09 August 2011

Minister’s bullshite in excellent shape

How many false or misleading claims can one cabinet minister make in one letter to the editor of the province’s major daily newspaper?

Let’s see how Tom Marshall did in a letter to the Telegram headline “Province in excellent shape”.


When this government came into power, Newfoundland and Labrador’s finances were in a very precarious position. Annual deficits were approaching $1 billion and an independent review at the time noted that if significant changes were not made, the provincial debt was projected to reach almost $16 billion within four years

What Marshall doesn’t say is that his current plan would increase the public debt to more than $16 billion base don a combination of continued deficit spending on the annual budget and the Muskrat Falls project.


To turn things around, we developed a plan and stuck to it. In that short span of eight years, the turnaround that has taken place in Newfoundland and Labrador is remarkable.

The plan  - if there was one – had nothing to do with any subsequent provincial government financial windfalls.  The whole thing came from a combination wild oil price increases and royalty deals signed before 2003.


Instead of increasing, our debt has actually decreased by almost $4 billion.

The total public liabilities sit at $12.5 billion according to the most recent Auditor General’s review. The provincial government has current financial assets on hand of $4.0 billion but those are already committed to other things.  While they appear to reduce the public debt for accounting purposes – what Marshall is talking about – the reality is that what the provincial government owes is, at best, only marginally lower than what it was in 2005.


Of course, that means our debt servicing costs have also dropped, which leaves us with more money to invest in the people and communities of the province.

According to the most recent Auditor General’s review, debt expenses increased in 2010 to a level they haven’t hit for three years.


We have not borrowed in the capital markets for operational purposes since 2004 and only borrowed in 2007 to reduce the unfunded liability in the province’s pension plans.

They may not have borrowed money from the markets but they have borrowed from the cash surpluses (that’s the stuff that makes the debt appear smaller than it is).  Borrowing to cover a deficit is borrowing and it has a cost.

Misleading, maybe false:

Once developed, these assets will provide a stable, predictable revenue stream which will cover all debt servicing costs.

There is no evidence to suggest that the provincial treasury will gain $1.0 billion in annual royalty and fee payments from Muskrat Falls or any other Nalcor asset.


Our debt to GDP ratio, one of the primary indicators of the financial health of a province, is among the best in the country and has improved from an unsustainable level of 70 per cent in 1999…

The debt to GDP ratio changed because of the massive increase in oil prices.  If it drops, the debt ratio will drop with it back to levels that are “unsustainable”.

And if Marshall’s Muskrat plan goes through, then the “unsustainable” level gets easier to hit.


It is also worth noting that the credit rating agency Standard & Poors, while upgrading our credit rating from ‘A’ to ‘A+’ in 2010 (the highest it has ever been), noted that Newfoundland and Labrador “has a strong liquidity position, reflecting its past operating surpluses and prudent spending practices.”

‘Strong liquidity” is a reference to the cash and means that if they had to the provincial government could pay off a raft of debt in a hurry.

But since the cash is earmarked, it really isn’t as readily available as that comment makes it seem.

Marshall makes an oblique reference to that with the next comment: “Using current revenues from non-renewable resources for renewable energy projects for the future benefit of Newfoundland and Labrador is the core of this province’s Energy Plan.”

- srbp -