Friday, 3 August 2018

Doom and gloom? Yes and no

As any number of recent headlines will tell you, there's a bunfight going on about a slump in business confidence and a rise in unemployment. There's the usual partisan point-scoring going on about the size of it, who caused it, and what comes next.

What's really happening?

Let's deal to the unemployment rate first, up from 4.4% in March to 4.5% in June. Should anyone be worried about that?

No, for at least three reasons. One, the statistic comes from a survey, which has sampling error. If I've read Infoshare right, and I've been known to get it wrong, the sampling error for the unemployment rate is 0.3%, which means there's a 95% chance the true unemployment rate is between 4.2% and 4.8%. A 0.1% rise may not even have happened. And second, even if it did, the economy is not an automaton, and you expect to find "noise", random fluctuations even in the middle of a longer-term trend. And third, and most important, the unemployment rate rose for a rather comforting reason: the participation rate went up.

The logic is that the participation rate goes up in good times. People aren't stupid, and can judge what's happening in the jobs market. Discouraged people lurk outside the labour force when they reckon there are few jobs to chase. They delurk when they think it's all on. Sure, there'll be the odd person who's forced by bad stuff - the mortgage getting out of hand, a redundancy in the family - to go hunting for a job, but overwhelmingly the evidence is that the participation rate going up is a signal of the labour market running in job seekers' favour.

Put that together with the all-time record employment rates for women and Maori and a strengthening in wage increases, and the marginal rise in the unemployment rate is neither here nor there. If you get a press release from a pollie banging on about it, mentally subtract a little from your previous estimate of their credibility. Negative numbers are allowed.

The business confidence slump is not so easily dismissed.

For a start, it's beyond any question of sampling error or random wiggles. It's large, and evident over several readings. There's a lot of focus on the ANZ Bank's latest and particularly glum survey, but it goes back further than that. The NZIER's June Quarterly Survey of Business Opinion showed more unhappy campers, too. It's true that you should focus on the 'activity' measures in these surveys rather than the 'confidence' ones, but the activity numbers are also in rapid retreat.

As the latest ANZ survey said, "Firms’ perceptions of their own prospects are a better gauge of economic outcomes, but the news wasn’t upbeat here either: it dropped 5 points to a net 4% expecting an improvement. This is the lowest reading since May 2009 and well below the long-term average of +27". There have also been growth slowdowns captured in the latest BNZ / BusinessNZ surveys of manufacturing and services.

Here's one graph that I think helps explain what's going on. On the trusted principle that in a market economy an analyst should follow the money, here's what businesses have been telling the ANZ survey what they think the outlook is for their profitability.

There's clearly (to my eye) a political component. The sharp drop in expected profitability after we got the new Coalition government might have been rational - "this lot aren't business friendly" - but likely also had some sort of political protest mixed in. But businesses appeared to have got over themselves by March or April of this year - only for expected profitability to drop to even lower levels than immediately after the election. So my guess it's no longer a "should have been National" two fingers, but a signal of something more real.

A good deal of it, I suspect, is pressures on wages and other costs (notably energy) which haven't been able to be passed on. As many others have commented, the rise in the minimum wage, from already high levels by international standards as a percentage of average earnings, and with more to come, is putting sectors like retailing under intense pressure. Retailing has large numbers of minimum wage workers, and bricks and mortar shops have little or no ability to pass the costs on when e-commerce is already stealing their lunch. I was walking around Newmarket today for the first time in a while, and while the area was generally busy, I was startled to see how many retail vacancies there are.

Nor are many businesses enthused about the cost - real or imagined - of having to go back thirty years and sign up again for collective agreements. And I suspect they, like everyone else, are wondering about the sort of generalised wage pressures that look like leaking from the public sector. Any public sector union worth its salt has sized up this government as an easy mark. And they're right: the chance of a Coalition Finance Minister actually getting to the finishing line forecast in this year's Budget is half of five eighths. As I said at the time, "The likelihood of the New Zealand political process actually leaving $7.3 billion unspent on the table is extremely low".

I'm not even there myself. With the infrastructure - where it exists at all - creaking all around us, I'd be using that money, too, especially as we've got not only cash in the government cheque account but also the opportunity to borrow at once-in-a-generation low interest rates and make a substantial and lasting difference.

Inaction on that front may be part of business malaise too, especially when contrasted with the readiness to spend on lower quality ideas (think boondoggle regional lollyscrambles). I was somewhat dismayed, reading MBIE's latest national construction pipeline report (summary here, full thing here) that "Infrastructure is forecast to remain relatively unchanged, increasing marginally to $7.3b in 2023" (p1 of the summary) and that (p4) " Infrastructure activity is lower than previously forecast". And although the summary also notes (p4) that " Pacifecon’s research data suggests that there is a high value of infrastructure construction scheduled to be initiated over the next six years", it always seems to be light rail tomorrow but traffic jams today.

The previous government, by the way, was just as bad as getting the facilities built that would enable all of us to get on with our lives more productively. The longer it goes on, the more likely we're going to hit capacity and productivity constraints that stop the economy growing at the rates we'd like. Whatever else may or may not be needed to be done (or undone) by the current government to move us forward from where we are now, a larger and earlier infrastructure spend has to be part of the answer.

Bottom line, some of the beat-up over the slowdown (actual or imminent) in the economy is exaggerated. But some of it is realistic, especially if you put some weight, as you've got to in this late stage of the post GFC global recovery, on the external environment hitting a bump. Recent surveys of global fund managers, for example, show that they are worried about the impact of trade wars on world economic activity, and with a buffoon pressing the protectionist policy buttons, they're right to be biting their nails. So the ANZ's take looks realistic: "with businesses in a funk, it’s fair to say that the road ahead is looking less assured, and risks of a stall have increased".

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