Monday, May 23, 2016

Econocrats’ report card: Turnbull not really trying

Economically and fiscally, the Turnbull government is flying by the seat of its pants. It hasn't done enough to secure future "jobs and growth", nor to get the budget balance improving strongly and government debt falling in coming years.

That's the conclusion you draw from the econocrats' oh-so-politely worded commentary in their "pre-election economic and fiscal outlook" issued on Friday, independently of the elected government, as legally required.

Treasury secretary John Fraser and Finance Department secretary Jane Halton made virtually no changes to the budget estimates and economic forecasts and projections contained in the budget delivered less than three weeks earlier.

What they did was highlight the key vulnerabilities they had alluded to deep within the voluminous budget papers they had prepared for the government.

The 10-year budget projections out to 2026-27, they warned, were underpinned by an assumption that annual growth in productivity would be the same as the average of recent decades.

However, "continued economic reform would be required in order to achieve this growth," they said.
The "crucial importance" of increased productivity would require "renewed vigour in encouraging and delivering structural reform across all parts of the economy" – something they'd seen little sign of so far in the election campaign, they hinted without saying.

Doesn't sound to me like a ringing endorsement of the adequacy of the budget's "economic plan for jobs and growth".

They warned further that these "medium-term projections" showing the budget returning to surplus in 2020-21, then staying at 0.2 per cent of gross domestic product for the following six years, were "very sensitive to the underlying assumptions".

In other words, with such a wafer-thin surplus – equivalent to just $3.5 billion in today's dollars – the budget could easily fall back into deficit.

And "should Australia experience a significant negative economic shock, the fiscal [budgetary] position would be expected to deteriorate rapidly".

Since Australia had run current account deficits on the balance of payment for much of its history – the consequence of our heavy reliance on foreign investment to exploit our rich endowment of natural resources – it was "prudent for Australia to run a relatively conservative fiscal stance".

But the stance isn't looking too prudent at present, they implied.

The medium-term budget projections – the device successive governments have used to reassure us that everything in the budgetary garden is going fine, and thus a fit subject for the off-the-leash econocrats to zero in on – assume that tax receipts will be capped at 23.9 per cent of GDP (the average during the period from 2000 to the global financial crisis) from 2021-22, by means of annual tax cuts.

But that being the case, the econocrats warned, it wouldn't be possible to get the budget surplus rising to 1 per cent of GDP [and thus make big strides in paying off government debt] "without considerable effort to reduce spending growth".

"Reducing spending growth has proved difficult in practice", they said with monumental understatement.

Indeed, after the beating Tony Abbott took in the polls thanks to his one attempt to reduce government spending, both he and his successor have retreated to doing no more that ensuring they don't actually add to spending by finding sufficient cuts to offset their new spending programs (of which there are always plenty).

The econocrats said that, even if spending were reduced from the levels projected for 2026-27 in this year's budget to their long-term average of 24.9 per cent, achieving a surplus of 1 per cent of GDP by then would require tax receipts to be allowed to rise to 24.2 per cent. (Don't forget the government also receives non-tax revenue.)

See what they're saying? Let me say it more bluntly.

It's all very well for Scott Morrison to keep saying the budget has a spending problem, not a revenue problem, but if you're not actually game to cut spending – because you know full well the electorate won't let you – then your only remaining choice is between higher taxes or higher debt.

In the election campaign, it's all very well to say Labor is high spending and high taxing. It's true enough. But what reason do we have to believe it's not true of the Coalition?

Its plan to cut the rate of company tax will be hugely expensive. The budget shows that, over the first four years of the phase-down, the cost will be covered by increasing the tax on smokers, multinational tax shirkers and people with too much superannuation.

The medium-term projections imply that the remaining phase-in cost of $43 billion will be covered by allowing bracket creep to rip until 2022-23 and by running a wafer-thin surplus.