GDP Beats Expectations In March Quarter

Latest Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) figures show that GDP, in seasonally adjusted chain volume terms, grew 0.9 per cent in the March quarter 2015. The consensus expectation was 0.7%.

GDPMar2015Chain

Trend GDP growth was 0.6% in the last quarter, making an annual 2.2%.

GDPMarch2015Annual Net exports contributed 0.5 percentage points to GDP growth. Household final consumption expenditure and Changes in inventories each contributed 0.3 percentage points to GDP growth. This was offset by a -0.3 percentage point contribution from Gross fixed capital formation.

The industries which drove GDP growth in the March quarter were Mining and Financial and insurance services. Mining contributed 0.3 percentage points and Financial and insurance services contributed 0.2 percentage points.

The March quarter saw the Terms of trade decrease 2.9 per cent in seasonally adjusted terms.

 

RBNZ Issues Consultation On LVR Rules For Auckland Residential Property Investors

The NZ Reserve Bank has published a consultation paper about proposed changes to the rules that banks must follow for high-LVR mortgage loans.

The proposals were announced in the Reserve Bank’s Financial Stability Report released on 13 May 2015. They would mean investors in Auckland property would generally need a 30 percent deposit if they’re borrowing for a property, while home buyers outside Auckland would see increased availability of high-LVR mortgages.

The specific proposals are to:

  • Restrict property investment residential mortgage loans in the Auckland region at LVRs of greater than 70 percent to 2 percent of total property investment residential mortgage commitments in Auckland.
  • Retain the existing speed limit of 10 percent for other residential mortgage lending, as a proportion of total non-property investment residential mortgage commitments, in the Auckland region at LVRs above 80 percent.
  • Increase the speed limit on residential mortgage lending at LVRs above 80 percent outside of Auckland to 15 percent of residential mortgage commitments outside Auckland.

A number of loan categories are exempted from LVR speed limits, and these exemptions will be retained under the proposed policy changes. Specifically, loans that are made as part of Housing New Zealand’s Welcome Home Loan scheme, and loans that are made for the purpose of refinancing an existing mortgage loan, moving house (without increasing borrowing amount), bridging finance or constructing a new dwelling will continue to be exempt from the policy.

The paper also offers further evidence on the different risk profiles of investment versus owner occupied loans in a down turn, including data from experiences in Ireland.

“Residential property investment loans appear to have relatively low default rates during normal economic circumstances. However, the Reserve Bank has looked at evidence from extreme housing downturns during the GFC, and this clearly indicates that default rates can be higher for investor loans than for owner occupiers in severe downturns. For example, as shown in table 1, forecast loss rates on Irish mortgages were nearly twice as high for investors as for owner-occupiers. Similarly, actual arrears rates were about twice as high for investor loans (29.4 percent) than for owner occupied loans (14.8 percent) as at December 2014. Furthermore, studies which have separately estimated default rates by LVR for investor loans and owner occupier loans suggest that investor loans are substantially riskier at any given LVR. The data  shows an estimate of default rate based on current LVR. For example, if a loan was initially written at a 70 percent LVR and then prices fell 30 percent, the loan would appear in the chart below as LTV=100. This would have a mildly increased rate of default compared to a low-LVR loan for an owner occupier. But for an investor, the rate of default would be higher, and would have increased more sharply as a result of a given decline in house prices.”

RBNZ-Ireland-DefaultsNote: PDH is principal dwelling house, BTL is buy to let. LTV (loan to value ratio) is conceptually the same as LVR, but this dataset uses the current LTV (after the sharp falls in house prices) rather than origination LTV.

The consultation will run until 13 July. The Reserve Bank expects to publish a summary of submissions and final policy position in August, with revised rules taking effect from 1 October.

The Reserve Bank proposes that the policy changes take effect from 1 October 2015. This relatively long notice period is to allow banks to make the necessary systems changes in order to properly classify new lending. There is a risk that a notice period of this length could lead to some Auckland property investors rushing in to beat the policy changes. However, our expectation is that banks will observe the spirit of the proposed restrictions, and will act to curtail lending at LVRs of above 70 percent to Auckland property investors well in advance of 1 October.

Currently, compliance with the LVR policy is measured over a three-month rolling window for banks with monthly lending of over $100m, and over a six-month rolling window for banks with monthly lending of less than $100m. At the time that LVR restrictions were first introduced, all banks were provided with an initial six-month measurement period. This was done to accommodate outstanding pre-approved loans, and recognised the relatively short notice period provided. A longer first measurement period does not appear to be warranted for this change to the restriction, given more than four months’ notice of an intention to change the restriction. Further, the low speed limit for Auckland property investment mortgage lending does not provide much scope to smooth lending over a longer measurement period.

Why Pensioners are Cruising Their Way Around Budget Changes – The Conversation

As reported in The Conversation: Age pensioners have always gone on cruises. But since the budget, we have seen stories emerge of age pensioners changing their behaviour in response to the proposed rebalancing of the age pension asset tests.

Sydney housewife Noelene has bought a holiday cruise to Alaska. Seemingly contradicting sensible living strategies for many older people, financial advisers are now proposing part-pensioners upsize and buy a more expensive house.

It’s surprising behaviour, especially in light of new research from CePAR using government data that demonstrates many age pensioners actually live very frugally. Many pensioners live below even the “modest” retirement standard proposed by ASFA ($23,469 for a single and $33,766 for a couple, who own their own home). Indeed, many pensioners are cautious and keep a cushion of assets, whether because of concern about risk, to pay for age care when frail, or to leave a bequest to children or grandchildren.

What’s changed

Why would age pensioners choose to spend big now? Well, it’s a rational response by part-pensioners to the proposed budget asset tests. If the anecdotal behaviour is writ large, a lot of the potential revenue gains (estimated at A$2.4 billion over 5 years) from the asset test changes may disappear.

Apart from the home, the financial and other assets of age pensioners are tested above a limit, so as to target the pension. The age pension is also subject to an income test. At the moment pensioners are assessed under both the income test and the asset test: whichever test gives the lower pension rate is applied. This allows considerable scope for sophisticated pension planning.

The 2015 budget includes changes to the age pension asset tests which deliver benefits at the low end but which are quite draconian for those who have accumulated some assets.

For homeowners, the asset free areas are to rise from $202,000 to $250,000 for single home owners and from $286,500 to $375,000 for couple home owners, but the asset test taper rate will double, from $1.50 per fortnight ($38 a year) per $1,000 to $3 per fortnight ($78 per year) per $1,000.

Pensioners who do not own their own home – and who are much less well off than those who own a home – will benefit from an increase in their threshold to $200,000 more than homeowner pensioners.

On a superficial view, these seem like reasonable changes. But they may have significant behavioural effects and there could be a better way to achieve the government’s policy goals.

Savings taxed: how the government is changing behaviour

The age pension can be thought of as a universal payment combined with an in-built income tax (the income test, which has a 50% tax rate up to the cut out point) and an in-built wealth tax (the asset test).

The effect of the change in policy is to reduce the asset cut-out point where the age pension ceases. Under current asset taper rules, the effective wealth tax rate in the asset test is 3.9% above the threshold. The budget proposal of a taper of $3 per fortnight per $1,000 implies a wealth tax rate of 7.8% ($78 per year per $1,000) above the new thresholds. With real returns of around 5% on many investments currently, the wealth tax effectively confiscates the whole of the real return above the thresholds.

A home-owner couple will see their pension cease at assets of $823,000 compared to over $1.1 million currently. But this home-owner couple with $823,000 in savings would not necessarily have a higher living standard than a home-owner couple with $375,000 in savings; indeed, it could well be lower.

Overall, under the proposed new system, income from savings would be very heavily taxed. Assuming a return to savings of 5%, the effective marginal tax rate could be as much as 160% (the wealth tax rate of 7.8% divided by a 5% return). This creates a disincentive to save. For the conservative investor the situation is even worse, as products like term deposits offer rates only slightly higher than inflation.

An alternative approach: deeming an income return

The Henry Tax Review and the Shepherd National Committee of Audit both recommended that the separate age pension asset test should be replaced by a comprehensive means test that deems income from assets.

A deeming approach disregards actual income from an asset. Only deemed income is included, based on a sensible choice of rate of return, such as the return on bank interest. At 1.75% and 3.25% rates, this is quite a conservative rate of return.

In fact, we already deem income returns in the current pension system, for assets including bank accounts, term deposits, shares, managed funds, loans to family members and superannuation funds (if you are age pension age).

Widening the deeming rules would return us to the “merged means test” which operated in Australia up to the 1970s. Under the test, all assets apart from the home were deemed to yield 10% per annum and actual income from assets was disregarded. The assumed yield on an annuity purchased at age 65 was 10%. Currently an indexed annuity at that age would yield around a third of that in real terms, and even a “growth” investment strategy will yield only 5% to 6%, so a deeming rate around 6% could be justified.

Deeming rates can be set to achieve the sort of budget savings sought by the government with fewer issues for fairness and perverse incentives. A deeming rate of, say, 6% combines with a pension taper of 50% to give an effective marginal wealth tax rate of 3%. This is much less than the effective 7.8% wealth tax rate in the budget measure.

Deeming allows a pensioner to have either modest income or modest assets but not both. It does not unfairly advantage those who maximise their entitlements by planning under both income and asset tests, as the current system allows. A wider deemed base could save as much at a lower effective wealth tax rate than that proposed by the government.

The bigger picture

Australia has highly generous tax concessions for retirement saving, but quite harsh treatment on the pension side. Why incentivise savings through super tax breaks and then penalise savers under the means test?

Home owner retirees are much better off than those who do not own their home and the age pension means test does not touch the top cohort of superannuation savers who receive a hugely disproportionate share of superannuation tax breaks. In contrast to most middle income savers who eventually need some level of age pension with its implicit wealth tax, the top cohort who don’t need the age pension are never subject to any wealth or bequests tax.

US Economic Outlook and Monetary Policy

A speech by Governor Lael Brainard at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Washington, D.C. on “The U.S. Economic Outlook and Implications for Monetary Policy” suggests that whilst the US economic outlook is patchy, interest rates will rise.

This spring marks the end of the Federal Reserve’s calendar-based forward guidance and the return to full data dependency in the setting of the federal funds rate. So it is notable that just as policymaking is becoming more anchored in meeting-by-meeting assessments of the data, the data are presenting a mixed picture that lends itself to materially different readings.

No doubt, bad weather, port disruptions, and statistical issues are responsible for some of the softness in first-quarter indicators of aggregate spending. Indeed, it may be that the dismal estimate by the Bureau of Economic Analysis of the annualized change in first-quarter gross domestic product (GDP), negative 0.7 percent, is principally an extension of the pattern, seen for several years, of significantly slower measured GDP growth in the first quarter followed by considerably stronger readings during the remainder of the year. In that case, it would be appropriate to minimize the importance of the first-quarter estimate in judging the likely path of the economy over the remainder of the year.

But there may be reasons not to ignore the recent readings entirely. First, the limited data in hand pertaining to the second quarter do not suggest a significant bounceback in aggregate spending, which we would expect if all of the weakness in the first quarter were due to transitory factors. Private-sector forecasts of second-quarter growth are centered around 2-1/2 percent, while the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta’s GDPNow forecast, which was quite accurate in its prediction of the first estimate of first-quarter GDP growth, is projecting second-quarter GDP growth of only 0.8 percent.

Second, it would not be the first time this recovery has proceeded in fits and starts. The underlying momentum of the recovery has proven relatively susceptible to successive headwinds, which have kept overall economic growth well below the average pace of previous upturns.

My own reading is that earlier, more optimistic growth projections may have placed too much weight on the boost to spending from lower energy prices and too little weight on the negative implications for aggregate demand of the significant increase in the foreign exchange value of the dollar and large decline in the price of crude oil.

Based on today’s picture of moderate underlying momentum in the domestic economy and the likelihood of continued crosscurrents from abroad, the process of normalizing monetary policy is likely to be gradual. It is also important to remember that the stance of monetary policy will remain highly accommodative even after the federal funds rate moves off the effective lower bound, because the real federal funds rate will initially still be low and because of the elevated size of the Federal Reserve’s balance sheet and the associated downward pressure on long-term rates. Moreover, the FOMC has stated clearly that it will reduce the size of the balance sheet in a gradual and predictable manner starting at an appropriate time after liftoff, which will depend on how economic and financial conditions evolve.

In summary, the string of soft data in the first quarter raises some questions about the contours of the outlook. While it is possible that residual seasonality and temporary factors were responsible, it would be difficult, based on the data available today, to dismiss the possibility of a more significant drag on the economy than anticipated from foreign crosscurrents and the negative effects of the oil price decline, along with a more cautious U.S. consumer. This possibility argues for giving the data some more time to confirm further improvement in the labor market and firming of inflation toward our 2 percent target. But while the case for liftoff may not be immediate, it is coming into clearer view. When that time comes, the policy path will be highly attuned to incoming data and not on a preset course, and it is important to be mindful of the possibility of volatility as markets adjust to a change in the stance of policy. Thus, the FOMC will continue communicating as clearly as possible regarding the outlook and the factors underlying its policy determinations.

Credit Risk Management – BIS Recommendations

The Bank for International Settlements has published a report from The Joint Forum “Developments in credit risk management across sectors: current practices and recommendations.” The Joint Forum was established in 1996 under the aegis of the Basel Committee on Banking Supervision (BCBS), the International Organization of Securities Commissions (IOSCO) and the International Association of Insurance Supervisors (IAIS) to deal with issues common to/across the banking, securities and insurance sectors, including the regulation of financial conglomerates.

In 2013 the Joint Forum undertook a survey of supervisors and firms in the banking, securities and insurance sectors globally in order to understand the current state of credit risk (CR) management given the significant market and regulatory changes since the financial crisis of 2008. Credit risk is generally defined as the risk that a counterparty will fail to perform fully its financial obligations, and can arise from multiple activities across sectors. For example, CR could arise from the risk of default on a loan or bond obligation, or from the risk of a guarantor, credit enhancement provider or derivative counterparty failing to meet its obligations.

Fifteen supervisors and 23 firms responded to the survey, representing the banking, securities and insurance sectors in Europe, North America and Asia. The surveys were not meant to be a post-mortem of the events leading up to the financial crisis, but rather a means to provide insight into the current supervisory framework around credit risk and the state of CR management at the firms, as well as implications for the supervisory and regulatory treatments of credit risk. The survey aimed to update previous Joint Forum work, most recently a 2006 paper, and used that date as the benchmark when asking about changes. The survey asked questions regarding:

  • products posing challenges to CR management
  • new credit risk transfer tools
  • market developments and regulatory/statutory changes affecting CR management and the resulting changes in firm CR management practices
  • changes in key operations, risk management, internal control and governance frameworks with respect to CR management
  • changes in the use of models to aggregate credit risk
  • changes in supervision of CR management
  • changes in collateral risk

Based on the analysis of the responses from the supervisor and firm surveys and subsequent discussions with firms, the following themes emerged. Also detailed below are recommendations for consideration by supervisors.

1. Propelled by the experience of 2008 and by regulators, firms have improved their management of credit risk in areas such as governance and risk reporting. Risk aggregation has also become more sophisticated since the financial crisis. Regulatory requirements such as the Basel framework and stress testing have been one driver of the modelling enhancements. Firms highlighted increased reliance upon stress testing using their internal models. Against this background, some supervisors cautioned that there is a risk that some credit risk management or regulatory capital models may not adequately capture risk-taking.

Recommendation 1: Supervisors should be cautious against over-reliance on internal models for credit risk management and regulatory capital. Where appropriate, simple measures could be evaluated in conjunction with sophisticated modelling to provide a more complete picture.

2. In the current low interest rate environment, there is a “search for yield” by some firms across sectors. This manifests itself in an increase in firms’ risk tolerance in a variety of different products such as auto lending by banks, increasingly risky assets in the investment portfolio for life insurers, and the syndicated leveraged loan market. Lower-quality assets with lower-rated counterparties could generate more credit risk.

Recommendation 2: With the current low interest rate environment possibly generating a “search for yield” through a variety of mechanisms, supervisors should be cognisant of the growth of such risk-taking behaviours and the resulting need for firms to have appropriate risk management processes.

3. Over-the-counter (OTC) derivatives, both cleared and uncleared, are a significant source of credit risk at financial institutions across sectors. As a result of both regulation and firm practices, firms are increasing the amount of initial margin they collect from trading counterparties for uncleared trades, and central counterparties (CCPs) in many jurisdictions are implementing risk management standards intended to ensure that they collect adequate financial resources from their member firms.

Recommendation 3: Supervisors should be aware of the growing need for high-quality liquid collateral to meet margin requirements for OTC derivatives sectors, and if any issues arise in this regard they should respond appropriately. The Parent Committees should consider taking appropriate steps to promote the monitoring and evaluation of the availability of such collateral in their future work while also considering the objective of reducing systemic risk and promoting central clearing through collateralisation of counterparty credit risk exposures that stems from non-centrally cleared OTC derivatives.

4. The increase in central clearing of OTC derivatives has clear benefits by reducing risk to individual counterparties, as articulated by both supervisors and firms. The consequence of this is to shift and concentrate credit risk to CCPs. Many firms have responded by increasing analysis of and reporting on CCPs.

Recommendation 4: Supervisors should consider whether firms are accurately capturing central counterparty exposures as part of their credit risk management.

 

Bank Profits Were $35.2 billion to March 2015

APRA released their quarterly ADI performance statistics to end March 2015 today. Over the year ending 31 March 2015, ADIs recorded net profit after tax of $35.2 billion. This is an increase of $3.0 billion (9.4 per cent) on the year ending 31 March 2014.

The most telling data relates to the relationship between loans and capital. We look at the big four,  who dominate the market. Home loans continue to grow as a proportion of total assets. The major banks have $1.42 trillion of housing, out of total assets of $2.27 trillion – 62.4% of all loans are housing related. Now, because of the generous “risk weighted” calculation, whilst the tier 1 capital ratio has moved higher for the 4 big banks, to 10.8%, if you look at shareholder funds (not risk weight adjusted) we see that the ratio of shareholder funds to total loans is lower now than its been for some time, and is continuing to fall. So the banks are using less of their own funds to grow their balance sheet and hold less in reserve for a rainy day. This is why there is a discussion about the right increases in capital weightings.

APRAMarch2015
More generally, at 31 March 2015, the total assets of ADIs were $4.5 trillion, an increase of $519.9 billion (13.1 per cent) over the year. The total capital base of ADIs was $228.1 billion at 31 March 2015 and risk-weighted assets were $1.8 trillion at that date. The capital adequacy ratio for all ADIs was 12.7 per cent.

  • major banks had total assets of $3.50 trillion as at 31 March 2015, 78.0 per cent of the industry total;
  • other domestic banks had total assets of $397.7 billion, 8.9 per cent of the industry total;
  • foreign subsidiary banks had total assets of $115.1 billion, 2.6 per cent of the industry total; and
  • foreign branch banks had total assets of $404.1 billion, 9.0 per cent of the industry total.

The remainder of the industry total assets were held by building societies, credit unions and other ADIs, with $68.0 billion, 1.5 per cent of the industry total.

For all ADIs*, as at 31 March 2015:

  • Gross loans and advances were $2.80 trillion. This is an increase of $71.6 billion (2.6 per cent) on 31 December 2014 and an increase of $227.2 billion (8.8 per cent) on 31 March 2014.
  • Total liabilities were $4.22 trillion. This is an increase of $137.8 billion (3.4 per cent) on 31 December 2014 and an increase $504.3 billion (13.6 per cent) on 31 March 2014.
  • Total deposits were $2.46 trillion. This is an increase of $50.9 billion (2.1 per cent) on 31 December 2014 and an increase $196.1 billion (8.7 per cent) on 31 March 2014.
  • The net loans to deposits ratio was 112.6 per cent for the year ending 31 March 2015, an increase from 111.7 per cent for the year ending 31 March 2014.

Capital adequacy

The Common Equity Tier 1 capital ratio for all ADIs (excluding foreign branch banks and ‘other ADIs’) was 9.2 per cent as at 31 March 2015. This is an increase on 31 December 2014 (9.1 per cent) and 31 March 2014 (9.1 per cent).

The Common Equity Tier 1 capital ratio as at 31 March 2015 for each segment was:

  • 8.8 per cent for major banks (an increase from 8.7 per cent at 31 December 2014);
  • 9.6 per cent for other domestic banks (an increase from 9.3 per cent);
  • 15.1 per cent for foreign subsidiary banks (unchanged 31 December 2014);
  • 16.9 per cent for building societies (a decrease from 17.1 per cent); and
  • 15.7 per cent for credit unions (unchanged 31 December 2014).

The Tier 1 capital ratio for all ADIs (excluding foreign branch banks and ‘other ADIs’) was 11.0 per cent as at 31 March 2015. This is an increase on 31 December 2014 (10.8 per cent) and 31 March 2014 (10.8 per cent).  The Tier 1 capital ratio as at 31 March 2015 for each segment was:

  • 10.8 per cent for major banks (an increase from 10.6 per cent at 31 December 2014);
  • 10.9 per cent for other domestic banks (an increase from 10.6 per cent);
  • 15.1 per cent for foreign subsidiary banks (a decrease from 15.1 per cent);
  • 16.9 per cent for building societies (a decrease from 17.1 per cent); and
  • 15.9 per cent for credit unions (an increase from 15.8 per cent).

Impaired assets and past due items were $27.8 billion, a decrease of $5.9 billion (17.5 per cent) over the year. Total provisions were $14.4 billion, a decrease of $5.8 billion (28.9 per cent) over the year.

Impaired facilities were $15.2 billion as at 31 March 2015. This is a decrease of $0.7 billion (4.2 per cent) on 31 December 2014 and a decrease of $6.4 billion (29.7 per cent) on 31 March 2014. Impaired facilities as a proportion of total loans and advances was 0.5 per cent as at 31 March 2015. This is a decrease from 31 December 2014 (0.6 per cent) and a decrease from 31 March 2014 (0.8 per cent).

Past due items were $12.5 billion as at 31 March 2015. This is an increase of $1.1 billion (9.6 per cent) on 31 December 2014 and an increase of $534 million (4.4 per cent) on 31 March 2014. Total provisions held were $14.4 billion as at 31 March 2015. This is a decrease of $0.6 billion (4.0 per cent) on 31 December 2014 and a decrease of $5.8 billion (28.9 per cent) on 31 March 2014.

 

Cash Rate Unchanged Today

At its meeting today, the Board decided to leave the cash rate unchanged at 2.0 per cent.

The global economy is expanding at a moderate pace, but some key commodity prices are much lower than a year ago. This trend appears largely to reflect increased supply, including from Australia. Australia’s terms of trade are falling nonetheless.

The Federal Reserve is expected to start increasing its policy rate later this year, but some other major central banks are continuing to ease policy. Hence, global financial conditions remain very accommodative. Despite some increases in bond yields recently, long-term borrowing rates for sovereigns and creditworthy private borrowers remain remarkably low.

In Australia, the available information suggests the economy has continued to grow, but at a rate somewhat below its longer-term average. Household spending has improved, including a large rise in dwelling construction, and exports are rising. But a key drag on private demand is weakness in business capital expenditure in both the mining and non-mining sectors and this is likely to persist over the coming year. Public spending is also scheduled to be subdued. Overall, the economy is likely to be operating with a degree of spare capacity for some time yet. With very slow growth in labour costs, inflation is forecast to remain consistent with the target over the next one to two years, even with a lower exchange rate.

In such circumstances, monetary policy needs to be accommodative. Low interest rates are acting to support borrowing and spending. Credit is recording moderate growth overall, with stronger lending to businesses and growth in lending to the housing market broadly steady over recent months. Dwelling prices continue to rise strongly in Sydney, though trends have been more varied in a number of other cities. The Bank is working with other regulators to assess and contain risks that may arise from the housing market. In other asset markets, prices for equities and commercial property have been supported by lower long-term interest rates.

The Australian dollar has declined noticeably against a rising US dollar over the past year, though less so against a basket of currencies. Further depreciation seems both likely and necessary, particularly given the significant declines in key commodity prices.

Having eased monetary policy last month, the Board today judged that leaving the cash rate unchanged was appropriate at this meeting. Information on economic and financial conditions to be received over the period ahead will inform the Board’s assessment of the outlook and hence whether the current stance of policy will most effectively foster sustainable growth and inflation consistent with the target.

ASIC Welcomes Improved Credit Card Travel Insurance Disclosure

Following an ASIC review, credit card issuers and insurers have made improvements to disclosure for travel insurance provided through credit cards.

ASIC’s review of  17 credit card brands, issued by a range of credit card issuers, including the big four Australian banks, followed complaints made to ASIC from the general public and disputes data published by the Financial Ombudsman Service (FOS). These complaints included uncertainty around who was covered by the policy, the extent of exclusions and eligibility requirements.

Following the review, the credit card issuers and their insurers have agreed to make the following improvements:

  • clarify when the insurance cover is ‘activated,’ particularly where a minimum spend threshold needs to be met to activate the insurance cover
  • clarify if and when the use of reward points to pay for travel costs will activate the insurance cover
  • clarify whether supplementary cardholders can benefit from the policy
  • provide clearer and more prominent information about the documentation needed to make a claim.

Credit card issuers have also made improvements to their websites by making it easier to locate the insurance policy terms and conditions, and are now including direct links to the terms and conditions where none were provided previously.

Credit card issuers that also distribute standalone travel insurance have also made changes to their websites to clearly distinguish the standalone travel insurance policy from the credit card policy so that consumers do not mistakenly rely on the wrong policy.

ASIC’s Deputy Chairman Peter Kell, said, ‘As travel insurance may not be at the forefront of the consumer’s mind when obtaining a credit card, improved disclosure will help consumers understand and claim.’

‘Having travel insurance is essential for those heading on an overseas trip, to provide cover for when things go wrong. Credit card issuers and insurers must clearly set out what is and what is not covered by a policy, so that consumers can work out if they are adequately covered.’

Background

The credit card brands reviewed by ASIC included the big four Australian banks, as well as smaller Authorised Deposit-taking Institutions (ADI), and other non-ADI credit card providers. Insurance was provided to the credit card issuers by three major insurers.

Credit card travel insurance is insurance that is available to credit card holders, usually with ‘premium’ credit cards that offer extra benefits with the credit card. It is often described as ‘complimentary’ travel insurance as it is offered as a feature of the credit card with no additional fee, although credit cards that provide ‘complimentary’ travel insurance typically have an annual card fee (ranging from $87 to over $500 per year).

ASIC’s review did not include standalone travel insurance. Standalone and credit card travel insurance can differ, so consumers should consider which product is suitable for their travel needs so that they are adequately covered. Consumers with specific needs (such as pre-existing medical conditions) are especially encouraged to review their insurance coverage.

Standalone travel insurance generally requires the consumer to apply for and pay a premium. Credit card travel insurance requires a minimum spend on the credit card for the cover to be activated. Of the policies reviewed, more than half required the full airfare for travel to be paid on the credit card, while less than half of the policies required a minimum spend of between $250 and $1,000 of prepaid travel costs on the card (such as travel ticket or accommodation costs).

The Budget is Still Unfair – The Conversation

From The Conversation’s “Looking inside the sausage machine.” NATSEM’s analysis of the 2015-16 federal budget, the same as used by the Howard and Rudd–Gillard governments as a policy tool, has been likened by Treasurer Joe Hockey to a sausage machine.

What makes Hockey’s analogy particularly striking is its applicability to this year’s budget process. While the government threw away the very toughest bits of gristle from last year, a number of the most unpalatable cuts are still in the mince, plus some added sweeteners.

Like last year, we have made some calculations showing the impact of the budget measures on disposable income in July 2017, once most of the proposed indexation pauses have taken effect.

Our assumptions are conservative. We consider as status quo the repeal of changes to income tax rates and the low-income tax offset. Like last year, we do not factor in the abolition of the Schoolkids Bonus, or the Income Support Bonus, because this was not strictly speaking a budget measure.

Restricting eligibility for Family Tax Benefit Part B, or FTB-B, may lead to substantial losses of disposable income for families with school-aged children – even before the Schoolkids Bonus is taken away. Our figures show that a couple with two children aged 11 and 8, where one parent earns A$60,000 per year, would lose A$84.43 per week, or 7.4% of disposable income. A single parent with one child aged 8 and no private income stands to lose A$49.93 per week, or 10.9% of disposable income.

Pausing indexation of all FTB payment rates affects the most vulnerable families. A couple with no private income and one 3-year-old child would lose A$11.24 per week, or 1.8% of disposable income, while a single parent would lose A$8.80 per week, or 1.6% of disposable income.

Working families on modest wages face a double hit if indexation pauses apply both to payment rates and thresholds. A couple with one child aged 3, where one parent earns A$60,000 per year, would lose A$21.86 per week, or 2.1% of disposable income. The same family with two children aged 6 and 3 would have A$27.81 per week less to spend, a loss of 2.4 % of disposable income. The losses for a working single parent are A$20.75, or 2%, and A$26.69, or 2.3% respectively.

Families with teenagers will also forgo indexation and receive no compensation for the wind back of FTB-B. For a single parent with one child aged 14, this means a loss of A$63.70 per week – 13.4% of disposable income if the parent is unemployed and 7.4% on an income of A$40,000. A couple on income of A$60,000 with a 14-year -old could lose up to 79.61 per week, or 7.5%.

These figures represent maximum losses of disposable income. Couples may experience lower losses if both members work. Single parents may also have different outcomes if, for instance, their family tax benefits are subject to the maintenance-income test.

Importantly, we do not include the impact of changes to child care, but if families are not currently using child care and do not use it after the changes, then our figures will be a reasonably accurate guide to the impact on these families (for example, those with school age children not using after-school care).

What NATSEM measured

Our figures broadly agree with the cameo analysis produced by NATSEM, when tax changes and the Schoolkids and Income Support Bonuses are taken into account. The NATSEM microsimulation model comes to the fore, however, in its ability to model the overall impact of complex policy changes such as the Child Care Subsidy, and its estimation of distributional impacts for the whole population – not just selected family types.

The childcare package is the centrepiece of the budget for households. It is estimated to cost A$4.4 billion over 4 years. In isolation, the package appears progressive and increases assistance more for low and middle income families than for higher income families, with the subsidy for childcare costs reducing from 85% to 50% as family incomes rise.

To finance these reforms the government proposes to maintain some initiatives from the 2014-15 budget. These include freezing family tax benefit (FTB) rates for two years, adjusting supplements linked to the benefits and freezing the upper income test threshold so that more people lose payments as their incomes increase, and most significantly to stop paying FTB Part B when the youngest child turns six.

There is uncertainty about the overall size of these savings. Because these changes were factored into last year’s budget they are not identified as new measures in the 2015-16 budget. Just before the budget, the Weekend Australian estimated these changes would cut payments by A$9.4 billion over four years. In addition, the government is proposing new changes to family payments and paid parental leave that would save more than A$1.6 billion over four years.

Clearly, the total volume of assistance for families is going down. To assess the overall household impact of the budget, it is necessary to balance who wins from the generally progressive child care assistance proposals versus who loses from last year’s and the new savings proposals.

The impact

NATSEM analysed the impact of much more than the changes in family assistance and child care and include 25 changes in the first two Abbott government budgets, comparing these with what would have happened if the previous government’s policy parameters had been unchanged. This distributional analysis involves modelling policy changes for some 45,000 real families included in two years of the Australian Bureau of Statistics Survey of Income and Housing.

NATSEM produces distributional impacts for quintiles (20%) of households by family type – couples with and without children, lone parents and single person households. Both couples with children and lone parents lose on average, with the poorest quintile of couples losing just over A$3,000 a year or 7.1% of their disposable income and the poorest quintile of lone parents losing just under A$3,000 a year or around 8% of their disposable income. Most households without children – except the poorest 20% – are estimated to have minor increases in real disposable incomes by 2018-19.

The government in Question Time has emphasised that the NATSEM calculations do not include any “second round” impacts of the budget changes. That is, the policy package put forward by the government makes work more attractive both by reducing the cost of childcare but also by cutting benefits to families, giving them greater “incentive” to increase their hours of work to make up for the loss of FTB-B in particular.

Will the Budget increase workforce participation?

Asked about the modelling during question time, the prime minister said this omission meant the modelling was “a fraudulent misrepresentation” of the government’s budget because returning people to work was “the whole point of the policy measures”.

At one level, this sounds like a reasonable criticism. The explicit aim of the budget changes is to make increased hours of work more attractive to families.

However, Treasurer Joe Hockey has also conceded that “as a rule second-round effects are not taken into account” in any budget. This is because while there are likely to be some behavioural responses to these changes, the size of that response is unclear. A 2007 Treasury Working Paper points out that estimates of labour supply responses to tax and benefit changes can vary widely.

The Productivity Commission in its report on childcare that formed the basis of the proposed childcare changes in the budget was cautious about the size of the labour supply response to its recommendations, arguing that additional workforce participation will occur, but it will be small, and is estimated to increase the number of mothers working by 1.2% (an additional 16,400 mothers).

It is also worth pointing out that the economic parameters underlying the overall budget suggest that employment effects are not likely to be substantial. The labour force participation rate is projected to rise marginally from 64.6% to around 64.75% over the forward estimates, but the unemployment rate is projected to increase from 5.9% to between 6.25% and 6.5%, which implies a small fall in the proportion of the adult population who are actually employed.

Overall, while there will be some second-round positive effects it is highly unlikely that they will offset the losses in disposable income experienced by many families with children.

Governments should welcome the type of evidence-based policy analysis exemplified by NATSEM’s work, and ideally provide it themselves. It focuses the debate on concrete questions of how policy changes affect people’s lives. To criticise the straightforward modelling approach because it yields the “wrong” answer smacks of shooting the messenger. The government should be upfront with the public about exactly what is in the budget sausage.

Why the Small Business Tax Break Could Pay for Itself

The immediate tax deduction for small business announced in the Federal Budget has been broadly welcomed, but what may have been missed is the fact that what the Government doesn’t collect now, it will collect later, according to The Conversation.

As part of the $5.5 billion small business package at the centre of its latest Budget, the Federal Government announced it would allow businesses with turnover less than $2 million to immediately deduct the cost of any individual asset purchased up to the value of $20,000, from Budget night through to the end of June 2017. The estimated cost of this accelerated depreciation measure to revenue is estimated at $1.75 billion over the four years of forward estimates.

But what should be noted about this measure is that it doesn’t change the eligibility for tax deductions of these assets; it simply changes how quickly a small business is able to receive the tax deduction.

Under the existing simplified depreciation rules for small business, an asset costing over $1000 would be depreciated at 15% for the first year, and 30% thereafter, until the taxable value of the asset pool is $1000 or less, at which point the full amount can be written off.

For a $20,000 asset, this would mean a $3,000 deduction would be allowable in the first year, and it would take around 10 years to fully depreciate it for tax purposes. This compares to a $20,000 deduction in the first year under the proposed measure.

Bear in mind, too, that small businesses fall into two general categories: those that are incorporated (companies), and those that aren’t (sole traders and partnerships). The taxable profits of small companies are taxed at a flat rate, which – assuming the announced 1.5% tax cut passes – will be 28.5%.

Unincorporated small businesses don’t get the 1.5% tax cut, as their income is included in the assessable income of the owners and taxed at their marginal rate of tax. Instead they’ll get a tax discount of 5% of business income up to $1000 a year.

Here, we’ll focus on small companies, where the flat rate of tax makes analysis easier.

For a small, incorporated business, and assuming the 28.5% tax rate, its tax bill would be reduced by $5,700 in the first year, as compared to only $855 under the existing regime. This is a total upfront benefit of $4,845, and supports the government’s argument that the change will improve cash flow for small business as compared to existing arrangements.

But the timing aspect also has a benefit for the Government, and there is evidence of this in the Budget Papers. Over the first three years of the forward estimates, the expected cost to revenue totals $1.9 billion. However, in the final year of the forward estimates (2018-19), this cost begins to reverse, and the Government expects to bring in an extra $150 million in revenue.

The reason for this reversal can be explained with respect to a hypothetical $20,000 asset purchased on July 1, 2015, by a small incorporated entity. Under the proposed rules, the company would have reduced its tax payable by $5,700 in the first year, as compared to only $855 under the existing rules.

This means the Government would collect $4,845 less tax from this company in respect of the 2015-16 tax year. However from the 2016-17 tax year onwards the Government will collect more, under the proposed measure, as this company has no further depreciation tax deductions available to it in respect to that asset.

This means that while over the forward estimates period, allowing this company to immediately deduct the cost of the asset in 2015-16 will cost the Government $1,662, it will subsequently collect $1,662 more in tax in the period beyond the forward estimates.

Mechanically, the total deduction for the asset under either the original simplified depreciation rules for small business or the proposed immediate write-off, will still be $20,000. In other words, whatever the Government doesn’t collect now it will collect later.

For the Government this is a good outcome politically for three reasons.

First, it allows it to say it is supporting small businesses to “have a go”, as Treasurer Joe Hockey puts it.

Second, even though there is a cost to revenue in the forward estimates period, over the following years this measure will have a positive impact on revenue. However, because this increase in revenue is primarily outside the forward estimates it is not visible in the Budget Papers.

This increase in revenue has to be equal to the cost – so the $1.75 billion net cost in the next four years will lead to an increase in revenue of $1.75 billion beyond the forward estimates.

Third, the Budget Papers contain only information on government decisions that involve changes since the previous Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook. So while this measure will mean the Government will collect more revenue over the years 2019-20 and onwards, this increase won’t register as a change in next year’s Budget and therefore this increase won’t be quantified there as such.