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08 Sep

Our other problem: xenophilia towards foreign investment

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Foreign investment takes off. Photo: Rob HomerThere are few topics on which there’s more irrational thinking than foreign investment. Trouble is, the illogic comes as much from economists and policy makers as it does from uncomprehending punters.
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Sometimes I think the wonky thinking by the economic literates is an overreaction to the crazy prejudices of the economic illiterates.

The punters think we can decide not to sell off the farm – not to allow foreigners to buy Australian businesses – without that having any economic consequences. Without the decline in foreign capital inflow leading to slower economic growth and a slower-rising material standard of living.

Of course, there’s no reason the electorate shouldn’t decide to trade off less foreign ownership for a standard of living that’s lower than it could be, provided people understand the price they’re paying.

The econocrats go the other way, exaggerating our dependence on foreign investment and other capital inflow.

Econocrats have the knowledge that we’re a “capital-importing country” burnt into their brains. They live in eternal fear that one wrong move could reduce the inflow to a trickle, stuffing us completely.

They preach the need for us to attract more foreign investment even while they worry that the dollar’s too high – another example of how long it’s taking economists to adjust their “priors” (long-held beliefs) to a world of floating exchange rates.

I can’t think of a time when we’ve had too little foreign investment. Even when the dollar briefly fell below US50¢ in 2000 there was no obvious problem.

Another silliness about the econocrats’ conviction that we can never have enough foreign investment is their assumption that prices – specifically, the rates at which various taxes are set – will be the overwhelming factor determining how much we get.

Treasury continually lectures us on how globalisation has made it easier to move financial capital between tax jurisdictions, thus making the quest for foreign investment far more “competitive”.

This, we’re assured, makes it imperative we have tax rates that are competitive with far less attractive investment destinations, including developing countries a fraction of our size, where cronyism and corruption are rife, and you can’t be sure of getting fair treatment in the courts.

Only economists, mesmerised by their model – which ignores all factors that can’t be measured in dollars – would be silly enough to imagine that decisions about where in the world to set up business would be made without reference to non-quantifiable factors.

That global companies such as Google or Apple would refuse to do business in Australia because our company tax rate is higher than Singapore’s.

Yet the need to be more price-competitive in the quest for foreign investment is advanced as almost the only argument needed to justify a cut in company tax. That there’d be nothing in it for domestic shareholders is treated as beside the point.

John Howard’s decision in 1999 to discount by half the rate of tax on capital gains was justified on the grounds that it would attract lots of investment by foreign fund managers. Never mentioned again.

In their revulsion against the public’s “economic nationalism”, the econocrats have gone to the opposite extreme of assuming all foreign investment is good and we never get enough.

When it suited the world’s big mining companies to come to Oz and engage in a decade-long frenzy to build more mines before China went off the boil, it never occurred to our policy makers to make the miners form an orderly queue.

Rather, we let them turn our economy upside down. We saw our job as ensuring the miners’ frenzy didn’t cause an inflation surge, using high interest rates and tolerating a hugely overvalued exchange rate to suppress the non-mining economy and allow the miners to get all the resources they wanted.

We did lasting damage to our manufacturing and tourism industries to allow the miners to have their rowdy party.

We’re left with a huge, capital-intensive, 80 per cent foreign-owned mining industry that employs just a handful of Australians.

Its foreign ownership wouldn’t matter so much if it was paying its fair whack of tax. But we let the miners con us out of imposing a sensible resource rent tax, and now we discover they’re turning legal somersaults to minimise the company tax they pay.

The econocrats have become so defensive towards foreign investment they’ve forgotten the most basic reason for having and managing an economy: self-interest.

Foreign investment is a means, not an end. It’s not our job to make our economy a playground for foreign companies.

We should welcome them and tolerate their self-interested, rent-seeking behaviour only to the extent that it leaves us better off.

Ross Gittins is the Herald’s economics editor.

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