Monday, December 12, 2011

Reserve has re-assessed outlook for world growth

Just as a stopped clock is right twice a day, so the financial markets' belief that Europe's sovereign debt problems are the primary factor influencing the Reserve Bank's decisions about interest rates, having been wrong for most of the year, has finally proved on the money.

A psychologist would say the financial markets have been suffering a "salience" problem. Their judgments about how the Reserve will adjust the official rate have been overly influenced by the factor sticking out in their minds and also on their minds most recently: Europe.

If Europe is on their front burner, it must also be on the Reserve's. Since the outlook for Europe is so worrying and so conducive to slower economic growth, the markets have for months been predicting that big falls in our official rate are imminent.

Month after month the markets have stuck to this view, ignoring the Reserve's twice-monthly explanations of its thinking, which, while acknowledging the worries and uncertainties over Europe, have repeatedly emphasised the state of the domestic economy and, in particular, the outlook for domestic inflation, as key considerations.

So when, on Melbourne Cup day, the Reserve acted for the first time in a year and chose to lower interest rates by a notch, the markets weren't surprised. But they were right for the wrong reason. As the Reserve made clear, it was able to ease a notch because the economy wasn't accelerating to the extent it had been expecting, thus making the Reserve more confident inflation would stay on track over the next year or two.

But all that changed last week, when the Reserve eased the rate another notch, this time making it clear its decision had been influenced by the changed prospects for the global economy.

So what exactly were its motivations? Was it taking out a little insurance, fearing the worst might come to the worst in Europe? No, nothing so dramatic.

It doesn't take many brain cells to get the wind up over Europe and assume the worst. It takes more brain power to quietly assess the probability of a complete disaster. And more again to assess the strength of any troubles in Europe by the time the ripples reach the Antipodes via China.

By now, the shape of the solution to Europe's problem is reasonably clear. The 17 member countries of the euro area (or, if they insist, almost all the members of the European Union) need to sign up to a new fiscal compact, which imposes limits on the size of their budget deficits and levels of public debt relative to gross domestic product, with automatic penalties for countries that breach these limits.

The pact would also impose timetables for countries presently well in excess of those limits to comply with them, again with penalties for breaches.

Once these strictures had been ratified - thus plugging the obvious hole in the euro currency union, as well as guaranteeing the errant borrowers would mend their ways - the European Central Bank would be willing to start buying up the bonds of member countries, thus forcing down their yields.

It would cut its official interest rate to next to nothing and engage in "quantitative easing" (buying government bonds to cover deficit spending and so, in effect, printing money). Thus all the budgetary contraction would be offset to some extent by monetary stimulus.

While it's painfully apparent the European leaders are having trouble getting their act together - thus increasing the risk of disaster occurring by accident - it's also apparent they're neither fools nor suicidal.

So to assume Europe is headed inevitably for an implosion - as many punters seem to - strikes me as nothing more than unthinking pessimism. Our more experienced observers put the probability of a complete disaster no higher than about one chance in three.

This says the chances are twice as high that Europe will muddle through. But it's clear that even if the full calamity of a collapse in the euro is averted, even if everyone dons their fiscal straitjacket, the financial markets calm down and ordinary life resumes, the outlook for the European economy is particularly weak.

All those economies committed to the fiscal austerity of tax increases and swingeing spending cuts - and it will be quite a few of them - face the dismal prospect of fiscal contraction leading to reduced revenue, reduced revenue leading to a need for more fiscal contraction, and so on and on.

If you wonder how any politician could agree to such an appalling exercise, you're starting to understand why Europe's politicians have had so much trouble getting themselves up to the barrier. They've had to reach the realisation the financial markets - which went for years happily lending them more money than was good for them - are now not going to tolerate any easier or more sensible work-out of their debt problems.

For our purposes, it's now clear the greatest likelihood is negative to flat growth in Europe for at least the next year or two (the forecast period) and probably far longer. It's also clear that, while the US economy has gained momentum recently, it too faces unavoidable fiscal contraction, if not next year then in 2013.

With evidence China's exports to Europe are already being hit, the Reserve decided last week to revise down its forecasts for world growth. This will change its forecasts for domestic growth and inflation only a little, but it was enough to raise the Reserve's confidence it could cut rates another notch without jeopardising achievement of its inflation target.

Meanwhile, the financial markets are betting the official rate will have fallen by another 1.5 percentage points by the middle of next year. I call that courageous.