Saturday, June 3, 2017

How and Why we've escaped recession for so long

When Glenn Stevens took over from Ian Macfarlane as governor of the Reserve Bank in September 2006, both men knew the new boy was being handed a poison chalice.

By the time of the deep recession of the early 1990s, Australians – like the citizens of most developed economies – had got used to enduring a recession roughly every seven years.

But Macfarlane had been governor for 10 years, and had been extraordinary lucky to get through all that time without a severe downturn.

It was obvious to both men that Stevens wouldn't be as lucky. We were overdue for a recession and it was bound to occur sometime during Stevens' term, probably early on.

Except that it didn't. When, after his own 10-year stint, Stevens handed over to his government-chosen successor as governor, Dr Philip Lowe, in September last year, he was leaving the job with his record unsullied.

This time there were no forebodings about a doomed inheritance, even though it's only natural to fear that each successive quarter of this world record run must surely increase the likelihood of it coming to a sticky end.

Certainly, there would be few economists so foolhardy as to predict that their profession had finally conquered the booms and busts of the business cycle. Most remember that such bouts of hubris had afflicted – and in the end, mightily embarrassed – the dismal scientists before.

No one wants ultimately to be caught having made that stupid mistake a second time. So, a commercial message sponsored by your local friendly economist: rest assured, we'll have another bad recession sooner or later.

Human nature being what it is, keeping in the forefront of their minds the very real risk of another recession is the best way the managers of our economy can avoid the negligent overconfidence that could bring our record run to an ignominious end.

Of course, the politician with the strength of character to avoid complacency and self-congratulation for a remarkably good performance has probably yet to be born.

That's why this story began, and will continue, as a story about the people who have most say over the day-to-day management of the economy: not the politicians, but the bureaucrats in our central bank.

It's important to remember that Australia's run without a severe recession became a personal best, so to speak, many years ago, and for many years has exceeded the records achieved in all other developed countries – bar the Netherlands, with its freakish record of 103 quarters, almost 26 years, of continuous growth. Until now, as the world record passes to us.

An obvious question to ask is how Australia managed to avoid serious damage from the global financial crisis of 2008, when almost every other advanced economy was laid so low by the Great Recession.

The short answer is first that, thanks partly to the bureaucratic bum-kicking Peter Costello did after the collapse of the HIH insurance group in 2001, our bank regulators kept our banks under a tight rein, preventing them from doing all the risky things the American and European banks were allowed to.

Second, the Reserve Bank positively slashed interest rates the moment it realised the severity of the crisis, while the Rudd government ignored the dodgy advice it was getting from then-opposition leader Malcolm Turnbull and sections of the media, and splashed around a lot of cash.

Both the rate cuts and the cash splash had the intended effect of steadying the badly shaken confidence of businesses and consumers, thus quickly arresting the self-reinforcing downward spiral of fear and belt-tightening that causes all deep recessions.

Third, whereas many employers had previously responded to a downturn in demand for their product by laying off staff, this time many of them, hoping the downturn would be temporary, limited themselves to putting all their staff on a period of short-time working.

This restraint on the part of business proved a much less damaging approach for everyone.

But remember this: most advanced economies have suffered not one, but two or three deep recessions since the world recession of the early 1990s.

So there has to be more to our 26-year record than just our deft response to the GFC.

The deeper reasons for our success start with the factor already alluded to: our politicians' decision in the first half of the 1990s to hand control of interest rates to the central bank, acting independently of the elected government.

Turns out moving interests rates up and down in response to the business cycle, as opposed to the proximity of elections, is a big improvement in keeping the economy chugging steadily along.

The other beneficial change was all the "micro-economic reform" undertaken mainly during the term of the Hawke-Keating government, often with bipartisan support from the opposition, led by John Howard and Dr John Hewson.

Deregulating the financial system, floating the dollar, rolling back protection against imports, decentralising wage fixing and the deregulation of many particular industries had the combined effect of making the economy more flexible, less inflation-prone and better able to reduce unemployment.

The era of micro reform didn't achieve the hoped for continuing improvement in productivity, and had various adverse side-effects, but it did make it much easier for the central bankers to keep the economy on an even keel.