Kevin Rudd and Wayne Swan are at pains to tell everyone how the global credit crunch has changed the dynamics for this budget, but we’re still yet to hear whether this means the Reserve Bank’s balance sheet will be strengthened next Tuesday.
The credit crunch has precipitated the most dramatic rundown in Reserve Bank foreign reserves that we’ve ever seen.
The official reserve assets for our central bank were updated yesterday and as at April 30, we were still languishing with just $32.87 billion in foreign reserves, a far cry from the record $81.59 billion last May.
Peter Costello artificially inflated his claimed budget surpluses over the years by ripping out almost $25 billion in dividends from the Reserve Bank. The biggest raid was $3 billion in 1999-00 and the smallest $694 million in 2003-04.
The Australian version of the credit crisis has been characterised by companies pretending things haven’t changed by maintaining their dividends.
The Rubicon trusts, Allco Finance Group, Macquarie Fortress, ABC Learning and Centro were all making payouts when they should have abandoned dividends to conserve as much cash as possible to whether the world’s first global liquidity crisis.
This raises the obvious question about Reserve Bank dividend policy. Surely a prudent new government wouldn’t budget to take a single dollar out of the Reserve Bank in 2008-09 when it needs all the cash it can find to preserve liquidity and reserves in our financial system.
If anything the RBA needs a sizable capital injection because it just doesn’t have the cash to handle an Australian equivalent of Northern Rock.
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The other big budget fiddle that Costello mastered was only providing for $1.3 billion in superannuation payouts in the budget each year, which meant unfunded superannuation liabilities rocketed from $69 billion to $110 billion on his watch.
When looking at the final surplus which Swan unveils on Tuesday, we should closely examine these two variables.
A $5 billion superannuation contribution and $10 billion Reserve Bank capital contribution could get that headline surplus figures down to $5 billion with the stroke of a pen.
It would also represent far more prudent accounting and the global reality of foreign reserve accumulation.
Australian might finish in the top six in the medal tally at the Beijing Olympics, but our pitiful savings record leaves us languishing in 36th spot on Wikipedia’s league ladder of foreign reserves, below the likes of Iran, Libya, the Philippines, Peru, Denmark, Malaysia, Poland, Argentina, Mexico, Thailand, Romania and Indonesia.
Surely a fiscal conservative and an internationalist like Kevin Rudd couldn’t tolerate such a low global ranking for Australia. He can start to address the problem next week by cancelling the annual Reserve Bank dividend.
*Today’s Mayne Report video bangs the drum on Chinese government takeovers.