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Whatever decision the Reserve Bank board makes about interest rates at its meeting tomorrow morning – departing governor Dr Philip Lowe’s second-last – the stronger case is for no increase. Indeed, I agree with those business economists saying we’ve probably had too many increases already.
Consumer spending is slowing as inflation and interest rates hit shoppers.Credit: Dion Georgopoulos
If so – and I hope I’m wrong – we’ll miss the “narrow path” to the sought-after “soft landing” and hit the ground with a bang. We’ll have the recession we didn’t have to have. (That’s where recession is measured not the lazy, mindless way – two successive quarters of “negative growth” – but the sensible way: a big rise in unemployment over just a year or so.)
For those too young to know why recessions are dreaded, it’s not what happens to gross domestic product that matters (it’s just a sign of the looming disaster) but what happens to people: lots of them lose their jobs, those leaving education can’t find decent jobs, and some businesses collapse.
Market economists usually focus on guessing what the Reserve will do, not saying what it should do. (That’s because they’re paid to advise their bank’s money-market traders, who are paid to lay bets on what the Reserve will do.)
That’s why it’s so notable to see people such as Deloitte Access Economics’ Stephen Smith and AMP’s Dr Shane Oliver saying the Reserve has already increased interest rates too far.
Last week’s consumer price index for the June quarter gave us strong evidence that the rate of inflation is well on the way down. After peaking at 7.8 per cent over the year to December, it’s down to 6 per cent over the year to June.
As we’ve been told repeatedly, this was “less than expected”. Yes, but by whom? Usually, the answer is: by economists in the money markets. Here’s a tip: what money-market economists were forecasting is of little interest to anyone but them.
That almost always proves what we already know: economists are hopeless at forecasting the economy. Even after the fact, and just a week before we all know the truth. No, the only expectation that matters is what the Reserve was expecting. Why? Because it’s the economist with its hand on the interest-rate lever.
So, it does matter that the Reserve was expecting annual inflation of 6.3 per cent. That is, inflation’s coming down faster than it thought. Back to the drawing board.
The Reserve takes much notice of its preferred measure of “underlying” inflation. It’s down to 5.9 per cent. But when the economy’s speeding up or slowing down, the latest annual change contains a lot of historical baggage.
This is why the Americans focus not on the annual rate of change, but the “annualised” (made annual) rate, which you get by compounding the quarterly change (or, if you can’t remember the compounding formula, by multiplying the number by four).
Have you heard all the people saying, “oh, but 6 per cent is still way above the target of 2 to 3 per cent”? Well, if you annualise the most recent information we have, that prices rose by 0.8 per cent in the June quarter, you get 3.3 per cent. Clearly, we’re making big progress.
But the next time someone tells you we’re still way above the target, ask them if they’ve ever heard of “lags”. Central Banking 101 says that monetary policy (fiddling with interest rates) takes a year or more to have its full effect, first on economic activity (growth in gross domestic product and, particularly, consumer spending), then on the rate at which prices are rising. What’s more, the length of the lag (delay) can vary.
This is why central bankers are supposed to remember that, if you keep raising rates until you’re certain you’ve done enough to get inflation down where you want it, you can be certain you’ve done too much. Expect a hard landing, not a soft one.
Since the road to lower inflation runs via slower growth in economic activity, remember this: the national accounts show real GDP slowing to growth of 0.2 per cent in the March quarter, with growth in consumer spending also slowing to 0.2 per cent.
For those too young to know why recessions are dreaded, it’s not what happens to gross domestic product that matters (it’s just a sign of the looming disaster) but what happens to people: lots of them lose their jobs.
How much slower would you like it to get?
The next weak argument for a further rate rise is: “the labour market’s still tight”. The figures for the month of June showed the rate of unemployment still stuck at a 50-year low of 3.5 per cent, with employment growing by 32,600.
But the nation’s top expert on the jobs figures is Melbourne University’s Professor Jeff Borland. He notes that, in the nine months to August last year, employment grew by an average of 55,000 a month – about double the rate pre-pandemic.
Since August, however, it’s grown by an average of 35,600 a month. Sounds like a less-tight labour market to me.
And Borland makes a further point. Whereas the employment figures measure filled jobs, the actual number of jobs can be thought of as filled jobs plus vacant jobs – which tells us how much work employers want done.
This is a better indicator of how “tight” the labour market is. And, because vacancies are falling, the growth in total jobs has slowed much faster. Since the middle of last year, part of the growth in employment has come from reducing the stock of vacancies.
Another thing the Reserve (and its money-market urgers) need to remember is that, when it comes to slowing economic activity to slow the rise in prices, interest rates (aka monetary policy) aren’t the only game in town.
Professor Ross Garnaut, also of Melbourne University, wants to remind us that “fiscal policy” (alias the budget) is doing more to help than we thought. The now-expected budget surplus of at least $20 billion means that, over the year to June 30, the federal budget pulled $20 billion more out of the economy than it put back in.
Garnaut says he likes the $20 billion surplus because, among other reasons, “we can run lower interest rates”.
One last thing the Reserve board needs to remember. Usually, when it’s jamming on the interest-rate brakes to get inflation down, the problem’s been caused by excessive growth in wages. Not this time.
Since prices took off late in 2021, wages have fallen well behind those prices. Indeed, wages haven’t got much ahead of prices for about the past decade. And while consumer prices rose by 7 per cent over the year to March, the wage price index rose by only 3.7 per cent.
This has really put the squeeze on household incomes and households’ ability to keep increasing their spending. And that’s before you get to what rising interest rates are doing.
Dear Reserve Bank board members, please remember all this on Tuesday morning.
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