Monday, October 27, 2014

Econocrats touch base with reality

As every small-business person knows, the econocrats who think they manage the economy sit in their offices without ever meeting real people. Instead, they pore over figures the Bureau of Statistics bods dream up without ever leaving their desks.

That last bit has always been wrong. Small business is run by people who think their sales this week equal the state of the national economy. If the official figures don't line up with their experience, some bureaucrat must be lying.

The first bit - that the macro managers look at stats without ever talking to business people - used to be true, but hasn't been since some time after the severe recession of the early 1990s.

That was when Treasury (and yours truly) was supremely confident the economy would have a "soft landing". For once, people who knew no economics but had heard the squeals coming from business were right and the supposed experts were wrong.

The econocrats' disdain for "anecdotal evidence" had led them badly astray. They learnt the obvious lesson: as well as studying the stats, they needed to keep their ears to the ground.

But what even many well-versed observers probably don't realise is just how much effort the Reserve Bank puts into its consultations with business and how seriously it takes the results. The workings of its "business liaison program" are described in an article in the Reserve's latest quarterly Bulletin.

The program was put on a highly systematic basis in 2001, so as to lift it above the level of anecdote. Specialised officers talk to up to 100 businesses a month. You try to speak to a range of businesses (or, failing that, industry associations) in each of the economy's industries. You speak to the same people each time, asking the same questions and seeking quantification where possible.

You stay conscious of the gaps in your industry coverage. Ensuring you speak to businesses across the nation means "liaison" is the main role of the Reserve's state branches. Ideally, this should alert you to differences between the state economies.

Some industries are dominated by few big companies, making them easier to cover. But others - particularly the service industries - are composed mainly of small businesses. This is much harder and it's where you may need to fall back on industry associations.

Firms are asked about the usual key variables: sales, investment spending, employment, wages, prices and margins.

The Reserve uses its liaison more to determine where the economy is now - and where particular industries are in their business cycle - than where it's headed.

Most of the intelligence it produces ends up fitting reasonably well with the official statistics, but in some cases it comes in earlier than the stats.

It's a reasonable fit also with the NAB survey of business conditions and confidence, which the Reserve always studies carefully.

The Reserve's well-established links with key businesses allow it to "hit the phones" at times of great uncertainty, such as the global financial crisis. Its liaison made it among the first to realise business was responding differently to the downturn in demand, preferring wage freezes and cuts in hours to mass layoffs.

Its contact with miners made it among the first to realise the biggest hangover from the Queensland cyclone in 2011 wouldn't be farming but the surprising delay in getting the water out of flooded coalmines.

Right now its resource contacts will help improve its guesses about the precise timing of the probably sharp fall-off in mining investment spending.

By now other central banks, including the Bank of Canada and the Bank of England, also conduct big business liaison programs, but our lot were early adopters.

Now you're better informed about the Reserve's use of liaison you're likely to be more conscious of the many references to its findings in the bank's pronouncements.

The Reserve regularly reviews the accuracy of its forecasts and publishes the sobering results. So does Treasury, for that matter. Neither institution pretends its forecasts are much more than educated guesses.

The central bankers haven't been able to detect that their liaison has done anything to improve the accuracy of their forecasts.

But it would a brave - or foolhardy - person who concluded from this that it was wasting its time. Managing the economy without major mishap is a bit trickier than getting forecasts spot on.