What a difference a year makes! Alan Oster analyses the budget

“What a difference a year makes”. NAB’s Group Chief Economist Alan Oster gives his detailed summary of this year’s Federal Budget. Who benefits from the Government’s proposed spending and who doesn’t, and what does it mean for the Australian Economy?

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What a difference a year makes. Gone is the political rhetoric on the importance of gaining international credibility by getting a surplus no matter what. Rather, the focus is very much on a fairly timid initial approach that doesn’t see a balanced Budget till 2015/16 or a surplus till 2016/17. In short, a Budget that’s more in line with a “soft economy” – even if the Government doesn’t describe it as such.

As set out in Medium Term Fiscal Context, the Budget effectively takes nothing to the economy in the near term (compared to detraction from growth of nearly 1½% this year). From a structural viewpoint, nearly all of the heavy hitting is from the revenue side and most is done in the out years.

What a difference a year makes. Gone is the political rhetoric on the importance of gaining international credibility by getting a surplus no matter what. Rather, the focus is very much on a fairly timid initial approach that doesn’t see a balanced Budget till 2015/16 or a surplus till 2016/17. In short, a Budget that is more in line with a “soft economy” – even if the Government doesn’t describe it as such.

As set out in Medium Term Fiscal Context, the Budget effectively takes nothing from the economy in the near term (compared to detraction from growth of nearly 1½% this year). From a structural viewpoint nearly all of the heavy hitting is from the revenue side and most is done in the out years. That said, the Budget is helping to repair some structural problems via scrapping last year’s welfare increases (last year’s so called spreading the benefits of the mining boom – around $2.5bn over the estimates) and the baby bonus, increasing the Medicare levy to help fund national disability reform (the largest saving at $11.5bn over the estimates), tightening offshore tax arrangements including Offshore Banking Units (a hefty $4.2bn over the estimates) and acknowledging the lower carbon price ($3.4bn over the estimates). Also, there are measures to reduce funding costs of schooling (out of universities etc at $2.6bn) and measures to introduce PAYG systems for large tax payers. The main expenditure items (within the estimates period) are more infrastructure ($3.1bn) school building ($2.9bn) and disability care ($1.9bn but ramping up in the beyond estimates period). For more details, see Budget Measures – In Brief.

NAB’s real activity forecasts are very similar to Treasury’s – albeit we are a touch weaker in 2012/13 and we also have unemployment a touch higher. Of more concern, we are significantly lower for nominal GDP – which is important because this was the main cause of revenue under prediction in recent years. We are also slightly weaker for the global outlook. For more details, see Economic and Financial Outlook.

The real risks to the Budget probably revolve around how much of the package will see the light of day post the election. Also, the Budget expenditures are very much back ended which raises the question of just in what state the economy will be in 2016/17 and beyond. Finally even this modest fiscal retraction will possibly be at risk if election spending fires up. At least in that context Australia’s debt position remains very strong in an international context with debt levels very low – albeit they are possibly moving towards the lower end of the remaining AAA economies. For more details, see Bond Issuance and Net Debt.

Overall then a budget for a softer economy but one that is very political in nature (as probably was inevitable in present circumstances).

Fiscal Outcome

The underlying cash deficit for 2012/13 is estimated at $19.4 billion (1.3% percent of GDP). The Budget maintains large deficits of $18 billion in 2013/14, and $10.9 billion in 2014/15, before moving into a marginal surplus of $800 million in 2015/16.

Economic Outlook

The Government’s economic outlook is broadly in line with recent RBA forecasts, and only slightly stronger than NAB’s. However, the Government’s outlook for nominal GDP is substantially stronger than ours, at 3¼% in 2012/13 compared to our 2.1%, and 5% in 2013/14 compared to our 4.2%. Over estimating nominal GDP was the reason why revenues were overestimated in recent years – and this is clearly a concern. The Government and NAB both have growth of 2.7% and 3% for 2013/14 and 2014/15. However we are weaker in 2012/13 (at 2.7% v the Governments 3%) largely slower near-term public sector demand and a sharper pace of decline in the terms of trade. The Government expects unemployment to rise to around 5¾% by mid 2014, while NAB expects it to edge towards 6%, reflecting our weaker view on growth. The Government, RBA and NAB share very similar views on the outlook for underlying inflation, which is expected to remain well within the RBA’s 2-3% target band over the forecast horizon. Given the structural adjustment occurring in the economy at present, as well as softness in labour market conditions, we still believe the economy would benefit from another 25 bp rate cut this year (November); this would take the RBA’s cash rate to 2.50%. However, further deterioration in labour market conditions could see earlier action and possibly more than one cut. For further details, see the Economic and Financial Outlook.

Financial Markets

Beyond the economic/fiscal outlook, for bond investors the two main considerations from tonight’s Budget are: 1) the Government’s debt programme for 2013/14, and 2) any implications for Government’s stable AAA credit rating. The market reaction to the Budget was negative, with the $A quickly falling ½ a cent to under 0.9950. The reasoning was less to do with the detail of the Budget and more that investors saw a string of deficits indicating the economy remains weak. The bond market was little moved.

For further analysis download the Federal Budget Report.

Also available is Alan Osters presentation on the Federal Budget 2013.