It was four years ago that the first house on my street sold for over a million dollars. It was a stunning moment but also a stunning house. It sold for $1.2 million and in the context of the times was pretty well worth what it cost to buy.
That same house sold again this April. Once again the entire neighbourhood went through the house to have a look and while it had been kept up, nothing extra had been added. It was the same, except that this time the property sold for $1.7 million. In four years property prices, at least so far as this particular property was concerned, had risen by forty percent.
There has subsequently been quite a bit of action in selling houses on our street but the most astonishing moment was last week. This was a house that had not been touched for fifty years. To say that it had “original features” only underscores what a derelict mess it was.
And the price: it went for over $1.4 million with four bidders going beyond the $1.2 million level and two going above 1.4.
That this totally astonished all of us in the street is to put our reaction as mildly as possible. That it depressed my son who was trying to think how he would ever be able to buy a house for himself was perfectly understandable. This is an economy with property prices gone mad.
The man who bought the house had just sold up in a more expensive suburb and was locating down, pocketing a net million along the way, although probably half of that will be sunk into renovations. The seller has netted for himself more than a million relative to the price he paid, and was for him on a property he had rented out and not lived in himself. This is, for him, all money in the bank.
And that’s the point. It is all money in the bank. There is, according to the press, a difference of opinion between Treasury and the Reserve Bank over interest rates and their proper direction. Treasury cannot see what the rush to raise rates is all about. The economy has barely touched bottom, assuming that it even has. So far as Treasury is concerned, it is madness to be raising rates already when recovery has not truly even begun.
But then there’s the RBA. What it sees are house prices rising again and an inflation already becoming entrenched. While the “headline” movement in the CPI was a quite moderate 1.3% across the year, the “underlying” rate the Bank relies on rose by 3.8%, well outside its band of 2-3% per annum over the course of the cycle. And even the headline measure showed an increase of 1.0% for the quarter which of itself is worry enough.
Inflation and What to Do About It
That the economy, particularly the private sector, is still generally moribund is likely. That there is a long way to go before we return to the kinds of momentum we would prefer seems about right. That raising rates right now will slow the economy and delay a return to stronger levels of private sector activity seems almost unanswerable. Yet, with all this liquidity sloshing around, what is a central bank to do?
What makes it worse is that the very aim of the government seems to be to push the private sector out of the way. This is not like an inadvertent error by the Prime Minister to have raised the level of public spending in a panic and therefore to have crowded the private sector out. This seems more deliberate than that, and is in keeping with the notions put forward by the PM in his economically challenged article published in The Monthly at the start of the year in February. At the time, he wrote:
“The magnitude of the crisis and its impact across the world means that minor tweakings of long-established orthodoxies will not do. Two unassailable truths have already been established: that financial markets are not always self-correcting or self-regulating, and that government (nationally and internationally) can never abdicate responsibility for maintaining economic stability. These two truths in themselves destroy new-liberalism’s claims to any continuing ideological legitimacy, because they remove the foundations on which the entire neo-liberal system is constructed.”
Neo-liberalism, you see, means leaving production decisions to the market to be made by profit-making firms which are trying to work out what consumers would like to buy. This the Prime Minister will not permit given these apparently “unassailable truths”. It is his judgement that is going to matter and come what may, he is determined to have the government absorb our national savings for his own purposes rather than for our own.
In a depressing assessment reported in The Australian this week we were told that “the nation’s key economic advisory body [the Productivity Commission] says the government has not ‘universally applied’ its own promise to subject all major infrastructure spending to detailed and transparent cost-benefit analysis.” Listed were $66 billion worth of projects that the government does not know, and apparently does not care, whether the money being spent will be repaid in revenues ultimately earned.
I therefore want the RBA to raise rates and keep on raising rates because that may be the only way we are finally going to convince the Prime Minister there are costs to the approach he is taking. Whether raising rates will prevent inflation from taking off is hard to say. It might put a brake on wage movements which are the main feedstock of the inflation process, but governments are the worst industrial relations negotiators so I wouldn’t count on them.
But what I am looking for is recognition within the government that they cannot keep pushing their own expenditures upward, crowd out the private sector, and hope to generate real growth. Is there no one within the Government who actually does understand how prosperity comes about? From how they have so far behaved, it really doesn’t look that way from here.
The Government is counting on your ignorance to get away with literally destroying billions of dollars of our wealth. If these projects do not repay their costs, they will just make us poorer.
But they will create jobs. And they will lead to a rise in the recorded level of GDP. That other jobs in the private sector will not be created, and that we will actually end up with a lower standard of living because of this tremendous level of public waste, is just how it is.
I now meet people all the time who tell me we had to do something about the Global Financial Crisis. OK I say. Pay the higher interest rates and taxes and be done with it. Such nobility I think! Such self sacrifice! Such idiocy!
These latest expenditures are not being done in the heat of a crisis. They are a matter of deliberate policy. That we let governments direct so much of our resource base to ends of their own choosing is unfortunate. But if we as a community do not know any better, that is just how it is going to be.
Dr. Steven Kates
for Markets and Money