Everyone stopped talking about government debt, but here's why it still matters

Wed, 19 Sep 2018  |  

This article first appeared on the Business Insider website at this link: https://www.businessinsider.com.au/government-debt-stephen-koukoulas-2018-9 

------------------------------------------------------------- 

Everyone stopped talking about government debt, but here's why it still matters

Having been a headline issue for many years, government debt no longer gets the media or political focus that is used to.

At one level, this is odd, because the level of gross and net government debt have continued to rise unrelentingly in recent years, with gross debt at a record high and net debt touching a peace-time high.

The lack of focus on government debt probably reflects the fall from grace of the chief debt fear-mongers Tony Abbott, Joe Hockey and Barnaby Joyce who were vocal advocates of the “debt and deficit disaster” that Australia was allegedly confronting five years ago. 

The fact that the Coalition government has demonstrably failed in its policy approach to the issue is also likely to be a factor why it has dropped off the list of popular political topics. It could also reflect the fact the belated realisation that Australia level of debt and deficit are, and always have been, low and manageable.

So low is Australia’s government debt, even today, that the three major sovereign credit ratings agencies have assigned a triple-A rating even though the path to a balanced budget and debt stabilisation has been slow and unconvincing.
This is not to say that the level of government debt is not an issue. It still is.

And just because it is not a constraint on the economy or a meaningful concern to markets, it doesn’t mean policy makers should take their eye off managing government debt, especially at the moment when the economy is growing and the global economy is giving Australia a helping hand.

Sensible and pragmatic economists are usually pragmatic about debt and deficit. Pragmatic in a sense that a move to debt and deficit are good policy when the economy is weak and debt reduction and surplus are good policy when the economy is growing strongly. Suffice to say it will be important to ensure that the path to small, but growing, budget surpluses over the next few years is kept, but only if the economy continues to grow at a reasonable pace.

If economic growth accelerates and the unemployment rate falls over the next couple of years, the surplus target should be revised up. This is the good news from the recent run of good economic news. Solid economic conditions will see the growth in gross debt slow and net debt fall.

This matters because without such action of locking in the surplus when times are good, there would be a growing risk down the track of a formal credit rating downgrade which would spill over to higher borrowing and therefore debt servicing costs for the government.

Interestingly, the looming Federal election will see fiscal looseness from the Coalition government pitted against a fiscal tightening from the Labor opposition.As we saw in the budget in May and from the hints Prime Minister Scott Morrison has given on income tax cuts, the Coalition seems willing to give up at least some of the windfall revenue that is currently flowing into Treasury coffers via the unexpectedly high price being paid for Australian iron ore and coal.

Labor, on the other hand, have signaled a range of tax policy changes that will see the budget bottom line improve – changes to negative gearing, dividend imputation refunds and capital gains tax concessions which will collectively raise close to $200 billion over the next decade.

To be sure, some of this revenue to Labor will be recycled back into Labor’s preferred projects during the course of the election campaign, but shadow Finance Minister Jim Chalmers has indicated that the budget bottom line will be better in every year in the forward estimates and out years with new spending to be less than the revenue derived from the proposed tax changes. Suffice to say, the good news is that with even luck and trend growth in the economy, the budget deficit will soon to disappear and the debate will soon turn to the appropriate size of the surplus.

This should ensure the triple-A credit rating is retained which will be good news for whichever side wins the upcoming election and the economy as a whole.

comments powered by Disqus

THE LATEST FROM THE KOUK

My house price bet with Tony Locantro - an update

Mon, 01 Apr 2019

This article first appeared on the Yahoo Finance web page at this link: https://au.finance.yahoo.com/news/aussie-property-crash-looking-even-unlikely-heres-021138614.html 

----------------------------------------------------

My house price bet – I’m very happy and getting ready to collect

I recently made a bet with Tony Locantro, Investment Manager with Alto Capital in Perth on the extent to which house prices would fall over the next three years.

Just to reiterate, the bet centred on Locantro’s view that prices would drop 35 per cent or more by the end of 2021 from the peak levels in 2017, a forecast that looked absurdly pessimistic given the raft of factors that influence house prices over the course of years.

For Mr Locantro to win the bet, house prices measured by the Australian Bureau of Statistics on a quarterly basis in either Sydney, Melbourne or for the average of the eight capital cities would need to fall by 35 per cent or more from the peak levels by the time the December quarter 2021 data are released. The ABS released the latest residential property price data last week which presents an opportunity to see how the bet is unfolding, admittedly with three years to go until it is settled.

As everyone knows, house prices are falling in most cities, reversing part of the boom over several decades.

Get ready for a cash rate cut in April

Mon, 25 Mar 2019

This article first appeared on the Yahoo Finance website at this link: https://au.finance.yahoo.com/news/get-ready-cash-rate-cut-april-193244245.html

----------------------------- 

Get ready for a cash rate cut in April

The data is in and it is compelling.

The Australian economy is faltering and the risk is that it will weaken further if nothing is done to address this decline.Not only has there been recent confirmation of a per capita GDP recession – that is, on a per person basis the economy has been shrinking for two straight quarters – but inflation is embedded below 2 per cent, wages growth is floundering just above 2 per cent, house prices are dropping at 1 per cent per month and dwelling construction is in free fall.

Add to this cocktail of economic woe an unambiguous slide in global economic conditions, general pessimism for both consumers and business alike and a worrying slide in the number of job advertisements all of which spells economic trouble.Blind Freddie can see that there is an urgent need for some policy action. And the sooner the better.For the Reserve Bank of Australia, there is no need to wait for yet more information on the economy.

It has been hopelessly wrong in its judgment about the economy over the past year, always expecting a growth pick up “soon”. Instead, GDP has all but stalled meaning that inflation, which is already well below the RBA’s target, is likely to fall further.In short, no. It is not like a 25 basis point interest rate cut on 2 April and another 25 in, say, May or June will reignite inflation and pump air into a house price bubble.

Such a claim would be laughable if there are any commentators left suggesting this.