Monday, December 19, 2011

Secret of successful economy is 'frameworks'

The proof we suffer from an economic cringe as well as a cultural one is our tendency to attribute our better position relative to the other advanced economies purely to good luck. In truth, it's owed as much to our markedly superior economic management over the past 20 years.

What? Poor little Oz runs its economy far better than the mighty Yanks and the haughty Europeans? You betcha.

Last week both Ric Battellino, deputy governor of the Reserve Bank, and Dr Martin Parkinson, secretary to the Treasury, warned we would not be immune from the public debt troubles of Europe and the United States.

However, Parkinson said, we can take some comfort from our starting position. ''We are located in the fastest growing region in the global economy with a number of opportunities likely to present themselves over the next decade,'' he said.

''Equally, the flexibility of our economy and our medium-term oriented policy frameworks have assisted Australia manage the impacts from external volatility.''

According to Battellino, we need to monitor the unfolding European situation carefully and remain alert to the risks. ''Having said that, I remain confident that Australia, with its strong government finances, resilient banking system, relatively low exposures to the troubled countries and strong links to the dynamic Asian region, is well placed to deal with events that may unfold,'' he said.

So it's true we're enjoying the good luck of being close to Asia and loaded with the very natural resources it's willing to pay so dearly to get its hands on. But it's also true our leaders have understood the need for us to ''enmesh'' our economy with Asia's since Malcolm Fraser's day, and have worked towards that end.

Our econocrats can take a lot of the credit for the sound state of our banks. They didn't fall for - and didn't let their political masters fall for - all the happy talk about deregulation and free markets.

But wait, there's more - much more. And Battellino offered a big clue to it. He noted that government debt in the euro area had been rising as a proportion of gross domestic product for much of the period since the 1970s.

''This occurred because governments loosened fiscal [budgetary] policy during recessions, but did not fully reverse those policies during the subsequent cyclical recoveries,'' he said. ''In aggregate, budgets in the countries that now form the euro area have been continuously in deficit for the past 40 years.''

And here's the clue: ''Clearly, there was no fiscal rule that aimed to balance the budget over the economic cycle, as there is in Australia.''

He could have said much the same about the build up of public debt in the US, which saw its credit rating downgraded this year and looks likely to induce a fiscal crunch in 2013.

The truth is our economy was quite badly managed in the 1970s and much of the '80s. But whereas that's still true of Europe and the US, it hasn't been true of us for at least the past 20 years - during which time, you'll recall, we haven't had a serious recession, while the others have had two or three.

So what's the secret of our success? Our econocrats' commitment to making the conduct of fiscal policy and monetary (interest-rate) policy subject to clearly defined medium-term ''frameworks'' - systems of rules and targets - so as to reduce their susceptibility to short-term political expediency.

With monetary policy, that's been straightforward. In 1993, then Reserve Bank governor Bernie Fraser joined the international trend for monetary policy to be conducted by the central bank independent of the elected government, guided by an inflation target. Fraser's genius was in specifying such a sensible, flexible target: 2 per cent to 3 per cent on average over the cycle.

This regime was adopted formally by the incoming Howard government in 1996. The framework has achieved its goal of reducing and ''anchoring'' inflation expectations, so the target has been achieved without great restraint on economic growth. And successive governments - Liberal and Labor - have copped without anything more than a grumble all the Reserve's moves to raise interest rates at politically inconvenient times.

As the towering public debts of the North Atlantic economies attest, the pursuit of a framework for fiscal policy has been much more our own work, with little overseas precedent to guide us. It began with the ''trilogy of commitments'' unveiled in the Hawke government's first budget of 1983, and was reinforced with new targets for reducing the budget deficit in the Keating government's post-recession budget of 1993.

But the biggest stride towards a rigorous framework came with Peter Costello's enactment of the Charter of Budget Honesty upon election in 1996. At the charter's centre was Costello's ''medium-term fiscal strategy'' to ''maintain budget balance, on average, over the course of the economic cycle''. He lived by this strategy, achieving 10 budget surpluses during his term, before the onset of the global financial crisis (to which should be added Keating's three surpluses before the recession of the early '90s).

The present Labor government endorsed the Libs' medium-term strategy and its response to the crisis was consistent with it. In Labor's second stimulus package of February 2009 it conformed to the charter's requirement that it spell out a ''deficit exit strategy'', choosing to limit real growth in its spending to 2 per cent a year and forswearing any further tax cuts until a healthy budget surplus was restored.

''Frameworks'' are a boring subject, little mentioned by the media. But they've been our secret weapon in producing vastly superior outcomes to the Europeans and the Yanks.