Monday, October 29, 2012

It's better to honour budget commitments

Those economists who’ve joined the smarties in proclaiming Julia Gillard’s seeming resolve to get the budget back to surplus this financial year to be purely political and of no economic merit are revealing how little they know about political economy - the politics of economic policy.

They don’t understand the vital role faithful adherence to ‘frameworks’ has played in giving Australia it’s widely envied record on fiscal (budgetary) responsibility.
It ought to be blindingly apparent just how much trouble successive governments in the United States and Europe have got themselves and their people into by their chronic failure to discipline their spending and taxing the way our governments - Labor and Liberal - have for many years.

Our pollies have done this by setting for themselves and sticking to policy frameworks - in particular, the bipartisan ‘medium-term fiscal strategy’ to ‘achieve budget surpluses, on average, over the medium term’ - regularly supplemented by more explicit, shorter-term targets.

When, in the throes of the global financial crisis, Kevin Rudd embarked on huge fiscal stimulus, he nonetheless bound the government to various strictures to keep his actions consistent with the medium-term strategy and the requirements of Peter Costello’s Charter of Budget Honesty Act.

For openers, he pledged to ensure all stimulus programs were temporary - which they were. And as early as February 2009 he committed the government to a ‘deficit exit strategy’ in which it pledged to avoid further income-tax cuts and limit the real growth in government spending to an average of 2 per cent a year until the budget was back into significant surplus.

So far, the government has stuck to that commitment. When, in the 2010 election campaign, Gillard took Treasury’s projection that the budget would be back in surplus by 2012-13 and turned it into a solemn promise, she was binding herself more that the medium-term strategy required her to.

As the future has unfolded, this has proved an ever-more difficult promise to keep, mainly because of weaker-than-expected growth in the world economy and the now-apparent structural weakness on the budget’s revenue side.

In consequence, keeping the surplus in prospect has required Gillard to find further savings in just about every budget and mid-year update since. Question is: why is that a bad thing?

It’s not as if the economy’s fallen off a cliff. It’s continued growing at about its medium-term trend rate, with unemployment steady in the low 5s for the past three years. It’s expected to continue growing at a fraction below trend, with unemployment edging up only to 5.5 per cent.

What’s more, the tightening in fiscal policy is occurring that a time when the Reserve Bank has plenty of scope to compensate by easing monetary policy - with an outside chance this could help lower the dollar a little.

This is consistent with the strategy: that, except in emergencies, fiscal policy move in a more inexorable, medium-term way, with the far more easily adjusted monetary policy used as the ‘swing instrument’.

Admittedly, a lot of the savings measures have been cosmetic. But shifting planned expenditure by more than just a few weeks either side of June 30 is real. And not all the measures have just been such ‘reprofiling’.

Wayne Swan and Penny Wong have been chipping away at middle-class welfare in a way they probably wouldn’t have were it not for their alleged ‘surplus fetish’. Why’s that a bad thing?

They’ve significantly reformed the tax treatment of superannuation, reformed the concessional treatment of company cars under the fringe-benefits tax, begun phasing out the dependent spouse tax rebate and means-tested the baby bonus and the private health insurance rebate, as well as tightening means tests elsewhere.

In last week’s effort they cut the baby bonus for subsequent children (few people remember the original rationale for the bonus: it was a substitute for paid parental leave, which has since been introduced) and further tightened the health insurance rebate (in a way that saves little in the first few years, but causes the saving to grow each year forever).

A further consequence of the surplus promise has been to strengthen the purse-string ministers’ hand in insisting new spending commitments be matched by savings on existing programs. Why’s that a bad thing?

As for the smarties’ claim that Gillard’s motive in trying so hard to keep her surplus promise is purely political, it’s naive. All of us do many of the things we do for mixed, even ulterior motives. Pollies are no exception. Indeed, if you’ve had much to do with them you know everything they do is politically motivated.

So to say Gillard fears what the opposition would say if she failed to achieve a surplus is to state the obvious. The real question is, regardless of her political motives, is what she’s been doing consistent with disciplined fiscal policy? I’ve been trying to show it is.

Balancing budgets is politically hard. Most voters, interest groups, backbenchers and even spending ministers don’t give a stuff. The temptation not to bother is huge. So it’s crazy for the one group that cares - economists - to be joining those who don’t in urging the pollies not to bother meeting their commitments to run a tight ship.

Of course, it would be a different matter if the economy was falling off a cliff. In any case, the smarties and slackos may yet get their wish. If you listen carefully to what Swan and Wong are saying about the future, it seems last week’s effort to get the surplus back on track will be their last.

Should the revenue side deteriorate much further, they’re ready to let it go.