Friday, March 13, 2020

Morrison's trickle-down stimulus may not be enough

I hope I’m wrong, but I doubt if Scott Morrison’s $17.6 billion stimulus package is big enough to stop the temporary shock of the coronavirus outbreak becoming a longer-lasting blow to the economy.

We live in an economy that produces goods and services worth $2 trillion a year. To have a significant impact on the economy we needed measures worth at least 1 per cent of that – about $20 billion in their first year.

To be fair, the package is much bigger than earlier envisaged, but “a touch less than 1 per cent” isn’t as comforting as well over 1 per cent. It’s clear the measures in the package have been carefully designed – Treasury’s fingerprints are everywhere – and Morrison keeps saying it’s “scalable”: it can be added to. Maybe he’s already intending to top it up.

Treasury’s famous advice to former prime minister Kevin Rudd during the global financial crisis in 2008 was “go hard, go early, go households”. That advice is as good today as it was then. Morrison and his Coalition colleagues have spent the past decade finding fault with Rudd’s stimulus but, as the prominent economist Chris Richardson has said, “it worked”.

Apart from not going hard enough, Morrison’s package is – for reasons easy to guess at - half-hearted about “going households” – that is, sending cash direct to households in the hope of making them less worried about their debts and getting them to spend in the shops.

Morrison’s allegedly nothing-like-Labor’s cash splash is $750 a throw, but limited to welfare recipients. Since retailers were doing it tough even before the virus, it should have gone to all low and middle income-earners.

A special feature of the virus “challenge” (as the spin-doctors prefer to put it) will be the need for workers to stay home – and the temptation for the quarter of them not covered by sick leave to keep working and earning when they shouldn’t.

Morrison’s solution is to waive the delay period once casual workers have jumped through all Centrelink’s hoops and applied for the little-used “sickness allowance”. Much easier and more effective to have included them in the cash splash.

Rather than the direct approach of a bigger cash splash, Morrison has favoured the trickle-down approach: he gives cash rebates to small and medium businesses, intended to discourage them from laying off workers if the virus disruption means they don’t have much work to do.

(Big businesses have been incentivised with an appeal to their patriotism. How this works if they are foreign-owned – like the Big Singaporean, BHP - I’m not sure.)

A praise-worthy effort to protect the jobs of the nation’s 120,000 apprentices and services-sector trainees has been included.

The temporary expansion of the instant asset write-off for smaller businesses should have some success in encouraging them to spend on new cars, trucks and equipment before June 30, despite the less-than-booming demand for their products. Of course, this will mainly draw forward spending that now won’t occur over the next year or two.

But the real money - $6.7 billion - will be spent on a temporary scheme to improve the cash flow by between $2000 and $25,000 of small to medium businesses that keep their staff on this year.

Trouble is, much of that money will go to businesses that had no intention of letting their skilled (and thus well-paid) workers go, whereas many small businesses whose workers are unskilled and badly paid (and thus more likely to be let go) won’t be entitled to anything more than the minimum $2000 rebate.