Tag Archives: economy

Why the gloomsayers are overdoing it

When national leaders talk up how good things are, it is often taken as a sign that they are about to turn very bad.

So when Barack Obama and Malcolm Turnbull each delivered upbeat speeches in the past week, more than a few pessimists probably took them as vindication of their bleak outlook.

After all, there seems to be plenty to be worried about.

The new year has begun in a flood a red ink on global sharemarkets as China growth fears, weak commodity prices, terrorist attacks and natural disasters have all weighed heavily on investor sentiment.

For those determined in their gloom, the latest update on the Chinese economy suggested additional reason for pessimism. The world’s second largest economy expanded at an annual rate of 6.9 per cent in the last three months of 2015, its the slowest pace in 25 years.

Taken together with the decision by the International Monetary Fund to trim its global growth forecasts for 2016 and 2017 by 0.2 of a percentage point each to 3.4 per cent 3.6 per cent respectively, and the bearish mood would seem to be well founded.

But in striking discordantly upbeat messages about the outlook, Messers Obama and Turnbull are not just handing around warm cups of cocoa.

There are concrete reasons to think the gloom is overblown.

Although a sudden upsurge in economic activity appears as likely as a return by Tony Abbott to the Lodge, there are several pointers – local and international – that suggest optimism is not misplaced.

Most importantly, the US economy – still overwhelmingly the largest in the world – appears well established on a growth path.

If the US Federal Reserve’s much-anticipated interest rate increase late last year did not confirm it, a streak of sustained jobs growth that has seen the unemployment rate halve from 10 to 5 per cent ought to allay doubts.

Yes, many jobs have been part-time or casual, and wage growth is weak. And there are headwinds from the weak oil price, which has kicked the stuffing out of the shale gas industry, and the increasing US dollar, which will weigh on export competitiveness.

But cheaper petrol has also boosted real household income, and the American consumer is back shopping and spending, which in turn is encouraging businesses to hire and invest.

As has been widely recognised for some time now, China is engaged is engaged in a highly challenging phase in its economic and political development.

The investment-led growth model that has powered its expansion for the last 25 years has run its course, and left a massive overhang of excess capacity and troubling debt.

If this was not challenge enough, the central government’s reluctance to loosen its control over the economy is coming back to bite it. As The Economist notes, its current situation of a slowing economy, a semi-fixed currency and increasingly porous capital controls is a volatile combination – if the government loosens monetary policy to boost consumption, it will weaken the currency and encourage even more capital to flow offshore.

Still, the Chinese government has plenty of ammunition if recession threatens – $US3 trillion of foreign exchange reserves and ample room to trim interest rates and devalue the yen.

The gloom about Australia’s prospects is also overstated.

The fall in commodity prices has been steep, but so was their rise. As Rod Sims recently pointed out in The Australian Financial Review, the current dominant market narrative of a “collapse” in commodity prices is underpinned by a short-term view. From a historical perspective, they are more accurately depicted as returning toward their long-term average.

Pessimists also point to soft wages growth and a weakening housing market as causes for concern.

But the country is generating sufficient jobs to edge the unemployment rate lower – it fell to 5.8 per cent in December – setting a firmer base under pay rates and raising the prospect of an eventual consumption-boosting lift in household incomes as spare capacity shrinks.

And although capital gains in housing have slowed as some of the heat has gone out of the property market, sentiment toward buying shows signs of picking up.

On the question of whether now was a good time to buy a dwelling, the Westpac-Melbourne Institute Consumer Sentiment Index found a sharp improvement in mood. The index jumped almost 14 per cent this month to 113 points – the highest reading since May last year and only a little below the level of a year ago.

Westpac chief economist Bill Evans says the reading should be treated with some caution, but nevertheless “ma be signalling some improving optimism in the housing market”.

This interpretation is supported by a jump in house price expectations following a plunge in the second half of 2015.

Late last year, Reserve Bank of Australia Governor Glenn Stevens estimated the economy was “roughly half way” through the decline of resources investment, and a rebalancing in the sources of growth was underway – a process that will be greatly aided by the falling currency.

Economic commentary often exudes an unjustified air of certainty.

But the sharemarket’s current bloodletting, but a focus on this has tended to blot out some of the more positive big picture developments occurring.

This is one of those seemingly rare occasions when it may pay to heed the message of political leaders.

 

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Hackneyed penalty rates debate sells nation short

When politicians and business leaders talk about the need for flexibility, it is usually preceded by the word “labour”, and often comes down to cutting penalty rates, leave arrangements and other worker entitlements.

Which is what makes the contribution by Reserve Bank of Australia Deputy Governor Philip Lowe particularly refreshing.

While Lowe sees a flexible labour market as contributing to the overall adaptability of the economy, it is only but one part of the picture.

Instead, in his speech to the CFA Institute conference, the senior RBA official seen as a front-runner to head the central bank when Glenn Stevens retires, emphasises the importance of a freely-floating exchange rate, financial innovation, robust competition, incentives for innovation and investment in education as critical to the flexibility of the economy.

This is a much broader picture than the current hackneyed focus on industrial relations, and it opens up many more fruitful avenues for action and reform.

The wrongheadedness of the “IR-only” focus underlined by the fact that, by and large, current labour market arrangements seem to be serving the country fairly well.

As Lowe says, during the resources boom there was little spill-over from huge wage increase in the mining sector, while in the subsequent slowdown flexible work hours and weaker wage growth have helped limit unemployment.

“From a cyclical perspective, the labour market has proved to be quite flexible, and things have worked reasonably well,” he says.

In its recent assessment of the nation’s workplace relations, the Productivity Commission similarly thought the IR system was in need of repair, rather than replacement.

“Contrary to perceptions, Australia’s labour market performance and flexibility is relatively good by global standards…Strike activity is low, wages are responsive to economic downturns and there are multiple forms of employment arrangements that offer employees and employers flexible options for working,” the Commission reported.

Not that everything is rosy.

The Productivity Commission was critical of the Fair Work Commission’s “legalistic” approach to award determination, and suggested the need for an “enterprise contract” as a mid-way point between enterprise agreements (unwieldy for small businesses) and individual arrangements. It also said that at the moment it is too easy for employers to dodge punishment for sham contracts and exploiting migrant workers.

But overall the Commission supported, with some caveats, the minimum wage, penalty rates, Australia’s “idiosyncratic” awards system and enterprise bargaining.

Lowe’s speech suggests there are other areas that demand greater attention.

He says maintaining a flexible financial sector will be crucial in ensuring business is able to grab opportunities as they emerge. To achieve this, regulations will have to strike a judicious balance between supporting financial innovation while protecting investors.

Competition policy needs to ensure that businesses harnessing new technologies do not face unfair barriers to entering the market, and that the tax and legal systems – as well as community attitudes – provide incentives for innovation and entrepreneurship.

In education, Lowe says, “continual improvement in our human capital will hold us in good stead”, and has urged the need to strike a balance between developing specific technical and professional skills and encouraging general learning.

Many may quibble about what is on, and not on, Lowe’s list, but it opens things up a much more fruitful debate about what needs to be done to make sure the country is best-placed to take advantage of future opportunities as they arise.

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The case for regulation

Taking unfashionable positions seems to be part of the job description for central bankers.
And the Reserve Bank of Australia was at it again yesterday.
The Abbott Government has been trying to endear itself to the business community by talking up its campaign to slash red tape, headlined by its so-called Repeal Day on March 26, when 10,000 pieces of legislation and regulation were put on the chopping block.
Few would quibble with the move to get the Dried Fruits Export Charges Act 1927, which set a levy of one-eighth of a penny for each pound of dried fruits exported, off the books.
But, as the RBA pointed out in its submission to Financial System Inquiry, the mania to be rid of regulation must have its limits.
Reflecting on the nation’s ability to endure the global financial crisis in much better shape than most other major developed economies, the Reserve Bank said Australia’s “sound prudential framework” had served it well, and saw no need for major change to current arrangements.
Many in the finance sector chafe under what they see as the unfair regulatory burden and capital requirements placed on Australian banks in complying with the terms of the international Basel III rules.
The rules were developed to help reduce the vulnerability of the global financial system to future credit shocks, including by increasing capital adequacy requirements for banks.
While the RBA and APRA are among those who successfully argued for some leeway in applying the new standards to take account of different business models and operating environments, Australian banks have nonetheless – like their overseas counterparts – had to increase the amount of capital on hand to help offset liabilities.
Often, regulation is seen as a dead-weight cost without any perceptible redeeming benefit.
In this it is like investing in education with the aim of boosting national productivity – the upfront cost is all-too apparent, while the pay-off is distant and rather nebulous: you know that a better educated and higher skilled workforce will be more productive, but credibly quantifying the effect is difficult.
That is why there was some benefit out of the gloom caused by the GFC. As the RBA said in its submission, it showed “that the costs imposed by effective regulation and supervision are more than outweighed by the costs of financial instability, even if that differential only usually becomes apparent after prolonged periods”.
That is, financial crises only happen every now and then, but when they do, the insurance of a robust financial system is worth the regular but relatively small cost of regulation.
In keeping with this “nothing good comes for free” theme, the RBA also backs the idea that the banks be charged a fee for the protection to depositors provided under the Financial Claims Scheme.
One of the key lessons the central bank draws from the GFC is that “the financial cycle is still with us”, meaning that risks have to be managed.
In its submission to the inquiry, the RBA made a number of other noteworthy observations and recommendations.
While much attention in recent years has been on competition in the mortgage market, the central bank said competition in small business lending was much weaker and deserved greater attention.
It also warned politicians off the idea of forcing superannuation funds to invest in certain sectors or asset classes, and questioned whether or not the fees and costs charged in managing retirement savings were reasonable.

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Timely warning for home buyers

As fears for the stability of the global financial system continue to ease, the thoughts of a central bank inevitably turn to more home grown concerns.
So it is that the Reserve Bank of Australia has issued a timely reminder to homebuyers that interest rates will not remain at record lows indefinitely.
In its biannual stocktake on the health of the local and international financial system, the Financial Stability Review, the RBA has devoted some attention to developments in the local property market.
This is hardly surprising – as the US sub-prime crisis so spectacularly demonstrated, what goes on in real estate can have explosive and devastating consequences for the rest of the economy.
Low interest rates are usually seen as a good thing (except by those trying to live off interest-bearing investments), but they come with risks.
The longer that rates stay low, the more desperate the competition among lenders for customers, and the greater the temptation for borrowers to increase their debt.
While rates stay low, many borrowers may be comfortable servicing their loan. But, inevitably, rates will rise, and as the financial squeeze increases, an increasing proportion of borrowers may find themselves in over their heads. And if they can’t unload their assets at a price to cover their debt (as can occur when many people simultaneously find themselves in trouble) things can get ugly very quickly.
This is the scenario the RBA is keen to avoid, and explains why it is watching borrowing behaviour and lending practices like a hawk.
It warned in today Review that there are already “indications that some lenders are using less conservative serviceability assessments when determining the amount they will lend to selected borrowers”.
It goes on: “It is important for both investor and owner-occupiers to understand that a cyclical upswing in housing prices when interest rates are low cannot continue indefinitely, and they should therefore account for this in their purchasing decisions.”
In other words, don’t bank on the idea that the recent surge in house prices will be sustained. If you are borrowing to your limit to buy a house, don’t be surprised when interest rates eventually go up, and the price you paid turns out to be at the top of the market.
None of these dangers are in immediate prospect.
The international economic recovery is still in its early days, and subdued local growth means there is little pressure at this stage to inch official interest rates higher.
But, while financial markets don’t expect the RBA to begin tightening monetary policy until at least early next year, the RBA might be tempted to act sooner if it sees a risky build up in household debt.

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When the bank calls, bells start ringing

If, like me, in the last couple of days you’ve had a call from your bank eager to talk about how to they could save you money on your mortgage, you’ve probably twigged that something is up.

Usually they call to flog insurance policies I don’t want, or offer a lift in my credit card limit that I can’t afford.

So to hear them actually prepared to come to the table to strike a cheaper deal on what is one of their core products is an interesting development.

It tells me that their own economists have told them the prospects of an official interest rate rise sometime this year are looking pretty slim.

This is no news to the market, which sees no chance of a rate hike before March next year, and instead is pricing in the possibility of a rate cut.

As RBA Governor Glenn Stevens put it today when announcing the Reserve Bank Board had decided to hold the central bank’s cash rate steady for a seventh consecutive month, “on present indications, the most prudent course is likely to be a period of stability in interest rates”.

It also shows that the field of competition has well and truly shifted from deposits (remember when the interest rate on 3-month deposits reached above 5 per cent? It is now down to around 3 per cent), and the scramble now is to sign up home buyers.

It is pretty clear that at the moment the economy is like a dog on roller skates, desperately trying to gain some traction.

Mr Stevens said that, while consumer demand was “slightly firmer”, and data foreshadowed a “solid expansion” in housing (building approvals jumped 6.8 per cent in January to be up almost 36 per cent from a year earlier), demand for labour is weak and the unemployment rate is likely to rise higher.

Its cause isn’t helped by a Federal Government that at every opportunity thunders about the dire state of the nation’s public finances and hints darkly at the need for painful spending cuts.

In central bank-speak, “public spending is scheduled to be subdued”.

It can’t be doing anything to improve the willingness of businesses to invest. Official figures confirm private capital expenditure has been sliding for the past couple of years, even as profits have grown – gross operating profits were up 107 per cent in the year to the December quarter, yet over the same period private capex fell 5.7 per cent (and spending on plant and equipment plunged more than 16 per cent).

As Mr Stevens put it, resource sector investment is set to decline significantly, while there are only “tentative” signs of improvement in investment intentions in other sectors.

The economy is partly the victim of an unfortunate clash of timing between the business and political cycles.

The incentive for the Abbott Government is to cut hard in its first Budget, giving itself room for vote-enhancing largesse closer to the next election, while the economy could do with some productivity-enhancing infrastructure investment.

Fat hope of that at the moment.

Even more people are likely to be out of work in the coming months, and being able to negotiate a cheaper mortgage is likely to be of little comfort.

 

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Highest unemployment rate in 11 years doesn’t equal interest rate cut

A lift in the unemployment rate to 6 per cent – its highest point in almost 11 years – will surprise no-one.
In fact, the real surprise has probably been that it has taken this long.
In keeping with the trend of previous jobs reports, the Australian Bureau of Statistics has revealed that a further decline in full-time employment occurred in January, this time by 7100 positions, taking the number of Australians employed full-time to 7.95 million – the lowest number in almost two years.
The reason the unemployment rate has jumped to 6 per cent after spending the latter half of 2013 stubbornly stuck around 5.7 and 5.8 per cent is because, perversely, because the number of discouraged job seekers has stabilised.
The participation rate, the proportion of the working age population in the labour force (ie with a job or actively seeking employment), held steady last month at 64.5 per cent.
Amid all the high-profile announcements about factory closures (most notably and immediately, the SPC cannery in Shepparton), few people will be shocked by confirmation that the unemployment rate has increased.
The number of Australians who want to work but haven’t got a job now stands at 728,600 – a jump of almost 17,000 from last December.
But does this mean the Reserve Bank of Australia will put a rate cut back on its agenda?
That appears unlikely.
The central bank had anticipated that the unemployment rate would at some point reach above 6 per cent, so the fact that it has now done so will not be “new news”.
Additionally, inflation has turned out to be stronger than the RBA had anticipated, making it wary about adding further stimulus to the economy.
As noted in a previous post, RBA Governor Glenn Stevens was unusually explicit following the central bank’s February 4 Board meeting about the future course of interest rates.
Usually, like many central banks, the RBA shies away from being too definitive about the future of monetary policy, which is not unreasonable given the fluidity of global economic and financial conditions.
So when Mr Stevens said the most prudent course for the RBA was “a period of stability in interest rates”, it was a clear message to markets not to expect rate cuts – or hikes – any time soon.
An unemployment rate with a ‘6’ in front of it would not appear to change that message.

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Dire MYEFO numbers just political theatre

The manner by which the Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook is being released – a speech by Treasurer Joe Hockey to the National Press Club – tells you all you need to know about what this document is really all about.
For many years now it has been apparent that the main significance of the major Government economic statements, the annual Budget and MYEFO, has been as set pieces of political theatre rather than anything much to do with running the economy.
The days of markets surging or tumbling on Budget forecasts for growth and spending are long gone.
In the hands of Treasurers who were able political operators (think Paul Keating and Peter Costello), Budgets were more about imagery than numbers.
Keating had his emblematic turns of phrase, like “this is the one [Budget] that brings home the bacon”. During the 2000s, Costello delivered a string of Budgets with “surprise” revenue upgrades (to the extent that Treasury’s forecasting abilities became the butt of jokes).
This is how Hockey’s performance today needs to be viewed.
When he bemoans the parlous state of Government finances bequeathed to him by Labor, take it as a piece of political theatre, rather than an unsentimental appraisal of the fiscal position.
As has been extensively telegraphed by the Government through a series of leaks, MYEFO is likely to show the Budget deficit has ballooned out to close to $50 billion – a massive deterioration from the $30.1 billion estimated in the Pre-Election Economic and Fiscal Outlook released in mid-August.
Has the world really become so much darker in the past four months? The short answer is no.
While all the publicity surrounding the departure of Holden and other high profile business problems may have you thinking otherwise, the evidence in fact suggests that things are improving.
Internationally, the US recovery appears to be strengthening, China shows no signs of falling into the hole that many feared, and the euro zone appears to be negotiating the (very) early stages of a recovery.
Domestically, low interest rates are boosting housing activity and the dollar is easing lower. Treasury is basing its gloomier outlook on several developments since PEFO. It says the pick-up in non-mining activity and housing activity is slower than it was expecting, while mining investment has fallen more sharply than anticipated. “As a consequence,” MYEFO says, “employment growth is expected to remain subdued, and wage growth is forecast to remain well below trend.” This in turn will mean households hold back on their spending, restraining growth. All quite plausible.

But as Treasury itself admits, “nominal GDP growth forecasts carry with them additional uncertainty. The 70 per cent confidence interval for average annual nominal GDP growth over the forecast period ranges from 2 per cent to 5 per cent”. That is a not-insignificant range.

The economy’s transition away from mining investment-led growth to other supports for activity remains hesitant, and the speed with which other sources of growth develop is uncertain. But there is evidence that consumers and businesses hare shedding the funk that has held back spending and investment (excepting resources) ever since the GFC.
But the political story line Hockey wants to outline begins with Australia under Labor being driven into the ground. Queue forbidding music, dark skies and storm-lashed seas.
Over coming years, the narrative will go, the storm clouds will gradually dissipate, and at some yet-to-be-determined point in the future (though possibly in the months before the next Federal election) the first rays of economic sunshine will pierce the gloom, and the Coalition will be able to assure voters is has the country on track.
It is all a piece of political alchemy.
The fact is, in recent weeks, Treasury will have presented Hockey with a range of forecasts for nominal GDP (and hence, revenue) that range from the optimistic to the pessimistic, depending on various scenarios regarding developments in international economic conditions, the exchange rate, commodity prices, the rate of slowdown in mining investment and the speed of improvement in activity in other parts of the economy.
For his political purposes, Hockey has plumped for the worst-case scenario of soft growth and weak revenue flows.
This is not to say that Treasury has ‘invented’ the numbers to suit the Government’s political agenda – the forecasts are plausible and justifiable.
But they are just part of a range of possible outcomes, as Treasury itself explains in Attachments A and B in Part 3 of MYEFO.

On page 57, Treasury publishes a chart (Chart 3.9) indicating that “there is notable uncertainty around receipt forecasts and that this uncertainty increases over the estimates period”. For 2013-14, the 70 per cent confidence interval is a range of $20 billion and, at 90 per cent confidence interval, it is $30 billion.

Treasury is similarly cautious about its forecasts for the underlying cash balance (Chart 3.11, p58). The 70 per cent confidence interval for its 2013-14 forecast is $25 billion, and at 90 per cent it is $40 billion.

What the Coalition is doing with the Treasury numbers is nothing new. In the same way, for several years in a row, Labor Budgets contained projections for growth and revenue (particularly earnings from the mining tax) that were much more optimistic than many thought probable, because they supported the-then Government’s political goal of achieving a surplus in a set period.
Don’t get me wrong – Government spending is a problem. But the Coalition so far is taking the same Magic Pudding approach to public finances as Labor.
The current game of deficit/surplus one-upmanship between the major political parties is tiresome and empty.
It will only mean something when there is recognition of the much more important issue (as Rob Burgess highlights in Business Spectator today) of the structural position of the Budget.
The Parliamentary Budget Office forecasts the Budget to be in structural deficit until at least 2016-17, and thought bubbles like the Coalition’s ‘Direct Action’ climate change policy and its over-the-top paid parental leave scheme suggest the Government has no more appetite to tackle the problem than Labor ever did.

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