For a man who, just months ago, was too prudish to say that dirty word “stimulus”, there’s now no doubt Treasurer Josh Frydenberg has become a card-carrying Keynesian. This week’s budget administers a huge Keynesian boost to our recessed economy. But he’s done it in a very Liberal way.
And, although the budget papers prefer to say “support” rather than “stimulus”, the man himself is always tossing off Keynesian jargon such as “aggregate demand” and burbling about the budget’s “automatic stabilisers”.
(John Maynard Keynes, BTW, was an avowed supporter of the British Liberal Party – although it was a different animal to our party of that name.)
According to the budget papers, the budget announced a further $73 billion in stimulus (plus $25 billion in virus-related health measures) over the next four years, on top of earlier spending of $159 billion.
Another way of judging the budget’s effect on aggregate (total) demand in the economy is to say the government expects the underlying cash deficit to increase from $85 billion last financial year to $213 billion this year.
This increase of $128 billion is equivalent to more than 6 per cent of gross domestic product. Unlike a strict Keynesian analysis, however, this takes the stimulus’ addition to the “structural component” of the budget balance, arising from the government’s explicit decisions to increase government spending or cut taxes, and combines it with the addition to the “cyclical component” made by the operation of the budget’s automatic stabilisers.
As the budget papers explain, “automatic stabilisers are features of the tax and transfer system that dampen the size of economic cycles without the need for explicit actions by policymakers. The government has allowed the automatic stabilisers to operate freely to dampen the effect of the COVID-19 shock.
“In a downturn, household and business after-tax income falls by less than before-tax income (for instance, due to progressivity in the tax system and [provisions for companies to deduct their losses from future -and now past – profits for tax purposes]) and transfer payments increase (due to increases in unemployment benefit payments and income-testing of other transfer payments).
“This provides an economic stimulus [whoops] that can reduce the magnitude of the downturn,” the papers say.
But Frydenberg wants to be clear that he’s embraced Keynesianism on his own terms. The budget papers say the economic recovery plan “is consistent with the government’s core values of lower taxes and containing the size of government, guaranteeing the provision of essential services, and ensuring budget and balance sheet discipline”.
And, as Frydenberg has said many times, the goal is to use budgetary stimulus to bring about a “business-led recovery”. I’d have thought that spending a lot of public money makes it a government-led recovery, but I think what he means is that most of the public money should be given to businesses, rather than being spent directly or given to punters.
Once you realise this, Frydenberg’s choices of what measures to include in the budget are easier to understand.
For instance, by far the most expensive measure – costing $27 billion over four years – is a temporary concession allowing businesses to deduct the full cost of all the new equipment they buy in the first year, rather than apportion the cost over the life of the asset.
Next are the personal income-tax cuts, costing $18 billion over the budget year and the three years of the “forward estimates”.
Then there’s infrastructure grants to the states of $7 billion, plus $2 billion for road safety improvements and upgrades. Then the $5 billion cost of letting loss-making businesses get an immediate tax deduction for their loss.
Only now do we get to the budget’s other centrepiece beside the tax cuts, the JobMaker hiring credit (wage subsidy) for employers who hire jobless young people under 35, which is the government’s replacement for the $101 billion JobKeeper wage subsidy scheme when it finishes in March. The new scheme will cost just $4 billion over three years.
You do have to wonder whether all this spending would have done more to get the economy moving and unemployment falling if more of it had gone on job subsidies and less on investment incentives.
Then we come to the cash splash payments to pensioners ($2.6 billion), $2 billion in new spending on aged care and $2 billion on a research and development tax incentive.
You see from this incomplete list how many of the budget’s measures seek to direct money into the hands of businesses: $34 billion in tax breaks and $4 billion in wage subsidies, compared with $20 billion in personal tax cuts and the pensioner cash splash.
Most of these measures are intended to get businesses investing and employing, but they do so by cutting the cost to them of capital equipment or labour. Those who would have invested and employed anyway are left better off, without taxpayers getting any value.
(And remember that one reason the government was happy to pay what it thought would be $130 billion for the JobKeeper scheme was that the money went to workers via their employer. This left businesses better off to the extent that their workers kept working.)
You do have to wonder whether all this spending would have done more to get the economy moving and unemployment falling if more of it had gone on job subsidies and less on investment incentives. Trying to get businesses investing in expanding their production rather than trying to get more people in jobs and spending on the things businesses produce seems to get things the wrong way round.
And you see that this “Liberal values” business-directed, tax-reducing approach to fiscal stimulus explains why the budget didn’t include the two measures economists most wanted to see because they’d do most to boost consumer spending and jobs: a big spend on social housing (a no-no under the rules of Smaller Government) and a permanent increase in unemployment benefits (almost every cent of which would have been spent).
The risk with Frydenberg’s politically correct stimulus is that too much of it will be saved. He needs to bone up on Keynes’ warning about the “paradox of thrift”.
Ross Gittins is the Herald’s economics editor.
Source: Thanks smh.com