Monday, August 15, 2016

Why Treasury is wrong on deficits and debt

The last speech of the retiring Reserve Bank governor, Glenn the Baptist, was a touch biblical. Whatever your point of view, you could find a verse here or there that seemed to back you up.

If, for instance, you accept the conventional view that the budget deficit is way too high, that the government should be more daring in seeking to cut the deficit, and its opponents should be less opportunist and more responsible in agreeing to spending cuts, Glenn Stevens offered a verse for you to quote.

He observed that "when specific ideas are proposed that will actually make a difference [to the budget deficit] the conversation quickly shifts to rather narrow notions of 'fairness', people look to their own positions, the interest groups all come out and the specific proposals often run into the sand.

"If we think this rather other-worldly discussion will not have to give way to a more hard-nosed conversation, we are kidding ourselves.

"That will occur should there be a moment of crisis, but it would be better if it occurred before then," he said.

A treasury secretary couldn't have said it better. But look at the totality of Stevens' remarks and he's actually challenging the conventional wisdom.

"As would be clear from my utterances over the past couple of years, I have serious reservations about the extent of reliance on monetary policy around the world."

The problem is that what central banks do could never be enough to fully restore demand after a period of recession associated with a very substantial debt build-up.

"In the end, the most powerful domestic expansionary impetus that comes from low interest rates surely comes when someone has both the balance sheet capacity and the willingness to take on more debt and spend," he said.

"The problem now is that there is a limit to how much we can expect to achieve by relying on already indebted entities taking on more debt.

"In some countries there may be no safe way of [increasing] borrowing and spending because debt, both public and private, is just too high.

"In Australia, gross public debt, for all levels of government, adds up to about 40 per cent of gross domestic product. We are rightly concerned about the future trajectory of this ratio.

"But gross household debt is three time larger – about 125 per cent of GDP. That is not unmanageable – but nor is it a low number."

Get it? He's saying that monetary policy is out of puff. Lowering interest rates is no longer very effective in encouraging households to take on even more debt. (He noted later that he'd never believed cutting rates had much effect on businesses' decisions to increase investment spending.)

So which sector has the most capacity to increase its deficit spending "in the event that we were to need a big demand stimulus"?

The public sector. Sorry, but that's not what a treasury secretary would say.

Stevens was quick to add: "I am not advocating an increase in deficit financing of day-to-day government spending. The case for governments being prepared to borrow for the right investment assets – long-lived assets that yield an economic return – does not extend to borrowing to pay pensions, welfare and routine government expenses, other than under the most exceptional circumstances.

"It remains the case that, over time, the gap in the recurrent [my emphasis] budget has to be closed, because rising public debt that is not held against assets [my emphasis] will start to be a material problem."

Now that's something no secretary to the treasury would say. Unlike all its state counterparts, federal Treasury has long opposed the drawing of a distinction between government recurrent spending and government investment in "long-lived assets that yield an economic return" and add to national productivity.

Treasury wants little old ladies to feel as guilty about borrowing to improve the Pacific Highway as they do about borrowing for "routine government expenses".

So, let's worry about getting the recurrent budget back to surplus (as most state governments did long ago), but not about borrowing for infrastructure. Agreed?

Except that when you read the budget papers carefully enough to find the info Treasury has hidden on page 6-17, you discover that the expected underlying cash deficit for this financial year of $37 billion includes capital spending of $36 billion.

Get it? We're already back to a balanced recurrent budget. So why so much hand-wringing? And why aren't we getting on with planning the infrastructure pipeline we could expedite "in the event that we were to need a big demand stimulus"?