Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Belshaw’s World: Access Economics feeds the herd instinct

I felt quite flattered to have attracted a response from one of the Express’s better known letter writers. Like any writer, I want to be read. And Dr Fidlon clearly read my column on the wonders of blogging.

I wasn’t quite sure how to respond. In the blog world, this would be a comment to which I would respond with a comment. If I thought that the comment was especially important, I would add a postscript to the main post alerting readers to the comment.

A column is a little different because of space limitations. Should I then respond through a letter to the editor?

I might do that in future. For the moment, I thought that I should just note that my interest in the hoax played upon Keith Windschuttle lay in the process that led to the discovery of Katherine Wilson as hoaxer, not the fact that Keith Windschuttle was the victim.

I watched Australia just before Christmas. There is a spectacular stampede scene where cattle being driven to Darwin are deliberately spooked by the bad guys. Once started, all the cattle go with the herd in a blind panic.

The release of the latest report by Access Economics on the Australian economy made me quite angry because it played to the herd instinct. And we don’t have a little kid to stand in front and bring the mob to a halt.

I have a deal of respect for Access.

Sometimes known as the Treasury in exile, the firm was founded by former colleagues from the Australian Treasury. Their economic reports go into the board rooms of all the big firms in the country. Their reports also attract media attention, a great deal of media attention if, as appears to be the case here, they carefully craft their words to attract that attention.

The single message that came through the media reporting was that the Australian economy was buggered. Access says so.

I had the distinct feeling watching Access's Chris Richardson on TV that the size of the media firestorm was creating a degree of discomfort. He did make the point in a kind of sub-text that the Australian recession was going to be far milder than that experienced in some other countries, but this was swept away in the response to the headline statements.

A line by Australian poet John O'Brien (P J Hartigan) has entered the popular language: "We’ll all be rooned," said Hanrahan, "Before the year is out."

The problem with the actions of Chris Hanrahan Richardson and his colleagues lies in the concept of a self-fulfilling prophesy. If all of Access's clients accept the reported Access headlines without looking at the detail, then their responses may indeed bugger the Australian economy.

For some time now I have been making two key points about the global economic position.

The first point was that conventional consumption stimulus measures were unlikely to have the desired short term effects given the crash in confidence and because they did not address global structural issues that had helped trigger the crash. At best, as has happened in Australia, they can have a cushioning effect.

The second point was that it would take time for structural imbalances to correct and for longer term investment measures to start feeding into the system. The challenge was to manage through to the recovery point.

In all this, it remains true that Australia is in a remarkably good position to ride through the storm. Further, there were clear signs that a degree of local confidence was returning. Indeed, if you drop below the screaming headlines, even Access is actually forecasting a recovery.

The key requirement at a time like this is to keep a cool head. This applies to business and to Governments. Here the Rudd Government has already displayed something of a tendency to shoot from the hip, to try to do too much too quickly.

Keeping a cool head is far from easy when a firm in Access’s position plays for short term publicity in the way it did.

For length reasons, I will defer both my usual question and the answer to the last question to my next column.

Note to readers

This column appeared in the Armidale Express on Wednesday 28 January 2009.

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