Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Public and Private schools – evidence from economics?

As an Australian parent in 2010, the public versus private school debate is hard to avoid.  In a society where private schooling is becoming the norm, yet literacy and numeracy skills are stagnating, how does one objectively analyse the costs and benefits of school choice?

First, let me say that school choie is just one factor determining vocational, personal and emotional skills during adolescence.  Genetics, parenting, the home environment, peer groups, sports and other club activities, amongst many factors, all contribute to shaping young minds. 

Additionally, the composition of students at the school plays a strong role in determining academic outcomes.  Many private schools for example, offer academic scholarships.  If those students had instead attended the local public school, any difference in average academic results may be greatly reduced.

How then does one separate the impact of school choice from these other factors?

Without the opportunity to conduct controlled studies, for example, by studying twins who attend different schools while holding all else constant, the best analysis of the measureable benefits of private schooling would be a statistical test of various measures of ‘success’, controlling for external factors such as parental intelligence and education, household income and location, and child’s intelligence prior to arrival at the school.

Unfortunately, in this debate one of the most overlooked considerations is what measure of 'success' would potentially make private schools ‘better’ than public schools. Is it simply a matter of final grades and tertiary entrance scores, or do parents (and children) value a broader measure of success? Does a public school with more diverse student cultural backgrounds give a better social experience, or does a private school offer more valuable professional connections?

The results of any statistical study will necessarily be narrowly defined to reflect the impact of school choice on a single measure (such as academic test scores), ignoring social benefits and opportunities for extracurricular achievement. 

So what do economists and social scientists have to say?

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Talking climate with Warwick McKibbin

I met RBA board member Professor Warwick McKibbin yesterday.  Alas, his reserved academic demeanour was a successful deterrent to a gruelling discussion on monetary policy and his thoughts on Australian housing.

I was, however, enlightened about his academic research and particular area of expertise – macro-economic modelling and climate change.

For such a diminutive guy he manages to raise a large public profile and promote intense debates on matters of macro-economic policy.  He was intensely critical of the government stimulus package, although many economists see it as very well implemented in hindsight.  

Some of the critics of the implementation of Australia's fiscal stimulus fail to see the broader political picture.  Professor Tony Makin, for example, argued that the fiscal stimulus was not necessary because adjustments in exchange rates and interest rates absorbed most of the impact of the crisis.  Yet he gives no credit to domestic impact of fiscal stimulus from abroad, particularly with our main trading partners.  His argument was that we should have been free riding on the stimulus of other nations.

The broader political picture reveals that there was an explicit agreement by G20 nations in November 2008 to take coordinate fiscal action to avoid this very issue.  In an international context our stimulus appears light on – maybe we still did partly free-ride.

But McKibbin is clearly most passionate about climate policy, driving hard his ideas for coordinated global action – The McKibbin-Wilcoxen Blueprint for climate policy.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Rates surprise

The RBA Board decided to raise official interest rates by 25 basis points today against my, and many other economists, expectations. One wonders if they take pleasure in proving forecasts wrong, or whether they are simply following the cardinal rule of monetary policy - defy expectations.

Unfortunately I think it is the destabilising thing to do, and maintain that we may see this decision reversed in the future.  With a housing market waiting to crumble, tourism and education exports fading, commodity prices peaking and inflation already moderating,  expect some sullen economic data this festive season.

Australia not an island away from world’s troubles – recession, bank runs, and printing cash

The continued media hype around Australia’s economic stability and security can be partly attributed to the fact that, by official figures, we avoided a ‘technical recession’ during 2008/09, and also that ‘the health and strength' of Australia's banking system played a major factor in domestic economic outcomes following the financial crisis (here for example).

Griffith University’s Professor Tony Makin, however, has a little more to say about whether Australia actually avoided recession. The answer depends on your definition, and we are unique in that respect.

In the aftermath of the GFC in September 2008, Australia's nominal GDP, real GDP measured on an income basis and on a production basis, as well as real GDP per person, all fell over two successive quarters, as did various other national income measures that account for the slump in export commodity prices (or terms of trade) at the time.

Of the many national accounts series the Australian Bureau of Statistics publish, the only one indicating there wasn't a recession was the real, or price level adjusted, national expenditure series.

In the US, a recession dating committee of the National Bureau of Economic Research uses a battery of macro-economic measures, not just the somewhat arbitrary two successive quarters of negative real GDP.

If the behaviour of Australia's business cycle in the aftermath of the GFC had been assessed by an independent committee of economists with reference to a broader range of macroeconomic indicators in this way, a recession, albeit mild, would most likely have been declared for 2008-09. But this would not have been of great concern because, due to greater labour market flexibility, unemployment did not rise anywhere near as much as in the recessions of the early 80s and early 90s.(here)

No doubt business people would have wondered how official figures could have been so out of touch with on the ground realities during early 2009, but a mere statistical discrepancy kept the headlines optimistic.

And as far as the ‘health and strength’ of our banking system, well, let’s just say a better phrase would be ‘government rescue’ of the banking system, with the deposit guarantee and massive fiscal and monetary stimulus.

This extract from the book Shitstorm: Inside Labor’s darkest Days, has far more detail on just how perilously close our own banks were to disaster.

All around the country, banks were facing unusual demands for cash. Small businesses in Queensland and Western Australia were switching their deposits from regional banks to accounts with the big four banks.

An elderly woman turned up in the branch of one bank in Queensland with a suitcase and asked to withdraw her term deposits of $100,000 or more. Once filled, she took the suitcase down to the other end of the counter and asked that it be kept in the bank's safe.

A story did the rounds of the regulators about a customer who wanted to withdraw his six-figure savings. The branch manager said he did not have that quantity of cash on hand, but offered a bank cheque, which the customer accepted, apparently unaware that the cheque was no safer than the bank writing it.

It was a silent run, unnoticed by the media. Across the country, at least tens and possibly hundreds of thousands of depositors were withdrawing their funds. Left unchecked, there would soon be queues in the street with police managing crowd control, as occurred in London at the Golders Green branch of Northern Rock a year earlier.
Households pulled about $5.5bn out of their banks in the 10 weeks between US financial house Lehman Brothers going broke - the onset of the global financial crisis - and the beginning of December. That is roughly 80 tonnes of cash salted away in people's homes. Mattress Bank is doing well, was the view at the Reserve. A year later, only $1.5bn had been put back.

The worst problems were in the second-tier banks, particularly Queensland's Suncorp and, in Western Australia, Bankwest. Deposits at the big four banks were surging as customers sold their shares, pulled money out of cash management trusts and put the proceeds in the bank. But at Suncorp deposits slumped by $1bn. They dropped $2bn at Bankwest.

The regulators and the government were gravely concerned for these two banks. Suncorp had total assets of $75bn and Bankwest $60bn. Bankwest was in double trouble because its British parent, HBOS, was teetering on the edge of bankruptcy.

Despite their preparation, the Lehman crash caught local banks by total surprise. NAB chairman Michael Chaney had set off on a 13-day rafting trip down the Grand Canyon on the day Lehman failed. He had taken a satellite phone but by the time he got it to work his share price had collapsed by almost 30 per cent. "I couldn't get a helicopter in there, so it was a five-hour climb out," he says.

Balance of payments figures show that in the immediate aftermath of the crash, Australian banks were called on to repay $50bn in short-term debt to international investors who refused to roll over their exposures.

Governments across the world were also being tested. Two weeks after the Lehman crash, Ireland's banking sector was facing an alarming run on larger deposits. The government stepped in and guaranteed all deposits and wholesale fundraising.

There was an immediate call for the British government to follow suit. Within a week, Germany, Denmark and Greece had offered unlimited deposit guarantees, while the British and a number of other European governments had increased the size of their insurance schemes. The Reserve Bank, APRA and Treasury were worried as were the chief executives Wayne Swan was talking to.

The long-standing concerns of the main banks about depositor protection were cast aside. The fate of small institutions could influence the stability of the system.

"One of the lessons of this whole period is you can have an abstract almost clinical discussion in the absence of a crisis about which institutions are systemically important and which are not. But when the crisis hits, is there any financial institution that is not systemically important?" Henry says. "It was my view back in September after the collapse of Lehman, I came to the view there was no financial institution in Australia that could not be regarded as systemically significant."

The issue was so delicate that most cabinet ministers knew nothing of what was going on.

"Some of this stuff is so sensitive, the bank guarantee could only be agreed between the Prime Minister and myself," says Swan. The government's unlimited guarantee of retail deposits went further than any other country, partly because Treasury was now concerned about capital flight.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Nothing is so firmly believed as that which least is known - or why changing your mind is evidence of learning

For a second, consider of all our major public thinkers today. They do the opposite, constantly telling how sure they are of their beliefs and criticizing their “opponents” for changing their minds. Changing your mind is a good thing, Montaigne would say. It means you’ve resisted the impulse to think you’re infallible. He wrote that as part of his profession of getting to know himself he found such “boundless depths and variety that [his] apprenticeship bears no other fruit than to make me know much there remains to learn.” If only we could internalize that attitude—instead of feeling cocky when we learn something, acknowledge that it really just taught us how much more we need to learn. (here)
While I often use this blog to vent frustration, propose new ways of looking at problems and possible unintended consequence of our actions, this does not mean that my ideas and opinions are as fixed once published. Indeed, if I look back at some of the opinions I held some years back I can imagine a heated debate between current me and previous me.

For example, for a period of time, I had a fixation about peak oil and what it meant for society. I thought in a linear manner, ascribing a reduction in total economic production possible to a reduction in technically possible rates of oil extraction, without thinking of behavioural responses and adaptations likely to take place including a renewed demand for alternative resources. My last post clearly shows that I have edged away from that view to a more reasoned and 'systems' view of economic behaviour.

I used to be passionate about ‘sustainable’ living (whatever that means). If we could only all do our little bit our environment, in the holistic sense rather than just the trees and animals sense, would be a better place to live. However, with more research into the matter it appears that while my own choices are the only ones within my control, there are offsetting effects from the actions of others that may render my personal actions ineffective.

While my ideas evolve slowly as I seek evidence one way or another, I can’t help but marvel at how quickly strongly held beliefs can change in a time of crisis, even when evidence for the new idea is as sparse as the one previously held.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

CPI surprise

Today’s Australian CPI data, according to the headlines, was ‘lower than expected”.  This was the first part of a forecast I published here back in early September, when I said “Inflation and GDP will surprise on the low side in the September quarter”.  GDP figures come out with the National Accounts on the 1st December so we had a little while to wait before assessing my prediction (1st November is the ABS capital city price index which may also show some surprises).

But the CPI print really shouldn’t have been a surprise.  Maybe most economists have loyal wives and girlfriends (or husbands and boyfriends, although it is a male dominated profession) to do their shopping, so they wouldn’t have noticed the price declines in food, health, communications and transportation in the previous quarter.

It is evidently odd that the US can experience no price growth with a collapsing dollar, while Australia’s currency has gained strength yet our favourite media hungry economists forecast high inflation and multiple interest rate rises. The high dollar was always going to dampen any inflationary pressures.

On a far more interesting note, Google has been experimenting with a real-time price index compiled, I assume, by experimental software that searches for listed prices of items on the web.  Their index has showed a “very clear deflationary trend” for the US, and has the additional benefit of compiling the same (or at least comparable) indexes across countries.  By the same measure the UK has shown a slight inflationary trend, attributable to the weak sterling.

The automatic nature of the index also provides the possibility of releasing multiple indexes with different scope and purpose, to provide a much richer picture of prices changes across the economy.  For example, hedonic price adjustments can be in one index and not in another, and the basket of goods can be quickly changed to suit different social groups.

There has been a strong push for the ABS to publish multiple prices indexes to address these very issues, particular with regard to quality adjustments.  I have demonstrated the Lower Bound Problem of Hedonic Price Indexes before, although Rob Bray makes the argument more concisely:

Revise the approach to quality adjustment to take account of the actual utility consumers achieve from changes in product ‘quality’; and also consider an approach which reflects the extent to which products actually exist in the market place for consumers to purchase

Twice the quality is not the same as half the price.

The benefits of real-time data available to Google are yet to be fully understood by economists, but there is no doubt the Hal Varian, Google’s chief economist, will change that soon enough.

Mr Varian also discussed some of his other work on using Google’s search data for economic forecasting. He said that he is working on “predicting the present” by using real-time search data to forecast official data that are only released with time lags.

For example, searches for “unemployment insurance” may be a good tool to predict actual claims for unemployment insurance, or the unemployment rate.

This is something I have tested before with the US housing bubble, clearly demonstrating that search volumes can be amazing predictive tools.  It won’t be long before these real-time measures become commonplace in mainstream economic publications.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Zombie Economics

This Friday, 29th October the Young Economists will host the launch of John Quiggin’s much anticipated, and creatively titled, book, Zombie Economics: How Dead Ideas still Walk among Us.

This is an opportunity to meet an interesting bunch of economists and young professionals in a social atmosphere and discuss some of the challenging ideas in Professor Quiggin’s book. All are welcome to this free event, and there are free drinks for Young Economist and ESA members.

There are prizes on offer for best dressed living dead economist, and best economic limerick (try here for some inspiration)

A PDF flyer is here.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

No limits to economic growth

For an environmental economist these words are blasphemous, but I said them, and I have good reason to. 

The modern Limits to Growth movement gained prominence with the publication of the Club of Rome’s book of the same name in 1972. This book, by Donella Meadows and colleagues, reports on the results of a computer simulation of the economy under the assumptions of finite resources. The World3 computer model produced scenarios showing that under various assumptions, a decline in non-renewable resources will lead to a decline in global food and industrial production, which will in turn lead to a decline in population and greatly reduced living standards for all. 

The following image is one example of the results of their simulations where a catastrophic decline in industrial output, food production and population will result form reaching our finite resource limits. 

While I don’t doubt the finitude of many natural resources, and that the human population cannot grow indefinitely, I doubt that finite limits of resource inputs to the economy necessarily means that economic growth cannot continue indefinitely.

To be sure, I am certain that substantial unforeseen changes to the rate of extraction of some resources will lead to short-term disruption of established production chains, such as shocks to oil supply, but in the long run I see no reason that an economy with finite resource inputs cannot increase production through improved technology and efficiency.

I need to be clear that when I talk of economic growth I mean our ability to produce more goods and services that we value for a given input. Increasing the size of the economy by simply having more people, each producing the same quantity of goods, will be measured as growth in GDP, but provides no improvement in the material well being of society.

A better measure of growth is real GDP per capita. This adjusts for the disconnection between the supply of money and the production of goods, and adjusts for the increase in scale provided by the extra labour inputs. Even then, this may overestimate the rate of real growth occurring, as there has been a trend of formalising much of the informal economy, for example child care, which is now a measured part of GDP rather than existing as individual family arrangements.

On these adjusted measures economic growth is a very slow process. In a world where non-renewable resource inputs are fixed or declining, it is the rate of the decline and the speed of adjustment that will determine the overall outcome for our well being. If the rate of decline of non-renewable resource inputs is below the rate of real growth (our ability to produce more with less) and the rate at which we can substitute to renewable alternatives, we can avoid economic calamity in the face of natural limits.

Unfortunately there are other factors at play.

The rate of population growth will greatly determine the per capita wellbeing in a time of limited growth. While extra labour input will no doubt contribute to production inputs, my suggestion is that this input will be outweighed by a decline in complementary resource inputs. Remember, we care about real economic ‘wealth’ per capita, and with more people there is a smaller share of remaining resources each person can utilise in production, thus reducing wellbeing.

Further, we can begin to take productivity gains as leisure time instead of more work time, thus there is a possibility of maintaining a given level of production in the economy with fewer labour inputs over time.

There is also the reliance of our financial system on high levels of growth. Many economic growth critics cite the need for exponential growth of financial measures of the economy as being in conflict with any finite system. Yet the ‘system’ itself is a human construction and I seen no reason why a stable money supply cannot operate under various levels of growth (even prolonged negative growth) if used cautiously and with little leverage.

Often forgotten is that many resources are currently fixed and yet go unnoticed. There are always 24 hours in a day, but that doesn’t stop us producing more each day. If a shortage of hours was encountered, would a sudden change to 23hrs (a 4% decline) have a dramatic impact? Or would society easily adjust to this new environment of tighter time scarcity?

While a smooth transition to prosperity under much greater limits on resource inputs to the economy is theoretically possible, I don’t expect this to be our future reality. Self interested governments, businesses and the general public will react to short term shocks in unexpected ways, potentially promoting conflict, and taking the bumpy road. I have no doubt that there will extended periods of prosperity in the future, but also expect a rough ride to get to them.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Counterintuitive findings?

Pool fences
Could Queensland’s new tougher pool fence laws offer an opportunity to study the Peltzman Effect? Will we now feel that pools are no longer a safety hazard for toddlers and drop our supervisory guard? One man, who refuses to comply with the laws, has argued this exact point and is strongly supported in his views (if you can trust the newspaper comments).

In one case, a pool owner living on a canal has had to fence their pool, yet is not obliged to fence off access to the canal.  One does wonder about how far governments can go to protect us from our own behaviour.

Pool fences are only there to protect kids from parents who don't. There are no fences around all the lakes in Brisbane, Southbank's lagoons are not fenced, the Brisbane River is not fenced. Why? Because we are responsible enough to ensure our children don't get into danger in these areas.

What further astounds me is that lack of evidence in the pool fence debate. In one of the more interesting studies I could find, 52% of pools where toddler drowning events had occurred in Western Australia where compliant with the pool fence legislation (compared to 40% for randomly selected pools).  There was no further discussion of this key point – that statistically it appears more likely to drown in a fenced pool that an unfenced one (I would be very interested if anyone can find a more thorough study of the effectiveness of pool fence laws).

While this is just a small sample from one State, and I would question whether general conclusions can be drawn, some more rigorous examination of the effectiveness of pool fence laws is seems appropriate before toughening the laws.  Is the government really going to do the same thing and expect different results?

Cycling by the road rules
The Council is inviting CityCycle subscribers to undertake a Cycling Confidence Course to improve their bicycle skills and brush up on their knowledge of road rules.

Maybe that's a bad idea. Recent research suggests that people obeying road rules are more likely to be killed by trucks than those who disobey the rules by, for example, running red lights. 

Women may be overrepresented in [collisions with goods vehicles] because they are less likely than men to disobey red lights.

By jumping red lights, men are less likely to be caught in a lorry driver’s blind spot. Cyclists may wait at the lights just in front of a lorry, not realising that they are difficult to see.

In more than half the fatal crashes, the lorry was turning left. Cyclists may be deceived by a lorry swinging out to the right to give itself room to make a left turn.

I can’t agree more with these findings.  Every day I see cyclists waiting in the blindspot of a car or truck at traffic lights, and occasionally see a cyclist sneak up the left side of a bus while it is turning left.  I hope Brisbane City Council’s cycling confidence course acknowledges that sometimes it is safer to break the rules.

Congestion (queuing) as an efficient allocation mechanism
I have raised the idea in the past that road congestion is in fact an efficient allocation mechanism provided that there is prior knowledge of expected travel times.  Now, from The Australian we have this:

Sure, if we invested enough in roads, all cars could travel at the speed limit. But the costs of thus expanding road capacity would greatly outweigh the value motorists place on the savings in time and discomfort.

Exactly the same applies to road charging. With charges set sufficiently high, remaining drivers could go at speeds rivalling the Melbourne grand prix. But even Mrs Moneybags, rocketing in her Ferrari, would not value the benefits enough to offset the welfare loss to the peons forced by the high charges to walk to work. Add to their loss the costs of implementing the road charging scheme and the efficiency loss is all the greater.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Murray-Darling Basin Plan: Despite extreme lobbying, you can’t take water that does not exist

The release of a guide to the Murray-Darling Basin Plan is receiving very poor media coverage. This headline – “Basin Authority holds its first public meeting” - is entirely misleading. The Authority had numerous meeting with stakeholders including water users, irrigation groups, farmers groups, local councils, and anyone else who could claim and interest for the past two years. There should be no surprises.

Another here – “As many as 130,000 jobs could be lost because of reduced water allocations in Victoria's fruit bowl region under the Murray-Darling Basin plan, a farmer says” That’s right. A farmer says so, therefore it must be true. 

This is a week the farming lobby has spent years preparing for, and they are basking the attention. 

The further problem which is completely overlooked by the media, is that while the reductions in rights to take water are ‘up to 37%’ that means that most reduction in most rivers are ‘between zero and 37%’. 

Let’s not also forget the fact that these are reductions of paper rights, not volume taken. There would be very few water users whose volume taken matches the volume of their rights due to variability and recent dry conditions.  The graph below shows that recent rainfall conditions are below historical averages, although this is not uncommon in the long term.

What is missing from this mainstream media nonsense is any actual thought about the reason the plan was developed in the first place. Simply put, there are more rights to take water ‘on paper’ than there is water in the system. This leads to both downstream water users suffering at the expense of upstream users, and environmental areas suffering due to upstream water users. When downstream environmental assets, such as wetlands, receive water, the water also flows through to downstream users. 

There is even the possibility that the next five years more water will be used by irrigators than the past five years, even with the Basin Plan, simply because of rainfall variability. The percentage figures are based on long run averages, which are a distant memory for many people in the Basin. 

Imagine I give you a piece of paper that allows you to take 100ML/annum of water from a particular reach of a river. The river flow is highly variable and because of this you get 60ML one year, zero the next three, 100ML the next, then 25ML. You average 31ML. Then, you get told the stream is overallocated and you are getting cut 37%, so that your allocation is now 63ML. If we had the previous six years again the impact would have only occurred in one year - the cut would take your five year average from 31ML to 25ML – a 20% decline in average use, and a once in five year impact. 

If over the next 5 years you can take 63ML, zero, 25ML, 50ML, 5ML and 60ML, you might end up with even more water on average – 34ML/a instead of 31ML/a – despite the theoretical cut to you water right.

In South Australia for example, irrigators have only been able to access 10% or less of their water rights over the past 5 years or so. If the Basin as a whole shares the water more equitably, these irrigators may be able to use 63% of their previous water allocation – a 37% cut on paper, but a 600% increase in real water use compared to the past 5 years. 

Even the MDBA itself showed just how low actual water use is compared to these theoretical baseline figures from which reductions are calculated. The graph below is from page 130 of the Guide and shows that the average water use since 2002-03 is equal to their most ambitious reduction scenario.

My point is, people are taking the cuts as real water then multiplying impacts to flow on industries then getting bigger and bigger impacts that border on ridiculous. These complementary agricultural industries are clearly already adjusted to any proposed cutbacks.

The only person to present any figures on the media circus is economist Quentin Grafton. He makes his case that farmers are exaggerating losses as follows: 

"In 2000-2001, the gross value of irrigated agricultural production was just over $5 billion, and they used surface water of about 10,500 gigalitres in that particular year," he says. 

"Fast forward to 2007-08, 70 per cent reduction in surface water use, guess what happened to the gross value of irrigated agricultural production? It changed by less than 1 per cent." 

Not only are impacts greatly overstated but water users will generally be compensated for their theoretical water loss at market prices for water – whether the water exists or not. 

Historically most water rights are a gift from the State to landholders. They have generally earned a good living from these gifts, and now that the government has realised that too many were granted, they are going to pay to buy them back. 

While I’m on the water bandwagon, some people are taking the chance to have a dig at cotton and rice growers for their water consumption. What they need to understand is that while Australia is a dry continent, we are characterised by variability of rainfall. Some years it floods and to make use of the water you need a thirsty annual crop. That’s why the virtual desert regions south of St George are cotton areas, even though this intuitively seems bizarre.