Monday, December 6, 2010

Gillard indulges the mendicants at her peril

It's just as well Julia Gillard and her purse-string ministers are so committed to "a strong economy" because that's just what they're about to get. And let me tell you: an economy as strong as we're getting requires a strong government - something this lot hasn't been noted for.

Contrary to last week's silliness over the national accounts, we have everything going for us. Our terms of trade - export prices relative to import prices - are the most favourable they've been in a century and are pumping an extra 12 to 15 per cent of gross domestic product into the economy.

Then there are the tens of billions the mining companies are planning to spend building mines and gas facilities. This mining construction boom could run for a decade.

The labour market is particularly strong and unemployment hasn't far to fall to reach the 4.75 per cent rate economists regard as full employment.

So the problem won't be keeping the growth going but holding it down because the demand for labour and capital will soon be outstripping the supply.

This is a problem mainly for the Reserve Bank. And it knows exactly what to do: raise interest rates whenever it fears inflation is headed up out of its 2 to 3 per cent target range.

But Gillard and her ministers have to do as little as possible to add to demand and as much as lies within their power to subtract from it.

How? By running the tightest budget they can manage. They need to let the boom push up their revenue and avoid cutting taxes. They need to control the growth in their spending as tightly as possible, getting the budget back to surplus as soon as possible.

They are, of course, committed to do just this by their deficit exit strategy and also by Gillard's promise (not just forecast) of achieving a surplus in 2012-13. The strategy requires them to stay in this fiscal chastity belt until the surplus is back to 1 per cent of GDP.

But the point Glenn Stevens of the Reserve made last week is that the government will need to maintain the budgetary discipline long after the budget's back to surplus and even after it's eliminated the net public debt.

If it follows the logic of Costelloism and starts cutting taxes and spending freely once the surplus is back to 1 per cent of GDP, fiscal policy becomes "pro-cyclical" - it adds to demand rather than restraining it - as it was in the sainted Howard government's last years.

In other words, for as long as the economy's booming you have to let the surplus get bigger and bigger every year. And to help make that easier politically, you probably need to put the surplus into some sort of stabilisation fund or sovereign wealth fund.

The hardest part, however, is resisting the temptation to splash taxpayers' money on every group with a hard-luck story. Take all the sympathetic noises the government's been making about the high cost of living.

Last week's national accounts told us the household saving rate is now at 10 per cent of disposable income. It's probably not really that high but it is clear people's incomes have been growing a lot faster than their consumer spending. Don't sound hard-up to me.

Another bad sign is the way the government's started echoing complaints about "the two-speed economy". Last week Gillard alluded to this as the "patchwork economy".

And the Treasurer, Wayne Swan, said: "We don't want to in any way inhibit the speed of the mining sector, but we also have to do everything we can to help all of those that are in the slower lane."

Sorry, but that's quite wrong headed. Anything "we do" to help those people via the budget will add to demand and, hence, put further upward pressure on interest rates and the exchange rate.

What's more, this talk conveys an exaggerated impression of the extent to which the rest of us will suffer as a consequence of the expansion of the mining sector in Western Australia and Queensland. The government should be trying to educate and correct this misperception, not pander to it.

The notion that there is, or will be, a wide and enduring gulf between the mining states and the rest is wrong. It's wrong because, in industry terms, it's not a two-speed economy it's a three-speed.

Top speed is mining and associated industries. Low speed is the non-mining tradeables sector - agriculture, manufacturing, education and tourism. But in between is the non-tradeables sector.

And get this: the non-tradeables sector accounts for about three-quarters of the economy. So the great majority of us work in neither the fast lane nor the slow lane. What's more, the non-tradeables sector benefits from the high dollar because that makes imported parts and equipment cheaper.

Note, too, that the non-tradeables sector accounts for the great majority of production and employment in all states. And though Queensland has a lot of mining, it also has a lot of tourism. This is why, when you look at the figures, you don't see the wide disparity the two-speed contention leads you to expect.

For 2009-10, WA's gross state product grew by 4.3 per cent, but Queensland's grew by 1.6 per cent - less than Victoria's 2 per cent and NSW's 1.7 per cent.

But a lot of that growth came from increased population. Look at GSP per person (to get a measure of changed material living standards) and WA's growth drops to 1.6 per cent, while Queensland's was minus 0.8 per cent. That was worse than all the other states.

A strong economy requires a government with the strength to stare down all the whingers trying to touch it for a handout.