Sunday, October 27, 2013

27/10/2013: Financial Repression, Economic Suppression & Budget 2014

This is an unedited version of my Sunday Times article for October 20, 2013.

With fanfare of media appearances and fireworks of Dail statements, Budget 2014 was pushed off the dry dock and into the turbulent waters of reality. Full of political sparkle on the outside, overloaded with hidden taxes and charges and yet-to-be-fully-detailed painful cuts on the inside, it sailed off into the future. It will take at least 9-12 months from now to see what adjustments will have to be made in 2015 to compensate for the 'savings' on cuts delivered this week. It will take us longer to find out if the Budget 2014 will have a positive or negative effect on our ability to fund our deficits in the markets.

Yet, one thing is beyond the doubt: Budget 2014 was a significant gamble by the Government that could have done better by avoiding taking any gambles at all. Minister Noonan has decided to buy some political capital in the Budget. This capital came in the form of reduced rate of overall budgetary adjustment, compensated for by the hope-based increases in public sector efficiencies, plus some symbolic handouts to middle class families. Majority, such as the free GP visits for children under the age of 5, were poorly targeted and economically inefficient – extending scarce resources not to where they are needed most (such as, for example, long-term care provision or means-tested provision of health services) but to where political expediency leads. Many fail the core Budget objectives of making our fiscal policies more robust to adverse shocks that may occur in the near-term future.

In the end, Budget 2014 delivered virtually no real departures from the past Budgets. Predictably, there were no 'new' taxes. Instead the Budget put forward a list of new 'revenue raising measures'. The State will claw out of the banks EUR150 million in levies. Given that our banking sector is being reduced to a Three Pillars oligopoly, the levies will come straight from charging customers more for the same services. Pensions funds levy - a form of expropriation of private property - is to raise additional EUR135 million. This is a tax on present income, and in the case of pensions funds levy a tax on current wealth, plus a tax on future incomes foregone due to reduced levels of pensions funds. EUR140 million will be pumped out of the banks’ customers by taxing interest on savings. All in – financial sector will take a hit of EUR425 million on a full year basis, reducing its ability to lend, invest in the economy and to deal with mortgages distress. The measures will also weaken the quality of Irish banks' deposits base by reducing incentives to save. Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff aptly termed such measures ‘financial repression’. De facto, we are bailing in ordinary banks customers and savers to pay for the past sins of the banks. Cyprus redux, anyone?

Cuts side of the Budget was also predictable. At the aggregate level, departmental expenditure as the share of GDP continues to run above 1990-2007 average. Instead of real cost reductions in Health we got some EUR250-300 million worth of new charges to be levied on services to insurance holders. And reduced insurance deductibility on the revenues side should do even more to reduce insurance coverage in the market. Net effect will most likely be falling transfers from private patients to public services, and higher demand for public health.

From businesses perspective, whatever the State added on one side of the budgetary equation, the state took out on the other. Thus, for all incentives for construction and building trade, overall capital spending by the Government in 2014 is projected to fall by some EUR100 million. As we stand, in 2013, capital spending by the Government barely covers amortization and depreciation of the total stock of public capital. Next year, things are going to get worse.

Much of the business stimulus schemes are geared toward supports for the property markets, including the incentives for foreign investors to put money into Irish REITs. Aside from the property-related measures, other business stimulus polices are either extensions of the already existent ones or more promise of doing something in the future. One example is the issue of Trade Finance supports. We are now five years into talking about the need to help smaller exporters with the cost of and access to trade insurance and credit.  Still, there is no tangible delivery on this.

However, the real question, left unanswered by Budget 2014 is: what's next for Ireland? The Government is rhetorically focused on our 'exit' from the Troika-led funding programme. This objective is a policy epicycle designed to ease public attention off the realities of bad domestic governance during the crisis. Exit from the bailout, financially, fiscally and economically, means a public recognition that Ireland has run out of funds we can borrow from the IMF and the EU. It also puts forward a commitment that, unlike Greece, we will not be asking for another bailout. Being not Greece does not make us Iceland, however, since Iceland repaid its bailout loans. In contrast, we will be carrying our debts to Troika for years to come.

The Government is promising that once we exit the bailout, we will regain our control over fiscal policies. This is a gross over-exaggeration. Having ratified the Fiscal Compact, Ireland is now subjected to heavy EU oversight as long as our fiscal performance falls short of the targets set in the treaty. It will be long time before we meet all of the conditions.

The scrutiny of our targets will increase, while our performance will remain under serious pressures arising from the crisis. Most recent IMF forecasts assume full EUR5.6 billion adjustments taken over 2014-2015 period, and economic growth averaging over 2.1 percent per annum (almost 6 times the average growth in 2012-2013 period). These forecasts imply that in 2014-2015 Ireland will still face the third highest cumulative deficits in the euro area ‘periphery’. And the debt levels of Irish state are set to continue rising. In 2013, the Department of Finance projects the level of Irish Government debt to be at EUR205.9 billion. By 2018 this is projected to rise to EUR211.6 billion.

And here's another kicker. The Fiscal Compact sets the target for long-term structural deficits (in other words deficits that would prevail were the economy running at its long run sustainable growth potential) at 0.5 percent of GDP. IMF projections out through 2018 put Irish structural deficits declining from 5.1 percent of potential GDP in 2013 to 2.0 percent in 2018. In other words, in 2018 Ireland is expected to be the worst performing 'peripheral' state in terms of structural deficits and operate well outside the criteria set in the Fiscal Compact.

Worse, comes December 15, we will lose a strong supporter of our efforts to restructure legacy banking debts and the only member of the Troika that promotes structurally more important economic and markets reforms.

On foot of our weak fiscal position, the politicisation of the Irish economy is already building up, driven primarily by our European partners and – until December 15 – resisted by the IMF.

The pressure is rising on Ireland's corporate taxation regime. The Government admitted as much by promising to close the loophole that allows some MNCs to nearly completely avoid paying Irish corporate taxes.

The pressure is also growing on blocking Ireland’s chances to restructure legacy banks debts. Germany, the ECB and the Eurogroup are angling to block Ireland's potential access to the European funds set up to deal with the future banking crises.

We are going into 2014 self-funding mode with all the costs of the bailout in place, including the Dvoika (Troika less one) oversight and substantial deficit and debt overhangs. It now appears that there will be no credit line to cover any increases in the cost of borrowing that might arise in the future. There will be no precautionary fund to cushion against any risk to market demand for Irish Government bonds. There will be no system in place to deal with any future banking problems or with the legacy debts should such arise. The ECB, the IMF and our forecasters are all warning us that we still face potentially significant downside risks to growth and banks stability. The IMF has been for months raising the issues of the SMEs insolvencies and poor quality of banks capital.

In other words, we are boxing ourselves into a high-risk game with little to show for this in terms of a positive return from our 'exit' from the bailout.

History suggests that prudence, not pride should be our guide. Back in 2010 we pre-borrowed aggressively in the markets prior to the state finances collapsing under the poorly structured banks bailouts. Now, we are gunning for the 'exit' without having secured any support from our 'partners' once again. The hope is that this time it will be different: the markets will lend us at decreasing costs, while growth lifts the entire domestic economy out of stagnation. This might not be an equivalent of playing Russian roulette, but it is certainly a game of chance with high stakes on the losses side and little tabled on the potential winnings side.

The latest OECD research on basic skills across the advanced economies puts to a serious test our claims to having a highly educated workforce. Ireland ranked eighth in terms of the proportion of younger adults with tertiary education. In terms of problem solving proficiency, both our college graduates and adults with only secondary education rank below their respective OECD averages. In problem solving in a technology-rich environment – a proxy for skills related to internationally-traded services, the sole driver of our economy today – Ireland ranks 18th in the OECD. Our younger workers score below their OECD peers in basic literacy and in numeracy. When it comes to introduction of new processes and technologies in the workplace Ireland is ranked between such premier divisions of the global innovation league as Cyprus and Belgium. Given our poor performance in digital economy-specific skills, exposed in October 2012 report by the OECD and covered in these pages before, it is high time for us to get serious about reforming our education and training systems.

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