Sunday, February 7, 2021

RBA governor abounds in optimism about the economy’s prospects

If you think the coronacession made last year a stinker for the economy, Reserve Bank governor Dr Philip Lowe has good news: this year pretty much everything will be on the up except unemployment.

All Reserve governors see it as their duty to err on the optimistic side, and Lowe is no slouch in that department. In his speech this week foreshadowing Friday’s release of the Reserve’s revised economic forecasts for the next two years, Lowe was surprisingly upbeat on what we can expect in “the year ahead”.

His first reason for optimism is that, though last year saw the economy plunge into severe recession for the first time in almost 30 years, it didn’t go as badly as initially feared.

For one thing, he says, Australians did what they usually do: respond well in a crisis. As a community, we have pulled together in the common good and been prepared to do what’s been necessary to contain the virus.

“Because of these collective efforts, Australia is in a much better place than most other countries. This is true for both the economy and the health situation,” he says.

The downturn in the economy was not as deep as the authorities had feared and the recovery has started earlier and has been stronger than expected. “Employment growth has been strong, as have retail sales and new house building. Across many indicators, including gross domestic product, the outcomes have been better than our central forecasts and often better than our upside scenarios as well,” he says.

As recently as August, the Reserve forecast that the rate of unemployment would be close to 10 per cent by the end of last year, and still be above 7 per cent by the end of next year. Its latest forecast is that unemployment peaked at 7.5 per cent in July and – having fallen to 6.6 per cent in December - will be down to 6 per cent by the end of this year.

Why hasn’t the recession been as bad as expected? Lowe offers three reasons. First, our greater success in containing the virus.

“That success has meant that the restrictions on activity have been less disruptive than we feared. It has allowed more of us to get back to work sooner and it has reduced some [note that word] of the economic scarring from the pandemic.”

The second reason the recession hasn’t been as bad as expected is that governments’ fiscal policy (budgetary) “support” has been bigger than expected, even in August. Most of this support has come from the federal government, but the states have also played a role.

Measuring this “support” the simple way the Reserve always does, by the size of the change in the overall budget balance (this time combining federal and state budgets), he puts it at almost 15 per cent of GDP.

Note that this way of doing it adds together two elements economists often separate: the deterioration in budget balances caused by budgets’ “automatic stabilisers” – that is, the move into deficit that would have happened even had governments not lifted a finger, coming from the fall in tax collections and the rise in dole payments – and, on the other hand, the cost of governments’ explicit decisions to stimulate the economy with extra government spending (the JobKeeper wage subsidy and the temporary supplement to JobSeeker dole payments, for instance) or tax cuts.

This greater-than-expected support has made a real difference, Lowe says. “It has provided a welcome boost to incomes and jobs and helped front-load the recovery by creating incentives for people to bring forward spending.

“There has also been a positive interaction with the better health outcomes, which have allowed the policy support to gain more traction than would otherwise have been the case.”

The third reason the bounce-back has been stronger than expected is that Australians have adapted and innovated. “Many firms changed their business models, moved online, used new technologies and reconfigured their supply lines,” Lowe says.

“Households adjusted too, with spending patterns changing very significantly. Some of the spending that would normally have been done on travel and entertainment has been redirected to other areas, including electrical goods, homewares and home renovations. Online spending also surged, increasing by 70 per cent over the past year” to about 11 per cent of total retail sales.

All this suggests a stronger economy in the coming calendar year. With the key assumption that the rollout of the coronavirus vaccines in Australia goes according to Scott Morrison’s plan, but that international travel remains highly restricted for the rest of this year, real GDP is now forecast to grow at the above-trend rate of 3.5 per cent over this year, and at the same rate again over next year.

In consequence, the level of real GDP will be back to where it was at the end of 2019, before the Black Summer bushfires and the arrival of the virus. Over that 18 months we’ll have had net economic growth of zero.

As we’ve seen, the forecast rate of GDP growth is expected to get the rate of unemployment down to 6 per cent by the end of this year. But then it will take a further 18 months to fall to 5.25 per cent.

As measured by the wage price index, wages grew by just 1.4 per cent over the past year, their lowest in decades. The underlying rate of inflation also grew by 1.4 per cent over the year, way below the Reserve’s target rate of 2 to 3 per cent.

“Given the spare capacity that currently exists [seen in the high unemployment and underemployment of labour, and in unused production capacity in factories and offices], these low rates of inflation and wage increases are likely to be with us for some time,” Lowe concludes.

If so, I’m not sure I’m as upbeat about the future as the Reserve Bank governor is.