Monday, August 19, 2019

We’re relying on a government that spurns economic advice

I’m starting to wonder if the trouble with our politicians is that they’ve evolved to do politics but not economics, making them unfit to cope with the economic threats we now face.

On the one hand, they’ve been able to leave the management of the economy to the independent Reserve Bank, whose tinkering with interest rates – up a bit, down a bit – has successfully kept the economy growing for 28 years.

On the other hand, the pollies have been locked in a decade of unprecedented political instability where, since the demise of the Howard government in 2007, no prime minister has been safe from attack – from their own side.

In such an environment, with monetary policy (interest rates) so successfully managing the economy, the budget ceases to be “fiscal policy” and becomes just an instrument of politics.

Because you’re eternally looking over your shoulder trying to spot the next colleague holding a dagger behind his back, you use the budget primarily to shore up your support within the party, rewarding the base and punishing its designated enemies.

Be slavish in feeding the 24-hour news cycle. Keep up the pressure for ministers and their departments to provide a continuous flow of minor “announceables”. Remember, any vacuum you leave will be filled by your enemies (external or internal). If you run out announceables, just slag off your (official) opponents.

Of course, if the punters understood what you were up to, they wouldn’t be impressed. So when you’re trying to shore up the support of big business by cutting the rate of company tax, you keep claiming it’s a “plan for jobs and growth”.

When you’re using an income tax tax cut to buy some popularity at the election, you pretend that economic growth is driven by lower taxes.

The worst of it is, since the things your side really cares about – cutting taxes, preserving tax breaks favouring high income-earners, cracking down on the leaners and loafers on social welfare – are economic measures, you convince yourself you’re really into economics.

And running a budget surplus – that’s economic isn’t it? (No, not when your forecasts of a strong economy have proved way too optimistic and you’re counting on a freak improvement in iron ore prices to get you over the line. Then, it becomes an indulgent stretch for political kudos.)

You don’t actually know enough economics to realise economics is about rolling back rent-seeking and increasing the efficiency with which resources are allocated, at the micro level, and managing the economy through the ups and downs of the business cycle, at the macro level. All the rest is politics.

We’ve come to expect that if the person taking the treasurer’s job doesn’t know much about economics, Treasury will give them a crash course and get ’em up to speed. But former senior Treasury officer Paul Tilley’s new book, Changing Fortunes, leads me to think this no longer happens.

These days, treasurers are so preoccupied by the daily battle for political survival they have little time or interest in economics tutorials. Treasury has got out of the habit of giving the treasurer any advice his staff doubts he’d want to hear. Treasury’s job is largely to supply facts and figures when demanded by the treasurer’s staff.

In which case, you have to worry about how much professional rigour goes into producing the budget forecasts. How much they’re designed to avoid giving the treasurer news he doesn’t want to hear.

The Reserve Bank’s latest forecasts for wage growth are laughing at the optimistic forecasts of the budget in April. Where the budget has wages growing by 3.25 per cent a year by June 2021, the Reserve has the growth rate rising only a fraction to 2.4 per cent.

But here’s the surprising thing. Despite the central importance of wages in driving consumer spending and overall economic growth, the Reserve’s year-average forecasts for real GDP differ little from those in the budget.

I find this suspicious. And worrying. If the central bank feels constrained by the forecasts of a Treasury anxious to avoid displeasing its political masters, we’ve got a problem.

Last week, while worries about how much damage Trump’s trade war might do to the world economy were causing share markets to plunge, Treasurer Josh Frydenberg – who was 20 at the time of our last big recession – emerged from his bunker to assure us the government would “take the necessary actions to ensure our economy continues to grow”.

Great. But who’ll be advising him on which actions are necessary? The young punks in his office?
Read more >>

Saturday, August 17, 2019

Worried Lowe flouts convention to push for wage rises - now

The most important piece of local economic news this week was no news: the wage price index remained stuck at an annual growth rate of 2.3 per cent for yet another quarter. I’ve said it before but I’ll keep saying it until it’s sunk into the skull of every last politician: we won’t get back to healthy growth in the economy until we get back to healthy growth in wages.

That’s because economies are circular: all of us standing in a circle, buying and selling to everyone else. What’s the main thing people in the circle sell? Their labour. What do they do with the wages they earn? Buy stuff from the rest of the economy.

Business people (and Coalition politicians) are very conscience of the truth that wages are a cost to business. They’ve thus long had the attitude that wages should be kept as low as possible.

But equally, wages are income to wage-earners, and by far the biggest source of income for the nation’s nine million households. So the less wages grow, the less growth there is in the income households use to buy the goods and services produced by the nation’s businesses. Not good.

Get it? In the end, business has as much to lose from weak wage growth as workers do. This is the bit that many businesspeople and politicians don’t get. They’re so used to seeing the economy as my lot versus the other lot, they can’t see that, as the Salvos say, "we’re all in this together".

People – even the media – keep saying wages are flat. That’s not true. What’s true is that, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, the rate at which wages are rising has been flat, at 2.3 per cent a year, for the fourth quarter in a row.

In fact, wage growth has been surprisingly low since the end of 2013 – five and a half years ago.

Another point to be clear on is that it’s not low wage growth, as such, that’s the problem. If consumer prices weren’t growing, annual wage growth of 2.3 per cent wouldn’t be bad. It would be fantastic.

So it’s the rate at which wages are growing relative to the growth in consumer prices that matters. Real wages, in other words.

Standard economic theory says that, provided their real growth is no faster than the rate of improvement in the productivity of labour (that is, output per hour worked), wages can grow faster than prices without causing increased inflation.

What’s more, if wage-earners are to get their fair share of the benefit from improved productivity, real wages should be growing in line with the medium-term trend (average) rate of growth in labour productivity, which is about 1.1 per cent a year.

And because wages are the greatest single factor driving household income, household income is the greatest single factor driving consumer spending, and consumer spending accounts for about 60 per cent of gross domestic product, the economy won’t be back to a healthy rate of growth until real wages are back to growing pretty much in line with average productivity improvement.

Which, it turns out, is a bit of a worry. Why? Because it isn’t happening and doesn’t look like happening any time soon.

In the April budget, the government confidently predicted that wage growth would return to something approaching the old normal, accelerating to 2.5 per cent over the year to June this year, then 2.75 per cent by next June, and 3.25 per cent by June the year after.

We learnt this week that, as measured by the wage price index, wages fell short of the first hurdle, coming in at 2.3 per cent rather 2.5 per cent.

Worse, last week we learnt that even the Reserve Bank doesn’t share the government’s optimism.

The Reserve’s revised forecasts now see no advance on 2.3 per cent by June next year, and only the tiniest improvement to 2.4 per cent in two years’ time.

Admittedly, contrary to my contention that we won’t get to decent growth in the economy until we get decent growth in wages, the Reserve is predicting that real GDP will have strengthened to a healthy 2.7 per cent by June next year, and an even healthier 3 per cent by June 2021.

With wage growth forecast to continue weak, the Reserve is expected this improvement to happen with out much help from stronger consumer spending.

So how? Mainly through strong growth in business investment spending, exports and public sector spending on infrastructure.

Consumer spending would be helped a bit by the latest tax cuts and the cuts in interest rates. Other help would come from the falling dollar’s improvement to the price competitiveness of our export and import-competing industries, the brighter outlook for mining investment, and some stabilisation of the housing market.

Maybe. I remain sceptical. And if his behaviour last week is any guide, Reserve governor Dr Philip Lowe is pretty worried about the continuing weakness in wage growth.

It is simply not done for leading econocrats to tell employers they should be paying higher wages. But that’s just what Lowe did in his appearance before the House economics committee.

"At the aggregate [overall] level," he said, "my view is that a further pick-up in wages growth is both affordable and desirable."

Not after we’ve achieved greater productivity improvement, please note, but now. By how much does he think wages should be growing? By about 3 per cent a year, as he’s said on various occasions.

What’s more, federal and state governments – Labor as well as Coalition - should be setting the private sector a better example – or "norm" in Lowe's words – by raising the 2 to 2.5 per cent caps they’ve imposed on their own employees’ wage rises.

Thank goodness somebody’s minding the shop.
Read more >>

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

We need more helicopter pollies caring for our kids


Sometimes I think that if our politicians spent as much time trying to fix the country as they do playing political games – slagging each other off and finding ways to “wedge” their opponents – we’d be in much better shape.

The world becomes ever more complicated and right now our future is looking, as a pollie might say, “challenging”. Not least among our challenges is ensuring our children have better lives than ours.

So far, you wouldn’t be sure we were making much progress on that project. Leaving aside the way we’ve shifted the tax system in favour of the old at the expense of the young, there’s the less-than-wonderful state of our education and training.

Our schools aren’t winning many prizes on speech day, and though our universities have become much bigger, you wouldn’t be sure all the extra youngsters going in are emerging with valuable degrees. You get the feeling some of them would have been better off going to TAFE.

Speaking of TAFE – sorry, “vocational education and training” - why is it still being treated as the poor relation in the education system? Has it recovered from the disastrous attempt to save money by making vocational training “contestable”?

You may not have noticed but, with Parliament not sitting last week, Scott Morrison and his minister thought they’d better get on with some work in the “education space”.

It was, to be polite, a week of modest accomplishment.

After decades of squeezing the universities – and turning the vice-chancellors into funding-hungry ringmasters who’re no longer sure what the circus is meant to prove – Julia Gillard introduced “demand-driven” funding of undergraduate places.

Predictably, the universities – particularly regional unis - went crazy, cutting entry standards and signing up everyone they could.

Gillard’s view that a much higher proportion of young people should go on to further education was sound, but did that mean everyone was off to uni now?

Enter the Coalition government, which decided demand-driven funding was costing too much. Why not deregulate the setting of uni fees? When that was shot down, it took some years for the government to decide simply to freeze the number of funded places.

Last year it relented, promising to increase places in line with the growth in the working-age population – but on condition of improved performance. Ah yes, performance indicators. That’s what we need.

But which? A committee of five vice-chancellors was commissioned to ponder the question. Last week Education Minister Dan Tehan released their report and accepted their recommendations. From next year the unis will get an extra $80 million, provided they demonstrate success on graduate employment, dropout rates, student satisfaction, and adequate participation rates for Indigenous, low socio-economic status and regional-and-remote students.

I have great sympathy for the government’s desire to stop the vice-chancellors using students as cash cows and get back to their main job of giving our kids a high-quality education.

But I doubt KPIs are the way to do it. Monetary incentives are a poor way to encourage better behaviour, partly because they’re too easily gamed. And nobody knows more about gaming performance indicators than our vice-chancellors, who devote much time to thinking of easy ways to boost their uni’s rank on the various international league tables of universities (because this attracts more overseas students and you can charge ’em more).

Moving on to VET, last week saw the release of a “Vision for Vocational Education and Training” following a meeting of federal and state ministers as part of the Council of Australian Governments.

As a collection of motherhood statements, it’s first rate. A sample: “VET and higher education [unis] are equal and integral parts of a joined-up and accessible post-secondary education system with pathways between VET, higher education and the school system.”

This seems to be an assertion that we already have just the thing we don’t have, but desperately need. How are we to achieve it? Not to worry. The ministers are working on it. (They say that COAG is where good ideas go to die.)

Meanwhile, Andrew Norton, of the Grattan Institute, has used the long-running Longitudinal Survey of Australian Youth to conclude that not too many of the less-academic students going to university – among the 40,000 students a year with ATARs (tertiary admission ranks) of 50 to 70 – would have done better for themselves in VET.

Low-ATAR uni students are more likely to fail subjects and get low marks, and when they graduate are less likely to find professional jobs or earn high salaries.

Less-academic men doing humanities or science degrees might have earned higher lifetime incomes had they done vocational diplomas in construction, engineering or commerce.

But less-academic women often do teaching and nursing degrees. These “deliver good employment outcomes to students across the ATAR range,” Norton says. “These students are unlikely to do better in a vocational education course.”

Hmm. Teaching may be good for less-academic students, but I’m not sure how good less-academic teachers are for teaching.

I think that if universities are willing to admit – and take big fees from – less-able students, they have an obligation to give them more help.

Norton says “a good tertiary education system steers prospective students towards courses that increase their opportunities and minimise their risks. Australia’s post-school system does not always achieve this goal”.
Read more >>

Monday, August 12, 2019

We're edging towards admitting we're in secular stagnation

At least since 2012, Treasury, the Reserve Bank and successive governments have assured us a return to the old normal of strong economic growth, high wages and low unemployment wasn’t far off. But last week big cracks emerged in governor Philip Lowe’s optimistic facade.

In all the years since then, our estimated time of arrival at the promised land has been repeatedly pushed out a year or so. On the face of it, that’s what the Reserve did yet again in its quarterly statement on monetary policy.

Forecast growth in real gross domestic product over the year to December was cut again, to 2.5 per cent (down from a predicted 3.25 per cent last November), but not to worry. By June next year it will have bounced back to trend growth of 2.75 per cent. Happy days.

But that hardly fits with Lowe’s rhetoric during his appearance before the Parliament’s economics committee on Friday. He devoted a surprising amount of time to discussing the Reserve’s possible response in the "unlikely" event that the economy stayed weak.

His own forecasts imply the need for two further rate cuts, taking the official interest rate to just 0.5 per cent.

And if it got to 0.5 per cent, the Reserve would consider some form of "quantitative easing", he said, probably lowering the longer-term risk-free rate of interest by buying government bonds and paying for them simply by crediting the sellers’ accounts at the Reserve (the modern equivalent of "printing money").

What a long way we’ve come from Lowe’s line at the first official rate cut in June. The outlook for the economy was fine, he said then, it was just that the Reserve had redone its sums and realised that, with a bit of extra monetary stimulus, it could get the unemployment rate down to 4.5 per cent without causing any problem with inflation.

Actually, when your look deeper than the latest headline forecast of an early return to trend growth in the economy, you find that, by the end of 2021, wages still wouldn’t be growing any faster than they are now. Happy days?

Larry Summers, eminent academic economist and a former US Treasury secretary, began arguing that the American and other advanced economies were caught in "secular stagnation" – a protracted period of weak growth – in 2013. Since then, many economists have agreed, though they still debate its causes.

So far, however, those naughty, negative SS-words have never crossed the lips of any Treasury or Reserve official, let alone any politician. But on Friday Lowe gave us a detailed account of the phenomenon that’s both the key explanation for, and the main evidence of the existence of, secular stagnation: the amazingly low level of world real interest rates.

"There is a structural thing going on as well, and I think it is really important we understand this. At the moment, right around the world, there is an elevated desire to save and a depressed desire to invest," Lowe said.

"You see a lot of global savings because of demographic factors [population ageing]. There is a lot of saving in Asia [because they don’t have a social security system]. Many people borrowed too much in previous times and now they’re having to repair their balance sheets, so they want to save a bit more [paying off debt is a form of saving].

"There is a lot of desire to save and, right at the moment, not many firms want to invest. The reality we face is that, if a lot of people want to save and not many people want to use those savings to build new [physical] capital, savers are going to get low returns.

"The way the financial system works is that the central banks are the ones who set the interest rates, but we’re really responding to this deep structural shift in the balance between saving and investment right around the world and there’s not much we [central bankers] can do about that."

Just so. Two points. First, the "deep structural shift" began even before the global financial crisis. It’s not just the product of recent worry about a trade war – although that does provide econocrats and politicians with a convenient excuse to shift from their she’ll-be-right rhetoric.

Second, unprecedented low interest rates are a symptom of a deeper problem: aggregate (total) demand is insufficient to take up aggregate supply. That’s why growth is weak and will stay weak until a solution is found.

Where’s the additional demand to come from? Not from lower interest rates, obviously. Which leaves the budget. Now’s the time to rebuild public infrastructure and do other useful things we thought we couldn’t afford.

Anyone who still thinks now’s a good time to run budget surpluses just doesn’t get it. It’s now neither sensible nor possible. Wake up, Josh.
Read more >>

Saturday, August 10, 2019

How politics came to trump economics in Canberra

How does the federal government really work? Is it as we were told in Yes, Minister, with the bureaucrats actually in charge, quietly manipulating the politicians? Or are public servants actually the servants of their political masters, as the pollies focus more on getting re-elected than running the country well?

Does Treasury dominate the other departments and the economic advice going to government? Do bureaucrats still give ministers "frank and fearless" advice, or has their role been usurped by the ever-growing army of ministerial staffers, politically aligned think tanks and lobby groups?

In truth, it’s hard for outsiders to be sure. But a new book by a former 30-year senior Treasury officer, Paul Tilley, Changing Fortunes, is surprisingly frank and fearless in spelling out how things work, and how Treasury’s relationship with the elected government has "changed dramatically in recent times".

Last month Scott Morrison said he saw the bureaucrats’ role as implementing the government’s policies. Their advisory role was limited to advising the government of any problems that might arise during that implementation.

Tilley makes it clear this isn’t just what Morrison would like, it’s pretty much what he and his recent predecessors have long had. Treasury gives much information to the treasurer, but avoids giving written policy advice it believes would be unwelcome. What little frank advice is given comes verbally, as part of the private discussion between the treasurer and Treasury secretary.

Tilley says the art of policy advising involves understanding the true nature of the problem, predicting the consequences of policy options and framing effective policy advice.

To be influential, however, policy advisers need to find a balance between having sufficient separation from the raw politics of government to maintain a strong policy framework, on one hand, and having sufficient responsiveness to ministers to be listened to, on the other.

"Treasury’s influence spectrum had ‘frank and fearless advice’ at one end and full ‘responsiveness to government’ at the other," he writes. The trick was the find the right spot in the middle.

But by 2014, under Tony Abbott, "Treasury was now at the full responsiveness-to-government extreme," he writes.

His book is a history of Treasury from its establishment in 1901. "Treasury has long considered itself to be the best economic policy advising agency in Australia.

"Its favoured economic policy framework has for the most part been grounded in neoclassical economics - a belief in the power of markets, and the inherent tendency of supply and demand forces to move towards equilibrium.

"Non-achievement of equilibrium must be caused then, by some market impediment or government interference, and Treasury has seen it as its job to tackle those impediments or that interference.

"If there has been one enduring belief within Treasury – its light on the hill – this is it," he writes.

This is what Tilley means by Treasury’s possession – unlike so many other departments - of a "strong policy framework".

"If there has been a central defining culture in Treasury, it has been around analytical excellence – having the strongest policy framework and the best ideas. If there has been one recurring constraint on Treasury’s policy effectiveness, it has been too narrow in its focus and closed to alternative perspectives," he says.

Tilley’s title, Changing Fortunes, recognises that, over its 118-year life, Treasury’s influence has waxed and waned.

For its first 30 years it was the government’s bookkeeper. It evolved into an economic policy agency only after the Great Depression revealed its inability to provide authoritative advice on economic policy.

The economists arrived from the 1930s, with the advent of Keynesianism. The "golden years" for the economy in the 1950s and ‘60s were also golden for Treasury, which grew in size and status, leading the debate about economic ideas and allowing its influence and strength to give it "a level of arrogance".

This did not sit comfortably with the increasingly assertive governments of the post-Menzies era. Treasury was pushed out into the cold by Gough Whitlam, and kept there by Malcolm Fraser. Treasury’s advice remained frank and fearless, but was considered dogmatic, and often wasn’t listened to. I think this was when our Yes, Minister era ended.

Relations became more constructive when Bob Hawke and Paul Keating arrived, and continued so under John Howard and Peter Costello. "There was a sense of partnership in the Treasury-government relationships, and with the advancement of economic reforms that Treasury advocated it again influenced the policy agenda."

But for the past decade, first under the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd government, then under Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison, the "political chaos" has robbed governments of the sustained political capital needed to pursue difficult reforms. Governments fighting for their political survival have maintained a "relentless push for message over substance".

"In the daily political and media battles of the last decade, Treasury policy advice has not been sought, and at times not very effectively given. In those battles, it has been economic and budget facts and figures, not policy advice, that have been demanded," we’re told.

"The habit has developed of not providing policy advice that ministers don’t agree with. Policy advice on contentious issues now is discussed with ministers’ offices in its preparation and if the office indicates that the minister would not be comfortable with the proposed advice an information brief goes instead.

"The office’s (politically attuned) policy advice can then be provided over the top of the Treasury information brief."

The balance of policy influence has shifted to the political offices and external stakeholder groups, with the public service becoming more information providers and implementers of government decisions, he says.

"The government, therefore, is left without a strong source of genuine policy advice. The consequent lack of a consistent economic narrative over the last decade is plain for all to see."
Read more >>

Wednesday, August 7, 2019

One day the world's population will start falling

For those who worry about global warming and all the other damage humans are doing to our planet, the latest news on world population growth doesn’t seem good. Fortunately, however, the relationship between population and the environment is paradoxical.

The United Nations Population Division updated its projections in June. From its present 7.7 billion, the world’s population is projected to have grown by 2 billion in 2050. It should reach a peak of nearly 11 billion at about the end of this century, before it starts to fall.

Fortunately, projections are just projections, based on a lot of assumptions that may or may not prove to have been accurate. Some prominent demographers believe the UN’s assumptions are too pessimistic.

It’s a mistake to imagine that controlling world population growth is just a matter of access to effective contraception. Economic development also plays a big part.

It’s the activity of humans that generates greenhouse gas emissions and does other damage to the natural environment, using up non-renewable resources, over-using renewable resources such as fish stocks and forests, damaging soil and waterways, and making species extinct.

So the more people, the more damage. Most human activity is economic – people earning their living. And, the way economies are organised at present, the richer people become, the more damage they do.

But here’s the paradox: the richer people become, the fewer children they have.

As my favourite magazine, The Economist, noted in an article, before the Industrial Revolution the typical woman probably had seven or more children. In 1960, the global fertility rate was six children per woman. Today it’s 2.5.

Within that global average, the fertility rate in rich countries is 1.7 children, below the replacement rate for a stable population of 2.1. In middle-income countries it’s 2.4, not far above replacement. In poor countries, however, it’s 4.9 children.

The first economic factor to reduce family size is urbanisation. When you leave the farm, you don’t need as many kids to help with the work. (Both my parents grew up on farms early last century. Dad was one of 14, and Mum one of eight. Their four children, however, had an average fertility rate of 2.5.)

But perhaps the most important factor is the spread of education, particularly of girls. It’s well established that the more years girls spend at school, the fewer babies they have.

“Education reduces fertility by giving women other options,” The Economist says. “It increases their chances of finding paid work. It reduces their economic dependence on their husbands, making it easier to refuse to have more children even if he wants them.

“It equips them with the mental tools and self-confidence to question traditional norms, such as having as many children as possible. It makes it more likely they will understand, and use, contraception.

“It transforms their ambitions for their own children – and thus the number than they choose to have.”

Worldwide, the proportion of girls completing primary school has risen from 76 per cent in 1997 to 90 per cent today. The proportion completing lower secondary school is nearing 80 per cent.

Fertility rates are low in Europe – particularly in Italy (1.33) – and in Japan (1.37). They’re below replacement rate in New Zealand (1.9), Australia (1.83) and the US (1.78).

But the lowest fertility rates are in emerging Asia: Taiwan (1.15) and South Korea (1.11). In the world’s most populous country, China, it’s 1.69, thanks to the one-child policy. After the relaxation of that policy it rose only briefly. Flats are too small and childcare too limited.

By contrast, India’s rate is 2.24, pretty close to replacement. And it varies greatly from 1.8 in wealthy states such as Maharashtra, to more than 3 in poor states such as Uttar Pradesh. Even so, India's population is expected to overtake China’s in 2027.

Because fertility rates cover the whole child-bearing lives of women, it takes a long time for the population of a country that's a bit below the replacement rate to start falling – assuming they don’t top up with immigration, as we do.

Even so, 27 countries’ populations have fallen since 2010 – sometimes with low fertility rates reinforced by high emigration. Over the next 30 years, 55 countries’ populations are projected to fall – almost half of them by more than 10 per cent. China’s may fall by about 31 million, or 2 per cent.

So what’s the problem? In a word: Africa. Its painfully slow rate of economic development leaves it still with fertility rates of five or six, including big countries such as Nigeria, the Congo, Ethiopia and Tanzania.

The best hope that the world’s population will stop growing sooner than the UN projects is that it has underestimated the rise of girls’ education in Africa (and India and Pakistan).

Of course, economic development is two-edged. It may stop population growth, but it makes everyone else richer and thus makes more demands on the environment.

Just as we can limit climate change without reducing energy use by switching to renewable sources, so we could reorganise the economy in ways that ensured continued economic growth didn’t involve continued destruction of the environment. If we had the will.
Read more >>

Monday, August 5, 2019

Are low interest rates bad? It depends on your perspective


Although media coverage invariably assumes that low interest rates are good news, they’re now so low there’s a backlash, with people pointing to the disadvantages of low rates and getting quite worried.

The fightback is coming at the usual level of complaints from the retired, but also from more sophisticated observers, such as Andrew Ticehurst, of the Nomura banking group, and Dr Stephen Grenville, a former deputy governor of the Reserve Bank.

It’s understandable that the retired and other savers object to the Reserve Bank’s decisions to cut interest rates and are particularly exercised now rates are so close to zero. Doesn’t the Reserve understand we live on our interest income? Of course it does. So why does it persist?

Interest rates are the price borrowers pay lenders (and, ultimately, savers) for the use of their money for a period. Clearly, cutting rates benefits borrowers at the expense of savers. Central banks cut rates to encourage borrowing and spending because they know the expansionary effect on borrowers greatly exceeds the contractionary effect on savers.

They’ll never be dissuaded from this approach. It’s true interest rates are a “blunt instrument”, but they’re pretty much the only instrument central bankers have.

The retired are on much stronger ground when they insist the government continually updates the “deeming rates” it uses to assess the effect of people’s savings on the amount of their part-pension. It’s surprising the grey lobby has taken so long to wake up to this.

The more sophisticated criticism is that, though market economies thrive on risk-taking (and this is one of the mechanisms by which lower rates are expected to stimulate demand), unduly low rates encourage excessive risk-taking.

Businesses are encouraged to become dangerously highly “geared” or “leveraged” (too dependent on borrowed capital rather than share capital) and firms invest in projects that are high-risk or are profitable only if the cost of borrowing is unrealistically low.

In both cases, the seeds of the next bust are being sown. When rates go back up, firms and projects will fall over and there’ll be hell to pay. Very low rates also allow the survival of “zombie” firms – those that have failed and should have died, but are still living – which tie up resources that could be used more efficiently elsewhere.

Running “ultra-loose monetary policy” at a time when demand is weak can do more to cause dangerous bubbles in share, property and other asset markets than to stimulate markets for goods and services.

There’s merit in these arguments – in normal times. But this brings us to the key question of our times: are our present troubles cyclical or structural? Is it just taking frustratingly long for the economy to return to the old normal, healthy rate of growth, or have so many major (but, as yet, not fully understood) changes occurred in the structure of the economy that a “new normal” has arrived, requiring us to get used to a much lower rate of growth, complete with permanently lower inflation and interest rates?

Treasury is sticking firmly to the view that we’ll soon return to the old normal (thus adding weight to the critics’ worries about the bad seeds being sown by protracted low interest rates) and so is the Reserve – except that governor Philip Lowe’s recent exposition of the reasons for persistent low inflation had a bob each way, nominating cyclical (spare capacity) and structural (effects of digitisation and globalisation) factors.

Remember, interest rates come in two parts: the borrower’s compensation to the lender for the loss of their money’s purchasing power while it’s in the borrower’s hands (the expected inflation rate) plus the borrower’s payment to the lender for the use of their money during the loan (the “real” interest rate).

For as long as inflation stays low, nominal interest rates will stay low – without any real loss to savers, even though their susceptibility to “money illusion” (forgetting to allow for inflation) means many don’t realise it.

And here’s something many people haven’t realised: globally, real interest rates have been falling since the 1970s and are still falling. Harvard’s Lawrence Summers finds in a recent paper that real rates have declined by at least 3 percentage points over the past generation.

Put the two parts together and interest rates – both nominal and real – look like staying low for a long time, whether we like it or not. This says many formerly unprofitable investment projects are now profitable, and budget deficits and high public debt are now much less worrying.

The critics imply the Reserve has great freedom to keep the official interest rate high or low. Not really. It can’t defy economic gravity. It’s the Morrison government that could, at the margin, use its budget to reduce the pressure on the Reserve to cut rates further.
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Saturday, August 3, 2019

Star pupil Philip Lowe gives tips on why inflation is so low

Reserve Bank governor Philip Lowe started his study of economics at high school in Wagga Wagga and finished it with a PhD from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Much thanks to his teacher, Mrs King, whose teaching style convinced him economics was interesting as well as important.

The great attraction of high school economics is its emphasis on linking theory to current events.

According to a speech he gave last week, when Lowe did the HSC in 1979, the standard exam question was: why does Australia have both high inflation and high unemployment ("stagflation") and what’s the government doing about it?

In those days there was much interest in the "misery index", which adds the inflation rate to the unemployment rate. We got to peaks well above 20 per cent. Today, however, it’s below 7 per cent.

As the Australian Bureau of Statistics advised this week, the consumer price index rose by just 1.6 per cent over the year to June. Which means it’s been below the Reserve’s inflation target of "between 2 and 3 per cent, on average, over the medium term" for almost five years.

So Lowe’s guess is that, these days, exam questions are likely to ask: why is inflation so low at the same time as unemployment is also low – and what’s the government doing about it?

Just to be of help, he told us how he’d answer the question – which is one of interest and importance to all of us, not just youngsters preparing for their finals.

He started by noting that very low inflation has become the norm in most economies. At present, three-quarters of advanced economies have an inflation rate below 2 per cent.

There’s no single answer, he says, but there are three factors that, together, help explain what’s happened.

First, the credibility of the monetary "frameworks" that central banks eventually adopted when, in the second half of the 1970s, they realised inflation was way too high and needed to be got under control.

It wasn’t until the early '90s that our Reserve Bank adopted its present target for inflation which, as Lowe says, helped cement low inflation “norms” in the economy. In econospeak, it provided an anchor for business and unions’ expectations about how much prices were likely to rise over the next year or two.

"Many people understand that if inflation were to pick up too much, the central bank would respond to make sure the pick-up was only temporary,” Lowe says.

It would do so by raising interest rates and so discouraging borrowing and spending, of course. Economists call this the "monetary policy reaction function".

(It’s one of the reasons for the old view among economists that attempts to use the budget to stimulate demand by cutting taxes or increasing government spending wouldn’t achieve much. The central bank, fearing the stimulus would push up inflation, would react by raising interest rates and so stymie it. In the new world of continuing weak demand and too-low inflation, however, central banks are most unlikely to react to budgetary stimulus in such a way, meaning the new view is that budgetary stimulus is very effective.)

Has inflation targeting worked? Well, annual inflation has averaged 2.4 per cent since the target was adopted, so it certainly seems to have.

The second part of Lowe’s explanation for very low inflation is that spare capacity to produce goods and services (including spare workers who are unemployed or under-employed) in many advanced economies means there’s little upward pressure on prices.

That certainly seems the case in Australia. Our unemployment rate could go a lot lower than its present 5.2 per cent without causing wages to take off – especially with our under-employment rate of 8.3 per cent.

Our labour market seems to be more flexible – and less inflation-prone - than it used to be.

The third part of his explanation is that changes in the structure of the economy caused by technology and globalisation seem to be keeping prices low.

For one thing, digitisation and globalisation seem to be lowering the cost of producing many goods. The entry of China and other emerging economies into the global trading system has added hundreds of millions of factory workers to the global market.

The prices of manufactured goods in the advanced economies have barely increased over the past couple of decades.

For another thing, globalisation and advances in technology are making markets more contestable and increasing competition. This is extending beyond manufacturing to almost every corner of the economy, including the services sector.

Historically, most services couldn’t be traded across national borders. But globalisation – driven mainly by advances in information and communication technology – means many services can now be delivered by somebody in another country.

Examples include preparation of architectural drawings, document design and publishing, and customer service roles (a nice name for call centres). As well, many tasks such as accounting and payroll have been automated.

The internet and its digital “platforms” have revolutionised services such as retail, media and entertainment, and transformed how we communicate, and search for information and compare prices.

"These changes are having a material effect on pricing, with services price inflation lower than it once was. Many firms know that if they don’t keep their prices down, another firm somewhere in the world might undercut them," Lowe says.

"And many workers are concerned that if the cost of employing them is too high, relative to their productivity [an important qualification], their employer might look overseas or consider automation."

More broadly, using the internet for better “price discovery” keeps the competitive pressure on firms.

The end result is a pervasive feeling of more competition. And more competition normally means lower prices.

What’s the government doing about low inflation and the deficient demand that is part of its cause?

Well, if you mean the elected government, the short answer is: not nearly enough. Especially when you remember how little scope the Reserve Bank has left to cut interest rates.
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