Monday, May 4, 2020

First the economy needs CPR. We'll worry about reform later

I can’t take seriously all those people saying we mustn’t waste a crisis, but seize this great opportunity to introduce sweeping economic reform. It’s like telling a baby who hasn’t yet learnt to walk it should start training for the Olympics.

It’s true, of course, that we won’t get back to economic life as we used to know it – that is, knew it before the global financial crisis, more than a decade ago – until we get back to reasonably strong annual improvement in the productivity of labour.

But the plain fact is, you’ve got to have a functioning economy before you can worry about how fast its productivity is improving. So there’ll be a time to debate which policies would or wouldn't do most to enhance productivity, but we have more pressing matters to attend to.

Some in the don’t-waste-the-crisis party can be forgiven because they’re under 50 and have no memory of what happens in recessions. But as my colleague Shane Wright has said, most of them are "the usual suspects, falling back on their usual agendas".

They have no genuine concern about the economy’s present life-threatened state, but are business people engaged in rent-seeking, or economists running off faith in their economic model, whether or not it’s supported by empirical evidence their theory actually works.

These urgers have forgotten that micro-economic reform seeks to increase economic growth by making the supply (production) side of the economy work more efficiently. It delivers results only over the medium to long term. It’s thus no substitute for macro-economic management, which deals with managing the demand side of the economy in the short term.

Right now, the prospect of a 10 per cent unemployment rate tells us we have more supply than we’re able to use. Clearly, our problem’s that demand is insufficient. The improvement in economic efficiency we assume we could gain by, say, taxing land rather than the transfer of it, is minor compared with the monumental inefficiency we know for certain is occurring because 10 per cent of our workers can’t find work. Macro inefficiency always trumps micro inefficiency.

Right now, we don’t even have an economy that’s functioning, much less functioning well. Much of it’s closed - locked up by government decree. We’re starting to ease the lockdown, but we won’t be opening our borders for another year or two.

When we do have most of the lockdown removed, what will we see? The economy won’t snap back. Not even bounce back in any significant way. True, once businesses are allowed to reopen they’ll be making some sales rather than next to none. But with so many households unemployed, sales won’t go back to anything like where they were.

Most households and businesses will be in cost-cutting mode. Firms have been incurring overheads while earning little. Even those households still working will be worried about their big mortgages and fearful of losing their own jobs. As Treasury secretary Dr Steven Kennedy has warned, “some jobs and businesses will have been lost permanently”.

Most firms and households will be getting back to some semblance of normality, but few will be doing much that causes the economy to grow in any positive sense. As Reserve Bank governor Dr Philip Lowe has said, 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.

Sound like a bounce-back, or an economy still in the intensive care unit? Ask yourself this: which are the forces that will propel the economy forward? It won’t be the main factor we’ve relied on in recent years – high immigration. Our population’s now falling, as people on temporary visas are sent home and not replaced. (Not that population growth does anything much to lift income per person.)

It won’t be “external stimulus” because the rest of the world is growing faster than us (it isn’t), or a lower dollar is making our exports cheaper to foreigners because we’ll continue banning foreign tourists and overseas students. Export commodity prices aren’t rising.

It won’t be growth in real wages (employers will compulsively demand a wage freeze) nor a "wealth effect" from rising house prices prompting households to cut their rate of saving. And a key missing piece: it won’t be big cuts in interest rates to encourage borrowing and spending.

That leaves only "fiscal stimulus" – the budget. The huge government spending so far has merely limited the extent of the economy’s fall. Should Scott Morrison soon start winding it back as he says he plans to, we could fall even further.

No, if we're to actually recover what will come next is a lot more government spending, particularly on useful projects. It can only be a government-led recovery.