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Rifts risk economic prosperity

By Henry Thornton - posted Tuesday, 3 May 2005

One of the rules of good parenting is for mum and dad to show a united front on important matters. The mandarins who are in charge of Australia's monetary policy are now in clear and obvious public disarray.

The bubbling issue of the prime ministerial succession is another fact that can damage Australia's economic prospects.

The Reserve Bank has made its position known - albeit not as systematically, or as continuously, as would be ideal. The Reserve is concerned that, with existing policies, inflation is likely to get too high, and as a consequence it has a tightening bias for monetary policy.


Treasury, whose secretary sits on the board of the supposedly "independent" central bank, is against tightening, and has warned us all that attempting to achieve a "soft landing" for the economy risks something far harder. Treasury has led the "dash for growth" faction we have previously written about, but now seems pessimistic about the immediate future.

Prospects for the world economy now do seem less encouraging. Various indicators of US growth, including initial estimates of overall growth in the March quarter, have been below expectations. The risks posed by the size of US budget and external deficits have, for the time being, come more clearly into focus.

There are fears that housing and share price booms have come to an end and that these engines of consumer demand may go into reverse. The high price of oil is also weighing on consumers throughout the industrial world and is adding costs to businesses everywhere.

Inflation is on the rise in the US economy, and the fear of "stagflation" - simultaneous growth stagnation with accelerating price inflation - absent since the 1970s, is stirring. The US Fed seems determined to limit inflation by raising interest rates from the very low levels of recent years.

Japan is showing every sign of slipping back into the state of chronic deflation that in late 2004 seemed finally to have been banished. In “Euroland”, unemployment remains high and growth is best described as sluggish.

Only China continues with the heady growth that has overheated the world's commodity markets and that has driven the price of oil to levels that threaten sustainable growth in the leading industrial nations.


It is not clear that China's leaders have the tools necessary to engineer a controlled slowing to their juggernaut economy. They have not appreciated coaching on this matter from the US - another "squabbling mum and dad" theme. China will resist attempts to have it substantially raise the value of its currency, a way to help bring greater balance to the US current account deficit that appeals to US politicians.

Australia's economic indicators are mixed, a classic sign that a turning point is close. Infrastructure bottlenecks have been recognised and remedies are being applied when it is easy to do so as, for example, in the case of the Dalrymple coal loading facility. Providing the necessary increased infrastructure will take years and is no solution to our current predicament. But the attempts to overcome structural bottlenecks will keep relevant activity high.

Housing markets have stabilised and there are fears that the absence of house price increases, or in a worse case substantial falls, will cut into household demand. Exports remain sluggish, constrained by shortages of infrastructure and capacity as well as lack of competitiveness because of a relatively high domestic cost base.

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First published in The Australian on May 3, 2005.

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About the Author

Henry Thornton (1760-1815) was a banker, M.P., Philanthropist, and a leading figure in the influential group of Evangelicals that was known as the Clapham set. His column is provided by the writers at

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