Sunday, May 24, 2015

GITTINS the book: sneak preview II

Why did an accountant who'd forgotten most of the economics he was supposed to have learnt at uni and never really learnt to be a reporter, go from cadet journalist to economics editor in four years?

Because he had the immense good fortune to be in the right place at the right time.

I joined the Herald just as the startling policies of the Whitlam government and the global economic disruption of the first OPEC oil price shock were convincing the nation's editors that the biggest part of politics was economics, and that they needed to run a lot more stories about the economy and needed more journalists proficient in economics to do it.

The oil price shock of December 1973 happened to make my first year at the Herald, 1974, a watershed in the global economic history of the 20th century.

It proved to be the last year of the almost 30-year postwar Golden Age of strong and steady growth in all the developed countries, with low inflation, full employment and ever-rising living standards and a narrowing gap between rich and poor.

The oil shock wrong-footed Western governments and brought to light the hitherto unknown problem of "stagflation" – simultaneously high unemployment and inflation.

The advent of stagflation caused a loss of confidence in traditional Keynesian macro-economic management, which could deal with either high inflation or high unemployment, but not both at the same time. In the search for an alternative, many turned to "monetarism" - controlling the growth in the supply of money.

I became an economic journalist when the battle between Keynesians and monetarists was at its height. It turned out that through much of the monetarist criticism of Keynesianism had merit – money did matter, as the monetarists had argued – the rest was mumbo jumbo.

Money-supply targeting wasn't the magic answer promised. It didn't even work. Even so, the main instrument for managing the ups and downs of the economy was switched from fiscal policy (the budget) to monetary policy (interest rates).

Another solution to stagflation was "incomes policy" – direct control over wages, other incomes and prices. Its Australian version came late in the form of the Hawke-Keating government's "accord" with the union movement.

It took until the mid-1990s to get inflation down to the 2 or 3 per cent that had pertained during the Golden Age.

Dr Don Stammer, a veteran business economist, says you need to have seen four recessions before you're fully qualified. I thought the global financial crisis of 2008-09 would bring my fourth, but if you don't count that – I count it as a potentially severe recession turned into a mild one by remarkably skilful management – I've seen three big ones.

The recession of 1974-5 would by the itself have caused the Whitlam government's defeat had there not been more than enough other reasons.

The severe recession of the early 1980s brought the Fraser government's reign to an end after just seven years and the severe recession we didn't have to have in the early 1990s – in the sense that all recessions happen by accident rather than design – finally did for the perpetrator of that bravado in 1996, although Paul Keating's execution was delayed three years by the inexperience of a former economics professor, Dr John Hewson.

Feel free to write this on my tombstone: "he never fell for the line that economists had finally conquered the business cycle". You only had to live through the Keynesians' humiliation in the world recession of 1974-75 to be permanently cured of such hubris. I soon formed the view that recessions occurred roughly every seven years.

I know from the three recessions that have occurred so far "on my watch" – each of them accurately branded "the worst since the Great Depression" - how terrible recessions are: the fear and pain they cause to small business people, workers who lose their jobs and young people who have the misfortune to be leaving school or university at the time.

In 40 years I've been around for 13 federal treasurers. The Whitlam government's Frank Crean was my first. I was too junior to get to know him, which was a pity. I liked him because he reminded me of my father. I had little to do with Dr Jim Cairns and didn't get to know Bill Hayden until he was in opposition.

After the Fraser government arrived I didn't get to know rubbery Phil Lynch, but John Howard was a different matter.

Keating was an assiduous worker of gallery journalists, who learnt much of his economics from [former Australian Financial Review editor] Max Walsh until Treasury took over. I was seen as to partial to him and his policies, but that was because I invariably agreed with them – rationalism with a human face. Our greatest treasurer, with daylight second.

His successor, John Kerin, did a more-Keating-than-Keating impression. With a degree in agricultural economics, Kerin was far better qualified than most treasurers, so I thought it terribly unjust when the TV news bulletins hounded him from office by repeatedly playing a clip of him forgetting that GOS stood for gross operating surplus. None of his righteous accusers would have known that.

John Dawkins was competent but tetchy. Ralph Willis was well qualified academically, but terribly reserved.

Peter Costello had two counts against me: I was from Sydney and, like virtually all journos, I was biased against him politically. It's true I criticised him on more issues than I supported him.

But though I backed him vigorously on some unpopular measures, it would never have crossed his mind that my criticism arose from our differing values, not from partisanship.

Once, his press secretary decided to give me the treatment regularly dished out to gallery reporters who'd incurred his displeasure by inviting all economic journalists to some function except me.

I couldn't believe he could be so incompetent. Gallery reporters had no choice but to cop such treatment in silence, but as a columnist in Sydney, I had nothing to lose and everything to gain by making it public. Normally I resist the temptation to go for cheap cheers, but this time I opted for a little self-publicity.

I kept it up for two weeks until the call came through from Costello. "I'm sorry to shock you, Ross, but I didn't actually read the column you say I took offence at." Etcetera. It was as close to a conciliatory call as Costello could get, so I too was conciliatory.

People kept telling me Costello was bright but lazy, but a treasurer who didn't read my columns? I believed him.

Costello's greatest achievements were his carriage of the goods and services tax and his reform of the prudential supervision of the financial system, which kept our banks out of trouble in the GFC. The notion that he's up there with Keating as a reformer is partisan propaganda.

Wayne Swan fell short of either of them. The truth is I feel a bit guilty about Swan. I let my liking for the man stop me from writing what I thought: that he was too weak to be treasurer. He wasn't brave enough on the reform front nor tough enough in controlling government spending and he couldn't sell ice-creams on a hot day at the beach.

When he was succeeded by Chris Bowen my first thought was regret that I'd neglected to take up opportunities to get to know Bowen better. But thinking about my problem with Swan I decided I was better off not getting to like these guys and so being freer to judge them on their merits.

I know Joe Hockey well enough to know he's a likable guy – and to expect him to see more easily than Costello that, with me, he'll win some and lose some – so that's close enough.

My experience watching the bad, indifferent and good management of our economy over the past 40 years has left me sure of one thing: Malcolm Fraser may have lacked the resolve to live up to it, but his slogan "Fight Inflation First" is dead right.

Part of the policy debate between Keynesians and their opponents rested on the belief that Keynesians cared most about unemployment because they worried about people at the bottom, whereas conservatives carried most about inflation because it diminished the wealth of the rich.

In one of his first speeches as [Reserve Bank] governor Bernie Fraser demolished that neat dichotomy by pointing out inflation actually hurt the poor more than the rich because the poor were unable to afford the expert advice needed to protect themselves from – even benefit from – the effects of inflation. Negatively geared investment in property or shares is a classic instance of benefiting from inflation.

If you force me to choose which is the greater evil, inflation or unemployment, there's no shadow of doubt in my mind: unemployment wins. But the choice we have to make – and the relationship between those two evils – is more subtle than that.

To me, if you care about achieving low unemployment in anything but the short term, you start by fixing inflation and keep it fixed, so you can then grow the economy at a steady but healthy rate and thus grind down unemployment and keep it low for as long as possible.

That describes how we've managed our economy over the past 20 years. In the preceding 20 years governments pursuing the alternative strategy of fighting unemployment first would rev up the economy after ever recession, soon bringing inflation back up and thus sowing the seeds of the next bust.

Edited extract from Gittins, by Ross Gittins (Allen & Unwin), out this week.

Ten reforms that transformed Australia

1. Floating the dollar

2. Deregulating the banks

3. New taxes on capital gains and fringe benefits

4. Removing import protection

5. Privatising government businesses

6. Enterprise bargaining

7. National competition policy

8. Central bank independence

9. Goods and services tax

10. Taxes on mining and carbon

My five worst predictions

1. Expecting the severe recession of the early 1990s to be a "soft landing".

2. Doubting the move from centralised wage-fixing to enterprise bargaining would be an improvement

3. Saying the US authorities were right to allow Lehman Brothers to fail in September 2008

4. Expecting Australia to be caught up in the subsequent Great Recession

5. Failing to foresee the adverse social effects of micro-economic reform

The best of 13 treasurers

1. Paul Keating. By a country mile. He instigated the sweeping reforms that transformed the economy and laid the groundwork for better day-to-day management of it. He made the economy less inflation-prone and more flexible, thus able to reduce unemployment faster.

2. Peter Costello. Greatest achievement was to free the Reserve Bank to change interest rates as it saw necessary, meaning the economy is now  managed more by econocrats than politicians. He also ensured our banks were tightly supervised while the Americans were letting theirs create so much havoc.

3. Wayne Swan. Despite his failings he deserves a spot on the treasurers' honour board purely for his surprisingly deft handling of stimulus spending and human confidence in the wake of the global financial crisis, ensuring we suffered only the mildest of recessions.