Thinking a little about indexation

The Minister for Social Protection wants to index many social protection payments to a cost of living index as an anti-poverty measure. This makes sense on the face of it, as long as that cost of living index is going up, and as long as the level of benefits fall when the cost of living falls. It’s also worth thinking about the virtues of indexation, as this was one of the main criticisms IFAC had of the fiscal space calculations during the last election.

Let’s say you index benefits to the consumer price measure of inflation.

Here’s what happened to that reading over the longer run.

Screen Shot 2016-07-22 at 11.29.28Just messing about with the idea a little more, imagine we ‘begin’ the Irish economy in year 1 with a CPI reading of 100, and grant benefits of €100. Then we can add in (say) the last 20 years of real CPI data from 1995 to 2015 to get a sense of what would have happened to benefits in a year-on-year basis as a result.

The line is the increase in benefits as a result of the indexation, and the bars are the changes in euros to the benefits as a result of the cost of living increase or decrease, measured on the right hand axis. The excel sheet I used to knock this up is here.

Picture1

Hopefully you can see two things. First, the measure is highly pro cyclical. Precisely when we want benefits to decrease a bit, because the economy is growing strongly, they go up, and when we want benefits to increase a bit to cover the cost of living during a crash, they go down. Second, in recent years inflation has either stagnated, or fallen, so you wouldn’t see a huge increase or decrease in benefits either way. Now you could smooth out some of these effects out with a moving average of, say, 3 years, but this little exercise shows, I think, that it’s worth looking carefully at indexation proposals.

(Updated with thanks to commenter Tony_Eire.)

Managing the Budget with High Debt and No Currency

A sovereign state with low debt can access liquidity through the markets. There are limits and they will be reached when the debt ratio begins to send out distress calls. Until that (unknown) point, there are, in effect, un-borrowed foreign exchange reserves. With an independent currency liquidity can be created for government or banks without external conditionality. There are limits here too and creating excess liquidity brings inflation risk and exchange rate pressure.
With high debt and hence uncertain access to bond markets a short-term expansion cannot safely be financed through debt sales without constraining capacity to repeat the procedure. Without a currency either, the creation of liquidity is conditional on the cooperation of the foreign central bank. If its conditions include constraints on fiscal action there can be no stabilisation policy – no exchange rate, no monetary or fiscal discretion.
Most Eurozone governments can borrow in the markets at low rates, courtesy of QE, despite historically high debt ratios. In the absence of QE the perception of capacity to borrow could diminish rapidly. Availability of QE is in any event not automatic – there is none for Greece, for example. There are also unclear conditions on ELA creation by national CBs. Consent from the ECB can be withdrawn arbitrarily or may be permitted only on penal conditions, such as pay-offs to unguaranteed creditors of bust banks.
The Eurozone governments with high debt face an illusion of policy space in current circumstances, with apparently easy access to debt markets. The constraint appears to be the EU rules about budgetary limits, as long as QE lasts.
But QE will end at some stage and the constraint becomes the market demand for sovereign debt. The design problem for fiscal policy (the only stabilisation tool available) is to manage the trade-off between using it now and having less to use later. Since the election Irish politicians have found agreement on two policies: (i) that the European Commission should be lobbied to relax the budget rules and (ii) that government should borrow ‘off balance sheet’.
Policy (i), lobbying the Commission, sacrifices future budget flexibility explicitly. The inverse demand curve for sovereign debt is r = f(D) where D is the debt ratio. Unless f(D) is flat the sacrifice is real. Moreover f(D) is unknown, although known not to be flat. Unless sovereign bond buyers are unable to count (ii), hiding sovereign liabilities, is just gaming the Eurostat debt definition. This definition (gross general government debt to gross output) is not a serious measure of debt servicing capability and, after QE, a sovereign could easily be inside some EU limit and unable to borrow. Eurostat does not lend money.
There are arguments for battling to borrow: interest costs are low and it is an article of faith that high-value public investment projects are plentiful. The trade-off (looser policy now versus the risk of ill-timed tightening later) would look better if the economy was becalmed, multipliers high, debt ratios modest, macro-volatility historically low and the foreign central bank known to be benign. None of these conditions applies currently in Ireland.
There is a case for using the QE respite to borrow reserves, accepting the negative carry, as NTMA appears to be doing. The case for deferring the attainment of budget balance is harder to see.

Report of the Fiscal Council

Is here (.pdf). A few days late to this, so apologies, but just one thought:

Think how far our budgetary institutions have evolved. From Charlie McCreevy getting up on Budget Day in the early 2000s and announcing measures his own cabinet hadn’t heard of, to today’s fiscal council reports, Spring Statements, National Economic Dialogues, to the design of new structures like the Budget Oversight Committee, reviews of the process of national budgeting (.pdf), a Parliamentary Budget Office to cost the figures independently, and an agreed spending envelope by the public, a lot has changed in 15 years.

Despite the annoyance it generated during the election, the ‘fiscal space’ is a well recognized academic idea dating back to the 1990s, and the fact that the entire debate took place using broad parameters everyone serious agreed upon is a very good thing. We actually had a debate in Ireland, messy and all as it was, on whether to spend more on services, or give back more in tax cuts. Thus informed, the public chose the former in large numbers. They want a recovery in services.

Four thoughts on the reformed budgetary process

The new budgetary process announced last week includes an oversight committee within the Oireachtas and a series of stepping stone documents en route to the formal Budget Day announcement speech in October.

These processes are the Spring Statement, to set the tax and spend parameters for the coming 12 months, the National Economic Dialogue, to bring what used to be called the ‘social partners’ together to discuss spending priorities en bloc with Ministers, an expenditure report in early July and the tax strategy papers being circulated by late July.

First thought: A lot of this is happening already, and has been happening for years if not decades.

Think about the process. About half way through the year, a rough spending envelope is envisaged. Lobby groups try to convince Ministers to spend more on their thing, whatever that is, and within the walls of Merrion St., the boffins figure out various tax and spend combinations, which then gets presented to the Minister for her or his sign off on budget day. The same people performing the same processes will be working on the new budgetary processes.

The big difference in today’s formulation is how open and transparent it could be. It may not be. The simple way to make it less transparent is to under-fund the budget oversight committee’s secretariat, plunge them into a sea of unsearchable .pdfs, ignore any requests for raw data by saying something like ‘commercial sensitivity’ or something else, and go to the pub.

Second thought: Assuming everyone engages with an open heart, the big wins may still not be transparent. This is because really stupid ideas like Decentralisation won’t even make it to the floor of the Committee.

The process will have a hard time establishing its importance without additional reports on the distributional impacts or gender impacts of new policies, new models, or an open data framework. Unpopular but necessary fiscal elements (say increasing the local property tax at some point) may well get stymied by a committee afraid to make an voter-unfriendly decision.

Third thought: None of this will avoid last minute dot com political flyers. We may still see weird little subsidies for greyhounds or taxidermists or endangered snails or whatever still creeping in at the last minute, because that’s the way our politics works.

Fourth thought: This is the start of a longer conversation about fiscal oversight and control, vote by vote, within the Oireachtas and within the Government. It is going to be fascinating.

Reforming Ireland’s Budgetary Cycle

Via Commenter @DOCM:

The final report of the Oireachtas sub-committe on reform is now available here.

It represents a major, even historical, change, including the introduction by 2017 of an IPBO, which we discussed here.

There remain, however, a number of major ambiguities e.g. no definition of the “budgetary cycle”, lack of clarity in the role of the Budget Oversight Committee (BOC) and its relations ship with the the sectoral committee “shadowing” Finance, PER and the Taoiseach’s department and, in particular, the other sectoral committees (page 9) “Committee also to consider option where Departmental Estimates would be considered by sectoral committees which would make their views known to Budget Oversight Committee for its consideration of aggregate position.”

In short, plenty on the form but very little in the matter of the substance of the involvement of the Dáil in deciding the levels and allocation of expenditure and taxation. It seems. however, that the split between PER and Finance will be between these two issues cf. the remarks by the Minister of Finance:

“The Spring Economic Statement will become a summer statement and it should be ready by June. There will be a full debate in the House. I am providing all the text papers to the finance committee so that there will be a full debate on taxation at that point, in advance of the budget.”

Ireland exits the EDP

Unsurprisingly the European Commission have concluded that Ireland’s “excessive deficit” per the reference values in the TFEU has been corrected.  The Commission decision is here.

The Commission have also published their country-specific recommendations on Ireland based on this staff report.

There is lots in the staff report but on the fiscal side in introducing their CSRs the Commission note:

[Following the abrogation of the excessive deficit procedure, Ireland is in the preventive arm of the Stability and Growth Pact and subject to the transitional debt rule.] In its 2016 stability programme, which is based on a no-policy-change assumption, the government plans gradual improvements of the headline balance until reaching a surplus of 0.4% of GDP in 2018. The revised medium-term budgetary objective  a structural deficit of 0.5% of GDP – is expected to be reached in 2018. However, the annual change in the recalculated11 structural balance of 0.1% of GDP in 2016 does not ensure sufficient progress towards the medium-term budgetary objective. According to the stability programme, the government debt-toGDP ratio is expected to fall to 88.2% in 2016 and to continue declining to 85.5% in 2017. The macroeconomic scenario underpinning these budgetary projections is plausible. However, the measures needed to support the planned deficit targets from 2017 onwards have not been sufficiently specified. Based on the Commission 2016 spring forecast, there is a risk of some deviation from the recommended fiscal adjustment in 2016, while Ireland is projected to be compliant in 2017 under unchanged policies. Ireland is forecast to comply with the transitional debt rule in 2016 and 2017. Based on its assessment of the stability programme and taking into account the Commission 2016 spring forecast, the Council is of the opinion that Ireland is expected to broadly comply with the provisions of the Stability and Growth Pact. Nevertheless, further measures will be needed to ensure compliance in 2016.

The Commission press release detailing all of the decisions taken and documents published today is here.

What should an Irish Parliamentary Budget Office Do?

Parliamentary Budget Offices (PBOs) exist around the world and typically provide budget projections, budget risk analyses, estimates of policy changes, impact assessments, flow of funds analyses, macro-trend analysis, and financial analysis where, prospective policies can be independently costed. The PBO also has an outreach function to show the public the work parliament does in assessing the fit of new proposals.

PBOs are different from Fiscal Councils, in that fiscal councils occupy a watchdog function, evaluating the health of the economy generally and assessing compliance with constitutionally-mandated fiscal rules. Ireland has a fiscal council, it does not have a PBO. The new programme for government commits (on pages 14 and 15) to establishing one.

Continue reading “What should an Irish Parliamentary Budget Office Do?”