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Our dealings with the world have reversed, but don’t get the wrong idea

This matters because the balance of payments is divided into two main accounts, the “current account” and the “capital and financial account”. The value of transactions involving exports or imports of goods and services goes in the current account, as do payments – in or out – of income such as interest and dividends.

But the other side of each of those transactions involving exports, imports or income payments, the amount someone has to pay – the financial side of the transaction – goes in the capital account, as do purely financial transactions, such as when one of our banks borrows from or lends to some overseas bank, or when one of our superannuation funds buys or sells shares in a foreign company.

But one thing economics teaches is that, contrary to popular impression, not all deficits are bad and not all surpluses are good.

Bear with me. The income we earn from foreigners who buy our exports or pay us dividends or interest is recorded as a credit, whereas the money we pay to foreigners for our imports or as dividends on the Australian shares they own or interest on the money they’ve lent us is recorded as a debit.

When we sell them shares in an Aussie business, borrow from them or sell them some real estate, that’s a credit in the capital account. When they sell us shares or land or lend us money, that’s recorded as a debit.

An account where the debits exceed the credits is in deficit. When the credits exceed the debits it’s in surplus.

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There had to be a reason for explaining all this, and we’ve reached it. Historically, we almost always imported more than we exported, running a deficit on trade in goods and services. Likewise, we always had to pay more in dividends and interest to foreign owners and lenders than they had to pay us on our foreign shareholdings and loans to them, thus causing us to run a “net income deficit”.

Put the trade deficit and the net income deficit together and you get the balance on the current account, which was always in deficit. Oh no!

But here’s the trick. Since the double-entry system means the debits always equal the credits, if we always ran a deficit on the current account of the balance of payments, that means we always ran an equal and opposite surplus on the capital account. Yippee!

So if you think it’s good news that our current account is now in surplus, what do you think of the news that our capital account is now in deficit? Time to stop assuming all deficits are bad and all surpluses good.

The rapid industrialisation of China has greatly increased our exports of minerals and energy.

The rapid industrialisation of China has greatly increased our exports of minerals and energy.Credit:Bloomberg

In all the decades that our current account was in deficit, economists never thought that a bad thing. They knew Australia was – and should be – a “capital-importing country”. We always had a lot more investment opportunities than we could finance with our own savings, so we invited foreigners to bring their savings to Oz to participate in our economic development.

This continuous inflow of foreign capital gave us a continuous surplus on the capital account and thus allowed us to import more than we exported. Naturally, we had to pay big dividends and interest to those foreign investors.

So, why has all that reversed? Well, the reversal began in about 2015, long before the pandemic. Its first main cause is the rapid industrialisation of China, which has greatly increased our exports of minerals and energy and, until the pandemic, education and tourism.

But a second, less-favourable development has been our part in the rich economies’ slowdown in economic growth since the global financial crisis in 2008. This has involved increased saving and reduced investment spending – both of which have helped move our current account towards surplus and our capital account towards deficit.

Economists at the ANZ Bank predict the current account will fall back towards balance over the next few years, but we won’t return to our accustomed capital-importing status until we and the rest of the rich world escape the present low-growth trap.

Ross Gittins is the economics editor.

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