Saturday, May 24, 2014

Sleights of hand in Hockey's budget

You have to look hard, but there are two logical sleights of hand in Joe Hockey's fiscal policy, as dutifully expounded by his Treasury secretary, Dr Martin Parkinson, in his speech this week.

Parkinson makes three important points that have tended to be lost in all the furore over Hockey's choice of victims in his efforts to get the budget back on track. I'll take issue with the last two.

The first is the "measured pace of fiscal consolidation". ("Fiscal" is a fancy word for the budget and "fiscal consolidation" is a euphemism for the spending cuts and tax increases needed to get the budget back into surplus.)

Parko's point is that, though Hockey has announced a host of decisions to improve the budget balance, many of them don't start for a year or three and the rest don't have much effect for a few years.

Relative to the estimates we were given in the mid-year budget review just before Christmas, the effect of the measures announced in the budget, plus any revisions to the economic forecasts, is expected to reduce the deficit for next financial year by just $4 billion (relative to nominal gross domestic product of $1630 billion).

The expected improvement in the second year, 2015-16, is just $7 billion, with the same improvement the year after. Not until the fourth year, 2017-18, is a big improvement of $26 billion expected to bring the budget back almost to balance.

See how gentle it is? Why so "measured"? Because the economy is still relatively weak - "below trend", in the jargon - and is expected to stay relatively weak for another year or two as spending on the construction of new mines and gas facilities falls much further.

So Hockey delayed the effect of most of his measures until he was confident the economy could absorb the shock without falling in a heap. This is exactly what the Brits and others didn't do - which is why it's both wrong and ignorant to refer to Hockey's measures as a policy of "austerity".

Parko's second point is that the budget measures involve a "compositional switch" in government spending. Hockey's cuts are aimed at "transfer payments" (transfers of money) that flow into consumer spending.

At the same time, however, he's actually increasing investment spending on new infrastructure by almost $12 billion over five or six years. Five billion of that is his "asset recycling initiative", which offers the state governments a 15 per cent incentive to sell off some of their existing businesses and use the proceeds to build new infrastructure.

So the incentive should lead to a lot more infrastructure spending than would otherwise have occurred. And, on top of that, we know investment spending has a higher "Keynesian multiplier" than consumption spending.

This change in the mix of government spending is happening by design, intended to help fill the vacuum left in the engineering construction sector by the sharp fall in mining construction. More proof Hockey is no economic wrecker.

But this year's budget papers include a new section giving the split-up of total government spending between "recurrent" spending (cost of keeping the show going for another year) and spending on investment, something forced on Hockey as part of a deal with the Greens to remove Labor's (silly) cap on total government borrowing.

What past governments haven't wanted to tell us is that about 9 per cent of their annual spending is capital, not recurrent. For the coming financial year this is $36 billion. More than half of this is capital grants to the states, 20 per cent is defence equipment and 14 per cent is building the national broadband network, leaving 11 per cent on the feds' own capital purchases.

The budget papers confirm the new government's commitment to the "medium-term fiscal strategy" first set down by the Howard government to "achieve budget surpluses, on average over the course of the economic cycle".

This is a good formulation, with one, now-more-salient weakness: its failure to distinguish between recurrent and capital spending. Hockey and his boss keep saying the budget has to be returned to surplus because we're "living beyond our means" and leaving the bill for our children.

That's true only to the extent we continue borrowing to cover recurrent deficits. To the extent we borrow to help cover the cost of infrastructure - which will deliver a flow of services extending over 30, 40 even 50 years - we're not living beyond our means (any more than a family that borrows to buy its home is) and not treating the next generation unfairly.

So setting yourself the goal of paying for all your infrastructure investment and having the government end the cycle with an ever-rising bank balance is fiscal conservatism gone crazy.

The second of the government's fiscal sleights of hand comes with Parkinson's third point: Hockey's plan involves creating "headroom for tax cuts".

In projecting government spending and revenue over the coming decade, the government has resolved to impose a cap on the growth in tax collections at 23.9 per cent of GDP. And government spending has been cut hard enough to accommodate that cap while still producing ever-growing surpluses.

Why? Because, we're told, "fiscal drag" (bracket creep) can't be allowed to run on forever. It would push low- and middle-income-earners into much higher tax brackets ("marginal tax rates") which would be both economically damaging and politically infeasible.

Fine. We've had to rely on years of bracket creep to correct the irresponsibility of Peter Costello's eight tax cuts in a row, but this can't go on for ever.

Did you see the sleight of hand? You don't need to cap tax collections just to counter bracket creep in income tax. Hockey is making room for much bigger tax cuts than that. And there's zero guarantee the chief beneficiaries of those cuts will be the low- and middle-income-earners who suffered most under the creep.