Monday, December 8, 2014

Economy: not good, but not disastrous

Don't drop your bundle. It's not clear the economy has slowed to the snail's pace a literal reading of the latest national accounts suggests. As for the talk of a "technical income recession", it's just silly.

What is clear is that, at best, the economy continues to grow at the sub-par rate of about 2.5 per cent a year, a rate insufficient to stop unemployment continuing to edge up. This has been true for more than two years.

A literal reading of last week's national accounts from the Bureau of Statistics says the economy - real gross domestic product - grew by a mere 0.3 per cent in the September quarter, down from growth of 0.5 per cent in the previous quarter and 1 per cent in the quarter before that.

But if we've learnt anything by now, it's that it's folly to take the quarterly national accounts too literally. They're just a first stab at the truth, based on incomplete and often inaccurate data.

The initial estimate for growth in any quarter will be revised - up and down - up to a dozen times before the bureau is satisfied it has got it pretty right. Reserve Bank governor Glenn Stevens referred recently to "the vagaries of quarterly national accounting".

Frankly, I don't believe the economy slowed markedly in the three months to September, or the six months, for that matter. If it were true, surely we wouldn't need to be told about it by the national accounts two months after the fact.

Since all individual economic indicators have their weaknesses and inaccuracies - meaning none should be taken too literally - the only adult way to proceed is to see if the signal coming from one key indicator fits with the overall message coming from the other indicators.

On the basis of what all the other indicators are saying, the forecasters - official and unofficial - expected growth in the September quarter of 0.6 per cent or 0.7 per cent, which would be consistent with the view we're still travelling at about 2.5 per cent a year.

When the published figures turn out to be half that, this suggests either that all the forecasters got something badly wrong, or that it's the published initial estimate that's wrong and likely to be revised up to something closer to what we expected.

The way we'll be able to tell whether the economy really has slowed to a crawl is by watching the rate at which unemployment rises in coming months. At the 2.5 per cent a year speed, it's worsening at a rate averaging 0.1 percentage points a quarter.

If that average rises, we'll know things are much worse than they were.

As for the "technical income recession", it proves little. Make a note that, in this context, the word "technical" is warning that what follows is based on an arbitrary rule with little sense to it.

"Technical" means two quarters of contraction in a row equal a recession. So one quarter of huge contraction isn't a recession, and two negative quarters separated by a zero quarter aren't a recession, but two consecutive negative quarters are a recession no matter how tiny the falls (or whether one is subsequently revised away).

"Real gross domestic income" is real gross domestic product adjusted for the change in our terms of trade during the quarter. Since, as we've seen, real GDP growth was weak in the past two quarters, the deterioration in our terms of trade in both quarters caused real income to decline by 0.3 per cent in the June quarter and by 0.4 per cent in the September quarter.

What happens to our terms of trade - and, hence, our aggregate income - is important. But, in this particular case, it's hard to get too excited.

As Dr Shane Oliver, of AMP Capital, has explained: "There is a danger in dwelling too much on the slump in real gross domestic income flowing from the falling terms of trade ... while swings in the mining and energy export prices are very important for resource companies, and hence for government revenues, their impact on the rest of the economy is far more modest."

In other words, the main impact is on mining company profits, and mining is about 80 per cent foreign owned. More their problem than ours.

If I thought the economy was sliding into genuine recession I'd say so. But I don't believe in exaggerating the bad news because it makes for more exciting betting on financial markets, makes a better story or because you've always hated whichever party happens to be in power at the time.