Friday, May 15, 2009

Where will the productivity growth come from?

In the Australian federal budget delivered earlier this week, forward estimates of revenue and spending were based on Treasury projections of economic growth rates in excess of 4 percent coming out of the current recession. This projection has attracted attention because the projected growth rates are higher than those experienced in Australia during recent boom years.

It seems reasonable to me to suppose that growth rates might be somewhat above trend when an economy comes out of a recession. An economy that is not limited by capacity constraints obviously has potential to grow more rapidly than one approaching full employment.

However, the Treasury’s optimism about future economic growth prospects in Australia seems to me to sit oddly with their more guarded views about prospects for the world economy. In discussing the outlook for the world economy Treasury states: “Even when growth returns, the recession will leave a legacy of significant policy challenges across the world. The extraordinary measures being taken to combat the current crisis will have to be unwound carefully.” Governments will not find it easy to unwind these extraordinary measures. This means that commodity exporting countries like Australia should expect the world economy to give them a fairly bumpy ride in the years ahead.

Why is Treasury so optimistic about Australia’s growth prospects? The Treasury forecasters base their optimism on the growth rates experienced in Australia following recessions in the 1980s and 1990s. Their projected growth rate is about the same as that following the 1990s recession.

Even if it is reasonable to expect world economic growth in the 2010s to be as robust as in the 1990s, is it reasonable to expect that Australia’s productivity growth in the 2010s to be as high as in the 1990s? The 1990s was a period in which multifactor productivity growth in Australia was more than double the rate experienced in recent years. High rates of productivity growth in the 1990s stemmed to a large extent from productivity improvements in the services sector, which were associated with micro-economic reforms (neo-liberalism in the terminology favoured by Australia’s current Prime Minister).

Where will comparable productivity improvements come from during the 2010s? Perhaps the government has plans for extensive microeconomic reforms that it has yet to announce. But I wouldn’t bet on it!

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