Who to blame, and what to do with the economy

The set of economic forecasts inherited from were bad enough reading last week. But then on Friday, I noticed that Finance Minister Bill English said that the economy is already nearly at Treasury’s worst-case scenario.

So how bad is the now likely worst case scenario:

  • Unemployment peaks at 7.5% in mid 2010
  • Economy contracts in year to March 2010 as well as March 2009
  • deficits of $32 billion from 2009 to 2013 – averaging greater than $8 billion a year
  • Gross debt to increase from $35 billion to $82 billion over four years – a $47 billion increase
  • Net debt to increase from $6 billion to $54 billion
  • Gross debt as % of GDP to go from under 20% to 39% in four years, and to 76% by 2023

This is a worse outlook than Labour left in 1990. And you can’t even compare to the 1999 PREFU which was:

  • Operating Balances growing to almost $2.5 billion
  • net debt falling from 22% to 18%
  • Economic growth of over 3% a year
  • Unemployment to reduce from 7% to 5.7% over two years

Cullen was left with a wonderful set of projections.

So the next few years are going to be a disaster in fiscal terms. So who is at fault? Well of course the main responsibility is the global credit crisis – that goes without saying. But why are our fiscal fortunes so fragile, than a crisis such as this fucks our economy for the next decade or more? Let’s look at some of the possible culprits.


If anyone blames the deficits and debts on National’s tax cuts, then they are incompetent or lying. The tax cuts were 99% funded from changes to , and other expenditure savings. They have no impact on the deficit or debt.

In fact National’s tax cuts are (in hindsight) an even better idea than when first mooted? Why? Because they contribute towards a total fiscal stimulus package of 5% of GDP – this is one of the largest in the OECD and may help soften the recession.

But even better, the tax cuts are not funded from cutting current spending (which would detract from the stimulus) but by reducing subsidies into KiwiSaver which would lock the money up for decades.

We’ll come back to the issue of KiwiSaver.

Labour’s tax cuts

So how about Labour’s tax cuts? Is all this fiscal doom and gloom because Labour finally gave in and delivered tax cuts? Well it is certainly true that Dr Cullen has indicated he would have not cut taxes to the extent he did, based on PREFU’s numbers. And many people suspect Labour, if re-elected, would have cancelled some or all of their tax cuts.

The cost of Labour’s tax cuts over four years is $10.8 billion. So yes, if Labour did not cut taxes at all in their nine years of office, then the fiscal situation would be slightly better. Of course taxpayers would be worse off, but who cares about them!

But compare that $10.8 billion to OBEGAL deficits of over $30 billion and an increase in debt of almost $50 billion.  If Labour had not delivered tax cuts (and had not spent the money saved – a big if), it would have somewhat improved the fiscal outlook, but left households worse off, and made the recession worse.

Labour’s tax cuts were equivalent to a one off $3.3 reduction in taxation – the only personal tax reduction in nine years, where taxation went from $32 billion to $57 billion.  It is probably the most modest tax reduction program in the western world.

Labour’s Spending

What has really left us with a massive problem, isn’t Labour finally doing a $3.3 billion annual tax cut, but the massive increases in annual expenditure.

Expenditure has increased from $34 billion per year to $57 billion. That is a $23 billion hike – or seven times as great as the belated tax cuts.

Now of course some of this is necessary increases – even Sir Roger advocates you should increase spending in line with inflation and population growth. But off memory that is still $18 billion a year in extra spending.

And this is the problem Labour has left us. They massively increased spending in non-essential areas, on the assumption that we would have record growth and surpluses forever. They didn’t just keep funding and improving existing programmes (schools, hospitals) but they invented new schemes. Now these schemes were arguably good things – but they were funded based on an assumption of growth and surpluses. And together they combine to remove flexibility from future Governments.

Let us look, at just three of them:

The Cullen Fund

The Cullen Fund was based on a premise that as we are going to have surpluses for the next 30 years, then we should save some of those surpluses to meet the future cost of superannuation, so we won’t have to borrow money in the future.

The fatal flaw was always the assumption about surpluses, but as the years went on and they continued unabated, the opposition to the Fund diminished, and even National signed up to it.

But we are now in a very different situation. We have a structural deficit, and face massive borrowing for at least a decade.

So the Cullen Fund is now based on borrowing heaps of money today, so we do not have to borrow heaps of money in 25 years? Anyone else see the fatal flaw? Borrowing money to save money is the sort of stuff that cuased the credit crisis.

The Government should seriously consider suspending contributions to the Cullen Fund. We can’t save money we do not have.


KiwiSaver has much the same problem as the Cullen Fund. It is all well and good to help subsidise people’s savings, but not if the taxpayer is having to borrow money to do so.

Because who is going to have to pay back and pay the interest on all that borrowing? Those same savers. So once again we have the stupidity of borrowing money today, to help people save. That is not sustainable.

I like KiwiSaver. If we were going to continue with record surpluses, it would be great to have a scheme which provides massive incentives for people to save. But we don’t. Does anyone think Labour would in 2009 have announced the KiwiSaver subsidies they did in 2007? Of course not.

National has wisely already cut the cost of taxpayer subsidies to KiwiSaver. Arguably they need to go further and also look at whether the employee subsidy is affordable. If we need to borrow to find it, then it isn’t.

You see the employer matching contribution is a 1:1 subsidy already, which is massive. Hell most people are happy to get a 10% return on investment and the employer contribution gets you an instant 100% return. Now the employee subsidy gets you a further 100% return, so those earning up to $52,000 get a 2:1 subsidy or a 200% return on investment.

Unless the fiscal fortune improves, maybe the employee subisdy has to go also. Sure that means only a 100% return instead of a 200% return, but that is a lot better than the standard 10% return and I doubt it would discourage people going into KiwiSaver. Maybe raise the employer contribution rate to a maximum 3% so the total saved isn’t decreased.

Working for Families

This is another major spending commitment that falls into the category of unaffordable with hindsight. Basically whenever Labour had spare cash they hoovered it up into this targeted welfare assistance programme. And now taxpayers are going to have to borrow billions of dollars to fund this programme.

Unlike the other two programmes though, this one can’t be easily reformed. Families have grown used to having the extra cash, and in the midst of a recession, it would be quite wrong to take the money off them.

But what does need to be done, is some medium-term work on a better tax and welfare system that has less tax churn.

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