Showing posts with label demand. Show all posts
Showing posts with label demand. Show all posts

Friday, December 23, 2022

RBA warning: our supply-side problems have only just begun

In one of his last speeches for the year, Reserve Bank governor Dr Philip Lowe has issued a sobering warning. Even when we’ve got on top of the present inflation outbreak, the disruptions to supply we’ve struggled with this year are likely to be a recurring problem in the years ahead.

Economists think of the economy as having two sides. The supply side refers to our production of goods and services, whereas the demand side refers to our spending on those goods and services, partly for investment in new production capacity, but mainly for consumption by households.

Lowe notes that, until inflation raised its ugly head, the world had enjoyed about three decades in which there were few major “shocks” (sudden big disruptions) to the continuing production and supply of goods and services.

When something happens that disrupts supply, so that it can’t keep up with demand, prices jump – as we’ve seen this year with disruptions caused by the pandemic and its lockdowns, and with Russia’s attack on Ukraine.

What changes occurred over the three decades were mainly favourable: they involved increased supply of manufactured goods, in particular, which put gentle downward pressure on prices.

This made life easier for the world’s central banks. With the supply side behaving itself, they were able to keep their economies growing fairly steadily by using interest rates to manage demand. Put rates up to restrain spending and inflation; put rates down to encourage spending and employment.

The central banks were looking good because the one tool they have for influencing the economy – interest rates – was good for managing demand. Trouble is – and as we saw this year – managing demand is the only thing central banks and their interest rates can do.

When prices jump because of disruptions to supply, there’s nothing they can do to fix those disruptions and get supply back to keeping up with demand. All they can do is strangle demand until prices come down.

So, what’s got Lowe worried is his realisation that a lot of the problems headed our way will be shocks to supply.

“Looking forward, the supply side looks more challenging than it has been for many years” and is likely to have a bigger effect on inflation, making it jump more often.

Lowe sees four factors leading to more supply shocks. The first is “the reversal of globalisation”.

Over recent decades, international trade increased significantly relative to the size of the global economy, he says.

Production became increasingly integrated across borders, and this lowered costs and made supply very flexible. Australia was among the major beneficiaries of this.

Now, however, international trade is no longer growing faster than the global economy. “Trading blocs are emerging and there is a step back from closer integration,” he says. “Unfortunately, today barriers to trade and investment are more likely to be increased than removed.”

This will inevitably affect both the rise in standards of living and the prices of goods and services in global markets.

The second factor affecting the supply side is demographics. Until relatively recently, the working-age population of the advanced economies was steadily increasing. This was also true for China and Eastern Europe – both of which were being integrated into the global economy.

And the participation of women in the paid labour force was also rising rapidly. “The result was a substantial increase in the number of workers engaged in the global economy, and advances in technology made it easier to tap into this global labour force,” Lowe says.

So, there was a great increase in global supply. But this trend has turned and the working-age population is now declining, with the decline projected to accelerate. The proportion of the population who are either too young or too old to work is rising, meaning the supply of workers available to meet the demand for goods and services has diminished.

The third factor affecting the supply side is climate change. Over the past 20 years, the number of major floods across the world has doubled and the frequency of heatwaves and droughts has also increased.

This will keep getting worse.These extreme weather events disrupt production and so affect prices – as we know all too well in Australia. But as well as lifting fruit and vegetable prices (and meat prices after droughts break and herd rebuilding begins), extreme weather can disrupt mining production and transport and distribution.

The fourth factor affecting the supply side is related: the transition from fossil fuels to renewables. This involves junking our investment in coal mines, gas plants and power stations, and new investment in solar farms, wind farms, batteries and rooftop solar, as well as extensively rejigging the electricity network.

It’s not just that the required new capital investment will be huge, but that the transition from the old system to the new won’t happen without disruptions.

So, energy prices will be higher (to pay for the new capital investment) and more volatile when fossil-fuel supply stops before renewables supply is ready to fill the gap.

Lowe foresees the inflation rate becoming more unstable through two channels. First, shocks to supply that cause large and rapid changes in prices.

Second, the global supply curve becoming less “elastic” (less able to respond to increases in demand by quickly increasing supply) than it has been in the past decade.

Lowe says bravely that none of these developments would undermine the central banks’ ability to achieve their inflation target “on average” - that is, over a few years – though they would make the bankers’ job more complicated.

Well, maybe. As he reminds us, adverse supply shocks can have conflicting effects, increasing inflation while reducing output and employment. The Reserve can’t increase interest rates and reduce them at the same time.

As Lowe further observes, supply shocks “also have implications for other areas of economic policy”. Yes, competition policy, for instance.

My conclusion is that managing the economy can no longer be left largely to the central bankers.


Friday, November 11, 2022

Treasury thinks the unthinkable: yes, intervene in the gas market

If you think economists say crazy things, you’re not alone. Speaking about our soaring cost of living this week, Treasury Secretary Dr Steven Kennedy told a Senate committee that “the solution to high prices is high prices”. But then he said this didn’t apply to the prices of coal and gas.

How could anyone smart enough to get a PhD say such nonsense? He even said – in a speech actually read out by one of his deputies – that this piece of crazy-speak was something economists were “fond of saying”.

It’s true, they are. If they were children, we’d call it attention-seeking behaviour. But when you unpick their little riddle, you learn a lot about why economists are in love with markets and “market forces”, why they’re always banging on about supply and demand, and why (as I’ve said once or twice before) if economists wore T-shirts, what they’d say is “Prices make the world go round”.

At the heart of conventional economics – aka the “neo-classical model” – lies the “price mechanism”. Understand this, and you understand why the thinking of early economists such as Adam Smith and Alfred Marshall is still influential a century or two after their death, and why, of all the people seeking the ears of our politicians, economists get more notice taken of their advice than other professions do.

The secret sauce economists sell is their understanding of how a lot of seemingly big problems go away if you just give the price mechanism time to solve them.

A market is a place or a shop or cyberspace where people come to sell things to other people. The sellers are supplying the item; the buyers are demanding it. The seller sets the price; the buyer accepts it – or sometimes they haggle or hold an auction.

If the price of some item rises, this draws a response from the price mechanism, which is driven by market forces – the interaction of supply on one side and demand on the other.

The price rise sends a signal to buyers and a signal to sellers. The message buyers get is: this stuff’s more expensive, so make sure you’re not wasting any of it.

And see if you can find a substitute for it that’s almost as good but doesn’t cost as much. If you’ve been buying the deluxe, big-brand version, try the house brand.

On the other side, the message to sellers is: since people are paying more for this stuff, produce more of it. “I’m not in this business, but maybe now the price is higher, I should be.” If the price has risen because the firm’s costs have risen, maybe we could find a way to cut those costs, not put our price up and so pinch customers from our competitors.

See where this is going? If customers react to the higher price by buying less, while sellers react by producing more, what’s likely to happen to the price?

If demand for the item falls, and the supply of the item increases, the higher price should come back down.

Saying the solution to high prices is high prices is a tricky way of saying market forces will react to the price rise in a way that, after a while, brings it back down again.

When demand and supply get out of balance, market forces adjust the price up or down until demand and supply are back in balance. The price mechanism has fixed the problem, returning the market to “equilibrium”.

This is the origin of the old economists’ motto: laissez-faire. Leave things alone. Don’t interfere. Interfering with the mechanism will stop it working properly and probably make things worse rather than better.

There’s a huge degree of truth to this simple analysis. At this moment there are thousands of firms and millions of consumers reacting to price changes in the way I’ve just described.

Kennedy admits that “there are many conditions that underpin” this do-nothing policy, but “in most circumstances Treasury would support such an approach”.

There certainly are many simplifying assumptions behind that oversimplified theory. It assumes all buyers and sellers are so small they have no power by themselves to influence the price.

It assumes all buyers and all sellers know all they need to know about the characteristics of the product and the prices at which it’s available. It assumes competition in the market is fierce. And that’s just for openers.

However, Kennedy said, the circumstances of the price shocks caused by the Ukraine war are “different and outside the frame” of Treasury’s usual approach. Such shocks bring government intervention in the coal and gas markets “into scope”. That is, just do it.

“The current gas and thermal coal price increases are leading to unusually high prices and profits for some companies,” he said. “Prices and profits well beyond the usual bounds of investment and profit cycles.

“The same price increases are leading to a reduction in the real incomes of many people, with the most severely affected being lower-income working households.

“The energy price increases are also significantly reducing the profits of many [energy-using] businesses and raising questions about their viability.”

In summary, Kennedy said, the effects of the Ukraine war are leading to a redistribution of income and wealth, and disrupting markets. “The national-interest case for this redistribution is weak, and it is not likely to lead to a more efficient allocation of resources in the longer term,” he said.

(The efficient allocation of resources – land, labour and capital – is the main reason economists usually oppose government intervention in the price mechanism. Markets usually allocate resources most efficiently.)

The government’s policy response to the problem could take many forms, Kennedy said, but with inflation already so high, policymakers “need to be mindful of not contributing further to inflation”.

This suggests that intervening to directly reduce coal and gas prices is more likely to be the best way to go, he concluded.