Monday, October 12, 2020

Budget’s easy future: no more surpluses, lots more tax cuts

Last week’s budget quietly brought about a historic shift in the fiscal policy “framework”: we moved from the Treasury puritanical view of what constitutes responsible budgeting, to the more licentious Republican view.

Until now, the Liberals have been committed to ending “debt and deficit”, but now they’ve decided they can live with both. The coronacession has left them with little choice, but there’s more to it.

America’s Republicans adhere to two fiscal principles: first, budget deficits are terrible things - but only because those appalling, big-spending Democrats are in charge. Second, once the Republicans are back in power, deficits are of less concern and no barrier to us granting our supporters big tax cuts.

Treasuries – including state treasuries – have a lot of firmly held views about what constitutes good public policy, but what they care about most – their sacred duty – is to keep the budget in balance.

Every time a recession pushes the budget into deficit, they fight untiringly until the economy’s recovery and much “fiscal consolidation” has returned the budget to balance. Their rationale for this obsession is that if they don’t care about balancing the budget, who will? The vote-buying politicians?

Early in the term of the Howard government, when the budget had still not fully recovered from the recession of the early 1990s, Treasury persuaded the Libs to enshrine this objective as their “medium-term fiscal strategy” - to “maintain budget balance, on average, over the course of the economic cycle”.

Successive Labor and Liberal governments have adopted that strategy with minor alteration.

After the Rudd government’s use of fiscal stimulus to avoid the Great Recession in 2009, it added a “deficit exit strategy” which committed it to “banking” any recovery in tax receipts and avoiding any policy changes (that is, tax cuts), as well as limiting real growth in government spending to an average of 2 per cent a year (a commitment Labor only pretended to keep).

In Tony Abbott’s first budget, the Libs’ “budget repair strategy” committed them to more than offset new spending measures by reductions in spending elsewhere, and to bank any improvement in the budget bottom line until a surplus of at least 1 per cent of gross domestic product had been achieved.

In Malcolm Turnbull’s first budget in 2016, however, he broke the commitment by deciding to cut the rate of company tax while the budget was still well short of surplus.

With that commitment out the window, it was easy in last year’s pre-election budget for Scott Morrison to promise a three-stage tax cut, spread from July 2018 to July 2024 and costing $300 billion over 10 years, purely on the strength of projections showing that tax collections would otherwise exceed the government’s ceiling of 23.9 per cent of GDP and keep soaring to 25.6 per cent by 2029-30. Immediately after its miraculous re-election, it rushed the plan into law.

It was always folly for any government committed to eliminating its debt to enact tax cuts five years into an uncertain future. The projections were overly optimistic at the time, but then the coronacession blew them away.

Tax collections are now expected to be only 21.8 per cent of GDP this financial year, and are projected only to have recovered to 22.9 per cent by 2030-31 – still way below the ceiling formerly said to justify a round of tax cuts.

Any government still committed to getting the budget back to surplus as soon as reasonably possible would have cancelled the legislated tax cuts – which now would be funded by borrowing – when further targeted-and-temporary government spending would be far more effective in creating jobs. Rate-scale tax cuts (as opposed to the one-year extension of the middle-income tax offset) are a continuing drag on the budget balance.

But no, rather than cut his coat according to his cloth, Scott Morrison has doubled down, bringing the second-stage tax cuts forward two years under the pretence it will do wonders for “jobs and growth”. The budget is projected still to be in a deficit of 1.6 per cent of GDP in 10 years’ time.

To make it all legit, however, the commitment to achieve budget surpluses on average has been junked and replaced with a new medium-term fiscal strategy merely to “focus on growing the economy in order to stabilise and reduce debt”, which will thereby “provide flexibility to respond to changing economic conditions”.

As the budget papers explain, and Josh Frydenberg has said, “with historically low interest rates, it is not necessary to run budget surpluses to stabilise and reduce debt as a share of GDP – provided the economy is growing steadily”.

Which is true. And the new, weaker medium-term strategy also provides the flexibility for governments to act like the Republicans and give a tax cut in response to changing political conditions. Happy days.