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

Monday, June 27, 2022

Business volunteers its staff to take one for the shareholders' team

An increase in wages sufficient to prevent a further fall in real wages would do little harm to the economy and much good to businesses hoping their sales will keep going up rather than start going down.

It’s hard enough to figure out what’s going on in the economy – and where it’s headed – without media people who should know better misrepresenting what Reserve Bank governor Dr Philip Lowe said last week about wages and inflation.

One outlet turned it into a good guys versus bad guys morality tale, where Lowe rebuked the evil, inflation-mongering unions planning to impose 5 or 7 per cent wage rises on the nation’s hapless businesses by instituting a “3.5 per cent cap” on the would-be wreckers, with even the new Labor government “bowing” to Lowe’s order that real wages be cut, and the ACTU “conceding” that 5 per cent wage claims would not go forward.

ACTU boss Sally McManus was on the money in dismissing this version of events as coming from “Boomer fantasy land”. What she meant was that this conception of what’s happening today must have come from the mind of someone whose view of how wage-fixing works was formed in the 1970s and ’80s, and who hadn’t noticed one or two minor changes in the following 30 years.

No one younger than a Baby Boomer could possibly delude themselves that workers could simply demand some huge pay rise and keep striking – or merely threatening to strike – until their employer caved in and granted it.

Or believe that, as really was the case in the 1970s and 1980s, the quarterly or half-yearly “national wage case” awarded almost every worker in the country a wage rise indexed to the consumer price index. Paul Keating abolished this “centralised wage-fixing system” in the early ’90s and replaced it with collective bargaining at the enterprise level.

John Howard’s changes, culminating in the Work Choices changes in 2005, took this a lot further, outlawing compulsory unionism, tightly constraining the unions’ ability to strike, allowing employers to lock out their employees, removing union officials’ right to enter the workplace and check that employers were complying with award provisions (now does the surge in “accidental” wage theft surprise you?) and sought to diminish employees’ bargaining power by encouraging individual contracts rather than collective bargaining.

Julia Gillard’s Fair Work changes in 2009 reversed some of the more anti-union elements of Work Choices but, as part of modern Labor’s eternal desire to avoid getting off-side with big business, let too many of them stand.

As both business and the unions agree, enterprise bargaining is falling into disuse. On paper, about a third of the nation’s employees are subject to enterprise agreements. But McManus claims that, in practice, it’s down to about 15 per cent.

All these changes in the “institution arrangements” for wage-fixing are before you take account of the way organised labour’s bargaining power has been diminished by globalisation and technological change making it so much easier to move work – particularly in manufacturing, but increasingly in services – to countries where labour is cheaper.

In the ’80s, about half of all workers were union members. Today, it’s down to 14 per cent, with many of those concentrated in public sector jobs such as nursing, teaching and coppering.

All this is why fears that we risk returning to the “stagflation” of the 1970s are indeed out of fantasy land. Only a Boomer who hasn’t been paying attention, or a youngster with no idea of how much the world has changed since then, could worry about such a thing.

The claim that Lowe has stopped the union madness in its tracks by imposing a “3.5 per cent cap” on wage rises misrepresents what he said. It ignores his qualification that 3.5 per cent – that is, 2.5 per cent as the mid-point of the inflation target plus 1 per cent for the average annual improvement in the productivity of labour – is “a medium-term point that I’ve been making for some years” (my emphasis) that “remains relevant, over time,” (ditto) and is the “steady-state wage increase”.

Like the inflation target itself, it’s an average to be achieved “over the medium term” – that is, over 10 years or so – not an annual “cap” that you can fall short of for most of the past decade, but must never ever exceed.

Supposedly, it’s a “cap” because of Lowe’s remark that “if wage increases become common in the 4 to 5 per cent range, then it’s going to be harder to return inflation to 2.5 per cent.”

That’s not the imposition of a cap – which, in any case, Lowe doesn’t have to power to do, even if he wanted to – it’s a statement of the bleeding obvious. It’s simple arithmetic.

But it’s also an utterly imaginary problem. It ain’t gonna happen. Why not? Because, as McManus “conceded”, no matter how unfair the unions regard it to force workers to bear the cost of the abandon with which businesses have been protecting their profits by whacking up their prices, workers simply lack the industrial muscle to extract pay rises any higher than the nation’s chief executives can be shamed into granting.

While we’re talking arithmetic, however, don’t fall for the line – widely propagated – that if prices rise by 5 per cent, and then wages rise by 5 per cent, the inflation rate stays at 5 per cent. As the Bureau of Statistics has calculated, labour costs account for just 25 per cent of all business costs.

So, only if all other, non-labour costs have also risen by 5 per cent does a 5 per cent rise in wage rates justify a 5 per cent rise in prices, thus preventing the annual inflation rate from falling back.

In other words, what we’re arguing about is how soon inflation falls back to the target range. Commentators with an unacknowledged pro-business bias (probably because they work for big business) are arguing that it should happen ASAP by making the nation’s households take a huge hit to their real incomes. This, apparently, will be great for the economy.

Those in the financial markets want to hasten the return to target by having the Reserve raise interest rates so far and so fast it puts the economy into recession. Another great idea.

Meanwhile, Lowe says he expects the return to target inflation to take “some years”. What a wimp.

Read more >>

Wednesday, June 22, 2022

Why interest rates are going up, and won't be coming down

It’s time we had a serious talk about interest rates. And, while we’re at it, inflation. Someone in my job knows it’s time to talk turkey when the man in charge of rates, Reserve Bank governor Dr Philip Lowe, decides to go on the ABC’s 7.30 program to talk about both.

There’s much to talk about. Why are interest rates of such interest to so many (sorry)? Why do some people hate them going up and some love it? How do interest rates and the inflation rate fit together? Why do central banks such as our Reserve keep moving them up and down? When rates go up, they normally come back down – so why won't that happen this time?

Starting with the basics, interest is the price or fee that someone who wants to borrow money for a period has to pay to someone who has money they’re prepared to lend – for a fee.

Legally, the “person” you’ve borrowed from is usually a bank, while the person with savings to lend deposits them with a bank. But economists see banks as just “intermediaries” that bring borrowers on one side together with ordinary savers on the other.

The bank charges borrowers a higher interest rate than it pays its depositors. The difference reflects the bank’s reward for bringing the two sides together, but also the risk the bank is running that the borrower won’t repay the debt, leaving the bank liable to repay the depositor.

You see from this that interest is an expense to borrowers, but income to savers. This is why there’s so much arguing over interest rates. Borrowers hate to see them rise, but savers hate to see them fall. (The media conceal this two-sided relationship by almost always treating rate rises as bad.)

Now we get to inflation. Economists think of interest rates as having two components. The first is the compensation that the borrower must pay the saver for the loss in the purchasing power of their money while it’s in the borrower’s hands. The second part is the “real” or after-inflation interest rate that the borrower must pay the saver for giving up the use of their own money for a period.

This implies that the level of interest rates should roughly rise and fall in line with the ups and downs in the rate of inflation – the annual rate at which the prices consumers pay for goods and services (but not for assets such as shares or houses) are rising.

This explains why, when the inflation rate was way above 5 per cent throughout the 1970s and ’80s, interest rates were far higher than they’ve been since.

Now it gets tricky. Central banks have the ability to control variable interest rates by manipulating what’s known confusingly as the “overnight cash rate”. This “official” interest rate forms the base for all the other (higher) interest rates we pay or receive.

The Reserve Bank uses its control over this base interest rate to smooth the ups and downs in the economy, trying to keep both inflation and unemployment low.

When it thinks our demand for goods and services is too weak and is worsening unemployment, it cuts interest rates to encourage borrowing and spending. When it thinks our demand is too strong and is worsening inflation, it raises interest rates to discourage borrowing and spending.

The pandemic and the consequent “coronacession” caused the Reserve (and all the other rich-country central banks) to cut the official interest rate almost to zero.

The economy has bounced back from the lockdowns and is now growing strongly, with very low unemployment and many vacant jobs. But now we’ve been hit by big price rises from overseas, the result of supply bottlenecks caused by the pandemic and a leap in oil and gas prices caused by the war on Ukraine, plus the effect of climate change on local meat and vegetable prices.

As Lowe explained to Leigh Sales on 7.30, these are once-only price rises and, although he expects the inflation rate to reach 7 per cent by the end of this year, it should then start falling back toward the Reserve’s target inflation rate of 2 to 3 per cent.

His worry is that the economy’s capacity to produce all the goods and services being demanded is close to running out – and already has in housing and construction. This raises the risk that the rate of growth in prices won’t fall back as soon as it should.

This is why Lowe’s started raising the official interest rate from its pandemic “emergency setting” near zero – zero! – to a “more normal setting”. Such as? To more like 2.5 per cent, he told Sales.

Why 2.5 per cent? Because that’s the mid-point of his inflation target.

Get it? Interest rates are supposed to cover expected inflation plus a bit more. Once Lowe’s able to get them back up to that level without causing a recession, they won’t be coming back down until the next pandemic-sized emergency.

A base interest rate of zero was never going to be the new normal. The nation’s saving grandparents would never cop it.

Read more >>

Monday, June 20, 2022

Economic times are tricky, but they're far from 'dire'

It’s a funny thing. The easily impressionable are packing down for imminent recession, while the economic cognoscenti are fretting that the economy is “overheating”. Unfortunately, the two aren’t as poles apart as you may think. Even so, both groups need to calm down and think sensibly.

There was much talk of recession last week as the sharemarket dropped sharply. We dropped because Wall Street dropped. It dropped because the thought finally occurred that if the US Federal Reserve whacks up interest rates as far and as fast as the financial markets are demanding, high inflation might be cured by putting the US into recession.

It’s true that when central banks try to cool an overheating economy by jamming on the interest-rate brakes, they often overdo it and precipitate a recession.

But a few other things are also true. One is Paul Samuelson’s famous quip that the sharemarket has predicted nine of the past five recessions. As the pandemic has taught us to say, it has a high rate of “false positives”. Assume that a sharemarket correction equals a recession, and you’ll do a lot more worrying than you need to.

In truth, the chances of a US recession are quite high. But another truth is that the days when a recession in the US spelt recession in Australia are long gone. Our financial markets are heavily influenced by America, but our exports and imports aren’t. Remember, during our almost 30 years without a serious recession, the Yanks had several.

China, however, is a different matter, and its continuing strength is looking dodgy. But even though a Chinese recession would be bad news for our exports, of itself that shouldn’t be sufficient to drop us into recession.

That’s particularly so because much of the blow from a drop in our mining export income would be borne by the foreigners who own most of our mining industry. It would be a different matter if modern mining employed many workers, or paid much in royalties, income tax and resource rent tax.

Remember, too, that contrary to what Paul Keating tried telling us, all recessions happen by accident. The politician who thinks a recession would improve their chances of re-election has yet to be born. And few central bank bosses think a recession would look good on their CV.

They occur mainly because an attempt to use higher interest rates to slow an overheated economy goes too far and the planned “soft landing” ends with us hitting the runway with a bump. It follows that the greatest risk we face is that the urgers in the financial markets (the ones whose decision rule is that whatever the US does, we should do) will con the Reserve Bank into raising interest rates higher than needed.

But I’m sure Reserve governor Dr Philip Lowe is alive to the risk of overdoing the tightening.

He mustn’t fall for the claim that, because a combination of fiscal stimulus and an economy temporarily closed to all imported labour has left us with a record level of job vacancies and rate of labour under-utilisation of 9.6 per cent, the economy is “red hot”.

Is it red hot when almost all the rise in prices is imported inflation caused by temporary global supply constraints? Or when the latest wage price index shows wages soaring by 2.4 per cent a year and all the Reserve’s tea-leaf reading shows wages rising by three-point-something? And (if you actually read it right, which most of the media didn’t), last week’s annual wage review awarded the bottom quarter of employees a pay rise of 4.6 per cent, not 5.2 per cent.

Is it red hot when employers are reported to be offering bonuses and non-economic incentives to attract or retain staff? That is, when they aren’t so desperate they feel a need actually to offer higher wage rates. Or is it when oligopolised businesses are still claiming they can “afford” pay rises of only 2 per cent or so and, predictably, there’s been no talk of strikes?

Is an economy “overheating” and “red hot” when real wages are likely to fall even further? That is, when the nation’s households will be forced by their lack of bargaining power to absorb much of the temporary rise in imported inflation (plus, the delayed effects of drought and floods on meat and vegetable prices)?

And, we’re asked to believe, households will be madly spending their $250 billion in excess savings despite the rising cost of living, falling real wages, rising interest rates, talk of imminent recession and falling house prices. Seriously?

No, what’s most likely isn’t a recession, just a return to the weak growth we experienced for many years before the pandemic, thanks to what people are calling “demand destruction” by our caring-and-sharing senior executive class.

Read more >>

Monday, May 16, 2022

Inflation: workers being unreasonable, or bosses on the make?

When you think about it clearly, the case for minimum award wages to be raised by 5.1 per cent is open-and-shut. So is the case for all workers to get the same. This wouldn’t stop the rate of inflation from falling back towards the Reserve Bank’s 2 to 3 per cent target zone.

But if, as seems likely, the nation’s employers contrive to ensure that this opportunity is used to continue and deepen the existing fall in real wages, the nation’s businesses will have shot themselves in the foot.

What, in their short-sightedness, they fondly imagined was a chance to increase their profits, would backfire as this blow to households’ chief source of income, crimped those households’ ability to increase or even maintain their spending on all the things businesses want to sell them.

The recovery from the “coronacession” would falter as households’ pool of savings left from the lockdowns was quickly used up, and their declining confidence in the future sapped their willingness to run down their savings any further.

Should the economy slow or even contract, unemployment could rise and the hoped-for gain in profits would be lost. Cheating your customers ain’t a smart business plan.

Such short-sighted thinking by businesses involves a “fallacy of composition” common in macro-economics: what seems “rational” behaviour by an individual firm doesn’t make sense for firms as a whole. It’s a form of “free-riding”: it won’t matter if I screw my workers because all the other businesses won’t screw theirs.

But back to wages. If all workers got a 5.1 per cent pay rise to compensate them for the 5.1 per cent rise in consumer prices over the year to March, thus preserving their wage’s purchasing power, surely that means the inflation rate would stay at 5.1 per cent?

Firms would have to raise their prices by 5.1 per cent. But many small businesses wouldn’t be able to afford such a huge pay rise and would give up, putting all their workers out of a job.

Is that what you think? It’s certainly what the employer-group spruikers want you to think. But it’s nonsense. Hidden within it is a mad assumption, that wages are the only cost a business faces.

Unless all those other costs have also risen by 5.1 per cent, the business can pass on to its customers all the extra wage cost with a price rise of much less than 5.1 per cent.

How much less? That’s a question any competent economist could give you a reasonably accurate answer to by looking up the Australian Bureau of Statistics’ most recent (for 2018-19) “input-output” tables and doing a little arithmetic.

The tables divide the economy into 115 industries, showing the value of all the many inputs of raw materials, machinery, labour, rent and other overheads to the process by which the industry produces its output of goods or services.

Any competent economist (which doesn’t include me, I’m just a journo) could do this, but only two economists from the Australia Institute, Matt Saunders and Dr Richard Denniss, have bothered, in a paper forthcoming this week, Wage price spiral or price wage spiral?

The official tables show that the proportion of total business costs accounted for by labour costs (that is, not just wages, but also “on-costs” such as employer super contributions and workers comp insurance) varies greatly between industries, ranging from less than 3 per cent in petroleum refining to almost 71 per cent in aged care.

But this “labour/cost ratio” averages just 25.3 per cent across all 115 industries.

Now, let’s assume all workers in all industries received a 5 per cent pay rise, and all businesses chose to pass all the extra cost through to prices. By how much would prices rise overall? By 1.27 per cent.

That’s going to keep inflation soaring? It’s well below the Reserve’s 2 to 3 per cent target range.

Of course, that’s just what economists call “the first-round effect”. What about when all a firm’s suppliers put their prices up to cover their wage rises? The “second-round effect” takes the overall rise in prices from 1.27 per cent to 1.85 per cent – still below the target.

Do you remember when the ABC quoted some spruiker saying the cost of a cup of coffee in a cafe could rise to $7? The authors use the tables to show that passing on a 5 per cent pay rise could increase the retail price of a $4-cup by 9 cents.

(Such people are always telling us a crop failure in South America has doubled or trebled the price of coffee beans. It’s the same trick: they never mention that the cost of beans is the least part of the price of a coffee. The biggest cost is often renting the cafe.)

Now get this. That 1.85 per cent rise in prices probably overstates the effect of a universal 5 per cent wage rise, for three reasons.

First, because it assumes zero improvement in the productivity of labour. It’s not great at present, but it’s not non-existent. Second, it assumes firms don’t respond to higher costs by shifting to cheaper substitutes.

And third, because six of the 10 “industries” with the highest labour cost pass-through are either government departments (which don’t actually charge a price that shows up in the consumer price index) or are heavily subsidised by government. Effect on the budget isn’t the same as effect on inflation.

Note that whereas the Fair Work Commission has the ability simply to order a 5 per cent rise in the many minimum award rates covering the lowest-paid quarter of the workforce, should it choose to, the public and private sector employers of the remaining three-quarters of workers are unlikely to be anything like that generous.

That’s a fourth reason the effect of wage rises is likely to be (a lot) less than the authors’ simple calculation of a 1.85 per cent rise in retail prices.

But don’t get the idea wages are the only reason consumer prices rise. Wage rises would explain little of the 5.1 per cent rise in consumer prices over the year to March.

The great bulk of the rise is explained by businesses passing on to retail customers the higher prices of imported goods and services caused the pandemic’s various supply disruptions and the Ukraine war’s effect on energy and food prices.

But some part of that 5.1 per cent rise in prices is explained by businesses deciding now would be a good time to raise their prices and fatten their profit margins. This may not be a big factor so far, but I won’t be surprised if it’s a much bigger one this quarter and in future.

For months the media have been telling us how much a problem inflation has become, with a lot worse to come. Top business leaders and industry lobbyists have used naive reporters to, first, send their competitors a message that “we’re planning big prices rises so why don’t you do the same” and, second, soften up their customers. “Prices are rising everywhere – don’t pick on me.”

It’s quite possible we’ll have trouble getting inflation back into the target range. If so, it won’t be caused by big pay rises – but it’s a safe bet people will be using a compliant media to blame it on greedy workers.

Read more >>

Monday, May 9, 2022

Inflation: bad for your budget, good for the government's

A big part of the Morrison government’s pitch about being better at economic management than Labor is its claim to have ensured all the massive increase in unfunded government spending during the years of pandemic lockdowns was “targeted and temporary”. Well, not really.

In a paper written by Matt Saunders and Dr Richard Denniss, of the Australia Institute, they study the forecasts and projections out to 2025-26 in the latest budget, which those with long memories will remember was presented at the start of this seemingly endless election campaign.

The authors find that, relative to what was projected in the last budget before the pandemic, annual government spending is now projected to grow at a much higher rate. It’s true annual spending has fallen back from its peak in 2020-21, but not by nearly as much as it should have if all the extra spending had been “targeted and temporary”.

So, what’s happened? I think I know. All the spending programs specifically labelled as part of the effort to hold the economy together during the lockdowns – JobKeeper, the JobSeeker supplement and all the rest – have indeed been wound up as promised.

But last year’s budget and this year’s both contained new spending initiatives that were separate to the explicitly pandemic-related measures. These, like most spending measures, were ongoing. Their annual cost tends to rise over time, in line with inflation and population growth.

If you remember, last year’s budget included much additional spending on aged care in response to the shocking findings of the royal commission, extra spending on the National Disability Insurance Scheme and a big increase in childcare subsidies.

Another thing worth remembering about last year’s budget: whatever the obvious political motivation for that additional spending, the econocrats co-opted it for their Plan B: if after almost a decade trying you can’t get wages to return to their normal healthy growth, why not try getting unemployment down so low that employers have to bid up wages to get or retain the labour they need?

With under acknowledged help from the temporary closure of our borders to all imported labour, Plan B has worked so well it’s now adding to the risk of ongoing inflation arising from all the once-off imported inflation.

But perhaps the most startling thing revealed by the authors’ examination of the budget papers is the way, relative to the pre-pandemic figures, nominal gross domestic product is now projected to grow at quite a faster rate than real GDP.

Why would nominal grow faster than real? Clearly, because of a higher rate of inflation. Remember, however, here we’re talking about inflation measured not as usual by the consumer price index, but as measured by the “GDP deflator”.

Why would the two inflation measures give significantly different results? Because our “terms of trade” had changed. If the prices we receive for our exports are changing at a different rate from the prices we’re paying for our imports.

So the GDP deflator includes changes in export prices, and subtracts changes in the prices of imports, whereas the CPI ignores export prices, but does include changes in the retail prices of imported consumer goods and services.

We’ve been making so much fuss about the bad news of rising import prices, such as petrol and diesel, we’ve forgotten that, as a big exporter of energy and food, we’re a net beneficiary of the Ukraine war’s effect on world commodity prices.

With much additional help from high iron ore prices, our terms of trade improved by more than 12 per cent in the March quarter, to a record high. A record high, and no one noticed.

But here’s the trick: your personal budget benefits only indirectly, if all at, from our booming exports. But it will bear the full effect of higher import prices, which do most to explain why the cost of living is up 5 per cent in a year and headed higher.

The Reserve Bank is confident this year’s round of wage rises will be a fair bit higher than last year’s, but it is adding to home-buyers’ cost of living by putting up interest rates, to help ensure wages rise by a lot less than prices in the period ahead.

So, recent developments not good news for your budget, but great news for the government’s budget. Its revenue tends to grow in line with the growth in nominal GDP. And higher inflation means higher taxes.

Mining companies paying more company tax, consumers paying more goods and services tax and, even despite the continuing fall in real wages, higher income tax collections as whatever wage rise workers do get pushes them into higher tax brackets or otherwise raises their average tax rate. Good news for some.

Read more >>

Friday, May 6, 2022

Our falling real wages will help control inflation

The media always portray an increase in interest rates as terrible news – and it’s hardly surprising that’s how Anthony Albanese sees it – but Scott Morrison is right in saying rising interest rates are a sure sign of a strong economy.

Rates fall or stay low when the economy is weak, but rise when the economy’s strong growth threatens to give us a problem with high and rising inflation – which is where we are now.

One of the main things we want from a strong economy is lots of jobs, which is just what we’ve been getting. So many jobs have been created over the past two years – almost all of them full-time – that the rate of unemployment has fallen to a very low 4 per cent, and the proportion of working-age people with jobs is higher than it’s ever been.

What could be wrong with that? Well, just that the wages people have been earning from all those jobs haven’t been keeping up with the cost of living. Last week’s news that consumer prices rose by a massive 5.1 per cent over the year to March has made that much worse.

If you want to blame Morrison for that, well, he’s actually right in saying most of its causes – supply disruptions arising from the pandemic; high petrol prices caused by Russia’s war on Ukraine – have nothing to do with our government.

But wages have been struggling to keep up with prices for all the time this government’s been in office. There are things it could have been doing to encourage higher wages, but it’s failed to do them. That’s the legitimate criticism of Morrison’s economic management.

Getting back to interest rates, the truth is that a rise in rates cuts both ways. It’s bad news for people with home loans, but good news for older people living on their savings and for young people saving for a deposit on a home.

Did I mention that nothing’s ever black or white in the economy? Almost everything that happens has advantages for some people and disadvantages for others.

But leaving aside whether individuals gain or lose from higher interest rates, where does the jump in prices leave the economy? How much of a worry has inflation become? Will rates have to rise so high they threaten the recovery? Could we even end up back in recession?

This time last week some business economists were sounding pretty panicky. “The inflation genie is well and truly out of the bottle”, some assured us. Others claimed the economy was “overheating” and, since the Reserve Bank had left it so late to start raising rates, they’d have to rise a long way to get inflation back under control.

But when Reserve governor Dr Philip Lowe announced on Tuesday that the official interest rate – aka the “overnight cash rate” – had been increased by 0.25 percentage points to 0.35 per cent, warned that further rises in rates will be needed “over the period ahead”, and explained how he saw the problem and how it could be fixed, many economists seem to have calmed down.

Implicitly, Lowe refuted the claim that the economy was overheating. Even at 5.1 per cent, our inflation rate was lower than the other rich countries’, and our wage growth so far had been much lower.

So the rise in inflation “largely reflects global factors” – that is, not of our making – but “domestic capacity constraints are increasingly playing a role and inflation pressures have broadened, with firms more prepared to pass through cost increases to consumer prices”.

That is, we don’t have as big a problem as that 5 per cent figure could make you think, but the economy’s growing so strongly we could get a problem if we kept interest rates so low.

Many retailers and other firms have gone for years trying to hold down their costs, including by finding ways to save on labour costs, and avoid passing those costs on to customers, but the rise in their pandemic and Ukraine-related costs – plus the media’s incessant talk of rising prices – has emboldened them to start increasing their own prices.

Now, as Lowe explains, even if petrol and pandemic-related costs don’t fall back down, they won’t keep rising. So in time the inflation rate will fall back of its own accord, provided it doesn’t lead to our firms putting their prices up too high and giving their workers pay rises big enough to fully cover their higher living costs.

If that does happen, the once-only rise in prices coming from abroad gets into the wage-price spiral and the inflation rate stays high.

This is why Lowe has started raising the official interest rate and may keep raising it by 0.25 percentage points every month or so until, by the end of next year, it’s up to maybe 2.5 per cent (which, not by chance, is the mid-point of the Reserve’s 2 to 3 per cent inflation target).

Note that, if 2.5 per cent is roughly equal to the “neutral” interest rate - that is, the rate that’s neither expansionary nor restrictive – this would only involve withdrawing the “extraordinary monetary support” put in place to help us through the pandemic. It would take the Reserve’s foot off the accelerator, not jam on the brakes.

According to Lowe’s estimations, the resulting reduction in mortgagees’ disposable income, plus the likelihood that most workers’ wage rises wouldn’t be sufficient to cover the 5 per cent rise in their living costs, thus reducing their wages in real terms, would limit firms’ ability to raise their prices and so help to get the inflation rate back to the top of the 2 to 3 per cent target range by 2024.

The inflation problem fixed, without crashing the economy. Done at the expense of people with home loans and ordinary workers? Yep. No one said using interest rates to control the economy was particularly fair.

Read more >>

Monday, May 2, 2022

Our inflation problem isn't a big one - unless we overreact

I can’t remember a time when the arguments of all those bank and business economists claiming “the inflation genie is well and truly out of the bottle” and demanding the Reserve Bank raise interest rates immediately and repeatedly have been so unconvincing.

At base, their problem is their unstated assumption that the era of globalisation means all the advanced economies have identical problems for the same reasons and at the same time.

If America has runaway inflation because successive presidents have applied budgetary stimulus worth a massive 25 per cent of gross domestic product at the same time as millions of workers have withdrawn from the workforce, Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union is causing havoc, and Europe’s problem is particularly acute because of its dependence on Russian oil and gas, we must be the same.

Business economists have put most of their energy into convincing themselves our problem is the same as everyone else’s, rather than thinking hard about how our circumstances differ from theirs and how that should affect the way we respond.

There’s also been a panicked response to a huge number – inflation of 5 per cent! – that says, “don’t think about what caused it, just act”. And since every other central bank has already started raising rates, what’s wrong with our stupid Reserve?

Too many economists have switched their brains to automatic pilot. We know from our experience of the 1970s and ’80s how inflationary episodes arise – from excessive demand and soaring wages – and we know the only answer is to jack up interest rates until you accidentally put the economy into recession. You have to get unemployment back up.

That stereotype doesn’t fit the peculiar circumstances behind this rise in prices, nor does it fit the way globalisation, skill-biased technological change, the deregulation of centralised wage-fixing and the huge decline in union membership have stripped employees of their former bargaining power.

The first thing to understand is that our price rises have come predominantly from shocks to supply: the various supply-chain disruptions caused by the pandemic, the war on Ukraine’s effect on oil and gas prices, and climate change’s effect on meat prices.

Various economists are arguing that price rises have been “broadly based” so as to show that price rises are now “demand-driven”, but the main reason so many prices have risen is that there have been so many different supply shocks coming at the same time, with so many indirect effects, ranging from transport costs to fertiliser and food.

Two thirds of the quarterly increase in prices came from four items. In order of effect on the index: cost of new dwellings (up 5.7 per cent), fuel prices (11 per cent), university fees (6.3 per cent) and food (2.8 per cent).

Of those, only new dwelling prices can be attributed mainly to strong demand, coming from the now-ended HomeBuilder stimulus measure. The rise in uni fees was a decision of the Morrison government.

America’s economy is “overheating”, but ours isn’t. It’s true our jobs market is very tight, and that much of this strength is owed to our now-discontinued stimulus measures.

But, paradoxically, the economics profession’s ideological commitment to growth by immigration has blinded it to the obvious: job vacancies are at record levels also because of another pandemic-related supply constraint: our economy has been closed to all imported labour (and we even sent a fair bit of it back home). This constraint has already been lifted.

The thing about supply shocks is that they’re once-only and not permanent. So, left to its own devices, without further shocks the rate of price increase should fall back over time. Petrol and diesel prices, for instance, have already fallen a bit but, in any case, won’t keep rising by 35 per cent a year year-after-year.

It’s sloppy thinking to think a rise in prices equals inflation. The public can be forgiven such a basic error, but professional economists can’t. A true inflation problem arises only when the rise in prices is generalised and is ongoing. That is, when it’s kept going by a wage-price spiral.

When a huge rise in prices, from whatever source, leads to an equally huge – or huger – rise in wages, which prompts a further round of price rises. That’s inflation.

In their panic, business economists have assumed that the loss of employee bargaining power we’ve observed in most of the years since the global financial crisis, which has done so much to confound the econocrats’ wage and growth forecasts, and caused inflation to fall short of the Reserve’s target range for six years in a row, has suddenly been transformed. Union militance is back!

Really? I’m sure employees and what remains of their unions will be asking for pay rises of at least 5 per cent this year, but how many will get anything like that much? They’ll all be on strike until they do, you reckon?

They’re safe to get more than the 2.3 per cent they got in the year to December, according to the wage price index, but the greatest likelihood is that real wages will continue to fall. And the cure for that is to raise interest rates, is it?

It is true that, if wages rose in line with prices, we would have an inflation problem, but how likely is that?

There’s been much concern about stopping a rise in “inflation expectations”, but this thinking involves a two-stage process: in expectation of higher inflation, businesses raise their prices. And in expectation of higher inflation, unions raise their wage demands.

All the sabre-rattling we’ve seen by the top retailers and their employer-equivalent of union bosses – so breathlessly reported by the media – suggests they’re increasingly confident they can get away with big price rises. But how much success individual employees and unionised workers have in realising their expectations remains to be seen.

Perhaps in this more inflation-conscious environment, employers will be a lot more generous – more caring and sharing – than they have been in the past decade. Perhaps.

The Reserve is under immense pressure from the financial markets, the bank and business economists, the media, the actions of other central banks and even the International Monetary Fund to start raising interest rates.

It will, with little delay. It must be seen to act. But whether it’s at panic stations with the media and the business economists is doubtful. And you don’t have to believe the inflation genie is out of the bottle to see that the need for interest rates to be at near-zero emergency levels has passed.

As BetaShares’ David Bassanese has predicted, the Reserve will be “not actively trying to slow the economy, but rather [will] begin the process of interest-rate normalisation now that the COVID emergency has passed”. Moving to “quantitative tightening” will be part of that process.

Read more >>

Friday, April 29, 2022

The cost of living is soaring, but raising interest rates won't help

This week removed any doubt that the cost of living is the dominant issue in this election campaign. We got official confirmation that the many people complaining about rising prices are, to coin a phrase, right on the money.

Now the Reserve Bank is under immense pressure to begin increasing interest rates at its board meeting on Tuesday. If it does so, this will add to the cost pressures facing many consumers, making the cost of living an even bigger issue politically.

But were it to wait for the latest information on wages that it will get three days before the election – which it really ought to – then increase rates in early June, it will be accused of choosing its timing to help the Coalition. And rightly so.

As Reserve Bank governor Dr Philip Lowe’s predecessor, Glenn Stevens, argued convincingly when he increased the official interest rate just before the 2007 election, which saw John Howard thrown out of office, the only way for the Reserve to be apolitical is for it to do what it believes the economy needs without regard to what’s happening politically.

Speaking of politics, The Conversation’s Peter Martin has used the ABC’s Vote Compass – a questionnaire which, among other things, asks respondents to name the issue of most concern to them – to show that, at the 2016 election, only 3 per cent picked “cost of living”.

At the 2019 election, it was only 4 per cent. At this election, however, 13 per cent of voters have picked it, making it the respondents’ second biggest concern, behind only climate change. (Which should be biggest. But that’s for another day.)

After this week, it’s probably more than 13 per cent.

This week the Australian Bureau of Statistics released figures showing the consumer price index rose by 2.1 per cent during the three months to the end of March, and by 5.1 per cent over the year to March.

Strictly speaking, the CPI is a measure of consumer prices rather than the cost of living, but it’s near enough. So this “headline” figure is the right one for people concerned about living costs. It’s the highest annual rate for two decades.

But it can be affected by extreme prices changes that don’t represent the general price pressures on the economy, so “for policy purposes” (that is, for its decisions about changing the official interest rate) the Reserve focuses on a measure of “underlying” inflation called the “trimmed mean”.

This excludes the 15 per cent of prices that rose the most during the quarter and the 15 per cent of prices that rose the least or fell.

By this measure, prices rose by 1.4 per cent during the quarter and by 3.7 per cent over the year. This is the highest it’s been since 2009, and well above the Reserve’s 2 to 3 per cent target range.

It’s standard behaviour for incumbent politicians to claim the credit for anything good that happens in the economy during their term, regardless of whether they’re entitled to.

So it’s only rough justice for opposition politicians to blame the government for anything bad that happens – which is just what Labor’s been doing this week.

But Scott Morrison and Josh Frydenberg have been arguing furiously that the leap in most prices has had nothing to do with them. And I think there’s a lot of truth to their claim.

Let’s look at the particular prices that do most to explain the March quarter jump in living costs. The biggest was a 5.7 per cent rise in the cost of newly built houses and units.

This has been caused by shortages of certain imported building materials due to pandemic-related disruptions to supply, worsened by a surge in demand for new homes arising from the authorities’ efforts to counter the “coronacession” by cutting interest rates and using HomeBuilder grants to keep the building industry moving.

Next in importance in explaining the surging cost of living is an 11 per cent rise in the cost of petrol and diesel fuel, caused by Russia’s war on Ukraine. These prices are up 35 per cent over the year to March.

The higher world oil price has also raised fresh food prices by increasing the cost of fertiliser, as well as increasing the cost of transporting many goods. The pandemic has temporarily increased the cost of international shipping.

Third in importance this quarter is a 6.3 per cent increase in university fees caused by a federal government decision last year.

Add in the 12 per cent annual rise in beef and lamb prices caused by graziers’ restocking following the end of the drought and you see that most of the rise in living costs so far comes from factors far beyond the government’s control.

So, are Morrison and Frydenberg off the hook on rising living costs? No. People feel the pain of rising prices more acutely when their wage rises haven’t been keeping up, let alone getting ahead.

In a well-managed economy, workers’ wages rise a little faster than prices. This hasn’t been happening, particularly in the past two years or so, and the government has made no attempt to rectify the problem.

Raising interest rates can do nothing to fix all the problems we’ve noted on the supply-side of the economy. The only thing it can do is dampen the demand for goods and services by increasing the cost of borrowing and by leaving those people with mortgages with less disposable income to spend.

Which is an economist’s way of saying what everybody knows: that higher interest rates add to the living costs of the third of households paying off a home loan. Those who’ve taken on loans in recent years will feel it most.

Of course, all those people living off their savings will be cheering the return to rising interest rates. But from an economy-wide perspective, the winners are far outweighed by the losers.

Read more >>

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.

Read more >>

Monday, February 28, 2022

Everyone else has an inflation problem, why can't we have one too?

I suspect we’re engaged in a strange exercise of trying to convince ourselves that we, like the Americans, Brits and Europeans, have a big problem with inflation. I fear that, if we try hard enough, we’ll succeed.

As the December quarter consumer price index shows, it’s true some prices have risen noticeably. The price of petrol has jumped and so have home building costs.

But, as our top econocrats have been reminding us, that’s not a big deal. The world price of oil has always gone up and down, for many reasons – none of which we have any ability to influence. Most other rises we’ve seen are temporary problems caused by the pandemic and governments’ response to it, as the supply of certain goods (but not services) falls short of demand. Computer chips, for instance.

And, as Reserve Bank governor Dr Philip Lowe demonstrated in his recent testimony to a parliamentary committee, our price rises are nothing like as big a deal as those in America, Britain and Europe, where there’s a lot more going on than just the passing effects of the pandemic.

Lowe noted that, over the past year, electricity and gas prices have risen by 25 per cent in the US and Europe, and even more in Britain, but by 2 per cent in Australia. Used car prices are up 40 per cent in the US, but nothing like that here.

People complain about rising rents but, as with mortgage interest rates, there’s a gap between advertised rates and what people actually pay. Actual rents have fallen in Sydney and Melbourne. And though everyone’s highly conscious of the jump in petrol prices, petrol accounts for only about 3 per cent of the cost of all the goods and services households buy.

The funny thing is, there are various groups in Australia that want to believe our problem’s as big as the other rich countries’. The key group is the financial markets. As Lowe said, “some in financial markets look at what’s going on in the United States and Europe and say, ‘They’ve got higher inflation, it’s coming to Australia’. They may be right” - he said before going on to explain why that was unlikely.

But so convinced are our financial markets that we’re just a carbon copy of the US economy that they’re laying bets the Reserve will be forced to start whacking up interest rates within a few months and will go hell for leather for the rest of the year.

The media have been happy to report this speculation as though it’s pretty much set in stone. “Inflation on the rise” is a good story and “rates to rise” even better.

As for the public, it’s kinda pleased to be told inflation’s a big problem, not because it likes rising prices, but because it confirms what people have always believed: that keeping up with “the cost of living” is always a struggle.

If you run a bit short before pay day, this is incontrovertible proof that prices are rising rapidly. The notion that the problem may be inadequate pay rises never seems to occur.

The CPI people carry in their heads always gets much bigger increases that the one calculated by the Bureau of Statistics because ordinary mortals’ memory of price rises is always stronger than their memory of price falls. And it never occurs to them to include in their sums all the many prices that didn’t change.

Which means, I fear, there’s a big risk that all the talk of inflation and rising prices – and all the media stories of a rise in this or that price; stories that multiply when “inflation” becomes the flavour of the month - could become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

To see this, you need to remember where we’ve come from: eight years of surprisingly weak growth in wages and six years of the (officially-calculated) inflation rate being below 2 per cent.

For much of that time, Lowe – whose scrutiny of statistics is supplemented by having his “liaison” people speak to more than 100 key businesses a month – has explained the weakness in wage and price inflation as arising from a strong “cost-control mentality” among Australian businesses.

Lowe explains that many businesses – retailing in particular – have been through a period of intense competition. There’s the threat from “category killers” such as Bunnings and Officeworks, the decline of department stores, Aldi taking on Coles and Woolies, and the move to online shopping, which has opened access to overseas competitors and made price more “salient” in decisions to buy things.

This increased competition came at a time when retail demand hasn’t been particularly strong (thanks mainly to weak wage growth). Special sales and other forms of discounting have been widespread.

In these circumstances, firms have been most reluctant to raise prices. Rises in purchase costs that may not last have been absorbed rather than passed on. Instead, firms have become obsessed with controlling their costs – including, and in particular, their labour costs.

In their book Radical Uncertainty, British economists John Kay and Mervyn King argue there’s no such thing as a profit-maximising firm. It’s not that firms wouldn’t like to earn maximum profits, it’s that they don’t know where that point is.

In real life, there’s no diagram or equation you can look up to tell you. You know there is a “price point” beyond which you’ll lose more in sales than you gain from the price increase, but you don’t know where it is. In real life, you have to feel your way, reading the signs and making sure you don’t push it too hard.

See where I’m going? We’re coming from a period where price rises have been heavily constrained for a long time. Not big, not many. “I haven’t been game to raise my prices because none of my competitors have been been either.”

Suddenly, however, everyone’s talking about inflation and every day the media are reporting that this price is rising and that price is going up. It’s obvious prices everywhere are taking off.

“One of my competitors has moved, so I can too. There’s always some cost increase I can point to. In this environment, I won’t get much push-back from customers. The media’s been softening them up.”

Can we talk ourselves into having a real inflation problem like the other rich countries? We’ll find out whether prices can be raised by imagination alone.

I fear, however, that getting those higher prices passed through to bigger wage rises will be a taller order. And, if that doesn’t happen, we’ll get no ongoing increase in the inflation rate, just a worsening in the cost of living.

Read more >>

Wednesday, February 23, 2022

Interest rates won't rise until wages are higher

Let’s talk about pay. Been getting pretty good rises of late? Well, some people have. But if your pay increases have been small and far between, you’re in good company. And I have some good news. Well, not so much good news as not-as-bad-as-it-could-be news.

In recent times people in our financial markets – including the banks – have been predicting that the Reserve Bank will start raising its official interest rate within a few months and, once it starts, there’ll be more increases in quick succession.

The media have been reporting these predictions with great enthusiasm, almost implying they’re a certainty. The financial types are so confident because interest rates really are about to rise in America, and they save on research time by assuming anything the Americans do, we’ll do a few months later.

The Americans have had a lot of price rises lately and, thanks partly to their Great Resignation, also seen strong growth in wage rates. When prices rise a lot and this flows through to higher wages, that’s when you do have a problem with ongoing inflation – a “wage-price spiral”.

But here’s the thing. We’ve had a smaller rise in prices but, so far, little rise in wages. (We’ll see on Wednesday, with the publication of the Bureau of Statistics’ wage price index, how much that changed in the three months to December.)

And Reserve Bank governor Dr Philip Lowe has said repeatedly that he won’t be raising interest rates until he sees that the rise in prices is also reflected in wage rises. As he put it in his recent parliamentary testimony, “the higher interest rates will be occurring in an environment where people have stronger wages growth and jobs”.

So the banks’ predictions about rising interest rates imply that most workers will be getting a pay rise of 3 per cent or so this year. Find that hard to believe?

According to the wage price index, wage rises have averaged 2 per cent a year over the past six years. And, as you remember, businesses and governments were quick to impose wage freezes when the pandemic began in 2020.

A move to 3 per cent rises is always possible of course but, given recent history, I’ll believe it when I see it. And Lowe’s also waiting for the evidence. As he puts it, “is the stronger labour market going to translate to higher wages?”

The fad of assuming that whatever happens in America also happens here has led some to talk about our own Great Resignation. It’s not true.

In the US, many workers have simply given up working or looking for work. Some are staying home to care for family, some to avoid the plague, some because the upheaval has caused them to re-evaluate their lives.

“Especially if you were working in a low-wage job, you probably thought that the risk [of infection] was not worth the return,” Lowe says. Older Americans were “leaving the workforce in droves”.

But whereas the proportion of working-age people who are in the US labour force has fallen heavily – thus requiring employers to offer higher wages to attract the workers they need – this hasn’t happened here. Our rate of people “participating” in the labour force has returned to its record level pre-pandemic.

Which is just one sign of how much “tighter” our jobs market has become. 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. (Our closed borders to skilled workers, backpackers and overseas students have helped in this, of course.)

This tight market is the main reason the econocrats are hoping it won’t be long before employers are obliged to start offering higher pay rates to get – poach – the workers they need.

When that happens, it will be a new experience for a lot of employers, many of whom have got into the habit of thinking their profitability comes from keeping wage costs as low as possible.

In the old days, the unions and the regulated wage-fixing system could be relied on to ensure that wages kept up with rising prices – plus a bit more to ensure living standards kept rising. Not any more.

These days, few workers belong to unions, and it’s not hard for employers to stop engaging in enterprise bargaining. And, as we’re seeing with the NSW government’s resistance to its transport workers’ wage claim, workers don’t get much sympathy from conservative governments.

These days, if you want a pay rise you have to get it yourself. Although we haven’t had a Great Resignation, the econocrats say we have had a significant increase in workers willing to change jobs for higher pay. We’ve also had employers agreeing to move workers to a higher pay grade.

The top econocrats hope that by keeping the job market tight they’ll finally crack the wages dam, getting the latest generation of employers used to the frightening idea than their workers are entitled to decent pay rises. Good luck, guys.

Read more >>

Friday, February 4, 2022

The news on the economy is better than we're being told

From the way the financial markets – and an easily-led media – are telling the story, our troubles have multiplied. Along with all our other worries, Australia now has a big new problem: inflation is back with a bang. But that’s not the way Reserve Bank governor Dr Philip Lowe told the story this week. He thinks we’re going great guns.

According to the markets, recent figures show we’ve caught America’s disease and inflation has taken off. Something must be done urgently to stop the rot and, just as the US Federal Reserve is about to start raising interest rates to get prices back under control, we’ll have no choice but to follow within a month or two.

The bets the financial markets are making about imminent rate rises imply that most of us will be getting big pay rises this year – which I’ll believe when I see it. But if that did happen it would be the first decent pay rise most workers had received in almost a decade. This, apparently, would be very bad news. Really?

In marked contrast, Lowe thinks everything in the economy’s got better, not worse. Right now, he said in a speech this week, “we are closer to full employment and achieving the inflation target than we had anticipated”. Gosh. That bad, eh?

This time last year, the Reserve was expecting the economy - real gross domestic product - to grow by 3.5 per cent last year. Now it’s expected to have grown by 5 per cent. The rate of unemployment was expected to be 6 per cent. Turned out to be 4.2 per cent. Wages were expected to grow by only 1.5 per cent. Now it’s likely to have been 2.25 per cent.

The story in the jobs market does much to explain Lowe’s high spirits. “Australia is within sight of a historic milestone – having the national unemployment rate below 4 per cent” for the first time since the early 1970s.

“This is important because low unemployment brings with it very real economic and social benefits for many Australians and their communities. Full employment is one of the Reserve Bank’s legislated objectives and [its] board is committed to playing its role in achieving that objective, consistent with also achieving the inflation target,” Lowe said.

Already, our unemployment rate is at its lowest in 13 years, along with our rate of underemployment.

Unemployment has also fallen in America and Britain, but whereas in their cases this is partly because a lot of workers have stopped looking for jobs and left the labour force, in our case labour force “participation” is almost as high as it’s ever been.

So why all the market and media gloom and doom? Because the rate of inflation was expected to be a below-target 1.5 per cent by the end of last year, but has jumped to 3.5 per cent.

The market thinks that higher inflation leads immediately to higher interest rates, and the media think higher rates are bad news because all their customers are borrowers and none are savers.

But the news on inflation – and the prospects for more of it – ain’t as bad as they sound, for several reasons.

First, if we really do have an inflation problem, it’s not nearly as great as America’s. The Yanks’ rate is 7 per cent, the Brits’ is 5.4 per cent and the Kiwis’ 5.9 per cent. Even in a globalised world, each economy’s story is different.

Second, it’s not as though most prices in Australia have grown by 3.5 per cent. Much of the jump to 3.5 per cent is explained by big rises in the prices of petrol and home-building. The world price of oil goes up and down over the years. Nothing we did in Australia caused the latest increase, and nothing we could do would have any influence on whether it keeps going up or goes back down a bit.

Other price increases are explained by the effect of the on-again, off-again waves of the virus in causing mismatches between the supply and demand for various goods – mismatches which are unlikely to last very long.

This explains why the Reserve uses a less volatile measure of “underlying” inflation to judge how inflation is going relative to the target of keeping annual inflation between 2 and 3 per cent, on average over time.

Its preferred measure of underlying inflation is running at 2.6 per cent, not the “headline” rate of 3.5 per cent, and 2.6 per cent is close to the middle of the target. So, no cause for concern - unless you have strong reasons to believe it’s rapidly heading up out of the target range.

Third, with this being the first time in six years that underlying inflation’s been high enough to reach the target zone, Lowe’s made it clear he won’t start raising the official interest rate until he’s convinced the return to target is “sustained”.

He made the obvious (but often forgotten) arithmetic point that, for inflation to be sustained at current rates, the prices of many goods would have to keep increasing at their recent rates, not just settle at higher levels.

When we’re talking about petrol prices and virus-caused mismatches between supply and demand, this seems unlikely. That is, there’s a good chance we’ll see a fall rather than a rise in the quarterly inflation rate.

Another basic point. One-off price increases only become part of the ongoing rate of inflation if they flow on to wages – that is, if they add to the “wage-price spiral”.

In the days when we really did have a serious inflation problem, that flow-through could be taken for granted. But over the past seven years, the link between rising prices and rising wages has become much less certain.

That’s why I’ll believe we’re all in for 3 per cent pay rises when I see it. And the man with his hand on the interest-rate lever is saying the same thing.

Read more >>

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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