Sunday, June 5, 2022

Labor mustn't be panicked into doing something stupid

Who’d want to be the new Treasurer, Dr Jim Chalmers? Certainly, not me. But that won’t stop me giving him a shed-load of free advice. Starting now.

As Chalmers sees it, the economy he’s inherited is in “dire” straits. Everywhere he looks there’s another problem. First, “skyrocketing” inflation.

Second, falling real wages as “a consequence of almost a decade of the deliberate undermining of pay and job security, now coming home to roost in the form of a full-blown cost-of-living crisis”.

And third, a budget “heaving with more than $1 trillion in debt” and worse (though he doesn’t mention it), a budget projected to stay in structural deficit for as far as the eye can see, meaning the debt continues to grow in dollar terms, and falls relative to the growing size of the economy only after a delay, and only slowly.

He could have added a fourth problem: a hostile international economic environment, with a fair risk of the US falling into recession and, worse, a major trading partner – China – that’s mishandling both its response to the pandemic (think more supply-chain disruptions) and its management of the macroeconomy.

Chalmers is, of course, doing what all incoming treasurers (and chief executives) do and laying it on thick. Like Mother Hubbard, he’s discovered the cupboard is bare. Actually, he’s cleaning out the cupboards and finding all the bad stuff his predecessor hid. He’s snapping people out of the campaign fairyland, where government spending can go up while taxes go down and deficits fall.

Even so, his four big problems are real enough – and seem to be getting worse as each week passes. The latest gas crisis is a parting gift from the Liberals, arising from nine years of indecision about how the transition from fossil fuel to renewables should be managed to avoid unexpected mishaps – such as a Russia-caused leap in global fossil fuel prices.

So what should he do? Avoid being panicked by the many partisan ill-wishers and ideological barrow-pushers who would do so. He needs to think carefully about the various problems, the highest priorities, the right order in which to tackle them, their varying degrees of difficulty and urgency, and the way they interrelate - the ways he can kill two birds with one stone, or make choices to fix one problem that make another problem worse.

Chalmers should be wary of conventional thinking about problems that are of unconventional origins. Just as the “coronacession” was unlike an ordinary recession because it was caused by government-imposed restraints on the supply side rather than efforts to curb excessive demand, so he shouldn’t be using demand restraint to try to fix disruptions to supply.

Inflation problems normally arise from an overheated economy leading to excessive wage growth. The standard solution will involve cutting real wages to make labour less expensive. But we’ve had weak real wage growth for a decade.

Those ideologically opposed to fiscal stimulus tell us our stimulus has given us a red hot, inflation-prone economy – as proved by our super-tight labour market. They conveniently forget to mention that the pandemic caused us to ban all imported labour for two years, but that this supply constraint has now been lifted.

If excessive wage growth didn’t cause our high and rising prices, what did? Fiscal stimulus has caused shortages of materials and workers in housing and construction, but most of the price rises have come from external supply constraints caused by the pandemic and the war on Ukraine.

Nothing we could do can fix problems coming from the rest of the world. But we shouldn’t forget that these are once-off price increases. And those import prices will fall at some stage as pandemic disruptions are resolved and the war ends.

It’s not that simple, of course. Why not? Because our businesses don’t seem to have hesitated in passing their increased import costs through to retail prices. That’s the start not of a wage-price spiral, but price-wage spiral. And business and employer groups’ solution to the spiral is simple: allow only a token increase in wages, and inflation will come down in no time.

This is the unspoken doctrine that’s the bastard child of the economic rationalist era: give business whatever it demands and everything in the economy will be wonderful. The business lobby has become so consumed by short-sighted self-interest – so used to getting its own way – that we need a new government with the wisdom and strength to save business from its own folly.

We need a government capable of seeing what business can’t: that wages aren’t just a cost to business and an impost on profits, but also the chief source of income for the 10 million households who are the reason we have an economy and whose spending on the things our businesses produce is what generates their profits in the first place.

Screwing the workers by tolerating ever-falling real wages is a delusional way to increase profits in anything but the short term. The bigger the fall in real wages – and the government can’t stop them falling – the more Labor risks joining the US and China in recession.

This is why, in its worthy desire to keep big business in the tent, the government was wrong to ask the Fair Work Commission to increase award wages by 5.1 per cent only for “low-paid” workers – that is, only about the bottom 12 per cent of workers rather than the bottom 25 per cent.

Do you really think the 88 per cent of workers reliant on bargaining with bosses rather than a commission edict will get anything like a 5 per cent pay rise?

Former Reserve Bank governor Bernie Fraser used to say that any fool could get inflation down – all you had to do was crunch the economy. Is that what business would like? It’s certainly what the financial markets – whose model of our economy is a footnote saying “see America” – want.

As I’m sure the Reserve well understands, we need to get inflation down without causing a recession. And that means being patient about how long it takes. We were below the target range for six years; we can be above it for a few years without the sky falling.

And remember this: if we did fall into recession, the strategy of growing our way out of debt would explode. Not only would the economy be growing more slowly than the debt, the budget’s “automatic stabilisers” would reverse and the deficit would blow out, greatly increasing the debt.

On the other hand, Chalmers should be sceptical of the argument that an additional reason we need to cut the budget deficit ASAP is to reduce the need for interest rates to rise so far. Getting inflation under control is not a big ask – provided we’re patient.

The Reserve’s stated strategy is to shift the stance of monetary policy only from “emergency expansionary” to “neutral”. That is, to take its foot off the accelerator, not to jam on the brakes. This means slowly lifting the official interest rate to about 2.5 per cent, so the medium-term real interest rate is zero.

In theory, at least, this should not cause the economy to contract, nor great pain to most people with mortgages. And it would be a good thing in itself to get rates up to a level remotely approaching normal.

The real challenge for budget policy is to avoid getting us in deeper by proceeding with the stage-three tax cut in its present timing, size and form. It could be rejigged to make it more effective in relieving cost-of-living pressures for people in the bottom half.