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Aug 11, 2011

David Murray takes on the fiscal consensus

Despite widespread agreement that the government doesn't need to return to surplus next year, one figure wants us to go harder and faster.

A new standard in fiscal hairychestedness has been set this week, not in the United States, or Europe, home of almost unimaginable levels of government debt, but right here in Australia. And not from the opposition, despite its theoretical commitment to returning to surplus even faster than the government.

No, up stepped David Murray of the Future Fund to declare that the forecast surplus for next year wasn’t good enough, that there needed to be a “sufficient surplus to stabilise the debt levels”.

“Stabilising debt levels” of course is achieved by not having a deficit, but presumably Murray wants a bigger surplus than the near-token $3 billion forecast for 2012-13.

Murray appears to be alone in this; there’s few economists who are convinced a faster return to surplus — and the one forecast by the government is extraordinarily quick by previous standards — is warranted, even if there are plenty who think the Budget is loaded with spending that could usefully be slashed. Indeed, many take the view that the 2012-13 surplus is purely political and unnecessary.

That’s not the view of the IMF, which on the weekend gave the government’s fiscal strategy the tick.

Perhaps on this score, Murray is showing the same scepticism of economists that he shows about climate scientists, given it’s only a couple of months since he was declaring carbon dioxide was odourless and colourless (he omitted weightless, unlike some others) and not linked to climate change. For Murray, the economics of fiscal policy are clearly not settled.

Murray may well be disappointed, but it’s not yet clear how big the threat is to surplus. As Crikey and others like Nicholas Gruen have pointed out, our budget is more dependent than ever on corporate tax revenue, courtesy of repeated cuts to personal income tax. In particular, the mining and finance sectors are, far and away, the biggest contributors to corporate tax revenue. A global slowdown will reduce commodity prices, but unless Chinese growth seriously stumbles, our miners are still on course for substantial profits over the next twelve months. Domestically, a “two-speed”, “patchwork”, “insert preferred metaphor here” economy will mean the big banks only continue to grow solidly, rather than surge to yet further record profits, though the banks only provide a fraction of the finance sector’s overall tax revenue.

So far, the surplus doesn’t look under serious threat, but the downside risks are now substantially greater than they were back in May, and there’s very little room to move — $3 billion could be wiped out very quickly indeed.

Preserving the surplus — or expanding it, as the nation’s highest-paid climate denialist would want — would become a matter of cutting spending or lifting taxes, and further weakening demand. It might even undermine consumer sentiment further, curbing discretionary spending.

All things considered, there could probably not be a better way to talk ourselves into an economic slowdown than to follow the advice of the fiscal rugged individualists who think debt, point blank, is bad. Watch how they’ll point overseas and use that as evidence of why we should be going all out to slash debt, rather like someone insisting that because the bloke next door went bust after he borrowed too much to feed his gambling habit, you should sell your house to pay off your mortgage.

It’s an economic version of obsessive compulsive disorder and if revenue falls below forecasts next year, it’ll dominate our political debate. Watch.

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49 comments

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49 thoughts on “David Murray takes on the fiscal consensus

  1. Suzanne Blake

    The chances of Swan delivering a Surplus in 2012/2013 are poor.

    He will be itching for an excuse, and I bet he picks the latest global events to spin a yarn.

  2. Murray Hall

    It certainly is terrible that David Murray holds a different opinion on debt. Didn’t he get the memo that everyone had to say the same thing?

  3. Suzanne Blake

    @ Murray Hall

    Perhaps he is not on the 6am, 11am, 3pm, 8pm ALP Spin Email List or it goes to his junk email.

  4. Michael James

    Jesus Crikey, you trying to create your own version of Godwin’s Law.

    Murray makes a comment on government policy relating to debt and you drag out his position on climate change, which has no bearing on the subject. You do it not one but twice, as if his position on one contentious subject immediately disqualifies him from commenting on anything else.

    Personally I agree that Murray is mistaken on the budget deficit approach, but his politics on climate don’t have a bearing on the subject being discussed.

    Demonising people for their position, even if it’s something you don’t particularly agree with, hardly supports free speech, something Crikey claims to stand for.

  5. stephen martin

    “Stabilising debt levels” of course is achieved by not having a deficit,”
    Why that interpretation? – surely stabilising it could equally mean at it’s present level, no better, but no worse.

  6. The_roth

    @ Michael James – it would have been way funnier if you’d written crikey, Crikey!

  7. Rodger

    Australia’s government debt per GDP is the lowest in the OEDC (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_sovereign_states_by_public_debt) and 107th in the world.
    But let’s reduce it further.
    I suggest reduced government spending to levels just above those that cause riots and looting.

  8. Harvey Tarvydas

    Dr Harvey M Tarvydas

    Well done BK, but surely they can all see that he’s just drunk which is a very common and fashionable affliction.
    Let him go back to sleep and when he wakes next decade everything will be smooth as and he won’t be stressed by worldly difficulties.

  9. Captain Planet

    @ Stephen Martin

    Debt = how much money you owe (total)
    Deficit = how much more you spend than you earn, in a given period (e.g. 1 year)
    Surplus = how much more you earn than you spend, in a given period

    Therefore no deficit and no surplus = debt remains the same (stable)

    Deficit = increase in debt

    Surplus = reduction in debt

  10. William Fettes

    Little bearing, perhaps, but I wouldn’t say it has no bearing. After all, there’s probably some kind of correlation between having drastically wrong-headed views on well-publicised matters of public policy like climate change, where the scientific literature is clear and well vetted, and having a similarly untethered approach to public policy issues in relation to your own specialty, economics.

    You can’t assume one from the other, because obviously you can be a subject matter expert about one topic, and remain pretty ignorant about matters outside that. But some people are just flabby thinkers, and if they show a tendency to repeat crappy source material, you can bet that lack of rigour is apparent in other areas of their thinking.

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