If you needed the news that the economy contracted in the March quarter or Treasurer Josh Frydenberg’s official admission that, because Treasury expects the present quarter to be much worse, we are now in recession, go to the bottom of the class. Sorry, but you just don’t get it.
To anyone who can tell which side is up, what characterises a recession is not what happens to gross domestic product in two successive quarters or even half a dozen, it’s what happens to employment.
The role of the economy is to provide 13 million Australians with their livelihoods. When it falters in that role, that’s what we really care about. We call it a recession, and it’s why just hearing that word should frighten the pants off you. It means hundreds of thousands – maybe millions – of families will be in hardship, anxiety and fear about the future, which could go on for months and months.
So you should have been in no doubt that the economy was in recession from the day, weeks ago, you turned on the telly to see footage of hundreds of people queueing round the block to get into Centrelink and register for unemployment benefits – the JobSeeker payment as it’s now called.
The statistical confirmation of recession came not this week, but more than three weeks ago when the Australian Bureau of Statistics issued labour force figures showing that, in just the four weeks to mid-April, the number of Australians with jobs fell by an unprecedented 600,000.
What more proof did you need? There was more. The total number of hours worked during the month fell by more than 9 per cent. Also unprecedented. In consequence, the rate of under-employment (mainly part-timers wishing to work more hours than they are) leapt by almost 5 percentage points to 13.7 per cent. “Gee, do you think a recession might be coming?”
Of course, what happens to jobs is closely related to what happens to GDP – the volume of goods and services being produced during a period. When firms or government agencies decide to reduce the goods or services they’re producing, it’s a safe bet they’ll also reduce the number of workers they need to help with the producing.
No, my point is just, don’t get the monkey confused with the organ-grinder. We don’t need GDP to tell us whether we’re in recession, we need it to help us understand why we’re in recession and which aspects and industries are most affected.
So let’s start again. The “national accounts” issued by the bureau this week showed real GDP fell by 0.3 per cent in the March quarter so that the economy grew by only 1.4 per cent over the year to March.
To put that 0.3 per cent fall into context, had the economy continued growing at its previous rate it would have increased by about 0.5 per cent. So it’s a fall of 0.8 per cent from what might have occurred. A bit of that fall is explained by the bushfires, but most of it by the early stages of the economic response to the coronavirus – particularly the travel bans and first two weeks of the lockdown.
The largest factor explaining the actual fall is consumer spending, which fell by 1.1 per cent and so contributed minus 0.6 percentage points to the overall fall of 0.3 per cent. Some of this fall was involuntary (as the early days of the lockdown closed many businesses and prevented housebound families from getting out to shop), but much would have been deliberate, as households tightened their belts in anticipation of tough times to come.
Investment spending on new homes and alterations continued to fall – by 1.7 per cent – and business investment spending fell by 0.8 per cent. So, all told, the private sector’s subtraction from growth increased to 0.8 percentage points.
In contrast, government consumption spending (which included spending related to the bushfires and the virus) grew by 1.8 per cent. Add modest growth in infrastructure spending and the public sector made a positive contribution of 0.3 percentage points to the overall fall in GDP during the quarter.
Apart from a fall in inventories that subtracted 0.3 points from the overall change, that leaves “net exports” (exports minus imports) making a positive contribution of 0.5 percentage points. But that’s not as good as it sounds. The volume of our exports actually fell by 3.5 per cent, so we got a positive contribution only because the volume of imports fell by more.
The main factor influencing trade was the travel bans, which hit inbound tourism and incoming overseas students (both exports) and hit outbound tourism (an import) harder. We’re a net importer of tourism.
You see happening in this recession what happens in every recession: it’s the private sector that contracts, whereas the public sector (via federal and state budgets) expands to fill the vacuum. The extent to which governments apply “fiscal stimulus” and allow their budget deficits to rise has a big influence on how severe the recession is, how high unemployment goes and how long it takes to get everyone back to work.
Frydenberg claimed on Wednesday that the economy entered the crisis “from a position of strength”. This is simply untrue. People will stop believing what the Treasurer says if he continues playing so lightly with the truth.
The truth comes from economist David Bassanese of BetaShares: “Let’s not forget the economy was already struggling before the virus crisis due to a downturn in housing construction, weak business investment and tapped out consumer spending. Those fundamental challenges have not gone away, and the shock of COVID-19 has only exacerbated them.”
The truth Frydenberg is so unwilling to face up to is that, with the private sector already so weak, we were relying on the federal and state budgets to prop up the economy for many quarters before the virus arrived. Pretending otherwise won’t create a single job.