On the 9.5% Budget Deficit Target

In my comments on John McHale’s recent post and also on the radio at the weekend, I suggested that the government should probably stick to the 9.5% target set out in January’s Addendum document.  While the document did not contain details about how the government was going to make these adjustments, it was still a clear commitment to stick to a particular path to get back towards a 3% deficit by 2013.  If three months later, we were seen to already be well off these targets, the concern would have to be that the international bond market would judge us as being incapable of sticking to a plan.

However, having thought about this a bit, I’d be inclined now to argue that there probably has been so much slippage already this year that sticking to a 9.5% target for the calendar year 2009 may not be a good idea. My impression now is that the implementation gaps in getting the changes in the April 7 budget made effective will mean that we will only see about half of the budgetary improvement that these measures would bring in a full calendar year.  So, for instance, suppose that without adjustments the deficit is likely to be 13.5% for 2009. In that case, getting to 9.5% for the year would require 8 full percentage points of full-year-equivalent adjustments.

A better strategy would be to make adjustments that leave the government running an effective deficit in the second half of the year of 9.5%, and so facing into the 2010 budget in exactly the position that they had promised to be in.  In the example of a no-adjustments deficit of 13.5%, this would amount to running a deficit for 2009 of 11.5%, which could be interpreted as 13.5% for the first half of the year and 9.5% for the second half.

In a sense, this is a recommendation to government as to how to “spin” an outcome which looks like slippage from the January plan as still being, in a sense, consistent with it.  Beyond that, those economic commentators that will want to criticise the government for failing to meet its own plan, if indeed it announces a target higher than 9.5%, should keep in mind that meeting this target would require starting 2010 with a budget deficit well below what was envisaged in that plan.

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