Monday, May 7, 2012

Reserve steals Swan’s budget forecasts thunder

While normal people are awaiting tomorrow night's federal budget to see if the measures Wayne Swan announces are naughty or nice, misguided souls in business and the financial markets are more interested in knowing Treasury's forecasts for the economy in 2012-13.

Well, wait no more. This year the key forecast for year-average growth in real gross domestic product in 2012-13 is the budget's worst kept secret.

It's taking the people who care about such things a long time to cotton on, but the Reserve Bank always upstages the budget forecasts by issuing its own forecasts as part of its quarterly statement on monetary policy on the Friday before the budget is unveiled on the second Tuesday in May.

This year the Reserve is forecasting year-average growth in 2012-13 of 3 to 3.5 per cent. This tells you Treasury's point forecast is likely to be at the mid-point of the range, 3.25 per cent.

And at a press conference on Friday Swan obliged by confirming that 3.25 per cent is indeed the budget forecast.

If you can't see why the Reserve's forecasts are such a reliable guide to Treasury's you understand neither the bureaucratic process nor the econocratic mind.

Although in theory the two outfits are free to each set their own forecast, in practice they caucus via the quarterly meetings of the joint economic forecasting group. And, in practice, it's rare for their forecasts for any indicator to be more than 0.25 percentage points apart - a difference which, in the highly imprecise world of forecasting, they dismiss as no more than a rounding error.

Just as politicians put their spin on developments, so the media put a spin on the news, preferring to focus on the negative. Thus it was reported that the Reserve "downgraded" its outlook for economic growth.

These cuts, we were told, "underscore the challenges facing the Gillard government" in returning the budget to surplus in 2012-13 - "a task made harder by the slowing growth and the resulting weaker revenue streams".

Don't you believe it. What rate of growth in 2012-13 was Treasury forecasting at the time of the midyear budget review last November? 3.25 per cent. What rate's it forecasting now? 3.25 per cent. That's harder?

It's certainly true the Reserve lowered many of its growth forecasts relative to those in its February statement. In general it cut each of its year-ended forecasts by 0.5 percentage points.

But note this: when it came to its year-average forecasts - those most relevant to the budgeting task - the one for 2012-13 was unchanged at 3 to 3.5 per cent and the one for 2013-14 was unchanged at 3 to 4 per cent.

Here's the point: the news the media didn't think worth passing on is that, notwithstanding its downward revisions, the Reserve is still forecasting that growth will accelerate from now on.

The latest actual figures we have for GDP show it growing by just 2.3 per cent over the year to December - about a percentage point below the medium-term "trend" rate of growth.

But the Reserve now has the pace quickening to 2.75 per cent over the year to this June, to 3 per cent over the year to this December, to 2.5 to 3.5 per cent over the year to next June, the same over the year to December next year and to 3 to 4 per cent over the year to June 2014.

But how, despite all the gloomy talk we keep hearing, can the Reserve forecast a reasonably early return to trend growth? As it explained in its statement on Friday, the answer turns on the reason its forecasts have been too high up to this point.

Ask every businessman and his dog why the economy isn't growing nearly as fast as the Reserve was forecasting and they'll tell you it's because the boffins underestimated the pain being imposed on the non-mining part of the economy by the high dollar.

But that's pretty much the opposite of the Reserve's explanation. It says most of the problem was its over-estimate of growth in production by the mining sector. It assumed the Queensland coalmines flooded in early 2011 would quickly be able to return to full capacity. In fact, it took them most of last year.

The Reserve also assumed new railway and port loading capacity would permit faster growth in mining production and exports than actually occurred.

It now has us returning to trend growth mainly because these problems have been overcome.