In yesterday’s post I outlined some of my concerns about the government’s Budget, from a macroeconomic perspective. Not only did it seem to be built on rather optimistic medium-term economic assumptions, but several years out – on current policy advised to it by the government – The Treasury still expects a fairly significant cyclically-adjusted primary deficit (which means, once finance costs are added in, a larger-still overall cyclically-adjusted deficit).
There was a good case for such deficits last year, and perhaps even in the year that ends next month. But there is no obvious macroeconomic reason for running larger deficits in this coming year, and still having cyclically-adjusted deficits four years hence (by which time The Treasury numbers project a non-trivial positive output gap). It is now simply a splurge – a government that, unnecessarily, is simply choosing to take on more debt to fund its new spending, rather than fund core operating spending with taxes. In a climate when risks abound.
And all this is an environment where fiscal policy now appears to be unanchored by any specific fiscal goals a government is committing itself too.
I’ve never been one of those who put huge weight on the Fiscal Responsibility Act 1994, now (as amended) incorporated as Part 2 of the Public Finance Act. There are some good aspects to the legislation but I was never really convinced that asking governments to set out their specific short and long-term fiscal objectives, or articulating in statute “principles of responsible fiscal management” would make much difference to anything that mattered about the conduct of fiscal policy. (Here is a post on the 30th anniversary of the Public Finance Act critiquing some rather over the top claims then made for the framework.) In my take, there was a shared commitment across the main parties to balanced budgets (in normal times) and low debt, and the legislation reflected that rather than driving it.
And I guess I take this year’s Budget as vindication of that stance. There was a shared commitment to such things, and now it appears there is not. And the legislation still sits on the books, lonely and overlooked. Check out the requirements of Part 2 of the Public Finance Act, and then compare it with this year’s Budget documents. In particular, have a look at the statutory principles for responsible fiscal management, and the requirements that a Fiscal Strategy Report brought down on Budget day has to contain outlining both short-term and long-term fiscal objectives.
Take the long-term intentions first (if you can find them). For debt, the government offers no numbers at all – either as to the level they aim to first stabilise the debt at or the longer-term level they would aim to then reduce it to (not even whether that level is higher or lower than the current level). Not even anything conditional on, say, us avoiding future Covid outbreaks and new lockdowns.
And then what about the operating balance? Well, they assure us they will run an operating balance consistent with the long-term debt objective, but (a) isn’t that obvious?, and (b) it tells us nothing at all, since they give us no medium to long term debt objective. And all the rest of it is equally or more vacuous. Now, sure, the Act does not formally require the government to put numbers on their objectives in these areas, but I’m pretty sure the drafters of the Act – the Parliament that passed it – did not think that simply stating “we’ll do whatever we like to pursue our political objectives” (all that “productive, sustainable and inclusive economy” mantra) would meet the bill. The whole section of the Act is rendered empty and futile.
It is even worse when we get to the short-term intentions. The Act is somewhat more prescriptive there
And there is simply none of that content at all. No objectives, no serious discussion reconciling with the (non-existent) long-term objectives, and just this explanation for why the government is (for now anyway) abandoning the statutory principles for responsible fiscal management
Doing so in this case for the short-term operating balance intention is the right thing to do, given the unprecedented size of the global economic shock caused by COVID-19 and the need for the Government to provide a strong ongoing fiscal response to protect lives and livelihoods in New Zealand as we secure the economic recovery.
But as I suggested yesterday, that argument probably made sense (at least the first half) at the time of last year’s Budget and FSR. It doesn’t today when New Zealand’s unemployment rate is under 5 per cent.
There is no rationale – grounded in the Act – no analysis, and no short or medium goals. Simply structural deficits for years to come (see first chart above) – discretionary deficits actively chosen by today’s government larger than any such cyclically-adjusted deficits run in New Zealand at any time since at least the end of World War Two. It hasn’t been the New Zealand way. But it appears to be so now.
As I noted yesterday, maybe it will all come right. Maybe Robertson and Ardern really are at heart a bit more responsible than this Budget suggests and future new spending splurges (which are, I guess, what one expects from a party whose MPs and leader have now taken to openly calling themselves “socialists”) will be funded by persuading the electorate to stump up with increased taxes.
But bad fiscal outcomes – high debt, and little obvious prospect of reversals – don’t arise overnight. And the sort of thing that concerns me is what has happened in some other advanced countries. Here are the cyclically-adjusted primary balances for the US, the UK, and Japan. Remember, a positive number should be a bare minimum for prudent fiscal management (higher the higher are your accumulated debts and the prevailing real interest rate).
30 years each had relatively low levels of government debt (OECD data for net general government liabilities as per cent of GDP), the UK and Japan in particular. And now they are all among the OECD countries with the highest levels of (net) public debt.
It can happen here too. And if those on the left are celebrating this week their own government “breaking free” of the shackles, they need to remember that political fortunes come and go. The other parties will form governments again, and the precedent this government is setting may guide them in how constrained they feel about increasing spending or cutting taxes or whatever (see the US as an example). In a floating exchange rate economy the disciplines on fiscal policy are more political than market in nature. If your party believes in bigger government, that’s a choice but then insist that bigger government means higher taxes. If your party believes in much lower taxes, that too is a choice, but then insist that smaller revenue have to mean much lower spending. But don’t toss out the window a hard-won consensus around balanced budgets and low public debt – one of the few real achievements of the last 30 years – and substitute for it feel-good politics (whether from the left or right) that avoids confronting choices about who will pay.
I’m still reluctant to believe that Robertson is quite as reckless as this Budget suggests, but for now at least the evidence is tilting against my optimistic prior. And, disconcertingly, there isn’t much sign of the Opposition calling him out.
This, incidentally, is the sort of analysis and discussion that a Fiscal Council provides in many countries.