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Small things amuse small minds. Too many people have allowed their excitement over an expected budget surplus of a tiny $4 billion this financial year to distract them from noticing a much bigger deal.
Remember that mountain of government debt we ticked up fighting the pandemic? Now Treasurer Jim Chalmers tells us it’s more like a big hill. Remember the frightening spectre of the “structural” budget deficit? Not to worry, it’ll have disappeared in a decade – if you can believe it.
Treasurer Jim Chalmers during the budget speech.Credit: Alex Ellinghausen
Assuming it happens, achieving an infinitesimally small, and one-off, surplus of $4 billion may be significant politically, but from an economic perspective, it’s not worth popping the champagne cork. In a budget worth $630 billion a year, in an economy worth $2600 billion a year, it’s no more than a rounding error.
No, what’s genuinely significant is not that magic word “surplus”; it’s that this time last year we were expecting a deficit of $78 billion. It’s the absence of another big deficit that’s the big deal. It represents the passage of a year in which we didn’t add to the existing public debt. And, as a consequence, didn’t add to the size of our annual interest bill every year until we’re all dead.
What’s more, the absence of a deficit this year suggests the expected deficits for the next few years will also be smaller than we thought. So next year will see not just a smaller than expected annual interest bill, but a smaller than expected addition to the debt, and thus an even smaller than expected addition to the following year’s interest bill, and so on and on forever.
Well, in principle, anyway. What this news also shows is how hopeless Treasury (and all economists) are at predicting the future.
Next, note that this year’s expected deficit disappeared not thanks to Chalmer’s superior management, but thanks to Treasury’s failure to realise how strong the economy would be. More people are in jobs and paying tax (and not needing to be paid the dole).
Company profits are up, as is the tax they pay. Export commodity prices have stayed higher than Treasury was expecting, so mining companies’ taxes are well up. And remember this: inflation causes taxes to rise faster than government spending does.
But though nothing Chalmers did caused the big improvement, he’d like a round of applause for not spending much of the extra dosh.
And he’s got some very impressive news he’d love me to tell you about. Treasury hasn’t just produced revised forecasts for the financial year just ending and for the budget year 2023-34, it’s done “projections” for a further three years. It’s also made “medium-term” projections right out to 2033-34.
What they show is truly amazing. Unbelievable, even. The budget papers say the absence of the formerly expected $78 billion deficit this financial year, and consequent improvement in forecasts for the following few years, “will avoid $83 billion in interest payments over the 12 years to 2033-34. It also means [the government’s] gross [public] debt, as a share of gross domestic product, will be 7.1 percentage points lower in 2033-34.”
That bit you can believe. It’s just compound interest – which, of course, works in reverse for a borrower rather than a saver.
Now it gets hairy. The Albanese government’s various decisions to limit the growth in government spending mean real spending growth is now “expected to average 0.6 per cent a year over the five years [to] 2026-27”.
This compares with average real (inflation-adjusted) spending growth of about 4 per cent in the eight years before the global financial crisis of 2008, and 2.2 per cent a year over the eight years to 2018-19, before the pandemic.
Really? That’s a truly Herculean achievement. And with so little blood on the floor.
What used to be a mountain of debt is now just a big hill. Phew. And we thought it was only Scott Morrison who could call forth miracles.
Except, of course, that it hasn’t been achieved. It’s just “projected” to happen. All those other averages are “actuals” whereas, the unbelievable 0.6 per cent is simply a projection.
Projections are based on assumptions, which are then mechanically multiplied out, year after year. One assumption is that the economy, and the budget, will just move in a straight line over the next five years, with nothing unexpected – say, a pandemic or a recession – blowing us off course.
The five-year projection says the gross public debt is now expected to peak at 36.5 per cent of GDP in June 2026. Now, get this: this would be 10.4 percentage points lower, and five years earlier, than projected just seven months ago in Labor’s first budget.
And if you keep cranking the projection handle, the public debt “will” (their word) be down to 32.3 per cent of GDP by June 2034.
Wow. What used to be a mountain of debt is now just a big hill. Phew. And we thought it was only Scott Morrison who could call forth miracles.
Next, remember all the economists wringing their hands over the “structural” budget deficit? This is the part of the budget balance that’s left when you take out the part that’s just the product of where the economy happens to be in the business cycle at the time.
The balance will look good when you’re at the top of the boom (as we are now) and bad when you’re at the bottom of a recession (as we may be in a year or two). The structural deficit or surplus is a calculation of what the balance would be if we were in the dead middle of the cycle, neither up nor down.
In Chalmers’ first budget, last October, Treasury took its projection of the budget balance out 10 years, and estimated the structural component to be steady at a deficit of about 2 per cent of GDP.
That’s $50 billion a year in today’s dollars. A medium-size economy with a big debt can’t live with that. We have to get it down, so we’re well placed to borrow heavily in the next recession or pandemic.
Well, has Chalmers got good news for those economist worrywarts. Seven months later, the projection (budget paper No. 1, page 131) shows the structural deficit steadily withering away until it reaches almost nothing in 2033-34.
So, how did Chalmers magic it away? Assumptions, dear boy, assumptions. For years, the biggest single program driving the growth in government spending has been the explosive growth in the National Disability Insurance Scheme.
But the government has decided to take steps to limit its growth to a mere 8 per cent a year. The projections are based on mechanically projecting “existing policy”, so the 8 per cent target – which may or may not be achieved – is baked in.
Take that monumentally optimistic assumption, add further optimism about restraint in other spending areas, allow them to magnify the believable bit (that a disappeared deficit right at the beginning of the projection significantly reduces our formerly expected interest payments over a decade) and you’ve eliminated the problem.
If only reality was as easy.
Ross Gittins is the economics editor.
Ross Gittins unpacks the economy in an exclusive subscriber-only newsletter every Tuesday evening. Sign up to receive it here.
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