Showing posts with label full employment. Show all posts
Showing posts with label full employment. Show all posts

Friday, February 18, 2022

Unlike the media, econocrats in no great hurry to raise interest rates

The financial markets and financial press may have convinced themselves we have a serious inflation problem and must hit the interest-rate brakes early and often, but the clear message from our top econocrats is that they aren’t in such a hurry. Their eyes haven’t moved from the prize: seizing this chance to achieve genuine full employment.

Nothing in Treasury secretary Dr Steven Kennedy’s remarks to a Senate committee this week suggested he was anxious about our recent rise in prices, nor hinted that a rise in the official interest rate was imminent.

Indeed, “interest rates are still close to zero and expected to remain historically low for some time,” he said.

What little he said about inflation was that “the effects of COVID on inflation, often characterised as a combination of increased demand for goods [at the expense of demand for services] and supply-side shocks, are still passing through the economy.

“Fortunately, these impacts have been much less pronounced in Australia than in other countries. Nevertheless, the impacts have been felt and headline inflation is currently at an 11-year high.” (Not hard when inflation has been so low for so long.)

It’s true Kennedy also said that “it will not be until we see interest rates rise back to more usual levels that the risks associated with very low interest rates abate”.

But it’s clear he meant it would take years before the Reserve had rates back up to “more usual levels” - such as an official rate of 3, 4 or 5 per cent – not to give a big hint that Commonwealth Bank economists were right in predicting this week that the Reserve would start whacking up the official rate at its first board meeting after the May election.

And he was also making a quite different point. Settle back. Usually, he said, monetary policy (the manipulation of interest rates) is the primary tool with which to manage economic cycles, with fiscal policy (the manipulation of government spending and taxes in the budget) focusing on economic growth and budget stability.

Of course, in this conventional approach fiscal was complementary to monetary policy primarily through the workings of the budget’s “automatic stabilisers” (which cut tax collections and increase the number of dole payments when private sector demand is weak, but do the reverse when private demand is strong).

However, when major shocks to the economy come along, fiscal policy plays a more active role. And shocks to the economy don’t come bigger than the pandemic.

In any case, lockdowns cut the supply of goods and services, whereas monetary policy works to encourage demand – provided there’s plenty of scope to cut interest rates, which there wasn’t because rates were already close to zero.

So fiscal became the dominant policy instrument, with huge increases in government spending – including on the JobKeeper wage subsidy scheme – leading to huge increases in the budget deficit and public debt.

Got that? Now for Kennedy’s big announcement: “This unusual episode of macro-economic policy is now coming to an end.”

From here on, the dominant role will revert to monetary policy, with fiscal policy taking a step back.

Why? Well, partly because monetary policy will be busy for years getting interest rates back to “more usual levels”.

In which case, Kennedy says, “it is important that the withdrawal of fiscal policy support is tapered, as it currently is, to ensure that monetary policy has an opportunity to normalise”. (In the lingo of econocrats, “tapered” means something reduces slowly and steadily, not sharply and suddenly.)

As Kennedy says, the tapered withdrawal of fiscal policy support has already been arranged. That’s because all the government’s stimulus measures were designed to be temporary. So, as those programs wind up, the level of government spending – and the size of the budget deficit – will fall noticeably over the next few financial years.

Which means that what he’s really saying is there should be no additional, discretionary moves to hasten the return to a lower budget deficit. Why not? So monetary policy has an opportunity to “normalise”.

Get it? Over coming years, the Reserve will have to move interest rates up a long way to get them back where they should be – that is, to a level where borrowers have to compensate savers both for the loss of their money’s purchasing-power (that is, for inflation) and for being given the (temporary) use of the savers’ money.

But the Reserve’s scope to do this will be constrained if, while it’s trying to tighten monetary policy, the government’s rapidly tightening fiscal policy.

And Kennedy says there’s “an even more compelling reason” for fiscal policy support for demand not to be withdrawn too abruptly. Which is? “The opportunity to achieve full employment”. The “important opportunity to achieve and sustain full employment.”

No one knows how far unemployment can fall before shortages of labour cause wages to grow at rates that worsen inflation. Which, Kennedy says, suggests we need to exercise “a degree of caution” in tightening both fiscal policy and monetary policy.

All this fits with the remarks Reserve Bank governor Dr Philip Lowe made to a House of Reps committee the week before.

Lowe made it clear most of our inflation problem was temporary, not lasting. Although underlying inflation was 2.6 per cent, for the first time in years, “it is too early to conclude that inflation is sustainably in the target range”.

The Reserve has “scope to wait and see how the data develop and how some of the uncertainties are resolved” – one of which is whether “the stronger labour market [is] going to translate to higher wages”.

“I think it’s worth taking the time to have the uncertainties resolved and trying to secure this low rate of unemployment, which we have not had for 50 years.”

The financial types may be in panic mode over inflation, but it doesn’t sound to me like our top econocrats are in any mood to join them.

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Monday, February 7, 2022

Interest rate rises will be a good thing - provided they're not too soon

Sometimes I think you can divide the nation’s economy-watchers into those desperate to see the Reserve Bank start raising interest rates and those desperately hoping it won’t. As usual, the sensible position is somewhere between them.

To some, interest rate rises are always a bad thing. They’re either speaking from self-interest or they’re victims of a media that unfailingly assumes all its customers are borrowers and none are savers. Tell that to your grandma.

What gets missed in all the angst is that the need to raise rates is always a good sign. A sign the economy’s growing strongly – perhaps too strongly. Trust the media to see the glass as always half empty.

In the present debate, however, the financial-market urgers fear we have a burgeoning problem with inflation, which must be stamped out quickly if it’s not to become a raging bushfire.

On the other side, the econocrats and others not wanting to start raising rates any earlier than necessary see how close we are to achieving a “historic milestone” in getting the rate of unemployment below 4 per cent for the first time in 50 years.

They’re determined to see that goal achieved and put new meaning into the words “full employment” because they see it as key to avoiding a return to the low-growth trap in which we were caught before the pandemic.

And they want to ensure the return to low unemployment is more than fleeting by making sure we play our monetary policy (interest rates) and fiscal policy (the budget) cards right. As Reserve Bank governor Dr Philip Lowe said last week, “low unemployment brings with it very real economic and social benefits”.

In a way, we’re back to the great monetarists-versus-Keynesians debate of the mid-1970s: which is more important, low inflation or low unemployment? But, to use a phrase of Scott Morrison’s, it’s not binary choice. We need both; the trick is to pursue them in the right order.

Right now, the risk is that, by conning central banks into anti-inflation overkill, the markets will weaken the recovery from the pandemic, sending the rich economies back to the slow-growth trap.

But the debate about whether or when our Reserve should start raising interest rates has overshadowed an important development last week: its decision to end QE – quantitative easing; the Reserve buying second-hand government bonds with money it has created with a few computer key-strokes – by ceasing to buy $4 billion worth of bonds each week.

Lowe announced that, in total, the various elements of the Reserve’s QE program involved buying more than $350 billion in bonds. (He didn’t say that this means the Reserve has, in effect, financed more that all the government’s pandemic stimulus spending with created money. It’s all a book entry between the government and the central bank it owns.)

Among the various benefits of the QE program claimed by Lowe was that it led to Australia having “a lower exchange rate than would otherwise have been the case”. He noted, too, that the US Federal Reserve and other central banks were ending their QE programs.

And there you have the real reason why, with us having avoided QE after the global financial crisis, Lowe felt he had little choice but to join in the second, pandemic-related round.

The least doubted “benefit” of QE is that it puts downward pressure on the country’s exchange rate, at the expense of its trading partners’ price competitiveness.

So, when the mighty Fed indulges in QE, most other central banks feel they have to defend their own exchange rates by joining in. Any country that doesn’t join the game becomes the bunny whose exports suffer.

Lowe reminded us that ending the bond-buying program doesn’t constitute a tightening of monetary policy, but rather a cessation of further easing. True. The tightening – quantitative tightening, or QT – will come if, when the bonds it has bought reach maturity, the Reserve decides not to replace them with new bonds. It hasn’t yet decided what it will do.

The financial markets, the media and ordinary citizens are far more interested in what happens to interest rates than in the arcania of unconventional monetary policy. But this ending of QE is a reminder that it would hardly make sense to keep boring on with QE with one hand while putting up interest rates with the other.

It’s important to ensure we don’t risk cutting off our return to a sustained recovery by lifting interest rates too soon – that is, before our business people have been forced to abandon their perverse notion that it’s best to keep wage rates low forever – or raise interest rates too high.

We do want to emerge from the pandemic with more than just a once-only bounce-back from the lockdowns. We need ongoing growth, which requires a return to real growth in wages.

But remember this: the present “stance” monetary policy is highly stimulatory. That can’t go on for ever. With no sign whatever of wage growth becoming excessive, it’s obvious we don’t need to flip to the opposite extreme of interest rates so high they’re contractionary. We’re not trying to put the clamps on demand.

No, the next move, when it comes, will be from a stimulatory stance simply towards a neutral stance – one that’s neither stimulatory nor contractionary. That time will come when we’re confident the economy’s growth will be sustained. That’s when getting interest rates back to more normal levels will be a good sign, a sign of success.

And remember this: thanks to the world’s dubious experiment with unconventional monetary policy for more than a decade – with almost all the rich world’s central banks printing money like it’s going out of style – the monetary side of the world economy (including ours) is way out of whack.

For too long, borrowers have been paying interest rates that, after allowing for inflation, are negative, with savers receiving little or nothing to compensate them for their money’s lost purchasing power, let alone reward them for letting others use their money.

This is perverse. It’s the opposite of the way the economy’s supposed to work. It’s neither fair nor sensible. It’s the way to encourage investment that’s not genuinely productive. We won’t be back to anything like normal until, ultimately, interest rates are much higher.

Don’t forget that. Your grandma hasn’t.

Read more >>

Monday, December 20, 2021

Frydenberg right to put full employment ahead of budget repair

It’s hard to feel sympathy for a government that used ignorant scaremongering about the public debt to get elected in 2013, but now doesn’t want to mention the D-word and is being attacked by its own deluded conservatives (plus point-scoring Laborites). Even so, Treasurer Josh Frydenberg has his priorities right in leaving budget repair for later.

It’s noteworthy that the governments’ critics have turned their guns on the likelihood that Scott Morrison will use next year’s pre-election budget to announce yet another one-year extension of the low and middle-income tax offset at a one-off cost to the budget of $8 billion, while studiously ignoring the stronger case for abandoning the stage three tax cut legislated for July 2024, with an ongoing cost of double that.

Stage three is aimed at benefiting higher income-earners. Could this be mere coincidence? Trouble is, as Frydenberg has explained, “we have been working to a clear fiscal [budgetary] strategy to drive the unemployment rate to historically low levels” as we emerge from this great economic shock.

This being so, the only justification for a country with so much debt awarding itself another unfunded tax cut is that most of it will be spent rather than saved and thus hasten our achievement of very low unemployment.

But since households’ rate of saving tends to rise with their income, that makes the cheaper temporary low-and-middle tax cut likely to help much more than the dearer and long-lasting tax cut aimed at higher income-earners.

The belief that cutting tax rates helps by giving people greater incentive to work is an article of (self-interested) faith among high income-earners. And for the Liberal Party. Indeed, Frydenberg repeats this supposed self-evident truth many times a week.

But it’s not based on economic theory, nor supported by empirical evidence. The evidence is that a person’s marginal tax rate (the tax on any extra income they earn) doesn’t greatly affect the work effort of primary earners (mainly, men with full-time jobs) but does affect the work effort of secondary earners – particularly those with young children.

This is why the government’s decision in this year’s budget to greatly reduce the cost of childcare for second and subsequent children should do far more to raise workforce participation than the stage three tax cut ever could. Money well spent.

This, however, doesn’t fit the biases of many of those who profess to be so worried about our high public debt. Their real motive is just to pay less tax, which explains why they think all tax cuts and tax concessions are good, but all government spending is bad. This is economic nonsense.

Leaving aside the self-interest of high income-earners, many conservatives’ concern about our high level of debt is just instinctive. They have a gut feeling that it must be dangerous. They really ought to give the matter more study.

But here’s something even many well well-versed people don’t realise, mainly because it hasn’t suited the politicians and econocrats to tell them: effectively, all the bonds the government has had to issue to cover the huge budget deficits since the pandemic are now held by . . . the Reserve Bank of Australia - which, of course, is owned by the federal government.

So most of the extra interest the feds are paying will find its way back to the budget in the form of higher dividends from the Reserve.

This is not because the Reserve bought the new bonds directly from the government, but because its extensive program of “quantitative easing” – buying second-hand government bonds and paying for them by creating money out of thin air – has amounted to a sum roughly equal to the new bonds sold to the public (mainly to superannuation funds).

But the most important thing to understand is Frydenberg’s repeated statement that the government’s strategy is to “repair the budget by repairing the economy”. This is not just another meaning-free slogan, it’s a statement of fundamental economic truth and political reality.

Governments rarely pay off the debt they incur. Rather, they reborrow to cover their bonds as they fall due, and concentrate on ensuring the economy grows faster than the debt’s growing, thus reducing the debt relative to the size of the economy – and the taxes being paid by the people in the economy.

Which brings us back to where we started: Frydenberg’s strategy of forcing the pace of economic growth to get the rate of unemployment sustainably down to the low 4s or even lower.

This strategy – to keep pushing unemployment down until it’s clear the inflationary pips are squeaking – was first suggested by Professor Ross Garnaut in his book, Reset, and taken up by Peter Martin, of The Conversation website.

It was inspired by the example of the United States which, before the pandemic, got unemployment down to near 3 per cent before wages got moving.

The first point is that there’s nothing better you could do to make the economy bigger (and bigger relative to the public debt) than to ensure more of those who want to work actually get jobs, earning incomes and paying taxes.

Labour lying idle is the worst kind of economic inefficiency.

But the strategy has a deeper objective: to make the market for labour so tight that employers have no option but to increase wages to retain the people they need.

Like all sensible economic managers, Frydenberg’s unspoken concern is the risk that, once the economy has rebounded from the coronacession - with considerable help from temporary fiscal stimulus - it falls back into the “secular stagnation” low-growth trap that the rich countries have been caught in since the global financial crisis.

Our wage growth has stagnated since this government came to power. It’s the most important single cause and consequence of our low growth. Labor will be making hay with this in the election campaign.

Ending wage stagnation is the key to a sustainable return to a healthy rate of economic growth. And given the Coalition’s tribal objection to using regulatory reform to get wages moving, getting unemployment down and tightening the labour market is the right solution to the problem.

Once it has been solved, the budget balance will be improved and the public debt will be less worrying to the unversed. If Frydenberg can get us back to the lowest unemployment since the 1970s, he’ll be up there with Paul Keating as one of our greatest treasurers.


In this column last Monday I overstated the regressiveness of the stage three tax cut. I quoted a summary of the findings of analysis by the Parliamentary Budget Office, but should have checked it. The office’s actual findings are that about two-thirds of the tax cut will go to taxpayers earning $120,000 or more. The highest-earning 20 per cent of taxpayers will receive more than three-quarters of the money. My statement that only a third will go to women remains correct.

Read more >>

Friday, December 17, 2021

Like election promises, many budget forecasts never materialise

You’d think after the fiasco of Back in Black, Josh Frydenberg would have learnt not to count his budgets before they’re hatched. But no, he’s a politician facing an election and nothing else matters.

His message in this week’s mid-year budget update is: the virus is in the past and the economy is fixed – as you’d expect of such great economic managers as our good selves.

Well, it’s not certain the pandemic has finished messing with the economy. Unmessed with, we can be confident the economy will bounce back the way it did after last year’s national lockdown. But there’s no guarantee it will be soaring high into the sky.

The main thing to remember is that a budget forecast is just a forecast. Under all governments – but particularly this one – a lot of forecasts never come to pass.

It was the unexpected pandemic, of course, whose arrival stopped the budget deficit ever turning into a surplus, despite Morrison and Frydenberg’s repeated claim in the last election campaign that we already were Back in Black. They even produced coffee mugs to prove it.

Frydenberg’s big word this week for the economy under his management is “strong”. He is sticking to the government’s “plan to secure Australia’s strong recovery from the greatest economic shock since the Great Depression”.

“Having performed more strongly than any major advanced economy throughout the pandemic, the Australian economy is poised for strong growth” in real gross domestic product of 4.5 per cent this calendar year and 4.25 per cent next year, his budget outlook says.

This reflects “strong and broad-based momentum in the economy”. “Income-tax cuts and a strong recovery in the labour market are seeing household consumption increase at its fastest pace in more than two decades” while “temporary tax incentives will drive the strongest increase in business investment since the mining boom, with non-mining investment expected to reach record levels”.

Consistent with the “strong economic recovery”, the rate of unemployment is forecast to reach 4.25 per cent in the June quarter of 2023 which, apart from a brief period before the global financial crisis in 2008, would be the first time we’ve had a sustained unemployment rate below 5 per cent since the early 1970s.

This, should it actually come to pass, really would be something to crow about. But the return to a goal of achieving genuine full employment has been made necessary by this government’s chronic inability to achieve decent growth in real wages.

Without such growth you don’t get sustained strong growth in consumer spending and, hence, adequate growth in the economy overall. Thus the economic managers have become so desperate they’re trying to create a shortage of labour, as the only way of forcing employers to resume awarding decent pay rises.

Trouble is, this could become a vicious circle: you won’t get employment growing strongly and unemployment falling without sustained strong growth in consumer spending, but you won’t get that until real wages are growing strongly.

Frydenberg’s advance advertising for the budget update said that, under his revised forecasts, the rate of increase in wages will get greater each year for the next four years. According to his modelling, he said, on average a person working full time could see an increase of $2500 a year till 2024-25.

But, assuming it happens, that makes it sound a lot better than it is. Comparing the rise in the wage price index with the rise in the consumer price index, real wages fell by 2.1 per cent last financial year, 2020-21.

Since that’s in the past, we know it actually happened. Turning to the budget’s revised forecasts, real wages are expected to fall by a further 0.5 per cent this financial year, before rising by 0.25 per cent in the following year, then by 0.5 per cent the next year and by 0.75 per cent in 2024-25.

Doesn’t sound like a lot to boast about. If it actually happens, Frydenberg’s “plan to secure the recovery and set Australia up for the future” will have taken another three or four years before it’s delivering for wage earners.

To be fair, this week we did get impressive evidence that the economy is rebounding strongly from the lockdowns in Sydney, Canberra and Melbourne. In just one month – November – employment grew by a remarkable 366,000, while the unemployment rate fell from 5.2 per cent to 4.6 per cent. And there was a big fall in the rate of underemployment.

It’s a matter of history that the economy did bounce back strongly from the initial, nationwide lockdown last year. (This, by the way, shows the pandemic bears no comparison with the Great Depression.)

It’s noteworthy that, whereas the update’s fine print says the economy is “rebounding” strongly, Frydenberg says the economy is “recovering” strongly. The two aren’t the same. This week’s wonderful employment figures say we can be confident the economy is rebounding after the latest lockdowns just as strongly as in did the first time.

But a rebound gets you quickly back to square one. It doesn’t necessarily mean that, having rebounded, you’ll go on growing at a faster rate than the anemic rate at which we were growing before the pandemic.

That remains to be seen. And that’s where Frydenberg is being presumptuous with all his confident inference that a strong recovery’s already in the bag.

Lots of things could confound his happy forecasts. The obvious one is more trouble from the virus. Less obvious is this. You may think that getting unemployment down to 4.6 per cent in November means we’ll have no trouble achieving the forecast of getting it down to 4.25 per cent by June 2023.

But you’ve forgotten something. One important reason we’ve had so much success getting unemployment down to amazing levels is because we’ve done it with closed borders. When the borders reopen, it will become a lot harder.

Read more >>

Monday, December 6, 2021

Panicking financial markets could stuff up another global recovery

In economics, there’s not much new under the sun. When I became a journalist in the mid-1970s, the big debate was about which mattered more: inflation or unemployment. You may not realise it, but that’s the great cause of contention today.

With prices having risen surprisingly rapidly this year in the US and Britain – but few other advanced economies – we’re witnessing a battle between people in the financial markets, who fear inflation is back with a vengeance and want interest rates up to get it back under control, and the central banks.

The central bankers see the higher prices as a transitory consequence of the supply and energy disruptions arising from the pandemic. They fear that, once their economies have rebounded from the government-ordered lockdowns and fear-induced reluctance to venture forth, their economies will soon fall back to into the “secular stagnation” or weak-growth trap that gripped the advanced economies for more than a decade following the 2008 global financial crisis until the arrival of the pandemic early last year.

The decade of weak growth involved high rates of saving but low rates of business investment, record low interest rates, weak rates of improvement in the productivity of labour, low wage growth and, not surprisingly, inflation running below the central banks’ target rates. All that spelt adequate supply capacity, but chronically weak demand.

In the months before the arrival of the pandemic, central banks grappled with the puzzle of why economic growth had been so weak for so long – and what they could do about it.

In particular, our Reserve Bank had to ask itself why it had gone year after year forecasting an imminent rise in wage growth, without it ever happening. With such weak growth in real wages – the economy’s chief source of income – it was hardly surprising that consumer spending and growth generally were weak, and that inflation remained well below the Reserve’s target.

Earlier this year, with the economy rebounding so strongly from last year’s nationwide lockdown – but before the Delta setback – the econocrats in the Reserve and Treasury realised that recovering from the coronacession wouldn’t be a problem.

But once all the fiscal stimulus and pent-up consumer spending had been exhausted and the economy returned to its pre-pandemic state, where would the impetus for further growth come from? Certainly not, it seemed, from healthy growth in real wages.

What explained the way we’d finally joined the Americans in their decades-long wage stagnation? And what could central banks do about it? The obvious answer seemed to be to run a much tighter labour market and see if that got wages moving.

Perhaps, as a hangover from the 1970s and ’80s, when the world really did have an inflation problem, we’d continued worrying too much about inflation and not enough about getting the economy back to full employment.

For years we’d been making these fancy theoretical estimates of the NAIRU – the non-accelerating-inflation rate of unemployment; the point to which unemployment could fall before labour shortages caused inflation to take off – but unemployment rates had fallen quite low without the remotest sign of excessive wage growth.

Perhaps we should be less pre-emptive. Stop relying on theoretical estimates and just keep allowing the economy to grow until we had proof that wages really were taking off before we applied the interest-rate brakes.

And perhaps we should base decisions to raise rates on actual evidence of a problem with inflation – including, particularly, evidence of excessive growth in real wages – rather than on mere forecasts of rising inflation.

Our Reserve’s thinking was matched by the US Federal Reserve’s. Chairman Jerome Powell told Congress in July 2019 “we have learned that the economy can sustain much lower unemployment than we thought without troubling levels of inflation.”

Which brings us to this year’s budget, back in May. Although the economy seemed clearly to be rebounding from the coronacession, and debt and deficit were high, Treasurer Josh Frydenberg swore off the disastrous policy of “austerity” (government spending cuts and tax increases) that panicking financial markets had conned the big advanced economies into after the Great Recession, thus crippling their recoveries.

While allowing the assistance measures for the initial lockdown to terminate as planned, the budget announced big spending on childcare and aged care, following a strategy of “repairing the budget by repairing the economy”.

Treasury secretary Dr Steven Kennedy and Reserve governor Dr Philip Lowe made it clear they wanted to keep the economy growing strongly until the unemployment rate was down to the low 4s – something we hadn’t seen for decades – as the best hope of getting some decent growth in real wages.

This is still what the central banks want to see: a new era of much lower unemployment and, as a consequence, much healthier rises in real wages to power a move to stronger economic growth than we saw in the decade before the pandemic.

But now Wall Street is panicking over the surprisingly big price rises caused by the pandemic’s disruption, and has convinced itself inflation’s taking off like a rocket. If the Fed doesn’t act quickly to jack up interest rates, high and rising inflation will become entrenched.

Despite our marked lack of worrying price rises, our financial markets – not known for their independent thinking – have joined the inflation panic, betting that, despite all Lowe says to the contrary, our Reserve will be putting up rates continuously through the second half of next year.

So convinced of this are the market dealers that the (better educated) market economists who service them have begun thinking up more plausible arguments as so why rates may need to move earlier than the Reserve expects. ANZ Bank’s Richard Yetsenga, for instance, fears that if everyone tries to spend all the money they’ve saved during the lockdowns, “rates will need to rise to crimp spending intentions”.

See what’s happening? According to the financial markets, the pandemic has not merely cured a decade of secular stagnation, it’s transported us back to the 1970s and out-of-control inflation. That’s the big threat, and unemployment will have to wait.

Apparently, this dramatic reversal in the economy’s fortunes has occurred without workers getting even one decent pay rise.

There are three obvious weaknesses in this logic. First, globalisation has not made our economy a carbon copy of America’s. Second, there’s a big difference between a lot of one-off price rises and ongoing inflation. If the price rises don’t lead to higher wages, no inflation spiral.

Third, even if the central banks did get a bit worried, they’d start by ending and then reversing “quantitative easing” – creating money from thin air – before they got to raising the official interest rate.

Read more >>

Friday, May 7, 2021

Our closed borders have turbo-charged the economy's recovery

The economy’s rebound from the lockdowns of last year has been truly remarkable – far better than anyone dared to hope. Even so, it’s not quite as miraculous as it looks.

As Tuesday’s budget leads us to focus on the outlook for the economy in the coming financial year, it’s important to remember that the coronacession hasn’t been like a normal recession. And the recovery from it won’t be like a normal recovery either.

The coronacession is unique for several reasons. The first is that the blow to economic activity – real gross domestic product - was much greater than we’ve experienced in any recession since World War II and almost wholly contained within a single quarter.

The reason for that is simple: it happened because our federal and state governments decided that the best way to stop the spread of the virus was to lock down the economy for a few weeks. But because this was a government-ordered recession, the governments were in no doubt about their obligation to counter the cost to workers and businesses with monetary assistance.

So the second respect in which this recession was different was the speed with which governments provided their “fiscal stimulus” and the unprecedented amount of it: for the feds alone, $250 billion, equivalent to more than 12 per cent of GDP.

But there’s a less-recognised third factor adding to the coronacession’s uniqueness: this time the government ordered the closing of our international borders. Virtually no one entering Australia and no one going out.

The independent economist Saul Eslake points out that “an important but under-appreciated reason for the so-far surprisingly rapid decline in unemployment, from its lower-than-expected peak of 7.5 per cent last July, is the absence of any immigration: which means that the civilian working-age population is now growing at (on average over the past two quarters) only 8,300 per month, compared with an average of 27,700 per month over the three years to March 2020,” he says.

This means that, with an unchanged rate of people choosing to participate in the labour force by either holding a job or seeking one, a rate that’s already at a record high, employment needs only to grow at about a third of its pre-pandemic rate in order to hold the rate of unemployment steady.

So any growth in employment in excess of that brings unemployment tumbling down.

Get it? It’s not just that the bounce back in jobs growth has been much quicker and stronger than we expected. It’s also that, thanks to the absence of immigration, this has reduced the unemployment rate much more than it usually does.

To put it another way, Eslake says, if the population of working age continues growing over the remainder of this year at the much-slower rate at which it’s been growing over the past six months, employment has to grow by an average of just 17,000 a month to push the unemployment rate down to just below 5 per cent by the end of this year (assuming the rate of labour-force participation stays the same).

By contrast, if the working-age population was continuing to grow at its pre-pandemic rate, employment growth would need to average 29,000 a month to get us down to 5 per cent unemployment by the end of this year.

Now, it’s true that as well as adding to the supply of labour, immigration also adds to the demand for labour. So its absence is also working to slow the growth in employment. But this has been more than countered by two factors.

The obvious one is the governments’ massive fiscal stimulus. But Eslake reminds us of the less-obvious factor: our closed borders have prevented Australians from doing what they usually do a lot of: going on (often expensive) overseas trips.

He estimates that this spending usually amounts to roughly $55 billion a year. But we’re spending a fair bit of this “saving” on domestic tourism – or on our homes.

Of course, we need to remember that, as well as stopping us from touring abroad, the closed borders are also stopping foreigners from touring here. But, in normal times, we spend more on overseas tourism than foreigners spend here. (In the strange language of econospeak, we are “net importers of tourism services”.)

Eslake estimates that our ban on foreign tourists (and international students) is costing us more than $22 billion – about 1.25 per cent of GDP – a year in export income. Clearly, however, our economy is well ahead on this (temporary) deal.

Another economist who’s been thinking harder than the rest of us about the consequences of our closed borders is Gareth Aird, of the Commonwealth Bank.

The decision by Scott Morrison and Josh Frydenberg to “continuing to prioritise job creation” and so drive the unemployment rate down much further, has led to much discussion of the NAIRU – the “non-accelerating-inflation rate of unemployment” – the lowest level unemployment can fall to before wages and prices take off.

The econocrats believe that little-understood changes in the structure of the advanced economies may have lowered our NAIRU to 4.5 per cent or even less. But Aird reminds us that, for as long as our international borders remain closed, the NAIRU is likely to be higher than that.

“If firms are not able to recruit from abroad then, as the labour market tightens, skill shortages will manifest themselves faster than otherwise and this will allow some workers to push for higher pay,” he says.

“There is a lot of uncertainty around when the international borders will reopen, what that means for net overseas migration and how that will impact on wage outcomes.”

But “in industries with skill shortages, bargaining power between the employee and employer should move more favourably in the direction of the employee and higher wages should be forthcoming,” he concludes.

Higher wages is what the government’s hoping for, of course. Interesting times lie ahead.

Read more >>

Tuesday, April 27, 2021

Morrison's budget task: stop the economy's roar turning to a meow

Scott Morrison and Josh Frydenberg look like they’re sitting pretty as they finalise what may be their last budget before the federal election due by the first half of next year. Look deeper, however, and you see they face a serious risk of the economy’s recovery losing momentum over the coming financial year. But, equally, they have a chance to show themselves as the best economic managers since John Howard’s days.

So far, the strength of the economy’s rebound from the “coronacession” has exceeded all expectations. Judged by the quantity of the nation’s production of goods and services, the economy contracted hugely during the three months to June last year. As our borders were closed, many industries were ordered to stop trading and you and I were told to leave home as little as possible.

But with the lifting of the lockdown in the second half of the year, the economy took off. It rebounded so strongly in the next two quarters that, by the end of December, our production – real gross domestic product – was just 1 per cent below what it had been a year earlier, before the arrival of the coronavirus.

The rebound in jobs is even more remarkable. The number of people in jobs fell by almost 650,000 in April and May, and that’s not counting the many hundreds of thousands of workers who kept their jobs thanks only to the JobKeeper scheme.

But as soon as the lockdown was eased, employment took off. By last month, it was actually a fraction higher than it had been in March 2020. We’d been warned the rate of unemployment would reach 10 per cent, but in fact it peaked at 7.5 per cent in July and is now down to 5.6 per cent. Before this year’s out, it’s likely to have fallen to the 5.1 per cent it was before the pandemic.

The confidence of both businesses and consumers is now higher than it has been for ages. Same for the number of job vacancies. Share prices are riding high (not that I set much store by that).

Little wonder the financial press has proclaimed the economy to be “roaring”. Hardly a bad place to be when preparing another budget. What could possibly go wrong?

Just this. The main reason the economy has rebounded so strongly is the unprecedented sums the government spent on JobKeeper, the JobSeeker supplement, HomeBuilder and countless other programs with gimmicky names. Spending totalling a quarter of a trillion dollars.

What it proves is that “fiscal stimulus” works a treat. Trouble is, all those programs were designed to be temporary and the biggest of them have already been wound up. So, though not all the stimulus has yet been spent, it’s clear the stimulus is waning.

And this at a time when there’s no other major force likely to drive the economy onwards and upwards. Business investment spending is way below normal. Growth in the wage income of consumers has been weak for six years or more and, for many workers at present, frozen.

Because all the stimulus programs are stopping, the government’s update last December estimated that the budget deficit for the next financial year will be $90 billion less than the deficit for the year soon ending.

This may sound good, but it means that, whereas last year the government put far more money into the economy than it took out in taxes and charges, in the coming year it expects the budget’s contribution to growth to fall by $90 billion – the equivalent of about 4 per cent of GDP.

So that’s the big risk we face: that before long the economy’s roar will turn to no more than a loud meow.

Now to Morrison and Frydenberg’s chance of greatness. Their temptation is to get unemployment back to the pre-pandemic rate of 5 per cent and call it quits. That’s certainly what previous governments would have done.

But let me ask you a question: do you regard an unemployment rate of 5 per cent as equal to full employment? Is that where everyone who wants a job has got one?

Hardly. And, as Professor Ross Garnaut has argued in his latest book, Reset, there’s evidence that we can get unemployment much lower – say, 3.5 per cent or less – before we’d have any problem with soaring wage and price inflation.

The good news is that the answers to the Morrison government’s risk of economic failure and its chance of economic greatness are the same: keep the budgetary stimulus coming for as long as it takes the private sector to revive and take up the slack.

That means finding new spending programs to take the place of JobKeeper and the rest. And here Morrison’s political and economic needs are a good fit. Making an adequate response to the report of the aged care royal commission will take big bucks.

And he needs to make this a hugely women-centred budget in marked contrast to last year’s. Obvious answer: do what the women’s movement has long been demanding and make childcare free.

Read more >>

Saturday, February 27, 2021

We must stop making excuses and push now for full employment

In his new book, Reset, outlining a plan to get the economy back to top performance, Professor Ross Garnaut makes the radical proposal to keep stimulating the economy until we reach full employment within four years. Excellent idea. But what is full employment? Short answer: economists don’t know.

In principle, every economist believes achieving full employment is the supreme goal of economic policy, because it would mean using every opportunity to get everyone working who wants to work and so achieve the maximum possible rate of improvement in our material living standards.

In practice, however, we haven’t achieved full employment consistently since the early 1970s – a failure that few economists seem to lose sleep over. It’s like St Augustine’s prayer: Lord make me pure – but not yet.

The economists’ ambivalence starts with the truth that, contrary to what you’d expect, full employment can’t mean an unemployment rate of zero. That’s because, at any point in time, there’ll always be some people moving between jobs.

In the days when we did achieve full employment, from the end of World War II until the early ’70s, its practical definition was an unemployment rate of less than 2 per cent.

But then economists realised that the full employment we wanted had to be lasting – “sustainable”. And if you had the economy running red hot with everyone in jobs and using the shortage of labour to demand big pay rises, this would push up the prices businesses had to charge and inflation would take off. The managers of the economy would then have to jam on the brakes, and before long we’d be back to having lots of unemployed workers.

This was when economists decided that sustainable full employment meant achieving the NAIRU – the “non-accelerating-inflation” rate of unemployment. This was the lowest point to which the unemployment rate could fall before wages and inflation began accelerating.

This makes sense as a concept. So the economic managers decided they could use fiscal policy (increases in government spending or cuts in taxes) and monetary policy (cuts in interest rates) to push the economy towards full employment, but they should stop pushing as soon as the actual unemployment rate fell down close to the NAIRU.

Trouble is, the NAIRU is “unobservable” – you can’t see it and measure it. So economists are always doing calculations to estimate its level. But every economist’s estimate is different, and their estimates keep rising and falling over time for unexplained reasons.

In the 1980s, people thought the NAIRU was about 7 per cent. In the late ’90s, when someone suggested we could get unemployment down to 5 per cent, many economists laughed. But it happened.

For a long time, our econocrats had it stuck at “about 5 per cent”. But the rich economies have been stuck in a low-growth trap, with surprisingly weak growth in wages and prices, even as unemployment edged down. This suggests the NAIRU may now be lower than our calculations suggest.

Garnaut recounts in his book US Federal Reserve chairman Jerome Powell saying that, in 2012, the Fed thought America’s NAIRU was 5.5 per cent. In 2020, they thought it had fallen to 4.1 per cent. But this seems still too high because, before the virus struck, the actual unemployment rate had fallen to 3.5 per cent without much inflation.

In Australia, in 2019 the Reserve lowered its estimate to a number that “begins with 4 not 5”, or “about 4.5 per cent”. With wage growth “subdued” for the past seven years, and consumer prices growing by less than 2 per cent a year for six years, this downward correction is hardly surprising. Indeed, Garnaut thinks the true figure could be 3.5 per cent or less.

But Treasury secretary Dr Steven Kennedy said last October he thought the coronacession, like all recessions, had probably increased the NAIRU - to about 5 per cent.

Now get this. Treasurer Josh Frydenberg has said he won’t start trying to reduce the budget deficit – apply the fiscal brakes – until unemployment is “comfortably below 6 per cent”.

Really? That would be well above any realistic estimate of the NAIRU. So the Morrison government is saying it will stop using the budget to reach full employment well before it’s in sight, making reducing government debt its top priority. We’d love to get everyone possible back to work but, unfortunately, we can’t afford it.

So we’re prepared to let continuing unemployment erode the skills of those who go for months or even years without a job because the cost of helping them is just too high. Those likely to be most “scarred” by this will be young people leaving education in search of their first proper job.

But we’ll blight their early working lives in ways that will harm them – and the economy they’ll be making a diminished contribution to - for years to come. That’s okay, however, because we’ll be doing it – so we tell ourselves – to ensure we don’t leave the next generation with a lot of government debt.

Yeah sure. In truth, we’ll be doing it because, so long as I and my kids have jobs, we’ve learnt to live with a lot of other people not having them. We believe in full employment, but we’re happy to continue living without it.

This complacency is what Garnaut says must change. He’s right. He’s right too in saying that with the rise in wages and prices so weak for so long, we should stop trying to guess where the NAIRU is. “We can find out what it is by increasing the demand for labour until wages in the labour market are rising at a rate that threatens to take inflation above the Reserve Bank [2 to 3 per cent] range for an extended period,” he says.

And here’s something else to remember: the Reserve has begun warning that we won’t get back to meaningful real wage growth until we get back to full employment.

Read more >>

Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Ross Garnaut's new plan to lift us out of mediocrity

If your greatest wish is for the virus to go away as we all get vaccinated, and then for everything to get back to normal, I have bad news. You’ve been beaten into submission – forced to lower your expectations of what life should be bringing us, and our nation’s leaders should be leading us to.

Without us noticing, we’ve learnt to live in a world where both sides of politics can field only their B teams. Where our politicians are good at dividing us and making us fearful of change, but no good at uniting us, inspiring us and taking us somewhere better for ourselves and our kids.

Scott Morrison hopes that if he can get us vaccinated without major mishap and get the economy almost back to where it was at the end of 2019, that should be enough to get him re-elected. He’s probably right. Even his Labor opponents fear he is.

Fortunately, whenever our elected leaders’ ambition extends little further than to their own survival for another three years, there’s often someone volunteering to fill the vision vacuum, to supply the aspiration the pollies so conspicuously lack. Among the nation’s economists, that person is Professor Ross Garnaut, of the University of Melbourne.

In a book published on Monday, Reset: Restoring Australia after the pandemic recession, Garnaut argues we need to aim much higher than getting back to the “normal” that existed in the seven years between the end of the China resource boom in 2012 and the arrival of the virus early last year.

For a start, that period wasn’t nearly good enough to be accepted as normal. Unemployment and underemployment remained stubbornly high – in the latter years, well above the rates in developed countries that suffered greater damage from the global financial crisis in 2008-09 than us, he says.

“Wages stagnated. Productivity and output per person grew more slowly than in the United States, or Japan, or the developed world as a whole,” he says. (If that weakness comes as a surprise to you, it’s because our population grew much faster than in other rich countries, making it look like we were growing faster than them. We got bigger without living standards getting better.)

So that wasn’t too wonderful, but Garnaut argues if that’s what we go back to, it will be worse this time. Living standards would remain lower, and unemployment and underemployment would linger above the too-high levels of 2019.

We’d have a lot more public debt, business investment would be lower and we’d gain less from our international trade, partly because of slower world growth, partly because of problems in our relations with China.

Continuing high unemployment would devalue the skills of many workers, particularly the young. Many of our most important economic institutions – starting with the universities – have been diminished.

The new normal would be more disrupted than the old one by the accumulating effects of climate change and continuing disputes about how to respond to this.

So Garnaut proposes radical changes to existing economic policies to make the economy stronger, fairer, and to treat climate change as an opportunity to gain rather than a cause of loss.

At the centre of his plan is returning the economy to full employment by 2025. That is, get the rate of unemployment down from 6.5 per cent to 3.5 per cent or lower – the lowest it’s been since the early 1970s.

This would make the economy both richer and fairer, since it’s the jobless who’d benefit most. Returning to full employment would take us back to the old days when wages rose much faster than prices and living standards kept improving.

Returning to full employment, he says, would require a radical change to the way businesses pay company tax and the introduction of a guaranteed minimum income, paid to almost all adults at the present rate of the dole, tax-free and indexed to inflation.

It would involve rolling the present income tax and social security benefits into one system. This would benefit people working in the gig economy and other low-paid and insecure jobs, and greatly reduce the effective tax rates that discourage women and some men from moving from part-time to full-time work.

Changing the basis of company tax would cost the budget a lot in the early years but then raise a lot more in the later years. The guaranteed minimum income would cost a lot but would become more affordable as more people were in jobs and paying tax.

Much of the economic growth Garnaut seeks would come from greater exports. Australia’s natural strengths in renewable energy and our role as the world’s main source of minerals requiring large amounts of energy for processing into metals creates the opportunity for large-scale investment in new export industries. We could produce large exports of zero-emissions chemical manufactures based on biomass, and also sell carbon credits to foreigners.

Of recent years, Australia has fallen into the hands of mediocrities telling us how well they – and we – are doing. Surely we can do better.

Read more >>

Monday, June 1, 2020

Reserve Bank has just one thing to say to Scott Morrison

It’s possible Reserve Bank governor Dr Philip Lowe has been reading a book about speechmaking – the one that says: keep the message simple and keep saying it until it sinks in. See if you can detect his one big message last week in his evidence to the Senate inquiry into the response to the coronavirus.

Lowe said that when the JobKeeper wage subsidy scheme was due to end in late September was "a critical point for the economy". This was also when the banks’ six-month deferral of mortgage and other payments would come to an end.

"It will be important to review the parameters of that [JobKeeper] scheme. It may be that, in four months’ time, we bounce back well, and the economy does reasonably well, and these schemes, which were temporary in nature, can be withdrawn without problems," he said.

"But if the economy has not recovered reasonably well by then, as part of [Treasury’s] review we should perhaps be looking at an extension of the scheme, or a modification in some way. . . More generally, right through the next year or so, I think the economy is going to need support from both monetary policy [interest rates] and fiscal policy [the budget].

"There are certain risks if we withdraw that support too early. I know, from the Reserve Bank’s perspective, we’re going to keep the monetary support going for a long period of time, and I’m hopeful that the fiscal support will be there for a long period of time.

"If the economy picks up more quickly, that can be withdrawn safely. But if the recovery is very drawn out, then it’s going to be very important that we keep the fiscal support going," he said.

The Reserve’s contribution was to keep interest rates low and make sure credit was available. It had the official interest rate down at 0.25 per cent, which was effectively as low as it could go. But, as the head of the US Federal Reserve kept saying, "Central banks work through lending, not through spending".

"So it’s an indirect channel and there’s a limit to what we can do. . . Going forward, fiscal policy will have to play a more significant role in managing the economic cycle than it has in the past. . . In the next little while there’s not going to be very much scope at all to use monetary policy in [the way it’s been used in the past 20 years].

"So I think fiscal policy will have to be used, and that’s going to require a change in mindset," he said.

Lowe said he thought it was going to be "a long drawn-out process" to get back to full employment which, before the crisis, he’d thought was an unemployment rate of 4.5 per cent, "which means that we’re going to keep interest rates where they are perhaps for years".

It was too early to say what the economy was going to be like in four months’ time, but "if we have not come out of the current trough in economic activity, there will be, and there should be, a debate about how the JobKeeper program transitions into something else, whether it’s extended for specific industries or somehow tapered".

"It’s very important that we don’t withdraw the fiscal stimulus too early," he said, adding a minute later that "my main concern is that we don’t withdraw the fiscal stimulus too early".

Several minutes later, in answer to another question, he said that "if we’re still in the situation where there hasn’t been a decent bounce-back in four or five months’ time, then ending that fiscal support prematurely could be damaging".

Later: "My main point here is: we’ve got to keep the fiscal stimulus going until recovery is assured. I’ve seen, particularly over the past decade, the fiscal stimulus withdrawn too quickly and the economy suffered".

He’s referring, I think, to the US, Britain and the euro-zone countries which, not long after their recoveries from the global financial crisis in 2009, took fright at their rising levels of public debt and switched abruptly to policies of "austerity" – cutting government spending and raising taxes – causing their economies to languish for the past decade.

"The level of public debt in Australia, while it’s rising, is still low. The government can borrow for three years at 0.25 per cent, and it can borrow for 10 years at 0.9 per cent. The [Treasury] held a bond auction two weeks ago and it was able to borrow $19 billion at 1 per cent for 10 years.

"The Australian government has the capability to borrow more, and I think it would be a mistake to withdraw the fiscal stimulus too quickly," he said.

I think I’m getting the message, but is it getting through to Scott Morrison and Treasurer Josh Frydenberg?
Read more >>

Saturday, January 4, 2020

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now some qualifications.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, September 2, 2019

Our leaders slowly come to grips with a different economy

The beginning of economic wisdom is to understand that the advanced economies – including ours – have stopped working the way they used to and won’t be returning to the old normal.

Second in the getting of wisdom is to understand that economists are still debating why the economy is behaving so differently – so poorly - and what we can do about it.

Last week Reserve Bank governor Dr Philip Lowe gave a speech to a conference of central bankers in Wyoming revealing his acceptance that, as he put it, the economic managers are having to “navigate when the stars are shifting”.

And Treasurer Josh Frydenberg gave a speech on Australia’s productivity challenge, which offered the Morrison government’s first acknowledgement that maybe not everything in Australia’s economic garden is rosy.

The shifting “stars” to which Lowe alluded were economists' estimates of the rate of full employment and the equilibrium real interest rate – both of which have moved downwards. He said that economists have become very good at developing explanations for why this has happened.

“Even so, the reality is that our understanding is still far from complete about what constitutes full employment in our economies and how the equilibrium interest rate is going to move in the future,” he said.

He offered two likely explanations for why the stars had moved. First, major changes around the world in the appetite to save and to invest. People were saving more despite low interest rates, and were borrowing less to fund physical investment despite low interest rates.

On the saving side, these changes were linked to demographics (the ageing population), the rise of Asia (which saves a lot) and the legacy of too much borrowing in the past.

On the investment side, the links were to slower productivity improvement and “importantly, increased uncertainty and a lack of confidence about the future”.

The second major change was an increased perception of competition as a result of globalisation and advances in technology. “More competition means less pricing power, for both firms and workers,” he said.

In all this he gave the lie to the latest line that our economy is going fine, it’s just the threat from abroad that’s the problem. Nonsense. Our economy is slowing to a crawl because of weak real wage growth. The external threat just makes it worse.

After giving a learned account of our slower rate of productivity improvement (and acknowledging that it’s happening throughout the developed world), Frydenberg admitted that business investment spending was not as strong as it ought to be.

But then he stepped into the lions’ den. Rather than returning capital to shareholders, business needed to back itself – make its own luck – by using its strong balance sheet (and exceptionally low interest rates) to “invest and grow”.

The fury of the righteous descended upon him, with the business media in full cry. It really is amazing the way business people boast about the centrality of the private sector to the economy and its success, but refuse to accept any responsibility for its outcomes.

Any weaknesses in the economy are solely the government’s fault, and feel free to criticise it uphill and down dale – not to mention using problems in the economy as a pretext for rent-seeking. Don’t even think that the performance of business could be less than blameless. Who do you think invented the term “all care but not responsibility”?

Even so, I fear business is right in protesting that the reason it’s not investing is that, with demand so weak, it can’t see how expanding its production capacity could be profitable.

This problem began long before Trump started playing his crazy trade-war games, but there’s little doubt that the uncertainty he has created is adding to firms’ reluctance to commit to major investment projects. And the more people delay their investment plans until the future is clearer, the greater the risk that conditions deteriorate and the investment never gets done.

Dr Mike Keating, a former top econocrat, argues that productivity improvement is weak because business investment spending is weak. It’s when businesses install the latest and best machines and systems that new technology is diffused through the economy, lifting productivity.

So when weak wage growth leads to weak growth in consumption, you don’t get enough business investment and, hence, slower productivity improvement.

Government intervention to improve workers’ bargaining power may help speed up the flow of income through the system, but Keating believes a lasting improvement will come mainly by making education and training more effective in helping workers adapt to and adopt new technologies.
Read more >>

Saturday, February 17, 2018

How our economic prospects turn on wage growth

You know the world's behaving strangely when you hear a heavy from the central bank saying it's expecting more "progress" on the "turnaround in inflation", then realise they're hoping inflation will go higher.

That's just what Dr Luci Ellis, the Reserve Bank's third heaviest heavy, told a bunch of economists at a conference this week.

Why would anyone hope for prices to be rising faster than they are? Not so much because higher prices are a good thing in themselves, as because rising inflation is usually a sign of an economy that's growing strongly and keeping unemployment low.

By contrast, very low inflation – say, below 2 per cent – is usually a sign of an economy that's not growing strongly, with unemployment either rising or higher than it should be.

Ellis' remarks are a reminder that the economy's biggest problem at present is weak growth in wages. She knows that if prices started rising faster, the most likely explanation would be higher growth in wages, which employers were passing on to their customers by raising their prices.

What could oblige employers to increase the wages they pay? Their need to retain or attract more workers – particularly skilled workers – at a time when the demand for labour was rising, caused typically by increased demand for the goods and services businesses were employing people to produce.

The point to note here is that the Reserve's mental model of inflation is of what economists used to call "demand-pull" inflation. It's simple: the prices of goods and services rise when the demand for them is outpacing their supply.

Note, too, that this involves an inverse relationship between inflation and unemployment: when one goes up, the other goes down, and vice versa. Economists call this the "Phillips curve", named after its discoverer, Bill Phillips, a Kiwi economist.

Ellis confirmed that, although the economy (real gross domestic product) grew at a trend rate of just 2.4 per cent over the year to September, the Reserve's forecast that growth will pick up to about 3¼ per cent over this year and next remains unchanged.

This will involve a pick-up in wage growth and inflation, she said.

The Reserve is more confident of these forecasts than it was when it first made them in early November. Even so, Ellis admitted to some particular "uncertainties": how much production capacity in the economy is going spare at present, and how much, and how quickly, wage growth and inflation will pick up as spare capacity declines.

How much unused production capacity remains in the economy matters because, until it's used up, the economy can grow much faster than it can once the economy's at full capacity – full employment of labour and capital – without this causing inflation pressure to build.

Once the economy is at full employment, how fast rising demand can cause the economy to grow without also causing higher inflation is determined by the economy's "potential" growth rate – that is, by the rate at which rising participation in the labour force, increasing investment in capital equipment and improving productivity are adding to the economy's ability to produce more goods and services.

That is, how fast potential supply is growing. So the economy's potential growth rate sets the medium-term speed limit on how fast demand can grow before causing a build-up in inflation.

The Reserve's most recent estimate is that our potential growth rate has slowed to 2.75 per cent a year (mainly because of the retirement of the bulge of baby boomers).

But how do we measure how much spare production capacity we have at any time? We measure the spare capacity of our mines, factories and offices mainly by looking at answers to questions in the regular surveys of business confidence.

That's physical capital. In the labour market, idle production capacity is measured by the rate of unemployment.

But it's wrong to think full employment is reached when the unemployment rate falls to zero. That's partly because, at any point in time, there will always be some workers moving between jobs (called "frictional" unemployment).

Also because of a much higher rate of "structural" unemployment. The structure of the economy is always changing, with some industries expanding and some contracting. This increases the number of workers who don't have the particular skills employers are seeking, or who do have them but live far away from where the job vacancies are.

In the old days, there were a lot of low-skilled jobs that could be filled by people who had left school early and hadn't learnt much. These days, there a far fewer of those jobs, so people with inadequate skills are often out of a job.

Economists measure full employment by estimating the rate to which unemployment can fall before shortages of skilled labour cause employers to bid up wages and thus cause price inflation to accelerate.

They call this the NAIRU – the non-accelerating-inflation rate of unemployment – and the Reserve's latest estimate is that it's "around 5 per cent". It says "around" because every economist's estimate is different, so it's wrong to be too dogmatic.

This week's trend figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics for the labour force in January show the unemployment rate has been steady at 5.5 per cent since July. That's well above the NAIRU.

Over the same six months, however, employment has grown by almost 180,000, or 1.5 per cent, causing the rate at which people are participating in the labour force to rise by 0.4 points to 65.6 per cent – its highest for seven years and a record high for participation by women.

If the laws of supply and demand still hold – a safe bet – this unusually strong growth in the demand for labour should lead to higher wages and then higher prices sooner or later. But Ellis warns it's likely to be "quite gradual".
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