Saturday, November 19, 2011

The dots linking us to Europe's woes don't join

Humans are story-telling animals. We seek to understand developments in the world around us by turning them into ''narratives''.

When several things happen in the same field, people - including journalists - have a tendency to turn them into a coherent story by stringing them together.

For instance, the biggest economic news story for months has been the trouble the Europeans are having with their currency and high levels of sovereign debt, which are causing huge financial instability.
So, when, in the midst of this, our Reserve Bank cut the official interest rate and revised down its forecasts for the economy's growth, journalists and others joined the dots: clearly, and as might have been expected, the problems in Europe have caused a marked slowing in our economy.

There's just one problem: when you examine the facts, they don't fit the sense-making narrative people have woven them into.

The first point is that, despite the downward revisions to the Reserve's forecasts - which are unlikely to be very different from Treasury's revised forecasts when we see them in the next week or two - the economy isn't expected to slow down.

The truth is we've already had our slowdown when real gross domestic product contracted by 0.9 per cent in the March quarter of this year, mainly because of the effect of the Queensland floods. The economy has been recovering since that setback - but more slowly than expected because it is taking the Queensland coalminers so long to fix their flooded pits.

Over the year to last December, GDP grew by 2.7 per cent. Over the year to March, the growth rate dropped to 1 per cent and, over the year to June, it recovered to 1.4 per cent. The Reserve's latest forecast is for growth of 2.75 per cent over the year to December. Sound like a slowdown to you?

It's forecasting growth of 3 per cent to 3.5 per cent in 2012 and 2013. Is that weak growth? No, it's about ''trend'' - the economy's actual medium-term average rate of growth in the past and also the maximum rate at which it can grow over the coming medium term without worsening inflation, given the economy is already close to full capacity.

But, if the economy isn't slowing at present and isn't expected to slow, why has the Reserve had to revise down its forecasts? Because the economy isn't taking off the way the Reserve had earlier expected it would.

Admittedly, the main reason the economy now seems unlikely to really speed up is the dampening effect of Europe. The continuing saga has hit the sharemarket and made a lot of people feel poorer, as well as sapping the confidence of consumers and, more particularly, business people.

The Reserve cut the official interest rate a click - by 0.25 percentage points to 4.5 per cent - not because it feared disaster was on its way from Europe but because it now realised it wouldn't have as much trouble as it earlier expected keeping inflation within the 2 per cent to 3 per cent range over the next year or two.

A year earlier, it had tightened the ''stance'' of monetary (interest-rate) policy to ''slightly restrictive'' - one click above ''neutral'' (normal) - because it expected the economy to take off and push inflation above the top of the range. But now that was unlikely to happen.

As well, the Bureau of Statistics' move to a new series for the consumer price index had effectively revised history, showing underlying inflation in the June quarter wasn't quite as high as first thought and, for technical reasons, wouldn't rise as much in future.

There's plenty of evidence the economy isn't slowing and isn't likely to slow. For one thing, it's clear all the talk of ''the cautious consumer'' has been overdone. The weakness in retail sales (which in any case have been growing more strongly in recent months) isn't reflected in overall consumer spending, which is growing at about trend.

It turns out consumers have been changing their pattern of consumption rather than slowing the growth in it, buying less from department stores but more from service providers, including the providers of overseas holidays.

The acid test of whether consumers have become cautious is whether their spending is growing at a slower rate than their disposable income, thus causing their rate of saving to rise. The household saving rate seems to have stabilised at 10 per cent of disposable income.

The Reserve's revised forecasts imply it will rise a fraction in the short term, but be stable at 10 per cent over the next two years. If so, the laws of arithmetic say consumer spending will rise in lock-step with disposable income.

As for the index of consumer sentiment, although it fell heavily earlier this year, it's risen for three months in a row.

The economy is still receiving - and is expected to continue receiving - huge stimulus from the rest of the world, in the form of the resources boom. It's coming from the high prices we're getting for our mineral exports, from the growing volume of those exports and from hugely increasing investment spending on the development of new mines and natural gas facilities.

Although the Reserve believes our terms of trade - export prices relative to import prices - probably reached their peak in the September quarter and will now fall back, they're likely to stay better than we're used to. Iron ore prices fell heavily, but more recently are recovering.

It's true the labour market isn't as strong as it was last year. The unemployment rate has edged up from 4.9 per cent to 5.2 per cent. It may rise a little further, but then fall back. Overall, it seems about enough jobs are being created to cover the growth in the labour force.

And remember, with economists believing the lowest unemployment can go without causing inflation is about 4.75 per cent, we aren't travelling too badly.

The new forecasts are built on the assumption that sovereign debt problems in Europe don't cause a marked further deterioration in financial and economic conditions there. ''Fears of a major [global] downturn have not been borne out so far,'' the Reserve says.

There's a fair chance it could still happen, of course. But it's in no one's interests to jump to the conclusion it will.