Showing posts with label fiscal policy. Show all posts
Showing posts with label fiscal policy. Show all posts

Wednesday, October 7, 2020

Morrison's new goal: tax cuts adding to higher debt and deficit

This is the hanged-for-a-sheep-rather-than-a-lamb budget. Realising the coronacession means it will be ages before he can make good his premature claim to have the budget Back in Black, Scott Morrison has decided to go for broke (if you'll excuse the expression).

Many people have been anxious to see just how big Josh Frydenberg's expected budget deficit will be (a record $213 billion, dwarfing anything produced by the free-spending Kevin Rudd) and how much public debt it will leave us with (almost a net $1 trillion by June 2024, and continuing to grow every year until at least June 2031).

Mr Frydenberg is right to say that, if we want to get the economy moving and unemployment falling, he has no choice but to spend in giant licks. More concerning is whether all the money added to the debt has been chosen to deliver the greatest possible gain in jobs.

That's the problem. It hasn't. Although the plan to subsidise the wages of newly employed young people in their first year gets a big tick, the brought-forward and back-dated tax cut that is the centrepiece of this budget is among the least effective ways to create jobs.

That's because much evidence shows that a high proportion of tax cuts is saved rather than spent. This is particularly likely at present, when so many people fear they may be next to lose their job.

To be fair, Mr Frydenberg has not brought forward the third stage of the tax plan – still scheduled for July 2024 – which is slanted heavily in of favour high earners. It's well established that high income-earners save a higher proportion of tax cuts than lower income-earners.

If you remember, when stage one of these tax cuts allowed people getting the new "low and middle income tax offset" to receive a flat $1080 refund in July and August last year, Mr Frydenberg confidently predicted it would give a fillip to retail sales. Didn't happen.

Summarising, the new tax cut will be worth the equivalent of almost $21 a week to those earning between $50,000 and $90,000 a year, but about $47 a week to those earning more than $120,000 a year.

Mr Frydenberg justifies the tax cut by saying "we believe people should keep more of what they earn". Fine. But such a belief has little to do with this budget's stated goal, nor the justification for adding to the deficit: it's "all about jobs".

This tax cut is much more about political popularity than getting the economy out of recession.

The government has made much of its efforts to limit the rise in deficits and debt by keeping new spending measures temporary. But the cost of the changed tax scales will roll on forever.

When the Economic Society of Australia surveyed 49 leading economists recently, asking them to choose the four programs that would be most effective in supporting recovery, only 10 of them nominated bringing forward the legislated tax cuts.

So what measures did they favour? More than half wanted spending on social housing (which creates employment in the housing industry, adds to our stock of homes and helps the disadvantaged).

Half the economists wanted a permanent increase in JobSeeker unemployment benefits (because $40 a day is below the poverty line and any increase is almost certain to be spent).

But those two top preferences have been ignored in this budget.

By contrast, some of the measures that are in the budget didn't raise much enthusiasm. An expanded investment allowance for business got support from only 29 per cent of the economists – presumably because it wasn't expected to be very effective. At best, it's likely to draw forward some of the spending on capital equipment that would have been spent in later years.

And even spending on infrastructure projects was preferred by only 20 of the 49 economists – perhaps because too much of it goes on wasteful projects.

The government's two main stimulus measures – the JobKeeper wage subsidy and the JobSeeker temporary supplement – have been most successful in breaking the economy's fall.

But they were cut back from the end of September, and this budget doesn't change the plan to end them from March and December respectively.

If the measures in the budget prove insufficient to fill the gap their withdrawal leaves, and so keep the recovery progressing, it will be because the government has been too quick to limit its spending and replace it with tax cuts.

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Saturday, September 26, 2020

It won’t be just the budget that sets our speed of recovery

 In Scott Morrison’s efforts to get us out of the coronacession, lesson No. 1 is that it’s up to the government to produce the increase in demand we need by spending an absolute shedload of money. But this week the boss of the Productivity Commission interjected with lesson No. 2: while you’re at it, don’t forget the role of the supply side.

In every recession, “aggregate demand” (gross domestic product) goes backwards, and unemployment shoots skywards, because the private sector – households and businesses – have cut their spending on consumption and physical investment in new houses, business equipment and structures.

To get the private sector going again, the public sector has to more than make up the gap by greatly increasing its own spending. That’s particularly true in this recession because, with the official interest rate already close to zero, there’s been almost no scope for the authorities to do the other thing they usually do to get the private sector spending again: slash interest rates to encourage spending on borrowed money.

Because this government has made so much of the evils of “debt and deficit”, however, it’s been tempted to limit its budget spending by using economic reforms to pursue “jobs and growth”. The response of me and others has been to say “not so fast”. Reforms aimed at making our production of goods and services – the “supply side” of the economy - more efficient are no substitute for boosting the demand side of the economy when that’s what’s causing high unemployment.

After all, what could be more inefficient and wasteful than having hundreds of thousands of people who could be working and producing things sitting on their bums?

But in a virtual speech to the Australian Business Economists this week, Productivity Commission chairman Michael Brennan argued that the state of the supply side of the economy would be highly relevant to our success in having the economy recover as quickly as possible.

He made some good points. Note, he wasn’t challenging the fundamental importance of ensuring adequate growth in aggregate (total) demand. He was saying that the state of the supply side also matters. It’s not a substitute for adequate demand, but is an important supplement to it.

“Supply-side policy is an important enabler of the recovery, without which demand-side stimulus is incomplete or compromised in its effectiveness,” he says. It’s not so much about correcting inefficiency in the allocation of resources (labour, capital and land), as about “dynamic efficiency” – the speed with which the economy can move from one state to another, and how we minimise the various “frictions” that slow it down.

He says there are three main reasons why we should focus on micro-economic policy even in the midst of a recession. First, the coronacession is not just a demand shock, it’s also a reallocation shock. It will involve many workers, and much capital and land-use moving between industries and locations. Some industries will get bigger, some smaller.

Change in the industry structure of the economy is happening continuously, but a lot more of it happens during and after recessions. Many more businesses go out backwards, while new ones spring up. As well, firms use the impetus or excuse of the recession to stop doing unprofitable things they should have stopped doing years earlier.

Classic example: all the firms in this recession slashing the amounts they’re prepared to pay for sport broadcast rights and sponsorships. They’re blaming the tough times, but they’re also correcting their own error in allowing bidding wars to push the salaries of professional sportsmen (but few sportswomen) way above their commercial value.

So recessions involve much reallocation of resources. The economy won’t have fully recovered from the recession until that process is complete. But how long it takes will be heavily influenced by the frictions that slow it down.

Brennan quotes research showing that reasons for delay in reaching the new allocation “include the time needed to plan new enterprises and business activities, the time required to navigate regulatory hurdles and permit processes to start or expand businesses, time [to acquire new financial and physical] capital . . . and [time to seek out] new relationships with suppliers, employees, distributors and customers”.

His point is that some of these delays are caused by government regulation, so there are things governments could do to speed up the reallocation process and thus cause unemployment to come down faster.

Brennan’s second reason for arguing that micro-economic policy is relevant to the recession is the need to facilitate the forming of new businesses, and the possibility that recent experience of the pandemic leads entrepreneurs to overestimate the risk of future disruption to any business they start.

Governments can try to offset such “belief scarring” by streamlining the approvals process for new businesses, improving the culture of regulators, reforming insolvency rules, and in other ways.

Brennan’s third reason for arguing the relevance of micro policy is that reforms can help reduce the disruption caused by macro-economic shocks by making the economy more resilient – able to roll with the punches. (I believe this was one of the big but unexpected benefits of the Hawke-Keating government’s many micro reforms, which helps explain why we went for 29 years between recessions.)

But though Brennan makes good points, let me make two. As he envisages them, the reforms he advocates would leave us better off. But economists’ grand plans have to be implemented by fallible politicians and, as we’ve seen too many times in recent decades, by the time the pollies have engaged with the lobbyists what emerges is often more akin to rent-seeking than good policy.

Finally, unlike macro measures, micro reforms usually take some years to be brought into effect and then have their affect on behaviour. So, unless we take years to recover from this recession, any micro reform we begin now will be in time to help us with the next one.

Read more >>

Saturday, August 29, 2020

We're edging towards a change in economic management

We must be in a recession because I’m getting a lot more letters from readers telling me they’ve figured out how to fix the economy in a way the economists haven’t been smart enough to discover.

Their solutions can be weird and wonderful, but a lot of them boil down to a simple proposition: if the economy’s in recession and unemployment’s high because people aren’t spending enough money, why doesn’t the government just print a lot of money and spend it itself?

But here’s the scoop: the idea that, rather than borrowing to fund their budget deficits – thus incurring big debts and interest bills – governments should just create the money they need has been anathema to economists for the past 40 years, but this may be changing.

There is a growing debate among economists, between the proponents of what they call “modern monetary theory” and more conventional economists and econocrats over whether governments should just create the money they need.

The defenders of the conventional wisdom have had to concede a lot of ground. Whereas a decade ago MMT was lightly dismissed as a crackpot idea, as this radical idea has gained more attention its opponents have had to admit it would be perfectly possible to do. They just think it would be a really bad thing to do.

Trick is, the “unconventional policy” of “quantitative easing” – where the central bank buys second-hand government bonds and other securities and pays for them merely by crediting the seller’s bank account – is quite similar to what the radicals are seeking.

All the major advanced economies – the US, the Eurozone, Britain and Japan - began doing this in big licks in the aftermath of the global financial crisis in 2008, once their official interest rates were so close to zero that they could be pushed no lower.

And now, once this coronacession had prompted our Reserve Bank to drop our official rate to its “effective lower bound” of 0.25 per cent in March, it too has resorted to quantitative easing, promising to buy as many second-hand bonds as necessary to keep the interest rate on three-year government bonds no higher than 0.25 per cent.

So, how exactly would what the Reserve is already doing be very different to what the MMT advocates say it should be doing?

The greatest proponent of MMT is an Australian, Professor Bill Mitchell, from my alma mater, the University of Newcastle. Internationally, its highest profile salesperson is Professor Stephanie Kelton, of Stony Brook University in New York, author of the big-selling The Deficit Myth.

Our leading commentator on the debate is Dr Stephen Grenville, a former deputy governor of the Reserve. And our most vocal opponent of MMT is present Reserve governor Dr Philip Lowe.

Those opponents are right to say there’s nothing new about “modern” monetary policy. In the days before the loss of faith in simple Keynesianism, it was common for governments to fund their budgets partly by selling bonds to the Reserve Bank, rather than to the public.

So the fatwah on governments “printing money” dates back only as far as Milton Friedman and his monetarists’ semi-successful attack on Keynesian orthodoxy in the late 1970s, when all the developed economies had a big problem with high inflation.

Friedman argued that inflation was “always and everywhere a monetary phenomenon” which governments could control by limiting the supply of money. Governments eventually realised that the quantity of money was “demand-determined” and that setting targets for growth in the money supply didn’t work. They switched to using the manipulation of interest rates to target the inflation rate.

As sensible economists always knew, it was never true that creating money always leads to greater inflation. It does so only when the demand for “real resources” – land, labour and physical capital – exceeds the supply of real resources. Only then do you have “too much money chasing too few goods”.

This has been confirmed by the failure of all the money created by quantitative easing since the global financial crisis to cause much, if any inflation, contrary to the predictions of the world’s few remaining monetarists.

The opponents are also right to say, quoting Friedman’s most famous aphorism, that “there’s no such thing as a free lunch” and it’s a delusion to imagine MMT offers one.

As Lowe argued vigorously at his appearance before the Parliament’s economics committee earlier this month, in reply to questions from Greens leader Adam Bandt, it may seem that by creating money rather than borrowing it you’re avoiding a lot of debt and interest payments but, in reality, all you’re doing is delaying and hiding the bill to the government and its taxpayers.

It’s also a delusion (as the leading proponents of MMT acknowledge) that governments would be free to create (or “print”, to use a misleading metaphor) as much money as they needed, without restraint. The restraint is the same one it always was: the limited supply of real resources.

While ever the demand for real resources – the things we use to produce goods and services – is falling short of the supply of those resources, creating money should lead to increased demand for them (provided you do it more effectively than the big central banks did it after the financial crisis).

But once demand was growing faster than the supply of real resources, any further money you created would simply cause inflation. This is what’s really worrying the opponents of MMT (and me). If you let the politicians off the leash to spend as much as they liked up to a point, how would you ever get them to stop once that point was reached?

While ever all we’re doing is quantitative easing, the independent central banks do the deciding, not the politicians. Which brings us to Lowe’s “advanced negotiating position”: why risk letting the pollies start creating money when the government can borrow from the public at interest rates that are pathetically low. And Lowe’s promising to keep them low for as long as necessary.
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Monday, August 24, 2020

Pandemic could kill off governments' credit rating bogeyman

I guess we shouldn’t be surprised that an economic shock as big as the pandemic is breaking down longstanding rules – written and unwritten - about how the national economy should be managed.

One rule is the rigid demarcation between fiscal (budgetary) policy and monetary (interest-rate) policy. Another is that the states leave management of the macro economy to the feds, and stick to a Good Housekeeping approach to their own budgets. A third is that there should be free trade and movement between the states.

A corollary of the strict separation of fiscal policy and monetary policy is that the federal government and its Treasury should leave all public comment about the appropriate levels of interest rates and the dollar to the independent Reserve Bank, while the Reserve makes no public comment on the appropriate levels of government spending, taxation and budget deficits.

On that convention, Reserve governor Dr Philip Lowe has been stretching the friendship almost since the day he took the job in 2016. His problem is that macro management works best when both arms of policy are pushing in the same direction: either moving the economy along or holding it back.

But whereas his goal has been to use low interest rates to stimulate a weak economy and get unemployment down, the Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison government’s goal has been to tighten fiscal policy and turn the budget deficit into a surplus.

Lowe hasn’t been able to resist the temptation to note - repeatedly - that he could do with more help from fiscal policy. And as the level of interest rates has fallen further and further towards zero, he’s been more and more outspoken. Now the official interest rate has reached the “effective lower bound” of 0.25 per cent, he’s been even more importuning.

But in his evidence to the House of Reps economics committee a fortnight ago, he moved to putting the hard word on the premiers. Replying to a question about fiscal stimulus, he said: “I think we need both the federal government and the state governments carrying their fair share.

“The federal government, I understand, has announced measures so far equivalent to roughly 7 per cent of gross domestic product ... The measures to date from the state governments add up to close to 2 per cent of GDP ...

“The challenge we face is to create jobs, and the state governments do control many of the levers here. They control many of the infrastructure programs. They do much of the health and education spending. They’re responsible for much of the [regular] maintenance of much of Australia’s infrastructure.

“So I would hope, over time, we would see more efforts to increase public investment in Australia to create jobs, and the state governments have a really critical role to play there.”

At the national cabinet meeting on Friday, we’re told, Lowe told the premiers they should collectively spend $40 billion over the next two years – equivalent to 1 per cent of GDP per year – on job creation measures, including infrastructure, social housing and training.

Trouble is, the states have already done about as much as they can without exceeding the borrowing limits set by the credit-rating agencies, and so endangering their triple-A ratings. So what’s Lowe’s solution to that problem? Dooon worry about ’em.

At the parliamentary hearing, he said: “From my perspective, creating jobs for people is much more important than preserving the credit ratings. I have no concerns at all about the state governments being able to borrow more money at low interest rates. The Reserve Bank is making sure that’s the case.”

At one level, this is a sign of the momentous times we live in. Governments around the world are borrowing massively as the only way they can think of to overcome the coronacession. With interest rates on long-term government borrowing at unprecedented lows, what have they got to fear?

In effect, they’re daring the three big American for-profit rating agencies to downgrade them. And so far, those supposedly righteous judges haven’t accepted the dare. Perhaps they’re remembering the time after the global financial crisis when one of them had the temerity to downgrade US government bonds. No one took any notice.

The presumed penalty for being downgraded is that the bond market increases the interest rate it requires to lend to you. But what if the market has stopped listening? In any case, with interest rates ultra-low, why should anyone fear having to pay a tiny fraction more?

At another level, however, this is Lowe telling Treasuries, federal and state, that the jig is up. Ever since the mid-1980s, they’ve used the threat of a rating downgrade as a stick to wave over the heads of the spending ministers, to limit their spending. They’ve used the rating agencies as the ultimate policemen enforcing Smaller Government.

Not any more, it seems. Right now, apart from the appalling prospects for unemployment, Lowe has bigger worries: the push from the proponents of “modern monetary theory” urging governments to stop funding their budget deficits by borrowing from the public and just print the money they need.

In Lowe’s mind, this would be the ultimate breach of the separation of fiscal policy and monetary policy. The elected government would be telling the independent central bank how much money to create.

Lowe would be willing to bend the rules a lot to avoid this ultimate breach. He certainly wouldn’t want the rating agencies adding to the pollies’ temptation to print rather than borrow. But he would be willing to resort to “unconventional measures” and buy big quantities of second-hand Commonwealth and state government bonds and so ensure their interest-rates stay ultra-low.
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Monday, August 10, 2020

'Extreme uncertainty' causes RBA's bright-side mask to slip

I can’t be sure, but the econocrats seem to have become uncertain about what they’re uncertain about. The one thing about which they’re not uncertain is how uncertain they are. And, of course, they’re no longer pretending to be certain it’ll all be fine.

Central bank governors take a professional pride in concealing whatever doubts and fears they have. Which is as it should be. Treasurers, on the other hand, have become so ruled by their young spin doctors they’re perpetually in bulldust-your-way-through mode.

Economists (and media economic commentators) always exude confidence about their knowledge of what lies ahead because they know that’s what the customer’s paying for. They’re like doctors who dispense pills not because they’ll work but because they’re what will make the patient feel good. At least until they’re out of the surgery.

Psychologists tell us the human animal is eternally seeking “the illusion of control”. We want to know what the future holds so we can – we fondly hope – control how it affects us. People ask me questions about the financial future. I explain why it’s not possible to know. They say: “Yes, I know that, Ross, but whaddya reckon?”

The new forecasts the Reserve Bank issued on Friday were significantly different to those it issued three months ago. Worse, they laughed at Treasury’s forecasts in the economic update just two weeks earlier.

The general story is that, thanks to the setback in Victoria, the upturn in the economy’s production (real gross domestic product) will now come later than expected, and be weaker. When Reserve governor Dr Philip Lowe says the recovery is “likely to be both uneven and bumpy” you can be confident he’s not exaggerating. “Uneven” means stronger in some states than others. “Bumpy” means not every post will be a winner.

Reading between the lines, the lockdown's full contractionary effect on GDP was expected to come in the June quarter (for which we’ll see the figures in three weeks’ time), with the recovery starting in the present September quarter.

The first quarter after the contraction should always be pretty strong (and, this time, particularly because the end of the lockdown meant people could get out, visit shops and restaurants and pubs), even if subsequent quarters aren’t as strong.

This time last week, the smart money was expecting the recovery in the September quarter to be followed by a contraction in the December quarter, as demand was hit by the wind back in the JobKeeper wage subsidy and the JobSeeker supplement.

Now, the September quarter recovery in the other states is likely to be overwhelmed by the effects of Victoria’s move to a harder lockdown. This, in turn, probably means there's less likely to be a further contraction in the December quarter – just continuing weakness. We do know that, in response to Victoria’s problems, Scott Morrison has modified JobKeeper at a cost of more than $15 billion.

Friday’s statement on monetary policy acknowledged “extreme uncertainty” about the course of the pandemic and, hence, its economic effects. In response to this uncertainty, the Reserve has moved from a single set of forecasts to three scenarios: baseline, upside and downside.

As explained by the Reserve’s assistant governor (economic), Dr Luci Ellis, in a webcast for the Australian Business Economists, the baseline scenario assumes that the rate of infection subsides, the tightening of restrictions in Victoria succeeds, there are no new lockdowns elsewhere, and restrictions are eased progressively over the rest of the year.

The upside scenario assumes the pace of decline in the number of cases is a bit faster than in the baseline, so the restrictions are eased a bit faster – like recent experience in the smaller states. People take more comfort from this and so confidence recovers faster than in the baseline.

Households are thus willing to spend more of the savings they accumulated during the first half of this year, compared with what’s assumed in the baseline scenario.

The downside scenario assumes that infection rates continue to escalate around the world this year and next. Australia faces a series of outbreaks and periods of stage three and four restrictions in some states. The result is further near-term weakness in economic activity. Confidence is damaged and so the recovery is much slower as well.

The other main point of variation between the three scenarios is how long Australia’s international borders remain closed. Three months ago, the Reserve was assuming travel restrictions would be lifted by the end of this year. In the new baseline and upside scenarios, it’s assumed that the borders reopen mid next year. In the downside scenario, it’s assumed continuing spread of the virus overseas causes our borders to be closed for the whole of next year.

There is, of course, another major source of uncertainly that the econocrats are too polite to mention: whether Morrison retains his pragmatic approach and keeps the government-spending tap open to fill whatever gaps emerge during the slow and troubled recovery, or succumbs to his ideological instincts and eschews further spending. My scenario: he’ll do more, but not enough.
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Monday, August 3, 2020

Weak inflation tells us: it's the demand side, stupid

Despite the remarkable 1.9 per cent fall in the consumer price index in the June quarter, we face no imminent threat of deflation. But it’s not as improbable a fate as it used to be.

Apart from in headlines, one negative quarter does not deflation make. Deflation occurs when price falls are modest, widespread and continuous, the product of chronically weak consumer demand. Businesses cut their prices as the only way to get people to buy what they’ve produced. Their goal is not to make a profit, but to reduce their losses.

Paradoxically, deflation – which was dogging Japan not so many years ago – is to be feared. Why buy now if prices are falling? Why not wait until they’re even lower? But the longer consumers wait, the more prices fall. And the faster they fall, the more businesses cut production and lay off workers. The economy implodes.

By contrast, our fall was produced by cuts in two key government-controlled prices – for childcare and pre-schools – plus petrol prices. We already know these falls will largely be reversed in the present quarter.

Even so, all the other prices in the CPI basket of goods and services rose during the quarter by just 0.1 per cent. People are reluctant to buy during recessions, so businesses don’t raise their prices for fear of selling even less. It’s a safe bet inflation will stay negligible for as long as the recession lasts and for as long as it takes the economy to recover.

Trouble is, we had unduly weak price growth long before the coronasession. Our rate of inflation’s been below the bottom of the 2 to 3 per cent target range for almost six years. The Reserve Bank has been struggling to get it up into the target, "Goldilocks" range without success.

Point is, when you have a problem with high inflation, you have a problem with the supply side of the economy. Supply isn’t keeping up with demand, so something needs to be done to get the economy’s production growing faster and more efficiently.

Conversely, when inflation isn’t a problem but high unemployment is, you have a problem with demand side of the economy. Consumers aren’t spending enough and businesses aren’t investing enough.

But too-low inflation isn’t the only indicator that demand and supply are out of whack. Another sign is record low interest rates. They’re low not just because inflation is so low, but also because “real” interest rates – the lenders’ above-inflation reward for letting other people use their money – have also fallen.

Why? It can only be because the amount of money savers have available to lend (the “supply of funds”) exceeds the amount home-buyers, businesses and governments want to borrow to cover their investment spending (the “demand for funds”). That real interest rates have been falling for years is another sign that our problem is chronic deficient demand, not inadequate supply.

One consequence of this is that the authorities’ ability to encourage borrowing and spending by cutting interest rates has been exhausted. So “monetary policy” has done its dash, leaving “fiscal policy” – the budget – as the only instrument left for the government to use to support the economy during the recession and then to stimulate growth.

If it wants more spending in the economy, the government must do it itself.

There’s just one difficulty. During the period in the 1970s and ‘80s when it was clear the developed economies had a major problem with inflation – meaning the supply side was chronically unable to keep up – the conventional wisdom emerged that the short-term management of the economy should be left to monetary policy, with fiscal policy reserved to help with other, medium-term issues.

This approach fitted neatly with the conservative side of politics’ preference for Smaller Government. Our Liberals have come to view macro-economic management in largely party-political terms: we use monetary policy; Labor uses fiscal policy. We follow neo-classical economics; Labor follows Keynesian economics. We cut government spending and taxation; Labor loves to spend and tax. We worry about deficient supply; Labor worries about deficient demand.

This political ideology approach to macro management can’t cope with the developed economies’ tendency to switch from long periods when supply and inflation are the big problem to long periods when demand and unemployment are the big problem.

You can see this in the Morrison government’s obvious reluctance to spend enough to limit the economy’s contraction to two successive quarters, despite our continuing struggle to contain the virus. You see it in Morrison’s desire to move on to “reforms” aimed at improving the supply side.

Both political sides see that wage growth is too weak at least partly because the productivity of labour is improving only slowly. But the Liberals’ ideological approach to macro tells them the answer to low productivity is more supply-side reform, whereas a pragmatic, more contemporary analysis says it seems obvious that if consumer demand is weak, business investment will be weak and if business investment in the latest technology is weak it’s no surprise that productivity improvement is slow. It’s the demand side, stupid.
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Saturday, August 1, 2020

Morrison’s not doing nearly enough to secure our future

It was obvious this time last week, but even more so a week later: Scott Morrison and Treasurer Josh Frydenberg are taking both the continuing threat from the coronavirus and the need to restore the economy far too cheaply. Figuratively and literally.

One thing another week of struggle by Victoria and NSW to contain the virus’s second wave has shown more clearly – plus the realisation of how vulnerable the neglect and misregulation of our aged care sector have left us – is the unreality of the government’s expectations about the effects of the pandemic.

Last week’s economic and budget update assumed Victoria would be back on track in six weeks and NSW’s struggles were too minor to matter. And also that we’ll start opening to international travel in January.

A more realistic assumption would be that the larger, virus-prone half of the economy (NSW and Victoria) will need to stay sealed off from the healthier, smaller half (the other states and the Northern Territory) indefinitely. Half a healthy economy is far from ideal, but it beats none.

Surely we should have realised by now that the pandemic will be a long-haul flight. Speaking of which, our barriers against the rest of the world are likely to stay up long after the 12th day of Christmas.

Economically, we must make the best of it we can – which won’t be anything like as good as we’d like. Forcing the pace on lifting the lockdown and removing the interstate barriers could easily end up setting us back rather than moving us forward.

What economists seem yet to understand is that, psychologically, what we have to do to keep the virus controlled is the opposite to what you’d do to hasten an economic recovery. To ensure people keep mask-wearing, hand-washing, sanitising, social-distancing and filling out a form every time they walk into a cafe for month after month, you keep them in a state of fear, afraid the virus may bite them at any moment.

How will this give them the confidence to get on with spending and investing? It won’t. Quite the opposite. But it’s the first indication Morrison and Frydenberg will need to spend more for longer.

The second thing that’s more obvious now than it was a week ago is that the setback in Victoria and NSW has put a question mark over the signs of an initial bounce-back in the economy as the lockdown has been lifted. The new payroll-based figures for the week to July 11 show jobs falling in all states, not just Victoria and NSW.

All this casts further doubt on the wisdom of the changes to the JobKeeper and JobSeeker programs announced last week. The initial reaction of relief that the government had not gone through with its original plan to end them abruptly in September has given way to the realisation that this threat of dropping the economy off a “fiscal cliff” has been delayed rather than averted.

The new boss of independent think tank the Grattan Institute, Danielle Wood, has estimated that the changes to the two job schemes will reduce the government’s support for the economy by close to $10 billion in the December quarter and thus “leave a substantial hole in the economy”.

In an earlier major report, Grattan argued that the government needed to spend a further $70 billion to $90 billion to secure a recovery. The measures announced last week amount to only about an additional $22 billion.

According to calculations by the ANZ bank’s economics team, the withdrawal of budgetary support amounts to the equivalent of about 10 per cent of quarterly gross domestic product during the December quarter.

In consequence, although the bank agrees with Treasury that real GDP will grow in the present September quarter, it sees the economy returning to contraction in the December quarter. What would that do for business and consumer confidence?

In its earlier report, Grattan said the government should aim to get the unemployment rate back down to 5 per cent or below by mid-2022. Why the hurry? To “reduce the long-term economic pain and avoid scarring people’s lives”.

Particularly young people’s lives – as this week’s report from the Productivity Commission has reminded us.

But the economic update last week forecast the unemployment rate would peak at 9.25 per cent in the December quarter and still be sitting at 8.75 per cent in the middle of next year.

That’s simply not good enough. It puts the interests of the budget deficit ahead of the interests of tens of thousands of Australians thrown out of work through “no fault of their own”, to quote a Mr S. Morrison.

Grattan’s Wood stresses that she has no problem with making the JobKeeper wage subsidy scheme better targeted. But that’s not all the government did. It cut back the size of payments and extended the scheme only for another six months.

After the cutback in income support for the jobless and potentially jobless was announced two days before the presentation of the budget update, she hoped the update would include announcements about the new spending programs that would fill the “substantial hole” the cutback left.

It didn’t. Not a sausage.

“The missing piece of the puzzle,” she now says, “remains a plan to stimulate the economy and jobs growth as the income supports are phased out and social distancing restrictions are eased in many parts of the country.”

So what should the government be spending on? She suggests measures that would both create jobs and meet social needs. “Social housing, mental health services, and tutoring to help disadvantaged students catch up on learning lost during the pandemic would deliver on this double dividend.

“Boosting the childcare subsidy to support family incomes and workforce participation should also be in the mix,” she says.

To that you could add fixing aged care, spending more on research and development and universities, not to mention renewable energy.

There’s no shortage of good things worth spending on.
Read more >>

Monday, July 27, 2020

Why we don't need to panic over big budget deficits

Despite the great majority of economists – including Reserve Bank governor Dr Philip Lowe – telling Scott Morrison and Treasurer Josh Frydenberg not to worry too much about a record blowout in the budget deficit at a time of a once-in-a-100-year pandemic, it’s clear many people – including many members of the Parliamentary Liberal Party – are very worried.

So much so, they think it’s a more pressing problem than sky-high unemployment. In consequence, the government’s nerve has cracked. The unspoken message from last week’s policy announcements and budget update was: we’re prepared to spend a further $22 billion to turn the feared "fiscal cliff" in September into a less precipitous fall, but after that all you’ll get to help the economy is the airy objectives and cold comfort of "reform".

When the Economic Society of Australia polled 50 leading economists recently, 88 per cent of them agreed that governments should provide ongoing budgetary support to boost demand during the economic crisis and recovery, "even if it means a substantial increase in public debt".

In a speech last week, Lowe said the budget blowout might seem quite a change to people used to low budget deficits and low levels of public debt. "But this is a change that is entirely manageable and affordable and it’s the right thing to do in the national interest," he said.

So why don’t most economists share the worries of so many conservative politicians, headline writers and ordinary citizens? Five reasons.

The first is, these are extraordinary times. I’m not sure Frydenberg is right in claiming the pandemic is "without doubt, the biggest shock this country has ever faced," but it’s certainly one of them. And it’s certainly the most economically devastating pandemic since the Spanish flu of 1919.

As we can see even more clearly in countries that have been less than successful than we have in containing the virus, between the direct damage caused by the lockdown and the psychological damage of great fear and uncertainty about what the future holds, the economy has been flattened.

The pandemic will be working to keep the economy down until an effective vaccine is widely available worldwide, which may be several years way. Just as World War I wasn’t all over by Christmas, nor will this be.

It’s thus not surprising that such extraordinary times should be leading to previously unknown levels of government spending, budget deficits and public debt. Except, of course, that nothing we’re likely to do comes anywhere near where we were by the end of World War II.

Second, as AMP Capital’s Dr Shane Oliver has said, "it makes sense for the public sector to borrow from households and businesses at a time when they have cut their spending, and to give the borrowed funds to help those businesses and individuals that need help".

People ask me where will all the money the government’s spending come from? Mainly from other Australians, who have money they’ve saved and want to lend. Others ask, who buys all those government bonds? There’s no shortage of financial institutions keen to buy, starting with your superannuation fund and other fund managers.

So much so that recent offerings have been way oversubscribed, allowing the government to borrow for five years at a yield (interest rate) of just 0.4 per cent, and for 10 years at just 0.9 per cent. With the inflation rate at 1.7 per cent, this means it’s costing us nothing to borrow.

Third, the federal government has run budget deficits in more than 80 per cent of the years since federation. If deficit and debt is such a terrible thing, how come we’re not in debtors’ prison already?

Fourth, just because our latest levels of debt and deficit are high by our standards, doesn’t mean they are by anyone else’s. Relative to the size of our economy, Australia’s net public debt is much smaller than the Eurozone’s, a hell of a lot smaller than the United States’ and almost invisible compared to Japan’s.

That’s why the International Monetary Fund – the outfit responsible for bailing out countries that get too deeply into debt – keeps assuring us we have plenty of "fiscal space". Translation: Why do you Aussies fret so much about so little debt?

Finally, it’s fine to fret about debt, but what’s the alternative? The alternative to using government spending to support the economy until the crisis finally passes is to let it continue shrinking, with more and more people being thrown out of work and businesses failing.

But this wouldn’t get the budget back to balance, it would cut tax collections even further and increase government spending on unemployment benefits, thus worsening the deficit and adding further to the debt. Why would that be a good deal?
Read more >>

Saturday, July 25, 2020

Frydenberg decides to favour limiting debt and deficit

Well, that’s a relief. The economy faced falling off a “fiscal cliff” if Scott Morrison had gone ahead with his plan to end the expensive JobKeeper and JobSeeker schemes in September, but he decided to keep them going at lower rates for another quarter or two. So, another expansionary (mini-) budget.

Is that what you think? It’s certainly what Treasurer Josh Frydenberg wants you to think. He’d like to have his cake and eat it: be seen to be continuing to stimulate (he’d prefer the term “support”) the recessed economy, while actually cutting back that support as he succumbs to his party’s ideology of putting fixing the budget ahead of fixing the continuing rise in unemployment.

Judged strictly, however, this week’s measures and mini-budget aren’t expansionary, they’re contractionary. While it’s true Morrison will continue the JobKeeper wage subsidy scheme for another six months from September, and continue the increase in the amount of the JobSeeker unemployment benefit for another three months, both will involve greatly reduced support.

Between September and February, the JobKeeper payment to workers will be cut from $1500 a fortnight to $1000 a fortnight for those who work more than 20 hours a week, and to $650 a fortnight for those working less than 20 hours a week. Either way, the whole scheme will be wound up after another six months.

After September, the JobSeeker supplement to the dole will be cut from $550 a fortnight to $250 a fortnight, and wound up after December.

Over the six months to September, JobKeeper is expected to cost something less than $70 billion, whereas the following six months will cost $16 billion. Slashing the JobKeeper supplement will reduce the additional cost to less than $4 billion.

And if a sharp recovery in private sector spending doesn’t occur in the next six months – it would be another of Morrison’s miracles if it did – then the reduction in fiscal (budgetary) support will leave the economy growing more slowly than it would have.

The point is, according to the strict Keynesian way of judging it, for a budget to be “expansionary”, the extra stimulus it provides has to be greater than the stimulus it previously provided. If you cut back the amount of stimulus being provided, that counts as “contractionary”.

Now, you can argue that, in its original form, JobKeeper was too generous, giving those few casual workers it helped more money per fortnight than they’d been earning.

There’s no denying that the scheme, having been pulled together in a great hurry, had its flaws. But to say it needed to be made fairer or more efficient, doesn’t change the fact that, if you fix those flaws in a way that hugely reduces the amount of money the government is pumping into the economy to limit its contraction, your policy change is contractionary.

From the perspective of keeping the government spending big while households and firms have good reasons to spend as little as possible, if you decide Ms X is being paid too much, you need to give the saving to someone else.

In other words, if you think like an accountant rather than an economist, you get the wrong answer. That’s the trouble with Liberal Party ideology: it’s the thinking of an accountant (“Oh no, that woman’s getting more than she should.” “Oh no, look at all that deficit and debt mounting up.”) rather than the thinking of an economist (“If the government isn’t spending at a time like this, who will be?”).

Putting it another way, in the Liberals’ drift to the Right, their way of thinking about how the economy works has reverted to being “pre-Keynesian” – to thinking about the economy the way their grandfathers did in the Great Depression when economic orthodoxy’s answer to the problem was to cut wages and balance the budget.

John Maynard Keynes convinced the economics profession that such thinking was exactly the wrong way to fix a recession or depression. That’s why few economists deny that he was the greatest economist of the 20th century – and why, at times like this, the thinking of almost every economist is heavily influenced by “the Keynesian revolution”.

When it suits them, however, the Libs are not averse to using a very Keynesian concept: that the budget has “automatic stabilisers” built into it. This week Frydenberg has been anxious to point out (mainly, I suspect, to Liberal voters) that the huge blowout in the budget deficit isn’t explained solely by his stimulus spending.

No, the deficit is up also because tax collections have collapsed. Many companies have had their profits greatly reduced or even turned to losses, meaning they’ll be paying much less company tax. More significantly, many people have had their incomes reduced, meaning they’ll be paying much less income tax.

As well, with many more people eligible for unemployment benefits, government spend on these payments has jumped (and would have even without the temporary supplement).

This week’s budget update shows that, over last financial year and the present one, Treasury expects the budget balance to worsen by $281 billion. The government’s discretionary policy measures explain just $177 billion of this, leaving the remaining 37 per cent - $104 billion – explained by the budget’s automatic response to the downturn in the economy.

As the budget papers explain, economists call this the work of the budget’s inbuilt automatic stabilisers, which reduce tax collections and increase government spending automatically when the economy turns down. (And do the opposite when the economy’s booming.)

The automatic stabilisers have thus helped to stabilise demand – stop it falling as much as it would have – without the government doing anything. Any explicit decisions the government makes to increase its spending or cut taxes thus add to the stabilisation already provided automatically.

And the budget papers add an important point: our progressive income tax system means that people’s after-tax income falls by less than their pre-tax income does – another aspect of the budget’s automatic role in limiting the fall in demand.
Read more >>

Monday, June 29, 2020

Morrison is taking the recovery too cheaply

In theory, recovery from the coronacession will be easier than recoveries usually are. In practice, however, it’s likely to be much harder than usual – something Scott Morrison’s evident reluctance to provide sufficient budgetary stimulus suggests he’s still to realise.

The reasons for hope arise from this recession’s unique cause: it was brought about not by a bust in assets markets (as was the global financial crisis and our recession of the early 1990s) nor by the more usual real-wage explosion and sky-high interest rates (our recessions of the early 1980s and mid-1970s), but by government decree in response to a pandemic.

This makes it an artificial recession, one that happened almost overnight with a non-economic cause. Get the virus under control, dismantle the lockdown and maybe everything soon returns almost to normal.

It was the temporary nature of the lockdown that justified the $70 billion cost of the unprecedented JobKeeper wage subsidy scheme. Preserve the link between employers and their workers for the few months of the lockdown, and maybe most of them eventually return to work as normal.

Note that, even if this doesn’t work out as well as hoped, the money spent still helps to prop up demand. Had we not experimented with JobKeeper, we’d have needed to spend a similar amount on other things.

Because this recession has been so short and (not) sweet, it’s reasonable to expect an early and significant bounce-back in the September quarter. Just how big it is, we shall see. But, in any case, there’s more to a recovery than the size of the bounce-back in the first quarter after the end of the contraction.

And there are at least five reasons why this recovery will face stronger headwinds than most. The first is the absence of further help from the Reserve Bank cutting rates. People forget that our avoidance of the Great Recession in 2009 involved cutting the official interest rate by 4.25
percentage points.

Second, Australia, much more than other advanced economies, has been reliant for much of its economic growth on population growth. But, thanks to the travel bans, Morrison is expecting net overseas migration to fall by a third in the financial year just ending, and by 85 per cent in 2020-21.

Now, unlike most economists, I’m yet to be convinced immigration does anything much to lift our standard of living. And I’m not a believer in growth for growth’s sake. It remains true, however, that our housing industry remains heavily reliant on building new houses to accommodate our growing population. And if Morrison’s HomeBuilder package is supposed to be the answer to the industry’s problem, it’s been dudded.

Third, we’re used to our floating exchange rate acting as an effective shock absorber, floating down when our stressed industries could use more international price competitiveness, and floating up when we need help constraining inflation pressures – as happened during most of the resources boom.

But this time, not so much. With the disruption to our rival Brazilian iron ore producer’s output, world prices are a lot higher than you’d expect at a time of global recession. And with world foreign exchange markets thinking of the Aussie dollar as very much a commodity currency, our exchange rate looks like being higher than otherwise – and higher than would do most to boost our industries’ price competitiveness.

Fourth, the long boom in house prices has left our households heavily indebted, and in no mood to take advantage of record-low interest rates by lashing out with borrowing and spending. The “precautionary motive” always leaves households more inclined to save rather than spend during recessions, but the knowledge of their towering housing debt will probably make them even more cautious than usual.

The idea that bringing forward the government’s remaining two legislated tax cuts could do wonders for demand is delusional. If you wanted the cuts spent rather than saved, you’d aim them at the bottom, not the top.

Finally, although our politicians and econocrats refuse to admit it, our economy – like all the advanced economies – has for most of the past decade been caught in a structural low-growth trap. We can’t get strong growth in consumer spending until we get strong growth in real wages. We can’t get strong growth in business investment until we get strong consumer spending. And we can’t get a strong improvement in the productivity of labour until we get strong business investment.

Meanwhile, the nation’s employers – including even public sector employers - will do what they always do and use the recession, and the fear it engenders in workers, to engineer a fall in real wages. Which will get us even deeper in the low-growth trap.

I fear, however, that Morrison and his loyal lieutenant, Josh Frydenberg, will learn all this the hard way.
Read more >>

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Economy's need may run second to Morrison's spending hang-ups

Looking back, Scott Morrison's response to the coronavirus has been masterful on the medical side and, on the economic side, his willingness to spend money cushioning the job-threatening consequences of the lockdown was unstinting. But (and there had to be a but) with the economy's recovery far from assured I fear his nerve may be cracking.

The plain truth is that the only way out of deep recessions is for governments to spend their way out. But for a government as far to the right as Morrison's, spending money with enthusiasm is an unnatural act. It has an ideological objection to government spending which, it believes, is a necessary evil at best, and so should be kept to a minimum.

It claims to be motivated by the pursuit of Jobs and Growth but its "revealed preference", as economists say – not what it says, but what it does – is to prioritise the elimination of debt and deficit.

So great is its aversion to debt that the government is impervious to reason. Interest rates have been so low for so long that governments can borrow for 1 per cent or less. When you allow for an inflation rate of about 2 per cent, this means financial institutions (including your super fund) are willing to pay the government for the privilege of lending to it.

In which case, why not borrow as much as you need? Because that word "debt" just sounds so bad. And that debt will have to be repaid by our children. Actually, it won't be. Governments rarely repay debt. What they mainly do is roll it over while they wait for the economy to outgrow it, with help from inflation.

And ask yourself this: what do you think your kids would prefer to inherit? A bit more public debt or an economy that's been deeply recessed for a decade, with stagnant living standards, little opportunity to get ahead and stories about how much better things were in their parents' day.

Recessions always involve the private sector – businesses and households – contracting and the public sector expanding to take up the slack and get things moving again. In our particular circumstances, six years of weak wage growth and record household housing debt mean consumers have little scope to start spending big.

For their part, businesses won't spend on expansion until they see a reason to. Morrison's notion of incentivising business with investment tax breaks, changes to wage fixing and cuts in red tape is magical thinking.

That leaves it up to the government to keep spending until the private sector has the wherewithal to spend. Without a government-laid foundation, believing in a "business-led recovery" is believing the economy runs on spontaneous combustion.

I suspect Morrison has looked at our prospective budget deficits and taken fright. Paradoxically, although he readily agreed to the JobKeeper wage subsidy scheme when told it would cost $130 billion, when Treasury realised it wouldn't take nearly as much to "flatten the curve" as the epidemiologists had led it to expect and so cut the cost to $70 billion, Morrison saw this as a miraculous escape from the sin of profligacy.

The ideologically pure end of his own party started urging him to spend no more. And this week he started talking about the need to find budgetary savings.

This would be completely contrary to the advice he received only last week from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development that "there is ample fiscal space to support the economic recovery as needed". This is the OECD's way of saying "if you Aussies think you have a frightening level of debt, you're kidding yourselves". The International Monetary Fund says the same.

The OECD continues: "The scarring effects of unemployment – especially for young workers – should be alleviated through education and training, as well as enhancing job search programs. Firms should continue to be supported ... The authorities should be considering further stimulus that may be needed once existing measures expire ... Such support should focus on improving resilience and social and physical infrastructure, including strengthening the social safety net and investing in energy efficiency and social housing."

To be fair, should Morrison turn from spending to cutting before the economy has fully recovered, he'd be no more disastrously wrong-headed than Britain's David Cameron and other European leaders after the global financial crisis, when they started tightening their budgets too soon and condemned their countries to a decade of weak growth.

You can see Morrison's change of tack in his poorly received HomeBuilder package. Reviving the housing industry is a standard part of the response to every recession, but this is the package you have when you're only pretending to have a package.

It's too small to make much difference and the deadlines for its $25,000 grants are so tight few people are likely to qualify. Glaring by its absence was any mention of spending on social housing.

But this raises another of the Libs' hang-ups. They oppose government spending in general, but spending that helps the needy in particular.
Read more >>

Monday, June 15, 2020

Morrision's report: high marks so far, but now the hard part

There are more ways than one for Scott Morrison still to stuff up the virus crisis. And in seeking to avoid such a calamity he’d do well to remember a rule followed by all successful leaders: don’t believe your own bulldust.

It’s become increasingly clear that Morrison’s handling of the corona crisis has benefited greatly from his disastrous handling of the bushfires. Obviously, he resolved not to make the same mistakes twice – and he hasn’t.

He was too slow to appreciate the magnitude of the political, environmental and human consequences of the fires. And by the time he did, it was too late. But when the medicos gave him the classic Treasury advice to "go early, go hard", he took it.

When you’re dealing with "exponential" growth, starting a week or two earlier than you might have can make all the difference. And it has. Morrison’s entitled to be terribly proud of our success in suppressing the virus, which compares well against all the big advanced economies.

With the bushfires, Morrison was wrong to see them as primarily a state responsibility. What the constitution says and what voters think aren’t always aligned. A good rule for prime ministers is that any problem that affects more than one state is a problem the electorate will hold the feds responsible for. Which is fair enough when you remember it’s the feds who control the purse strings.

In our federation, most problems involve shared federal and state responsibilities. Health and education are key examples. In which case, Mr Moneybags should always take the lead. Morrison’s masterstroke solution in the case of the virus was the national cabinet – though I share the scepticism of the former premier who doubted that the unity would last once we’d all stopped singing Kumbaya.

Another reaction to the fires failure, I reckon, was Morrison’s decision to under-promise and over-deliver. This fitted with the epidemiologists who, having to predict the consequences of a new virus about whose characteristics they knew little, seem to have decided to err on the high side.

For his part, Morrison left us with the impression the lockdown would last six months, and didn’t discourage the econocrats from predicting that gross domestic product would fall by 10 per cent and the rate of unemployment would double to 10 per cent.

It now seems clear it won’t be as bad as that. We’ll learn this week whether the fall in employment in the four weeks to mid-May was anything like as bad as in the four weeks to mid-April. We may well have seen the worst of it – at least until the JobKeeper wage subsidy scheme winds up in late September.

But having to wait until mid-June to know where we were a month earlier is frustratingly slow in this uniquely fast-moving recession. The "weekly activity tracker" – based on high frequency data such as restaurant bookings, confidence, retail foot traffic, hotel bookings, credit card usage, etcetera – used by Dr Shane Oliver, of AMP Capital, suggests the economy hit bottom in mid-April and has now risen for eight weeks in a row.

The medicos hate it when I say this, but my guess is that suppressing the virus will prove to be the easy half of the problem. Getting the economy back to being anything like where it was in December is a much harder ask, demanding first-rate judgment from Morrison’s econocrat advisers and Morrison having the humility to take that advice and suppress his instinct to play political favourites.

This is where he must resist the temptation to believe his own political bulldust. Exhibit A: the claim that we entered the crisis from a "position of strength". This is the very opposite of the truth, which is why restoring the economy to healthy growth will be exceptionally hard. The key problem is six years of weak wage growth, which the recession is making even weaker.

Exhibit B: Morrison’s belief that, come the election in early 2022, voters won’t blame him for still-high unemployment and weak growth because they’ll remember with gratitude his sterling performance in averting their own deaths. If only.

Exhibit C: Morrison’s belief that supply-side economic reform aimed at raising the economy’s "potential" growth rate in the medium to longer term is an adequate substitute for demand-side budgetary stimulus in the short term.

That yet more tinkering with the tax system and the wage-fixing system is what will give us "business-led growth" out of recession. That’s not economics, it’s rent-seeking propaganda you mouth while swinging one for your big-business donors. Jobs and growth – yay!

Actually believe such tosh and you’re dead meat.
Read more >>

Saturday, June 6, 2020

Virus lockdown pushes already weak economy into recession

If you needed the news that the economy contracted in the March quarter or Treasurer Josh Frydenberg’s official admission that, because Treasury expects the present quarter to be much worse, we are now in recession, go to the bottom of the class. Sorry, but you just don’t get it.

To anyone who can tell which side is up, what characterises a recession is not what happens to gross domestic product in two successive quarters or even half a dozen, it’s what happens to employment.

The role of the economy is to provide 13 million Australians with their livelihoods. When it falters in that role, that’s what we really care about. We call it a recession, and it’s why just hearing that word should frighten the pants off you. It means hundreds of thousands – maybe millions – of families will be in hardship, anxiety and fear about the future, which could go on for months and months.

So you should have been in no doubt that the economy was in recession from the day, weeks ago, you turned on the telly to see footage of hundreds of people queueing round the block to get into Centrelink and register for unemployment benefits – the JobSeeker payment as it’s now called.

The statistical confirmation of recession came not this week, but more than three weeks ago when the Australian Bureau of Statistics issued labour force figures showing that, in just the four weeks to mid-April, the number of Australians with jobs fell by an unprecedented 600,000.

What more proof did you need? There was more. The total number of hours worked during the month fell by more than 9 per cent. Also unprecedented. In consequence, the rate of under-employment (mainly part-timers wishing to work more hours than they are) leapt by almost 5 percentage points to 13.7 per cent. “Gee, do you think a recession might be coming?”

Of course, what happens to jobs is closely related to what happens to GDP – the volume of goods and services being produced during a period. When firms or government agencies decide to reduce the goods or services they’re producing, it’s a safe bet they’ll also reduce the number of workers they need to help with the producing.

No, my point is just, don’t get the monkey confused with the organ-grinder. We don’t need GDP to tell us whether we’re in recession, we need it to help us understand why we’re in recession and which aspects and industries are most affected.

So let’s start again. The “national accounts” issued by the bureau this week showed real GDP fell by 0.3 per cent in the March quarter so that the economy grew by only 1.4 per cent over the year to March.

To put that 0.3 per cent fall into context, had the economy continued growing at its previous rate it would have increased by about 0.5 per cent. So it’s a fall of 0.8 per cent from what might have occurred. A bit of that fall is explained by the bushfires, but most of it by the early stages of the economic response to the coronavirus – particularly the travel bans and first two weeks of the lockdown.

The largest factor explaining the actual fall is consumer spending, which fell by 1.1 per cent and so contributed minus 0.6 percentage points to the overall fall of 0.3 per cent. Some of this fall was involuntary (as the early days of the lockdown closed many businesses and prevented housebound families from getting out to shop), but much would have been deliberate, as households tightened their belts in anticipation of tough times to come.

Investment spending on new homes and alterations continued to fall – by 1.7 per cent – and business investment spending fell by 0.8 per cent. So, all told, the private sector’s subtraction from growth increased to 0.8 percentage points.

In contrast, government consumption spending (which included spending related to the bushfires and the virus) grew by 1.8 per cent. Add modest growth in infrastructure spending and the public sector made a positive contribution of 0.3 percentage points to the overall fall in GDP during the quarter.

Apart from a fall in inventories that subtracted 0.3 points from the overall change, that leaves “net exports” (exports minus imports) making a positive contribution of 0.5 percentage points. But that’s not as good as it sounds. The volume of our exports actually fell by 3.5 per cent, so we got a positive contribution only because the volume of imports fell by more.

The main factor influencing trade was the travel bans, which hit inbound tourism and incoming overseas students (both exports) and hit outbound tourism (an import) harder. We’re a net importer of tourism.

You see happening in this recession what happens in every recession: it’s the private sector that contracts, whereas the public sector (via federal and state budgets) expands to fill the vacuum. The extent to which governments apply “fiscal stimulus” and allow their budget deficits to rise has a big influence on how severe the recession is, how high unemployment goes and how long it takes to get everyone back to work.

Frydenberg claimed on Wednesday that the economy entered the crisis “from a position of strength”. This is simply untrue. People will stop believing what the Treasurer says if he continues playing so lightly with the truth.

The truth comes from economist David Bassanese of BetaShares: “Let’s not forget the economy was already struggling before the virus crisis due to a downturn in housing construction, weak business investment and tapped out consumer spending. Those fundamental challenges have not gone away, and the shock of COVID-19 has only exacerbated them.”

The truth Frydenberg is so unwilling to face up to is that, with the private sector already so weak, we were relying on the federal and state budgets to prop up the economy for many quarters before the virus arrived. Pretending otherwise won’t create a single job.
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Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Right now, we need all the government spending we can get

Lying awake in bed last night thinking about our predicament, a frightening insight came to me: the only way out of a recession is to spend your way out. It sounds wrong-headed, but it’s not. It’s just, as economists say, “counter-intuitive”.

Who must do all this spending? In the first instance, the government. And let me tell you, if Scott Morrison lacks the courage to spend as much as is needed – as it seems he may – he’s likely to be kicked out at the next election because we’ll still be languishing in a recession that’s deeper and longer than it needed to be.

The reason spending your way out of trouble strikes us as foolhardy is that we’re used to thinking as individuals. If I and my family tried that solution, we’d soon get ourselves into even deeper trouble. True. But what’s true for the individual isn’t necessarily true for all of us acting together via the government – which we elected to do things on our behalf and to our benefit.

It shouldn’t really surprise us that governments can get away with doing things you and I can’t. That’s partly because the federal government represents 25 million individuals. It’s also because national governments have powers you and I don’t possess: the power to cover the money they spend by imposing taxes on us, and even the power simply to print the money they spend.

This, of course, is what worries Morrison and his ministers about spending big. When governments spend too much they go into deficit and debt, and then they have to raises taxes to cover the deficit and eventually pay off the debt.

But that’s the wrong way to think about it. The right way is the way Morrison has already said we’ll cope with the debt: we’ll grow our way out of it. The trick, however, is that you don’t get the economy back to growing unless you spend enough to get it growing.

Let’s get back to basics. Economic activity is about getting and spending – producing and consuming. We earn incomes by producing goods or services (or, more likely, by helping our employer produce goods or services), then spend most of that income on the goods and services we need to live our lives.

Recessions occur when, for some reason, we stop spending enough to buy all the goods and services being produced. (In the present case, the reason is that, in order to stop the virus spreading, the government ordered non-essential businesses to close their doors, and you and me to stay in our homes and not go out buying things.)

When people stop spending enough to buy all that businesses are producing, those businesses cut back their production. This often involves sacking workers or putting them on short hours. Obviously, people who lose their jobs cut their spending.

Even people who’ve kept their jobs tighten their belts for fear they’ll be next. Optimism evaporates as everyone gets fearful about the future. Rather than spending, people save as much as they can.

The private sector – businesses and households – contracts. To be crude, it starts disappearing up its own fundament. Until someone breaks this vicious circle, the private sector keeps getting smaller and unemployment keeps rising.

Obviously, what’s needed to reverse the cycle is a huge burst of spending. But there’s only one source that spending can come from: the government. The smaller public sector has to rescue the much bigger private sector and get it going again.

This creates a dilemma for people who’ve convinced themselves that government spending is, at best, a necessary evil to be kept to an absolute minimum because, just as dancing leads to sex, government spending leads to me paying higher taxes.

Turns out that government spending does much good and we shouldn’t be so stingy and resentful about the taxes we pay. (If some government spending is wasteful then eliminating waste is what we should be focusing on.)

In any case, provided you spend enough to get the economy growing again, that growth means rising incomes from which to pay tax. As well, once the economy is growing faster than the debt is, it declines relative to the size of the economy; the problem shrinks. We ended World War II with debt hugely higher than today. How did we get it down? That’s how.

You and I are in a hurry to pay down our debt partly because we’re mortal. We need to get it paid before we retire, let alone before we die. Governments, however, need be in no such hurry because they go on forever.

The other reason you and I are in a hurry to repay, of course, is the interest we must keep paying until we do. The higher the rate of interest, the more hurry we should be in. In evidence to a Senate committee last week, Treasury secretary Dr Steven Kennedy advised that the interest rate the government is paying on the 10-year bonds it’s issuing is 1 per cent – less than inflation. Still worried?
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Monday, May 4, 2020

First the economy needs CPR. We'll worry about reform later

I can’t take seriously all those people saying we mustn’t waste a crisis, but seize this great opportunity to introduce sweeping economic reform. It’s like telling a baby who hasn’t yet learnt to walk it should start training for the Olympics.

It’s true, of course, that we won’t get back to economic life as we used to know it – that is, knew it before the global financial crisis, more than a decade ago – until we get back to reasonably strong annual improvement in the productivity of labour.

But the plain fact is, you’ve got to have a functioning economy before you can worry about how fast its productivity is improving. So there’ll be a time to debate which policies would or wouldn't do most to enhance productivity, but we have more pressing matters to attend to.

Some in the don’t-waste-the-crisis party can be forgiven because they’re under 50 and have no memory of what happens in recessions. But as my colleague Shane Wright has said, most of them are "the usual suspects, falling back on their usual agendas".

They have no genuine concern about the economy’s present life-threatened state, but are business people engaged in rent-seeking, or economists running off faith in their economic model, whether or not it’s supported by empirical evidence their theory actually works.

These urgers have forgotten that micro-economic reform seeks to increase economic growth by making the supply (production) side of the economy work more efficiently. It delivers results only over the medium to long term. It’s thus no substitute for macro-economic management, which deals with managing the demand side of the economy in the short term.

Right now, the prospect of a 10 per cent unemployment rate tells us we have more supply than we’re able to use. Clearly, our problem’s that demand is insufficient. The improvement in economic efficiency we assume we could gain by, say, taxing land rather than the transfer of it, is minor compared with the monumental inefficiency we know for certain is occurring because 10 per cent of our workers can’t find work. Macro inefficiency always trumps micro inefficiency.

Right now, we don’t even have an economy that’s functioning, much less functioning well. Much of it’s closed - locked up by government decree. We’re starting to ease the lockdown, but we won’t be opening our borders for another year or two.

When we do have most of the lockdown removed, what will we see? The economy won’t snap back. Not even bounce back in any significant way. True, once businesses are allowed to reopen they’ll be making some sales rather than next to none. But with so many households unemployed, sales won’t go back to anything like where they were.

Most households and businesses will be in cost-cutting mode. Firms have been incurring overheads while earning little. Even those households still working will be worried about their big mortgages and fearful of losing their own jobs. As Treasury secretary Dr Steven Kennedy has warned, “some jobs and businesses will have been lost permanently”.

Most firms and households will be getting back to some semblance of normality, but few will be doing much that causes the economy to grow in any positive sense. As Reserve Bank governor Dr Philip Lowe has said, 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.

Sound like a bounce-back, or an economy still in the intensive care unit? Ask yourself this: which are the forces that will propel the economy forward? It won’t be the main factor we’ve relied on in recent years – high immigration. Our population’s now falling, as people on temporary visas are sent home and not replaced. (Not that population growth does anything much to lift income per person.)

It won’t be “external stimulus” because the rest of the world is growing faster than us (it isn’t), or a lower dollar is making our exports cheaper to foreigners because we’ll continue banning foreign tourists and overseas students. Export commodity prices aren’t rising.

It won’t be growth in real wages (employers will compulsively demand a wage freeze) nor a "wealth effect" from rising house prices prompting households to cut their rate of saving. And a key missing piece: it won’t be big cuts in interest rates to encourage borrowing and spending.

That leaves only "fiscal stimulus" – the budget. The huge government spending so far has merely limited the extent of the economy’s fall. Should Scott Morrison soon start winding it back as he says he plans to, we could fall even further.

No, if we're to actually recover what will come next is a lot more government spending, particularly on useful projects. It can only be a government-led recovery.
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Saturday, May 2, 2020

After the anti-social lockdown comes the anti-jobs recession


Until now, old farts like me have thought it a terrible thing that next to no one under 50 has any experience of how terrible recessions are. Even ABC guru Dr Norman Swan sees the costs of the lockdown as mainly social: the boredom, loneliness, anxiety, depression, suicide and domestic violence. Really? That’s as bad as it gets, eh?

But at least our lack of herd immunity from unrealistic expectations means only us old-timers will be expecting this recession to be pretty much the same as those we experienced in the early 1990s, the early ’80s and the mid-1970s. That’s good because this recession will be markedly different to any of those.

Usually, recessions happen because of governments’ policy error. Their attention wanders while the economy is speeding down the road, but then they realise how high inflation’s getting and they panic. They jam on the interest-rate brakes but hit them too hard for too long, and the economy ends up careering off the road and hitting a tree, with many people losing their jobs.

That’s why former prime minister Paul Keating said our last major recession was “the recession we had to have”. He was trying to conceal the truth that all recessions happen by accident.

Until now. Uniquely, this recession has happened because of a knowing act of government policy. It’s “the recession the medicos said we had to have” as the only way to stop the virus killing people.

As we’re about to discover, it’s a huge price to pay. And a month or two cooped up at home is the least of it. Many of those people who’ve lost their jobs will still be cooped up at home many months after the rest of us have resumed normal lives.

And let me tell you, being unemployed for months on end also has adverse social consequences: feelings of anxiety, inferiority and worthlessness, depression, suicidal thoughts, money worries that lead to marital conflict, breakups and violence.

It’s because this recession is happening by government decree – by the government ordering many industries to cease trading – that it will be so much bigger than usual. Usually, economies slow for months before they stop; this time, most industries stopped on pretty much the same day. (Not to mention that the same thing has happened around the world to the countries that buy our exports.)

This recession will be so big and bad that not even the official always-look-on-the-bright-side brigade is trying to gild the lily. Reserve Bank governor Dr Philip Lowe said last week the recession would be a “once in a lifetime event”.

“Over the first half of 2020, we are likely to experience the biggest contraction in national output and income we have witnessed since [the Great Depression of] the 1930s,” he warned.

More specifically, his best guess was that real gross domestic product would fall by about 10 per cent over the first half of this year, with most of that in June quarter. The unemployment rate is likely to have doubled to about 10 per cent by June, though the total hours worked in the economy is likely to fall by much more than that would suggest: about 20 per cent (because many of those on the JobKeeper payment won’t be working much, but won’t be counted as unemployed).

Preliminary figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics show that employment fell by about 780,000 people over the three weeks to April 4. And so far, 3.3 million workers are covered by JobKeeper.

This week, Treasury Secretary Dr Steven Kennedy said that whereas unemployment rose to higher levels than this in the Great Depression [to 20 per cent], it did so over the course of a couple of years, compared with just a couple of months this time. “We have never seen an economic shock of this speed, magnitude and shape, reflecting that this is both a significant supply [shock] and demand shock,” he said.

The shock to supply comes from the government closing our borders to foreign tourists and overseas students, and ordering so many industries to cease supplying goods and services to their customers. The shock to demand comes from the loss of wages to workers laid off, the loss of profits to firms unable to sell their products, and the loss of confidence that spending big by households and firms at this time sounds like a good idea.

But the differences between this coronacession and previous recessions don’t stop there. As we’ve seen, recessions are usually preceded by booms. Not this time. Former top econocrat Dr Mike Keating has noted that our economy was performing very poorly for some years before the virus hit.

“Over the three years . . . to December 2019, real GDP growth averaged only 2.3 per cent, business investment was flat, labour productivity did not increase at all and real wages averaged only a 0.4 per cent annual rate of increase,” he says.

One thing this means is that whereas the fall in real incomes caused by a recession usually reverses only some of the strong growth in incomes during the preceding boom, this time the fall in incomes will be a much bigger setback.

Yet another difference this time is that, whereas the Reserve Bank responds to a recession by using its “monetary policy” to slash interest rates and impart a big stimulus to borrowing and spending, this time rates are already so low it’s been able to cut them by a mere 0.25 per cent before reaching its effective zero bound.

During the global financial crisis in 2008, it cut the official interest rate by 4 percentage points in five months. So the budget – “fiscal policy” - is the only instrument the government has to respond to the recession.

There is, however, one important respect in which this recession will resemble all others: unemployment shoots up a lot faster than it comes back down. I’d be sceptical of any happy talk about the economy bouncing back. Crawling back, more likely.
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Monday, March 23, 2020

For this to work, we must really be 'all in this together'


There are two ways Scott Morrison can play this coronacession: he can spread the pain as fairly as possible, or he can yield to all his political instincts and play favourites. You know: lifters get looked after, leaners take their chances. Those my tribe judge to be not "having a go" won’t be given a go.

Fortunately, Sunday’s second, $66-billion assistance package suggests Morrison’s trying hard to overcome his instincts, be more statesman-like and not exclude unpopular groups from assistance. He’s got further to go, however.

The poor are the biggest losers in every recession and that will be just as true in the coronacession. Those who are able to keep working will be the least affected; those who lose their jobs will be the most affected.

The strongest reason for Morrison to take steps to spread the pain more fairly is that it’s the right – you could almost say the Christian – thing to do. But he has extra, more pragmatic reasons for doing so. One is that it's easier to get everyone to cop their share of the burden – and to pull their weight – if they believe the burden’s being shared fairly. If they know that "we’re all in this together" is more than an empty slogan.

A special reason in this virus-induced recession is that if you leave the poor – the unemployed, the casual workers, the sick and the homeless – feeling ignored and excluded, you rob them of both the motivation and the financial and physical ability to play their part in not spreading the virus to others. If you’re not caring, they become the weak link in your efforts to lower the infection rate.

One fairness principle Morrison adopted from the start is to avoid assisting big business (with the exception of the airlines), but rather ask them to do the right thing by their employees and customers.

Despite the cheap money the banks are getting from the Reserve Bank, it’s clear they’ve gone further with their concessions to small business borrowers, people with mortgages and even term-depositors.

Their profits and shareholders will take a big hit – the first big hit since the recession of the early 1990s - which raises a broader fairness question: if you can’t afford to keep paying your workers, how can you afford to keep paying dividends?

For big businesses, including banks and energy retailers, to move against customers who get behind on their payments in the normal way would make this recession even deeper, and help no one – as the government seems to be making clear to them in private.

The same principle holds for landlords, even though these are mainly what you’d class as small businesses. Evicting tenants at a time like this gets you nowhere. No one gave landlords a guarantee that negatively geared property was one-way bet.

The second package has used a temporary "coronavirus supplement" to effectively double the Newstart allowance for six months. Good move. It’s also a tacit acknowledgement of the truth of the almost universal criticism that the present dole is impossible to live on.

At first the government thought to pay the higher allowance to newly unemployed people but not the existing jobless, but fortunately has thought better of the idea. Now it needs to make sure the infamous Centrelink (since renamed Services Australia – irony, I presume) understands its political masters no long require it to hassle people more than help them.

It would also help to avoid saying that those newly on the dole were there "through no fault of their own", thus implying that those already on it were there through some fault of their own.

The new package’s doubled cash-flow support payments to small and medium businesses should help keep more employees in jobs, though the use of payments based on employers’ remittances of their employees’ pay-as-you-go tax instalments (intended to prevent firms from taking the payment but dismissing the staff) is biased in favour of firms with highly paid (and taxed) employees and against those with poorly paid employees, including casuals.

Many firms will fall back on the new $20,000-over-six-months minimum rebate, which is unlikely to stop many low-paid and casual workers being let go.

A quarter of all employees are casuals, and adding the pseudo self-employed (including those in the "gig economy") takes to 37 per cent the proportion of workers who have no paid sick leave. The second package’s failure to improve on the earlier arrangement for those people to be eligible to apply for the little-used "sickness allowance" will leave many still tempted to keep working when they should be at home in bed.

And the failure of either package to do anything to help the homeless leaves a gaping hole in our efforts to protect their lives from the virus, or to slow its spread.
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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.
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