Showing posts with label natural disasters. Show all posts
Showing posts with label natural disasters. Show all posts

Friday, April 8, 2022

Wars, floods and pestilence: these horrors have an economic upside

By profession, economists are hard-nosed and cold-blooded. The pictures we’re seeing of the death and destruction wreaked by Russia in its invasion of Ukraine are heart-wrenching. At home, seeing people perched on their roofs as floodwaters surge, or piling up the ruined contents of their homes on the footpath, makes your heart go out. But what economists see is that every disaster has its upside.

Once they’ve put on their professional’s hat, economists don’t see evil, or pain or any emotion. Feelings must be suppressed when what they need is objectivity.

They simply size up wars and natural disasters for the effect they’ll have on the economy, measured by inflation, unemployment and, above all, gross domestic product. And since GDP often ignores the destruction of buildings and other assets, but plays close attention to the building of new assets, it tends to paint an overly favourable view of events we see as disastrous.

This doesn’t make GDP an instrument of evil that should be banished. It’s simply mono-dimensional. It focuses on a vital, but narrow aspect of our lives – how much we produce, how much income we generate – while studiously ignoring all the other aspects.

When someone’s house has been declared uninhabitable, you and I see how painful and disorienting that must be for them. What an economist sees is all the jobs that will be created and income generated to build them a new one.

But until then, the family will be homeless! That’s OK. Those who provide them with somewhere to live will be earning income and employing people – provided they don’t just stay with family or neighbours. It’s not counted in GDP if no money changes hands.

GDP doesn’t measure wellbeing – and was never designed to. This is only a problem when people fall into the trap of thinking GDP is all that matters – an occupational hazard for economists.

Last week’s budget papers discussed the economic consequence of the war in Ukraine and the floods in NSW and Queensland. For such terrible events, the tone was surprisingly upbeat.

Combined, “the Russian and Ukrainian economies comprise less than 3 per cent of global GDP and less than 2.5 per cent of global trade.

“Foreign financial exposures to Russia are small, and the International Monetary Fund has assessed that sovereign [government] or bank default is not a systemic risk to global financial stability.”

Russia is, however, an important global supplier of rural, mineral and energy commodities. So the invasion has caused substantial disruption in global commodity markets, the papers say, and has the potential to significantly raise inflation and lower global growth.

“Russia produces 18 per cent of the world’s gas and 12 per cent of the world’s oil supply and, together with Ukraine, accounts for around 25 per cent of world wheat exports.” The invasion has increased the risk of supply disruptions, pushing up energy, agricultural and metals prices.

“Global supply chains are also reliant on Russian metals exports, especially palladium [a rare metal used in catalytic converters of exhaust fumes, and fuel cells], so significant supply disruption could have flow-on effects for global manufacturing supply chains.”

All economies will be affected by the rise in global commodity prices. Among the worst affected will be Europe, Japan and South Korea, which are highly dependent on imports of energy. These and other countries will suffer what economists call a “negative terms-of-trade shock” – that is, the prices of their energy imports will rise relative to the prices they get for their exports.

But, the papers say, a smaller set of countries will benefit from a “positive terms-of-trade shock” – because they are net exporters of the higher-priced energy commodities. Their consumers and businesses will pay the higher world price for the petrol and other fuels they use, but this will be greatly offset by the higher prices their producers of energy exports will be receiving.

Among this small group is one lucky country whose net energy exports are twice as great as its domestic energy use. It’s Austria. Sorry, make that Australia. As the economist Chris Richardson might say, you may be paying a lot more for your petrol, but the economy’s been kicked in the backside by a rainbow.

Turning to our floods, although it’s still raining and too soon for final figures, last week’s budget papers say that, under an arrangement where the federal government funds up to 75 per cent of the assistance provided by the state governments, the feds expect to pay more than $2 billion for income support to households, temporary accommodation and social services, about $600 million for community clean-up and recovery, and almost $700 million to businesses and farmers for repairs, new equipment and support services.

As well, the budget makes provision for $3 billion in further federal spending over the coming four years.

Moving from the budget to the economy, we’re told that the “direct economic cost” – that is, those purely monetary costs that show up in GDP – are expected to subtract about 0.5 percentage points from the growth in the nation’s real GDP during the March quarter.

What are the costs that show up in GDP? They’re mainly reduced production in the mining, agriculture, accommodation and food services, retail trade and construction industries.

You’ll be relieved to hear, however, that this 0.5 per cent overstates the net impact of the floods on real GDP over the longer term.

Why? Because “this direct cost will be partially offset by increased investment to replace and rebuild damaged housing, infrastructure and household goods”.

And here’s some good news: the reduced exports of coal caused by rain in the March quarter aren’t expected to be as bad as previous weather events, such as the floods and Cyclone Yasi in 2011.

If you find all this mercenary and distasteful, it’s not new. The arrival of World War II helped end the Great Depression. And rebuilding bombed out Europe and Japan after the war helped the rich countries grow faster than ever before – or since.

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