Showing posts with label forecasting. Show all posts
Showing posts with label forecasting. Show all posts

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.

Saturday, December 14, 2019

Why the government's forecasts are always way off

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, April 29, 2019

Treasury signs off on budget fantasy forecasts

While we were preparing for the Easter-Anzac super long weekend, the secretary to the Treasury and the secretary of the Finance Department released the PEFO – pre-election economic and fiscal outlook – their official, once-every-three-years licence to tell us anything the government hasn’t told us but should have. And what was that? Not a sausage.

They made trivial updates to the budget figures and solemnly swore that all the rest of it “reflects the best professional judgement of the officers of the Treasury and the Department of Finance”. Wow. Really?

This despite the fact that, taken at face value, this is the most fiscally irresponsible budget since Whitlam. It’s a budget claiming to be able to cut income tax by $300 billion over 10 years and spend $100 billion on infrastructure over 10 years, while still returning to continuous surplus and eliminating the net debt over the same period.

No sensible person could believe all that was likely to come to pass. Far more probable that, should those tax cuts and spending increases actually happen, it wouldn’t be long before the budget was back in deficit and the debt was growing not falling.

We owe it to the Grattan Institute’s Danielle Wood and her team for joining the dots, provided in the bowels of the budget papers, to reveal how the cost of the tax cuts stays small until the last year of the budget’s “forward estimates”, 2022-23, then leaps to a cost of about $35 billion a year, rising to about $45 billion a year in 2029-30.

Never before have we had tax cuts remotely approaching such a cost.

The reason this grandiosity reminds no one of the Whitlam era is that no one takes it at face value. No one believes it could possibly happen. It’s a description of a future fantasyland.

First, it’s the budget of a chronically unpopular government desperately trying to bribe its way back to office, with little chance of succeeding.

Second, its supposed action is many years – and two or three elections – off in the future. Whatever transpires over the next decade, we can be pretty sure it won’t bear much resemblance to the scenario painted in the budget papers.

But if it’s all harmless bulldust, it can hardly reflect Treasury’s “best professional judgement” unless Treasury’s joined the happy fiction business. And the fact remains that, even more than its predecessors, this is a budget calculated to mislead.

What Treasury declines to make sure we realise is that the magic is all achieved by assumption. Convenient assumption.

Just as Wayne Swan’s promised return to permanent surplus – and his later assurance that his hugely expensive disability insurance scheme and Gonski school funding, though carefully hidden beyond the forward estimates, were “fully funded” – were based on overly optimistic assumptions that failed to come to pass, so is Josh Frydenberg’s promised return to permanent surplus and his assurance that his $300 billion in tax cuts and $100 billion in infrastructure spending are fully funded.

The trick has two parts. First, assume (as you did in each of the seven previous budgets) that, within a year or two, the economy’s growth will have returned to the old normal, where it will stay forever.

Second, assume the government will be able to sustain for many years a degree of spending restraint never achieved in the past. Make sure this heroic assumption is turned into a cabinet resolution, so it can be passed off as the seemingly innocuous assumption of “unchanged policy”, not the mere New Year’s resolution it really is.

Swan’s claim (proved by lovely graphs) that his hidden spending plans were fully funded was based on government policy to limit spending growth to 2 per cent real a year on average – a goal he repeatedly claimed to be achieving, but never did.

Frydenberg’s claim (with lovely graphs) that his post-forward-estimates tax cuts and spending increases are fully funded is based on a government policy to limit real spending growth to even less than Swan’s 2 per cent, which will cause total government spending to fall from 24.9 per cent of GDP to an unbelievable 23.6 per cent by 2029-30.

Again, we’ve had to rely on Grattan’s Wood to join the dots the budget papers don’t and tell us Frydenberg’s happy assumptions imply annual spending cuts increasing to about $40 billion a year by the final year. (She has also explained the tricks on which the government’s claim to have limited its real spending growth to 1.9 per cent a year relies.)

Meanwhile, back in the real world, the economic outlook is so strong the Reserve Bank is deciding whether it needs to start cutting interest rates immediately, or can afford to wait until unemployment starts rising.

And continuing strong growth, we’re asked to believe, is Treasury’s best professional judgement.

Monday, April 15, 2019

Strong economy? No, but maybe it will be eighth time lucky

Scott Morrison wants the Coalition re-elected because of its superior management of the economy. In Josh Frydenberg’s budget speech he referred to our “strong economy” 14 times. Why? He had to keep saying it because it ain’t true.

But get this: it’s not the government’s fault. It’s happening for reasons far beyond the government’s control. Growth is weak in Australia and throughout the developed world for deep reasons economists don’t yet fully understand.

It’s taken a while to realise this because the econocrats – mainly Treasury, but with the acquiescence of the Reserve Bank - either can’t or won’t accept its truth. They’ve gone for eight budgets in a row forecasting an early return to strong growth.

And for seven years in a row they’ve been way off. But so great is their certainty that nothing fundamental has changed, they’ve fronted up with yet another forecast that this year will be different. This year we'll reach lift-off.

It may not be entirely coincidental that, the longer Treasury dwells in the land of hope-springs-eternal, the more it gives its political masters the budget numbers they crave: ones showing the budget deficit soon returning to surplus and staying in surplus as the net debt falls to zero.

In what follows, I’ll ignore Treasury’s cute distinction between “forecasts” and “projections”. Sorry, guys, you’ve played that card too many times.

It’s a key part of the way you’ve misled the public, your political masters, economists and probably even yourselves, that everything’s going fine and will soon be back to normal. It’s part of the reason the net debt’s been allowed to double under this government – we kept being told it wasn’t happening.

When laughing-stock Wayne Swan began his 2012 budget speech promising four budget surpluses in a row, this was based on Treasury’s forecast that real gross domestic product would grow by 3.25 per cent in 2012-13, and then by 3 per cent in each of the three following years.

The 3.25 per cent turned out to be 2.6 per cent, then another 2.6 per cent, 2.3 per cent and 2.8 per cent.

After such an embarrassing stuff-up, you’d think Treasury might have had a rethink. Not a bit of it. Just two budgets later – this government’s first - it had the economy’s growth accelerating over the forward estimates not to 3 per cent, but 3.5 per cent. The first of these turned out to be 2.3 per cent and the next one, 2.8 per cent.

In the 2016 budget, Treasury took a bit of a pull and reverted to forecasting recoveries to no more than 3 per cent growth.

In this month’s budget, Treasury has us growing by only 2.25 per cent in the year just ending. But not to worry. In the coming year it will strengthen to 2.75 per cent, and be back to 3 per cent in the second last year of the forward estimates, where it will stay in 2022-23.

It’s a similar story with what’s become the key problem component of GDP, wages. In Swan’s ill-fated budget, the wage price index was forecast to grow by 3.75 per cent in the budget year and the year following. Turned out to be 2.9 per cent and 2.5 per cent.

The following year’s budget – Swan’s last – put expected wage growth in 2014-15 at 3.5 per cent. Turned out to be 2.3 per cent. Treasury’s first guess for 2017-18 was 3 per cent. Came in at 2.1 per cent.

Treasury’s response to its repeated over-forecasting is just to push the ETA of the return to strong growth out another year. Nothing fundamental in the economy has changed, nothing’s wrong with the forecasting method, it’s just taking a bit longer than we thought. This time we’ll be right.

But, you may object, if the economy’s remained so weak for so long, how come growth in employment has been strong since early 2017 and unemployment has slowly fallen to 5 per cent?

Because of high levels of immigration – high even by our standards, and unmatched by the other rich countries – and because the under-employment rate was worsening until recently.

Much of the jobs growth has come from federal government spending on rolling out the National Disability Insurance Scheme, and state government spending on infrastructure. After all, public sector consumption and investment spending accounted for more than half the surprisingly weak GDP growth of 2.3 per cent over calendar 2018.

Remember this: a strong, healthy economy is one where demand is always threatening to push inflation above the target zone. Our inflation rate's been below the target for three years.

And this amazing fact: the world real long-term interest rate has been falling for years and is now at zero or below. That’s a sign of strong growth?

It’s time Treasury and the Reserve stopped kidding themselves – and us.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Waiting for PEFO just Hockey's excuse to delay truth

I have a feeling Joe Hockey would make a much better treasurer than many imagine, but all politicians talk a fair bit of nonsense while in opposition and Hockey is no exception. Ministers know what they say is under much closer scrutiny.

Hockey professes hardly to believe a word of Wayne Swan's budget. It "lacks integrity" and he has "deep reservations about the numbers", which "at the very best are optimistic".

He claims not to lack faith in the work of the Treasury, only in the Treasurer. But he criticises various budget assumptions about how spending on certain items will change over the next four years (he seems terribly confident about the accuracy of his own crystal ball), implying Swan has imposed his own, implausible figures on the econocrats.

So what's he on about? Part of it is no doubt just an attempt to further destroy the credibility of the man who, in last year's budget, boasted it "delivers [note that word] a surplus this coming year, on time, as promised, and surpluses each year after that, strengthening over time". Oh dear.

Well, Hockey wouldn't be a pollie if he didn't exploit that golden opportunity to put in the boot. And he's right to cast doubt on the likelihood of a $6.6 billion surplus in four years' time - not because the government has got at Treasury and Finance but because no one, not even Hockey, can have any certainty about how the economy will unfold between now and then.

That's just common sense. It's the simple souls who take medium-term projections literally that Hockey should be wising up, not implying he can know the future better than Swan can, or that Treasury's forecasts would be right on the money were Swan not forcing them to be wrong.

There's no reason to believe a change of government would make any difference to the likelihood of budget forecasts proving off-beam because of unforeseen developments. The world will not suddenly become more stable or predictable on September 14.

But I think Hockey's motives in rubbishing the budget forecasts are more devious. He dribbles out the odd example of unpopular spending cuts but, since he doesn't know the budget's true position, he can't do more than that. He doesn't know how much he's got in the kitty to play with - or, rather, how big is the "true" deficit that will constrain the promises the Coalition will make.

Get it? He claims the budget figures are politically tainted because this justifies him delaying publication of his costings until only about three weeks before election day - which is when we'll receive the PEFO, the pre-election economic and fiscal outlook, signed off not by Swan and Penny Wong, but by the secretaries of Treasury and Finance.

The "pee-foe", part of Peter Costello's charter of budget honesty, is a good idea gone wrong. Its purpose was to stop future incoming governments doing what Costello did in 1996 (and Paul Keating did in 1983): claiming to have uncovered a "budget black hole" left by their predecessors and using this as an excuse for a horror budget, in which cuts not mentioned in the campaign materialise and promises retrospectively declared to be "non-core" are broken.

That's fine, but successive oppositions have used it ever since as an excuse to leave revelation of their plans and costings to the last moment.

Trouble is, last week Treasury secretary Martin Parkinson (who said he'd been authorised by Finance secretary David Tune to speak also on his behalf) undercut Hockey's excuse, saying that had the PEFO been released at the same time as the budget, it would have said the same thing.

So if the PEFO differs from the budget it will be because of government policy decisions and developments in the economy, not because the econocrats are no longer being leaned on.

Note that, if he follows past practice, Swan is likely to publish an updated economic and fiscal outlook document just a week or two before the PEFO. Why? So he can take any policy measures needed to prevent the econocrats' latest forecasts from comparing too badly with the budget.

Hockey says "we must return stable, predictable and honest government to Australia". Well, if he can magically make the economy more stable and predictable, good luck to him. As for restoring honesty, it would be a good thing. But by using such a weak excuse to keep the electorate in the dark about his plans until the last moment, he's not off to a good start. The next honesty test will be whether his costings are checked by the Parliamentary Budget Office or by some back-street accountant who has certified only that the arithmetic's OK.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Reserve Bank burst bubble of certainty about future

There's never any shortage of people convinced they could do a much better job of managing the macro-economy than the outfit that does manage it, the Reserve Bank. And sometimes I suspect there's a geographic dimension to their criticism.

Economists and others who live in Canberra seem terribly confident they know better than the Reserve - much more confident than those living in Sydney, the same town as the Reserve. Indeed, the self-proclaimed superior understanding of the Canberrans is exceeded only by that of economists from Melbourne.

The Reserve is, of course, far from omniscient. Its forecasts are often astray. And these days, forecasting is more important than ever. In the old days, governments waited until they had hard statistical evidence inflation was getting out of hand before they took corrective action by raising interest rates.

Which meant they were almost always acting too late - sometimes so late they ended up making matters worse rather than better. That's because changes in rates have their effect on demand and then prices only after a "long and variable lag".

Since the Reserve attained its independence from the elected government, it has sought to correct for monetary policy's long "response lag" by conducting policy on a forward-looking basis, or "pre-emptively".

That is, policy decisions are based on forecasts for growth and, more particularly, inflation over the coming 18 months to two years. The arrival of actual figures is used just to adjust the forecasts.

And, as I say, the Reserve's forecasts are often astray. But this just reflects the limitations of the economics profession's art. The question is whether any of the Reserve's many second-guessers are any better at forecasting than it is. I remain to be convinced any are.

Although the Reserve's present course of action is always being criticised by someone - and not only the business lobby groups that make their living by always arguing rates should lower - I see little reason to believe they could do any better.

Indeed, they could easily do a lot worse. The Reserve makes a lot of small errors, but it's yet to make any really serious ones - the reason its critics have failed to gain much credibility.

One reason the Reserve never gets too far off beam is that it revises its forecasts every quarter and generally moves in tiny steps of 25 basis points (0.25 percentage points). And it's never too proud to change direction if it becomes obvious it should.

The other reason the Reserve has yet to get things badly wrong is that no one understands better than it how fallible its forecasts are - all forecasts, for that matter. And it's never afraid to admit its fallibility to the world.

Just as newspapers that regularly correct their errors are more trustworthy than those that rarely do, so those official forecasters who freely acknowledge their failings engender more confidence in their competence rather than less.

The Reserve revised its forecasts in the statement on monetary policy it issued on Friday. And for the first time it provided "confidence intervals" for its latest forecasts for growth and underlying inflation. These intervals were based on the range of the Reserve's actual forecast errors between 1993 and 2011.

It advised that a 70 per cent confidence interval for the forecast of underlying inflation over the year to the December quarter of 2014 extends from 1.6 per cent to 3.2 per cent. That is, if the Reserve makes similar-sized forecast errors to those made in the past, there is a 70 per cent probability that underlying inflation will lie between 1.6 per cent and 3.2 per cent.

Similarly, there's a 70 per cent probability that growth in real gross domestic product (GDP) over the year to the December quarter of 2014 will lie between 1.5 per cent and 4.4 per cent.

Hardly particularly informative? At least it avoids the illusion of certainty about what the future holds. But if your own fallibility makes you prefer a central, single-number forecast (a "point estimate"), you can use the fact that the confidence intervals are assumed to be symmetrical to work out what it is.

Add 1.6 to 3.2 and divide by two and the central forecast for underlying inflation is 2.4 per cent. Similarly, halving 1.5 plus 4.4 tells you the central forecast for growth is a fraction less that 3 per cent.

Happy now? If you're really keen you can apply a ruler to the confidence interval graphs in the statement and work out the Reserve's central forecast quarter by quarter - something it has never previously (sort of) made public. Whether it continues doing so has yet to be decided.

The width of the confidence interval (plus or minus 0.8 percentage points in the case of underlying inflation; plus or minus 1.5 points in the case of growth) indicates there is always substantial uncertainty about the economic outlook. (Though less about the more inertia-driven inflation than about growth.)

The Reserve says such high levels of uncertainty are also found in other countries and for both official and private forecasts. Similarly, it's typical (and hardly surprising) for the degree of uncertainty to increase the further into the future you're forecasting.

But if economic forecasts are so universally inaccurate, how come we hear so little about confidence intervals? It's partly because economists don't like advertising the considerable limitations of their art. They don't even like reminding themselves of their own fallibility.

But it's also because economists are selling their services and are very conscious of how much their customers value the illusion of certainty, which allows the customers to delude themselves they have more ability to control the future than they actually do.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Reserve steals Swan’s budget forecasts thunder

While normal people are awaiting tomorrow night's federal budget to see if the measures Wayne Swan announces are naughty or nice, misguided souls in business and the financial markets are more interested in knowing Treasury's forecasts for the economy in 2012-13.

Well, wait no more. This year the key forecast for year-average growth in real gross domestic product in 2012-13 is the budget's worst kept secret.

It's taking the people who care about such things a long time to cotton on, but the Reserve Bank always upstages the budget forecasts by issuing its own forecasts as part of its quarterly statement on monetary policy on the Friday before the budget is unveiled on the second Tuesday in May.

This year the Reserve is forecasting year-average growth in 2012-13 of 3 to 3.5 per cent. This tells you Treasury's point forecast is likely to be at the mid-point of the range, 3.25 per cent.

And at a press conference on Friday Swan obliged by confirming that 3.25 per cent is indeed the budget forecast.

If you can't see why the Reserve's forecasts are such a reliable guide to Treasury's you understand neither the bureaucratic process nor the econocratic mind.

Although in theory the two outfits are free to each set their own forecast, in practice they caucus via the quarterly meetings of the joint economic forecasting group. And, in practice, it's rare for their forecasts for any indicator to be more than 0.25 percentage points apart - a difference which, in the highly imprecise world of forecasting, they dismiss as no more than a rounding error.

Just as politicians put their spin on developments, so the media put a spin on the news, preferring to focus on the negative. Thus it was reported that the Reserve "downgraded" its outlook for economic growth.

These cuts, we were told, "underscore the challenges facing the Gillard government" in returning the budget to surplus in 2012-13 - "a task made harder by the slowing growth and the resulting weaker revenue streams".

Don't you believe it. What rate of growth in 2012-13 was Treasury forecasting at the time of the midyear budget review last November? 3.25 per cent. What rate's it forecasting now? 3.25 per cent. That's harder?

It's certainly true the Reserve lowered many of its growth forecasts relative to those in its February statement. In general it cut each of its year-ended forecasts by 0.5 percentage points.

But note this: when it came to its year-average forecasts - those most relevant to the budgeting task - the one for 2012-13 was unchanged at 3 to 3.5 per cent and the one for 2013-14 was unchanged at 3 to 4 per cent.

Here's the point: the news the media didn't think worth passing on is that, notwithstanding its downward revisions, the Reserve is still forecasting that growth will accelerate from now on.

The latest actual figures we have for GDP show it growing by just 2.3 per cent over the year to December - about a percentage point below the medium-term "trend" rate of growth.

But the Reserve now has the pace quickening to 2.75 per cent over the year to this June, to 3 per cent over the year to this December, to 2.5 to 3.5 per cent over the year to next June, the same over the year to December next year and to 3 to 4 per cent over the year to June 2014.

But how, despite all the gloomy talk we keep hearing, can the Reserve forecast a reasonably early return to trend growth? As it explained in its statement on Friday, the answer turns on the reason its forecasts have been too high up to this point.

Ask every businessman and his dog why the economy isn't growing nearly as fast as the Reserve was forecasting and they'll tell you it's because the boffins underestimated the pain being imposed on the non-mining part of the economy by the high dollar.

But that's pretty much the opposite of the Reserve's explanation. It says most of the problem was its over-estimate of growth in production by the mining sector. It assumed the Queensland coalmines flooded in early 2011 would quickly be able to return to full capacity. In fact, it took them most of last year.

The Reserve also assumed new railway and port loading capacity would permit faster growth in mining production and exports than actually occurred.

It now has us returning to trend growth mainly because these problems have been overcome.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Asia well-placed to withstand global slowdown

Perhaps it's our natural eurocentricity, but we've been hearing a lot more about recession and the risk of worse in Europe than about the resilience of our own region. Fortunately, the International Monetary Fund set the record straight last week.

At a briefing in Washington, the director of the fund's Asia and Pacific department, Anoop Singh, focused on the counter-weight to the weakness in the North Atlantic economies.

If the euro zone is expected to contract by 0.5 per cent this year and the United States to grow by only 1.8 per cent, how come the world is still expected to grow by a not-so-terrible 3.3 per cent? Mainly because "developing Asia" is forecast to grow by a buoyant 7.3 per cent.

Singh made four main points. First, while growth in Asia has slowed, Asian economies have generally proved resilient to the increased turbulence in global financial markets and are helping to support global growth.

Second, there's certainly a risk of contagion to Asia from any further deterioration in global financial conditions.

But, third, the fund believes that, in the event of further slowdown in the global economy, most economies in Asia have room for "a strong policy response" - that is, room to stimulate their economies to offset the effects from abroad.

And fourth, the recent decline in the current account surpluses of China and many other Asian economies is very welcome. Sustained efforts to continue this decline in the medium term will reduce Asia's exposure to the external risks it's experiencing now, thereby maintaining its support for global growth.

"So, in both the short term and medium term, there are positive factors coming from Asia," Singh said.

On his first point, economic activity in Asia has slowed mainly because the growth in its exports has lost momentum, thanks to weaker growth in regional as well as global trading partners. But robust growth in domestic demand is helping offset this drag from external demand.

In China, the two main components of domestic demand - investment spending and consumption spending - have remained resilient, supported by strong corporate profits and rising household income.

And Asian banks have so far used their strong balance sheets to step in and ensure a continued flow of credit and trade finance in the face of the reduction in lending growth by European banks. As growth has slowed in Asia, inflation pressures have waned. So it's not surprising governments have paused the pace of tightening macro policies, or in some cases reversed it. The fund expects inflation to recede further this year.

The fund expects growth in the overall Asia-Pacific region to remain closed to 6 per cent this year, recovering to 6.5 per cent next year. Within this, emerging Asia will remain the fastest-growing region in the world, led by China and India. In China, growth will remain in the 8 to 8.5 per cent range this year, returning close to 9 per cent next year. In India, growth will stay about 7 per cent.

On his second point, these are just the fund's central forecasts. There's a clear risk an escalation of Europe's debt crisis could cause global growth to be 2 percentage points lower than the central forecast of 3.3 per cent.

Were this to happen, Asia would be greatly affected because the usual effect on its exports would be compounded by an adverse effect on business and consumer confidence, as well as by contagion in the financial sector. So there would be a knock-on effect from external demand to domestic demand.

Moving to his third point, were such a deterioration to occur, policy responses by Asia would be needed, without which the impact on Asia's growth would be substantial. But the fund believes many countries have the room to respond.

For many, the room is greater on the fiscal (budgetary) side than the monetary (interest rate) side. The pace at which countries are reducing their budget deficits could certainly be slowed, particularly in those with low levels of public debt, such as China. More than that, some countries could undertake another round of fiscal stimulus.

"Indeed, many Asian countries could advance their plans, which they already have over the medium term, to boost social safety nets and increase consumption and investment," Singh said.

These policies would have long-term positive effects on "rebalancing" - increasing domestic demand and thus reducing reliance on external demand - and growth, as well as reducing income inequality, which remains an issue in many Asian countries.

As for monetary policy, monetary tightening has appropriately been paused in many Asian economies, with some beginning to reverse this tightening. But the room for further easing is limited in economies where underlying inflation pressures remain, such as India. China has little room because it's still absorbing the stimulus from its previous credit expansion of the past two years.

As usual on these occasions, Australia hardly rated a mention. Except for this: "The authorities have certainly committed to return to [budget] surplus by 2012-13, and we have supported that. The authorities have believed that an exit from fiscal deficits is needed to rebuild fiscal buffers and support monetary policy," Singh said.

"Having said that, it is also the case that were downside risks to materialise, with a further slowing of the global economy, in Australia the authorities probably have more policy flexibility than almost any other advanced economy.

"Why? It currently has probably one of the highest policy interest rates, and it probably has the lowest net public debt-to-GDP ratio.

"So, clearly, Australia has the ability to take actions if there were to be a further external deterioration."

Monday, January 30, 2012

Europe has serious troubles, but we don’t

The economic news from Europe in recent days hasn’t been good. And it could get worse as the year progresses. Those guys have big problems. But let’s not spook ourselves by imagining it to be any worse than it is.

Unfortunately, there’s been a tendency in parts of the media to convey an exaggerated impression of how bad things are and of the extent to which Europe’s problems translate into problems for us.

Take last week’s downwardly revised forecast for the world economy in 2012 from the International Monetary Fund. We heard a lot about the fund’s dire warnings of what could happen if the Europeans didn’t get their act together, but what wasn’t made clear was that the fund’s actual forecast was for global recession to be avoided.

Though the forecast for growth in the world economy this year WAS cut significantly from the forecast in September, at 3.3 per cent it’s below the long-run average rate of about 4 per cent, but still comfortably above the 2 per cent level generally regarded as representing a world recession.

No one thought it necessary to tell us - even though Wayne Swan reminded journalists of it at his press conference - that, from our perspective, the fund’s revisions were old news. They were surprisingly similar to the revised forecasts the government adopted in its mid-year budget review last November.

The fund has the United States growing by 1.8 per cent this year; Treasury had it at 2 per cent. The fund has the euro area contracting by 0.5 per cent; Treasury had it contracting by 0.25 per cent. For China, the fund has growth of 8.2 per cent, whereas Treasury had 8.25 per cent. For India it’s the fund’s 7 per cent versus Treasury’s 6.5 per cent.

Bottom line? The fund has the world growing by 3.3 per cent, whereas Treasury had it at 3.5 per cent.

Journalists are always criticising politicians for repeatedly re-announcing new spending programs, thus leaving the public with an inflated impression of how much is being spent. But journos aren’t above doing much the same thing.

We get a fuss when the government revises down its forecasts in November, then another fuss when the fund announces essentially the same revisions. And in between we get a fuss when the World Bank announces its revisions. Three for the price of one.

Actually, you can understand why the uninitiated got excited about the bank’s revisions. Whereas Treasury had forecast world growth of 3.5 per cent, the bank revised its forecast down to just 2.5 per cent. But no one remarked on that, just as they didn’t seem to notice when, only a week later, the fund put its prediction at a seemingly healthier 3.3 per cent.

So which one is right? They all are. That’s to say, they’re all saying the same thing. I find it hard to understand how anyone who knew their business could bang on about how low the bank’s forecast was without pointing out that it does its forecasts on a different and inferior basis to everyone else.

Whereas our Reserve Bank and Treasury, and the fund, add each country’s gross domestic product together using exchange rates that take account of the US dollar’s widely differing purchasing power in each country, the World Bank doesn’t bother. It uses market exchange rates.

So it perpetually understates the rate of growth in the emerging economies of Asia, thereby understating world growth, since most of it has for quite some years come from Asia. But not to worry. If you took the fund’s country-by-country forecasts and added them together the same misleading way the bank does, what would you get? Growth of 2.5 per cent. Same forecast on either basis.

The trouble with all these forecasts and pronouncements from international agencies is it’s hard for the public to assess what they amount to by the time they reach our shores. These pronouncements rarely mention Australia. And shock waves from Europe have to come to us via China, India and the rest of Asia.

I think the media could try harder to bridge this gap rather than leaving us with the vague impression disaster for Europe means disaster for Australia. Actually, what matters for us is not world growth so much as the growth in our major trading partners, with each partner’s contribution weighted according to its share of our exports.

When Treasury did this sum in the mid-year review, growth in the world economy of 3.5 per cent translated to growth in our major trading partners of 4.25 per cent. All this despite Europe’s recession.

Fran Kelly of Radio Nation Breakfast did go to the trouble of asking the lead author of the fund’s World Economic Outlook, Jorg Decressin, what the revised forecasts meant for us. His reply deflated most of the hype we’ve been subjected to.

‘Australia will be affected by these downgrades only to a limited extent,’ he said. Oh. ‘At this stage, growth in output for Australia is still reasonably strong.

‘Growth in Australia is importantly driven by major investment projects that are in the pipeline and these are funded by strong multinationals that don’t have problems assessing funding.’ Oh.

‘There is no advanced economy - or maybe there are one or two - that is as well placed as Australia in order to combat a deeper slow down, were such a slowdown to materialise and that’s because, well, you still have room to cut interest rates if that was necessary and you also have a very strong fiscal [budgetary] position,’ he said.

Do you get the feeling you’ve heard all this before? Maybe it’s true.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Reserve has re-assessed outlook for world growth

Just as a stopped clock is right twice a day, so the financial markets' belief that Europe's sovereign debt problems are the primary factor influencing the Reserve Bank's decisions about interest rates, having been wrong for most of the year, has finally proved on the money.

A psychologist would say the financial markets have been suffering a "salience" problem. Their judgments about how the Reserve will adjust the official rate have been overly influenced by the factor sticking out in their minds and also on their minds most recently: Europe.

If Europe is on their front burner, it must also be on the Reserve's. Since the outlook for Europe is so worrying and so conducive to slower economic growth, the markets have for months been predicting that big falls in our official rate are imminent.

Month after month the markets have stuck to this view, ignoring the Reserve's twice-monthly explanations of its thinking, which, while acknowledging the worries and uncertainties over Europe, have repeatedly emphasised the state of the domestic economy and, in particular, the outlook for domestic inflation, as key considerations.

So when, on Melbourne Cup day, the Reserve acted for the first time in a year and chose to lower interest rates by a notch, the markets weren't surprised. But they were right for the wrong reason. As the Reserve made clear, it was able to ease a notch because the economy wasn't accelerating to the extent it had been expecting, thus making the Reserve more confident inflation would stay on track over the next year or two.

But all that changed last week, when the Reserve eased the rate another notch, this time making it clear its decision had been influenced by the changed prospects for the global economy.

So what exactly were its motivations? Was it taking out a little insurance, fearing the worst might come to the worst in Europe? No, nothing so dramatic.

It doesn't take many brain cells to get the wind up over Europe and assume the worst. It takes more brain power to quietly assess the probability of a complete disaster. And more again to assess the strength of any troubles in Europe by the time the ripples reach the Antipodes via China.

By now, the shape of the solution to Europe's problem is reasonably clear. The 17 member countries of the euro area (or, if they insist, almost all the members of the European Union) need to sign up to a new fiscal compact, which imposes limits on the size of their budget deficits and levels of public debt relative to gross domestic product, with automatic penalties for countries that breach these limits.

The pact would also impose timetables for countries presently well in excess of those limits to comply with them, again with penalties for breaches.

Once these strictures had been ratified - thus plugging the obvious hole in the euro currency union, as well as guaranteeing the errant borrowers would mend their ways - the European Central Bank would be willing to start buying up the bonds of member countries, thus forcing down their yields.

It would cut its official interest rate to next to nothing and engage in "quantitative easing" (buying government bonds to cover deficit spending and so, in effect, printing money). Thus all the budgetary contraction would be offset to some extent by monetary stimulus.

While it's painfully apparent the European leaders are having trouble getting their act together - thus increasing the risk of disaster occurring by accident - it's also apparent they're neither fools nor suicidal.

So to assume Europe is headed inevitably for an implosion - as many punters seem to - strikes me as nothing more than unthinking pessimism. Our more experienced observers put the probability of a complete disaster no higher than about one chance in three.

This says the chances are twice as high that Europe will muddle through. But it's clear that even if the full calamity of a collapse in the euro is averted, even if everyone dons their fiscal straitjacket, the financial markets calm down and ordinary life resumes, the outlook for the European economy is particularly weak.

All those economies committed to the fiscal austerity of tax increases and swingeing spending cuts - and it will be quite a few of them - face the dismal prospect of fiscal contraction leading to reduced revenue, reduced revenue leading to a need for more fiscal contraction, and so on and on.

If you wonder how any politician could agree to such an appalling exercise, you're starting to understand why Europe's politicians have had so much trouble getting themselves up to the barrier. They've had to reach the realisation the financial markets - which went for years happily lending them more money than was good for them - are now not going to tolerate any easier or more sensible work-out of their debt problems.

For our purposes, it's now clear the greatest likelihood is negative to flat growth in Europe for at least the next year or two (the forecast period) and probably far longer. It's also clear that, while the US economy has gained momentum recently, it too faces unavoidable fiscal contraction, if not next year then in 2013.

With evidence China's exports to Europe are already being hit, the Reserve decided last week to revise down its forecasts for world growth. This will change its forecasts for domestic growth and inflation only a little, but it was enough to raise the Reserve's confidence it could cut rates another notch without jeopardising achievement of its inflation target.

Meanwhile, the financial markets are betting the official rate will have fallen by another 1.5 percentage points by the middle of next year. I call that courageous.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Econocrats get smarter on dodgy forecasts

You've heard the joke that economic forecasters are there to make weather forecasters look good. What you haven't heard is that the nation's top economic forecaster, Glenn Stevens, the governor of the Reserve Bank, thinks the joke "has something going for it".

There's an even older joke: everybody complains about the weather, but no one does anything about it. Actually, nothing we could do would change the weather. But, as Stevens remarked in a speech to the Australian Business Economists last week, some decisions based on economic forecasts can alter what happens (thus making forecasting the economy even harder than forecasting the weather).

That's true of the decisions made by central banks and governments, but it's also true of decisions made by businesses and households - even when their "forecast" is no more sophisticated than a bad feeling or a good feeling about how the economy's travelling and what lies ahead.

Actually, you can't not make a forecast. Even if you refuse to think about the future, you're implicitly making a forecast that things will stay as they are.

The Reserve Bank has no choice but to make the best forecasts it can because it can take two or three years for a change in the official interest rate to have its full effect on the economy. So the Reserve has to act before things get off the rails. Were it to wait until problems actually happened, it would always be acting too late.

But something I've always admired about the Reserve, and Stevens in particular, is their humility and realism on the subject of forecasting.

"It is only natural to desire certainty," he says. "Everyone wants to know what will happen. We all want to believe that someone, somewhere, does know and can tell us what to expect. But the truth is that the best we can do when talking about the future is to speak about likelihoods and possible alternative outcomes."

Like almost everyone else, the Reserve has expressed its forecasts as a "point estimate" - one number. But this gives forecasts an air of precision they don't possess. They're actually a "central forecast" within a range of possibilities.

People (and journalists) who don't understand this can attach too much significance to small changes in forecasts, or to small differences between the Reserve's forecasts and Treasury's. (Tip: they're never going to be very different because they're produced in the same factory, the Joint Economic Forecasting Group.)

Stevens says that "when consideration is given to the real margin for error around central forecasts, such differences are often, for practical purposes, insignificant". "When comparing forecasts, if we are not talking about differences of at least 0.5 percentage points, the argument is not worth having."

Consider this. In the case of a year-ended forecast for the growth of real gross domestic product four quarters ahead, the record over the past couple of decades says the probability of a point forecast being accurate to within 0.5 percentage points is about 20 per cent.

Experience since the start of inflation targeting in 1993 says the probability of underlying inflation over the next year or the next two years being within 0.5 percentage points of the central forecast is about 67 per cent. That is, if the forecast was 2.5 per cent, the chances of the outcome being between 2 and 3 per cent would be about 67 per cent.

"So any point forecast will very likely not be right," Stevens says.

According to Stevens, it would be vastly preferable for discussions of forecasts to be couched in more "probabilistic" language than tends to be the case, and for there to be more explicit recognition that the particular numbers quoted are conditional on various assumptions. To this end, the revised forecasts the Reserve published earlier this month, particularly those for the year to December 2013 (that is, more than two years away), were expressed as a 0.5 percentage point or even 1 percentage point range. Now you know why.

And, Stevens adds, the forecasts include "more extensive discussion these days of the ways in which things could turn out differently from the central forecast". "This goes at least some way to recognising the inherent uncertainties in the forecasting process, and is also important in relating the forecast to the policy decision."

But if forecasts are so dodgy, why bother? Why not merely assume things don't change, since that at least would be quicker and cheaper? Stevens insists economists can shed useful light on the future.

"We know something about average rates of growth through time," he says. That is, forecasts that the economy will return to its trend rate of growth are likely to be closer to the truth than forecasts that it will stay at the rate it is now.

Stevens says economists also know something about the long-run forces that produce economic growth: productivity and population growth. "We know that there have been, and will be again, periods of recession and recovery, though our ability to forecast the timing of those episodes is limited," he says.

"We know from experience some things about the nature of inflation, including its characteristic persistence, and the things that can push it up or down." But above all, Stevens says, we know some of the "big forces" working on the global and local economies at any time. The two big (and conflicting) forces at present are the resources boom and the troubles of the euro.

A lot of the work of forecasting boils down to weighing up the net effect of the conflicting big forces at the time. We'd be better off debating and understanding the effects of those forces than arguing about point estimates.

Monday, June 7, 2010

How Keynes, not mining, saved us from recession

You never judge economists by whether they get their forecasts right. They rarely do. But they score points in my book if they're willing to work out why they got them wrong - and make the results public.

This is what Treasury's chief forecaster, Dr David Gruen, did in a speech to the Economic Society in Sydney on Friday.

I don't hold out much hope that such exercises will help produce better forecasts in future. But they should deepen our understanding of how the economy works.

Gruen's examination of Treasury's record in forecasting real gross domestic product over the past 21 years finds there's no upward or downward bias in its errors, but its "mean absolute percentage error" is 0.93 percentage points.

When you remember the trend rate of growth is about 3.25 per cent a year, that's a high degree of error.

Last May Treasury forecast that real gross domestic product would contract by 0.5 per cent in the financial year just ending, the first time it had ever forecast "negative growth". The year isn't over yet, but the revised forecast in this year's budget is positive growth of 2 per cent. And just the first three-quarters of the financial year are showing average growth of 1.9 per cent.

But if you think all that's bad, just remember: the smarties who purport to know better than Treasury are usually worse. Consider these reactions to the forecasts in last year's budget.

Des Moore, the climate-change denying activist: "The Rudd government's budget paints an unbelievable picture of a very mild recession (only a 0.5 per cent fall in GDP next year) followed by a recovery of 2.25 per cent in the election year (2010-11) and an above-trend rate of growth of 4.5 per cent in the following year."

John Roskam, a leading libertarian: "If Prime Minister Kevin Rudd genuinely believes Treasury is conservative when it forecasts economic growth of 4 per cent within two years, then it would be interesting to know his definition of optimistic. Treasury officials are not used to being laughed at on budget night but, as soon as their growth forecasts were revealed, no other reaction was possible."

Of course, we do know that average growth in real GDP in calendar 2009 was 1.3 per cent, and Gruen has revealed Treasury's unpublished forecast of minus 0.9 per cent. This was worse than the mean of minus 0.6 per cent for 17 private sector forecasts gathered by Consensus Economics, but right on the median.

After allowing for imports and inventories, the largest contribution to growth came from consumer spending (1.4 percentage points), followed by public sector spending (0.9 points), business investment and exports (0.4 points each), with housing investment making a negative contribution of 0.3 points.

(If you're wondering how all that adds up to just 1.3 per cent, it does so with the help of a negative contribution of 1.5 points from the "statistical discrepancy". Don't groan - the national accounts are like that; it's just one of the complications forecasters face.)

It's clear most of that surprisingly strong performance was due to old-fashioned Keynesian fiscal stimulus. Consumer spending was greatly bolstered by the cash splash, while the jump in public sector spending speaks for itself. The growth in business investment was explained by the draw-forward effect of the temporary tax break.

According to Treasury's estimates, the fiscal stimulus contributed about 2 percentage points to the overall growth of 1.3 per cent last year, meaning that, without it, GDP would have contracted by 0.7 per cent.

So much for the claim the mining sector was "a key factor in keeping Australia out of recession".

If you decompose exports' contribution of 0.4 percentage points, rural commodities contributed more (0.3 points) than mineral commodities (0.2 points), with manufactures making a negative contribution.

Treasury did allow for the effect of the fiscal stimulus in its forecast, but it's pretty clear it (and everyone else) didn't allow enough.

Gruen believes it took insufficient account of the "favourable feedback loop that expansionary macro-economic policy - both monetary and fiscal - appears to have generated".

"Macro-economic policy appears to have been large enough and quick enough to convince consumers and businesses that the domestic slowdown would be relatively mild," Gruen says.

"This, in turn, led consumers and businesses to continue to spend, and led businesses to cut workers' hours rather than laying them off which, in turn, helped the economic slowdown to be relatively mild."

The turnaround in business and consumer sentiment began earlier and was a lot stronger in Australia than in other developed economies. But that's another problem for the forecasters: swings in the collective mood are probably the biggest factor driving the business cycle, but how do you predict them?

It's true, of course, that continuing demand from China played a part in keeping us afloat. Gruen notes that the Consensus forecast for "non-Japan Asia turned out to be significantly too pessimistic".

But why? Partly because the forecasters made insufficient allowance for the Asians' lack of impairment in their financial systems, but also because they underestimated the speed and size of the fiscal and monetary stimulus, particularly in Korea and China.

As well as underrating the power of Keynesian policies - which are likely to be more potent in the young and dynamic emerging economies - too many forecasters failed to see how much success the Chinese would have in switching from external demand to domestic demand, particularly spending on infrastructure.

An economy as big as China has plenty of scope to "decouple" from the developed countries - a point worth remembering when you're tempted by the latest fear, that Europe's problems will wipe us out.