Opened in 1880, the Melbourne Royal Exhibition Building is widely considered a national treasure. The first building in Australia to achieve World Heritage listing, it was made possible by the discovery of gold in the mid-nineteenth century. To see the legacy of the gold rush, just look at central Melbourne.
But would we have been better off if the Victorian government had saved the money rather than building infrastructure? This is effectively the argument made by those who argue that the right policy response to today's mining boom is a sovereign wealth fund.
An Australian sovereign wealth fund has several advocates, including Malcolm Turnbull, clearly the sharpest economic mind on the opposition front bench (even if he did err in opposing the second stimulus package). In a thoughtful speech in April, Turnbull stated: 'I believe that the time has come for Australia to create a new sovereign wealth fund'.
There are three arguments typically made by proponents of a sovereign wealth fund. First, some say that with the Australian dollar at historic highs, we should be amassing greenbacks as a form of insurance against a currency slump. Yet while a sudden fall in the Australian dollar would be a shock to the economy, it's by no means the only one we have to guard against. Governments must also anticipate and react to natural disasters, fiscal shocks and unexpected technological change. Moreover, Australians already have substantial foreign holdings, via the $75 billion Future Fund (of which 27% is overseas equities) and $1.3 trillion in superannuation (of which 18% is overseas assets).
Second, sovereign wealth fund proponents argue that it would cure 'Dutch Disease', which occurs when a mining-induced currency rise hurts other export industries such as manufacturing, tourism and higher education. Most likely, saving a greater share of mining tax revenues would lead to an easing in monetary policy (and therefore a lower exchange rate). But the effect would be modest – particularly under current minerals taxation rates. If your top priority is healing Dutch Disease, a sovereign wealth fund is more of a band-aid than a vaccine.
The third argument for a sovereign wealth fund is that we need to boost national savings. This has a virtuous ring about it, but misses the fact that Australians are already saving a great deal. In 2010, our gross national savings rate was 25%, higher than Japan's. The federal government's fiscal consolidation is one of the fastest on record. And a significant share of government investment is a downpayment on future productivity, such as broadband, education, and transport.
So if you believe Australia needs to save more, you need to say which taxes you'd increase or which spending you'd cut. A sovereign wealth fund without deposits has all the usefulness of a pub without beer.
At its core, the debate over a sovereign wealth fund comes down to intergenerational equity. Most economists and philosophers believe that our generation has an obligation to hand on to our children at least as much wealth as we inherited. We do not need to preserve every hill and rock, but if we use up an asset, we should replace it with one at least as valuable. This affects how we think about the climate change debate. For example, since the Great Barrier Reef has an extremely high value, it merits urgent action by our generation to preserve it.
But intergenerational equity also reminds us that future generations will be richer than us, and not necessary any more public-spirited. So there is no philosophical obligation to leave our children an overstuffed piggybank rather than a good education and a well-functioning rail network. Indeed, if we were to slash spending on skills and infrastructure and save the proceeds, future generations might well condemn us as short-sighted scrooges.
To say that there isn't a strong case for a sovereign wealth fund today is not to rule the idea out entirely. Perhaps in the future, we might want to think about a Norwegian-style fund (to build a stock of assets for the future) or a Chilean-style fund (to implement counter-cyclical fiscal policy).
But in the current economic environment, it's hardly a high priority. If we're concerned about future generations, let's focus on the top priorities: a price on carbon, shifting from mining royalties to a Minerals Resource Rent Tax, and investment in skills. The notion of a sovereign wealth fund can go in the safety deposit box for now.
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