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Australia needs ‘fiscal stimulus', but what does that actually mean?

Thunderbolt on the Opera House Sydney Australia. Source: Getty Images

With the economy down in the dumps and the per capita recession now extending to nine months, there is a frenzied call for the government to implement some spending and tax policies to stem the bleeding.

The calls are coming from economists, journalists, the RBA Governor and a bevy of commentators who are demanding a fiscal policy boost from the government to support economic growth.

This is all fine and there is a strong case for policy makers to work together to do something to lift the pace of economic expansion.

But there is a problem with the generic “fiscal policy stimulus” demand given that none of the calls have been accompanied by even vague details of what the stimulus means and the areas of spending that should be ramped up or what taxes should be changed.

Sure, there is a suggestion of more spending on ‘infrastructure’ but that is never defined or specified.

In the absence of any detail, the calls for fiscal stimulus are rather glib.

Here’s why.

Changing fiscal policy so that it has an immediate impact on GDP growth is difficult.

If the government is to increase spending, including on infrastructure, exactly what spending areas should be increased? What infrastructure projects should be fast tracked? Which roads, railways, charging stations or whatever should be implemented, built or fast tracked? What date should these changes take effect? How long will the stimulus last? Six months? Two years? How much will it cost? What will be the impact on the budget, GDP and unemployment in 2019, 2020 and 2021?

The same basic questions need to be asked of any calls for tax cuts.

Without some of these sorts of specifics in the clamour for government economic policy action, it is not at all clear what it is those demanding some budget stimulus to boost the economy actually mean.

With annual GDP growth floundering around 1.5 per cent, the unemployment rate rising and there being some doubts that the economy will be any stronger when the 2019-20 financial year starts on 1 July, we could work on an assumption that the fiscal policy boost needs to total about 1 per cent of GDP for the next year or two.

Unfortunately implementing such a policy stimulus in the next few weeks is impossible.

What’s more, such a pro-growth strategy amounting to 1 per cent of GDP would probably wipe out the next 5 years of budget surpluses that just a few months ago were projected through to the mid-2020s. It would mean gross government debt would hit $600 billion and probably $700 billion in the next few years.

Note that 1 per cent of GDP is $20 billion per annum.

Of course, this would all be worth it if it helped to keep a lid on unemployment and supported economic growth.

But what policies can be changed with the specific purpose of boosting growth?

Raising the Newstart allowance is one policy that has been mentioned, but the impact of raising Newstart by say $75 a week would add about 0.075% to annual GDP growth. It helps but it is small beer and Newstart should be raised for reasons other than supporting growth.

After that, the policy specifics cupboard is bare other than perhaps tax cuts over and above those already committed to by the government that would be expensive and inevitably permanent, compounding the problems in trying to return the budget to s sustained surplus.

The next time you hear one of the proverbial galahs in the pet shop squawking for fiscal policy stimulus, ask them exactly what they mean, how much will it cost, what will the impact on GDP and unemployment and how quickly can it be implemented.

Only then will the economic debate about stimulus have true credibility.

Stephen Koukoulas is no nonsense economist who calls it without fear or favour. He is currently Managing Director of Market Economics as well as being a Research Fellow, Per Capita. Stephen is also a keynote speaker at Ode Management.

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