Monday, June 29, 2015
The one outfit that will deserve little blame – but will get plenty – is the Reserve Bank. It shouldn't be criticised because it's had its monetary accelerator close to the floor for ages.
The official interest rate has been at or below 2.5 per cent for almost two years, but growth in real gross domestic product has remained stubbornly below trend.
If the economy does run out of puff it will be for a reason macro-economists have known was a significant risk for several years: the mining construction boom – which at its height accounted for about 8 per cent of GDP – is now rapidly coming to an end, with little likelihood that non-mining business investment (or anything else) will be strong enough to fill the vacuum it's leaving.
It's possible the Abbott government's surprisingly poor management of the economy is damaging business confidence, but the more powerful reason business isn't investing is simply that it has plenty of spare production capacity and doesn't see that expanding its capacity would be profitable.
So what can we do to reduce the risk of the economy losing momentum? It ought to be obvious. The Reserve has been dropping hints for months and earlier this month governor Glenn Stevens came right out and said it.
Fiscal policy – broadly defined to include state as well as federal budgets – needs to be pushing in the same direction as monetary policy (interest rates), not pulling against it. As Stevens pointedly noted, "public investment spending fell by 8 per cent over the past year".
Breaking down that contraction, it was caused by the states, not the Feds, with NSW by far the greatest offender. I suspect its poles-and-wires businesses have slashed their investment spending (no bad thing), with general government failing to take up the slack for fear of losing its precious AAA credit rating. So much for all last week's boasting about record infrastructure spending.
All this may have escaped the notice of Joe Hockey and his state counterparts – not to mention their federal and state Treasuries – but last week's statement by the International Monetary Fund's review team gave it top billing.
"The planned pace of [budgetary] consolidation nationally (Commonwealth and states combined) ... is somewhat more frontloaded than desirable, given the weakness of the economy, the size and uncertainty around the resource boom transition and the possible limits to monetary policy," the statement says.
"Increasing public investment (financed by more borrowing rather than offsetting measures) would support aggregate demand [GDP] and ensure against downside risks." Hint, hint.
"It would also employ [construction] resources released by the mining sector, catalyse private investment, boost productivity, take advantage of record-low borrowing rates, and maintain the government's net worth." Oh, that's all.
"Indeed, IMF research suggests that economies like Australia – with an output gap [spare production capacity], accommodative monetary policy and fiscal space – benefit most from debt-financed infrastructure investment, with the growth boost largely containing the impact on the (low) debt-to-GDP ratio."
The statement says the Feds should broaden the scope of investments they support – which may be, and certainly ought to be, a hint that they should be supporting urban public transport projects, not just yet more expressways.
And as well as direct funding, the statement says, the Feds could consider guaranteeing states' borrowing for additional investment, which "would keep accountability with the states but reduce their concerns about credit ratings".
That's one way to overcome the state governments' obsession with the credit ratings set by outfits that contributed greatly to the global financial crisis by granting AAA ratings to securities ultimately written off as "toxic debt".
State governments are letting these operators decide what's responsible and what's not? It's time state Treasuries stopped paying these characters to set arbitrary limits on borrowing for infrastructure spending, and state governments stopped putting retention or restoration of their AAA-rating status symbol ahead of their duty to provide their states with adequate infrastructure.
As for the Feds, Treasury should make it easier for its political masters to walk away from all their debt-and-deficit nonsense by abandoning its age-old objection to distinguishing between capital and recurrent spending.
These two artificial Treasury disciplinary devices – bulldust credit ratings and pretending all federal spending is recurrent – threaten to cause us to slip into an eminently avoidable recession. If that happens, we'll know who to blame.