Saturday, October 8, 2011

Doomsday rate cut scenarios off mark

If the Reserve Bank ends up cutting the official interest rate by 0.25 percentage points on Melbourne Cup Day, it won't be because the economy has weakened so much as because it's not looking as strong - and thus, inflationary - as the Reserve had earlier expected.

The air is full of uncertainty and fear about the fate of the European and American economies, with one excitable pundit even predicting a ''world recession''. But, short of a major meltdown, the North Atlantic countries' troubles won't be a big part of the Reserve's reasons for fine-tuning the stance of its monetary (interest rate) policy.

No one knows what the future holds, and there's a ''non-trivial probability'', as the economists say, that the US economy will start contracting again and, more significantly, the problems in Greece will be so badly handled that the European economies implode.

Were that to happen, be in no doubt: the Reserve wouldn't just be lowering rates by one or two clicks, it would be slashing rates in much the way it did in the global financial crisis of 2008-09. But that's far from the authorities' ''central forecast''. They expect the US to grow by a bit under 2 per cent next year, while the euro area achieves no growth.

What would plunge Europe and the world back into crisis - with Europe entering a period of severe contraction - would be for Greece to leave the euro. That's because of the panic this would cause to euro depositors in many other member-countries.

It's likely the Europeans well understand what they need to do to avoid a conflagration: first, restructure the Greek government's debt (which means bond holders accepting big write-downs); second, recapitalise those European banks hard-hit by the write-down; third, have the European Central Bank purchase large quantities of European governments' bonds so as to lower bond yields and, hence, commercial interest rates.

So the Europeans' problem isn't knowing what to do, it's achieving the agreement of 17 squabbling member-countries to do it. The likeliest outcome is that they do enough to avert catastrophe, but not enough to prevent recurring episodes of financial-market jitters.

Our authorities' forecasts for 2012 aren't far from those the International Monetary Fund published last month. These have the US growing by 1.8 per cent and the euro area by 1.1 per cent. If so, that leaves the world economy growing by, what - 1.5 per cent? No, by 4 per cent - which is about the trend rate of growth. Huh?

What's missing from the sum is China's growth, expected to slow to a mere 9 per cent, and India's, to a paltry 7.5 per cent. Even Latin America is expected to grow by 4 per cent and sub-Saharan Africa by 5.8 per cent.

So much for a world recession.

Weakness in the North Atlantic doesn't equal weakness in Australia by a process of magic. You have to trace linkages between them and us. An important one is psychological: the effect of a sliding sharemarket, worrying news from the North Atlantic and over-excited talk of world recessions on the confidence of Australian consumers and business people.

As for ''real'' (tangible) linkages, these days the US and Europe aren't big export customers of ours. So the key question is the extent to which weakness in the North Atlantic leads to weakness in China, India and the rest of developing Asia.

These days, China is a lot less dependent on exports to the North Atlantic than it used to be. And the Chinese authorities have both the political imperative and the economic instruments needed to keep domestic demand growing fast enough to prevent much of a slowdown in production and employment growth.

So, barring a European implosion, the North Atlantic troubles' effect on us is likely to be limited mainly to their effect on confidence. If so, what are the domestic factors that could lead the Reserve to lower interest rates a little?

In May the Reserve was forecasting growth in 2011 of 4.25 per cent. In August it cut that to 3.25 per cent. Today it would probably say 3 per cent.

But get this: the overwhelming reason for these revisions is the temporary effect of the Queensland floods, in particular the loss of output from coalmines that are taking far longer than expected to resume production.

There have been various highly publicised areas of weakness in the domestic economy - the troubles our manufacturers are having coping with a high exchange rate, very weak department store sales and weak housing starts - but overall (and excluding extreme weather events), there's little sign of weakness.

Despite the much-publicised fall in

consumer confidence, consumer spending grew by 3.2 per cent over the year to June, bang on trend. Business investment has been strong and is sure to get stronger. And earlier figures showed worsening inflation and worryingly strong growth in labour costs per unit of production.

Indicators released this week show strong growth in exports and strengthening retail sales, home building approvals and non-residential building approvals.

The strongest evidence of weakening is in the labour market, with employment growth clearly slowing from its earlier fast past, and the unemployment rate jumping 0.4 percentage points to 5.3 per cent in just two months.

But this is a puzzle because, though growth in employment is weak, growth in hours worked isn't. And though surveyed unemployment is supposed to have jumped, the number of people on the dole is steady.

So how does the Reserve come to be contemplating lowering the official interest rate a little? Because its job is to keep interest rates at a level sufficient to keep inflation travelling within its 2 to 3 per cent target range, and the outlook for inflation has become less threatening.

For a start, the Bureau of Statistics has revised the underlying inflation rate over the year to June from 2.75 per cent to 2.5 per cent. Second, the outlook for economic growth isn't quite as strong as it had been. And third, the atmospherics of the labour market have improved, with more consumers worried about losing their jobs and employers less worried about the emergence of excessive wage demands.

The present stance of monetary policy is ''mildly restrictive''. But if the risk of inflation rising above the target range is now much reduced, the stance of policy should be returned to neutral. That would require a fall in the official rate of just one click - two at most.