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Structural budget deficits – EP164

he governments of many countries have structural budget deficits, so even as their economies recover from the COVID-recession they are still running deficits. In many countries, the fundamental structure of the budget is bad. There is too much spending relative to revenue, even in normal or good times, not just in recession. In this episode we explore how economists can calculate structural budget balances. We look specifically at what the Australian Treasury does, given that a new Australian Budget came out last week.

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Links relevant to the conversation

Australian structural budget balance indicators available here:

https://budget.gov.au/2022-23-october/content/bp1/download/bp1_bs-3.pdf

Australian Treasury methodology for estimating structural budget balances:

https://treasury.gov.au/publication/economic-roundup-issue-3-2010/economic-roundup-issue-3-2010/estimating-the-structural-budget-balance-of-the-australian-government

IMF Fiscal Monitor which contains cyclically-adjusted budget balances (Tables A3 and A4):

https://www.imf.org/en/Publications/FM

Media coverage of Australian budget:

https://www.theaustralian.com.au/nation/politics/jim-chalmers-takes-forensic-approach-to-tax-concessions/news-story/25c4e1be826abb87f27c918532a69614

https://www.theaustralian.com.au/nation/bill-shorten-admits-push-to-curb-ndis-cost-growth/news-story/8a15cb3daabd55961e35df957f206bcf

IFS analysis of UK mini budget:

https://ifs.org.uk/articles/mini-budget-response

Transcript: Structural budget deficits – EP164

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. 

So I think this is a really neat methodology that the treasurer is trying to break down the different influences on the budget to see what’s really going on. And what it reveals is that there’s this structural problem with the budget. 

Welcome to the Economics Explored podcast, a frank and fearless exploration of important economic issues. I’m your host Gene Tunny broadcasting from Brisbane, Australia. This is episode 164 on structural budget balances, government budgets around the world was smashed by COVID-19. With countries recording huge deficits and big increases in debt. The governments of many countries have structural budget deficits. So even as their economies recover, they are still running deficits. In many countries, the fundamental structure of the budget is bad. There is too much spending relative to revenue, even in normal times, not just in recession. For example, the IMF estimates the United States will have a structural or cyclically adjusted government budget deficit of five to 7% of GDP over 2023 to 2027. In this episode, we explore how economists can calculate structural budget balances, we consider the different components of budgets, the structural, cyclical and temporary. We look specifically at what the Australian Treasury does, given that a new Australian budget came out last week. Joining me for the conversation is my Adept Economics colleague, Arturo Espinoza. Please check out the show notes relevant links and clarifications and for details where he can get in touch with any questions or comments. I’d love to hear from you. Righto, now for my conversation with Arturo on structural budget balances, thanks for my audio engineer Josh Crotts assistance in producing this episode. I hope you enjoy it. Arturo, good to be with you again.

Arturo Espinoza Bocangel  01:49

Hi Gene. My pleasure to be here.

Gene Tunny  01:51

Excellent. Arturo, so I thought today we could have a good chat about this concept of a structural budget balance. So we had our federal budget, the Australian government budget was released last week. So for 2023, the financial year. And this was because we have a new government. So there was an election in May. And there was a change of government, we now have a Labour government. So a more left wing government than the previous government, which was the Liberal National Government, the coalition government, and in Australia, a Liberal government is actually a conservative government. It’s all very confusing. Right, so we had a change of government and there was some improvement in the current year budget balance because of higher commodity prices, which flow through to, to earnings to and to tax revenue, that the federal government pulls in, particularly from the big mining companies. So there was an improvement in that underlying what they call the underlying cash balance. But this federal government is still running quite significant deficits. So it’s still running a deficit of some $37 billion, this financial year, the previous government did its budget back in May, I think they were projecting that up around must have been nearly 80 billion, I can’t remember exactly. But it was an improvement on that. But it’s still one and a half percent of GDP at $37 billion. And then over what they call the forward estimates, which is out to 25-26. We’ve still got deficits in the range of 40 to $50 billion, approximately, and, you know, up to 2% of GDP is in 24-25. So we’ve still got significant deficits. And the problem that we’re seeing in Australia, and this is similar to in other countries, too, is that governments are just spending much more than they’re bringing in in revenue. I mean, I guess that’s what a deficit is, right? I mean, that’s, but but there’s a problem that, that because of politics, because no one wants to pay taxes, politicians don’t want to put up taxes, and they want to deliver the goodies, they want to fund a high level of services for the population, and that helps them get elected. And so we’ve got this, this problem, this imbalance between what they’re spending and what they’re bringing in in taxes. And this is where I think this structural budget balance concept is of great use. And I just want to talk about that. So does that make sense Arturo, what we’re going to cover today?

Arturo Espinoza Bocangel  04:45

Yeah, that makes sense. It also is a very interesting topic related to government debts and this structural budget.

Gene Tunny  04:58

Yeah, yeah. So It’s always a concept that’s fascinated me. So I used to work in the Treasury in the budget policy area. And when I was there, we didn’t produce this structural budget balance estimate, and there was a big debate about whether Australia should have one and whether it’s feasible to develop one because as we’ll discover, you have to make all sorts of assumptions to generate it. It’s it, there’s a there’s a bit of, you know, there’s there, there’s a bit of number crunching that goes into it. And you have to make all sorts of assumptions regarding, well, what’s the normal state of affairs, because one way of thinking about this structural budget balance is that it’s what the budget would be if you took away the cyclical or cyclical factors. So if you if you’re able to abstract or control for the business cycle, so whether the economy is booming, or whether it’s slumping, then it gives you the budget balance that you would get in that situation, because one of the problems with the standard budget balance as a, as a measure of how the gut of the government is performing in a fiscal sense is that it is what economists call endogenous, it’s determined, partly, it’s determined or largely as determined by the state of the economy is determined within the system, it’s endogenous. It’s not something that the government can, can totally set, exogenously or it doesn’t have full control over it. Because your level of taxes depend on the state of the economy and commodity prices in Australia, if the iron ore prices is really high, or the coal price is high, then BHP, Rio Tinto, et cetera, the big mining companies, they’re only more profits and the federal government, it gets a share that it gets about 30% of their profits. So yeah, that can have a, you know, that can mean billions of dollars to the budget bottom line. And so that’s why we see the budget balance, it’s, it moves with the economic cycle, and so your government could be running a deficit. But that could be understandable, given the state of the economy. And so the underlying budget is okay, the structural part of the budget is okay, that’s not the case with Australia, but I’m just using that as an illustration. So it may be useful. Well, I think it is very useful to adjust for those cyclical factors. And that’s what the Australian Treasury has done in what I think is one of the most useful charts in the budget, which is in their statement on the fiscal outlook chart 320, the structural budget balance. And that really tells a story, it tells a story about how within the federal budget, because of this, this gap between what the government is spending money on and what we’re paying in taxes. So if government spending is at a level of around 26% of GDP. And revenue is under 24% of GDP. Or maybe it’s 25. And 23. It’s sort of that sort of order of magnitude, or it’s those are approximate figures, I’ll put the right figures in the show notes, we’ve got this gap. And this is a permanent gap. It’s a structural gap. And this is what this chart shows of two percentage points of, or 2% of GDP. And this is baked into the budget. And this is what this structural budget balance chart shows. So what they’ve, what they’ve done is the they’ve worked out that structural factors, leading to a deficit of about 2% of GDP, cyclical factors, so the state of the economy, the state of commodity prices, the fact that the iron ore price is super high, the fact that the economy has been booming. What that’s doing is pushing up, or that’s improving the budget balance by looks like 1.8 or 1.9%. If you look at the chart, and what that is telling me and what that is, this is for the current financial year 22-23. What it’s telling me is that, well, if we didn’t have that, that structural problem in the budget where we’re just spending more than we’re, we’re bringing in, and that’s the case and that would be the case in a normal year, in an average year. If we just control the economic cycle. If we didn’t have that structural problem. And if we looked at what the strength of the economy is commodity prices, and the government should be running a budget surplus of nearly 2% of GDP, and in actual fact, it’s running a budget, a budget deficit of what is it, one and a half percent of GDP. So there’s this big, there’s this big gap, which, in a way, represents the additional demand that the government is generating in the economy that isn’t warranted, given the economic circumstances. So the government budget is highly stimulatory to the economy and that is arguably a problem for Well, I think it is a problem, it’s contributing to the inflationary situation that we have in the Australian economy at the moment. And likewise, governments around the world that are running large budget deficits, such as the US government, such as the UK Government are contributing to the inflationary situations in in those countries, because if you looked at what the budget should be, given the state of the economy, it should be in a lot better state than than it is now than then those budgets are now and that’s what this cyclically adjusted budget balance or structural budget balances is approximating. Okay, one of the other fascinating things in that chart, I should note, the Treasurer is prepared on the structural budget balance for Australia, is that in 22-23, there’s still a sizable impact over 1% of GDP coming from temporary fiscal measures. So these are things that are related to COVID 19, to the pandemic response. So even though, I mean, look, I know that COVID COVID is still around, and apparently we’ve got another wave coming. I mean, the worst part of the pandemic is over, but still there is a, we do have these temporary fiscal measures occurring. And so what that means is, yeah, so that’s, that’s something that’s contributing to the, the deficit here in Australia. So what that chart is telling us is that, look, the structural budget, the structural problem in the budget is around two percentage points, or 2% of GDP. The cyclical, the benefit to the budget from the improvement in the economic cycle and higher commodity prices is, is just under 2% of GDP. So what that would suggest is that, that would mean we’d have a budget deficit of just a fraction of GDP, like maybe point one or point 2% of GDP. But then we’ve got these. Actually, it might be point three or point four, I’ll have to check the numbers that don’t put the exact numbers in the charts. I’m just trying to eyeball and I’m not wearing my glasses. But then we’ve got this temporary fiscal measures, which is, which is worsening the budget by over 1% of GDP. And how these all sort of add up is that we end up with a budget deficit in 22-23. Of what was it, one and a half percent. So I think this is a really neat methodology that the treasurer is trying to break down the different influences on the budget to see what’s really going on. And what it reveals is that there’s this structural problem with the budget. And, you know, this is something that all treasuries and finance ministers should do, in my opinion. There are some IMF estimates for other countries we’ll talk about later, the Australian Treasury seems to be doing a really good job at its estimates, and it’s discovered this structural problem, this big hole in the budget. Okay, so does that all make sense Arturo?

Arturo Espinoza Bocangel  14:01

Yeah, that makes sense. That was very clear. This is incredible how Australia is spending around this, because you, you mentioned around two or 3% is spending more than what they receive in terms of revenue. But let’s explore what are the main components of that structure, structural deficit?

Gene Tunny  14:33

Yes, well, a big component, or one of the major contributors to it in recent years, has been the National Disability Insurance Scheme. So it’s this expansion of the welfare state. Now I’m not making any judgement about whether that’s a good idea or not, because it’s very popular, and it’s well intentioned and there are clearly a lot of people out there in need. One of the challenges with it, though, is that it is growing at a very high rate. So it’s not the total structural deficit, because it’s at the moment, I think it’s around $30 billion. So it’s not just the NDIS. It’s other things. And then we have, we’ve had various tax cuts in the past, there’s a stage three tax cut that’s programmed in. So there’s going to be a tax cut in 2024-25, which aims to get rid of one of the tax brackets and to flatten the progressivity of the tax system. And that’s going to cost the budget revenue. So it’s a combination of spending new spending programmes and spending programmes that are costing more money than were expected. Also, we’ve got rising interest, a rising interest bill at the moment because of higher interest rates. And then people on the left of politics would argue, Well, look, the the problem is, we’re just not raising enough in taxation, if you’re going to spend this and that, look, that’s one legitimate perspective. If the government is going to spend this much on a permanent basis, if we are committed to an NDIS, National Disability Insurance Scheme, then we will have to have higher taxes to make the budget sustainable in the long term. I mean, personally, I’d prefer that we’d have lower taxes, we would, we would, we would get spending under control. But look, if we can’t get spending under control, then we may have to, we may have to put up with that. So because ultimately, we do need a sustainable budget, we’ve got to keep that debt to GDP ratio under control. At the moment, the projections are that for Australia, it’s not looking catastrophic yet, luckily, I mean, it’s on the current budget projections, it’s going to get up to around 48% of GDP. So it’s going to plateau around that, by the What is it 2030 to 2033. There’s another chart where they’re projecting that in how that’s going to perform. So this is the debt to GDP, which is one of the critical ratios that commentators, economists, ratings agencies, like S&P and Fitch and Moody’s, what they look at. And I mean, Australia’s lucky we started off with so what we started off with no debt to begin with, in 2008, we had, we had negative net debt, and we only had $50 billion of bonds on issue. So we’re in a good position to start with, so we’re at, we’re only gonna get up to about 50% of GDP at the moment compared with you look at the states, which is the US it’s over. We had a look the other day, didn’t we? I mean, it’s up 120 to 130% of GDP or something. Yeah. Okay. It’s very high if you look at projections for actual data and projections for the US. So we’re, we’re nowhere near that what’s happening is that the outlook is worsening. So if you look at that Treasury chart and the budget, compared with where we were back in May, or back in April, when the government released its last budget, that’s right before the election, and then the Treasury put out the pre election, fiscal, economic and fiscal outlook, the instead of the gross debt to GDP ratio, peaking around 24-25 and then falling as the economy grows, and the debt doesn’t, doesn’t grow as fast, which was what they were previously forecasting back in April. And they had the gross debt to GDP ratio going to 40%. Instead, it’s going to continue to grow over this decade, and then start to flatten out around 2032 to 33 at around 48%. And I mean, who knows that could get worse. I mean, this out. So much depends on what happens with interest rates and a big part of this change, why things are worse now than they were back in April is one, it’s because this NDIS is growing, the cost of that is growing faster than expected. And also because of the higher interest burden. I think that’s really shocked people and this is something I’ve been calling out for a while I’ve been identifying for a while that this as interest rates rise, that’s going to have a big impact on the budget, because we’ve got so much debt already not as much as other countries but still more than we’ve had in the past. So well in the last few decades, okay, so does that answer your question Arturo? You’re asking about where’s it come from? And yeah, where’s that structural deficit come from? And look, it’s a, it’s a variety of things. It’s just our willingness to bear the taxes. It’s either you can either look at it as our unwillingness to pay the taxes that we need to to fund the level of services. That’s one perspective. That’s the perspective of people like The Australia Institute, they would argue that all these things we’re spending money on. So from a left wing perspective, I’m not making any judgments at the moment about, I mean, I’ve got my own personal judgement, but I’ll just present both sides of the story, they would argue we’re not, we’re not raising revenue. And then the people on the other side, they would like the IPA or whoever the right, they would argue, well, we’re actually spending too much relative to what we’re paying in taxes, the level of taxation is fine or should be cut even further, let’s cut expenditure. And the government itself is very conscious it, it doesn’t want to raise taxes, right, because raising taxes is politically unpopular. No one wants to buy any more tax. So it looks like the government itself recognises that it will have to cut spending. I mean, maybe it’ll try and tweaks and tax policy settings or, or cuts in tax concessions. Jim Chalmers, the Treasurer here who he’s talking about taking a forensic approach to tax concessions. There was a story in the Australian today, so it looks like they’re gonna have a look at some of those tax concessions, so who knows they could look at tax concessions for superannuation, and they could look at our concessional taxation of capital gains, things like that. So we’ll have to wait and see what happens there. But look in the IRS is the one that they really need to look at because it’s just growing at a very high rate. So let me try to illustrate that with some figures. So last week’s federal budget so I’m quoting from a report in the Australian day today revealed the NDIS which will cost the federal and state governments $35.5 billion this financial year is on track to hit 52 billion by 2025 26, dwarfing the costs of both Medicare and aged care. So long term Treasury forecasts suggests the federal government’s contribution to the scheme will grow by almost 14% a year for the next decade, with total scheme costs approaching 100 billion by 2030 to 33. It became operational in 2013. It currently has 555,000 participants. Its annual financial sustainability reports suggest numbers will reach almost 860,000 by 2030. More young people with diagnoses of autism and psychosocial disorders are entering the scheme. Almost a third of current participants have an autism diagnosis. And four and 10 are age 14 and under. So this is an illustration of one of the challenges of public services. I think because there is a lot of need out there are a lot of people who are doing it tough or there’s a lot of need in the community. And as soon as the government gets involved, there are a lot of pressures on the government to expand the level of service to increase the level of service. This is a great challenge for the government. I remember when I was in workplace health and safety here in Queensland, it’s nearly 20 years ago now. I remember the policy discussions around the need to look after people who are catastrophically injured. This NDIS has come out of a need to at least look after people who fell through the cracks of the previous system. What happened years ago was if you were catastrophically injured say you had a diving accident. And it was recreational diving. You weren’t covered by any insurance. Okay, there’s, it’s it wasn’t a motor vehicle accident. It wasn’t a workplace accident. And there would be very high costs of care if you were made quadriplegic, for example, but there’s no insurance to cover you. And so there was this concern that there are these people who are missing out. And so there’s clearly some sort of there was a need definitely to do something to help those people out. And this whole NDIS from what I can tell grew out of that conversation that was occurring around the early 2000s because I remember being part of the conversation at the Queensland Government level and some of the policy development there and then it came out of this 2008, the 2020 summit that Kevin Rudd organised his ideas fest that they had in the talk fest that they had at Parliament House and, and they invited 1000 of the best and brightest from around Australia. And this was one of the ideas that was advanced at the summit. And, this was one of the ones that progressed and then the Gilad government introduced that I think in 2013. And look, it’s a really valid thing. There is certainly cases, people that needed assistance. The problem is where do you draw the line, and this is a problem that governments often have. And here, the line has become, the circle has expanded even more. And I mean, people or families with autism, and with developmental delay, certainly need assistance. And I’m on the board of a non-for-profit that advocates for families where a child has a developmental delay, so I fully understand the concerns. And the need. The issue is that there’s a big cost to the budget from having this expansive definition. And the government is currently I mean, we’ll have to wait and see what it what it does about it all. Okay, we’ll take a short break here for a word from our sponsor.

Female speaker  26:23

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Gene Tunny  26:52

Now back to the show. So any questions or any thoughts on that Arturo?

Arturo Espinoza Bocangel  27:01

No, at the moment..

Gene Tunny  27:02

Good. So yeah, that’s essentially where we’ve got this structural budget balance problem coming from Australia. And I thought it might be good just to go over quickly, what the different sources or the different ways that they adjust for the state of the economy. And what it comes down to is coming up with estimates of how the economy would have performed, what it would do in the absence of a business cycle. So you have to work out what a trend level of GDP is. So the if you think about macro economics, one way of thinking about how the economy evolves over time is a cycle and trend. There’s the economy. Over time, we know that the economy expands. So the economy today is much larger than it was 10 years ago, it’s much larger than it was 20 years ago, 30 years ago. So over time it grows, there’s trend growth, it’s on an upward trajectory. But it will cycle around that trend. So you can have periods where you’re well above that trend when the economy’s booming. And then you can have periods when you’re, you’re well below you’re in a recession, for example. And so what these structural budget balance estimates, what they do, is they will they based on an estimate of what that trend level of GDP would be. And so what they will do, what the Treasury will do, if they will look at, well, what’s the underlying population growing at? What’s productivity, on average growing at? And are there any trends in labour force participation that we need to take into account? And this is this supply side model, underpinning these trend GDP estimates? So these are what you would expect in the absence of a business cycle. And so that’s one of the core parts of it, they’re trying to control the business cycle. And then they also have to control commodity prices. So they’ll look at well, how much higher than we normally are commodity prices, the iron ore price or coal price, how much higher are they than we normally expect them to be? And let’s discount that, let’s, let’s, let’s assume that they’re not so high. And so the Treasury will have these parameters. They’ll have these sensitivities of different types of these revenue, items of income tax and company income tax, two different commodity prices they’ll have, and they’ll have an estimate of how sensitive the unemployment benefits that are paid are to the state of the economy to where GDP is relative to its trend. And I think that’s the one item that the Treasury adjusts. So it tweaks it adjust revenue on the revenue side and adjusts income tax and company tax. And I think capital gains tax, if I remember correctly on the expenditure side, it just adjusts unemployment benefits. We know that unemployment benefit payments are going to be higher if the economy’s in recession, lower if it’s, if it’s booming. And so there’s an adjustment that’s made there. And there’s a whole bunch of assumptions that go into these estimates. Does that all make sense Arturo?

Arturo Espinoza Bocangel  30:39

Yes, it’s all clear.

Gene Tunny  30:42

Okay, so what I’ll do is I’ll put a link in the show notes to a paper estimating the structural budget balance of the Australian government that was by three of my old colleagues. So Tony McDonald, Yong Hong Yan, who I don’t know, Blake Ford and David Stephan, I worked with Tony, Blake and David. So all good people. So that’s a great paper. I’ll link to that in the show notes. And I’ve noticed that the IMF also produces some estimates of these structural budget balances, although they call them, they use the other, the other name for them cyclically adjusted balance, and you can find these at the back of what’s called the IMF fiscal monitor. And I’m looking at the one from October 2022. So check that out. There’s a whole range of interesting estimates there. So if for example, you look at table A3 for advanced economies, general governments cyclically adjusted balance 2013, to 27. So it’s got historical data, it’s got forecasts in it. For Australia, they’ve got their own estimates of what the structural budget deficit is, they’ve got estimates that go from around, or three and a half percent in 2022. So that’s a calendar year 3.1%, deficit and 2324 to 2.6%. And it gets down to about .7%, deficit in 2027. So not as bad as the Australian Treasury’s estimates, which are, which have the structural deficit maintaining around 2%. There are reasons why the IMF figures are different from the Australian Government’s because the IMF, the IMF doesn’t take into account as many factors. It’s on a calendar year basis, the Treasury and I think in one of its papers, it goes through why it’s estimates are different from say, the IMF or the OECD, I think for Australia, the Treasury are probably doing a better job at it just because the IMF and and the other agency, international agencies, they have to do it for all the countries and they’re not experts in any particular country. I think the Australian Treasury’s estimates are probably better for getting a sense of the structural problem in the budget, the Treasury has got access to, to much better info, much better data on Australia, then the IMF, it’s got much better insights, I should say, into what’s going on. And its model for the structural budget balance for Australia is much more precise. It goes into more detail than the IMF. So all I’m saying is I think the, I think the Australian Treasury numbers are better than what the IMF is, is estimating there. And I tend to agree that there is that structural budget balance of, of 2% of GDP, which is a challenge for this current government, and will probably be a challenge for future governments. And it’s going to require either large cuts in spending. So getting the NDIS under control, which is going to be hugely unpopular, because it’s a very popular programme and well intentioned. And I know people are benefiting from it. And you know, it’s, it’s, it’s giving people a sense of dignity and improving people’s quality of life. So look, who knows, I mean, this government, because it’s a government from the sort of left wing I mean, it’s not as left wing as some other governments you’d see around the world. It’s not left if you think about what left, left wing governments are in South America, for example. But it’s not. It’s going to find it difficult because it is more left wing than right wing. So the Liberal National Government is going to find it difficult to cut something like NDIS or cut welfare benefits, and hence maybe it does have to look at some tax measures. Maybe it does have to cut it tax concessions heavily. Maybe it does have to adjust that stage three tax cut that’s programmed in, maybe not give us much of much, maybe not have such a big tax cut. We’ll have to wait and see. Okay. Anything else Arturo, that we should cover before we wrap up?

Arturo Espinoza Bocangel  35:21

Yes, I think I wanted to highlight that it should be a good discussion was a good topic to see which of those programmes social programmes are working? Good in terms of indicators. So in terms of the results on population, you’re in to see if there is any problem there. But because we know that not all the things are all the social programmes are working well. Perhaps that will be a good topic to discuss, to discuss in other episodes.

Gene Tunny  36:04

Yeah, look, I think you’re right there. And what this is highlighting I think, Arturo is yes, the need to, to really delve into whether these programmes are working or not, because we’ve got these programmes that are well intentioned, that governments they hope to do some good to achieve outcomes, but how do we know that they are actually achieving outcomes? Are they doing it in the most cost effective way? And that’s why something like this evaluate a general concept could be so valuable. This is an idea that the first person I remember proposing it was Nicolas Gruen. And so Nick’s been on the show before, well known Australian economist, CEO of lateral economics, I do some work with Nick from time to time. And, you know, he’s been involved in public policy for decades, he was involved with the button car plan back in the 80s. He was involved with your work for the treasurer in the 90s, very lateral thinker, and he came up with this idea of the evaluator general, which would have a, it would have a brief of going across the Australian Government and figuring out which programmes work, which don’t, are there other ways we do things, other innovative ways we can do things to, to solve problems. And it looks like this government is going to go ahead with some sort of evaluator general. So Jim Chalmers has pledged to put in place an effective and rigorous evaluator general and new offers based within treasury and flagged by Labour before the 2019 election, which could work with other departments to access to assess the effectiveness of government programmes. Okay, great stuff. So this is in an article by Joe Kelly in the Australian, I’ll put a link in the show notes that I was quoting from there. I think one of the issues Nick has with that proposal, though, is that it’s located within the Treasury, I think he would prefer that it has its own life, it’s outside of the Treasury. It’s a statutory authority, it has some degree of independence granted by the parliament. So yeah, I don’t think Nick’s actually I can’t speak for him. I should have him on the show to talk about that. But I’m guessing he’s probably thinks that that’s not exactly what we need. But look, I should let him. Let him speak about that in the future. So that’s the evaluator general. So I think that’s the sort of thing you’re driving at is it Arturo? That we, because we need to evaluate these programmes. The evaluator General’s one way of doing that. Exactly. So one thing I thought I should cover before we wrap up, is just what happened with the UK earlier. When was it last month? Or remember, they had their mini budget, maybe it was in September now? They had the mini budget, Liz Truss the new PM, no longer PM, shortest reigning PM in British history. And the chancellor Kwasi kwarteng, I think it was, and they released that mini budget with a big tax cut, and the markets just absolutely went nuts. The pound crashed. We had yields on UK bonds spike, because everyone there and this is the recognition that there was a structural problem already with the UK budget, the UK couldn’t afford to have a tax cut, who was going to spend, go on spending what it was spending, and it’s just quite extraordinary the way that the Institute of Fiscal Studies describe that and I’ll put a link to this in the show notes, I think it’s a great note and some really good take on it. The way they describe that mini budget, which has been reversed because the current, there’s a recognition that it was unsustainable, so we’ve got a new PM now and a new chancellor, and they’re, and they’re, they’ve reversed that. I think Liz truss, had even reversed it. And she had sacked her Chancellor, but okay, so it’s gone. But for a short time it was in place and the markets absolutely freaked out. And yeah, this is the IFS take, which I think is great, which was made at the time the chancellor announced the biggest package of tax cuts in 50 years without even a semblance of an effort to make the public finance numbers add up. That is just brutal. Goes to show just how important it is to actually care about this stuff. And I mean, I’ve been saying this for years, I used to work in the Treasury in the budget area, and I know how important it is to get this stuff right and not to go and do silly things. And so I understand where IFS is coming from and understand why the markets really just hated that mini budget. And there’s a great, there’s a great chart and that IFS analysis, which showed that if you look at what was happening to the, to the national debt or the the UK public debt, if you compare that mini budget, what would have happened with the mini budget was what was expected before so instead of the debt as a percent of national income, staying in the range from 80 to 85%, of GDP going down gradually, over the next five years, from around 85 to 80. Instead, it was going to end up going from a bit under 85% to nearly 95%. So it’s just a really bad policy. So understandably, that mini budget was absolutely. Yeah, I mean, the markets just reacted very badly and essentially brought down the Prime Minister and the Chancellor, just because, yeah, it was just very irresponsible fiscal policy. And that’s what we’ve always got to guard against now. We’re not there yet in Australia because we started off in such a good position, debt to GDP is still relatively low compared with other countries. We’ve got a bit of room, still we’ve got time, we’ve got time to turn it around. But we’ve got to start doing something because we just can’t be in a situation where we keep accumulating debt. And we know, we know there’ll be another crisis of some kind, there’ll be a downturn, hopefully, we don’t have another pandemic, but there’s going to be another crisis, there’ll be a period when we end up adding lots of debt in a short period of time or a few years. And that will mean a higher interest burden, these projections of our debt to GDP, starting to flatten out around 2032 to 33 at 48% of GDP. Okay, that could give us some comfort, but we just don’t know what’s coming down the track. My worry is that interest rates could go higher. There could be another downturn or a crisis and then we add more debt on and then that gross debt to GDP, instead of flattening out it goes on an upward trajectory. That’s a risk I worry about and why it’s so important to get the budget under control. Okay. Final thoughts, Arturo?

Arturo Espinoza Bocangel  43:39

No, thank you for all your explanation Gene.

Gene Tunny  43:43

Very good. Well, it’s been great chatting with you, Arturo. And I’ll look forward to chatting again. And if you’re listening in the audience, if you want to look at any of these, these articles I’ve mentioned, I’ll put links in the show notes. Please get in touch with any questions or comments. Let me know whether you agree or disagree. Let me know if they’re things you want to know more about, and I’ll do my best to cover them in a future episode. So thanks for listening. And Arturo, thanks for joining me.

Arturo Espinoza Bocangel  44:14

Thank you for having me, Gene. Bye.

Gene Tunny  44:17

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

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

How the Australian Bureau of Statistics prepares the National Accounts w/ Robert Ewing – EP162

The National Accounts is the comprehensive data set on a country’s economic performance. It gives us GDP growth estimates and a whole bunch of other important indicators. Australian Bureau of Statistics Principal Advisor Robert Ewing takes us behind the scenes at the ABS and provides some great info and insights into how the GDP figures are prepared. Learn about the huge range of economic data from households, businesses, and governments that go into the National Accounts, the roles played by algorithms and judgment, and how the numbers are crunched using the time series database FAME, short for Forecasting Analysis and Modeling Environment. 

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

Robert Ewing’s LinkedIn profile:

Economics Explored EP153 which also considered the National Accounts

Transcript: How the Australian Bureau of Statistics prepares the National Accounts w/ Robert Ewing – EP162

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.

Robert Ewing  00:04

It’s the work of hundreds of people across the ABS once you count the people in the survey divisions, the data acquisition divisions, all the other publications such as the balance of payments, the capital expenditure, the business indicators publication, which all feed into the national accounts.

Gene Tunny  00:24

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 162 on how the national accounts are put together, my guest is Robert Yuen from the Australian Bureau of Statistics, the ABS. Rob is the principal adviser to the ABS statistical services group. In this episode, Rob takes us behind the scenes of the ABS and provide some great info and insights into how the GDP figures are prepared. While Rob and I chat about the Australian National Accounts, I hope this conversation is useful for you, wherever you’re living. statistical agencies around the world will be using similar data and procedures to the ABS as they prepare their own GDP figures. 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 either Rob or I have to say in this episode, I’d love to hear from you. Right now for my conversation with Rob Ewing on the national accounts. Thanks to my audio engineer, Josh Crotts for his assistance in producing this episode. I hope you enjoy it. Robert Ewing from the Australian Bureau of Statistics, good to have you on the programme.

Robert Ewing  01:42

Very happy to be here Gene, always keen to spread the gospel of the great work that the ABS is doing statistics and trying to tell people the story of what’s going on in the economy.

Gene Tunny  01:53

Excellent. Well, I’ve been really impressed, Rob, that you’ve been communicating on LinkedIn, you’ve been talking about the data and giving us some insights into how the ABS compile the data. And I mean, one of the sets of data I’m really interested in is the national accounts and GDP, which is the statistic that measures the amount of economic activity in a certain period of time. And I’d be keen to chat with you about GDP given that you’re at the ABS and you’re involved in, in collecting the data and, and crunching the numbers to create the GDP figures. I chatted previously with a colleague of mine, Brendan Marquis Taylor, we chatted about the three different measures of GDP, would you be able to kick off by telling us what those measures are, please Rob, why do we need three different measures?.

Robert Ewing  02:48

Sure, so I should just say at the outset that, you know, today, I’m going to skip over an awful lot of the technical detail. And so I’m sure that the more statistical methodology knowledgeable are going to be screaming occasionally. But it is very complicated. The manual for the national accounts is several 100 pages long, and you know, can take a lot to get into. I think to start with, I tend to think of the GDP as it’s one concept that you can measure three ways. So GDP, as you say, is the measure of all economic activity. But we have to get a bit more specific than that. One of the things I’ve been talking about on LinkedIn is this idea of the production boundary, we have to put boundaries around GDP, because really, anything you could think of could be economic activity, we have to narrow that down a bit. And so we focus on market activity. And we focus within market activity on production. So GDP is a measure of the total value of production for the market sector in an economy over a period of time. It turns out that the way that the national accounts frameworks are set up, and it very clever frameworks developed over you know, more than 50 years by international groups. You could also measure this two other ways. So the first way is to measure how much income everybody in the economy has gotten from these productive activities. So if you measure the total amount of money that goes to labour, what’s called compensation of employees in the national accounts, and if you measure broadly, the national accounts concept of profit, what’s called gross operating surplus. And so if you add those two together across the entire economy, then you also get a measure of GDP. And that’s because if you think about production, well the measure of production is how much what you produce is worth minus how much you had to buy, in order to produce it, or the two things that are left over after that are income and profit. So it’s quite easy to see how those two match up. The third way, which is the expenditure method of GDP, is to think about it from the other side and think that will, we know, in economies and in markets, that there’s both a supply the production, but also a demand the consumption of the goods. And so the expenditure approach looks at where all this production of goods and services in the economy gets used. And so it adds together, the total amount of money spent by households, the total money spent by governments, some of the things that we produce gets sent overseas. And so we count the exports. Some things go into a warehouse, even though be produced, so we count inventories. And then we didn’t produce all the inputs that we use. So we subtract imports. And so that also gives you that same measure of how much was produced in the economy. And so those are the three measures of GDP, which are normally called the E measure, the I measure and the P measure in Australia. In theory, if you have measured everything absolutely perfectly, they will be equal.

Gene Tunny  05:58

Yeah, conceptually, from the way that they’ve that just because of the theory, and there’s a national accounting framework, isn’t there. So you were talking about this has been developed over 50 years? I mean, that’s since the you’re talking about since the UN codified it, I think, did they try and codify it in the late 60s? And then there’ll be various iterations of that approach? And we follow that there’s an international methodology.

Robert Ewing  06:27

Yeah, that’s right. So there’s the system of national accounts. So I think the first one was 1968. And that was building off kind of a lot of international cooperation. But I believe 1968 was the first time they really sit down like a consistent set of international rules. There was an update to it in 1993, and update in 2008. And if you do the math between those, you won’t be surprised to know that there’s an update currently underway thinking about further changes to the system of national accounts. And that will be due out for hopefully for endorsement by the UN statistical commission in 2025.

Gene Tunny  07:04

Yeah, yeah. And I remember from my time being on ABS reference committees for different things, or the technical reference groups, just all of the the issues you have to think about and R&D is a tricky one. I remember that, but we don’t need to go into into that today. I’m keen to understand what sort of data go into this Rob. I mean, you mentioned there’s production, there’s, there’s income, there’s expenditure. So is the ABS collecting data on all of these different transactions? You’re collecting data from businesses, you’re collecting it from households? What sort of data go into the mix, Rob for GDP?

Robert Ewing  07:46

Well, I think the short answer is anything that you can get your hands on. So a good national accountant is a bit of a data scavenger, because we’re only ever looking through kind of little windows into the economy. Kind of weird, we only have these narrow snapshots. So probably the two absolute most core measures of that production side, firstly, the annual economic activity survey. And so that’s a quite a large survey that we do once a year. And we go out to businesses, and we asked them quite a lot of questions about what they produce, how much money they made, you know, kind of how their money was spent, and so forth. And that allows us, in particular, to do what is quite a complicated little fiddly job, which is to try and convert things from the world of business accountancy, into national accountancy, because there are some things where there are some very, very important differences between the way that GDP is measured. And the way that business accounts are put together. The two most important are probably the concept of profit, which can be measured quite differently to that concept of gross operating surplus I talked about before, and also the concept of depreciation, and the differences between economic depreciation and accounting depreciation. But, you know, there are a lot of very complex nuances about that. And so a lot of the economic activity surveys asking the questions that allow us to take the business’s accounting estimates and convert them into economic estimates. So that’s absolutely kind of a foundational piece of us understanding that business side of the economy. So at a quarterly level, then its equivalent will be the quarterly business indicators survey. So that’s a somewhat smaller survey and asks a much smaller set of questions was kind of trying to give us a bit of an idea about what’s happening quarter to quarter, as well. And that’s kind of a very important survey there but the range of inputs is enormous. I’m household final consumption expenditure quarterly uses something like 15 or 20 different input data series, including retail trade, data from APRA, data from various private sector organisations who provide information, data from the quarterly business indicators surveys. So there’s a, an absolute broad range, because things like those big economic activity survey or the quarterly business indicators survey don’t necessarily cover everything. And so we bring the other bits of information to kind of tell us about, particularly the expenditure side of GDP, but also thinking about the role of government, where we have a lot of data that comes directly from federal, state, territory and local governments and tells us about their activities. We have detailed trade information, probably some of our most detailed data sets on the trade side, which allows us to get a pretty good idea of what’s going on with exports and imports. We rely very heavily on the consumer price index and the Producer Price Index publications, because they give us an idea of prices in the economy. And they allow us to convert those current price numbers into volume estimates of what’s going into GDP. So the real GDP as it’s often called.

Gene Tunny  11:17

Right, okay, yep. And that’s, that’s what’s often reported, that’s the that’s seen, that’s the data set that are the item that is looked at to determine whether the economy is going into recession or not. It’s that real GDP number, that volume number where you’re trying to abstract or control for inflation that occurs? Okay, so you’ve got less data for quarterly GDP than annual, it seems, is that right? So you’ve got detailed estimates, annually, you’ve got this other survey, quarterly, you’ve got, I mean, you still got a whole bunch of data. And what are you doing? You’ve got all of these models? You’ve got I mean, Is it done in spreadsheets? Are we able to go into that, or is it in R or or Python? And then is there some way of describing what goes on?

Robert Ewing  12:10

Well, so it is, fundamentally, it’s a very large code base, in our language and computer stuff, piece of software called Fame. And if anybody listens here, knows Fame and doesn’t currently work at the ABS, please immediately make a job application, we’ll fast track you, we need as many people who know this fairly obscure computer language as possible. And so we have here that’s 1000s and 1000s, of lines of code across all sorts of different modules. The basic approach is we’re trying to build things up from the absolute base level estimates. So we’re trying to look at the lowest level of the information that comes in and when we build the GDP up from that, so it’s very much a bottoms up approach to estimating it. The approach that we take is quite different in different areas. So in some cases, we get pretty good information, quarter by quarter on what is happening in the economy. So exports and imports, as I mentioned, is a pretty good case. We know, not perfectly but you know, we have almost census level data, we know almost every transaction that’s happening with imports and exports, there are some complexities around imports and exports of services where we don’t have as strong information. But we have a pretty good idea about what’s happening there. And so all we really need to do is just make some conceptual and timing adjustments and add everything up at the other end of the spectrum would be something like imputed rent. This is a really interesting kind of concept here in GDP. So one of the really important parts of the overall economy is the service we all get from the houses that we live in. Now some of us pay for that to the rent that we send to our landlord, kind of once every week or fortnight or month. But if you own your own home, we still want to count that value, because it’s still an economic service that’s being provided in a market like environment. And so for that we have what’s called imputed rent. So we impute how much rent is there. The data set that we have for that is primarily the Australian census. So every five years as part of the census, we go out and measure every household in Australia. And that also gives us an estimate of how many households they are there are and in what type of houses and in what locations. And so putting that into a model allows us to estimate imputed rent. But between censuses, we don’t have a solid survey or a data point. And so we have to model that. So it’s really a form of nowcasting. We’re using the information that we have about changes in the population, information about household formation and information about kind of your building construction. estimates of how much demolitions are happening to us forget how the number of households are changing and we obviously have information about rents from other series. And so at that end of the spectrum, it’s really a model, which is using a bit of data. But it’s not a massive amount of data compared to like its base, which is set every five years with the census. And that will be something the team will be turning its mind to very shortly having just had the second set of census results released.

Gene Tunny  15:21

Yes, yes. Great, great work. Everyone’s excited about that. So I saw your boss, David Gruen who’s well, it was, I mean, we both worked for him and within the various times in Treasury when we were there, and you’re working for him again, at ABS. He’s been getting a bit of media on that on people working from home, which is good to see. So all very good. Rob, can I ask you about this quarterly data? So you’ve got all of these bits of data going into it? And you’ve got these different modules? And there’s all this code? Which was a revelation. So I’ll have to do some research on that. I found that fascinating. What’s the quality of the quarterly data like? I mean, I know you revise it in the future, and there’s a statistical discrepancy, isn’t there? Could you tell us a bit about what the quality of that is like first, and then we might go into the annual data and what you’re doing there? How you’re trying to, yep. If you can tell us about that, please. That’d be great.

Robert Ewing  16:20

Yes, sure. So I think that’s so I think there’s two answers given to the quality of the quarterly data. So this is all in the context of we kind of spent a lot of time and a lot of resources and a lot of effort on making the quality, the highest it can be. But inevitably, a lot of the systems and the data in the economy is fundamentally on an annual, particularly financial year basis. So if you think about the financial accounts of the company, they will be producing kind of view monthly and quarterly financial information. But it’s only at the end of the year, that they really do that complete process of producing a full set of accounts, and making all of the adjustments and thinking about all of the different bits and pieces they need to take into account. And no matter how well you’ve gathered the quarterly data, the annual data is always going to be better. So you’re always going to have this view of the world that is a little bit sketchy. And yeah, and I think that if you look at the revisions, the revisions, they will move the numbers around, they very rarely change the story of what’s going on. So GDP might move up a little point one or point two, down to point one or point two, but very rarely does the story of what’s happening to the economy change very substantially. The other element to that is that even the quarterly estimates get a bit better with time. So we produce the estimates for GDP, roughly nine weeks after the end of the quarter. So our June quarter is published in the first week of September, on the first Wednesday in September. So that is a pretty good amount of time. But there’s still information that continues to come in, there will be businesses that we surveyed, who didn’t have time to respond, there will be data sources, for instance, ATO tax data, some of that won’t even arrive until after the national accounts has been published. So our picture of each quarter gets better with time as we gather more data, and you know, some late returns come in. And so that’s part of what contributes. But the big story is that really, GDP is fundamentally an annual measure that we can do on a finer time horizon using really a combination of different approaches. And for some things, such as household final consumption expenditure, there’s not a massive difference in the quality between the quarterly and the annual household final consumption expenditure has pretty much the same sets of information. But if you’re thinking about production, it’s quite different. And yeah, you mentioned statistical discrepancy. I think this is probably a good, a good way to talk about how we actually measure those three measures of GDP in practice, and how we actually make them equal to each other as they theoretically should be. So when we measure GDP every quarter, we can. It is very rare that the three measures come out exactly the same. Probably has happened once or twice. We were probably very suspicious when it did happen. As of now that can’t be right. There can’t be equal. We do two things in response there. Firstly, we use the differences between them as a way of looking at the different components and models and data sources and thinking about, are there gaps here? Are there adjustments that we should be making? There are other pieces of information that we should be seeking that would allow us to bring those measures closer together, but we’re not going to arbitrate them all together without some source of evidence for that. And so the three measures will be a little bit different from each other. So in order to get the measure of GDP that’s published on the front page of the webpage, what we do is we average the three of them. And so we have what’s called GDP A for average. And that is really just literally you add the three measures, and you divide by three. And you know, for those who are fans of the details, you’d notice, now we’re doing that in terms of the level of GDP, not the percentage change. Now, of course, it would be nice to get rid of that statistical discrepancy. And to do that, we need that information set that we have for the annual publication. And this brings us to, I suppose, what is the core of kind of producing like the benchmark GDP estimates, which is a process that’s called supply use balancing. And so I talked before about the idea that we can match production to income to expenditure at that top level. But in theory, we can also do that for every individual product that’s produced in the economy, that we should be able to say, for every products, let’s say, mushrooms, just picking on that one, because it’s very early in the list. We know, you know, in theory, we know we’ve produced you know, this many mushrooms. And you know, we know this many mushrooms got used by restaurants and other people and food manufacturers, this many mushrooms got sold to households, this many mushrooms got exported. And so in theory, we know well, those two numbers, the supply of the product and the use of the product have to be equal. We’ve defined as the way we’ve defined GDP, of course, the way that we’ve measured everything, through all these different surveys, we haven’t gotten a complete survey of every single person in the economy, we haven’t asked every single household what they consume. So we know there are some errors there and they don’t balance. And so every year, we go through this process of supply use balancing where we look at products, we don’t look at it at the level of every single kind of view, 375 mil Coke can, and 750 mil Coke can, and we have about 300 products that we look at so that we broad categories, like legal services, or metal, steel manufacturing products, or things like that. And we look for each of those products. We want to balance, how much was produced, how much got used by households, by government, how much got exported, how much went into inventories, and how much was used by other industries in their own production. And we make sure across all of those products, the supply and use is balanced. And once we’ve achieved that, then we have the three measures of GDP will be equal, because we’ve now brought those two halves of the measurement of the economy together. And so that’s, I suppose that’s the really, that’s the big work that kind of goes on, after a year is completed. So once we’ve finished the financial year, then the work starts on producing those supply use tables and doing that balancing. And when you’ve done that, the reason that’s important is I suppose it gives you that foundation that you can build on. So when policymakers are looking at GDP, they’re mainly going to be focused on what’s happening to GDP. Right now, they don’t care about what happened to GDP a year and a bit ago, which is about how long it takes us to produce those supply use tables. But through producing them, we make sure we’ve got an accurate representation of how much every different industry and sector and product matters. And so when we take that information, that’s you know, kind of you know, that lesser information set that we have quarterly to update the numbers and say, well, this is how much this bid has grown. We’ve given GDP the best base to sense, put everything together and give you the most accurate information out of the most recent quarter.

Gene Tunny  24:14

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

Female speaker  24:19

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Gene Tunny  24:48

Now back to the show. So this they supply use tables. That’s what you’d call an input-output table. Is that right Rob? This is an input-output table your developing, how these industries interact with each other, the flows of resources between them and then what goes to sales, what’s exported, etc?

Robert Ewing  25:09

It’s a very closely related cousin of an input-output table. So there are a couple of pretty technical differences between supply use tables and input-output tables. Importantly, in Australia, the input-output tables that we produce are a lot more detail. So I mentioned supply use, we’ve got about 60 industries times 300 products, when we get to the input-output tables, we’re able to expand that to about 115 industries and a bit over 900 progress. So we can give you more detail in the parameters as a couple of other technical details. But it’s broadly that same sort of concept. It’s trying to understand what is produced in the economy, and how it flows through the economy. And they’re a very powerful analytical tool.

Gene Tunny  25:53

Yeah, absolutely and Rob what I think’s interesting is you meant just, I mean, you’ve got all of this data and you’ve got these three measures that on a quarterly basis, you’re trying to get as close as possible. And you mentioned that, look, you have to make some adjustments. I mean, so there’s some judgement involved, but that’s going to be informed as much as possible by other data or whatever information you’re gathering. And you talked about he getting data from a huge range of sources, government and your own surveys, from the private sector. You probably can’t go into this. But what I’ve what I’ve been surprised at now is just how much real time data or up to date data that banks for instance, so the who else is Dun and Bradstreet, they’ve got whatever they’re called now, they’ve got more up to date data about how things are going into the economy, I presume the ABS is, is trying to get hold of some of that data.

Robert Ewing  26:52

Yeah, no, absolutely. And we have, for instance, on the bank data, we have a new publication, it’s been running since February this year, which is the monthly household spending indicator. And so that takes information from bank transactions, so credit card and debit card data. And it gives you a much broader picture of what’s happening to household consumption, then the retail trade survey does, the retail trade survey was a great survey. It’s one of the longest running surveys, and it’s very closely watched. But it only tells you about a third of consumption. Because today, in terms of things, you can walk into a store and buy or kind of buy through a retailer online, that’s only about a third of what households consume every day, when we’ve got the amount of the household spend indicator variable to expand out to more categories of consumption. And so that covers a little over two thirds of consumption of households. So that kind of finer grained data is definitely something we’re very interested in. Another example is the monthly business turnover indicator, which is another fairly recent publication. I think that started a little under 12 months ago, that takes ATO business activity statement data, and it gives you a month by month picture of how the turnover is moving in different industries. And so these are giving us that month by month picture of what’s happening in the economy. And that’s something which in the past, we’ve had to rely on the quarterly surveys and the quarterly national accounts for and I think that’s really exciting development with the data becoming more available. And, you know, the ABS showing its capability to transform that data into useful insight for people is definitely something we see is a growing kind of part of the business but going forward.

Gene Tunny  28:51

Yeah, absolutely. And it’s so important as we’re trying to monitor the economy as the RBA and the Treasury are monitoring the economy. And, and you know, that obviously feeds into policy. But yeah, that’s, that’s something for another another time. Right, on the supply use balancing, if you just got some a little bit, a few more minutes, while you’re trying to get these data internally consistent, it’s all about making sure everything adds up. All of these data are consistent. It’s the story makes sense. This balancing, I think I asked you about this on LinkedIn, what do you do, how do you do this, this a some sort of algorithm, is it..

Robert Ewing  29:31

So it’s a mix of things here? So for a lot of the large things, it is a human being looking at the data and looking at the whole picture and making a decision about all based on what I know, this is the bit here that must be wrong. So there’s a lot of it, which we’re not yet able to put into an algorithm. But if you think about I mean, I described that kind of 60 by 300 kind of matrix, you know, it’s an enormous number of cells. Once you’ve got to fill in, and so once we get past those things where you can reasonably make a human judgement. We use an algorithm, it’s a constrained optimization algorithm. And what we do is we tell that algorithm, the same things that we know from the national accounts framework. So we tell that algorithm, things like, Well, we know, you know, this supply has to equal this use. And we can also give it some other parameters, kind of like, it’s rare that the financial sector consumes many sheep directly, for instance, you know, so you can apply a bunch of constraints there, and it can then kind of go away, and it can algorithmically kind of find a sensible solution for you based on that. But the reality is that, you know, right, this second, there isn’t a good solution from a lot of this beyond a human being who can look at and just make a judgement about what makes sense here, you know, does it make more sense to kind of say that the excess rolled steel production is going to be going to export or to households? Because the algorithm is not going to have a view on that one, but the human is going to be able to say, no, no, we must have just mismeasured some exports there. Yeah, let’s have a look at that.

Gene Tunny  31:15

Yeah, gotcha. Okay. Yeah. So some constraint optimizations and judgement. Very good. And right so Rob, this is all fascinating. Is there any, any other points you think would be important for, for us to understand in detail to appreciate just the magnitude of this task? So I think I’m hoping we people understand how important these data are. And I’ve covered that in a previous episode. But is there anything else we should know, in terms of just the, the, you know, what, what are the challenges for ABS in doing this? Because it does take several months, doesn’t it, you do this on a quarterly basis, and it comes out, it comes out two months after the end of the quarter, doesn’t it? So there’s obviously a lot of work involved.

Robert Ewing  32:02

Yeah. And I think I divide that into two halves. So there’s about a month of data gathering and so this is kind of you the various surveys going out and measuring things. So it’s kind of, you know, working with partners, such as the banks and private sector, and governments, and so on to get the information streams. And then there’s about a month of what we call compilation, sitting down, running the pros, running the computer code, seeing how the numbers make sense or not. And then ultimately, you know, writing media releases and producing a publication and getting it onto the website. And just to put it in a plug, also, for our new product, which is, we are each quarter producing a nice little list of, you know, 10 to 15 things you should know about the national accounts. It’s nice and easy to digest. And you can just find that on the ABS web page. So if you find the idea of clicking on a GDP release a little intimidating, we’ve got some much more user friendly products available now. But yeah, it’s as you say, it’s about a couple of months to put it together. It’s the work of hundreds of people across the ABS, once you count the people in the survey divisions, the data acquisition divisions, all the other publications such as the balance of payments, the capital expenditure, the business indicators publication, which all feed into the national accounts, the communications team, the compilation team it’s hundreds of people across the ABS contributing to every quarter. And they are not to forget the 1000s of businesses and households answering surveys out there. I mean, the most fundamental thing is just how grateful the ABS is for the people who take the time out of their busy business and personal lives to kind of give us this data that we need to tell Australia about what’s happening.

Gene Tunny  33:57

Yeah, yeah, that’s a good point. Yeah, absolutely.

Robert Ewing  34:00

And one final point I’d make is, GDP is the figure that gets all the fun headlines. But the national accounts are a very rich publication. They tell you about a lot of different parts of the economy, they can take a bit of expertise to understand. But there’s a lot of information in the national accounts beyond GDP. It tells you about how each state is tracking, it tells you about the consumption of different goods and services in the economy. It tells you about the balance sheets of households and governments and businesses. There’s a massive amount of information beyond that top level GDP figure in there and I think a lot of the criticisms you sometimes hear about GDP not taking into account depreciation or not taking into account other things. An awful lot of that is in there somewhere. But it is a very big publication. I know it can be a bit intimidating to try and find anything in it.

Gene Tunny  34:58

Yes, yeah, but you’re right there, Rob. And, I know that there is work going on. And it may not be in the national accounts, the core national accounts, we do have satellite accounts. I know you’ve, you’ve tried to estimate the contribution of different sectors like tourism. And I’m trying to remember if you’ve done natural, natural capital estimates. So I think there are some other estimates where you’ve tried to estimate them, I’ll have to check. I remember, this is one of the issues or one of the things people are concerned about is that GDP doesn’t take into account environmental degradation. And so but there are estimates, there are people who have looked at those sorts of estimates, I’ll have a look offline and just add something in the show notes if I need to. But I know that that’s one of the issues people are concerned about.

Robert Ewing  35:49

And it looks, it’s there. It’s not my area of expertise. But there’s a whole range of work that the ABS has done on environmental economic accounts, which is really bringing together those two data sources. And I think that’s one of the unique advantages of the ABS is because we kind of sit in the middle of this data architecture, we can bring together the data that we have from these different domains and put them next to each other. And we can see how the story of the environment and particular aspects such of water align with the story of the economy. And you know, it’s something which is still like an ongoing piece of work to fully develop all the products there, but something we’ve been actively developing over the past.

Gene Tunny  36:32

Okay, very good. Rob, in from the ABS. Thanks so much for your time. I really enjoyed that. And, yeah, I look forward to seeing more of your contributions on LinkedIn. I think that I’ve been learning a lot about the work that you’ve that you do over at ABS and I’ve got a renewed appreciation for that work. So thanks again, Rob. Very good.

Robert Ewing  36:53

Thank you very much.

Gene Tunny  36:55

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.au

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Podcast episode

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.

Female speaker  24:08

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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

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

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 modeling 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  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.

Female speaker  42:09

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Podcast episode

Reserve Bank of Australia being reviewed after big mistakes w/ Peter Tulip – EP149

The Reserve Bank of Australia has allegedly made some bad calls in recent years and now the Australian Treasurer has commissioned a major review. This episode’s guest, Dr Peter Tulip of the Centre for Independent Studies, has long pushed for a review of the RBA. Peter, a former RBA and US Fed economist, thinks the RBA can learn from other central banks such as the Fed and Sweden’s Riksbank, and it can avoid future bad policy decisions which cost hundreds of thousands of jobs. 

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

Here’s a video clip of Peter’s conversation with show host Gene Tunny to give you a flavour of what is covered in the episode.

About this episode’s guests – Dr Peter Tulip

Peter Tulip is the Chief Economist at the Centre for Independent Studies, a leading Australian think tank. Peter has previously worked in the Research Department of the Reserve Bank of Australia and, before that, at the US Federal Reserve Board of Governors. He has a PhD from the University of Pennsylvania.

Peter’s twitter handle: @peter_tulip 

Links relevant to the conversation

Peter’s previous appearance on Economics Explored: https://economicsexplored.com/2022/04/11/the-high-cost-of-housing-and-what-to-do-about-it-w-peter-tulip-cis-ep134/

Australian Treasurer’s 20 July 2022 announcement of RBA review:

https://ministers.treasury.gov.au/ministers/jim-chalmers-2022/media-releases/review-reserve-bank

Peter’s CIS paper on the RBA: https://www.cis.org.au/publication/structural-reform-of-the-reserve-bank-of-australia/

Kevin Warsh’s review of the Bank of England Monetary Policy Committee: https://www.hoover.org/sites/default/files/transparency_and_the_bank_of_englands_monetary_policy_committee.pdf

This is the 2010 Statement on the Conduct of Monetary Policy that Peter refers to at the end of the episode:

https://www.rba.gov.au/monetary-policy/framework/stmt-conduct-mp-5-30092010.html

This is the most recent statement:

https://www.rba.gov.au/monetary-policy/framework/stmt-conduct-mp-7-2016-09-19.html

Transcript: Reserve Bank of Australia being reviewed after big mistakes w/ Peter Tulip – EP149

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.

Peter Tulip  00:01

Coming up on Economics Explored. Many of us, including me, think that the Reserve Bank has been making big mistakes and is in need of structural reform.

Gene Tunny  00:15

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 149 on the review of Australia’s Central Bank, the Reserve Bank of Australia, or RBA. This review was announced by Australia’s new Labour government on the 20th of July, 2022. 

My guest this episode, is Dr. Peter Tulip. Peter has long pushed for a review of the RBA, and he’s been extensively quoted in local media on what needs to change. Peter thinks that the RBA has made some big mistakes in the past, and it could learn from other central banks, such as the US Federal Reserve, and the Bank of England, as he explains in this episode. 

Currently, Peter is the Chief Economist at the Centre for Independent Studies. And before that, he’s worked at the RBA, and at the US Federal Reserve Board of Governors. So, he knows how central banks work on the inside, and his perspective is a valuable one. 

This is Peter’s second appearance on the show. He previously appeared in Episode 134 on the high cost of housing. So, if you haven’t listened to that yet, please listen to it after this episode; it’s great. 

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. I’d love to hear from you. 

Righto. Now for my conversation with Peter Tulip on the review of the Reserve Bank of Australia. Thanks to my audio engineer Josh Crotts for his assistance in producing this episode. I hope you enjoy it. 

Peter Tulip, Chief Economist at the Centre for independent studies, welcome back to the program.

Peter Tulip  02:01

Good, Gene, how are you? 

Gene Tunny  02:03

Good. Thanks, Peter. It’s great to be chatting with you again. I’m keen to speak with you about the review of the Reserve Bank of Australia that was announced earlier this week by the treasurer, Jim Chalmers. One of our colleagues, Steven Kirschner; Stephen has been on the show before too. He wrote that the RBA review is; he wrote about it that everything is on the table, and that’s good. So, it is a very expansive review. The only thing it looks like they’ve left off the table to me, is that they’re not reconsidering the split in responsibilities between the Reserve Bank and the Australian Prudential Regulation Authority. They obviously still see a role for that as a separate entity, rather than rolling, prudential regulation back into the RBA. But other than that, it seems like a very broad ranging review. Are you generally happy with what’s been announced?

Peter Tulip  03:02

I’m delighted. Many of us have been calling for something like this for a long time. And the terms of reference are fairly deep and broad. The people running the review, first class, and there’s a good mix of people too. I mean, they’ve got a central banker, an academic and central bureaucrat. And any substantial reform, the RBA is going to require integrating those three perspectives. So, that’s useful also.

Gene Tunny  03:41

Right, okay. So, we’ve got an international expert, someone who’s been on the committee, the Monetary Policy Committee in the UK;

Peter Tulip  03:49

The Financial Policy Committee, slightly different. That’s financial stability rather than monetary policy.

Gene Tunny  03:55

All right. Okay. But she’s had a senior position in the Canadian Central bank, is that right? Caroline Wilkins? 

Peter Tulip  

Yeah, sure.

Gene Tunny  

And also, Renee A. Fry-McKibbin, who is an academic at the Australian National University, so highly regarded macro Economist, and also Gordon Brewer, who I worked with in the Treasury many years ago. And I mean, I think Gordon’s an excellent choice for that. So, yeah, it looks like;

Peter Tulip  04:24

And before that, Gordon worked at the RBA, so it’s good to have some internal experience.

Gene Tunny  04:31

Right, okay. But it wasn’t exactly what the RBA wanted, was it? Even though it looks like the RBA has had some role in shaping the terms of reference, I saw an interview with Jim Chalmers on, was either Coffee show or the Today show here in Australia. And he was saying that the RBA said some input in the terms of reference, but originally, they just wanted to review themselves, didn’t they? Which would have been a great idea if you think about it.

Peter Tulip  04:58

To be credible, it needs to be external and independent. They’ll have a secretariat, which will be largely staffed, I think, from Treasury and the RBA. So, they’ll be able to call on the resources of the bank, and it’ll be informed by the bank by insiders, but the ultimate judgments will be independent and external, which I think they need to be.

Gene Tunny  05:26

Well certainly will, particularly if they’ve got Rene on the review committee. So, Rene is the editor of the Economic Record here in Australia, which is the top Economics journal here, and she’s well known in the economics profession and her husband, Warwick McKibbin, is actually a former board member, isn’t he? I mean, she’s obviously a separate person to Warwick. But I mean, I’m wondering if this is a way that Warwick’s views are actually getting inputted into the review in some way, even though obviously, she’s her own individual.

Peter Tulip  06:03

Yeah. His views will clearly get a lot of weight. But Rene is an expert in her own right. Yes.

Gene Tunny  06:09

Yeah, along with other economics colleagues. So, it’s not going to be something that the Reserve bank is going to necessarily get its way on, which is good. There’s going to be input from a broad range of sources, including yourself, I mean, I’m guessing you’ll be making a submission to the review.

Peter Tulip  06:26

I’ve already written my submission. I mean, so I did a big paper calling for reform of the RBA, just a few months ago. In the context that this review has been called for. And I set forward my views on what I was hoping the review would look at and what it would conclude. So, I’ve done my bit, and now it’s up to them.

Gene Tunny  06:48

Great., I mean, you’ve certainly been one of the most influential people in in this discussion so far. And you wrote a fascinating AFR piece earlier this year, which was titled Reserve Bank must be made accountable for inflation mistakes. So, might chat about that in the moment. But to begin with Peter, could you tell us why do you think this review was necessary in the first place? Is it because of those inflation mistakes?

Peter Tulip  07:14

Can I give a long answer to that? So, there are three levels of an answer in increasing areas of being controversial. The first and simplest answer is that, it’s just good practice to regularly review your monetary framework every few years, in the light of new research and new experience. People are writing about these frameworks all the time, and you need to, every now and then have a stock take of that. And this is what all of our foreign, not all, most other Central banks do. It’s standard amongst foreign central banks to have regular reviews. And the format of those varies, and we’ll talk a bit about that. Some of them are external, some of them are internal. Some of them have a heavy academic focus. Some of them are on; the Bank of Canada does is on a regular five years schedule. Others are more ad hoc. So, that’s one thing. It’s just regular practice. 

The second bigger argument is that the Reserve Bank has been missing its targets that prior to the pandemic, the inflation rate was well below the target of 2 to 3%. And the unemployment rate for an even longer period was well above estimates of its sustainable or full employment level. And so, particularly with the inflation rate, which is the reserve bank itself describes as a key performance indicator, when you’re persistently failing to hit your targets, there is there has to be a presumption that a review is necessary that otherwise there’s just no accountability at all. 

And then the third layer of arguments I gave, which is more controversial, is that many of us, I mean, including me, think that the Reserve Bank has been making big mistakes, and is in need of structural reform. And it’s great to have a chance to hear those views. And these are arguments that part of them are related to the composition of the board that these are decisions for the government and parliament often, rather than for the bank itself. And so, you need some kind of external review to evaluate this widespread argument.

Gene Tunny  09:53

Yeah, I think they’re good points. Peter, can ask you about that inflation target of 2 to 3%. Now, there could be two possibilities couldn’t there? It could be that either the 2 to 3% target doesn’t make sense, or we should review that target; we should, maybe we could downgrade it or just set it at 2% or have it at 1 to 2%? Or another possibility is the Reserve Bank; I mean, it was derelicting its duty. So, is that right? There are two possibilities there, there could be; and this is why a review would be desirable because you’d either look at the appropriateness of the target, and also whether the Reserve Bank is actually doing what it would need to do to achieve that target.

Peter Tulip  10:36

Correct. So, the reviews that other Central banks have had, often have had a strong focus on the specification of the targets. And that should be part of this review. And there are many people that would prefer a different target to the 3%. There are some people who think the inflation target should be lower, there are some people who think it should be higher. There are respectable arguments for both that the review should be considering. And that should be an important part. In my view, those arguments are really secondary, oh sorry, I should also say, there are other people who want to target a different objective completely, such as nominal income. And we’ll talk about that later on. 

In my view, those arguments are really secondary. That for most of the past decade, the bank has not been hitting its targets, it hasn’t even been trying to hit them. So, it’s a bit pointless specifying worrying about how you exactly define the target. If the bank isn’t just going to ignore. The most important question is governance, and how can we change the incentives of the RBA so that it actually does hit the targets it’s given? And you need to get that right before you worry about what that target actually is.

Gene Tunny  12:04

Okay, a bit of follow up on that. Peter, you’re saying that it hasn’t even been trying to achieve those targets?

Peter Tulip  12:11

Sorry, I’m wording that too strongly. You’re right.

Gene Tunny  12:13

I think I understand the point you’re making. I want to just explore that a bit. 

Peter Tulip  12:18

Can I give you an example? 

Gene Tunny  

Yes, please.

Peter Tulip  

So, in November 2019, just before the pandemic came along, the Reserve Bank issued a set of forecasts, and it had underlying inflation staying outside the target range for the whole horizon. And it had unemployment exceeding the bank system, it’s a full employment for the whole horizon. 

Gene Tunny  

So, inflation was below 2%?

Peter Tulip  

Yeah. Unemployment was I think, being forecasted 5% or higher, varying depending on the horizon. And despite what you would think is an obviously unsatisfactory outlook. The Reserve Bank didn’t change interest rates, either at that November meeting or subsequent meetings until the pandemic came along. And it did so because it was worrying about other things, in particular, financial stability. So, there was a disregard, or at least down weighting the bank statutory responsibilities in the legislation that says, the objectives stability of the currency, which we interpret is 2 to 3% inflation, and full employment, which we would interpret now as the preferred terming, that other Central banks uses, maximum sustainable employment, which were estimated about four and a half percent. So, there was a down weighting of those objectives in favor of this new objective that the bank invented about indebtedness, and we’ll talk about that later on too.

Gene Tunny  14:01

Okay, so shouldn’t central bank be concerned about indebtedness and the related issue of financial stability? I mean, that’s ultimately what they’re concerned about, isn’t it that if they’re worried that monetary policy, if it’s too loose, if it’s too accommodative, then households could take on too much debt and then get into trouble at a later date and that could have adverse economic consequences.

Peter Tulip  14:28

Sure. So, we know from the global financial crisis, that if your banks start failing, then it’s catastrophic for the economy. Australia had a similar experience in; when was it? In the early 1990s. When several of our small banks failed and some of our big banks came close. And again, that that was one of the worst recessions Australia’s had in living memory. So, yes, financial stability matters a huge amount. The question is how you deal with that? And what’s the appropriate instrument for that? And there’s a very large volume of research saying that it’s not interest rates or monetary policy, it’s prudential policy. And they were in particular, about the capital requirements that banks are required to have. And the way to avoid a repetition of the GFC is not to put 270,000 people unemployed, is to raise your capital requirements. So that if in the event of losses, banks making losses on their loans, banks have sufficient equity to cover that. And so, the important objective is, yes, we do very much want to avoid a repetition of the GFC. The way to do that is with high capital requirements.

Gene Tunny  16:04

This 270,000 jobs number Peter, is this from an analysis by, is it Andrew Lee and?

Peter Tulip  16:15

And Isaac Gross. So, Andrew Lee is now an assistant Treasurer, he’s a government minister. And Isaac Gross is an academician at Monash University of Economists. And they, just recently, published a paper in the economic record, which you were referring to before. That’s the journal that Renee A. Fry-McKibben edits. Where they found that, yes, the reserve bank kept interest rates too high, between 2016 and 2019. And because of these worries about debt, and because of that, unemployment was 270,000, higher than it should have been.

Gene Tunny  17:08

Yeah, it’s interesting. I mean, I’ll take the point there about; if you do run that simulation, and I think they use the Reserve Bank’s own macro-economic model Martin, I think they’d call it. And so, look, yeah, good point. I mean, if I were on the board, I’m probably one of those who wouldn’t have minded them having kept the rates where they are. I probably wouldn’t have supported cutting them, as that model would suggest, given that I would have those concerns about financial stability. But I do recognize that there are a variety of views. And I’ve been interested to learn about that literature that you’ve written about, and also Steve Kirschner talked about when I spoke with him on nominal GDP targeting. And I want to have a closer look at that. 

Peter Tulip  18:00

I’m happy to argue the merits of that particular argument further if you want, but what’s maybe a more important point to make here is that the process was bad. Yes, the bank never really explained or defended its position in public, that there seems to have been a real lack of scrutiny of the decision. So, there are people such as yourself, who were sympathetic to what the bank did. But those arguments, I would say, the large majority of expert opinion is on the other side, which is that you should regulate these considerations with prudential policy, not with monetary policy, that the most direct instrument is almost always the most efficient, and involves the least collateral damage? Yeah. 

And even though, a majority of expert opinion in a majority of other central banks were explicitly opposed to the bank, there was no real defense of that position in the bank’s documentation. Beyond a few brief sentences. The bank never quantified its concerns, was never actually very precise, even about whether it was really worried about the level or the growth rate of indebtedness. It didn’t even say what; no discussion of what’s the best way to measure this, no real clear discussion of the consequences of this. But maybe even more important, even though most expert opinion was against the bank, there was no; counter arguments were never addressed. 

So, in the paper I wrote that earlier this year, I mentioned another half a dozen arguments against the bank’s focus on indebtedness, any one of which I think would be fatal. And none of these were publicly addressed. Just to give one, a lot of research studies find that low interest rates don’t actually have almost negligible effect on indebtedness, that the debt to GDP ratio has a numerator and a denominator. And low interest rates will encourage both. And a lot of research says that actually, you have a bigger effect on GDP than you do on the debt. So, low interest rates have a greater effect on the capacity to repay, or to bear a burden than on the actual burden itself. Insofar as what the bank was doing, it was counterproductive. And there are more arguments and people; rather than going through succession of arguments on it. Yeah, actually, this is the paper. It’s called structural reform of the Reserve Bank of Australia. I mentioned a lot of further reasons as to why the bank was wrong in targeting indebtedness at the expense of its core objectives.

Gene Tunny  21:35

Yeah. I’ll put a link in the show notes to that paper for sure. Peter, in fact, I’ve got it in front of me, it’s a Centre for Independent Studies analysis paper, 36, April 2022. And in that paper, I mean, you, I mean, it’s Frank and fearless for sure. You’re someone who used to work at the bank. And you’ve probably still got a lot of friends there at the bank. But you mentioned or you talked about their poor communication and poor process. Now, I mean, you’re talking about that before. What do they need to do better? How do we improve it? I’m guessing this would be one of your hopes for what the review recommends. But how do we improve the process in the communication?

Peter Tulip  22:27

So, let’s start with this particular issue, the bank needs to fully explain itself, that it needs to outline the pros and cons of its arguments and address obvious counter arguments. And preferably, if something is important, you need to say what’s the evidence, both consistent with the bank’s position and how do we address evidence that people think weakens the position? And some kind of quantification of these effects is, well, I mean, some of these things can be measured, and there is substantial research on aspects of this question. And that really needs to be discussed and its relevance to policy explained. 

So, that’s dealing with one specific error, and why that’s important, is, unless you do that, mistakes will happen. And so, regardless of your position, on this particular question of indebtedness, the process was clearly flawed. That if you keep making big decisions that slip hundreds of thousands of people out of work, without a full, open public discussion, sometimes you’re going to make mistakes. And when you make mistakes, they will persist. An open discussion is the best antidote to making serious mistakes. Because this was not just a one off, the bank has a record of very controversial decisions that run counter to mainstream economics. For example, Warwick McKibbin, we mentioned earlier, was pushed out of the bank when he objected to its policy. This is back in the late 80s, early 90s of targeting the current account deficit. The bank had interest rates far too high, because it was worried about the current account deficit. Warwick McKibbin said that that was wrong. And essentially, he was told he wasn’t welcome. So, he left.

So, this is a cultural problem within the bank, its resistance to criticism and to scrutiny, even internal scrutiny.

Gene Tunny  25:09

Peter, can I just ask what are they doing now? So, at the moment, they do publish; there’s a decision, there’s a monetary policy decision every month regarding what they do with the cash rate, there’s a page or so of, you know, discussion of where the economy’s at and some sort of; all they make clear what their decision is, you’d like to think there’s some logical connection with their analysis of the economy in that decision. The governor does make himself available to give speeches, he appears that I mean, parliamentary committees, from time to time. So, what more needs to be done? And are there any examples around the world of how it’s done better?

Peter Tulip  25:54

Yeah, I think most Central banks are clearer and more transparent than the RBA. Where it matters most is in reasons better decision. So, where transparency, I think is most necessary is for the banks to say why it made a decision, and why its choice was preferable to alternatives. So, for example, at the moment, the bank with the rising rates, the market expects to be going up about 50 basis points a month, the next few months. It would be very useful, in fact, I think it’s necessary for the bank to say, what would be the consequences of alternative choices? Suppose interest rates were to rise slower, and interest rates could rise higher, and what would be the unemployment and inflation consequences of those alternatives? My guess is that a faster path of increases would give us lower inflation and higher unemployment, in both cases, bringing those variables closer to the bank’s targets. 

So, why is that not the preferred choice? That strikes me as the central requirement for transparency, explaining why you’re not doing something different, and the bank doesn’t really do that. It certainly doesn’t quantify it. But other central banks do. The Federal Reserve, the Risk bank are prominent examples. I mean, all it takes is just a little four panel chart to show; again, this is the Goldilocks path in the middle, and this is too high and this is too low. And these are the consequences and we pick the path, the Goldilocks path with the best outcomes. Other central banks do that as a matter of routine, so should the RBA.

Gene Tunny  28:05

Right, so you’re talking about the Federal Reserve and the Bank of England? Okay. 

Peter Tulip  28:09

The Bank of England does it in a slightly different way with scenario analysis. That would not be my preferred model. Either the Riksbank or the Fed approaches, or just very clearly convey the central issues in the monetary policy position.

Gene Tunny  28:27

Yeah. In preparing for our chat, Peter, one thing I noticed was a review that was done of the Bank of England’s Monetary Policy Committee by Kevin Walsh, 2014. Actually, I may have learned about that from you. I’m trying to, I can’t remember exactly, but I thought that was very good. If I’m reading one of his tables correctly, it does suggest that we have very low transparency here in Australia relative to those other countries. I think that’s.

Peter Tulip  28:57

So, about Kevin Walsh, he used to be a governor of the Federal Reserve and went to the Bank of England. This is an example of the kind of external reviews we were talking about, specifically to review their processes for transparency and openness. And it ended and it’s a very good thoughtful report, and anyone interested in that issue, I strongly recommend it. As part of his review, he looked up the Central bank practices and then yeah, the RBA was terrible. And the RBA is partly rectified. It as been more opened since that report was done. And in particular one, one of his glaring findings was that Australia was the only country he looked at where the Central bank didn’t give regular press conferences and and other countries find that a very useful way of explaining that as decision, and in particular, having important decisions challenged and defended. But since then, Philip Lowe has started getting press conferences, so, that’s a great thing. I’d still like them to be more frequent. He only does them occasionally, I would think you should do them, at least quarterly.,

Gene Tunny  30:34

Yeah. They certainly need to improve their communication. I’ll have to think myself about what that would best look like. I quite like the idea of having scenarios or having different, you know, looking at what different policy parts could mean for inflation and unemployment, but also being honest about what’s the uncertainty around that. And I mean, one of the things that our Governor, Philip Lowe has got into trouble for in the last few months is just the fact that their forecasts appear to have been just so bad. Perhaps, if they’re more honest about just how unreliable economic forecasts can be, given that the economy is hit by shocks all the time, and I mean, we’re not even sure we’re properly modelling the underlying mechanisms. Perhaps that would have; he would be held in high regard now. But everyone’s mad at him because he was, people were taking his word for it, that interest rates would stay where they were until 2024. And so, he’s in a heap of trouble now.

Peter Tulip  31:37

If I can comment on that. So, I think people exaggerate how bad these forecast errors were, and in particular, their relevance to the review. You have to remember that Jim Chalmers came out in support of a review of the RBA, over a year ago. So, before inflation took off, in fact, back a year ago, inflation was below the target. So, what’s happened? There are these unusually large forecast errors, but they’re not the reason we’re having a review. And forecasting is difficult, and in particular, if you’re forecasting in the middle of a pandemic that you’ve never been through before, you’ve got no historical experience to go by. And as it turned out, vaccines came on stream very much quicker than expected. And they worked much better than they’re expected. And the RBA got that wrong. You know what, no one can forecast accurately. I’ll be impressed with criticisms about the bank’s forecast record from people who actually do forecasts better than the bank. Hearing a lot of criticisms that we’re forecasting for people that don’t actually present forecasts themselves makes me roll my eyes a bit. Yeah, fair point. And the bank will always make forecast errors. And it has processes to improve its forecast performance and it does reviews of its models and this and the databases and things like that. The review will probably look at that. I’ve actually been involved in that process. I don’t see great scope for change or even questioning what the bank is doing there.

Gene Tunny  33:48

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

Female speaker  33:53

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Gene Tunny  34:22

Now back to the show. 

Okay, can I ask you about this transparency, like how we improve that? One of the suggestions that came from a panel member at the conference of economists last week when we’re in Hobart, you were there? I can’t remember. Sorry, Peter, were you in that session? You were in that session, weren’t you? There was that recommendation that I forgot who made it. But that part of members of the board of the Reserve Bank that their deliberations or their decisions are published or someone’s got a dissenting opinion that’s published. So, we get more communication from the board members. And so, we understand that there is a difference of views and that could help the public understand the deliberations and realise that the Reserve Bank isn’t this all-seeing, all-knowing entity that’s fully in command, or maybe that’s the wrong way of putting it. But maybe that would make people realise that they’re human, and mistakes can be made. And so, when we have a governor who says, oh, interest rates will remain this, at this level until 2024, we should realise, well, he’s talking about based on these assumptions. I mean, you can never guarantee anything. But what do you think about that idea of having more information about what different board members are thinking?

Peter Tulip  35:51

I think that’s a great idea, partly to improve the incentives have individual board members, that individual board members should be accountable for their decisions. And at the moment, there isn’t any individual accountability, these decisions are presented as decisions of the board. And so, I think there’s no incentive for a board member to say, I think this decision is wrong. The research says opposite. We need to pursue an alternative course of action. So, partly, there’s inadequate challenge within the board process, as and as a result, less need for the bank to defend itself. But also, it means the public is not brought into these highly consequential debates and decisions. And that would improve things. And where a board is divided on a particular course of action or a particular piece of analysis, this is where external research and external opinions are most valuable. But no one knows that. So, people talk about monetary policy, including you and me, but we’ve got no idea whether we’re talking about something that the board regards has completely settled, or as a 50-50 decision. And so, a lot of what we say is not relevant. And there are big questions on which further evidence would be useful. That we don’t know about.

Gene Tunny  37:30

Right. On the members of the board, you’ve been quite prominent in the media recently, and in the commentary on this RBA review, you’ve made the point that the level of expertise of board members is not really where it should be. I mean, obviously, there are some that have the expertise. But are you arguing for more economists on the board rather than business people? Is that correct?

Peter Tulip  38:01

Yes. And to be precise, more monetary policy experts. And this would be my number one recommendation for reform of the RBA. We talked earlier about the bank making mistakes, the first place that they should be caught and challenged is at the board level. But at the moment, the board seems to be operating as a rubber stamp for the governor, and that’s not good. I mean, so Phil Lowe is a very talented economist who gets lots of things right. But he is human and he’s just one person and he makes mistakes. You’ll have you will have fewer mistakes, if the decisions were instead, made by a committee of experts.

Gene Tunny  39:04

And is that what they’ve got in the States or in England or in or in the UK?

Peter Tulip  39:09

Yeah. So, I mean, that’s an interesting comparison. So, in 1959, when the RBA board was being set up, it was actually common to have non economists making monetary policy decisions. But since then, other Central banks have decided these are technical questions on which research is relevant and needs to be apply. So, they’ve moved to monetary policy committees, overwhelming, really comprised with monetary policy experts. Actually, it’s not just experts, but they have some of the leading economists in the world on monetary policy, sitting on their monetary policy committee. These the people that wrote the textbooks I learned my monetary policy from are often on the FOMC, or the Monetary Policy Committee of the Bank of England. So, whereas other countries have stars making their monetary policy decisions, we have part-time amateurs.

Gene Tunny  40:19

Yeah. Well look at who’s been the Federal Reserve Bank Governor in the US. You’ve had Ben Bernanke. You’ve had, I mean, he’s made huge contributions to macroeconomics. Janet Yellen.

Peter Tulip  40:33

The deputy of Stanley Fischer.

Gene Tunny  40:35

Right. And he’s the person who wrote the textbook;

Peter Tulip  40:39

And Bernanke and Frederick Michigan. Yeah, they’ve written textbooks on how to do monetary policy.

Gene Tunny  40:48

Okay. Yeah, good point. That’s a very good point,

Peter Tulip  40:52

Let’s say a bit more about the composition of the board. So, there are two parts of it, you would get better decisions with more experts on the board. And it’s just like, any other technical decision being made by a government bodies on immunisation or building a bridge or whatever you want. You don’t want business leaders making these decisions, you want experts in the field. Within that, you want a diversity of views. So, you want a mix of hawks and doves, for example, some empirical people, some theoretical people. Instead of that diversity of expertise, sorry, that diversity of views, we have a diversity of expertise, that there are some members of the board that are capable of challenging the governor, but most are not. And that results in groupthink and status quo bias and other flaws in decision making that we see in our monetary policy decision.

Gene Tunny  41:59

Yeah. So, look, I agree with you on that, Peter. And I think the government will find it, I mean, I don’t think that I’ll accept a recommendation along those lines, unfortunately. They’ll probably want to have a trade union member on the board. I think there’s going to be a push for that. Some people pushing for, let’s have a regional representative on the board. I mean, I don’t necessarily think we should be selecting people for the board for that reason. But what you’re going to have is, you’re going to have; there are people who are sceptical of experts, because there’s this general view out there now in western economies, that look, experts have led us down. And you know, people are upset about things that happened during the pandemic, and even before then. So, there’s a larger scepticism about experts. And there’s this issue of democracy, isn’t there? I mean, so, there could be an objection. Well, we don’t want all these technocrats running things. We think there should be some democratic element there. But then I think the issue there is that if you don’t have an independent Central bank, then you get worse inflation outcomes.

Peter Tulip  43:15

See, you’re raising several issues there, Gene. So, think about the other big important decisions that have been made in the news lately. I’m going to say public health. Do you want doctors and Epidemiologists making decisions on whether vaccines are approved? Or do you want business leaders?

Gene Tunny  43:36

I want the doctors and the Epidemiologists for sure. 

Peter Tulip  43:41

If a bridge is being built, you want that decision to be made by engineers or by business people? I mean, so in other areas, government policy, we rely exclusively on people that prompt eminent experts with technical expertise, and monetary policy is the same. It used to be that the values of monetary policy and even the objectives were vague and not clearly decided. And so, the board had a lot of discretion as to why monetary policy should be set but that’s no longer the case. Central bank has moved to a world of clearly defined objectives, essentially set by the government by the elected representatives. So, they decide that the objectives of the RBA are full employment and inflation of 2% to 3%. And it then becomes a technical question as to how to best achieve that, and that’s the decision that should be made in the national interest. It should not be made by representatives of sectional interests. Excellent point. And this interacts with the other recommendation we’re talking before about public votes. 

So, if you have a representative of say, the mining industry or the agricultural industry; industries that are heavily exposed to the exchange rate, do you want them making decisions that affect the exchange rate for the national interest or that will affect their sectional interests? I mean, if it’s the sectional interest one, they’ll always be voting for lower interest rates, and a depreciation of the exchange rate, and their constituencies will be expecting and demanding that. So, if you do have so called sectional interests, but you want the vote to be a national interest, you would need to keep the votes private. And this is an unusual way of dealing with a conflict of interest. Normally, we think conflicts of interest are best dealt with by transparency, not by secrecy.

Gene Tunny  45:58

Okay, what about the banks themselves, the staff on the banks themselves? Do you have views on how our reserve bank, how it compares with its peers with the Federal Reserve or Bank of England in terms of its ability to analyse the economy and to provide the advice to the board?

Peter Tulip  46:20

Yes. So, as background to that, before I worked at the Reserve Bank, I worked with the Federal Reserve Board of Governors, I was on the staff there for 11 years. I also worked at the OECD, on monetary policy, going on around the world talking to Central bankers about how they were sitting, making their decisions. And so it’s interesting, I mean, that background shows real differences in character and culture between different Central banks. I mean, have you noticed that just in government departments, different cultures, but even with Central banks, where they’re technically doing the same decision from different countries, they vary enormously. The RBA tends to be much less interested in research, and much less interested in technical modelling than other Central banks. And most clearly, with the Fed where the Fed has 400 PhDs on his staff, essentially putting together its forecast. The RBA has a very different human capital model, where academic qualifications and less important promotion and research is not ending, external research is not expected of most staff. And again, that is something that the review could look at a lot of people. I mean, there are differences on views as to whether that’s appropriate, and reflects lots of reasons that I mean, culture and history is a lot of it.

Gene Tunny  48:08

Yeah. So, your big recommendations for this review, or what you hope to get out of this review, improvements in transparency and communication.

Peter Tulip  48:18

Can I list them in order? Yes, please. 

Number one, we want more monetary policy experts on the board. 

Number two, we want those members to be individually accountable. That means public votes and public explanations of decisions. 

And third, the bank needs to be more open and transparent. And in particular, needs to do clear reasons for its decisions, and why alternatives are not taken. They would be my three main recommendations.

Gene Tunny  48:53

Okay. So, no changes to the inflation targeting regime, this flexible inflation targeting regime they talk about?

Peter Tulip  49:00

That’s why I have views on that. But as I said before, I think they’re secondary. So, the main changes I would make is, first of all, every time there’s a change in government or change in governor, there’s a new agreement between the bank and the government called the agreement on the statement of conduct of monetary policy. And that is where the target is specified in detail, which I think is appropriate. Currently, that says the main objective of the bank is inflation 2 to 3%. In my view, it should also specify full employment, or to be precise, maximum sustainable employment as an objective of equal status to the inflation rate. So, in legislation, the bank has a dual mandate that’s not reflected in the agreement on the statement of conduct and I think that causes a lot of confusion. People think that when people read the bank’s explanations of what it does, they often think that the bank is an inflation nutter. Which it’s not, it takes its unemployment objective very seriously. And it does it in this vague way, because flexible, inflation targeting, which should be specific about what flexibility is required and what isn’t. There would be other changes, but that would be the main one I would make.

Gene Tunny  50:31

Do you think there’ll be any changes to that framework? There seems to be a view from the RBA, and I guess from others that the inflation targeting approach seems to have worked pretty well in keeping inflation low over the last few decades, I mean, you mentioned, there is that issue of the times it might have meant we had higher unemployment than otherwise.

Peter Tulip  50:56

No, that was because they abandoned their inflation target. They had inflation too low, accompanied by excess unemployment, you would have sold both of those problems with lower interest rates. It didn’t do that, because it did invent this other objective of indebtedness that it should not have done. And it certainly shouldn’t have done it without a more open, transparent and accountable process. So, I think the main proposal for a change in the framework is for nominal income targeting, which Warwick McKibbin and Steve Kirschner and numerous other monetary policy experts think would be preferable. I think that’s a minority position. And I think you’re right, that the consensus of informed opinion doesn’t think that the framework needs to change much. I mean, I think there are some minor tweaks that shouldn’t be implemented. 

Nominal income targeting is not popular, partly because no other Central bank does it. So, there’s no example to show that it works. And the RBA is not a pace setter in these things. It’s a follower, not a leader, which is useful in a lot of ways. But also, the American literature on nominal GDP targeting some phrases in terms of nominal GDP targeting, which would just be inappropriate for Australia, because we have such volatile terms of trade. And we don’t want monetary policy being jerked around to target the coal price. Which just would mean big dislocations for most households. Not much apparent benefit.

Gene Tunny  53:02

Yeah. There seem to be some recognition of that in that panel discussion in;

Peter Tulip  53:08

So, Warwick McKibbin has said, you would target a slightly different variable, maybe some measure of nominal income. And that makes more sense. Warwick keeps contrasting his arguments for nominal income targeting with inflation targeting, which is what the bank says it is that it’s not what the bank is, in practice. In practice, the bank has a dual mandate. And we’re its main argument, as I take it is that inflation targeting is wrong, because activity is an appropriate objective of the Central bank and being explicit about the dual mandate would avoid that confusion.

Gene Tunny  53:50

Yeah. Okay. I’m just thinking about the tweaks; one tweak that seems clear to me that needs to be made is clarification on this point about what do you do about indebtedness? So, one way or the other, make that clear. Is the bank targeting financial stability or not?

Peter Tulip  54:09

And in my view, I mean, it’s the bank as an institution needs to worry about financial stability, but primarily, it should be dealt with, with prudential policy, not monetary policy.

Gene Tunny  54:23

And by that, you mean the Prudential Regulation Authority, which is looking at the banks and, you know, in looking at their balance sheets and making sure that they don’t make a bunch of risky loans.

Peter Tulip  54:34

Well, the nature of banking is you make risky loans. The big question is whether you’ve got an equity buffer to deal with those risky loans in the event that they all go sour at once. I mean, there are arguments about lending controls. That’s another controversial argument. But for this review, what’s going to be relevant is the status of financial stability within monetary policy. And in my view, I liked the wording. I think it was the 2009 agreement that the government had with the RBA, which said financial stability is an objective of the RBA, but it’s secondary, it’s subordinate to the core objectives. Or it should be said to be subordinate to the core objectives of full employment and stable inflation.

Gene Tunny  55:39

Okay. I’ll look that up and put in the show notes. Right, Peter, that’s been great. I mean, there are so many other aspects of this, I guess we could explore but we’ll probably have to wrap up because you’ve been generous with your time so far. Any final thoughts before we go? Anything we missed that you think is important to convey?

Peter Tulip  55:58

Oh no. I think it’s been good discussion of the key points. People who do want more, again, a lot of it is in my earlier paper.

Gene Tunny  56:11

Yes. You’ve been incredibly influential on this, Peter. So, well done. I saw you on ABC the other day, and it’s terrific that you’ve had this impact. And let’s say we get a really high-quality review with some recommendations that improve monetary policy in the future. 

Peter Tulip  56:34

Thanks for that, Gene. That’s great.

Gene Tunny  56:35

Pleasure. Thanks, Peter.

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 the show’s audio engineer Josh Crotts for his assistance in producing the episode and to the show’s sponsor, Gene’s consultancy business www.adepteconomics.com.au

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Aussie Conference of Economists wrap-up w/ Leonora Risse & Cameron Murray – EP148

While in Hobart, Tasmania for the 2022 Australian Conference of Economists, show host Gene Tunny caught up with Dr Leonora Risse and Dr Cameron Murray to reflect on the big economic issues covered at the conference. The Conference was framed in the context of adjusting to the so-called new normal. It dealt with issues such as government wellbeing budgets, the housing affordability crisis, the pandemic, and nowcasting, among others. Hear from Gene, Leonora, and Cameron regarding conference highlights and takeaways, including the risk of unintended consequences of government policy interventions.

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

About this episode’s guests – Leonora Risse & Cameron Murray

Dr Leonora Risse is an economist who specialises in gender equality. She is a Research Fellow with the Women’s Leadership Institute Australia, and recently spent time in residence at Harvard University as a Research Fellow with the Women and Public Policy Program. Leonora is a co-founder of the Women in Economics Network (WEN) in Australia and currently serves as the WEN National Chair. Leonora earned her PhD in Economics from the University of Queensland, and previously served as a Senior Research Economist for the Australian Government Productivity Commission. She is currently appointed as a Senior Lecturer in Economics at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia. Her Twitter handle is @leonora_risse. 

Dr Cameron Murray is Post-Doctoral Research Fellow in the Henry Halloran Trust at The University of Sydney. Cameron has taught a number of courses including UQ’s MBA economics course, macroeconomics, globalisation and economic development, and managerial economics. He writes for MacroBusiness, IDEA economics and Evonomics. Cameron has a PhD from the University of Queensland on the economics of corruption. He hosts the podcast Fresh Economic Thinking and his Twitter handle is ‎@DrCameronMurray.  

Links relevant to the conversation

Greta’s articles at the Lowy Institute Interpreter:

https://www.lowyinstitute.org/the-interpreter/contributors/articles/greta-nabbs-keller

Greta’s articles at ASPI’s the Strategist:

https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/author/greta-nabbs-keller/

Greta’s conversation article on Australia’s relationship with South East Asia:

https://theconversation.com/how-well-has-the-morrison-government-handled-relations-with-southeast-asia-181958

Background reading on China and Taiwan:

https://www.cfr.org/blog/what-xi-jinpings-major-speech-means-taiwan

https://www.brookings.edu/on-the-record/understanding-beijings-motives-regarding-taiwan-and-americas-role/

Transcript: Aussie Conference of Economists wrap-up w/ Leonora Risse & Cameron Murray – EP148

N.B. This is a lightly edited version of a transcript originally created using the AI application otter.ai. It may not be 100 percent accurate, but should be pretty close. If you’d like to quote from it, please check the quoted segment in the recording.

Gene Tunny  00:01

Coming up on Economics Explored.

Leonora Risse  00:04

I think we also need to clarify that a well-being budget doesn’t mean just spending more, like spending more on feel-good items. I think there is some misinterpretation out there. I think it’s more about proper reallocation.

Gene Tunny  00:17

Welcome to the Economics Explored podcast, a frank and fearless exploration of important economic issues. 

I’m your host, Gene Tunny. I’m a professional economist based in Brisbane, Australia, and I’m a former Australian Treasury official. This is episode 148 on the 2022 Australian Conference of Economists, or ACE as we call it. The conference was held on 11th to 13th July in Hobart, Tasmania. 

In this episode, I reflect on the highlights of ACE with my colleagues, Dr. Leonora Reese, and Dr. Cameron Murray, who I was lucky enough to catch up with at the conference. 

Leonora is the chair of the women in Economics Network, and she’s a senior lecturer at RMIT, the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology. This is Leonora’s third appearance on the program. 

Cameron Murray, however, is appearing on the program for the first time, and I’m delighted that he agreed to share his thoughts on the conference with me. Cameron is postdoctoral research fellow in the Henry Halloran Trust at the University of Sydney. 

One of the big takeaways for me from the conference was the risk of unintended consequences from government policy interventions. And I give some examples of those in this episode. 

The show notes, you can find relevant links and details of how you can get in touch with any questions, comments, or suggestions. Please get in touch and let me know your thoughts. I’d love to hear from you. 

Right oh, now for my conversations with Leonora, who’s on first, and Cameron who’s on second on ACE 2022. 

Thanks to my audio engineer, Josh Crotts for his assistance in producing this episode. I hope you enjoy it. 

Leonora, good to be chatting with you again.

Leonora Risse  02:00

Thanks, Gene for having me. 

Gene Tunny  02:02

Oh, it’s good to catch up here at the conference in Hobart. So, how have you found the conference so far?

Leonora Risse  02:10

It’s great to be back in person. This is the first Annual Conference of Economists in Australia since the pandemic. So, it’s wonderful to be surrounded by people again, seeing people face to face, hearing the latest research. In some ways, it feels like time hasn’t really passed. You know, we’re seeing everyone again. And there’s some great research that’s really timely reflecting on COVID. But also thinking about climate change, politics, immigration, the labor force, So, many highly topical issues are being covered.

Gene Tunny  02:49

Absolutely. And we just had this amazing presentation via Zoom last because he couldn’t make it by Martin Wolf, one of the editors at the Financial Times. And he was talking about a number those issues and the crisis of democratic capitalism, which I found really a fascinating presentation and gave us a lot to think about and their issues I’ve tried to cover on the program in the past. I was grateful for that presentation. Were you involved in the organization of this conference?

Leonora Risse  03:19

This year, I wasn’t. So, the way that the conference works is each state or territory branch usually takes carriage of organizing it. So, this year, a big shout out to the Tasmanian branch of the Economic Society who organized it. I’m part of the Economic Society Central Council, a representative of the Women in Economics Network. So, we were involved in organizing the wind sessions of the conference. So, I was involved in that part.

Gene Tunny  03:48

Okay, good one. So, what were those sessions, Leonora?,

Leonora Risse  03:52

Each year, since WEN was created, that’s the Women in Economics Network, that was created in 2017. So, WEN has been a part of the program, we’ve held a special session where we’ve discussed some of the issues that are confronting women in the economics profession. 

This year, we talked about what WEN had achieved in its first five years. We looked back at what action we had taken to deal with this problem of women’s under representation in economics. So, we were sharing some statistics as well as some examples of the initiatives that WEN had embarked on in that session, and it was more it was broader than just talking about gender inequality. It was talking about diversity and inclusion in the economics profession. So, we held that special session. 

We made sure that there were females amongst the keynote speakers, we had Angela Jackson, talking about the well-being budget. And Angela is a member of our WEN committee, but a very distinguished speaker in her own right and that was wonderful to make sure we had females amongst the keynotes. And tomorrow, we have a lunch for WEN members to come along and network and meet and talk about some topical issues.

Gene Tunny  05:12

Oh, good one. And So, Angela is a co-author of Yours. On a paper, I’d like to talk with you about; so, you had a look at how COVID affected the economy here in Australia and how it had differential impacts by agenda. So, would you be able to tell us about that, please, Leonora?

Leonora Risse  05:32

Thanks so much for the opportunity to share this with you, Gene. We looked at the workforce impacts of the first year of the COVID pandemic in Australia, where we had very strict lockdowns as well as the direct effects of the pandemic. And at the time, there was obviously a lot of interest from the news, from the media, from the government, what exactly were the impacts, and we knew that women were generally being more severely affected on average than men, because of the gender patterns that exist in industries of employment. So, we know that the types of industries that women are employed in, they tended to be the ones that were most affected by the direct lockdowns, particularly in the state of Victoria. But then, also women were potentially dropping out of the workforce, because they were responsible for homeschooling; schools were closed. Childcare wasn’t necessarily available through out that duration. 

So, we wanted to produce a systematic and statistical based analysis of what exactly happened in terms of labor force indicators. So, employment, unemployment, labor force participation; and break it down by gender, because I think there was a lot of talk, and there’s potentially some misinterpretation about what exactly those effects were, and generally, we saw a dive, a plunge in women’s employment, that was steeper than men’s. Then towards the end of the first year of the pandemic, women’s jobs did start to pick up again, which was a positive thing. And we were concerned that that was giving the impression that things were okay again, and even though there were huge numbers of women who dropped out of the workforce, just looking at those numbers climb again, it potentially led to people assuming that that time out of the workforce hadn’t caused any damage for women being detached those interruptions losing your job, and perhaps coming back again, but not being the same job that you had before; losing potentially, your eligibility for leave entitlements. It’s what we call scarring effects of economics.

Gene Tunny  08:05

Is this hysteresis? Is that the old term for it? Or am I thinking of something else? Was that related to it? There was that idea that if you had a period out of the workforce that reduced your; well, you lost the attachment, it can affect your marketability in the future, So, it can have these long run consequences. 

Leonora Risse  08:27

Yeah, that is a concern about people sort of, getting stuck in that state of unemployment or labor force detachment. That’s exactly right. So, we were looking at net numbers, aggregate numbers. We weren’t necessarily following the same individuals to see potentially, people who dropped out of the workforce who lost employment and didn’t reenter. But that would have been a concern behind the scenes. When I presented the paper here at the conference, there was an excellent question about long term unemployment, people would become entrenched in unemployment or drop out of the workforce and don’t reenter. So, that’s part of that concern about hysteresis as well, people getting stuck. And that skill erosion and perhaps that lack of confidence to reenter again, some of the dynamics that can explain what you’re describing there.

Gene Tunny  09:14

Right. So, I’ve got a couple of questions. You looked at the Australian data, do you know if this happened in the US and the UK as well? Was this the xi session that they talked about?

Leonora Risse  09:26

Yes. This was very much a global picture. You’re right. We were hearing this from the US, from Europe and the UK, from many other countries throughout Asia, Canada; that there were terms like it was a she-session, a play on the recession, but emphasizing the gender element of it. And the thing is that this is very different from past economic downturns. So, in our analysis, we look at what happened with job losses during the 1990s recession in Australia and during the global financial crisis around 2008. And what you see with the economic downturn, the recession that occurred as a result of COVID, women share those total job losses was a much higher proportion than what had occurred in previous economic downturns. And why that matters is because, it meant the policy responses needed to be different.

Gene Tunny  10:24

That was stunning. So, I was struck by just the proportion of the jobs lost in the early 90s recession here in Australia that were lost by men; what was it? 90% or something. I guess that makes sense because at the time, the industries that suffered were manufacturing industries or construction, because we had the colossal property boom in the 80s, and then the crash. So, they were industries dominated by men, but this time, and this is what you found, I think, isn’t it? that it was those sectors where women were disproportionately employed such as hospitality.

Leonora Risse  10:58

Yes, that’s right. So, it was the preexisting patterns of employment. For instance, at retail trade, what are the types of jobs within retail trade that women tended to be employed in things like clothing stores, Ford fronting customer service roles, waitress or waiter jobs in hospitality, whereas males tended to be employed in things like in retail, but in electronic stores, or building supply and hardware stores, which actually were all booming during the pandemic, because of all the incentives for people to stay at home or invest in these other things and things like shell fillers, or deliveries and transport behind the scenes rather than face to face customer service. 

So, these preexisting gender patterns of employment, as well as who’s doing the bulk of caring duties at home and who takes on the majority of the homeschooling responsibilities, meant that there were demand side factors as well as supply side factors, putting a lot of pressure on women’s capacity to retain their attachment to the workforce as well.

Gene Tunny  12:12

Okay. I might ask you about your highlights of the conference. I can tell you mine so far. I mean, one highlight was definitely Martin Wolf’s presentation, which made me think a lot about, how do we get that balance between having a market system which provides the goods and services we want that’s dynamic, that allows for you know, that is compatible with individual liberty, but at the same time, avoid a system where we have monopolization, where we have money getting into politics and corrupting it and inequality widening for various reasons, including monopoly, because of the big tech platforms, the big tech giants, people being able to earn money globally because of these platforms. And then if you’ve got an advantage that can be magnified by the technology, also skill biased technological change all those reasons. How do we deal with that in a way that keeps the incentive to innovate, but means we don’t have inequality that could be politically devastating? And I mean, I don’t know the answer to that. But I’m just saying that I thought that was a great presentation and Hal Varian, I mean, that was amazing. Talking about how they’re using all of the Google Trends data to Nowcast the economy, so, unemployment claims just based on people searching, where’s the local unemployment office in Michigan or wherever. So, I thought that was great. But how about you, Leonora? What were your highlights?

Leonora Risse  13:41

Oh, I haven’t been able to see everything on the program, which is frustrating when there’s so many options, you can’t see them all. The keynote speakers have been fantastic this year, because they’ve been so timely. The topics, the issues that they’ve been delving into, I thought hell variants, illustration of how we can use Google data for economic analysis, really enlightening. There’s so much capacity there. I’m looking forward to hearing Joseph Stiglitz speak tomorrow. So, we haven’t come to the end of the program. And he’s, he’s obviously an eminent voice in terms of inequality issues. I really enjoyed Angela Jackson’s keynote address at the start of the conference. And Angela talked about a well-being budget and put a lot of thought into what would be the dimensions of well-being. 

And also, she brought up some really potentially confrontational issue. She did talk about how do we handle domestic violence and family violence? And I think that was an indication that these are some hard topics that economists and policymakers and researchers need to deal with. And I mentioned that as a highlight, because I really don’t think in past conferences, we’ve been empowered or bold enough to bring up some of these confrontational topics.

Gene Tunny  15:02

I think that’s true. I want to see how this wellbeing budget is implemented in practice. I mean, as a former Treasury bureaucrat and someone who worked in Budget Policy Division, I’m just not sure what it’s going to mean. Is it just another chapter in the budget, enhance more work for Treasury analysts? Or is it a fundamental rethinking of how the budget process works and how the all of these policy measures are assessed? Will there be an explicit wellbeing score? I don’t know; we have to see exactly how the government is going to implement it. And whether it is something that really will mean that the budget is reformulated or rethought of as something that’s explicitly dedicated to improving well-being and therefore you would look at the whole range of government expenditures and activities. 

Is it that or is it just something that is just going to be another glossy budget document or something that the government of the day can sort of, wax lyrically about, but doesn’t have any real practical implications? That’s just my natural skepticism. So, I’m not knocking it. I just want to see how it’s implemented.

Leonora Risse  16:10

Yeah, I think that’s a really healthy degree of skepticism to have with any government. I sense that this government is really sincere and actually quite well informed by the research because as your listeners have known, there are very deep and comprehensive streams of research looking at measures of multi-dimensional poverty or disadvantage, which is really part of that literature on what constitutes a well-being and life satisfaction. And I think the takeaway here is when we think about a well-being budget, it’s about broadening the suite of indicators that we monitor, and we care about. So, it’s not just GDP, or inflation or wage price index. But we include a wider and fuller list of economic indicators, including measurements of inequality. So, I imagine that if you’re constructing a well-being budget, you’d want to compute a Gini coefficient, for instance. So, at least inequality is going to be on the minds of your policymakers, it becomes more salient, so that when they’re developing their policies, they’re not just thinking about how do we increase GDP, but what is the distribution of those prosperity benefits?

Gene Tunny  17:19

So, they could ask how do these particular budget measures affect inequality, affect the Gini Coefficient? Is that what you thinking?

Leonora Risse  17:26

Potentially along those lines, that’s right. So, it’s thinking about measuring success along a broader spectrum or dimensions of real world impact.

Gene Tunny  17:37

Yeah. Okay. So, every budget, as well as providing the economic outlook in terms of GDP and talking about what the budget aggregates are, you could have a reflection, the government could reflect upon what’s happening with some of these other indicators, such as inequality. Angela mentioned a whole range of things they could be interested in targeting in the interests of well-being, mental health, reducing domestic violence. 

Leonora Risse  18:04

The budget contains a lot of that already. And it’s about pointing out; actually, a lot of that contributes to GDP, which we know like, if you invest in your mental health and physical health and community inclusion in your population that are all in federal ingredients was making people or supporting people to become more productive as well. But I think it will probably find that there are a lot of government initiatives that are in place that are supportive of well-being and this is, I guess, perhaps justifying that expenditure in a broader set. 

I think we also need to clarify that a well-being budget doesn’t mean just spending more, like spending more on feel good items. I think there is some misinterpretation out there. I think it’s more about proper reallocation. So, you could say, well, let’s not go ahead with this hypothetical, say tax cuts for a higher income bracket, because that’ll have a negative effect on the Gini Coefficient. It will detract from income equality. 

So, we then have another benchmark of impact you consider some of these redistribution or reallocation decisions, it doesn’t mean spending more, it just means spinning things in different ways.

Gene Tunny  19:23

Yeah, fair point. Okay, Leonora thanks so much. Great to catch up with you here in Hobart.

Leonora Risse  19:27

Thanks, Gene. And thanks for running such a great podcast.

Gene Tunny  19:30

Thank you. 

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

Female speaker  19:38

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Gene Tunny  20:07

Now back to the show. 

Cameron Murray, good to be chatting with you.

Cameron Murray  20:13

Thanks for having me,Gene.

Gene Tunny  20:14

It’s a pleasure. We’re both finished the Conference of Economists for 2022, here in Hobart. We just had the lecture by Joseph Stiglitz. And, yes, it’s been a busy, few days. How have you found the conference, Cameron?

Cameron Murray  20:30

Yeah, pretty good. Pretty broad range. I’ve been to this conference many times, I like it because you, you will find a few people that study related topics, and you can catch up with your mates who researched your area, and then you can sit in on the random ones. Your session was called what, Miscellaneous? Which is actually pretty good. I think most people enjoyed, you know, a variety of discussions that you just don’t really get a lot of smart people in one room to chat about that often. Yeah, it was a good time.

Gene Tunny  21:01

Thanks. Yes, that was an interesting session. And we can touch on that a bit later. I thought it’d be good to chat about highlights of the conference and also what the themes of the conference have been. So, I guess on the themes, there was a big theme, it seemed to me of Economics in the New Normal; I think that was actually the designated theme of the conference, something about the new normal. And there was that speech by Martin Wolf, where he’s talking about the crisis of democratic capitalism. And then Joseph Stiglitz, today was talking about the Post-Neoliberal Order. So, there seems to be this general recognition that things need to change. I still don’t know exactly what they’re proposing. 

Cameron Murray  21:54

Yeah, I got the same impression. There’s a lot of; we’re at the end of some era, and something’s happening. And I wasn’t clear what specifically is not working? I’m not a big believer in labelling of things; oh this is proper capitalism. I’m like, well, you can have capitalism and a good welfare state and good public services and, you know, all of those functions well, together. It’s not clear that we need a new label. I think we do have a lot of things right. I found that a little bit unusual, I thought Stiglitz was right, in terms of Economics as a discipline evolving. And I can observe that I’ve been involved after the financial crisis in that rethinking economics and those groups trying to add some color and flavor to your economics education, because it can be a bit dry, like it’s straight with the neoclassical view on things. But in terms of actual policy, yeah, it’s wasn’t super clear to me where it’s going, but it was kind of unusual to get that feeling that everyone thinks there’s some change happening..

Gene Tunny  23:03

So, you’ve got a blog, haven’t you? Fresh Economic Thinking, and I found that interesting, what you were saying about the teaching of Economics and you said that you’ve tried to give it a different flavor. What sort of things have you done? What have you tried to emphasized in your teaching and your writing?

Cameron Murray  23:20

Yeah, well, maybe let me give you an example. Because Joe Stiglitz, one of the last things he talked about was, well, we use Robinson Crusoe as this example of production. And when Friday comes, we talk about specialization. And I use that to say, well, that’s one element of the coordination problem when you’ve got two people. Someone pick the coconuts and someone go fishing. That example allows us to think more broadly? Why is someone better at picking coconuts? Who taught them? Who has the fishing net? And why do they have it and not the other person? Can they be more productive if the two of them go fishing on one day using a net holding one end each, and then the two of them pick coconuts the next day by helping them climb the tree? Like these, the coordination problems are much broader than I guess the way we’re trying to think about it. And I think in Economics training, we can think more broadly as issues come up, we can maybe see where there’s these net improvements on the status quo. And that’s kind of, what my blog is; is there a different angle to this problem? Is this really a coordination problem? Is it really specialization? Is it this? Is it that?

When I look at housing, for example, I was writing about the Shared Equity proposal, I’m like, well, is this the best option? Why isn’t a 100% equity better? This is the proposal where the government will buy 30% of a house for you as an equity partner for first home buyers. 

Gene Tunny  24:46

Are they going to go ahead with that, aren’t they? Because they want government here in Australia, right. 

Cameron Murray  24:51

And someone at the conference was telling me that the details are being worked out, can’t say anymore. I think we got to think well, that’s one policy, and we can look at it. But we should be tweaking at the edges as well and going well, if 30% is good, why isn’t 40% better? And if 40% is better, why not 100%. And if we’re at 100% equity, where sort of the government owns your house, that’s public housing. Like we should be a bit more expansive in thinking about how things fit together. And that’s what I tried to do.

Gene Tunny  25:22

So, we’re reportedly having a housing crisis here in Australia. And you’ve previously commented, or you’ve recommended a Singapore model, haven’t you? Is that what you’re driving at with a 100%?

Cameron Murray  25:37

Oh, well, my example, for example, in that blog post was the Land and Housing Corporation in South Wales that owns all the public housing stock. And the value of that housing stock went from $32 billion in 2012, to $54 billion in 2019. And like, that’s a really good return on equity for government, if we consider that as an independent entity, making $20 billion in seven years in terms of the value. So, that was my example of well, you know, we’re going to start another fund over here, and it’s going to buy equity in people’s houses; we have a fund here, that’s buying equity, we’re just not conceptualizing it this way, we’re only looking at the costs, and we’re ignoring the fact that what public housing is is an equity investment. So, that’s the expansive way to think about it.

Gene Tunny  26:24

Right. Okay. I’ll put some links to your blog in the show notes, and also some of the reporting on your recommendation regarding that Singapore model.

Okay. What I found were the highlights, and I can ask you about yours. Papers that really struck me as something I wasn’t expecting, or that made me think differently, it was an analysis by this recent master’s graduate from Harvard, Nicole Kagan, not so super. And what she showed was that, that policy during the COVID period here where they let you withdraw $10,000 from your superannuation balance, and it was a lot easier than the normal requirement where you had to demonstrate hardship. And she was making the point that it could actually backfire on the government in the long term due to the fact that it’s reducing their super balance, and therefore the government would have to pay them more pension in the future. She had some calculations that illustrated how that could occur. I thought that was a good analysis, a good paper, and it just shows those unintended consequences and just how there, whenever you’re designing a policy, there’s probably or there’s possibly a lot better way to do it. And So, you should be thinking laterally about the types of policies.

Cameron Murray  27:58

I thought hers was very good as well, because she didn’t just say, this is the result of this policy. She said, oh, here’s another policy of an interest free loan. And what was the other; that she had a third one as well and said, here’s something else. And now I’m going to compare all three of them. And I feel like that’s a really fundamental economic approach of saying, well, this is a good policy I showed you, it’s like, no, what are all the alternatives? And we should be picking the best one, because if we can beat this, we should. Right. So, I thought that was very good. And that was my comment to her as well, there was another. And it might be related to your presentation as well, that the government could have let you take your super or it could have bought your assets from your super and given you the cash and held those assets in its own fund and got their compound growth or whatever. And, therefore, the government would have had those future assets to pay you back when you got the pension, if you know what I mean. So, you could sort of draw a little circle around the super early release program, and take that forward through time by the government owning those assets in its own federal treasury super account, and then paying the extra pensions to you in the future out of that account if it wanted to. So, you know, that’s just another alternative. And she evaluated three and I really liked that approach and was enthusiastic to look at more.

Gene Tunny  29:25

Yeah, I thought it was good. The other papers I liked; Stephanie Schurer who won Young Economist of the Year Award, she looked at a paper, while her paper looked at these anti interventions of various measures in the Northern Territory to a world to reduce alcoholism or to reduce domestic violence and sexual abuse in the indigenous population there. She had this, I think it was some differences model share this methodology to identify what happened in Alice Springs when they introduced a minimum price of alcohol to try to reduce the drinking and the cost of wine. It didn’t have the effect that they necessarily expected. When they looked at what did it mean for babies with the birth way of babies? And what seems to have happened is, well, there was some substitute; they did stop drinking cask wine. There was a big drop in the consumption of that. But then, there was an increase in consumption of beer and other alcohol, to an extent. So, there’s sort of substitution there. But also smoking, smoking increased.

Cameron Murray  30:43

Yeah, it did. That was pretty clear and one of the main results, wasn’t it? 

I think that’s actually a result I’ve seen elsewhere of trying to change behavior with the sort of syntax approach where you tax the behaviour you don’t want to get. And I think we get that in cigarettes and marijuana and things like that, if there are substitute ways to get the broader consumption good. Then you’ll find them.

Gene Tunny  31:12

Yeah. I thought that was a good illustration of the possibility of unintended consequences that you can get with policy and as was Nicole’s paper, too. Okay. The other one I thought was great was Warwick McKibbin’s paper on COVID. So, he went over some modelling results of his early in the pandemic. And I mean, Warwick was claiming, I think he’s probably right about this, that he got reasonably; I mean, his estimates were probably better than any ones in terms of the ultimate economic impact. And a lot of it came from voluntary, people voluntarily withdrawing from the labor market.

Cameron Murray  31:58

I wasn’t in that one. Can you? What did he predict? And why?

Gene Tunny  32:03

This was a paper he released in February of 2020. He saw that COVID was spreading in China. And it was going to come to the end; I think it was in Italy at the time. And he used his, what is it, the McKibbin Sachs Global model – MSG model he’s got some global economic model originally built with Jeffrey Sachs at Harvard. And he’s sold it; to all of these finance ministries, I think Treasury had a copy when I was there. How would you describe it? Well, it’s a general equilibrium macro-economic model of the global economy. And he was projecting; he calls them simulations, he’s not calling them forecasts. He made a joke today about how he doesn’t like doing forecasts, because you’re only ever going to be wrong, you never forecast know precisely.

Cameron Murray  33:10

I think that’s very wise. 

Gene Tunny  33:12

So, I think that’s very clever of Warwick to do that. And he was showing what GDP deviations he was getting from his assumptions around how COVID would spread. Then he had endogenous policy responses, or actually, they may not have been endogenous, he must have assumed what policy responses would be in terms of fiscal policy, and then monetary policy. He knew that governments would respond and that would help the economy recover. And he was showing that he had the big GDP losses to begin with, but then the V-shaped recovery or the rapid recovery. So, Warwick was claiming that; and it’s probably right.

Cameron Murray  33:56

Did you get the inflation element as well as it’s sort of second half of last year and this year? Because the V-shape recovery; remember, there was a big debate, V-shaped recovery, W-shaped recovery. There was a lot of chatter, and I think obviously he was right on that. But what about the inflation part?

Gene Tunny  34:19

I think he was. He may not have got it to the; he may not have predicted as much as it has occurred, but I’ll have to check that. I think he did say something about that. I just can’t remember off the top of my head. I’ll put links in the show notes to that paper. I found that fascinating. 

One thing he didn’t predict and he was surprised by; he was really surprised by just how badly the United States did. But he was modelling the COVID infections and mortality, the COVID deaths, and his prediction for the US was too low. And because in his model he was basing the health response. So, he had the epidemiological development of the disease, the infections and the deaths. He had that related in part to the public health system or the public health response. And because the US, because of the CDC, it came out high in terms of public health effectiveness. So, in his model, US had high public health effectiveness. So, that was reducing his estimate of what would happen in the States. We all know that it just didn’t work. I mean, they may have had the CDC, but for some reason or another, something didn’t work.

Cameron Murray  35:49

Well, you know, the assumptions matter don’t they? One of the standout presentations for me was Hal Varian, the Chief Economist at Google. And I think, simply because he’s got the inside run on all the data, he had a great method of augmenting your traditional time series forecasts that have seasonality and trends with an additional regression that selects for the most useful search terms out of Google Trends, and then uses them as predictors in the regression part of the overall model. And was pretty good at predicting a lot of economic outcomes from Google trends search data, which I thought was pretty impressive, but I guess we kind of, accept that that happens. But what impressed me more is they have a Google survey tool that you can put as like an ad on the news item. And people get credit on Google Play or something if they fill in surveys. So, you can do these really rapid surveys, and it will distribute them to readers of news that meet certain criteria. And it replicates really well, these well-done official surveys that sample representatively across society based on census records of types of people and where they live, it replicates a lot of findings by being completely non representative, and just flooding the internet, essentially, with the survey. 

So, the message here is sort of saying is we don’t know if representativeness is that important, but you can find out cheaply and quickly by just doing a Google survey to augment your official survey where you’ve got representative samples from different parts of the country, in different age groups and so forth. 

We’re obsessed about sampling and he’s now saying, well, as long as we throw it out to the internet, sometimes it doesn’t really matter. 

Gene Tunny  37:54

It’s good enough, the results are good enough. It may not be as precise as a random survey, or a survey done by Roy Morgan or Gallup but it’s got to be good enough for what most people need it for.

Cameron Murray  38:07

Especially picking the trends, right? Is this declining in interest or rising interests, you’ll get that sort of stuff very quickly and cheaply. So, I immediately went back to my computer after that session and looked at housing markets and predictions and tried to catch up with the state of the literature on that, and it’s booming right now. So, I think that’s going to be something we’ll hear more about. And I expect, for example, in the next five years, we’ll probably have a new house price index that is informed by daily Google search trends. Like a live modelled index from this type of stuff, that would be my expectation, given that people are already trying to do that.

Gene Tunny  38:46

Yeah, because CoreLogic put out a daily House Price Index, I think, don’t they? 

Cameron Murray  38:52

They do put out a daily index but there’s a lot of assumptions because you don’t know sales data until the settlement and the price was 30 or 60 days beforehand. Over a longer term, it works well. And it seems to pick turning points well. But I think if you’re in the market for producing high frequency index like that, and you can augment that with Google Trends, I think you would dominate that market because people would put more stock in yours, you’d get more press coverage, you’d become very; So, I’d be very interested in if CoreLogic has got people looking at this. They obviously have a lot of data nerds. You might see live daily trackers of many things; could be an interesting new world at the next conference.

Gene Tunny  39:40

Yeah, absolutely. That was great, that nowcasting session and I chatted about that with Leonora. I’ll put a link in the show notes regarding that, too. 

So, on housing, Cameron, you presented a paper on housing, didn’t you? Would you be able to tell us about that, please?

Cameron Murray  39:56

Yeah. So, it’s pretty straightforward. There was a lot of very detailed statistical modelling at this conference and mine was the exact opposite. Mine was just, here’s the data on the rate of production of housing from new major subdivisions in Australia. Because the argument that we have at the moment, are planning regulations, stopping supply and keeping the price of housing up. And my question was, how are planning regulations stopping supply? Because we can observe in practice, all these major approvals with three to 20,000, approved housing lots, and we can observe how quickly they supply after the approval. And what you find is that during an economic boom, these property developers will sell at a rate that’s 30 to 50 times faster than when it’s not a boom. 

So, they’ll sell five a month, and then they’ll sell eight a month for a few months when there’s a boom. So, if you look at land sales in major subdivisions around Melbourne, when there was that 2015 to 17, boom, you can see, not only did the price rocket, but the sales rocket, and then when the price is up, typically, supply and demand say, well, at higher prices, you sell more, but then it stops once price gets up. So, as prices start rolling over, they stopped selling again. 

The main point of that is, there seems to be a built-in speed limit. And then in addition to that, I looked at aggregate company data for listed companies across states where they had eight to 12 different projects. And the question there as well, is that variation I’m observing; does it average out across different areas, if we diversify? And it does, but only to a small degree. And then I looked at council level data for the different councils in Queensland and showed that actually, the variation, even at a whole council level is much the same. So, the point of all that is that there’s some kind of built in speed limit that the market will supply, regardless of planning restrictions. So, if you want to talk about the effective planning regulations, it has to go via this market absorption rate, this optimal rate per period that you would produce new housing. 

Gene Tunny  42:20

Yeah, I see what you’re arguing there. So, at any point in time, there is going to be a speed limit. I think that’s fair enough. It’s like with the sale of government bonds, for example. So, they don’t just go and auction off the whole years in one day.

Cameron Murray  42:42

Yeah. The market has a finite depth, right? Especially in property, your local market has a very; it’s very competitive. But in your local area, if there’s only a few buyers rocking up each week, you can’t really sell faster than that. And if you did want to, you’d have to reduce the price dramatically. And that itself might not even work, because who wants to buy something that’s falling in price? Right? You’ve just showed me this is a terrible property asset to buy, because you keep decreasing the price on me. Right? I think property markets function like other asset markets, property developers aren’t in the business of panicking, and to reduce price and selling very quickly. So, if we want to talk about cheap and affordable housing options or systems, we’ve got to acknowledge that limit. 

We can’t go around saying oh up zone, and it’ll all be fine, because we’ve got a property boom in the whole world, regardless of local planning conditions. There’s almost no city you can name right now, Regardless of whether they’ve got very generous planning, whether they’ve got height limits, where they’ve got no height limits. Auckland, famous in 2016 up zone the whole city, and then had the biggest boom, I think just about in the world between 2016 and 2021.

So, that was mine. Yours was one of the last sessions of the day, that was just before Joe Stiglitz. I actually really liked your topic because, I have a strong interest in privatizing public assets and accounting trickery.

Gene Tunny  44:26

Yeah. Well, what I thought was bizarre about what Queensland Government did. This is the state government, where Cameron and I both reside; it’s the state government where Brisbane is the capital. What I found odd about what they did was they actually didn’t privatize it, they pretended they privatize it. They said if we did privatize it, we could sell it for $8 billion, and therefore, even though it’s still doing the same thing it did yesterday, we’re now going to treat it as a well; we’re creating this private company, we’re converting a government.

Cameron Murray  45:08

This was the property title’s office, right where you change, when you sell a house, you register the change in ownership. It’s the Torrens title.

Gene Tunny  45:16

Yeah, that’s right. Sorry, I should have mentioned that. Well, this is actually a private company, and we own shares in it. So therefore, we’re going to take it out of the general government sector. And we’re going to recognize this $8 billion asset on our balance sheet and use it to offset our $40 billion worth of debt or whatever it was, and that reduces our net debt.

Cameron Murray  45:47

That’s an accounting trick. I did think it was very interesting that we’re going to privatize, we’re not going to change the ownership. We’re just going to say that it’s; and I guess my point to you was; The other point you were saying is that Queensland has a future fund that does investments in private companies. And they were saying that we’re not putting it in that fund is that?

Gene Tunny  46:14

I know they did. So, it is in that future fund? Yeah. It is in there – the debt retirement fund they’ve got. 

Cameron Murray  46:22

Well, and I think one of the questions in your comments was that New South Wales got a lot of flak last year for doing the same thing. And they created this thing called the transport asset holding entity. Did you follow that news? 

Gene Tunny  46:38

Yeah, I’ve got to look more into it.

Cameron Murray  46:4

The basic gist was the same thing. They said, well, this is the Department of Rail or whatever it’s called. But actually, we’re going to corporatize it and say it’s a private company. So, when we subsidize it, that’s an equity injection. So, that’s actually an investment, not a cost. So, there was this great big accounting trick to get around there other standard measures of government spending and standard ways that they produce the budget. They’re like, well, no, that’s not a cost, that’s an equity injection, which of course, you could do for anything.

Gene Tunny  47:19

I have to have a closer look at that. I guess the point I was trying to make is that I thought this was a good example of just the financial or the public accounting trickery that can go on. And I think as economists, we need to be mindful of that.

Cameron Murray  47:40

I think your point; you said at the beginning that we’re meant to be sort of, reporting in a standardized way. And you’re comparing governments between countries and budgets and debts. How much does this accounting trick matter? And we’re comparing Queensland and Western Australia or Australia to New Zealand to Canada.

Gene Tunny  48:01

Yeah. It’s difficult to know. And while any one of them, you might think in the greater scheme of things, okay, maybe that’s not the biggest deal but they just all add up and you just don’t know. 

I remember what I was saying about what was going into the future fund. What I was trying to say is that originally, they were going to put in liquid assets. So, the original idea was, we would have, I think it was 4 billion or whatever it was, from the defined benefit. The funds set aside to meet the defined benefit superannuation liability, and they were going to take that out, because they were saying, well,  we’ve got excess there, we don’t need that much to pay the pensions. We’ll put that into this future fund, but they would have been liquid financial assets. So, cash or shares or whatever. But then, they didn’t have as much as they expected. So, they couldn’t actually put in liquid assets. What they then did was said, well, oh, we’ve got these $8 billion titles registry, let’s stick that in the future fund. And is not the same thing, because it’s not actual ready money. It’s not a liquid asset.

Cameron Murray  49:13

No, it’s definitely not. Although, we did later discuss before we recorded that, a cynic might say that the government is wedged right now in not privatizing any public assets. And they’re literally setting this up. So, when they’re out of power, they get the result they want because the next government, it makes it easier for them to then privatize and sell this off, because the structure is already changed.

Gene Tunny  49:42

It certainly does do that.

Cameron Murray  49:45

It depends how much you think these political games are being played behind the scenes.

Gene Tunny  49:50

Yeah, I’ll put a I’ll put a link to both of our papers in the show notes. I’ve got to think more about your housing article because I think that’s a fair point about the speed limit at a point in time. And I’ve had Peter Tulip on the show before. Peter is someone that you’ve debated or you have a lot of interactions on Twitter and

Cameron Murray  50:15

and in person every time. Yeah.

Gene Tunny  50:19

So, Peter was here at the conference too. And I think Peter’s point is that; I think he acknowledges that, like, you’re not going to solve the housing supply shortfall overnight by relaxing restrictions, because there’s just so much construction or so much building that would have to occur. I mean, have to occur over many years. And I think his point is that, well, the problem is we’ve had these restrictions in place for decades. So, there’s been a whole lot of under building. 

Cameron Murray  50:51

We had a good conversation last night with Peter. I think there’s a hidden mental model that we both have that I can’t quite articulate with both tried. One of the components of that is this competitive element in the property market, like how fast would we supply? What’s the real counterfactual? Because his argument, and it’s a common argument, is that we’ve had supply constraints for a long time, therefore, we don’t have enough houses. If we didn’t have a supply constraint, we would have more dwellings per person and more space than ever before. And yet, that’s actually what we have. 

Although prices are high. Part of that’s the interest rate, right? Rents compared to income in the private market are 20%. They were 20% in 1996. So, we’re talking, what’s that 26 years ago, quarter of a century. So, not only are rents the same proportion of income, and we’d probably expect people to spend roughly the same proportion of income on housing as they do, you know, there’s a fixed budget share results in the Cobb Douglas function as your income grows. But we have bigger houses, we have more bedrooms and more area and fewer people. And we actually saw that in the recent Census. Census was interesting, because last year, the week that we filled it out in August 2021, I predicted that the homeownership rate in the census would go up. Because it was 65.4%, in the 2016 census. And when the data came out a month ago, it was 66.0. So, a 0.6% increase. So, we got more homeownership. And we saw that the number of people per dwelling fell quite a lot as well, partly because of COVID. People sort of spread out a little bit more. Yeah. And we had a bit of a building boom as well, in that period. And So, we’ve got bigger houses, fewer people in them. So, the question is, why isn’t this the market outcome? Like, surely, you’ve got to tell me why the market outcome is something of even bigger houses and fewer people than what we have. And why would that be the case? That’s where we still disagree. Myself and Peter Tulip as the most active housing supply debaters on Australian social media.

Gene Tunny  53:27

Absolutely. Love to have you both thoughts for a chat in the future. But anyway, we’ll have to leave it there. Because we’ll wrap up soon, because we’ve got the State of Origin game between Queensland and New South Wales coming up. 

Yeah, I thought that’s been a great discussion. I just thought of something with Nicole Kagan’s paper.. So, you’ve got that idea that the government could have bought the shares off or it could have basically bought the super assets…

Cameron Murray  54:05

From people if they want to cash out their super, then the Superfund says, okay, we’ll give you cash but the government’s got to give us the cash to take a claim on their same assets.

Gene Tunny  54:15

Yeah. So, the government would have to borrow to buy or to let them cash out. But your argument would be they would be earning more, the government would be earning more from those assets than the cost of the borrowing, giving borrowed and was so cheap.

Cameron Murray  54:31

Yeah. And also, that whatever they earn on those assets is exactly what the people who took the money out of super would have earned. So, if you’re thinking about a cost to the age pension in the future, well, the government now got those assets, exactly the same amount of assets that it can use to spend on your age pension. Do you know what I’m saying? Because you don’t have the super, the government has it. And if you need the age pension, they’ve got exactly the same amount of money that they can give back to you if you qualify for the age pension.

Gene Tunny  55:00

I’ll just have to think that through because I’ll also have the debt one day to a border. Although you could think about the Reserve Bank doing it, perhaps. I mean, that’s one thing that could have;

Cameron Murray  55:14

I mean, it’s a balance sheet expansion for the government. And it’s a contraction for the person who took the cash and doesn’t have that other asset. I might write a blog on this; 

Gene Tunny  55:25

I think would be good. I’d love to see.

Cameron Murray  55:27

Nicole was the author of the paper? I’ll reach out because I thought she had the right idea of testing all these scenarios. There you go. That’s what conferences are for; meeting people and sharing ideas.

Gene Tunny  55:41

Absolutely, very good. Cameron Murray, from University of Sydney. Thanks so much for your time. It’s been really great chatting. And it’s been amazing catching up with you at this conference. It’s been great.

Cameron Murray  55:52

Yeah, I know, it has been great to hang out, Gene. 

Gene Tunny  55:57

Thanks, Cameron.

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 this episode’s guests Leonora and Cameron for the great conversations, and to the show’s audio engineer Josh Crotts for his assistance in producing the episode and to the show’s sponsor, Gene’s consultancy business www.adepteconomics.com.au

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