Austerity comes to Australia – OpEd, WHITE PAPER, ABC Radio National

Screen Shot 2014-08-22 at 11.18.49 AMFollowing the passing of an Austerity Budget by the Australian Federal Government, the editors of White Paper (ABC Radio National’s online magazine) commissioned me to write an OpEd on what lessons Australia should learn from the implementation of similar austerian fiscal policies in Britain and the Eurozone.

You can read my article by clicking here, or simply by reading on…

AUSTERITY COMES TO AUSTRALIA

An assessment of Canberra’s economic policies from the perspective of international experience

Six years after the Great Financial Crisis of 2008, Australia is opting for fiscal austerity.

Australia was the only industrialised nation not to have suffered significantly from the GFC, partly because it stimulated its economy in 2008/9 and shunned austerity post-2010, precisely at the time the United Kingdom and the Eurozone were embracing austerity with moral enthusiasm.

Like all other economic variables, government spending can fall as well as rise. Thus, a reduction in government spending does not, per se, constitute fiscal austerity. However, any plan to reduce government spending, over a decade, below its long-term average is the definition of fiscal austerity.

Australia now has such a plan firmly in place. In his last federal budget, Joe Hockey, Australia’s Federal Treasurer, set himself an ambitious target: Not only will he reduce government spending by 1.1 per cent of national income before 2025, but he will also endeavour to push spending below its thirty year average level. All in the hope of driving the budget into surplus and, therefore, paying down the nation’s public debt.

While at the level of the household, or the enterprise, a penchant to reduce debt through spending cuts resonates nicely with prudence, the international macroeconomic experience with fiscal austerity suggests that the Australian government’s economic policies may prove deeply injudicious.

Put boldly, in an environment of flagging economic activity, like the one Australia dwells in presently, austerity fails by its own criteria.

Can Mr Hockey’s austerity deliver?

For austerity to work, one of the following two conditions must hold.

One is that a nation’s trading partners are growing fast. That is how Canada’s austerity succeeded in the mid-1990s. The reduction of public sector expenditure was replaced by private sector spending as net exports rose on the back of the rapidly growing American economy next door. Similarly with Scandinavia’s and Germany’s 1990s austerity drives, that were underpinned by accelerating (credit-led) demand in the rest of the Eurozone as well as in America. Can Australia expect accelerating demand from China, or elsewhere, in the next decade? While high hopes are wholly legitimate, it is foolhardy to confuse a wish for a realistic expectation.

A second scenario under which austerity may work is if fiscal austerity coincides with the creation of large bubbles within the private sector; e.g. in the housing market and/or finance. But is this prospect desirable today? Even if, say, a crisis in China’s shadow banking system were to cause an influx of middle class Chinese property investors (driving Sydney house prices through the roof and triggering off a real estate bubble that spreads throughout the Australian economy), how confident can the government be that a bubble of that sort will not end up in a combination of tears and negative equity that brings on an early 1990s-like recession and a budget deficit blowout?

In short, for austerity properly to succeed, Chinese resource demand from Australia remains the key. Alas, in the wake of the ‘good times’, it is frightfully hard to maintain a sense of how temporary their gifts are. During Australia’s resource boom, investment rose from less than 2 per cent of national income to a remarkable 8 per cent in 2012/3, or in nominal terms from around A$14 billion to more than A$100 billion annually. The result was a bifurcation: While almost 200 thousand jobs were directly created by the resources sector, many manufacturing jobs were irretrievably lost as the Australian dollar skyrocketed.

Today, with Chinese growth flagging and Europe buffeted by deflationary headwinds, mining companies are expected to drop their investment rate from 7 per cent to no more than 2.5 per cent, causing growth to lose much of its momentum. Meanwhile, the rest of the economy, battered as it remains following the Australian dollar’s frenetic rise over several years, seems unwilling to bounce back and to compensate for activity lost in the mining sector. And all that before the federal government’s austerity drive takes its toll.

With these thoughts in mind, it is difficult to see how Mr Hockey’s plans can come to fruition. Indeed, a quick look at the United Kingdom, and the more problematic Eurozone across the Channel, suggests that Australia’s recent austerity stance will produce higher deficits even if it reduces government spending.

Lessons from Europe’s dalliance with austerity

That austerity has a tendency to undermine itself there can be little doubt.

In 2010 the then newly elected coalition government, led by Prime Minster David Cameron, decided that cutting the UK’s budget deficit was the national priority.

Why?

Precisely as the Abbot-Hockey government in Australia today, the British government was arguing that: large government expenditure led to large deficits; large deficits would crowd out private investment; debt had already been on the rise (and had to be subdued); and, as a result, unless the deficit was brought down, the nation faced the deadly threat of increased interest rates that would put it on an unsustainable fiscal path.

So, in the 2010 Budget, the British government opted for fiscal austerity, setting an annual net borrowing target for the next two years of no more than £322 billion. In its June 2013 Budget, the actual sum exceeded… £535 billion. Why? Because the spending cuts slowed the economy right down, aborted the nascent recovery of 2009/10, and reduced the government’s tax take by more than anticipated.

Things were far worse on the other side of the British Channel. In the Eurozone the states lacked a central bank to have their back and were at the mercy of a European Central Bank that was itself prohibited from the type of monetary easing which, at least, had prevented a credit crunch in the UK. In that environment, the harsher the European governments’ austerian cuts the larger the public debt ended up being, as a percentage of national income.

For further evidence of the brittleness of austerity’s intellectual foundation, consider what happened to the interest rates money markets charged European governments: Nothing! Had the UK government not argued, as Mr Hockey does today, that a deficit and debt overshoot would exact a terrible price in terms of higher interest rates? Nothing of the sort transpired in Britain. Interest rates remained at historic lows. Even in Eurozone nations, whose debts rose exponentially (e.g. Greece, Italy, Spain) as a result of austerian efforts to curtail them, interest rates are now remarkably low.

How come?

The reason is that for a nation with its own Central Bank and a floating currency, like the UK and Australia, long-term interest rates are determined by the expected future short-term interest rates which, in turn, depend on
expectations regarding the overall state of the economy, not of the government’s budget. Similarly for the Eurozone countries: Once the European Central Bank had signalled (as it did in the summer of 2012) that it would not let the common currency fragment, government interest rates fell to the floor, reflecting the markets’ low growth (and, thus, low short term interest rate) expectations.

Some may protest, asking: “But, has British austerity not been vindicated most recently, with growth steaming ahead over the past year or so? Might it not be that the medicine simply needed more time to perform its miracle?” Not so! All that happened in the UK was that the government abandoned austerity about eighteen months ago while the Bank of England cranked up substantially its ‘quantitative easing’ program of flooding the flagging economy with liquidity (which, incidentally, caused a nightmare of a bubble in London’s real estate market).

In short, as in the UK and in the Eurozone in 2010 so again now in Australia, the wrong diagnosis is leading governments to adopt the wrong prescription; a cure (austerity) that is worse than the disease (deficit)

London and Canberra argued that public debt was too high and had to be cut. In neither case was it so. When the GFC struck, net public debt was close to its historic lows both in the UK and in Australia. Even today, after public finances had to absorb the shock of the GFC, public debt in these two countries is at the low end of its historic range and scarcely a genuine cause of concern.

London has already discovered, the hard way, that trying to reduce public debt through austerity is a bit of a boomerang. Canberra is in for a similar ‘lesson’, unless China and the world economy take off in a manner that would surprise us all

The only hope left is that Canberra’s policy makers will prove faster learners than their British and European counterparts, who negligently waited for four long, lost years before, quietly, ditching austerity.

So, why this penchant for austerity?

The intellectually curious cannot, at this juncture, fail to ask: If austerity is a foregone disaster, why is it so popular amongst conservative governments? The answer lies not so much in the austerity measures that they adopt but, rather, in those which they shun.

For instance, if the Australian government wanted to slash the federal deficit, why did it not even think of culling the factor price-distorting fuel subsidy to miners and farmers, which costs Canberra A$7.5 billion annually? How about the private health insurance subsidy that could have saved the government A$7 billion every year, a part of which could be spent on public hospitals without any net loss to health care provision? Why abolish the A$5 billion carbon tax? Indeed, why keep the Howard government’s tax cuts which were responsible for the rise in public debt as a result of the faulty assumption that corporate and capital gains taxes would pay for these tax cuts ad infinitum?

The obvious answer is that austerity was never about tackling public debt. It was not even a political campaign to end the ‘culture of entitlement’. In the UK, in the Eurozone, and now in Australia, austerity is, and always was, a thinly disguised campaign of invoking fiscal prudence and public virtues in order to indulge private vices and so as to redistribute entitlements at the expense of the majority.