Thursday, December 2, 2010

Reserve rises may have missed the point

If yesterday’s GDP figures are right, then the Reserve Bank has misread the economy, and given us interest rate rises we don’t read.

If the figures are wrong — and their startling revisions to 2009-10 data don’t inspire confidence — then they are just a bit of static we can disregard. But don’t assume it.

For once, Wayne Swan did not come out yesterday with graphs showing how Australia is leaving the ‘‘major advanced economies’’ for dead. And no wonder. All except France and Italy are now growing faster than we are.

With growth of 2.7 per cent, we are now being left for dead by Germany (3.9 per cent), Japan (4.1) and Korea (4.5).

But The real bottom line is growth in GDP per head. The Bureau of Statistics estimates it rose just 0.8 per cent in the year to September. It is still below 2008 levels.

How can that be when we’ve seen so much growth in jobs, our mineral exports are booming, and even after yesterday’s revisions, the Bureau of Statistics estimates that real national income grew 7.2 per cent in the past year?

Surely that makes us richer? Which means we spend more?

Well, some of us. The key to the puzzle lies near the back of the book, where the Bureau examines the sources of household income.

Over the past two years of crisis and rebound, it estimates, total wage income grew by just 7 per cent - including inflation, including all those 400,000 extra jobs.

Average income per employee grew just 3.6 per cent. Inflation grew 4.1 per cent. That means that on average, households depending on wage income are now marginally worse off.

Household income is growing: but the part of it that is really growing is the income of households who invest. Our income from profits, dividends, rent and interest shot up 16 per cent in the same two years. So households with significant investment income are much better off.

But investor households are more likely to reinvest their windfalls than spend them. That’s reflected in the Bureau’s stunning revision of its story on what happened in the last year. It has cut its estimate of household spending in 2009-10 by a cool $27 billion, and trebled its estimate of household saving from $23 billion to $68 billion.

Its picture of Australia’s growth now is extremely patchy. In the past year, almost half of all non-farm growth was in mining, mineral processing and construction. Most of the rest was in the finance sector and professional services (lawyers, accountants etc). The other two-thirds of the economy is growing little, if at all.

Many economists, inside government and outside, don’t believe this. They point to the stunning jobs growth of the past year, to the Bureau’s record of revising up past data, and dismiss yesterday’s figures as at most a ‘‘speed bump’’ on our road to the boom the Reserve predicts.

They may be right. But in my mind, these figures add to concerns that, as in early 2008, the Reserve may have misread the game. It has focussed on the needs of one industry in one state — mining in WA — when its job is to set interest rates for the entire economy. There is a risk that it has done too much, too soon.