Showing posts with label secular stagnation. Show all posts
Showing posts with label secular stagnation. Show all posts

Monday, December 6, 2021

Panicking financial markets could stuff up another global recovery

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Friday, August 6, 2021

Our dealings with the world have reversed, for good or ill

One of the most remarkable developments in our economy in recent times is also the most unremarked: after endless decades of running a deficit on the current account of our balance of payments, for the past two years we’ve been running a surplus. Which looks likely to continue.

Because a “deficit” sounds like it’s a bad thing, and the media know their audience finds bad news much more interesting than good news, I guess it’s not so surprising this seemingly good news hasn’t attracted much attention.

But one thing economics teaches is that, contrary to popular impression, not all deficits are bad and not all surpluses are good. It depends on the circumstances. But regardless of whether they regard a current account surplus as a good sign or a bad one, I suspect most economists think there are more important issues to worry about.

This week the Australian Bureau of Statistics revealed a record trade surplus of $10.5 billion in just the month of June.

We recorded a current account surplus of $17.6 billion during the March quarter this year. That compares with a peak deficit of $23.5 billion in September quarter, 2015.

Since the bureau started publishing the figures in 1959, we’ve run 221 quarterly deficits, but just 26 surpluses. Eight of those have come over the past two years.

But let’s start at the beginning. A country’s “balance of payments” is a summary record of all the transactions during a period of time between, in our case, an Australian on one side and a foreigner on the other. Those on either side could be businesses, governments or individuals. Mainly they’re businesses.

Conceptually, the balance of payments is recorded using double-entry bookkeeping, where one side of the transaction is recorded as a debit and the other as a credit. So, when you add up all the debits and add up all the credits, the two amounts should be equal. Thus the balance of payments is in balance at all times.

This matters because the balance of payments is divided into two main accounts, the “current account” and the “capital and financial account”. The value of transactions involving exports or imports of goods and services goes in the current account, as do payments – in or out - of income such as interest and dividends.

But the other side of each of those transactions involving exports, imports or income payments, the amount someone has to pay – the financial side of the transaction – goes in the capital account, as do purely financial transactions, such as when one of our banks borrows from or lends to some overseas bank, or when one of our superannuation funds buys or sells shares in a foreign company.

Bear with me. The income we earn from foreigners who buy our exports or pay us dividends or interest is recorded as a credit, whereas the money we pay to foreigners for our imports or as dividends on the Australian shares they own or interest on the money they’ve lent us is recorded as a debit.

When we sell them shares in an Aussie business, borrow from them or sell them some real estate, that’s a credit in the capital account. When they sell us shares or land or lend us money, that’s recorded as a debit.

An account where the debits exceed the credits is in deficit. When the credits exceed the debits it’s in surplus.

There had to be a reason for explaining all this, and we’ve reached it. Historically, we almost always imported more than we exported, running a deficit on trade in goods and services. Likewise, we always had to pay more in dividends and interest to foreign owners and lenders than they had to pay us on our foreign shareholdings and loans to them, thus causing us to run a “net income deficit”.

Put the trade deficit and the net income deficit together and you get the balance on the current account, which was always in deficit. Oh no!

But here’s the trick. Since the double-entry system means the debits always equal the credits, if we always ran a deficit on the current account of the balance of payments, that means we always ran an equal and opposite surplus on the capital account. Yippee!

So if you think it’s good news that our current account is now in surplus, what do you think of the news that our capital account is now in deficit? Time to stop assuming all deficits are bad and all surpluses good.

In all the decades that our current account was in deficit, economists never thought that a bad thing. They knew Australia was – and should be – a “capital-importing country”. We always had a lot more investment opportunities than we could finance with our own saving, so we invited foreigners to bring their savings to Oz to participate in our economic development.

This continuous inflow of foreign capital gave us a continuous surplus on the capital account and thus allowed us to import more than we exported. Naturally, we had to pay big dividends and interest to those foreign investors.

So, why has all that reversed? Well, the reversal began in about 2015, long before the pandemic. Its first main cause is the rapid industrialisation of China, which has greatly increased our exports of minerals and energy and, until the pandemic, education and tourism.

But a second, less-favourable development has been our part in the rich economies’ slowdown in economic growth since the global financial crisis in 2008. This has involved increased saving and reduced investment spending – both of which have helped move our current account towards surplus and our capital account towards deficit.

Economists at the ANZ Bank predict the current account will fall back towards balance over the next few years. But we won’t return to our accustomed capital-importing status until we and the rest of the rich world escape the present low-growth trap.


Saturday, February 20, 2021

One problem at a time: jobs first, inflation much later

It had to happen: at a time when inflation is the least of our problems, some have had to start worrying that prices could take off. Funny thing is, it’s not the usual suspects who are concerned.

As so often happens, the new concern is starting in America. But since so many people imagine globalisation means our economy is a carbon copy of America’s, don’t be surprised if some people here take up those concerns.

The new Biden administration is about to put to Congress a recovery support package of budget measures – a key election promise – worth a mind-boggling $US1.9 trillion ($2.5 trillion).

Particularly when you remember that, after the US election but before President Biden’s inauguration, Congress stopped stalling and put through another, smaller but still huge, package of spending measures, it’s not surprising that some people are saying it’s all too much and will lead to problems with inflation.

What’s surprising is that the worries have come not from Republican-supporting and other conservative economists, but from an academic economist who’s been prominent on the Democrat side, Professor Larry Summers, of Harvard.

Summers, a former secretary of the Treasury in the Clinton administration, has been supported – on Twitter, naturally – by Professor Olivier Blanchard, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a former chief economist at the International Monetary Fund.

The Biden package has been vigorously defended by the new Treasury secretary and former US Federal Reserve chair Professor Janet Yellen, supported by Professor Paul Krugman, a Nobel prize-winning economist and columnist for the New York Times.

All four of these luminaries have long been advocates of vigorous use of fiscal policy (budget spending and tax cuts) whenever the economy is recessed.

As well, Summers is the leading exponent of the view that America and the other rich economies (including ours) have, at least since the global financial crisis in 2008, been caught in a low-growth trap he calls “secular stagnation”, because investment spending (on new housing, business equipment and structures, and public infrastructure) has fallen well short of the money being saved by households, businesses and governments.

This imbalance, Summers argues, explains why interest rates have fallen so close to zero. He’s long advocated that governments spend on big programs of infrastructure renewal and expansion (including on the cost of fighting climate change by moving from fossil fuels to renewables) to “absorb” much of the excess savings and, at the same time, lift the economy’s productivity.

All four of these economists would fear (as I do) that the structural problems that kept the economy stuck in a low-growth trap for years before the pandemic came along will reassert themselves once the world gets on top of the virus and we recover from the coronacession.

So why would Summers, of all people, fear that Joe Biden’s massive support package could lead to the return of something that hasn’t been a problem for several decades, rapidly rising prices of goods and services?

Because he fears the package’s spending is three times or more the size of the hole in demand that needs to be filled to get the US economy back to “full employment” – low unemployment and underemployment, and factories and offices operating at close to full capacity.

When the demand for goods and services exceeds the economy’s capacity to produce goods and services, what you get - apart from a surge in imports – is rising prices.

Economists believe that an economy’s “potential” rate of growth is set by the rate at which its population, workforce and physical capital investment are growing, plus its rate of improvement in productivity – the efficiency with which those “factors of production” are being combined.

For as long as an economy has idle production capacity – unemployed and underemployed workers, and offices, factories, farms and mines that aren’t flat-chat – its demand can safely grow at a rate that exceeds its potential annual rate of growth.

But once that idle production capacity – known as the “output gap” – has been eliminated and demand’s still growing faster than supply, the excess demand shows up as higher inflation.

Summers’ concern comes because the Congressional Budget Office’s estimate of the US economy’s output gap is several times less than $US1.9 trillion.

Roughly half of the package’s cost is accounted for by spending on virus testing, the vaccine and other health costs, spending to get schools open again, and income-support for victims of the coronacession, including a temporary increase in unemployment benefits.

Summers has no objection to any of that. But much of the rest of the proposed spending is the cost of cash payments of $US1400 ($1800) a pop to most adults, regardless of their income. This is pure “stimulus” spending, and Summers worries that it may crowd out Biden’s plans for subsequent spending on infrastructure, to be spread over several years.

But calculations of the size of an economy’s output gap are rough and ready. Who’s to say the assumptions on which the budget office’s estimates are based are unaffected by the causes of secular stagnation, or by the unique nature of the coronacession?

And even if the spending of those cheques (much of which is more likely to be saved) did lead to price rises, this doesn’t mean we’d be straight back to the bad old days of spiralling wages and prices. (If we were, it would be a sign the era of secular stagnation had mysteriously disappeared.)

Remember, the Americans’ inflation rate (like ours) has long been below their target. Getting up to, or even a bit above, the target would be a good thing, not a bad one.

And, in any case, a good reason we shouldn’t worry about inflation at a time like this is that, should it become a problem, we know exactly how to fix it: put interest rates up. Australia’s households are so heavily indebted that, in our case, just a tiny increase would do the trick.


Monday, February 15, 2021

Flogging the monetary-policy horse harder won't help

It didn’t quite hit the headlines, but when Reserve Bank governor Dr Philip Lowe appeared before the House of Reps economics committee a week or so ago, he came under intense questioning from the Parliament’s most highly qualified economist, Labor’s Dr Andrew Leigh.

In my never-humble opinion, Leigh had the wrong end of the stick.

One criticism was that the board of the Reserve Bank is dominated by “amateurs” – business men and women appointed by successive federal governments. According to Leigh, pretty much every other central bank has its decisions on monetary policy (whether to raise or lower interest rates) made by committees of outside monetary experts, who are well equipped to challenge the bank’s own technical analysis.

This is a chestnut I’ve been hearing for decades. It smacks of the old cultural cringe: Australia is out of line with the big boys in America and Europe, therefore we’re doing it wrong. The people in our financial markets spend so much time studying the mighty US economy that their line’s always the same: whatever the Yanks are doing we should be doing.

Sorry, not convinced. It sounds to me like a commercial message from the economists’ union. Why give those plum appointments to businesspeople when you could be giving them to us? When you leave the “technical analysis” just to the hundreds of economists working in the Reserve, you risk them suffering from “group think”, we’re told.

And you’d escape group think by having a committee dominated by professional economists? Economics is the only profession that doesn’t suffer from “model blindness” – the inability to see factors that have been assumed away in the way of thinking about issues that’s been drummed into them since first year uni?

I don’t think so. It’s inter-disciplinary analysis that might improve the decisions, but that’s something most economists hate. After reading Kay and King’s Radical Uncertainty, I’m happier than ever with the idea that the governor and his minions should be put through their paces by people chosen for their real-world experience, not their membership of the economists’ club.

Leigh was on stronger ground when he asked why governments had stopped including a union boss along with all the businesspeople.

But Leigh’s main criticism was that the Reserve had been “too timid in focusing on getting inflation up into the target band”. For the “amateurs” reading this, he meant why hadn’t the Reserve cut the official interest rate earlier and harder since the global financial crisis, so as to get demand growing faster, creating more employment, lifting real wages and the inflation rate in the process.

After his board’s February meeting, Lowe announced that it would be doing $100 billion more “quantitative easing” (buying second-hand government bonds with created money, so as to lower longer-term public and private interest rates). Leigh asked why he hadn’t been more purposeful and announced $200 billion in purchases.

When you’re looking for things to criticise, saying that whatever’s just been done should have been done earlier or bigger is the easiest one in the book. Various other dissident economists are saying what Leigh’s saying.

But, as so often with economists, they’re not drawing attention to the assumptions – explicit and implicit – that lie behind their policy recommendations. Their key assumption here is that cutting interest rates is still as effective in encouraging borrowing and spending as the textbooks say it is.

If households are saving more than we’d like, the reason is that interest rates are too high; if businesses aren’t investing enough, the reason is that rates are too high. So, although interest rates have been at record lows for years, just a couple more cuts (achieved by conventional or unconventional means) would do the trick and get the economy growing strongly.

And although household debt is at record highs, this wouldn’t inhibit people’s willingness to load themselves up with more. Leigh and his mates seem to be having trouble with the concept of “diminishing returns” – that the third ice cream you eat never tastes as good as the first.

Though Lowe can’t or won’t admit it, the obvious truth is that, in the world economy’s present circumstances – “secular stagnation” and all that - monetary policy has pretty much run out of puff. Which explains why he’s been moving into unconventional monetary policy so reluctantly and why, for the whole of his term, he’s been pressing the government to make more use of its budget (fiscal policy) to get the economy moving.

Some of Lowe’s critics, being monetary specialists, have (like the Reserve itself) a vested interest in continuing to flog the monetary policy horse. Other’s deny the effectiveness and legitimacy of using fiscal policy to manage demand, as part of their commitment to Smaller Government.

But perhaps the most revealing exchange came when Leigh accused the Reserve of failing to act on what its own econometric model of the Australian economy, MARTIN, (as in Martin Place) would be telling it. The reply from Lowe’s deputy, Dr Guy Debelle (whose PhD from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is a match for Leigh’s from Harvard) was dismissive.

“I would just note that macro models don’t do a very good job of modelling the financial sector [of the economy]. They failed pretty poorly in 2007 [the global financial crisis] when macro discovered finance. I think there’s an issue around transmission [the paths through which a change in interest rates leads to changes in other economic variables] which these models don’t take into account,” Debelle said.

“They’re linear. Actually, they assume that financial markets don’t exist, broadly speaking.”

I find it reassuring that our econocrats understand how primitive econometric models of the economy are, and don’t take their results too seriously.


Monday, December 14, 2020

Start of the end for ratings agencies' dubious influence

Walt Secord, Labor’s Treasury spokesman in NSW, and Michael O’Brien, Liberal Opposition Leader in Victoria, should be condemned for their attempts to score cheap political points when Standard & Poor’s downgraded its AAA credit ratings of both state governments last week. Fortunately, the politicians’ unprincipled carping fell flat.

Both men wanted to have their cake and eat it. Neither was prepared to criticise their government’s big spending to alleviate the state’s pandemic-driven high unemployment – nor admit that, had their party been in power, it would have done the same – but both wanted to portray the consequent downgrade as proof positive of their political opponents’ financial incompetence.

But the deeper truth is that the financial markets and economists have stopped caring about the august pronouncements of the three big American ratings agencies.

Their decline has three causes. First was their loss of credibility following their role in the global financial crisis of 2008. Not only did these supposed paragons of financial precaution fail to foresee the looming collapse, but they actually contributed to it by selling triple-A ratings to the promoters of private-sector securities subsequently discovered to be “toxic debt”.

Just as the scandal surrounding the collapse of Enron in 2001 led to the demise of its auditor, Arthur Andersen, formerly the big public accounting firm with its nose highest in the air, so the financial crisis showed the world that when one for-profit business is paid to report on the affairs of another for-profit business, only an innocent would expect the audit or prospectus report or modelling exercise or credit rating to be genuinely independent.

The second development contributing to the decline of the ratings agencies is the emergence of what the Americans call "secular stagnation" and others call being caught in a "low-growth trap" – where aggregate demand can’t keep up with aggregate supply, and the supply of "loanable funds" exceeds the demand for borrowed funds.

Two side effects of this long-term structural shift of particular relevance to the credit-rating industry are the fall of inflation rates to negligible levels, and the fall of the global real "neutral" official interest rate to a level somewhere near zero.

Especially with the rich world’s central banks – these days, including our Reserve Bank – so heavily into "quantitative easing" (that is, buying government bonds so as to force down their interest-rate "yields"), all this means super-low interest rates, increased private investor demand for government bonds (because there's so little else to invest in), and central banks doing all they can to stop the interest rates on government bonds (including state government bonds) from being driven up by investors.

Third, it’s hard to see how a national government with a floating currency, which borrows only in that currency, could ever default on its debt. (Nor is it easy to see our federal government standing by while one of our state governments defaults on its debt.)

Now do you see why – at least as applies to government securities – events have overtaken the ratings agencies? They’re doing a job that no longer needs to be done, and making assessments of the supposed risk of default on state government bonds that won’t be defaulted on.

This is why our top econocrats have stopped caring about the actions of the rating agencies.

Reserve Bank deputy governor Dr Guy Debelle said recently: "There is the possibility of a ratings downgrade from higher debt, but that really only has a political dimension not a financial dimension, as government bond rates would likely be little changed.

"In any case, a ratings agency should not be the determinant of [budgetary] policy. Fiscal policy should be set to be the most beneficial for the Australian economy and people."

Treasury Secretary Dr Steven Kennedy said recently: "I don’t think there is any significant implications for Australia from a ratings agency downgrade. It is an important tick of confidence to have the rating agencies’ assessment … but frankly the actual impact on the economy I think would be negligible."

Reserve Bank governor Dr Philip Lowe said in August: "I think preserving the credit ratings is not particularly important; what’s important is that we use the public balance sheet in a time of crisis to create jobs for people."

And more recently: "A downgrade of credit ratings doesn’t concern me. The AAA credit rating had more political symbolism than economic importance."

Just so. Although the ratings agencies have lost their economic credibility and usefulness, state governments remained fearful of the fuss their political opponents would make over a downgrade. But their opponents’ failure to gain traction last week spells the beginning of the end for the agencies’ unhealthy influence over government spending and borrowing.


Monday, June 29, 2020

Morrison is taking the recovery too cheaply

In theory, recovery from the coronacession will be easier than recoveries usually are. In practice, however, it’s likely to be much harder than usual – something Scott Morrison’s evident reluctance to provide sufficient budgetary stimulus suggests he’s still to realise.

The reasons for hope arise from this recession’s unique cause: it was brought about not by a bust in assets markets (as was the global financial crisis and our recession of the early 1990s) nor by the more usual real-wage explosion and sky-high interest rates (our recessions of the early 1980s and mid-1970s), but by government decree in response to a pandemic.

This makes it an artificial recession, one that happened almost overnight with a non-economic cause. Get the virus under control, dismantle the lockdown and maybe everything soon returns almost to normal.

It was the temporary nature of the lockdown that justified the $70 billion cost of the unprecedented JobKeeper wage subsidy scheme. Preserve the link between employers and their workers for the few months of the lockdown, and maybe most of them eventually return to work as normal.

Note that, even if this doesn’t work out as well as hoped, the money spent still helps to prop up demand. Had we not experimented with JobKeeper, we’d have needed to spend a similar amount on other things.

Because this recession has been so short and (not) sweet, it’s reasonable to expect an early and significant bounce-back in the September quarter. Just how big it is, we shall see. But, in any case, there’s more to a recovery than the size of the bounce-back in the first quarter after the end of the contraction.

And there are at least five reasons why this recovery will face stronger headwinds than most. The first is the absence of further help from the Reserve Bank cutting rates. People forget that our avoidance of the Great Recession in 2009 involved cutting the official interest rate by 4.25
percentage points.

Second, Australia, much more than other advanced economies, has been reliant for much of its economic growth on population growth. But, thanks to the travel bans, Morrison is expecting net overseas migration to fall by a third in the financial year just ending, and by 85 per cent in 2020-21.

Now, unlike most economists, I’m yet to be convinced immigration does anything much to lift our standard of living. And I’m not a believer in growth for growth’s sake. It remains true, however, that our housing industry remains heavily reliant on building new houses to accommodate our growing population. And if Morrison’s HomeBuilder package is supposed to be the answer to the industry’s problem, it’s been dudded.

Third, we’re used to our floating exchange rate acting as an effective shock absorber, floating down when our stressed industries could use more international price competitiveness, and floating up when we need help constraining inflation pressures – as happened during most of the resources boom.

But this time, not so much. With the disruption to our rival Brazilian iron ore producer’s output, world prices are a lot higher than you’d expect at a time of global recession. And with world foreign exchange markets thinking of the Aussie dollar as very much a commodity currency, our exchange rate looks like being higher than otherwise – and higher than would do most to boost our industries’ price competitiveness.

Fourth, the long boom in house prices has left our households heavily indebted, and in no mood to take advantage of record-low interest rates by lashing out with borrowing and spending. The “precautionary motive” always leaves households more inclined to save rather than spend during recessions, but the knowledge of their towering housing debt will probably make them even more cautious than usual.

The idea that bringing forward the government’s remaining two legislated tax cuts could do wonders for demand is delusional. If you wanted the cuts spent rather than saved, you’d aim them at the bottom, not the top.

Finally, although our politicians and econocrats refuse to admit it, our economy – like all the advanced economies – has for most of the past decade been caught in a structural low-growth trap. We can’t get strong growth in consumer spending until we get strong growth in real wages. We can’t get strong growth in business investment until we get strong consumer spending. And we can’t get a strong improvement in the productivity of labour until we get strong business investment.

Meanwhile, the nation’s employers – including even public sector employers - will do what they always do and use the recession, and the fear it engenders in workers, to engineer a fall in real wages. Which will get us even deeper in the low-growth trap.

I fear, however, that Morrison and his loyal lieutenant, Josh Frydenberg, will learn all this the hard way.

Saturday, December 14, 2019

Why the government's forecasts are always way off

Just to warm you up for the mid-year budget update on Monday, let me ask you: why do you think Treasury and the Reserve Bank have gone for a least the past eight years forecasting more growth in the economy than ever transpired?

Kieran Davies, a respected economist from National Australia Bank, has been checking. He says their mistake has been failing to allow for the decline in our “potential” growth rate since the global financial crisis in 2008.

Actually, Davies has checked only the Reserve’s forecasting record, not Treasury’s. But the two outfits use similar forecasting methods and use a Joint Economic Forecasting Group to ensure their forecasts are never very different.

An economy’s “potential” growth rate is the average rate at which its capacity to produce goods and services is growing each year. This is determined by the average rate at which the Three Ps are growing – population, participation (in the labour force) and productivity (output per unit of input).

Sometimes (as now) the economy’s annual demand for goods and services doesn’t grow as fast as its potential to supply those goods and services is growing. This creates an “output gap” of idle production capacity, including unemployed and under-employed workers.

When demand picks up, the economy can grow faster than its potential growth rate for a few years until the idle capacity is fully taken up and the output gap has disappeared. Once that’s happened, the potential growth rate sets the speed limit for how fast the economy can grow. If demand’s allowed to grow faster than supply, all you get is inflation.

We know from the fine print in the budget papers that Treasury’s estimate of our present potential growth rate is 2.75 per cent a year. You can be sure the Reserve’s estimate is the same. This is often referred to as the economy’s forward-looking “trend” (medium-term average) rate of growth.

Treasury’s projections of growth over the rest of the next 10 years are based on the assumption that, once the economy has returned to its trend rate of 2.75 per cent, it will then grow by 3 per cent a year for several years until the idle capacity is used up, when it will revert to 2.75 per cent. (This projection of perfection is what allows the budget papers to include an incredible graph showing the budget surplus going on forever and the government’s net public debt plunging to zero by June 2030.)

Now, here’s the trick. Because the Treasury and Reserve forecasters have no more knowledge of what the future holds than you or I do, they rely heavily on a long-established statistical regularity called “reversion to the mean”. That is, if at present the variable you’re forecasting is above its average performance, the greatest likelihood is that it will move down towards the average. If it’s below average, it’s likely to move up towards the average.

So now you know why, for at least the past eight years, Treasury has forecast that, though growth in the economy is weak at present, within a year or two it will return to trend, and then go higher. When it turns out that didn’t come to pass this time, it’s still the best bet for next year. Fail and repeat. Although the Reserve revises its forecasts every quarter, it follows the same method.

Davies’ examination of the Reserve’s forecasting record found that, since the financial crisis, it had persistently overestimated growth in real gross domestic product in the year ahead, and had nearly always overestimated growth over the next two years.

Why? Because it failed to take account of the decline in the potential growth rate since the crisis. It’s a safe bet the Reserve has stuck with 2.75 per cent. But Davies says the Reserve’s own econometric model of the economy, MARTIN, finds that potential growth has declined from 3.1 per cent in 2000 to 2.7 per cent in 2010 and 2.4 per cent in 2019.

In other words, when your forecasting method relies so heavily on reversion to the mean, if your estimate of potential growth is too high, it’s hardly surprising you’ll forecast more growth than you ever get.

But what’s wrong with the econocrats’ estimate of the potential growth? It could be in one or more of their estimates of growth in its three P components, but Davies’ checking shows it’s not population or participation, but productivity.

Davies says the MARTIN model shows that trend growth in productivity has slowed from 2 per cent a year in 2000, to 1.3 per cent in 2010 and to 1.1 per cent in 2019. This slowdown is not peculiar to Australia, but has occurred across the advanced economies.

Taking the median rate for those other economies, he estimates that the annual improvement in their productivity of labour per hour worked has slowed from 1.9 per cent in the 10 years before the crisis, to 0.8 per cent in the years since the crisis.

Davies’ equivalent estimates for us are similar: from 2.1 per cent to 1.2 per cent.

Okay, so why has productivity improvement slowed? Labour productivity has two components: “capital deepening”, where investment in more capital equipment per worker makes workers more productive, and “multi-factor productivity”, which is the improvement that can’t be explained by anything but technological progress (not more equipment so much as better equipment, plus improvements in the way factories and offices are organised) and reforms to the structure of the economy (“micro-economic reform”).

Davies finds the overall decline is mainly explained by the weakest rate of improvement in multi-factor productivity in decades – that is, little technological progress, here or overseas – but also by investment in the stock of non-mining physical capital that’s only just keeping up with the growth in the supply of labour (which, I imagine, hasn’t been helped by our need for “capital widening” to provide equipment to all the extra migrant workers).

What Davies’ digging has really exposed, of course, is the econocrats’ refusal to accept that our economy’s caught in former Bank of England governor Mervyn King’s “low-growth trap”.

Saturday, November 9, 2019

Weak wages the symptom of our stagnant economy, but why?

If you don’t like the term "secular stagnation" you can follow former Bank of England governor Mervyn King and say that, since the Great Recession of 2008-09, we’ve entered the Great Stagnation and are "stuck in a low-growth trap".

On Friday we saw the latest instalment of our politicians’ and econocrats’ reluctant admission that we’re in the same boat as the other becalmed advanced economies, with publication of the Reserve Bank’s latest downward revisions of its forecasts for economic growth.

This time last year, the Reserve was expecting real growth in gross domestic product of a ripping 3.25 per cent over the present financial year. Now it’s expecting 2.25 per cent. Even that may prove on the high side.

What their eternal optimism implies is our authorities’ belief that the economy’s weakness is largely "cyclical" – temporary. What the past eight years of downward revisions imply, however, is that the problem is mainly "structural" or, as they used to say a century ago, "secular" – long-lasting.

If the weakness is structural, waiting a bit longer won’t see the problem go away. The world’s economists will need to do a lot more researching and thinking to determine the main causes of the change in the structure of the economy and the way it works, and what we should be doing about it.

Apart from dividing problems between cyclical and structural, economists analyse them by viewing them from the perspective of demand and then the perspective of supply.

Obviously, what you’d like is demand and supply pretty much in balance, meaning low inflation and unemployment, with economies growing at a good pace and lifting our material standard of living. In practice, however, it’s not that simple and demand and supply don’t always align the way we’d like.

For about the first 30 years after World War II, the dominant view among economists was that the big problem was keeping demand strong enough to take up the economy’s ever-growing potential supply – its capacity to produce goods and services – and keep workers and factories in "full employment". Keynesian economics was developed to use the budget ("fiscal policy") to ensure demand was always up to the mark.

From about the mid-1970s, however, the advanced economies developed a big problem with inflation. After years of uncertainty and debate, the dominant view emerged that the main problem wasn’t "deficient" demand, it was excessive demand, always threatening to run ahead of the economy’s capacity to produce and thus cause inflation.

The answer was to get supply – potential production – growing faster. Most economists abandoned Keynesian economics and reverted to the former, "neo-classical" macro-economics, in which the central contention was that, over the medium-term, the rate at which an economy grew was determined on the supply side, by the three key determinants of production capacity, "the three Ps" – population, participation (by people in the labour force), and productivity – the rate at which investment in more and better machines and structures allowed workers to produce more per hour than they did before.

If so, the managers of the macro economy could do nothing to change the rate at which the economy grew over the medium term. Their role was simply to ensure that, in the short term, demand neither grew faster than the growth in the economy’s production potential (thus casing inflation) nor slower than potential (thus causing unemployment).

And the best instrument to use to achieve this balancing act was, as Treasury secretary Dr Steven Kennedy explained recently, monetary policy (moving interest rates up and down).

Everyone agrees that the problem with the advanced economies at present – including ours – is weak demand. The question is whether that weakness is mainly cyclical or mainly structural. If it's cyclical, all we have to do is be patient, and the old conventional wisdom - that, fundamentally, growth is supply-determined - doesn’t need changing.

But the conclusion that fits our circumstances better is that the demand problem has structural causes. Consider this: we’ve had plenty of episodes of weak demand in the past, but never has demand been so weak that inflation is negligible. Nominal interest rates are way down in consequence, but even real global interest rates have been falling since even before the financial crisis.

That’s why monetary policy has almost done its dash. It doesn’t do well at a time of negligible inflation, and fiscal policy is back to being the more effective instrument. But if the demand problem is mainly structural, then a burst of stimulus from the budget may help a bit, but won’t get to the heart of the problem.

As former top econocrat Dr Mike Keating has argued consistently, weak growth in real wages seems the main cause of weak growth in consumer spending and, hence, business investment, productivity improvement and overall growth – both in Australia and the other advanced economies.

Reserve Bank governor Dr Philip Lowe would agree. But he tends to see the wage problem as mainly cyclical: wait until we get more growth in employment, then the labour market will tighten, skill shortages will emerge and real wages will be pushed up.

Other economists stick to the supply-side, neo-classical approach: if real wages aren’t growing fast enough it can only be because the productivity of labour isn’t improving fast enough, so the answer is more micro-economic reform. Not a big help, guys.

The unions say the root cause is that deregulation has robbed organised labour of its bargaining power – and there may be something in that. But Keating’s argument has been that skill-biased technological change has hollowed out the semi-skilled middle of the workforce, with wage increases going disproportionately to the high-skilled, who save more of their income than lower-paid workers.

So Keating wants any budget stimulus to be directed towards the lower-paid, and a lot more spending on all levels of education and training, to help workers adopt and adapt to the digital workplace.

Monday, August 12, 2019

We're edging towards admitting we're in secular stagnation

At least since 2012, Treasury, the Reserve Bank and successive governments have assured us a return to the old normal of strong economic growth, high wages and low unemployment wasn’t far off. But last week big cracks emerged in governor Philip Lowe’s optimistic facade.

In all the years since then, our estimated time of arrival at the promised land has been repeatedly pushed out a year or so. On the face of it, that’s what the Reserve did yet again in its quarterly statement on monetary policy.

Forecast growth in real gross domestic product over the year to December was cut again, to 2.5 per cent (down from a predicted 3.25 per cent last November), but not to worry. By June next year it will have bounced back to trend growth of 2.75 per cent. Happy days.

But that hardly fits with Lowe’s rhetoric during his appearance before the Parliament’s economics committee on Friday. He devoted a surprising amount of time to discussing the Reserve’s possible response in the "unlikely" event that the economy stayed weak.

His own forecasts imply the need for two further rate cuts, taking the official interest rate to just 0.5 per cent.

And if it got to 0.5 per cent, the Reserve would consider some form of "quantitative easing", he said, probably lowering the longer-term risk-free rate of interest by buying government bonds and paying for them simply by crediting the sellers’ accounts at the Reserve (the modern equivalent of "printing money").

What a long way we’ve come from Lowe’s line at the first official rate cut in June. The outlook for the economy was fine, he said then, it was just that the Reserve had redone its sums and realised that, with a bit of extra monetary stimulus, it could get the unemployment rate down to 4.5 per cent without causing any problem with inflation.

Actually, when your look deeper than the latest headline forecast of an early return to trend growth in the economy, you find that, by the end of 2021, wages still wouldn’t be growing any faster than they are now. Happy days?

Larry Summers, eminent academic economist and a former US Treasury secretary, began arguing that the American and other advanced economies were caught in "secular stagnation" – a protracted period of weak growth – in 2013. Since then, many economists have agreed, though they still debate its causes.

So far, however, those naughty, negative SS-words have never crossed the lips of any Treasury or Reserve official, let alone any politician. But on Friday Lowe gave us a detailed account of the phenomenon that’s both the key explanation for, and the main evidence of the existence of, secular stagnation: the amazingly low level of world real interest rates.

"There is a structural thing going on as well, and I think it is really important we understand this. At the moment, right around the world, there is an elevated desire to save and a depressed desire to invest," Lowe said.

"You see a lot of global savings because of demographic factors [population ageing]. There is a lot of saving in Asia [because they don’t have a social security system]. Many people borrowed too much in previous times and now they’re having to repair their balance sheets, so they want to save a bit more [paying off debt is a form of saving].

"There is a lot of desire to save and, right at the moment, not many firms want to invest. The reality we face is that, if a lot of people want to save and not many people want to use those savings to build new [physical] capital, savers are going to get low returns.

"The way the financial system works is that the central banks are the ones who set the interest rates, but we’re really responding to this deep structural shift in the balance between saving and investment right around the world and there’s not much we [central bankers] can do about that."

Just so. Two points. First, the "deep structural shift" began even before the global financial crisis. It’s not just the product of recent worry about a trade war – although that does provide econocrats and politicians with a convenient excuse to shift from their she’ll-be-right rhetoric.

Second, unprecedented low interest rates are a symptom of a deeper problem: aggregate (total) demand is insufficient to take up aggregate supply. That’s why growth is weak and will stay weak until a solution is found.

Where’s the additional demand to come from? Not from lower interest rates, obviously. Which leaves the budget. Now’s the time to rebuild public infrastructure and do other useful things we thought we couldn’t afford.

Anyone who still thinks now’s a good time to run budget surpluses just doesn’t get it. It’s now neither sensible nor possible. Wake up, Josh.

Monday, April 1, 2019

The budget's getting better, but the economy's getting worse

Why would a government that boasts of its superior economic management be entering an election campaign with a budget warning of harder economic times ahead? Because it has no choice.

It will turn this admission of a bleaker economic outlook – with a slowdown in the global economy and, domestically, the risk that falling house prices could further weaken consumer spending – into a warning that now is just the wrong time to turn the economy over to those bunglers in the Labor Party, but this will be making the best of a bad deal.

There’s nothing new about a big give-away pre-election budget, but the budget we’ll see on Tuesday night will be different in several respects. For one thing, it’s not often you get a full budget that’s timed to be the kick-off of a six-week election campaign.

It will be more like an election policy speech than a budget, since none of its measures will have been legislated, let alone put into effect. Unless the Coalition wins, it’s a budget we’ll never hear of again.

For another thing, it’s reasonable to expect that strong economies and strong budgets go together, as do weak economies and weak budgets. The state of economy determines the state of the budget balance.

Not this time. As Deloitte Access Economics’ Chris Richardson has observed, “the economy is getting worse, but the budget is getting better”. Let’s start with the budget.

Politically, this budget is built on a fiction: that its centrepiece, a further round of tax cuts (and possibly one-off cash grants to pensioners) on top of last year’s three-stage, seven-year tax cuts costing $144 billion over 10 years, is the fruit of the government’s success in returning the budget to surplus, not a sign of its political desperation.

In truth, the government’s budgetary record is hardly anything to boast about, particularly when you remember the confident promises it made while in opposition about how quickly and easily it could eliminate “debt and deficit”.

The deficit may be gone, but there's still a lot of debt - which the Coalition seems in no hurry to pay back.

We know the government will budget for a decent surplus in the coming financial year, but it’s so close to balance in the present year that it would take only minor creative accounting to produce a “surprise” surplus a year earlier than promised.

When you remember how close to balance Labor’s Wayne Swan got in 2012-13, however, it’s surprising it’s taken the Coalition all of two terms to get us to where we now are.

You can blame this on lack of political will, but it’s now more apparent than it has been that the delay is a product of the economy’s slowness to recover from the Great Recession we supposedly didn’t have.

Even since Swan’s day, the econocrats – including the Reserve Bank – have each year been forecasting an early return to strong economic growth and a greatly improved budget balance.

And, each year, their forecasts have proved way too optimistic, particularly for a return to strong wage growth. A return to economic business as usual has repeatedly eluded us.

It’s not the econocrats’ fault, it’s the slowness of all of us to realise that the “secular stagnation” that’s dogged the United States and the other advanced economies is also dogging us. But with the economy’s unexpected slowing to growth of just 2.3 per cent over 2018 – or 0.7 per cent when you subtract population growth – it’s now a lot harder not to realise.

Few remember that Tony Abbott’s ill-fated first budget in 2014 was carefully designed to do little to reduce the budget deficit for the first three years because the economy was still too weak withstand a move to contractionary fiscal policy.

The surprising fact is, little has changed in all the years since then. This is the macro-economic justification for Tuesday’s purely politically motivated announcement of further tax cuts. The economy’s still too weak to withstand contractionary fiscal policy as the budget heads into surplusland.

But, in that case, how have we finally got back to surplus? Partly, through surprisingly limited real growth in government spending. But, mainly, through years of bracket creep, the exhaustion of companies’ prior tax losses, more effective anti-avoidance measures and, above all, the good luck of a (probably temporary) recovery in coal and iron ore prices and, thus, mining company profits.

Treasurer Josh Frydenberg will be hoping to convince us the budget improvement is lasting, but the weak economy is temporary. It’s more likely to be the other way round.

Saturday, March 30, 2019

High immigration hiding the economy's long-running weakness

How’s our economy been doing in the five or six years since the Coalition returned to office? In the United States and other advanced economies there’s much talk of “secular stagnation”, but that doesn’t apply to us, surely?

After all, we’re now into our record-setting 28th year of continuous economic growth since the severe recession of the early 1990s. This means that, unlike the others, we escaped the Great Recession that followed the global financial crisis in 2008.

Recent years have seen employment growing strongly and the unemployment rate falling slowly to 5 per cent. And, of course, as Treasurer Josh Frydenberg never fails to remind us when we see the quarterly national accounts, our economy is among the fastest growing of all the rich economies.

So the talk of secular (meaning long-lasting, rather than worldly) stagnation can’t be our problem, can it? Don’t be so sure.

The argument that, since the global crisis, the developed world has fallen into a period of weak growth that looks likely to last quite a few years was first advanced by one of America’s leading economists, Professor Laurence Summers, of Harvard, a former secretary of the US Treasury in the Clinton administration.

He took the term from its earlier use during the Depression of the 1930s, using it to mean “a prolonged period in which satisfactory growth can only be achieved by unsustainable financial conditions”.

The Economist magazine explains that secular stagnation means “the chronically weak growth that comes from having too few investment opportunities to absorb available savings”.

Let me tell you about some comparisons of our performance by decade, calculated by independent economist Saul Eslake in a chapter he contributed to the book, The Wages Crisis in Australia.

In the first eight years of the present decade, consumer spending – which typically accounts for just under 60 per cent of gross domestic product – has been slower than in any decade in the past 60 years.

The major reason for this is that the present decade has seen household disposable income grow at an average real rate of just 2.2 per cent a year, which is less than in any of the previous five decades.

The biggest component of household income is income from wages. Its real growth in the present decade has been slower than in any of the five preceding decades.

So, as I may have mentioned once or twice before, weaker growth in wages seems to be at the heart of weaker consumer spending growth and growth in the economy overall.

But the growth in consumer spending would have been even slower had households not reduced the proportion of their income that they saved rather than spent by 4 percentage points – to its lowest level since before the financial crisis.

The slow growth in wages in the present decade has meant a decline in the share of national income going to wages, which (along with higher mineral commodity prices) has contributed to the higher share of income going to the profits of corporations.

This “gross operating surplus” (which, Eslake says, is roughly equivalent to the sharemarket’s EBITDA – earnings before interest, tax, depreciation and amortisation) has averaged 26.7 per cent of GDP since 2000 – which is 3.5 percentage points more than it did in the 1980s and 1990s.

But this isn’t as good for business as it sounds. Eslake points out that, “while the share of the national-income pie going to corporate profits has increased, the pie itself has been growing at a much slower rate – so much so that the growth rate of corporate profits [as measured by gross operating surplus] has thus far during the current decade been slower than in any decade since the 1970s”.

Since it’s the rate of growth that share investors and business managers focus on, this says even business profits haven’t been doing wonderfully.

Which brings us to the national accounts’ bottom line – growth in real GDP. It’s averaged 2.7 per cent a year so far in this decade, which is less than in any decade since the 1930s.

And get this. More than half the real GDP growth so far this decade is directly attributable to growth in the population. Growth in real GDP per person has averaged 1.1 per cent a year – equal to its performance during the 1930s, and slower that anything we’ve had in between.

Get it? Allow for population growth – so you’re focusing on whether economic growth is actually leaving us better off on average – and our weak growth since the financial crisis becomes even weaker.

If our economic performance seems better than the other advanced economies’, that’s just because our population is growing much faster than theirs.

The symptoms of secular stagnation that other rich countries complain of are: weak growth in consumption and business investment, slow improvement in productivity, only small increases in wages and prices, and interest rates that are low not just because inflation is low, but also because real interest rates are low.

(The long-running slide in real long-term interest rates around the world demonstrates The Economist’s point that, globally, we’re saving more than households, businesses and governments want to borrow.)

We tick all those boxes. Unsurprisingly in our ever-more-connected world, we too are locked into secular stagnation of a seriousness not seen since the 1930s. It’s just that our rapid population growth – plus the ups and downs of the resources boom – has hidden it from us.

I remind you of all this today because it’s highly relevant to Tuesday’s federal budget: what it should be aiming to do, and how we should judge what it does do.