Monthly Archives: May 2013

Unfounded liability

Today a tweet from “Australia’s most idiosyncratic economist” Christopher Joye caught my eye. I followed the link and found a scaremongering article trying to whip up concerns about Australia’s levels of government debt.

cjoye tweet

A key part of Joye’s argument is to accuse the government of creative accounting by including Future Fund assets in the calculation of net debt. Carving out these assets, along with some other tactics, leads him to assert that the true size of the government’s debt is around 40% not 11% of GDP. But it is Joye’s accounting that is flawed, not the government’s.

Joye’s argument centres on the notion that government pension obligations to public sector employees constitute an “unfunded liability”. Unlike other liabilities, i.e. government bonds, this liability is not included in the calculation of the government’s debt, thereby understating it. To remedy this, Joye argues that the calculation can be corrected by noting that the Future Fund was created with the precise purpose of funding these liabilities, so excluding them from the net debt calculation addresses the omission of the unfunded pension liabilities.

Superficially, this argument can sound plausible. But, closer scrutiny shows that Joye is cherry-picking to distort the numbers.

Analogies between government and household finances can be dangerous, but I will cautiously draw one here to illustrate the point. Imagine a family with a $300,000 house financed with a $200,000 mortgage, a net asset position of $100,000. Over time, the family works to save and pay down the mortgage. But they also want their daughter to attend a private high school and have been putting money aside into a saving fund to be able to afford the fees. A few years later, the debt has been paid down to $175,000 and they have put $25,000 into the school fund. So how does the family balance sheet look now? Assuming that property prices are unchanged, the family has assets of $325,000 (house and saving fund) and a debt of $175,00, so net assets of $150,000.

Not so fast, Christopher would argue! Those school fees are an unfunded liability! Since the school fund is there solely to fund that liability, it should be excluded, so the family only has assets of $125,000.

It’s nonsense of course. A commitment to pay pensions (or school fees) is a liability of sorts, in that in entails a commitment to making payments in the future. But why stop there? The government is also committed to making welfare payments, so there’s another unfunded liability. We can ignore the baby bonus, as that’s likely to be eliminated, but the government has a whole range of commitments for future payments.

But that ignores all the sources of future receipts for the government. If public pensions are an unfunded liability, what about the unfunded asset represented by all future income tax receipts? Corporate taxes provide another solid income stream, not factored into the governments assets.

The family’s school fees are a liability of sorts, but their capacity to earn income into the future effectively provides an even greater asset. Both are uncertain, which is why accountants stick to financial assets, like loans, bonds and deposits or even stocks, land or houses, all of which have a relatively clear value today and, more importantly, can be bought or sold for figures very close to those assessed values.

Christopher Joye drastically overstated the government’s net debt position by factoring in future government payments and ignoring future government receipts. As the less “idiosyncratic” economist Stephen Koukoulas eloquently put it:

This is like painting a red dot on a daddy long legs and telling people it is a redback spider.

Bitcoin: what is it good for?

Bitcoin has been a hot topic in the news over the last few weeks.

The digital currency has its adherents. The Winklevoss twins, made famous by the movie Social Network after suing Mark Zuckerberg for allegedly stealing the concept of Facebook, now purportedly own millions of dollars worth of Bitcoins.

It also has its detractors. Paul Krugman has argued that the whole enterprise is misguided. Bitcoin aficionados are, he writes, “misled by the desire to divorce the value of money from the society it serves”.

Still others cannot seem to make up their mind. Digital advocacy group, Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) accepted Bitcoin donations for a time, but became uncomfortable with its ambiguous legal status and shady associations, such as with the online black market Silk Road, and decided to stop accepting Bitcoin in 2011. A couple of years on and the EFF’s activism director is speaking at a conference on Bitcoin 2013: The Future of Payments.

Recent media interest has been fuelled by the extraordinary roller-coaster ride that is the Bitcoin price. In early April, online trading saw Bitcoins changing hands for over US$200. At the time of writing, prices are back below US$100. As with many markets, it’s hard to say exactly what is driving the price. Speculators, like the Winklevoss twins, buying Bitcoins will have helped push up prices, while reports that Silk Road has suffered both a deflation-driven collapse in activity and hacking attacks may have contributed to the down-swings.

Bitcoin (USD) prices

Although not obvious on the chart above, dramatic price movements are nothing new for Bitcoin. Switching to a logarithmic scale makes the picture clearer. After all, a $2 fall from a price of $10 is just as significant as a $40 fall from a price of $200. The 60% fall from $230 to $91 over April has certainly been dramatic. But back in June 2011, after reaching peak of almost $30, the price fell by 90% within a few months.

Bitcoin price history (log scale)

The volatility of Bitcoin prices is orders of magnitude higher than traditional currencies. Since the start of the year the price of gold has been tumbling, with a consequent spike in its price volatility. Even so, Bitcoin’s volatility is almost ten times higher. The chart below compares the volatilities of Bitcoin, gold and the Australian dollar (AUD).

Historical volatility of Bitcoin

A week or so ago, armed with this data, I was well advanced in my plans for a blog post taking Bitcoin as the basis for a reflection on the nature of money. I would start with some of the traditional, text-book characteristics of money. A medium of exchange? Bitcoin ticks this box, with a growing range of online businesses accepting payment in Bitcoin (including WordPress, so not just underground drug sites). A store of value? That’s more dubious, given the extremely high volatility. It may appeal to speculators, but with daily volatility of around 15%, it’s hard to argue that it is a low risk place to park your cash. A unit of account? Again, the volatility gets in the way.

That was the plan, until a conversation with a colleague propelled me in a different direction.

She asked me what this whole Bitcoin business was all about. Breezily, I claimed to know all about it, having first written about Bitcoin two years ago and then again a year later. I launched into a description of the cryptographic basis for the operation of Bitcoin and went on to talk about its extreme volatility.

I then remarked that when I first wrote about it, it was only worth about $1, but had since risen to over $200.

“So,” she asked, “did you buy any back then?”

That shut me up for a moment.

Of course I hadn’t bought any. What gave me pause was not that I had missed an investment opportunity that would have returned 20,000%, but that I was so caught up in the theory of Bitcoin that it had not occurred to me to see what transacting in Bitcoin was actually like in practice. So I resolved to buy some.

This turned out not to be so easy. While there are many Bitcoin exchanges, paying for Bitcoins means jumping through a few hoops. Perhaps because the whole philosophy of Bitcoin is to bypass the traditional banking system. Perhaps because banks don’t like the look of most of them and will not provide them with credit card services. Whatever the reason, your typical Bitcoin exchange will not accept credit card payments. Many insist on copies of a passport or driver’s licence before allowing wire transactions, neither of which I would be prepared to provide.

Eventually I found BitInnovate, which allows the purchase of Bitcoin through Australian bank branches. Even so, the process was an elaborate one. After placing an order on the site, payment must be made in person (no online transfers), in cash, at a branch within four hours of placing the order. If payment is not made, the order is cancelled. Elaborate, but manageable, and no identification is required.

But before I could proceed, I had to set myself up with a Bitcoin wallet. As a novice, I chose the standard Bitcoin-Qt application. I downloaded and installed the software, and then it began to “synchronise transactions”. This gets to the heart of how bitcoins work. As a purely digital currency, they are based on “public key cryptography”, which is also the basis for all electronic commerce across the internet. The way I make a Bitcoin payment to, say, Bob is to electronically sign it over to him using my secret “private key”. Anyone with access to my “public key” can then verify that the Bitcoin now belongs to Bob not me. Likewise, the way I get a Bitcoin in the first place is to have it signed over to me from someone else. In case you are wondering what one of these Bitcoin public keys looks like, mine is 1Q31t2vdeC8XFdbTc2J26EsrPrsL1DKfzr. Feel free to make Bitcoin donations to the Mule using that code!

In this way, rather than relying on a trusted third party (such as a bank), to keep track of transactions, the ownership of every one of the approximately 11 million Bitcoins is established by the historical trail of transactions going back to when each one was first “mined”. Actually, it’s worse than that, because Bitcoin transactions can involve fractions of a Bitcoin as well.

So, when my Bitcoin wallet told me it needed to “synchronise transactions”, what it meant was that it was about to download a history of every single Bitcoin transaction ever. No problem, I thought. Two days and 9 gigabytes (!) later, I was ready for action. Now I could have avoided this huge download by using an online Bitcoin wallet instead, but then I would have been back to trusting a third party, which rather defeats the purpose.

The cryptographic transaction trail may be the brilliant insight that makes Bitcoin work and I knew all about in it theory. But in practice, it may well also be Bitcoin’s fatal flaw. Today, a new wallet will download around 10 gigabytes of data to get started, and that figure will only grow over time. The more successful Bitcoin is, the higher the barrier to entry for new users will become. I suspect that means Bitcoin will either fail completely or simply remain a niche novelty.

Still, it is an interesting novelty, and despite the challenges, I decided to continue with my investigations and managed to buy a couple of Bitcoins. The seller’s commission was $20 and falling prices have since cost me another $20 or so. So, I am down on the deal, but, as I have been telling myself, I bought these Bitcoins on scientific rather than investment grounds.

Of course, if the price goes for another run, I reserve the right to change my explanation.

NDIS and how many disabled people are there anyway?

Regular guest writer, James Glover, returns to the Mule today to look at the figures behind the proposed NDIS.

The National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) is in the news again. A welcome development for people with disability and their carers and families…and friends and pretty much anyone else who cares about their fellow humans. It is not a platitude to say that disability can strike anyone at any time in their life and the stories of these people are truly moving and shaming, especially as we live in one of the richest countries in the world. Adults who are only provided with two assisted showers a week and parents providing 24/7 care to profoundly disabled children but who cannot afford a new specialised wheelchair because there is limited funding for such things (wheelchairs cost from $500 for the basic models, of which I have two, and range up to $20,000 or more). In August 2011 The Productivity Commission reported on and recommended the NDIS and since then pretty much everyone agrees it is a good idea if we could only agree how to fund it.

So what does it replace? Currently most people with serious disabilities that prevent them from, inter alia, working, can receive the disability support pension (DSP). A small number will have insurance payouts if they were “lucky” enough to to have someone else to blame for their disability. In addition, anyone can receive a rebate on medications in excess of about $1,200 a year and, of course, access to (not quite free) public health care. On top of that, there are concession cards for public transport and a taxi card system which provides half-price taxi fares to partially make up for many disabled peoples inability to use public transport. The DSP does not depend on a specific disability and for a single adult over 21 with no children it is about $19,000 a year. For child under 18 who is living at home it is about $9,000 a year. While this would appear enough to live on (forgetting overseas holidays or a mortgage) most such people rely on additional support services for everything from basic medical equipment to respite for carers. There are currently 820,000 people, about 4% of the population, on the DSP. The Productivity Commission estimates 440,000 people on the NDIS so most of these will not be eligible for the NDIS but may still receive the DSP. People 65 and over of pensionable age are not eligible for the DSP and will not be eligible for the NDIS.

The purpose of the NDIS is to provide funding for care in line with the specific requirements of the recipients, and will mean additional support to the DSP for some. You can read more about it at Unlike the DSP, it isn’t a fortnightly stipend or, like standard disability or employment insurance, a lump sum. The government is planning to roll out pilot programs in many regions in the next few years, aiming for a complete national program by 2018-19. I won’t go into the politics but it seems even politicians can feel shame and  bipartisan support for the NDIS is emerging with a good chance of a bill through this parliament in the next few weeks. The total cost of the NDIS is often quoted as $18bn a year. Some funding is proposed from an additional 0.5% to the Medicare levy. Other funding wil come jointly from the federal government and the states. The proposed levy will raise about $3.8bn a year, so nowhere near enough for the full cost. If you subsume the half the DSP cost of $11bn a year that (only) leaves an outstanding amount of $8-10bn a year to be funded even with the Medicare Levy. Hopefully with bipartisan support the full NDIS will be implemented sooner rather than later.

So that’s the background on the NDIS. The real purpose of this article though is to consider the question “How many disabled people are there in Australia anyway?”.

Well that’s easy, just read any article on disability–for instance this one by disability advocate and media personality Stella Young–and you’ll be told the answer: 20%. 20%. 20%! I am a huge admirer of Stella Young’s work, so don’t get me wrong if I choose to disagree with her on this. The 20% figure gets quoted so frequently it must be true. Well maybe. People questioning this figure are directed to the 2009 ABS Census report on disability where the self-reported disability figure is 18.1% (+/-1.3%). So a round 20% is not too bad, right? Well like all statistics, the details are important. Firstly this includes people of all ages and, not surprisingly, many more older people have disabilites. From 40% at 65-69 to 88% at 90+. For those under 65 the figure is 13.2%. It increases with age and, in the 45-54 age group, is about the average 18%. Anyway why does it matter if the true figure is overstated? Well one reason is that while there is widespread support for the NDIS, the one concern that keeps coming up is who is eligible.

According to the Productivity Commission report they estimate 440,000 people on the NDIS of whom 330,000 would be disabled, and the rest made up of carers and people on preventative programs.

This report has a deeper analysis, which takes the figures at face value. It also includes breakdowns by disabling condition. I have paraphrased these in the following table based on some of the major causes of disability. And look, there are those perennial favourites of those who think all disabled people are really bludgers: back problems,stress and depression, making up about 18% of the total. Not quite bankrupting the country then.

Disability table 1

But what constitutes disability? It is basically a lack of normal activity rather than a set of diseases per se. The ABS report has 5 activity based categories, four of which are based on “restrictions on core activities: communication, mobility, self care”. There are “profound”, “severe”, “moderate” and “mild” levels of disability. A fifth category is  “schooling or employment restriction”, but overlaps with the first four. Here is a table with the breakdown by category and age group. Combining those with a core activity limitation with employment/school limitations the figure is 15.3%. The difference between this and the higher self-reported 18% figure I suspect comes from peope who feel a bit crap a lot of the time, but aren’t signficiantly prevented from their activities. So I would estimate the number of disabled people to be more like 15% than 20%. For those under 65 this is 11%. The NDIS has a similar definition but includes social activities as well, but don’t yet provide any breakdowns.

Disability table 2

So much for the figures from the ABS, which I think we can all agree are definitive, right?  Looking at the ABS figures for this group (under 65) they total 345,000. But wait! The figure of 15.3% is based on a total number of respondents to the census of only 9.5 million people. If the reportage rate was the same as the general population of 22m then there would be about 700,000 severe or profoundly disabled people. But the Productivity Commission only estimates 330,000 or half this number on the NDIS! The alternative to the unlikely event that less than 50% of profoundly or severely disabled people will end up on the NDIS is that the reported ABS figure for people in this category is correct but the rate is wrong. While the overall reportage rate is about 50% it looks like the reportage rate for disabled people in the severe and profound category is closer to 100%. If this was also true for the other categories of disabled people then that suggests that the real rate of disability is less than 9% and maybe as low as 7%. Assuming the reportage rate is the same as the rest of the population, ie 50%, for the other categories then the disability rate might be as high as 13%. So lets split it and say 10%. In any event the widely reported figure of 20% is well above the highest estimates based on the ABS and Productivity Commission data. The real rate of disability is closer to 10% than 20%.

Does it matter? Maybe. If you claim that 20% of the population are disabled, people start quickly calculating that the cost is unsupportable if all of those people are on the NDIS! Which of course they won’t be. Fewer than half of disabled people are already on the DSP. Less than half of those will transfer to the NDIS. Overstating the percentage of disabled people isn’t necessarily a good argument for the NDIS if it reduces support from otherwise sympathetic people.

A final thought: in the large Australian organisation I work for, there are a fair few disabled people, some of whom I think would be categorised as severe. With proper support many disabled people can gain suitable education or training and hence employment and support themselves and contribute to the economic activity of the nation. The more people with disability who are employed the fewer on the DSP or NDIS, the more money for those who really have no choice. Supporting people with disability into employment is as important, in my opinion, as supporting them in living and care through the NDIS.

[This article was rewritten following some comments and some further research. In line with all my articles on Stubbornmule this article is about estimating rough numbers from scarce data “back of the beercoaster” style rather than disability politics, it just happens I have a personal interest in this subject]