Wednesday, November 10, 2010


Talk to Watermark’s CEO lunch, Sydney
November 10, 2010

The immediate outlook for our economy is for strengthening growth. Our economy’s trend or ‘potential’ rate of growth is about 3.25 per cent a year, but the Reserve Bank is forecasting growth of 3.5 per cent this calendar year, rising to 3.75 per cent next year and 4 per cent in 2012. At present most of the growth is coming from the high prices we’re receiving for our exports of coal and iron ore. Australia’s terms of trade are the best they’ve been at least since Federation, excluding the two-quarter spike in wool prices during the Korean war. Those high prices are likely to fall back somewhat over the next year or two, but by then the stimulus to growth is likely to be coming from an unprecedented program of investment in mining and natural gas production capacity.

If you find it hard to believe the economy is travelling so well it’s probably because some parts of the economy aren’t doing all that well. Retailing is doing it tough because, though households have growing incomes, they’re saving a higher proportion of that income and tending to pay down their debts rather than add to them. This position probably won’t last long, but the longer it does the better. Why would I say that? Because the looming massive boom in business investment - mainly mining investment - will be more than enough to keep the economy growing strongly, and if we add a consumption boom on the top of that the Reserve Bank will have no choice but to limit inflation pressure by pushing interest rates up even further than it would already have had to.

If you’re still not convinced the economy is travelling so well at present you have to explain why the labour market is so strong. Employment grew by almost 340,000 over the year to September - up more than 3 per cent - and unemployment is down to 5.1 per cent. Even in what many regard as the basket-case economy of NSW, employment has grown by 2.5 per cent and the unemployment rate is down to 5.2 per cent.

That last comparison leads me to the next point I want to make: don’t overdo the two-speed economy stuff. It is true the resources boom is concentrated in Queensland and Western Australia, but the links between the state economies are strong and income flows very readily across state borders. The federal government’s taxing and spending helps to bring that about, as does the way the Grants Commission divides up the GST revenue between the states. But the states also trade with each other so money that’s earned in one state often gets spent in another. Another point to note is that Queensland’s economy isn’t travelling all that well at present, mainly because its tourist industry has been hard hit by the high dollar.

But the main thing I want to say is this: although the major developed economies are likely to experience very weak growth over the rest of the decade, we look like having a decade-long mining investment boom. It’s possible, of course, that the Chinese economy could fall over and leave us in the lurch, but I don’t think it’s very likely. I’ll worry about that if it happens. So, on the face of it, we look like having a great time while most of our rich mates do it tough. But here’s the trick: for a lot of people - a lot of industries - the great boom of the 2010s isn’t likely to be much fun. Why not? Because we’re re-entering the resources boom with the economy already close to full capacity, which means the Reserve will be eternally worried about inflation and will never have its hand far from the interest rate lever. Economists regard full employment as an unemployment rate of about 4.75 per cent. If it goes much lower than that you get growing shortages of skilled labour and upward pressure on wages, which flows through to the prices of goods and services. Just last week the Reserve made the first 0.25 percentage-point move from a neutral stance of monetary policy to a restrictive stance. It has a long way further to go as it seeks to keep inflation within it 2 to 3 per cent target range over the rest of the decade.

The high interest rates are likely to be accompanied by a high exchange rate. It will be high not so much because interest rates are high as because export prices are high, because money is pouring into Australia to finance the mining investment boom and because the prospects for our economy will be so much more attractive than for the other developed economies.

This high exchange rate means our non-mining export and import-competing industries - farming, manufacturing, tourism and education - are likely to be continuously under the gun. Life’s going to be very tough for them for a protracted period. There won’t be a lot governments can do to ease the pressure on them, and there won’t be a lot their econocrats want them to do. There is some scope for big increases in the budget surplus to limit the upward pressure on interest rates, but this is easily exaggerated. From an economist’s perspective, the pressure the high exchange rate imposes on the non-mining tradeables industries isn’t a bad thing, it’s a good thing. It’s part of the way a floating exchange rate helps to limit inflation during a protracted resources boom. With the economy already at full employment, the problem is finding the additional labour and capital needed by the expanding resources sector. But the high exchange rate causes the non-mining tradeables industries to contract, thus releasing resources to flow to the resources sector. Immigration is another source of skilled labour, of course.

The other way to think of it is that we’re likely to be entering a protracted period of a perpetually tight labour market. Combine the long boom with the ageing of the population and employers will really know they’re alive. It will be a period where they’re always on the lookout for more skilled staff, where they’re trying to accommodate baby boomers rather than have them retire and trying to encourage staff loyalty. Those with more sense will be focusing on training and internal promotion rather than poaching the staff of other firms.

Turning to the political outlook, the dust is settling after the extraordinary events of this year and a few things are becoming clearer. First point is to abandon any expectation that the minority Gillard government could fall at any moment. The independents whose votes would be needed to bring about the government’s defeat have as great a motive for not doing that as the government has for wanting to survive. In any case, we’ve had plenty of experience of minority governments at the state level and we know they tend to be long-lasting. Similarly, I wouldn’t assume that, just because the Libs came so close to winning this time, they’re dead set to win the next election whenever it’s held. If Gillard survives for the best part of three years it’s anyone’s guess as to the relative standing of the two parties at that time. Gillard may have found respect and affection in the heart of the electorate by then - she’ll certainly be trying to - or Abbott may have revealed the more erratic and manic side of his character that led so many people to write him off. Three years of unrelenting opposition to everything - punch, punch, punch - could wear very thin with an electorate that gets terribly tired of seeing politicians perpetually arguing with each other. Or Abbott may grow in stature in the job, as may Gillard. The big question is whether Gillard has a learning curve. I think Rudd had no such learning curve, but there’s little doubt this Labor government has a lot to learn about governing. Labor has proved to be remarkably amateurish, even in the matter of political spin. It thought the game was about spin; it turned out to be about communicating to the electorate your vision, determination, diligence and competence.

In contrast to Rudd - and notwithstanding pink batts and the BER - Gillard is a highly competent administrator, she listens, consults and carries people with her - her own side, the bureaucrats and even the interest groups. She’s a highly experienced and skilful negotiator. What she’s not is a person of great conviction and charisma. With the retirement of Lindsay Tanner, this government is down to just one economic rationalist, Craig Emerson - that is, just one person with a deep understanding of how markets work and a commitment to making them work well. The rest of the government just pretends to be rational reformers because they feel that, politically, they have no choice. Labor has an inferiority complex in the area of budgeting, and is very conscious of the fact that it continues in office with the consent of business - particularly big business; it is constantly seeking the approval of business and is wary of doing anything that might seriously annoy business.

Many people have been expecting this minority government to be a weak government: a government that doesn’t have much direction and doesn’t get much done because it can’t get the numbers on anything. Maybe a government that’s obliged to do stupid, wasteful things to keep in with the motley collection of independents on whose support it depends. We haven’t seen much sign of this yet - perhaps it’s too early - and I’m not sure this will end up being a major issue. From my perspective, this is likely to be a weak government more because it doesn’t believe in anything much and its lack of conviction robs it of the courage to do anything very unpopular.

In a speech she gave last night, Gillard spelt out her core beliefs - the things that drive her politically: hard work, education, respect. Hard work means being self-reliant. Education as the main way people get a chance to better themselves. Respect - some people aren’t better than others because of their title, occupation or background.

She also spelt out her government’s vision for Australia: a strong economy, and opportunity for all. More jobs, more opportunity, better life chances. For all, not some.

Finally, she left us with a clear idea of her agenda: a price on carbon, a decision on water and getting the budget back into surplus by 2012-13. No doubt you could add pressing on with the NBN, bedding down the mining tax, finding a regional solution to asylum seekers and a few other things - but an old agenda (no addition of major new items) and a modest agenda, one with about as much challenge as she feels able to cope with.