Fiscal policy: in defence of the last Labour government

Bryce Wilkinson of the New Zealand Initiative was out yesterday with a comment, in the Initiative’s weekly newsletter, on the Labour/Greens proposal to establish a fiscal council.  I wrote about –  and welcomed – that proposal a week or so back.

Until I saw Bryce’s note, I had forgotten that the New Zealand Initiative had proposed the establishment of a fiscal council.   So add their names to the list of supporters:  the OECD (the technocratic wing of the European centre-left) favours a fiscal council, the Treasury’s independent reviewer of fiscal policy (a long-time senior IMF official) recommended a fiscal council, the New Zealand Initiative favoured a fiscal council, and even the (fairly right wing) 2025 Taskforce (of which Bryce was a member) favoured looking at something like a fiscal council.  And now our Labour Party and Green Party also do.   As many other OECD countries now have something of the sort, it all seems to amount to a reasonably strong case.

Of course, doing it well would be a challenge –  getting a succession of the right people would really matter.  But that is true of many of our public watch-dog and monitoring roles.

As Bryce notes, the current National-led government hasn’t adopted the recommendation.

Why not? Probably, it sees little need given its proven commitment to restoring fiscal surpluses. True virtue is its own witness. Establishing a superfluous agency to attest to its virtue would undermine it. To which our churlish response is that fiscal virtue is as ephemeral as the political winds and John Key’s promise to steer clear of New Zealand Superannuation was less than fiscally virtuous.

And he then asks

So why are Labour and the Greens on the virtuous side of this issue? After all, the last Labour government left National facing fiscal deficits for as far as the average geriatric eye could see.

That observation likely answers the question. Newly found virtue lacks credibility. Governments that can’t make credible commitments are weak governments. However, we hasten to add that this does not make it less of a virtue. A commitment to fiscal virtue is a fine thing.

I’ve already pointed out privately to Bryce that that seemed more than a little unfair to the previous government.   Let me explain why.

It is certainly true that when the current government took office in November 2008, official fiscal forecasts showed large deficits for many years into the future.  But the last fiscal initiatives of the outgoing Labour government had been the 2008 Budget, the parameters for which were set out in the Budget Policy Statement released at the end of 2007.

Throughout much of the previous Labour government’s term of office, a key theme of fiscal policy developments had been the surprising strength in revenue.  It was, in many respects, why the fiscal surpluses were so large during those years –   Treasury and the government kept being taken by surprise, and Treasury was (prudently) cautious about treating the surprises as permanent.  If it was just a series of one-offs, or something cyclical, it wouldn’t have made sense to increase spending or cut taxes in response.

The Treasury gradually revised upwards their assessment of the underlying fiscal position.  Unfortunately, they took a particularly optimistic stance by the end of 2007.  I can recall the then Prime Minister making much of the fact that Treasury was now assuming that most of the revenue gains would prove permanent (and thus could support some mix of increased spending and lower tax rates) without the risk of dropping back into deficits.  I joined Treasury on secondment in mid-2008 and I have seen documents written to the Minister of Finance during early 2008 stating that reassessment.  I was under the impression that some had been released, perhaps as part of the pro-active release of 2008 Budget papers, but on checking that link on the Treasury website, I couldn’t see the paper in question.

But the facts of the reassessment aren’t in dispute.  Several Treasury staff produced a paper last year on the process of getting back to surplus, including the background to the deficits.  Here is what they had to say

Over the period 2005-2008, the Treasury increased its estimates of structural revenues by around 1 percentage point of GDP each year, and by 2008 the Treasury considered most of the operating surplus was “structural”


When the tax reductions [along with further spending increases] were announced in Budget 2008, the Treasury was still predicting the operating balance to remain in surplus through the forecast period, albeit at a lower level.

With the benefit of hindsight, the degree to which the surpluses were structural was overestimated. Although the tax reductions announced in 2008 turned out to be well-timed from the perspective of stabilising the economy following the GFC, their permanent nature added to the subsequent structural deficits.

Here is the chart from the 2008 Budget Economic and Fiscal Update.

Figure 2.6 – Total Crown OBEGAL

Figure 2.6	- Total Crown OBEGAL.

Source: The Treasury

That document was signed off  by the Secretary to the Treasury as representing his best professional assessment of the economic and fiscal outlook, incorporating the effects of announced government policy.  In New Zealand –  unlike many countries – the forecasts are those of the professional advisers, not those of the Minister of Finance.

On the basis of the economic and fiscal information available to it, the Treasury has used its best professional judgement in supplying the Minister of Finance with this Economic and Fiscal Update. The Update incorporates the fiscal and economic implications both of Government decisions and circumstances as at 9 May 2008 that were communicated to me, and of other economic and fiscal information available to the Treasury in accordance with the provisions of the Public Finance Act 1989.

John Whitehead
Secretary to the Treasury

14 May 2008

The projected surpluses by the end of the forecast period were tiny –  essentially the budget was projected to be in balance by then.  The economic and revenue outlook had worsened over the first few months of 2008, after the broad parameters of the Budget had already been sketched out in the BPS.   As we now know, New Zealand was already in recession by May 2008.   But on best Treasury advice, the then Labour government thoiught they were leaving an essentially balanced budget, on top of an already very low debt level, not deficits.

Of course, the government was wrong in that assumption.  But, specifically, Treasury was wrong in its best professional advice.    Perhaps the government would have run quite expansionary discretionary fiscal policy anyway, even if Treasury had been less optimistic about how permanent the revenue was.  They were, after all, behind in the polls, and the PM’s office –  didn’t Grant Robertson work there? –  would no doubt have been putting a lot of pressure on the Minister of Finance.  But that hypothetical didn’t arise.    They didn’t have to make such awkward political choices –  their own professional advisers told them they could have tax cuts and spending increases, and still keep the budget in (modest) surplus.  The Opposition National Party shaped its, more generous, tax cutting promises on much the same sort of Treasury forecasts and estimates.  (And a few years earlier, the 2005 election had partly been a bidding war as to how best to spend the surplus –  not whether there really was a structural surplus).

It wasn’t Treasury at its finest.  It is, perhaps, a reason to be cautious about just how much a fiscal council might add.   Would such a body, faced with similar circumstances –  a long succession of revisions upwards in revenue –  have really reached materially different judgements about the outlook then?  Perhaps.  We can’t know, but back in 2008 Treasury was using its best professional judgement, and the mistakes were still made.

There is a bit of a tendency afoot to suggest that the current National-led government has done a better job of fiscal management than the previous Labour government did.  I’m not really convinced by that story.   I’d accept that the previous government might have had an easier job than the current government has –  since one inherited modest but growing surpluses, while the other inherited deficits.  The current government had some nasty shocks (earthquakes) but also some of the best terms of trade in decades and the weakest wage pressures.      But if we expect our politicians to be guided by professional advice in areas like this, the previous government did what most orthodox opinion advised them to, keeping on delivering surpluses and reducing outstanding debt.  Probably they should have emphasised tax cuts more than spending increases, but this particular debate is about overall fiscal balances.

By the end of Labour’s term, government spending as a share of GDP was rising a lot –  but then Treasury was telling the government the money was there to spend.  And for all the talk of how the new Labour/Greens rules commit a new left-wing government to keep spending at around current National government levels, that level is around the average level that prevailed under the previous Labour government.

core crown expenses

There are things I’d criticise about the previous government’s policy. Allowing big structural surpluses to build up, as happened in the first half of the term, set the scene for a big spend-up later (which would have been big tax cuts if National had won in 2005). It is probably better to recognise the limitations of knowledge and typically keep both surpluses and deficits small. But it is easier to say in hindsight than it might have been at the time.  And in 1999, the severe fiscal stresses of 1990/91 were pretty fresh in everyone’s memory.

Of course, this note has been a defence of the previous Labour government.  The Greens don’t have experience in government, and don’t have the same degree of historical credibility.    So in that sense, no doubt Bryce Wilkinson is right to argue that part of the motivation for the recently announced package is the desire to use commitments like this to help establish some credibility (even at the expense of burning off some of their own loyalists).

And I can only endorse Bryce’s final observation on the fiscal council proposal.

So three cheers to Labour and the Greens for this initiative. May they stick to it.