Saturday, February 24, 2018

Current account deficit improves without us noticing

They say a watched pot never boils, so maybe it's a good thing we now spend so little time worrying about the current account deficit. While our attention's been elsewhere, it's got a lot smaller.

This news comes courtesy of the International Monetary Fund's latest country report on Australia, issued this week.

Settle back. The nation's "balance of payments" is a statement summarising all the transactions between Australians (whether businesses, governments, or individuals) and the rest of the world.

It's divided into two main accounts. First is the "current account", which summarises exports and imports of goods and services, plus inflows and outflows of income, particularly payments of dividends and interest on loans.

Then there's the "capital and financial account" which, as its name implies, summarises the inflows and outflows arising from the financial-capital dimension of the transactions included in the current account.

Because the balance of payments is calculated using the accountants' double-entry bookkeeping system of debits and credits, the balance of payments is always in balance. So if the current account sums to a deficit, the capital account must sum to a surplus of the same size.

The fund's report acknowledges that Australia almost always runs a deficit on the current account, with an offsetting surplus (net capital inflow) on the capital account.

This is because we've always invested a lot more each year (in new business equipment and structures, homes and public infrastructure) than we (businesses, households and governments) have saved each year, so we've always needed to call on the savings of foreigners to make up the gap.

Foreigners' savings come as either loans (known as "debt capital") or the purchase of shares in our businesses or real estate ("equity capital").

Worries about the size of the deficit on the current account go back to the days before 1983, when the Australian dollar's rate of exchange with other currencies was fixed at a certain level by the government.

It was the government's job to defend that fixed rate by making sure the current account deficit and the capital account surplus were never too far apart.

This "balance of payments constraint" meant that if the current deficit got too big relative to the capital surplus, the government would have to crunch the economy so as to get imports down and thus help it keep the dollar's value unchanged.

If this didn't happen, the government would suffer the ignominy of devaluing our dollar and hoping this would get the current deficit and capital surplus back together.

When, in 1983, we decided to allow the value of the dollar to "float", however, this allowed it to move up or down automatically and continuously by however much was needed to keep the current deficit and the capital surplus exactly equal at all times.

It took until some years after the float for economists to realise that, in the new, more globalised world of floating currencies and unrestricted flows of financial capital between countries, there was much less reason to worry about the excessive size of the current deficit.

The necessary "devaluation" of the exchange rate would be brought about by the foreign exchange market, not the government.

The fund's report notes that, in the 1960s and '70s, the current account deficit fluctuated around 1 and 2 per cent of gross domestic product.

During the 35 years since the float, however, the current deficit blew out, averaging about 4 per cent of GDP. In consequence, there was a huge increase in our foreign liabilities, particularly our net foreign debt – to a mere $990 billion at last count.

This is what worried many people – until the economists and politicians decided to stop talking about it and focus on something different, the federal government's budget deficit and net government debt.

But here, at last, is the news: the fund reports that, since the global financial crisis in late 2008, the current account deficit has been a lot smaller. It's expected to have been only 2 per cent in 2017.

Why the improvement? Since the current deficit and the capital surplus are two sides of the same coin, you can explain changes by looking at either side – or both. The report offers two reasons for the smaller current deficit and three for the smaller capital surplus.

On the current account, it says we suffered a larger slowdown in growth in domestic demand (spending on consumption and investment goods) following the crisis than did our major trading partners (which, remember, are mainly fast-growing Asian economies).

So our imports from them weakened by more than our exports to them.

As well, the current deficit has been reduced by a lower "net income deficit" – gone from 3 per cent of GDP before the crisis to 1.5 per cent since – because world interest rates are so much lower, and our interest payments to foreigners far exceed their interest payments to us.

On the capital account surplus – representing the amount by which national investment exceeds national saving - the report notes that households have been saving a higher proportion of their incomes since the crisis than before it (even though they're saving less now than they were a few years back).

Second, since the crisis, our companies have saved more by retaining more of their profits rather than paying them out in dividends and, despite the surge in investment spending by mining companies that's only now ending, other companies haven't been investing much until recently.

Finally, the tightening up of international capital adequacy requirements in reaction to the crisis has obliged our banks to increase their saving by retaining more of their profits.

The report foresees the current account deficit stabilising at about 2.5 per cent of GDP in the next few years – which would be almost back to its modest levels when our exchange rate was still fixed.