Comptroller and Auditor General Report for 2010

The annual report of the Comptroller and Auditor General contains lots of useful information. However, one criticism I would level at the report is its use of an accounting framework that differs from the General Government Budget that we report to Brussels.

The report states that “Overall State expenditure in 2010 was €53.8 billion, a reduction of 9.5% on the 2009 level” figures that are being widely reported in the news today. The report also lists “Total Receipts” at €35.6 billion up from €34.7 billion the year before.

However, if one looks at the more comprehensive accounts that we provide to Brussels—and which are used as the basis for reporting and compliance with our EU-IMF programme—one finds (page 49) that total expenditure by the Irish government last year was €103.2 billion while total revenues were €53.2 billion.

The €103.2 billion expenditure figure includes €30.8 billion for promissory notes, and one can understand that there are various possible accounting treatments for these notes. However, that still leaves non-promissory-note spending at €72.4 billion, almost twenty billion higher than reported by the C&AG. So despite the use of “overall” and “total”, it’s pretty clear that these are not overall totals at all.

Some of these differences are accounted for by the exclusion of capital spending and on the tax side there’s differing treatment of PRSI contributions. I could go on listing other differences but, frankly, who cares? The GGB figures provided to Brussels are the most comprehensive indicators of our fiscal position and they are being closely watched by the EU and IMF.

As I’ve written about before, these kinds of figures also mislead the public about key magnitudes, thus undermining public debate about fiscal options. For example, you will hear various expenditure items compared against a total tax revenue figure of €31.7 billion—those who’ve read the C&AG report will think total revenue was €35.6 billion. This usually ends up distorting the actual fraction of revenues devoted to these expenditures.

Fun with Instant Zero Deficits!

I know some of our blog commenters are big fans of the idea of ending the EU-IMF deal and immediately running a zero deficit. I spoke with Kathy Sheridan from the Irish Times a while back about how this would be chaotic.

It’s interesting then to see US politicians apparently eager to try out this experiment on their own economy, pretty much for the hell of it. Here‘s an interesting analysis of the decisions that could be facing the US Treasury on August 2. A corresponding analysis for Ireland would be really interesting.

Government Revenues and Spending

One of the problems that plaugues discussion of the Irish public finances is there is a fairly widespread confusion over how much the government takes in as revenues and how much it spends.

Many people know that the figure for “tax revenues” has been about €30 billion in recent years, via press coverage of the monthly exchequer returns. (See here for the 2010 end of year exchequer returns showing €31.7 billion in tax revenue.) Many people also know that we have run deficits of close to €20 billion in recent years.

Together, these two facts have lead to the wide repetition of statements along the lines of “we are taking in €30 billion and spending €50 billion.” Often, a particular item of government expenditure, such as public sector pay or social welfare is then compared to the revenue take of €30 billion to illustrate the huge fraction of government revenues that it takes up.

It turns out however that a more accurate description of the Irish public finances has been the government has been taking in about €50 billion and spending about €70 billion. This pattern is hard to assess from looking at the Exchequer statements because, for example, they do not count the €11.4 billion in “social contributions” such as PRSI as taxes. Indeed, the whole definition of tax revenues is a bit arbitrary. I believe the USC is being counted as tax revenues, while various levies that it replaces were not.

The most useful description of the state of the Irish public finances is the materials provided to the European Commission, for example in Friday’s Stability Programme Update. Go to the second last page and you’ll see a useful breakdown of exactly how the General Government Deficit of €49.9 billon was determined. Take away the promissory note worth €30.8 billion and this deficit would have been €19.1 billion, determined by spending of €72.4 billion and revenues of €53.3 billion. (The last page contains a description of the relationship between the Exchequer Balance and the General Government Balance.)

Unfortunately, this simple and clear presentation of the public finances is not emphasised in the materials regularly released by the Department of Finance. Perhaps one of the reforms that the two new minsters in charge of spending and taxation could agree to would be to release regular clear presentations of the tax and spending figures underlying the general government deficit.

Eurostat: Irish Deficit 36% of GDP in 2010:Q1

I know that the NTMA have already admitted as much but just in case there were any remaining doubts that Eurostat are counting the promissory notes towards this year’s budget deficit, the picture below is a screencap from Eurostat’s publicly available database. Yes, our deficit in the the first quarter of 2010 was 36.51% of GDP. I believe the figure for the year will be about 20%. (Yes it’s my first time using a picture! Perhaps now you can see why.)

Irish Fiscal Policy: Not Out of the Woods Yet

Gillian Tett’s Financial Times column today praising the Irish government’s approach to fiscal adjustment relative to that of Greece, Spain or Portugal is welcome. Without doubt, the government has taken a brave approach to fiscal adjustment and the public reaction to it has been one of remarkable tolerance. However, I think we need to be careful about overdosing on external and self-praise and concluding that we’re somehow out of the woods on the fiscal front.

Continue reading “Irish Fiscal Policy: Not Out of the Woods Yet”

McCarthy on Greece and Ireland

I guess Colm has better things to be doing then putting links up on blogs but for those of you who haven’t seen it, Mr. McCarthy’s column in today’s Irish Times makes for interesting reading. Colm points out that “It would be unfortunate to celebrate the centenary of 1916 with macro-policy dictated from Brussels and Washington.” I wonder whether Martyn Turner had seen this column before producing today’s cartoon.

Promissory Notes and Deficits

After the announcement that the €4 billion used to recapitalise Anglo Irish Bank last year has to be included in the General Government Deficit, I was surprised to see speculation on this blog and elsewhere that the €8.3 billion in promissory notes issued this year might not count towards the deficit. Yesterday in the Dail, Brian Lenihan made it clear that this full amount was being added to the general government debt:

The recapitalisation of €8.3 billion by issuing a promissory note has been recorded as increasing Ireland’s general Government debt by that full amount in 2010 and, pending the agreement of the restructuring plan, it is appropriate not to include it in the deficit measurement until the matter can be reviewed on foot of any decision made by the European Commission on the plan.

So, the full amount has been added to the stock of debt but we are awaiting a decision on whether it adds to the deficit.

Personally, I like my stock-flow identities to add up, so I can’t see any reason why the full amount wouldn’t be added to the deficit. Perhaps others who understand the statistical issues better than me could explain how these additions to the debt—which are clearly “non-financial transactions” as defined by Eurostat—will not be counted as part of the general government deficit.


The domestic response to yesterday’s Eurostat announcement has been fairly predictable. Opposition politicians are treating it as a substantively bad development that makes our fiscal problems worse. The government are calling it a mere technicality that is nothing to worry about.

I’ve generally been critical of those who seek to ease our fiscal problems via accounting gimmicks. So, on this point, I’m more inclined to agree with the government than the opposition. There may be some particularly uninformed bond traders out there for whom it was news that the government’s €4 billion recapitalisation of Anglo last year wasn’t actually an investment but I wouldn’t imagine there’s too many. Irish government bond yields may have risen a bit yesterday but this may be more related to increased jitteriness about the Greek situation and its potential spillovers than the fact that our headline deficit figure has been changed.

Of course, one problem that the government has in making its “just a technicality” argument is that this same government practically bent over backwards to create the strange beast that is the NAMA SPV and then emphasised how important this accounting gimmick was. For instance, we were told that Brian Lenihan “heartily welcomed” Eurostat’s decision to keep the NAMA debt off balance sheet and that he said the SPV “is an essential device for ensuring that our national debt is off balance sheet in Eurostat terms”. So I think there’s an element of live by the sword, die by the sword about this situation.

Eurostat Revises Irish Deficit to 14.3%

Eurostat has today announced that the Irish general government deficit for 2009 was in fact 14.3% rather than the 11.7% figure that the government has been reporting. Reuters report

Irish Finance Minister Brian Lenihan said this was a result of a technical reclassification associated with government support provided to the banking sector.

“It is important to note that the underlying 2009 general government deficit for Ireland is 11.8 percent of GDP, which is broadly similar to that projected in December’s budget,” he said.

“There is no additional borrowing associated with this technical reclassification. This is a once-off impact, and will not affect the government’s stated budgetary aim of reducing the deficit to below 3 percent of GDP by 2014,” Lenihan said.

Though the Eurostat document does not state this, the revision appears to be related to reclassifying the €4 billion used to recapitalise Anglo Irish Bank as part of the deficit (at this point, I can’t resist an I told you so moment.) If this is indeed the case, I’m not sure that the once-off impact comment is correct since there’s more money going in this year.  Hopefully it is indeed the case that we’re not still pouring money into Anglo in 2014.

Oh, they also revised the Greek deficit upwards and said mean things about Greek budget statistics. So nothing new there.

2009 Exchequer Deficit

The December Exchequer returns have now been published. The Exchequer deficit for 2009 was €24.6 billion, almost twice the level recorded in 2008. That said, the figures came in a bit better than most people expected a number of months ago, which is good news.

As an aside, I’d note that this outcome clearly falls somewhat short of the “close to €30 billion” deficit mentioned in the letter signed by the 46 economists in August. As I noted at the time, I think this was pretty reasonable in the context of what was known then. Of course, this figure was not an important part of the letter. The substance of the letter related to NAMA and the only point of the deficit references, as I understood it, was to put the risk of NAMA losses in a context.

I have little doubt now that the comments section here will soon contain denunciations of the famed “46” declaring them to be all sorts of evil. But then flame-throwing trolls are an unfortunate part of any blog that allows comments.