Showing posts with label interes rates. Show all posts
Showing posts with label interes rates. Show all posts

Wednesday, March 15, 2023

Don't miss the good news among the bad: we've hit jobs, jobs, jobs

Here is the news: not everything in the economy is going to hell. Right now, jobs, jobs, jobs are going great, great, great.

The news media (and yours truly) focus on whatever’s going wrong – the cost of living, interest rates, to take two minor examples – because they know that’s what interests their paying customers most.

This bias in our thinking exists because humans have evolved to be continually on the lookout for threats. Those threats used to be wild animals, poisonous berries and the rival tribe over the river, but these days they come more in the form of politicians who aren’t doing their job and business people on the make.

If you’re not careful, however, the preoccupation with bad news can leave you with a jaundiced view of the total picture. Everything’s bad and nothing’s good.

But it’s rare for anything to be all bad or all good. And, particularly where the economy’s concerned, it’s common for good things and bad things to go together.

For instance, when unemployment is high, inflation is usually low. And when inflation is high, unemployment’s usually low. (It’s in the rare event where they’re both high at the same time – “stagflation” – that you know we’re really in trouble.)

So, when our present Public Enemy No. 1 – Reserve Bank governor Dr Philip Lowe – began a speech last week by making this point, I realised I should make sure that you, gentle reader, hadn’t missed the rose among all the thorns.

Lowe said the high inflation we’re experiencing was “one of the legacies of the pandemic and of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine”. But “another remarkable, but less remarked upon, legacy of the pandemic is the significant improvement in Australia’s labour market”.

“Significant improvement” is putting it mildly. Have you heard of “full employment”, where everyone who wants a job has one? It’s the way our economy used to be for about three decades following World War II.

But you have to be as ancient as me to remember what it was like. One reason I quit my job and embarked on a course that eventually led me to this august organ was the knowledge that, should I need to get a job, all I had to do was wait until next Saturday’s classified job ads, and pick the one I wanted.

That’s full employment. And the world hasn’t been like that since Gough Whitlam was prime minister. Until now. We have more people with jobs than ever in our history.

At about 3.5 per cent, the rate of unemployment is lower than at any time since 1974. And before any of the imagined experts let fly on Twitter, this is not because any government, Labor or Liberal, has fiddled the figures.

What’s true is that, in recent decades, more people have been under-employed – they haven’t been able to get as many hours of work as they’ve needed.

But as Lowe says, in recent times, people have found it easier to obtain more hours of work. So the rate of underemployment is at multi-decade lows, and the proportion of jobs that are full-time is higher than it’s been in ages.

We now have 64 per cent of people of working-age actually in a job, the highest ever. The proportion of people either already in a job or actively seeking one – the “participation rate” - is also at its highest.

A lot of this is explained by the record high in women’s participation in the labour force.

Lowe says the rate of participation by young people is “the highest it has been in a long time” and the youth unemployment rate is “the lowest that it has been in many decades”.

If all that’s not worth celebrating, I don’t know what is.

But for all those desperate to find a negative – often for reasons of partisanship – it’s not that you can’t believe the figures. It’s this: can you believe they’ll continue?

With the Reserve raising interest rates so fast and far to slow the economy’s growth and reduce inflation pressure, it’s clear that this is as good as it gets in the present episode.

For the past couple of months, we’ve seen the figures edging back a fraction from their best, and on Thursday we’ll see if that’s yet become a trend.

At present, Lowe is at the controls bringing the economic plane in to land. He’s aiming for a soft landing, but may miscalculate and give us a bumpy landing which, to mangle the metaphor, will send unemployment shooting up.

If so, we may have had just a fleeting glimpse of full-employment nirvana before it disappeared into the mist.

But for the more optimistically inclined, even if the landing is harder than planned, we’ll have started from a much lower unemployment rate than in past recessions, meaning it won’t go as high as it has before, and it should be easier to get back to the low levels we’d now like to become accustomed to.


Friday, February 24, 2023

How about sharing the economic pain arround?

If you don’t like what’s happening to interest rates, remember that although the managers of the economy have to do something to reduce inflation, it’s not a case of what former British prime minister Maggie Thatcher called TINA – there is no alternative.

As Reserve Bank governor Dr Philip Lowe acknowledged during his appearance before the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Economics last week, there are other ways of stabilising the strength of demand (spending) and avoiding either high inflation or high unemployment, which are worth considering for next time.

So, relying primarily on “monetary policy” – manipulating interest rates – is just a policy choice we and the other advanced economies made in the late 1970s and early 1980s, after the arrival of “stagflation” – high unemployment and high inflation at the same time – caused economists to lose faith in the old way of smoothing demand, which was to rely primarily on “fiscal policy” – manipulation of taxation and government spending in the budget.

The economic managers have a choice between those two “instruments” or tools with which smooth demand. The different policy tools have differing sets of strengths and weaknesses.

Whereas back then we were very aware of the weaknesses of fiscal policy, today we’re aware of the weaknesses of monetary policy, particularly the way it puts a lot more pain on people with home loans than on the rest of us. How’s that fair?

Lowe says the conventional wisdom is to use monetary policy for “cyclical” (short-term) problems and fiscal policy for “structural” (lasting) problems, such as limiting government debt.

But it’s time to review what economists call “the assignment of instruments” – which tool is better for which job. The more so because the government has commissioned a review of the Reserve Bank’s performance for the first time since we moved to monetary policy dominance.

It’s worth remembering that the change of regime was made at a time when Thatcher and other rich-country leaders were under the influence of the US economist Milton Friedman and his “monetarism”, which held that inflation was “always and everywhere a monetary phenomenon” and could be controlled by limiting the growth in the supply of money.

It took some years of failure before governments and central banks realised both ideas were wrong. They switched back to the older and less exciting notion that increasing interest rates, by reducing demand, would eventually reduce inflation. There was no magic, painless way to do it.

Macroeconomists long ago recognised that using policy tools to manage demand was subject to three significant delays (“lags”). First there’s the “recognition lag” – the time it takes the econocrats and their bosses to realise there’s a problem and decide to act.

Then there’s the “implementation lag” – the delay while the policy change is put into effect. Lowe described the cumbersome process of cabinet deciding what changes to make to what taxes or spending programs. Then getting them passed by both houses, then waiting a few weeks or months for the bureaucrats to get organised before start day.

He compared this unfavourably with monetary policy’s super-short implementation delay: the Reserve Bank board meets every month and decides what change to make to the official interest rate, which takes immediate effect.

He’s right. While the two policy tools would have the same recognition lag, monetary policy wins hands down on implementation lag.

But on the third delay, the “response lag” – the time it takes for the measure, once begun, to work its way through the economy and have the desired effect on demand – monetary policy is subject to “long and variable lags”.

Lowe said it took interest rate changes 18 months to two years to have their full effect. But I say most budgetary changes – particularly tax changes – wouldn’t take nearly that long. So, that’s a win for fiscal.

The sad truth is that measures to strengthen demand by cutting interest rates, or cutting taxes and increasing government spending, are always popular with voters, whereas measures to weaken demand by raising interest rates, or raising taxes and cutting government spending, are always unpopular.

This meant politicians were always reluctant to increase interest rates when they needed to, Lowe said. This is a good argument for giving the job to the econocrats at the central bank and making them independent of the elected government.

This became standard practice in the rich economies, although we didn’t formalise it until the arrival of the Howard government in 1996. Lowe advanced this as a good reason to stick with monetary policy as the dominant tool for short-term stabilisation of demand.

Against that, using monetary policy to get to the rest of us indirectly via enormous pressure on the third of households with mortgages shares the burden in a way that’s arbitrary and unfair.

What’s more, it’s not very effective. Because such a small proportion of the population is directly affected, the increase in interest rates has to be that much bigger to achieve the desired restraint in overall consumer spending.

But if the economic managers used a temporary percentage increase in income tax, or the GST, to discourage spending, this would directly affect almost all households. It would be fairer and more effective because the increase could be much smaller.

Various more thoughtful economists – including Dr Nicholas Gruen and Professor Ross Garnaut – have proposed such a tool, which could be established by legislation and thus be quickly activated whenever needed.

A special body could be set up to make these decisions independent of the elected government. Ideally, it would also have control over interest rates, so one institution was making sure the two instruments were working together, not at cross purposes.

Another possibility is Keynes’ idea of using a temporary rate of compulsory saving – collected by the tax office – to reduce spending when required, without imposing any lasting cost on households.

They say if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. It’s obvious now that macroeconomic management needs a lot of fixing.