Monday, September 7, 2020

Memo generals: China is our inescapable economic destiny

There must be times in Australia’s history when people look at the nation’s economic experts and wonder if they have any idea what they’re doing. Today, the boot’s on the other foot: people who care about our economic future are wondering what game the nation’s defence and foreign affairs experts think they’re playing.

The concern of many business people and others has been most eloquently expressed by Dr John Edwards, former Reserve Bank board member, in a paper for the Lowy Institute. He’s in complete agreement with Scott Morrison’s assertion last year that “even during an era of great-power competition, Australia does not have to choose between the United States and China”.

Edwards says Australia made its choices long ago, and is now locked into them. “It chose its region, including its largest member, China, as the economic community to which it inescapably belongs. It also long ago chose the US as a defence ally to support Australia’s territorial independence and freedom of action.”

There is a good deal of tension between these two choices, but no possibility that either will change, he says. “Like many other enduring foreign policy problems, it cannot be resolved. It must instead be managed.

“However, it can only be managed if the Australian government has a clear and united understanding of Australia’s interests, and competent people to execute policies consistent with that understanding.”

Australia’s trade with East Asia has been growing faster than its gross domestic product and its trade overall for many decades. Our exports to East Asia now account for more than a sixth of our total GDP. Half of these exports go to China, and now amount to 10 times those going to the US.

Australia is meshed with China’s economy not only because China is such a big market for our exports, but also because China is the major trading partner of our other major markets in East Asia: Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and the ASEAN countries.

Today, East Asia and the Pacific form a regional economic community that, in terms of trade and investment between its members, is only a little less integrated than the European Union, and very much more integrated than the North American region.

“Already selling all it can to Japan and Korea, Australia would not find new markets for iron ore and coal to replace even a part of what it now sells to China. Nor could it easily replace exports of wine, meat, dairy products and manufactures to China. The largest share of foreign tourists is from China, as is the largest share of foreign students,” Edwards says.

“Without trade with China, Australia’s living standards would be lower, its economy smaller and its capacity to pay for military defence reduced.” (Generals – armchair and otherwise – please note.)

“It is difficult to imagine plausible circumstances in which an Australian government would voluntarily cut exports to China. Australia cannot and will not decouple from China’s economy any more than Japan, Korea, Taiwan or Southeast Asia can, wish to, or will,” he says.

Australia’s stance towards the US-China competition must therefore be informed by a recognition that what injures China’s prosperity also injures Australia’s prosperity. Economic "decoupling" of China from North America or Europe is not in Australia’s interests.

But “nor will Australia decouple from its security arrangements with America. The US will remain the primary source of advanced military technology for Australia. It will also remain the primary source of security intelligence.

“And no hostile power can entirely discount that possibility that the US would come to Australia’s military assistance if required. The security arrangements Australia has with America are therefore sufficiently valuable that no Australian government would voluntarily depreciate them, let alone relinquish them.”

The tension between these two pillars of Australia’s engagement with the world will continue for decades to come. The centrality of these relationships makes it all the more important for Australia to conduct them carefully and cleverly, always guided by a notion of Australia’s long-term interests, we’re told.

“China’s growing role on the world stage, its authoritarian government, its suppression of internal dissent, its territorial claims and defence build-up in the South China Sea, together with the deterioration of the relationship between the US and China, make this tension increasingly difficult to manage.

“Thus far, the cleverness Australia increasingly needs is not evident in its handling of relations with China . . . Refusing to take sides in the trade and technology competition between China and the US is Australia’s declared policy. It was wisely adopted – but not deftly implemented,” Edwards concludes, with admirable restraint.
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Saturday, September 5, 2020

It'll be a long haul to get the economy going properly

If you’ve been away on Mars for the past five months, it will have been a huge surprise to learn this week that the economy is now "officially" in recession. For the rest of us, the news is the size of the recession, how it compares, what contributed most to the contraction, and the cloudy outlook for recovery.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics’ "national accounts" show real gross domestic product fell by 7 per cent in the June quarter, on top of the 0.3 per cent fall in the previous quarter. This is by far the largest fall in any quarter since we began measuring quarterly GDP in 1959.

The next biggest was a fall of 2 per cent in the June quarter of 1974. As Callam Pickering, of the Indeed global job website, reminds us, our total fall since December compares with peak-to-trough falls of 1.4 per cent in our previous recession in the early 1990s, and 3.7 per cent in the recession of the early 1980s.

So, no doubt this is indeed the worst recession since the Great Depression of the 1930s. Why so bad? Because, as David Bassanese of BetaShares tells us, "this is a recession like no other," being caused by the almost instantaneous spread around the world of a deadly virus and the consequences of our efforts to suppress the virus by ceasing much economic activity.

This coronacession is distinguished by its very front-loaded and cruelly uneven nature. “Unlike past recessions, which usually evolve over a year or so, most of the contraction in the economy took place within two short months,” Bassanese says.

The sudden need to lock down much of the economy and get people to leave their homes as little as possible raises the hope that, as the economy is re-opened, much of that activity will be resumed. And if we switch the focus from what’s happening to GDP – the economy’s production of goods and services – to the more important issue of what’s happening to jobs, we see this is already happening.

Treasurer Josh Frydenberg reminds us that, of the 1.3 million people who either lost their job or were stood down on zero hours following the outbreak, more than half were back at work by July.

This suggests we should be able to expect a significant bounce-back in production in the present September quarter, which has less than a month to run. Sorry, Victoria’s second wave and return to lockdown have put paid to that fond hope.

With the rest of the nation re-opening, but Victoria accounting for about a quarter of GDP, the optimists in Treasury are hoping for a line-ball result, but most business economists seem to be expecting a further (though much smaller) fall.

With any luck, however, Victoria should have started re-re-opening by the end of this month. So, a big recovery in production in the run up to Christmas? Sorry. Unless the government changes its tune by then, the economy will be struggling to cope with the withdrawal of much of Scott Morrison’s budgetary support.

Time for some good news. Remember that, no matter how tough things are looking in Oz, they’re looking better than in the rest of the developed world, with the United States losing 9 per cent during the June quarter, the Europeans down 12 per cent, and Britain down 20 per cent.

Why have we been hit less hard? Because we closed our borders earlier and had more success at containing the virus. We didn’t have to lock down as hard and were able to re-open earlier.

Now back to the details of how our 7 per cent contraction came about. The great bulk of it came from consumer spending - accounting for well over half of GDP – which fell by a remarkable 12.1 per cent during the quarter.

Consumption of goods fell a bit, while consumption of services fell hugely. Why? Because staying at home and social distancing slashed our spending on services such as hospitality, recreation and transport (public, car and air).

To the fall in consumer spending we must add falls of 6.8 per cent in new home building and 6.2 per cent in business investment in new equipment and structures. Note that this continued the declines in these two areas that began well before the virus arrived, showing the economy was weak even before the crisis.

This collapse in private sector spending was partly offset by growth in two parts of the economy. First, public sector spending grew by 2.5 per cent, mainly reflecting greater health care costs. (Note that, being "transfer payments", the huge spending on the JobKeeper wage subsidy scheme shows up as an addition to wage income, while the greater spending on JobSeeker unemployment benefits also shows up as an addition to household disposable income.)

This increased government assistance, at a time when job losses meant wage income was falling, actually caused household disposable income to rise by 2.2 per cent. Combined with the remarkable fall in consumer spending, however, this helps explain why the rate of household saving leapt from 6 per cent of household income to almost 20 per cent.

Second, our international trade made a 1 percentage point positive contribution to growth because, although the volume of our exports of goods and services fell, the volume of our imports of goods and services (which subtract from growth) fell by more.

(Just so you know, partly because of this we recorded our largest quarterly current account surplus on record of $18 billion, or 3.8 per cent of GDP. This is our fifth consecutive surplus, the longest run of surpluses since the 1970s. For a financial capital-importing economy like ours, this is actually a sign of economic weakness.)

Remembering that the outlook for coming quarters isn’t bright, I leave the last, sobering word to the ANZ Bank’s economics team: “Significant further stimulus over the next few years is likely to be required to generate growth and jobs and drive the unemployment rate down.”
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Wednesday, September 2, 2020

Pandemic: inconvenient for the privileged, rough on the poor

The popular coronavirus refrain that "we're all in this together" is a call for everyone to pull together and be more conscious of the interests of others, not just our own. What it's not is a statement of fact.

Far from it. When you take a closer look, what you see is inequality and injustice – on many dimensions. Some of these have been created by the way our governments have decided who gets help to cope with the pandemic and who doesn't.

But others are the consequence of our politicians going for years pushing problems under the carpet because fixing them would just be too expensive for taxpayers.

You and I have generally been content for these problems to be kept out of our sight. But the virus has drawn these injustices to light. In some cases, the victims have continued to suffer in silence. In others, they've continued going about their business in ways that have undermined our efforts to limit the virus's spread.

Like many of us, no doubt, I've been aware of much of this. But the recent writings of Dr Stephen Duckett, of the Grattan Institute, have brought it together in a way that's shocked me. Duckett is the nation's leading health economist. Most of what follows comes from him.

His account begins at the beginning. We congratulate ourselves that we were quick to block the arrival of foreigners who could be bringing the virus with them. We closed our borders to China early, and soon added Iran and South Korea to the list. A planeload of repatriated Chinese Australians from Wuhan was quarantined well away from us at the Christmas Island detention centre.

"However, we baulked when countries like us – white and wealthy – began to show higher levels of infection," he says. "Italy had higher levels of infection than the Asian countries, but our borders remained open to Italians."

The United States was the next source of infections. "Some Aspen skiers, returning home, brought the infection with them. They were asked, probably politely, to self-isolate in their Portsea beach houses. They did not, and the virus spread. The first wave of infections was mostly these international transmissions, returning travellers, probably wealthier than the average Australian."

At that time we didn't know much about the virus, except that it seemed to have started in China. With people of Chinese appearance being vilified in the streets, Australians were not shown at their best (or brightest).

Look at Victoria's second wave, however, and you see people at the other end of the income scale helping to spread the virus and being its greatest victims. Low-paid and poorly trained hotel-quarantine guards, with precarious job security, were the human channels from supposedly quarantined travellers to the guards' families and friends.

It was not by chance that the first areas in the renewed lockdown were social housing towers where immigrant families lived cheek by jowl. "Communication problems with residents were exacerbated by the authorities' failure to adequately recognise the need for cross-cultural communication. And the authorities in turn seemed not to trust the residents, with whom they had little contact," Duckett says.

Generations of neglect of public housing have caused overcrowding in the estates and created the conditions for rapid transmission of disease. The same could be said of jails, where our enthusiasm for locking up offenders has not been matched by our enthusiasm for building new prisons. Then, of course, there's our neglect of residential aged care.

When you think about it, the device of limiting the spread of the virus by locking down large parts of the economy and encouraging people to stay in their homes inevitably hurts the poor more than the well-off.

As a general rule (to which there will always be exceptions, without that stopping the rule from holding much truth), the more skilled, better paid and permanent jobs can be done safely from home, whereas jobs that involve the face-to-face delivery of services are more likely to be less skilled, less well-paid and less secure.

Many of these jobs – particularly in hospitality and tourism – just disappeared, while others kept going, but with greater risk of becoming infected. Health workers were particularly exposed, often with inadequate access to personal protective equipment. Disgracefully, this sometimes led to them being shunned in public.

The "flexibility" afforded by the growth in part-time and casual work has been of great benefit to employers and some benefit to young parents and full-time students. But when casuals work multiple jobs to make ends meet, any infection spreads further. And when they lack paid sick leave, their temptation to keep working despite symptoms is great.

Then there's our treatment of overseas students and others on temporary visas. The moment their costs exceed their benefits to us, we cut them adrift without a shilling.

"The privileged among us have been inconvenienced by the pandemic; the vulnerable have suffered and in some cases died because of its unequal health and economic effects," Duckett concludes.
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