Saturday, May 9, 2020

Economic managers bank on us being smart as the average bear

It’s a lovely, comforting way to think about our economic problem. To beat the virus, we’ve had to put the economy into hibernation, but now it’s time for the bear to come out of its cave and get back to normal living. And it seems that’s just what Reserve Bank governor Dr Philip Lowe expects to happen.

The "baseline scenario" he outlined this week sees real gross domestic product falling by about 10 per cent over the first half of this year but then, it seems, growing by roughly 4 per cent in the second half, so that real GDP in December is just 6 per cent lower than it was in the December quarter last year. Then it “bounces back” to grow by 6 per cent over the course of next year.

Not bad, eh? We go down by 6 per cent this year, but then back up by 6 per cent next year. It can’t be quite so good as that sounds, however, because the rate of unemployment – which is expected roughly to have doubled to 10 per cent by the end of next month, is also expected to still be above 7 per cent at the end of next year.

These figures tell us that returning to positive growth in GDP is easier than returning to low unemployment. Unemployment goes up a lot faster than it comes down. That’s partly because the rate at which GDP grows isn’t as important as the level it attains. It’s the level that determines how many jobs there’ll be.

Now, no one can be sure how far the economy will fall, or how strongly it will recover when it stops falling. That’s always true, but it’s even truer with this recession because its cause is so different to past recessions.

This one's happened in the twinkling of an eye, as the government simply ordered many industries to close. So, when they’re allowed to reopen, maybe things will return to near normal pretty quickly.

Maybe - but I find it hard to believe.

Economists always rely on metaphors – often mixed – to explain the mysteries of economics to normal people. But we must be sure those metaphors don’t mislead us.

Bears have evolved to survive harsh winters intact, but humans haven’t. Bears may be used to it, but it’s an unprecedented, costly, worrying and uncertain period for our businesses and their employees.

The econocrats admit that "some jobs and businesses will have been lost permanently" and that firms and households are suffering from a "high level of uncertainty about the future" and will engage in "precautionary behaviour". They’ll be saving, not spending. If so, we won’t emerge from the cave in the same shape we went in.

Dr Richard Denniss and his team at the Australia Institute think tank have been examining the way our economy has recovered in previous recessions. They note that the expected contraction this time is far bigger than in the past: a fall in real GDP of about 10 per cent, compared to falls of 3.8 per cent in the recession of the early 1980s and just 1.4 per cent in our most recent recession in the early 1990s.

They also note that, in more recent years, the economy has grown much more slowly than it used to. Between the 1991 recession and the global financial crisis, our average rate of growth was 0.9 per cent a quarter, or 3.5 per cent a year. Since the financial crisis, however, it’s slowed to average 0.6 per cent a quarter, or 2.6 per cent a year.

Yet the Reserve Bank’s most likely scenario sees the economy bouncing back after the 10 per cent fall to grow by about 2 per cent a quarter from the end of next month. That’s growth at an annualised rate of roughly 8 per cent. Then, next year, it grows at an annual rate of 6 per cent, or roughly 1.5 per cent a quarter.

Now, since the economy will have so much spare capacity, it is technically possible for it to grow at such rapid rates for a couple of years before that idle capacity is used up.

But how likely is it? As Denniss asks, do recessions actually cause recoveries? Or, to test the “bounce back” metaphor, are economies like a rubber ball that hits the ground then bounces straight back up? Does the faster it goes down mean the faster it comes back up?

Some of our past recessions have had this classic V shape. But by no means all, or even most, of them. Sometimes they bounce back, sometimes they crawl.

There’s no law that says economies contract for only two quarters before they start growing. Nor that once they start growing, they strengthen. If you’ve lived through a few recessions, you’ll remember the expression “bumping along the bottom” and headlines about “jobless growth”.

So, given this varied experience, why are forecasts of quick and easy recoveries so common? Denniss thinks it may be because of the strange way macro-economists’ models are constructed. In the jargon, most macro models are Keynesian in the short term, but neo-classical in the (undefined) long term.

The neo-classical model assumes economies are always at full employment, meaning their growth over time is determined solely by growth in the three factors determining the increase in the economy’s production capacity: population, participation in the labour force and the productivity of labour.

The Keynesian short-term recognises that some “fluctuation” (a recession, say) can cause the economy to be below full employment. But the neo-classical long-term assumes the economy will always return to full employment at the level predetermined by the aforementioned “three Ps”.

So the economy’s bounce back is built into the model and must occur. Denniss says the trouble with this is it gives policymakers misplaced faith that GDP will bounce back, when it’s more likely that “GDP needs to be dragged back by sustained, and expensive, government stimulus”.