Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Proposed changes to Section 3 of the Valuation of Land Act 1944

Words removed are struck through, and inserted words are in red. 

(1) For the purposes of this Act—
unimproved value of land means—
(a) in relation to unimproved land—the capital sum which the fee simple of the land might be expected to realise if offered for sale on such reasonable terms and conditions as a bona fide seller would require negotiated as a bona fide sale; and
b) in relation to improved land—the capital sum which the fee simple of the land might be expected to realise if offered for sale on such reasonable terms and conditions as a bona fide seller would require, assuming that, at the time as at which the value is required to be ascertained for the purposes of this Act, the improvements did not exist. negotiated as a bona fide sale, assuming the improvements did not exist.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Thinking like an economist

This article is the first I have come across that compares housing prices and costs to hours worked, which is the ultimate measure for comparing housing affordability across countries or over time (although hours worked for average rent would also be a good measure).

According to the CommSec analysis it now takes 19,374 working hours to pay for an average house at the average hourly rate of pay, compared to just 7,500 hours in 1960.  That's ten years of full time work in 2010 versus 3.9 years in 1960.  I admit the data may be a little skewed if it is truly generated using averages (means), rather than medians, however there seems to be a strong message coming through.

It also supports my claim about the leisure dilemma, and the ability of others to bid up prices if they choose to work more hours.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

An alternative way to gamble on the markets

I have previously mentioned on this blog how investing and gambling share many traits in the short term.  Now, you can literally combine the two with Centrebet now taking bets on the value of the ASX200 at the end of the month.  I would suggest that the odds generated by Centrebet on this gamble will become a salient leading indicator for economic commentators worth their salt. Currently the outlook is positive for March.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

The week's best economic commentary

The best Australian economic commentary I have read all week is here.

Drought is not exceptional

The front page of yesterday's Australian newspaper reports Agricultural Minister Tony Burke's recent speech outlining his intention to reform Australian drought policy. The specific part of the Exceptional Circumstances subsidies targeted by the Minister's speech was the interest rate subsidy. Under this scheme farmers in drought declared areas can have 80% of the interest on their farm debts paid for by Australian taxpayers.  Farmers were provided $61 million per month in drought assistance at the end December 2009 - or about $730 million per year.

As a side note, it makes me wonder how substantial agricultural subsidies must be in Europe. Australian direct agricultural subsidies amount to approximately 8% of farm income, while in most European nations subsidies account for greater than 60% of farm income.

What I find particularly interesting about drought policy is the logical dilemma encountered when determining what are in fact 'exceptional circumstances'.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Money can buy happiness after all

I came across some fascinating research showing that money can buy happiness if we use it well.  My favourite paragraph below.

Dunn and others are beginning to offer an intriguing explanation for the poor wealth-to-happiness exchange rate: The problem isn’t money, it’s us. For deep-seated psychological reasons, when it comes to spending money, we tend to value goods over experiences, ourselves over others, things over people. When it comes to happiness, none of these decisions are right: The spending that make us happy, it turns out, is often spending where the money vanishes and leaves something ineffable in its place.

Monday, March 1, 2010

The leisure dilemma: Rebound effects from productivity improvements

A recent report from UK think-tank New Economics Foundation generated plenty of publicity recently by suggesting that a 21hour standard workweek would significantly improve well being by giving people more time for family, friends, neighbours, and leisure activities. My own experience is that reducing work time has surprisingly large positive impacts on well-being.

Interestingly, economist John Maynard Keynes envisaged in a 1930 essay on the Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren the following situation

Thus for the first time since his creation, man
 will be faced with his real, his permanent problem--
how to use his freedom from pressing
 economic cares, how to occupy the leisure,
which science and compound interest
 will have won for him, to 
live wisely and agreeably and well.

The productivity gains imagined by Keynes did eventuate. Everywhere we look we can see far greater output per hour of labour, from agricultural production all the way through the production processes in our complex 21st-century economy.

However recent research suggests that leisure time has been relatively constant since 1900, and time spent on home production activities (cooking, cleaning etc) has actually slightly increased. Additionally, while time spent at work over a lifetime has decreased since 1900, most of this is the result of more time spent studying.

How is it that we continue to fill our time not with leisure, but with work, study, and household chores?

There is a rebound effect at play.

To properly explain how this rebound effect occurs at a national (and sometimes international level), we need an analogy closer to home. Instead of businesses and industries improving productivity across the economy, imagine yourself improving your productivity during your working life. You start on low pay as a youngster and edge your way up the ladder to better paying jobs over time.

Immediately we can see the analogy is sound. Most people don’t take their gains in productivity (as reflected by increases in their salary) as leisure time. Rather, they continue to work the same hours (or more) and receive a higher income.


The problem is one of cooperation and it has striking similarities to the classic prisoner's dilemma. You see, if you take your productivity gains as leisure time, and the next person doesn’t, they can bid up prices for things you might like to buy (such as land). However, if you both cooperate and each take more leisure time, you will both face accessible prices.

In our analogy, if everyone took their gains as leisure time, incomes would be relativity even, but each person’s work/leisure ratio would be different. The most productive people would work the fewest hours and vice-versa. Because each person’s income is the same, there would be little opportunity for people to outbid each other on prices, or out consume each other in status displays.

Furthermore, as our productivity increases (or our hourly rate of pay in this analogy) the gains at the margin from working just one more hour are far greater. Compared to when you were the local barista making $15 an hour if you worked longer, you might now make $60 per hour and find that you can make in a couple of hours in the evening what you used to make in a day.

How do we overcome this cooperation problem?

There is a simple answer at an individual level, and that is to decrease your consumption expectations and take your productivity gains as leisure (as I have done). There is also a more difficult answer at a society-wide level. Yes, we can regulate maximum working hours and penalty rates for overtime. However, penalty rates increase marginal benefits from overtime hours. Maybe instead we could have anti-penalty rates. After a certain number of hours by law your pay decreases per hour, until after say 30 hours, there are zero benefits from working any longer.

But, as I have discussed before, regulating working hours is a tricky game. Such a law would encourage a cash economy for labour in order to avoid the laws (and avoid taxes), allowing individual workers to get ahead.

In fact, in the spirit of free choice, I would discourage further regulation of hours. Instead, I would opt for solutions such as more public holidays (which also allow a coincidence of leisure for more workers), and labour laws that encourage flexibility and part-time work.

Maybe my grandchildren will be so lucky as to face Keynes’ leisure dilemma.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Housing investment is not productive

Property spruikers are currently having a field day proclaiming the productivity of housing investment. These claims are fallacious. Housing investment does NOT improve productivity.

To clearly explain why this is the case we first need to define productivity. Productivity is a measure of output from a production process, per unit of input. A productive capital investment therefore enables more future goods and services to be produced per unit of input (such as labour, materials etc).

An example of a productive investment may be a machine that enables a new design of metal fasteners to be produced from less metal, and with less labour time, but is equally as strong. In this case we have a productivity gain in terms of materials and human labour time for the same output. This investment allows use to produce more fasteners in future periods even with no more inputs.

Housing does nothing of the sort. It simply houses more people and does nothing to improve the per capita productivity.

Let's use a little thought experiment to prove the point.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Irrational saving or rational spending?

One question economics prefer to avoid is why irrational solutions to common problems faced each day by individuals seem to work. For example, our lounge room clock is 20mins fast (yes, I know that’s a lot). But when chatting with my wife the other day about whether we should put it back to the real time we decided to keep it fast. For some reason if the clock says 8 o’clock, even though we know it’s 7.40, it seems later than it really is. I don’t know why, but it does.

Another classic example is saving. Economists assume that the savings rate is fixed by our preference for current consumption over future consumption (not only this, they assume that individual preferences are fixed over time – that’s right, from birth to death). To any person living in reality, this fixed assumption is obviously not true.

For example, there are literally millions of websites preaching new an innovative ways to implement a saving strategy. Freezing your credit card in a block of ice to overcome spending urges is one solution. Having your salary paid directly into a fixed term investment account that can’t be touched is another.

The intriguing question is why we can be rational enough to use these ideas, but not so rational as to not need them. I want to examine this point today.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Firday quick links

No need to correct my spelling.  It's my new revenue generating strategy (thanks Ben). At least it will be if current research on misspelled domain names is anything to go by.
It appears that someone has spent time investigating the potential ad revenue from websites that are misspelled variations of popular websites. Surprisingly, a viable business model is to register misspelled website domains, and simply post ads relevant to the real website (or to the real website), to ultimately generate a decent profit.

But is there anything wrong with that? The authors of the study think so, and they have launched a lawsuit seeking damages from Google for facilitating this practice with their Adsense for Domains tool.

To me, this is a classic example of market fulfilling a niche function. There is nothing stopping businesses buying the domains which are misspellings of their own if they are willing to pay more than the value of revenue generated by advertising to the current domain name owner. Further, I would suggest that typing a web address to navigate to a site is fast becoming obsolete as you can generally navigate to the site with less typing by using a search engine.

In other news, the Brisbane Young Economists Network is hosting an event in Brisbane on the 4th March.  Pecha Kucha presentations will be given by some local economics PhDs, drinks are supplied, and there will be plenty of time for socialising.