A budget of unparalleled significance: Elliot Clarke

A budget of unparalleled significance: Elliot Clarke
Staff reporterDecember 7, 2020


This week for Australia was all about economic policy.

Beginning first with monetary policy. The RBA’s October decision and communications were as expected. There was no change in policy on 6 October, but a more dovish tone in the Governor’s statement signals the likelihood of an imminent move.

As detailed by Chief Economist Bill Evans, of greatest significance is the clear message the RBA Governor’s statement ended on: the “Board continues to consider how additional monetary easing could support jobs as the economy opens up further”.

The pricing in of additional easing by market participants was also recognised in the decision statement: “3-year yields have fallen to around 18 basis points as markets price in some probability of further monetary policy easing”. And open-ended concern over the labour market and activity was on display: “Unemployment and underemployment are likely to remain high for an extended period”; and “it will be some time before the level of output returns to its end 2019 level”.

It is worth adding that risks remain skewed downward: globally given a rising incidence of COVID-19 in a number of economies such as the UK, US, and Europe; and domestically as a result of the underlying weakness seen in Australia’s economy ahead of this pandemic.

We continue to expect the RBA will cut the cash rate; 3-year bond yield target; and TFF rate from 0.25% to 0.10% in November and will also announce additional government bond purchases for maturities between 5 and 10 years at that meeting.

Just a few hours after the RBA’s October meeting concluded, Federal Budget 2020-21 was handed down by Federal Treasurer Frydenberg.

At $213.7bn, the 2020-21 deficit is the largest ever by a considerable margin. Even relative to the size of the economy, this deficit is almost three time the size of that recorded in the aftermath of the GFC and the 1990’s recession.

Very clearly, spending on this scale is justified by the circumstances. Over the first six months of 2020, Australian GDP contracted by over 7% under the weight of the restrictions required to suppress COVID-19. The unemployment rate has since risen from around 5% to near 7%, we believe on its way to almost 8%.

Having already introduced policies to get through the recession, in Budget 2020 the Federal Government is seeking to shift households’ and businesses’ focus from the immediate to the medium-term, and in so doing lay a strong foundation for recovery.

The best example of this is found in the Budget 2020’s job initiatives. JobKeeper and JobSeeker have not been extended past their respective current March 2021 and December 2020 end dates. The focus has instead been shifted to new job creation through the introduction of the JobMaker and JobTrainer which incentivise business to create new jobs and apprenticeships, particularly for young Australians.

To support household confidence and incomes more broadly, the Government has also elected to bring forward the stage two tax cuts to 1 July 2020, raising the 32.5 and 37 cent thresholds to $45,000 and $120,000 respectively. An additional benefit will also be provided to those who earn up to $90,000 through the low and middle income offset in 2020-21.

Investment is also being encouraged. Businesses with turnover of up to $5bn will be able to deduct the full cost of eligible depreciable assets of any value in the year installed, to June 2022. Cash flow support is also being offered via a temporary loss carry-back arrangement which allows businesses to claim current losses against tax paid on prior profits, potentially generating a refund. Business and the economy more broadly will also benefit from additional infrastructure investment in coming years.

The Government is optimistic on the success of these measures, anticipating a GDP gain of 4.75% in 2021-2022 after 2020-21’s 1.5% forecast contraction. That said, on the Government’s forecasts, the unemployment rate remains materially above the full employment level in mid-2024, circa 5.5%. Our own expectations for the unemployment rate over the entire period are higher still, highlighting that a complete recovery from recession will be hard won and that risks will remain skewed to the downside. Additional significant policy initiatives will likely prove necessary in coming years.

Quickly turning to offshore developments. In both the United States and Europe, the most recent central bank meeting minutes again emphasised the risks clouding their respective outlooks as well as these monetary authorities’ willingness to do more. Progress towards additional fiscal support in the US, in contrast, remains absent, even as existing measures continue to roll off and the new case count rises again. Momentum in the US and Europe is robust for now, but the degree of slack is pervasive and the northern hemisphere is heading towards winter.

ELLIOT CLARKE is a senior economist at Westpac 

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