The seasonally adjusted balance of trade in goods and services came in a deficit of $2.7 billion. If continued at an annual rate, this would amount to about 4 per cent of GDP, implying a current account deficit in excess of 67 per cent.
There’s plenty of debate about whether large current account deficits can be sustained indefinitely. But there isn’t (or shouldn’t be) any such debate about large deficits in the goods and services balance. A large and stable deficit on goods and services necessarily leads to an explosion in net debt and in the current account deficit. This can’t be sustained, and therefore won’t be, but the process of adjustment may not be pleasant.
As various people have pointed out, one contributory factor is the poor performance of the “elaborately transformed manufactures” sector, on which high hopes were set in the early 1990s. More generally, it’s difficult to square this outcome with claims of a miraculous productivity performance in Australia.
I don’t suppose that this will have much impact on the election campaign. But it helps to point up the fact that the government’s reputation as good economic managers is as much the product of good luck as of good judgement. Running sustained large current account deficits is a gamble that world capital markets will continue to take the relaxed view of such deficits that they have in the last decade as regards OECD countries, rather than suddenly changing their minds as they have done in relation to Mexico, Asian countries. Argentina etc.
fn1. If the rate of growth of nominal GDP is higher than the rate of return received by foreign lenders and investors, a small deficit on goods and services can be consistent with a stable ratio of debt to GDP. But that isn’t the case for Australia. The ten-year government bond rate is 6.25 per cent, which is about equal to nominal growth, and private borrowers would mostly be paying rates higher than this.