Saturday, June 20, 2020

A recovery won’t get us out of the low-growth trap

The most useful insights in economics are deceptively simple. The most widely relevant is the idea of “opportunity cost” – whatever you choose to do costs you the opportunity to do something else – but the most useful after that is probably the notion of supply and demand. This can tell us much about why we’re in recession and how we recover from it.

The discipline of “micro-economics” tells us that a market consists of firms willing to supply a particular good or service and customers interested in buying (demanding) that good or service. If the two sides can agree on the price of the item, a sale is made. It’s the relative willingness of the supplier and the demander that determines the price.

The discipline of “macro-economics” takes all the markets that make up a market economy like ours and studies the relative strengths of “aggregate” (total) supply and “aggregate” demand. When aggregate demand is growing more strongly than aggregate supply, this puts upward pressure on prices, causing inflation.

When the growth in aggregate demand is weaker than the growth in aggregate supply, this means firms have idle capacity to produce goods and services and some of the workers who want to help in the production process will be unemployed.

Your typical recession involves a boom in which demand outstrips supply and the rate of inflation is high, but unemployment is low. The managers of the economy use higher interest rates and cuts in government spending or tax increases to try to slow the growth of demand and thus reduce inflation. But they end up overdoing it and the boom turns to bust. Demand falls back, so the inflation rate falls, but unemployment shoots up.

But that doesn’t describe this recession. There was no preceding boom. The growth in demand hadn’t been strong enough to take up all the growth in firms’ “potential” to supply goods and services – which the econocrats estimate was growing by 2.75 per cent a year - meaning the inflation rate’s been lower than their target of 2 to 3 per cent a year, while the rate of unemployment’s been higher than their target of about 4.5 per cent.

So, with no boom and no jamming on of the brakes, why are we in recession? Because the sudden arrival of the coronavirus and the need to stop it spreading and killing many people obliged the government to do something that would normally be unthinkable: order the closure of non-essential industries and order all of us to stay in our homes and leave them as little as possible.

The management of the macro economy is intended to be “counter-cyclical” – to smooth the economy’s path through the ups and downs of the business cycle by slowing demand when it’s too strong and boosting it when it’s too weak.

So, obviously, the task now the virus has been suppressed and we can end most of the lockdown (but not yet open our borders to foreign travellers) is to “stimulate” the economy to get demand growing more strongly than supply is growing and start reducing unemployment. (Supply increases because of growth in the population, more people participating in production, and business investment to improve the productivity of the production process.)

The authorities usually stimulate demand with big cuts in interest rates (known as monetary policy) and by increasing government spending or cutting taxes (fiscal policy). Trouble is, this time interest rates are already as low as they can go, meaning virtually all the stimulus will have to come from fiscal policy – the budget.

This standard approach assumes the imbalance between demand and supply is essentially “cyclical” – caused by short-term factors. But we shouldn’t forget that, before the virus arrived out of the blue, we were struggling to explain why, at least since the global financial crisis more than a decade ago, economic growth had been much weaker than we’d been used to.

This was true in Australia where, except for a year or two, the growth in real gross domestic product – our production of goods and services - had fallen well short of our potential growth rate of 2.75 per cent a year. But it was just as true of most other advanced economies.

The fact that this weak growth had gone on for most of a decade, and applied to so many countries, was a pretty clear sign the imbalance between supply and demand wasn’t just cyclical – short-term – but was “structural”: long-lasting.

The symptoms of weakness included weak growth in wages, consumer spending and business investment, without much improvement in the productivity (efficiency) of our production process. Because the old word for structural was “secular”, economists called this phenomenon “secular stagnation”. But Mervyn King, a former governor of the Bank of England, prefers to say we’re caught in a “low-growth trap”.

Why are we caught in a protracted period of weak growth? Because aggregate demand has gone for a decade failing to keep up with the growth in aggregate supply – our potential (but not our reality) to produce goods and services.

The evidence that demand isn’t keeping up with supply is unusually low inflation and low growth in real wages. Also the weak rate of improvement productivity – although this also means supply isn’t growing as strongly as it used to, either.

But the ultimate evidence of secular stagnation is that interest rates have been so close to zero for so long. Interest rates are just another price. Why are they so low? Because the supply of money savers are making available to be borrowed exceeds the demand for those funds by people wanting to invest.

The debate over the possible reasons why aggregate demand is chronically falling short of aggregate supply is a fascinating subject for another day. What’s clear is that recovering from this cyclical recession won’t eliminate our pre-existing structural weakness.

It’s equally clear, however, that if the Morrison government isn’t prepared to use its budget to stimulate demand sufficiently, we won’t even achieve much of a recovery from the recession.