#budgetdeficit

We pray the Gov’t makes more $60bn mistakes!

Can the media and shadow politicians get a grip? Since when should taxpayers complain when the government makes a huge error in our favour? We can pretty much stake our lives on the fact that 99% of government programs end up way more expensive than initially budgeted for. French Submarines anyone? NBN? We should be looking at the JobKeeper revision as a massive positive.

The federal government estimated that the JobKeeper program would initially cost $130 billion. Now it appears they overestimated it by $60 billion. That was driven by the idiosyncrasies of who would be eligible at the employer end – from the self-employed to big business and everything in between.

Given the limited time window, forgive the Treasury and Tax Office for not landing estimates on target. It is ridiculous to expect they could estimate such a fluid piece of legislation.

The unwelcome arrival of COVID19 and the sudden stay-at-home orders that ensued hardly gave a generous window of opportunity to apply Japanese level precision engineering to the process.

Our only criticism lies with the drip feed approach to restarting the hibernating economy. As we mentioned yesterday with respect to the 50 US states, so many appear to be copying each other rather than making bold data driven decisions based on facts not consensus.

The reality is that the Treasury will need to make many more multi billion dollar mistakes in the spirit of JobKeeper to help mitigate the damage caused by the looking trillion dollar deficits.

Perhaps the $60 billion saving can be redeployed to building a bullet train from Sydney to Melbourne. A 20-yr project that is just the type of infrastructure spending which ticks so many boxes – relieving pressure on the state capitol cities, housing, assist a growing population and provide lots of jobs.

Trillion Dollar Baby?

What will it take to wake the media up to the fact that the way our government is spending it won’t be long before we are a $1 trillion net debt baby?.

Our current federal liabilities (p.121) stand at $1.002 trillion (which is pre COVID19). Have the media bothered to look at the state of the budget accounts? Or are they too busy lavishing praise on rescue packages which have a finite lifespan.

We pointed out yesterday that the “revenue” line could be decimated by the disruption – huge cuts should be anticipated in the collection of GST, income, company and excise taxes. Not to mention huge rebates to be paid to now unemployed workers. On an annualized basis the revenue line could get thumped 30-40% if this continues for 6 months.

So on the back of an envelope, it is not very hard to work out that with a current $511 billion revenue line looking to fall towards the early to mid $300 billion mark against a projected expense bill of $503 billion a deficit of $150bn will open up. Throw on c$150bn of COVID19 stimuli arriving by June 30th and we get a $300 billion budget deficit. Our net financial worth would grow from minus $518 billion to negative $818 billion.

Rolling into next year, it is ludicrous to think that hibernated businesses will have resumed as normal. This means that the following year’s tax revenue line will look as sick as the previous period. The government will be torn shredding the expense line as unemployment shoots higher so assuming minimal budget cuts, it could face another $200 billion deficit taking it north of $1 trillion net liabilities in a jiffy.

Let’s not forget what the states may face. Severely lower handouts from the federal government via GST receipts which will balloon deficits, a trend we’re already seeing.

The states currently rely on around 37-62% of their revenue from the federal government by way of grants. The balance comes through land/property taxes, motor vehicle registration, gambling and betting fees as well as insurance and environmental levies.

All of those revenues lines can dry up pretty quickly. 40% of state budgets are usually spent on staff. Take a look at these eye watering numbers.

NSW spends $34 billion on salaries across 327,000 employees.

Victoria spends $27 billion across 239,000 public servants.

Queensland uses 224,000 staff which costs $25 billion per annum.

WA’s state workforce is 143,000, costing $12.6 billion.

SA has 90,000 FT employees costing $8.5 billion.

Tasmania 27,000 setting taxpayers back $2.7 billion.

Just the states alone employ over 1.05 million people at a cost of $110 billion pa!! The territories will be relative rounding errors.

A lot of the states have healthy asset lines which are usually full of schools, hospitals, roads and land). These are highly illiquid.

Unfortunately, one of the golden rules often forgotten in accounting is that liabilities often remain immovable objects when asset values get crucified in economic downturns. When markets become illiquid, the value of government assets won’t come at prices marked in the books.

How well will flogging a few public hospitals go down politically to financially stressed constituents?? This is why gross debt is important.

The states have a combined $202 billion outstanding gross debt including leases.

Throw on another $150 billion for unfunded superannuation liabilities. Good luck hitting the “zero by 2035” targets some state have amidst imploding asset markets. It simply won’t happen. If only these liabilities were marked to market rather than suppressed by actuarial accounting. The WA budget paper (p.42) notes the 0.4% bump to the discount rate to lower the pension deficit figure. To be fair, they are far less outrageous than US state pension deficits.

How must the State Gov’t of Queensland be praying that Adani keeps plowing ahead? How Greyhound must regret terminating a contract to ferry construction workers to the mine? We doubt the incumbent government will have a climate change bent in the upcoming Oct 31 state election. See ya.

The trillion dollar federal debt ceiling seems like a formality especially as the chain reaction created by the states puts on more pressure for the federal government to inject rescue packages to prop up their reversal of fortune budgets. It is that trillion with a T headline that will get people’s attention.

In short, we ain’t seen nothing yet.

Only one you can’t stop crashing at your place during COVID19 is the economy

Warning Signs Investors Ignored Before the 1929 Stock Market Crash ...

Brace yourself.

COVID19 will be defeated but the cure is turning out to be way worse than the disease.

Unfortunately, the sad reality is that at the rate governments are tightening legislation to keep us in shut down mode, we are day-by-day staring at a great depression.

While some will praise governments for throwing the kitchen sink at the economy with all manner of stimulus packages, the relief will be temporary because all of the ammunition for a sustainable recovery had been depleted years earlier. It is like supplying an alcoholic on rehab with an all-you-can-drink open bar.

Our feckless RBA has just embarked on QE, a mission that has failed every other central bank that has tried it. The velocity of money has been falling for decades. Who will be given access to borrowing at zero interest rates when the economy is in freefall? Which banks will lend against properties that will likely implode in value? 50% down? To think of all the reckless “first home buyer” schemes that loaded young people at the top of the property market. The RBA has been complicit. Not wanting to put pressure on the government to reform, it just kept cutting rates to keep housing afloat. It was totally negligent in its duty even though it will signal its role as a rescuer of last resort.

When will banks be forced to mark to book the value of mortgages on their balance sheet? Equity is thin as it is. 15-20% equity buffer to mortgages is pretty wafer-thin. They need to do this immediately so we can properly assess risk. Forget stress tests by APRA. They’re meaningless. Our housing market will collapse with higher unemployment. 50% falls from here are possible. Remember there will be hardly any buyers. Prices fell up to 90% in Japan after its property bubble popped.

Worse our regulators have been asleep at the wheel chasing financial institutions on their commitment to climate change, the absolute least relevant metric to save them from here. It shows how complacent they became.

Australia has made some interesting crisis policy choices. For instance, PM Scott Morrison is trying to pass rent moratoriums where landlords suspend payments from tenants until things return to normalcy. It is not enshrined in law yet. In principle that is a nice gesture even if the government is subsidizing the banks for forgone interest due to short term loan repayment moratoriums. Let’s assume this continues for 6 months. Apart from the astronomical size of the subsidy, who will ultimately end up sacrificing the 6 months? Landlords? It won’t be the tenants.

Shouldn’t landlords be free to choose whether they are prepared to forgo rent or not as a purely rational business proposition? Shouldn’t a landlord be free to enforce a rental agreement? Will contracts matter anymore?

At some stage, the free market must be allowed to function and the government will hit a tipping point of weighing stopping economic armageddon by allowing businesses to function and the marginal risk of infections. The people will be crying for this if shutdowns remain.

Landlords may be labelled un-Australian or worse but in 6 months time, if unemployment has surged to nose bleed levels well above the 6% we saw during GFC at what point will disposable income be able to support a daily coffee at a cafe?

A cafe might soldier on for a further 3 months on skeleton staff before realising that they can’t cover costs. A landlord would be well within reason to demand that early cancellation clauses and fees are enforced.

Then what of all the invoices to coffee suppliers, bakeries who provide muffins and croissants and utilities? Who misses out? What about the invoices of the coffee supplier? Will the bakery get called on by its flour supplier to pay upfront for future deliveries when it has no operating cash flow, instead of the long-standing 60-90 day terms? That happens overnight. It isn’t a managed outcome. Cash is king.

The question is why hasn’t the government taken advice from the banks on business lending so it can better assess the risks involved from those that deal every day with small companies?

We can’t just shut an economy down for 6 months and expect a return to normal when it is all over. Unemployment rates are likely to surge well above 10%.

As we wrote in an earlier piece, there are 13.1 million Australians employed as of February 2020. Full-time employment amounted to 8,885,600 persons and part-time employment to 4,124,500 persons. Retail trade jobs come in at a shade over 1.2 million jobs. Construction at 1.15 million. Education 1.1 million. Accommodation/restaurants /bars etc at 900,000. Manufacturing another 900,000. Noticing a trend in our employment gearing?

We can fudge the unemployment figures however we like. We can pay $1,500 a fortnight for 6,000,000 workers to pretend they still have a job. That is $18bn a month. The PM can talk about how this will help us bounce on the other side. If it continues for just over 6-months can the budgeted $130 billion will be spent. This is separate to NewStart payments too.

Yet, will people lavishly spend or pay down debt and economise as best they can? We think the latter unless moral hazard has truly sunk in.

What people need to understand is that our Treasury expects to raise $472.8 billion in taxes for FY2019-20. Throw in sales of services, interest and dividend income and that climbs to a total of $511 billion. Expenses are forecast at $503 billion. In the following three years Treasury anticipates $490.0 billion,  $514.4 billion and $528.9 billion in taxes. Expect those totals to be cut significantly.

So if ScoMo’s JobKeeper rescue package for workers goes beyond 6 months, that is equivalent to 27% of annual tax revenues. That doesn’t take into account the slug to tax collections of lower GST and vastly lower income tax for individuals and corporates. That is just at the federal level.

Note, states such as NSW have recently waived payroll taxes for small businesses in a  $2.3bn stimulus package. We shouldn’t forget that the NSW Government is the largest employer in the Southern Hemisphere at 327,000 staff.

We remind readers that according to the RBA small businesses employ 47% of the workforce. Medium enterprises employ 23%. That is 70% of the entire workforce who are most at risk from a slowdown.

In 2019-20 income tax collections will make up $220 billion. Company tax was forecast to generate $99.8 billion. GST $67.2 billion. Excise taxes (petrol, diesel, tobacco etc) $44.7 billion. This data can be found on page 21 here.

Local cafes are reporting a 60~80% fall in revenue. Pretty much all casuals have been let go. It is a bit hard to survive on coffee when a lot of stores aren’t stocking pastries for fear of spoilage.

It is not hard to assume a scenario where government income taxes fall to $160 billion (-28%) due to mass layoffs. One assumes many people will be able to get a tax rebate come June 30th. So this number may end up being conservative on an annualised basis.

Company tax could plunge to $40 billion annualised due to the drastic fall in revenues as customers change the manner of contracts and reign in their own spending. Anyone that thinks that business will resume as normal is crazy. The ripple effects will be huge.

Excise taxes may drift to $35 billion as people cut back on drink (currently $7bn in tax revenue), are limited in places to drive negating the need to fill up (currently $18bn in total tax take). The $17 billion in tobacco excise may weather the storm better than most.

GST could fall to $50 billion. People just aren’t spending much outside of food. Massive retail discounts will not make much difference. GST will be the best indicator of how much the economy has slowed. Even if we start to see a massaging of the GDP numbers, GST won’t lie. It will be the safest indicator.

If our assumed tax revenue sums to $285 billion annualised from the budgeted $472 billion that equates to a 40% haircut.

Trim the ‘other revenue’ column to $30 billion from $39 billion and we have $315bn. Will the government then chop away at the $503 billion in expenses? All of the stimuli doesn’t arrive at once but a lot of it in relatively short order. Surely a $300~400 billion deficit is a fait accompli?

We should also anticipate forward year tax revenues be cut c.30% for several years after. The question is when does the government realise that it must cut the public service and scrap wasteful projects like French submarines and other nice-to-have quangos? We won’t see a budget surplus for decades.

We must careful not to fall into the trap Japan finds itself in. It has a US$1 trillion budget funded by US$600bn in taxes and US$400bn in JGB issuance. Every. Single. Year.

Nothing short of drastic tax and structural reform will do. Instead of behaving more prudently by cutting budgets when we had the chance, instant gratification created by governments desperate to stay in power has only weakened our relative position. Since 2013, the Coalition has been responsible for 46% of the total amount of all debt issued since 1854.

States should quickly realise that the $118 billion in federal grants going forward will also be curtailed. NSW will likely fare the worst because its financial position is by far the best.

If the government had a proper plan, it would be looking to what essential industries have been given up to the likes of China that we need to onshore. Medical equipment, masks or sanitiser. For cricketer Shane Warne to be converting his Seven Zero Eight gin factory to produce hand sanitiser shows how much of a joke our local manufacturing has become.

We must never forget that a Chinese government-owned company displayed the Communist Party’s mercenary credentials by (legally) buying 3,000,000 surgical masks, 500,000 pairs of gloves and bulk supplies of sanitiser and wipes. So not only was it responsible for covering up the truth surrounding the virus in the early stages of the pandemic, we openly let it compromise our ability to combat the virus when it hit our shores.

China has shown it doesn’t give a hoot for ordinary Australians. So why should we continue to fold to its whims and cowardly surrender our industries for fear it’ll stop dealing with us? It is nonsense. We have some of the highest quality mineral resources which it depends on. We can bargain. We have chosen to appease a bully.

Our Foreign Investment Review Board (FIRB) needs to be far more vigilant to prevent takeovers by Chinese businesses. We should openly accept the way China conducts business practices and recognise that it is often incompatible with ours when national security is at stake. Surely this crisis has highlighted the true colours of the political system in Beijing.

That leads us to Japanese companies. Many are seriously cashed up, have a favourable exchange rate and have a long-standing history of partnering with local businesses. We should be prioritising our relationship with Japan and look to have them invest in our inevitable capital works programs – specifically high-speed rail. It is the type of project that has meaning for the future and a long enough timeline to turn an economy around.

People need to be prepared for the reckoning. There is no point softening the blow. The brutal truth will eventually arrive and we will have only put ourselves in an even weaker position with the policy suite enacted so far. Time to be rational about risk/reward. Whether we like it or not, the minimum wage will need to be cut substantially in order to get the jobs market alive again. Don’t worry, unemployment will be so high that people will demand minimum wages are cut because it is far superior to the alternative!

(Time to ditch your industry super and start shovelling your superannuation into gold)

Profligacy paid for by wishful thinking

Lots of promises. Lots of grand assumptions. To be honest, best just ignore the minutiae. It’s a complete waste of time. The biggest question is, if the global economy, by Treasurer Josh Frydenberg’s own admission, is slowing down (just look at government bond yields flattening/gone negative) how on earth is Australia going to grow receipts from $485.2bn in 2018/19 to $566.9b in 2021/22? A 17% growth in tax revenue. Expenses will rise from $487bn to $559.9bn respectively. Give aways +15%. Best hope the world economy doesn’t tank. Expenses are locked in. Tax revenues aren’t.

Worse, these projections have all been massaged higher than the 2018-19 budget. What has changed to our overall net position in the last 12 months to gain such confidence? Climate alarmists would blush at the extent of the upward massaging of numbers. Did Treasury sit down after consuming 3 bottles of Absinthe to come up with these revisions? Think about it. How can we get an extra $5.9bn in tax receipts in 2021-22 when conditions are sure to be worsening?

This is NOT an old school Coalition budget by any measure. This is a crossing fingers, closing the eyes and hoping we muddle through budget. If the proverbial hits the fan, a monster deficit is assured. Take it to the bank.

We are technically at full employment. Unless we embark on mass migration (which we’re looking to cut) how will flat wage enduring Aussies and corporates contribute to a 17% rise in the Canberra coffers? Wishful thinking. The government targets around 23.9% of GDP for tax receipts and pats itself on the back for “the government’s average real spending growth is expected to be the lowest of any Commonwealth government in over 50 years.” Although that claim is dispelled by their own tables contained here.

Cutting taxes can create more tax revenue. Poland sliced its corporate taxes in half in 2004 and doubled revenue. However that was more a grey money grab than pure unadulterated tax policy spurring public revenue growth.

Giving away more money to the middle class through tax cuts and hand outs in the hope they spend more seems wishful thinking. The problem is if global growth hits a wall, we don’t have a Howard/Costello surplus to buffer the storm. No $38bn backstop in the war chest.

China, the US and EU are struggling. Things are so bad in the US that the Federal Reserve had to chicken out of any more rate rises because it would tank the economy. Our growth will stall if the world slows. Forget 28 straight years of continuous growth in Australia. The knock on effects will see unemployment surge, consumption fall off a cliff, housing prices crash and tax revenues slump. Forget a $7.1bn surplus. Think $20bn deficit because the promises are too grand and the tax receipts blindingly optimistic.

Of note in the 2019-20 budget is the expansion of the ATO’s tax grab from evil multinationals and HNW individuals who’ve avoided paying their fair share. That will result in a $3.612bn extr over the next 4 years. That against the $5.74bn tax cut for middle class Aussies over the same period. Spending up everywhere. Just not sure why the Treasury hasn’t pointed to where the extra revenue is coming from.

Take the assumptions of 2.75% GDP growth flat to 2020/21. Unrealistic. Treasury assumes the same labour force participation rate with unemployment remaining to 5% and wage growth of 3.25% in 2020/21, up from 2.1%. All looks so simple. Yet inflation is expected to grow to 2.5% meaning real wages will be flat.

Aussies, saddled under 180% debt to GDP, shouldn’t take any sense of comfort from this budget. What Frydenberg presented tonight was nothing more than a hope that the most rosy scenarios play out when thunder clouds are so obviously rolling in. It’s utterly irresponsible. Yet that’s today’s political class – spineless. They’re unprepared to tell Aussies that they have to be prepared to live with much less. Instead of asking us to tighten our belts, a whole load of freebies that can’t be paid for end in our laps so they can hold on to power for a bit longer.

Should we trust ratings agencies on US state credit?

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The Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission concluded in 2011 that “the global financial crisis could not have happened without the ‘Big Three’ agencies – Moody’s, Standard & Poor’s and Fitch which allowed the ongoing trading of bad debt which they gave their highest ratings to despite over three trillion dollars of mortgage loans to homebuyers with bad credit and undocumented incomes.” The table above tabulates the deterioration in US corporate credit ratings since 2006. The ratings agencies have applied their trade far more diligently.

As written earlier in the week, US state public pensions are running into horrific headwinds. Unfunded pension liabilities are running at over double the level of 2008. With asset bubbles in stocks, bonds and property it is hard to see how plugging the gap (running at over 2x (California is 6x) the total tax take of individual states) in the event of a market correction is remotely realistic. However taking a look at the progression of US states’ credit ratings one would think that there is nothing to worry about. Even during GFC, very few states took a hit. See below.

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Looking at the trends of many states since 2000, many have run surpluses so the credit ratings do not appear extreme. It is interesting to flip through the charts of each state and see the trajectory of revenue collection. A mixed bag is putting it lightly. Whether the rebuild after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, since 2008 revenue collection in Louisiana has drifted.

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Looking through S&P’s own research at the end of last year it included an obvious reference.

U.S. state and local governments can use pension obligation bonds (POBs) to address the unfunded portion of their pension liabilities. In certain cases, POBs can be an affordable tool to lower unfunded pension liabilities. But along with the issuance of POBs comes risk. The circumstances that surround an issuance of POBs, as well as the new debt itself, could have implications for the issuer’s creditworthiness. S&P Global Ratings views POB issuance in environments of fiscal distress or as a mechanism for short-term budget relief as a negative credit factor.”

Perhaps the agencies have learnt a painful lesson and trying to stay as close to being behind the curve as possible. It doesn’t seem like public pensions are being factored at levels other than their actuarial values. Marked-to-market values would undoubtedly impact these credit ratings.

As mentioned in the previous piece on public pensions, a state like Alaska has public pension unfunded liabilities equal to $145,000 per household, treble the 2008 figure. It is 3.5x annual tax collections. The state’s per capita operating budget of $13,728 per person is way above the national average of $6,826 per person. Alaska relies on oil taxes to finance most of its operating budget, so a sudden drop in oil prices caused tax revenues to sharply decline. The EIA’s outlook doesn’t look promising in restoring those fortunes in any scenario. So S&P may have cut Alaska two places from AAA in 2015 to AA in 2017.

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While pension liabilities aren’t all due at once, the last 8 years have shown how quickly they can fester. It wasn’t so long ago that several Rhode Island public pension funds reluctantly agreed to a 40% haircut, later retirement ages and higher contributions with a larger component shifted from defined benefits to defined contributions raising the risk of market forces exerting negative outcomes on the pension fund.

In 2017, despite a ‘robust’ economy, 22 states faced revenue shortfalls. More states faced mid-year revenue shortfalls in the last fiscal year than in any year since 2010, according to the National Association of State Budget Officers.

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Pew Charitable Trust (PCT) notes in FY2015 federal dollars as a share of state revenue increased in a majority of states (29). Health care grants have been the main driver of this. FY2015 was the 3rd highest percentage of federal grants to states since 1961.

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By state we can see which states got the heftiest federal grants. Most states with higher federal shares expanded their Medicaid programs under Obamacare (ACA) and got their first full year of grants under the expanded program in FY2015.

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PCT also wrote “At the close of fiscal year 2017, total balances in states’ general fund budgets—including rainy day funds—could run government operations for a median of 29.3 days, still less than the median of 41.3 days in fiscal 2007…North Dakota recorded the largest drop in the number of days’ worth of expenses held in reserves after drawing down almost its entire savings to cover a budget gap caused by low oil prices. It held just 5.4 days’ worth of expenditures in its rainy day fund at the end of fiscal 2017 compared with 69.4 days in the preceding year… 11 states anticipate withdrawing from rainy day funds under budget plans enacted for fiscal 2018

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Looking at the revenue trends of certain states, the level of collection has been either flat or on the wane since 2010 for around 26 states. As an aside, 23 of them voted for Trump in the 2016 presidential election. The three that didn’t were Maine, NJ and Illinois.

Optically US states seem to be able to justify the credit ratings above. Debt levels aren’t high for most. Average state debt is around 4% of annual income. Deficits do not seem out of control. However marking-to-market the extent of public pension unfunded liabilities makes current debt levels look mere rounding errors.

Considering stock, bond and property bubbles are cruising at unsustainably high levels, any market routs will only make the current state of unfunded liabilities blow out to even worse levels. The knock on effects for pensioners such as those taking a 40% haircut in Rhode Island at this stage in the cycle can only feasibly brace themselves for further declines. This is a ticking time bomb. More states will need to address the public pension crisis.

A national government shelling out c.$500bn in interest payments on its own debt in a rising rate environment coupled with a central bank paring back its balance sheet limits the options on the table. Moral hazard is back on the table folks. Is it any wonder that Blackstone has increased its short positions to $22 billion?

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Dick Turpin Turnbull will chase away foreign capital

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I was asked by a client this week on what I thought of Australia’s political climate. I said to him, “if you asked me 15-20 years ago I’d safely argue that it was the only country in the region which could boast incredibly stable government, sensible economic policy and a safe place to park your money. Today I can’t say with hand on heart that this is the Australia you are investing in today. What I will say is that you should keep your powder dry because it will become a ‘pound shop’ in the not too distant future with a weaker currency, higher rates and fire sale asset prices.”

He asked if I could elaborate. I replied “we have had 5 prime  ministers in almost as many years. Before that we never saw anything like that. Our political climate is vile and volatile. We now have a government that is seeking to put in place knowingly unsound policies to arrest poll declines rather than try to fix an out of control deficit. What they are failing to see is that bashing big banks (especially for a conservative Coalition government) out of the blue chases off investment (Alan Joyce and Don Argua are right about that). Foreign investors must wonder whether they may fall foul of knee-jerk regulations and decide the risk is not worth it. So in answer to your question the current climate is going to offer some fantastic opportunities down the line because all of the political turmoil will eventually force change and buying into the market leading into that will be your best bet.”

So with our Dick Turpin highwayman robber at the helm we invite unwelcome flight of capital. If you want to create jobs, growth, stability and invite foreign investment you do so by providing a platform that supports it. It isn’t won by bashing industry, cranking up public spending and hiking taxes. It is done by making yourself the safest place to invest and all the while that happens the risk falls meaning capital is not only cheaper but more abundant. This isn’t trickle down economics but sound policy. Sadly talking of net debt isn’t going to save this government and what is worse Opposition leader Bill Shorten wants to outspend a budget that makes the Sultan of Brunei’s giveaways look like Venezuelan austerity measures.