The curious case of Mr Ahmed Fahour

As media and commentators are busy analyzing whether Mr Ahmed Fahour was pushed or he jumped, the crux of the matter is executive pay. Mr Fahour  resigned this week amid controversy over his $5.6 million pay-packet. ABC news radio  this morning (24 February 2017) dubbed him the ‘highest paid postman in the world.’  Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull  commented that  the pay is excessive. Other political leaders such as Senator Nick Xenophon commented “that’s  a lot of postage stamps…” Senator Pauline Hanson was also disgusted with the pay-packet which consists of $4 million salary and $1.2 million bonus.

Whether Mr Fahour is a postman or not, he should be given the due credit  of turning around Australia post from last year’s $222 million loss to $36 million profit this year. This is no mean feat – an improvement of $258 million in one year!  So what went wrong with Mr Fahour?

There are always two sides of the argument. As questionable pay practices are abundant, there is also an element of jealousy when we talk about executive pay. The average citizen or the average shareholder is baffled  by CEO pay. It appears as a mystery why CEOs are paid so much. CEO pay process is highly complex. Firm size, firm profitability, firm growth, firm’s business risk,  and business complexity – all contribute to CEO pay.Besides, we need to value the talent and  the strategic leadership they bring to the corporation.

Whether we like it or not, although Australia Post is a government-owned entity, it has to make a profit, otherwise taxpayers would be subsidizing its operations. And Australia
Post has to survive in a world of  digital disruption where we are increasingly abandoning the tradition ways of communication (‘snail mail’), thus adversely affecting postal business. If Mr Fahour  had been the CEO of a public-listed company, he  would have no issue of receiving this pay-packet. Further, it  is wrong to compare his salary with other government executives or political leaders such as the Prime Minister because  company CEOs and political leaders (or government officials) have very different jobs.

While  there is legislation  such as the “two strikes” rule to  rein in questionable pay practices ( see Monem and Ng, 2013) in public-listed corporations, there is no similar regulation for government-owned entities which are expected to be self-sustained and economically viable. Hence, whether Australia Post is a government office like Centrelink  or a profit-oriented business corporation needs to be settled first.

The 2017 World Development Report on ‘Governance and the Law’

The World Development Report (WDR) 2017 believes that ‘…The global development community needs to move beyond asking ‘what is the right policy’? and instead ask: ‘What makes policies work to produce life-improving outcomes’? It confidently proclaims that the ‘answer is better governance – that is, ‘…the ways in which governments, citizens, and communities engage to design and apply policies’.

WDR 2017 makes an admirable attempt to decipher what good governance means and how it can be acquired. There is a judicious combination of theory and evidence – with the latter diligently marshalled from country-specific, regional and global experiences. Yet, one ends up, perhaps inevitably, with abstract and grand proclamations. Thus, in order to ‘…to improve policy effectiveness and ultimately expand the set of implementable policies, it is necessary to reshape the policy arena where actors bargain. This can be accomplished by enhancing contestability…by changing the incentives of the actors involved, or by reshaping their preferences and beliefs’.

Perhaps the most problematic part of WDR 2017 is the presumption that a consensus exists on ‘right policies’. Really? To take a few  examples, what about the debate on central bank independence and inflation targeting regimes for developing countries? Has the debate  been resolved? And what about fiscal rules as the basis of appropriate fiscal policies? How do we establish robust evidence about ‘right policies’? Cross-country and country-specific econometric investigations? The persistent use of RCTs (randomized control trials)? One cannot ignore the fact that a lively discourse on these and many other development policy issues – inevitably coloured by ideological predilections – continues unabated.

The IMF’s latest pronouncements on ‘macroeconomic management’: an advanced country bias?

In an influential piece co-authored by Maurice Obstfeld, the IMF’s current chief economist, the Fund offers its latest reflections on ‘macroeconomic management’. It notes that globally ‘policy space is constrained’, that is, both monetary and fiscal policy tools lack ‘the power to raise growth or deal with the next negative shock’. Why? Monetary policy is subject to the ‘lower bound’ on policy interest rates. This means that the ‘room to loosen monetary conditions further is limited’. At the same time, ‘many countries have withdrawn fiscal stimulus out of concern for high and rising public debt’? What should one do in such circumstances?

The authors suggest a ‘comprehensive, consistent and coordinated approach to economic policy’. This is an attempt on their part to impart analytical substance to the proclamation by the IMF’s Christine Lagarde in April 2016 that one need a three-prong policy approach. Hence, the three ‘Cs’.

Comprehensive policy actions mean encompassing monetary, fiscal and structural policies. Short-term demand-management policies should be used to support growth-promoting long-term structural reforms and vice versa. Consistency means a continuing commitment to providing nominal anchors for long-term expectations that will guide the private sector in its spending and saving decisions. The two ‘Cs’ should then be complemented by international policy coordination.

Much of what is being said here is not new. The notion of three elements of a holistic policy framework – monetary, fiscal and structural – has been part of global policy discourse and numerous G-20 pronouncements at least since the Toronto Summit of 2010. Most importantly, the latest rendition of the IMF’s prescriptions on macroeconomic policy appear to suffer from an advanced country bias. The paper offers case studies from two advanced countries (Canada and Japan). Only a paragraph is devoted to the case of ‘emerging economies’. The authors simply claim that the insights they offer are ‘relevant for emerging economies as well’.

Well, one needs more than a paragraph to argue how, and in what circumstances, the current treatise on macroeconomic policy is applicable to the developing world. It is doubtful, for example, that the typical developing country suffers from a lower bound on policy interest rates or that, unlike the 1980s or even 1990s, sovereign debt crisis is a widespread phenomenon in the developing world. More importantly, key challenges pertaining to poverty reduction, climate change and structural transformation need to be addressed. Will the three ‘Cs’ be both necessary and sufficient in addressing these challenges?