Showing posts with label prices. Show all posts
Showing posts with label prices. Show all posts

Friday, December 17, 2021

Like election promises, many budget forecasts never materialise

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Monday, December 6, 2021

Panicking financial markets could stuff up another global recovery

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Wednesday, September 1, 2021

If you want to shop in competitive markets, you’ll have to fight for it

The lockdown is dragging on so long and its end point is so uncertain that it’s easy to become anxious and despondent. That’s especially true of the young, who’ve had less experience of bad episodes eventually passing. The rest of us know they will, however long it takes. But it may help if we switch the focus to what we’ll do to make the world a better place once things return to normal.

One conclusion the young are justified in reaching is that the world is run by well-off older men (present company excepted) intent on making the world better for themselves, even if that comes at the expense of others.

A question for the coming federal election is which side is more likely to restrain the rich and powerful rather than help them in their quest.

It’s true that people near the very top have continued doing better, while the rest of us have had very modest pay rises. In healthy market economies, vigorous competition and continuous investment in better machines increases the productivity of workers, which is reflected in higher real wages.

There’s been very little of that over the past decade and one reason for this seems to be a decline in competition between the few big businesses that dominate so many of our markets.

When companies get bigger by taking over their competitors, this gives them more power to increase their prices and profits (and executive salaries) without them becoming more efficient or paying their workers more.

The list of Australian markets dominated by a few large firms is long, including banking, supermarkets, insurance, electricity and gas retailing, domestic air travel, pathology testing, mobile phones and internet service providers, not to mention internet search and social media platforms.

It may surprise you that, contrary to what happens in other advanced economies, companies seeking to merge don’t need permission from the ACCC, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission.

Many choose to consult the commission, but if they press on with a merger the ACCC thinks will increase their “market power”, its only recourse is to take them to the Federal Court and convince it that the merger would “substantially lessen competition” in the future.

This isn’t easy. The executives generally assure the judges that something so dastardly has never crossed their mind, and their assurances are believed. The last seven times the commission has sought to get mergers blocked, it has failed.

It’s not the court’s job to come back a few years later and see if those assurances were honoured by the rich and powerful men whose evidence the judges found it so easy to believe.

So, in a speech last week, commission chair Rod Sims sought to start a public debate on “market concentration” and proposed that the proponents of mergers be legally required to notify the commission of their intentions, then wait for the deal to be assessed and cleared before proceeding. The proponents could appeal in court against any decision they didn’t like.

Sims says competitive markets work much better for consumers, and increase innovation and productivity.

“While the available evidence is not definitive, it appears that market power [to raise prices] is increasing in Australia. This trend has also been observed in many advanced economies, including by the International Monetary Fund,” he says.

“Without action, market power in Australia will become further entrenched; and will certainly not reduce.”

Market power is hurting Australians in many ways, he says. Consumers are paying more than they should for a wide range of goods and services.

It’s also “squeezing the incomes of farmers. For example, chicken growers and dairy farmers have little option but to sell their produce to large buyers with substantial bargaining power.” Farmers purchase many of their supplies from only a few big sellers.

“Many small businesses and farmers are largely reliant on Coles and Woolworths to access grocery shoppers ... This power imbalance places small businesses and farmers in precarious positions with consequent damage to our economy.

“In digital markets, we are exchanging access to our personal data and attention for so-called ‘free’ services, but have little choice, knowledge or control over how our data is being used.”

Now, if you’re sitting down, I’ll tell you something that will amaze. Jennifer Westacott, chief executive of the Business Council of Australia, can’t see what the fuss is about. She fears the proposed changes would be “another blow to investment”. (By which I assume she means businesses “investing” in the takeover of other businesses.)

As for Treasurer Josh Frydenberg, he has no enthusiasm for Sims’ reforms. He says the lockdown means we need to encourage business and growth, not throw up regulatory barriers. (I suspect we’ll be hearing a lot more of that convenient argument between now and the election.)

Do you see why Sims wants to start a public debate? If this issue is left for the Treasurer and the big-business lobby to sort out behind closed doors, nothing will change.

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Saturday, January 2, 2021

Why much of what we're told about taxes is off beam

There are lots of ways to describe the subject matter of economics, but the ponciest way is to say it’s about “the study of incentives”. It’s true, but a less grandiose way to put it is that conventional economists are obsessed by prices and not much else.

If you’ve heard someone being accused of knowing “the price of everything, but the value of nothing”, that phrase could have been purpose-built for economists. Read on and you’ll see why economists so often make bad predictions and give bum advice.

The early weeks of most courses in economics are devoted to explaining the economists’ version of how markets work. How the demand for a particular good or service interacts with the supply of the particular item to determine its price.

Over time, movements in the price act as signals to both the buyers of the product and its sellers. A rise in the price tells buyers they should use the now more-expensive product less wastefully, and maybe start looking for some alternative product that’s almost as good but doesn’t cost as much. On the other hand, a fall in the price tells buyers to bog in.

To the sellers, however, the price signals sent by a price change are reversed. A price rise says: this product's now more profitable, produce more; a fall in the price signals that supply is now less profitable, so produce less.

You can see how changes in the price act as an incentive for buyers and sellers to change their behaviour.

You see too how, following some disturbance, this “price mechanism” acts to return the market for the product to “equilibrium” – balance between the supply of it and the demand for it. It sets off what real scientists call a “negative feedback loop”: when prices rise, it acts to bring them back down by reducing demand and increasing supply; when prices fall, it brings them back up by reducing supply and increasing demand.

Note that all this is about changes in relative prices – the price of one product relative to the prices of others. It ignores inflation, which is a rise in the level of prices generally.

The way economists think, taxes are just another price. And there’s no topic where people worry more about the effect of incentives than taxes – particularly the effect of income tax on the incentive to work.

Consider this experiment, conducted in 2018 by two (married) economists from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Esther Duflo and Abhijit Banerjee, with Stefanie Stantcheva of Harvard. Duflo and Banerjee were awarded the Nobel prize in economics in 2019.

The three surveyed 10,000 people from all over America, asking half of them questions about how people would react to several financial incentives. Half of these respondents said they expected at least some people to stop working in response to a rise in the tax rate, and 60 per cent expected people to work less.

Almost half of the 5000 respondents expected the introduction of a universal basic income of $US13,000 ($17,000) a year, with no strings attached, to lead people to stop working. And 60 per cent thought a Medicaid program (providing healthcare for people on low incomes) with no work requirement would discourage people from working.

But here’s the trick: the economists asked people in the other half of their 10,000 sample the same questions, but how they themselves would react, not how they thought other people would. Their responses were significantly different, with 72 per cent of them declaring that an increase in taxes would “not at all” lead them to stop working.

As Duflo and Banerjee summed it up in their book, Good Economics for Hard Times, and in an excerpt in the New York Times, “Everyone else responds to incentives, but I don’t”.

It’s possible those people could be deluding themselves – after all, most people believe they’re not influenced by advertising, when it’s clear advertising works – but in this case the hard evidence shows financial incentives aren’t nearly as influential as is widely assumed.

The first place to see this is among the rich. “No one seriously believes that salary caps lead top athletes to work less hard in the United States than they do in Europe, where there is no cap. Research shows that when top tax rates go up, tax evasion increases . . . but the rich don’t work less,” they say.

And we see it among the poor. “Notwithstanding all the talk about ‘welfare queens,’ [and the use our Morrison government has made of similar talk to justify keeping the JobSeeker dole payment low] 40 years of evidence shows that the poor do not stop working when welfare becomes more generous,” they say.

“When members of the Cherokee tribe started getting dividends from the casino on their land, which made them 50 per cent richer on average, there was no evidence that they worked less.”

It’s true that in many circumstances – but not something as deeply consequential as decisions about how much work to do – differences in prices will influence the choices people make. In a supermarket, for instance, many shoppers will reach for the cheaper jar of peanut butter.

But when we’re making decisions about bigger and more consequential issues – such as whether to work and how much of it to do – monetary incentives such as the rate of tax on it, go into the mix with a multitude of other, non-monetary incentives.

Such as? “Something we know in our guts: status, dignity, social connections. Chief executives and top athletes are driven by the desire to win and be the best. The poor will walk away from social benefits if they come with being treated like a criminal. And among the middle class, the fear of losing their sense of who they are,” Duflo and Banerjee conclude.

Why do economists so often make bad predictions and give bum advice? Because they keep forgetting that a model of economic behaviour that focuses so heavily on prices leaves out many other powerful incentives.

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