Frydenberg’s three-stage economic recovery is abominably hard to get right



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Warren Hogan, University of Technology Sydney

Gone are the days when economic policy was adjusted once each year by the government in the budget and fine-tuned once each month at meetings of the Reserve Bank board.

The coroanvirus means we haven’t had a budget in more than a year. What the Reserve Bank has done to interest rates means its monthly board meetings matter less.

Governor Philip Lowe reaffirmed this week that monetary policy was on hold for the foreseeable future. The bank’s cash rate is as low as it can go (actually well below its 0.25% target) and the bank will only intervene in the bond market if it has to in order to keep bond rates low (which it doesn’t — the demand for even the rush of new bond issues is much bigger than the supply).

It has lobbed the ball to Frydenberg’s side of the court.

The only situation in which it might be brought back into play is if the government ran into funding problems, of which there is no sign whatsoever.

Holding the racket

Credit: Josh Frydenberg.

The treasurer’s problem is sequencing, and we will are likely to get hints on how he’ll play it in the economic statement to be released today.

The first challenge was to limit the damage to the economy from the initial shock near the start of the year — to stop a vicious cycle of weaker spending, plummeting investment and soaring unemployment.

These self-reinforcing crises required a circuit breaker.

The emergency stimulus provided through Jobkeeper and Jobseeker has been a great success at putting a floor under incomes and demand.

The government ensured a basic income for people whose jobs were axed or at risk, kept hundreds of thousands attached to their jobs and bolstered household incomes despite a massive loss of activity. It gets a tick.

But these emergency measures will not get the economy going again once the crisis has eased.

Some argue they will stand in the way of a recovery if they keep people ensconced on benefits or attached to firms without futures.

A tricky transition

Phase two will require genuine fiscal stimulus: not a security blanket of the kind we have had, but a direct injection of money that will spark a new wave of investment and employment.

The trick is to sequence it properly.

The announced tapering of JobKeeper and JobSeeker will cut incomes and cut jobs as firms pay people less and realign staff levels in line with lower subsidies.

The government believes it has got it right, but it is forecasting an 80% drop in JobKeeper payments between September and the end of the year. It might not be a cliff but it is still a very steep slope that will need to be matched by a sharp recovery in economic activity.

It needs to be ready to revise the timetable as needed. Its current projections look like a best case scenario.

An unknowable stage two

The second stage will involve a good deal of spending on infrastructure. But, especially without certainty about immigration, it is hard to tell what will be needed.

The pandemic will have changed the way we work and play. It is not yet clear whether people take advantage of remote working and move out of congested cities. it is not yet clear what it will mean for digital health, digital education and digital shopping.

An even-harder stage three

The final stage will involve structural reforms; alterations to tax settings, regulations and industrial relations. Which is where it gets really hard. It will require not only sequencing but getting agreement across the political divide.

No civil society can base its economic and social structures on the mere desire for efficiency. Fairness and social justice matter just as much, and they can best be guaranteed if the measures are pulled together as a package with trade-offs that protect the values that matter to Australians.

That’ll be Frydenberg’s biggest challenge. The future doesn’t need to be rushed out this week, or in the October Budget, but in the months to come it’ll have to take shape.




Read more:
These budget numbers are shocking, and there are worse ones in store


The Conversation


Warren Hogan, Industry Professor, University of Technology Sydney

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Josh Frydenberg warns against Australia turning protectionist after COVID


Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

Treasurer Josh Frydenberg will warn against the danger of a protectionist push in Australia as a result of the virus crisis, in a Tuesday speech that also stresses it is vital to get the country moving as soon as possible.

“There is a risk that protectionist sentiment re-emerges on the other side of the crisis, and for that we must be vigilant,” Frydenberg will tell the National Press Club. An extract of his address was released ahead of delivery.

The crisis has prompted a debate about Australia being too dependent on China in terms of both exports and imports, with calls for greater self-sufficiency.

Without mentioning China in the extract, Frydenberg says, “While we must always safeguard our national interest, we must also recognise the great benefits that have accrued to Australia as a trading nation”.

“Unleashing the power of dynamic, innovative, and open markets must be central to the recovery, with the private sector leading job creation, not government.”

As the national cabinet this week considers lifting some restrictions, Frydenberg says for every extra week they remain, “Treasury estimates that we will see close to a $4 billion reduction in economic activity from a combination of reduced workforce participation, productivity and consumption.

“This is equivalent to what around four million Australians on the median wage would earn in a week.”

“We must get people back into jobs and back into work.”

He points out the longer people are unemployed, the harder it is to rejoin the workforce – in the early 1990s, unemployment increased by 5% over three years, then took seven years to get back to its former level.

“As has been remarked, unemployment went up in the elevator, and went down by the stairs. In the current coronavirus, it is expected the unemployment rate will go up by around 5% in three months, let alone three years. It underlines the importance of getting people back to work as soon as possible to avoid the long-term economic and social impacts from a high unemployment rate.”

The national cabinet meets on Tuesday and Friday, with announcements on Friday about unwinding some restrictions.

JACINDA ARDERN JOINS TUESDAY’S NATIONAL CABINET

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has been invited to join Tuesday’s national cabinet meeting. She said on Monday the meeting would discuss “the creation of a trans-Tasman travel bubble”.

But Ardern added the caveat: “Don’t expect this to happen in a couple of weeks time”. The health gains made in New Zealand had to be locked in, she said.

When Ardern spoke to the media on Monday, New Zealand had had no new cases in the previous 24 hours. Its strategy is one of trying to eliminate the virus, while Australia’s strategy has been one of suppression.

Ardern said Tuesday’s meeting “is without precedent”; it highlighted “the mutual importance of our two countries, and economies, to each other.

“Both our countries’ strong record on fighting the virus has placed us in the enviable position of being able to plan the next stage in our economic rebuild, and to include tran-Tasman travel and engagement in our strategy.”

There will be discussion at the meeting of the progress of Australia’s COVIDSafe app. More than 4.5 million people have downloaded it so far.

National cabinet will also receive a presentation on COVID safe workplaces, which has been a project of the National COVID-19 Coordination Commission.

In his speech Frydenberg says when widespread restrictions were imposed in March Treasury estimated a 10-12% fall in GDP in the June quarter, the equivalent of about $50 billion.

If these restrictions had been akin to the eight-week lockdown in Europe, the impact on GDP could have been 24%, or $120 billion, in the June quarter, he says.

“This would have seen enormous stress on our financial system as a result of increased balance sheet impairments, widespread firm closures, higher unemployment and household debt. This was the cliff we were standing on.”

But notwithstanding Australia’s success in suppressing the virus and its unprecedented economic response, “our economic indicators are going to get considerably worse in the period ahead before they get better.

“Some of the hardest hit sectors like retail and hospitality are among the biggest employers, accounting for more than two million employees between them.”

Credit card data from the banks showed spending on arts and recreational services, accommodation and food services down about 60% and 70% respectively in late April compared to the year before.

“Despite the toilet paper boom and the record increase in retail trade in March due to panic buying, overall consumption, according to NAB data, has fallen 19.5% since the start of the year, with declines across all jurisdictions.”

Treasury forecasts unemployment doubling to 10% in the June quarter, but it could have been 15% without the JobKeeper package, Frydenberg says.

“The economic shock the world is confronting dwarfs the GFC,” he says.

He says Australia has the advantage of having made real progress in suppressing the virus’s spread without a full lockdown. Agriculture, mining and construction have continued – 85% of mining businesses were still operating this month.

“We are by no means out of this crisis,” Frydenberg says. “Nevertheless as we build to the recovery phase, we must also turn our minds to the changes that will be needed to further drive economic growth and employment.”The Conversation

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

5 things MYEFO tells us about the economy and the nation’s finances


Danielle Wood, Grattan Institute and Kate Griffiths, Grattan Institute

As we come to the end of 2019, you’d be forgiven for being confused about the health of the economy.

Treasurer Josh Frydenberg regularly points out that jobs growth is strong, the budget is heading back to surplus, and Australia’s GDP growth is high by international standards.

The opposition points to sluggish wages growth, weak consumer spending and weak business investment.

Monday’s Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook (MYEFO) provides an opportunity for a pre-Christmas stock-take of treasury’s thinking.

1. Low wage growth is the new normal

Rightly grabbing the headlines is yet another downgrade to wage growth.

In the April budget, wages were forecast to grow this financial year by 2.75%. In MYEFO, the figure has been cut to 2.5%.

Three years ago, when Scott Morrison was treasurer, the forecast for this year was 3.5%.



Each time wages forecasts missed, treasury assumed future growth would be even higher, to restore the long-term trend.

Today’s MYEFO is a long-overdue admission from treasury that labour market dynamics have shifted – in other words, lower wage growth is the “new normal”.

Even by 2022-23, wages are projected to grow at only 3% (and even that would still be a substantial turnaround compared to today).




Read more:
Surplus before spending. Frydenberg’s risky MYEFO strategy


Of course, wages are still rising in real terms (that is, faster than inflation), a fact Finance Minister Mathias Cormann is keen to emphasise.

But Australians will have to adjust to a world of only modest growth in their living standards for the next few years.

2. Economic growth is underwhelming, especially per person

Economic growth forecasts have received a pre-Christmas trim.

Treasury now expects the economy to grow by 2.25% this financial year, down from the 2.75% it expected in April.

Particularly striking is the sluggishness of the private economy, with consumer spending expected to grow by just 1.75%, despite interest rate and tax cuts, and business investment idling at growth of 1.5%, down from the 5% forecast in April.




Read more:
Lower growth, tiny surplus in MYEFO budget update


The longer term picture looks somewhat better, with growth forecast to rise to 2.75% in 2020-21 and 3% in 2021-22, although treasury acknowledges there are significant downside risks, particularly from the global economy.

The government has made much of the fact our economy is strong compared to many other developed nations. But much more relevant to people’s living standards is per-person growth. Australia’s international podium finish looks less impressive once you account for the fact Australia’s population is growing at 1.7%.

As one perceptive commentator has noted, while Australia is forecast to be the fastest growing of the 12 largest advanced economies next year, it is expected to be the slowest in per-person terms.

3. The government is at odds with the Reserve Bank

You can imagine the government’s collective sigh of relief that it is still on track to deliver a surplus in 2019-20, albeit a skinny A$5 billion instead of the the $7 billion previously forecast.

Given the treasurer declared victory early by announcing the budget was “back in the black” in April, missing would have been awkward, to say the least.

And another three years of slim surpluses are forecast ($6 billion, $8 billion and $4 billion respectively).

The real issue for the treasurer is how to deal with the growing calls for more economic stimulus, including from the Reserve Bank.




Read more:
We asked 13 economists how to fix things. All back the RBA governor over the treasurer


Depending on what happens to growth and unemployment in the first half of 2020, he will come under increased pressure to jettison the future surpluses to support jobs and living standards.

4. High commodity prices are a gift for the bottom line

High commodity prices are the gift that keeps on giving for the Australian budget.

Iron ore prices in excess of US$85 per tonne, well above the US$55 per tonne budgeted for, have helped to keep company tax receipts buoyant.

Treasury is maintaining the conservative approach it has taken in recent years by continuing to assume US$55 per tonne.

This provides some potential upside should prices stay high – Treasury estimates a US$10 per tonne increase would boost the underlying cash balance by about A$1.2 billion in 2019-20 and about A$3.7 billion in 2020-21.




Read more:
Vital Signs: Australia’s wafer-thin surplus rests on a mine disaster in Brazil


The budget bottom line remains tied to the whims of international commodity markets for the near future.

5. The surplus depends on running a (very) tight ship

The forecast surpluses over the next four years are premised on an extraordinary degree of spending restraint.

This government is expecting to do something no government has done since the late-1980s: cut spending in real per-person terms over four consecutive years.



The budget dynamics are helping. Budget surpluses and low interest rates reduce debt payments, and low inflation and wage growth reduce the costs of payments such as the pension and Newstart.

But the government is also expecting to keep growth low in other areas of spending, in almost every area other than defence and the expanding national disability insurance scheme.

As the Parliamentary Budget Office points out, it is hard to keep holding down spending as the budget improves.

It is even more true while long term spending squeezes on things such as Newstart and aged care are hurting vulnerable Australians.

Where does it leave us?

The real lesson from MYEFO is that Australians are right to be confused: there is a disconnect between the health of the budget and the health of the economy.

MYEFO suggests both that the government is on track to deliver a good-news budget surplus underpinned by high commodity prices and jobs growth, and that the economy is in the doldrums with low wage growth in place for a long time.

Top of Frydenberg’s 2020 to do list: how to reconcile the two.The Conversation

Danielle Wood, Program Director, Budget Policy and Institutional Reform, Grattan Institute and Kate Griffiths, Senior Associate, Grattan Institute

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Surplus before spending. Frydenberg’s risky MYEFO strategy


Stephen Bartos, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University

Today’s mid-year economic and fiscal outlook (MYEFO) continues to promise a small budget surplus in 2019-20 and each of the following three years.

But the surpluses are very small, roughly half the size of those promised at the time of the April budget, and highly uncertain.



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The forecasts for economic growth and wages growth have been adjusted down, but are still optimistic, subject to downside risks, especially if international economic conditions deteriorate.

The lower wage growth forecast is an acknowledgement of the new reality that wage growth is not climbing and remains low.

Uncertainties abound

One key variable is iron ore prices: these affect both economic growth (gross domestic product) and company tax collections.

Recent high prices due in part to mining disasters in Brazil will not continue indefinitely.

Iron ore prices peaked in July at US$120 per tonne but are forecast to fall back to US$55 per tonne by the June quarter 2020.

The key determinant will be demand from China. Its steel mills might require more, or less, than expected.

MYEFO has a sensitivity analysis showing 2019-20 tax receipts could be lower than expected by A$0.8 billion or higher than expected by A$0.5 billion (and lower by $1.1b or higher by $1.3b in 2020-21) depending on how quickly prices fall.

Housing versus households

Another expected source of increased revenue is a recovery in capital city housing markets.

While this won’t have as large an impact on the Commonwealth as it will on the states which are reliant on stamp duties (see for example the recent NSW budget update) the Commonwealth still benefits.

The assumption on households

that some of the recent weakness in consumption reflects timing factors and that the household saving ratio will fall as households increase their consumption in response to higher after-tax income

seems optimistic.

However the treasury acknowledges

there is a risk that consumers remain cautious and the fall in the household saving ratio is slower than expected.

It is possible that households will remain nervous about the future and save rather than spend; or that we are seeing deeper shifts in preferences away from consumer spending.

Surplus before spending

MYEFO includes previously-announced new spending on infrastructure projects, drought and aged care, but there were no major additional announcements.

This is in line with the government’s determination to have a surplus this year, even if smaller than expected at budget time.

The underlying cash surplus of $5.0 billion forecast for 2019-20 is indeed small – a fraction under 1% of the total receipts number, $502.5.

MYEFO graphs the confidence we can have in the surplus forecasts: there is considerable uncertainty.



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Governments can always introduce either spending cuts or additional revenue raising measures in pursuit of a surplus.

The question is why. It is puzzling that having a surplus has become a sign of good economic management.

Surplus for the sake of surplus

Arguably what is more important is people’s real incomes, whether their chance of unemployment is rising or falling, whether they will be looked after in old age, have their health needs met, and be able to offer their children a good education.

There is a good argument against debt – government debt has to be paid off before the money spent servicing it can be spend on other needs, and excessive debt exposes a country to risk.




Read more:
5 things MYEFO tells us about the economy and the nation’s finances


Within reasonable bounds though, neither ratings agencies nor international financial markets care if a budget is $5b in surplus or $5b in deficit – these are for all intents and purposes the same number in terms of the government’s impact on the economy.

The government is no longer projecting net debt will fall to zero by 2029-30 – instead, it will fall to 1.8% of GDP (still much lower than the 2019-20 net debt of $392.3 billion or 19.5% of GDP).



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This is however a heroic projection, based on estimates of the structural budget position that are unlikely to be be realised.

The structural estimates (estimates of where the budget would be were it not for whatever was happening in the economy at the time) have surpluses growing every year up to 2029-30; an unlikely scenario in the face of an ageing population together with other pressures on government spending.

The impact of ageing will be analysed in more depth in the next Intergenerational Report to be produced by Treasury.


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This may explain why the Treasurer today announced the next five-yearly Intergenerational Report will not be published in March next year as scheduled, but held over until July, after the budget and after the report of the government’s retirement incomes inquiry.

There are several gaps in the estimates of spending.

Likely costs left out

There is no provision for additional spending on the new services delivery model, Services Australia, previously known as the department of human services, which runs Centrelink. Modelled on Services NSW, which offers a better customer experience, it will be expensive.

Services NSW meets its costs by charging other government agencies, spreading costs across government. There is less scope for this in the Commonwealth, and therefore a potentially higher direct call on the budget.




Read more:
The dirty secret at the heart of the projected budget surplus: much higher tax bills


Although the announced funding for aged care is included, most observers of the work of the aged care royal commission expect this is only a first instalment.

Other pressures on the budget are not included for technical reasons. For example, possible future disasters are not included in the forward estimates because they are unpredictable.

Should climate change make Australia more prone to frequent and costly disasters, future budgets will face additional pressure.

There are thus numerous uncertainties around MYEFO – among them the growth path of the Chinese economy and its impact on iron ore prices, consumer demand, wages, spending pressures.

The projections might be achieved if all goes well – but there are considerable risks all will not.The Conversation

Stephen Bartos, Visiting Fellow, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Lower growth, tiny surplus in MYEFO budget update


Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

The government has shaved its forecasts for both economic growth and the projected surplus for this financial year in its budget update released on Monday.

The Australian economy is now expected to grow by only 2.25% in 2019-20, compared with the 2.75% forecast in the April budget.

The projected surplus has been revised down from A$7.1 billion at budget time to $5 billion for this financial year.

By 2022-23 the surplus is projected to be tiny A$4 billion, a mere one fifth of one per cent of GDP, less than half the $9.2 billion projected in April.

Combined, $21.6 billion has been slashed from projected surpluses over the coming four years.



The revenue estimates have also been slashed, down from the pre-election economic and fiscal outlook (PEFO) by about $3 billion in 2019-20 and $32.6 billion over the forward estimates.

The changes this financial year reflect downgrades to superannuation fund taxes, the GST and non-tax receipts. The downgrade in later years reflects changed forecasts for individual taxes, company tax and GST.

The official documents sought to put as positive a spin as possible on the worse economic figures:

Australia’s economy continues to show resilience in the face of weak momentum in the global economy, as well as domestic challenges such as the devastating effects of drought and bushfires.

While economic activity has continued to expand, these factors have resulted in slower growth than had been expected at PEFO.

The revised figures forecast growth will be 2.75% next financial year.

The impact of the drought is reflected in the fact farm GDP is expected to fall to the lowest level seen since 2007-08 in the millenium drought.

The downgrades will fuel calls already being made by the opposition and some stakeholders and commentators for economic stimulus.

But the government, which since the budget has brought forward some infrastructure and announced spending on aged care and drought assistance, is continuing to resist pressure for stimulus now, wishing to hold out until budget time.




Read more:
Surplus before spending. Frydenberg’s risky MYEFO strategy


The budget update – formally called the mid-year economic and fiscal outlook (MYEFO) – contains more bad news for workers’ wages.

Wages are forecast to rise in 2019-20 by 2.5%, compared with the forecast of 2.75% in the budget.

Employment growth remains at the earlier forecast level of 1.75% for this financial year, but the unemployment rate is slightly up in the latest forecast, from 5% at budget time to 5.25% in the update.



In its bring forward and funding of new projects, the government is putting an extra $4.2 billion over the forward estimates into transport infrastructure projects.

Its extra spending on aged care will be almost $624 million over four years, in its initial response to the royal commission. This is somewhat higher than the $537 million announced by Scott Morrison in November.

While the projected surplus has been squeezed, the government continues to highlight the priority it gives it, saying that despite the revenue write downs, it expects cumulative surpluses over $23.5 billion over forward estimates.

Spending growth is estimated to be 1.3% annual average in real terms over the forward estimates. Payments as a share of GDP is estimated at 24.5% this financial year, reducing to 24.4% by 2022-23, which is below the 30 year average.

Treasurer Josh Frydenberg said the update showed “the government is living within its means, and paying down Labor’s debt”.

He said “the surplus has never been an end in itself, but a means to an end. An end which is to reduce interest payments to free up money to be spent elsewhere across the economy.”




Read more:
5 things MYEFO tells us about the economy and the nation’s finances


The government’s economic plan was “delivering continued economic growth and a stronger budget position.

“MYEFO demonstrates that we have the capacity and the flexibility to invest in the areas that the public need most.”

Shadow treasurer Jim Chalmers said the update showed the government’s economic credibility was destroyed. At its core, there were “two humiliating confessions – the economy is much weaker and the government has absolutely no idea and no plan to turn things around”.

Chalmers said Morrison and Frydenberg “couldn’t give a stuff that Australians are facing higher unemployment and weaker wages and slower growth.

“If they cared enough about the workers and families of this country, they would stop sitting on their hands and they would come up with an actual plan to turn around an economy which is floundering on their watch.”The Conversation

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

We asked 13 economists how to fix things. All back the RBA governor over the treasurer


Peter Martin, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University

Thirteen leading economists have declared their hands in the stand off between the government and the Governor of the Reserve Bank over the best way to boost the economy.

All 13 back Reserve Bank Governor Philip Lowe.

They say that, by itself, the Reserve Bank cannot be expected to do everything extra that will be needed to boost the economy.

All think that extra stimulus will be needed, and all think it’ll have to come from Treasurer Josh Frydenberg, as well as the bank.

All but two say the treasurer should be prepared to sacrifice his goal of an immediate budget surplus in order to provide it.

The 13 are members of the 20-person economic forecasting panel assembled by The Conversation at the start of this year.

All but one have been surprised by the extent of the economic slowdown.




Read more:
No surplus, no share market growth, no lift in wage growth. Economic survey points to bleaker times post-election


The 13 represent ten universities in five states.

Among them are macroeconomists, economic modellers, former Treasury, IMF, OECD and Reserve Bank officials and a former government minister.

The Bank needs help

At issue is the government’s contention, spelled out by Frydenberg’s treasury secretary Steven Kennedy in evidence to the Senate last month, that there is usually little role for government spending and tax (“fiscal”) measures in stimulating the economy in the event of a downturn.

Absent a crisis, economic weakness was “best responded to by monetary policy”.

Monetary policy – the adjustment of interest rates by the Reserve Bank – is nearing the end of its effectiveness in its present form. The bank has already cut its cash rate to close to zero (0.75%) and will consider another cut on Tuesday.

It is preparing to consider so-called “unconventional” measures, including buying bonds in order to force longer-term interest rates down toward zero.




Read more:
If you want to boost the economy, big infrastructure projects won’t cut it: new Treasury boss


Governor Lowe has made the case for “fiscal support, including through spending on infrastructure” saying there are limits to what monetary policy can achieve.

The 13 economists unanimously back the Governor.

Seven of the 13 say what is needed most is fiscal stimulus (including extra government spending on infrastructure), three say both fiscal and monetary measures are needed, and three want government “structural reform”, including measures to help the economy deal with climate change and remove red tape.

None say the Reserve Bank should be left to fight the downturn by itself without further help from the government.

There is plenty of room for fiscal stimulus, particularly infrastructure spending – Mark Crosby, Monash University

I agree with the emerging consensus that monetary policy is no longer effective when interest rates are so low – Ross Guest, Griffith University

It is time for coordinated monetary and fiscal policies to boost domestic demand – Guay Lim, Melbourne Institute

The surplus can wait

Eleven of the 13 believe the government should abandon its determination to deliver a budget surplus in 2019-20.

Renee Fry-McKibbin. Ease surplus at all costs.
ANU

Economic modeller Renee Fry-McKibbin says the government should “ease its position of a surplus at all costs”.

Former Commonwealth Treasury and ANZ economist Warren Hogan says achieving a surplus in the current environment would have “zero value”.

Former OECD director Adrian Blundell-Wignall says that rather than aiming for an overall budget surplus, the government should aim instead for an “net operating balance”, a proposal that was put forward by Scott Morrison as treasurer in 2017.

The approach would move worthwhile infrastructure spending and borrowing onto a separate balance sheet that would not need to balance.

Political debate would focus instead on whether the annual operating budget was balanced or in deficit.

Former treasury and IMF economist Tony Makin is one of only two economists surveyed who backs the government’s continued pursuit of a surplus, saying annual interest payments on government debt have reached A$14 billion, “four times the foreign aid budget and almost twice as much as federal spending on higher education”.

Tony Makin. Surplus needed for budget repair.
Griffith University

Further deterioration of the balance via “facile fiscal stimulus” would risk Australia’s creditworthiness.

However Makin doesn’t think the government should leave everything to the Reserve Bank.

He has put forward a program of extra spending on infrastructure projects that meet rigorous criteria, along with company tax cuts or investment allowances paid for by government spending cuts.

Former trade minister Craig Emerson also wants an investment allowance, suggesting businesses should be able to immediately deduct 20% of eligible spending.

It’s an idea put forward by Labor during the 2019 election campaign. Treasurer Josh Frydenberg has indicated something like it is being considered for the 2020 budget.

Emerson says it should be possible to deliver both the investment allowance and a budget surplus.

Quantitative easing would be a worry

Five of the 13 economists are concerned about the Reserve Bank adopting so-called “unconvential” measures such as buying government and private sector bonds in order to push long-term interest rates down toward zero, a practice known as quantitative easing.

Jeffrey Sheen and Renee Fry-McKibbin say it should be kept in reserve for emergencies.

Adrian Blundell-Wignall and Mark Crosby say it hasn’t worked in the countries that have tried it.

A quantitative easing avalanche policy by the European central bank larger than the entire UK economy has left inflation below target and growth fading. Quantitative easing destroys the interbank market, under-prices risk, and encourages leverage and asset speculation – Adrian Blundell-Wignall

Steve Keen says in both Europe and the United States quantitative easing enriched banks and drove up asset prices but did little to boost consumer spending, “because the rich don’t consume much of the wealth”.

The treasurer should step up

Taken together, the responses of the 13 economists suggest it is ultimately the government’s responsibility to ensure the economy doesn’t weaken any further, and that it would be especially unwise to palm it off on to the Reserve Bank at a time when the bank’s cash rate is close to zero and the effectiveness of the unconventional measures it might adopt is in doubt.

Measures the government could adopt include increasing the rate of the Newstart unemployment benefit, boosting funding for schools and skills training, borrowing for well-chosen infrastructure projects with a social rate of return greater than the cost of borrowing, further tax cuts that double as tax reform (including further tax breaks for business investment) and spending more on programs aimed at avoiding the worst of climate change and adapting to it.

The economists are backing the governor in his plea for help. They think he needs it.


The 13 economists surveyed




Read more:
Buckle up. 2019-20 survey finds the economy weak and heading down, and that’s ahead of surprises


The Conversation


Peter Martin, Visiting Fellow, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Frydenberg outlines financial sector reform timetable


Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

Treasurer Josh Frydenberg has issued a timetable for the government’s dealing with the recommendations from the royal commission into banking, superannuation and financial services, which aims to have all measures needing legislation introduced by the end of next year.

The opposition has accused the government of dragging its feet on putting into effect the results of the inquiry, which delivered its final report early this year.

“The need for change is undeniable, and the community expects that the government response to the royal commission will be implemented swiftly,” Frydenberg said in a statement on the timetable.

Fydenberg said that in his final report Commissioner Kenneth Hayne made 76 recommendations – 54 directed to the federal government (more than 40 of them needing legislation), 12 to the regulators, and 10 to the industry. Beyond the 76 recommendations, the government had announced another 18 commitments to address issues in the report.

The government had implemented 15 of the commitments it outlined in responding to the report, Frydenberg said. This included eight out of the 54 recommendations, and seven of the 18 additional commitments the government made. “Significant progress” had been made on another five recommendations, with draft legislation in parliament or out for comment or consultation papers produced.




Read more:
Grattan on Friday: How ‘guaranteed’ is a rise in the superannuation guarantee?


Frydenberg said that, excluding the reviews to be conducted in 2022, his timetable was:

  • by the end of 2019, more than 20 commitments (about a third of the government’s commitments) would have been implemented or have legislation in parliament

  • by mid 2020, more than 50 commitments would have been implemented or be before parliament

  • by the end of 2020, the rest of the commission’s recommendations needing legislation would have been introduced.

When the Hayne report was released early this year, the government agreed to act on all the recommendations.

But one recommendation it has notably not signed up to was on mortgage brokers.

Hayne found that mortgage brokers should be paid by borrowers, not lenders, and recommended commissions paid by lenders be phased out over two to three years.




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The government at first accepted most of this recommendation, announcing the payment of ongoing so-called “trailing commissions” would be banned on new loans from July 2020. Upfront commissions would be the subject to a separate review. Four weeks later in March Frydenberg announced the government wouldn’t be banning trailing commissions after all. Instead, it would review their operation in three years.

Releasing the timetable, Frydenberg said the reform program was the “biggest shake up of the financial sector in three decades” and the speed of implementation “is unprecedented”.

“It will be done in a way that enhances consumer outcomes with more accountability, transparency and protections without compromising the flow of credit and competition,” he said.

He undertook to ensure the opposition was briefed on each piece of legislation before it came into parliament.

“This will begin with the offer of a briefing by Treasury on the implementation plan. Given both the government and opposition agreed to act on the commission’s recommendations, we expect to achieve passage of relevant legislation without undue delays,” he said.

He said the industry was “on notice. The public’s tolerance has been exhausted. They expect and we will ensure that the reforms are delivered and the behaviour of those in the sector reflects community expectations.”The Conversation

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

High Court challenge to Treasurer Josh Frydenberg under section 44


Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

The citizenship provision of the Constitution’s section 44 has raised its head again, with the eligibility of Treasurer Josh Frydenberg being challenged by an elector in his Kooyong seat.

Michaal Staindl has filed a petition with the High Court, which sits as the Court of Disputed Returns, alleging Frydenberg is ineligible “because he is a citizen of the Republic of Hungary”.

The petition says

The respondent’s mother arrived in Australia in 1950 in possession of a valid passport, inferred to be a valid Hungarian passport. This indicates that she continued to be a citizen of Hungary after 1948.

Pursuant to the law of Hungary, all children born to the respondent’s mother are a citizen of Hungary from the time of their birth and in the premise, the respondent is a citizen of Hungary

Staindl told Guardian Australia he was pursuing the action against Frydenberg, whom he knew, because “he’s consistently betrayed me, the electorate and the country on climate change”.

The Guardian reported that Staindl “said if Frydenberg shows evidence he is not Hungarian he could drop the case”; otherwise, he said, he would “see it through”.

Under Section 44, a person cannot sit in the federal parliament if he or she is “under any acknowledgement of allegiance, obedience, or adherence to a foreign power, or is a subject or a citizen or entitled to the rights or privileges of a subject or citizen of a foreign power”.

In his “statement of member’s qualifications relating to section 44 and 45 of the constitution”, posted on Wednesday, Frydenberg records that his mother – who arrived in Australia as a refugee – was a Hungarian citizen between 1943 and 1948.

Frydenberg said “I have clear legal advice that I do not hold citizenship of another country.”

Section 44, which has several prohibitions, cut a swathe through the last parliament, overwhelmingly on citizenship grounds, hitting Coalition, Labor, and crossbench parliamentarians and triggering multiple byelections.

Although Frydenberg’s situation was canvassed during the previous term Labor backed off, given his mother had escaped the Holocaust.

Frydenberg, in comments in the last term, said his mother had arrived stateless. “It is absolutely absurd to think that I could involuntarily acquire Hungarian citizenship by rule of a country that rendered my mother stateless,” he said then.

Separately, Frydenberg’s eligibility is being challenged under the Electoral Act over Liberal party Chinese-language signs. This challenge is being brought by Oliver Yates, who ran as an independent against Frydenberg. It is claimed the signs were likely to have misled voters into thinking that to cast a valid vote they had to put the figure 1 beside the Liberal candidate.

A similar challenge over Chinese-language signs has been brought by a Chisholm voter against the new Liberal MP for Chisholm, Gladys Liu.

The ALP is not involved in the challenges.

The ALP’s acting national secretary Paul Erickson said in a statement that Labor was “disappointed by the tactics employed by the Liberal Party at the election, which went well beyond the accepted bounds of a vigorously contested campaign – especially in the divisions of Chisholm and Kooyong.

“The Chinese-language signs used by the Liberal Party in those contests were clearly designed to look like official Australian Electoral Commission voting instructions using the AEC colours, for the clear purpose of misleading Mandarin and Cantonese-speaking voters into voting for the Liberal Party,” he said.

But while there was a strong case that the signs breached the Electoral Act Labor was not seeking to overturn the results in Chisholm and Kooyong, given the cost and time involved, Erickson said.The Conversation

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Grattan on Friday: Those tax cuts test Albanese and provoke Hanson


The proposed 3 stage tax plan will cost $158 billion.
Shutterstock

Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

As hissy fits go, it was a beauty. Pauline Hanson was very cross indeed. Senate leader Mathias Cormann hadn’t called her, even though he was reportedly negotiating on the government’s $158 billion package of income tax cuts.

Venting on Sky on Wednesday night, Hanson said: “I don’t think he’s got the guts to pick up the phone and actually talk to me. And to turn around and say that he’s negotiating with crossbenchers is not the truth, because he’s not negotiating with me”.

She went on to rail about the Liberals preferencing One Nation below Labor, doing “grubby deals” with Clive Palmer and trying to destroy her.

The three-stage 10-year package, which promises an extra tax offset for low and middle income earners, is the big game in town for the first days of the new parliament, which opens the week after next, and it’s causing some grief.




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Despite the government’s confident words during the election campaign, the Tax Office has declined to pay the offset of up to $540 until the legislation is passed. This means the July 1 deadline from when the offset was supposed to be available will be missed. (Although people will get from July 1 the tax cut in the pipeline from last year’s budget.)

If the tax legislation is passed quickly, a few weeks’ delay for the offset is no big deal, especially as many people won’t be putting in their tax returns for a while. But the pressure on the government to deliver the first stage of its plan ASAP – not least because the economy needs the stimulus – reduces its ability to hold out indefinitely on its insistence it won’t split the package to accommodate objections to the later cuts.

Labor is in even more of a bind. It is happy to tick off the first stage – worth $15 billion – but has yet to decide its position on stages two (costing $48 billion and starting 2022-23) and three (costing $95 billion and commencing 2024-25).

Its objections are particularly to the last stage, which delivers cuts for higher income earners. Both the later stages come after the next election, due early 2022.

Those urging Labor should try to block at least stage three argue, apart from the equity issue, that mounting economic uncertainty makes it irresponsible to lock in such big tax cuts out in the “never never”.

On the other hand, a strong case can be made on grounds of principle and practicality for Labor to wave the whole package through.

The question of when a party or politician has a “mandate” is vexed.

On one view an opposition can claim it possesses a mandate to stay faithful to positions it advanced before an election even after it has lost that election.

But when the Morrison government went to the polls with the tax package as its prime policy, it does seem to have a strong case to say the parliament should pass it.

The same point would have applied if Bill Shorten had won. He would have had a mandate for his proposed changes to franking credits and negative gearing – both opposed by the Coalition.




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It doesn’t help maintain faith in the political system, or in election promises, for parties to try to govern from opposition, despite the Senate’s voting system sometimes facilitating this. Voters should be able to expect that major election policies of the winning side are implemented (perhaps with some alterations at the edges by parliament).

It is another matter when, as happened with the Abbott government’s 2014 budget, big new controversial initiatives are brought in soon after the election campaign, during which they were not flagged.

The practical reason against Labor going to the barricades on the tax package is that as it regroups, there is little to be gained by taking on this particular battle, especially when it is trying to reposition itself as appealing better to “aspirational” voters and leaving behind language attacking the “top end of town”.

Labor might be right that the proposed long term tax cuts could look irresponsible later, but if so, that is a fight to be had at the next election, when the ALP could highlight doubts it had previously registered.

There are divisions in Labor about what to do. Victorian MP Peter Khalil this week said if the government won’t split the package, Labor should vote for it all. Anne Aly, a backbencher from Western Australia, expressed concern about the package’s implications against a darkening economic outlook. The ALP has asked the government for more information. Anthony Albanese is consulting within the party before shadow cabinet decides the position it takes to caucus.

While the government is focusing the rhetorical pressure on Labor, it has an eye to the alternative route – to get the package through via the crossbench.




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For Cormann, the new Senate is easier than the last, partly because the non-Green crossbench has been slashed at the election.

To pass legislation opposed by Labor and the Greens the government needs four of the six non-Green crossbenchers. These include two from Pauline Hanson’s One Nation, two from Centre Alliance, South Australia’s Cory Bernardi, and Tasmania’s Jacqui Lambie.

Bernardi will vote with the Coalition. He has said he wants to help the Morrison government as much as possible, and on Thursday he announced he is winding up his Australian Conservatives party. It’s not clear whether he’ll seek to rejoin the Liberals, from whom he defected in 2017, or even stay in the parliament.

Cormann has been in discussion with Centre Alliance about their push for lower gas prices, and an agreement on some action appears likely. While this deal is formally separate from the tax package, he and they both have that front of mind.

This would leave one vote to be collected.

Lambie refuses to comment on her position. Hanson said earlier this month she was “not sold” on the current package and “therefore not likely to support the measures” – and proposed some of the funds be used for a coal-fired power station and a water security scheme.

After Wednesday’s outburst, Cormann was (of course) on the phone to her at crack of dawn Thursday. On her account, he said: “I’m not negotiating with crossbenchers with this at all. We have our three stages. We’re going to pass that no matter what”.

The government aims to keep the heat on Albanese. By the same token, if the crossbench has to come into play, Cormann won’t want a repeat of last term, when he couldn’t muster the numbers to deliver tax relief to big companies.The Conversation

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Frydenberg declares tax package must be passed ‘in its entirety’


Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

The government’s tax relief package is shaping up as the first test of incoming opposition leader Anthony Albanese, with Treasurer Josh Frydenberg declaring on Friday it must be supported “in its entirety” when put to the new parliament.

But Albanese has only guaranteed support for the first tranche. As for the later cuts for higher income earners, “we will consider that,” he said on Friday.

But let me tell you, it is a triumph of hope over experience and reality that the government knows […] what the economic circumstances are in 2025 or 2023, in the middle of the next decade.

Appearing with Albanese on the Nine Network, Trade Minister Simon Birmingham said:

Albo, it would be remarkable if your first act as leader of the opposition was […] to oppose a long term package of tax relief – that would show a real tin ear for the Australian people”.

In an interview with The Conversation, Frydenberg refused to be drawn on what the government would do if unable to get the whole bill through.

It would, however, be hard for it to avoid splitting the bill – to hold out would deny the immediate relief pledged in the April budget.

All or nothing

Nor could Frydenberg say when parliament will meet to consider the legislation, although the government has effectively conceded it will not be in time for the promised July 1 start of the additional tax offset promised in the budget. (A smaller offset from last year’s budget will be paid from then.)

But Albanese said the tax cuts could be passed in time for July 1, because it would only need a couple of hours of sitting. “We’ll do a deal. I can do that. One speaker a side, and Bob’s your uncle.”

Frydenberg said Reserve Bank Governor Philip Lowe had highlighted the positive impact the tax cuts would have on household incomes.

“Let’s too not forget that $7.5 billion will flow to households in the coming financial year, as a result of these tax cuts,” Frydenberg said.

Tax cuts as good as rate cuts

“This benefit to households and the economy is equivalent to two 25 basis point interest rate cuts and is one reason why growth and household consumption is projected to pick up,” he said.

“The tax reforms we are putting to parliament are not just providing immediate relief, but leading to long term structural change. This will tackle bracket creep and reward aspiration.

“Earning more is nothing to be ashamed of and should be encouraged not punished. Rewarding aspiration is in the Coalition’s DNA and will be a fundamental driver of our policies in government.”

In his assessment of the economic outlook, Frydenberg had two messages.

He said in his discussions with some of Australia’s biggest employers, “I’ve been buoyed by their confidence and their desire to work with the government, to support continued economic growth and job creation”.

Headwinds worsening

But the economy “faces significant headwinds. Trade tensions between the United States and China have increased, with the potential to negatively impact global growth.

“Were there to be another round of US tariff increases, the potential for which has been flagged publicly, the proportion of global trade covered by recent trade actions would double from 2% to 4%.”

Also, flood, drought and fires had taken a toll and the housing market slowdown was hitting dwelling investment and having an impact on consumption.

The challenges made the government’s agenda for growth, including tax relief, so important and time critical.

Asked whether the “headwinds” faced by the Australian economy were stronger than at budget time, when he also spoke of headwinds, Frydenberg said: “I think the tensions between China and the US have increased”.




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Frydenberg spoke with the US Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin this week and the two will meet in Japan at the G20 finance ministers meeting in a few weeks. Frydenberg stressed in the conversation the importance of free trade to Australia and its wish to see disputes resolved as amicably as possible.

Asked whether, if the economy deteriorated further, the government would be willing to live with a smaller surplus next financial year than the $7.1 billion projected in the budget, Frydenberg said, “that’s the amount that we’re committed to”.

He would not be drawn on the signal this week from Lowe that an interest rate cut was coming.

The Treasurer said the current unemployment rate of 5.2% reflected “strong labour market performance”.

While there are no plans for an overhaul of federal-state relations by the re-elected government, Frydenberg said he would work closely with the states on infrastructure and managing population.




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He said he would respond fully to the Productivity Commission report on superannuation, although he had not set a date for this.

“The issues that were raised through the Productivity Commission report which we need to have a good look at are about the unintended multiple accounts and the under-performing funds,” he said.

“The royal commission [on banking] recommended having a single default [account], which we accepted and Labor accepted, so we’ll go ahead and do that”.




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The Conversation


Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.