Saturday, August 3, 2013

Bowen's statement: fantasy for grownups

The economic statement is a prime example of the dubious decisions politicians make when they put political survival ahead of sensible economic management.

On the face of it, the statement looks economically responsible. Its primary purpose is to recognise that the outlook for the economy has deteriorated markedly in just the few months since the budget in May.

It downgrades expected tax collections by more than $33 billion over the four years to 2016-17, with the economy now expected to grow by just 2.5 per cent this financial year - well below average - and the unemployment rate now expected to worsen from its present 5.7 per cent to 6.25 per cent by next June.

As a consequence, the Treasury projection at budget time that the budget would be back to surplus by 2016-17 was out the window.

No shame in that since most of the deterioration is due to factors beyond the government's control: the bigger than expected fall in export prices, the weaker outlook for the world economy, including China, and other setbacks.

But what would the opposition say about yet another delay in getting the budget back to surplus? And you can bet it will try to give the impression the bigger deficits are the result of wasteful government spending, not the rest of us having to pay less tax than expected.

So, what to do? Can Labor explain to the electorate the truth of why the budget remains in deficit, that when the economy's growth is so weak you would expect the budget to be in deficit - and that this actually stops the economy being weaker?

Gosh no. No, much easier to put yourself back on the hook and make a promise you don't know you can keep, to get the budget back to surplus in 2016-17, come hell or high water. Much better even to announce a rag bag of good and bad spending cuts, tax increases and accounting tricks on the eve of an election.

But this makes the economic statement a contradiction in terms: the economy will be in worse shape than we thought but, don't worry, we're announcing measures that run a high risk of making things worse.

And why? Because we are afraid of what Tony Abbott and Joe Hockey will say. That's bad politics, not good economics.

This statement offends the spirit of the government's medium-term fiscal strategy: instead of ensuring the budget returns to surplus as the economy strengthens, it tries to get it back to surplus in spite of the economy's weakness.

Should the government be re-elected, it will have tied its hands on the budget, promising implicitly not to use the budget to protect the economy should it fall into a slump, as there is a fair risk it could.

Of one thing we can be sure: whatever the budget balance is in about four years' time - 2016-17 - it won't be the projected surplus of $4 billion.

That's so far into the future it's utterly unpredictable. It could be better than that but it's much more likely to be worse. And that would be a bad thing only if the economy somehow roars ahead between now and then.