Monday, December 6, 2021

Panicking financial markets could stuff up another global recovery

In economics, there’s not much new under the sun. When I became a journalist in the mid-1970s, the big debate was about which mattered more: inflation or unemployment. You may not realise it, but that’s the great cause of contention today.

With prices having risen surprisingly rapidly this year in the US and Britain – but few other advanced economies – we’re witnessing a battle between people in the financial markets, who fear inflation is back with a vengeance and want interest rates up to get it back under control, and the central banks.

The central bankers see the higher prices as a transitory consequence of the supply and energy disruptions arising from the pandemic. They fear that, once their economies have rebounded from the government-ordered lockdowns and fear-induced reluctance to venture forth, their economies will soon fall back to into the “secular stagnation” or weak-growth trap that gripped the advanced economies for more than a decade following the 2008 global financial crisis until the arrival of the pandemic early last year.

The decade of weak growth involved high rates of saving but low rates of business investment, record low interest rates, weak rates of improvement in the productivity of labour, low wage growth and, not surprisingly, inflation running below the central banks’ target rates. All that spelt adequate supply capacity, but chronically weak demand.

In the months before the arrival of the pandemic, central banks grappled with the puzzle of why economic growth had been so weak for so long – and what they could do about it.

In particular, our Reserve Bank had to ask itself why it had gone year after year forecasting an imminent rise in wage growth, without it ever happening. With such weak growth in real wages – the economy’s chief source of income – it was hardly surprising that consumer spending and growth generally were weak, and that inflation remained well below the Reserve’s target.

Earlier this year, with the economy rebounding so strongly from last year’s nationwide lockdown – but before the Delta setback – the econocrats in the Reserve and Treasury realised that recovering from the coronacession wouldn’t be a problem.

But once all the fiscal stimulus and pent-up consumer spending had been exhausted and the economy returned to its pre-pandemic state, where would the impetus for further growth come from? Certainly not, it seemed, from healthy growth in real wages.

What explained the way we’d finally joined the Americans in their decades-long wage stagnation? And what could central banks do about it? The obvious answer seemed to be to run a much tighter labour market and see if that got wages moving.

Perhaps, as a hangover from the 1970s and ’80s, when the world really did have an inflation problem, we’d continued worrying too much about inflation and not enough about getting the economy back to full employment.

For years we’d been making these fancy theoretical estimates of the NAIRU – the non-accelerating-inflation rate of unemployment; the point to which unemployment could fall before labour shortages caused inflation to take off – but unemployment rates had fallen quite low without the remotest sign of excessive wage growth.

Perhaps we should be less pre-emptive. Stop relying on theoretical estimates and just keep allowing the economy to grow until we had proof that wages really were taking off before we applied the interest-rate brakes.

And perhaps we should base decisions to raise rates on actual evidence of a problem with inflation – including, particularly, evidence of excessive growth in real wages – rather than on mere forecasts of rising inflation.

Our Reserve’s thinking was matched by the US Federal Reserve’s. Chairman Jerome Powell told Congress in July 2019 “we have learned that the economy can sustain much lower unemployment than we thought without troubling levels of inflation.”

Which brings us to this year’s budget, back in May. Although the economy seemed clearly to be rebounding from the coronacession, and debt and deficit were high, Treasurer Josh Frydenberg swore off the disastrous policy of “austerity” (government spending cuts and tax increases) that panicking financial markets had conned the big advanced economies into after the Great Recession, thus crippling their recoveries.

While allowing the assistance measures for the initial lockdown to terminate as planned, the budget announced big spending on childcare and aged care, following a strategy of “repairing the budget by repairing the economy”.

Treasury secretary Dr Steven Kennedy and Reserve governor Dr Philip Lowe made it clear they wanted to keep the economy growing strongly until the unemployment rate was down to the low 4s – something we hadn’t seen for decades – as the best hope of getting some decent growth in real wages.

This is still what the central banks want to see: a new era of much lower unemployment and, as a consequence, much healthier rises in real wages to power a move to stronger economic growth than we saw in the decade before the pandemic.

But now Wall Street is panicking over the surprisingly big price rises caused by the pandemic’s disruption, and has convinced itself inflation’s taking off like a rocket. If the Fed doesn’t act quickly to jack up interest rates, high and rising inflation will become entrenched.

Despite our marked lack of worrying price rises, our financial markets – not known for their independent thinking – have joined the inflation panic, betting that, despite all Lowe says to the contrary, our Reserve will be putting up rates continuously through the second half of next year.

So convinced of this are the market dealers that the (better educated) market economists who service them have begun thinking up more plausible arguments as so why rates may need to move earlier than the Reserve expects. ANZ Bank’s Richard Yetsenga, for instance, fears that if everyone tries to spend all the money they’ve saved during the lockdowns, “rates will need to rise to crimp spending intentions”.

See what’s happening? According to the financial markets, the pandemic has not merely cured a decade of secular stagnation, it’s transported us back to the 1970s and out-of-control inflation. That’s the big threat, and unemployment will have to wait.

Apparently, this dramatic reversal in the economy’s fortunes has occurred without workers getting even one decent pay rise.

There are three obvious weaknesses in this logic. First, globalisation has not made our economy a carbon copy of America’s. Second, there’s a big difference between a lot of one-off price rises and ongoing inflation. If the price rises don’t lead to higher wages, no inflation spiral.

Third, even if the central banks did get a bit worried, they’d start by ending and then reversing “quantitative easing” – creating money from thin air – before they got to raising the official interest rate.