Monday, May 20, 2024

How the budget was hijacked by a $300 cherry on the top

Talk about small things amusing small minds. It looked like a textbook-perfect exercise in budget media management by Anthony Albanese’s spin doctors. Until it blew up in the boss’s face. Trouble is, it wasn’t just the tabloid minds that got side-tracked. So did the supposed financial experts.

Budget nights are highly stage-managed affairs, as the spinners ensure all the mainstream media are focused on the bit the boss has decided will get the budget a favourable initial reception.

You pre-announce – or “drop” to a compliant journo – almost all the budget’s measures, big or small, nice or nasty. This time they even revealed the exact size of the old year’s surplus. But you hold back one juicy morsel, knowing the media’s obsession with what’s “old” and what’s “new” will guarantee it leads every home page.

I call it the cherry on the top. And this time it was the $300 energy rebate going to all households. A prize for everyone (except the pensioners, who last year got $500) and proof positive that Jim Chalmers feels their cost-of-living pain. (It would have been much better to announce the rejig of the stage 3 tax cuts, of course, but Albo had to play that card early, to help with a dicey byelection.)

How were the spinners to know the punters would be incensed when they realised it would even be going to Gina Rinehart? And get this: if a billionaire owned, say, 10 investment properties, they’d be getting 11 lots of $300. Outrageous.

The way some tabloids tell it, the punters were so offended they were rioting in the streets, demanding Chalmers stick their $300 up his jumper. It was the Beatles returning their MBEs.

Why wasn’t the rebate means tested? Perfectly good reason: because that would have been more trouble and expense than it was worth. Don’t bother mentioning: because, apart from being a popular giveaway, the rebate’s other purpose was to help reduce the consumer price index by 0.5 of a percentage point, and means testing it would have reduced the reduction.

How so many shock jocks and journos could get so steamed up about such a small thing is hard to explain. But what’s much harder to explain is why so many otherwise sensible economists got so steamed up about the wickedness and counterproductive wrongheadedness of it.

I think it’s a perfectly sensible device to hasten progress in getting inflation down to the target zone, and by no means the first time governments have used it. The temporary energy rebate will cost $3.5 billion over two years and the continuing increase in the Commonwealth rent allowance for people on social security will cost $880 million over its first two years.

So while it’s true that increased government spending adds to inflationary pressure, to argue furiously about $4.4 billion in an economy worth $2.7 trillion a year shows the lack of something the late great econocrat Aussie Holmes said every economist needed: “a sense of the relative magnitudes”. It’s chicken feed.

But the financial experts’ righteous indignation about what they see as an inflationary attempt to fudge the inflation figures seemed to utterly distort their evaluation of the budget and its effect on the macroeconomy.

The budget was a “short-term shameless vote-buying exercise” in which Labor abandoned all pretence of fiscal responsibility and went on a massive spending spree. The budget’s return to surplus had been abandoned, leaving us with deficits as far as the eye could see. We now had a permanent “structural deficit”. The hyperbole flowed like wine.

It’s true that the policy decisions announced in the budget are expected to add $24 billion to budget deficits over the next four years. But if, as the financial experts assert, getting inflation down ASAP is the only thing we should be worrying about, then it’s really what’s added in the coming year that matters most. Which reduces the size of Chalmers’ crimes to less than $10 billion.

It’s true, too, that the expected change in the budget balance from a $9 billion surplus in the financial year just ending, to a deficit of $28 billion in the coming year, is a turnaround of more than $37 billion. Clearly, and despite Chalmers’ denials, this changes the “stance” of fiscal policy from restrictive to expansionary.

But the financial experts seem to have concluded this development can be explained only by a massive blowout in government spending. Wrong. It’s mainly explained by the $23-billion-a-year cost of the stage 3 tax cuts.

Perhaps they were misled by the budget’s Table of Truth (budget statement 3, page 87) which, like everything in economics, has its limitations. The tax cuts don’t rate a mention. Why not? Because they’ve been government policy since 2018, and so have been hidden deep in the budget’s “forward estimates” for six years.

But whatever its main cause, surely this shift to expansionary fiscal policy puts the kybosh on getting inflation back down to the target range? Well, it would if shifts in the stance of the macroeconomic policy instruments were capable of turning the economy on a sixpence.

Unfortunately, the first rule of using interest rates to slow down or speed up the economy is that this “monetary policy” works with a “long and variable lag”.

The financial experts seem to have forgotten that managing the strength of demand – and fixing inflation without crashing the economy – is all about getting your timing right.

So is predicting the consequences of a policy change. Two years of highly restrictive monetary and fiscal policies won’t be instantly reversed by a switch to expansionary fiscal policy. As the new boss of the Grattan Institute, Aruna Sathanapally, has wisely noted, at the heart of the budget is the sad truth that the economy is weak, which is one reason inflation will fall.

The inflation rate peaked at just under 8 per cent at the end of 2022. By March this year it had fallen to 3.6 per cent. To me, that’s not a million miles from the Reserve Bank’s target range of 2 per cent to 3 per cent.

But the financial experts seem to have convinced themselves there’s a lot of heavy lifting to go. They even quote one brave soul saying the Reserve will need two more rate rises. I think it’s more likely we’ll get down to the target in the coming financial year, and that the move to expansionary fiscal policy will prove well-timed to help reverse engines and ensure the Reserve achieves its promised soft landing.

Chalmers’ decision to use the $300 rebate to reduce the consumer price index directly by 0.5 of a percentage point adds to my confidence. It’s particularly sensible if, as the financial experts have convinced themselves, the inflation rate’s fall is now “sticky”.

Those dismissing this decline as merely “technical” display their ignorance of how wages and prices are set outside the pages of a textbook. To everyone but economists, the CPI is the inflation rate. It’s built into many commercial contracts and budget measures.

It’s a safe bet this device will cause the Fair Work Commission’s annual increase in minimum award wage rates – affecting the bottom quarter of the workforce – to be about 0.5 of a percentage point lower than otherwise. And do you really think employers won’t take the opportunity to reduce wage rises accordingly? I doubt they’re that generous.