The Public Finances – How Big a Mountain?

With a deficit for 2009 heading above 10% of GNP things indeed look bleak. However, some of the comment on the situation exaggerates the task that future Irish governments face. To the extent that the deficit is the result of an extreme cyclical downturn it could come right in the recovery phase of the world cycle. It all depends on when that recovery occurs and how “normal” it is. However, we also know that there was a major public finance problem even before the world recession took over and that problem will still have to be addressed by future Irish governments.

The budget for 2009 was designed to be broadly neutral. The fact that the deficit will be much worse than expected (and worse than last year) will be substantially due to automatic stabilisers reflecting the fact that the expected fall in output for 2009 is much worse than was expected by the Department of Finance when they framed the budget.

The concerns which I raised in an earlier post related to the possibility that the price level in 2009 will be substantially lower than anticipated in the budget. With expenditure fixed in nominal terms this could result in the budget being much more stimulatory than intended. While John McHale is right in suggesting that the depth of the current recession means that it is not the time to cure the public finance problem by deflationary fiscal policy, the gravity of the problem also means that there is no scope for the government to provide a fiscal stimulus. For this reason it is important that the government looks again at its budgetary profile for 2009. It will need to be adjusted as soon as possible to take account of any likely undershooting on the expected price level (including the price of labour).

While this approach to a fall in the price level is, I believe, correct for Ireland, it need not necessarily be the right approach for the Euro area or the US. The difference is that in Ireland the price level is anchored (with a long chain) to the Euro area price level. There is thus no danger that action by the Irish government could set off a deflationary spiral.

If the world economy were to begin its recovery in late 2009 or the beginning of 2010 then a “normal” recovery would see the world economy grow more rapidly than trend for a period. Because the Irish economy is much more highly geared to the world economy (especially to the US) than the rest of the Euro area, the recovery would also trigger a period of above average growth in Ireland. In turn, with a neutral fiscal policy in Ireland, this would be sufficient to produce a major reduction in the deficit. This could ultimately greatly reduce the size of the deficit without discretionary government action.

If the Irish labour market proves sufficiently flexible to price Irish labour back into full employment over a five year period, the resulting rise in output (and reduced unemployment) would eventually further reduce the deficit. (In the short run an across the board cut in wage rates would marginally increase the deficit. The significant positive effects on the deficit would follow with the resulting rise in output in future years.)

Taken together these two changes could eventually halve the deficit. This would still leave a lot to be done by discretionary fiscal policy in the recovery phase. While pretty painful it would, nonetheless, be possible to do it over a four or five year period without jeopardising the economic recovery.

In Karl Whelan’s post he quotes the government’s updated stability programme projections for the decline in the deficit in future years. He comments that the update provides no details on how these adjustments are to be made. However, if half of the adjustment were to be achieved in the way I outlined this would not involve any government measures. It is the rest of the adjustment which will involve significant changes in the public finances. Other posts have dealt with the need to broaden the tax base – something which would be desirable in any event.

The picture I have portrayed above, where a substantial part of the “heavy lifting” is done for the government by market forces – a world recovery and a flexible labour market – is conditional on a “normal” world economic recovery beginning within the next year. However, there is a lot of pessimism about among economists in the US. At the AEA a number of key protagonists (e.g. Rogoff) expressed doubts about the prospects of a “normal” recovery setting in in the near future. If such pessimism were to prove valid it would see the government’s fiscal problems continue to deteriorate in 2010. Under these circumstances the underlying long-term public finance problem would continue to deteriorate leaving a bigger hill to be climbed whenever a recovery set in.

In the EUROFRAME report on the Euro area economy which the ESRI co-published at the end of November, using the NiGEM world model we considered what might be the long-term effects of a permanently higher risk premium on the capital stock, and hence output in the US, the Euro area and the UK. The conclusion was that the permanent damage to these economies’ productive potential would be limited, though significant. However, the current crisis may affect the world economy through other channels than we considered and there remains the possibility that even more long-term damage will be done. In such an eventuality Ireland’s problems will be part of a broader crisis, the solution to which has still to be thought through.

Fiscal Folly?

The speed of the fiscal deterioration is truly alarming—all the more so given Ireland’s fiscal history.  But, observing from a distance, I am still surprised that the wisdom of discretionary fiscal contraction is not subject to more public debate.   (I realise I may be missing much of the actual debate.)  Ireland is now in the throes of an extreme domestic demand-deficient recession.   On its face, it is tragic to pursue a contractionary discretionary fiscal policy with such a demand collapse and no monetary policy instrument.   Of course, the fear of a large increase in the risk premium on Irish debt and associated explosive debt dynamics could validate such a tragic choice.    But is the fiscal caution being overdone given Ireland’s modest debt and ability to borrow in its own currency?  The marginal value of stimulus should be high with the economy operating well below potential.  Thus the fact that debt is being piled up at an alarming rate does not necessarily mean it is bad policy.    I would be grateful for any thoughts on the extent of the risk of explosive debt dynamics and the likely size of fiscal multipliers in the current depressed environment.   

The Budgetary Outlook and the Government’s Plan

The government has published a stability program update with new projections for the economy and for the budgetary situation.  Projections are provided for the general government balance under current policies as well as under a multi-year adjustment plan.

The government now project declines in GDP of 4% in 2009 and 0.9% in 2010 and unemployment is projected to average 9.2% in 2009 and 10.5% in 2010.  Without changes in policy, the general government balance is projected to be in deficit to the tune of 11%-12% of GDP every year out to 2013.

The govenment has decided to address the fiscal situation gradually over the next five years.  The report states: “Restoring sustainability to the public finances can only realistically involve a period of adjustment of up to five years. Taking action over a shorter period of time, given the scale of the emerging position, would impose substantial economic and social costs and would not be sensible or appropriate.”

An adjustment of €2 billion is proposed for this year, still leaving a budget deficit of 9.5%.  Subsequent adjustments of €4 billion in 2010 and 2011, €3.5 billion in 2012 and €3 billion in 2013 will gradually reduce the deficit over time to 2.5% in 2013.

No details are provided as to how these adjustments will be made.  Worth noting, however, is that the adjustments total €16.5 billion.  Given that the total bill for public sector pay and pensions is currently about €20 billion, it should be clear that despite the regular media focus on public sector pay cuts, restoring fiscal balance will require many other adjustments.

Irish canaries in the global coalmine: the threat to international trade

Two recent statements by Irish government ministers deserve to be quoted at length, since they illustrate very nicely two of the broader threats to the international economy going forward.

On Sunday, Willie O’Dea wrote the following passage, which will have seemed somewhat familiar to readers of this website:

We tried the fiscal stimulus approach in response to the oil shock in the late Seventies. The increased spending power given to the Irish consumer largely leaked out on increased imports and left us in an even worse position. There is absolutely no evidence to suggest that the same thing would not happen again…From Ireland’s point of view, the best sort of fiscal stimulus are those being put in place by our trading partners. Ultimately these will boost demand for our exports without costing us anything. What we need to do is to ensure that we are well positioned to avail of the opportunities that result from our trading partners’ actions.

This is precisely the problem that Martin Wolf, Dani Rodrik and others have been highlighting recently: governments worried about this leakage abroad may well combine fiscal stimuli with import restrictions (governments bigger than our own, that is). The obvious solution is to have a coordinated fiscal reflation, and in that light the fact that the G-20 is meeting in London in April is obviously positive. Unfortunately, the history of the 1930s suggests at least two reasons for caution here. The first is that leaders then also realised that cooperation was in principle desirable, and organised a World Economic Conference in London in 1933. That conference failed. The second reason for caution is that one reason why cooperation was so difficult to achieve was that leaders in different countries disagreed about what the economics of the situation required. Notably, the gold bloc centered around France continued in its orthodox gold standard beliefs until 1936. It is crucially important that the Germans today abandon their resistance to Keynesian solutions to the Keynesian crisis we find ourselves in (which may in fact be gradually happening, as the bad news in Germany continues to mount up); and that the ECB be as proactive as the Bank of England and Fed, and as open to the possibility of quantitative easing.

The second Irish ministerial statement that has historical resonances is that of Brian Lenihan quoted this morning. He apparently said:

It is a question for all of us in the EU as to the extent to which a competitive devaluation can be used as any kind of a weapon…The fall in sterling is causing us immense difficulties…They have in effect produced a devaluation of the pound through expansion of the money supply. That has put us under immense pressure

History shows that exchange rate misalignments have been one of the most common reasons why countries resort to wholesale protectionism. The French-led gold bloc of the 1930s found itself with a progressively more and more overvalued currency, as other countries abandoned gold and cut interest rates. Its response was to impose far more stringent import controls, in particular quantitative import controls, than comparable economies elsewhere. The question today is what an undervalued remnibi, or an overvalued Euro, or other similar misalignments, could imply for global trade policies going forward.

Within Europe, the current decline in sterling, if unchecked, will provide future scholars with a fascinating case study. Recall that one of the main arguments for EMU in the 1990s was that the Single Market would in the long run not survive fluctuating exchange rates between EU member states — this was Barry Eichengreen’s view, for example, expressed in the wake of Hoover’s decision to transfer a plant from France to Scotland. I was sceptical at the time and still am; the shared political commitment to the European acquis can’t be overestimated. But there is no doubt that Ireland is incredibly exposed, and that we urgently need the ECB to match whatever is being done in London and DC. Time for a helicopter drop of Keynesians over Franfurt?

Electricity cost puzzles

Alan Ahearne in his post on the recent National Competitiveness Council report draws attention to the high electricity costs in Ireland relative to our trading partners documented in the report. Malore in his/her comment on Alan’s post suggested some reasons for this. These and other reasons are further explored in the Sustainable Energy Ireland 2008 report Understanding Electricity and Gas Prices in Ireland.

Continue reading “Electricity cost puzzles”