Income tax cuts in Australia

There has been a lot of chatter in Australia this week about the cuts to income tax rates passed by Parliament. The cuts are phased in with immediate effect for lower income levels and deferred a number of years for the higher income levels.

While I’m in favour of income tax cuts, like anyone else who pays income tax, we ought to remember that the true tax burden is not represented by the rate of income tax, or any other tax, for that matter. The true tax burden is determined by the level of Government expenditure. The tax regime, the rates, the thresholds, the mix between consumption tax, income tax, royalties, stamp duties, corporate tax etc is the outcome of a political process that determines who will pay for the expenditure and in what time period they will pay. Cutting tax without cutting expenditure simply means someone else can pay for it, at some other time.

We are collectively better off when Government expenditure is cut first, and tax reductions can then follow. None of this is to deny the truism of the Laffer Curve.

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Gender quotas and corporate performance

I think quotas of any sort are inherently wrong and likely to be bad for corporate performance. In recent times, many of those in favour of quotas have shifted their claims from “quotas are necessary to treat under-represented groups fairly”, to “quotas are good for business performance.” It is not easy to prove or disprove such claims.

Conceptually, the skills needed to perform well in business are not held in exclusively in the domain of any particular group of people. Those skills are held by all different sorts of people. And plenty of people do not have the necessary skills. Consequently, the best corporate performance will emerge from the companies with the best collection of people with those skills, regardless of who they are or where they came from.

Adding a degree of empirical research to the debate, the authors of a study conducted in Norway and published last month (accessible here), considered corporate performance controlling for gender composition of the board. Among the conclusions was this:

“Analyzing the causal effects of the Norwegian gender-balancing quota, we find the quota significantly increases the share of women directors on the boards of treated firms. Further, we find the quota significantly adversely affects the performance of treated firms and firm risk is significantly reduced.”

That is, if the law imposes quotas on gender balance, gender balance will improve. (No surprises there.) Also, firm risk reduces. Finally, corporate performance is significantly adversely affected.

Corporate performance changes as a result of gender quotas. Lower performance and lower risk is not the same as improved performance with no increase in risk.

Modern offices

It is interesting visiting corporate offices these days and comparing them to how they were like 20 years ago.

Many physical buildings were designed and built at least 20 years ago but are now occupied by today’s trends. This means, the building no longer suits the way corporations want to use building spaces, but the rational decision is to make do, rather than demolish and rebuild, as long as there is an economic life in the asset.

Grand entrance halls and foyers are now often empty. A single, lonely person may sit at the front desk. Visitor car parks have plenty of empty spaces. Sign-in books can remain on the same page for days. Meeting rooms clustered near the entrance foyer are empty. Continue reading

I wouldn’t be starting from here.

There is an old joke about tourists in Ireland stopping a local in Dublin to ask for directions to Killarney. ‘Well,’ the local replied, ‘if I were going to Killarney, I wouldn’t be starting from here.’

At least those tourists stopped to ask. There has been little obvious evidence that the critics of the Australian superannuation system, and there are many, have stopped to ask themselves what is super’s purpose before criticising it and calling for change in policy. Super policy is easy to criticise when there is no articulated reason for its existence. This vacuum then results in an Alice in Wonderland response – the critic can criticise anything or everything because they make up their own idea of what super is for.

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Directors’ obligations are to shareholders.

The Royal Commission into Misconduct in the banking, superannuation and financial services industry in Australia exposed some notable, and in the circumstances of his position surprising, views of the Chairman of the National Australia Bank. The NAB is one of the country’s biggest publicly listed companies. Its directors, and especially its Chairman, ought to be amongst the very best directors available. Shareholders would have reasonable grounds to believe that they had the best possible governance talent acting in their, the shareholders’, interests.

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No more gloating

The Royal Commission into Misconduct in financial services in Australia turned its attention to superannuation funds in recent months. It’s fair to say that time in the witness box was uncomfortable for many.

This Commission should mark the end of the gloating. For years, you will have heard self-serving nonsense about how Australia has the best retirement income system in the world, about how it is the envy of other countries, about how it was won as a right for ordinary Australians after a long and bitter industrial campaign. This gloating ought to  stop as the Commission has exposed publicly the many failings of the system. The gloating has been, in the main, perpetuated by insiders – some policy analysts, some academics, fund managers, industry associations, some service providers and politicians, especially former PM Keating and former union boss Kelty.

As far as managing money goes, the Australian system has been good. Investment portfolios are diverse, accessible and low cost. That is it’s one true good quality. As far as delivering retirement incomes, reducing pressure on the age pension, increasing national savings and weeding out unethical practices goes, the system has been miserably bad.

The most obviously desirable, necessary and easily implemented change is to remove the compulsion of the Superannuation Guarantee. Make the decision as to contribute or not contribute one that the employee can make based on their own circumstances and preferences. That would immediately concentrate the minds of the fund owners and operators – they would have to earn and keep the trust of investors, rather than rely on the force of law to guarantee that revenue stream.

The real cause of poor behaviour in banks

Here is the text of a letter of mine to the editor that the Australian Financial Review published last week.

 

Karen Maley writes that Commissioner Kenneth Hayne has posed the question, “Is incentive remuneration necessary?” in relation to banking. Maley describes this question as radical. I would describe it as a very good question.

Will Commissioner Hayne, having another few months to complete his report, pose two more questions that strike at the core of the cultural problems in Australian banking? They are: 1) Is the Reserve Bank necessary? 2) Is the four pillars banking policy necessary? These questions would render his first one redundant. It is time to have the discussion. A sound banking, monetary and payments system needs neither the RBA nor the four pillars policy. In removing them the potential benefits for the real economy, rather than the financial economy, are material. However, given the timidity of parliamentarians, I do not underestimate the difficulty Hayne would face in putting those questions in his final report.

Fairfax

Assuming that the intended acquisition of Fairfax by Nine Entertainment proceeds, will it mean a reduction in the diversity of media views, a reduction in independent journalism? Much chatter since the announcement has clearly anticipated such an outcome. But how likely is it? Nine doesn’t currently compete in broadsheet print journalism and neither neither does Fairfax, having opted out of that in recent times. The assets in the Fairfax portfolio that would be attractive to Nine are more in on-line commercial content and streaming, for example, Stan and Domain. It is possible that the print journalists will be retrenched and no more papers printed since those divisions are underperforming, but that prospect was already real for the Fairfax journalists under current ownership.

The ownership of an asset portfolio is changing, but that of itself has no implications for print media and journalism diversity or independence.

Understanding why Diversity & Inclusion is equivalent to Conformity or Exclusion

Most, if not all, institutions now have Inclusion & Diversity policies. It’s fashionable to do so. These policies are entrenched in corporations, government agencies, peak sporting bodies etc. But what does an I&D policy mean and what do they achieve?

I&D policies may as well be called Conformity or Exclusion policies – they are conceptually equivalent and they achieve the same outcome.

To argue for inclusion requires the explicit assumption that exclusion is currently in force: an individual or a group or class is excluded, hence the need to change behaviour to include them. Logically, this requires that the entity or group or influence from which some are excluded can be identified. If it can be identified, then by definition it must exclude someone and has a test to be passed before membership is attained or retained. The consequence of an I&D policy initiative is therefore to change the rules of entry, change the definition of the group and exclude those who no longer meet the amended membership test. I&D is conceptually no different from Conformity or Exclusion. No barriers are broken down – they are just moved into a different position.