Monday, May 11, 2015

How Hockey can do the impossible in the budget

I wouldn't like to be in Joe Hockey shoes as he prepares to deliver the budget on Tuesday night. Which is not to say I or any other commentator will be going easy on him. It's too important a job for that and, after all, he volunteered for it.

To be bringing down our eighth budget in a row with a substantial deficit when, according to popular opinion, we didn't even have a recession, is pretty hard to explain.

Our problem is that a monumental resources bonanza is harder to handle than simple recession. In the early stages we were spending and cutting taxes as though the budget would never be a problem again.

Now, on the other side of that boom the transition to normal growth is proving excruciating. With commodity prices still falling and weak growth in wages and employment, tax collections just aren't recovering in the way we could have expected.

Hockey inherits the adverse budgetary consequences not just of Labor's reluctance to find ways to pay for its big spending plans, but also all the profligacy of his sainted Liberal predecessors.

John Howard used the cover of the temporary boom to spend big on middle class welfare for the supposedly self-funded retirees, while Peter Costello initiated an irresponsible eight tax cuts in a row (the last three of which were delivered by Labor) and an unsustainable superannuation tax regime, linked with liberalisation of the pension assets test that Scott Morrison is now reversing.

Hockey also inherits all the crazy things said by someone called J. Hockey while in opposition. Almost every sensible thing he says today can be countered by a clip of him saying the opposite a year or two ago.

Leaving aside whether a cut in interest rates should be seen as good news or bad — it's both — there's all his scaremongering about the rapidly growing mountain of deficits and debt, all his exploitation of the punters' incomprehension that the rules for countries aren't the same as those for households, and all his claims about how simply, quickly and painlessly the budget could be returned to surplus by the Coalition, with good government in its DNA.

And, of course, Hockey also "inherits" all the government's loss of voter goodwill and now-blocked-off options from last year's ill-judged and ill-prepared budget. How any, even a Coalition government imagined it could get away with a delivering a budget designed to gratify the Business Council is beyond comprehension. I thought you guys were professional politicians?

So now Hockey finds himself delivering a budget that's "dull" and "fair" but still has the deficit and its successors heading slowly down rather than up. With all the headwinds Hockey's facing, even that short order will be hard enough.

But even if he pulls it off without resort to creative accounting — and I'll be watching — it won't be enough.

The strangeness of our circumstances is that for Tuesday's budget to win a high mark it has to initiate plans for major improvements in the budget deficit, building up in the "out years" and introduce budgetary stimulus ASAP to rescue the flailing and failing efforts of monetary policy (bargain-basement interest rates) to get the economy moving again.

The need for that second leg became painfully apparent on Friday, with the Reserve Bank revising down its growth forecasts for the second quarter in a row, notwithstanding its two rate cuts so far this year.

In February it cut its "year-average" forecast for the financial year just ending from 2.5 per cent to 2.25 per cent. On Friday it cut its forecast for the coming financial year from 3 per cent to 2.5 per cent.

But isn't a stimulatory, deficit-cutting budget a contradiction, an impossible combination? Only if you haven't​ thought much about how fiscal policy (budgets) works.

There's a simple, age-old distinction that makes the impossible possible: capital versus recurrent. We need faster progress in reducing the recurrent budget deficit, which can be achieved at the same time as you stimulate the economy by spending on needed, productivity-enhancing infrastructure projects.

The irony is that Hockey has already attempted to implement such strategy — last year. The structure of last year's budget was first rate — even before the economy's continuing weakness became so evident.

The problem last year was the unfairness and poor quality of the measures proposed to achieve the strategy. Then, Hockey didn't manage even to explain the concept.

This time, I fear, he may not try to meet the economy's needs while busy trying to repair the government's political standing.