Monday, February 13, 2017

Reserve Bank chief gently reproves Turnbull’s failings

Reserve Bank governor Dr Philip Lowe's economic policy to-do list for 2017 contains a lot more implied criticism of the Turnbull government's weak performance than it has suited some in the national press to report.

It's true that, in his speech last Thursday, Lowe was clear in his support for a cut in the company tax rate and, by implication, the government's plan to cut the rate from 30 per cent to 25 per cent over 10 years, at a cumulative cost to revenue of $48 billion, and then a continuing net cost of $8 billion a year.

Last among the four items on Lowe's to-do list was "rebuilding our fiscal buffers", by which he meant getting the budget back into surplus.

Our former good record of successive surpluses and negligible net government debt "provided us with a form of insurance", he said.

"It meant that when difficult times did strike last decade, fiscal [budgetary] policy had the capacity to play a stabilising role. We had options that not all other countries enjoyed."

Note to the government's media cheer squad, Treasury revisionists and Professor Tony Makin: this leaves little doubt about Lowe's rejection of your minority view that fiscal policy is ineffective in stabilising the economy during downturns.

Lowe went on to say that the task of returning the budget to surplus is complicated by our simultaneous "need to make sure that our tax system is internationally competitive".

"One example of this complication is in the area of corporate tax, where there is a form of international tax competition going on in an effort to attract foreign investment," he said.

"Like other countries, we face the challenge of responding to this, while achieving a balance between recurrent spending and fiscal revenue."

Since Labor is using its senators to oppose passing the government's tax cuts to big businesses, one Australian newspaper headlined this "Reserve Bank chief slams Labor on company tax block". Some slam.

I'm unpersuaded by the need to cut the company tax rate at a time when many multinational companies have already found ways to pay far less than 25 per cent, but that's for another day.

A point to note, however, is that whereas the government argues cutting company tax would do wonders for "jobs and growth", Lowe's argument is more negative: if we don't do it while other countries are doing it we'll lose foreign investment – and, presumably, jobs and growth.

Not nearly such an attractive selling proposition.

Another point worth noting is Lowe's implication that the budget needs to achieve balance in spite of the huge cost of cutting company tax.

Maybe we should headline this: Reserve Bank chief slams Coalition's failure to show how company tax cut will be paid for, and so not further delay our return to surplus.

Note, too, Lowe's reference to "achieving a balance between recurrent spending and fiscal revenue" (my emphasis).

This isn't the first time he's quietly taken issue with Treasury's longstanding practice of exaggerating the size of budget deficits by lumping spending on capital works in with recurrent spending – unlike the state governments.

Borrowing part of the cost of building infrastructure that will deliver economic and social benefits for 30 or 50 years is in no way "living beyond our means".

And, indeed, one place higher on Lowe's to-do list than achieving budget surplus in spite of company tax cuts is the task of "providing adequate high-quality infrastructure to help our citizens be as productive as they can be and enjoy a high quality of life".

He notes we've got a strongly growing population which, if we fail to invest in sufficient infrastructure, including transport infrastructure, can "impair our ability to compete and be as productive as we can be".

It's surprising how many people are great advocates of high immigration levels, but won't countenance the increased spending and borrowing needed to provide the additional infrastructure – roads, public transport, hospitals, schools – used by all the extra people.

Then they wonder why our productivity performance is weak.

Which brings us to the first item on Lowe's to-do list: "reinvigorate productivity growth".

"There is no shortage of things that could be done to lift our performance. The challenge is that most of these ideas require difficult political trade-offs." Just so.

Lowe's second issue on the list is "how best to capitalise on the opportunity that the economic development of the Asian region provides".

I'd have thought the answer was obvious: our business people should sit round waiting until our hopeless politicians provide them with tax incentives sufficient to induce them to get off their arses.