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Henry Thornton - Contributors: A discussion of economic, social and political issues Blogs
The Agincourt solution - how bad might it be?
Date: Friday, October 14, 2011
Author: Henry Thornton

Global economic conditions and prospects seem to be settling, although the haunting question remains 'how bad might it be?'.


A visiting American economic saleman, previously a US Fed official, Larry Meyer, has made the most sensible possible statement on the US economy.


"I don't think the US is going to have a double-dip but you have to recognise that there's a meaningful probability, maybe one in three".


Henry has long believed there is no sensible way to forecast except by stating possibilities and probabilities.  Clearly Larry Meyer went to the same hard school and absorbed its messages. 


Mr Meyer did say that the "recessionary risks are greater in the Euro area", showing that he also follows the economic news from non-American sources, a rare trait in an American in any field.


Australia, Mr Meyer asserted "remained in good shape" and the health of its financial system and budgets provided "unique opportunities".


China and other Asian nations have been overheating but "face a delicate task of slowing their economies down while western economies are struggling to find ways to stimulate their economies".


'Increasingly blunt warnings from central banks fail to prod bickering politicians into action' heads another press report.


Ben Bernanke: "Monetary policy can be a powerful tool, but it is not a panacea for the problems currently faced by the US economy ..."


Jean-Claude Trichet: "The crisis is systematic and must be tackled decisively: national governments and authorities, as well as European institutions, must rise to the challenge and act together swiftly.  Further delays are only contributing to aggrevate the situation".


Mervyn King: "We're totally stuffed and I've given up". Correction, that was the Wikileaks version: "When the world changes, we change our policy response".


All this citing the authorities is as an early sanity check.  It is always possible Henry might have gotten it wrong, sitting as he does in his office connected to the great and the good only by waves in cyberspace.


But no, these authorities seem to be on the same page, and that adds up to significent uncertainty.


What does it all mean for monetary policy here?


That will be decided by the result of Sunday's Rugby World cup game against New Zuland ... just joking folks, but there is little doubt that there will be a wave of hubris if the Wallabies manage to knock off the Kiwis to advance to the final.


That final will be against Wales or France and here Henry's probabilistic approach to forecasts will be of great value.  Saturday's semi-final, and therefore Australia's (we hope) opponant on the weekend after this, is by no means certain.


We suspect France's great win over England in the quarter finals was their final revenge for their unexpected defeat at Agincourt and, having no equivalent enmity with Wales, they will surrender meekly. In any case, they have probably all been quaffing vin extraordinaire since belting le poms. And it must also be factored in that Wales has been playing well. 


Imagine the catastrope if either Australia or NZ got belted by Wales in the final.


Assuming no catastrophic end to the Wallabies' campaign, the RBA's decision on Cup Day will depend on perceptions about the state of the local economy and the global situation.


If Mr Meyer's views still look broadly correct on November 1, there will be no rate cut.


Given the manifest uncertainties, however, and the fact that on the day that a horse race stops our nation the G20 will be about to agree (or not) on a Eurozone rescue plan, I suspect the board will give the governor approval to cut rates by up to 100 basis points in case 'or not' is the outcome and this provokes a Lehman moment for the eurozone.


But, wierd mistakes by foreigners aside, things here look not too shabby.


A massive investment boom is building strength, jobs growth has exceeded expectations (again) and retail sales have showed unexpected strength for the second month in a row.




Australia can be (seriously) rich ...
Date: Thursday, May 22, 2014
Author: Henry Thornton

... says Australia's great reforming PM, Bob Hawke.


There was a special poignancy in the speech by RJ (Bob) Hawke at the Cooperative Research Centre (CRC) conference this week.  Here was the Prime Minister who introduced the CRC program on the advice of his Chief Scientist, Ralph Slatyer, just a week after the Abbott government slashed 12 % from the CRC program.  This was done despite the proven effectiveness of the CRC program, as demonstrated by several rigorous reviews, most recently by the Allen consulting Group in 2012. The summary of that study is: 'Between 1991 and 2017 CRCs produced technologies, products and processes that were estimated to have a direct value of almost $14.5 billion'. And also: 'Relative to the funds committed to the CRC program by the Australian Government, the CRC program has generated a net economic benefit to the community, which has exceeded its costs by a factor of 3.1'.


(This latest of several studies of the CRC program is available here.)


In introducing Mr Hawke, CRC Association Chairman, Tony Staley described Mr Hawke as 'one of Australia's great Prime ministers'. He added that he knew his friend, John Howard, agreed with that evaluation. I can add here that, as a 'sherpa' at Mr Hawke's Economic Summit held shortly after the Hawke government was installed, I was greatly impressed with the political good sense of the summit, and (of course) even more impressed as the economic reforms began to flow, including the float of the Australian dollar. (This writer's account of that key reform is available here.)


At the CRCA conference, Mr Hawke delivered a dramatic speech, that so far has received only minor coverage by the mainstream press. (Here is a short example.)


The first part of the speech was about that formation and performance of the CRC program. Mr Hawke had appointed Australia's first Chief Scientist early in his time in government. Professor Ralph Slatyer was a former school friend of Mr Hawke, at the famous Perth Modern school.  He was 'quiet, studious and obviously brilliant' and went on to have a brilliant scientific career. Hawke and Slatyer shared 'wonderment' at the pace of change in the modern world, and Mr Hawke quoted the economist Kenneth Boulding who said something like (my notes might be defective): 'The world today is as different to the world in which I was born as that world is to the world of Julius Caesar'.


Clearly, if Australia is to have any chance of being on the pace we have to be smart enough to understand, and contribute to, the driver of the world's rapid change, which is global Reaearch & Development (R&D). And to maintain our place at the table of leading nations, even mid-level nations, we shall have to be a whole lot better at turning R&D into commercial outcomes.  That is the purpose of the CRC program, to provide taxpayer's cash to encourage scientists to work to solve real problems for end-users, be they companies or government agencies. This program is much admired by, and copied in, other countries, including China where this writer had some practical input to the relevant transfer of ideas.


The guts of Mr Hawke's speech was his announcement about the importance of nuclear power as a major way to solve the problem of global environmental pollution.  (He said 'climate change' but I believe 'pollution' is both more general and equally important to the asserted problem of global warming that is so passionately believed by climate change activists.)


In short, Mr Hawke wants Australia to enrich our plentiful stocks of uranium (40 % of known global stocks in some estimates), sell it others to provide fuel for the many nuclear reactors now being built (notably in China, where pollution is a major issue) and then take back the waste for safe storage.  Australia is the ideal place for such storage as it is geologically stable, and it was time for Australia to consider the idea with 'calm consideration of facts'.


During his time in government, Mr Hawke said, he had identified places in Western Australia and the Northern Territory that were ideal for safe long-term storage. Mr Hawke said that he had more recently spoken to relevant aboriginal groups, who were willing to consider the proposal provided only trhat they received their fair share of the fees involved.  He also said that he had spoken with the Northern Territory's Chief minister, who was keen on the idea.  Mr Hawke was also confident that Western Australia's premier would support the idea.


Enhancing uranium and storing waste would provide great wealth to Australia, and would solve the great fiscal constraints now causing such angst. More importantly, it would make Australia a 'responsible global citizen' and (I would add) make us easily able to provide for our defense.  Mr Hawke added that the facilities for enrichment and storage should be owned and run by government, a proposition which this writer totally endorses.


Concerns of some, Mr Hawke asserted, about China's future as a global power were wrong.  China has always been a peaceful power, and is deeply engaged in solving its own problems, including the massive problem of pollution. China is busy building modern nuclear power stations, and would regard Australia's involvement as proposed as a 'win-win'.


I think it is fair to say that the proposal was greeted by many present with shock, perhaps even shock and awe. Certainly the applause that accompanied the first part of Mr Hawke's speech dried up, and pins could be heard dropping in the vast lecture theatre. I was moved to say it might well be the most important of Mr Hawke's many contributions to Australia's welfare and place in the world. It deserves widespread discussion and deep consideration.


Mr Hawke's full address is available on the CRC Association website.


Disclosure: This writer is a former Chairman of the Federal government's CRC Committee, and a current Chair of CRC Care, a leader in remediation of polluted sites. 


Gor Blimey, comrades
Date: Tuesday, May 20, 2014
Author: Henry Thornton

'Who'd of guessed it?  Tony Abbott has taken the axe to every program he can find, even adding to the taxes paid by his rich Liberal mates. He's hit us battlers harder, of course, and the brothers at the local pub have all agreed to vote for Bill Shorten or Clive Palmer.  Gary Morgan says the Libs are buggered, and even the Oz says Abbott and his mates are in their own world of pain.  Dunno why, as all they're sufferin' is a wage freeze plus less free plane trips when they quit politics. Which looks like commin' sooner than they thought.  Even the useless bloody State Premiers are whinging, and most of them are Liberals'.


Henry's roving reporter filed this missive from a battleground of the class war, the front bar of Balmain's most traditional pub. The newspapers, even Rupert's Australian, have not been kind. They point out that structural budget reforms will help taxpayers in the long run, when some of us will be safely dead. The AFR yesterday gleefully (in Henry's view) reported the massive hit to the Coalition's standing in the polls and in Tony Abbott's standing relative to the Opposition Leader.


Laura Tingle says that Messrs Abbott and Hockey 'have no choice but to go back and rethink the entire political and economic strategy on which this budget is built'. Alan Mitchell points out that Mr. Shorten if in government would be forced to replace Mr. Abbott's unpopular measures by tough ones of his own.  But as Tony Abbott showed so brilliantly, an opposition does not actually have to present its own plan, just attack the plans of the government. One is irresistibly reminded that those who live by the sword are likely to die by the sword.


Henry spend yesterday in Adelaide with some up-market citizens, all baffled at the government's political strategy. 'Designed by someone whose never had a real job' was one comment. Another said they had no need to slice and dice the battlers - 'They could have fixed the budget by abolishing negative gearing, ending tax free super for the over sixties and killing Tony Abbott's fee kick for new mothers'. An economist in the group disputed this. 'The simplest solution is to broaden the GST and raise its rate to 15 %'. He pointed out that Tim Costello seemed to support that approach, and he added 'Tim is no Liberal thug'.


The theory that the government is playing a long game with the aim of getting the states to demand a GST upgrade may or may not be true, but adds to the 'mean and tricky' image that all pollies in Australia are already tarred with.


Sadly is seems the 'budget emergency' narrative has failed. Australia has a very low ratio of official debt to GDP and slow adjustment would keep Australia's position low on the international debt league table. What has only emerged now is the massive ramp up of Labor's programs in years 5 and 6, now that the previous five has become four.  This is a complicated matter, and it would have been much better if the prebudget narrative had consistently stressed that 'the budget is much worse that we expected'. Even better if the pre-election attack had included the repeated suggestion that things would be a lot worse than Labor's numbers implied. How could you not have expected that, Mr hockey, when Swannie's predictions had been so excessively rosy?


Henry's view remains that Australia has a nasty budget problem to unravel, but the bigger problem is Australia's relatively high cost level, and there is almost nothing in this budget except austerity for battlers to help sort this problem. As advised on April 30, if the government had taken a 20 % cut in their own salaries until the budget and competitiveness emergency was over, and invited business leaders to do something similar (having privately persuaded a number of senior business leaders to match the offer), the whole package would look far fairer, and in addition would be better economics.


A splendid analysis of the 'narrative' issue is in The Oz for 22 May, by Niki Savva.


Saturday Sanity Break, 17 May 2014
Date: Saturday, May 17, 2014
Author: Henry Thornton

Like the galahs in the petshop, every economist has been saying 'Why not the GST, Messrs Abbott and Hockey?'  'We promised not to change the GST until after an election in which we said we would', say the boys from Riverview. Fair enough, but the people at large think you have already broken a whole lot of promises, and might well prefer one 'repair the budget' broken promise than a whole series of smaller promises that most people think are unfair, considering the lack of  'heavy lifting' by people on high (>180 K pa) incomes who lose a mere 2 % of income above $180 K.


As one wag put it:


if it ain't hurting
it ain't working


The elites (those who don't drop their haitches) tend to sneer at the Herald Sun, a newspaper that has the bravest stories and especially the best sporting coverage of them all.  This newspaper yesterday was the first to come out for the GST.  Its prominant story yesterday led off as follows: 'RAISING the GST to 12.5 per cent and applying it to fresh food, health and education would raise $25 billion a year.


'This would more than compensate state governments for federal budget cuts to hospitals and schools funding while also funding tax cuts for low and middle income families.


'According to Deloitte Access Economics modelling, lifting the GST rate from 10 per cent to 12.5 per cent would raise $13 billion a year.


'Broadening the GST to apply to fresh food would raise another $6.5 billion. Applying the tax on health and education would raise another $3 billion each'.


Read on here.


The ex-Treasury man who provided these numbers, Chris Richardson of Deloitte Access Economics, said state premiers would be wise to lead a national debate about lifting the GST to fund critical services. The conspiracy theorists have been saying all week Messrs Abbott and Hockey are extremely clever, instructed in the dark arts of politics at Riverview, and have planned such a horrible budget so that State Premiers, indeed all the galahs and most voters, will cry 'The GST, the GST, we want a broader GST at a higher rate'.  Little New Zealand bit that particular bullet some time ago and now has a growing economy with (gasp!) a budget surplus.


Don't have a double dissolution, Mr Abbott, but instead a referendum like that Queensland ad, with more options.


Which option do you prefer (only one box can be ticked)


1. The budget's mix of spending cuts, asset sales and the temporary debt levy.


2. An across the board 10 % rise in every rate of tax except the GST.


3. A widening of the GST so there are no exemptions with the rate increased to 12.5 %.


4. The budget's spending cuts plus however much of options 2 and 3 that are needed to produce a balanced budget in 2014-15.


5. No action to fix the budget, continued growth of debt and a chronically weak economy.


Clearly Treasury would need to check the numbers, and it might be desirable to include the medical research fund in every option to lock in the academic vote.


Sorry folks, just joking, but the GST option is the fairest and most likely to fix the budget while improving the economy in the process.


Time to be totally serious.


The old master, Paul kelly, puts all this into serious perspective in the Oz.


On the GST debate, Kelly says: 'Abbott and Hockey have ignited a long reform fuse. By cutting $80 billion to the states from Labor’s fiscal expansion in schools and hospitals funding they are provoking a new debate about the federation including a bigger GST.


'This is a calculated move. Their intention is to provoke the states.


'Their message is that Labor’s financial centralisation requiring Canberra to meet greater funding shares for schools and public hospitals is untenable. The groundswell for a GST debate is apparent with the welfare sector, unions and business conceding the conversation is inevitable.


'The trade-offs are obvious: if we don’t rely more on the GST, then benefits will be tightened further and personal income taxes will do more heavy lifting'.


Read on here.  Ask yourself, as Paul Kelly does: 'Is Abbott crazy brave?'  Or just a dedicated economic reformer.


Even some people prominent in the welfare sector accept the view that widening the GST would be the least harmful way to set the budget on a sustainable course., and perhaps in the end a majority in either the old or the new Senate will do so as well.


In conclusion, I must insist that in the great debate over the budget, fixing national competitiveness has been overlooked, or put aside for another day.  My thoughts are summarised in terms of the narrative I would have preferred for the budget debate, or indeed the overall reform task.


Footy'n'stuff


There is respite this weekend as Caaarlton! is having a rest. Most of the better sides will be struttin' their stuff, with threat of ASADA 'show cause' letters hanging over 40 heads at Essendon high on the list of rumoured shocks. Even Henry, for whom Essendon is a tribal enemy, would not welcome such an outcome.  Some teams just play harder for longer, presumably because of better recruiting, training and motivation, like some companies. If it becomes proven that some teams used some sort of jungle juice instead, or in addition, it will do great damage to Aussie rules, as happened with cycling and the Olympic 100 metres.


Image of the week



Courtesy The Oz


Budget mayhem
Date: Wednesday, May 14, 2014
Author: Nick Raffan

Crikey, the Raff has never before encountered so much hostility towards a budget. Not just from the opposition side of the fence but from all political divides. From the opposition side of the great divide the Liberals were just being bastards as they always are, mean, uncaring and more protective of the well-off. From the Liberal quarter there was a complete rubbishing of most of JH’s budget items. The view all round is that TA and JH got it all wrong. But why?


It wouldn’t have taken much of a survey in the streets to find out in advance what was going to be the general view of the public on JH’s effort. JH and TA shouldn’t shoulder all the blame, a large part of which is probably attributable to advisors in Treasury, Finance and the Prime Minister’s office. We might well ponder the credentials of the advisors that have probably grown up in a cocoon masquerading as Canberra.


One thing is almost certain that most of the advisors, although probably well educated, have never worked in private industry, have never employed people and have never ever tried to run their own business. If you have a clodney or many of them responsible for providing advice to any government it’s a recipe for disaster. For Henry’s readers not familiar with the term, a clodney is someone most suitable as a potato digger, perhaps Irish in origin.


With so much hostility towards the budget from every corner, it’s difficult to see JH seeing much of the budget passing the Senate. The States are crying poor because of cuts in funding and education. This is clearly the start of the process to get the States to agree to a hike in the GST. Whilst on this subject it is notable how well New Zealand is doing after increasing the GST from 12% to 15%.


Jeff Kennett got it right in a recent interview on ABC’s Lateline that the procedure should have been TA saying “I am going to break ONE promise to rectify the budget and that is I am going to hike the GST”. By the way, pretty well all the Table of Knowledge participants thought that hiking the GST was the best option for the Libs. We might well ask ourselves how come TA and JH couldn’t see same.


A worrying outcome from this mess is high probability of a double dissolution. If current sentiment exists into the next election the Libs will get wiped out, and they will only have themselves to blame. One view from a Labor stalwart was god forbid a continuation of Labor failures. A ghastly thought are Libs switching to The Greens or Palmer’s United Party. It’s a nightmarish thought but the very worst imaginable outcome would be hello President Clive.


Ed: Roy Morgan Research reported: 'A special combined Roy Morgan Business Pulse and Roy Morgan Consumer Pulse survey conducted today (May 14, 2014) shows large majorities of both Australian consumers (88%) and businesses (74%) overwhelmingly feel last night’s Federal Budget will not benefit them – this is little changed from pre-Budget expectations measured by Roy Morgan last Friday'.


Read on here.


Saturday Sanity Break, 10 May 2014
Date: Saturday, May 10, 2014
Author: Henry Thornton

Budget week. What fun, when all the leaks, inventions and outright lies are put to rest. It will be tough, and it will be fair, with a deficit levy on the well-to-do, it seems, despite all the wailing and gnashing of teeth, implants rather than removable plates in these times of advanced dentistry.


Local Tea Party Libs, however, deserve their chance to let off steam. Here is a nice snippet from 1888, from Representative Thomas R Hudd of Wisconsin, when taxes were miniscule by today's standards..


Taxed on the coffin, taxed on the crib
On the old man's shroud, on the young baby's crib
To fatten the bigot and pamper the knave
We are taxed from the cradle plumb into the grave.


Henry's efforts  in this pre-budget week have focussed on the radical fix-it budgets of President Reagan and Prime Minister Thatcher. Desperate times, the dismal 1970s, produced strong, self-confident leaders. Henry's conclusion should give succor to Tea Party Libs.


'Despite the set-back in October 1987, the great asset boom of the 1980s was to continue until the Japanese crash in December 1989. In the USA and UK the October set-back was greater, but the 1990s were to produce one of the greatest share booms in history. Budget policy in both cases was non-standard, even totally at odds with conventional (Keynesian) standards. The question that must be answered is this: "Was it improved economic performance or simply the psychological effect of strong-minded, self-confident leaders willing to shake up entrenched economies?"


'Tony Abbott and Joe Hockey, over to you'.


A regular reader and occasional critic, Tiresias of Canberra, found Henry's question unconvincing or irrelevant.


'Your question on how best to account for the Great Recovery under Reagan and Thatcher (“Was it improved economic performance or simply the psychological effect of strong-minded, self-confident leaders willing to shake up entrenched economies?”) is a great conversation starter or examination topic … but real-life national economic policy is neither a dinner party or an exam. The thrilling days of the 80s are not about to return in time to rejuvenate those who remember them. Policy is a desperate struggle to get it right that takes place in the knowledge that even the best answer will turn out to be wrong after a while … which would make a great epitaph for either Reaganomics or Thatcherism'.


Read on here. 


Another contribution this week also questioned another  conventional wisdom. Craig Milne of the Australian Productivity Council accepts that freer trade has made us richer, but invites us to recognise the costs, which include:
*
unemployment now much higher than it was in the trade regulated era;
* replacement of Australian manufactured goods with imports has been the main  contributor to the deterioration of the nation’s external account;
* as manufacturing contracted, the share of the economy commanded by government has grown in response; and
* the loss of large numbers of manufacturing firms, and even entire industries, that has resulted from trade liberalisation, has substantially diminished Australia’s technological status and capability.


As an overall result, Milne says 'we have lost the mastery of the art and science that underpins this broad expertise that is, more than anything else, the measure and defining characteristic of a technical civilisation, the engine of its forward movement and the ground of its futurity'. 


Here is the full article.


Thanks go to David Uren & the Oz for the nice overview of deficits on debt since Federation, along with the Prime Ministers who presided. The roll call includes Henry's favourite deficit crisis, the 'Banana Republic'.


The article is linked here, and its graphic clearly deserves to be image of the week, if not the year.


There are three tests for the budget which is to be presented next week;
* Is it tough enough?
* Is it fair enough? and
* Does its narrative make sense, and include plans to reduce Australia's double-digit cost overhang?


Kulture


Fiona Prior has visited the 19th Biennale of Sydney and her report can be accessed here.


Clearly a mind-blowing experience.


Footy'n'stuff 


The Bump that stopped a nation, correction, footy lovers in that nation, has been resolved in accord with Australia's ANZAC tradition of bravery and strength under pressure in a lost cause. Melbourne's Jack Viney is free to play this weekend, a clearly stoopid decision by the AFL tribunal having been overturned.

Last night's epic battle between a depleted Hawthorn and a revitalised Swans was one for the ages. The Swans now have not one but two superstar forwards, and it really isn't fair Andrew Demetriou.

Sadly, Henry will be on a plane returning from Sydney when Caaaarlton! plays St Kilda on Monday in the late afternoon. If only we had one superstar forward, plus Cyril Rioli, Gary Ablett and that superstar ruckman we let go to Adelaide we'd be competitive. But we got crucified by the AFL for rorting the salary cap, another poor decision by Andrew Demitriou. (In the Thornton household, Mr Demetriou gets blamed for all things wrong with the AFL, just as Bill Shorten blames Tony Abbott for all things wrong with Australia.)


A highlight of Henry's week was a short conversation with legendary Beer and Jam mogol, John Elliot.


Henry. 'What's up with our footy team, John?
John. 'We've got seven of our best players out injured.  We lack depth'.
Henry. 'How's Mick going?'
John. 'Mick's doing fine. The players are right behind him!'
Henry. 'Good. Enjoy your smoke, Comrade.'


Image of the week



Courtesy David Uren & the Oz


Mrs Thatcher`s budgets
Date: Thursday, May 08, 2014
Author: Henry Thornton

‘This week, [Feb 3-10, 1979] capitalists have been fleeing from securities. Almost all the major stock markets went into reverse’.


The Economist said: ‘This is not an encore of 1974; UK industry and government are in better shape, and there is (not yet) any liquidity crisis. The UK was still grappling with ‘wages policy’, with 12 % inflation!
• In 1974, oil prices quadrupled, now price rises only 15 %.
• However, non-oil producing OECD nations, especially the USA, started out in balance of payments deficit, and it was feared may impose import restrictions


Before long, as we have seen, US inflation was 12 %.


Chancellor Dennis Healey started in 1974 with the unfair disadvantage of world inflation and slump, and ended in 1979 with the unfair advantage of North Sea Oil. Almost everything he did to navigate out of the morass he inherited was wrong. Economic policy-making was 'all over the place'.


Commons vote of no confidence came before what would have been his ‘final disgrace’. Healey’s final budget was described as a ‘Caretaker Budget’.


As in the United States, a strong leader took over from a failed government. Margaret Thatcher’s government took over on 4 May 1979 and ran to 28 November 1990.


It was the judgment of most respectable economists and commentators that the world economy was going to sink into recession.


The world’s finance ministers packed their bags for an IMF meeting in Belgrade in a mood described as ‘uncooperative'. This was due to a widespread feeling that governments were helpless to counteract the blow to their economies from the new oil-price increase.


A newspaper said: ‘Well meaning platitudes from the IMF and broad hints of stronger measures from Washington were enough to blow the head off the bull market in gold’.


Gold soared to 'lunatic and unsustainably high levels'. The US Fed was reportedly selling gold.


When Mrs Thatcher took office in May of 1979, Britain’s inflation was 8 %. By February 1980 it was 18 %, due to both parties’ pre-election promises, higher VAT, higher interest rates, demanding unions and ever more demanding oil sheiks.


It is commonly believed that Mrs Thatcher introduced tight monetary and fiscal policies. For her first term, this was not the fact, though it was the rhetoric.


When Mrs Thatcher cut income tax in her first budget, she balanced this by rises in VAT. It became clear, at least with hindsight, that they should have been balanced instead by cuts to government expenditure. Increasing VAT put inflationary expectations up and an axe to civil service costs would have put inflationary expectations down.


The second Thatcher budget was predicted to send unemployment over 3 million. The budget was expected to add 2 % to British inflation, which exceeded 10 % when wage bargaining started in the autumn; ...


Extra taxes on drinkers, smokers and drivers increased retail prices by 2 % and Charcellor Sir Geoffrey Howe increased income tax by another 2.5 billion pounds. The Economist described it as ‘decidedly unKeynesian’ also unconservative, even socialistic.


Another description was ‘Private slimming and public fat’.


Private inflations had soon fallen from 20 % to 7 %, strikes had virtually stopped, Britain produced the biggest balance of payments surplus in the world, inflation in the nationalised industries was three times that in the private sector and public service wages had risen by 50 % in two years.  Failure to cut numbers of civil servants was to be a consistent criticism of the Thatcher government.


Government spending rose from Labor’s 41.5 % of GDP under Labour to 44.5 %, despite falling capital spending


One wag described this as‘letting sewers rot to keep bureaucrats' jobs’.


The public sector borrowing requirement (PSBR) had overshot and Sterling M3, was supposed to grow in the range 7-11 %, but actually grew by 20 %. The Economist said: ‘The Bank of England has been trying to control the wrong indicator by the wrong methods with the wrong information through the wrong institutional mechanisms’. If the budget was unKeynesian, monetary policy was unmonetarist.


In 1982, budgetary and monetary policy was still at sixes and seven, with what Bob Dylan called ‘mixed up confusion’ (in another context) in his Masterpieces album released in Japan, Australia and New Zealand in 1978.


Confrontation with unions was the issues of the year. A bill to curb union power was seen as just a good start. ‘One day Britain will have to follow the rest of the civilised world and make its collective agreements legally enforceable like any other contract’. Any local resonance, gentle readers?


It was time for the Thatcher govt to open up the ‘union citadels’ of British Telecom, British Airways, British Gas, British Steel and all the rest.


The budget speech offered “substantial reductions in taxation, while at the same time reducing the government’s borrowing requirements”, the parliamentary equivalent to “doing the splits”.


It was remarked that it would be odd if UK’s deficit at 3.5 % of GDP would let British interest rates ‘continue to thump down’ while USA’s 3.75 % drove rates up.  Was President Reagan at this stage trusted more than Prime Minister Thatcher?


Money growth target was meant to drop from 6-10 % in 1981-2 to 5-9 % in 1982-3, but instead rose by 14.5 %. More confusion.


But by 1984, the economy ‘was settling into a third year of growth that many people said could not happen’.


By 1987, Britain’s growth exceeded had exceeded that of almost every European nation for the first time in decades. But it was pointed out that UK growth was still well behind US or Japan, which provided the standard to aspire to.


The Economist reported that Charles Mackay would have enjoyed the boom that the world’s top three stock markets had enjoyed at the start of the year – New York, London, Tokyo. (Since Jan 1, Wall Street +20 %; Tokyo +13 %; London +21%)


‘Yet there has been little economic news to justify a surge of optimism’.


Despite the set-back in October 1987, the great asset boom of the 1980s was to continue until the Japanese crash in December 1989. In the USA and UK the October set-back was greater, but the 1990s were to produce one of the greatest share booms in history. Budget policy in both cases was non-standard, even totally at odds with conventional (Keynesian) standards. The question that must be answered is this: 'Was it improved economic performance or simply the psychological effect of strong-minded, self-confident leaders willing to shake up entrenched economies?'


Tony Abbott and Joe Hockey, over to you.


Henry's review of President Reagan's budgetary policy is available here.


Consumer confidence plunges
Date: Wednesday, May 07, 2014
Author: Roy morgan Research

The ANZ-Roy Morgan Consumer Confidence fell a further 4.2% to 106.3 in the week ending 4 May. Confidence is now down a sharp 8% over the past fortnight; a large move for the index.


 This is most likely to have been driven by policy leaks in the lead up to the May 13 Federal budget, with the Commission of Audit’s report and the mooted ‘deficit reduction levy’ covered extensively in the media in the past week.


Consistent with this, the weakness in the week was driven by another sharp fall in consumers’ perceptions of ‘economic conditions next year’ (-10.8%) and this sub-index is now down over 20% over the past fortnight. Perceptions of ‘economic conditions in the next five years’ fell 3.8% after declining 4.6%.


However, there was a silver lining in the report. The sub-index of confidence - perceptions of ‘financial situation compared to a year ago’ - which is most correlated with households’ spending decisions, rose modestly last week (+1.9%) after falling a more modest 3.7% in the previous week compared to other sub-indices.


As such, and together with signs that the labour market is beginning to strengthen, ANZ’s bottom line for the household consumption outlook remains that consumer spending will improve this year and next, although next week’s budget has the ability to drag on the speed of that recovery.


ANZ Chief Economist (Australia) Ivan Colhoun said: 'The ANZ-Roy Morgan weekly consumer confidence is providing the first read of the impact of the Budget on consumers. Confidence has fallen sharply over the past fortnight, to be down over 8% over that period, which coincides with a number of policy leaks in the lead up to the May 13 Federal Budget.


'The policies of most concern to the consumer spending outlook at this stage are the mooted temporary deficit reduction levy and the proposed changes to the eligibilities for welfare and pension payments. These policies, if introduced, would impact consumption both directly and indirectly. This index will be important to watch for the likely magnitude of the policy’s indirect hit to consumer spending – and how sustained the impact from any other Budget-related news will be on consumer confidence more generally'.


 The graph shows the effects of facts, fictions and the occasional barefaced leak.



Henry draws your attention to an important article - linked here - on the benefits and costs of trade liberisation, written by Craig Milne of the Australian Productivity Council.


President Reagan's budgets
Date: Tuesday, May 06, 2014
Author: Henry Thornton

1979 was a dismal year.  After two decades of strong post-war boom, OPEC’s two rounds of oil hikes had reduced the leading nations to virtual despair. But new administrations were in place, or in the wings, and radical change to economic policies were coming soon.


In Australia the Fraser government was struggling with ‘monetary projections that could not be achieved, except by chance, with a fixed exchange rate and heavily restricted domestic financial markets.


In the USA, President Carter was overwhelmed by the problems he was facing on all fronts.


Early in 1979 there began the second oil price crisis. Tremors from Iran spread around the world. Rumours of a new ceiling on Saudi oil production compounded oil companies’ warnings of shortages and cuts.  The dollar plunged while gold shot up to $254 per ounce almost immediately (with further increases to $400 plus) and other metals soared.


A newspaper said: ‘This week, capitalists have been fleeing from securities. Almost all the major stock markets went into reverse’.


Investors were switching, sometimes indiscriminately, into anything that offered some shelter against the stagflationary fall-out from Iran.


President Carter appointed Paul Volcker as Chairman of the US Fed in August 1979, in perhaps his finest contribution to global economics. Mr Volcker blamed inflation on excessive monetary growth and said at Senate confirmation hearings “there is no substitute for monetary discipline”. By October, the American economy was experiencing an inflation rate near 12 % and a trade deficit almost $2 billion a month and a weak dollar, itself adding to inflation.


‘Strong-arm tactics were planned, including ‘sand in the wheels of finance’, with changes in operating procedures for monetary policy. These changes were widely seen as a major gamble. As someone said at the time: ‘Instead of the Fed setting cash rates and hoping for the best, it will cap ‘base money’ and let banks sort out interest rates’.  When the new approach was implemented, interest rates oscillated wildly.


Ronald Reagan won in late 1980 and was inaugurated in early 1981. His brash young budget director, David Stockman, was described as David confronting the budgetary Goliath. ‘The hope was that, with the Fed’s monetary action, the combination of budget cutting and tax cutting might alter expectations of continuing inflationary spiral.


But, in America, the President proposes while Congress disposes. The subsequent struggles was described by one venerable journal as ‘a game of chicken’. Reagan and Stockman kept advocating three things: cutting taxes, increasing defence spending and radically cutting other sorts of spending, especially spending on welfare.  Broadly speaking, congress accepted lower taxes and higher defence spending but not the other spending cuts that would have reduced the budget to anywhere like zero.


By early 1983, interest rates were rising while inflation had fallen to around 4 %.  In fact, three month money cost 9 %, meaning ‘real’ (inflation adjusted) rates of interest were probably higher than they were in 1979. With President Reagan facing re-election in 1984, the Federal government’s budget deficit had risen from 2 % of GDP to 6 %. Mr Reagan renewed his call for constitutional amendment to ban budget deficits and to allow him to veto spending plans from Congress.


This call was ignored by Congress, and by 1985 the outlook was for ‘budget deficits as far as the eye could see’. Interest rates were rising. Paul Volcker called for the budget deficit to be cut ‘quickly’.


Make what you will of it, gentle readers. Almost any economist one could find would have predicted cast rates of 20 %, fluctuating wildly, and persistent, apparently unfixable, budget deficits would have wrecked the American economy. Yet the years following saw a massive global share boom, a short-lived bust (readers may recall October 1987) and further rises in what was one of the greatest share booms of history.


Henry's review of Prime Minister Thatcher's budgetary policy is available here.



Saturday Sanity Break, 3 May 2014
Date: Saturday, May 03, 2014
Author: Henry Thornton

More budget news today, especially 'No dole before 25: youth will have to earn or learn'. Smaller front page article on cutting down on politician's gold passes, with two reported cases of former pollies spending big to take their families to holiday houses in the sort of places others would like to bask in the sun if it were free to get there - Broome and Lord Howe Island. Nice one Tony'n'Joe, but what about taking a notch in the belt of current pollies? For example: 'Every Australian must share the pain, which includes a modest levy on marginal rates of tax above $xxx K. It will include a 20 % temporary cut in politicians' salaries (or, if this is not feasable, a voluntary cut in government salaries or equivalent  payments to a recognised charity.  The government also urges all Australians who feel they can afford to do so to increase their contributions to recognised charities.)'.


This is part of Henry's proposed draft outline of a coherent narrative from government that we believe our most senior journalists are in effect calling for. The draft outline is available here.


The budget is understandedly very important, if not yet a 'national emergency'.  Regular readers will recognise that a bigger, more urgent, problem is double-digit cost disequilibrium. This is a problem that the proposed temporary 20 % salary cut for pollies is so important, once the problem is put on the table, which so far it has not.


Naturally, readers will make up their own minds about all this. Here is a link to a wonderful contributation by former crusading state premier Jeff Kennett.  I really like his attack on penalty rates, which directly deals with the cost overhang.


Also valuable is his proposal to broaden the GST and (if needed to fix the budget) raise its rate, as the relatively brave New Zealanders have done.


And for a second independent opinion, see Paul Kelly, including another video.  If you hang about you will see Alan Kohler interviewing the Chair of the Audit Commission.


Henry's non-mainstream views about monetary policy are reviewed by Professor Warwick McKibbin.  (Read through until the end.)


Footy'n'other sporting news.


Last night Henry and a co-religionist in the camp of Caaarlton! watched the AFL satanists Collingwood destroy the season of our (previous) one true footy team.  It is very rare for Caaaarlton!'s season to be over after seven games, but with a 5(loss)/2(wins) record, only a miracle will see Caaaarlton! feature in September.  The good news is there will be a lot of previous footy viewing time to use in more productive areas, like reading and writing, painting and hanging about with the family.  Coach Mick the Merciless said afterwards that there were 'passengers' in the team, and one suspects there will soon be a 'youth policy' at Caaarlton!


Not much other sport to watch.  NZ's Rugby League team gave the rampaging Aussies a fright, and our world champion heavy-weight boxer got belted.  The good news is that a nation's sporting prowess is inverse to its sporting performance, so our sporting decline foretends a better economic performance.


Image of the week



The economy - proposed narrative
Date: Wednesday, April 30, 2014
Author: Henry Thornton

Treasury has told us that economic growth will be the weakest for 50 years. A key question is why they did not tell Rudd'n'Gillard'n'Rudd that the commodity boom they enjoyed so much would end soon (as all previous commodity booms had) and they should therefore not spend like drunken sailors?  If such a message was delivered, it would be good to know, Dr Parkinson, preferably now but at least as soon as you are free to write your biography.  Today's blog aims to provide a draft narrative to position the tough decisions needed now to minimise future misery for many Australians.


Of course,  it seems highly likely Treasury did not sound the relevant warnings.  If they had, Treasurer Swan would presumably not have constantly predicted a strong economy whose budget would whirr back into surplus not too long into the future.  Did Treasury and/or successive governments really think Australia was a 'miracle economy' owed a living high on the hog for the feasible future?


Now it is time to sort it out, and Messrs Abbott and Hockey are hard at work telling us it is a whole lot worse than Treasury and Treasurer Swan believed only 6 or so short months ago. Gor blimey, comrades, it now looks pretty gruesome.


We have been told, correctly, that budget repair is going to take a unified effort from all Australians. Rich folk will cop a tax levy. While pensioners will have their pensions left alone, future pensioners can expect to work for longer. Families earning over $100 K will have to manage without handouts, which seems fair enough  to the Thornton family.


Big spending schemes will need to be downsized/implemented more slowly, as even the PM's paid parental leave plan has been trimmed.  Since Tassie has turned its back on the NBN, the largest and least useful white elephant of the Rudd'n'Gillard'n'Rudd administrations, why not just cancel the whole idea and let people make their own arrangements for fast internet?  Radical, perhaps, but the simplest way to save a lot of money Henry can imagine.


Henry has been privileged to be the recipient by email of a lovely punch-up between Terry McCrann on one side and John Stone and Des Moore on the other.  McCrann has supported the mooted 'tax levy' even if it will raise a relatively small amount, perhaps $2 to $3 billion.  Messrs Stone and Moore say this is tiny relative to the overall budgetary problem and suggests it indicates lack of appropriate resolve to cut spending. Whilst one can agree with them on the size of the proposed levy, the political imperative of 'sharing the pain' is presumably the reason it is in the mix.


And on another point of political economy, every responsible commentator agrees that Labor's drunken sailor spending is most of the reason for the budgetary mess, along with the end of the best part of the commodity boom. Current attempts by Labor (and Labor's coalition partners, the Greens) to frustrate the government's attempt to fix the budgetary mess is full of contradictions and illustrates either blind stupidity or gross hypocricy.


The government is taking a beating in the polls and one hopes by budget time it has sorted out the 'narrative' into a few simple propositions.


Here is a first draft:


1  The budget is in big trouble, and Australia has become very uncompetitive. (Provide examples.)


2. Australia's strategic mistake was to assume record terms of trade would last forever, which produced overspending by governments and unsustainable increases in incomes, including welfare payments generally.


3. The Labor Green alliance boosted government outlays with a number of overly-ambitious spending programs.   (Specify)


4. The current government is responsible for fixing the budget, which involves cancelling programs we cannot afford, slowing and/or making less ambitious programs Australia currently cannot afford in their current form.


5. Every Australian must share the pain, which includes a modest levy on marginal rates of tax on incomes above $xxx K. It will include a 20 % temporary cut in politicians' salaries (or, if this is not feasable, a voluntary cut in government salaries or equivalent  payments to a recognised charity.  The government also urges all Australians who feel they can afford to do so to increase their contributions to recognised charities.)


6. Companies whose costs are making them uncompetitive are urged to talk with their workforces to seek changes to remuneration practices, either temporary or permanant, to restore competitiveness.  Top managements should take the lead in accepting cuts to their remuneration of a similar proportionate magnitude they wish their staff to adopt.  To the extent that productivity can be improved, remuneration cuts can and should be smaller.


7. Specific promises made before we knew the magnitude of problems facing the nation may need to be postponed in whole or in part.  We apologise for this but note that officials did not warn of the size of the problems we are now dealing with, nor did the major business representative groups, or indeed most economists or journalists.


Give us your thoughts.


Readers are invited to contact Henry here if you wish to contribute to the debate we have to have.


Reposted at Online Opinion.


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