Saturday, February 11, 2017

Now the transition phase is ending, wages can start rising

This year should see the end of the economy's protracted "transition" back to business as usual. You beaut.

Resources booms - or any other booms - are nice, but the subsequent busts are always hard. We'll know the bust is over when the fall in investment in mining construction - which began in late-2012 - tails off at the end of this year.

According to Reserve Bank governor Philip Lowe, we've already come 90 per cent of the way.

As a matter of simple arithmetic, the removal of this "negative contribution" to quarterly growth in gross domestic product will leave the figures a lot stronger.

This will be a triumph for the managers of our macro economy, particularly at the Reserve Bank.

Back in 2014, some of the biggest names in Australian economics were predicting that, in the absence of major reform leading to a huge boost in our productivity, we'd end up in recession.

To get back to normal we needed not only a big fall in our exchange rate from the heights it reached during the boom, but a period of weak wages growth to ensure the fall in the nominal exchange rate became a fall in our real exchange rate, thus yielding a lasting improvement in the international price competitiveness of our export and import-competing industries.

This is the bit the big-name economists didn't believe we'd pull off.

But we have. Which serves as a reminder that the weak wages growth we've experienced since mid-2012 isn't just some random bit of bad luck for workers, but a key part of the process by which the economy gets back to normal.

The economist who's long made a close study of Australia's commodity booms, past and present, and the problems they've caused when they bust, is Dr David Gruen, now deputy secretary, economic, of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet.

In a speech he gave last week, Gruen reviewed the progress of our transition phase.

He started by reminding us of just how big an "economic shock" to our economy the resources boom has been. The size of the improvement in our terms of trade (export prices relative to import prices) makes it easily the biggest sustained boom in our history.

Since their peak in September 2011, however, they've deteriorated by more than 30 per cent.

The boom in mining construction saw it increase from less than 2 per cent of GDP to a peak of about 9 per cent in 2012-13.

This resulted in something like a quadrupling in the mining industry's stock of physical capital, and a tripling in its production capacity, in the space of a decade.

"The largest investment was in liquefied natural gas production capacity, with Australia on track to overtake Qatar as the world's largest sea-based exporter of LNG," Gruen said.

The economic activity and employment that accompanied the investment boom caused a significant re-alloc​ation of labour across industries, but this has now been largely unwound as mining projects reach completion.

The improvement in the terms of trade caused sustained growth in real income per person (much of it coming in the form of lower prices for imports and overseas travel).

Since their peak in 2011, the terms of trade have subtracted from income growth by so much that, even with reasonable improvement in the productivity of labour, real gross national income per person has been falling.

"This is reflected in gradually falling real average earnings per hour over the past four years - for the first time in living memory," Gruen said.

With an end to the trend deterioration in the terms of trade now in prospect - they've been improving for the past three quarters - it shouldn't be long before real incomes start growing again, with the size of that real growth strongly influenced by the rate of improvement in labour productivity.

It's important to note that the unusual ease with which overall real wages have adjusted to, first, the boom and then the bust, is explained by the way relative wages in particular industries (relative to the economy-wide average wage) have behaved in a textbook-like fashion.

As the resources boom gathered strength from 2004, strong demand for labour in the resources, construction, and professional services sectors saw wages strengthen relative to those in other sectors.

Relative wages in healthcare and manufacturing stayed close to the economy-wide average, while relative wages in retail trade, and accommodation and food services, grew more slowly than the average.

But then, as the resources boom receded after 2011, wage growth in the resources, construction, and professional services sectors slowed to less than the average, enabling wages in other sectors to catch up somewhat.

Gruen expects this pattern to continue as the resources investment downswing runs its course.

"This sort of relative wage adjustment didn't occur in the [commodity booms of the] 1970s or early 1980s, and the result was significant increases in unemployment - an outcome we've succeeded in avoiding during the latest episode," he said.

So how come the big-name economists' forebodings proved misplaced?

I think they underestimated the extent to which the micro-economic reforms of the 1980s and '90s, combined with the improved "frameworks" for the conduct of macro-economic management, have made the economy more flexible - better able to roll with punches from economic shocks; less inflation-prone and unemployment-prone - and hence easier to keep growing at a reasonably stable pace.

In particular, they underestimated the way the moves to a floating exchange rate, an independent central bank and decentralised wage-fixing would help us cope with our periodic commodity booms.

In their enthusiasm to urge more micro reforms on us, they failed to realise how much we'd benefited from those we'd already made.