Saturday, December 10, 2011

What factors should be taken into account in assessing short term changes in well-being?

This is one of the questions I have been pondering as I have been reading about the Herald/Age - Lateral Economics (HALE) index of the well-being of Australians.

The aim of the Fairfax organization in sponsoring the development of this new index seems to have been to publish a broad indicatorof social progress in the hope that this will help people to avoid viewing GDP as ‘the supreme indicator of our wellbeing’.

The timing of publication – a few days after quarterly GDP data are published – is clearly intended to invite comparison with quarterly GDP data. Indeed, a report in the Sydney Morning Herald makes such a comparison:
‘Wellbeing grew twice as fast as GDP in the September quarter thanks to a big rise in national income from the boom in commodity prices and cheaper imports’.

The HALE index rose by 2.2% in the September quarter primarily because net national income (NNI) is the starting point for calculation of the index and NNI reflects terms of trade movements. I don’t have any problem at all with the idea that well-being is more closely related to NNI than to GDP, but I can’t help thinking that the relationship between well-being and short term fluctuations in the terms of trade must be tenuous, at best.

Perhaps the terms of trade improvement in the September quarter raised the well-being of some people by enabling them to enjoy an overseas holiday that they might not otherwise have been able to afford. People who purchased imported consumer durables might also have benefited. In general, however, it isn’t obvious to me that changes in the terms of trade have much effect on living standards unless they are sustained over several years. It is even possible that short term improvements in the terms of trade could have a negative impact on well-being by adding to uncertainty in the context of concerns about possible effects of increased import competition on jobs in some industries. Such impacts might, of course, be offset by optimism about improved employment prospects elsewhere in the economy.

It seems to me that uncertainty is a factor that should be taken into account in assessing short term changes in well-being. Research based on surveys data relating to subjective well-being suggests that increased uncertainty can have a substantial short-term impact on well-being. For example, Carol Graham has reported that average life satisfaction in the US fell by 11% during the 08-09 financial crisis, mirroring a larger fall in the stock market. However, life satisfaction bounced back to previous levels once the immediate crisis was over, even though the stock market remained relatively depressed (‘The Pursuit of Happiness’, pp 88-89). A fall of 11% in life satisfaction is a very large change in a statistic that is normally very stable over time.

In an earlier post I noted that there was even a blip in life satisfaction data for Australia at the onset of the global financial crisis. A much larger decline in consumer confidence occurred at that time reflecting, amongst other things, increased pessimism about the economic outlook for the next five years. Pessimism about the economic outlook hasincreased again over the last year or so and now stands at levels almost comparable to those during 08-09.

If the HALE index is intended to be taken seriously as an indicator of short term changes in well-being it seems to me that it would be desirable for it to reflect changes in uncertainty about the economic outlook.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Is there a house price bubble in Australia?

An article in ‘The Economist’ last week suggests that the ‘bursting of the global housing bubble is only halfway through’ (‘Economics focus: House of horrors, part 2’, November 26, 2011).  On the basis of the measures used, the authors claim that home prices are over-valued by 25% or more in Australia, Belgium, Canada, France, New Zealand, Britain, the Netherlands, Spain and Sweden.

How did the authors arrive at this conclusion? Two measures of valuation were used in the analysis: the house price to income ratio, which is a gauge of affordability; and the house price to rent ratio, which reflects the relationship between house prices and the benefits of home ownership i.e. rents earned by property investors and rents saved by owner-occupiers.

The reasoning seems OK so far. If the price to income ratio is above an appropriate benchmark of affordability and the price to rent ratio is relatively high compared with an appropriate benchmark of returns available from owning other assets, then there might possibly be some grounds to suspect the existence of a housing bubble.

The critical issue is what benchmark should be used to make such comparisons. ‘The Economist’ asserts: ‘if both of these measures are well above their long-term averages, which we have calculated since 1975 for most countries, this could signal that property is overvalued’. In the chart below I have graphed the data from the table that the authors use to make their assessment.

The chart shows that the price to income and price to rent ratios for a heap of countries, including Australia, are well above long-term averages for the period from 1975 to the present. I think mean reversion (sometimes referred to as regression to the mean) deserves some respect. If we don’t have good reasons to expect a variable to remain substantially above or below its long term average at a particular point, it is often sensible to assume that deviation from the mean is more or less random and that the variable is more likely to return to the mean than to remain at extreme levels.

So, do we have good reasons to expect rental yields (the inverse of the house price to rent ratio) in Australia to remain below their long term average for the period since 1975? In order to answer this question it might be helpful to consider the level of rental yields in Australia at present and how much capital appreciation (expected growth in house prices) is implicit in current rental yields. The underlying reasoning is that if potential home buyers – including investors - perceive that there is likely to be substantial capital gain in the years ahead they will tend to bid up house prices to a greater extent (other things being equal) and thus tend to depress rental yields. You need to work out how much capital appreciation they anticipate in order to assess whether or not their expectations are excessively optimistic.

Current rental yields in Australia - of the order of 3% to 4% in net terms – do not seem to me to imply unduly optimistic expectations about future capital appreciation if we use an annual nominal return on investment of say 8% per annum as a benchmark. One way of looking at this is to ask yourself whether you would expect average house prices and rentals to grow more or less rapidly than nominal GDP. I expect average house prices and rentals to grow more rapidly than nominal GDP in Australia because the effects of growth of population and incomes will tend to intensify the locational advantages of the median house relative to houses in the outer suburbs. A recently published Reserve Bank research discussion paper by Mariano Kulish, Anthony Richards and Christian Gillitzer  (‘Urban Structure and Housing Prices: Some Evidence from Australian Cities’) uses a model to illustrate, among other things, how growth in population tends to raise house and land prices to a greater extent in suburbs that are closer to the CBD of large cities. This is consistent with the empirical evidence presented in the paper that house prices in the inner suburbs in Australia rose by about 1.3% more per annum more than in the outer suburbs over the period 1992/3 to 2009/10.

Why are rental yields in Australia currently so much lower than the long term average over the period since 1975? The most plausible reason, it seems to me, is that as in many other countries high nominal interest rates (reflecting high inflation rates) were suppressing demand for housing over the first half of that period. As inflation rates and interest rates came down, housing affordability improved markedly during the 1990s, but this led to increased demand for housing, a sharp rise in house prices and a decline in rental yields. Mean reversion doesn’t apply in this instance because the mean was distorted.

Why should we expect house prices in Australia to avoid the fate of house prices in the US in recent years? Luci Ellis of the Reserve Bank gave some reasons why the US housing market is different in a speech she made last year. Unlike other developed countries, mortgage arrears on home loans in the US started to rise in 2006, more than a year before the unemployment rate began to rise. The leverage of the housing stock in the US was substantially higher than in Australia before the global financial crisis.

In addition, the decline in housing prices in the US that resulted from the bursting of the housing credit bubble was exacerbated by deflationary monetary policies that led to a major recession. This suggests to me that current rental yields in the US (of the order of 8% to 12% in some areas) should be viewed as being extraordinarily high at present and unlikely to persist in the longer term.

The final sentence of the article in ‘The Economist’ states: ‘A credit crunch or recession could cause house prices to tumble in many more countries’. Well yes, that does seem quite possible. If it does happen, however, I think there is a good chance that rental yields in Australia will eventually return to somewhere near the ‘normal’ levels that currently exist in this country.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

What is the inner game of stress?

‘The Inner Game of Stress’, by Timothy Gallwey (with Edward Hanzelik and John Horton) is the latest of a series of inner game books.Tim Gallwey has previously written books about the inner game involved in several sports, including tennis and golf, and the inner game of work - based on his experience as a coach and trainer. Hanzelik and Horton are medical practitioners who conduct stress seminars drawing on their understanding of the inner game as well as on their medical knowledge.

I think it would be fair to say that all of Gallwey’s books are to a large extent about avoiding the adverse effects of stress on our ability to function. This book is as much a pleasure to read as Tim Gallwey’s other inner game books. Gallwey is an expert in getting his message across by telling interesting stories based on his own personal experience. I have read all but one of his books. I wrote an article a few years ago describing how the books had helped me in dealing with a stress-related problem.

The main point in this book is that stress involves an inner game as well as external stressors. The inner game arises largely from trying to live with illusions about our own identities. It is as though an internal ‘Stress Maker’ has stolen our identities and substituted an illusion in order to create fear, doubt and confusion. The illusions woven by the ‘Stress Maker’ originate from the concepts, perceptions and expectations of other people.

The great strength of the inner game approach, it seems to me, is that it encourages the belief that each of us has a real identity (a natural self) that we, as individuals, are ultimately responsible for developing. Other people may see our identities as illusions that we have created in our own minds, but we should know better. We know intuitively how to be who and what we are when we recognize our inner resources and the opportunities for learning and enjoyment that are available in association with pursuit of our performance goals. We can learn to trust ourselves to function more successfully.

The book provides practical guidance on how to break the momentum of stress – how to stop and become aware of what you are trying to control and what you can control. It discusses the potential we have to liberate ourselves from illusions by re-assessing the meaning of experiences.

From what I have written, some readers might be concerned that the book might encourage people to become too self-centred – to question the social norms that were instilled in them during childhood and to pursue their own interests at the expense of other people. I think such concerns are misplaced. People don't question norms that they have internalized - adherence to such norms is a matter of self-respect rather than fear. The book recognizes that it is important for individuals to have deep relationships with others. One of the exercises in the book involves seeing problems in a relationship from the perspective of the other person – to understand what they may be thinking, feeling and wanting.

Much of the advice presented in the book is based on individual case studies rather than experiments involving large numbers of people. I don't think that is a huge problem as long as the readers who try the exercises suggested in the book approach them as though they are conducting little experiments of their own. That is consistent with one of the themes of the book, which is to encourage readers to become more aware of what they are doing at present and of the effects of doing things differently.

It is possible that this book, and Tim Gallwey’s other inner game books, may benefit some people more than others. On the basis of my own experience, all I can say is that the ideas in Tim Gallwey’s books have served me well.

Anyone interested in learning more about the effects of stress on the body should click here to see a useful interactive chart.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Does the modern world make us feel like powerless creatures in the coils of an invisible monster?

‘What most alarms us in our contemporary world, what unsettles and scares us, is the extent to which the forces that shape our lives are no longer personal – they know nothing of us; and to the extent that we know nothing of them – cannot put a face on them, cannot find in them anything we recognize as human – we cannot deal with them. We feel like small, powerless creatures in the coils of an invisible monster, vast but insubstantial, that cannot be grasped or wrestled with.’ 
That quote seems to me to sum up the main point that David Malouf was making in: ‘The Happy Life; The Search for Contentment in the Modern World’, Quarterly Essay, March 2011.

In the paragraphs preceding the quoted passage, the author argues that it is possible for humans to be happy even in the most miserable conditions if they perceive their world as having human dimensions. He explains that a world with human dimensions is one that humans can recognize and encompass. In his words:
‘We start always from the body, and relate everything back to it. In a way that goes back to our most primitive beginnings, we use it to establish direction – where we are facing, where we might move to; to gauge distance – how far off an object is and how far we have got along the way towards it; to determine how each thing we are observing stands in relation to our own being – its size in relation to ours, how light or heavy it is when we try to lift it or weigh it on our palm; how much it occupies of the space we share; how it smells and tastes, how it feels to the touch or when we roll it between finger and thumb’.

I feel in awe of people who manage to maintain tranquillity in the most miserable conditions. It is probably correct to say that such people do experience the sources of human misery as having human dimensions – they feel uncertainty, discomfort, pain, fear and anger just like the rest of us – but they are not overwhelmed by such feelings. The fact that they have normal human feelings doesn’t mean, however, that they necessarily see major sources of human misery – extreme climatic events, for example – as having human dimensions.

Irrespective of their capacity to maintain tranquillity in the face of misfortune, our ancestors saw God (or the gods) as the most likely explanation for extreme climatic events – and just about everything else they experienced. Malouf acknowledges this, but he suggests that when we were in the hands of the gods we had stories that made these distant beings human and brought them close. Of the gods, he writes:
‘They watched over us and were concerned, though in moments of wilfulness or boredom they might also torment us as “wanton boys” do flies. We had our ways of obtaining their help as intermediaries. We could deal with them’.

By contrast:
‘The Economy is impersonal. It lacks manageable dimensions. We have discovered no mythology to account for its moods. Our only source of information about it, the Media and their swarm of commentators, bring us “reports”, but these do not help: a possible breakdown in the system, a new crisis, the descent on Greece or Ireland or Portugal, like Jove’s eagle, of the IMF. We are kept in a state of permanent low level anxiety broken only by outbreaks of alarm’.

I admire David Malouf’s writing style, but I have a couple of problems with this line of reasoning. First, personal gods left good people bewildered as to why bad things were happening to them. Remember the biblical story of Job, the virtuous man who suffered from ‘acts of God’. Job was not a happy chappy – he cursed the day he was born. My reading of the story is that Job tried to deal with God, but that didn’t work. Job found tranquillity only after he accepted that God was not a person that he could deal with. He had to learn to accept that some factors affecting his life were beyond his capacity to understand and influence.

Second, many people seem to have difficulty in accepting that economic forces are impersonal. Economic crises, in particular, are often viewed in very personal terms – for example, in terms of the excessive greed of human agents, such as Wall Street bankers, or even in terms of conspiracies involving bankers and politicians. Modern conspiracy theories have their demons (and super-heroes) in much the same way as ancient religions had their personal gods.

One of the features of the modern world is that the role of the personal gods has tended to be displaced impersonal scientific explanations of the forces that shape our lives. Do these scientific explanations leave people feeling unsettled? I don’t think so. Psychological evidence discussed by Timothy Wilson (in his book ‘Redirect’, discussed recently on this blog) indicates that people who are affected by negative events tend to feel worse when they are uncertain about the nature of those events and why they occurred.  Reducing uncertainty about negative events is a good way to bounce back from those events.

It seems to me that it is the uncertainty associated with recent economic crises that has made them particularly unsettling. With the onset of the global financial crisis there was a great deal of public discussion among economists about the inadequacy of existing scientific explanations of what was happening. When leading economists admit that they can’t understand an economic crisis, other people have good reason to feel unsettled. Over the last couple of years, however, there has been growing support among economists for the idea that (unconventional) monetary policy can be influential in shaping expectations about the growth of aggregate demand, even when interest rates are very low. This provides grounds for optimism that the world will be able to avoid a major economic downturn over the next few years. (At the same time, as I suggested in a post a few weeks ago, there are still some grounds for concern that the European Central Bank will maintain deflationary policies that will exacerbate the financial crisis in Europe and impact adversely on the world economy.)

More robust scientific explanations of economic crises could be expected to help the people who have adversely affected to adjust to their misfortune, but would they not still feel like small, powerless creatures in the coils of an invisible monster? Quite possibly.  Yet, a better understanding of the economic forces involved may give them reason to hope for better outcomes in future. A surfer who is dumped by a wave might feel like a powerless creature in the coils of a monster, even if he has some understanding of wave mechanics. But his understanding of why he was dumped might give him reason to hope that in future he is more likely to experience the exhilaration of riding the wave.