24 May 2010

That’s gotta hurt, too: oil prices edition

The provincial government’s 2010 budget – due to pass the House of Assembly by next Monday – is based, in part, on crude oil average about US$83 a barrel for the entire year.

Just to make sure everyone is keeping a sharp eye on the unsustainable Tory financial ball, the budget forecasts a cash deficit of about $1.0 billion. That would eat up just about all the surplus cash on hand.  As a result, the net debt, which was hidden from prying eyes by all the surplus cash would spring back into full view in all its $10 to $12 billion splendour.

And if the following year’s budget needed some propping up, the provincial government would be back in the markets looking for some bank will to see the public debt balloon even larger.

But oil is trading this past week down in the neighbourhood of US$70 an the dollar is still pretty close to par.  Production is slightly below last year’s so there doesn’t seem to be much hope extra production would generate extra cash.

Oil is now the major source of provincial government income by quite a margin.  It’s about twice the amount the government gets from federal transfers which  - when piled together is the next biggest source of income at about $1.2 billion.  Oil royalties, forecast at $2.1 billion is about two and a half what personal income tax, the next largest provincial government’s own revenue source, brings in.

There are a couple of things to take away from all this.

First of all, when Danny Williams talks about putting the province’s finances in order such that there is less dependence on Ottawa, he’s pretty much jerking everyone in the province around. 

Nothing – and let’s say that again for good measure – n-o-t-h-i-n-g, not a single, solitary, flipping thing Danny Williams and his cabinet have done in provincial government spending since 2003 has put the provincial government on a secure financial footing.  To the contrary, they have put the provincial government in an incredibly precarious financial position even compared to when they took office.

The facts on this speak eloquently for themselves in both the fragility of the economy and unsustainable level of public spending. When he announced in early March that balanced budgets were no longer a target for his administration he pretty much confirmed that none of his claims about sound fiscal management were close to being accurate.

Second of all, bear in mind if oil stays at current prices, the cash deficit is more likely than not going to be about $1.0 billion and we are yet again staring at the prospect of one of the largest if not the largest cash deficits in provincial history.

Put all the faith you want in people who forecast triple digit oil prices as the way of the future.   Oil is not going to be the saviour of this province if its government keeps spending the way it has been spending.

It’s that simple.

So as all things out there go sour for the current administration, as it faces the prospect of hundreds of millions of dollars in costs from the Abitibi expropriation fiasco, as investment interest in the province dries up, the parlous dependence of the provincial budget on oil prices just adds to the pressure.

Imagine what things will be like a year and a bit from now when voters troop to the polls.