Saturday, May 16, 2020

There's a lot of economic worry about, but here's what matters

If you’re wondering what shape the economy will be in when we come out of lockdown, how the recovery will go – what to worry about and what not to – there are three key issues: the economy and its growth, the budget and its deficit, and unemployment and its consequences.

These three are different but related. The trick is to understand how they’re related. What causes what. The media bombards us with information about them — without pausing to put them into context.

For instance, we hear so much about the budget and its deficit (which adds to the huge amount of debt) that I’m sure some people think the budget is the economy. If only we could get the budget balanced, the economy would be right, right?

No. But you could be forgiven for thinking so because Prime Minister Scott Morrison and his Treasurer, Josh Frydenberg, have been saying things that get the two muddled up. They’ve been saying: terribly sorry about what the lockdown's done to the economy, and all the money we’ve had to spend on JobKeeper and JobSeeker and the rest as a consequence, but at least we’d got the economy back in good shape before, through no fault of ours, we were hit by the virus.

But they’re not talking about the economy, they’re talking about the budget. It was the budget they’d finally got back to balance after six years in office and were set to it get back into surplus this year before the virus upset their plans.

They were saying, at least we’d got the budget back in balance before we had to start spending like mad — about $200 billion so far — and going back into (huge) deficit. Trouble is, they’d got the budget back in shape by causing the economy to grow more slowly than it would have. So the economy was in a weak state before the virus hit – which doesn’t sound like a good thing to me.

Huh? Let’s get back to basics. The budget is just a summary of the federal government’s finances: how much money it brings in from taxes and charges, less how much money it puts out in spending on health, education, pensions and the rest.

When it raises and spends equal amounts, its budget is in balance. When it spends more than it raises, its budget is in deficit and this deficiency has to be covered by borrowing. When it raises more than it spends, its budget is in surplus. It will use the surplus to repay money it’s borrowed in earlier years.

The government and its budget are just part (a reasonably small part) of the economy, which consists of all our businesses and our households (you and me) as well as the government (federal, state and local).

The money the government raises in taxes comes from the rest of the economy, whereas the money it spends goes to the rest of the economy. So when the government reduces its deficit (as it has been until now), this means it’s reducing the net amount it’s putting into the private sector, causing its growth to be weaker than otherwise.

This can be a good thing if the private sector is growing too strongly and threatening to worsen inflation. But if the private sector’s growth is weak, as it has been, this pullback by the government will weaken it further – as it has been.

Until now. The response to the virus, with all the lockdown has done to reduce the turnover of businesses and the income of workers, has hit the private sector for six. But all the extra government spending – which has hugely increased the budget deficit – has done much to break the private sector’s fall. That cushioning will make it easier for businesses and workers to get back on their feet.

But here’s the thing: the government’s big spending (plus, don’t forget, the much less income and other taxes we’ll be paying on our greatly reduced incomes) has blown out the budget deficit and will hugely increase the government’s debt.

So, which is the bigger worry? The big increase in the government’s debt, or the big contraction in the economy? I think it’s obvious. It’s the health of the economy that matters most because that’s where all Australians (even the retired) gain their livelihood.

The budget isn’t an end in itself. It’s an instrument – one of the means to the ultimate end of helping Australians have a good life. In recent weeks, we’ve seen the government doing what all governments do: using its budget to protect our lives and livelihoods.

Sure, that will leave us with a lot more deficit and debt. But first things first. What matters most is the health, economic and social wellbeing of the people who constitute “the economy”.

We’ll worry about the debt later. In any case, as I’ll explain another day, the debt isn’t as worrying as it looks. Hint: the lower interest rates are, the less you need to worry about how much you owe — and the less hurry you need to be in to pay it back.

Next, what’s the relationship between the economy’s growth and unemployment, and which matters more? The economy is usually measured by the value of all the goods and services we produce – gross domestic product – during a period, which is also the nation’s income.

The econocrats are expecting real GDP to fall by an unprecedented 10 per cent in the present quarter, but then start growing quite quickly as businesses get back to normal. If that happens, it will be good because it’s goods and services that people are employed to help produce.

So an early return to growth in the economy is good because it gets employment up and unemployment down – which is what matters most if you think people matter more than money.

But here’s the trick: the economy returns to growth a lot earlier than unemployment returns to where it was.