ll talk about that a bit later. Because we’re economists we know that supply and demand is everything, ultimately, okay. And there are big differences in returns for different fields, and also between the level of the degree. So, they go, a bachelor’s degree recipient will typically have higher earnings than an associate’s degree recipient, and a Harvard graduate will likely earn more than a graduate from a nonselective four-year school. However, the relationship between the students selected degree level major and institution can be complex, in some degree major scenarios may not pay off until later in life or ever. Right. Okay. 

Now, in that Urban Institute paper, they present some return-on-investment estimates. So, what economists call internal rate of return, which is a yield – an investment yield. So, what’s the rate of return you get on that investment? And so, they find, like, depending, and I’ll put a link to it in the show45 notes, but depending on the degree area, and depending on the level, it differs. So, business management looks pretty good. So, if you go to a private, not for profit, four year college and you do business management, you’ll get an 18% return on investment. The way to think about that is well think about, if you made an investment in the stock market, and you were getting, I don’t know, 7 or 8% or whatever, even less a year. And that’s not what you’d compare with that business management, that yield of 18%. Now, if they’ve calculated that properly, that should be a real rate of return. So, that’s a very good real rate of return, 18%.

So, business management, good stuff. I mean, we’re economists, so we’d probably fall in business management, unless we’re in social and behavioral sciences. Those rates of return are a little bit lower, humanities a bit lower too. Life sciences here are in your near calculations; they have relative well, much lower rates of return. So, 9% compared with the 18%, for business management, the worst here looks to be education at 7%. And yes, so education seems to be less lucrative than these other fields.

I’ll put the link in the show notes to that so you can check that out. 

There are various studies of the returns on investment to different fields, and it’s going to depend on your country and depends on supply and demand too. I mean, if you’re in the US, for example, and you get an IT degree, or you specialize in artificial intelligence, or whatever the latest hot thing is, or data science, and you’re probably going to get a higher return on investment, because there’s a big demand for that sort of thing at the moment.

So, the Urban Institute paper moves on to talk about the return to the state government, whether it makes sense to have subsidies for tuition. And look, they just, we don’t really know as to how to work out. There are so many things to consider. You get additional tax revenue being; one of the big gains that governments get from subsidizing higher education is that if you get people more educated, more productive, they’re going to earn more, they’re going to pay more tax. And the way that; this is particularly the case in Australia because of the progressive nature of our tax system. So, as you earn more, you go your higher tax bracket, your marginal tax rate increases. So, there’s a big benefit to government. And we’ll talk about that a bit later. 

I think, in the States, there is still a benefit to the state governments and they would be to the federal government, I think it’s probably less than what it would be in Australia. And one of the things that makes this so challenging is its tax, but it’s also the fact that the government could save money in other ways, too. There could be lower crime with if people are better educated, and then you don’t spend much on crime. There could be less spending on social services, on your transfer payments for those people. Well, we know that if you’re more educated, you’re less likely to become unemployed, you’re probably less likely to need unemployment assistance. Yes, that’s true. And you could also be healthier too. And you could save; I think there there’s some evidence that people who are better educated are healthier, in fact, I think they work out more. 

Now, once upon a time, if you had a manual job, you would be fitter and healthier than someone who didn’t. This back in, I don’t know, early 20th century or something. But what’s happened? Nowadays, if you’re more educated, you’re more likely to work as a professional, then you’re probably more likely to go to a gym and go cycling, go swimming, than someone who isn’t.

Arturo Espinoza Bocangel  33:09

I know that there’re a lot of paper related to if you’re more educated, you will consume healthy foods. 

Gene Tunny  33:19

That’s true. You’ll consume healthy foods and you probably don’t consume as many; you don’t have the unhealthy stuff. You probably don’t drink as much. You’re not having a beer after work every day. Yeah. 

Not that I’m saying everyone’s doing that, we’re talking about averages. Because there’s certainly going to be, well, people who are highly educated, successful who are alcoholics right? And who have to sort themselves out. Rich Roll was a good example of that. Rich Roll is an ultra-endurance athlete. He’s got a great podcast. And he’s in California is in Malibu, and like, he talks about how he was, he’s a Stanford Law graduate, sort of a college swimming champion. And he was a lawyer, highly successful, but just drinking too much. partying too much, and it just caught up with him and he had to have a complete change of lifestyle and, and go to Alcoholics Anonymous, his story’s incredible. So, if you’re in the audience, and you’re interested in that, I’ll yeah, I’ll put a link to Rich Roll’s podcast because he’s fascinating. Okay. 

The other thing to think about with the public return to education is spillover benefits, or the fact that if you have a more educated population, then that lifts other people up too. It’s sort of like that whole rising tide lifts all boats, or maybe that’s not the right analogy. But essentially, you If you’ve got more educated people in the workforce and other people can learn off them. And also, it can lead to greater innovation. And there are spillover benefits from innovation. So, more educated people, more creative people, they can solve problems, they can innovate and develop new products. And that provides a benefit. 

And in that Urban Institute paper, they talk about some study by Moretti. So, a 1% increase in the supply of college graduates raises the wages of high school dropouts. 1.9%. Okay. Who knows? I’d have to look closely at that study to see whether that’s plausible. There’s probably an effect is possibly it’s probably not that high. And the Urban Institute paper acknowledges that there was a paper from Smo, Lu and Angrist, 2000, that finds smaller spillover effects, I’ll have to look at how what the magnitude of that is. 

The general point is that there’s going to be some spillover benefit, or some benefit that’s wider than just the benefit to you, the benefit to the government through the taxpayers, through higher educated people paying more taxes. That’s difficult to measure, positive, but just very difficult to measure. Right. 

So, what they say, in conclusion, is that; we can’t work it out. There’s a benefit to the state governments as a benefit to the public, we can’t really work it out. So, we can’t tell you whether, on average, it’s the state gets a return on investment. 

Now, we can for Australia. There’s some good evidence in Australia that there is a return on investment, not just to the individual, but to the government as well, which I’ll go over a bit later. Before we move on to Australia. I just want to talk about the trend over time. There’s a lot of discussion about whether the college wage premium in the states, what they call the college wage premium, whether that has stagnated. And there’s a note that I’ll link to from Jack Salmon, who’s a research associate at Makeda Centre at George Mason University. So, there are some big names at George Mason people like Tyler Cowen, and he’s got a great podcast. And he’s one of those renaissance man, just talks about everything; brilliant guy,  and also the host of Macro Musings, David Beckworth is there too, he’s at Makeda center. 

And what Jack Salman writes is that he talks about; there’s been a stagnation in the college wage premium over the last 15 years. And the problem, and this is an issue for the future. So, generally, college has been a great investment in the States, but it’s becoming less, so as the cost of going to college has risen. So, what he’s saying is that this college wage premiums remained flat. So, the uplift you get in your earnings, but at the same time over that 15-year period, the cost of college has grown by more than 50%. So, the cost of college is just growing massively. And when I’m not sure why that is, but I mean, it could be, I guess it’s your input costs, isn’t it? It’s the cost of skilled labor to do the teaching. It’s the whole Bowmore cost disease thing that we know about.

Arturo Espinoza Bocangel  38:35

Inflation too.

Gene Tunny  38:37

I guess what they’re saying is that it’s higher in other sectors of the economy, it’s higher in higher education. And perhaps it’s you know, it’s sort of, I guess, the fancy facilities that they need to provide nowadays, the, the theatres and stadiums, etc. 

He’s just highlighting that, look, there’s this issue, there’s this growing issue that it could mean that for many people, it doesn’t pay off. But generally, it’s been a good investment but your individual returns may differ from the average. So, if you’re looking at making the decision whether to go to college or not, it’s got to make sense for you. 

Nowadays, I mean, I think there are a lot more there probably, a lot of opportunities to make money outside of university or college more than there were once upon a time. I mean, I’d still recommend people go to university, but when you think about all the opportunities; there are freelancing, opportunities to teach yourself via online courses, opportunities to then make money from freelancing or if you’re really good, and you’ve got a huge audience, you could become a YouTube star. I mean, that’s a very limited number of people though, so maybe that’s not a legitimate career, aspiration or strategy. 

I mean, what do you think, Arturo, do you think generally University is a good idea?

Arturo Espinoza Bocangel  40:00

I think in general education, for example, there are some technical education also. If our society may have higher population, or highly educated population in relative terms is going to bring positive externalities. Or whole the society, I’ve seen that this is always education is, I think the best option.

Gene Tunny  40:38

Right? So, you’re talking about externalities. So, these are the external benefits beyond the returns to the individual. Are you talking about things like lower crime. I mean, what other things you’re talking about? Are there no cultural improvements? I don’t know. I mean, yeah, I guess there is a view that having a more educated population does have wider benefits than just to the individual. I mean, greater and more knowledgeable society, right? More informed public debate. So, we would hope that our political leaders make that decision. 

Okay. I think that’s a good observation. So, before we wrap up, we might better cover the Australian evidence. The two studies; and I’ll link to them in the show notes, I found that are relevant to this is there’s a study by Deloitte Access Economics, and there’s one by the Grattan Institute. The Deloitte one was from 2016. And it found that on average, 52% of the observed differences in earnings between bachelor degree holders, and those without any post school education, can be attributed to qualification effects rather than demographics or innate ability. Okay, so they’re finding that, there’s some self-selection of high performing individuals into bachelor’s degrees. So, some people are more conscientious and productive are going to study, they’re going to do that anyway, rather than go into the workforce full time early. So, some of the difference in average earnings between bachelor degrees and people who don’t have them, that’s going to be due to the fact that, yeah, they’re just more conscientious or they’re harder working. 

But then, what Deloitte saying is that they’ve done some econometric analysis, and they’ve concluded that half of that gap, or that difference, half of the higher earnings is due to having the bachelor degree, so, the university education. 

Now, one thing I should have checked was, what are the data tell us about average earnings of bachelor’s versus not having any post school, I’ve got the figures over a lifetime, we’ll talk about later. But I have to look at that. But if you think about it, I mean, if you’re on minimum wage here in Australia, and that’s probably what you’d be on, if you don’t get a higher education degree, you would be getting maybe 40 to 50k, if you’re full time. Okay, so the national minimum wage is 812 60 per week. So, what does that equate to over the year? Yep, so that’s, that’s 42,255 over the year, so I was sort of in the ballpark, which is good. And if you think about it, if you get a university degree, and you graduate, and you’ll get in, if you get into a graduate position, then you’re going to be at least in that 55 to $60,000 range. And then as you progress through the career, you’ll get up to 80 or 100, or even higher. So, yeah, there’s definitely an average difference in the averages for people with bachelor’s and not with bachelors with no post school. So, I’ll put a link to ABS data on that so you can check that out. So, generally Deloitte find that it makes sense for individuals. It looks like it’s a good investment. 

So, we might talk about the final study that we’re going to consider today; it’s from 2012, but it’s a very good study. I think the findings probably still are relevant today. And it’s by Andrew Norton, who was at Grattan Institute at the time. I know Andrew quite well. He used to be at Centre for independent studies, which I’ve had a lot to do with here in Australia. And Andrew in his analysis concludes that graduates do well out of higher education. They have attractive jobs above average pay and status. They take interesting courses and enjoy student life. And that’s what I was talking about before those non-financial benefits. And then given these large benefits and with the help student loan scheme in place, that’s at higher education loan program. Most subsidies are for courses that students would take anyway. Benefits greatly outweigh the costs for most students and the minority of graduates who don’t win through higher income never pay for their degrees as a result of the help scheme. In effects, today’s tuition subsidies redistribute income toward graduates at the expense of the general public, particularly those who do not go to university. 

Okay, so the point of Andrew’s report back then was to argue that, people who go to university are doing incredibly well. So, therefore, the government should require them to contribute more of their income when they succeed later in life. And I think the government may have adjusted those repayments. I’ll have to check, but Andrew was essentially saying that back in 2012, the way that the policy settings were the rate of recovery of the money of this HELP loan, or the government wasn’t requiring you to pay enough of your education, there was there was a heavy subsidy. So, he’s saying they should cut that subsidy. That was back then. I mean, there’s still heavy subsidies now. But I haven’t seen this study replicated recently, just to see how extensive that is. There are big returns and he’s got these great data here, he’s got in one of the tables, table seven, median gross lifetime income by level of education. And let’s look at Niles; he’s got to split by male and female, it doesn’t have it for people, for everyone. So, year 12, if you get year 12, your median gross lifetime income is $1.7 million. But if you get a bachelor degree, it’s $2.8 million. So, the difference for a male between getting year 12, and a bachelor’s degree, if you get your bachelor’s degree, you earn $1.1 million; that’s Australian. So, if you’re in the States or somewhere else, just note that the Australian dollar sort of, averages around, I don’t know 75 US cents, okay. 

And for women, the difference is $800,000. That’s going to be partly because many women take time out of the workforce because they have children, and they’re the primary carer for children, or for sick or disabled relatives or elderly relatives.

So, that’s good that Andrews got those stats in there. Just bear in mind, that’s 2012. So, those numbers would be inflated now, because you’d have to adjust for inflation since then. 

One of the neat things that Andrew does is he calculates to what extent the government wins from having graduates because of their higher earnings and their higher tax paid. And this is his point that I think in Australia, because of the way our tax system works, it’s highly progressive. Then as people get higher education, they earn more, they become doctors or lawyers, or public servants, or economists or physiotherapist or whatever, then they’re paying more of their income in tax. And the government does extremely well out of that. And this is great. So, Andrew concludes it benefits. The net public financial benefits for the median graduate. Yeah, it’s strongly positive. Okay. So, for engineering, for example, you’ve got, you’ve got a net public financial benefit of $425,000. Over the lifetime, dentistry looks really good. If you’re a male dentist, you get; this is for the government net public financial benefits. So, it looks like it’s nearly 800 to 900,000 on that chart. Medicine, similarly. Law, a little bit lower, but still, you know, 700, 800,000. Commerce, bit over half a million. 

Quite substantial returns to the government. So, that’s to the government from just your medium graduate. So, if you think about, well, then there are the ones above that, and there’ll be contributing even more than that. But then as you go down the scale, the amounts decrease, but even so, even for education or nursing graduates, it’s still a $200,000 net public financial benefit. It gets lower as you go to agriculture. For males, it looks like it’s 150,000. For females, if they’ve studied agriculture, I don’t know, 50 to 100,000. Humanities, sort of around 100,000. On net still positive. 

The one field where there was a negative return and this is something that Andrew points out is performing arts. Performing arts graduates have a negative $40,000 net public financial benefit from studying. And he’s written that at least financially, the public would have been better off if the performing arts graduates never went to university. So, that is just going to reflect the types of people who study performing arts and then it’s going to be more creative people, and they’re going to be artists, and they’re going to have spills out of the workforce, or might be working in cafes, where they’re trying to get their big break. And it’s such a difficult thing to have a career in, really. I mean, it’s one of the things where, if you win, if you become Chris Hemsworth, or Margot Robbie, right, you’re going to be a superstar, you’re going to make millions of dollars, but most people who are in performing arts, they’re not in that league and so yeah. Okay, so that makes sense. 

And then, Andrew cites some studies of the rate of return, the yield, the internal rate of return on education in Australia, from people like Jeff Borland and others, and they generally show that the decision to attend university is financially sound in Andrew’s words. So, high internal rates of return on education investment, Jeff Balland found 12% for both genders. 15% for males 17% for females.

There was another study by Daly, et al. So, Daly and others, 2006: males 15% females 12%. Right. Overall, big returns from the going to university. And, you know, even though more people have gone through university in recent decades, at the same time, you’ve had this sort of skill biassed technical change, you’ve had a greater demand for universities that these graduates at the same time. So, even though in the states it looks like the college wage premium has stagnated, you still do have reasonably good returns to higher education; you do still in Australia. I think it’s probably for the average person or the average person looking at going to university, it’s sensible. It’s financially sound. I mean, I would certainly recommend it. And particularly being a former university teacher, and still having a connection with the University of Queensland and in various different ways. I’m sure you probably would too, Arturo recommend? Anything we missed anything we should cover in a future episode on return-on-investment education?

Arturo Espinoza Bocangel  52:41

Probably, the gap between female and male return? Yes. It’s quite notorious. How Australian male are receiving more or higher wages than female?

Gene Tunny  52:57

Well, we’ve covered that gender or talked about gender pay gap in previous episodes. A lot of that gap can be explained by observable characteristics or the industry or occupation that people are in. But yeah, there is still a gap that you can’t explain, and hence, possibly could be attributable to discrimination of some kind, but it’s not the bulk of the gap, it’s a few percentage points, if I remember correctly. But yes, that is an issue that we could revisit in a future episode. 

Okay, well, Arturo, if there’s nothing else, I think we better wrap up because we’ve gone for nearly an hour. And yeah, it’s been great chatting. So, thanks for joining me today.

Arturo Espinoza Bocangel  53:40

No, thank you, to you Gene for having me. 

Gene Tunny  53:43

Very good. Thanks Arturo. 

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 contact@economicsexplored.com and we’ll aim to address them in a future episode. Thanks for listening. Till next week, goodbye.

Credits

Thanks to Josh Crotts for mixing the episode and to the show’s sponsor, Gene’s consultancy business www.adepteconomics.com.auPlease consider signing up to receive our email updates and to access our e-book Top Ten Insights from Economics at www.economicsexplored.com. Also, please get in touch with any questions, comments and suggestions by emailing us at contact@economicsexplored.com or sending a voice message via https://www.speakpipe.com/economicsexplored. Economics Explored is available via Apple Podcasts, Google Podcast, and other podcasting platforms.

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Podcast episode

US recession, climate change & monetary policy w/ Darren Brady Nelson – EP151

US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen claims the US economy is not in a recession,  despite two consecutive quarters of declining GDP. Economics Explored EP151 guest Darren Brady Nelson disagrees with the Treasury Secretary and argues she is taking a political position. Whether she’s being political or not, Janet Yellen has certainly taken a big risk, as Darren and Gene discuss. Darren and Gene also talk about the review of the Aussie central bank, the Reserve Bank of Australia, particularly how climate change could figure in that review. Darren argues the review team should have a broader range of views represented, including Monetarist and Austrian perspectives. 

You can listen to the episode via the embedded player below or via podcasting apps including Google PodcastsApple PodcastsSpotify, and Stitcher.

About this episode’s guest – Darren Brady Nelson

Darren is Chief Economist of the Australian think tank Liberty Works and he’s also an Economics Associate at the CO2 Coalition in Washington, DC. For Darren’s bio, check out the regular guests page.

Links relevant to the conversation

While it’s the NBER that declares whether the US economy is in recession, this CNBC report notes: “Since 1948, the economy has never seen consecutive quarterly growth declines without being in a recession.”

But many economists are skeptical about whether the US is in a recession, including recent podcast guests Stephen Kirchner and Michael Knox. 

Stephen Kirchner on the US recession question.

Michael Knox’s Economic Strategy: Fed hikes rates, but Fed says no recession (PDF).

Transcript: US recession, climate change & monetary policy w/ Darren Brady Nelson – EP151

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 

Darren Brady Nelson  00:05

like to see seemed to have sold or sold for political purposes as the head of Treasury in the US each year is a political appointee. So, that is, to some extent a political position.

Gene Tunny  00:19

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 151 on whether the US economy is in a recession. Joining me is returning guest, Darren Brady Nelson. 

Darren is Chief Economist of the Australian Think Tank Liberty Works. And he’s also an Economics Associate at the CO2 coalition in Washington DC. As well as chatting about the US economy. Darren and I discuss climate change and the review of the Reserve Bank of Australia. 

In the show notes, you can find relevant links and details of how you can get in touch. Please let me know your thoughts on what either Darren or I have to say. I’d love to hear from you. 

In the show notes. I’ll include links to some great commentary on whether the US actually is in a recession from two previous guests, Michael Knox and Steven Kirschner. So, make sure you check those links out. 

Right on, for my conversation with Darren. Thanks to my audio engineer, Josh Crotts, for his assistants in producing this episode. I hope you enjoyed it. 

Darren Brady Nelson, Chief Economist at Liberty works. Welcome back unto the program.

Darren Brady Nelson  01:35

Thank you. Good to see you. I guess it’s been a while since we last spoke about Work Capitalism, I think.

Gene Tunny  01:41

Yes, that’s right. That was a few months ago. So yes, it’s good to catch up again. This is a 151st episode, and this is your 11th appearance on the show if I’m counting correctly. So yeah, we get around to another chat every 15 episodes or so. So, it’s about time to catch up with you. So, it’s great to have you on the show again.

Darren Brady Nelson  02:06

Yeah, congratulation, because I’ve been so prolific. 151 That’s great.

Gene Tunny  02:11

Yeah, well, it’s just drip by drip, really. It’s one per week, and they mount up, yes. Thankfully, we’re out of the COVID period, although I had it recently. And I was in isolation, but we’re over all of that craziness which was dominating the conversation for a while, and now we’re getting on to other issues. 

Okay, so I thought we could chat now about the US GDP figures and we had some big news last week, in Australia. You’re still on Saturday there; I think Darren, there in the states in DC. And now we’ve got two consecutive negative quarters of GDP growth. So, GDP grew at an annualized rate or didn’t grow, it fell at an annualized rate of 0.9% in the June quarter, and that followed a decline of, I think it was 1.6% in the March quarter, that’s at an annualized rate. Okay, so there’s a big debate about whether the US is in recession or not. Darren, what do you think? Is the US in a recession at the moment?

Darren Brady Nelson  03:26

Well, yeah, I would say so. I must admit, in this conversation, certainly, you’re going to be more expertise than I. You’re a guru of sort of macro-economic indicators, and all that, particularly from your treasury background, but other things you’ve done, too. So, maybe I’ll be asking you some questions, too, and hoping to get some answers. But yeah, I’m not sure; maybe you know the answer to this, but, the entire time I’ve been, first studying economics and being an economist, putting aside the debates on whether two consecutive quarters is the greatest definition or not, it seems to have been the definition for a long time. And the most interesting thing I’ve seen recently, and I guess this would have been headlines, I imagined in Australia as well, was the Biden administration going. No, no, that’s not really the technical definition of a recession. 

I don’t think I recall an administration, democrat or republican ever; they may come up with excuses and say, it’s not well, it’s not our fault. It’s the previous administration and all that sort of stuff, or you know, external circumstances. But this is really the first time someone’s ever, including, some of the economists that the Biden administration has. On record, obviously, talking about in the past that yes, the recession. You know, the technical definition, if you like, is the two consecutive quarters of negative growth. So, it’s been very interesting times. Again, I guess in the 2020s, including a lot of media organizations and our favorite, sort of Neo Keynesian Economist, Krugman coming out and also defending that the Biden administration on oh, well, it’s not really a recession. So, it certainly fits the technical definition that, if you’d like I grew up with. And, that’s certainly my impression, just actually being in the US. Is it dire just yet? Yes. On the inflation front, yes. But unemployment, still is fairly low. And putting aside the fact that participation rate, that’s a little bit of a worry, but the unemployment rates not so bad at this stage. And usually, obviously, that’s, if you’d like a key secondary indicator, besides GDP itself, that people usually turn to right away, before they maybe dig into, what aspects of GDP have gone down, energy manufacturing, etc, etc.

Gene Tunny  06:02

Yeah. Okay. So, there are a few things you mentioned there, Darren, 

Darren Brady Nelson  06:09

So, yes. Not a strong yes. So, yeah, I’d say yes. Technical definition? Kind of weak, yes in a kind of more judgement point of view.

Gene Tunny  06:16

Yes. So, you referred to what the White House was saying, and what Janet Yellen in the Treasury was saying. So, I might just read that out. And then we can go from there. And I can let you know what I thought about that. 

So, what Janet Yellen said and this is reported by the Financial Times. “The White House has maintained that the US economy is not at present in a recession, with Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen saying earlier this week that she would be amazed if the NB declared it was okay.” So, what she’s talking about there is the National Bureau of Economic Research, which is I think it’s attached to; is it attached to Harvard or MIT or one of those East Coast universities? There’s this elite group.

Darren Brady Nelson  07:01

I think it’s independent. I mean, look, I don’t know, but I think it’s more independent than even being associated with one particular university, I think.

Gene Tunny  07:10

Yeah, I think you’re right. Yeah. But it’s an elite group of macro economists, some of the top people and you’ll have some of the leading lights of economics on it. And they will date the business cycles, they will declare whether the economy’s in recession or not. And generally, what they’re looking for is a sustained downturn that lasts several months, so more than one quarter. And they look at a broad range of indicators. So, it’s not just GDP. But that having said that, it looks like GDP is an important part of it, because it’s that comprehensive measure of economic activity. 

And one thing I noticed when I was preparing for our chat, is there was a report from CNBC, where it noted that I don’t think there’s ever been a recession that the NBR has called, which didn’t have two consecutive quarters of GDP growth, if that makes sense. So, where’s the actual passage? 

Darren Brady Nelson  08:21

I think that’s not correct. I think they call the recession, during the pandemic, and that wasn’t two quarters, I think. So, they do have a bit of leeway. But they tend to usually use the two quarters as part of the definition as a key component.

Gene Tunny  08:38

Okay, look, I’ll have to check that, I thought I read that earlier today. I had that somewhere here in my notes.

Okay. So, we might go back to what Janet Yellen, what she said here. She underscored the message at a press conference on Thursday, emphasizing that the economy remains resilient. Most economists and most Americans have a similar definition of recession, substantial job losses and mass layoffs, businesses shutting down, private sector activities slowing considerably, family budgets under immense strain. In some abroad-based, weakening of our economy. She said, that is not what we’re seeing now. 

Okay. It seems to me that’s a pretty risky call from her because she is running the risk that the NBA does eventually define this as a recession. And that’s going to be incredibly embarrassing for the administration. So, yeah, that would be my sense of it. I think it is a big call from Janet Yellen. And it may be too early to tell. But look, there are a lot of Economists out there who seem positive about the US economy. But that said, it does appear that I mean, is it the interest rates, is it what the Federal Reserve’s been doing that’s causing issues? Is it inflation that’s hitting Consumers? What do you think are the main forces affecting the US economy at the moment, Darren?

Darren Brady Nelson  10:06

Yeah, I think, you’ve definitely touched on two key components. But just to comment on Janet Yellen. But you know, Janet Yellen was totally wrong on inflation. So, that didn’t seem to impact her credibility within her circle that she goes around with, and the people who hire her; that didn’t seem to make any difference. So, probably when she’s proven wrong on recession, which I think she already has been. Yeah, I mean, that inflation is like, one of the key things; it’s the biggest problems in the US, and obviously, even the Federal Reserve, which has been; our Federal Reserve is part of the process of creating inflation. So, they’ve gotten spooked. Biden administration itself has not, which they, at least publicly, they keep on, they don’t seem to be, they acknowledged it a bit, but they don’t really kind of acknowledge it as bad as, even though the official statistics are showing. So, you have, like, I guess we’ve talked about this many times, but, you have kind of two things going on at once, the unprecedented levels of money printing, and the credit that goes with it, which, if you’d like, from a macro point of view, is hitting the demand side. And then on the supply side, they’re doing all sorts of, the Biden administration’s policies are just hurting supply, and hurting productivity and competition. 

So, that can sometimes, make up a lot for that money printing. The supply side can react to it, and really dampen what, it’s for the money to the demand side of things. So, energy is a classic one, they had a complete 180 on their energy policy. So, the US went from the number one energy producer in the world to not that anymore, and, record time, essentially?

Gene Tunny  12:08

And is that the Biden administration’s fault in your view?

Darren Brady Nelson  12:12

Well, exactly. It’s not just their fault, that is literally their policy. You know, they’re going for the green transition, if you like, come hell or hot water, right? So, which includes, not allowing oil companies to extract oil and all sorts of things. Oil, natural gas, coal, etc. And they’ve also hit agriculture with bad policies as well. You know, manufacturing; yeah, literally, if you want to destroy an economy, the Biden’s administration is basically ticking all the boxes with their policies. And, putting aside, you can argue whether that’s intentional or unintentional, but I think there’s not too many, if you like, remotely free, market friendly economists who think the Biden’s policies are particularly good.

Gene Tunny  13:10

Right, okay, I’ll have to have a closer look at some of the policies and come back to that. I just want to go back to that definition of recession; I think I might have missed or may not have communicated properly what that factoid in that CNBC report was. So, what they were saying was that, in fact, every time since 1948, the GDP has fallen for at least two straight quarters. So, they’re not saying that, there could be recessions if you don’t have this, and that’s what you were saying with the pandemic, that was, like you could call a recession, if you don’t have the two negative quarters. But what this point is, is that, in fact, every time since 1948, the GDP has fallen for at least two straight quarters. The NBER ultimately, has declared it a recession. So, you can have a recession, even if you don’t have the two quarters, but every time you’ve seen it in the data, the NBER has ultimately called it a recession. So, what Janet Yellen has done is, yeah, that’s a really big call on her part. And, I mean, Janet Yellen, someone with a distinguished academic reputation, and yep, so really, really big call and potentially, it will backfire on her. We have to wait and see about that. Yeah.

Darren Brady Nelson  14:38

Janet Yellen in not going to make, you know, like she’s she seemed to have sold or sold for political purposes. Not unusual that; it’s not like this has never been seen before. Most of her sort of, like topics when she gets into public is less focused on inflation and recessions and she’s talking about equity and diversity and inclusivity and all that sort of stuff. Well, I guess as the head of Treasury in the US, each year is a political appointee. So, I guess, that is, to some extent, a political position. Although, usually in the past, it’s been Department of Justice and Treasury have, usually been less partisan, if you like. The people regardless of whether it was democrat or republican in charge, but you know, things have changed quite a bit. Certainly, this century and certainly in the 2020s.

Gene Tunny  15:33

Yeah, exactly. Okay. So, you mentioned the supply side before, well, one thing we’ve had in Australia here is just the ongoing disruption to supply chains. And I mean, the random things just been unavailable in the supermarket’s. Quantas seems to have lost its mojo; can’t seem to run a flight on schedule any time anymore. And partly, that’s because they lost people during the pandemic. And now we’ve got people on isolation leave, like if you get COVID, you have to isolate for seven days, and that’s disruptive. Things just don’t seem to be working as they once did. Is that the same in the States? Have you noticed that in the US?

Darren Brady Nelson  16:21

Yeah. I think some extent, less. Although I understand aviation has been kind of bad here, too. But I haven’t actually been, I’m just going on to sort of news reports and talking to other people that, yeah, they’ve had, things. Well, what happened in the US probably, maybe more than Australia is a lot of pilots, either were, let go or just left because they didn’t want to get the vaccine, right? And the federal government has a bigger say in aviation than they do and other industries, for instance, particularly on employment. And so yeah, that’s all contributed, including also I understand, not just pilots, but other people in the aviation industry, various hubs, the people needed at the airports and the hubs as well, similar sort of circumstances. The supply chain disruption in general, I haven’t noticed it as much in terms of like at the grocery store, there was a period where there was a little bit of that. Not as bad, but certainly, there were issues as well, in the US, perhaps, maybe not as bad in terms of like, grocery stores and whatnot. 

So, the 2020s have been very weird times. And I don’t think it’s some sort of like natural market outcomes as such. Obviously, markets wrecked, and they impact, but I think there’s just the amount of, really over the top interventions and status sort of policies in the 2020s have taken me by surprise. We’ve been prepping backwards, if you like, towards bigger and bigger government, and I think, reaping the rewards. I don’t know why people, even people who; seasoned economists, who should kind of, know better, the more the government does stuff and interferes, the worse things get. It literally, is becoming, more and more like an Atlas Shrugged world. I don’t know if you’ve read Atlas Shrugged; probably familiar with the premise anyway. It’s like that. I’m like Atlas Shrugged there, but, there were places to escape to in that world, the fictional world of as many, as you can see, in this world, when, all the governments are, have uniform sort of policies on COVID and uniform policies of not tackling inflation, and all that. And maybe it will be interesting to see if the elbow government copies the Democrat lead, which I suspect they will, if Australia gets two quarters of negative growth, they’ll go that’s not really a recession, we’ll be interesting to see if they go down that road as well.

Gene Tunny  19:12

Yeah, one thing that we’ve traditionally relied on to keep the economy growing is migration, just the addition of people and that those consumption, and so that’s starting to pick up again. Possibly, that try and redefine it. I mean, I don’t think we’re at risk of that at the moment. Although having said that consumer confidence has dropped with the higher interest rates, so people are freaking out over just the increases in interest rates we’ve seen already, because it looks like they just borrow lots of money when interest rates were really low. The Reserve Bank, Governor, I couldn’t believe it. Last year, he was saying, oh, the interest rates will; our official cash rate will stay at 0.1 until 2024. And arguably, he misled people. And so, I mean, he really has a lot of questions to answer for. And there is the Reserve Bank of Australia review, which I’ve talked about in this program. I don’t know if you’ve had a look at that at all, Darren?

Darren Brady Nelson  20:22

No, no. Give me a synopsis of what drove that. And what’s happening? 

Gene Tunny  20:28

Well, the RBA has been under a lot of criticism in recent years for different reasons. There’s been one group of economists who’ve been critical of it, because they argue that they didn’t; that they had interest rates too high in the lead up to the pandemic. Now, whether that’s true or not, I think it’s debatable. But I’ve had people like Peter Tulip and Steve Kirschner on the show. I mean, they’re very good economists. I think it’s worth considering their view for sure. 

Their argument is that if you’re trying to achieve the inflation target of 2 to 3%; they were arguing that because inflation was actually lower than that, you had scope to have looser monetary policy, lower interest rates, to have more employment growth. And there was some modelling that was done by Andrew Lee, who’s a Labor Party MP and a former and new professor, and Isaac Gross, who’s an economist at University of Melbourne, I think. And they showed that if the RBA had met its inflation target, if it had lower interest rates and let the economy grow faster. You could have had; I think it was like 250 to 300,000 more jobs in the economy. So, there were a group of economists criticizing the RBA from that direction. And they were saying that the RBA was too concerned about households taking on too much debt. So, they didn’t want to put interest rates lower. 

I could see why the bank would be concerned about that. So, that’s why I’m not fully on board with that criticism of the bank. That said, I think it is good to review the Reserve Bank, because it is a bit of a; it’s not exactly transparent what they’re doing. So, I think there could be greater transparency. And since last year, when Phil Lowe was making those sorts of bold calls, that turned out to be wrong within months, right. It was obvious that we’re in the in the new year when we started getting those inflation numbers that the Reserve Bank would have to act. So, I think they lost a lot of credibility over that. 

So, it’s important now to have this review. And they’ve appointed Caroline Wilkins from, she’s a former Deputy Governor of the Canadian Central bank. They’ve got Gordon De Brouwer, who’s a former bureaucrat, I worked for him when he was in the treasury. And he was also at a new at times. He’s good. He’s good value. And Rene Fry McKibbin, who’s a professor of Economics at ANU. 

They’re going to review the board like there are issues to do with board composition, who’s on the board? There are issues to do with the inflation target; but I’m not sure they’ll do much about that. They might tweak some of the language. And then there’s issues to do with the transparency of the board’s decision making; what do they release to the public every month? So that’s essentially what the review is about and I think it’s, it’s a good thing that they’re doing that. So, yeah, that’s it. So, yeah, it’s worth definitely worth keeping an eye on. 

Okay, we’ll take a short break here for a word from our sponsor.

Female speaker  24:01

If you need to crunch the numbers, then get in touch with Adept Economics. We offer you frank and fearless economic analysis and advice. We can help you with funding submissions, cost benefit analysis studies, and economic modelling of all sorts. Our head office is in Brisbane, Australia, but we work all over the world. You can get in touch via our website, http://www.adepteconomics.com.au. We’d love to hear from you.

Gene Tunny  24:30

Now back to the show.

Darren Brady Nelson  24:33

So, are they the reviewers? Are they sort of, left or center, for the most part, like a Keynesian and MMT and, something else or what? What’s the story there?

Gene Tunny  24:47

I’d say the typical mainstream macro economists. So, however you’d like to characterize that, they’re definitely not MMT. If you had to give them a label, maybe you give them a new Keynesian label, possibly. But yeah, they’re not I don’t think they’re radical in any particular direction. They’re nonpolitical appointees, which is a good thing. One of the big questions and something that I think the Prime Minister, Anthony Albanese, Albo, as we call him, one thing he will be, he’ll be getting pressured to put a trade union representative on the board. So, they’ve had one in the past, I think Bob Hawke, our former Prime Minister was on the board in the 70s, when he was the head of the ACTU. 

And then we’ve had various other ACTU secretaries on the Reserve Bank Board. There are some people pushing for a regional rep., but, one thing that Peter Tulip, who’s Chief Economist at Centre for Independent Studies has been pushing for is, he said that the problem is, we don’t have enough people who know about inflation and monetary policy on the board. And so, we need more of those people. We need more, it’d be better to have more economic experts or economists on the board.

Darren Brady Nelson  26:05

Yeah. And maybe, also further, how about a variety of use, and not just the one kind of, you say, mainstream, and but that’s still a worldview, it’s still a way of looking at things. And it’s not the only way of looking at things. The combination of, essentially New Keynesians, for the most part, with maybe a little, like 80-20 Keynesian monetarist; that’s maybe what, most mainstream sort of, macro folks, that’s kind of what they’ve learned and whatnot, be good to have somebody else. Have an Austrian point of view, have maybe a full on monetarist point of view, whatever; just something that’s not just the one point of view, , so it’s not just Tweedledee and Tweedledum, every time either on the board or this review.

I’m not saying these people aren’t smart, or anything like that; the three people you mentioned, but I suspect there’s not going to be a whole lot of push and shove between the three. 

Gene Tunny  27:04

So, I think the review in a way, presumes that there won’t be radical changes. The Reserve bank is going to continue as an institution, we’re still going to have Fiat money. Is that the sort of thing that you think should be up for review, that we should be looking at something more fundamental?

Darren Brady Nelson  27:25

Well, at least you have one person on there who can be the dissenting voice to say, something like that, but I’m saying, even if it was, say, one Keynesian, one monetarist, and one Austrian, I think you might get a pretty decent review out of that, with the monetarist if you like, in between the two, to some extent. 

So, you still have 2 – 1, want to keep a central bank going, but we just, good to kind of be realistic about, what a Central bank does and what inflation is, what monetary policy is, all that sort of stuff. That’s fine, if the board, I’m not saying, the board should be all full of economists, even if it was a mix of those types of economists, I think it’s fine to have some other, you know, depending on how big the board is, you know, there would be room, I guess, for a union and a business representatives and maybe some other stuff as well, that’s fine. 

And then they should also review, also the goals of the Reserve Bank; what’s legislation. There’s a lot of stuff in there besides inflation, maybe, just to look at it, and kind of whether all that needs to be in there, or whether there’s should be a better balance, or you should prioritize and go, inflation is number one, and then something, that type of thing. It’d be great. 

A lot of these reviews aren’t all that genuine, they already have a political goal. I mean, you say they’re not political, but it always is, you know, to some extent, they’re under certainly under pressure anyway, regardless of who they stick in there to review things. Now, in the past, some of these reviews have been a lot less political than others, there’s always a political element, like the competition policy review wasn’t particularly political, but there’s always a little bit of an aspect to it, of course, I’d be surprised if they’re not under, some fairly great political pressure to start going beyond and started looking at, kind of cultural war type stuff, too, that they want to ingrain, sort of, race and gender and all that other stuff. I’ll be I’ll be pleasantly surprised as if that isn’t going to be a part of the review.

Gene Tunny  29:37

So, as far as I’m aware, race and gender won’t be at this stage, I don’t think. But one thing that possibly will be, now whether there’s a culture war issue or not, I don’t know. I think I’m not sure it’s, I guess there are aspects of it that are part of the cultural war but the debate about the climate. So, Warwick McKibbin, who is he’s a Professor of Economics at ANU, and he’s actually the husband of one of the reviewers. But you know, she’s independent of; she’s her own person… Renee Fry McKibbin; she’s Warwick’s wife. 

Darren Brady Nelson  30:22

Actually, by definition, at least the old school definition marriages, you’re not, you’re one flesh. But anyway, I understand what you’re trying to say. 

Gene Tunny  30:29

Okay, yes. So, I don’t think she’ll necessarily go along with Warwick’s view. But Warwick was at the conference of Economists in Hobart two weeks ago, where I caught COVID. And, it was a good conference other than that, it was a great conference.

Darren Brady Nelson  30:46

And super spreader of it.

Gene Tunny  30:49

Yeah, that’s right. And Warwick was on the panel. And now we’re talking about the Reserve Bank review. And one of the points he made is that we may have to amend actually, I think he’s saying we will have to amend our inflation targeting settings or our goals or objectives. We’ll have to amend that to incorporate climate change, because we have to recognize that if we’re going to be responding to climate change, we’re going to introduce a carbon price and one that increases over time. So, that’s what you need to have that sort of lowest cost adjustment path. So, to minimize the cost of adjusting to climate change, you’ll need to have a carbon price that increases and so that’s going to be increasing prices. So, you’ll need to look through the inflation, you’ll have to ignore the inflation that comes from the carbon price. So, I think culture war issues won’t come into it. But I think the climate change will come into the RBA review.

Darren Brady Nelson  32:01

Okay, well, that’s good to know. It’s terrible news. But it’s not surprising though.

Gene Tunny  32:06

But doesn’t it make sense what Warwick is saying? I mean, if a government does introduce a carbon price, and you’re going to have increasing prices because of that, then that’s not really inflation that the Central bank should be concerned about. What do you think of that perspective?

Darren Brady Nelson  32:25

It still should be concerned about it, even if, you know; this is all about thinking about the costs and benefits. It sounds like, just assuming, okay, well look, we’re just not going to worry about the downside of our carbon tax and our climate policies, because it’s such a, unquestionable good to pursue this. That’s ideology, that’s not economics, that’s really bad economics. And it’s also bad constitutional law, like, to what enshrine you know, certainly a very long-standing fad, of the climate sort of industry. But, the concept of inflation is something that stands the test of time. You can disagree on various aspects of it, but it’s always going to be, to the extent you’re going to have monetary policy, inflation is going to be an important thing to be thinking about, right. Climate change, may not be. 

I’ve been following this debate since the mid-90s. And, I can tell you; well, just look at the polling, I can’t speak for Australia, but in the US, it’s something along the lines of; it’s well outside the top 10 of topics that people are concerned about in the US, for instance, then you want to start because, elites like him, are in a position to influence these things. They want to shove in the things that they care most about. And I think it’s just atrocious to think you can stick that into the Reserve Bank act. I assure you another government can come along and potentially change that if they want, if the electorate says, alright, you’ve been trying to convince us that the end of the world has been coming for 30 years, it hasn’t arrived, we no longer trust you. Sure, that might happen. And then, government could change things, but you know, so it’s a bit hard to change stuff in legislation, a lot of damage can be done in the meantime.

Gene Tunny  34:20

Okay. So, on where is where they’d make the change? It probably wouldn’t be in the act, they would have it in the agreement between the treasurer and the Reserve Bank. If I remember correctly, I think the general view on the Reserve Bank act from the late 50s was that, look, some of the language is a bit outdated. But you know, maybe leave that alone, you can do all you need you want to do within the agreement between the treasurer and the Reserve Bank. So, I think that’s where they would adopt something like that. 

Just on that Reserve Bank Act, I think what they talk about in that is that the Reserve Bank is supposed to set monetary policy to have a stable currency to achieve full employment and to promote the prosperity of Australians or something. Something broad like that. Yeah. So, they’ll probably leave that and they’ll do whatever they want to do with if they did want to put some wording in about climate change, it’ll probably be very vague, because it is all very vague. We don’t really, I mean, I’ve got no idea what’s going to happen here in Australia. Politically, it’s, it’s such a vexed issue. And you’re saying is not in the top 10 issues in the US, it’s certainly in the top 10. It’s top five; top 3 here in Australia. 

I mean, the previous government lost Blue Ribbon seats, seats that it’s held for decades, seats in affluent areas of Sydney and Melbourne. And it lost them because of climate change, because people in those seats are extremely concerned about it.

Darren Brady Nelson  36:07

Yeah, there’s a different point of view. Certainly, they did, but I wouldn’t extrapolate to say that means Australia as a whole has the same views as these inner-city suburbs, they’ve just changed the demographics and the ideological viewpoints of these people. That’s why they lost. Just like we’ve seen around the world, it’s the rich and upper-class professionals who gravitate towards status policies and status causes, like climate change. The working class, and in the middle, and lower middle classes do not. And electoral politics, isn’t just a straight representation of what the entire nation views necessarily. And putting aside the fact that the polling is often biased and bad and misleading and all that sort of stuff, but that decide. 

I’ve seen some other people who; intelligent Australian commentators, James Allen, and people like that. We’ve been having a bit of look at that, to see whether, that mainstream narrative is actually true. They certainly lost obviously, those seats, they were blue ribbon, but they’ve been changing and moving left for a while now. So, particularly in the US, how climate change is almost really a non-issue from a broad electorate point of view, not any specific electorates. 

Yet, that doesn’t stop the policies from carrying on and then you have all these perverse outcomes of like, I imagined Albanese will get more copy a lot of what the Biden administration so, the push for electric vehicles. Well, electric vehicles are still being produced by coal and natural gas, you know. So, you’re really in many ways, you actually might even be increasing carbon dioxide emissions through transitioning to electric vehicles from petrol vehicles. And the fact is, most of the world is actually increasing the use of coal, mostly India, China, Brazil, etc. And there’s even been a coal like I said, there’s been a coal comeback, even in Western countries as electric vehicle usage gets ramped up. So, these people don’t go, oh, no, we; the same people who say there’s an existential problem, keep on producing, keep on pushing electric vehicles, for instance. So, that their actions speak louder than their words that it isn’t really an existential crisis. Putting aside the fact obviously, all these elites tend to keep on buying beach side homes and all these sorts of stuff. I think just look at their actions, speak much louder than their words. 

So, we’re getting this system where we get a worse electrical system because they keep on showing throwing more and more unreliable and expensive renewable energies on top of it, yet, they’re not actually starting to take much of the load of electricity production, they’re just sitting there costing more money and hurting the rest of the system. Yet, we’re still relying, and we’re going to keep on relying on coal and natural gas and the only renewable energy we’re going to lie and it’s going to be, water – hydro. Putting aside the fact you know, allow many new hydro to be built, but it’s bloody reliable. In the US, if it wasn’t for Quebec, all the hipsters in New York would be having more blackouts because they’re running on water; hydro from Quebec coming down into the US.

Gene Tunny  39:55

Where is that is that near Niagara Falls, or is it is that up in that Region.,

Darren Brady Nelson  40:00

Yeah. Quebec is like, the king of hydro in that part of the world, not just for Canada. In fact, Quebec is mainly supplying electricity to the US, part of the population that’s bigger. And that sort of the northeast of the US. So, that’s kind of insulating on, they can shove on some more solar panels and wind, but that’s not really generating a lot of electricity. And we also have the perverse effect from the main thing that, besides all the kind of pollutants, actually the toxic sort of, chemicals, and all the stuff that it’s needed for electric vehicles, needed for solar panels, needed for wind turbines, which obviously have detrimental environmental effects. They need coal, natural gas, and hydro to make those things in the first place. Not just to be the ones that really, supplemented when the wind’s up blowing, and the sun’s not shining. But if it wasn’t for all the fossil fuels, it couldn’t even build this stuff in the first place. So, all you’re doing is shoving all this stuff, people making a lot of money. A lot of people are virtue signaling, sort of, they keep on crying wolf for what, like 30 years now. There’s, nothing; there’s no significant evidence that we have a problem. 

Gene Tunny  41:15

Well, I’ll push back and say we just had a 40-degree Celsius day in England that they’ve never had in their whole history. 

Darren Brady Nelson  41:23

That’s not true. You go back, and we look at the Paleo challenge. You look at the evidence. For instance, in the US, this damn out in the Colorado River is having; it’s because of climate changes is at its lowest level, lo behold, a study, two weeks prior to them making such statements show that they’ve had more levels on the Colorado River 2000 years ago. 

We’ve had warmer periods, we’ve had more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere in times. No, none of this is accurate. It’s all cherry picked to scare the poop out of people to accept these policies they want anyway. And you watch it when we’re old men, we’re going to be the people will go yeah, we’ll look okay, this thing didn’t happen. But I think it was the right thing to do anyway. 

You hear that a lot, even now. They go like it will even for wrong, it’s the right thing to do. How’s it the right thing to do to make people poor? And have people in Africa starve? How’s that the right thing to do?

Gene Tunny  42:22

Okay, so in a future episode, we’ll have to come back to this, Darren, and we’ll see where we are with the with the data.

Darren Brady Nelson  42:28

You want to see the green policies and action? Look at Sri Lanka.

Gene Tunny  42:31

Yeah. Look, I’m not advocating for these policies, necessarily. Yeah. But I do recognize;

Darren Brady Nelson  42:42

That’s not about you, that’s just kind of aim at whoever’s watching this. It’s like, you want to see the future? The potential future? That’s Sri Lanka. That’s the way Australia could look, if they’re not careful.

Gene Tunny  42:55

And what did they do? They actually required organic produce, did they? Did they ban the importation of some fertilizers or something?

Darren Brady Nelson  43:07

Yes, fertilizers. Fertilizer was the main thing using green organic things instead of actual fertilizer. This is what’s happened in countries like Sri Lanka and African countries is to get their aid money. They do the green agenda, essentially. And it’s just a disaster.

I’ll tell you the countries that won’t be, it won’t be China, it won’t be India; the bigger countries that don’t need the foreign aid. And there’s also strategic implications, obviously. Who controls the green energy market, ultimately? China – communist China.

Gene Tunny  43:51

They are producers of a lot of the solar panels. That’s correct. Yeah.

Darren Brady Nelson  43:54

They are almost a monopoly on this, and increasingly, all the support technology for it as well. So, in China, this is not a coincidence. It’s not like, oh, the market chose China, they were just the best people to do it. This is like, this is a plan. It’s a strategy by the Chinese government, and you can see it’s written down. There are books written on this by them to say, oh, this is what we’re going to be trying to do. That basically, it’s their mind calm. So, don’t be surprised, when some of this stuff comes true. 

They have a plan that the Chinese economy is not a free market economy by any stretch of the imagination. You know, it’s a government controlled run for the purposes of, for the benefit of the Communist Party and the strategic interests of China. It’s not like you’re dealing with the Netherlands, that sort of thing. So, that’s also a huge thing. Because they’re an aggressive military power. 

When the time’s right, they’re going to take action. Taiwan and whoever else, eventually over time gets in their way. So, to aid and abet this through these green policies that are aimed at a problem that doesn’t really exist or certainly not in the scale. And certainly, even if the problem doesn’t exist, too deep, to essentially decarbonize the economy is just like literally the worst solution for it. And to decarbonize it in a way that, benefits China immensely. These’re just terrible policies the whole way through and people hopefully one day will be held accountable for this.

Gene Tunny  45:46

Right, okay. We might go back to GDP just before we wrap up, and yeah, I think I agree. There’s a big debate to be had about those policies for sure. I mean, from Australia’s perspective, given that we’re such a small part of the world, doesn’t make sense for us at this stage to adopt those policies on a large scale. My view is we should try to cooperate internationally. But we need to ensure that other countries are following through with their commitments. And I’m not sure that that has always been the case, or it is the case. So, that my perspective on that. 

On GDP, I guess the view is that; my sort of thought is that, Janet Yellen certainly went too far. The US possibly could be in a recession, despite the fact that jobs growth has been strong, despite the fact that you’ve got unemployment at 3.6%, you could be going into; you could be in a downturn. The GDP figures, if you look at the composition of them, you had inventories falling, that was a big part of it. So, businesses were selling goods, but they weren’t replacing their inventories. So, that could be a signal that they’re not expecting; they’re worried about the future, about future sales. We had a drop in residential construction. That was one and that’s probably driven by the increase in interest rates. At the same time consumption spending was up. So, that’s why the summer economists are thinking it’s a bit of a mixed report. And we’re not entirely sure, but my take on it would be the GDP numbers are definitely something be concerned about and Yellen probably went too far when she said, we’re not in a recession. I think that certainly could come back and bite her. 

Darren, do you have any final thoughts on the GDP numbers? Or where the US economy is that?

Darren Brady Nelson  47:55

Pretty much agree with what you just said. And obviously, time is going to tell. I think the bad ministration policies are very bad. And that’s going to come home to roost. So, I think, it’s not going to be good times, economically for the US and if it’s not good times, economically, for the US, it’s not worth it. China is obviously a major player, but it’s not the engine of growth for the world just yet. The US still pretty much is. When the US sneezes, everybody catches a cold.

Gene Tunny  48:39

Yeah, that’s right. I remember that. That was a popular saying in Australia, at the Reserve Bank and Treasury. So, yeah, absolutely. 

Okay. Darren Brady Nelson. Thanks so much for your time. It’s great to catch up, yes. And I look forward to chatting with you again in the future.

Darren Brady Nelson  48:58

Always great to be on your show and see you, Gene, thank you.

Gene Tunny  49:02

Thank you. 

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 contact@economicsexplored.com and we’ll aim to address them in a future episode. Thanks for listening. Until next week, goodbye.

Credits

Thanks to this episode’s guest Darren 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

Please consider signing up to receive our email updates and to access our e-book Top Ten Insights from Economics at www.economicsexplored.com. Also, please get in touch with any questions, comments and suggestions by emailing us at contact@economicsexplored.com or sending a voice message via https://www.speakpipe.com/economicsexplored. Economics Explored is available via Apple Podcasts, Google Podcast, and other podcasting platforms.

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Podcast episode

Global economic outlook + Aussie inflation & house prices – EP150

The message from the IMF July 2022 World Economic Outlook was that the outlook is “Gloomy and More Uncertain”. This week also saw the United States slide into a technical recession. Certainly there are big risks to the global outlook. It’s possible that central banks could tip many economies into recession as they hike interest rates to tame inflation. This episode considers the global economic outlook as well as the economic challenges facing Australia’s new federal government. It’s an abridged version of a conversation that show host Gene Tunny had with Decactivist host Randall Evans on his show. The conversation was recorded prior to the US GDP release, but Gene remarks on the data in his introduction to this episode.

You can listen to the episode via the embedded player below or via podcasting apps including Google Podcasts, Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and Stitcher.

Randall Evans’ Deactivist show:

https://www.youtube.com/c/Deactivist

IMF World Economic Outlook July 2022: Gloomy and More Uncertain:

https://www.imf.org/en/Publications/WEO/Issues/2022/07/26/world-economic-outlook-update-july-2022

US recession news from NPR:

https://www.npr.org/2022/07/28/1113649843/gdp-2q-economy-2022-recession-two-quarters

Transcript: Global economic outlook + Aussie inflation & house prices – EP150

Gene Tunny  00:01

Coming up on Economics Explored.

Randall Evans  00:04

I don’t know if you saw the lineup for Qantas, I think two days ago. But it was out the door all the way down the road for Qantas flights in Sydney, like all the way out there. Never seen it like that, it’s insane.

Gene Tunny  00:21

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 150 on the Economic Outlook. 

We are at a risky point in the global economy. It’s possible that Central banks could tip economies into recession as they hike interest rates to tame inflation. Indeed, I’ve just seen the news that the US has experienced the second quarter of negative economic growth. So, according to the traditional definition, the US economy is in a recession. I’ll have to cover this in more depth in a future episode. But for now, I’ll know that there will be a big debate about this, given the jobs growth has been really good in the States, something noted by US Treasury Secretary, Janet Yellen, she’s claimed the two quarters of negative growth rule for a recession can be misleading. And you need to look at a broader range of indicators, as the National Bureau of Economic Research does when it calls recessions. There’s a lot to explore here, so I’ll leave it to a future episode. 

Okay, I should note that this current episode is an abridged version of a conversation that I had with fellow Australian podcaster, Randall Evans, on his Deactivators show earlier this week, on Wednesday, 27th, July 2022. I’ll put a link to Randall’s YouTube channel in the show notes. So, you can check out the full unedited chat, and Randle’s other videos. 

You may notice I’m short of breath at some points in this episode. That’s because I’m still recovering from COVID. I picked it up at the Conference of Economists in Hobart, two weeks ago. It was an awesome conference, but it was also a super spreader event. Alas. 

In 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 on this episode. I’d love to hear from you. 

Right on, for my conversation with Randall on the Economic Outlook. I hope you enjoy it.

Randall Evans  02:38

Hello, everyone and welcome to the show. We’re here with Gene Tunny. Gene, how’re you doing?

Gene Tunny  02:42

Good. Thanks, Randall. How are you?

Randall Evans  02:44

I’m pretty well. For people who don’t know you, why don’t you give us a little background about yourself and what you do?

Gene Tunny  02:52

Okay, I’m an Economist. I’ve got my own consultancy business, Adept Economics. So, I do project work for different clients, private businesses, nonprofits, some government agencies, councils. So, often business cases for different projects or analysis of different policies or programs. So, I’ve been doing that for the last 10 years or so. Before that, I was in the Federal Treasury. So, we’ve got a broad background in Economics.

Randall Evans  03:27

And you’ve also got your podcast as well with over 130 old episodes I think, so far.

Gene Tunny  03:33

Yeah. Economics Explored. Yeah, that’s going well. I’m really happy with how that’s going. I mean, we’ve covered you know, a wide variety of issues on that, including housing and inflation and the RBA and the current review of the RBA. So, yeah, that’s going really well.

Randall Evans  03:55

What’s the current review of the RBA? Is to get rid of it? 

Gene Tunny  04:02

Some people might want that. There are some libertarians out there who are pushing for the abolition of Central banks and the abolition of fiat currency. But no, they’re not going to do that. I mean, they probably won’t do anything too radical, they might make some changes to the board composition, they might make some changes to the language around what the Reserve Bank is supposed to do in terms of targeting inflation. But yeah, there won’t be any radical changes, I’m afraid. Particularly if you look at the people who are who are going to be doing the review. They’ve got an academic Economist. They’ve got a former government bureaucrat, Gordon Brewer, and then they’ve got a deputy head of the Central Bank of Canada. So, you’ve got fairly mainstream people there. So, I don’t think we’ll see big changes. Having said that though, I mean, the Reserve Bank certainly needs reviewing, because there’s been a lot of concern that their policy settings have been wrong at different times. Phil Lowe’s, arguably misled people last year, and there are a lot of people who are concerned about that. His forecast, which was widely reported that interest rates wouldn’t be increasing until 2024. And he was saying that late last year, and now, they’ve already gone up from 0.1; this is the official cash rate, the overnight cash rate, which is lower than what people pay for home mortgages. Now it’s at 1.35. It’ll go up to 1.85 tomorrow, sorry, not tomorrow, on Tuesday, next week.

Randall Evans  06:02

Is that just people wishful thinking that believed that it wouldn’t go up till 2024? I mean, we had mass quantitative easing and the inflation followed, and then the logical step was; interest rates are going to go up. So, who was saying we can hold off till 2024?

Gene Tunny  06:22

Well, I guess there was this view that the economy had changed. And, I mean, there was quantitative easing, not in Australia, but in other countries during and after the financial crisis. So, starting around, 09, 0-10. And there were people forecasting, oh, this is going to lead to runaway inflation at the time, and that didn’t really happen. But what we’re seeing in the last was over the pandemic period, is that we’ve had, you know, more quantitative easing, and we’ve had big budget deficits to try to stimulate the economy as well. And I think the combination of that has meant that, you know, inflation has really soared. So, they were lucky last time, it didn’t happen. Last time, they got away with it. I think perhaps they thought that they might be able to get away with it again. Yeah, they were wrong.

Randall Evans  07:32

Imagine my shock that they might have. So, I guess first off, one of my first questions would be, as you see, is it all doom and gloom for Australia, or are we In a place we have to be? Where do you see us going over the next 12 to 18 months?

Gene Tunny  07:55

Well, I think it’s doom and gloom for Australia. I mean, really, things have been pretty good when you think about it. I mean, we’ve recovered very strongly from the pandemic. And unemployment is now at three and a half percent, right? This is extraordinary. And now there’s talk about sign-on bonuses. I don’t know how legit this report is. But there was a report in Perth now, that McDonalds in WA is paying sign-on bonuses of $1,000 due to the shortage of people; how difficult it is to get people. And the mining sector is paying $10,000 sign-on bonuses just to get people, there’s a shortage. Partly, that’s related to the fact that we haven’t had; I mean, immigration starting to increase now. But we had a year or so when we weren’t letting anyone in the country. So, I guess we’ll start to see that impacting wages. That could end up leading to inflation itself. I mean, one of the things we want to avoid is what they call a wage price spiral, where inflation just keeps feeding on itself. And prices and wages just sort of, go up in this; once leads to so high wages lead to higher prices, higher prices lead to higher wages, because people need to be compensated for that and they push for it in their wage bargaining. So, yeah, that’s the sort of thing that people are concerned about.

Randall Evans  09:35

The unemployment rate, typically, when there’s high inflation will be low. And I think that’s on the Phillips curve, if I’m not mistaken. Can you just explain that for the for the layman viewing?

Gene Tunny  09:52

I probably should finish the previous question, first. I will get on to that, Randall. I just realized you asked me about if it’s gloomy; I don’t want to be too positive, because, there certainly are risks in Australia, I better clarify that. Because of the rising interest rates, and it looks like, people probably; many households possibly overextended themselves, borrowed too much. There was that fear of missing out. And so therefore, as interest rates increase, even though they’re not going to get up to the really crazy levels that they got up to, in the late 80s, when they were up around 17, 18%. I mean, that won’t happen. But I mean, still many households could get into trouble. We’ve seen consumer’s confidence really plummet, and it’s at you would associate with before, like just before a downturn or a recession. So, there are levels that are almost recessionary. I think one of the bank economists, may have been the ANZ, economist, who said that. So, there’s certainly concerns about that.

On this point about unemployment and inflation. Yes, I mean, the traditional view, and this is a view that we learned was not correct. It broke down in the 70s was that, there is this tradeoff between unemployment and inflation; one story you can tell is if you have low unemployment, that means that workers have more bargaining power. Labor is scarce and so, workers are able to negotiate better with their bosses, and that pushes up wages. So, that’s the theory. 

So far, at least in the official data we’ve had up till March, we haven’t really seen a wages breakout in Australia, that’s why there’s was all their talk about declining real wages. And I think that cost Scott Morrison at the last election. That was really a strong attacking point that the then opposition, now government were able to make against the then government that you’ve got inflation running at the time was 5.1%. Now 6.1% yearly, and wages are only grown at 2½%  So, you’ve got a real wage decline of over 2 ½%. So, that was a bit of a worry. 

The traditional story was that, if you had low unemployment, you’d get high inflation. Conversely, you could, if you wanted to reduce inflation, you had to have high unemployment, because that would give workers less bargaining power. Okay, so there’s this tradeoff between unemployment and inflation. And this was based on a study by a New Zealand economist, Bill Phillips, who was actually an engineer, but he was an economist as well. And he might have been at LSE, in London, at the time. But that whole thing sort of, broke down in the 70s because what we noticed is that there wasn’t this stable tradeoff between inflation and unemployment. What there was, was the possibility that you could have both high unemployment and high inflation, and indeed, you could have unemployment increasing and inflation increasing, you could have what’s called stagflation. 

So, there’s no real trade off in the long run between unemployment and inflation. You can have high unemployment and high inflation at the same time, if people come to expect inflation, if there are, what you call inflationary expectations if they increase. So, that’s one of the concerns that people have about the global economy at the moment. The IMF, World Economic Outlook came out overnight. So, it came out Tuesday, in the US, and it’s gloomy; it’s talking about a gloomy outlook, globally. And I think it’s suggesting  we have very high inflation globally. Was it 6 or 7? It was it was a high rate. I’ll have to just check it. But there’s a lot of talk globally about stagflation, where they will end up in stagflation. And then there’s acknowledgement by international agencies that we could end up in a situation with high unemployment and high inflation down the track. I mean, it’s not likely at the moment. I mean, we are having global growth slowdown, because we’ve had this shock from the war in Ukraine, which has increased the oil price and petrol prices. So, one of the reasons you can have a stagflation is if you have this shock to the economy, such as higher oil prices, which push up the costs of production. And that means that it’s less profitable for businesses to produce what they were doing. And so that could lead to reductions in economic activity, and at the same time as costs of production is increasing, that’s passed on to consumers and increases prices. So, that’s one of the great concerns now.

That’s certainly something that, you know, people are concerned about, and you couldn’t rule it out as a possibility. I’d like to be a bit more optimistic than that, though. But so much depends on what happens with this war in Ukraine, and whether we can resolve that; the oil prices are coming down, but they’re still higher than they were a few years ago. So, a lot is going to depend on what happens there. Also the pandemic, which is causing all sorts of problems with the supply chain, it’s very disruptive. Things just don’t work now, as they did before. I mean, you’d see you see all the delays with Qantas and the disruptions that are occurring.

Randall Evans  17:04

I don’t know if you saw the lineup for Qantas, I think two days ago. But it was out the door all the way down the road for Qantas flights in Sydney, like all the way out there. Never seen it like that, it’s insane. I did want to ask you, and perhaps you should explain the theory first because the question from cue, which disappeared off the chat, was whether the RBA will actually increase interest rates enough to slow down inflation. But first of all, what is that theory though? How does that work? And then, what do we expect the right to probably go to?

Gene Tunny  17:46

Okay. Let’s begin with the fact that inflation is a monetary phenomenon. So, this is a famous quote from Milton Friedman. So, inflation is always in everywhere, a monetary phenomenon. In that, it’s associated with an expansion of the supply of money or the stock of money. So, this is currency that we have, but it’s largely; it’s mostly deposits sitting in the bank accounts of households and businesses. Okay, so, there’s the view that although the understanding that we end up with inflation, because the amount of money is expanding, and it’s expanding faster than the capacity of the economy. So, what we have is too much money chasing too few goods. 

So, inflation is a monetary phenomenon. The Central bank, the Reserve Bank is responsible for the money supply. And so therefore, it’s the RBA that has responsibility for dealing with inflation through monetary policy. So, the way they do that is by manipulating the overnight cash rate, this is the standard way of doing it, the official cash rate. This is what they call the cash market, which is a market in which banks and other market participants will borrow money overnight. And banks need money so that they can settle their accounts with each other at the RBA. The RBA controls this overnight interest rate. And what it’s trying to do is it’s trying to influence all the interest rates in the economy that are have a longer term. And so, what happens is as the cash rate increases, though the cost of borrowing money overnight increases, and that has a knock on effect to the cost of borrowing money for 30 days and six months and 12 months, etc. 

What they’re trying to do there is a few things and the RBA talks about different channels by which monetary policy works. Now, let’s think about what those channels are; one of those channels is through the amount of credit that’s created in the economy. One of the reasons we’ve had the big expansion in the money supply in the last couple of years during the pandemic, it’s not just because of the quantitative easing that the bank has engaged in, it’s not just because of their own money printing in their purchases of bonds. It’s also because with the very low interest rates that the bank has said, that’s meant that more people have borrowed money, or the bigger mortgages. So, we’ve had this expansion of Housing Credit. And the new credit, so the net additions the Housing Credit, that is expanding the money supply, I mean, there’s additional money in the economy. 

Okay, so one thing that the bank needs to do through increasing interest rates is reducing the amount of borrowing for housing and new credit creation. So, that’s one thing they’re trying to do. The other way it works is possibly more direct, or more immediate. It’s the fact that I mean, when they increase the cash rate, and that flows through to variable interest rates, mortgage rates, and eventually to fixed rates, when they reset, people have fixed rates for a few years, and then they reset at higher interest rates. What that means is households have less money to spend, they’re paying more to the bank, the bank gets the money, but the bank may not necessarily lend it to someone who’s going to spend it then. So, you have this subtraction from demand that way. So, that’s another channel by which monetary policy works, what the what the bank, what the Reserve Bank, what all Central banks are trying to do is they’re trying to take some of the heat, well, they’re trying to take the heat out of the economy, they want to have the economy go on this Goldilocks path, not too hot, not too cold. So, make sense? 

So, with the interest rate increases, the idea is you can pull some money out of the economy; will have the money supply, expand at a slower rate, or even contract, so that you can get inflation under control. And because you’ve got less, people don’t have as much to spend, that puts less pressure on the economy; it’s not overheating, there’s not as much demand out there. There’s not as much money chasing the few goods that we talked about before; too much money chasing too few goods. So, that’s the general idea. There are multiple channels, we know that if you do increase interest rates, it does eventually slow the economy. The great challenge is knowing how far you have to do that. And it’s not always obvious in advance how much you have to do that. And the problem in the 80s, the late 80s, in the lead up to the recession, is that they discovered that they really did have to increase those interest rates a lot to be able to slow the economy.

Randall Evans  24:18

Yeah. I was going to ask you a question, but then I was reading a comment.

Gene Tunny  24:28

Was the comment okay?

Randall Evans  24:31

Yeah, it was just should Australia be concerned with China’s financial issues that seem to be compounding? And also, these crazy images coming out of China of the tanks rolling in front of the banks not lending money out. What are your thoughts on what’s going on in China, and will it will impact us? I know, that’s kind of off topic to inflation and the housing market, but can we have your initial thoughts?

Gene Tunny  24:59

Clearly, we need to worry about what happens with China given that it has become such an important part of the global economy. And yes, if the Chinese economy did crash; it is slowing. So, we know that it has been slowing down. And the IMF is concerned about the outlook. I mean, there are risks from you know, that the property market, and construction sector, we know about Evergrande. Look, , it could be a could be a real concern for us, because so much of the commodities boom that we experienced, starting around 2003; we had the first phase of that over about 2003 through to 2013. And then, late to late last decade, commodity prices started rising again, then there was a bit of a downturn before; I think coal prices came down even before the pandemic. But since, end of last year, I think this started picking up with the global recovery, the global recovery was stronger than we thought. And then this year, commodity prices have gone absolutely nuts because of what’s happened in Ukraine. So, I guess, China is important. At the moment, it’s hard to forecast what would happen if we did have a downturn in China, because they’re probably, given all the disruptions that have occurred in the world and the fact that they need our; the world needs our coal, and coal prices are crazily high because of that. We probably would be okay in terms of coal. Iron ore would suffer because China has been a major purchaser of that. So, yeah, I mean, it certainly would be a problem. I mean, it’s hard to know what’s going on with China. Just a very difficult place to understand, really?

Randall Evans  27:33

Yeah. I did remember my other question relates to housing as well, you were talking about interest rates in the economy at different times, because a lot of people on mortgages might be on a fixed term mortgage, and that might go for X number of years. So, that flow-in effect might not hit them, and might not actually reflect in the numbers, two years down the track. So, what do we expect for the housing market, even though interest rates just going to keep going up?

Gene Tunny  28:09

Well housing prices are already coming down. I don’t know if you’ve seen those statistics. But Christopher Joy, who’s one of the top financial commentators in Australia, he writes for the Australian Financial Review. I’ve actually done some work for him in the past. He’s incredibly a bright guy. He’s got a company called Coolibar Capital Investment. And they’ve got billions of dollars of money under management. So, they’re really paying attention to this stuff. Look, you just look at the losses in or the reductions in housing prices since the first interest rate increase in May. And this is suggesting that, look, this is already impacting how sales was. I don’t know the exact breakdown; I should have looked it up before I got on. But I mean, there are a lot of households that are on variable rates. We see in the data that house prices are falling. I guess that will be, because as the interest rates increase, people won’t be able to borrow as much as they could have previously. And so that means they don’t have as much or they can’t go to the auction with the same expectations as they did before. Or maybe they’re more cautious about borrowing. They’re more concerned they’re less willing to bid at an auction because they are worried about the future. We know that consumer confidence has dropped. So, I think the interest rate increases have started to have an impact. So, there are obviously enough people worried about it. And it’s also impacting prices because it’s reducing the ability of people to the amounts that they can borrow. So, what was seen as Sydney’s fall and 5%, Melbourne, 3%, Brisbane, around 1%. That since May, since the first rate hike, capital cities overall, that minus 2 ½%. So, look here we prices are going down.

Randall Evans  30:35

I was just saying you’re recovering from COVID and I forgot to thank you for coming on.

Gene Tunny  30:43

Thank you. I usually think I’m okay. I thought I was okay, before I started. And then as I keep talking; should be okay. So, what Chris was writing was, if you look at Sydney, it’s declining at an annual rate of 22%. So, house prices are falling, and it looks like they’re falling at an accelerating rate.

Randall Evans  31:10

That’s a huge number to be dropping at 22%.

Gene Tunny  31:15

That’s if you take the rate it’s dropping out at the moment and annualize it. So, it may not last over the year. Although, it’s possible that it could; house prices soared during that pandemic period, even though many forecasters were expecting they might fall, it actually, surged because there was all this additional borrowing. There’s the fear of missing out. And, the market went nuts. And so, they’ll probably land above where they were at the start of the pandemic, but a lot of the gains will have been lost; it’s looking like that now. Because those interest rate increases are having more of an impact than was expected.

Randall Evans  32:11

Yeah, I couldn’t believe how much housing prices rose during the pandemic, it was just so counter to what I thought was going to happen. But it did, and I guess we’re going to see that correction. Probably not an overcorrection, though maybe, like you said, probably just above pre pandemic levels.

Gene Tunny  32:35

Yeah. And that’s what we’re seeing. It’s it started for sure. The big unknown is just how vulnerable households are to interest rate increases and whether you will start; they will massively cut back on their spending and that could then lead to a downturn. At the moment, the labor markets going ridiculously strongly, we’ve got 3 ½% unemployment, 300,000 vacancies, I think I saw someone report the other day.

Randall Evans  33:11

The unemployment figure that includes people actively looking for work, right. Yes. So, I’m not sure if that’s a great signal to our strength, if there’s a lot of vacancies and a lot of people looking for work, or am I missing something?

Gene Tunny  33:33

But that’s showing that there’s hardly anyone looking for work compared with before the pandemic. And there’s lots of vacancies. So, this is why we would expect wages to start increasing or perhaps we hope that they will. I think they probably are. We’re certainly seeing well, the sign- on bonuses that have been reported, there’s a story about McDonald’s. Possibly, who knows whether that’s true or not, it’s hard to know whether McDonald’s would be paying $1,000 sign-on bonuses, but that was the Perth Now report. I believe it in the mining sector though.

Randall Evans  34:12

Yeah, I could fly to Perth for like 400 bucks, have a job for a week and I’ll pay for my holiday.

Gene Tunny  34:20

You probably have to serve at some time. I’m sure they’ve got something or their agreement to cover that. So, I think the unknown is just how the economy will react as interest rates increase and just how much people will cut back their spending and whether you know, we had a boom and then we’ll have a burst. One of the challenges is going to be; and this is a big issue for the new government. You will recall that the previous government cut the fuel excise in half, so it’s down at about 22 cents a liter now, and what’s going to happen is that that’s going to go up to, it has to be 44 cents because they cut it in half, at the end of September. People will notice that unless petrol prices come down a bit more, they’ll really notice that and that’s going to come at a bad time, because we know interest rates are still going to go up. They’ll go up half a percentage point next week.

Randall Evans  35:38

What are your thoughts on how the Albanese government is going to shake up the economy? I guess some of the things that are promising, like, I guess the government backing certain home loans by 40%, and things like that. Does anything about his election promises stand out to you that will have a big impact?

Gene Tunny  36:06

Not really. They wouldn’t implement policies that I would probably implement at the moment to try to get inflation under control, they wouldn’t do that, they wouldn’t go that far. There was a discussion that we had? Well, I think we have to massively reduce his budget deficit we’ve got now. So, Jim Chalmers, the Treasurer, he’s talking about the need for savings. One of the reasons they’ve got to find savings; they need to get the debt under control – the trillion-dollar debt, but also because the government at the moment is contributing to the inflation problem we’ve got by running these large budget deficits. Still large, what you call a structural budget deficit. so that they’re still running these large structural deficits of 3 to 4% of GDP, if you look at the budget documents. So, what that means is that if you adjust for the state of the economy, you take into account the fact that the economy has been doing very well. At this point in time, the government should be running much smaller deficits or surpluses than they actually are, and they’re not. They’re still running reasonably sizable deficits. So, there’s this structural deficit, and that’s contributing to inflation. They’re adding to the demand in the economy, they’re contributing to the overheating. So, what this federal government has to do is to really cut back on their spending. Or, one alternative, I don’t know whether they’ll do it or not, because they promised that they would follow the stage three tax cuts. I think in stage three. There’s another tax cut coming through, that’s going to knock out one of the marginal tax brackets, if I remember correctly. And so, there are some people on the left who are arguing that the government shouldn’t go through with those, those tax cuts that are programmed in.That’s one possible thing they could do. To address that structural deficit. I’d probably prefer that they cut their spending, because they’ve got some big spending programs that are really getting out of control. So, NDIS, it’s well intentioned; I think a lot of people support the principle of it. But it’s growing, it’s tens of billions of dollars, or 30 billion, or whatever it’s going to overtake Medicare, in terms of the amount of money that’s spent on it over the budget estimates, over the next four years. 

So, that’s something they’ve really got to get under control, but that’s going to be difficult for them. I think it’s a well-intentioned program. The challenge is, where do you limit it? That’s the problem. There’s the desire to keep expanding it and to make it to provide as high level of service as possible and I think yeah, that’s just financially unsustainable at the moment, we need to really fix that up. 

That’s what I think needs to happen. There needs to be the expenditure restraint, or you know, the larger cuts than anything Jim Chalmers would be contemplating. I’m former Treasury, the Treasury would have provided some list of the things that should be cut. And knowing how these things work, Treasury have this huge book full of potential savings that could occur. And the government will probably pick a handful of them, because they look at most of the things Treasury’s proposing and they go, how could you ever contemplate cutting all of these things? Politically naive, so that that’s what will happen, that’ll be the reality. 

Randall Evans  40:38

Well, one of my questions is that, I know the RBA is supposed to be a separate entity, but allowing the RBA to increase interest rates to such a level that’s going to hurt your voter base. It’s almost political suicide. And I know they don’t really have a say, but, there was that kind of situation where I think it was Roosevelt who grabbed one of the members of the Federal Reserve by the scruff of his neck and was like, you’re destroying my presidency. So, is there a situation where the Australian Government can effectively halt the interest rate rise for political reasons? Or do we have enough kind of checks and balances to stop that happening?

Gene Tunny  41:31

Okay, they actually could, there’s, they have the power to do that. I’m trying to remember this is a point that Nick Growing often makes, I’m trying to remember correctly, I think there’s a provision in the Reserve Bank Act that the treasurer can table something in Parliament and tell the RBA what to do, right. So, the Treasurer could direct the RBA. And I don’t know if you remember, back in the 80s, we had a treasurer of Paul Keating, the Labor treasurer at the time, and he gave a famous or probably infamous speech. It was in the lead up to his challenge to Hawk when he said, I am like the Placido Domingo of Australian politics. And I’ve got the Treasury in this pocket, I’ve got the RBA in the other pocket. That was a great speech; it was not a modest man, it was a very coveted man. But yeah, Keating thought he ran the RBA. So, back in the day, the government had a lot more control over the RBA. The problem then is that, you don’t want monetary policy set by the government. Because for that reason, because the government’s going to want to have it more well, looser, they probably want to have the economy more prosperous in time for their reelection. And they’re not thinking longer term about what the inflationary consequences of that are. 

So, what economists have learned from that problem, the problem that if you have a Central bank politically influenced and you can get you can get higher inflation is we need to have Central banks independent of the government. So, we need to give them some independence. And so, what our governments have done is that they’ve struck an agreement with the Reserve Bank, there’s an agreement on the conduct of monetary policy. That was first, I think it was first formalized by Peter Costello, and in the fall, and in the 90s, in 96. And what that did was that codified in an agreement, the inflation targeting goal that we have now. So, the Central bank, the Reserve Bank, is targeting inflation between 2 to 3%, on average, over the economic cycle, so it’s of which means that they don’t have to be zealous or they don’t have to solely target inflation, if they’re going to crash the economy, they could ease up a little bit on interest rate increases, but ultimately, their goal is to get inflation under control, get it 2 to 3%. That’s what they’re accountable for. So, they’re going to be doing everything they can without crashing the economy to get inflation under control. But look, who knows? We hope we’re not in a situation that the Americans or that we were in the late 80s or the Americans were in the sort of early 80s and Britain too when you really had to increase interest rates a lot to get inflation under control because you had double digit inflation. Now we’re not there yet, hopefully we’ve moved in time to prevent that from occurring. But if you get to a situation where you’ve got double digit inflation, then you might have to increase interest rates much more than the economy can bear and then you end up in a crash. 

I’d like to think that we haven’t left it too late. And we’ll need to resort to those measures. But, let’s wait and see. So, I guess the answer is that, the government could direct the RBA. But then, the bad press they would get over that would be incredible. You’d have all the financial journalists around the country, criticizing them over compromising the independence of the RBA, Jim Chalmers wouldn’t be able to finish a press conference.

Randall Evans  45:52

You’re acting like they answer the presses questions. I think Anthony Albanese is the fondest to just brush off questions. But I understand completely what you’re saying. And I wasn’t suggesting; just for my viewers that the government should do that. I was just putting the thought out there. As a former Treasurer, what do you think the current government values most when it comes to the economy? Because everything seems to be a trade-off, right? It’s either we can get inflation under wraps, or we can have high job growth or, we can have housing affordability, so what do you think that they’re actually going to? Because you can’t have all of them or maybe you can? What do you think their focus should be, moving forward?

Gene Tunny  46:49

Well, I think the focus should be on the overall health of the economy. So, it should be about making sure that we’ve got the right tax policy settings or we’re spending on the right things, we’re not wasting money. We’re not contributing to the inflationary situation. We’re not enacting silly policies. 

One thing I have been encouraged by is the fact that they’re not doing really silly things, or they’ve knocked back this idea from the greens that we should have a moratorium on coal and gas projects, right? At a time when the coal price has been; well, that’s what Adam Danza saw, right. And at a time when the global coal prices being up at 500, or 400 US a ton for thermal coal, that’s extraordinary. 500 a ton for metallurgical coal, for coking coal. The idea that you’d actually wouldn’t develop any new coal mines when the world is crying out for it, because there’s no gas. We’ve got a global conflict and Europe’s worried about their gas supplies and whether they’ll have enough gas in the winter. Yeah, it’s a bit crazy. Full credit to the prime minister for knocking that back. 

I think there’ll be broadly sensible, but what you’ll see with a labor government is that they’ll be more aligned to what they perceive as the workers. Okay, and they won’t care as much about the costs they impose on business. Okay. And so, you’ve seen that recently. The problem we’ve got is that there are a lot of well-intentioned policies and so it’s hard to argue against a lot of these things, but they are costly to business. This government will probably do more things like this, we saw that there was that recent decision about from about, what is it? Paid leave for if you suffered domestic violence, or family violence? I can see what why that would be a good thing to have, at the same time, there is already paid leave available, you get four weeks if you’re a full-time employee. And this is an additional cost to employers. And you’d have to be a pretty nasty employer if you didn’t look after an employee of yours who was in that situation. I wonder why this sort of move is necessary from the government. Maybe they think it’s not going to have much of a cost because your employers would probably do the right thing, to begin with. 

I guess it’s a signal that this government is probably going to be more focused on the workers, it’s going to be less concerned about the impacts of its policies on employers. One thing that worried a lot of people, a lot of economists and financial commentators, John Keogh wrote a great column on this in the Finn review was when Anthony Albanese in the lead up to the election, talked about how the Fair Work Commission should just agree to wages going up at the rate of inflation. And there was a concern that, well okay, that’s a good thing that just leads to that wage price spiral where, if prices go up, oh, let’s increase wages by the same amount. And then that increases the cost to employers, they pass it on in prices. And then oh, let’s have wages go up again, prices go up again. And they just sort of gradually creep up a little, not gradually, they can increase, they can go up very quickly. And organizations such as the Bank for International Settlements and various other economic agencies around the world have warned about this wage price spiral, and one of the quickest ways to get there is to have automatic indexation of wages to inflation. 

So, there were people concerned about what the PM said there back in the election campaign. Ultimately, it was up to the Fair Work Commission, the Fair Work Commission recommended an increase that wasn’t complete. It was just a bit; I think it was a bit lower than the inflation rate. For non-minimum wage workers is about 4.6% or something, if I remember correctly.

So, that would be my take on it. I think they won’t do anything too crazy. They’ve resisted that crazy proposal from the greens, so, good on them for that. Sorry, go ahead.

Randall Evans  52:15

I follow a few greeny pages on Facebook just to see what they’re yapping on about. And I did see a lot of angry people today about that very thing you’re talking about. Saying, you can’t be for sustainability, but then allow coal mines to open. 

Gene Tunny  52:42

Yeah, well, just on that. it’s a real threat to labor. So, it was the coalition that got smashed on the climate change issue, last election, they ended up losing some of the blue-ribbon seats. But labor’s similarly threatened, right. Labor got what was it? 31% primary vote. So, labor was lucky to, it’s just the way that it played out in terms of the seats that were that were lost. And it managed to be able to form government, even though it ended up getting fewer votes than the coalition. But yeah, it’s in trouble from the greens as well.

All of these inner city seats are turning green. So, I’d be interested to see what happens in the future, whether Labor has to; how it survives, it’s under threat, as well as the coalition. So, I think that’s one thing that’s going to be fascinating to watch in the next few years.

Just on housing, the government’s policy isn’t going to do much for affordability because it was only going to apply to 10,000 people or so. It was it was limited in the amount of people that would apply to and it has to apply to hundreds of thousands of people to really make any sort of impact. The reality is there’s not much the federal government can do because the states are more relevant when it comes to housing because well, one, they’ve got responsibility for social housing. Now, my view is they’re just never going to be able to build enough of that. One of the problems with social housing is that they’re aiming to offer it at below market rent. The challenge there is you’re going to have a huge demand for your social housing because you’re offering something that’s cheaper than what the market is able to provide right? So, you’re never going to win there. You’re always going to be attracting more people, than you’re going to be able to build houses for. 

So, that’s probably not the answer. I think the answer is having a more liberal approach to development, allowing more development, particularly in the inner cities where we have heritage restrictions. There are all sorts of zoning rules around our capital cities. And even across the whole metro area here in Brisbane, for example, where I am, there’s a ban on townhouses in low density neighborhoods. And that’s just really silly. Because, that’s constraining the supply of housing. And there was research by Peter Tulip, at the Reserve Bank when he was there at the Reserve Bank, that showed that these zoning restrictions, they’re massively increasing the cost of housing, like 50, or 60%, something like that. So, that’s up to councils, but state governments, they possibly could do something like that with some of their planning legislation. But the commonwealth really can’t do much about housing. So, even though it’s an issue, it’s a big issue. I’m not sure they really can do much about that. 

The big issues the Commonwealth is facing; there’s the general economic management issue, what its budget deficit is doing for the economy, what its budget deficit means for the accumulation of debt and risk to the credit rating in the future and our ability to service that debt. And so therefore, that’s why Jim Chalmers is having to trim the budget where he can. He’s going to find it difficult though, just because that reason we discussed. Labor sees itself as the party of the workers, it also sees itself as more socially caring, more compassionate than the conservative side of politics. And so, it’s going to be very hard for them to make the substantial budget savings that are necessary.

Randall Evans  57:15

Well, we’ll touch base with you again, in a couple of months’ time and see where we’re at as a nation. And if people want to watch, we’ve had Gene on before, so you can just search for it in the little YouTube bar and watch that episode too. But apart from that, make sure you check out his website. It’s on the screen right now. If you want to have some more in-depth conversations.

Bye Gene. Thanks for your time. Thanks for being here.

Gene Tunny  57:42

Pleasure. Thanks. Thanks, Randall and thanks to everyone listening. Yeah, glad to be to be connecting with you. So, it’s been great. Thank you. 

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 contact@economicsexplored.com And we’ll aim to address them in a future episode. Thanks for listening. Until next week, goodbye.

Credits

Thanks to Randall Evans for letting us borrow the audio from his latest Deactivist show for this episode. Also, thanks to the show’s sponsor, Gene’s consultancy business www.adepteconomics.com.auPlease consider signing up to receive our email updates and to access our e-book Top Ten Insights from Economics at www.economicsexplored.com. Also, please get in touch with any questions, comments and suggestions by emailing us at contact@economicsexplored.com or sending a voice message via https://www.speakpipe.com/economicsexplored. Economics Explored is available via Apple PodcastsGoogle Podcast, and other podcasting platforms.