04 November 2005

Behind the Green Curtain - amended - Updated

Sullivan financial statement masks deeper issue

Finance minister Loyola Sullivan today released an update on the province's fiscal position. This was done outside the legislature; no word yet on when the session will begin but guesses are that it won't be much before the end of November.

Sullivan said that a combination of increases in different revenues plus changing the way offshore revenue money is accounted have reduced last spring's budgeted deficit of $492 million and turned it into a modest surplus of about $1.5 million.

Other changes to the financial situation include marginal declines in revenue from gasoline taxes and equally marginal increases in operating budgets due to increased gasoline and heating oil prices.

In the news release and actual statement, government is claiming credit for greatly improved finances on the one hand and warning that a major problem remains in the form of the provincial government's $12.0 billion debt.

What all that means is actually pretty simple. If we add up all the provincial government's assets and liabilities on an annual basis, we wind up $1.5 million to the good.

Look more closely at the financial statement and something else pops up: if all other things stay the same, when Loyola Sullivan checks his bank balance next March, he'll find over $300 million in cash he didn't plan on having at hand.

The forecast accrual deficit - the $492 million figure - was comprised largely of unfunded pension liabilities. In other words, the provincial government forecast that while prudent financial management would see government setting aside over $450 million to cover future expenses from public sector pension plans, it wasn't able to do so.

Therefore, there was a large deficit totaling almost $500 million. Just remember, though, that this is a theoretical deficit annually; no money was borrowed to cover it - government actually planned to borrow only $62 million in new money to pay for day-to-day operations.

Remember as well, that with all the new revenue, government hasn't really put anything toward dealing with the unfunded liabilities beyond the modest amounts already negotiated. Nor has government done anything at all to deal with the $12.0 billion accumulated debt other than use it as a boogey man to frighten people who might ask for extra spending this year.

That is the deeper problem with Loyola Sullivan's financial management over the past three years.

Under the Williams administration, Newfoundlanders and Labradorians have no idea what the government will do with the extra cash. In fact, the way Loyola Sullivan likes to report the numbers, he is actually hiding the true picture, all the while claiming he is not telling the fables of some previous provincial finance ministers. He isn't - that much is true. Sullivan simply tells other fiscal fibs.

When the federal government ends up with massive annual surpluses, it has already told people how that money will be spent. Since the late 1990s, the surpluses that in some years add up to almost the total debt in this province have been spent paying off Ottawa's own debt, increasing spending on programs like health care or a combination of the two.

Predictably, Liberal leader Gerry Reid wants to spend the money on something here and now. He has spoken of running small deficits on a cash basis.

In doing so, Reid plays right into Loyola Sullivan's hands. Sullivan's presentation of the province's finances is designed to hide the extra cash in the bank every year. By calling for deficits, Reid allows Sullivan to simple hold up the debt-on-a-stick, wave it about and frighten people, all the while shaking his head at how the approach Reid proposes is what created the province's financial mess in the first place. Sullivan can and will heap praise on himself for having balanced the provincial books in two years when they predicted it might take eight years.

The balanced-books miracle is entirely made up, of course, at least insofar as Sullivan and Premier Williams claiming credit for it is concerned. The PriceWaterhouseCoopers report two years ago deliberately underestimated the short- and medium-term provincial revenues to make the province's financial problems look far worse than they are. The revenues we have actually seen were predictable, even two years ago and even on a conservative - i.e. prudent - basis.

The source of the added cash is also worth noting. The new money does not come from the January deal with Paul Martin. The added money, both the royalties and the added corporate taxes, come entirely from the Real Atlantic Accord from 1985. The royalty regimes put in place by successive Liberal governments, building on the landmark deal under the Peckford Conservatives is pushing the provincial government well into the black. Taken together, the Real Atlantic Accord will add $302 million to the provincial accounts. On an accrual basis, those figures will total at least $330 million above the numbers in the spring budget. Note that this is almost bang on the offshore revenue projections made previously on the Bond Papers.

In fact, aside from the annual draw-downs allowed under the January deal, the interest income from the federal Equalization-like transfer payment is entirely absent from this little financial up-date. Media reports have quoted provincial officials to the effect that the interest on this money is accumulating at a rate of $5.0 million a month. That works out to about $45 million by the end of the fiscal year and that money, in its entirety is available for the province to spend.

Sullivan makes no mention of it at all.

Both Reid and Sullivan miss the point, however, the latter by obvious design.

The public discussion should be about how to be dispose of that cash in the long-term interest of the province. Loyola Sullivan's statement should have contained an honest presentation of the province's finances and a clear statement of what government will do with the hundreds of millions in extra money it has and will have year after year into the future.

Instead, most Newfoundlanders and Labradorians will be bamboozled by numbers. They will be denied the chance to participate in a substantive public policy debate. In the end, and from the perspective of truth in accounting, it is hard to distinguish Sullivan from some of his immediate predecessors.

If past experience is any guide, though, we can make a reasonable prediction as to what government will do with its added cash. Come January 2006, there will be a spending spree, as there was in January 2005. What is genuinely a significant cash surplus will be spent on one-time projects, some of which may be of dubious long-term value. The penchant of this government for quick cash-fixes has been noted here on previous occasions.

And the long-term debt?

It will remain at $12.0 billion, growing steadily each year, all so that Loyola may have a boogeyman with which to frighten the natives.

Update - TD Waterhouse's senior economist made a number of interesting points, but also a number of errors in his comments on CBC radio this morning.

1. As noted above there has been NO action by the provincial government to date to reduce the debt load. The Grimes administration actually managed to retire some of the province's direct debt - a figure the economist referred to when he spoke of a debt t- GDP ratio of 20%. Total and accrual indebtedness continues to climb and will continue to climb under the Conservatives unless corrective action is taken.

2. The January deal is worth more than $2.0 billion. No way. As long as the provincial economy pushes the province off the Equalization rolls, the provincial government will get nothing from the January deal beyond the $321 million already drawn down. The only way to make the deal worth more than the initial hand-out is if oil prices fall well below the TD predictions, i.e. well below US$35, rebounding to US$50.