Don’t fall for the spin - Scott Morrison’s budget surplus is no certainty

Thu, 06 Dec 2018  |  

This article first appeared on the Yahoo Finance web site at this link: https://au.finance.yahoo.com/news/dont-fall-spin-scott-morrisons-budget-surplus-no-certainty-224422761.html 

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Don’t fall for the spin - Scott Morrison’s budget surplus is no certainty

Prime Minister Scott Morrison could yet be guilty of prematurely declaring that his government will deliver a budget surplus in 2018-19.

Sure, tax revenue is growing at a rapid pace and the government is underspending on a range of government services, but there are still seven long months to go between now and the end of the financial year that might yet blow up the surplus commitment.

PM Morrison’s ‘return to surplus’ boast is based, it appears, on hard data for the first four months of the 2018-19 financial year on revenue and spending information from the Department of Finance. These numbers do look strong, at least in terms of the budget numbers and if the trends on revenue and spending continue, the budget will probably be in surplus. Treasury will be factoring in ongoing economic growth, no increase in the unemployment rate and buoyant iron ore and coal prices over the remainder of the financial year. These forecasts and hence the budget bottom line are subject to a good deal of uncertainty, as they are every year.

If, as is distinctly possible, the economy stalls in the March and June quarters 2019, commodity prices continue to weaken and if there are some unexpected increases in government spending, the current erroneous forecasts for revenue and spending could leave the budget in deficit.

It is a dangerous game. Politically at least.

Economies and budgets can alter very quickly as a run of uncertain news and events impact on consumers and the business sector. Global shocks come jump out to derail even the best forecasts. Clearly, a lot can change for the budget between now and the Treasurer handing down of the budget on 2 April 2019 Budget.

Even more can change between when the budget is handed down and when the financial year comes to an end on 30 June 2019. This gap alone is a further three months of news that can have a material and unexpected impact on the budget bottom line.

Government spending in 2017-18 will be around $475 billion, a similar number to total revenue. A 1 per cent forecasting error on either revenue or spending could cost the budget close to $5 billion. And 1 per cent forecasting errors have occurred in the past. Mr Morrison’s proud announcement of a surplus seems risky, but it may be a political plus for the beleaguered government. Part of the electorate thinks that the budget balance is a measure of economic management competence and a surplus will be seen, by them, as good news.

But there is a twist.

The final budget outcome for 2018-19 – whether it is in surplus or deficit – will not be known until September 2019, some four months after the voters have made their decision. This means that in the event of a shock Coalition win at the election, the budget could ‘surprisingly’ drop back into deficit but, perhaps ironically, Mr Morrison will still be Prime Minister despite the failure to deliver on his promise.

At the macroeconomic level, there is very little difference between a budget deficit of a billion dollars or two and a surplus of a billion dollars or two. Recall annual GDP in Australia is close to $2 trillion.

But politically, the surplus / deficit issue can be important particularly when the surplus the government says it is delivering cannot be checked until after the election, even though it may sway a few voters to give their vote to the Coalition.

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It’s time to end the “strong economy” propaganda

Thu, 20 Jun 2019

This article first appeared on the Yahoo Finance website at this link: https://au.finance.yahoo.com/news/its-time-end-strong-economy-propaganda-230414837.html 

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It’s time to end the “strong economy” propaganda

For the last year or so, it has been obvious to anyone with an open mind that the economy is in trouble. Unfortunately, the government and the Reserve Bank not only ignored this growth slump, but they ran a propaganda campaign saying the economy was “strong”, that unemployment would keep falling and wages growth was poised to pick up.

It might have been politics that lead the RBA and Treasury to this view with the recent election swinging on the economic credentials of both major parties. Ahead of the election, the RBA and Treasury were loathe to undermine the government with an honest assessment of the rapidly spreading economic problems.

It is possible that the forecasts were a simple error, which sometimes happens when an external shock hits the economy.

Either way, things are so bad in the economy right now that forecasters are rushing to out-do each other on how low interest rates will go in this cycle. Some are canvassing negative interest rates, printing money or the need for a fiscal policy boost if the economy remains in its economic funk.

Time will tell.

The range of forecasts that where regularly produced by the government (Treasury) and the RBA up until very recently were unambiguously optimistic. The forecasts ignored all hard data on the economy, which suggests it may have been a political strategy to remain upbeat, rather than it being a clumsy forecasting error.

An update on my house price bet with Tony Locantro

Thu, 20 Jun 2019

This article first appeared on the Yahoo Finance website at this link: https://au.finance.yahoo.com/news/house-prices-are-still-dropping-but-bottom-sight-210000929.html 

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An update on my house price bet with Tony Locantro

It is difficult to think of a bigger issue that gets Australians fired up than house prices.Regular readers will know that back in September 2018, I made a bet on house prices with Tony Locantro, a fired-up Investment Manager with Alto Capital in Perth.

Tony wont mind me saying this, but he is what is called an ‘uber bear’ on house prices – he reckons prices are grossly inflated and are overdue to collapse. On the other hand, I reckon there is a cycle and that after the surge up to 2017, house price falls were inevitable, but that the decline would last only a couple of years and would not be too severe.

The bet was framed around a peak-to-trough fall in prices of 35.0 per cent in either Sydney, Melbourne or the 8 capital cities measure used by the Australian Bureau of Statistics. If prices fell by more than 35 per cent at any stage from the peak until the end of 2021, Tony would win, if the fall was less than 35 per cent, I would win.

Simple.

That background is important because the ABS just released the official dwelling price data for the March quarter 2019.

In the quarter, dwelling prices fell 3.0 per cent in the 8 capital cities and dropped 3.9 per cent in Sydney and 3.8 per cent in Melbourne.