Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Is it our future to be China's quarry? Decision 2010

Australia's traditional economic challenges will be turned on their head in this decade.

WHAT our economy needs in the 2010s is success in balancing supply and demand. Does that sound obvious and not very hard? It's neither.

A big part of the problem is neither you nor I nor the politicians are used to thinking of the economic problem in those terms. And even when we do, we define the problem in conventional terms, failing to take account of the ultimate provider of both supply and demand: the natural environment.

Speaking at the nationwide level, when demand exceeds supply we get inflation. When supply exceeds demand we get unemployment. So we need to keep them in alignment to minimise both problems.

But both demand and supply are moving targets. The economy keeps growing, so we need to keep both demand (spending on goods and services) and supply (capacity to produce them) growing at much the same rate.

If the severe difficulties facing European economies were to spread - including to China, India and the developing world - our problem would be one of deficient demand relative to supply, leading to slow growth and rising unemployment.

But the greater likelihood is that our overarching problem will not be deficient demand but deficient supply as we struggle to greatly expand our capacity to meet developing Asia's voracious appetite for our minerals and energy.

Supply is by far the better deficiency to have. It's the problem of the prosperous and successful, not the waning and struggling. But that doesn't stop it being a problem.

In early 2008, before the global financial crisis hit, we were in the midst of a resources boom. Relative to the prices we were paying for our imports, the prices for our exports were the highest in 50 years.

Our economy was operating at close to full capacity. Unemployment was down to 4 per cent, shortages of skilled labour were emerging, factories and other businesses were flat-chat and real wages were rising, although inflation pressure was building and the Reserve Bank had pushed its official interest rate to a 14-year high.

Mainly because Asia's demand for our exports scarcely missed a beat, but also because our domestic recession was so mild, the likelihood is that the resources boom will soon resume and we'll soon return to full capacity.

Everyone assumes it is hardest to manage Australia's economy in bad times. Recessions are painful and economic managers come in for criticism, but it's the good times that are hardest to manage.

Why? It is easy to stimulate demand - with increased government spending, tax cuts and much lower interest rates - but hard to conjure up increased supply. That requires more skilled workers, housing, machines, factories, mines and offices, as well as more public infrastructure: roads, bridges, public transport, power stations, coal loaders and ports.

In the past the solution was to minimise inflation by using high interest rates or tax increases to suppress demand. But we've usually done too much too late and ended up in recession.

However, past booms have been temporary, "cyclical" events caused by brief periods of strong growth in the developed world. This boom, which began in 2003, seems more lasting ("structural") because it arises from the two most populous countries entering decades of economic transformation from underdeveloped to developed.

We're likely to go through an extended period in which supply grows rapidly - we greatly increase the economy's productive capacity. But we're already close to full employment.

Assuming Asia's strong demand for commodities continues, an increase in our capacity to produce coal, iron ore and natural gas is already in train. Business spending on physical investment will soon take its highest share of gross domestic product in half a century.

But when our labour and capital are already pretty much fully employed, the only way we can put more resources into new mines, gas terminals and related infrastructure is by taking those resources from somewhere else.

Some industries (and states) have to give up resources so the mining industry (and the states it is in) can have more resources. This doesn't necessarily mean other industries and states have to contract in absolute terms, it may just mean the lion's share of future annual growth in employment and physical capital goes to mining and the mining states.

Governments can help by adding to the supply of skilled labour (through increased training and skilled migration), well-located land for home building and necessary public infrastructure. But even though the nation's supply constraint moves out each year, and can be made a little faster, it's still a constraint. It still limits how much more we can do. If we try to exceed that limit, all we get is inflation.

A big part of the political problem governments will face is that, after 30 years of high unemployment, the public is locked into a mentality that our key problem is deficient demand, with the implication that any proposed project claimed to create jobs is unquestionably worthy of government support.

The notion that if project X is to create 500 jobs, those workers will have to be taken from jobs elsewhere is foreign to our thinking. What's more, the higher wages it needs to attract workers could provoke a wages bidding war that adds to inflation.

Can you imagine any politician saying a new project requiring 500 workers didn't sound like such a good idea? Welcome to the future challenge.

The economy has a natural mechanism for helping the needed geographical and industrial change in its structure: the floating exchange rate. By going high during resource booms, it squeezes those export and import-competing industries whose demand isn't booming.

But this automatic mechanism will need reinforcement from overt government policy. Adding to supply often involves adding to demand in the first instance. Demand can be divided into spending on consumption and spending on physical investment.

If supply constrains the demand we can accommodate without inflation, but an increased share of demand needs to be devoted to investment - in business plant, housing and public infrastructure - that leaves less room for consumer spending.

A lasting resources boom needs to constrain growth in consumer spending if it's not to involve runaway inflation. Households need to spend less and save more.

The economic managers have ways of combating inflation pressure and discouraging excessive growth in consumption (particularly spending on consumer durables such as cars and major household items, which are usually bought on credit): raise interest rates.

So the bigger and longer the resources boom, the higher you can expect interest rates to be.

Don't like that solution? A better (but only partial) substitute would be for the federal government to run ever-increasing budget surpluses even after its debt is paid back, with the money invested anywhere but in Australia.

We look like we'll need some unfamiliar and controversial policies from the next and future federal governments if we're to exploit our geological and geographical luck without coming unstuck.

And that's just the conventional analysis, which conveniently ignores the natural environment. Responding to the way economic growth is damaging the ecosystem and starting to feed back adversely on the economy will require an extra dimension of unfamiliar and controversial policies.