Australia’s longest boom: How Australia did it and can it keep growing?

Australia’s longest boom: How Australia did it and can it keep growing?
Australia’s longest boom: How Australia did it and can it keep growing?

Australia’s current expansion is its longest boom.

GDP growth has been continuous for 26 years, with no ‘technical recession’ during that period.

By some measures, Australia’s is the longest boom of any developed economy, although there is some debate about that. What it means can also be disputed.

For example, Australia has had contractions in per capita GDP, so part of the boom is due to strong population growth. Although the cycle is not dead, its amplitude has been tamed, at least for now. It is also important to understand how it happened. Luck and good management have both played a role. There may also be lessons that can help sustain growth in the future, as well as for other countries. Fiscal reform is a priority if the longest boom is to continue.

Recessions are nasty. They usually result in a rise in unemployment, which is highly positively correlated with ill-health, high crime rates, and other negative social and political outcomes. Recessions can also have lasting effects. Long-term unemployment can lead to skill atrophy, making it harder to find a job even once the economy recovers. Deep and long recessions, like the Great Recession, have had a lasting negative effect on a generation of workers.

Although not recent, examples from Australia’s recessions are still powerful and worth recalling. The impact of Australia’s early 1990s recession (1991) on the labour market was deep and damaging. The unemployment rate rose significantly and did not return to its pre-recession level for 14 years. It caused significant harm. For example, many middle-aged workers who lost their jobs in Victoria’s manufacturing industry, which was hard hit, never worked again. Designing policy to avoid recessions has been the macroeconomist’s ‘Holy Grail’.

Australia’s 26 years of growth are important and worth acknowledging. They will also hopefully yield lessons for the future. However, it is important to be clear about what Australia’s experience is not. It does not mean that the cycle is dead. The world has had a number of periods where sensible observers claimed that this was the case. In 2003, Nobel prize-winning economist, Robert Lucas, famously stated that the ‘central problem of depression-prevention has been solved’, ahead of the Great Recession in 2008. Harking back to earlier days, there was a strong belief in Australia in the 1960s that the Keynesian prescription of active demand management, using fiscal policy, had solved the macroeconomic problem of that time. This was before significant recessions in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s. These accounts proved to be hubris.

Australia will almost certainly have a recession at some point. However, what is clear is that over the past 26 years, the volatility of Australia’s economy has been much lower than at any other time in the country’s history and most other countries experiences. This is worth studying. Australia has managed to dodge a number of global shocks, including: avoiding a recession during the Asian financial crisis in 1997/1998, the IT bubble of 2000, and the Global Financial Crisis of 2008/2009. Australia also avoided having a recession at the end of a housing credit and price boom in 2002/2003, during a drought of the early 2000s and at the end of the recent mining investment and commodity price boom, which peaked in 2011/2012.

Part of it has been luck. Australia’s geography has become a blessing. What Australian historian, Geoffrey Blainey, famously described in 1967 as a ‘tyranny of distance’ from Western markets has become the ‘power of proximity’ as global growth has shifted towards Asia. Australia has also been fortunate to have a large stock of high-quality resources, such as iron ore, coal, and gas that have been in high demand.

However, it is not all luck. A strong rule of law has helped. While many other large mining economies, with weaker institutional foundations, have suffered from the ‘resources curse’, Australia has managed to benefit from its large resource endowment. Market reforms in the 1980s and 1990s, including the floating of the Australian dollar, made the economy more flexible and better able to deal with global shocks. There may be lessons for other countries. Although the Global Financial Crisis raised questions about the ability of market-based systems to deliver widespread benefits, Australia stands out as a successful market-based economy.

Good economic management has also played a role. An independent central bank with a clear mandate to flexibly target inflation has proved to be an appropriate institutional arrangement for a medium-sized commodity-producer. The RBA has adeptly managed the cycle maintaining on- target inflation and financial stability and deserves significant credit for the long boom.

There have also been challenges. In recent times it has proved difficult to run balanced budgets, with the federal budget approaching its tenth consecutive year of deficit, despite the earlier boost to national income from the mining boom. Economic reform has also proved difficult, particularly of the tax system, which is becoming increasingly inefficient. Housing supply, energy, and climate policy also need reform and policymakers ought to continue to focus on ramping up infrastructure investment. The lack of reform may, itself, be a consequence of the long boom as policymakers and voters may have become complacent. It would be disappointing to think that Australia might need a recession, with all of its damaging effects to the economy and communities, in order to motivate reform.

Eventually, Australia’s long boom will end. The trigger will most likely be a negative shock from overseas. A sharp downturn in Asia, when one arrives, would prove harder for Australia to deal with than the Global Financial Crisis, which was centred on the developed world. Australia’s high levels of household debt would be likely to exacerbate any downturn.

Australia needs reform to support productivity growth and prepare for the next downturn. The priority should be fiscal reform, which leads to sustained budget surpluses. Measures should include, shifting the tax mix towards more efficient taxes, such as consumption tax, and cutting back on public spending commitments that do not deliver strong economic returns.

If there is one clear lesson from the long boom it is that Australia has benefited from a key part of the policy apparatus that is used for managing the cycle and securing the economy – the Reserve Bank of Australia – being independent from the political process. With this in mind, policymakers ought to consider ceding more authority for reform of other policy areas, such as transport and social infrastructure, energy and tax policy, to independent agencies. This could involve making recommendations by agencies such as the Productivity Commission, Infrastructure Australia, or Australia’s Parliamentary Budget Office, more binding. While politically challenging, the government could consider setting up an independent fiscal authority, akin to the RBA, but aimed at managing fiscal spending and taxation decisions.

As the global economy finally recovers from the lingering effects of the financial crisis, now is the time to focus on reform. It is clear that reform would help if the longest boom is to continue.

Paul Bloxham is the chief economist of Australia and New Zealand for HSBC.

 

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Paul Bloxham Australian Economy

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