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

Friday, November 11, 2022

Treasury thinks the unthinkable: yes, intervene in the gas market

If you think economists say crazy things, you’re not alone. Speaking about our soaring cost of living this week, Treasury Secretary Dr Steven Kennedy told a Senate committee that “the solution to high prices is high prices”. But then he said this didn’t apply to the prices of coal and gas.

How could anyone smart enough to get a PhD say such nonsense? He even said – in a speech actually read out by one of his deputies – that this piece of crazy-speak was something economists were “fond of saying”.

It’s true, they are. If they were children, we’d call it attention-seeking behaviour. But when you unpick their little riddle, you learn a lot about why economists are in love with markets and “market forces”, why they’re always banging on about supply and demand, and why (as I’ve said once or twice before) if economists wore T-shirts, what they’d say is “Prices make the world go round”.

At the heart of conventional economics – aka the “neo-classical model” – lies the “price mechanism”. Understand this, and you understand why the thinking of early economists such as Adam Smith and Alfred Marshall is still influential a century or two after their death, and why, of all the people seeking the ears of our politicians, economists get more notice taken of their advice than other professions do.

The secret sauce economists sell is their understanding of how a lot of seemingly big problems go away if you just give the price mechanism time to solve them.

A market is a place or a shop or cyberspace where people come to sell things to other people. The sellers are supplying the item; the buyers are demanding it. The seller sets the price; the buyer accepts it – or sometimes they haggle or hold an auction.

If the price of some item rises, this draws a response from the price mechanism, which is driven by market forces – the interaction of supply on one side and demand on the other.

The price rise sends a signal to buyers and a signal to sellers. The message buyers get is: this stuff’s more expensive, so make sure you’re not wasting any of it.

And see if you can find a substitute for it that’s almost as good but doesn’t cost as much. If you’ve been buying the deluxe, big-brand version, try the house brand.

On the other side, the message to sellers is: since people are paying more for this stuff, produce more of it. “I’m not in this business, but maybe now the price is higher, I should be.” If the price has risen because the firm’s costs have risen, maybe we could find a way to cut those costs, not put our price up and so pinch customers from our competitors.

See where this is going? If customers react to the higher price by buying less, while sellers react by producing more, what’s likely to happen to the price?

If demand for the item falls, and the supply of the item increases, the higher price should come back down.

Saying the solution to high prices is high prices is a tricky way of saying market forces will react to the price rise in a way that, after a while, brings it back down again.

When demand and supply get out of balance, market forces adjust the price up or down until demand and supply are back in balance. The price mechanism has fixed the problem, returning the market to “equilibrium”.

This is the origin of the old economists’ motto: laissez-faire. Leave things alone. Don’t interfere. Interfering with the mechanism will stop it working properly and probably make things worse rather than better.

There’s a huge degree of truth to this simple analysis. At this moment there are thousands of firms and millions of consumers reacting to price changes in the way I’ve just described.

Kennedy admits that “there are many conditions that underpin” this do-nothing policy, but “in most circumstances Treasury would support such an approach”.

There certainly are many simplifying assumptions behind that oversimplified theory. It assumes all buyers and sellers are so small they have no power by themselves to influence the price.

It assumes all buyers and all sellers know all they need to know about the characteristics of the product and the prices at which it’s available. It assumes competition in the market is fierce. And that’s just for openers.

However, Kennedy said, the circumstances of the price shocks caused by the Ukraine war are “different and outside the frame” of Treasury’s usual approach. Such shocks bring government intervention in the coal and gas markets “into scope”. That is, just do it.

“The current gas and thermal coal price increases are leading to unusually high prices and profits for some companies,” he said. “Prices and profits well beyond the usual bounds of investment and profit cycles.

“The same price increases are leading to a reduction in the real incomes of many people, with the most severely affected being lower-income working households.

“The energy price increases are also significantly reducing the profits of many [energy-using] businesses and raising questions about their viability.”

In summary, Kennedy said, the effects of the Ukraine war are leading to a redistribution of income and wealth, and disrupting markets. “The national-interest case for this redistribution is weak, and it is not likely to lead to a more efficient allocation of resources in the longer term,” he said.

(The efficient allocation of resources – land, labour and capital – is the main reason economists usually oppose government intervention in the price mechanism. Markets usually allocate resources most efficiently.)

The government’s policy response to the problem could take many forms, Kennedy said, but with inflation already so high, policymakers “need to be mindful of not contributing further to inflation”.

This suggests that intervening to directly reduce coal and gas prices is more likely to be the best way to go, he concluded.

Read more >>

Sunday, October 9, 2022

Creative destruction: Even pandemics have their upside

There’s nothing new about pandemics. Over the centuries, they’ve killed millions upon millions. But economic historians are discovering they can also have benefits for those who live to tell the tale. Take the Black Death of the 14th century.

In October 1347, ships arrived in Messina, Sicily, carrying Genoese merchants coming from Kaffa in Crimea. They also carried a deadly new disease. Over the next five years, the Black Death spread across Europe and the Middle East, killing between 30 and 50 per cent of the population.

What happened after that is traced in a recent study, The Economic Impact of the Black Death, by three American academics, Remi Jedwab, Noel Johnson and Mark Koyama, and summarised by Timothy Taylor in his popular blog, the Conversable Economist.

The immediate consequences of all the deaths were severe disruptions of agriculture and trade between cities. There were shortages of goods and shortages of workers, so those who did survive had to be paid well. This will ring a bell: with shortages of supply but strong demand, inflation took off.

In England, the Statute of Labourers, passed in 1349, imposed caps on wages. It was highly effective during the 1350s, but less so after that. Similar restrictions were imposed elsewhere in Europe.

Over the next few decades, after economies had adjusted to the worst of the disruptions, the continuing shortage of workers resulted in many rural labourers moving to the cities, which had vacant houses as well as jobs. Farmers had to pay a lot to keep their workers, so real wages had grown substantially by the end of the century.

Since many noblemen had died, the distribution of income became less unequal. Ordinary people could afford better clothing. So, many countries passed “sumptuary” laws under which only the nobility were allowed to wear silk, gold buttons or certain colours. Nor could the punters serve two meat courses at dinner.

Sumptuary laws were an attempt by elites to repress status competition from below.

The authors say the economic effects of the Black Death interacted with changes in social and cultural institutions – accepted beliefs about how people should behave. Serfdom went into decline in Western Europe because of the fewer labourers available.

People became even more inclined to marry later and so have fewer children. Stronger, more cohesive states emerged and the political power of the church was weakened.

It’s widely believed that all these developments played a role in the economic rise of Europe, particularly north-western Europe.

Taylor notes that one of the great puzzles of world economic history is the Great Divergence - the way the economies of Europe began to grow significantly faster than the economies of Asia and the Middle East, which had previously been the world leaders.

This divergence began soon after the Black Death.

“Of course, many factors were at work. But ironically, one contributor seems to have been the disruptions in economic, social and political patterns caused by the Black Death,” he concludes.

Fortunately, advances in medical science mean our pandemic has cost the lives of a much smaller proportion of the population. And believe it or not, advances in economic understanding mean governments have known what to do to limit the economic fallout – even if we didn’t see the inflation coming.

Governments knew to spare no taxpayer expense in funding drug companies to develop effective vaccines and medicines in record time.

One consequence of our greater understanding of what to do may be that this pandemic won’t alter the course of world economic history the way the Black Death did.

Even so, it’s still far too soon to be sure what the wider economic consequences will be. Changing China’s economic future is one possibility. Come back in 50 years and whoever’s doing my job will tell you.

Even at this early stage, however, it’s clear the pandemic has led to changes in our behaviour. Necessity’s been the mother of invention. Or rather, it’s obliged us to get on with exploiting benefits from the digital revolution we’d been hesitating over.

Who knew it was so easy and so attractive for people to work from home – with a fair bit of the saving in commuting time going into working longer. And these days many more of us know the convenience of shopping online – and the downside of sending back clothes that don’t fit.

Doctors were holding back on exploiting the benefits of telehealth, but no more. Prescriptions are now just another thing on your phone. And I doubt if the number of business flights between Sydney and Melbourne will ever recover.

Read more >>

Friday, September 23, 2022

How human psychology helps explain the resurgence of inflation

The beginning of wisdom in economics is to realise that models are models – an oversimplified version of a complicated reality. A picture of reality from a particular perspective.

I keep criticising economists for their excessive reliance on their basic, “neoclassical” model – in which everything turns on price, and prices are set by the rather mechanical interaction of supply and demand.

It’s not that the model doesn’t convey valuable insights – it does – but they’re often too simplified to explain the full story.

Sometimes I think Reserve Bank governor Dr Philip Lowe is like someone whose brain has been locked up in a neoclassical prison. But in his major speech on inflation two weeks ago, he showed he’d been thinking well outside the bars, looking at various models for a comprehensive explanation of how inflation could shoot up so quickly and unexpectedly.

He observed that another “element in the workhorse models of inflation is inflation expectations.” This relatively recent, more psychological addition to mainstream economics says that what businesses and unionised workers expect to happen to inflation tends to be self-fulfilling because they act on their expectations.

We’ve heard much about the risk of worsening inflation expectations, including from Lowe. It’s been the main justification offered for jacking up interest rates so high, so fast. But Lowe admitted it’s a weak argument.

“Inflation expectations have picked up a little, but...there is a high degree of confidence that inflation will return to target. This suggests that a pick-up in inflation expectations is not a primary driver of the sharp rise in inflation,” he said.

As Professor Ross Garnaut has observed - and recent Reserve research has confirmed – “the spectre of a virulent wage-price spiral comes from our memories and not current conditions”.

But, Lowe said, there’s something here that’s not easily captured in our standard models. That’s “the general inflation psychology in the community. By this, I mean the general willingness of businesses to see price increases and the willingness of the community to accept price increases.

“Prior to the pandemic, it was very difficult for a business person to stand in the public square and say they were putting their prices up. And a common theme from our liaison [regular interviews with business people] was that because most businesses had trouble putting their prices up, wage increases had to be kept modest. That was the mindset.”

Mindset? Mindset? That’s not a word you’ll find in any economics textbook. There’s no equation or diagram for mindsets.

Today, however, “business people are able to stand in the public square and say they are putting their prices up, and they can point to a number of reasons why.

"The community doesn’t like it, but there is a begrudging acceptance. And with prices rising, it is harder to resist bigger wage increases, especially in a tight labour market,” Lowe said.

“So, the psychology shifts. Or as the Bank for International Settlements put it in its recent annual report: when inflation is high, it becomes a coordinating mechanism for pricing decisions.

"In other words, people really start to pay attention to changes in costs and prices. The result can be faster and fuller pass-through of cost shocks and more frequent price and wage adjustments.

“There is some evidence that is already occurring, which is contributing to the strength of the pick-up in inflation,” Lowe added in his speech earlier this month.

To be fair, this is just the latest version of a thesis – a “model” – Lowe has been developing for years. And I think he’s on to a phenomenon which, when added to all the mechanistic, mathematised rules of the standard model, takes us a lot further in understanding what the hell’s been happening to the economy.

It’s taking the standard model but, contrary to its assumptions, accepting that, as the social animals that humans are, economic “agents” – whether consumers, bosses, workers or union secretaries – have a tendency to herding behaviour.

You can observe that in financial markets any day of the week. We feel comfortable when we’re doing what everyone else’s is doing; we feel uncomfortable when we’re running against the herd.

Anyone knows who has worked in business for a while – as many econocrats and academic economists haven’t – business behaviour is heavily influenced by fads and fashions. One role of sharemarket analysts is to punish companies that don’t conform to the fad of the moment.

The world’s economists spent much time between the global financial crisis and the pandemic trying to explain why all the rich economies had spent more than a decade caught in “secular stagnation” – a low-growth trap.

I think Lowe’s found a big piece of that puzzle. Business went through this weird period of years, when because no one else was putting up their prices, no one wanted to put up their prices.

The inflation rate fell below the Reserve’s target range, and stayed there for years. Businesses had no reason to invest much, so productivity improvement fell away, and economic growth was weak.

But then, along came the pandemic, lockdowns, huge budgetary and monetary stimulus, borders closed to immigrants, and finally a massive supply shock from the pandemic and the Ukraine war.

Suddenly, some big price rises are announced, the dam bursts and everyone – from big business to corner milk bars – starts putting up their prices. The spell has broken, and I doubt we’ll go back to the weird world we were in.

But the other side of the no-price-rises world was an obsession with using all means possible – legal or illegal – to cut labour costs. This greatly reinforced the low-growth trap we were caught in. But it was made possible also by the various developments that have robbed workers of their bargaining power.

It’s not yet clear whether the end of the self-imposed ban on price rises will be matched by an end to the ban on decent pay rises. If it isn’t, we’ll still be lost in the woods.

Read more >>

Monday, September 19, 2022

Don't worry about inflation, the punters will be made to pay for it

Our sudden, shocking encounter with high inflation has brought to light a disturbing truth: we now have a dysfunctional economy, in which big business has gained too much power over the prices it can charge, while the nation’s households have lost what power they had to protecting their incomes from inflation.

It has also revealed the limitations and crudity of the main instrument we’ve used to manage the macro economy for the past 40 years: monetary policy – the manipulation of interest rates by the central bank.

We’ve been reminded that monetary policy can’t fix problems on the supply (production) side of the economy. Nor can it fix problems arising from the underlying structure of how the economy works.

All it can do is use interest rates to speed up or slow down the demand (spending) side of the economy. And even there, it has little direct effect on the spending of governments or on the investment spending of businesses.

Its control over interest rates gives it direct influence only on the spending of households. And, for the most part, that means spending that has to be done on borrowed money: buying a home. But also, renting a home some landlord has borrowed to buy.

Get it? The Reserve Bank of Australia’s governor’s power to manipulate interest rates largely boils down to influencing how much households spend on their biggest single item of spending: housing. Because no one wants to be homeless, using interest rates to increase the cost of housing leaves people with less to spend on everything else.

This means the governor has little direct influence over big business’s ability to take advantage of strong demand to widen its profit margins. He must get at businesses indirectly, via his power to reduce their customers’ ability to keep buying their products.

Get it? Households are the meat in the sandwich between the Reserve and big business (with small business using the cover of big business’s big price hikes to sneak up their own profit margins).

Join the dots, and you realise the Reserve’s plan to get inflation down quickly involves allowing a transfer of many billions from the pockets of households to the profits of big business.

On one hand, big business has been allowed to raise its prices by more than needed to cover the jump in its costs arising from the supply disruptions of the pandemic and the Ukraine war. On the other, the loss of union bargaining power means big business has had little trouble ensuring its wage bill rises at a much lower rate than retail prices have.

So, it’s households that are picking up the tab for the Reserve’s solution to the inflation problem. They’ll pay for it with higher mortgage interest rates and rents, and a fall in the value of their homes, but mainly by having their wages rise by a lot less than the rise in their cost of living.

The RBA’s unspoken game plan is to squeeze households until demand for goods and services has weakened to the point where big business decides that raising its prices to increase its profits would cost it so many sales that it would be left worse off.

It may even come to pass that households have been squeezed so badly big businesses’ sales start falling, and some of them decide that cutting their price to win back sales would leave them better off.

In economists’ notation, maximising profits – or minimising losses – is all about finding the best combination of “p” (price) and “q” (quantity demanded).

You don’t believe big businesses ever cut their prices? It’s common for them to “discount” their prices in ways that disguise their retreat, using special offers, holding sales, and otherwise allowing a gap between their advertised price and the price many customers actually pay.

But why would that nice mother’s boy Dr Philip Lowe, whose statutory duty is to ensure that monetary policy is directed to “the greatest advantage of the people of Australia”, impose so much pain on so many ordinary people, who played no part in causing the problem he’s grappling with?

Because, as all central bankers do, he sees keeping inflation low as his central responsibility. And he doesn’t see any other way to stop prices rising so rapidly. It’s a case study in just what a crude, inadequate and blunt instrument monetary policy is.

Lowe justifies his measures to reduce inflation quickly by saying this will avoid a recession. But let’s not kid ourselves. This massive transfer of income from households to business profits will deal a great blow to the economy.

After going nowhere much for almost a decade, real household disposable income is now expected to fall for two years in a row. And who knows if there’ll be a third.

Economists have made much of the extra saving households did during the pandemic. But during Lowe’s appearance before the parliamentary economics committee on Friday, it was revealed that about 80 per cent of that extra $270 billion in saving was done by the 40 per cent of households with the highest incomes. So, how much of it ends up being spent is open to question.

The likelihood that our measures to weaken household spending will lead to a recession must be very high.

Until Lowe’s remarks before the committee on Friday, his commentary on the causes and cure of inflation seemed terribly one-sided. The key to reducing inflation was ensuring wages didn’t rise by as much as prices had, so that rising inflation expectations wouldn’t lead to a wage-price spiral.

He warned that the higher wages rose, the higher he’d have to raise interest rates. He lectured the unions, saying they needed to be “flexible” in their wage demands. You could see this as giving an official blessing to businesses resisting union pressure and granting pay rises far lower than prices had risen.

Lowe could just as easily have lectured business to be “flexible” in passing on all the higher cost of their imported inputs, when these were expected to be temporary – but he didn’t. He’s always quoting what business people are saying to him, but never what union leaders say – perhaps because he never talks to them.

But on Friday he evened up the record. “It is also important to note that, to date, the stronger growth in wages has not been a major factor driving inflation higher,” he said. “Businesses, too, have a role in avoiding these damaging outcomes, by not using the higher inflation as cover for an increase in profit margins.”

That’s his first-ever admission that, when conditions allow, business has the market power to raise its prices by more than just its rising costs. Problem is, monetary policy’s only solution to this structural weakness – caused by inadequate competitive pressure – is to keep demand perpetually weak.

Read more >>

Friday, September 16, 2022

The housing dream that became a nightmare - and isn't over yet

If you think the rich are getting richer, you’re right – but maybe not for the reason you think. It’s mainly the rising price of housing, which is steadily reshaping our society, and not for the better.

We know how unaffordable home ownership has become, but that’s just the bit you can see, as the Grattan Institute’s Brendan Coates outlined in the annual Henry George lecture this week, “The Great Australian Nightmare”, a magisterial survey of housing and its many implications.

But first, let’s be clear what we mean by “the rich”. Is it those who have the most annual income, or those who have the most wealth – assets less debts and other liabilities? The two are related, but not the same. It’s possible to be “asset rich, but income poor” – particularly if you’re living in your main asset, as many oldies are.

The Productivity Commission argues that the distribution of income hasn’t got much more unequal in the past couple of decades, though Bureau of Statistics’ figures for the growth in household disposable income over the 16 years to 2019-20 seem pretty unequal to me.

They show the real income of the bottom quintile (20 per cent block) grew by 26 per cent, which wasn’t much less than for the middle three quintiles, but a lot less than the 47 per cent growth for the top quintile.

Two points. One, the top one percentile – the chief executive class – probably had increases far greater than 47 per cent, which pushed up the average increase for the next 19 percentiles.

It’s CEO pay rises that get publicised and leave many people convinced the rich are getting richer – which they are.

The other point is Coates’: if you take real household disposable income after allowing for housing costs, you see a much clearer gradient running from the lowest quintile to the highest.

The increase in the bottom quintile’s income drops from 26 per cent to 12 per cent, whereas the top quintile’s growth drops only from 47 per cent to 43 per cent.

Get it? The rising cost of housing – whether mortgage payments or payments of rent – takes a much bigger bite out of low incomes than high incomes.

“People on low incomes – increasingly, renters – are spending more of their income on housing,” Coates says.

But it’s when you turn from income to wealth that you really see the rich getting richer. Whereas the net wealth of the poorest quintile of households rose by less than 10 per cent, the richest quintile rose by almost 60 per cent.

And here’s the kicker: almost all of that huge increase came from rising property values.

Other figures show that, before the pandemic, the total wealth of all Australian households was $14.9 trillion. Within that, the value of housing accounted for nearly $10 trillion.

Over the past 50 years, average full-time wages have doubled in real terms. But house prices have quadrupled – with most of that growth over the past 25 years.

Be clear on this: research confirms that the huge increases in home prices relative to incomes in advanced economies in the post-World War II period has mainly been driven by rising land values, accounting for about 80 per cent of growth since the 1950s, on average, with construction and replacement costs increasing only at the rate of inflation.

Coates reminds us that, within living memory, Australia was a place where housing costs were manageable, and people of all ages and incomes had a reasonable chance to own a home. These days, plenty of people even on middle incomes can’t manage it.

It’s obvious that the better-off can afford bigger and better homes than the rest of us. Many probably also have an investment property or three.

But it’s worse than that. Coates says the growing divide between those who make it to home ownership and those who don’t risks becoming entrenched as wealth is passed on to the next generation.

An increasing share of our wealth is in the hands of the Baby Boomers and older generations. The swelling of our national household wealth to $14.9 trillion – largely concentrated among older groups – means there's an awfully big pot of wealth to be passed on, he says.

“Big inheritances boost the jackpot from the birth lottery. Richer parents tend to have richer children. Among those who received an inheritance over the past decade, the wealthiest 20 per cent received, on average, three times as much as the poorest 20 per cent.”

In fact, one recent study estimates that 10 per cent of all inheritances will account for as much as half the value of bequests from today’s retirees, he says.

“And inheritances are increasingly coming later in life. As the miracles of modern medicine have extended life expectancy, the age at which children inherit has increased.

“The most common age to receive an inheritance is late-50s or early-60s – much later than the money is needed to ease the mid-life squeeze of housing and children.”

Coates says large intergenerational wealth transfers can change the shape of society. They mean that a person’s economic position can relate more to who their parents are than their own talent or hard work.

Coates argues that the ever-growing unaffordability of housing caused by present policies – which politicians on both sides keep promising to fix, but never do – is not just making our society increasingly divided between rich and poor, it’s also making the economy less efficient.

In modern, service-based and information-dependent economies, “economies of agglomeration” – benefits from firms and people living and working close together – mean productivity, innovation and wages are greatest in big cities.

But if we don’t pack in enough housing, and so cause house prices to go sky high, we don’t get all the benefits. Long commutes make it harder for both parents to work. The economy becomes less “dynamic”, and productivity is slow to improve. Not smart.

Read more >>

Friday, September 9, 2022

Consumers and Russians keep the economy roaring - but it can't last

They say never judge a book by its cover. Seems the same goes for GDP. This week’s figures showed super-strong growth in the three months to the end of June. But look under the bonnet and you find the economy’s engine was firing on only two cylinders.

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics’ “national accounts”, real gross domestic product – the economy’s production of goods and services – grew by 0.9 per cent in the June quarter, and by 3.6 per cent over the year to June.

If that doesn’t impress you, it should. Over the past decade, growth has averaged only 2.3 per cent a year.

The main thing driving that growth was consumer spending. It grew by 2.2 per cent in the quarter and by 6 per cent over the year, as the nation’s households – previously cashed up by government handouts, and by most people keeping their jobs and others finding one, but prevented from spending the cash by intermittent lockdowns and closed state and national borders – kept desperately trying to catch up with all they’d been missing.

The other big contribution to growth during the quarter came from a 5.5 per cent jump in the “volume” (quantity) of our exports. Most of the credit for this goes to that wonderful man Vladimir Putin, whose bloody invasion of Ukraine has greatly disrupted world fossil fuel markets, thus greatly increasing our sales of coal and gas.

(It has also greatly increased the world prices of coal and gas and grains, causing our “terms of trade” – the prices we receive for our exports relative to the prices we pay for our imports – to improve by 4.6 per cent during the quarter, to an all-time high.)

But that’s where the good news stops. The other cylinders driving the economy’s engine have been on the blink. A marked slowdown in the rate at which businesses were building up their inventories of raw materials and finished goods led to a sharp slowdown in goods production.

Government spending took a breather, and an increase in business investment in new plant and equipment was offset by a fall in business investment in buildings and other construction.

And then there’s what happened to home building. Despite a big pipeline of homes waiting to be built, building activity actually declined by 2.9 per cent in the quarter and 4.6 per cent over the year.

Huh? How could that happen? Well, the builders say they couldn’t find enough building materials and tradies. Which hasn’t stopped them using the opportunity to whack up their prices. (I believe this is called “capitalism”.)

So, while we listen to lectures from the economic managers about the evil of inflation and how it leaves them with no choice but to slow everything down by jacking up interest rates, let’s not forget that the big jump in the cost of new homes and renovations has been caused by... them.

They’re the ones who, at the start of the pandemic and the lockdowns, decided it would be a great idea to rev up the housing industry, by offering incentives to people buying new houses, and by cutting the official interest rate to near zero. Well done, guys.

Speaking of higher interest rates being used to slow down the growth in demand for goods and services, the first two of the five rises we’ve had so far would have had little influence on what happened in the economy over the three months to June.

But don’t worry, they’ll have their expected effect in due course. Which is the first reason the strong, consumer-led growth we saw last quarter won’t last, even if we see more of it in the present quarter.

Another reason is that households are running on what a cook would call stored heat. During the first, national lockdown, the proportion of household disposable (after-tax) income that we saved rather than spent leapt to almost 24 per cent.

We’ve been cutting our rate of saving since then, and it’s now down to 8.7 per cent. This isn’t a lot higher than it was before the pandemic. And with the gathering fall in house prices making people feel less wealthy, it wouldn’t surprise me to see people feeling they shouldn’t cut their rate of saving too much further.

And that, of course, is before we get to the other great source of pressure on households’ budgets: consumer prices are rising faster than workers’ wages. This no doubt explains why our households’ real disposable income has actually fallen for three quarters in a row.

With businesses putting up their prices, but not adequately compensating their workers for the higher cost of living, it’s not surprising so many people are taking more interest in what the national accounts tell us about how the nation’s income is being divided between capital and labour, profits and wages.

ACTU boss Sally McManus complains that workers now have the lowest share of GDP on record. It follows that the profits share of national income is the highest on record.

What doesn’t follow, however, is that any increase in profits must have come at the expense of workers and their wages. Profits are up this quarter mainly because, as we’ve seen, our miners’ export prices are way up, and so are their profits.

No, the better way to judge whether workers are getting their fair share is to look at what’s happened to “real unit labour costs” – employers’ labour costs, after allowing for inflation and the productivity of labour (that’s the per-unit bit).

Turns out that, since the end of 2019, employers’ real unit labour costs have fallen by 8.5 per cent. If workers were getting their fair share, this would have been little changed.

Short-changing households in this way is not how you keep consumer spending – and businesses’ turnover – ever onward and upward.

Read more >>

Monday, August 29, 2022

Jobs summit: shut up those playing the productivity three-card trick

Anthony Albanese and his ministers are keen to ensure this week’s jobs and skills summit doesn’t degenerate into the talk fest the opposition is predicting it will be. Well, one way to avoid much hot air is to shut up people playing the usual three-card trick on productivity.

The truth is there’s a lot of muddled and dishonest talk about the relationship between wages and productivity. Much of this comes from the employer lobby groups, which will spout any pseudo-economic nonsense that suits their goal of keeping wage growth as low as possible.

But they get too much comfort from econocrats who think that if you know what economics 101 teaches about how demand and supply interact, you know all you need to know about how all markets work, including the labour market.

As former top econocrat Dr Michael Keating, an economist specialising in the labour market, has explained, “the authorities’ model, which assumes perfect competition, constant returns to scale and neutral technological progress, implies that real wages can be expected to grow at the same rate as [labour] productivity, neither more nor less, making it look as if the collapse in productivity growth explains the collapse in wages growth”.

So when workers complain about the lack of growth in real wages, the employers’ professional apologists reply that real wages haven’t grown because the productivity of labour hasn’t improved. If only the unions would co-operate in efforts to improve productivity, wages would grow, as sure as night follows day.

But the supposed magical mechanism by which productivity improvement flows inexorably to real wages is refuted by the summary statistics quoted in Treasury’s issues paper for the summit. We’re told that, though productivity improvement has slowed, we’ve still achieved growth averaging 1 per cent a year since 2004.

But we’re also told that “real wages have grown by only 0.1 per cent a year over the past decade, and have declined substantially over the past year”. Not much automatic flow-through there.

Which brings us to another thing that’s being fudged in the present debate. You sometimes hear spruikers for the employers implying you need productivity improvement to justify even a rise in nominal wages.

But productivity is a “real” – after-inflation – concept. For the benefit from national productivity improvement to be shared fairly between capital and labour – employers and employees – it has to increase wages over and above inflation.

Here, however, is where we strike another difficulty. There used to be tripartite consensus – business, workers and government – that wages should always keep up with prices. Cuts in real wages were needed only to correct a period where real wage growth had been excessive – that is, exceeding productivity improvement.

Right now, however, the opposite is the case. Real wages were long falling short of what productivity improvement we were achieving before the present surge in prices left wage rates far behind. Even with the labour market so tight, workers simply haven’t had the industrial muscle to achieve wage rises commensurate with the leap in prices.

And now, while businesses show little restraint in passing their higher imported input costs through to higher retail prices, while adding a bit for luck, the great and good – read business and the econocrats – have agreed that the quickest and easiest way to get inflation down is for the nation’s households to pay the price.

A big fall in real wages squares the circle. Business has passed on its costs – and then some – and the economic managers have redeemed their reputations and got the inflation rate falling back. What’s not to like?

Well, we’ve solved the problem by allowing a big cut in real household income. It’s likely businesses will feel adverse effects as households see no choice but to tighten their belts. And I imagine some workers, consumers and voters will be pretty upset, concluding that the economy certainly isn’t being run for their benefit.

In effect, Treasury’s issues paper says forget the present disaster and look to the future. We can get real wages growing again – an election promise - as soon as we get productivity up.

Well, no we can’t. The paper’s claiming that, contrary to the experience of the past decade, improved productivity automatically flows through to real wages. And even if that were true, it assumes workers are innumerate, and won’t know that future real gains in wages must first make up for previous real losses. It’s the productivity three-card trick.

Meanwhile, business and the econocrats’ self-serving expedience, in deciding that the punters should pay for a problem they did nothing to cause, has created the climate for radical reform of the wage-fixing system: a return to industry bargaining.

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Monday, August 22, 2022

Housing own goal worsens our inflation problem

A key part of the economic response to the pandemic was to rev up the housing industry. It’s boomed and now it’s busting. What’s been achieved? Mainly, a big, self-inflicted addition to our inflation problem.

That, and a lot of recent first-home buyers now getting their fingers burnt. Well done, guys.

It’s not a crime to be wise after the event. Indeed, it’s a crime not to be. As we all know, you learn more from your mistakes than your successes.

We have much to learn from our mishandling of the economic aspects of the pandemic. Because we had no experience of pandemics, our mistake was to treat the lockdowns as though they were just another recession. Turned out they’re very different.

Because downturns in home building and house prices often lead the economy into recession, then a recovery in home building leads it out, the managers of the macroeconomy assumed it would be the same this time.

The federal government offered HomeBuilder grants to people ordering new homes or major alterations. The state governments offered stamp duty concessions to first-home buyers, provided they were buying new homes.

But the doozy was the Reserve Bank’s decisions to cut the official interest rate from 0.75 per cent to 0.1 per cent, and then cut the base rate for 3- and 5-year fixed-rate mortgages.

By the end of last year, according to the Bureau of Statistics, the median house price in Sydney and Melbourne had jumped by more than 40 per cent. In the following quarter, it fell by 7 per cent in Sydney and 10 per cent in Melbourne. By all accounts, it has a lot further to fall.

Turning to building activity, we’ve seen a surge in the number of new private houses commenced per quarter, which jumped by two-thirds over the nine months to June 2021. Then it crashed over the following nine months, to be up only 14 per cent on where it was before the pandemic.

It’s no surprise commencements peaked in June 2021. Applications for the HomeBuilder grant closed 14 days into the quarter.

But to commence building a house is not necessarily to complete it a few months later. The real value of work done on new private houses per quarter rose by just 15 per cent over the nine months to June 2021. Nine months later, it was up 12 per cent on where it was before the pandemic.

For the most part, the home building industry kept working through the two big lockdowns. It seems that, between them, the nation’s macro managers took an industry that was plugging along well enough, revved it up enormously, but didn’t get it building all that many more houses, nor employing many more workers.

Perhaps it soon hit supply constraints – shortages of building materials and suitable labour. I don’t know if the industry was lobbying governments privately for special assistance, or whether it didn’t have to. Maybe pollies, federal and state, just instinctively rushed to its aid.

But I wonder if the builders didn’t particularly want to get much bigger. There are few industries more cyclical than home building. Builders are used to building activity going up and down and prices doing the same.

When demand is weak, they try to keep their team of workers and subbies together by cutting their prices, maybe even to below cost. Then, when demand is strong, they make up for it by charging all the market will bear.

It’s the height of neoclassical naivety to think it never crosses the mind of a “firm” existing outside the pages of a textbook that manipulating supply might be a profitable idea.

So maybe the builders found the thought of increasing their prices more attractive than the thought of building a bigger business to accommodate a temporary, policy-caused surge in demand.

They may have taken a lesson from those property developers with large holdings of undeveloped land on the fringes of big cities. Dr Cameron Murray, a research fellow in the Henry Halloran Trust at Sydney University, has demonstrated that the private land-bankers limit the regular release of land for development in a way that ensures the market’s never flooded and prices just keep rising.

So, back to our inflation problem. Whenever people say the recent huge surge in prices is caused largely by overseas disruptions to supply, which can’t be influenced by anything we do, and will eventually go away, the econocrats always reply that some price rises are the consequence of strong domestic demand.

That’s true. As I wrote last week, it seems clear many of our businesses – big and small – have used the cover of the big rises in the cost of their imported inputs to add a bit for luck as they pass them on to consumers.

But I saved for today the great sore thumb of excess demand adding to the price surge: the price of building a new home (excluding the cost of the land) or major renovations. This accounted for almost a third of the rise in the consumer price index in the June quarter, and jumped by more than 20 per cent over the year to June.

The price of newly built homes has a huge weight of almost 9 per cent in the CPI’s basket of goods and services, making it the highest-weighted single item in the basket. This implies that new house costs have added almost 2 percentage points of the total rise of 6.1 per cent.

When the econocrats worry about the domestic contribution to the price surge, they never admit how much of that problem has been caused by their own mishandling of the pandemic.

Indeed, when people argued that the main thing further cutting interest rates would achieve would be to increase house prices, the Reserve was unrepentant, arguing that raising house prices and demand for housing was one of the main “channels” through which lower rates lead to increased demand.

But the crazy thing is, this strange way of using the cost of a new dwelling to measure the cost of housing for home-buyers – which, I seem to recall, was introduced in 1998 after pressure from the Reserve – exaggerates the true cost for people with mortgages, especially at times like these.

Few people ever buy a new dwelling and, even if they do, rarely pay for it in cash rather borrowing the cost. This is one reason the bureau doesn’t regard the CPI as a good measure of the cost of living, but does publish separate living-cost indexes for certain types of households.

Ben Phillips, of the Centre for Economic Policy Research at the Australian National University, has used the bureau’s living-cost indexes to calculate that about 80 per cent of households had a living cost increase below the CPI’s rise of 6.1 per cent. The median (typical) increase over the past year was 4.7 per cent.

What trouble the econocrats get us into when they use housing as a macro managers’ plaything.

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Sunday, August 14, 2022

Inflation psychology: firms charge what they can get away with

Economists think inflation is all about economics. What they don’t know is that it’s also about psychology. But Reserve Bank governor Dr Philip Lowe shows a glimmer of understanding when he refers not to “inflation expectations” but to “inflation psychology”.

Notorious for their “physics envy” – where the world works according to known and unchanging laws, so everything can be reduced to mathematical calculation – economists think changes in prices are determined by the interaction of the “laws” of supply and demand.

This is true, but far from the whole truth. Especially for the prices set in the jobs market – aka wages – where this simple “neoclassical” analysis almost always gives wrong answers.

Economists’ first attempt at a less mechanical approach to the relatively modern problem of inflation – a continuing rise in the general level of prices – came from Milton Friedman and another Nobel laureate’s realisation of the important role played by people’s expectations about what will happen to the inflation rate.

If it worsens significantly and this leads enough people to expect it to stay high or go higher, their expectations may lead to the higher rate becoming entrenched via a “wage-price spiral”.

That is, expectations of higher inflation tend to be self-fulfilling because people act on their expectations. If businesses expect higher price rises generally, they adjust their own prices accordingly. And workers and their unions adjust their own wage demands accordingly.

When last the rich world had a big inflation problem, in the second half of the 1970s and much of the ’80s, this theory seemed to work well, though it took years for expectations to worsen. Then it took years of keeping interest rates high and demand weak, and getting actual inflation down below 3 per cent, before expected inflation came back down.

The inflation target, of 2 to 3 per cent on average, was set in the mid-90s to help “anchor” expectations at an acceptable level.

All this is why the latest leap in inflation has led some economists to worry that, if expectations become “unanchored”, inflation may become entrenched at a much higher level.

This fear explains why many are anxious to use higher interest rates to get actual inflation back down ASAP. If falling real wages help to speed the process, so much the better.

Two small problems with this. For a start, there’s little evidence – either here or in the other rich economies – that expectations have moved up. Sensibly, everyone expects that, before too long, the inflation rate will go back to being a lot lower.

In the real world of price-setting by firms and workers, it takes a lot longer for expectations to shift prices than it does for prices in share and other financial markets to bounce around.

But the deeper reason worries about worsening expectations are misplaced is that, since this theory became so influential in the ’70s, the mechanism by which the expected inflation rate becomes the actual rate has broken down.

Businesses retain the ability to raise their prices when they decide to – and to discount those prices should they discover they’ve pushed it too far and are losing sales - but organised workers have largely lost their ability to force employers to grant higher pay rises.

If you doubt that, ask yourself why the number of days lost to strikes is now the tiniest fraction of what it was in the ’70s. We’ve seen a little strike action lately, but it’s coming almost wholly from workers in the public sector – the main part of the workforce that’s still heavily unionised.

But the breakdown of the inflation-expectations theory and the “wage-price spiral” as explanations of the relatively modern phenomenon of inflation – a continuing rise in the general level of prices – leaves us looking elsewhere for explanations.

A big part of it is the message those economists who specialise in studying competition have to give financial economists such as Lowe: you don’t seem to realise that our modern oligopolised economy gives many big businesses a lot of power over the prices they’re able to charge.

Oligopoly is about the few huge firms dominating a particular market reaching a tacit agreement to keep prices high and stable, and limit their competition for market-share to non-price areas such as product differentiation and marketing.

As former competition czar Rod Sims has pointed out, this greatly reduces the ability of higher interest rates to influence prices in many big slabs of the economy.

But if many big businesses can improve their profitability by deciding to raise their prices, why did they wait until only a year ago to decide to start whacking up them up? Because it ain’t that simple.

All firms would like to raise their prices all the time. What stops them is the knowledge that they can’t charge more than “what the market will bear”. They worry about two things: what will my competitors do? And what will my customers do?

When there’s a big rise in input costs, the knowledge that all my competitors are facing the same cost increase gives me confidence we’ll all be passing it through to the customer at the same time.

That’s why it was the sudden, large and widespread increase in the cost of imported inputs caused by the pandemic and the Ukraine war that started the latest bout of prices rises at the retail level.

But, as Lowe keeps saying, the supply chain cost increases don’t explain all the rise in retail prices. He makes the obvious point that firms find it easier to raise their prices at a time when demand is strong and people are spending. His interest-rate rises are intended to stop demand being so strong and conducive to price rises.

But the less obvious point – especially to people mesmerised by the neoclassical way of thinking – is the role of psychology. I’ve got a great justification for increasing my prices, but no one’s counting. If my costs have risen by 5 per cent, but I increase my prices by 6 per cent, who’s to know?

Sims reminds us that this is just the way firms with pricing power behave. They raise their prices and profits in ways that aren’t easy for their customers to notice.

That covers big business. In the main, small businesses don’t have much pricing power. But “what the market will bear” is greater when the media has spent months softening up their customers with incessant talk about inflation and how high prices will go.

Lowe can’t say it, but it’s not uncooperative workers that are his problem, it’s businesses using the chance to slip in a little extra for themselves.

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Friday, August 12, 2022

Our hidden inflation problem: business has too much pricing power

Why is Reserve Bank governor Dr Philip Lowe so worried about getting inflation down when so much of the rise in prices comes from foreign supply constraints that will eventually go away, and so much of the rise won’t be passed on to workers in higher wages?

Because what he can’t admit is that inflation won’t fall back to the target range of 2 to 3 per cent until the nation’s businesses decide to moderate their price rises. And they’re not likely to do that until those rises reach the point where they’re driving away customers.

It’s said that using monetary policy (higher interest rates) to control inflation is a “blunt instrument”. The only way to discourage businesses from raising their prices is to get to their customers’ wallets - by cutting real wages, increasing mortgage payments and having falling house prices make them feel less wealthy.

When explaining problems in the economy, economists use two favourite analytical tools. First, determine how much of the problem is coming from the supply (production) side of the economy, and how much from the demand (spending) side.

Second, determine whether the problem is “cyclical” or “structural”. That is, has it been caused by the temporary ups and downs of the business cycle, or by longer-lasting changes in the economy’s structure – the way it works.

I’ve argued that most of the surge in prices has come from the supply side: a horrible coincidence of supply disruptions caused by the pandemic, the Ukraine war, and even climate change.

This matters because monetary policy can do nothing to fix disruptions to supply. All it can ever do is batter down demand.

It’s true, however, that this main, supply-side problem has been worsened by the effect of strong, government-stimulated demand for goods as services.

As for the cyclical-versus-structural distinction, it’s relevant because, as Lowe never tires of reminding us, monetary policy is capable of dealing only with cyclical problems. Its role is to smooth the ups and downs in demand as the economy moves through the business cycle.

But here’s the problem: higher interest rates aren’t working to reduce inflation the way they used to because of changes in the structure of the economy.

In particular, employees and their unions now have less power to insist on wage rises sufficient to keep up with price rises than they did when last we had a big inflation problem. But big business now has more power to raise its prices.

Partly because globalisation has moved much manufacturing from the high-wage advanced economies to China and other low-wage economies, and partly because of the decentralisation and deregulation of wage-fixing and the decline in union membership, most workers pretty much have to accept whatever inadequate pay rise their chief executive (or premier) chooses to give them.

This is why all the concern about inflation expectations becoming “unanchored” is so silly. Businesses have the power to act on their expectations of higher inflation, but workers no longer do.

This is why the rate of unemployment can fall far below what economists, using data going back decades, estimate to be the NAIRU - “non-accelerating-inflation” rate of unemployment - without wage inflation accelerating.

When thinking about inflation, macroeconomists – including Lowe, I suspect - often assume our markets are competitive, and that the markets for all goods and services are equally competitive.

But as Rod Sims, former chair of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, and now a professor at the Australian National University, has written, markets in Australia are generally far from strongly competitive.

“Many sectors ... are dominated by just a few firms – think beer, groceries, energy and telecommunications retailing, resources, elements of the digital economy, banking and many others,” Sims says.

“This means the dominant firms have some degree of market power. That is, they can set prices at higher levels knowing competitors are unlikely to undercut them and take market share from them.

“When there is high inflation, dominant firms often realise they can increase prices above any cost rises because consumers will be more accepting of this. They will often do this subtly over time.”

In concentrated markets, firms can also easily see the effects on their few competitors, and they can watch and follow each other’s behaviour. They are confident that none will break ranks on price rises because there are benefits to be had by all.

Firms with market and pricing power are also less likely to restrain prices in response to interest rate rises, Sims says. This is because it’s not competition, but dominant-firm behaviour, that’s driving pricing decisions.

As well, market power is usually associated with reduced production capacity. How often do we see reductions in combined capacity following a merger of two competitors? When demand increases, there’s then less capacity available to serve it, so we see prices rise more than they otherwise would have.

What all this means is that it may take longer for interest rates to work to slow inflation, so patience may be needed rather than further increases. And, Sims says, there could be a role for publicly exposing high margins, to put pressure on to reduce them.

Another point he makes is that this inflation owes much to price shocks in the key, highly regulated gas and electricity industries. In these cases, the best answer is to make their regulation more anti-inflationary, not just jack up interest rates further.

The micro-economic reforms of the Hawke-Keating government have made our economy much less inflation-prone than it was in the days when inflation was last a major problem.

Meanwhile, however, we’ve allowed the pricing power of big firms to grow as successive governments of both colours have resisted pressure from people like Sims to tighten our merger law, and state governments have maximised the sale price of their electricity businesses by selling them to business interests intent on turning the national electricity market into a three-firm vertically integrated oligopoly. Well done, guys.

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Sunday, August 7, 2022

Fixing inflation isn't hard. Returning to healthy growth is

Despite any impression you’ve gained, fixing inflation isn’t the end game. It’s getting the economy back to strong, non-inflationary growth. But I’m not sure present policies will get us there.

The financial markets and the news media have one big thing in common: they view the economy and its problems one day at a time, which leaves them terribly short-sighted.

Less than two years ago, they thought we were caught in the deepest recession since the 1930s. By the end of last year, they thought the economy had taken off like a rocket. Now they think inflation will destroy us unless we kill it immediately.

For those of us who like to put developments in context, however, life isn’t that disjointed. The day-at-a-time brigade has long forgotten that, before the pandemic arrived, the big problem was what the Americans called “secular stagnation” and I preferred calling a low-growth trap.

In a recent thoughtful and informative speech, Treasury secretary Dr Steven Kennedy observed that the pandemic “followed a period of lacklustre growth and low inflation”. (It was so low the Reserve Bank spent years trying to get inflation up to the target range, but failing. Businesses didn’t want to raise wages – or prices.)

So, Kennedy said, “when assessing the policy decisions made during the pandemic there was an additional consideration for policymakers in wanting to not just return to the pre-pandemic situation, but to surpass it.”

One economist who shares this longer perspective is ANZ Bank’s Richard Yetsenga. He describes the 2010s as our “horrendum decennium” where unemployment and underemployment were relatively high, consumer spending relatively weak and business had plenty of idle production capacity.

He reminds us that real average earnings per worker in 2020 hadn’t budged since 2012. “The resulting weakness in consumer demand meant that ‘need’ – the most critical ingredient [for] business investment – was missing,” he says. “Excess demand, and the resulting lack of production capacity, is a pre-condition of investment.”

See how we were caught in a low-growth trap? Weak growth leads to low business investment, which leads to little productivity improvement, which leads to more weak growth.

During the Dreadful Decade, the prevailing view among policymakers was that high unemployment was preferable to high inflation, which might become entrenched. So, unemployment was left high, to keep inflation low.

Yetsenga says this decision to entrench relatively high unemployment was a mistake. “Unemployment, underemployment and the inequality they contribute to, all affect macroeconomic outcomes [adversely]“.

“Those on higher incomes tend to save more, reducing consumption, but those on lower incomes tend to borrow more. Inequality, in other words, tends to lower economic growth and exacerbate financial vulnerability.”

Even so, Yetsenga is optimistic. The policy response to the pandemic has “changed the baseline” and we’re in the process of escaping the low-growth trap.

Unemployment is at its lowest in five decades and underemployment has fallen significantly. Real consumer spending is 9 per cent above pre-pandemic levels, and businesses’ capacity utilisation has been restored to high levels not seen since before the global financial crisis.

As a result, planned spending on business investment in the year ahead is about the highest in nearly three decades.

Yetsenga says the Reserve would like some of the rise in the rate of inflation to be permanent. “If monetary policy can deliver [annual] inflation of 2.5 per cent over time, rather than the 1.5 to 2 per cent that characterised the pre-pandemic period, it’s not just the rate of inflation that will be different.

“We should expect the ‘real’ side of the economy to have improved as well: more demand, more employment and more investment.”

“The role of wages in sustaining higher inflation is well known, but wage growth doesn’t occur in a vacuum. To employ more people, give more hours to those working part-time, and raise wage growth, business needs to see demand strong enough to pay for the labour.

“Some of the additional labour spend will be passed on to higher selling prices. The need to invest in more labour is likely to go hand-in-hand with more capital investment.”

I think Yetsenga makes some important points. First, the policy of keeping unemployment high so that inflation will be low has come at a price to growth and contributed to the low-growth trap.

Second, inequality isn’t just about fairness. Economists in the international agencies are discovering that it causes lower growth. So, the policy of ignoring high and rising inequality has also contributed to the low-growth trap.

Third, the idea that we can’t get higher economic growth until we get more productivity improvement has got the “direction of causation” the wrong way around. We won’t get much productivity improvement until we bring about more growth.

Despite all this, I don’t share Yetsenga’s optimism that the shock of the pandemic, and the econocrats’ switch to what I call Plan B – to use additional fiscal stimulus in the 2021 budget to get us much closer to full employment, as a last-ditch attempt to get wage rates growing faster than 2 or 2.5 per cent a year – will be sufficient to bust us out of the low-growth trap.

Yetsenga’s emphasis is on boosting household income by making it easier for households to increase their income by supplying more hours of work. He says little about households’ ability to protect and increase their wage income in real terms.

Another consequence of the pandemic period is the collapse of the consensus view that wages should at least rise in line with prices. Real wages should fall only to correct a period when real wage growth has been excessive.

But so panicked have the econocrats and the new Labor government been by a sudden sharp rise in prices (the frightening size of which is owed almost wholly to a coincidence of temporary, overseas supply disruptions) that they’re looking the other way while, according to the Reserve’s latest forecasts, real wages will fall for three calendar years in a row.

Since it’s the easiest and quickest way of getting inflation down, they’re looking the other way while the nation’s employers – government and business - short-change their workers by a cumulative 6.5 per cent.

This makes a mockery of all the happy assurances that, by some magical economic mechanism, improvements in the productivity of labour flow through to workers as increases in their real wage.

Sorry, I won’t believe we’ve escaped the low-growth trap until I see that, as well as employing more workers, businesses are also paying them a reasonable wage.

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Monday, August 1, 2022

We're struggling with inflation because we misread the pandemic

It’s an understandable error – and I’m as guilty of it as anyone – but it’s now clear governments and their econocrats misunderstood and mishandled the pandemic from the start. Trouble is, they’re now misreading the pandemic’s inflation phase at the risk of a recession.

The amateurish way governments, central banks and economists have sought to respond to the pandemic is understandable because this is the first pandemic the world’s experienced in 100 years.

But it’s important we understand what we’ve got wrong, so we don’t compound our errors in the inflation phase, and so we’ll know how to handle the next pandemic - which will surely arrive in a lot less than 100 years.

In a nutshell, what we’ve done wrong is to treat the pandemic as though it’s a problem with the demand (or spending) side of the economy, when it’s always been a problem with the supply (or production) side.

We’ve done so because the whole theory and practice of “managing” the macroeconomy has always focused on “demand management”.

We’re trying to smooth the economy’s path through the ups and downs of the business cycle, so as to achieve low unemployment on one hand and low inflation on the other.

When demand (spending by households, businesses and governments) is too weak, thus increasing unemployment, we “stimulate” it by cutting interest rates, cutting taxes or increasing government spending. When demand is too strong, thus adding to inflation, we slow it down by raising interest rates, increasing taxes or cutting government spending.

When the pandemic arrived in early 2020, we sought to limit the spread of the virus by closing our borders to travel, ordering many businesses to close their doors and ordering people to leave their homes as little as possible, including by working or studying from home.

So, the economy is rolling on normally until governments suddenly order us to lock down. Obviously, this will involve many people losing their jobs and many businesses losing sales. It will be a government-ordered recession.

Since it’s government-ordered, however, governments know they have an obligation to provide workers and businesses with income to offset their losses. Fearing a prolonged recession, governments spend huge sums and the Reserve Bank cuts the official interest rate to almost zero.

Get it? This was a government-ordered restriction of the supply of goods and services, but governments responded as though it was just a standard recession where demand had fallen below the economy’s capacity to produce goods and services and needed an almighty boost to get it back up and running.

The rate of unemployment shot up to 7.5 per cent, but the national lockdown was lifted after only a month or two. As soon it was, everyone – most of whom had lost little in the way of income – started spending like mad, trying to catch up.

Unemployment started falling rapidly and – particularly because the pandemic had closed our borders to all “imported labour” for two years – ended up falling to its lowest rate since 1974.

So, everything in the garden’s now lovely until, suddenly, we find inflation shooting up to 6.1 per cent and headed higher.

What do we do? What we always do: start jacking up interest rates to discourage borrowing and spending. When demand for goods and services runs faster than business’s capacity to supply them, this puts upward pressure on prices. But when demand weakens, this puts downward pressure on prices.

One small problem. The basic cause of our higher prices isn’t excess demand, it’s a fall in supply. The main cause is disruption to the supply of many goods, caused by the pandemic. To this is added the reduced supply of oil and gas and foodstuffs caused by Russia’s attack on Ukraine. At home, meat and vegetable prices are way up because of the end of the drought and then all the flooding.

Get it? Once again, we’ve taken a problem on the supply side of the economy and tried to fix it as though it’s a problem with demand.

Because the pandemic-caused disruptions to supply are temporary, the Ukraine war will end eventually, and production of meat and veg will recover until climate change’s next blow, we’re talking essentially about prices that won’t keep rising quarter after quarter and eventually should fall back. So surely, we should all just be patient and wait for prices to return to normal.

Why then are the financial markets and the econocrats so worried that prices will keep rising, we’ll be caught up in a “wage-price spiral” and the inflation rate will stay far too high?

Short answer: because of our original error in deciding that a temporary government-ordered partial cessation of supply should be treated like the usual recession, where demand is flat on its back and needs massive stimulus if the recession isn’t to drag on for years.

If we’d only known, disruptions to supply were an inevitable occurrence as the pandemic eased. What no one foresaw was everyone cooped up in their homes, still receiving plenty of income, but unable to spend it on anything that involved leaving home.

It was the advent of the internet that allowed so many of us to keep working or studying from home. And it was the internet that allowed us to keep spending, but on goods rather than services. It’s the huge temporary switch from buying services to buying goods that’s done so much to cause shortages in the supply of many goods.

But it’s our misdiagnosis of the “coronacession” – propping up workers and industries far more than they needed to be – that’s left us with demand so strong it’s too easy for businesses to get away with slipping in price increases that have nothing to do with supply shortages.

Now all we need to complete our error is to overreact to the price rises and tighten up so hard we really do have an old-style recession.

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The inflation fix: protect profits, hit workers and consumers

There’s a longstanding but unacknowledged – and often unnoticed – bias in mainstream commentary on the state of the economy. We dwell on problems created by governments or greedy workers and their interfering unions, but never entertain the thought that the behaviour of business could be part of the problem.

This ubiquitous pro-business bias – reinforced daily by the national press – is easily seen in the debate on how worried we should be about inflation, and in the instant attraction to the notion that continuing to cut real wages is central to getting inflation back under control. This is being pushed by the econocrats, and last week’s economic statement from Treasurer Jim Chalmers reveals it’s been swallowed by the new Labor government.

I’ve been arguing strongly that the primary source of the huge price rises we’ve seen is quite different to what we’re used to. It’s blockages in the supply of goods, caused by a perfect storm of global problems: the pandemic, the war in Ukraine and even climate change’s effect on meat and vegetable prices.

Since monetary policy can do nothing to fix supply problems, we should be patient and wait for these once-off, temporary issues to resolve themselves. The econocrats’ reply is that, though most price rises come from deficient supply, some come from strong demand – and they’re right.

Although more than half the 1.8 per cent rise in consumer prices in the June quarter came from just three categories – food, petrol and home-building costs – it’s also true there were increases in a high proportion of categories.

The glaring example of price rises caused by strong demand is the cost of building new homes. Although there have been shortages of imported building materials, it’s clear that hugely excessive stimulus – from interest rates and the budget – has led to an industry that hasn’t had a hope of keeping up with the government-caused surge in demand for new homes. It’s done what it always does: used the opportunity to jack up prices.

But as for a more general effect of strong demand on prices, what you don’t see in the figures is any sign it’s high wages that are prompting businesses to raise their prices. Almost 80 per cent of the rise in prices over the year to June came from the price of goods rather than services. That’s despite goods’ share of total production and employment being about 20 per cent.


This – along with direct measures of wage growth - says it’s not soaring labour costs that have caused so many businesses to raise their prices. Rather, strong demand for their product has allowed them to pass on, rather than absorb, the higher cost of imported inputs – and, probably, fatten their profit margins while they’re at it.

Take the amazing 7 per cent increase in furniture prices during the quarter. We’re told this is explained by higher freight costs. Really? I can’t believe it.

Nor can I believe that months of unrelenting media stories about prices rising here, there and everywhere – including an open mic for business lobbyists to exaggerate the need for price rises – haven’t made it easier for businesses everywhere to raise their prices without fear of pushback from customers.

But whenever inflation worsens, the economists’ accusing fingers point not to business but to the workers. No one ever says businesses should show more restraint, they do say the only way to fix the problem is for workers to take a real-wage haircut.

There’s no better evidence of the economics profession’s pro-business bias than its studious avoidance of mentioning the way the profits share of national income keeps rising and the wages share keeps falling.

In truth, the story’s not as simple as it looks, but it seems to have occurred to no mainstream economist that what may be happening is business using the cover of the supply-side disruptions to effect a huge transfer of income from labour to capital.

Allowing real wages to fall significantly for three years in a row – as Chalmers’ new forecasts say they will – would certainly be the quickest and easiest way to lower inflation, but do the econocrats really imagine this would leave the economy hale and hearty?

Yet another sign of economists’ pro-business bias is that so few of them know much – or even think they need to know much – about how wages are fixed in the real world. Hence all the silliness we’re hearing about the risk of lifting inflation expectations. Can’t happen when workers lack bargaining power.

You’d think an understanding of wage-fixing is something a Labor government could bring to the table. But no. All we’re getting from Chalmers is that we need to cut real wages so we can increase them later. Yeah, sure.

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Wednesday, July 27, 2022

Inflation: small problem, so don't hit with sledgehammer

It’s an old expression, but a good one: out of the frying pan, into the fire. Less than two years ago we were told that, after having escaped recession for almost 30 years, the pandemic and our efforts to stop the virus spreading had plunged us into the deepest recession in almost a century.

Only a few months later we were told that, thanks to the massive sums that governments had spent protecting the incomes of workers and businesses during the lockdowns, the economy had “bounced back” from the recession and was growing more strongly than it had been before the pandemic arrived.

No sooner had the rate of unemployment leapt to 7.5 per cent than it began falling rapidly and is now, we learnt a fortnight ago, down to 3.5 per cent – its lowest since 1974.

You little beauty. At last, the economy’s going fine and we can get on with our lives without a care.

But, no. Suddenly, out of nowhere, a new and terrible problem has emerged. The rate of inflation is soaring. It’s sure to have done more soaring when we see the latest figures on Wednesday morning.

So worrying is soaring inflation that the Reserve Bank is having to jack up interest rates as fast as possible to stop the soaring. It’s such a worry, many in the financial markets believe, that it may prove necessary to put interest rates up so high they cause ... a recession.

Really? No, not really. There’s much talk of recession – and this week we’re likely to hear claims that the US has entered it – but if we go into recession just a few years after the last one, it will be because the Reserve Bank has been panicked into hitting the interest-rate brakes far harder than warranted.

As you know, since the mid-1990s the power to influence interest rates has shifted from the elected politicians to the unelected econocrats at our central bank. A convention has been established that government ministers must never comment on what the Reserve should or shouldn’t be doing about interest rates.

So last week Anthony Albanese, still on his PM’s P-plates, got into trouble for saying the Reserve’s bosses “need to be careful that they don’t overreach”.

Well, he shouldn’t be saying it, but there’s nothing to stop me saying it – because it needs to be said. The Reserve is under huge pressure from the financial markets to keep jacking up rates, but it must hold its nerve and do no more than necessary.

It’s important to understand that prices have risen a lot in all the advanced economies. They’ve risen not primarily for the usual reason – because economies have been “overheating”, with the demand for goods and services overtaking businesses’ ability to supply them – but for the less common reason that the pandemic has led to bottlenecks and other disruptions to supply.

To this main, pandemic problem has been added the effect of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on oil and gas, and wheat and other foodstuffs.

The point is that these are essentially once-off price rises. Prices won’t keep rising for these reasons and, eventually, the supply disruptions will be solved and the Ukraine attack will end. Locally, the supply of meat and vegetables will get back to normal – until the next drought and flooding.

Increasing interest rates – which all the rich countries’ central banks are doing – can do nothing to end supply disruptions caused by the pandemic, end the Ukraine war or stop climate change.

All higher rates can do is reduce households’ ability to spend – particularly those households with big, recently acquired mortgages, and those facing higher rent.

The Reserve keeps reminding us that – because most of us were able to keep working, but not spending as much, during the lockdowns – households now have an extra $260 billion in bank accounts. But much of this is in mortgage redraw and offset accounts, and will be rapidly eaten up by higher interest rates.

Of course, the higher prices we’re paying for petrol, electricity, gas and food will themselves reduce our ability to spend on other things, independent of what’s happening to interest rates. It would be a different matter if we were all getting wage rises big enough to cover those price rises, but it’s clear we won’t be.

The main part of the inflation problem that's of our own making is the rise in the prices of newly built homes and building materials. This was caused by the combination of lower interest rates and special grants to home buyers hugely overstretching the housing industry. But higher interest rates and falling house prices will end that.

So, while it’s true we do need to get the official interest rate up from its lockdown emergency level of virtually zero to “more normal levels” of “at least 2.5 per cent”, it’s equally clear we don’t need to go any higher to ensure the inflation rate eventually falls back to the Reserve’s 2 to 3 per cent target range.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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