Monday, April 4, 2022

Huge public debt isn’t the worry, it’s continuing budget deficits

There’s an easy way to tell how much someone understands economics: those at panic stations about the huge level of our government debt just don’t get it. But that’s not to say we don’t have a problem with the budget deficit.

Australia’s public debt isn’t high by international standards. It doesn’t have to be repaid by us, our children or anyone else. Since budget surpluses – which do reduce debt – have always been the exception rather than the rule, government debt is invariably “rolled over” (when bonds become due for redemption, they’re simply replaced with new ones).

The time-honoured way governments get on top of their debts is simply to outgrow them. So Treasurer Josh Frydenberg’s plan to reduce the relative importance of the debt by striving for strong economic growth is neither new nor radical.

If the debt panickers took more notice of what’s actually happening, they’d see that this approach is already bearing fruit. The remarkable strength of the economy’s rebound from the coronacession – much of which is owed to the success of the much-criticised JobKeeper scheme – is helping in two ways.

First, it’s causing the budget deficit to fall much quicker than expected, thus reducing the amount we’re adding to the debt in dollar terms. Second, the faster growth in the economy is slowing the growth of the debt in relative terms – that is, relative to the size of the economy that services the debt.

Most of the unexpected improvement in the budget balance has been allowed to stand, with only a small proportion of it used for further stimulus. That’s particularly true of last week’s budget, notwithstanding its blatant vote-buying.

The media have given us an exaggerated impression of the cost of those measures (particularly when you take account of the decision to discontinue the $8 billion-a-year low and middle income tax offset, which most of them failed to notice because there was no press release).

So the biggest burden present and future generations bear from the debt is the interest bill on it. But with interest rates at an unprecedented low, there’s never been a better time to borrow. And though it’s true long-term rates have started rising, they’ll still be unusually low for at least the rest of this decade.

What’s more, the average interest rate payable on the debt rises even more slowly because the higher rate applies only to the small part of the debt that’s being newly borrowed or reborrowed each year.

The budget’s gross interest payments are projected to stay below 1 per cent of gross domestic product until at least 2026. Which, as the independent economist Saul Eslake reminds us, means they’ll stay far lower than they were at any time in the 30 years to 2000. Frightening, eh.

Yet another point to remember is that the Reserve Bank’s resort to “quantitative easing” (buying second-hand bonds with created money) meant that, in effect, more than all the stimulus spending of the past two years was borrowed not from the public, but from another part of government, the central bank. It’s just a book entry.

But though there’s no reason to worry about either the level of the public debt or the interest bill on it, that’s not to say we can go on running budget deficits for another decade at least – which is what the budget papers project will happen “on unchanged policies”.

We had good reason to borrow heavily to protect ourselves from the global financial crisis and the Great Recession of 2008-09, and good reason to borrow heavily to save life and limb during the pandemic.

(The reason the debt continued growing between the two crises, was partly because we kept cutting income tax despite our continuing deficits, but also because economic growth was unusually weak.)

But what we shouldn’t be doing is continuing to run budget deficits after the effect of the temporary stimulus measures has ended. That is, we shouldn’t be running a “structural” deficit because we haven’t been raising enough tax revenue to cover the ordinary (but growing) business of government.

Some economists estimate the structural deficit is roughly $40 billion a year. Treasury’s projections show it falling steadily as a proportion of gross domestic product over the 10 years to 2032-33, but that’s owing to continued growth in the economy plus the no-policy-change assumption that the big tax cut in 2024-25 will be followed by eight years of bracket creep without further tax cuts.

One thing we should have learnt by now is to expect further unexpected major shocks to the economy that require further heavy borrowing. It would be imprudent to add to our debt, and use up borrowing capacity, merely because we didn’t feel like paying our way during the intervals between crises.