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

Monday, May 25, 2020

Treasury: the budget won't ruin us, but will help save us

Something we should be thankful for is that Scott Morrison saw fit to return the leadership of Treasury to another highly respected macro-economist in the months before the arrival of a virus obliged Morrison to hit the economy for six.

The key to our success in suppressing the virus was his willingness to follow his medicrats’ Treasury-like advice to “go early, go hard”. Unfortunately, going hard meant governments closing our borders and ordering a large slab of private enterprise to cease supplying goods and services to their customers.

We’re left with a sudden, unexpected, government-ordered, supply-side “disease-led” shock to the economy that’s without precedent. By mid-April, this had caused 2.7 million Australians to have either lost their jobs or had their hours reduced.

It would have been several million souls worse than that, but for the quick thinking that saw we needed a new measure – the JobKeeper wage subsidy – to preserve the attachment between businesses and their workers, even though there was much less work to be done.

Treasury and the Australian Tax Office had to design and implement this completely unfamiliar program within a few weeks. It thus shouldn’t be too surprising that their initial estimate of its size and cost proved badly astray. Especially when you remember how far their staffing levels have been run down in the name of smaller (and thus less capable) government.

The JobKeeper program is now expected to involve 3.5 million rather than 6.5 million workers, and cost $70 billion over six months rather than $130 million. According to Treasurer Josh Frydenberg, this $60 billion reduction is “good news for the Australian taxpayer” - which suggests he’s yet to learn that the economy matters more than the budget.

Make a note, Josh: the budget serves the economy (and society), the economy doesn’t serve the budget. Taxpayers gain their livelihoods from the economy, which brings them many benefits (starting with three meals a day) along with taxes to pay. In my experience, someone who loses their job gets little comfort from the knowledge that they’ll be paying less tax.

In truth, the $60 billion stuff-up is good news for the economy and the people whose livelihoods it supports. It suggests that fewer businesses than expected have had their revenues cut by 30 per cent (or 50 per cent for big businesses), so that fewer workers than expected have had their livelihoods threatened.

In any case, Treasury secretary Dr Steven Kennedy’s remarks to the Senate committee examining our response to the virus, made the day before the stuff-up was announced, suggest there’ll be plenty of other important uses to which the $60 billion could be put.

Kennedy stressed the central role that the budget (“fiscal policy”) would have to play in getting the economy back to full employment “in the months and years ahead”, especially because the other instrument for managing demand, “monetary policy”, is “not able to provide the usual impact that it would”.

That is, interest rates are already as low as they can go, whereas in the global financial crisis they were cut by 4.25 percentage points to help stimulate demand.

As we move away from the supply shock and cautiously reopen industry, “it will become more about managing demand and more about confidence. The focus will be very much on fiscal policy – how it’s contributing to growth and how the composition of those policies contributes to growth and how they encourage re-employment”.

It was obviously a matter for the government but, in the run-up to the budget in October, Treasury would be advising the government on “macro-policy and the composition of existing fiscal stimulus and whether any more is required”.

“I realise people are very excited about lots of reform, but I would encourage us not to get too far ahead of ourselves; we need to keep the economy afloat as it is now and to also get it open,” Kennedy said.

When they think of the huge budget deficits coming up, readers ask me where all the money will be coming from. Short answer: it will be borrowed. And Kennedy advised the committee there was no shortage of institutions keen to buy the government’s bonds (including, no doubt, your super fund, but also foreign institutions).

Countries such as Australia and New Zealand had been “incredibly well placed” to borrow more because “we did start with relatively low levels of debt”. This meant our deficit spending in response to the economic shock could be managed without much debate, he said.

And with the cost of borrowing so low (10-year government bonds cost the government an interest rate of 1 per cent), once the economy was back to growing strongly and the budget balance improving – which wouldn’t be for some time – “debt will bring itself down over time”.
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Monday, May 18, 2020

Obsession with jobless is Morrison's best chance of survival

As Scott Morrison contemplates returning to politics as usual, there’s something he should keep front-of-mind: governments that preside over severe recessions usually get tossed out.

Voters’ gratitude for being saved from the virus will fade, leaving them staring at that triumph’s horrendous price tag – its opportunity cost: the huge number of people still waiting to get a job back as we approach the federal election in early 2023.

It follows that Morrison’s best chance of pulling off two election miracles in succession rests in doing all in his power to get the rate of unemployment back down to the 5 per cent it was at before the virus hit.

To Morrison, returning to politics as usual means returning to what he calls “ideology” and I call governing not for all Australians but for the Liberal tribe – team Lifters – the “base” and its big business donors.

What he means by ideology is fighting for less government, lower taxes and the protection of tax breaks. Which, in turn, means shifting the balance in favour of the Lifters and against the rival Leaners tribe, aka Labor.

Liberal grandee John Howard sanctioned Morrison’s huge increase in government spending by telling him that, in a crisis, there’s no ideology. True. Any Liberal government would have done the same, as the big spending of Britain’s Conservatives and America’s Republicans suggests.

But now the lockdown is being unlocked, Morrison's being pressed by his base and big business supporters to get back to smaller government and lower taxes. He should be cutting company tax and revisiting industrial relations reform. If that ends the bipartisan co-operation from Labor and the unions, so be it.

But I’d think twice if I were Morrison. People close to him say that, at heart, he’s a pragmatist rather than an ideologue. If so, he should follow his instincts, which have served him well so far.

The case for not only delaying winding back the existing spending programs, but also spending a lot more, has much pragmatism going for it – especially if you’re hoping to be re-elected.

The decisions Morrison must make come in three parts. First is when it makes sense to start withdrawing the expensive JobKeeper wage subsidy scheme and the surprisingly generous doubling of the JobSeeker payment, which were always intended to be temporary.

The emergency and experimental JobKeeper scheme – which divides those without work into first and second class citizens and is replete with anomalies - will have to be brought to an end sometime.

By contrast, the idea that we could go on starving the unemployed on $40 a day forever was unrealistic. Now, after a recession as bad as this one, it will be a long time before voters again share the Lifters’ prejudice that anyone without a job must be a bludger.

Once most of the economy’s reopened, there will be a bounce back to some extent. But as has become the norm in recent years, the official forecasters are much more optimistic about the extent of the bounce-back than private forecasters are.

If I were Morrison, I wouldn’t be withdrawing any support to the jobless before I’d seen actual figures on the extent of the initial recovery. Withdraw the two key measures too soon and the much feared “second wave” could be economic rather than medical.

The bad news is that government spending to date has merely reduced the depth of the economy’s fall. Of itself, it’s not capable of stimulating growth in private sector demand in any positive sense.

And right now, it’s hard to think of a non-government factor that could drive the economy forward.
Consumer spending by deeply indebted, frightened households that are about to take a cut in their real wages? New investment by businesses facing weak demand for their products and much idle production capacity? Increased exports to a heavily recessed world?

So Morrison’s second pragmatic task is to come up with spending measures to actually kickstart demand in the immediate future. It wouldn’t be hard to think of sensible measures - provided the primary beneficiaries are people ineligible for membership of his Lifters tribe.

Third, this short-term pump-priming does need to be supplemented by reforms to keep the economy growing in the medium to longer term. But the place to look for ideas is the Productivity Commission’s Shifting the Dial report, not his Lifters tribe’s tired trickle-down agenda, which is rent-seeking thinly disguised by Liberal mythology about lower taxes boosting incentives.

It’s pseudo-economics, unsupported by empirical evidence. Rent-seeking is about grabbing a bigger slice of the pie, not growing it. You can get away with this when times are good, but when times are as tough as they will be, and since it doesn’t actually work, it won’t wash with the great unwashed voter.
Read more >>

Saturday, May 16, 2020

There's a lot of economic worry about, but here's what matters

If you’re wondering what shape the economy will be in when we come out of lockdown, how the recovery will go – what to worry about and what not to – there are three key issues: the economy and its growth, the budget and its deficit, and unemployment and its consequences.

These three are different but related. The trick is to understand how they’re related. What causes what. The media bombards us with information about them — without pausing to put them into context.

For instance, we hear so much about the budget and its deficit (which adds to the huge amount of debt) that I’m sure some people think the budget is the economy. If only we could get the budget balanced, the economy would be right, right?

No. But you could be forgiven for thinking so because Prime Minister Scott Morrison and his Treasurer, Josh Frydenberg, have been saying things that get the two muddled up. They’ve been saying: terribly sorry about what the lockdown's done to the economy, and all the money we’ve had to spend on JobKeeper and JobSeeker and the rest as a consequence, but at least we’d got the economy back in good shape before, through no fault of ours, we were hit by the virus.

But they’re not talking about the economy, they’re talking about the budget. It was the budget they’d finally got back to balance after six years in office and were set to it get back into surplus this year before the virus upset their plans.

They were saying, at least we’d got the budget back in balance before we had to start spending like mad — about $200 billion so far — and going back into (huge) deficit. Trouble is, they’d got the budget back in shape by causing the economy to grow more slowly than it would have. So the economy was in a weak state before the virus hit – which doesn’t sound like a good thing to me.

Huh? Let’s get back to basics. The budget is just a summary of the federal government’s finances: how much money it brings in from taxes and charges, less how much money it puts out in spending on health, education, pensions and the rest.

When it raises and spends equal amounts, its budget is in balance. When it spends more than it raises, its budget is in deficit and this deficiency has to be covered by borrowing. When it raises more than it spends, its budget is in surplus. It will use the surplus to repay money it’s borrowed in earlier years.

The government and its budget are just part (a reasonably small part) of the economy, which consists of all our businesses and our households (you and me) as well as the government (federal, state and local).

The money the government raises in taxes comes from the rest of the economy, whereas the money it spends goes to the rest of the economy. So when the government reduces its deficit (as it has been until now), this means it’s reducing the net amount it’s putting into the private sector, causing its growth to be weaker than otherwise.

This can be a good thing if the private sector is growing too strongly and threatening to worsen inflation. But if the private sector’s growth is weak, as it has been, this pullback by the government will weaken it further – as it has been.

Until now. The response to the virus, with all the lockdown has done to reduce the turnover of businesses and the income of workers, has hit the private sector for six. But all the extra government spending – which has hugely increased the budget deficit – has done much to break the private sector’s fall. That cushioning will make it easier for businesses and workers to get back on their feet.

But here’s the thing: the government’s big spending (plus, don’t forget, the much less income and other taxes we’ll be paying on our greatly reduced incomes) has blown out the budget deficit and will hugely increase the government’s debt.

So, which is the bigger worry? The big increase in the government’s debt, or the big contraction in the economy? I think it’s obvious. It’s the health of the economy that matters most because that’s where all Australians (even the retired) gain their livelihood.

The budget isn’t an end in itself. It’s an instrument – one of the means to the ultimate end of helping Australians have a good life. In recent weeks, we’ve seen the government doing what all governments do: using its budget to protect our lives and livelihoods.

Sure, that will leave us with a lot more deficit and debt. But first things first. What matters most is the health, economic and social wellbeing of the people who constitute “the economy”.

We’ll worry about the debt later. In any case, as I’ll explain another day, the debt isn’t as worrying as it looks. Hint: the lower interest rates are, the less you need to worry about how much you owe — and the less hurry you need to be in to pay it back.

Next, what’s the relationship between the economy’s growth and unemployment, and which matters more? The economy is usually measured by the value of all the goods and services we produce – gross domestic product – during a period, which is also the nation’s income.

The econocrats are expecting real GDP to fall by an unprecedented 10 per cent in the present quarter, but then start growing quite quickly as businesses get back to normal. If that happens, it will be good because it’s goods and services that people are employed to help produce.

So an early return to growth in the economy is good because it gets employment up and unemployment down – which is what matters most if you think people matter more than money.

But here’s the trick: the economy returns to growth a lot earlier than unemployment returns to where it was.
Read more >>

Saturday, May 9, 2020

Economic managers bank on us being smart as the average bear

It’s a lovely, comforting way to think about our economic problem. To beat the virus, we’ve had to put the economy into hibernation, but now it’s time for the bear to come out of its cave and get back to normal living. And it seems that’s just what Reserve Bank governor Dr Philip Lowe expects to happen.

The "baseline scenario" he outlined this week sees real gross domestic product falling by about 10 per cent over the first half of this year but then, it seems, growing by roughly 4 per cent in the second half, so that real GDP in December is just 6 per cent lower than it was in the December quarter last year. Then it “bounces back” to grow by 6 per cent over the course of next year.

Not bad, eh? We go down by 6 per cent this year, but then back up by 6 per cent next year. It can’t be quite so good as that sounds, however, because the rate of unemployment – which is expected roughly to have doubled to 10 per cent by the end of next month, is also expected to still be above 7 per cent at the end of next year.

These figures tell us that returning to positive growth in GDP is easier than returning to low unemployment. Unemployment goes up a lot faster than it comes down. That’s partly because the rate at which GDP grows isn’t as important as the level it attains. It’s the level that determines how many jobs there’ll be.

Now, no one can be sure how far the economy will fall, or how strongly it will recover when it stops falling. That’s always true, but it’s even truer with this recession because its cause is so different to past recessions.

This one's happened in the twinkling of an eye, as the government simply ordered many industries to close. So, when they’re allowed to reopen, maybe things will return to near normal pretty quickly.

Maybe - but I find it hard to believe.

Economists always rely on metaphors – often mixed – to explain the mysteries of economics to normal people. But we must be sure those metaphors don’t mislead us.

Bears have evolved to survive harsh winters intact, but humans haven’t. Bears may be used to it, but it’s an unprecedented, costly, worrying and uncertain period for our businesses and their employees.

The econocrats admit that "some jobs and businesses will have been lost permanently" and that firms and households are suffering from a "high level of uncertainty about the future" and will engage in "precautionary behaviour". They’ll be saving, not spending. If so, we won’t emerge from the cave in the same shape we went in.

Dr Richard Denniss and his team at the Australia Institute think tank have been examining the way our economy has recovered in previous recessions. They note that the expected contraction this time is far bigger than in the past: a fall in real GDP of about 10 per cent, compared to falls of 3.8 per cent in the recession of the early 1980s and just 1.4 per cent in our most recent recession in the early 1990s.

They also note that, in more recent years, the economy has grown much more slowly than it used to. Between the 1991 recession and the global financial crisis, our average rate of growth was 0.9 per cent a quarter, or 3.5 per cent a year. Since the financial crisis, however, it’s slowed to average 0.6 per cent a quarter, or 2.6 per cent a year.

Yet the Reserve Bank’s most likely scenario sees the economy bouncing back after the 10 per cent fall to grow by about 2 per cent a quarter from the end of next month. That’s growth at an annualised rate of roughly 8 per cent. Then, next year, it grows at an annual rate of 6 per cent, or roughly 1.5 per cent a quarter.

Now, since the economy will have so much spare capacity, it is technically possible for it to grow at such rapid rates for a couple of years before that idle capacity is used up.

But how likely is it? As Denniss asks, do recessions actually cause recoveries? Or, to test the “bounce back” metaphor, are economies like a rubber ball that hits the ground then bounces straight back up? Does the faster it goes down mean the faster it comes back up?

Some of our past recessions have had this classic V shape. But by no means all, or even most, of them. Sometimes they bounce back, sometimes they crawl.

There’s no law that says economies contract for only two quarters before they start growing. Nor that once they start growing, they strengthen. If you’ve lived through a few recessions, you’ll remember the expression “bumping along the bottom” and headlines about “jobless growth”.

So, given this varied experience, why are forecasts of quick and easy recoveries so common? Denniss thinks it may be because of the strange way macro-economists’ models are constructed. In the jargon, most macro models are Keynesian in the short term, but neo-classical in the (undefined) long term.

The neo-classical model assumes economies are always at full employment, meaning their growth over time is determined solely by growth in the three factors determining the increase in the economy’s production capacity: population, participation in the labour force and the productivity of labour.

The Keynesian short-term recognises that some “fluctuation” (a recession, say) can cause the economy to be below full employment. But the neo-classical long-term assumes the economy will always return to full employment at the level predetermined by the aforementioned “three Ps”.

So the economy’s bounce back is built into the model and must occur. Denniss says the trouble with this is it gives policymakers misplaced faith that GDP will bounce back, when it’s more likely that “GDP needs to be dragged back by sustained, and expensive, government stimulus”.
Read more >>

Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Morrison and the medicos must also avoid complacency

They say Australians always respond well to a crisis, and it seems it's true. Even in these days of disposable leaders, Kevin Rudd deftly stopped the global financial crisis from sucking us into the Great Recession, and now Scott Morrison has got on top of the corona crisis in a way few would have expected. His approval rating has soared. But I still wouldn't want to be in his shoes.

Why not? Because, as an old econocrat explained to me long ago, if you dispose of a crisis with too much ease – without a titanic struggle – you get precious little gratitude from the voters. If it was that easy to fix, it can't have been much of a crisis in the first place. Indeed, all that money you spent – well, most of it must have been a waste. That's the very way his political opponents have sought unceasingly to denigrate Rudd's unbelievably skilled performance in 2009.

And now Morrison faces the same risk. Everyone's saying he – along with the premier cats he's been herding – has done surprisingly well in controlling the outbreak. But that's not true. The unvarnished truth is that – if you'll forgive the expression – he hasn't just done well, he's killed it. He set out merely to "flatten the curve" but in fact has driven it down almost to zero. And done so with just 80 or so people losing their lives so far.

In the jargon of the epidemiologists, he and the premiers have succeeded in getting "R" – the average number of other people infected by someone who's contracted it - below 1, meaning it's dying out.

Utterly uncharacteristically for a politician of any stripe, Morrison has sought to play down this achievement. Why? Because the whole world has a year or years to go before the virus is tamed and, in the interim, some mishap on our part could cause the virus inside our borders to become undead.

That's why Morrison and his medico advisers live in fear that any loosening of the lockdown could lead us to become "complacent" and flip to the opposite extreme, stopping all social distancing.

But keeping us locked down as tight as possible for as long as possible offers no solution to Morrison's challenge as our leader. That's because, though we care deeply about saving lives, we also care about saving our livelihoods. Our success in getting on top of the virus has been bought at the cost of shutting down most of the economy, with hundreds of thousands of workers losing their jobs.

Morrison's problem is that, because it was so relatively painless, his remarkable success in driving out the virus will soon be forgotten, whereas the continued dysfunctional state of the economy – the way-high unemployment – will be upmost in people's minds come the election in 2022.

And, even now, his critics – mostly from his own side – are concluding that his measures to deal with the virus grossly overestimated the size of the problem and have decimated the economy for no good reason.

For instance, we were terribly worried about the risk of hospitals being overwhelmed by patients who couldn't get proper treatment to prevent them from dying. We had to delay the virus' spread while we more than doubled the existing number of 2200 intensive care beds. Fine. Last time I looked, there were 43 virus victims in ICU.

But such criticism is just being wise after the event. It forgets that we had to respond quickly and forcefully to a new virus, the characteristics of which we knew next to nothing about. The best we had to go on were numbers from China, which proved much worse than our own experience.

The medicos' original modelling assumed Wuhan's R – reproduction number – of 2.68, whereas their more recent modelling using Australian numbers shows we started with Rs above 1 only in Victoria and NSW, before falling below 1 in all states bar Tasmania.

Morrison's deeper problem is that the longer he keeps the economy locked down, the less there will be left to reopen. So avoiding complacency cuts both ways. You and I must not become complacent about hygiene and social distancing, but Morrison and his medicos must not be complacent about the enormous economic (and social) cost that our success in getting on top of the virus is inflicting on all of us.

The solution is to take advantage of our success in taming the virus by moving quickly to replace the sledgehammer measure of closing down most of the economy with the less economically damaging measures of much more testing, better tracing of people exposed to the virus, and jumping on any local outbreaks ASAP. The new app is a big part of this shift to less invasive cures for the disease.

These are the three things Morrison has been quietly saying we need to get organised before we consider easing the lockdown. But now he needs to move strongly in dismantling much of it while, naturally, retaining our closed borders.
Read more >>

Saturday, March 21, 2020

It's the coronacession: closing down on doctors' orders

It’s now clear that we – like most countries – are already in a recession that promises to be long and severe. It will be a recession unlike any we’ve previously experienced. Why? Because it’s happening under doctors’ orders. So it deserves a unique name: the coronacession.

It’s taken a few weeks for this to become obvious, mainly because economists don’t know much about epidemiology and it’s taken the nation’s medical experts until now to make clear that their preferred response to the virus will take months to work and involve closing down much of the economy.

We already know that real gross domestic product is likely to contract in the present March quarter and it’s now clear that last week’s $17.6 billion stimulus package is unlikely to fully counteract the fall in economic activity – production and consumption – during the imminent June quarter, brought about by the government’s measures to impose “social distancing” and encourage “self-isolation”.

Since the medical authorities are only now suggesting that these efforts to slow the spread of the virus may need to continue for six months – which, considering their bedside-manner efforts to break it to us gently, may well prove an underestimate – it won’t be surprising if the economy also contracts in September quarter.

Of course, Sunday’s further stimulus package has been designed to offset the loss of wages and profits that will arise from pretty much closing the economy down, but I’m sure the government and its econocrats realise we’re long past the stage of pretending that avoiding two successive quarters of “negative growth” means avoiding recession.

As Finance Minister Mathias Cormann now readily concedes, “businesses will close and Australians will lose their jobs”.

It’s the business closures, falling employment and rising unemployment and underemployment that characterise a recession – and are the reason why, in normal times, governments and central bankers try so hard to prevent them, not bring them about.

Once these developments fill the headlines, what happens to GDP each quarter will be of only academic interest.

To fill out Cormann’s cryptic description of what is coming, many businesses will close their doors – some temporarily, some for good - partly because the government has cut off their access to customers (the airlines, inbound tourism, sporting, arts and entertainment events) and also because it has encouraged people to stay at home, minimising travel, trips to supermarkets and shopping centres and visits to restaurants, pubs, cafes and coffee shops.

The many people working or studying from home can be expected to spend less than they normally would.

The nation’s income from exports will fall, particularly because of the government’s bans on the entry of foreign tourists and students. The recessions in other countries will reduce their demand for many of our other exports.

Of course, our recession will reduce our demand for imported goods and services (we won’t be taking overseas holidays for the foreseeable, for instance) and, in some cases, parts and goods we need to import won’t be available until Chinese factories are fully back to work and have caught up with their backlog.

As businesses find they have few or no customers, they will seek to wind back their activities, leading many to stand down staff or make them redundant. Casual workers will discover there are a lot fewer or no shifts for which their services are required.

So, fewer sales of goods and services lead to less production of goods and services, which leads to less work done, jobs lost and less income earned by workers, who then have less to spend, even on essentials such as rent and utility bills.

You see from all this that - although the virus came to us from overseas, and although so many other countries are in the same position as us that there’s a world recession - it’s not the rest of the world that’s dragging us down. No, it’s our decision to seek to minimise the number of deaths from the virus by slowing down its spread through the population, and doing so by closing down much of our economy for months on end.

As is their practice, our medicos have focused on saving lives and protecting our health, and haven’t worried too much about what their medicine would cost, or who’d be paying for it.

You and I will be paying the cost – with those who lose their jobs paying a mighty lot more than the rest of us – and it will be the responsibility of the government, advised by its econocrats, to do everything it can to minimise that cost and spread the burden fairly.

How? By spending big. How big? Not last week’s $17.6 billion, more like $176 billion. The second stimulus package we see on Sunday will be just another instalment.

This will blow the federal budget out of the water. It will be hit in two ways: not just by the extra spending and tax cuts the government chooses to make, but also by the simple fact that businesses and individuals who earn less income pay less income tax. Workers who lose their jobs not only cease paying any income tax, they have to be paid unemployment benefits.

But here’s the trick: the more the government skimps on the cost of cushioning the effects of its own decision to shut down much of the economy, the deeper and more protracted the recession will be and the longer it will take to get the economy back to running normally once the threat from the virus has passed.

Paradoxically, that means the more you skimp on the cost to the budget, the bigger the deficit you end up with, and the further off into the future the return to surplus becomes.

The measures announced on Thursday by the Reserve Bank, particularly the cheap funding to banks for loans to small businesses, will help a little, but the game is pretty much over for the Reserve and its “monetary policy”. From now on, everything turns on what Scott Morrison does with his budget.
Read more >>

Saturday, March 14, 2020

Too soon to say how hard virus will hit economy

To judge by the gyrations of the world’s sharemarkets, the coronavirus has us either off to hell in a handcart or the markets are panicking about something bad that’s happening, but they’re not sure what’s happening, how long it will last or how bad it will end up being. I’d go with the latter.

So would Reserve Bank deputy governor Dr Guy Debelle. He said in a speech this week that there’s been a large increase in the financial markets’ "risk aversion and uncertainty".

"The virus is going to have a material economic impact but it is not clear how large that will be. That makes it difficult for the market to reprice financial assets," he said.

That’s central-bankerspeak for "they’ve got no idea what will happen". Which is hardly surprising, since no one else has, either. More from Debelle’s speech as we go.

But understand this. Farr’s law of epidemics, developed in the mid-19th century, says that the number of cases of a new disease rises and then falls in a roughly symmetrical pattern, approximating a bell-shaped curve.

Depending on how quickly the disease spreads, the bell can have a steep rise and fall or a shallow one. Epidemiologists seek to make the bell as shallow as possible by slowing the disease’s spread. This allows the health system to avoid being overwhelmed – reducing the likelihood of panic and chaos, and making it more likely those who most need medical attention get it.

In theory, it allows more time for the development of a vaccine or useful drugs, but the World Health Organisation has said it will take about 18 months for a coronavirus vaccine to be widely available.

At this stage, the main way of slowing the spread is "social distancing" – reducing the contact between people by cancelling sporting events, closing schools or workplaces or ordering people to work at home. Of course, many people are doing their own social distancing by staying away from restaurants and bars.

The virus has now arrived in most countries. Its spread is well advanced in China, Iran, Italy and South Korea, but much less so in Singapore and Hong Kong, where the authorities got in earlier with their social distancing measures.

Such measures, however, cause considerable inconvenience, especially to parents, and disruption to the economy – both to the production of goods and, more particularly, services, and to their purchase and consumption. Not to mention the associated loss of income.

Some of this economic activity may merely be postponed – so that there’s a big catch-up once the epidemic subsides. But much of it – particularly the performance of services (if you miss a restaurant meal or a haircut you don’t catch up by having two) – will be lost forever.

Obviously, China is central to the story for both the world economy and ours. China’s economy was hit hard by the virus and the drastic but belated measures to slow its spread, though the number of cases does seem to have passed its peak and rapidly declined. Debelle said "the Chinese economy is now only gradually returning to normal. Even as this occurs, it is very uncertain how long it will take to repair the severe disruption to supply chains."

The globalisation of the world economy in recent decades is a major part of the story of this virus. It means people in any part of the world are almost instantly informed about unusual things happening anywhere else in the world. It’s good to be better informed, but sometimes it can be frightening.

For another thing, globalisation has greatly increased the trade between countries, particularly trade in services, such as tourism and education. Trade in services has been greatly facilitated by the emergence of cheap air travel.

It’s all the overseas air travel everyone does these days that has caused epidemics that break out in one part of the world to spread around the world within a few weeks. More pandemics has become one of the big downsides of globalisation.

And when governments try to limit the spread of a virus by banning the entry of people from countries where the virus is known to have spread widely, this disrupts and damages those of that country’s industries who sell their services to foreign visitors.

(When the government stops you supplying a service to willing buyers, economists classify this as a shock to the "supply side" of the economy. When your sales fall because customers become more reluctant to buy whatever you’re selling, that’s a "demand-side shock" to the economy.)

Our imposition of a ban on non-residents entering Australia from China has hit our tourism industry and our universities. Debelle said that, since January, inbound airline capacity from China has fallen by 90 per cent. Until recently, he said, tourist arrivals from other countries had held up reasonably well, "but that may no longer be true".

The Reserve estimates that Australia’s services exports will decline by at least 10 per cent in the March quarter, roughly evenly split between tourism and education. Since services exports account for 5 per cent of gross domestic product, this suggests the travel ban will subtract 0.5 percentage points from whatever growth comes from other parts of the economy during the quarter.

Another consequence of growing globalisation is the emergence of "global supply chains" – the practice of multinational companies manufacturing the components of their products in different countries, before assembling them in one developing country and exporting them around the world.

China is at the heart of the supply chains for many products. So Debelle’s remark about the delay in repairing "the severe disruption to supply chains" is ominous. The Reserve’s business contacts tell it supply chain disruptions are already affecting the construction and retail industries – but there’s sure to be more of this "supply-side shock" to come.

And the shock to demand as - whether through virus-avoidance, necessity or uncertainty - consumers avoid spending money, has a long way to run. But, Debelle said, it’s "just too uncertain to assess the impact of the virus beyond the March quarter".
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Saturday, March 7, 2020

Coronavirus will hit an economy that’s already weak

It’s good to know the economy wasn’t as weak as we’d been told, but it’s not nearly good enough. Not when we know it’s getting walloped this quarter by the bushfires and the coronavirus.

This time three months ago, we were told that real gross domestic product had grown by just 1.7 per cent over the year to September. This week the Australian Bureau of Statistics announced that real GDP grew by 0.5 per cent during the December quarter and by 2.2 per cent over the calendar year.

On the face of it, this was the “gentle turning point” long promised by Reserve Bank governor Dr Philip Lowe. But when you look behind the headline numbers, it’s clear the economy’s basic problems continued unchanged.

Households are the bedrock of every economy, with consumer spending accounting for more than 60 per cent of total spending (aka “aggregate demand”). Obviously, households spend out of their income after paying income tax – their “disposable” income.

The greatest single factor driving household disposable income is income from wages. We know that employment has long been growing surprisingly strongly, so the income from the extra jobs is adding to household income.

But the main growth in wage income comes from pay rises. And we also know that, for five or six years now, wage rises haven’t been much bigger than the rises in the prices consumers pay. So if “real” wages aren’t growing strongly, it’s hard to see how real GDP – aggregate demand – can be growing strongly. Not in any sustainable way.

The full story is more complicated than that, of course, but that’s what an economist would call the “underlying” reality. So until strong growth in real wages returns, we’ll be spending our time examining the ups and downs in all the other, complicating factors that, over the short- to medium-term, cause the growth in real GDP to be a bit stronger or a bit weaker than the real growth in wages would lead us to expect.

(Should real wages never seem to return to the growth rate we were used to, we’d have to reassess our notions of what constitutes “strong” and “weak” growth – but that’s a story for another day.)

Back to the complications. Consumer spending grew by 0.4 per cent during the December quarter, which was a big improvement on its growth of 0.1 per cent in the previous quarter, but growth of 1.2 per cent over the year is less than half what it should be.

Much household spending goes on housing – whether renting or buying. And when people change houses they tend to have a burst of spending on “consumer durables” such as new furniture and appliances.

The buying and selling of existing homes doesn’t generate much economic activity, except to increase real estate agents’ commissions (and you’ll be delighted to hear that the increase in home sales, which is both a cause and an effect of the renewed rise in house prices in Sydney and Melbourne, caused such a boost in those commissions that it accounted for 0.2 percentage points of the overall increase of 0.5 per cent in GDP during the quarter).

But what does form a big part of GDP is investment in the building of new houses and units, plus alterations and additions. Here the news was not good. Home building activity fell by 3.4 per during the quarter and by 9.7 per cent over the year. It was the fifth quarter of contraction in a row.

Directly or indirectly, investment by businesses in new buildings, constructions and equipment is aimed at satisfying the expected demand for goods and services by households (although, when those households live overseas, we call it demand for exports).

So if consumers’ demand for goods and services has been weak for quite a few years, it’s not surprising that businesses’ investment spending on expanding their production capacity has also been weak. Although our miners have resumed investment, investment by the non-mining sector fell. Overall, business investment spending fell by 0.8 per cent during the quarter.

Put those three things together – consumer spending, new housing investment and business investment – and you’ve got the total demand of the private sector. It showed no growth during the quarter, and its annual contribution to overall GDP growth over the past few years has now fallen to zero.

So where is the growth coming from? From spending by the public sector. In previous quarters this has included strong growth in spending on infrastructure (mainly by the state governments), but this quarter it fell a bit. That left government spending on the provision of services (particularly on the federal rollout of the National Disability Insurance Scheme) growing by 0.7 per cent during the quarter and by 5.3 per cent over the year.

Now do you understand why governor Lowe keeps banging on about the need for governments to spend up?

The second factor helping to keep us growing is the “external sector” – specifically “net exports” (exports minus imports). The volume of exports of goods and services was unchanged during the quarter, but grew by 3.4 per cent over the year.

And the volume of imports of goods and services fell by 0.5 per cent during the quarter and by 1.5 per cent over the year. Which means that both the increase in exports and the fall in imports contributed to the overall growth in real GDP.

But ask yourself this: why would imports be falling? Because both consumer spending and business investment spending are so weak. Oh.

A final sign of the economy’s weakness comes when you remember how strongly our population’s been growing. Allow for this and you find that real GDP per person grew by just 0.2 per cent during the quarter and by only 0.7 per cent during the year.

And that’s before the economy’s hit by the bushfires and the economic disruption caused by our efforts to limit the spread of the coronavirus.
Read more >>

Wednesday, March 4, 2020

Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow the virus won't get you


The coronavirus will harm the economy – ours and the world's – but how much damage it does will be determined not just by how far and how fast the virus spreads, but by what the government does to protect us from that spread and what people take it into their heads to do to protect themselves.

There's a good chance the reaction to the threat of the virus will do far more damage to the economy – and the livelihoods of the people who constitute it – than the damage it does to life and limb.

If the reports we hear of people stripping supermarket shelves and deserting cafes, bars and other places of recreation are a guide, the main consequence so far is an outbreak of national hypochondria. Crazed by an overexcited world media, Aussies have gone into panic mode well before the threat has materialised.

I suspect part of the problem is that word "pandemic" – the thing Scott Morrison last week acted on ahead of the World Health Organisation having declared. To many of us it's a highly emotive word, raising images of people dropping like flies as the disease spreads.

In the minds of epidemiologists, however, it just means the virus has popped up in quite a number of countries, without saying anything about how far and fast it's spreading in those countries.

According to Professor Ilan Noy, a specialist in the economics of disasters at New Zealand's Victoria University, "All signs point to a global overreaction to this crisis, and therefore to an amplified economic impact."

According to Professor Cass Sunstein, of Harvard Law School, "A lot of people are more scared than they have any reason to be. They have an exaggerated sense of their own personal risk."

That's because humans are notoriously bad at assessing the risks they face. Studies by psychologists and behavioural economists show individuals typically overestimate risks that are memorable, vivid or generate fear, while underestimating more common risks.

Noy says that, in a survey of 700 people in Hong Kong at the height of the SARS epidemic in 2002, 23 per cent of respondents feared they were likely to become infected. In the US, 16 per cent of respondents to a survey felt they or their family were likely to be infected. The actual US infection rate was 0.0026 per cent.

Sunstein says it's likely that, for residents of a particular city, "The risk of infection is really low and much lower than risks to which they are accustomed in ordinary life – say, the risk of getting the flu, pneumonia or strep throat."

One implication of this, he says, is that, "Unless the disease is contained in the near future, it will induce much more fear, and much more in the way of economic and social dislocation, than is warranted by the actual risk.

"Many people will take precautionary steps - cancelling holidays, refusing to fly, avoiding whole nations - even if there is no adequate reason to do that. Those steps can, in turn, increase economic dislocations, including plummeting stock prices."

But let's say you defy the odds and actually get infected. What are your chances then? Last week WHO said that, using the figures for China, for every 100 cases of coronavirus, about 80 people get better unassisted, 15 have serious but manageable problems, five are very serious and about three die. But that's for China. For the rest of the world it's more like 1 per cent who die.

So, like the flu, the coronavirus is usually something you get over fairly quickly. The people who don't recover quickly tend to be the elderly, and the few who die are usually those with another complication, such as asthma, cancer, cardiac disease or diabetes. (Oh no, that's me! I'm done for.)

But while you await your certain demise, remember something Scott Morrison said last week that didn't hit the headlines: "You can still go to the football, you can still go to the cricket, you can still go and play with your friends down the street, you can go off to the concert, and you can go out for a Chinese meal."

When it comes to the economy, remember that the share market is the drama queen of the financial world. It tends to overreact to bad news – but it does so knowing that later in the week it will be overreacting to good news. A cut in interest rates? God be praised.

Even so, the coronavirus and the efforts to contain it – official and amateur - have had adverse effects on the Chinese economy, with flow-on effects to our economy among others. The Chinese are already getting back to business, but it will be slow and economic activity – producing and consuming – has been seriously disrupted in the present quarter and probably the next. The world economy isn't strong and this will make it weaker.

Our border controls are hitting our tourist industry and universities. How much the overreaction of individuals adds to that we'll soon start seeing in economic indicators rather than anecdotes. In principle, we're experiencing a temporary adverse shock to the economy extending over a quarter or three, followed by a partial bounce back as consumers release pent-up demand and firms rush to fill back orders and re-stock.

Coming on top of all our other economic woes, however, it won't be fun.
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Saturday, February 15, 2020

Lucky Country has lost its dynamism and can't find where it is

Do you know what economists mean when they talk about the nation’s “economic fundamentals”? I thought I did until I heard what Reserve Bank governor Dr Philip Lowe said they were.

When Lowe had a meeting with Treasurer Josh Frydenberg after last year’s election, I was puzzled by him saying that the economy’s fundamentals were “sound”. How could he say that when the economy had grown by an exceptionally weak 1.8 per cent over the year to March?

But at his appearance before the House of Reps economics committee last week, he had to respond to a challenging description of the state of the economy by Labor’s Dr Andrew Leigh, a former economics professor.

“We have seen declines in labour productivity for the first time on record, the slowest wage growth on record, declining household spending per capita, record household debt, record government debt, below average consumer confidence, retail suffering its worst downturn since 1990 and construction shrinking at its fastest rate since 1999,” Leigh said.

“The economy is in a pretty bad way at the moment, isn’t it?” he asked.

“That wouldn’t be my characterisation,” Lowe responded. “One thing you left out of that list is that a higher share of Australians has jobs than ever before in our history ... ultimately what matters is that people have jobs and employment and security.”

What’s more, “our fundamentals are fantastic”, Lowe went on – but this time he spelt out what he meant.

“We enjoy a standard of living in this country that very few countries in the world enjoy. More of us have jobs than ever before. We live in a fantastic, prosperous wealthy country, and I think we should remember that.”

Well, if that’s what he thinks our fundamentals mean, who could argue? Even if Leigh thought the weaknesses he was outlining were a description of our fundamentals. Maybe Lowe’s fundamentals are more fundamental fundamentals than other people’s are.

Under further questioning from Leigh, however, Lowe said he didn’t want to deny that “we have very significant issues, and the one that worries me most is weak productivity growth ... We’ve had four or five years now where productivity growth has been very weak ... in my own view it’s linked to very low levels of investment relative to gross domestic product.”

This is an important point. As former top econocrat Dr Mike Keating has been saying for some years, you can take a neo-classical, supply-side view that weak productivity improvement explains why the economy’s growth has been so weak (a view that assumes productivity improvement is “exogenous” – it drops on the economy from outside), or you can take a more Keynesian, demand-side view that weak economic growth explains why productivity improvement has been so weak (that is, productivity is “endogenous” – it’s produced inside the economy).

Keating keeps saying that it’s when businesses upgrade their equipment and processes by replacing the old models with the latest, whiz-bang models that improving innovations are diffused throughout the economy, making our industries more productive.

Why is it that our businesses (particularly those other than mining) haven’t been investing much in expanding and improving their businesses? The simple, demand-side answer is that they haven’t been seeing much growth in the demand for their products.

But Lowe sees something deeper. “I fear that our economy is becoming less dynamic [continuously changing and developing],” he told the economics committee. “We’re seeing lower rates of investment, lower rates of business formation, lower rates of people switching jobs, and in some areas lower rates of research-and-development expenditure.

“So right across those metrics it feels like we’re becoming a bit less dynamic. I worry about that for the longer term.

“Public investment is not particularly low at the moment. What is low is private investment. Firms don’t seem to be investing at the same rate that they used to, and I think this is adding to the sense I have that the economy is just less dynamic ...

“There’s something deeper going on, and it’s not just in Australia: it’s everywhere. At the meetings I go to with other central bank governors, this is the kind of thing we talk about. Something’s going on in our economies that means the same dynamism that used to be there isn’t there.”

Asked later by another MP what was causing this loss of dynamism, Low replied, “I wish I knew the answer to that ... My sense is, as an Australian and looking at what’s going on in our economy, that we’re becoming very risk-averse.” (A sentiment I know other top econocrats share.)

“It’s a global thing that happens – I think it probably happens partly when you’re a wealthy country. The standard of living here is fantastic. It’s hardly matched anywhere in the world, so we’ve got something important to protect,” he said.

“But I think in that environment you become more risk-averse. Probably with the ageing of the population, we become more risk-averse. When people have a lot of debt, they’re probably more risk-averse.

Risk-aversion seems to help explain the slow wage growth we’ve had “for six or seven years” now. “It’s the sense of uncertainty and competition that people have, and this is kind of global. Most businesses are worried about competition from globalisation and from technology, and many workers feel that same pressure.

“There are many white-collar jobs in Sydney and Melbourne and Canberra that can be done somewhere else in the world at a lower rate of pay, and many people understand that ...,"Lowe said.

“So the bargaining dynamics ... for workers is less than it used to be. And firms are less inclined to bid up wages to attract workers because they’re worried about their cost base and competition,” he said.

Doesn’t sound too wonderful to me. But not to worry. Just remember, our fundamentals are fabulous.
Read more >>

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

The Great Australian Dream is keeping the economy weak

Do you worry about the enormous size of your mortgage? If you do, it seems you’re not the only one. And the way Reserve Bank governor Dr Philip Lowe sees it, people like you are the main reason consumer spending is so weak and the Reserve and the Morrison government are having so much trouble getting the economy moving.

Until the global financial crisis in 2008, we were used to an economy that, after allowing for inflation, grew by about 3 per cent a year. The latest figures show it growing by barely more than half that. (This, of course, is before we feel the temporary effects of bushfires and the coronavirus.)

This explains why the Reserve cut its official interest rate three times last year, dropping it from a record low of 1.5 per cent to an even more amazing 0.75 per cent. Cutting interest rates is intended to encourage people to borrow and spend. So far, however, it’s shown little sign of working.

Similarly, the first stage of the massive tax cuts that were Scott Morrison’s key promise at last year’s election, a new tax break worth more than $1000 a year to middle-income-earners, was expected to give the economy a kick along once people started spending the much bigger tax refunds they got after the end of last financial year.

Despite Treasurer Josh Frydenberg’s confident predictions, it didn’t happen. Why have the authorities had so little success at pushing the economy along? Why did real consumer spending per person actually fall in the year to September?

That’s what Lowe sought to explain to the House of Reps economics committee last Friday. His theory – which he backed up with statistical evidence – is that, the combination of weak growth in wages with falling house prices has really worried a lot of people with big mortgages.

So, rather than increase their spending on goods and services, they cut it and used whatever spare money they could to pay down their mortgage.

In principle when interest rates fall, people with home loans now have more money to spend on other things. In practice, however, most people leave their monthly payments unchanged. The amount they’re paying above the bank’s newly reduced minimum payment comes straight off the principal they owe, thus further reducing (by a little) the interest they’re charged.

That’s pretty much standard behaviour for Australian home-buyers. But this time they’ve also avoided spending their tax refunds, leaving the money in their “offset account”. They may or may not decide to spend it later. But for as long as it’s sitting in the offset account it’s reducing their net mortgage debt and the interest they’re paying.

But get this: not content with those two moves, households have also decided to cut their consumer spending and so save a higher proportion of their income. It’s a safe bet that people with home loans have got that extra saving parked in their offset accounts.

Lowe makes the point that, when worried home-buyers take money sent their way to get them spending and use it to reduce their debt, this does bring forward the day when they feel confident enough to start spending again. That’s true, but very much second prize.

If people with mortgages are feeling anxious, that’s hardly surprising. By June last year, household debt reached a record 188 per cent of annual household disposable income, before falling a bit in the September quarter (see above). About half that debt was for owner-occupied housing and about a quarter for personal loans and credit cards, leaving about a quarter for housing investment debt.

This is higher than in most rich countries, but that’s mainly because of our generous tax breaks for negatively geared property investors, a loophole most other, more sensible countries have closed.

But hang on. Those of us living in Melbourne or Sydney (but not elsewhere in Australia) know that, in response to the recent cuts in interest rates, people have resumed borrowing for housing, causing house prices to stop falling and start rising again.

Is this a good thing? Lowe can see advantages and disadvantages. On the plus side, rising house prices are likely to make people with big mortgages feel less uncomfortable and so get closer to the point where they allow their spending to grow. It also brings forward the day when the building of new homes stops falling and starts rising again.

On the negative side, is it really a great thing for house prices to take off every time interest rates come down? How’s that going to help our kids become home owners?

Lowe asks whether we benefit as a society from having very high housing prices relative to the level of our incomes. “There are things that we could do on the structural side . . . to have a lower level of housing prices relative to income.” They’re much lower across the United States, for instance, even though, by and large, the Americans’ interest rates have been lower than ours.

What are these “things on the structural side” we could be doing to make our housing more affordable? He didn’t say. But I think he was referring to more liberal council zoning regulations and to getting rid of the many tax concessions that favour home owners at the expense of would-be home owners, including negative gearing.
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Monday, January 20, 2020

RBA should stop pretending there's any more it can usefully do

Every institution – even, as we’ve learnt to our sorrow, the Christian church – is tempted to put its own interests ahead of its duty to the greater good. Now it’s time for the Reserve Bank to examine its own conscience. If it cuts interest rates again in a fortnight’s time, in whose interests will it be acting?

Many of the Reserve’s immediate customers in the financial markets expect it to cut the official interest rate at its meeting early next month and then again a few months later, at which point the rate will be down to its "effective lower bound" – 0.25 per cent – and it will be time for it to move to using purchases of government bonds to lower the risk-free rate of interest more widely in a program of "quantitative easing".

That’s what its market customers expect of it and it will be tempted to comply, showing it’s still at the wheel, in charge of steering the economy, doing all it can to get things moving and keeping itself at the centre of the macro-economic action.

What could be wrong with that? Just that it’s unlikely to do any good, and could do more harm than good. It’s hard to see that yet another tiny interest-rate cut will do anything of consequence to stimulate spending.

Rates are already so exceptionally low it’s clear that it’s not the cost of capital that’s making businesses reluctant to invest in expanding their production capacity. Whatever their reasons for hesitating, cutting rates further won’t change anything.

Moving to households, the record level of household debt does much to discourage them from borrowing to buy goods and services and so boost economic activity. Interest-rate movements mainly affect discretionary spending on household durables (cars, white goods, lounge suites etc), but sales of these are in the doldrums despite already super-low rates. So, again, another cut is unlikely to change that.

In justifying recent rate cuts, the Reserve has relied heavily on the expected consequent fall in our exchange rate, which should stimulate the economy by making our export and import-competing industries more price competitive internationally.

And the reverse is also true: if we leave our rates well above the low levels of the big advanced economies, the dollar will appreciate and make our industries less price competitive. However, that argument’s of little relevance by now, and we shouldn’t be encouraging a beggar-thy-neighbour game of competitive devaluations.

But even if further rate cuts, and quantitative easing after that, will do little to boost demand, surely they couldn’t do any harm? Don’t be too sure of that. They’d hurt those who rely on interest income from financial investments – though bank interest rates could hardly fall any further.

Speaking of banks, the closer interest rates get to the floorboards, the more their profits are squeezed. If you don’t see that as a worry, you should: when lending becomes unprofitable banks become reluctant to lend. Sound good to you?

There may also be some truth in the argument that whereas in normal times news of an interest-rate cut boosts the confidence of consumers and businesses, at times like this they’re a sign the economy isn’t travelling well and new commitments should be delayed.

But here’s the biggest reason further rate cuts would do more harm than good: the clear evidence that, since the cuts began and prudential supervision was relaxed, house prices in Melbourne and Sydney have resumed their upward climb.

This is an appalling development. Getting our households even more heavily indebted is a cheap price to pay for scraping the last bit of monetary stimulus off the bottom of the barrel? Making first-home ownership even more unaffordable for our young people is just something we have to live with?

The one thing we know is that while "monetary policy" has lost its ability to stimulate demand for goods and services, its ability to stimulate demand for assets - such as houses, commercial property and shares - most of it fuelled by rising debt, continues unabated.

When in the 1970s we switched from using the budget to using interest rates to manage demand, we little realised that the serious side-effect of monetary stimulus was rising asset prices and rising debt.

Essentially, Australians buy and sell our houses among ourselves, bidding up the price of that little-changing stock of houses. Then we tell ourselves we’re all getting richer. Why is this anything other than damaging self-delusion? Why should the Reserve Bank be one of its chief promoters?

It’s time for Reserve governor Dr Philip Lowe to stop doing more harm than good and turn the management of demand back to the people we elected to run the economy.
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Saturday, January 4, 2020

how we caught the economic growth bug, but may shake it off


Do you realise that the great god of mammon, Gross Domestic Product, has really only been worshipped in Australia for 60 years last month? Its high priests at the Australian Bureau of Statistics have been celebrating the anniversary.

Sixty years may see a long time to you, but not to me. And not when you remember that the study of economics, in its recognisable form, started with the publication of Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations in 1776.

GDP is the most closely watched bottom line of the "national accounts" for the Australian economy.

So what do GDP and the national accounts measure, where did they come from and are they as all-important as our economists, business people and politicians seem to think, or is GDP the source of our problems, as many environmentalists and sociologists seem to think?

What GDP measures can be described in several ways. I usually say it measures the value of all the goods and services produced in Australia during a period.

But because workers and businesses join together to produce goods and services in order to earn income, it’s equally true to say that GDP is a measure of the nation’s income during a period.

And since income is used to buy things, it’s also true that GDP measures the nation’s expenditure (but only after you subtract our spending on imports and add foreigners’ spending on our exports).

Now some qualifications.

GDP measures the value of goods and services bought and sold in the market place, plus the goods and services supplied by governments but paid for by our taxes. This means GDP doesn’t include the (considerable) value of all the goods and services – meals and so forth – produced in the home without money changing hands.

Economists (and economic journalists) make so much fuss about the quarterly ups and downs of GDP – is the economy growing or contracting, is it growing faster or slower? – it’s easy to assume that economic growth is something they’ve always obsessed about.

In truth, it’s a relatively recent preoccupation – suggesting it’s a habit we may one day grow out of. You see this more clearly when you consider the origins of GDP and the national accounts it springs from.

The 60-year anniversary is of the move to quarterly estimates of the growth in GDP in September quarter, 1959. It’s hard to be obsessive about something when you don’t get regular reports on how it’s going.

Fact is, until the Great Depression of the 1930s, economists were preoccupied with studying how markets worked ("micro-economics") and gave little thought to how the economy as a whole worked ("macro-economics"), let alone how fast it was growing.

In his recent history of the federal Treasury, Paul Tilley noted that it was just a department full of bookkeepers until the upheavals of the Depression caused its political masters to ask questions about what they should be doing that it couldn’t answer. That’s when Treasury became macro-economists.

It was the failure of "neo-classical" economics to provide an effective response to the Depression that led to the ascendancy of an Englishman who did have answers, John Maynard Keynes. At the heart of the ensuing the "Keynesian revolution" in economics was the notion that there was such a thing as the macro economy and that it was the responsibility of governments to "manage" that economy, ending its slump and getting workers back to work.

Once you started thinking like that, it became obvious that, to manage the economy effectively, you needed to measure it and track the changes in it over time.

The first economists to start developing a systematic and internally consistent way of measuring the economy, in the early 1930s, were Simon Kuznets in the United States and Colin Clark in Britain. Clark, a disciple of Keynes, moved to Australia in 1938 and spent the rest of his life as an adviser to the Queensland government.

For some years after World War II, our Treasury issued annual, out-of-date estimates of the size of GDP and its components.

The Keynesian economists’ preoccupation then was not with growth as such, but with keeping the economy at "full employment" – in those days defined an unemployment rate of less than 2 per cent – which, admittedly, did require it to be growing pretty quickly. In those days, however, GDP was used more as an aid to the short-run stabilisation of the business cycle – "demand management".

Paul Samuelson’s legendary introductory textbook, first published in 1947, which "brought Keynesian economics into the classroom", didn’t have an entry for "growth" until its sixth edition in 1964.

It was only about then that people became preoccupied with economic growth, as indicated by the growth in GDP.

The critics are right to point out the many respects in which GDP falls short as a measure of human wellbeing. But, though it’s true many people treat GDP as though it is such a measure, it was never designed to be used as such.

I agree with the critics that there’s more to life than economic growth and that politicians and economists should give less attention to growth and more to the many less tangible, less well-measured social factors that also affect our wellbeing.

It’s true, too, that GDP was developed before we became conscious of the need for economic activity to be ecologically sustainable – which the present hellish summer reminds us it certainly isn’t at present. In this sense, GDP is no longer "fit for purpose".

It’s wrong, however, to conclude that continuing growth in GDP is incompatible with ecological sustainability. People say that because they don’t understand what drives the "growth" that GDP measures (hint: improved productivity).

We can have unending growth in GDP and sustainable use of natural resources (which is what the environmentalists care about) by changing the way economic activity is organised – including by getting all our energy from renewable sources.
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Monday, December 16, 2019

Letting things get worse so we're well placed to fix them later

If you've been feeling the pinch of a massive mortgage and minuscule pay rises and resolving to keep your spending tight this Christmas, Scott Morrison has good news. You will be relieved to hear the federal budget is still on track to reach a surplus this financial year and stay in surplus as far as the accountants' eyes can see.

Although many economists have been panicking over the economy's weak state – and the panickers were joined this week by the International Monetary Fund – Morrison is sticking to his resolve to keep his foot on the budget brake rather than move it to the accelerator.

This, his Treasurer Josh Frydenberg assured us in the mid-year budget review, will bring great
economic benefits, providing "the stability and certainty that households and businesses need to
plan for the future, giving them confidence to spend and invest knowing that the government can
keep taxes low and guarantee funding for essential services".

Hasn't worked so far, but it's bound to kick in soon.

Admittedly the economy's growth is weaker than he predicted it would be before the election in
May, so Frydenberg has had to cut the expected surplus this financial year by $2 billion to $5 billion (not all that much in a $500 billion budget) and by $5 billion next year.

This is mainly because the government has been obliged to abandon the confident prediction it has been making throughout its time in office that wage growth would soon return to something much healthier.

The bad news from the update is that Frydenberg is not expecting pay rises to average as much as 3 per cent a year until the second half of 2022 at the earliest.

But if that makes you fear the budget may not stay in surplus for long, Morrison has more good news. Much of the budget's recent strength despite a slowing economy is explained by the huge taxes our mining companies will be paying because a mining disaster in Brazil has pushed the world price of iron ore way up.

The trick is they've built themselves a hollow log. The budget's figuring is based on the assumption that the iron ore price collapses to $US55 a tonne. Should that not happen, Morrison can use the difference to prop up his budget if the panickers are right and the economy stays weak rather than speeding up, as he's sure it will.

On a separate matter, remember the Future Fund, set up in the early years of the resources boom when the Howard government was running budget surpluses so big they were embarrassing? According to Frydenberg's latest figuring, the income from all the shares the fund's money was invested in will account for most of the budget surpluses the government is expecting to run.

Now that's the "responsible fiscal management" we have come to expect of the Coalition. And it must surely comfort you to know that, should the worst come to the worst, the government will be well placed to launch a few life boats. On a user-pays basis, of course.
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Saturday, December 14, 2019

Why the government's forecasts are always way off

Just to warm you up for the mid-year budget update on Monday, let me ask you: why do you think Treasury and the Reserve Bank have gone for a least the past eight years forecasting more growth in the economy than ever transpired?

Kieran Davies, a respected economist from National Australia Bank, has been checking. He says their mistake has been failing to allow for the decline in our “potential” growth rate since the global financial crisis in 2008.

Actually, Davies has checked only the Reserve’s forecasting record, not Treasury’s. But the two outfits use similar forecasting methods and use a Joint Economic Forecasting Group to ensure their forecasts are never very different.

An economy’s “potential” growth rate is the average rate at which its capacity to produce goods and services is growing each year. This is determined by the average rate at which the Three Ps are growing – population, participation (in the labour force) and productivity (output per unit of input).

Sometimes (as now) the economy’s annual demand for goods and services doesn’t grow as fast as its potential to supply those goods and services is growing. This creates an “output gap” of idle production capacity, including unemployed and under-employed workers.

When demand picks up, the economy can grow faster than its potential growth rate for a few years until the idle capacity is fully taken up and the output gap has disappeared. Once that’s happened, the potential growth rate sets the speed limit for how fast the economy can grow. If demand’s allowed to grow faster than supply, all you get is inflation.

We know from the fine print in the budget papers that Treasury’s estimate of our present potential growth rate is 2.75 per cent a year. You can be sure the Reserve’s estimate is the same. This is often referred to as the economy’s forward-looking “trend” (medium-term average) rate of growth.

Treasury’s projections of growth over the rest of the next 10 years are based on the assumption that, once the economy has returned to its trend rate of 2.75 per cent, it will then grow by 3 per cent a year for several years until the idle capacity is used up, when it will revert to 2.75 per cent. (This projection of perfection is what allows the budget papers to include an incredible graph showing the budget surplus going on forever and the government’s net public debt plunging to zero by June 2030.)

Now, here’s the trick. Because the Treasury and Reserve forecasters have no more knowledge of what the future holds than you or I do, they rely heavily on a long-established statistical regularity called “reversion to the mean”. That is, if at present the variable you’re forecasting is above its average performance, the greatest likelihood is that it will move down towards the average. If it’s below average, it’s likely to move up towards the average.

So now you know why, for at least the past eight years, Treasury has forecast that, though growth in the economy is weak at present, within a year or two it will return to trend, and then go higher. When it turns out that didn’t come to pass this time, it’s still the best bet for next year. Fail and repeat. Although the Reserve revises its forecasts every quarter, it follows the same method.

Davies’ examination of the Reserve’s forecasting record found that, since the financial crisis, it had persistently overestimated growth in real gross domestic product in the year ahead, and had nearly always overestimated growth over the next two years.

Why? Because it failed to take account of the decline in the potential growth rate since the crisis. It’s a safe bet the Reserve has stuck with 2.75 per cent. But Davies says the Reserve’s own econometric model of the economy, MARTIN, finds that potential growth has declined from 3.1 per cent in 2000 to 2.7 per cent in 2010 and 2.4 per cent in 2019.

In other words, when your forecasting method relies so heavily on reversion to the mean, if your estimate of potential growth is too high, it’s hardly surprising you’ll forecast more growth than you ever get.

But what’s wrong with the econocrats’ estimate of the potential growth? It could be in one or more of their estimates of growth in its three P components, but Davies’ checking shows it’s not population or participation, but productivity.

Davies says the MARTIN model shows that trend growth in productivity has slowed from 2 per cent a year in 2000, to 1.3 per cent in 2010 and to 1.1 per cent in 2019. This slowdown is not peculiar to Australia, but has occurred across the advanced economies.

Taking the median rate for those other economies, he estimates that the annual improvement in their productivity of labour per hour worked has slowed from 1.9 per cent in the 10 years before the crisis, to 0.8 per cent in the years since the crisis.

Davies’ equivalent estimates for us are similar: from 2.1 per cent to 1.2 per cent.

Okay, so why has productivity improvement slowed? Labour productivity has two components: “capital deepening”, where investment in more capital equipment per worker makes workers more productive, and “multi-factor productivity”, which is the improvement that can’t be explained by anything but technological progress (not more equipment so much as better equipment, plus improvements in the way factories and offices are organised) and reforms to the structure of the economy (“micro-economic reform”).

Davies finds the overall decline is mainly explained by the weakest rate of improvement in multi-factor productivity in decades – that is, little technological progress, here or overseas – but also by investment in the stock of non-mining physical capital that’s only just keeping up with the growth in the supply of labour (which, I imagine, hasn’t been helped by our need for “capital widening” to provide equipment to all the extra migrant workers).

What Davies’ digging has really exposed, of course, is the econocrats’ refusal to accept that our economy’s caught in former Bank of England governor Mervyn King’s “low-growth trap”.
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Monday, December 9, 2019

Please, no more Pollyanna impressions in the budget update

The mid-year budget update we’ll see next Monday presents the government and its econocrats with a threshold question: can their battered credibility withstand one more set of economic forecasts based on little more than naive optimism?

Or won’t it matter if first the industry experts, and then the Quiet Australians in voterland, get the message that budgets are largely works of fiction - based on political spin, with forecasts crafted to fit - and so are not to be believed?

Last week’s national accounts confirmed five successive quarters of weak growth in the economy and left Reserve Bank governor Dr Philip Lowe’s lovely thought of the economy reaching a “gentle turning-point” looking pretty ragged.

Maybe if you squint you could see a pattern of improvement, with the economy’s weakness concentrated in the last two quarters of 2018 (growth in real GDP of 0.3 per cent and 0.2 per cent), and strength returning in the first three quarters of this year: 0.5 per cent, 0.6 per cent and now 0.4 per cent.

Trouble is, that ain’t economics, it’s numerology: looking at a pattern of numbers without troubling your head with the varying factors that are driving them. Look at what’s driving those numbers and the illusion is dispelled.

Every part of the private sector is weak: consumer spending, home building and business investment, so much so that, as a whole, it’s actually contracting. That consumer spending is weak and getting weaker – despite the tax cut and three cuts in interest rates – is hardly surprising when you remember how weak the growth in wages has been.

It’s a great thing that public sector spending is providing most of what little growth we’re getting while the private sector goes backwards, but it doesn’t count as a sign the economy’s getting back on its feet.

As for the contribution from net exports, it would be more encouraging if it weren’t for the knowledge that a fair bit of it comes from the fall in imports you’d expect to see when domestic demand is “flat to down”.

But for a disillusioning summary statistic, try this: real household disposable income per person – a good measure of average material living standards - has essentially been flat since the end of 2011. So the Quiet Australians have nothing to show for eight years of toil. The rest is a conjuring trick where high population growth is passed off as growing prosperity.

Three quarters into our run of five weak quarters, Scott Morrison fought the election on a claim to have delivered a Strong Economy. The two subsequent sets of national accounts have destroyed that masterpiece of the marketer’s art.

But Morrison’s misrepresentations came bolstered by Treasury forecasts and projections showing the economy would quickly recover from weakness to strength, whereupon it would enter a five-year period of above-trend (3 per cent) annual growth before reverting to trend for the rest of a decade.

This flight of back-of-an-envelope fancy not only appeared to be Treasury’s endorsement of Morrison’s unfounded claims about strong growth, they supported the government’s claim that the budget could easily afford to double the tax cuts announced in the previous year’s budget – taking the cumulative cost to revenue to $300 billion over a decade – and still achieve healthy annual surpluses, eliminating the government’s net public debt by June 2030.

Just eight months later, these fearless forecasts aren’t looking too flash. They had the economy returning to trend growth of 2.75 per cent this financial year and inflation returning to 2.5 per cent by June 2021.

Most wonderful of all, they had annual wage growth accelerating to 2.5 per cent by June (actual: 2.3 per cent, falling to 2.2 per cent following quarter), to 2.75 per cent by June next year, then to 3.25 per cent by June 2021 and 3.5 per cent by June 2022 and in all subsequent years.

Wages are such a central driver of the economy, this triumph of hope over experience was essential to any forecast recovery in consumer spending and economic growth, not to mention any return to (bracket-creep-fuelled) budget surpluses despite tax cuts.

See the problem Treasurer Josh Frydenberg and his troops face in preparing next Monday’s mid-year budget update? Do they keep playing the budgetary version of the with-one-bound-our-hero-broke-free game and leave themselves open to growing derision, or do they stop pretending, offer plausible forecasts and adopt a more defensible projection methodology, and start on the long road back to being respected and authoritative?

But if the days of Treasury being game to give the boss (Morrison) forecasts he won’t like are long gone, that raises a courage question for the Reserve heavies: when will they stop ensuring their forecasts tick-tack with Treasury’s and start telling us what they really think?
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Saturday, December 7, 2019

Sorry, the economy can't grow much without higher wages

I usually pooh-pooh all alleged recessions that have to be qualified with an adjective. With recessions, it’s the whole economy or nothing. But I’ll make an exception for the "household recession" – which tells you why this week’s news of continuing weakness in the economy provides no support for Scott Morrison’s refusal to stimulate it.

Households are only part of the economy, of course, but they’re the part that matters above all others. Why? Because they contain all the people. And because all the other parts – the corporate sector, the public sector and the "external" sector of exports and imports – exist solely to serve we the people.

The economy’s "national accounts", issued this week by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, showed weak growth for the fifth quarter in a row, with real gross domestic product growing by just 0.3 per cent in the September quarter of last year, 0.2 per cent in the December quarter, 0.5 per in March quarter this year, 0.6 per cent in the June quarter and now a disappointing 0.4 per cent for this September quarter.

That took the annual growth in real GDP up from a (revised) 1.6 per cent over the year to June, to 1.7 per cent over the year to September. Morrison needed a lot better than that to convince anyone bar his my-party-right-or-wrong supporters that a response to the Reserve Bank’s repeated pleas for budgetary stimulus could be delayed until the budget in May.

To see how weak that is, remember our economy’s estimated "trend" or average rate of growth over the medium term is 2.75 per cent a year – about 0.7 per cent a quarter.

But let’s get back to households and their finances. Their spending on consumption grew by an almost infinitesimal 0.1 per cent in real terms during the latest quarter, or by 0.5 per cent before taking account of inflation.

Sticking to before-inflation figures (even though all the other national-account figures I quote are always inflation-adjusted), the quarter saw households’ main source of income – wages – grow by 1.1 per cent, which other, lesser income sources shaved to growth of 0.8 per cent in total household income.

However, the amount households had to pay in income tax fell by 6.8 per cent, thanks mainly to the arrival of the government’s new middle-income tax offset. This meant that households’ disposable income grew by a much healthier 2.5 per cent.

But something led most households to save rather than spend the tax break, causing their total saving during the quarter to jump by 80 per cent and their ratio of saving to household disposable income to leap from 2.5 per cent to 4.8 per cent. That’s why their consumer spending grew by only 0.5 per cent, as we’ve seen.

It’s possible people will get around to spending more of their tax cut but, with household debt at record levels after years of rising house prices, and continuing weak wage growth, it’s not hard to believe they’re too worried to spend up at a time when the economy's hardly onward-and-upward.

They may be intending to pay down some debt, just as it’s likely many people with mortgages have allowed the fall in the interest rates they’re being charged just to speed up their repayment of the loan.

Whatever, the faster consumer spending Morrison and his loyal lieutenant assured us their tax cut would bring about hasn’t materialised. And it’s noteworthy that what little consumer spending we’ve seen has been on essentials rather than discretionary items.

One discretionary spending decision is whether to buy a new car. Separate figures show new car sales in November were down 9.8 per cent on November last year.

So if the biggest part of the economy has done next to nothing to generate what little growth we’ve seen, where’s it coming from?

Well, not from the business end of the private sector. Spending on the building of new homes was down 1.7 per cent in the September quarter and by 9.6 per cent over the year to September. Business investment spending was down 2 per cent during the quarter and by 1.7 per cent over the year.

All told, the private sector – consumer spending, home building plus business investment – fell for the second quarter in a row and is 0.3 per cent lower than a year ago.

By contrast, public sector spending – the thing Morrison & Co profess to disapprove of – is going strong, with government consumption spending up by 0.9 per cent in the quarter, and 6 per cent over the year, mainly because of the continuing rollout of the National Disability Insurance Scheme.

Public investment in infrastructure – mainly by the state governments – grew 5.4 per cent in the quarter, to be 2.1 per cent up on a year earlier. All told, growth in the public sector accounted for most of the growth in the economy overall in the September quarter.

That leaves the external sector – aka "net exports" – making a positive contribution to overall growth during the quarter, with the volume of exports up 0.7 per cent while the volume of imports was down 0.2 per cent. (Falling imports, however, are a sign of a weak domestic economy.)

Another seeming bad sign – worsening productivity, with GDP per hour worked down 0.2 per cent in the quarter and 0.2 per cent over the year – wasn’t as bad as it seems, however.

When you’ve had the good news that employment has grown faster than you’d expect given the weak growth in output of goods and services, productivity – output per unit of input – falls as a matter of arithmetic. Does that make the employment growth a bad thing?

I’ll leave the last word to Callam Pickering, of the Indeed job site: "As long as wage growth remains so low, it will be difficult for the economy to return to annual growth of 3 per cent or higher. Quite simply, it is almost impossible to have a strong economy without a healthy household sector."
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Monday, December 2, 2019

Lowe should rescue a PM lost in the Canberra bubble

Dr Philip Lowe, governor of the Reserve Bank, is one of the smartest economists in the land. You don’t get a PhD from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology unless you’re super-sharp. But the question now is whether he has the courage to stand up to a wilful Prime Minister whose confidence far exceeds his comprehension.

Scott Morrison, as we know, is refusing to do what Lowe – with the support of the international agencies and most of our economists – has been begging him to do: use his budget to come to the rescue of monetary policy and its ever-feebler efforts to stop the economy slowing almost to stalling-speed.

Morrison is desperate to deliver a budget surplus. So desperate he’s convinced himself that failing to do so would cost him more political support than would allowing the economy to continue failing to lift voters’ living standards, and be so weak that a shock from abroad could push us into recession.

How any politician could come to such a self-harming conclusion is hard to fathom. Perhaps it’s that the 28 years since our last severe recession have robbed the latest generation of Liberal pollies of their economic nous.

Morrison’s so green he hasn’t learnt the first rule of politics: if you stuff up the economy, they throw you out. If that’s news to you, remember the 1961 credit squeeze, which brought Bob Menzies within a whisker of having his career cut short.

Remember how the 1975 recession dispatched with Gough Whitlam, the recession of the early 1980s finished Malcolm Fraser and the 1990 recession caught up with Paul Keating despite a one-term reprieve granted by Liberal fumbling of the 1993 election.

The question for Lowe is how he responds to the Prime Minister’s misreading of his own best interests (not to mention ours). Does Lowe stand back and watch an overconfident leader dice with political death by pretending that monetary policy hasn’t reached the end of its useful life and that blood can still be squeezed from the stone? Or does he announce he’s done all he sensibly can and turn the economy’s problem back to the one (elected) person who could fix it if he came to his senses?

Conventional monetary policy (interest-rate manipulation) has lost most of its power because household debt is at record levels, because the official interest rate is almost at zero, and because rates are already so low that another few cuts won’t make much difference.

Further, as Lowe explained in his speech last week, there’s little to be gained from deciding to progress to QE – "quantitative easing". It’s not capable of lowering rates much further and, in any case, comes at a cost.

As Lowe himself has acknowledged, it creates a moral hazard. For as long as Lowe pretends monetary policy is still effective, he’s running cover for the person who could do something effective, but chooses not to.

And it’s not just the absence of a positive, it’s also the continuation of a negative. Everything that causes the budget to take more out of the economy than it puts back in government spending causes private demand to be weaker.

Consider the way continuing bracket creep (only partly countered by the new middle income-earners’ tax offset) takes a bigger bite out of households’ wage income before they can spend it. Fiscal policy is actually counteracting monetary policy.

In his speech outlining the "limitations of monetary policy" and his lack of enthusiasm for unconventional measures, Lowe noted that their modest benefits needed to be balanced against their possible adverse side-effects.

Such as? First, they may change incentives in an unhelpful way. Providing the banks with ready liquidity during emergencies may encourage them not to bother holding their own adequate buffers, thus making further crises more likely.

Similarly, "the willingness of a central bank to use its full range of policy instruments might create an inaction bias by other policymakers [and] this could lead to an over-reliance on monetary policy," he said. But which policymakers could he possibly have in mind?

A second possible side effect is reducing the efficiency with which resources are allocated throughout the economy. Low interest rates and flattening the yield curve (pushing long-term interest rates down to the level of short-term rates) can damage banks’ profitability, leaving them with less capacity to lend.

There are also risks to the stability of the financial system when low interest rates cause the prices of property or shares (and borrowing) to boom at a time when the economy’s actually weak.

Finally, a third side-effect is a blurring of the lines between monetary policy and fiscal policy. "If the central bank is buying large amounts of government debt at zero interest rates, this could be seen as money-financed government spending," and so damage a country’s credibility internationally.
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Saturday, November 9, 2019

Weak wages the symptom of our stagnant economy, but why?

If you don’t like the term "secular stagnation" you can follow former Bank of England governor Mervyn King and say that, since the Great Recession of 2008-09, we’ve entered the Great Stagnation and are "stuck in a low-growth trap".

On Friday we saw the latest instalment of our politicians’ and econocrats’ reluctant admission that we’re in the same boat as the other becalmed advanced economies, with publication of the Reserve Bank’s latest downward revisions of its forecasts for economic growth.

This time last year, the Reserve was expecting real growth in gross domestic product of a ripping 3.25 per cent over the present financial year. Now it’s expecting 2.25 per cent. Even that may prove on the high side.

What their eternal optimism implies is our authorities’ belief that the economy’s weakness is largely "cyclical" – temporary. What the past eight years of downward revisions imply, however, is that the problem is mainly "structural" or, as they used to say a century ago, "secular" – long-lasting.

If the weakness is structural, waiting a bit longer won’t see the problem go away. The world’s economists will need to do a lot more researching and thinking to determine the main causes of the change in the structure of the economy and the way it works, and what we should be doing about it.

Apart from dividing problems between cyclical and structural, economists analyse them by viewing them from the perspective of demand and then the perspective of supply.

Obviously, what you’d like is demand and supply pretty much in balance, meaning low inflation and unemployment, with economies growing at a good pace and lifting our material standard of living. In practice, however, it’s not that simple and demand and supply don’t always align the way we’d like.

For about the first 30 years after World War II, the dominant view among economists was that the big problem was keeping demand strong enough to take up the economy’s ever-growing potential supply – its capacity to produce goods and services – and keep workers and factories in "full employment". Keynesian economics was developed to use the budget ("fiscal policy") to ensure demand was always up to the mark.

From about the mid-1970s, however, the advanced economies developed a big problem with inflation. After years of uncertainty and debate, the dominant view emerged that the main problem wasn’t "deficient" demand, it was excessive demand, always threatening to run ahead of the economy’s capacity to produce and thus cause inflation.

The answer was to get supply – potential production – growing faster. Most economists abandoned Keynesian economics and reverted to the former, "neo-classical" macro-economics, in which the central contention was that, over the medium-term, the rate at which an economy grew was determined on the supply side, by the three key determinants of production capacity, "the three Ps" – population, participation (by people in the labour force), and productivity – the rate at which investment in more and better machines and structures allowed workers to produce more per hour than they did before.

If so, the managers of the macro economy could do nothing to change the rate at which the economy grew over the medium term. Their role was simply to ensure that, in the short term, demand neither grew faster than the growth in the economy’s production potential (thus casing inflation) nor slower than potential (thus causing unemployment).

And the best instrument to use to achieve this balancing act was, as Treasury secretary Dr Steven Kennedy explained recently, monetary policy (moving interest rates up and down).

Everyone agrees that the problem with the advanced economies at present – including ours – is weak demand. The question is whether that weakness is mainly cyclical or mainly structural. If it's cyclical, all we have to do is be patient, and the old conventional wisdom - that, fundamentally, growth is supply-determined - doesn’t need changing.

But the conclusion that fits our circumstances better is that the demand problem has structural causes. Consider this: we’ve had plenty of episodes of weak demand in the past, but never has demand been so weak that inflation is negligible. Nominal interest rates are way down in consequence, but even real global interest rates have been falling since even before the financial crisis.

That’s why monetary policy has almost done its dash. It doesn’t do well at a time of negligible inflation, and fiscal policy is back to being the more effective instrument. But if the demand problem is mainly structural, then a burst of stimulus from the budget may help a bit, but won’t get to the heart of the problem.

As former top econocrat Dr Mike Keating has argued consistently, weak growth in real wages seems the main cause of weak growth in consumer spending and, hence, business investment, productivity improvement and overall growth – both in Australia and the other advanced economies.

Reserve Bank governor Dr Philip Lowe would agree. But he tends to see the wage problem as mainly cyclical: wait until we get more growth in employment, then the labour market will tighten, skill shortages will emerge and real wages will be pushed up.

Other economists stick to the supply-side, neo-classical approach: if real wages aren’t growing fast enough it can only be because the productivity of labour isn’t improving fast enough, so the answer is more micro-economic reform. Not a big help, guys.

The unions say the root cause is that deregulation has robbed organised labour of its bargaining power – and there may be something in that. But Keating’s argument has been that skill-biased technological change has hollowed out the semi-skilled middle of the workforce, with wage increases going disproportionately to the high-skilled, who save more of their income than lower-paid workers.

So Keating wants any budget stimulus to be directed towards the lower-paid, and a lot more spending on all levels of education and training, to help workers adopt and adapt to the digital workplace.
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