Responding to Labour leader Eamon Gilmore’s suggestion of a fiscal stimulus at his party’s recent conference in Kilkenny, Jim O’Leary argued in yesterday’s Irish Times that the option is unattractive. I would like to expand on some of Jim’s points and offer a few more.
The first is that the Government’s fiscal targets for 2008-2011 will in all likelihood be over-shot significantly in 2008 and 2009, and will be hard to hit in the terminal year of 2011. The targets are (as per the Budget Stability Update), GGB deficits for the years 2008 to 2011 at 5.5%, 6.5%, 4.7% and 2.9%. The gross debt grows from 36% through 43.4%, 47.5% to 47.8%, while net debt starts at 25% and grows through 31% to stabilise at 34% for both 2010 and 2011.
To begin with, the out-turn for 2008 will be a GGB deficit of maybe 6.5%: the NPRF vauation was 10% of GDP at end-June, but can only be 9% at best now; and GDP for 2008 will probably come in under the figure assumed in this table. At end 2008, gross and net debt ratios will likely be 2 to 3 points higher for these reasons. But borrowing in 2009 could be in the 8 to 9% zone, rather than the 6.5% target, and the assumed growth in NPRF value in 2009 may not happen. There could be bank bail-out costs not included in the budgetary arithmetic. At end 2009, gross debt will likely breach 50% (of nominal GDP below the 2008 outcome), and the net debt ratio could approach 40%. These would be the numbers before the fiscal consolidation begins!
There is a casual assumption being made by some commentators, and possibly some Governments, that the sovereign debt markets will pony up whatever is required, at least for developed countries and certainly for Eurozone members. But Germany struggled with a bond issue during the week, secondary markets are illiquid, spreads have widened and the weakest Eurozone member (Greece) trades 1.65% above bunds at ten years. The second-weakest is Ireland at 1.35%, and some Eurozone countries with worse debt ratios are trading on narrower spreads than us.
Martin Wolf argued in the FT during the week that a weaker Eurozone member could, in principle, default. There cannot be a currency crisis, but there can be a credit crisis instead. Greece is the current bookie’s favourite, but Wolf described Ireland as ‘…a dramatic case’, noting the speed of the fiscal deterioration and the over-leveraged private sector. The system as a whole needs to de-leverage, and there is no point offsetting a necessary balance-sheet improvement in the private sector with a public borrowing explosion. Indeed, de-leveraging the public sector through liquidation of the NPRF at some stage, and crystalising the painful losses, will need to be addressed. If you can’t easily sell debt, you may have to sell equities, as many hedge fund managers have discovered.
Any attempt by Government to stimulate will run up against Ricardian Equivalence anyway, even more so in the UK version, where the tax reductions are accompanied by specific commitments to increase taxes later. If the private sector is determined to improve its balance sheet through cutting consumption and investment spending, fiscal easing will either fail, in which case it is pointless, or ‘succeed’ at the cost of frustrating the unavoidable private sector adjustment.
Finally, Mr. Gilmore proposed specific capital spending initiatives, such as school building. These may be better projects than some other components of the capital programme, but it is notoriously difficult to fine-tune with capital spending.