Tuesday, June 2, 2015


UBS HSC Economics Day, Sydney, Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Australia’s external sector – measured by the balance of payments, the current account deficit and exports and imports – is an important part of the syllabus and, indeed, the economy. Australia would be a very much poorer country if we had no trade with the rest of the world or no flows of capital to and from the rest of the world. And yet with the exception of discussion of the terms of trade and the exchange rate, the external sector – and particularly the current account deficit and net foreign debt – is these days rarely mentioned in the economic debate, presumably because most economists don’t think there’s much there to worry about. But this lack of interest conceals the fact that, particularly in the years since the height of the global financial crisis in late 2008, the current account deficit has been a lot smaller, and the net foreign debt seems to have stabilised as a percentage of GDP.

Is the current account deficit a worry?

To many people anything called a ‘deficit’ must be a bad thing; all deficits must be bad, just as all surpluses must be good. But I trust you’ve learnt enough economics by now to know that sometimes deficits are good rather than bad, and sometimes surpluses are bad rather than good. It all depends on the economy’s circumstances at the time and whether a deficit or a surplus is more appropriate to those circumstances.

The fact is that Australia has run current account deficits in 128 of the past 150 years, which suggests such deficits can’t be too bad or by now we’d be in a lot more trouble than we are, and we don’t seem to be in much trouble at all. And, indeed, most economists think it’s a good thing rather than a bad thing for us to be incurring all those deficits. Why? Because what they mean is that Australia is a ‘capital-importing country’ and we’d be a poorer country if we weren’t.

Remember that if we’ve been running deficits on the current account of the balance of payments for all those years we must also have been running surpluses on the capital account of the balance of payments for the same period. The key to making sense of the current account deficit is to remember that, with a floating exchange rate, the current account deficit is at all times exactly offset by the capital account surplus. In other words, the current account deficit and the capital account surplus are opposite sides of the same coin. So the current account can be analysed by looking at its components: exports, imports and the ‘net income deficit’, which is our payments of interest and dividends to foreigners minus their payments of interest and dividends to us. Or it can be analysed by looking at the changes in the components of the capital account surplus.

Components of the capital account surplus

When you think about it, the capital account surplus represents the net inflow of foreign capital to Australia. Another way of putting it is that the net inflow of foreign capital represents our call on the savings of foreigners. And our call on the savings of foreigners represent the amount by which national investment during a period exceeds national saving during that period.

It’s become a lot more common these days for economists to explain movements in the current account deficit by reference to changes in national investment and national saving and their components, but we’ll have go at doing it both ways.

Before we do, however, let me finish the point about Australia being a ‘capital-importing country’ since the beginning of white settlement. The proof that we’re a capital importer is all those years of capital account surplus, of inflows of capital almost invariably exceeding outflows of capital. Why has all that foreign capital flowed into our economy? Because, from the outset, the opportunities for investment in the economic development of our vast, resource-rich country have always far exceeded the amount that Australians could save to finance the exploitation of those investment opportunities. So, from the outset, we have always invited foreigners to bring their capital to Australia and join us in developing our economy’s potential. And when inflows of financial capital exceed outflows, this allows us to import more than we export, including imports of the physical capital equipment need for new development projects.

Our current account deficits – and our foreign debt and other foreign liabilities – got a lot larger in the 1980s after we floated the dollar, much larger than we’d been used to. It took us a few years to realise that the international shift to floating currencies was part of financial globalisation – the growing integration of national financial markets – which was making it easier for financial capital to flow around the world and so achieve a more efficient allocation of global capital. Some countries (eg Germany, Japan) save more than they have profitable domestic development projects to invest in, whereas other countries (eg Australia) have more profitable investment projects than they can finance with their own saving. So both classes of economy should be better off as a result of higher flows from surplus economies to deficit economies.

Recent developments in the CAD and net foreign debt

Over the 30 years since the floating of the dollar in 1983, the current account deficit has averaged about 4.5 pc of GDP, with peaks of about 6 pc and troughs of about 3 pc. In the five years leading up to the GFC it averaged more than 6 pc, so it seemed to be getting a lot higher. As you see from the table, however, in the six financial years since the GFC, however, it has averaged 3.6 pc, close to the historical trough. And in the 2014 calendar year it was 2.8 pc.

As you also see from the table, the past decade shows our net foreign liabilities – that is, our net foreign debt plus net foreign equity investment in Australia – seem to have stabilised at about 55 pc of GDP. That is, the dollar value of our liabilities is now growing at about the same rate as nominal GDP.

Why has our current account deficit been significantly lower since the GFC, to the point where our accumulated foreign liabilities seem to have stabilised as a percentage of GDP?

Well, explaining it from the current account side of the balance of payments, our export earnings were at first boosted by the exceptionally high prices we were receiving for our exports of minerals and energy as our terms of trade improved to their best in a century or two. It’s true that prices reached their peak and started falling in mid-2011, but they remain much higher than they were in earlier decades. And the volume of our mineral exports has been growing particularly strongly in the past year or two as the many new mines and natural gas facilities we’ve been building have finally started coming on line and increasing their production.

Turning to imports, imports of capital equipment to be used in our new mines and natural gas facilities grew strongly for most of the period although, with the construction phase of the resources boom now coming to an end, imports of mining equipment are now falling sharply. And while mining construction has been strong for most of the past five years, consumer spending and business investment spending in the rest of the economy have been growing at below-trend rates.

Finally, remember that, because exports and imports offset each other, most of the current account is accounted for by the net income deficit. It has declined to its lowest percentage of GDP for several decades, mainly because Australian and overseas interest rates are so low.

But now let’s try to explain the decline in the current account deficit from the capital account side – that is, from changes in national investment and national saving. Remember that the nation’s investment spending in any year has three components: the household sector’s investment in new home building, the corporate sector’s investment in equipment and structures, and the public sector’s investment in new infrastructure such as roads, railways, bridges, schools, hospitals and police stations.

The nation’s saving in any year also has three components: saving by households, saving by companies and saving by governments. Companies save when they retain part of their after-tax profits rather than paying them out in dividends to shareholders. Governments save when they raise more in revenue than in needed to cover their recurrent spending (the spending needed to keep the daily activities of government rolling on).

Looking at national investment, households’ investment in new homes since the GFC has been weaker than normal, whereas the mining construction boom has meant corporate investment spending has been much stronger than usual. And government spending on infrastructure since the GFC has be greater than usual. Adding that together, national investment has accounted for a higher percentage of GDP in recent years.

Turning to national saving, households are saving a far higher proportion of their disposable incomes since the GFC, with the household saving ratio rising from zero or about 10 pc. Companies have been saving more as mining companies retain most of their after-tax profits for investment in their new projects and non-mining companies retain earning to reduce their ‘gearing’ (their ration of borrowed capital to shareholders’ equity). Only governments – federal and state – have been saving less – dissaving, in fact - as their budgets have fallen into recurrent (‘operating’) deficit. Adding that together, national saving has accounted for a much higher percentage of GDP in recent years.

So though national investment is higher than it was, national saving has increased by more than national investment has, meaning the economy’s saving/investment gap has narrowed, the capital account surplus is lower and so is the current account deficit.

The budget papers show the government is expecting a current account deficit of 3 pc of GDP in the financial year just ending, 2014-15, rising to 3.5 pc in the coming year, 2015-16, and then falling to 2.75 pc in 2016-17.

In the coming year, the government is expecting the volume of exports to grow by 5 pc, whereas the volume of imports falls by 1.5 pc, thanks to the lower dollar and weak imports of investment goods. However, the terms of trade – export prices relative to import prices – are expected to deteriorate by 8.5 pc. And the net income deficit will stay low because of low Australian and world interest rates, plus lower profits payable to the many foreign owners of our mining companies.

Financial year CAD NFD NFL

         % of GDP

04-05 6.5 46 55

05-06 5.8 49 54

06-07 6.1 49 57

07-08 6.7 51 56

08-09 3.4 49 55

09-10 5.0 52 58

10-11 3.1 48 54

11-12 3.3 50 56

12-13 3.9 52 55

13-14 3.1 55 55

Calndr 14 2.8 58 54

NFD = net foreign debt

NFL =  net foreign liabilities (debt + equity investment)