Sunday, June 30, 2019

2019-20 Economic Survey. Buckle up: economy weak and heading down, and that's ahead of surprises

During the election we were promised jobs and growth. But in 2019-20 The Conversation’s forecasting panel is predicting an economic growth rate as weak as any since the financial crisis, as well as dismal consumer spending, no improvement in unemployment or wage growth, and an increased chance of recession.

As in January, The Conversation has assembled a forecasting panel of 20 leading economists from 12 universities across six states. Among them are macroeconomists, economic modellers, former Treasury, IMF, OECD and Reserve Bank officials, a former government minister and a former member of the Reserve Bank board.

Whereas in January only three members of the 20-person panel expected the Reserve Bank to cut interest rates, and most expected an economic growth rate approaching 3% (which is the Treasury’s estimate of the best that can be achieved on a sustained basis), this time all but two expect the bank to cut again, and most expect a growth rate closer to 2% – one of the most anaemic since the financial crisis.

Read more: No surplus, no share market growth, no lift in wage growth. Economic survey points to bleaker times post-election

On the upside, the panel expects iron ore prices to stay higher for longer than did the budget, it expects home prices to stabilise, and it is predicting the lowest government bond rate on record, making it cheaper than ever before for the government to borrow and spend its way out of trouble.

The panel predicts a surplus in name only in 2019-20, and overwhelmingly believes the government should be prepared to abandon it if it has to in order to keep the economy growing.

Economic growth

The panel’s average forecast for year-on-year growth is 2.1%. Year-on-year growth is the measure used in the budget. It compares economic activity throughout all of one financial year with activity throughout all of the previous financial year. The budget forecast for 2019-20 is 2.75%.

Respected forecasters including former Reserve Bank board member Warwick McKibbin and former OECD director Adrian Blundell-Wignall expect much lower growth than 2.1%. McKibbin expects 1.8%; Blundell-Wignall expects 1.5%. Only three of the panel’s 20 forecasts are close to Treasury’s. The rest are lower.

Some panellists submitted forecasts for Chinese economic growth under sufferance. They made it clear they were forecasting “official” growth, not actual growth which they think is much lower. Even so, most expect official growth to slow as the trade war between the United States and China intensifies. Nigel Stapledon says unless it is reined in (and he thinks it will be) it could bring on recessions.

Other panellists including Rebecca Cassells say the impact of US tariffs on Chinese goods has so far been positive for Australia. China has responded by investing in infrastructure projects that need Australian iron ore and coal. This, together with reduced competition from other suppliers of iron ore after the collapse of a tailings dam and mine closures in Brazil, has lifted the price and volume of Australian exports to levels not seen for some time.

The panel expects robust United States growth of 2.6% in 2019, although many members are concerned about the year that will follow. The only panellist to forecast low US growth in this year (1%) is Blundell-Wignall, who until last year analysed world economies in his role as special advisor to the OECD secretary general.

Living standards

Jobs growth will disappoint both the Treasury, which has forecast unemployment of 5% by the end of the financial year, and Reserve Bank Governor Philip Lowe, who has adopted a target of “4 point something”.

All but three of the 20-person panel expect the rate to stay above 5%. The average forecast is 5.3%, which is close to the present 5.2%.

Stapledon says Australia’s recent strong employment growth has been “out of kilter” with slower GDP growth and the winding down of housing construction, meaning jobs growth is set to slow down, pushing up unemployment.

Brendan Coates says underemployment is also climbing as more people work fewer hours than they would like, making it harder for them to push for wage rises. Rebecca Cassells points out that full-time employment has grown almost twice as fast among women than men, which, given the low rates of pay in the industries that traditionally employ women, is likely to further depress average wages.

The headline measure of living standards, GDP per capita, has been falling, but a better measure, real net disposable income per capita, which takes better account of buying power, has been continuing to climb. The panel expected to climb a further 1% over the year to June 2020, after climbing 1.3% in the year to March.

Nominal GDP, which takes full account of mining revenue and drives company profits and the budget revenue, has grown 5% over the past year and is expected to grow 3% in the year ahead.

The risk of recession

The panel regards a recession as more likely than it did in January, assigning a 29% probability to a conventionally defined recession in the next two years, up from 25%.

Economic modeller Janine Dixon says the bulk of Australia’s recent economic growth has come from higher commodity prices via exports.

She says without them, Australia would be reliant on weak wage and consumption growth, although she believes high population growth will be enough to ensure economic activity doesn’t shrink for two consecutive quarters which would be the conventional definition of a recession.

Former Treasury and ANZ Bank economist Warren Hogan says with consumers tightening their belts, an external shock could easily knock Australia into a recession.

Julie Toth, an economist at the Australian Industry Group who has also worked for the Productivity Commission, says with growth already low, it won’t take much to turn it negative.

Debt theorist Steve Keen, who assigns a 95% probability a recession (as he did in January) says Australia escaped that fate during the global financial crisis in part by boosting grants to first home buyers, which made Australian households among the most indebted in the world and “put off the day of reckoning” when those debts would be unwound.

Through a mix of good luck and good management, Australia has avoided a recession during three global downturns since the early 1990s: the 1997 Asian economic crisis, the early 2000s dotcom collapse, and the 2007-09 global financial crisis. If it succeeds again it will enter its fourth decade recession-free in this term of government in mid-2021.

Wages and prices

The panel expects continued historically wage growth of only 2.2% in 2019-20, slightly weaker than the latest reading of 2.3% and well short of the budget forecast of 2.75%. If that average forecast is right, it will be the seventh consecutive year in which wage growth has fallen short of the budget forecast.

The good news (for wage earners) is that even that unusually low rate of wage growth would be well above the rate of inflation, which is expected to be only 1.5%, or 1.4% on the so-called “underlying” basis watched closely by the Reserve Bank.

The bad news for the Reserve Bank is that it will put inflation well outside the bank’s target band of 2-3% for the fifth consecutive year, raising questions about whether there is any point to the band.

For years now, inflation has mostly been below the band. ABS 6401.0

Mark Crosby, Warren Hogan and Adrian Blundell-Wignall suggest broadening the target band to 1-3%. Tony Makin and Nigel Stapledon suggest cutting it to 1-2%.

Richard Holden and Warwick McKibbin suggest ditching it altogether and replacing it with a target for nominal GDP growth. McKibbin suggests a nominal GDP target of 6%, which given the present forecast for weaker nominal GDP growth would mean interest rate cuts. In better times it would mean rate rises.

Chris Edmond and Craig Emerson defend the 2-3% inflation target saying that what is really concerning is the bank’s preparedness to stay beneath the target band for extended periods.

Home prices

The panel expects only modest falls in Sydney and Melbourne house prices of 2-3% in each city after falls of 10% over the past year. It is more optimistic on home building than is the Treasury, expecting housing investment to fall by 4.9% rather than the budget forecast of 7%.


None of the panellists expects household spending to grow by the 2.75% forecast in the budget. On average, the panel expects spending growth of just 1.9% in 2019-20, which is little better than the present 1.8% and only few points above population growth.

Janine Dixon blames continuing weak growth in wages and incomes. Nigel Stapledon says much of it flows from the weaker housing market. Household furnishings drive household spending growth. Household spending drives GDP growth, accounting for more than half of it.

In better news, the panel expects mining investment to rebound after sliding for most of the last five years. Its forecasts of growth in mining investment of 4.4%, and growth in non-mining investment of 4%, are in line with budget forecasts.

Interest rates and the budget

Perhaps surprisingly given its forecasts for weak employment growth, weak economic growth and weak inflation, the panel’s average forecast for interest rates is for just one more cut, perhaps as soon as July 2, but some time in the second half of the year.

Only five panellists expect a followup cut in the first half of next year, but among them are Craig Emerson, Richard Holden and Steve Keen, who were the only three to correctly) forecast in January that there would be a rate cut at all this year.

Holden expects two further rate cuts in the second half of this year, taking the Reserve Bank cash rate to 0.75%, and then a further two in the first half of next year, taking it to just 0.25%. Keen expects one further cut on the second half of this year and another two in the first half of next year, taking it to 0.5%.

Warwick McKibbin is the only panellist expecting the Reserve Bank to change course, expecting one further cut this year and then a series of increases as ballooning debt makes the Reserve Bank and other central banks realise they cut too far, pushing the cash rate back up to 1.5%.

The panel expects a government 10-year borrowing rate of just 1.5%, which is about the lowest it has ever been. A year ago the 10-year bond rate was 2.7%. The ultra low rate will both make it easier for the government to borrow and cut the cost of servicing its existing debt as loans are rolled over.

In further good news for the budget, the panel expects a substantially higher spot iron ore price than does the government, of US$95 a tonne by mid next year instead of the fall to US$55 assumed by the Treasury.

The forecast is somewhat above the Department of Industry’s new July forecast of US$95 a tonne by the end of this year trending down to US$61 by the end of 2020, but are way in excess what was forecast in the budget. A sensitivity analysis included in the budget said that for every US$10 that the iron ore price was higher than budgeted, the government’s tax take would be A$1.1 billion higher in 2019-20 and A$3.7 billion higher in 2020-21.

The panel expects the Australian dollar to remain broadly where it is at just below 70 US cents as the upward push from strong commodity prices offsets the downward push from domestic economic weakness.

Yet despite the iron ore price and lower borrowing costs the panel expects a much weaker budget outcome than the A$7.1 billion surplus forecast in April.

Its average forecast is for a surplus of only $1.7 billion, which is a mere sliver of GDP (0.1%), practically indistinguishable from a deficit of the same amount.

The forecasts come after Finance Department figures for May released on Friday raised the possibility of an early return to surplus in 2018-19. They suggest that surplus is at risk in 2019-20 and beyond, both because of economic weakness and an because of an increasingly urgent need to respond to that weakness through spending or further tax cuts.

Asked whether should the government strive to continue to deliver its promise of a surplus if economic growth remains weak or weakens further, former OECD director Adrian Blundell-Wignall replied bluntly, “of course not”.

The only panellists prepared to defend the continued pursuit of a surplus in the economy remained weak or weakened were Ross Guest, who said it was a worthwhile aim given the steady rise in government debt to GDP ratio, and Tony Makin, who qualified his reply by saying the surplus should be achieved by pruning unproductive expenditure such as industry assistance rather than deferring tax cuts.

Former government minister Craig Emerson regretfully forecast that the government would deliver a surplus whatever the economic circumstances, for political reasons.


The Age and Sydney Morning Herald did not conduct a 2019-20 economic survey.

The Conversation 2019-20 Forecasting Panel

Click on economist to see full profile. Forecasts as of June 24, 2019.

The Conversation

Peter Martin, Visiting Fellow, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University

Wes Mountain/The Conversation, CC BY-ND

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


Tuesday, June 04, 2019

The Reserve Bank will cut rates again and again, until we lift spending and push up prices

The Reserve Bank cut interest rates on Tuesday because we aren’t spending or pushing up prices at anything like the rate it would like. And things are even worse than it might have realised.

As the board met in Martin Place in Sydney, in Canberra at 11.30 am the Bureau of Statistics released details of retail spending in April, one month beyond the March quarter figures the bank was using to make its decision.

They show the dollars spent in shops fell in April, slipping 0.1%, notwithstanding weakly growing prices and a more strongly growing population.

The March quarter figures the board was looking at were adjusted for prices. They show that the volume of goods and services bought, but not the amount paid for them, fell in seasonally adjusted terms during the March quarter.

Adjusted for population, the volume bought would have fallen further.

We’ll know more on Wednesday

The Bureau of Statistics will release population-adjusted figures as part of the national accounts on Wednesday.

The figures for the September quarter show that income and spending per person barely grew. The figures for the December quarter show income and spending per person fell.

A second fall in the March quarter will mean two in a row – what some people call a per capita recession.

Australian National Accounts

Even unadjusted for population, economic growth is dismal.

During the September and December quarters the economy grew just 0.3% and 0.2% – an annualised rate of just 1%.

That’s well short of the 2.75% the treasury believes we are capable of, and the lower than normal 2.25% it has forecast for the year to June.

Australian National Accounts

We’ve been doing it by ourselves. As Reserve Bank Governor Philip Lowe said in announcing the rates decision on Tuesday:

The main domestic uncertainty continues to be the outlook for household consumption, which is being affected by a protracted period of low income growth and declining housing prices.

The bank wants both inflation and employment higher, and it wants us to spend more in order to do it. Lower rates should help, although not for everybody.

Lowe acknowledged this in a speech to a Sydney business audience on Tuesday night, but he said households paid two dollars in interest for every one dollar of interest they received. So while rate cuts hurt savers, they benefit borrowers by more, and over time should benefit all households by boosting the economy. They also drive the dollar lower, making Australian businesses more competitive.

Tuesday’s cut should free up an extra A$60 a month for a typical mortgage holder. Another one will free up a total of A$120.

It’s not much, and there’s doubt about whether it will do much, but interest rates are about the only tool the Reserve Bank has.

It is required by its agreement with the government to aim for an inflation rate of between 2% and 3%, “on average, over time”.

Reserve Bank of Australia

Uncomfortably for Governor Lowe, underlying inflation (abstracting from unusual moves which are quickly reversed) has been below 2% ever since he was appointed governor in late 2016.

Explaining his push for higher inflation to a business audience in Sydney on Tuesday night he said that while adherence to the target was intended to be flexible, that flexibility was “not boundless”.

If inflation stays too low for too long, it is possible that inflation expectations move lower – that Australians come to expect sub-2% inflation on an ongoing basis. If this were to happen, it would be harder to achieve the medium term inflation goal. So we need to guard against this possibility.

He is also required to aim for full employment.

He told the business audience that while for some years the bank and others had thought full employment meant an unemployment rate of 5%, the absence of inflation at 5% and the persistence of underemployment (where people wanted more hours) meant it could and should go lower.

Our judgement now is that we can do better than this – that we can sustain an unemployment rate of 4 point something.

Lower interest rates should help by making it easier for businesses to borrow to expand, and giving consumers something in their pockets to buy from them.

If you don’t succeed…

If that doesn’t happen, the bank will cut again.

Tuesday’s statement as good as said so:

The board will continue to monitor developments in the labour market closely and adjust monetary policy to support sustainable growth in the economy and the achievement of the inflation target over time.

Tuesday’s cut and the next will take the bank into uncharted waters, where its so-called cash rate – what it pays to banks to deposit money with it overnight – is close to zero.

As far as can be discerned it has never been that low in the 100+ years the Reserve Bank has been in operation, originally as the Commonwealth Bank of Australia.

Reserve Bank cash rate since 1990
Reserve Bank of Australia

Should inflation still not pick up and employment still not fall as far as it believes it could, it will have to effectively cut its cash rate below zero, forcing cash into the hands of banks by aggressively buying government bonds, giving them little choice but to lend it to households and businesses, in a process known as quantitative easing. It has been done in the United States, Europe, the United Kingdom and Japan, and is by now anything but unconventional.

Governor Lowe would prefer the government to pull its weight by cutting tax and boosting spending, especially on infrastructure, and by policies that make Australia more productive.

He said so on Tuesday night

the best approach to delivering lower unemployment and a stronger economy is through structural policies that support firms expanding, investing, innovating and employing people. As we ease monetary policy, it is in the country’s interest that other policy options are considered too.

Treasurer Josh Frydenberg gets it.

He pointed out on Tuesday that the yet-to-be-approved tax offsets in the budget will give Australians on up to A$126,000 a cash bonus of up to A$1,080 when they submit this year’s tax return, far more than the rate cut.

His biggest concern, and the biggest concern of the governor, might be that they don’t spend it. Another concern would be that the banks don’t pass the rate cut on.

The ANZ has said it will only cut mortgage rates by 0.18 points instead of the full 0.25, a decision Frydenberg said “let down” customers. Westpac has cut by only 0.20 points. The National Australia and Commonwealth banks have passed on the cut in full.

On Tuesday night in Sydney Governor Lowe addressed the question of whether the banks should have passed on the full cut head on:

My usual practice in answering this question has been to explain that there are a range of other factors that influence mortgage pricing, and then say “it all depends”.

Today, though, I would like to break with my usual practice and provide a clearer answer. And that is: Yes. There has been a substantial reduction in the cost of banks raising funds in wholesale markets. Average rates on retail deposits have also come down.

This means that the lower cash rate should be fully passed through into standard variable mortgage rates. Full pass-through would also mean that the economy receives the full benefit of today’s policy decision.

The Governor is concerned that, for their own reasons, lenders such as ANZ and Westpac are forcing him to cut rates lower than he should and making an already difficult job harder.

If he has to cut further he will, but with the cash rate at just 1.25%, he would dearly love not to have to.

Reserve Bank of Australia

Read more: Cutting interest rates is just the start. It's about to become much, much easier to borrow The Conversation

Peter Martin, Visiting Fellow, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.