Showing posts with label imports. Show all posts
Showing posts with label imports. Show all posts

Monday, May 9, 2022

Inflation: bad for your budget, good for the government's

A big part of the Morrison government’s pitch about being better at economic management than Labor is its claim to have ensured all the massive increase in unfunded government spending during the years of pandemic lockdowns was “targeted and temporary”. Well, not really.

In a paper written by Matt Saunders and Dr Richard Denniss, of the Australia Institute, they study the forecasts and projections out to 2025-26 in the latest budget, which those with long memories will remember was presented at the start of this seemingly endless election campaign.

The authors find that, relative to what was projected in the last budget before the pandemic, annual government spending is now projected to grow at a much higher rate. It’s true annual spending has fallen back from its peak in 2020-21, but not by nearly as much as it should have if all the extra spending had been “targeted and temporary”.

So, what’s happened? I think I know. All the spending programs specifically labelled as part of the effort to hold the economy together during the lockdowns – JobKeeper, the JobSeeker supplement and all the rest – have indeed been wound up as promised.

But last year’s budget and this year’s both contained new spending initiatives that were separate to the explicitly pandemic-related measures. These, like most spending measures, were ongoing. Their annual cost tends to rise over time, in line with inflation and population growth.

If you remember, last year’s budget included much additional spending on aged care in response to the shocking findings of the royal commission, extra spending on the National Disability Insurance Scheme and a big increase in childcare subsidies.

Another thing worth remembering about last year’s budget: whatever the obvious political motivation for that additional spending, the econocrats co-opted it for their Plan B: if after almost a decade trying you can’t get wages to return to their normal healthy growth, why not try getting unemployment down so low that employers have to bid up wages to get or retain the labour they need?

With under acknowledged help from the temporary closure of our borders to all imported labour, Plan B has worked so well it’s now adding to the risk of ongoing inflation arising from all the once-off imported inflation.

But perhaps the most startling thing revealed by the authors’ examination of the budget papers is the way, relative to the pre-pandemic figures, nominal gross domestic product is now projected to grow at quite a faster rate than real GDP.

Why would nominal grow faster than real? Clearly, because of a higher rate of inflation. Remember, however, here we’re talking about inflation measured not as usual by the consumer price index, but as measured by the “GDP deflator”.

Why would the two inflation measures give significantly different results? Because our “terms of trade” had changed. If the prices we receive for our exports are changing at a different rate from the prices we’re paying for our imports.

So the GDP deflator includes changes in export prices, and subtracts changes in the prices of imports, whereas the CPI ignores export prices, but does include changes in the retail prices of imported consumer goods and services.

We’ve been making so much fuss about the bad news of rising import prices, such as petrol and diesel, we’ve forgotten that, as a big exporter of energy and food, we’re a net beneficiary of the Ukraine war’s effect on world commodity prices.

With much additional help from high iron ore prices, our terms of trade improved by more than 12 per cent in the March quarter, to a record high. A record high, and no one noticed.

But here’s the trick: your personal budget benefits only indirectly, if all at, from our booming exports. But it will bear the full effect of higher import prices, which do most to explain why the cost of living is up 5 per cent in a year and headed higher.

The Reserve Bank is confident this year’s round of wage rises will be a fair bit higher than last year’s, but it is adding to home-buyers’ cost of living by putting up interest rates, to help ensure wages rise by a lot less than prices in the period ahead.

So, recent developments not good news for your budget, but great news for the government’s budget. Its revenue tends to grow in line with the growth in nominal GDP. And higher inflation means higher taxes.

Mining companies paying more company tax, consumers paying more goods and services tax and, even despite the continuing fall in real wages, higher income tax collections as whatever wage rise workers do get pushes them into higher tax brackets or otherwise raises their average tax rate. Good news for some.

Read more >>

Friday, August 6, 2021

Our dealings with the world have reversed, for good or ill

One of the most remarkable developments in our economy in recent times is also the most unremarked: after endless decades of running a deficit on the current account of our balance of payments, for the past two years we’ve been running a surplus. Which looks likely to continue.

Because a “deficit” sounds like it’s a bad thing, and the media know their audience finds bad news much more interesting than good news, I guess it’s not so surprising this seemingly good news hasn’t attracted much attention.

But one thing economics teaches is that, contrary to popular impression, not all deficits are bad and not all surpluses are good. It depends on the circumstances. But regardless of whether they regard a current account surplus as a good sign or a bad one, I suspect most economists think there are more important issues to worry about.

This week the Australian Bureau of Statistics revealed a record trade surplus of $10.5 billion in just the month of June.

We recorded a current account surplus of $17.6 billion during the March quarter this year. That compares with a peak deficit of $23.5 billion in September quarter, 2015.

Since the bureau started publishing the figures in 1959, we’ve run 221 quarterly deficits, but just 26 surpluses. Eight of those have come over the past two years.

But let’s start at the beginning. A country’s “balance of payments” is a summary record of all the transactions during a period of time between, in our case, an Australian on one side and a foreigner on the other. Those on either side could be businesses, governments or individuals. Mainly they’re businesses.

Conceptually, the balance of payments is recorded using double-entry bookkeeping, where one side of the transaction is recorded as a debit and the other as a credit. So, when you add up all the debits and add up all the credits, the two amounts should be equal. Thus the balance of payments is in balance at all times.

This matters because the balance of payments is divided into two main accounts, the “current account” and the “capital and financial account”. The value of transactions involving exports or imports of goods and services goes in the current account, as do payments – in or out - of income such as interest and dividends.

But the other side of each of those transactions involving exports, imports or income payments, the amount someone has to pay – the financial side of the transaction – goes in the capital account, as do purely financial transactions, such as when one of our banks borrows from or lends to some overseas bank, or when one of our superannuation funds buys or sells shares in a foreign company.

Bear with me. The income we earn from foreigners who buy our exports or pay us dividends or interest is recorded as a credit, whereas the money we pay to foreigners for our imports or as dividends on the Australian shares they own or interest on the money they’ve lent us is recorded as a debit.

When we sell them shares in an Aussie business, borrow from them or sell them some real estate, that’s a credit in the capital account. When they sell us shares or land or lend us money, that’s recorded as a debit.

An account where the debits exceed the credits is in deficit. When the credits exceed the debits it’s in surplus.

There had to be a reason for explaining all this, and we’ve reached it. Historically, we almost always imported more than we exported, running a deficit on trade in goods and services. Likewise, we always had to pay more in dividends and interest to foreign owners and lenders than they had to pay us on our foreign shareholdings and loans to them, thus causing us to run a “net income deficit”.

Put the trade deficit and the net income deficit together and you get the balance on the current account, which was always in deficit. Oh no!

But here’s the trick. Since the double-entry system means the debits always equal the credits, if we always ran a deficit on the current account of the balance of payments, that means we always ran an equal and opposite surplus on the capital account. Yippee!

So if you think it’s good news that our current account is now in surplus, what do you think of the news that our capital account is now in deficit? Time to stop assuming all deficits are bad and all surpluses good.

In all the decades that our current account was in deficit, economists never thought that a bad thing. They knew Australia was – and should be – a “capital-importing country”. We always had a lot more investment opportunities than we could finance with our own saving, so we invited foreigners to bring their savings to Oz to participate in our economic development.

This continuous inflow of foreign capital gave us a continuous surplus on the capital account and thus allowed us to import more than we exported. Naturally, we had to pay big dividends and interest to those foreign investors.

So, why has all that reversed? Well, the reversal began in about 2015, long before the pandemic. Its first main cause is the rapid industrialisation of China, which has greatly increased our exports of minerals and energy and, until the pandemic, education and tourism.

But a second, less-favourable development has been our part in the rich economies’ slowdown in economic growth since the global financial crisis in 2008. This has involved increased saving and reduced investment spending – both of which have helped move our current account towards surplus and our capital account towards deficit.

Economists at the ANZ Bank predict the current account will fall back towards balance over the next few years. But we won’t return to our accustomed capital-importing status until we and the rest of the rich world escape the present low-growth trap.

Read more >>