Archive for the Category Australia


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.


The Complacent Century

Looking backwards, it’s possible to see a number of turning points in the political zeitgeist.  America moved toward (left wing) liberalism around 1964, then swung back toward (right wing) neoliberalism in the late 1970s, and then toward nationalism in recent years.  And these were worldwide trends, with nationalism also on the rise in Europe, Russia, Turkey, India, China, Japan, and many other places.

Tyler Cowen pointed me to an article that suggests another turning point, which many people missed at the time.  The new millennium ushered in an Age of Complacency:

The eminent political economist Ross Garnaut says the Great Australian Complacency, as he calls it, took hold of the political system from 2000. This locates it halfway through the Howard era.

How can he be so specific? Because, after John Howard and Peter Costello enacted their landmark reform of the tax system in 2000, they lost interest in further reform, on Garnaut’s reckoning.

And this marked the end of not only Howard-Costello reforms but an entire generation of near-continuous reform efforts that started in the years of the Hawke-Keating governments.

As is so often the case, people put far too much weight on specific local factors when thinking about these changes.  Thus America’s move toward liberalism was not triggered by the Kennedy assassination, nor was the neoliberal era triggered by the elections of Thatcher and Reagan.  These were worldwide trends.

The Aussies have done very well in recent decades, and have a right to be complacent.  But the same thing happened in the US.  Here is government spending as a share of GDP, which rose sharply after 2000:

I know what you are going to say; “That’s due to special factors—G/GDP rose due to the 2001 recession and 9/11.

There is some truth in that, but it’s not the whole story.  G/GDP did not fall back when we recovered from the recession.  And indeed both Bush and Gore were promising bigger government than Clinton—the country was getting tired of neoliberalism by 2000.  Soon we would have Sarbanes-Oxley, a big new Federal education program, and a massive expansion of Medicare.  And that was under a GOP President—once Obama took office we moved even further towards big government.  And yet if you read pundits on the left all you hear about is endless “austerity”, which is nowhere to be seen in the data.

The UK was not hit by recession in 2001, nor was it impacted by 9/11.  But at almost exactly the same time the Labour Party got tired of austerity, and began rapidly boosting government spending:

You need a trained eye to read these graphs properly.  The G/GDP ratio usually tends to be somewhat countercyclical, rising during recessions and falling during booms. The sharp rise in the UK’s G/GDP ratio after 2000 was an exception, and is a tell tale sign that fiscal policy was dangerously out of control.

This might suggest that neoliberal reforms require economic distress, so that the public will see the need for changes.  But of course the economic distress of the 1930s led to the exact opposite—the rise of statism.

Rather, it seems that neoliberal reforms require both economic distress and a perception that the problem is caused by bad government policies.  The stagflation of the 1970s is one example.

Neoliberal reforms can also be triggered when countries are doing poorly relative to their neighbors.  Thus back in 2004 the Germans compared their 11% unemployment rate with the 5% rate in the UK, and concluded that excessively high labor costs were the problem.  This led to one of the last successful policy reforms of the neoliberal era.  Today, those amazingly successful reforms are politically unpopular in Germany

PS.  Over at Econlog I comment on the two (rumored) new Fed picks.