The recession we do not need to have
Updated: May 1, 2020
The Reserve Bank is widely expected to cut interest rates today. The economy is facing such a grim future that one can support such an outcome. But no-one, not even the Reserve Bank, is facing the main problem facing Australia, which is double-digit cost disequilibrium - a severe lack of international competitiveness.
Just like Treasury's failure to be ahead of the curve in forecasting, the Reserve Bank's apparent failure to understand our most important economic problem is bad news for all Australians. Paul Keating spoke (after the event of course) about 'the recession we had to have'. The severity of the 1990-91 recession (with double-digit unemployment) was entirely due to mistakes by key officials, and Mr Keating himself, but at least the then Treasurer eventually recognised the mistakes and tried to remedy them.
Now the nation's leaders are walking unknowingly into a new economic crisis, ironically just as other developed nations are showing signs of recovery. Warnings have been sounded, and not just by this writer, and the only excuse for the steady tramp into recession is the insularity and self-congratulatory hubris of successive ministers and officials, especially those in Treasury.
Where is the Westminster tradition of strong, independent advice? Treasury (and the Reserve Bank) has many excellent and dedicated economists. Have relevant warnings been ignored, or have the fine economists effectively been nobbled? Fear that the messenger will be shot is a powerful nobbling device.
I will not repeat the various grim facts about the state of Australia's economy as these were laid out in last month's column. Why is Australia headed for a grim recession, and why will it be seen by historians as a recession we did not need to have?
The short answer is that Australians have been enjoying the largest investment and export boom we shall ever experience. The prices of our exports have rocketed and the wealth has been spread about, not least because of Mr Keating's national superannuation plan. However, in retrospect, national savings were not raised sufficiently, despite Treasurer Costello's Future Fund and paying down the national debt bequeathed Australia by the Hawke-Keating Governments.
In retrospect, The Howard-Costello Government failed to encourage saving sufficiently, as it could have done by spending less, introducing tax incentives to save and creating a Sovereign Wealth Fund modelled on Norway's highly successful fund of this sort. Our most recent conservative government was brave when it introduced its radical WorkChoices legislation, which helped create jobs, especially in small business, but failed to sell this to the voters. A pity, as the record of real wage increases and employment growth under this legislation is simply stunning.
The Rudd-Swan Government faced the harsh reality of a global recession and, advised by a deeply Keynesian Treasury, responded with handouts, vainglorious spending, including the National Broadband scheme. The struggle against global warming added further spending and confusion. WorkChoices was junked, and regulationist zeal was high among the priorities of the Rudd-Swan government. When Gillard replaced Rudd in an ugly coup, the spending continued. All worthy causes - education, health, helping the disabled, ... , you name it, we've got it, but only affordable on the proposed scale if the China boom was going to continue at double-digit speed forever.
Treasury (and RBA) forecasts at first failed to allow for the strength of the boom and when it turned forecasts failed to be recalibrated down sufficiently. Finally in quick succession have come a series of forecasting snafus; budget deficit upgraded, growth predictions reduced and unemployment hiked, still too little, too late, but that is the way of things with traditional incremental approaches to the dark arts involved in trying to predict the future.
RBA Chief Glenn Stevens seems, based on the evidence of his latest speech, still in apparent denial. He rehearses the state of play in the world economy and in the outlook for various source of demand in Australia's economy. Prudent households are saving. Nervous firms are reducing investment and hiring plans - and he notes that political uncertainty is fuelling that particular bonfire. Global growth is still subdued, and China's growth may fall still further. This is an essentially Keynesian analysis.
Not a word from Mr Stevens about Australia's double-digit cost disequilibrium. This is surely not because Stevens fails to recognise the problem, more likely because doing so would throw a spotlight on the major dilemma facing the Reserve. Cutting rates further will relieve cost pressures for some, but will do nothing to reduce, and may worsen, Australia's generally high cost structure relative to competitor nations.
Put crudely, Australia has pissed the proceeds of the mining boom up against a wall of gullible voter expectation. In the process, mining companies allowed their cost bases to expand to unsustainable levels. Cost bases expanded in sympathy in the non-mining parts of the economy in a climate of easier than desirable monetary policy and encouraged by those vainglorious spending programs of the Rudd and Gillard Governments.
Restoring Australia's economy to robust health will require massive effort by all Australians. The budget must be restored to a point where it has a sustainable balance, that is a balance over the course of the conceivable ups and downs of the global and local economies. Ideally there will also be a return to sustainable budget surpluses, but that is for a future government to consider when the basic repair work has been undertaken. Tax reform is needed to improve incentives and enable elimination of the many nuisance taxes that cost so much to administer. Regulations generally must be slashed, and labour market regulations revamped, to give owners of small business encouragement to create sustainable jobs.
We voters, gentle readers, soon will need to decide which team is more likely to implement necessary reform. One hopes the election campaign now underway includes sober recognition by each team of the deep trouble we are in. Unsustainable budgets, highly uncompetitive industries and struggling small businesses of every variety must be recognised. The Australian public is not stupid, and the more credible economic case should deliver strong majority government.
Published today in The Australian.