Brett Romero

Data Inspired Insights

Category: Australia

The argument for taxing capital gains at the full rate

Politicians, both in Australia and the US, when asked how they will find the money to fund various policy proposals, often resort to the magic pudding of funding sources that is “closing the loop holes in the tax code”. After all, who can argue with stopping tax dodgers rorting the system? But as Megan McArdle recently pointed out, raising any significant revenue from closing loop holes requires denying deductions for things that a lot of middle and lower class people also benefit from. This includes, among other things, deductions for mortgage interest, employee sponsored health insurance, lower (or no) tax on money set aside for pensions and no tax on capital gains when the family house is sold.[1]

Broadly, I agree with McArdle’s point. The public, in general, are far too easily convinced by simplistic arguments about changes to taxation – as if after decades of tax policy changes there are still simple ways to increase revenues without anyone suffering. Any changes made at this point are going to cause winners and losers, and often, the people intended to be the losers (usually the rich) are less affected than some other group that also happened to be taking advantage of a particular deduction.

That said, there is one point, addressed breifly in McArdle’s article, that I thought deserved greater attention – the concessional taxation of capital gains. In the list provided in the article, it was the second most expensive tax deduction in the US at $85 billion a year[2]. You see, for a while now I have been somewhat of a closet skeptic of the need for lower tax rates on capital income (i.e. capital gains and dividends). The reason for my skepticism is two fold:

  1. Everyone seems to be in agreement that concessional rates for capital income are absolutely necessary, but no one seems to really understand why.
  2. Capital income makes up a much larger percentage of income for the wealthy than for the lower or middle class. When you hear that story about billionaire Warren Buffet paying a lower rate of tax than his secretary, it is because of the low rate of tax on capital income.

So, now that I am finally voicing my skepticism, this article is going to look at what arguments are made for lower tax rates on capital income (focusing on capital gains for individuals) and whether those arguments hold water.

Why are capital gains taxed at a lower rate?

Once you start digging, you quickly find there is a range of arguments (of variable quality) being made for why capital gains should be taxed at a lower rate. These arguments can largely be grouped into the following broad categories:

  1. Inflation
  2. Lock-In
  3. Double Taxation
  4. Capital is Mobile
  5. The Consumption – Savings tradeoff

Inflation

Taxing capital gains implies taxing the asset holder for any increases in the price of that asset. In an economy where inflation exists (i.e. every economy) this means you are taxing increases in the price of the asset due to inflation, as well as any increase in the value of the asset itself. Essentially, even if you had an asset which had only increased in value at the exact same rate as inflation (i.e. the asset was tradable for the same amount of goods as when you bought it), you would still have to pay capital gains tax.

The inflation argument although legitimate, is relatively easy to legislate around by allowing asset holders to adjust up the cost base of their assets by the inflation rate each year.

Lock In

‘Lock-in’ is the idea that investors, to avoid paying capital gains tax, will stop selling their assets. An investor holding onto assets to avoid tax implies they are being incentivized, through the tax system, to invest suboptimally – something economists really dislike. However, as far as ‘lock-in’ would occur, it cannot be considered anything other than an irrational reaction. Holding onto assets does not avoid tax, it only delays it, and given inflation is factored into the asset price (as discussed above), there is not even the benefit of time reducing the tax burden. The bottom line is this – to pay more capital gains tax, there must be larger capital gains. That is, even if the capital gains tax rate was 99%, an investor would still be better off making larger capital gains than smaller ones.

The other point to remember when it comes to ‘lock-in’ is that in both the US and Australia, the lower rate of capital gains tax only applies to assets held for more than a year. That means if ‘lock-in’ exists, it is already a major problem. Because asset holders can access a lower rate of tax by holding an asset for a year, they are already strongly incentivized to hold onto their underperforming assets longer than is optimal to access the concessional tax rate. In fact, increasing the long-term capital gains tax rate to the same level as the short-term rate should actually reduce lock-in by removing this incentive.

Double Taxation

The double taxation argument is a genuine concern for economists. The double tax situation arises because companies already pay tax on their profits. Taxing those profits in the hands of investors again, either as capital gains (on that company’s stock) or dividends, implies some high marginal tax rates on investment. This is one of the main reasons capital income is taxed at low rates in most countries.

Ideally, to avoid this situation, the tax code would be simplified by removing company tax altogether, as McArdle herself has argued in the past. However, we should probably both accept that, at best, the removal of corporate tax is a long way away. Nevertheless, this idea can form the basis for policies that achieve similar goals without the political issue of trying to sell the removal of corporate tax.

For dividends, for example, double taxation can be avoided by providing companies with a deduction for the value of dividends paid out to investors. Investors would then pay their full marginal tax rate on the dividends, more than replacing the lost company tax revenues.

Preventing double taxation of capital gains is a little more complicated, but the answer may lie in setting up a quarantined investment pool that companies can move profits into. Profits moved into this pool would not be subject to tax and, once in the pool, the money could only be used for certain legitimate investment activities. This would effectively remove taxation on profits going toward genuine reinvestment, as opposed to fattening bonus checks.

The overall point here is not that I have the perfect policy to avoid double taxation of company profits, but that there are other worthwhile avenues worth exploring that are not simply giving huge tax breaks to wealthy investors.

Capital is Mobile

This is one of the two arguments McArdle briefly mentions in her article. The ‘capital is mobile argument’ is the argument that if we tax wealthy investors too much, they will do a John Galt, take their money and go to another country that won’t be so “mean” to them.

When it comes to moving money offshore, obviously, not everyone is in a position to make the move. Pension funds and some investment vehicles cannot simply move country. Companies and some other investment vehicles do not receive a capital gains tax discount currently, meaning raising tax rates for capital gains for individuals would not impact them at all. Finally, even for investors that would be affected and do have the means, a hike in the capital gains rate does not automatically move all their investments below the required rate of return.

This argument also overlooks the vast array of complications in moving money offshore and the risks involved with that action. Moving assets offshore exposes investors to new risks such as exchange rate risk[3] and sovereign risk[4]. It also significantly complicates the administrative, compliance and legal burden the investor has to manage.

However, even if we concede that yes, some money would move offshore as a result of higher taxes on capital gains, let’s look at the long term picture. What is the logical end point for a world where each country employs a policy of attracting wealthy investors by lowering taxes on capital? A world where no country taxes capital!

Of course, there are alternatives. Countries (and developed countries in particular should take the lead on this) can stop chasing the money through tax policy and focus on other ways of competing for investment capital. Education, productivity, infrastructure, network effects, low administrative and compliance costs are all important factors in the assessment of how attractive a location is for investors. California, for example, is not the home of Silicon Valley because it has low taxes on capital. Pulling the ‘lower taxes to attract investment’ lever is essentially the lazy option.

Consumption vs. Savings

The second point raised by McArdle is the argument that if you reduce the returns from investing (by raising tax rates), people will substitute away from saving and investing (future consumption) and instead spend the money now (immediate consumption).

The way to think of this is not of someone cashing in all their assets and going on a spending spree because the capital gains tax rate increased. That is extremely unlikely to happen and would actually make no sense. The change will come on the margin – because the returns on investment have decreased slightly (for certain asset types), there will be slightly less incentive to save and invest. As a result, over time, less money ends up being invested and is instead consumed.

But let’s consider who would be affected. If we think about the vast majority of people, their only exposure to capital gains is through their pension fund and the property they live in, neither of which would be affected by increasing the individual capital gains tax rate. Day traders, high frequency traders and anyone holding stocks for less than a year on average would also be unaffected. Most investors in start-ups do so through investment vehicles that are, again, not subject to individual capital gains tax[5]. That leaves two main groups of investors impacted by an increase in the capital gains tax rate for individuals:

  1. Property investors
  2. High net worth individual investors

Given property investing is not what most people are thinking about when concerns about capital gains tax rates reducing investment are raised, let’s focus on high wealth investors.

The key issue when considering how these investors would be affected by an increase in the capital gains tax rate is identifying what drives them to invest in the first place. Many of them literally have more money than they could ever spend, which means their investment decisions cannot be driven by a desire for future consumption. Many of their kids will never want for anything either, so even ensuring the financial security of their kids is not an issue. The only real motivation that can be left is simply status, power and prestige. Or as the tech industry has helpfully rebadged it – ‘making the world a better place.’

If that is the motivation though, does a rise in the capital gains tax rate change that motivation?

To my mind, the answer to that question is ‘No’. These people are already consuming everything they want, or in economic parlance, their desire for goods and services has been satiated. They will gain no additional pleasure (‘utility’) from diverting savings to consumption, so there is no incentive to do so even when the gains from investing are reduced.

Of course, there are exceptions, and it is quite possible (even likely) that there are high net worth individuals who live somewhat frugally and as a result of this policy change would really start splashing out. The question is how significant is this amount of lost investment, and does the loss of that investment capital outweigh the cost to society more widely of a deduction that flows almost entirely to the wealthy.

The Research

Putting this piece together, I have studiously attempted to avoid confirmation bias.[6] Despite the fact that I would benefit personally from lower tax rates on capital gains (well, at least I would if my portfolio would increase in value for a change), I definitely want to believe that aligning capital gains tax rates with the tax rates on normal income would raise significant amounts of tax, mostly from wealthy individuals, with few negative consequences.

In my attempts to avoid confirmation bias, I have deliberately searched for articles and research papers that provide empirical evidence that lower capital gains tax rates were found to lead to higher rates of savings, investment and/or economic growth. I have not been able to find any. There were some papers that claimed to show that decreasing capital gains tax rates actually increased tax revenue, but reading the Australian section of this paper (about which I have some knowledge), it quickly became clear this conclusion had been reached using a combination of cherry picking dates[7] and leaving out important details.[8]

I did also find some papers that, through theoretical models, concluded higher taxes on capital income would cause a range of negative impacts. But the problem with papers that rely on theoretical models is that for every paper based on a theoretical model that concludes “… a capital income tax… reduces the number of entrepreneurs…” there is another paper based on a theoretical model that concludes “… higher capital income taxes lead to faster growth…

Leaving research aside, there were a number of articles supporting the lowering or removing of capital income taxes. The problem is they all recite the same old arguments (“it will cause lock-in!”) and tend to come from a very specific type of institution. Without going too much into what type of institution, let me just list where almost all the material I located was coming from (directly or indirectly):

Even when I found an article from a less partisan source (Forbes), it turned out to be written by a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, and was rebutted by another article in the same publication.

Of course we should not ignore what people say because they work for a certain type of institution – just because they have an agenda does not mean they are wrong. In fact, it stands to reason that organizations interested in reducing taxation and limiting government would research this particular topic. The problem is that if there are genuine arguments being made, they are being lost amongst the misleading and the nonsensical.

Take this argument for lower taxes on capital as an example. First there is a chart taken from this textbook:

Capital per Worker vs. Income per Worker

The article then uses this as evidence to suggest more capital equals more income for workers. As straightforward as this seems, what this conclusion misleadingly skips over is:

  • income per worker is not equivalent to income for workers, and
  • almost all the countries towards the top right hand corner of this chart (i.e. the rich ones) got to their highly capital intensive states despite having high taxes on capital.

A Change in Attitude?

The timing of this article seems to have conveniently coincided with the announcement by Hilary Clinton of a new policy proposal – a ‘Fair Share Surcharge’. In short, the surcharge would be a 4% tax on all income above $5 million, regardless of the source. Matt Yglesias has done a good job of outlining the details in this article if you are interested.

The interesting aspect of this policy is, given the lower rate of tax typically applied to dividends and capital gains, it is a larger percentage increase in taxes on capital income than wage income. Of course, unless something major changes, this policy is very unlikely to make it past Congress and so may simply be academic, but at least it shows one side of politics may be starting to question the idea that taxes on capital should always be lower.

The Data

Finally, I want to finish up with a few charts. The charts below show how various economic indicators changed as various changes were made to the rate of capital gains tax, historically and across countries. Please note, these charts should not be taken as conclusive evidence one way or the other. The curse of economics is the inability to know (except in rare circumstances) what would have happened if a tax rate had not been raised, or if an interest rate rise had been postponed. The same applies with changes to the capital gains tax rate. Without knowing what would have happened if the capital gains tax rate had not been changed, we cannot draw firm conclusions as to what the result of that change was.

However, what we can see is that the indicators shown below do not seem to be significantly affected by changes in the capital gains tax rate, one way or the other – the effects appear to be drowned out by larger changes in the economy. That could be considered a conclusion in itself.

Chart1 – Maximum Long Term CGT Rate vs. Personal Savings rate, US 1959 to 2014

Chart 2 – Maximum Long Term CGT Rate vs. Annual GDP Growth, US 1961 to 2014

Chart 3 – Maximum Long Term CGT Rate vs. Gross Savings, Multiple Countries, 2011-2015 Average

Gross savings are calculated as gross national income less total consumption, plus net transfers. This amount is then divided by GDP (the overall size of the economy to normalize the value across countries.

Chart 4 – Maximum Long Term CGT Rate vs. Gross Fixed Capital Formation, Multiple Countries, 2011-2015 Average

Gross fixed capital formation is money invested in assets such as land, machinery, buildings or infrastructure. For the full definition, please see here. This amount is then divided by GDP (the overall size of the economy to normalize the value across countries.

Chart 5 – Maximum Long Term CGT Rate vs. Gini Index, 2011-2015 Average

The Gini index is a measure of income inequality within a country. A Gini index of 100 represents a country in which one person receives all of the income (i.e. total inequality). An index of 0 represents total equality.

 

[1] Interestingly, two of these four deductions (mortgage interest and employee sponsored health insurance) will be completely foreign to Australians.

[2] A similar policy (50% tax discount for capital gains) in Australia costs around AUD$6-7 billion per year.

[3] The risk that the exchange rate changes and has an adverse impact on the value of your investments.

[4] The risk that the government of the country you are investing in will change the rules in such a way to hurt your investments.

[5] Capital Gains Tax Policy Toward Entrepreneurship, James M. Poterba, National Tax Journal, Vol. 42, No. 3, Revenue Enhancement and Other Word Games: When is it a Tax? (September, 1989), pp. 375-389

[6] Confirmation basis is the tendency of people, consciously or subconsciously, to disregard or discount evidence that disagrees with their preconceived notions while perceiving evidence that confirms those notions as more authoritative.

[7] “After Australian CGT rates for individuals were cut by 50% in 1999 revenue from individuals grew strongly and the CGT share of tax revenue nearly doubled over the subsequent nine years.” Note the carefully selected time period includes the huge run up in asset prices from 2000 to 2007 and avoids the 2008 financial crisis, which caused huge declines in CGT revenues.

[8] “Individuals enjoyed a larger discount under the 1999 reforms than superannuation funds (50% versus 33%), yet yielded a larger increase in CGT payable.” This neglects to mention that even after the discounts were applied, the rate for of capital gains tax for almost all individuals was still higher than for superannuation funds.

Should the Wealthy be able to pay for Better Healthcare?

Commenting on an article on reddit.com, I recently got into an argument[1] with someone about healthcare and more specifically the role of private healthcare. The article was this NY times piece that talks about how US hospitals provide a range of benefits for wealthier ‘clients’ (at significant additional cost of course). These benefits can be anything from nicer rooms to gourmet food and access to business centers.

My first reaction to the piece was, what I expect, the desired response – indignation. In a country like the US where there are countless healthcare horror stories (the story of a carpenter having to choose which fingers to reattach as covered in Sicko is particularly famous), this seems outrageous. How can some people not afford access to healthcare at all, and yet others are paying huge sums to stay in private rooms and eat soft cheeses?

I believe in my case, this sense of indignation was particularly strong because I come from one of the many non-US developed countries in the world with a basic but functioning universal healthcare system. No one avoids going to hospital for fear of being bankrupted by the cost. No one has to make horrible decisions about which appendages to reattach. The only major drawback in most universal healthcare systems is procedures that are non-life threatening can have significant wait times.

A good example of this is getting surgery to repair an ACL. You can get it done through the public health system (Medicare in Australia), free of charge – or close to free. However, because you are not going to die from a ruptured ACL, you are likely to have to wait for 1-2 years to get that surgery done through Medicare. If, on the other hand, you have something like $5,000-$10,000 you can have it done next week[2].

As you may have observed from this example though, this sounds very close to what I was getting all indignant about in the first place – wealthy people buying access to better healthcare. In fact, in most universal healthcare systems, including Australia’s, the wealthy do have the option to pay more to receive access to better care and/or skip to the front of the queue. In reality, the NY Times article could easily have been talking about Australian hospitals. What is more, the ability of richer patients to pay for better service is often viewed as necessary for the system in Australia – the extra money paid by wealthy patients helps to fund the system for others. So why does it feel different?

After several days of mentally dissecting this issue I think I have come to a conclusion as to why the NY Times story got such a reaction out of me and yet I had a generally positive impression of the private health system in Australia. The key difference (at least in my mind) is the extent of the privatization of the healthcare system. In the US, healthcare has been privatized to such an extent that some people have been priced out of the market completely. When this is contrasted with the opposite end of the spectrum – private rooms, nicer robes, lobster stuffed with tacos – it highlights that the problem with the system is not an overall lack of resources, but that those resources are being allocated in such a way that some people do not get access.

Contrast this to the existence of private health systems in countries with universal healthcare. Even though some patients are able to access better facilities (and potentially doctors), everyone has access to a (generally) good level of healthcare, regardless of wealth or insurance policy. Because of this, the fact that some people can pay extra for nicer rooms seems much less important. The system has enough resources for everyone – so it is not perceived as resources being taken from poorer patients.

However, it is worth asking the question of whether this is right or simply a convenient piece of logic.

To assess the morality of the wealthy having the ability to purchase better healthcare services, we have to recognize the two main constraints on a healthcare system. The first constraint is the supply of personnel, equipment and medical supplies. The second constraint is the supply of money. These constraints are not unrelated. An endless supply of money will not help if there is a shortage in equipment/personnel at a given point in time. But money can help to increase the supply of these things in the future.

If we accept the premise that wealthy patients benefit healthcare systems by adding additional money into the system, going back to the constraints above, we can see that essentially this is a short term sacrifice for a longer term gain. Assuming that the demand for healthcare will always exceed supply, wealthy patients skipping to the front of the queue will take resources away from poorer patients in the present. They occupy beds, take time away from doctors and require access to equipment just like any other patient. However, they also pay money into the system that allows future patients to access treatment they might not otherwise have had access to.

Here is where it gets a bit murkier. If we are saying that payments from wealthy patients are needed for the system to function in the future, are we not then implying that the system is underfunded? Why can that money not come from other sources such as higher tax rates or lower spending in other areas of the budget? The problem with that line of thinking is that in any realistic government budget, there will always be room for additional healthcare funding. No government is ever likely to fund a healthcare system to the point that everyone gets the best possible treatment instantaneously[3]. So even in a much better funded public health system than currently exists in most countries, additional funds provided by wealthy patients will still allow for better treatment of other patients in the future.

All this does not mean we have to like the US model of healthcare where money plays far too big a role for the comfort of many. Denying patient access to healthcare (or bankrupting them for emergency care) in a modern developed country is a deplorable situation. But my overall conclusion is that it is best to focus your indignation on the real issues with the system – the excessive insurance premiums, the tying of affordable insurance to employment, the huge markups charged by many hospitals and the unnecessary expensive treatments added to patients bills.

As outrageous as it seems to picture wealthy patients receiving lavish treatment in private rooms while others are avoiding necessary treatment for fear of the cost, it is not the real issue. In fact it is probably providing a net benefit in a deeply flawed system.

 

[1] Those that know me will find this very unsurprising

[2] This cost, it should be noted, is still a fraction of the $55,000+ my health insurance company paid for that procedure in the US.

[3] If that was the case, you would also have idle resources for much of the year

Hours Worked Are Going Up – Here is the Evidence

A couple of weeks back, I posted a blog that seemed to tap a nerve. The blog addressed what many white-collar workers, particularly in the private sector, have been feeling for some time: pressure to put in longer hours at the office. This week, I wanted to look into the statistics to see if there is evidence to support the anecdotal stories of increasingly common 60-hour weeks.

To address this question, we are going to look at data from a range of sources, including Australia, the US, and the OECD.

The Picture in the US

Starting in the US, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) produces data on average weekly hours. This data has a lot of fine level detail on average weekly hours by sector and subsector, but unfortunately, only goes back to March 2006. Still, if there is a trend towards longer hours in recent times, it should be apparent.

Chart 1 – Average Weekly Hours by Industry

Chart 1 above shows the average weekly hours for the three main sectors for white-collar workers, Financial Services, Information, and Professional and Business Services. The first thing that stands out is there does appear to be an upwards trend in the average weekly hours for Financial Services workers and for Profession and Business Services workers. Both sectors look like they have added an extra hour on average over the past 9 years. Given the short time frame and the number of people involved in those sectors, that should be considered substantial. Multiplying extra hour by the number of employees in those sectors, (approximately 8 million and 19 million respectively), works out to an additional 3,375,000 working days (assuming 8 hours a day) every week – between those two sectors alone.

Drilling down into the detail, Chart 2 shows the Professional and Business Services sector broken down into its various subsectors.

Chart 2 – Average Weekly Hours – Professional and Business Services

At this level of detail, the data shows us that the increase in the sector as a whole is far from uniform:

  • Accounting, Tax Preparation, Bookkeeping and Payroll Services, Advertising and Related Services, and Other Professional Scientific and Technical Services have added around 2 hours per week
  • Legal Services and Management, Scientific and Technical Consulting Services have added approximately 1 hour a week
  • The remaining subsectors have remained flat, or even declined slightly.

Interestingly, data for the most infamous subsectors for long hours, Legal (Legal Services) and consulting (Management, Scientific and Technical Consulting Services) show employees averaging between 36 and 37 hours a week, which would seem to be very normal. This is probably indicative of two things:

  1. People in legal and consulting generally aren’t working as many hours as we assume (or they tell us).
  2. The people working long hours in these subsectors are limited to a few top tier firms. Their long hours are being drowned out by large numbers of people working normal hours.

There is also another thing to keep in mind when looking at this data. These statistics are based on surveys that are voluntary for people to respond to. As a result, there is likely to be some bias in the data towards lower hours due to people who do work long hours opting out of the survey altogether. This bias would impact all sectors and subsectors, but could be masking more dramatic increases in the averages.

What about Technology?

In Chart 1, the average weekly hours for the information sector (of which technology based industries are subsectors) barely moved over the last 9 years. However, as seen previously, looking at the information sector in aggregate can be deceiving. Chart 3 shows the information sector broken down into its various subsectors.

Chart 3 – Average Weekly Hours – Information Sector

Looking at this breakdown, the expected increase in average hours worked becomes more apparent. The Data Processing, Hosting and Related Services subsector has added close to 3 hours a week since 2006, while the Other Information Services subsector has added around 2 hours a week.

An interesting point to note is that for the Other Information Services subsector, the average weekly hours have been decreasing for the past 12-18 months. Looking at the period 2006-2013, it looked like this sector was on course to add 4 hours a week. However, after peaking at 36.4 hours a week in December 2013, the subsector has steadily lost hours to the point that for the first 6 months of 2015, the average was just 34.6 hours per a week. Whether this is the result of more work friendly policies, more competition for staff or some other factor remains to be seen.

Hard Working Aussies?

Moving on to Australian data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), the dataset available is longer than what was available from the BLS, but it is lacking fine level detail. The ABS data goes back to 1978 and is split by different brackets of hours worked. For example, 1-15 hours, 16-29 hours, 60+ hours and so on. Chart 4 below shows the percentage of employed people in each bracket[1] (based on a 12-month moving average).

Chart 4 – Australian Employees by Average Weekly Hours

The most striking aspect of the chart is the decline in the number of people working between 30 and 40 hours a week – or what most people would consider a regular full time job. As late as January 1986, more than half of Australian workers were working between 30 and 40 hours a week. By the turn of the century, that percentage was closing in on 40%. From the data, most of the people who moved out of the 30-40 hours a week category appear to have moved into the ‘less than 30 hours a week’ category. This substitution of full time jobs for part time and/or casual employees is sometimes referred to as ‘casualization’.

In Australia, the ‘casualization’ of the workforce has been a much-discussed topic. Some argue that it is the natural result of more modern, flexible working arrangements. Others see negatives in reduced job security and reduced benefits (casual employees do not get access to paid leave for example). One thing that is for certain is the number of people affected continues to increase.

Moving on to the other end of the spectrum, those working 50+ hours a week, there are two distinct phases. The first phase, from 1979 through to the year 2000 shows a strong increase in the number of people working 50+ or more hours. The second phase, from 2000 onwards shows a decrease in the number of people in this category that almost completely unwinds the previous increase. Another interesting observation is that the decrease in people working 50+ hours from 2000 onwards is almost exactly mirrored by the gain in people working 30-40 hours a week over that period.

It is difficult to say what exactly is driving this change. Are employees leaving jobs that require longer hours for jobs with better work life balance? Are companies becoming more serious about looking after their employees? Has the recent mining boom, which has led to huge economic changes, caused a shift away from industries that have longer hours? All these questions are a topic for another blog post.

What can be said is that, at a high level, there is little to indicate that longer hours are becoming the norm for Australian workers. But, like the US example, without looking at the data at a sector and subsector level, this data tells us very little about what is happening in legal offices and tech startups in inner city Sydney and Melbourne.

The International Perspective

The OECD also provides statistics on average yearly hours across a range of countries. Looking at yearly hours worked is slightly different to weekly hours because of differing leave allowances and expectations between countries, but it does allow us to look at how things have changed over time within each country. Chart 5 shows the average yearly hours for a selection of countries.

Chart 5 – Average Annual Hours Worked – Selected Countries

Again, this data is at the highest level (all sectors, all employees), making it difficult to detect a small increase in average hours worked that is limited to some subsectors. However, this chart does provide some perspective on how much average hours worked a year has declined in pretty much all developed nations over the past 60 years. The decline in hours worked in France in particular is striking – falling from over 2,300 hours a year (almost 48 hours a week if 4 weeks of leave is assumed) to under 1,500 hours a week (just over 31 hours a week).

The other interesting point to note is the increase in hours in Sweden since the early 80s. Not having any knowledge of Swedish history outside of the recent Thor movies (which I assume are completely factually accurate), any explanation anyone could offer about what is happening here would be very welcome.

The Long Term Perspective

The final data source for comparison is a paper[2] released in 2007 by Michael Huberman and Chris Minns. The paper takes a look at the question of how hours worked have changed over time from a very long-term perspective. Chart 6 shows a summary of the main results from the paper.

Chart 6 – Huberman and Minns; Hours of work per week; 1870–2000

Similar to the OECD data, this data provides perspective on how far the average hours worked has fallen over time. The biggest gains were made in the interwar period as Henry Ford and other business owners realized lowering the hours of their employees actually ended up boosting output, and many countries adopted statutory hours.

We also see how cultural and policy differences in France has led to continued declines in hours worked post World War II, while the Anglo-Saxon nations have essentially had no real change.

Table 1 – Huberman and Minns; Hours of work per week; 1870–2000

  1900 1913 1929 1938 1950 1960 1970 1980 1990 2000
U.K. 56.0 56.0 47.0 48.6 45.7 44.7 42.0 40.0 42.4 40.5
France 65.9 62.0 48.0 39.0 44.8 45.9 44.8 40.7 39.9 35.8
Australia 48.1 44.7 45.5 45.0 39.6 39.6 39.6 39.2 40.1 40.6
U.S. 59.1 58.3 48.0 37.3 42.4 40.2 38.8 39.1 39.7 40.3

Another thing that is not so obvious from the chart, but is clearer in the underlying data (see Table 1), is that in Australia and the US, there has been an increase in hours worked from 1980 onwards. Although not significant when compared to hours worked by previous generations, this could be representative of more recent trends. One caveat on that is that this data series only runs to the year 2000, and, at least in the case of Australia, there were declines in the number of people working 50+ hours from 2000 onwards.

Wrapping Up

Overall, the evidence that people are working longer hours is mixed. When drilling down to specific subsectors in the BLS data from the US, the data indicates there has been an increase in average hours worked in most of the expected places. However, the gains appear small (1-3 hours a week) and no sector or subsector analyzed averaged over 40 hours a week.

The ABS data from Australia did show a significant increase in people working 50+ hours from the late 70s through to the turn of the century, but that trend then stopped and reversed. Meanwhile, the longer-term perspective provided by the OECD data and Huberman and Minns showed significant declines over the last 150 years, with little indication average hours worked were going back up in recent years.

Taking all this data into account, there are two main conclusions to be taken away:

  1. When looking at data aggregated across sectors, there is little indication that average hours worked are increasing. That doesn’t mean average hours worked are not increasing anywhere, but that it is not happening on a big enough scale to move the high level aggregate numbers.
  2. When drilling down into specific subsectors where anecdotal evidence suggests there should be increases, the data indicates that average hours worked have been increasing. Although the averages still seem low (i.e. less than 40 hours a week), when you take into account the spread of hours making up those averages, even a 1-2 hour average increase represents an increasingly large proportion of people in those subsector working very long hours.

 

[1] Note – I have aggregated some of the brackets to simply the picture.

[2] M. Huberman, C. Minns; The times they are not changin’: Days and hours of work in Old and New Worlds, 1870–2000; Explorations in Economic History 44 (2007) 538–567

Australian Housing Bubble – Further Reading

Over the past 2-3 months, the mainstream media coverage of housing prices in Australia has exploded. Every commentator appears to have had a piece on this topic and was waiting for the right time to publish it. That right time is apparently now. For those interested in additional reading on this topic, here are some of the better pieces I’ve come across:

The banks and real estate: a Ponzi scheme that could ruin us? – Ian Verrender | ABC News

The housing crash we had to have: A Gen Y perspective on the bubble – Matt Ellis | Rational Radical

Another interest rate cut will fuel a housing bubble in danger of bursting – Greg Jericho | The Guardian

It’s not Hockey’s job comment that should worry us most – Michael Janda | ABC News

Blowing bubbles: the tricky task of tackling Sydney’s property market – Amy Auster | The Conversation

4 charts of the ‘largest housing bubble on record’ – Wolf Richter | Wolf Street

The Sydney housing bubble to pop – but how? – Michael Pascoe | The SMH

The mother of all housing bubbles – Chris Joye | The Australian Financial Review

Australian Housing Bubble Redux

In the recent piece about the Australian economy we touched on the issue of the bubble in Australian house prices. Over the weekend, Saul Eslake, Chief Economist at Bank of America Merrill Lynch and one of Australia’s most respected economists, added his thoughts to the debate. A lot of his concern is around the longer term affects on people who are locked out of the housing market:

“I would say [rising house prices] are causing social harm because they are widening the gap between those who have houses and those who don’t, and freezing younger generations out of home ownership,”

In a country like Australia where, much like the US, owning your house is seen as a noble goal that everyone should be able to achieve, this could signal a cultural change. Home ownership in Australia is at its lowest level since 1950 as investors increasingly snap up properties, not for the rent/income they will generate, but for the assumed capital gains. In recently released data from the Australian Taxation Office (ATO) for the 2012-13 financial year, 1,967,260 (or just over 15% of all taxpayers) claimed rental income. Of those, 64% declared a net loss (i.e. they claimed deductions for negative gearing). Think about that for a second – almost 2 out of every 3 people with an investment property in Australia are actively losing money on that investment. What do these investors do if their expectation of further capital gains changes?

“2 out of every 3 people with an investment property in Australia are actively losing money on that investment.”

With all these statistics, why is there still an argument about whether a housing bubble exists? A big part of the problem is that there is no qualitative measure of a bubble. In hindsight they tend to be blindingly obvious, but one of the reasons bubbles occur at all is that most people don’t notice them as they are inflating. Adding to the problem is the reluctancy of politicians and commentators to call out bubbles or even use the word ‘bubble’ because of the negative connotations – bubbles tend to burst. The following was the response of Australian Assistant Treasurer Josh Frydenberg when asked about the possibility of a housing bubble on the ABC Insiders program on Sunday morning:

“I don’t think there is a housing bubble… In the early 2000s housing prices increased by 20 per cent for three years in a row and then were steady for a decade. And there wasn’t a bubble that led to a major correction.”

However, as the situation becomes more extreme, more and more respected commentators are starting to sound the alarm on this issue, even if they avoid calling it a bubble. Saul Eslake again:

“What I do say, without any hesitation at all, is that Australian prices of housing in most Australian cities, and particularly in Sydney, are, as [Reserve Bank governor] Glenn Stevens called them in September last year, ‘elevated’,”

So, leaving aside talk of bubbles, what are the facts?

  1. Australians have record levels of housing debt as a percentage of income
  2. Almost 2 out of 3 property investors are losing money on their properties
  3. The median house price in Sydney is now over AU$900,000
  4. Rates of home ownership are at their lowest levels in over 60 years

Whether or not you want to call it a bubble, that seems unsustainable to me.

Why the RBA doesn’t want to cut rates

The first Tuesday of the month is interest rate day in Australia, the day the Reserve Bank of Australia – the Australian equivalent of the Federal Reserve – announces any changes to the official cash rate. The decision for June was to leave interest rates on hold at 2.0%.

In a situation that will feel relatively alien to readers in the US, Australian interest rates have never really been close to 0, but have been falling since late 2011 (see Chart 1).

Chart 1 – Australian Cash Rate vs. US Federal Funds Rate

RBA_chart_1_1

What has been leading to falling rates in Australia over a period where the US has been slowly recovering and the Fed Reserve is slowly edging back to normalizing interest rate policy? As is usually the case, a mix of factors are involved.

Iron Ore and Coal Prices Return to Earth

A story that most people outside Australia have at least heard about is the large mining boom Australia has been enjoying over the past decade or so, and that it was largely driven by demand from China. What they may not know is that this mining boom has been largely driven by just two commodities (well technically three) – iron ore and coal (two types of coal – thermal and metallurgical). Chart 2 shows the prices of iron ore and thermal coal[1] in AUD/tonne since the 1995.

Chart 2 – Iron Ore and Thermal Coal Prices 1995 to Present

RBA_chart_1_2

From this chart, we can clearly see the huge increase in prices that boosted the Australian economy. This was particularly pronounced for iron ore which went from between AU$16-AU$17 a tonne for most of the 90s to over AU$180 a tonne in 2010 and 2011.

Aside from generating huge profits for anyone who happened to own a coal or iron ore mine, what this price rise also led to was a large amount of employment in areas that weren’t just digging up the commodities themselves. This included:

  • Exploration of possible new mining sites – at AU$180 a tonne everyone wanted an iron ore mine
  • Building infrastructure that facilitated the large-scale digging up and exportation of these commodities – ports needed to be built and/or expanded, mining pits dug, roads paved and so on
  • Providing services to mining companies – lawyers, accounts, caterers and so on

After peaking in 2010/11 though, things started to go into reverse. By late 2013, much of the investment in infrastructure had run its course and the people who were employed to build that infrastructure were no longer needed. Prices were falling, bringing into question the viability of a lot of higher cost mines (and the mining companies running these mines) set up during the boom period. In short, a lot of people formerly employed on mine sites or in mining services roles were finding themselves looking for a new job and the rest of the economy was (and still is) struggling to pick up the slack. This in part is because of the …

High Exchange Rate

For those that haven’t decided to brave the 20+ hours of flight time to visit Australia in the recent past, Australia has become an extraordinarily expensive place. Sydney and Melbourne have been consistent fixtures in the world’s most expensive cities to live lists over the past 10 years.

Most of this was driven by a very strong Australian dollar, which was in turn driven mostly by the mining boom. In addition to buyers of commodities needing Australian dollars to buy the products they wanted, Australia became the target of a large volume of carry trade with currency traders looking for a relatively stable economy to park money at a relatively high interest rate. As a result of this, at the height of the mining boom, the AUD was buying almost $1.10USD.

Since that peak, the Australian dollar has depreciated around 30% (see Chart 3), easing a lot of the price pressure. However, as of 2015, Sydney and Melbourne still rank 5th and 6th on the world’s most expensive city list, as provided by the Economist Intelligence Unit’s (EIU) bi-annual Worldwide Cost of Living report.

Chart 3 – AUD/USD Exchange Rate 1995 to Present

RBA_chart_1_3

The RBA has publically been stating that they believe the value of the Australian dollar is too high in an attempt to talk down the value of the Australian dollar (often called ‘jawboning’) and provide a boost to the non-mining sectors of the Australian economy. They have also progressively lowered the cash rate from 4.75% in 2011 to 2.0% today, in an attempt to stem the carry trade. As we have seen, to some degree they have been successful, but the exchange rate is still higher than they (and many other commentators) believe is optimal.

Unfortunately, some bumbling on the part of the RBA (or the execution of a plan that no one else understands) has blunted some of their efforts. At the previous monetary policy meeting at the start of May, the RBA lowered the official cash rate from 2.25% to 2.0%, but removed any talk of further cuts from the publically released meeting minutes (removing the “easing bias”). Doing this then had the opposite of the desired result and caused a spike in the Australian dollar.

Chart 4 – Consumer price index; year-ended change 2000 to 2015

RBA_chart_1_4

So why are they removing the easing bias? Why don’t they just slash rates further – after all inflation is running below the target band (see Chart 4)? The problem is they are worried about the…

Bubble in House Prices

The RBAs hesitancy to cut interest rates further is mostly due to a concern about further encouraging investment in housing and contributing to rising house prices, which look to be well into bubble territory.

For those that aren’t too familiar with Australia, particularly the modern, post ‘put-another-shrimp-on-the-Barbie’, Australia, being a property tycoon has become something of a national obsession. Home renovation shows are everywhere and are getting huge ratings. Morning news regularly holds interviews with the latest property ‘success story’.

This obsession has led to Australia becoming a world-beater when it comes to levels of household debt. The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) produced a great series of charts in May 2014 showing some alarming statistics. See below for some of the highlights:

Chart 5 – Household Debt vs. Annual Income[2] in Australia 1987 to 2013

RBA_chart_1_5

Charts 6 and 7 – Household Debt vs. Annual Income – Various Countries 2001 to 2013

RBA_chart_1_6

RBA_chart_1_7

After 20 years of Australians continually buying properties off each other for ever-increasing prices, funded mostly by increasing level of mortgage debt, something changed. Perhaps it was the median house price in Sydney soaring past AU$900,000 (approximately US$700,000 at today’s exchange rate). What ever triggered it, in recent months, the talk in Australia has become all about a bubble in house prices, particularly in Sydney and parts of Melbourne. The Secretary of the Department of the Treasury, John Fraser, recently became the latest high profile public figure to weigh in:

“When you look at the housing price bubble evidence, it’s unequivocally the case in Sydney, unequivocal,”

More over, he drew a direct link between high house prices and low interest rates:

“It does worry me that the historically-low level of interest rates are encouraging people to perhaps over-invest in housing,”

And there is plenty of evidence to support the notion that the rise in housing prices is increasingly due to investors as opposed to owner-occupiers (see Chart 8).

Chart 8 – Investor Housing Credit as a Percentage of Total Housing Credit 1990 to 2014

RBA_chart_1_8

Meanwhile, belying the sparkling reputation the Australian Government has earned internationally in recent times[3], the Government has all but ruled out taking any meaningful action to reverse key policies that are currently encouraging investment in property – negative gearing and the capital gains tax concession being two of the main culprits. When asked in a recent session of question time by the leader of the Opposition Bill Shorten to respond to the comments from John Fraser, Prime Minister Tony Abbott responded as follows:

“As someone who, along with the bank, owns a house in Sydney I do hope our housing prices are increasing,”

Summing Up

All this leaves the RBA in quite a pickle. Relatively high interest rates (by the standards of developed nations internationally) continue to keep the exchange rate at higher than desired levels, which makes Australia an expensive place to do business. This in turn harms Australia’s two big non-commodity exports – higher education and tourism – just when they need to pick up the slack from a cooling mining sector. But lowering interest rates risks further fueling a bubble in house prices which the Government seems quite happy to ignore.

I don’t imagine there are too many people who would like to be in the shoes of RBA Governor Glenn Stevens right now.

Keep an eye on this space for further updates as this all unwinds.

 

[1] This is an example of that classic Australian trait – sarcasm

[2] Gross disposable household income received during the previous year.

[3] If anyone can find a good historical price series for metallurgical coal, I’d love to hear from you

© 2018 Brett Romero

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑