Showing posts with label investment. Show all posts
Showing posts with label investment. Show all posts

Monday, October 9, 2023

It's time for more sensible thinking on productivity

When will we tire of all the bulldust that’s talked in the name of hastening productivity improvement? We never do anything about it, but we do listen politely while self-appointed worthies – business people and econocrats, in the main – read us yet another sermon on the subject.

Trouble is, when the sermons come from big business – accompanied by 200-page reports with snappy titles – they boil down business lobby groups doing what lobby groups do: asking the government for special favours – aka “rent-seeking”.

You want higher productivity? It’s obvious: cut the company tax on big business, and give us a free hand to change our workers’ pay and conditions as we see fit.

When the sermons come from econocrats, they’re more like professional propagandising: calls for “reform” – often of the tax system – that are usually theory-driven and lacking empirical evidence that they really would have much effect on productivity.

What we get in place of genuine empiricism is modelling results. Models are a mysterious combination of mathematised theory, sprinkled with ill-researched estimates of elasticity and such like.

We’ve become so inured to all this sermonising that we’ve ceased to notice something strange: although in a market economy it’s the behaviour of business that determines how much productivity improvement we do or don’t get, any lack of improvement is always attributed to the government’s negligence.

This is where the business rent-seekers and the econocrat propagandists are agreed. The econocrats willingness to point at the government comes from the biases in their neoclassical theory, which assumes, first, that businesses always respond rationally to the incentives they face and, second, that government intervention in markets is more likely to make things worse than better.

Big business is happy to use this ideology to hide its rent-seeking. (If you wonder why neoclassical economics has been dominant for a century or two despite surprisingly little evolution, it’s partly because it suits business interests so well.)

The other strange thing we’ve failed to notice is that the modern obsession with the tax system and regulation of the labour market has crowded out all the economists’ conventional wisdom about what drives productivity improvement over the medium term.

But before we get to that wisdom, a health warning: there’s a famous saying in economics that the sermonisers have stopped making sure you know. It’s that, for economists, productivity is “a measure of our ignorance”.

Just as economists can calculate the “non-accelerating-inflation rate of unemployment”, and kid themselves it’s next to infallible, when you ask them why it’s gone up, or down, all they can do is guess at the reasons, so it is with calculations of productivity. Economists can’t say with any certainty why it’s up or why it’s down. They don’t know.

Even so, in the present opportunistic sermonising, all that the profession thought it knew has been cast aside.

Such as? That productivity improvement is cyclical and hard to measure. Recent quarterly results from the national accounts will probably change as better data come to hand, and the accounts are revised.

It’s true that the measured productivity of labour actually has fallen over the three years to June this year, but it’s likely this is, to a great extent, a product of the wild swings of the pandemic and its lockdowns. As Reserve Bank economists have argued, these effects should “wash out”.

It’s well understood that the main thing that improves the productivity of labour is employers giving their workers more and better machines to work with. But Australia’s level of business investment as a share of gross domestic product is low relative to other rich countries.

Growth in non-mining business investment has declined from the mid-2000s and stagnated over the past decade. It’s grown strongly recently, but it’s not clear how much of this is just tradies taking advantage of lockdown tax concessions to buy a new HiLux ute.

Point is, why do the sermonisers rarely acknowledge that weak business investment spending does a lot to help explain our weak productivity improvement?

Another factor that should be obvious is our recent strong growth in employment, the highest in about 50 years, with many people who employers wouldn’t normally want to employ, getting jobs. This will lower the workforce’s average productivity – but it’s a good development, not a bad one.

Again, why do the sermons never mention this?

Yet another part of the conventional wisdom it’s no longer fashionable to mention is the belief that productivity improvement comes from strong spending – by public and private sectors – on research and development. Have we been doing well on this over the past decade or so? I doubt it.

And, of course, productivity improvement comes from giving a high priority to investment in “human capital” – education and training.

So, why no sermons about the way we’ve gone for a decade or more stuffing up TAFE and vocational education, or the way school funding has given “parental choice” for better-off families priority over the funding of good teaching in public schools?

Too many of those sermons also fail to mention the small fact that all the other developed economies are experiencing similar weakness – suggesting that much of our poor performance is explained by global factors, not the failure of our government.

Related to this, the preachers usually compare our present performance with a much higher 30- or 40-year average, implying our weak performance is something new, unusual and worrying.

Or, we’re told that, whereas productivity improved at an annual rate of 2.1 per cent, over the five years to 2004, it worsened to 0.9 per cent over the six years to 2010, and improved only marginally to 1.2 per cent over the nine years to 2019, before the pandemic.

This is all highly misleading. The fact is that periods of weak improvement are more common than periods of strong improvement, which are rare.

Our period of unusually strong improvement from the late 1990s to the early noughties is paralleled by America’s strong period from 1995 to 2004, which the Yanks usually attribute to rapid productivity improvement in the manufacturing of computers, electronics and semiconductors.

We usually attribute our rare period of strong improvement to the belated effects of the Hawke-Keating government’s program of microeconomic reform. Maybe, but computerisation and the information revolution are a more plausible guess.

Either way, contrary to the sermonisers’ implicit claim that the present period of weak improvement is unusual, it may be closer to the truth that weakness is the norm, interspersed by occasional bursts of huge improvement, caused by the eventual diffusion of some new “general-purpose technology” – the next one likely to be generative AI.

Read more >>

Friday, June 16, 2023

We're investing more overseas than foreigners are investing here

 For pretty much all of Australia’s modern history, our strategy for getting more prosperous was to be a “net importer of [investment] capital” from the rest of the world. But four years ago, that was turned on its head, and we became a net exporter of investment capital.

If you think that doesn’t sound like a good thing, I agree with you – though probably not for the same reason as you. I think it does much to explain why the economy – and the productivity of our labour – have grown so weakly over the past decade. And are likely to continue growing slowly once the Reserve Bank has beaten inflation out of our system.

How come you haven’t heard about this historic turnaround? Because, though economists hate to admit it, economics is subject to fashions, and for many years they haven’t been much interested in talking about what’s happening in the economy’s “external sector”, which accounts for about a quarter of the whole economy.

All of Australia’s households’, businesses’ and governments’ economic dealings with the rest of the world during a period are summarised in a document called the “balance of payments” – payments to foreigners and payments from foreigners.

The balance of payments is divided into two accounts, the “current” account and the “capital and financial” account.

The current account shows the value of our exports of goods and services ($171 billion in the latest, March quarter) less the value of our imports of goods and services ($129 billion), to give us a trade surplus for the quarter of $42 billion.

But then it takes account of our interest and dividend payments to foreigners of $57 billion, less their payments of interest and dividends to us of $24 billion, to give us a “net income deficit” of $33 billion.

Subtracting this deficit from the trade surplus of $42 billion leaves us with a surplus on the current account for the quarter of $9 billion.

So, we ended up making a profit during the quarter, as we have in every quarter for the past four years, whereas for almost every year before that we ran deficits. We’ve made some progress.

Is that what you think? Sorry, as the father of economics, Adam Smith – born 300 years ago this year – spent his life explaining, this “mercantilist” notion that a country gets rich by trying to export more than it imports is wrong.

We benefit from importing the things that other countries do better than we do, and they benefit from us exporting to them the things we do better than they do. Economists call this the “mutual gains from trade”.

In any case, like the accounts of every business, the balance of payments is based on “double-entry bookkeeping”, where every transaction is seen as having two, equal sides, a debit and a credit. So, it’s wrong to think that debits are bad and credits are good.

Similarly, it’s wrong to think that the resulting deficits (debits exceed the credits) are bad, and surpluses (credits exceed the debits) are good.

And remember that the “current” account is only one half of the balance of payments so, since the debits and credits are always equal, if we’re running a surplus on the current account, we must be running a deficit of equal size on the other, capital and financial account.

Until four years ago, we always ran a surplus on the capital account, but now we’re running a deficit. But what does this switch actually mean?

It means that, until recently, our households, businesses and governments always spent more on investment – in new housing, new business equipment and structures, and new public infrastructure – than they could finance from their own savings.

(Households save when they don’t spend all their income on consumption. Businesses save when they don’t pay out all their after-tax profits in dividends. Governments save when they raise more in taxes than they spend on their day-to-day activities.)

How can we, as a nation, spend more on new physical investment than we’re able to finance with our own saving? By getting the extra savings we need from abroad. We can borrow it, or we can allow foreigners to own Australian businesses or real estate.

And that’s exactly what we did until four years ago. We borrowed overseas and let foreigners own “equity” in our economy. This is what it means to say Australia was a “net importer of capital”.

Why did we do that? Because we had more opportunities for economic development than we could finance from our own saving, and figured that allowing foreigners to join us in investing in our economy would leave us better off.

The consequence was that, for more than 200 years, our economy grew faster and our standard of living improved faster than if we’d kept everything to ourselves.

So, what’s changed? Why have we switched to being a net exporter of investment capital? Why have we begun investing more of our savings in other countries than they’ve been investing in Oz?

Partly because the build-up of our compulsory superannuation system means we, as a nation, are saving a lot more of our income than we used to.

Now here’s the killer: but also because, particularly since the end of the mining investment boom a decade ago, we’ve been investing a lot less in improving and expanding our businesses.

You wonder why, until the government and the Reserve Bank mistakenly caused the present brief inflationary surge, the economy’s growth was so weak? Now you know.

You wonder why the productivity of our labour’s been improving so slowly? Because we haven’t had enough business investment in new and better machines. Or in research and development, for that matter.

And the main thing we’ve got to show for this deterioration is a current account surplus. You beaut.

Read more >>

Wednesday, June 14, 2023

Economy close to stalling, as Reserve hits the brakes yet again

It’s been a puzzling week, as we learnt the economy had slowed almost to stalling speed, just a day after the Reserve Bank raised interest rates for the 12th time, and warned there may be more.

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics’ “national accounts”, real gross domestic product – the economy’s production of goods and services – grew by just 0.2 per cent over the three months to the end of March.

That took growth over the year to March down to 2.3 per cent, which sounds better than it is because the economy has slowed so rapidly. If it continued growing by 0.2 per cent a quarter, that would be annual growth of 0.8 per cent.

And the resumption of immigration means the population is now growing faster than the economy. Allow for population growth and GDP per person actually fell by 0.2 per cent. Over the year to March, it grew by only 0.3 per cent.

While a growing population is good for businesses – they have more potential customers – to everyone else, economic growth has been sold to us as raising our material standard of living. Not much chance of that if GDP per person is falling.

The Reserve Bank has been trying to slow the economy down because demand for goods and services has been growing faster than the economy’s ability to supply them, thus allowing businesses to increase their prices.

With additional help from the rising prices of imported goods and services, the rate of inflation has shot up. It’s started falling back from its peak of 7.8 per cent at the end of last year, but is still way above the Reserve’s 2 per cent to 3 per cent target range.

The Reserve’s been raising the interest rates paid by the third of households with mortgages, to reduce their ability to spend on other things. But, at this stage, probably the biggest dampener on consumer spending is coming from the failure of wages to keep up with rising prices.

“Demand” means spending, so if households find it harder to spend on goods and services, that makes it harder for businesses to raise their prices, thus bringing the inflation rate back down.

And remember that the full effect of all the interest rate rises we’ve seen is still to be felt. The pain will increase over the rest of this year.

But if I were Reserve Bank governor Dr Philip Lowe, I wouldn’t be too worried that the plan wasn’t working. The biggest single factor driving GDP is consumer spending, which accounts for more than half of all spending. In the June quarter last year, it grew by 2.2 per cent.

The following quarter its growth fell to 0.8 per cent, then 0.3 per cent, and now 0.2 per cent. Wow. I think the squeeze is working.

Although more people have been working more hours, real household disposable income fell by 0.3 per cent in the quarter, and by 4 per cent over the year to March.

It was hit by the failure of wages to rise in line with prices, by the doubling in households’ interest payments, and by the bigger bite that income tax took out of pay rises, caused by bracket creep.

How did households manage to keep their consumption spending growing despite their falling real income? By cutting the proportion of their income that they were saving from more than 11 per cent in March quarter last year to less than 4 per cent this March quarter – the lowest it’s been in about 15 years.

Household investment spending on newly built homes and alterations fell by 1.2 per cent, its sixth fall in seven quarters.

One bright spot was growth in business spending during the quarter of 2.9 per cent, led by spending on machinery and equipment, and non-dwelling construction – particularly on renewables and electricity infrastructure.

Unfortunately, much of the machinery investment was on imported equipment that had been delayed by the pandemic, so it’s not a sign of continuing strength. The volume of spending on imports was a super-strong 3.2 per cent, but imports subtract from GDP, of course.

Treasurer Jim Chalmers always blames the economy’s slowdown on higher interest rates (blame the Reserve, not me), high inflation (not me either) and “a slowing global economy” (blame the rest of the world).

A slowing global economy? Yes, of course. Everyone’s heard about that. Trouble is, the main way the rest of the world affects us is by buying – or not buying – our exports. And the volume of our exports grew by 1.8 per cent in the March quarter, and 10.8 per cent over the year to March. That’s because our miners have done so well (and our fossil-fuel-using households and businesses so badly) out of the higher world coal and gas prices caused by the Ukraine war.

Even so, this quarter’s growth in export volumes of 1.8 per cent has been swamped by the 3.2 per cent growth in import volumes, meaning that “net exports” – exports minus imports – subtracted 0.2 percentage points from the overall growth in real GDP during the quarter.

After Lowe’s decision on Tuesday to raise rates yet again, Chalmers wasn’t mincing his words. “I do expect that there will be a lot of Australians who find this decision difficult to understand and difficult to cop – ordinary working Australians are already bearing the brunt of these interest rate rises, they shouldn’t bear the blame too,” he said.

“The Reserve Bank’s job is to quash inflation without crashing the economy, and they will have a lot of time and opportunities to explain and defend the decision that they’ve taken today.”

Lowe has said repeatedly that he’s seeking the “narrow path” where “inflation returns to target within a reasonable timeframe, while the economy continues to grow, and we hold on to as many of the gains in the labour market [our return to full employment] as we can”.

After seeing the next day’s GDP figures, Paul Bloxham of HSBC bank observed that the narrow path “is looking extremely narrow indeed”. True.

Read more >>

Sunday, April 2, 2023

Climate choice: cling to past glories or strive for prosperous future

The big question facing our political leaders is: are we content to allow climate change to turn us from winners into losers, or do we have the courage and foresight to transform our mining, energy and manufacturing industries into clean energy winners?

For most rich countries, playing their part in limiting global climate change is simply about switching from fossil fuels to renewable energy. For us, however, there’s a double challenge: as one of the world’s biggest exporters of fossil fuels, what do we do for an encore?

When it comes to deciding how we can earn a decent living, economists are always telling politicians to pursue our “comparative advantage” – concentrate on doing what we’re better at than other people, and they want to buy from us; then use the proceeds to buy from them what they’re better at than we are.

Turns out our “natural endowment” makes us better at farming and mining. Climate change will be bad for farming (not that the world will stop wanting to eat), and the only future for fossil fuel exports is down and out. It may take a decade or two to reach zero, but there’ll be no growth from now on.

Most economists have little to say about what you do when your natural endowment becomes a stranded asset and our comparative advantage evaporates. Except for Professor Ross Garnaut, who was the first to realise that nature has also endowed us with a bigger share of sun and wind.

If we tried hard enough and were quick enough, we could not only produce all the renewable energy we need for our own use, but find ways to export it to less well-endowed countries, probably embodied in green steel and aluminium.

This, of course, involves innovation and risks. We’re talking about technological advances that haven’t yet been shown to work, let alone commercialised. Doing things that have never been done before.

When it comes to technology, Australia is used to following the leader, not being the leader. Until now, this has been sensible for a smaller economy like ours. But we’re facing the impending loss of our biggest export earner. If we can’t find something just as big to sell, we’ll see our standard of living rapidly declining.

The threat we face isn’t quite existential. We’ll still be alive, just a lot poorer – and kicking ourselves for not seeing it coming and doing something about it.

The solution’s in two parts. First, the federal government must make clear to the coal and gas industries, the premiers, the mining unions and the affected regions that there’ll be no further support or encouragement for anyone pretending they haven’t seen the writing on the wall. Anyone trying to stop the clock and keep living in the past.

There’ll be plenty of support and encouragement, but only for those industries, workers and regions needing help to move from the old world to the new. As part of this, the government must do what now even the UN secretary-general says every country must do: end subsidies of fossil fuels and use the money to assist the move to renewables and green production.

Help coal miners relocate or retrain – whatever. Promise that, wherever it made sense, the new renewable and green industries would be set up near the old mines.

Ideally, the policy of ending the old and moving to the new should be bipartisan. No opposition should take the low road of courting the votes of those preferring to keep their head in the sand.

But if that’s too much to ask of a two-party duopoly, Anthony Albanese and the Labor premiers should take their lives in their hands and overcome their life-long fear of what the other side will say when you put the national interest first.

Second, pick winners. Econocrats spend their lives telling governments not to do that – not to subsidise new industries you hope will become profitable.

Trouble is, politicians being politicians, you can be sure they’ll be putting taxpayers’ money on some horse in the race. And if they’re not trying to pick winners, they’ll be doing what they’re doing now: backing losers. Which would you prefer?

More importantly, it’s a neoliberal delusion that new industries just spring up as profit-seeking entrepreneurs seek new ways to make their fortunes. Doing something never done before is high risk. The chance of failure is high. Banks won’t lend to you.

We don’t stand a chance of becoming a green superpower without a lot of government underwriting with, inevitably, some big losses. But I can think of many worse ways of wasting taxpayers’ money.

Read more >>

Wednesday, March 22, 2023

Most of us don't really want to be rich, for better or worse

When it comes to economics, the central question to ask yourself is this: do you sincerely want to be rich? Those with long memories – or Google – know this was the come-on used by the notorious American promoter of pyramid schemes, Bernie Cornfeld. But that doesn’t stop it being the right question.

It’s actually a trick question. Most of us would like to be rich if the riches were delivered to us on a plate. If we won the lottery, or were left a fortune by a rich ancestor we didn’t know we had.

But that’s not the question. It’s do you sincerely want to be rich. It ain’t easy to become rich by your own efforts, so are you prepared to pay the price it would take? Work night and day, ignore your family and friends, spend very little of what you earn, so it can be re-invested? Come unstuck a few times until you make it big? Put it that way and most of us don’t sincerely want to be rich. We’re not that self-disciplined and/or greedy.

The question arises because the Productivity Commission’s five-yearly report on our productivity performance has found that, as a nation, we haven’t got much richer over the past decade – where rich means our production and consumption of goods and services.

When business people, politicians and economists bang on about increasing the economy’s growth, they’re mainly talking about improving the productivity – productiveness – of our paid labour.

The economy – alias gross domestic product – grows because we’ve produced more goods and services than last year. Scientists think this happens because we’ve ripped more resources out of the ground and damaged the environment in the process.

There is some of that (and it has to stop), but what scientists can never get is that the main reason our production grows over the years is that we find ways to get more production from the average hour of work.

We do this by increasing the education and training of our workers, giving them better machines to work with, and improving the way our businesses organise their work.

But the commission finds that our rate of productivity improvement over the past decade has been the slowest in 60 years. It projects that, if it stays this far below our 60-year average, our future incomes will be 40 per cent below what they could have been, and the working week will be 5 per cent longer.

It provides 1000 pages of suggestions on how state and federal governments can make often-controversial changes that would lift our game and make our incomes grow more strongly.

So, this is the nation’s do-you-sincerely-want-to-be-rich moment. And my guess is our collective answer will be yeah, nah. Why? For good reasons and bad. Let’s start with the negative.

If you think of the nation’s income as a pie, there are two ways for an individual to get more to eat. One is to battle everyone else for a bigger slice. The other is to co-operate with everyone to effect changes that would make the pie – and each slice - bigger.

For the past 40 years of “neoliberalism”, which has focused on the individual and sanctified selfishness, we’ve preferred to battle rather than co-operate.

Our top executives have increased their own remuneration by keeping the lid on their fellow employees’ wages. Governments have set a bad example by imposing unreasonably low wage caps.

Then they wonder why their union won’t co-operate with their efforts to improve how the outfit’s run. Workers fear there’ll be nothing in it for them.

It’s the same with politics. Governments won’t make controversial changes because they know the opposition will take advantage and run a scare campaign.

But there are also good reasons why we’re unlikely to jump to action in response to the commission’s warning. The first is that economists focus on the material dimension of our lives: our ability to consume ever more goods and services.

We’re already rich – why do we need to be even richer? There’s more to life than money, and if we gave getting richer top priority, there’s a big risk those other dimensions would suffer.

Would a faster growing economy tempt us to spend less time enjoying our personal relationships? How would that leave us better off overall (to coin a phrase)?

How much do we know about whether the pace of economic life is adding to stress, anxiety and even worse mental troubles?

If we did go along with the changes the commission proposes, what guarantee is there that most of the increased income wouldn’t go to the bosses (and those terrible people with more than $3 million in superannuation)?

What we do know is that we should be giving top priority to reducing the damage economic activity is doing to the natural environment, including changing the climate. If that costs us a bit in income or productivity, it’s a price worth paying.

And there are various ways we could improve our lives even if our income stopped growing. Inquire into them.

Read more >>

Wednesday, February 15, 2023

It's no wonder the young hate Boomers like me

As I get older, more parts of my body are giving me gyp and I spend more of my life seeing doctors, but the people I don’t envy are the young. They may be fit and keen, but everywhere they look they see problems.

The big advantage of capitalism is supposed to be that it makes each generation better off than the last. But that’s breaking down before our eyes. The really harmful problem we’re leaving them is climate change, of course, but there’s much more than that.

They’re better educated than ever but, for many, it doesn’t seem to get them a secure, decently paid job. Even so, they leave education owing big debts to the government.

But, coming well behind climate change, the biggest disservice the older generation has done to them is to let the price of a home keep reaching for the sky.

We’re now at the point where each successive age group contains an ever-lower proportion of people who’ve managed to buy the home they live in.

In contrast, the aged have never had it better. The only thing they have to fear – and the young have to look forward to – is still needing to rent privately in retirement.

We’ve turned housing into Lotto. If you manage to win, they shower you in wealth. If you don’t win, you get screwed. Renters have few rights because, as we all know, it’s just a temporary state for the young.

And then the Baby Boomers (like me) wonder why the young seem to hate them. It’s not true that all Baby Boomers are rolling in it. Some of them don’t even own their own home. But most of them (like me) were able to buy early in their lives, when first homes were affordable. Since then, they’ve just sat back in delighted amazement as their wealth has multiplied.

Of course, if there’s anything wrong with the way the world’s run, it wasn’t anything I did, it was those terrible pollies. Yeah, nah.

Since older home owners have always far out-numbered the young would-be home owners, the politicians have always run the housing game to favour those who love seeing property prices rise – and, now you mention it, wouldn’t mind buying another house as an investment.

At present, it’s easy to conclude the big problem with housing affordability is rising interest rates and so blame it all on the Reserve Bank boss Dr Philip Lowe. But, as I’ve written elsewhere, although it’s reasonable to ask whether putting interest rates up and down is a sensible and fair way to manage the economy, that’s a separate issue.

Home loans take two to tango: how much you have to borrow and the interest rate on the loan. The interest rate cycles up and down around a relatively stable average, whereas the amount you need to borrow has gone up and up, decade after decade.

True, house prices are falling at present, but this is just returning them to where they were before they took off during the pandemic. It’s a safe bet that, once they’ve finished falling, they’ll resume their upward climb.

This is why oldies are wrong to scoff at young people complaining about mortgage interest rates of 5 per cent. “In my day, I had to pay 17 per cent!” Yes, you did – for a year or so in the early 1990s, when the amount you had to borrow was much less.

What’s true is that, right now, it’s mainly younger people who borrowed huge sums in the past few years who’re really feeling the pain.

But the real question is why house prices have risen so far for so long. They’ve risen much faster than incomes. The Grattan Institute calculates that whereas typical house prices used to be about four times incomes, now they’re more than eight times – and even more in Melbourne and Sydney.

But why? Not because of anything the Reserve Bank has done. Nor so much because we’ve failed to build enough additional houses and units to accommodate the growth in the population.

More because our tax and social security rules have made home ownership a highly attractive, government-favoured form of investment, not just a place you can call your own and not be chucked out of as long you keep up the payments. People who buy investment properties out-compete would-be first home owners, bidding up the price.

But also because there’s more competition to buy homes in particularly desirable areas. Spots near the beach or the river, for instance, but also places near where the jobs are.

People have been crowding into the big cities, trying to get close to the CBD with all its well-paid office jobs, but the older home owners fight hard to discourage governments from making room for younger newcomers. “It’s so ugly.”

And the bank of mum and dad (yes, I’ve done it) is helping prices stay high, while widening the divide between those young people with well-placed parents and those without.

Read more >>

Friday, June 3, 2022

An economy with falling real wages can’t be “strong”

The main message from this week’s “national accounts” is that the economy isn’t nearly as Strong – Strong with a capital S – as Scott Morrison and Josh Frydenberg unceasingly claimed it was during the election campaign. In truth, it’s coming down to Earth.

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, real gross domestic product – the nation’s total production of goods and services – grew by 0.8 per cent during the three months to the end of March, to be up 3.3 per cent over the year.

Almost to a person, the business economists said – and the media echoed - this was “higher than expected”. But that just meant it was a fraction higher than they’d forecast a day or two before the announcement, once most of the building blocks for the figure had been revealed.

But as new Treasurer Dr Jim Chalmers has revealed, when Treasury was preparing its forecasts for the March 29 budget, it forecast growth of not 0.8 per cent for the quarter, but 1.8 per cent. Now that would have been strong.

True, if you compound 0.8 per cent, you get an annualised rate of 3.3 per cent. And that’s a lot higher than our average annual growth rate over the past decade of about 2.3 per cent.

But it’s high because the economy’s still completing its bounce-back from the two pandemic lockdowns when most people gained more income than they were allowed to go out and spend.

In other words, it’s a catch-up following highly unusual circumstances, which will stop once everyone’s caught up. It’s not an indication of what we can expect “going forward” as businesspeople love saying.

If you delve into what produced that 0.8 per cent result, you see we’re probably only a quarter or two away from returning to a much less Strong quarterly growth rate. Indeed, until we’ve fixed our problem of chronic weak wage growth, it’s likely to be quite Weak growth.

Growth during the quarter was led by a 1.5 per cent rise in consumer spending, which contributed 0.8 percentage points to the overall growth in real GDP. Pretty good, eh? Well, not really. Turns out real household disposable income actually fell by 0.9 per cent.

So the growth in consumer spending came from a 2 percentage-point fall in the rate of household saving during the quarter, to 11.4 per cent. Household saving leapt during the two lockdowns, from its pre-pandemic level of about 7 per cent.

This suggests it won’t be long before this honey pot’s been licked out. Note too, that consumer spending was very strong in the states still rebounding from last year’s lockdown – Victoria, NSW and the ACT – and particularly weak in the other states.

Why did real household disposable income fall during the quarter? Because real wages fell. The more they continue falling – as seems likely – the more continued growth in consumer spending will depend on households continuing to cut their saving. Sound sustainable to you?

The other big contributor to growth, of 1 percentage point, came from an increase in the inventories held by retailers and other businesses, caused by an easing of pandemic-related shortages of certain imported goods, including cars.

This is a sign of the economy returning to normal, but it’s a once-only adjustment, not a growth contribution that will continue quarter after quarter.

The third growth factor was a huge 2.7 per cent increase in government consumption spending, contributing 0.6 percentage points to overall growth.

Where did it come from? From increased health spending required by the Omicron variant and spending to help people affected by the floods in NSW and Queensland. Again, not something that will be happening every quarter – we hope.

With those three positive contributions adding up to a lot more than the final 0.8 per cent, there must have been some big negative contributions. Just one, actually. Net exports – exports minus imports – subtracted 1.7 percentage points.

The volume (quantity) of exports fell by 0.9 per cent, thus subtracting 0.2 percentage points from growth – mainly because the floods disrupted mineral exports.

The volume of imports jumped by 8.1 per cent, subtracting 1.5 percentage points from overall growth. Another sign of the economy returning to normal, with pandemic disruption easing and imports of cars (and their chips) resuming. Another once-off.

So, what else happened in the quarter? New home building activity fell by 1 per cent. The pipeline of new homes built up by lockdown-related government stimulus still contains homes yet to emerge, but the output has faltered because the industry’s at full capacity, with shortages of labour and materials.

Even so, with interest rates rising and house prices falling, you wouldn’t expect too many new building projects to be entering the pipeline. Housing won’t be a big part of the growth story “going forward”.

Business investment spending – mainly on plant and equipment – grew by 1.4 per cent during the quarter and by 3.6 per cent over the year. It will need to grow a lot faster than that if it’s to be a big part of the growth story.

The quarter saw the share of national income going to wages continuing to fall, while the share going to profits rose to a record high of 31.1 per cent.

On the face of it, that says the workers are being robbed. But the factors moving the respective shares are more complicated than that. For instance, all the growth in company profits during the quarter was from the mining industry. Coal, gas and iron ore commodity prices have jumped.

But a much less debatable indication that businesses are doing well at the expense of their employees comes from the 2 per cent fall in “real unit labour costs” – real labour costs per unit of production – during the quarter, and by 6 per cent since the start of the pandemic.

An economy whose strength comes from cutting its workers’ wages won’t stay Strong for long.

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Monday, March 7, 2022

It will take more that faith to keep the economy growing

Treasurer Josh Frydenberg says it’s time for the private sector to drive the economy’s recovery. And, this being a Liberal Party article of faith, he’s likely to keep saying it in this month’s budget and the election campaign to follow. One small problem: there’s little sign it’s happening.

Last week’s national accounts for the December quarter were a reminder that the economy’s living on borrowed time and stored heat. Both households and businesses are cashed up as a result of “fiscal stimulus” – government income support – and income they weren’t able to spend during lockdowns.

It’s estimated that households have an extra $200 billion or more waiting to be spent. As it is spent, private consumption will continue growing strongly in real terms. But, absent further lockdowns, there’ll be no more special support from the budget. No more JobKeeper payments and the like, no more grants to encourage home building, and a looming end to tax breaks to encourage business investment in equipment and construction.

The two main things we need to achieve continuing strong economic growth (by which I mean growth in income per person, not just more immigration) is strong real growth in household consumption spending and business investment spending.

Trouble is, last week’s figures offered little assurance that either requirement will be forthcoming. Starting with business investment, Kieran Davies, of Coolabah Capital, reminds us that (even after including intangible investment in software and research and development) it’s presently at the “extraordinarily low” level of 10 per cent of gross domestic product, similar to the lows it reached in the recessions of the 1970s and 1990s.

It may be about to take off – or it may not be. It’s hard to think why a take-off is likely. Davies reminds us that a major benefit from a big lift in business investment would be a lift in the productivity of labour, as workers were supplied with the improved equipment they need to be more productive.

Indeed, you can turn the argument round the other way and wonder if the weak rates of business investment over the past decade or so do much to help explain why productivity has improved so little over the period.

Even the most tightwad employer must agree that improved labour productivity means wages can rise faster than prices without adding to inflation.

And if we want to see consumer spending, which accounts for well over half of GDP, continuing to grow strongly once all the money households saved during the pandemic has been spent, rising real wages are the only thing that will do it.

Trouble is, the (temporary) surges in consumer spending whenever we end a period of lockdown have given the impression the economy is booming, while concealing the truth that, after allowing for inflation, wages have been falling, not rising.

This is also reflected in last week’s news from the national accounts that “non-farm real unit labour costs” – which, by comparing the change in firms’ real labour costs with the change in the productivity of that labour, reflect the division of surplus between labour and profits – have fallen by 3 per cent since the start of the pandemic.

This should not come as a surprise when you remember that, in early 2020, when we feared the battle to control the virus would send us into a deep and lasting recession, most businesses moved immediately to impose a wage freeze.

Worried about whether the deep recession would sweep away their jobs, workers and their unions accepted the necessity of the freeze.

But that’s not the way things turned out. The pandemic wasn’t nearly as bad as epidemiologists first expected it to be, vaccines turned up much earlier than had been hoped, lockdowns were often short and intermittent, and unprecedented fiscal stimulus shifted much of the cost of the lockdowns off private businesses’ profit and loss accounts and onto the public sector’s budgets.

In the main, private sector profits have held up surprisingly well.

So the key issue of whether consumer spending, and thus the wider economy, can continue growing strongly after households have finished the spending repressed during the lockdowns is what happens to wage growth. And that comes down to three questions.

First, will employees get outsized pay rises this year to compensate them for the wage freeze that turned out not to be needed?

Second, will employees also get pay rises big enough to cover all the recent increase in living costs they face – higher petrol prices and the rest – or will employers, public as well as private, ask them to “take one for the team” one more time? If so, real wages will fall further and future consumer spending will be stuffed.

Third, will the econocrats’ strategy of running a super-tight labour market force tight-fisted employers to increase wages, as the only desperation measure able to attract the workers they need?

Or will the labour shortages gradually dissipate now our border’s been reopened to overseas students, backpackers and skilled immigrants on temporary visas?

Meanwhile, the man who should be solving our cost-of-living/weak wages problem will be blustering on about the private sector taking over the running. If the Opposition can’t make this the central focus of the election campaign, it deserves to lose. It, too, would be bad at managing the economy.

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Saturday, March 5, 2022

The plague hasn’t wounded the economy, but the boom won’t last

The pandemic has caused much pain – physical, financial and psychological – to many people. But what it hasn’t done is any lasting damage to the economy and its ability to support people wanting to earn a living.

That’s clear from this week’s “national accounts” for the three months to the end of December, with the Australian Bureau of Statistics revealing the economy’s production of goods and services – real gross domestic product – rebounding by 3.4 per cent, following the previous quarter’s contraction of 1.9 per cent, caused by the lockdowns in NSW, Victoria and the ACT.

Despite those downs and ups, the economy ended up growing by 4.2 per cent over the course of last year. It was a similar story the previous year, 2020, when despite the nationwide lockdown causing the economy to contract by a massive 6.8 per cent in the June quarter, it began bouncing back the following quarter.

Over the two years of the pandemic, the economy’s ended up 3.4 per cent bigger than it was before the trouble started.

Be under no illusion, however. The economy would not have been able to bounce back so strongly had the federal government not spent such huge sums topping up the incomes of workers and businesses with the JobKeeper wage subsidy, the temporary increase in JobSeeker benefits, special tax breaks for business (including to encourage them to invest in plant and equipment) special incentives for new home-building, and much else. The state governments also spent a lot.

The Reserve Bank also cut interest rates – from next-to-nothing to nothing – and bought a lot of government bonds, but I find it hard to believe this made a big difference, except to house prices and home building.

It’s true that these figures for GDP and its components don’t include the effects of the Omicron wave, which came mainly in the first half of January. But by now it’s pretty clear its effect on the economy was fairly small. Of course, we may not be finished with the Greek alphabet.

None of this is to deny that the pandemic has done lasting damage to some individual workers, businesses and industries. Overall, however, the economy’s in surprisingly good shape. And this is confirmed by turning from the national accounts to the jobs market.

We have 270,000 more people in jobs than we did before the pandemic, and both unemployment and underemployment are at 13-year lows, while the number of job vacancies is at a record high.

This remarkable achievement is partly the consequence of shortages of young, less-skilled workers, caused by our closed border, however. Those shortages will gradually go away now the border’s been reopened.

Unsurprisingly, the detailed figures show that most of the growth during the quarter came from a rebound in the two unlocked states, NSW and Victoria, plus the ACT.

More surprisingly, most of the growth came from a rebound in consumer spending in former lockdown area, which rose by 9.6 per cent, compared with 1.6 per cent in the rest of the country.

The only other positive contribution to growth in the quarter was a rise in the level of business inventories – meaning the rest of the economy was holding it back.

Spending on new housing and alterations fell by 2.2 per cent in the quarter, mainly because of temporary shortages of workers and materials.

The government’s stimulus program has ended, but the industry still has many new houses in the pipeline. However, Thursday’s news of a 28 per cent collapse in the number of new residential building approvals in January makes you wonder how long the housing industry will keep contributing to growth.

Business investment in new equipment and construction also fell during the quarter. Businesses say they’re expecting to increase their spending significantly this year but, as Kieran Davies, of Coolabah Capital, has noted, “companies find it hard to forecast their own investment expenditure”. And the government’s tax incentives won’t last forever.

The jump in consumer spending came despite a fall in households’ disposable income, caused by a decline in assistance from government. Thus, to cover the increased spending, households had to cut their rate of saving during the quarter from almost 20 per cent of their disposable income to 13.6 per cent.

What’s been happening is that households save a huge proportion of their income during lockdowns (because they can’t get out of the house to spend it), but cut their rate of saving when the lockdown ends and spend much more than usual as they catch up on things and services they’ve been waiting to buy.

Even so, a saving rate of 13.6 per cent is about twice the normal rate - meaning households still have a lot of money stashed in bank accounts – more than $200 billion – that they’ll be able to spend in coming months.

Most of this is money they’ve earnt in the normal way, but much of it is also money that’s come to them in special assistance from the government.

It’s mainly because of all this extra money waiting to be spent that the Reserve Bank is forecasting that, after contracting by about 1 per cent in 2020 and growing by 4 per cent in 2021, the economy will grow by a bit more than 4 per cent this year.

Remember, however, that the economy usually grows by only about 2.5 per cent a year. So what looks like booming growth last year and this, is really just catch-up from the temporary effects of lockdowns.

We simply can’t – and won’t – keep growing at the rate of 4 per cent a year. That’s why the Reserve is expecting growth to slow sharply to a more-normal 2 per cent next year, 2023.

Most of the extra money households are holding may have been spent by the end of this year. And the forecast for 2023 assumes we’ll be back to wages growing a bit faster than the cost of living – which has yet to happen.

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Wednesday, February 2, 2022

We should make the economy less unequal - and we can

Since the working year doesn’t really get started until after Australia Day, it’s not too late to tell you my New Year’s resolutions. Actually, they’re more in the nature of re-affirming my guiding principles as an economic commentator. Why are we playing the economic game? Who are the people it’s supposed to benefit? And would all the policies I write in support of lead us towards or away from these ultimate objectives?

My first principle is that “the economy” – all the daily effort we put into producing and consuming goods and services – should be managed to benefit the many, not the few.

But it’s hard to believe this has been our overriding objective, particularly in recent decades. Although most of the activity in the economy is undertaken by the private sector – households and businesses – this activity is regulated by the public sector, governments.

Since our governments are democratically elected, this ought to mean that governments govern in the interests of all voters, not just some. But, as we all know, sometimes it doesn’t work out that way.

Sometimes governments pander to the majority when it gangs up against an unpopular minority – asylum seekers, for instance. Other times, governments act in the interests of powerful individuals, businesses and interest groups.

Since the two main political parties have become locked in a hugely expensive contest to influence voters at election time, they seem to have become more receptive to the interests of businesses able to donate generously to party coffers.

The notion that the economy will work best when governments manage it in ways that best suit the interests of business was hugely reinforced by the 30-year reign of a fad called “neoliberalism” – a movement started by na├»ve econocrats and economists (and supported by yours truly) that was soon hijacked by businesses and politicians who saw an opportunity to advance their own interests.

The neoliberal era is over – the proof of which you see every time Scott Morrison announces another government subsidy to a new gas-fired power station, oil refinery or Snowy Mountains scheme.

But our new project, to redress the balance of benefit in favour of ordinary workers and consumers, has a long way to go. It will make more progress when more voters understand the need to give ordinary players in the economic game a bigger share of the prizes.

Business invariably justifies its demand for favourable treatment by the jobs it creates. But increasingly, those jobs are of a lower quality than we have come to expect.

Many are casual, part-time and insecure. They come with fewer safeguards: sick and holiday pay, workers compensation coverage, super contributions. Pay rises are fewer and meaner. Wage theft has become common.

Voters need to realise the rise of crappy jobs in the “gig economy” is not some inescapable consequence of technological progress. It’s a policy choice that governments have made using the power we give them.

Were voters to tell politicians more forcefully that such a deterioration in the quality of the working life of the rising generation is unacceptable, they would act to stop less-scrupulous businesses finding ways to avoid or evade the labour laws that protect the rest of us.

All this is happening while the share of national income going to profits has risen strongly, at the expense of the share going to wages. And the share of income collected by the top 1 per cent of Australia’s income earners has risen to about 9 per cent of total income.

A capitalist economy wouldn’t work as well as it does were entrepreneurs not always trying new ways to increase their profits. The trouble is that not all the ways they try are of benefit to the rest of us, not just themselves and their shareholders.

In such cases, governments should not shirk their responsibility to act in the interests of the many not the few. Nor should we fear that, unless we give businesses free rein in their pursuit of higher profits, our business people will lose all interest in running businesses.

So, a longstanding view of mine is that we’d all be better off if business executives focused less on maximising profits (and their related bonuses) and more on giving their customers value for money and ensuring all their employees had rewarding jobs.

Not just jobs that were better paid and more secure, but more emotionally satisfying because they gave workers more autonomy – more freedom to choose the best ways of doing their job – and jobs better fitted to a worker’s particular strengths and preferences.

Easier said than done? True. Particularly because, though governments can prohibit certain undesirable practices in the treatment of workers, they can’t legislate to force bad bosses to be good ones.

Not easy, but not impossible to reshape the economy to improve it for ordinary people, not just bosses. And we won’t get any improvement until we accept that it is possible, and that we should measure the politicians we vote for according to their willingness and ability to spread the benefits of economic life less unequally.

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Monday, January 3, 2022

There are many ways to stuff up productivity

A good New Year’s resolution for readers of the business pages would be to read more widely and think more broadly, so their thinking about economic problems and their solutions doesn’t get into a rut, returning repeatedly to the same old solutions to the same problems.

No reader of these pages needs to be told that the key to higher material living standards is improved productivity – the ability to create more outputs from the same quantity of inputs of land (raw materials), labour and physical and intangible capital.

Almost continuous productivity improvement over the past two centuries is the outstanding achievement of capitalist, market economies, the proof of capitalism’s superiority as a system of organising production and consumption.

It’s what’s made us so much more prosperous than our forebears were, with much of that prosperity spilling over from the owners of capital to the middle class and people near the bottom.

But, as I’m sure you know, over the past decade or so the rate of productivity improvement in Australia and all advanced economies has slowed to a snail’s pace. Hence, all the talk about productivity and what we can do improve its rate of improvement.

So far, a decade of hand-wringing hasn’t got us anywhere. We need to think more broadly about the problem.

One new thought is to wonder if there is – or should be – more to the good life than economic growth and a higher material standard of living. If there are ways we could improve the quality of our lives even if they didn’t lead to us owning more and better toys.

A negative way to express the same thought is to wonder if being able to afford better houses and cars will be much consolation if we succeed in stuffing up our climate, with more heat waves, rainy summers, droughts, bushfires, floods, cyclones and a rising sea level.

But we’ll return to those thoughts another day, and descend now to the more prosaic. One rut we’ve got into is thinking it’s up to the government to lift our productivity by “reforming” this or that intervention in the economy.

This is model-blind thinking on the part of econocrats, hijacked by rent-seeking businesses and high income-earners wanting more power to limit the earnings of their employees and more of the tax burden shifted to other people in the name of improving “incentives”.

The same people show little interest in reforms that really would increase economic growth by increasing women’s participation in paid work, such as free childcare.

Another rut we’re in is thinking that we won’t get faster economic growth until we get back to faster productivity improvement.

This has much truth, but it misses the deeper truth that the relationship between economic growth and productivity can also run the other way: maybe we’re not getting faster productivity improvement because we’re not getting enough economic growth.

In practice, what does much to increase the productivity of labour is businesses – in mining, farming and manufacturing, but also the service industries – replacing old machines with the latest, most improved models.

But business investment has long been at historically low levels, making our weak productivity performance hardly surprising. And the dearth of new investment spending is also hardly surprising considering consumer spending has been so weak for so long.

Nor is weak consumer spending surprising when you remember how weak the growth in real wages has been. One reason wage growth has been so weak, as Reserve Bank governor Dr Philip Lowe has pointed out, is the present fashion of businesses using any and every means – legal or otherwise – to limit labour costs and so increase profits. There are other paths to profitability.

While we’re thinking unfamiliar thoughts on the possible causes of our productivity plateau, remember this one: when businesses have been investing strongly in new equipment in the past, it’s often been a time when labour costs have been rising rapidly, giving them a strong incentive to invest in labour-saving machines.

(Note, it’s precisely because this increases the productivity of labour, and thus increases real national income, that the pursuit of labour saving simply shifts the demand for labour from goods-producing industries to services-producing industries, leaving no decline in the demand for labour overall.)

Last year some economists at the International Monetary Fund wrote a blog post on yet another contributor to weak productivity improvement, which will certainly come as a surprise to “Brother Stu,” federal Education Minister Stuart Robert, who late last month sent a “letter of expectations” to the government’s Australian Research Council outlining the Morrison government’s desire to prioritise short-term research jobs that service the interests of commercial manufacturers.

It’s possible he and Scott Morrison merely wish to swing one for the Coalition’s generous business backers, but my guess is they imagined they were striking a blow for higher productivity. If so, they’ve been badly advised.

Research by the IMF economists finds that productivity improvement in the advanced economies has been declining despite steady increases in research and development, the best indicator we have on “innovation” effort, the thing so many business people give so many speeches about.

But get this: they find that what matters for economic growth is the composition of spending on R&D, with basic scientific research affecting more sectors for a longer time than applied research (commercially oriented R&D by companies).

“While applied research is important to bring innovations to market, basic research expands the knowledge base needed for breakthrough scientific progress,” they say.

“A striking example is the development of COVID-19 vaccines which, in addition to saving millions of lives, has helped bring forward the reopening of many economies . . . Like other major innovations, scientists drew on decades of accumulated knowledge in different fields to develop the mRNA vaccines.”

Which suggests the Morrison government has just jumped the wrong way in its latest intervention into the affairs of our universities. Should have done more R&D of their own before jumping.

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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 >>

Friday, March 12, 2021

Unless Morrison does a lot more, the recovery will be weak and slow

I fear we may be changing places with the United States. I fear the economy’s rapid rebound may have misled Scott Morrison into believing we’re home and hosed. I fear the Smaller Government mentality may trip us up again.

In response to the global financial crisis of 2008, the Americans and Europeans spent huge sums and ran up big budget deficits and public debt. They had to rescue their teetering banks and get their frozen economies going again.

It worked. The financial crisis dissipated and their economies started to recover. But before long they got a bad case of the Smaller Government frights. Look at those huge deficits! What have we done? Our children will drown in government debt!

So they put their budgets into reverse and cut government spending – especially spending aimed at helping the poor and unemployed – to get their deficits down and slow the growth in debt. Critics dubbed this a policy of “austerity”.

Trouble was, it backfired. Their economies weren’t growing strongly enough to withstand the withdrawal of government support. Their growth slowed, their budget deficits didn’t fall much, and their premature removal of support contributed to the deeper, structural problems that caused the developed economies to endure a decade of weak growth.

Point to note: unlike the Americans (and the others) our Rudd-Gillard government didn’t take fright and start slashing government spending. But now we’ve come to the global coronacession, it seems this time the roles may be reversed.

The Americans – who, admittedly, are in a much deeper hole than us – have just legislated a third, $US1.9 trillion ($2.5 trillion) spending package.

So what are we doing? With the economy having rebounded strongly in the second half of last year, we’re concluding the recovery’s in the bag and proceeding to wind back the main stimulus measures as fast as possible.

In the budget last October, the government foresaw the budget deficit falling from a peak of $214 billion last financial year to $88 billion next financial year.

At the Australian Financial Review’s business summit on Wednesday, one speech was given by Morrison and another by Reserve Bank governor Dr Philip Lowe. Their contrasting tones really worried me.

Morrison’s self-congratulatory speech could have come with a big, George W Bush-like sign, MISSION ACCOMPLISHED. He said it had been a tough 12 months, “but here we are, leading the world out of the global pandemic and the global recession it caused”.

He recalled telling last year’s summit that the government’s economic response “would be temporary and have a clear fiscal [budgetary] exit strategy”.

And “thankfully, we are now entering the post-emergency phase of the . . . response. We can now switch over to medium and longer-term economic policy settings that support private sector, business-led growth in our economy.”

Get it? Now it’s the time for the government to pull back and for business to take the running. Why? “Because you simply cannot run the Australian economy on taxpayers’ money forever. It’s not sustainable.”

(Note the trademark Morrison argument-by-non-sequitur: since you can’t do it forever, you mustn’t do it for another few years.)

Trouble is, Lowe gave an unusually sombre speech, highlighting the key respects in which business wouldn’t be taking the running.

He warned that the better-than-expected rebound after the lifting of the lockdown “does not negate the fact that there is still a long way to go and that the Australian economy is operating well short of full capacity. There are still many people who want a job and can’t find one and many others want to work more hours”.

“And on the nominal side of the economy [that is, on wages and prices] we have not yet experienced the same type of bounce-back that we have in the indicators of economic activity [such as employment and GDP]. For both wages and prices, there is still a long way to go to get back to the outcomes we are seeking.”

One of the main ways we get “business-led growth” is by growth in its investment in expansion. But it’s clear Lowe’s worried that it’s not really happening and may not for some years.

“While there was a welcome pick-up in the December quarter, particularly in machinery and equipment investment, investment is still 7 per cent below the level a year earlier . . . Non-residential construction is especially weak, with the forward-looking indicators suggesting that this is likely to remain so for a while yet,” he said.

Since 2010, business investment as a proportion of gross domestic product has averaged just 9 per cent, compared with 12 per cent over the previous three decades.

“A durable recovery from the pandemic requires a strong and sustained pick-up in business investment. Not only would this provide a needed boost to aggregate demand over the next couple of years, but it would also help build the [stock of physical capital] that is needed to support future production,” Lowe said.

Next is weak wage growth. “For inflation to be sustainably within the 2 to 3 per cent [target] range, it is likely that wages growth will need to be sustainably above 3 per cent . . .

“Currently, wages growth is running at just 1.4 per cent, the lowest rate on record. Even before the pandemic, wages were increasing at a rate that was not consistent with the inflation target being achieved. Then the pandemic resulted in a further step-down. This step-down means that we are a long way from a world in which wages growth is running at 3 per cent plus.”

The financial markets need to remember that you don’t get high inflation without high wages. Business needs to remember that its sales won’t grow strongly if it keeps sitting on its customers’ wages.

And Morrison needs to remember that if he withdraws budgetary support at a time when business is unlikely to take up the slack, the economy will go flat and the voters will blame him.

Read more >>

Monday, December 7, 2020

The secret sauce is missing from our recovery recipe

According to Reserve Bank deputy governor Dr Guy Debelle, a big lesson from the global financial crisis was “be careful of removing the stimulus too early”. Good point, and one that could yet bring Scott Morrison and his nascent economic recovery unstuck. But there’s something that’s even more likely to be his – and our – undoing.

Debelle was referring to the way the British and other Europeans, having borrowed heavily to bail out their banks and stimulate a recovery in the real economy, took fright at their mountain of debt and, before the recovery had got established, undercut it by slashing government spending. The consequences – contributing to more than a decade of weak growth - are hardly to be recommended.

The Yanks have been doing something similar this time round, with the Republican-controlled Senate agreeing to a huge initial stimulus package but, with the nation caught in a ferocious second round of the pandemic, having so far steadfastly refused a second package.

It almost seems a design flaw of conservative governments always to be tempted to pull the plug too early.

So premature withdrawal of stimulus is certainly a significant risk to the strength of our recovery. But I doubt it’s the biggest one. We should be giving much more thought than we have been to the sources of growth that will keep the economy heading onward and upward once the stimulus peters out.

The basic idea of managing the macro economy is that, when it’s flat, you use budgetary and interest-rate stimulus to give it a kick start, but then all the usual, natural drivers of growth take over.

Such as? We can talk about population growth, but it could well take more than a year or two to return to its accustomed annual rate of 1.5 per cent. And, in any case, it does far less to increase gross domestic product per person than it suits its promoters to admit.

We can talk about business investment spending but, though it does add to demand for goods and services, it’s essentially derived demand. That is, it doesn’t spring up spontaneously so much as grow in response to the growth in consumers’ demand for the goods and services businesses produce.

This being so, the government’s various tax incentives intended to get businesses investing in advance of the surge in consumer demand are unlikely to get far.

Up to 60 per cent of aggregate demand comes from household consumption. But the strong growth in consumer spending in the September quarter – with more to come this quarter – isn’t a sign that healthy growth in consumption has resumed. It’s just the semi-automatic rebound in spending following the lifting of the lockdown.

The leap in the household saving rate to a remarkable 18.9 per cent of disposable income is some combination of greater “precautionary” saving – “Who knows whether I’ll yet lose my job?” – and pent-up demand caused by the lockdown.

As things return to something reminiscent of normal, we can expect people to run down this excess saving to keep their spending returning to normal despite higher unemployment and widespread wage freezes.

But this is a once-only catch-up, spread over several quarters, not a return to on-going healthy real growth in consumer spending. For this, the occasional tax cut can help – though not by much if its prime beneficiaries are the top 20 per cent of income-earners, as scheduled for July 2024 – but there’s simply no substitute for healthy real growth in the dominant source household income: wages.

Real wage growth is the secret sauce missing from the hoped-for recovery. The Reserve Bank’s latest forecasts are for real wage growth of a mere 0.25 percentage points in each of calendar 2020, 2021 and 2022.

The econocrats don’t want to dampen spirits by admitting what they surely know: that without decent growth in real wages there’s little hope of a sustained recovery. Reserve governor Dr Philip Lowe’s recent remarks say we’re unlikely to see much growth in real wages until a rate of unemployment down to 4.5 per cent means employers must bid up wages in their competition to attract all the skilled labour they need.

This implies that, even if we were to achieve healthy rates of improvement in the productivity of labour – a big if – it’s no longer certain that organised labour retains the bargaining power to ensure ordinary households get their fair share of the spoils; that real wages still grow in line with productivity.

The government and its advisers ought to be grappling with the question of how we can get real wages up – but I doubt that’s what we’ll see this week when it reveals its plans for yet more “reform” of industrial relations.

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Friday, December 4, 2020

Economy's rebound goes well, but now for the hard part

Does the economy’s strong growth last quarter mean the recession is over? Only to those silly enough to believe in "technical" recessions. Since few economists are that silly, it’s probably more accurate to call it a "journalists’ recession". Makes for great headlines; doesn’t make sense.

It’s probably true – though not guaranteed - we’ll suffer no more quarters where the economy gets smaller rather than bigger. But people fear recessions not because they deliver growth rates with a minus sign in front of them, but because they destroy businesses and jobs.

You’ll know from walking down the main street that some businesses have closed and not been replaced. You’ll probably also know of family or friends who’ve lost their jobs or now aren’t getting as much casual work as they need and were used to.

By any sensible measure, this recession won’t be over until the rates of unemployment and underemployment are at least back down to where they were at the end of last year, before the virus struck. And Reserve Bank governor Dr Philip Lowe said this week that wasn’t likely for more than two years.

On a brighter note, the increase of 3.3 per cent in real gross domestic product during the September quarter, revealed by the Australian Bureau of Statistics in this week’s "national accounts", does mean the recovery from recession is off to a good start.

So far, however, what we’ve had is not so much a recovery as a rebound. Remember, this unique recession was caused not by an economic threat, as normal, but by a health threat.

The contraction in GDP of a record 7 per cent in the June quarter was caused primarily by a sudden collapse in consumer spending of 12.5 per cent. Why? Because, to halt the spread of the virus, governments ordered many retail businesses and venues to close, employees to work from home if possible, and everyone to stay in their homes and leave them as little as possible.

As a result, people who’d kept their jobs had plenty of money to spend, but greatly reduced opportunity to spend it. Even people who’d lost their jobs had their income protected by the JobKeeper wage subsidy scheme and the temporary supplement to the JobSeeker unemployment benefit.

Turns out that, despite the loss of jobs, those two big support measures actually caused a jump in the disposable incomes of the nation’s households in the June quarter. But, since it was impossible to keep spending, the proportion of households’ income that was saved rather than spent leapt from 7.6 per cent to 22.1 per cent.

The worst-hit parts of the economy were hotels, cafes and restaurants, recreation and culture, and transport (public transport, motoring, domestic and overseas air travel).

But this initial lockdown lasted only about six weeks before it was gradually lifted in all states bar Victoria. In consequence, consumer spending jumped by 7.9 per cent in the September quarter, more than enough to account for the 3.3 per cent jump in overall GDP.

Guess what? The strongest categories of increased spending were hotels, cafes and restaurants, recreation and culture, and transport services. Spending on healthcare rebounded as deferred elective surgery and visits to GPs resumed.

The quarter saw the rate of household saving fall only to 18.9 per cent – meaning people still have plenty of money to spend in coming quarters, even if pay rises will be very thin on the ground. And, since Victoria makes up a quarter of the national economy, its delayed removal of the lockdown ensures the rebound will continue in the present, December quarter.

See the point I’m making? When the greatest part of the collapse in economic activity was caused by a government-ordered lockdown, it’s not surprising most of that activity quickly returns as the lockdown is unwound.

But this is just a rebound to something not quite normal, not a conventional recovery as the usual drivers of economic growth recover and resume their upward impetus.

Thanks to the massive support from JobKeeper and JobSeeker, the rebound is the easy, almost automatic bit. But even the rebound is far from complete. The lockdown will leave plenty of lasting damage to businesses and careers – and the psychological and physical recovery is much harder matter to get moving.

Treasurer Josh Frydenberg boasts that, of the 1.3 million Australians who either lost their jobs or saw their working hours reduced to zero at the start of the pandemic, 80 per cent are now back at work.

Which is great news. But 80 per cent is still a long way short of 100 per cent. And even when 100 per cent is finally attained, that only gets us back to square one. It doesn’t provide additional jobs for those young people who’ll be needing employment in coming years.

Note, too, that most of the rebound in employment has been in part-time jobs. So far, less than 40 per cent of the 360,000 full-time jobs lost between March and June this year have returned.

In March, the rate of unemployment was 5.2 per cent; now it’s 7 per cent. The rate of underemployment was 8.8 per cent; now it’s 10.4 per cent.

And, returning to this week’s figures for GDP in the September quarter, once you look past the rebound in consumer spending, you don’t see much strength in the rest of the economy. Output in mining fell by 1.7 per cent, while production in agriculture was down 0.6 per cent.

One bright spot was home building, which ended a run of eight quarters of decline to grow by 0.6 per cent. Many new building approvals say this growth will continue.

But non-mining business investment in new equipment, buildings and structures incurred its sixth consecutive quarterly fall, with subdued investment intentions suggesting the government’s investment incentives will have limited success.

Little wonder the Reserve’s Lowe has warned the recovery will be "uneven, bumpy and drawn out". Don’t pop the champagne just yet.

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Saturday, September 5, 2020

It'll be a long haul to get the economy going properly

If you’ve been away on Mars for the past five months, it will have been a huge surprise to learn this week that the economy is now "officially" in recession. For the rest of us, the news is the size of the recession, how it compares, what contributed most to the contraction, and the cloudy outlook for recovery.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics’ "national accounts" show real gross domestic product fell by 7 per cent in the June quarter, on top of the 0.3 per cent fall in the previous quarter. This is by far the largest fall in any quarter since we began measuring quarterly GDP in 1959.

The next biggest was a fall of 2 per cent in the June quarter of 1974. As Callam Pickering, of the Indeed global job website, reminds us, our total fall since December compares with peak-to-trough falls of 1.4 per cent in our previous recession in the early 1990s, and 3.7 per cent in the recession of the early 1980s.

So, no doubt this is indeed the worst recession since the Great Depression of the 1930s. Why so bad? Because, as David Bassanese of BetaShares tells us, "this is a recession like no other," being caused by the almost instantaneous spread around the world of a deadly virus and the consequences of our efforts to suppress the virus by ceasing much economic activity.

This coronacession is distinguished by its very front-loaded and cruelly uneven nature. “Unlike past recessions, which usually evolve over a year or so, most of the contraction in the economy took place within two short months,” Bassanese says.

The sudden need to lock down much of the economy and get people to leave their homes as little as possible raises the hope that, as the economy is re-opened, much of that activity will be resumed. And if we switch the focus from what’s happening to GDP – the economy’s production of goods and services – to the more important issue of what’s happening to jobs, we see this is already happening.

Treasurer Josh Frydenberg reminds us that, of the 1.3 million people who either lost their job or were stood down on zero hours following the outbreak, more than half were back at work by July.

This suggests we should be able to expect a significant bounce-back in production in the present September quarter, which has less than a month to run. Sorry, Victoria’s second wave and return to lockdown have put paid to that fond hope.

With the rest of the nation re-opening, but Victoria accounting for about a quarter of GDP, the optimists in Treasury are hoping for a line-ball result, but most business economists seem to be expecting a further (though much smaller) fall.

With any luck, however, Victoria should have started re-re-opening by the end of this month. So, a big recovery in production in the run up to Christmas? Sorry. Unless the government changes its tune by then, the economy will be struggling to cope with the withdrawal of much of Scott Morrison’s budgetary support.

Time for some good news. Remember that, no matter how tough things are looking in Oz, they’re looking better than in the rest of the developed world, with the United States losing 9 per cent during the June quarter, the Europeans down 12 per cent, and Britain down 20 per cent.

Why have we been hit less hard? Because we closed our borders earlier and had more success at containing the virus. We didn’t have to lock down as hard and were able to re-open earlier.

Now back to the details of how our 7 per cent contraction came about. The great bulk of it came from consumer spending - accounting for well over half of GDP – which fell by a remarkable 12.1 per cent during the quarter.

Consumption of goods fell a bit, while consumption of services fell hugely. Why? Because staying at home and social distancing slashed our spending on services such as hospitality, recreation and transport (public, car and air).

To the fall in consumer spending we must add falls of 6.8 per cent in new home building and 6.2 per cent in business investment in new equipment and structures. Note that this continued the declines in these two areas that began well before the virus arrived, showing the economy was weak even before the crisis.

This collapse in private sector spending was partly offset by growth in two parts of the economy. First, public sector spending grew by 2.5 per cent, mainly reflecting greater health care costs. (Note that, being "transfer payments", the huge spending on the JobKeeper wage subsidy scheme shows up as an addition to wage income, while the greater spending on JobSeeker unemployment benefits also shows up as an addition to household disposable income.)

This increased government assistance, at a time when job losses meant wage income was falling, actually caused household disposable income to rise by 2.2 per cent. Combined with the remarkable fall in consumer spending, however, this helps explain why the rate of household saving leapt from 6 per cent of household income to almost 20 per cent.

Second, our international trade made a 1 percentage point positive contribution to growth because, although the volume of our exports of goods and services fell, the volume of our imports of goods and services (which subtract from growth) fell by more.

(Just so you know, partly because of this we recorded our largest quarterly current account surplus on record of $18 billion, or 3.8 per cent of GDP. This is our fifth consecutive surplus, the longest run of surpluses since the 1970s. For a financial capital-importing economy like ours, this is actually a sign of economic weakness.)

Remembering that the outlook for coming quarters isn’t bright, I leave the last, sobering word to the ANZ Bank’s economics team: “Significant further stimulus over the next few years is likely to be required to generate growth and jobs and drive the unemployment rate down.”
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Saturday, June 13, 2020

The tables have turned in our economic dealings with the world

If you know your economic onions, you know that our economy has long run a deficit in trade with the rest of the world which, when you add our net payments of interest and dividends to foreigners, means we’ve long run a deficit on the current account of our balance of payments and, as a consequence, have a huge and growing foreign debt.

Except that this familiar story has been falling apart for the past five years, and is no longer true. In that time, our economic dealings with the rest of the world have been turned on their head.

Last week the Australian Bureau of Statistics announced that we’d actually run a surplus on the current account of $8.4 billion in March quarter. Does that surprise you? It shouldn’t because it was the fourth quarterly surplus in a row.

But that should surprise you because the first of those surpluses, for the June quarter last year, was the first surplus in 44 years. And now we’ve clocked up four in a row, that’s the first 12-month surplus we’ve run since 1973.

Of course, when the balance on a country’s current account turns from deficit to surplus, its net foreign liabilities to the rest of the world stop going up and start going down.

What’s brought about this remarkable transformation? Various factors, the greatest of which is our decade-long resources boom, which occurred because the rapid development of China’s economy led to hugely increased demand for our coal, natural gas and iron ore.

A massive rise in the world prices of those commodities, which began in 2004 and continued until 2011, prompted a boom in the construction of new mines and gas facilities which peaked in 2013. From then on, the volume of our exports of minerals and energy grew strongly as new mines came online.

But while our mining exports expanded greatly, the completion of the new mines and gas facilities meant a fall in our extensive imports of expensive mining equipment. As a consequence, our balance of trade in goods and services – which between 1980 and 2015 averaged a deficit equivalent to 1.25 per cent of gross domestic product – has been in surplus ever since.

The rise of China’s middle class gets much of the credit for another development that’s helped our trade balance: strong growth in our exports of services, particularly inbound tourism and the sale of education to overseas students.

When our country has gone since white settlement as a net importer of foreign financial capital – which has been necessary because our own savings haven’t been sufficient to fund all the physical investment needed to take full advantage of our country’s huge potential for economy development – it’s not surprising we have a lot of foreign investment in Australian businesses and have borrowed a lot of money from foreigners.

In which case, it’s not surprising that every quarter we have to pay foreigners a lot more in interest and dividends on their investments in our economy than they have to pay us on our investments in their economies.

This “net income deficit” – which is the other main component of the current account - has grown enormously since the breakdown of the post-World War II “Bretton Woods” system of fixed exchange rates prompted us to float our dollar in 1983 and started a revolution in banks and businesses in one country lending and investing in other countries, including the rise of multinational corporations.

That was when Australia’s net foreign debt started rising rapidly and the net income deficit began to dominate our current account. The net income deficit has averaged a massive 3.4 per cent of GDP since the late 1980s.

It hasn’t changed much since the tables started turning five years ago. Except for one thing. The rapid growth in our superannuation funds since the introduction of compulsory employee super in the early 1990s has seen so much Australian investment in the shares of foreign companies that, since 2013, the value of our “equity” investment in other countries’ companies has exceeded the value of more than two centuries of other countries’ investment in our companies.

At March 31, Australia had net foreign equity assets worth $338 billion. You’d expect this to have significantly reduced our quarterly net income deficit, but it hasn’t. Why not? Because the dividends we earn on our investments in foreign companies aren’t as great as the dividends foreigners earn on their ownership of our companies. Why not? Because our hugely profitable mining industry is three-quarters foreign-owned.

If you add our net foreign equity assets and our net foreign debt to get our net foreign liabilities, they’ve been falling as a percentage of GDP for the past decade. If you look at the absolute dollar amount, just since December 2018 it’s fallen by more than 20 per cent.

If all this sounds too good to be true, it’s certainly not as good as it looks. The final major factor helping to explain the improvement in our external position is the weakness in the economy over the 18 months before the arrival of the virus shock.

The alternative way to see what’s happening in our dealings with the rest of the world is to focus on what’s happening to national saving relative to national (physical) investment. That’s because the difference between how much the nation saves and how much it invests equals the balance on the current account.

Turns out that national investment has fallen in recent times (business investment is weak, home building has collapsed and government investment in infrastructure is falling back) while national saving has increased (households have been saving more, mining companies have been retaining much of their high profits, and governments have been increasing their operating surpluses).

So much so that the nation is now saving more than it’s investing, giving us a current account surplus. But this is a recipe for weaker not faster “jobs and growth”.
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Saturday, March 7, 2020

Coronavirus will hit an economy that’s already weak

It’s good to know the economy wasn’t as weak as we’d been told, but it’s not nearly good enough. Not when we know it’s getting walloped this quarter by the bushfires and the coronavirus.

This time three months ago, we were told that real gross domestic product had grown by just 1.7 per cent over the year to September. This week the Australian Bureau of Statistics announced that real GDP grew by 0.5 per cent during the December quarter and by 2.2 per cent over the calendar year.

On the face of it, this was the “gentle turning point” long promised by Reserve Bank governor Dr Philip Lowe. But when you look behind the headline numbers, it’s clear the economy’s basic problems continued unchanged.

Households are the bedrock of every economy, with consumer spending accounting for more than 60 per cent of total spending (aka “aggregate demand”). Obviously, households spend out of their income after paying income tax – their “disposable” income.

The greatest single factor driving household disposable income is income from wages. We know that employment has long been growing surprisingly strongly, so the income from the extra jobs is adding to household income.

But the main growth in wage income comes from pay rises. And we also know that, for five or six years now, wage rises haven’t been much bigger than the rises in the prices consumers pay. So if “real” wages aren’t growing strongly, it’s hard to see how real GDP – aggregate demand – can be growing strongly. Not in any sustainable way.

The full story is more complicated than that, of course, but that’s what an economist would call the “underlying” reality. So until strong growth in real wages returns, we’ll be spending our time examining the ups and downs in all the other, complicating factors that, over the short- to medium-term, cause the growth in real GDP to be a bit stronger or a bit weaker than the real growth in wages would lead us to expect.

(Should real wages never seem to return to the growth rate we were used to, we’d have to reassess our notions of what constitutes “strong” and “weak” growth – but that’s a story for another day.)

Back to the complications. Consumer spending grew by 0.4 per cent during the December quarter, which was a big improvement on its growth of 0.1 per cent in the previous quarter, but growth of 1.2 per cent over the year is less than half what it should be.

Much household spending goes on housing – whether renting or buying. And when people change houses they tend to have a burst of spending on “consumer durables” such as new furniture and appliances.

The buying and selling of existing homes doesn’t generate much economic activity, except to increase real estate agents’ commissions (and you’ll be delighted to hear that the increase in home sales, which is both a cause and an effect of the renewed rise in house prices in Sydney and Melbourne, caused such a boost in those commissions that it accounted for 0.2 percentage points of the overall increase of 0.5 per cent in GDP during the quarter).

But what does form a big part of GDP is investment in the building of new houses and units, plus alterations and additions. Here the news was not good. Home building activity fell by 3.4 per during the quarter and by 9.7 per cent over the year. It was the fifth quarter of contraction in a row.

Directly or indirectly, investment by businesses in new buildings, constructions and equipment is aimed at satisfying the expected demand for goods and services by households (although, when those households live overseas, we call it demand for exports).

So if consumers’ demand for goods and services has been weak for quite a few years, it’s not surprising that businesses’ investment spending on expanding their production capacity has also been weak. Although our miners have resumed investment, investment by the non-mining sector fell. Overall, business investment spending fell by 0.8 per cent during the quarter.

Put those three things together – consumer spending, new housing investment and business investment – and you’ve got the total demand of the private sector. It showed no growth during the quarter, and its annual contribution to overall GDP growth over the past few years has now fallen to zero.

So where is the growth coming from? From spending by the public sector. In previous quarters this has included strong growth in spending on infrastructure (mainly by the state governments), but this quarter it fell a bit. That left government spending on the provision of services (particularly on the federal rollout of the National Disability Insurance Scheme) growing by 0.7 per cent during the quarter and by 5.3 per cent over the year.

Now do you understand why governor Lowe keeps banging on about the need for governments to spend up?

The second factor helping to keep us growing is the “external sector” – specifically “net exports” (exports minus imports). The volume of exports of goods and services was unchanged during the quarter, but grew by 3.4 per cent over the year.

And the volume of imports of goods and services fell by 0.5 per cent during the quarter and by 1.5 per cent over the year. Which means that both the increase in exports and the fall in imports contributed to the overall growth in real GDP.

But ask yourself this: why would imports be falling? Because both consumer spending and business investment spending are so weak. Oh.

A final sign of the economy’s weakness comes when you remember how strongly our population’s been growing. Allow for this and you find that real GDP per person grew by just 0.2 per cent during the quarter and by only 0.7 per cent during the year.

And that’s before the economy’s hit by the bushfires and the economic disruption caused by our efforts to limit the spread of the coronavirus.
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