The author has been described by News Ltd as an "iconoclast", "Svengali", a pollie's "economist muse", and "pungently accurate". Fairfax says he is a "Renaissance man" and "one of Australia’s most respected analysts." Stephen Koukoulas concludes that he is "85% right", and "would make a great Opposition leader." Terry McCrann claims the author thinks "‘nuance’ is a trendy village in the south of France", but can be "scintillating" when he thinks "clearly". The ACTU reckons he’s "an enigma wrapped in a Bloomberg terminal, wrapped in some apparently well-honed abs."

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

RBA Stevens explains Australia's good fortune in possessing a multi-speed economy

An excellent must-read:

"The point about long term shifts reminds us to look beyond the immediate conjuncture, and to think about the magnitude of the event through which we are living. For a good part of the change in our terms of trade is a manifestation of a large and persistent change in global relative prices. Let me be clear here: there is a cyclical dimension to the China story, and it is important that we remember that. But there is also a structural dimension. And the associated change in relative prices constitutes a force for significant structural change in the economy. I think we have all only begun to grasp its implications relatively recently.

For a long time, the world price of foodstuffs and raw materials tended to decline relative to the prices of manufactures, services and assets. But for some years now the prices of things that are grown, dug up or otherwise extracted have been rising relative to those other prices. This is mainly due to trends in global demand. At any point in time for a particular product we can appeal to supply-side issues – a drought, a flood or a mine or well closure, or some geo political event that is seen as pushing up prices. But stepping back, the main supply problem is really that there has simply been more demand than suppliers were prepared or able to meet at the old prices.

We do not have to look far for the cause: hundreds of millions of people in the emerging world have seen growth in their incomes and associated changes in their living standards, and they want to live much more like we have been living for decades. This means they are moving towards a more energy- and steel-intensive way of life and a more protein-rich diet. That fact is fundamentally changing the shape of the world economy. Even if China's growth rate moderates this year, as it seems to be doing, these structural forces almost certainly will continue.

It is worth noting in this connection that many commentators have for years been calling on policymakers in the emerging world to adopt growth strategies that rely more on domestic demand and less on exports to major countries. This is happening. It carries the implication though that, first, more of the marginal global spending dollar is going to products that are steel-, energy- and protein-intensive for the emerging world's consumers and less on other things like, say, luxury property in western countries.

Secondly, more of the marginal production of the world economy has to be in those raw material intensive products – and in the raw materials themselves – and less in the production of the other things. Ultimately there will be enough steel, energy, food and so on to meet demand – supply is responding. But considerable adjustment is needed to get there (and Australia is a very prominent part of that adjustment).

The average consumer in an advanced economy is effectively experiencing a decline in purchasing power over food, energy, and raw material-intensive manufactures. Australian consumers face this to some extent as well. Were Australia not a producer of raw materials, we would be experiencing a good deal more of it. In such a world, there would be no resources sector build up. Our currency would be much lower. We would be paying much more for petrol at the pump, for our daily coffee and for a wide range of other consumer products. We would not be holidaying overseas in our current numbers.

We would have more of some other forms of economic activity that we currently have less of – we would, perhaps, be less of a ‘multi speed’ economy. But it's unlikely our economy overall would be stronger. As it is, the rate of unemployment has seldom, in the past few decades, been much lower than it has been recently. Moreover, in that alternative world the real income of Australians in aggregate would be a good deal smaller.

But Australia is a resource producer, so we have the advantage of being able to take part in the additional supply of things that are in strong demand. This helps our incomes. Mining companies are doing their best to capitalise on the increase in demand, and the effects of this will flow through the economy, but other producers are also enjoying a boost to their income. Rises in the global prices of rural commodities over the past couple of years have been sufficient to deliver higher prices to most farmers despite the appreciation of the Australian dollar.

As consumers, the rise in our currency means that we take some of that higher income in the form of greater command over tradeable goods and services. The foreign exchange market being what it is – namely an asset market – it has looked a long way forward into the resources boom and pushed up the currency quite quickly. This is having significant effects. While consumers do seem to be continuing their more cautious mindset overall, many seem over the past year to have had the confidence to leave the country to experience foreign travel at prices more attractive than any seen for a long time. Australia's tourism sector is feeling the resultant loss of business, particularly in Queensland where the floods also had a separate impact on confidence. That latter effect will pass – Queensland's set of natural endowments that attract tourists remains in place. But the need to adapt to the high exchange rate may continue.

For as well as conveying a rise in purchasing power to consumers, the high exchange rate is exerting a powerful force for structural change. I think we are seeing this in the retail sector. The rapid growth of internet commerce – from a very small base – has been the topic of considerable discussion. This was bound to happen anyway with technology. But with the higher Australian dollar, the component of the retail ‘product’ that is added in Australia – the local distribution and retailing overheads that are required to provide the retail ‘experience’ – has become both much more visible, and much higher relative to the production cost of the good itself. So the incentive for the consumer to avoid those overhead costs has increased quite noticeably. The retail sector is therefore under pressure to reduce those costs.

These are just some of the structural adjustment forces at work. Of course it is easy to talk about structural change in the abstract. It is another thing to cope with it in practice. There are no magic-pill solutions, nor are there any real alternatives to adjustment. What solutions there are, though, are likely to involve a re-focusing on productivity performance after a period in which, at least at a national level, our productivity growth has been disappointing."