When you ask people who work in the House with the Flag on Top why the budget deficit has gone up or gone down, most will tell you it’s gone up because the government decided to spend more money, or it’s gone down because the government decided to spend less money.
When you live in Canberra, the budget looms large and the economy is something far distant in Melbourne or Sydney or somewhere. The budget is the steering wheel by which those in the national capital control the economy of you and me, they think.
When you consider how close they live to all the economists in Treasury and all the distinguished economists at the Australian National University, it's surprising how little so many Canberrans understand about the economy.
The truth is, the nation’s economy – almost all of which exists outside the ACT – is far bigger and more powerful than the budget of the federal government (even after you throw in the budgets of the eight states and territories).
So, though it’s true that changes in the federal budget can have a big influence on what happens in the economy, it’s just as true that what happens in the economy can have a big influence on what happens to the budget.
To be clear, there’s a two-way relationship between the big thing that is the economy and the much smaller thing that is the budget. What’s done to the budget affects the economy, but what you and I - and the businesses we mainly work for - do to the economy has a big effect on the budget.
On how much tax we end up having to pay, and on the benefits – in kind as well as cash – the government has to pay us. How many kids we have and send to school. Whether they decide to go on to university or TAFE. How old we get and need the age pension and go to doctors and hospitals more often. Whether we lose our jobs and need to be supported by the dole. And all the rest.
With the virus and the consequent recession changing everything, this week we were supposed to get an emergency update on the state of the economy and the budget from Treasurer Josh Frydenberg. But he’s put it off until late next month.
Not to worry. On Friday the independent Parliamentary Budget Office stepped into the breach and produced “medium-term fiscal projections” of the effect of the coronavirus and the policy response to it.
Starting with the forecasts in the mid-year update published in December as its base, it used the Reserve Bank’s recently published forecasts for the economy (in lieu of Treasury’s) to estimate the expected change in the federal budget’s receipts, payments and underlying cash balance brought about by the crisis.
Its headline finding was that the crisis may cause the federal government’s net public debt to be between $500 billion and $620 billion higher than it would otherwise have been by 2029-30. That would be equivalent to between 11 and 18 per cent of gross domestic product.
But no one knows what the future holds, and projections 10 years into the future are so speculative as to be useless. They’re actually a bad thing because they give the uninitiated (including the politicians) a false sense of certainty.
The report’s way of putting this is to say its results are “indicative only” – which is an econocrats’ way of saying that, at best, they give you a rough idea of what might happen. So let’s just focus on the guesstimates for this (almost over) financial year and the next two, ending with 2021-22.
They show the budget deficit for this financial year is now expected to be $67 billion worse than formerly expected. The budget balance for the coming financial year may be $191 billion worse and for 2021-22 may be $56 billion worse. That’s a total deterioration of $314 billion.
Now, the explicit policy decisions of the government in response to the virus are expected to account for only $187 billion of that total. This accounts for almost all the expected increase in government payments, leaving the expected fall of $126 billion in tax collections and other receipts making up the remainder.
Get it? About 40 per cent of the overall deterioration came from the recession, caused by the fall in tax collections – individuals earning less income and paying less income tax; companies earning lower profits and paying less company tax; consumers buying less and paying less goods and services tax – leaving the government’s own actions accounting only for the remaining 60 per cent.
As economists put it, about 60 per cent of the expected deterioration in the budget balance over three years is “structural”, whereas 40 per cent is “cyclical” – meaning it will fix itself as the economy recovers.