Saturday, March 7, 2015

More infrastructure spending would boost economy

It's good to see Joe Hockey finally making the transition to government and joining the economic optimists' party. This week he greeted the national accounts by saying the economy had grown by "a solid 0.5 per cent in the December quarter to be 2.5 per cent higher over the past year".

"Our income as a nation picked up in the quarter, with nominal gross domestic product rising by a solid 0.6 per cent," he continued. "Real gross national income also rose in the quarter."

A treasurer should never talk the economy down, just as the official forecasters should never be the first to predict imminent recession. Such negativity tends to be self-fulfilling.

So I'm sorry to rain on Hockey's parade by telling you that "solid" growth is the econocrats' euphemism for "not so hot".

Just so. Annual growth of 2.5 per cent is well below our trend (average) rate of 3 per cent, especially disappointing when you remember we've been well below trend for quite a few years.

But though the figures from the Bureau of Statistics were unsatisfactory, they don't support the earlier fears of some that the economy fell apart in the previous quarter. A sensible reading is that the economy continues to plug along at the rate of about 2.5 per cent a year.

This, of course, is insufficient to stop unemployment rising. But for some years the rate of worsening has been steady at about 0.1 percentage points a quarter – which fits with reasonably steady growth in real GDP of about 2.5 per cent a year.

One encouraging sign in the accounts is that consumer spending grew by 0.9 per cent in the quarter and 2.8 per cent over the year. This isn't too bad when you consider that, with weak growth in employment and wages, real household income is growing at an annual rate of only about 1 per cent, according to calculations by Kieran Davies of Barclays bank.

Clearly, households must be reducing their rate of saving. Over the past year it's edged down by about 1 percentage point to a still-high 9 per cent of household disposable income. From now on consumer spending should be boosted by the fall in petrol prices.

Another bright spot is home building, which grew by 2.5 per cent in the quarter and by more than 8 per cent over the year. This is one area where the Reserve Bank's exceptionally low interest rates are really working, with building approvals reaching an all-time high in January.

It's likely all the real estate activity is helping to boost consumer spending on durables. There's nothing like changing houses to make you think you need a new lounge suite.

The weakest part of the accounts was business investment spending, which fell by almost 1 per cent in the quarter. Within this, and according to Davies' figuring, mining investment fell by 5 per cent while non-mining investment grew by only 2 per cent.

This is where we need the economy to be making the transition from the mining investment boom to non-mining-led growth. It's happening, but not fast enough to get the economy heading back towards trend growth.

That's why the Reserve has reverted to cutting interest rates. Not so much because the economy was slowing as because it wasn't picking up the way it had expected. And it's early days yet: mining investment fell by about 13 per cent last year, it's expected to fall by about that much again this year and by a lesser amount in 2016.

Arithmetically, the big saviour was the rising volume of exports, up 1 per cent in the quarter and more than 7 per cent over the year. This was driven by mineral exports, of course.

Combine that with a 2.5 per cent fall in the volume of imports in the quarter and "net exports" (exports minus imports) contributed 0.7 percentage points to GDP growth in the quarter and 2 percentage points to growth over the year.

Why are imports falling? Mainly because less mining investment means fewer imports of heavy mining equipment, but also because the fall in the dollar seems to have discouraged imports of business services and Aussies from "importing" overseas holidays.

But I can't get too excited about the surge in mineral exports. Mining is so capital-intensive that far fewer jobs are created by higher mineral exports than you'd expect from a jump in other exports. If that's the best we've got going for us, it's not good enough.

One more point of interest: spending by the public sector rose by a mere 0.1 per cent in the quarter and actually fell by 1.1 per cent over year. So, no help from government spending in getting the economy moving.

But before you start muttering about "austerity" and blaming poor old Joe, note this: public consumption spending rose by 0.4 per cent in the quarter and by 2 per cent over the year, whereas public investment spending fell by 0.9 per cent in the quarter and by (an amazing) 11.9 per cent over the year.

The great bulk of spending on capital works – "infrastructure" if you prefer – is done by the state governments. So it seems that, between them, the state governments – unduly worried about retaining their high credit ratings – have been allowing their works programs to run down.

This at a time when so many mining construction projects are winding up and construction workers and other resources are becoming available. Sensible governments adjust their construction programs to fit with downturns in private sector activity and take advantage of lower construction costs, thereby doing themselves and the economy a favour.

With monetary policy (interest rates) now less effective in stimulating the economy, it would be better if fiscal policy (budgets) was doing more to help, not less.