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The value of food security?

Food security, energy security, job security - all political terms that conjure up emotion, deliver electoral support, all the while remaining devoid of meaning.

I have been asked impossible questions in my job. But one comment recently sticks in my mind. It goes:

..there must be some data that they could have used to address the “value” of having future food security.

What value might that be? Do you want a dollar figure that represents the present value of all future value streams from having food security? And do you imply that food security means that Australia remains a net exporter of food?

Wikipedia provides a fairly detailed, but useless, entry on food security. It does not mention national self-sufficiency at all, but merely one’s access to nutrition, and the link with poverty. No surprises there.

I’m all for national pride, but arbitrarily deciding that a country must be self-sufficient in one particular good is a poor philosophical position. If we replaced food security with toilet paper security, or car security, or hat security, we would immediately reveal the absurdity of the argument.

That bloody housing shortage

It seems that the RBA's Anthony Richards may have been reading my blog. His comment today from a national housing market forum includes the following

I said in a talk earlier this year that most calculations available then put underlying demand at something like 180,000 to 200,000 dwellings per year. However, I noted that such figuring was based on simply extrapolating earlier trends in household size and ignored the likely impact of prices on the demand for housing. At some point, the overall demand for housing will be affected by the higher cost of housing. For example, with housing – both owner-occupied and renter – more expensive than in
the past, we might expect to see some young adults choosing to live with their parents for longer. We might expect some households to look for an extra flatmate rather than leaving a bedroom vacant. Some owners of holiday homes or second homes might have become more inclined to sell them, with those houses then occupied full-time.

Hence the ‘undersupply’ of housing might not be as large as sometimes thought. But this is not necessarily something that should reassure us – it may be because the higher cost of housing – partly reflecting supply side problems – has choked off some of the demand that might otherwise have existed.

However, by the end of his statement, fingers are squarely pointed at the pet issue for housing analysts, supply side constraints.  That bloody housing shortage gets a good run in his statement as well. 

I also wonder how we are meant to know the counterfactual demand that might otherwise have existed.  Isn't he just saying that demand for housing follows the law of demand?
 
His remarks are reported as evidence that the housing market is ready to 'take off'. But only time will tell whether the inverse correlation between change in housing shortage and change in price proves reliable in the longer term, or whether the RBA really can forecast market behaviour.

----------UPDATE----------

It looks like I'm not the only one who has interepreted the housing market exactly the opposite way to the RBA and other property bulls.

Roads for nobody

Friday's local rag suggests that the State government here in Queensland is keeping their employees busy by investigating a possible new tunnel from Toowong to Everton Park.  This is to alleviate traffic congestion (of course).

Let me make some predictions.
1. This tunnel will not start construction within a decade.
2.  If 1 comes true, expect the tunnel never to be built.

The reasons are equally as obvious as the predictions.
1. The State government has no money for ridiculous projects like this.
2. The Federal government will tighten its belt before they are asked to fund this project.
3. The private sector will not fund it - they wouldn't fund a little $250million bridge because of good alternative routes, why would they fund this. 

If you want to head north on the Bruce highway from Toowong, wouldn't you take the other tunnel they plan to build to the Inner City Bypass, then get on the other new tunnel to the airport, then get on the Gateway motorway heading north?  I would.

It appears that the transport planning community has looked to cities around the world that have similar traffic problems to Brisbane (Los Angeles, Sydney etc), and adopted similar approaches to alleviating traffic congestion.  One wonders why transport planners don't instead look to cities that actually don't have severe traffic problems, and instead adopt some of the approaches used in these cities.  It is a lot like asking a chronic alcoholic which intervention worked best for him when he still drinks like a fish. 

I await a more diversified transport plan for South East Queensland.

Property bulls take note

The main problem with the housing shortage proponents is that they neglect the existing 8.5million or so existing residential dwellings as a supply of housing. Currently, the average dwelling occupancy rate across the country is 2.53 persons/dwelling. This rate has varied between 2.48 and 2.60 over the last 27 years. In fact, it peaked at 2.6 in 1982 (soon after the second oil crisis). The graph below shows that we are currently heading back to level of occupancy last seen in the 1980s.



But surely, with such a small variation, this issue is minor compared to the 17,000 homes we are currently short of! On the contrary, it is the crux of the whole debate. You see, a change in the occupancy rate occurs for all dwellings, including the 8.5million existing homes. The 43,000 people apparently in need of the 17,000 dwellings can be accommodated in existing dwellings, and the result would be a shift in the occupancy rate of 0.005. If you look at the y-axis scale you can see how small an increment this is (one quarter of one notch), and how quickly we are heading that way.

In fact it only requires 1 in 200 households to welcome another person. Seems realistic to me, considering how popular this trend is amongst my peer group. Also, considering that the average dwelling is much larger now than when the occupancy rate was 2.6 back in 1982, such a shift would barely be noticable. 

I have mentioned before how this adjustment in occupancy rate occurs, for example:
  • youths stay home with parents longer
  • group households rent spare rooms
  • elderly parents move in with children’s families
  • other lone relatives move in
  • when families relocate they choose smaller houses… and so on
This is happening and there is plenty of scope for it to continue. In 2003-4, 35% of households reported one spare bedroom, while 42% reported more than one spare bedroom. That’s at least 9.4million spare rooms in existing dwellings.

So I caution the property bulls to be realistic with their investments. Don’t expect a boom of 6 years to be followed by a six month bust. If you want to get into the market now, buy on the high rental yield and find good tenants. And of course, don’t forget about location.


Upon request

Peter Fraser recently commented that I should look a little more closely at the ABS data on housing construction, demolitions, and population growth, as the data I linked to that suggested the was no housing shortage was a bit light on (and outdated).  Fair point, so I thought I'd play with the same data as other analysts and see what I make of it.

Below is the graph that apparently makes quite obvious the current housing shortage (the scale is such that the ratio between the two variables is set at the last decades average occupancy rate).  I measure shortage first by establishing the underlying demand for new dwellings as change in population divided by occupancy rate (which changes through time as well), then subtracting new dwellings completed.  (I wanted to then add demolitions of residential dwellings, but it appears that the ABS does not collect such data, and after a brief chat with them, they don't know of anyone who does collect it.  In fact, determining a reliable collection method is one of their current projects.  If anyone knows who is collecting it, and how reliable it might be, I would love to know; as would the ABS).


At first glance, yes, the housing shortage appears to be getting out of control.  But I think what matters is how this comparison of population growth and new housing completions can be useful in forecasting the future behaviour of the market.  Below, the ABS capital city price index is also plotted, and shows a surprising relationship with the shortage. 



The plot below shows the relationship between change in shortage and change in price.  A quick regression shows a significant negative correlation between change in shortage and change in price, even when the shortage is lagged a little.




This is what makes me wonder if we all have this forecasting thing backwards.  If the housing shortage declines (by way of adjustments in occupancy rates, conversion of non-residential to residential, dramatic reduction in population growth), would that signal an increase in prices is imminent?

What theory could explain this relationship?  My suggestion relies on the fact that the demand and supply of housing are interrelated - that is, they each react to the other, and the price change is a signal for actions by both sides of the equation.  Ceteris paribus (including constant incomes), we have a number of reactions to a price change on both the supply and demand side.

1. When the rate of price growth increases, occupancy rates increase, to reduce the effect on a per person housing cost, which in turn decreases demand.
2. When the rate of price growth increases, supply increases as developers can now build more profitably.
3. When rate of price growth declines, occupancy rates decrease as people can afford more space per person.
4. When rate of price growth declines, the supply of new dwellings slows dramatically.

How can that make sense?  If we follow this through, an increase in the rate of price growth is a signal that demand is declining but supply is rising! And vice versa.  A decline in rate of price change signals a increase in demand and a decrease in supply! 

I am pretty sure that the market is not so simple that it can be deciphered by comparison of population growth and dwelling construction. 


Those crazy French

The French have a reputation for pursuing the art of living. An appreciation of the finer things in life is a typically French quality. Their government reflects that pursuit back to the people through policies that reduce the hours of work of full time jobs, and that enable plentiful holidays. Their President, Nicolas Sarkosy, percieved as womaniser and playboy by some, embodies the French passion for life.

Sarkosy is now considering redirecting his government to use measures of happiness as a benchmark for progress; much like the quirky Kingdom of Bhutan, whose King Jigme Singye Wangchuck introduced Gross National Happiness as a measure of Bhutans progress in the 1970s.

It makes me wonder how subjective these measures might be, and how they will deal with the problem encountered by economists studying happiness - that after a shock to peoples happiness (death in the family, loss of job etc.), they return back to their equilibrium state rather quickly.  As a society, does this mean that this measure may lose validity, as the population has an equilibrium level of happiness that is not determined by external factors?  Poor government decisions would quickly drop from the radar as people returned to their previous happiness level. 

I can answer that one myself - no.  Because the measures being discussed are simply subjective weighted averages of external measures, such as air quality, income inequality etc.  The happiness measure therefore faces the problem of reconciling these subject external measurements with peoples actual self reported happiness.

Another interesting problem facing happiness researchers is that they can find very counterintuitive results.  For example, a new job actually decreases happiness, rather than increases it as would be expected.  An of course there is the Easterlin Paradox, which suggests that wealth is not an important factor in happiness.

But, in the end, what gets measured get managed.  If we as a society strive for progress of a kind that reflect our values of fairness, equality and our environmental concern, then maybe Gross Domestic Happiness is the tool for the job.  Maybe, it's simple another example of politicians playing politics.

Turning points

I declared in July that the turning point in thinking about climate change has arrived. Now it seems one of the world's most renouned climate modelers is questioning the validity of the climate change hypothesis (here).

You see the thing is, complex systems results in perculiar outcomes, and can violently change without apparent reason. I have written in the past that I think N.N. Taleb covers the topic well when he talks of Black Swans. Extrapolating the past does not predict the future.

Let us look at some relevant examples. Recently, the population growth predictions from the Treasury were revised upward. But I wonder what the logic behind this revision might be. What new information could change significantly a previous prediction of a century of population growth?

My suggestion is that they make the mistake of extrapolating the past to predict the future. Let's imagine we are Treasury in 1988, and that we have just witnesses population growth like in the graph below.


Wouldn't it be obvious that we should be expecting higher growth in the future? Be if you knew the causes of this growth you could predict that the trend would not continue. It would certainly decline again. And it did.

So I imagine that the current boom in population is the result of two main factors - increased skilled migration, and the baby bonus. The increase in skilled migration could decline drastically at any moment upon political will. Of course, if the douple-dip downturn eventuates, this is more than likely to occur.

Additionally, the increase in natural growth due to increasing births in recent year - the baby bonus children - are likely to be the result of couples bringing forward their decision to have a family. Thus, this little boom is likely to fade quickly as all the number of remaining fertile young couples who desire children drastically reduces. I would hope these underlying points did not escape the Treasury.

Put simply, in complex systems, the longer period of time we consider, the more likley we are to gain insights into the behaviour of the system.  My bet is that the rate of population growth will fall significantly from this peak over the next few years. 

Doesn’t current monetary policy indirectly target asset prices anyway?

There has been plenty of talk about the RBA targeting asset prices by leaning against bubbles. All reports are that this is unlikely to happen in the foreseeable future. And for good reason.

They would face two problems;
a) identifying bubbles, and
b) using an economy wide instrument, interest rates, to target asset prices in an individual sector. All other sectors will suffer as a result.

But after thinking about this after footy last night, doesn’t inflation targeting automatically lean against asset price bubbles if they appear in a broad range of sectors?

Think about it. Asset price increases flow on to the price of consumer goods. Property price rises are the simplest example. Commercial property price increases have increased the costs of business, for everyone, which eventually flows though to retail/consumer prices. I don’t have much data at hand, but it would appear that asset prices are a good leading indicator of inflation. When interest rates are increased to curb inflation, they also curb asset price growth.

Thoughts?

Live anywhere and join the new rich

Timothy Ferriss’ book, The 4-hour Work Week, is definitely motivational, is full of practical ideas and tips. But after taking me on an exciting journey, it somehow it left me back where I began.

The premise of this book is there is no need to be trapped in the 9 to 5 drudgery, and that the life we want is waiting for us to come and grab it. We can stop wasting our precious time on menial tasks by becoming extremely efficient, and outsourcing much of our time consuming routine. By making your work ultra efficient, and mobile, you develop the freedom to see the world and fulfill your dreams. Simple.

I am economist, so the idea of maximising utility is no stranger to me. Timothy Ferriss, in my mind, is the ultimate homo economicus. He designs his life to fulfil his own goals, and ignores the need for social convention and traditional work routine – he should really be on the cover on of economic text book! But before I get into my thoughts on particular parts of the book, let me present some of my favourite quotes.

Retirement is worst-case scenario insurance
Less is not laziness
The timing is never right
Ask for forgiveness, not permission
Emphasise strengths; don’t fix weaknesses

And that’s all by the second chapter. One point I would like to develop is the distinction Tim makes between effectiveness and efficiency. Effectiveness is doing things that get you closer to your goals. Efficiency is performing a given task in the most economical manner. This idea resonated with me (I had never heard this distinction made before), as I believe I naturally think in terms of effectiveness.

Two other little gems from this book the 80/20 rule, and Parkinson’s Law. The 80/20 rule is a restatement of the non-linearity of our inputs and outcomes. For example, 80% of our output might come from 20% of our time, while 20% of sources might cause 80% of my problems. It allows one to optimise by isolating and eliminating (another key point of Tim’s) wasteful use of your time.

Parkinson’s Law dictates that a task will swell in (perceived) importance and complexity in relation to the time allocated for its completion. Just like those university assignments, a long deadline give too much time to think about the unimportant parts and delay hitting the key tasks in the head. Combining these two principles is the secret to heightened productivity. As Tim states:

Limit tasks to the important to shorten work time (80/20)
Shorten work time to limit tasks to the important (Parkinson’s Law)

Couldn’t agree more - but I've never been able to express it like that. As well of these little gems of advice, the book is packed with actual practical advice, such as email templates, examples of courteous phone messages explaining how you won’t be answering y our phone much anymore, and phrases to use when negotiating remote working arrangements with your boss. Oh, and there’s plenty of links to website dealing where particular issues covered in more detail.

In the end, I feel like I am already living the 'lifestyle design' mentality of the new rich espoused by Ferriss. While his advice is extremely helpful, and quite motivating, it leaves me back to the existential conundrum I had at the beginning. If we can have anything we want out of life, and I believe we can, what is it that I want?

A man’s home is his castle - and the major component of his investment portfolio

I said it like this (in support of Kris Sayce):

…house prices during a bubble (if you want to call it that, however mild) begin to carry a growth premium. People begin paying a premium on the price for the expected future capital growth. The elimination of this growth premium may explain the decline in prices observed over 2008.

These guys, Karl E Case, John M Quigley and Robert J Shiller, say it like this:

For the vast majority of buyers, investment was ‘a major consideration’ or they at least ‘in part’ thought of it as an investment. …it was a major consideration for a majority of buyers. Similarly, only a small percentage of buyers thought that housing involved a great deal of risk in all cities...

While I’m here, a question that has been bothering me for some time is why property ‘experts’ obsess about auction clearance rates? I’m not sure what theory supports this measure as sign of strength in the market. High clearance rates could either be a sign of buyer enthusiasm, or seller desperation. In the share market, an ongoing auction, a high volume of trade is generally necessary for a significant price change – up or down. I would love to see the correlation between auction clearance rates and price movement.

Must-see data on ye olde chronic housing shortage

I guess the housing shortage advocates have not looked at the data straight in the eye before.

A simple comparison of percentage change in population, and percentage change in dwellings shows that only a few places in Australia suffer from anything that could be labelled a shortage, while most capital cities show a glut of housing.

Not only that, but the prices continued to rise in 2006-08, the period immediately following the data in the linked table. Looks a lot like a bubble to me. Don't know about you, but I'm waiting for another slump in residential real estate prices next year.


Move over stock exchange – welcome the Real Estate exchange!

There are reasons buying and selling a home gives the average person a high risk of bursting into fits of rage. Ninety percent of real estate agents are dodgy ninety percent of the time. Information on the home buying process is provided by the self-interested agent to the otherwise (but often not) uninformed buyers and sellers. And while the provision of information, in the form of sales data, legal and financial advice is growing, the incentive structure at all levels is engineered to complete a sale, rather than achieve the best price for the seller. I am going to suggest that the provision of a nationwide residential real estate exchange will benefit both buyers and sellers in the real estate market, at the expense of commission based leeches (that’s real estate agents).

First, consider the role of an agent. They are contracted to act on behalf of the seller to find a buyer at the highest possible price. For this service, they receive a commission on the sale price, which is designed as an incentive for them act in the sellers best interests. Which we all know that in practice this often faces some obstacles. An agent, who would receive in their own hand 1.25% of the sale price, or $2,500 on a $200,000 sale, has little incentive to work harder to achieve an extra $10,000 for the seller. The agent’s premium for the extra $10,000 is a meagre $125.

But maybe the current commission system is better than the alternative fixed cost system. Imagine you pay an agent a fixed cost of, say, $2,500. Where is the incentive for them? Well, they get the same money at whatever price the house sells for. And if it was structured as a fee for service, where the price needs to be paid regardless of whether the house is sold, the incentive is to never get it sold - to get the repeat business!

My main concern however, is actually not about the commission structure itself, but that the commission charged by every agent is the same. The State regulates that the maximum commission charged is 2.5% of the sale price plus $900. You cannot find one single agent who will endeavour to sell your house for less, even though the standard REIQ contract suggests negotiating this amount. Wouldn’t competition amongst agents cause this price to decline, especially as house prices have increased substantially since the regulation was introduced?

The question then is would anyone be worse off if the maximum commission rate was reduced? Some agent would of course, and it may send some out of the game, but that wouldn’t be such a bad thing at a society wide level. The prices acheived in the market will be the same (people's willingness to pay for housing will not be affected by this small detail).

The other little nasty in the real estate game is auctions. As a buyer I always find it amazing how often auctions occur, because it puts me off completely. First, to be a serious bidder you have to commit money for appropriate inspections and financial arrangements without being certain of the price you will have to pay, and whether you will actually buy. The media has recently reported some buyer complaints against agents for misleading them on house prices. The potential buyers had committed around $1,500 to inspections and other arrangements, only to find that the eventual price was way out of the ballpark. So buyers at auctions face higher risks, and hence are likely to pay a lower price than they would be willing to if they could buy with a conditional contract.

But that risk is the key. Agents face the risk of a house not selling because the seller has unrealistic expectations, or they change their mind, or whatever the case may be. Eliminating this extra ‘agency risk’ will reduce transaction costs significantly.

Imagine a real estate exchange (REE) where home owners could list their properties. Maybe each property has a list of compulsory documentation to be included – Survey plan, title, aerial photo, front photo, number of rooms, bath, bed, total covered area, building materials, age, car spaces, maybe pest inspector and engineers reports. The house would be put up on the exchange, which could be searched by any of the characteristics. The seller would nominate a price and contract conditions they are willing to accept, and buyers would nominate a price in a kind of open auction process. There would be no time limit, and people could keep their house in the exchange at a ridiculously high price, and if someone agreed, they would be forced to enter the contract, even if it was a bit of a joke - “just testing the market” or something like that.

In this case, there is no requirement for agents. Remember their fundamental role is to bring buyers and sellers together, and that role would now be replaced with the REE. Risks of uncommitted sellers would be eliminated.

There may then open up a market niche for business to provide the service of granting entry to homes for sale. Real estate agents may metamorphise into home display service providers, who collect a fee for answering enquiries and granting entry to potential buyers. Similarly, they may inspect houses on behalf of buyers. But without commissions, and without the associated risk, they can focus on the streamline management of inquiries and inspections, and compete on price for a rather homogenous service.

But maybe we don’t need government here. Google offers listings on their mapping tool for free to any individual or agent. This is a real step in the right direction. Maybe soon they will use their Google Checkout to enable bids to be made, further facilitating transactions. Maybe we will find market solutions to market failures?


*I had this blog written for some time, then searched the web before publishing and found the REE idea here.

Economists strike – what next?

One wonders about such things (and here). The most highly educated group in our society (university academics if you are still wondering) are threatening strike action for better pay.

The question in my mind is; will the economics departments be participating in such actions, and what is there reasoning?

The economic academics I know think that the university lifestyle, autonomy, and interesting research projects, mean that moderate pay is sufficient to attract good talent. After all, that’s what keeps them in the game – it’s not the money honey. Why then the need for more pay?

Surely if there was a problem attracting staff, universities could voluntarily offer higher salaries for some positions?

In the end, academics always have self interest to fall back on as a justification for participating in strikes. Although, they could just as easily benefit from the strike action and not bother participating – another self-interest motive at work.

Oh, the mystery.

Conspiracy!

I don’t take anything at face value. I give credit to conspiracy theories, as they often seem as plausible as the mainstream interpretation of events. Many times though, I simply don’t care, and even if I did, I couldn’t do much about correcting any misrepresentations of history.

I want to throw another one out there.

I have written before how implying causality between correlations of changing global surface temperature and increasing concentrations of carbon dioxide is statistical mumbo jumbo. But considering we know so little about whether the global climate will in fact ‘change’ (we still don’t know if that is for better or for worse) as a result of humanities combustion of fossil fuels, we seem to be taking quite radical actions. Households appear to want to do their part to prevent some hypothesised distant future even of low probability, while immediate and dire problems exists all around us (maybe more so in other parts of the world than the Lucky Country). So the question remains, how did such a fringe issue become so mainstream?

Today’s conspiracy theory is that a group of very powerful world business leaders (the big oil men) saw the imminent peak of fossil fuel production, and the resulting problems of a declining productive capacity of the economy. They wanted to get governments to act on this problem without having to admit that the problem existed. So, they utilised the fringe climate change movement, giving them a voice in mainstream circles. Any government actions implemented to curb climate change would conceal the peak of oil production for a little longer. Government research and subsidies may even assist in finding alternatives for big oil to invest in. All they while they can maintain that oil reserves are plentiful, keep confidence in their business and the share price high, while having governments unknowingly assist them to wean themselves off oil.

They use lines like “the stone age didn’t end because of a stone shortage” to show that change can happen voluntarily.

Anyway, that’s a nice one for today. I’ll leave you with this interesting comment from here.

I'm a bit of a conspiracy theory buff and one of my favorites is the meta-theory: all conspiracy theories that become popular are actually produced by the government to keep the paranoids occupied looking for aliens, bigfoot, and psychics instead of focusing on the more nefarious intrusions into civil and social rights. Meta-theory has a lot of benefits, such as that it explains why government explanations for things like Roswell are so terrible: a good explanation would leave only a few true believers, a bad explanation actually creates more believers in the conspiracy. As a final benefit, generating conspiracy theories as red herrings is cost-effective. A conspiracy theory works by arguing from the void/gaps. All the government need do is create a few vague clues and let the mind of the legions of paranoids do the rest of the work filling in the huge, ambiguous spaces. Why would anyone investigate mundane government corruption when there are aliens and psychics to research?

Information deficiencies in the job market

I am in the market for a new job. Here are some things I have noticed:

1. All jobs are exciting, and require people with enthusiasm.
2. All jobs are for an integral role in a team.
3. All jobs require you to work independently and as part of a team.

Here's a snapshot of the jargon.

...with a strong mission to provide outstanding services to our sunshine state. Undergoing an exciting diversification of its portfolio...

It all makes me pretty cynical. I mean, not all jobs can be that exiting! To make matters worse, many job advertisements emphasise the importance of experience. Even for a dish-pig or waiter, they seem to want a minimum of 2 years experience. Is there anything about washing dishes or carrying plates that can't be learnt in a week?

One job I saw suggested that the suitable candidate would have 5 years experience in a similar role. In my letter I wrote:

While I may not have 5 years experience in a similar role, I would suggest you are unlikely to find a proactive candidate given those requirements. Anyone who has spent 5 years in the same role, then applies for another similar one, in my mind, appears to be destined for mediocrity. If instead you seek a candidate with enthusiasm, analytical skills, and drive for constant improvement, then I may be quite suitable.

We’ll see how that application goes. I always wonder how you are meant to explain how great you will be for a job after reading a total of two paragraphs of non-sense. Maybe I'll offer a 'try before you buy' period in my next application. Surely that's in the best interests of all involved.

Where did we leave our common sense? Is it behind the new plasma screen?

This article raises the point that we have a tendency to eat more after exercise, negating the potential weight loss benefits. I don’t think this is breaking news. Nor does it actually mean that exercise won’t make you thin, as the title so controversially states. In fact, the following excerpt shows the ridiculous need to frame a discussion about how to address the compensating hunger from the exercise in emotive and controversial terms:

Exercise, in other words, isn’t necessarily helping us lose weight. It may even be making it harder.

Common sense tells us that diet and exercise are the ingredients to weight loss (and gain mind you – athletes are right into this diet and exercise equation). Eat less, exercise more, and you should lose weight. Eat more, exercise less, you should gain weight. And for those who want to gain muscle, heavy exercise and a high protein diet with plenty of calories. I heard a third hand story once that a famous Iron-man was asked in an interview whether he would consider writing a book about his particular views on health and fitness, and he replied along the following lines: “It would be a pretty short book”. It is after all, a simple equation.

Also, imagine that reality TV show where contestants lose weight. Are we to think now that they would have done a better job without all the exercise? Or that they could have really shed all that weight by sitting on their arse, but eating slightly less - really?

Anyway, I wonder where common sense has gone sometimes.

Child care subsidies and maternity Leave: New incentives and unintended consequences

The maternity leave debate was raised yesterday with an angle I had not thought about before, but being an economist, really should have. It suggests that maternity leave has the unintended consequence of encouraging women with young children to work rather than stay home with their children. Rather than bringing families together, it actually tears them apart. Let us examine this claim.

The article claims that more than 80% of children under 5 years of age attend formal day care in Sweden, where 12 months maternity leave is the norm. This figure must surely be closer to 100% of children aged 1-5, given that mothers (or fathers) are paid to stay home for the first year of their child’s life. In Australia, the number of children under 5 in formal day care is currently less than 40%, and much of that I would imagine is part time.

Both the pro and anti maternity leave debaters need to get straight the purpose of their policy. That way we can examine whether there are possible unintended consequences which can undermine the suggested outcomes.

For example, the pro-maternity side appear to want to reduce the cost of child rearing to working mothers. Fair enough. But the unintended outcome of a maternity leave is to decrease the costs of child rearing for working mothers, but not stay-at-home mums. The new incentive structure encourages mothers to choose work over staying home with youngsters.

Complementing maternity leave is the current child care benefit scheme. I have mentioned before how cheap child care can be after all the subsidies are considered – about $15/day/child. This policy increases the net benefits of working for mums, as the cost of working, in the form child care, is reduced. These subsidies provide incentives for mothers to return to work quickly after the birth of their children.

Sweden is the classic case study of the pro-maternity leave lobbyists, but I wonder if they have really examined the outcomes of Swedish policies in detail.

Consider this comment (all quotes from here): 

Policies such as childcare and parental leave have meant that the majority of Swedish women are employed in the labour market and remain there throughout their lives, with only minor interruptions after the birth of a child.

And: 

from 1990-1998 the percentage of women engaged in part-time work fluctuated between 43 and 47 percent, while since then it has decreased to between 33 and 36 percent.

It appears more kids in full time, rather than part time, child care is what you get.

The following graph is of the period following the introduction of 180 days parental leave, at 90% of previous salary, in 1974 in Sweden. This was extended to 9 months in 1978.

During the 1970s and 1980s, the state and the municipalities both covered approximately 45 per cent of the fees, leaving the remaining 10 per cent to be covered by parental fees.

Again, subsidising child care works, in that it increases the uptake of child care. Not subsidising it works too. Cost of childcare exploded in the 1990s, and

…by 1998, 17 per cent of the costs of childcare were being covered by parental fees

The graph above clearly shows this impact. But what of the 2000s boom? We have another policy change to explain that one.

In July 2001 the Swedish government expanded childcare to include children of parents who are unemployed and in January 2002 to include children of parents who are on parental leave looking after a sibling (Swedish National Agency for Education, 2003). In addition, in January 2003 all children aged 4-5 became entitled to 525 hours of free attendance in childcare per year.

It is time for the pro-maternity leave lobby to ask whether having almost all of our children aged 1-5 in full time child care is a desirable social outcome.

My gut instinct is no, but I have no reason for this position. My son is in family day care two days a week, and he started this at 18months of age. He enjoys it, and he learns to socialise with other kids. Since putting kids in child care is a voluntary action of parents, my inner economist says that it must be the best outcome in the circumstances. Of course, the circumstances are the direct result of government policy tweaking the incentive structure.

In the end, it appears maternity leave policies do not bring families closer together, but create a generation where parents and children become strangers.

What's with the news?

I thought some of you might be interested in the content you can find through the Courier Mail website’s front page:
• Sexy designs on Columbian catwalk – photo special
• Beauty and the beast – how Miss Universe narrowly escaped a captive crocodile
• The flying car is here!
• Get naked – best nude events, beaches and resorts
• Miranda Kerr caught topless again – photos inside
• Amazing animal escapes
• Beauty and the beast – picture special (bikini clad models holding exotic pets)
I just want to remind you that they also claim a readership of 620,000 each weekday. An economist will ask, is this degradation of news demand driven, or supply driven? Considering the vast flesh content of the internet, maybe it is demand driven. Anyway, I think I have now confirmed where not to go for news.

Insightful

I thought it might be time for a short break from the residential property market. Time, maybe, for a more philosophical glimpse at our world.

When election time comes around I often wonder what difference my vote will make. All the candidates seem to converge on the same policies 99% of the time, and often take advantage of irrelevant fringe issues to attract voters to their side. It appears then that much of the benefits from a democracy actually happen before votes are cast, as candidates seek to determine policies to satisfy the majority of people. Thus, we get the candidates and policies we deserve.

I will leave you with a quote from a very interesting piece.

... we also have to overcome our perception that elections are about the future course of our country. Actually, they are about picking managers who will oversee public policy as we move into the future...