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

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.

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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.

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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?
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Saturday, January 4, 2020

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now some qualifications.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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