Showing posts with label economic growth. Show all posts
Showing posts with label economic growth. Show all posts

Sunday, June 23, 2024

Yikes! Our tiny manufacturing sector makes us rich but ugly

At last, the source of our economic problems has been revealed. Our economy is badly misshapen, making it unlike all the other rich economies. Did you realise that our manufacturing sector is the smallest among all the rich countries?

Worse, our mining sector’s almost five times as big as the average for all the advanced economies and our agriculture sector’s twice the normal size.

Do you realise what an ugly freak this must make us look to all the other rich people in the world? We’re like the millionaire who made his pile as a rag and bone man with a horse and cart. Yuck.

It’s something about which we should be deeply ashamed and very worried, apparently.

How do I know this? It’s all explained in an open letter signed by about 70 academics who, because they’re banging on about economic matters, have been taken to be economists. But they don’t sound like any economist I know.

Indeed, they devote most of their letter to explaining why some of the most fundamental principles of economics are not only wrong, wrong, wrong, but sooo yesterday.

They condemn “outdated ‘comparative advantage’ theories of trade and development – according to which, countries should automatically specialise in products predetermined by natural resource endowments” which theories, they assure us, “have been abandoned” by other rich countries.

Rather, “there is new recognition that competitiveness is deliberately created and shaped, through proactive policy interventions that push both private and public actors to do more than market forces alone could attain”.

Get it? When you’re trying to make a living in a market economy, it’s a mistake to worry about what you’re good at, or to think you’ll sell something you’ve got that they don’t. No, with the right policies, governments can make you “competitive” without any of that.

You may think we’ve done pretty well among the other rich countries but, in truth, we’ve been getting it all wrong. When those Europeans were sailing round the South Pacific looking for an island they could take from its local inhabitants, their big mistake was to pick Australia.

They thought our island would have a lot of good farmland. And surely somewhere in all that space there must be some gold or other valuable minerals. But this turned us into hewers of wood and drawers of water.

Worse, some of us became the lowest of the low, digging stuff out of the ground and shipping it off somewhere. We turned our country into a quarry. And there’s only one thing lower than running a quarry: providing “services” to other people. You know, being a cleaner or chambermaid or waiter.

All of which tempted us away from the one honest, noble way to earn a living: making things. And if only our island hadn’t been good for farming and mining, making things would have been the only way left to make a living.

Really? As the independent economist Saul Eslake has said, this isn’t economics, it’s the fetishising of manufacturing. It’s the one worthy occupation. All the rest are rubbish.

Now, I’m sure the open letter-signers would protest that they’re only arguing for a big manufacturing sector, they’re not saying we shouldn’t have farmers, miners or servants.

Trouble is, as Eslake points out, all the parts of an economy can’t add to more than 100 per cent of gross domestic product or total employment. If some parts’ shares are bigger than others, the other bits’ shares must be smaller.

When you think about it, this is just an application of the economists’ most fundamental principle: opportunity cost. You can’t have everything you want, so make sure what you pick is what you most want.

To anyone who’s been around a while, it’s clear the letter-signers are on the left. Nothing wrong with that. At its best, the left cares about a good deal for the bottom, not just the top. But for some strange reason, a lot of those on the left see themselves as linked to manufacturing by an umbilical cord.

The joke is, few if any of the letter-signers would ever have worked in manufacturing – or ever want to. (My own career in BHP’s Newcastle coke ovens lasted two days before I scuttled back to the comfort of a chartered accountants’ office.)

Academics, more than anyone, should understand that the future lies in services, not manufacturing. The good jobs come from what you know, not what you can make.


Friday, June 7, 2024

The RBA has squeezed us like a lemon, but it's still not happy

Let me be the last to tell you the economy has almost ground to a halt and is teetering on the edge of recession. This has happened by design, not accident. But it doesn’t seem to be working properly. So, what happens now? Until we think of something better, more of the same.

Since May 2022, the Reserve Bank has been hard at work “squeezing inflation out of the system”. By increasing the official interest rate 4.25 percentage points in just 18 months, it has produced the sharpest tightening of the interest-rate screws on households with mortgages in at least 30 years.

To be fair, the Reserve’s had a lot of help with the squeezing. The nation’s landlords have used the shortage of rental accommodation to whack up rents.

And the federal government’s played its part. An unannounced decision by the Morrison government not to continue the low- and middle-income tax offset had the effect of increasing many people’s income tax by up to $1500 a year in about July last year. Bracket creep, as well, has been taking a bigger bite out of people’s pay rises.

With this week’s release of the latest “national accounts”, we learnt just how effective the squeeze on households’ budgets has been. The growth in the economy – real gross domestic product – slowed to a microscopic 0.1 per cent in the three months to the end of March, and just 1.1 per cent over the year to March. That compares with growth in a normal year of 2.4 per cent.

This weak growth has occurred at a time when the population has been growing strongly, by 0.5 per cent during the quarter and 2.5 per cent over the year. So, real GDP per person actually fell by 0.4 per cent during the quarter and by 1.3 per cent during the year.

As the Commonwealth Bank’s Gareth Aird puts it, the nation’s economic pie is still expanding modestly, but the average size of the slice of pie that each Australian has received over the past five quarters has progressively shrunk.

But if we return to looking at the whole pie – real GDP – the quarterly changes over the past five quarters show a clear picture of an economy slowing almost to a stop: 0.6 per cent, 0.4 per cent, 0.2 per cent, 0.3 per cent and now 0.1 per cent.

It’s not hard to determine what part of GDP has done the most to cause that slowdown. One component accounts for more than half of total GDP – household consumption spending. Here’s how it’s grown over the past six quarters: 0.8 per cent, 0.2 per cent, 0.5 per cent, 0.0 per cent, 0.3 per cent and 0.4 per cent.

A further sign of how tough households are doing: the part of their disposable income they’ve been able to save each quarter has fallen from 10.8 per cent to 0.9 per cent over the past two years.

So, if the object of the squeeze has been to leave households with a lot less disposable income to spend on other things, it’s been a great success.

The point is, when our demand for goods and services grows faster than the economy’s ability to supply them, businesses take the opportunity to increase their prices – something we hate.

But if we want the authorities to stop prices rising so quickly, they have only one crude way to do so: by raising mortgage interest rates and income tax to limit our ability to keep spending so strongly.

When the demand for their products is much weaker, businesses won’t be game to raise their prices much.

So, is it working? Yes, it is. Over the year to December 2022, consumer prices rose by 7.8 per cent. Since then, however, the rate of inflation has fallen to 3.6 per cent over the year to March.

Now, you may think that 3.6 per cent isn’t all that far above the Reserve’s inflation target of 2 per cent to 3 per cent, so we surely must be close to the point where, with households flat on the floor with their arms twisted up their back, the Reserve is preparing to ease the pain.

But apparently not. It seems to be worried inflation’s got stuck at 3.6 per cent and may not fall much further. In her appearance before a Senate committee this week, Reserve governor Michele Bullock said nothing to encourage the idea that a cut in interest rates was imminent. She even said she’d be willing to raise rates if needed to keep inflation slowing.

It’s suggested the Reserve is worried that we have what economists call a “positive output gap”. That is, the economy’s still supplying more goods and services than it’s capable of continuing to supply, creating a risk that inflation will stay above the target range or even start going back up.

With demand so weak, and so many people writhing in pain, I find this hard to believe. I think it’s just a fancy way of saying the Reserve is worried that employment is still growing and unemployment has risen only a little. Maybe it needs to see more blood on the street before it will believe we’re getting inflation back under control.

If so, we’re running a bigger risk of recession than the Reserve cares to admit. And if interest rates stay high for much longer, I doubt next month’s tax cuts will be sufficient to save us.

Another possibility is that what’s stopping inflation’s return to the target is not continuing strong demand, but problems on the supply side of the economy – problems we’ve neglected to identify, and problems that high interest rates can do nothing to correct.

Problems such as higher world petrol prices and higher insurance premiums caused by increased extreme weather events.

I’d like to see Bullock put up a big sign in the Reserve’s office: “If it’s not coming from demand, interest rates won’t fix it.”


Monday, June 3, 2024

No one's sure what's happening in the economy

Treasury secretary Dr Steven Kennedy let something slip when he addressed a meeting of business economists last week. He said it was too early to say if the economy was back in a more normal period, “perhaps because no one is quite sure what normal is any more”.

This was especially because “unusual economic outcomes are persisting,” he added.

Actually, anyone in his audience could have said the same thing – but they didn’t, perhaps because they lacked the authority of the “secretary to the Treasury”.

No, standard practice among business economists and others in the money market is to make all predictions with an air of great certainty. Forgive my cynicism, but this may be because their certain opinion changes so often.

Often, it changes because something unexpected has happened in the US economy. Many people working in our money market save themselves research and thinking time by assuming our economy is just a delayed echo of whatever’s happening in America.

If Wall Street has decided that America’s return to a low rate of inflation has been delayed by prices becoming “sticky”, rest assured it won’t be long before our prices are judged to have become sticky as well.

But predicting the next move in either economy has become harder than we’re used to. Kennedy noted in his speech that, in recent years, the global economy, including us, had been buffeted by shared shocks, such as a global pandemic, disruptions to the supply of various goods, and war.

One factor I’d add to that list is the increasing incidence of prices being disrupted by the effects of climate change, particularly extreme weather events, but also our belated realisation that building so many houses on the flood plain of rivers wasn’t such a smart idea.

All these many “shocks” to the economy have knocked it from pillar to post, and stopped it behaving as predictably as it used to. But, as we’ll see, not all the shocks have been adverse.

Right now, the change everyone’s trying to predict is the Reserve Bank’s next move in its official interest rate, which most people hope will be downward.

Normally, that would happen just as soon as the Reserve became confident the inflation rate was on its way down into the 2 to 3 per cent target range. And normally, we could be confident the first downward move would be followed by many more.

But since, like Kennedy, the Reserve is not quite sure what normal is, and Reserve governor Michele Bullock says she expects the return to target to be “bumpy”, it may delay cutting rates until inflation is actually in the target zone.

If so, and remembering that monetary policy, that is, interest rates, affects the economy with a “long and variable lag”, the Reserve will be running the risk that it ends up hitting the economy too hard, and causing a “hard landing” aka a recession, in which the rate of unemployment jumps by a lot more than 1 percentage point.

Kennedy was at pains to point out that the rise in the official interest rate of 4.25 percentage points over 18 months is the “sharpest tightening” of the interest-rate screws since inflation targeting was introduced in the early 1990s.

He also reminded us how much help the Reserve’s had from the Albanese government’s fiscal policy, which has been “tightened at a record pace”. Measured as a proportion of gross domestic product, the budget balance has improved by about 7 percentage points since the pandemic trough. Add the states’ budgets and that becomes 7.5 percentage points.

That’s a part of the story those in the money market are inclined to underrate, if not forget entirely. Kennedy reminded them that, since 2021, our combined federal and state budget balance has improved by more than 5 percentage points of GDP. This compares with the advanced economies’ improvement of only about 1.5 percentage points.

So, has our double, fiscal as well as monetary, tightening had much effect in slowing the growth of demand for goods and services and so reducing inflationary pressure?

Well, Kennedy noted that, over the year to December, households’ consumption spending was essentially flat. And consumer spending per person actually fell by more than 2 per cent.

When you remember that consumer spending accounts for more than half total economic activity, this tells us we’ve had huge success in killing off inflationary pressure. And this week, when we see the national accounts for the March quarter, they’re likely to confirm another quarter of very weak demand.

So, everything’s going as we need it to? Well, no, not quite.

Last week we learnt that, according to the new monthly measure of consumer prices, the annual inflation rate has risen a fraction from 3.4 to 3.6 per cent over the four months to April.

“Oh no. What did I tell you? The inflation rate’s stopped falling because prices are “sticky”. It’s not working. Maybe we need to raise interest rates further. Certainly, we must keep them high for months and months yet, just to be certain sure inflation pressure’s abating.”

Well, maybe, but I doubt it. My guess is that a big reason money market-types are so twitchy about the likely success of our efforts to get inflation back under control is the lack of blood on the streets that we’re used to seeing at times like this.

Why isn’t employment falling? Why isn’t unemployment shooting up? Why are we only just now starting to see news of workers being laid off at this place and that?

It’s true. The rate of unemployment got down to 3.5 per cent and, so far, has risen only to 4.1 per cent. Where’s all the blood? Surely, it means we haven’t tightened hard enough and must keep the pain on for much longer?

But get this. What I suspect is secretly worrying the money market-types, is something Kennedy is pleased and proud about.

“One of the achievements of recent years has been sustained low rates of unemployment,” he said last week. “The unemployment rate has averaged 3.7 per cent over the past two years, compared with 5.5 per cent over the five years prior to the pandemic.”

Our employment growth has been stronger than any major advanced economy over the past two years, he said. Employment has grown, even after accounting for population growth.

And we’ve seen significant improvements for those who typically find it harder to find a job. Youth unemployment is 2.6 percentage points lower than it was immediately before the pandemic.

So, what I suspect the money market’s tough guys see as a sign that we haven’t yet experienced enough pain, the boss of Treasury sees as a respect in which all the shocks that have buffeted us in recent times have left us with an economy that now works better than it used to.

And Kennedy has a message for the Reserve Bank and all its urgers in the money market.

“It is important to lock in as many of the labour market gains as we can from recent years. This involves macroeconomic policy aiming to keep employment near its maximum sustainable level consistent with low and stable inflation,” he said.


Monday, May 27, 2024

Politicians don't control migrant numbers, and usually don't want to

Suddenly, everyone’s talking about high migration and the way it’s disrupting the economy. Why is the government letting in so many people, and why hasn’t it turned off the tap?

Short answer: because, the way we run immigration, it has little control over the tap.

But, at times like this, that’s not something either side of politics wants to admit. The truth is, they could exercise more control over immigration, but neither side has particularly wanted to.

Usually, the pressure on them to keep immigration high greatly exceeds the pressure to keep it low. The upward pressure comes from business, which finds it easier to increase profits when it has a continuously growing market.

For many years, business’s main interest was in getting more factory fodder. More people to buy the products of our highly protected manufacturing industry and give it a little of the economies of scale it lacked.

This was why it had to be protected from imports from overseas manufacturers with much bigger domestic markets. As well, our manufacturers needed a steady supply of less-skilled workers to staff their production lines.

In more recent decades, the emphasis has switched from factory fodder to preferring those immigrants with the skills we particularly need to fill shortages as they arise. This, I fear, has allowed our employers to take less interest in ensuring they were always training up enough locals to meet their industry’s future needs.

Another change has been from focusing on permanent migration to encouraging people to come here for a while on temporary visas: workers with skills coming to see what it’s like, students coming to gain further education and young people coming on working holidays, aka backpackers.

We’ve become quite dependent on this huge inflow and outflow of temporary migrants, which far exceeds people coming on permanent visas. Businesses often want their temporary skilled workers to stay on.

The sale of education to overseas students has become one of our biggest exports, one on which our universities have become heavily dependent. Our hospitality industries rely on the casual employment of overseas students and backpackers. And farmers and country towns rely on backpackers for fruit picking and other unskilled work.

On top of all that, federal governments have become reliant on high migration to make our GDP growth figures look better. They often boast about how well our growth compares with the other rich countries, without ever mentioning that most of this is explained by our faster population growth.

And right now, of course, the economy’s growth is so weak we’d be in recession if not for the recent immigration surge.

All these are the reasons successive federal governments want to maintain strong immigration, despite the public’s longstanding reservations. Former prime minister John Howard did a great line in diverting the punters’ attention to resentment of some uninvited arrivals by boat, while he ushered in visa-wielding immigrants arriving by the plane load.

It’s only when high immigration becomes an issue before elections, as now, that the pollies make noises about slowing the inflow. It’s true that, since we reopened our borders following the lockdowns, our “net overseas migration”, people arriving minus people departing, but not counting those on brief visits, leapt to 528,000 in 2022-23, more than double what it was in 2018-19. And it may exceed another 400,000 in the financial year just ending.

This surge does seem to have contributed to the present acute shortage of rental accommodation and the big jump in rents, but Opposition Leader Peter Dutton is drawing a long bow in blaming the recent surge for the unaffordability of buying a home, which has been worsening for decades.

The telltale sign that Dutton is fudging is his plan to make more homes available by cutting the government’s permanent migration program from 185,000 a year to 140,000.

The government does control the size of this program, and often moves it up or down a bit, but the size of the program makes little difference to what matters most for the economy: annual net overseas migration.

The trick is that about 65 per cent of the permanent visas go to people who are already here on temporary visas. Changing their visa status makes no difference to net overseas migration.

At times like this, the pollies would like you to think they have the power to move immigration up or down according to the economy’s needs at the time.

But they don’t. For the most part, the level of net migration is, as economists would say, “demand determined”. And, as the demographers will tell you, net migration tends to go up and down with the state of our economy.

When the economy’s booming, migrants are keen to come to Australia, and our employers are keen to have them, particularly if they have skills. What’s more, locals and former immigrants are more likely to want to stay here than go overseas.

It’s a different story when our economy’s weak. Employers are less keen to bring in people and migrants are less keen to come.

Now, our present circumstances don’t fit that long-established cyclical pattern. But that’s mainly because the economy’s been returning to normal after the end of the pandemic. This is particularly true of the people most disrupted by the pandemic, and who’ve done most to account for our recent downs and ups in net migration: overseas students.

Most students went back home during the lockdowns, but now many of them, and many newbies, are coming back in. We’ve had a lot more students than expected because, to encourage their return, the Morrison government removed the limit on how much paid work they could do. It took the Albanese government too long to wake up and end the concession.

If you find it hard to believe the government has little control over the number of immigrants it lets in, note this. To be given a temporary visa, you have to fit one of the many categories the government wants: skilled, student, backpacker and so on. But there are no limits on the number of applicants accepted in each category.

Until now. Because it’s the students who’ve contributed most to the recent surge, the government is planning to impose caps on how many it will admit. The opposition is promising something similar.

Remember this, however. The economy is weak – and it is forecast to remain so for a year or two – so it’s reasonable to expect that, even without the caps on overseas students, net migration will fall back soon enough.

But an election is coming. Voters are unhappy about high migration and the high cost of housing, and both sides want to be seen doing something about it. How much the winner actually bothers to do after the election, may be a different matter.


Friday, May 10, 2024

The economy is just the means to an end. So, is it working?

We spend a lot of time hearing, reading and arguing about The Economy, and we’ll be doing a lot more of all that after we’ve seen Tuesday night’s federal budget.

But while we’re waiting, let’s take a moment to make sure we know what we’re talking about. What’s the economy for? How does it work? What does it do? Who owns it? Who runs it?

Why am I suddenly so deep and meaningful? Because Dr Shane Oliver, AMP’s chief economist, has written a note saying the economy doesn’t seem to be giving us what we want.

As individuals, it’s easy to think of the economy as something that’s outside ourselves, something that does things to us, over which we have little control.

As individuals, that’s true. But if you take us altogether, it’s not true. Why not? Because if you took all the people out of the economy, there wouldn’t be an economy. What’s more, you wouldn’t need one.

You’d be left with a lot of homes and other buildings, roads, cars and machines that had been abandoned, were just sitting there and so were worthless.

So, in that sense, the economy belongs to all of us because it is us. It’s most of us getting up each morning, going to work and earning a living, and all of us spending what’s been earnt.

Most of us have paid work, some of us do unpaid work, while some of us are still getting an education and others are too old or sick to work. But all of us consume.

So don’t think of the economy as high finance beyond your understanding. It’s actually as basic as you can get. This is why it’s important to remember the economy is just a means to an end.

At its most elemental, the end we’re seeking is for the economy to provide us with food, clothing and shelter, plus a few luxuries. But all of us want to do more than barely subsist. We want our lives to bring us enjoyment.

Economists say we want all our earning and spending to bring us “utility”. A better word would be satisfaction. But it’s no stretch to say what we want from our lives is happiness. And it’s on happiness that Oliver finds we aren’t doing as well as we should be.

All this is why the best way to think about the economy is that it belongs to all of us. Legally, however, most of the capital – whether physical or financial – is owned by companies, big and small. So most of us are employed by companies.

Where does government fit in? Apart from employing a lot of workers, it owns most of the roads and other public infrastructure. It makes the laws that limit what businesses (and the rest of us) are permitted to do and the way we do it.

Governments discourage some business activities and – as we’ve seen with the Albanese government’s recent announcements – seek to encourage others.

But the central bank also uses its control over short-term interest rates to “manage” the strength of the private sector’s total demand for goods and services, encouraging it when unemployment is high, and – as now – discouraging it when inflation is high.

As well, the federal government uses its budget – government spending on one side, taxes on the other – to discourage or encourage private demand. Hence, all the fuss next week.

But how are we, and other rich countries, going in our efforts to use our economic activity – earning and spending – to keep us happy and getting happier? Not well, according to Oliver’s research.

For Australia, he finds that, though our real annual gross domestic product per person has increased fairly steadily over the past 20 years, the average score we give ourselves on our satisfaction with our lives (as surveyed by the World Happiness Report) has actually been falling over the same period.

It’s a similar story for the United States, where its real GDP per person has risen steadily since 1946, while the proportion of Americans describing themselves as “very happy” has fallen slowly over most of that period.

In particular, he finds that younger people in the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand are the least happy age group. This is a major change from 20 years ago.

Why is this happening? We can all have our own theories, but I think the big mistake many of us – and certainly, most economists – make is to focus on improving our material standard of living: using our increasing income to buy bigger and better things. Homes, cars, smartphones, whatever.

Trouble is, our materialism puts us on a “hedonic treadmill”. We think buying a bit more stuff will make us happier and, at first, it does. But pretty soon the thrill wears off – we get used to our higher standard of living – and tell ourselves it’s actually the next new thing that will make us happy.

Many people use their pursuit of promotions and higher income to make them happier by raising their social status. But this, too, is a step up you can get used to. And, in any case, it’s a zero-sum game. If passing you on the status ladder makes me happier, why won’t being passed by me make you less happy?

Actually, as I explained in a book I wrote some years back, there’s a lot of evidence that what’s better at giving us lasting satisfaction is the quality of our relationships with partners, family and friends. Beats just buying more stuff or getting a promotion.

And while it’s true that the economy, and our small role in it, can be seen as just a means to an end, it turns out that “extrinsic” benefits – such as wanting to earn money because of the nice things it buys – aren’t as satisfying as “intrinsic” benefits: such as finding a job you enjoy doing, not just do for the money it brings.