Wednesday, 7 October 2020

Theirs and ours

Yesterday the Aussies had their latest Budget: I won't recap all the details as they're easily available all over the place, and if you want some expert economic commentary you could try National Australia Bank's or Westpac's, and you can also go to the horse's mouth and read the Aussies' Budget Strategy and Outlook Budget Paper No. 1 2020-21. I'll just note that I particularly liked the big boost to investment by way of instant expensing of capital spending, available to every firm except the very. very biggest ones; the job subsidies for businesses who hire currently unemployed younger people; the targeting of tax reliefs to the lower end of the income scale; and the focus on increased infrastructure spending.

As regular readers know, the thing I like to look at, but which usually gets under-reported or not reported at all, is whether fiscal policy is boosting or braking the economy. It can be self-evident: when you spend up on the scale of anti-covid stimulus that both our Grant Robertson and their Josh Freydenberg have, it's pretty obviously a boost. But not always: the headline fiscal numbers can be misleading, and in any event it's also useful to know the extent of the stimulus and not just the direction.

So here are the numbers for the 'fiscal impulse': it's an approximation based on in-the-background calculations of variable debatability, but for all that it's still the best measure we've got. I've shown Australia's (from last night's Budget) and New Zealand's (from September's Pre-Election Economic and Fiscal Update or HYEFU). For fiscal policy tragics, I've calculated Australia's as the year on year change in the underlying cash balance as a percentage of GDP, and for New Zealand I've used Treasury's numbers.

What's interesting is that both governments have reacted very similarly indeed. The Aussie stimulus giveth a bit more in the current 2020-21 year, and taketh away a bit more in the subsequent 2021-22 year, but there's not much other difference in the overall pattern since covid hit (pre-covid, the Aussies were playing a bit more of a macho 'I can get back to fiscal surplus faster than you can' political game than we were). Personally I take a bit of policy comfort from the similarity: if they were very different, you'd be inclined to think one (or both) may have lost the plot.

It's also got me thinking a bit more about that fiscal tightening you can see planned for 2021-22 in both countries. Normally a fiscal tightening of 5.4% of GDP (Australia) or 3.7% of GDP (us) would be a massive brake on an economy, and when I wrote up the HYEFU I doubted if the New Zealand economy in 2021-22 would be in anywhere strong enough shape to cope with it. You could say the same about Australia's even larger brake: on their Treasury's forecasts, unemployment will still be 6.5% in June 2022.

But I'm beginning to appreciate that the fiscal tightening might be a bit more apparent than real. Suppose a big slab of 2020-21 fiscal support consisted of temporary wage subsidies, entirely appropriate while companies were facing weak demand. Covid disperses, demand picks up, the subsidies are yanked (and turn up as part of that fiscal 'tightening in 2021-22), but businesses don't really mind. The temporary government cash has been replaced by ongoing customer cash, all good. It's not experienced as much of a 'tightening' at all.

Fair enough, but another way of putting it is that the current forecasts of a reasonably quick withdrawal of fiscal support depend on that recovery in the non-government economy. I'm inclined at the moment to stay on the cautious side. It would be great if both economies bounced back big and quick - the proverbial V-shaped recovery - but I wouldn't be surprised if we ended up with a W or other variant. I suspect both countries' fiscal policies will have to be a bit more supportive, for longer, than their Treasurers currently expect.