IT’S THE SPENDING STUPID

      Guest Post Written by “JM”

     My
political opinions were largely formed in the 1990’s.  This was turbulent economic times for both
Newfoundland, and the country as a whole. 
In Newfoundland the closure of the fishery represented economic death by
a thousand cuts.  Our population declined
by 10%, and an entire generation of Newfoundlanders and Labradorians were forced to migrate.

    In
Canada, debt and growing deficits had us on the verge of default.  We were the economic basket case of the G7.  It was bleak times for both Canada and Newfoundland,
yet we persevered.  With the Federal Liberals
coming to power in 1993 they implemented a major program of cuts,
intended to reduce government spending and balance the budget.  In this province, Clyde Wells had to manage a
pseudo economy, yet was still able to control spending and balance the budget
in 1996. This was before Vale,
Hibernia, White Rose, or Hebron. 

     As
noted in the linked article above, in Canada the ratio of spending cuts to tax
hikes was seven-to-one in combating the deficit. Asked why, the prime minister
replied: “There was more need on one side than the other”. 

    These
cuts were across the board, and deep. 
They affected every aspect of society. 
During my 5 years in university my tuition increased from $1420 a year to
about $3350.  To put that into
perspective, it would be about $5000 in today’s dollars, compared to the $2550
that Memorial students presently enjoy .




    The
cuts in the 1990’s were difficult for everyone. 
Yet there was an underlying agreement in the country, even amongst the
critics, that these cuts were a necessary evil. 
  

    There
were a few ideologues who were immune to reality.  I remember Dale Kirby as president of the
Canadian Federation of Students organizing student rally’s at confederation
building to protest the cuts to education. 
I did not join those rallies because I believed in the cause of balanced
budgets.  I knew my future depended on
those tough decisions made by Chretien, Martin and Wells in the 1990’s.  Everyone had a stake in the required
correction to government spending levels.

    Fortunately, my own view was shared by enough Canadians that these tough actions were implemented.  Our collective sacrifices were rewarded with
15 years of economic growth and relative stability; to where we are now envied
by our G7 peers.
  
     Society
of all classes, races, and creeds are better off today because of the drastic
actions taken in the 90’s. 

    Looking
to the present it is must be obvious to any objective pundit that Newfoundland
is again at a crossroads, where tough political decisions need to be made and
implemented.  The collapse in the oil
price is the catalyst for such a review, but not the sole reason for it.
     One
just needs to review the raw budget numbers to clearly understand the
predicament we are in. 



    Figure
1 provides a summary of both the Total Revenue and the Current Account Spending
as contained within the “Estimates” for the past 20 years. For clarity the
“current account spending” does not include capital spending on items such as hospitals,
buildings, roads and Muskrat Falls.  It
is purely the annual cost of running the government.  Inflation adjusted data for the past 20 years
has been included to provide a fair historical comparison.








    The
inflation adjusted numbers demonstrate how relatively stable the revenue and
expenditures of the provincial government were from the period of 1995 to
2005.
  During this time current account
spending averaged around $5 billion (in 2015 dollars).
 


    However, in the period from 2006 to 2010 the annual inflation adjusted spending
increased from $5 Billion to $6.8 Billion annually.  Representing an increase of about 35% in 4
budget cycles.   Despite recent “austerity”
budgets, real spending has held steady since 2010, with a surprising increase
forecasted in the current 2015 election budget. 

    Due
to our dependence upon natural resources our revenue has been much more
variable.  Although the numbers from the
“estimates” represent a modified cash accounting basis, and not accrual
consolidated accounting, the trends are obvious.  Fuelled by overlapping oil royalties, and
Atlantic Accord payments in 2007-2011 the revenues coming into the province were
nothing short of spectacular.  However,
they were short lived, and variable.     
  
I   It
is important to note that the dramatic reduction in revenue in the period from
2011 to 2015 is not purely the result of the collapse in the oil price.  Part of the revenue reduction is due to long
known reduction in oil production, and the phase out of the Federal Atlantic
Accord payments.

    This brings us to the current dilemma the province faces.
  
   Costs
are relatively easy to forecast when compared to revenue predominantly pegged
to commodity pricing. We know that current provincial government expenditures
are at unsustainable levels in the long term. 
This is an absolute conclusion that can be reached by any reasoned
individual.  Cuts are required. 

    More
challenging, however, is forecasting what a stable long term revenue stream is to
enable long term planning, and to understand the magnitude of the required long
term spending cuts.  This is very tricky
business, and governments would be wise to take a conservative view in long
term planning of revenue projections.  

    Within
the budget highlights document produced in 2015, the government has provided a forecast target for Gross Revenue going into the
future.  This Gross Revenue is a slightly
different metric than shown in Figure 1, but it does demonstrate a forecasted increase
in revenue of about $1.6 Billion from the period of 2016 to 2020.  



    This
additional $1.6 billion in new revenue over the next 5 years, is the reason why
the province is not planning to implement major cuts now. 
Instead, this new revenue will allow spending
to be held at nearly a constant level in real dollars.
    
   
    It
must be asked where is this additional revenue coming from if oil prices remain
in the expect $70 per barrel range? 
Is this new revenue potential realistic, or is it just an election
strategy to defer the hard decisions till next year?

    It
is worth investigating the potential sources of new revenue.
   
    New Revenue Source #1:  Oil Royalties


    Royalties
(Mining and Oil) contributed $1.8 Billion in royalties in 2014, with a
forecasted contribution of $1.3 billion in 2015.   Looking into the future, Hebron will be
producing oil in 2018 but due to the spiraling project costs and lower price of
oil, payout will be delayed by several years. 
The royalty prior to payout is a modest 1%.  The province will, therefore, net only $200-300
million annually for the remainder of the decade from Hebron.  This must offset the declining production
from the existing fields.   

    Based upon the 2008 Hebron review Wade Locke predicted that total combined royalties in the
province would be $1.7 billion in the period of 2016-2020.  This figure represented a higher price for oil, and
lower development costs.  I do not
anticipate royalties in the 2016-2020 range being in excess of $300 million a
year over the $1.3 billion collected in 2014. 
Oil royalties will only be a small portion of the 1.6 billion
anticipated increase in revenue unless a rapid and unexpected rebound
in oil price occurs.


     New Revenue Source #2: 
New Taxes

    The increases in the tax
regimes, included in the 2015 budget, are necessary.  But they will not generate additional revenue
to the province.  The slow-down in the
province, and in Alberta (with the lower remittance payments to NL) will have
an impact on the sales tax, and income tax collected.  The change in HST and personal tax rates will
only be enough to offset the natural decrease due to the weakening economy.  The new tax increases will not generate new
revenue; they will only serve to stabilize the existing revenue levels.  

    Considering the precarious
position we are in, I agree with the PC position on the HST, and income tax
changes.  History has shown that the tax
reductions implemented by the Williams government in the period of 2006-2010 did not represent good long term economic policy.

  
     New Revenue Source #3: 
Nalcor

    Within the 2015 Budget Highlights document  the province provided commentary concerning the future revenues which Nalcor
will provide to the provincial government. 



    Just to make my position clear, this graph insults the intelligence of every Newfoundlander and
Labradorian. 

    It suggests that the
equity will be paid back by 2025, with the revenue stream after that being a
return on investment.  This is a
convenient graph which fails to recognize that the province is borrowing the $3.1 billion to provide “equity” into Nalcor.  Almost another $1 billion of deferred dividends the province have been bypassed to fund
Muskrat Falls and the other oil projects. 

    The taxpayer has provided $4 billion to Nalcor over a 10 year period. 
By 2025 this money will be considered “complete payback”.  However, for clarity the province will be
paying nearly $200 million a year in additional interest payments to allow this
false equity to be borrowed from a different bank.  By 2025 the province will have spent another $1 billion in interest payments to fund this project.  It is the unaccounted interest during
construction. 

    To suggest the province
will be paid back by 2025 is clear misrepresentation on the part of
government. 

    It is time to stop
pretending that Muskrat Falls or Nalcor will generate significant amounts of
new wealth to Newfoundland and Labrador.  The jig is up. 
 It will be late 2019 before they
get full production from the plant.  Even
then, at market value this will contribute about $100 million a year in true
revenue.  Anything else reported by
Nalcor will come from the taxpayers of Newfoundland and Labrador in the form of
a tax on electricity.  This will have to
be used to pay off the $5 billion dollar direct debt, and the $4 billion dollar
equity investment the province will have made to fund this project. 

    Nalcor will not be a
significant generator of revenue for the province, until well into the future,
when the Upper Churchill agreement expires. 
It is time for Nalcor to be transparent on their claims suggesting
otherwise. 


    Uncertain Revenue

    I can’t see any valid basis
for this rather optimistic forecast of future revenues to the provincial
government.  Dwight Ball, Cathy Bennett
and the remainder of the Opposition would be wise to question government on the
source of these forecasts.  They should
dissect and challenge the numbers. 

    They do not make sense and, in my opinion, are overstated by about $500 million to $1 billion a year with
a realistic assumption of oil being in the $70-80 barrel range for the
remainder of the decade.
   
    A realistic but
conservative view on revenue projects will highlight the extent of our spending
problem. 

    If I am shown to be
correct, our $5 billion in new borrowing could easily be $7 to $8 billion of
new borrowing by 2020.  Combined with
Muskrat Falls the people of the province will have a public debt in the $20 billion range.  This is $40,000 dollars
of debt for every person in the province. 
  


     The time is now to act. 
   
   As Chretien said, in 1994, the problem was not in taxes, the problem was in spending.  Few people, 20 years later, would argue with
his actions.   Likewise, few people can argue that we do not
need significant cuts in public spending in Newfoundland in 2015. 

    In my opinion, we need to
cut at least 15% from our annual budget in real dollars to be sustainable on a
long term basis.   These cuts will not be easy to endure, but they are
required. 
  

    The economic house of
cards that was built by the Williams government is about to fall.  It is time for real leadership to deal with
the structural issues we have in government financing. 
  
     To modify a great 90’s political slogan –
“It’s the Spending – Stupid”
      _________________________________ 
”   JM” is a researcher and writer.  While retaining his anonimity, he is a frequent contributor analysing, in particularm aspects of the Muskrat Falls project. JM’s most recent essays include: IN NALCOR WE TRUSTDelusion and Deception (Part III), and The Snow Job (Part I).

GROUP SEEKS PUBLIC SUPPORT FOR CABOT MARTIN RESEARCH AWARD

Cabot Martin’s sudden passing, in September, has stirred his friends, colleagues, and others familiar with his work, to honor him and encourage continued work in applied research and public policy development.

GILBERT BENNETT AND THE CONSEQUENCES OF CRONYISM

$1 million is not bad farewell for a fellow whose work performance represents one of the principal reasons for a twenty million dollar Public Inquiry, and who failed so badly in his job so badly that NL Hydro is still trying to define the mess that he (and others) has left behind.

THE “ODE”: SHORT CUT TO POLITICAL CORRECTNESS LANDS MEMORIAL IN HOT WATER

As much as anything else, it is also a simple love song to a people and to their place. It is deficient in the language of inclusion, yes, sexist by the standards of today, too, but only those who misunderstanding the language of respect ascribe to it offense whether to aboriginal, to gender, or to religious belief.

3 COMMENTS

  1. Good morning Mr. Sullivan and other readers alike. To add further fuel to this conversation, how come our Province/Country hasn't put in place the capacity to take royalty payments in the form of actual Oil, as opposed to reduced royalty payments, whenever the price of oil goes below a certain threshold? That is what the Oil Producing Nations/Companies do. Why are we not doing this? There are many appropriate deep water, ice free ports in this Province that could already handle such an undertaking. We simply need to assemble the storage facilities. Far safer to have the oil on, already "brown," land in large holding tanks, with the appropriate safety measures in place, than to have third parties anchored out in our various Bays, waiting for the rumours of a price increase. Why the hesitation, all these years to be able to implement such a prudent policy? It is in the terms of our agreements to do this. Who loses and who gains by not exercising this right of the People?

  2. The current administration are the offspring of a brutally flawed and failed economic approach based on the cult of the personality. They boosted their popularity with our heritage and spent like drunken sailors. Their callous disregard for the needs of tomorrow led to the current malaise but we can only cast some of the blame on them….after all, the people of the province gave them carte blanche by supporting a fool's dream!
    This was never more apparent than when the wonder boy rode off into the sunset, leaving his wonderful legacy in the flowing waters of the Churchill River. Despite the facts quickly dispelling the hype, the general populace was still spellbound by the PC fairy tale and chose to blissfully ignore the looming crisis from that one decision. This one undertaking,,,more than any other…will make this province an economic basket case, struggling and losing the battle with economic stupidity caused by a massive blunder the elected representatives wilfully turned a blind eye to. For that, they will be judged as having shown cowardice in the face of adversity…..for not one among them had the courage to stand up and be counted.