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Key departmental publications, e.g. annual reports, budget papers and program guidelines are available in our online archive.

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Estimating Values for Australia's Native Forests

Environmental Economics Research Paper No.4
This report was prepared by consultants
Francis Grey Consulting Economist At Large and Associates for the Department of the Environment, Sport and Territories.

Commonwealth of Australia, 1996
ISBN 0 642 24863 X

5. Conclusion: Microeconomic Reform & Due Consideration of All Values.

The native forest is capable of producing three major categories of values. These are:

This report has sought to examine the issue of giving each type of value 'full and due consideration' in policy processes. Three themes have recurred throughout this study.

The emphasis on achieving a level playing field is in the spirit of the microeconomic reform process that has taken place over recent years, and continues with recent reports such as the Hilmer Inquiry (NCP, 1993). Sims described microeconomic reform as occurring when

changes are made to achieve more output from a given level of inputs. (Galligan et al, 1993:15).

The output from the forests is intended to maximise the social welfare of the community. For this reason, microeconomic reform in the forest sector must seek to arrange the three sets of values above so that welfare is maximised.

The implication of the need for micro-economic reform is that the sector is not making an optimal contribution to the quality of Australian life. This review of reports on the forest sector suggest that there is considerable potential for microeconomic reform in two dimensions.

If the microeconomic reform process (optimising social benefits) in the forest sector is to succeed, the estimation of the worth of the three categories of value described above must be accurate. It would appear that estimation of these three categories of value is presently inaccurate. This inaccuracy would confound any attempt to derive optimal social benefits.

5.1. Effects of miscalculating financial values.

The impact of miscalculating the financial value of timber production is significant for Australia's macro-economic performance. Firstly, it overestimates the financial worth of timber production vis a vis some other form of commercial activity. The Read Sturgess report (1992) made it clear that it was more financially valuable for the Upper Thomson catchment to supply water than to supply timber, and consequently more profitable for the economy. The overestimation of the worth of forestry would tend to hide this potential economic 'free lunch'. Other competing uses for the forest may be similarly affected. More generally, the over-valuation of forestry financial values disguises what may be net losses in this sector which are actually diminishing the wealth of Australia unlike other commercially viable industries.

Failure to accurately value forestry also leaves the commercial operations of the forestry commissions vulnerable to an income shortfall in the event of corporatisation. Even without corporatisation, the poor measurement processes for forestry blind the commissions to other profit centres such as leasing forests to supply water to regional communities with expanding industries.

Over-valuation of forestry through poor input pricing, in addition to affecting competing uses of the forest, also undermines industries that provide substitutes for forest timber ranging from plantations to steel production. Inefficient input pricing in native timber production undermines all competing industries, all other things being equal. This report has focused on the 'collateral damage' caused to the plantation industry. However, what applies to the private plantation industry, also applies, probably on a lesser scale, to other industries that compete with native forest timber. The private plantation industry (NPAC, 1991) is one clearly visible victim of an 'unlevel' playing field in the forest sector.

The over-valuation of native forest harvesting undervalues, by definition, the product of plantations. This leads to lower levels of investment, employment and wealth creation than may otherwise have occurred. It prevents the development of value-added timber industries that can further develop on the basis of a plantation resource. This presents the Australian economy with a 'double loss'. T h e macro-economy loses, marginally at least, from harvesting native forests, and then loses again through the disincentive effects on plantations. Other industries may suffer as well. Finally, there is a third loss built into the playing field, which are the microeconomic distortions, such as poor taxation arrangements, identified by NPAC (1991), that inhibit the plantation industry. The microeconomic distortions in the plantation sector alter the financial calculus such that the value of native timber is enhanced relative to plantation timber. In addition these microeconomic distortions cause a further round of macro-economic losses from the plantation industry.

The structural distortions within the forestry sector, and within other sectors both competing and substitute, compound the overvaluation of forest timber relative to other values. This causes a loss of income, jobs and a waste of capital as private agents respond to these inappropriate signals.

5.2. The effects of miscalculating NFV's.

The second major impact of overvaluing forestry financial values, is felt on non-financial values. Over-estimating of forestry financial values also underestimates, by definition, the relative worth of non-financial values. Thus the process of evaluating non-financial values is seriously handicapped from the beginning. The significance of this was pointed out by Sims, in another context, when he stated

Clearly our objectives are broader than maximising GDP. For example pollution in our cities is of general concern. It might be that including externalities in prices would decrease environmental damage and decrease growth, but improve overall living standards. (Galligan et al, 1993:17, emphasis added)

Two points flow from the comments by Sims.

Firstly, Sims appears to be giving emphasis to a commonly-held view that environmental improvement can only be achieved at a cost to the economy. This review has indicated, in a very clear manner, that in the forest sector financial gains (see note below) can be achieved whilst making environmental improvements. The view espoused by Sims presumes that the 'balance' between environmental and financial considerations is 'efficient'; that is, in the context of this report, the evaluation of the financial worth of native forests has been accurately calculated. The evidence indicates that the balance is inefficient, because calculations of financial and alternative financial values, as well as NFV's are inaccurate. Therefore, this report indicates that improvement in environmental conditions, over a very large margin, will improve financial conditions as well.

At some point along the policy continuum, improving environmental conditions will negatively affect financial conditions - but the forest sector, along with many other sectors, is not at this point, and indeed is a long way from it. Microeconomic reform in the forest sector has the potential to bring environmental improvement in its wake by removing financial inefficiencies that have contributed to over-exploitation of the environment.

The implication of financial 'inefficiency' in the sector needs to be clearly understood. It implies that society could be financially better off if certain microeconomic reforms were undertaken. The implication of 'economic' inefficiency is that, in the context of this report, the environment and the financial wealth of society, could be better off, leading to an unambiguous improvement in society's level of 'satisfaction'. In this sense, when 'financial inefficiency' is present, microeconomic reform and environmental policy can be complementary, and not competing policies.

Secondly, failure to evaluate non-financial values relative to financial values accurately is critically important to maximising 'overall living standards'. The benefits that are provided to Australians from NFV's can also be described as 'psychic income' (see note below).

These benefits also have the fortuitous 'collateral' benefit of also attracting tourists, and hence contributing to the expansion of this critical export industry.

Non-financial values provide direct inputs into the daily consumption of Australian citizens and even to foreigners through tourism, wildlife films and existence values. An assessment framework which seeks to optimise benefits to the community, but which does not recognise these non-financial values can generate financial flows that actually undermine community well-being. This happens because the source of much 'psychic income' (ie. the natural environment) has been lost and replaced by financial benefits that are too small to compensate. If non-financial values are to be given their full and due consideration, then financial and alternative financial values must be correctly evaluated.

This review has identified that there are significant inefficiencies in the estimation of value in the forest sector. The presence of these inefficiencies in the market activities of the forest sector is due to structural distortions. The structural distortions contribute to poor financial and environmental performance. There is a considerable social, environmental and financial dividend to be achieved by microeconomic reform in the forest sector. Microeconomic reform requires that a 'trilogy' of assessments be made: evaluate financial values (FV's), evaluate alternative financial values (AFV's) and evaluate non-financial values ( NFV 's). Continuation of present practices such as failure to 'estimate value' accurately will cost Australia in lost jobs, lower incomes and a diminished environmental quality of life.

Notes

Here this report distinguishes between financial gains that contribute to the overall health of the financial economy, and economic gains that contribute to the overall state of social well-being. Improvements in financial well-being are commonly referred to as economic gains, for example improved resource allocation, because of the easy but methodologically sloppy habit of referring to the financial activities of the Australian society as the 'economy'. Accurately the economy is the process by which we gain 'welfare', a part of which is the financial gains offered by financial activity.

In another circumstance, when a Treasury officer was asked to described the non-pecuniary benefits of working in Treasury, he called these benefits 'psychic income'.

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