Monday, June 11, 2012


June 2012

If you’re not quite sure what’s happening in the economy at present, don’t feel bad. Some people are saying the economy’s in bad shape; others are saying it’s doing pretty well. The reason for the confusion is that the economy’s being hit by three different factors, at present: one expansionary, one contractionary and one that sounds worse than it actually is - so far, at least. These conflicting factors are affecting different industries differently and different states differently. This is because they’re bringing about a change in the structure of our economy, and structural change is often painful. The three factors are: first, the resources boom; second, the high exchange rate the resources boom has brought about and, third, the problems in the developed economies of the North Atlantic, particularly the Europeans’ debt crisis and worries about the survival of the euro. Let’s start with the troubles in the North Atlantic, then move to the boom then on to the high exchange rate.

Problems in America and Europe

The mighty US economy is recovering only very slowly from the Great Recession of 2008-09. But the problems are much more severe in continental Europe, as well as Britain. Europe’s basic problem of excessive levels of public debt is greatly complicated by the now-exposed structural weaknesses in the euro currency union. Most governments have resorted to the policy of ‘austerity’ - attempting to reduce budget deficits by slashing government spending and raising taxes at a time when their economic recoveries were still very weak. Unsurprisingly, this policy has proved counter-productive and has pushed various economies back into recession.

The media have given great publicity to Europe’s troubles and its tribulations have caused weakness in global sharemarkets, including ours. But the real question is the extent to which Europe’s problems affect our economy. They could do so via three main channels. First, the financial channel: they could cause certain global lending markets to seize up for a time, or increase the risk premiums paid by Australian banks or businesses borrowing in those markets. Second, the confidence channel: media reports of problems in Europe could damage the confidence of Australian consumers and business people. Third, the trade channel: weak growth or contraction in Europe could reduce our exports.

So what damage have we suffered so far? Europe’s tribulations have added a little to our banks’ costs of borrowing overseas. They do seem to have added to the uncertainty of our business people, helping to explain the weakness of non-mining business investment spending. But it’s hard to be sure Europe has had much effect on consumers because the household saving rate has been steady for more than a year and consumer spending has been growing at its trend rate. Europe accounts for less than 10 pc of our exports, so its weakness has had little direct effect on our export income.

However, Europe is a significant customer of our biggest export customer, China. So any adverse effect from Europe’s weakness could come to us via China - unless China were to offset the fall in its export income from Europe by stimulating its domestic demand, as it seems willing and able to do.

Bottom line: Europe’s problems have had some negative effect on us, but so far, not much. This could change, however, if the euro arrangement collapsed. Were something really bad to happen in Europe, the RBA would react quickly with big cuts in the official interest rate.

Resources boom

The big expansionary shock to the economy is coming from the resources boom, the biggest we have experienced since the gold rush. The rapid industrialisation of China and India has pushed prices for our exports of coal and iron ore to extraordinary heights, with our terms of trade only now starting to fall from their best level in 200 years. The improvement in the terms of trade represents a significant increase in the nation’s real income which, when spent, adds to demand. The boom has also added to demand by sparking a huge surge of investment spending on the construction of new mines and liquid-gas facilities. The emerging economies’ demand for the main components of steel is likely to stay strong for a decade or two. So, though the price of our exports of coal and iron ore is likely to fall back to less extreme levels, the volume of our exports is likely to continue growing for many years.

High exchange rate

The big contractionary shock to the economy is coming from the still very high exchange rate caused by the resources boom. An improvement in our terms of trade almost always leads to a rise in our exchange rate. Our dollar is likely to stay unusually high for some years, even as commodity prices fall back, because of the significant net inflow of foreign capital needed to finance the expansion of our mining sector. The high exchange rate helps to prevent the resources boom from leading to inflation by, first, directly reducing the price of imports and, second, reducing the international price competitiveness of our export and import-competing industries, thus reducing their production and so working in the direction of diminishing demand.

Structural change

The public is used to thinking about the economy in cyclical terms: it’s either booming or turning down. At present, however, because these two big shocks to the economy - the resources boom and the high dollar - are working on opposite directions, the economy is neither booming nor busting. It’s easier to understand what’s going on in the economy if you think of it in structural terms: the interplay of the two conflicting forces bearing on the economy is causing some industries to expand while others contract. The mining industry and mining-related parts of the construction industry and the manufacturing industry - accounting in total for up to 20 per cent of GDP - is expanding rapidly, whereas most of the other trade-exposed industries (manufacturing and service export industries such as tourism and education) are likely to get relatively smaller. The other industry that’s suffering from structural change is retailing. The pressures it’s facing have little to do with the high dollar, however. It’s being affected by the digital revolution and the rise of e-commerce.

Outlook for the economy

Over the year to March, the economy grew by an exceptional 4.3 pc, lead by strong consumer spending and the boom in mining investment. But now the economic managers are expecting growth to return to its trend rate of 3.25 pc for the coming financial year, 2012-13, as a whole. But this is expected to involve quite disparate growth in the components of GDP: another very big increase in mining investment spending and trend growth in consumer spending, but no growth in new home building and a small contraction in public sector spending as federal and state governments seek to return to operating surplus.

And note that the other economic indicators are looking pretty good at present. The latest figures say underlying inflation is running at 2.2 pc - almost down to the bottom of the RBA’s 2 to 3 pc inflation target. The latest figures say unemployment is running at about 5 pc - which economists say is down very close to our NAIRU - the non-accelerating-inflation rate of unemployment, which is the lowest point to which unemployment can fall before labour shortages start causing wage and price inflation. That is, unemployment is very close to its lowest sustainable rate.

Monetary policy

Monetary policy - the manipulation of interest rates to influence the strength of demand - is conducted by the RBA independent of the elected government. It is the primary instrument by which the managers of the economy pursue internal balance - low inflation and low unemployment. MP is conducted in accordance with the inflation target: to hold the inflation rate between 2 and 3 pc, on average, over the cycle. The primary instrument of MP is the overnight cash rate, which the RBA controls via market operations.

Aware the unemployment rate was only a little above the NAIRU and concerned the resources boom could lead to excessive wage growth, the RBA stood ready to tighten monetary policy throughout most of 2011. But, partly because of the lingering effect of the Queensland floods in early 2011, the economy did not accelerate as the RBA had forecast. Instead, the outlook for growth in the North Atlantic economies worsened, business and consumer confidence weakened and inflation continued to improve. So the RBA cut the cash rate by a click in both November and December of 2011, lowering it to 4.25 pc. In May it cut by 0.5 points in June by a further 0.25 points, taking the cash rate down to 3.5 pc, more than offsetting the banks’ efforts to preserve their profit margins, and producing a net fall in the interest rates actually paid by households and businesses. With market interest rates a little below their long-run average, the stance of monetary policy is now mildly expansionary.

Fiscal policy

Fiscal policy - the manipulation of government spending and taxation in the budget - is conducted according to the Gillard government’s medium-term fiscal strategy: ‘to achieve budget surpluses, on average, over the medium term’. This means the primary role of discretionary fiscal policy is to achieve ‘fiscal sustainability’ - that is, to ensure we don’t build up an unsustainable level of public debt. However, the strategy leaves room for the budget’s automatic stabilisers to be unrestrained in assisting monetary policy in pursuing internal balance. It also leaves room for discretionary fiscal policy to be used to stimulate the economy and thus help monetary policy manage demand, in exceptional circumstances - such as the GFC - provided the stimulus measures are temporary.

After the onset of the GFC, tax collections fell heavily, and they have yet to fully recover. The Rudd government applied considerable fiscal stimulus to the economy by a large but temporary increase in government spending.

The government’s ‘deficit exit strategy’ requires it to avoid further tax cuts and limit the real growth in government spending to 2 pc a year until the budget has returned to a surplus equivalent to 1 pc of GDP. The delay in returning to surplus is caused not by continuing high spending but by continuing weak revenue.

In this year’s budget the government shifted its spending plans around to allow it to keep its election promise to budget for (then actually achieve) a tiny budget surplus in 2012-13. After allowing for unimportant changes in the timing of spending and the effect on demand of particular budget measures, the stance of fiscal policy is much less contractionary than it appears to be, with the Treasury secretary estimating the effect to be less than 1 pc of GDP, which is still significant.


Should the contractionary stance of fiscal policy combine with other factors to weaken aggregate demand, the RBA has scope to counter this by further loosening monetary policy from its present stance of ‘mildly expansionary’.