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.