Archive for the Category Australia

 
 

Monetary policy is boring. That’s good.

You’ve probably noticed that I no longer do as many posts on monetary policy.  That’s partly because I put my better posts over at Econlog and partly because there’s currently not much to talk about.  NGDP growth has been in the 3% to 5% range for 9 years, and I see no sign of anything changing in the near future (except perhaps a bit slower NGDP growth after this year, which is currently featuring above 4% growth.)  While boring is bad for me, it’s good for the economy.

Today, interest has turned to the question of when the next recession will occur.  The short answer is the same as always—no one can predict recessions.  But I’d like to talk about the issue anyway, since everyone seems interested in the question.

I’ve recently been catching up on David Beckworth’s podcasts, and listened to a very interesting discussion he had with Michael Darda.  Michael is a market monetarist who works in the investment area, and is known for having an excellent grasp of macroeconomics.  He knows the data quite well and he has a rare ability to interpret macro data correctly.  Lots of people are good at one, but he’s extremely good at both—no doubt partly due to his upbringing in Madison, Wisconsin.
Screen Shot 2018-08-25 at 3.48.02 PMAt one point they began discussing the yield spread, which has been one of the better recession forecasting tools.  I’d like to put in my two cents worth.

As you can see from the following graph, the yield curve often inverts before a recession.  Here it’s important not to over interpret the correlation, as US expansions never last more than 10 years, and yield curves typically don’t invert until well into an expansion, and the lag between inversion and recession varies somewhat over time.  Furthermore, yield curves did not invert before recessions in the 1933-58 period.  Still it’s one of our most reliable forecasting tools.

Screen Shot 2018-08-25 at 2.34.50 PMHere are a few observations:

1.  Over at Econlog, I argued that while the yield spread is pretty good at predicting recessions, it’s much less good at indicating when money is too tight.

2.  It’s possible that the yield spread is reacting to changes in the unemployment rate.  Consider the following hypothesis.  The yield spread gets relatively flat whenever the unemployment rate falls to a level close to the natural rate of unemployment.  Let’s also assume that the unemployment rate falling close to the natural rate is a good predictor of recessions:

Screen Shot 2018-08-25 at 2.32.30 PMIn that case we should be worried, as the unemployment rate has recently fallen to a level that is probably close to the natural rate.

Interestingly, there is one notable case when unemployment falling close to the natural rate did not lead to a recession.  In 1966, unemployment fell to 3.8% and there was no recession until 1970.  But that false signal is equally true of the yield spread, which also inverted in 1966.  Coincidence?

[On the other hand, the natural rate of unemployment is time varying (higher during 1975-95) and hard to measure, which makes the yield spread a better forecasting tool.]

When the unemployment rate is trending lower, it’s rational to expect the expansion to continue.  It may not always continue (consider 1981) but it’s a rational forecast.  And when unemployment is trending lower, the yield spread tends to be positive.  That’s because investors expect the future economy to be stronger than the current economy, and interest rates are highly correlated with the strength of the economy.

Conversely, when unemployment has fallen close to the natural rate, it’s no longer rational to expect lower unemployment in the future.  Indeed it’s quite likely that we’ll soon enter a recession.  That’s why the yield curve gets flat, and sometimes inverts.  In plain English, we never seem to achieve soft landings.  But Australia frequently does, and thus it’s not impossible.  The UK achieved a soft landing in 2001, and hence their 1990s expansion lasted until 2008.  If they can do it, so can we.

Memo to Jerome Powell:  Your mission, should you decide to accept it, is to avoid the hard landings that so often occur, but also avoid the 1966 scenario, where the Fed pulled up too soon, never landed at all, and instead soared off into the Great Inflation.  To do this, you need to avoid an excessively expansionary policy, which sometime triggers the inflation that later causes overly tight policy, and also avoid overly tight policy, which can directly cause a recession.  Let’s see . . . how about 4% expected NGDP growth?

Given that we’ve never had an expansion last for more that 10 years, you might wonder why I expect this one to go beyond a decade.  Well, until 2006-12 we’d never had a housing crash.  Until 2016, we’d never elected a lunatic as President.  Until 2018, we’d never adopted a wildly expansionary fiscal policy during a period of peace and prosperity.  None of those examples have any bearing on how long this expansion will last, rather they show that it’s really common for things to happen that have never happened before in the US.  And notice that other countries have had housing crashes before 2006, and lunatic presidents, and reckless fiscal policies during peace and prosperity.  That’s why I mentioned Australia and the UK (and there are many other such examples.) They provide an important clue that there is no inherent age limit on expansions.

Inductive reasoning can be useful, but must be handled with care.

PS.  The Hypermind NGDP prediction market is currently forecasting 4.8% NGDP growth from 2018:Q1 to 2019:Q1.  However, since the 2nd quarter is already in and growth was quite strong, this implies (annualized) 3.9% NGDP growth from 2018:Q2 to 2019:Q1.  Monetary policy is right on course.

PPS.  Because money is now boring, and my Trump posts are always stupid, please feel free to recommend other topics.  On the other hand, money is the only topic on which I have anything interesting to say.

The RBA as firm and policymaker

Here is the Financial Times:

Australia has created 1m jobs over five years and its economy is growing at a healthy 3.1 per cent a year, but for workers the “lucky country” has lost some of its shine. Wages growth is stuck near record lows and household debt is among the highest in the developed world.

Average wages grew 2.1 per cent in the year to the end of March, below the 3.5 to 4 per cent levels that Australians enjoyed during a decade-long commodities boom that ended in 2013.

This is causing concern at the Reserve Bank of Australia, which has warned that weak household income growth and high debt posed a risk to the economy. “The crisis is really in wage growth,” Philip Lowe, the RBA governor, cautioned last year as he implored workers to demand higher wages to stimulate the economy.

A few comments:

1. Australia has now gone 27 years without a recession, despite wild swings in the markets for its key commodity exports (iron, coal, food, etc.)  So much for the theory that good monetary policy cannot smooth out the business cycle.  So much for the theory that housing bubbles cause economic instability.  So much for the theory that decade after decade of massive current account deficits are a problem. The naysayers have been telling me “you just wait” since I began blogging in early 2009.  I’m still waiting, and the Australian expansion keeps rolling along.

2.  The RBA is confused.  It is concerned about slow nominal wage growth, but it is the RBA itself that determines Aussie nominal wage growth.  If it wants wages to grow faster, then it should raise the Australian NGDP growth rate.

The consequences of low wage growth are not restricted to workers. Mr Lowe, RBA governor, has warned of a cascade effect whereby it contributes to weak inflation, which keeps interest rates at record low levels — a trend that pushes up asset valuations and social inequality.

Weak wage growth also damps spending by households and restricts income tax collection by the government, which is betting on a rapid recovery of wages growth to 3.25 per cent by 2019-20 to meet its pledge to return the budget to surplus.

Nope, low wage growth, low inflation, low interest rates and slow spending are all caused by slow NGDP growth, aka tight money.

It also poses a risk to industrial peace. Last month, Australia stopped printing money for the first time in 107 years due to a strike at Note Printing Australia, a wholly owned subsidiary of the RBA. Workers are demanding a pay rise of at least 3.5 per cent and have rejected an offer of 2 per cent.

“The RBA is lecturing businesses on the need to lift wages but is refusing to offer its own workers a decent raise,” said Tony Piccolo, regional secretary of the Australian Manufacturing Workers’ Union. “Governor Lowe needs to practice what he preaches.”

The RBA is both a firm and a policymaker.  The RBA as policymaker is confused as to why nominal wage growth is so slow.  The business side of the RBA is fully aware of why this is occurring. It’s “the market”, i.e. slow NGDP growth, which is holding down wage growth.

How likely is another Great Recession?

If you only have time for one post today, make it David Beckworth’s very important post showing that the Fed is edging in the direction of level targeting, indeed something not too far away from NGDPLT.

Tyler Cowen recently linked to my previous post:

5. Is another Great Recession just around the corner?  Well, is it?

I’m not sure what qualifies as a “Great Recession”.  I suppose 1893-97, the 1930s, the 1980-82 double dip, and 2007-09 are the most plausible candidates, at least since 1860.  So perhaps once every 40 years or so.

So let’s suppose I’m right that the “housing bubble” did not cause the Great Recession.  In that case, the fact that we are having another housing price boom is not particularly worrisome.  It doesn’t increase the odds of another Great Recession.  So let’s say the odds are roughly 1 in 10 that another Great Recession will occur in the next 4 years, based on past performance.

Can’t we forecast better?  I’m not sure, as the additional information we have cuts both ways.

1. Perhaps the slowness of the recovery makes it more likely that the expansion has more room to run.  Or perhaps we’ve learned something from the previous debacle.  Australia hasn’t had a recession in 27 years; no reason we can’t beat the record of the previous US expansion, which was 10 years.

2.  On the other hand, big recessions are more likely at the zero bound and we are likely to hit the zero bound again in the next recession.  So perhaps another Great Recession is now more likely than usual.

If I had to guess, I’d say point #1 is slightly more persuasive than point #2, but I don’t have a high degree of confidence.  Where I am confident is in stating that the housing bubble did not cause the Great Recession, and thus the current housing price boom (very similar to 2001-06), does not make another Great Recession highly likely in the near future.  Unless I’m mistaken, the bubble-mongers should be predicting another Great Recession in the near future.

PS.  I am amused to see commenters say, “it wasn’t the price bubble, it was blah, blah, blah.”  Deep down they know that the bubble theory is wrong, and they are looking for a way out.  Unfortunately, that’s rewriting history.  At the time, people were saying the problem was the price bubble.  They were saying that those prices were obviously unsustainable.  (Even though Canada, Australia, Britain, New Zealand, etc., did sustain them.) Kevin Erdmann has convincingly shown this “unsustainable” view is wrong, and more importantly he did so long before prices had recovered.  I’d have more sympathy for the other side if in 2012 they had not said “prices were obviously crazy in 2006”, but rather had said, “prices in 2006 might be rational at a given interest rate, and hence if rates stay low and rents keep rising I would expect prices get right back up to bubble levels.”

PPS.  My opponents are like astrologers.  When I say to an astrologer, “OK, lets take data on a million people, based on the sign they were born under, and correlate it with personality data.  It’s an easy test.”  They respond. “It’s more complicated than that, there’s all sorts of other factors to consider.”  Well I’m a Libra, and we don’t believe in those sorts of excuses.

Don’t expect the future to be like the past

Garrett MacDonald directed me to a interesting article by Paul Donovan, chief economist at UBS.

What can we forecast about next year?

Among the many interesting points, this caught my eye:

The ups and downs of the economic cycle may be less violent than they used to be. Recessions are probably less recessionary in the future (see the July Chief Economists comment “Will recessions be less recessionary in the future”).

I often point out that the US business cycle has some very bizarre features:

1.  Expansions never last more than 10 years.

2.  There are no mini-recessions.

The first is bizarre because recessions seem to occur randomly, not according to any fixed cycle.  Expansions do not die of old age.  You’d expect some expansions to just randomly drag on for more than 10 years.  The second is bizarre because you’d expect that whatever process causes recessions (some sort of shock?) would create far more mini-recessions than sizable recessions.  Think about how there are far more small earthquakes than big earthquakes.  Instead, the United States NEVER has mini-recessions, defined as an increase in the unemployment rate of more than 0.8% and less than 2.0%.  That’s just bizarre.  (And even the one 0.8% increase was due to the unusual 1959 nationwide steel strike—normally there is almost no increase in unemployment beyond random noise, unless unemployment soars much higher.)

Before you respond with good reasons why these patterns are not bizarre, I’d like to point out that other countries such as Britain and Australia do have economic expansions that last much more than 10 years, and they do have mini-recessions.  So the US really is a very weird place.  But for some reason American economists don’t seem to pay much attention to this weirdness.

I’m on record as predicting that this will be the longest expansion in history, the first that extends for more than 10 years.  Now I’d like to go on record predicting that we will see some mini-recessions in the next few decades.  I don’t see any reason why we haven’t had them; other countries have them, so why can’t we?

Here’s another interesting point:

Economics can generally predict central bank policy. This is hardly surprising. Central banks – at least, the good central banks – are run by economists.

In the past I’ve argued that economists don’t blame central banks for recessions because central banks follow the consensus of economists, and economists don’t want to blame themselves.

Economists should not make forecasts.

In the past, I’ve argued that good economists don’t forecast, they infer market forecasts.

PS.  Here are 6 British mini-recessions, in each case with the unemployment rate rising by about 1%.

And here are three recent mini-recessions in Australia, in each case with unemployment rising between 1% and 2%:

Off topic:  Did Jesus once say: “Blessed are the beta males: for they shall inherit the earth”?  Scanning the recent news headlines, it almost seems like his prediction is coming true, after 2000 years.

PS.  Here’s an excellent USA Today editorial on Trump. The press has been way too soft on him.

Why Australia hasn’t had a recession in 26 years

In previous posts I pointed out that Australia had avoided recession for 26 years by keeping NGDP growing at a decent clip.  Some commenters suggested that it wasn’t monetary policy; rather Australia was a “lucky country” benefiting from a mining boom.  That theory made no sense, because if your economy depends on highly volatile commodity exports then you should have a more unstable business cycle than countries with large and highly diversified economies.  In any case, recent data completely blows that theory out of the water:

Stephen Kirchner directed me to a very interesting article discussing the views of Warwick McKibbin, who used to be a governor at the Reserve Bank of Australia:

Former Reserve Bank of Australia board member Warwick McKibbin says the world’s central banks should switch to a system of using official interest rates to target nominal income growth to ensure huge household and government debt burdens are unwound safely. . . .

“Inflation has been a good intermediate step because it tied down price expectations and gave people confidence that central banks wouldn’t deflate away their assets,” he will tell a major economics conference in Sydney on Wednesday.

“That’s important when you have high inflation,” as was the case in the 1970s, 1980s and early 1990s.

“But you can still have the same credibility if you do have a very explicit income target, which is really growth plus inflation,” he says.

In Australia, he suggests, that would mean the Reserve Bank would attempt to keep nominal gross domestic product growth – which is essentially a measure of how much the economy is paid for the goods and services it produces – at about 6 per cent.

Australia has a population growth rate of 1.4%, and so there is no question that Australia’s NGDP growth rate should be higher than in the US rate (pop. growth = 0.7%), and much higher than in Japan (falling population).  Nonetheless, I think 6% is a bit high, I’d recommend something closer to 5% for Australia.  On the other hand even 6% would be far better than the sort of policy enacted by the Fed, ECB and BOJ since 2008.

Professor McKibbin, from the Australian National University’s Crawford School, acknowledges that in practice the Reserve Bank already pursues an “ambiguous nominal” income growth target because the formal 2-3 per cent inflation target is only applied “over the cycle”

This supports the claim of various market monetarists, who have suggested that Australia was a covert NGDP level targeter during the Great recession.

I’ve argued that the greatest advantage of NGDP targeting for countries like Japan is that it can reduce the burden of the public debt.  McKibbin makes a similar argument:

“What will matter over coming decades will be nominal income growth because the sustainability of high public and private debt-to-income ratios will need higher nominal income growth than in the past.

Interestingly, even a 6% target would seem to call for monetary tightening right now:

According to his proposed income targeting scheme today’s Reserve Bank cash rate of 1.5 per cent is probably too low given nominal GDP rose in the first quarter by 2.3 per cent from the previous three months, and by 7.7 per cent from a year earlier. “Right now the central bank has probably got loose monetary policy by nominal income standards and you’d expect they’d be tightening policy according to this rule because nominal income growth is rising quite quickly.”

Wait, that can’t be right.  My critics say Australia was just a lucky country benefiting from a mining boom.  It can’t possibly be doing well now that mining investment is collapsing.  Or am I missing something?

The Economist describes how smart countries handle re-allocation out of declining sectors:

As the mining boom petered out, the Reserve Bank cut its benchmark “cash” rate from 4.75% in 2011 to 1.5%. The Australian dollar fell steeply (it is now worth $0.76, compared with a peak of $1.10 six years ago). The cheaper currency and lower interest rates have allowed the older and more populous states of New South Wales and Victoria to keep the economy bustling. Property developers are building more houses, farmers are exporting more food, and foreigners (both students and tourists) are paying more visits: Australia welcomed 1.2m Chinese last year, a record.

Re-allocation doesn’t cause recessions, tight money does.

In the past, I’ve argued that Australia might want to target total compensation of employees, rather than NGDP.  That’s because changes in the price of mineral exports can cause big swings in NGDP, without having much impact on the labor market.  Over the past 12 months, employee compensation in Australia rose by only 1.4%, far below the 7.7% rise in NGDP.  You don’t see those sorts of discrepancies in the US.  So maybe Australia doesn’t need tighter money.

PS.  David Beckworth has a new policy paper on NGDP and the knowledge problem facing policymakers.  As usual, David includes some nice graphics.