Monday, February 21, 2011

The economy is a lion disguised as a lamb

The big divide in economists' views on the outlook for the economy - and hence, for interest rates - is whether they regard the present weakness in consumer spending as worrying or welcome. And that turns on how forward-looking they are.

I suspect it's also affected by what psychologists call "salience" - the tendency for our judgments to be most affected by those events that are highly visible and memorable, those that make the biggest impression on us. Looking at the economy now, what stands out is the weakness of consumer spending, including quite anaemic growth in retail sales. Tourism - whether inbound or domestic - is another area of weakness, badly affected by the high dollar.

So weak is consumer spending that it's putting downward pressure on a lot of retail prices. As Dr Philip Lowe, of the Reserve Bank, pointed out last week, over the past year the Bureau of Statistics' price index for clothing has fallen by 6 per cent (assisted by a fall in import duty on footwear, clothing and textiles at the beginning of last year).

The various indexes have fallen by 4 per cent for major household appliances, 1.5 per cent for furniture and furnishings and by 18 per cent for audio, visual and computing equipment. Indeed, apart from processed food, the prices of very few manufactured goods rose during the past year.

Lowe suspects the weak consumer spending has led to a faster than usual pass-through to retail prices of the substantial appreciation of the dollar, which has lowered the cost of imported goods and services (and also put downward pressure on the prices of locally made goods and services that compete against imports in the domestic market). His suspicions are confirmed by the research of Kieran Davies, of Royal Bank of Scotland, who found the weakness of retail prices was more likely to be the result of pass-through of the higher exchange rate than the compression of retailers' margins.

Davies notes that, unless the dollar appreciates further (not something I'd wish for), the exchange rate's dampening effect on inflation will soon start to wane.

All this spells tough times for the retailers, and their lamentations have had much publicity. So it's easy to see the economy as going through quite a weak patch. This impression will be compounded when we see the way the Queensland floods and cyclone Yasi have taken a bite out of the growth in gross domestic product in the December and, more particularly, March quarters.

Little wonder the financial markets aren't expecting any further increases in the official interest rate until quite late this year, and the governor of the Reserve Bank, Glenn Stevens, thinks rates are "about right for the medium-term outlook". But I think there's a lot more strength behind the economy than all the surface noise would suggest. If I'm right, the rate rises will resume earlier than the markets presently expect.

For a start, the blow from the extreme weather events largely represents the displacement of activity from the March quarter to the June and later quarters. The Reserve is expecting the level of GDP to be no lower by the end of this year than was expected before the floods happened.

For another thing, the weakness in consumer spending is occurring because of a reversion to our earlier saving habits and a (presumably temporary) bout of caution. In other words, consumers aren't short of a bob, they're choosing not to spend.

It's not the sort of thing the media shout about, but household disposable income grew by 6.4 per cent over the year to September in nominal terms. It's being boosted by two major sources of present and future growth: our most favourable terms of trade in 140 years and strong growth in employment. The Reserve's index of commodity prices has risen by almost half over the past year. This doesn't add to GDP directly, but it does add to the nation's real income which, when spent, becomes more visible.

Another less salient factor is the strength of the labour market. Over the year to January, total employment grew by 3 per cent. Within that, full-time employment grew by 3.4 per cent. The unemployment rate is down to 5 per cent, while the rate of participation in the labour force is at a near record high of 65.9 per cent.

This is not the hallmark of a weak economy - quite the reverse. It also gives the lie to the silly talk of a two-speed economy. You may object that the labour market's yet to register the effect of the weak retail sector but, in fact, the various forward indicators suggest employment will continue growing strongly.

And to top off all that there's the least salient factor of all: the looming wall of mining construction spending. Consider this quote from the latest statement on monetary policy: "For some time, the [Reserve] has been expecting very strong growth in resources sector investment.

"The information received over recent months has provided greater confidence in this forecast, with announced plans to date at least as strong as had been expected."

All this is what you see when you lift your eyes from hard-pressed retailers and look at what's in the pipeline. When you do you see that, from a wider perspective, the fact we're not yet adding a consumption boom to a business investment boom is more welcome than worrying.

The economy's potential rate of economic growth is only about 3.25 per cent a year and, with unemployment already down to 5 per cent, we have little spare production capacity.

Even so, the Reserve is forecasting growth of about 4.25 per cent over this year, with growth of 3.75 to 4 per cent in the following years.

Sounds like a recipe for higher interest rates to me.