Thursday, May 30, 2019


UBS HSC Economics Day, Sydney, Thursday, May 30, 2019

I want to start by congratulating you – you’ve picked a really interesting year to be studying economics. Strange things are happening in the economy – it’s not working the way it used to before the global financial crisis. The managers of the macro economy have gone for years predicting things will soon be back to normal, but it hasn’t happened yet and, just last week, the governor of the Reserve Bank, Dr Philip Lowe, made it clear the RBA would begin cutting interest rates next Tuesday. So, though I will be talking about the budget last month and fiscal policy, I’ll do so in the broader context of the use of economic policies to manage the economy and deal in particular with the economic issues of growth, unemployment and inflation.

Our economy – and, as it happened, the global economy – slowed sharply in the second half of last year, growing by just 2.3 pc over the course of 2018, a lot slower than our estimated “potential” (or “trend”) rate of growth of 2¾ pc. So we’ve had seven years of weak growth in real GDP, in productivity improvement and in real wages, with inflation stuck below the target range of 2 to 3 pc on average. And although employment has grown a lot more strongly than all that would lead you to expect, the unemployment rate was stuck at 5 pc for six months, and now may be starting to rise, and under-employment with it.

Trouble is, the government and Treasury don’t seem to have got the message. When the Treasurer, Josh Frydenberg, unveiled his first budget on April 2, effectively the start of the election campaign, he repeated essentially the same forecast Treasury had been making for the previous seven years, that the economy, wages and inflation would soon return to the old normal: 2¾ pc economic growth, 2½ pc inflation, wage growth of 3¼ pc and unemployment of 5 pc. This optimistic forecast – particularly of an early return to strong growth in real wages – is hard to reconcile with recent deterioration in economic indicators I’ve just mentioned, and the RBA’s sharp downward revisions to its own forecasts and its decision that it must start cutting interest rates again to stop the economy slowing even further.

Now let’s look at the secondary arm of macroeconomic management – fiscal policy. But, since the main policy arm - monetary policy – has so far been the main arm used to achieve internal balance (ie low inflation and low unemployment), we need to say a little about monetary policy, since it’s been the main arm responding to this story of so-far disappointingly weak growth in wages and GDP.

Recent developments in monetary policy

Because of the six consecutive years of below-trend growth since 2011-12, the Reserve Bank cut its cash rate from 4.25 pc to 1.5 pc between the end of 2011 and August 2016. For more than 2½ years after that, it left the rate unchanged – a record period of stability. It’s not hard to see why it left the official interest rate so low for so long: the inflation rate has been below its target range; wage growth has been weak, suggesting no likelihood of rising inflation pressure; the economy has yet to accelerate and has plenty of unused production capacity, and the rate of unemployment shows little sign of falling below its estimated NAIRU of 5 pc. But now, after many months of saying the next move in interest rates would be up, the recent bad results on growth and inflation – a fall in the inflation rate to just 1.3 pc – the RBA is starting to cut the cash rate, so as to increase the monetary stimulus being applied to the economy.

Fiscal policy “framework”

Fiscal policy - the manipulation of government spending and taxation in the budget - is conducted according to the Morrison government’s medium-term fiscal strategy: “to achieve budget surpluses, on average, over the course of the economic cycle”. This means the primary role of discretionary fiscal policy is to achieve “fiscal sustainability” - that is, to ensure we don’t build up an unsustainable level of public debt. However, the strategy leaves room for the budget’s automatic stabilisers to be unrestrained in assisting monetary policy in pursuing internal balance. It also leaves room for discretionary fiscal policy to be used to stimulate the economy and thus help monetary policy manage demand.

Recent developments in fiscal policy

Until recently, 2017-18, the Coalition government (and the Labor government before it) had seen the growth in the economy being repeatedly less than forecast, meaning the government has made slow progress in returning the budget to surplus and halting the rise in its net debt. Even so, it has focused on the medium-term objective of fiscal sustainability, not the secondary objective of helping monetary policy to get the economy growing faster. The long period of policy stimulus has come almost wholly from lower official interest rates.

In the year to June 30, 2018, however, the underlying cash budget deficit proved a lot smaller than expected - thanks mainly to an improvement in export commodity prices and higher company tax collections for other reasons. The improvement in export prices continued in bolster company tax collections in the financial year just ending, 2018-19, producing another big fall in the budget deficit. How can the budget be improving rapidly when economic growth has been weak? Because of the unexpected improvement in the terms of trade and thus mining company profits and tax payments.

In this year’s budget Mr Frydenberg is forecasting a return to a modest budget surplus of $7 billion (0.4 pc of GDP) in 2019-20, with the surplus continuing to grow in future years.

This forecast improvement in the budget balance means that, when expressed as a proportion of GDP, the federal government’s net debt is now expected to peak at 19 pc in June 2019, and then fall back to zero by June 2030. Again, it will be a great thing if it happens. It also means the budget balance is expected to continue improving despite the budget’s centrepiece, a doubling of last year’s plan for tax cuts in three stages (July 2018, July 2022 and July 2024) over seven years, with a cumulative cost to the budget of a remarkable $300 billion over 10 years. This is possible because of plan’s slow start.

Judged the RBA’s way, by its “fiscal impact” (the expected direction and size of the change in the overall budget balance), the “stance of fiscal policy” adopted in the budget is mildly contractionary. However, judged the Keynesian way (which focuses on the expected direction and size of the change in just the structural or discretionary component of the budget balance) the stance is mildly stimulatory, thanks to the doubled immediate first stage of the tax cuts.