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Economic myths - another dose

Population growth

I have written at length on why population growth does not improve welfare. Mark Crosby over at Core Economics reiterates these fundamental arguments.

The pro-population growth arguments are theoretically flawed, and empirically dismissed. Below is a chart of the relationship between population growth and GDP per capita for around 200 countries and localities, showing a distinctly inverse relationship. If I was in the business of improving welfare, low population growth would be a key avenue.
Another emerging myth is that population growth will decrease interest rates. Renowned property spruiker Chris Joye has created plenty of media fanfare recently with his spurious connection between population growth and interest rates. This table shows the interest rates in 23 countries, and if I’m not mistaken, shows that countries with the lowest population growth (and highest GDP per capita) also have the lowest interest rates.

Food

Food myths are widespread. The environmental movement wants us to believe that vegetarianism is better for the environment and that ‘organic’ (what does that mean?) food is more nutritious and can solve hunger around the world. The agricultural lobby would have us believe that food self-sufficiency is of utmost importance, although their argument is shallow at best.

The latest myth to be busted is that chickens are pumped with artificial hormones and steroids to make them grow faster and larger. However, it appears that hormones are not part of the poultry picture at all.

While I firmly believe that raising animals for food should be conducted in a humane manner, those who push for change would garner more support if they were fully informed of current practices - their message could then be taken seriously by industry and government. Furthermore, the organic food movement could concentrate on promoting farming practices that reduce externalities, as a result of chemical use for instance, and improving land quality. The incentives for such change often align with the long term goals of the agricultural industry and may attract wider public support.

Safety

Under the rebound effect banner I have discussed how some innovations to improve safety can backfire if peoples’ behavioural response is to take on more risk. For example, the vigorous uptake in sunscreen use has led to a culture of sun exposure, offsetting the intended consequence of reduced skin cancer rates. The name for this behavioural response in the context of risk taking is the Peltzman Effect.

You can find this type of response in broad range of situations. Most recently, in trials of automatic lane correction technologies in cars, one participant noted:

...that she would love to have this feature in her own car. Then, after a night of drinking in the city, she would not have to sleep at a friend’s house before returning to her rural home

Minimum wage

The business lobby loves the textbook response to minimum wage laws, but even world renowned economists are sceptical.  No doubt this debate will continue.

Stay informed for Election 2010 - Labor Factions: Basic Questions Answered

By Andrew McMicking

Why does the ALP have factions? What are the benefits?

Factions have been set up to serve a useful purpose in the ALP. In brief they:

• Allow support to be readily marshalled behind candidates and ideas.
• Provide for a sharing of power between different philosophical or ideological interests in the party.
• Serve as a mechanism to settle disputes.

Any organisation or group of people – be it the workplace, a golf club, church group or school classroom – will always see groups of like minded people associate more readily together. The ALP has recognised this and, through factions, has formalised such groupings. Members and unions in the ALP can now formally apply and join a faction. Each faction usually has a membership list, executive, AGM, bank account, fundraising activity and negotiation committee for dealing with other factions. This formalised nature allows the principle of solidarity to be applied i.e. a decision is made within a faction and all members are bound to abide by that decision.

What is Right and what is Left?

You often here the terms ‘left wing’ and ‘right wing’ applied to factions by both the media and in public discussion. In political/philosophical terms, ‘right wing’ means you tend to take a more conservative and pragmatic view of policy issues, whereas ‘left wing’ means you tend to take a more reformist or progressive view. Support for a budget surplus, tax cuts as opposed to more government spending, a close defence relationship with the US, free market economics, less red tape for business and uranium mining is regarded as ‘right wing’. Support for greater government spending on health, education, disability services and infrastructure, an Australian Republic, recognition of the rights of indigenous people and other minority groups, and opposition to the war in Iraq is regarded as ‘left wing’.

What do we currently have in Qld? Federally?

The ALP, in each State, have factions which can be classified as either Left or Right.

In Qld we have The Left as a left wing faction. However we have two right wing factions: Labor Unity known as the ‘Old Guard’ (refer page 3) and Labor Forum known as the ‘AWU’ faction (as the AWU, Qld’s biggest union, dominates this group). These two factions are now in close alliance together and many view them as one right faction. They technically remain separate entities, though, and many in Labor Unity would not see themselves as a right wing faction, but more in the centre between The Left and Labor Forum.

Is residential property Super?

The retirement plans of working families may soon succumb to Australia's residential property mania. If Chris Joye had his way, Australian super funds would invest in the emerging residential equity market to diversify their portfolios against highly correlated domestic and global equities markets. The argument for this move is summarised below.

Investors, such as super funds, get extremely low-cost, highly enhanced and very long-dated exposures to what has, during the past three decades (including the recent calamity) been the largest and best performing of all investment classes: residential real estate. Historically, investors have only been able to access highly concentrated, risky development-style holdings comprising small parcels of properties that incur heinous transaction costs of about 12.5 per cent. By investing in a portfolio of thousands of shared equity interests, super funds could avoid all of these costs and secure the low risk diversification that they have never had before. Independent actuarial analysis suggests that about 15 to 30 per cent of all super fund capital should, in theory, be allocated to housing, in part because its returns are so unrelated to the performance of other investments. Compare the 50 per cent plus losses in shares and listed property trusts in the past year with the fact that the RP Data-Rismark Australian House Price Index has tapered by only -0.8 per cent. (emphasise added)

Is this idea worth embracing? Or to put it another way, how many people would actively choose to invest superannuation in the residential property market?

Super funds investing in residential property equity face a couple major of problems in my view:

1. decreasing the diversity of investor portfolios, and
2. moral hazard associated with residential equity finance.

Skilled labour immigration removes incentives for Australians to invest in education

The shrill from commentators warning of Australia’s apparent skills shortage is deafening. But there are a number of reasons why this claim, and the inevitable recommendation for government to increase quotas of skilled migrants, is flawed, and why the solution is not in the best interests of Australia in the long run.

For the acute observer the transparent falsehood of the claim jumps right out at you.

… skilled labour in an area like project construction is an international problem, so poaching what we need from overseas is not going to be easy.

ACIL Tasman points out that LNG project specialist workers are globally mobile, moving from site to site (and often between projects at varying stages of development) – wherever their services command the highest price. As the consultants warn, opting for less-experienced personnel carries with it the dangers of higher error rates in construction and resulting delivery delays and still more expense.

Translation: if you want the skills you need to pay.

A government with backbone, and an eye on long term prosperity, would tell industries crying poor to sort it out themselves. Large mining and gas projects have very long lead times - long enough in fact to train some of the existing workforce in skills that may be required for future projects. If you need the slam-dunk of skills and experience, you are inevitably poaching people from another project - experience only comes from a finite number of places.

Generations of housing affordability

The degradation of housing affordability is widely acknowledged, but unfortunately mainstream explanations miss the fundamental stories of easy credit and tax rules encouraging property speculation.

One of the best collections of Australian residential property analysis on the web has emerged at The Unconventional Economist.  Leith's latest article explores changes to housing affordability since the 1970s and the key drivers behind the change. 

He summarises the article as follows:
  • It is the demand for, and supply of, credit that is the key determinant of house prices. Whilst demand-side factors such as tax concessions, benign economic conditions, and population growth might increase people's willingness to borrow for property, ultimately, if you cannot obtain the finance, you cannot pay a high price. Similarly, tight housing supply would have little impact on house prices when credit is not readily available.
  • Lower interest rates and easy credit do not make houses more affordable. Rather, they quickly get capitalised into house prices, increasing the amount that home buyers must borrow.
  • When examining interest rates and their effect on housing affordability, it is real interest rates (i.e. the mortgage interest rate less inflation) that matters. Whilst mortgage interest rates averaged a seemingly high 9% in the 1970s, due to high inflation (averaging 11%), real interest rates were negative, resulting in borrowers' mortgage debt being 'inflated away'.
  • Importantly, be very weary of offers of more credit and the promise that it will "improve housing affordability". Any scheme that increases home buyer's borrowing capacity, such as shared equity loans and the Never Ending Mortgage, will instead fuel further house price growth, thus eroding affordability.
  • Beware the property spruiker. Always be sceptical when reading property-related articles in the press, or when listening to politicians talk about housing affordability. Whilst they might, on the surface, sound reasonable, they are often talking their own book. Instead, think critically about their motives and who their constituents really are.

Effects of dwelling composition in the property market

Much popular property market analysis based on flawed principles.  A secret to identifying rubbish analysis is to note the following meaningless buzzwords and phrases; underlying demand, housing shortage, urbanisation or population growth.

These buzzwords are based on fallacy.  The problems they have in common is that they are quantity based (thus ignore prices), and they ignore changes in the composition of dwellings.

Commentators calculate underlying demand by dividing the quantity of population growth in a given period by the average occupancy rate.  This is supposed to give a measure of quantity of dwellings that ‘should’ be constructed of the period.  Unfortunately, the occupancy rate itself changes over time.  It has been declining dramatically for three decades.  If the trend continues we may soon be able to calculate a housing shortage even if we build a new home for every new person!

Calculating a ‘housing shortage’ is then a simple matter of subtracting the number of dwellings constructed over a time period from the underlying demand.  The graph below shows the result of this calculation for Australian from 1994 – 2009 using quarterly data (and the occupancy rate at each quarter – not the current occupancy rate).



Automation and the housework rebound effect

As I have previously argued, innovations that aim to save time, increase safety, decrease energy consumption can be subject to flow-on rebound effects that lead to the opposite result. These counter-intuitive results have lead to ineffective government intervention and bizarre social norms.

A typical challenge to the idea of rebound effects goes like this.

“If a business has to pay each worker more due to government intervention on wages, they are clearly going to employ fewer employers. Are you challenging the Law of Demand? If the price of labour is higher, demand will be lower.”

No, I don’t argue that if we hold everything in the world outside of an individual business constant that the business will employ more people. I argue that to believe the world is held constant robs you of the vision to see flow-on effects to society and the ability to estimate the real net effect of a policy or action.

Today's rebound effect concerns time saving and housework.