Saturday, June 5, 2010

Economics 05/06/2010: Economics of Fiscal Stimulus

This is an unedited version of my article for June-July issue of the Village Magazine.

Weeks into a new round of ‘talks’ over the public sector reforms and Ireland’s Policy Kindergarten squad is getting more agitated by the issue of cuts in the Government expenditure. The logic of their arguments, led by the likes of Tasc, the Irish Times, and an army of Unions-employed ‘economists’, is perverse: “In order to get the economy back on track, we need to borrow more and spend on public services and wages.”

There are three basic arguments why stimulating Irish economy though increased public spending won’t work in the current conditions even in theory, let alone in practice. These are: the structural nature of the fiscal crisis we face, the size of the debt we face, and the lack of evidence that stimulus can work in a country like Ireland.

Structural deficits

Economists distinguish two types of deficits: cyclical and structural. The first type of deficits occurs when a temporary economic slowdown leads to an unforeseen decline in revenue and acceleration of certain components of spending (e.g. unemployment insurance and social welfare). By its definition, the cyclical deficit will be automatically corrected once economy returns to its long term growth path.

In contrast, structural deficits are those that arise independently of the short term changes in economic growth. They are the outcome of unsustainable increases in permanent spending and/or decline in the long term growth potential that might arise from a severe crisis.

In the case of Ireland, both of the latter factors are at play. Various estimates of the extent of structural deficits carried out by the likes of IMF, OECD, the European Commission, ESRI and independent analysts range between one half and two thirds of the 2009 General Government deficit, or 7-9.5% of GDP.

Reckless expansion of Government spending in the period of 2001-2007 is the greatest cause of these – not the collapse of our tax revenue. In the mean time, our economy’s long-term growth rate has declined from the debt-and-housing-fueled 4.5% per annum to a Belgium-like 1.8% per annum.

In 2000, General Government Structural Balance stood at roughly -0.5% of GDP. By 2008 this has fallen to almost -11% courtesy of a massive build up in permanent staff increases in the public sector, rises in welfare rates, explosion in health spending and creation of a gargantuan army of quangoes and supervisory organizations.

Forget, for a second, that majority of these expenditures represented pure waste, delivering nothing more than top jobs for friends of the ruling class, plus scores of jobs for public and quasi-public sector workers. Between 1981 and today Ireland has recorded not a single year in which Government structural balance was positive. Windfall stamps, VAT and capital gains tax receipts over 2001-2007 have masked this reality, as Goldman Sachs structured derivatives masked the reality of Greek deficits.

We are not getting any better

Over the recent months, the Government has been eager to ‘talk up’ our major selling points. Ireland, it goes, is a country with stabilized public finances and low debt to GDP ratio.

Last month, Eurostat exposed the lie behind the ‘stabilized public finances’ story. It turns out our Government has decided to sweep under the carpet billions of cash it borrowed in 2009 to recapitalize Anglo. Courtesy of this, our deficit for 2009 was revised to a whooping 14.3% of GDP – topping that of Greece.

But Irish General Government deficit this year is expected to come in between 11.7% and over 12% of GDP, depending on who is doing the forecasting – Department of Finance or ESRI. And this is before we factor in March 2010 statement by the Minister for Finance, promising over €10 billion for the banks this year. This means that, as the rest of the world is coming out of the recession, our fiscal deficit for 2010 is expected to either match or exceed the revised level achieved in 2009. Some stabilization.

Irish Government debt is expected to reach 78-82% of GDP by the end of 2010 – on par with Eurozone’s second sickest economy, Portugal. With Nama and banks recapitalizations factored in, Irish taxpayers will be in a debt hole equal to between 117% and 122% of GDP by 2011 and to 137% by 2014. At the point of the Greek debt crisis implosion last year, Greece had second highest debt to GDP ratio in the EU at 117%, after Italy with a massive 119%.

In totality, current crisis management approach by the Irish State is going to cost every Irish taxpayer in excess of €117,000 in added tax liability. Neither Iceland nor Greece come close.

Economy on steroids

Still think that we should be stimulating this economy through more borrowing?

Take a look at the private sector debts. In terms of external debt liabilities, Ireland is in the league of its own amongst the advanced economies. Our overall debts currently are in excess of the critically high liabilities of the HIPCs to which we are sending intergovernmental aid. And rising: in Q3 2009, our external debt liabilities stood at a whooping USD 2.4 trillion, up 10.8% on Q3 2007. Of these, roughly 45% accrue to the domestic economy – more than 6 times our annual national income.

Ireland’s share of the world debt is greater than that of Japan and more than double that of all BRICs combined, once IFSC companies are included. Over the next 5 years, the entire Irish economy will be paying out around €206,000 per each taxpayer in interest on this debt. Adding more debt to this pile is simply unimaginable at any stage, let alone when the cost of borrowing is high and rising.

These figures show that the main cause of the current crisis is not the lack of liquidity in the system, but an old-fashioned problem of insolvency.

This problem is directly related to the actions of the Irish state. Over the last decade, there was a nearly 90% correlation between the average increases in the Irish tax revenues plus the rate of economic growth and the expenditure growth on capital and current spending sides. In effect, courtesy of the ‘Boom is getting boomier’ Ahearn/Cowen team Ireland had two bubbles inflating next to each other – a private sector borrowing bubble and a public sector spending one. Government’s exuberant optimism, cheered on by the Social Partners – the direct beneficiaries of this ‘fiscal policy on steroids’ approach – explains why during Brian Cowen’s tenure in the Department of Finance, Irish structural deficit doubled on his predecessor’s already hefty increases.

But what went on behind the glossy Exchequer reports was the old-fashioned pyramid scheme. Some got rich. Temporarily, we had an army of politically connected developers and bankers stalking the halls of premier cars dealerships and property auction rooms.

Permanently, an entire class of public employees reaped massive dividends in terms of shares in privatized enterprises that cumulated in their pension plans. Current claims that because the values of some of these payoffs have declined over time (often due to the intransigent nature of the unions in the semi-state companies, staunchly resisting change and productivity enhancing reforms) is irrelevant here. Prior to their privatization, these companies were called 'public' assets. Creation of any, no matter small or large, private gains to their employees out of the companies' privatizations or securititization through pensions funds liabilities of their assets in favor of employees, therefore, is nothing more than an arbitrary, unions-imposed grab of the public asset.

Benchmarking, lavish pensions and jobs security – also paid out of the economy leverage (just think of the NPRF - explicitly created to by-pass the illegal, under the EU rules, taxation of economy for provisioning for future public sector pensions liabilities) – was a cherry on top of the cake. Public companies management got dramatically increased pay and a permanent indemnity against competition through a regulatory system that was all but a client of their semi-state companies.

From our hospital consultants to our lawyers, academics and other professionals – a large army of state-protected, often non-competitive internationally professional elites collected state-subsidised pay so much in excess of their real productivity that we became the subject of diplomats’ jokes.

Our state’s response to this was telling. Just as the country was borrowing its way into insolvency, our Government gave billions to aid developing nations. That was the price our leaders chose to pay to feel themselves adequate standing next to Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy at the EU summits. Incidentally, as the country today is borrowing heavily to cover its basic bills, Brian Cowen still sends hundreds of millions of our cash to aid foreign states and has recently decided to commit over €1,000 million – full year worth of the money he clawed out of the ordinary families through income levies – to the Greek bailout package.

Economics on Steroids

Still think more state-centred economy is the solution to our problem? Irish economists, primarily those affiliated with the Unions are keen on talking about the ‘positive multiplier’ effect of deficit-financed stimulus. Sadly for them, there is no conclusive evidence that borrowing at 5 percent amidst double-digit deficits and ‘investing’ in public services does any good for the economy.

Firstly, one has to disregard any evidence on fiscal stimulus efficiency coming out of the larger states, like the US, where imports component of public and private expenditure is much smaller than in Ireland. The US estimates of the fiscal stimulus multiplier also reflect a substantially lower cost of borrowing. Even if Ireland were to replicate US-estimated fiscal stimulus effects, higher cost of our borrowing will mean that the net stimulus to Irish economy will be zero on average.

Second, international evidence shows that for a small open economy, like Ireland, the total fiscal multiplier effect starts with a negative -0.05% effect on economic growth at the moment of stimulus and in the long run (over 6 years) reaches a negative -0.07-0.31%. Add the cost of financing to this and the long-term effect of deficit financed stimulus for Ireland will be around -2.3% annually.

Third, no one on the Left has a faintest idea what the new spending should be used for. Simply giving borrowed cash to pay the wage bill in the public sector would be unacceptable by any ethical standards. Any investment that is bound to make sense would have to focus on our business centre – Dublin, where infrastructure deficit is acute and potential demand is present. Alas, this will not resolve the problem of collapsed regional economies. Pumping more cash into the ‘knowledge economy’ absent actual knowledge infrastructure of entrepreneurship, private finance, skills and without a proven track record of exporting potential, is adventurist even at the times of plenty.

In short, the idea that expanded deficit financing will support any sort of real recovery in the economy is equivalent to arguing that pumping steroids into a heart attack patient can help him run a marathon.

Ireland needs severe rethinking and reforms of the grossly inefficient and ethically non-sustainable spending and management practices of our public sectors. It should start with significant rationalization of expenditure first and then progress to a more deeply rooted revision of the public sector objectives and ethos.

Ireland also needs a significant deleveraging of what is a basically insolvent economic structure. This too requires, amongst other things, a significant reduction in overall public spending. Far from ‘borrow to spend’ policies advocated by the Left, we need ‘cut to save’ policies that can, with time, yield a permanent increase in the national savings rate, productive private investment and improved returns on education and skills. Otherwise, we might as well give our college graduates a one-way ticket out of Ireland with their degrees, courtesy of Tasc and the Unions.
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