There's a lot more to fret about than the budget deficit
Whoever wins the looming election will inherit a quite uncertain outlook, in which the economy may well slow further and unemployment rise faster over the next few years.
If so, all the politicians' wrangling over "debt and deficit" will be of little relevance and no help. That's the conclusion I drew from Reserve Bank governor Glenn Stevens' surprisingly sombre speech this week, in which he switched from glass half-full to glass half-empty.
If you didn't get that message, it's probably because it was missed in the financial markets' usual obsession with looking for hints about the next move in interest rates and the media's obsession with searching for criticism of the politicians - real or imagined.
Stevens warned that, in our efforts to get economic growth back to its trend rate of about 3 per cent a year - which is necessary to stop unemployment continuing to worsen - "the challenges ahead are substantial". What's more, those challenges will continue for "the next few years".
His speech explained those challenges. You know the basic problem: ensuring the rest of the economy takes up the slack as the stimulus from the mining investment boom tails off.
The first uncertainty is the future path of mining investment spending, which "rose from an average of about 2 per cent of gross domestic product, where it had spent most of the previous 50 years, to peak at about 8 per cent".
Presumably, that means it could eventually fall by a massive 6 per cent of GDP. But over what period? We don't know. All Stevens knows is that "that big rise is now over, and a fall is in prospect, with uncertain timing. It could be quite a big fall in due course."
Spending on the construction of new mines and facilities could stay on a plateau for a while, or it could just keep falling. If it plateaus, it makes no contribution to growth; when it falls, it subtracts from growth.
Meanwhile, what have we got going for us on the upside? Stevens advises that, "at this stage, global growth is sub-par". So, not much help from the rest of the world.
The much awaited fall in the dollar has improved the price competitiveness of our trade-exposed industries, which should allow them to produce more. "It would not be a major surprise if a further decline occurred over time," he says, "though, of course, events elsewhere in the world will also have a bearing on that particular price".
In particular, how soon and how far the Aussie falls will be influenced by how much more "quantitative easing" (creation of money) we see in the developed economies, particularly the US.
And then, of course, there's the stimulus to the non-mining economy from the easing in monetary policy. Since late 2011, the Reserve has cut the official interest rate by 2 percentage points to 2.75 per cent (with another click likely on Tuesday).
So monetary policy is "very accommodative," Stevens tells us, "by historical metrics, at least".
Huh? It turns out that, in our present circumstances, low interest rates don't pack the punch they used to, so we're not going to get as much increase in activity as usual.
Why not? Because, Stevens reminds us, we're not just coping with the aftermath of one boom, but two. The other is the end of the "credit boom".
You'd expect unusually low interest rates to encourage increased spending, particularly on those things that are usually bought on credit: consumer durables, homes and (non-mining) business investment.
But Stevens warns that while "some strengthening in consumption from recent rather subdued growth rates is a reasonable expectation ... we should not expect a return to the sorts of growth seen in the 1995 to 2007 period".
Why not? Because that period, in which consumer spending grew much faster than household income, was a product of the housing credit boom that largely preceded the resources boom. Households borrowed heavily to buy homes, thereby pushing up household debt levels and the prices of homes.
Ever-rising house prices (but also rising share prices) left households feeling ever wealthier, encouraging them to reduce their rate of saving and thus to allow their consumption to grow faster than their income.
In the aftermath of the credit boom - when share prices fell a lot and house prices fell a bit - households felt poorer and became more concerned about their high levels of debt. They thus began increasing their saving and trying to reduce their debts.
The household saving rate has now been steady at about 10 per cent of household disposable income for several years, meaning consumer spending has grown (and, as a matter of arithmetic, could only grow) at the same rate as household income.
Some people think the rate of household saving is unusually high and is the product of low consumer confidence, meaning it should fall when consumers cheer up, causing - again as a matter of arithmetic (because income equals consumption plus saving) - consumption to grow faster than income.
But Stevens says consumer confidence is neither weak nor strong and warns that the present saving rate isn't high, it's just back to normal. As well, "it would seem unlikely that we could bank on a resumption of sustained growth in assets [prices]", thus causing rising wealth to lead people to save less.
The household sector's apparent conclusion that its level of debt should go no higher makes it unlikely low interest rates will touch off another housing boom, although this "does not preclude prudent levels of borrowing by new entrants to the housing market, or by investors" (as existing borrowers continue paying down their mortgages).
As for non-mining business investment, its healthy growth is "by no means a certainty" and "looks like it is a while off yet".
Doesn't sound to me like a prospect where the highest priority of whoever wins the election should be getting the budget back to surplus.