Saturday, August 28, 2010

Numbers say we're growing quite nicely

The mildness of last year's recession means the economy has now entered its 20th year of growth since the deep recession of the early 1990s. But how has this growth been distributed through the economy? That's a question Ric Battellino, the deputy governor of the Reserve Bank, set out to answer in a most informative speech last week.

It's a question you can answer in different ways. For a start, since June 1991, 3.5 million additional jobs have been created, representing an average increase of 2 per cent a year. Income per household has risen in total by 30 per cent in real terms.

But this means employment grew faster than the population. How was this possible? Because there was a rise in the proportion of the population choosing to participate in the workforce and also because of a fall in the rate of unemployment from 9 per cent to a little over 5 per cent.

When you divide the growth between the states, however, it was quite uneven. Over the 18 years to 2008-09, Queensland grew at an average rate of 4.8 per cent a year, followed by Western Australia on 4.5 per cent. Victoria came third on 3.7 per cent. At the rear came South Australia, Tasmania and NSW on about 2.9 per cent.

But much of this faster economic growth came because of faster population growth. Queensland's population grew at the rate of 2.2 per cent a year, followed by Western Australia on 1.8 per cent, Victoria (1.2 per cent), NSW (1 per cent), South Australia (0.6 per cent) and Tasmania (0.4 per cent).

So it turns out when you look at growth per person - that is, at the growth in material living standards - much of the disparity disappears. Western Australia's average growth in real income per person of 2.7 per cent was just a fraction faster than Queensland's (2.6 per cent) and Victoria and Tasmania's (both 2.5 per cent). Then came South Australia on 2.3 per cent and NSW on 1.8 per cent.

Thus a 2 percentage point disparity in income growth between the fastest and slowest states was reduced to less than a 1 percentage point disparity after allowing for population growth.

Similarly, the disparity in unemployment rates isn't all that great, with most states ending up on 5.6 per cent, but with Tasmania on 6.5 per cent and WA on 4.4 per cent.

Another question is how the increased income over the period was distributed between households of different income levels. If you imagine it's got a lot more unequal, then you've been reading too many newspapers.

"Income relativities across the bulk of the population did not change much over the period, though the relative position of households in the top 10 per cent of the income distribution improved somewhat, and that of households in the lowest 10 per cent deteriorated," Battellino said.

One area where there has been sizeable differences in growth performance is between industries.

Over the 17 years to June 2009, Australia's total output grew at an average rate of 3.6 per cent a year and each of the 14 industry categories recorded positive growth in their output. But some grew faster than the national average and some grew more slowly than it.

Those growing at rates well above the average included financial services, professional and technical services, and construction. Those growing at rates well below the average included agriculture and manufacturing.

Now we've covered the differing growth rates, we can look at how the structure of industry has changed - that is, at industries' changing shares of the economy.

The financial services sector's share of total output (gross domestic product) has grown by a remarkable 3.8 percentage points to 10.8 per cent, making it now our biggest industry.

The financial sector has long grown faster than the rest of the economy in all the developed countries because we've been borrowing and lending more, saving more for retirement through pension funds (in Australia, because 9 per cent of wages is going into super funds) and doing more to manage risks by use of derivatives.

Just how sensibly based all this financial activity has been we may now question, following the global financial crisis and its revelations. It might not be a bad thing for the financial sector to grow at a slower rate than the rest of the economy in coming years.

The mining sector's share of GDP has grown by 2.7 percentage points to 7.7 per cent, probably the biggest it's been since the gold rush and bigger than any other developed country can claim.

Even so, that's probably not as big as many people have imagined from all the fuss about the resources boom. But with the growth of mining has gone the rise in the construction sector's share of GDP, by 1.1 percentage points to 7.4 per cent.

You may imagine that, to the extent it comes from the building of new mines and natural gas facilities, this increase in construction will be temporary. Not that temporary. The miners have plans to keep constructing new facilities for the rest of the decade at least.

Leaving aside China's continuing demand for our resources, if India keeps growing at the rates it has been over the past decade it will need huge quantities of iron ore, and much of that will come from Australia.

The growth in mine building probably also does much to explain the rise in the share of the "professional, scientific and technical services" sector by 1.8 percentage points to 6.1 per cent.

But if some industries' shares of the economy are getting bigger, others' shares must be getting smaller. The two stand-out cases are agriculture (down 0.7 percentage points to a mere 2.6 per cent of GDP) and manufacturing (down 4.6 percentage points to 9.4 per cent). So the past 17 years have seen manufacturing decline from our largest industry to our fourth largest (after financial services, education and health, and retail and wholesale). Remember, both agriculture and manufacturing are producing a lot more than they did in the early '90s; it's just that other sectors have grown faster.

Many people lament manufacturing's declining importance in our economy (and every other developed economy) as economies become more services-intensive and less goods-intensive and as the global growth in manufacturing shifts to the developing world. But as Battellino observes, manufacturing's small share of our economy has been one reason we fared so well over the past couple of decades (not to mention in the global financial crisis).