Brett Romero

Data Inspired Insights

Tag: Australia

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

Does Wealth Inequality Impact Growth?

I recently read a paper entitled Does wealth inequality matter for growth? The effect of billionaire wealth, income distribution, and poverty[1] that has been getting some coverage in economic circles. One of the reasons for the coverage is that income and wealth inequality has become a major discussion point in economics, since the release of Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century.

The other reason for the attention is that the paper, although implicitly agreeing with Thomas Piketty’s conclusion that inequality is detrimental to economic growth, puts a twist on the conclusion. This paper, through a series of statistical models, provides evidence to suggest wealth inequality in itself does not impact economic growth, but that wealth inequality that arises due to government corruption impacts on economic growth.

Reading between the lines, this conclusion essentially reverses the prescription Piketty has been arguing for (greater intervention from government to redistribute wealth) and instead implies the opposite, that government should be reduced and basically get out of the way.

At a high level, there are two reasons I wanted to review this paper. These reasons are:

  1. To highlight the importance of skepticism when reading headlines based on scientific literature, and
  2. To provide an example of how a lack of domain knowledge[2] can cause problems in the world of statistics.

The Setup

The basic experiment setup is as follows. The authors (Sutirtha Bagchi and Jan Svejnar) took the Forbes List of World Billionaires for four years, 1987, 1992, 1996[3] and 2002. They then split the billionaires in these lists into two groups: those that have seemingly gained their wealth through political connections, and those that apparently gained their wealth independent of political connections.

Once grouped, the researchers aggregated the wealth of the billionaires by country to calculate politically connected billionaire wealth, politically unconnected wealth, and (adding these two pools together) total billionaire wealth – for each country in the dataset.

To normalize this measure of billionaire wealth across countries, they then divided the billionaire wealth for each country in each year by the total GDP for that country in that year. This provided a measure of billionaire wealth (politically connected, politically unconnected and total) as a percentage of GDP[4], which was taken to be a measure of inequality.

In addition to the three variables for each country – politically connected wealth inequality, politically unconnected wealth inequality, and total wealth inequality the authors also added a number of other variables, including measures of poverty, income inequality, income level (as measured by real GDP per capita), levels of schooling and the price level of investment[5].

Using linear regression, these variables were then used to predict GDP growth per capita for the following five years (after the year the variables corresponds to). For example, the variables for the year 1987 were used to predict the GDP growth per capita for the years 1988 to 1992.

Without getting too deep into how linear regression works, this approach was informative because it allowed for an assessment of the impact of each variable on growth, assuming all the other variables were held constant. With a variety of models constructed, the authors were able to assess what impact politically connected inequality had on growth, assuming politically unconnected inequality, income, poverty levels, schooling levels and the price level of investment were held constant.

The other big benefit of using linear regression is that it provides information about which of the variables used in a model are actually useful (“found to be significant”) in making a prediction. Essentially, variables that are found to not be significant can be excluded from the model with little or no decrease in the accuracy of the model.

Before moving on to the results, please be aware, for the sake of brevity, I am greatly simplifying the experimental setup, and completely ignoring a range of robustness and other testing the authors did. For those details, you will need to read the full paper.

The Results

At a high level, the results of the models constructed suggested the following in relation to the impact of inequality on growth:

  1. Politically connected wealth inequality (regardless of how it is normalized) was found to be a statistically significant predictor of growth. In all cases the coefficient was negative, indicating the higher the level of wealth, the lower the predicted growth.
  2. Politically unconnected wealth inequality (regardless of how it is normalized) was not found to be a significant predictor of growth.
  3. Wealth inequality (when political connectedness is ignored) can be a significant predictor of growth depending on how it is normalized[6]. When found to be significant, higher levels of billionaire wealth led to lower levels of predicted growth.
  4. Income inequality was found to be a significant predictor of growth in only one of the 12 models constructed. In the case where it was found to be significant, greater income inequality led to predictions of higher growth.

In addition, the model also provided some other interesting conclusions:

  1. The level of income in a country was found to be a significant predictor of growth in all cases. The models suggested that the higher the level of income in a country, the lower the predicted growth[7].
  2. The level of poverty was not found to be a significant predictor of growth in any of the models constructed.
  3. The level of schooling (for males or females) was not found to be a significant predictor of growth in any of the models constructed.

Caveats and Problems

Already from some of the findings above, you probably have some questions about the results. Poverty and schooling and income inequality have no impact on economic growth? The conclusions can change based on how billionaire wealth is normalized? You are right to be skeptical, but lets break down why.

Determining Wealth is Difficult

The first problem, and it is one explicitly acknowledged by the authors, is that measuring wealth (and therefore wealth inequality) is very difficult. Most of the difficulty arises from determining the wealth of the rich. In some cases, it is relatively straightforward to determine wealth – for example if the billionaire’s wealth is tied up in one company (e.g. Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg). But in other cases, particularly with inherited wealth, the assets are diversified, held in a large number of holdings, trusts and companies across the world. In some further cases, it is extremely difficult to value the assets of a billionaire due to the unique nature of the assets (this is why Donald Trump’s worth is always the subject of debate).

To get around this, problem, the authors have relied on the Forbes list of billionaires. In terms of billionaire wealth, this is probably the best researched list of billionaires available, but by Forbes own admission “It’s less about the [net worth] number, per se… this is a scorecard of who the most important people are.”

Is Billionaire Wealth a Good Predictor of Wealth Inequality?

The authors built their measure of wealth inequality using the wealth of billionaires. But does this make sense even if we assume the Forbes list is accurate? There are two main problems I see with this approach.

The first is that ‘billionaire’ is an arbitrary cutoff point. Extremely wealthy people with wealth over the billion-dollar cut off one year regularly fall out of the three comma club the following year. For smaller countries with very few billionaires, this can have an outsized impact on their measure of wealth inequality from year to year.

The second issue is that looking at billionaire wealth tells you nothing about the distribution of wealth below the $1 billion mark. An example is provided in Chart 1 below.

Chart 1 – Wealth Distribution Across Two Hypothetical Countries

What Chart 1 shows is two hypothetical countries with 10 people each and the same amount of total wealth. Country 1 has two people who are extremely wealthy (but not billionaires), while the rest are far less wealthy. In Country 2, we have one billionaire but a much more even distribution of wealth amongst the rest of the population. Looking at the chart we would conclude that Country 1 has a higher level of inequality, but if we calculate inequality based on methodology used in the paper, Country 2 will be determined to be more unequal than Country 1. In fact, Country 1 would be assigned an inequality value of 0.

Obviously this is an exaggerated example, but it illustrates the point that there is a lot that could be happening below the $1 billion mark that is completely ignored by the measure used. I would also argue that the distribution of wealth amongst the population who are not billionaires is going to be much more important for growth than the ratio of billionaires to everyone else.

What is Politically Connected?

This is the part of the experiment setup that will probably end up being the most contentious, and relates back to the lack of domain knowledge. The problem is the authors could not possibly know of every billionaire on the list, the circumstances of how they accrued their wealth, and make a judgment call on whether political connections were a necessary precondition. As a result, they had to rely on various news sources to draw their conclusions and this led to some interesting outcomes.

For those that read the Wonkblog piece I linked to earlier, you may have noticed a chart in which Australia was adjudged to have 65% of billionaire wealth over the four years looked at being politically connected, putting it the same range as India and Indonesia. To most Australians this would be a hugely surprising result given Australia’s strong democratic tradition, strong separation of powers and prominence of tall poppy syndrome[8].

Generously, the authors of the paper provided me with the classifications that led to this number and it boils down to the fact that they have classified Kerry Packer as a politically connected billionaire. For those that know of Packer (pretty much every Australian) it would seem ridiculous to class him in the same bracket as Russian oligarchs or Indonesian billionaires who benefitted from the corrupt Suharto regime. But for someone who is not from Australia, they had to make this judgment based on newspaper clippings talking about Packer’s lobbying efforts.

In the case of Australia, having a high percentage of politically connected billionaire wealth has little impact. Once politically connected billionaire wealth (i.e. Kerry Packer’s wealth) is taken as a ratio of GDP, the number becomes very small because Packer’s wealth is dwarfed by the relatively large Australian economy. But what about other countries? How have various judgment calls impacted their inequality measures and therefore the model?

As I mentioned at the start of this section, it is unreasonable to expect the authors to be able to know how every billionaire worldwide accrued their wealth and the role of the government in that process. Additionally, the fact that there may be issues with some classifications does not mean we should throw away the results. However, it does mean any conclusions we draw from the results should be caveated with this problem in mind.

Unknown Unknowns

The final problem comes down to the high level question of what drives economic growth.

When you consider all the different things that can impact on the economic growth of a country over the course of five years, you quickly realize there are an almost unlimited number of factors. Commodity prices, what is happening in the economies of major trading partners, weather patterns, population growth, war, immigration, fiscal policy, monetary policy, the level of corruption and the regulatory environment are just some of the factors that can have a major impact on growth.

When economists build models to predict growth, they make choices about what factors they believe are the major drivers of growth. In this case, the authors have used factors like income levels, schooling and poverty levels. But what about some of the other factors mentioned above? Could these factors have better explained growth than politically connected wealth inequality?

This choice of variables is further complicated by the interrelatedness of the factors impacting growth. Is population growth driving economic growth, or is it because population growth indicates higher levels of immigration? Is government corruption holding back growth, or is it that corruption is siphoning off money from schooling and other public services?

When it comes to the models in the paper, the key question is if politically connected billionaire wealth is really impacting growth, or if it is simply acting as a proxy for some other measure (or measures). For example, are high levels of politically connected billionaire wealth dragging on growth, or is this measure acting as a proxy for the level of corruption in an economy and/or the prevalence of inefficient government created monopolies – which are the real drags on growth? Unfortunately, there is no definitive way to know the answer to these questions.

Conclusions

As mentioned at the outset, inequality and its impact on growth and the economy in general has been a popular topic of discussion in economic circles for the last 1-2 years. In many ways, it is the defining economic discussion of our time and has the potential to shape economic policy for a generation.

In an effort to provide more information in that debate, the authors of this particular paper deserve plenty of credit for taking an innovative approach to a difficult problem. However, at least in my mind, the results raise more questions then they answer.

That, it should be noted, is not a criticism, but is often the outcome of research and experiments. Results can often be confusing or misleading, and can only later be explained properly through further research. This is all part of the scientific method. Hypotheses are created, challenged, and either proved incorrect or strengthened. They are always subject to be proven wrong.

Unfortunately this nuanced process is not one that lends itself to catchy headlines and this is where we find one of the key problems with reporting of scientific results. Most authors, including the authors of this paper, are fully aware of the limitations of their findings. That is why you will find the conclusions section filled with words like ‘suggests’, ‘possibly’ and ‘could’. But those words do not make for good stories and so the qualifiers tend to get left out.

It is for this reason, if you are interested in the results of a particular paper or study, it always worth looking at the detail. With that, I’ll leave the final word to Sutirtha and Jan (emphasis mine):

“These and other examples, together with our econometric results, suggest that the policy debate about sources of economic growth ought to focus on the distribution of wealth rather than on the distribution of income. Moreover, particular attention ought to be paid to politically connected concentration of wealth as a possible cause of slower economic growth. Further research in this area is obviously needed, especially with respect to the effects of wealth inequality at different parts of the wealth distribution, the possibly declining effect of unequal distribution of income on growth, and the role of poverty.”

 

[1] S. Bagchi, J. Svejnar, Does wealth inequality matter for growth? The effect of billionaire wealth, income distribution, and poverty, Journal of Comparative Economics(2015), http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jce.2015.04.002

[2] Domain knowledge is knowledge of the field that the data relates to.

[3] A change in the methodology used by Forbes to compile the list between 1997 and 2000 led them to instead choose 1996.

[4] The authors also try normalizing by other factors, such as population and physical capital stock, but this doesn’t substantially change the results of the model.

[5] A measure of how expensive it is to invest in capital within a country.

[6] When normalized by population, billionaire wealth is found to be a better predictor of growth than politically connected wealth.

[7] This may seem strange, but actually nicely captures a phenomenon in economics where lower income countries experience higher growth as they ‘catch-up’ to higher income countries.

[8] A perceived tendency to discredit or disparage those who have achieved notable wealth or prominence in public life.

Why Australians Love Foster’s and Other Beer Related Stories

Sports. Hot summer days. Manly men. Attractive women. Whether beer is your go-to drink or not, it’s hard to not be impressed with how beer manufacturers have ensured their product is strongly associated with a range of desirable situations and topics for the average male consumer. But, despite being a common theme across countries, there are two in particular that have really taken this message to heart, to the point of being comical: Australia and the US.

Australia and the US are two countries where beer has become almost synonymous with the notion of being a “man”. Our sporting heroes appear in ads selling beer, our favorite sports teams are sponsored by beer, and when it’s not sports, it’s scantily clad women, beaches, blokes being blokes, or all three together.

But perhaps the most interesting aspect of the beer culture in these two countries is that, despite the similarities, there is an amazing mutual lack of understanding between the two. Australians for the most part have nothing but disdain for American beer – which from their perspective consists only of Bud, Miller and Coors (someone particularly familiar with international beer might venture “oh, but I don’t mind that Sierra Nevada”). Meanwhile most Americans’ knowledge of Australian beer starts and ends with a Foster’s at the Outback Steakhouse.

Both are woefully uninformed views. Hopefully, the following 1800-odd words can help clear up a few of the myths and misunderstandings – and add some mutual appreciation.

Australian Perceptions of American Beer

Mention American beer to an average Australian and you are likely to hear the words “tasteless”, “weak”, “watery” and “yellow fizzy water”, among other things not suitable for a professional blog. And let’s be honest, looking at a list of the top 10 beers in the US (see Table 1), it is hard to argue with those sentiments – the list is full of light (light carb for Australian readers) and relatively flavorless American style lagers[1].

Table 1 – Top 10 US Beers by Volume

Label ABV Type Producer
1 Bud Light 4.2% Light Lager Anheuser–Busch InBev
2 Coors Light 4.2% Light Lager Molson Coors
3 Budweiser 5.0% American Adjunct Lager Anheuser–Busch InBev
4 Miller Light 4.2% Light Lager SABMiller
5 Corona Extra 4.6% American Adjunct Lager Anheuser–Busch InBev
6 Natural Light 4.2% Light Lager Anheuser–Busch InBev
7 Busch Light 4.1% Light Lager Anheuser–Busch InBev
8 Michelob Ultra Light 4.2% Light Lager Anheuser–Busch InBev
9 Busch 4.3% American Adjunct Lager Anheuser–Busch InBev
10 Heineken 5.0% Euro Pale Lager Heineken International

Unfortunately, it is these top 10 mass produced beers that come to mind when Australians (and most people outside the US) think about American beer. That is a shame because what many Australians are completely missing out on is the absolutely massive and amazing craft beer scene that is thriving in the US.

Craft Beer in the US

Despite appearing to be a recent phenomenon, the American craft beer scene has been making its mark since the mid-90s. After declining for much of the 20th century, the craft beer scene exploded from 446 breweries in 1993 to 1,514 by 1998. After a lull through the early and mid 2000’s, the numbers again took off in 2008 and 2009. By 2014, there were 3,464 breweries in the US.

By comparison, in Australia (depending on who you ask) there are between 100 and 200 breweries. There are at least 4 states in the US that have more breweries than the whole of Australia[2]. Craft beer also has a significantly larger proportion of the US beer market than in Australia (11% vs. 2-3%). In fact, when you look at just how big craft brewing has already become in the US (and it is still growing at a rapid pace), it makes headlines in Australian papers like “Has the craft beer machine reached saturation point?” seem a little ridiculous.

Asides from the pure numbers though, arguably the most admirable aspect of the craft brewing scene in the US is the way small breweries and brewpubs become a point of reference for the local area. In Australia, craft beer is still largely seen as the domain of inner city hipsters and beer snobs. In the US, bars and pubs will often take pride in ensuring they have the offerings from the local brewery on tap. For beer lovers, this means travelling the US provides a veritable smorgasbord of different craft beers that change with every town and season.

American Perceptions of Australian Beer

Mention Australian beer to an American, and you are likely to hear exactly one word: “Foster’s”. More knowledgeable Americans might venture that they have heard Foster’s isn’t actually that popular in Australia, which is both true and untrue. Let me explain.

Foster’s Lager, the beer most Americans (and basically everyone not from Australia) associate with Australia is a beer produced by the Foster’s Group. What many don’t know is that the Foster’s Group actually produces a large range of beers under different labels in Australia, most of which make no mention of the name “Foster’s”. Looking at the top 10 Australian beers (see Table 2), you will notice that 5 of the top 10 beers in Australia are produced by Foster’s, and in particular their largest brewery – Carlton & United Breweries[3].

Table 2 – Top 10 Australian Beers by Volume

Label ABV Type Producer
1 XXXX Gold 3.5% American Adjunct Lager Lion Nathan
2 VB 4.9% American Adjunct Lager Foster’s
3 Carlton Draught 4.6% American Adjunct Lager Foster’s
4 Tooheys New 4.6% American Adjunct Lager Lion Nathan
5 Tooheys Extra Dry 4.6% American Adjunct Lager Lion Nathan
6 Carlton Mid 3.5% Light Lager Foster’s
7 Carlton Dry 4.5% American Adjunct Lager Foster’s
8 Corona Extra 4.6% American Adjunct Lager Anheuser–Busch InBev
9 Pure Blonde 4.6% Light Lager Foster’s
10 Hahn Premium Light 2.6% Light Lager Lion Nathan

However, despite the popularity of Foster’s beer, it is actually very rare to find Foster’s Lager in Australia anymore. In fact, the only place many Australians are likely to find it is in the imported beer section of the local supermarket or bottle-o.

But this wasn’t always the case – up until the mid 80s Foster’s Lager was actually a very popular beer in Australia and was sold as a premium label amongst Foster’s other offerings. It wasn’t sold with the ubiquitous “Australian for Beer” branding, but it did have some pretty classic advertising – take a minute to relive 1980s Australia through this classic Foster’s TV spot from 1984:

So how did Foster’s Lager go from a mainstream beer to the imported section? In the mid 80s, due to changes in the Australian beer market and how Foster’s was marketing their various beers, Foster’s Lager started to lose popularity domestically as the company focused on promoting other labels such as Carlton Draught and Victoria Bitter (VB). As the then Foster’s CEO Trevor O’Hoy explains in an interview in 2006 (emphasis mine):

“Foster’s Lager had grown up as a mainstream Australian beer, punching at equal weight with VB in our portfolio. When we took it overseas, however, we took the brand slightly up-market and played heavily on ‘brand Australia’ – with international advertising featuring Paul Hogan, iconic Australian imagery and the ‘Australia’s famous beer’ tagline. That turned Foster’s into a top 10 international beer brand.

The flipside to this success was that Foster’s became the beer Australians drank overseas, not at home. Our Australian sales teams focused on the mainstream brands such as Carlton and VB, as well as innovating in cold filtered, craft brewing, dry, low carb and the light and mid categories. Foster’s Lager really didn’t have a champion or new positioning in Australia and its volumes slipped from the late 80s onwards.”

One final footnote to the Foster’s story, in December 2011, Foster’s became a subsidiary in the world’s second largest brewer by revenues, SABMiller[4]. Sadly, this means that the vast bulk of the beer being drunk by Australians is now owned by non-Australian multinationals.

Why isn’t Craft Beer Big in Australia?

As mentioned earlier, the craft beer scene in Australia is relatively small and under developed when compared to the US, even accounting for population differences. Yet Australia is a wealthy country with a healthy love for beer, so why hasn’t craft beer taken off in Australia like it has in the US?

A big part of the problem is the huge market share of the two biggest beer producers in Australia, Lion Nathan and Foster’s, and how aggressively they protect that market share.

A key weapon used by the big two to maintain market share is the tap or pourage contract, something that would be illegal in the US. When negotiating to supply beer to a bar, hotel or pub, a contract will be agreed to that sees the brewer provide rebates and other benefits[5] to the venue owner in exchange for securing exclusive access to most, if not all, of the taps. As an end consumer, this often means that Foster’s or Lion Nathan will own every beer (and cider) on tap at your regular watering hole.

A second key to maintaining market share is the willingness of Lion Nathan and Foster’s to buy out smaller brewers that are proving popular. Even many Australians will be surprised to learn that beers they thought were coming from small independent breweries (White Rabbit, Little Creatures, Bees Knees, Fat Yak, Knappstein, Matilda Bay) are in fact owned by Lion Nathan and Foster’s.

Competing against these two giants, craft breweries fighting to get access to taps, with typically more expensive small batch products, are often left with the choice of continuing to scrape out a living selling by the bottle, or selling out altogether. Even when a craft brewery does manage to get access to a tap, venue owners are often made generous offers to boot them in favor of another label from the big brewery that has locked up the other taps.

An example of how difficult it can be for craft brewers to get and maintain access to taps was provided in an excellent article by Adele Ferguson in the Sydney Morning Herald last year. The following is an excerpt from that article detailing the experience of a pub owner in Melbourne:

Sitting down to his computer, a Melbourne publican discovered an email waiting for him. Sent by an executive from Carlton & United Breweries (CUB), it contained an offer that left him gobsmacked.

One of CUB’s specialty brews had been ”selling very well” in other pubs, the email explained. It then suggested the publican sell that brew on tap – at the expense of a specific competing craft beer that the publican was already offering. ”I’ll donate the first keg,” the CUB executive offered.

Positive Changes Brewing?

Despite the duopoly in the Australian beer market, craft brewers are having some impact on the Australian beer market. The presence of viable craft breweries with a wider range of beers available has forced the big breweries to significantly diversify their offerings. As a result, even though all the beers on tap may be from the same company, there is typically a much wider range of offerings today then there was even 10 years ago.

And things could be about to get significantly better for craft brewers. The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) is rumored to be investigating whether tap contracts and other anti-competitive practices are legal under the Competition and Consumer Act. Even if they are found to be legal under the current law, the fact that these practices have been exposed is likely to create pressure for new regulations to be developed to help craft brewers survive and thrive.

For those that have seen the diversity and creativity on display in the US craft beer market, any change that gives craft brewers in Australia a better chance would be very welcome.

Classic Beer Adverts

Finally, for those looking for some light entertainment, I spent some time digging around YouTube for some classic Australian beer commercials. Unfortunately the older ads are few and far between, but I did find a top 10 from the last 10 or so years. Enjoy:

 

[1] Before Australian readers get too smug, they may want to sneak a look at their own top 10 (see Table 2) – it makes for equally dismal reading

[2] California – 431, Washington – 256, Colorado – 235, Oregon – 216

[3] See, the title wasn’t lying to you, Australian’s do love Foster’s

[4] Yes, that Miller

[5] Business development allowances, tickets to sporting events, promotional gear etc

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

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