Wednesday, April 20, 2016


Talk to Athenaeum Club, Melbourne, Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Today I want to ask: what does the future hold for the economy? The honest answer to such a question is - no one knows, certainly not me. But I doubt if you find such an answer very satisfying, so I’m happy to give you some opinions. They’re highly likely to be wrong since, as Donald Rumsfeld reminded us, our predictions are likely to be confounded by “unknown unknowns”. By definition, I can’t tell you anything about the unknown unknowns, so I’ll limit myself to known knows and known unknowns.

So, what does the future hold? As you may have gathered from my writings, I’m a congenital optimist - though I fear that, by the time I’m through, you’ll find that hard to believe. Another thing you may find hard to believe is that I’m a reasonably conservative person, in that my default position is to expect that things will continue much as they have been. Recessions will be followed by recoveries; the resources boom will be followed by a return to more normal sources and rates of growth.

But of late I’ve begun to fear that Australia - and the world - are in for a further extended period of weak economic growth. Our longer-term rate of growth in GDP has been about 3.5 per cent a year, but I fear we’ll stay closer to 2.5 per cent.

I’m not a person who believes that, whatever is happening in the rest of the world will be pretty much what happens in Oz. We’re part of the world and are influenced by it, of course, but, equally, the domestic influences on our growth are more significant than many people imagine. Even so, there’s widespread agreement overseas that the outlook for the world economy over the coming decade or so is far from bright.

It’s become almost a ritual for the International Monetary Fund to continuously revise down its forecasts for growth in the world economy. It did the same again last week, but this time the accompanying commentary from the fund’s economists was unusually downbeat. Whereas, in the five years before the global financial crisis, growth in the world economy averaged just over 5 per cent a year, it grew by little more than 3 per cent last year and is expected to grow at the same rate this year.

Many economists see that weak growth persisting for years to come. Why so much pessimism? Any number of reasons. One of particular relevance to us is the relatively high risk that China’s slowdown turns out to be a “hard landing”. But I’ve just been reading the challenging new book by the former chairman of Britain’s Financial Services Authority, Adair Turner, Between Debt and the Devil, which attributes the North Atlantic economies’ anaemic recovery from the Great Recession to the deadening effect of the overhang of debt - private more than public - following the many decades before the crisis in which bank credit creation grew at two or three times the rate that the economy grew.

To that you can add all the complications and inhibitions arising from the ill-fated decision to establish the euro single-currency area.

But if that’s not enough for you we have the American productivity expert Robert Gordon’s prediction that we’re in for a sustained period of weaker growth because, contrary to conventional wisdom, the digital revolution isn’t sufficiently revolutionary to provide the sustained productivity growth we enjoyed from earlier innovations, such as electricity or the motor car. Then there’s the leading American economist and former US Treasury secretary, Larry Summers, with his fear of “secular stagnation” - a sustained period of chronically weak demand, caused by the combination of increased desired saving and reduced desired investment. For good measure there are the reputable economists fearing that the digital revolution is about to displace skilled services-sector jobs at rate far faster than those workers can be reabsorbed in other parts of the economy, leading to mass unemployment.

But that’s enough about death and destruction in the international economy. Let’s turn to factors that suggest weaker growth in the domestic economy. One reason growth is likely to continue below average is that we’re likely to see lower immigration and thus slower population growth, down from a peak of 2 per cent a year in the years of the resources boom, to 1.4 per cent or so more recently. It’s easy to imagine that immigration is “exogenous” as economists say - a lever that can be moved higher or lower by the government - but, as Professor Peter McDonald, our leading demographer, has pointed out, it’s actually largely “endogenous”: it’s set within the system by the economic conditions at the time.

The rise of China as a global powerhouse of manufacturing has long had, and will continue to have, a dampening effect on Australia’s manufacturing. Steel production in Whyalla is the latest example. Competition from Asian manufacturers - and local manufacturers’ very real threats to move their factories overseas - are part of the explanation for a significant structural decline in workers’ bargaining power over recent decades. The present exceptionally low rate of wages growth is a two-edged sword when it comes to economic growth: on one hand, the price of labour being relatively low should encourage growth in employment, particularly in labour-intensive service industries. On the other, low wage growth isn’t doing a lot to bolster household income and consumer spending. Savings ratio.

This next point is less true in Oz than it is in America, but economists are becoming more conscious that rapidly widening income inequality - with incomes near the top growing strongly, while incomes around the middle and lower experience little or no real growth for decades - is working to inhibit the growth in consumer spending, simply because high-income households save rather than spend a much higher proportion of their incomes.

 Another factor underlying my fear that we face a future of below-par growth is the knowledge that our record 24-year upswing since the last serious recession in the early 1990s can’t continue forever. Frankly, we’re long overdue for another recession. I don’t know what factor will precipitate that recession - perhaps a sharper than expected fall in Sydney and Melbourne house and apartment prices - but I do know that a year of “negative growth” sometime in the next five would leave average growth for the period looking pretty sick.

One key cause of weakness in the period since the financial crisis is the lack of growth in investment spending in the non-mining economy. There doesn’t seem much sign of this changing any time soon. Some have sought to explain this in terms of business’s lack of confidence thanks to uninspiring political leadership - first under Labor but now, more surprisingly, under the two brands of Liberal leadership. There may be something in this explanation, but I think it can be pushed too far. A rival explanation is that businesses have simply failed to lower their “hurdle rates” of return for new projects to take account of the much lower cost of capital - interest rates - we now face. But I think it’s easier to explain much of the lack of business investment spending more simply: businesses haven’t been investing because they haven’t been seeing many profitable opportunities.

This bring us at last to the econocrats’ long standing argument that what we need to increase the rate of productivity improvement and achieve stronger growth is a new round of economic reform. The business lobbies have taken up this cry with gusto, nominating cuts in rates of personal income tax and company tax, and reforms to industrial relations as top priority. It now seems clear, however, that not even Malcolm Turnbull is prepared to pursue such reforms. Which probably means many of you share my suspicion that growth will remain inadequate in coming years.

I must caution you, however, against the error of believing your own bulldust. It’s not hard to believe lower taxes and a stronger hand for employers would do wonders for the economy when such “reforms” would leave you yourself better off, even if they ended up doing little to benefit the wider economy.

I believe it’s been convenient for the advocates of these reforms to imagine the economic benefits to be greater than they’re likely to be if Treasury and other modelling is to be believed. After all, when Turnbull decided that the huge compensation bill had rendered the plan of using an increase in the GST to pay for income tax cuts too politically costly, he had no trouble demonstrating that the efficiency cost of increasing indirect tax offset almost all the efficiency benefit from cutting income tax. Although I have little faith in the results of economic modelling, I note the finding by Dr Janine Dixon of Victoria University that a cut in the rate of company tax would, after 15 years, cause GDP to be just 0.15 percentage points higher than otherwise.

I believe that a less self-interested search for the most high-potential areas of economic reform would lead us away from tax and wage-fixing towards reform of health, education and infrastructure, particularly big city transportation. But when I say reform I don’t just mean spending more money.

I can understand that many business people will be feeling quite disillusioned at the way Malcolm has shied away from reform in recent days. There must be a great temptation for business people to revert to their earlier diagnosis of the problem: in contrast to earlier times, we simply lack any politicians with the vision and courage - the leadership - to take the risks needed to solve our economic problems. But I’m here to warn you against such a self-serving analysis: the only problem is caused by our politicians’ lack of moral fibre.

You might find this hard to accept, but in all our privatisation, deregulation, globalisation and other reforms over the past 30 years and more, we’ve had a situation where governments in all the developed countries have reshaped their economies in the direction of strengthening markets and making like easier for business. Partly as a result of this process, we’ve seen a widening of the gap between high and low incomes.

In more recent times we’ve also see the rise of unceasing lobbying of governments, particularly by business interests. I think what we’re seeing now is not so much “reform fatigue” or a sudden loss of courage on the part of our political class, but a standoff between business interests on the one side and ordinary voters on the other. It’s the revolt of the punters, with our politicians caught in the middle. Too many voters have compared how well business people seem to be doing with how well they are doing and decided something is badly wrong. They don’t really know what it is that’s going wrong, but they’ve had enough and they’re not going to take it anymore. You can see this in the puzzling rise of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders in the US, and you can see the same thing going on here in a less dramatic way.

A classic example of this standoff comes with business’s confident expectation that governments will proceed with plans to cut the rate of company tax at the same time as the parliamentary hearings and now the Panama Papers are reminding voters of how successful so many businesses have been in reducing the tax they pay.

I doubt that economic reform will be an answer to the era of below-average growth we face because the era of governments regularly adjusting the regulation of the economy to please business has also come to an end.