This Article appeared in the Irish Examiner June 22nd 2018
Despite what some media commentators have suggested about the lack of detail contained therein, the Summer Economic Statement released by the Department of Finance is not meant to be a detailed breakdown of what the Minister for Finance will deliver on the fiscal front. The statement merely sets out the economic and fiscal parameters that will guide budgetary policy in 2019. We will have to wait for the budget in October to get the detail of what is planned.
This week’s statement does give us a very good overview of what will guide budgetary policy in 2019 and thereafter. The Government plans to reduce the budget deficit to just 0.1 per cent of GDP in 2019, which will be consistent with a budget day package of a not insignificant €3.4 billion. However, of this total, €2.6 billion is already pre-committed in the shape of €1.5 billion in extra capital spending through the National Development Plan; €300 million will be used up by the carryover effects of the measures introduced in Budget 2018; €400 million will be absorbed by public sector pay increases already committed to; and €400 million will be absorbed by extra spending on the back of demographic developments. This will leave €800 million to be given away on budget day through a combination of tax changes and expenditure increases. It is clear that if any significant tax alleviation measures are introduced, they will most likely have to be largely made up through tax increases elsewhere, for example on the ‘old reliables’.
The bottom line is that Ireland’s public finances are continuing to improve, but the fiscal situation is still challenging and Ireland is still and will remain constrained by EU fiscal rules. So, anybody awaiting a budget bonanza in October will be sorely disappointed. That is just as well because the last thing in the world the economy needs at this juncture is an expansionary fiscal package on top of what is already pencilled in. The Minister stated that the rules would allow him give away an extra €900 million away on budget day, but he is not going to do that. This is a relatively prudent and sensible strategy, and we should hope that the machinations of the current political setup will not force any changes to this approach.
The strategy outlined this week is obviously totally and utterly dependent on the performance of the economy. The level of growth is the most important driver of tax revenue and expenditure and if this were to disappoint, then the strategy would have to change. Of course, we all should recognise the futility of economic forecasting, particularly for a small open economy that is so exposed to the vagaries of global developments. This week’s budgetary strategy is predicated on GDP growth of 4 per cent in 2019; 3.4 per cent in 2020; and 2.8 per cent in 2021. Based on what we currently know and understand about the economy, these growth projections look quite realistic, and possibly a little bit conservative. The Department has identified Brexit, the risk of a global trade war and rising interest rates as the main external threats. The main domestic threat is that of overheating. Hard to argue with that.
The Minister is also going to plough ahead with the ‘Rainy Day’ fund which will see €1.5 billion put in from the Ireland Strategic Investment Fund (this is where some of the proceeds of the lost and lamented National Pension Reserve Fund ended up); and €500 million per year will be put in between 2019 and 2021, taking the fund up to €3 billion. This is a relatively small amount of money in the overall context, but at least it is a step in the right direction. There is a risk that the existence of such a fund could give rise to ‘moral hazard’, whereby less prudent policies might be pursued safe in the knowledge that the ‘rainy day’ fund would be available should things go awry.
Interestingly, the Minister intends to set aside historically high levels of corporate tax receipts for the fund. It remains to be seen how this will work, but it is a sensible strategy not to spend on the back of potentially transitory tax receipts. Pity we did not pursue such a strategy from 2000 onwards.
I have heard some criticism of the fund on the basis that the money would be better spent on capital projects that would improve the long-term growth potential of the economy. This makes sense in theory, but in practice there is now limited capacity in the economy to deliver capital projects.