Saturday, June 22, 2019

How to multiply the bang from your budget buck

Years ago, I came to a strong conclusion: the politician who could resist the temptation to use the budget to prop up the economy when it’s falling in a heap and making voters hugely dissatisfied has yet to be born.

So let me make a fearless prediction: whatever they’re saying now, sooner or later Treasurer Josh Frydenberg and his boss Scott Morrison will use “fiscal policy” (aka the budget) to help counter the sharp slowdown in the economy that, if we’re not careful or our luck doesn’t hold, could lead to something much worse.

How can I be so sure? Because I’ve seen it happen so many times before. As I wrote in this column last week, since the late 1970s it’s been the international conventional wisdom among governments and their advisers that “monetary policy” (interest rates) should be the chief instrument used to stabilise the economy as it moves through the ups and downs of the business cycle, with fiscal policy focused instead on achieving “fiscal sustainability” – making sure the public debt doesn’t get too high.

Take Malcolm Fraser, for instance. He spent almost all his time as prime minister trying to eliminate the big budget deficit he inherited from the Whitlam government.

Until, that is, his advisers noticed indications of what became the recession of the early 1980s. In his last budget, he cut taxes and boosted government spending.

The Hawke government was totally committed to leaving it all to monetary policy, and stuck to that even when Treasurer John Kerin brought down the 1991 budget during the depths of the recession we didn’t have to have in the early 1990s.

Except that, by this time, Paul Keating was on the backbench, telling everyone who’d listen that you’d have to be crazy not to be using the budget to stimulate the economy.

In February 1992, soon after he’d deposed Bob Hawke, Keating unveiled his own big One Nation stimulus package – which by then was far too late.

It was Dr Ken Henry’s realisation at the time that politicians will always do something, even if they should have done it much sooner that, after the global financial crisis in 2008, saw him urging Kevin Rudd to “go early, go hard, go households”.

Combined with a cut in interest rates far bigger than would be possible today, that fiscal stimulus was so effective in keeping us out of the Great Recession that, today, the punters have forgotten there was ever any threat and the Coalition has convinced itself it was never needed in the first place.

Now, as we also saw last week, with interest rates so close to zero, fiscal policy is back in fashion internationally – though I’m not sure the carrier pigeon has yet made it as far as Canberra. So we’ve got time for a quick refresher on how fiscal stimulus works while we wait for the penny to drop in the Bush Capital.

There is a “circular flow of income” around the economy, caused by the simple truth that one person’s spending is another person’s income. This means that $1 spent by the government (or anyone else, for that matter) can flow around the economy several times.

This is what economists call the “multiplier” effect. Just how big the multiplier is for any spending will depend on the “leakages” from the flow that happen when someone decides to save some of their income rather than spend it all, or when they spend some of their income on imported goods or services (including overseas holidays).

(There are also “injections” to the flow from investment – someone uses or borrows savings to spend on a new house or office or equipment – and from exports of goods or services to foreigners.)

This means that the degree of stimulus the economy receives will differ according to the choices the government makes about the form its stimulus will take.

In a briefing note prepared by Dr Peter Davidson for the Australian Council of Social Service, he quotes research on the size of multipliers calculated by the Congressional Budget Office for the various measures contained in President Obama’s stimulus package in 2009, after the financial crisis.

Where the government spent directly on the purchase of goods and services, $1 of spending increased US gross domestic product by between 50¢ and $2.50. Where the spending was money given to state governments for the construction of infrastructure, the multiplier ranged between 0.45 and 2.2.

For spending on social security payments, the multiplier ranged between 0.45 and 2.1. For one-off payments to retirees, it was between 0.2 and 1. For grants to first-home buyers, between 0.2 and 0.7.

Turning from government spending to tax cuts, the budget office found than tax cuts for low to middle income-earners yielded a multiplier of between 0.3 and 1.5. For tax cuts for high income-earners, it was between 0.05 and 0.6. For additional company tax deductions, it was 0.4.

These big differences aren’t hard to explain. Multipliers are highest for direct government purchases or construction because there’d be no initial leakage into saving and little into imports.

The multipliers for tax cuts are lower because of initial leakage into saving and imports – not so much for low and middle income-earners, but hugely so for high income-earners.

Davidson’s conclusion is that a fiscal stimulus package would give the biggest bang per buck if it focused on direct government spending (particularly on timely infrastructure projects) and transfer payments to social security recipients.

Unsurprisingly, he slips in a plug for a $75 a week increase in dole payments to single people and single parents which, because it went to the poorest households in the country, would be spent down to the last penny and on essentials such as food and rent, not imports. It would also go to the poorest regions in the country.

Sounds good to me – and also to Reserve Bank governor Dr Philip Lowe.