Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Milk wars and Anti-Dumping

While there are many questionable assumptions in some economic theories, there are also many solid foundations to economic analysis. One of these was identified by Coles in its submission to the Senate inquiry into milk pricing (available in the Coles factsheet here).

The farm gate price dairy farmers receive is set by the world price because most Australian milk products are exported.

The first implication of this fact is that because prices are set by global markets, domestic buyers cannot buy at prices below the export market price - although they could perhaps be higher.

By following this logic Coles, or any other domestic dairy retailer, cannot exhibit bargaining power as a buyer from milk processors (or distributors). Dairy processors would simply sell all their products abroad, whereas the only alternative for retailers is to buy imported dairy products with associated freight costs.  Processors can then bargain the price up to the price of the retailers next best alternative of imported products. Thus, even though we are net exporters of dairy products we still pay a retail price for domestic dairy products very close to the retail price for imported dairy products.

And to provide further evidence against dairy industry claims, even if Coles did have market power, one must question why Coles would not already be getting milk for the lowest price anyone would be willing to produce for?

The sceptic in me might even go so far as to suggest that upsetting the political milk cart might have been a publicity strategy for Coles itself. News outlets have told the public that Coles is aggressively dropping prices for months now – all free of charge. You really can't buy publicity like that.

Of even greater concern than the media beat-up, and public perception of danger from falling milk prices, is that the law entrenches protection of local industries from international competitors through anti-dumping laws. As the Productivity Commission describes

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Housing supply follow up – more evidence (UPDATED)

I promised to search around for some more evidence that local councils approve far more dwellings than are built. This would go some way to addressing the argument than planning is restrict, particularly zoning controls and approvals processes.

This report, by the Queensland Office of Economic and Statistical Reseach, adds to the previous evidence on a deevlopment approvals for subdivisions greatly exceeding the ability of the market to absorb the new land.  It outlines the number of development approvals for infill multiple unit dwellings in the pipeline at various stages of approval for South East Queensland.

The telling figure is that there are 48,152 approved new infill dwellings in SEQ, with another 29,014 at earlier stages of approval.  Remembering that there are also 30,566 approved subdividede housing blocks, we have a total approved supply in this region of 88,718 dwellings! Even at its recent peak population growth in SEQ was only 88,000 per year.  That makes about 2.5 years supply of dwellings already approved.

Other government reports which have compiled useful information on the potential housing supply available under current planning regimes.

This report notes the following

“...there appears to be a very low risk of the current broadhectare land not providing at least 15 years supply, particularly when the increased density and infill targets set by the SEQ Regional Plan are considered. Based on the SEQ Regional Plan assumptions for infill, then only 244,000 lots would be required over a fifteen year period”

Moreover it explains that the stock of approved lots represents 3.3 years supply.

We can take a look at a national level here and see that current planning schemes have the potential to yield 131,000 new homes per year for a decade from 2008! This excludes the increase in housing stock from developments with less than 10 dwellings.  In the abovelinked OESR report they state that smaller developments of 10 or fewer dwellings accounted for 69.5 per cent of projects at June 2010. This means the estimate of 131,000 new homes accounts for only 40% of the actual supply available under current planning schemes.

Even so, they sum up their analysis of land supply by stating that there was approximately 7–8 years supply of zoned broadhectare land in 2007.  

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

If this doesn't blow your mind...

I stumbled across this video on the web.  It's about growing organs... from scratch.  Absolutely amazing! 12 minutes very well spent.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Risk homeostasis, Munich Taxi-cabs and the Nanny State

There is an odd coexistence between two conflicting safety policies that may well be pursued by the same accident prevention agency. The first seeks to improve safety by alleviating the consequences of risky behaviour. It may take the form of seat belt installation and wearing, airbags, crashworthy vehicle design, or forgiving roads (collapsible lamp posts and barriers). This policy offers forgiveness for a moment of inattention or carelessness. The second policy seeks to improve safety by making the consequences of imprudent behaviour more severe and includes things such as speed bumps, narrow street passages, and fines for violations. Here, people are threatened into adopting a safe behaviour; a moment of inattention or carelessness may have a dire outcome. 

While these two policies seem logically contradictory, neither is likely to reduce the injury rate, because people adapt their behaviour to changes in environmental conditions. Both theory and data indicate that safety and lifestyle dependent health is unlikely to improve unless the amount of risk people are willing to take is reduced. (here - my emphasis) 

The above passage points out a common logical absurdity, and contains an important lesson for Australian’s with and overeager obsession of controlling personal choices through ‘nanny state’ regulations. More on the nanny state a little later. 

First, it is important to examine the hypothesis of risk homeostasis to properly understand the implication of the opening quote, since it claims that neither of the two contradictory policies aimed towards improving safety are effective. 

The essential argument of risk homeostasis is that humans have an inbuilt level or risk that they gravitate towards in response to their external environment. If we reduce the risk of an activity, people will compensate by finding other risky activities as a replacement, or undertaking the activity in a more extreme manner. For example, if we ban smoking tobacco, which doesn’t seem like such a remote possibility, do we really expect smokers to replace their habit with fruit snacks and yoga? Or might they compensate by increasing their alcohol consumption or perhaps smoking dope instead. 

Risk homeostasis is not to be confused with risk compensation, which suggests that individuals will behave less cautiously in situations where they feel "safer" or more protected, but that we don’t necessary return to a predetermined risk equilibrium point. 

Improving transport safety is an area where there is strong evidence risk compensation, and indeed of risk homeostasis. 

Monday, April 11, 2011

No evidence of supply-side constraints in approvals data

Possibly the central lesson of my previous post was that planning controls and development approvals by local councils are not a factor that limits the quantity of new homes constructed. Council behaviour in these areas could limit housing supply if councils began a system of quotas for approvals. But they don’t. They provide limitations on the location of new supply in their planning instruments, and they approve the quantity of homes demanded by the development industry - which is a reflection of the number of new home sales. Sales volumes of new homes and land determine the rate of supply of new dwellings. 

In my last post I provided no evidence for my assertion apart from logically examining the process of development in a hypothetical scenario.

So is there evidence that councils are limiting the supply of new dwelling through their planning controls and approvals processes?


Let’s look at my home town of Brisbane. The following table shows the stock of approved house lots in Brisbane and surrounding local council areas that are yet to be developed (All data from here - Table 1. Excludes building units and retirement homes).

In Brisbane, where broadacre land is arguable more physically constrained, the stock of approved housing lots has remained relatively constant. And as you would expect, in the fringe areas, the stock of new house lots has grown far more rapidly than sales of lots or construction of housing. This indicates that councils approve far more housing lots than the market can absorb.

Yet it is this development approval that many claim is a hold-up to development.

In Brisbane, this reserve stock equates to about two years supply, while in surrounding areas there is between 3 and 10 years supply (Logan City and Somerset respectively) already approved. Of course, there are many thousands more lots that could be approved under existing planning schemes should demand arise.

Remember, this is just the stock of new land developments. If data were more readily available for unit developments there will no doubt be a similar story (in Brisbane attached homes are about 50% of new stock).

The clear message that comes from actual data on planning approvals is that they are not a constraint to supply. This might be one reason why these figures are never mentioned by ‘supply-siders’, even in the most detailed documents outlining supply side concerns in the housing market such as the 2003 Prime Ministers Taskforce on Home Ownership Report.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

8 Economic Lessons on Planning and Housing Supply

The housing bubble debate often leads to claims that town planning controls and approvals processes are a contributing factor to the price boom. It is argued that such controls can constrain the rate of housing supply during periods of high demand, allowing prices to ratchet up. But there is no case for the argument that planning controls can influence the general price level of housing.

For those unfamiliar with property development, the following lessons may be of interest. 

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Health economics –unnecessary treatment and economic costs of illness... and goodbye

This blog has been quiet lately.  The evidence is mounting in support of much of my earlier analysis of Australia’s housing market, while the Government attempts one more manoeuvre to bolster the market.  The supreme risks to the market are no longer a secret, and our chronic supply shortage has been receiving far less airtime.  There is very little for me to add to the current discussions.

One reason for the lack of posts is that I am studying for the GAMSAT test that one needs to pass before commencing a graduate degree in medicine.  Yes, my disillusionment with economics has driven me to seek a more useful profession. And despite my rational nature, I will give up quite a deal of income for it.  At least this economist knows that money doesn’t buy happiness.

In this final sign-off post it may be worthwhile taking a look at economic issues surrounding medicine and health care.  This is a burgeoning field, with demand growing for paper shufflers of this particular specialty, and universities eager to fill the void with a qualification.

My core argument in this field has been that increasing preventative health care, while having the benefits of a healthier and long life, often come at increased total lifetime health costs, rather than decreased costs as is often proposed.  Remember, we all die some day, and any potential cause of death postponed will allow another to take its place, which of course has its own health costs.  Alternatively, a more healthy existence may make us more productive for longer and lead to us contributing more in taxes over our lifetime than the potential increase in health costs which were paid through the tax system for our preventative care.

Governments, and subsequently economists, worry about these things because many health care costs are borne by others though tax revenue, yet the net economic effect is anything but straightforward.

In light of these concerns a cottage industry of economic analysis has developed pandering to the interests of particular interest groups involved in medical research.  Each disease these days seems to have a lobby group, and to ensure funding for further research it is necessary to argue in terms of economic costs and benefits of a cure or treatment. 

Over at Catallaxy Files there is an interesting take on the abuse of economics and shady use of statistics when consulting firms are asked to produce reports on the economic cost and impact of a particular disease. After prodding around the reports from one firm, the author notes that:

Adding up the estimated economic cost of all these conditions begins to exhaust the GDP, which suggests that the estimates of the economic costs are grossly exaggerated for a number of reasons.  This should not come as any surprise of course since the sole purpose of these studies – they have no academic credibility – is to provide RHETORIC  to bolster the case for the RENT SEEKERS who are attempting to prize out additional taxpayer monies to support their particular activities, worthy though they may be.

One of the real problems with these studies is the double/triple/…  counting associated with these studies as many people have multiple pathologies.  Moreover, the projections of the numbers afflicted by these conditions in the future should be treated with a grain of salt (probably box).

These studies also conflict with the findings of the Productivity Commission in their work undertaken in relation to the National Reform Agenda. In large part because most people with chronic conditions manage to continue their working life, the PC’s estimates of the cost of most chronic conditions (including mental illness) are not especially high.

The interesting work of Eric Crampton at the Canterbury University – great paper delivered at the Mont Pelerin Society – also shows that government studies of the economic costs of alcohol use are grossly exaggerated. There are typically  both conceptual and measurement mistakes.

I have a slight problem comparing the sum of a total cost of over time (total economic cost) with a flow of production in a single time period (GDP), but the general practices of double counting, including a potential undiagnosed population, and taking the extreme assumptions of the diseases impact and applying to every candidate, are intentionally misleading.

This is perhaps one reason why proponents of preventative medical treatments overstate the aggregate benefits to the community and subsequently the reduction in health cost borne by the taxpayer. Another reason preventative health care does not always provide net benefits can be explored at an individual level.

Movember have been a huge promotional success, yet at the heart of the charitable event is a desire to raise awareness of prostate cancer and promote early detection and preventative treatment.  However, this particular cancer is possible one case where the cure is worse than the disease at an individual level.

This article argues the case against early screening for prostate cancer.

They know that prostate cancer is overwhelmingly a disease that kills men late in life. The average age of death for prostate cancer in Australia is 79.8 years, while the average age for all male cancers combined other than prostate cancer is 71.5.

The average age of death for an Australian man is 76 so on average, men who die from prostate cancer actually live longer. In 2007, just 2.8 per cent (83 men) who died from the disease were under 60, and 10 (0.1 per cent) were in their 40s.

The author notes that the unnecessary treatment undertaken by many men as a result of early testing often leads to impotence and occasionally incontinence, when there was a very high probability that they would have died from another cause before the cancer severely impacted their health. 

Medical associations and governments try hard to examine these issues prior to funding and promoting preventive health care.  Where current screening techniques return too many false positives the chances of over treatment are severe. One the other hand, a screening technique returning a high number of false negatives may not be such a concern if the disease develops slowly and screening is recommended periodically.

In all, it seems that the health industry is not immune to manipulative economic analysis and rent seeking behaviour.  I am sure there are positive ways economics have been contributing to debates on public health, yet in the haze of spin it gets very little publicity. 

Thanks to all my readers for contributing ideas and thoughts on this blog in the past few years. 

Merry Christmas.


Monday, December 6, 2010

Parkinson's Law

Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion

Some might know Parkinson’s Law as it has been quoted above, yet the implications of this law are rarely acknowledged.  In bureaucracy this is especially the case. I have witnessed it firsthand.  Ironic, since the ever-expanding British bureaucracy was the focus of Parkinson’s original 1955 article.

Parkinson’s work may have been seen as mere parody, yet his insights appear to be consistently proven over time.  This very blog post was achieved under pressure of time, utilising this Law to my advantage.  Had I allowed myself and hour it would have taken an hour.  Since I allowed myself just 30 minutes, with a 3pm deadline, magically, I expect it to take that long.

Parkinson’s explains the theory behind his law starting at a position best summarised by this passage:

Granted that work (and especially paper work) is thus elastic in its demands on time, it is manifest that there need be little or no relationship between the work to be done and the size of the staff to which it may be assigned.

He finishes with this gem of a formula explaining the continuous growth in numbers of bureaucrats.

(Where k is the number of staff seeking promotion through the appointment of subordinates; p represents the difference between the ages of appointment and retirement; m is the number of man-hours devoted to answering minutes within the department; and n is the number of effective units being administered... and where y represents the total original staff)

Parkinson notes that this figure will invariably prove to be between 5.17 per cent and 6.56 per cent, irrespective of any variation in the amount of work (if any) to be done.

The figure for Australian States in the past decade was a measly 3.1% - still significantly faster than the rate of population growth.  Yes, government is outgrowing the country.

A further development of Parkinson’s ideas is his Law of Triviality, which suggests that organisations give disproportionate weight to trivial issues. Parkinson dramatizes his Law of Triviality with a committee's deliberations on a nuclear power plant, contrasting it to deliberation on a bicycle shed. A nuclear reactor is used because it is so vastly expensive and complicated that an average person cannot understand it, so they assume that those working on it understand it. Even those with strong opinions often withhold them for fear of being shown to be insufficiently informed. On the other hand, everyone understands a bicycle shed (or thinks he or she does), so building one can result in endless discussions because everyone involved wants to add his or her touch and show that they have contributed.

The Law of Triviality can be expanded to apply to the state of public debate surrounding important political decisions.  Debate over where to host the local Christmas carols often trumps the debate surrounding reform of the banking sector or our participation in wars in the Middle East.  Perhaps we simply prefer not to think about these big issues for fear of being overwhelmed.  

In all Parkinson's insights seem to be rarely used to our advantage.