Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Now the pilot's back, economy flying on a wing and a prayer

It’s always nice for the country to be led by someone who’s obviously got God on his side. When he prays for a miracle, he gets it. And the challenges facing the economy are such that Scott Morrison may need all the divine assistance he can summon.

The Coalition – and their dispirited opponents - should remember the fate of the last chap who won an unwinnable federal election: Paul Keating in 1993. By the time the next election arrived, voters were, in Queensland Labor premier Wayne Goss’s words, “sitting on their verandas with baseball bats”.

The Liberals shouldn’t forget the miraculous nature of their win. After their years of infighting and indiscipline they richly deserved to be thrown out, but were saved by Morrison’s superior campaigning skills and his success in convincing people with nothing to fear from restrictions on franking credits and negative gearing that they should be fearful (not sure what God thought about that).

This was not a historic vindication, just a reprieve. Carry on the way you have been, and your fate will only have been delayed.

And remember: Keating’s reprieve came as part of the 25 years Australians spent trembling at the thought of a tax on services as well as goods. “If you don’t understand it,” Keating told the punters, “don’t vote for it.”

We’ve now had such a tax for almost 20 years. And would you believe? Turned out the GST was no biggie. What brave souls we are.

Come July, we’ll have gone an amazing 28 years without a severe recession. Starting to sound ominous.

Look around the world – trade war between America and China, China’s faltering economic miracle, America’s boom that must bust, Japan and Europe with chronically weak economies and Brexit Britain about to shoot its economy in both feet – and it’s not hard to think you see our next recession in the offing.

Certainly, it has to come some time. But I don’t see one as imminent. What many don’t realise is we have enough troubles of our own, without help from abroad.

Ever since the global financial crisis in 2008-09, and more so since the busting of our mining construction boom in 2013, our economy has been acting strangely, behaving in ways it used not to.

If Morrison and his Treasurer, Josh Frydenberg, understand the way it hasn’t been back to business as usual, they’ve shown little sign of it.

If they haven’t yet got the message – perhaps because a politicised Treasury hasn’t been game to give them news they won’t like – enlightenment, in the form of being hit on the head by the bureau of statistics, may not be far off.

Ever since Treasury’s optimistic forecasts encouraged Labor’s Wayne Swan to claim to be delivering four budget surpluses in a row – a claim Frydenberg repeated in the April budget – the econocrats have just shifted forward another year their unwavering conviction that everything will soon be back to the old normal.

It hasn’t happened throughout the Coalition’s two terms. The economy’s just kept grinding along in second gear, failing to reach the cruising speed the econocrats profess to see coming.

It hasn’t happened because the economy’s productivity – output per unit of input - hasn’t improved as fast as it used to, and what little improvement we’ve had hasn’t flowed on to wages. It’s because wages haven’t grown faster than prices, as we’ve come to expect, that so many people are complaining about the cost of living.

What has concealed the truth from us is our rapid, immigration-fuelled population growth. The other rich countries’ populations haven’t been growing nearly as fast. This has given us a bigger economy, but not a richer one.

Of late we have had a partial – and probably temporary – rebound in the prices we get for our mineral exports. Combined with years of bracket creep, the boost to mining company profits (and their tax payments) has finally made Frydenberg’s budget look a lot healthier than the economy does.

Weak growth in real wages (plus continuing bracket creep) mean weak growth in the disposable income of Australia’s households. Which, in turn, means weak growth in the economy’s mainstay, consumer spending.

All this became unmissable when the economy slowed to a crawl in the second half of last year. Predictably, the April budget took this to be little more than a blip on the onward and upward trajectory.

But all the economic indicators we’ve seen since the budget – weak inflation, no improvement in wage growth – suggest the weakness is continuing.

Another respect in which the economy has been behaving strangely is that employment – particularly full-time jobs - has been growing much more strongly than the modest growth in the economy would lead us to expect.

It’s this that Morrison and Frydenberg trumpeted during the election campaign as proof positive of their superior management of the economy. Fine. But the rate of growth in employment is slowing and the rate of unemployment, having fallen slowly to 5 per cent, seems now to be going up, not down.

With the election out of the way, the Reserve Bank won’t wait long before it cuts interest rates to try to give the economy a boost. The $1080-a-pop tax refund cheques after June 30 will also help, provided Morrison can get them through Parliament in time. More earnest prayer required, I think.