Crikey’s crack team of economists ignored the theatre and zeroed in on the meat and potatoes.

Just minutes after Treasurer Wayne Swan took to the podium, global ratings agency Standard & Poors said Australia’s credit rating was unaffected by Swan’s projected $219 billion dollar deficit over four years, billions in new borrowings and predictions of ballooning government debt — a solid thumbs up in a global market place that’s used to much worse.

Our economists largely concurred, filing the following reaction pieces on their initial impressions on Wayne’s “brutal” recession Budget.

Adam Carr, Senior Economist ICAP Australia: At first glance there’s nothing too new in it. Most of the key policy initiatives had already been leaked. So the stand out feature for me is the economic forecast table over the next few years. At 0.0%, the government’s growth forecasts are pretty consistent with the market.

Looking ahead, the market consensus is for GDP growth of about 0.7% in 2009-10 and my own forecast is for something stronger again at 1.1%. The government’s, in contrast, is for -0.5%. If you buy into the theory that the global economy has passed out of its trough, and I do, then there is considerable scope for the budget deficit to decline.

In particular the government’s forecasts for unemployment look too high. So a 4.5% deficit next year will probably be something like 3.5% or lower — it won’t take, as the government states, until 2015-16 to get back into surplus. This is a budget that lays the foundations for a nice upside surprise going into an election year.

Shane Oliver, Chief Economist ANZ Capital: This has probably been the toughest budget since 1996. On the one hand there are more measures to stimulate the economy in the form of pension increases, the promised tax cuts and increased infrastructure spending. But to avoid an even worse blowout in the deficit the Treasurer has had to play Robin Hood by cutting back on benefits to middle and upper income earners particularly in the areas of health and superannuation.

The Government’s Budget forecasts for the year ahead look reasonable. If anything the recent uptick in economic indicators suggests there is a risk that the -0.5% GDP forecast for 2009-10 may be too pessimistic. The Budget deficit of $57.6 billion looks bad relative to the projected surpluses of just a year ago, but as a percentage of GDP is running around half of that in the US and UK. That said, the risks to the growth forecasts of 4.5% for 2011-12 and 2012-13 are on the downside and this would suggest that the deficit may fall by far less than projected in those years. Against this backdrop it’s likely that further tough measures will be required in the years ahead to ensure that the Budget will head back in to surplus within a reasonable timeframe, particularly as the aging population starts to blow out health and pension spending. The easy days of rivers of money flowing into the Australian Tax Office to be recycled back as income tax cuts are clearly behind us, at least for now.

Given the Budget was pretty much totally leaked it’s hard to see it having a big impact on financial markets. That said, it is a clear positive for building and construction stocks and clean energy

Stephen Koukoulas, Global Strategist, TD Securities: This is a nine out of ten budget, a solid effort in the middle of the Great Recession. The Government has managed to successfully juggle the need to support economic growth at a time of deep global recession and chaos in credit markets; it has limited the extent and time in which the Budget will be in deficit by offsetting some of the areas of economic stimulus with spending cuts and criteria tightening; it has a realistic set of economic parameters underpinning its projections and importantly, it is as clear as the smirk on Peter Costello’s face that the government will return the budget back to surplus as soon as economic conditions permit — and no earlier or no later.

This all adds up to a Budget that is a well balanced approach to economic management.

To do less would have compelled the economy to an even weaker performance and even higher unemployment: To do more would have threatened to damage the country’s AAA credit rating. This is about right.

Importantly, the Budget re-opens the door for the RBA to seriously consider cutting interest rates. In the last few months, the RBA has expressed concern about the extent of fiscal easing and as a result, has left official interest rates at a globally high 3.0%. The fact that the Budget is sufficiently “tight” will allow the RBA to consider and then deliver interest rate cuts in the months ahead.

And the initial market reaction to the Budget gives it a small thumbs up — money market interest rates have fallen a couple of ticks and the $A is also a little lower. This is good news and has set in train trends that should continue as the market digests this news and then refocuses on the problems in the domestic economy.

Warren Hogan, Head of Australian Economics, ANZ: On first glance this huge Budget deficit tells us a few things.

The previous government had not accumulated enough surpluses through the boom years. Although the current government has announced numerous new spending initiatives, the great bulk of the deterioration in the government’s budget position has occurred due to parameters revisions, that is, due to the impact of a weaker economy on government revenues and expenses. Although the previous government left a nominal budget surplus, the underlying structural position was clearly in deficit.

Fiscal stimulus has just about run its course. With the largest deficit ever and only very strong growth in the out-years getting the budget back into balance, there is little room for further fiscal stimulus over the year ahead. This should keep pressure on the RBA to keep rates low and possibly take them lower later in the year.

In the absence of a series of asset sales or a new once-in-a-lifetime commodity boom, we will be running budget deficits for almost a decade. And this is based on some very strong economic growth assumptions around 2012 to 2014. The real risk is that a more concerted effort of tax rises or further spending cuts will be required to get the budget back into order if the economy disappoints.

Joshua Gans, Melbourne Business School: In the past year, I guess it is safe to say that economics got far more interesting even if the economy became far more unsafe. In its midst is a record-breaking deficit budget but not the kind of record any Treasurer wanted to break. The idea of having a large deficit, and everything that has gone into making it such, is a pre-emptive strike: seeing the global tide of recession coming, the government didn’t wait. It moved to sure up key sectors but even the most Keynesian economist knows that it remains a gamble.

As of today, the recession is everywhere but in our own statistics. The only way to judge this budget will be to stand in the shoes of the Treasurer but politics will end up judging it by comparing Australia’s economic performance to that of our peers. In that respect, the Budget is hardly complex but straightforward. It is Economics 101 and interestingly even in these times, it is hard to argue with sticking to the basics.

That said, there are moves towards the future. In particular, the move on research and innovation is welcome. We can then do the beaker-ready projects as well as the shovel-ready ones.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey