A fairly short post today (Wednesday oblige!). So just some snippets. Today, the Australian Bureau of Statistics published the latest – Retail Trade, Australia, Preliminary, February 2020 – which was the first release of a “suite of new products for Australian retail turnover”. The new offering is designed to more accurately and immediately pick up the “economic impact of coronavirus”. This release is preliminary and gives us more current data to that which is published in the upcoming April Retail Trade, Australia. The news is not good, as you might expect. Retail trade rose by 0.4 per cent in February 2020, as food purchases rose but all other spending categories fell. So the result is driven by the ridiculous panic hoarding behaviour that is now common. I went to a supermarket last night on the way home to get a few items (like some oats for muesli) and the shelves were nearly empty across a wide range of products. It makes no sense. Even if we are to be locked down, the Government has said shopping will be allowed. But in other sectors of the economy major impacts are being felt. All by band’s gigs in Melbourne have been cancelled and Virgin (who I fly with mostly) have cancelled all international flights until at least the end of June and many domestic flights. Life is changing dramatically. And this would be a great time to introduce a Job Guarantee for artists and musicians. Further, I report on some statistical events in West Africa that have far-reaching implications for how nations interact with multilateral agencies such as the IMF or the World Bank.
We have had a long drought. Massive bushfires. Floods. And, now, the coronavirus to deal with. The latest release by the Australian Bureau of Statistics of the – December-quarter 2019 National Accounts data (March 4, 2020) – allows us to see some of the impacts of the bushfires, given it is a rear-vision view of where the economy was at in the last three months of 2019. The next quarter’s data (due early June) will start to tell us about the coronavirus effects. Today’s data confirms what we have been tracing for several quarters – the Australian economy is grinding to a halt with private business investment continuing to decline and only a falling household saving ratio keeping Household Consumption expenditure moving in the face of flat income growth. The data shows that annual GDP growth of 2.2 per cent remains well below the historical trend rate of between 3.25 and 3.5 per cent. The weaker performance started in the last 6 months of 2018 and has continued through 2019. Further, as the recent favourable terms of trade (as a result of the Brazilian environmental disaster) have reversed, Real net national disposable income is now falling, signifying falling material living standards. As a result of the falling terms of trade, exports have shrunk and will shrink further on the back of the virus impacts. In an environment where household debt is at record levels, the risks of unemployment are rising, wages growth remains stagnant, and business investment continues to contract – the recent negative shocks from fire, flood and now the virus expose the economy to a major contraction. The overall picture is not good and the future is looking rather dim at present. An urgent and major shift in fiscal policy towards expansion is definitely required.
In my blog post – Japan about to walk the plank – again (September 30, 2019) – I predicted that the decision by the Japanese government to increase the sales tax from 8 per cent to 10 per cent on October 1, 2010 would undermine non-government spending and growth and was totally unnecessary anyway. The government had fallen prey to the deficit terrorists who have been consistently bullying them into believing that their fiscal position is about to collapse and the bond markets would desert them. Funny that! The Bank of Japan has been buying the bulk of the public debt issued over the last several years anyway. The reality is that, given the instability of world conditions (US-China trade, European slowdown, Brexit, and, more recently, the Corona virus impacts), the Japanese government should have been increasing its fiscal deficit. Yesterday (February 17, 2020), the latest national accounts data from Japan tells us the damage that this policy folly has inflicted. Every time the Japanese government has hiked the sales tax (1997, 2014, 2019) real GDP growth has plummetted and pushed the economy into recession. In the final quarter of 2019, Japan’s growth rate slumped by an annualised 6.3 per cent, driven by a massive 11.1 per cent decline in consumption spending and capital investment decline of 14.1 per cent. Sure enough, Typhoon Hagibis was also a factor but it is undeniable that the sales tax hike was instrumental. The Spanish philosopher George Santayana had it in one when in his first volume (1905) of his book – The Life of Reason: The Phases of Human Progress – said: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”.
I have two days of teaching left in Helsinki and my next stop on Friday is Dublin where I will be discussing unification and exit. Should be a fun topic. Its Wednesday back home already and today I consider a matter that came up in one of my classes that I am taking in macroeconomics at the moment at the University of Helsinki. Students really struggle when first introduced to the idea of a stock and a flow. They can easily be led into defining a flow as a stock. Getting this absolutely right is one of the key building blocks in understanding basic macroeconomics and the links between the expenditure system and financial accumulation. Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) builds heavily on the difference between stocks and flows and is also what we call stock-flow consistent. So all flows that inform stocks are accounted for in a consistent way. So, for example, we know that when households save, which is the residual of disposable income that is not consumed and a flow, this accumulates into a stock of financial wealth. Today, I am seeking to clarify the issue in my class that we did not have sufficient time to deal with in detail last week. And after that, some music to restore sanity.
The latest release by the Australian Bureau of Statistics of the – September-quarter 2019 National Accounts data (December 4, 2019) – confirms what we have been tracing for several quarters – the Australian economy is grinding to a halt, households are trying to increase saving, the Government’s tax cuts from July seem to have been largely saved to run down debt rather than spent, business investment is weak, and government spending and the terms of trade boost to exports are the only thing between now and a recession. And, the government is in denial, thinking its fiscal surplus obsession is more important than protecting incomes and growth. The problem is that if you don’t do the latter, you can kiss the former goodbye anyway. The data shows that annual GDP growth of 1.7 per cent is around 1/2 the historical trend rate. This is a very poor on-going result. The weaker performance started in the last 6 months of 2018 and has continued into the first six months of 2019. However, due to a fairly strong terms of trade, Real net national disposable income rose, which signifies rising material living standards. But those terms of trade gains will prove to be ephemeral. Overall, the quarterly growth rate was just 0.4 per cent. Net exports were strong (terms of trade effect) and government consumption expenditure was strong courtesy of some policy measures in disability, health and aged care coming on-line. Their boost will also dissipate fairly quickly. Longer-term worries include the weakening household consumption growth and the on-going negative business investment growth. The data now lets us appraise whether the small tax cut stimulus the government introduced from July have been very effective. In an environment where household debt is at record levels, the risks of unemployment are rising, and wages growth remains stagnant, it is no surprise that the households are using their tax savings to reduce their risk levels. This is borne out by the rising saving ratio. The overall picture is not good and the future is looking rather dim at present. A major shift in fiscal policy towards expansion is now definitely required.
The US Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) released the – Gross Domestic Product, Third Quarter 2019 (Advance Estimate) – data yesterday (October 30, 2019). It shows that the US economy “increased at an annual rate of 1.9 percent in the third quarter of 2019” which was slightly slow than the 2 per cent recorded in the June quarter. As this is only the “Advance estimate” (based on incomplete data) there is every likelihood that the figure will be revised when the “second estimate” is published on November 27, 2019. Underlying the headline figure, however, are shifting expenditure patterns in the US. Household consumption growth is declining and the contribution to growth was down from 3.03 points in une 2019 to 1.93 points. The personal saving rate rose from 8 per cent of disposable income to 8.1 per cent as households tightened up in the face of record levels of debt and sluggish wages growth. Total investment continued to be a negative drain on growth (-0.27 points compared to -1.16 points. Net exports also subtracted from growth (0.08 points compared to 0.68 points in the June-quarter). The increase in disposable personal income was lower (4.5 per cent) than in the June-quarter (4.8 per cent), although in real terms, the growth was 2.9 per cent compared to 2.4 per cent. Overall, and notwithstanding the continued growth, the question for the US growth prospects centre on what will happen to consumption expenditure growth. How much more will it decline and the saving rate rise?
I have recently had discussions with a PhD student of mine who was interested in exploring the cyclical link between productivity growth and the economic cycle in the context of the intergenerational debate about ageing and the challenge to improve the former. The issue is that sound finance – the mainstream macroeconomics approach – constructs the rising dependency ratio as a problem of government financial resources (not being able to afford health care and pensions) and prescribes fiscal austerity on the pretext that the government needs to save money to pay for these future imposts. Meanwhile, the real challenge of the rising dependency is that the next generation will have to be more productive than the last to maintain real standards of living and if austerity undermines productivity growth then it just exacerbates the ageing problem. My contention has always been the latter. That governments should use their fiscal capacity now to make sure there is a first-class education and training system in a growth environment to prepare us for the future when more people will have passed the usual concept of working age. This question also is hot at the moment in the Brexit debate in Britain and in this blog post I offer some empirical analysis to clear away some of the myths that the Remainers have been spreading.
I am in Brisbane today as an expert witness in an industrial hearing where the public education workers are trying to secure a wage increase in the face of fierce opposition from the Labor State government who insist on maintaining a wage cap that is depressing income growth and helping to cause the economic slowdown. The Government’s defense is that a wage rise would damage their fiscal plans which are to record recurrent surpluses of such magnitude that they can fund all capital spending out of recurrent revenue. Yes, a modern Labor government at work. They seem unable to that their suppression of wages growth is undermining overall growth, which undermines their tax revenue and makes their ridiculous fiscal goal unattainable anyway. Walking around in increasingly smaller circles. Anyway, it was a good day to be discussing these matters as it coincided with the latest release by the Australian Bureau of Statistics of the – June-quarter 2019 National Accounts data (September 4, 2019). That data shows that annual GDP growth of 1.4 per cent (down from 1.6 per cent) and now around 1/3 the historical trend rate. This is a very poor on-going result. The weaker performance started in the last 6 months of 2018 and has continued into the first six months of 2019. However, due to a fairly strong terms of trade, Real net national disposable income rose, which signifies rising material living standards. But those terms of trade gains will prove to be ephemeral and a related to disturbances in world markets (Brazil, etc). Overall, the quarterly growth rate was just 0.5 per cent. Net exports were strong (terms of trade effect) and government consumption expenditure was strong courtesy of some policy measures in disability, health and aged care coming on-line. Their boost will also dissipate fairly quickly. Longer-term worries include the weak household consumption growth and the on-going negative business investment growth. Further, the fall in the saving ratio once again illustrates the folly of suppressing wages growth through wage caps etc. It is also apparent that the positive spending effects of the large government infrastructure projects (State-level) are now working their way through the system and their impact is declining. The overall picture is not good and the future is looking rather dim at present. A major shift in fiscal policy towards expansion is definitely now required.
The Australian Bureau of Statistics released the latest March-quarter 2019 National Accounts data today (June 5, 2019) and the data shows that annual GDP growth of 1.8 per cent is around half the historical trend rate. This is a very poor on-going result. The weaker performance started in the last 6 months of 2018 and has continued into the first three months of 2019. However, due to a fairly strong terms of trade, Real net national disposable income rose, which signifies rising material living standards. Overall, the quarterly growth rate was just 0.4 per cent. The weakness is exemplified by slackness in private domestic demand – weakening household consumption growth and poor business investment growth. The rise in the saving ratio recorded in the December-quarter may signal that households are finally just accepting that their consumption growth will have to be more subdued as they struggle with poor income growth and record levels of debt. The large government infrastructure projects (State-level) and public consumption expenditure are driving growth. Net exports also contributed to growth on the back of the rising terms of trade. The overall picture is not good and the future is looking rather dim at present.
Last Friday (April 26, 2019), the US Bureau of Economic Analysis published their latest national accounts data (advance estimate) – Gross Domestic Product, First Quarter 2019 (Advance Estimate) – which tells us that the annualised real GDP growth rate of 3.2 per cent surprised most commentators (for its strength). As this is only the “Advance estimate” (based on incomplete data) there is every likelihood that the figure will be revised when the “second estimate” is published on May 30, 2019. Underlying the strong headline figure, however, are shifting expenditure patterns in the US. Household consumption growth is declining and the contribution to growth was down from 1.7 points in December 2018 to 0.82 points. The personal saving rate rose from 6.8 per cent of disposable income to 7 per cent as households tightened up in the face of record levels of debt and sluggish wages growth. The investment rose and Gross private domestic investment also contributed 0.92 points to growth, up from 0.66 points. However, that contribution was driven mostly by a rise in inventories, which can signal two things – either unsold goods due to firms overestimating domestic demand or stock-building in expectation of stronger future spending. I suspect it is the first of these explanations. Further, net exports were a strong contributor (1.03 points) after undermining growth in the December-quarter 2018. Real disposable personal income increased 2.4 per cent (down from 4.3 per cent in December). Overall, and notwithstanding the strong growth, the problems for the US growth prospects are two-fold: (a) What will be the contraction in consumption expenditure growth with slow wages growth and elevated personal debt levels? Most of the consumption growth is coming because more people are getting jobs even though wages growth is flat. (b) Can net exports growth defy Trump’s trade policy? We will wait and see.