Monday, May 13, 2013

Budget becomes Canberra's con job on the nation

Tuesday night's budget may have become the central plaything in the dog fight between Labor and Liberal, but its economic importance is a shadow of what it used to be.

It suits no one in Canberra to admit it - not the pollies of either side, the econocrats, the business lobbyists nor the journalists - but these days the budget is not of great significance in the macro management of the economy.

True, it's still of great newsworthiness because the decisions the government makes about changes to spending programs and taxes do affect the pockets of people across Australia.

And these decisions are of micro-economic significance because they affect the efficiency with which the nation's economic resources are allocated. They also affect the fairness with which income is distributed between low, middle and upper-income households.

But with so many people having made up their minds on whom they'll vote for, and so many of the nasties already leaked to the media (or selectively leaked to the morning papers before being announced the same day), I doubt the budget will have much political significance.

And that's even if, following the usual budget media-manipulation script, the government has held back a few nice measures for the media to give exaggerated attention to on the night.

Even so, Canberra's dirty little secret is that the decisions we'll be making so much fuss about on Tuesday night will have surprisingly little effect on how the macro economy performs over the coming financial year.

That's for two reasons. First, politicians' decisions have much less effect on the budget than the daily decisions made by the 98.4 per cent of Australians living outside the ACT.

If, as seems likely, most of the budget deficit we're told about on Tuesday is accounted for by the "structural deficit" - that is, the net cumulative effect of unwise decisions by governments of both colours over many years - this will prove how much tosh the pollies have been spouting about the bad state of the economy.

Even the government has long been crying crocodile tears about how tough people are finding it to keep up with the rising cost of living. Julia Gillard and Wayne Swan keep doing this because their focus groups tell them the cost of living is all the punters can find to complain about.

They make sympathetic noises even though they know the economic indicators say real incomes are rising, not falling.

The second reason the budget's macro-economic significance is exaggerated by the denizens of Canberra is that, as the fine print in the budget papers admits every year, the primary responsibility for the day-to-day management of macro economy rests with monetary policy (the manipulation of interest rates), which is determined by the Reserve Bank in Sydney without reference to the pollies in Canberra.

It's true changes in the budget balance affect the strength of aggregate demand in the economy, but what the Keynesian Rip van Winkles haven't woken up to is that so do a lot of other things - the exchange rate, for openers.

The point is, the budget is just one of various factors the Reserve takes into account when deciding whether to use its interest-rate lever to stimulate or restrict demand. In other words, monetary policy is the "swing instrument".

Sometimes the Reserve chooses to push in the same direction as the budget, sometimes it chooses to counteract the budget by pushing in the opposite direction (as it did in the Howard government's later years when it was using its budget to worsen rather than improve the business cycle).

Much will be made on Tuesday night of the forecasts for the economy contained in the budget papers. We'll be told how fast Treasury expects the economy, inflation and all the rest to grow next financial year, as though this is news of great significance.

It isn't. Why not? Partly because it's the forecasts of the macro managers that matter and, as we've seen, neither Treasury nor its masters manage the economy. It's the Reserve Bank's forecasts that matter.

Actually, Treasury makes sure its forecasts (which it uses primarily to help it estimate budget spending and revenue) are little different from the Reserve's. Why? Because the Reserve's independence of the politicians makes it the more credible forecaster.

And get this: the forecasts we'll be told about with great fanfare on Tuesday will be old news. Why? Because they'll be the same as the forecasts the Reserve announced last Friday. The economy's growth should average 3 per cent in 2012-13 and about 2.5 per cent in 2013-14. The forecasts for inflation will be 2.25 per cent and about 2.5 per cent respectively.

Why does everyone in Canberra have an interest in misleading us about the budget's macro-economic significance? Because, as the ACT's principal export to the rest of Australia, the budget is how they make their living.