FINANCE MINISTER TO MEET FISCAL FREIGHT TRAIN

The
government has a huge deficit and debt problem; one surely to shake the
Liberal Government out of the pretense everything is fine; it was just those damn Tories.

Even the
most rudimentary briefing note prepared by the Ministry will demonstrate how
unrealistic (silly) were the Liberals’ Red Book promises; at least, the ones with
financial implications.

While the
results of the November 30th General Election ended Premier Davis’ own
brief “fantasy”, fiscal reality will hit the new Administration like a freight
train.

The Liberals
have nowhere to hide.


The public usually
sees the worst impact of fiscal imprudence only when taxes are increased,
services are curtailed, or when a large lay-off occurs in the public service.

While the
public doesn’t like bad news, governments resist sharing the effects of poor
decision making, and the stark realities of a declining economy. Others, like
unions, business, community heads, even academics, some unwittingly, others insidiously,
downplay the damage imposed by undisciplined fiscal leadership.

Budget
speeches are deliberately obscure.  And,
because they are not accountants, reporters tend to parrot whatever the Finance
Minister says, adding to the misinformation.

That is why,
until recently, the only reference to a deficit in the 2015-16 Budget, has been to the figure of $1.1 billion.

That sum was just one-half the actual deficit, at the beginning of the year; far less
than half now.

Recently, the CBC reported  the deficit had risen by $700 million to $1.8 billion. The half-truth held.

Well, folks,
the Capital Account isn’t for free!

The Budget
noted “financing requirements for 2015-16 are expected to be $2 billion due to strategic investments
in Nalcor, infrastructure spending, pension reform and to maintain strong
public services.”

You might
ask: how did a $1.1 billion deficit become a $2 billion borrowing program?

Under the Capital
Account, you’ll find $1.143 billion for roads, schools, salt sheds, fire trucks,
plenty of labour costs, something as esoteric as “solution delivery”, and not just
any investments, but what the Tories called: strategic. They include $760
million for Muskrat Falls and investments in the offshore.

It is not as
if government amortizes capital expenditures as the private
business does, or that it will write off funding to Nalcor for
overruns, even though Nalcor will never return it to the Treasury.

The debt
markets don’t distinguish debt for Current and Capital Account either; though as to the latter, there is less unease when any revenue stream is perceptible.

(We’ll have a chat about Muskrat’s “take or pay” scheme, known as the Power Purchase Agreement, another time.)

So, a recap
will magnify the obscurity of the deficit:

All year, it
was $1.1 billion when it should have been noted as $2.2 billion.

When Nalcor
CEO Ed Martin announced that Muskrat needed another $800 million in June, the
real deficit should have been reported as having increased to $3.0 billion.

And when the
Current Account deficit increased by another $700 million, as CBC disclosed, at least they should have stated the deficit had
risen to $3.7 billion.

Add the
revenue shortfall of $100 million, this fiscal year, due to the cancellation of
the HST increase, and you have proposed spending in excess of revenue
(deficit) of $3.8 billion.

While, naturally,
the Finance bureaucrats adhere to General Accounting Principles in recording expenditures, for politicians the deficit is a game of smoke and mirrors. 



We could extend the discussion: capital
vs. current account, cash vs. accrual accounting, capital expenditures labelled
as strategic investments.

But, let’s stop the pretense. Most of it is sunk cost.

$3.8 billion
is a big shortfall. Indeed, it is so much money that the new Minister of
Finance will discover the Government can’t borrow the sum, in a single fiscal
year.

Not having
heard the Deputy Minister of Finance resign in frustration, I have to wonder if
the CBC is only partly right, or that some of the Tory spending commitments might have been delayed, or
that Muskrat Falls’ inability to come off ‘slow’ speed has reduced Nalcor’s
immediate cash requirements.

Likely, too,
the government will use whatever cash it has in the system to avoid wearing out
its welcome in the debt markets.

Perhaps, all
of it is wishful thinking!

Whatever the
case, our fiscal crises is very real.

Without
major decisions to cut jobs and programs, the future does not look any less
grim.

This year, former
Finance Minister Ross Wiseman forecast four more years of deficit, to 2018-19, and capped borrowing at $4.85 billion.
But
he contrived the revenue figures, by over estimating future oil prices. Wiseman
assumed they would be more than double current levels
.

Total debt
was $12.2 billion at the end of the last fiscal year. Add the $2.7 billion
Promissory Note, representing the deficit in the Public Sector Pension Plan. And add somewhere between $2-3 billion for Current and Capital Account.

Then, the public purse might be asked, again, to help out Ed Martin’s Muskrat fiasco.


That essentially describes the “freight train” that will greet the Premier and the Minister of Finance.

Starting
this year, the debt figure will accelerate, especially if the
Ball Government dithers. 

$20 billion total public debt may be reached
and exceeded by mid-term….if the funding can be raised. And that is a big IF. A
rating downgrade will be delivered earlier.
Higher interest rates will necessarily follow.

There is no respite
from the over spending, from increasing demands and diminishing revenue; not
from oil, including Hebron, or through the economic diversification potential that emerged in the
Liberals’ desert (that’s one “s”) of campaign policy ideas. 

Yet, there
is still the possibility of leadership. The question is whether the Liberals
will act like Damocles, desiring only the pomp and circumstance of Dionysius’
 
throne,
when something far greater is called for.

But, where
are the signs?

It is not as if the Liberals
have done anything to dampen public expectations.

The new
Finance Minister had better come armed with a Plan.
  Not just the likes of Moody’s will want to
hear it; the people who swept the Liberals in, and booted the Tories out, will
need to know, too.

You will
rightly ask: is there any alternative to a nightmarish scenario?
The short answer is “no”!  

The Liberals have little choice but to deliver the dose of realty you have long been denied.

Indeed, unless the government chooses
very deep and painful cuts to programs and services, including hospitals and
schools, to public sector employment, and chooses to impose higher taxes, too, Dwight Ball will
be forced to put the Muskrat Falls project up for sale, with all the costs and
implications that decision implies.

The Government will need to sell
Nalcor’s equity stakes in the offshore and cancel all programs in pursuit of
Williams’ crazy energy warehouse idea.

A complete
Muskrat Falls review will precede this inevitable outcome.

Hopefully, Dwight
Ball didn’t waste a meeting with the Prime Minister for a ‘photo-op’. The HST
issue could easily have been resolved between Deputy Ministers.

It is a difficult and rare opportunity to see the PM “one-on-one” at the best of times; but, if he went to Ottawa unprepared to discuss the province’s fast emerging fiscal woes, he will surely
have struck the first gong on a new amateur hour!

The “The Jig Is Up”  for Muskrat, “JM” wrote in an October post. I suggest the jig is up for all of us.

The only laughable
part will be watching the Liberals explain why they were impervious to all
the warnings.

Everything
else will be painful.
Des Sullivan
Des Sullivan
St. John's, Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada Uncle Gnarley is hosted by Des Sullivan, of St. John's. He is a businessman engaged over three decades in real estate management and development companies and in retail. He is currently a Director of Dorset Investments Limited and Donovan Holdings Limited. During his early career he served as Executive Assistant to Premier's Frank D. Moores (1975-1979) and Brian Peckford (1979-1985). He also served as a Part-Time Board Member on the Canada-Newfoundland Labrador Offshore Petroleum Board (C-NLOPB). Uncle Gnarley appears on the masthead representing serious and unambiguous positions on NL politics and public policy. Uncle Gnarley is a fiscal conservative possessing distinctly liberal values and a non-partisan persusasion. Those values and opinions underlie this writer's views on NL's politics, economy and society. Uncle Gnarley publishes Monday mornings and more often when events warrant.

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Put simply, whether Muskrat Falls come online or not, it cannot be relied upon. Without admitting their gross negligence at the start, Hydro is essentially saying that that we should try to salvage Muskrat Falls at an undefined cost and for for however short the duration it might operate.

THE PROOF MUSKRAT FALLS IS NOVA SCOTIA’S PROJECT

The substance of Hydro’s mission is to satisfy the contracts with Emera to get large amounts of power flowing into Nova Scotia for the betterment of that province and its ratepayers.  The Island could easily live without the Muskrat Fals project and in fact, other than for the onerous Emera contracts, NL ratepayers would be best off if it was abandoned and left to rust.

FIRST YEAR OF OFFICIAL ENERGY DELIVERY NOT QUITE WHAT EMERA BARGAINED FOR

PlanetNL52: Happy Anniversary Emera on 1 Year of Official Energy Delivery Not Quite What Emera Bargained For Despite all the bad news related to Labrador Island...

7 COMMENTS

  1. One of the big illusions in this province is that the deficit will disappear in 4 years due to increased revenue? This is without basis, as the Hebron royalties will be much lower than was ever envisioned. Tier 1 payout will be extended well into the next decade. We have 10 years of major deficits unless we do something. Dwight needs to balance the budget in a 5 year plan that wont kill the economy.

    But things now are still really good in the province. Wait until 2017 when Hebron and Muskrat winds down.

    Danny Williams created this mess. People still cheer him at Mile One, or the media go on tours of Galway without asking any questions of his great political legacy. Herin lies the issue in Newfoundland's history.

  2. Sadly you are right about having to sell Danny's dream for a song to keep the province solvent. Emera will end up owning MF after the fire sale.

    All the contracts for MF must be made public now by the new government. They need close scrutiny and continuing to hide them will implicate the incoming government in the disaster unfolding on the Churchill.

    The north spur stabilization plan was promised by Nalcor in 2011. It has not yet been made public. Given the real risks, financial and physical, the incoming Liberals are in the crucible. Will they protect the public and the investment and release all engineering reports on the spur or will they continue the shocking disregard shown to date for the looming catastrophy.

  3. Good post. To the actual deficit and debt I'd add one more number that people should be talking about: the cost of servicing the debt each year. You are right to point out that the provincial government's room to manoeuvre will diminish as the fiscal situation worsens. Presuming that low interest rates will last is little different from presuming that high oil prices would last.

    One root of the problem is that the Tories engaged in Keynesian-style policies precisely when the province needed it the least. Massive public spending and construction projects drove up the cost of labour and housing, fuelling high consumer spending. Now, as the construction projects wind down and health care costs continue to rise, the dependence on oil revenue will only worsen.

    The problem facing Dwight Ball is the risk that cutting public spending poses to the provincial economy. If oil prices do not recover unexpectedly in the short-term, then the only engine left to keep the economy afloat will be public spending (and, as you point out, "public spending" should encompass Nalcor). If Ball cuts spending or raises taxes at same time that oil & mineral prices remain depressed (and the job market in Alberta remains soft), then the so-called "mild" recession will be anything but mild. The media already seem to be poised to make Ball the scapegoat for Danny Williams's mistakes.

    Dwight Ball is, in other words, stuck.

  4. I think Mr. Ball will be doing …….ooops, should be doing some soul searching right about now as to WHY he ever got involved in politics in the first place! Therein lie the answers as to how he will proceed in the days to come!

  5. I find absolutely frightening that the new Liberal government is so paralysed in front of this phenomenal fiscal situation. No change to HST. Cozzying up with the unions to keep all the public service in their jobs. No plan to reduce spending whatsoever! No plan no ability to increase revenue!!

    To continue making matters worst and worst, the vast majority of Newfoundlanders simply take most of their money to Costco and Walmart, and ship all their monies directly to New Jersey and Kansas… without a second thought!! Newfoundland will never develop economically so long as they remain unwilling to spend their money at home. No one really questions why so many Newfoundlanders have to go to Alberta or elsewhere to work and make a living. Yet this is a clear, visible, cause-and-effect situation.

    Despite the highest literacy rate in history of mankind, most people seem to have no idea whatsoever about basic economics. Most people chose to ignore and avoid collective economic realities… it's easier and less stressful. Most of these college and university graduates of all ages simply believe money grows on trees.