I gave a talk last night at “The Big Tax Debate” organised by the Irish Taxation Institute. Here are the slides.
The opening slides do some calculations of where the government is starting from when preparing the next budget. Taking out the €3 billion in adjustments that had been pencilled in last December, the starting deficit would have been 11.8% of GDP. Adjusting for the lower nominal GDP projected in 2011 by the Central Bank, this rises to 12.4%. Subtracting a billion from tax revenue because nominal GDP growth is projected to be €4 billion less than in the December 2009 budget and the projected deficit becomes 13%.
These figures exclude payments on promissory notes because the full cost of the notes issued so far is getting incorporated into this year’s General Government deficit. However, the payments will be real cash flows and international markets will be aware that they increase our borrowing requirements. So, while one can argue that it may not be appropriate to point to our projected 32% deficit for this year as the correct measure, one can’t also keep excluding the banking-related payments as though we are never paying for the banking crisis. Adding on €2 billion a year for promissory note payments (my guess, based on €30 billion in payments spread over 15 years—no I don’t know what the correct figure is because it hasn’t been released) the underlying deficit rises to 14.2%.
One adjustment I didn’t make was for higher borrowing costs than projected in 2009. In any case, you get the picture. You don’t have to be brought into the Department for secret talks to see that the starting position for the deficit is an extremely serious one and that adjustments of €5 billion are probably the minimum required to establish a credible downward path.
I think this point, that we need to credibly get back to sustainable levels of the deficit in the next year or two, is far more important than the other popular debate about whether we should have a four-year plan or a seven-year plan for getting back to 3%. Colm Keena correctly quotes me in today’s Irish Times as saying that I don’t think anyone believes that we are going to reach a 3% deficit in 2014. That’s been my experience, perhaps others know people who do believe this. Either way, the 3% is an arbitrary figure and when we reach it is not the crucial point.
Of course, if the Commission insists that all our plans end up with 3% in 2014, then that’s the way they will be written. However, what’s far more important is that we can convince people that the deficits for 2011 and 2012 are going to be well below the starting point we’re looking at right now.
Finally, as an aside, Keena also quotes me as saying “On efficiencies in the public service, Prof Whelan said there was no need for any more reports. He believed the Government was not serious about the matter.” I’m pretty sure I didn’t say the latter. In fact, I suspect the government are probably more serious on this matter than those who claim enormous savings can be made from efficiency gains in the public sector. The point I was trying to make was that we should try to get some clarity as to how much, or how little, we can save from public sector efficiency improvements. And then we should implement them.